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Ovechkin, Caps Rout Predators, 5-2

Posted on 07 December 2013 by Ed Frankovic

In hockey, if you play the right way, good things usually happen.

On Tuesday night, Washington played the right way for the first 30 minutes against Carolina but ended up losing, primarily on goaltending. On Saturday night, the Capitals once again came out the correct way, but this time they received the expected result, racing to an early 3-0 lead and cruising to a 5-2 victory over the Nashville Predators.

Troy Brouwer, Alex Ovechkin, Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt, and Eric Fehr all tallied in a much needed win that pushes the Caps record to 15-12-2 (32 points), good for second place in the Metropolitan Division.

Going up and down the roster on Saturday night, every player contributed in this victory and Caps Coach Adam Oates has to be happy about that. His team did a nice job of getting pucks and bodies to the net and that allowed them to score more goals. Sure Nashville misses goalie Pekka Rinne, who is one of the league’s best, but Washington made it tough on backup Marek Mazanec with an increased net presence.

Defensemen Patrick Wey received his first NHL game tonight replacing Tyson Strachan, who was sent back to Hershey before hitting the 10 game limit that eventually would require #23 to clear waivers to go to Chocolatetown, and he acquitted himself well playing with Dmitry Orlov. Since #81 has gotten into the lineup the Capitals puck movement out of their own zone has been on the uptick (last three games). Every defensemen played well on Saturday. Schmidt notched his 1st NHL goal, Alzner scored his first ever tally at the Verizon Center, and Mike Green and John Carlson were dominant. #74 was +3 on the night. I’m not a big +/- stat guy, but that number was reflective of Carlson’s performance against Nashville. He is playing super and Preds GM David Poile, who doubles as Team USA GM, has to be pretty happy about having Carlson on the American Olympic team roster in Sochi in February.

Up front, Martin Erat (1 assist) had a productive night against his old team and he clicked as the center with Joel Ward and Jason Chimera. Both of those wingers, #’s  25 and 42, have continued to make whomever their 3rd line mate is look good this season. As I said above, up and down the lineup there were strong performances. Tom Wilson continues to impress and at some point, he will deserve more ice time. Washington has a surplus of forwards and they’ve now used 12 defensemen this season. That is number one in the NHL. The defense, after Green, Carlson, and Alzner, is extremely inexperienced. Schmidt is playing super but it’s a long season and then comes the playoffs. Once everyone is healthy up front, and Brooks Laich doesn’t appear to be close to that right now, a trade to get a more experienced and top 4 D seems necessary.

Right now, what matters is playing properly and getting wins. This was a victory against a Western Conference team and in regulation. Washington played well and deserved the two points, now they go to New York on Sunday night to take on the despised New York Rangers. A victory there would be big for this team. If they play the same way they did tonight and get pucks and bodies to the net, the Caps will finally be able to dent Henrik Lundqvist, assuming he’s in net for the Blueshirts.

Notes: Lundqvist took the loss for the Rags against the Devils tonight so it’s not clear if the $59.5M man will start against Washington on Sunday. One would imagine that Oates comes back with Holtby at Madison Square Garden. Braden is great in Saturday night games and once again he produced a victory. It must be the Hockey Night in Canada influence that gets #70 to raise the bar on Saturday tilts…the Caps were 1-4 on the power play and Ovechkin now has 136 career PP goals, one behind the Capitals all time leader, Peter Bondra. The Gr8 has 22 goals in 27 games, a staggering pace…Wilson beat up Rich Clune after the Predator tried to change the momentum of the game. #43 is tough and is already in the “Eats Rocks for Breakfast” club…Mikhail Grabovski and Nicklas Backstrom each had two assists…Washington won the faceoff battle, 34-30.

 

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Ovechkin Wins It In OT After Backstrom Tied it Late

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Ovechkin Wins It In OT After Backstrom Tied it Late

Posted on 30 November 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Wow, what a finish, and I’m not talking about Auburn-Alabama.

The Washington Capitals, who could’ve put the game away in the second period by burying some golden opportunities, looked dead to rights after the Islanders took the lead with 1:51 left in the third period and then Mike Green was correctly whistled for an interference penalty just 41 clicks later.

But the Caps showed some serious resolve and mental toughness as Karl Alzner made a great pinch on the left wing boards to get the puck behind the net to Jason Chimera and then #25 hit a streaking Nicklas Backstrom in the slot and #19 one timed it by Islanders goalie Anders Nilsson with 49 ticks left in regulation for an unlikely shorthanded game tying tally.

The Capitals would then kill off those final 49 third period seconds of the Green infraction and then 50 more into overtime. Over a minute later, Alexander Ovechkin scored from the slot five hole on Nilsson after a nifty drop pass from Mikhail Grabovski and it gave Washington a huge two points on Long Island. It was Ovechkin’s league leading 21st goal and the 5th time he has scored in OT in his career to defeat the Islanders (h/t @ehornick). The victory improves Washington to 14-11-2 (30 points) and keeps them two points ahead of the third place New York Rangers.

Washington led 1-0 heading into the final frame thanks to a hard working goal by the Caps fourth line of Martin Erat, Tom Wilson, and Aaron Volpatti at 8:58 into period two. Erat got the puck into the slot where Wilson used his size and strength to get two shots on Nilsson before Volpatti slapped it home. After that goal the Caps had some golden opportunities to expand their lead but Backstrom and Green both missed the net from in close in the slot when all alone.

