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Connolly SCF

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Caps Championship Thoughts and More Breakdown Day Coverage

Posted on 14 June 2018 by Ed Frankovic

It’s been exactly a week since the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup and the vibe I’ve been getting around the DMV is that people are still basking in the afterglow of the victory and are dying for more information and news on the team. It’s pretty apparent that this group of players, coaches, training staff, and managers will be heroes, at least in this part of the country, for the rest of their lives. Owner Ted Leonsis and Team President Dick Patrick have put their heart and soul, plus a lot of money, into this organization over the years and are finally being rewarded with a Championship.

Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby, Coach Barry Trotz, and the others on this team have silenced the critics with this amazing season that included a Metropolitan Division title, when most people had them barely getting into the post season or not making it at all. Once game three of the Columbus series began, they went on an incredible 16-6 run in which they overcame a games deficit in all four rounds to capture Lord Stanley’s Cup. It was a remarkable display of grit, toughness, perseverance, and desire to do what had never been done by the franchise before.

There were many moments along the way where they seemed destined to fail, but somehow found a way to push through. Columbus hits the post in game three of the first overtime that would’ve given them a 3-0 series lead before Lars Eller’s magical goal off of a Brett Connolly shot. Tom Kuhnhackl hits the post in overtime of game six before Evgeny Kuznetsov takes that super pass from Ovechkin to finally slay the Penguins dragon. The Caps give up a two game series lead to Tampa with three straight losses, but shut out the Bolts over the final 159 minutes of the series to storm into the Cup Final. In game two of the Stanley Cup Final, with 1:59 remaining and a one goal lead, the Holtbeat makes “The Save” on Alex Tuch to prevent overtime and propel Washington to four straight wins and hockey’s ultimate prize.

It was clear that the tightness of this team provided the foundation that allowed them to rise up and seize the critical moments in the postseason that the Washington Capitals had never done before, in any era. It was legendary, that’s the best way for me to describe it and as each moment since has transpired, I am appreciating more and more what they’ve accomplished. Many in Caps Nation surely feel the same way. Thank you, 2018 Washington Capitals.

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Wednesday was breakdown day at Kettler IcePlex, as I chronicled yesterday in this blog, but as promised, below is the transcript of a one on one exclusive interview WNST was able to obtain with Connolly, who came to Washington in 2016 looking for an opportunity after stints with Tampa and Boston, and has completely seized it.

WNST: You’ve been telling me for two years since you’ve been here that you guys have a good team, but the way you guys played and came together, that was amazing.

Connolly:  Yeah, it was amazing, such a good group, such a committed group, such a highly skilled group. We really just came together at the right time, especially after that Pittsburgh series where we first really believed we could win this. It’s such a big moment for all of us, we’re all just so happy that we could ultimately get this done for all of our fans, for our families, it was such a special moment.

WNST: Coach Trotz told us when he came out to Baltimore that this team this year, whenever he asked someone to move around in the lineup, that he received no push back. That seems to really speak to the type of team you had this year?

Connolly: Yeah, I think you have to be playing the guys that are playing well, whether you’re a veteran guy or a rookie guy, it doesn’t matter. I think we were just cheering for whoever was in, whoever was getting more ice time that night. If a guy wasn’t playing well we’d pick him up, he’d ultimately change his game and they’d figure it out. It was just a good environment to be in, everyone was playing their best hockey at the right time of the year.

WNST: The way you, Jakub Vrana, and Andre Burakovsky played in the playoffs, all three of you guys have always had high skill, but the way the three of you took the body, were in the proper position on the walls, it seemed like that was the biggest jump you guys made and was a big part of the team’s success. Would you agree with that?

Connolly: Yes, I think so. I think I got a little taste of [the playoffs] last year, I didn’t play a whole lot, there were a lot of other guys deserving of that chance and I just wasn’t, but I think I got a little confidence from that, just knowing what to expect. I think we all really just played solid, just did what was asked of us, we didn’t really care. I think overall a lot of our games got better throughout the playoffs. It was ultimately why a lot of us were successful and had good stats and helped the team win.

WNST: It seems like every time an obstacle was thrown at you guys, you overcame it. First one, game three against Columbus, you score a goal that would’ve made it 2-0, it comes back on an offside, but on the game winning goal in double overtime, you make a smart play by shooting quickly and the puck goes in off of Lars Eller for the team’s first win.

Connolly: Simple, but that’s the playoffs, really simple. I had a couple of those in the postseason, just need a break sometimes and I just tried to shoot it as quick as I could and as hard as I could. You know we were earning all of our breaks in the playoffs, we were working for each other and I think we legitimately deserved everything we got.

WNST: The last goal of the Stanley Cup playoffs, you didn’t score the goal, but it was your shot, with again Lars going to the net. This team did that the whole playoffs.

Connolly: Yeah, just the same thing. Lars was hungry all playoffs, he’s a guy that’s going to the net all of the time. He really, really elevated his game the whole playoffs. Really awesome to see, he really turned a lot of heads. Such a big moment for the city, for me, him, and Burkie, whoever was on the ice, at that point.

WNST: You’ve been here two years, I grew up here, I’ve been around this team for 44 years. I don’t know how much you realize what legends you guys are going to be around this area to finally bring a Cup here. This team was gone in 1982, but for the Save the Caps. Then in 2004 it is gone again if Ovi doesn’t comes along. You guys now go and win a Cup and have put it over the top.

Connolly: It’s pretty cool. We saw the support at the parade. People are on cloud nine and it’s amazing to see everybody so happy. It’s really cool to be a part of something like that. To put so many smiles on so many people’s faces. There’s been so much good support the last couple of years I’ve been here, but that parade was insane and it was something that I’ll never forget and a lot of guys will never forget.

WNST: What are you going to do with the Cup?

Connolly: I’m going to go home to British Columbia, Prince George, just take it around town. I don’t know what we’ll do, but just try to get as many people to see it as possible.

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Connolly is definitely one of the better interviews on the team and I’ve appreciated his insight since he joined the Caps last season. He has worked hard to improve and he’s made General Manager Brian MacLellan and his scouting staff look super smart for bringing him to town. Kudos, Brett.

In yesterday’s blog, I failed to mention that Kuznetsov’s injury from the Brayden McNabb hit in game two was to his left shoulder. Fortunately, Kuzy is a smaller version of the Russian Machine that Never Breaks and came back in game three to lead his team to victory with an outstanding performance. All season long, in this blog and in my radio sessions with WNST owner Nestor Aparacio, I showered number 92 with tough love. He is an immensely talented hockey player who I knew, if he took his game to another level and played the right way, would be such a key to the Capitals finally breaking through into the later rounds of the playoffs. Boy did he do just that, and more. Evgeny led all players in scoring in the playoffs and he delivered when the team really needed him to do so. He has moved himself from the very good category to the elite/superstar level with his postseason performance. He earned every bit of the $7.8M he received from the Caps this past season.

The Caps now have a short turnaround for training camp, which will start around September 10th or so. It’s already June 14th, so there will be less time to get ready. Jay Beagle, who has won championships at the ECHL, AHL, and now the NHL level did point out that the short time to get ready isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Beags said that in the three summers following his ECHL and two AHL triumphs, he was more motivated to train and that he didn’t have to work hard to prevent losing focus like he’s done when the team has been eliminated earlier in the spring. So it would appear that this summer the Caps players do have that going for them….which is nice.

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Osh Babe SCF 4

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10 Thoughts on the Caps As They Try To Close Out Vegas

Posted on 05 June 2018 by Ed Frankovic

“All we need is one pin, Rodney”

That classic line from Ben Davidson to Rodney Dangerfield in that famed Miller Lite Commercial from way back in 1982 now applies to the Washington Capitals.

The Caps, who didn’t get much respect last summer or even in the early rounds of this spring’s playoffs, now have a chance to skate with the Stanley Cup with one more triumph in their best of seven series with the Vegas Golden Knights. Washington used a furious final 10 minutes of period one in game four to tally three times en route to a 4-0 lead after two periods and eventually a 6-2 victory.

Six different players lit the lamp for the Caps and now they head to Sin City for game five on Thursday night at 8 pm with a chance to take Lord Stanley.

What follows are 10 thoughts and analysis of a huge victory in front of another rowdy crowd at Capital One Arena.

I Got You Babe – The Caps had a very shaky first nine minutes with the Golden Knights missing some superb chances, including Reilly Smith misfiring from in tight when he appeared to have the left side of the cage available and then James Neal hitting the post on the power play with a yawning cage in front of him. After those misses, Vegas’ Colin Miller was called for a blatant trip of Lars Eller in the neutral zone at 9:22. Thirty-two seconds later, the Capitals fans were up and out of their seats when T.J. Oshie buried the rebound of an Evgeny Kuznetsov shot off of Marc-Andre Fleury (17 saves). Oshie going to the net for the loose change was a common theme in this affair for Washington, who primarily won the game because of their net presence and stronger net front protection on defense. The Osh Babe, who some wanted to be let go as a free agent last June, now has eight goals in this postseason and is fourth on the team in points (21). T.J.’s two assists were critical ones, as well. His first helper came on the power play when he won a puck battle in front of the Vegas net that allowed Kuzy to set up John Carlson for the fourth Caps tally. In period three, after Nicklas Backstrom won a board battle in the neutral zone against two Golden Knights, Oshie skated in and dropped the puck to Backy with Miller closing in on him. T.J. made contact with Miller, who immediately bent over covering his face. Backstrom would skate in and feed Michal Kempny cross ice for a dagger four on four goal that made it 5-2 with 6:21 remaining. Vegas coach Gerard Gallant afterwards said Miller broke his nose and that Oshie should’ve been penalized. To me, it was just a hockey play and Miller hasn’t won over the zebras with his penalties and moments of embellishment, especially against #77, in this series. The Osh Babe was relentless in his pursuit of the puck in this tilt and earned the game’s number one star in 17:37 of ice time. Oshie was also cross checked badly by the reckless Brayden McNabb with 2:16 remaining, but was fine after the contest.

