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Ovi Old School

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A Detailed Look at the Caps After 45 Games

Posted on 15 January 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Following Jay Beagle’s stunning game winning goal with just over a second left in Carolina on Friday night, the Washington Capitals players headed to Atlantis, Florida, the Caribbean, Colorado, and other mostly warmer destinations for five days of rest and recovery during the team’s now annual bye “week.”

The victory improved the Caps to 28-14-3 (59 points) and they will remain in first place in the Metropolitan Division until they take the ice again on Thursday, against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center.

With the downtime, I’ve put together some lengthy thoughts on a hockey team that has once again positioned itself near the top of the NHL standings and is among the league’s best squads.

Shortchanged It’s called the “bye week,” but the Caps are only getting five days between games while most other teams are getting a six or seven day gap. In addition, the Capitals went into the break playing back to back games and will come out of it in the same fashion facing the Devils on the road and then the Montreal Canadiens at home on Friday evening. The bye break was something the players clamored for in recent years so that they could get away during what is a very long season. The downside of this plan, however, combined with the three day Christmas shutdown and the All-Star Break is a schedule made up of numerous back to back tilts and many three games in four night scenarios. This leads to a poor product on several occasions and a case in point was Washington’s 3-1 loss to Carolina last Thursday when it appeared that many on the squad were already on the beach.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes The 2017 summer saw some very important key Capitals players depart due to the NHL expansion draft and the rising salary cap to include defensemen Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt plus forwards Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, and Daniel Winnik. How General Manager Brian MacLellan and Coach Barry Trotz would handle those personnel losses would hold the key to the 2017-18 season. The Capitals were 30-9-6 (66 points) after 45 games in 2016-17, so they have only seven points less than they were at this point in a Presidents’ Trophy winning campaign. Last year’s team was experienced, stacked and averaged 28.4 years old. This year’s club has relied on contributions from several rookies, to include defensemen Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos as well as forwards Jakub Vrana (10 goals) and Chandler Stephenson (10 points). The average age of the team has dropped to 28.0, which is a significant change considering that each returning player is a year older. Plugging those rookies into the vacated spots alone clearly could not fill the void left by so many quality players. Therefore, Coach Trotz and his staff had to shift to a “rely on the returning players” philosophy while bringing along the young bucks. Comparing ice times in 2017-18 versus 2016-17 shows a very telling picture.

Player 2017-18 Avg TOI 2016-17 Avg TOI Delta
John Carlson 26:09 22:42 +3:42
Matt Niskanen 22:27 22:10 +:17
Dmitry Orlov 23:16 19:32 +3:44
Brooks Orpik 20:42 17:47 +2:55
Alex Ovechkin 19:42 18:21 +1:21
Nicklas Backstrom 19:40 18:15 +1:25
Evgeny Kuznetsov 18:54 16:57 +1:57
T.J. Oshie 18:40 17:51 +:49
Lars Eller 15:20 13:54 +1:26
Tom Wilson 15:29 12:55 +2:34
Brett Connolly 11:35 10:41 +:54
Jay Beagle 12:39 13:37 -:58
Andre Burakovsky 13:35 13:15 +:20

 

In a nutshell, the coaching staff is playing their key players more than last season when they could just roll four lines and wear teams down. There are some major changes in average time on ice on the back end, especially for Carlson, Orlov, and Orpik. Carlson, who is a Norris Trophy candidate despite two rocky games before the bye week break, has been outstanding, especially considering Niskanen has missed 14 games and has played less than 100% healthy in multiple others. As I’ve blogged on several occasions and GM MacLellan noted to The Washington Post last week, the unsung hero on the back end has been Orlov. Number nine has turned into such a strong two way defensemen and he continues to get better. The upside is still there, too, as he probably would have more points if he got more power play time. The concern is Orpik is playing nearly three minutes more than last season simply because he has to while Djoos comes up to speed. Without Brooks to carry a large load in the first 30 games while the rookies were learning and Niskanen was out, this team may have been sunk. Lately though, #44 has shown some wear on his wheels, so a January schedule that sees a lot of breaks should help him out. The improved play of Djoos and Bowey also will be critical in the second half of the season. I fully expect the Caps to add a defensemen at the trade deadline in late February.

Stars in the City There is no doubt that the “Coach’s Robot,” the Gr8, and “All Star” Nicklas Backstrom are a big reason why this team is still one of the best in the league. Ovechkin was overweight and not in ideal shape in 2016-17 and it showed during the regular season and the playoffs. He had only 33 regular season goals, most of which came on the power play, and he was slower and more prone to injury. Alex took management’s direction and trained totally differently this past summer and the results are blatantly obvious. He’s faster than he’s been since perhaps 2010, which has allowed him to generate better quality chances. He’s had several breakaway tallies and is leading the NHL in goals at 28 in 45 games (a 51 goals pace). 20 of those goals are at even strength this season, compared to just 16 in 2016-17. Backstrom had 86 points in 2016-17 and he’s on pace for 17 fewer this campaign, but most of that drop-off came when Trotz had the Gr8 on a different line. That experiment was smartly shelved and since the two have been Peaches and Herb’d, aka Reunited, the team has gone on a tear. There is no one on the planet who knows how to play better with Ovi than Nicky. Kuznetsov is a super talent, but he is so reliant on having the puck while Backstrom is such a strong two way guy that gets the biscuit from the opposition and allows Alex to get the touches he needs to score goals.

Carpe Diem With the departure of key forwards, several younger Capitals have seized the day and opportunity in 2017-18. Kuznetsov is playing nearly two minutes more a game (more on him in a minute), but looking at the average ice times for Eller and Wilson are very revealing. Willy is logging 2:34 more a night and at six goals and 18 points in 41 games he should shatter his career highs. Wherever Coach Trotz has put #43 this season he has produced and the nice thing is it’s been in a top nine role, no more fourth line Tommy. Eller, who is an unrestricted free agent this summer, has nine goals and 21 points in 44 games. He had 12 goals and 25 points in 81 total games in 2016-17. He’s playing 1:26 more a night and he’s become a better contributor, especially offensively, and that was sorely needed. The Washington third line, which was dominant last January when the Capitals were nearly unbeatable, has returned to play a big role in 2017-18. Eller and Connolly (10 goals) have been the staples there and there’s been a rotation of right wings to mostly include Oshie, Burakovsky, Vrana, and Wilson.

Not So Special In 2016-17 the Caps connected on 22.98% of their power plays and killed off 83.92% of their shorthanded situations. The league averages were 19.1% and 80.9%, respectively. In 2017-18, the power play has slowed to a 19.57% connection rate (NHL average is 19.4%) and is only thwarting 79.08% of their manpower disadvantages (NHL average is 80.6%). Simply put, the Capitals, unlike years past, have had to rely more on five on five goal differential to win games. This season they are +14 (91 to 77) in that category. There is lots of room for improvement on the special teams.

Dynamic Duo Looking at the team stats, the Caps have gone from outshooting opponents 30.4 to 27.8 per game in 2016-17 to being outshot 32.3 to 29 in 2017-18. That is a direct result of the change in personnel. Let’s be honest, the Capitals lost a lot of veteran players and are incorporating new blood into the squad. So why have they been able to still be successful? Well, outside of what has been mentioned already, the single biggest factor is the outstanding goaltending from Braden Holtby (24 wins) and Philipp Grubauer (7 quality starts in 12 games). The team save percentage has dropped from .925 to .917, but it’s clear that the quality of shots against has gone up a bit. These two continue to make the big save for Washington at the key time and goalie is the most important position in hockey.

Delivering the Overpass There’s a famous Bill Engvall “Here’s Your Sign” joke about a truck getting stuck with the punch line being, “Nope, I was delivering that overpass and my truck flat ran out of gas…Here’s Your Sign!” Perhaps the organization should bring the legendary comedian in to hand out “Here’s Your Sign” awards for all of those times the Capitals have tried to make an extra pass when they are in the high danger scoring areas? Guilty party number one on that list is Kuznetsov. When #92 plays the right way, and he’s had some nice stretches of that, the Caps dominate. He ranks second on the team in goals (13) and when he carries a shoot first mentality he is deadly on the ice because the defense has no idea what he is going to do, pass or shoot. Too often, though, he is in Harlem Globetrotters fancy pants mode, and that is much easier to defend. He needs to cut back on the circling pattern where he takes himself out of the high danger scoring area and eventually turns the puck over. That issue has crept into others on this team, to include Oshie, who I’d like to see shoot more. This is a shoot first league and with the goaltending being so good, rebounds or shots from high danger areas with traffic are the best way to beat them. Do the Caps think they have to make the pretty play so often because they practice against two of the best goalies in the league regularly? That could be a factor, but if they just looked at their recent tallies, many of them are just shots from the middle of the ice with players going to the net or using a defender to screen his own keeper. It’s not rocket science and it’s one of the big reasons the Caps are down in the shots on net and shots attempted statistics. They have the puck often, but many times they possess it for awhile and never generate a shot. They need to dump that habit and the cross ice pass at the offensive blue line if they want to go deep into the post season.

