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Connolly SCF

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Caps Championship Thoughts and More Breakdown Day Coverage

Posted on 14 June 2018 by Ed Frankovic

It’s been exactly a week since the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup and the vibe I’ve been getting around the DMV is that people are still basking in the afterglow of the victory and are dying for more information and news on the team. It’s pretty apparent that this group of players, coaches, training staff, and managers will be heroes, at least in this part of the country, for the rest of their lives. Owner Ted Leonsis and Team President Dick Patrick have put their heart and soul, plus a lot of money, into this organization over the years and are finally being rewarded with a Championship.

Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby, Coach Barry Trotz, and the others on this team have silenced the critics with this amazing season that included a Metropolitan Division title, when most people had them barely getting into the post season or not making it at all. Once game three of the Columbus series began, they went on an incredible 16-6 run in which they overcame a games deficit in all four rounds to capture Lord Stanley’s Cup. It was a remarkable display of grit, toughness, perseverance, and desire to do what had never been done by the franchise before.

There were many moments along the way where they seemed destined to fail, but somehow found a way to push through. Columbus hits the post in game three of the first overtime that would’ve given them a 3-0 series lead before Lars Eller’s magical goal off of a Brett Connolly shot. Tom Kuhnhackl hits the post in overtime of game six before Evgeny Kuznetsov takes that super pass from Ovechkin to finally slay the Penguins dragon. The Caps give up a two game series lead to Tampa with three straight losses, but shut out the Bolts over the final 159 minutes of the series to storm into the Cup Final. In game two of the Stanley Cup Final, with 1:59 remaining and a one goal lead, the Holtbeat makes “The Save” on Alex Tuch to prevent overtime and propel Washington to four straight wins and hockey’s ultimate prize.

It was clear that the tightness of this team provided the foundation that allowed them to rise up and seize the critical moments in the postseason that the Washington Capitals had never done before, in any era. It was legendary, that’s the best way for me to describe it and as each moment since has transpired, I am appreciating more and more what they’ve accomplished. Many in Caps Nation surely feel the same way. Thank you, 2018 Washington Capitals.

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Wednesday was breakdown day at Kettler IcePlex, as I chronicled yesterday in this blog, but as promised, below is the transcript of a one on one exclusive interview WNST was able to obtain with Connolly, who came to Washington in 2016 looking for an opportunity after stints with Tampa and Boston, and has completely seized it.

WNST: You’ve been telling me for two years since you’ve been here that you guys have a good team, but the way you guys played and came together, that was amazing.

Connolly:  Yeah, it was amazing, such a good group, such a committed group, such a highly skilled group. We really just came together at the right time, especially after that Pittsburgh series where we first really believed we could win this. It’s such a big moment for all of us, we’re all just so happy that we could ultimately get this done for all of our fans, for our families, it was such a special moment.

WNST: Coach Trotz told us when he came out to Baltimore that this team this year, whenever he asked someone to move around in the lineup, that he received no push back. That seems to really speak to the type of team you had this year?

Connolly: Yeah, I think you have to be playing the guys that are playing well, whether you’re a veteran guy or a rookie guy, it doesn’t matter. I think we were just cheering for whoever was in, whoever was getting more ice time that night. If a guy wasn’t playing well we’d pick him up, he’d ultimately change his game and they’d figure it out. It was just a good environment to be in, everyone was playing their best hockey at the right time of the year.

WNST: The way you, Jakub Vrana, and Andre Burakovsky played in the playoffs, all three of you guys have always had high skill, but the way the three of you took the body, were in the proper position on the walls, it seemed like that was the biggest jump you guys made and was a big part of the team’s success. Would you agree with that?

Connolly: Yes, I think so. I think I got a little taste of [the playoffs] last year, I didn’t play a whole lot, there were a lot of other guys deserving of that chance and I just wasn’t, but I think I got a little confidence from that, just knowing what to expect. I think we all really just played solid, just did what was asked of us, we didn’t really care. I think overall a lot of our games got better throughout the playoffs. It was ultimately why a lot of us were successful and had good stats and helped the team win.

WNST: It seems like every time an obstacle was thrown at you guys, you overcame it. First one, game three against Columbus, you score a goal that would’ve made it 2-0, it comes back on an offside, but on the game winning goal in double overtime, you make a smart play by shooting quickly and the puck goes in off of Lars Eller for the team’s first win.

Connolly: Simple, but that’s the playoffs, really simple. I had a couple of those in the postseason, just need a break sometimes and I just tried to shoot it as quick as I could and as hard as I could. You know we were earning all of our breaks in the playoffs, we were working for each other and I think we legitimately deserved everything we got.

WNST: The last goal of the Stanley Cup playoffs, you didn’t score the goal, but it was your shot, with again Lars going to the net. This team did that the whole playoffs.

Connolly: Yeah, just the same thing. Lars was hungry all playoffs, he’s a guy that’s going to the net all of the time. He really, really elevated his game the whole playoffs. Really awesome to see, he really turned a lot of heads. Such a big moment for the city, for me, him, and Burkie, whoever was on the ice, at that point.

WNST: You’ve been here two years, I grew up here, I’ve been around this team for 44 years. I don’t know how much you realize what legends you guys are going to be around this area to finally bring a Cup here. This team was gone in 1982, but for the Save the Caps. Then in 2004 it is gone again if Ovi doesn’t comes along. You guys now go and win a Cup and have put it over the top.

Connolly: It’s pretty cool. We saw the support at the parade. People are on cloud nine and it’s amazing to see everybody so happy. It’s really cool to be a part of something like that. To put so many smiles on so many people’s faces. There’s been so much good support the last couple of years I’ve been here, but that parade was insane and it was something that I’ll never forget and a lot of guys will never forget.

WNST: What are you going to do with the Cup?

Connolly: I’m going to go home to British Columbia, Prince George, just take it around town. I don’t know what we’ll do, but just try to get as many people to see it as possible.

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Connolly is definitely one of the better interviews on the team and I’ve appreciated his insight since he joined the Caps last season. He has worked hard to improve and he’s made General Manager Brian MacLellan and his scouting staff look super smart for bringing him to town. Kudos, Brett.

In yesterday’s blog, I failed to mention that Kuznetsov’s injury from the Brayden McNabb hit in game two was to his left shoulder. Fortunately, Kuzy is a smaller version of the Russian Machine that Never Breaks and came back in game three to lead his team to victory with an outstanding performance. All season long, in this blog and in my radio sessions with WNST owner Nestor Aparacio, I showered number 92 with tough love. He is an immensely talented hockey player who I knew, if he took his game to another level and played the right way, would be such a key to the Capitals finally breaking through into the later rounds of the playoffs. Boy did he do just that, and more. Evgeny led all players in scoring in the playoffs and he delivered when the team really needed him to do so. He has moved himself from the very good category to the elite/superstar level with his postseason performance. He earned every bit of the $7.8M he received from the Caps this past season.

