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The Caps Season Can All Change on Sunday

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The Caps Season Can All Change on Sunday

Posted on 22 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals are on the verge of potentially changing their entire season in game six against the Boston Bruins on Sunday afternoon at the Verizon Center.

The much maligned in the media Caps, who were considered huge underdogs coming into this series with the Bruins, just might be able to change the perceptions of those who have been critical of them thanks to a gritty 4-3 victory on Saturday in Boston in game five of this best of seven series.

But media perceptions don’t really matter to this club, for perhaps the first time in a long while. That is primarily the case because they have taken on the identity of their head coach, Dale Hunter, and are singularly focused on results. Hunter doesn’t care what the media thinks, he just wants to win. His press conferences are proof of that. The coach pretty much says nothing, which is exactly what I would want my coach saying after each game, and especially in the playoffs. Too many words from the head coach can wear a team out and drain them emotionally, that won’t happen with Hunter (and as I predicted on twitter weeks ago, the New York Rangers are on the brink of elimination despite having the best record in the East, partially due to the fact that their coach likes to have too much conflict and discussion with the media). 

That identity I spoke of above is an almost unflappable demeanor, something this Capitals club struggled to display in the past. The minute adversity hit before, especially in the post season, they would often get caught up in it and fall apart. That doesn’t appear to be the case anymore. After the Caps gave up a 2-0 lead by allowing two goals in 28 seconds towards the end of period two today how many people were writing them off for the game and likely the series? I imagine you could get on twitter and find tweet after tweet burying this team when the Bruins turned up the heat.

However, this cast of characters, which received super goaltending from Braden Holtby (34 saves) once again, didn’t panic and came out composed for the final frame after they barely survived the last couple of minutes in period two. Mike Knuble scored a key goal on a rebound of a Joel Ward shot. But then adversity hit again when Marcus Johansson took too long to make a decision with the puck coming out of his own zone. Boston stripped the puck from MJ90 and Dennis Wideman was then whistled for a penalty. Next thing you know Boston scores their first power play goal of the series to tie it up. Caps nation, given past playoff failures, were probably saying “I’ve seen this movie before” and were waiting for the inevitable Bruins game winner to occur.

But it never happened. Hunter’s crew didn’t sulk and merely kept playing. Then they received a late power play when Nicklas Backstrom was hooked and Troy Brouwer took full advantage scoring with 1:27 to go on the rush. Washington would do a super job of preventing Boston from getting any really good chances late and as John Walton likes to say after victories it was “Good morning, Good afternoon, and Good night Boston!”

It was a huge win and puts the Caps in position to knock off the defending champs. But that win will be the hardest one they’ve ever tried to achieve. The Bruins faced the same situation in the Stanley Cup Finals, a 3-2 series deficit, and won the last two games to grab Lord Stanley’s Cup last season. You can bet that Boston will give everything they have on Sunday. Their coach is already whining again about the Capitals late power play to try and influence the referees, in a move we’ve seen from him far too often (hopefully the NHL is tired of it too). So the Caps will have to match the Bruins intensity and play smart once again. They have to stick to Hunter’s plan and not free lance defensively. If they stray from the blue print, then that means a game seven in Boston on Wednesday.

Simply put, the Caps have a chance to finally put a bad regular season behind them for good tomorrow. Will they finally be able to do that?

Puck drop is at 3pm, don’t miss it.

Notes: Alexander Ovechkin went for the big hit in the neutral zone and missed in period two and that led to the first Boston goal. Ovechkin only played 15:34 in game five and it is clear Hunter doesn’t like the matchups he is getting when the Gr8 is on the ice. Ovechkin needs to be better defensively as well…John Carlson and Karl Alzner were an outstanding duo again and they led the Caps in ice time with 25:05 and 24:37, respectively…Boston outshot the Caps 37-32 but shot attempts were even more lopsided, 70-48…the Caps went 1 for 3 on the power play and are 3 for 14 in the series. Boston went 1 for 4 and are 1 for 15 in the series.

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Disciplined Caps Ride Holtby’s Goaltending to Game 4 Victory

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Disciplined Caps Ride Holtby’s Goaltending to Game 4 Victory

Posted on 20 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

After Monday night’s WWE matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Boston Bruins in which the B’s grabbed a 2-1 series lead, the Caps talked about being more focused on the play between the whistles and staying disciplined. On Thursday night they did just that and although they had issues with the Bruins puck possession for large portions of this contest, the Capitals managed to win, 2-1, on Braden Holtby’s 44 save performance, to tie this best of seven series up at two games apiece. Game five is Saturday in Beantown with game six on Sunday at the Verizon Center.

The Caps saved their season on this night and they can thank their goaltender and special teams play. Marcus Johansson scored a marker on a sweet 2 on 1 break just 1:22 into the contest but it was all Boston in the opening frame after that as Washington failed to skate and be aggressive. Perhaps they were trying too hard to not be foolish and let their emotions take them off of their game like it did on Monday? Maybe, but it was clear the Bruins were clicking and pressing and Washington was sorely missing the suspended Nicklas Backstrom, who will return for game five. The Caps, who were outshot 14-3 in the first period, were very fortunate to escape those 20 minutes even steven. The second period started much the same way before the Capitals finally found their legs, plus according to Caps defensemen Karl Alzner, the coaches made some minor adjustments on the breakout.

