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Ovi Old School

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A Detailed Look at the Caps After 45 Games

Posted on 15 January 2018 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BAcky Blues

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Seven Detailed Thoughts on The Caps After Another Win

Posted on 07 January 2018 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wilson NJ

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

Posted on 30 December 2017 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Burkie Holtby

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Burakovsky Delivers for the Caps in the Lone Star State

Posted on 20 December 2017 by Ed Frankovic

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

Wow, what a hockey game!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Holtby Holds the Fort Until the Caps Offense Arrives

Posted on 12 December 2017 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ovechkin, Caps Keep Rolling in 6-2 Rout of Chicago

Posted on 07 December 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals continue to be on a serious roll.

The cuddly Ovi scored a goal and assisted on three others, center Nicklas Backstrom scored his first goal in 22 games and added two helpers, and top line Tom Wilson was a human wrecking ball notching the first four point night (two goals, two assists) of his career in a 6-2 rout of the Chicago Blackhawks at Capital One Arena.

Braden Holtby did his part in this win, as well, stopping 37 of 39 shots, including all 16 he faced in a Hawks assault in the middle frame.

The victory increases the Caps record to 17-11-1 (35 points) and they are just a point out of first place in the Metropolitan Division heading into Friday’s big tilt at home against the New York Rangers.

Coach Barry Trotz’ club has now won six of their last seven games and are 12-0 when they score four or more goals this season.

Let’s get right to the highlights and analysis of Washington’s third straight victory.

There’s no better place to start than with the Gr8, he was simply fabulous with his all around play against Chicago. His pass to get Backstrom off of the schneid was dynamite and then his follow up rebound goal on Wilson’s breakaway was another example of Ovi’s improved physique and speed this season. When things got testy in period two, his hammered power play shot ricocheted off of J.F. Berube’s pads and right to Brett Connolly, who potted his third goal in three games to make it 4-1 and give Washington some much needed breathing room. Alex then really closed this one out with a great fore-check and pass to Evgeny Kuznetsov in the slot that Kuzy buried to make it 5-1 and end any potential for late game Blackhawks heroics. Ovechkin leads the NHL in goals with 21 and he has 32 points in 29 games. Yeah, he’s washed up, haters.

Backstrom, despite his goalless streak, has still been playing well. Night after night Coach Trotz puts him out against the opposition’s top center and he delivers a strong two way game. Now that he’s back where he should be, with Ovechkin, because he’s the one who knows best how to get the Gr8 the puck, he’s starting to get his points again. Backy was in the right spot in the slot for the all important first goal of the game at 11:54. His offensive zone faceoff win just under three minutes later resulted in Wilson’s first goal, which made it 2-0. That was a weak tally allowed by starting goalie, Anton Forsberg. On Connolly’s goal, the whole play was made by #19 fighting for a loose puck in the slot and getting it over to the Gr8 for his howitzer.

There were some skeptics when Coach Trotz bumped Wilson up to the first line with Ovechkin and Backstrom, but that move is paying off. Remember when the Caps first line used to be Ovi, Backy, and Troy Brouwer? Well Willy is filling the Brouwer role quite nicely, if not better. His steal set the first goal up. #43 is playing the best hockey of his career, right now, and he drew the penalty on Lance Bouma that led to the Connolly marker late in period two. This was after Bouma hurt Tom on a clean check where Willy had his arm extended and it got pinched on the boards in the defensive zone. Wilson went to the locker room and things looked ominous for the Caps with T.J. Oshie out due to Jumbo Joe’s cheap shot hit on Monday and Andre Burakovksy not likely back in the lineup until Friday.  Luckily Tom was okay and returned, looking no worse for the wear. Wilson is performing well because he’s shooting the puck and is an absolute beast on the fore-check. His PK skills are excellent and it was fitting that he closed the scoring out in this game with a shorthanded empty net tally. If Ryan Hartman wasn’t such a gutless coward, Willy would have had the Gordie on this night. Hartman’s late game despicable trip of Ovechkin, which could have caused a serious knee injury, really deserved an ass beating, but Ryan skated away.

Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana continue to play some excellent hockey on the second line, even without the Osh Babe on this night. Vrana is really using his speed to open up lanes and he’s been really solid in his own zone. He’s especially excelling with his pesky fore-checking that has been causing turnovers. Since the Calgary game, Kuzy has been insanely good and worthy of numerous fist bumps. He’s making the right plays all over the ice and his shoot versus pass decisions have been SPOT ON. #92 now has nine goals with seven of them coming in the last 10 games. When Washington gets the kind of one-two center play they are getting from Backstrom and Kuznetsov, they are hard to beat.

Goaltending is the strength of this Capitals team and both Holtby and Philipp Grubauer are currently delivering the big save when the team needs it. It is scary how well the Holtbeast is playing right now and there’s a serious argument to be made that he’s playing better than the last two seasons. He made several big stops when things were really dicey and the game was still in doubt. Over his last five starts, Holtby is 4-1-0 with a .932 save percentage and has stopped 69 of the last 74 shots he’s faced (h/t to the Capitals excellent PR staff).

Connolly has really taken advantage of the opportunity to fill the Oshie role on the first power play unit. Brett is doing the right things on the ice and he’s getting rewarded for it. He’s moving his feet and finding the soft spots in the defensive coverage on the ice where goals can be scored, in the slot and around the net.

Matt Niskanen probably had his best game of the season. He and Dmitry Orlov are returning to last year’s form. Nisky was +4 with an assist. Orlov continues to lead the charge on successful Capitals break outs and his long flip pass to Wilson on the third goal was just outstanding. #9 is getting better and better and his defensive zone play features some sneaky good physical play.

The Caps have done a better job at lowering the number of penalties they have been taking. On Monday they were whistled for four shorthanded situations, but two of the calls were horrendous, the board on Wilson when Gustav Forsling turned his back as #43 was about to hit him clean from the side (even the NBC announcers hated that call) and then the interference call on Ovechkin, when he stayed in his lane and didn’t move one way or the other to impede Bouma. Somehow clueless Dan O’Halloran and Jon McIsaac thought otherwise.

One thing the Capitals still have to work on is their defensive zone clears and their propensity to make offensive zone turnovers. Devante Smith-Pelly had a very soft behind the back defensive zone giveaway that led to a two on none for Chicago, but Holtby bailed DSP out. Ovechkin had a late turnover that led to a Jonathan Toews breakaway goal, but John Carlson was also to blame there for not being more responsible up four goals. Finally, Lars Eller had a bad offensive zone turnover when it was 5-1. #20 went across the blue line on a one on three and with no help coming he peeled off and tried a crazy cross ice pass that was stolen. The right play was a shot or dump of the puck behind the net. Right after that turnover, Brooks Orpik was called for hooking. If Eller makes the correct decision, there is no Chicago power play. Overall the Capitals had 22 giveaways, that is far too many and the biggest reason they have spells where they get outplayed and out shot.

I really liked the way both rookie defensemen Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos performed against a team with some high caliber players. There was one sequence where Djoos made a hit and a steal in his own end. We all know Christian is excellent in the offensive zone, but the key to his NHL tenure will be how much he improves defensively.

Overall though, this was a very impressive win with Oshie and Burakovsky out. Hopefully both will be back soon with #65 very likely for Friday’s tilt against the Blueshirts. Things are looking up for Washington, but it’s a tight division and the league is very balanced. They need to keep working hard and improving the little things in their game, especially the turnovers, if they want to move their way up the standings.

Notes: Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:47. Orpik was second with 22:19…the Caps lost the faceoff battle, 37-30, but Backstrom went 14-11…shots on goal were 39-25, for Chicago. Ovechkin led the Caps with six shots on goal…the Caps blocked 20 of the 68 shot attempts by the Blackhawks…the Caps were 1 for 3 on the power play and Chicago was 0 for 4.

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Grubauer and Ovechkin Help End Caps Drought vs. San Jose

Posted on 05 December 2017 by Ed Frankovic

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

Shark Sandwich. S—t Sandwich.

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

On Monday night, everything changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Holtby and Kuznetsov Help Caps Squeak by Columbus

Posted on 03 December 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Jeff Spicoli: Woah, you’re gonna flunk me?

Mr. Hand: Don’t worry Spicoli. You’ll probably squeak by.

On Saturday night against the young and hard working Columbus Blue Jackets, the Washington Capitals played a Jeff Spicoli-like hockey game. They squeaked by with two points, primarily due to their all world goaltender, Braden Holtby.