The Caps now have a short turnaround for training camp, which will start around September 10th or so. It’s already June 14th, so there will be less time to get ready. Jay Beagle, who has won championships at the ECHL, AHL, and now the NHL level did point out that the short time to get ready isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Beags said that in the three summers following his ECHL and two AHL triumphs, he was more motivated to train and that he didn’t have to work hard to prevent losing focus like he’s done when the team has been eliminated earlier in the spring. So it would appear that this summer the Caps players do have that going for them….which is nice.

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Ovi Cup Screenshot

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Caps Breakdown Day News, Nuggets, and Analysis

Posted on 13 June 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals held breakdown day on Wednesday afternoon and it was obviously the best one ever, given that this year’s session followed the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup victory. The players were clearly tired from two grueling months of hockey and then the post triumph celebrations, but were extremely happy.

Here are some of the major takeaways from the day at Kettler IcePlex:

Alexander Ovechkin, now clean cut thanks to his Gillette sponsorship, is a very happy man, and rightly so. The victory has clearly brought back the old Ovi that we saw when he was younger before some of the angry and hating national and even local media constantly crushed him forcing him to withdraw some of the best sides of his personality from public view. On Wednesday, the Gr8 answered questions for 30 minutes going above and beyond the call of duty. Ovi started by stating “I still can’t believe we won, I still can’t believe we did it. Right now we are realizing how special this win was.” He also added that “We lost some key guys last year, but all of the new guys played unbelievable.” Ovi noted that this was the best team he ever played on and whenever someone got hurt, felt bad, or were suspended, people stepped up. “It was a special group.” He also praised former General Manager George McPhee for “drafting half of the group” and ended with a very classy “Thanks George for what you did here.”

Nicklas Backstrom suffered two fractures in his right index finger in game five against Pittsburgh. He said he will not need surgery. Clearly Nicky was still hurting when he came back in the lineup after missing four games and to perform the way he did with that injury – shutting down the other team’s top center in each of the Tampa and Vegas series – is the stuff of legends. Backy will have his Cup celebration in his hometown in Sweden.

Brooks Orpik injured his hand in game two of the Columbus series and also had the tip of his right pinky finger detached when Erik Haula violently slashed him at the end of game two in the Stanley Cup final. Despite the injuries, Orpik played some of his best hockey in this postseason. When asked about the improvement in his skating this past season, Brooks noted that he is always tweaking his off season training regimen to seek improvement, but he also pointed out this was the first season in a few years where he did not have any ailments that impacted his wheels. Orpik told me he’d find out on Friday if he needed surgery on his hand.

Coach Barry Trotz had initial new contract discussions with General Manager Brian MacLellan on Wednesday morning. The Stanley Cup winning coach says he wants to be back because he likes this group while also stating that the area and setup has been good for his family situation. When asked if the rest of the entire coaching staff would be back next year, he said that is unknown, at this time.

John “Big Game” Carlson has not had any contract talks with the Caps yet, but said he loves this team and would love to be back, but there are a lot of factors involved. He will be having his Stanley Cup celebration in the DC area (his wife is from the DMV). The Capitals have an advantage in negotiations since they can sign number 74 for eight years, while others can only offer seven campaigns. There is no doubt that “Big Game” is the number one offseason unrestricted free agent priority for MacLellan and the Caps. The salary cap number for 2018-19 will be out from the league on Monday, June 18th and the higher it goes, the better it is for Washington ($82M would be really nice). Backstrom, when asked about Carlson stated, “John Carlson just keeps getting better and better. It’s impressive. Hopefully he stays here.” I’ll say this now, just like I did about T.J. Oshie last year, Pay the Man! He’s a legitimate number one defenseman and easily in the top ten in the NHL, in my opinion. You don’t let stud blue liners like “Big Game” Carlson leave. Losing him would be close to the magnitude of the Scott Stevens departure back in 1990.

Defensemen Michal Kempny and Dmitry Orlov gave a lot of credit to assistant coach Todd Rierden for helping them improve their respective games. Kempny noted that he had little confidence when he came over in February in a trade from Chicago and that Rierden immediately helped him regain it. The Czech defensemen stated that he had some bad games in the postseason, but that Rierden was always there to give him some keys to turning things around in the next contest. Kempny, who was very vocal about coming back because the Caps have “a great group of players, coaches, and trainers,” is an unrestricted free agent and given that he played as the number four defensemen in the postseason, he’s high up on the contract pecking order for MacLellan and the Caps. He only has 103 games of NHL experience, so that could help keep his price lower (he made $900, 000 in 2017-18 and will get a decent raise). Orlov, who had his hand badly injured in the World Championships in the spring of 2014 and missed the entire first season of the Trotz era (2014-15), said he was unsure he’d ever be able to play again at a high level. Rierden has certainly helped Dima out, but I also give Orlov a ton of credit for constantly working and striving to be better. It’s amazing how far he’s come since the 2016 playoffs where he struggled against the Flyers and Penguins. He’s a quality blue liner that breaks the puck out of his own zone incredibly well.

Oshie said he hasn’t won much since he was younger, so this Stanley Cup victory has been very exciting. Courtesy of the great Tarik El-Bashir, T.J. said he was healthiest at the start of the Stanley Cup Final. He won’t require any procedures this offseason. The Osh Babe, who is one of the most positive people you’ll ever meet, told Tarik that “I didn’t even need Advil” as the SCF started.

Tom “Future Captain” Wilson noted that he played up and down the lineup this season, but said when he played 10 games straight with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, instead of just one or two, his game really took off. Willy talked at length about how close this team was (is), but credited former Cap Justin Williams for encouraging the team to have fun and said it helped loosen the team up and bond them. Top line Tommy says he’s loved his five years here, stated he’s always done whatever he can to help the team, but also said there will be an element of business this summer for him (he’s a restricted free agent). Like Orlov and Evgeny Kuznetsov and some others on this squad, it’s amazing how much they have improved in the four years this coaching staff has been in place. The players clearly get the majority of the credit, but you can’t discount the way the coaches have enabled these players to blossom.