In years past, special teams play has been a predictor of a series win for Washington. With the Caps killing off all 12 Bruins power plays and potting two man advantage tallies themselves so far in four games, the ledger reads +2 for the Capitals. That will need to continue for the Caps if they want to hang with the defending champs. The Capitals had three power plays in this game to just one for the B’s and two of the three produced excellent chances for the home team. Alexander Semin’s sick laser shot from the left wing half wall was a thing of beauty and ended up being the difference in the game.

What also helped produce the victory was a more solid third period, especially the last four minutes when Washington skated hard and seemed to win every puck battle. The Verizon Center was loud and had energy and both Alzner and Johansson credited the fans for helping the Caps have one of their better outings closing with a lead. Holtby didn’t have to face many quality shots down the stretch and the team was blocking shots. Several players, including Jay Beagle, Matt Hendricks, Joel Ward, and Mike Knuble worked their rears off to prevent Boston from getting a really good chance to tie the game up. Earlier in the period it appeared the Caps had fallen into the bad habit of trying too hard to protect the lead and as a result, they stopped skating. But something clicked down the stretch and the execution was phenomenal.

So the series goes to a pivotal weekend back to back affair. The Bruins have to be favored given that they carried so much of the play in this one, plus they are the champs and are playing at home. The Capitals are playing David to Goliath but they are sticking together and on this night they were much smarter. They still need to stop having pronounced lulls in the game, but if their goalie continues to play at this level, anything can happen.

Notes: The duo of Alzner and John Carlson was once again outstanding. Can’t say enough about how well #74 is playing, he’s amped his game up at the perfect time…Dennis Wideman had a poor opening frame and he pinched to give the Bruins a two on one, which Rich Peverley converted. But #6 recovered to play a strong final 40 minutes. He had been struggling in this series up until that point…Mike Green had 9:00 of ice time in the first period but played only 10:09 the rest of the way…Alex Ovechkin helped set up the Laich-Johansson two on one on the first goal and he received an assist on the play. The Gr8 was very inconsistent in this game and he only logged four shifts and a total of 1:58 in period three. His defensive zone must be better in close games, otherwise Hunter is not willing to risk playing him with a lead…with 9.5 seconds left, the puck was dropped and the game clock did not run for over five seconds as Bob McKenzie of TSN and Transition Game author, Ted Starkey, pointed out after the game…the faceoff battle was won by the Caps, 44-32…hits were 44-34 in favor of Washington. Hunter noted that his team was physical without taking bad penalties…1st Mariner Arena will host the 2nd Annual Baltimore Hockey Classic on Wednesday, September 26th between the Caps and the Columbus Blue Jackets. Tickets for Capitals season ticket holders will be made available on Friday with all others able to purchase them starting Monday, April 23rd at 10am.

Programming Note: Check out my Caps radio segment with Drew Forrester on Thursday morning here from the WNST audio vault.

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Caps Coming Together As A Team At Right Time

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Caps Coming Together As A Team At Right Time

Posted on 14 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

After Thursday’s tough 1-0 overtime loss to the Bruins, something happened, in defeat, with the Washington Capitals that spoke volumes to me. The Caps, with captain Alexander Ovechkin as one of the leaders, came out and mobbed rookie goalie Braden Holtby almost as if the team had won the game instead of leaving #70 to skate off by himself while the rest of the players filed off of the bench and down the tunnel, like typically happens more often than not around the league in overtime playoff losses.

What did that tell me? That this hockey club, that has had an extremely tumultuous season, is coming together as a team, at the right time. Today, they backed that feeling up for me with a gritty, 2-1, win in Boston in double overtime to tie this best of seven series up at one game apiece.

Holtby (43 saves) was excellent in goal again and so far he appears to be the catalyst for the Caps recent bonding. The rookie goalie is making timely saves so the team has confidence in him and as a result they are giving the defending Stanley Cup Champions fits so far. After Boston carried most of game one, the Capitals came out and more than held their own in this contest. Ovechkin (1 assist) had a much stronger effort and he relied more on his power than finesse, in this tilt. In fact, his strong play on the wall led to Troy Brouwer’s goalmouth tally that gave the Caps a 1-0 lead late in period two. It was a sandpaper type of goal and one Washington needed to prove they could find a way to get a puck past Tim Thomas (37 saves), who has been playing phenomenal, as well.

Even after Benouit Pouliot scored with just under eight minutes left in regulation to tie the game up, on a play where he bowled over Holtby after tipping the puck by him, the young goalie and his club didn’t appear panicked. Washington stuck to Coach Dale Hunter’s game plan of being responsible in their own zone and it worked.

Playoff games are often won or lost on special teams or on faceoffs. With both teams still failing to score on the power play in this series, it was an offensive zone draw that proved decisive for the Caps. Patrice Bergeron actually won it, but Nicklas Backstrom managed to push the puck below the goal line where Marcus Johansson corraled it. With three Boston defenders focused on MJ90, the young swede slid the puck to a wide open #19 in the slot, who fired one past Thomas for the game winner.

The Caps bench erupted and instead of going down 2-0, Washington is more than in this series.

The Bruins are still the favorites right now. After all, they have a ton of experience from last season to fall back on. They are a deep team with an excellent goalie. They play a physical game. They are supposed to win.

But the Capitals are healthy at the right time at forward and on defense, and the young Holtby is seizing a huge opportunity in goal to provide a backbone for this team. He is making key saves and also helping his defense out with his superior stick handling skills.

