Vermette returns as Ducks host Capitals

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The Anaheim Ducks get one of their most productive players back just in time to face the NHL's best team Sunday night at the Honda Center.

Center Antoine Vermette returns to the lineup against the Washington Capitals after serving a 10-game suspension, the first of his career. Vermette plays for the first time since Feb. 14, when he slashed linesman Shandor Alphonso's legs.

Until that suspension, Vermette owned a virtually spotless record. He had never been fined and received only one major penalty during his 13-year career.

Vermette is one of the NHL's leaders in winning face-offs. He won 62.4 percent of face-offs in which he participated, and ranked second to the Colorado Avalanche's Matt Duchene before being suspended.

Despite the suspension, the NHL allowed Vermette to practice with the Ducks -- and the veteran center took full advantage of that opportunity.

"It's huge," Vermette told the Orange County Register. "I can get some time with the skills coach, which is great. I approached it as trying to get an edge. Rarely in the season, you can be healthy and have some time and energy to invest in the gym and do some stuff."

While Vermette is back, left winger Nick Ritchie's status is uncertain. Ritchie collided with the Nashville Predators' Filip Forsberg in their game March 7 and suffered whiplash, coach Randy Carlyle said. Ritchie did not travel on the Ducks' recent two-game road trip.

As a result, Rickard Rakell shifts back to the left wing. Rakell, who leads the Ducks with 27 goals, recently played center with Ritchie and right winger Corey Perry.

Anaheim marks the final stop on the Capitals' three-game road trip to California. Washington is 5-5-1 since its bye week and scored less than four goals nine times. By contrast, the Capitals went 17-2-1 and averaged 4.65 goals per game in the final 20 games before the bye.

The diminished offensive production has been so dramatic that coach Barry Trotz decided to reformulate his lines going into Saturday night's 4-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings, the Capitals' third in a row.

Trotz separated left winger Alex Ovechkin from his usual partner at center, Nicklas Backstrom. Ovechkin had not scored against opponents at even strength in 17 successive games, a career-long drought for the captain.

Instead, Ovechkin skated with center Evgeny Kuznetsov and right winger Tom Wilson, with Backstrom between wingers Marcus Johansson and T.J. Oshie.

"We had really great success before the break," Trotz told the Washington Post. "Coming out of the break, I thought they'd re-spark, and they haven't. Right now, we just need a little spark, a little interest, a little more production at five-on-five for us."

Despite Ovechkin's slump, Trotz believes his captain will return to his potent form.

"Actually, I think he's got good energy," Trotz told the Post. "He's skating probably as well as he has all year. I like his work ethic. If he just keeps adding that little bit of physical element and keeps shooting the puck, he's going to score some goals. I'm pretty sure about that. I'll bet anybody that he will."