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Caps Keys to A Game 4 Win in Pittsburgh

Posted on 07 May 2009 by Ed Frankovic

It is hard to believe that as much as the Pittsburgh Penguins outplayed the Washington Capitals in game three on Wednesday night that the Caps might have won the game in overtime had the puck not rolled off of Alexander Ovechkin’s stick when he was in prime scoring position during the extra session. That is how close Washington came to having a commanding three games to none lead in this best of seven series. The only reason the Caps were in that position was because of 21 year old goalie Simeon Varlamov, who was superb. The Caps now only lead by one in this series with game four Friday night in Pittsburgh at the Igloo (Note: Please join WNST at Silver Spring Mining Company in Hunt Valley for the “Rock the Red” Caps-Penguins Game 4 on Friday night at 7 p.m.).

Here are my keys to a Washington victory on Friday night:

1. MOVE YOUR FEET BOYS! – The biggest problem the Caps had on Wednesday was they simply did not skate the way they usually do. I’m not sure if they were suffering from a lack of energy or were tired but after the first 10 minutes this did not look like the hard charging Caps team that dominated the Penguins during the regular season. Since Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau took over this team on Thanksgiving Day of 2007, this has been a high energy, pressure the puck, and fast skating club. That team was not on display on Wednesday. The Caps need to get back to skating hard and playing with confidence.

2. GET THE PUCK DEEP! – Washington needs to play a simple game and get the puck deep in Pittsburgh’s end. The Caps forwards are very strong on the boards and they play well when they have the puck behind the opposing team’s goal line. On Wednesday the dump-ins were terrible and there were too many neutral zone or early in the offensive zone turnovers (typically from cross ice passes). The Penguins defense is not that good and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is weak handling the puck so the Caps have to get the puck in, skate hard to get it, and get their cycle game going to generate scoring opportunities. Getting the puck deep includes dumping it behind the net by the defensemen when the shooting lanes are blocked or they can’t get a hard shot off. Had Tom Poti dumped the puck behind the Penguin net the in overtime that game winning Penguin face-off play does not happen. Poti also failed to get it deep on the first Penguin goal, which led to an odd-man rush for the Penguins (Ruslan Fedotenko scored on that play).

3. BETTER BREAKOUTS! – The Caps routinely panicked with the puck or threw it up the boards in their own zone on Wednesday. Gone were the typical crisp breakout passes we’ve routinely seen from a fairly mobile defense. The defensemen need to get their feet moving and not fear a Penguin hit. The forwards need to do a better job of being in position on the boards and fighting to get pucks out of the Washington zone. I wouldn’t mind seeing Karl Alzner, who is a very good puck moving defensemen, get a look in game four. Alzner is a very good skater and is smart with the puck. Tyler Sloan was good in game two playing a simple game but just chipping it up the boards isn’t going to work in Pittsburgh. When the puck is moved by a Washington defensemen it needs to be put in a position for the Caps forwards to go into their strong transition game. The Caps had little to no transition game after the first 10 minutes on Wednesday.

4. GET SHOTS ON NET! – Ovechkin and Alexander Semin had chances where they were unable to get shots off, for whatever reason, on Wednesday. The Caps need to shoot the puck on Fleury, who tends to give up rebounds, and go to the net. Remember what happened in game one when Matt Bradley shot the puck on net and it went up the slot to a charging Dave Steckel for a tap in goal or when Sloan fired from the point through traffic and it bounced right to Steckel in game two for an easy goal? Those are the kind of grind it out, playoff type of goals a team needs in the post season. Brooks Laich, Viktor Kozlov, Chris Clark, and Tomas Fleischmann (and Keith Aucoin if he is recalled from Hershey) all need to pay a price and go strong to the cage. Ovechkin and Semin also need to quit trying to beat the Penguins one on one all of the time. A good, hard, low shot is one that can generate rebounds so the Caps forwards need to do that and then crash the net.

5. STAY OUT OF THE BOX! – The Penguins have 17 power plays to just 9 for the Caps so far in this series. I haven’t been thrilled with some of the calls from the officials, and apparently neither has Boudreau or GM George McPhee. But some of Washington’s penalty’s have been of the retalitory variety so discipline is key on Friday.  The Caps penalty killing has been good but when you give Sydney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Sergei Gonchar seven opportunities in a game they will score at least once.

6. ALLOW VARLY TO SEE THE PUCK! – Varlamov has stopped 106 of 114 shots in this series so far (93%). When Varly sees the puck he routinely stops it so the Washington players need to keep the front of the net clear. All three Penguins goals on Wednesday were the result of screens or deflections (the first goal being on a deflected pass). Crosby’s three goals in game two were all in close too. The referees also need to crack down on some of the crease crashing going on by Pittsburgh.

7. SLOW DOWN GENO! – Malkin was the best skater on the ice on Wednesday. #71 had too much room and was able to generate lots of speed in the neutral zone that allowed him to draw penalties and create opportunities. Boudreau needs to adjust Washington’s neutral zone defense so that the back pass to a charging Penguin is negated. Best way to do this is keep Pittsburgh hemmed up in its own zone. The Caps need to get a strong forecheck going, something they did not have on Wednesday. If the Caps can slow down Malkin they have a good chance to win game four.

8. CONTINUE HOT POWER PLAY! – The Caps are 3 for 9 on the power play in this series, a very good 33% success rate. When Washington gets a man advantage they need to continue to cash in. It would be nice to see Mike Green finally score a goal in this series to get his confidence back up. The Caps need to continue to get traffic in front of Fleury on the man advantage.

Well there you have it, eight keys for the Caps in game four, and speaking of that number, the Great #8 needs to come up big for Washington on Friday as he did in game two. A win and Washington takes a commanding lead in this series but if they lose it becomes anyone’s series on game five on Saturday night at the Verizon Center.

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Pens Get Back in Series with OT Win

Posted on 06 May 2009 by Ed Frankovic

The Pittsburgh Penguins totally outplayed the Washington Capitals on Wednesday in game three, outshooting  the Caps, 42-23, but because of Simeon Varlamov and a late power play goal by Nicklas Backstrom, his first of the playoffs, this game went to overtime tied 2-2. But after Tom Poti made a bad decision to try and shoot the puck instead of dumping it in behind the Pens net, the Penguins were able to get an offensive zone face-off and when the Caps lost it clean (Sydney Crosby beat Dave Steckel), the puck went back to Kris Letang who fired it on net and it hit Shaone Morrisonn and deflected by Varlamov for a 3-2 win at 11:23 of OT. Game four is Friday night in Pittsburgh with Washington up two games to one in this best of seven series.

The Caps played a better first period tonight and Alexander Ovechkin scored his 8th goal of the playoffs into a vacated net just 1:23 in to the game as a result of a fluky bounce behind the Pens net. Shortly thereafter, Nicklas Backstrom nearly made it 2-0 when he had a great wraparound try but instead of putting his shoulder down and taking that extra half of a stride to get in front for the layup he tried to put the puck in from a bad angle and it went through the crease and wide. The first period was even at eight shots a piece but as things went on Pittsburgh started to dominate.

Pittsburgh would carry the play and shots, 15-4, in the second period as their pressure on Washington was relentless. The Caps could not break the Penguins forecheck and when they got to neutral ice they did not play smart by dumping the puck deep. The Pens tied the game at one midway through period two when Poti pinched at the Caps blue line and Backstrom got caught out of position giving the Penguins a two one break on Milan Jurcina. When Jurcina went down to cut off the pass the puck bounced right back on Ruslan Fedotenko’s stick and he shot it by Varlamov, who was sliding to his right in anticipation of a pass.The Penguins had two power plays in the middle period but Varlamov and some good penalty killing kept this game tied.

In the third period the Caps were a little better but Evgeni Malkin, who was really flying tonight, started to take over and he went through Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Alexander Semin before #28 hooked him to give the Penguins their sixth straight power play of the night. When you play with fire, you usually get burned and Malkin fired a great shot top shelf on a screened Varlamov to give the Pens a 2-1 lead with just 4:59 left. But credit the Caps for not quitting and when Pascal Dupuis was called for interference with 2:28 left the powerful Washington power play got their second chance of the night with Backstrom delivering as he banked it off of Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (21 saves). That sent the game into overtime where Pittsburgh prevailed and Fleury is now 4-0 in overtime games.

