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Caps take stranglehold of the division with physical win over Columbus

Caps take stranglehold of the division with physical win over Columbus

Final score: Washington Capitals 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 2

How it happened: After a scoreless first period, T.J. Oshie and Andre Burakovsky scored 1:44 apart in early in the second to give the Caps a 2-0 lead. Matt Niskanen would add a third goal later in the period to give Washington a commanding lead through 40 minutes. Jack Johnson scored a beauty in the third to put some life into Columbus. Then the fisticuffs happened. After taking a few rabbit punches from Josh Anderson, Alex Ovechkin threw a few punches of his own and line brawl broke out. Kyle Quincey scored to pull Columbus within one with just under five minutes remaining, but Washington held on for the 3-2 win.

What it means: The win gives Washington a five-point lead in the Metropolitan Division over Pittsburgh and a six-point lead over Columbus. All three teams have four games remaining.


Caps goal: T.J. Oshie from Nicklas Backstrom at 1:12 in the 1st period. A long breakout pass from Backstrom went deep into Columbus’ zone. Oshie retrieved it from the right circle then cut inside and backhanded the shot past Bobrovsky. Caps 1, Blue Jackets 0

Caps goal: Andre Burakovsky from Lars Eller and Kevin Shattenkirk at 2:56 in the 2nd period. Eller entered the zone with the puck, but was forced to the outside. He took the puck around behind the net then pulled off a sweet little spin-around pass to Burakovsky who hit the top corner or the net. Caps 2, Blue Jackets 0

Caps goal: Matt Niskanen from Andre Burakovsky at 10:05 in the 2nd period. Burakovsky intercepted a pass from the point in the defensive zone and it was off to the races. Niskanen jumped into the play and received the great pass from Burakovsky and was able to shoot it home. Caps 3, Blue Jackets 0

Blue Jackets goal: Jack Johnson from Alexander Wennberg and Sam Gagner at 9:22 in the 3rd period. Johnson scored a highlight reel goal to get Columbus on the board. As he carried the puck into the offensive zone he easily deked John Carlson, then pulled off a curl and drag past Tom Wilson before beating Holtby down low with the shot. Caps 3, Blue Jackets 1

Blue Jackets goal: Kyle Quincey from Sam Gagner and Brandon Saad at 15:33 in the 3rd period. Saad kicked the puck up to the point and Quincey fired a slap shot that took a couple of bounces on its way into the back of the net. Caps 3, Blue Jackets 2

3 stars

1. Braden Holtby: In a battle between two of the top netminders in the NHL, Holtby stole the show. He turned aside 34 shots including one with just three seconds remaining to hold on to the one-goal lead.

2. Andre Burakovsky: Burakovsky scored Washington's second goal to give the Caps control of the game in the second period. He also set up the third goal with a great steal and a great pass to find the open Niskanen.

3. Jack Johnson: Give him credit, that was a beautiful goal and it breathed life into a Blue Jackets team that looked defeated at that point.

Look ahead: The Caps wrap up their five-game road trip on Tuesday in Toronto. They then return home on Wednesday to host the New York Rangers and wrap-up the regular season with another back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday in Boston and then at home against Florida.

Tell us what you think: With the win, the magic number for Washington to clinch the Metropolitan Division is four. Did this win seal the deal for the Caps or will Pittsburgh and Columbus continue to challenge Washington?

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Reirden knocks Kuznetsov to the third line in effort to spark offense

Reirden knocks Kuznetsov to the third line in effort to spark offense

ARLINGTON, Va. – The Capitals will look to snap their losing skid on Sunday and avoid their first five-game losing streak since 2014 as they face the Chicago Blackhawks (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC).

In four straight losses, Washington has scored only four combined goals. To spark his team, Todd Reirden is bringing a new-look lineup with him to the Windy City.

"I just think from top to bottom we need to be better,” Reirden said. “Over the last 10 games, we haven't been at our best, and there's probably no real reason to single out anybody. I just think that we have another level in our game, and part of my job is to put people in situations where they can have success. Sometimes things need to be adjusted and maybe that helps. Maybe it'll work for one line and maybe not for another and then we'll work from there.”

Based on Saturday’s practice, here are what the lines will look like on Sunday:

Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – T.J. Oshie
Jakub Vrana – Lars Eller – Tom Wilson
Andre Burakovsky – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Brett Connolly
Chandler Stephenson – Nic Dowd – Devante Smith-Pelly

Dmitry Orlov – John Carlson
Michal Kempny – Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik – Madison Bowey/Jonas Siegenthaler

The biggest change to the lineup is the move of Kuznetsov down to the third line.

On the surface, Kuznetsov is having a fairly good season with eight goals and 38 points in 41 games, but he has not been a dominant playmaker since the first month of the season. His production has also dried up significantly of late as he has only one goal and one assist in his last six games. In fact, Kuznetsov still has only one five-on-five goal for the entire season.

