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Penguins get 3rd win in row, topping Capitals 6-3

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Penguins get 3rd win in row, topping Capitals 6-3

WASHINGTON (AP) Chris Kunitz scored a hat trick in the Pittsburgh Penguins' Super Bowl Sunday visit to the nation's capital, leading a 5-3 win over the Washington Capitals that reflected both teams' fortunes so far in the lockout-shortened season.

Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Matt Cooke also scored, Sidney Crosby had three assists, and Tomas Vokoun made 21 saves against his former team for the Penguins, who have won three straight and four of five to lead the Atlantic Division.

Mike Green, John Carlson and Mike Ribeiro scored for the Capitals - and Carlson's goal was an accident that took a weird carom off a stanchion along the glass. Two-time league MVP Alex Ovechkin, who said before the game that he was somewhat embarrassed to have only three points on the season, contributed a secondary assist on a third-period power-play goal with Washington trailing by three.

Washington has lost seven of nine games to start the season. Hosting the Penguins as a Super Bowl warm-up for the third straight year, the Capitals no longer look like the formidable team that beat Pittsburgh 5-4 in overtime with a hat trick from Ovechkin in 2010 and shut out the Penguins 3-0 a year ago - both feisty games that included punches thrown by Ovechkin.

Ovechkin was overly physical in this game as well, getting a roughing call in the final two minutes.

Under new coach Adam Oates, the Capitals are feeling their way around the ice, especially on defense. Braden Holtby stopped only 20 of 26 shots, allowing Letang and Kunitz to beat him glove side 37 seconds apart in the second period to give the Penguins a 4-2 lead.

Vokoun, who shut out the New York Rangers on Thursday, made a successful return to the Verizon Center. He was signed to be the Capitals' No. 1 goalie last season but hurt his groin and was eclipsed by Holtby during the playoffs, prompting Washington to trade him to Pittsburgh.

Martin scored from the point after Crosby won a faceoff in the Capitals' zone to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead in the first period. Washington tied it less than two minutes later after a nice sequence in which Ribeiro won the puck along the boards and passed it to Wojtek Wolski, who then sent it along to a wide-open Green.

After Cooke made it 2-1, Carlson tied it on a bizarre goal in the second period. The Capitals defenseman was merely trying to dump the puck along the boards, but it rose up and took an odd deflection. Vokoun had already started to retreat behind the net to intercept the puck and tripped trying to change direction to get back to the crease.

Notes: Ovechkin said before the game that the Capitals were in a ``desperate moment.'' He noted that he and other NHL players who spent the lockout playing in Russia should be doing better. ``Right now I'm standing here, I have only three points, and, you know, it kind of embarrass me.'' ... The Capitals played the first of three games without D John Erskine, who was suspended for three games for elbowing Wayne Simmonds in Friday's win over the Philadelphia Flyers. ... Washington had been 12-1-3 in its pervious 16 regular-season meetings vs. Pittsburgh.

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Follow Joseph White on Twitter:http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP

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Jakub Vrana reassinged to Hershey as Zach Sanford makes the most of his oppotunity

Jakub Vrana reassinged to Hershey as Zach Sanford makes the most of his oppotunity

The Capitals reassigned forward Jakub Vrana to Hershey on Sunday following their game against the New York Rangers. Vrana and Zach Sanford were both recalled when the Caps returned from the bye week.

With Andre Burakovsky out of the lineup with a hand injury, the team needed to recall two players: One to insert into the lineup, the other to serve as the 13th forward in case of an unforeseen injury. With two of the team's top forwards recalled, it looked as if Vrana and Sanford would get a chance to compete for Burakovsky's spot on the third line while the he recovered. If that was the case, Sanford appears to have won that competition...for now.

RELATED: Despite loss, Caps starting to find their game

Vrana, a first-round draft pick from the 2014 draft, is seen as having the higher ceiling than Sanford. Sanford, however, scored the game-winning goal in Washington's final game before the bye week against the Anaheim Ducks. That, as well as his strong play in Hershey, earned him the first crack at the lineup.

