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Thumbs up, thumbs down: Defense fails Caps early against the Devils

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Thumbs up, thumbs down: Defense fails Caps early against the Devils

The New Jersey Devils scored all four of their goals in the first period to bury the Caps early. Washington was not able to recover and fell in their home preseason finale 4-1 on Wednesday. Here is who stood out for Washington:

Thumbs up

Tyler Graovac: On a night that featured a lineup as close to the team’s regular lineup as we have seen this preseason, Graovac was still the Caps’ best player on the ice. He played with a lot of energy even when the score was 4-0 for the Devils and managed to get the Caps on the board in the second period with his first goal of the preseason. Graovac is in the thick of the roster competition and added another solid performance to his resume. It will be hard to keep him off the roster at this point.

The fourth line:  Propelled by Graovac's performance, the fourth line was easily the Caps' best on the night. Jay Beagle and  Anthony Peluso played well with Graovac and brought some much-needed energy to a game that looked like it was quickly getting out of hand.

RELATED: OVECHKIN NAILS 30-YARD FIELD GOAL

Thumbs down

The first period: We have seen sloppy play throughout the course of the preseason and that's to be expected. The players are shaking the rust off and the lineup is full of prospects and players who ultimately will not make the roster. Wednesday's game featured an NHL roster and the Caps had their worst start of the preseason. New Jersey took a 4-0 lead in the opening frame drawing the ire of the Capitals faithful.

The defense: How did the Devils score four goals in the first period? Because the Caps defense looked completely out of sync, specifically on the penalty kill. Washington took three penalties in the first and the Devils scored on all three opportunities. Even in five on five play, Washington spent far too much time in its own zone as the Caps just could not clear the puck and break out. Considering the team has been working on the penalty kill in practice and that the defensive pairs have remained consistent since Monday, you would expect some level of chemistry. There was none to start and it was blatantly evident.

MORE CAPITALS: CARLSON IS REALLY TRYING NOT TO THINK ABOUT HIS CONTRACT

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What was the best moment of the Caps' season so far?

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USA TODAY Sports

What was the best moment of the Caps' season so far?

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

Today's topic: What was the best moment of the Caps' season so far?

El-Bashir: Through the Caps' first 45 games, there have been some great goals, scintillating saves and thrilling overtime sessions. But the biggest moment, to me, wasn’t really moment at all. It was the day or so after the Caps cratered in Colorado, 6-2, on Nov. 16, because they came back a totally different team vs. Minnesota on Nov. 18.

Following that blowout loss to the Avalanche, Coach Barry Trotz had a “man-to-man talk with the group” and challenged each individual to look himself in the mirror. When a coach does that, there are typically two ways a season will go—to the top or down the drain. Trotz wasn’t sure which response he’d get, but he didn’t have to wait long for an answer. “The way they came out [against the Wild] told me everything I needed to know,” Trotz said to me and Rob Carlin on the Caps Extra Podcast (11/29).

RELATED: WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST SURPRISE OF THE SEASON SO FAR?

The really good stuff begins around 13:00, and it’s definitely worth a listen if you haven’t heard it:

    

Including that 3-1 win over the Wild, the Caps are 18-5-2 in their last 25 games and have shot straight to the top of the Metropolitan Division standings. Their 38 points are tied with the Golden Knights and Bruins for most in that time frame. 

Meanwhile, Alex Ovechkin has accrued 15 goals and 15 assists in those 25 games. Only four players—John Tavares, Nathan MacKinnon, Claude Giroux and Sidney Crosby—have more points during that time period.

Indeed, every season has a turning point. For the Caps, it happened, collectively, after bottoming out in the thin air of the Mile High city.

Regan: There have been several moments that have stood out from the first 45 games of the season, such as Nathan Walker becoming the first Australian to play in the NHL and scoring in his first game on a night in which Alex Ovechkin also scored four times. Jay Beagle’s buzzer-beater against the Carolina Hurricanes will also stand as one of the best moments of the season when it is all said and done.

But I will go a bit more sentimental with my pick and choose Ovechkin’s hat-trick performance in Toronto for Alex Luey.

That night could not have been any more special. Ovechkin invited Luey, a 13-year-old cancer survivor, to attend the game with his family after he heard his story. Luey and Ovechkin were virtually inseparable for the night as Luey was on the bench for warmups and then was with Ovechkin for all of his postgame interviews.

That alone would have been a touching story, but it got so much better.

MORE CAPITALS: CHECK OUT THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS!

Ovechkin promised Luey he would score for him before the game. He more than delivered with a hat-trick performance in a 4-2 win over Toronto in what was a magical night for both him and the Luey family.

You couldn’t write a story so perfect and if you did everyone would think it too unbelievable. Yet it happened and it was by far the best moment of the season.

We may be only 45 games in, but this one will be hard to top.

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

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USA TODAY Sports

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.

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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.

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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.

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