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Caps over Devils Burkie

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Burakovsky’s Bout Spurs the Caps to a 5-2 Win in New Jersey

Posted on 13 October 2017 by Ed Frankovic

“You mess with the bull, you get the horns.”

That was the message the New Jersey Devils received from the Washington Capitals on Friday night at the Prudential Center.

Nicklas Backstrom had a goal and three helpers, T.J. Oshie had two goals and an assist, Alex Ovechkin had his league leading 9th goal of the season and a gorgeous assist on Backstrom’s tally, and Evgeny Kuznetzov had two assists in a 5-2 Capitals victory that improved their record to 3-1-1 (7 points) and put them in sole possession of first place in the Metropolitan Division.

Braden Holtby made 21 saves in the cage in a solid performance and overall Washington played their most complete game of the season.

Tom Wilson returned from a bogus George Parros imposed four game suspension to bring physicality and energy to the lineup and that jump started the third line allowing the Washington stars to take over the contest. Jakub Vrana tipped in a shot from Devante Smith-Pelly late in period two for a critical tally that made it 3-1, which was big because the Caps needed some strong contributions from their bottom six forwards (Vrana is in the top six, but DSP is on the fourth line).

Perhaps the biggest development of the night, though, was Andre Burakovsky’s first fight that came 2:33 into the final frame with the Capitals clinging to a one goal lead. Blake Coleman dangerously took out Dmitry Orlov’s legs and sent him slamming hard into the boards. A penalty was being called, but #65 wasn’t about to just walk away without letting Coleman know he crossed the line. Burkie dropped his mitts and went after the bigger Devil and lost the fight, although he didn’t take any hard shots to the head. Instantly the Capitals bench stood up and applauded the “good ole fashioned guts” from Andre “Killer” Burakovsky. It was a moment of team toughness and togetherness that this club displayed and you can bet that Andre will get a lot of “ataboys” from his teammates on the way to Philadelphia for Saturday night’s tilt against the despised Flyers.

Shortly after the Burakovsky bout, Lars Eller took a high stick to the face and that’s when Osh Babe, Ovi, Backy, and Kuzy made sure that young Andre’s first NHL fight wouldn’t go for naught. The Caps scored two pretty power play goals on the double minor to salt this one away.

Then it was payback time.

With 7:29 remaining, Coleman manned up and fought Wilson. Blake was whipped so badly that “Rag Doll” by Aerosmith would’ve been a fitting song to pipe through the public address system at that moment. Simply put, Willy let it be known that Coleman wasn’t walking out of the arena nearly injuring Orlov and beating up on the previously undefeated prize pupil, Burakovsky.

This is the kind of stuff that brings an already tight team even closer together. You can see that this Caps club is in it for each other. Everyone around the league and even many in town are already writing these guys off and foolishly trying to tie the local DC baseball teams post season failures to this hockey franchise. It’s pathetic, if you ask me. Baseball has nothing to do with hockey, period.

Anyone who really knows hockey sees the immense talent on this team despite the off season subtractions due to the salary cap. Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and Oshie are all top NHL players. Combined they have 37 points in just five games. To quote a famous movie from the mid-90’s, yes, “37!” These guys are good and they are still a work in progress with Vrana as a new piece in the top six and Burakovsky moving up as well for the departed Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson. Many are convinced that Oshie can’t score 33 goals again this year because of his high 2016-17 shooting percentage, but as I pointed out all summer, that shooting percentage didn’t including shots that missed the net. Oshie gets a lot of in close chances because of the guys he’s playing with and with the Gr8 on absolute fire, he’s getting more room and hitting the corners with his attempts so far. He’s notched five goals in five games, which is amazing, but when Alexander the Great already has nine, yes nine goals, it’s easy to overlook #77’s production. Last year I often wrote, “Pay the Man!” Boy am I glad the man got paid. Thanks Brian MacLellan.

Getting Wilson back reignited the third line and Brett Connolly and Eller had one of their best games of the season. When you have at least three lines going, it makes it very difficult for the opponents to match up. The Caps needed a presence from the bottom six forwards and they delivered on Friday.

On defense, things got tough with Matt Niskanen exiting the game on what appeared to be a missed slashing call by the inconsistent zebras. It was the second critical missed opponent slash in two tilts. On Wednesday night the referees failed to call a Carter Rowney slash on Kuznetsov on a rush late in that contest that would’ve given Washington a power play and a chance to tie the game.

Nisky will be reevaluated tomorrow, according to Coach Barry Trotz. That slash, with the Caps shorthanded, allowed the Devils to score on the power play and get within one goal with 3:32 to go in period two.

After Smith-Pelly’s key goal made it 3-1, things got close again in the first minute of period three when Kyle Palmieri took a great pass from Damon Severson and split Christian Djoos and Orlov for a breakaway marker.

When Orlov got dumped into the boards and stayed down on the next shift, things were looking bad for Washington, but then “Killer” Burkakovsky stepped in and took one for the team and the Capitals star players made sure to make the Devils pay the price on the scoreboard the rest of the way.

This was a feel good victory against a division opponent that was 3-0 and had just defeated the talented Toronto Maple Leafs earlier in the week.

Impressive messages were sent this night by the Capitals on the scoreboard, with their fists, and with their hearts.

On to the “City of Brotherly Love.”

Notes: Given the Capitals salary cap situation, if Niskanen can’t play on Saturday night in Filthy, it’s likely that Taylor Chorney will get a sweater because calling up Madison Bowey, a deserving right handed shooting blue liner, would require someone else to be sent to Hershey, unless #2 has to go on long term injury (which would be a bad scene)…the Caps were for 3 for 5 on the power play while New Jersey went 1 for 4…John Carlson led the Capitals in ice time with 27:26.  Niskanen only played 12:18 before exiting the contest so the other four guys played extra minutes than in a normal situation. Brooks Orpik logged 22:04, Orlov 21:12, Djoos 16:47 and Aaron Ness played 13:38…shot attempts were 52-46 in favor of the Caps…New Jersey won the faceoff battle, 39-27.  Jay Beagle went 8-5…Backstrom got hit with a puck in warmups and then notched four points…expect Philipp Grubauer to get the start in net against the Flyers on Saturday night.

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Ovi Habs

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Ovechkin Does it Again in Caps Rout of Habs

Posted on 08 October 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Leave it to Alexander Ovechkin to do something that hasn’t happened in 100 years of National Hockey League action – score a hat trick in each of his first two games of the season.

What is more amazing is that he tallied four times on Saturday night in the Capitals home season opener at Capital One Arena with Evgeny Kuznetsov notching an assist on each marker. The Gr8 now has seven goals in just 125 minutes of hockey and Kuzy has a helper on each one of them.

This tilt became a blowout rather quickly with Ovechkin scoring on an amazing top shelf spin around shot after some great forechecking by Jakub Vrana and Kuznetsov. The snipe by Alex on Carey Price came just 20 seconds into contest. 

Before Montreal knew what had hit them it was 2-0 just 26 seconds later. Washington’s other top line of Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky, and T.J Oshie did the damage with the Osh Babe scoring his 1st goal of the year on a rebound of a Backstrom shot after a super steal by Burakovsky on the forecheck.

Things were about to get even worse for the Habs after Ales Hemsky slashed Aaron Ness just 2:02 into this affair. 49 seconds into that man advantage, Kuznetsov made a sweet cross ice feed to the Gr8 in the Ovi spot and Alex lifted one top shelf to make it 3-0 with less than three minutes gone in the game.

With a minute and 50 seconds to go in the opening frame, Washington began putting the lid on Montreal’s coffin on this night. Ness made a nice feed to Kuznetsov just inside the offensive blue line and #92 fired the biscuit at the cage. Ovechkin was parked in front of Price and tipped the disc home to increase the lead to 4-0.

It was a dominant first period by Washington with the Capitals outshooting Montreal, 14-7.

When the Caps went on the power play just over three minutes into the middle frame, it looked like the rout would continue. Washington, however, lollygagged with the puck and after a couple of shorthanded chances for Montreal, Brendan Gallagher finally put the puck by Braden Holtby (38 saves) to close the deficit to three.

For the next 10 minutes, the Habs were all over the Capitals, but there was no denting the Holtbeast. The Caps netminder was stellar while Montreal dominated Washington by winning one puck battle after another. 

Luckily for Coach Barry Trotz, the Ovi-Kuzy duo stopped a long succession of bad Washington shifts with just over three minutes remaining in period two. Kuznetsov carried into the offensive zone on a three on two with Ovechkin and Oshie. Evgeny cut to the middle of the ice drawing the Montreal defensemen to him and he slid the puck to Ovi to his right. The Gr8 took the puck to the cage and his backhander pinballed into the net right before Oshie could get his stick on it at the far post.

