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Ovi CBus

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Ovechkin and the Caps Must Be Better in Game Two

Posted on 15 April 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals will take to the ice on Sunday night at 7:30 pm to try to even their best of seven series up with the Columbus Blue Jackets. On Thursday night, the Caps took three third period penalties and gifted the visitors the game. Several players were not very good in that affair, including Captain Alex Ovechkin, who didn’t register a point and looked slow and out of sorts, most of the evening.

On Sunday morning, the Gr8 told the assembled media that he has to be better and that his line needs to generate more chances at five on five (h/t Isabelle Khurshudyan of The Washington Post). Ovi had a remarkable regular season because his skating was much better than it’s arguably been in the past five years. Alex trimmed down and brought an element of speed back into his game and it led to 32 even strength goals, double his output in 2016-17 in those situations. In the series opener, he looked sluggish and David Savard did a very good job of neutralizing him most of the night. Simply put, this Capitals team isn’t going to go anywhere if Ovechkin is not playing well.

The biggest reason Washington lost on Thursday were the three bad penalties they took in period three that allowed Columbus to score two power play goals, evening the game up twice in the final frame of regulation. Discipline is paramount in the post season and the Caps didn’t have it that period. Once shorthanded, the Caps badly missed fourth line center, Jay Beagle, who is a penalty killing and faceoff specialist. It should be noted that the Capitals lost 17 of 21 defensive zone draws in game one.

On Sunday night, Beagle is back in the lineup as it’s been determined by the Caps medical staff that he’s sufficiently recovered from an upper body injury. Per the morning skate, the Washington lineup is as follows:

Forwards

Alex Ovechkin – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Tom Wilson

Andre Burakovsky – Nicklas Backstrom – T.J. Oshie

Brett Connolly – Lars Eller – Devante Smith-Pelly

Chandler Stephenson – Jay Beagle – Alex Chiasson

Defense

Michal Kempny – John Carlson

Dmitry Orlov – Matt Niskanen

Brooks Orpik – Jakub Jerabek

Goaltender

Philipp Grubauer

Braden Holtby (Backup)

There are several things to note above. The biggest are obviously the return of Beagle and the fact that Kempny, who was rammed from behind into the boards by Josh Anderson in period one and did not return, is back on defense (Kempny did fully practice on Saturday and has cuts on his face from the injury he suffered). The Capitals are very thin on the back end and need #6 in the lineup against a big and mobile Columbus forward group. Grubauer was deemed to have done enough to earn the net, once again, despite giving up a savable shot on the game winner and not stopping Seth Jones’ game tying power play tally, which was another marker that came over his glove hand.

Finally, the scratch of Jakub Vrana, who logged only 6:58 of ice time ignited the Caps Twitterverse, once again, on Sunday morning. Vrana did use his speed to draw a first period hooking penalty on Ian Cole and also set up what should have been the game winning goal before Burakovsky’s terrible tripping penalty negated it. However, the rookie who played in his first ever playoff game, made several mistakes that likely took him out of the lineup, in addition to the fact that he does not kill penalties and is not on either power play unit. On the Blue Jackets first tally, Vrana is positioned in the middle of the ice when Boone Jenner comes across the Caps blue line. #13 tries to stick check to get the biscuit from #38, but fails miserably and this leads to a two on one down low and an easy goal. Jakub has to either get the puck or the man there, he got neither. Then, before his great play to set up DSP, he made a terrible defensive zone turnover that allowed Cole to get a quality chance on Grubauer from just over 20 feet out. Fortunately for Vrana, Grubi made his biggest save of the night on that sequence. In overtime, Vrana had two shifts and on his second one, he gets beaten badly by one of Columbus’ smaller forwards, Pierre Luc-Dubois, on a board battle in the offensive zone. Cole picked up the puck after Jakub couldn’t hold it in the zone against Dubois and he fed Artemi Panarin, who went around Orlov on his offside and then roofed another tally over Grubauer’s glove hand for the win.

Sure, Vrana set up a goal and drew a penalty, but he contributed to the only two Blue Jackets even strength goals against. So when Coach Barry Trotz talked on Sunday morning about resetting #13 to clean up some things in his game, the plays described above are exactly what he’s talking about. As for the two guys who are in instead of Vrana, Brett Connolly and Alex Chiasson, both must play a strong two way game against a hard working physical team. Connolly lost several one on one battles on Thursday, but none were as bad as the individual battles lost by Vrana. This is a “what have you done for me lately” time of year, so if Connolly and Chiasson want to stay in for game three, they need to play well.

This is a must win for Washington on Sunday night. They need everyone going in this tilt to even this series up. It all starts with Ovechkin up front and the defense doing a better job of getting pucks out of their own end. On Thursday, they did that well early, but once Kempny went out and they were forced to go with five defensemen, the mistakes started coming more often. Grubauer also needs to turn in a strong performance in net, he was solid, but was outplayed by Sergei Bobrovsky, who faced more rubber. The Caps would be wise to get more bodies to the front of the net on Sunday, “Bob” is most vulnerable when the puck is bouncing around him and Washington did little of that in game one.

 

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Backy Sharks

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Caps Get Rare Regulation Victory in San Jose

Posted on 10 March 2018 by Ed Frankovic

For nearly 25 years, the Washington Capitals have not known the way to winning in regulation in San Jose. On March 10th, 2018, Philipp Grubauer stopped all 24 shots he faced and Nicklas Backstrom turned in an all world performance, including notching the only non-empty net goal, in a Caps 2-0 victory at the Shark Tank. It was the Capitals first win without extra time against the Sharks at SAP Center since October 30th, 1993.

“Do you know the way to San Jose…”

The Caps do now, and the way they won was with solid team defense, strong goaltending, and a committed effort to getting pucks deep and towards the net, especially over the last 40 minutes.

The victory improves the Caps record to 38-23-7 (83 points) and combined with the Leafs 5-2 triumph over the Penguins on Saturday night it puts Washington back in 1st place in the Metropolitan Division by a point. The Caps have a game in hand on the Pens and third place Philadelphia has also played 68 games like the Capitals, but trail by two points.

Here are nine thoughts and analysis on a humongous win in a state that has not been kind to Washington.

California Dreamin’ – Coming into this matinee, the Caps had lost seven straight games in the Golden State. Last season, with seemingly the best roster, on paper, ever assembled in franchise history, the Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals went zero and three. La La land was not good to Coach Barry Trotz and his team this week either as they suffered a 4-0 defeat in Anaheim, a game that they looked like they were sleeping through, and then a tough 2-1 loss to the Kings on Thursday. The Caps played much better in that affair, but they could not put the biscuit in the basket. Saturday’s victory against a third straight California team that is desperate for points was one of the most sound defensive performances by the Capitals all season.

Hey Nineteen – When Washington gets strong play up the middle of the ice, they are an extremely tough team to beat. Many Capitals struggled in the first two games of this road trip, but Backstrom was near the top of that list. After his terrible turnover in period one in the City of Angels, he was a total non factor in the loss on Thursday. On Saturday, however, Nicky was the best player on the ice. His compete level was through the roof and he repeatedly won puck battle after puck battle playing with Brett Connolly (1 assist) and Andre Burakovsky in a newly configured trio. Connolly’s pass to Backy with 1:28 left in period two was a superb one, but #19’s slap shot was even better and he ripped it over Martin Jones’ glove into the top shelf. That tally is Backstrom’s 17th goal of the season. I’m of the opinion that several Caps are trying to pace themselves so that they can peak their game in April, when the postseason starts. Backstrom is definitely one of them, but on Saturday, the Caps needed a win badly in a tightening playoff race, and Nicky announced his presence with authority all afternoon.

Meet in the Middle – It’s no secret that Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan has focused the build of this team up the middle of the ice. In addition to Backstrom’s outstanding game against San Jose, pivots Evgeny Kuznetsov (+1 in 20:05) and Lars Eller (goal, +1 in 17:04) were excellent. Since Coach Trotz went all Reg Dunlop and shuffled his lines around, Kuzy centered the Gr8 and Tom Wilson while Eller was flanked by Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie. The change certainly helped Burakovsky and Connolly the most since there aren’t many centers better than #19 in this league. However, I liked how Oshie, who is rounding back into form and is long overdue for a goal, and Vrana played with Eller. Vrana has really improved his defensive zone play and he used his speed to get the puck out of the Caps own end a couple of times. All three of the Caps top centers were playing well in San Jose and Lars was rewarded with an empty net tally with 1:49 remaining to put a dagger in the Sharks.