Here are my thoughts and analysis on this one:

Pittsburgh absolutely had to have this game and they sure played like it. Varlamov was great tonight and he was the only reason the Caps had a chance. The Penguins did a superb job of coming into Washington’s zone with speed as they were keeping a forward back, typically Malkin when it was his shift, and when the Caps pressured the Pens defense at the red line they would pass the puck back to #71, who then came through the neutral zone like a locomotive. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau will have to make some tactical adjustments to interrupt this very effective Pittsburgh method of breaking Washington’s neutral zone defense.

The Caps could not match Pittsburgh’s desire tonight, plain and simple. Ovechkin, Fedorov, and Viktor Kozlov were the only effective ones for the first half of the game but when Fedorov took what looked to be a butt end to the ribs from Hal Gill and missed the rest of the period, Boudreau had to adjust his lines. At that point Bruce went with Semin, Backstrom, and Ovechkin and they had some good shifts and others where they were not positionally sound (especially on the shift where Malkin went through all of them and drew a penalty).

Fedorov did return for the third period but he did not look as strong or effective as he had been before the injury. Kozlov had some good shifts.

If I am the Caps, I am calling up forward Keith Aucoin from Hershey for game four because Michael Nylander was terrible tonight in his 7:27 of ice time. Nylander looked lost out there and seemed to be afraid of being hit. Chris Clark, once again, was not very good and he only saw 6:35 of ice time. Boudreau is basically playing with only 10 forwards with those two struggling and it showed as the other Caps got worn out against the Pittsburgh assault.

Probably the best part of Washington’s game tonight was their penalty killing as they held Pittsburgh to 1 for 7, including a two minute power play in overtime when Brian Pothier put the puck over the glass for a delay of game. Varlamov was the primary reason the penalty kill was effective but Steckel, Boyd Gordon, Brooks Laich, and the Caps defensemen did a good job.

Mike Green had an assist tonight on Ovechkin’s goal but he did not factor in offensively, primarily because the Caps could not get the puck into the Pittsburgh end. He also had some chances where the puck rolled off of his stick. Ovechkin also tried to go one-on-one quite a bit but Rob Scuderi and Gill did a good job on him. Boudreau was not getting the matchups he wanted since Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma had the last change. In Washington, Boudreau tried to put the Great #8 against Sergei Gonchar when the opportunity presented itself.

This Penguins domination tonight was just a carry over from alot of what we saw in game two. The Caps escaped in that one but if they don’t start skating and playing smarter they will not win another game in this series. The Penguins are winning the one-on-one battles right now.

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Ovechkin Hat Trick, Varlamov Goaltending Power Caps to 2-0 Series Lead

Posted on 05 May 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin stepped up big time tonight and carried the Washington Capitals when they needed it most, scoring two goals, two and a half minutes apart late in the third period to give the Caps a 4-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins and take a two games to none lead in this best of seven game series. The Great #8 also tallied in the second period and recorded his first ever playoff hat trick. Sidney Crosby also notched a hat trick and he almost single handily won the game for his Pens, if not for Ovechkin’s scoring outburst. Game 3 is Wednesday night at 7pm in Pittsburgh. Don’t forget to come out to WNST’s Rock the Red party with Nestor Aparacio at the Silver Spring Mining Company on Belair Road in Perry Hall this Wednesday.

The other differences for the Caps in the game tonight were the great goaltending of Simeon Varlamov (33 saves) and a big goal once again from Dave Steckel, his second in as many games in this series. Varlamov made the big save when the Caps needed it several times on Monday, especially when they trailed 1-0 and then 2-1.

“It’s his fourteenth game. I mean, he competes really hard and he doesn’t get down if a goal goes in against him which is really good. I think he can let it go, so far anyway from what I’ve seen. So that’s a good sign,” said Boudreau of his rookie goalie, who set a Capitals franchise record for consecutive playoff wins by a goalie on Monday night (five games).

The Caps had another bad start as Pittsburgh dominated the first five minutes and took a 1-0 lead at 6:38 on Crosby’s power play goal. In addition, the Penguins carried the play for most of the night, primarily because they were winning most of the one on one battles and they were doing a much better job of dumping the puck into Washington’s end and forechecking. Washington still has a tough time getting the puck deep so far in this series. I asked Ovechkin, who after game one said the team needed to minimize their giveaways and play better, how he would assess tonight’s effort.

“Again we start bad. We take two bad penalties. Sasha [Alex Semin] take bad penalty and they score goal. After 1st period we talk about playing simple. If you remember the game against the Rangers, Avery hit [John Erskine] in the face and Erskie just forget it and we get power play. So we need to do the same job and get back to how we played against the Rangers. We have to be ourselves and not be selfish,” said Ovechkin, who now has seven goals and four assist in nine playoff games this post season.

For the fans and the tv network (Versus), this was a great game to watch as it had two superstars going at each other in a game that had alot of end to end flow.

“I think it is great for our sport. When you build the hype of superstars playing against one another and then the superstars play like superstars, it is a neat thing. It is fun to talk about that,” said Boudreau on the performances of Ovechkin and Crosby.

“I think it’s good for fans to see great players play against each other and two great teams play against each other. It’s unbelievable when we play against great players and you win the game like this. The whole team fought. It’s not about me and him, it’s all about the whole team,” added Ovechkin.

The one bad thing in this game tonight was the officiating and in the first period alone I thought the referees became too much of the show making some bad calls on both teams. I did not think that Jordan Staal’s hit warranted a charging penalty and I also thought Kris Letang got the puck before taking out Steckel’s feet on his near breakaway. On the flip side, the tripping penalty on Mike Green, that gave the Pens a five on three, was just terrible as Bill Guerin fell down on his own. Also, the Semin-Brooks Orpik scrum sure looked like a typical even it up situation, something Boudreau confirmed afterwards.

“I thought they were getting the initial penalty, that is why I got upset. When I looked at it on the replay it could have very easily been an even up call. Our guy started it and they are taking the guy that started it. Orpik did use the stick in [the groin] area. That is a battle to me, that’s a hockey playoff battle and those things go on all of the time. That is what makes hockey great.”

The teams each were called for seven minor penalties but a big one that was missed was at the end of the game right before Crosby scored his third goal with 31 seconds left to cut the Caps lead to one goal. Chris Kunitz cross checked Varalmov yet both referees Marc Joannette and Kelly Sutherland did not whistle a penalty and Boudreau thinks the play will be reviewed by the NHL.

“It was pretty vicious. I just saw it. It is a direct cross check to his throat just before Crosby scored. There was no puck there, nothing, we hope the league takes a long look at that,” finished Boudreau on the no call.

Overall the referees graded an F for me in the first period but they improved in the second and third periods. Former NHL official, Terry Gregson, is the supervisor for this series and it wouldn’t surprise me if Gregson said something to the two referees after the first period. When you have Ovechkin and Crosby plus alot of other skill on the ice the officials need to be consistent and not get carried away. Unfortunately they made a bad call on the Semin-Orpik scrum and it just snow balled from there.

Some of the other positives for the Caps was the play of the Steckel line, which includes Matt Bradley and Brooks Laich. Those guys worked their tails off on Monday and had the tough task of trying to slow down Crosby. Two of Crosby’s goals came on the power play and #87′s second goal  of the night came because Green was unable to clear the puck and then stop Crosby in front of the net.

“Two shifts tonight they didn’t play against him, I don’t know how much more I can get them on the ice against Crosby,” said Boudreau, who will lose his last change advantage in games three and four since they are in Pittsburgh.

Also, Tyler Sloan, who was recalled with Karl Alzner today from Hershey, stepped in and played a very solid game for the injured Erksine. Sloan had an assist in 16:23 of ice team and drew praise from Boudreau.

“He was great. He didn’t miss a beat. We miss John Erskine but it just goes to show you why Hershey is up 2-0 and why they ended up first in their conference. They have great players down there and we’ll not hesitate to use any of them at any time. Most of them I know and I know what they can do and I have a lot of belief in them,” finished Boudreau on #89 and the depth in the Caps organization.

