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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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Caps Blank Flyers on Rivalry Night

Posted on 15 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

You only get two points for a win during the regular season in the National Hockey League, but some victories are better than others.

For the Washington Capitals and their fan base, many of whom have stuck with them for 40 years since 1974, beating the Philadelphia Flyers has always seemed worth more than two points.

On Wednesday night in front of a national television audience on NBC’s Rivalry Night, the Caps Braden Holtby stopped 21 shots to make Jason Chimera’s goal, just 3:13 into the game, stand up for a 1-0 victory in front of a sellout crowd at the Verizon Center.

The triumph, the Caps seventh straight at home, puts them at 24-11-8 (56 points) for the season and they are a staggering 14-1-4 in their last 19 games. In addition, they are 23-1-3 this season when scoring first.

Those are some good numbers there and holding the Flyers, a team that averages close to 29 shots a game, to just 21 on the cage is significant too. Overall the shot attempt battle was 55-54 for the Flyers, but Washington blocked 23 of those shots from Philadelphia (the duo of Brooks Orpik and John Carlson blocked nine of them).

As mentioned above and on tv, this was rivalry night and the history between these two clubs is long. In the early days, truckloads of Flyers fans would invade the Capital Centre for Caps-Flyers tilts and the beer would flow and the fights would erupt in the stands. Nowadays, there are Philly fans in attendance, I could see a smattering of orange jersey’s and thankfully we never got to hear them cheer, but it is nothing like the old days. Still, there is a special vibe or air in the building when the neighbors from up I-95 come to town and the Capitals coaching staff recognized it before the game.

“I was talking to [assistant coach] Lane Lambert and he said it’s ramped up a little bit when the Flyers are in town…we haven’t played a lot of our Metro division – people like the Rangers, the Flyers…so we could tell there’s a different energy in the building when those teams come in,” said Caps Coach Barry Trotz about his first home game against Philadelphia.

The Flyers had won the last four games, head to head, dating back to last season, so this was an important victory for the Capitals fan base. To many, Caps vs. Flyers is like Ravens-Steelers or Redskins-Cowboys in the NFL. Both teams respect each other, but they don’t like each other and when it comes to the fans, well they flat out despise the other fan base. So it was no surprise that down the stretch the Washington crowd was more into it than normal and their support seemed to energize the Caps players.

As for the game, it was an uneven one. Washington dominated early but couldn’t bury some great chances on Flyers 33 year old rookie goalie, Rob Zepp. The Zepper stopped Alex Ovechkin cold early on in a one on one situation and that seemed to help Philly, who was in jeopardy of being run out of the building, settle down. The game went back and forth for the sixty minutes with both sides carrying the play at various times.

Philadelphia had a stretch in the middle frame when it looked like they might take over the game but following a hard hit by Wayne Simmonds on Matt Niskanen in the neutral zone, Niskanen buried Scott Laughton with a hard, clean check that knocked #49 from the contest. Afterwards Trotz felt that the hit by Niskanen, who had the primary assist on Chimera’s goal, energized his club.

Overall the Caps had 26 shots on net but I thought they were too sloppy. There were far too many back passes that resulted in turnovers and the Washington top line of Nicklas Backstrom, Ovechkin, and Andre Burakovsky just didn’t look in sync. Burakovsky seems to be a bit intimidated by his linemates and is getting rid of the puck like it is a hot potato too often. The young Swede needs to settle down and carry the puck more, which is one of his strengths and allows him to create scoring chances.

At the end of the night, though, it was the Capitals vastly improved defensive play that allowed them to get another low scoring victory. Holtby, in his 26th straight contest and 20th straight start, was excellent again and when he needed assistance, guys like Orpik helped him out. #44 tied up Vincent Lecavalier’s stick late in the contest at the side of the net to prevent Vinny from notching a game tying tap in.

So now it is on to Nashville to face Trotz’ former team, the Predators, on Friday night. Trotz, in his post game presser, mentioned he chatted with Preds GM David Poile on Wednesday and that Poile was hopeful the Caps would beat Philly because he doesn’t like them. Poile was the Caps GM from 1982 to 1997, so he has a long history with the black and orange.

Trotz and the Caps did their former boss and more importantly, their fan base, proud on Wednesday night with a victory that now puts the Flyers 15 points behind the Capitals in the standings. It will be very difficult for Philadelphia to make the playoffs now.

Combine that fact, with the 1-0 blanking of the Broad Street Bullies, and you can bet that the food will taste better for several days.