Letting Them Play – For my money, the last two Washington games have been the best officiated tilts I’ve seen all season. In both affairs, the referees didn’t call a lot of penalties and let the teams play. However, stick infractions or obvious trips, clips, and interference were whistled. It was clear that the players for the Caps, Kings, and Sharks all knew how the games were going to be officiated and they played accordingly. There was lots of hitting and good end to end skating. The one constant in both contests was Trevor Hanson. The Richmond, British Columbia native is in his sixth season in the NHL and he’s quickly becoming one of the best zebras. Gord Dwyer and then Dan O’Rourke was the other referee in the Kings and Sharks games, respectively. The Caps had a three to one power play advantage on Thursday while the Sharks had two man advantage situations to none for Washington on Saturday. Both penalties on the Capitals at the SAP Center were well deserved infractions by Wilson. Simply put, I’d certainly like to see Hanson doing more Caps games.

Shoot to Thrill – Making the right decisions inside the offensive blue line has been a problem area for the Capitals this season, and in years past, especially in the playoffs. Those brain cramps have cost Washington a lot of odd man rushes and goals against this campaign. Poor offensive zone play is a big reason the Caps goals against average has gone up in 2017-18. In the first period of the Sharks game, the Caps forwards made a few mistakes in the offensive and neutral zones that San Jose turned into quality chances. Fortunately for Washington, Grubauer was at his best in a scoreless first frame where the Sharks had the better of the play. In the middle stanza, however, the Capitals really played the right way for the first time on this road trip and made sure to get pucks deep and towards the net. The result was a 12 to 3 margin in shots on goal in the middle twenty. When trailing 2-1 on Thursday at Staples Center, a House of Horrors for the Caps, Washington only put five shots on net in the third period. Connolly passed up a great look in the center of the ice and that’s just not a good choice given his super shot. Oshie and several others have been guilty of not firing the puck on net from the high danger areas, too. Coach Trotz, in his first two seasons in Washington, used to constantly utter the mantra, “This is a shoot first league.” He’s right and many of the goals are scored on rebounds or quick ones where the goaltenders don’t have time to get set. It would behoove the Caps to maintain the mentality they displayed in the second and third periods in San Jose, because that type of hockey is how you win in the spring. To reinforce the thought process, I recommend that AC/DC’s Shoot to Thrill be blasted in the Caps locker room before EVERY period.

Blue Line Reconfiguration – After the loss to the Ducks on Tuesday, Coach Trotz and assistant coach Todd Reirden made changes on the back end. Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov were still together while John Carlson was paired with Michal Kempny with Brooks Orpik and Jakub Jerabek forming the third duo. Things went okay in LA, except for the game winning goal where Jerabek failed to keep a puck in the offensive zone and then Trevor Lewis went around #44 like he was an orange road cone to score on his third shot in succession. It was a poor play by Orpik, who has struggled pretty heavily since the all star break, but Jerabek and Grubauer didn’t exactly shine in that sequence either. You can certainly put some of Orpik’s issues on being paired with rookie Madison Bowey, a future top four defensemen, who was understandably starting to have trouble with the intensity and speed of the game post January 1st. Against San Jose, a team that typically gives the Capitals fits, Brooks turned in arguably his best game in three months. He was physical with five hits and he had no giveaways in 17:04 of action. He was also part of a penalty killing unit that allowed only one power play shot in four minutes of man advantage time. Orpik must continue to play the way he did on Saturday and it would probably be wise for the coaching staff to give him some days off before the playoffs commence to keep him healthy and fresh, especially in back to back tilts.

Solid as a Rock – Braden Holtby has not had a good post all star break stretch and former Caps goalie Brent Johnson stated on Twitter that he believes fatigue, which ultimately then led to a drop in confidence, has been the issue. After #70 gave up three goals in the first half of the Ducks game, and all of those certainly weren’t on him, Coach Trotz has gone with Grubauer in net. #31 had a decent game against the Kings in a loss, but against San Jose he was superb in the opening frame until the Capitals got their game in gear. The Sharks hit a couple of posts early, as well, but Washington has been due for some breaks. In earning his second shutout of the season, Philipp improved to 9-8-3 this year and his save percentage is up to .925. Grubauer will be starting on Monday against the Jets at Capital One Arena and he’ll likely split the back to back games with the Holtbeast against the Islanders later in the week. The German keeper has certainly earned the cage right now with his solid play. He has been steady and he came up with some big saves early against the Sharks.

Closing Time – Overall, this was a much needed victory for Washington made more impressive by their style of play. This was a very important game to the Sharks and the Capitals matched San Jose’s compete level and desperation. It was a tight checking affair that is very reminiscent of how the game will be played in April and beyond. To win this way, with much improved team defense and better offensive zone decision making, bodes well for the Caps down the stretch.

Notes: Alex Ovechkin had 10 shots attempts and six shots on goal. His best chance to score his 41st of the season and 599th of his career was on a third period semi-breakaway, but Jones stopped him with his glove…Orlov led the Caps in ice time with 24:22. Carlson is getting a lot of press for his play this season, and deservedly so, but #9 has been very consistent since late October/early November on the back end…the Caps won the face off battle, 33-20. Kuzy was 10-8 after going 1-10 against the Kings. Eller was 6-1, Backstrom went 8-5, and Jay Beagle won six of nine draws…Wilson, who has been outstanding most of the season, took a puck to the head in the second period in LA but returned in that contest. On Saturday, he played, but looked a little off timing wise. He took two penalties and did not get a hard shot off on a good pass from Ovechkin in tight…Brent Burns led the Sharks in ice time with 26:01…congratulations to MacLellan for receiving a well earned contract extension from Caps ownership…it will be Washington vs. Winnipeg on Monday night at 7 pm from Capital One Arena. The Jets will definitely make the post season and they appear to be a lock for second place in the Central Division.

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Ovi Navy

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Caps Dominate Leafs in Stadium Series Victory

Posted on 04 March 2018 by Ed Frankovic

When the Washington Capitals are focused and rested, they are a very good hockey team, it’s that simple.

On Saturday night, at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium, the Caps came out fast and determined and they smoked the Auston Matthews-less Leafs, 5-2.

Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and John Carlson each had three points and Braden Holtby stopped 27 of 29 shots as Washington moved to 37-21-7 (81 points) on the season and they lead the Filthadelphia Flyers by two points and the Pittsburgh Penguins by three points in the Metropolitan Division with 17 games remaining in the regular season. The Pens only have 16 games left to play.

Alex Ovechkin notched his NHL leading 40th goal of the season in the opening frame, and the 598th tally of his career, as the Caps raced to a 3-1 first period lead.

From there, the Capitals played solid hockey and really gave Toronto little chance of winning this outdoor affair in front of a crowd just under 30,000 (less than capacity).

Washington is a difficult team to beat when both Backstrom and Kuznetsov are on and that was the case on Saturday night. The Caps were hard on pucks all night and played a crash the net style that is conducive to playoff hockey. Kuzy scored the first goal just 3:50 in snapping home the rebound of a Backstrom shot on the power play. After the Leafs tied it on a shot tapped home by Jake Hyman in front, the cuddly Ovi notched a top shelf marker after top line Tom Wilson outworked two Leafs behind the net and fed a sweet pass into the slot that the Gr8 buried.

With 3:40 left in period one, Kuznetsov made a super attack up the ice on the power play and then left a back pass into the slot that Backstrom converted to make it 3-1. It was a great power play rush goal and really set the Caps up for the last 40 minutes of this tilt.

After Toronto cut the margin to 3-2 on a goal that the Holtbeast had a hard time tracking and probably wants back, Carlson finished off a great shift by the fourth line just 43 seconds later to restore the two goal Caps lead. Chandler Stephenson and Jay Beagle did some great work to create #74’s 12th goal of the season. At that point, with just under 32 minutes of hockey remaining, the Capitals really stymied Toronto and locked this contest down.

Jakub Vrana, who hadn’t scored since mid December, but has really been playing well in recent outings, received a great pass from Kuznetsov while the Leafs were caught in a bad line change, and beat Frederik Andersen on a breakaway for his 11th goal of the season. It was a huge goal for #13, because he’s been generating lots of chances without being rewarded with a lamp lighter, and it pretty much sealed the Leafs fate on this windy and brisk night in Annapolis.

The third period would be scoreless and the Caps would go on to their third victory in three outdoor events.