Other praise should go to every Caps penalty killer, especially Steckel who won several key face-offs (10-3 overall) and Tom Poti. Poti was just great tonight logging 20:07 of ice time, including 3:55 of shorthanded time, and was a +2. Pittsburgh had two power play goals but Washington killed off a huge 5 on 3 late in the first period.

Crosby thought that the Penguins could play better and he refused to give Varlamov too much credit, saying he “flopped around alot and was out of position.”

“When it comes down to it, they got a big goal on the power play and that’s the difference. I don’t see anything else aside from that. We had a lot of opportunities and I think we can honestly say that we did some really good things but we made a few mistakes that have hurt us. That can be a good thing to look at as well. To know that we are that close. These are things that we can easily identify and change quickly. But we have to do that,” said the #1 pick in the 2005 NHL entry draft.

On the negative side, Captain Clark took the aformentioned bad penalty and played only 6:02. He needs to do better and with Eric Fehr getting injured and not returning after only 2:09 of ice time, Washington may need to recall a player from Hershey for Wednesday’s game, unless Boudreau opts to go with the scratched Michael Nylander. If the Caps do dip down to the farm for a forward I think Keith Aucoin makes the most sense given his speed and tenacious style of play, plus he can score too.

For Pittsburgh, they need more from their goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury (29 saves) and from Hart Trophy finalist Evgeni Malkin (1 assist and -2 on Monday). In fairness to Malkin, his linemates Petr Sykora and Ruslan Fedotenko have not played well in support. As for Washington, the Nicklas Backstrom, Semin, and Tomas Fleischmann trio was their weakest tonight and will need to get better. Backstrom has 0 goals in nine playoff games and he missed a great opportunity high of the net when Washington trailed 2-1 just past the midway point of the second period. Backstrom did win a key face-off that lead to the third Caps goal, but he was -1 and only 6-6 on face-offs in 20:19 of ice time.

In closing, the Caps are in good shape but both Boudreau and Ovechkin were very cautious about their position just two games into the series.

“The one thing we’ve learned from experience is you can’t take for granted that you’re going to be successful. We’ve tried to learn from experience and draw from last year and now we’re going to draw from last week where we had a two game deficit and when you’re playing good teams with a lot of character like Pittsburgh it doesn’t get any easier. They’re going to be home. All we really accomplished was, if this was a game of tennis, we’ve held serve. We’re happier to be up two than down two and that’s the way we’re looking at it right now,” said Boudreau.

“Sick game. Three goals by me and him. If I was a Capitals fan, I’d be really happy right now. We get the lead two in a row. Again, it’s a seven game series. We now have to get ready for our next game we have to play. We have to play simple. We took too many bad penalties in the first period. Sasha, Clarkie. It’s emotion. Sidney’s second goal was a mistake. It’s all about simple game right now,” finished Ovechkin.

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Capital Star Shine Again

Posted on 04 May 2009 by Nicholas Miskelly

Capital Star Shine Again 

Monday night began was a crucial game in this Conference Semi-Final Series between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

 

The Capitals entered the game hoping to hold on to home ice advantage and take command of the series with a 2 game to none lead.  This would put all of the pressure on the pads of the Penguins as the series picks up on Wednesday, in Pittsburgh.

 

With a win in game two, the Penguins would have gotten exactly what they were looking for: a split in Washington, giving the Penguins the home ice advantage.  As the lower seed in this series, if the Penguins were to steal game two they would be heading back to Pittsburgh with the momentum and the advantage of having 3 of the remaining 5 games in this series played on their home ice. 

 

After an entertaining and exciting game 1, we learned one thing for sure: each game could go either way and both teams would have to bring their best if they want to win this series and advance to the Conference Finals.  The question would be which team would want it more, and more decidedly, which goalie would bring their best to the ice.  Would Fleury tie this series for the Penguins or would the red hot Varlamov carry the Capitals to a commanding 2-0 lead. 

 

Just as in game one, the first period of game two got off to a quick start.  Both teams wasted no time in getting the puck moving up and down the ice.  The Penguins had to be aware that one of the reasons they lost the first game was because Washington was the more physical team.  At the beginning of this game it seemed as though the Penguins were determined to change that trend as they came out aggressively and physically, landing several big shots on the Capitals.  One of those hits was by Sidney Crosby which led to an early two on one break.  Varlamov read the play well and was at the post to meet the shot of Guerin and turn it away.

After seeing that save, I was reminded of Varlamov’s ability to consistently send the rebounds of shots that he can not handle off to the side of the ice.  It seems as though you never see him give a rebound up in front of the net.  This is huge for goalies as the first goal the Caps had in game 1 was a direct result of a rebound given up right in the center of the ice.  By continuously sending the rebounds off to the side, Varlamov prevents the Penguins from getting cheep goals, goals which often times decide close playoff games.

 

Just as I was thinking this, the Penguins went onto a power play as a result of Semin loosing his cool. Consequently, they got on the board first.  While I was thinking about how remarkable it was that Varlamov never seems to give up easy rebounds, Gonchar took a shot from inside the blue line and Varlamov knocked it down in front of the net and Crosby was on the door step to put it between the legs of the Caps goalie and give the Penguins the early lead.  This is the kind of easy goal the Capitals need to prevent as Crosby makes a living by scoring around the net.  Varlamov needs to clean up the rebounds and the Capital defenders need to stay physical and make sure they push the Penguins away from the front of the goal, thus preventing cheap goals on deflections and as a result of rebounds. 

 

The Penguins were able to take control of the period as they were much more aggressive and physically dominating in the period.  They were able to land a number of clean checks on the Capital players, which seemed to unnerve the Caps a bit as they took several bad penalties.  The worse of which was when the Caps were just about to head to the power play until Chris Clark retaliated with an elbow to the face of Letang thereby nullifying the penalty to Guerin. 

 

Varlamov was really able to bail out his team and keep the game a 1 goal game as he made several huge saves while the Penguins were on a 5-3 power play.  Varlamov once again proved why Capitals fans are so excited about the future of this team, as they see years of this 21-year-old protecting their net.  His great play at the end of the period was able to finally get the home crowd into the game after Pittsburgh successfully quieted them down.

 

While unable to light the lamp in the first period, it was not due to a lack of opportunities.  They had some good scoring chances; they were just never able to capitalize on them.  This was not the case at the beginning of the second period, as they were able to take advantage of an opportunity as Fedorov quickly transitioned the puck into the offensive end where he was able to hit Kozlov with a pass in the center of the ice drawing two defenders his way.  Kozlov quickly moved the puck to his left where he as able to locate Ovechkin, who sent a missile into the lower left portion of the goal, tying the game at one.  The quick transition offense for the Capitals was able to create a great opportunity, one in which Ovechkin did not let pass.  This was the type of puck movement that the Capitals are looking for and need, if they want to win this series.  Anytime you can line Ovechkin up for an uncontested shot, he will score, as his combination of power and accuracy is unstoppable.

 

The Capitals were able to come out quick and change the momentum of the game.  They were able to control the puck more in what appeared to be a less physical second period while using their speed in transition to generate numerous scoring chances.  They were continuously turned away and just past the halfway mark of the period, Crosby and the Penguins tried to reclaim the momentum.  Once again Crosby was able to light the lamp on a garbage goal knocked in from right in front of the net.  Not to take anything away from the Penguins as they earned the goal with their puck movement, but the Capitals once again let the puck bounce free right in front of Varlamov and the inability to get a body on Crosby cost the Capitals again as they fell behind 2-1.

 

The Penguins were able to carry the momentum for the next five minutes, earning several great chances at taking a 2 goal lead, but Varlamov continued his jaw-dropping performance as he made several great saves.  Steckel took advantage of this great effort by the Caps goaltender, as he put home a deflection off of Sloan to tie the game at 2 with four minutes to go in the 2nd period. 

 

 The third period began tied and if the prior games this season were any indication this would be a good sign for Caps fans.  The Capitals outscored the Penguins during the regular season 10-1 and continued that trend in game 1 outscoring the caps one to nothing.  The Capitals hoped this trend would continue as looked to stay unbeaten against the Penguins this year and open up a 2 game to none lead.