Where’s the Six Million Dollar Man? If you had told me on October 1st that Burakovksy would only have three goals after the Caps have played 45 games, I would have said the Caps would not be in playoff position. Luckily, I would’ve been wrong. #65 has played only 21 games due to injuries and overall malaise, but the man who signed a two year deal for a total of $6M is a very key cog in the wheel if Washington wants to challenge for the Stanley Cup. If I was Andre, the first thing I’d do after getting home from the Bahamas would be to pull out the tape of game six against the Penguins last spring and watch it. That’s the way Andre needs to play to be successful, very physical on the opposing boards and puck so that he can score and generate goals. He can be that player if he puts his mind to it and works hard. A return to form by Burakovsky is a must from now until June.

In summary, even with the personnel losses from last season, the Capitals have still positioned themselves among the best teams in the league. Despite what some statistics, such as Corsi, try to tell you, this positive outcome is not just pure luck. As I’ve chronicled, there’s been a method to the team’s success, which also includes a unique ability, much like the Pittsburgh Penguins have done the last two seasons, to counter attack and be deadly on the rush. Speed is an important aspect of hockey and the Capitals have improved in that department. Their save percentage is slightly down, but their goalies have been stellar and they aren’t living off of a higher shooting percentage. They are connecting on 10.5% of their shots, just like they did last season. The league average is around 9%, but the Caps have high end talent, unlike a Corsi loved team like Carolina, who throw a lot of pucks on net from everywhere, but don’t have the Ovechkins, Kuznetsovs, Backstroms and Oshies of the world who have great shots. Looking at another favorite analytic stat, PDO, which measures shooting percentage plus save percentage at even strength, it shows the Caps were at 102.4 in 2016-17 and this season they have dropped to 101.6 (meaning they’ve been less lucky). I’ve stated this axiom in blogs and on the air on WNST many times; it’s great to look at statistics, but in the grand scheme of things, hockey is a game of high skill and talent, it is non-linear and is chaos theory. The Washington Capitals have high end talent and the organization has structured the team around that. Now the question is can they continue to improve down the stretch so that they can peak in the post season?

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BAcky Blues

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Seven Detailed Thoughts on The Caps After Another Win

Posted on 07 January 2018 by Ed Frankovic

In the last few seasons under Coach Barry Trotz, the Washington Capitals have typically not fared well after several days off. With the Caps having not played since Tuesday’s OT victory in Carolina, a Sunday tilt against the St. Louis Blues would appear to be trouble for Washington. Coach Mike Yeo’s squad, however, had lost on Saturday in Philadelphia and was coming in playing their third game in four days. Basically, the scheduling gods had this one as an even affair, although the Caps, based on rest and playing at home, certainly seemed to have an advantage.

As expected, an angry Blues team put out a great effort against the Capitals and this contest went to overtime before Nicklas Backstrom notched his 9th goal of the season, after a long and super feed from T.J. Oshie, to give the Caps a 4-3 win and improve their record to 26-13-3 (55 points) on the campaign. Washington now leads the Metropolitan Division by three points over second place New Jersey, but the Devils have a game in hand.

Here are seven thoughts on the Caps following this come from behind victory.

Rollercoaster Ride The final score was 4-3, shots on goal were, 34-33, for the Blues, and my quality shot tracking had the Caps out on top, 24-23, for the game. So this match up was pretty much evenly played the whole way, right? This is in no way a plug for Hertz, but NOT EXACTLY! Washington came out and forged a really strong first period to take a 1-0 lead and the quality shot totals, by my count, were 8-3 for the good guys. In the middle frame, the Blues stormed the castle feasting off of one Capitals turnover after another to grab a 2-1 lead. The Blues held a commanding 14-6 advantage in quality shots in period two. The last full 20 minutes were another complete reversal as the Capitals dominated play with an 18-8 shots on goal advantage and an 8-4 margin in quality shots. In overtime, both teams had two quality opportunities, but it was the Super Swede who closed the deal with a sweet top shelf snipe.

Old Man Ovi Alex Ovechkin is 32 years old and father time should be starting to set in, that’s what all of the data compiled by the stats crowd will tell you should be happening. Well here’s a special note to the spreadsheet geeks, to quote the great Sundance Kid, “You figured wrong, Butch.” The Gr8 continues to skate as well as he has since his mid 20’s and he was a force again on Sunday afternoon. Ovi’s power play wrister was deflected home by Brett Connolly in the opening frame to give the Caps their first marker and then with his squad really needing a goal, he delivered with a laser to the top shelf eight minutes into period three to tie this one at two. In 22:50 of ice time, Alex had seven shot attempts, but because of a weird bounce off of his back late in the game, he was a minus one. Ovechkin now has 27 goals and 18 assists to lead Washington in both goals and points (45) in 42 games. The man voted by the fans to captain the Metropolitan Division All Star team in just over two weeks, once again is tied for the NHL lead in goals with Nikita Kucherov of Tampa.

Career Year Again for Conno? Connolly notched his ninth goal of the season on the aforementioned tip in and he’s now on pace for 18 tallies, after scoring 15 in 2016-17, which earned him a new two year deal at an annual average of $1.5 M. After a slow and injury riddled start, #10 is really amping up his play and this outing was his best of the season. Brett was all over the puck all game and he had five shots on net and seven overall attempts in 14:43. He led the Capitals in shot attempt percentage with 20 shots for and just five against when he was on the ice (80%). Playing with Lars Eller all game, plus Oshie from the middle of the second period on, the Washington third line was dominant. Connolly is no longer awkwardly reaching for pucks on the ice and he’s using his body to win the one on one battles. In addition, he has a very fast shot release and he goes to the high danger areas well to set himself up for quality chances. If #10 keeps doing that and shooting the biscuit, the goals will just keep coming.

Return of the Osh Babe It was pretty clear that the four days of no games did wonders for #77 (two assists). T.J. looked like his old self in this affair and he was dogging pucks like crazy. He didn’t score a goal, but he was a key factor in three of the Capitals four lamp lighters. On the Caps second goal, Ovechkin scored just three seconds into the power play. That doesn’t happen if Osh doesn’t win the draw cleanly to Backstrom, who quickly fed John Carlson (two assists in 26:30) at the point before #74 perfectly fed the Gr8 for his howitzer. Oshie started the game with Backstrom and Ovechkin, but then he was shifted to the Eller line after the Capitals looked worse than a really bad Mites team for the first eight minutes of period two. Oshie’s shot on net that Carter Hutton (29 saves) struggled with, led to Eller’s rebound tally that gave the Caps a 3-2 lead with just under 10 minutes left in regulation. Then, of course, the Osh Babe made a super long feed to Nicky on the game winning tally.

Second Period Woes What the heck was that to start period two for Washington? The Blues had the first eight quality chances of the frame and they all came in the first seven minutes. St. Louis scored twice during that stretch and it could’ve been more if not for Braden Holtby (31 saves). There were too many poor passes and bad decisions by the Capitals in their own end. Madison Bowey (1 assist) had another awful up the middle attempt and the rookie needs to stop making that same mistake, but even Matt Niskanen tried and failed on a similar play, and you know he knows better, right? I’m not sure what is happening to the Caps from period one to two this season, but it’s been a horror show on many occassions. They have too many turnovers and with the long change they end up getting hemmed in their own zone and on the ice for extra long stretches. This is a problem they must fix over the second half of the season. Perhaps they need to get some new tunes in the locker room because they’ve been coming out for period two like they’ve been listening to Air Supply and Barry Manilow records during the intermission?

Timely Saves Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, Holtby made some really key saves at very important times in this hockey game. You’re probably reading this thinking “No S—t Sherlock!” and you’d be right. The Holtbeast is so dialed in this season and let’s hope he keeps that up in the playoffs. The Blues could’ve won this game a few times, most notably, late in period two when #70 stopped Vladimir Sobotka with the Blues up a puck; a dynamite save on Magnus Paajarvi with just under two minutes to go in regulation and the game tied; and then a super stop on Patrick Berglund in overtime. Braden may not have the sexy save percentage he had the last three seasons, but he’s now 24-8 this year behind a much younger defense and team. The Holtbeast is the Capitals MVP through 42 games.

Well Isn’t That Special SNL’s church lady was definitely on the side of the Capitals in this affair. Washington was two for four on the man advantage while the Blues were one for two on their power plays. The most important penalty kill, though, came in the middle frame when St. Louis had a 2-1 lead and Evgeny Kuznetsov was in the sin bin for another lazy penalty. During that shorthanded situation, the Caps were just outstanding yielding no shots on goal or any quality chances. After that huge PK, the Capitals really took over the game.