Overall, this was a pretty basic and solid win by Washington. They outworked Toronto and the scoreboard reflected that. The Caps top two centers were on their game and the Leafs, without Matthews, really had no answer for it. T.J. Oshie, Vrana, and several others had solid outings in the Caps triumph. Again, the key to the hockey game is the play of Backstrom and Kuznetsov. Those guys are elite players and when they bring a high effort, the Caps are a very hard team to beat. In addition, Wilson’s hustle and physicality was a huge factor in this game. He was a beast on the ice and continues to progress as a player.

Holtby halted a six game losing streak with a solid effort. He struggled a bit early, and I put a lot of that on his distrust of the skaters in front of him, but as the night went on you could see him returning to form. When the Holtbeast can see the shots, he is one of, if not the best, goalies in the league.

Overall, this was a dominant win and as Coach Barry Trotz likes to say, “there were no passengers, tonight.” Washington wanted this game and they were rested and ready after two straight practices. Their all world goalie also seemed to regain his form, which is something they’ll need as they head to California for three contests this upcoming week.

Simply put, despite all of the whining on Caps Twitter about the team and the coach, Washington is still a very good hockey team and on a pace to hit between 100 and 105 points as I predicted before the season. That should happen despite having four rookies in the lineup most of the year, including two on defense.

Notes: The Caps were 2-2 on the power play and penalty kill in a very well officiated contest…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 38-29. Beagle was 13-1 and Backstrom was 16-9…Wilson had five hits, one less than team leader, Matt Niskanen (6)…Nisky led the Caps in ice time with 24:05. #2 is playing the best of hockey of his season, right now, which is much needed…the Caps had 34 shots on goal to just 29 for Toronto.

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Kuzy CBus

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Kuznetsov and Eller lead the Caps to a 4-2 Victory over Columbus

Posted on 10 February 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Evgeny Kuznetsov and Lars Eller each notched a goal and an assist and Braden Holtby made 35 saves to lead the Caps to a 4-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night at Capital One Arena. The back to back wins over Coach John Tortorella’s squad improves Washington to 32-17-5 (69 points) and puts them 11 points ahead of the Blue Jackets with 28 games remaining. The Penguins, who were defeated in a shootout, 4-3, in Dallas late Friday, are in second place. Sidney Crosby and company are five points behind the Capitals and the Caps have two games in hand.

These two clubs met on Tuesday at Nationwide Arena and it was the Blue Jackets who dominated play in the game, but thanks to great goaltending from the Holtbeast and some timely scoring, the Caps escaped the state of Ohio as 3-2 winners.

On Friday, Columbus played a very desperate style, but they once again came up short. Washington, while getting outshot, 37-17, and outshot attempted, 79-50, played a much better game in their home barn.

The Caps first period was cleaner in terms of puck management and John Carlson scored just 5:09 into this affair on the doorstep following two super passes from Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana. The Capitals carried the majority of the play in period one and they stretched the Blue Jackets out, which provided wider passing lanes for their zone exits. Coach Barry Trotz attributed the strong first period to his team “skating well.” The shot attempts were 21-20 for Columbus, but Washington had the scoring chance edge. Unfortunately for the Caps, Coach John Tortorella’s club tied the game up at the 6:28 mark when Tom Wilson’s intended pass to Carlson behind the Washington net hit an uneven spot in the left wing corner boards. The puck caromed into the slot and Pierre-Luc Dubois gobbled it up and quickly whipped it past Holtby.

Washington, however, seized some late momentum when Kuznetsov scored with two seconds left after coming out of the penalty box. Lars Eller and Tom Wilson killed the end of the Blue Jackets power play and then they rushed the puck into the Columbus zone. After the puck went below the goal line, Matt Niskanen fetched an errant clear on the right wing boards. Nisky fired it at the net, the disc hit Eller at the right post and then bounced far post where Kuzy was there to pot the rebound.

The Caps, however, could not keep the momentum as Artemi Panarin deflected home a Seth Jones point blast just 27 seconds into the middle frame. Jones, who led all skaters with 25:32 of ice time, was able to get the puck when Dmitry Orlov missed a breakout pass on the left wing boards. At that point, the contest could’ve gone either way, but Washington potted what would be the game winning tally when Jay Beagle outworked Jones in front of the net to notch his sixth goal of the season. This was one of those tallies generated by good ole fashioned hard work. After a sequence of puck cycling by the Caps fourth line, Devante Smith-Pelly took a feed from Orlov on the high left wing boards and he alertly fired the puck at the cage. The shot hit Chandler Stephenson en route to the net and Beags closed the deal on the rebound just 4:38 into period two.

On the ensuing neutral zone faceoff, Lukas Sedlak was whistled for high sticking Nicklas Backstrom and that put Washington on the power play. The Caps couldn’t score with their first unit, but they connected on a rush with part of the second unit on the ice. Eller, T.J. Oshie (assist) and Alex Ovechkin had a three on two and with the Osh Babe going to the net far post, Eller caught Sergei Bobrovsky cheating a little to his right and #20 beat him short side at 6:06. That was six goals in just over 26 minutes of hockey, but that would be all of the red lights for this night.

With the Caps up two pucks, they focused on keeping the Blue Jackets to the perimeter, but in the last 10 minutes of period two, they were not very successful. Columbus had a number of good looks, especially on a late power play with Wilson in the box for tripping, but they were either stopped by the Holtbeast, missed the net, or blocked. Holtby was at his best during this stretch.

In the final stanza, the Capitals limited scoring opportunities for Columbus and they forced their opponents to have to settle for a lot of long range outside shots. The Caps team defense was solid and they didn’t allow the Blue Jackets to get any tipped or screened goals, something they live off of. Washington was outshot attempted 29-14 in period two and 29-16 in period three, but a lot of that is score effects, although winger Brett Connolly thought they needed to be attacking a bit more.

“I think we spent a little too much time in our own end in the third, I think you want to go at teams, but sometimes they push and you’ve just got to be in good position defensively. You try to get in front of pucks and Holts was good a couple of times there to make saves. I thought we were better tonight than in Columbus, a little more solid all around,” said the winger who has 13 goals this season.

Connolly is correct and afterwards Coach Trotz stated that there were “no passengers” on his bench for this one. Washington did skate well, especially early, and the top player in this tilt was Kuznetsov. When he is on, he is flat out dominant and that was the case on Friday. Linemates Vrana and Oshie also performed extremely well. Vrana employed his speed and he was engaged physically in his own end, something the Caps bench boss noted to the media afterwards.

Special teams provided an edge for the Caps, just like it did on Tuesday. Washington went one for four with the man advantage while the Capitals PK unit was a perfect three for three. The Caps generated five of their 17 shots on goal for the game on the power play. At one point in period two, the Capitals had four goals on “Bob” in 11 shots. Volume of shots isn’t something coach Trotz is overly concerned about; he’s more focused on quality shots. He was pleased with the goals and said any time you get four on [Bobrovsky] you should win.

This was a big triumph against a very desperate club that works hard, throws a lot of pucks on the net, and tries to generate ugly goals. The Capitals kept the Blue Jackets off of and out of the line of sight of Holtby. It was another victory that wasn’t pretty. There are no style points in the NHL, but the Caps were better than they were on Tuesday and they had to be to knock off a club that is fighting for their playoff lives.

Notes: Alex Ovechkin had five shot attempts, but none were on net…Kuznetsov was the #1 star. He had two points, four shots on goal, and logged 20:16…Alex Chiasson took the scratched Andre Burakovsky’s spot on the third line. He played only 9:05…Washington lost the faceoff battle, 32-27. Beagle was 6-5…the Caps next game is against the Detroit Red Wings at 3:00 pm from Capital One Arena on Sunday afternoon.

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Ovi Old School

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A Detailed Look at the Caps After 45 Games

Posted on 15 January 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Following Jay Beagle’s stunning game winning goal with just over a second left in Carolina on Friday night, the Washington Capitals players headed to Atlantis, Florida, the Caribbean, Colorado, and other mostly warmer destinations for five days of rest and recovery during the team’s now annual bye “week.”

The victory improved the Caps to 28-14-3 (59 points) and they will remain in first place in the Metropolitan Division until they take the ice again on Thursday, against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center.

With the downtime, I’ve put together some lengthy thoughts on a hockey team that has once again positioned itself near the top of the NHL standings and is among the league’s best squads.

