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Barry Trotz moves Aaron Ness...to the right

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Barry Trotz moves Aaron Ness...to the right

It was clear after the Capitals’ loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday that change was needed on the blue line. Barry Trotz did indeed change the third defensive pair ahead of Wednesday’s rivalry game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but it was perhaps not the change many expected.

It will be Taylor Chorney, not Aaron Ness, who comes out of the lineup as Christian Djoos is set to make his NHL debut. That is a bit surprising considering Ness has taken four minor penalties in three games this season and Trotz limited his playing time Monday to less than nine minutes.

But despite not coming out of the lineup, Ness will still see a change. With Djoos coming in to play on the left side, Ness, a left-handed shot, will move to the right. Chorney, who is also a left-handed shot, had previously played on the right the first three games with Ness on the left.

RELATED: AFTER SCORING 7 GOALS, OVECHKIN SIGNS DEAL WITH CCM

Trotz explained the move after Wednesday’s morning skate saying Chorney had hit a “rough patch” of late and that Ness has played both sides previously.

Despite a reprieve from the press box, however, both Trotz and Ness know he has to play better going forward.

“There's a couple games where you'd like to see his skating stand out more and I think early in the first couple ones you didn't see that,” Trotz said. “…I really like Ness when he's come up in the middle of the season both years where he's got his game really in order and he's getting lots of minutes and he's flying around, we bring him up and it's slower. It's early in the season so he'll get there. I think if you talk to Nesser he could be a little bit better as well.”

“I think there's another level for me,” Ness said. “I think I can play better and contribute more offensively and just continue to be reliable as much as possible and continue to get better and better every game. That's always the goal I think throughout the season and it's a challenge, but it's a fun one.”

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Step one will be taking fewer penalties, something Ness has not struggled with in the past.

“I don't even know if I had five penalties all year last year so it's not something I'm worried about,” he said. “I'm just going to keep playing hard and as physical as possible and hopefully cut down on the minutes obviously.”

While the Capitals may have earned five of a possible six points through their first three games, the defensive struggles have been troubling. With Madison Bowey playing in Hershey waiting for his crack at the NHL, Ness, Djoos and Chorney have to justify their spots on the Caps’ roster.

Ness and Chorney got the first chance on the third pair and they struggled. Now we will see what Djoos can do and if Ness can handle playing on the right.

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First quarter grades: 20 games into the season, how do the Caps look?

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First quarter grades: 20 games into the season, how do the Caps look?

The Capitals have hit the quarter mark of their season with 20 games under their belts. The last two games put a sour taste on the first quarter, but overall how have they looked?

Let's harken back to our school days when the first quarter of the year brought about the first report card and hand out some grades.

(Note: I don't grade coaching. How a team performs in every area is a reflection of the coaching so all of these grades can be considered "coaching" grades)

Offense: C

By the numbers: Washington ranks 21st in the NHL with 2.80 goals per game (one spot ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins interestingly enough)

Consistency is the biggest problem for the Caps offensively. First, they were too top heavy with Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie carrying the load by themselves with no secondary scoring. Since then, the top players have struggled to produce, especially Backstrom. Backstrom is being utilized more as a shutdown forward, but the Capitals need him to produce as well in order to be successful, especially when he is playing on a line with Oshie. The Caps need consistent scoring from their top players and consistent secondary production. The good news is that Ovechkin looks as good as ever with 13 goals already. After scoring 33 last season, many wondered if his days of being a top scoring threat were over. That does not appear to be the case. 

I would be remiss if I did not include one note on Kuznetsov: Please, please shoot the puck.

RELATED: 4 REASONS WHY THE CAPS LOST TO COLORADO

Defense: C

By the numbers: Washington ranks 24th in the NHL with 3.25 goals against per game

I can already hear your bewildered screams and angry questions. "How does a team that ranks 24th in the NHL get a C grade?" Let's take a step back and look at the players who have been playing. This is not the same defense from last season. Matt Niskanen, the team's best all-around defenseman, missed 13 games. The 37-year-old Brooks Orpik, who was a third-pair defenseman last season, is third on the team in average time on ice with 22:17 per game. Rookies Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey have played 16 and 14 games respectively. With all of that in mind, it's no surprise that the defense has struggled. All things considered, the defense has not been good, but it has not been terrible either. You cannot allow 3.25 goals per game all season and hope to be a contender which is why they get a C, but with continued improvement from the rookies and Niskanen's return, the blue line should certainly improve throughout the season.

Goaltending: A-

By the numbers:
Braden Holtby:  .918 save percentage, 2.68 GAA ,10-4-0
Philipp Grubauer .876 save percentage, 3.86 GAA, 0-5-1

Holtby has been phenomenal and there is no question that he has stolen a good number of those 10 wins with this performance. He gets high marks for that. Grubauer's numbers are not good, but for anyone who has been watching this team, it is hard to fault him for any of those losses. He is not getting much support from his teammates when he steps into the crease. Starting goalies, however, need to be able to steal some wins. Grubauer wants to be a starter, so the fact that he has been unable to steal a win knocks the grade down to an A-, but overall, you cannot convince me goaltending has been an issue for the Caps this season.

