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Caps Make Surprising Free Agent Splash Inking 3 Time Stanley Cup Winner

Posted on 02 July 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan stated that he thought that his team would be relatively quiet during free agency, and for good reason. The Caps still need to sign restricted free agents Braden Holtby, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Marcus Johansson and they were roughly $19M or so under the cap heading into this week.

While there were numerous deals that occurred during the early portion of NHL free agency, including the Penguins trading for Phil Kessel and Mike Green signing a three year, $18M deal with the Detroit Red Wings, MacLellan stayed true to his words throughout the majority of the day and didn’t make anything more than minor moves, re-signing restricted free agent forward Stan Galiev and depth defensemen Taylor Chorney for $700K.

In addition, on Tuesday, the Columbus Blue Jackets boldy traded for center Brandon Saad from Chicago, so some Metropolitan division teams appeared to be improving their forward cores.

With Joel Ward and Eric Fehr on the open market and unsigned, there was the thought that the Caps GM might be trying to bring both back to at least keep pace with some of the other teams in the division up front. It seemed that MacLellan’s patience was paying off in that regard with Ward and Fehr still available late on Wednesday night. Then lightning struck the Capitals, but in a good way.

Washington was able to ink 33 year old forward and three time Stanley Cup winner, Justin Williams, to a two year deal at $3.25M per season. The dollar amount and term are likely lower than what Ward will receive on the open market and the former King, Hurricane, and Flyer is a slightly younger player (Ward is 10 months older) with a wealth of championship experience.

Williams, who missed the post season this year with a tired Los Angeles team, is a smart player who has incredible possession numbers over the past five seasons. I watch a lot of Kings games and he is as intelligent and solid a player as they come. He can play anywhere from first line right wing to third line right wing giving the coaching staff a lot of flexibility with their lineup decisions.

While he isn’t speedy, he is very clutch, and his nickname, “Mr. Game 7,” is well earned, he’s 7-0 in those tilts (h/t @VogsCaps).

This move, combined with the promotion of Philip Grubauer to back up goalie, along with the projected improvement from Kuznetsov and Andrei Burakovsky (rookies last season), and the expected better season from Tom Wilson has the Caps positioned to be a strong contender in the Eastern Conference once again.

Sure the loss of Green will hurt some, but Washington is expecting Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt to help fill the void on the blue line. You can also expect Matt Niskanen to step up on the offensive side of the puck now that he’ll get more power play opportunities that went to old number 52.

MacLellan still has work to do to get the three big RFA’s (70, 92, and 90) signed, and he has roughly $14.4M to achieve that (h/t to @AlexPrewitt and @GeneralFanager). It would be ideal if he can ink those three and also find a way to bring back Fehr, too, since he can play third line center as well as wing.

But a day that looked to be a sad one in Caps history with the departure of Green, who was always a class guy in the community, with the fans, and the media during his 10 year tenure, turned out to be much more positive with the surprise signing of Williams.

The game is always played and decided on the ice, but the Capitals organization and their fans should feel even better about their club with the addition of a proven winner, in Mr. Game 7. Williams should help a Caps franchise that has struggled to win those contests (4-10 in game 7s) throughout their 40 year history.

Notes: Caps development camp will be held at Kettler IcePlex next week (July 7-11). All four draft picks, including first round choice Ilya Samsonov from Russia (22nd overall), are expected to attend…MacLellan signed center and face-off/penalty killing specialist, Jay Beagle, to a three year deal at a cap hit of $1.75M per season on Monday.

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Why did the Caps lose to the Rangers? Who will be back for 2015-16?

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Here’s Why the Caps Lost and How They Can Be Better in 2015-16

Posted on 17 May 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Last Wednesday, in a thrilling and razor close series, the Caps found a way to end their season in heartbreaking fashion once again. They blew a 3-1 series lead in the second round for the first time in team history, including two games at Madison Square Garden in overtime. They were a 101 seconds from the Eastern Conference Finals in game five and fell short.

There have been 40 years of Washington Capitals hockey and 0 Stanley Cups.

As they say, it is what it is.

You can call the series loss whatever you want, a choke, a collapse, a lack of clutch play, or an absence of a killer instinct, it doesn’t matter, at this point. The bottom line is the Capitals lost while the Rangers, who I’ve been asserting since January are the best team in hockey, move on to take on Tampa and likely the Western Conference champion following that.

Make no mistake about it, the Rangers were the best team in the NHL in the regular season, and they are working on proving it in the post season. They were resilient and stuck to their process, for the most part, and that allowed them to move on. I expect them to win the Stanley Cup in June.

The Caps were oh so close, though. How tight was this series? Here are some numbers to back that up:

13-12, Rangers, in goals (all games decided by a single goal).

236-223, Rangers, in shots on goal (1.86 per game).

458-438, Rangers, in shots attempted (2.86 per game).

232-220, Capitals, in hits (1.71 per game).

One stat that wasn’t close was face-offs, the Caps dominated those, 250-199 (55.7%), thanks primarily to Nicklas Backstrom and Jay Beagle. Ironically, though, it was some key draws that ultimately did Washington in. Most notably the series winning sequence where Eric Fehr was beaten badly by Derek Stepan, which caused both Fehr and Andre Burakovsky to become confused defensively, allowing Stepan to sneak to the far post for a wide open rebound goal. Another key draw that the Capitals lost was the one with 3.6 seconds left in the opening frame in game six. Chris Kreider scored on a rebound with 0.3 seconds remaining to give New York a 2-0 lead that the Capitals ultimately could not overcome despite a furious and dominating rally.

Simply put, the Rangers, who had a major focus lapse at the end of game one, didn’t have as many “lack of focus” sequences as the Capitals did in the series, and that’s ultimately why they won. Washington struggled out of the gate in many first periods as well as in the third period in game six. Also, after a dominating first period in game seven, their best opening frame by a mile in the series, they took some terrible penalties to lose all of the momentum they had built up. Mike Green’s cross checking penalty on Dan Girardi was a classic lack of focus moment. It was a terrible decision at the wrong time, especially after two straight Capitals penalty kills, and it was a big factor in Washington not winning game seven.

