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Friday Six-Pack: Addressing Holtby's stamina, slow starts, Cup winner

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Friday Six-Pack: Addressing Holtby's stamina, slow starts, Cup winner

Welcome to our Friday six-pack, where we pick your six best questions on the Capitals and answer them every week. Let’s get started:

what are the defense pairings going to look like in the playoffs? More of a tough look with Weber? If so, who sits for him? - @rockred8

This is something @JillCSN and I have discussed at length since the Caps acquired Mike Weber from the Buffalo Sabres for a third-round pick in 2017 just before the NHL trade deadline. Since arriving in D.C. following the birth of his second child, Weber has played in five of the Caps’ six games, averaging just under 14 minutes a game. He’s been even on the plus-minus ledger in those games and received a strong vote of confidence from Barry Trotz after the game in Anaheim, saying his physical play around the net was “the reason we got him.” In those five games Weber has played, Taylor Chorney has sat out two games as a healthy scratch and Nate Schmidt has sat out three games (two with a lower body injury and one as a healthy scratch). Judging from the Caps’ recent lineups and assuming John Carlson is healthy for the start of the playoffs, the guess here is that we’d see defense pairings that look like this:

Karl Alzner - Matt Niskanen

Brooks Orpik – John Carlson

Mike Weber – Dmitry Orlov

That would leave Schmidt and Chorney as pretty good alternates as healthy scratches. The bottom pairing could change depending upon opponents. If the Caps face the Red Wings or Penguins, for instance, Barry Trotz and Todd Reirden might opt for Schmidt’s speed over Weber’s size. If the opponent is Philadelphia, Weber likely would be in the lineup.

Is there any injury or overuse concern with Braden Holtby? He hasn't been the same since the All Star break. - @JonSimkins13

To your point, Holtby has started 16 games since playing in the NHL All-Star Game and has allowed three or more goals eight times. That, to me, is the best indicator of how a goalie is playing and that’s below average for Holtby’s standards. However, in those 16 starts he’s gone 11-3-1 with one no-decision. Not bad. As for injury or overuse, I have no concerns, mostly because the Caps’ coaching staff has no concerns. By my estimation, Holtby should finish the season with no more than 67 starts, which is five fewer than he had last season. At the rate the Caps have been winning, those 12 games should give Holtby, who has 41 wins, an ample opportunity to break Marty Brodeur’s record of 48 victories without wearing him down. (He’d need to win eight of those 12 to get the record and nine of 12 to get to 50 wins).Mitch Korn has told me that breaking Brodeur’s record would be a nice achievement for Holtby, but neither he nor his goaltender are considering it anything more than a bonus in what should be a Vezina Trophy season.

is giving up the first goal a trend the Caps are going to be able to overcome sooner than later? -@coreysad8

If they want to go deep in the playoffs it better be sooner. When you have the best record in the NHL and no other team is within 15 points of you, you’re going to get opponents’ best efforts, especially early in hockey games. The Caps just don’t look like they’re invested in games until the start of the second period and the numbers support that. The Caps have been outscored 53-48 in first periods this season (minus-5). But in the second and third periods they have outscored opponents by a 160-97 count (plus-63). That shows me two things. The Caps are allowing teams to dictate the pace in the opening period before digging in and taking control in the final 40 minutes. @MayHockeyCSN says the Caps’ first-period struggles have become alarming. I’m not as concerned because I know that in Game 1 of the playoffs, the Verizon Center will be rocking and the Capitals should not be lacking in motivation, concentration or energy level.  

do you think Ovi will reach 50 goals this season? - @letsgocaps819

Yes, and I know that’s a tall order. He’s got 41 with 15 games remaining but if anyone can do it, it’s Ovechkin. He’s been in a scoring funk lately, netting one goal in his last six games. That has something to do with the Caps’ power play, which went 0-for-7 against the Bruins and Ducks before getting a power-play goal from T.J. Oshie in Los Angeles. Oshie has scored three of the Caps’ last four power-play goals, which means teams are overloading on Ovechkin’s side of the ice, leaving Oshie space in the slot. Ovechkin leads the NHL with 333 shots and is on pace for 410.That would mark Ovechkin’s most shots since recording 528 in 2008-09 when he finished with 56 goals and 54 assists for 110 points. Right now, Ovechkin is on pace for 50 goals and 25 assists.

with about 15 games left how confident are you that the caps beat the previous Presidents trophy team?-  @rtomoff16

I’m assuming you mean the 2009-10 Capitals and not the 2014-15 Rangers. Let’s start with the 2009-10 Caps, who finished with 121 points before losing to Jaro Halak and the Canadiens in Round 1. Through 67 games the Caps have 103 points, putting them on a pace for 126 points, five more than those 2009-10 Caps. If I put this Capitals team head-to-head against that Caps team, this one would win because of its team defense. These Caps rank tied for first in the NHL in goals per game (3.18) and third in goals against per game (2.30). The 2009-10 Caps scored more goals (league-leading 3.82) than the 2015-16 Caps, but they ranked 16th in the NHL in goals against (2.77). If it is true that defense wins championships I would take the Caps’ current blue line of Karl Alzner, Matt Niskanen, John Carlson, Brooks Orpik, Dmitry Orlov, Mike Weber, Nate Schmidt and Taylor Chorney over the 2009-10 blue line of Carlson, Alzner, Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, Tom Poti, Joe Corvo, Shaone Morrisonn and Tyler Sloan. I’ve seen it before so I’ll say it again: In the playoffs you’re only as good as your seventh or eighth defenseman and the Caps have enough depth on the blue line to beat that 2009-10 team. As for the 2015-16 Rangers, they finished with 113 points last season and needed to rally from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Caps in seven games in Round 2 last season. These Caps would beat those Rangers in a seven-game series.

Chuck, I'm asking your prediction about the Caps in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, how long you see the run? - @GianLuT67

Don’t make any travel plans until after June 18. That’s the last possible date for the 2016 Stanley Cup Final and yes, my prediction on this 11th day of March, 2016 is that the CAPITALS WILL WIN THE STANLEY CUP. This is my 28th season covering the NHL on a daily basis and top to bottom this is the best team I’ve ever covered. Disclaimer: Teams I’ve covered have only made it to the Stanley Cup Finals twice (1997, 2010) and lost both times. This is not to suggest it will be a cakewalk to the Stanley Cup Final. There is no such thing in the playoffs. If the Caps get goaltender Petr Mrazek and the Detroit Red Wings in Round 1, it will be an uphill climb. I personally think the Caps match up better against the Penguins or Flyers and who wouldn’t want to see either of those two series? And let’s not forget those New York Islanders, who could fall back to a wild-card spot now that they’re relying on Thomas Greiss to fill in for Jaro Halak, who is out six weeks with a lower body injury. If the Caps can get through Round 1, Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers could await them in Round 2 and the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers or Boston Bruins could be next in the Eastern Conference Finals. Out West, we’ve already seen the entertainment value of a potential Stanley Cup Final between the Caps and Kings, Ducks, Stars or Blackhawks. Injuries and hot goaltending can change everything, but if you’re asking me right now, the Caps are the best team in hockey and they are my pick to win it all and bring Washington its first Stanley Cup.    

RELATED:Prospect Report: Siegenthaler Hershey bound?

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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

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 after the opening frame. 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 Toews 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. A bad pass from Orpik was intercepted by Toews that led to a 2-on-0 with Kane. Holtby made the initial save on Toews, but Kane was able to knock in the rebound for the goal.

Kane 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.