That was one of the final nails in the Canadiens coffin with 3:14 to go in the middle stanza and just 79 seconds later, it was shut for good. Jay Beagle won a faceoff directly back to Devante Smith-Pelly and he fired it towards the cage. On the way to the net, it hit Nathan Walker and went past Al Montoya, who had replaced Price after 20 minutes. For Walker, it was his first goal in his first NHL game on an evening when he became the first Australian raised hockey player to make it to “The Show.” Well done, Nathan.

Wow, what a start to the season by Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Holtby! With the departures of several accessory lineup pieces due to the salary cap, the Caps really need their star players to be their star players in 2017-18. So far, the aforementioned trio has more than delivered. The Gr8 and Kuzy have seven points each, with six of those goals coming at even strength, and the Holtbeast is dialed in with a .930 save percentage and two victories. Ovechkin only had 16 even strength markers in all of 2016-17, so he is clearly focused to start this campaign and his new off-season training methods are paying huuuuugggeee dividends.

Other positives so far have been a perfect penalty kill, it’s gone nine for nine primarily thanks to #70. However, an average of four plus penalties per game is not something that Washington wants to get in the habit of doing, so starting Monday night in Tampa, the number of infractions by Capitals players must decrease.

On Saturday, the Caps also dominated from the dot, winning of 41 of 67 draws. Beagle was 11-3, Lars Eller went 12-7, and Kuznetsov was 8-5. It’s a lot easier to generate shots when you start with the puck and that’s what Washington did in period one. After they got the lead though, the Canadiens naturally fought hard to try and get back in the game. They hijacked puck possession in period two, firing 20 shots on goal on the Holtbeast. They would add 12 more in period three and for the night Montreal had a 39-23 edge in shots on goal and an astounding 70-37 advantage in shot attempts. Much of that, however, can be attributed to score effects.

The victory improves the Caps to 2-0, but they still have work to do to clean up things in their game. There are many new faces in the lineup to include Vrana, Walker, Smith-Pelly, Ness, and Graovac (scratched for Walker on Saturday) so this is a work in progress.

The good news is how well the mighty triumvirate of Ovi, Kuzy, and the Holtbeast are playing, and when those guys are on their game, the Caps are hard to beat.

Notes: Ovechkin had 10 of the Caps 37 shot attempts, including eight on goal…Walker played 11:23 and led the team in hits with four…John Carlson logged 23:08 in ice time to lead the Capitals. Coach Trotz was able to spread the minutes around with a big lead. Taylor Chorney played 17:39, which was five minutes more than he logged on Thursday in Ottawa…next up for the Caps are the Lightning in Tampa on Monday night.

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Caps Thoughts After the Season Opening Victory in Ottawa

Posted on 06 October 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Alex Ovechkin’s hat trick and shootout tally allowed the Washington Capitals to overcome 3-1 and 4-3 third period deficits to win, 5-4, in Ottawa on Thursday night in the Caps season opener. Evgeny Kuznetsov had three helpers and Braden Holtby made 28 saves, several of which came at key junctures in the hockey game.

Simply put, when your star players are your star players, you often win.

With that, here are nine thoughts on the Caps victory over a very good Senators team that was missing its best player in defensemen Erik Karlsson.

I predicted 50 goals for Ovi this year after he changed his offseason training and slimmed down. The Gr8 was super in this affair with 11 shot attempts, 3 goals plus a shootout tally. He also hit the post in period two. The Gr8, Kuzy, and Jakub Vrana were a very good line and when #13 keeps his legs pumping he opens up space on the ice for his teammates.

Brett Connolly has a good shot and he buried his 1st of the season from the high danger area. It was a great keep in and pass by Matt Niskanen at the offensive blue line and Lars Eller made a great feed to #10 on that goal. I really liked the way Eller went to the net and created space for Connolly to score.

It’s not often your goalie plays well giving up four goals, but the Holtbeast was strong in the cage. The 1st Sens marker was eerily reminiscent of the weird lamp lighters Toronto scored in the playoffs last season. Braden made several big stops, including a gem on Johnny Oduya early on. His best of the night was likely the shoulder save when Ottawa was on the power play in overtime.

Ottawa had five power plays to just one for the Caps, yet Washington out shot attempted them 62-56. Nine of the Senators 32 shots on goal came on the power play. Simply put, the Capitals were very good at even strength and the season opening performance in terms of puck possession is encouraging.

Washington won this game thanks to four even strength goals and a perfect 5 for 5 on the penalty kill. Holts was stellar in net while the team was shorthanded and the Caps did well with their clears. Brooks Orpik and John Carlson were super in shorthanded situations. Devante Smith-Pelly also did well on the PK stepping in for the suspended Tom Wilson (out for the first four games).

Three of the four Ottawa goals were off of bad turnovers (Carlson, Niskanen, and Smith-Pelly). Better puck management is paramount going forward. There were forced passes in the neutral zone and pucks sent up the middle of the ice in the defensive end. Both of those are no no’s. In the words of famed Charlestown Chiefs goalie Dennis Lemieux, “You don’t do that, never, never…”

Coach Barry Trotz rode his top players in the season opener. The top two lines each played right around 20 minutes. On the back end, Trotzy rode his top 4D hard. Orpik played 24:47 while Dmitry Orlov and Niskanen were each over 25 minutes. Carlson logged 27:45 to lead the club in ice time. I thought Orlov was fabulous in this contest and it’s amazing how much his game has progressed since he has been paired with Minnesota Matt. The third pairing of Aaron Ness and Taylor Chorney were right around 11 to 12 minutes of ice time.

The referees were Chris Lee and Frederick L’Ecuyer and the power plays were 5 to 1 for Ottawa. The league is supposed to be cracking down on certain things (slashing) yet Washington’s only man advantage was the result of Ottawa having too many dudes on the ice. Those are the facts. It was a bit of a head scratching game from a zebras perspective. Anyone seen Oliver Stone lately??!!

Tyler Graovac only logged 6:22, a team low, and was a minus one. He didn’t get any PK time either. I’d expect that Nathan Walker goes into the lineup on Saturday night for the 7 pm home opener against Montreal. Congrats to Nathan on being the 1st Australian hockey player to make it to “The Show!”

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brian-maclellan

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Should the Caps Blow it Up or Stay the Course?

Posted on 29 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

After the Capitals added Kevin Shattenkirk at this season’s NHL trade deadline, I certainly thought I’d be writing a much happier ending to this recent Washington hockey season.

Alas, once again, that is not the case.

You already know the story; the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Washington Capitals in the playoffs for the second straight season, this time in a seven game series. In fact, it is now the ninth time in 10 playoff meetings that the Pens have knocked out the Caps. Jim Schoenfeld remains the only Capitals bench boss to defeat Mario Lemieux’s franchise in the post season (1994).

Let’s start with giving credit to the Penguins, because they certainly deserve that. Despite being outshot, 232-161, and outshot attempted, 484-317, in the series, they managed to hold the Caps to two goals or less in four of the seven tilts and as result, they won each of those games. There’s your series.

You don’t do that without outstanding play from your goaltender. Cleary, Marc Andre-Fleury’s performance against the Capitals was the biggest reason why the Penguins will likely be winning their fifth Stanley Cup this spring.

Next, you have to credit Sidney Crosby. Despite being injured in game three and missing game four, #87 was the difference maker for Pittsburgh. It was his two goals early in the second period of game one that staked the Pens to a two puck lead which gave his club the confidence it could win at the Verizon Center after being smoked there in the regular season. Then in a crucial game seven, Sid made the key pass on the winning goal after a Washington defensive zone turnover.

Finally, tip your hat to the entire Penguins team and coaching staff because they overcame a ton of injuries to defeat the Caps. Washington had injuries, as well, namely Alex Ovechkin’s knee and hamstring and Marcus Johansson’s fractured finger, but that’s a part of the game and the Pens found a way to persevere through all of their health issues.

The biggest reason the Pens won is because of their resolve. They certainly were outplayed by Washington for long stretches in this series, but they stuck to their system and when they received a break via a Caps turnover or mental mistake, they typically buried the biscuit. They were an opportunistic bunch who believed they could win. They also were able to plug guys into the lineup when some of their top guys were out. Without Crosby in game four, they jumped on the Caps early and held on for a win that ultimately gave the Caps no margin of error for a series comeback. So the Penguins deserve kudos for the depth they’ve created via strong drafting and development.

Congratulations Penguins, you clearly know how to win when the chips are down.

Now, were they the better team like they were in 2016 when they knocked off the Capitals in six games? The statistics say no, but the scoreboard says otherwise, and that is all that matters.

As for the Capitals, the roster assembled by General Manager Brian MacLellan, on paper, appeared to have no holes. Washington certainly did a lot of things correctly in the series. You don’t dominate the numbers as heavily as they did without doing many things right. Unfortunately, they did some big things wrong at inopportune times.