Adding to the lack of focus issue was a putrid Washington power play. For the series the Caps were 1 for 15, while New York went 3 for 18. That’s a big factor in a super tight series. The Caps, who had the best power play in the NHL in the regular season, struggled with zone entries and when they were able to get set up, were far too predictable in their attempts to force Alexander Ovechkin the puck. The playoffs are all about adjustments. The Washington coaching staff did a nice job of making adjustments in the series at even strength, but they failed to change course on the power play. That was a mistake. They have used a set up where they put two guys in front of the opposing goalie and fire away from the point, but they failed to employ that strategy in the Rangers series.

In the opening round series win over the Islanders, the Capitals had success at getting pucks deep and hitting the New York defense with a relentless fore-check. Washington had a much harder time of that with the Rangers. The New York forwards are lightning fast, but their defense was an area that the Caps needed to exploit better with pressure and physicality. In game three, particularly in period two, the Rangers defensemen were petrified of Tom Wilson. “Willy” had his best game of the series and had the Rangers defense backing up from him. I’m surprised that the Capitals coaches didn’t try to use that tactic and advantage more often in the series. In addition, when New York did get the puck, the Capitals first forward too often flushed or chased the Rangers D-man behind the net causing an easy exit for New York on too many occasions. I didn’t think that was a wise strategy and I’m not sure if it was the coaches instructing the players to do that or the players choosing to do it on their own? Either way, it is best, especially with no red line, to shade the defensemen one way or the other and try to trap him before he exits the defensive zone. Washington did that well in their 5-2 regular season beat down of New York at Madison Square Garden, but they couldn’t repeat that fore-checking success in the playoffs against the Blueshirts.

Overall, the better team won the series. But in sports the better team doesn’t always win and the Capitals let an opportunity to close out the series and possibly win the Stanley Cup slip by.

It was a bitter defeat and it was as close as Washington has come to making the conference finals since 1998. Make no mistake about it, it stinks to lose, but the Capitals are once again a Stanley Cup contender after not being one since prior to the Montreal loss in 2010 (and you could argue that team had too many holes as well, especially at second line center and on defense).

So going forward there should be lots of optimism, but a busy summer of business and roster tweaking looms ahead for General Manager Brian MacLellan and Head Coach Barry Trotz. The Capitals were a big and physical team, but they struggled against teams with speed. Adding team speed will need to be addressed with the off season moves.

Trotz and MacLellan have done a magnificent job of changing the culture to be much more team focused and the personnel moves to upgrade the blueline, something I called for along with a “team first” concept last May before either was hired, were spot on. Last summer’s decisions were validated with the strong regular season and playoff performance.

With John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen under contract this team has the foundation for a strong blueline for next season and beyond. Orpik had a fantastic season and brought a physical presence to the back end this club has not had since Brendan Witt left. #44 will be 35 years old in September, but the way he conditions and maintains himself, he’s a very young 35 and should be fine next year. Alzner, under the tutelage of Todd Reirden in Trotz’ system, had his best season as a pro.

In net, Braden Holtby stepped up and was dominant, again, as predicted here. Holtby is a restricted free agent and will be a priority to sign to a long term deal. He played 73 games, including 72 starts, winning 41 of them with nine shutouts. Ideally you’d prefer Holtby to play between 60 and 65 games, so Washington needs to figure out its’ backup goaltender situation in the offseason. Justin Peters is signed for another campaign, but he struggled in his nine starts and 12 appearances going 3-6-1 with just a .888 save percentage. Basically, he played like an AHLer. The other option would be to bring up Philipp Grubauer, who started game two against the Islanders and won, although he wasn’t real sharp in that tilt. Better play from the backup, who will likely see the cage on the latter half of back to back game situations, is necessary in order to not give away valuable standings points during the regular season.

The main priority, other than signing Holtby, for MacLellan and Trotz is to find a top line right wing. That position is the team’s biggest hole and a big factor in why the team isn’t moving on. There is no player on the current roster that can fill that gap, so that has to be the outside focus this summer via free agency or trade.

Second line center, well we won’t be talking about that issue any more. Evgeny Kuznetsov showed in the playoffs that he has that spot covered. What a super finish to his first full NHL season for the young 22 year old Russian! He is so good and strong with the puck and he has the ability to take over games as he did in game five against the Islanders and game six against the Rangers.

With Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and now the emergence of Burakovsky, the Capitals have four legitimate top six forwards. Ovechkin had a monster season with 53 goals and 81 points. He swung his plus/minus from -35 to +10. A much improved blue line, a structured system, and hard work by the Gr8 led to a sensational turnaround. Big credit should be given to the Capitals coaching staff for properly developing young offensive minded forwards Kuznetsov and Burakovsky. Without their astute handling this team doesn’t get as far as it did. Trotz clearly knew what he was doing in bringing along these two kids in the manner in which it unfolded. Both are strong on the puck and improved immensely in their own zone from where they were in the season opener back in October. Right wing is the big issue now, as mentioned above.

As for Wilson, well the Capitals have to better utilize his talents. His hands and puck skills, as well as his skating, must improve. He has the potential to be at least a third line force or possibly a second liner, at some point. Opposing defensemen fear a guy like him and he can open up lots of space for his line mates. The coaches have to find a way to make him a bigger factor in 2015-16.

Making things tough on MacLellan this offseason will be the salary cap and the contracts he likely won’t be able to move in Troy Brouwer (0 playoff goals) and Brooks Laich (1 playoff goal). That is $8.1M tied up in two players who are bottom six forwards. Joel Ward, at $3M, had far better production than those two in the post season, but the 34 year old is headed to unrestricted free agency and will likely end up elsewhere for more money.

As for Marcus Johansson, he’s a restricted free agent who had a strong regular season, but disappeared too much in the Rangers series. Marcus is bumped off of the puck too easily in the playoffs and is not a threat to throttle opposing defensemen. I’m not sure where he fits in the team’s plans, but if the Caps keep him they can’t overpay him for his regular season statistics when he’s not producing in the playoffs.

When it comes to Jason Chimera, Coach Trotz stated in his final presser that he and #25 butted heads, at times, during the regular season. Chimera had a poor regular season, but in the playoffs he was a different guy. He gave the Rangers fits with his speed and tenacity. He’s under contract next year for $1.9M so he’ll likely be around. It would be nice if “Chimmer” brought the way he played in the post season on a consistent basis to next year’s regular season.