Notes: Pekka Rinne, the Predators goalie and MVP, was injured in Tuesday’s game vs. Vancouver. Trotz stated that Rinne is out a couple of weeks so Washington gets a break and won’t have to face the super net minder in the Music City on Friday…Washington won the face off battle, 34-25, and Jay Beagle went 10-2…the Caps killed off all three Flyers man advantage situations while they went 0 for 2 with the man advantage (Ovechkin hit a post on one power play)…Carlson and Orpik led the Caps in ice time with 24:45 and 24:40, respectively…since Tom Wilson was a +1 on Wednesday, there is not a single active Capitals player with a negative +/- rating this season.





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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 Win A Perfect Winter Classic

Posted on 01 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis was smiling and beaming in the locker room following the Caps 3-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2015 Bridgestone Winter Classic and he had every right to be doing so.

Leonsis, who fought long and hard for the outdoor game in the DC area, watched his club pull out a late victory over the best team in the NHL in the Blackhawks on an amazing stage.

The temperature was perfect, the ice was as good as it could be (kudos to Dan Craig of the NHL) and the venue, Nationals Park, was spectacularly laid out, including the replica of the Nation’s Capitol building with a copy of the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pond out in front of it that led to the ice rink.

Washington’s star player, Alexander Ovechkin, had an outstanding game with a goal and an assist while goalie Braden Holtby was excellent in the cage again stopping 33 shots. Troy Brouwer scored the winner on the power play with just 12 seconds to go leading to a wild celebration and flying seat cushions at Nats Park.

The victory, the Caps 9th in a very difficult December schedule, moves them to 19-11-7 and back into 3rd place in the Metropolitan Division. Washington is now 18-1-2 when scoring first this season (they scored the first two tallies in this one).

It was a magical day for Washington and Leonsis, who believed that the greater Maryland and Virginia area could make a large hockey event work, and he was proven right.

Now for some analysis of this one.

Washington was extremely solid in periods one and three but they really struggled in the middle frame when they took three minor penalties. Two of those overlapped for 91 seconds so that meant the Caps had to survive a five on three situation against a talented Hawks team. Somehow the Capitals managed to do that, thanks to good goaltending, solid PK work, and over passing by Chicago. Afterwards Blackhawks coach Joel Quennville noted that when you don’t score on a five on three you often lose the game. He also wasn’t happy about his team’s lack of shots on goal during that situation. The two time Stanley Cup Champion was correct on both counts.

Part of the reason the Capitals were able to hold off a talented power play was Washington’s “Honest Abe” player of the game, Brooks Orpik. When last seen on Monday night, #44 was writhing in pain on the ice in Long Island clutching his right knee. Somehow what looked to be a potentially season ending injury was only a minor tweak and Coach Barry Trotz was able to field his best left handed defensemen against Chicago. Not only did Orpik suit up, but he logged a Washington game leading 24:44 of ice time, including 5:43 of the 7:26 the Caps were shorthanded! You just can’t over state what Orpik has meant to this team and both Eric Fehr (breakaway goal) and Ovechkin called him a “warrior” afterwards.

When Orpik was handed the Abe Lincoln gear that goes with being named, by his teammates, the Honest Abe player of the game, in #44 style he provided a quick and simple speech that closed with “I thought everybody was fully committed, so let’s keep it going.”

Trotz noted that Orpik is a guy that doesn’t lead by talk, but by showing up every day and doing things properly. He’s been a great example for his teammates and he’s been an invaluable player on the back end.

“You can only admire what he does and brings to the group. He just makes everybody better. He doesn’t say a whole lot in the room, he says everything with how he plays and how he lives and his actions and his commitment to the game. So, it really is an important piece to what we’re trying to do here in Washington,” said Trotz on Orpik.

The down side is that the Caps had to kill off so many penalties, whether you agree with the officiating or not (and it was not a good day for the guys in stripes, especially the last two calls by Francois St. Laurent on Matt Niskanen and Jonathan Toews). Washington too frequently is chirping at the referees and taking bad penalties. John Carlson’s cross check to the face that put the Caps down two men was a retaliation and unnecessary one. Too often the Caps are losing their focus and some of the penalties are just not smart, like Jason Chimera’s holding infraction and Brouwer’s board in the first period that took the Capitals off of the power play. Despite the issues, Trotz did point out a positive that has come from these mental lapses.

