Evgeni Malkin

Washington Capitals center Zach Sanford celebrates his goal during the third period of an NHL hockey game as Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson, back, looks on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017, in Washington. It was Sanford's first NHL goal. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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Injury to Burakovsky allows Capitals to evaluate depth

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) If there was ever a good time for the Washington Capitals to go through an injury, it’s now.

That’s not a knock on Andre Burakovsky, who was a point-a-game player the last 14 games before a hand injury sidelined him until mid-to-late March. But without the 22-year-old forward, the Capitals get a chance to see what they have in youngsters like Zach Sanford, Jakub Vrana and others in case they’re needed in the playoffs.

Burakovsky was having a productive stretch when he took a slap shot to his right hand on Feb. 9, but his absence gives general manager Brian MacLellan several games to evaluate Washington’s depth ahead of the March 1 trade deadline

“Mac needs to know what we have and how comfortable we are with everybody there,” coach Barry Trotz said last week. “This last (24) games, it’s going to crank up another level. Some guys will thrive in that environment, and some guys will fall off. We’ve got to really try to find that out before the trade deadline. We feel fairly comfortable, but we’d still like to have more info.”

The Capitals lead the Eastern Conference by five points over the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, who are the example for finding silver linings in significant injuries. Last season, injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Beau Bennett and Marc-Andre Fleury opened the door for players like Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl and Matt Murray to get quality NHL ice time and show what they could do under pressure.

Washington has been the healthiest team in the league this season, so opportunities for call-ups have been limited to nine games missed by top-line right winger T.J. Oshie, a handful of precautionary blips and now Burakovsky’s absence. Only 26 players have appeared in a game for the Capitals this season, tied for the fewest in the league, but if that luck runs out, they need to be prepared.

“It’s really important that you have guys who can step in, too, in case something happens to anyone,” said center Nicklas Backstrom, who quietly is fourth in the league in scoring with 61 points.

The Capitals added to their depth on defense by acquiring Tom Gilbert from the Los Angeles Kings last week and stashing him with Hershey of the American Hockey League. Whether MacLellan seeks to make another depth move, especially up front, could depend on how Sanford does in Burakovsky’s place Wednesday at the Philadelphia Flyers and beyond.

The 22-year-old rookie had one point in his first 21 games before scoring in consecutive games upon his return.

“It’s good for a guy like (Sanford) to come in, he scores in back-to-back games, and get his confidence up a little bit because down the line we might need him to come in and be good and help us win,” forward Brett Connolly said. “There’s so many things that can happen. Guys can play poorly in the playoffs and they want to switch it up.”

The best candidates to be the 2017 versions of Sheary, Rust and Kuhnhackl are Sanford, Vrana, Tuesday call-up Travis Boyd, Chandler Stephenson and Liam O’Brien. Alex Ovechkin sees those players as more than capable of filling in if injuries happen.

“We have very good prospects and young talented players in Hershey, so they can jump in right away and play as good as they are,” Ovechkin said. “I hope nobody gonna get hurt, but it’s hockey. It’s a tough sport.”

Trotz said it’s a “next man up mentality” when injuries happen. But that next man has to be ready for the challenge, and Sanford can show that down the stretch and put his early-season confidence issues behind him.

“I think that’ll be huge for me,” Sanford said. “The playoffs are a whole different beast and hopefully when you get there if I get in (the lineup), hopefully the beginning of the season here and what we’re going through now helps me feel comfortable.”

Related: A rebuilt third line has been key for the Caps

 

Jets have some disagreements with Trouba’s suspension, lack of suspension for Malkin

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 26: Jacob Trouba #8 of the Winnipeg Jets looks to pass the puck against the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center on January 26, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The Jets defeated the Blackhawks 5-3. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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The NHL’s department of player safety handed Winnipeg Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba a two-game suspension on Monday afternoon for a high, forceful hit to Ottawa Senators forward Mark Stone over the weekend.

Stone is one of the many Senators forwards out of the lineup on Tuesday night.

It is a decision that has left the Jets feeling a little confused. Not only because of the suspension itself, but because of the lack of a suspension for Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin for a high hit he delivered on Jets forward Blake Wheeler on Thursday night in Pittsburgh.

That perceived inconsistency has not entirely sat well with the Jets.

On Tuesday, before their game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Wheeler shared some of his thoughts on the differing decisions by the league.

“You like to see consistency throughout,” Wheeler said on Tuesday, via ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun. “We respect the fact they have a lot of hits they have to sort through every single day. There’s two glaring examples back to back, it gets the question why one way and why not the other way? So, it’s a little bit frustrating to see it. Even Jacob would say his hit wasn’t ideal, wishes he could have it back. You can’t really even speculate why they didn’t do the same to Malkin. It sure didn’t feel good.”

The NHL has not made an official explanation as to why it did not suspend Malkin, but it’s been reported that the league simply views the two plays as different types of hits. In the case of Malkin’s hit on Wheeler, the league saw the shoulder being the biggest point of contact and that it wasn’t necessarily charging or interference.

This was the hit.

He had more thoughts, again via LeBrun:

“My answer to that is why is he hitting me at all? It has no impact on the play whatsoever. You know Evgeni Malkin is pretty aware of his surroundings on the ice, he’s one of the top players in the league. I think he knows who has the puck and who doesn’t have the puck. If I’m him and I’m hitting a guy like that, it’s a cheap shot. Because I know I’m doing that. That’s to me how I see it.”

Jets coach Paul Maurice was also asked about the decision to suspend Trouba and had a very odd way of voicing his disagreement, deciding to talk about how frugal he is financially, pretty much suggesting that he does not want to say anything that would get him fined.

“What’s the truth? So we respectfully accept the decision while we disagree,” said Maurice, then briefly pausing before deciding to continue.