Washington carried the play in several periods in this series, didn’t score, and then tried to change their style of play. That is when they got into trouble and ended up losing. It was pretty obvious that the best Capitals game plan was to put pucks deep in the Penguins zone to try and further weaken a defense that was suffering from multiple injuries. Kris Letang was already out for the season and Trevor Daley was playing on bad wheels. But too often, the Capitals forgot that this is a shoot first league and they went into overpass mode. They were caught up far too easily in playing a pretty game and that is not the way you defeat a team as structured and as mentally tough as the Penguins.

Many Capitals players talked about the defeat being a mental thing on Caps Breakdown Day, and they are correct. Pittsburgh, no matter what the score or the situation, pretty much continued to play the same way. The Caps on the other hand, were not patient enough or mentally disciplined to stick with the game plan. As three time Stanley Cup Champion Justin Williams told me after game two, its okay to dominate a period and not score a goal, it happens in hockey. The problem for Washington though, is they wouldn’t maintain what they were doing and that’s when the fancy game and turnovers appeared on the ice. That’s a mental issue all the way.

While the Caps had a lot of shot attempts, they weren’t getting enough with traffic on Fleury and the players were rarely in position for rebounds. It’s a shoot first league and there were too many times, especially in the third period of game seven, when the Caps would cross the blue line and force the puck to the middle when getting it deep and wearing down the Penguins defense was the right play.

Again, that is a mental toughness issue, in my book. You have to be willing to pay the physical price in the playoffs by making the correct play. Taking a hit in the neutral zone and ensuring the puck gets deep in the offensive zone is a critical part of post season hockey. That applies inside both blue lines, as well. A number of the Penguins goals came as a result of lazy or careless turnovers. That’s a letdown on the mental side of the game. You can also attribute all of the terrible penalties the Capitals took in game four as a mental issue. Washington had a tendency to not come out strong in some contests, most notably games one and four. There is no reason why the Penguins should’ve had a 21-13 shot attempt advantage in the first 15 minutes of game four with Crosby out of the lineup in a must win for Washington. That’s inexcusable and both players and coaches need to answer for that.

Breaking things down by team component, let’s start with the coaching staff. All season long the Caps relied heavily on rolling four lines, but once Karl Alzner was deemed able to play with his hand injury and Brett Connolly struggled in his first post season appearance, Coach Barry Trotz went to seven defensemen and 11 forwards despite it being counter to what they’d done all season. Yes, the seven defensemen and 11 forwards strategy worked in game three, but it might have only been successful because Matt Niskanen was kicked out very early in the contest and the other six d-men were able to rotate normally. In game four, that configuration backfired badly as Alzner and Brooks Orpik, the two slowest Washington blue liners, were out on the ice together early in the game. Patrick Hornqvist, who isn’t exactly fast, split them like Moses parting the Red Sea to tally on a breakaway and it was 1-0 just over four minutes in. Pittsburgh gained a ton of confidence that they could win that contest without Crosby from that goal.

Following the game four loss, which was also heavily impacted by a very injured Ovechkin, who probably shouldn’t have played, Coach Trotz shook up his forward lines. He moved Andre Burakovsky with T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom and bumped the Gr8 down with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson. Those moves worked and Washington came storming back to tie up the series. They seemed poised for a big game seven, but Pens Coach Mike Sullivan adjusted and the Capitals didn’t play with the passion and urgency they had in the third period of game five and all of game six. Simply put, they cracked under the pressure. It’s apparent that the weight of being the #1 seed plus all of the past history of Washington recent playoff failures was heavily on the minds of these players.

Coach Barry Trotz has a track record of being tough on players who don’t follow the rules or the system as evidenced by the Ovechkin suspension in October of 2015 and Andre Burakovsky being benched in December of 2016. He even questionably pulled Braden Holtby after the second period in game two for what he thought was subpar goaltending. However, he and his staff let his skaters get away from the system too often in this series. Any deviation from the structure against a disciplined team like the Penguins can lead to a quality scoring chance, and that is what happened at key times in the series. If guys start playing the wrong way, they need to be benched for a shift or two so they get the message.

Johansson, Oshie, and Williams scored a lot of goals in the regular season going to the net. Jojo even won the Toronto series in OT of game six by doing just that. In the Penguins series, we didn’t see enough net presence and it was on the coaches to drill that into the players heads and enforce the strategy of getting pucks deep to set that up.

Again, I wasn’t a fan of the 7/11 configuration because it got the Caps away from the four line forward group that worked so well from late December until mid February. I understand why Brett Connolly was pulled out of the lineup for maybe a game or so to observe, but he also scored 15 goals in the regular season, many of which were tallied via going to the net. With some guys severely banged up and unable to shoot, like Johansson, why wasn’t he put back in for another chance? It was a mistake, in my opinion, to totally give up on a guy who could’ve been a better performer than the guys who were playing hurt. Case in point, Conor Sheary was performing poorly while being nicked up, so Sullivan benched him for games five and six of the Senators series. Yet in a crucial game seven, #43 was back in the lineup and played a major role in the first two Pittsburgh goals.

So did the Caps lose totally because of coaching? No, the coaching wasn’t great, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water here. This coaching staff has done a great job of building this team from the ruins of 2014. The two Presidents’ Trophies are evidence of that. Look at how far Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, and Tom Wilson have come in just a year. Each one of those players was a big part of why the Caps knocked off the Maple Leafs and dominated the possession statistics against the Penguins.

The playoff coaching certainly needed some improvements, but in totality, this is a very good coaching staff. Trotz and company will certainly take their share of the heat for the loss, but the biggest blame for the defeat is on the players themselves. They have to be stronger mentally and physically to do the correct things on the ice.

Let’s start right at the top of the players with Ovechkin. There’s no nice way to put this, it was a subpar season for Ovi and it all began last summer. How you handle off of the ice issues and life changing events is a big part of professional sports and with Alex getting married last summer it clearly impacted his ability to prepare for and play in 2016-17. After scoring 50 goals in 2015-16 and having a super 2016 post season, Alex looked slow and overweight for the large majority of the season. Clearly his conditioning wasn’t where it needed to be and then missing training camp due to the World Cup of Hockey didn’t help either. At age 31 and not in peak shape, the Gr8 lost some speed and that allowed defensemen to play him tighter so that he couldn’t get his shot off quickly at even strength. Ovechkin lived off of the power play in 2016-17 to score goals as he struggled in five on five situations.

In the playoffs, the hit from Nazem Kadri was low and the Russian Machine didn’t break, but it certainly slowed him down further and probably contributed to suffering the hamstring injury, as well. However, had Ovi been in better condition and had his speed from the previous year, it’s quite possible he could have avoided the Kadri hit altogether.

Ovechkin has made great strides under this coaching staff with his back checking ability, something he rarely did prior to the Trotz era. He deserves a lot of credit for that. However, his ability to play in his own zone has regressed. Standing on the left wing boards straight legged with your stick at your hips parallel to the ice is bad defensive posture. He needs to get rid of that and work on being a better player in his own end. If he gets back in peak shape and works at it, there’s no reason he can’t turn proper defensive zone play into several rush goals in 2017-18. Again, it’s a focus on conditioning and hockey.

That gets us to Backstrom. #19 had a very good season, but game seven was nowhere near his best. MacLellan’s goal in adding Eller and Connolly was to improve the bottom six and allow Washington to play a faster game. The thought was that having four lines would allow Coach Trotz to play everyone more evenly so that they could maintain a high pace and be fresher in the postseason. At times, the Capitals were able to do that, but they were not consistent. Ovechkin and Backstrom both played lower average minutes than they had in past regular seasons, by design, and in the end, it was likely the wrong move as both looked tired, at times, in the post season. Nicky, in his twenties, has been able to survive playing with extra weight, but as he moves into his thirties, like Ovechkin, he needs to shed any extra pounds he has to play faster.

When Washington lost to the Penguins in 2015-16, you could not blame either Ovechkin or Backstrom because they dominated Crosby and Malkin in that series. It was the Nick Bonino line that won for the Pens in the spring of 2016. In 2016-17, you can’t say the same thing. Both Crosby and Malkin elevated their games while Ovechkin and Backstrom weren’t as good as they were the previous May. Sure the Caps only received one goal in the series from their bottom six, but they rarely played the fourth line due to the 7/11 strategy.

