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AAA Keys to the Game: Caps vs. Red Wings

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AAA Keys to the Game: Caps vs. Red Wings

It will be a little retro night for the Capitals (11-4-1, 23 points) tonight in Detroit when Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are reunited on the Caps’ top line when they face the Red Wings (9-8-1, 19 points) at Joe Louis Arena (8 p.m., NBCSN). Here are our AAA Keys to the Game:

Super Trio: For the first time all season the Caps will begin a game with center Nicklas Backstrom between left wing Alex Ovechkin and right wing T.J. Oshie, while center Evgeny Kuznetsov drops onto a second line with left wing Marcus Johanasson and right wing Andre Burakovsky.

“It hasn’t been working for the last couple games so maybe he wants to switch it up,” Backstrom said. “It’ll be fun if it happens.”

Backstrom has six goals and six assists for 12 points in 13 games this season. He missed the first three games of the season following offseason hip surgery.

“It took a couple games to get going again,” Backstrom said. “My legs felt good when I got back but stickhandling I felt rusty. I feel good now.”

Backstrom has earned an assist on 174 of Alex Ovechkin’s 385 goals since the two became teammates in 2007-08. Backstrom ranks first on the Capitals franchise assist list (433) and fifth in points (584). Since he entered the NHL Backstrom ranks third in the league in assists (433), trailing Henrik Sedin (483) and Joe Thornton (461).

Let me help you with that: It could be coincidence or it could be fate, but Backstrom has a chance to make a teammate Russia’s all-time goals leader for the second time in his career.  Back on Oct. 26, 2008, Backstrom set up Sergei Fedorov for his 474th goal, which broke Alexander Mogilny’s all-time record for NHL goals by a Russian-born player.

Fedorov was 38 at the time and his goal came on the power play in Dallas against the Stars.

“I remember he was proud about it,” Backstrom said. “At the time he probably didn’t know if Ovi would someday break it or not.”
Ovechkin, who is tied with Fedorov with 483 NHL goals, needs one more to become the Russian goal king. Fedorov finished with 483 goals in 1,248. Ovechkin has 473 goals in 775 games. Backstrom was asked if he finds it ironic that he could have an assist on both historic goals.

“To be honest I don’t think about it,” he said. “If it happens, good for him. I’m happy for him. He scored two already and both were taken away by coach’s challenges. I feel bad for him, but I know it’s going to come pretty soon.”

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Petr the Gr8: Red Wings goalie Petr Mrazek (5-4-0. 2.18 GAA, .935 SP) will get the start for Detroit. He made 38 saves in a 1-0 shutout win over the Capitals last Tuesday night in Detroit, stopping Ovechkin 15 times in the victory. It marked the first time in Ovechkin’s career that he recorded 15 shots without a goal. Mrazek is expected to get the start tonight.

“Ovi has (15) shots and I think he saw just about every one of them,” Caps left wing Jason Chimera said. “We need to create a lot more havoc around the net, which equals a lot of goals in this league.”

Braden Holtby (9-4-0, 2.01 GAA, .919 SP) will get the call for the Caps, with backup Philipp Grubauer possibly slated for Thursday night at home when the Caps face the Dallas Stars.

Where they stand:  The Caps are coming off Friday night’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Calgary Flames and are 1-4-0 when coming off more than two days between games. They have not lost two games in a row all season, going 4-0-0 following losses. The Caps are second in the Metropolitan Division with 23 points, seven behind the New York Rangers. The Islanders also have 23 points but have played three more games than the Caps.

The Red Wings are third in the Atlantic Division with 19 points, two behind the Ottawa Senators and 11 behind the Montreal Canadiens. They’ve lost two of their last three and three of their last five but are coming off a 4-3 overtime win in Ottawa Monday night.

Faster start: The Caps have allowed the first goal in seven straight games and admitted to allowing the Flames dictate the pace of Friday’s game, going up 2-0 before the Caps forced overtime with a pair of third-period goals.  

“I think our team is at its best when we’re playing fast, playing hard, playing physical and getting in on teams’ defense and making their lives difficult,” Caps right wing Tom Wilson said. “We had that identity last year of being heavy and big.

“We added a little bit of skill with Willy (Justin Williams) and Osh (T.J. Oshie) but we still have that identity and when we’re playing fast and we’re playing hard I don’t think a lot of teams want to play against us. That’s something we need to find again this year.”

Facing Greenie: The Caps will be facing former teammate Mike Green for the second time in eight days. Green played 10 seasons in Washington before signing a three-year, $18 million contract with the Red Wings over the summer. Chimera acknowledged there were a few times Green seemed to know what the Caps were doing as well as they did.

“He knows guys’ tendencies and what they do and he makes good reads,” Chimera said. “His familiarity with each and every one of us probably lets him play a little more aggressive against a team like us because he knows what we’re going to do.”