On the netminding front, courtesy of Isabelle Khurshudyan of The Washington Post, MacLellan said Philipp Grubauer wants to be a number one goaltender, but he’d like to keep both Grubi and Braden Holtby, be he’s going to explore a trade for Grubauer so he can do his thing. There is no doubt that the Capitals don’t win the Metropolitan Division without the stellar play of number 31 this past season. You need two good goalies in this day and age in the NHL to make it to the postseason. If Grubauer, who is a restricted free agent departs via trade, there could be a big dropoff to third string, Phoenix Copley. 2015 1st round pick Ilya Samsonov will be coming over to North America to play this fall, but he’ll need time in Hershey to become acclimated to the smaller rink. Bottom line, the best scenario for the Caps is to keep Grubauer, but potential salary cap room and a good trade return will likely be too hard to pass up. Goaltending coach Scott Murray and his staff, to include Olie Kolzig, will need to really get the other goalies in the system ready quickly should the German keeper move on.

Jay Beagle, when asked why the Caps won this year, pointed out that the Capitals “built their game all year and peaked at the right time. In past years we peaked in December and Janaury and then tried to hold onto it.” When questioned about Ovechkin not letting go of the Cup very much since they won, he stated that Ovi is invited to his Cup celebration, but he doubted the Gr8 would come to the Beagle farm. On Trotz, number 83 said “He’s always been a great coach since he’s been here, has brought in great people around him, and I feel like we have been the most prepared team in the league.” The unrestricted free agent, who has now won championships at the ECHL, AHL, and NHL level, hasn’t had any contract discussions yet and stated “obviously, I have to wait until the big guys get settled first” before receiving an offer. The hard working total team guy stated he could wait until after July 1st and that he’d leave things up to MacLellan. When I asked him if he’d leave if some team came along and threw money at him, said he’d have to see what was best for his family. The fourth line center who is great on faceoffs and the PK made $1.75M in each of the last three seasons.

As I wrote in my Cup winning blog, players such as Brett Connolly, Jakub Vrana, and Andre Burakovsky really upped their compete level, especially on the physical side of the house, and were important factors in the Caps playoff run. Burakovsky told El-Bashir that after three hand injuries over the past couple of years that he plans to have a conversation with CCM this summer about getting more substantial gloves. He told Tarik that two of the injuries could’ve been avoided with more protection. Washington will need each of these three guys to continue to progress, as they’ve done so far under Lane Lambert’s tutelage, if they are going to have a chance to repeat. Connolly, who for two years has confidently told me that the Caps have a very good team, summed up why this Championship ultimately happened for this squad.

“It was amazing, such a good group, such a committed group, such a highly skilled group. We really just came together at the right time, especially after that Pittsburgh series where we first really said we could win this. It’s such a big moment for all of us, we’re all just so happy that we could ultimately get this done for all of our fans, for our families, it was such a special moment.”

That quote from Connolly really summed up this team, who will forever be legends around this area, in a nutshell.

Notes: Matt Niskanen, when asked about all of the celebrations, said “It was great to see Brooks Orpik let his hair down.” So many players mentioned how business like number 44 is and that they don’t often get to see that side of one of the biggest leaders on the Caps…Alex Chiasson, who scored a huge goal to open the scoring in the game six triumph that closed out the Penguins, was hoping to come back to the Caps next season, especially given his close friendship that he has developed with Ovechkin, which apparently started from playing cards on the plane together…Beagle is leaving town on Thursday and noted it would be good to get back to reality…I’ll post a full transcript of my exclusive one on one session with Connolly out at WNST.NET on Thursday night…Backstrom, when asked about the team possibly breaking up, “It sucks, but when you look back on this 10, 15 years from now, we’ll always have this special group.”

Photo credit to Jacquelyn Martin of the Associated Press.

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Caps win Cup

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Caps End 44-Year Drought With Stanley Cup Win

Posted on 08 June 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals have won the Stanley Cup!!!

Pardon my French, but 44 years of futility is freaking over!

There will be no more doubting Conn Smythe Trophy Award winner Alexander Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom or Braden Holtby or General Manager Brian MacLellan or Coach Barry Trotz or Brooks Orpik and on and on down the list of Washington Capitals players, coaches, and managers. This is truly an incredible group of people who bonded together and showed that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They have made a long suffering fan base very proud and the Baltimore-Washington area will NEVER EVER forget this cast of champions!

As for the Stanley Cup clinching game itself, WOW!

The Caps jumped out to 1-0 and 2-1 leads, saw Vegas tie the game on a tally that sure looked like goalie interference and then surge ahead very late in period two with a power play goal. The Golden Knights had a 3-2 advantage after 40 minutes in a very hotly contested physical affair and had their eyes on sending things back to Capital One Arena down just three games to two.

Previous Washington teams might’ve folded, at that point, and started contemplating that game six in DC on Sunday night, but not the 2018 Washington Capitals. This club came out with a passion in period three and fought tooth and nail to get the equalizer, which came from an incredible individual effort by Devante Smith-Pelly to notch his 7th goal of the postseason after Orpik made an outstanding keep in at the offensive blue line to set the tally up. That marker came with 10:08 remaining and the Caps kept the hammer down.

With 7:37 to go, Luca Sbisa turned the puck over to Andre Burakovsky behind his own net and Burkie fed Brett Connolly alone in the slot. Conno fired on net and the puck squeezed through Marc-Andre Fleury’s pads and Lars Eller, who applied the fore check pressure to set up the turnover after a smart dump in by Michal Kempny, grabbed the disc and deposited it into the cage for what would be the first ever Stanley Cup clinching goal for the Capitals and his seventh of the post season, as well.

Imagine that, sevens were wild in the third period, in Vegas??!!

Washington had 13 of the first 18 shots on goal in period three to storm the castle and take a 4-3 lead.

From there, the Capitals went into their 1-1-3 defensive posture and really didn’t give Vegas any quality chances, despite six Golden Knights shots on goal. Any attempts that made it through were gobbled up by Holtby (28 saves), who kept this a one goal game early in period three by gloving a top shelf wrister from David Perron in the slot. It was a big stop and nearly as important as “The Save” in game two, because if the Caps go down two pucks there, then a game six would very likely have occurred.

Backstrom (1 assist) had a chance to end the series with an empty net tally with under a minute to go, but somehow missed the cage invoking memories of Esa Tikkanen not scoring in game two of the 1998 Stanley Cup Final. But Nicky’s teammates wouldn’t allow the miss to bite the team in the rear and the Caps killed off the remainder of the clock and celebrated wildly when it was over, led by their very emotional captain.

This team won the Cup because it learned to play defense better than any other Capitals squad in the Ovechkin era. Washington listened to the coaching staff and walled off the front of their net regularly in the post season. They received outstanding goaltending from the Holtbeast, who along with Evgeny Kuznetsov (32 playoff points), could’ve won the Conn Smythe Trophy, based on their on ice production.

