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Caps & Other Hockey Thoughts on the Eve of the Stanley Cup Finals

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Caps & Other Hockey Thoughts on the Eve of the Stanley Cup Finals

Posted on 29 May 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Now that it has been over two weeks and the dust has settled on another crushing playoff defeat, Capitals fans can look forward to the Stanley Cup Finals and the exciting things to come for their team following it. This Caps off-season will be like no other in the recent past because General Manager George McPhee not only has to select a new coach, he has two first round choices in the 2012 NHL draft (11th and 16th overall picks), and he also has a lot of salary cap room to work with for the first time since perhaps the summer of 2008. With the Alexander Semin departure freeing up $6.7M on the books and Dennis Wideman’s $3.5M hit expiring along with some other smaller contracts that have ended (see Mike Knuble and Tomas Vokoun), GMGM has some flexibility to reshape the team and hopefully fill the holes that has prevented the club from advancing past the second round of the playoffs over the last five years.

So with that as a stage setter, here are 10 thoughts on the Caps, the NHL, the Memorial Cup, as well as my Stanley Cup Finals prediction:

- With the Finals starting Wednesday (8 pm on NBC), Tuesday was media day at “The Rock” in New Jersey. One of my favorite quotes of the afternoon came from Kings coach Darryl Sutter when he was talking about what turned it around for his club after it struggled during much of the regular season. He began by talking about guys starting to understand his system but then focused on center Mike Richards ability to find his game again in mid March after suffering a concussion earlier in the campaign. He then said the addition of Jeff Carter from Columbus at the trade deadline was the final piece needed since it allowed him to spread the offensive wealth. Specifically, he was talking about Kings superstar forward Anze Kopitar, who was having a hard time scoring goals. “At that position, you can’t be great all by yourself,” said Sutter. That excellent quote, which explains a lot, could easily be uttered by several other teams in the league who struggle to win consistently without two true scoring lines (see the Caps and Alexander Ovechkin).

- It is always tough to watch the playoff round following the one in which your team is eliminated and that was truly the case this spring once Washington was bounced by the Rangers in seven games. I fully expected the Caps to knock off the Rags but the bounces did not go the Capitals way at all in games three and five and Henrik Lundqvist was superb in net. Coach John Tortorella also received excellent play from defensemen Michael Del Zotto and forward Marian Gaborik in that series. Against the Devils, it was a different story and New Jersey dominated the Blueshirts before dispatching them in six games. Del Zotto was terrible against Peter DeBoer’s club and Gaborik disappeared like Jimmy Hoffa. On Frozen Blog’s John Keeley, before the Devils series against New York, penned a super blog on Lou Lamoriello’s club. John was spot on about the Devils talent and style of play and had the Caps beaten the Rangers, I don’t think they would’ve have been able to defeat the three time Stanley Cup Champions, but I sure would have liked to have seen Dale Hunter and company try!

- Speaking of Tortorella, there is no doubt that he is a super hockey mind but his abrupt and abrasive press conferences following playoff defeats became a hot topic in the Washington and then the New Jersey series. It got so bad that super NHL Network analysts’ Kevin Weekes and Craig Button finally called him out on it. Everyone knew Torts was trying to deflect criticism of his club and put the heat on himself, but the Rangers bench boss clearly took it too far. However, the man who has a very classy side, as was displayed on HBO’s 24/7 series, smartly changed his ways and was insightful and more patient with the media even while his team lost the last three contests to give away a chance to play in the Stanley Cup Finals. He was even more revealing and truly honest this past Monday during his club’s breakdown day. He talked about how certain players get what the team is trying to do while others do not. He said it would be up to the organization to get rid of those not on board. You can’t be much more up front than that and it was certainly refreshing to hear a truthful assessment of a team following their defeat with no excuses offered (such as Phoenix blaming the referees in the Western Conference Finals). Kudos to Tortorella, who also FULLY endorsed assistant coach Mike Sullivan for any NHL head coaching opening. Well done John, I was tough on you this post season but you’ve gone way up again in my book with your late playoff changed ways with the media, who work hard to promote the game many of us truly love. Perhaps I’ll take a cue from Torts and go easier on the referees next season??!! On second thought, I will have to think a little bit more on that one. ;)

- As for Sullivan, it is rumored that Calgary is the leading destination for the former Boston Bruins bench boss given his past relationship with Flames GM Jay Feaster in Tampa. Many once fired coaches learn and improve the second time around (see Bill Belichick and Joe Torre) and “Sully” seems to be the hot prospect this spring. I imagine the Capitals have strong interest in the New York assistant too given that the style Washinton played under Hunter is similar to what Sullivan and Tortorella were using in New York. With all of the moving pieces McPhee has going on this summer it will be interesting to see if Washington’s GM sets up his roster first before picking a head coach (the patient route that New Jersey took last summer with DeBoer) or he selects a coach and shapes the roster to fit the new coach’s style. Put me in the first category as I think the Capitals need to play a style like they played this post season. They need to continue to be responsible in their own end. Now if GMGM adds some offensive talent, and there is no doubt he has top six forwards in mind, then the club can be more aggressive offensively like New Jersey and Los Angeles are doing now, but both teams still have a STRONG defensive foundation at the root of their respective systems.

- When it comes to defense, I have to wonder what the heck happened to the Pittsburgh Penguins this spring?! That club was most people’s pick to go to and win the Finals this June but Coach Dan Bylsma’s squad fell flat on their faces. The Pens clearly lost their focus down the stretch and their play away from the puck, especially in their own end, was just awful. They had the most talented roster in the Eastern Conference and laid an egg in the first round. It is more proof that you have to be responsible defensively if you want to win the Stanley Cup and Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and company seemed to have forgotten all of the good defensive lessons former coach Michel Therrien taught them before being dismissed during their 2008-09 Cup winning season. Wide open hockey does not work in the post season, plain and simple, just ask the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers and they will confirm that axiom.

- After Hunter left his post here in Washington, he immediately went to sit in the press box and watch his London Knights battle for the Memorial Cup, which is the championship tournament featuring a pre determined host city and the three winners of Canada’s top junior leagues (the Western Hockey League (WHL), the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMHJL), and the Ontario Hockey League (OHL)). London won from the OHL, Edmonton represented the WHL, while the defending Memorial Cup champs, the Saint John Sea Dogs, represented the QMHJL. The host city, Shawinigan, was the fourth club. The host Cataractes ended up defeating Hunter’s club in overtime of the final game to capture the Cup in a 2-1 thriller. Both goalies (Michael Houser of London and Gabriel Girard of Shawinigan) were impressive in the final match as were several other already NHL drafted players. Jarred Tinordi (Montreal), Austin Watson (Nashville), and Brandon Gormley (Phoenix) really stood out for me and seem poised to have good NHL careers. Russian Krill Kabanov (Islanders), who had one crazy junior career, did some nice things as well but it remains to be seen if he turns out to be an every day NHLer. The undrafted player that was high on my radar was Max Domi of London, son of former Leafs and Rangers tough guy, Tie. The 17 year old, who is draft eligible in 2013, was all over the ice with his speed and tenacious play. He isn’t big right now size wise, but he plays large and I have to think many teams will be very interested in him next June.

- Stan Galiev, of the Caps, played again for Saint John in the Memorial Cup, and the 2010 third round pick seems to have a bright future. He projects to be a top six offensive player but personally I think it would be wise for Washington to let him get at least a year in Hershey to properly develop and gain size and confidence.  The Russian forward will definitely help the Bears next season, who will not have former AHL Calder Cup MVP Chris Bourque back next year. Bourque, who very recently became a first time father, was traded on Sunday to Boston for center Zach Hamill. Hamill was the 8th overall pick in the 2007 draft and is still just 23 years old. He should help Hershey next season, as well.

