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American Caps are ready for the challenge of the World Cup

American Caps are ready for the challenge of the World Cup

Skepticism surrounded the World Cup of Hockey since it was first announced by the NHL. Some thought it was a gimmick, others a cash grab. The main question in people's minds was whether the players would buy in and care about a newly created tournament that lacked the history and weight of the Olympics.

On the eve of the World Cup, those fears can be safely put to rest.

"I didn't know what to expect coming into it," Capitals and Team USA defenseman John Carlson said. "I figured it'd be pretty good, but I think it's been off the charts. The other games that I've watched I think have been really, really fast and the skill is there all over the place."

After three contentious exhibition games for each team that were more physical and contested than many expected, excitement for the World Cup has reached it's peak as it has become clear that the players are taking this tournament seriously.

RELATED: Holtby won't dress for Canada's World Cup opener

Nine players from the Washington Capitals are participating. Alex Ovechkin, Dmitry Orlov and Evgeny Kuznetsov will play for Team Russia; Nicklas Backstrom for Team Sweden; Braden Holtby for Team Canada and Philipp Grubauer will play for Team Europe. But the three players Caps fans will likely follow more closely than the others are Carlson, Matt Niskanen and T.J. Oshie as they will be playing for Team USA.

International success has proved elusive for USA hockey in recent years. America has not won gold in the Olympics since the famous 1980 Miracle on Ice and have medaled only twice since then, a silver in 2002 and 2010. In the World Championships, USA has only medaled four times in the last 20 years, all four bronze.

The competition in this tournament will be just as fierce. Team Canada boasts an incredible roster, one so deep that Holtby, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, is currently relegated to the press box.

"There's nowhere to hide really," Carlson said. "There's three regular season games, if you want to call them that, so if you have a little slip, it could be really, really costly. So you got to be on top of your game all the time, making sure that you're doing the right things at all times or else you'll be packing pretty quickly."

Despite the competition, the team remains confident. USA boasts one of the deeper rosters of the tournament. They also set the tone early with a win over Canada in their first exhibition game.

Plus, with the current format of a short tournament, the players know that anything can happen.

"In a short tournament like this, I think anybody can probably win it," Niskanen said. "We'll go as hard as we can and try to give ourselves the best chance."

USA begins its quest for the World Cup on Saturday against Team Europe. The game begins at 3:30 p.m.

MORE HOCKEY: Still unsigned, Orlov welcomes break from Caps talk

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Blackhawks fans tossed after directing racist remarks at Washington's Smith-Pelly

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NBC Sports Washington

Blackhawks fans tossed after directing racist remarks at Washington's Smith-Pelly

CHICAGO—Four fans were ejected from United Center on Saturday night for taunting Devante Smith-Pelly as the Capitals’ winger sat in the penalty box.

The fans, according to a team spokesman, yelled “basketball, basketball, basketball” at Smith-Pelly, who is black. Smith-Pelly was in the box for fighting in the third period of an eventual 7-1 loss to the Blackhawks.

The taunts were confirmed by an off-ice official, the spokesman said, and the fans were subsequently removed from the arena.

Smith-Pelly did not speak with reporters after the game but is expected to address the incident at the team’s next media availability. The team is scheduled to practice Sunday at KeyBank Center in Buffalo.

Caps Coach Barry Trotz did not hold back when asked about the fans' comments.

“There’s absolutely no place in the game of hockey or our country for racism,” Trotz said. “I think it’s disgusting, and there’s no place for it. …It just shows ignorance.”

The Blackhawks responded on Twitter with an apology to Smith-Pelly, who is one of roughly 30 black players in the NHL.

February is Hockey is For Everyone month in the NHL.

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3 stars of the game: Caps suffer ugly loss to scuffling Blackhawks

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USA TODAY Sports

3 stars of the game: Caps suffer ugly loss to scuffling Blackhawks

Just about everything that could go wrong did for the Capitals on Saturday in a 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Caps were coming off a strong 5-2 win over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, but none of that carried over in the trip to Chicago. The Caps took on a Blackhawks team that had lost eight in a row, but Chicago quickly took control in the first period and never looked back.

Washington gave up 21 shots on goal in the first period and found themselves down 3-1. Things did not get much better from there as they gave up another three goals in the final four minutes of the second.

Here are the three stars of the game.

1. Jonathan Toews: Toews opened up the scoring in the first period with a quick shot from the corner that caught Braden Holtby by surprise. Later in the first, he recorded an assist as his pass sparked a breakout that led to Brandon Saad's deal that gave Chicago back the lead. The Caps tried to make a game of it in the second period, but Towes intercepted a pass from Brooks Orpik that led to a 2-on-0 with himself and Patrick Kane that Kane netted to give the Blackhawks a 4-1 lead and signaled to everyone that the rout was on. Saturday was only the second three-point night of the season for Toews.

2. Patrick Kane: Toews helped the Blackhawks take control early, but Kane helped provide the knockout punches in the second period. Toews' interception led to a 2-on-0 in the second period. Holtby made the initial save on Toews, but Kane was able to knock in the rebound for the goal. He also added an assist on Artem Anisimov's power play goal which extended Chicago's lead to 6-1.

3. Tom Wilson: Before this one got out of hand, it looked like Wilson had erased the tough start for the Caps as he deflected a shot from Matt Niskanen into the net to get Washington on the board. Saturday's tally was his third goal in two games and his 10th of the season, marking the first time in his career he has reached double digits in goals.