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NHL Awards watch: Alex Ovechkin is making a case for the Hart

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USA TODAY Sports

NHL Awards watch: Alex Ovechkin is making a case for the Hart

With 33 goals last season, the obituaries were being written for the career of Alex Ovechkin. Scoring 33 goals is no small feat, but for the greatest goal scorer of his generation, the 2016-17 season looked like the beginning of the inevitable decline for the Russian superstar.

Fast-forward to January 2018. The now 32-year-old Ovechkin leads the Caps in points with 43, is tied for the league lead in goals with 26 and is on pace for 52 goals for the season.

The fact that Ovechkin is in the running for the Rocket Richard Trophy at the midpoint of the season at his age is absolutely incredible, but there's another piece of hardware he could find himself competing for by season's end: The Hart Trophy as the league MVP.

SEE THIS WEEK'S NHL AWARDS WATCH HERE

Ovechkin has won the Hart three times in his career. In all three times, he also won the Rocket Richard Trophy.

More importantly, however, is team success versus the expectations. The Capitals have won the Presidents' Trophy three times in franchise history and in none of those three years did Ovechkin win the MVP. Washington was going to be a great team in those seasons and everyone knew it.

Few knew what to expect from the 2017-18 Capitals heading into the season, but one thing was clear. With all the roster turnover in the summer, this year's team is not nearly as deep or as loaded as the team that won the Presidents' Trophy in each of the last two years. Yet, at the midway point of the season, Washington sits atop the absurdly competitive Metropolitan Division and Ovechkin is leading the way.

Ovechkin's previous Hart Trophies did not come in years in which he played on the best team, they came in years in which he led the team to heights no one expected. Should Washington win the Metropolitan Division this year given what they lost in the offseason and with four rookies in the lineup, this year would certainly qualify.

How does Ovechkin currently stack up in the Hart race? You can see the updated awards watch for all the major NHL Awards here.

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Think Jakub Vrana's ice time shows Barry Trotz was unhappy with his play? Think again

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Think Jakub Vrana's ice time shows Barry Trotz was unhappy with his play? Think again

It was a bit of a surprise to see Jakub Vrana in the lineup against the Philadelphia Flyers. On Saturday in practice, Barry Trotz mixed his lines up and it appeared that Vrana would be the odd-man out. On Sunday, however, when the team took to the ice for warmups prior to the game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Vrana lined up on the fourth line with Jay Beagle and Devante Smith-Pelly.

Did the near scratch spark Vrana to more production? Not exactly.

RELATED: HERE'S WHY THE CAPS LOST TO PHILADELPHIA

Vrana played a career-low 6:25 against the Flyers. He had zero shot attempts or hits. There were only two stats on his stat line from the final box score: One giveaway and one drawn penalty.

Despite that, Trotz was complimentary of the 21-year-old forward following the game.

"What I like about Jake, he competed," Trotz said. "I know he doesn't have the minutes tonight, but he competed and that's what the message was. I met with him this morning and a little bit on the ice the other day and I just said the skill doesn't come out unless that level of desperation and compete is there night in, night out and then you'll have production. He didn't get a lot of ice time, but I was happy with his effort."

Trotz said Vrana's ice time was low because he the team was "hard matching" later in the game against Philadelphia. It was not because of how he played.

MORE CAPITALS: CHECK OUT THE 3 STARS OF THE GAME FOR CAPS-FLYERS

But ultimately, the key is to get Vrana producing again and the fourth line is not the best place to spark that. Vrana has only one point in his last 12 games which is why it seemed to make sense that he would be a healthy scratch on Sunday. For a player with his offensive skill, it is harder for him to make an impact on that back line given the limited minutes and the more defensive role. Ultimately he has to play in the top-nine in order to reach his potential on a game by game basis.

If Trotz wanted to spark more compete and more effort from Vrana, the move to the fourth line may have done the trick. But did he play well enough to warrant moving back into the top-nine? That's the ultimate question.

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4 reasons the Caps lost to the Flyers

4 reasons the Caps lost to the Flyers

The Capitals never gained possession of the puck in overtime on Sunday before Travis Konecny scored the game-winner. Despite playing better than they had in their previous two games, Washington still walked away with a 2-1 loss at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers and only one point to show for their effort. Here are four reasons why.

A blown 2-on-1

Alex Ovechkin made a great defensive play in the first period with a steal high in the defensive zone to launch himself and Evgeny Kuznetsov on a 2-on-1. Ovechkin took the first shot which was saved by Brian Elliott. The rebound went right to Kuznetsov who was in position to tap it into the empty net, but instead, he sent the puck right back to Elliott. To be fair, it was a bit of a difficult angle for Kuznetsov, but that's a play that has to result in a goal, especially in a game as close as this one.

RELATED: CHECK OUT THE 3 STARS OF THE GAME FROM CAPS-FLYERS

Brian Elliott

Elliott had a fantastic game as he denied the Caps on 27 of their 28 shots, many of which were very quality scoring opportunities. Two saves in particular stood out starting with a save on Ovechkin in the first period. The Great 8 was all alone in the slot, but Elliott managed to get in front of the puck and send up and over the net. In the second period, he made another dynamic save as he denied Nicklas Backstrom with the pad when the Caps' center managed to get his stick on the puck in the slot.

A lost faceoff in overtime

Many people wondered why Alex Ovechkin was not on the ice to start overtime, but it was another player's absence that really cost them: Jay Beagle. Beagle's faceoff win percentage of 57.5-percent puts him among the top faceoff men in the league, but Kuznetsov was the first center for the extra session. Sean Couturier beat Kuznetsov on the faceoff to start overtime and the Caps never gained possession at any point before Travis Konecny fired the game-winner past Holtby. Beagle is not the type of player you would typically want out on overtime, but when one possession can cost you the game as it did on Sunday, perhaps the Caps need to get him out there just for the opening faceoff to give themselves a better shot at gaining the first possession and thus a better chance of winning the game.

A neutral zone misplay by John Carlson

If you are going to try to hit a player with the puck in the neutral zone, you better make sure he doesn't get past you or you have put your team in a tough position. That is exactly what happened in overtime when Carlson attempted to pin Konecny along the boards. Konecny squeezed his way through the hip check immediately creating a 2-on-1 opportunity for the Flyers which he would turn into the game-winning goal.