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The Caps showed flashes of their mentality with shorthanded win in Colorado

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The Caps showed flashes of their mentality with shorthanded win in Colorado

On November 16, 2017, the Washington Capitals were handed a brutal 6-2 loss in Denver at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche. It was the second blowout loss the team had suffered in as many games and dropped the Caps’ record to 10-9-1. That moment would be the low point of the season.

A year to the day, the Caps returned to Denver. They were given every reason to quit Friday and repeat last year’s disastrous result and yet, the Caps rallied for a 3-2 overtime win to improve their record to 9-7-3.

Coming off a loss Wednesday in Winnipeg, Washington found out earlier on Friday that the team would be without both T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov who had both suffered injuries against the Jets. In net, Braden Holtby was out as well meaning the Caps would have to turn to backup goalie Pheonix Copley for his third start in as many games. Backing him up would be Ilya Samsonov, a highly touted prospect but a player without a single minute of NHL experience.

And, just in case that all did not seem daunting enough, the Caps also spotted the Avalanche a 1-0 lead just 68 seconds into the game.

One year ago, the Caps gave up the first goal of that game just 17 seconds in. When Colorado scored early again, it felt like Friday’s game was going to end up being just like that blowout loss from a year ago.

But it didn’t.

“We were shorthanded, everyone stepped up,” Tom Wilson said. “We talked about guys stepping up before the game and we got it done.”

The Capitals battled back and took control of the game in the first and second periods, tallying two goals to take a 2-1 lead. A late goal by Colorado would tie the game, but Todd Reirden reminded his players of what happened in Montreal – a game in which the Caps gave up three goals in the final four minutes of the game to lose 6-4 – and challenged them not to let that happen again. The team responded.

With all the momentum on the side of the Avalanche, Devante Smith-Pelly drew a holding penalty with less than two minutes remaining and Nicklas Backstrom would score on the resulting power play in overtime.

“When you have a lot of guys hurt, it was nice to see that we really got together, played a good defensive game, everyone was on the same page and blocking shots and doing all the little things right,” Backstrom said.

The game was reminiscent of the Game 6 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs last season. With one win separating them from advancing to the conference final, Washington had to somehow find a way to beat their biggest rival in Pittsburgh and they had to do it with no Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky or Tom Wilson. When their backs were against the wall, the Caps responded and managed to defeat the defending Stanley Cup champions 2-1 in overtime.

“It was important for guys to step up in different situations with obviously very key guys out, but we did it in the playoffs,” Smith-Pelly said. “We had key guys out at times. I guess this group is used to guys coming in and out and stepping up.”

The Caps returned most of their Stanley Cup winning roster for the 2018-19 season and fans have been waiting for this year’s team to start playing like last year’s again. A record of 8-7-3 heading into Friday’s game was hardly what people expected from this team early on.

But the win in Colorado was one of the team’s most impressive wins of the season, and perhaps the closest Washington has come since the 7-0 win in the opener to looking like that championship squad. Not because they looked dominant – they didn’t – but because when their backs were against the wall, you saw what this team was really made of mentally. Every time they were challenged in the playoffs – whether it was going down 2-0 to Columbus, playing the unbeatable Penguins, facing elimination against Tampa Bay or facing the red-hot Vegas Golden Knights – the Caps responded.

On Friday, Washington was challenged and again, and the Caps responded.

Last year’s game in Colorado proved to be a turning point. The team was at a cross-roads. They could check out and watch the inevitable coaching and roster shakeup happen, or they could rally to save the season. The Caps made a choice and the rest is history.

Maybe Friday’s game will mean nothing in the greater context of the 82-game season, or maybe this game will again prove to be a turning point. Maybe in the spring we will again circle Nov. 16 and remember it as the game in which the defending champs put the rest of the league on notice that they’re still here, they’re still the champs and they’re not going down without a fight.

“Every time we have injuries, it’s going to happen and it’s going to get other guys to get that opportunity,” Backstrom said. "I thought we played pretty good today, we didn’t give them a whole lot. That was a nice win, we needed that.”

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All signs point to T.J. Oshie returning to Capitals lineup vs. Red Wings, not official yet

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All signs point to T.J. Oshie returning to Capitals lineup vs. Red Wings, not official yet

ARLINGTON, Va. -- As the Washington Capitals took to the ice Monday at MedStar Capitals Iceplex for the first time since returning from a three-game road trip, T.J. Oshie joined them, but he did so wearing a red jersey. The color Oshie was wearing is significant not because of his fashion but because of what it means for his status.

A light blue jersey indicates a player is a non-contact participant in practice. The fact that Oshie was in his regular red means that he was full-go on Monday, and it is a good sign that he could be able to return for Tuesday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings.