Those misses looked like they might haunt Washington after they gave up a shorthanded goal to Cal Clutterbuck at 3:59 of period three, who got a breakaway when Green let a puck get by him at the Islanders blue line. It was another dismal power play for the Caps in their only try of the night. When Vanek scored just inside the two minute mark after a goal mouth scramble that had Braden Holtby (37 saves) incensed, it sure looked like it would be a rough defeat in a game Washington deserved at least a point.

But Coach Adam Oates’ crew didn’t quit and Backstrom’s laser made up for his earlier miss. Ovechkin sealed the deal like a true assassin to provide a very huge win and give the Caps a two game winning streak heading into Tuesday’s tilt at the Verizon Center against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Defensemen Dmitry Orlov made his season debut on Saturday and was very solid in 13:41 of work. Hopefully 81′s agent wises up and rescinds his ridiculous trade demand. As for the other player demanding out, Erat played hard and assisted on the first tally but his offensive zone turnover helped lead to the Islanders shorthanded breakaway.

On defense, Alzner and John Carlson led the way again, playing 23:20 and 24:40, respectively. Overall, the Caps moved the puck much better with Orlov in for Alex Urbom on the back end. There are still improvements to be made, but Orlov looks more like an NHLer than some of the other guys who’ve been playing. He just needs to get some steady work now that he’s fully recovered from last year’s injuries. Dima wasn’t tentative at all tonight, like he was in preseason, so the time in the AHL definitely benefited him.

New York is a team that in recent years has given the Caps trouble because of their speed and a struggling Islanders club gave it all they had tonight, making it difficult for the Caps to put them away. Then it sure looked like Washington had handed the game to New York before Backstrom, Oveckhin, and company snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

There are no style points in the NHL, two points is two points.

But the way the Caps came back and showed mental resolve makes this victory feel like more than two points.

Time will tell if this kind of come back victory is one that propels Washington to improved play and a long winning streak, but for tonight, I’ll just leave you with a classic line from Baltimore broadcasting legend Chuck Thompson.

Ain’t The Beer Cold!

 

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Ovechkin Tallies Again, But Caps Lose in Shootout

Posted on 23 November 2013 by Ed Frankovic

For the second straight night, the Washington Capitals ran into a hot goalie and lost a hockey game.

The good news, was that on Saturday evening, the Caps picked up a point since it took the shootout for the Toronto Maple Leafs to defeat Washington, 2-1.

There were lots of good things for the Caps in this one. They dominated the game and the shot totals, 50-28 in shots on goal and 101-54 in shot attempts. That’s some serious puck possession there, primarily because they played better getting out of their own zone. Alex Ovechkin scored late in regulation off a beautiful Mike Green sand wedge to tie this one after it looked like David Clarkson’s power play deflection tally might be the only one to hold up.

It was a very entertaining hockey game and James Reimer was the difference. Given that the Caps played the night before and didn’t get into the Big Smoke until the wee early hours of Saturday morning, Coach Adam Oates must be pleased with the effort he received. Oates inserted Eric Fehr into the lineup and took out 32 year old Martin Erat to add energy in a tough back to back situation. The move worked as Brooks Laich, moving down to center Joel Ward and Jason Chimera, had his best game of the season and the second line of Fehr, Mikhail Grabovski, and Troy Brouwer were strong too.

Grabovski though, had a scary moment catching Clarkson’s skate to the face after Joffrey Lupul used his stick to take Grabovski down to spring a Leafs 4 on 2 rush near the end of period two. Grabovski needed more than 20 stitches to close two cuts and is fortunate to not have lost his eye. I’m not sure what the referees were doing there, but the move by Lupul to take 84 down was clearly either any of hooking, high sticking or interference?

Fehr would score first in the shootout and it looked like Washington might get the win, but then James Van Riemsdyk tallied and Nicklas Backstrom’s attempt to win the game on his 26th birthday failed. Lupul, a big time Capitals killer (see game 7 in 2008), beat Braden Holtby and Troy Brouwer didn’t convert as Washington dropped to 5-2 in the gimmick this season. Overall the Caps are now 12-10-2 on the season, good for 26 points and second place in a tightening Metropolitan Division (the Rangers and Flyers both won again).

Ovechkin now has 20 goals in 22 games, so don’t tell me Oates can’t coach. The bench boss has turned the Gr8 back into the purest goal scorer in the NHL again.

As mentioned above, the biggest reason for the Washington domination was the play on the back end. Green had a really strong game and John Carlson was flat out dominant once again proving that he not only should make Team USA for the Sochi Olympic Games, but he just might be the best right handed defensemen on the team the way he is playing. Even more encouraging was the performance of Nate Schmidt. I’ve liked #88 since his first game in Baltimore back in September, but he probably would’ve have been best having a season in the AHL to hone his craft. Tonight though, Schmidt was outstanding with his decision making, stepping up in the neutral zone when necessary, and it culminated in his best game of the season. He’s playing due to injuries, but the rookie is doing all he can to help the team. Give credit to assistant coach Calle Johansson too, after Carlson, Green, and Karl Alzner, the other guys playing defense aren’t household NHL players but somehow Calle had these guys playing above their skill level on Saturday.