Beagle, Fehr, and Curtis Glencross are all unrestricted free agents so they’ll only return if the price and fit is right. Beagle is great on draws and on the penalty kill so he has a greater chance of being back. Fehr scored 19 goals and goes to the net well. His injury history will likely keep his price down and increase his chances of a return to Washington. He’s definitely a well liked player in the locker room. Glencross added speed, but he had the propensity to make the big mistake. His giveaway in overtime of game five was totally the wrong play. He needed to stride to the red line and dump the puck. If Laich had the advantage he thought he had, then gaining the red line and rimming it would have worked too, instead he opted for the high risk pass and Laich mistakenly changed when he should have headed back on defense. It was a costly lack of focus by both players there.

Speaking of next year’s regular season, making the playoffs is not going to be any easier. It wasn’t until the last week of the regular season that the Capitals clinched a spot in the dance since it took until game 80 to do that. You have to think the Blue Jackets, Flyers, Hurricanes, and Devils will find ways to be better next year, so Washington will have to work hard just to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2015-16.

The Caps were relatively healthy in 2014-15. You can attribute a part of that to luck, but the way the roster was handled and the ice time spread out properly, especially on the blue line, allowed the players to be fresher and not more susceptible to injuries. The coaching staff along with the training staff, led by Greg “Smitty” Smith, did an outstanding job of knowing when to push and back off of this team in terms of practice time, as well.

In terms of the regular season and qualifying for the playoffs in 2014-15, Green played a huge factor in the Caps just getting there. His ability to rush the puck and drive offensive pressure is something this team needed from the back end due to the lack of up front scoring. Unfortunately, #52 was not that same player in the Rangers series. In 14 post season tilts he had two assists and no goals. Against the Blueshirts he struggled to gets shots on goal and his two penalties in game seven were terrible. Green improved a ton defensively this season under Trotz, but under pressure in the biggest game of the season, he failed in key situations. I’ve always been a Green supporter, however, he’s an unrestricted free agent and I can’t see the Capitals spending big money on him when they have other more pressing needs in the top six at right wing. Someone will offer Green a big contract and he’ll have no choice but to take it. Washington will look to Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt to fill the holes that will likely be vacated by Green and Tim Gleason. However, that is a big risk given Orlov and Schmidt’s injury history, not to mention that both players do not have the offensive talent of #52. MacLellan may need to add a defensemen in the summer, as well.

Overall, the fans have to be positive about the state of affairs despite a tough, stinging, and emotional loss that had many proclaiming “Same Old Caps” when it was said and done.

Hey, I get it. I’ve been watching this team since 1974 and I’ve seen the highs and mostly lows when it comes to the post season.

However, I’m as optimistic as I’ve been in five years. The team finally has a coach and GM duo that understands the importance of a blue line and a structure that leads to proper play. The core players are on board with the team concept and style of play. Backstrom stated that they are playing the right way for only the second time since he’s been with the Caps, with the other being the partial season that Dale Hunter coached the team. The way the Capitals played in 2014-15 during the regular season and the playoffs backs that premise up.

Now they need to take the next steps necessary to be good enough to get to the final and win. That starts with finding a top line right wing. In my book, that player is not in the organization right now, so it’s up to them to find one.

Washington made great strides in 2014-15 and because of the better talent level and improved system, they had the puck more than their opponents once again after a downward trend in that category.

But the future is now; there can be no sitting back and patting each other on the back after a second round exit. There is no pity in sports, especially hockey. Yes, the team had a good season, but there is lots of room for improvement from the game starts to protecting leads to putting clubs away when they’re on the ropes. It’s going to take commitment, effort, and focus from the coaches and the players.

In summary, Washington Capitals hockey is back after what was a train wreck situation just a year ago. Now it’s up to the leadership of the club, on and off the ice, to remain relentless until that donut hole next to Stanley Cup titles is finally gone.

 

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On Monday night, I chatted with Andre Burakovsky for nearly five minutes. On Wednesday, he became a Caps hero.

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Did Andre Burakovsky Predict His Goals Before Game 4?

Posted on 07 May 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Andre Burakovsky has certainly become more of a household name after his breakout two goal performance in game four of the Capitals-Rangers series that resulted in Washington’s 2-1 victory. The Caps now have a three games to one series lead. Before that outstanding display of talent, Burakovsky played a role in the game winning goal on Monday night. After the contest, a 1-0 victory in game three, I caught up with Andre and chatted about his game, the team, and the fans. Here’s what he had to say:

WNST: You look like you’re getting stronger and stronger on the puck. What’s the game like and how fast is it out there?

Burakovsky: It’s playoffs, it’s real fast, you need keep your head up all of the time, everyone is coming hard at you and finishing checks. Obviously everyone is skating the hardest they can out there. It’s going really fast and you need to be ready for every game.

WNST: The Rangers certainly have a lot of speed on their team but the Caps seem to have some guys like you, Kuznetsov, Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson that can handle the puck along the boards and cycle it. Is that part of the Caps strategy?

Burakovsky: Yeah, for sure, the strength of our team is down in there so we have so much skill on our team we can cycle the puck down there and have a long shift on them. If we do that every game then they are going to get tired and then we take advantage of it.

WNST: The Caps had a couple of power plays. What were your thoughts on them?

Burakovsky: The puck was bouncing, but nothing you can do, it’s the same for both teams. I think we came out strong on the power play and we had a lot of good chances to score, but we couldn’t really bury it. We had good chances to score so it’s nice to have the power play working.

WNST: You had a good chance on the power play at the right side of the net. Did Lundqvist save it or did you miss the net?

Burakovsky: The D was kind of in the shooting lane so I just had a little bit over his shoulder to shoot on. It was kind of hard to get it right there but I just missed the net a little bit.

WNST: What were your thoughts on home ice tonight? You get last change for matchups, but also the crowd. What were the things you liked about being home tonight?

Burakovsky: It’s obviously great to be home all of the time. I think the crowd is really helping us, they’re doing an amazing job out there. I think we are getting a little extra energy every time they are supporting us. Like you said, last change is doing a huge difference. I love to be home, it’s great to be here.