Magic Man – Following up on his number one star performance in game three, Evgeny Kuznetsov had another spectacular affair with four assists in 20:37 of ice time and was named the night’s second star. Kuzy had the primary assists on three of the first four Caps goals, the first by shooting and generating a juicy rebound and the other two with gorgeous feeds to Tom Wilson and Carlson, respectively. Number 92 logged 20:37 of ice time and leads the entire NHL in playoff points (31). He has 12 goals and 19 assists and is a big reason why the Caps are in the Final and leading. All season long I’ve talked and blogged about how important he is to this team and he’s taken his game to superstar status this post season.

Under the Radar – Backstrom quietly had three assists in this victory while and he his linemates neutralized the Vegas top trio of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, and Riley Smith. Nicky’s two way play and shut down ability really allows Coach Barry Trotz to get some advantageous matchups, especially at home. Number 19 has 22 points in 19 playoff games and continues to be outstanding despite a less than 100% right hand.

Commitment – Washington blocked 24 shots in game four and 20 of them came from Capital blue liners. Brooks Orpik led the way with six while Kempny had five, and Matt Niskanen had four. Two of the four Caps forward blocked shots came on one shift, with Brett Connolly (1 goal) getting in the way of two point blasts. The Capitals continue to get in the shooting lanes while allowing their goaltender to see the shots, so if they don’t block it, he can make the save. At the other end, the Golden Knights only had eight shot blocks.

Power Station – The Caps power play went 0 for 4 in game three, but on Monday night they exploded with a three for five outing, including scoring on their first two attempts to break the game open in the first forty minutes. The initial PP marker came on the rush (Oshie’s rebound goal) and then the second was a real back breaker for Vegas, Carlson’s blast from the Ovi spot. Credit special teams coach, Blaine Forsythe, for adjusting things up front. An Alex Ovechkin and Carlson swap opened up a huge passing lane since the Golden Knights had a forward come up way high at the point to try and limit the Gr8, and Kuznetsov exploited it.

Last Line of Defense – This was far from the Caps best game overall as they gave up many high danger scoring chances, something they did a better job of limiting in game three. Fortunately for the Capitals, they blocked several shots and more importantly, Braden Holtby (28 saves) was once again dialed in. The Holtbeast continues to be the key for Washington in these playoffs with stellar goaltending, something you must have to win a Championship.

Be Good Johnny – “Big Game” Carlson continued his incredible season with a laser of a goal in 25:07 of team and game leading ice time. Carly took two penalties in the first half of the game, but was a force defensively with his positioning and most importantly, his zone clears. When the stakes get high, this guy always seems to up his game to another level. He has five goals and 14 assists in the 2018 post season. Pay the Man!

Land of Opportunity – Both teams had scoring chances in this game, but it’s been the Capitals who have made the most of their opportunities, after Vegas did so in game one, by getting to the front of the net and notching in close tallies on Fleury. Washington, after getting the lead, has taken advantage of the Vegas blue line pinching in the offensive zone to generate odd man rushes. Ovechkin had a pair of two on ones when the Capitals had a lead, but was too unselfish and forced a pass when the shot was there. In game five, the Gr8 needs to think shoot first, because he has the best one in the league and if Fleury makes the save, there’s a good chance a rebound will occur.

Road Warriors – The Caps are 9-3 on the road in the playoffs and a big reason is their ability to play the right way. Washington doesn’t get fancy and employs more of a north-south style away from Capital One Arena. Part of the Capitals poor first nine minutes on Monday was their inability to get pucks deep; there were too many east-west passes in the neutral zone. The Capitals are at their best when they have the lead and play that 1-1-3 formation that forces their opponents to really gamble to beat it. In game five, limiting turnovers, keeping Vegas on the perimeter, and crashing the net is the formula for success. This game is the first ever in Washington hockey history where they can win the Cup. As Coach Trotz stated after game four, he’s excited because the Caps still haven’t played their best game in this series yet. I concur, they have another level they can get to and it starts with good puck management.

“All we need is one win”

Notes – Washington lost the face off battle, 33-31, but the second Caps goal came off of a faceoff where Ovi put a nice stick lift check on Deryk Engelland to jar the puck free and start the cycle play…Jay Beagle went 8-7 to lead the Caps while Karlsson was 10-4 for Vegas…the Golden Knights had 39 hits to 29 for the Capitals. Orpik led Washington with six and Wilson had four…Shea Theodore led Vegas in ice time with 23:36…the end of the game turned into a mess when the Golden Knights lost their composure. McNabb hit Oshie with a bit of a cheap shot and then Ryan Reaves tried to go after several Caps, including Orpik, before being tossed by referees Chris Rooney and Kelly Sutherland. Engelland and Oshie were also given late misconducts…in a classy move, Caps radio play by play man, John Walton, brought back long time Caps broadcaster (1974-1997), Ron Weber, to call the game’s first period. Afterwards I caught up with JW and congratulated him on the move. John responded by stating that “Ron was a plus three!”

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O Halloran Ovi

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Caps Overcome Adversity in 6-2 Rout of Tampa

Posted on 14 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals reeled off five unanswered goals to erase a 2-1 first period deficit to knock off the
Tampa Bay Lightning, 6-2, in game two of the Eastern Conference Final and the Caps will head home to the DMV with a 2-0 series lead.

Tom Wilson put the Capitals on the board just 28 seconds into this affair by tipping home a Matt Niskanen point blast. Washington came out fast and furious when the Bolts were supposed to be the more desperate team and they had some chances to increase their lead. On a rush to the Tampa net at the 6:48 mark, Wilson skated hard to the cage hoping for a back door pass, was hooked by Chris Kunitz and then spun around by Ryan McDonagh and crashed into goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and the goal frame. Referee Dan O’Halloran, who the Capitals were 0-6 lifetime as a zebra in the playoffs coming into this affair, ignored the Kunitz hook and McDonagh contact and instead called Willy for goalie interference. Tampa needed all of 20 seconds to tie it up on a Brayden Point shot.

Sure, that call on Wilson could’ve gone either way, and there are valid arguments on both sides, but then something happened that should never occur in a playoff game of this magnitude. Victor Hedman was hit in the face by a puck and T.J. Oshie, who put his stick up to try and get the biscuit, but never came close to contacting Hedman’s upper body, was boxed for a phantom high sticking penalty. How does that happen with two referees and two linesmen? Surely one of them had to see it was not high sticking? Anyways, that was a bad call, for sure, and Steven Stamkos scored back door late in that power play to give the Bolts a 2-1 lead at 10:22 that they certainly didn’t deserve.

At that point, it was really important how the Capitals players and coaches would react. Would they lose their minds and get caught up in the incompetent O’Halloran officiating or would they remain calm, stick to their game plan, and focus on getting even on the scoreboard?

Judging by the last 49 plus minutes, it was clearly the latter. Even in the final nine minutes of period one, the Capitals pushed the play and had several scoring chances drawing extensive praise from Mike Milbury on NBC and then Keith Jones and Eddie Olczyk between periods. Olczyk even disagreed with the call on Wilson, pointing out the missed hook on Kunitz on a scoring chance.

The Caps would not tie it up in period one, but the tone was set and early in period two they got even. John Carlson stole an errant Tampa pass and sprung Alex Chiasson, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Jay Beagle on a three on one rush. Chiasson fed DSP and Devante was able to one time home a puck that didn’t really settle on the ice for him. The biscuit hit the far post and went in behind Vasilevskiy to really give Washington a huge goal and momentum.

The remainder of the period was tense back and forth and the Caps were getting the better of the chances, but #88 was playing fairly well in the cage. At 15:48 of period two, Michal Kempny took an unnecessary interference penalty so the Tampa power play, which had scored three of the Bolts four goals in the series, had a chance to give the home squad the lead. Washington, however, would easily kill of the infraction and they immediately started pressing the Tampa defense again.

With just over a minute left in period two, Oshie went in on a fore check and forced Anton Stralman to turn the puck over. The speedy Jakub Vrana pounced on the loose disc and alertly fed a camped in front Lars Eller on the doorstep and #20 put the biscuit in the basket for a 3-2 Caps lead with 62 seconds to go in the middle frame. Speed kills, and Tampa was supposed to be the faster team, but a fresh Andre Burakovsky put massive pressure on the fore check on the Bolts and Vasilevskiy stuck his skate out and tripped #65 with 10 seconds remaining. Once again, the Capitals won a big offensive zone faceoff as Eller beat Tyler Johnson drawing the puck to Alex Ovechkin (1 goal, 1 assist) on the left wing boards. Ovi quickly wheeled it around the back boards to Evgeny Kuznetsov and with Eller crashing the cage, Kuzy fired on net from just above the goal line. The Bolts keeper was intent on stopping that pass to Lars, but Evgeny put a lot of mustard on it and it banked in off of his pads and into the cage for a 4-2 Washington lead with just three seconds left.