- After last February’s NHL trade deadline I asked an NHL scout, with over 20 years in the business, why Tampa didn’t get a goalie this season when it was clear that it was their biggest hole and was certain to prevent them from making the playoffs despite the great goal scoring year Steven Stamkos was having. The scout said something that was quite telling. “It is not as easy as it seems to find what you need.” I expect Tampa to go after Vokoun or some other veteran goalie this summer to go along with youngster Dustin Tokarski, who won the 2008 Memorial Cup with Spokane.

- By the way, that scout’s quote is clearly relevant to what McPhee has been dealing with when it comes to second line center. GMGM knows he needs a center, but he’s been unable to get one for many reasons. As I said above, this summer might be his best chance, given the flexibility he finally has in terms of salary cap room. However, it takes two to tango and you can bet that other GM’s may not be willing to give what the Capitals desperately need without getting something significant back. Recent history shows though, that getting the superstar player while sacrificing lesser players, draft picks, and prospects is a recipe for success. Los Angeles, who did that to get Richards and Carter, and New Jersey, who did the same in acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk, both went that route and have been rewarded with a shot at the Cup. Pittsburgh did the same when it plucked Marian Hossa from Atlanta back in 2008. So it seems to make sense for GMGM to be aggressive and try and hit the home run on the center position this summer by giving up some assets to finally get an elite player to complement Nicklas Backstrom up the middle and alleviate some of the pressure on Ovechkin.

- Finally, I am going with the Kings in five games in the Stanley Cup Finals. Los Angeles is just rolling right now and my only concern with them is their eight day layoff. I can’t see their power play continuing to struggle the way it has to date in the post season. I love the way the Devils play the game and Zach Parise is one of the best players in the NHL right now. However, I think they are over matched in this series and if they don’t win game one, then this thing could be over quick. However, if New Jersey holds serve at home against a LA squad that is perfect on the road this post season, then anything can happen. That is why they play the games. Enjoy!

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Road Trip Starts Well for Caps

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Road Trip Starts Well for Caps

Posted on 18 January 2012 by Ed Frankovic

After Tuesday night’s bad 3-0 loss to the New York Islanders I blogged afterwards that I felt that coach Dale Hunter had the Capitals situation in control based on how he historically stays on an even keel. I thought that he would not get emotional following that game and get the team focused, more importantly, on the task at hand, a contest in Montreal on Wednesday night.

Hunter and his team proceeded to prove me right one night following that terrible defeat on home ice with a 3-0 victory at the Bell Centre.

The Caps came out strong and got two early goals on Montreal goalie Carey Price (13 saves) then added a power play tally by Alexander Ovechkin in period two before riding some good penalty killing and goaltending in the final stanza. Michal Neuvirth stopped all 31 shots he faced, including 17 in the third period when referees Stephen Walkom and Gord Dwyer turned in one of the worst officiating periods in modern day hockey. Simply put, those two guys were a joke with the calls made on Washington and those not made against the Habs in those last 20 minutes. “Typical Montreal” as Flyers Coach Peter Laviolette would say.

But nothing was getting past Neuvirth on Wednesday, regardless of the zebras and their inept work. #30 hadn’t played since the day after Christmas and he made a statement to coach Hunter that he should get more time in the cage going forward. Tomas Vokoun, who started the last 10 games, has been playing well too so Dale has an enviable position of having two goalies that are hot, something that has not happened so far in the Capitals 2011-12 season. Simply put, this is a nice problem for a coach to have. Competition is good and forces players to improve.

The Caps had struggled on the road coming into this tilt going 7-12-1 this season and they hadn’t gotten a two goal lead away from the Verizon Center since November 3rd against Carolina (a 5-1 victory; h/t @VogsCaps). Tonight they got at least one gift from Price (Marcus Johansson’s goal) and took advantage of that by playing a classic road game. Washington only gave up 14 shots in the first two frames before the officiating bonanza. The Capitals, however, only had 10 shots on net through 40 minutes themselves, something they must improve on. Another thing that needs correcting is the execution of odd man rushes. Washington had three 2 on 1 breaks in the final frame and didn’t get a really good shot on net on any of them. Hunter needs to get the team to realize that many times the best pass is a shot that leads to a rebound.

Fortunately, the Capitals didn’t need to score on those odd man rushes on this night, but going forward they must start converting, especially when they go up against the better teams in the Eastern Conference (like the Boston Bruins).

But tonight, the Caps refocused after a bad loss, taking a cue from their head coach, and did what they needed to do, win a game on the road against a struggling team. With the next five of six away from the Verizon Center, this was a very good start to a big road stretch.

Notes:  The zebras called a bizarre six minute minor (2 for elbowing, 4 minutes for high sticking) on John Erskine in the final frame but Washington killed it off.. Brooks Laich was outstanding blocking shots on the penalty kill and was credited with four blocks overall…Montreal had seven power plays to just four for Washington…Mathieu Perreault got a sweater on Wednesday for the first time in a week and made the most of it potting the first Washington goal. #85 only played 6:09…Johansson took a hit from Josh Gorges to the hip/knee late in the third period and didn’t return. Hopefully MJ90 is okay because the Caps can’t afford to lose another center with Nicklas Backstrom still out…speaking of Backstrom, Matt Hendricks took on cheap shot specialist Rene Bourque 75 seconds into the game as a pay back for Bourque’s hit to #19′s head. Bourque won the fight but the message was sent…the Caps won 37 of the 63 face-offs (59%)…next up for the Caps are the Hurricanes in Raleigh on Friday night before a Sunday 12:30 pm start with the Penguins in Pittsburgh on NBC.

 

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Caps Lose But Hunter Has Situation Handled

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Caps Lose But Hunter Has Situation Handled

Posted on 17 January 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The Caps got shut out at home Tuesday night to the New York Islanders, 3-0. The defeat cost them a chance to move into sole possession of first place in the Southeast Division since Florida is up just a point on the Capitals.

I will pull no punches and just flat out say that this Washington team was pretty bad tonight. They made big mistakes in their own zone at even strength and shorthanded and it cost them three goals. At the other end of the ice, they didn’t get enough pucks or bodies to the net five on five or on their power plays and that is why the red light never went on for them.

The Islanders scored two power play goals while Washington had none. Both goaltenders, Tomas Vokoun (25 saves) for the Caps and Evgeny Nabokov (17 saves) for New York, were good, although the Isles net minder had a relatively easy night outside of some Alexander Ovechkin chances. The puck also bounced New York’s way a few times but when you are the club that is working harder, that is the way that black rubber disc usually goes.

Clearly the Capitals have some issues, they’ve been outshot routinely lately and when it comes to scoring chances they aren’t on the positive side of the ledger in that area either on the majority of nights. I put a lot of that on their weakness up the center of the ice that is compounded by the absence of Nicklas Backstrom (still out due to head injury suffered from Rene Bourque cheap shot).

There was a lot not to like about this Tuesday night game in the middle of the season. So naturally, I waited after the game to see how Caps Coach Dale Hunter would react. Knowing ole’ number 32 as long as I have (since he came to the Caps in 1987), I had a pretty good idea what he’d do and once again, I was right.

