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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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Some major gaffes prevent the Capitals from wrapping up the series, now they must win Game 7.

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Big Mistakes, Poor Power Play Costs Caps in Game 6

Posted on 11 May 2015 by Ed Frankovic

There were too many “big” mistakes, plain and simple.

Add to that a power play that goes 0 for 4, including a poorly executed one with 2:54 left, and it all adds up to a 3-1 series lead lost, and a game seven on Wednesday night between the Capitals and the Rangers.

What an opportunity lost on Sunday night. Home ice was there for the Caps to hold serve and they squandered it with a terrible start and end to period one.

Then, after a dominant second period where the Capitals would outshoot the Rangers, 18-4, they gave up an early third period goal to make it 3-1. Just over three minutes later it was 4-1 when Curtis Glencross lost Dan Boyle in the defensive zone and #22 shot one by a screened Braden Holtby (24 saves).

In the past, most Capitals teams would’ve gone in the tank and packed it in for game seven.

Not this Caps team coached by Barry Trotz, though. Washington put on a furious rally and closed to within a goal with 9:27 remaining only to see New York find a way to hang on.

The Caps dominated most of the final forty minutes after a first period that saw New York carry the shot attempt totals by 32-26. The Rangers, like they’ve done all series in the opening 20 minutes, had the better of the quality chances.

Chris Kreider scored both goals after Capitals mistakes. On the first goal Washington had a couple of early good chances but the puck came out of the offensive zone and Kreider got position on Matt Niskanen. The big forward scored on a backhand on his team’s first shot. Niskanen needed to haul the Ranger down there, plain and simple.

Then to end the period, the unthinkable happened. After a questionable roughing call on Troy Brower, the Caps lost the defensive zone face off with 3.6 seconds remaining and Kreider scored with 0.3 of a second on the clock after the puck bounced off of John Carlson’s skate right to #20. That’s unacceptable to allow a goal there.

But the Capitals battled back and outplayed the Rangers in period two, but only scored on Jason Chimera’s rebound tally just 28 seconds into the middle frame.

Evgeny Kuznetsov (2 points) and Joel Ward (3 points) would score during the third period rally that fell short. For the 4th consecutive game in this series, both Alex Ovechkin (12 shot attempts) and Nicklas Backstrom (4 shot attempts) were held pointless.

Rick Nash scored his 1st goal of the series 54 seconds into period three. The Capitals made several defensive zone mistakes on that goal, with Niskanen’s giveaway the biggest. However, afterwards Trotz felt that the linesmen missed an obvious icing call on New York. The Rangers player shot the puck in the zone six feet behind the red line but somehow icing was washed out?

The Caps, however, did not lose this one due to the referees, in fact, blaming them would be ridiculous. Washington had four power plays and only generated five shots on net. That’s terrible! It might be time to make some personnel changes as the Rangers did a super job of not allowing the Capitals to get in the zone and set up. With so few power plays available in the playoffs, it makes sense to load up your top unit with your best offensive players in order to score. Towards that end, I’d drop John Carlson and Marcus Johansson off of that unit and insert Mike Green and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

So now we have a game seven on Wednesday night. The Capitals certainly did a lot of good things on Sunday night. They outshot attempted the Rangers, 96-55, including 70-23 over the last 40 minutes. Part of that was the score effects, but the biggest difference was the Caps played with a sense of purpose and pressured the Rangers defense with more physical play and hard work.

That pressure the Rangers in their own end recipe is one that Coach Trotz needs to employ more on Wednesday. Sure it opens you up to some odd man rushes, but if the Caps play the system correctly, the third forward should be in position to prevent those.

Washington certainly played some of their best hockey of the series and ended up losing. You can put that on defensive lapses and a poor power play.

As Trotz stated afterwards, the pressure is equally on both teams. The Rangers have the best record in the NHL and are very speedy and talented so they’re expected to win. Washington has an immensely talented squad too and had a 3-1 series lead.

At this point, the two days off actually help the Capitals in this one because they spent a lot of energy trying to come back. Washington would love to have home ice, but that’s gone now. The Garden will be rocking and most people will be picking the Rangers to win.

But it is one game, winner take all, and the Caps have the luxury of not worrying about tickets and distractions, like the Rangers players will endure.

Washington just has to show up and play a hockey game on Wednesday.