If there are some things not to like about this loss that featured a great team effort, it is probably the power play going 0 for 3 on the night (10 shots on goal) along with Washington’s inability to get a lot of traffic on Reimer. The Leafs were not going to let Ovechkin score with the man advantage and Brouwer and Ward didn’t capitalize on their opportunities. Oates and assistant coach Blaine Forsythe will need to adjust that unit again to get more traffic. Carlson had several point blasts but Reimer saw nearly all of them cleanly. One other thing to dislike were the face off totals. Toronto won that battle handily, 39-24.

So the Caps end up a back to back weekend against the Habs and Leafs going 0-1-1 despite carrying the play in five of the six periods. Peter Budaj and Reimer were the difference makers and the Capitals inability to get traffic and rebounds didn’t help the cause. That’s an area to work on going forward.

Still, the fact that Washington’s puck possession numbers were much better the last two nights is encouraging. I credit a lot of that to getting #52 back in the lineup. Green doesn’t get paid $6M+ per season for nothing. With Green and Carlson playing the right side for over 80% of the game, Washington is a different team than when they are only with one of them. In addition, the other defenders amped up their game and minimized their mistakes.

Notes: Washington’s next game is at home against the Ottawa Senators on Thanksgiving Eve…assistant equipment manager, Craig “Woody” Leydig, worked his 2,000th NHL game on Saturday night. Woody has been with the Caps since the 80′s and is one of those guys that just shows up and does his job every night. He’s a well known “good guy” around the league.

 

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Oates Frustrated After Caps Comeback Falls Short

Posted on 23 November 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Caps Coach Adam Oates was notably upset after this one, and that is highly unusual.

The normally calm bench boss who does a great job of answering post game questions, win or lose, was frustrated and he said as much as he closed down his presser.

He was frustrated at his team, particularly some of the “veterans” who aren’t helping the younger guys.

My take is he was also frustrated with an officiating crew that somehow had the power plays five to two in favor of Montreal despite the fact that the Caps carried the large majority of the play for the last 44 minutes.

More importantly, he knew that all of the energy his club spent trying to come back from a 3-0 deficit was mostly wasted and could potentially hurt them for their game on Saturday night in Toronto. The Caps will face the Leafs at the Air Canada Centre on Hockey Night in Canada and they will not be getting in to the Big Smoke until early Saturday morning after having to clear customs.

The problem in Friday’s game was Washington came out sluggish, looking like the team that was dominated by Pittsburgh on Wednesday, and they dug themselves a 3-0 hole. Oates called the errors some of the same ones his team has been making over and over. There were wrong reads on passes (Alex Urbom’s pass to Mikhail Grabovski that led to the first goal), bad icing penalties which caused his club to give up a face-off goal due to bad coverage by some inexperienced defensemen (Tyson Strachan and Nate Schmidt), and poor penalty killing technique (Strachan and Urbom) that allowed the Habs to get a tap in goal from Daniel Briere, which was the eventual game winner.

The veterans Oates was likely upset with on the face off goal were the team’s first line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson. Those guys needed to be better with the puck in that situation and not get whistled for icing with a weaker defensive pairing on the ice.

Still, despite the early ugliness, there were lots of good things that occurred. Perhaps it was because Montreal relaxed or maybe because Washington simply played better?

I’m going with the latter. It was clear that Mike Green, who returned after missing three games, was rusty in period one. Oates called him “shaky” in that period but after the first frame, suddenly the Caps were coming out of their zone much better. A lot of that has to do with #52′s ability to move the puck. John Carlson (two assists) continued to be his dominant self so Oates was back to having a strong right side defense and those two players were on the ice for a combined 45+ minutes. It’s no surprise to me that the Capitals are a much better club and have the puck more often when both Green and Carlson are in the lineup.

The Caps had a ton of scoring chances the last 40 minutes but this game was won by one person, Peter Budaj. The former Colorado goalie stopped both Aaron Volpatti and Backstrom on breakaways in the middle frame and he came up large on several other situations where the Capitals were putting on extreme pressure. Only two Ovechkin goals got by him, one that hit the leg of Josh Gorges and changed direction and the other on a Gr8 deflection of a Carlson blast. Ovechkin now has 19 goals in 21 games played this season.

In the NHL though, playing well doesn’t ensure you get any standing points and the Caps fall to 12-10-1 after this defeat. It stings because a strong final two stanzas is negated by a bad start, once again. It’s hard to determine why this team struggles out of the gate because they are a good skating team. Somehow they are too sloppy early and that seems to be a mental thing.

Still, despite the loss, the way Washington dominated the last two thirds of the game, except when they had to kill off some silly penalty calls (i.e, Brooks Laich hold, Martin Erat roughing), is encouraging. After being outshot heavily at even strength in the three games Green was out, the Caps found themselves dead even in even strength shots on goal at 21 each with the Habs. Shot attempts for the game were 66-57 in favor of Washington and that is pretty significant when you consider that Rob Martell and Dan O’Halloran gifted Montreal with three extra man advantage situations. How does that Peter Laviolette line about the refs and the Canadiens from 24/7 go again?!

But enough on that, the zebras make mistakes, as Ovechkin told me afterwards. The Gr8 stated it was okay and everyone makes mistakes, he just would have liked to have seen his club get a call late like it sure seemed they deserved.

