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In a tight division race, Barry Trotz declares last 9 games 'all must-wins' for Caps

In a tight division race, Barry Trotz declares last 9 games 'all must-wins' for Caps

Saturday’s game features two teams at the opposite end of the standings. The Washington Capitals have their sights set squarely on the Stanley Cup as the top team in the NHL. With only 63 points, the Arizona Coyotes have their sights set squarely on the golf course as their season will soon be over.

After the Caps played in arguably their biggest game of the season on Thursday against the Columbus Blue Jackets, you could forgive the fans for overlooking Saturday’s contest against the scuffling Coyotes.

Barry Trotz, however, is not.

“Looking at all nine of these games, until we can secure our spot that we would like, they're all must-wins,” Trotz said after Saturday’s morning skate. “I can't tell you one that would not be.”

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Washington is in the midst of a three-team battle for supremacy of the Metropolitan Division. Losing means a difficult first-round matchup against either Columbus or the Pittsburgh Penguins. To win that race, the Caps will need all the points they can get.

That means there’s a lot more at stake in a Washington-Arizona game than one might think. The challenge is conveying that to the players.

“These ones, when you're playing a team that you feel is young and maybe not as experienced, you worry about the readiness,” Trotz said. “But I think we recognize the situation. It will be on the players. We're going to give them a real good scout on Arizona. We're going to put the team on the ice to play Arizona and play them hard and respect them and that will be our message. Go after them.”

Washington holds only a one-point and three-point lead over Pittsburgh and Columbus in the standings, respectively. They hold a game in hand over the Penguins while Columbus will play the Philadelphia Flyers earlier on Saturday.

A game against the Coyotes may not be the sexiest matchup for a team that has already qualified for the playoffs, but if the Caps hope to finish atop the Metro, they cannot afford to leave two points on the table at home against an Arizona team with only one win in its last four games.

Said Trotz, “We have no room to let anybody steal any points in our arena at any time right now.”

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Great recognizes great: Phil Esposito explains why Ovechkin is such a dominant scorer

Great recognizes great: Phil Esposito explains why Ovechkin is such a dominant scorer

Phil Esposito knows a thing or two about scoring goals. He’s one of the best of all-time at it. During his 18-year NHL career, he scored 717 career goals which ranks sixth in NHL history...for now. Alex Ovechkin is two goals away from joining Esposito as a member of the 700-goal club and could end up passing him by the end of the season.

Esposito may be from a different era, but he still knows a great goal-scorer when he sees one.

“Well, let me put it this way,” Esposito said. “I don’t give a [expletive] what era it would be. Alex Ovechkin would be still scoring goals, in any era, anywhere.”

A lot of goal-scorers have come and gone without finding nearly the same amount of success as Ovechkin. We all know how great a shot he has, but Esposito recognizes the other qualities that he believes sets Ovechkin apart.

“His positioning and his ability to put the puck on the net all the time,” Esposito said. “If you go back in history through all the guys who scored 700, they usually hit the net a lot. I think that Alex is one of those guys who puts it on the net and puts the onus on the goaltender.”

“To me, it didn’t matter how hard I shot the puck, it’s where I put it,” he added. “If I put it in a location going 50 mph, the goalie couldn’t move his feet fast enough to stop it. … Ovechkin can hit those spots when he has that extra second. But if he doesn’t have that extra second, he makes sure he gets it on the net and that’s the key to scoring goals. Putting it on the net.”

One of the most impressive aspects of Ovechkin’s goal-scoring prowess is that it is coming in an era in which it has become incredibly difficult to score. Esposito noted, “Never underestimate the people who are blocking the shots nowadays, as compared to my day.”

“The way the game is played nowadays and the way the guys get in the [shooting] lanes, and they block shots, sometimes you’ve got to pass it,” Esposito said. “Man, I’d venture to say that without the blocked shots and everything else, like the way it was in the ‘70s, Alex would get more than 550 shots on net. And probably score 75 to 80 goals.”

As Ovechkin’s career has continued, his remarkable ability to stay healthy has become as much of a reason for him climbing the all-time goals list as his goals are. Despite all the talent around the league, no other player in the NHL has even reached 600 goals. Ovechkin's durability becomes all the more impressive with every passing year.

“He’s a monster and he’s very strong,” Esposito said. “Secondly, he’s played with some pain, I’ll guarantee that. And that’s another thing, he plays with the pain. He doesn’t complain about it. He’ll go out and he’ll play.”

Ovechkin has already carved a place for himself in history among the greatest goal-scorers of all-time. That’s not in doubt. But as he sits ever so close to reaching 700 at the age of 34, the answer now on everyone’s mind is can he keep it up?

While 34 is old for most hockey players, age does not seem to be much of a factor for Ovechkin who is one of just three players with 40 goals this season. Considering the rate at which Ovechkin has continued to score, this has led some to wonder if Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 goals could be in play.

For many reaching 700 will be the last great milestone of their career, but for Ovechkin, it could just be the unofficial proclamation that he is coming for Gretzky’s record.

But if he is going to beat the record, Esposito thinks he is going to need help.

“Stay with the Washington Capitals,” Esposito said. “Stay with a good team. Trust me, I went through that. When I was traded from Boston to [the New York Rangers], New York was a bad team and I certainly didn’t score like I did in Boston, which was a great team. You don’t do it alone in the NHL. You don’t. You’d better have good teammates with you if you’re going to be a good scorer.”

Ovechkin has certainly had that in his time in Washington and will continue to have it after Nicklas Backstrom signed a new five-year deal to stay with the team.

