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What does a sick Chandler Stephenson mean for the Caps' lineup?

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USA TODAY Sports

What does a sick Chandler Stephenson mean for the Caps' lineup?

The Caps will go through an atypical game day because of the NHL’s three-day Christmas break, which concluded last night.

The team reconvened in Arlington, Va., on Wednesday morning, hosted their pre-game skate at Kettler Capitals Iceplex and then scrambled to the airport for their charter flight to New York, where they face the Rangers at 8 p.m on NBCSN. 

Typically, the Caps arrive in the visiting city the night prior and have their morning skate at the away arena. It’s not a huge tweak, but in a sport where coaches and players avoid messing with routines—particularly on game days—it’s worth pointing out.

RELATED: HOW TO WATCH CAPS-RANGERS

Other than that, Coach Barry Trotz kept things mostly the same.

Forwards
Ovechkin-Backstrom-Wilson
Vrana-Kuznetsov-Oshie
Burakovsky-Eller-Connolly
Smith Pelly-Beagle-Chiasson

Defense
Djoos-Carlson
Orlov-Niskanen
Orpik-Bowey

Now for some notes and observations from the skate:

  • Fourth-line winger Chandler Stephenson is ill and will not make the trip to New York. Based on the rushes, he’ll be replaced by Alex Chiasson, while Nathan Walker remains a healthy scratch.
  • How long will Walker stick with the Caps? He hasn’t played since being reclaimed off waivers last week. The team, however, can’t send him to Hershey until 12:01 a.m. on Thursday due to the holiday roster freeze, if that's the route they chose.
  • Trotz will speak to reporters at 6 p.m. at MSG and will likely confirm the starting goaltender at that time. Philipp Grabuaer, however, faced shots from the defensemen at the end of the skate, which is typically what the starter does. That would mean Braden Holtby gets the Bruins on Thursday night in Washington.
  • Grubauer is 2-2-0 in five career games vs. the Rangers with a 2.20 goals against average and a .933 save percentage.
  • One thing to keep an eye on: Washington’s power play is 1 for 20 over the last eight games and has slipped to 18th in the NHL at 19.1-percent.
  • T.J. Oshie, who has one goal in three games since returning from a concussion, says he had his best game “in a while” in Las Vegas and feels he’s now got his timing back. He’s currently third on the team with 11 goals.
  • Speaking of the power play, the first unit remain unchanged based on the morning skate. On the second unit, which doesn’t get a whole lot of run, Andre Burakovsky and Jakub Vrana switched out for one another on the goal line.
  • A few weeks ago, Nicklas Backstrom stopped wearing a visor in practice in an attempt to switch up the mojo. At the time he was mired in a lengthy goal drought. As it turned out, he started scoring after ditching the visor and he hasn’t practiced with one since. When I asked him about it this morning, he said, “I’m superstitious” with a big smile. He’s got four goals and five assists in 11 games this month.
  • From the NBC notes on the Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist was 1-3-2 with a 3.15 gaa and .905 Sv% in his first seven starts of the season. His last 24 starts? He’s 16-6-1 (one no-decision) with a 2.46 gaa and .926 Sv%. 

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Will the Caps be able to take advantage of home ice in Game 5?

Will the Caps be able to take advantage of home ice in Game 5?

There's a saying in sports that goes, "A series doesn't start until a team loses at home." For the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets, their series won't start until someone wins at home.

Four games into the series, the road team has won every game. Columbus took Game 1 and Game 2 from Capital One Arena and the Caps answered back by winning Game 3 and Game 4 in Ohio.

"We came [to Columbus] to try to get the first one," Barry Trotz said after Thursday's win. "Did that. We came here to get the second one. Did that. All we've done is just got on even terms."

Now the series is a best of three with two of those final three games in Washington, but how much of an advantage does that really give the Caps?

"We've got to make sure that we're ready to go," Trotz said. "I think we have been since we got here. We've just got to do it at home."

The various playoff struggles the Caps have suffered in the Alex Ovechkin era have been well-documented to this point. One particularly maddening issue is the team's struggles to win at home. Since 2008, the first year the Ovechkin-led Caps made the playoffs, the team is just 28-25 in home playoff games. Since 2015, Trotz's first season as head coach, the Caps are 12-10 in Washington.

Part of that is just the nature of hockey. Upsets are prevalent in the playoffs in the NHL and home-ice advantage does not mean as much as it does in other sports. But it should mean more than 28-25.

Besides having the crowd on your side, home ice also provides matchup advantages. The home team gets the second line change at home, meaning during a stoppage in play the home coach gets the opportunity to see who the opponent puts on the ice before making his own change. For the Caps, this means getting Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen on the ice against Artemi Panarin.

Trotz has matched his top shutdown pair against Columbus' top line all series long. According to Natural Stat Trick, when Niskanen was on the ice in Game 4 he held Panarin's Corsi For percentage to 36.36. When Niskanen was not on the ice, Panarin's percentage shot up to 71.43. 

Theoretically, it should be much easier for Trotz to get those favorable matchups at home. Now all the Caps have to do is take advantage.

"Our home record hasn't been really great in the last little stretch at the end of the season here and obviously the first two games of the playoffs," Trotz said. "We owe it to our fans, we owe it to ourselves to take advantage of that."

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John Tortorella has no answers, walks out of postgame press conference after Game 4

John Tortorella has no answers, walks out of postgame press conference after Game 4

In each of the first three games of the series, the Columbus Blue Jackets always had an answer for the Washington Capitals.

The Caps built a two-goal lead in each game and Columbus was able to battle back and tie it each time.

In Game 4 on Thursday, however. the Blue Jackets had no answer in a 4-1 loss to Washington and that includes head coach John Tortorella.

"We weren't good," Tortorella said to the media after the game. "There's no sense asking me things about the game. I'm telling you, we laid an egg. I'm not going to break it down for you. We sucked. We sucked."

Tortorella is known for having some fiery interactions with the media. By his standard, Thursday's postgame presser was fairly tame.

The Capitals may have won Game 3, but Columbus certainly looked like the better team for most of the night. That was not the case in Game 4 as Washington dominated from start to finish. That led to the contentious postgame presser.

"We laid an egg," Tortorella said. "That's all I have to say, guys. I'm sorry, I'm not going to break it down for you. Nothing went well for us. It's on us, we have to figure it out and we will."

Reporters continued to press the head coach until he finally walked out.

Before you laugh too hard at this, it is important to consider that this may be a calculated move by Tortorella.

Sure, there have been times in which he has lost his temper in the past, but these outbursts may be more premeditated than we think.

Consider this. After their worst game of the series, a game in which the Blue Jackets only scored once and saw a 2-0 series lead evaporate in two games at home, we're talking about the head coach. We're not talking about the loss or the performance of the players. Instead, we are talking about Tortorella walking out on reporters.

Even if Tortorella was not willing to give any answers on Thursday, he will need to find some soon. The series now shifts back to Washington for Game 5 on Saturday with all the momentum on the Caps' side.

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