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AAA Keys to the Game: Capitals vs. Panthers

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AAA Keys to the Game: Capitals vs. Panthers

The Capitals (35-8-4, 74 points) and Florida Panthers (29-15-5, 63 points) return from their NHL All-Star breaks tonight at Verizon Center (7:30 p.m., NBCSN). Here are our AAA Keys to the Game:

Backup vs. backup: For the third time this season Caps goalie Philipp Grubauer (5-3-1, 2.12 GAA, .925 SP) will face Al Montoya (7-2-1, 1.92, .929). The two teams split their first two meetings, with the Caps prevailing 2-1 on an overtime goal by Evgeny Kuznetsov on Oct. 31 and the Panthers winning 4-1 on Dec. 10. Both games were in Florida. Since this is the final meeting, the teams’ No. 1 goalies, Braden Holtby and Roberto Luongo, won’t face each other (outside of an All-Star Game) until the playoffs.

Power play shuffle: With Alex Ovechkin (suspension for missing All-Star Game) and Marcus Johansson (upper body injury) out of the lineup, look for the Caps’ top power play unit to have T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Justin Williams and Matt Niskanen. The second unit will be Jason Chimera, Stan Galiev, Andre Burakovsky, Tom Wilson and John Carlson).

Lots of games: Including tonight, the Caps will play 35 games in 71 days to close out the regular season. With that kind of workload, Caps coach Barry Trotz said he expects Grubauer to see 25 percent of those starts, which equates to eight or nine. That means Braden Holtby is slated to play in roughly 27 of the final 35 games. 

Future Hall of Famer? Trotz is usually reserved when it comes to making grand comparisons, but when he was asked about whom he might liken 19-year-old Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad to he brought up three Hall of Famers.

“I look at Ekblad and where he is at his age and, maybe they’re different in style, but you start throwing out names like (Chris) Pronger, (Al) MacInnis and (Nicklas) Lidstrom type of guys. If everything goes well and he keeps improving and growing as a player, I see definitely a Hall of Fame type of defenseman. It's hard to believe he's only that age. As a defenseman, you don't get into the Hall unless you're (exceptional) all around.”

How old is he? When Grubauer, 24, was asked what it’s like facing 43-year-old Panthers right wing Jaromir Jagr, he quipped. “That guy is amazing. I wasn’t even born when he started playing (in the NHL).” 

Here are tonight’s projected lineups: 

CAPITALS
Forward lines

Stan Galiev - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Andre Burakovsky - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Justin Williams
Jason Chimera - Mike Richards - Tom Wilson
Brooks Laich - Zach Sill - Michael Latta
Defense pairings
Matt Niskanen - Karl Alzner
Nate Schmidt - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov- Taylor Chorney
Goaltenders
Philipp Grubauer (starter) - Braden Holtby
Injured: Brooks Orpik (lower body), Jay Beagle (upper body), Marcus Johansson (upper body)
Scratched: none
Suspended: Alex Ovechkin 

PANTHERS
Forward lines

Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Jaromir Jagr
Jussi Jokinen - Vincent Trocheck - Reilly Smith
Quinton Howden - Nick Bjugstad - Logan Shaw
Corban Knight - Derek MacKenzie - Shawn Thornton
Defense pairings

Brian Campbell - Erik Gudbranson
Dmitry Kulikov - Aaron Ekblad
Steven Kampfer - Alex Petrovic
Goaltenders
Al Montoya (starter) - Roberto Luongo
Injured: Willie Mitchell (lower body), Dave Bolland (lower body)
Scratched: Brandon Pirri

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Can Tom Wilson change the way he plays?

Can Tom Wilson change the way he plays?

On Thursday in New York, Tom Wilson will present his case to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and argue why he does not deserve the 20-game suspension handed down to him by the Department of Player Safety. Regardless of whether or not Bettman decides to reduce the suspension, there’s a larger question that now hangs over Wilson and one that will determine the direction his career goes from here.

Can Wilson change his game?

There is no question whether the hit he delivered to St. Louis Blue forward Oskar Sundqvist which earned him the suspension was illegal. The DoPS’s explanation video lays out why it was a bad hit. This is also Wilson’s fourth suspension in just 105 games meaning the next suspension will be even more severe.

When you have to think about suspensions of more than 20 games, those are serious. They have serious consequences for both the team and the player.

Like it or not, Wilson will have to change the way he plays. But can he?

Can a player who has played a certain way his entire career, a player who made it to the NHL playing the way he does, simply change his game?

“Every player can add different elements to their game,” Reirden said Tuesday when asked about Wilson. “I think it's a line that needs to be towed with him in regard to he has a physical element that is a difference maker for him and using him at the proper times and in the proper ways.”

The team is not going to ask him to not be physical and, despite what Caps fans may think, neither will the league. The point is he needs to be smarter about when he is physical and make sure to keep his hits legal. That means playing smarter.

