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Sanford held off the scoresheet, but shows potential in return from Hershey

Sanford held off the scoresheet, but shows potential in return from Hershey

After recording only one point in his first 19 games in the NHL, Zach Sanford's mission in his return to the Capitals seemed relatively simple: Generate points. He was unable to do that on Saturday in Washington's 2-1 loss to Montreal, but he did show flashes of what Barry Trotz hoped he could bring to the lineup in his return from the AHL.

“I think the trip down to Hershey was helpful for me," Sanford said following Saturday's loss. "With my skills and just the little plays, I think coming back tonight I felt pretty good.”

Sanford scored four goals and three assists in six games with the Bears, showing an offensive flair that was absent in his first tour with the Capitals. But his return came against a tough Montreal team that smothered the Caps’ offense on Saturday.

The Canadiens held Washington to only 21 shots on goal, far too easy a workload for Carey Price, arguably the best goalie in the NHL.

Skating on the third line with Lars Eller and Jakub Vrana, Sanford did not record a shot on goal.

RELATED: CAPS' WIN STREAK CLIPPED BY CANADIENS IN NARROW LOSS

After the game, Sanford said generating shots on goal was “a big focus for me” and that getting shots through the defense was one of the biggest challenges of the NHL as compared to the AHL. That was evident Saturday as all three of Sanford’s shot attempts on the night were blocked.

Sanford also noted the speed of the game in the NHL.

“You get a lot less time here when you get the puck. [In the AHL] you might be able to take an extra stride or move the puck just a little bit more, but here it's bang-bang. You've got to get it off quick.”

But while the scoring opportunities weren’t there Saturday for Sanford, they were there for Vrana who seemed to have an instant chemistry with the fellow rookie on the third line.

“I think it could be a good thing,” Sanford said. “[Vrana’s] a shooter first and I'm kind of a passer first and I think we both play with speed and he's a really skilled player. I think if we keep working together I think it'll work out nicely.”

Head coach Barry Trotz offered a lukewarm review of Sanford's night, calling his performance “fine.".

“I looked at his game and I can't say he wowed me or anything and I can't say that he did anything poorly. But that was our team a little bit, they were just not quick enough tonight.”

For a rookie straight out of college looking for an offensive spark in his return to the NHL, playing against Price and the Canadiens was perhaps too tall a task. But while his performance didn’t generate any points on Saturday, it did leave enough for him to build on going forward andk, for a rookie who was in need of a confidence boost, that’s what’s most important for him at this point.

Sanford’s lack of production through the first 19 games was negatively affecting his play. That was not the case on Saturday.

Now with budding chemistry between him and Vrana and a greater appreciation for the speed with which he needs to work with at the NHL level, Sanford showed Saturday that the offensive potential is there.

Now he just needs to keep his confidence up until the points come.

“It's tough to lose, but personally I felt pretty good and my legs felt good,” Sanford said. “I was making some plays with the puck. Obviously there's a couple plays I'd like to have back, but overall I thought it went pretty well.”

MORE CAPITALS: BEAGLE: NHL TEAMS ARE CUTTING OFF PUCK CYCLING

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The 2 biggest questions the Caps still need answered after 10 games

The 2 biggest questions the Caps still need answered after 10 games

The Capitals are 10 games into the 2019-20 season. For the most part, things have gone well. The team is 6-2-2 and sits atop the Metropolitan Division. John Carlson leads the entire NHL with 18 points which puts him in some pretty elite company. Ilya Samsonov looks as good as advertised while Braden Holtby looks like his old self after a brief reset. Alex Ovechkin has six goals already and T.J. Oshie leads the team with seven. Plus, both special teams units look improved.

That’s a pretty solid start.

But there remain two important questions that still need answers.

Who should play on the right on the second defensive pair?

Michal Kempny finally returned after missing the first eight games of the season. He started the last two on the third pair, but is working his way back up to the top pairing. Once he gets there, the defense will finally be at full strength.

That gives Washington a pretty solid top three of Kempny and Carlson, plus Dmitry Orlov. But who should play on the right with Orlov?

Jensen had the first crack at it to start the season, but after some up-and-down play, Radko Gudas was bumped up for a few games. Since Kempny returned, Gudas moved back down to third to play with him and Jensen moved back with Orlov.

So far Gudas has been as good as advertised, but playing well on the third pair does not necessarily mean he should be on the second.

Jensen was one of Detroit’s top defensemen when he was acquired by the Caps. The team is still waiting for that player to emerge. It has been a tough transition for him to Washington's system and, while he has shown flashes of strong play, he remains largely inconsistent. His Corsi-For percentage at 5-on-5 is the second-worst on the team at 46.82-percent. He is one of only three Caps below 50-percent with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tyler Lewington being the other two.

The issue for the Caps may be that they have two high-quality third pair right defensemen in Jensen and Gudas and only one top-four right defenseman in Carlson which leaves a hole on that second pair.

When it comes to the defense, we should reserve all judgment until Kempny is back to playing on the top-pair full-time so we can see this defense at full strength. Until then, however, the second pair remains a question mark.

Can the Caps get enough production from the third line?

There wasn’t much offense to speak of from the Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller, Richard Panik trio and it didn’t take Todd Reirden long to split them up. Hagelin is the Swiss Army knife of the Caps’ offense, but his offensive production is limited. Panik meanwhile has had a tough start to his Caps’ tenure with zero points and is on long-term injured reserve.

As always, the top six for this team remains lethal and the additions of Brendan Leipsic and Garnet Hathaway to the fourth line have been home runs. The third line is the only one that remains a question and it may need a boost from a player like Jakub Vrana, who has been playing there the last few games with Eller and Hathaway, to help spark some production. Ultimately, however, you would like to see Vrana back in the top six and Hathaway back on the fourth. Hagelin, Eller and Panik are the best fit for the third, but if they can’t produce together it may mean weakening the top six or the fourth line by moving players around to find a combination that produces on that third line.

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John Carlson's seven assists nabs him the NHL's second star of the week

John Carlson's seven assists nabs him the NHL's second star of the week

John Carlson has opened this season with monster numbers, putting up three goals and 15 assists in 10 games. He currently leads the league in points with 18. 

The NHL has noticed and named Carlson their second star of the week. Boston's David Pastrnak got the first star, while Buffalo's Carter Hutton was named the third star.

In four games last week, Carlson notched one goal and seven assists for eight points. He currently leads the league in assists with 15.

Carlson is also in historic company. The only other two defensemen to score as many or more points than Carlson in the first 10 games of a season are Bobby Orr (2‑16—18 in 1969-70 and 5-13—18 in 1973-74, w/ Boston) and Paul Coffey (3-17—20 in 1988-89, w/ Pittsburgh).

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