 

The Penguins were hoping to change that trend as they opened up dominating the final period of play.  After killing the remainder of a second period penalty the Penguins went on about a 9 minute attack.  It seemed like the entire portion of this period was spent in the offensive zone for the Penguins and it felt to us Capitals fans that they may have even been on an extended power play.  They kept the pressure on but, as seems to be the theme of every paragraph of every hockey blog I write, Varlamov continued to make save after save keeping his team in the game, tied at 2.

 

After killing the Penguins first actual power play of the period, the Capitals quickly went on the attack after Malkin’s tripping penalty put the Caps on the power play.  They had two minutes but they only need four seconds as Backstrom won the face off in the Penguins zone sending the puck back to his right to Green.  Ovechkin once again got wide open and Green found him.  Ovechkin sent another shot buzzing by the elbow on Fluery’s stick side.  There was nothing he could do to prevent the Caps from taking their first lead of the game, 3-2.

 

Ovechkin broke loose again, showing off his speed in transition as he got the puck around mid-ice, skated into the Penguins zone, and then showed off (what I feel is) the league’s most powerful shot.  Ovechkin sent a shot over the glove side shoulder to seal the game for the Caps and give himself his first career playoff hat-trick.  The Penguins were able to get a power play goal, giving Crosby a hat-trick of his own at thirty seconds to go, but that was too little too late.

 

The Caps and Penguins game entered the final period even.  The Penguins dominated the first half plus part of this period.  They could not get past the great Varlamov.  Just then, like a vulture, Ovechkin swooped in and took advantage of the first Penguin mistake of the period.  That was all they needed as the recent trend of the Caps dominating the score board in the final period against the Penguins continued.  They scored two more times this game which made the season and post season total 13 third period goals for the Capitals to only 2 for the Penguins.

 

That is how you close out a game and with Varlamov consistently keeping this team in the game this ability to close could end this series a lot earlier then most anticipated.  To Pittsburgh we go, Wednesday night, Caps leading 2 games to none.

 

The Caps have the offense that many fear, and now thanks to a 21-year-old net minder, they are the complete team that just might be able to make a run at the Stanley Cup.

 

 

 

 

 

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Caps News, Penguins Series Preview and Bruins-Canes Series Preview

Posted on 30 April 2009 by Ed Frankovic

(2) Caps vs. (4) Penguins

Today at Kettler Ice Plex in Ballston, Virginia, the Washington Capitals hit the ice for the first time in preparation for their upcoming series with the Pittsburgh Penguins, which starts Saturday at 1pm at the Verizon Center on NBC. The biggest news of the day: Alexander Ovechkin did not practice but he did meet with the throngs of media afterwards (see WashintonCaps.com 365 for the full interview) and when asked about the Great #8′s absence from practice head coach Bruce Boudreau responded, “He’ll be practicing tomorrow (Friday). Sometimes his body gets beat up because he plays so much, he’s just plays a lot so he needs a little bit more rest, so he’s just resting today.”

Naturally the focus of many of the questions from the media were of the Ovechkin vs. Sydney Crosby variety and the Caps and their coach did their best to play down that angle.

“I think we have to just look at it as a team game, Washington vs. Pittsburgh, there will be talk of Ovie vs. Crosby but we have to focus on what we’re going to do and how we’re going to play against them. We just have to focus on our game plan and go out there and get it done,” said Washington forward Boyd Gordon, who will play a very key role in this series on the penalty kill and trying to slow down the Penguins offensive talent.

“Any little thing that is being said is going to be magnified. If Alex says anything about Sydney or anybody it is going to be maginified. I’m sure they’ll be cameras on Sydney, [Evgeni] Malkin, Ovechkin, [Mike] Green all the time if the puck is near them or not. We’ll magnify every situation, I’m sure,” added Boudreau who said “Welcome to the Circus” when describing what the media attention will be like as soon as he found out the Caps were playing Pittsburgh after the series win over the Rangers.

There is no doubt that the level of hype is high in this series and many are saying this is big for the NHL from a marketing standpoint. They could use a good US television contract going forward and this series could help by bringing in the cross over fan who normally would not watch hockey.

“I hope it draws tons of fans. We all love our game so much that we hope it is something that people want to watch on a national level. Anything that is good for our game is great. We want to build it. We want to show the people that don’t know our game how great a game it can be,” said Boudreau.

As for the massive hype impacting the series itself, Boudreau downplayed that.

“I don’t know, the Super Bowl has an awful lot of hype and I think the last couple of games have been pretty good. I think the teams are focused and the hype shouldn’t matter. We’ll be in our own zone, hopefully, understanding what we have to do and I think the guys are focused so as much hype as [the media] want to bring on, bring on,” finished Boudreau.

With that, it’s time to move away from the media fluff and get to the meat of this series matchup, the things I prefer to focus on.

Let’s start with the goaltenders, Simeon Varlamov vs. Marc Andre-Fleury. The Caps rookie, Varlamov (turned 21 on April 27), has played 12 games in his career going 4-0-1 in the regular season and then 4-2 against the Rangers in the first round while Fleury, who was taken #1 overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, led his team to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 (lost to the Detroit Red Wings in six games). The advantage, on paper, appears to be for Pittsburgh. Boudreau was asked today to compare Fleury with Henrik Lundqvist, the goalie for the Rangers that the Caps just defeated in round one.

“Lundqvist is great and Fleury’s played great so I guess we’ll be able to know after the first couple of games. I would think that Fleury is more acrobatic and probably more gifted in that sense and Lundqvist is better positionally but that is just off the top of my head. Fleury was taken #1 overall for a reason and Lundqvist is one of the best for a reason. Either way we are not playing bad goaltenders,” said last year’s Jack Adams Trophy winner.

Both teams have big name offensive players that lead their defense and run their power play, Green for the Caps and former Capital Sergei Gonchar for Pittsburgh. Gonchar missed the first five months of the season due to a shoulder injury he suffered in pre-season and when he returned he, along with the addition of forwards Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin at the trade deadline, plus new Coach Dan Bylsma propelled the Penguins to a 18-3-4 stretch run.

“They have a lot of weapons and Gonchar is obviously their quarterback on the point. It’s kind of pick your poison. We’d like to stay out of the box as much as possible. When we get out there [on the penalty kill] we have to get it done and do whatever it takes, block a shot, be in the right position, you have to do the job. He’s a good defensemen. He’s got a good shot and he’s calm and poised with the puck. He fits in well with their team and he does a great job for them on the power play,” said Gordon on #55 and the Penguin power play.

As for Green, he had a goal and four assists in the first round, a series in which he had the flu and didn’t have his full energy back until the last few games.

“I think, as I’ve said all along, that Mike is going to be fine. He puts a lot of pressure on himself because of what has happened this year but again, he played 26,27 minutes a game and we allowed the fewest goals we’ve allowed in a seven game stretch all year. He must have been doing something right. Just because he wasn’t scoring at a point a game pace in the playoffs I’m still very happy with the way he is playing,” added Boudreau on #52.

The Penguins also have Hal Gill (big defensemen), Brooks Orpik (good, physical defenseman), and Rob Scuderi on the back line. Washington adds puck moving Tom Poti and the more physical Shaone Morrisonn to go along with vastly improved Milan Jurcina and John Erskine plus Brian Pothier (out for 14 months with concussion until returning in March). On paper this appears to be a wash or perhaps a very slight edge to Washington, only because of #52.

Up front is where the fireworks start. The Penguins are loaded up the middle with Crosby, Malkin, and Jordan Staal. On the wings they have Guerin, Kunitz, and Ruslan Fedotenko who all can go to the net and create havoc. Another forward to watch is Maxime Talbot who kills penalties, checks well, and is very successful at whatever role Bylsma throws him into. For Washington, they go deep as well with the Great #8, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Brooks Laich, Viktor Kozlov, Chris Clark and then good role players like Gordon, Matt Bradley, Eric Fehr, and Dave Steckel. The Penguins have the advantage at center because they go three deep with top five draft picks but I give the Caps the edge on the wings. Both teams have potent power plays but the Caps were #2 in the league and can throw a variety of looks at you, as confirmed by Boudreau this afternoon.

“We’ve changed our power play so much all year and still been at 25% so I think it is a real advantage for us when we can, as a team, throw out many units doing many things and they’re all quality players so Tom [Poti] hadn’t played the point on the first unit in a long time and he did a great job. He might have to do it again,” said Boudreau.

