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Washington ties up the series with a relentless effort against the Islanders on Friday night.

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Verizon Center Crowd and Backstrom Carry Caps to Game Two Victory

Posted on 18 April 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Wow!

What a stellar performance by the Capitals to defeat the Islanders on Friday night without their number one goalie, Braden Holtby, who was out sick. To top it off, the Caps, who thoroughly dominated this tilt from start to finish, rallied from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits before prevailing on Jason Chimera’s third period tally.

It had been 24 games, since February 19th to be precise, since Nicklas Backstrom had scored a goal. But in one quick motion that drought went by the wayside and a huge individual play by the great #19 allowed the Caps to tie the game with the Islanders at three, and more importantly turn the Verizon Center into what sounded like an insane asylum.

The arena was as loud as I’ve heard it in years and Coach Trotz made a point to praise the fans afterwards saying “we fed off of the crowd.” He also added “trust me, the crowd helps, keep doing that, we feed off of it….keep rocking, we need you.”

Make no mistake about it, Backstrom’s decision to shoot with four Islanders around him in the slot, when most everyone else thought he would dish the puck to Alex Ovechkin (1 goal), was a game changer. Jarolsav Halak (31 saves) likely didn’t expect a shot there and he didn’t stand a chance on the top shelf snapper by the super Swede.

The power play tally, on their only man advantage of the contest, came just 3:44 into the final frame and completed a spirited Capitals comeback.

Philipp Grubauer (18 saves) was recalled from Hershey and received the start on Friday night and allowed three goals in the first 35 minutes before settling down and shutting the door on New York. To be fair, the Islanders three goals came on two odd man rushes and a wicked shot from the slot by Ryan Strome. All three were “snipes” as Coach Barry Trotz called them and were top shelf. But the young German, who said he got word he would start at the morning skate, did a better job of standing tall in the cage and not allowing the highly skilled Islanders to beat him up top over the last 25 minutes. He was mobbed by a happy group of teammates when this one was over and the series is now tied at one game apiece.

The score in this contest was 4-3, but Washington totally carried the play. The Caps outshot attempted New York, 63-27, through the first 40 minutes yet they somehow trailed by a puck, 3-2, heading into the final frame. It was 3-1, at one point, but Ovechkin went to the net and put home the rebound of a Matt Niskanen (two assists, +2) shot to really get everyone believing that the Caps were indeed coming back in this one. The Caps would out shot attempt the Isles, 82-51, in the game with most of the Islanders attempts coming late.

This was an impressive performance by the Caps after the clunker on Wednesday. But as Mike Vogel chronicled over at his Dump’n Chase blog, the Capitals had a close to .500 record (11-9-3) in games that followed more than two days off during the regular season. Simply put, the team gets rusty and tends to lose its’ rhythm so there is one explanation for why they played so poorly in game one.

On Friday night, the Capitals were certainly in a rhythm with their breakouts, their passing, and their forecheck. They suffocated the Islanders for nearly the entire game and put a physical pounding on the New York defense. Thomas Hickey and Lubomir Visnovsky are going to need lots of ice packs after that one.

After the goalie change, the only move Trotzy willingly made coming into this game was to insert Tom Wilson back into the lineup for Michael Latta. “Willy” only played 7:17, but he brought a physical presence that New York did not like. Wilson had seven hits in the game and was very effective.

In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a Caps player that didn’t bring their top effort and play well. The Islanders were really fortunate that they only were beaten by a puck.

But, like Wednesday, it’s just one game and now this series heads to Long Island for a Sunday at noon puck drop.

It remains to be seen whether Holtby will be recovered enough to start, but if the Capitals play like they did on Friday with their relentless effort, they are going to be hard to beat.

The Islanders are a fast team that thrives on their transition game, but in game two the Caps neutralized that with a strong desire to win the one on one battles, a major physical presence and style, and more efficient passing. Their superstars came through in the clutch, as well.

It was the perfect blue print for a victory. Now on to game three.

Notes: Washington won the face off battle 28-27. Backstrom, who had two assists to go with his goal, was 14-7 from the dot…Karl Alzner was +3 and led the Capitals in ice time at 22:07…the Islanders did not score on their only power play…Chimera had one of his best games in weeks with the GWG in 14:19 of ice time…the Caps outhit the Islanders 59-38, which is impressive considering the Capitals had the puck most of the game.

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Caps Win, But the Effort Needs to Be Much Better

Posted on 26 March 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals Coach Barry Trotz knew full well following the Caps 3-2 overtime victory over the New Jersey Devils that his team stole two points when they probably didn’t deserve them. The Capitals jumped to a 2-0 lead in period two only to stop skating and finally see their lead evaporate with 29 seconds remaining in regulation on Steve Bernier’s layup.

Fortunately Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was one of the few Caps who played well, made a nice play in the corner and then seemed to deflect home the game winning goal on a Matt Niskanen point shot that went past Cory Schneider just 73 seconds into overtime.

“I thought [the New Jersey Devils] were way better than us. We looked sloppy. We didn’t have much of a hard work ethic. (We) weren’t diligent on our responsibilities and that was probably one of our sloppier games that we played. I do not want to take anything away from New Jersey. New Jersey was better than us today. We got two lucky goals. In a sense, we did [toy with fate tonight],” started Trotz, “I know I wasn’t happy with that game, and I know [the players] shouldn’t be. If they are, then we’re fooling ourselves. We didn’t play very well. Like I said, I do not want to take anything from New Jersey. They did some really great things. Our decision-making was poor. Our execution was poor. Our resilience and determination was average at best. We had too many guys, who weren’t getting it done tonight and fortunately, we had a couple guys that were able to.”