“The thing that we have been really good at this year is, when we get off what I call the rails a little bit and we lose our focus, we’re able to get back and find ways to win.”

That was certainly true on New Year’s Day, but the players I spoke with afterwards, including Orpik, Niskanen and Mike Green (two assists) all said the team needs to limit the number of infractions.

“Yeah we talked about [penalties] before and obviously the 2nd period we took quite a few penalties…every team has a good power play these days…moving forward I think we have to be more disciplined. When you are down that much it taxes certain guys that are penalty killers…we got a lot of good guys that don’t kill penalties so that throws them off a bit and takes them out of their rhythm. There are a lot of things it has an effect on,” said Orpik on Washington’s penalty issues, which helped aid Chicago in out shot attempting the Caps, 26-11, in period two.

“Barry talked about discipline and we sort of needed to refocus. I think we got away from our focus. I think we had a good 1st [period] and once we got into that second period maybe we got caught up with the emotion and the energy of the building and then our focus changed to complaining about penalties and what not…We got to be a little more disciplined,” added Green (two assists in 14:59) on what the team discussed after period two.

Clearly the Capitals aren’t helping themselves with some of these bad penalties. Complaining to the referees, whether justified or not, will not help the cause. Simply put, the players have to focus on their game and let Trotz and GM Brian MacLellan deal with the officiating.

In the end though, this was a huge two points for the Capitals on a perfect day at Nationals Park and the large majority of the 42,832 that attended went home happy, much like Capitals owner Ted Leonsis.

Notes: Power plays were 6 to 4 for Chicago and the overall shot attempts ended up 62-58 for the Blackhawks…the Caps lost the face off battle 42-36 but Nicklas Backstrom was 16-13…next up for the Caps are the Florida Panthers on Sunday at the Verizon Center at 3 pm.

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Caps Set to Face Blackhawks in Bridgestone Winter Classic

Posted on 31 December 2014 by Ed Frankovic

Well, it’s finally here.

We are less than 24 hours from puck drop at Nationals Park for the NHL’s Annual Winter Classic, sponsored by Bridgestone, between the Washington Capitals and the Chicago Blackhawks.

For those following along on EPIX in Ross Greenberg’s Road to the Winter Classic, you’ve watched two highly skilled teams orchestrated behind the bench by two very upfront coaches, in Barry Trotz and Joel Quennville.

Washington’s off season coaching change along with the personnel moves they’ve made on defense (via new GM Brian MacLellan) have propelled this club to an 8-2-3 December, and major cause for optimism, as I chronicled on Sunday.

The Caps are hot, but in this match up they are facing the best team in the NHL in the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks are led by Jonathan Toews, who has won two Stanley Cups and two Olympic Gold Medals in the last four years. He’s arguably the best player in the NHL, depending on who you talk to. Add to Towes the likes of Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook and it’s easy to see why this club is so good and narrowly missed winning Cup number three last year (they were knocked out by the Los Angeles Kings in game 7 of the Western Conference Finals in OT).

Chicago is talented, structured, and disciplined. They are everything the Capitals and Alex Ovechkin want to become on a consistent basis. Under Trotz, the Capitals are making steps towards that, but they are still a work in progress.

So let’s talk about Thursday’s game, which based on the weather conditions, may see a 60 to 90 minute delay due to weather. It’s not precipitation or temperature, but the sun that could cause the delay. With the shadows not covering the ice until roughly 2:30 pm, the potential for injuries due to glare (someone not seeing a puck properly) or bad ice (the sun can make the surface uneven) are much higher at the scheduled start time of 1 pm.

Now to the match up. The big question in Caps land is will Washington’s top left handed defensemen and major physical presence, Brooks Orpik, play after suffering a right knee injury on Monday?

Orpik did not skate during the normal team practice Wednesday at Nationals Park, but he did at Kettler Ice Plex in the morning, per a video shot by a fan that the super Capitals blog, Russian Machine Never Breaks, obtained. From that video, it’s apparent that Orpik could likely play, as he was moving well, but he’ll be a game time decision.

If Orpik is out, then Nate Schmidt goes into Orpik’s slot next to John Carlson, who by the way is having a very quiet monster season. #74 is fourth in the NHL in scoring by defensemen with four goals and 23 assists. He’s also a team leading +14! Yes, the 2010 American hero in the IIHF World Junior Championships has actually improved on last year’s super Olympic team making season playing alongside the steady and snarly Orpik. So hopefully Orpik’s absence, if it occurs, does not impact Carlson, as well.