The Caps stormed out of the gate, against a CBus squad that had played and won the night before, thanks to some great forechecking and smart hockey. Brett Connolly and Alex Chiasson scored two markers from the slot before the game was 130 seconds old and it looked as if Coach Barry Trotz’ crew was going to lay a woodshed beating on the Blue Jackets.

That would not be the case.

Columbus outworked Washington over the last 15 minutes of the opening frame, but couldn’t dent the Holtbeast (32 saves) despite several quality chances. Coach John Tortorella’s squad carried that momentum into the middle frame and cut the deficit to one after a brutal Capitals turnover gave Artemi Panarin an easy back door tally. The Blue Jackets kept churning and the Caps kept giving the puck away, but #70 held the fort.

At about the game’s midpoint, the guys in red starting playing again and they nearly extended their lead. They looked poised to do that when they received a power play with less than five minutes to go in period two. After a face off win, John Carlson (two assists) blasted one from the point that may have been tipped by T.J. Oshie, but it hit the post. Columbus then went the other way and Mike Foligno was robbed by Holtby in a one on one sequence. Soon thereafter, Oshie made a poor pass to Nicklas Backstrom in his own end and Brandon Dubinsky gathered in the loose change and fed Matt Calvert in the slot. Calvert quickly deposited it by a screened Holtby with 3:32 left before the second intermission.

Suddenly the game was tied and Columbus had all of the momentum. Dmitry Orlov then drew a blatant holding call on Boone Jenner with 48 ticks left in period two. Washington needed just all of 10 seconds to regain the lead. Evgeny Kuznetsov made a great read and steal of a Columbus pass behind their net after a Jackets face off win and fed Backstrom on the right wing half wall. #19 moved it to #74 at the top of the point, who slid it to Alex Ovechkin in his office, and the Gr8 beat Sergei Bobrovsky (19 saves) short side for a key goal. That marker was Ovi’s 19th of the season (tied for the league lead with Nikita Kucherov of Tampa).

The Caps came out in period three and put the early pedal to the medal. Oshie had a nice zone entry and after stopping inside the blue line, he fed a charging Kuznetsov coming into the offensive zone. Carlson jumped up in the play and was heading to the net. Somehow #92 got the puck to Carlson and he tapped it back to Kuzy, who then put it into the vacant cage to make it 4-2 with 18:52 left in the contest.

With Columbus having played on Friday and then traveling to DC, one would think they’d be tired and go away, right? Not so fast. Coach Tortorella’s crew kept coming in waves into the Caps end, but somehow Braden made some amazing stops, including an all world glove save on Cam Atkinson, and then he got a great goal line clear from Jay Beagle to preserve a 4-3 victory.

The win improves Washington’s record to 15-11-1 (31 points) and puts them just four points in back of first place Columbus in the Metropolitan Division.

Here’s my thoughts and analysis of an important Caps victory.

The Holtbeast was the reason Washington won this game, plain and simple. The Capitals, while scoring four goals, were largely inept with the puck in this affair. It was turnover city in their own end and Oshie, Backstrom, Orlov, and Ovechkin were all guilty of terrible giveaways. Ovechkin (cross ice from his own end) and Oshie had especially bad ones in period three that need cleaning up going forward. For most of the game, the Caps were soft on their breakouts and the weak bump backs to the defensemen or soft chips from the winger to the center of the ice were time after time stolen by a young, hungry, well coached, and talented Columbus team. For some reason, the Capitals didn’t adjust and it resulted in numerous quality chances for the Blue Jackets. In the final frame it was all CBus as they outshot the Caps, 17-3. Tortorella’s well conditioned and youthful squad looked like the more rested club despite the actual schedule. Washington continually made poor decisions with the puck as they came across the blue line and they are lucky that Holtby flat out saved their asses.

That start, though, was totally awesome. Coach Trotz juggled his bottom six and it paid off. Connolly, who had been scratched for two games, was put back in. Tyler Graovac was sent to the press box and Nathan Walker, who only played seven games all season, was lost to Edmonton for minimal cash via the waiver wire (the Caps hoped to sneak him through to Hershey to get some playing time). Lars Eller, who had been struggling, was put with Connolly and Chandler Stephenson on the third line and they got the ball rolling early. Orlov made his best play of the night, a nice carry in to the offensive zone, enabling the Caps to set up a cycle situation. Eller received the puck on the right wing boards from Brooks Orpik and #20 found Connolly alone in the slot. With Stephenson in front of Bob, #10 one timed the biscuit home. It was a goal very reminiscent of Connolly’s tallies last season. This game was easily Brett’s best of the 2017-18 campaign. Gone were the lunging and reaching plays he’d been making most of the year and instead he was moving his feet and using his body to win puck battles. If he keeps that up, he will be successful like he was in 2016-17.