Overall, this was a very up and down contest for the Caps. They were really strong in the first and third periods, but were a train wreck for most of the middle stanza. Their puck management still has moments where it is prone to disaster. However, the resolve of this club is amazing and they continue to find ways to win and different players have stepped up to help the team stay hot. On Sunday, the play of Connolly helped make the difference against a quality Blues team. The Caps have now reeled off nine straight victories at home. Their next two tilts are at Capital One Arena, as well (Vancouver on Tuesday and Carolina on Thursday).

Notes: Andre Burakovsky returned to the lineup after two games (healthy scratch) and did some good things in 10:52. His biggest problem, though, is his long shot release and it’s preventing him from scoring goals. The Caps need more from #65 so he has to find a way to more quickly shoot the puck, much like Connolly has been doing…Niskanen returned after missing the Carolina game due to an upper body injury and played 24:19…the Capitals lost the face off battle, 36-26, but Jay Beagle went 9-5…Barry Trotz will be coaching the Metropolitan Division players at the All Star Game in Tampa since the Caps owned 1st place at the halfway mark.

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Ovi Canes

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Ovechkin’s Late Heroics Leads to Caps Win in Raleigh

Posted on 02 January 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby once again teamed up to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat for the Washington Capitals. In a game in which the Caps treated the puck like a hot potato and turned it over more times than a Cleveland Browns quarterback, Ovi and the Holtbeast (34 saves) made just enough plays to rally Washington to a thrilling 5-4 overtime win in Raleigh.

With the triumph, the Capitals are 25-13-3 (53 points) at the season’s halfway point and are in first place in the Metropolitan Division. They won’t play again until Sunday afternoon against the St. Louis Blues at 3 pm at Capital One Arena.

Without further adieu, here are my thoughts and analysis on a huge two points for Coach Barry Trotz’ squad.

Ripken-like Dedication Ovi and Holtby were certainly the major reasons the Caps won, but #1 center Nicklas Backstrom, who missed the morning skate due to feeling sick, gutted it out and suited up in a key contest. It was #19 who positioned himself properly to make the intercept and feed on Ovechkin’s game tying tally. Backstrom also had the only assist on Alex’s game winner. Per Caps analyst Alan May, since Coach Trotz put 8 and 19 back together the Capitals are 13-3-2. In those 18 games, Ovechkin has 13 goals and 10 assists (23 points) and the Super Swede has five goals and 13 assists (18 points).

Trench Warfare Everyone knows the Caps have a deadly attack led by stars Ovechkin, Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and Evgeny Kuznetzov, but it was the role players from the trenches who really stepped it up to help Washington win a game they were very sloppy in. The Caps first goal was something that has to make you smile because it was just simple hockey. Chandler Stephenson carried the puck up the left wing boards and free agent Alex Chiasson smartly went hard to the net with his stick down and put home #18’s pass behind Cam Ward after John Carlson had gifted the Hurricanes the game’s first tally on an unfortunate flubbed pass. Devante Smith-Pelly, another low cost offseason free agent acquisition like Chiasson, then scored a sweet goal to make it 2-1 Caps when he fired from the right wing circle with most people on the ice thinking he’d force a pass to Ovi to his right. Good things happen when you play simple and shoot and those two goals were key for the Capitals in a first period where they were getting out played and out shot (13-7).

Stud on the Backend Dmitry Orlov continues to play fabulously on the blue line for Washington. With Matt Niskanen out day-to-day with another injury, #9 had to step up for the Caps in this affair and Dima did just that. In the middle frame with Carolina buzzing the tower but the Holtbeast holding things at bay, Orlov skated up the ice with speed and fired on Ward (21 saves). The rocket hit the goalie in the blocker, then came off of the backboards to Cam’s right, and like Moses Malone tracking a basketball off of the glass, Orlov skated through the Canes D and deposited his own rebound into the cage to make it 3-1 just shy of the game’s midpoint. For the night, Dmitry played 21:13, blocked three shots and was +2.

Turnover City The Capitals, who had two straight days of practice, were extremely sloppy with the puck in this affair! Zone clears were often off of the mark and there were some really lousy passes in the Caps own end with Carolina getting many grade A chances as a result. When Madison Bowey was stripped of the biscuit by Sebastion Aho in the corner to generate Teuvo Teravainen’s weird goal with just under 13 minutes left, one had to think this would be a loss for the guys in white given the way they had unceremoniously handled the biscuit in this tilt. Clearly not having Niskanen hurt the team on the back end, but that’s no excuse for the squad to execute so poorly.

Second Line Struggles Kuznetsov had one of the worst games I’ve seen him play. Not only did he fail to attempt a single shot, he took two lazy penalties, the first of which allowed Carolina to get back in the game at 3-2 on the power play. Then he was abused by Jeff Skinner in his own end on the sequence that led to Elias Lindholm’s tying tally just 5:40 into the third period. #92 is back to a pass first mentality and his play has dropped off sharply, as a result. In addition, he is playing a Land O’Lakes style when defending, soft as butter. He’s not moving his feet and putting his shoulder into his opponent to strip him of the puck. As for Oshie, well he just hasn’t looked right since coming back from the Joe Thornton cheap shot. He’s still making some good stick checks on the wall, but his timing seems a half of a second off. The Osh Babe needs to get his head clear and start shooting more. Jakub Vrana had three giveaways, but he did use his speed to draw a penalty late in period two. That was pretty much the only good shift that unit had all night. They were terrible and it might be time to break that trio up and give Andre Burakovsky, who was scratched for the second straight contest, a shot to play some top six minutes.

Stars Shine Bright At the end of the day, it was the Holtbeast who made some huge stops to give Washington any chance at all of getting to the Ovechkin magic show. Carolina had 72 shot attempts to just 46 for the Capitals and many of the 38 the Canes put on net were high danger ones, including a Justin Williams chance late in the game from the slot after a terrible turnover. Holtby also made a big save late in regulation with the Hurricanes on the power play. As for Ovi, well he just seems to find another gear at important times. On his game winning goal he was on the ice for 91 seconds yet he somehow found the energy to come into the offensive zone like a locomotive and back off the Carolina defender enough to laser one by Ward. I’ve said this many times this season, but Ovechkin’s dedication to getting in better shape and playing faster in the offseason is a big reason why Washington is in first place at the season’s midpoint. Ovi now has 26 goals in 41 games. Finally, Carlson, despite the bad early turnover, was a rock star on the back end logging 30:51 due to the Niskanen injury. The guy is playing some great hockey and should get some Norris Trophy attention.

Overall, this was a win that Washington likely didn’t deserve, Carolina was better for the majority of the game, but the scoreboard is all that matters and when you have the greatest goal scorer ever on your team and an all world goalie, you can find ways to come out on top when you probably should have lost. That was the case on Tuesday night in the Tar Heel state.

All hail Ovi and the Holtbeast!

Notes: Washington lost the faceoff battle, 30-27, Kuzy was a dismal 2-8, but Backstrom was 10-9…the Caps were 0 for 2 on the power play and killed off three of four Carolina power plays. All four penalties the Capitals took were bad and were not to disrupt a scoring chance, just lazy and/or poor decisions. It’s not often you win when losing the special teams battle and have so many defensive zone mistakes…Christian Djoos played 17:41 and was +1. His skating ability was big against a fast Canes squad…Taylor Chorney received 13:28 of time and was +1. It was one of his better outings.

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Wilson NJ

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Ovechkin’s Three Apples Puts the Caps Back in First Place

Posted on 30 December 2017 by Ed Frankovic

It had been 11 games since the Washington Capitals came out and jumped on a team to tally the first two goals in the first period (December 6th vs. Chicago). On Saturday night the Caps did just that to take advantage of a Devils team that played on Friday night en route to a 5-2 win at Capital One Arena.

Alex Ovechkin (three apples), Nicklas Backstrom (goal, two assists), and John Carlson (goal, two assists) all had three points each as Washington received a very strong performance from their top line and top blue liner to improve their record to 24-13-3 (51 points) and put them back in first place in the Metropolitan Division by a point. New Jersey (22-1-6) has two games in hand.

Braden Holtby was super solid in net making 25 of 27 saves and the Capitals will close out December with a perfect eight wins in eight tries at Capital One Arena. There is no place like home for Coach Barry Trotz’ club and they have now won 15 of their last 17 in front of their very boisterous fan base.

Here are my thoughts and analysis of this win that came at the end of some brutal scheduling:

Schedule Craziness This was the third game in four nights for both teams and Washington also played back to back before the Christmas break. So that’s effectively five games in six possible nights for the Caps and despite a three game losing skid in there, they came out of it 2-1-2 (six points). So even with a bit of a rough patch with no practice time, Trotz and company managed to survive and reclaim 1st place heading into Tuesday’s tilt in Carolina.

