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Who's hot and who's not?: The 3rd line is coming together while penalties remain a problem

Who's hot and who's not?: The 3rd line is coming together while penalties remain a problem

Once a week this season, we're taking a closer look at the numbers and pointing out a few trends that every Capitals fan should know about.

Hot

The third line

A lot has gone right for the Caps over the past month or so. The most significant development, though, could be the emergence of the Brett Connolly-Lars Eller-Andre Burakovsky line as an offensive threat. Since Jan. 1, a span of 13 games, Burakovsky has five goals while Connolly and Eller have four apiece. One of the Caps’ top priorities this offseason was bolstering bottom six depth…and it seems like after a slow start for all three players, they’ve begun to gel as a unit.

Justin Williams

What a turnaround he’s enjoying. After putting up a grand total of two goals in the Caps’ first 24 games, the 35-year-old has put up 15 goals in the Caps’ last 24 contests—five more than Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie in that span. With 17 goals, he’s on pace for 29, which would be his highest total since 2006-07. He’s also an unrestricted free agent at season’s end.   

T.J. Oshie

Speaking of Oshie, he’s been a roll as of late, as well. Since sitting out in Montreal on Jan. 9 with an upper body injury, the first line right wing has five goals and seven assists in eight games. Despite missing eight games due to injury, the 30-year-old has 18 tallies and is still on pace for a career-best 33. He’ll also need a new contract at season’s end.

Evgeny Kuznetsov

Since the calendar flipped to 2017, Kuzy has accumulated 16 points (four goals and 12 assists) in 13 games. Only Nicklas Backstrom (17 points) has more in that span. Even if Kuznetsov stays hot, though, it's going to be very tough for him to approach last year's point total (77) due to his ice cold start. With seven goals and 28 assists, in fact, he's currently on pace for 60 points. 

The Caps’ record against the Central Division

After last week’s 4-3 overtime win in Dallas, they improved to 8-0-0 against the Central. Jay Beagle, meantime, has scored seven of his 10 goals this season vs. Central Division foes.

RELATED: Prediction recap: Senators blank Caps

Not

Minor penalties

More players could be taking laps in practice as punishment for taking too many penalties. (Assuming, of course, the Caps ever manage to get in another practice due to the unrelenting schedule.) Anyway, since we’ve been using Jan. 1 as a benchmark, let’s continue to do so. Since the calendar flipped, the Caps have been assessed a league-high 56 minor penalties. Kuznetsov, Connolly and Oshie have each taken a team-high six during that span. Ovechkin is next with five. The Caps are at or near the top of the league in many key statistical categories. Unnecessary (and untimely) penalties should not be among them.

Ovechkin

Speaking of the captain, he’s going through a bit of a dry spell at the moment. In fact, he’s got only one goal in the last seven games. The 31-year-old still leads the Caps with 22 goals on the season but he’s now on pace for 38—after scoring 50 or more each of the past three seasons. If he’s going to claim a fifth straight Rocket Richard Trophy, he’ll need to reverse the recent downturn, obviously. Entering Wednesday’s games, Ovi was tied for fourth in goals with Evgeni Malkin. It should also be noted that Ovechkin is averaging almost two fewer minutes of ice time per game year-over-year, which, as the team’s thinking goes, will lead to a fresher Ovi come playoffs.    

Recent goals against/shots against

Including the wild 8-7 overtime loss in Pittsburgh, the Caps have allowed 18 goals in five games (3.6 per). They’ve also allowed 31.4 shots per game in that span. That’s an admittedly small sample size. It also followed a stretch in which the Caps were absolutely lights out defensively. But it may be something to monitor. Coach Barry Trotz acknowledged recently that teams tend to get a little loose defensively when there’s not a lot of practice time. And there sure hasn’t been much of that lately. 

MORE CAPITALS: El-Bashir: Don't worry about the Capitals peaking too early

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Caps push Lightning around in Game 6 with physical game plan

Caps push Lightning around in Game 6 with physical game plan

As the NHL continues to focus more on speed and skill, the Capitals took a very old-school approach to Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. From the moment the puck dropped until the clock hit zero, it was clear Washington came into Monday with a very physical game plan.