Hammer meet nail. You can’t describe that game any better from a Washington perspective.

From a stats perspective the Capitals had 16 giveaways to just seven for New Jersey. Shots on goal favored the Devils 31-24, too. Luckily for the Caps, Braden Holtby was on his game in the cage making 29 saves, many of which came through traffic because the Capitals just didn’t put forth a good effort.

There were some other bright spots for the Caps besides Kuznetsov and Holtby. The newly formed line of Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Tom Wilson was Washington’s best all night and Fehr tallied his 19th marker of the season after Mike Green did a nice job of pinching down in the offensive zone and keeping the puck in.

The Caps also won the faceoff battle, 31-26, but after that you start running out of very many good things to say about this game. Their lone power play was a disaster since the Caps allowed the Devils to score shorthanded as two Washington players used the “Ole” defense. The Devils, believe it or not, nearly scored twice on that Capitals power play of doom.

Speaking of good news, other than the two points the Caps gained in the standings, the out of town scoreboard came through for Washington as the Penguins, Islanders, Senators, and Bruins all lost. Boston did get a point in their OT loss to Anaheim, though.

The Caps 40-24-10 record now puts them at 90 points, which is five clear of both Boston and Ottawa. The Senators do have a game in hand. In addition, the Capitals are just a point behind Pittsburgh (91) and three behind the Islanders (93). Washington has a game in hand on the Isles.

Seriously, though, the Capitals can’t expect to do very well down the stretch or in the post season with efforts like they displayed on Thursday night. After four days off and some hard practice time you would have thought this team would have turned in a much sharper performance, right? That was not the case against the Devils and the team needs to look in the mirror and refocus. Simply put, poor efforts and lack of attention to the proper way to play will lead to a quick playoff exit.

Notes: Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom both played over 20 minutes and had six and one shot attempt, respectively…Kuznetsov was +2 in 15:13 of ice time…Wilson had four shot attempts in just 11 minutes and was a physical presence all over the ice. It was one of his best games this season…next up for the Caps are the Predators at 12:30 on Saturday followed by a trip to Madison Square Garden to take on the Rangers at 3 pm on Sunday.

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Ovechkin, Holtby Lead Caps in Blanking of Leafs

Posted on 01 March 2015 by Ed Frankovic

After three straight losses and several slow starts, the Washington Capitals needed to jump out to a quick lead on Sunday night.

NHL MVP Alexander Ovechkin made sure his club would get an early cushion as he scored just 33 seconds into the contest. The Gr8 would make it 2-0 on a backhander in period two after a nice point shot from Brooks Orpik and then he added an assist on Marcus Johansson’s power play goal that increased the lead to 3-0. Joel Ward would hit the empty net and send a terrible Toronto Maple Leafs on its way out of the Verizon Center, 4-0 losers.

In goal, Braden Holtby was, to quote Billy Crystal, “Maaahhhvelous!” as he stopped 32 shots, with some quality ones to boot, en route to his seventh shutout of the season (and 30th win).

The Caps were not pretty in this victory, they still looked sloppy, at times, and weren’t totally in sync, but it was a step in the right direction after their play had really tailed off in the last week.

Tim Gleason, acquired on Saturday in a trade for Jack Hillen and a 4th round pick, made his Caps debut and was very solid in 18:34 of ice time. It’s only one game, but #6 looks like a significant upgrade on that 3rd pairing and it allows Mike Green to play more minutes. Coach Barry Trotz was able to spread his ice time around with the quality blue line and the 4-0 score helped too. Matt Niskanen was the Caps ice time leader and he only logged 20:25. Balancing ice time like that keeps players fresh and reduces the risk of injury.

Up front, well, after the first line, the Capitals still are struggling. Andre Burakovsky played up with the Gr8 and Nicklas Backstrom (1 assist) and #65 was the clear weak link. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has struggled recently, was bumped down to the fourth line, centering Brooks Laich and Tom Wilson, and they had an up and down night, but finished with a decent third period. Jason Chimera took Laich’s spot on the third line and #25, who could be being showcased for a potential trade, also received some early power play time. The second line was centered by Jay Beagle and featured Troy Brouwer and Johansson.

In addition to the players that suited up on Sunday night, General Manager Brian MacLellan traded 2nd and 3rd round picks to Calgary and acquired Curtis Glencross. Glencross, who will wear #22, is 32 years old and is a fast skater. He’s not a top six forward but he’s an upgrade over some of the other Caps bottom six forwards. With the log jam on those two lines, one has to wonder if the Caps GM is still working on a bigger deal to acquire a top six forward by the 3 pm deadline?

We’ll find out about that soon enough, but the whole team will have to be happy when that time passes since it’s been clear to me that the deadline has been a distraction to this club. They have not appeared focused and many have lacked energy, which is a clear byproduct of worrying about what the future holds.

