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Who is the Caps' MVP at the bye week?

Who is the Caps' MVP at the bye week?

There's no hockey this week for Washington as the Caps are on their bye week. That gives us time to take a look at the team and evaluate how they look at this point in the season. Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent J.J. Regan offer their bye week grades for each aspect of the team. Today, they give their picks for MVP.

El-Bashir’s MVP: G.M. Brian MacLellan

There are several qualified candidates from which to choose. There’s Nicklas Backstrom, who’s fourth in the NHL in points. There’s Braden Holtby, who’s in the Vezina Trophy conversation again. And there’s T.J. Oshie, who carried the Caps’ offense early on.

But my pick for MVP is Brian MacLellan, who recognized his team’s biggest weakness after last year’s playoff ouster and did something about it. He traded for third line center Lars Eller and signed Boston Bruins castoff Brett Connolly to a one-year contract in the span of a few days last summer. 

The Caps hoped Eller and Connolly could provide a jolt to a bottom-six forward group was that was badly outplayed in the second round loss to the Penguins. Now, as the regular season enters its stretch run, that hope has turned into reality. 

Eller has anchored the third line, produced 10 goals and, prior to the bye, was deployed on the power play as a replacement for an injured Andre Burakovsky. Connolly, meanwhile, is up to 12 goals despite missing 14 games as a healthy scratch. Both Eller and Connolly struggled initially to fit in, but they now looked like fully integrated pieces on the NHL’s best team.

If the Caps go on to claim the franchise’s first Cup, Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin and Holtby will, no doubt, be the headliners. But the team’s supporting cast, led by Eller and Connolly, is going to play a big role, too. 

And that supporting cast wouldn’t have been in place without MacLellan’s decisiveness during the offseason.

RELATED: Burakovsky skates in cast before practice

Regan's MVP: Nicklas Backstrom

Alex Ovechkin is the Caps' best player, but a reasonable argument could be made to say that Backstrom is actually the team's most important player. That has certainly been true this season.

Backstrom leads the Caps in points with 61. That's nine more points than the second-place Alex Ovechkin. He is also fourth in the NHL, trailing Connor McDavid by only six points.

But it's not just about stats. What sets Backstrom apart is his consistency.

Ovechkin went seven straights games without a goal from the end of November to the start of December, Evgeny Kuznetsov was sleep walking unitl January, T.J. Oshie was the MVP before he suffered an injury against Detroit in November, Marcus Johansson could not stop scoring in the team's Western Canada road trip but went through a lengthy dry spell afterward.

All the while, Backstrom was there, quietly producing just like he always does. The longest the veteran center has gone without a point this season is three games. That's it.

And even when he's not scoring, Backstrom remains incredibly important because of how he can limit the other team's offense. As great as he is offensively, he may be just as good defensively. That's a rare combination.

Seriously, Backstrom may be the most underappreciated player in the NHL, but not by me. He's the team MVP and in my mind, it's not close.

MORE CAPITALS: Sanford, Vrana rejoin the Caps

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In a game that was all about offense, it was a penalty kill the sealed the win for the Caps

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In a game that was all about offense, it was a penalty kill the sealed the win for the Caps

The big story out of Wednesday's win was the return of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom as linemates. The new lines sparked the Caps' offense as they jumped out to a 4-0 lead over the Ottawa Senators. But despite the offensive burst, it was a key penalty kill in the second period that won the game.

Midway through the second period, Ottawa forward Ryan Dzingel finally stopped the bleeding with a goal to make it 4-1. At that point, the game was still seemingly well in hand. Washington had dominated to that point and there was no reason to think the Senators would come back. Even when Dzingel scored the goal, it did not feel like momentum was shifting back in the Senators' favor.

That all changed 30 seconds later.

Alex Ovechkin was called for high-sticking and when play was stopped, Nicklas Backstrom tussled with Ben Harpur and both players were sent to the box leading to a 4-on-3 for Ottawa. Just 44 seconds in, Tom Wilson was called for a slash giving the Senators 1:16 of a two-man advantage to work with. Just one goal would have made it a game. The deficit would have been cut to 2 with over a period remaining.

A game that had seemed all but over suddenly seemed to be somewhat in doubt. Yes, Ottawa still had a steep hill to climb, but a power play goal would have made a comeback seem possible.

But then, the Caps' much-maligned penalty kill unit stepped up and killed off both penalties to keep the lead at 4-1.

How important was that kill?

"When we're on 5-on-3 that was huge," Barry Trotz said after the game. "They didn't score there, I knew we were going to win. I didn't know just by how much, but I knew we were going to win."

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Why now? Barry Trotz explains his decision to reunite Ovechkin and Backstrom

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Why now? Barry Trotz explains his decision to reunite Ovechkin and Backstrom

Barry Trotz did seemingly everything he could to avoid it, but secretly he was thinking just as much about reuniting Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom as you were. He surprised everyone on Wednesday by putting the two back together on the top line and the move had instant results as the Capitals battled to a 5-2 win over the Ottawa Senators.

A 4-1 loss to the Calgary Flames on Monday highlighted the team’s top-six struggles at even strength. Ovechkin, Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov all were struggling to produce at the level the Caps need in order to be successful.

You can talk about wanting to avoid making the team too top-heavy all we want, but in the end, being top-heavy is better than not producing at all.

RELATED: LISTEN TO THE LATEST EPISODE OF THE CAPS EXTRA PODCAST!

So with the team’s top players still struggling, the talk after the Calgary game all focused on whether Trotz would consider putting Ovechkin and Backstrom back together, a combination that has been incredibly successful for the Caps in the past.

Trotz, however, seemed hesitant to make the move.

The lines remained unchanged at practice. When asked why not reunite Ovechkin and Backstrom, he told reporters after Tuesday’s practice that he didn’t feel like it. He told the Sports Junkies on Wednesday that Ovechkin can be difficult to play with and that it was hard to find matches for him.

And yet, when the players took to the ice for warmups on Wednesday prior to the game against Ottawa, Ovechkin and Backstrom were together again.

“I've been thinking about it for a while,” Trotz said.

It is obvious why Trotz would put Ovechkin and Backstrom back together. Their chemistry was evident in Wednesday’s game. But Trotz has avoided making that move up to now through the first quarter of the season.

“[Ovechkin] demands such presence,” Trotz said. “He's the greatest goal-scorer in his generation, I've said that many times, and you need a very intelligent player and you have to get used to playing with him because when he gets into those areas … he can score in those tight windows which any other players can't. It's as much getting used to playing with someone else and all that.”

MORE CAPITALS: 4 REASONS WHY THE CAPS BEAT THE SENATORS

“By playing [Evgeny Kuznetsov] for such a long time with [Ovechkin] too,” Trotz added, “It opens up some windows so that we have those options.”

Basically, Trotz’s reasoning is that players need to adjust and learn how to play with Ovechkin. He always knew he could go back to Ovechkin-Backstrom, but it is much harder to start with Ovechkin-Backstrom and split them up out of necessity.

As Trotz would later put it on Wednesday, “If you love something you set it free, if it comes back it was meant to be.”

Clearly, it was meant to be as there’s just no denying that when Ovechkin and Backstrom are together, their play ascends to another level.