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Caps Win Fourth Straight for 1st Time in 2014-15

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Caps Win Fourth Straight for 1st Time in 2014-15

Posted on 21 February 2015 by Ed Frankovic

In a very well played hockey game, by both teams, the Washington Capitals won their fourth straight by besting the first place New York Islanders, 3-2, in the gimmick.

Both goaltenders, Braden Holtby (30 saves) and Chad Johnson (25 saves), had strong outings and it was the Islanders back up who made some big saves to keep his club in it in the middle frame.

Unlike the Penguins game on Tuesday, this was an extremely well officiated game and both teams only had one power play each. When Dave Jackson referees a contest, you usually get a good one, primarily because the players know what to expect and Jackson typically lets them decide the outcome. Kudos Dave and a hat tip to Steve Kozari, who fell in line and called one of his best games too.

With the limited power play time we were able to see two strong five on five teams duke it out. Washington had the edge for most of the contest and when Eric Fehr scored off of a sweet drop pass from Brooks Laich with 5:34 remaining it sure looked like the Capitals were going to win this one in regulation and pull to within three points of the Metro Division leading Islanders.

But then the Capitals coaching staff made some terrible player deployments and gifted New York a point by playing what football fans would call the prevent defense. From the 5:34 mark to the :48 time when Ryan Strome tied the game the Islanders had 14 straight shot attempts!

Yup, you got it, the Capitals didn’t fire a single biscuit towards the Isles cage. The main reason for that was some poor decisions by the coaches. Instead of playing Alexander Ovechkin’s line, he put out the possession black hole unit of Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Troy Brouwer the second shift after Fehr’s tally. That unit would get stuck on the ice for nearly two minutes. Somehow the Caps survived, but then Trotz chose not to use Ovechkin and Mike Green (was on for seven seconds) for the final three minutes until the Islanders scored. Ovechkin and Green are two of the top puck possession players on the Capitals roster, but for some reason the bench crew used others over them down the stretch. Even Jason Chimera logged 70 seconds in two shifts once it was 2-1 Caps instead of the Gr8 or Game Over Greenie. So that’s 0:00 ice time for Ovechkin and 0:07 of ice time for #52 once the Capitals led.

That’s unthinkable and I’ve blogged about the misuse of Green before, back in January, when the Caps get a lead.

My simple message to Coach Barry Trotz and the Capitals coaches is this: Play your best players late in the game!

Going all defense is just that, you’ll be playing defense and just giving the other club more chances to tie things up. At least if you put your best players out there you have a better chance of being in the offensive zone and increasing your lead.

Oh well, that’s my rant on this victory, which should have come in regulation.

Still, it was a solid performance by the Caps, even though the Isles went with their backup goalie (but he was super) and are still missing Kyle Okposo and Mikhail Grabovski up front. With the two points the Capitals move to 33-17-10 (76 points). The Caps ended up going 2-0-2 against the Islanders this season while New York was 2-1-1 with their two victories coming in OT on 4 on 3 power plays. If these two teams meet in the post season, it should be a razor close series.

A win is a win is a win, and Caps fans, coaches and players will be happy with it, but let’s be honest, playing the prevent defense late in the game is a recipe for disaster that needs to be shredded by the coaching staff before the playoffs begin.

Washington will travel to Philadelphia through the snow to take on the Flyers at 12:30 on NBC on Sunday. The Flyers have been hot lately and have pulled within four points of a playoff spot (Boston is in 8th with 65 points) while the Caps are firmly entrenched in a spot for the Stanley Cup battle this spring. The Caps are 1-1-1 versus the Broad Street Bullies this season.

Notes: Shot attempts favored the Islanders 75-67, but that was because of the 14-0 late run that New York was given to tie the game…the Caps won the face off battle 38-34 but they lost three straight defensive zone key ones when New York had the goalie pulled…Matt Niskanen, who scored the Caps first goal, was the ice time leader with 25:37…Travis Hamonic, who opened the scoring, led the Isles in ice time with 25:17.

 

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Backstrom and Ovechkin Keep Caps Rolling in Win Over Jets

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Backstrom and Ovechkin Keep Caps Rolling in Win Over Jets

Posted on 19 February 2015 by Ed Frankovic

For the first time since February 8th, the Nation’s Capital had their Dynamic Duo back in town at the Verizon Center, and boy did those two put on a hockey clinic.

Nicklas Backstrom scored twice and added an assist while Alexander Ovechkin had a goal and an assist as the Washington Capitals trounced the Winnipeg Jets, 5-1, on Thursday night.

Backstrom is now tied for the NHL lead in points (Patrick Kane) with 63 while leading the league in assists with 45. Ovechkin now has 38 goals to lead the NHL and he has 61 points, 3rd best in the NHL.

This had the makings of a classic trap game since it was Washington’s first home game after a cross country four game road trip.

But Coach Barry Trotz’ crew displayed some good mental fortitude and showed up to play from the opening drop of the puck. The Caps tallied 14 minutes in on a John Carlson power play blast that looked to be deflected along the way. Then Ovechkin made an amazing play on the left wing to make it 2-0 with 1:25 to go in the opening frame.

Those two first period markers were ultra important because it brought the Verizon Center to life and the Caps were 18-1-2 when leading after 20 minutes (h/t Mike Vogel). Winnipeg would get a fluky goal to cut it to 2-1 but then the Jets, who are the most penalized team in the NHL, did what they do best, started a parade to the penalty box to feel shame. Winnipeg took four penalties in a row and the Caps scored twice, both times with a delayed penalty being signaled. Backstrom made it 3-1 when he was simply trying to get the puck to the goalie to start a five on three (good things happen when you shoot) and then Marcus Johansson and Ovechkin fed #19 beautifully for the 4th goal with the Jets about to be whistled for too many dudes on the ice.

Troy Brouwer would add a shorthanded empty net goal with 6:27 remaining to seal the deal for Washington.