WNST: What’s it like when you hear Unleash the Fury, all these clips, and Let’s Go Caps? Can you guys really hear that and feel that?

Burakovsky: Yeah, to be honest, I love Unleash the Fury. I think it’s a real cool video and the stands are just going nuts out there, they’re going crazy. I really love that one.

WNST: So what are you thinking you need to do get a goal here? You’ve had a lot of chances, you’re getting close. I know you’ve got a really good shot.

Burakovsky: Yeah, just going to keep working hard every game, try to get a couple of more shots on the net. I think I had 2 or 3 today, maybe get it up to 5 or 6. Create a little bit more chances, put the pucks in the net.

WNST: The Caps had the puck quite a bit in the 2nd period and there were times when you had the puck, on your line especially, and just couldn’t get pucks to the net. Is it looking for that extra pass too often, are guys in the lanes, or a combination?

Burakovsky: When we’re cycling down there we’re protecting the puck really good but I think the Rangers are doing a good job on D too. So it was hard to get to the net down there.

WNST: You were on for the winning goal and you, Troy Brouwer, and Jay Beagle had just a good, hard working goal. Is it kind of one of those where hard work pays off with a bit of a lucky bounce?

Burakovsky: Yeah, I think it was a good dump in and Brow did an amazing job to get first on the puck and get a little contact down there. I just found the puck and I saw Beags in the middle there and wide open so I just gave him the puck. He did a great job staying with the puck and took his own rebound and got a little bit of a lucky bounce on the D, but still it’s a huge goal.

WNST: What are some of the older guys who’ve been through this before telling you? What kind of advice are they giving to you?

Burakovsky: They’ve been talking a little bit about just play simple all the time. If you don’t have anything, just chip it out. That’s a good play too, you don’t have to always have to find tape to tape, it’s good to just chip it out too.

So, there you have it, the thoughts and focus of the 20 year old just 48 hours before he would become a game four hero. Andre was very humble and quietly confident during the interview, so it’s no surprise to me that he was able to have such a huge impact on game four and the series. He actually stated he was going to “put pucks in the net.”

On Monday night, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend four minutes and 30 seconds with him without anyone else around. On Wednesday night, after he etched his name forever in Caps history, I was unable to get close to him, at all!

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20 year old Andre Burakovsky takes center stage with two goals in less than five minutes.

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Burakovsky, Holtby Help Caps Take 3-1 Series Lead

Posted on 07 May 2015 by Ed Frankovic

After picking up an assist on Monday night’s game winning goal in game 3, rookie Andre Burakovsky took it to another level on Wednesday night scoring both Washington goals to give the Caps a come from behind 2-1 victory, and more importantly help them take a 3-1 series lead.

Young Burra was the game’s number one star, but Braden Holtby was right behind the 20 year old stopping 28 of 29 shots, including a penalty shot by Carl Hagelin in the third period to earn the second star.

At the other end of the rink, Henrik Lundqvist played stellar saving 28 of 30 shots to get the game’s third star. He also received some help from the post in period three when Joel Ward came very close to making it 3-1 after a good point shot from Brooks Orpik.

The Rangers came out flying in the opening frame, as they’ve done all series, and outshot attempted the Caps, 26-14. When it came to shots on goal, though, it was only 13-8. Coach Barry Trotz commented on his team’s start afterwards stating, “I liked our 1st period better…we didn’t get anything, but they didn’t get anything either.”

Trotz was correct and in the middle frame the Caps were the better team, but they fell behind first by allowing a Rangers rush that Derrick Brassard finished. It was another stretch pass that New York likes to use because of its’ speed and it worked on this play. It also clicked again in the third period when Hagelin broke free and Mike Green had no choice but to hook him leading to Holtby’s penalty shot glove save.

Once it was 1-0 Rangers, the Capitals took over for most of period two, outshot attempting New York, 22-16. Burakovsky’s first goal came as a result of forechecking pressure that led to a turnover by Chris Kreider. The young Swede moved to the center of the slot and with Mark Staal diving to the ice and putting himself out of position, Burakovsky ripped one by Lundqvist.

Shortly thereafter, #65 nearly gave the Caps the lead when he was all alone in front after a great pass from John Carlson, but Lundqvist somehow got his shoulder on the shot. But Burakovsky would make no doubt about things just 24 seconds into period three as he stole the puck at the offensive blue line and went in alone on King Henrik and beat him with a sweet backhander.

At that point the Verizon Center went nuts. The Caps would have some intermittent pressure, but most of the last 19 minutes were spent in the Washington end as the Rangers tried everything to score. They had a penalty shot and also started a post whistle melee that, to no one’s surprise, didn’t lead to a Caps power play. In fact, the Caps ended up losing Tom Wilson to a misconduct for 10 minutes because he pulled down Keith Yandle after #93 hit Willy in the back of the head a couple of times. Coach Trotz said afterwards that referee Brad Watson came over to tell him why only Wilson received the misconduct, but Trotz said he couldn’t make out what “Wats” said because it was just too loud in the Verizon Center.

Loud it was and the Capitals crowd did another super job of giving the Washington players extra energy down the stretch to close the victory out. The Caps did another good job of keeping the Rangers on the perimeter and Holtby only had to stop nine shots on net out of 24 shot attempts in the last 20 minutes. For the game, the Capitals blocked 25 shots, including a huge one from Karl Alzner in the last two minutes.

This was superb goaltending and great team defense once again by the Capitals.

It’s also another victory where someone other than Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom stepped up to be the offensive hero.

So now it’s on to game five on Friday night at Madison Square Garden. The fourth victory is always the hardest to obtain so the Caps have their work cut out for them against the Presidents’ Trophy winners. New York was down three games to one to Pittsburgh in the second round last year before rallying, so this series is far from done.

The Caps will need to weather the storm in the opening frame and stick to their system to try and grind out another hard fought victory like they did in games three and four at the Verizon Center.