But that’s hockey and sports, in general. Some nights you have to play good enough to overcome the opposition and the guys in the stripes.

The Caps nearly pulled that off, but a hot Habs goalie and a bad first 16 minutes were the recipe for defeat.

Notes: Carlson’s chances of making Team USA for the Olympics continues to go up. I chatted with Team USA scout and former Thrashers GM Don Waddell on Friday and he was lavish in his praise of #74. Judging by our conversation, if Waddell was picking the team, Carlson would be on it. But David Poile is the GM of Team USA so he has the final say. Still, the way Carlson is going, he seems like a lock to me…The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, was in the house for this one and in typical #99 fashion, he signed lots of autographs while sitting in owner Ted Leonsis’ box…Washington dominated from the faceoff dot, 45-32. Backstrom was 14-7…the Caps second line of Laich, Martin Erat, and Troy Brouwer struggled for the first 40 minutes but they looked a little more cohesive in the third period. Erat played center and Laich moved to left wing. Those guys could really use a goal to get some confidence back.

 

 

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Pens Expose Caps D in Dominating Victory

Posted on 20 November 2013 by Ed Frankovic

It was NHL rivalry night on NBC on Wednesday night.

It was Penguins-Capitals, two teams that have despised each other since the early 90′s, playing for first place in the new Metropolitan division.

It was Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, arguably the top 2 players in the NHL going head to head once again.

Should be a great game, right?

Nope, it was pretty much a dud. At least from the Washington Capitals side. The Penguins came in and dominated a Capitals club that was missing #1 defensemen Mike Green, winning rather easily 4-0.

The shots on net were 40-18 in favor of the guys from Pittsburgh as the Pens seemingly had the puck on a string all night (see Crosby’s goal that made it 3-0 late in period two). It was a thorough rear whipping delivered by the Pens against Washington.

Give credit to Pittsburgh, they are a good hockey team. As good as Crosby is, there is a guy wearing #71 over there that when he decides to play, can be just as good as #8 and #87. On Wednesday, Malkin was on. His play on the second Pittsburgh goal, against Washington’s top D pair of Karl Alzner and John Carlson, really took the wind out of the Capitals sails and Geno would go on to dominate many of his other shifts against a Caps defense, that frankly has four guys who are third pair defensemen, on their best nights.

When your defensemen can’t get the puck from the opposition and struggle to get it out of their own end cleanly, it’s tough to generate offense. That is what we saw from Washington tonight. Missing Green is a big factor. Normally Coach Adam Oates will get 45 to 50 minutes out of Green and Carlson on the right side, but tonight, all he had again was #74. The Caps got by without Green against a rare subpar Detroit Red Wings squad and a tired Blues team over the weekend, but going against a rested Penguins team that had their full lineup, it was a mismatch between Pittsburgh’s forwards and the Capitals defense.

Yes, Green makes a big difference for Washington but GM George McPhee has to have some concerns about the left side of his defense. Alex Urbom and Nate Schmidt are playing their hearts out but they are not meant to be getting more than 12 to 14 minutes a night at the NHL level. Schmidt has a bright future and could eventually be a 2nd pair defensemen, but right now he’s just not ready and is playing due to the injuries to John Erskine and Jack Hillen. Even still, in the summer we heard talk that the team was hoping that Dmitry Orlov could step up and be a top 4 d-man. Unfortunately, he hasn’t played at the NHL level this year yet. Part of that is because Washington has been smart about not rushing a player who has had a recent concussion history and putting him in a bad situation. Just last week McPhee stated that #81 was ready and was Hershey’s best d-man so perhaps we’ll see him Friday against Montreal?

The D certainly deserves the lion share of the blame but the Caps power play went 0 for 3 in the first frame too. Ovechkin hit the post and from there things went downhill.

It was an ugly game and a less than average effort against a disliked rival.

The Pens came to play on Wednesday and took advantage of matchups to dominate the game. Kudos to them.

For the Caps, the good news is this is just one game and it is only November. The team, despite the issues on the back end, is still 12-9-1 and in second place in their division.

There are concerns on defense, but there is plenty of time to evaluate and possibly make moves when the time is right or a good deal presents itself.

No need to panic, the Caps still have a very solid team. But it is frustrating to get smoked by one of your archrivals in your own building when first place is on the line. So November or not, it is telling in some regards. Now it is up to the team and management to adjust.

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Ovechkin, Holtby Lead Caps into 1st Place

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Ovechkin, Holtby Lead Caps into 1st Place

Posted on 17 November 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Facing a very good St. Louis Blues squad that had won the night before, the Washington Capitals came out on flying on Sunday evening getting two Alexander Ovechkin tallies and a sweet rebound goal from Mikhail Grabovski to grab a 3-0 first period lead and they rode that to an impressive 4-1 victory at the Verizon Center.

Braden Holtby made 46 saves on the night, many of which came AFTER the Caps grabbed a 4-1 lead on John Carlson’s 5th goal of the season (and in the month of November) at the midway point of this contest.

With the win the Capitals are now 12-8-1 and in FIRST PLACE in the new Metropolitan Division, taking a one point lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have a game in hand and come to town on NHL rivalry night on NBC on Wednesday (8 pm start).