Tom Wilson’s War This is a trick title to this bullet because based on it you’d think that number 43 was dropping the gloves to announce his presence with authority again. Nope, Willy is doing it with his stick. Just 2:26 into this affair, now third line Tom went to the net and finished off a beautiful pass from Christian Djoos with Brett Connolly parked at the top of the paint. Wilson slid in behind #10 and after the sweet feed from the rookie blue liner, he snapped it by Cory Schneider (30 saves). Wilson, who earlier in December seemed to help Ovi and Backy get out of their funks with his stint on the top line, was bumped down in Thursday’s rally over Boston to jump start Lars Eller and Connolly to get them motoring again. #43 did just that and he’s on pace to shatter his total for points in a season. Tom now has six goals and 12 assists in 36 games and he’s a staggering +11 this year. Wilson helped Lars Eller lead the team in shot attempt percentage on the night (15 for and six against, 71.43%).

Top Line Production After a rough first shift, the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Devante Smith-Pelly line really got it going. Djoos was the recipient of a great passing play to make it 2-0 at 11:09 of period one when he dropped the puck to Ovi coming across the blue line and then kept going to the net. The Gr8 then fed Backstrom with a sweet diagonal feed and Nicky went cross ice to #29, who snuck the puck behind Schneider into the yawning cage for a layup. That one was prettier than Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman and it was the type of start the Caps needed against a tired opponent. The top line would also set up Matt Niskanen for another layup in the third frame, to make it 4-1 just 4:25 into that stanza. Nisky carried the puck across the offensive blue line and once again it was a drop pass to Ovechkin that was the key to the sequence. Ovi fed DSP with another gem and #25 went cross ice to #2 for the second tic-tac-toe tally of the night for a defensemen. The three forwards on the Caps top line had 23 of the 47 shot attempts from Caps centers or wingers. Ovi logged 20 minutes and had nine shot attempts (six on net), Backstrom played 19:48 and had four shot attempts, and DSP had 10 in 16:25 (but only four hit the net).

Blueline Hat Trick I mentioned the key Djoos and Niskanen tallies, but Carlson also scored for Washington to make it a trio of goals for Caps defensemen. This one came on a second period power play that generated several quality chances. Schneider made some big saves to keep it a 2-1 game, but Washington would not allow the Devils to clear and Backstrom fed a pinching in from the point #74 nicely and Johnny rocketed it by #35 to restore a Capitals two goal lead. That power play marker at 7:01 really took some life from the Devils and set the stage for a third period where Washington kept the hammer down. The Caps have now gotten a goal from their previously struggling power play in each of the last two tilts and it is looking better as there’s been crisper passing and more movement.

Two In, Two Out Coach Trotz made two interesting lineup changes on Saturday. He scratched Andre Burakovsky, who has been pretty much terrible since his great game in Dallas on December 19th, and he put Chandler Stephenson back in. #18 is fast and his speed is a good match for New Jersey. I don’t expect #65 to be out for more than a game as the organization really needs him if they want to go deep into the post season. The other change was to get an up and down Madison Bowey a view from the press box so he can course correct some of his recent turnover struggles. Inserted into his spot was Taylor Choreny, who had a relatively unimpressive 13:25 of action. #4 had no shot attempts, but he also had no official giveaways. He was on the ice for the Devils first tally and that was a result of one of his failed clears. I’d expect Bowey to be back in against the Canes on Tuesday.

Overall, this was a very tidy win for the Caps, who are really making home ice pay off for them. Coach Trotz gets the last change and the crowd definitely helps the energy level. For the first in time in over three weeks, they had more significantly more energy than their opponent in the early going and that fast start took a lot of hope from the Devils. Washington’s passing was much cleaner in this affair and that helped negate a New Jersey forecheck, as well as their speed. Djoos had a quality game, except for a turnover and poor coverage on Travis Zajac’s goal that made it 4-2 with 11 minutes left. Christian is definitely improving and that is another key to the Capitals potential post season success. #29 has the ability to step up with his speed and stop opposing rushes while creating offense the other way.

Notes: It was another post concussion quiet night from T.J. Oshie (+1), who logged only 12:10. The Osh Babe had one shot attempt (blocked) and it came after he passed up a great chance in the high slot…the Caps out shot attempted the Devils, 67-60…Carlson led the Caps in time on ice with 25:58. Dmitry Orlov continues to excel on the back end and he played 21:27, was +1, and had three hits…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 31-25. Jay Beagle was dominant, going 13-3. Backstrom (7-10) also had a couple of huge wins on draws in the last minute when the Devils pulled Schneider and it led to his empty net tally…the Caps gave former #90, Marcus Johansson, a warm reception in his first game back in DC and a nice video tribute to boot…with the win, Coach Trotz now sits fifth all time in NHL coaching victories with 737 (passed Lindy Ruff).

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Ovechkin and Holtby Help Caps Rally for 12th Straight Victory Over Boston

Posted on 28 December 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Trailing 2-0 and being out shot attempted, 27-11, the Washington Capitals were staring at a fourth straight defeat and their first loss to the Boston Bruins in 12 games.

Braden Holtby (32 saves), however, somehow held the Caps in this one until the team found its legs and game after it seemed to have disappeared once they left the Lone Star State back on December 19th.

Midway through period two, a Tom Wilson offensive zone hit forced a turnover and Lars Eller fired the biscuit past Anton Khudobin (31 saves) for his first goal in 17 games. That tally gave Washington life and they slowly started to take over this affair.

23 seconds after Lars had ended a Caps shutout streak that spanned over two games and was fast approaching the team record drought of 181:15 from 1989 (h/t @TomGulittiNHL), Jakub Vrana used his speed to go around Torey Krug like an orange road cone to draw a slashing penalty. Washington’s power play, which was in a 1 for 23 dry spell of its own, finally woke up and the Gr8, Alex Ovechkin, took a whale of a pass from John Carlson and blasted it by the Qdoba man in net to tie the game up just 1:37 after Eller had broken the seal.

From there the Capitals really played their game against a very good and red hot Boston squad. Khudobin made some amazing stops to keep his team in it and when T.J. Oshie made a bad defensive zone turnover after exiting the sin bin with 12:21 left, David Backes tallied from the high danger area to give Boston the lead again. Surely the Bruins would finally end this Capitals curse, right?

The Holtbeast would have none of that and he made several huge stops on a Bruins power play (0 for 5) to keep it a one goal margin after Devante Smith-Pelly was called for a questionable holding infraction.

Another hard working shift by Wilson, Eller, and Brett Connolly resulted in a goal mouth scramble tally for #10, his eighth marker of the season, and this tilt was all knotted up with 8:38 remaining.

The Capitals pressed the play and had the lion share of the chances, but Anton was really solid in the cage and this one went to overtime. Ovechkin had a great chance in OT on his backhand, but he missed the net and the bonus point ended up being decided in the skills competition.

Oshie, who was -2 but had six shots on goal in 21:39, didn’t even get a shot off on his attempt, which really makes you wonder if he’s feeling 100%? I love the Osh Babe as much as anyone, but he has not looked the same since returning from the concussion he incurred from the Joe Thornton cheap shot back on December 4th.

Brad Marchand, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and David Pastrnak all couldn’t light the lamp setting the stage for the Gr8 to try and put the Caps up in the third and final round. The cuddly Ovi skated in on Khudobin, who was fabulous for Boston, and beat him top shelf glove side with an utterly sick shot that went just under the bar. The Holtbeast then forced Riley Nash to shoot wide and #70 continued his mastery over the boys from Beantown, who have been playing some really good hockey.

The much needed victory improves the Caps to 23-13-3 (49 points) and they’ll take on the New Jersey Devils at Capital One Arena on Saturday night. The Devils host the Sabres on Friday at The Rock and when they beat Buffalo they’ll have a two point lead on the Capitals.

Washington, who blew a late lead and lost in OT in Arizona, then were blitzed in the first period in Vegas on December 23rd, and fell in the shootout after a scoreless 65 minutes at Madison Square Garden, has been playing some unintelligent hockey lately. Over passing was back and there were far too many defensive zone turnovers by both defensemen and forwards that led to quality chances and goals against. That trend continued in the first period against the Bruins. A lack of recent practice time was vividly evident as passes were missing the mark far too often.

Somehow, though, the team worked through it and they started looking like the club that won 11 of 13 games before the recent slide (0-1-2). Maybe it’s the home cooking or the Rock the Red crowd, but the energy seemed to be back in Washington’s skates? Over the last 45 minutes, they closed the shot attempt margin to 69-65. Thus the Caps had a 12 shot attempt advantage after it was 2-0 and that came against a hockey team that is playing as well as any team in the league.