If they can play with the ferocity they did in periods two and three and not make so many costly mistakes, they could win the game.

They’ll also need their stars, Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Holtby to deliver top performances.

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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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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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Braden Holtby goes 88 for 88 against the Bruins this season.

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Holtby Stones the Bruins Again in Caps Victory

Posted on 08 April 2015 by Ed Frankovic

If the Boston Bruins miss the playoffs this spring, they will likely have visions of Braden Holtby in their nightmares all summer long.

In a game the Beantown boys absolutely had to have, Holtbeast and the Capitals raced to an early 2-0 lead and ended up blanking the Bruins, 3-0.

That’s three Caps games against Boston this season and three shutouts for #70, who was a perfect 88 for 88 against Milan Lucic and company.

It was an impressive victory on home ice to guarantee that the Capitals will finish at least in third place in the Metropolitan Division and should the Penguins beat the Islanders on Friday night in Pittsburgh, then the Caps will clinch second place in the Metropolitan Division and home ice in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which start next week. If the Islanders do win against the Pens, the Caps could clinch second with a victory over the Rangers on Saturday afternoon.

Back to Wednesday’s night win, the line of Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, and Troy Brouwer was outstanding. The league’s greatest passer, #19, was dominant with two assists. Johansson (1 goal, 1 assist, +3), who was really good in Detroit in that road victory, was all over the ice on Wednesday and used his speed effectively against a “turtle-like” Bruins defense (they are sloooowwww). Johansson was also very strong on the walls and appears to be peaking his game at the right time. As for Brouwer (2 assists, +3), well he was physical and did a super job of going to the net.

The Backstrom line is carrying the play and with Evgeny Kuznetsov (1 sweet assist) doing a strong job of centering Alex Ovechkin (10 shot attempts and 4 hits) and Joel Ward, it is much more difficult for opposing coaches to slow the Capitals offense.

The Capitals now sit at 45-25-11 (101 points) and are 11 points better than last season, with a game still remaining. I’ve blogged and talked on WNST all season long about the importance of the improved blue line plus Coach Barry Trotz’ system and those changes have paid dividends. In addition, this Capitals club has become a team and is a very tight nit group. Players rally around each other, as evidenced by Holtby and Mike Green racing over to Tom Wilson on Sunday in Motown when #43 put his head in front of a puck for his teammates. When you see players doing that for each other, you know you’ve got something special and this Capitals club has not been this close in years. Kudos to the players and coaches for developing and maintaining a real “team” atmosphere.

Now though, it’s almost time for the real season to begin and just getting back to the playoffs is not going to cut it for the players or anyone else in the organization, to include the fans. Washington must continue to stick to what they’ve been doing, playing solid team defense and winning the battles that lead to victories.

On Wednesday night, they strangled a desperate Bruins team in the final frame and only allowed five shots on goal. Their breakouts were superb and they kept the forecheck and pressure on Boston to deny them any chance at gaining momentum. They moved their feet and stayed out of the box. As a result, the Bruins had zero power plays (boy is Bruins coach Claude Julien going to whine about that!).

There was a lot to like in the Caps victory over the Bruins on Wednesday night. Best stat of all though has to be this one:

Holtby’s Goals Against Average (GAA) against Boston in 2014-15 is the same as John Blutarsky’s grade point average: ZERO POINT ZERO!!

Notes: Boston crushed the Caps at the dot thanks to the best faceoff man in the league, Patrice Bergeron. #37 went 22-9 as the Bruins won 39 of 63 faceoffs (62%)…John Carlson had a goal and led the Caps in ice time with 22:40…Johansson, Backstrom, and Brouwer all played over 19 minutes each…Stan Galiev made his NHL debut and played well in 9:56 of ice time…the Caps were 0 for 3 on the power play….Tuukka Rask remains 0 for the Verizon Center.

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Caps Bring Big Effort, Knock off Rangers, 5-2

Posted on 29 March 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Now that looked more like the Washington Capitals team we saw dominate opponents back in December and January.

After several games with an inconsistent effort and little to no sustained pressure in the offensive zone, the Caps overcame some early miscues and displayed a vicious forecheck that they rode to an impressive 5-2 victory in Madison Square Garden against arguably the best team in the NHL, the New York Rangers.

It was a huge victory in a tough building, but more importantly, the Capitals played hard and within their system, something they’ve struggled with for the past two months.

