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AAA Keys to the game: A Stanley Cup preview?

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AAA Keys to the game: A Stanley Cup preview?

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.

If you're confused by this, be sure to read this piece and this one in which Chuck Gormley and I try to clarify the situation.

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?

RELATED: Despite his uncertain role, Weber excited to be in Washington

Here are projected starting lineups:

CAPITALS

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

Defense pairs

Karl Alzner - Matt Niskanen

Nate Schmidt – Dmitry Orlov

Brooks Orpik – Taylor Chorney

Mike Weber?

Goaltenders

Braden Holtby (starter) – Philipp Grubauer

BLACKHAWKS

Andrew Ladd - Jonathan Toews - Andrew Shaw

Artemi Panarin - Artem Anisimov - Patrick Kane

Andrew Desjardins - Teuvo Teravainen - Tomas Fleischmann

Brandon Mashinter - Dennis Rasmussen - Richard Panik

Defense pairs

Duncan Keith - Niklas Hjalmarsson

Erik Gustafsson - Brent Seabrook

Trevor van Riemsdyk - Michal Rozsival

Goaltenders

Corey Crawford (starter) - Scott Darling

MORE CAPITALS: Making sense out of why the Caps waived Laich

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Caps make second blue line addition, acquire Jakub Jerabek from Montreal

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Caps make second blue line addition, acquire Jakub Jerabek from Montreal

The Capitals continued to retool their scuffling blue line on Wednesday, acquiring 26-year-old defenseman Jakub Jerabek from Montreal in exchange for a fifth-round pick in 2019.

The move comes a couple of days after GM Brian MacLellan dealt a conditional third-round selection to Chicago for swift skating Michal Kempny.

Both Jerabek and Kempny are left shot, puck-moving defensemen who move well and make crisp outlet passes. Both also hail from the Czech Republic.

RELATED: BRADEN HOLTBY BLAMES HIMSELF FOR TAMPA LOSS

The team sees Jerabek as a No. 5 or 6, I’m told.

On Wednesday, the Caps also officially said goodbye to Taylor Chorney, who was claimed off waivers by Columbus. Chorney will report to the Blue Jackets.

The Caps were off on Wednesday as they made their way Florida for Thursday night’s meeting with the Panthers, so it’s unclear how Coach Barry Trotz intends to deploy his new defensemen.

But it’s probably safe to assume that Kempny will move into a spot within the top four with John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen.

MORE CAPITALS: GET TO KNOW MICHAL KEMPNY

That figures to leave Brooks Orpik and Jerabek on the third pair, while rookies Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey jockey for position as the next man up.

Kempny is expected to make his Caps’ debut on Thursday night.

Is the Caps’ D corps better? Well, that remains to be seen. But it had become clear to MacLellan and Co. in recent weeks that the status quo was not going to cut it. This month, in fact, the team has allowed 39 goals in 10 games. Only the Rangers (40) have allowed more in the same span.

With the trade deadline looming next Monday, the Caps now have roughly $617,000 in cap space, according to www.capfriendly.com, and are at the roster maximum of 23 players. So they would need to make a move in order to add another body.

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NHL Trade Tracker 2018: Latest deadline rumors, deals

NHL Trade Tracker 2018: Latest deadline rumors, deals

The 2018 NHL Trade Deadline is nearly here, marking the final point in the season teams can make major shakeups before preparing for the stretch run and the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The 2018 NHL Trade Deadline takes place a week earlier than in 2017, and teams have until 3:00 p.m. ET on Monday afternoon, February 26 to make their final pre-deadline deals. That being said, the trade deadline is not the end of player movement in 2018, but signifies the end of the open trade window.

But with less than w eek left, the trade rumors are swirling, with teams putting out feelers and reaching out to potential trade partners.

The Capitals started the trade deadline period a week early, with a minor trade on Monday and another on Wednesday.

RELATED: TRACKING THE FAVORITES TO WIN NHL AWARDS

2018 NHL TRADE DEADLINE TRACKER:

February 21: TRADE — The Montreal Canadiens trade D Jakub Jerabek to the Washington Capitals for a fifth-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. (TRADE ANALYSIS)

February 21: RUMOR — The Columbus Blue Jackets have shown interest in acquiring Artem Anisimov from the Chicago Blackhawks, a team attempting a major rebuild toward the end of the 2017-18 season.

February 20: TRADE — The Toronto Maple Leafs trade C Erif Fehr to the San Jose Sharks for a seventh-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.

February 20: RUMOR — The Ottawa Senators are looking to deal D Erik Karlsson and C Bobby Ryan. The Sens have already begun to enter "tank" mode. Moving Karlsson and/or Ryan would make it all but official.

February 20: TRADE — The New York Rangers trade D Nick Holden to the Boston Bruins for D Rob O'Gara and a third-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft.

February 19: TRADE — The Chicago Blackhawks trade D Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals for a third-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. (TRADE ANALYSIS)

February 19: RUMOR — The Anaheim Ducks look to be targeting Vancouver Canucks LW Thomas Vanek, but the Canucks may 'kick tires" on a potential trade if the return isn't right. 

February 19: TRADE — The Detroit Red Wings trade G Petr Mrazek to the Philadelphia Flyers for a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft and a conditional third-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.

February 19: RUMOR — The Pittsburgh Penguins are interested in pursuing speedy New York Rangers RW Michael Grabner.

February 17: RUMOR — The Ottawa Senators' fire sale continues to heat up. The St. Louis Blues are reportedly interested in Senators RW Mike Hoffman and C Derick Brassard.

February 15: TRADE — Toronto Maple Leafs trade RW Nikita Soshnikov to the St. Louis Blues for a fourth-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.

February 15: TRADE — The Chicago Blackhawks trade D Ville Pokka to the Ottawa Senators for LW Chris DiDomenico.

February 13: RUMOR — New York Rangers LW Rick Nash is rumored to be a major trade target for virtually every team within playoff reach. The Nashville Predators have been rumored to be the favorites for the former No. 1 overall draft pick.

February 13: TRADE — The Los Angeles Kings trade RW Marian Gaborik and C Nick Shore to the Ottawa Senators for D Dion Phaneuf and C Nate Thompson.