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It might be time for nicknaming Caps lines

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It might be time for nicknaming Caps lines

Capitals coach Barry Trotz has been around hockey long enough to know not to mess with success, so there’s a good chance the Caps’ lineup will look the same tonight against the Canucks in Vancouver (10 p.m., CSN) as it did in Tuesday night’s 6-2 win over the Flames in Calgary.

“I think we’re playing a higher pace than we were the first couple games,” Trotz told reporters in Vancouver when asked about the Caps’ 4-1-0 start to the season. “I think we’re catching up to game speed a little bit and when we’re playing at game speed I think we can make some plays.

“Getting Backy back puts everybody in the right order.”

Before Nicklas Backstrom returned from offseason arthroscopic hip surgery on Saturday night, Trotz considered dozens of different line combinations. But instead of re-assembling all four lines, he left the top unit of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie and the checking unit of Jason Chimera, Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson untouched, while creating a new second line of Marcus Johansson, Backstrom and Justin Williams.

RELATED: Prospect Report: A big week for Chandler Stephenson

In the two games since Backstrom’s’ return, Ovechkin and Oshie each have two goals and one assist, Kuznetsov has three assists; Backstrom has three goals and two assists, Williams has two assists and Johansson has provided net-presence screens on three goals.

 “I like the way the lines are right now,” Trotz said, noting Chimera’s “nail in the coffin” third-period goal against the Flames. “They’re playing quick. You can basically throw any line out there right now. They all kind of have their own unique qualities that make them good.”

While the Caps’ top line is built on power and skill, their second line possesses a blend of speed and defensive awareness, while their third line is a seek-and-destroy unit that can shut down some of the NHL’s top offensive units.

The Caps’ fourth line presents an interesting combination of speed and skill (Andre Burakovsky), grit along the walls (Brooks Laich) and defensive awareness (Chandler Stephenson).

Tonight in Vancouver look for the Beagle line to see a lot of the Canucks’ new top line of Daniel and Henrik Sedin with Radim Vrbata. Vrbata led the Canucks with 31 goals last season but has not found the net in six games this season.

Spreading ice time: The Caps’ penalty kill has been a perfect 7-for-7 the past three games and Trotz said a big reason is fresher legs.

Last season six forwards carried most of the penalty killing load, with Brooks Laich (2:10), Troy Brouwer (2:06), Jay Beagle (1:51), Joel Ward (1:39), Jason Chimera (1:23) and Eric Fehr (1:23) leading all forwards in shorthanded ice time.

This season, the Caps are trying to add Wilson to that forward rotation on kills. So far, shorthanded ice time has been spread among seven forwards like this: Laich (2:09), Beagle (1:53), Oshie (1:38), Williams (1:30), Backstrom (1:26), Chimera (1:22), Wilson (1:01).     

“I think we have more guys doing it this year than last year,” Trotz said. “I’d like to go eight guys deep.”

MORE CAPITALS: Neuvirth injured in Flyers' comeback win in Boston

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The pressure is on for Madison Bowey to show he deserves more playing time

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USA Today

The pressure is on for Madison Bowey to show he deserves more playing time

Coming into training camp, we already knew who the Capitals’ seven defensemen were going to be this season. Among those seven is Madison Bowey who, with a new two-year, one-way contract, looks like a lock to make Washington’s roster.

In terms of playing time, however, Bowey still has a lot to prove and, according to Todd Reirden, he has not yet seen enough from him.

“We're going to put [Bowey] in opportunities where he can play minutes and play with different people and see where he's at,” Reirden said Sunday. “Obviously our three pairs we had last year worked well for us and we're fortunate to have all six of those guys back. That being said, he needs to make it a difficult decision for me on a nightly basis. That's in his hands. He needs to push me in that direction of making a change to that group because as of right now he wouldn't be.”

The Capitals’ top four on defense is set meaning Bowey will be competing for time on the third pairing with Brooks Orpik and Christian Djoos. With only three preseason games left before the start of the regular season, that makes Tuesday critical for Bowey to show Reirden that he deserves not just to make the team, but to be a regular in the lineup.

“I've always been trying to be a guy that's hard to play against and making sure it's a tough night for the opponents,” Bowey said after Tuesday’s morning skate. “For myself, it's playing a two-way game and sticking to that. When I'm kind of throwing my weight around and being engaged and playing with urgency, I think that's when I'm at my best.”

The issue Reirden sees is that while there are strengths to Bowey’s game, they are not always prevalent on the ice in games.

“I think he's got to continue to allow the things that are difference makers in his game to show up,” Reirden said. “He's a big strong guy that can skate so he's got to be very difficult to play against in the defensive zone. And his skating ability up ice has got to be a factor in terms of adding to the offense when he gets the opportunity and trying to use his shot and his offensive instincts in zone. Those are the things he has in his toolbox that we need to see more on a regular basis.”

In addition to being a physical defenseman, Bowey also possesses strong offensive instincts. Yet, neither aspect of his game was all that evident last season when Bowey was still adjusting to the NHL. That sort of initial struggle is to be expected for many young players who tend to overthink the game. They need time to let the game become more instinctive.

But now, it is time to see improvement from Bowey in those areas.

“When I'm thinking and not just playing my game, that's when you can get into trouble,” he said. “When I'm just playing urgent, trusting my instincts and letting the game come to me, I think that's when I'm at my best.”

When talking about his expectations for him on Tuesday, Reirden described Bowey as a “veteran.” He’s not seen as a developing player anymore.

Clearly, the standard has been raised for Bowey. He needs to respond.

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John Carlson will make his preseason debut Tuesday, but Devante Smith-Pelly will not

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USA TODAY Sports

John Carlson will make his preseason debut Tuesday, but Devante Smith-Pelly will not

A lower-body injury kept defenseman John Carlson out of the first few days of training camp and has thus far kept him out of preseason action. On Tuesday, however, as the Capitals head to St. Louis to take on the Blues, Carlson will be in the lineup for his preseason debut.

Carlson was held out of Friday’s game as a precaution, but head coach Todd Reirden said he was “really close” at that point to returning. He will play with his normal partner Michal Kempny.

Carlson enters the season on a new eight-year contract that he signed in the offseason. This is a big year for him to prove to the team that his career year in 2017-18 (15 goals, 53 assists, 68 points, all career highs) was a reflection of his true value and not simply the result of a motivated player playing for his next contract.

While Carlson is set to make his debut, forward Devante Smith-Pelly still will be held from the lineup.

Tuesday’s game will be Washington’s fifth preseason game out of seven and Smith-Pelly has yet to play in any of them.

Reirden would not go into specifics as to why Smith-Pelly is not in the lineup. When asked Friday, Smith-Pelly called it a “coach’s decision” and said he was not dealing with any injury.

Reirden had no real update to offer on Monday regarding the winger’s status.

“It’s something that we’re going to continue to monitor every day and get him close to playing,” Reirden said.

While no one is expected to play every preseason game, Smith-Pelly is rapidly running out of time to get any playing time in before the start of the regular season. If he is not ready to play yet in the preseason, it is fair to wonder just how far away he may be from suiting up when the games actually start to matter.

Missing Tuesday’s game means there are only two chances left to get Smith-Pelly into the lineup with games on Friday and Sunday.

When asked how many games Smith-Pelly would need to prepare for the season, Reirden said, “Ideally, I'd like to have him ready for as many as possible. As soon as he's ready to play, he'll play.”

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