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Why tonight’s Penguins-Capitals showdown is huge for Washington

With the Winter Classic on its way next week in Pittsburgh, tonight’s Capitals-Penguins game in Washington takes on a bit more of the spotlight. It’s the first meeting of the year between the teams and while each team has been playing well so far this season, the Caps come into the game on a short, two-game win streak but still unsure of where they’re at as a team. The Penguins showed a lot lately rattling off a 12-game win streak before losing two in a row. They too enter this game on a two game win streak but if there’s a team that has something to prove tonight it’s Washington.

The Capitals losing streak caused a bit of a panic amongst fans and media alike and the worry that it caused the Capitals coaches and players showed on their faces during both episodes of HBOs 24/7 series (our review of each episode are here and here). While winning over Ottawa seemed to take the monkey off the Caps backs, beating the Senators and Devils (who fired their coach today following that loss) in back to back games doesn’t look very impressive.

Tonight, the Capitals have a chance to show that their losing streak and bad habits are, indeed, all behind them. Playing against the Penguins gives them their first opportunity in a while to show that they’re capable of playing a great game against a great team. They played a tough game against Boston that saw them get down 3-0 in the first period and after Mike Knuble read the riot act to his teammates between periods, the Caps snapped out of their haze and stormed back to get within a goal of Boston before losing. They lost but went down fighting. A similar kind of start against Pittsburgh tonight will take a rabid Verizon Center crowd out of the game and once again test the mental mettle of what, thanks to 24/7, seems to be a very hot and cold psychological team in Washington.

We understand that it’s just one game, but for the Capitals this one game offers them an opportunity. An opportunity to rally around each other and to rally around coach Bruce Boudreau. A poor showing tonight would reflect badly upon Boudreau and would really drive up the talk about whether or not Boudreau should be the guy in charge of things in D.C. Tonight’s game gives Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin the opportunity to snap out of their offensive funk and take the spotlight away from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for a night.

The Penguins are the media darlings right now but if the Capitals want to grab the spotlight for themselves and show that they too are serious contenders this season, taking care of business in any way against Pittsburgh would send the appropriate message. The residual effect it would have on the Winter Classic and every other meeting between the teams this year would turn each game into its own version of must-see TV and that’s just the way the NHL would like it to be. Now it’s up to the Capitals to figure out if they want it as bad as they say they do.

Sharks scratch Flames’ big lead, Calgary wins anyway

Calgary Flames' Mikael Backlund (11) chases down the puck against San Jose Sharks' Tomas Hertl (48) during the second period of an NHL hockey game in San Jose, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
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If you turned off Thursday’s Calgary Flames – San Jose Sharks game early, you’ll probably be stunned to see that Calgary won 6-5 via a shootout.

For instance:

  • A Sharks fan may have bitterly called it a night when Calgary went up 4-1.
  • Conversely, a Flames devotee might have retired after San Jose took a 5-4 lead, possibly with a broken remote.

The Flames only trailed for about two minutes before scoring the last “real” goal of the game, eventually taking their third straight win thanks to a shootout triumph.

It’s been a strange ride for Calgary, with its most recent win happening after Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Lance Bouma were punished with a healthy scratch. As strange as this game was, the “charity point” can leave both teams looking through a lot of film, yet with something gained as well.

Ultimately, the message may very well be: don’t sleep on these teams.

(In less positive news, Karri Ramo is injured, and it doesn’t look good.

Jonas Hiller closing out the game on a hot streak could be pretty important if Ramo’s out for some time.)

By winning fifth straight, Caps extend Wild’s slump to seven losses

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Alex Ovechkin scored three times in the second period for his 14th career hat trick, and the Washington Capitals beat the Minnesota Wild 4-3 on Thursday night.

Ovechkin, who leads the league with 34 goals, has 13 in his past 13 games. Nicklas Backstrom had three assists and Jason Chimera added an empty-netter for Washington, which improved to a league-best 20-5-2 on the road.

Braden Holtby made 33 saves for the Capitals, who won their fifth consecutive game and became the first team to reach 40 victories this season.

Charlie Coyle, Ryan Suter and Mikael Granlund scored for the Wild, but Minnesota lost for the 12th time in its past 13 games (1-10-2). Devan Dubnyk made 29 saves for the Wild, who have lost seven in a row at home (0-4-3).

Ovechkin’s third goal, which deflected off both the post and the back of Dubnyk into the net, was upheld following a coach’s challenge. Wild coach Mike Yeo challenged that the puck had left the zone for offsides, but the call stood after a review showed that Backstrom stopped the puck before it crossed the blue line.

The goal gave Ovechkin his first hat trick since he scored four goals against Tampa Bay on Dec. 10, 2013.

It wasn’t the only fortunate bounce for Ovechkin on the night, and the five-time 50-goal scorer capitalized on each opportunity.

A shot from T.J. Oshie deflected off of Minnesota forward Zach Parise across the ice right to Ovechkin in the left faceoff circle and Ovechkin quickly snapped off a shot to beat Dubnyk, who couldn’t get across the crease to get into position. Three minutes later, Ovechkin scored on the power play when a point shot bounced off the end boards right to Ovechkin in front of the net.

The tally provided some relief for the Capitals’ surprisingly ineffective power play. Washington had one power play in its previous six games, an empty-netter for the only goal in its previous 20 power-play chances. The Capitals were 1 of 5 on the power play on Thursday.

Coyle scored for the fifth time in eight games in the second, but second periods have doomed the Wild during their slump. Minnesota has been outscored 13-3 in the period in five straight losses.

Suter scored his sixth goal of the season on the power play in the third as Minnesota went 1 of 5 with the man advantage.

NOTES: Washington C Evgeny Kuznetsov left in the third period after he was hit in the face by the stick of Mikael Granlund off a faceoff. … Backstrom has 20 points in his last 17 games. … Minnesota D Jared Spurgeon missed his second straight game with an unspecified deep bruise. Spurgeon has returned to practice, but was held out again. … Holtby is 27-1-3 in his last 31 games with two shutouts, a 2.10 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.

Watch the Blackhawks’ Patrick Sharp tribute video

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Over the years, the Chicago Blackhawks have been forced to let some important players leave to keep their core together, which ultimately meant parting ways with Patrick Sharp.

The talented winger now wears a Dallas Stars jersey, so Blackhawks fans must face the reality of watching Sharp ply his trade for a formidable Central Division opponent.

Even if that might feel awkward, Blackhawks fans gave Sharp (and Johnny Oduya) a warm reception in Chicago on Thursday.

CSNChicago.com provides video of that ovation, which you can see in the clip above.

The Stars currently lead the Blackhawks 4-2, thanks in large part to Patrick … Eaves.

Ovechkin’s 14th career hat trick helps him make more history

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Death, taxes and Alex Ovechkin winning the Maurice Richard Trophy.

OK, the third thing on that list isn’t technically inevitable. It just feels that way lately in the NHL.

It’s unclear if the Washington Capitals can hold on against the Minnesota Wild, but we know for certain that Ovechkin already has a hat trick, the 14th of his high-scoring career.

(He also passed Jean Beliveau for 39th all-time in goals with his 509th, as NHL.com notes.)

This propels Ovechkin to the goals lead as of this writing, as he already has 34. As impressive as Patrick Kane has been, No. 8 is heating up, and may just edge No. 88 if Ovechkin can remain healthy.

One has to feel a little sympathy for the struggling Wild. They played well but lost against the Dallas Stars earlier this week and now must deal with Ovechkin and the just-as-hot Capitals.

Update: Minnesota managed three goals, but it wasn’t enough, as Washington got the edge 4-3.