Granted the Blues were tired from arriving at 3 am on Sunday morning, which is life in the NHL, but nonetheless, this was an impressive victory for the Caps who were the first team in the NHL to hold St. Louis under two goals all season. The Blues are a strong team and Washington showed that they are a club on a serious rise after a 1-4 start to the season.

There were lots of good play to go around in this one but it obviously started with the Gr8 and Nicklas Backstrom. Do yourself a favor and go back and watch the Capitals goals on the night once again. Ovechkin’s rocket of a shot on the first goal was an absolute laser and his second was on a rebound in front of the net. Coach Adam Oates has been trying to get Alexander the Great to hang out in the low slot a little more to use his size and reach and it is paying off. That’s now a league leading (tied with the Blues Alexander Steen) 17 goals in just 19 games for Alex, WOW! As for Backstrom, his masterful passing helped set up both Ovechkin tallies as well as Carlson’s power play blast that effectively ended any chance the Blues had of getting back into the game. There are not enough words in the English dictionary to describe how great of a passer #19 is. The sneaky neutral zone touch pass he made to Ovechkin on the 1st goal was made to look so easy by the Swedish center, but it is a very difficult thing to do. The guy is playing at an extremely high level this season.

Oates moved Marcus Johansson back up with Ovechkin and Backstrom on Friday in Detroit in that comeback victory and it was absolutely the right thing to do. MJ90 works well in that role and he was struggling a bit at both ends as the 2nd line center. Moving Martin Erat down to the second LW spot and Brooks Laich to center again with Troy Brouwer is another good combination.

As for the third line of Grabovski, Joel Ward, and Jason Chimera, they continue to be a trailblazing group. Chimera used his speed to agitate a big Blues defensive crew all evening and #84 had a sweet tally banging home the rebound of Chimera’s shot out of the air for the third first period tally, which ended Jaroslav Halak’s night (3 goals on 6 shots). That trio is playing as well as any in the league. The Caps should send Toronto coach Randy Carlyle and GM Dave Nonis some really nice holiday presents for buying that guy out, he’s been an outstanding addition for Washington.

On defense, it all starts again with Carlson and Karl Alzner. In my Saturday WNST story on Carlson, I stated my case for #74 to be on the Team USA Olympic team this February. Team USA assistant coach Peter Laviolette was in the house on Sunday scouting for Team USA (h/t @Jeff_Kryglik of WNST) and he had to take notice of how dominant Carlson is out there. He skates extremely well and has a very good stick. He used them effectively at both ends of the ice, with many of the PK clears coming from his blade. Alzner is a great partner for Carlson and they are the first duo out on all Caps penalty kills. Neither was on the ice when St. Louis got their lone marker with the man advantage in period two.

No victory is complete without good goaltending and Holtby was super, stopping any Blues early shots that could have given them momentum. St. Louis had the quantity of shots tonight but the quality ones were not in abundance, but when they had them, #70 was there to shut the door. Again, most of that quantity of shots did come after it was 4-1 (the result of score effects, as the hockey analytics community would call that scenario).

The Caps also received good performances from several others. Second defensive pair Tyson Strachan and Nate Schmidt played well again after a nice NHL debut together on Friday (they were paired in Hershey early on in the AHL with good success too). Michael Latta continues to be an added bonus to the Filip Forsberg trade doing the little things that a fourth line center needs to do, and even Tom Wilson let Ryan Reaves know that his cheap shot from behind on Backstrom would not be tolerated and #43 promptly leveled him to the Verizon Center ice.

It was a super win for Washington against a top hockey club on Sunday and they’ve earned first place in their division.

Next up, Sidney Crosby and the Penguins on Wednesday.

I can’t wait.

Notes: Mike Green missed his second consecutive game with a leg contusion but did skate this morning. There is a chance he could play on Wednesday but given the strong play of Strachan, there is no need to risk any further damage this early in the season. The Caps will need #52 big time the rest of the year and in the playoffs…Ovechkin had 14 shot attempts (5 on net) and 4 hits to go with his 2 goals…Carlson had 25:01 of ice time to lead the Caps while Team Canada defenseman Alex Pietrangelo led all skaters at 25:57.

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Effort Wasn’t Problem in Caps’ Road Trip Defeats

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Effort Wasn’t Problem in Caps’ Road Trip Defeats

Posted on 11 November 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Through the first 14 games of the Washington Capitals season, effort was a problem on many of the nights when the Caps were on the wrong end of the score.

This past weekend, against two very good Western Conference clubs, the Phoenix Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche, effort was not the problem. The Caps played hard both nights but lost both games, although the Coyotes defeat was in the gimmick. When the Capitals feel a challenge, they typically bring the effort. Make no mistake, the Capitals wanted to show that they could compete with the elite of the West on this past weekend’s road trip.

But they fell short, painfully squandering a two goal lead late in Arizona on Saturday night when they should have definitely had two points. In Colorado, they got down early on a goal that should not have counted then after tying the game, gave up a goal just 28 seconds later before eventually losing 4-1.

What were the major causes of defeat over the weekend? The power play, poor defensive zone play, and shoddy goaltending.