Braden Holtby was strong, when needed, in the cage again yielding only one tally on 20 shots. The Caps puck support was outstanding in this game and thus the Jets really didn’t get many good looks. They had the occasional strong cycle shift, but overall the Capitals kept the Jets speed and size in check. It was another impressive performance by the Caps in all zones.

“I thought we managed the game really well. In the third period, you’re up 4-1, you could easily forget detail, and you could forget a lot of stuff. We managed the game. We just kept playing, and it gets really frustrating for the other team. Everybody was doing their job, and when you’re doing your job and there’s no cheat in your game you get a lot done as a group of 20 every night,” said Trotz on a night his team once again maintained their focus.

With a near perfect night by the Caps over and done with, the Caps focus now moves to their last regular season meetings with the first place Islanders, the punks from Philly (Flyers), and the Penguins that will take place Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday, respectively.

“It’s a fun, interesting division right now. Everyone seems to be playing pretty good. The only way to really make up any ground is to beat those teams that are right in front of us. It’s a massive challenge. We are excited about it. We haven’t seen them (the Islanders) in quite a while. It’s a big week for us. We need to string some winning streaks together, not just two or three, so it’s important,” said Karl Alzner, who is quietly having his best season as a Capital, on the upcoming slate of games.

The Capitals are certainly playing well. They are playing solid defense, getting good goaltending, and their checking line of Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward is stopping the opponents top line.

Most importantly, though, the Dynamic Duo of Ovechkin and Backstrom are playing at an ultra elite level and that is making Washington a very tough team to defeat.

Notes: Ovechkin had six shots on goal while Backstrom had five…shot attempt game totals were 62-59 in favor of the Jets… the Caps were 3 for 6 on the power play while Winnipeg was 0 for 3…the Caps won the face off battle, 28-27…Washington is now 32-17-10 (74 points)…Jason Chimera was scratched for the 2nd straight game.

 

 

 

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Ward Bangs Home Game-Winner in OT for Caps

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Ward Bangs Home Game-Winner in OT for Caps

Posted on 12 February 2015 by Ed Frankovic

In a game that was far from pretty or well played, the Washington Capitals rallied from a 3-2 third period deficit to win on Joel Ward’s rebound tally off of a Mike Green shot in overtime. The goal, Ward’s first in over a month, gave the Caps a 5-4 victory over the Sharks in San Jose and improves the team to 29-16-10 (68 points).

They say the mark of a good team is when they can win when they don’t have their “A” game.

If so, the Capitals are a good team because they were very sloppy, particularly in their own zone, yet found a way to prevail. In addition, they did a poor job of allowing Braden Holtby (26 saves) to the see the puck, at times, and that alone allowed the Sharks to erase a 1-0 deficit and score twice in 22 seconds in period two, on shots from Brent Burns. Holtby himself, did not have a stellar outing, yielding the last two goals on shots he’d like to have back. Matt Niskanen, who has had a very good season, struggled on the back end, as well, but fortunately Green was superb and John Carlson overcame a rough start to dominate in the third period with a nice assist followed by a goal.

The hero of the night, however, was one Jay Beagle and #83 was a tireless worker once again. He scored the game’s opening marker by going to the cage, and Andre Burakovsky was a big factor on that one too by taking his man to the net (and the puck bounced to Beags off of the skate of the Shark covering #65). Beagle also tallied to tie this game up at three with 8:43 remaining when he took a long lead pass from Carlson and got some help from the linesmen, who knocked the San Jose d-man down, allowing Jay to go in one on one and school Antti Niemi.

After Carlson gave the Caps a 4-3 lead on a Sharks turnover, Washington returned the favor by promptly turning the biscuit over too. That allowed Jumbo Joe Thornton to tie things up at four with 5:31 to go. From there both teams played for their valuable standings point.

In overtime, the Caps scored on a 3 on 1 rush after former Capital Scott Hannan blew a tire in the neutral zone. The Sharks yelled at the zebras, but on replay it looks like the old and “Tin Man” like Hannan simply lost an edge. That’s hockey.

Overall, I’d give the Capitals a B- grade in this game. They weren’t sharp and looked lazy, at times, especially in period two when they were outscored 3-1. Washington’s second line of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Troy Brouwer, and Jason Chimera was pretty bad on this night in terms of puck possession. Chimera just doesn’t belong in the top 6. Brouwer did get a power play goal tipping home an Alex Ovechkin pass in period two and he did TKO Brenden Dillon in a first period bout, so it wasn’t all bad for #20.

A win is a win is a win, and the Caps needed that after a poor game on Sunday against the Flyers.

There are no style points in the NHL, which was good on Wednesday night. Now it is on to LA to face the Kings on Saturday followed by the Ducks in Anaheim on Sunday.

Notes: Shot attempts favored San Jose, 62-57…Ovechkin had six shots on goal…the Caps lost the face off battle, 30-23…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 23:41…Burns played 26:06 for the Sharks to lead all skaters in ice time.

 

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Kuznetsov Shines in Caps Shootout Victory

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Kuznetsov Shines in Caps Shootout Victory

Posted on 06 February 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Caps fans have been waiting a long time for Evgeny Kuznetsov to deliver on the promise that so many hockey fans saw when he carried Team Russia on his back to win the 2012 Gold Medal at the World Junior Championships. Lately, that skill, ability, and desire to dominate has begun to show up on a more regular basis.

On Friday, against the team with the best record in the NHL, the Anaheim Ducks, #92 set up both Capitals goals with amazing passes and he also notched a marker in the shootout to lead his squad to a 3-2 win over Bruce Boudreau’s boys. It was a big win for Washington after playing in Ottawa on Thursday night and they improve to 28-15-10 (66 points). For the Capitals this was their third win in a row and they take on “you know who” on Sunday to try and gain a four game winning streak for the first time this season. But more on those punks from up I-95 in a few paragraphs.