Trotz routinely puts Carlson and Orpik against the opponents top line, so the question now becomes which D pair, if 44 is out, does he go with against the Toews-Kane line? My guess is he may switch that to the Matt Niskanen-Karl Alzner duo.

Up front, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have been DOMINATING on their shifts in puck possession in recent weeks and they are due for a big game on the scoresheet. Does it come Thursday against Chicago?

To win, I really think that 8 and 19 will have to carry the day and Braden Holtby will need to be his usual stellar self, especially if Orpik doesn’t play.

As chronicled over at another great Caps web site, Japers Rink, the Caps power play is in a recent funk and needs to snap out of it to aid the Caps chances of beating the mighty Blackhawks.

The Caps have also been getting solid production from the line of Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward.

Chicago is a great team and they bring four good lines. Washington will need their second scoring line and their fourth line to be near their best to get a victory.

This game on New Year’s Day is only for two points, but let’s be honest, it’s a huge deal and the players will approach it like a playoff one.

It’s the NHL’s regular season signature event and a can’t miss one for hockey fans.


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Caps Becoming the Team No One Wants to Play

Posted on 28 December 2014 by Ed Frankovic

Back on November 15, prior to the St. Louis Blues defeating the Washington Capitals, Blues Coach Ken Hitchcock, pointed out the differences he was seeing in the Barry Trotz coached Caps from past squads. Specifically, he said the following (courtesy of Alex Prewitt of The Washington Post):

“With the skill level he has to work with, it’s going to be a very difficult team to have to compete against. Hopefully we got them in the middle of their transition phase, but you can just see where it’s going to be in a month if the buy-in continues. It’s a lot of talented people that are beginning to understand structure and discipline and it’s going to be hard to play against.”

Fast forward to December 27, 2014, just over a month later, and after a 3-0 beat down of the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Consol Energy center the Caps are in the midst of an 8-1-2 run and have indeed become a club that is hard to play against.

Ever since Bruce Boudreau was fired, the Pens have pretty much owned the Capitals. They had won eight straight against Washington heading into Saturday’s tilt and were sitting atop the entire Eastern Conference at 22-7-5.  The Caps had to travel the day of the game and go into a hostile arena, but they never flinched and dominated the Penguins in nearly all facets of the game.

You get two points for every game you win, but this victory on Saturday meant more than that. It was a validation of the hard work this club is putting in learning the Trotz system, and more importantly, it is re-enforcement that they are becoming a team and changing their culture, and are no longer just a bunch of guys who show up for games and try to win them.

This team is as committed as I’ve ever seen it. They are hard on the puck at both ends and they are doing the things that win hockey games, like driving the net, something they had struggled with for several years. On the game’s final tally, Eric Fehr’s second of the night, all three Capitals forwards were in front of the net. When was the last time you can remember the Caps doing something like that?

It was a joy to watch and Sidney Crosby, who was -3 on the night as a result of being shut down by John Carlson and Brooks Orpik, was so frustrated that he threw his stick.

Yes, the Penguins know it now, this is a different Capitals team. They no longer float in their own zone waiting for breakaways, instead they hound the puck carrier up and down the ice. They hit, they block shots, and they protect their goalie, Braden Holtby (31 saves), who was outstanding once again.

Washington won despite their captain, Alex Ovechkin, having 0 points. But don’t mistake the point total for a lack of production. The Gr8 was a beast in this game with 18 shots attempts, including 10 on goal.  Ovi also had 5 hits in 23:34 of ice time. He and Nicklas Backstrom were dominant despite not getting any offensive points. But if they keep playing like that, the points will certainly come. The Capitals top duo is wearing out opponents and that is making it easier for the other lines to contribute.

Fehr notched two goals by going to the net on a very strong line with Joel Ward and Brooks Laich while Marcus Johansson had a huge marker on a two on one break to make it 2-0 in the third period. MJ90 wisely shot the puck on that odd man rush and he beat Marc Andre-Fleury to really put the Pens behind the eight ball.

Overall, the Caps carried the play in this one out shot attempting the Penguins, 63-53, and the Caps also survived a five on three Pens power play late in regulation. Washington played well and when they made any type of mistake, their goalie came through with a clutch save.

Simply put, this is a different Capitals team, and like Hitchcock stated, if the buy-in continues, look out.