So after this victory over the disastrous Leafs, the Caps are now 34-20-10 (78 points). With 18 games left, a .500 finish easily puts them in the playoffs. So therefore, the focus in the last 18 games has to be to get some continuity going with the forward lines. The defense is set and Holtby is playing the best hockey of his career. Trotz will also look to rest players and the team needs to focus on the matchup they desire for the first round, or perhaps more importantly, one they don’t want.

To me, the match up they don’t want is the New York Rangers, who acquired defensemen Keith Yandle on Sunday in exchange for d-man John Moore, a prospect, and some draft picks. It’s clear the Rags are all in and the Capitals play them three times over the next six weeks. New York has great speed and that’s been something the Caps have had trouble handling. Adding Glencross certainly helps and Gleason has good wheels, as well as size, too. But the Rangers have Henrik Lunqvist and two really strong lines, assuming Rick Nash is healthy for the post season, so they could be the toughest out in the East.

Plenty of time to worry about that though, the Caps need to get back to finding their game, and that starts with working hard and moving their feet so they can work up and down the ice in a five man unit. The team has lost that over the last couple of weeks and need to get back to that in order to peak their game in April and May.

Notes: Ovechkin now leads the NHL in scoring with 41 goals and 65 points….the Gr8 was named the NHL’s 3rd star for the month of February and he’s now started March out with a bang…shot attempts were 63-60 for the Leafs, but they were trailing a lot and the blind zebras gave Toronto four power plays to Washington’s two. I didn’t think the officiating was consistent at all on Sunday but Washington was good enough and the Leafs were bad enough that it just didn’t matter…Toronto won the face off battle, 32-31…next up for the Caps are the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night at 7 pm. Will Washington silence the cannon in a building they’ve struggled in for several years?

 

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Caps Not Focused in Loss To Pens

Posted on 26 February 2015 by Ed Frankovic

There are some nights where a hockey team just looks out of sync.

On Wednesday night versus the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Washington Capitals were guilty as charged.

The Caps had another lackluster start to a game, provided the Pens with six power play opportunities, gave up a shorthanded tally, and struggled to make passes in a 4-3 loss to the Pens at the Verizon Center on Rivalry Night on NBCSN.

It was a poor performance in an ugly game in which Coach Barry Trotz said his team was not focused.

“I didn’t like our start. I thought Pittsburgh established their forecheck real early. We were sluggish out of the gate, and it showed…We actually drew three penalties and it showed on our power play. We weren’t sharp the way we needed to be. I thought we took all bad penalties, unnecessary penalties. I mean you can get momentum off the penalty kill, but we’d get momentum off a penalty kill and then we’d take another penalty. Those are just unacceptable for me. You’re not going to win hockey games,” said the Caps bench boss afterwards.

The Capitals were pretty bad on Wednesday while the Penguins came out trying to avenge their three losses by a combined score of 10-1 to the Caps in 2014-15. They clearly dominated the first 30 minutes and Evgeni Malkin (3 assists) was flying all night. Pittsburgh was the better team and deserved to win.

Even still, the Penguins Marc Andre-Fleury took a stupid and selfish penalty late allowing Alex Ovechkin to notch his NHL leading 39th goal and pull Washington to within a puck with 3:34 remaining. The Caps would surge, but it was too late.

Still, given the emphasis Pittsburgh put on this game and how poorly Washington looked, the Caps have to be encouraged that they still only lost by a goal.

“Well I think that we are a lot more relentless than we have been. We have a lot of great players, lot of skill, guys that are willing to battle to at least get it close, and we hate losing. So, that’s nice, but we just needed one more at the end,” added Karl Alzner when asked about why this Caps team is able to hang around in games when they don’t have anywhere close to their “A” game.

On the flip side, the Penguins should be concerned. Their defense is fairly soft and they have to rely heavily on their top players. On Wednesday Malkin and Sidney Crosby were better than Washington’s top players for the first time in four tries.

The Caps have not looked focused since going into a defensive shell in Saturday’s shootout win over the Islanders. Could it be that the NHL trade deadline, which is on Monday, March 2nd, is causing a distraction? Trotz didn’t think it should be a distraction for the Capitals players because in his words, the team is trying to “add players.” But each player deals with it differently, which defensemen Matt Niskanen pointed out to me following the defeat.

“I think it’s different for everyone, it depends on your situation…it can be a real nervous time. Some guys like to follow it on TSN, the internet, or whatever, stay up to date and be prepared. Some guys don’t even want to look or would rather not know,” said Niskanen.

The question then posed to Niskanen was could the NHL trade deadline cause players or a team to lose it’s focus?

“Yeah, potentially it could be, I think. I think inevitably there is a lot going on in some people’s minds and potentially could draw some of the energy right out of you, you’re worried about other things rather than just playing your best. You’re wondering if they’re shopping you, it could potentially weigh on some guys,” finished #2.

Whatever the case may be, and there are some players on the Caps who could potentially be moved out to bring players in given Washington’s salary cap situation, the Capitals have not played well over the last 120 minutes or so.

They lost as a team on Wednesday with a poor performance to a club that was out for some revenge and wanted it more.

They played lousy and still only lost 4-3.

There’s no use worrying about it now, it’s over and done with and time to look forward.

Washington drops to 33-19-10 (76 points) and trails the Islanders, Rangers, and Penguins by six, four and three points, respectively. Next up are the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday in Raleigh and then the Toronto Maple Leafs at home on Sunday night at 7pm. Both of those clubs are in tank mode so the Capitals should get two victories.

