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Who's hot and who's not?: The Caps' offense (finally) has come alive

Who's hot and who's not?: The Caps' offense (finally) has come alive

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

Braden Holtby

The hottest player on the Caps right now is, without a doubt, their Vezina Trophy winning goaltender, who leads the league with six shutouts after blanking the Blackhawks on Friday. It was his fifth shutout in 14 starts. Entering Saturday’s games, Holtby is now top three in every meaningful metric for a goaltender—first in shutouts, second in goals against (1.85) and third in both save percentage (.933) and wins (21). “When he’s been in the zone or having good stretches, he just looks calm,” Coach Barry Trotz said after Saturday’s optional practice. “Every goaltender I’ve had that goes through stretches where they are seeing the puck really well and things are going their way, they just look very calm. Looks like it’s in slow motion for guys.” The combination of Holtby’s stellar play, the team’s commitment defense and a third-ranked penalty kill has the Caps leading the league in goals allowed per game (1.95).  

Steady line combinations

Trotz switched up his lines up following the Caps’ 2-1 shootout loss to the Devils on Dec. 29. Not only have the Caps won eight straight games since the changes, they’ve also scored 35 goals. “The lines started getting an identity and you just let them keep creating that identity,” Trotz explained. “We’ve been fortunate; we’ve had good health. It’s easy to keep the lines together when you’re not ravaged with injuries. It’s been good for us.” After Friday’s 6-0 win over Chicago, the Caps are up to seventh in goals per game (2.98). Last season, they finished second in that category (3.02).

Alex Ovechkin

Since enduring a dry spell in late November and early December, the Caps’ captain has ranked among the league’s most productive players. In fact, he’s amassed nine goals and eight assists in the last 16 games, putting him sixth among all players in that timeframe. With 21 goals in 42 games, the 31-year-old is on pace for 41 goals this season, meaning he’ll need to pick it up in the second half if he hopes to hit 50 for the fourth straight year.

Nicklas Backstrom

He’s got goals in three straight games and 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in the last five games. The most memorable assist, of course, was the set up pass on Ovechkin’s 1,000th point against Pittsburgh. Backstrom now leads the Caps with 40 points, putting him on pace for a fourth straight season with 70 or more points.

Evgeny Kuznetsov

The second line center has two goals, seven assists and three multiple-point performances in the last six games. Is Kuzy back for real this time? Time will tell.

Nate Schmidt

After registering one point from Nov. 18-Jan.3 (16 games), No. 88 has been channeling his inner Nicklas Lidstrom. In fact, Schmidt has racked up a goal and four assists over the past five games, including a pair of multiple-point outings.

Not

Penalties

There’s not a whole to nitpick these days. But there are still a few areas the Caps want to clean up in the second half of the season. One of them, of course, is penalties. It’s been a well-documented issue in recent weeks. But if the Chicago game was any indication—just a pair of minors, their lowest total in 14 games—they’re headed in the right direction.

Power play

The unit popped a couple against the Penguins, but it’s still a bit chilly by the Caps’ lofty standards. Dating back to Dec. 21, a span of 12 games, the power play has produced a meager four goals on 31 opportunities. Overall, the unit ranks 16th (18.0 percent) on the season, a year after ranking fifth (21.9). Interestingly, the Caps received no power plays in either game against the Blackhawks this season, marking the only two times that’s happened all season.

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The Capitals see so much more in Tom Wilson than just the physical play

The Capitals see so much more in Tom Wilson than just the physical play

The Capitals raised eyebrows over the summer by signing forward Tom Wilson to a six-year, $31 million contract. That’s a hefty contract for a goon whose only contribution to the team are some big hits.

But general manager Brian MacLellan sees a lot more to Wilson’s game than just the physical play. In him, MacLellan sees a top-line line player who is a leader on and off the ice. That was evident during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup and that’s why the team made such a sizable commitment to him in the offseason.

Wilson has a certain reputation around the league because of his physical style of play and his past run-ins with the Department of Player Safety. But that only tells you part of the story. When you look at Wilson’s entire skillset and body of work, it soon becomes clear why the Capitals have so much faith in him.

Washington recognized Wilson’s potential early on, making him a first-round draft pick in the 2012 NHL draft.

“Our amateur scouts had a high opinion of him -- the skating, the physicality, the character – and I think they thought there was some upside there offensively that we could tap into,” MacLellan said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Washington. “He did score some at the junior level, but they thought he could get to a different level as he turned pro.”

But because of how he was utilized when he first entered the league, no one knew Wilson had that extra level to his game.

In need of a physical presence to plug into the lineup, head coach Adam Oates gave Wilson his NHL debut in the 2013 postseason. Rather than return him to his junior team the following season, the Caps elected to keep him in the NHL. Oates, however, only utilized him in a fourth-line enforcer role and that’s how Wilson’s reputation began to grow.

