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Trotz updates injury situation, talks line tweaks ahead of Pens' visit

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USA TODAY Sports

Trotz updates injury situation, talks line tweaks ahead of Pens' visit

After taking a day off, the Caps returned to the ice Thursday morning with some new faces and tweaked forward lines ahead of Friday’s showdown with the Penguins.

The big news, of course, was the much anticipated return of Matt Niskanen, Brett Connolly and Tyler Graovac to practice. Niskanen was in a non-contact jersey; Conolly and Graovac were full participants.

Rookie defenseman Madison Bowey also returned after being a late scratch Tuesday night in Buffalo with a lower-body injury.

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Here’s how Coach Barry Trotz had his players lined up:

Forwards
Stephenson – Backstrom – Oshie
Ovechkin – Kuznetsov – Smith-Pelly
Vrana – Eller – Wilson
O’Brien – Beagle – Chiasson
Extras: Connolly, Graovac and Walker

Defense
Djoos – Carlson
Orpik – Bowey
Orlov – Chorney
Extra: Niskanen, Ness

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So, yeah, lots to catch up on. Let’s begin with the injuries:

  • Niskanen said he felt good in his first skate back, but also indicated that he needs a little more time before being game-ready. He’s missed the past 11 contests.
  • Connolly confirmed that he has missed the past six games with the first diagnosed concussion of his career. He also said he’s been cleared but isn’t sure if he’ll return vs. the Penguins.
  • Connolly, who has one goal and one assist in 10 games, said he used the time on the shelf to hit the reset button on the start to his season. “It’s been a long couple of weeks,” he said. “I’ve had a couple of weeks to reset and recap my first nine [plus] games of the season. Hopefully I can come back, start fresh and have a strong game right away and build from there.”
  • I didn’t get a chance to catch up with Graovac, who is also working his way back from an upper body injury. He was not assigned to a line, either, which leads me to believe he won’t face the Penguins.
  • Bowey told me he’s good to go for the Pittsburgh game. It’ll be the rookie’s first game against the Penguins.
  • Trotz said the players returning to practice will ratchet up the pressure on guys who are on the bubble or aren’t performing. “We have five lines and eight D,” Trotz said. “It should signal a lot of bells to a lot of guys in that room. There’s a lot of competition for the 23 spots now. When everybody gets healthy, we’re going to have to make some decisions. So if you’re in the lineup, you got to make sure you bring your ‘A’ stuff to stay in the lineup because the competition is back. That’s good for any hockey team.”
  • The change to the forward lines is Chandler Stephenson moving up into the top-six and Jakub Vrana dropping to the third line. Stephenson, obviously, is pumped about his recent career trajectory, which has seen him go from waived to the AHL to the Caps' third line and now to the left side of Nicklas Backstrom's line. “It’s been quite the experience,” he said after practice. “With him and Osh, you just give them a target and they’ll find you. So you have to be ready and always bear down with those guys.”
  • Trotz said the move was made simply because he’s looking to spark the Backstrom line. Backstrom has no goals in nine games and no points in seven. Oshie, meanwhile, has one goal in the past 11 games.
  • Trotz also indicated that Stephenson’s promotion is more of an experiment—for now, anyway. “I think Chandler has played okay,” Trotz said. “I don’t think he was as good as he was the first couple of games—I’ll be honest about that. I just think he might be a good complement going forward here. So we just tried that in practice today. If you watched last game, we probably used five different people on the left side with Backy. We’re looking for a little spark here.”
  • And there was this: hockey players introducing their young ones to the game. For 20-month-old Turner Chorney, it was his first time on the ice. 

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3 reasons why the Caps beat the Sabres

3 reasons why the Caps beat the Sabres

You may think this was an ugly four-game road trip for the Caps, but with a 3-2 win in Buffalo on Monday, Washington managed to earn five out of a possible eight points.

Here is why the Caps beat the Sabres and managed to save the road swing.

A missed high-stick (maybe) from Ovechkin

Ovechkin scored the first goal of the game in the second period as he deflected a high-shot from Christian Djoos down past goalie Chad Johnson. But did the deflection come on a high stick? The play was reviewed and the goal was ultimately upheld. According to the NHL, it was determined that "video review supported the Referee's call on the ice that Alex Ovechkin's stick was at or below the height of the crossbar when he tipped the puck into the Buffalo net."

NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May broke the play down during the second intermission and made his case for why the NHL actually got the call wrong.

Was that a high stick? I don't know. As compelling an argument as May made, it still looks inconclusive which means the review made the right call. What surprises me is that the referee did not disallow the goal on the initial call.

Whether the review is truly inconclusive or flat out wrong, Washington was fortunate to walk away from this sequence with the goal.

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A centimeter of ice

Hockey is a game of inches and it took less than an inch to put Washington up 2-0. When an Evgeny Kuznetsov shot hit off the boards and bounced back to the front of the net, it sparked a scrum next to goalie Chad Johnson. Eventually, John Carlson was able to get a swipe on the puck sending it trickling to the goal line, but Kyle Okposo was there waiting and appeared to kick it out to safety just before it crossed. A review triggered by the Situation Room, however, revealed that the puck had just barely managed to cross the goal line before Okposo got to it.

Here's the view the NHL released after the review:

Philipp Grubauer's third period

After dominating the first 40 minutes of the game and taking a 2-0 lead, Buffalo predictably made a late push in the third period with two goals to pull within one. Washington outshot the Sabres in the first and second periods, but Buffalo reversed that trend in a big way in the third as they outshot the Caps 17-6. Grubauer turned aside 15 of those shots and was impressive after barely being tested in the first two periods.

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

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3 stars of the game: Caps knock out the punchless Sabres

3 stars of the game: Caps knock out the punchless Sabres

Coming off an ugly 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, a Buffalo Sabres team missing star Jack Eichel was just what the doctor ordered for the Caps to get back on track. Washington dominated the first two periods and then survived a late surge from Buffalo for the 3-2 win.

After battling to a scoreless first, Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson spotted Washington a 2-0 lead in the second. They then held on in the third period as Buffalo began to tilt the ice in their favor, with Evgeny Kuznetsov scoring the empty-netter to put this game out of reach. Evander Kane would pull Buffalo within one, but with only three seconds left it was too little, too late.

Here are the three stars of the game:

1. Alex Ovechkin: Ovechkin opened up the scoring in the second period as he deflected down an innocent shot from Christian Djoos past Chad Johnson.

Ovechkin also set a physical tone as he battled with defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen all game long. After taking a high elbow from Ristolainen early in the game Ovechkin skated up to Ristolainen prior to the faceoff on his next shift and let him know that it was on. 

2. John Carlson: Carlson had a hand in both of Washington's first two goals. He recorded a secondary assist on Ovechkin's goal as he made a blue line pass to Djoos which Djoos fired on net and Ovechkin deflected. Carlson then managed to hit the puck past the goal line in a scrum next to Johnson. It looked initially like Kyle Okposo had managed to kick out the puck just before it crossed, but Carlson was awarded the goal as a review showed the puck had completely crossed the line.

3. Philipp Grubauer: A Sabres team that ranks last in the NHL in scoring and that was also without its leading scorer did not test Grubauer much in the first two periods. Facing a 2-0 deficit, however, Buffalo made a third period push to try to tie the game, but Grubauer was up to the task as he turned aside 15 of the 17 shots he faced in the final 20 minutes. He finished with 32 total saves on the night.