The Capitals (45-11-4, 94 points) head west to face the Chicago Blackhawks (38-20-5, 81 points) in a matinee matchup at 12:30 p.m. Here are our AAA Keys to the Game:
A sneak peek: On one side, you have the modern-day dynasty of the Chicago Blackhawks. They are the defending champs and have won the Stanley Cup in three of the last six seasons. On the other, you have their biggest challenger, the Washington Capitals. The Caps have established themselves as by far the best team in the regular season and the team to beat in the east. It would not be shocking if these two teams met in the Stanley Cup Finals in June, something no doubt the players are well aware of. That should provide some extra juice with each team wanting to send a message before the playoffs.
Where they stand: The Caps hold a 16-point lead in the Metropolitan Division, a 16-point lead in the Eastern Conference and a 12-point lead in the Presidents' Trophy race. For Chicago, however, this game is an important one. The Blackhawks may have the third-best record in the league and many may assume they are the best team in the west, but they currently are not even the top team in their division as they trail Dallas by one point.
When last we met: The Caps defeated Chicago 4-1 in Washington on Oct. 15 thanks to a strong performance in net by Braden Holtby. T.J. Oshie scored his first goal as a Capital and Alex Ovechkin scored in his return from a one-game suspension he was issued by Barry Trotz for oversleeping.
Wheelin' and dealin': What looked like it may be a quiet trade deadline for the Caps just got a lot more interesting thanks to Chicago. With an eye squarely on the Cup, the Blackhawks made three trades in the past week acquiring six players. Of those players, Andrew Ladd and Tomas Fleischmann are both expected to play Sunday. Thus far, the Caps have made one acquisition, picking up defenseman Mike Weber from Buffalo. With how good the team has been this season there seemed like no need for general manager Brian MacLellan to do anything drastic. That thinking may have changed with Chicago loading up. Make no mistake, MacLellan will be watching this game very closely to see how the Caps match up.
Scoring race: This game will feature the top two goal-scorers in the NHL in Ovechkin and Patrick Kane. Ovechkin currently leads the league with 40 goals, five more than Kane's 35. Ovechkin is looking for his fourth consecutive Rocket Richard Trophy and the sixth of his career.
Starting strong: The Caps have allowed the first goal in their last seven games and in 14 of their last 17. It's a bit understandable to see the Caps struggle to stay motivated at the start of games given how far ahead they are in the standings, but it remains a troubling trend and one they will want to avoid on Sunday in what will likely be the closest thing to a playoff game the team will face until the real thing starts in April.
You Laich that: The Caps surprised everyone on Saturday with the news that they had placed veteran forward Brooks Laich on waivers. They then confused everyone by saying that if Laich cleared waivers he would most likely play in Sunday's game. As of this writing, Laich remains unclaimed and chances are his $4.5 million cap hit will scare away any potential suitors. Expect to see him in the lineup.
Beagle returns: Jay Beagle has been activated off of LTIR and will make his return to the lineup on Sunday. John Carlson has been placed on LTIR in order to make room. Beagle took line rushes in practice Saturday on the fourth line with Brooks Laich and Mike Richards. With a fourth line made up of three centers, expect a lot of cheating in the faceoff circle.
A possible debut for Weber: With just one practice with his new team under his belt, chances are it is too soon for Weber to make his Capitals debut even with the loss of Carlson to injury. Rumblings out of Chicago, however, are that one Caps defenseman is suffering from the flu and could be out. If that is the case then Weber will make an unexpected debut Sunday. Hey, that's why they got him, isn't it?
Here are projected starting lineups:
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – T.J. Oshie
Andre Burakovsky – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Justin Williams
Jason Chimera – Marcus Johansson – Tom Wilson
Brooks Laich – Mike Richards - Jay Beagle
Out: Michael Latta
Karl Alzner - Matt Niskanen
Nate Schmidt – Dmitry Orlov
Brooks Orpik – Taylor Chorney
Braden Holtby (starter) – Philipp Grubauer
Andrew Ladd - Jonathan Toews - Andrew Shaw
Artemi Panarin - Artem Anisimov - Patrick Kane
Andrew Desjardins - Teuvo Teravainen - Tomas Fleischmann
Brandon Mashinter - Dennis Rasmussen - Richard Panik
Duncan Keith - Niklas Hjalmarsson
Erik Gustafsson - Brent Seabrook
Trevor van Riemsdyk - Michal Rozsival
Corey Crawford (starter) - Scott Darling
MORE CAPITALS: Making sense out of why the Caps waived Laich