That last minute, like the last 10 seconds of period one on Friday night in game one, was a huge lift to the Caps and a major deflator for Tampa. However, there were still 20 minutes left and given how the Bolts responded with a strong third period in game one, the Capitals had to be careful and concerned.

It was Washington, however, that carried the even strength play in period three and just 3:34 into the final stanza they increased their lead to three pucks. Wilson made a great chip out past a pinching Braydon Coburn on the Bolts left wing boards getting the disc to Kuzy, who immediately recognized he had a two on one with Alexander the Great. When Stralman left his feet early to try and cut off the pass to Ovi, Kuzy skated in closer and slid the puck to Ovechkin backdoor. The Gr8 made no mistake about burying the super feed over Vasilevskiy’s outstretched pad.

At that point, only a Capitals turnover or penalty would allow Tampa to get back in the game and Kempny made another poor decision at 6:55 with a high cross check on Cedric Paquette in front of Braden Holtby. Washington, however, would do another stellar job on the PK and the Bolts found themselves constantly struggling to get through the maze of players the Caps had stacked in the neutral zone and on their own blue line. Time and time again the Bolts would rush up the ice and be swarmed by guys in white at the blue line. The result was lots of turnovers when Tampa didn’t dump the puck in. At 12:57, Washington would get yet another odd man rush and Eller fed a flying Brett Connolly in the high slot where #10 one timed it past the Bolts goaltender to make it 6-2. One of Connolly’s big strengths is his ability to get off a shot very quickly and his tally bit the hand that once fed him in Tampa.

This was a huge victory and in the series the Capitals are dominating the Bolts at even strength. Washington’s speedy forwards that include Burakovsky, Vrana, Kuzentsov, Eller, Chandler Stephenson, and Connolly are really forcing the Tampa defense into poor positioning and mistakes. In the series, the Caps have outscored the Lightning, 8-1, when the manpower is even.

The Caps are playing good defense and blocking a lot of shots, plus anything that gets through to Holtby (35 saves) is pretty much being stopped. Most of Tampa’s looks are coming from the perimeter while Washington is getting into the high danger scoring areas more often. Simply put, the Capitals have looked faster and fresher and getting both Burakovsky and Wilson back plus the emergence of Vrana and Stephenson have changed the offensive dynamic for Coach Barry Trotz. Nicklas Backstrom has yet to play in this series due to his injured right hand, but with Kuzy and Eller stepping up and then Stephenson centering a very good third line with Burkie and Connolly, this Caps team has a dangerous top nine. Everyone knew about the firepower of Ovechkin and Oshie, but the Capitals have pretty much everyone on those first three lines clicking on all cylinders. Add in some fourth line goals (Beagle in game one and DSP in game two) and it’s easy to see why the Caps are up in this series.

On the back end, all six defensemen are doing a great job of making solid breakout passes. There have been some hiccups, most notably a turnover by Niskanen that led to Johnson hitting the post when the game was tied in period two, but overall the pass out of the zone is allowing Washington to move into the Tampa end with speed and put a not so fast D that includes Dan Girardi, Coburn, and McDonagh on their heels. Dmitry Orlov has been sensational with his ability to turn defense into offense for the Capitals.

Add in some clutch goaltending and you can see why this series is at two games to nil.

But the series is not over until one team gets to four wins and Washington must stick to the script at home and play the same way they’ve done in amassing a 7-1 road record in this 2018 post season. The Caps can’t try to impress their fans with over passing and fancy plays. They must adhere to a game plan that is hard on the puck, swarms the Bolts in all zones, and is focused on north-south hockey. The cross ice passes, especially at the offensive blue line, are the ones Washington must keep out of their arsenal because the Bolts feast on odd man rushes. Finally, staying out of the box is paramount. O’Halloran and Brad Meier had a poor first period and it was nearly costly for the Caps. Even strength play has been good for the Capitals so far in this series, so it’s to their advantage to keep it that way.

Notes: Carlson had two assists and led the Caps in ice time with 25:01. Niskanen logged 23:10 and Orlov played 22:44…the Caps were one for three on the power play while Tampa went two for four…the face off edge went to the Lightning, 36-28, but the Capitals won that huge draw late in period two on the power play. Beagle was 11-7 and Eller went 10-9 from the dot…Orpik and Wilson each had six hits while Ovechkin had five…game three is Tuesday at 8 pm from Capital One Arena.

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Puck Not In

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Holtby Outplays Murray in a Caps 4-1 Triumph in Game Two

Posted on 30 April 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Braden Holtby made 32 saves and Alex Ovechkin, Jakub Vrana, Brett Connolly, and Nicklas Backstrom tallied for Washington in a 4-1 game two victory at Capital One Arena on Sunday afternoon. The Caps triumph ties the series up at one apiece, with games three and four slated for Pittsburgh on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively.

This was one heck of a hockey game and there were many significant events to cover, so without further adieu, here are my thoughts and analysis of the Capitals second victory in five tries on home ice this postseason.

Style Change – In game one, the Capitals, despite an early 2-0 third period lead, found themselves getting involved in a Penguins style of affair. Time after time the puck went up and down the ice with both teams willing to trade chances. With Pittsburgh’s high end skill, it’s a format they love playing because they know if the opposition roles the dice enough times, they will burn them with goals going the other way. In the first and third periods on Sunday afternoon, Washington played the right way and refused to get into a run and gun affair and that is a big reason why they tied this series up. The Caps must continue to play smart if they want to have a chance to win this best of seven second round matchup. If the Caps get a lead, they would be wise to go to their 1-3-1 or 1-2-2 defensive posture where they clog the neutral zone and defensive blue line. Stopping the Penguins speed and playing for counter attacks is a strategy that worked well the last time the Capitals were in Pittsburgh and wrapped up the Metropolitan Division Title.

The Best, Jerry, The Best – There’s no doubt in my mind that the Jake Guentzel-Sidney Crosby-Patric Hornqvist line is the best trio in the NHL. That unit has speed, skill, and grit and they were the biggest reason that the Pens rallied from a 2-0 hole in game one to seize a series opening victory. Most of their damage last Thursday came against the Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Tom Wilson line. In game two, Coach Barry Trotz made a tactical adjustment and deployed Backstrom’s line (includes Chandler Stephenson and T.J. Oshie) against Sid the Kid and company, since he had last change at home. Crosby logged 23:37 in this tilt while Nicky played 22:35. #87 was held pointless and also took a hooking penalty on Backstrom that led to Vrana’s power play tally which made it 2-0 late in period one. Simply put, the Backstrom line did their job by neutralizing the Penguins top unit in game two. The challenge, however, is that in the next two games, Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan has last change and therefore has a better shot at getting his best trio away from Nicky’s line. This means that the Lars Eller and Kuznetsov units need to step up and try and contain the best line in hockey.

Penn and Teller Moment – NBC (PENBC?!) kept showing a replay of the Hornqvist shot that the Penguins believe they scored on to make it 3-2 midway through period three, but referee Chris Rooney, who was in perfect position, immediately signaled no goal and the overhead replay confirmed the call from the Toronto war room. In the tone of one Buford T. Justice of Smokey and the Bandit lore, “there was no evidence to prove a goal was scored.” The emphasis there is on the word “Evidence” as Jackie Gleason would put it. Both Crosby and Hornqvist were seen overlooking the monitor of their broadcasting pal and chief cheer leader, Pierre McGuire, at center ice and screaming goal, but that angle from the front, is a three dimensional picture being transformed into a two dimensional array and then shown on television. Simply put, it is not accurate, it’s an optical illusion, and the math will prove it. The only definitive angle is the direct overhead camera, which showed the puck on the line, just like the photo provided by NHL.COM that accompanies this blog.

Glitchy Glove 2? – Columbus chased Caps starter Philipp Grubauer in the opening round by exposing his not so stellar glove hand. So far in two games in this series, the Capitals have done the same thing to Penguins goalie Matt Murray. All three of Washington’s non empty net tallies on Sunday were over the glove hand. Connolly was asked if the Caps have found a weakness, but #10 was noncommittal, noting that most right handed shooters prefer to fire for that side. Ovi and Connolly are both righties, but Vrana is a lefty and he deftly lifted his tally just over Murray’s glove. #30 is an excellent goalie and he made several big stops to his blocker side, including an amazing stick save on Ovechkin late in period one that would’ve made it 3-0, but the Capitals appear on to something going high glove side on the two time Stanley Cup Champion.

Down for an Eight Count – The Penguins best defensive defensemen, Brian Dumolin, left this game in the second period and would not return after hitting his head on Wilson’s shoulder trying to avoid a charging Ovechkin. Wilson was closely tracking Dumolin and when #8 saw the Gr8 coming, he leaned back to avoid what seemed to be a major collision and smashed his head on Willy’s shoulder. Dumolin went to the ice and would not return. Afterwards, Crosby was complaining that Wilson’s reputation supports the fact that it was a dirty hit, but that’s just posturing in order to get the referees on your side. This was nothing more than a hockey play with three players close together and one guy making a wrong move that unfortunately led to injury.

