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The Washington Capitals are up to their old tricks again

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The Washington Capitals are doing that thing again.

It seems every year they find a way to work themselves into the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. They’ve finished first in their division seven times out of the past 10 seasons and second twice. Only once — a fifth-place showing — have they been outside the top two during the past decade.

It’s become as predictable as it is remarkable.

And this year, at first glance, it’s sort of surprising.

Sure, Alex Ovechkin is still scoring, Nicklas Backstrom is still assisting and Braden Holtby is still stopping a lot of pucks.

But the Caps also took, what at least appeared to be at the time, a big hit on the backend over the summer.

Offensively, not much has changed (although they did lose Marcus Johannson’s 24 goals) but losing Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk to free agency and Nate Schmidt in the expansion draft left a sizeable hole to be filled on the blueline.

[Alex Ovechkin has never had a goal-scoring run like this]

Statistically speaking, they’ve also regressed from the numbers they put up last season when they amassed 55 wins.

They had the fourth best Corsi rating in the NHL last season, a statistic that made sense giving their winning prowess. Yet this year, with 21 wins, they sit 23rd in the category they dominated last season.

The same story plays out in expected goals, where they sat ninth last season yet are in 26th place now.

Analytically, a lot of their success this season doesn’t seem to add up, and yet they’ve won eight of their last 10 games and are currently on a three-game heater.

So why are they tied for first place in the Metro? There are a few answers to be had.

In the scoring department, several players have stepped up. Jakub Vrana has 10 goals in 33 games after three in 21 games last year and Tom Wilson is just three points shy of the 19 points he put up in 82 games last season. Brett Connolly and Alex Chaisson are also scoring at better rates and Washington sits eighth in five-on-five scoring.

What is also helping is their high shooting percentage.

At 9.22 percent, the Caps sit in fifth in the league, and their PDO, when you combine their shooting percentage and team save percentage, sits at 101.98, good for the third spot in the NHL.

And the Caps have proven they can keep that number high. Only two teams finished with over nine percent last season, and the Caps were one of them.

On defence, John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov have picked up the slack. The rookie third pairing of Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey is averaging 14 minutes a game and have been a solid addition.

And Holtby, is well, Holtby, which has been especially helpful given Philipp Grubauer‘s struggles to return to last year’s form so far.

So the Caps, for the most part, are in a good spot.

The biggest question that will surround the Caps, assuming they hold serve, is if they can replicate it in the playoffs.

Despite winning a slew of regular season games, the Capitals just can’t figure out how to do the same in April and May.

In nine of the past ten seasons they’ve made the playoffs, they’ve failed to even sniff the Eastern Conference Final, never mind a Stanley Cup final berth.

But that’s another story for another day, as it were.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Poll: Will the Caps miss Mike Green?

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Mike Green only averaged 19:06 of ice time last season, down more than three minutes from his previous season.

But that reduction wasn’t really a reflection of his play. It was the additions of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik in free agency. There are only so many minutes to go around, and the Caps also had to give John Carlson and Karl Alzner their time.

Despite Green playing less, he actually saw his production increase, from 38 points in 70 games in 2013-14 to 45 points in 72 games last season. Only 15 NHL defensemen had more points than Green did. Shea Weber and Duncan Keith also had 45 points, and they played more games and received far more ice time.

But the Caps had to make a tough decision. If Green wasn’t a top-four d-man on their team, they couldn’t pay him like one. So he signed with Detroit for three years and $18 million.

Green’s departure leaves the Caps with a top four of Orpik, Carlson, Alzner and Niskanen, with a potential bottom pairing of 24-year-olds Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt. (KHL veteran Ilya Nikulin could reportedly be on his way to D.C., too.)

OK, time to vote:

Related: John Carlson is under pressure

Capitals, Schmidt agree to two-year extension

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The Washington Capitals announced that they have signed a two-year, $1,625,000 contract extension with defenseman Nate Schmidt.

Schmidt’s deal is one-way and will pay him $750,000 next season and $875,000 in 2016-17. That works out to be an annual cap hit of $812,500.

The 23-year-old defenseman was never drafted, but he excelled at the University of Minnesota. In 2012-13 he was part of the All-WCHA First Team after leading all defensemen with 41 points. He finished in a tie for third among NCAA blueliners in the scoring race in the subsequent campaign with 32 points in 40 contests.

He had a goal and four points in 39 contests in 2014-15 with Washington. He also recorded three goals and six assists in 19 AHL contests.

With Schmidt locked up, the Capitals now have six blueliners inked to one-way deals. Mike Green, John Erskine, and Tim Gleason are eligible to test the unrestricted free agent waters this summer.

Here’s your Stanley Cup playoff TV schedule for tonight

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A quick look at what games will be on what channels in tonight’s Stanley Cup playoff action…

Rangers at Capitals, 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN

The New York Rangers visit the Washington Capitals in the lone game on the NHL schedule tonight.

The Caps will look to bounce back from a poor start in Game 2, which left them trailing 2-0 after 20 minutes. Washington has won all three games following a loss this postseason.

Washington recalled defenseman Nate Schmidt from the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears in case Tim Gleason (undisclosed) is unable to play. Gleason did not practice on Sunday.

The Rangers primary concern is shutting down Alex Ovechkin. The Caps’ captain has four goals and four assists in nine playoff games this season including three points through the first two games of the second round. It’s a welcome sight for Washington as Ovechkin had just one goal and assist in seven games during the Caps’ first round loss to the Rangers in 2013.

Caps’ Schmidt hurt (shoulder) while playing in AHL, out 6-8 weeks

On Monday, the Capitals announced defenseman Nate Schmidt would miss the next 6-8 weeks after suffering a scapular fracture while playing for AHL Hershey.

Schmidt, 23, has spent the majority of this season with the Caps, appearing in 33 games while averaging 13 minutes a night. He’d been on assignment with the Bears to get some playing time; there was a stretch from Dec. 24 to Jan. 8 where he didn’t get in the Caps lineup and was reduced to watching from the press box, which included the 2015 Winter Classic at Nationals Park.

A former standout at the University of Minnesota, Schmidt was hurt over the weekend on a hit from Milwaukee’s Chris Wagner.