Philip Grubauer was recalled to face the Ducks after the Caps had to travel from the Great White North late last night. #31 was very solid in net and the team played well in front of him. Sure, the 2nd goal he allowed was weak, but overall Gru did what this squad needed, stop enough pucks so they could finally win a game without Braden Holtby in net. Grubauer has been excellent in Hershey this year playing lots of minutes and Coach Barry Trotz stated that he’ll head back there tonight. The rationale for waiting so long to give Gru a game appears to be that Washington is trying to save as many recalls as possible for after the trade deadline, at least that is what Trotzy alluded to after the game.

Anyways, the schedule gets better going forward for Washington and as Caps ace beat writer Mike Vogel pointed out, the Caps played two recent stretches of 7 games in 11 nights and went 4-2-1 in each set. That is some very good hockey there.

Speaking of good hockey, Troy Brouwer had another outstanding game making the diving keep in of the night to allow Kuznetsov to set up Jason Chimera for an easy 1st goal. Then #20′s screen in front on Ilya “Humongous” Bryzgalov allowed John Carlson to score what should’ve been the game winner in regulation.

But Corey Perry got a cheapie on Grubauer, he’s a great goal scorer so you expect #10 to get the bounces, and he did on that play (Grubauer needed to have the post covered better too). That forced overtime and then “the gimmick.”

The Caps were 1-4 in the shootout and the Ducks 7-4 coming in so, go figure, Washington won this one.

Overall, this was a slower than normal game as both teams showed the wear and tear of playing Thursday. Both were missing superstars as the Ducks were without Ryan Getzlaf and the Capitals scratched Mike Green very late, presumably due to complications from the ugly knee-to-knee hit he took from Chris Phillips the night before. The referees didn’t call that one and they only whistled the clubs for three infractions on Friday, and you probably can guess who had fewer power plays (starts with C and rhymes with Saps).

Speaking of saps, the Philadelphia Flyers come to town on Sunday afternoon. The club formerly known as the Broad Street Bullies is on a recent hot streak, going 6-3-1 over their last 10 tilts. Their best players are Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek and both give the Capitals fits. Wayne Simmonds is the Flyers chief punk these days and Philadelphia may be looking for retribution after Matt Niskanen put Flyers forward Scott Laughton into March with a clean, open ice hit back on January 14th. It’s no secret that the Flyers are the Capitals longest and most despised rival so these games, no matter the records of the teams, always carry a little extra meaning. Most Caps fans, in a voice like Newman from Seinfeld lore, would say, “I deeespise the Flyers!” Who can forget those old brawls at the Capital Centre where the arena had to call in extra security to police all of the drunken fights in the stands? Ah, memories.

Anyways, this is a chance for Washington to really bury their long time rivals in the standings. Philly lost last time in Washington, 1-0, but the Capitals hung on for dear life in that one. You can bet there will be a buzz in the air on Sunday and hopefully there won’t be too much orange in the crowd. There’s a good chance they’ll be some scraps on the ice too, particularly since the Flyers tend to play dirty, especially when they are losing.

It should be a great game and it’s also a celebration on television for long time Caps announcer Smokin’ Al Koken. Smokin’ is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet and I’ve known him since he came to town 30 years ago. Koken will spend a period in each of the different broadcasting roles on Sunday: play by play, analyst, and rink reporter. Al is a super guy and I know he’d like nothing more than for Washington to defeat their biggest rival on his special day.

Game time is 3 pm on Sunday, so go ahead and start your tailgating right away.

Notes: Washington dominated the shot attempt battle, 64-51…the Caps also out shot the Ducks, 34-25…Kuznetsov had two assists and was +2 in 18:30 of ice time…Niskanen played 28:51 to lead all players in ice time…Washington won the face off battle, 34-30. Eric Fehr went 9-3…Nicklas Backstrom didn’t have one of his better games but he notched the shootout winner…after starting 1-14-6, the Caps have now won two games in a row when allowing the first goal of the game…Andre Burakovsky was sent to Hershey due to the Grubauer recall since he is able to go down to the AHL without requiring waivers. #65 will return on Saturday and play on Sunday against the Flyers..Cam Schilling played on D for Green and was +1 in 13:42 of ice time.

 

 

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Ovechkin, Holtby Lead Caps in Solid Road Victory

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Ovechkin, Holtby Lead Caps in Solid Road Victory

Posted on 06 February 2015 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals were 1-14-6 this season in games played this season when the opponents score first.

So when Kyle Turris broke a scoreless contest just past the midway point of period two to put Ottawa up 1-0, how many Caps fans turned off their televisions?

Well, hopefully it wasn’t many of you because shortly thereafter Evgeny Kuznetsov scored to tie it before Alexander Ovechkin did his best Cal Ripken impersonation by batting one home on the following shift to give the Caps a 2-1 lead.

From there, Braden Holtby and the Capitals would shut the door and win their first game when allowing the first tally since November 7th (h/t to Adam Vingan).

This was a very solid road win by the Caps. They were a little sluggish at times over the first 30 minutes and they made things tough on themselves in period three by taking three straight penalties. But Holtby (25 saves) was there to make the stops and any rebounds were cleared by the defense, who had a very strong game, especially Brooks Orpik (1 assist, +1, in 22:32 of ice time). During those three key penalty kills at the beginning of the third frame, Ottawa did not get many quality chances.

Killing off six of seven minutes via penalties to start the final stanza is not usually a recipe for success, but after those kills, the Capitals took over the rest of the way. Over the last 10 minutes the Capitals carried the play by not sitting back and still attacking. In fact, I counted only 1 scoring chance for Ottawa after the 10:00 mark, a wide shot by Mika Zibanejad. Coach Barry Trotz did not shorten his bench on defense with the lead and that strategy paid off.

The Caps would pretty much seal the deal with this victory when Eric Fehr drew a late interference call on Milan Michalek and Ovechkin nearly had his 33rd goal of the season after a sweet feed from Marcus Johansson, but somehow the Gr8′s shot went high.

