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Ovechkin, Holtby Lead Caps in Blanking of Leafs

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

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

Posted on 21 February 2015 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Backstrom and Ovechkin Keep Caps Rolling in Win Over Jets

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Backstrom and Ovechkin Keep Caps Rolling in Win Over Jets

Posted on 19 February 2015 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Ovechkin Sizzles in Caps Win Over Ducks

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Ovechkin Sizzles in Caps Win Over Ducks

Posted on 16 February 2015 by Ed Frankovic

After a listless effort in Los Angeles on Saturday night, the Washington Capitals had one more chance to impress their fathers on the clubs annual Dad’s trip.

Captain Alexander Ovechkin made sure the team didn’t hose it up.

The Gr8 took over Sunday’s contest scoring two goals and setting up Andre Burakovsky for two more as Washington won a big road game in Anaheim over the Ducks, 5-3.

Justin Peters overcame a shaky beginning to stop 30 shots and win his first start since November 8th. #35 made several big saves once this one got to 4-3 and it was nice to see the team play well in front of him.

Washington needed to find another gear against a big and fast Ducks team and they did that on Sunday.

In Los Angeles, Coach Barry Trotz did not go with the same lineup and player combinations that he employed in Washington’s 4-0 white washing of the Kings on February 3rd at the Verizon Center. Instead he inserted Steve Oleksy on defense and scratched Burakovsky, who had played a factor in the first Caps goal in their previous three wins. It was a curious set of 20 and for those of you who follow me on twitter (@EdFrankovic), you knew I was not happy that 65 was getting scratched versus LA. The 3-1 loss, which really wasn’t as close as the score indicates, likely left Caps fans in a foul mood.

On Sunday, Trotz switched things up again putting Burakovsky with Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom (two assists) and placing Marcus Johansson on the third line with Eric Fehr and Joel Ward. Brooks Laich, who has been struggling mightily, was dropped to the 4th line, and Tom Wilson was scratched. In addition, Jack Hillen was back on D playing with Mike Green. The results were excellent and it was what the Capitals needed to win on the road in the latter half of a back to back situation, something they hadn’t done all season.

The only black mark in this one was the second line of Jason Chimera, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Troy Brouwer, who were -2. I’m not a fan of 25 in the top six, but those of you who read my blogs and follow me on twitter already know that.

So this victory pushes the Caps to 30-17-10 (70 points) with 25 games remaining. Washington has a 10 point lead on the Panthers, who are in the 9th playoff spot (the Cats have two games in hand). The Capitals are going to return to the playoffs this spring so these last 25 games now become about preparing for the post season and seeding. Right now, the Caps would face the 1st place New York Islanders in round one, but the Metropolitan Division race is ultra tight.

More important than seeding though, is finding the right lineup. Trotz and GM Brian MacLellan have both talked about adding a piece or two for the stretch run, and likely at forward. But given the Capitals salary cap situation and the high prices that will be on the market, that may be tough to pull off between now and the March 2nd NHL trade deadline. So the next best option would be for the Caps to maximize the skill sets of Kuznetsov and Burakovsky. These two kids have immense talent and should be strong performers in years to come. But the future is now, so Trotz needs to do what he can to get these guys battle tested. Burakovsky stepped up on Sunday and it was nice to see Trotz still using him with three minutes left in a two goal game.

As the great Jim Ignatowksi of Taxi lore once said, “There is no substitute for experience!”

So Trotz needs to heed that advice and get these kids that exposure and prepare them for April and beyond.

As for Ovechkin, well he is just carrying this team and turning in another MVP calibre season. The Gr8 leads the NHL in goals with 36 and now has 57 points in 57 games. He’s also +11 after being a -35 in 2013-14. He’s playing the best two way game of his career and that defensive zone improvement is leading to transition goals for the Caps, as evidenced by the fifth Washington tally. On Sunday, much like many other games this season, Ovechkin was unstoppable leaving Ducks captain Ryan “Crying” Getzlaf whining in his post game presser despite the dirty slash #15 put on the Gr8, not to mention Corey Perry’s two handed whack to Karl Alzner’s neck.