Here’s a look at tonight’s projected lineups:

CAPITALS

Forward lines

Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie

Marcus Johansson - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Andre Burakovsky

Jason Chimera - Jay Beagle - Justin Williams

Brooks Laich - Michael Latta - Tom Wilson

Defense pairings

Nate Schmidt - John Carlson

Karl Alzner - Matt Niskanen

Dmitry Orlov - Taylor Chorney

Goaltenders

Braden Holtby (starter) - Philipp Grubauer

Scratches: Stanislav Galiev

Injured: Brooks Orpik (lower body, could be available on Thursday)

RED WINGS

Forward lines

Justin Abdelkader - Henrik Zetterberg - Gustav Nyquist

Tomas Tatar - Pavel Datsyuk - Dylan Larkin

Drew Miller - Andreas Athanasiou - Teemu Pulkkinen

Darren Helm - Luke Glendening - Riley Sheahan

Defense pairings

Niklas Kronwall - Mike Green

Danny DeKeyser - Jonathan Ericsson

Jakub Kindl - Alexey Marchenko

Goaltenders

Petr Mrazek (starter) - Jimmy Howard

Scratches: Joakim AnderssonBrendan Smith.

Injured: Johan Franzen (concussion), Brad Richards (back), Kyle Quincey (ankle), Landon Ferraro (knee)

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Was Columbus' travel a factor in the Caps' series comeback?

Was Columbus' travel a factor in the Caps' series comeback?

Whenever a playoff series ends, the analysis begins soon after. Why did this team win? Why did this team lose? Why did this player perform while this one did not?  This is an exercise performed by media, players and coaches alike, especially for teams that walk away from a series believing they let an opportunity slip away.

The Columbus Blue Jackets fell to the Washington Capitals in six games despite taking a 2-0 series lead by winning both opening games in Washington. Head coach John Tortorella will have all summer to think about what he could have done differently and what went wrong for his team, but it sounds like he already has at least one theory as to why they lost.

In a series that featured four overtime games, Game 4 stands out as being far more one-sided than the others. Washington turned in the most dominant performance of the series in a 4-1 win that knotted the teams at two wins apiece.

That game stood out to Tortorella too and he thinks he knows why the Blue jackets laid an egg that night: Travel.

"I think we should’ve stayed in Washington after that second overtime game, the second game there," Tortorella said. "I think that comes back and gets you later on in the series. We should’ve stayed in Washington and let them get a good night sleep. They got in here so late. I don’t think it affected us in Game 3. It comes the next days, so that falls on me."

When analyzing why the Caps won the series, chances are travel is not going to be a reason many people consider. Perhaps there is some merit to this. After all, as the father of an infant, I can certainly vouch for how much of a difference one good night of sleep can make.

But perhaps there is another message being sent here by Tortorella.

Tortorella is a master at using the media to his advantage. He uses the media to send messages to his team or draw attention on himself and away from the players.

Tortorella just saw his young team give up a 2-0 series lead and lose four straight games. Those are the kind of losses that can stick with a player and create doubt in the mind of a team the next time they reach a tough spot in the postseason.

So what did Tortorella do? He came out and put the worst loss of the series on his own shoulders. Why was it his fault? Uh...travel? Yeah, let's go with travel.

The Blue Jackets are not the first team to play overtime on the road or the first team to deal with travel concerns. To hear a coach say it was a reason they lost a game and not even the next game after the travel? Well, that's a first.

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Alex Ovechkin's evolution as a player was on full display in Game 6

Alex Ovechkin's evolution as a player was on full display in Game 6

We all know that Alex Ovechkin is a world-class goal scorer. He is the best goal scorer of his generation and perhaps the best of all time.

He tallied another two goals Monday in the Capitals' 6-3 victory Game 6 over the Blue Jackets, but that’s not what really impressed head coach Barry Trotz.

While Ovechkin's career is full of highlight reel goals, it was the ugly plays that really caught Trotz's eye on Monday.

"[Ovechkin's] evolved in areas of his game," Trotz said after the game.

"He’s not just at that dot. He’ll go to the front of the net, he’s not scared to do that. It’s just adding layers to his game."

Ovechkin's first goal of the game was not pretty. It won't make any Top 10 lists, it won't be shown throughout the U.S. and Canada. It was an ugly rebound goal...and it was beautiful.

Just four minutes after Nick Foligno tied the game, Ovechkin put the Caps back ahead with a rebound goal. He parked himself in front of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and was in perfect position when Bobrovsky made a kick out save to backhand the rebound into the empty net.

Those are the type of plays we did not always see from "The Great 8." But his performance on Monday did not stop there.

As Washington attempted to shut the door on the game and the series, Ovechkin did what veteran leaders do, laying out to block a Ryan Murray shot with less than three minutes to go.

"I’m probably as proud of him right at the end of the game blocking shots and doing that type of thing," Trotz said. "That’s full commitment. When that was necessary, that’s where you get your street cred with your teammates. You’ve got to block a shot when it’s necessary and get a puck out when it’s necessary. I’d probably give him more props on that than even scoring goals because that’s what you really expect of him."

Few expected a 32-year-old Ovechkin to rebound from a 33-goal season, but he did just that with 49 goals in 2017-18 to win his seventh Rocket Richard Trophy as the league-leader.

The reason why was on full display on Monday. His game has evolved, as cliche as it sounds.

Instead of relying just on the quick rushes, pretty one-timers and incredible dekes, Ovechkin has committed more to getting to the contested areas. He's altered his game. He is scoring the type of ugly, dirty goals the Capitals desperately need in the playoffs.

That commitment on offense seemed to translate to the defense as well on Monday night, putting his body is a dangerous position laying out for blocked shots.

"Those are the necessary things, those necessary details that allow you to win," Trotz said. "If you don’t have them, then you’re not going to win."

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