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Team USA’s Real Problem: Lack of Center Ice Talent

Posted on 22 September 2016 by Ed Frankovic

The 2016 World Cup of Hockey was supposed to help USA Hockey right the “wrongs” of Sochi and restore the team to at least the level they reached in Vancouver in 2010 (silver medal), but after two games, their entire tournament went kaput.

A stunning tournament opening 3-0 loss to Team Europe and then the not surprising at all 4-2 defeat at the hands of the Canadian power house leaves USA Hockey eliminated from the World Cup of Hockey after Thursday night’s meaningless game against the Czechs.

USA Hockey is now in disarray and searching for answers.

So how did it get this bad?

Well for starters, the choice of head coach put things headed in the wrong direction. John Tortorella is a fiery man and he’s won a Stanley Cup, but that was back in 2004 when the game was drastically different. Post lockout, Torts has had minimal success in Tampa, New York, Vancouver, and now Columbus. There are many who feel that the game has passed him by. His record since the lockout, and especially most recently, backs that up.

The fingers can also be pointed at USA Hockey management, as Craig Custance duly noted on Wednesday afternoon. After Sochi they publicly blamed players such as Phil Kessel for the problems. Bobby Ryan, who was left off of the team, had his name dragged through the mud in an article detailing the management conversations that went into selecting the 2014 Olympic team. For this tournament USA Hockey vowed to construct a team that was tough, gritty, and would stick together. Dean Lombardi was given the reigns, but let’s be honest, the blueprint for this roster came from longtime USA Hockey manager, Brian Burke. “Truculence” is one of Burke’s favorite words, he loves that style of play and he won a Cup in Anaheim with that style, but also with some very skilled and talented players in Scott Neidermayer, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry.

So the trio of Burke, Lombardi, and Tortorella were the architects of this 2016 mission and they not only played a style that lacked imagination, but resulted in no real flow and little offense. Following the defeat, Kessel and Ryan, who still feel slighted from 2014, took to twitter and basically blasted the management of USA Hockey. It also irked many of the USA players such as Zach Parise, David Backes, and Derek Stepan and they took public issue with the tweets. There are multiple camps on this one, many feel that the USA Hockey management deserved the brunt of the attack, and they are primarily right, but some think that those guys were just calling attention to themselves and piling on. I am not happy with USA Hockey management as well, but I tend to be in the latter camp. I felt the tweets were unnecessary. However, as someone in the game noted to me on Wednesday night, when you’ve got pride, you’ve been blamed for past failures and you see the current team, which you are not on, have no success, then it’s hard to take major issue with those players for pouring more gas on the fire. That’s a fair point, even though the players on the team who lost likely won’t forget the shots they feel were also sent their way by the tweets from those players.

But let’s get to the real problem that is killing USA Hockey at the pro level, and adding wingers Kessel and Ryan to this team would not have helped one iota in this area: center ice.

That same NHL scout, who basically gave Kessel and Ryan a pass for their tweets, noted that as much as we in the media and fans want to call USA’s loss to Team Europe an embarrassment, it really wasn’t. Europe has one of the best centers in the NHL in Anze Kopitar and they also have an up and coming center ice star in Leon Draisaitl. The scout felt that Europe’s third center, Frans Neilsen was equal to Stepan. So it’s no surprise that Europe beat the Americans and the most entertaining coach of the tournament, Ralph Krueger, smartly rode #11 as much as he could against the USA.

Simply put, the USA is woefully weak up the center of the ice in an era where you must be strong there to have a chance to succeed. Their #1 center was Stepan, and he’s a number two on his NHL team. After that there isn’t much to note. Tyler Johnson is a center, but he was left off of the team. Arguably, the best centers the USA have are Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel, but they were on Team North America because they are still teenagers. In contrast, you look at Canada and they go Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews up the middle of the ice, not to mention they have guys like Patrice Bergeron and Joe Thornton as additional pivot men.

So given the USA’s lack of center ice men to choose from, in Burke, Lombardi, and Torts’ defense, they felt they had to play a certain style to have a chance to win. It doesn’t make that choice right, because the game is about puck possession and speed these days, but that was likely their thinking.

Now USA could’ve played a different way and swapped out some wingers and added Johnson, but would it have mattered? Maybe a little bit, but they still weren’t beating Canada.