Let’s start with the power play. Washington has been deadly this season with the 5 on 4 man advantage and have won many games because of it. But on Saturday and Sunday, they had some golden opportunities on 5 on 3′s to tie the game or expand their lead and in Saturday’s loss to Phoenix, they failed to score on a two minute 4 on 3 in overtime. Statistically teams do better on 5 on 3 or 4 on 3 power plays, but the Caps are 0 for their last 11 with a two man advantage and their 4 on 3 power play isn’t clicking either.

It seems to me that what is working so well on 5 on 4 isn’t going to work in the other situations because of one reason: the passing lanes are different. When the opponent only has three players on the ice, they shrink down to a tight triangle making the lanes for cross ice passes that the Caps love so much in the 5 on 4 disappear. You simply can’t spread out the penalty kill the way Washington does so effectively five on four when the other team only has three skaters. So the solution seems to be for Coach Adam Oates and assistant Blaine Forsythe to come up with a different configuration and practice it (Troy Brouwer was quoted after Saturday’s loss as saying the team doesn’t work on those situations a lot). My advice, go to a set up that puts a body or two in front of the net and blast away from the point. With the defense backing up in tight, the guys on top can come in closer and if you put traffic in front, the goalie has a tougher time of seeing the puck, and if you use big bodies like Brouwer or perhaps Tom Wilson, you have strong guys in front who can pot the rebounds. It isn’t fancy, like Washington’s 5 on 4 setup, but it’s likely the best way to score with a packed in defense.

As for the defensive zone, the Caps continue to have too many breakdowns. There are lots of turnovers and poor coverage. Yes, they are undermanned back there with Jack Hillen and John Erskine out with injuries but a quick check of many of the recent goals against has the John Carlson and Karl Alzner duo on the ice for several of them. Two of the goals against on Sunday in Colorado were on plays from behind the net where Washington was caught watching the puck carrier and didn’t pay attention to the gaps around them, which allowed the Avs players to find holes and get quick looks that Braden Holtby had no chance on. This has happened on far too many occasions this season. The forwards, on many of those goals, are just as guilty of puck watching. The Caps have to learn better positioning in their own end and pay attention to their surroundings. A guy with the puck behind the net is not a threat to score so why is everyone staring him down and not anticipating where he is going to pass the puck? The coaches need to work with the defense and forwards to correct this problem. Washington would be better off collapsing down and allowing a pass up the boards to the point rather than the ones that keep going into the low slot and ending up in the back of the Capitals net.

As for the goaltending, well it was great for a 10+ game stretch heading into last weekend. Michal Neuvirth needed to have the second Coyotes goal and Carlson screened him on the third one. #74 needed to either go down and block the shot there or move out of the way. That was a stoppable shot if #30 saw it sooner. As for Holtby, it was tough to blame him on the first three Avs goals and even Gabriel Landeskog’s tally was a breakaway after #92 went right around Alexander Ovechkin. Still, Braden probably should have had that one.

The good news is that a lot of these things are very correctable. The defense is in need of an upgrade at some point on the left side, but when some of the Caps top guys are making the mistakes, a trade isn’t going to help.

Overall the talent and effort is there for the Capitals right now, despite the hole on the left side of the defense. But this is the salary cap era and every team has a weakness area that needs to be addressed at some point.

Washington has enough talent and the effort has been consistent over the last couple of weeks. Now they have to execute better by playing smarter in key situations.

They’ll get a chance to turn it around against Columbus on Tuesday night at the Verizon Center.

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Holtby Shines Again as Caps Win in Shootout

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Holtby Shines Again as Caps Win in Shootout

Posted on 07 November 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Braden Holtby is in the zone right now. The Washington net minder, who was unfairly assaulted last week by a lunatic Flyers goalie, stopped 33 shots and all three shootout attempts from a very good Minnesota Wild hockey club to allow his team to prevail, 3-2, in the gimmick, at the Verizon Center.

Alex Ovechkin notched a power play goal early on and Marcus Johansson tied it late after some hard work by Tom Wilson and Brooks Laich before Nicklas Backstrom scored the lone tally in the skills competition to push Washington’s record to 9-7.

The Capitals have a four game winning streak and now head out west to take on Phoenix and Colorado on Saturday and Sunday evenings, respectively.

Call me a glass half full guy tonight. This wasn’t a pretty victory, but the Caps did work hard against a team that does the same. Minnesota doesn’t allow a lot of shots or chances so you have to be patient against them, especially since it seems all American defensemen Ryan Suter never leaves the ice (36:51 played on Thursday night). The shots on goal were 35-27 in favor of the Wild but a closer look at shot attempts had the Caps winning that battle, 57-51.

Both goalies were good and each team went 1 for 3 on the power play. So it is no surprise that this contest ended up in extra time. It was a fairly even battle but the Capitals prevailed because they are really good in shootouts under Coach Adam Oates (4-0 this season).

Ovechkin notched his 13th goal in 14 games, but to me, the skater who has been really instrumental during this streak is Backstrom. Nicky is dominating the play when he is on the ice. He is so strong on his skates and wins the large majority of board battles. His stick handling and passing are amazing and he’s shooting the puck more. His move around Suter late in the game, lifting the puck to create a lane to shoot from, was a thing of beauty and Josh Harding had to come up big to stop that one. Ovechkin is going to get his goals and he’ll get even more if Backstrom continues to play at the high level he’s playing right now. #19 doesn’t get the credit he deserves around the league, but I doubt he cares. From talking to him over the years I know he cares most about winning.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the last four wins is the Capitals goaltending. They’ve gotten four super starts in a row (three by Holtby and one from Neuvirth). Holtby made some huge stops late in regulation when the Wild were gifted with a power play (memo to Ian Walsh: what a garbage call on Erat!) that also gave them a hard to defend 4 on 3 in overtime for 61 seconds. There is no doubt in hockey that goaltending is the most important position and #70 delivered there.

