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AAA Keys to the Game: Capitals vs. Penguins


AAA Keys to the Game: Capitals vs. Penguins

The Capitals (51-14-5, 107 points) and Penguins (38-24-8, 84 points) renew their rivalry tonight at Consol Energy Center (6 p.m., NBCSN). Here are our AAA Keys to the Game:

Sticking with what works: With back-to-back wins since being constructed, look for the top line of right wing Jay Beagle, left wing Alex Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom to remain intact. Capitals coach Barry Trotz said he also likes the new look of T.J. Oshie on the second line with Evcgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky, and a third line with Jason Chimera, Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams.

“Guys that are so reliant on a threesome of players playing together and never getting broken up, when something happens they can’t play,” Trotz reasoned. “You’re sort of flirting with disaster if you have that mindset.”

Trotz said he’s seeing better down-low play from Ovechkin and Backstrom now that Beagle is on their line.

“They’re getting chances in tight more than some of the perimeter stuff that was happening with that line. There’ a little more cycle game. (Beagle) pulls you into the fight a little bit.”

Goaltender matchup: The Capitals will turn to Braden Holtby, who is 43-8-4, with a 2.20 GAA and .923 save percentage. The Penguins will give Marc-Andre Fleury (30-16-6, 2.32, .922) his second start in as many days. Holtby has a career mark of 5-6-0 against the Penguins with a 2.42 GAA and .925 SP and two shutouts. Fleury is 18-11-2 with three shutouts, a 2.50 GAA and a .916 SP lifetime against the Caps.

Adding a wrinkle: Capitals coach Barry Trotz wasn’t specific, but he said he’s trying to add a few wrinkles to his team’s execution, from altering faceoff plays and defensive zone coverage to the Caps’ neutral zone setup and controlled forechecks.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Trotz said. “We’re just trying to look at areas we might use down the road. When we’re playing a team we might say, ‘We don’t have that in our toolbox and maybe we should put it on there.”

RELATED: Capitals can clinch conference title tonight

Oshie’s career high: If you’re a little surprised that T.J. Oshie hit his career high with his 22nd goal of the season Friday night, you’re not alone.

“I didn’t realize that was his mark,” Trotz said. “I was a little surprised when we first got him that he hadn’t reached that mark playing with (Alex) Steen and (David) Backes.

“You find out he’s more of a playmaker than a shooter. But I’ve been talking to him about shooting more.  It’s no different than Marcus (Johansson) and he’s doubled his production. Sometimes when you’re playing with Ovi and Backy it’s hard not to want to get the puck over to Ovi. Even Osh will tell you the guy on the other side shoots it a little better than he does.”

Oshie has four points in his last four games (3 goals, 1 assist) and ranks second on the team in power-play goals (10) and goals (22), tied for third in power-play points (16) and fifth in points (44).

Geno who? The Pens have won four straight games since losing top-line center Evgeni Malkin to a left arm injury on March 11. Nick Bonino has replaced Malkin on a line with wingers Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel and that trio has produced four goals in the last two games.

Resurgent Sidney: Penguins center Sidney Crosby carries an 11-game point streak (6 goals, 12 assists) into tonight’s game. Crosby has 57 points (25 goals, 32 assists) in 43 games under new coach Mike Sullivan, who took over for Michel Therrien on Dec. 12. Crosby had six goals and nine assists in 28 games under Therrien.

“I noticed they played with more energy under the new coach,” Caps defenseman and former Penguin Matt Niskanen said.

Crosby vs. Ovi: In 36 career regular season games against the Capitals, Crosby has 52 points (18 goals, 34 assists) and is a plus-2 with 10 penalty minutes. In 42 career games against the Penguins, Alex Ovechkin has 46 points (27 goals, 19 assists) with a plus-16 rating and 30 penalty minutes.

Road trippin’: The Capitals are one road win away from tying the franchise mark for road victories in the season. That record currently belongs to the 2009-10 Capitals, who went 24-10-7 on the road. These Caps are 23-8-3 on the road this season, with seven road games remaining.

Metro men: The Caps have earned a point in 13 of their last 14 games against Metropolitan Division opponents (11-1-2) and are 18-4-2 record against Metro teams this season, outscoring them 82-57.

Beware the Capitals: The Caps have won five of the last seven games against the Pens, going 5-2-0 and outscoring Pittsburgh 21-11.

MORE CAPITALS: What's the Caps' policy on players having their kids around?

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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.


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.


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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.