Look no further than the words from the coach who is going to win this tournament, Mike Babcock. The Leafs bench boss said himself that Team Canada is playing the exact same system that he used in Toronto this past season to finish DEAD LAST in the NHL. Babcock made it abundantly clear, it’s not about systems, it’s about the players. He has the best players to choose from in Canada and he will win. They are loaded at the most important position, center (and every other position, too).

Yes, I’d like to see Team USA play more of an up tempo speed game like Team North America is playing right now, but you have to have the talent to do that. It wasn’t there with this roster or the pool of players they had to choose from.

The bottom line is USA Hockey can swap out the management philosophy, and I think they absolutely should, but until they get some center ice men at the NHL level, it’s not going to make a huge difference.

Luckily they have Matthews and Eichel coming in the near future, but will that be enough to close the very large gap that exists between the USA and Canada at center?

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ARLINGTON, VA - AUGUST 26:  John Carlson poses after being named a candidate for the 2014 USA Hockey Olympic Team at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex on August 26, 2013 in Arlington, Virginia.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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World Cup of Hockey: Ranking the Bluelines of the 8 Squads

Posted on 07 September 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Hockey is back!

The NHL managed World Cup of Hockey officially begins on Saturday, September 17 and will run for two weeks. It will include eight teams — Team Canada, Team Czech Republic, Team Europe, Team Finland, Team North America, Team Russia, Team Sweden and Team USA — and feature more than 170 of the best players in the NHL. All tournament games will be played at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

As expected, the 2015-16 Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals have numerous players participating, including Alex Ovechkin (Russia Captain), Nicklas Backstrom (Sweden), Braden Holtby (Canada), John Carlson (USA), Evgeny Kuznetsov (Russia), T.J. Oshie (USA), Matt Niskanen (USA), Dmitry Orlov (Russia), and Philipp Grubauer (Europe).

Pre-tournament games, which will all be televised on ESPN’s network, will be played in the following cities: Columbus, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.; Montreal, Ottawa and Quebec City; Prague; Gothenburg; Helsinki; and St. Petersburg. The first three pre-tourney games are on Thursday, September 8th starting with Team Russia vs. Team Czech Republic in St. Petersburg at 12:30 pm on ESPN3, so you can tune in and watch the Gr8 already. Team USA plays its first pre-tourney game against Canada this Friday, September 9th in Columbus at 7 pm on ESPNU.

The Verizon Center will host two games next week, both at 7 pm. On Tuesday, Team USA will face Team Finland and on Wednesday, Team Sweden will take on Team Europe. Tickets are available.

The tournament will be grouped into two divisions of four teams, as follows:

Group A: USA, Canada, Czech Republic, and Europe

Group B: Sweden, Russia, Finland, and North America.

The top two teams in each group will advance and then play a single elimination semi-final round before the World Cup is decided in a best of three series. This should be an exciting way to break into the NHL season!

Over the next week, I’ll provide you with my analysis of the teams and I’ll start with my rankings by squad in terms of their defensive corps, starting from the worst to the best.

Eighth – Team Czech Republic:  Zbenyk Michalek (AZ), Radko Gudas (PHI), Michal Kempny (CHI), Jakub Nackladal (Free Agent), Michal Jordan (Free Agent), Andrej Sustr (TB), and Roman Polak (TOR). Woah, not much there on the blueline, so it’s easy to see why this is the weakest group of seven in the tournament. If only this was basketball and they had “THE” Michael Jordan.

Seventh – Team Finland:  Jyrki Jokipakka (CGY), Olli Maatta (PIT), Esa Lindell (DAL), Sami Lepisto (Free Agent), Ville Pokka (CHI), Sami Vatanen (ANA), and Rasmus Ristolainen (BUF). Vatanen has the potential to be a star in the league, but after that, I don’t see anything here that will scare the likes of Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin over the next several weeks.

Sixth – Team Russia: Dmitry Kulikov (FLA), Dmitry Orlov (WAS), Nikita Zaitsev (TOR), Alexey Marchenko (DET), Alexei Emelin (MON), Andrei Markov (MON), and Nikita Nesterov (TB). There are some good young players here on this defensive roster, but outside of Markov and Emelin, there isn’t a ton of big game experience. This will definitely be the weakest part of Team Russia and if they don’t advance to the semi-finals, this position will likely be the main reason why they won’t win on the world stage, once again.

Fifth – Team Europe: Andrej Sekera (EDM), Luca Sbisa (VAN), Mark Streit (PHI), Christian Ehrhoff (Free Agent), Zdeno Chara (BOS), Dennis Seidenberg (Free Agent), and Roman Josi (NAS). This crew has several players that are long in the tooth, but that brings experience. Josi is the best player of the group and his stock in the NHL is rising quickly.

