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No nights off: No one has a tougher schedule to finish the season than the Caps

No nights off: No one has a tougher schedule to finish the season than the Caps

Only two points separate the Capitals from the second place New York Islanders for the top of the Metropolitan Division. Only four points separate Washington from third-place Pittsburgh. If Washington hopes to edge out both teams to win the division, however, it is going to have to earn it.

No team in the NHL has a tougher schedule to close out the season than the Caps.

The NHL evaluated the strength of schedule for every team prior to the games being played on Wednesday. Based on the point percentage of their remaining opponents, Washington has, by far, the toughest remaining schedule.

The Caps’ opponent points percentage is a whopping 0.612. The Montreal Canadiens are second at 0.599. That is a significant gap.

Washington has 11 games remaining in the regular season. Three of those games come against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the top team in the NHL. The Lightning have a 19-point lead for both the division and the conference. As the season goes, Tampa will have less and less to play for, but I am not expecting the Lightning to take their foot off the gas against Washington. They have a score to settle.

The Caps eliminated Tampa Bay in the Conference Final last season. Those two teams have not met since. If the Lightning want to send a message to the league that they truly are the team to beat despite their playoff struggles in recent years, beating the defending champs in the rematch would be a good start.

In addition to Tampa Bay, Washington also must play the Carolina Hurricanes, one of the hottest teams in the NHL, twice. And let’s not forget about perhaps the most important game of all. On April 6 in the regular season finale, the Caps will host the Islanders. With both teams battling for first place, that game could determine the winner of the division.

In Washington’s 11 remaining games, five of those games come against teams not currently in playoff position. That’s not so bad, right? It is when you consider Minnesota, Philadelphia and Montreal are three of those teams, and all three are still battling to make the playoffs. Really, the Caps only have two games left against teams that are essentially out of the running in New Jersey and Florida.

Eight wins in nine games only gave the Caps a two-point lead in the division. There is no margin for error for Washington against the toughest schedule in the NHL.

As cliché as it may seem, the playoffs start now for the Caps. The good news is they will be battle tested and ready to go once the playoffs do finally start in April.

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: What is the Caps' biggest need?

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: What is the Caps' biggest need?

It’s time for a new Capitals Mailbag! You can read Wednesday’s Part 1 here.

Check out Part 2 below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? You can submit your questions here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on NBCSportsWashington.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Douglas Forsyth writes: With the deadline quickly arriving, what is the number one thing the Caps will look to get? Maybe figuring out what’s wrong with our power play?

I would put defense as a much bigger priority than the power play. Besides, I don't think you are going to get personnel better for that top unit than it currently has and then you have to shoehorn whatever forward you get into a lineup that seems pretty much set.

No, it's definitely defense.

Brian MacLellan has acquired a defenseman every year since taking over as general manager and given that a right defenseman is the team's biggest need, I would not anticipate that changing this year.

Bill Bridges writes: Are there any pending UFA defensemen out there that Brian MacLellan could swing a deal for with picks and a prospect and maybe some retained salary?

The fact that no one ever seems to think they are out of the playoff race anymore thanks in large part to the three-point system (one point for overtime and shootout losers) complicates this as it limits your options. Who are the actual sellers? Now, considering MacLellan will probably be looking for a diamond in the rough type of player, perhaps teams who feel like they have something to play for would be more open to losing a depth piece, but that remains to be seen.

Take this with a grain of salt as I am not a scout and about 90-percent of the hockey I watch is of the Caps, but a guy like Tim Heed would make sense. He plays for San Jose so it is realistic that they would be open for business, his cap his $960,000 and he does not play a significant role on that team. Maybe the scouts hate him, but he is a righty and when he does play it's not sheltered minutes and he still has managed a Corsi-For percentage above 50.

Like I said, perhaps the scouts don't think much of his game, but that at least is an example of the type of player I think Washington is realistically looking at.

Amelia Byrne writes: What's the deal with the power play and when should we start to panic? The PP has struggled mightily since December - a problem that was evident at the end of last year's season. Now we are seeing too many short-handed goals. With so much talent, how is it possible that they are struggling so much?

When it comes to shorthanded goals, it's mental. Those goals are a result of a frustrated unit pressing too much to break out of the slump. These are just bad mistakes that you would not normally see. Washington has allowed five shorthanded goals this season and all five of them have come since December.

Last year the power play really struggled at breaking the puck into the offensive zone. That has not been the issue this year. Now they just don't seem to know what to do when they get set up.

