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Blackhawks Buzz: Ladd, Fleischmann to debut against the league-leading Caps

by Emerald Gao / Chicago Blackhawks


1. MEASURING STICK

Sunday's matinee showdown between Chicago and Washington can be seen as a measuring stick for both teams. The Blackhawks would like to make a statement by shutting down the dynamic offense of the winningest team in the league, while the Capitals can further establish themselves as the cream of the crop in the NHL by taking two points from the defending Stanley Cup champions. Chicago dropped a 4-1 decision in D.C. way back in October with Scott Darling taking the loss in the second of back-to-back games, and they'll be looking to snap a four-game losing streak against the Caps dating back to the 2013-14 home opener. Washington arrives having won 10 of their last 12 tilts, including a come-from-behind 3-2 victory over Minnesota on Friday. Chicago, on the other hand, has lost five of their last seven, but there should be considerable excitement over the arrival of some new faces via trade.

2. ON THE MOVE

Senior VP/GM Stan Bowman is no stranger to making deadline trades to bolster the Blackhawks roster for a deep playoff run, and in the last three days he's added four veteran names to the team. On Thursday, Bowman traded for left wing Andrew Ladd from Winnipeg, sending Marko Dano and Chicago's 2016 first-round pick the other way; the former Blackhawk will play on the top line alongside Jonathan Toews and Andrew Shaw on Sunday. After flipping Rob Scuderi to Los Angeles for puck-moving defenseman Christian Ehrhoff on Friday afternoon, Bowman then acquired wingers Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann from Montreal in exchange for Phillip Danault and a 2018 second-round pick; the pair has 24 goals between them this season. While Weise is still awaiting a work visa, Fleischmann should make his debut on the third line, adding veteran presence and perhaps some scoring punch to the third line alongside Teuvo Teravainen and Andrew Desjardins. With just one NHL roster player lost in the three trades, the Blackhawks are hoping the new additions can provide the same depth contributions that proved so valuable in last year's Stanley Cup run.

3. FROM RUSSIA, WITH POINTS

A Russian player has led the Capitals offensively this season, but it's not Alex Ovechkin. Instead, 23-year-old Evgeny Kuznetsov has emerged as a force to be reckoned with on Washington's second line, to the tune of 63 points in 60 games, which includes 45 assists, third-most in the NHL. Kuznetsov has been on the ice for 52 even-strength goals this season, second among league forwards only to Patrick Kane (53, per corsica.hockey), and his production has elevated Washington's offense to another level. Of course, Ovechkin and his monster shot is still the one to watch; he reached the 40-goal mark for the eighth time in his career on Friday, becoming just the 10th player to do so in league history, per Elias. The 30-year-old has been unstoppable lately, tallying 12 goals in 12 games in February so far, and he's especially dangerous on the power play, where he leads the NHL with 16 goals; if the Blackhawks can't stay out of the box on Sunday, it'll require some extra bravery from defenders to get in the way of his heavy one-timer.

4. HOLT BEAST

Led by Ovechkin and frequent linemate Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps have been a great offensive team for years, but they've gotten a huge boost in their own end with the growth of Braden Holtby. The 26-year-old has become one of the league's most dependable netminders after collecting 41 wins in 73 starts last season, and he's continued turning heads with a Vezina-worthy campaign in 2015-16, going 39-6-3 with a .924 save percentage and 2.21 goals-against average in 50 appearances thus far. Holtby has been incredibly consistent, allowing four or more goals just four times this season, and his strength lies in his ability to track pucks, sometimes even through screens. Washington's defense may feel the absence of top-four, do-everything defenseman John Carlson, who underwent lower-body surgery on Saturday and is expected to miss up to a month. The Blackhawks can test Holtby and the rest of the Caps' blue line by hitting the zone with speed and getting the puck on net early and often.

5. JOB EXPERIENCE

Washington made what they felt was a crucial move last offseason, bringing in three-time Stanley Cup champion Justin Williams as a free agent. The veteran has fit in with the Caps' high-octane offense, posting 19 goals and 23 assists in 60 games so far and ranking second behind Ovechkin with 147 shots on goal; he's on track to have his best offensive year in five seasons while playing on the second line alongside Kuznetsov and youngster Andre Burakovsky. The other players on the Caps roster with Stanley Cup experience are defenseman Brooks Orpik (PIT) and center Mike Richards (LAK), who can provide some grit and penalty-killing. Though Orpik is a prototypical stay-at-home defenseman, he has a career-high three goals this season, including one against Minnesota on Friday.

THE FINAL WORD

The Capitals are having a season for the ages, winning three-quarters of their game through 60 games, a rate the league hasn't seen since the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings. Everything seems to be clicking for the Presidents' Trophy front-runners, from their patented offense, led by Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, to strength in net from Holtby, who's having a career year. They're not unbeatable, however, with a bottom-six that can be overwhelmed by strong possession teams, and a defense that could suffer without Carlson. Still, there aren't many holes in Washington's team, and the Blackhawks will need a strong 60-minute effort from their retooled roster—and discipline, considering Washington's league-best power play—to make their intended statement on Sunday.

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