Trotz maintained the same top three lines as he rolled out in the win over Los Angeles and the first two lines were very impressive. Johansson was just fabulous with Ovechkin and Backstrom and his play on the right wing boards and subsequent pass to a streaking Jay Beagle set up the game winning goal by Ovechkin, who outbattled Erik Karlsson in front.

The second line was very good again and Andre Burakovsky was very noticeable, in a positive way. Once again, he won’t get an assist, but his strong play on the right wing boards set up the Kuznetsov tally. On that one, #65 got the puck to Tom Wilson who carried the biscuit behind the net and fed Orpik for a point blast. Sens goalie Robin Lehner couldn’t control the rebound and #92 deposited it into the empty net. Bottom line, if that second line of Burakovsky, Kuznetsov, and Troy Brouwer can continue to contribute the sky is the limit for this Capitals team.

As for Holtby, well he set the tone for the game with a huge early stop on Bobby Ryan on a Senators three on one. #70 made several other big stops in the game that normal goalies don’t make, yet Braden is making them look so easy. It was another outstanding goaltending performance and it still makes me wonder what Adam Oates was smoking last season by trying to change his game and why former GM George McPhee had three goalies up most of the season and then traded for Jaroslav Halak at the deadline? Boy am I glad those two guys are gone.

So the Capitals get a strong win on the road against a fast Ottawa team that typically gives them fits. This was an impressive finish by Washington. They did not sit back and hang on, they kept the pressure up and as a result, they protected their one goal lead rather easily. The team moves to 27-15-10 (64 points) and are just three points behind the first place Islanders in a very tight Metropolitan Division race.

On Friday, they have a tough task at hand as they take on the NHL standings leading Anaheim Ducks at the Verizon Center. The Ducks smoked the Predators, 5-2, in Smashville on Thursday so both teams will not be rested for this tilt.

The big decision now for Trotz is to decide who to play in goal, Holtby or Justin Peters? With the Flyers in on Sunday afternoon, it seems to make sense to give Peters another shot, but then again, the way the Capitals played the last 10 minutes, Braden should be fairly rested if Trotz calls his number again.

Notes: Jason Chimera was reinserted into the lineup after being scratched on Tuesday and had a strong game (11:33 of ice time)…Wilson wasn’t very noticeable the first 30 minutes but he got involved physically and had a big assist on the game tying goal. It’s time for #43 to step his game up…Washington won the shot attempt battle, 59-50, despite the fact that Ottawa had four power plays to just one for the Caps…the Capitals won the face off battle, 25-20. Jay Beagle went 7-2…Mike Green was hit knee on knee in period one but didn’t miss a shift. Greenie had a super game and earned a stint in the “Eats Rocks for Breakfast” club…Michael Latta and Aaron Volpatti were the forward scratches.

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Caps Slay The Defending Champion Kings, 4-0

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Caps Slay The Defending Champion Kings, 4-0

Posted on 04 February 2015 by Ed Frankovic

“I’m shuffling lines around, guys. I’ll let you know when I get it straightened out.” – Reg Dunlop, Charleston Chiefs

For 50 games, Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz has been juggling his forward line combinations trying to find the right fits.

In game number 51, which turned out to be a Caps 4-0 rout of the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings, he just may have found his best forward line up yet.

Trotz moved Marcus Johansson, who is having his best pro season, up into the top right wing spot, and inserted rookie forward Andre Burakovsky into Jojo’s spot on the second line giving the Caps a very offensively talented top six crew of forwards. In addition, the bench boss took Jason Chimera and Michael Latta out of the lineup and went with a fourth unit of Aaron Volpatti, Jay Beagle, and Tom Wilson. The third line, Washington’s checking trio of Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward, went unchanged.

The result was a thing of beauty as the Capitals gap control was as good as it has been all season.

Taking the strong blue line play that the Caps have enjoyed all season combined with elite goaltending from Braden Holtby plus a very motivated hockey club this was a thorough whipping of a Kings team that still has Norris Trophy leading candidate Drew Doughty, all world goalie Jonathan Quick, and super forward Anze Kopitar. But Los Angeles is really not a Cup contender this season since they’re playing with a much weaker blue line due to the loss of Willie Mitchell (salary cap) and Slava Voynov (domestic abuse charges). As I’ve been saying for years, it is tough to be consistent and win in the post season without a good blue line. Fortunately with the departure of former GM George McPhee, the Capitals finally figured it out in the offseason and brought in some talent that gives Washington a very deep crew on the back end.

But the key to becoming a really top team is to have not only strong goaltending and defense, but depth at forward. That has been the challenge for Trotz and his job has been tougher by having to work in two rookies in Evgeny Kuznetsov and Burakovsky, along with second year man Wilson. It’s not an easy task and being a rookie in the NHL is very difficult. But Trotz has brought each of them along differently given their age and history. Kuznetsov is starting to blossom into the second line center role and his behind the back pass to Troy Brouwer is one that you usually only see from the Nicklas Backstrom’s of the world. That 1st goal was so huge because the Caps were 24-1-4 when tallying first and 1-14-6 this season when yielding the first marker. That is quite a telling statistic.

On that Brouwer goal, of note was the forechecking pressure that Burakovsky put on Robyn Regehr. The heat from #65 forced Regehr to put Alec Martinez in bad position with the biscuit and the man who scored the Cup clinching tally against the Rangers made an errant pass to Karl Alzner on the left wing boards. Alzner found Kuznetsov below the goal line and a sweet pass later it was 1-0. Trotz praised Burakovsky afterwards and stated that pretty soon everyone will all know the kids name.