When you just look at personnel this is a very evenly matched series and Boudreau stressed that his coaching team will highlight certain things about Pittsburgh but the focus will be on his own team.

“We’ve gone through a lot of video and I’m sure they’ve gone through our video and seen our tendencies and individualities and we go over that but we don’t want to harp on that too much. We want to do what we do well. We certainly would be remiss if we didn’t make the players aware of certain things that these players are really good at,” commented Boudreau on the film study of Pittsburgh.

I asked Boudreau about puck possession and how he defines it these days, given that many people consider both of these squads those type of teams.

“I don’t really know, I often wondered, they say they are a big puck possession team and I go, Wow, what is a puck possession team? They call us that all of the time and all I say is dump it in, get it deep. So I don’t know what the deal is. We’ve got guys who are pretty good stickhandlers but then so do they. I mean Detroit seems to have the puck all the time, not because they don’t want to dump it in, but because they are really good. So good teams are puck possession teams because they have it all of the time, that is the way I’m looking at it.”

Analyzing these quotes and info I think the Penguins focus will be on trying to rattle a young Varlamov, who has had nothing but success so far in his dozen games. Bylsma has already said they will try to get him moving back and forth and there is no doubt the Penguins will go hard to the net to create traffic. They may also try to throw pucks off the near backboards and out the far side like Pittsburgh used to do during their back to back Stanley Cup wins with Hall of Famer Larry Murphy running the power play and Mario Lemieux stationed on the opposite side of the net just waiting to one time the puck home. Pittsburgh likes to get out in transition, like the Caps do, and they will seek to create turnovers at their own blue line to try and counter attack Washington and receive odd man rushes.

Therefore, Washington will have to limit their turnovers and play a SIMPLE game like they did in games three, five, and six plus the third period of game seven against New York. Boudreau will be repeatedly telling his players over and over, especially guys like Ovechkin and Semin who fancy one on one moves and cross ice passes at the opponents blue line, to DUMP the puck behind the Penguins defense, then go get it, and outwork them. If I am Boudreau I am going with a strategy on Gonchar that the great Scotty Bowman mentions he used effectively against Hall of Fame defenseman Bobby Orr of Boston: dump the puck behind him and when he goes back to chase it pound him into the glass so that he becomes more turnover prone as the series wears on. The Caps can use their speed to stick handle at times when guys like Gill are on the ice but the type of puck possession strategy that Boudreau described of dumping the puck deep in the corners and half wall seems like the best way to use Washington’s excellent size and speed at forward. Gonchar can be giveaway happy and Caps fans remember all too well former Penguin Martin Straka picking Gonchar’s pocket at the Washington blue line and skating in alone on Olie Kolzig in game six for the series winner in 2001, the last two times these teams met in the playoffs (Pittsburgh has won six of the seven meetings with the only Caps win coming back in 1994).

Series Prediction: This series is an absolute coin toss. Past history between these teams doesn’t matter but playoff experience does so I am going with the Penguins. However, if Washington plays smart with the dump in game (the Alex’s must heed Boudreau’s advice for them to be come out on top) and limits their turnovers and penalties they could win this series instead. I’m picking the Penguins in six but if the Caps manage to force a game seven then Washington wins.

(1) Bruins vs. (6) Hurricanes

The NHL is four for four on good Conference semi-final match-ups as this one pits a very hot and fast Carolina team against an extremely hard working, top seeded in the East, Boston squad.

We’ll start with the goalies, Tim Thomas (Bruins) vs. Cam Ward (Hurricanes). Thomas led the NHL in save percentage during the regular season while Ward got red hot from February on and is playing at the level he was at when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy and Stanley Cup for the Canes in 2006. Thomas has an unorthodox style that sees him flop and throw his body all over the ice while Ward is the classic butterfly type goalie who goes down to the ice and tries to take up as much net as possible. I think this is a toss up but Ward has been real hot and has major past playoff success.

On defense, the Bruins have a big edge because of Norris Trophy candidate Zdeno Chara who is on the back line with Denis Wideman, Aaron Ward, Steve Montador, and Shane Hnidy. Carolina’s defense will not scare you but they’ve been very effective the last three months. The defensive corps is led by Joni Pitkanen and Joe Corvo (both averaged 25 plus minutes in round one against New Jersey) and they also rely on their second pair of Denis Seidenberg and Tim Gleason to log around 20 minutes a game. Advantage: Bruins.

Up front for Carolina you have speed. Eric Staal (5 goals against Devils in round one) can skate as well as anyone and he has been on fire since the Canes re-acquired line mate Erik Cole from Edmonton at the NHL trade deadline. Ray Whitney is fast and is a sniper and they grind out goals with Chad LaRose, Jussi Jokinen, and Matt Cullen. Boston is loaded at forward but the debate about Marc Savard being a true #1 center rages on but based on his production he is playing at that level this season. The Bruins can get scoring from lots of players and Michael Ryder (4 goals in 4 games in first round against Montreal) performs well whenever he is coached by current Bruins bench boss, Claude Julien. Former Flames 2001 first round draft pick, Chuck Kobasew (3 points in 1st round), can flat out fly plus they have David Krejci, Phil Kessel (6 points in first round and appears to be finally over mononucleosis), Milan Lucic (brings power and toughness), and Mark Recchi (two time Stanley Cup winner – Pittsburgh in 1991 and Carolina in 2006). I think Staal is the best forward in the series but I give the edge to Boston because of their depth.

Given that Boston only had to play four games in the first round and Carolina went the distance against New Jersey, I expect the Canes to jump out and steal a game in Boston but I see the Bruins coming back and wearing the fast Hurricanes down. Another very close series, I’m tempted to go with a hot Carolina team but I just see too many good things from the Bruins. Boston in seven.

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Caps Donald Brashear Suspended Six Games

Posted on 27 April 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals Forward Donald Brashear has been suspended 6 games for his actions before and during Game 5 on Sunday. Here is the NHL write-up on the suspension:

http://www.nhl.com/ice/news.htm?id=420354

Comment: It looks like Chris Clark will play on Tuesday night in Game 7. I was surprised at the five games for his hit but the league is focused on head shots and #87 struck Blair Betts from behind in an unsuspecting manner. The fact that Betts is injured significantly likely played into the length of the suspension.

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How Bad Do the Caps Want it?

Posted on 19 April 2009 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals, who trail the New York Rangers two games to none in their best of seven playoff series, will play game three on Monday night at 7pm at a sure to be rocking Madison Square Garden (viewing party at Silver Spring Mining Company in Perry Hall). The Caps have had good efforts in games one and two and it wasn’t enough so now we’ll find out how bad they really want to win in the playoffs. As we’ve seen so far, having more skill than the other team doesn’t necessarily translate into victories in the post-season. Bruce Boudreau’s crew is going to have to become more gritty and determined than ever in game three to find ways to get around or through the Rangers defense to get more traffic and gather rebound shots on Henrik Lundqvist, who has saved 67 of 70 shots in two games.

It has been well documented that most of Washington chances have been on the perimeter and this issue has been one that Boudreau has talked about all season. We’ve seen this hockey club have good nights where they go hard to the net and get rewarded, but lately they have not been doing it. Can anyone remember the last time a Washington player, other than Alexander Ovechkin, drew an interference or roughing penalty from driving hard to the crease?

I keep hearing the Caps defensemen talk about how the rules make it easier for opposing forwards to get to the front of their net. So my question is how come it seems so hard for the Washington players to get there? Are they afraid of getting hit? This isn’t the NHL pre lock-out when a cross check to the back or a slash to the legs was the norm when heading to the spot directly in front of the blue paint. The rules are set up for forwards to have an advantage now so the Caps players need to show some more heart, grit, and toughness and get there. Frankly, Washington needs more guys to be like or even better than Brooks Laich has been most of the season in going to crease and scoring the ugly goal. Chris Clark is a player who can do that but word out of Kettler Ice Plex today is, although he has been cleared to play, that he isn’t ready yet (that is what Tarik El-Bashir of The Washington Post is reporting).

On the defensive side of the rink, Caps players need to be more physical, be willing to block shots, and do whatever is necessary to prevent the tap in goal like we saw on Saturday (the Caps need to do a better of job defending two on one breaks. I’ve watched the Ryan Callahan goal five times now and can’t believe how poorly Tom Poti played it. Poti had one job, to cut off the pass, and he didn’t get it done. Marcus Naslund was not going to be able score from where he was so #3 had to leave him to goalie Simeon Varlamov).

