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Caps put band back together in win over Preds, Carlson puts up second four-point game of calendar 2021, Kempny shines in return, more

by Mike Vogel @vogscaps /

For The First Time - When the Caps took the ice for a Dec. 19 home game against the Kings, they did so with Alex Ovechkin as the only member of their top six forward group who was in the lineup. When they finally played their next game 10 days later, they had five of their top six forwards in the lineup for the first time in nearly two months, and they also had a lot of other firsts align for them in Wednesday's 5-3 win over the Nashville Predators.

Evgeny Kuznetsov's second shorthanded goal of the season snapped a 3-3 tie with 5:36 left in the third, propelling the Caps to victory over the Preds.

Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Tom Wilson all returned to the Washington lineup on Wednesday after absences of varying lengths. Wilson was out with an upper body injury while the other three were returning from a stint on the COVID-19 protocol list. The return of that quartet of forwards enabled the Caps achieve a series of elusive lineup firsts against the Preds, some 32 games into the season.

For the first time all season, the Caps had all four centers - Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Lars Eller and Nic Dowd - in the lineup. For the first time all season, they had their entire first power play unit together and on the ice.

There were other firsts as well.

Backstrom played his first game in front of a Capital One Arena crowd since March of 2020, as did Michal Kempny, who played his first NHL game since August of 2020 after being recalled from AHL Hershey. Blueliner Alex Alexeyev played in his first NHL game, three and a half years after he was Washington's first-round choice (31st overall) in the 2018 Draft.

Washington's shutdown trio of Dowd, Carl Hagelin and Garnet Hathaway were together again for the first time since Dec. 2, and they made their mark on the game, chipping in a couple of goals while playing their usual brand of diligent defense and tenacious forechecking.

"Just having everyone back, there was just a good feeling in the room," says Wilson. "It was a lot of fun pregame and you're ready to go come puck drop. Just having some of the leaders back in - Backy, Osh, those guys - it means a lot. And with a guy like Kemps coming back, it was a fun day leading up to it."

Despite a 10-day layoff, the Caps didn't show much in the way of rust and they seemed to draw energy from having so many key players back in their lineup.

"For the guys that have been here a long time, I think it felt normal," says John Carlson, who paced the attack with a four-point game. "I think the crowd was into it tonight as well. It just seemed like even though we had the dud in the second [period], I think we played pretty well.

"Everything felt a little bit different than it has this year, and whether that's mentally or physically on the ice - whatever it is - I think there's a lot to be excited about. Coming home, coming off a layoff too. Sometimes we need some days off and we want some days off, but especially for these guys who have been sitting around for a long time and not being able to do anything. So I think there was some freedom for a lot of people."

"It was good, but guys are dealing with a lot," says Caps coach Peter Laviolette. "Not us; I'm not trying to paint a picture here, I'm saying everybody in the League. You're trying to get up to speed, and guys like Ovi and Kuzy and John Carlson, they've been playing 25 minutes a night the entire year. They just got shutdown a little bit, so their 'pause' is only this big. But other guys' pauses - for whatever reason - are deeper or longer. So they're trying to get back to speed.

"I thought our guys did a good job coming out of the break. You see T.J. Oshie jump on the ice and he hasn't been on the ice in 10 days. So he pregame skated this morning, he wanted to play. I told him I was only going to play him 12 minutes; I didn't do a very good job of that. This is where we're at."

Let The Four Winds Blow - Carlson's four-point game (one goal, three assists) is the second of his NHL career. The first came earlier this year and late last season when he recorded four assists in a 6-3 win over the Flyers in Philadelphia on April 17.

With 30 points (seven goals, 23 assists) on the season, Carlson ranks third in the NHL in scoring among blueliners, trailing Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman by three points.

Step Right Up - For each of the first 20 games of the 2021-22 regular season, the Caps had the luxury of dressing the same six defensemen every night. And even for the 11 games that followed, they were able to have at least five of their top six defensemen in the lineup.

That changed during the lengthened holiday break when a quartet of defensemen went into protocol, including three members of their top six: Martin Fehervary, Nick Jensen and Justin Schultz. In their place, the Caps dressed Kempny, Alexeyev and Matt Irwin. Both Kempny and Alexeyev suited up for the first time this season while Irwin did so for the sixth time this season, and the sixth time in Washington's last eight games.