The thing to like about this win, outside of super goaltending and the play of Backstrom, was the effort. Washington played hard but the other guys get paid too so it isn’t going to be all roses every night. This club kept grinding against a stingy team and found a way to tie it up late when Minnesota usually closes those types of games out.

On the flip side, the Caps still are turning the puck over too much and do have a tendency to puck watch and not cover their opponents in their own end at times. That needs to improve. The injuries to Jake Hillen and John Erskine have put the Caps in a bind on the left side of their defense. Alex Urbom and Nate Schmidt are playing because of the injuries. I’ve liked Schmidt since his first preseason game in Baltimore but sometimes he’s in over his head in the NHL. He could use a year in the AHL to properly develop. But there are really no alternatives at this point until GM George McPhee makes a deal for a defensemen. Trades are best made when a team is going well and the Caps are certainly heading in that direction. They have a good forward in Eric Fehr sitting in the press box and Evgeny Kuznetsov likely slated to come over in the spring to play in the NHL, so McPhee has some strengths he can leverage to try and upgrade his defense, which sure seems needed if Washington wants to go deep in the post season. But it takes two to tango and there is plenty of time to make any necessary moves.

Tonight the Caps can thank Holtby and effort for a win against what appears to be a good Western Conference team. Next up are two that just may be even better.

Notes: Washington lost handily in the faceoff department, 34-25…Wilson only played 6:30 but he was a huge factor in the tying goal helping Johansson get the puck and come out of the corner to score while Laich ran havoc in front of the cage…credit Schmidt for not getting down on himself after some tough shifts. The kid played 23:53 and is learning. He had some really good shifts too, so overall he’s been impressive. It is baptism by fire for him…by the way, the Flyers lost 3-0 tonight, boy do those goons stink!

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Ovechkin Scores Twice, Caps Rout Islanders

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Ovechkin Scores Twice, Caps Rout Islanders

Posted on 06 November 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin returned to the Capitals lineup on Tuesday night after missing a pair of games and notched two power play goals and an assist, Nicklas Backstrom had three helpers in another dominating performance, and Braden Holtby made 34 saves as the Caps smoked a good New York Islanders club, 6-2, at the Verizon Center.

Through 15 games, I’ve chronicled the lack of effort on certain nights from this Caps squad. On Tuesday evening, that was definitely not the case. Washington played by far their most complete hockey game of the young season and dominated a very fast Islanders team, routing them in the process. The Caps came out strong in the opening frame and even though they trailed after 20 minutes by a single tally (1-0), one felt that if they returned to play the second period like they did the first than the game would turn in their favor.

Boy, did it, as they scored five times in the middle stanza.

Washington was relentless in this contest doing “all of the little things” as Backstrom described it to me following the game. The Caps repeatedly won the loose puck battles. They came out of their zone with solid passes on the majority of the occasions, and they kept their feet moving. They played with passion and energy. It was refreshing and the results spoke for themselves. Coach Adam Oates afterwards perhaps gave the most telling remark when he said, “that looked like last year.” Last year, the Capitals won 15 of their last 18 games of the season playing with intensity, desperation, and passion. We saw the intensity and passion on Tuesday as Washington imposed their will on New York.

All four Capitals lines played well. The Backstrom-Ovechkin-Martin Erat unit set the tone and #10’s strong play along the boards and savvy decision making helped Washington get out of their own zone much easier. The fourth unit set up a goal for defensemen Alexander Urbom, with forward Tom Wilson getting his first NHL point via a beauty of a pass while sliding on his rear end. Wilson would also garner his first NHL goal on the power play late in the third period, for which he received a shaving crème pie in the face from Ovechkin following the contest. Speaking of the power play, it went from dangerous to deadly with the Gr8 back in the lineup. Ovechkin had two markers with the man advantage, one of which came as a result of a super feed from Marcus Johansson down low that gave Alex an empty cage to shoot at. Johansson himself chipped in a power play goal as well by going to the net and potting a rebound. Overall, the power play was 4 for 6!

The Caps penalty killing was really good, going 5 for 5, although the first Islander goal by John Tavares came just as Mikhail Grabovski’s minor penalty was expiring. Washington’s PK continues to allow the goalies to see the shots, which limits rebound chances. This is the best the Capitals have killed penalties in a few seasons, however, Oates would like to see the number of power plays allowed per game diminished. In the last two games they’ve had to kill off six and five opponent man advantage situations, respectively. That is just too many (although I thought the 3rd period tripping call on Urbom was completely bogus).