Shortchanged It’s called the “bye week,” but the Caps are only getting five days between games while most other teams are getting a six or seven day gap. In addition, the Capitals went into the break playing back to back games and will come out of it in the same fashion facing the Devils on the road and then the Montreal Canadiens at home on Friday evening. The bye break was something the players clamored for in recent years so that they could get away during what is a very long season. The downside of this plan, however, combined with the three day Christmas shutdown and the All-Star Break is a schedule made up of numerous back to back tilts and many three games in four night scenarios. This leads to a poor product on several occasions and a case in point was Washington’s 3-1 loss to Carolina last Thursday when it appeared that many on the squad were already on the beach.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes The 2017 summer saw some very important key Capitals players depart due to the NHL expansion draft and the rising salary cap to include defensemen Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt plus forwards Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, and Daniel Winnik. How General Manager Brian MacLellan and Coach Barry Trotz would handle those personnel losses would hold the key to the 2017-18 season. The Capitals were 30-9-6 (66 points) after 45 games in 2016-17, so they have only seven points less than they were at this point in a Presidents’ Trophy winning campaign. Last year’s team was experienced, stacked and averaged 28.4 years old. This year’s club has relied on contributions from several rookies, to include defensemen Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos as well as forwards Jakub Vrana (10 goals) and Chandler Stephenson (10 points). The average age of the team has dropped to 28.0, which is a significant change considering that each returning player is a year older. Plugging those rookies into the vacated spots alone clearly could not fill the void left by so many quality players. Therefore, Coach Trotz and his staff had to shift to a “rely on the returning players” philosophy while bringing along the young bucks. Comparing ice times in 2017-18 versus 2016-17 shows a very telling picture.

Player 2017-18 Avg TOI 2016-17 Avg TOI Delta
John Carlson 26:09 22:42 +3:42
Matt Niskanen 22:27 22:10 +:17
Dmitry Orlov 23:16 19:32 +3:44
Brooks Orpik 20:42 17:47 +2:55
Alex Ovechkin 19:42 18:21 +1:21
Nicklas Backstrom 19:40 18:15 +1:25
Evgeny Kuznetsov 18:54 16:57 +1:57
T.J. Oshie 18:40 17:51 +:49
Lars Eller 15:20 13:54 +1:26
Tom Wilson 15:29 12:55 +2:34
Brett Connolly 11:35 10:41 +:54
Jay Beagle 12:39 13:37 -:58
Andre Burakovsky 13:35 13:15 +:20

 

In a nutshell, the coaching staff is playing their key players more than last season when they could just roll four lines and wear teams down. There are some major changes in average time on ice on the back end, especially for Carlson, Orlov, and Orpik. Carlson, who is a Norris Trophy candidate despite two rocky games before the bye week break, has been outstanding, especially considering Niskanen has missed 14 games and has played less than 100% healthy in multiple others. As I’ve blogged on several occasions and GM MacLellan noted to The Washington Post last week, the unsung hero on the back end has been Orlov. Number nine has turned into such a strong two way defensemen and he continues to get better. The upside is still there, too, as he probably would have more points if he got more power play time. The concern is Orpik is playing nearly three minutes more than last season simply because he has to while Djoos comes up to speed. Without Brooks to carry a large load in the first 30 games while the rookies were learning and Niskanen was out, this team may have been sunk. Lately though, #44 has shown some wear on his wheels, so a January schedule that sees a lot of breaks should help him out. The improved play of Djoos and Bowey also will be critical in the second half of the season. I fully expect the Caps to add a defensemen at the trade deadline in late February.

Stars in the City There is no doubt that the “Coach’s Robot,” the Gr8, and “All Star” Nicklas Backstrom are a big reason why this team is still one of the best in the league. Ovechkin was overweight and not in ideal shape in 2016-17 and it showed during the regular season and the playoffs. He had only 33 regular season goals, most of which came on the power play, and he was slower and more prone to injury. Alex took management’s direction and trained totally differently this past summer and the results are blatantly obvious. He’s faster than he’s been since perhaps 2010, which has allowed him to generate better quality chances. He’s had several breakaway tallies and is leading the NHL in goals at 28 in 45 games (a 51 goals pace). 20 of those goals are at even strength this season, compared to just 16 in 2016-17. Backstrom had 86 points in 2016-17 and he’s on pace for 17 fewer this campaign, but most of that drop-off came when Trotz had the Gr8 on a different line. That experiment was smartly shelved and since the two have been Peaches and Herb’d, aka Reunited, the team has gone on a tear. There is no one on the planet who knows how to play better with Ovi than Nicky. Kuznetsov is a super talent, but he is so reliant on having the puck while Backstrom is such a strong two way guy that gets the biscuit from the opposition and allows Alex to get the touches he needs to score goals.

Carpe Diem With the departure of key forwards, several younger Capitals have seized the day and opportunity in 2017-18. Kuznetsov is playing nearly two minutes more a game (more on him in a minute), but looking at the average ice times for Eller and Wilson are very revealing. Willy is logging 2:34 more a night and at six goals and 18 points in 41 games he should shatter his career highs. Wherever Coach Trotz has put #43 this season he has produced and the nice thing is it’s been in a top nine role, no more fourth line Tommy. Eller, who is an unrestricted free agent this summer, has nine goals and 21 points in 44 games. He had 12 goals and 25 points in 81 total games in 2016-17. He’s playing 1:26 more a night and he’s become a better contributor, especially offensively, and that was sorely needed. The Washington third line, which was dominant last January when the Capitals were nearly unbeatable, has returned to play a big role in 2017-18. Eller and Connolly (10 goals) have been the staples there and there’s been a rotation of right wings to mostly include Oshie, Burakovsky, Vrana, and Wilson.

Not So Special In 2016-17 the Caps connected on 22.98% of their power plays and killed off 83.92% of their shorthanded situations. The league averages were 19.1% and 80.9%, respectively. In 2017-18, the power play has slowed to a 19.57% connection rate (NHL average is 19.4%) and is only thwarting 79.08% of their manpower disadvantages (NHL average is 80.6%). Simply put, the Capitals, unlike years past, have had to rely more on five on five goal differential to win games. This season they are +14 (91 to 77) in that category. There is lots of room for improvement on the special teams.

Dynamic Duo Looking at the team stats, the Caps have gone from outshooting opponents 30.4 to 27.8 per game in 2016-17 to being outshot 32.3 to 29 in 2017-18. That is a direct result of the change in personnel. Let’s be honest, the Capitals lost a lot of veteran players and are incorporating new blood into the squad. So why have they been able to still be successful? Well, outside of what has been mentioned already, the single biggest factor is the outstanding goaltending from Braden Holtby (24 wins) and Philipp Grubauer (7 quality starts in 12 games). The team save percentage has dropped from .925 to .917, but it’s clear that the quality of shots against has gone up a bit. These two continue to make the big save for Washington at the key time and goalie is the most important position in hockey.

Delivering the Overpass There’s a famous Bill Engvall “Here’s Your Sign” joke about a truck getting stuck with the punch line being, “Nope, I was delivering that overpass and my truck flat ran out of gas…Here’s Your Sign!” Perhaps the organization should bring the legendary comedian in to hand out “Here’s Your Sign” awards for all of those times the Capitals have tried to make an extra pass when they are in the high danger scoring areas? Guilty party number one on that list is Kuznetsov. When #92 plays the right way, and he’s had some nice stretches of that, the Caps dominate. He ranks second on the team in goals (13) and when he carries a shoot first mentality he is deadly on the ice because the defense has no idea what he is going to do, pass or shoot. Too often, though, he is in Harlem Globetrotters fancy pants mode, and that is much easier to defend. He needs to cut back on the circling pattern where he takes himself out of the high danger scoring area and eventually turns the puck over. That issue has crept into others on this team, to include Oshie, who I’d like to see shoot more. This is a shoot first league and with the goaltending being so good, rebounds or shots from high danger areas with traffic are the best way to beat them. Do the Caps think they have to make the pretty play so often because they practice against two of the best goalies in the league regularly? That could be a factor, but if they just looked at their recent tallies, many of them are just shots from the middle of the ice with players going to the net or using a defender to screen his own keeper. It’s not rocket science and it’s one of the big reasons the Caps are down in the shots on net and shots attempted statistics. They have the puck often, but many times they possess it for awhile and never generate a shot. They need to dump that habit and the cross ice pass at the offensive blue line if they want to go deep into the post season.

Where’s the Six Million Dollar Man? If you had told me on October 1st that Burakovksy would only have three goals after the Caps have played 45 games, I would have said the Caps would not be in playoff position. Luckily, I would’ve been wrong. #65 has played only 21 games due to injuries and overall malaise, but the man who signed a two year deal for a total of $6M is a very key cog in the wheel if Washington wants to challenge for the Stanley Cup. If I was Andre, the first thing I’d do after getting home from the Bahamas would be to pull out the tape of game six against the Penguins last spring and watch it. That’s the way Andre needs to play to be successful, very physical on the opposing boards and puck so that he can score and generate goals. He can be that player if he puts his mind to it and works hard. A return to form by Burakovsky is a must from now until June.