So that’s the encouraging part of Thursday’s rally, Washington has tons of talent, but they need to consistently get back to playing north-south hockey and lose the soft and careless bad habits they’ve picked up recently. They are routinely being bailed out by great goaltending; Philipp Grubauer was outstanding in extra time losses in the Desert and in the Big Apple. Holtby was good despite being dented three times in the opening frame in Rock Vegas and #70, once again, found a way to get it done against a team he’s had so much success against at the NHL level.

Plain and simple, the Holtbeast owwwwwnnnnnnssss the B’s!

Oh, and that guy wearing the C, he’s pretty darn good, too. After the shootout loss to the Rangers, the team leader stated that the Caps needed to get back to playing a more simple game. On Thursday, after the bad start, they did just that and were triumphant. That’s quality leadership right there.

Notes: the Caps got physical over the last 45 minutes and outhit Boston, 37-14, on the night. Willy had seven hits and Ovi had five…Ovi had ten shot attempts (four on net) and Oshie had nine…the Capitals lost the faceoff battle, 37-30…Carlson led the team in time on ice at 28:51. #74 had a bad giveaway on the Bruins first goal, but John rallied to have a strong game as did Madison Bowey (1 assist in 9:34), who was beaten on the second Boston marker. #22 had some other rough shifts in the early going before settling in, like many of his teammates for the last two periods and overtime…Christian Djoos was +2 in only 11:59 of action. He took a puck to the face on Wednesday against the Rags that required stitches, but he returned to finish that game…Andre Burakovsky only played 8:42 and was minus one. The Caps need the #65 that dominated in Dallas on a more consistent basis…the Caps claimed Nathan Walker back off of waivers from Edmonton last week and on Thursday the Aussie was sent to Hershey to hone his game…Coach Barry Trotz tied Lindy Ruff for the fifth most wins in NHL coaching history with 735…the Caps have won a season high seven straight games at Capital One Arena…there’s no place like home!

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Burakovsky Delivers for the Caps in the Lone Star State

Posted on 20 December 2017 by Ed Frankovic

The Caps welcomed back T.J. Oshie into the lineup after he missed six games due to a Joe Thornton cheap shot, but the real welcome back on Tuesday night in Dallas should go to Andre Burakovksy. The Swedish winger, who missed 20 games with a fractured thumb and had been struggling since returning to the lineup 10 days ago, scored twice, including the game winner just 1:51 into overtime. Burkie also assisted on the game tying tally with 3:36 remaining in regulation when he outworked Dallas defenders in the left wing boards and then set up Brett Connolly in the high slot, who fired a quick laser past Ben Bishop (24 saves) to tie the game at three.

Wow, what a hockey game!

This was a physical and fast paced game. Dallas was downright cheap with some of their play, including an Antoine Roussel hit to Oshie in the first period that no one in the Capitals organization liked.

All game the Stars tried to be physical and there were several extracurricular scrums following whistles. It was vintage Ken “I learned to coach in the Flyers organization” Hitchcock.

Washington, however, would not back down in this affair. They started the scoring 10:35 into this game when Connolly made a great play in his own end to get the puck out, then with Lars Eller (+3) smartly driving the net, #10 fed a sweet backhanded cross ice pass to Burakovsky (two goals, one assist, +3) and he buried it quickly. It was a great shot and it came with none of the recent hesitation we’ve seen from Andre.

The Stars would tie the game up on a power play they received when the turtling Roussel jumped Wilson on a centre ice faceoff, then fell on his back and covered up. Willy received four minutes to just two for the Stars player in a call by Steve Kozari and Furman South that left many heads scratching.

As has been the case lately, especially on the road, the Capitals struggled in the middle frame. The biggest problem is that with the long change they don’t simplify their game and they turn too many pucks over at the offensive blue line. Instead of getting pucks deep and wearing out their opponent, the opposition gets the disc and goes the other way and exhausts Washington.

Dallas would take the lead at 11:09 of the middle frame and they held a large possession advantage in that period. After the goal though, Caps captain Alexander Ovechkin seemed on a mission and he was flying on the ice and using his body to throttle Star players. Suddenly Washington came to life and Dmitry Orlov scored a beauty of a goal when the Stars defenders thought for sure #9 was going to drop pass to the Gr8, who was barreling in the zone right behind Dima. Orlov then faked the pass, backhanded the biscuit through his skates, toe dragged the disc, and then flew around John Klingberg to score a goal top shelf that was reminiscent of Paul Coffey’s end to end rushes with the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980’s. Boy was that tally sweet!

In that middle frame the Capitals were outshot 14-5 and the shot attempts through 40 minutes were 50-31 for the Stars. The reason the Caps were able to stay in this game, once again, was because of their all world goaltender, Braden Holtby (33 saves). The Holtbeast made a huge save on a Stars four on two rush when it was 2-1. If it goes 3-1, Washington probably loses this contest.

In the third stanza and overtime, the Caps came to play, out shot attempting Dallas, 25-20, but a neutral zone turnover and poor gap control allowed the Stars to take a 3-2 lead with 4:07 left. After playing such a good road game to that point, you would have thought the team would be deflated and feel like the Big D curse was going to strike again, but not this Washington bunch. The third line came out and had a completely dominant shift with Burakovsky winning some big one on one battles on the wall to set up Connolly for a great tally just 41 seconds after Hitchcock’s chippy Stars thought they were going to get two points.

In overtime, Holtby made a great stick shaft save on a Stars three on two to get a defensive zone faceoff and then Washington went the other way with the puck and worked their cycle game in the offensive zone. Burakovsky actually had two other opportunities to shoot, but he passed up the openings and kept circling. Burkie and John “Norris Trophy Worthy” Carlson worked a nice overlap play that gave #65 a straight line to the net and he roofed one by Bishop to give Washington an amazing victory in Dallas, their second straight 4-3 overtime win in two years in the Lone Star State.

In summary, this was a gutsy effort by the Caps. Jakub Vrana stuck up for Oshie early on before Wilson could announce his presence to that punk Roussel with authority. In addition, the Osh Babe sacrificed his leg to block a shot late in the game, but he eats rocks for breakfast and came back out for his next shift. This was a tough game and the Stars brought their intensity that often crossed the line. But this Capitals squad continues to come together and work as a team. The young rookies on defense, Christian Djoos (1 assist) and Madison Bowey are getting better and better and the forward lines are starting to really take shape. Alex Chiasson had another good game despite being moved to the fourth line while the third line was the difference in this affair, along with Holtby.

The Caps have now won four games in a row, are 22-12-1 (45 points) and are back in sole possession of first place in the Metropolitan Division. The division race is really tight and every game matters. The scary thing is that this Capitals club, which is winning games despite injuries and rookies scattered across the lineup, can still get a lot better.

On Thursday night, however, they can sit back and enjoy this win over the chippy and cheap Hitchcock led Stars. Scoreboard Hitch!

Notes: Carlson was outstanding again on the back end logging a team leading 27:07. He had an assist on the GWG and he was +2…Orlov is playing super on defense, as well. His only mistake was backing up a bit too much on the Stars third goal. Dima played 23:54. He’s been super since Halloween…Connolly is now up to seven goals on the season and if that 3rd line can gel like it did last January, look out!…Ovi had eight shot attempts and no points, but he continues to fly on the ice. His speed and tenacity is making a difference out there. I thought his play after the Stars took the lead in the middle frame helped turn the Caps fortunes around. Dallas knew they couldn’t contain him and over focused on the Gr8, opening up the lanes for others, and Orlov took full advantage of that. Wow, I’ll say this again, what a goal that was by Dmitry!…Final shot attempts were 70-56 for Dallas. Shots on goal were 36-28 for the Stars…the faceoff battle was tied at 28 apiece. Jay Beagle went 11-6…the Caps were 0 for 3 on the power play while Dallas went 1 for 4. Next up for the Capitals are the Coyotes in Arizona on Friday night, then they play the Vegas Golden Knights in Rock Vegas on Saturday night before they go on a three day Christmas break from December 24th through 26th.

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Chiasson Scores Twice as Holtby and the Caps beat the Bruins Again

Posted on 14 December 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Alex Chiasson scored two third period goals and Braden Holtby made 34 saves, many of them of the high quality variety, to give the Washington Capitals their 11th straight victory over the Boston Bruins, 5-3, at TD Garden in Beantown.

The win improves the Caps to 20-12-1 (41 points) and they remain tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets for first place in the Metropolitan Division. CBus defeated the Islanders, 6-4, on Thursday night and they have a game in hand on Coach Barry Trotz’ crew.