Wilson worked hard at developing other aspects of his game, but it was hard to show those with fourth line minutes. No one saw the work he was putting into his game, all they saw was highlights of fights or big hits.

“He came in originally as a fourth line energy player, might have started in the league a year or two early or not depending on your opinion,” MacLellan said.

Wilson’s real breakout season came in the latter half of the 2017-18 campaign when Barry Trotz elected to make him a top line player.

Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov are two of the most talented offensive players in the NHL, but they are not nearly as good in their own zone. Rather than just load the top line with offensive skill and thus limit the situations in which it could be used, Trotz looked for someone who provide some defensive balance while also be able to keep up with the offensive skill of his line mates.

Wilson seemed like an odd choice initially, but only because most did not know how strong a skater he was. Most did not know his offensive upside. Most did not know the type of leader he was.

But the team did. It didn’t take long for the top line to take off with Wilson playing on the right wing.

“From the last 60 games and into the playoffs, I think his game hit a different level,” MacLellan said. “He played well on the first line with Kuznetsov and Ovechkin. [He] brings a lot to our team, brings a lot of energy to our team and I think at the point there in the playoffs that if we don’t have Tom Wilson, I don’t think we’re winning the Stanley Cup. He was that effective down in a couple of those series.”

If a general manager views a player as being that important to his team’s success, a big contract won’t be far behind.

It was a small sample size, but Wilson was only living up to the potential the Caps always knew he had and so a long-term deal seemed like a no-brainer.

“We felt confident and wanted him to be around here for as long as we could get him,” MacLellan said. “Both parties could have wanted a shorter term just to test the comfort level, test where he’s going to be skill wise and the impact he’s going to have on our team, but I think we were comfortable going term on him because we believe in the player, we believe in the person.”

“When the GM and the organization reach out and are willing to do a long-term thing, it’s pretty exciting and makes you feel good,” Wilson said. “That being said, it’s responsibility to continue to improve and help the team win because at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.”

For more on Wilson the player and the person, be sure to check out our mini documentary “Tom Wilson: Marked Man” that will drop Wednesday exclusively on the MyTeams app!

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Internal competition is making it difficult for Andre Burakovsky to get back into the lineup

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Internal competition is making it difficult for Andre Burakovsky to get back into the lineup

Saturday’s game against the Buffalo Sabres seemed like a good opportunity to get forward Andre Burakovsky back into a game.

The Capitals played Friday against the Carolina Hurricanes making Saturday’s game the second leg of a back-to-back. The physical strain those back-to-backs can put on a team often prompts coaches to make changes to the lineup in order to inject a little energy back into the lineup.

Yet, Todd Reirden announced prior to the game that the only changes he had made were giving Pheonix Copley the start in net and scratching Dmitrij Jaskin for Chandler Stephenson.

That was it.

Burakovsky was a healthy scratch for the third straight game on Saturday. Burakovsky has struggled with consistency throughout his career and has been prone to slumps in the past.

Former head coach Barry Trotz also scratched Burakovsky at times over the various course of his career in Washington and it also seemed to strike the right chord with Burakovsky. He would often produce immediately upon returning to the lineup.

This year, Reirden is trying to same technique, but there’s just one problem. How do you get him back into the lineup?

“It's a difficult situation right now,” Reirden said Monday after practice. “The players are making it difficult for our staff to pick the guys that should be playing each night and that's a good thing. That internal competition that we have going on right now is something that's allowed us to have the type of success we've had the last 24, 25 games.”

As a team, Washington is playing its best hockey of the season and has won 12 of its last 14 games including each of the last three in which Burakovsky was scratched. The team is playing so well, in fact, that it’s hard to justify taking one player out for another at the moment.

“It's been difficult lately for sure with how well all of our forwards are playing making it a difficult situation,” Reirden said.

Reirden explained his reasoning for taking out Jaskin saying that Stephenson is one of the team’s best penalty killers and the penalty kill struggled Friday. In terms of offense – which is what Burakovsky provides more than anything else – the Caps seem to be getting plenty right now.

That production, however, is primarily coming from the other lines. The third line has struggled a bit of late and could use the offensive boost that Burakovsky potentially provides.

So there is hope.

Reirden also praised Burakovsky’s attitude in practice.

“I thought he had a really strong day today in practice,” Reirden said. “He's just got to continue to come to work every day with the right attitude, which he has. He's got so much skill and talent and had a great day of practice again today.”

Burakovsky is doing everything right in practice to get back into the lineup. The problem is that so are his teammates. So has he shown the coaches enough to force his way back into game action in time for Wednesday’s matchup with the Penguins? Reirden is still figuring that out.

“It's a good thing,” he said, “It's a good problem to have and we'll continue to probably change things game-by-game depending on what we see that sets us up for success against that upcoming team.”

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