Capitals

Rockets return home after rugged road swing

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Rockets return home after rugged road swing

HOUSTON (AP) It's been an ugly new year so far for the Houston Rockets.

They snapped a seven-game losing streak with an ugly win in Charlotte on Monday and were finally back on their own practice floor Tuesday after playing nine of their first 12 games of 2013 on the road.

Where to begin?

The Rockets averaged 115.8 points during a five-game winning streak from Dec. 31-Jan. 8. They've averaged only 94.1 points in the eight games since, and lead the league in turnovers (16.5 per game) heading into Wednesday's game against Denver.

Coach Kevin McHale doesn't see the offense as the Rockets' most glaring issue at the moment. Houston also ranks last in points allowed (103.23 points per game), and fixing the defense is McHale's most immediate priority.

``That's been a concern,'' McHale said. ``The offense is going to come and go, we've missed a lot of shots during this stretch and we've had a lot of turnovers. But we've got to tighten up defensively.''

Following Houston's 117-109 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers last week, forward Chandler Parsons bluntly evaluated the Rockets' defense. The Clippers shot 54 percent from the field and went 11-of-19 from 3-point range.

``There's no excuse for guys just getting blown by or getting just dominated,'' Parsons said. ``Man up, play better.''

Houston then dropped games at Dallas, Indiana and Minnesota, a skid that culminated in a players-only meeting over the weekend. The Rockets won in Charlotte by outscoring the Bobcats 26-13 in the final quarter - a glimpse of the kind of defense they need to play.

``When we don't get stops, it doesn't allow us to get out on transition, where we're best,'' Parsons said. ``It should start on the defensive end, all of us, individually and collectively. Focus in on that.''

McHale said Houston's defensive improvement has to start down low. Center Omer Asik is having a solid first season in Houston, averaging 10.3 points and 11 rebound per game. But he's averaging only 1.1 blocks per game, and the Rockets lack any shot-blocking presence to scare off opponents.

``You've got to start off by protecting the paint,'' McHale said. ``The best way to protect the paint is having two 7-foot-2 guys who can block shots all over the place. That's hard to find, so the next best way is to find bodies. We've got to put bodies in the paint and we've got to keep people out, we've got to take away layups and we've got to get defensive rebounds.''

That leads to easy baskets, but those seem harder to come by lately, too.

James Harden was the last Rocket on the floor Tuesday, pouring in one 3-pointer after another. He's played like the star the Rockets were hoping he would be when they nabbed him from Oklahoma City in a stunning trade in late October.

Harden ranks fifth in scoring (25.9 points per game) and has been Houston's high scorer in 22 of 23 games. But with overall scoring down and turnovers up, the most obvious player to scrutinize is point guard Jeremy Lin, who was benched and replaced by newcomer Patrick Beverley in the fourth quarter on Monday.

Lin didn't speak to the media on Tuesday. He's had a hot-and-cold first season with the Rockets after he skyrocketed to worldwide fame in New York about this time last year. He's had his moments - 38 points in a loss to San Antonio, 22 points and nine assists in a win over the Knicks in his return to Madison Square Garden - but he's also struggled in stretches, especially with his outside shot.

McHale is quick to point out that Lin is still only 24 and has only 68 starts in his NBA career.

``Jeremy's OK,'' McHale said. ``Jeremy is a young guy who's been up and down before. When you're a young fella, you have some ups and downs and that will be the case with a lot of guys. No big deal, he's going to be fine.''

The Rockets have 12 games remaining before the NBA's All-Star Weekend comes to town. They seemed upbeat after Tuesday's practice, but Harden acknowledged that the young team's confidence was damaged by the recent slide.

Different from his days in Oklahoma City, Harden feels like everyone is looking to him for leadership.

``We've got to bring each other in,'' Harden said. ``We went through a tough stretch, so everybody kind of put their heads down a little bit. Being that this is a new role for me, I've got to do a better job of leading these guys and telling them that this is a game, everybody goes through these stretches. We've got to figure a way to get out of it.''

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No Kuznetsov, no Oshie and no Holtby for the Caps in Colorado

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No Kuznetsov, no Oshie and no Holtby for the Caps in Colorado

The Capitals are going to be a bit shorthanded when they take on the Colorado Avalanche on Friday in Denver (9 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Washington Plus). Friday’s game will be exactly one year to the date since the Caps last played in Colorado, a 6-2 loss just two days after a 6-3 loss in Nashville. Those two games were the low point of the entire 2017-18 season forcing the Caps to rally in their return home.