The kid is playing well but the pundits are still backing the defending champs.

But with those expectations comes more pressure for Boston. The Caps have internal pressure to win, but the media has mostly written them off.

It seems the lack of belief in them, along with some timely health, and the emergence of Holtby in net has allowed this Capitals club to come together as a team at the right time.

The key will be keeping it up by sticking together, listening to their coaches, and putting the team first. That is how you win playoff games and a series.

Notes: Karl Alzner and John Carlson were outstanding on defense today and that is four really good games in a row for #74, who is peaking at the right time…Johansson was the game’s first star while Alzner got the second. #27 is super smart on the ice…the Caps won the faceoff battle 34-30 with Jay Beagle going 11-6. #83 has been dominant on draws in this series…Mike Green was +2 and he led all Capitals in ice time with 33:28. He and Roman Hamrlik are playing very well together…Dennis Wideman and Jeff Schultz were once again on the ice for the Boston goal and have been the weakest defensive pair for the Caps. Wideman’s ice time was just over 20 minutes, where it likely should be with the other two D-pairs playing so well.

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Playoffs?! Playoffs?! Yes, the Caps Are Talking Playoffs

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Playoffs?! Playoffs?! Yes, the Caps Are Talking Playoffs

Posted on 06 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

In a season that has seen a coaching change, some key injuries, and more than its’ share of ups and downs, the Washington Capitals finally made the playoffs with one game remaining, after a 4-2 victory over the Florida Panthers combined with the Philadelphia Flyers win over the Buffalo Sabres, 2-1. The Caps, believe it or not, still have a shot at the Southeast Division title and can finish either 3rd, 7th or 8th in the East, depending on the outcome of Saturday’s contests. Their first round opponent could be the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, or New Jersey Devils.

But back to Thursday night, where the Caps faced a must win in their biggest game of the season. They got the job done, but it was not without another injury, and it was not an easy victory. Washington started sloppily in the opening frame but thanks to a Jay Beagle tally on a rebound of a Troy Brouwer shot plus some super goaltending by Michal Neuvirth, the Caps were fortunate to have a 1-0 lead. But things took a bad turn at the 5:39 mark of period two. Panther forward Marco Sturm fell into Neuvirth and #30 fell back awkwardly with his left leg trapped under him. He was in clear pain and he had to leave the contest after stopping all 13 shots he faced, many of them quality scoring chances.

At that point, the game could’ve gone either way when Braden Holtby (12 saves) entered. Knowing that #70 came on cold with no warmup, the Capitals immediately picked up their play. In addition, they received a boost from Coach Dale Hunter’s line combination changes that he made after the opening 20 minutes. Hunts moved Brooks Laich (1 goal, 1 assist) to center Alexander Ovechkin (1 goal) and Marcus Johansson (1 assist) while moving Nicklas Backstrom with Alexander Semin (1 goal) and Jason Chimera. The switch triggered the Washington offense and Ovechkin and Laich tallied two minutes apart to give the Caps a 3-0 lead.

“He wanted myself on that line just to add a little bit more defensive responsibility. That opens up Marcus and Alex to go and attack. If they know that I am going to be third guy high and then try and win my battles low and get the puck to them, they’re both great skaters that if I can get the puck to them in our zone, they can skate it out. That was the only thought process, shortly after that they both come down and they score a goal. So, it’s good strategy by the coaches,” added Laich on coach Hunter’s line juggling to start the second period.

Washington has struggled with leads lately and tonight saw another round of that start to occur. When five guys swarmed the puck after the Panthers crossed the Caps blueline, Sean Bergenheim alertly fed a streaking Mikael Samuelsson, who was all alone coming down the left wing. #26 fired a laser top shelf by Holtby and suddenly the Cats had life. Florida would pressure Washington, who had several stretches where they could not get the puck out of their own zone, for the rest of the period,  but after 40 minutes it was 3-1.

But just 43 seconds into the final period, the Caps failed to dump the puck deep and Florida took advantage getting an easy entry into the zone as the Capitals forwards changed. Then with the Caps defenders running around, Ed Jovanovski fired from the middle of the point and it went through a maze of players before getting by Holtby. At that point every Capitals fan had to think, “We’ve seen this movie before!” and for the next nine minutes it seemed like only a matter of time before the Panthers were going to tie it up. Luckily, the Caps finally found their legs when the Beagle line generated a super forecheck and from there on out Washington carried much of the play with Semin closing the deal with his 21st goal of the season with 1:02 to go.

It was another game where the Capitals looked like world beaters for stretches and then there were other periods where they seemed like the worst team in the league. When they struggled their breakouts were not crisp and they were lazy, at times, in the neutral zone, and that allowed Florida to get more offensive zone time. They did not play well away from the puck at all during those downturns and it was especiallly apparent that they were sitting back in the first 10 minutes of the third. Defensemen Karl Alzner (1 assist) commented on why they struggled early in the third period but were better down the stretch.

“I think we relaxed a little bit more and started getting a little bit of confidence back. We were talking about that on the bench, if there is a play to be made, make the play. Play with confidence, play still on the offensive with what made us get that lead. And that is what happens with all of the teams, you tighten up and you play too much defense and then we get picked apart through the neutral zone. So it was just getting a little bit of our swagger back, I think,” added King Karl on the problems the Caps have had lately when they get a lead and how they adjusted on Thursday.