That buy-in must continue. The addition of Orpik, who was +3 in 24:04 of ice time, has changed the dimension for the Caps on the back end. Teams have a lot more trouble getting to the front of the Washington cage for easy goals. Bringing in Matt Niskanen has also allowed Carlson and Mike Green to be fresher and play more to their strengths. Those two former Penguins have been difference makers this season, whether you like their contracts or not.

The Caps are now 18-11-6 but are still in 4th place in the Metropolitan Division. The transformation is still occurring and Trotz also has the tough task of trying to fit in three younger players in the lineup in Tom Wilson, Andre Burakovsky, and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Those three all have promising futures because of their skill sets, but they are still green when it comes to the NHL. It’s a tough balancing act, but so far the team is finding ways to win while developing the young guys.

So now it’s on to Long Island for Monday’s tilt against the Islanders, a team they went 1-0-1 against in late November. The Caps are just five points in back of New York, who are now without goalie Jaroslav Halak. It’s another big game for Washington and they have a chance to make things very uncomfortable for their opponents once again.

The way Washington is playing and dominating their division opponents, they are quickly becoming the team in the Metro that noone wants to play.



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Ovechkin, Holtby Propel Caps Over Devils

Posted on 21 December 2014 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin has been flying for weeks but not getting rewarded with goals (only two tallies in last nine games). On Saturday in New Jersey, the Gr8 continued to shine on the ice but through two periods, he did not have a goal or a point, yet his team was leading 2-0. Ovi had hit two posts and was on the ice for both Caps goals, helping create net traffic on Mike Green’s marker that made it 1-0.

It seemed that eventually he would break out and end his scoring drought and in vintage Ovechkin fashion he did it with a highlight reel goal. The Gr8 took the puck in his own zone with just under 10 minutes left in regulation, raced up the right wing boards, made a sweet move around Jon Merrill and then roofed the biscuit top shelf on the backhand past Cory Schneider to give Washington a 3-0 lead to effectively end the contest. That one will be all over the highlight shows and You Tube.

Jay Beagle (two assists) would work hard up the right wing boards with just over two minutes left allowing Nicklas Backstrom (two goals) to hit the empty net and seal a 4-0 Caps victory.

Washington now improves to 16-10-6 and completes their three game road trip at 2-0-1 (only loss in a 20 round shootout in Florida). The Caps are really playing better as a team and as a result, they seem very comfortable on the road (10-5-2 on the season). When the Capitals score first, the game has been pretty much over this season, as they are now 15-1-2 when getting the first tally.

In addition, the Caps are now 6-0-2 in their last eight games. Braden Holtby was outstanding once again on a Saturday night stopping all 21 shots he faced, including several tough ones when the game was still close. #70 is in a groove, and I credit a lot of that to individual improvement but also to the fact that Coach Barry Trotz has the whole club playing a structured defense. It’s amazing what an experienced coach can do for a club and Trotz is transforming a Capitals team that was awful in their own zone into a much tougher team in all zones. Goalies love knowing where the shots are coming from and that is primarily the case for the Caps goalie these days.

Sure the Devils played on Friday night and are a banged up and old team, but in the past the Capitals had trouble winning games at The Rock. Trotz and company seem to be changing a lot of the old Caps paradigms and this team looks much more confident playing the game. When someone makes a mistake, it seems there is always another Capital there to prevent it from costing the club. Washington is much more relentless on the puck as they’ve become more and more comfortable with Trotz’ system.

Ovechkin and Backstrom were dynamite on Saturday and at least one of them was on the ice for all four of Washington’s goals. The Gr8 was a +3 in this game and is now +7 overall after being -35 under Coach Adam Oates and a lousy defense last season. Defense is now something the Capitals understand and continue to improve at, thanks to the upgrades on the blue line and the Trotz hiring.

They continue to get better and are now 8-1-2 in the Metropolitan Division. Still, they have yet to face the New York Rangers or the Pittsburgh Penguins. After playing the Senators on Monday at the Verizon Center, they travel to MSG on Tuesday to face Rick Nash and company and then on Saturday they get Sidney Crosby and the Pens at the Consol Energy Center.

It’s been a busy month for Washington, but they’ve continued to pick up wins and points thanks to their improved defense, strong goaltending, and a willingness to get pucks to the cage with net presence.

Notes: Shot attempts were low in this one, 37-36, for the Caps. Ovechkin had 10 of the Caps shot attempts, including two posts and then a missed penalty shot…faceoffs were even at 28-28…John Carlson led the Caps in ice time at 23:31. Trotz continues to spread the ice time out and that helps keep players much fresher and less likely to get injured.