And Ovechkin is going to need all the help he can get to reach Gretzky’s record which was long thought to be untouchable.

Until he does, however, as great as he may be, he won’t be the greatest at least according to Esposito.

“I’m not going to say he’s the best of all time,” Esposito said. “Wayne is. Wayne’s No. 1. It’s simple. When I retired, I was No. 2, [Gordie Howe] was the best. And so until you beat the best, you’re not the best. Period.”

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TJ Oshie snipes, the disconnect on the breakouts and is it time to shuffle the lines?

TJ Oshie snipes, the disconnect on the breakouts and is it time to shuffle the lines?

The Capitals tried to win a 60-minute game with only a strong 20 minutes of play in the third period on Monday, but they ultimately lost to the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 after spotting Vegas a 3-0 lead.

Check out a recap of the game here.

Observations from the loss

Puck management

Here's a summary of Vegas' first goal. A stretch pass caught two Caps defensemen on the left side of the ice, allowing William Carrier in on the breakaway. Braden Holtby slowed down the puck and John Carlson was able to sweep it off the goal line. Vegas won the loose puck, cycled the puck, Tomas Nosek had all the time in the world to find an open Carrier who set up Nick Holden who was open in front of the crease.

How many ways can a team screw up on one play?

Carlson was the right defenseman on the breakaway. I don't know why he was all the way over on the left. I thought at first he got caught trying to make a line change, but his total shift after the goal was scored was 40 seconds so it was unlikely he was trying to get off the ice. The loose puck after the breakaway was immediately picked up by Vegas. If the Caps win that puck battle, there's no goal. While Vegas was able to quickly set up its offense off the rush, the Caps defense scrambled badly and never got settled.

This was really how the first 40 minutes went. Vegas managed the puck well and won puck battles. Washington did neither of those things.

There's a disconnect between the defense and offense on the breakout

Washington is awful at breaking the puck out of the defensive zone on defense. If the offense is not carrying the puck up the ice on the breakout, it leads to a turnover far too often.

There are three recurring issues I keep seeing on breakouts from the defense. First, the defense holds onto the puck and holds it...holds it...holds it until the forecheckers attack, cut off all the passing lanes and suddenly there is nowhere to go with the puck. The second thing is the passing back and forth between the defense deeper and deeper in the defensive zone until they get hemmed in by the forecheckers and turn the puck over. The passing back and forth behind the goal line without any hope of advancing the puck drives me nuts. The third recurring issue is a stretch pass that has literally zero chance of being successful. A defenseman will have the puck in the defensive zone, look up ice and try to throw a pass cross ice to the offensive blue line which easily gets cut off in the neutral zone.

What's the recurring issue in each of these situations? The forecheck or trap cutting between the offense and the defense.

When you get get a good stretch pass through the forecheck/trap, it can lead to breakaways. Vegas got two in the first period doing that, but those passes have to be open. The Caps are not attempting those passes because the seas are parting and there's a passing lane, these passes are getting thrown into traffic with almost no chance of success. Watching the defense pass back and forth behind the goal line is just as infuriating to watch, and both of these things happen because the three forwards are zipping up ice leaving the defense with few options while trying to get past the forecheck.

There's a disconnect here between the offense and defense in that the forwards are not giving easy passing options to the defensemen and the defensemen are taking too long to distribute the puck.

Time to change the lines

The offense has gotten stale, it's time to change things up. I know coaches like to get their lines in place later into the season, but the Caps are now 11-11-0 in their past 22 games and 4-6-0 since returning from the all-star break. The time to let them just play their way out of this has passed. Changes are needed to find a spark.

To his credit, Todd Reirden does shuffle up lines and pairings within a game, but there was none of that at least among the forward lines on Monday. Michal Kempny missed much of the first period which forced some defensive shuffling, but that was about it. It's time to shake things up to get the team out of this rut.

Turning point

There are several universal truths in the game of hockey and one of them is that if a team botches a big scoring chance on one end, it usually leads to a goal on the other. T.J. Oshie may have scored twice on Monday in the third period, but he should have scored in the first period with an empty-net yawning. Marc-Andre Fleury made a save on a shot from Nicklas Backstrom and the rebound bounced right to Oshie who swung at the puck twice and missed as he was falling to the ice. Vegas broke the puck out of the zone and on the resulting cycle scored to make it 2-0.

Washington was not playing well at all to that point, but Oshie still had a chance to tie the game on his stick. It could have been a completely different game if he buried it. He could not capitalize, but the Golden Knights could as Reilly Smith made it 2-0.

Play of the game

Both of Oshie's goals deserve shoutouts because both were fantastic snipes.

Stat of the game

Washington has looked like a completely different hockey team since Dec. 23 and not in a good way. Here are some stats from NBC Sports Washington's Caps Postgame Live:

The offense is still producing fairly well, but defense and special teams have been absolutely atrocious.

Quote of the game

T.J. Oshie was asked about why so much of the offensive has been one-and-done lately. His full answer on the struggles on the forecheck and the limited offense that comes with it was very good, but this was my takeaway:

"It's amazing how much starts from our D-zone...for the most part we know how to play in the O-zone, it's just we've got to enter the zone as a group of five whether that's carrying the puck or chipping it in so that we have speed and we can support each other."

See above about the disconnect between the offense and the defense.on the breakouts. They are not playing like a five-man unit in sync with each other. They look like a three-man forward line and a two-man defensive pair playing together and neither knows what the other wants to do.

Fan predictions

Sure felt like that's where this was headed after two periods.

Almost. I especially like the Game 4 callback on that second one.

Maybe Ovechkin was waiting for little Alexander. Congratulations!

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