Lots of coaches would come in and huff and puff or blow a gasket after a game like that. They would get emotional and wear themselves and likely their team out after a performance like this one. You didn’t see that happen with Hunter tonight and I’ll bet the bottom dollar in my wallet that might never happen with him. In fact, when the Caps win, you won’t see him sky high either, so get used to those type of press conferences.

Hunter has been around this game his whole life. He is smart enough to see the issues and work to address them. Unlike what Tampa Coach Guy Boucher has been doing lately, he won’t wear his heart on his sleeve in the post game pressers. Hunter handles the media portion of his job the right way and he made it pretty clear tonight that “the video won’t lie.” He’ll point out those mistakes on Wednesday morning as the Caps get ready to take on Montreal and the players will get the message. But that message won’t carry any additional emotional baggage. Through the course of an 82 game season that is what a hockey team needs, and I believe the Capitals will be better in the spring because of it.

Yes, they laid a clunker tonight and the fan base is obviously upset. There are concerns on the ice from a personnel standpoint and the execution needs to improve, but you won’t see Hunter getting all worked up over it. That is why he is the right coach for this collection of players, they don’t need to be beaten down right now, they need to have their mistakes pointed out and made to work to address them.

The Caps have rarely looked that bad at home this season, but games like that happen. It was a discouraging performance, but with Hunter behind the bench, I wouldn’t go jumping off of any bridges. Hunter certainly won’t do that, he’ll just come to work on Wednesday and focus on beating Montreal. That’s what you want from a coach and I imagine his players will feed off of that commitment.

Going on what I know about Hunter and seeing time and time again how he stays on an even keel after each game, I am still confident that he has things handled, especially when it comes to getting this Caps team past this poor performance against the Islanders.

Notes: Mike Green had abdominal surgery today and will miss four to six weeks…Bourque was traded to Montreal last week so the Capitals will get a chance to get back at the cheap shot artist on Wednesday. I am sure the league has put both teams on notice and the referees will be calling everything to prevent things from gettting out of hand…speaking of the referees, Stephane Auger and Dan O’Rourke turned in a poor effort. They didn’t cost the Caps the game but they were terribly inconsistent. Jason Chimera was hit from behind in period one but all that was whistled was the retaliatory slash from #25. Then late in the 3rd period Ovechkin was called for cross checking when it was apparent the Islander d-man was losing an edge and fell to the ice as the Gr8 made minimal contact with him…the Islanders had six power plays to just three for the Caps…Washington won the face-off battle, 25-19.

 

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Caps Special at Home Again

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Caps Special at Home Again

Posted on 03 January 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin is red hot and that usually means the Washington Capitals are winning hockey games. The Gr8 scored a power play goal just 1:11 into Tuesday’s game against the Calgary Flames then Troy Brouwer potted a rebound of Oveckhin’s power play point shot in the middle frame and the Caps went on to win 3-1 against the Calgary Flames at the Verizon Center.

Special teams are often a difference maker in hockey games and that was definitely the case on Tuesday as Washington went 2 for 3 with the man advantage and killed off all four of Calgary’s power plays. Nicklas Backstrom had three assists before exiting the game after taking a terrible cheap shot elbow to the head in the neutral zone from Rene Bourque. #19 will be evaluated on Wednesday and hopefully he doesn’t have a concussion. Nicky did play one shift after absorbing the unnecessary blow from Bourque, who has already been suspended once this season for a bad hit on Chicago’s Brent Seabrook. Those type of hits have no place in the NHL right now and the Flames forward needs to sit at least three games for that stupid play.

As for Ovechkin, well he is rolling right now and had his fourth straight multiple point game. It is no coincidence that the Capitals have won all four of those games. You win when your best players are your best players and Ovie now has 11 points in his last seven games and for the year now is up to 17 goals and 16 assists. Look out NHL, the Gr8 is back and playing extremely well under Caps Coach Dale Hunter. Backstrom is up to 42 points and in the top 10 in the NHL in scoring.

The penalty killing was superb against the Flames. The #1 person in that equation is usually your goaltender and Tomas Vokoun (18 saves) was excellent between the pipes. But Washington’s skaters really got it done against Calgary giving up only three shots on net while shorthanded and on the next to last penalty late in regulation, the Flames didn’t even get a shot on goal! Overall the Caps blocked a season high 24 shots and as assistant coach Jim Johnson likes to say, good things are going to happen when his club blocks between 20 and 25 shots in a game. That is some solid work there on the defensive end and a big reason for the victory.

In addition to Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Vokoun, the Capitals received another really solid game from sophomore Marcus Johansson. The young Swede, who was recently shifted to the wing by Hunter, made a super pass to set up the Gr8′s one timer for the first tally and his one on three rush in the middle frame allowed Backstrom to grab the puck and find an all alone Dennis Wideman for the goal that gave Washington a two puck cushion. MJ90 has four points in his last four games and looks very comfortable on left wing next to Backstrom.

Mike Green made his return to the lineup for the first time since being injured on November 11th and #52 looked rusty in 15:43 of ice time. He was caught out of position on two occassions that led to Flames quality scoring chances but Vokoun had his back both times. The off night is to be expected when a guy misses 29 of 30 hockey games and it was clear he needs conditioning work. But getting Green back on Tuesday was important for Washington as they prepare to take on some of the NHL’s elite teams. They have San Jose and Los Angeles in California on Saturday and Monday before coming home next Wednesday to take on the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The bad news is that Alexander Semin missed this game with an undisclosed injury and if Backstrom turns out to have concussion like symptoms that would take two of the Capitals top six forwards out of the lineup. Semin has been playing superbly the last six games so losing him really weakens a Washington offense that is starting to hit its’ stride by generating chances from solid defensive play.

So the Caps once again scored early at home and rode that to victory. They’ve now won six of their last seven at the Verizon Center. Winning on the road though, has been a much tougher chore and they have not tallied in the opening 20 minutes in the last six away games. In addition, they haven’t won a game in San Jose since 1993 so the odds are stacked against them on Saturday night. The good news is they have the rest of the week to prepare for it. Green should be in better shape by then and hopefully Semin and Backstrom are okay because the Sharks are hot right now making the game a good barometer for how much Washington has improved since Hunter took over behind the bench.

Notes: The Caps are now 21-15-2 overall and 9-6-1 under Hunter…Washington dominated the draws going 34-20 from the face-off dot…Curtis Glencross scored the Flames only goal when Karl Alzner and John Carlson both made uncharacteristic mistakes on a play that also included a sweet pass from Jarome Iginla to set up #20 in front for an easy marker…with Semin out, Hunter dressed 7 defensemen but John Erskine only played 4:48…Jeff Schultz and Mathieu Perreault were the other scratches…the Caps game in San Jose starts at 1030 pm Eastern Time on Saturday night…I was on with Drew Forrester on the WNST Morning Show talking Caps hockey on Tuesday morning and you can hear the audio from that here.

 

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Vokoun Helps Caps Reach 4-0

Posted on 15 October 2011 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals raced out to an early 2-0 lead midway through the first period on goals by Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson and then once again rode the excellent goaltending of Tomas Vokoun (33 saves) en route to a 2-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators. This victory, the Capitals first in regulation in the 2011-12 campaign, improves their record to 4-0. This is the third time in franchise history they have started with four straight wins (1991-92 and 1997-98). The Caps are now 3-0 at the Verizon Center this season after Saturday night’s win.

Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis from the 109th consecutive home sellout:

- Vokoun once again bailed his teammates out, like he did on Thursday night in Pittsburgh. He continues to be solid with his positioning and make the big save despite still trying to figure out how his skaters are going to play in front of him. He still has had some adventures playing the puck and the communication with his defenders is not totally worked out yet. Still, if he isn’t in goal these last two games Washington likely loses. The Caps have to be encouraged by the 35 year old Czech’s ability to find ways to win games for his team.

“The one that he stopped on [Milan] Michalek – We have a great shift going and then all of the sudden the puck is sitting there. It’s nobody’s mistake, somebody thinks somebody’s taking it somebody else, and then he gets a breakaway. It’s not us playing badly…it was just a miscommunication and Tomas [Vokoun] came up big and he came up big in the last 20 seconds,” said Boudreau on his club and his goaltender.

- Washington outshot the Senators 14-8 in the first period and dominated the first 19 minutes of the contest. However, a terrible giveaway by Dennis Wideman in his own zone and then some poor play by Roman Hamrlik and the Washington forwards led to a goal for Ottawa with just over 25 seconds left in period one.  From then on out, the Senators seemed to have extra jump and in the middle frame they were all over the Caps outshooting them 12-4. The Capitals did too much watching and not enough skating in that period and an inferior opponent made them look bad, but fortunately for Washington, their goalie held the fort. In the third period, the Capitals had a little more jump but still, they were outplayed by Ottawa and outshot 14-8. Afterwards, Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau credited Ottawa for their hard work, and rightly so. But my issue is with the Caps play. It was unacceptable and if they can’t out work a team like Ottawa then there has to be some concern, especially when all we’ve heard the Washington players talk about since training camp opened was being the team that won the work ethic battle each night. In the last two games, including a tilt against hated rival Pittsburgh, the Capitals have been crushed in the effort department.

“They are not satisfied and that’s great. If we thought we were king of the world right now then it would probably be a little bit more difficult. It’s a tough league, whoever you play. You can say what you want about Ottawa, but they were a very motivated club tonight and they played very hard,” said Boudreau afterwards about a Senators team that responded well after being drilled 7-1 by Colorado in their last start.

- Ottawa came into this contest ranked first on the power play so a Capitals priority was to stay out of the box on Saturday night. The only penalty called on Washington was on Karl Alzner in the first period, and that was a questionable one, but the Caps killed it off. Washington received three power plays in the first 25 minutes scoring on their first one. Mike Knuble (2 assists) worked the puck out from behind the net, fed Alexander Semin at the left post, and #28 made a super cross crease pass to Backstrom for an easy tally. On the next two power plays, the Caps struggled to get things set up so they finished 1-3 on the night. It was encouraging to see Alexander Ovechkin off of the point on those three manpower advantages as Mike Green, Wideman, and Hamrlik manned the blue line in those situations. The power play still needs work but it is improving.

“We didn’t want to take any penalties against them and didn’t do that. We had some chances to break it open but we didn’t do it. In the clutch, we did what we had to do. Not every game is going to be beautiful and the other team wants to win too,” added Boudreau.

- Hamrlik has been mostly paired with Green and on paper should be an upgrade in the mobility department over #52′s old d-partners, Shaone Morrisonn, Jeff Schultz, and Scott Hannan. However, #44 is not as good of a skater as I first thought and has looked shaky in the last two games. He and Wideman, as mentioned above, were out of sync on the Ottawa tally. It is only October so hopefully the 38 year old Czech, who is -1 through four games but has been on the ice for 7 of the 11 goals the Caps have allowed (h/t  @JapersRink), finds his legs and improves once he gets more experience playing with Green and the other Washington defenders.

“The more you play, you get some confidence and you feel better out there. The other five defenseman on our team, they are good players; they can move the puck. I am getting used [to] the guys,” said Hamrlik following the game. #44 played in his 1,315th career NHL game, passing Bobby Holik for the most NHL games played by a Czech native.

 - At the end of the day, a win is a win and those two previous Capitals clubs that went 4-0 did have a lot of success, so that bodes well. One went to the Stanley Cup Finals (98) and the other blew a 3-1 first round lead to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Penguins in the first round following a super regular season. That was a very talented Capitals team that came very close to beating a loaded Pittsburgh club. Goaltending was the difference in that 1992 loss, but the Caps just might finally have a big game goalie now, like they did with Olie Kolzig in 1998.

Notes: Forward DJ King received his first start of the season with Jay Beagle being kept out for precautionary reasons after getting hurt in his fight with Arron Asham. King was pointless but even in nine shifts and 6:58 TOI…Johansson’s goal was a beautiful individual effort and the young Swede used his speed to sneak a wraparound tally by Alex Auld (24 saves)…Washington lost the faceoff battle, 33-28. Jeff Halpern was 3-2, the only Cap that was above 50%…next up for the Caps are the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night at the Verizon Center…Owner Ted Leonsis noted that the Caps are putting 400 individual tickets on sale online before each game to give fans who can’t afford season tickets access to the team for games. That is a great idea given that the team sold out all season tickets and now have a waiting list…the Hershey Bears had a chance to start 4-0 as well but lost in OT to the Norfolk Admirals, 6-5, in the home opener at the Giant Center. Braden Holtby made 22 saves in the loss. Keith Aucoin had four assists and Chris Bourque had a goal and was +1. Bourque had five points in a 7-5 victory in Norfolk on Friday night.

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Caps Blanked in Baltimore Hockey Classic

Posted on 21 September 2011 by Ed Frankovic

The streets of Charm City were filled with fans decked out in red and the energy in 1st Mariner Arena was super, but unfortunately the Washington Capitals were unable to score any goals in the inaugural Baltimore Hockey Classic and lost, 2-0, to the Nashville Predators. An announced sellout crowd of over 11,000 witnessed the first professional hockey game at the arena since the Baltimore Bandits left for Cincinnati in 1997. It was a super event for the city of Baltimore and something that Caps Owner Ted Leonsis and General Manager George McPhee felt was a good idea to do given the growing Capitals fan base just 30+ miles up the BW Parkway.

“We’re thrilled to bring Washington Capitals hockey to the Baltimore market. Tuesday’s game will pump revenue into the local economy and serve as a great public-private partnership between the city and the Capitals,” said McPhee of the event.

There is no doubt the local businesses in the area received a spike from this game and despite the fact that the ice conditions weren’t exactly stellar - I don’t think anyone is going to confuse that surface with Rexall Place – it was indeed a great night to be a part of.

Now onto the game itself and the all important quotes and analysis from what was a pretty sloppy game due to the heat and humidity in the building.

- When the ice is the way it was on Tuesday, the team that simplifies and minimizes their mistakes usually wins. Nashville did that as their two tallies came as a result of Washington defensive zone turnovers, something that plagued them in their series loss to Tampa Bay last spring. On each goal scored by the Predators there was a turnover by a forward and the defense was unable to cover up for the mistake.

“On the first goal, [assistant coach] Bob [Woods] said it was the winger. On the second, Michal [Neuvirth] said it was a two on one and the guy tried to pass it and it hit our guy and came right back to him so it was an easy play. The first one I do know that we made a bad change and that’s what left [Shea] Weber so alone in front of the net to be able to make that play,” said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau on Nashville’s two goals.

“They just didn’t get the building cold enough, but it is what it is. There was less water in Florida [last night], but they had the building colder…the conditions were what they were, a hot building so you’ve really got to be mentally tough. We talked about let’s keep it simple, we can’t control the humidity and the heat and all of that…and it worked for us,” said Nashville coach Barry Trotz on how his club approached the way the game would have to be played.