Crosby is the best player in the game for a reason; he works harder than anyone at his craft. Orpik was quoted recently as saying that #87 is always the first player on the ice and the last player off of it for the Penguins at practice. That needs to be Ovechkin and Backstrom going forward. We’ve heard from other players that both have made strides, especially Nicky, in speaking up in the locker room. Speeches are great, but actions speak louder and doing the proper things on and off of the ice is so much more critical to winning championships. Those two guys are the Capitals leaders and have been the core for 10 years so they must be setting the tempo that everything is hockey first in 2017-18. We should not have to hear from Orpik that the team needs to get focused on hockey, like we did after the disastrous California trip in March. There were several post game players only meetings this season, including one after game two against the Penguins, and while it’s good to clear the air, they aren’t as necessary if everyone is focused on hockey.

Ovechkin and Backstrom are clearly the core of the Capitals and the goaltender is the third critical piece to the triumvirate. Braden Holtby, who has been stellar in past post seasons, had his worst playoffs from a statistics standpoint. Now how much of that is on #70 and how much of it is on the team giving up too many golden chances? I’d lean more on the side of the team breakdowns, but this was not Braden’s spring. This series was likely over in five games if he doesn’t make some big stops early in period three before the Washington three goal explosion that led to a victory and a two game winning streak. In game seven, he had no chance on the winning goal. However, I still didn’t like the Justin Schultz winning tally in game four. If there was a goal he’d want back in the series, I’d bet it would be that one.

On defense, John Carlson played his best hockey of the season against the Penguins, but he did not have a consistent year. He needs to amp his conditioning up so that he can play faster, as well. The standouts of this postseason on the blue line were Orlov and Schmidt and that’s encouraging given where we were just a year ago with both of them. Bringing in Shattenkirk for Zach Sanford and a first round pick seemed like the right move at the time, but in the end, with no Stanley Cup, it’s a lost trade. #22 has enormous potential and talent, but he was slow in the playoffs. Again, I think that might be a conditioning issue, but he didn’t come over until March with Washington. Hindsight is 20/20 and the deal now is another one that weakens the Capitals reach back for young players. Sanford has a lot of promise and first round picks are valuable. I can’t fault Mac for making that move, but coming up Cup empty now makes it an overall organizational defeat.

So where do the Caps go from here? There are calls for firing the coach, trading Ovechkin, or “blowing it up” from many in the fan base and some around the club. Even a couple of players said “major changes” were needed just two days after losing to the Penguins. It’s a natural reaction when a team loses again after being the favorite.

Let’s be honest, this is a team that is largely based on European talent and it hasn’t produced a trip to the Eastern Conference finals yet. This club improved greatly with the additions of North American players Oshie and Williams in the summer of 2015. They are guys who have a high “dog the puck” type of work effort. Both are unrestricted free agents and the team needs more of that style. Word over the Memorial Day weekend is that the Capitals and the Osh Babe have verbally agreed to an extension so that is great news, this team is not a Cup contender without #77 going forward. It would be nice if they could find a way to get Williams back, as well, but that will be tougher given the salary cap situation. Per the Caps great team reporter, Mike Vogel (@VogsCaps), we’ve heard that the salary cap is going to be in the $76 to $77 Million range. That is a big help to Washington, who also have to deal with Burakovsky as a restricted free agent. There are some who think #65 deserves a big pay raise, but given his inconsistent output, I’m not sure Washington can commit to longer term and/or high dollars on him, just yet.

I just don’t see moving Ovechkin or Backstrom as feasible given the likely low return and to be honest, #19’s contract is a great one for the Caps. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who also improved significantly in the post season outside of a poor game seven, is up for a new contract. He’s a restricted free agent, but somewhere around $6M per season seems likely for him. As for Orlov and Schmidt, it’s apparent they’ve moved up big time on the depth chart of this defensive roster and deserve decent longer term contracts. I’m speculating that Orlov will be come in at around $4M and Schmidt in the $2 to $2.5M range. Both play with speed and drive possession, which is so important in today’s NHL. Unfortunately, there will have to be other changes on the blue line. Shattenkirk will get paid big bucks elsewhere and I’d expect the same for Alzner, who really had a rough campaign. King Karl admittedly had a hard time regaining his speed after offseason groin surgery and then he broke his hand in the first playoff tilt against Toronto.  As for Orpik, as much as he’s a strong leader and a fitness freak, which was a big help in starting to turn the culture of this team around in 2014-15, his on ice value compared to his salary cap hit is not equitable anymore. He’s a third pair defenseman and you can’t afford $5.5M annually for that type of player when you want to win a Cup. MacLellan will have to look at either working a deal to move him, getting Vegas to pick him in the expansion draft, or buying him out to clear some needed salary cap space.

If the Caps had players ready to make the leap from Hershey or the college ranks to the NHL, like the Penguins have been blessed with the last two seasons, the overall situation could be better. Perhaps the bottom six will see a player such as Travis Boyd or Riley Barber come up and help out? Jakub Vrana has shown glimpses of being able to handle the NHL, but after his demotion this year he dropped so far off of the map that he was scratched for some games by Bears Coach Troy Mann in the AHL playoffs. Vrana is streaky and inconsistent, much like Burakovsky has been, so do you want to rely on another guy who doesn’t go to the net or high traffic areas consistently to finally help get you past the Pittsburgh problem? Seems awfully risky to me.

Clearly MacLellan has a lot to address in this offseason given the number of contracts that are expiring, NHL expansion to Vegas, and salary cap constraints. He also has a head coach reportedly heading into the last year of his contract. Add in that the two core players on the roster will both be in their thirties in 2017-18 and it’s clear that the GM has a lot to consider when charting the course for next season.

It’s not an easy job and there are very hard decisions to make, but in this case, I think it’s worth staying the course for at least one more year with the head coach and core players. In regards to a coaching change, is there somebody out there better than this head coach and staff worth pursuing? After all, there are several young players who have really improved during the Trotz regime and they’ve won two straight Presidents’ Trophies. They will likely have lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions in the second round yet again (yes, I see the Penguins defeating the Predators in the Stanley Cup Final) and that’s simply a function of the current division and playoff setup. In reality, they are the second best team in hockey, so does making drastic changes make sense? I don’t think so.

Brian, however, has to put pressure on the coaches and players to improve and be in better condition so they can make the playoffs and then deliver next spring. In hindsight, the World Cup of Hockey, which included participation from Coach Trotz and several top players, put the Capitals behind the eight ball from a readiness standpoint heading into 2016-17. The lack of preparation, based on what I’ve seen and heard, is a big reason they weren’t able to knock off the Penguins in the second round, once again.

So it’s incumbent upon Coach Trotz, Ovechkin, Backstrom, and everyone else in line after them to start getting ready for 2017-18 as soon as possible. Ovi, Nicky, and all of the players need to put in the hard work this July, August, and September so that they are in the best condition to play at a maximum pace in April, May, and hopefully June. If they can’t do that over the next 12 months, then certainly it will be time to “blow it up.”

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Burkie Game 6

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Caps Dominate Game Six To Even Up The Series

Posted on 09 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

With their season on the line in a must win game six in Pittsburgh, the Washington Capitals needed their best performance of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and they delivered it. The Caps were relentless for the first 56 minutes building a 5-0 lead en route to a 5-2 victory over the Penguins in Steeltown on Monday night.

This was one heck of an effort by the Caps. The Penguins had a few good early shifts, as expected, but the Capitals withstood the pressure and then started finding their game.

Washington would get the first power play of this tilt, when Jake Guentzel lost his mind and hit Evgeny Kuznetsov (two assists) in the head. The Caps would not score on that man advantage, but they built momentum off of it and kept pushing the play. Early on they had nine of the first 10 shots on goal. Shortly thereafter, with Tom Wilson breaking to the net on a two on one, Sidney Crosby had no choice but to put his stick in Willy’s gloves to prevent a great scoring chance and the Caps were back on the man advantage with 11:56 gone in the opening frame.

The Capitals would not waste this power play and a great feed by Kuznetsov to T.J. Oshie allowed the Osh Babe to bury the biscuit in the slot and give the Caps a very important one goal lead. Kuznetsov then took an undisciplined slashing penalty following that tally, but Washington killed it off and they maintained their one puck edge after 20 minutes. It was a very strong frame for Coach Barry Trotz’ crew as they outshot the Penguins, 11-3.

Second periods have not been kind to the Capitals in this series, but they managed to extend their lead at 6:36 of the middle stanza. Oshie made a great play to bat down a Conor Sheary clear on the right wing boards and when the Penguins tried to wheel the biscuit around the left wing side, Andre Burakovsky hit and stole the puck from Ron Hainsey. #65 then broke in two on one on Marc-Andre Fleury (21 saves) and with the Flower leaning to his left thinking a pass was going to go to the Osh Babe, Burkie beat him short side to give the Capitals a huge two puck lead.

Burakovsky would then take a pretty careless offensive zone hooking penalty on Olli Maatta, he needed to keep his stick down there and just play the body, but his teammates picked him up and killed off the man advantage very easily. The remainder of the middle frame was very tight checking and the Pens mustered six shots on net to just five for Washington.