At the end of the night though, the Capitals achieved their first and most important regular season goal: to make the playoffs. It is a different feel this spring as Washington is likely not going in as a favorite in their series. Because of the injuries and coaching change, they still have not played their best hockey either. They have been wildly inconsistent and their confidence needs boosting. Alzner’s point about getting their swagger back is an important one, Washington needs to find that right balance to be successful in the confidence department.

In the past, the Caps have gone into the post season having had long stretches of solid play during the latter part of the regular season. Maybe they’ve been overconfident in past years, but that won’t be the case this year. Also one could argue that the last four seasons, the Caps had already played their best hockey going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Again, that certainly is NOT the case this year.

Will it make a difference in the post season results this year? We will find out, but one thing is for sure, there are plenty of things the team needs to work on before the first round starts. There is lots of room for upside and improvement and they’ll need to do so, especially if both Tomas Vokoun and Neuvirth aren’t healthy for the playoffs. Right now it looks like it is Holtby’s net, but #70 seems ready to handle that pressure.

In closing, there is one regular season game left at Madison Square Garden on Saturday against the Rangers (6:30 pm start). A win by the Caps and a regulation loss by the Panthers gives the Caps the Southeast Division title, home ice, and a date with the Devils. If the Cats get at least a point, the Caps win, and Ottawa loses in regulation, then Washington goes to Boston as the 7th seed. Finally, if the Caps lose or both Florida and Ottawa get at least a point, then it is the eighth seed and another series against John Tortorella and the Rangers.

Whoever they face, the Capitals have the potential to be a dangerous team, especially if they improve their play with the puck as well as away from it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Rangers would prefer facing either Florida or Ottawa instead of a team that underachieved in the first 82 games and finally has a healthy set of skaters, especially if they find their game and get their swagger back.

Notes: Semin’s ice time was increased to 19:19 after #28 only played 14 minutes on Monday. Smart move by Hunter to get the hard working winger more playing time…John Carlson logged 20:05 and had his best game in weeks, maybe even in months…Ovechkin now has 37 goals on the campaign…the Caps lost the faceoff battle 29-32, with Beagle (1 goal, 18:35 of ice time) going 10-6. #83 has been one of the most positive stories of the 2011-12 season and the coaching staff continues to use him in a key role on this team…Neuvirth is reportedly day to day with a lower body injury so expect the Caps to call up Dany Sabourin from Hershey if Vokoun isn’t ready yet…Joel Ward should be closer to returning and they will need #42 to play like he did for Nashville in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs…the Sabres loss put the Panthers in the post season for the first time since 1999-2000.

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Sloppy Caps Win in Shootout

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Sloppy Caps Win in Shootout

Posted on 01 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

With the out of town scoreboard being the Washington Capitals friend on both Friday and Saturday night, the Caps found themselves in a struggle with the Montreal Canadiens, the last place team in the Eastern Conference, in their own building. Dale Hunter’s crew put out a decent effort, but the Caps over passed and shot wide on their chances plus they had several sloppy stretches in Nicklas Backstrom’s return to the lineup for the first time in 40 games. Fortunately for Washington, Michal Neuvirth was very good in net (39 saves, 2-2 in shootout) and Matt Hendricks and Alex Semin made super moves in the gimmick as the Capitals escaped with two points.

It was a huge victory on paper as the Caps moved two points ahead of the Buffalo Sabres, who lost on Friday at home against Pittsburgh and then Saturday in Toronto, with just three games remaining. Because the Capitals hold the tiebreaker over the Sabres (regulation or overtime wins), Washington’s magic number, which is points gained by the Caps or points lost by Buffalo, sits at four. In addition, if the Florida Panthers lose in regulation to the Detroit Red Wings in Hockeytown on Sunday, then the Capitals control their own destiny with respect to the Southeast Division title. The Caps are in Tampa on Monday, come home to face the Panthers on Thursday, before closing out their regualar season at Madison Square Garden on Saturday against the Rangers.

Things are shaping up nicely for the Caps standings wise, but if they want to close the deal, and more importantly, advance in the post season, they have to clean their game up. Washington squandered too many opportunities in this one. Alexander Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson (3 giveaways) played with Backstrom in his return. #19 was very good but his linemates were woefully inconsistent and that prevented them from connecting. Brooks Laich, another guy this team needs going to win regularly, was also sloppy on this night (4 giveaways) and was yet another reason the Capitals couldn’t sustain anything after a very good first 16 minutes or so.

The Caps never sat back in this game, in fact, the two Montreal goals came in transition as Washington was trying to push the pace. Max Pacioretty blew down the left wing late in the first period and when Karl Alzner over committed to help out his defensive partner, Dennis Wideman, Erik Cole was all alone in front and scored. The Habs second goal came when Thomas Plekenac just abused Roman Hamrlik one on one and then fired a sweet shot upstairs to beat Neuvirth (39 saves).

In overtime, the Capitals struggled once again on four and four because they couldn’t keep up with Monreal’s speed. That was disappointing given that the Habs played the night before in New York and should have been the tired club. The Caps are fortunate their goalie was on his game on this night and Neuvirth certainly showed that he can be the guy the way he played on Saturday. Last year #30 was very instrumental in Washington winning the Eastern Conference in the regular season and with Tomas Vokoun’s creaky groin, Neuvy needs to step up again for the Caps to win the division/make the post season.