But the Gr8 (power play goal, his NHL leading 15th tally of the 2018 playoffs) definitely deserved the MVP trophy for his incredible leadership. Who can forget the Ovechkin line, “We’re going to Columbus to win two games and bring this series tied back to DC” in the first round? Time after time he scored the big goal (first goal in game 7 in Tampa) or made a great back check and pass to win a series (Pittsburgh, game 6) or blocked a shot and dove to clear a puck at an important juncture (SCF game two). Ovi led by example on and off of the ice. He made it clear before game five that the team shouldn’t be talking about celebrations or any of the stuff that comes with winning because they hadn’t won anything yet. Simply put, all playoffs long, Alex talked the talk and then backed it up by walking the walk.

Seeing his emotions as he was given the Cup from Commissioner Gary Bettman was incredible, then watching him skate around with Lord Stanley and pass it to Backstrom is a memory that Capitals fans will remember forever. Two players who former General Manager George McPhee drafted and built the franchise around finally made it to the promised land after 11 years of failures.

As Ovi and Nicky will tell you, this wasn’t about them, though, this was about a team that picked each other up through injuries, suspensions, mistakes, adversity, and questionable officiating along the way. You can go up and down the lineup and point to contributions each player made.

  • Kuznetsov dominated with his skating and became a superstar this spring. He took his game to a whole new level and backed up the big contract he received last summer.
  • T. J. Oshie did just about everything you could ask for from scoring big goals (see game six vs. Tampa), winning the vast majority of board battles, and playing great defense to close out games. The Caps don’t win the Cup without the Osh Babe. There’s a reason I blogged and tweeted “Pay the Man” throughout 2016-17.
  • Tom Wilson evolved into a complete player this campaign and “Top Line Willy” was just a wrecking ball and force all post season. He’s built for the playoffs.
  • John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmity Orlov, and trade deadline bargain Kempny played a lot of minutes on the blue line in four grueling series. “Big Game” Carlson showed how a number one defensemen should perform in the playoffs and I’ll say this again about him, “Pay the Man!” Niskanen was so solid and took the heat for he and Orlov’s rough game five in Tampa. That’s leadership, right there, and it took the pressure off of Dmitry, allowing Dima to get back on track quickly in game six.
  • Orpik was a team leading +17 in the post season and “Batya” had the key game winning goal in game two that turned the Stanley Cup Final around. For all of the grief the Corsi crew gives him, he thrived in the post season on defense, the PK, and he even chipped in offensively with five points.
  • Eller stepped up, especially when Backstrom broke his hand. He played second and third line center doing whatever was asked of him. The Capitals also don’t win the Cup without “Tiger.”
  • Jay Beagle was a beast on faceoffs all post season and a dominant force in all three zones. Nobody works harder than “Beags.”
  • Connolly (6 goals, 3 assists in the playoffs) was a totally different player from the guy who was scratched in the 2017 postseason by using his speed, great shot, and more importantly, his body to win puck and board battles.
  • Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky used their skill and speed to score or set up huge goals. Vrana had the critical game winner in game five against the Pens and Andre notched two huge breakaway tallies in game seven to defeat the Bolts. Those two guys learned to win board battles by adding a physical element to their game and that was critical to the team’s success. They became excellent playoff style hockey players, something this squad badly needed after the off season losses of forwards Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson to the top six.
  • Chandler Stephenson (7 playoff points) played up and down the lineup and used his superior speed to set up goals and make opposing defensemen lose confidence. He was also a key cog on the penalty kill.
  • Smith-Pelly notched big goal after big goal, with his game going to an incredible level in the Cup Final after a rough game one.
  • Christian Djoos took advantage of the downtime down the regular season stretch he endured due to Jakub Jerabek’s strong play to jump back in against Columbus in game three and become part of a quality third pair duo with Orpik.
  • Even forwards such as Alex Chiasson (goal in game six against Pittsburgh), Nathan Walker (assist in game six against Pittsburgh), and Travis Boyd contributed when the injury bug and suspension to Wilson hit against the Pens.

Yes, this was a special crew of players because of how they united and after two very shaky games against Columbus, bought in to what the outstanding coaching staff was selling to go on a remarkable run. Washington was 16-6 beginning with game three of the first round. The switch to Holtbeast was a game or two late for me, but perhaps it was meant to be so that the rest of the club could finally understand the way they needed to play to have the ultimate success?

Yes, it’s true, Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals are really Stanley Cup Champions!!

When is the parade??!!

Addendum

The ride was absolutely amazing and for me, this championship is extra special. As a nine year old boy in 1974, my father was in the sports journalism business at WLMD in Laurel and dragged me time and time again to Capital Centre to watch a terrible expansion team play a sport that quickly got my attention. It wasn’t until I was a senior in high school in 1983 that the Capitals finally made the playoffs thanks to David Poile, Rod Langway, Scott Stevens, and Bryan Murray. That’s when hockey became my favorite sport. From there I covered the team for the PG Post-Sentinel for a few years, meeting current WNST owner Nestor Aparacio in the process. That press box stint led to a Capitals team statistician position with Dr. Mike Herr and several other great people for 11 years. From 1986 to 1997 I traveled to games in Philly and everywhere in the playoffs with the team enjoying really great times while learning so much about hockey from great players such as Langway and Dale Hunter, and hockey personnel Jack Button, although I learned even more from his son, Tod. But there were so many heartbreaks along the way and several times it was to the Penguins, who won five Stanley Cups, defeating the Caps each time. In 2007, Nestor reached out to me and told me he was starting a WNST website and he wanted me to blog on it, doing whatever I wanted since I was someone he trusted and had inside access given my time with the Caps. Naturally I’ve turned that into this Caps blog and regular radio show sessions with Nestor. We’ve chronicled the highs and even more heartbreak since 2008 during the Ovechkin era. I was able to be on the ice in Hershey when Carlson, Beagle, and Holtby won the Calder Cup in 2010 (thanks John Walton!). But in 2014, I had seen enough of a bad culture and the lack of a cohesive team that led to me calling for the firing of Coach Adam Oates and GM McPhee, and the hiring of Trotz. Three years of crushing playoff defeats followed in the Trotz and GM Brian MacLellan era, but on July 3, 2017, I penned a “Caps are still a contender blog” despite the fact that many had written the GM, coach, and players off. Thankfully the GM, the coaches, and the guys on the ice delivered in a way that many hockey fans around this area will appreciate for the rest of their lives. I know I will, but most of all, I really appreciate my father, Ed, who will turn 80 on July 7th, for introducing me to the Capitals and the sport of hockey. Exchanging texts with him after the Capitals won the Cup was a very special moment for me and many of the people who reached out to me afterwards are great people that I’ve met along the way watching, working, covering, and just being around this great sport. I’ve made so many lifelong and life changing friends and people through hockey. I’d need numerous blogs to list all of them, you know who you are! I owe all of it to my father, so thanks Dad! I know you predicted back in 1974 that the Caps would sell out every game some day and they’d win a Stanley Cup. You are now correct on both counts!