“It’s hard to handle the puck out there. The conditions made a difference but both teams were playing on it. You see how wet the ice is, so sometimes you get the puck and kind of worry about if you handle it is it going to get stuck in the water? So I just tried to focus on moving the puck quick and getting it off of my stick,” added Caps defensemen Sean Collins on what he tried to do when he was on the ice.

- The best player for Washington on this night, in my book, was goalie Michal Neuvirth. #30 faced a lot of rubber, many of which came on quality chances due to Washington turnovers in their own zone. Both tallies were not the fault of the goaltender, he pretty much had no chance on either goal.

“It is usually the younger players, the hungrier players, that you see take over in games like this and I thought this was the case in this game tonight. The younger players were probably the better players or shined brighter, if there was anyone shining. I thought Michal Neuvirth is still pretty young and I thought he was a guy that played very steady for us tonight,” said Boudreau on the play of his young netminder.

- The 3rd and 4th lines for Washington provided the most effort and in particular Stanislav Galiev, Jay Beagle, and DJ King stood out for me.

“DJ King I thought had a pretty good game, guys that are fighting for jobs. Beagle, working really hard out there like he always does. Those were the guys that shined,” said Boudreau, who also praised Galiev’s ability to generate scoring chances.

“I think our line, right off the hop, we had a couple of good scoring opportunities we couldn’t bury. Obviously I’d like that one goal back, the puck bobbed on me and they ended up burying it. You have to play your role and play your game. I think they outworked us and that is what it came down to. We got to get it deep. You saw that when we got it deep we had it in there for the whole shift that we were out. You get the puck deep, you grind it out, and you take it to the net. Give it to the D, they had a couple of shots with tips and deflections. The puck just wasn’t going our way, but I think our line once we got it deep and got it going we played well,” said Beagle on what he thought of his line which included King and Garrett Mitchell.

- As for Washington’s more established players and stars, there wasn’t a lot of quality performances with Alexander Ovechkin having some nice shifts but many of the others not really playing well or hard.

“It’s hard for the skill [in this type of preseason game], but at the same time it is always easy to judge effort…you can tell the effort that is given and the effort that is received,” commented Boudreau, who felt that his younger guys were the ones who worked harder.

- On the special teams front, the Capitals power play only received two opportunities. On the first one, the initial unit featured Mike Green and Chris Bourque on the point with Ovechkin, Marucs Johansson, and Mike Knuble up front. Washington’s other power play came late in the game and the coach was able to try a few different combinations since he is in “try out” mode.

“Just experimenting, seeing what clicks, what didn’t click, trying to find fits. It’s one of these things for the next 17 days we’ll experiment with probably, a lot. I’d like to see something click and stay with it for a long period of time. This was the first real chance we had to see it. But what did we have, 2 chances? The last one I thought we had a couple of good opportunities at the end but when you get that sense of urgency on the 6 on 4, that was maybe our best opportunity,” stated Boudreau on what he is trying to do with his once deadly power play unit.

- Nashville didn’t play top six forwards David Legwand or Mike Fisher, but they did play their top defensive pair, and that duo made a difference in this game.

“Weber and [Ryan] Suter, they’re one of the best D pairings in the league, in the world. I know they were playing them quite a bit so I’m sure it was good for our forwards to really get a gauge of where they have to be. There are so many good defensemen here, it was nice for guys like me and Patty [Pat McNeill] to watch and learn from a Suter, a Weber, also Alzner, Green, so it was a learning experience,” added Collins on the benefit of playing a club like Nashville to open the preseason slate.

- Two of McPhee’s off-season additions, goaltender Tomas Vokoun and forward Joel Ward, played for the Predators and afterwards we had a chance to get the opinion of the Nashville bench boss on those Capital acquisitions.

“Tomas Vokoun is a helluva goaltender, they got a really, really good two way player in Joel Ward that was a Mr. Fix it for us. You can use him in a lot of different areas. He plays a little bit of a different game than a lot of guys for the Caps. He used to be a guy that stabilized lines for us, probably very similiar to Brooks Laich. He’s sort of whatever line you put him he puts stability to it, that is what Joel does and he is a great person. They got a good player in Joel. We’ve got some players scattered all over the place,” said Trotz, pretty much noting at the end that the small market nature of Nashville prevents them from keeping their good players from moving on for more money.

- In closing, this was a big night for Baltimore with the return of hockey and the city did a good job of supporting the Capitals, as Boudreau thought would happen based on his experience from his playing days in the AHL.

“I didn’t know what to expect but I do know that when I played here the Baltimore fans were great. So I expected if they’re still following hockey or their children are still following hockey, that they would be rowdy and be good just waiting for us to do something. Unfortunately we didn’t score any goals,” finished Boudreau.

Notes: Boudreau noted that his top guys will get more games this preseason, “Our main guys will probably play more games in this preseason than they’ve played in the past. Four, five, six games rather than the three or four that they’ve played maximum in the past to get ready for the season.”…Trotz added that he was impressed with the renovations in the downtown Baltimore area and also praised the Caps marketing efforts, “The Caps are doing a fantastic job of creating fans in this whole Baltimore Washington DC area and that it is really good, there is a lot of red out here.”…5 foot 9 Ryan Ellis tried to line up Ovechkin for a big hit, at one point, but bounced off of the Great 8 like he was hitting a brick wall…former team Capitals team captain and the man known as the Secretary of Defense, Rod Langway, dropped the ceremonial first puck…the Caps play preseason game number two in Columbus on Wednesday night.

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Caps Makeover Continues: Vokoun Signed in Net

Posted on 02 July 2011 by Ed Frankovic

Yesterday was Canada Day and Washington Capitals GM George McPhee made the Caps one of the big NHL winners on the Great White North’s holiday with his acquisitions of forward Joel Ward, d-man Roman Hamrlik, center Jeff Halpern, and two draft choices (a 1st and 2nd round pick) for a restricted free agent goalie (Semyon Varlamov) that possibly could have been had for just a second round pick via an offer sheet. Late that afternoon, as part of his job, McPhee stated that he was done with his moves in his chat with the media. But the man who has been the Capitals GM since 1997 was simply just keeping a poker face and playing his cards close to the vest. Those who read my blog know that he wasn’t done and this morning owner Ted Leonsis confirmed that the team was still likely to make some trades and maybe sign another free agent (I tweeted this info on twitter last night and this morning, so for Caps updates please follow me @EdFrankovic).

Today, on McPhee’s birthday, the Capitals signed free agent goalie Tomas Vokoun to a one year deal for a measly $1.5M. This is an amazing signing, given the price. Vokoun is a very good goalie, maybe not as naturally talented as Varlamov, but he can steal games for a team and it is something you need in the post season (see Thomas, Tim – Boston Bruins). He shut out the Caps twice last season and has thwarted them several times in the past, so the organization knows how good he can be. This move also provides some insurance in goal. Yes, the Capitals could have gone and would have likely been comfortable with just Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby in net, but with the price so low and injuries likely to happen at some point, this move makes perfect sense. Holtby needs to play and another year with the majority of his time in Hershey won’t hurt him either. Neuvirth was very good in the post season but in the Tampa series he never flat out won a game when Washington desperately needed it. Vokoun, who is 35 today and has played 13 years in the NHL, is clearly looking for a chance to win a Stanley Cup before his time is up and the Capitals give him a great chance to do so.