Washington’s second goal was just another case of getting pucks and bodies to the net. Matt Niskanen made a nice pinch in on the right wing boards and he fired a hard, low shot on Bobrovsky that bounced into the slot. Chiasson gathered the rebound in the high danger area and whipped it by #72 at the 2:06 mark. Those two goals were textbook smart hockey. Good things happen when you shoot and had Washington stuck to that recipe, it might have been “Just a walk in the park, Kazansky,” but the Caps reverted to bad form shortly afterwards.

On the good side, Kuznetsov continues to play well. He was Coach Trotz’s best forward in this one and since the Calgary game that’s been the case, consistently. Kuzy is not over passing and he’s shooting the puck. He’s now up to nine goals and his line, with Jakub Vrana and Oshie, is playing well. The Osh Babe needs to start shooting more, though. #13 has been using his speed to get to the net and open up lanes for his line mates. Jakub and Kuzy are a major reason the Caps have won four of their last five games. Orpik (assist, +2 in 22:40) was the Capitals best blue liner in this one, although Carlson had a good game, as well.

Many others on this club were flat out inconsistent on Saturday night. Niskanen, who has been mostly struggling all season, primarily due to missing 13 games with a hand injury, still does not look 100% healthy on the ice and the Capitals need their best blue liner from last season back in top form. Hopefully whatever is ailing him is taken care of here in the short term.

Washington has to lose the cross ice passes, especially when up two pucks in the third period. Aside from the many defensive zone blunders, there were too many times that the Capitals tried that fancy pass inside the offensive blue line instead of putting the puck on or behind the net. It was just bad hockey and you rarely see Columbus make those mistakes. They are a very impressive team and, at this point, I have to make them the favorites to win the Metro division because they are structured and play hard. Columbus certainly deserved a better fate on Saturday, but goaltending was the difference.

On Monday night the Caps will take on the San Jose Sharks, a team who routinely whips their butts. If the Caps play like they did on Saturday against Columbus, it will be another blowout by the guys in teal and black. Holtby can’t keep nearly single handedly winning games for the Caps, this team has to get back to consistently playing the right way, like they did in the three affairs sandwiched around Thanksgiving.

Sneaking by may have cut it for Spicoli at Ridgemont High and for the Caps on Saturday night against Columbus, but that method is a long term recipe for failure.

Coach Trotz’s crew needs to say “Aloha” to the turnovers and poor decisions and get back to playing hard, intelligent hockey.

Notes: Washington won the face off battle, 37-23. Beagle, who lifted Panarin’s stick to stave off the tying goal, was 10-2. Backstrom was 13-8…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 24:55, but Carlson logged 24:42…Madison Bowey, who struggled in Thursday’s bad loss to the Kings, only played 10:21. Rookie Christian Djoos only received 12:41 of time. It’s a learning process for both young blue liners…Stephenson was rocked by a Seth Jones hit in period one. He played in the first 40 minutes, but left before the 3rd period with an upper body injury and is day to day…Ovechkin and Backstrom were both -2…once again, Holtby’s glove save on Cam Atkinson late in the game was unbelievable. Braden made a ton of Ten Bell saves in this affair. All hail the Holtbeast!

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Holtby Oil

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Braden Holtby Steals A Win For the Caps

Posted on 12 November 2017 by Ed Frankovic

“Este es un robo!”

The Washington Capitals stole a hockey game on Sunday night.

Well, let me rephrase that, Braden Holtby stole a hockey game on Sunday night, so move over Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!

The Edmonton Oilers, who played on Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, came into Capital One Arena on Sunday evening and after a sleepy first period, totally outworked the Caps in this affair, outshot attempting Washington, 64-35.

The Oilers top line of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Patrick Maroon absolutely destroyed the Caps top two lines in the matchup department, but primarily due to the Holtbeast (29 saves), they were held pointless.

