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3 stars of the game: Alex Ovechkin's hat trick blows away the Leafs


3 stars of the game: Alex Ovechkin's hat trick blows away the Leafs

It looked like the Caps were going to win easily in Toronto on Saturday. The final was a bit too close for comfort, but the Capitals did hold on for the 4-2 win over the Maple Leafs.

Washington jumped out to a 2-0 lead with two goals from Alex Ovechkin. After a goal from Jakub Vrana in the second, it looked all but over. Then Jake Gardiner scored early in the third and the Leafs made a late push. The Caps held on, however, and won on the second leg of a back-to-back for the first time this season.

Here are the three stars of the game.

1. Alex Ovechkin

This one wasn't hard. Ovechkin scored twice in the first period to pass Mike Bossy for 21st on the all-time goal list.  The first goal came on a phenomenal end-to-end effort in which he was able to weave his way through the Maple Leafs' defense seemingly effortlessly before putting a shot past Curtis McElhinney almost before the goalie could even react. The second he teed up right off the faceoff for the power play goal. When this game turned into a nail-biter in the third period, it was Ovechkin who finished off the game and his 20th career hat trick with the empty net goal.

2. Jakub Vrana

Vrana took what was a one-on-one battle and turned it into a breakaway when he turned on the jets, pushed his way past Nikita Zaitsev and then left him in the dust. That goal turned into the game-winner. We can all see how moving Ovechkin back with Nicklas Backstrom has sparked the top line, but what about Vrana? He now has three goals in three games and has looked like a completely different player since being put on the second line with Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie.

3. Jake Gardiner

At 3-0 through two periods, this game looked over. Then he collected a misplay from Auston Matthews at the blue line and fired a slap shot that beat Braden Holtby. That brought woke up both the Leafs and the crowd and made this a game. Toronto dominated the third period and made a real push to tie a game that looked well in hand after 40 minutes.

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What has been the biggest surprise for the Caps in the first half of the season?


What has been the biggest surprise for the Caps in the first half of the season?

The bye week is a good opportunity to evaluate what happened over the course of the first half of the season and look forward to the rest of the season. Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan answer the biggest questions surrounding the team at the bye.

Today's topic: What has been the biggest surprise for the Caps in the first half of the season?

El-Bashir: While seeing the Caps sit atop the deep and difficult Metro Division is a bit unexpected, my biggest surprise at the bye is Alex Ovechkin’s return to world-class form. For the record, I wasn’t among those—and there were plenty—who were ready to write off No. 8, saying he was poised for a precipitous plunge in production following a disappointing 33 goal performance a year ago. I thought he’d bounce back…a bit, anyway. After all, we had seen him do it a couple of times before. Instead, what we appear to witnessing is a rebirth of sorts. Ovechkin, at 32, leads the NHL with 28 goals and is on pace to hit 50 for the eighth time in his career. (Last season, the top-10 goal getters were all under 30 and Sidney Crosby’s 44 led everyone.) Ovechkin is also on pace for his highest point total—89—since he posted 109 way back in 2009-10. The three-time MVP is also leading the league in shots.


Sure, Ovechkin is playing 1:20 more per game than he did last year. But it’s not all about an extra couple of shifts. Ovechkin put in the work this offseason, and it’s showing. He’s got a gear, a burst we haven’t seen in a couple of years and, as a result, he’s getting to pucks—and creating opportunities—he couldn’t a season ago.

For Ovechkin’s legion of fans, the second half of the regular season figures to be even more fun that the first because of the milestones that are within his reach. At some point, assuming he stays healthy, Ovechkin will hit 500 assists (he’s two away), 600 goals (he’s 14 back) and 1,000 games (he needs 34 more).

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again Caps fans: savor every moment because Ovi’s on top of his game again.


Regan: My biggest surprise is the Caps’ 28-14-3 record. Given the number of players the team lost in the offseason, it was clear they were not the same team that won the Presidents’ Trophy the past two years. But how much of a step back would they take? No one was really sure what to expect. With a six-point lead over the Metropolitan Division 45 games into the season, Washington is surpassing even the most optimistic of expectations.

Not only are the Caps exceeding expectations, they are doing it in the face of obstacles that should be holding them back.

The Caps have not had the same remarkable luck with injuries as they have the past few years. T.J. Oshie, Brett Connolly, Andre Burakovsky and Matt Niskanen have all missed time due to injuries this season. Those are significant losses, especially Niskanen given the team’s thin depth on the blue line. But Alex Ovechkin’s defiance of Father Time, the emergence of Jakub Vrana and key contributions from role players like Tom Wilson and Devante Smith-Pelly have bolstered the team’s offense. Defensively, John Carlson’s career season helped mitigate the loss of Niskanen.

When you consider the players the Caps lost, the injuries the team has dealt with, that they rank dead last in shots per game, that they have two rookies playing on the blue line and their best player is 32 years old, the fact the team not only sits in first place of the tough Metropolitan Division but by a sizable six-point margin is absolutely remarkable.


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NHL Power Rankings: Riding high into the bye


NHL Power Rankings: Riding high into the bye

For a Capitals team that has won 14 of its last 19 games, perhaps the bye week did not come at the best time. But, the mandated bye week is here none the less. Now the task for the Caps will be to relax, get healthy and get ready for the second half grind.

All that, plus they need to figure out how to return from the bye.

The benefits of a bye week are obvious. But there are also some less obvious disadvantages.


The bye week does not just mean no games, it means no practices too. The team is not allowed to practice until Wednesday afternoon, the day before they return to action, on the road. When it comes to the finely tuned machine of a professional hockey team, it doesn’t take long for rust to set in.

Last year, the Capitals entered the bye week on a six-game winning streak. They returned with back-to-back games on the road and lost both. They would go on to lose eight of 14 before they finally pulled together. This year, given how the Metropolitan has looked, a stretch like that could end up costing them the division.

The team also needs to be especially cognizant of injuries. Washington comes back from the bye week with three games in four days. To go from no practice or games to three games in four days seems like a dangerous proposition for the players.

But these are things the Caps don’t have to worry about until Thursday. For now, they are riding into the bye week on a high note. Just how high? Find out here in this week’s NHL Power Rankings.