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Brian MacLellan preaches patience for Richard Panik and the third line

Brian MacLellan preaches patience for Richard Panik and the third line

ARLINGTON, Va. -- One of the question marks for the Capitals heading into the 2019-20 season was the third line. With Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky’s departure in the offseason, the team lost a lot of its depth scoring. In their place, general manager Brian MacLellan signed forward Richard Panik as an unrestricted free agent and also re-signed Carl Hagelin.

Now 25 games into the season, the Caps are tied for the most points in the NHL and tied for fourth in goals per game, but that has largely been despite the third line’s lack of production, not because of it. But while the fans are already clamoring for change, general manager Brian MacLellan has not seen enough of that line to draw any conclusions just yet.

The projected third line at the start of the season was Lars Eller at center with Hagelin and Panik on the wings. So far, Eller has five goals and eight assists, but none of those points came from the Hagelin, Eller, Panik trio. Hagelin has five assists and has yet to score this season.

Panik seems to have struggled the most with only one goal to show for his first 15 games with Washington.

“For him, it's been up and down,” MacLellan said. “His performance has been good and it's been not so good. But we've got to give him some time to fit in and to play with his normal linemates for a stretch during the season.”

Still, MacLellan stressed patience on Tuesday, saying the biggest issue for the trio of Hagelin, Eller and Panik is the simple fact that they have not been able to play together all that much yet.

“I don't know that we've had the opportunity to see that line and whether it works or it doesn't work yet,” MacLellan said. “I think we saw Hagelin and Eller last year. It seemed to work for us the last part of the year. I'd like a bigger sample size to see all three of those guys work together.”

According to Natural Stat Trick, Hagelin, Eller and Panik have zero goals when playing together as a line 5-on-5, but have only played together in eight games this season for a grand total of 23:13. That is hardly what you could call a fair sample size to judge any sort of chemistry they may have as a line.

Injuries have limited Panik and Hagelin to just 15 and 17 games respectively, while Eller has enjoyed time on the second line with Evgeny Kuznetsov suspended to start the season and now with Nicklas Backstrom out injured. Panik also played on the fourth line for a stretch after struggling at the start of the season.

Will the third line find the same level of production as it did last season with Connolly being a major offensive weapon, or the year before with Burakovsky, Eller and Connolly? No. That much seems certain. But MacLellan did not assemble this trio with the intent of replicating that level of production.

"I think we changed the identity of our third line,” MacLellan said. “It became more penalty kill focused, more two-way focused than it was last year.”

“Ideally, we'd like to have a line that could kill penalties, that can play against top-six forwards and produce 5-on-5,” he added. “Not to the level that we had last year, because I don't feel we need that much production. We need more two-way game.”

After dealing with several injuries, it appears the Caps are finally trending in the right direction health-wise. Once the team does get back to full strength again, you can bet getting that trio together is going to be a priority so the team can finally, finally start to figure out just what this third line can do.

“We haven't seen that line together much,” MacLellan said. “As we get healthy, I think we'll have a better indication of whether it works or it doesn't work.”

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Capitals vs. Predators: Time, TV Channel, Live Stream, how to watch

Capitals vs. Predators: Time, TV Channel, Live Stream, how to watch

After sitting out the Capitals' 4-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens due to a suspension for skipping the All-Star Game, Alex Ovechkin returns to game action on Wednesday for Washington's home contest against the Predators.

Nashville has dropped three of its last four while the Capitals are riding a four-game winning streak.

Here's everything you need to know before puck drop.

CAPITALS vs. PREDATORS: HOW TO WATCH

What: Washington Capitals vs. Nashville Predators

Where: Capital One Arena, Washington, D.C.

When: Wednesday, January 29, 7:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: The Capitals-Predators game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington. (NBC Sports channel Finder)

Live Stream: You can watch the Capitals-Predators game on NBC Sports Washington live stream page.

Radio: Caps Radio 24/7

CAPITALS-PREDATORS TV SCHEDULE:

6:30 PM: Caps Faceoff Live

7:00 PM: Caps Pregame Live

7:30 PM: Capitals vs. Predators

10:00 PM: Caps Postgame Live

10:30 PM: Caps Overtime Live

CAPITALS-PREDATORS INJURY REPORT:

Capitals: None

Canadiens: Ryan Ellis (upper body/OUT), Colton Sissons (upper body/OUT)

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What makes Alex Ovechkin so hard to stop?

What makes Alex Ovechkin so hard to stop?

With Alex Ovechkin’s one-game suspension over, the NHL now once again faces the seemingly impossible task of trying to find a way to stop the Great 8. Even at 34 years old, Ovechkin remains one of the top goal scorers in the NHL with 34 on the season. He is currently on pace for 56 goals which is almost unfathomable for a player of his age.

Many players in the NHL catch fire before defenses begin to figure them out or until Father Time catches up to them. Coaches and defenses figure out ways to keep star players in check. But not Ovechkin.

“You feel like you're covering him, but he always finds a way,” Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi said. “He needs just a tiny bit of room to score goals and that's why he has so many goals.”

Not only is Ovechkin the leading active scorer in the NHL by a wide margin -- he leads second place Patrick Marleau by 133 goals -- but he is such a prolific scorer that he could potentially make a run at the untouchable goal record held by Wayne Gretzky.

It is not as if Ovechkin is catching anyone by surprise at this point. Teams know what they are in for when they play the Caps and still they cannot find a way to slow down this grey-haired, 34-year-old veteran player.

It is not hard to figure out the biggest reason for Ovechkin's success: his shot. Once Ovechkin gets his shot off, it is hard for a goalie to get in front of it.

“He's not afraid to put anything on net,” Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck said. “He's got a really good release and if you give him space, he'll take it and he'll make you pay for it.”

“It kind of curves, changing direction every time so it's pretty hard to stop for a goalie,” Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy said. “Like knuckleball, right? So it's very hard to stop.”

Knowing that his shot is so lethal, the focus of a defense must be to prevent him from getting his shot away in the first place. Doing that, however, is easier said than done.

“It's always a challenge playing against him,” Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. “He's got that mean streak to his game. When he's coming at full speed it's going to hurt. He gets physical, he gets into the game more. He's always going to get scoring changes, that's how good they are as a team and that's how good he is.”

“He just can score from anywhere inside the blue line so you've got to get up on him,” Calgary Flames defenseman Mark Giordano said. “ It's been pretty impressive to watch him over the years. You sort of think teams would come up with a gameplan to stop him, but you can't.”

That’s a feeling Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy can relate to.

“[The power play] is where I think you have the biggest challenge with that group of five guys and how to frustrate him, maybe to taking that shot away,” Cassidy said. “Five-on-five, we'll play him like anybody else, try to get a body on him as much as possible.”

It is essentially accepted around the league that if you give Ovechkin an opportunity with the puck, he is going to be able to find a way to get his shot off and get on the scoresheet. He does not need much room to shoot and when he does, it's lethal.

There is only so much you can do when a power forward of Ovechkin's size comes barreling down on you. If you play him too tight, he can create space with his physicality. Play him too loose and he will fire shots from anywhere.

That leaves a defense with only a few strategies.

“Try to keep the puck out of his hand is one thing, stay out of the box is another thing,” Hedman said. “He's got that quick release, he's got that one-timer down to a T obviously. … It's just trying to eliminate them to a few a game. You look at a game sheet and he's got 14 shot attempts and two goals. A good player's going to find the net if they get that many chances, so try to eliminate the shot attempts and try to keep the puck out of his hands.”

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