As for Washington’s goaltending situation, right now it doesn’t matter whether Boudreau plays Jose Theodore or Varlamov in game three because if you don’t score any goals you can’t win. I’ve heard Boudreau and the players mention that Carolina was down two games to none against  Montreal in 2006 and ended up winning the Stanley Cup that year. That is all well and good but I’m willing to bet that a big reason for their turnaround was a dedication to playing playoff hockey, which means paying a PHYSICAL price to get results.

How many of the Caps are feeling banged up or bruised right now? If you aren’t feeling any pain than you aren’t doing what is necessary to win, just ask any player with a Stanley Cup ring. When I hear stories about those great Islanders teams from the early 1980′s, the Oilers teams from the eighties, and the Penguins clubs from the early 1990′s, I always hear those players talk about playing through the injuries and battle scars that they endured during their ride to the Cup. Is anyone on the Caps bruised from fighting through the Ranger defense yet? I doubt it because I haven’t seen a dedication to doing what it takes to win in the playoffs. Going forward the rest of these playoffs Washington’s team motto needs to be: If you aren’t hurting, you aren’t trying hard enough. It is that simple.

At this point, the Caps players shouldn’t need Boudreau or anyone in the media to call them out to play with more heart, grit, toughness, determination, intestinal fortitude, passion, or whatever you want to call it. I see plenty of room for improvement from every player on that roster right now and if anyone wants to whine about playing time, they have no case, because if Boudreau sees production he will reward the player(s) who gets it done. So each player needs to look in the mirror, hold themselves accountable, and find that extra drive and sacrifice himself for the good of the team. And if these players can’t come together and do that in these next several games then they provide an easy answer for the people running this team: these guys can’t collectively get it done and it is time to make some serious changes going forward.

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Varlamov Starts in Goal But Caps Lose Again

Posted on 18 April 2009 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals turned in another very good effort on Saturday afternoon at sold out Verizon Center (18,277), but it wasn’t enough for a win as Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist stopped all 35 shots he faced to lead the Rangers to a 1-0 victory and take a two games to none lead in this best of seven series. Game three is Monday night at Madison Square Garden (Note: WNST will have a Rock the Red viewing party at Silver Spring Mining Company, Gary Rissling’s bar, in Perry Hall on Bel Air Road).

For the Caps goaltending had been the hot topic since Wednesday night’s loss in which #1 goalie Jose Theodore struggled. For Saturday’s tilt on national television (NBC), Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau pulled the plug on #60 and went with rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov, who is only 21 years old and was playing his first ever NHL playoff game after only six previous NHL games (4-0-1), and he stopped 23 of 24 Rangers shots in the loss.

The only goal of the game came in the first period just 7:44 into the contest in a sequence where the Caps had the potential for a four on two rush out of their own zone but because of an average breakout it became a four on three break with defenseman moving Mike Green up ice. At the Rangers blue line, Alexander Ovechkin, instead of getting the puck deep, tried a cross ice pass that was intercepted by New York, who then had three on two break the other way with Viktor Kozlov and Tom Poti back for Washington. When Kozlov misread the play and went to hit Brandon Dubinsky, the Ranger forward pushed the puck ahead to Marcus Naslund who skated down the left wing and with Varlamov shaded over for the shot, Poti was unable to cut off the pass (something a defenseman MUST do on a two on one break), allowing Ryan Callahan to streak down the right side of the slot and bury Naslund’s pass into an open net. On that goal, which Varlamov had no chance on, Boudreau said the Rangers got away with an interference call as Ovechkin was halted from back checking effectively by one of the New York players at the red line (Boudreau said the Ranger player just stopped skating to impede the Great #8). Overall Boudreau was pleased with his goalie, though.

“I thought he played well. I didn’t think there was anything that could be done on the first goal. He made a really good save about three minutes after that. I was very happy with his game,” said Boudreau on Varlamov.

Shortly thereafter the Caps had a two on one of their own with Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Semin but the New York defenseman correctly did not give #91 a lane for a pass and Fedorov’s shot was stopped by Lundqvist. Washington outshot the Rangers 13-6 in the first period in which New York received the only power play.

The second period did not start very well for Washington as the Rangers received three straight man advantages but the combination of Varlamov and the Caps defense thwarted New York’s power play (0 for 5 on the afternoon). Varlamov’s biggest save was on Nikolai Zherdev on the first power play of the second period and he gave up a rebound but Chris Drury shot it high. Washington then started playing better towards the end of the period and failed on a power play (a Michael Roszival hook on Ovechkin) with Lundqvist making a big save on a Green point shot he didn’t see but Brooks Laich couldn’t convert the rebound (a Ranger legally tied up his stick). Then with 1:03 left in the period Nik Antropov tripped Michael Nylander but the Caps could not convert. Second period shots were 10-6 New York in a period they controlled most of the play.

The third period was all Caps as they poured 16 shots on Lundqvist but could not solve the very hot net minder. Helping out New York’s cause was some great shot blocking (29) and some luck (the Caps missed the net a few times and hit the crossbar). The final shots tally was 35-24 in favor of the Caps but the scoreboard read, 1-0, Rangers.

Here are some quotes and thoughts on the game:

As I mentioned above the Rangers are very good at blocking shots, one of the keys to their 2-0 series lead. “It’s the playoffs and you got to sacrifice your body. Our guys did a great job of that tonight. You got to do that against a team like that. They’re going to shoot everything, ” said Dubinsky. “We blocked a lot of shots. A lot of guys blocked shots and sacrificed their bodies in a series like this. We had a lot of blocks in the first game – especially on face offs. Tonight, again, a couple blocks where they had pretty good shots. We did a lot of good things. I think these first two games have been really focused, and we’ve minimized our mistakes. And that’s been the difference,” added Lundqvist.

The Caps did get 35 shots through and Lundqvist gave up some rebounds and was handcuffed on about a half of a dozen of them but Washington either wasn’t there for the rebound or did not get to the net. “A lot of our shots were coming from the outside, but rebounds were coming to spots where we should be, we just weren’t there to see it,” said Green, who only had two shots on net and did not have one of his better performances. “Their defense is doing a helluva job, blocking us out. We talk about getting to the net and going for rebounds. It’s not like we’re sitting there saying we’re going to take the shots on the side,” said Boudreau.

Varlamov did well and he had the support of his teammates, including Theodore. “After the warm-up, he walk over to me and say ‘Don’t worry about it.  I was 20-years-old when I play my first game, it was in Montreal.  You know don’t worry about it, I think you’ll do fine.’” Boudreau was complimentary of how #60 handled the news on being sat on Saturday and he was quiet on who would play on Monday as well. “He was very professional. He understood. He obviously wants to play. He knows there’s an opportunity for him to play again if we continue this.” I expect Varlamov to start game three but based on what Boudreau did today nothing surprises me with this coach. Today’s move, which some could have seen as hitting the panic button, was clearly a good one and it nearly won Washington the game.

Is Lundqvist in the Caps heads? Here are some thoughts from the Caps on the goalie who has been the difference so far in this series. “Obviously, we couldn’t get anything by him. And the ones that got by him, hit the crossbar (Ovechkin’s chance in the third period). It was probably the only one that beat him,” said Boudreau, who also mentioned that when he played he didn’t get frustrated by goalies, only referees. “I don’t know, it is hard to say.  I think we had a lot of chances today too and he was pretty good.  There is nothing to say about that.  I don’t know, we have to do something new.  Maybe we have to go even more to the net.  I mean more traffic, we have to try and get the rebounds and those kind of things.  He is a good goalie and he is pretty big in the net,” added Nicklas Backstrom (13-6 on face-offs). “Again lots of chances, he played great.  He’s a good goalie and he played great,” finished Ovechkin.

Rangers coach John Tortorella, who won the Stanley Cup in 2004 with Tampa and goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, had this to say about his goalie and the Caps. “Third period, he was just outstanding. That’s a good offensive team we’re playing against. I thought we did some pretty good things. Third period they turned it up; they loaded up a line. Give them (the Capitals) credit. They’re a pretty good hockey club. Hank (Lundqvist) stood tall.”