Infirmary – With Evgeni Malkin, Carl Hagelin, and Andre Burakovsky out of the lineup in games one and two, both teams were playing short of their optimal roster with the Pens obviously taking the worst of it without the dominant #71. I expect Geno to play game three, but Dumolin is a question mark for the Pens and on the Caps side, Oshie injured his hand late in regulation blocking a shot. T.J. was unable to hold his stick and cleared the defensive zone one handed, then went straight to the bench. If #77 fractured or broke his hand, the Capitals are in big trouble.

Let’s Get Together and Feel Alright – Kuznetsov needs to be better going forward in this series with his puck management. Holtby made an amazing save on the no goal play, but it doesn’t happen if Kuzy is more responsible with the puck in the neutral zone. #92 misplayed the disc and Crosby nearly made Washington pay. In addition, Ovechkin needs to be stronger defensively in his own zone. Too many times, especially late in period two, the Penguins kept the puck in the offensive end because of poor play and positioning by Alex.

Better than Ezra – Connolly’s playoff performance so far is night and day from last season. Brett is using his speed to generate chances and goals, but more importantly, he’s using his body to finish checks and take his opponents out of the play. #10 is also doing a solid job away from the puck, as are his linemates, Eller and Devante Smith-Pelly. That third line is going to be very important to Washington’s chances in the Steel City in the next two games since they’ll likely face the Crosby or Malkin lines. The key for the Caps forwards, across the board, is to play a north-south style. If they don’t have numbers, they have to get pucks deep or on goal to prevent the Pens from using their deadly transition game.

Notes: John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:07 while Justin Schultz led the Pens with 27:24…the Caps were 1 for 3 on the power play while Pittsburgh was 0 for 3…shot attempts were 75-69 for the Penguins…the Capitals lost the face-off battle, 31-24. Crosby was 15-9…Wilson led the Caps with seven hits while Jamie Oleksiak had seven for the Penguins…the Capitals were credited with 17 giveaways to just four for Pittsburgh. Most of the Washington turnovers came in a sloppy second frame where the Caps were out shot, 16-6.

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Caps Win Fourth Straight Over Columbus to Advance to Round Two

Posted on 23 April 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin scored in succession in the second period to give the Washington Capitals a 3-1 lead and then they took advantage of a Columbus blue line gambling to try to tie the game up with two rush goals, from Devante Smith-Pelly and Chandler Stephenson in the third period, en route to a 6-3 victory at Nationwide Arena in game six. The win, the Caps fourth straight in this series after losing the first two tilts on home ice in overtime, advances them to the second round with another show down against you know who. Braden Holtby was stellar in the cage, once again, stopping 35 of 38 shots, and the Holtbeast is a major reason why this Capitals club is moving on.

There were so many key moments in this hockey game and Coach Barry Trotz’ crew showed some serious intestinal fortitude in the triumph.

The Caps, after taking a 1-0 first period lead on Dmitry Orlov’s sensational individual effort tally, had a 32 second five on three power play in the middle frame, but couldn’t connect. That misfire led to the Columbus crowd getting into the game and gave their home team momentum. Nick Foligno then scored his first goal of the playoffs to tie the game up on an overlap play where a Blue Jackets forward simply skated into Brooks Orpik while #71 shot past a screened Holtby. There was clearly a missed Capitals forward assignment there and suddenly the Blue Jackets had life.

Washington would then answer that tally just over four minutes later and it was none other than the Gr8 who seized the moment and turned the tide back for the Caps. Ovechkin put a massive hit on Oliver Bjorkstrand as #28 was trying to make a pass up the right wing boards and the puck went straight to Christian Djoos inside the blue line. Djoos alertly moved it quickly to his right for Tom Wilson and Willy then found Evgeny Kuznetsov coming with speed down the high slot and that backed the Columbus defense up. Kuzy, with too much traffic in front to get a clear shot off, fed Djoos down in the left wing circle and with the Blue Jackets sagging in front, Christian put it on a tee for Orpik at the left point. #44 smashed a shot that Sergei Bobrovsky (22 saves) stopped with his right pad, but he threw the disc right into the slot. The Captain was parked there between three Blue Jackets and he backhanded the rebound quickly into the cage for a 2-1 lead.

Ovechkin then drew a holding penalty on Seth Jones and Washington went on a late second period power play. 63 seconds into the man advantage, John Carlson made a super pass to Ovi in his office and the Gr8 lasered one off of the near post and past Bob for a 3-1 lead.

At that point, the zebras tried to really help out Columbus. Stephenson was called for a weak roughing call with five seconds left in period two so the Blue Jackets, trailing by two pucks, started period three on the man advantage. The Caps easily killed that one off, but then Matt Calvert blatantly tripped Djoos behind the net, gathered in the puck below the goal line while #29 was still down on the ice, and backhanded a pass to Pierre Luc-Dubois in the low slot. #18 fired quickly past Holtby and suddenly it was 3-2 on a goal that should’ve never been. Clearly Dan O’Rourke and Jean Hebert were out to lunch on that play.

In the past that goal might have derailed the Capitals, and I’m going to steal the words of legendary Ravens Head Coach Brian Billick from the 2000 NFL Playoffs with the following line, “BUT NOT TODAY.”

This Caps team did not sulk. Sure the coaches let the bad zebras have it, and rightly so, but this Washington club just pressed on and kept working. 91 seconds later Smith-Pelly burnt David Savard on the left wing boards in the defensive zone and sped down the ice with Ian Cole giving chase. Cole isn’t exactly the fastest skater and as DSP opened up to shoot, Cole put his stick in the lane. The shot went top shelf over Bob’s glove for a 4-2 Caps advantage.

The zebras then struck again calling Djoos for a very shaky interference penalty, but Jay Beagle made a super clear off of the left wing boards that sprung the speedy Stephenson for a shorthanded breakaway. Chandler opened up Bobrovsky and slid the puck five hole to give the Caps a 5-2 lead with 14:30 to go. It was two quick and huge goals after a terrible missed call by the referees led to a Columbus marker. That is how you respond to adversity, right there!

Coach John Tortorella’s crew would not quit and they used sheer power and some missed Capitals defensive zone coverage to will themselves within two goals at 5-3. An all alone Foligno notched his second goal of the game from the doorstep and with 11:38 still to go, this tilt was not over.

Credit the Caps mental toughness again, they knew that the only way the Blue Jackets could come back was with some physical cycling tallies so Washington did a good job of walling off the front of their own net and kept the Columbus shots coming from the perimeter. When pucks got through the wall of white, the Holtbeast was there to clean them up. The zebras gave the Blue Jackets one more power play, but for the fourth straight contest, Columbus was blanked with the man advantage (0 for 4 in this game).

Lars Eller then hit the empty net with 14 seconds remaining and the Blue Jackets were officially dispatched.

This was one heck of a comeback win for Washington after dropping the first two tilts at Capital One Arena. The switch in the cage to Holtby turned things around as CBus couldn’t rely on their top shelf shots going over #70’s glove hand like occurred in the first two games. The Holtbeast was sensational in this series, especially in the game five robbery on Saturday afternoon.

After the Holtbeast, you can go on and on down the line calling out super performances from the Capitals in this series. Every guy contributed to the four straight triumphs from Beagle’s face off wins and great PK work to Backstrom and Ovechkin coming up large as superstars in games five and six, respectively.

Perhaps the biggest play of the series, and the turning point, was Brett Connolly’s decision to shoot the puck in the second overtime of game three that Eller deposited into the cage off of his boot for the win. If #10 doesn’t fire quickly and generate a rebound, then the Blue Jackets could’ve eventually scored and gone up three games to none. Good things happen when you shoot!

Washington, as the series went on and especially in the three road wins, played the right way. They put pucks on net or behind the Columbus defense and went for rebound and gritty goals. When the Caps were wearing their road whites, there was not a whole lot of the East-West passing that has gotten the Capitals into trouble in the postseason. They need to keep that mentality when they start round two at home. Pittsburgh has elite talent that can go the other way and bury you with rush goals when you make those types of mistakes. The Capitals have seen the results of that style of play the last two springs. Now they get a chance to perform the right way against the two time defending Stanley Cup Champions.

The Caps have a goalie who has found his groove, a defense that is getting some monster performances from guys like Carlson, Niskanen, and Orpik and a power play that is clicking. They are also generating scoring from their bottom six forwards, something we haven’t seen consistently during the last three springs. It’s going to take everything the Caps have to defeat the extremely talented and heavily favored Penguins, for sure.

But that talk can wait another day because on Monday night Washington showed that they are a tight knit club that is mentally tough and can overcome some serious adversity. That’s clearly something they can build on this spring.

Notes: Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 26:53. Orlov logged 25:33, and Carlson played 24:50…Oprik and Beagle each had two assists and were +2. This was a good match up for both of them and Washington clearly missed #83 in game one (upper body injury)…Orpik had five of the 23 shots the Caps blocked…Columbus won the face off battle, 30-25, but Beagle went 9-3 for the Caps…Stephenson assisted on Orlov’s goal and notched four points in the series. He filled in nicely on the second line for an injured Andre Burakovsky (upper body, minor surgery)…the Holtbeast stopped 137 of the 147 shots he faced in the series (.932 save percentage).