Notes: Washington won the face off battle, 38-29. Backstrom was 16-10…Ovechkin only had seven shot attempts but five of them were on goal…the Caps out hit the Rangers, 37-31…Washington had 25 blocked shots to just seven for the Rangers. Orpik blocked a team high six…The Caps played with only 3 defensemen for about a minute in period three in a four on four situation. Gleason and Green were in the box after the big melee and then Orpik was called for holding, but he took Brassard off with him (slashing). Orpik stated that the even up call was correct.

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Braden Holtby records his 2nd career playoff shutout as the Caps take a 2-1 series lead.

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Holtby Stones the Rangers in Game 3

Posted on 05 May 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Well, they don’t call him “Holtbeast” for nothing.

On Monday night at the Verizon Center Braden Holtby was an absolute beast in net stopping all 30 shots he faced allowing Jay Beagle’s second period marker to stand up for a 1-0 Caps victory.

Washington now leads the best of seven series, 2-1, with game four on Wednesday at the Verizon Center (7:30 pm).

This was an exciting hockey game to watch. There was end to end action that had fans on the edge of their seats. New York played one of their better games of the post season and did a solid job of hemming the Capitals in their own end on several occasions, especially at the beginning of the first period and for good chunks of the third period.

On the flip side, the Caps had portions of this tilt where they carried the play, particularly in the middle frame. Through 40 minutes the shot attempt totals were 41-36 in favor of New York before the Rangers threw the kitchen sink at the Caps in the last 20 minutes, outshot attempting them, 28-13.

Many of those 28 shots were from the perimeter as the Capitals defense did an excellent job of clogging the shooting lanes and protecting the front of the net. Holtby faced only 10 shots on net despite the 28 attempts.

On the back end, Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner were absolutely fabulous in 25:56 and 21:00, respectively. I thought it was both players best game of the post season and they were dominant on the ice.

Home ice was huge in this contest for three primary reasons.

First, the Verizon Center crowd provided energy to the players. Andre Burakovsky told me afterwards that Unleash the Fury is his favorite part of the in game segments because it makes the fans go crazy and it provides the team with energy. Washington’s crowd was outstanding, once again.

Second, it allowed Coach Barry Trotz to get the on ice matchups he desired. All four Capitals lines skated fairly well and Tom Wilson, playing with Curtis Glencross and Brooks Laich, had his best playoff game ever. “Willy” was particularly strong on the wall and with the puck in period two.

Third, the Capitals players are able to place their stick down second on face offs and as a result, Washington went 40-18 on draws. Coach Trotz particularly noticed the face off wins and praised both Jay Beagle (10-2) and Nicklas Backstrom (15-5).

This was a more physical game for the Rangers and they doled out 31 hits, including six from Chris Kreider. New York is a talented and fast team so it was a bit surprising to see them play the more heavy style, at times, but this is the playoffs. Washington had 39 hits and it should have been 40. Wilson was whistled for boarding James Sheppard shortly after nearly the same type of hit was used by Rick Nash on Brooks Orpik and, of course, not called.

The Capitals received two early power plays but they didn’t connect. They had some good chances but Nicklas Backstrom noted that the ice made things tough. Given the mid 80’s temperatures, it was no surprise that the sheet was not good. On the PK, the Caps were fantastic in only allowing three shots on net in two Blueshirts man advantage situations.

As for the referees, they were better calling each team for the two penalties. I didn’t like the way the boarding “no call then call” sequence went, but overall they let the players decide the game.

So the Capitals, behind the stellar goaltending of Holtby, now have a chance to take a 3-1 lead on the Rangers if they win on Wednesday.

Coach Trotz has not liked any of the first periods that the Caps have played in this series. With the Rangers facing the prospect of going down three games to one, you can bet they’ll be flying on Wednesday.

It’s up to the Caps to answer the bell and not provide the Rangers with any momentum.

Notes: Beagle scored his goal at 27:31 from below the goal line. He banked the puck off of Keith Yandle and Henrik Lundqvist (21 saves)…Alex Ovechkin had eight shots attempts and five hits…Niskanen blocked seven shots…Troy Brouwer was awarded the team’s Honest Abe award for his work that led to the only goal of the game.

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The Rangers start fast and get a trio of 1st period power plays to win game two.

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Poor Start, Rangers Intimidation of Officials Dooms Caps in Game Two

Posted on 02 May 2015 by Ed Frankovic

After a big win in game one, the Washington Capitals needed to be prepared for a Rangers onslaught to start game two.

They weren’t.

Just 38 seconds into the contest the Rangers buzzed the Caps net and Chris Kreider ultimately put the biscuit past Braden Holtby after a couple of rebounds. It was an ugly start and something Coach Barry Trotz was hoping to avoid in an unfriendly early start time.

After that though, the Capitals settled down and played decently getting a great look by Alex Ovechkin on Henrik Lundqvist and a couple of others before the referees took over. Zebras Dan O’Rourke and Dan O’Halloran would call three consecutive penalties on the Caps and New York would grab a 2-0 lead after period one.

What’s upsetting is that I predicted this in my blog after game 1 and on the radio on Friday morning on WNST. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, a noted whiner who has a history of getting his team to dive all over the ice to garner penalty calls, singled out Nicklas Backstrom’s clean hit on Dan Boyle in game one as dirty and for some reason, probably because insufferable NY Post writer Larry Brooks keeps writing about it, Ovechkin’s hit on Thomas Hickey from the Islanders series. Vigneault whined incessantly on Friday about a “standard” being set by the league on hits from behind.

Well, far be it for anyone to even fictitiously impact the NHL’s darlings, so naturally the calls were going to go the Rangers way in game two, early and often. The interference penalty on Karl Alzner in the neutral zone was an absolute joke, especially when the Rangers, who constantly interfered with the Penguins in round one, got away with a couple of those that were far worse than what Alzner supposedly did in the first eight minutes.

Shortly thereafter, “Goalie Injurer” Kreider put the Gr8 in a serious headlock in a post whistle scrum and was whistled for absolutely nothing. What a joke.

The Caps would kill off the Alzner phantom call, but then Carl Hagelin went down like he was hit by sniper fire behind the Capitals net when Joel Ward put his stick on him and power play number two arrived for New York. The Caps might have killed off their 18th straight power play of the playoffs if not for O’Halloran getting in the way of Troy Brouwer’s clear, which allowed Boyle to keep the puck in the zone and eventually score.