How are the Caps going to handle being down two games to none? “Of course no because we were number two in our conference, but it is the playoffs anything can happen.  Now we just have to regroup and we are going on the road for two games.  It is going to be a little uphill, but we still have chances – it is the best of seven, so we still have chances,” said Backstrom when asked if he ever expected this deficit. “We have opportunity to bounce back and we have to use that opportunity.  It is going to be a hard road trip, but we have to figure out our mind and try and win game.  Try and score goals and win game.  That is what it is all about,” said the Great #8. “Same as it was before, we can’t get down – we have to stay up.  If we get down on ourselves it’s going to make it tough on ourselves even more.  We will be fine.  We just need to change a few things that are costing us here,” finished Green.

The Caps power play was 0 for 4 due to all of the blocked shots and some overpassing. The Caps need to find a way to fake the Ranger shot blockers to the ice and move around them. They also need to get more traffic in front of the net. Don’t be surprised to see Chris Clark inserted into the lineup for Nylander (only Cap without a shot attempt today) as #17 is much better at going to the net and creating havoc. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Boudreau move Ovechkin down in front of the net on the power play, something he did in last year’s playoffs against the Flyers. Either Fedorov, Poti, or Brian Pothier could be used on the point instead. I also think that Eric Fehr could be used on the power play and #16 has to get himself to the front of the net at even strength as well. Brooks Laich is the only Cap who consistenly is going to the net. I think it might be time to move the smallish Tomas Fleischmann off of the power play.

The Caps can draw on the experience of rallying from a three games to one deficit in last year’s playoffs against Philadelphia and they will need to do that in game three, otherwise game four becomes win or head to the golf course. “We can’t quit,” is what Boudreau said he would tell his team and not coming back in this series, even though the Rangers are a very good team, could really hurt the confidence of this club going forward into next season.

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Caps Get Ready for Rangers / Series Analysis and Prediction

Posted on 13 April 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Monday at Kettler IcePlex in Ballston, Virginia the Washington Capitals hit the ice for their first playoff practice of 2009 with a goal of winning the Stanley Cup this spring. Defending Hart Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin addressed the team’s ultimate goal after practice with the media and the Great #8 basically said that just winning one or two series is not good enough because they want to win the Cup, but to do that they have to focus first on just beating a very good New York Rangers team (you can see the Ovechkin interview at WashingtonCaps.com). Caps Head Coach Bruce Boudreau, along the same lines,  mentioned the following on the Rangers and the overall goal in his post practice news conference, “I was just watching a couple of their games right now and [the Rangers] are going to be a very difficult opponent…our goal has always been to win the Cup, and it was last year, the people that said [last year] was a successful season were the media, we didn’t say it was a successful season, because we didn’t finish our goal. We thought we should have beat Philadelphia last year and we didn’t. So I think all people with a lot of character want to win the Cup when they get the opportunity. Now that it is down to 16 teams anything less for any player or any team in this league would be a disappointment.”

Things appear vastly different for the Caps going into the playoffs this season from last year emotionally and physically. Instead of having to win almost every game down the stretch to make the playoffs and paying the physical and mental toll that goes with that grind game in and game out, Washington enjoyed a very solid regular season that landed them the second seed in the Eastern Conference. As I’ve mentioned recently, they were able to play what I will call “stress free” hockey the last 10 games before the quest for the Cup will begin this Wednesday. I asked Caps forward Brooks Laich today how this year is different from last season.

“I think we are more relaxed and I think we are more prepared. This year heading into the playoffs we were preparing for the playoffs where as last year heading in we were just trying to get there. Every day was a struggle to get there and we were finally there. This year we’ve had some time to think about it, work on our game leading up to the playoffs, and I think we are a more confident group this year. The experience gained from last year should do wonders for our group this year,” said Laich, who set a career high for goals and points this year with 23 and 57, respectively.

Laich then expanded further on those thoughts comparing last year’s playoff series to how they are approaching the match-up with New York this upcoming week.

“We won the first game last year and we didn’t play real well in that one then we lost the next three and we didn’t play really well until our backs were up against the wall and it was win or go home. For some reason we just relaxed, we weren’t squeezing our sticks so tight, we just relaxed and played and had a lot of fun and then we started to be successful. I think that is what we are going to do this year. We are not going to go in and try and be overly intense and then get out of position and make mistakes. We are going to relax, we are going to play our game and hopefully that will be enough,” added Laich.

#21 was also asked about the wait just to get to the playoffs.

“It has been a long wait. Knowing that you are going to be in, we knew a couple of weeks ago we were, but we still had stuff we wanted to play for, like 2nd in the conference which we did, but it is always in the back of your mind – let’s get this thing going. I think the guys are really excited and we had a good practice today. We like the match-up, the Rangers are a very good hockey team, and it is going to be a long series,” finished Laich.

As for Mike Green, the leading goal and point scorer among all NHL defensemen this season (31 goals and 42 assists), I asked him if the wait has been tough and if the playoffs were on his mind for awhile.

“Yes, last year every day we were fighting and this year you are resting and thinking about that first game so, yes, we can’t wait until Wednesday. Last year it seemed like we were playing playoff hockey from a month left in the season and this year maybe we are a little more rested and maybe mentally not as tired as were last year but we can’t use that as an excuse last year, no matter what we have to make sure we are working hard and doing the right things to move on. I think we are all just excited to get started,” said Green.

Green then talked about what the Caps needed to do to be successful against the Rangers.

“This year we are confident but not over confident like we were last year. We learned last year how tough the NHL playoffs are and a lot of us had never been in the playoffs before…they are a good team and they’ve got some good players over there that are pretty dangerous. As long as we play good defensively we usually don’t have a problem scoring goals. We know [NY goalie Henrik] Lundqvist is gonna play well but as long as we play defense we’ll be fine,” finished Green.

On the topic of experience, I chatted with three time Stanley Cup Champion Sergei Fedorov to find out his thoughts on this team and what they gained from last year’s playoff series.

“Well certainly we didn’t get up to the goals we wanted to get last year but certainly we got that experience playing in the playoffs, so I think is going to be very positive for us and I think it is going to help us,” started Fedorov, “Obviously when you win once or twice you always want to win it again. It is a precious trophy and the hardest trophy to win. I think we do have nice chemistry, in general, guys like each other and like to play with each other and work together. We’ll see how it is going to go. I’m sure the first round will be nerve racking but if we are willing to work hard like we did in the regular season I don’t see why we can’t win,” added #91.

I also asked Fedorov about the World Championship he, Ovechkin, and Semin won with Russia last year and if that could help the team this year.

“I hope so, but the format is much different. In the world cup you just play straight 10 games every other day and the quarter finals just appear out of nowhere, then semi-final, and all of sudden final. [Stanley Cup] Playoffs are obviously different, you have your opponent and you know them inside out and play them until you win four games out of seven, so you know your opponent much better than in the world cup,” finished Fedorov, who certainly will play a key role in how far Washington goes in the post season.

Backstrom improves at the dot: I had a chance to talk with Nicklas Backstrom on Monday about his recent improvements on face-offs, he is a remarkable 55-19 in his last four home games, and here is what #19 had to say.

“I don’t know, maybe I try to do something different. I try to shift a little bit more and it works sometimes,” started Backstrom, who was then asked if any of the other players, such as Fedorov, gave him any tips, “Actually no, I just have been mad at myself for struggling before. It is something that is going to be important in all situations and everyone knows,” finished Backstrom.

Whatever he is doing, it is clearly working, and perhaps just the extra focus and effort is the real reason for his huge improvement.

Roster notes: Everyone was skating for the big club this morning including Boyd Gordon (missed several weeks with a fractured finger), Donald Brashear (out since Nashville game due to knee injury) and Chris Clark (wrist surgery). Clark is still expected to be out until the second round (he is unable to fully shoot the puck) but Gordon and Brashear are available for Game 1 against the New York Rangers on Wednesday at the Verizon Center at 7pm. Forward Keith Aucoin, who had a nice recent stint with the big club, was assigned to Hershey on Sunday since Gordon is now healthy. The only other injury note is that Tom Poti is still nursing a sore groin and is questionable for Wednesday’s series opener.