So are the Caps done now? I still say, NO! The biggest reason is the salary cap, but a clear locker room transformation is occurring as well that is contributing to these acquisitions and decisions to let others leave. So far Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon, Varlamov, Marco Sturm, and Andrew Gordon have signed elsewhere. In addition, it is evident that Scott Hannan and Jason Arnott very likely won’t be back. McPhee still has to sign defensemen Karl Alzner and forward Troy Brouwer (acquired for the Caps 2011 first round pick at last weekend’s draft in Minnesota), who are restricted free agents. King Karl, who made in the $1.7M range last year, is set up for a huge raise and I can’t see his new average annual salary at lower than $3.14M per season. Why do I say that? Because for that figure or less, Alzner could be signed by another team now to an offer sheet and all Washington would receive in return, if they chose not to match, would be a second round pick. McPhee is too smart to let that happen. Leonsis blogged this morning that both King Karl and Brouwer will be inked. Brouwer counted $1.025M against the cap last season and I expect him to garner in the $2M plus range going forward.

The issue with those signings is that the Capitals go over the $64.3M salary cap once they ink both #27 and Brouwer. The Caps can exceed the cap by 10% ($70M) up until game one of the regular season, but clearly someone has to be moved out, even if Tom Poti and his $2.8M salary cap hit is off of the books due to retirement or long term injured reserve (LTIR). We’ll get to who the likely trade candidates are in a minute, but besides the dollars, an interesting thing is going on with the Capitals here, the team is bringing in veterans who are leaders to counter balance a young locker room. In addition, these are guys who have playoff or big game experience. Brouwer won a Stanley Cup in Chicago in 2010, Hamrlik (chosen 1st overall in 1992 NHL draft by Tampa) has a Gold Medal from the Czech Republic in the 1998 Winter Olympic games, Halpern is a former Caps team captain, and Ward has 17 points in 18 playoff games the last two seasons, including a great second round series versus the Canucks this past spring.

In addition, Brouwer, Ward, and Halpern are guys who can score from the tough areas in front of the opponent’s cage, something Washington did not have enough of on their roster after Mike Knuble and the recently re-signed Brooks Laich (6 years, $27M). Hamrlik should help a struggling power play as well since he has a decent shot that can be launched from the left point. The Caps did not have that type of left handed defensemen on last year’s roster. These are positive moves on the ice and off of it and if guys adopt #21′s work ethic, this team could be extremely good when it matters.

The previous two off-seasons the Capitals didn’t make many moves expecting that growth from within would help improve the club. That worked, but only in the regular season as evidenced by a Presidents’ Trophy (2010) and an Eastern Conference regular season title (2011) before first and second round playoff losses, respectively. This year McPhee, who along with Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau is likely feeling pressure to produce in the post season, isn’t taking any chances by standing pat. He is being aggressive, but also smart at the same time. The types of players he is bringing in signals that his most recent post season analysis dictated that he add leadership, work ethic, and grit to go along with some highly skilled players. But like I said above, his work is not done yet, there has to be some subtraction to make the numbers work.

Will it be Alexander Semin and his $6.7M salary? After all, #28 hasn’t delivered in the playoffs the last three years other than against the New York Rangers. As talented and skilled as he is, the types of goals he scores from October to early April don’t seem to occur in the playoffs when the game changes. He also isn’t known as the hardest worker, so could a Semin trade become addition by subtraction? There could be merit to that statement. Other candidates to be moved are Mike Green at $5.2M (entering last year of his contract), Jeff Schultz ($2.75M cap hit), and Eric Fehr ($2.2M).  I don’t see Green getting traded since the team needs guys who can move the puck on the back line. As for #55 and #16, possibly, but moving only one doesn’t seem to make the math totally work, after all, McPhee also likes to have some salary cap room to work with during the season. So if it isn’t 28 or 52, then both Sarge and Fehr would probably need to be moved to make salary cap room.  But if Semin is traded, even for just a draft pick (and hopefully a #1), that should free up more than enough salary cap room for Alzner and Brouwer and might even allow GMGM to go after a second line center.

In summary, I applaud these moves by McPhee. The Caps, on paper, have become a better team. But the club is not done, so stayed tuned as the makeover continues in preparation for a training camp that is now just over two months away.

Notes: I will be on with Drew Forrester on the Comcast Morning Show on WNST on Tuesday, July 5th at 925 am talking about the Capitals and other things happening around the NHL. Listen Live on 1570AM or on WNST.NET…forward Chris Bourque (Caps 2004 2nd round draft pick and three time Hershey Bears Calder Cup winner) has been re-signed by the team today. He is expected to play in Hershey but could be an injury call up…defensemen Sean Collins was re-signed yesterday and will play primarily in Hershey as well…Below is the Capitals full press release on the Vokoun signing:

The Washington Capitals have signed free agent goaltender Tomas Vokoun to a one-year contract, vice president and general manager George McPhee announced today. In keeping with club policy, financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“We are excited to add an elite veteran goaltender to the Capitals,” said McPhee. “We now have a nice blend of talent, depth, experience and youth in the goaltending position.”

Vokoun, 34, completed his 13th NHL season while posting a record of 22-28-5 with a 2.55 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage in 57 games with the Florida Panthers. It marked the eighth consecutive season in which he has recorded 20 or more wins and the third-straight season he has registered a save percentage of .920 or higher. He finished the season ranked sixth in the league in shutouts (6), 10th in save percentage, 12th in saves (1,616) and tied for 19th in goals-against average.

“I’m very excited to join the Washington Capitals organization,” said Vokoun. “It is a terrific team with a lot of talent and I look forward to doing everything I can for us to reach our ultimate goal in winning the Stanley Cup.”

The 6’, 215-pound netminder has played the fifth-most games among active goaltenders (632) and ranks 39th all-time in career NHL wins (262), 17th in saves (16,957) and 27th in shutouts (44). His .917 career save percentage is tied for sixth in the NHL among active goaltenders and he ranks eighth in wins, fifth in shutouts and 18th in goals-against average (2.56). Vokoun is tied for the best save percentage (.922) in the NHL since the 2005-06 season and is also tied for the fourth-most shutouts in that span (32). The two-time NHL All-Star (2004, 2008), has finished in the top ten in save percentage in five of the last six seasons. In 11 career postseason games with Nashville, Vokoun is 3-8 with a 2.47 goals-against average, a .922 save percentage and one shutout. He is also currently ranked sixth in playoff save percentage among active goaltenders that have appeared in at least 10 games.

The Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic, native led the Czech national team to a gold medal during the 2010 World Championships, posting a record of 7-1 with a 1.57 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage. He also helped backstop the Czechs to a gold medal in the 2005 World Championships and was awarded the Directorate’s Best Goaltender Award while being selected to the tournament All-Star team. In addition, Vokoun captured a bronze medal at the 2006 Olympics and represented the Czech Republic in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. In total, he has represented his country at two Olympics (2006, 2010), one World Cup (2004), four World Championships (2003, 2004, 2005, 2010) and one World Junior Championship (1996), posting a 31-12-1 record with a 1.80 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage in international play.

Vokoun was originally selected by the Montreal Canadiens in the 9th round (226th overall) of the 1994 NHL Entry Draft.   

 

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Caps Notes: Boyd Gordon Signed, 3 File for Arbitration

Posted on 06 July 2010 by Ed Frankovic

Boyd Gordon Signs 1 Year Deal

Below is Tuesday’s press release from the Washington Capitals outstanding PR department:

The Washington Capitals have signed center/right wing Boyd Gordon to a one-year contract, vice president and general manager George McPhee announced today. In keeping with club policy, financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Gordon, 26, completed his seventh professional season with the Capitals in 2009-10 and registered four goals and six assists in 36 games. His ice time was limited due to injury but he led the team with a 61.0% faceoff rate, which would have led the league had he taken enough draws to qualify. He ranked third on the team in average shorthanded ice time (2:39 per game) and had a goal and an assist, both while shorthanded, in the playoffs. 