That set up a critical third period. Would the Capitals be able to hold onto their two goal lead and force a game seven? Nicklas Backstrom gave us a pretty good idea of the answer just 16 seconds in when he took a puck down the left side of the ice and with the Pittsburgh defender going down to block the shot, Nicky rifled it over Fleury’s glove to make it 3-0.

Lars Eller was whistled for holding at 1:34 and the Penguins had a chance to get back in it, but the Capitals penalty killing unit was stellar, once again, allowing only one shot attempt, a 56 footer by Maatta that Braden Holtby (16 saves) stopped cleanly.

Pittsburgh started to get a little frustrated with their lack of offense and that was evident when Bryan Rust crashed into the Holtbeast at 4:31 and headed off for goalie interference. The Caps best chance on their third power play was an Alex Ovechkin wrister from in close, but Fleury came up big.

Washington was smart, though, and didn’t sit back. They knew the Penguins would have to gamble and they were patient with their opportunities. After Matt Cullen and Jay Beagle collided in the neutral zone, Cullen slashed Beags in the gut and that set the Capitals up for their fourth power play of the evening. John Carlson would get two shots on net during the first part of the sequence and they were stopped by #29, but then the third one was the charm. His slapper through traffic beat Fleury to make it 4-0 with 8:43 remaining. Things were looking extremely good for the Caps, and then, just 72 seconds later, Burakovsky made a steal at the defensive zone blue line. Burkie carried the puck down the right wing side, faked Chad Rudwehel, who was making his NHL playoff debut, to the ice and cut to the slot to beat the Penguins keeper rather easily from in tight to the glove side. At that point, the Penguins fans exited the arena en masse.

The Capitals would keep up the heat, but Pittsburgh scored twice in four on four after two Washington giveaways. The Caps let up and those late goals should be a good reminder that they cannot ease off of the throttle on the speedy and highly skilled Penguins for even a moment.

Overall, this was a dominant win by Washington. They were very sound defensively allowing only 18 shots on goal. They controlled the puck, as evidenced by the 51-38 edge in shot attempts. This is the sixth straight game in the series that the Caps have outshot the Penguins and they also outhit them, 38-32.

The move to put Burakovsky with Backstrom and Oshie has paid huge dividends and Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan tried to counter the successful game five move by Coach Trotz by reuniting his HBK line (Carl Hagelin-Nick Bonino-Phil Kessel). It did not work as the Eller, Ovechkin and Wilson line gave them fits all night. Wilson had five hits and Ovechkin added three. The Gr8 only had five shot attempts, but that line wore down the Pens defense, which opened things up for the Backstrom unit. Nicky’s trio was outstanding on Monday night and with the way Kuznetsov and the second line is going, the Caps have three groups of forwards that can score. Add in some great hard working guys in Beagle and Daniel Winnik, who had an under the radar great game, including some super PK work, and Coach Trotz is getting big contributions from his forwards.

On the back end, Matt Niskanen, who had a team leading 23:43 in ice time, and Carlson (22:49) were excellent. #74’s game has been building all playoffs and like last spring, he excels when facing Crosby and company. The Kevin Shattenkirk and Nate Schmidt duo continues to move the puck up the ice quickly, which is a big change from last spring’s series, where the Capitals looked slow and intimidated on the back end. Dmitry Orlov also turned in a solid effort with an assist in 18:06. Karl Alzner and Brooks Orpik were each in the 11 to 12 minutes range in ice time and did well to win defensive zone board battles.

Finally, the Holtbeast was rock solid in net. He didn’t have to face a lot of rubber, but when he had shots he stopped them without allowing any rebounds until the late goal by Evgeni Malkin, who was uncovered. #70 looked calm and collected in the cage.

Washington played assertively and confidently in game six and seems to be wearing down the banged up Penguins.

So now it’s a one game, winner take all affair, in Washington on Wednesday night at 7:30 pm.

The Caps have done well to climb back into this series with some strong efforts, but none of that will matter if they don’t close the deal at the Verizon Center. The Penguins are 3-0 in game seven’s against the Capitals, including 2-0 on Washington’s home ice. This team now has a chance to change the history and do something they haven’t done since 1998, advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

It will take another outstanding effort and require extreme discipline to defeat the defending Stanley Cup Champions, who you know will bring their best to DC.

Bring on Game Seven!

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Ovi Game 5

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Caps Leadership Crew Delivers in Game Five Victory

Posted on 07 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

With one period remaining in game five at the Verizon Center on Saturday night, the Washington Capitals were trailing by a puck and were 20 minutes away from the golf course. To start the third period, the Pittsburgh Penguins won the faceoff and Sidney Crosby, who returned from injury after missing game four, went in on Braden Holtby (20 saves) and threw a strong backhander on #70 that the Holtbeast stopped.

Then the game changed dramatically. The Holtbeast made another big save, this one on Tom Kuhnhackl, and shortly thereafter Nicklas Backstrom carried the puck out of his own zone with some serious speed. As he crossed the offensive blue line he gave the puck to Andre Burakovsky, and Burkie gave it right back to Nicky, who had a step on Carl Hagelin. The Swede would then beat Marc-Andre Fleury (28 saves) just under his glove to the far post to tie the game up just 2:49 into period three.

Just 37 seconds after the goal, Cap killer Nick Bonino had a great chance from the slot, but Holtby made a monstrous save. It was the third huge stop by the Holtbeast early in period three and it seemed to lift the Capitals play.

The game would go back and forth, but things were starting to change for Washington, suddenly they were getting pucks to the net more frequently as they entered the offensive zone. With just over seven minutes gone, the Penguins appeared to have an easy clear, but John Carlson stepped up on Hagelin at the right point and forced a turnover. #74 then got the puck to Evgeny Kuznetsov, who dropped it to Marcus Johansson for a shot from the high slot. Jojo’s attempt, with T.J. Oshie in front, was blocked by Evgeni Malkin, but it caromed right to Evgeny Kuznetsov just above the goal line on the near post and Kuzy snapped it quickly by Fleury short side to give the Caps their first lead of the game. It would be the first time all series that the lead actually changed hands in this battle (h/t Mike Vogel (@VogsCaps)).

As if that wasn’t enough, after a faceoff loss and a Bryan Rust slap shot that was stopped by Holtby, the Caps went the other way on a rush. Nate Schmidt chipped the puck up the left wing boards to Alex Ovechkin and he gave the puck to Lars Eller (two assists). Eller then fed the Gr8 the biscuit at the defensive blue line as Ovi was flying up the rink with speed. Ovechkin was absolutely motoring and that forced Pens defensemen Ron Hainsey to get turned around, which gave Alex a chance to cut inside for a better shooting angle. Ovi fired, but the first shot was blocked by a sliding #65. The rebound, however, would come right on Ovechkin’s stick and he wristed one over Fleury’s glove to make it 4-2.

Wow, two goals in 27 seconds to seize the lead in an elimination game, that’s a big time step up by the Caps!

From there the Capitals kept the hammer down and nearly extended their lead. They would go on to close the game out and force a game six that will be on Monday night in Pittsburgh.

Afterwards Coach Barry Trotz praised his goaltender for the big saves he made and said “it lifted our bench.” He especially pointed out the one on Bonino. Holtby was the biggest reason the Capitals had a chance to rally in this affair. Pittsburgh didn’t have a ton of shots, but the ones they had seemed to be of high quality and #70 was dialed in for his club.

Trotz also had a big game with his tactics. His decision to move Ovechkin with Eller and Wilson while sliding Burakovsky up with Backstrom and Oshie got a lot of guys going. Wilson, who has been super this entire post season, made his presence known early with some huge hits on Penguins defensemen Justin Schultz and Trevor Daley. Willy had four hits overall while Ovi had six and Oshie seven as Washington, who won the shot attempt battle, 66-52, also outnumbered the Penguins in hits, 38-15. Simply put, Coach Trotz’ line shake up, which was intended to get more physicality and scoring opportunities, paid dividends on Saturday night.

On Friday I wrote about the Caps leadership’s inability to bring forth a big effort in a crucial game four with Crosby out of the lineup. On Saturday night, they all delivered. Backstrom had the game tying goal, Ovechkin had the insurance marker, and the Holtbeast stoned the Penguins on several quality scoring chances. That trio, which is the primary core of the team, really came through on Derby Day.

Kuznetsov scored his fourth goal of the series and Burakovksy (1 goal, 1 assist) ended a 10 game goal scoring drought this post season. His tally with 30 seconds left in period one, after great plays by Eller and Kevin Shattenkirk to get him the puck, allowed #65 to break the seal on Fleury.

Schmidt and Shattenkirk played well paired together on the back end as the Caps blue liners were very solid overall.