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Holts Game 2 VGK

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Holtby, Eller, and Orpik lead Caps to a Gritty Game 2 Win

Posted on 31 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Braden Holtby made 37 saves, including what was likely the greatest stop in Caps history on Alex Tuch with 1:59 remaining, to lead the Washington Capitals to a 3-2 victory in game two of the Stanley Cup Final. The triumph evens the series up at one as things move to Capital One Arena for games three and four on Saturday and Monday, respectively.

Things started slowly again for the Capitals as they struggled with the swarming speed and intensity of Vegas. James Neal grabbed a flipped puck out of the air at the Caps defensive blue line away from Dmitry Orlov, who failed to get the disc with his glove, as well as the man. Neal skated in and beat the Holtbeast far side 7:58 into this affair. The shot appeared to change direction slightly when Michal Kempny put his stick into the shooting lane.

At 14:39 of period one, it would get worse for Washington. Brayden McNabb put a hard and slightly high hit on Evgeny Kuzentsov in the neutral zone and with Kuzy putting his arms up to brace himself for the collision he went down on the ice holding his left arm. Per Capitals PR, he suffered an upper body injury and was questionable to return, but never did. Afterwards Caps Coach Barry Trotz had no update on the Russian’s status, but did take issue with the contact stating that the league would look at it for potential supplemental discipline.

At that point, given Vegas’ series and game lead, the Capitals looked to be in big trouble. But this resilient Washington team seemed to be galvanized by the Kuznetsov injury and immediately began playing much better.

Nearly three minutes later, in a four on four situation with T.J. Oshie and Deryk Engelland in the box for roughing, the Caps tied things up. Lars Eller (one goal, two assists) won an offensive zone draw and pushed the puck to Andre Burakovsky in the right wing corner. Burkie hit Kempny in the high slot forcing Marc Andre-Fleury to come out and challenge. Kempny spotted Eller at the far post and the man nicknamed “Tiger” buried the great pass for the equalizer.

In the second frame, the Capitals seemed to find their game. Tuch was jailed for cross checking John Carlson in front of the Caps net at 5:13 and just 25 seconds later the Capitals grabbed the lead. Nicklas Backstrom fed Eller on the goal line to Fleury’s left. Lars then threaded a super pass through Fleury to Alex Ovechkin on the back side. The Gr8 used his great hands to get off a quick shot that hit the back of the Vegas goaltender and into the cage.

Just over four minutes later, Washington took its first two goal lead of the series. Burakovsky fed Eller on the rush and #20 drove to the middle of the ice in the offensive zone. Lars then made a superb dish to his right to Brooks Orpik, who was jumping up in the play. Orpik fired on net and with Brett Connolly battling with Tuch in front of Fleury, the puck hit the Vegas forward and the left post before crossing the goal line. The Washington players went nuts given the goal scorer, who had a 220 game goalless drought end. In addition to the long drought, “Batya” is who Coach Trotz referred to as the most respected player on the team, so everyone was excited when he tallied in a such a big game.

Shortly thereafter Jakub Vrana hit the post, otherwise it would’ve been 4-1. Vegas then had a push for several minutes across the last two periods that was aided by four straight minor penalties on the Caps. On the second infraction, which was on Oshie for interference despite Colin Miller’s embellishment, Shea Theodore ripped a point shot through a maze of bodies to beat Holtby with 2:13 left in period two.

Heading into the last stanza the Caps were up 3-2 and they survived a 68 second Golden Knights five on three power play just under five minutes in. The Capitals penalty killing unit was outstanding creating what Coach Trotz called another galvanizing moment for his squad. Typically these events decide a hockey game one way or the other and it was the Caps who parlayed the key special teams situation into a one goal victory, but not before several close calls and big saves from the Holtbeast.

This was a massive win for the Capitals and they have a chance to take the series lead on home ice. The game two triumph was not pretty, but it was gutsy and gritty. Guys were selling out to block shots and diving to clear the disc from their own end throughout the last 14 minutes at even strength. Even the Captain was contributing in the defensive heroics and Coach Trotz mentioned when an elite goal scorer is doing it, everyone on the bench takes notice and follows suit.

After the slow start, nearly everyone had a good game starting with Holtby, who was dialed in. Matt Niskanen agreed that the team did a good job of simplifying their play on the mushy Vegas ice by getting multiple players to the loose pucks. Washington won a lot of little battles in this one and did a much better job with defensive zone coverage. It was a total team effort with one of their top players out due to injury.

As I’ve stated since this series started, Vegas is a hard working team and is not a fluke. If the Capitals want to win this series, they’ll need to bring the will they brought to game two each night going forward.

Notes: the Caps were 1 for 2 on the power play while Vegas went 1 for 5…the Golden Knights won the face-off battle, 38-27. Eller was 10-6. Jay Beagle said the Capitals will look at film to help make the necessary adjustments to win more draws…shot attempts were 69-44, for Vegas, but a lot of those came from the perimeter…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time at 27:13, including 5:25 of PK time…Orpik had six hits and two blocked shots in 19:13 of playing time. He was outstanding in this contest…Vrana played well using his speed to open up space. He had eight shot attempts, but only three on net. If he gets them on goal, he’ll take over the red light district…once Kuzy went out, Backstrom centered Ovi and Tom Wilson, Eller centered Oshie and Vrana, while Chandler Stephenson moved into the 3rd line pivot slot.

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Joannette

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Nine Thoughts on the Caps-Vegas Series After Game One

Posted on 29 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals dropped game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, 6-4, to the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday night at T-Mobile Arena. For the Caps, this was their third straight loss to Vegas this season, with the last two coming in games where Washington relinquished a third period one goal lead.

Game 2 is Wednesday night from Sin City and the Capitals will be looking to play much better and even this series up heading back to Washington for game three on Saturday night at Capital One Arena.

After digesting the loss, what follows are nine thoughts and analysis after one tilt.

Clean up on Aisle Three! – The Caps lost this game in one particular area of the ice, the defensive zone. Washington had, by far, their worst defensive performance of the post season. There were too many turnovers and blown coverages. Pucks were bouncing over players sticks and instead of doing the safe thing and making sure they cleared pucks out of harms way, the Capitals allowed Vegas to get in deep for five goals just to the left of Braden Holtby (28 saves). The biggest turnover of the night was clearly the Devante Smith-Pelly one up the right wing boards that Shea Theodore kept in the offensive zone and fed to Tomas Nosek for the game winning tally with 10:16 remaining. DSP needed to either go high glass there or bank it hard off the boards and, at worst, take an icing. John Carlson and Michal Kempny were the duo that struggled the most on the back end. Those guys both need to be harder on the puck or the man to prevent these layups that the Golden Knights feasted on in their game one triumph.

