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Timeframe for Matt Niskanen's return comes into focus as Caps host Oilers

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Timeframe for Matt Niskanen's return comes into focus as Caps host Oilers

Brett Connolly will return to the Caps’ lineup when the Oilers come calling Sunday night. But we already knew that.

What we didn't know was this: defenseman Matt Niskanen will travel on the upcoming road trip to Nashville and Colorado, according to Coach Barry Trotz. That's big, and I'll have more on that later. First, though, here’s how you can expect everyone to line up against Connor McDavid and Co., who are wrapping up a four-game jaunt through the Metro Division and are coming off a 4-2 loss Saturday night on Broadway.

Forwards

Stephenson – Backstrom – Oshie

Ovechkin – Kuznetsov – Smith-Pelly

Vrana – Eller – Wilson

Connolly – Beagle – Chiasson

Extras: Walker and Graovac (*IR)

Defense

Djoos – Carlson

Orpik – Bowey

Orlov – Chorney

Extras: Ness and Niskanen (*LTIR)

  • Braden Holtby will start. He beat the Oilers in Edmonton on Oct. 28, stopping 38 of 40 shots. The Oilers are expected to use seldom-used backup Laurent Brossoit, who has not played since Oct. 17.
  • Connolly returns, but he’s on the fourth line as Trotz works him back into the flow. He missed the last seven games with a concussion: “You don’t lose your spot, per se, but I think right now we’re trying to find some balance,” Trotz said. “We’ll adjust as we go along. So it’s more getting him back acclimated and back playing. …Conno has had a little bit of a slow start to the season. There’s lots of competition right now, especially on the left side.”
  • Niskanen has been out since Oct. 13, but he’s close to returning and will join the team for its road games against the Predators and Avalanche. “He’s very close,” Trotz said. “If he plays or not, I don’t know yet. But he’s close enough where he’s going to skate—we have a couple of practices. He needs to get back with the guys. He’s had enough time in Camp Nemo and he needs to come with us.”
  • Here's T.J. Oshie discussing the power play, which struck twice at home vs. the Penguins on Friday, and himself getting off the schneid with a goal vs. Pittsburgh:
  • Trotz said he’s been very pleased with Madison Bowey’s development, particularly his poise with the puck as of late. “He’s done a good job,” Trotz said. “The good thing about having some injuries is you do get an opportunity. Some guys do get thrown into the fire. They touch the stove and you see if they jump off it or if they can handle the heat, if you will. He’s been able to stay in the lineup every night. He’s starting to trust his game.”
  • McDavid leads the Oilers with 19 points (7g, 12a). In the first three games on this road trip, he’s got two goals and an assist. “He’s so dangerous,” Trotz said. “You have to be aware of the speed. You don’t want to give him time and space. You have to respect that they are going to challenge you 1-on-1 and they are going to beat 1-on-1, so you have to have layers of insulation.” It would also be good to avoid overtime, where McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have been dominant with all that open ice.
  • You don't see this much: the Oilers' scratches skated on the Caps' rink in Arlington because the Hoyas were at home Sunday afternoon.

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

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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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Brett Connolly knocked out of Thursday's game by Erik Gudbranson

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Brett Connolly knocked out of Thursday's game by Erik Gudbranson

The Capitals entered Thursday's game against the Vancouver Canucks without the services of Matt Niskanen, Tyler Graovac, Andre Burakovsky and Nicklas Backstrom. Another name was added to that list early in the second period when Brett Connolly left the game due to an upper-body injury after taking two hits from Vancouver defenseman Erik Gudbranson.

Connolly had the puck along the boards with his back to Gudbranson. He tried to put on the breaks and change direction, but Gudbranson didn't bite and instead caught Connolly with his shoulder. It looked as if the hit sent Connolly's head into the boards.

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Connolly was slow to get up and made his way directly to the bench. Soon after he made his way down the tunnel and his night was over.

That was actually not the first big hit Connolly had taken from Gudbranson on the night.

At the end of the first period, Connolly took a blindside shoulder to the head that knocked him down to the ice.

According to the team, Connolly will be re-evaluated on Friday.

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