On the down side, the Capitals power play went 0 for 3 and definitely needs some tweaking. They did get seven shots on net, but there weren’t many “grade A” chances. The Penguins power play is heating up and their second tally of the night was a passing exhibition that led to an easy Phil Kessel marker from the back door. Pittsburgh was one for two with the man advantage. The Caps did a good job of staying out of the box and that will be critical on Monday night in Pittsburgh.

Washington played very well on Saturday and found a way to win by simplifying their game and limiting offensive blue line turnovers. With game six in Pennsylvania on Monday, the Pens have to be feeling really good about their chances of closing the series out. They have been dominant at home and they have their lineup intact with Crosby and Conor Sheary back from injury.

The Caps have their backs against the wall and must maintain focus and pressure the Penguins defense. Both Eller and Holtby talked about Washington being more patient in the offensive zone paying off in game five. Getting shots through is important and the Caps found a way to fire away after the Pittsburgh defenders left their feet and were committed to blocking the shot. They’ll need to do that again in game six if they want to extend their season.

Notes: Hainsey led all skaters with 23:57 in ice time, but Brian Dumolin was right behind him at 23:54. Daley, who is clearly playing hurt, only logged 11:09…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 21:13. Jojo played 20:50 and Oshie logged 20:22 for Washington. Coach Trotz was able to do his best job of the series of spreading ice time around in this tilt. Ovechkin played 17:46 and had eight shot attempts. One went in and another hit the cross bar right before Backstrom tied the game up at two…the Pens creamed the Caps on faceoffs, 34-22. Eller was 6-6…the Penguins were 6-0 in this postseason when leading after two periods (h/t Ben Raby (@BenRaby31))…shots on goal were 32-22 for Washington.

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Jojo Rebound

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10 Thoughts on the Caps As They Head into Game Two

Posted on 28 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals lost game one to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night by a 3-2 count. The Pens lead the second round best of seven series with game two slated for Saturday night at 8 pm at the Verizon Center.

Here are 10 thoughts on this series after 60 minutes of hockey.

1. Before anyone goes jumping off of the ledge, the Caps, who are 1-8 in all time playoff series’ against Pittsburgh, were 8-1 in game one action in those nine previous encounters. So the Penguins have certainly proven that it’s not how you start the series, it’s how you finish it.

2. Speaking of starts, the Capitals did not have a strong start, especially the beginning of the second period where Sidney Crosby scored twice in 64 seconds after terrible turnovers by Washington. As I blogged before this series began, the Pens love to generate chances off of the rush and get odd man breaks. They did that well enough in the first game to overcome an 83-41 Caps advantage in shot attempts. The Capitals were very good for stretches of this contest, but their start was weak and they made too many “big mistakes.”

3. Washington did a great job of containing Crosby in last spring’s playoffs, but along with Marc-Andre Fleury (33 saves), he was the biggest reason it’s 1-0 Penguins. The Capitals cannot afford to turn pucks over carelessly when he’s on the ice and on the second goal, nobody on the Caps finds #87 and covers him. As a result he scored on an easy rebound goal. You simply cannot not know where Crosby is on the ice, so the Capitals must be more attentive to where the best player in the NHL is, at all times!

4. That was one great hit by John Carlson on Evgeni Malkin that led to the Caps first goal by Alex Ovechkin. Carlson is playing the best hockey of his season. He was dynamite last spring and Washington needs him to be dominant on the back end if they are going to win this series. #74 seems to really raise his game against Pittsburgh.

5. Turnovers are certainly something that has plagued the Capitals when they don’t win and game one was no exception. Without Kris Letang on defense, the Pens are not as fast, so Coach Mike Sullivan really has his two defensemen focused on cutting off the middle of the ice at the their own blue line and on back to Fleury. In the series opener, the Caps had their highest success on zone entries carrying the puck wide on the Penguins defense across the blue line. When they tried to cut to the middle too soon, it resulted in turnovers and that opens up Pittsburgh’s massive rush offense. So zone entries wide and carrying the puck deep needs to be the modus operandi going forward.

6. There is a lot of talk in hockey about luck deciding outcomes in a contest, or bad luck, as Washington suffered in game one. Jake Guentzel saved a sure goal by T.J. Oshie in the crease in period one and there were pucks around Fleury all night that the Capitals just couldn’t get to and bury. Fleury was good, but he was also fortunate. Washington just needs to keep doing what they are doing with pucks and bodies to the cage and it will pay off. They don’t need to get frustrated and change the game plan. Getting pucks deep on the Pittsburgh defense is so important.

7. After the Capitals called timeout with 26 seconds remaining with the Holtbeast pulled, Ovechkin found himself at the point and Kevin Shattenkirk was in the “Ovi spot” in the left wing circle. The Gr8 passed the puck to #22, but he missed the net on a great look. The Penguins had to be very happy to have Shattenkirk shooting from there instead of Ovechkin. I’m not sure if that configuration was planned coming out of the timeout or not, but it would seem that going forward that the Capitals coaching staff needs to find a way to get the Gr8 more of the critical looks? Alex only had eight shot attempts in game one and just three of them made it on net.

8. Given the intensity of game one and Washington’s domination in terms of puck possession, it was pretty upsetting to see the only two power plays go to Pittsburgh. Surely zebras Dan O’Halloran and Kevin Pollock could’ve called at least one infraction on the Pens, who were masters of the clutch, grab, and hold in this modern day style of game? It sure looked like there was delay of game on Bryan Rust in the slot on that loose puck late in the third period. I also didn’t like either call on the Caps, especially the late third period slashing penalty on Matt Niskanen when he was just going for the rebound of a loose puck off of Fleury’s pads. There were a lot of rebounds allowed by Fleury in this tilt and that play happens hundreds of times during games in the regular season and playoffs with a penalty very rarely called. The fact that it came at that point in the game and it was on Washington sure is fishy. Coach Barry Trotz labeled it “a pretty light call” afterwards, especially given everything else that was let go during the contest. Be better and more consistent zebras (although I’ve long given up on the arrogant O’Halloran)!

9. The Caps are at their best when they press the play on the Penguins and force their defense to have to make plays and work. Unfortunately, that strategy sometimes opens the Capitals up to the possibility of the Pens getting some quick offense on a stretch pass, if Washington does not stay structured. Somehow Pittsburgh was able to connect on one in the last 10 minutes to win the game. That cannot happen going forward. There were several mistakes made on that play by Washington. Shattenkirk needs to keep Scott Wilson wide at the defensive blue line and prevent a cross ice pass while Brooks Orpik was too far to his left and up the ice, and Nick Bonino exploited the gap with his superior speed. The Caps forwards also need to make sure someone is in position to stop that long pass or at least ensure that they are with any opposing forwards charging up the ice. As Coach Trotz said afterwards, all three Penguins goals were very preventable.

10. With the Capitals having lost the last six games they’ve played in Pittsburgh, it is imperative that Washington plays their best game on Saturday night to even this series up. It won’t be easy, but if they minimize their mistakes and bring the effort they brought the last 25 plus minutes of game one (they had the puck way more and also out hit the Penguins, 41-17), then they should be in good shape.

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Jojo SWG

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Johansson’s OT Tally Wins the Series for the Caps

Posted on 24 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

It took six close games, five of them decided in overtime, for the Washington Capitals to finally extinguish the Toronto Maple Leafs with Marcus Johansson tallying his second goal of the night to give the Caps a 2-1 victory 6:31 into the extra session. The Caps will now move on to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in round two, starting on Thursday night at the Verizon Center, in what is a rematch of last spring’s second round battle.

Like game five, this was another tight defensive battle with strong goaltending. Neither team scored through 40 minutes, with the Leafs owning the lead in the shot attempt totals, at 47-38, but the Caps had the better of the scoring chances, especially their second line.

In the third period, it was anyone’s game, but Washington started to take over with their depth. The Capitals had several good scoring chances, but then a weird bounce and a missed defensive assignment cost them the first goal.

Morgan Reilly dumped the puck in to the Caps end and it took a crazy carom off of the glass into the slot. Auston Matthews, who is already a star in this league at age 19, jumped on the puck and went in alone on Braden Holtby (37 saves). The kid from the desert went top shelf on the Holtbeast to make it 1-0 just 7:45 into the final frame. It was a fortuitous break for Toronto, but the goal was preventable. Had Evgeny Kuznetsov kept skating instead of gliding at the Caps defesnsive blue line, he could have beaten Matthews to the puck. It’s a good lesson for #92 and the whole team to learn in the playoffs – a single missed stride can cost your team a goal.

In the past, the Matthews tally might have devastated the Caps bench, but not this year. No, this team amped their game up and started taking the play to the Maple Leafs and just over five minutes after #34 had all of Yonge Street thinking there was going to be a game seven, the Caps tied it up.