In summary, even with the personnel losses from last season, the Capitals have still positioned themselves among the best teams in the league. Despite what some statistics, such as Corsi, try to tell you, this positive outcome is not just pure luck. As I’ve chronicled, there’s been a method to the team’s success, which also includes a unique ability, much like the Pittsburgh Penguins have done the last two seasons, to counter attack and be deadly on the rush. Speed is an important aspect of hockey and the Capitals have improved in that department. Their save percentage is slightly down, but their goalies have been stellar and they aren’t living off of a higher shooting percentage. They are connecting on 10.5% of their shots, just like they did last season. The league average is around 9%, but the Caps have high end talent, unlike a Corsi loved team like Carolina, who throw a lot of pucks on net from everywhere, but don’t have the Ovechkins, Kuznetsovs, Backstroms and Oshies of the world who have great shots. Looking at another favorite analytic stat, PDO, which measures shooting percentage plus save percentage at even strength, it shows the Caps were at 102.4 in 2016-17 and this season they have dropped to 101.6 (meaning they’ve been less lucky). I’ve stated this axiom in blogs and on the air on WNST many times; it’s great to look at statistics, but in the grand scheme of things, hockey is a game of high skill and talent, it is non-linear and is chaos theory. The Washington Capitals have high end talent and the organization has structured the team around that. Now the question is can they continue to improve down the stretch so that they can peak in the post season?

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Ovechkin’s Three Apples Puts the Caps Back in First Place

Posted on 30 December 2017 by Ed Frankovic

It had been 11 games since the Washington Capitals came out and jumped on a team to tally the first two goals in the first period (December 6th vs. Chicago). On Saturday night the Caps did just that to take advantage of a Devils team that played on Friday night en route to a 5-2 win at Capital One Arena.

Alex Ovechkin (three apples), Nicklas Backstrom (goal, two assists), and John Carlson (goal, two assists) all had three points each as Washington received a very strong performance from their top line and top blue liner to improve their record to 24-13-3 (51 points) and put them back in first place in the Metropolitan Division by a point. New Jersey (22-1-6) has two games in hand.

Braden Holtby was super solid in net making 25 of 27 saves and the Capitals will close out December with a perfect eight wins in eight tries at Capital One Arena. There is no place like home for Coach Barry Trotz’ club and they have now won 15 of their last 17 in front of their very boisterous fan base.

Here are my thoughts and analysis of this win that came at the end of some brutal scheduling:

Schedule Craziness This was the third game in four nights for both teams and Washington also played back to back before the Christmas break. So that’s effectively five games in six possible nights for the Caps and despite a three game losing skid in there, they came out of it 2-1-2 (six points). So even with a bit of a rough patch with no practice time, Trotz and company managed to survive and reclaim 1st place heading into Tuesday’s tilt in Carolina.

Tom Wilson’s War This is a trick title to this bullet because based on it you’d think that number 43 was dropping the gloves to announce his presence with authority again. Nope, Willy is doing it with his stick. Just 2:26 into this affair, now third line Tom went to the net and finished off a beautiful pass from Christian Djoos with Brett Connolly parked at the top of the paint. Wilson slid in behind #10 and after the sweet feed from the rookie blue liner, he snapped it by Cory Schneider (30 saves). Wilson, who earlier in December seemed to help Ovi and Backy get out of their funks with his stint on the top line, was bumped down in Thursday’s rally over Boston to jump start Lars Eller and Connolly to get them motoring again. #43 did just that and he’s on pace to shatter his total for points in a season. Tom now has six goals and 12 assists in 36 games and he’s a staggering +11 this year. Wilson helped Lars Eller lead the team in shot attempt percentage on the night (15 for and six against, 71.43%).

Top Line Production After a rough first shift, the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Devante Smith-Pelly line really got it going. Djoos was the recipient of a great passing play to make it 2-0 at 11:09 of period one when he dropped the puck to Ovi coming across the blue line and then kept going to the net. The Gr8 then fed Backstrom with a sweet diagonal feed and Nicky went cross ice to #29, who snuck the puck behind Schneider into the yawning cage for a layup. That one was prettier than Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman and it was the type of start the Caps needed against a tired opponent. The top line would also set up Matt Niskanen for another layup in the third frame, to make it 4-1 just 4:25 into that stanza. Nisky carried the puck across the offensive blue line and once again it was a drop pass to Ovechkin that was the key to the sequence. Ovi fed DSP with another gem and #25 went cross ice to #2 for the second tic-tac-toe tally of the night for a defensemen. The three forwards on the Caps top line had 23 of the 47 shot attempts from Caps centers or wingers. Ovi logged 20 minutes and had nine shot attempts (six on net), Backstrom played 19:48 and had four shot attempts, and DSP had 10 in 16:25 (but only four hit the net).

Blueline Hat Trick I mentioned the key Djoos and Niskanen tallies, but Carlson also scored for Washington to make it a trio of goals for Caps defensemen. This one came on a second period power play that generated several quality chances. Schneider made some big saves to keep it a 2-1 game, but Washington would not allow the Devils to clear and Backstrom fed a pinching in from the point #74 nicely and Johnny rocketed it by #35 to restore a Capitals two goal lead. That power play marker at 7:01 really took some life from the Devils and set the stage for a third period where Washington kept the hammer down. The Caps have now gotten a goal from their previously struggling power play in each of the last two tilts and it is looking better as there’s been crisper passing and more movement.

Two In, Two Out Coach Trotz made two interesting lineup changes on Saturday. He scratched Andre Burakovsky, who has been pretty much terrible since his great game in Dallas on December 19th, and he put Chandler Stephenson back in. #18 is fast and his speed is a good match for New Jersey. I don’t expect #65 to be out for more than a game as the organization really needs him if they want to go deep into the post season. The other change was to get an up and down Madison Bowey a view from the press box so he can course correct some of his recent turnover struggles. Inserted into his spot was Taylor Choreny, who had a relatively unimpressive 13:25 of action. #4 had no shot attempts, but he also had no official giveaways. He was on the ice for the Devils first tally and that was a result of one of his failed clears. I’d expect Bowey to be back in against the Canes on Tuesday.

Overall, this was a very tidy win for the Caps, who are really making home ice pay off for them. Coach Trotz gets the last change and the crowd definitely helps the energy level. For the first in time in over three weeks, they had more significantly more energy than their opponent in the early going and that fast start took a lot of hope from the Devils. Washington’s passing was much cleaner in this affair and that helped negate a New Jersey forecheck, as well as their speed. Djoos had a quality game, except for a turnover and poor coverage on Travis Zajac’s goal that made it 4-2 with 11 minutes left. Christian is definitely improving and that is another key to the Capitals potential post season success. #29 has the ability to step up with his speed and stop opposing rushes while creating offense the other way.

Notes: It was another post concussion quiet night from T.J. Oshie (+1), who logged only 12:10. The Osh Babe had one shot attempt (blocked) and it came after he passed up a great chance in the high slot…the Caps out shot attempted the Devils, 67-60…Carlson led the Caps in time on ice with 25:58. Dmitry Orlov continues to excel on the back end and he played 21:27, was +1, and had three hits…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 31-25. Jay Beagle was dominant, going 13-3. Backstrom (7-10) also had a couple of huge wins on draws in the last minute when the Devils pulled Schneider and it led to his empty net tally…the Caps gave former #90, Marcus Johansson, a warm reception in his first game back in DC and a nice video tribute to boot…with the win, Coach Trotz now sits fifth all time in NHL coaching victories with 737 (passed Lindy Ruff).

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Holtby Holds the Fort Until the Caps Offense Arrives

Posted on 12 December 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Coming off a dud of a performance on Long Island on Monday night, a 3-1 loss to New York at the Barclay Center, the Capitals came home on Tuesday to face a team, the Colorado Avalanche, which flat out smoked them in their last meeting back on November 16th, 6-2.

The young Avs, led by Nathan MacKinnon’s five points, used their speed and desire to totally destroy the Caps in the Mile High City on that Thursday night. On Monday evening, the surging Avalanche knocked off the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins in the Steel City, 2-1, and looked to improve on their surprising 14-13-2 record at Capital One Arena.

Coach Barry Trotz’ squad, however, had other ideas and they played a smart game structurally to slow the young Colorado team down to grind out a 5-2 victory that improves the Capitals to 19-12-1 (39 points) and back into a first place tie with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who were blitzed by the Edmonton Oilers, 7-2, in CBus on Tuesday. [Note: anyone have the 10 second clip of John Tortorella’s post game presser? LOL!]

