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AAA Keys to the Game: Caps face NYR as Ovi nears 500

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AAA Keys to the Game: Caps face NYR as Ovi nears 500

NEW YORK -- The Capitals (30-7-3, 63 points) will face off against the New York Rangers (22-14-4, 48 points) today in Madison Square Garden (1 p.m., CSN). Here are our AAA Keys to the Game:

Holtby vs. Lundqvist: Braden Holtby (26-4-2, 1.90, .933) puts his 18-0-2 streak on the line when he faces Henrik Lundqvist (18-11-3, 2.49, .920), who is 4-6-0 in his last 10 decisions, including a 7-3 loss to the Caps on Dec. 20 in New York in which he allowed five goals on 24 shots and was yanked after two periods.

Johansson out, Latta in: Caps coach Barry Trotz said he was disappointed in the two-game suspension Marcus Johansson received for his illegal check to the head of Islanders defenseman Thomas Hickey Thursday night. “I thought it was a pretty legal hit,” Trotz said. “Hickey said after the game that it was partially his fault. Marcus is not even close to that type of player. I was surprised he got two games. It is what it is and we move on.”  

With Johansson out, center Michael Latta will move into his spot on the third line between Jason Chimera and Tom Wilson. Brooks Laich will move to fourth-line center on a line with left wing Paul Carey and right wing Stan Galiev. Trotz said he sees this as a “great challenge” for Latta.

Trotz said Carey, who will wear No. 28, has good speed and skill and can play center or wing. Trotz said he might also double shift centers Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

Hat trick from 500: Alex Ovechkin will be playing in his 800th NHL game and is three goals away from 500 in his career. In 41 career games against the Rangers he has 24 goals and 39 points but has never scored a hat trick against the Blueshirts.

Trotz was asked if he senses any nervousness from his 30-year-old captain as he approaches the milestone.

“Nothing,” Trotz said. “We haven’t even talked about that.

“I think the Russian one (his 484th) got a lot of play when he passed (Sergei) Fedorov (on Nov. 19). I think he was more nervous for that one than he is now.

“He’s going to score a lot more than 500 goals. I’m pretty sure on that. It’s a big milestone, but I think he’s got other milestones he wants to achieve as well.”

What the Rangers are saying: The Rangers are 5-8-2 since the start of December, including that 7-3 loss to the Caps in which they blew a 3-1 lead. Coach Alain Vigneault said the Rangers will need to play their “best game” to beat the Caps, who have won two straight after a brief 0-1-1 slide.

“Skill, size, speed, great transition game and probably the hottest goaltender in the league right now,” Vigneault said of Holtby and the Caps. “…We’re ready. We know right now that Washington’s the best in the league and it’s gonna take our best game.”

[RELATED: Backstrom, Holtby selected to NHL All-Star Game]

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Tom Wilson’s suspension reduced to 14 games by neutral arbitrator

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Tom Wilson’s suspension reduced to 14 games by neutral arbitrator

Tom Wilson’s 20-game suspension has been reduced to 14 games by a neutral arbitrator meaning he is eligible to return as early as Tuesday against the Minnesota Wild. Elliotte Friedman was the first to report the arbitrator’s decision.

Wilson was suspended 20 games for a hit to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist in the preseason. The suspension was announced on Oct. 3 and upheld by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Wilson’s first appeal.

Though the second appeal was technically successful in getting the suspension reduced, the lengthy process ended up costing him an extra two games as the Caps are already 16 games into the season. The good news for him is that he will recoup $378,048.78 of the over $1.2 million he was originally due to forfeit as a result of the suspension.

This marks the second suspension that Shyam Das, the neutral arbitrator, has reduced this season. Nashville Predators forward Austin Watson was suspended 27 games for domestic assault, but had his suspension reduced to 18 games after taking his appeal to the neutral arbitrator.

Tuesday’s ruling may mark the end of Wilson’s suspension and of the appeals process, but it hardly marks the end of the entire saga and controversy surrounding Wilson and his style of play. A 14-game suspension is still significant and should not be seen as vindication that Wilson did nothing wrong in the eyes of the league.

If there is another suspension, it will be longer and neither Wilson nor the Caps can afford for that to happen. Wilson still must change the way he plays or everyone is going to end up going through this entire process again and nobody wants that.

The Caps will have a morning skate at 12:30 p.m. ET which should provide more clarity on whether Todd Reirden intends to play Wilson immediately and where he could slot into the lineup.

MORE TOM WILSON NEWS:

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What do the Capitals do with Jakub Vrana?

What do the Capitals do with Jakub Vrana?

You don’t have to watch Jakub Vrana very long to realize just how talented he is. Unfortunately for him, you also don’t have to watch very long to realize how turnover prone he can be as well.

Carelessness with puck management has been one of the glaring issues for the Caps in the early season and Vrana, as he has been for much of his young career, is certainly guilty of that.

Vrana’s combination of talent and penchant for on-ice mistakes presents a problem for head coach Todd Reirden as he has to find the right place plug him into the lineup. That challenge has thus far proven difficult.

Vrana entered the Nov. 3 game against the Dallas Stars on the top line.  After a minus-three game and a turnover in overtime that led to Dallas’ game-winning goal, he found himself on the fourth line the very next game with barely eight minutes of ice time.

“We'll continue to try to remove those glaring turnovers or defense mistakes from his game,” Reirden said recently. “I think it's something that has improved compared to prior years which is why he spent the majority of the time up with those top-six guys, but it's sometimes good for a reset with some of the bottom-six guys and then start slotting him back in.”

At 22-years-old, mistakes on the ice are to be expected. But Vrana may take that to the extreme.

Not only does Vrana commit a lot of careless turnovers, he is also guilty of taking far too many penalties. Vrana ranks third on the team with 14 penalty minutes.

Mistakes by a forward are not nearly as glaring to a coach as those by a defensemen considering the mistakes tend to happen in the offensive zone and are less likely to result in a goal for the other team. When those offensive zone mistakes lead to offensive zone penalties, however, that’s a different story.

But Vrana is simply too skilled to bury in the lineup or take out altogether. With four even-strength goals, Vrana is tied for the third-most on the team behind only T.J. Oshie (7) and Alex Ovechkin (6). Of all the forwards Reirden has cycled into the top line in Tom Wilson’s absence to play with Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Vrana was the player who seemed to fit the best. He does not provide the same sort of defensive balance to the top line as Wilson does, but no one has been able to step in and adequately fill Wilson’s spot thus far. Vrana added an extra element of speed and offensive skill to an already dangerous line and seemed to show chemistry with Kuznetsov especially.

“There's some really good things that he's showing,” Reirden said. “The speed he plays with, the release of his shot, the chances he's getting, you've got to try to find ways to get him out there more.”

But Wilson will soon return to fill his top line role and Reirden will soon get his full lineup for the first time this season. Yet, almost a quarter into the season Vrana still makes it hard to find the right spot for him.

Putting Vrana on a line with Nicklas Backstrom and Oshie – if Reirden reunites Ovechkin and Kuznetsov – seems like the best fit. Backstrom and Oshie can make up for Vrana’s defensive issues and Vrana can provide speed on an otherwise slower line.

But at some point, Vrana has to cut back on the turnovers and the penalties.

“You've got to continue to show him,” Reirden said. “Continue to show him, continue to `remind him, continue to teach and help him grow and get better. That's a young player trying to become a top-six full time.”

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