Tom Wilson would be called for charging Ryan McDonagh and that was actually a good call because #43 came up off of his skates before contact.

So that’s three calls for the Rangers when there should have been only one or possibly two and none for the Caps when there were at least three New York infractions.

But, when you play in New York and the media will make up whatever they can to support the crying coach in the paper, then the officials and the NHL are easily intimidated and end up against the Rangers opponents.

Starting in period two, the Capitals would dominate the majority of play. They stormed back furiously in that middle frame but only scored on a put back by Evgeny Kuznetsov after a good shot by Jason Chimera. The Caps fired 16 shots on the Rangers in that stanza, but somehow weren’t awarded a single power play.

In period three, Washington started strong and finally got their first power play when interference was called on Derrick Brassard, who instantly whined to the referees that it was a bad call. The Caps would get several good looks, but Lundqvist stood tall and then when the penalty expired the Capitals had a major defensive breakdown allowing Brassard to make it 3-1 from the doorstep.

Ovechkin would then score one of his highlight reel goals to make it 3-2. It’s interesting because the Gr8 was clearly tripped on the play and scored while falling to the ice. On replay, the referee closest to the play doesn’t even raise his arm to call the tripping infraction, so it’s a good thing the Gr8 scored because surely the Capitals would not have gotten a second straight power play.

Washington would press more in the final period, but then the Vigneault dive academy paid off again when Keith Yandle went down like he was shot from the blue seats when Brouwer’s stick hit him in the upper chest area. The intimidated zebras fell for it again calling high sticking while also failing to signal #93 for blatant embellishment. Sure Brouwer can be more careful with his stick, but that was nowhere close to being a penalty as the spear to the neck by Tanner Glass in game one on Holtby. Wasn’t a “standard” set on that play??!!

Again, what a joke, and at that point I started wondering if Oliver Stone was in the building making a movie on the Rangers.

The Caps would kill that off and not quit. For the last two minutes they put massive pressure on the Rangers, but somehow failed to get the equalizer.

New York was literally saved by the bell plus the officials, and has knotted this series up heading back to DC for games three and four.

Overall, the Caps have themselves to blame for the poor first few shifts, but Vigneault and the New York media really should take great joy in how they managed to intimidate the league and its’ officials to gain three opening frame power plays. For the game, it was four power plays to one for the Rangers. So chalk this victory up to the whine of the Rangers bench boss and the New York media.

It’s amazing Vigneault and the NY papers were allowed to get away with this given the numerous missed infractions on the Rangers in game one, to include Glass’ spearing of Holtby, Dominic Moore boarding Curtis Glencross from behind in period one (Vigneault conveniently left that one out of his “standard”), and Kreider sticking out his knee in an attempt to injure Holtby. But the NHL treats the Rangers like choir boys and gives them the “kid glove” treatment.

Frankly, it’s quite sickening, but with the league centered in New York, you can bet they’ll just keep on taking care of their “little darlings.”

So the Capitals will not only have to beat New York, but the guys in stripes too.

Notes: Shot attempts were 63-60 for New York, but they had three more power play opportunities. Shots on net were 35-32 for the Rangers…Ovechkin had 11 shots attempts, nine hits, and his goal in 19:49 of ice time…the Caps won the face off battle, 31-27. Brooks Laich went 5-1…no player on either team logged over 23 minutes. These are two clubs that play four lines and three defensive pairs nearly the entire game.

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The Caps score with 1.3 seconds remaining to grab a 1-0 series lead over the Rangers

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Alex Ovechkin Delivers in Caps Game 1 Victory

Posted on 30 April 2015 by Ed Frankovic

All hail Alexander Ovechkin!

The Gr8, after scoring the Caps first goal on the power play on a laser of shot that was so hard you had to watch the replay to see it go in, set up Joel Ward’s game winning tally from behind the Rangers net with 1.3 seconds remaining to give Washington a 2-1 victory and a 1-0 series lead.

The pass by Ovechkin came after he was hauled down by Dan Boyle, which allowed Boyle to gain possession of the puck in the corner. Boyle tried to run the clock out but was hit hard and clean by Nicklas Backstrom to jar the puck loose to Ovi. Ovechkin skated behing the net and then centered a sweet pass into the slot where Ward, who had hit the post earlier from the doorstep, shot it by Henrik Lundqvist (27 saves). Game over.

Wow, what a hockey game!

The Rangers won the Presidents’ Trophy this season for obvious reasons and they have a fast skating team, but also some players with good size too.

Braden Holtby (31 saves) kept Washington in it early until the Caps finally got their legs going around the eight minute mark of period one.

Ovechkin’s power play marker at 18:13 of the first period looked like it might hold up as the game winner, but Washington struggled for long stretches in the final frame before Jesper Fast deflected Kevin Hayes shot by Holtby with 4:39 remaining.

The Caps did generate 11 shots on net in the final frame but they were not able to get a consistent forecheck going and that allowed the Rangers to use their speed and get the Washington defense on their heels. Sitting back is not a strategy the Capitals want to employ and Coach Barry Trotz commented afterwards that he didn’t think the Caps played well on Thursday (h/t @alexprewitt).

But Holtby was super in net and the Caps did a good job of keeping New York to the outside.

To beat the Rangers, the Capitals will need big performances from their star players and Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Holtby more than delivered in game one. Brooks Orpik and John Carlson were strong on the back end too.

Up front, the line of Brooks Laich, Curtis Glencross, and Tom Wilson did a solid job of putting pressure on the New York defense. Wilson (5 hits in 10:07), especially, had an excellent game.

Afterwards, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault was incensed thinking Backstrom should have been whistled for a penalty on Boyle. Perhaps he should be more upset at Boyle for not moving the puck quicker? I’ve watched the replay several times and I’ve yet to see a penalty. Backstrom glides into Boyle, who turns and ducks his head, keeps his elbow down and hits Boyle on the right shoulder. But Vigneault has a history of whining to the officials and I’m sure the NY Post, who has already gone out of their way to “vilify” Tom Wilson and the Caps as dirty players, will likely have a field day Friday trying to help their home town team influence the NHL and the referees.

