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Bruised but not broken, Capitals visit Sabres

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Bruised but not broken, Capitals visit Sabres

News, notes and quotes as the Capitals begin a stretch of three games in four nights, starting with back-to-back games against the Buffalo Sabres. The Caps and Sabres face off tonight at 7 at Niagara Center (CSN+):

Where they stand: The Caps have won seven in a row, are 14-1-1 in their last 16 games and own the NHL’s second-best record (26-6-2, 54 points), behind only the Dallas Stars (27-7-3, 57 points). This is the best start in franchise history. Back in 2009-10, when the Caps won the Presidents’ Trophy, they were 21-7-6 for 48 points after 34 games. The Capitals have outscored their opponents 53-31 in their last 16 games.

Injury update: Defenseman John Carlson sat out Sunday’s practice after getting “twisted up a little bit” in the Caps’ 3-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night, according to head coach Barry Trotz. Carlson has played in 412 consecutive games and Trotz said he expects Carlson to be in the lineup tonight.

Goaltender Braden Holtby left practice early on Sunday because of cramping due to dehydration but he is expected to make his 29th start of the season tonight in Buffalo. Holtby (22-4-1, 1.92 GAA, .932 SP) is coming off a strong 29-save performance against the Canadiens.

Caps leading goal scorer Alex Ovechkin (17 goals) also practiced on Sunday after absorbing a shot by teammate Matt Niskanen in the arm late in Saturday’s win.

“He seems fine,” Trotz told reporters on Sunday. “He was shooting some pucks, so he’s good.”

Praising Chimmer: Trotz said he likes the focus he has seen in Jason Chimera’s game this season. The 36-year-old left wing has 10 goals and 10 assists in 34 games and is on pace for a career-high 24 goals and 48 points.

“I just think Jason is in a better place in terms of what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to get him to do,” Trotz said. “He’s playing with passion and he’s playing under control. He’s playing with more purpose in his game. He’s got good focus and he’s enjoying the role he’s in.”

MORE CAPITALS: Locker demonstrates the wrist shot with help from his daughter

Checking/scoring line: The Capitals’ third line of Chimera, Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson picked up a pair of goals in Saturday night’s win and has been the team’s most reliable and hardest-hitting lines since being assembled earlier this month when Wilson replaced Andre Burakovsky at right wing.

“They are all good workers, number one,” Trotz said of Chimera, Beagle and Wilson. “They have speed, tenacity and they’re physical, but there’s some skill on that line. They’ve developed into having some chemistry and they’re playing the right way.”

Don’t be surprised if Trotz tries to get his third line out against the Sabres’ top trio of Evander Kane 98 goals), Jack Eichel (11 goals) and Tyler Ennis (3 goals).  

“I’m not afraid to play them against top lines,” Trotz said. “It gives us some good flexibility on the road. If you don’t get that ideal matchup you need a line where you say, ‘If they want to go against you, go at it. Shut them down or outscore them.’”

Nice Schmidt-uation: Since replacing Brooks Orpik (lower body) on the Caps’ top defense pairing, Nate Schmidt has opened some eyes around the NHL with his speed and decision making.

He set up two goals in the Caps’ 3-1 win over Montreal, snapping a shot toward the net that was deflected by Evgeny Kuznetsov for a first-period goal, and generating an offensive rush with a hard pass to Tom Wilson that set up Chimera’s third-period goal.    

“It’s one of the things we talk about, if you can’t get a clear lane (to the net),” Schmidt said of his shot/pass to Kuznetsov. “Kuzy’s one of those elusive guys down low. He can dip inside and come outside and be there in front of the net. We work at in practice and he’s one of the guys who can do that.”

Schmidt, 24, now has one goal and five assists in 29 games, matching his point totals in 29 games as a rookie in 2013-14.

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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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Almost a quarter into the season, Todd Reirden still does not have his full roster 

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Almost a quarter into the season, Todd Reirden still does not have his full roster 

In his first year as an NHL head coach, Todd Reirden is well aware that all eyes are on him. Stepping in to coach the defending Stanley Cup champions is a favorable position in many ways, but it does mean Reirden will be under more scrutiny than most coaches in their first year.

For a first-year coach already facing pressure to succeed, it does not help that the season has already thrown a number of curve balls in terms of the roster.

“Coaching the defending champions is a unique challenge in itself,” Reirden told NBC Sports Washington in a recent interview, “But I think for the most part that I haven't had much time to spend on that because I've been busy working on different lineups every night.”

With very few departures in the offseason, Washington was able to bring back the vast majority of its Stanley Cup winning team for the 2018-19 season, something that was considered a major strength of the team heading into the new season.

So far, however, we have seen much more roster attrition from the Caps than consistency.

Now 18 games into the season, Reirden has not had his full roster available to him at any point.

Tom Wilson missed the first 16 games of the season due to suspension, Brooks Orpik is currently on long-term injured reserve, Michal Kempny missed the start of the season because of a concussion and missed Wednesday’s game due to an illness, Travis Boyd has played in only five games due to a lower-body injury he suffered in training camp and Braden Holtby was a surprise scratch on Wednesday with an upper-body injury that required the team dress an emergency backup goalie in Winnipeg. Even John Carlson sat out a game with a lower-body injury.

Things may get worse before they get better given Evgeny Kuznetsov left Wedensday’s game early with an upper-body injury, T.J. Oshie appeared dazed after getting slammed to the ice by Josh Morrissey and Holtby is still considered day-to-day.

The rest of the league, however, does not care about the Caps’ suspensions and injuries. Washington does not get extra points in the standings because they have missed so many players and there are no asterisks next to Reirden’s head coaching record.

In the early part of the season, Reirden’s focus has had to shift from bringing the defending champs back to their championship form to simply surviving the team’s current roster attrition while facing questions as to why the team has been so inconsistent all the while.

Reirden has enjoyed the challenge.

“I think it's allowed us to really focus on what gives us the best chance to win, putting guys in different situations, manipulating lineups against other teams and what they have as the strengths in their lineup and how we can combat that,” he said. “So it's been a challenge from that standpoint in terms of moving our lines around and different components. That's made it a little bit more challenging, but that's the part I really enjoy is making those adjustments in house and figuring out how to set up things for success.”

Reirden has certainly not been shy about changing his line combinations or the defensive pairings early in the season as he searched to find the right fit for each spot, each situation. The return of Wilson certainly seems to have made things more clear on the offensive lines, at least in terms of the top-nine.

But while the early suspension and the team’s early injury woes have led to some early struggles and while this certainly is not the start that Reirden would have hoped for in his first season, he is taking a big picture view of it all and stressing the positives.

There’s not much more that this season could throw at the Caps that Reirden and the team has not already had to adjust to.

“It's probably been part of the reason we've had some inconsistency is because of the different changes we've had with different lines and different D-pairs,” Reirden said. “But in the long run, it'll actually help prepare us for adversity that comes to us down the road.”

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