The Rangers are a fast team, maybe the swiftest in the NHL, so in order to defeat them, you have to get them back on their heels and not let them use their own zone and the neutral zone to generate speed. If you sit back on New York, you’ll find yourself in trouble quickly.

Washington took this contest over from about the middle of period two after Alexander Ovechkin’s two tallies kept the Capitals even. During the latter stages of the second frame the Caps forechecked with a vengeance and it rattled the New York defense. The Rangers would survive period two but in the third the Caps were all over them with excellent forward pressure. Eric Fehr picked off an errant New York pass at the blue line and Brooks Laich took the puck deep to feed Jason Chimera for a plumbers type of goal from the crease to give the Caps a 3-2 lead just 4:41 into the final period.

In recent times, the Caps have chosen to sit back once they grabbed a one goal final frame advantage, but not on Sunday. Coach Barry Trotz’ crew did not change their tactics and they were relentless on the Rangers defense and forced more turnovers, which ultimately led to Chimera tallying again from alone in the slot on a sweet move and backhand past Cam Talbot.

With a two goal lead and 12 plus minutes remaining, Washington did not take their foot of the gas as they kept up the offensive and neutral zone pressure and never allowed the Rangers to generate any offensive steam. It was a thing of beauty and something the Capitals hopefully learn from. They used their size and effort to frustrate an elite hockey club. It was an effort that this Caps team needs to bring every night if they want to do damage in the post season.

There was a lot to like in this contest. Washington’s penalty kill was outstanding thwarting all five Rangers power play opportunities, including one just 28 seconds into the game. Also, the Caps did not take any penalties in the third period, which allowed Coach Trotz to roll the lines and keep the pressure on New York. A big reason why they didn’t take any infractions in the third was because they were moving their feet and working hard. It sounds simple, but this Washington club gets into penalty trouble when they stop skating and take ridiculous stick penalties (see Joel Ward’s slash in period two).

As for the Caps power play, well it clicked when needed. With Washington down 2-1, Ovechkin buried his 49th tally of the season off of a nice feed from Nicklas Backstrom with Ward tying up Dan Boyle in front and screening Talbot. That was a goal the Capitals absolutely needed from their special teams at that juncture. The power play had been a buzz kill in recent games, especially the failed five on three against Nashville on Saturday and it was a shorty that allowed the Devils to get back in the game on Thursday.

The outstanding performance improves the Caps to 41-25-10 (92 points) and pushes them closer to clinching a playoff berth with six games remaining (they are now six points up on 9th place Ottawa, who has a game in hand). It’s a win that they hopefully learn from, because the way they played is how they will have to execute down the stretch and in April if they want to compete for the Stanley Cup.

Washington proved Sunday they can play against the top squads when needed against a New York club that was 2-0 against the Caps this season. The key now for the Capitals is to consistently bring that type of effort and commitment to their system and structure game in and game out.

Notes: Brooks Oprik was +3 to lead the team in that department…John Carlson was +2 despite a bad giveaway that put New York on the board. #74 didn’t let that bug him and turned in a really strong performance after that unfortunate occurrence…Braden Holtby, who was yanked in the first period on Saturday, was strong in net stopping 23 of 25 shots…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 22:17. Tom Wilson, who had some super third period shifts, only played 9:25. All other skaters were between those totals since Trotz rolled the lines in the second half of a back to back situation…the Caps out shot New York 31-25 thanks to a 14-7 third period…shot attempts were 50-50…Fehr and Laich had two assists each as their line was stellar in period three…next up for the Capitals are the Carolina Hurricanes at 7 pm on Tuesday at the Verizon Center.

 

 

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Holtby Blanks Boston in Key Caps Victory

Posted on 15 March 2015 by Ed Frankovic

After Friday night’s debacle to the Dallas Stars, things were not good in Washington Capitals land. They lacked effort and intensity in arguably their worst performance of the season and were 1-3 on a five game home stand. Following the loss their head coach, Barry Trotz, told the team to “fix it.”

On Sunday night against the Boston Bruins, who had tied them with 82 standings points following their blanking of the Penguins on Saturday afternoon, the Caps gave one of their best efforts of the campaign. Braden Holtby, who was pulled in the loss on Friday, was superb in net stopping all 32 shots he faced and frustrated a chippy Beantown club en route to a 2-0 victory.

