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By SAMMI SILBER | Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — John Carlson had a goal and an assist in his return from a fractured skull, and the Washington Capitals beat the Chicago Blackhawks 6-1 on Thursday night.

Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom also had a goal and an assist, helping Washington (34-31-8) move within four points of Pittsburgh for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins lost 3-2 at Dallas on Thursday night.

“We're excited for the challenge. You got (Carlson and Darcy Kuemper) back in the lineup, some guys that have missed some serious time this year,” said Dylan Strome, who had two assists. “Hopefully, like I said, we can click at the right time. I think tonight was a great step. ... Hopefully we can go on a little run here because we'll be a scary team to go against in the playoffs.”

Nikita Zaitsev scored for Chicago in the third period, and Anton Khudobin made 22 saves in his first NHL game since Jan. 15, 2022, with Dallas. It was Zaitsev's first goal since April 3 for Ottawa.

The Blackhawks went 0 for 5 on the power play in their third straight loss. They were coming off a 5-0 loss at Colorado on Monday night.

“It's definitely tough right now, it's a little embarrassing," Chicago forward Tyler Johnson said. “We have to play a lot better. We're not sticking to our structure, not sticking to our system and kind of just out there right now. And we've got to compete and play a lot harder for each other."

Next up for Chicago is Saturday at Minnesota before hosting Vancouver on Sunday night in the organization's Pride game. The organization has decided against wearing special warmup jerseys to commemorate Pride night, citing an anti-gay Kremlin law that could imperil Russian athletes when they return home.

“I think just like everybody, I think everybody’s disappointed that we have to make that decision as an organization,” Blackhawks coach Luke Richardson said.

Zaitsev is a Moscow native, and Khudobin and forward Philipp Kurashev also have connections to the country.

Carlson needed a few shifts to get comfortable in his first game since taking a slap shot to the face on Dec. 23. He skated for 20 minutes, playing on the top pairing and top power-play unit after a 36-game absence.

The 33-year-old Carlson said he hadn't been that nervous for a game in a long time.

“The first shift, a puck came around, and I had to poke check and it kind of came up, so that was probably not the most ideal of starts that you would want," he said. "It definitely (felt) a little wild. ... It was special to be back, it feels good.”

The Capitals got off to a strong start for the second straight game, scoring twice in the first period.

Conor Sheary scored for the second straight game when he capitalized on an ugly turnover by Khudobin. Anthony Mantha then made it 2-0 when he scored on a quick shot from the slot at 10:33.

It was Mantha’s second goal in 2023 and No. 11 overall on the season. It also was his first goal since back-to-back healthy scratches.

With Washington up 5-1 late in the third, Ovechkin stole the puck from Seth Jones and converted a breakaway for his 41st goal of the season.

Nic Dowd also scored for Washington, and Kuemper stopped 27 shots in his return from an upper-body injury.

“To have everyone back ... I think it showed what we’re capable of as a group when we’re all out there together,” Kuemper said.


Ovechkin extended his point streak to six games. ... Blackhawks forward Colin Blackwell had season-ending sports hernia surgery. ... Kurashev departed after taking a hit from Tom Wilson in the first period.


Blackhawks: Visit the Minnesota Wild on Saturday.

Capitals: Visit the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday.

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