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Ovechkin and the Caps Must Be Better in Game Two

Posted on 15 April 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals will take to the ice on Sunday night at 7:30 pm to try to even their best of seven series up with the Columbus Blue Jackets. On Thursday night, the Caps took three third period penalties and gifted the visitors the game. Several players were not very good in that affair, including Captain Alex Ovechkin, who didn’t register a point and looked slow and out of sorts, most of the evening.

On Sunday morning, the Gr8 told the assembled media that he has to be better and that his line needs to generate more chances at five on five (h/t Isabelle Khurshudyan of The Washington Post). Ovi had a remarkable regular season because his skating was much better than it’s arguably been in the past five years. Alex trimmed down and brought an element of speed back into his game and it led to 32 even strength goals, double his output in 2016-17 in those situations. In the series opener, he looked sluggish and David Savard did a very good job of neutralizing him most of the night. Simply put, this Capitals team isn’t going to go anywhere if Ovechkin is not playing well.

The biggest reason Washington lost on Thursday were the three bad penalties they took in period three that allowed Columbus to score two power play goals, evening the game up twice in the final frame of regulation. Discipline is paramount in the post season and the Caps didn’t have it that period. Once shorthanded, the Caps badly missed fourth line center, Jay Beagle, who is a penalty killing and faceoff specialist. It should be noted that the Capitals lost 17 of 21 defensive zone draws in game one.

On Sunday night, Beagle is back in the lineup as it’s been determined by the Caps medical staff that he’s sufficiently recovered from an upper body injury. Per the morning skate, the Washington lineup is as follows:

Forwards

Alex Ovechkin – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Tom Wilson

Andre Burakovsky – Nicklas Backstrom – T.J. Oshie

Brett Connolly – Lars Eller – Devante Smith-Pelly

Chandler Stephenson – Jay Beagle – Alex Chiasson

Defense

Michal Kempny – John Carlson

Dmitry Orlov – Matt Niskanen

Brooks Orpik – Jakub Jerabek

Goaltender

Philipp Grubauer

Braden Holtby (Backup)

There are several things to note above. The biggest are obviously the return of Beagle and the fact that Kempny, who was rammed from behind into the boards by Josh Anderson in period one and did not return, is back on defense (Kempny did fully practice on Saturday and has cuts on his face from the injury he suffered). The Capitals are very thin on the back end and need #6 in the lineup against a big and mobile Columbus forward group. Grubauer was deemed to have done enough to earn the net, once again, despite giving up a savable shot on the game winner and not stopping Seth Jones’ game tying power play tally, which was another marker that came over his glove hand.

Finally, the scratch of Jakub Vrana, who logged only 6:58 of ice time ignited the Caps Twitterverse, once again, on Sunday morning. Vrana did use his speed to draw a first period hooking penalty on Ian Cole and also set up what should have been the game winning goal before Burakovsky’s terrible tripping penalty negated it. However, the rookie who played in his first ever playoff game, made several mistakes that likely took him out of the lineup, in addition to the fact that he does not kill penalties and is not on either power play unit. On the Blue Jackets first tally, Vrana is positioned in the middle of the ice when Boone Jenner comes across the Caps blue line. #13 tries to stick check to get the biscuit from #38, but fails miserably and this leads to a two on one down low and an easy goal. Jakub has to either get the puck or the man there, he got neither. Then, before his great play to set up DSP, he made a terrible defensive zone turnover that allowed Cole to get a quality chance on Grubauer from just over 20 feet out. Fortunately for Vrana, Grubi made his biggest save of the night on that sequence. In overtime, Vrana had two shifts and on his second one, he gets beaten badly by one of Columbus’ smaller forwards, Pierre Luc-Dubois, on a board battle in the offensive zone. Cole picked up the puck after Jakub couldn’t hold it in the zone against Dubois and he fed Artemi Panarin, who went around Orlov on his offside and then roofed another tally over Grubauer’s glove hand for the win.

Sure, Vrana set up a goal and drew a penalty, but he contributed to the only two Blue Jackets even strength goals against. So when Coach Barry Trotz talked on Sunday morning about resetting #13 to clean up some things in his game, the plays described above are exactly what he’s talking about. As for the two guys who are in instead of Vrana, Brett Connolly and Alex Chiasson, both must play a strong two way game against a hard working physical team. Connolly lost several one on one battles on Thursday, but none were as bad as the individual battles lost by Vrana. This is a “what have you done for me lately” time of year, so if Connolly and Chiasson want to stay in for game three, they need to play well.

This is a must win for Washington on Sunday night. They need everyone going in this tilt to even this series up. It all starts with Ovechkin up front and the defense doing a better job of getting pucks out of their own end. On Thursday, they did that well early, but once Kempny went out and they were forced to go with five defensemen, the mistakes started coming more often. Grubauer also needs to turn in a strong performance in net, he was solid, but was outplayed by Sergei Bobrovsky, who faced more rubber. The Caps would be wise to get more bodies to the front of the net on Sunday, “Bob” is most vulnerable when the puck is bouncing around him and Washington did little of that in game one.

 

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Holtby Shuts the Door On The Blues in a Caps 4-2 Triumph

Posted on 03 April 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The St. Louis Blues had everything to play for on Monday night at the Scottrade Center and the Washington Capitals had pretty much nothing to play for except trying to stay healthy and honing their game for the Stanley Cup Playoffs that start next week. The Caps also played in Pittsburgh on Sunday night while Coach Mike Yeo’s crew was idle. That sure sets up for a big victory for the home team, right?

Not exactly!

Braden Holtby turned in a gem of a performance in net stopping 34 of 36 shots to earn his 33rd victory of the season and Washington won, 4-2, on the banks of the Mighty Mississipp. Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Chiasson, Andre Burakovsky, and Alex Ovechkin scored for Washington while Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Berglund tallied for the Blues.

The Caps, who already clinched the Metropolitan Division on Sunday night in Pittsburgh, now sit at 48-25-7 (103 points) and they have two relatively meaningless games left at Capital One Arena against Nashville and New Jersey on Thursday and Saturday, respectively.

Let’s get right into the analysis of this one.

Medic! – The number one priority in Monday’s tilt was for Washington to come out of the game healthy. T.J. Oshie, who left Friday’s contest against the Hurricanes with 10 minutes to go in period three, but played a full 60 against the Pens on Sunday, was wisely scratched along with the injured Jay Beagle (upper body). That put Shane Gersich and Chiasson back in the lineup at forward. Things got very scary on the banged up list in period one. Devante Smith-Pelly went into the boards hard, but seemed to be okay. The entire Capitals Nation then nearly had a heart attack as the Gr8 lost an edge and appeared to jam his skate into the rear boards behind the Blues net. Alex stayed down for several seconds, but then skated to the bench. Ovi would not miss a shift; however, he had to keep trying out his leg during timeouts the rest of the opening frame. Tom Wilson was shaken up later in period one, too. Fortunately all of those guys would return on their next shift and finish the game. Willy even took a shot off of his leg as the horn sounded on this huge win. Thankfully, it appears that the Caps survived this contest without any major injuries, but they do take back some bumps and bruises that need to heal up in DC.

Quick Strike– The Blues took the lead on a Washington defensive breakdown in period one and carried that edge to the locker room after 20 minutes. The Caps, however, stormed the castle in the first eight minutes of period two putting up a three spot on Jake Allen (30 saves). Backstrom scored in front of the net after a nice feed from Brett Connolly, then just under two minutes later Jakub Jerabek sprung Chiasson on a breakaway at the offensive blue line with a beautiful long feed that split the St. Louis D. Alex skated in and roofed one on Allen. At 7:54, the lead was 3-1, Caps. Andre Burakovsky scored a gorgeous goal on the rush that was similar to Dmitry Orlov’s puck through his skates tally that he notched in Dallas back in December. Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist) had the primary assist and Brooks Orpik picked up the second helper on the third tally. The trio of red lights stunned the Blues, who were suddenly in deep trouble.

He Own Da Blues – Holtby, after a rough February, has been working his game back into form and he was the vintage Holtbeast in this one. There were several strong saves with traffic in front of him and he flashed his sassy glove to snag pucks at the Blues on a few other occasions. #70 was dialed in and looked very confident in the cage. The win runs Braden’s record against St. Louis to a perfect seven and zero, lifetime! The Caps now have both of their goalies playing well and it could not come at a better time. When it comes to the Blues, the Holtbeast OWWWWNNNNSSS them!

Spinning Wheel Must Come Down – Last month I praised the work of Trevor Hanson when he officiated back to back Cap games in California. Paired with the horribly inconsistent Gord Dwyer, Hanson sunk to his partner’s level in this affair. All night the players had no idea what was or wasn’t a penalty. Evgeny Kuznetsov was held on the opening shift on a potential breakaway with no call and from there things just deteriorated. On the night the Blues had four power plays to just two for Washington, although the Capitals received a man advantage with 2:07 left that put St. Louis way behind the eight ball. Ovi finished the deal with 1:31 left with an empty net power play marker, which is his 46th goal of the season with two games remaining. I’ll give Hanson a pass on this one, but once the playoffs start next week the teams need to have some consistency from the zebras!

