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Friday Four: Capitals, Rangers playing like elite teams

by Kevin Weekes / NHL.com

Each Friday throughout the regular season Kevin Weekes will be bringing you his Friday Four in his Weekes on the Web blog. He will be blogging about four players, teams, plays, trends or really four of whatever in the NHL that have caught his eye.

Now that the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic is over, we begin the almost three-week run-up to the 2015 NHL All-Star Weekend. Here are four teams I'm keeping a close eye on as we get closer to Columbus:

WASHINGTON CAPITALS (Last 10: 6-1-3)

The way they're playing right now is a credit to their coaching staff with Barry Trotz, Lane Lambert, Todd Reirden, Blaine Forsythe and Mitch Korn. All of those guys have done a fantastic job with that group.

Washington's commitment to play a harder game is impressive. The Capitals are playing a more physical game than we've seen from them in the past. It's not just physical, it's disciplined physical, and they're forcing opposing players to earn their space and time to make plays.

The Capitals are learning how to win games in different ways. There is more structure. There is a great buy-in level, and everyone is starting to believe in the system and how successful it can be. Their players are believing what this staff is preaching.

Braden Holtby
Goalie - WSH
RECORD: 17-8-6
GAA: 2.27 | SVP: .920
When you look at Braden Holtby, his game is just tighter overall. Mitch has had him doing a better job of not allowing any goals through the body. He's also using his hands more, both in unison and independently. That's helped his rebound control and helps him retain a lot more pucks in the body or the glove, and to direct them with the blocker.

In addition, Holtby's mental approach is sharper. He's a very articulate guy, very bright, but under Mitch he's been sharper and there is more consistency in his game. He's playing every game, and for the most part every night you're getting the same performance.

But the Capitals also are playing much better in front of him, and I'm not just talking about guys like Brooks Orpik, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Matt Niskanen, Brooks Laich, Joel Ward and Eric Fehr. Look at Alex Ovechkin, he's a plus-8 now. He was a minus-35 last season. Look at all of their skill players and the buy-in level from them. They are all doing a much better job.

After their win Thursday it has to be an even greater buy-in. They beat a two-time Stanley Cup championship team on the big stage. Now I want to see how this translates going forward for them and what this turns into.

They had an unreal December and they started out with the win Thursday. I want to keep an eye on them.

NEW YORK RANGERS (Last 10: 9-1-0)

In the last six weeks we have seen the Rangers play their most consistent brand of hockey. It looks like they finally hit their stride. What makes that interesting is Washington has picked up its game too. This is going to be a great race to watch.

Obviously Rick Nash is having a great season, but Henrik Lundqvist said he needed to be better after a slow start and he has been in every situation. Cam Talbot has three shutouts. Overall they just have a lot of good things going for them right now. Derek Stepan had the hat trick recently and he's better than a point-per-game player now with 25 points in 23 games. They need that out of him.

The best part of the Rangers is they're playing fast again. They have their up-tempo game working again. I'm interested to see if they can keep it going, because I do have a feeling the Capitals will, and I don't think the Columbus Blue Jackets are going to go away.

MINNESOTA WILD (Last 10: 3-4-3)

I've mentioned this before here in this space, but overall I think Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher has done a nice job there. They have some nice pieces. Nino Niederreiter, a player he basically stole from the Islanders, is having a good season. Zach Parise is a point-per-game player. Quietly they have some nice guys on defense with Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon.

Thomas Vanek
Left Wing - MIN
GOALS: 6 | ASST: 16 | PTS: 22
SOG: 64 | +/-: -3
But they have players who have more to give. At the top of that list is Thomas Vanek. He is starting to feel his way now, but he has to pick up his scoring even more. He has six goals in 35 games, including five scored in his past 14 games.

I think the most important key to their team is Darcy Kuemper. We need to remember he is a young goalie, but he has all the tools to be a top-flight goalie in the League. He is on a team that for the most part defends well, so that puts him in a great situation.

Mikael Granlund's injury is a tough one to deal with, but they have depth and other guys have to step up.

We've talked about their power play, they need it. They can't beat teams like Chicago without scoring on their power play. They defend well, but they don't score enough at even-strength, so they are more power-play dependent to get points than some other teams in the Western Conference.

COLORADO AVALANCHE (Last 10: 5-3-2)

Let's hope for their sake that Semyon Varlamov can stay healthy. Calvin Pickard was amazing. That was a great story. He kept them afloat while Varlamov was gone. That's tough to come in and replace a Vezina finalist like that. They need Varlamov though.

I'd like to see more from them defensively. Patrick Roy does give them the freedom to take chances, but they need to come back and be more defensive. They can't rely so much on their goalies and expect to get back in this thing this season. They're allowing 2.97 goals and 33.7 shots per game. They're going nowhere if those numbers don't come down.

I am a big fan of Matt Duchene, Ryan O'Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon, but those guys have more to give. My point with them is they can't just rely on being a rush team offensively. There isn't enough room to make plays in the NHL on a nightly basis to rely on skill alone, particularly in the West. They have to have a different dimension to their scoring.

The problem is I don't see them scoring a lot of goals on second and third chances around the net. Last season they had a nice balance and attacked and scored goals in so many ways. They need to get grittier this season. All those guys are willing, so they have to do it.

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