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All signs point to T.J. Oshie returning to the Caps' lineup in Dallas

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USA TODAY Sports

All signs point to T.J. Oshie returning to the Caps' lineup in Dallas

T.J. Oshie is back.

Almost, anyway.

The Caps’ star winger practiced with his teammates on Monday morning, marking the first time he’s been a full participant in a team setting since getting his head smashed into the boards by San Jose’s Joe Thornton on Dec. 4.

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Oshie resumed skating on Dec. 10 and has steadily been ramping up his level of intensity since.    

If Oshie receives final clearance from doctors, he’ll suit up in Dallas on Tuesday night. And, as you might expect, he’s pretty excited about the possibility.

“I felt great,” said Oshie, who noted that this was the fourth documented head injury of his career. “They’ve got me in pretty good shape while I’ve been away. I feel ready.”

Although Coach Barry Trotz said a decision on Oshie’s status won’t be made until Tuesday morning, the fact that he took his normal spot on the right side of the second line with Jakub Vrana and Evgeny Kuznetsov is a strong indication that he’s expected to face the Stars.

Oshie was also back in his usual spot on the first unit power play, where he still leads the team in goals on the man advantage (7), despite missing six games.

Getting a player with Oshie’s skill set back represents a boost for the Caps, who went 5-1-0 while he was sidelined. But, on the flip side, it also means someone who has been playing well will have to come out of the lineup.

“The whole team is playing pretty good hockey right now,” Oshie said. “On the team side, you feel bad that someone is playing good hockey and they’re going to have to sit out.”

He added: “Hopefully I don’t mess up the mojo, but selfishly I want to get back in there and join in on some of the fun.”

WAS KUZNETSOV TRYING TO SCORE ON HIS GAME-TYING GOAL?

The odd man out on Monday, based on line rushes anyway, was Devante Smith-Pelly, who has not missed a game after winning a spot in training camp.

Here’s what the forward combos looked like at Kettler Capitals Iceplex:

Ovechkin – Backstrom – Wilson
Vrana – Kuznetsov – Oshie
Connolly – Eller – Burakovsky
Stephenson – Beagle – Chiasson

So the plan appears to be for Oshie to bump Chiasson down to the fourth line into Smith-Pelly’s spot. 

With 13 healthy forwards, Trotz said deciding whom will sit out is going to be based on performance and/or role. But that doesn’t mean it’s always going to be an easy choice to make.

“If everybody's playing well,” he said, “I just have to make a tough decision, that’s all.”

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What was the best moment of the Caps' season so far?

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USA TODAY Sports

What was the best moment of the Caps' season so far?

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

Today's topic: What was the best moment of the Caps' season so far?

El-Bashir: Through the Caps' first 45 games, there have been some great goals, scintillating saves and thrilling overtime sessions. But the biggest moment, to me, wasn’t really moment at all. It was the day or so after the Caps cratered in Colorado, 6-2, on Nov. 16, because they came back a totally different team vs. Minnesota on Nov. 18.

Following that blowout loss to the Avalanche, Coach Barry Trotz had a “man to man talk with the group” and challenged each individual to look himself in the mirror. When a coach does that, there are typically two ways a season will go—to the top or down the drain. Trotz wasn’t sure which response he’d get, but he didn’t have to wait long for an answer. “The way they came out [against the Wild] told me everything I needed to know,” Trotz said to me and Rob Carlin on the Caps Extra Podcast (11/29).

RELATED: WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST SURPRISE OF THE SEASON SO FAR?

The really good stuff begins around 13:00, and it’s definitely worth a listen if you haven’t heard it:

    

Including that 3-1 win over the Wild, the Caps are 18-5-2 in their last 25 games and have shot straight to the top of the Metropolitan Division standings. Their 38 points are tied with the Golden Knights and Bruins for most in that time frame. 

Meanwhile, Alex Ovechkin has accrued 15 goals and 15 assists in those 25 games. Only four players—John Tavares, Nathan MacKinnon, Claude Giroux and Sidney Crosby—have more points during that time period.

Indeed, every season has a turning point. For the Caps, it happened, collectively, after bottoming out in the thin air of the Mile High city.

Regan: There have been several moments that have stood out from the first 45 games of the season, such as Nathan Walker becoming the first Australian to play in the NHL and scoring in his first game on a night in which Alex Ovechkin also scored four times. Jay Beagle’s buzzer-beater against the Carolina Hurricanes will also stand as one of the best moments of the season when it is all said and done.

But I will go a bit more sentimental with my pick and choose Ovechkin’s hat-trick performance in Toronto for Alex Luey.

That night could not have been any more special. Ovechkin invited Luey, a 13-year-old cancer survivor, to attend the game with his family after he heard his story. Luey and Ovechkin were virtually inseparable for the night as Luey was on the bench for warmups and then was with Ovechkin for all of his postgame interviews.

That alone would have been a touching story, but it got so much better.

MORE CAPITALS: CHECK OUT THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS!

Ovechkin promised Luey he would score for him before the game. He more than delivered with a hat-trick performance in a 4-2 win over Toronto in what was a magical night for both him and the Luey family.

You couldn’t write a story so perfect and if you did everyone would think it too unbelievable. Yet it happened and it was by far the best moment of the season.

We may be only 45 games in, but this one will be hard to top.

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

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USA TODAY Sports

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.

RELATED: WHERE DO THE CAPS SIT IN THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS?

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.

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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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