Somebody Get Me Some Ice – The ice was horrible at T-Mobile in 90 plus degree weather in the desert, but the Golden Knights had to deal with the same sheet. The referees and linesmen were constantly having to fix patches of the playing surface throughout the evening and with temperatures even higher on Wednesday, I don’t see how the ice will be better. Matt Niskanen told me the ice was terrible or they didn’t freeze the pucks, or both, afterwards. Vegas was the team that took advantage of the issue better, by using their quickness to pressure the Capitals into mishandling the biscuit more often. In game two, Niskanen said the best thing for Washington to do is simplify their game to make the bad ice less of a problem. Passes have to happen quicker and be harder to prevent the turnover fest we saw in game one.

Four Score – Washington’s offense was pretty good in this affair and if you score four times, you should win. The line of Jakub Vrana, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie was the best for Washington. The Osh Babe had two gorgeous assists, to Backy and Carlson, for the second and third Capitals goals, respectively. Vrana and Oshie made life difficult for Vegas on the boards using their speed and tenacity to make their opponents uncomfortable in their own end. Also, Backstrom finally looked closer to the dominant guy we saw in games two and three of the Penguins series, so clearly his right-hand injury is not as much of an issue. This line was one of the big positives in game one and Coach Barry Trotz will be riding this trio a lot on Wednesday. Brett Connolly had a great tip in for the first Caps marker off of a Kempny point shot and Tom Wilson scored on a tipped Alex Ovechkin attempt just 1:10 into period three. The Capitals dented long time nemesis, Marc Andre-Fleury, for four tallies and that was done via a lot of crashing the cage and net presence. Washington must keep that mentality up in game two.

Dynamic Duo– As much as the Caps struggled in their own end, the pair of Dmitry Orlov and Niskanen was plus two when on the ice together in game one. Orlov was the best defensemen for his club and his skating and passing ability is a great counter to Vegas’ heavy forecheck pressure game. Number nine created a lot of scoring chances for the Capitals and he had eight shot attempts. Both played over 24 minutes and will be counted on a ton in game two, like the Backstrom line.

Bad Zebras – The officiating of Marc Joannette and Wes McCauley was an absolute disgrace in game one. The game tying goal in period three from Ryan Reaves came after a blatant cross check of Carlson and Niskanen said afterwards that should have absolutely been a penalty and that if Andre Burakovsky’s penalty in period one was going to be called, then the Reaves hit was way worse and should’ve been whistled. Caps Coach Barry Trotz stated after the game, “I thought we were going on a power play there before their fourth goal.” The impartial former NHL player now turned analyst, Aaron Ward, had a big issue with the missed cross check, but also cited Derek Engelland for “lumberjacking” the whole game as well as an Alex Tuch elbow to the head of Orlov. The zebras also missed too many men on the ice during the Wilson-Jonathan Marchessault incident. Ward was adamant that had the referees huddled on the Reaves goal and called the cross check then they wouldn’t have had to huddle on the Wilson hit because the frustration level wouldn’t have been where it was at. The Capitals were clearly incensed with the lack of calls and Willy took it a little too far with the interference on #81, but again, if the referees call the game correctly, that doesn’t happen. I also thought the linesmen had a bad outing as the icing calls were not consistent. The NHL Supervisor of Officiating needs to call this crew in and reprimand them for overshadowing and becoming too much of a factor in a huge game. Unacceptable! Kelly Sutherland and Chris Rooney will officiate game two, so hopefully the zebras have a better performance.

Not So Gr8 – Ovechkin started the first and second periods and, in both frames, the Capitals came out flat, prompting coach Trotz to start the Backstrom line for period three. Ovi’s first shift of the final frame was his best and his shot was tipped home by Willy to give the Caps a brief third period lead. For the game, Alex only had five shot attempts in 19:09 of ice time. He had four hits, as Washington is trying to be more physical to negate the speed of the Golden Knights, but he didn’t skate well or handle the disc cleanly most of the night. If the Capitals are going to win this series, Ovechkin needs to be a lot better.

Sticking to their Game Plan – Vegas, as I stated in my series preview blog on Sunday, is no fluke. That team plays hard, smart, and sticks to their system. Coach Gerard Gallant pretty much rolled his defensive pairs and forward lines with no Golden Knight blue liner logging more than 20:36 (William Karlsson). Their fourth trio only played just under 10 minutes together, but they dominated the Caps when on the ice. Sure, they got away with some mayhem that should’ve been penalties, but they took advantage of the ignoring of the rulebook by the guys in stripes and scored three times. Nosek had two tallies, with the last being an empty net goal. Both he and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare were plus three in game one and a big reason why Vegas was victorious. On the blue line, Theodore led the way with 21:52, which is a pretty low total. The Golden Knights also scored on their only power play, a point shot from Colin Miller that went through traffic and by Holtby. Vegas is playing with confidence and is now 7-1 on home ice in these playoffs. Their crowd was a big factor in game one – whenever the Knights fell behind, the fans picked up their noise level and it seemed to bring the team energy. T-Mobile arena is loud and boisterous, and that clearly helps their club.

Urgency – The Caps have their work cut out for them in game two. They must play with more urgency to start each period and after they light the lamp, especially since Vegas scored goals on their very next shot after the Caps took their two leads in this affair. Vegas is quicker, but the Capitals had some breakouts that exposed them on the back end for odd man chances. Washington must continue to do that on Wednesday, but most important is puck management and better coverage in their own end. The things to be encouraged by are the strong performance of Backstrom’s line and the Orlov-Niskanen duo. The Caps played a very poor game on Monday, but still had the lead in the final frame, so that is another positive. They need more from Ovechkin and his line, although I thought Evgeny Kuznetsov had a pretty good outing in 19:26 of action. Based on Tuesday’s practice, the Capitals will have the same lineup, but they just need to play much better and execute the game plan.

Notes: The Caps won the shot attempt battle, 68-67, via a 30-23 third period advantage. The first period was not good for Washington, they were out attempted, 25-18 and were fortunate to be tied after 20 minutes…the face-off battle was won by Vegas, 33-31, but Jay Beagle went 11-5. The Caps need to win more draws so they can have more possession time…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:03…both teams only had one power play. Vegas tallied on theirs while the Caps hit the post on their attempt…Washington had 38 hits to 25 for the Golden Knights. Brooks Orpik led the Capitals with nine.