Special Teams: C-

By the numbers:
Power play: Washington ranks 15th in the NHL at 19.4-percent
Penalty kill: Washington ranks 27th in the NHL at 77.8-percent

Let's start with the penalty kill. The bottom line is that it has not been good enough this season. The silver lining is that while the numbers are bad, they play much better in critical moments when the game is on the line. We saw that in the third period of the team's wins over the Islanders and the Coyotes. Overall, the PK has not been good enough, but when it really matters they step up which means there is some hope for improvement. The power play numbers are average, but here are the players who have scored on the power play this season: Oshie, Ovechkin, Carlson, Backstrom, Kuznetsov. See a pattern? They are all top-unit players. Barry Trotz has not been using his top unit for 1:30-1:45 as we've seen in previous years. He is giving much more time to his second unit. If you do that, they have to produce and they just have not been up to the task this season.

First Quarter Team MVP

1. Braden Holtby

As mentioned above, Holtby has 10 wins and he was the team's best player in most of those games. The fact that Washington does not have a single win without him shows just how important he is. He gives the team a measure of confidence that they do not have with Grubauer. Not only has he played great, but the entire team also seems to play better around him.

2. John Carlson

This team asked a lot of Carlson this season when Niskanen went on LTIR and Carlson delivered. He is second in the entire NHL in time on ice with 27:07 per game, just two seconds from the leader Rasmus Ristolainen. His play has not suffered as a result of the increased minutes. In fact, he has gotten better and better and the season progressed.

3. Alex Ovechkin

Whether Ovechkin is declining is a question we seem to ask every year. We should know better by now. The man is inhuman. His 13 goals may not lead the league, but it still puts him among the elite scorers of the NHL. Yes, I am not blind to the fact that he scored seven of those goals in two games and has only six in the last 18, but, call me crazy, I still consider seven goals in two games to be a pretty darn good sign of his scoring abilities.

MORE CAPITALS: LISTEN TO THE CAPITALS EXTRA PODCAST ON THE LOSS TO COLORADO

Overall grade: B-

Let's remember who is under the microscope here. This is not a grade for Washington's 2016-17 roster. If it was, it would be closer to a D or F. That roster was too talented to struggle the way this team has, but that was last year. If I were to tell you before the season that this team with its current roster would be 10-9-1 and in playoff position through 20 games with Niskanen missing 13 games, Andre Burakovsky missing 11, Brett Connolly missing seven and Tom Wilson suspended for four, are you telling me you would not have taken that? I would have. The last two losses are a concern for sure and you could argue that the team is trending downward, but overall they have done well to get to where they are now. They must improve in a number of areas over the course of the next 20 games, but 10-9-1 with the injuries they have faced is not too bad at all.

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4 reasons why the Caps lost to the Avalanche

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4 reasons why the Caps lost to the Avalanche

The Caps were handed an ugly 6-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday and Washington will now return home with zero points on their two-game road swing. Here's why they lost to Colorado.

Another early goal

The Capitals had a rough start to their game Tuesday against Nashville. The Predators hit the post with their first shot and scored their first goal at 11:48. Their start on Thursday was worse. Washington did not get any help from the post and Gabriel Landeskog made Colorado’s first shot count just 17 seconds in. That set the tone for the entire game.

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The late first period goal

Despite the bad start, the Caps kept it 1-0 through the first and looked like they would have a chance to regroup in the locker room before the second…but they allowed a Nathan MacKinnon goal with just seven seconds left in the first. That is a backbreaker.

Mistakes with the puck

For years, the Capitals were criticized for being “too cute,” for not making the simple plays. As a highly skilled team, they could pull off some of those beautiful plays. They are not that team anymore. Washington made a lot of mistakes on Thursday and a lot of them came because they would not make the simple, easy play.

You can read more about Washington’s mistakes with the puck here.

The Caps frequently turned the puck over because they would not make easy passes electing instead to go for the home runs. They could not get sustained offense because they kept turning the puck over in the neutral zone.

MORE CAPITALS: WHO WERE THE 3 STARS OF CAPS-AVALANCHE

Missed third period power play opportunity

It looked like the Caps would trail 4-1 heading into the third period, but Washington somehow won a coach’s challenge on a goal by Nikita Zadorov for goalie interference. With a second chance at life and down by only two heading into the third period, the Caps had a golden opportunity less than three minutes into the final frame when they were given a power play opportunity. They did not take advantage. A goal in that situation would have pulled Washington within one with a lot of time left to play. T.J. Oshie came close as he hit the post, but the Caps ultimately failed to score and gave up a fourth goal on a penalty shot just 16 seconds after Colorado returned to full strength.