Notes: Both teams were 1 for 6 on the power play, but the Pens added a shorthanded goal…Shot attempts were 56-53 in favor of the Capitals…shots on goal favored the Pens, 26-24…Nicklas Backstrom led the Caps in ice time with 24:16 while Kris Letang logged 29:53 for Pittsburgh.

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Caps Win Fourth Straight for 1st Time in 2014-15

Posted on 21 February 2015 by Ed Frankovic

In a very well played hockey game, by both teams, the Washington Capitals won their fourth straight by besting the first place New York Islanders, 3-2, in the gimmick.

Both goaltenders, Braden Holtby (30 saves) and Chad Johnson (25 saves), had strong outings and it was the Islanders back up who made some big saves to keep his club in it in the middle frame.

Unlike the Penguins game on Tuesday, this was an extremely well officiated game and both teams only had one power play each. When Dave Jackson referees a contest, you usually get a good one, primarily because the players know what to expect and Jackson typically lets them decide the outcome. Kudos Dave and a hat tip to Steve Kozari, who fell in line and called one of his best games too.

With the limited power play time we were able to see two strong five on five teams duke it out. Washington had the edge for most of the contest and when Eric Fehr scored off of a sweet drop pass from Brooks Laich with 5:34 remaining it sure looked like the Capitals were going to win this one in regulation and pull to within three points of the Metro Division leading Islanders.

But then the Capitals coaching staff made some terrible player deployments and gifted New York a point by playing what football fans would call the prevent defense. From the 5:34 mark to the :48 time when Ryan Strome tied the game the Islanders had 14 straight shot attempts!

Yup, you got it, the Capitals didn’t fire a single biscuit towards the Isles cage. The main reason for that was some poor decisions by the coaches. Instead of playing Alexander Ovechkin’s line, he put out the possession black hole unit of Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Troy Brouwer the second shift after Fehr’s tally. That unit would get stuck on the ice for nearly two minutes. Somehow the Caps survived, but then Trotz chose not to use Ovechkin and Mike Green (was on for seven seconds) for the final three minutes until the Islanders scored. Ovechkin and Green are two of the top puck possession players on the Capitals roster, but for some reason the bench crew used others over them down the stretch. Even Jason Chimera logged 70 seconds in two shifts once it was 2-1 Caps instead of the Gr8 or Game Over Greenie. So that’s 0:00 ice time for Ovechkin and 0:07 of ice time for #52 once the Capitals led.

That’s unthinkable and I’ve blogged about the misuse of Green before, back in January, when the Caps get a lead.

My simple message to Coach Barry Trotz and the Capitals coaches is this: Play your best players late in the game!

Going all defense is just that, you’ll be playing defense and just giving the other club more chances to tie things up. At least if you put your best players out there you have a better chance of being in the offensive zone and increasing your lead.

Oh well, that’s my rant on this victory, which should have come in regulation.

Still, it was a solid performance by the Caps, even though the Isles went with their backup goalie (but he was super) and are still missing Kyle Okposo and Mikhail Grabovski up front. With the two points the Capitals move to 33-17-10 (76 points). The Caps ended up going 2-0-2 against the Islanders this season while New York was 2-1-1 with their two victories coming in OT on 4 on 3 power plays. If these two teams meet in the post season, it should be a razor close series.

A win is a win is a win, and Caps fans, coaches and players will be happy with it, but let’s be honest, playing the prevent defense late in the game is a recipe for disaster that needs to be shredded by the coaching staff before the playoffs begin.

Washington will travel to Philadelphia through the snow to take on the Flyers at 12:30 on NBC on Sunday. The Flyers have been hot lately and have pulled within four points of a playoff spot (Boston is in 8th with 65 points) while the Caps are firmly entrenched in a spot for the Stanley Cup battle this spring. The Caps are 1-1-1 versus the Broad Street Bullies this season.

Notes: Shot attempts favored the Islanders 75-67, but that was because of the 14-0 late run that New York was given to tie the game…the Caps won the face off battle 38-34 but they lost three straight defensive zone key ones when New York had the goalie pulled…Matt Niskanen, who scored the Caps first goal, was the ice time leader with 25:37…Travis Hamonic, who opened the scoring, led the Isles in ice time with 25:17.

 

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Backstrom and Ovechkin Keep Caps Rolling in Win Over Jets

Posted on 19 February 2015 by Ed Frankovic

For the first time since February 8th, the Nation’s Capital had their Dynamic Duo back in town at the Verizon Center, and boy did those two put on a hockey clinic.

Nicklas Backstrom scored twice and added an assist while Alexander Ovechkin had a goal and an assist as the Washington Capitals trounced the Winnipeg Jets, 5-1, on Thursday night.

Backstrom is now tied for the NHL lead in points (Patrick Kane) with 63 while leading the league in assists with 45. Ovechkin now has 38 goals to lead the NHL and he has 61 points, 3rd best in the NHL.

This had the makings of a classic trap game since it was Washington’s first home game after a cross country four game road trip.

But Coach Barry Trotz’ crew displayed some good mental fortitude and showed up to play from the opening drop of the puck. The Caps tallied 14 minutes in on a John Carlson power play blast that looked to be deflected along the way. Then Ovechkin made an amazing play on the left wing to make it 2-0 with 1:25 to go in the opening frame.

Those two first period markers were ultra important because it brought the Verizon Center to life and the Caps were 18-1-2 when leading after 20 minutes (h/t Mike Vogel). Winnipeg would get a fluky goal to cut it to 2-1 but then the Jets, who are the most penalized team in the NHL, did what they do best, started a parade to the penalty box to feel shame. Winnipeg took four penalties in a row and the Caps scored twice, both times with a delayed penalty being signaled. Backstrom made it 3-1 when he was simply trying to get the puck to the goalie to start a five on three (good things happen when you shoot) and then Marcus Johansson and Ovechkin fed #19 beautifully for the 4th goal with the Jets about to be whistled for too many dudes on the ice.

Troy Brouwer would add a shorthanded empty net goal with 6:27 remaining to seal the deal for Washington.

Braden Holtby was strong, when needed, in the cage again yielding only one tally on 20 shots. The Caps puck support was outstanding in this game and thus the Jets really didn’t get many good looks. They had the occasional strong cycle shift, but overall the Capitals kept the Jets speed and size in check. It was another impressive performance by the Caps in all zones.

“I thought we managed the game really well. In the third period, you’re up 4-1, you could easily forget detail, and you could forget a lot of stuff. We managed the game. We just kept playing, and it gets really frustrating for the other team. Everybody was doing their job, and when you’re doing your job and there’s no cheat in your game you get a lot done as a group of 20 every night,” said Trotz on a night his team once again maintained their focus.

With a near perfect night by the Caps over and done with, the Caps focus now moves to their last regular season meetings with the first place Islanders, the punks from Philly (Flyers), and the Penguins that will take place Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday, respectively.

“It’s a fun, interesting division right now. Everyone seems to be playing pretty good. The only way to really make up any ground is to beat those teams that are right in front of us. It’s a massive challenge. We are excited about it. We haven’t seen them (the Islanders) in quite a while. It’s a big week for us. We need to string some winning streaks together, not just two or three, so it’s important,” said Karl Alzner, who is quietly having his best season as a Capital, on the upcoming slate of games.

The Capitals are certainly playing well. They are playing solid defense, getting good goaltending, and their checking line of Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward is stopping the opponents top line.

Most importantly, though, the Dynamic Duo of Ovechkin and Backstrom are playing at an ultra elite level and that is making Washington a very tough team to defeat.

Notes: Ovechkin had six shots on goal while Backstrom had five…shot attempt game totals were 62-59 in favor of the Jets… the Caps were 3 for 6 on the power play while Winnipeg was 0 for 3…the Caps won the face off battle, 28-27…Washington is now 32-17-10 (74 points)…Jason Chimera was scratched for the 2nd straight game.

 

 

 

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Caps Slay The Defending Champion Kings, 4-0

Posted on 04 February 2015 by Ed Frankovic

“I’m shuffling lines around, guys. I’ll let you know when I get it straightened out.” – Reg Dunlop, Charleston Chiefs

For 50 games, Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz has been juggling his forward line combinations trying to find the right fits.

In game number 51, which turned out to be a Caps 4-0 rout of the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings, he just may have found his best forward line up yet.

Trotz moved Marcus Johansson, who is having his best pro season, up into the top right wing spot, and inserted rookie forward Andre Burakovsky into Jojo’s spot on the second line giving the Caps a very offensively talented top six crew of forwards. In addition, the bench boss took Jason Chimera and Michael Latta out of the lineup and went with a fourth unit of Aaron Volpatti, Jay Beagle, and Tom Wilson. The third line, Washington’s checking trio of Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward, went unchanged.

The result was a thing of beauty as the Capitals gap control was as good as it has been all season.

Taking the strong blue line play that the Caps have enjoyed all season combined with elite goaltending from Braden Holtby plus a very motivated hockey club this was a thorough whipping of a Kings team that still has Norris Trophy leading candidate Drew Doughty, all world goalie Jonathan Quick, and super forward Anze Kopitar. But Los Angeles is really not a Cup contender this season since they’re playing with a much weaker blue line due to the loss of Willie Mitchell (salary cap) and Slava Voynov (domestic abuse charges). As I’ve been saying for years, it is tough to be consistent and win in the post season without a good blue line. Fortunately with the departure of former GM George McPhee, the Capitals finally figured it out in the offseason and brought in some talent that gives Washington a very deep crew on the back end.

But the key to becoming a really top team is to have not only strong goaltending and defense, but depth at forward. That has been the challenge for Trotz and his job has been tougher by having to work in two rookies in Evgeny Kuznetsov and Burakovsky, along with second year man Wilson. It’s not an easy task and being a rookie in the NHL is very difficult. But Trotz has brought each of them along differently given their age and history. Kuznetsov is starting to blossom into the second line center role and his behind the back pass to Troy Brouwer is one that you usually only see from the Nicklas Backstrom’s of the world. That 1st goal was so huge because the Caps were 24-1-4 when tallying first and 1-14-6 this season when yielding the first marker. That is quite a telling statistic.

On that Brouwer goal, of note was the forechecking pressure that Burakovsky put on Robyn Regehr. The heat from #65 forced Regehr to put Alec Martinez in bad position with the biscuit and the man who scored the Cup clinching tally against the Rangers made an errant pass to Karl Alzner on the left wing boards. Alzner found Kuznetsov below the goal line and a sweet pass later it was 1-0. Trotz praised Burakovsky afterwards and stated that pretty soon everyone will all know the kids name.

Not only did the super gap control lead to production, but it also kept Washington out of the penalty box. This Caps team has had a recent propensity of taking tripping, high sticking, interference, and hooking penalties that are often the result of poor positioning and a lack of structure. The Capitals only had to kill one penalty on Tuesday night, which was their lowest total since December 4th against Carolina (h/t to Alex Prewitt of The Washington Post). You can add in discipline to that equation as Washington did not retaliate against a big Kings club. John Carlson took a couple of cheap shots from Kyle Clifford late in period two that somehow didn’t garner a penalty call from Paul Devorski and Tom Kowal (imagine that!). #74 could have easily gotten upset and attacked Clifford but Carlson kept his head and didn’t take an unnecessary penalty at a time when the game was still in question. Big kudos to Carlson there, that’s putting your team first, something we’ve seen more and more of this club this season than any other in the recent past.

Overall, it was a dominant performance by the Caps and Holtby came up big when he needed to be in stopping 27 shots. He made some key saves, with perhaps his best one coming on Jeff Carter in period two when it was still 1-0. Carter, who is a true sniper, appeared to have the top right corner picked but #70 managed to get most of his glove on the biscuit and knock it to the corner. Holtby also stoned Marian Gaborik on a semi-breakaway in period two. Holtby has now gone three straight games without allowing a goal in regulation and the only tally he yielded came in OT against the Habs and league MVP Carey Price on Saturday.

So the Caps end up going 1-1-1 against some of the better teams in the league with the lone regulation blemish coming against the St. Louis Blues on Sunday. The Blues are my current pick to win the Stanley Cup so a one goal defeat to them, after Washington played the day before while St. Louis rested, is not a black mark at all.

Washington is now 26-15-10 (62 points) and 9-1-1 in their last 11 home games (h/t to @ThePeerless). But the upcoming schedule doesn’t get any easier. After a day off on Wednesday, the Caps travel to take on a speedy Ottawa team on Thursday night, then come right home on Friday to play one of top teams in the NHL standings in the Anaheim Ducks. Finally, on Sunday at 3 pm they get a hot Flyers team at the Verizon Center. We all know what I think of Philadelphia, but that’s a story for another day.

Notes: Brouwer had two goals in his 500th NHL game…Backstrom had a goal and an assist while Alex Ovechkin had an assist. The Gr8 had 11 shot attempts…Washington led the shot attempt totals after 40 minutes, 40-21, that’s pretty impressive over one of the best puck possession teams in the NHL. Game total shot attempts were 52-44 for the Caps…the Kings won the face off battle, 26-23, but Backstrom was 12-6 from the dot.

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Hey Barry, More Mike Green Please

Posted on 21 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

As improved as the Washington Capitals have been this season under Coach Barry Trotz, the Caps ability to play with a lead and close out games has remained quite a question mark. Witness Tuesday night’s despicable shootout loss to the lowly Edmonton Oilers.

In that game, the Capitals led, 4-2, with five minutes remaining. The Caps had dominated the game and appeared in good position to get a nice victory heading into the All Star Break.

But the coach shortened the bench, like Trotz has done on numerous occasions this season, in an attempt to put what he thought were his best defensive players on the ice in order to close out the game. Part of that strategy included not playing Mike Green (and his defensive partner) over the last the five minutes in regulation.

Green is the best skater, passer, and puck possession defensemen on the roster. So why was he not on the ice when it seems you’d want a guy like that out there?

In fact, #52 has “sat the pine” in each of the three previous games in which the Caps had a slim lead late, as evidenced by the data below:

1 shift for only 12 seconds in the last 6 minutes versus Philly (1-0 lead)

1 shift for 44 seconds in the last 7 minutes versus Colorado (2-1 lead)

0 shifts in last 5 minutes versus Detroit (3-1 lead)

In each of those three games the Capitals were heavily out shot late and just hung on to win. Trotz went to that well, not playing Green, again last night and failed miserably.

It’s often stated in sports “that the best defense is a good offense.”

Trotz has called Green the Caps “X-Factor” for a reason. When he’s on his game, and he’s pretty much mostly been that way all season, he can carry a team. Former Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau didn’t call him “The One Man Breakout” for nothing.

I can understand not wanting to put the 6th defensemen (Jack Hillen) on the ice late in games. But not playing Hillen doesn’t also mean you have to sit a player of Green’s calibre too.

Why not go to a five defensemen rotation late in games? After all, playing just four D for the last five minutes has to wear out the guys who are playing and decrease their probability of getting the puck out of the zone, right?

If Green’s on the ice, chances are greater that the puck will be in the offensive end of the rink. He’s faster than the other four D so isn’t he more likely to get to the dump-ins and loose pucks than Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, John Carlson, and Karl Alzner?

Green has four goals and 23 assists this season including a goal and 14 assists in his last 16 games.

Bottom line, the Capitals are a better team with Mike Green on the ice, it’s a part of the reason the club is getting the lead in so many games.

Sure he’s prone to a big turnover every now and then, or “The Big Mistake”, as our friends over at Japers Rink call it.

But to me the Big Mistake is not having Green on the ice late in games. Get him out there more often and the Caps should find it much easier to close out more victories.

 

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Caps Heading in Right Direction at Season’s Midpoint

Posted on 11 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

What a difference a year makes.

At the 2013-14 midpoint, the Washington Capitals were sitting at 20-15-6, good for 46 points. But boy were things coming apart at the seams in a downward trend that started in early December. During that stretch, one in which Coach Adam Oates used three starting goalies to pretty much wreck Braden Holtby’s game, the Caps grew further apart as a team with three players asking for trades (Martin Erat, Dmitry Orlov, and Michal Neuvirth). They were a squad that relied almost exclusively on their power play to win games and were very poor at even strength. In addition, in game 41, a loss at home to Carolina in overtime, they iced a defense of Mike Green, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Dmitry Orlov, John Erskine, and Steve Oleksy. The Caps would go 18-15-8 the rest of the way looking like a totally lost team that would miss the post season and ultimately cost Oates and GM George McPhee their jobs. Over the course of the season, the Capitals used 14 different defensemen and four goalies (traded for Jaroslav Halak at the trade deadline). That version of the Capitals was a team in total chaos.

Fast forward to today, after 41 games the Capitals are 22-11-8 (52 points) and following a sluggish start, have gone 12-1-4 in their last 17 games. Coach Barry Trotz has brought in a new system and a new attitude and GM Brian MacLellan added two quality players, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, to a blue line that had been the team’s Achilles heel for several seasons. Trotz, who had coached the Predators since their first season, brought in an experienced coaching staff in Todd Reirden (defensemen), Lane Lambert (forwards), and Mitch Korn (goalies). All three have done a super job and Korn has allowed Holtby to get back to basics and return to the dominant level he was at in the spring of 2012 when the Caps narrowly missed making the Eastern Conference Finals. To date, they’ve used two goalies, with Holtby clearly the #1 net minder and carrying almost the entire load. On defense, they have quality and stability, they’ve only used seven different players on the back end. Red Wings coach Mike Babcock made a point, following Saturday’s game, to comment on the vast difference in the Washington defense, stating “anytime you have [Mike] Green playing at number five you have a real good back end.” (h/t to CSN’s Chuck Gormley for the quote).

Things are looking very good for this Capitals team. The key word in that sentence being “team.” Center Nicklas Backstrom, who is having yet another superb season, talked on Sunday afternoon about how things are different than past years under Trotz.

“We’ve been talking a lot about before the season and during the season to stick together and work together and doing the right things. It’s real important that everyone is paying attention to small details like face off plays, what we’re doing before every draw, stuff like that, so I think a lot of guys are buying into that and we’re following the game plan. Maybe before we’ve been doing our own things, so that has helped us a lot, I think,” said #19 when asked about the culture change that Trotz is implementing with the Caps.

“They make each other accountable, they don’t accept just going through the motions. When you fight to just go through the motions, that’s not a good culture to have. We’re not doing that, we’re staying on task…I told the guys I didn’t like the way we were playing the last two games [before Detroit] and I told the guys [Saturday] morning that if we want to be the team we think we can be we’re going to get tested tonight. I didn’t like some of the red flags I saw those last two games, we still got points and we won games, but you have to be honest with yourself. There will be times where you lose games and I’ll be happy with the way we played, we just didn’t win the game. Even when you win, you have to be honest with yourself, did you deserve to win the game or did you luck out? I think we are pretty honest, we have good evaluations…so we recognize we have some work to do,” said Trotz when asked about the culture change and where the team is at.

After winning against the Red Wings, Trotz felt better about things but admitted they are still a work in progress.

“I was real happy in the third period with the way we managed the game. We didn’t generate a lot of offense, but we didn’t give up anything, even on six on five they had a little bit, but it wasn’t chaos out there, it was controlled and we forced them to try to execute at an extremely high level and they didn’t get any free looks or anything like that. So we’re better, just in our structure, we recognize possession and we recognized when they weren’t attacking the interior. We stayed patient and when they tried to, we’ll just make one adjustment that we need to do better and if it happens next game we’ll be even more prepared. We try to learn from things that happen, experiences that can make ourselves better, instead of hey we just got lucky. We look for things every day,” said Trotz.

All of the changes have certainly helped the Capitals put themselves back in the playoff picture and right now, it looks like they will make the post season. But there are 41 games to go and the race is tight. While just making the playoffs is key, this club has a bigger goal, to compete for a Stanley Cup. To get to that phase, they have a lot of work to do.

So in the second half the key will be to sustain their focus so that they can improve. Even doing that, there are question marks. One thing to be concerned about is Holtby’s work load. The key will be for Justin Peters to assert himself as a viable back up option, especially with nine back to back tilts scheduled. If Peters can’t perform, then MacLellan will have to find someone who will fill that role, otherwise the Caps not only risk missing the playoffs, but having a very fatigued goalie in April and beyond.

The defense needs to stay healthy and certainly with the depth they have in the top five, Trotz has been able to increase the probability of that by spreading out the minutes. Another key to staying healthy, and winning, is cutting down on the number of penalties the team takes. There have been recent stretches where the parade to the box has cost them points. Finally, they have to stabilize their forward line combinations. We’ve seen a rotating door with Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin on the top unit and the latest project is having rookie Andre Burakovsky fill the right wing role after Tom Wilson and some others struggled. The second scoring line has also been woefully inconsistent. Recently it has shown signs of life with Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Troy Brouwer lighting the lamp more frequently. How that trio plays will be a factor in any possible deep playoff run. Simply put, the forward situation is concerning and it remains to be seen if the young players, Burakovsky, Kuznetsov, and Wilson, can improve enough by April to make this club a contender. If it looks like that isn’t going to happen then MacLellan will have to make a move for a top six forward.