“He went down after scoring his first goal, traveled all morning, played an afternoon game in [Bridgeport] and was the [Bears’] best player,” Trotz said at practice Friday. “So he should get the first crack at that position.”

Sanford took full advantage as he scored again on Saturday. With Vrana's reassignment, it now appears Burakovsky's spot on the third line is Sanford's to lose.

But Vrana's reassignment could be a temporary one.

The Caps have a day off on Monday, then return to practice on Tuesday and play in Philadelphia on Wednesday. The team has not been shy about moving players back and forth between Hershey in between road games. They may choose to recall Vrana or another forward prior to Wednesday's game.

For now, however, Sanford appears to have earned himself at least a temporary spot in the lineup.

MORE CAPITALS: Prediction recap: Caps can't solve Henrik Lundqvist

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Although the Caps lost, it's apparent that they're starting to find their game

Although the Caps lost, it's apparent that they're starting to find their game

NEW YORK—As disappointing as Sunday’s 2-1 loss at Madison Square Garden was for the Caps, Coach Barry Trotz and his players emerged from the visitors’ dressing room heartened by how the team played over the final two periods.

Indeed, there was a distinct difference between the first 20 minutes, during which the Caps were outscored 1-0 and outshot 19-10, and the final 40 minutes, which saw the visitors battle back and threaten to steal a point on the road from a good, well-rested rested opponent.

“We were atrocious in the first,” Trotz said. “We played poorly and [backup goalie Philipp Grubauer] was outstanding. It could have been 5-0 in the first, not 1-0. But we were able to get through that. In the second and third, we had the better chances and [carried] the majority of the play.”

Sunday marked the Caps’ second game back from their six-day bye week. On Saturday, they started slowly and lost to the Red Wings in a shootout. Including that defeat, teams are 3-12-4 in their first game after the mandatory hiatus.

“For us, it was hard to come back after [the] break, have one practice and [then] play,” said Alex Ovechkin, who scored Washington’s lone goal against the Rangers. Saturday’s game in Detroit started at 2 p.m. “and today we played at 12:30. It was kinda tough with no morning skates.”

RELATED: Prediction recap: Caps can't solve Henrik Lundqvist

Prior to the bye, the Caps had won six games in a row, rolling up five or more goals in all but one of those contests.

It’s too early to say definitely whether Ovechkin and Co. are back. They are, after all, 0-1-1 since returning. But they certainly looked a lot more like their previously dominant selves after doubling the Rangers up in shots, 22-11, over the second and third periods in an entertaining matinee on Broadway.

So what was the difference between the first period and the rest of the game? Trotz didn’t mince his words.    

“We were engaged in the second and third,” he said. “We were winning our battles. We were managing the puck much better. And we really didn’t give up much. Grubi really got all of his work for the most part in the first period and then after that he didn’t have much.”

From where he was standing, Grubauer said he could see the timing and cohesiveness slowly returning to his teammates’ collective game.

“The break was long,” Grubauer said. “Sometimes you have to find that chemistry.”

He added: “That’s not how we wanted to start, giving up those many scoring chances. But we did a pretty good job coming back [and] dominated the second and third periods.”

Defenseman Matt Niskanen agreed with Grubauer’s assessment.

“The second two periods were a lot better than the first [period], and a lot better than yesterday,” Niskanen said. “So it’s a step in the right direction.”

The Caps will take Monday off and then return to practice Tuesday morning in Arlington before heading to Philadelphia for a Wednesday night showdown with the Flyers.

“It was a lot better, that’s for sure,” Nicklas Backstrom said of the final 40 minutes at the Garden. “I thought the first period was not how we play. But we’ve lost two in a row. We’ve got to get back to the way we played before. We’ll have another practice before the next game, so we’ve just got to get back at it.”

MORE CAPITALS: Grubauer not enough as Caps drop goalie duel to Rangers