Lars Eller made a strong offensive zone entry on the left wing boards and he fed a streaking Johansson in the slot. Marcus pushed the puck ahead to escape the Leaf defender and then he pinballed one in off of Frederik Andersen (34 saves) into the net with just 7:09 remaining. It was a monstrous tally and it came because the Capitals started to push the play.

Washington would continue to do that and then in the overtime, they took their game to 11.

The Caps had no thoughts of sitting back on Coach Mike Babcock’s squad and they thoroughly outworked and dominated a young Leafs team in the overtime. They had several scoring chances, Comcast’s Alan May had it 7 to 1, with Jojo getting his second of the night and the series winner on a play where he simply did what he had done all season long to score a career high in goals (24), he went to the front of the net.

A Leafs icing forced Babcock to leave a tired crew on the ice, which included game one goat, Martin Marincin, as well as his fourth line (Kasperi Kapanen-Brian Boyle-Matt Martin). Coach Barry Trotz took his third line off and inserted Johansson, Kuznetsov, and Mr. Clutch, Justin Williams. Kuznetsov, who like many other Caps centers struggled on draws all game, won a huge face off against Boyle. When Stick received the puck from John Carlson on the right wing half wall, he smartly fired it on net. Jojo was parked in the slot above the paint and he appeared to tip the initial shot into Andersen’s pads and then fought off Marincin to bury the game and series clincher.

Wow, what a game and what a performance by the Caps once they were down, 1-0! They pushed the play and looked like the team that won the Presidents’ Trophy this season. It’s the way they’ll need to play in the second round if they want to defeat the defending Stanley Cup Champions.

Winning the first round is always the toughest; ask any hockey player, coach or executive and they’ll back me up. It was even harder for Washington because everyone picked them to win quickly and the Leafs had nothing to lose. Simply put, there was a TON OF PRESSURE on the Capitals to win this series and move on to face the Penguins for the rematch from last spring.

As Coach Barry Trotz told me, Nestor Aparacio, and the great crowd at Greenmount Station back on March 20th, every series takes a piece out of you. Toronto took some pieces out of the Caps. Karl Alzner didn’t play after game two due to an upper body injury, Nazem Kadri put a cheap shot on Alex Ovechkin and knocked Ovi out for two plus minutes of game five (but the Russian Machine Never Breaks), and Leo Komarov put a dirty hit on Nate Schmidt late in game six (but the 88 car also returned to play four shifts after the hit, including being on the ice for the game winner).

Luckily the Gr8 and Schmidt, plus T.J. Oshie, who I could see mouth “I’m all right” to Caps trainer Greg “Smitty” Smith after blocking a shot right before the winning goal, should be ready for Thursday night’s game one against the Penguins at the Verizon Center. The Leafs may have taken some pieces out of the Caps, that’s still to be determined how much, but in my book, Washington was able to ramp their game up to a tempo they’ll need to be at against Pittsburgh. I’m not sure they get to that pace level in a series against the Bruins or Ottawa. So I’m still glad the Capitals faced the Leafs. It was a very hard series, but they overcame an inordinate amount of pressure and persevered.

Anyways, the Penguins series should be one heck of a rematch. The Caps have waited a whole year for it, but we’ll talk more about it as the week progresses, but let’s hope there’s a Rocky 2 type of ending this spring.

Notes: Final shot attempts were 70-67, for Washington. It was all Caps after the Leafs marker…Ovechkin had 12 shot attempts, including seven on goal, in 22:45…the Caps lost the face off battle, 39-22, but they won some key ones, including right before the series winning tally. Kuznetsov was 6-8 (best Caps percentage)…Oshie had another strong game with five shots on goal in 19:35…the Caps were shorthanded for just 22 seconds and they had 2:22 of power play time…the Holtbeast was outstanding in this tilt, which included a huge save on Komarov, who was all alone after he took his run at Schmidt and #88 limped to the bench…Dmitry Orlov led the Caps in ice time with 25:38 and his partner, Matt Niskanen, logged 25:15. They played the hard minutes and that allowed Carlson and Schmidt to help the Capitals drive the play when they were on the ice…the Caps won the last three games of this series, which came after Coach Trotz tweaked his forward lines right before game four (bumped Tom Wilson up to the third line).

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Caps Top Line & Wilson Deliver a Game 4 Victory

Posted on 19 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

With their backs nearly up against the wall, the Washington Capitals came out in game four on Wednesday night with their best period of hockey of the post season to take a 4-1 lead after 20 minutes. Then they did what was necessary to win, 5-4, to even up this best of seven series with the young and pesky Toronto Maple Leafs at two games apiece. Game five is Friday night at the Verizon Center.

Like they did in game three, the Caps really came out flying and once again it was the top line leading the charge. Washington did a great job at getting pucks deep and to the net early and often. That led to an offensive zone faceoff and they cashed in with a T.J. Oshie tally at 2:58. Nicklas Backstrom fed the Osh Babe for a goal into a wide open cage after a smart point shot from Nate Schmidt came off of the backboards to #19, who won a battle in front.

On the faceoff right after the goal, Evgeny Kuznetsov had a partial breakaway and he just barely missed making it 2-0. But the third line, which saw Tom Wilson get added to it for this tilt, kept up the heat and Lars Eller drew a high stick on Toronto. The Caps power play then scored in just 36 seconds with Alex Ovechkin notching his 3rd goal in four games on a rocket of a shot. Backstrom forced a turnover on the right wing wall that ended up with Kevin Shattenkirk and Shatty set up the Gr8 perfectly for the one timer just 4:34 into this one to make it 2-0.

The prosperity didn’t last too long as Zach Hyman scored on a deflection in front at 5:16 and a track meet appeared to be on. With just over 13 minutes gone, the Leafs were pressuring and a shot trickled through Holtby and was rolling on edge heading for the goal line when Willy stretched out and knocked it away from the net, under Holtby and out of the crease. That was a major turning point because the Capitals Eller immediately got the puck from Dmitry Orlov thereafter and skated down the right wing boards. #20 then circled behind the net and when he got into the left wing circle he fired it on the cage. “Johnny on the spot” was #43 to the side of the goal and he deflected the puck home to make it 3-1.

Wilson would then add another huge tally on a two on one rush to make it 4-1 at 16:04. Brooks Orpik lifted a great high clear over the heavy Leafs forecheck to Andre Burakovsky and he gave Willy a great pass. Tom then looked like a 30 goal scorer the way he quickly elevated the biscuit over Frederik Andersen’s left pad and into the cage.

In the middle frame, the Leafs cut the margin to 4-2 on another deflected shot on a power play. Backstrom took a holding call and James Van Riemsdyk lasered one off of Orlov’s stick and past Holtby. From there the Capitals played a strong second period and appeared to be headed to period three with a safe 4-2 lead. They would maintain that two goal advantage, but Eller and Orpik both took undisciplined penalties within three seconds of each other and so the deadly Leafs power play would have 1:55 of two man advantage time to start the final frame.

The Caps managed to kill them both, thanks to some great goaltending by the Holtbeast and super individual battle victories by several players, including Matt Niskanen and John Carlson. Washington continued to press the attack after that and appeared to take a 5-2 lead at 8:11 on a Schmidt tally. Ovechkin was cross checked in front setting a screen while Jake Gardiner was tied up with Backstrom at the side of the net, outside of the crease. Andersen initiated contact with #19 with his glove and then Gardiner hit his own goalie in the head with his stick. Gardiner tried to take Backstrom into the crease, but Nicky put his arms straight up when shoved by #51 and Andersen moved to his right. The shot came in and went top corner, but bad zebra Chris Lee immediately waved it off for goalie interference. The Caps challenged and they still didn’t give Washington what should’ve been a goal, but that’s what happens when the inmates run the asylum and get to review the call themselves. It was pure rubbish and should’ve been a 5-2 game, at that point. It’s spin the wheel these days on goalie interference calls because there is NO consistency to the rulings.

That non goal would be a little costly as Auston Matthews then scored in front on the rebound off of a point shot that hit traffic on the way in and confused Holtby.  That marker came with eight minutes left and suddenly the Air Canada Centre was hopping. However, the Caps responded just 59 seconds later to restore a two puck lead.

Burakovsky carried the disc into the offensive zone and instead of getting it deep, mistakenly he turned into the middle just inside the blueline. The Leafs then knocked it away from him, but it bounced right to Backstrom, who was in stellar puck support position. Oshie alertly kept going towards the net on the play and #19 fed him the rubber. The Osh Babe buried it to make it 5-3.

Pay the Man!

Washington mostly played well from there on out, although they iced the puck a few too many times for my liking. One of those allowed the Leafs to cut it to 5-4 on a Tyler Bozak tally from the paint with 26 seconds left. Toronto got one more chance, then the horn sounded, and it’s now back to home ice for the Caps.