Nicklas Backstrom added two helpers to take over the franchise all time assist lead and Alex Ovechkin, despite having no points, was on the ice and a factor in both Washington tallies. In addition to the Caps stars showing up, the lunch pail guys brought their game with a vengeance, including second year man Tom Wilson who was physical on the puck and had the Bruins going after him all night. In fact it was Willie’s big hit on Ryan Spooner that angered Brad “the Rat” Marchand, who promptly jumped #43 and took a two minute minor that should have been at least four minutes (bad zebras, once again).

John Carlson would laser a point shot by Tuukka Rask, who is now 0-4-2 in his career at the Verizon Center, on the resulting power play to give the Capitals a key 1-0 lead. Boston, who has been red hot lately, had scored the first goal in their last 11 contests.

The Caps would dominate the first two periods and Nate Schmidt would post the only other marker in the middle frame on a point blast that hit Greg Campbell and went in. It was a lucky bounce, but usually in sports the team that works harder gets the bounces. The Capitals were the harder working club on Sunday, something that was not the case in their previous two losses.

This game probably should’ve been over after 40 minutes but Rask was very good and kept his club alive for a potential third period push. Despite two power plays and pulling their goalie late, the Bruins just couldn’t get the biscuit past Holtby. Boston tried everything, including having Milan Lucic slash him and do whatever he could to rattle #70, but Holtbeast simply ignored #17 and stoned the Bruins attempts with solid positioning and a super glove hand. The Caps, who were missing Brooks Orpik on the blue line for the third straight tilt, did a good job of keeping the Bruins to the outside and only allowed nine shots on the cage in the final frame. For the night, the Capitals frustrated Boston by blocking 26 shot attempts.

This was a huge victory because Washington now moves back into the first wild card spot in the Eastern Conference standings and they are seven points up on the streaking Ottawa Senators (11-1-1 in their last 13 games), who are in 9th place behind Boston. The Caps are just four and six points behind the Penguins and Islanders, respectively, in the Metropolitan Division. A victory on Monday night in Buffalo would get the Capitals even closer to those teams and more importantly, closer to clinching a playoff spot. The Caps have 12 games remaining so a win against the Sabres would put them at 86 points and 95 should be enough to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

So, just 48 hours after a dismal performance and the potential for doom and gloom, the Capitals went out and beat a strong Boston Bruins club in a heavy and physical contest. It was a super team performance backed by stellar goaltending from Holtby, who earned his 8th shutout of the season.

The club only earned two points for the victory, but this one seems bigger and sets the team up well to get to the playoff dance that they so badly want to make and then excel in.

Notes: The Caps outshot the Bruins 38-32 but Boston won the shot attempt battle, 70-63. The Bruins had four power plays to just one for the Caps, which doesn’t add up based on the Caps dominating much of the play. Unblocked shot attempts had the Caps up 53-44…the Capitals lost the faceoff battle, 36-27. Patrice Bergeron is the best draw man in the NHL and he went 18-7…Matt Niskanen led Washington in ice time with 25:00.

 

 

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Caps Mistakes Costly in 3-1 Defeat to Rangers

Posted on 12 March 2015 by Ed Frankovic

In hockey, you’ll often hear coaches talk about bad losses and good losses.

On Wednesday night at the Verizon Center, Washington Capitals Coach Barry Trotz would not categorize the Caps 3-1 defeat to the New York Rangers as a bad loss.

Despite the post game reaction from numerous Caps fans on twitter, where it seemed several people were out on the ledge and ready to leap, I definitely agree with the Washington bench boss.

Sure the Rangers were playing their third game in four nights, but the Caps were missing two of their top five defensemen in Mike Green and Brooks Orpik and their top center, Nicklas Backstrom, was playing with a bad stomach bug that prevented him from skating for four days. So coming into this contest against the Blueshirts, who I believe are the best team in the NHL right now and will likely win the Eastern Conference and perhaps the Presidents’ Trophy, I didn’t have a good feeling for the Caps given that Nate Schmidt was playing his first NHL game in over two months and Cameron Schilling was also in the starting lineup on defense.