Hopefully the referees are smart enough to ignore the complaining that no doubt will come from the NHL’s “darlings.”

But back to hockey, as Trotz noted, the Capitals have a higher level they can get to in their play. They will need to do that on Saturday if they want to win game two. The biggest thing is to get their legs moving more and generate pressure on the New York defense. When the Caps buried the Rangers in their only regular season victory, they did so with a relentless forecheck.

Relentless are what the Capitals will have to be on a consistent basis to defeat a very fast and talented team.

Notes: Shot attempts were 65-60 for New York…Ovechkin had 12 shot attempts, Backstrom had five and Ward four as the Capitals top line was dominant…the Rangers won the face off battle, 34-27…Carlson led the Caps in ice time at 23:10 and Orpik logged 22:54.

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The Caps play their best hockey of the series in game 7 to advance to the second round.

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Caps Game 7 Win Validates Off Season Moves

Posted on 28 April 2015 by Ed Frankovic

It may not have been dominant on the scoreboard, and it took Evgeny Kuznetsov’s brilliant goal with 7:18 remaining for the Caps to get the game winning tally, but that was an impressive performance by the Washington Capitals in a tough seventh game against a formidable opponent.

The Caps outshot the Islanders, 26-11, and dominated puck possession nearly the entire game to advance to the second round to face the New York Rangers.

Coach Barry Trotz’ team turned in what Brooks Orpik and Nicklas Backstrom called the team’s best game of the series by playing physical and winning the one on one battles all over the ice. Backstrom said afterwards that the team talked about playing “through the battle, instead of going around” and they did just that exhibiting a punishing physical style that wore the smaller Islanders out.

For several years I’ve blogged about my dislike for the depth of the team’s defense, but year after year former GM George McPhee would roll out his standard line of “We like our D.” Fortunately new GM Brian MacLellan and Coach Trotz understood the need to upgrade that part of the hockey team and achieved that with the additions of Orpik, Matt Niskanen, and Tim Gleason on the back end.

Also, the move to bring in Trotz gave Washington the system and foundation they needed to be a better defensive hockey club. After all, they don’t say “Defense Wins Championships” for nothing.

The result of the off season course change, which was sorely needed, was a game seven of only 11 shots allowed to one of the most prolific offenses in the NHL. Of those 11 shots, only three came from forwards (h/t @JapersRink)! John Tavares, arguably the league’s MVP, didn’t have a single shot attempt in 20:44 of ice time in the biggest game of his career. In fact, of the 49 shot attempts the Islanders generated, and 29 of them were in period three, 11 came from Johnny Boychuck, alone. That’s some team defense by the Capitals!

Simply put, this series victory validates the entire off season by the Capitals organization. They needed to become a team and they needed to upgrade their coaching and defense. They did all three of those things and the result is a position in the elite 8 of the NHL.

Following the game, the Capitals locker room was happy, but not exactly exuberant. Every player I spoke with was pleased with the win, but each one of them pointed out it is just the first step towards their ultimate goal. They clearly aren’t satisfied with a single series victory and Backstrom was quick to say this core has not been past the second round, yet.

This series was big in a lot of ways because the Capitals won without having to totally rely on Alex Ovechkin (5 points) and Backstrom (6 points) for offense. Kuznetsov (3 goals, 1 assist) stepped up and showed that he can be a second line center in crunch time with his outstanding play. He was poised and controlling with the puck and gave the Islanders defense fits. Andre Burakovsky, who played the last four games of the series, three of which were Capitals victories, showed that he can play both ends of the ice. He was strong on the wall with the puck and played wiser than your typical rookie.

As for the goaltending, Braden Holtby had a superb series despite starting it with a nasty stomach bug that forced him out of game two. Holtbeast won’t be happy with the goal he allowed to Frans Nielsen on Monday night, but he was another reason why Washington is moving on. Braden stopped 157 of 167 (94%) shots in this series.

Perhaps most important is how this Capitals team, who Coach Trotz has been saying is different than past Washington clubs, didn’t panic when they dominated the play but couldn’t score for 30+ minutes. They remained calm when Nielsen tied the game up just 3:13 into the final frame. Past squads might have panicked and deviated from the game plan, but not this crew. The Capitals just came out stronger after the tying tally until Kuznetsov scored on a play that very few others would have the patience and skill to execute.

That goal will go down in Capitals history as one of the great playoff series clinchers along with goals from Dale Hunter (1988), John Druce (1990), Joe Juneau (1998), Sergei Fedorov (2009), and Joel Ward (2012).

As for the Verizon Center crowd, well it was as good as it’s been in years. Every Capitals player spoke of the energy in the building and just before the handshake line following the victory, Coach Trotz made a point to wave and thank the fans, who played a role in this tough series triumph.

There was a lot to like on Monday night and Washington was the better team in a very close series.

Best of all, when the chips were down, they turned in their best performance in a game seven, something they have struggled to do in the playoffs since 2008.

This series win is a big step in the right direction for Capitals hockey.

Notes: Shot attempts were 60-49 for the Caps but were 47-20 through 40 minutes…Washington won the faceoff battle, 32-21. Backstrom was 16-5…Ovechkin had an assist on Joel Ward’s goal feeding Orpik with a brilliant cross ice pass…the Gr8 had seven hits and six shot attempts in 16:52 of ice time…the only penalty was curiously called on John Carlson for roughing with 2:54 remaining. It seemed very weird given everything else had been let go until that point…Niskanen logged 23:05 and Orpik 23:01 to lead Washington in ice time…Nick Leddy (26:19) and Boychuk (25:57) were the work horses for the Islanders…Tavares was 2-9 on faceoffs and looked out of gas in game seven.

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Braden Holtby stops 36 of 37 shots while Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin provide the Caps offense in a 2-1, OT victory.

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Backstrom Ends Caps Long Drought in OT on Long Island

Posted on 22 April 2015 by Ed Frankovic

With their backs nearly up against the wall in this playoff series, the Washington Capitals earned a gritty victory in game four on Long Island on Nicklas Backstrom’s goal 11:09 into overtime to even things up at two games apiece.

Alexander Ovechkin had a goal and an assist and Braden Holtby stopped 36 of 37 shots to earn his first win of the series.

