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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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Defense optional as Caps handed 8-5 loss in Chicago

Defense optional as Caps handed 8-5 loss in Chicago

The Chicago Blackhawks handed the Capitals their fifth straight loss on Sunday in an ugly 8-5 defeat. All five of Washington's goals came from defensemen as the team's top forwards continued to struggle.

Here are five reasons the Caps lost.

Missed early opportunities

The game got off to a great start. Tom Wilson fed Jakub Vrana in the middle for a great early opportunity and Lars Eller had another shot with the rebound. Washington also got a power play less than two minutes into the game and was brilliant with the setup, keeping the puck in the zone for the full two minutes and getting a number of high-quality opportunities.

But they didn’t score and that soon loomed very large.

Brandon Saad put Chicago on the board 6:36 into the first and Patrick Kane scored 80 seconds later to make it 2-0, thus erasing the Caps’ strong start.

The goals have been hard to come by for the Caps so when they had the opportunity to take the early lead, they absolutely had to finish. They didn’t and the game got away from them as a result.

A bad play by Madison Bowey

Bowey will be cringing at the replay of the Saad goal for a while. Saad broke the puck out of the defensive zone and carried it into the neutral zone. Bowey had a bead on him until Saad cut to the center. Suddenly Bowey was caught flat footed. He reached for Saad with a weak stick check which Saad easily fought through with no real resistance and he was in on net. He finished the play with the game’s first goal.

 An own-goal

This was really the moment when you realized this was not going to be a good day for Washington.

Down 2-0, Brooks Orpik managed to sneak a softy through goalie Colin Delia to make it 2-1. Just 28 seconds later, however, bad luck struck the Caps yet again.

Dmitry Orlov and Jonathan Toews battled for the puck right in front of the crease and it bounced into he air. Orlov swiped at it with his glove to try to clear it from danger, but instead knocked it right over Holtby and into the net. The own goal made it 3-1 and signaled that Washington was in for a long day.

An ill-advised penalty

This game felt like it quickly was getting out of hand. Somehow, however, the Caps managed to keep things close. Dmitry Orlov snuck another squeaker through Delia in the second and John Carlson fired a one-timer early in the third to make the score 4-3. All of a sudden, the Caps had signs of life. With all the momentum on their side, however, Nicklas Backstrom was whistled for hooking Toews just 23 seconds later.

You could tell what was about to happen.

Sure enough, Kane scored 13 seconds into the power play to restore the Blackhawks’ two-goal lead.

The Toews hat trick

Once again, Washington tried to battle back. Matt Niskanen scored with just over six minutes remaining in the game, the fifth goal from a Caps’ defenseman, to pull the score to 6-5. Toews provided the coffin nail just over a minute later with an absolutely brutal play on Orlov.

Toews entered the offensive zone and Orlov took an awful approach. Toews finessed the puck right in front of Orlov which he should have been able to easily sweep away. Instead, he whiffed completely allowing Toews to regain the puck, step past Orlov and fired it under the pad and into the net.

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Devante Smith-Pelly named a starter in return to Chicago after ugly racial taunts

Devante Smith-Pelly named a starter in return to Chicago after ugly racial taunts

The top line for the Capitals on Sunday against the Chicago Blackhawks is Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, but the starting lineup is Ovechkin, Backstrom and Devante Smith-Pelly. Why the change?

It all has to do with the last time the Caps visited Chicago nearly a year ago.

On Feb. 17, 2018, Washington went into the United Center and were obliterated by the Blackhawks 7-1. But that wasn’t the ugliest thing to happen that night.

While sitting in the penalty box, Devante Smith-Pelly faced racial taunts from some Chicago fans who began chanting “basketball, basketball” at him.

In the wake of the incident, Smith-Pelly handled himself about as gracefully as one could. So, in the team’s return to Chicago Sunday, head coach Todd Reirden felt he should be on the ice for the national anthem.

According to Pierre McGuire during the game broadcast, the idea came from Oshie himself, who advocated that Smith-Pelly start in his place.

The starters traditionally stand on the ice for the anthem while the rest of the players stand at the bench.

Smith-Pelly has remained active against racism in the sport. He and teammate John Carlson invited a youth hockey team whose lone African-American player had faced racial taunts during a game to the Caps’ game on Monday.

Sunday’s move by Reirden is a classy tribute to Smith-Pelly who handled an ugly situation about as well as one could. 

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