At the end of the night, despite the fancy play that led to too many turnovers, the Caps come out on top and they are in a nice position to make the post season after things looked troublesome following the blowout loss to Buffalo on Tuesday. There are still three games to go and Washington must play better if they want to close things out and avoid an early trip to the golf course. The Southeast Divison will be likely there for the taking after Sunday’s slate is complete, but the Caps will need to win all three remaining games to pull that off and they won’t get that done if they perform like they did against Montreal.

Notes: Overall shot attempts were 68-68 but the Habs did a better job of getting theirs on goal…Mathieu Perreault scored the first Caps goal off of a nice feed from Semin and Jay Beagle scored the second after a sweet pass from Hendricks…those four players had good games but #85 only had 10:05 of ice time…Washington won the faceoff battle 38-28 with Backstrom going 12-6…Mike Green had 24:24 of ice time to lead the Caps…both teams did not score on the power play. The Caps had five chances to the Habs four. Washington must start connecting with the man advantage if they want to do post season damage.

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Bad Decisions Cost Caps Again

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Bad Decisions Cost Caps Again

Posted on 24 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

When you are up 3-0 in hockey, you should win the game. On Friday night at the Verizon Center, the Washington Capitals managed to give a critical game away to the desperate Winnipeg Jets, 4-3, in overtime. It was a costly loss as the Buffalo Sabres, by virtue of their victory over the New York Rangers, are now tied with the Caps for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Both teams have 82 points with just seven tilts remaining. In defeat, the Capitals wasted a two goal effort from Alexander Ovechkin (34th and 35th of the season) and some decent goaltending from Michal Neuvirth (38 saves).

After losing in the shootout to the Flyers on Thursday night, this was a worrisome game given that the Jets were in town waiting while the Caps went up and down I-95 the last two days prior to puck drop. But Washington came out as the stronger team dominating the play in the first 25 minutes. When Ovechkin scored top shelf on Ondrej Pavelec (20 saves) just 5:47 into the middle frame to put the Caps up three pucks, it looked like the rout was on. The Caps were outskating the Jets and playing with confidence. Only Pavelec’s stellar play in goal kept the Jets in it, at that point.

But a couple of things changed the entire course of the game in a matter of seconds. First, fourth liner Ben Maxwell scored when the Capitals had a major mental breakdown in their own end. Four Caps were back on the play as Tim Stapleton carried the puck into the Washington zone. Three defenders went to Stapleton with the fourth, Roman Hamrlik, also staring at the puck carrier. Bad decision number one as Stapleton found an all alone Maxwell in front for an easy goal. Then, on the ensuing face-off, third line center Jiri Slater goaded Washington first line center Brooks Laich into a fight. Bad decision number two as Washington was now forced to go without their top pivot for five minutes, which basically helped take red hot Ovechkin out of the game. That also sparked the Jets even more and they scored 71 seconds later to make it 3-2 with over 30 minutes left in regulation.

The Caps would then, for the first time this season, lose a game they were leading heading into the final frame (were 22-0-0, thanks @JapersRink & @ngreenberg). Shift after shift the energized Jets kept putting it on a tired Capitals club, but somehow the Caps held the lead, despite no shots on goal, until just under four minutes left in regulation. At that juncture, Jeff Halpern won a defensive zone draw but both John Carlson and Jeff Schultz failed to get to the biscuit and also did not cover their respective men. The result was a tap in goal and when the contest headed to OT, it was pretty obvious a tired Capitals team had run out of energy against a desperate Winnipeg club.

Some will blame the coach for the loss and the way the Caps played in the third period, but Dale Hunter’s troops didn’t get it done. When you have four guys back against two or three opponents, there should be no goal against, but that happened on the Jets first tally. Also, Laich decided to go with Slater on his own, likely a carryover from the previous week’s physical tilt in Manitoba. Brooksie is a hard worker, super teammate, and good guy, but #21 has to be smarter there and not take himself off of the ice in that situation. It was an important point in the game and to have their best pivot in the sin bin for five minutes really hurt the Capitals. Poor coverage was the problem on the game tying tally that came directly off of a won draw, that is bad execution, not coaching.

At the end of the night, the Jets are still likely done with both the Caps and the Sabres up four points on them. But Washington let another key point go by the way side. They made mental mistakes, took their foot off of the gas, and then lost confidence while Winnipeg got stronger as this game went on. The inevitable happened in the final frame, but fortunately for the Caps, they did pick up a point.

Still, they should have won up 3-0, despite being fatigued. Now they have Minnesota at home on Sunday evening before an all important matchup with Buffalo on Tuesday at the Verizon Center. Both contests are must wins, in my book.

 Notes: Not a good night for Marcus Johansson. The young Swede had one of the poorest games of his career. He was -3 and was pushed around in just 12:37 of ice time…Jay Beagle was 11-4 on draws and played 20:10…Ovechkin had 18:51 of ice time, not enough in my book. Part of the problem for Hunter though was he doesn’t have many decent options at center right now and when Laich is in the box he is forced to put either Johansson or the smaller Mathieu Perreault with the Gr8…Alex Semin returned to the lineup and had a strong game. He had an assist and was +1 in 16:13 of ice time. As good as 8 and 28 are though, with the major holes up the middle of the ice this Capitals team, as I’ve blogged many times since Nicklas Backstrom was injured, is going to be inconsistent. On Friday night, they received subpar play at center and that contributed mightily to the lack of third period forecheck, and ultimately the loss…Winnipeg went 4-1-1 against Washington this season while the Caps were 2-2-2 in the season series.