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Caps, Holtby Shut Down Devils in Road Win

Posted on 06 December 2014 by Ed Frankovic

After Tuesday night’s Caps loss to Vancouver, the Capitals players talked about getting off to better starts in games. Two contests later, they are two for two when scoring first, and now are 11-1-1 this season when doing so (h/t @ThePeerless).

Braden Holtby was fabulous in net stopping 33 shots and Jay Beagle scored the game winner on a “Jari Kurri” type rush and finish to lead Washington to a 4-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils in East Rutherford on Saturday night. The Caps are now 6-1-1 in the Metropolitan Division and are 12-10-4 overall (28 points), good for 3rd place in the division.

As predicted, this was a grind it out type of contest, with the team winning the individual puck battles and minimizing mistakes the likely victor. The Caps did that most of this game, outside of Karl Alzner getting walked by Danius Zubrus on the only Devils goal.

In the second frame, all four lines were contributing, which hasn’t happened much this season and that is when the Capitals broke a 1-1 tie to forge a 3-1 lead that they would nurse through the 3rd period until Brooks Laich’s empty netter sealed the deal.

After Beagle’s goal, both the first line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Tom Wilson and the new second line, based on even strengh utilization, of Laich, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward pinned the Devils in their own zone and that then allowed Marcus Johansson to draw a Devils penalty on the next shift. On the ensuing power play, Adam Henrique received a clean breakaway but Holtby stopped him cold. Washington then went down and received a sweet power play goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov with Laich providing some nice traffic in front. That sequence turned out to be the difference in the game.

New Jersey had the puck most of the 3rd frame, but the Capitals did a super job of not allowing any odd man rushes and they kept the Devils mostly to the outside. There were some flurries of activity for the Devils, but Holtby was strong, once again.

This was a classic road victory as Washington kept their game very simple. The Caps limited neutral zone turnovers and they routinely got pucks in deep on the Devils to try to wear out an inexperienced defense and keep the puck away from a talented and experienced forward group.

Coach Barry Trotz rolled his forward lines most of the night, but on defense, he went heavily with the trio of John Carlson (25:22), Brooks Oprik (25:18) and Matt Niskanen (24:36). Karl Alzner, who scored Washington’s 1st goal after Wilson forced a turnover, logged 20:44 but the other two D, Nate Schmidt and Jack Hillen, played only 11:15 and 9:35, respectively. This was an important game to win so Barry shortened his bench to give his club the best probability of doing that. It worked, as it did in Carolina on Thursday.

So the Caps have a little bit of momentum right now and their goalie, Holtby, is playing well. The team is making a better effort to get net presence and it is starting to pay off. They still don’t have a bonafide second line that can score when the Ovechkin line isn’t producing, but by relying less on the old second line (MJ90, Brouwer and either Kuznetsov or Andre Burakovsky) the Caps aren’t giving up untimely goals due to bad turnovers or missed defensive assignments.

Having Laich back has been a big plus since he helps Trotz better balance his lines, plus 21’s great work ethic rubs off on the rest of the squad. The team is a still a work in progress and as reported by TSN’s Bob McKenzie earlier this week, GM Brian MacLellan is trying to improve the forward position via the trade market.

But for now, this is what Trotz has to work with and lately he’s been using an old tactic of shortening the bench to try and close out games. Holtby has also helped him do that successfully.

Now it is on to Tampa to try to avenge a tough 4-3 defeat they endured there back in November. The Bolts lead the Eastern Conference with 39 points so this will be another good barometer on where the Capitals stand.

Notes:  Face offs were even at 34-34….shot attempts were 66-42 in favor of NJ but they were close to +20 in the 3rd period alone, so that can be explained mostly by score effects…the Caps were 1 for 2 on the power play and they successfully killed off both Devils power plays…That bitter loss to Tampa last month came as a result of a critical Burakovsky missed defensive coverage in the slot in the last 10 minutes. Burakovsky was scratched in NJ and I don’t expect him to play in Tampa either. He really would be best served getting some games down in Hershey to learn the center position, and more importantly, how to play defense. He’s only 19 and after all, if guys like Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf played close to 20 games in the AHL at the age of 20, why wouldn’t it be a bad thing for #65 to get some work down there and rebuild his confidence?


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Bottom Two Lines & Holtby Lead Caps over Canes

Posted on 04 December 2014 by Ed Frankovic

There are no style points in the NHL, you can look it up.