The problem is that everyone knows what the Caps are trying to do and the power play does not throw enough wrinkles into the plan to catch PKers off guard. The Caps want to get the puck to T.J. Oshie in the slot or Alex Ovechkin in the office. That's it. That's the plan. So what do opponents do? They try to keep the puck from getting to either player. The Caps are far too slow and methodical with the puck with seemingly no sense of urgency and when they can't get the passes they want, there is a lot of stickhandling and slow passes back and forth until time runs out or they force a pass and it ends up going in the opposite direction.

The amount of room teams give Nicklas Backstrom on the power play is criminal and it is because he does not shoot enough. He has to shoot more to force the penalty kill to cover him. The same goes for Evgeny Kuznetsov. When teams have to account for shots from those two shooting, things will open up for Oshie and Ovechkin.

If that does not work, my second solution would be to redistribute talent among the two power-play units and have a second unit that could actually be a threat to score. With all due respect to Brendan Leipsic, if he's the guy Kuznetsov is trying to set up in the Ovechkin spot, it's no wonder why Washington leans as heavily on the top unit as it does.

The Kuznetsov/Vrana switch is grasping at straws. Vrana on the goal line does not take advantage of his shot while Kuznetsov does not have enough snipers to set up on the second unit. It is not a viable solution. If you want to shake things up, maybe move Vrana to Ovechkin's spot on the second unit where he will better be able to shoot, switch Oshie with Wilson to give the second unit another weapon and have Kuznetsov in Backstrom's spot on the half-wall to run the power play. That way you have some scorers on that second unit and you are better utilizing each player's skillset.

Shawn Collins writes: You know what I wanna see a few games of? Flipping the forwards on the third and fourth lines. Send Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik down to the 4th and put Brendan Leipsic and Garnet Hathaway up with Lars Eller. I love Leipsic's pop/energy when he's on the ice and he and Hathaway seem to have a thing. Eller may be a good glue for them. The third line has kinda been a mess all year.

If you want to experiment, now is the time to do it I guess, but I don't know what everyone's rush is to move the fourth line up. You have arguably the best fourth line in hockey. That's an asset. Why then try to force fourth line players into a third-line role? Leipsic and Hathaway may be top-tier fourth line players, but they are definitely fourth line players. 

I also do not want to mix things up for the third line right now, right when it seems to be finding its groove as a shutdown line. No, I'm keeping things the way they are on offense and trying to build as much momentum for that third line as possible.

Dana Ziegler writes: If Braden Holtby does not stay beyond this season and Ilya Samsonov becomes the top goalie, who will earn the backup position? Would they bring Pheonix Copley back up or Vitek Vanecek? Or would they look to bring in someone new?

I would anticipate somebody else. While I do expect Samsonov to be the No. 1 next season and Holtby will be gone, I don't think the plan is just to hand Samsonov the crease and expect him to start 55+ games. Remember, as good as he is and as heralded as he is, he has never been the outright No. 1 in his professional career in the U.S. or Rusia. My guess would be that the team looks to bring in an experienced back up and they go with a tandem next season.

Some possible free agents who could possibly fit that role would be Jaroslav Halak, Jimmy Howard or Thomas Greiss.

Fred W. writes: Could you compare/contrast Martin Fehervary and Alex Alexeyev?

Fehervary and Alexeyev are actually roommates in Hershey. Alexeyev is a little bigger at 6-foo-4,  201 pounds as compared to Fehervary's 6-foot-2, 194 pounds and has more North American experience having played in the WHL. There is nothing about Alexeyev's game that is great, what makes him an intriguing prospect is that he seems to be really good at just about everything. He is a mobile skater, he can play a physical game, win board battles, has some offensive upside and is good at distributing the puck. He seems like an all-around good defenseman. What's more is his maturity is off the charts. I have spoken with him a few times and he does not strike you as a 19-year-old kid.

To me, I look at this player as someone who is greater than the sum of his parts and that's why I think some scouts undervalue him.

Fehervary is also very composed and confident, but does not come with the same quiet swagger that Alexeyev has. He is much more of a defensive player with less of the offensive upside Alexeyev brings. While Alexeyev went the junior hockey route, Fehervary has been playing in the pros for years in Sweden. He is used to playing against bigger bodies and is used to playing a physical game against big men. That's impressive as sometimes when kids go pro young, they rely on skill and shy away from physical play. Fehervary does not. He's used to it. I really like how he closes the gap against forwards quickly. He seems like a very smart, cerebral type of player.