Caps-Rangers Series Analysis and Prediction

This series pits the number one penalty killing team in the NHL in the Rangers and the number two overall power play from the Caps. Here are some thoughts from a couple of players on that topic.

“Two things, they are aggressive and great goaltending,” started Laich on why New York is so successful while shorthanded, “they don’t get out of position, they have smart forwards, they have reliable defensemen, and you have to beat Lundqvist to get the goal, so it is going to be a good match-up of our power play versus their penalty kill,” finished Laich.

“It will be interesting to see how it plays out. We rely on our power play, if we struggle we usually don’t get a lot of momentum but I think everyone will raise their game for the playoffs,” said Green.

The Caps were 3-0-1 against New York in the regular season but most people know that really doesn’t matter and Green confirmed that with the following.

“I think the playoffs is a whole new season. I don’t think we are going to talk about our record against them during the regular season because it is a long season and teams get tired at different times so maybe that was the case [for the wins against the Rangers] but everyone is going to be rested come Wednesday,” said the Norris Trophy candidate.

What I like about Washington: Their skill and team speed. The Caps have never had a team with this much speed and offensive talent with guys like Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Backstrom, and Green. Add in guys like Fedorov and Laich to go with role players like Tomas Fleischmann, Eric Fehr (Stat of the day: With Fehr in the lineup the Caps were 39-16-6, as opposed to their 11-8-2 record when he did not play), Matt Bradley, and Boyd Gordon and you have a great group of forwards (#2 in the East in goal scoring). I also really like Jose Theodore in net and anyone that lists him as the number one concern for this team heading into the playoffs has not really been paying close attention to Caps games. Theodore has been very good since December 23rd (the 5-4 comeback win against the Rangers).

The concern about the Caps: Team defense. Washington has shown to be loose in their own end, at times. This typically happened when Washington was not playing against some of the better teams in the league. When Washington played clubs like the Rangers, Bruins, and Devils they were good, for the most part, defensively. They will need to play at a high level in their own end to win this series.

What I like about New York: Great goalie in Lundqvist. Playoff experienced forwards in Scott Gomez (two Stanley Cup wins with New Jersey) and Chris Drury (Stanley Cup victory with Colorado) and a head coach with a Stanley Cup ring and a system that works in John Tortorella. They have been hot down the stretch (12-6-1)  and as Boudreau pointed out today they played a real tough schedule over the last 10 games. They are also more physical since Tortorella took over so they may try to play that angle against the Caps with Sean Avery, Colton Orr, and Brandon Dubinsky. They also added big forward Nik Antropov  (6′ 6″, 230 lbs) at the trade deadline and he is very skilled and tough to move in the corner or in front of the net.

The concern about the Rangers: Goal scoring, they only had 210 goals, by far the fewest of any Eastern Conference playoff team. They also have the worst power play in the league at 13.7%. The Rangers did manage to score eight goals in the two games at Madison Square Garden but only tallied twice at the Verizon Center.

Analysis: Much has been made of Avery’s potential impact on this series and several media members asked the Caps players and coaches if he will try and rattle them. Avery will do what he does best, as Boudreau put it, but given how much damage he has done to the league he needs to be really careful because he is on a short leash and anything close to the line will result in the referees sending him to the box giving an edge to a Caps team with a potent power play. The Caps need to not get caught up in his taunts and mind games and just play hockey. This will be a really close, hard fought series but I think Washington has just enough firepower and skill to squeak this one out, but it won’t be easy. The Caps home crowd could be the difference maker in this playoff series.

“Everyone knows the Rangers are a good team and it is going to be close games. Hopefully we can have some home advantage,” added Backstrom.

Prediction: Caps in 7 games.

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Caps Need to Make The Big Move

Posted on 02 March 2009 by Ed Frankovic

So we are less than 48 hours from Wednesday’s 3pm NHL trade deadline and here are some items to ponder to help you decide whether or not GM George McPhee should stand pat or change up his roster heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs:

The Colorado Avalanche started their six-game road trip with a win at Washington (4-1), but dropped the final five. They were outscored 14-3 in consecutive losses to New Jersey and New York’s Rangers and Islanders. The Avs are in last place in the Western Conference.

The Caps are 3-3 in their last 6 home games losing to a more physical Flyers team, a more inspired Panthers team, and a bottom feeder in Colorado (and we’ve seen other losses since January 1st to Edmonton, Los Angeles, and Columbus that were eerily similar).

In last Thursday’s blog I mentioned that I spoke with a scout about the Red Wings and discussed their chances of repeating as Stanley Cup Champions. His response really surprised me when he said the following: “No, they don’t come to play every night, the last 2 years those Red Wings went hard every night, you can’t win playing spot hockey.” Well lately “Spot Hockey” is an accurate description of the Washington Capitals.

Today our friend Rob Yunich over at Storming the Crease (www.stormingthecrease.com) jumped on a Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau quote from yesterday after the Florida debacle that indicated a lack of leadership in the Washington locker room. Boudreau says he can’t keep yelling at the players to play hard each night and that somebody inside the dressing room should be doing it. I kind of thought in the absence of Captain Chris Clark that veteran Sergei Fedorov would be the guy to do that or even Alexander Ovechkin but it doesn’t appear to be happening. We continue to see the team not show up about every third game, especially when the opponent is below them in the standings. We’ve heard alot about team chemistry and the need to keep these guys together but how good is the chemistry when every third night the team seems to be mailing it in?

Those three or so minutes last Tuesday against Philadelphia, when the team was playing hard that evening, keep flashing in my mind. Big forwards Scott Hartnell, Jeff Carter, and Joffrey Lupul manhandled the Caps defense, heck even Arron Asham went around Jeff Schultz, to send the Caps to a defeat. Then yesterday noone on the back end, and especially Schultz, could clear the front of the Washington net against a Florida team not exactly known for powerful forwards. Do the Caps really want to go into the playoffs with this crew of defensemen who aren’t very physical and take alot of penalties?

Adding all of this up there is no doubt in my mind that the Washington Capitals need to upgrade their roster if they intend on competing for the Stanley Cup. The team’s biggest problem is not goaltending (although they could use a veteran backup as insurance for Jose Theodore), it is on defense, so fans should hope that GM George McPhee can make a big move to upgrade a defensive corps that has really struggled lately.

If Chris Pronger is available and willing to come to the Eastern Conference (and why Anaheim would be stupid enough to move him to a team in the West is beyond me??) then McPhee needs to land him because as former team statistician and team ophthalmologist Mike Herr said to me on the phone tonight: I bet you if you polled scouts around the league and asked them where they thought the Caps weakness is they would no doubt point to the defense. Even Boudreau pointed out that as a deficiency when he was on interviewed by Drew Forrester on the Comcast Morning Show last Wednesday morning on WNST.

Chances to win the Stanley Cup don’t come around often, although the Caps are a young team and have a bright future, but I don’t see these six defensemen as maturing enough to take this team to a title in the next two to three years. Even adding Karl Alzner up from Hershey, and he definitely needs to be brought back up now, won’t put this defense in a Cup winning position this year or possibly next. Mike Green and Alnzer provide a very good base for the blueline but neither guy is physical. The non-physical Tom Poti is clearly the best of the remaining five d-men but as for the other four (Shaone Morrisonn, Schulz, Milan Jurcina, and John Erskine) you aren’t going to deter any net crashing with them (Erskine is the most physical but also the worst skater).

So I say a prominent physical defensemen must be brought in to get this team over the top. #25 from Anaheim seems like the right fit if a halfway decent price can be had (possibly one of the young goalies, Tomas Fleischmann, a prospect like Chris Bourque or Oskar Osala and a draft pick?). Given that Anaheim has to move either Pronger or Scott Niedermayer now that they traded for Ryan Whitney from Pittsburgh last week, a good bargain could be available. Of course, guys like Pronger who have won a Stanley Cup are likely to be in high demand. But if Pronger goes to Boston, New Jersey, or Philadelphia then the Caps chances of going anywhere this season (or possibly even next since Pronger has one more year on his current deal) seriously diminish. So should the Caps stand pat or move their chips in and take a serious shot at going all of the way for the first time in franchise history? I’m saying the Caps should go all in.

Stay tuned, this is going to be an interesting Tuesday and Wednesday.

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