So despite all of the complaints from your fan base on twitter for not being perfect, a win is a win is a win.

On Thursday night in Carolina, the Capitals did what they needed to do to get a victory they desperately needed against a division opponent.

They didn’t put a dangerous Canes team that features Eric Staal, Alex Semin, and Jeff Skinner on the power play, they received excellent goaltending from Braden Holtby (29 saves), and they got super performances from their defense as well as their bottom six forwards.

The win moves the Caps to 11-10-4 (26 points) and ties them with the New York Rangers for 3rd place in the Metropolitan Division.

With the Caps struggling with slow starts and nine of the next 12 games on the road, Coach Barry Trotz’ club desperately needed an early goal to start things out right.

Jay Beagle delivered that after Jason Chimera, who might have had his best game of the season, outraced the Carolina d-man and fired a hard shot on Anton Khudobin. The Canes goalie couldn’t handle the puck and #83 scooped it into the net just over two minutes into the contest.

It was exactly the start this team needed and they had some other chances in the next two periods but couldn’t convert. Carolina then tied the game early in the third frame after an Andre Burakovsky offensive zone turnover led to a Canes counter attack. #65 then lost Semin in the slot and #28 fired a nasty backhander up under the cross bar to beat his old teammate. It was another nightmare defensive zone coverage shift for Burakovsky, who seems to be having more and more of those lately.

The kid is only 19 so asking him to play 2C in the NHL, at this point, is treacherous. Burakovsky has enormous potential but he doesn’t know how to play defense and trying to learn it against the world’s best players is not an easy chore. Perhaps the team should look at moving him down to Hershey so he can properly learn the defensive side of the house while building up his offensive confidence? You don’t want to wreck a player that has such a huge upside. Detroit routinely over cooks guys in the minors and Nashville put Filip Forsberg, who was 19 last season, down on the farm and he’s averaging a point a game now and carrying his club offensively. The NHL is a man’s league and if you aren’t ready it will destroy you over an 82 game season. So GM Brian MacLellan and Trotz should seriously consider what’s best for this player from a long term development standpoint.

Now back to the hard earned victory in Carolina where Washington’s bottom two lines carried the day. The third unit of Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward would net the game winner with just under four minutes left as excellent fore checking pressure led to a Canes turnover and Fehr buried it top shelf. Had he not put the biscuit in the basket the Caps would’ve had a power play anyways, but Fehr rendered that point moot.

So as stated earlier, this was not a pretty victory, but it was a big step in the right direction from a work ethic standpoint. The Caps didn’t come out sluggish and they really carried a lot of the wall play and individual puck battles, something they have not done well since their torrid six game start. There is still sloppy play and the top two lines are woefully inconsistent, especially the second unit. The top line was mediocore, at best, on Thursday as Alex Oveckin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Tom Wilson looked very sleepy for most of the contest.

In addition, the Caps power play failed to connect on two tries. The Canes shadowed the Gr8 and the other four forwards didn’t read and react to that properly, so assistant coach Blaine Forsythe has some work to do with that crew.

But defensively, the Capitals didn’t give Carolina a whole lot of space due to a hard work ethic. When the Canes did get some room, Washington did a nice job of blocking shots with none bigger than Brooks Orpik’s block of Semin’s grade A chance in the slot with the Carolina goalie pulled.

A win is a win is a win and when you work hard, like most of the Caps did on Thursday, you get the two points you deserved.

Notes: Washington lost the face off battle 32-28. Michael Latta was 3-10 on draws…Orpik had seven hits, seven blocked shots and led the team in ice time with 25:13…Burakovsky only played 10:02, lowest on the team…Evgeny Kuznetsov was a healthy scratch….courtesy of Adam Vingan, this was the Caps first victory scoring two or fewer goals in a regulation game since March 11, 2012 (Dale Hunter was head coach)…next up for the Caps are the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night. Last time these two teams played the Devils won, 1-0, at the Verizon Center. So expect another hard working, low scoring game.


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Ovechkin’s 2 Power Play Goals Not Enough in OT Loss

Posted on 27 November 2014 by Ed Frankovic

After 20 games of basically “working on their new system”, the Washington Capitals have a chance to get an idea on where they stand as a team in a home and home series with the red hot New York Islanders on Thanksgiving Eve and then on Friday.