“I got one. I drive a 2011 Yukon. I bought it used. Because I’m cheap. Frugal. Frugality. Frugalness. I am not sure how you want to go with it. But my cheapness outweighs my disappointment. Fair enough?”

Sure is, coach! In other words: He does not like it, but he does not want to lose any of his paycheck for saying what he really thinks.

When asked if the lack of a suspension for Malkin weighed into his disappointment, he added “I would suggest that any of the spinal fractures that we have suffered over the past year would weigh into my disappointment.”

Trouba will miss the Jets’ games on Tuesday against Toronto and then their Feb. 28 game against Minnesota following their bye week.

He will be eligible to return on March 3 against the St. Louis Blues.

Red Wings take advantage of Penguins’ mistakes in 5-2 win

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Even though the odds are stacked against them at this point, if the Detroit Red Wings are going to extend their playoff streak they are going to need to pile up a lot of wins the rest of the way to dig themselves out of the hole they put themselves in.

They took a big step toward doing that this weekend with two huge wins over the top two teams in the Eastern Conference.

They completed the weekend on Sunday with a rather convincing 5-2 win in Pittsburgh, taking advantage of a sloppy Penguins team that struggled in all phases of the game.

This win came just one day after the Red Wings beat the Washington Capitals in a shootout.

The big story for Detroit on Sunday early on was the play of starting goaltender Petr Mrazek — starting both ends of the back-to-back this week — as he made a couple of highlight reel saves to rob Ian Cole and Nick Bonino of what looked like sure goals.

In the two games this weekend he stopped 58 of the 62 shots he faced.

It has been a disappointing season for Mrazek individually, but he has worked to salvage it over the past four games by only allowing only nine goals on 160 shots (.943 save percentage).

As for the players in front of him, the Red Wings’ penalty killers were sensational on Sunday, frustrating the Penguins’ power play and limiting them to just three total shots on goal on their four power play attempts.

Three of the Penguins’ power plays failed to register a single shot on goal.

While Mrazek and the Red Wings were shutting down the Penguins’ high powered offensive attack, the Red Wings feasted on some brutal turnovers by the Penguins and an off day from Matt Murray in net to put five goals on the board. It was only the third time in the past month they scored more than three goals in a game.

They opened the scoring in the first period on a slick Nick Jensen goal following an Evgeni Malkin turnover in the offensive zone (seen above).

With the Red Wings holding a 2-1 lead entering the third period, a Jake Guentzel turnover resulted in Tomas Tatar‘s 14th goal of the season for the Red Wings to give them a two-goal lead.

Just two minutes later Thomas Vanek put the game away with his 15th goal of the season.

Sunday’s win is still just Detroit’s fourth in its past 14 games, while the Red Wings remain six points back of a playoff spot in 15th place in the Eastern Conference.

For the Penguins, it is their first loss in regulation since the All-Star break snapping what had been a nine-game point streak that saw them go 6-0-3.

Dubinsky, Blue Jackets get last laugh vs. Crosby and Penguins

COLUMBUS, OH - DECEMBER 23:  Brandon Dubinsky #17 of the Columbus Blue Jackets lines up for a face off during the game against the Montreal Canadiens on December 23, 2016 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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During the first shift of Friday’s Penguins – Blue Jackets game, Sidney Crosby and Brandon Dubinsky battled it out. Dubinsky ended up getting the last laugh with a brilliant overtime game-winner in a thrilling 2-1 overtime win for Columbus.

If you love to dismiss scoring worries by saying that a 2-1 game can be exciting, you might want to bookmark this one.

For one thing, there was that physicality that makes this rivalry something that can build into the disdain between Ohio and Pennsylvania sports teams. There was also some drama, including at least one goal that maybe shouldn’t have been whistled off. Evgeni Malkin also collected his 500th assist while Matt Murray made a brilliant late third period save on Brandon Saad to at least salvage a point for the Penguins.

The two teams combined for almost 80 shots on goal, with a ton of chances coming in regulation. Here’s a pretty, video-game-like way of depicting the action:

Dubinsky’s overtime game-winner ended up being the decisive blow in a game that very well might serve as an enticing appetizer for a first-round series of conference finals quality.

Tremendous stuff. For fans of the Penguins and Blue Jackets, a first-round matchup would be less than welcome. If a series was anything like tonight’s game, it would be must-see TV for the rest of us.

Here’s an updated look at the Metro’s races for the second and third spots:

2. Penguins – 80 points in 57 games (36 wins, 34 ROW)
3. Blue Jackets – 79 points in 57 games (37 wins, 35 ROW)

Rangers – 75 points in 57 games (37 wins, 35 ROW)

The Capitals aren’t totally bulletproof for the division crown, even with 84 standings points, a game in hand and a six-game winning streak in mind. Still, at least tonight, it was tough to shake the mental picture of a possible battle between the Blue Jackets and the Penguins.

Hagelin returned to Penguins lineup; Malkin gets 500th assist

MONTREAL, QC - JANUARY 18:  Carl Hagelin #62 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates the puck during the NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre on January 18, 2017 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-1.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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Despite the score being 0-0, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins combined for an entertaining first period. For some, the most exciting sight might just be a speedy number 62 in white.

It’s at least a little surprising to see that Carl Hagelin returned to the Penguins lineup on Friday after being sidelined with a concussion since Feb. 4. Then again, considering his status as one of the league’s speediest wingers, it’s kind of fitting, right?

He’s lining up with Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist so far, already making his presence felt with his ability to find some space.

If there’s any concern about complications, Hagelin should be especially careful tonight. There are pretty apparent “tensions” between these teams.

Update: During the same week that Sidney Crosby scored his 1,000th point, Evgeni Malkin grabbed his 500th assist: