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Holtby Stones Devils in Caps 3-0 Win

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Holtby Stones Devils in Caps 3-0 Win

Posted on 09 February 2014 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals played three games this week and allowed only three goals getting super net minding from Michal Neuvirth on Tuesday in a 1-0 loss to the Islanders and then Braden Holtby in a 4-2 victory on Thursday against Winnipeg and a shutout of the New Jersey Devils on Saturday in a 3-0 win.

In all three contests the goaltenders did their job and held the Capitals in the game. Unfortunately, Washington was only able to win two of those three contests.

Goaltending is not the major issue in Washington. Holtby, Neuvirth, and even Philip Grubauer have all played well for the Caps this season. If there is an issue on this team, it’s on inconsistent defensive zone play and up front, where scoring, outside of Alexander Ovechkin, has been tough to find.

But back to the goalies, and specifically, Holtby. The young netminder has been very good in his short career with Washington and #70 nearly carried his club to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012. Last year, Braden had a tough game seven against the Rangers, but let’s be honest, the Capitals lost that series because they couldn’t put the biscuit in the basket, not due to the play of Holtby.

Fast forward to this season where Holtby came out of the gate playing well behind a very young and suspect defense. Then starting with a loss to Pittsburgh in late November, things kind of went off of the rails for the Saskatchewan native. There was talk of the coaching staff trying to change the way Holtby played with a focus on him not being so aggressive and his positioning being deeper in his cage. It was a big change for the goalie and he went into a tailspin. Suddenly longer range shots were getting by him and compounding the problem was a defense that gave up too many odd man rushes and often screened their goalie or deflected shots, making not playing the angles as much more of a liability.

But in some recent relief appearances and then the two games this week, #70 was back to his “original” self. After his third shutout of this season on Saturday, I asked Holtby what was going on and if the talk of changing his game was true.

“There’s been talk of it from the start of the year to try and change things. The last two games I’ve just played like what’s got me here. So Olie and I are really getting back to our basics and it’s working out,” said Holtby.

Clearly Holtby, in his response to me, was not comfortable with the different style. The coaches were trying to make adjustments, perhaps because the defense was so green, but they clearly weren’t working for a guy this team believes is their number one goalie long term. Basically, they traded away Semyon Varlamov, who just signed a five year $30M contract with Colorado and will be starting for Team Russia in next week’s Olympics, to give the cage to Holtby.

A coach’s job is to try and make a player perform at peak efficiency, but sometimes they can over think a situation. There aren’t many goalies that have the ability to play deep in their net and be successful like Henrik Lundqvist is able to do on a regular basis. In an interview on Sirius XM radio just this week, Calgary Flames Director of Amateur Scouting, Tod Button, stated what I just wrote about Lundqvist. Button basically said that Lundqvist is the exception to the rule when talking about what the Flames are doing with their young up and coming goalie, Joni Ortio. Button said that a lot of the European goalies play that “deeper in the net” style but in the NHL, the shooters are so good that they’ll eat you up, so you have to teach them to be more aggressive.

Holtby was always an aggressive goalie and the direction the Caps were going with him this year was to be less that way. It wasn’t working. But credit both Holtby and Olie Kolzig for working through this and getting #70 back to doing what is most comfortable for him. Based on the way Holtby played this week and has played in the past before the style changes, and given what Button stated (and it is a common thought around the league), letting Holtby be Holtby makes the most sense.

On Saturday, Holtby was the primary reason the Caps won. The Devils had 11 of the first 16 shots on goal and #70 made some big stops, including a two on one early on. I asked Braden what his toughest save of the night was and if it was that stop on the odd man rush. He said that was a good one but it wasn’t as difficult and you might think.

“Those look harder than they actually are if your d-man plays them right like they did and chooses to take away one, the shot or the pass. He chose the shot so I knew he was passing it, which makes it a lot easier on me,” stated Holtby on the sequence that led to a super left pad save.

Holtby did say that New Jersey did a good job of generating traffic and he did get some breaks. Patrick Elias had a golden chance in front in period two but somehow shot the puck wide.

“They put a lot of traffic in front, though, they are right on top of me all night, so a couple of lucky bounces and fighting through screens,” said Holtby describing the challenge he faced with the Devils on Saturday.

Holtby was certainly the number one star, but the other goalie, Cory Schneider, was good too. It took a shot from Julien Brouillette through traffic to beat a goalie many felt, including me, should be on Team USA next week. The goal was the young defensemen’s first in the NHL and it was all the Caps needed, although Martin Erat (1st goal of the year) and Troy Brouwer added empty net tallies.

This was a win the Capitals had to have heading into the Olympic break. They trail the 3rd place Philadelphia Flyers by three points with 23 games to go. The Capitals won their first Metropolitan Division game in their last eight tries to keep pace. The schedule gets extremely tough in March so the Capitals had to get at least six of the eight points on this recent four game homestand. They did that, primarily due to good goaltending from Holtby and Neuvirth.

The Caps will need both, and especially Holtby, who Coach Adam Oates said would be the starter coming out of the Olympic break, to be on their respective games.

It looks like Holtby is back in top form and you can credit that to the mutual decision to allow him to go back to the style that’s made him most successful in his career.

Notes: Alex Oveckhin had an assist and was +2 in 20:48 of ice time…John Carlson led Washington in ice time with 25:11…the Caps killed off all three New Jersey power plays but went 0 for 4 in their man advantage situations. Oates blamed that lack of PP success on poor reads, although the bad ice surface, due to an early basketball game, was a factor also, in my opinion.

 

 

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Ovechkin’s 40th Goal of Season Wins it for Caps

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Ovechkin’s 40th Goal of Season Wins it for Caps

Posted on 06 February 2014 by Ed Frankovic

After 40 minutes, things were looking bleak for the Washington Capitals. They were trailing the Winnipeg Jets, 2-1, and were being outplayed and out shot, 30-18. A loss would surely do major damage to any playoff hopes they still had remaining.

Luckily for the Caps, Braden Holtby, who was a surprise starter after Michal Neuvirth came down with an illness, was excellent in the cage (34 saves) and kept Washington in it.

Then, in the final frame, Washington played one of its’ best 20 minutes of the season totally dominating the Jets on the shot clock, 12-6, and more importantly, 3-0 on the scoreboard to get a much needed 4-2 victory.

The win moves the Caps to 26-23-9 (61 points) and keeps them three points out of a playoff spot.

Tom Wilson, Alexander Ovechkin, and Troy Brouwer all scored in the third period because the Capitals started moving their feet and going to the net. All four Washington tallies (Brouwer had the first one, as well) were from the Caps crashing the cage. That’s the way you have to score in the NHL because the goalies are so good.

The effort in the last period was excellent and makes you wonder why this team can’t do that more often despite some holes in the lineup?

Going into the game, the Caps called up rookie defensemen Patrick Wey and Julien Brouillette to replace a demoted Tyson Strachan (sent to Hershey) and a struggling John Erskine. Both of those guys did okay in their almost 15 minutes of ice time together and finished +2. Brouillette made a nice play to set up Wilson’s goal with Wey getting an assist on the tally, too. Those two blue liners played a simple game.

Ovechkin’s tally was his 40th of the season after Nicklas Backstrom (1 assist) was decked in the crease. It was a gritty goal and was the game winner. The Gr8 had nine shot attempts and four hits in this tilt in 20:35 of ice time.

The first 40 minutes were maddening, though. On the first Jets goal, Karl Alzner misplayed John Carlson’s (25:26 of ice time) pass around the boards and Martin Erat was late in coverage on Bryan Little. That allowed Little to get credit for the tally after Holtby stopped the initial shot following a nice pass from Andrew Ladd. The goal actually went in off of Erat’s skate. The second goal, the only marker of the second period, was even worse as both Washington defensemen were in position with Marcus Johansson skating back as the third forward. For some reason, MJ90 failed to turn around and find the third Jet up the ice, Dustin Byfuglien, and #33 received a pass from Devon Setoguchi in the slot and buried it, top shelf. Johansson, who did have two assists including a sweet feed to Brouwer on the fourth goal, has to be more alert and bear down defensively on those plays. Overall, Washington was a victim of not moving their feet in those first two periods.

But somehow they managed to find another gear in the final 20 minutes and save their playoff push, for now. Falling five points back, at this point, might be too much to overcome. They still have a rough road ahead to climb back into a playoff spot, especially if they perform like they did on Tuesday against New York and in the first 40 minutes versus Winnipeg.

Bottom line, over the last 24 games the team needs to be much more consistent and skate like they did in the third period if they want to make it into a seventh straight post season.

Notes: Connor Carrick and Dmitry Orlov were paired together and played just under 20 minutes of ice time…the Caps won the face off battle, 33-24…Wilson played 8:07 and I’d love to see Coach Adam Oates get him out there on the struggling Caps power play. Washington was 0 for 4 with the man advantage and they could use Wilson’s size and hands to shake things up…the Caps only took one minor penalty, that is a huge step in the right direction given their recent propensity to end up in the sin bin…next up are the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night at 8pm at the Verizon Center.

 

 

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Ovechkin OT Goal Gives Caps Super Bowl Sunday Win

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Ovechkin OT Goal Gives Caps Super Bowl Sunday Win

Posted on 02 February 2014 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin, who shanked a one timer near the end of the first period that would’ve given the Capitals a 4-1 lead, made no mistake when given a second chance in overtime. The Gr8 took John Carlson’s perfect pass on a 4 on 3 power play and lasered it by Wings goalie Jimmy Howard to give Washington a 6-5, OT victory on Super Bowl Sunday.

The win improved the Caps to 25-22-9 (59 points) and puts them just a point out of a playoff spot.

This was one of those games that fans love and coaches mostly despise. There was lots of end to end action and numerous mistakes, which drives coaches nuts. But from a viewing perspective, it was exciting.

From a Caps angle, this game had several things to like.

First, the effort was superb from the outset. Washington, after getting thoroughly dominated in puck possession on Friday in Motown, owned the biscuit for the first half of this contest in racing to a 4-2 lead. The Capitals are scoring goals again because they are moving their feet and paying the price to get to the front of the opposition net. They are finally owning that portion of the ice and they are getting the gritty and greasy goals necessary to win. Joel Ward (2 goals, 1 assist) and Jason Chimera (1 goal, 2 assists) were the kings of that on Sunday.

Second, Washington’s forecheck generated turnovers and Martin Erat and Nicklas Backstrom’s pressure in the offensive zone directly led to a nice top shelf goal by Troy Brouwer that put the Capitals up 5-4 early in period three.

Third, the power play is clicking again and making life miserable for the opposition. The Wings tried to take Ovechkin away on the 5 on 4 and all Coach Adam Oates and company did was adjust and get two power play markers in what pretty much became 4 on 3 situations with the Gr8 blanketed. Ward tallied from the slot and John Carlson scored with a bomb from the point. Ovechkin’s game winner was on a real 4 on 3, so the Caps were 3 for 6 with the man advantage on Sunday.

Fourth, puck possession is easier to gain when you win the face off battle. Washington was 46-30 on draws and that forced Detroit to chase the Caps to try to get the biscuit for much of the game. Jay Beagle went 14-5 from the dot.

Finally, Michal Neuvirth, despite giving up five goals, was really good in net again. His pad save on Henrik Zetterberg (3 assists) with the game tied in the third period allowed the Caps to win this contest. Neuvy is in a groove and he told me afterwards he’s playing the best he has been all season. He feels comfortable and focused in the cage and he stated that the coaches have only made minor changes to his game, which allows him to play the way he’s always played.

So why did the Capitals do so many good things and still need overtime to win?

Well, let’s start with untimely penalties. Connor Carrick’s cross check in the opening frame turned a 2-0 lead into a 2-1 contest in just nine seconds. Worse though was Brouwer’s neutral zone slash with the score 4-2 late in period two. That is a killer infraction and one that gave Detroit new life when the Capitals were close to putting a stranglehold on this tilt. Brouwer has to be smarter in that situation as his penalty was selfish and lazy. I imagine Troy would be the first to tell you he hosed up there (and he did score a big goal in period three to help make up for it).

Next, the Caps defensive zone continues to have issues, particularly in coverage. After the game I asked Oates why they are giving up so many goals when it appears they have players in position to defend. The bench boss said it is simply a case of not winning the “one on one battles.” He’s right about that and it is a pattern we’ve seen too often this season. So is it a question of a lack of focus or an ability issue in their own end? My take is it is a combination of both, but I put more of it on the talent side as Washington’s defense is very inexeperienced after Carlson and Karl Alzner (Mike Green missed his second straight game due to injury).

Bottom line is this team is going to have to work super hard at both ends to overcome the defensive zone issues they have in order to climb their way into post season position. They also need to be more self disciplined by staying out of the box.

Last year the Capitals went on an amazing run down the stretch to make the playoffs by bringing a great effort each night and cutting down on penalties. That run came after a tough loss in Pittsburgh last March where the Caps played well and fell, 2-1. The Capitals fed off of the positives of that difficult loss. But this season, Chimera admitted that the loss to the Penguins on January 15th, a game in which the Caps carried the play, but lost, 4-3, took some time to recover from. Their efforts after that loss were not good for a few games until they turned the corner with a 5-0 win in Montreal.

Since Montreal (outside of the Columbus loss), Washington has improved offensively by getting more bodies and pucks to the net, so that is encouraging and they’ll need to keep that up in order to win their last three games against the Islanders, Jets, and Devils before the Olympic break.

All three tilts are at the Verizon Center and if the Capitals bring the effort they brought on Sunday, then they should be able to gain some ground in the Eastern Conference this week.

 

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Ovechkin, Green Lead Caps Over Sabres

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Ovechkin, Green Lead Caps Over Sabres

Posted on 28 January 2014 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin continues to do what he can to try to carry the Capitals into the playoffs and on Tuesday night in Buffalo he got some excellent help from defensemen Mike Green.

The Gr8 scored the first two Capitals goals, his 37th and 38th of the season, and then he assisted on the last two, including a great pass to Game Over Green for the winner in overtime.

It was a wild affair against a not so talented but gritty Buffalo squad and Washington prevailed, 5-4.

In my last blog, I made it clear that Ovechkin is still the most valuable player to his team in the NHL and this game once again made that case.

With the Capitals struggling mightily in their own end, it was on the offense to pull this game out. We all know that Alexander the Great is a pure goal scorer, but his passing skills are often overlooked and vastly underrated by those who aren’t paying close attention. How many other NHLers could have made the pass to Martin Erat late in period two on the power play that set up Troy Brouwer for Washington’s 4th goal? Not too many have the combination of power and finesse necessary to get that puck to sit on Erat’s stick through a maze of players so quickly.

Then, on the game winner, the Gr8 slides a perfect pass to Green, much like he did for Casey Wellman on Saturday, giving Sabres goalie Curtis Enroth no chance to stop Green’s shot and the Caps win.

The win moves Washington to 24-21-8 (56 points) and they are just a point out of a playoff spot after two straight victories. The Capitals have six games left before the Olympic break and the next three are against teams in front of them (Detroit twice and Columbus). The other three are the Islanders, Winnipeg, and New Jersey.  A good streak before the league shutdown seems imperative given the tough schedule facing the Capitals in March.

However, if they want to do well in this upcoming stretch, they have to do certain things much better. Defensively, the Capitals were far too loose in their own zone. Bad coverage, turnovers, and penalties led to four goals by an offensively challenged Buffalo club. We are 53 games into the season and these same mistakes continue to occur. If Washington wants to make the playoffs then they need to eliminate or seriously reduce the frequency of these miscues. The hockey department and coaches have to find an answer to these issues quickly if they want to make the post season.

Another disturbing thing was the way Sabres Mike Weber took liberties with Marcus Johansson and Nicklas Backstrom. You simply can’t count on the referees, and especially when it is two clowns like Paul Devorski and Don VanMassenhoven, to protect your players. Once Weber gave that cheap shot to MJ90 someone on the Caps should’ve let him know physically that if that happened again he was going to be seeing stars for weeks. Where was John Erskine, Tom Wilson, Jason Chimera, or Troy Brouwer to make Weber pay for his cheap shot on Johansson? If Backstrom gets hurt by the late game elbow from Weber then their playoff chances go to 0!

Look, I am all for self discipline, but there are places and times to send a message in a hockey game and it was disappointing and alarming that Weber wasn’t made to pay for his hit on MJ90. By letting that go, they risked injury to other players. Unacceptable. Like or not, protecting your players is a part of the NHL game today.

Braden Holtby made some big stops in net in his second straight start. Yes, he gave up four tallies, but his defense left him out to dry too many times.

Overall, this was a sloppy effort but the Ovechkin and Green show carried the day.

Two points were pretty much a must in Buffalo and now Washington has back to back tilts with Columbus and Detroit on Thursday and Friday.

It’s nice that the offense is back, thanks primarily to the Gr8 and the Caps increasing willingness to crash the net, but if they want to be more consistent, they have to do a better job of protecting their own net.

Notes: Shots on goal were 35-27 for the Caps, but Buffalo dominated the 3rd period, 13-5. The Sabres played the night before so it was disappointing that the Caps were able to be outplayed in the 3rd period when they should’ve been the fresher squad…the Caps went 2 for 3 on the power play while Buffalo was 1 for 2…Green’s first goal, which came on a sweet wraparound, was the 100th of his NHL career…Martin Erat had two assists in one of his better games of the season…the Caps lost the face off battle, 36-28…shot attempts were 55-53, in favor of the Caps.

 

 

 

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Ovechkin Return Spurs Caps to 5-0 Victory

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Ovechkin Return Spurs Caps to 5-0 Victory

Posted on 25 January 2014 by Ed Frankovic

Sidney Crosby may win the Hart Trophy this year for the great season he is having, but you will never get me to back down on the following statement:

Alexander Ovechkin is the “most valuable” player to his team in the NHL.

For proof of that, see Saturday’s Capitals 5-0 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Hockey Night in Canada.

Washington came in to Montreal as losers of 7 straight games and in a serious goal scoring drought. The Gr8 had missed the previous two games due to a lower body injury and until the third period in New Jersey, the Capitals looked like they couldn’t beat a college team without the services of their captain in those two tilts.

Everything seemed to change from the first shift Ovechkin took tonight, which included a big hit in the neutral zone. The Caps were moving their feet and fighting to the front of the Habs net. Despite not scoring, the Capitals held a 12-3 shot advantage in the opening frame and carried the majority of the play.

But they still had not scored and the way things had been going for this club, if Montreal gets on the board first, then who knows what would’ve happened?

Enter Ovechkin and a goal that only a few players on the planet could score early in period two. The Gr8 corralled the puck in the air below the goal line and in Tiger Woods like fashion juggled it on his stick and then snapped it by a stunned Carey Price. It was an off the charts goal in terms of pure skill, which comes from countless hours of practice. The tally was a game changer and the Capitals totally came to life after that marker.

John Erskine scored to make it 2-0 thanks to Brooks Laich going to the net and then Jay Beagle, who was great again on Saturday after being my player of the game in New Jersey on Friday, finished off a beautiful passing play from Tom Wilson and Mike Green. John Carlson then made it four goals on a delayed penalty call and that chased Price from the game in the middle stanza.

Ovechkin would then beautifully set up Casey Wellman in the third period for a sweet goal on a two on one break to make it 5-0 and the Habs would not dent Braden Holtby once in their 21 shots on net in this contest.

It was a dominating win and something this club badly needed.

The key was their ability to get to the front of the net and protect their own cage, something they’ve struggled mightily with this season. With NHL goalies so talented these days, the best way to score is to get bodies and pucks there. The Capitals did that with a vengeance on Saturday night. Washington also limited their turnovers which prevented odd man rushes against.

Basically it was a textbook victory and the Caps looked like a confident team after that first goal by the Gr8.

Ovechkin notched his 36th goal of the campaign and added his 15th assist as he easily earned the game’s number one star.

The losing streak is over and the large piano is off of the backs of the Capitals players.

It was only one win, but getting one win lately has seemed next to impossible for Washington.

Ovechkin’s return and play sparked his club tonight.

Most Valuable Player, in my book, hands down.

Notes: The Caps outshot Montreal 34-21 and it was 27-9 through two periods..the Habs won the faceoff battle, 36-25…the Caps were 0 for 8 on the power play but for all intensive purposes Ovechkin’s goal was a PPG as it went in right as the penalty expired…Montreal was 0 for 3 with the man advantage…next up for the Caps is the Sabres in Buffalo on Tuesday. You can bet Ryan Miller will be in net so Washington must go to the cage with authority like they did on Saturday in order to get the biscuit by the great Michigan State alum.

 

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Fehr Propels Caps Over Bolts to Halt 4 Game Skid

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Fehr Propels Caps Over Bolts to Halt 4 Game Skid

Posted on 10 January 2014 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals, losers of their last four games, desperately needed a win on Thursday night in Tampa.

After blowing a 3-1 lead, Eric Fehr deflected home a Mike Green point shot with 51 seconds left to break a 3-3 tie and end the Capitals losing skid. It was a hard earned victory and the Caps move back into 3rd place in the Metropolitan Division at 21-16-6 (48 points).

There were a lot of things to like in this game, starting with the play of goalie Philipp Grubauer (33 saves). The young netminder made one of the best saves of the year in the final frame with Washington clinging to a 3-2 lead on a two on one Tampa rush. Grubauer went to the splits and somehow managed to deny what seemed to be a sure goal for the Bolts. Yes, the Caps would yield the tying goal after that, but if that one goes in, on a shorthanded rush mind you, Washington likely doesn’t recover. The young German goalie is playing extremely well and right now is the #1 guy. Now I would rest him on Friday night when the Caps take on the Leafs at the Verizon Center (7 pm) and give Braden Holtby a start after a long flight home from Florida, but then I’d go back with Grubauer on Sunday afternoon against the Sabres.

Up front, the line of Alex Ovechkin (1 assist), Mikhail Grabovski (1 goal), and Fehr (2 goals) was outstanding generating 21 of the 57 shot attempts the Capitals had in this contest (Tampa had 58 shot attempts). On the three tallies that members of the line were involved in, they did a great job of getting traffic on the opposing net. Grabovski provided the screen on Fehr’s first tally off of a sweet pass from the Gr8. By the way, if you are one of those people who think Ovechkin is selfish with the puck and can’t pass, then I suggest you put down the dope you’re smoking and check yourself in to the next rehab center. Alex’s passing is underrated and he moved the biscuit extremely well, once again, in this one. It was his steal in the defensive zone, quick up ice rush, and good pass that set the whole winning goal sequence up.

I also liked the strong defensive play of John Carlson and Karl Alzner. That duo is as solid as it gets and neither was on the ice for a goal against. Each picked up an assist and were +1 in 26:08 and 21:52 of ice time, respectively. Carlson’s volleyball swat of a Grubauer rebound in the third period likely saved a goal.

Washington’s power play was once again a thing of beauty and they continue to find different ways to score. Grabovski got the first PPG by going to the cage and then with the Bolts over playing Ovechkin, Marcus Johansson did his best Julius Erving imitation and stuffed one home late in the opening frame to make it 3-1. The Caps also killed off the only Lightning power play so the special teams were a big factor in the victory.

Now to the things I did not like, and some of them are disturbing trends.

First, and foremost, the Capitals are allowing FAR TOO MANY odd man rushes. Two of the three Bolts goals were off of them, a first period breakaway after Troy Brouwer made a bad pass with both Dmitry Orlov and Green in poor position and a two on one in the second period when John Erskine got caught too far up the ice. On that two on one, Connor Carrick did not do a good job of letting Grubauer know the pass was going to be cut off and as a result, B.J. Crombeen beat him short side for his first goal in over 50 games. Goalies need to know where the shots are coming from to stop them and the Caps defenders are doing a lousy job of helping that occur. Washington defenders are getting caught up ice too often and the other defender is too many times doing a lousy job of playing the odd man rush. Coach Adam Oates and assistant coach Calle Johansson have got to get this team to first minimize the number of odd man breaks against, and then better prepare their defenders to play them when they do happen.

The line of Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, and Brouwer was not good. They only generated 10 shot attempts and were on the ice for two goals against, one of them the tying goal off of a defensive zone face off. Brouwer was the worst of the three with his awful turnover and then screening Grubauer on the tying goal. Either block the shot there or get out of the way. Overall, Washington’s forwards are not doing a good enough job of blocking shots this season and that needs to change. More often than not, they are screens instead of a goalie assistant in their own zone.

Erskine and whomever he is paired with continues to be a struggling duo. #4′s lack of speed is hurting him and he was woefully out of a position on the Crombeen tally.

Despite the things that still must be cleaned up, this team needed a victory and they got one against a very good Tampa team. Yes, the Bolts are without Steven Stamkos and they were just returning from a grueling road trip, but they are a quality hockey club so a win for the Caps, in regulation, is a good step in the right direction.

We’ll see if they can parlay that into a winning streak with the struggling Leafs and woeful Sabres coming to DC this weekend.

 

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Untimely Mistakes Cost Caps Again in Overtime Loss

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Untimely Mistakes Cost Caps Again in Overtime Loss

Posted on 02 January 2014 by Ed Frankovic

For the third time in three games, the Washington Capitals did a lot of good things, and lost for the third straight time.

On Thursday at the Verizon Center, the Caps scored three times in the first four minutes of period two but over the other 57+ minutes they mustered 0 goals. Washington threw 41 shots at the net to just 33 for Carolina, but once again mistakes cost them a hockey game.

The early miscues were bad penalties. After a sloppy line change led to a too many men on the ice infraction, Brooks Laich tried to decapitate Alex Semin and it put Carolina, who were being totally outplayed to that point, on a 5 on 3 advantage. Jeff Skinner, who would notch a hat trick in this one after a two goal performance here back on December 3rd, would beat Philipp Grubauer as the rookie goalie over committed and flopped to the ice.

After Alex Ovechkin scored his 31st goal of the season just 49 seconds into the middle frame, John Erskine got caught pinching at the offensive blue line and the Canes scored on a two on one. The shot was short side by Manny Malhotra and it sure looked like it was a stoppable one. Troy Brouwer and Steve Oleksy would tally just 52 seconds apart and the Capitals seemed to have righted the ship to take a 3-2 lead.

However just 40 seconds later, Grubauer, who was not very good in this one, gave up a bad rebound and when Martin Erat misplayed the puck in the slot Skinner was there to make Washington pay.

In overtime, the Capitals went for the gusto and Ovechkin’s bad pass to Dmitry Orlov resulted in a three on one break against Mike Green and #52 once again failed to cut off the pass and #53 got the hattie to end this one with a victory for Carolina.

So after 41 games the Capitals are 20-15-6 (46 points) and are clinging to second place in the Metropolitan Division over a streaking Flyers club who are playing in Colorado late Thursday night.

At this point, I certainly have more questions than answers about this hockey team.

First off, is this group of defensemen the right mix to keep this club in a playoff spot, and more importantly go anywhere in the spring if they do qualify? After John Carlson and Karl Alzner you’ve a got a pairing of Green and Orlov that have the puck a lot but are also prone to disastrous mistakes. As for the third duo, Oleksy and John Erskine have not been good. I put most of that on #4 who just doesn’t seem to have the wheels to handle Oates’ pressure the puck system.

Second, what is the plan on goaltending? Coach Adam Oates has used three different goalies this season with Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer sharing much of the load over long stretches. #31 is starting to show the signs of fatigue that Holtby was displaying after he was ridden hard by the bench boss for two plus months. Both seem to be NHL calibre goalies, but the way one is being ridden into the ground while the other sits seems to be a plan that needs rethinking. Grubauer was not as good in Ottawa and got worse on Thursday at the Verizon Center. Michal Neuvirth wants out and at this point, if they could get a legitimate third pair defensemen for him, then I’d do that deal.

Finally, is this the right mix of forwards once everyone is fully healthy? Up front the Caps go long stretches without scoring. Ovechkin is getting his shots and scoring goals but there isn’t a lot of balance after that. To top it off, the forwards have been very prone to big mistakes in their own end too. Washington’s inability to play well from their goal line out isn’t all on the defense. The forwards have struggled mightily with back checking (see Canes third goal tonight) and it is hurting the Caps ability to prevent odd man breaks and quality scoring chances.

To sum it all up, what we’ve seen in 41 games is pretty much what this team appears to be made of. They have great stretches and then make horrible mistakes on some of the simplest facets of the game. Their record displays what they basically are, a mediocre hockey team. In Oates’ post game pressers he frequently refers to “the same mistakes being made over and over.” That needs fixing.

The mediocrity can’t be good enough for anyone in the Capitals organization, at this stage.

So what should they do?

With three guys requesting trades and an abundance of players in certain areas (right wing, goalie, and offensive defensemen) and major weaknesses in other areas (left wing and solid skating two way defensemen), it appears that the only way to improve this club and make them a post season threat is via the trade route. You’ve got to give up something decent to get something in return. There is nothing wrong with trading a top player from a position of strength to get a top player to fill a position of weakness. Jack Johnson from LA to Columbus for Jeff Carter in 2012 comes to mind quickly. That move was the final piece of the puzzle to a Los Angeles Kings Stanley Cup run. It was the culmination of several aggressive moves by Kings GM Dean Lombardi and those changes turned a middle of the pack club into a Stanley Cup winner.

Yes, that team had Jonathan Quick in net and were good defensively, but that was primarily due to Lombardi getting the right mix of players via excellent asset management.

Your move(s) Mr. McPhee.

Notes: Shot attemps were 72-58 in favor of the Caps despite the Canes holding a 4 to 1 edge in power plays…the Caps were 41-33 from the face off dot…Ovechkin was hauled down by Justin Faulk early in the middle frame and awarded a penalty shot but the Gr8 fumbled the puck on the way in.

 

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Caps Lose in Shootout to Ryan Miller

Posted on 29 December 2013 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals had 50 shots on net and only allowed 17 to the Buffalo Sabres, yet they lost, 2-1 in a six round shootout.

The Caps out shot attempted Buffalo, 78-39! So much for FancyStats, right?! That’s been the way things have gone this year for the Caps, they’ve won games where they were totally outplayed and they’ve also had some losses when they’ve dominated.

On Sunday night, there was one major reason they lost: Ryan Miller.

You remember that guy right? The one that nearly carried Team USA to a gold medal in Vancouver in the 2010 Olympics? Yes, that guy, who despite a weak supporting cast, continues to keep the Sabres in many hockey games. Well, the man who I think deserves to start the 2014 Olympics in Sochi in February, stole a game for Buffalo once again.

Washington did a ton of good things in this contest. The line of Mikhail Grabovski, Eric Fehr, and Troy Brouwer were downright dominant and it was Brouwer who scored the lone goal on a one timer after a sweet pass from Grabovski. After the contest, Coach Adam Oates called this tilt, “the best he’s ever seen Brouwer play.” That’s high praise for a player who has played 93 games, including playoffs, for the second year bench boss.

Philipp Grubauer didn’t face a lot of rubber but his save on Matt Moulson was outstanding along with some others that the Caps absolutely had to have because Miller was so good.

Alex Ovechkin had 12, count ‘em, 12 shots on net!

When you do the things Washington does, you usually win the hockey game. Oates was pleased with his team and said he wasn’t unhappy about losing.

From my vantage point, it’s hard to be upset too. Miller was that good in this one.

Now would I like to see some guys be better or replaced by upgrades? Yes. The Washington 3rd defensive pair of John Erskine and Steve Oleksy is struggling and most of that falls on #4, who just isn’t keeping up. His skating has been a step off and the one goal against the Caps came because he didn’t cut off Drew Stafford’s move to the cage. As a result, Buffalo got a deflection goal to take a 1-0 lead, which was a deflator due to the Capitals dominance to that point.

In addition, that pair, combined with the fourth line, had a terrible shift midway through the 3rd period that gave the home squad momentum for a few shifts, something they did not have all game to that point. Aaron Volpatti is struggling with his puck skills and that is hurting what should be a decent fourth line with the always hustling Jay Beagle and rookie Tom Wilson. But with 24 unable to really handle a pass most of the time, it’s like those guys are playing 4 on 5 on many shifts. That needs to be corrected.

Finally, I did not like the officiating at all in this one. Rob Martell and Wes McCauley missed some flagrant infractions committed by the Sabres. Henrik Tallinder caught Mike Green with a high stick in the first frame that should’ve been a double minor and Tyler Ennis freight trained Dmitry Orlov up high on the boards in period three in what should’ve been a charge and head shot. That easily could’ve been a five minute major but nothing was called at all. Washington dominated the game totally but only received two power plays to none for Buffalo. But zebras are gonna be zebras!

At the end of the night, this was the Ryan Miller show. The Caps played well and lost, but at least it was in the gimmick and they fall to 20-14-5 (45 points). They are still in 2nd place in the Metropolitan Division as we approach the NHL season mid point. If they play like they did on Sunday evening, they will win way more hockey games than they lose.

Notes: The Caps are in Ottawa on Monday night to take on a Senators team that beat them, 6-4, at the Verizon Center, earlier in the season…Washington was 33-31 on draws…Steve Ott, the cheap shot artist, scored the only goal in the shootout in the sixth round…Oates was able to spread the ice time around quite a bit with the minimal power plays. That should help tomorrow in Ottawa in the back to back situation. John Carlson led the team in ice time again, with 24:12. Green logged 23:43.

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Backstrom, Grubauer Lead Caps Over Rangers

Posted on 28 December 2013 by Ed Frankovic

So much of sports can be described as a “Game of Inches.”

On Friday night at the Verizon Center, that was definitely the case as the Washington Capitals received a late goal from Eric Fehr to defeat the New York Rangers, 3-2. Fehr’s tally, his 6th of the season, was on a snap shot down the right side after a nice feed from Nicklas Backstrom (1G, 1A). Immediately before that goal, which came in a four on four situation, Dan Girardi hit the far post behind Philipp Grubauer (38 saves) after a Washington giveaway. If that puck is an inch to the right, it’s a 3-2 Rangers lead. But that’s the way it goes, and remember on Monday, if Alex Ovechkin’s shot from the slot is an inch lower than the Caps tie the Ducks late in regulation. As they say, “That’s Hockey.”

This victory improves the Caps to 20-14-4 (44 points) and puts them six points ahead of the Rangers, who they will only face one more time again this season, at Madison Square Garden.

The biggest difference in this game tonight was between the pipes. Grubauer was excellent for the Caps while Cam Talbot gave up some questionable goals. I know Talbot has been hot, but Henrik Lundqvist owns the Caps, and for some reason Alain Vigneault chose to go more with recent form than historical stats in his net minding decision. I can tell you I was certainly thrilled to not see King Henrik manning the cage for New York, so one would think the Capitals players were happy too?

The shot attempts in this contest ended up 71-55 for New York, but it was a fairly even game when it comes to quality chances. The Rangers shot attempts in the opening frame were primarily from the perimeter and it was really only the second period where they dominated play, and most of that was when the Caps had either their 4th line on the ice or their 3rd defensive pair on the blue line.

In the final period, after the Rangers got a quick tying tally on Carl Hagelin’s shorthanded goal, the Capitals carried more of the play. Coach Adam Oates did a nice job of shifting the ice time to his top two defensive pairs and limited the 3rd pair to just three and a half minutes. The difference was clearly noticeable and with the Rangers short a defensemen due to Anton Stralman’s in game injury, the Capitals seemed to wear the Rangers out more in that final frame.

Another positive was that the Caps did a better job on the back check on Friday after misreading two situations on Monday and allowing the tying and winning goal to the Ducks. Oates said that his team was better, but he also said the Rangers are a different type of team than Anaheim, which indicated it was an easier chore for his club against New York. However, Karl Alzner told me that Oates showed some video clips on back checking and King Karl said that the breakdowns on Monday were more of an individual thing. Whatever the case, Washington did a much better job in defensive zone coverage when the Rangers came up the ice on the rush.

Alzner said the team has been working more on their “end zone.” #27 said that the key to a solid back check and defensive zone is that when the puck is in the offensive zone there is always a third guy high. Some coaches require their center to always be that third guy (this is how Bryan Murray ran things for the Caps in the mid 1980′s) but many just let each shift play itself out and have the third guy be a read by the forwards themselves. From what I can gather, Oates’ system looks to be a “read and react accordingly” on the back check. So any of the three forwards could be the first player back. One thing the team is working on, according to Alzner, is more than just the third guy coming back strong because he said the coaches have pointed out it usually has been the third or even the fourth guy on the opposition that have been getting the quality chances against Washington this year.

It’s encouraging to see the focus of the team on these things and there is no doubt that practice time helps the reads and the communication, which is vital, on the ice.

As for Backstrom, he continues to dominate and any smart hockey person will tell you just how good #19 is compared to others in the league. The media may not be all over him from a publicity standpoint, but those in the game know just how good the center is and he is arguably as important to the Caps as any other player. On Friday night, Backstrom, along with Grubauer, were the primary reasons the Capitals stopped their two game losing streak.

Notes: John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 26:38. Mike Green (1G) played 19:10…the Rangers wore their top three d out with Girardi logging 27:35, Ryan McDonagh getting a game leading 29:53 and Michael Del Zotto playing 24:37…next up for the Caps are the Buffalo Sabres on the road on Sunday at 5pm.

 

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Defensive Zone Breakdowns Cost Caps in Loss to Ducks

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Defensive Zone Breakdowns Cost Caps in Loss to Ducks

Posted on 24 December 2013 by Ed Frankovic

After back to back dismal efforts against mediocore teams that saw the Caps fortuitously pull out three of a possible four points last weekend, Washington was back in action on Monday night against the number one team in the NHL: Bruce Boudreau’s Anaheim Ducks, who came in with an eight game winning streak.

The Capitals played much harder in this one and actually had a 2-0 early lead, but defensive mistakes at critical times ultimately did them in once again, and they were defeated, 3-2, to drop their record to 19-14-4 heading into the Christmas break.

This was a very close game, as evidenced by the shot attempt totals, which were 57-54 in favor of the Ducks. Washington was much better than last weekend in the puck possession department but Anaheim did a superior job of getting their attempts on net, winning that battle 29-19. The Caps did a lot of good things in this game and both Marcus Johansson and Alex Ovechkin hit iron in the third frame in what is a tough loss to a very good hockey team.

After Saturday’s overtime loss to the Devils I blogged that things needed to change and it was on Coach Adam Oates and GM George McPhee to figure out whether it was the players or the system that were causing the issues. Following tonight’s game, it appears to me that effort and also focus, on the part of the players, and not the system, is the major problem. Washington was motivated on Monday and brought a passion to get and own the puck. But the Ducks are a veteran and skilled team, and going against number one isn’t all about effort and passion, it’s about playing the right way and paying attention to detail.

That is where this Capitals team is falling down, attention to detail, especially in their own end. The Caps gave up the tying tally with just 27 seconds remaining in period two. Then they gave up the game winner with 5:36 left in regulation. Both goals were the result of poor reads that led to bad defensive zone coverage. Oates confirmed that after the game. On the game winner, the forwards all got caught too low on the back check allowing defenseman Hampus Lindholm to fire a shot through a maze of bodies past Philipp Grubauer. There was a lack of communication on the part of the Washington forwards on the ice and it resulted in a lot of space and time for the Ducks defenseman to shoot and score.

Anaheim’s second tally, however, is the one that is the most upsetting and disappointing. The five guys on the ice were out for a long shift and each one can shoulder their share of the blame. We won’t point out the names, but let’s just say there were a lot of contract dollars on the ice for the home club. The initial rush by Ben Lovejoy wasn’t played properly by the Capitals defensemen, who simply stopped moving his feet. But even still, Lovejoy was just looking to center the puck and if the other defenseman and the three forwards don’t puck watch and instead cover Anaheim players, there is no quality chance or goal. That did not happen as the Caps d-man went to the wrong post and the forwards allowed Saku Koivu and Andrew Cogliano to have a clear and uncovered path to the front of the cage. The result was an easy goal for Koivu that Grubauer had no chance on.

Simply put, it was a lack of effort at the end of a long shift and poor communication, as well. In his post game presser Oates said that communication should be going on at all times on the ice and he also said that at this point in the season, the reads and positioning should be automatic. It was not on the tying tally, as well as the game winner.

Those type of mistakes not only cost a squad points in the standings, but in the bigger picture, those are the type of errors that prevent a hockey team from being one of the better clubs in the league. Washington is in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference for this exact reason, they have too many breakdowns in their own end that are costing them hockey games.

Reading Oates’ answers, expression and demeanor afterwards, I got the feeling that he’s been pointing out these things over and over to his players. These aren’t hard hockey concepts but they require a mental toughness to continue to execute when you are tired or not in a position to score a goal. Everyone loves offense, but playing proper defense is the key to winning hockey games and a Stanley Cup. The Cup winner each season knows how to do the things that allow a club to transition from offense to defense. They play their positions well, they communicate on defense, and they focus even when they are tired at the end of a shift.

It’s the things you need to do to win hockey games and ultimately a championship.

Until this Caps team is ready to commit to that, they’ll do exactly what I said after Saturday’s loss to New Jersey: they will qualify for the playoffs and then find themselves out in either round one or two.

The talent is mostly there for the Caps to go where the players say they want to go, but saying it and then doing it requires a whole different level of focus and commitment.

Right now, I question that level of commitment from several of the players on this team.

Notes: Washington won the faceoff battle, 43-25…the Caps were 1 for 5 on the power play while the Ducks went 0 for 4 with the man advantage…Brooks Laich returned to the lineup and played 13:23…Mikhail Grabovski and Nicklas Backstrom had the two goals for Washington…next up, on Friday night at the Verizon Center, for the Caps is an improving Rangers team that has won two games in a row.

 

 

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