Not only did the super gap control lead to production, but it also kept Washington out of the penalty box. This Caps team has had a recent propensity of taking tripping, high sticking, interference, and hooking penalties that are often the result of poor positioning and a lack of structure. The Capitals only had to kill one penalty on Tuesday night, which was their lowest total since December 4th against Carolina (h/t to Alex Prewitt of The Washington Post). You can add in discipline to that equation as Washington did not retaliate against a big Kings club. John Carlson took a couple of cheap shots from Kyle Clifford late in period two that somehow didn’t garner a penalty call from Paul Devorski and Tom Kowal (imagine that!). #74 could have easily gotten upset and attacked Clifford but Carlson kept his head and didn’t take an unnecessary penalty at a time when the game was still in question. Big kudos to Carlson there, that’s putting your team first, something we’ve seen more and more of this club this season than any other in the recent past.

Overall, it was a dominant performance by the Caps and Holtby came up big when he needed to be in stopping 27 shots. He made some key saves, with perhaps his best one coming on Jeff Carter in period two when it was still 1-0. Carter, who is a true sniper, appeared to have the top right corner picked but #70 managed to get most of his glove on the biscuit and knock it to the corner. Holtby also stoned Marian Gaborik on a semi-breakaway in period two. Holtby has now gone three straight games without allowing a goal in regulation and the only tally he yielded came in OT against the Habs and league MVP Carey Price on Saturday.

So the Caps end up going 1-1-1 against some of the better teams in the league with the lone regulation blemish coming against the St. Louis Blues on Sunday. The Blues are my current pick to win the Stanley Cup so a one goal defeat to them, after Washington played the day before while St. Louis rested, is not a black mark at all.

Washington is now 26-15-10 (62 points) and 9-1-1 in their last 11 home games (h/t to @ThePeerless). But the upcoming schedule doesn’t get any easier. After a day off on Wednesday, the Caps travel to take on a speedy Ottawa team on Thursday night, then come right home on Friday to play one of top teams in the NHL standings in the Anaheim Ducks. Finally, on Sunday at 3 pm they get a hot Flyers team at the Verizon Center. We all know what I think of Philadelphia, but that’s a story for another day.

Notes: Brouwer had two goals in his 500th NHL game…Backstrom had a goal and an assist while Alex Ovechkin had an assist. The Gr8 had 11 shot attempts…Washington led the shot attempt totals after 40 minutes, 40-21, that’s pretty impressive over one of the best puck possession teams in the NHL. Game total shot attempts were 52-44 for the Caps…the Kings won the face off battle, 26-23, but Backstrom was 12-6 from the dot.

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Tough Weekend for Caps, But Not For Hershey

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Tough Weekend for Caps, But Not For Hershey

Posted on 18 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

After going 4-0-1 in the first nine days of a seven games in 11 day stretch, it appears fatigue finally caught up with the Washington Capitals as they dropped two tough one goal losses to the Nashville Predators (4-3) and Dallas Stars (5-4) over the weekend on days 10 and 11. In both contests the Capitals fell behind early, two pucks in Music City and then a 3-0 deficit in Big D, expended tons of energy in rallying, before wilting late to lose two heart breakers.

The loss to the Predators, in Coach Barry Trotz’ return to Smashville, was especially disheartening since the Caps led 3-2 with five minutes to go. But a soft penalty call on John Carlson, a bad PK, and then a Matt Niskanen untimely turnover added up to a horrible defeat.

In Dallas, it was the bad start, too many penalties, and just awful defense that cost Washington the game. They turned the puck over too much and allowed a super fast squad to beat them in transition. In addition, the Capitals strong defensive zone play that we’ve come to expect under Trotz looked very Oatesian in the Lone Star State and, at times, in Nashville.

Washington gave up nine goals in two games and that is unacceptable. Looking at all of those tallies against, it’s hard to fault the goaltender (Braden Holtby on Friday and Justin Peters on Saturday) on any of them.

Back to back situations also seem to plague this Capitals team. They are now 1-6-1 this season on the second half of those and 0-5-1 when game two is on the road. Again, unacceptable and the team they are chasing for the division lead, the New York Islanders, is 6-2 in those same instances. That’s a nine point swing and the reason why New York currently owns a five point lead in the division race over the Caps (61 points to 56).

The good news is the Caps top line continues to sizzle and Alex Ovechkin (25 goals) is playing some of the best hockey of his career. In addition, the Caps have a game against the Edmonton Oilers at home on Tuesday before getting a week off for the NHL all star break. Boy do the Caps need some rest.

Along with the defensive zone issues, Washington’s second line continues to be wildly inconsistent. Evgeny Kuznetsov was downright terrible in Nashville and he, along with Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer just aren’t where this team needs their second line to be.

Barring some major injuries, you can pretty much bet the house that the Caps will return to the playoffs this spring. But just making it is not enough. Ovechkin is not getting any younger nor is Brooks Orpik and some others, so the Capitals need to seriously think about what they need to do over the remaining 37 games to prepare themselves to win in the post season. The Eastern Conference has many good teams, but there is no clear cut front runner. GM Brian MacLellan and Trotz need to figure out what to do about the forward line combinations, including determining if some trades are needed, and solidify them for April and beyond. The East is there for the taking so just being content with getting back in the dance should not cut it.

It’s been an encouraging season and a major turnaround for Washington thanks to off season defensive acquisitions along with bringing in a talented and organized coaching staff. As George Allen used to say, “The Future is Now.” The Caps have to think like that, unlike the words we used to hear from the former GM about just getting in and hoping to win. You have to be aggressive at the trade deadline in an attempt to plug any holes and build depth for the unexpected injury that could occur down the stretch and in the post season. It will be interesting to see what MacLellan does since the Caps have some holes that the kids on the roster (Tom Wilson, Andre Burakovksy, and Kuznetsov) have not been able to fill so far this season.

Speaking of kids, it was a super weekend for the Washington AHL team, the Hershey Bears. Coach Troy Mann’s squad won both weekend tilts to seize first place in the East Division. The Bears are also a strong defensive team but have had trouble putting the biscuit in the basket. Lately though, they’ve gotten hot offensively and have won five of six games.