The inexperience and lack of skill on the blueline is something we saw help wreck the Capitals post season appearance streak last spring and to be honest, the defensive lineup iced on Wednesday night was a bit reminiscent of last year’s club that routinely featured two or more AHL calibre players. As expected, the youth led to the Rangers first tally when Schmidt was beaten badly in the neutral zone. Then on the second New York marker, Tim Gleason, who was playing the off side for him, tried to go high glass on a dump out and the puck hit the stanchion and allowed the Rangers to get a quick three on two that J.T. Miller buried short side on Braden Holtby (28 saves).

The Caps would get a good bounce on Alexander Ovechkin’s power play tally in the opening frame and the Gr8 now has 45 goals on the season. The first period was pretty even, shot attempts favored the Caps 21-20, but the Rangers led because of the two costly Capital miscues.

Washington would open period two on a lengthy five on three (78 seconds) but the Caps couldn’t score. Cam Talbot, who was sensational in this contest, especially in period three, made a highway robbery glove save on Backstrom and that turned the game around, giving the Rangers a boost that they used to carry the play in the middle stanza. The Rangers would out shot attempt the Caps, 23-12, in period two.

“To be honest with you, five on three was my mistakes, I just missed the net. It’s kind of the moment you have to score. Especially when they give you a chance and they give you an opportunity to shoot so it was total blame on me,” said Ovechkin.

“When you don’t score off a five on three of that extent, that usually swings the momentum and then they got a few power plays that we killed off, but it took a little bit of steam out of our game,” added Matt Niskanen, who was outstanding for the Caps in 28:10 of ice time (led all players).

In the final frame, the Capitals threw the kitchen sink at Talbot, but he was a brick wall. #33, who has been superb in relief of an injured Henrik Lundqvist, was easily the game’s first star and he made numerous point blank saves. Trotz pointed out afterwards that the Caps had an 8-1 edge in quality chances in period three, but the only goal came for the Rangers when Tom Kreider picked off John Carlson’s cross ice pass and fed Martin “Caps Killer” St. Louis on a two on none break for the game closing tally. In that last 20 minutes, the Caps out shot attempted a fatigued Rangers club, 35-10.

Overall for the game, the Caps won the shot attempt battle, 68-53, but all that matters is the 3-1 final score. The Rangers are a very good team and they can roll four lines and three defensive pairs. That’s part of why they were able to go 3-0 in this tough three game in four nights stretch against the Blackhawks, Islanders, and Caps. The biggest reason they won on Wednesday was Talbot and the team’s ability to protect a one goal lead, something they’ve been strong at for several seasons.

“When they get the lead, they just put four guys close to the net and they block lots of shots. Again, it was not surprising at all. They are a pretty solid team, they know how to play, and they were in the Stanley Cup Final last year,” stated Ovechkin.

The Rangers have a very good team and could easily win the Stanley Cup, so losing a close game in which you out chanced your opponent is nothing to hang your head on. The Caps were shorthanded on the back end and one of their best forwards wasn’t right, yet they were in the game until the end and likely find a way to win against many other goalies. But they lost and now they have to watch out that they don’t drop to the second wild card spot with the Boston Bruins charging hard in the standings.

With the Rangers looking like a good bet to win the East, the Caps must avoid a first round match up with the Blueshirts, so they can’t afford to fall to the second wild card slot.

In the end, the Caps played hard but made too many mistakes to win and the Rangers net minder was the big difference. Losing is no fun, but Ovechkin summed things up pretty good afterwards.

“I think we play a good game, a couple of bounces cost us a victory or at least one point. It’s a situation when you have to just forget about it and move forward. But it’s kind of disappointing when you have that kind of chance to move closer to an opponent or a team who is in front of you,” finished the Gr8.

Certainly the Caps can’t be happy with losing, as every standings point matters, but they did do a lot of good things against the best team in hockey on Wednesday night.

Notes: Joel Ward assisted on the Ovechkin goal and he was one of the Caps best forwards in 18:25 of ice time…Trotz limited Backstrom to 18:38 due to his stomach virus…the Caps won the face off battle 38-29. Eric Fehr was 12-3…Jay Beagle was hit hard, but cleanly, by Dan Girardi in period two. #83 would return for a shift or so but then left the contest for the third period due to an upper body injury…next up for the Caps are the Dallas Stars at the Verizon Center on Friday night.

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Ovechkin, Holtby Lead Caps in Blanking of Leafs

Posted on 01 March 2015 by Ed Frankovic

After three straight losses and several slow starts, the Washington Capitals needed to jump out to a quick lead on Sunday night.