Simply put, the Capitals top players showed up in a critical game to end the franchise’s six game road playoff losing streak and also finally get a post season overtime victory at the Nassau Coliseum.

This was a physical game that New York dominated for most of 40 minutes before the Capitals finally started taking over in period three and then the overtime. Islanders defensemen Lubomir Visnovsky suffered an injury when he was cleanly hit by Tom Wilson in period two. The zebras didn’t see it that way and called #43 for charging while Thomas Hickey, who roughed up Wilson after the whistle, went unscathed and served no box time. Visnovsky would not return forcing New York to play the rest of the tilt with only five d-men.

Despite the poor call and the fact that the Islanders had the game’s first four power plays in those 40 minutes, the Capitals and Holtby weathered the storm. Brooks Orpik played the last 51+ minutes with a cut face after John Carlson inadvertently sliced him with his skate. Orpik, who eats rocks for breakfast, came back to play a strong game along with Carlson. Both players were +2 on the night.

The Caps had 66 shot attempts in this tilt and Ovechkin (18) and Backstrom (8) had a combined 26 of them. It was clear that neither one of those players wanted to go down 3-1 in the series. The Islanders generated 78 shot attempts but they had eight minutes of power play time to just two minutes for Washington. The Capitals penalty killing efforts were a huge reason why they were able to grind out this win.

So after a pretty lousy effort in game three at the raucous Nassau Coliseum, the Capitals found a way to play better and get a win on the road and regain home ice advantage.

After game two, Caps Coach Barry Trotz stated how important the Capitals fans are to his team’s energy level. Therefore, for game five, the Verizon Center should be rocking. For those who follow me on twitter (@EdFrankovic) you know of the ugly behavior displayed by some of the Islanders fans in games three and four. Orpik, who sustained a facial cut late in period one, was even pelted with a beer in the face after the Caps won on Tuesday night. There was a general lack of decorum shown by some New York fans in these two games on Long Island. Washington fans have a chance to show that they are not only louder, but classier on Thursday night. So Rock your Red, but be respectful of those in Islanders gear.

Regardless of the noise level, and I do expect it to be quite loud and help the Caps, Washington has to come out and dictate the pace of the game and not wait to counter punch any strong Islanders start. New York is very fast and has some serious skill and they are a tough opponent. However, if the Capitals bring their “A” game like they did in game two and in overtime in game four, they will be tough to beat.

Bottom line, it’s all about the effort and how badly the Capitals want to win.

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Caps Play Poorly to Lose Game 1

Posted on 16 April 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs did not go as planned, at all, for the Washington Capitals as they fell to the New York Islanders, 4-1, at the Verizon Center.

You could sum this game up with the following sentence.

The Islanders played very well while the Capitals did not.

New York, led by John Tavares, looked confident and fast as they came out flying to dominate the first frame. Somehow the Caps were able to keep it 1-1 after 20 minutes but in period two, the Islanders scored directly off of a face off after a lazy icing was whistled on Washington. New York would add another goal just past the midway point and they played solid defense the rest of the way to win in relatively easy fashion.

The Caps struggled with their passing and breakouts all game. They tried to make the long stretch pass far too often and they were ultra sloppy in the neutral zone. Troy Brouwer’s turnover allowed Brock Nelson to skate in alone down the right wing side and he snapped a wrister by Braden Holtby short side for the opening tally. It was not a good goal allowed by #70.

Marcus Johansson tied the game with 57 seconds left in the first period after Brooks Laich outworked two Islanders in the corner and made a nice feed in the slot to a streaking #90. Jojo beat Jaroslav Halak (24 saves) five hole to whip the Verizon Center crowd into a frenzy.

But on this night the Capitals could never get any sustained offense going. They repeatedly made poor passing decisions that led to turnovers allowing New York to excel in their transition game. This was one of the worst games Washington had all season in terms of breaking the puck out of their own zone. On Wednesday night they looked more like the 2013-14 Caps instead of the team that amassed 101 points in 2014-15.

Afterwards the message in the Caps room and from Coach Barry Trotz was consistent. The Islanders deserved part of the credit for winning while the Capitals played poorly and needed to be a lot better. Trotz said he was very disappointed in the performance of many on his team. The Washington bench boss pointed out that there weren’t many scoring chances for either team in this tilt. New York did a good job of clogging the middle of the ice in the neutral zone and in front of their own net. If the Caps want to win they need to get bodies and pucks through to try and rattle Halak, who had a far too easy night.

Fortunately this is just one game and the playoffs are all about adjustments by the players and the coaches. Game one was all New York and now it is on the Capitals to adjust. Will that include lineup changes? Perhaps. Michael Latta only played 5:16 and he lost the draw that led to the Islanders winning goal. Does Tom Wilson get back in or is he still recovering from the puck he took to the head in Detroit on April 5th? Does Jason Chimera, who took a bad penalty at the end of periods two and three, come out for Andre Burakovsky? That’s to be determined.

There’s no need for the Capitals to panic, at this point. They played poorly and lost the series opener to give away home ice. But where the game is played doesn’t matter a whole lot, it’s how you play the game. In the series opener the Islanders played extremely well and they deserved to win. The Caps, on the other hand, have a lot of work to do in order to come out on top in game two on Friday night. They need to pass the puck better and they need to win more of the one on one battles.

Notes: Washington won the face off battle handily, 39-23, but Latta lost that key second period draw to Tavares, who was fabulous in this game, that led to the winning goal…New York out shot the Caps 27-25 and out shot attempted them 65-55, primarily behind a 23-11 first period advantage…both teams were 0 for 2 on the power play…Matt Niskanen was on the ice for all four Islanders goals (the last was an empty net). Brooks Orpik and John Carlson were the only plus players for the Capitals (+1)…Carlson led the Caps in ice time at 23:03. Orpik was second with 21:37…Alex Ovechkin had 12 shot attempts, including eight shots on net…Nicklas Backstrom was 14-6 on draws…Jay Beagle and Eric Fehr returned to the lineup after missing several games due to injury…Travis Hamonic missed the game for New York, but the Islanders defense played well. Johnny Boychuk led the team with 23:05 of ice time.

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