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Game 6 win TB

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Caps Bring the Will and Skill in a Game Six Triumph Over Tampa

Posted on 22 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Lover, I’m off the streets
I’m gonna go where the bright lights
And the big city meet
With a red guitar, on fire
Desire

There has never been a more appropriate time where those great song lyrics from U2 have rung more true for how a Washington Capitals team played in a critical game during the Alexander Ovechkin era.

T.J. Oshie scored a second period power play goal and an empty net tally sandwiched around a huge third period marker from Devante Smith-Pelly while Braden Holtby shutout the Tampa Bay Lightning making 24 saves in the process. The 3-0 must win for the Caps in game six now forces a game seven at Amalie Arena on Wednesday night at 8 pm.

In a 3-2 game five loss on Saturday night, the Capitals did not come out of the gate well, at all, and found themselves down 3-0 in the first 21 minutes. As I wrote in my post game blog, the Caps did not display enough will to conquer the little battles necessary to win the game. Washington had the skill, but they did not exhibit the will and Tampa certainly did in their triumph.

On Monday night, there was no doubt about the will as the Capitals were relentless on the puck and won numerous board battles doling out 39 often vicious body checks in the process. Simply put, every player on the Caps roster from the Holtbeast on out brought a maximum effort. Oshie stated afterwards that Washington didn’t play with desperation; rather it was more of “a direct urgency.” The Osh Babe was spot on as this Capitals team checked as well as they have in any playoff game and it was their physicality and desire that won them a chance to play for a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday.

Tampa had won three straight tilts coming into this affair and had a lot of momentum. They also had won seven straight playoff games on the Caps home ice. Washington was determined to change that and after a scoreless first frame where both teams kind of felt each other out, the Capitals kicked up their intensity. The middle stanza didn’t start well for Washington as Jay Beagle was called for hooking just 40 seconds into the period putting the Bolts deadly power play on the ice. The Caps, however, were up to the task and allowed on only a single Lightning shot on net during the man advantage.

The strong penalty kill gave Washington an emotional boost and they started taking the play to the Bolts. The Capitals would out shot attempt Tampa, 27-22, in the second period, but it wasn’t until Braydon Coburn took a hooking penalty on Smith-Pelly as #25 was charging to the net after a Washington face off win that a red light would finally go on. The Caps power play, which went 0 for 4 in a tough game four loss and had no attempts in game five, clicked putting four shots on Andrei Vasilevskiy before the fifth one from #77 beat the big goalie at 15:12. Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov provided the assists on Oshie’s sixth tally of the post season, which came from the slot in between the four Bolts penalty killers.

The first goal, at that point in the game, loomed large because both teams had shown that once they were ahead in contests in this series that they were very good at walling off the front of their own net and very effective at counter attacking their opponents. Tampa, once behind, began having their defensemen pinch down on the wall in the offensive zone in an attempt to get the equalizer. They were nearly effective at it and the Caps were fortunate that the Bolts hit the left post in the dying seconds of period two.

For the first seven minutes or so of the final stanza, the Bolts really put the pressure on and the Capitals appeared to be hanging on as evidenced by the numerous icings they were guilty of committing. At the eight minute mark, Lars Eller fired a shot on #88 and the Caps earned an offensive zone face off. That seemed to steady the ship and just two minutes later it was 2-0 when Beagle and Chandler Stephenson out hustled and out worked the Bolts defense. Stephenson would get the puck below the goal line and feed Smith-Pelly all alone in the slot for a goal that would put Capital One Arena in bedlam. That newly formed line, which had the task of facing the Tampa very productive trio of Chris Kunitz, Cedric Pauquette, and Ryan Callahan, was a big reason that Washington was triumphant.

Backstrom then took a tripping penalty at 11:03 and suddenly the Bolts appeared to have life with the chance to get within one with their outstanding power play. Holtby would make three saves and Tom Wilson and Beagle had a monster shift to prevent Tampa from getting into the zone over the last 30 plus seconds of man advantage time. The home crowd gave the Capitals penalty killing unit a standing ovation and the massive amount of noise and energy propelled the Caps down the stretch as they continued to be physical and win the important battles. Oshie then hit the empty net with 50 seconds remaining to seal the deal.

This was one tight checking and intense hockey game and the Capitals arguably performed the best they have all postseason, at least from a defensive standpoint. They put 34 shots on net, 33 of which were against Vasilevskiy, but the Bolts goaltender played very well, once again. DSP’s tally, though, was critical to give the Caps some margin of error over the last 10 minutes and the way Holtby was going at his end, something crazy would’ve had to happen for Tampa to tie this one up. Washington was extremely committed to playing the body and winning board battles in all three zones, especially in the last 40 minutes.

So now Ovechkin, Backstrom, Beagle, Holtby, and the rest of the Capitals have a chance to advance where they’ve never been before. Tampa will have home ice advantage, they are the favorites being the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, and many of their players have been to the Stanley Cup Final before. The Bolts had hoped to close out the Caps in DC, but like in 2016 when they couldn’t beat the Penguins in game six and the series evened up, they’ll be going home to face Washington in a do or die game seven. That season Pittsburgh prevailed and went on to win the Stanley Cup over the San Jose Sharks. There will be lots of pressure on the Lightning to not do that again. As for the Capitals, they definitely cleared their minds of any negative thoughts prior to game six forgetting their three game losing streak as they turned in a gem on Monday night. They’ll need another game like that to knock off a very talented squad coached by Jon Cooper.

For once, Washington does not have home ice advantage and will not have the last line change that Coach Barry Trotz used so effectively to keep the Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Wilson line away from the Kunitz-Paquette-Callahan trio in game six. However, the Capitals can just fly in to Florida on Tuesday and focus on a hockey game. They won’t have friends and family bugging them for tickets and they won’t have a tense home crowd on hand. In game six, the Capitals fans were very supportive and helped bring energy, there was no apprehension. It was very much needed and the Caps took advantage of the environment in the victory.

Now they have to do it again on the road by finding a way to knock off a very good and favored Bolts squad. The key is winning the little battles that hopefully result in a lead in the hockey game that they can build upon.

And the fever, gettin’ higher
Desire
Desire

Notes: John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:17. Matt Niskanen logged 24:12. Victor Hedman led the Bolts in ice time with 24:07…the Caps had 39 hits to just 19 for Tampa. Brooks Orpik and Wilson each had six hits and Smith-Pelly had five…the Capitals won the face off battle, 33-28. Beagle was 13-3 and Eller went 12-6…Backstrom had two assists and appears to be getting more power on his passes and shots following his hand injury…Andre Burakovsky replaced Alex Chiasson in the lineup and had a strong 7:31 of work. He nearly scored on a one on one rush in period two, but shot over the net…Kuznetsov was 1-11 on faceoffs and lost a lot of first period board battles. If the Caps are going to win game seven, he has to find a way to not turn the puck over, he had two giveaways, both in period one.