"Defensively, I thought we were really good," says Laviolette. "I don't think we gave up a half a dozen chances. To have those guys jump in there - Kemps comes back up here and logged some minutes; he did a really good job. Matty I is just steady, he's physical and he's steady and he moves the puck. I thought Alexeyev did a good job and his first game. And so we had guys jumping in for their first game, and they contributed in a positive way. I thought those three players that jumped in did a really good job, and defensively I thought our team did a good job."

Kempny missed all of last season with a torn Achilles' heel, the second debilitating injury he has suffered in less than two years. Assigned to Hershey at the start of the season, he skated in two dozen games with the Bears, logging a lot of ice time in a lot of different situations.

Kempny showed well in his Wednesday return, picking up an assist on Dowd's first-period goal and logging 20:57 in ice time, including 3:38 worth of shorthanded duty, which was second only to Trevor van Riemsdyk's 3:50 among Caps defensemen.

"I think it's awesome," says Carlson of Kempny's return. "We've talked about it a number of times in the past, what he's been through and how hard and dedicated he is. It's great to see. He was playing great in Hershey - like we all expected him to - really getting his game back and getting his feeling back, working harder than anybody down there. It's nice to see him come up, and he played a heck of a lot of minutes and he did great, and it was just great to see.

"From our perspective, we need guys to step up. There was a lot of [defensemen] out, and he certainly did more than fill a role. And on a personal level, it's pretty special for him. A lot goes into it; rehab and that that sort of thing can really take a toll on someone mentally, just like sitting in a hotel room for a couple of weeks with COVID. Neither are very fun. They can be really taxing on someone that just wants to feel like he can contribute with his friends and play a game he loves. That's awesome for him to come back and then make a statement with a with a great game."

Power Point - For the second straight game and for the fourth time this season, the Caps had six power play opportunities in Wednesday's game. For the second straight game, they were unable to cash in on any of those extra-man opportunities and they are now 1-for-27 with the extra man in their last 10 games.

Washington did generate 13 shots on net with the extra man, and the power play unit - reunited for the first time this season - looked more cohesive despite not having practiced together as a group at any point this season. With a 14.6 percent success rate on the season, the Caps have tumbled to 30th in the NHL in power play efficiency, but Laviolette was content with the performance of the power play, if not the results.

"When we go back and look at the chances tonight, there's going to be 15 scoring chances on the power play," says Laviolette. "And so these will drop at some point; they'll go. For them to generate 15 - for a group that's been kind of tattered by whatever we've been dealing with - to get 15 chances [is good].

"It would have been great to get a goal or two goals on the power play - it didn't happen. Sometimes you've got to look at whether or not you're getting in the zone, whether or not you're creating quality chances. And tonight we did, and it didn't drop. We'll continue to work at it and try to get better."

Down On The Farm - The AHL Hershey Bears skated to a 6-1 win over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Wednesday night at Giant Center.

Following a scoreless first frame, the Bears took control of the contest with a four-goal outburst in the second. Playing in his 70th career AHL game, blueliner Tobias Geisser got the scoring started with his first career goal in the League at 1:49 of the middle stanza, Macoy Erkamps and Mason Morelli assisting. Less than four minutes later, Marcus Vela scored his first career AHL goal with help from Ryan Dmowski and Bobby Nardella, lifting the Bears to a 2-0 lead at 5:28. Morelli netted his fourth goal of the season - and unassisted strike - to make it 3-0 at 7:21, and Nardella's fourth of the season came at 19:29, with help from Morelli and Shane Gersich.

The Baby Pens scored their lone goal of the game just 13 seconds after Nardella's goal, and the Bears tacked on two more tallies in the third. At 5:13, Dylan McIlrath's second of the season made it a 5-1 contest, Gersich and Morelli assisting. Dmowski closed out the scoring with his seventh of the season at 6:21 with help from Joe Snively and Drake Rymsha.

All six goals came at even strength as the Bears went through the game without getting a power play opportunity. Hunter Shepard notched his second win of the season (2-1-0) with a 19-save performance in the Hershey nets.

The 14-9-2-1 Bears improved to 5-0-0 against the Baby Pens on the season. Hershey is back in action on Sunday when it hosts Bridgeport at Giant Center.

By The Numbers - Ovechkin led the Caps with 26:01 in ice time; he was on the ice for 11:15 of Washington's total of 11:26 of power play time on the night … Carlson led the Caps with five shots on net while Ovechkin led the team with a dozen shot attempts … Hathaway led the Caps with three hits … Despite logging only 9:29 in ice time, Irwin led Washington with four blocked shots … Dowd won 11 of 13 face-offs (85 percent).

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