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Capitals score 2 goals in 3rd, top Flyers 3-2

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Capitals score 2 goals in 3rd, top Flyers 3-2

WASHINGTON (AP) Troy Brouwer and Wojtek Wolksi scored third-period goals, and Braden Holtby made 29 saves in the Washington Capitals' 3-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday night.

Niklas Backstrom had a goal and an assist for Washington (2-5-1), which had lost two straight.

Defenseman Bruno Gervais, and Brayden Schenn scored for the Flyers (2-6), who have lost three in a row.

Brouwer's third goal of the season at 3:57 of the third snapped a tie and put the Capitals ahead for good. He took a pass in the left circle from Mike Green and wristed a shot over goalie Ilya Bryzgalov's shoulder.

Less than three minutes later, Wolksi poked the puck away from defenseman Luke Schenn at the blue line, skated in alone, and beat Bryzgalov to make it 3-1.

The Flyers got back within a goal with 9:30 remaining when Brayden Schenn beat Holtby with a shot from the left circle.

The Capitals held on behind Holtby, who made his first start since Jan. 22. Bryzgalov finished with 23 saves.

The Flyers took a 1-0 lead when Gervais knocked a loose puck past Holtby at 11:43 of the second period for his first goal with the Flyers.

Washington tied it six minutes later. John Carlson poked the puck from Sean Couturier right to Backstrom, who was trailing the play. Backstrom broke in alone and lifted a backhanded shot over Bryzgalov's glove with 2:18 remaining in the second.

The Capitals, who came in off a 3-2 loss on Thursday at Toronto, dominated early against Philadelphia - which hadn't played since losing at the New York Rangers on Tuesday.

Midway through the first period, the Capitals held a 10-2 edge in shots, but Bryzgalov kept the game scoreless.

He made several tough saves, his best on a backhand attempt off the stick of Alex Ovechkin, who was alone in front after a feed from Wolski.

Late in the first period, Washington's John Erskine caught Wayne Simmonds in the face with an elbow that sent Simmonds to the ice with a bloody nose. No penalty was called, but Simmonds didn't return to the game.

Before the ensuing faceoff, Philadelphia's Zac Rinaldo fought Matt Hendricks. Both players were ejected from the game.

NOTES: The Capitals were 0 for 5 on the power play. The Flyers were 0 for 3. . Former Capitals forward Mike Knuble made his return to Washington. The 40-year-old Knuble, who spent the previous three seasons with Washington, and signed with Philadelphia on Jan. 25.

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What has been the biggest surprise for the Caps in the first half of the season?

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What has been the biggest surprise for the Caps in the first half of the season?

The bye week is a good opportunity to evaluate what happened over the course of the first half of the season and look forward to the rest of the season. Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan answer the biggest questions surrounding the team at the bye.

Today's topic: What has been the biggest surprise for the Caps in the first half of the season?

El-Bashir: While seeing the Caps sit atop the deep and difficult Metro Division is a bit unexpected, my biggest surprise at the bye is Alex Ovechkin’s return to world-class form. For the record, I wasn’t among those—and there were plenty—who were ready to write off No. 8, saying he was poised for a precipitous plunge in production following a disappointing 33 goal performance a year ago. I thought he’d bounce back…a bit, anyway. After all, we had seen him do it a couple of times before. Instead, what we appear to witnessing is a rebirth of sorts. Ovechkin, at 32, leads the NHL with 28 goals and is on pace to hit 50 for the eighth time in his career. (Last season, the top-10 goal getters were all under 30 and Sidney Crosby’s 44 led everyone.) Ovechkin is also on pace for his highest point total—89—since he posted 109 way back in 2009-10. The three-time MVP is also leading the league in shots.

RELATED: WHERE DO THE CAPS SIT IN THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS?

Sure, Ovechkin is playing 1:20 more per game than he did last year. But it’s not all about an extra couple of shifts. Ovechkin put in the work this offseason, and it’s showing. He’s got a gear, a burst we haven’t seen in a couple of years and, as a result, he’s getting to pucks—and creating opportunities—he couldn’t a season ago.

For Ovechkin’s legion of fans, the second half of the regular season figures to be even more fun that the first because of the milestones that are within his reach. At some point, assuming he stays healthy, Ovechkin will hit 500 assists (he’s two away), 600 goals (he’s 14 back) and 1,000 games (he needs 34 more).

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again Caps fans: savor every moment because Ovi’s on top of his game again.

MORE CAPITALS: BRIAN MACLELLAN ISN'T PLAYING COY, HE WANTS TO RE-SIGN JOHN CARLSON

Regan: My biggest surprise is the Caps’ 28-14-3 record. Given the number of players the team lost in the offseason, it was clear they were not the same team that won the Presidents’ Trophy the past two years. But how much of a step back would they take? No one was really sure what to expect. With a six-point lead over the Metropolitan Division 45 games into the season, Washington is surpassing even the most optimistic of expectations.

Not only are the Caps exceeding expectations, they are doing it in the face of obstacles that should be holding them back.

The Caps have not had the same remarkable luck with injuries as they have the past few years. T.J. Oshie, Brett Connolly, Andre Burakovsky and Matt Niskanen have all missed time due to injuries this season. Those are significant losses, especially Niskanen given the team’s thin depth on the blue line. But Alex Ovechkin’s defiance of Father Time, the emergence of Jakub Vrana and key contributions from role players like Tom Wilson and Devante Smith-Pelly have bolstered the team’s offense. Defensively, John Carlson’s career season helped mitigate the loss of Niskanen.

When you consider the players the Caps lost, the injuries the team has dealt with, that they rank dead last in shots per game, that they have two rookies playing on the blue line and their best player is 32 years old, the fact the team not only sits in first place of the tough Metropolitan Division but by a sizable six-point margin is absolutely remarkable.

RELATED: CAPS' IMPROBABLE WIN

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NHL Power Rankings: Riding high into the bye

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NHL Power Rankings: Riding high into the bye

For a Capitals team that has won 14 of its last 19 games, perhaps the bye week did not come at the best time. But, the mandated bye week is here none the less. Now the task for the Caps will be to relax, get healthy and get ready for the second half grind.

All that, plus they need to figure out how to return from the bye.

The benefits of a bye week are obvious. But there are also some less obvious disadvantages.

SEE THIS WEEK’S UPDATED NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE

The bye week does not just mean no games, it means no practices too. The team is not allowed to practice until Wednesday afternoon, the day before they return to action, on the road. When it comes to the finely tuned machine of a professional hockey team, it doesn’t take long for rust to set in.

Last year, the Capitals entered the bye week on a six-game winning streak. They returned with back-to-back games on the road and lost both. They would go on to lose eight of 14 before they finally pulled together. This year, given how the Metropolitan has looked, a stretch like that could end up costing them the division.

The team also needs to be especially cognizant of injuries. Washington comes back from the bye week with three games in four days. To go from no practice or games to three games in four days seems like a dangerous proposition for the players.

But these are things the Caps don’t have to worry about until Thursday. For now, they are riding into the bye week on a high note. Just how high? Find out here in this week’s NHL Power Rankings.