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Poor Start Dooms Caps on Road Again

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Poor Start Dooms Caps on Road Again

Posted on 18 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals needed a good start in Chicago on Sunday night after losing a tough contest on Friday night in Winnipeg. They did not get that at all at the Uniter Center. The Blackhawks fired the first 12 shots on net and potted two goals in a dominating first period.

In the middle frame, the Caps came out strong and cut it to 2-1 on a Mike Knuble goal after a nice interception by Keith Aucoin. But defensive zone breakdowns, which have plagued this club all season long, showed up time and time again and when John Carlson fanned on a pass the Hawks scored to make it 3-1. They would go up 4-1 before Alexander Ovechkin scored a pretty goal going around Duncan Keith to make it 4-2. With 20 minutes left the Caps needed two goals to tie, but they couldn’t muster much offense and ended up losing 5-2, with an empty netter providing the final margin.

Simply put, this team has not played well early on in games when they’ve had the previous day off this season. It took the Caps far too long to get their legs in this one and with their weaknesses up the middle of the ice, that poor start was just too much to overcome. The poor opening frames and weak pivot play has led to much inconsistency since Nicklas Backstrom went out in early January. #19 has been skating and appears set to return at some point, but the question might be, will it be too late to save this season?

As I am typing this, the Caps are still in eighth place in the Eastern Conference with the Winnipeg Jets playing at home against Carolina. If the Jets win, they tie the Caps in the standings. But Winnipeg would have some serious momentum and the Capitals go to Detroit on Monday night and Philadelphia on Thursday night. On paper, those two contests both appear to be losses.

So a five game road trip that now stands at 1-2, could easily become 1-4 if Washington does not start playing a full 60 minutes of hockey.

On Sunday they weren’t ready for puck drop and the Blackhawks buried them for it.

There are 10 games left in the season and if they don’t start showing some urgency from the opening face-off, they just be might smacking Titleist’s instead of pucks come April 9th.

Notes: Michal Neuvirth got the start in net with Tomas Vokoun dealing with a nagging injury. Braden Holtby was recalled from Hershey and was the back-up…the Caps finally received a power play in the third period but as expected, without much in game work, it looked pretty bad…not many guys were good tonight, except for Knuble and perhaps Aucoin. Neuvirth received no support and Jeff Schultz had his worst game on defense since playing his way back into the lineup. Dennis Wideman was  a -3 and not very good either.

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Caps Let Golden Opportunity Slip By in Loss

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Caps Let Golden Opportunity Slip By in Loss

Posted on 17 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals had a chance to pretty much end the season of the Winnipeg Jets on Friday night but they let a golden opportunity slip by in a 3-2 regulation loss in the second tilt of a five game road trip.

The loss, which wasted a superb goaltending effort from Tomas Vokoun (25 saves), ends the Caps four game winning streak. Winnipeg has now won the last two meetings against Washington and trail the Caps by just two points in the race for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. The Buffalo Sabres are just a point in back of Winnipeg. All three teams have 11 games remaining.

The Caps, who not only fought a desperate Jets team in a raucous MTS Centre, also had to play against the referees as well. Mike Leggo and Kyle Rehman were downright inconsistent in this one and they also missed a blatant head shot by Mark Stuart on Marcus Johansson that would’ve given Washington a 5 on 3 power play. Stuart should get one of those Brendan Shanahan tapes made on his behalf this weekend. In addition, Keith Aucoin was high sticked and was bleeding late but only two minutes were called. Add in several other missed hooks and holds (see Winnipeg winning goal) on the Jets against Alex Ovechkin and others, some of which were whistled on Washington the other way, and you have to wonder what these guys in stripes are watching?

But even despite the bad zebras, the Caps still had their chances. With 2:22 to go they received the power play they needed but curiously the coaching staff put Ovechkin and Dennis Wideman on the points with the goalie pulled instead of moving the Gr8 down low and putting Mike Green at the blueline. It was a move that doesn’t make any sense unless Green is not 100%. Ovechkin has been getting his goals from in close lately and with him in front of the net it opens up room for other Capitals players. It was a key sequence in the game and the personnel decisions were not up to par there, plain and simple.

On the plus side, Washington’s penalty killing was specatcular, and it had to be with ECHL calibre referees bowing to every whine from the Manitoba faithful (boy are those fans annoying, but they certainly helped their team on Friday). Jay Beagle, Matt Hendricks, and Karl Alzner, along with Vokoun were outstanding during a 99 second sequence where the Jets had a 2-1 lead and a five on three power play. #83 blocked several shots and Vokoun flat out robbed Blake Wheeler at the side of the net. It was top notch penalty killing that unfortunately was wasted in the loss as the Jets went 0 for 5 on the power play.

In games like this one, where you have a chance to separate yourself from the teams chasing you in the standings, your top players need to produce. Ovechkin and Alexander Semin did not do that on Friday night. Yes, the Gr8 was clutched and grabbed most of the night but he is too predictable with the puck. When a mediocore defenseman like Grant Clitsome takes him out so easily on the boards it is clearly a sign that Ovechkin needs to find some new moves. In addition, the two-time NHL MVP’s free lancing style in his own zone cost the team a goal. With the game tied Ovechkin abandoned his man to chase the puck behind the net. At that point the entire d-zone coverage broke down and ultimately Ovechkin’s original man, Nik Antropov, potted the tally that put the Jets up 2-1 late in period two. Ovechkin has to work harder and be smarter in his own end. Semin only played 12:19 and was -2. That was one of his worst games since Dale Hunter took over behind the bench.