The victory, their third in a row, pushes the Caps to 8-7 overall and in sole possession of second place in the Metropolitan Division. During the winning streak they’ve been getting excellent goaltending from both Holtby and Michal Neuvirth. As much fun as the 7-0 pounding of the Flyers was on Friday, this victory was far more impressive. The Islanders have one of the best lines in the league in Thomas Vanek-John Tavares-Kyle Okposo and even though that trio had the two tallies, they were outplayed by Washington. John Carlson, who started the Caps scoring by keeping a puck in at the offensive blue line and lasering one by Evgeni Nabokov (33 saves), played solid defense with partner Karl Alzner. That duo is back to routinely facing the opponent’s top trio and performing well.

So the Caps received a well-earned victory over a playoff likely Islanders team on Tuesday night by putting forth an excellent effort, something Holtby was questioning as recently as last week too. Backstrom believes that this victory is something the team can build on going forward. There is a lot of talent on this Capitals team, especially up front, as evidenced by the fact that Eric Fehr, who has been playing extremely well, was a healthy scratch on Tuesday with the Gr8 returning from injury.

When you combine talent with the effort the Capitals displayed on Tuesday, they are an awfully tough team to beat. Just ask the Islanders after this one.

Notes: Wilson played 10:05 and in addition to the goal and an assist, he had 12 PIMs. Matt Carkner, who is one of the toughest players in the league, gave #43 a couple of cheap shots near the end of the game to try and entice Wilson to go for the “Gordie Howe” hat trick. The 19 year old rookie declined to fight garnering praise from his head coach, who termed his decision a “smart play.” Wilson knew who Carkner was and didn’t lose his temper. He showed maturity with his level headed demeanor, and more importantly to me, he showed that he is doing the preparation necessary to get ready for games at the NHL level…the Caps lost the faceoff battle, 36-38…Shot attempts were 66-60 in favor of Washington…next up for the Caps are the red hot Minnesota Wild at the Verizon Center on Thursday night. The Wild have star defensemen Ryan Suter and are being led in scoring by forwards Zach Parise and Jason Pominville.

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Backstrom, Neuvirth Get Caps Back to .500

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Backstrom, Neuvirth Get Caps Back to .500

Posted on 02 November 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Coming off of a huge and emotional win in Filthadelphia on Friday night, the Caps were back at home to take on the Florida Panthers at the Verizon Center on Saturday evening. As one might expect, Washington had a bit of a letdown and didn’t play a very good game overall. However, thanks to a super performance from Michal Neuvirth (31 saves) and a dominating effort from Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps somehow managed to get two points by beating the Cats, 3-2, in a shootout.

The victory, while pretty ugly, is an important one this early in the season. It moves the Capitals to 7-7 overall and they managed to win again without injured captain Alexander Ovechkin (upper body injury).

The biggest problem for the Caps on this night was something they’ve struggled with most of the season: effort. Simply put, the Capitals are not skating hard enough throughout games. There is too much puck watching and gliding going on and as a result the other team is owning the puck more. In addition, by not skating well, the Caps have opened themselves up to taking more penalties. Florida had six power plays on the night and it wasn’t until they scored on a 4 on 3 with just over two minutes left that they were finally able to beat a Capitals PK unit that had killed 30+ straight man advantages situations. Washington’s penalty killing has been outstanding, but six minors is far too many and the last one was just a terrible retaliation move by Steve Oleksy so late in a one goal game. #61 has to learn you have to keep your head when points are on the line.

Washington’s power play also struggled without Ovechkin, going 0 for 3 on the night. Playing against a below average goalie in Scott Clemmensen the Caps should have simplified things and focused on getting pucks and bodies to the cage, instead there was far too much perimeter passing. The Caps were minus one on the evening in the special teams department and when you aren’t playing well, that is difficult to overcome.

But the Caps did do enough good things to prevail. Backstrom was by far the best player on the ice and he has such a good shot that he needs to keep using, even when the Gr8 returns to the lineup. Eric Fehr played well again with Martin Erat on that top unit. I also liked, despite only getting about six minutes of ice time, the way the fourth line of Michael Latta, Tom Wilson, and Aaron Volpatti played. Latta earned his first NHL point with a sweet cross ice feed to John Carlson in the second period that Captain America buried with a nice shot. Carlson was also one of Washington’s better players, along with Karl Alzner.

The Caps red hot trio of Mikhail Grabovski, Joel Ward, and Jason Chimera struggled, primarily because those guys didn’t move their feet. Grabovski did have a nice goal in the shootout, along with Brooks Laich (scored despite fanning on his move) and Backstrom in the gimmick. Laich does not look himself on five on five right now. He’s been super on the PK but he hasn’t developed any chemistry with any linemates this season so far. Brooksie needs to get his legs churning too, I see too much hesitation from him, especially coming out of his own zone.

On the back end, Mike Green still isn’t playing near peak performance. He’s making far too many turnovers in his own end and in the neutral zone. Washington will need #52 performing at a high level when they play the better teams in the league.

On Saturday the Caps showed up and managed to just do enough to win against a weak Florida team. There was far too much lollygagging for my liking again, but a bit understandable given Friday night’s events. The team got the victory and now have a day off on Sunday to rest.

Coming up though, the schedule will get tougher so it’s important that the Caps get their effort up, especially on Tuesday against a New York Islanders club that gave them fits last season.

Notes: Shots were 33-23 in favor of Florida…Washington won the faceoff battle, 35-31…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 26:15. Green played 25:47…Fehr had four shots on net and led all forwards in that department.

 

 

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