So now it time for the Caps to thank their dad’s and then fly back to Pittsburgh and take on Sidney Crosby and company. The Penguins will have both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on Tuesday. Pittsburgh is playing some good hockey and they took the Blackhawks to a shootout on Sunday before falling to some wonderful feats of skill from Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Patrick Sharp. Washington is 2-0 against the Pens this season and have beaten them 3-0 and 4-0, so Tuesday should be a doozy.

Notes: Washington won the face off battle, 31-25 with Backstrom going 10-6 (one of those wins led to Ovi’s first tally)…the Ducks were 0-4 with the man advantage while the Caps were 1 for 5…this is the 2nd time this season that Ovechkin has had four points in a game…Brooks Orpik picked up an assist, his 14th of the season and the Capitals are undefeated when he does that…Alzner had 5 hits in 18:55 of ice time. #27 has really been improving under this coaching staff.

 

 

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Kuznetsov Shines in Caps Shootout Victory

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Kuznetsov Shines in Caps Shootout Victory

Posted on 06 February 2015 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Caps Slay The Defending Champion Kings, 4-0

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Caps Slay The Defending Champion Kings, 4-0

Posted on 04 February 2015 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hey Barry, More Mike Green Please

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Hey Barry, More Mike Green Please

Posted on 21 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

As improved as the Washington Capitals have been this season under Coach Barry Trotz, the Caps ability to play with a lead and close out games has remained quite a question mark. Witness Tuesday night’s despicable shootout loss to the lowly Edmonton Oilers.

In that game, the Capitals led, 4-2, with five minutes remaining. The Caps had dominated the game and appeared in good position to get a nice victory heading into the All Star Break.

But the coach shortened the bench, like Trotz has done on numerous occasions this season, in an attempt to put what he thought were his best defensive players on the ice in order to close out the game. Part of that strategy included not playing Mike Green (and his defensive partner) over the last the five minutes in regulation.

Green is the best skater, passer, and puck possession defensemen on the roster. So why was he not on the ice when it seems you’d want a guy like that out there?

In fact, #52 has “sat the pine” in each of the three previous games in which the Caps had a slim lead late, as evidenced by the data below:

1 shift for only 12 seconds in the last 6 minutes versus Philly (1-0 lead)

1 shift for 44 seconds in the last 7 minutes versus Colorado (2-1 lead)

0 shifts in last 5 minutes versus Detroit (3-1 lead)

In each of those three games the Capitals were heavily out shot late and just hung on to win. Trotz went to that well, not playing Green, again last night and failed miserably.

It’s often stated in sports “that the best defense is a good offense.”

Trotz has called Green the Caps “X-Factor” for a reason. When he’s on his game, and he’s pretty much mostly been that way all season, he can carry a team. Former Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau didn’t call him “The One Man Breakout” for nothing.

I can understand not wanting to put the 6th defensemen (Jack Hillen) on the ice late in games. But not playing Hillen doesn’t also mean you have to sit a player of Green’s calibre too.

Why not go to a five defensemen rotation late in games? After all, playing just four D for the last five minutes has to wear out the guys who are playing and decrease their probability of getting the puck out of the zone, right?

If Green’s on the ice, chances are greater that the puck will be in the offensive end of the rink. He’s faster than the other four D so isn’t he more likely to get to the dump-ins and loose pucks than Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, John Carlson, and Karl Alzner?

Green has four goals and 23 assists this season including a goal and 14 assists in his last 16 games.

Bottom line, the Capitals are a better team with Mike Green on the ice, it’s a part of the reason the club is getting the lead in so many games.

Sure he’s prone to a big turnover every now and then, or “The Big Mistake”, as our friends over at Japers Rink call it.

But to me the Big Mistake is not having Green on the ice late in games. Get him out there more often and the Caps should find it much easier to close out more victories.

 

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Holtby Shines in Caps 3-1 Win over Detroit

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Holtby Shines in Caps 3-1 Win over Detroit

Posted on 10 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Caps Keep Rolling with Win Over Florida

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Caps Keep Rolling with Win Over Florida

Posted on 04 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Roberto Luongo has historically given the Washington Capitals fits, going 15-1 in his last 16 starts against the Caps.