Here are three things to watch as the Caps hope for a better result this year in Denver:

Injury adjustments

Prior to Friday’s morning skate, the team announced that Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and Braden Holtby will all be out due to upper-body injuries. Holtby suffered an injury the morning of Wednesday’s game in Winnipeg while both Kuznetsov and Oshie were injured off of questionable hits from the Jets during the game.

There is at least some good news as defenseman Michal Kempny, who missed Wednesday’s game due to illness, is back in.

With all the injuries and the players coming and going, here’s a look at what the lines looked like at morning skate, per Isabelle Khurshudyan:

Alex Ovechkin – Lars Eller – Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana – Nicklas Backstrom – Andre Burakovsky
Chandler Stephenson – Travis Boyd – Brett Connolly
Dmitrij Jaskin – Nic Dowd – Devante Smith-Pelly

Michal Kempny – Matt Niskanen
Dmitry Orlov – John Carlson
Christian Djoos – Madison Bowey

Obviously a very different look offensively than what we have seen to this point.

Injuries are never good, but the silver lining is seeing who steps up when they are presented with an opportunity. Burakovsky is someone who desperately needs to break out and he is playing on a second line with a lot of skill. Boyd moving up to the third line is a player to watch as well.

Ilya Samsonov will be the backup goalie

With Holtby out, Pheonix Copley will make his third consecutive start. But the Caps won’t be using an emergency backup this time as the team has recalled star prospect Samsonov from the Hershey Bears and he was on the ice Friday morning in Denver. In a corresponding move, Jonas Siegenthaler was reassigned to Hershey, but that may be just a paper move and he will most likely stay with the team for the remainder of the road trip.

In eight appearances in Hershey this season, Samsonov has registered a 3.73 GAA and .875 save percentage. Those are not great numbers by any means, but both he and the team have improved drastically since the start of the season.

It is, of course, unlikely that Samsonov will play, but there is at least a chance of Samsonov getting into his first NHL game.

Philipp Grubauer will start for the Avalanche

Ironically enough, Colorado will have two goalies with more Capitals experience than the Caps will on Friday with Grubauer and Semyon Varlamov.

On Friday, it will be Grubauer who gets the nod against his former team and the team in which he helped win a Stanley Cup last season.

“Looking down, yeah it’s going to be weird seeing guys on the other end, but then once the puck drops it’s all about business,” Grubauer told reporters on Friday.

Grubauer has had a rough start with his new team, posting a 3.55 GAA and .893 save percentage, but despite that he also has managed a 3-1-1 record. That's a stark contrast to his start last year in which he posted incredible numbers but struggled to get into the win column early in the season.

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Trent Williams was definitely not playing Sunday against Houston, but now he might

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Trent Williams was definitely not playing Sunday against Houston, but now he might

On Wednesday, Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said that six-time Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams would not play on Sunday against the Texans. 

"That's for sure," the coach said. 

By Friday, the tune had changed. Drastically. 

Gruden said that Williams' status on Sunday will come down to the medical staff. The coach added that Williams has to be comfortable in whatever cast will support his dislocated thumb.

As for Williams, he would not say for sure that he's going to play. But after talking with him for a few minutes in the Redskins locker room, it seems like the medical staff will be hard pressed to keep him off the field. 

Williams missed the Redskins last two games after injuring his thumb in a victory over the Giants. Without him, the Redskins offensive line performed admirably, but both tackles Morgan Moses and Ty Nsekhe are fighting through a number of injuries. 

The thumb injury required surgery, which happened about two weeks ago and came with a rough four-week timetable for recovery. Williams is attempting to cut that in half. 

Asked about Williams possibly playing Sunday, Redskins running back Adrian Peterson said he wants his friend and teammate to be smart about his future. Peterson said "there's a lot of football left" but the running back also added that there were situations watching Texans film this week where "it'd be real nice to have Trent out there."

Williams himself said that it must be tough for Peterson, as the two are close friends. Obviously, the running back wants the star tackle out on the field, but he also cares about his long-term future. 

Notes: Redskins K Dustin Hopkins landed on the injury report earlier with a groin injury in the week and the team brought in other kickers for tryouts on Tuesday. On Friday, Hopkins said he was pain-free and planned to "give it a go" Sunday against Houston. 

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