NHL MVP Alexander Ovechkin made sure his club would get an early cushion as he scored just 33 seconds into the contest. The Gr8 would make it 2-0 on a backhander in period two after a nice point shot from Brooks Orpik and then he added an assist on Marcus Johansson’s power play goal that increased the lead to 3-0. Joel Ward would hit the empty net and send a terrible Toronto Maple Leafs on its way out of the Verizon Center, 4-0 losers.

In goal, Braden Holtby was, to quote Billy Crystal, “Maaahhhvelous!” as he stopped 32 shots, with some quality ones to boot, en route to his seventh shutout of the season (and 30th win).

The Caps were not pretty in this victory, they still looked sloppy, at times, and weren’t totally in sync, but it was a step in the right direction after their play had really tailed off in the last week.

Tim Gleason, acquired on Saturday in a trade for Jack Hillen and a 4th round pick, made his Caps debut and was very solid in 18:34 of ice time. It’s only one game, but #6 looks like a significant upgrade on that 3rd pairing and it allows Mike Green to play more minutes. Coach Barry Trotz was able to spread his ice time around with the quality blue line and the 4-0 score helped too. Matt Niskanen was the Caps ice time leader and he only logged 20:25. Balancing ice time like that keeps players fresh and reduces the risk of injury.

Up front, well, after the first line, the Capitals still are struggling. Andre Burakovsky played up with the Gr8 and Nicklas Backstrom (1 assist) and #65 was the clear weak link. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has struggled recently, was bumped down to the fourth line, centering Brooks Laich and Tom Wilson, and they had an up and down night, but finished with a decent third period. Jason Chimera took Laich’s spot on the third line and #25, who could be being showcased for a potential trade, also received some early power play time. The second line was centered by Jay Beagle and featured Troy Brouwer and Johansson.

In addition to the players that suited up on Sunday night, General Manager Brian MacLellan traded 2nd and 3rd round picks to Calgary and acquired Curtis Glencross. Glencross, who will wear #22, is 32 years old and is a fast skater. He’s not a top six forward but he’s an upgrade over some of the other Caps bottom six forwards. With the log jam on those two lines, one has to wonder if the Caps GM is still working on a bigger deal to acquire a top six forward by the 3 pm deadline?

We’ll find out about that soon enough, but the whole team will have to be happy when that time passes since it’s been clear to me that the deadline has been a distraction to this club. They have not appeared focused and many have lacked energy, which is a clear byproduct of worrying about what the future holds.

So after this victory over the disastrous Leafs, the Caps are now 34-20-10 (78 points). With 18 games left, a .500 finish easily puts them in the playoffs. So therefore, the focus in the last 18 games has to be to get some continuity going with the forward lines. The defense is set and Holtby is playing the best hockey of his career. Trotz will also look to rest players and the team needs to focus on the matchup they desire for the first round, or perhaps more importantly, one they don’t want.

To me, the match up they don’t want is the New York Rangers, who acquired defensemen Keith Yandle on Sunday in exchange for d-man John Moore, a prospect, and some draft picks. It’s clear the Rags are all in and the Capitals play them three times over the next six weeks. New York has great speed and that’s been something the Caps have had trouble handling. Adding Glencross certainly helps and Gleason has good wheels, as well as size, too. But the Rangers have Henrik Lunqvist and two really strong lines, assuming Rick Nash is healthy for the post season, so they could be the toughest out in the East.

Plenty of time to worry about that though, the Caps need to get back to finding their game, and that starts with working hard and moving their feet so they can work up and down the ice in a five man unit. The team has lost that over the last couple of weeks and need to get back to that in order to peak their game in April and May.

Notes: Ovechkin now leads the NHL in scoring with 41 goals and 65 points….the Gr8 was named the NHL’s 3rd star for the month of February and he’s now started March out with a bang…shot attempts were 63-60 for the Leafs, but they were trailing a lot and the blind zebras gave Toronto four power plays to Washington’s two. I didn’t think the officiating was consistent at all on Sunday but Washington was good enough and the Leafs were bad enough that it just didn’t matter…Toronto won the face off battle, 32-31…next up for the Caps are the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night at 7 pm. Will Washington silence the cannon in a building they’ve struggled in for several years?

 

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