On Sunday, I took in the Bears tilt against the despised Lehigh Valley Phantoms (Philadelphia Flyers AHL club) at the Giant Center and came away very impressed with the team game that Hershey plays. Phoenix Copley got the start in net and he was solid, allowing only two tallies on 30 shots. Hershey does a decent job of keeping opponents on the perimeter and they transition from defense to offense well. I was impressed with the speed of Dustin Gazley. Gazley did a good job of helping a penalty killing unit that was a perfect eight for eight on Sunday.

Stan Galiev has 13 goals and is really improving. He is showing he belongs in the AHL now after a couple of years of bouncing back and forth between “The A” and the ECHL. Connor Carrick was okay on defense for Hershey, as well. Both played big roles in a Bears five on three situation in period two. Carrick manned the point, like Mike Green does in Washington, while Galiev had the Ovechkin spot on the PP. They moved the puck well in that situation but Phantoms goalie Anthony Stolarz, who was very shaky in the first period, was super in the middle frame and shut the Bears down to keep his club in it. Late in period three the Bears would score and then add an empty net tally to close out the victory.

Overall, I like Hershey’s team and they are poised to do well come AHL playoffs time. However, I didn’t see anyone I thought must be called up to DC this season. That’s also a testament to the strong roster the Capitals have at the NHL level, too. If there is a call up that could play a factor in Washington down the stretch, I’d have to say it would be goalie Philip Grubauer. With Peters struggling to get wins, one has to wonder if the team has much confidence in him? Grubauer does have NHL experience and has shown the ability to steal a game at that level where Peters just hasn’t come close to doing so in 2014-15.

Notes: The Caps out shot attempted Dallas, 68-51, but the only thing that counts is the final score…Hershey is 3-2-1 against Lehigh Valley but they play SIX more times this season…Grubauer returned from injury and won, 5-4, versus Albany on Saturday night.

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Caps Heading in Right Direction at Season’s Midpoint

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Caps Heading in Right Direction at Season’s Midpoint

Posted on 11 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

What a difference a year makes.

At the 2013-14 midpoint, the Washington Capitals were sitting at 20-15-6, good for 46 points. But boy were things coming apart at the seams in a downward trend that started in early December. During that stretch, one in which Coach Adam Oates used three starting goalies to pretty much wreck Braden Holtby’s game, the Caps grew further apart as a team with three players asking for trades (Martin Erat, Dmitry Orlov, and Michal Neuvirth). They were a squad that relied almost exclusively on their power play to win games and were very poor at even strength. In addition, in game 41, a loss at home to Carolina in overtime, they iced a defense of Mike Green, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Dmitry Orlov, John Erskine, and Steve Oleksy. The Caps would go 18-15-8 the rest of the way looking like a totally lost team that would miss the post season and ultimately cost Oates and GM George McPhee their jobs. Over the course of the season, the Capitals used 14 different defensemen and four goalies (traded for Jaroslav Halak at the trade deadline). That version of the Capitals was a team in total chaos.

Fast forward to today, after 41 games the Capitals are 22-11-8 (52 points) and following a sluggish start, have gone 12-1-4 in their last 17 games. Coach Barry Trotz has brought in a new system and a new attitude and GM Brian MacLellan added two quality players, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, to a blue line that had been the team’s Achilles heel for several seasons. Trotz, who had coached the Predators since their first season, brought in an experienced coaching staff in Todd Reirden (defensemen), Lane Lambert (forwards), and Mitch Korn (goalies). All three have done a super job and Korn has allowed Holtby to get back to basics and return to the dominant level he was at in the spring of 2012 when the Caps narrowly missed making the Eastern Conference Finals. To date, they’ve used two goalies, with Holtby clearly the #1 net minder and carrying almost the entire load. On defense, they have quality and stability, they’ve only used seven different players on the back end. Red Wings coach Mike Babcock made a point, following Saturday’s game, to comment on the vast difference in the Washington defense, stating “anytime you have [Mike] Green playing at number five you have a real good back end.” (h/t to CSN’s Chuck Gormley for the quote).

Things are looking very good for this Capitals team. The key word in that sentence being “team.” Center Nicklas Backstrom, who is having yet another superb season, talked on Sunday afternoon about how things are different than past years under Trotz.

“We’ve been talking a lot about before the season and during the season to stick together and work together and doing the right things. It’s real important that everyone is paying attention to small details like face off plays, what we’re doing before every draw, stuff like that, so I think a lot of guys are buying into that and we’re following the game plan. Maybe before we’ve been doing our own things, so that has helped us a lot, I think,” said #19 when asked about the culture change that Trotz is implementing with the Caps.

“They make each other accountable, they don’t accept just going through the motions. When you fight to just go through the motions, that’s not a good culture to have. We’re not doing that, we’re staying on task…I told the guys I didn’t like the way we were playing the last two games [before Detroit] and I told the guys [Saturday] morning that if we want to be the team we think we can be we’re going to get tested tonight. I didn’t like some of the red flags I saw those last two games, we still got points and we won games, but you have to be honest with yourself. There will be times where you lose games and I’ll be happy with the way we played, we just didn’t win the game. Even when you win, you have to be honest with yourself, did you deserve to win the game or did you luck out? I think we are pretty honest, we have good evaluations…so we recognize we have some work to do,” said Trotz when asked about the culture change and where the team is at.

After winning against the Red Wings, Trotz felt better about things but admitted they are still a work in progress.

“I was real happy in the third period with the way we managed the game. We didn’t generate a lot of offense, but we didn’t give up anything, even on six on five they had a little bit, but it wasn’t chaos out there, it was controlled and we forced them to try to execute at an extremely high level and they didn’t get any free looks or anything like that. So we’re better, just in our structure, we recognize possession and we recognized when they weren’t attacking the interior. We stayed patient and when they tried to, we’ll just make one adjustment that we need to do better and if it happens next game we’ll be even more prepared. We try to learn from things that happen, experiences that can make ourselves better, instead of hey we just got lucky. We look for things every day,” said Trotz.