The hit to Sundqvist was unnecessary. Wilson could have played the stick instead of going for the hit. The fact that it also came in the preseason is significant as well. At that point, he should not even be thinking about delivering a big hit to anyone because it is a meaningless game.

Against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs last season, Wilson is headed to the bench for a line change, but turns to deliver a hit to Zach Aston-Reese. That hit ended up breaking Aston-Reese’s jaw and resulted in a three-game suspension for Wilson. He could have simply gone to the bench and the entire situation could have been avoided.

Wilson absolutely can be a successful player if he plays smarter. He is not on the top line because of his hitting, he is there because he is a good skater with offensive skill who can win board battles with his physical play. The hits are just one aspect of his game, but he is a much more dynamic player than his detractors give him credit for.

But there’s no denying part of what makes him successful is being a good hitter. Reirden knows that and doesn’t want that aspect to be taken out of Wilson’s game completely.

“To expect him to go out there and not finish anymore checks is not going to be very effective either,” Reirden said. “We're working towards a good product for him so he can continue to be back in our team. He's such an important piece to what we do here. We want to have him back as quick as we can and then we want to keep him in the lineup so we'll be discussing that further after things are done.”


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Caps’ dominant power play comes through yet again in win over Rangers

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Caps’ dominant power play comes through yet again in win over Rangers

It seems so simple. The Capitals have one of the best goal-scorers of all-time in Alex Ovechkin and on the power play, he’s almost always in the same spot. He sets up in the “office,” the faceoff circle on the left side of the ice, and waits for one-timers. Everyone knows the Caps are trying to get him the puck, everyone knows the shot is coming.

But nobody can stop it.

“It’s still pretty unique,” Matt Niskanen said after the 4-3 overtime win. “Basic logic tells you it’d be easy to stop, but it’s not.”

Even Ovechkin has no explanation. “It’s all about luck,” he said.

New York Rangers head coach David Quinn had another word for it.

“Sickening.”

Quinn’s Rangers were the latest victims of a power play that has been among the league’s best units for several years. Since 2005, no team in the NHL has a better power play percentage than the Capitals’ 20.8-percent. They once again look lethal this season with the unit currently clicking at an incredible 39.1-percent.

Ovechkin tallied two power play goals Wednesday, both from the office, to help power the Caps to a 4-3 win over New York. Both of Ovechkin’s goals looked pretty similar with John Carlson on the point feeding Ovechkin in the office for the one-timer.

Ovechkin obviously is what powers the team’s power play. With him on the ice, other teams need to account for him at all times.

But the real key to the Caps’ success with the extra man is not Ovechkin, but the other weapons around him.

“In order to completely take [Ovechkin] away other guys are just too open and they’re good enough to score,” Niskanen said. “Are you gonna leave [T.J. Oshie] open in the slot from the hash marks to cover [Ovechkin]? Our power play is set up well with what hands guys are and their skill sets so we have a lot of different options. Guys are good at reading what’s open. It’s pretty lethal.”

“Nobody knows who's going to take a shot when we play like that,” Ovechkin said. “And it's fun to play like that, to be honest with you. When [Nicklas Backstrom] and when [Evgeny Kuznetsov] feeling the puck well, they can find you in the right time and the right place -- same as [Carlson]."

With so many weapons on the power play, teams are forced to choose between playing Ovechkin tight and leaving other players like Kuznetsov and Oshie wide open, or trying to play a traditional penalty kill and risk giving Ovechkin too much room for the one-timer.

The Rangers chose the latter on Wednesday and they suffered the consequences.

“I don't think many teams have played him like they did tonight,” Carlson said. “They gave him a lot more space.”

And Carlson certainly took advantage as well.

Washington’s power play seems to have found a new gear now with the emergence of Carlson. He took his game to a new level last season and he seems to have picked up right where he left off. On Wednesday, as part of a three-point night for him, Carlson provided two brilliant setups for Ovechkin on the power play.

“He dominates the game, I think,” Niskanen said of Carlson. “Moves the puck well, skates well for a big man, can defend. He’s got that offensive feel for the game and offensive touch. Big shot. He’s a good player.”

For many years, it looked like the only thing missing from the Caps’ power play was Mike Green. Carlson has always been good, but no one was able to setup Ovechkin quite as well as Green was in the height of the “young guns” era of the Caps. Now that Carlson seems to be coming into his own as a superstar blueliner who can both score and feed Ovechkin with the best of them, that makes an already dominant Caps’ power play even more lethal.

That was certainly on display Wednesday as the Caps fired eight shots on goal with the extra man. Ovechkin’s two goals tie him for ninth on the NHL’s all-time power play goals list with Dino Ciccarelli at 232.

Even with Ovechkin now 33 years old and after several years of dominance with the extra man, the Caps’ power play may be better than ever.

“They don’t get rattled,” Quinn said. “There’s a confidence to them and a swagger to them, which they should have.  They’ve been playing together a long time and they’re the defending Stanley Cup champions, so they should play with a swagger.”

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