Getting to the Cage – Shots on goal for the game were 36-34 for St. Louis, but by Comcast’s tracking the quality chances were pretty close (they had it 14-13, Capitals, late in period three). What I liked about Washington’s opportunities was they were coming from in front of the net on Allen. If the Caps continue to put bodies and pucks to the blue paint area their probability of winning post season hockey games goes up dramatically. There were still some occasions where they over passed, a play by Kuzy between the circles late in period three when it was 3-2 sticks out, but the team is starting to play the right way with more shots and more pucks being put behind the opposing D. That’s a recipe the Penguins used to win back to back Stanley Cups.

Crucial Giveaways –Jerabek had the great outlet pass to Chiasson for his goal, but he made another terrible defensive zone pass that nearly led to a goal for the second straight night. In Pittsburgh, he turned the puck over up the middle in period three instead of feeding the biscuit up the boards to two wide open Caps. Sidney Crosby should’ve buried that one, but he didn’t get full power on it and Philipp Grubauer robbed him. #28, in period two with a one goal lead, somehow thought that a cross ice pass from Holtby’s right across the front of the net to the left wing boards was a good idea for a breakout attempt. It wasn’t and even my two mites know you don’t do that, never, never! Berglund picked the puck off, but fortunately Holtby made another big save. I like Jakub, but he’s got to manage the disc better in the defensive zone. Throw it up the boards or eat it below the goal line if you don’t have a sure fire breakout pass from deep in your own end.

Special PK – Orpik had another super night on the penalty kill logging 4:16 of the 7:57 that Washington was shorthanded. John Carlson was right behind him in that department with 3:39 of time. The Caps, after holding Pittsburgh to a zero for five night on Sunday on the power play, blanked the Blues in four tries and St. Louis only had four shots on goal in those instances. It was nice to see defensemen Michal Kempny contribute on those units, too, logging 3:06 of PK time. If #6 can effectively kill penalties, then that frees up the very offensively dangerous Orlov to play more at even strength.

Roadies – As Caps excellent beat writer, Mike Vogel (@VogsCaps) pointed out, the Capitals, with Sunday’s victory in Pittsburgh, won their 20th game away from home for the fourth straight season. On Monday night, they improved to 21-15-5 to close out their road slate for the campaign. The only other Metropolitan Division team to win over half of their road games in 2017-18 is the New Jersey Devils.

Notes: the Caps lost the faceoff battle, 37-29. Chandler Stephenson went 4-2…Ovi had nine shot attempts (5 on net) and was -2 in only 16:56 of ice time. He had some quality chances that he didn’t finish, but he did close this one out with the empty netter…Backstrom was the best skater on the ice for either team. He had three shots on goal and two points in 18:10 of action. His tally got Washington going in period two…Orlov led the Caps in ice time with 22:58. Coach Barry Trotz did a good job of spreading the minutes around in a meaningless game. Nobody on the team played less than 10 minutes and not a single player went over 23 minutes.

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Caps Get Rare Regulation Victory in San Jose

Posted on 10 March 2018 by Ed Frankovic

For nearly 25 years, the Washington Capitals have not known the way to winning in regulation in San Jose. On March 10th, 2018, Philipp Grubauer stopped all 24 shots he faced and Nicklas Backstrom turned in an all world performance, including notching the only non-empty net goal, in a Caps 2-0 victory at the Shark Tank. It was the Capitals first win without extra time against the Sharks at SAP Center since October 30th, 1993.

“Do you know the way to San Jose…”

The Caps do now, and the way they won was with solid team defense, strong goaltending, and a committed effort to getting pucks deep and towards the net, especially over the last 40 minutes.

The victory improves the Caps record to 38-23-7 (83 points) and combined with the Leafs 5-2 triumph over the Penguins on Saturday night it puts Washington back in 1st place in the Metropolitan Division by a point. The Caps have a game in hand on the Pens and third place Philadelphia has also played 68 games like the Capitals, but trail by two points.

Here are nine thoughts and analysis on a humongous win in a state that has not been kind to Washington.

California Dreamin’ – Coming into this matinee, the Caps had lost seven straight games in the Golden State. Last season, with seemingly the best roster, on paper, ever assembled in franchise history, the Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals went zero and three. La La land was not good to Coach Barry Trotz and his team this week either as they suffered a 4-0 defeat in Anaheim, a game that they looked like they were sleeping through, and then a tough 2-1 loss to the Kings on Thursday. The Caps played much better in that affair, but they could not put the biscuit in the basket. Saturday’s victory against a third straight California team that is desperate for points was one of the most sound defensive performances by the Capitals all season.

Hey Nineteen – When Washington gets strong play up the middle of the ice, they are an extremely tough team to beat. Many Capitals struggled in the first two games of this road trip, but Backstrom was near the top of that list. After his terrible turnover in period one in the City of Angels, he was a total non factor in the loss on Thursday. On Saturday, however, Nicky was the best player on the ice. His compete level was through the roof and he repeatedly won puck battle after puck battle playing with Brett Connolly (1 assist) and Andre Burakovsky in a newly configured trio. Connolly’s pass to Backy with 1:28 left in period two was a superb one, but #19’s slap shot was even better and he ripped it over Martin Jones’ glove into the top shelf. That tally is Backstrom’s 17th goal of the season. I’m of the opinion that several Caps are trying to pace themselves so that they can peak their game in April, when the postseason starts. Backstrom is definitely one of them, but on Saturday, the Caps needed a win badly in a tightening playoff race, and Nicky announced his presence with authority all afternoon.

Meet in the Middle – It’s no secret that Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan has focused the build of this team up the middle of the ice. In addition to Backstrom’s outstanding game against San Jose, pivots Evgeny Kuznetsov (+1 in 20:05) and Lars Eller (goal, +1 in 17:04) were excellent. Since Coach Trotz went all Reg Dunlop and shuffled his lines around, Kuzy centered the Gr8 and Tom Wilson while Eller was flanked by Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie. The change certainly helped Burakovsky and Connolly the most since there aren’t many centers better than #19 in this league. However, I liked how Oshie, who is rounding back into form and is long overdue for a goal, and Vrana played with Eller. Vrana has really improved his defensive zone play and he used his speed to get the puck out of the Caps own end a couple of times. All three of the Caps top centers were playing well in San Jose and Lars was rewarded with an empty net tally with 1:49 remaining to put a dagger in the Sharks.

Letting Them Play – For my money, the last two Washington games have been the best officiated tilts I’ve seen all season. In both affairs, the referees didn’t call a lot of penalties and let the teams play. However, stick infractions or obvious trips, clips, and interference were whistled. It was clear that the players for the Caps, Kings, and Sharks all knew how the games were going to be officiated and they played accordingly. There was lots of hitting and good end to end skating. The one constant in both contests was Trevor Hanson. The Richmond, British Columbia native is in his sixth season in the NHL and he’s quickly becoming one of the best zebras. Gord Dwyer and then Dan O’Rourke was the other referee in the Kings and Sharks games, respectively. The Caps had a three to one power play advantage on Thursday while the Sharks had two man advantage situations to none for Washington on Saturday. Both penalties on the Capitals at the SAP Center were well deserved infractions by Wilson. Simply put, I’d certainly like to see Hanson doing more Caps games.

Shoot to Thrill – Making the right decisions inside the offensive blue line has been a problem area for the Capitals this season, and in years past, especially in the playoffs. Those brain cramps have cost Washington a lot of odd man rushes and goals against this campaign. Poor offensive zone play is a big reason the Caps goals against average has gone up in 2017-18. In the first period of the Sharks game, the Caps forwards made a few mistakes in the offensive and neutral zones that San Jose turned into quality chances. Fortunately for Washington, Grubauer was at his best in a scoreless first frame where the Sharks had the better of the play. In the middle stanza, however, the Capitals really played the right way for the first time on this road trip and made sure to get pucks deep and towards the net. The result was a 12 to 3 margin in shots on goal in the middle twenty. When trailing 2-1 on Thursday at Staples Center, a House of Horrors for the Caps, Washington only put five shots on net in the third period. Connolly passed up a great look in the center of the ice and that’s just not a good choice given his super shot. Oshie and several others have been guilty of not firing the puck on net from the high danger areas, too. Coach Trotz, in his first two seasons in Washington, used to constantly utter the mantra, “This is a shoot first league.” He’s right and many of the goals are scored on rebounds or quick ones where the goaltenders don’t have time to get set. It would behoove the Caps to maintain the mentality they displayed in the second and third periods in San Jose, because that type of hockey is how you win in the spring. To reinforce the thought process, I recommend that AC/DC’s Shoot to Thrill be blasted in the Caps locker room before EVERY period.

