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AAA Keys to the Game: Capitals vs. Devils

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AAA Keys to the Game: Capitals vs. Devils

NEWARK, N.J. -- The Capitals (36-9-4, 76 points) will visit the Prudential Center today (1 p.m., CSN) for the first of back-to-back games against the Metro Division rival New Jersey Devils (26-20-6, 58 points) and Philadelphia Flyers (Sunday, noon, NBC). Here are our AAA keys to today’s game:

In goal for the Capitals: Braden Holtby (31-5-3, 2.07 GAA, .928 SP) will go for his league-leading 32nd win off the season. He’s 23-1-3 in his last 28 starts and is on pace for 52 wins, four more than the NHL record set by former Devils netminder Martin Brodeur in 2006-07. Brodeur, who will be honored before the game in a banner-raising ceremony, played a career-high 78 games that record-breaking season but the Devils were knocked out in the second round of the playoffs. Holtby, who is slated to get the start against Philly on Sunday, is on pace for 67 games, five fewer than last season.

In goal for the Devils: Cory Schneider (23-15-5, 2.03 GAA, .929 SP) is expected to make his 44th appearance for the Devils. Schneider has won five of his last six starts and has allowed just 10 goals in that span. Schneider has high praise for the Capitals, saying, “Washington has kind of been head and shoulders above the league all season.”

Where the Caps stand: The Caps are 1-1-1 in their last three games and 3-2-1 in their last five. They lead the Chicago Blackhawks by two points in the overall standings; the Florida Panthers by nine points in the Eastern Conference standings; and the New York Rangers by 15 points in the Metro standings. If the playoffs started today, the top-seeded Caps would face the eighth-seeded Devils in Round 1 of the playoffs.

Where the Devils stand:  New Jersey is also 1-1-1 in its last three games and 5-1-1 in its last seven, allowing 12 goals in those seven games. The Devils rank 29th in the NHL in goals per game (2.25), ahead of only Anaheim (2.22) but are third in the league in goals allowed per game (2.27), behind only the Panthers (2.20) and Capitals (2.24).

RELATED: Prospect Report: Barber earns first professional hat-trick

Hynes sight: Devils first-year head coach John Hynes served as an assistant coach under Capitals current assistant coach Todd Reirden when both were with the Wilkes Barre-Scranton Penguins of the AHL in 2009-10. When Reirden became an assistant coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins the following season, Hynes was named head coach of Wilkes Barre-Scranton by then-Penguins  general manager Ray Shero, who is now the GM in New Jersey and hired Hynes last summer. “He forces his players to be accountable,” said Capitals defenseman Taylor Chorney, who played for Hynes last season in Wilkes. “He’s got a knack for getting guys to buy in and you can see that with their team this year.”

Other connections: Chorney and T.J. Oshie were teammates with Devils forward Travis Zajac at the University of North Dakota in 2005-06. Devils assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald was Barry Trotz’s captain in Nashville from 1998-2002. 

Moore of the same? The last time the Caps and Devils met was in the Caps’ season opener on Oct. 10 at Verizon Center. Alex Ovechkin netted the game-winner that night when he went coast to coast, passing the puck to himself behind his own skates, twisting defenseman John Moore like an Auntie Anne’s pretzel and roofing a shot over goalie Keith Kinkaid. Ovechkin trails Patrick Kane by two goals in his pursuit of a sixth Rocket Richard trophy. Kane has played in eight more games.

Rare air: As Presidents Trophy contenders, the Caps say they are getting the most out of their opponents every game. “Teams are real desperate,” Caps right wing Tom Wilson said. “It’s crunch time for the whole league. Teams want to take down the top teams. They know coming into our games that it’s going to be a hard game. We’ve just got to make sure we give them what they expect, play them hard and we’ll be OK.”

Caps coach Barry Trotz agrees.

“We started at an incredibly high level and we need to maintain that level,” he said. “It will be harder to do that because teams are all in at this point. If we have the right mindset to do that it will prepare us for the playoffs.” 

Notable numbers: Alex Ovechkin, who two years ago was ridiculed for his career-worst minus-35 rating, is a plus-21 this season, second on the Caps behind Evgeny Kuznetsov (plus-25). Right wing Kyle Palmieri leads the Devils with 20 goals, while RW Lee Stempniak leads the team with 38 points. Jordan Tootoo leads the Devils with 74 penalty minutes and is a team-worst minus-20.

Barry Trotz on the Devils: “Big-time commitment in their system. They play the game the right way. Positionally, they’re very strong and accountable to each other in all three zones. They’re hard to play against. They make you earn everything.”

Scoring first: The Caps are 25-1-0 when scoring the first goal. The Devils are 17-0-4 when scoring first. The Caps are 27-0-1 when leading after two periods; the Devils are 16-0-1.

Big finishers: Matt Niskanen said Thursday night the Caps are a team that gets stronger as games go on. Their stats show it. The Caps have outscored opponents 61-38 in third periods this season. Eight of those goals have been empty-netters. (They’ve also allowed six empties).

MORE CAPITALS: Are Orpik and Johansson close to having return dates?

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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.

MORE CAPITALS: BIZARRE SEQUENCE LEADS TO CAPS SCORING AND GETTING PENALIZED AT THE SAME TIME

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.