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Caps Take to the Road

The Caps start a preseason road trip on Wednesday in Chicago

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / washingtoncaps.com

September 25 vs. Chicago Blackhawks at United Center

Time: 8:30 p.m.

TV: NBCSW

Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7

After playing the first half of its six-game exhibition slate on home ice, Washington now takes to the road for the last half of its preseason schedule. The Caps embark upon a rare preseason road trip this week, heading to the Midwest for a Wednesday match against the Blackhawks and a Friday night tilt against the Blues in St. Louis. In between, they'll enjoy an off day in St. Louis.

The Caps close out the 2019 preseason with a Sunday matinee against the Hurricanes in Raleigh.

With less than a week to go until they must submit their opening night roster to the league offices, the Caps still have almost three dozen players in camp. They may make a few cuts to the roster before boarding the bird to Chicago on Wednesday afternoon, and the hockey operations outfit will have plenty to mull over in the 180 minutes of hockey ahead of them later this week.

Camp is coming to a close; the group of 20 players who will suit up in Chicago will participate in a morning skate at MedStar Capitals Iceplex on Wednesday while the remainder of the players in camp will practice shortly thereafter. The entire remaining group will travel to the Windy City, at which point there will only be the three remaining exhibitions and just one practice session - on Saturday at MedStar - before the final cutdown.

With this fall's exhibition slate down to six games from its usual seven, scrimmages and practices have been more of a factor in player evaluations in this Caps camp. But those are almost all in the rear view now, so performances in these final three games will be critical to the immediate futures of some of the bubble players.

Two of the Caps' key cogs are expected to see their first action of the preseason on Wednesday against the Blackhawks. Braden Holtby is slated to split the netminding chores with Pheonix Copley, and Lars Eller appears to be good to go after a brief absence from on-ice activity because of an upper body injury.

"Yeah, I would say based upon [Tuesday's] practice," says Caps coach Todd Reirden, speaking of Eller, "and then I still need to talk to the trainer to get an update on some things, but he looked good the last two days, and hopefully there is no issue today and we'll get him in there [Wednesday]."

Video: Todd Reirden | September 24

Washington will be without center Evgeny Kuznetsov for the season's first three games because of a league suspension. Eller is expected to step up and fill in for Kuznetsov in the top six, and the plan is for him to man the middle of a line with Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie on his flanks. Eller is slated to skate with Vrana and Oshie against the Hawks, but Oshie left practice a bit early on Tuesday with an unspecified minor ailment.

While the Caps will dress a representative group of forwards for Wednesday's game, they'll be leaning young on the blueline. Of the six defensemen slated to suit up in Chicago, only one - John Carlson - spent all of the 2018-19 season in Washington. In addition to finalizing the roster, the Caps are still in the process of determining their optimal blueline pairings for the upcoming campaign. That process is complicated by not knowing if Michal Kempny - Carlson's normal partner - will be ready to go when the season opens on Oct. 2. Kempny is still rehabbing from surgery to repair a serious lower body injury he suffered last March.

"It's been a little bit different, being without Michal," says Reirden, "and seeing if we are going to be able to get him back for game one [of the regular season] or not. Obviously, that changes things a lot. So we're taking a look at everything, and we will continue to, in particular in these next couple of games, to be able to find the guys who have some chemistry.

"A lot of times they end up playing with a lot of different people as the game goes on. With John spending a lot of time on the power play and penalty killing as well with his special teams, so a lot of times different guys play with each other than they do in practice, so sometimes it is a little overblown. But obviously you'd like to have some confidence and some continuity with certain guys, and we'll take a look at some of those options tomorrow."

Wednesday's meeting between the Caps and Hawks is the second of the preseason; Washington prevailed on Tom Wilson's overtime goal on Sept. 16 in the District in the exhibition opener for both teams. Chicago is 2-1-1 on the preseason, winning home games over Detroit and Boston.

The Hawks have only one more preseason game on this side of the Atlantic; they have a rematch with the Bruins in Boston on Saturday afternoon. Immediately after that game, they're off to Germany, where they will finish off the preseason on Sunday afternoon against Eisbaren Berlin.

Chicago opens its regular season slate in the Czech Republic on Friday, facing the Philadelphia Flyers in Prague. That season opener will be the only game the Blackhawks play in a span of 10 days; their second game of the season comes on Oct. 10 when they host the San Jose Sharks.

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