The Unity, Saskatchewan, native was the Capitals’ first-round choice, 17th overall, in the 2002 Entry Draft and is the longest-tenured Capital on the roster. He has played in 303 career games for Washington, recording 76 points (24 goals, 52 assists) and just 66 penalty minutes. He was also an integral member of the 2006 Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears in the American Hockey League, playing in all 21 playoff games. The former Red Deer Rebel won the Memorial Cup in 2000-01.

COMMENT: Pierre LeBrun of ESPN is reporting that the deal is for $800,000. Gordon had a solid post season and he dominated in the face-off circle and scored a shorthanded goal while also being on the ice for another tally by Mike Knuble. He is a strong fourth line player whose only downside is a cranky back. 

3 Capitals File for Arbitration

On Monday, three Washington Capitals restricted free agents filed for salary arbitration, Eric Fehr, Jeff Schultz, and Tomas Fleischmann. Fehr, Schultz, and “Flash” all had career seasons and are hoping to cash in with big raises. The hearings will be held in Toronto some time between July 20 and August 4th and rulings must be out by August 6th. In the arbitration process the player and the club make their respective cases and a third party determines what is considered a fair salary. The player is bound by the result if the club decides to accept the decision. If the club chooses to “walk away” from the arbitrator’s determined figure, then the player becomes an unrestricted free agent and can sign with any team. Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post provides some good background info here, including pointing out that the Caps and each player can continue negotiating up until the arbitration date.

There have been some critics of the Caps approach to free agency this summer, not only from the media but by some fans on message boards and social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook. The biggest concern voiced has been the lack of action from McPhee on the free agent front. However, given the numerous players on their roster that became restricted free agents (includes the four players already mentioned plus prospects Jay Beagle, Chris Bourque, Andrew Gordon, Patrick McNeill, and Zach Miskovic) and the Capitals salary cap situation (if all of their players are re-signed, they will have around $4.5M remaining; h/t @tarikelbashir) combined with the high prices and the long terms doled out, it is easy to see why the Caps GM has been quiet  on the free agency front. I said it after day one and I’ll say it again now, so far McPhee’s decision to be prudent in free agency is a wise one.

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Caps Wisely Quiet on Day 1 of NHL Free Agency

Posted on 02 July 2010 by Ed Frankovic

NHL free agency began on Thursday, July 1st and the Washington Capitals did not make a single signing. Based on the dollars and length of contracts being inked on day one, it appears to me that Caps GM George McPhee was very wise to stay out of the bidding wars and prevented himself from overpaying for a player that the organization might regret acquiring in a few months or a year or so down the road (see Michael Nylander in 2007).

There has been a lot of talk about the Caps needing a second line center and some even want a physical defenseman to improve the back end. I have been an advocate of another player at center ice but given that the Sharks Patrick Marleua re-upped in San Jose there was not what anyone would call a blue chip player to be inked starting Thursday at noon. One of the next best options appeared to be Matt Cullen from Ottawa, but he hit the jackpot getting $10.5 over three years from the Minnesota Wild. At this late hour, not much is left on the center market, and the player some are calling the best pivot man available, Matthew Lombardi of Phoenix, is asking for $4M plus. In the immortal words of Jeff Spicoli and his stoner buds from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, I say, “No Dice!” to that figure.

On defense, there were some big signings, such as former Nashville Predators blue liner Dan Hamhuis cashing in for $27M over six years in Vancouver. In addition, the New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Ottawa Senators essentially “traded” defensemen with Sergei Gonchar going to Ottawa, Anton Volchenkov moving to New Jersey, and Paul Martin headed to the Steel City. The Penguins also gave former Phoenix Coyotes d-man Zybnek Michalek $20M over five years. In summary, each of these moves was for too much money and too long in terms of years.

Other acquisitions by some NHL general managers were bordering on ridiculous,  especially the Toronto Maple Leafs signing of third line forward Colby Armstrong for $9M for 3 years or the New York Rangers inking fourth line heavyweight Derek Boogaard for $6.5M for four years. Basically, it was a crazy day and those teams that didn’t spend a large sum of money or none at all, were the winners.

Back to the Caps. Just because McPhee did nothing on July 1st, and he hinted at that possibility when he was on the Comcast Morning Show on WNST on Wednesday morning, doesn’t mean the roster is set with what they finished the season with personnel-wise. There are still three more months before the season starts and seven months until the NHL trade deadline. Sure the team and its fans are disappointed with the round one playoff failure this past spring and there is certainly more heat on both McPhee and Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau for the 2010-11 season, but the bottom line is the Capitals still have a young team with a great deal of talent that should continue to mature and improve. 

Yes, the club needs to get tougher and grittier, especially in front of both nets, but to go out and throw caution to the wind in free agency would have been a ”panic” move. Looking inside the organization first for improvements, makes the most sense. Washington’s farm team, the two time defending AHL Champion Hershey Bears, definitely has some players up front that warrant further evaluation such as center Mathieu Perreault and wingers Andrew Gordon and Steve Pinizzotto. Jay Beagle and even Chris Bourque could be guys who have outside shots to make the club in training camp, as well. Both McPhee and Boudreau have already pretty much stated that d-men Karl Alzner and John Carlson will be up full time during 2010-11 and that instantly improves a blue line crew that had its issues, at times, this past season. Another player who the squad will keep an eye on at development camp and then in September is 2009 1st round pick Marcus Johansson (center), but given that he is only 19 and the Caps don’t like to rush young players to the NHL, that possibility appears to be a much longer shot.

The reason so many of the aforementioned players will get a good look in September is because Washington has already indicated that several skaters from the roster, such as Joe Corvo, Eric Belanger, Scott Walker, Brendan Morrison, Shaone Morrisonn, and Milan Jurcina will very likely not be back with the club. Therefore, just because there were no July 1 acquisitions does not mean McPhee and company are going with the same crew they had last season when they won the Presidents’ Trophy, change is going to occur by attrition and internal promotion alone. The question still remains, and likely will do so for several months, what will the Caps bring in from outside of the organziaton for 2010-11, if anything at all? That answer is as clear as mud right now, but McPhee appears to be sticking with an astute plan of “Right player, right price” at this juncture. Stay tuned.

Note: For all of my instant thoughts on free agency and the NHL, please follow me on twitter (@Emfrank123). I had several tweets this evening that formed the basis for this blog, all available at twitter now.

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Hershey Bears Revel Following Unbelievable Season

Posted on 20 June 2010 by Ed Frankovic

The 2009-10 Hershey Bears set an AHL record with 60 wins and fell one point shy of another league record (the Binghamton Rangers had 124 points in 1992-93), but all of that would have pretty much been an afterthought had they not gone on to win the Calder Cup, especially after the Chocolate and White had achieved that feat in 2008-09. When Hershey, who began the finals coming off of a second long layoff in this year’s playoffs, fell behind two games to none by dropping two contests on home ice to open the AHL Championship series, the task of defending their Calder Cup title seemed daunting, especially since no AHL team had ever rallied from that type of deficit in league history. But this Bears team was no ordinary one and a group led by Captain Bryan Helmer won the next four contests to complete what many players called “an unbelievable season” as they celebrated in their building with the league trophy immediately following the series winning victory. It was the first time in 30 years that Hershey fans were able to witness the Cup clinching by their beloved team live in their city.