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Kempny Game 1

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Caps Dominate First 40 Minutes in a Game One Victory

Posted on 12 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

For the first time since the second round of the 2015 playoffs, the Washington Capitals started a series on the road. The Caps played a textbook first 40 minutes racing out to a 4-0 lead and then closed out a 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on Friday night.

The Caps, who many experts have picked to lose this series, withstood an opening three minutes of pressure from the Bolts before they flipped the script and carried the play for the rest of the first two frames. Washington played fast and structured as they swarmed the puck and prevented the speedy Lightning from getting much time or space. Michal Kempny put the Capitals on the board at 7:28 on a point shot that went through a maze of players, including Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, and past Andrei Vasilevskiy glove side.

After the goal, the team that is now 6-1 on the road in these 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, kept their foot down trying to increase their margin, but couldn’t convert. Then, with under 10 seconds remaining in period one, some wild stuff ensued. Matt Niskanen failed to get off a shot in the offensive zone and the Bolts sprung Nikita Kucherov one on one on Dmitry Orlov. The very talented Kucherov would score by outmuscling #9 and then tapping the puck by Holtby, but the linesmen immediately waved it off noting the very obvious six skaters in blue on the ice. Washington received a power play for the too many men infraction with eight seconds remaining and the Gr8 lasered one by Vasilevskiy with Lars Eller providing some traffic high in the slot just two ticks later. The whole sequence was set up by a big faceoff win by T.J. Oshie, who got the puck to Evgeny Kuznetsov (two assists), and Kuzy quickly fed Ovechkin (one goal, one assist) for his rocket.

Washington outshot the Lightning, nine to two, in period one and in period two, they kept bringing it, outshooting the Bolts, 16-8. Just 2:40 into the frame, Jay Beagle put the rebound of a flubbed Brett Connolly shot past #88 to make it 3-0. Orlov made a nice play at the right point to set the quality chance up. Kucherov took a bad roughing penalty at 6:01 and 41 seconds later Tampa was down four pucks. Kuznetsov received a pass from Eller in the left wing corner and he rotated the puck to John Carlson at the top of the point. Carly slid one over to Ovi in his office for a one timer, but Alex didn’t get all of it and it “muffined” its way toward the net where Oshie (two assists) poked at it before Lars finally put the rebound home.

All four of the Capitals goals, which came in the first 26:42 of this affair, occurred with bodies in front and that’s a smart way to beat Vasileskiy, who was pulled for Louis Domingue for the third period. Washington did a lot of things correctly building the lead and only had a few shifts where they found themselves caught in a rush game with the Bolts. Up and down the ice is definitely the way Tampa wants to play and the Capitals settled down late in the middle frame to prevent Coach Jon Cooper’s squad from getting any momentum.

In the final stanza, the Bolts had some push and after a bad defensive zone shift, Alex Chiasson took a penalty to prevent a scoring chance in front of the net at 3:23. 22 seconds later it was 4-1 as Washington got caught puck chasing on the penalty kill and that allowed Kucherov to thread a pass through the outstretched Capitals PK box right to Steven Stamkos in his office for an easy back door marker. The Lightning seemed to come to life after that goal and when Chiasson lost his head and took an undisciplined roughing penalty on Kucherov by the Tampa bench at 8:59, the Bolts had a big chance to cut the margin to two.

This time, however, the Capitals had a super penalty kill and afterwards were pretty much in full control with nine minutes to go. Tampa kept pushing the pace, but Washington was doing a good job of clogging the neutral zone and preventing their opponents from getting set up in the offensive zone with a blue line wall and great back checking by the forwards. At that point, only an offensive zone mistake or a penalty would allow the home team to cut into the margin, and unfortunately for the Caps, the former occurred. After winning an offensive zone faceoff, Kempny was a little too greedy inside the offensive blue line and then he lost his footing giving Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat a two on one rush on Carlson with speed. Ovechkin tried to hustle back, but Palat beat Holtby short side with a sweet shot while #74 went down to block the pass. Suddenly, with 6:57 to go in regulation, this was a two goal game.

The contest appeared to still be in doubt, much to the delight of NBC’s Doc Emrick, but the Capitals stabilized themselves, got their legs moving, and then clamped things down. Washington had several good shifts that forced the Bolts to defend and it wasn’t until the dying seconds that Tampa was able to get another shot on goal. NBC’s Mike Milbury was effusive in his praise of how the Caps turned their effort up when they really needed to do so down the stretch.

For the Capitals, this was their first opening game triumph in three playoff series this spring and with Tampa feeling good about their chances coming in it was important for them to do so. Washington jumped on the Bolts with their speedy lineup that included the return of both Andre Burakovksy and Wilson. Willy had three shots on net in 15:09 and Burkie looked very strong on the puck in 14:02 of action. Nicklas Backstrom missed his second straight playoff tilt due to an injured right hand, but he did skate and stickhandle some on Thursday before the Caps departed for the Sunshine State. Coach Barry Trotz stated after the morning skate that Nicky is still day to day. Chandler Stephenson and Jakub Vrana logged 14:28 and 13:19, respectively, and used their skating ability to wear out a Tampa defense that has some slower defensemen. Vrana had five shots on net and really gave the Bolts defenders headaches.

Simply put, the way Washington played in periods one and two is how they have to perform to win this series. They have to continually be hard on the puck and committed to protecting their defensive zone against a very fast, up front, Tampa squad. Again, the Bolts, much like the Penguins, want a rush game where chances get traded at each end. The Caps would be wise to make sure they pressure the Lightning in their own zone, but also keep the third forward high in order to prevent odd man rushes against. Traffic and net presence was also a big factor in the victory and that must continue.

In round two, the Bolts were blown out of game one by Boston and then won the next four games to take that series rather quickly. Tampa will be looking to leverage that same recipe in game two on Sunday. Washington has the talent to skate with the Atlantic Division winners, but they have to be smart and play the right way, like they did in grabbing a big early lead in game one.

Notes: Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 25:48. Carlson logged 21:55…Eller played 20:35 to lead all Washington forwards in ice time…Bolts defensemen Victor Hedman led all players with 27:49, but he had no shots on goal…Domingue stopped all seven shots he faced in the final frame and some of them were on odd man rushes as the Caps were effective at generating some great counter attacks with the lead…Washington won the face off battle, 27-23. Beagle was 9-2 and Oshie was 3-0…Brooks Orpik had five of the Capitals 15 hits…game two is Sunday night at 8 pm.

 

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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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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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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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