Round 1, played in the Nassau Coliseum, went to the Isles, 3-2, in overtime when John Tavares scored on the power play. The OT loss drops the Caps to 9-8-4 after 21 games.

So, what did I really like about Wednesday’s game?

Let’s start with the Washington power play which went 2 for 2. Nicklas Backstrom (two assists) was an absolute magician with both of his assists that led to Alexander Ovechkin tallies (the Gr8 now has 11 goals in 21 games). Matt Niskanen’s feed to Ovi on the first goal was also a perfect tape to tape pass that allowed the Gr8 to laser one by Jaroslav Halak (25 saves).

The Caps, despite looking like they were going to get run out of the dump, er rink, in the first 10 minutes, steadied themselves and played their way back into this contest.

Braden Holtby (32 saves) was solid in net and kept Washington in it with some key saves.

Jay Beagle was 10-5 on face offs.

Washington earned a point and with Philadelphia, the Rangers, and the Hurricanes all losing in regulation, the Capitals moved back into third place in the Metropolitan division.

Now to the parts of the game that I didn’t like, at all.

First, this team needs to find a way to score a 5 on 5 goal. It’s been over two games without one now. The blame goes to the forwards who just aren’t playing well at all. The lines aren’t working, especially the second line of Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky, and Troy Brouwer. They’ve gone six games without a goal and late in period three Coach Barry Trotz benched Burakovsky. To paraphrase the great golfer Greg Norman, “They should blow that line up!” In fact, none of the line combinations are really working. The first unit is winning the shot attempt battle, most of the time, but Tom Wilson is still too junior to be a first line right winger. #43 probably belongs on the third line at this stage of his career. Basically, the Caps are in a tough spot currently because Wilson, Burakovsky, and Evgeny Kuznetsov are all young and talented players but none of them are really ready for top six forward minutes at this point in their careers. In the future they all could be in that category, but these kids are still very young and the NHL is a man’s league. Coach Trotz and GM Brian MacLellan need to figure something out and that might have to involve some forward trades to shake things up. This team needs to win now because Ovechkin is not getting any younger so BMac hopefully is working the phones.

I really have to just laugh at this point when it comes to the NHL referees because their ability to be so inept at the wrong moment is impeccable. The third period and OT calls on Backstrom were ludicrous given the way the game had been called to that point, especially the holding the stick call in OT after the Islanders player flat out tripped #19. Holtby thought for sure the Caps were going on a power play so he headed to the bench. The call, which essentially gift wrapped New York a victory, was as bad as Starship’s song “We Built This City.” Coach Trotz, his staff, and many of the players were disgusted with the two Backstrom calls afterwards. Please get it together NHL referees because I am wearing out the hashtag #badzebras on twitter!

The shot attempts, if they are accurate, and I have my doubts about the NHL off ice officials on Long Island, were 71-44 in favor of the Isles. That’s not good. The Islanders did dominate much of the first period and because of the Capitals problems up front they did not generate enough shots. The Caps did try to get more net presence but they still look totally out of sync up front too often.

Backstrom was totally smoked on the face off on the Islanders second goal. This was the fourth time this season that he’s lost a defensive zone draw and the opponent has scored. It was the sixth time in 21 games that it has happened to Washington (credit to Adam Vingan for those two very significant statistics). That must stop! What is happening to the Caps is they are losing the draws cleanly and that is allowing the puck to go back to the point while the opponents forwards crash the net. The result has been the six goals on tips and screens. When taking a d-zone draw you have to focus on not losing the draw cleanly, you must at least tie your opponent up to give your forwards more time to get to the point men. The defensemen also have to do a better job of boxing out the opposing forwards on those plays. But it all starts with the center not getting beaten so easily on the draw.

The Caps penalty kill went only one for three. Granted one of the goals was off of a face off and the other was on the dope smoking call that led to the Islanders OT four on three. Still, you can’t give up two power play goals and expect to win. I especially didn’t like that Tavares deked Karl Alzner to the ground on the game winner. #27 has a tendency to go to the ice in those situations and that is the wrong play. He needs to stay upright there and if he does, it makes Holtby’s job a lot easier.

Finally, the Islanders 3rd jersey’s are awful. New York has a great home jersey that they should NEVER abandon. You would think that franchise would have learned from that Gordon’s Fisherman garb they wore back in the 1990’s that was so disgraceful and despised?!

So there you have it, the good and the bad after the first of two key games between the Caps and the Islanders.

Washington is home on Friday at 5 pm. This is another measuring stick game, in my opinion.

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