Here’s my thoughts and analysis of a sleepy game that the Capitals were fortunate to win:

Boston played on Wednesday night late in Detroit and won in overtime. They then had to fly home, fighting a snowstorm to get out of Michigan, before getting into their beds early Thursday morning. So the Caps naturally took advantage of a tired hockey team and ran them out of the rink, right? WRONG! The Bruins were actually the better team in this game, in my opinion. They worked hard in the one on one battles and it resulted in a 74-45 shot attempt differential. Sure, some of that is score effects with the Caps having the lead most of the last 40 minutes, but Washington had too many passengers in this game and they rode some hot plays at the right times.

Who was dialed in for the Capitals? Well, let’s start where we pretty much always start these days, with their goaltender, the Holtbeast. In the second period, the Caps were outshot, 13-3, and the Bruins were all over Washington, but after a Patrice Bergeron snipe on the power play tied the game early in period two, #70 held the fort until the Caps scored on a power play of their own. Holtby’s save percentage for the night was .919, but it should’ve been better had the Capitals not given up two goals in the last five minutes, including another power play tally by Bergeron late where it looked like David Krejci may have tied up Holtby’s stick. But that didn’t matter, Boston lost primarily because Braden kept the door shut for the first 56 minutes while the Caps dialed up a 4-1 lead.

Hot plays at the right time were the difference makers for the Caps. First, Jakub Vrana used his blazing speed to split the Boston defense to give the Caps a 1-0 lead at 17:34 of period one. It was Jakub’s 10th goal of the season and he continues to shine since that healthy scratch back on November 16th. You really have to be impressed with how he’s played with Evgeny Kuznetsov (1 assist). He keeps going to the net like that and he’ll score a bunch of goals this season.

Going to the net was so important to this win, like it normally is in hockey. Lars Eller had what looked to be an early goal less than two minutes into this tilt when he put home the rebound of a Christian Djoos shot, but it was correctly overturned because the Caps were offside on the zone entry. That’s the type of early goal you like to see and had the Capitals kept going to the net and getting pucks there early and more often, this one may have gone much more smoothly.

Still, it was the net drive that would eventually give Washington the breathing it room it needed down the stretch. After Nicklas Backstrom’s power play goal off of a sweet Kuznetsov pass made it 2-1 in the middle frame, the Bruins really came hard at the Caps in period three. Holtby did his usual job to hold off the Bruins and then 7:52 into the final stanza, Djoos made another great play to beat the B’s defender and get the puck to the net. Parked in front was Chiasson and he put the biscuit in the basket.

Boston, who has to be sick and tired of losing to the Capitals, would not go away and they pressed the play and received a power play with 8:41 to go. Shortly after the faceoff, Chiasson blocked the point shot of Torrey Krug and then he pulled away from #47 on the shorthanded breakaway and buried the disc past Anton Khudobin (17 saves). The Bruins goalie had come into this one hot, having gone 7-1-2 this season with a .922 save percentage, but he had Capsitis, a disease that often impacts Boston goalies.

Boston cut it to 4-2 with 3:40 to go after some Washington turnovers, but then Ovechkin, who had an assist on Backstrom’s power play goal, received his 22nd goal of the season when his pass to Tom Wilson in the neutral zone did not connect and fortuitoulsy banked off of the boards and into the middle pocket at the other end to make it 5-2 with 1:29 to go. That NHL goal leading tally (he’s tied with Nikita Kucherov of Tampa as of this post) ultimately ended any suspense on the final outcome. The Bruins would get that 3rd goal with 27 seconds left, though, after Eller took a bad cross checking penalty.

There wasn’t a lot of things to like in this one for the Caps. They did do a good job of keeping Boston on the perimeter, but they were still sloppy with their passes and they just didn’t seem to have their legs. Yes, this was their third game in four nights, so they have a slight excuse. I did like some of the shifts the fourth line had in this one, especially the effort they put in to draw the power play that set up Backstrom’s tally which gave Washington the lead it would never relinquish. Chandler Stephenson used his speed to go by Chalire McAvoy on the left wing boards and he was forced to hook #18. Washington’s fourth line is playing well and if T.J. Oshie comes back for Saturday’s game, I would not break this trio up; they are doing too much good on the ice.

Chiasson should not be scratched either considering that he had two goals in this one and he’s been good on the PK (the Caps gave up two power play goals in five tries, but #39 added a HUGE shorty). You aren’t scratching anyone on the top line, although they did not have a good game in Boston, both Ovechkin and Wilson just didn’t seem to have their speed going, at all. So that leaves someone on the third line to go out of the lineup if the Osh Babe is ready and based on what I saw on Thursday, Andre Burakovsky is my pick to sit. #65 was totally weak on the wall in this affair and lost board battle after board battle. He also is taking too long to get his shot off, once again. Kuznetsov fed him nicely in period one for an open net opportunity, but instead of a quick release that would have had half of the twine to hit, he pulled the puck back with his long drawn out release and the shot was blocked en route to Khudobin. Simply put, Burakovsky needs a reset after just four games back in the lineup. You would have thought 20 games out injured would do that, but so far, outside of a play or two here or there, he’s been MIA. I’m not trying to be mean to the guy, but this is big boy hockey and Andre needs to get it going, this team is counting on him and he’s not playing near his potential. Fortunately, guys like Vrana and Chiasson are stepping up to deliver big tallies while the organization waits for the $3 Million man to get untracked. Washington isn’t going anywhere in the playoffs without Burakovsky, so now is the time to get him refocused and playing like #13 is doing. Burakovsky needs to use his legs to open up lanes on the ice and he must find a way to release the puck quicker on his shots.

Overall though, the Caps have won three of their last four games despite some really ugly stretches where they turn the puck over or don’t move their feet. They are living off of their all world goalie and some timely offense. You’d like to see them dominate more of the play, but it’s hard to be really upset when they’ve won nine of their last 11 games. Boston had done that coming into Thursday’s game against Washington, but once again the Bruins lost to the red, white, and blue.

Notes: Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:20…Matt Niskanen was good in this game and he was +3 with two assists in 22:58. He and Dmitry Orlov (+2 in 21:33) continue to be a super top defensive pairing. Orlov does so many things well, even though he’s not piling up points…Chiasson now has six goals, he logged 12:49 in this affair…Vrana only received 9:09 of ice time. The Caps taking five penalties didn’t help his ability to get more opportunity…next up for the Caps are the Anaheim Ducks at Capital One Arena at 8 pm on Saturday night. Corey Perry will not play for the Ducks due to injury…if Oshie practices on Friday, then there’s a good chance he will return against Anaheim. The Caps need his tenacity on the ice, they aren’t winning the board battles like they typically do when fireplug #77 is in the lineup.

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Holtby Holds the Fort Until the Caps Offense Arrives

Posted on 12 December 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Coming off a dud of a performance on Long Island on Monday night, a 3-1 loss to New York at the Barclay Center, the Capitals came home on Tuesday to face a team, the Colorado Avalanche, which flat out smoked them in their last meeting back on November 16th, 6-2.

The young Avs, led by Nathan MacKinnon’s five points, used their speed and desire to totally destroy the Caps in the Mile High City on that Thursday night. On Monday evening, the surging Avalanche knocked off the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins in the Steel City, 2-1, and looked to improve on their surprising 14-13-2 record at Capital One Arena.

Coach Barry Trotz’ squad, however, had other ideas and they played a smart game structurally to slow the young Colorado team down to grind out a 5-2 victory that improves the Capitals to 19-12-1 (39 points) and back into a first place tie with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who were blitzed by the Edmonton Oilers, 7-2, in CBus on Tuesday. [Note: anyone have the 10 second clip of John Tortorella’s post game presser? LOL!]

This was not a pretty win, but it was a needed one, and several players stepped up to help deliver a well deserved two points and give Washington their eighth triumph in their last 10 games.

With that let’s get right to my thoughts, highlights, and analysis of this tilt:

Braden Holtby (22 saves) continues to be the Caps MVP. The team’s biggest problem lately has been puck management as NBC Sports Washington analyst, Alan May, calls it. There are just too many poor passes and bad decisions going on out on the ice for this club right now. Case in point, in the second period in a 1-1 game, Brooks Orpik possesses the puck at his own blue line with a defender barreling down on him and #44 has no real passing option because all four of the other Capital players are on the other side of the ice, and most of them are up the rink. There’s no left wing in sight and the center is floating on the far boards. Instead of eating the puck there and waiting for help, Orpik goes cross ice with it and the result is a Colin Wilson breakaway. Fortunately for every one of the Caps out there, the Holtbeast made a right arm/body save on Wilson to keep the game tied. It was a HUGE stop at a key time in a game that the Capitals were very sloppy in up until that point. Braden made several other big saves in this contest, but none bigger than that one and once again you can point to his play as a major reason the Capitals were victorious. For the season, Holtby is now 17-7-0. His .918 save percentage is also pretty darned good considering he’s playing behind a very young defense after several key personnel losses in the off season due to the expansion draft (Nate Schmidt) and the tight salary cap (Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk). All hail the Holtbeast, once again! If you don’t think he’s playing well, then you should go watch another sport, this guy is one of the top goaltenders in the NHL and is performing better than his Vezina trophy winning season, in my opinion, as well as a couple of other guys who know their puck that cover this hockey club.