This was a low energy game and Washington, after a strong first period, could not get the first goal. Edmonton goalie, Laurent Brossoit (18 saves), made a couple of quality stops on Devante Smith-Pelly from the right doorstep in the first two periods, but for the most part, he wasn’t tested much, especially during two early Caps power plays that looked nothing like the unit that went two for six against the Penguins on Friday night.

In fact, a lot of things didn’t look like the stellar Capitals win over the Pens on Sunday, except for Holtby.

Edmonton’s only marker of the night came after the Oilers “Household Name” line of Ryan Strome, Iiro Pakarinen, and Jujhar Khaira totally outworked the Caps fourth line of Jay Beagle, Brett Connolly, and Alex Chiasson plus the defensive pair of Brooks Orpik and John Carlson. That trio worked the puck behind the Capitals net and after Holtby stopped Pakarinen on a backhanded stuff attempt, Khaira put the biscuit in the basket on the rebound.

Washington then amped their game up and some good work by the Caps third line of Lars Eller, Tom Wilson, and Jakub Vrana plus the defensive pair of Madison Bowey and Dmitry Orlov led to the equalizer. That group of five skaters forced two turnovers before Bowey got the puck at the right point, alertly recognized that there were too many Oilers between him and the net, and slid the puck to #9 at the left point. Dmitry then worked a sweet give and go with Wilson with Willy providing a “Backstrom-like” behind the back pass to a streaking Orlov in the slot. Dima would notch his first goal of the season with a laser to the far right corner to even the contest up just less than four minutes after the “Household Name” line grabbed the lead for Edmonton.

From there, the Oilers carried a large majority of the play, but no one could score. On to overtime this one went and Holtby had the biggest save in three on three with a major portion of the extra session looking like a soccer overlap drill. McDavid did have a semi-breakaway in overtime, but he shot wide when the Holtbeast challenged him.

In the gimmick, T.J. Sochi scored on his first attempt and Holtby denied Draisaitl, McDavid, and Mark Letestu to complete what felt like a grand theft auto type of win for the Caps. The Osh Babe really owns the shootout and Oshie, along with Holtby, were the difference in who received the bonus point.

Overall, there was a lot to dislike in this contest. Washington had nowhere near the energy level they had against the Penguins. Orlov was one of the major bright spots not only for scoring the tying goal, but his play at both ends of the rink was outstanding all 65 minutes. Wilson brought it in this tilt, too, fighting Maroon, drawing a power play early on when the “The Nuge” hooked him, and then making a great pass to help get the game all squared up.

On the flip side of the coin, Alex Ovechkin had no shots on goal and eight shot attempts in 23:48 of ice time. His center, Evgeny Kuznetsov, had another off night at the office, primarily because he tries too hard to set guys up instead of shooting the puck. There were two very notable situations where he chose to pass from the high danger area of the offensive zone instead of shooting and in both instances, the Caps never ended up with a shot on goal during that sequence. Kuzy talked to Isabelle Khurshudyan of The Washington Post about his terrible decision to pass up a shot in overtime last Monday night against Arizona explaining that he shouldn’t shoot if he hasn’t done the work on the play. This explanation is preposterous. This is a shoot first league and not firing on net, especially when you have teammates who have worked their tails off and sacrificed their bodies to go to the cage, is disrespectful to them.

Bottom line, #92 passing up shots from the high danger area, a place where the two time defending Stanley Cup Champions had the biggest advantage during their championship runs, HURTS THE TEAM! Kuznetsov has to learn that a shot and a rebound is many times the best pass. Coach Barry Trotz and his staff need to nip this problem in the bud right now because we’ve seen it far too often in the playoffs when the chips are on the line.

In summary, this was a poor effort from the Capitals and they can thank their MVP goalie, who is now 10-3, for this win.

All hail the Holtbeast!

Notes: Shots on goal were 30-19 for the Oilers…Edmonton won the faceoff battle, 30-27, but Nicklas Backstrom was 10-2…Orlov led the Caps in shots on goal with four…Connolly returned to the lineup for the first time since suffering a concussion in Vancouver on October 26th…Bowey was very solid in 16:51 of ice time as was Christian Djoos, who played 14:40…Carlson logged 29:17 while Orpik played 23:57. The Capitals blue line was good in this matchup, so the forwards were the primary reason for the shot attempt disparity…the Caps, who are now 10-7-1 (21 points), will play in Nashville on Tuesday night at 8 pm.

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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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