"It made a big difference," T.J. Oshie said. "I think in these games, everyone’s bringing energy and you kind of want to control that and direct it towards some positive play, some momentum building for your team, and tonight I think we handled that and did that pretty well."

"We just wanted to throw everything we had at them," Stephenson said. "It was a do or die game and we don't want our season to end."

It worked.

The scoresheet officially credited the Caps with 39 hits for the game. The Lightning had only 19. The physical play seemed to wear down Tampa Bay as the game went on.

After an even first period, Washington took a 1-0 lead in the second. Then, very fittingly, a physical fourth line extended that lead to 2-0 in the third to finish the Lightning off.

"All of a sudden now we turn a puck over, you’re back in your end, they’re feeling it, they’re being physical, crowd’s behind them and we’re spending way too much time in our D zone," Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said. "That’s what hurt us."

What made it so effective was the fact that the entire team bought into it. Alex Ovechkin was certainly the most noticeable player as he threw himself around like a wrecking ball against everyone wearing a white jersey. But it was not just his line. Tom Wilson and Brooks Orpik each led the team with six hits, Devante Smith-Pelly recorded five of his own while Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom both had four.

The Lightning faced a constant barrage from the Caps from every line and defensive pair. There was no respite.

The hits also gave the fans plenty to cheer for.

The Caps were playing an elimination game at home and Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was standing on his head. Even with the score locked at 0-0 through the first period, the crowd was still very much into the game. There was no apprehension, there was no quiet tension. There was just a loud crowd cheering on its team.

"[The fans] were loud right from the start, which I think we fed off of and wanted to give them something back," Brooks Orpik said. "We didn't get a goal early. I think some of the physical play kind of helped carry that. They were great for us."

Now in the third round of the playoffs after six intense games between the Caps and Lightning, the hope is that Game 6's physical play will continue to take its toll on Tampa Bay heading into Game 7.

"We need to do that every game," Nicklas Backstrom said. "That's our forecheck. Hopefully, we can keep it going here in Game 7."

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Braden Holtby saved his best performance of the season for when the Caps needed it most

Braden Holtby saved his best performance of the season for when the Caps needed it most

Braden Holtby has been largely overshadowed in the headlines of the Eastern Conference Final by Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

After two games, Vasilevskiy was one of the bigger storylines for how poorly he played in giving up 10 goals in just five periods. The next three games after that, the storyline changed to how well he was suddenly playing and how he had helped the Lightning steal two wins in Washington and take a 3-2 series lead after Game 5.

Holtby was not mentioned much. His play was not the reason the Caps went up 2-0 or the reason they went down 3-2.

But if the Caps hoped to force a Game 7, they needed him to at least be a reason why they won Game 6.

Holtby responded in a big way. With his team facing elimination, Holtby registered his first shutout of both the regular season and the playoffs.

"It's a perfect time," Devante Smith-Pelly said after the game. "He's been great all year. Obviously an up-and-down year for him personally, but the way he's bounced back, he's been amazing all throughout the playoffs."

Holtby is now just the seventh goalie in NHL history to record his first shutout of the season in a game in which his team faced elimination.

Holtby, however, was not concerned with the stats or the shutout.

"The only reason it’s good is we won," Holtby said of his shutout performance. "Aside from that, it’s just good for [the media], I guess you can write about it. But for us it’s just that W."

Vasilevskiy made a number of jaw-dropping saves, especially in the first period, but Holtby matched him save for save as both teams battled for the first goal. With the score knotted at zero, Holtby made a toe save on Anthony Cirelli on a 2-on-1 opportunity to keep the Lightning off the board. He really upped his game in the third period as Tampa Bay made a late push to tie it. He turned aside 10 shots that frame including a nifty snag on Nikita Kucherov and a glorious glove save on Ondrej Palat.

Holtby's performance ensured the Caps would live to fight another day...for now.

As the series shifts back to Tampa Bay, Washington will again be facing elimination. This time, however, so will their opponents.

Anything can happen in a Game 7. In a winner-take-all game, it may come down to who has the better goalie on Wednesday and Holtby seems to be picking a good time to up his game.

"Braden has been the backbone of our hockey club," Barry Trotz said. "You can’t go anywhere without goaltending and he’s been solid. ... Braden is a true pro, he works on his game, he finds ways to make a difference and he does."

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