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Laich back, Capitals try to end skid vs. Blackhawks

by Brian Hedger

CAPITALS (4-5-3) at BLACKHAWKS (7-5-1)

TV: NHLN-US, SNE, SNO, SNP, CSN-DC+, CSN-CH+

CHICAGO -- Brooks Laich is expected to return from a shoulder injury Friday against the Chicago Blackhawks at United Center (8:30 p.m. ET, NHLN-US), and the veteran center is eager to help the Washington Capitals end their losing ways.

Laich was injured Oct. 18 against the Florida Panthers, and since that time the Capitals (4-5-3) are 1-5-1 and without a win in their previous five games.

"For three weeks I've been dying to get in the lineup," said Laich, who centered forwards Jason Chimera and Joel Ward during the Capitals morning skate. "Especially when you're losing, it's terrible to sit out and watch your team go through a tough patch. It's terrible to sit out anytime, but when you're going through a tough patch, it's even tougher to watch."

The game against Chicago is a prelude to the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, which will be played Jan. 1, 2015 at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.

The Capitals, however, have more pressing concerns at the moment. They haven't won since Oct. 25 at the Calgary Flames, and first-year coach Barry Trotz has expressed frustration recently, calling for the Capitals to start "playing the right way."

Laich, whose return will likely bump center Evgeny Kuznetsov from the lineup, said the complaint is warranted.

"He demands a lot of our hockey team and I don't think we've given him our best," Laich said. "I think we still need to be a lot better. We're sitting in 26th place in the NHL right now. That's where we are in the standings. That's not acceptable for this group."

Chicago's better off in the standings, but the Blackhawks still aren't where they'd like to be either. Inconsistent scoring has plagued them through the first 13 games, and the task of fixing that got even tougher Tuesday night when high-scoring left wing Patrick Sharp went down with an apparent right knee injury.

Sharp is expected to miss 3-4 weeks, which means Chicago's search for quality depth is even more challenging.

"It's not going to be just one guy who steps up and makes up for a player like [Sharp]," said right wing Patrick Kane, who is tied with Sharp for second on the Blackhawks with nine points. "It's just not going to happen. It's going to be a whole group effort."

Thanks in part to helping the Blackhawks get through Kane's knee injury late last season, Sharp led Chicago with a career-high 78 points. He was right back near the top until getting hurt this season and leaves a critical spot vacant at one of the points on the top power-play unit. Sharp's 56 shots are the most on the team, 15 more than Marian Hossa, and he's held a consistent role in the top-six forwards, averaging 18:30 a game.

"You want to pick up the slack when a guy like [Sharp's] out," Kane said. "I think for most of us, it's another chance to step up and kind of fill those minutes. He obviously plays a lot of minutes, so I think all of us will probably get a little bit more and a little extra chance to contribute. But that's a big part of our offense. I don't think any one guy is going to come in and replace him. That's just not going to happen."

A few specific players, however, will be affected more than others.

After a disappointing start, forward Brandon Saad will get the first crack at Sharp's left wing spot on the second line. The 22-year-old skated there in practice Thursday and again during the morning skate Friday. It's also where he started the season before getting bumped down to the bottom six group of forwards.

Playing left wing on the fourth line now will be Peter Regin, who was called up Thursday from the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League. The 28-year-old re-signed with the Blackhawks in the summer hoping to earn an NHL spot. After getting past the disappointment of not making the opening roster, he worked his way into one of the top producers for the IceHogs.

"Certainly [Sharp's injury] changes the line combinations and we liked the way things were going in Montreal game," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "[Saad] gets a chance to move up, [Regin] get called up, [and there's] more quality ice time for a lot of guys who can pick up some more minutes. When you're missing a guy like [Sharp], you're missing production and missing some consistency in a lot of areas. At the same time, it's a good opportunity for some guys [who are] looking [for] and want more."

Another one of those guys is veteran Brad Richards. Currently saddled as the center of the fourth line, Richards will get the first chance to take Sharp's spot at the point on the top power-play unit. He'd been playing the point with the second group.

"Losing a player like Patrick, it's going to be hard for a few weeks or [however] long he's going to be out, but on the other hand it's a chance for somebody else to step in and somebody else is going to have more ice time," Hossa said. "I'm sure there's a lot of hungry guys who'd like to fill that spot. Talking about shots on net, I think we've got lots of guys who like to shoot the puck."

Here are the projected lineups:

CAPITALS

Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Tom Wilson

Marcus Johansson - Andre Burakovsky - Troy Brouwer

Jason Chimera - Brooks Laich - Joel Ward

Liam O'Brien - Michael Latta - Jay Beagle

Brooks Orpik - Mike Green

Karl Alzner - Matt Niskanen

Nate Schmidt - John Carlson

Braden Holtby

Justin Peters

Scratched: Evgeny Kuznetsov, Eric Fehr, Jack Hillen

Injured: John Erskine (neck surgery), Aaron Volpatti (upper body), Dmitry Orlov (wrist)

BLACKHAWKS

Ben Smith - Jonathan Toews - Patrick Kane

Brandon Saad - Andrew Shaw - Marian Hossa

Bryan Bickell - Marcus Kruger - Kris Versteeg

Peter Regin - Brad Richards - Jeremy Morin

Duncan Keith - Brent Seabrook

Johnny Oduya - Niklas Hjalmarsson

Trevor van Riemsdyk - David Rundblad

Corey Crawford

Antti Raanta

Scratched: Michal Rozsival

Injured: Patrick Sharp (knee), Daniel Carcillo (knee)

Status report: Depending on who plays, either Rundblad or Rozsival will enter the mix on power plays for Chicago, playing a point on the second unit. Crawford is starting his fourth straight game for the Blackhawks after missing two weeks with an upper-body injury.

Who's hot: Toews and Kane don't typically play that much together at even-strength, but whenever Quenneville pairs them it seems to work pretty well. That was the case Tuesday, when the duo former two-thirds of the Blackhawks top line and produced two goals and three points in Chicago's 5-0 win at the Montreal Canadiens. … Ovechkin has a goal and six assists in his past three games and passed Peter Bondra for the top spot on the franchise career points list with two assists in Washington's 4-3 overtime loss Tuesday at the Calgary Flames. He is one assist shy of 400 for his career.

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