All of the changes have certainly helped the Capitals put themselves back in the playoff picture and right now, it looks like they will make the post season. But there are 41 games to go and the race is tight. While just making the playoffs is key, this club has a bigger goal, to compete for a Stanley Cup. To get to that phase, they have a lot of work to do.

So in the second half the key will be to sustain their focus so that they can improve. Even doing that, there are question marks. One thing to be concerned about is Holtby’s work load. The key will be for Justin Peters to assert himself as a viable back up option, especially with nine back to back tilts scheduled. If Peters can’t perform, then MacLellan will have to find someone who will fill that role, otherwise the Caps not only risk missing the playoffs, but having a very fatigued goalie in April and beyond.

The defense needs to stay healthy and certainly with the depth they have in the top five, Trotz has been able to increase the probability of that by spreading out the minutes. Another key to staying healthy, and winning, is cutting down on the number of penalties the team takes. There have been recent stretches where the parade to the box has cost them points. Finally, they have to stabilize their forward line combinations. We’ve seen a rotating door with Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin on the top unit and the latest project is having rookie Andre Burakovsky fill the right wing role after Tom Wilson and some others struggled. The second scoring line has also been woefully inconsistent. Recently it has shown signs of life with Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Troy Brouwer lighting the lamp more frequently. How that trio plays will be a factor in any possible deep playoff run. Simply put, the forward situation is concerning and it remains to be seen if the young players, Burakovsky, Kuznetsov, and Wilson, can improve enough by April to make this club a contender. If it looks like that isn’t going to happen then MacLellan will have to make a move for a top six forward.

Most of all though, this club needs to continue the process and commitment they’ve built up over the first 41 games and Backstrom certainly brought that home with his thoughts on Sunday afternoon.

“I think that it’s about time that we realize how to play as a team and right now it looks good but we have a long way to go. We’re not done yet, it’s just halfway through the season. We’ve got lots of work to do and we’re not where we want to be yet, so we really need to be humble and make sure we work hard every day and every night,” finished Backstrom.

 

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Holtby Shines in Caps 3-1 Win over Detroit

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Holtby Shines in Caps 3-1 Win over Detroit

Posted on 10 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals were facing the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday night in their third game in four nights while the Wings hadn’t played since Wednesday. That’s a recipe for a tough game and likely a Caps loss, right?

Well, that was not the case on Saturday night as Washington jumped to an early lead on Troy Brouwer’s goal, expanded it to 2-0 on one of the prettiest 4 on 3 goals you’ll ever see, and closed out the victory with a strong third period to take a 3-1 decision, their fifth straight at the Verizon Center.

Braden Holtby stopped 26 of 27 shots, eight of which came in the last three minutes (five in last 1:03) when the Wings pulled their goalie, en route to his 12th win in the last 17 games. #70 is 12-1-4 over that stretch and continues to provide excellent goaltending.

Taking those late eight score effect shots out the Capitals held Detroit, one of the best teams in the league, to just 19 shots for the first 57 minutes. That’s impressive, as Matt Niskanen stated afterwards.

“I thought we were really, really hard and felt the puck tonight. Good structure. They like to come with the puck through the middle with speed, and I thought we did a good job with just keeping the entire game on the walls and making it that kind of game. Taking away their strengths of speed and puck possession, really clogging things up in the right areas. There weren’t a lot of shots for either side,” said Niskanen, who led the Caps in ice time at 22:21 but did have the giveaway that led to the Wings only tally.

Last time the Caps faced the Wings, in October, Washington jumped to a 3-1 lead and dominated puck possession. But they got careless when ahead and forced passes up the middle of the ice and critical turnovers led to a loss. That was early on before Coach Barry Trotz’ system started kicking in. Now the Capitals are playing their system and making the opponent work hard for chances. Detroit certainly didn’t get many good looks tonight and despite the shot totals, the Caps had the better scoring chances in the third period with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andrei Burakovsky not connecting on grade A opportunities.

“I think we play good with the lead. I don’t think we changed too much after we got it. I thought we kept playing hard and stuck to our game plan like we should,” said John Carlson, who had the finish on the Washington second goal. Carlson also turned 25 on Saturday so the goal and victory was a nice birthday present for him.

The Capitals, who are now 21-1-3 when scoring the first goal, continue to get better defensively and they also were successful because they only took two penalties in this tilt. Washington killed both of those shorthanded situations while tallying on the power play. As a result, Trotz was able to spread the ice time around and that was key in this third game in four nights.

“It’s much easier when you only have to kill a couple [of penalties]. It helps your overall team game, too. You don’t lose momentum or waste any energy killing extra penalties that you don’t have to. The couple that they did get, we had good structure and pressure at key moments and were able to get some clears and disrupt them if they wanted to do anything,” finished Niskanen.

So Washington is now 22-11-8 at the season’s halfway point, good for 52 points and fourth place in a tightly bunched at the top Metropolitan division. This club, despite a schedule that has been brutal at times (seven back to backs so far, five of which had the second contest on the road plus nine more back to backs to go), is much improved because of several reasons. In no particular order they are: a deep, quality blue line thanks to the additions of Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, better defensive play due to a better system and coaching, improved goaltending thanks to Holtby and goalie coach Mitch Korn, and a commitment to hockey and details that we haven’t seen from this team in recent years. That commitment, which Trotz called “culture change” in our WNST interview with him in early December, is becoming very evident.

“I’ll be coming into the room or I’ll be walking in and I am hearing the same things that I am going to say. You want the team to take ownership in every part of the game – managing the game, managing the preparation, managing their commitment, managing situations on the ice and taking ownership that way. I think they have been. There’s a lot of talk, there’s a lot of preparation that goes into every game, and I think you see it on the bench. There is no ‘What are we doing? What’s up?’ There’s none of that. We’ve got a plan for everything we do now,’” stated Trotz on the team’s focus, that I’m not sure we’ve ever seen from the Caps current core group of players.