Blue Line Reconfiguration – After the loss to the Ducks on Tuesday, Coach Trotz and assistant coach Todd Reirden made changes on the back end. Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov were still together while John Carlson was paired with Michal Kempny with Brooks Orpik and Jakub Jerabek forming the third duo. Things went okay in LA, except for the game winning goal where Jerabek failed to keep a puck in the offensive zone and then Trevor Lewis went around #44 like he was an orange road cone to score on his third shot in succession. It was a poor play by Orpik, who has struggled pretty heavily since the all star break, but Jerabek and Grubauer didn’t exactly shine in that sequence either. You can certainly put some of Orpik’s issues on being paired with rookie Madison Bowey, a future top four defensemen, who was understandably starting to have trouble with the intensity and speed of the game post January 1st. Against San Jose, a team that typically gives the Capitals fits, Brooks turned in arguably his best game in three months. He was physical with five hits and he had no giveaways in 17:04 of action. He was also part of a penalty killing unit that allowed only one power play shot in four minutes of man advantage time. Orpik must continue to play the way he did on Saturday and it would probably be wise for the coaching staff to give him some days off before the playoffs commence to keep him healthy and fresh, especially in back to back tilts.

Solid as a Rock – Braden Holtby has not had a good post all star break stretch and former Caps goalie Brent Johnson stated on Twitter that he believes fatigue, which ultimately then led to a drop in confidence, has been the issue. After #70 gave up three goals in the first half of the Ducks game, and all of those certainly weren’t on him, Coach Trotz has gone with Grubauer in net. #31 had a decent game against the Kings in a loss, but against San Jose he was superb in the opening frame until the Capitals got their game in gear. The Sharks hit a couple of posts early, as well, but Washington has been due for some breaks. In earning his second shutout of the season, Philipp improved to 9-8-3 this year and his save percentage is up to .925. Grubauer will be starting on Monday against the Jets at Capital One Arena and he’ll likely split the back to back games with the Holtbeast against the Islanders later in the week. The German keeper has certainly earned the cage right now with his solid play. He has been steady and he came up with some big saves early against the Sharks.

Closing Time – Overall, this was a much needed victory for Washington made more impressive by their style of play. This was a very important game to the Sharks and the Capitals matched San Jose’s compete level and desperation. It was a tight checking affair that is very reminiscent of how the game will be played in April and beyond. To win this way, with much improved team defense and better offensive zone decision making, bodes well for the Caps down the stretch.

Notes: Alex Ovechkin had 10 shots attempts and six shots on goal. His best chance to score his 41st of the season and 599th of his career was on a third period semi-breakaway, but Jones stopped him with his glove…Orlov led the Caps in ice time with 24:22. Carlson is getting a lot of press for his play this season, and deservedly so, but #9 has been very consistent since late October/early November on the back end…the Caps won the face off battle, 33-20. Kuzy was 10-8 after going 1-10 against the Kings. Eller was 6-1, Backstrom went 8-5, and Jay Beagle won six of nine draws…Wilson, who has been outstanding most of the season, took a puck to the head in the second period in LA but returned in that contest. On Saturday, he played, but looked a little off timing wise. He took two penalties and did not get a hard shot off on a good pass from Ovechkin in tight…Brent Burns led the Sharks in ice time with 26:01…congratulations to MacLellan for receiving a well earned contract extension from Caps ownership…it will be Washington vs. Winnipeg on Monday night at 7 pm from Capital One Arena. The Jets will definitely make the post season and they appear to be a lock for second place in the Central Division.

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Caps Return to Form in Win Over Buffalo

Posted on 19 February 2018 by Ed Frankovic

After their worst performance of the season on Saturday night in the Windy City, the Washington Capitals used a very strong first 40 minutes to build a 2-0 lead and then they overcame some poor play from their blue line in the third period to hold on for a 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres in upstate New York.

The victory puts the Caps back in first place in the Metropolitan Division over idle Pittsburgh. Washington is now 34-18-7 (75 points) and they lead the Pens by a point plus they have two games in hand, which will be Tuesday’s home tilt against the NHL leading Tampa Bay Lightning and then in the Sunshine State against the Florida Panthers on Thursday.

Here are seven thoughts and analysis on where the Capitals stand after a 2-1-1 road trip, their longest of the season.

Boy, You’re Going to Carry That Weight – When the Caps bring the effort, they are usually a hard team to beat. On Saturday, they laid a big fat egg in a blowout, 7-1, loss to Chicago. It was the worst skating performance and game of the season and the captain, Alex Ovechkin, called himself out saying it was his worst outing as a Capital. He was right, but the whole team stunk and looked like they went out for a lot of Chitown pizza and beer with the dads on Friday night. Hey, over the course of 82 games, you are going to have clunkers and let’s not take anything away from Chicago, who still has some high powered players on their roster. The Blackhawks were a pissed off team after losing eight straight and they flat out rolled Washington, who offered a futile resistance in that affair. On Presidents Day, the Capitals were back to playing the right way and they deserved to win this game. When the team works and pulls on the rope in the right direction, they are one of the best in the NHL.

Poking the Bear – You had to figure Ovi was going to have a bounce back contest after Saturday’s no show, but Rasmus Ristolainen didn’t do Buffalo any favors by hitting the Gr8 up high early in the affair. That hit clearly angered Ovechkin and he was a force all game in earning the number one star. It was heavy hockey from Alex, who had four hits, as he and Tom Wilson just pounded the Buffalo defense as often as they could. The Gr8 notched his NHL leading 35th tally of the season with a beautiful tip of a Christian Djoos point shot in period two to open the scoring. That goal was the result of a nice forecheck by Brett Connolly after he exited the box, and then some great wall work by T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov, shortly thereafter.

Winning at the Track – Had you played the trifecta of 74-77-92 you would’ve had the trio that was on the ice for all three Washington tallies. Oshie (one assist) especially had a very strong game and is rounding back into proper form as we head into the final seven weeks of the regular season. Kuznetsov, after some early weak shifts, started playing the correct way and had his best performance of the road trip. Kuzy had three shots on net and his play to seal the deal with his empty net tally was a super forecheck, something this team needs to do well to succeed. As for Carlson, well he was really good, too, but he was the only one of the trio to be on for a goal against. John left Evander Kane wide open with three ticks left to put a small dent in Philipp Grubauer’s (32 saves) sweet stat line.

How Long, To Sing This Song – In honor of U2’s great song, 40, the first two periods by the Capitals were a textbook road performance. They played a north-south style and were very hard on pucks. As a result, they won the vast majority of the individual battles. They were only up 2-0 on Ovi’s 35th and Carlson’s 11th of the season, but it could’ve been more if not for Chad Johnson (27 saves) in net for the Sabres. Through 40 minutes, the Caps had 43 shot attempts to just 25 for Buffalo and the quality scoring chances had to be even more lopsided. Washington just couldn’t finish on several opportunities, but if they play like that more often, they will be hard to defeat. Again, it started with the effort and then they made the right decisions with the puck in all zones. It was very impressive hockey and the reason they left Buffalo with two points.

Hold the Line – After the contest, Coach Barry Trotz told the media that he wanted his team to continue to play the same way they did in the first 40 minutes in the third period. After watching the final frame again, his team pretty much listened to him. The first 3:30 of period three was just like the first two periods; the Capitals were forechecking and generating scoring chances. Then Nicklas Backstrom took a bad slashing penalty two thirds away from the Caps own net and the Sabres got some life with a power play. Washington stabilized things after killing off that infraction and while they didn’t get shots on net, they had some very good sustained pressure on Buffalo afterwards. The Lars Eller line, with Connolly and Andre Burakovsky, had a strong offensive zone pressure shift just inside the eight minute remaining mark, but then the Sabres came out of their own zone three on three. Madison Bowey then stepped up and flat out whiffed on defense in the neutral zone and that allowed Buffalo to break into the Washington zone with speed. Eller was forced to cover for the rookie’s mishap and by the time everyone was back on defense, the coverage was out of whack with #22 skating alone in the slot. The Sabres Scott Wilson fired on net from the high slot and Kyle Okposo deflected it home to make it a 2-1 ballgame with 7:32 remaining. Grubauer never saw the shot, mostly because of Bowey, but also due to the Brooks Oprik-Okposo battle in front. Washington was able to hold the line down the stretch, but there were some more mistakes by Bowey and Djoos in pressure filled situations. So what the statistics will show to look like a “Washington sat back” narrative, and I was at first guilty of accusing the Capitals of that, too, was really caused by poor play from the youngsters, and some others, on the Caps blue line.

Upgrading the Backend – Bowey and Djoos both have bright futures for the Capitals, but to quote George Allen, “The Future is Now,” and Washington can’t afford to go into the playoffs with two rookie blue liners. Madison has talent and potential, but the league really locks down from January on and he’s struggled since the game has gotten faster and more intense. On Monday, the Capitals traded a conditional 3rd round draft pick to the Blackhawks for left handed defensemen Michal Kempny. The 27 year old blue liner, who will wear #6, is a decent skating and puck moving player that is best in his own end. Washington’s struggles on the back end have been mostly because of poor passes, so hopefully Kempny can improve that aspect of the Caps game. With this acquisition, it makes the most sense to send Bowey down to Hershey to play a lot of minutes and hone his craft for next season. Madison could also come up if there are multiple injuries on defense. Djoos would probably be best on a third pair with Orpik, if Kempny can play the four hole with Carlson. There is also a strong possibility that GM Brian MacLellan adds another defensemen before the February 26th NHL trade deadline. Bottom line, the Caps inconsistent play since January 1st is likely most traced to the issues on defense. Bowey and Djoos should be good long term players, but Washington needs to try and win this year, so it’s up to the GM to keep upgrading this current deficiency.

