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Kuznetsov carrying Capitals to top spot in division

by Brian Compton / NHL.com

The Washington Capitals just finished a stretch that saw them play seven games in 11 days. They won six of them (6-1-0).

Things are rolling for the Capitals, who have won five in a row and have moved into first place in the Metropolitan Division at 17-5-1.

Washington will face a huge test Thursday when it visits the Montreal Canadiens (18-4-3) at Bell Centre (7:30 p.m. ET; CSN-DC, RDS, CITYM).

Some of the Capitals' recent success can be attributed to the play of forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, who leads them with 18 assists and 26 points. The 23-year-old has had three multipoint games in his past five.

"The more he plays the more he produces, the more confident he gets," coach Barry Trotz told the Capitals website. "He's trusting his instincts, he's knowing the League better. You look at him; he's one of those rising top players in the League."

Here are other games that should garner plenty of attention:

Tuesday, Dec. 1: Minnesota Wild at Chicago Blackhawks (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CSN-CH) -- Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane set the record for the consecutive games with a point by an American-born player at 19 on Saturday, and against the Wild he'll have the chance to become the first player since Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby in 2010 to have points in 20 straight games. Kane has 11 goals and 20 assists during the streak, which began Oct. 17. Chicago returns to United Center after going 3-1-2 on its annual "Circus Trip."

Wednesday, Dec. 2: New York Rangers at New York Islanders (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports) -- In front of a nationally-televised audience, the Rangers and Islanders face each other at Barclays Center for the first time. It's also the first time the rivals play each other this season.

Thursday, Dec. 3: Boston Bruins at Calgary Flames (9 p.m. ET; NESN, SNF) -- Former Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton plays against the team that drafted him for the first time since being traded to Calgary on June 26. Hamilton, who days later signed a six-year, $34.5 million contract with the Flames, has two goals, three assists and a minus-6 rating in 24 games. The Bruins won their fifth in a row Friday, a 4-3 victory against the Rangers at TD Garden.

Friday, Dec. 4: Dallas Stars at Edmonton Oilers (9 p.m. ET; FS-SW+, SNW) -- Two high-powered offensive teams go head-to-head at Rexall Place. Stars forward Jamie Benn is second in the League with 35 points; 23-year-old defenseman John Klingberg (five goals, 22 assists, plus-10) has forced his way into the Norris Trophy discussion. The Oilers received some good news Saturday: rookie center Connor McDavid is ahead of schedule in his recovery from a fractured clavicle sustained Nov. 3. He was expected to miss four months.

Saturday, Dec. 5: Pittsburgh Penguins at Los Angeles Kings (4 p.m. ET; ROOT, FS-W) -- Looks like Penguins center Evgeni Malkin is heating up; he had 11 shots on goal Saturday and has seven goals and three assists in his past six games. The Kings have points in seven of their past 10 (6-3-1) and lead the Pacific Division.

Sunday, Dec. 6: Florida Panthers at New Jersey Devils (7 p.m. ET; FS-F, MSG+) -- It's the finale of a five-game road trip for the Panthers, who opened it with a 2-1 overtime win at the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday. The Devils continue to show they're a contender for the Stanley Cup Playoffs; they got three of four points in a home-and-home series with the Canadiens over the weekend.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Connor Hellebuyck, G, Winnipeg Jets -- A fifth-round draft pick (No. 130) at the 2012 NHL Draft, Hellebuyck won his NHL debut Friday, a 3-1 victory at the Minnesota Wild. Hellebuyck had a .927 save percentage in 10 games with Manitoba of the American Hockey League this season before Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec injured his knee.

"It was a little bit nerve racking," Hellebuyck told the Jets website. "But as soon as I got on the ice I think I calmed down. I got a nice shot into the chest right off the start and that helped. Anyone playing their first game is hopped up on adrenaline, so I was able to stay focused the entire game."

Mike Hoffman, LW, Ottawa Senators -- After a breakout season in 2014-15, Hoffman is showing it wasn't a fluke. The 26-year-old left wing has five goals and two assists during a four-game point streak and is tied for second on the Senators with 21 points.

Thomas Vanek, LW, Minnesota Wild -- After 22 games Vanek nearly is halfway to matching his goal total from 2014-15, his first season with the Wild. He has three goals and two assists in his past four games.

LINE CHANGES

Jordan Eberle, RW, Edmonton Oilers -- Looking for combinations that will help produce victories, Oilers coach Todd McLellan moved Eberle to the third line with center Mark Letestu and left wing Lauri Korpikoski. Eberle scored in the shootout to help Edmonton earn a 3-2 win at Pittsburgh on Saturday, but he knows he's capable of more.

"I feel good out there. I'm starting to feel more confident with the puck and making some more plays," Eberle told the Edmonton Sun. "Obviously offensively I'd like to get going a little bit more. Three goals in [11] games without any assists, it's frustrating; it wears on you. But I know it's one of those things that you just need to start going, get the power play going, chip in here and there and it starts rolling offensively."

Sam Reinhart, F, Buffalo Sabres -- All the work the 20-year-old has been putting in with teammate Ryan O'Reilly is paying huge dividends. Reinhart, who has been moved to right wing by Sabres coach Dan Bylsma to skate on the top line with O'Reilly at center and left wing Evander Kane, had two goals in the Sabres' 4-1 win against the Nashville Predators on Saturday.

"There's a lot of after-practice hours that have been spent already this year. That adds up," Reinhart told The Buffalo News. "Obviously the shot's an easier thing to work on. When I left last year I knew right away that was a big part of it. I've been able to spend a lot of time this year, this past summer and even last year working on it. I feel a lot more comfortable with it, a lot more confident with it.”

Ryan Strome, F, New York Islanders -- Strome took a three-week demotion to Bridgeport of the AHL in stride and scored in his return to help the Islanders get a point in a 3-2 shootout loss at Florida. Strome, who is skating on the third line with Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin, then had an assist in a 3-2 win at the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday.

"The easy thing to do would be to sulk and complain, and I never want to be that person," Strome told Newsday. "I'm happy the way I worked. I got rewarded now and I've got another opportunity.''

POINT SHOTS

Perhaps it's simply the ebbs and flows of a season, but the Rangers have lost three in a row, all in regulation. But even prior to the skid they were getting little from forward Chris Kreider, who has three goals in 24 games. "It has been about as bad as it can be and it is nobody's fault but my own," Kreider told the New York Post. "Everyone in here has been supportive, the coaches have given me every opportunity in every way. It's on me." … Colorado Avalanche forward Matt Duchene has 11 goals this month, breaking Claude Lemieux's team record of 10 set in November 1995. He has 16 points in his past nine games. "It feels good," Duchene told the Avalanche website. "I think any time you're able to be amongst some of the names that have played in this organization, it's nice. Obviously it feels good. Maybe I'll add to it hopefully next game [Monday at the Islanders]." … Talk about a bizarre month for the Nashville Predators, who scored seven goals in a game twice and were shut out four times, including three consecutive games. "We know what we're capable of," forward Filip Forsberg told the Predators website. "We scored seven in two games here at home. I think it's all about shooting the puck and just getting a little bit more greasy, I think."

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