This was not a pretty win, but it was a needed one, and several players stepped up to help deliver a well deserved two points and give Washington their eighth triumph in their last 10 games.

With that let’s get right to my thoughts, highlights, and analysis of this tilt:

Braden Holtby (22 saves) continues to be the Caps MVP. The team’s biggest problem lately has been puck management as NBC Sports Washington analyst, Alan May, calls it. There are just too many poor passes and bad decisions going on out on the ice for this club right now. Case in point, in the second period in a 1-1 game, Brooks Orpik possesses the puck at his own blue line with a defender barreling down on him and #44 has no real passing option because all four of the other Capital players are on the other side of the ice, and most of them are up the rink. There’s no left wing in sight and the center is floating on the far boards. Instead of eating the puck there and waiting for help, Orpik goes cross ice with it and the result is a Colin Wilson breakaway. Fortunately for every one of the Caps out there, the Holtbeast made a right arm/body save on Wilson to keep the game tied. It was a HUGE stop at a key time in a game that the Capitals were very sloppy in up until that point. Braden made several other big saves in this contest, but none bigger than that one and once again you can point to his play as a major reason the Capitals were victorious. For the season, Holtby is now 17-7-0. His .918 save percentage is also pretty darned good considering he’s playing behind a very young defense after several key personnel losses in the off season due to the expansion draft (Nate Schmidt) and the tight salary cap (Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk). All hail the Holtbeast, once again! If you don’t think he’s playing well, then you should go watch another sport, this guy is one of the top goaltenders in the NHL and is performing better than his Vezina trophy winning season, in my opinion, as well as a couple of other guys who know their puck that cover this hockey club.

Speaking of performing really well, on the back end the Caps received superb outings from both John Carlson (1 goal and +2 in 21:10) and Dmitry Orlov (+1 in 23:39). Carlson’s hammer of a shot (3rd goal of the season) late in the second period after he came off of the bench on a change gave the Caps the 2-1 lead they would take to period three and expand on. Carly took two penalties in this affair, but overall, he’s been dominant on the back end no matter who he has been paired with this season. #74 is due a nice long term contract extension with the Caps for his play, especially since number one defensemen aren’t easy to find. As for Orlov, this guy is really playing sensational at both ends of the rink. He’s physical when needed on the boards and his breakouts are such a key to Washington’s offense. He had no points on Tuesday night, but if you go back and break his shifts down, he was a major reason that MacKinnon was nowhere to be found in this game. #9’s progression over the last 12 months has been amazing and big credit goes to Dima and assistant coach Todd Rierden.

Continuing on the back end, Madison Bowey had his second two assist game in 14:36 of ice time. His feed to Brett Connolly on a delayed penalty call on the Avalanche allowed #10 to get off his great shot, a one-timer, that he rifled into the cage for a 3-1 advantage with 14:45 remaining. #22 continues to mature at the NHL level. His game is ascending and that will be very important to the Caps in the second half of the season and hopefully into the playoffs. Christian Djoos is also on the uptick, especially in his own end. The kid played 16:25 and was +1 in this affair. #29 is a very good puck mover, but what has really impressed me lately is his defensive zone positioning. Again, credit the player and the coaching staff, who have proven that they can properly develop young defensemen.

Up front, let’s start with the grinders, the fourth line. I loved the game that Devante Smith-Pelly brought to the rink. He was physical and moving his feet. He also made smart decisions with the puck by getting it deep over and over and making Colorado struggle to get the puck out of their end. His linemates, Jay Beagle and Chandler Stephenson, also worked hard in this affair, something we saw from very few Capitals against the Islanders in Monday night’s debacle. That line all played at least 14 minutes each and it was fitting that DSP scored his fifth goal of the season into the empty net with 45 seconds left, after a nice pass from Stephenson. Beagle and Smith-Pelly combined for seven of the Capitals 27 shots on net in the victory. Those guys were skating hard and Coach Trotz rightly rewarded them with additional ice time.

Holtby, Carlson, and Orlov have been big drivers in the Caps hot streak, along with the first line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Tom Wilson, but if Evgeny Kuznetsov (three assists) and Jakub Vrana (goal) don’t completely turn their games around after the earlier Colorado loss (Vrana was a healthy scratch) and abysmal effort against the Flames, the Capitals don’t have multiple lines that can score. The Kuznetsov and Vrana duo has been red hot and with the top line playing well on most nights (although they were just okay against the Avs), that second line needs to produce and they’ve done so, even without T.J. Oshie for the last four tilts. Vrana’s speed really opens things up on the ice, especially because he’s driving towards the net, and Kuzy continues to make the right pass versus shoot decisions, something he was not doing consistently well for the first six weeks of the season. #92’s play to set up #13 for the first goal was just pure confidence with the puck and he drew both Avs to him so that he could feed Jakub for the top shelf peanut butter shot past former Capital Semyon Varlamov (22 saves). His last helper at 16:19 of the 3rd frame to make it 4-1, to Matt Niskanen, was a thing of beauty. After Andre Burakovsky knocked Erik Johnson off of the puck in a four on four situation, Kuzy grabbed the disc and drove the net. He then froze the Avs defender by faking like he was going to pull the biscuit back and then he slid it behind the defensemen to a wide open Nisky, who buried it for his second goal of the season (and second in three games).

Finally, another thing that really helped the Capitals win this one was their penalty killing. The Caps were a perfect four for four in 6:25 of shorthanded time and they DID NOT ALLOW A SHOT ON GOAL. Those kills were huge because Colorado, on their first three power plays, either had a chance to tie the game or take the lead. Wilson was excellent with his skating on the PK as were the other three forwards, Lars Eller, Alex Chiasson, and Beagle. Orpik was also really good keeping Colorado on the perimeter in his team leading 4:35 of shorthanded time.

In summary, this was not a win with style points, there are none in hockey, but the Caps did what they needed to prevail. Their goaltender and grinding fourth line prevented Colorado from gaining any momentum until the superior skill of the Capitals took over in the third period.

Notes: Connolly’s goal was his fourth in the last six games. He is going to the right places on the rink to receive great feeds and burying the biscuit with his excellent shot. He’s up to six goals now and with Burakovsky back, he and Eller will hopefully take off like that same 3rd line did last January…Oshie skated again on Tuesday for the 3rd straight day and will likely practice on Friday (the Caps are off on Wednesday and head to Beantown to face the Bruins on Thursday night). If the Osh Babe does well out at that practice, then there is a good chance he’ll be in the lineup against the Ducks on Saturday night at 8 pm (who will be without the injured Corey Perry)….the Caps won the face-off battle, 27-24. Eller was 8-4…shot attempts were 56-55 for Colorado…the Capitals had 16 giveaways to just six for Colorado. Puck management needs to improve going forward! There are too many bad passes by Washington players, especially in their own end…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 25:05…the Caps had 24 hits and Smith-Pelly led the team with four. He was a work horse on Tuesday.

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Tom Wilson’s Late Game Eruption Leads the Caps over the Rangers

Posted on 08 December 2017 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals scored a goal just 14 seconds into the game and then tallied twice in the last four minutes to knock off the New York Rangers, 4-2, at Capital One Arena on Friday night.

The victory, the Caps seventh in their last eight games, was their fourth straight on a five game home stand against some very good hockey clubs. The triumph improves Washington to 18-11-1 (37 points) and they are now tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets for first place in the Metropolitan Division. CBus has a game in hand (18-10-1), though.

Tom Wilson took over this hockey game late setting up the winning goal by Matt Niskanen and then adding an insurance marker at 18:28 after the Rangers had clawed their way back into this affair from a 2-0 hole. Nicklas Backstrom notched Washington’s second goal after a bad turnover by Michael Grabner midway through period two, beating Henrik Lundqvist (36 saves) with some top shelf cheese. For the night, the Caps top trio of Alex Ovechkin (1 assist), Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist), and Willy (1 goal, 1 assist) were +3 and a major reason why they won the game. Ovi hit the post late on an empty net attempt, so it could’ve easily been plus four.

That line, which was dynamite against Chicago and has been since they were put together by Coach Barry Trotz, had 19 of the Caps 67 shot attempts. They are physical and relentless on the fore check. Wilson had six hits and as #19 stated in his television interview between periods, #43 opens up space on the ice for Ovi and Backy and they are using their talents to make the opposition pay.

Jay Beagle opened the scoring on the game’s very first shift after Chandler Stephenson knocked the puck away from former Capital Kevin Shattenkirk on the left wing boards in the offensive zone. Devante Smith-Pelly swooped in to grab the disc and then fed Beags streaking to the net in the right slot area. #83 smartly shot quickly and it beat Lundqvist.