Speaking of performing really well, on the back end the Caps received superb outings from both John Carlson (1 goal and +2 in 21:10) and Dmitry Orlov (+1 in 23:39). Carlson’s hammer of a shot (3rd goal of the season) late in the second period after he came off of the bench on a change gave the Caps the 2-1 lead they would take to period three and expand on. Carly took two penalties in this affair, but overall, he’s been dominant on the back end no matter who he has been paired with this season. #74 is due a nice long term contract extension with the Caps for his play, especially since number one defensemen aren’t easy to find. As for Orlov, this guy is really playing sensational at both ends of the rink. He’s physical when needed on the boards and his breakouts are such a key to Washington’s offense. He had no points on Tuesday night, but if you go back and break his shifts down, he was a major reason that MacKinnon was nowhere to be found in this game. #9’s progression over the last 12 months has been amazing and big credit goes to Dima and assistant coach Todd Rierden.

Continuing on the back end, Madison Bowey had his second two assist game in 14:36 of ice time. His feed to Brett Connolly on a delayed penalty call on the Avalanche allowed #10 to get off his great shot, a one-timer, that he rifled into the cage for a 3-1 advantage with 14:45 remaining. #22 continues to mature at the NHL level. His game is ascending and that will be very important to the Caps in the second half of the season and hopefully into the playoffs. Christian Djoos is also on the uptick, especially in his own end. The kid played 16:25 and was +1 in this affair. #29 is a very good puck mover, but what has really impressed me lately is his defensive zone positioning. Again, credit the player and the coaching staff, who have proven that they can properly develop young defensemen.

Up front, let’s start with the grinders, the fourth line. I loved the game that Devante Smith-Pelly brought to the rink. He was physical and moving his feet. He also made smart decisions with the puck by getting it deep over and over and making Colorado struggle to get the puck out of their end. His linemates, Jay Beagle and Chandler Stephenson, also worked hard in this affair, something we saw from very few Capitals against the Islanders in Monday night’s debacle. That line all played at least 14 minutes each and it was fitting that DSP scored his fifth goal of the season into the empty net with 45 seconds left, after a nice pass from Stephenson. Beagle and Smith-Pelly combined for seven of the Capitals 27 shots on net in the victory. Those guys were skating hard and Coach Trotz rightly rewarded them with additional ice time.

Holtby, Carlson, and Orlov have been big drivers in the Caps hot streak, along with the first line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Tom Wilson, but if Evgeny Kuznetsov (three assists) and Jakub Vrana (goal) don’t completely turn their games around after the earlier Colorado loss (Vrana was a healthy scratch) and abysmal effort against the Flames, the Capitals don’t have multiple lines that can score. The Kuznetsov and Vrana duo has been red hot and with the top line playing well on most nights (although they were just okay against the Avs), that second line needs to produce and they’ve done so, even without T.J. Oshie for the last four tilts. Vrana’s speed really opens things up on the ice, especially because he’s driving towards the net, and Kuzy continues to make the right pass versus shoot decisions, something he was not doing consistently well for the first six weeks of the season. #92’s play to set up #13 for the first goal was just pure confidence with the puck and he drew both Avs to him so that he could feed Jakub for the top shelf peanut butter shot past former Capital Semyon Varlamov (22 saves). His last helper at 16:19 of the 3rd frame to make it 4-1, to Matt Niskanen, was a thing of beauty. After Andre Burakovsky knocked Erik Johnson off of the puck in a four on four situation, Kuzy grabbed the disc and drove the net. He then froze the Avs defender by faking like he was going to pull the biscuit back and then he slid it behind the defensemen to a wide open Nisky, who buried it for his second goal of the season (and second in three games).

Finally, another thing that really helped the Capitals win this one was their penalty killing. The Caps were a perfect four for four in 6:25 of shorthanded time and they DID NOT ALLOW A SHOT ON GOAL. Those kills were huge because Colorado, on their first three power plays, either had a chance to tie the game or take the lead. Wilson was excellent with his skating on the PK as were the other three forwards, Lars Eller, Alex Chiasson, and Beagle. Orpik was also really good keeping Colorado on the perimeter in his team leading 4:35 of shorthanded time.

In summary, this was not a win with style points, there are none in hockey, but the Caps did what they needed to prevail. Their goaltender and grinding fourth line prevented Colorado from gaining any momentum until the superior skill of the Capitals took over in the third period.

Notes: Connolly’s goal was his fourth in the last six games. He is going to the right places on the rink to receive great feeds and burying the biscuit with his excellent shot. He’s up to six goals now and with Burakovsky back, he and Eller will hopefully take off like that same 3rd line did last January…Oshie skated again on Tuesday for the 3rd straight day and will likely practice on Friday (the Caps are off on Wednesday and head to Beantown to face the Bruins on Thursday night). If the Osh Babe does well out at that practice, then there is a good chance he’ll be in the lineup against the Ducks on Saturday night at 8 pm (who will be without the injured Corey Perry)….the Caps won the face-off battle, 27-24. Eller was 8-4…shot attempts were 56-55 for Colorado…the Capitals had 16 giveaways to just six for Colorado. Puck management needs to improve going forward! There are too many bad passes by Washington players, especially in their own end…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 25:05…the Caps had 24 hits and Smith-Pelly led the team with four. He was a work horse on Tuesday.

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Willy Rags

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Tom Wilson’s Late Game Eruption Leads the Caps over the Rangers

Posted on 08 December 2017 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals scored a goal just 14 seconds into the game and then tallied twice in the last four minutes to knock off the New York Rangers, 4-2, at Capital One Arena on Friday night.

The victory, the Caps seventh in their last eight games, was their fourth straight on a five game home stand against some very good hockey clubs. The triumph improves Washington to 18-11-1 (37 points) and they are now tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets for first place in the Metropolitan Division. CBus has a game in hand (18-10-1), though.

Tom Wilson took over this hockey game late setting up the winning goal by Matt Niskanen and then adding an insurance marker at 18:28 after the Rangers had clawed their way back into this affair from a 2-0 hole. Nicklas Backstrom notched Washington’s second goal after a bad turnover by Michael Grabner midway through period two, beating Henrik Lundqvist (36 saves) with some top shelf cheese. For the night, the Caps top trio of Alex Ovechkin (1 assist), Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist), and Willy (1 goal, 1 assist) were +3 and a major reason why they won the game. Ovi hit the post late on an empty net attempt, so it could’ve easily been plus four.

That line, which was dynamite against Chicago and has been since they were put together by Coach Barry Trotz, had 19 of the Caps 67 shot attempts. They are physical and relentless on the fore check. Wilson had six hits and as #19 stated in his television interview between periods, #43 opens up space on the ice for Ovi and Backy and they are using their talents to make the opposition pay.

Jay Beagle opened the scoring on the game’s very first shift after Chandler Stephenson knocked the puck away from former Capital Kevin Shattenkirk on the left wing boards in the offensive zone. Devante Smith-Pelly swooped in to grab the disc and then fed Beags streaking to the net in the right slot area. #83 smartly shot quickly and it beat Lundqvist.

Washington would continue to play well the remainder of opening frame and they fired 17 shots on King Henrik, who kept his club in this one. Braden Holtby (27 saves) also was very solid to start this tilt stopping all nine shots he faced, but at least a handful of them were really good opportunities.

In the second period, the Caps ran into turnover problems, once again. They continually made poor decisions coming out of their own end and in the neutral zone. Too often the puck was going east-west instead of north-south. The Capitals lucked out, though. They didn’t have much sustained pressure for the first 11 minutes of the stanza, but then Grabner’s turnover was an early Christmas gift for Backstrom and the Caps.

Washington looked like they might escape the first 40 minutes up two pucks, but then Niskanen was hesitant with the puck and it was stolen from him leading to an easy tally in the slot for Grabner with 57 seconds to go in period two. It was a really shaky period by the Caps, they were outshot, 13-8, and Backstrom was clearly not happy while doing his interview between the second and third periods.

Coach Trotz’s crew actually played a very strong game in the last 20 minutes, overall. Yes, there were more turnovers, but they were up 10-4 in shots on goal yet the game became tied when Jesper Fast scored on a pass from former Capital Paul Carey with 10:23 left. Carey outworked Madison Bowey for the puck behind Washington’s net and when Brooks Orpik didn’t cover Fast tightly, #17 received the puck from Carey and fired a shot through #44, who was screening his goaltender.

At that point, one had to figure the Capitals would sag and the Rangers would gain momentum and energy and find a way to win.