So Sunday’s tilt with the Panthers at the Verizon Center, against a pesky Florida squad that is big and had previously taken the Capitals to two shootouts, loomed like a tough one coming off of the big Winter Classic victory on Thursday.

Despite being shorthanded five times, including three times in the final period, the Capitals carried the play for much of this contest and garnered a well earned 4-3 victory over the Panthers to improve to 20-11-7 (47 points).

The Capitals are now 10-1-3 in their last 14 games.

Alexander Ovechkin (goal and an assist) had another stellar game and it was his open ice collision with Luongo in the first period that eventually drove the net minder from the cage after forty minutes. Luongo gave up three goals but because his club also tallied three times, he wasn’t saddled with the loss. Al Montoya, who played the third period, gave up a goal on five shots to take the defeat.

Braden Holtby was in net for Washington, his 15th straight start, and he stopped 29 of 32 shots en route to his 18th victory (18-8-6). His save percentage on the season is at .920 and he continues to play well. About the only goal you could fault him on was the third Florida tally, by Nick Bjugstad, which came from down low and beat #70 top shelf in the closing minutes.

After a strong opening period that was scoreless, the Caps struck first on the PP with Ovechkin’s 19th tally of the season off of a sweet pass from Nicklas Backstrom. That first goal is so important this year since the Capitals are now 19-1-2 in that situation against a 1-10-5 record when the opponent gets on the board first. Despite the early lead, the Capitals would play keystone cops at the offensive blue line which led to a two on zero Cats rush. Somehow Holtby managed to stop the first two shots on that sequence, but his defensive help didn’t come quickly or properly enough and the third shot found the back of the twine. Just 85 seconds later Florida took the lead.

In the past, the Caps might have wilted, but not this more resilient bunch under Coach Barry Trotz. The Capitals would storm back, thanks primarily to the line of Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward to grab a 3-2 edge heading into period three. From there Ovechkin set up Andre Burakovsky for the fourth goal that ended up being the game winner.

Overall, the Capitals played well but they still have issues taking penalties. They were shorthanded for a total of 9:13 and as chronicled after the Winter Classic win, the number of infractions they are taking must decrease. Granted the call against Brooks Orpik that gave the Cats a 5 on 3 was downright ridiculous and Trotz called out Vincent Trocheck for diving on that play in his post game presser.

Florida is a big and physical team, but the Capitals outworked them on Sunday and that’s why they won the game and the Panthers coach, Gerard Gallant, made that clear afterwards.

“We weren’t good enough. I mean, we battled back and found a way to come close there at the end, but not good enough. We didn’t play hard enough. They were more physical than we were tonight. They wanted the puck battles and that’s why we ended up losing the game at the end,” said Gallant.

Burakovsky, who is only 19 and played in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) last season, received his first start on the first line with Ovechkin and Backstrom and he played well in 12:05 of even strength time. His skill, primarily his hands and shooting ability, is something sorely needed in that top line position and he delivered on Sunday. Trotz liked #65′s play and commended him afterwards.

“He was playing with two big stars, and he didn’t look intimidated. A couple times he shot the puck where sometimes you should make the extra pass, but he got the puck and he just made plays. I like that. Defensively he was pretty sound. We didn’t spend much time in our own end, but he was pretty sound in terms of his tracking and all that, so I was really happy for him. He’s such a great kid and he comes from a great family. He’s a really good hockey player…but I think in the scheme of things, looking at his whole career, he’s going to be a really good player for us,” said Trotz.

So the Capitals continue to keep finding ways to win hockey games and they get two days of practice at Kettler Ice Plex before facing the Maple Leafs in Toronto Wednesday and then they finally play the Flyers, for the first time this season, on Thursday, in Philadelphia. Those are two tough games in a back to back situation and the Caps last loss was on the 2nd night of one of those in New York right before Christmas. It will be interesting to see if Trotz goes with Holtby in net twice or turns to Justin Peters for a start for the first time since November 29th.