Unbelievable was a word that those of us who were fortunate to be down on the Giant Center ice covering the revelry (h/t to the great John Walton) heard from many, to include AHL Playoffs MVP Chris Bourque, 2010 USA World Junior Hero John Carlson, and center Mathieu Perreault.

“Obviously I am happy about the MVP but the big trophy is the Calder Cup. It’s unbelievable, three times in five years is not bad, you don’t see that too often so it’s unreal. You have to give credit to all of these guys, they’ve been unreal all season and it was a fun ride,” said Bourque, who won the Jack A. Butterfield trophy as MVP of the AHL Playoffs and also has been on the the last three Hershey Calder Cup winning squads.

“It’s unbelievable. It’s what you play for as a hockey player. It never gets old. Every time it is just a thrill. It’s unbelievable,” added Carlson, the man who broke the hearts of many Canadians with his overtime game winning tally in the 2010 World Junior Championships this past January, on winning another title.

“It’s unbelievable. We won it last year, it was different, at home it is so much better with the crowd, everything, it’s unbelievable!” said an excited Perreault, just prior to drinking a Molson as a part of his Cup celebration (thanks to John Keeley of On Frozen Blog for a great photo).

So why did this Hershey Bears team continue to do the “seemingly undoable” and complete the unbelievable season with a dramatic come from behind series victory? Sure the Chocolate and White had lots of talent, but hockey history is littered with numerous instances of highly talented teams being knocked off in the post season after great regular season achievements.  Winning championships takes more than talent, it takes commitment, patience, team play, and a group of players that bond together to form great chemistry.

Early on in this series the Texas Stars were winning because of their strategy of sitting back and capitalizing on Hershey turnovers, primarily at the Texas blue line. After game two Hershey Coach Mark French stated that if his team didn’t heed the advice of his coaching staff, which asked the players to get the puck on net or below the circles so they could get their cycle game going, then the Stars would get to four wins before his club did. French was requesting that his highly talented squad change their game and play a more difficult and boring style for them, but when you have great leadership and chemistry, those type of changes, in the middle of a series, are acheivable. The spread of that message started with a closed door, players only meeting, run by a phenomenal leader in Helmer before game three. It was after that opening period in the third contest, with the Bears trailing 3-1, where the change in style started translating into goals on the ice.

“We have unbelievable leadership. Bryan Helmer, that’s the turning point of the series – we had a closed door meeting, players only. It just goes to show how much of a leader he is, he is our captain, he got the boys going and it showed the next game. We won, we scored five unanswered goals and we didn’t really look back after that. It wasn’t an easy series to win. Texas played really good, they have some good players in there and I’m just happy to be on the good side of winning,” said Bourque, who showed great leadership himself by not pouting about being a salary cap casualty by the Caps to open the season or being released by the Penguins after an extended stint in the NHL and coming down to Hershey and dominating the AHL.

“This is what we are made of and the leadership on this team is unbelievable. The Captain stood up after the second game and talked to the boys and he got us going. At that point we all knew we were going to win,” said Perreault, who will be given a good chance to make the Capitals out of training camp this upcoming September.

“You look back, we are down 2 games to nothing, 3-1 in the second period, it didn’t look good, but guys never gave up in this locker room. We knew that we had the character and the talent to get it done. We stuck with it, when we look back at what we did this year as a team it’s gonna be unreal,” said 2009-10 AHL regular season MVP Keith Aucoin, who set up the second goal in game three by Kyle Wilson with a sensational individual play to start the series comeback.

Talking about making a change is one thing, but the players took the strategy from Coach French and the message from Captain Helmer and translated it into production on the ice. They stopped making east-west passes inside the Stars zone and focused on dumping the puck to the corners to set up a cycle game that wore out Texas. Hershey was then able to send the puck to wide open point men who fired it on the cage while Bears forwards swarmed the net for rebounds. Combine that style of play with super goaltending from Michal Neuvirth and you have the recipe for defeating an opponent’s trapping, defensive style of play.

“I think it was just guys coming this far and not being happy with losing two games at home. We didn’t work as hard as we did to squander away something like this. It is just a big credit to the group of guys that we have and the way everything was put together. The coaches did a great job keeping our spirits up. For me that plane ride [to Texas], I wasn’t down at all, I knew we had it in us. It was just a matter of getting a little bit of the rust off. The coaches noticed it right away. We knew that [Texas] was a good transition team and we are a team that likes to go on the offense and we learned in a hurry that you can’t [turn the puck over at their blue line]. When you are giving up three breakaways a game and four two-on-ones a game, they’re not scoring and not beating you off of that then we’re getting really lucky. So they really stuck it to us the first [two games], we figured it out in a hurry, just in the nick of time,” said Karl Alzner on what his team did to turn things around between games two and three.

“That is why we struggled the first two games, we are a skilled team that likes to make passes inside the blue line and against a team like that where they sit back, with three or four guys back all of the time, we are going to turn the puck over and they are going to come down and score. We had to change our game and that is why we were successful, we turn it around by getting the puck to the net, getting guys crashing the net and getting rebounds and that is why we were successful the last four games. It shows the character of our guys to change their games to make sure we get wins,” added Aucoin, who mentioned that he and linemates, Alexandre Giroux and Andrew Gordon felt the pressure after the first two tilts, to start contributing more.

The strategy opened up things for the point men and all four tallies in game six came from blue liners.

“We’ve been stressing [getting the puck to the points] because that is what is open against these teams that want to collapse here, your D are open and we were very opportunistic. Patty McNeill with two and Karl Alzner with one, it was great to see and John Carlson scored on the power play so not bad as well,” said Coach French.

Overall, the strategic adjustments and the leadership formed the basis for the rally, according to Coach French.

“I think there was a little bit of [of the strategy change] and I think at the end of the day the guys just had to lay it on the line a little bit more and go a bit deeper. The guys had a players only meeting in Texas. One person talked, and it certainly wasn’t me, it was our captain, and I believe that was probably the turning point in terms of understanding what we had to do to win a game and how deep we really had to go as a group to win,” concluded French.

If you ask me, this group forms the blueprint for the makings of a championship team and players, coaches, and management confirmed that with their thoughts as the Cup was paraded around the Giant Center last Monday night.

“The team that we had was just great, can’t say enough about the guys, everyone came together. It’s a group of all friends, which doesn’t happen that often on a team and that is what you need to win,” said Alzner, who held the leading goal scorer in the AHL playoffs, Jamie Benn, to just two assists in the six game series.

“I feel very grateful to have the group of guys that I had not only from a skill level standpoint but from a leadership standpoint and finally good people. We asked them to do things, we had a very business-like approach all year and they were an easy group to coach. When you gave it to them a little bit, they always responded in the right way and you trusted that you knew when you left the room that your leaders were saying the right things and that is pretty special. They are a special group, I think, could have won under a lot of coaches,” finished a very humble French, who certainly contributed mightily to the championship with his tactical moves and line-up tweaks, in particular, the swap of Bourque and Giroux on the top two lines, a move that Texas never was able to adjust to.

“Well, it was a heck of a team. They had everything. They had skill and grit and depth and balance and goaltending. They seemed to like each other and they were a very well coached team,” summarized Capitals GM George McPhee watching from ice level on the outside of the glass following the win and refusing to take any credit he clearly deserved for helping to build this AHL powerhouse along with Hershey President/GM Doug Yingst.

 

 

 

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