Give the Capitals credit, though, they didn’t turtle and they amped their game up with five more shots on net. Wilson was the difference maker using his speed and size to go around the Rags defense twice. Top line Tom now has five goals and 10 assists in 30 games.

There were things to really like in this game, such as the Caps putting 40 shots on Lundqvist and Washington’s domination on faceoffs (34-20). The Capitals are successful when they are putting pucks and bodies to the cage, and they did both of those things well on Friday. Evgeny Kuznetsov had six shots on goal and his line with Jakub Vrana and Alex Chiasson played pretty well despite being on the ice for both Ranger tallies. Vrana is going to the net and using his speed and it’s great to see. Kuzy is shooting the puck and opening up the ice. #39 is just a fill in until T.J. Oshie, who was hurt Monday by Jumbo Joe Thornton,  can get back in the lineup, but that doesn’t sound imminent given that the Osh Babe is still not even skating.

Andre Burakovksy returned to the ice after missing 20 games with a fractured thumb playing on a line with Brett Conolly and Lars Eller. Burky played 14:08 and was clearly trying to shake off the rust, but Coach Trotz will need that trio going when Washington takes on the Islanders in New York on Monday night.

There are still things to clean up in the Capitals play, the turnovers need more attention, but when they put out the effort and move their feet, they dominate on the ice. They also don’t get into penalty trouble when they have the wheels going and on Friday, the Blueshirts only had three man advantage situations. Washington killed off all of them while the Rangers did the same to the Caps on their four power plays.

This game was decided at even strength and the Capitals, thanks to their top line and the Holtbeast, prevailed.

Notes: John Carlson once again led the Caps in ice time with 25:52. Niskanen was a close second at 24:04. Bowey (10:34) and Christian Djoos (9:21) only had a dozen and 11 shifts, respectively…Eller was 10-5 on face-offs…Tyler Graovac cleared waivers and was sent to Hershey, along with Travis Boyd, to make roster and salary cap room for Burakovsky…Carlson had seven shots on goal. He’s playing extremely well and with the NHL announcing that next season’s salary cap will increase to between $78M and $82M you can bet that General Manager Brian MacLellan will be working on a long term deal for the Caps best blue liner. The Caps are now five points up on the Rangers, but they have two games in hand…per NBCSW, the Capitals are 38-1-6 lifetime when Beagle scores a goal.

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Grubi Sharks

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Grubauer and Ovechkin Help End Caps Drought vs. San Jose

Posted on 05 December 2017 by Ed Frankovic

The San Jose Sharks came into Capital One Arena for their annual meeting in the District with the Washington Capitals and, in recent years, you could steal a line from the classic movie, Spinal Tap, to characterize the way those matchups have gone for the Caps.

Shark Sandwich. S—t Sandwich.

San Jose goalie Martin Jones held a 4-0 lifetime record against the Caps and to top it all off, he had NEVER allowed a goal in the Washington barn.

On Monday night, everything changed.

After a sluggish start that saw the Sharks get seven of the games first eight shots, the Capitals started taking over. During that stretch they had nine of the last 10 shots on goal recorded in the opening period, including a beautiful tip in of a John Carlson shot by Devante Smith-Pelly that gave the Caps a 1-0 lead with 3:11 to go in the first frame. The goal ended Jones’ lengthy Capital One Arena shutout streak and seemed to provide the home team with some confidence.

In the middle stanza, the Caps came out strong and a sweet steal by Alexander Ovechkin on Brent Burns in his own end led to a breakaway for the Gr8. Alex would go in all alone on Jones and beat him with a backhander to make it 2-0 with 7:11 gone in period two. Shortly thereafter the Capitals nearly grabbed a three puck lead, but Carlson’s shot on a three on one rush hit metal. San Jose, as you’d expect, then became the more desperate team and put pressure on Washington in their end. The Caps would have a series of turnovers on consecutive shifts and that shoddy play resulted in a Timo Meier tally after a bad giveaway by Matt Niskanen.

The Caps then settled the ship and started playing well again, although Philipp Grubauer (24 saves) did make some very big stops at key junctures. Things were still dicey when Evgeny Kuznetsov took a delay of game penalty for putting the puck over the glass, but the Capitals had a super penalty kill. Late in the PK, however, T.J. Oshie was injured when he threw the puck down the right wing offensive boards and while trying to finish his check, he made a hit and went down awkwardly. With the puck long gone, Jumbo Joe Thornton came in and with his fat rear crushed the Osh Babe’s head against the boards. #77 went down and then left the game for the night.

Washington received a power play shortly thereafter when Brenden Dillon took a high sticking minor. With Oshie in the locker room, Brett Connolly received the bump up to the first unit and he took advantage of the situation. Kuznetsov made a great play carrying the puck into the offensive zone and while taking a hit and falling to the ice, he managed to swing his stick with one hand and whack the puck to a wide open Ovechkin on the left wing boards. The Gr8 nicely used his skates to kick the puck to his stick and he spotted Connolly heading to the net ahead of the Sharks defenders. Ovi made a super backhand pass to #10 and he made a sweet move and buried the puck on the backhand to make it 3-1 (although the zebras didn’t immediately signal goal and then there was a five minute delay while San Jose challenged that the goal was a result of an offside zone entry).

In the third period, after the Caps failed to score on the power play they received when the Sharks unsuccessfully challenged the third goal, San Jose had some more great looks, but Grubauer shut the door.

Thornton then had to pay for his unnecessary hit on Oshie by taking on Tom Wilson. Willy won the bout quickly and easily with a punch to Jumbo Joe’s head that floored the big man. Both players received seven minutes in penalties, which was a good trade for the Caps. The Sharks started to get chippy after that and a teal parade to the penalty box ensued. Washington extended their lead to 4-1 when Jakub Vrana notched his eighth goal of the season from the doorstep after some excellent power play work by Wilson with 8:24 remaining.

The victory improves the Caps to 16-11-1 (33 points) and they are just two points out of first in a very tight Metropolitan Division that has the top five teams all within two points of each other.

Below are some thoughts and analysis on a huge Capitals win against a squad they defeated in regulation for just the second time in their last 26 meetings (h/t to Mike Vogel (@VogsCaps) for that stat).

As they did on Saturday against Columbus, the Capitals rode the biggest strength of their team for this win, goaltending. Grubauer was just superb in this affair and he made many quality saves at key times.

Ovechkin was flying in this tilt and he could’ve easily had a hat trick. Ovi had seven shot attempts, but I recall at least four quality scoring chances. The goal he scored doesn’t happen last season. His offseason conditioning change continues to pay dividends, he is at least a step faster than in 2016-17 and he now leads the NHL in goals with 20 in just 28 games (59 goal pace). As Drew Doughty stated last week when the Kings snuck a win out over Washington, the Ovechkin line (Ovi-Nicklas Backstrom-Wilson) is so hard to play against. Burns found that out on Monday night and he was outworked by the big and skilled trio.

The Oshie injury is a major concern. It’s upper body and hopefully not a serious concussion. The Osh Babe, along with Kuznetsov and Vrana, have been a dynamite second line trio and they’ve dominated play. T.J. is so good at winning the one on one battles, so not having him in the lineup will be a blow to the Capitals. It’s not clear how long #77 will be out, but Andre Burakovsky is due back within the week, so that should help.

Several right wingers stepped up in this game with Oshie out. First was Connolly, who has scored in two straight games. He’s playing with confidence and looks more like the guy who potted 15 tallies last season. This is a very encouraging development. Wilson also is performing well and Coach Barry Trotz loved his effort to help set up Vrana’s power play marker. It was a dirty and gritty goal and the first one for the second power play unit all season. Perhaps Willy deserves more time on that second unit based on how well he played on Monday? I also liked Smith-Pelly’s game on Monday, it was one of his best, in just 10:34 of action.

While the Capitals came out victorious in this game, Coach Trotz said afterwards there are still things that need cleaning up in their play. There were numerous bad clears in their own zone and too many offensive zone cross ice passes for my liking. The Caps had 16 giveaways, four of them from Carlson.  If they can focus on getting pucks to the net or behind the net, they’ll be even more successful and find that holding leads are much easier. Washington out shot attempted the Sharks, 21-12, and, 12-9, in shots on goal, in the final frame. After getting out shot, 17-3, in the last 20 minutes against Columbus on Saturday the Capitals did a better job of handling this two goal lead. There are still better decisions to be made with the biscuit when they are in front, but Monday represented some serious progress.

Overall, the Caps have now won five of their last six games and they will face the Chicago Blackhawks at home on Wednesday night. Puck drop is at 8 pm. The game is on NBC Sports Channel.

Notes: Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 27:34, including 7:11 of power play time…the Caps were 2 for 6 with the man advantage while San Jose went 0-1…Washington won the faceoff battle, 34-24. Kuznetsov was 11-4. Since the Calgary loss, he’s played very smart and solid hockey.

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