Washington would continue to play well the remainder of opening frame and they fired 17 shots on King Henrik, who kept his club in this one. Braden Holtby (27 saves) also was very solid to start this tilt stopping all nine shots he faced, but at least a handful of them were really good opportunities.

In the second period, the Caps ran into turnover problems, once again. They continually made poor decisions coming out of their own end and in the neutral zone. Too often the puck was going east-west instead of north-south. The Capitals lucked out, though. They didn’t have much sustained pressure for the first 11 minutes of the stanza, but then Grabner’s turnover was an early Christmas gift for Backstrom and the Caps.

Washington looked like they might escape the first 40 minutes up two pucks, but then Niskanen was hesitant with the puck and it was stolen from him leading to an easy tally in the slot for Grabner with 57 seconds to go in period two. It was a really shaky period by the Caps, they were outshot, 13-8, and Backstrom was clearly not happy while doing his interview between the second and third periods.

Coach Trotz’s crew actually played a very strong game in the last 20 minutes, overall. Yes, there were more turnovers, but they were up 10-4 in shots on goal yet the game became tied when Jesper Fast scored on a pass from former Capital Paul Carey with 10:23 left. Carey outworked Madison Bowey for the puck behind Washington’s net and when Brooks Orpik didn’t cover Fast tightly, #17 received the puck from Carey and fired a shot through #44, who was screening his goaltender.

At that point, one had to figure the Capitals would sag and the Rangers would gain momentum and energy and find a way to win.

Give the Capitals credit, though, they didn’t turtle and they amped their game up with five more shots on net. Wilson was the difference maker using his speed and size to go around the Rags defense twice. Top line Tom now has five goals and 10 assists in 30 games.

There were things to really like in this game, such as the Caps putting 40 shots on Lundqvist and Washington’s domination on faceoffs (34-20). The Capitals are successful when they are putting pucks and bodies to the cage, and they did both of those things well on Friday. Evgeny Kuznetsov had six shots on goal and his line with Jakub Vrana and Alex Chiasson played pretty well despite being on the ice for both Ranger tallies. Vrana is going to the net and using his speed and it’s great to see. Kuzy is shooting the puck and opening up the ice. #39 is just a fill in until T.J. Oshie, who was hurt Monday by Jumbo Joe Thornton,  can get back in the lineup, but that doesn’t sound imminent given that the Osh Babe is still not even skating.

Andre Burakovksy returned to the ice after missing 20 games with a fractured thumb playing on a line with Brett Conolly and Lars Eller. Burky played 14:08 and was clearly trying to shake off the rust, but Coach Trotz will need that trio going when Washington takes on the Islanders in New York on Monday night.

There are still things to clean up in the Capitals play, the turnovers need more attention, but when they put out the effort and move their feet, they dominate on the ice. They also don’t get into penalty trouble when they have the wheels going and on Friday, the Blueshirts only had three man advantage situations. Washington killed off all of them while the Rangers did the same to the Caps on their four power plays.

This game was decided at even strength and the Capitals, thanks to their top line and the Holtbeast, prevailed.

Notes: John Carlson once again led the Caps in ice time with 25:52. Niskanen was a close second at 24:04. Bowey (10:34) and Christian Djoos (9:21) only had a dozen and 11 shifts, respectively…Eller was 10-5 on face-offs…Tyler Graovac cleared waivers and was sent to Hershey, along with Travis Boyd, to make roster and salary cap room for Burakovsky…Carlson had seven shots on goal. He’s playing extremely well and with the NHL announcing that next season’s salary cap will increase to between $78M and $82M you can bet that General Manager Brian MacLellan will be working on a long term deal for the Caps best blue liner. The Caps are now five points up on the Rangers, but they have two games in hand…per NBCSW, the Capitals are 38-1-6 lifetime when Beagle scores a goal.

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Holtby and Kuznetsov Help Caps Squeak by Columbus

Posted on 03 December 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Jeff Spicoli: Woah, you’re gonna flunk me?

Mr. Hand: Don’t worry Spicoli. You’ll probably squeak by.

On Saturday night against the young and hard working Columbus Blue Jackets, the Washington Capitals played a Jeff Spicoli-like hockey game. They squeaked by with two points, primarily due to their all world goaltender, Braden Holtby.

The Caps stormed out of the gate, against a CBus squad that had played and won the night before, thanks to some great forechecking and smart hockey. Brett Connolly and Alex Chiasson scored two markers from the slot before the game was 130 seconds old and it looked as if Coach Barry Trotz’ crew was going to lay a woodshed beating on the Blue Jackets.

That would not be the case.

Columbus outworked Washington over the last 15 minutes of the opening frame, but couldn’t dent the Holtbeast (32 saves) despite several quality chances. Coach John Tortorella’s squad carried that momentum into the middle frame and cut the deficit to one after a brutal Capitals turnover gave Artemi Panarin an easy back door tally. The Blue Jackets kept churning and the Caps kept giving the puck away, but #70 held the fort.

At about the game’s midpoint, the guys in red starting playing again and they nearly extended their lead. They looked poised to do that when they received a power play with less than five minutes to go in period two. After a face off win, John Carlson (two assists) blasted one from the point that may have been tipped by T.J. Oshie, but it hit the post. Columbus then went the other way and Mike Foligno was robbed by Holtby in a one on one sequence. Soon thereafter, Oshie made a poor pass to Nicklas Backstrom in his own end and Brandon Dubinsky gathered in the loose change and fed Matt Calvert in the slot. Calvert quickly deposited it by a screened Holtby with 3:32 left before the second intermission.

Suddenly the game was tied and Columbus had all of the momentum. Dmitry Orlov then drew a blatant holding call on Boone Jenner with 48 ticks left in period two. Washington needed just all of 10 seconds to regain the lead. Evgeny Kuznetsov made a great read and steal of a Columbus pass behind their net after a Jackets face off win and fed Backstrom on the right wing half wall. #19 moved it to #74 at the top of the point, who slid it to Alex Ovechkin in his office, and the Gr8 beat Sergei Bobrovsky (19 saves) short side for a key goal. That marker was Ovi’s 19th of the season (tied for the league lead with Nikita Kucherov of Tampa).

The Caps came out in period three and put the early pedal to the medal. Oshie had a nice zone entry and after stopping inside the blue line, he fed a charging Kuznetsov coming into the offensive zone. Carlson jumped up in the play and was heading to the net. Somehow #92 got the puck to Carlson and he tapped it back to Kuzy, who then put it into the vacant cage to make it 4-2 with 18:52 left in the contest.

With Columbus having played on Friday and then traveling to DC, one would think they’d be tired and go away, right? Not so fast. Coach Tortorella’s crew kept coming in waves into the Caps end, but somehow Braden made some amazing stops, including an all world glove save on Cam Atkinson, and then he got a great goal line clear from Jay Beagle to preserve a 4-3 victory.

The win improves Washington’s record to 15-11-1 (31 points) and puts them just four points in back of first place Columbus in the Metropolitan Division.

Here’s my thoughts and analysis of an important Caps victory.

The Holtbeast was the reason Washington won this game, plain and simple. The Capitals, while scoring four goals, were largely inept with the puck in this affair. It was turnover city in their own end and Oshie, Backstrom, Orlov, and Ovechkin were all guilty of terrible giveaways. Ovechkin (cross ice from his own end) and Oshie had especially bad ones in period three that need cleaning up going forward. For most of the game, the Caps were soft on their breakouts and the weak bump backs to the defensemen or soft chips from the winger to the center of the ice were time after time stolen by a young, hungry, well coached, and talented Columbus team. For some reason, the Capitals didn’t adjust and it resulted in numerous quality chances for the Blue Jackets. In the final frame it was all CBus as they outshot the Caps, 17-3. Tortorella’s well conditioned and youthful squad looked like the more rested club despite the actual schedule. Washington continually made poor decisions with the puck as they came across the blue line and they are lucky that Holtby flat out saved their asses.