So there are three games left on this important road trip and the Caps have split the first two tilts. They had a great chance to put some spread between them and their pursuers, but they didn’t get the job done and now move on to take on the Blackhawks in Chicago on Sunday night. That will be a tough test followed by a quick turnaround in Detroit on Monday. It is time for the stars to show up in the Windy City and Motown.

Notes: Johansson left for a portion of the contest after taking the hit from Stuart but did return. Stuart deserves three games for that hit, at least….Mike Knuble did not have a good game and his penalty late in period two was an awful decision and play…Beagle was outstanding playing 19:53 and winning 14 of 20 draws..the Jets are in town next week, so the Caps get another chance at putting the Winnipeg club away for the year.

 

 

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Hunter Getting It Done Despite Criticism

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Hunter Getting It Done Despite Criticism

Posted on 11 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

There were no two ways about Sunday’s Washington Capitals game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Caps had to win this contest with a five game road trip on the horizon. Brooks Laich continued to carry this club scoring a key shorthanded goal in the opening frame, Alexander Semin set up Mathieu Perreault for an early third period marker, and Michal Neuvirth stopped all 23 shots he faced en route to a 2-0 victory in his 100th NHL start.

It wasn’t flashy hockey, but it was team hockey as the Capitals did a super job of limiting Leafs odd man rushes and opportunities while generating puck possession and scoring chances for themselves. The victory moves Washington to 76 points with 13 games left and they trail the Southeast Division leading Florida Panthers by a single point. More importantly, the eighth place Capitals open up a four point cushion on the ninth place Sabres and Jets.

The Caps played some very good hockey this week going 3-0-1 and if you want to know my theory on why things have turned around check out yesterday’s blog where I discuss, in detail, the lineup changes that Coach Dale Hunter recently has made up the middle of the ice. Those moves continued to pay off again today as both Laich and Jay Beagle played big roles in the victory. The more balanced lineup is producing solid defensive hockey, something Hunter demands, and it is also generating more puck possession.

In my estimation, Hunter has taken far too much unnecessary criticism, especially on twitter. There are those that say he is in over his head or doesn’t know what he is doing with the scratches or goalies, or even worse, that his system doesn’t work in the NHL. I even heard seen some people say that Hunter is just tanking it so that he can go back to juniors. Horse hockey, I say.

I’ve known Hunter since 1987 when he came to the Caps and he hates to lose as much as anybody. As I was leaving the Verizon Center long after last Tuesday’s OT loss to Carolina I ran into ole #32 in the hallway. I asked him if he was having fun, his response, “I don’t like losing.” We then proceeded to talk about the game for a couple of minutes pointing out both good and bad plays. I walked away from that conversation knowing what I already pretty much knew, Dale Hunter is as committed as ever to helping the Washington Capitals win.

Hunter knows hockey and he didn’t exactly inherit the Detroit Red Wings when he took over. Throw in an injury to the one player he could not afford to lose most, Nicklas Backstrom, and it is impressive that the bench boss has been able to keep the ship afloat given some of its’ issues. But as I chronicled yesterday, the coach is getting a handle on what he has to work with and with Laich and Beagle both totally healthy for the first time in his tenure he is employing a configuration that fits what he wants to do.

Simply put, this Capitals team CANNOT be the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers or even the 2009-10 Washington Capitals. Run and gun won’t work with Backstrom out and the other weaknesses up the middle of the ice. But they do have a slew of hard working guys, that cobbled together with skilled players like Alexander Ovechkin, Semin, Perreault, and Marcus Johansson will equate to wins if the right balance is found. It takes 20 guys working hard and together. Right now they appear to have that, the question is, can they keep it going? My answer is, yes, if they don’t sustain any more injuries, especially to Laich, who not only talks the talk, but walks the walk. #21 has been outstanding since finally overcoming what looked to be a bad knee injury against Boston back in early February.

Add in the work ethic and desire of Beagle as well as players like Matt Hendricks, Jason Chimera, Karl Alzner, etc and suddenly you have a cohesive team. Semin was outstanding this weekend and if Ovechkin works hard and trends up then this team starts to have some serious potential, especially if they manage to get Backstrom back.

But those projections must wait for now. The Capitals have a five game road trip that starts on Tuesday on Long Island against an Islanders team that has taken 5 of 6 points from Washington this year. The Caps must be ready from opening puck drop if they want to continue to try and win their division, or at the very least separate themselves from those behind them in the playoff hunt.

Today they did that beating a tired Maple Leafs team that worked hard under new coach Randy Carlyle but just don’t have the horses up front with Joffrey Lupul out. But everyone has injuries and good teams and coaches find ways to overcome them. Hunter is doing his best to do that, but the road ahead is tough, and the momentum gained this week must carry over for his team to get its’ fifth straight playoff berth.

Notes: The Caps only had one power play but it did everything except score. Washington had several scoring chances and had the puck in the Leafs zone the entire two minutes…the Capitals, by scoring shorthanded, won the special teams battle for the second straight game…Johansson missed an empty net late in regulation. The puck rolled on him after a sweet feed from Perreault and his shot attempt from four feet away went wide. MJ90 wasn’t happy but he was in the right place to score. His play has trended up since Hunter moved him back to the wing where he can be more effective in man to man coverage…the Caps lost the faceoff battle 24-15. Laich was only 4-10 but Beagle won 5 of 6 draws…there were lots of solid games by a lot of players and noone played less than 10 minutes. Each of Washington’s six defensemen played near the top of their ability as mistakes on the back end were definitely minimized.