Between the two, I think Alexeyev has the higher upside, but Fehervary's game is further along right now. I see both as a top-four and I think there is at least some slight potential for Alexeyev to be a top-pair player.

Raymond Selke writes: How does a team acquire a surplus of cap space throughout the year?

What you are referring to is commonly known as "banking" space. How does a team bank space and is somehow able to afford players at the deadline that they could not before?

A better way to understand the salary cap is to think of it in terms of being on pace to spend to the cap.

Here is a very basic example to illustrate how it works.

Let's say I give you $100 to last you from Monday to Friday. The league breaks the season down day-by-day so while the overall cap ceiling is $100, the magic number is $20. According to the rules, you can't spend more than $20 per day because that would put you on pace to spend more than $100. But what if you only spent $5 on Monday and Tuesday? You have only spent $10 of your allotted $100 leaving you with $90 left. Now you can spend up to $30 per day for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday because you "banked" space. The overall amount you could spend did not change, but since you didn't spend to the max, the amount you can afford later in the season increases.

The salary cap runs daily throughout the season. The season is divided into 180 days and a player's daily cap hit is their overall cap hit divided by 180. Whatever you don't spend on any given day is money that you will have to use later on.

Shawn Collins writes: Is it a foregone conclusion that Dmitry Orlov will be exposed in the draft?

The expansion draft is not until the summer of 2021. Nothing is a foregone conclusion in sports that far out. You know who I thought could be going to Vegas a year before that expansion draft? Tom Wilson. By the time the actual expansion draft rolled around, that was laughable. That's how much things can change in a year.

John Carlson is pretty much a given to be protected. I assume Jonas Siegenthaler will be as well. That makes it a toss-up between Orlov and Michal Kempny for who will be the third defenseman protected from Seattle.

Nathan S. writes: Are there ping pong tables at Medstar for Caps players to use the way there used to be at Redskins Park?T

The players' area at MedStar is actually closed off to the media so I do not know exactly what they have. Since I know this question is related to the Redskins banning ping pong, the answer is that yes, they have games, for the players to play, I just don't know what.

Marie Keller writes: What's the story about Ovi's yellow shoelaces?

According to Theo Fleury, Ovechkin told him he was the inspiration.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports. Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Capitals and Wizards games easily from your device.

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2020 NHL All-Star Game: Schedule, Time, TV Channel, Live Stream, how to watch

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2020 NHL All-Star Game: Schedule, Time, TV Channel, Live Stream, how to watch

The 2020 NHL All-Star Game takes place on Saturday, Jan. 25, following the three-on-three tournament format that was first used in 2016.

For the second year in a row, Washington captain Alex Ovechkin chose to sit out the game, even though he was elected as Metropolitan division captain by the fans. Ovechkin said he wanted to rest his body for the second half of the season.

Also for the second year in a row, some women's hockey stars will play a key role in the All-Star weekend events. The Elite Women's 3-on-3 game will be played on Jan. 24 during the NHL All-Stars Skills Competition and will feature the American All-Stars and Canadian All-Stars battling it out in a 20-minute three-on-three tournament. 

This year, even with Ovechkin sitting out All-Star weekend, the Capitals will have three representatives on the Metropolitan roster: forward T.J. Oshie, defenseman John Carlson and goalkeeper Braden Holtby. Though Holtby and Carlson made the team initially, Oshie was selected to his first All-Star appearance as part of the NHL's Last Man In Fan Vote.

Here's how to watch the 2020 NHL All-Star Game, plus information on the teams and the schedule of events:

NHL All-Star Game Schedule

NHL All-Star Skills Competition: Friday, Jan. 24, 8 p.m. ET

NHL All-Star Game Tournament: Friday, Jan. 25

Semifinal Game 1: TBD vs. TBD, 8:15 p.m. ET

Semifinal Game 2: TBD vs. TBD, 9:15 p.m. ET

Final Game: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 10:15 p.m. ET

How to Watch the NHL All-Star Game

Where: Enterprise Center, St. Louis, Missouri

What: 65th Annual NHL All-Star Game

When: Saturday, January 25, 2020, at 8 p.m. ET

TV Channel: NBC

Live Stream: Stream live on NBCSports

NHL All-Star Captains

Atlantic Division: F David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins

Metropolitan Division: D Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins

Central Division: F Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche

Pacific Division: F Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

NHL All-Star Rosters

Atlantic Division: roster

Metropolitan Division: roster

Central Division: roster

Pacific Division: roster

NHL All-Star Game History

Record (since 2016): Pacific 2, Metro 2, Atlantic 0, Central 0

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