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NHL Power Rankings: Capitals’ losses are the Metro Divisions’ gain

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USA TODAY Sports

NHL Power Rankings: Capitals’ losses are the Metro Divisions’ gain

When the Capitals got hot earlier in the season, it looked like the Metropolitan Division was already well in hand. Yes, we have only just hit the midpoint of the regular season, but there was a stretch where everyone in the division looked really, really bad and the only true contender was the Caps.

Admittedly, I started looking ahead at possible wild card matchups for the first round. Again, the division was just that bad.

Now, however, the division is red hot. How hot? Consider this: Washington has gone 17-5-1 in their last 23 games and have put virtually no distance between themselves and the top Metro teams, specifically the Pittsburgh Penguins who just rattled off eight straight wins.

As of this writing, the Caps sit two points ahead of Pittsburgh with a game in hand, three points ahead of Columbus and four points ahead of the Islanders who have a game in hand over the Caps.

All it took was one three-game losing streak and all of a sudden Washington’s division lead had completely evaporated.

The point to all of this is that, while there may still be some really bad teams in the Metro (Flyers, Rangers), this race is still far from over.

SEE THIS WEEK’S NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE

Here are a few recent observations and thoughts on the Caps:

  • Let’s talk about the power play. Through 10 games, Washington has one goal on 31 opportunities. That’s a success rate of just over 3-percent. That’s awful. The Caps, however, remain confident in the power play because it typically goes through dry spells and then rebounds. As bad as the power play has been of late, you can already see signs of improvement. The biggest issue for the power play has been their zone entries. On Thursday, the St. Louis Blues stacked the blue line and the Caps made them look like the Iron Curtain. Against Dallas and Detroit, however, they were able to enter the zone more easily and set up the power play, they just didn’t score. Now that things seem to be working again, don’t expect any drastic changes any time soon. The floodgates will open soon enough.
  • Evgeny Kuznetsov has played in 35 games this season. He has only one even strength goal. It’s rare that you can look at a player with 36 points in 35 games and think he needs to step it up, but Kuznetov needs to step it up. He’s capable of more than we’re seeing right now.
  • Ovechkin obviously leads the Caps in goals, but you should note the two players tied for second: Jakub Vrana and Tom Wilson, both of whom have 12 goals and are under the age of 25. Is a Vrana, Kuznetsov, Wilson line the future top line for Washington?
  • What’s my opinion on Ovechkin’s decision not to play in the All-Star Game? I’m probably not the right person to ask because I think All-Star Games in every sport are garbage and should go away. Having said that, I have no problem with his decision not to go. He played more hockey in the past year than ever before and is now 33. That’s not young in hockey years. The goal is to win the Cup and missing the All-Star Game is the difference between a five-day break and a 10-day break. Yeah, that matters. As for this notion that this is when the NHL sells the game, the NHL will gain more fans during the playoffs when the hockey is at its best than for a one-day three-on-three exhibition tournament with no physical play and a bunch of star players going at 75-percent.

The Caps look as good as any team in the NHL right now, but just how good are they according to the rankings? Find out here where they land in this week’s NHL Power Rankings.

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Defense optional as Caps handed 8-5 loss in Chicago

Defense optional as Caps handed 8-5 loss in Chicago

The Chicago Blackhawks handed the Capitals their fifth straight loss on Sunday in an ugly 8-5 defeat. All five of Washington's goals came from defensemen as the team's top forwards continued to struggle.

Here are five reasons the Caps lost.

Missed early opportunities

The game got off to a great start. Tom Wilson fed Jakub Vrana in the middle for a great early opportunity and Lars Eller had another shot with the rebound. Washington also got a power play less than two minutes into the game and was brilliant with the setup, keeping the puck in the zone for the full two minutes and getting a number of high-quality opportunities.

But they didn’t score and that soon loomed very large.

Brandon Saad put Chicago on the board 6:36 into the first and Patrick Kane scored 80 seconds later to make it 2-0, thus erasing the Caps’ strong start.

The goals have been hard to come by for the Caps so when they had the opportunity to take the early lead, they absolutely had to finish. They didn’t and the game got away from them as a result.

A bad play by Madison Bowey

Bowey will be cringing at the replay of the Saad goal for a while. Saad broke the puck out of the defensive zone and carried it into the neutral zone. Bowey had a bead on him until Saad cut to the center. Suddenly Bowey was caught flat footed. He reached for Saad with a weak stick check which Saad easily fought through with no real resistance and he was in on net. He finished the play with the game’s first goal.

 An own-goal

This was really the moment when you realized this was not going to be a good day for Washington.

Down 2-0, Brooks Orpik managed to sneak a softy through goalie Colin Delia to make it 2-1. Just 28 seconds later, however, bad luck struck the Caps yet again.

Dmitry Orlov and Jonathan Toews battled for the puck right in front of the crease and it bounced into he air. Orlov swiped at it with his glove to try to clear it from danger, but instead knocked it right over Holtby and into the net. The own goal made it 3-1 and signaled that Washington was in for a long day.

An ill-advised penalty

This game felt like it quickly was getting out of hand. Somehow, however, the Caps managed to keep things close. Dmitry Orlov snuck another squeaker through Delia in the second and John Carlson fired a one-timer early in the third to make the score 4-3. All of a sudden, the Caps had signs of life. With all the momentum on their side, however, Nicklas Backstrom was whistled for hooking Toews just 23 seconds later.

You could tell what was about to happen.

Sure enough, Kane scored 13 seconds into the power play to restore the Blackhawks’ two-goal lead.

The Toews hat trick

Once again, Washington tried to battle back. Matt Niskanen scored with just over six minutes remaining in the game, the fifth goal from a Caps’ defenseman, to pull the score to 6-5. Toews provided the coffin nail just over a minute later with an absolutely brutal play on Orlov.

Toews entered the offensive zone and Orlov took an awful approach. Toews finessed the puck right in front of Orlov which he should have been able to easily sweep away. Instead, he whiffed completely allowing Toews to regain the puck, step past Orlov and fired it under the pad and into the net.

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Devante Smith-Pelly named a starter in return to Chicago after ugly racial taunts

Devante Smith-Pelly named a starter in return to Chicago after ugly racial taunts

The top line for the Capitals on Sunday against the Chicago Blackhawks is Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, but the starting lineup is Ovechkin, Backstrom and Devante Smith-Pelly. Why the change?

It all has to do with the last time the Caps visited Chicago nearly a year ago.

On Feb. 17, 2018, Washington went into the United Center and were obliterated by the Blackhawks 7-1. But that wasn’t the ugliest thing to happen that night.

While sitting in the penalty box, Devante Smith-Pelly faced racial taunts from some Chicago fans who began chanting “basketball, basketball” at him.

In the wake of the incident, Smith-Pelly handled himself about as gracefully as one could. So, in the team’s return to Chicago Sunday, head coach Todd Reirden felt he should be on the ice for the national anthem.

According to Pierre McGuire during the game broadcast, the idea came from Oshie himself, who advocated that Smith-Pelly start in his place.

The starters traditionally stand on the ice for the anthem while the rest of the players stand at the bench.

Smith-Pelly has remained active against racism in the sport. He and teammate John Carlson invited a youth hockey team whose lone African-American player had faced racial taunts during a game to the Caps’ game on Monday.

Sunday’s move by Reirden is a classy tribute to Smith-Pelly who handled an ugly situation about as well as one could. 

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