“Even-strength goals from him are not where they're used to being and have been in the past,” Reirden said. “For me, it's getting his game back to where it was to start the year. In talking to him, it's finding a way to do that. He obviously got off to that tremendous start and then was continuing to play fairly well and then has the injury, and I just don't really feel like he's gotten back to how he's started the year yet.”

The team’s sudden offensive deficiencies certainly do not lie solely at the feet of Kuznetsov, but given how dominant he was in the postseason and to start this season, his sudden drop off since then seems more glaring.

Kuznetsov declined to talk specifically about his own struggles, but did say about the team’s collective offensive struggles that “we just don’t execute those chances we had and some other games we have couple breakaways, we did not score. The hockey going this way right now it’s about two or three chances only during the games. Used to be like you can give up like three, four, five chances and you know you gonna give back, but right now it’s not that easy. It’s very defensive. So we’ve got to pay attention more to those chances we have.”

While it’s hard to see a drop to the third line as anything other than a demotion for Kuznetsov, Reirden said the changes were more to help put players in better situations. On the third line, Kuznetsov is not as likely to face an opponent’s top shutdown line or top defensemen. Perhaps some time away from another team’s top competition can help spark his own production and help him get back to the level he was playing at in October.

“For me, I'm trying to put him in situations where that can happen better," Reirden said. "Whether it's zone starts, whether it's different linemates, where it's different opportunities talking to him -- some guys respond differently to things. For us, he's such an important part of our team. We need him going on all cylinders to have success as a team, and that's how it is with all of our key guys. When I talk about another level, it's not just him, but that's a spot that our best players -- and the trickle-down effect -- need to play better."


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Four straight losses leave the Caps searching for answers

Four straight losses leave the Caps searching for answers

Figuring out what’s wrong with the Capitals isn’t all that hard. It’s figure out why that the team seems to be struggling with.

At first glance, it is obvious what the biggest problem for Washington is. In four straight losses, the Caps have been held to a combined four goals. The offense has suddenly gone dry, but no one seems quite sure why that is.

“I don't know,” Matt Niskanen said. “We're not purposefully going out there just for shits and giggles.”

Somehow a team that boasts such talented forwards as Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie among others has been completely shut down offensively and that was certainly evident in Friday’s 2-0 loss to the New York Islanders.

“We're making it tough on ourselves,” Brooks Orpik said. “We're playing against teams that are trapping, and we're just trying to force pucks through the middle the whole time. You look at how they're playing against us: they're getting it behind us and a lot of offense is coming from point shots and just outbattling us in front. But we're not even getting opportunity to do that because we're trying to go through too many guys in the neutral zone.”

Washington was held to only 19 shots on goal on Friday in what looked like a rather easy shutout for Islanders goalie Thomas Greiss.

Though the scores of the last two games look dramatically different – a 7-2 blowout in Nashville and a 2-0 shutout against New York – Washington had many of the same offensive issues in those games.

When they got the puck players either held onto it too long, trying to do everything themselves and stickhandling their way into a turnover, or they tried to force passes when they weren’t open.

Trying to force offense is the sign of a frustrated team. The only real difference between the two games is that Nashville has a lot more playmakers on its roster who were able to take advantage of Washington’s mistakes with numerous turnovers ending up in the back of the Caps’ net.

“I just think we need to get back to basics and work a little harder as a team,” Backstrom. “I think we’re maybe doing a little too much by ourselves. Maybe work together a little bit better. Better execution. I think that’s something we haven’t been great at lately. Tape to tape passes. That’s a key in this league.”

It is perhaps no surprise the Caps are at a loss during their current losing streak as they don’t tend to lose this much very often. The last time Washington lost four straight games was in March 2017. Now they face the possibility of a five-game skid if they cannot find a way to beat the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday, something they have not done since Oct.-Nov. 2014.

Their current losing streak is so unlike them it calls into question whether or not this team is simply running out of gas. They played an additional 24 playoff games plus and went through a shortened offseason. Ovechkin already backed out of the All-Star Game claiming he needs the rest, so could fatigue be playing a role in the team’s struggles?

To a man, every player who was asked said no.

“We're professional athletes,” Braden Holtby said. “You should never use that as an excuse. You get treated the best in the world health-wise. Our training staff, our strength staff, the way we travel, hotels we stay in. You never use fatigue as an excuse.”

But while the exact reason for the team’s current struggles seems hard to pin down, it’s not hard at all to figure out what the solution is.

With Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Oshie, Tom Wilson and Jakub Vrana combining for just four goals and four assists in the team’s last four games, Washington must get more offensive from the top of the lineup in order to be successful.

“We need to be better,” Todd Reirden said. “That's right from top of our list to the bottom of our list. We need more. We need more from our players.”