Notes: Washington won the face off battle 43-29 with Backstrom going 18-8 from the dot…shot attempts favored the Caps, 63-60…the Panthers were 0 for 5 on the power play while the Caps went 1 for 2 in only 3:16 of man advantage time. Yes, the Caps have been taking too many penalties lately, but some of the calls recently have been beyond bad. Bottom line, the officiating needs to improve too and they need to start penalizing the divers, like Trocheck, and not the players with integrity, such as Orpik.

 

 

 

 

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Caps Set to Face Blackhawks in Bridgestone Winter Classic

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Caps Set to Face Blackhawks in Bridgestone Winter Classic

Posted on 31 December 2014 by Ed Frankovic

Well, it’s finally here.

We are less than 24 hours from puck drop at Nationals Park for the NHL’s Annual Winter Classic, sponsored by Bridgestone, between the Washington Capitals and the Chicago Blackhawks.

For those following along on EPIX in Ross Greenberg’s Road to the Winter Classic, you’ve watched two highly skilled teams orchestrated behind the bench by two very upfront coaches, in Barry Trotz and Joel Quennville.

Washington’s off season coaching change along with the personnel moves they’ve made on defense (via new GM Brian MacLellan) have propelled this club to an 8-2-3 December, and major cause for optimism, as I chronicled on Sunday.

The Caps are hot, but in this match up they are facing the best team in the NHL in the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks are led by Jonathan Toews, who has won two Stanley Cups and two Olympic Gold Medals in the last four years. He’s arguably the best player in the NHL, depending on who you talk to. Add to Towes the likes of Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook and it’s easy to see why this club is so good and narrowly missed winning Cup number three last year (they were knocked out by the Los Angeles Kings in game 7 of the Western Conference Finals in OT).

Chicago is talented, structured, and disciplined. They are everything the Capitals and Alex Ovechkin want to become on a consistent basis. Under Trotz, the Capitals are making steps towards that, but they are still a work in progress.

So let’s talk about Thursday’s game, which based on the weather conditions, may see a 60 to 90 minute delay due to weather. It’s not precipitation or temperature, but the sun that could cause the delay. With the shadows not covering the ice until roughly 2:30 pm, the potential for injuries due to glare (someone not seeing a puck properly) or bad ice (the sun can make the surface uneven) are much higher at the scheduled start time of 1 pm.

Now to the match up. The big question in Caps land is will Washington’s top left handed defensemen and major physical presence, Brooks Orpik, play after suffering a right knee injury on Monday?

Orpik did not skate during the normal team practice Wednesday at Nationals Park, but he did at Kettler Ice Plex in the morning, per a video shot by a fan that the super Capitals blog, Russian Machine Never Breaks, obtained. From that video, it’s apparent that Orpik could likely play, as he was moving well, but he’ll be a game time decision.

If Orpik is out, then Nate Schmidt goes into Orpik’s slot next to John Carlson, who by the way is having a very quiet monster season. #74 is fourth in the NHL in scoring by defensemen with four goals and 23 assists. He’s also a team leading +14! Yes, the 2010 American hero in the IIHF World Junior Championships has actually improved on last year’s super Olympic team making season playing alongside the steady and snarly Orpik. So hopefully Orpik’s absence, if it occurs, does not impact Carlson, as well.

Trotz routinely puts Carlson and Orpik against the opponents top line, so the question now becomes which D pair, if 44 is out, does he go with against the Toews-Kane line? My guess is he may switch that to the Matt Niskanen-Karl Alzner duo.

Up front, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have been DOMINATING on their shifts in puck possession in recent weeks and they are due for a big game on the scoresheet. Does it come Thursday against Chicago?

To win, I really think that 8 and 19 will have to carry the day and Braden Holtby will need to be his usual stellar self, especially if Orpik doesn’t play.

As chronicled over at another great Caps web site, Japers Rink, the Caps power play is in a recent funk and needs to snap out of it to aid the Caps chances of beating the mighty Blackhawks.

The Caps have also been getting solid production from the line of Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward.

Chicago is a great team and they bring four good lines. Washington will need their second scoring line and their fourth line to be near their best to get a victory.

This game on New Year’s Day is only for two points, but let’s be honest, it’s a huge deal and the players will approach it like a playoff one.

It’s the NHL’s regular season signature event and a can’t miss one for hockey fans.

 

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