That start, though, was totally awesome. Coach Trotz juggled his bottom six and it paid off. Connolly, who had been scratched for two games, was put back in. Tyler Graovac was sent to the press box and Nathan Walker, who only played seven games all season, was lost to Edmonton for minimal cash via the waiver wire (the Caps hoped to sneak him through to Hershey to get some playing time). Lars Eller, who had been struggling, was put with Connolly and Chandler Stephenson on the third line and they got the ball rolling early. Orlov made his best play of the night, a nice carry in to the offensive zone, enabling the Caps to set up a cycle situation. Eller received the puck on the right wing boards from Brooks Orpik and #20 found Connolly alone in the slot. With Stephenson in front of Bob, #10 one timed the biscuit home. It was a goal very reminiscent of Connolly’s tallies last season. This game was easily Brett’s best of the 2017-18 campaign. Gone were the lunging and reaching plays he’d been making most of the year and instead he was moving his feet and using his body to win puck battles. If he keeps that up, he will be successful like he was in 2016-17.

Washington’s second goal was just another case of getting pucks and bodies to the net. Matt Niskanen made a nice pinch in on the right wing boards and he fired a hard, low shot on Bobrovsky that bounced into the slot. Chiasson gathered the rebound in the high danger area and whipped it by #72 at the 2:06 mark. Those two goals were textbook smart hockey. Good things happen when you shoot and had Washington stuck to that recipe, it might have been “Just a walk in the park, Kazansky,” but the Caps reverted to bad form shortly afterwards.

On the good side, Kuznetsov continues to play well. He was Coach Trotz’s best forward in this one and since the Calgary game that’s been the case, consistently. Kuzy is not over passing and he’s shooting the puck. He’s now up to nine goals and his line, with Jakub Vrana and Oshie, is playing well. The Osh Babe needs to start shooting more, though. #13 has been using his speed to get to the net and open up lanes for his line mates. Jakub and Kuzy are a major reason the Caps have won four of their last five games. Orpik (assist, +2 in 22:40) was the Capitals best blue liner in this one, although Carlson had a good game, as well.

Many others on this club were flat out inconsistent on Saturday night. Niskanen, who has been mostly struggling all season, primarily due to missing 13 games with a hand injury, still does not look 100% healthy on the ice and the Capitals need their best blue liner from last season back in top form. Hopefully whatever is ailing him is taken care of here in the short term.

Washington has to lose the cross ice passes, especially when up two pucks in the third period. Aside from the many defensive zone blunders, there were too many times that the Capitals tried that fancy pass inside the offensive blue line instead of putting the puck on or behind the net. It was just bad hockey and you rarely see Columbus make those mistakes. They are a very impressive team and, at this point, I have to make them the favorites to win the Metro division because they are structured and play hard. Columbus certainly deserved a better fate on Saturday, but goaltending was the difference.

On Monday night the Caps will take on the San Jose Sharks, a team who routinely whips their butts. If the Caps play like they did on Saturday against Columbus, it will be another blowout by the guys in teal and black. Holtby can’t keep nearly single handedly winning games for the Caps, this team has to get back to consistently playing the right way, like they did in the three affairs sandwiched around Thanksgiving.

Sneaking by may have cut it for Spicoli at Ridgemont High and for the Caps on Saturday night against Columbus, but that method is a long term recipe for failure.

Coach Trotz’s crew needs to say “Aloha” to the turnovers and poor decisions and get back to playing hard, intelligent hockey.

Notes: Washington won the face off battle, 37-23. Beagle, who lifted Panarin’s stick to stave off the tying goal, was 10-2. Backstrom was 13-8…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 24:55, but Carlson logged 24:42…Madison Bowey, who struggled in Thursday’s bad loss to the Kings, only played 10:21. Rookie Christian Djoos only received 12:41 of time. It’s a learning process for both young blue liners…Stephenson was rocked by a Seth Jones hit in period one. He played in the first 40 minutes, but left before the 3rd period with an upper body injury and is day to day…Ovechkin and Backstrom were both -2…once again, Holtby’s glove save on Cam Atkinson late in the game was unbelievable. Braden made a ton of Ten Bell saves in this affair. All hail the Holtbeast!

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Grubauer Stops Tampa to Earn his 1st Victory of 2017-18

Posted on 25 November 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Anyone who follows my blogs or twitter feed (@EdFrankovic), which is all about hockey, knows that I’ve been staunch in defending the talent level of the Washington Capitals despite their recent off season personnel losses due to expansion and the salary cap. My main question, however, so far in this 2017-18 season, has been about their work ethic and attention to detail.

On Wednesday night against the Ottawa Senators, much like their recent wins over the Penguins and Wild, the Capitals brought the effort and focus and succeeded with a big victory.

The latest question, though, is would they be able to duplicate that type of great effort in their next game against a very good opponent?

Friday evening against the best team in the NHL, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Caps proved that they could do just that. Washington gave up an early power play tally just 82 seconds into the contest after a very weak and bogus hooking call on Brooks Orpik. Yanni Gourde should probably be nominated for an Academy award after his dive gave his club a man advantage opportunity. The best player in the NHL, Nikita Kucherov, shot the puck on the ensuing power play and it bounced off of the pants of Vladislav Nemestnikov and past Philipp Grubauer for an early lead for the Bolts.

At that point, you had to wonder how the Capitals would react. Grubaeur, whose 26th birthday is on Saturday, had yet to win a game this season despite some strong efforts, including a 4-3 overtime loss to Tampa back on October 9th. In many of those affairs, which were the latter of half of back to back contests, the team in front of him had little energy and didn’t provide much offensive support.

But this game was a different circumstance and Washington was undeterred after the early Bolts tally and brought a maximum effort for the full 60 minutes. The result was a very impressive 3-1 win over Tampa and gave Grubi his first triumph of the season. Grubauer made several quality stops in this tilt and his teammates played like there was no way they were going to let Tampa take this contest.

Simply put, it was great hockey by the Capitals and shows that when they decide to work and stick to the system, they can play with anyone in the NHL.

Alex Ovechkin (15th goal), Devante Smith-Pelly, and Jay Beagle (empty net) all scored for Washington in this game, one in which the Capitals never let up and dominated the majority of the play. The Caps outshot the Bolts, 38-26, and they had a lot of quality scoring chances. After it was 1-0, the Capitals generated several great opportunities to tie the game, but as has been their issue for several years now, they over passed the puck and failed to capitalize on those chances. T.J. Oshie had a couple of golden opportunities, but the Osh Babe uncharacteristically passed when he should’ve shot.

The Caps finally evened things up with 1:24 remaining in the opening frame when they converted on a three on two rush. The great Nicklas Backstrom carried the puck up the middle of the ice and he dished it to his right as they crossed the offensive blue line. Tom Wilson received that pass and with #19 heading straight to the net, the passing lane to Ovechkin opened up and Willy put it perfectly on the Gr8’s stick. Ovi then made no mistake about depositing the puck into the cage.

Washington would keep pressing the play getting the better of the scoring chances, but Tampa had their share, as well, only to be thwarted by Grubauer.

What happened next was karma for the hard work displayed by all 18 Caps skaters in this contest. Dmitry Orlov spotted Smith-Pelly open up the middle of the ice and he fed #25 just before the Tampa blue line. Smith-Pelly carried the puck into the offensive zone and quickly dished it to his left to Beagle. DSP then made a bee line to the front of the net and the very smart Beagle shot the biscuit. The puck hit Bolts goalie Andrei Vasilevksiy in the pads and bounced right to Johnny on the spot, Smith-Pelly, for a sweet rebound goal with 5:24 to go in the middle frame. It was simple and solid hockey and it was exactly what the Capitals needed to seize the lead against a very good Tampa squad.

In the third period, Washington kept the pressure up and didn’t sit back. They finally were able to clinch the victory when Beagle hit the empty net with 2:08 remaining.

This hard earned victory improved the Caps record to 13-10-1 (27 points) and they’ll head to the Big Smoke on Saturday for a date at the Air Canada Centre against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It wasn’t a fancy or pretty win, but it was a very good one as the Caps worked hard for 60 minutes and didn’t let Tampa seize any real momentum. Sure the Bolts scored first, but Washington played great hockey and deserved this victory, the Capitals second one in a row and their third in four games.

Now they have to head to Toronto to try and sweep their first set of back to back games this season. If they put in the effort they displayed on Friday evening, they should finally get the job done.

Notes: Grubauer stopped 25 of the 26 shots he faced…Braden Holtby will get the start on Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada…the Caps destroyed Tampa at the dot going 40-18. Beagle was 14-3…Tampa had the shot attempt advantage at 68-64…Ovechkin had 14 shot attempts, including nine on net. He now has 15 goals in 24 games (51 goal pace). He looks much more comfortable playing with Backstrom (cue Reunited by Peaches and Herb)…Matt Niskanen played his best game of the season logging a team leading 24:30 and he was a +3…Lars Eller had five shots on goal and was 9-2 in draws…Tampa was 1 for 3 on the power play while the Capitals went 0 for 3.

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