Whew, what a game!

The Caps rode their top guys in this one and they delivered. The Ovechkin-Backstrom-Oshie line was downright dominant and the newly formed third line of Burakovsky-Eller-Wilson performed exceptionally, as well. Wilson (2 goals in 13:40) was just outstanding and he is playing the best hockey of his career against his home town team.

Toronto continues to do a great job of getting bodies and pucks to the net and they are getting good bounces. Washington did more of that in this one, too, and it paid off. Overall, the Capitals won the majority of the battles for 40 minutes and then the Leafs desperation took over in the final frame, at times.

The Capitals still need to be better in their breakouts when the Leafs are forechecking hard and the high lifter out of the zone is not a bad option (see the Caps fourth goal). Toronto has been doing that effectively, as well, in this very close series.

Owning the big moments has been a theme for Coach Barry Trotz and after not doing that with a 3-1 lead and a five on three power play in game three, they got some retribution by killing off the Leafs five on three to start period three. It was a huge shorthanded effort and it was done without some of their best PK guys. Orpik and Eller were in the box and Karl Alzner missed his second straight contest with an upper body injury.

After playing just over 15 minutes in game three, Coach Trotz said he needed to get Ovi more ice time in game four. The Gr8 logged 16:31, with only 36 seconds of it on the power play. There were a couple of times when the coach put the top line back out quickly after a previous shift, especially when the draw was in the offensive zone. That line is really going and I’d still like to see them play more because Toronto has no answer for them and that’s when the Capitals are dominating the game. It was Ovechkin’s line that had some of the few third period chances and they had the goal that should’ve made it 5-2. The best defense is a good offense, especially in this series, and it doesn’t appear that Toronto has an answer for Ovechkin and his linemates. So it’s imperative that the Capitals not sit those guys and sit back with a lead going forward.

Now, let’s discuss those guys in stripes. It was not a good night for them. In addition to fabricating the goalie interference call, they repeatedly let numerous Toronto holds and trips go throughout the tilt. Leo Komarov blatantly held Backstrom’s stick with the net empty late and it wasn’t called (yet Nicky was jailed for the same thing in period two). Outside of the no goal call, my biggest beef, though, is the way Coach Mike Babcock is just using the spineless zebras to gain more time for his club on icings by purposely putting the wrong players on the ice. He did this very effectively in overtime in game two, as well. From here on out in the series, if the Leafs don’t keep the right guys on the ice after an icing, it should be an automatic delay of game call against the Toronto bench. It’s a joke the way Babcock has been daring the referees to call him for doing that and they’ve backed down like chickens.

At the end of the night, the Caps played a strong game and won. They brought their best game of the series and can still improve on their performance. Toronto presses on all fronts and the Capitals have to make sure they are smart all 60 minutes by making quick and crisp breakouts and putting pucks and bodies to the net, like the Leafs are doing when they are in the Washington end.

After three games, Matthews said that the Leafs wanted it more and that’s why they were winning the series. Washington, however, showed their will in game four and grabbed back home ice advantage.

This is now a best of three affair.

Notes: Carlson was +3 in 21:49 of ice time and played his best game since his late season injury…Trotz rode Niskanen (25:38) and Orlov (23:31) on the back end. Shattenkirk (1 assist) only played 12:54. He took a hard hit in period three and seemed to be in some discomfort…the Caps were 1 for 1 on the power play while the Leafs went 1 for 4 in 5:08 of advantage time…shot attempts were 67-56 for Toronto. All of that margin, and then some, came after it was 4-1…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 32-29…the Leafs had 29 giveaways to the Caps nine. I’m not sure that stat is totally accurate (the Caps number seems low), but Washington did force a ton of first period turnovers with their strong forecheck and pressure…Gardiner played 25:38 for Toronto to lead their squad in time on ice.

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Caps Blank Rangers to Clinch Presidents’ Trophy

Posted on 05 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Playing their sixth game in nine nights and less than 24 hours after a huge victory in Toronto on Tuesday night, the Washington Capitals came home to the Verizon Center to take on a resting, but limited New York Rangers squad on Wednesday night. The Caps needed just a single point to clinch their second straight Presidents’ Trophy, and they overachieved defeating the Rags, 2-0, behind goals from Justin Williams and Evgeny Kuznetsov along with 24 saves from Braden Holtby.

The victory improves the Caps to 54-18-8 (116 points) and renders their last two regular season games, at Boston on Saturday afternoon (3 pm) and home against Florida on Sunday night (7 pm), as meaningless. All that is left to decide now is who Washington will face in the first round next week. It could be Boston, Ottawa, Toronto, Tampa, or the New York Islanders, with those last two clubs having a very slim chance of making the postseason. If you ask me who I’d prefer to face, I’ll give you the same answer I’ve provided to Nestor Aparacio on air on WNST for a couple of months now – the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s a good matchup for the Caps against a young team that is fast, but not physical, and likely just thrilled to go from last in the league to qualifying for the playoffs in a single year. The team I’d least like to face is Boston. They are hot, experienced and physical. You aren’t allowed to tank games, but if I’m the Capitals, I find a way to lose on Saturday to ensure that the Bruins aren’t Washington’s first round opponent.

Whoever it is, though, Washington will have to play well to advance. The first round is the hardest to win. Following Wednesday’s victory, NBC analyst Keith Jones stated that the Caps have no holes in their lineup, but he still picks the defending champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins, to repeat. As for his studio partner, Mike Milbury, well the man who is never shy to say what he feels says this is the Capitals year, that they shouldn’t be afraid of anyone, and they should act like it.

But words are just that so Washington, which leads the NHL in goals against, will have to play solid defensively like they’ve done in their last three games (allowed three goals in three games) to advance in the playoffs. There have not been many odd man rushes allowed in the two most recent wins and the Caps have really stayed tight in their own end and prevented the opposition from getting quality scoring chances in the paint. In addition, their gap control between the forwards and defensemen has been the best it’s been since the bye week, and that is very important because Coach Barry Trotz wants his defensemen up in the play and joining the rush. Structure is so important, especially with the talent the Capitals have on their roster.

On Wednesday night, after a shaky first period where they were sloppy and had far too many offensive blue line turnovers, the Caps played very structured and really throttled the Rangers with a strong neutral zone over the last 40 minutes. Time after time New York would get the puck out and just run into a wall of Caps, who would gather in the biscuit and put it back in the Rangers end. It was textbook hockey, especially after Williams deflected home an Alex Ovechkin shot in period two to give the Capitals a one goal lead. That tally was on the power play and Kuznetsov made a great pass to the Gr8, who took his time to shoot the puck. The disc first hit the glove of Rangers defensemen Kevin Klein, who created a nice screen on Henrik Lundqvist (23 saves), and then Williams’ leg to ramp up and over the King’s left pad. Initially the tally was credited to Ovi, but later changed to “Mr. Hair.”

The Caps led 1-0 after two frames and then in that final period they extended their lead. Brooks Orpik went down and painfully blocked a Rangers shot and the Capitals went the other way. Williams fed Marcus Johansson on the right wing and as Jojo carried the puck across the offensive blue line, Kuzy broke away from the defense and #90 saucered a beauty of a pass to #92 and he went in alone on King Henrik and beat him like a rented mule at 5:42 of the final stanza. Washington would lock it down from there with great forechecking and a suffocating neutral zone. The Holtbeast didn’t have to make many tough saves over the last 40 minutes, but he was super solid in earning his ninth shutout of the campaign.

New York was playing without Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh, and Mats Zuccarello, but the Caps were once again without John Carlson. With both teams pretty much knowing where their seeding was going to be for the playoffs, there wasn’t a whole ton of intensity to this affair. But the Capitals had something to play for and they got the job done to lock up some more prestigious hardware for the second straight season.

AND THE CAPS HAVE WON THE FEDERAL LEAGUE!!!

Every man in that Caps locker room will tell you, however, that the Presidents’ Trophy is nice, hey it’s real and it’s spectacular, but it’s not the trophy they really want.

Notes: Kevin Shattenkirk, when interviewed afterwards on NBC, told Pierre McGuire that the one thing he didn’t know about the Caps players from the outside prior to his trade to DC was “the hunger” they have for winning it all this season…the Caps were 1 for 4 on the power play in just 3:40 of man advantage time. The Rangers didn’t have a power play since the Capitals were outskating them and possessing the puck most of the time…final shot attempts were 52-45 for Washington. Shots on goal were 25-24 for the Caps…Matt Niskanen led the Capitals in ice time with 22:56 and each Washington skater logged at least 10 minutes…Orpik, who eats rocks for breakfast, and Williams, led the Capitals in shots on goal with four each.

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