You Make Me Wanna Cry – When the Capitals were temporarily bumped out of 1st place on Sunday night, Caps Twitter practically melted down. It was maddening to see so many people declare that the season was over and that MacLellan should start tearing the team down. Granted this is the same crew that complains when they are in first place, too, stating that the division title doesn’t mean anything and all that counts is the playoffs. Yes, the playoffs are what matters, but to want to rebuild for the future with a top eight team in a wide open race is ridiculous. Fortunately, it’s just an expected over emotionally based reaction by many on social media, but it’s really ludicrous. The Caps are a team that could go deep in the playoffs and possibly win a Stanley Cup should they continue to tweak the back end and play the right way. So for so many to lose their freaking minds is ridiculous, you make me wanna cry! [Cue the Godley & Cream].

Notes: Buffalo out shot the Caps, 17-6, in period three, including 31-12, in shot attempts. Again, I put that on the mistakes Washington made on defense, especially their young blue liners. When they make a mistake, it tends to lead to multiple chances for the opposition and causes a cumulative fatigue effect…the Capitals won the face-off battle, 35-33. Eller was 11-7…the Caps only had one power play while Buffalo had three. A weak interference call on Connolly shortened Washington’s only man advantage chance…Kuznetsov took a puck in the face, at one point, but came back to have a strong finish.

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Ovechkin’s Four Points Leads the Caps Over Minnesota, 5-2

Posted on 16 February 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals had several lapses in focus and effort in their two recent overtime losses, to the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday and a terrible late collapse in Winnipeg to the Jets on Tuesday. The good news was they managed to get a point in each of those games; the bad news was they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in “The Peg” giving up a shorthanded tying goal with 14 seconds left and then losing in the extra frame.

Heading into Thursday’s tilt in Minnesota, a place where the Wild were 10-0-3 in their last 13 games and were carrying the best home record in the NHL, the Capitals effort and focus was not a problem.

Yes, they were ticked about losing two games in a row, but as predicted on Twitter (@EdFrankovic), I knew they would be ready to go in this affair against the Wild since it was tilt #1 with their Dads in attendance. Washington almost always plays well with their fathers in the barn; they were 12-5 on the Dads Trip heading into this one at the Xcel Energy Center.

After a brilliant team effort, there were no passengers from the guys in white, Washington rode their top line for four goals and Andre Burakovsky (1 goal, 1 assist) turned in his best game of the season in a 5-2 victory. Philipp Grubauer was given the start in net and he was really sharp, making some outstanding saves whenever the Wild threatened to get within a goal.

The triumph improves the Capitals to 33-17-7 (73 points) and they are three points up on second place Pittsburgh in the Metropolitan Division. The Penguins have played two more games than Washington, who have 25 contests left to play before the post season.

Here are seven thoughts and analysis on this huge win.

Broken Record Ovechkin was outstanding again in this affair and he continued his mastery over Devan Dubnyk. The Gr8 notched four points with a goal and three helpers and he now has 1,100 points in his career. For the game Alex had 13 shot attempts (seven on net) and was +4 in 17:48. Ovi’s goal was the result of a great forecheck by Lars Eller and Burakovsky, but Alexander the Great also found a soft spot in the Wild defense. His shot is the best in the league, primarily because he gets it off quickly and hard from the toughest positions. Dubnyk thought he had that one, but it went five hole to give Washington a 2-0 lead just six minutes into period two. After the Wild cut it to 3-1 in period three, Ovi took a sweet feed from Wilson and fired it on net with just under five minutes to go. The Wild goalie, who was red hot coming into this match up, bobbled the hard shot and Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist) was there for the rebound tally. All season long Ovechkin has been the biggest reason this team is in first place, so he’s the MVP of the league in my book. I’ve said it so often, but it’s the truth and he now has 65 points (34 G, 31 A) in 57 games.

Redemption Backstrom was a big factor when the Caps lost the late lead on Tuesday night. He had a lazy back check on the goal that made it 3-2 with just under six minutes left to give the Jets life. Then his bad backhanded pass to no one up the boards late in regulation combined with his inability to tie up his man in the slot, caused the tying goal. Hey, over the course of 82 games, especially in mid February when the playoffs are two months away, it’s easy to lose focus and not put out maximum effort. It happens.That was not a problem for Nicky in Minny with his dad in the rink. He and Ovechkin have been clicking together pretty much all season when assembled on the same line and they did it again against Bruce Boudreau’s squad. Fittingly, Bruce was the first one to put those two together to start the magic.

Wilson. Wilson. Willlllssssooonnn! Top line Tommy really got the team going in the second period with his early marker. As the great Alan May pointed out, the Caps went over eight minutes without a shot at the end of period one, but in the first minute of the middle frame #43 fired from the top of the left wing circle through the Wild defender and it eluded Dubnyk top shelf for a 1-0 lead. That really rattled the opposing goalie and got Washington going. It was Wilson’s eighth goal of the season, which set a career high, at the time. On the Caps fourth goal, Willy jumped up and went all Wilt Chamberlain to bat a puck down. The biscuit hit the Wild defender and Tom alertly snagged it and fed Ovi for his rocket that led to Backstrom’s rebound tally. Then, after Minnesota received a cheap call on Brooks Orpik and scored on the power play with 3:12 left, Wilson sealed the deal into the empty net for his new career high ninth marker of the campaign. With 25 games to go, you can bet that he’ll be in double figures before this year is out. Wilson, by the way, is a restricted free agent this summer. Cha-ching!

Grubi Dooby Doo! It was Grubi vs. Dubby on Thursday night and #31 was clearly the better keeper in this affair. Philipp has played well in many of his starts this season, although he probably still wants the game winning goal he allowed to Vegas back from two Sundays ago. In Minnesota, he was solid and very timely with some key saves, especially on the power play after the Wild made it 3-1. Most notable was a big stop and then strong push to his right to thwart an immediate rebound chance on a Wild power play. You could just feel a lot of wind come out of the sails of the Wild’s boat after that back to back sequence when the Caps were on the PK.

Ranger Dan Strikes Again I’ve never been a fan of Dan O’Halloran, especially since game two of the Caps 2015 second round playoff game against the Rangers where he gave New York three power plays in the first period to allow Henrik Lundqvist and company to steal that contest. In Thursday’s game, the Capitals carried much of the play, but somehow came out on the short end of the power play totals, five to two. Yes, one of the penalties was an automatic puck over the glass on Eller, but there were some big missed calls in the third period that nearly allowed the Wild to get back in the game. O’Halloran didn’t whistle a blatant cross check by Zack Parise on Dmitry Orlov after a net scramble when it was 3-1 and then when it was 4-1, Tyler Ennis elbowed Orpik right in the freaking mind, for all of you Slap Shot fans out there, and he didn’t call it. When #44 went after Ennis, it was Brooks who somehow ended up in the box when Washington should’ve been on at least a two minute power play for a clear head shot. Hopefully the Department of Player Safety takes a look at that and doles punishment out to Ennis, otherwise we should just call them Clowns ‘R Us from now on.

Return of Andre the Giant I’ve been very hard on Evgeny Kuznetsov this season for his inconsistent effort, but second in line in that department has been Burakovsky. Yes, he suffered a bad thumb injury that put him on the shelf for six weeks early on, but outside of a very good game in Dallas back in December, he’s been missing in action. With his dad, Robert (former NHLer), in the building for this one, #65 played by far his best game since game six of the Penguins series last spring. Andre was moving his feet and as I tweeted in the period two, he was skating with confidence. That confidence led to an all world end to end rush goal early in period three that gave the Caps a three puck lead. Taking passes from Grubauer and Brett Connolly, the 23 year old Swede with an NHL body and talent, skated behind his own net and then took off like a rocket down the ice. He pretty much went through the entire Minnesota team and wristed one over Dubnyk’s glove between the circles to stun their opponents. It was a sweet goal made by some strong defensive zone play and exceptionally powerful skating. If the Caps get Burakovsky going down the stretch that would really help them hold off the Penguins in the Metro division race. It’s good to see that type of game from Andre, now he needs to build off of that and really be a consistent difference maker like he was on Thursday.

Notes: The Dads Trip continues in the Windy City on Saturday night at 8:30. The Blackhawks have been struggling and after losing to the Ducks, 3-2, on Thursday, they are 12 points out of a playoff spot. Chicago still has Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith, but goalie Corey Crawford has been out injured and that has really hurt this squad…the Caps were out shot attempted, 57-49, but unlike the game in Winnipeg, they did not sit back with a two goal lead, they kept trying to score and as a result, despite O’Halloran’s incompetence, they were never really in big trouble of blowing the lead…John Carlson (+3) led the Capitals in ice time with 23:09…Taylor Chorney played his first game in over a month and logged 13:51. Madison Bowey was the defensive scratch while Alex Chiasson sat at forward. On the Dads Trip, everyone plays, so those two will be in the lineup against Chicago and the Holtbeast will be in the cage…the Caps lost the face off battle, 39-29. Jay Beagle, who was shaken up by Dustin Byfuglien’s dirty two handed slash to the midsection on Tuesday, a move that prevented #83 from feeding Oshie for an easy empty net game clincher, was 10-6. I’ve never been a D-Buff fan and I hope Wilson or Orpik beats his brains in when the Jets come to town next month as payback for that crap he pulled on Beags.

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