Most of all though, this club needs to continue the process and commitment they’ve built up over the first 41 games and Backstrom certainly brought that home with his thoughts on Sunday afternoon.

“I think that it’s about time that we realize how to play as a team and right now it looks good but we have a long way to go. We’re not done yet, it’s just halfway through the season. We’ve got lots of work to do and we’re not where we want to be yet, so we really need to be humble and make sure we work hard every day and every night,” finished Backstrom.

 

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Caps Keep Rolling with Win Over Florida

Posted on 04 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Roberto Luongo has historically given the Washington Capitals fits, going 15-1 in his last 16 starts against the Caps.

So Sunday’s tilt with the Panthers at the Verizon Center, against a pesky Florida squad that is big and had previously taken the Capitals to two shootouts, loomed like a tough one coming off of the big Winter Classic victory on Thursday.

Despite being shorthanded five times, including three times in the final period, the Capitals carried the play for much of this contest and garnered a well earned 4-3 victory over the Panthers to improve to 20-11-7 (47 points).

The Capitals are now 10-1-3 in their last 14 games.

Alexander Ovechkin (goal and an assist) had another stellar game and it was his open ice collision with Luongo in the first period that eventually drove the net minder from the cage after forty minutes. Luongo gave up three goals but because his club also tallied three times, he wasn’t saddled with the loss. Al Montoya, who played the third period, gave up a goal on five shots to take the defeat.

Braden Holtby was in net for Washington, his 15th straight start, and he stopped 29 of 32 shots en route to his 18th victory (18-8-6). His save percentage on the season is at .920 and he continues to play well. About the only goal you could fault him on was the third Florida tally, by Nick Bjugstad, which came from down low and beat #70 top shelf in the closing minutes.

After a strong opening period that was scoreless, the Caps struck first on the PP with Ovechkin’s 19th tally of the season off of a sweet pass from Nicklas Backstrom. That first goal is so important this year since the Capitals are now 19-1-2 in that situation against a 1-10-5 record when the opponent gets on the board first. Despite the early lead, the Capitals would play keystone cops at the offensive blue line which led to a two on zero Cats rush. Somehow Holtby managed to stop the first two shots on that sequence, but his defensive help didn’t come quickly or properly enough and the third shot found the back of the twine. Just 85 seconds later Florida took the lead.

In the past, the Caps might have wilted, but not this more resilient bunch under Coach Barry Trotz. The Capitals would storm back, thanks primarily to the line of Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward to grab a 3-2 edge heading into period three. From there Ovechkin set up Andre Burakovsky for the fourth goal that ended up being the game winner.

Overall, the Capitals played well but they still have issues taking penalties. They were shorthanded for a total of 9:13 and as chronicled after the Winter Classic win, the number of infractions they are taking must decrease. Granted the call against Brooks Orpik that gave the Cats a 5 on 3 was downright ridiculous and Trotz called out Vincent Trocheck for diving on that play in his post game presser.

Florida is a big and physical team, but the Capitals outworked them on Sunday and that’s why they won the game and the Panthers coach, Gerard Gallant, made that clear afterwards.

“We weren’t good enough. I mean, we battled back and found a way to come close there at the end, but not good enough. We didn’t play hard enough. They were more physical than we were tonight. They wanted the puck battles and that’s why we ended up losing the game at the end,” said Gallant.

Burakovsky, who is only 19 and played in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) last season, received his first start on the first line with Ovechkin and Backstrom and he played well in 12:05 of even strength time. His skill, primarily his hands and shooting ability, is something sorely needed in that top line position and he delivered on Sunday. Trotz liked #65’s play and commended him afterwards.

“He was playing with two big stars, and he didn’t look intimidated. A couple times he shot the puck where sometimes you should make the extra pass, but he got the puck and he just made plays. I like that. Defensively he was pretty sound. We didn’t spend much time in our own end, but he was pretty sound in terms of his tracking and all that, so I was really happy for him. He’s such a great kid and he comes from a great family. He’s a really good hockey player…but I think in the scheme of things, looking at his whole career, he’s going to be a really good player for us,” said Trotz.

So the Capitals continue to keep finding ways to win hockey games and they get two days of practice at Kettler Ice Plex before facing the Maple Leafs in Toronto Wednesday and then they finally play the Flyers, for the first time this season, on Thursday, in Philadelphia. Those are two tough games in a back to back situation and the Caps last loss was on the 2nd night of one of those in New York right before Christmas. It will be interesting to see if Trotz goes with Holtby in net twice or turns to Justin Peters for a start for the first time since November 29th.

Notes: Washington won the face off battle 43-29 with Backstrom going 18-8 from the dot…shot attempts favored the Caps, 63-60…the Panthers were 0 for 5 on the power play while the Caps went 1 for 2 in only 3:16 of man advantage time. Yes, the Caps have been taking too many penalties lately, but some of the calls recently have been beyond bad. Bottom line, the officiating needs to improve too and they need to start penalizing the divers, like Trocheck, and not the players with integrity, such as Orpik.

 

 

 

 

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