Oshie has missed 11 games after suffering a concussion after a takedown by Winnipeg Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey on Nov. 14. It was the fifth concussion of Oshie’s career.

“I feel like each time it gets more and more frustrating,” Oshie said to reporters after practice. “But I stuck with it. Some good workouts and skates with [strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish] and [Brooks Orpik] was here all week, so I had some company. I had a lot of support from the guys behind me asking me, texting me seeing how I'm doing, so those kind of things kind of get you through it. Plus, the holidays, family in town, I spent time with the girls at home and [my] wife. It was a good little break.”

When an injury keeps a player from skating, their typical progression starts goes from off-ice workouts, to on-ice workouts, to being a limited participant in practice, to a full participant and then to returning to the game lineup. Oshie had been skating with Nemish during the team’s road trip and has evidently progressed to the point that he was able to step right into practice on Monday without the need for the non-contact jersey.

Not only was Oshie a full-participant, but head coach Todd Reirden was seemingly not concerned about easing him back in. Oshie skated on the top line alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. He also took part in drills on the team’s first power-play unit.

“He's a special player in all aspects of the game, but certainly in the power play for us in that diamond spot,” Reirden said. “He does a really good job on the entries in terms of controlled entries. When we do have to dump pucks in, he's great on recoveries. His work ethic and instincts to be able to win puck battles, I just think it increases our whole intensity of the way our power play recovers pucks.”

Everything that happened on the ice Monday was a positive sign for Oshie’s recovery, but both he and Reirden said only that he was a “possibility” to play in Tuesday’s game.

“I've been hoping to play for a week,” Oshie said. “I'm hoping to play [Tuesday]. We'll see, see what the training staff says, see what the doctors say, see what the coaches say.”

Reirden added: “The plan was for him to go through practice today, and we'll see how he does later this afternoon and re-evaluate [Tuesday] morning as he continues to get closer to getting cleared to play."

Based on how Oshie progressed directly to full practice and by how much he was utilized during practice, every indication is that Oshie will be back in the lineup Tuesday at Capital One Arena.

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NHL Power Rankings: Capitals remain the class of the division

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NHL Power Rankings: Capitals remain the class of the division

Saturday’s game between the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets was built up as a battle for first place. It didn’t take long for Washington show that they remain the class of the division as the Caps walked away with an emphatic 4-0 win.

The  Metropolitan Division is just plain bad this year. New Jersey and Philadelphia are surprisingly atrocious, Carolina is still a player or two (and a goalie) away from being a playoff team, the Rangers will go only as far as Henrik Lundqvist can carry them, the Islanders have made great strides under Barry Trotz but are nowhere close to contending and this looks like Pittsburgh’s weakest team since the Mike Johnston era.

At this point, the only two teams that look like clear playoff teams are Washington and Columbus and even that may be a stretch depending on how the Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky situation pans out for the Blue Jackets.

There’s still a lot of hockey left to play this season, but the Caps made an early statement on Saturday that they remain the team to beat in the Metro and no one looks anywhere close to challenging them at this point.

SEE THIS WEEK’S NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE

Here are a few observations from the past week:
•    Tom Wilson provided one heck of a spark when he returned from suspension. The way the Caps responded to his injury with two wins on the road is impressive and says a lot about this team’s mental makeup and resiliency, even more so than how they rallied after Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie both came out of the lineup.
•    Is Kuznetsov all the way back? He just does not seem like the same player who dazzled us in the first month of the season. Yes, he has a five-game point streak, but he is not dominating the game the same way. Earlier in the season, his talent was evident every time he stepped onto the ice. Whenever Connor McDavid is on the ice, you notice him. Whenever Nathan MacKinnon is on the ice, you notice him. That was true of Kuznetsov early on, but has not been true since he returned to the lineup.
•    Oshie is skating which means he is making progress, but the team should take a slow approach to his return. After he suffered a concussion last year from a hit by Joe Thornton, he did not play well when he returned for quite a while. The Caps are winning and are in first place, there’s no reason to really rush him back.
•    The power play is starting to become a major concern. The loss of Oshie certainly hurts, but that unit was starting to struggle even before the game in Winnipeg in which he was injured. When watching the Columbus game on Friday, someone asked Alan May what he thought the problem was and he said zone entries. There’s definitely something to that. The power play still looks as deadly as ever when the team sets it up, but it seems like they are having a real tough time just getting to that point. They just cannot get the puck into the offensive zone and keep possession.

Even with Wilson, Oshie and Orpik out, the Caps keep finding ways to win and that his them climbing up the rankings.

FIND OUT WHERE THEY LAND IN THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS.

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