Notes: The Caps face Colorado at home on Monday night before taking on the despised Flyers at the Verizon Center on Wednesday…the Caps lost the face off battle, 32-24. Eric Fehr was 2-13 from the dot making puck possession much more difficult to obtain…the Caps only had 17 shots on net but in the last 30 minutes they played well and fanned or missed the goal on some great chances…Wings goalie Jimmy Howard left the game with a groin injury just after Brouwer’s goal, just 1:53 into the hockey game. He was replaced by Petr Mrazek (12 saves on 14 shots).

 

 

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Caps Win A Perfect Winter Classic

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Caps Win A Perfect Winter Classic

Posted on 01 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis was smiling and beaming in the locker room following the Caps 3-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2015 Bridgestone Winter Classic and he had every right to be doing so.

Leonsis, who fought long and hard for the outdoor game in the DC area, watched his club pull out a late victory over the best team in the NHL in the Blackhawks on an amazing stage.

The temperature was perfect, the ice was as good as it could be (kudos to Dan Craig of the NHL) and the venue, Nationals Park, was spectacularly laid out, including the replica of the Nation’s Capitol building with a copy of the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pond out in front of it that led to the ice rink.

Washington’s star player, Alexander Ovechkin, had an outstanding game with a goal and an assist while goalie Braden Holtby was excellent in the cage again stopping 33 shots. Troy Brouwer scored the winner on the power play with just 12 seconds to go leading to a wild celebration and flying seat cushions at Nats Park.

The victory, the Caps 9th in a very difficult December schedule, moves them to 19-11-7 and back into 3rd place in the Metropolitan Division. Washington is now 18-1-2 when scoring first this season (they scored the first two tallies in this one).

It was a magical day for Washington and Leonsis, who believed that the greater Maryland and Virginia area could make a large hockey event work, and he was proven right.

Now for some analysis of this one.

Washington was extremely solid in periods one and three but they really struggled in the middle frame when they took three minor penalties. Two of those overlapped for 91 seconds so that meant the Caps had to survive a five on three situation against a talented Hawks team. Somehow the Capitals managed to do that, thanks to good goaltending, solid PK work, and over passing by Chicago. Afterwards Blackhawks coach Joel Quennville noted that when you don’t score on a five on three you often lose the game. He also wasn’t happy about his team’s lack of shots on goal during that situation. The two time Stanley Cup Champion was correct on both counts.

Part of the reason the Capitals were able to hold off a talented power play was Washington’s “Honest Abe” player of the game, Brooks Orpik. When last seen on Monday night, #44 was writhing in pain on the ice in Long Island clutching his right knee. Somehow what looked to be a potentially season ending injury was only a minor tweak and Coach Barry Trotz was able to field his best left handed defensemen against Chicago. Not only did Orpik suit up, but he logged a Washington game leading 24:44 of ice time, including 5:43 of the 7:26 the Caps were shorthanded! You just can’t over state what Orpik has meant to this team and both Eric Fehr (breakaway goal) and Ovechkin called him a “warrior” afterwards.

When Orpik was handed the Abe Lincoln gear that goes with being named, by his teammates, the Honest Abe player of the game, in #44 style he provided a quick and simple speech that closed with “I thought everybody was fully committed, so let’s keep it going.”

Trotz noted that Orpik is a guy that doesn’t lead by talk, but by showing up every day and doing things properly. He’s been a great example for his teammates and he’s been an invaluable player on the back end.

“You can only admire what he does and brings to the group. He just makes everybody better. He doesn’t say a whole lot in the room, he says everything with how he plays and how he lives and his actions and his commitment to the game. So, it really is an important piece to what we’re trying to do here in Washington,” said Trotz on Orpik.

The down side is that the Caps had to kill off so many penalties, whether you agree with the officiating or not (and it was not a good day for the guys in stripes, especially the last two calls by Francois St. Laurent on Matt Niskanen and Jonathan Toews). Washington too frequently is chirping at the referees and taking bad penalties. John Carlson’s cross check to the face that put the Caps down two men was a retaliation and unnecessary one. Too often the Caps are losing their focus and some of the penalties are just not smart, like Jason Chimera’s holding infraction and Brouwer’s board in the first period that took the Capitals off of the power play. Despite the issues, Trotz did point out a positive that has come from these mental lapses.

“The thing that we have been really good at this year is, when we get off what I call the rails a little bit and we lose our focus, we’re able to get back and find ways to win.”

That was certainly true on New Year’s Day, but the players I spoke with afterwards, including Orpik, Niskanen and Mike Green (two assists) all said the team needs to limit the number of infractions.

“Yeah we talked about [penalties] before and obviously the 2nd period we took quite a few penalties…every team has a good power play these days…moving forward I think we have to be more disciplined. When you are down that much it taxes certain guys that are penalty killers…we got a lot of good guys that don’t kill penalties so that throws them off a bit and takes them out of their rhythm. There are a lot of things it has an effect on,” said Orpik on Washington’s penalty issues, which helped aid Chicago in out shot attempting the Caps, 26-11, in period two.

“Barry talked about discipline and we sort of needed to refocus. I think we got away from our focus. I think we had a good 1st [period] and once we got into that second period maybe we got caught up with the emotion and the energy of the building and then our focus changed to complaining about penalties and what not…We got to be a little more disciplined,” added Green (two assists in 14:59) on what the team discussed after period two.

Clearly the Capitals aren’t helping themselves with some of these bad penalties. Complaining to the referees, whether justified or not, will not help the cause. Simply put, the players have to focus on their game and let Trotz and GM Brian MacLellan deal with the officiating.

In the end though, this was a huge two points for the Capitals on a perfect day at Nationals Park and the large majority of the 42,832 that attended went home happy, much like Capitals owner Ted Leonsis.

Notes: Power plays were 6 to 4 for Chicago and the overall shot attempts ended up 62-58 for the Blackhawks…the Caps lost the face off battle 42-36 but Nicklas Backstrom was 16-13…next up for the Caps are the Florida Panthers on Sunday at the Verizon Center at 3 pm.

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