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Hunter’s Latest Lineup Paying Dividends

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Hunter’s Latest Lineup Paying Dividends

Posted on 10 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Given that the Washington Capitals have struggled on the road all season long, it appeared, on paper, that Saturday’s tilt at Boston against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Bruins would be a loss for the Caps. But, as they say, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum or TD Garden, in this case. The Caps came up with one of their strongest performances of the season in a 4-3 victory over the B’s. It was a huge win for the Caps and it moves them within a point of first place Florida in the Southeast Division.

The Caps really came out flying and jumped to a 2-0 lead with some aggressive play. They then staved off two shaky penalty calls by Tim Peel and company and looked poised to exit the opening frame up a pair. But a bad icing by Troy Brouwer and a missed assignment on a faceoff with six seconds left led to a Milan Lucic goal. The question after that would be how the Capitals would respond to that late tally? When the Bruins tied the score on a breakaway by Brad Marchand that was caused by an Alexander Ovechkin giveaway while Dennis Wideman was heading to the bench on the long change, it looked like Boston had all of the momentum.

However, this Caps team seems to be getting mentally tougher and they responded with some outstanding hockey drawing three straight penalties. Jay Beagle would score off of a super feed from Alexander Semin just after the first man advantage situation expired and Brooks Laich re-directed home a Dennis Wideman feed on the third power play to make it 4-2 heading into the final frame. From there Washington did not give up any odd man rushes and forced the Bruins to shoot from the perimeter. After Mike Knuble missed an empty net that would have made it 5-2, Boston scored with 3:13 to go but Tomas Vokoun (30 saves), who was close to excellent in this one, slammed the door shut and the Caps left Beantown with two big points.

Dale Hunter’s crew has been playing better recently and is 2-0-1 in their last three games with the one loss coming to Carolina in overtime, a game in which they had 49 shots on goal. What has been the change that has turned things around? Is it an urgency to their game? Are they firing more pucks on net and battling to the cage? Are they playing desperate hockey? The answer to each of those questions is yes, for the most part, but that doesn’t explain it all.

To me, it is some recent lineup adjustments that has spurred this better play on. For the first time since Nicklas Backstrom went out with his concussion injury in early January, Hunter seems to be getting consistently solid play up the middle of the ice. The head coach moved Brooks Laich to center and Marcus Johansson to wing. In addition, Beagle’s role has been expanded and he is centering the third line. This configuration gives the Capitals bigger and stronger guys to fill the important low man role in Hunter’s man to man defensive system. Laich and Beagle are more solid on defense than the smaller Johansson, who can be moved out of position easier because of his lack of physical size. You still have Mathieu Perreault centering the second line but he is only playing 13 to 14 minutes. So instead of 35 plus minutes a game with a smaller center duo, Hunter now has Laich (21:48) and Beagle (18:10) playing above 35 minutes at the pivot. Huge difference at both ends of the ice, if you ask me.

The added bonus to this configuration is Johansson has played better this season as a winger and he doesn’t have so much pressure on him. It is a more balanced scheme. So why didn’t Hunter come up with this sooner, since it appears to be working so well? Well, Laich was playing a good bit of center shortly after Backstrom got hurt but then he injured his knee in the Boston game in early February. It took several weeks for #21 to get healthy and you can’t play the pivot position if your body isn’t right because the spot requires so much energy. As for Beagle, he missed 31 games due to a concussion and it’s taken him a couple of months since then to get in true hockey shape. He is a tireless worker and is finally back to the condition he was before he was knocked out by Arron Asham in October.

So it has taken time to develop, but Hunter’s best center configuration appears to have to include Laich and Beagle right now. Both are good defenders and among the hardest workers on the club. You can’t win in the NHL without centers and that was a big reason why the Capitals have struggled to find consistency since Backstrom went down. If Hunter sticks with Laich as top line pivot and #83 slotted in the third line position, and both stay healthy, then I think that gives Washington the best chance to do well over the last 14 games and win the Southeast Division. There may be some bad matchups along the way, but overall this lineup increases the Capitals win probability.

On Sunday at 5 pm the Caps are right back at it against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Verizon Center. A win would put them at 76 points with 13 contests left on the docket, including a five game road trip that starts Tuesday on Long Island. Saturday’s victory over the Bruins was important, but a loss against the Leafs would pretty much waste what would be a very big weekend for this hockey team.

So they can’t afford a let down, there is too much at stake, plus the Caps have some tough games coming up away from home.

Notes: Roman Hamrlik and Knuble were back in the lineup for the suspended Mike Green and scratched Jeff Halpern. Both were solid in their 13:29 and 11:26 of ice time, respectively…Matt Hendricks and Semin had the other goals. Both played excellent games with #28 getting two points and being a +2…Karl Alzner and John Carlson did a nice job against a red hot Boston line of Lucic, David Krejci, and Tyler Seguin. Both Krejci and Seguin were held off of the scoresheet…Washington finally won the special teams battle for the first time since 2/17 going 1 for 3 on the PP while killing both Boston man advantage situations (thanks to @JapersRink for that info).

 

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