Fourth – Team North America: Seth Jones (CMB), Colton Parakyo (STL), Aaron Ekblad (FLA), Jacob Trouba (WPG), Ryan Murray (CMB), Morgan Reilly (TOR), and Shayne Gostisbehere (PHI). Lots of upcoming talent here, but they are certainly inexperienced. That’s to be expected for a team that is comprised of players aged 23 and under. Ekblad is a stud on the back end and “Ghost” carried the Flyers to the playoffs last spring. Jones is a future star, too.

Third – Team Sweden: Niklas Hjalmmarsson (CHI), Anton Stralman (TB), Mattias Ekholm (NAS), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (ARI), Hampus Lindholm (ANA), Erik Karlsson (OTT), and Victor Hedman (TB). Outstanding crew of defensemen here led by Hedman and Karlsson and it was hard to put them third, but the other two teams are just slightly better as a whole. Karlsson has the Norris Trophy notoriety, but if you ask me, Hedman might be as good as any defensemen in the NHL outside of Drew Doughty. The guy is just awesome on the back end and plays a lot of minutes.

Second – Team USA: Matt Niskanen (WAS), John Carlson (WAS), Jack Johnson (CMB), Ryan Suter (MIN), Ryan McDonagh (NYR), Dennis Byfuglien (WPG), and Erik Johnson (COL). There isn’t a “Wow!” factor with this crew, but each one of these blue liners is very good and experienced. Carlson is a top dozen defensemen in the NHL, in my book, but he doesn’t get a lot of publicity. He continues to get better and better and will be on the top pairing with either Suter or McDonagh.

First – Team Canada: Jay Bouwmeester (STL), Shea Weber (MON), Jake Muzzin (LA), Drew Doughty (LA), Alex Pietrangelo (STL), Marc-Edouard Vlassic (SJ), and Brent Burns (SJ). TONS of ability and experience here led by the best defensemen in the NHL in Doughty. This blue line is ultra deep and keep in mind they left Kris Letang of Pittsburgh and P.K. Subban of Nashville off of the squad. I probably would have had both of them on the team, but GM Doug Armstrong and Coach Mike Babcock are calling the shots for this tournament. Bottom line, Canada is loaded on defense (and at other positions too!) and they easily could put another group of seven together that wouldn’t be too far behind Sweden and the USA.

On Thursday night, I’ll rank the goaltenders for each team.

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Game 4 Pens

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Caps Season On the Brink After Overtime Loss

Posted on 05 May 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Instead of losing a three games to one series lead this spring, the Washington Capitals will have to find a way to rally to win one.

Patrick Hornqvist’s goal just 2:36 in overtime off of a Mike Weber failed clear allowed the Penguins to seize a 3-2 victory in a thrilling contest and put them on the brink of the Eastern Conference Finals with just one more victory over the Caps.

The Penguins, who were playing without top defensemen Kris Letang, put together a spirited effort and gave Washington big problems with their speed through the neutral zone in the first 30 minutes to take a 2-1 lead after Jay Beagle’s early marker made it 1-0 Capitals.

Pittsburgh was given pretty much no chance to win before the game by Mike Milbury on NBC, but they amped up their physical play and did a much better job of their zone exits in period one and for the first half of period two. Washington had too many struggles coming out of their own zone and they were on their heels for much of the first 30 minutes.

Braden Holtby (30 saves) made some big stops to keep it a 2-1 game and then the Caps started playing to their strengths, which was keeping the puck on the walls and cycling the smaller Pens. Justin Williams made a great play in the corner and he fed John Carlson for a brilliant tally with 3:41 to go in the middle frame to tie the game.

A nerve racking third period, in which the Penguins received the only power play, yielded no goals. The Caps did a great job of killing off a high sticking penalty by Karl Alzner on Sidney Crosby with 3:38 to go, allowing no shots on the Holtbeast.

In overtime, Mike Richards had a great chance to win it, but Matt Murray (34 saves) came up large once again setting the stage for the misplay by Weber and an easy marker for Hornqvist.

This was one tough way to lose again for Washington.

They didn’t play with the passion and sense of urgency we saw on Monday night when they dominated in a 3-2 loss, instead they looked nervous and out of sync too often for the first half of this game. That is certainly a surprise, given what was at stake and the loss of Letang for Pittsburgh.

So now the Caps get two days off to regroup and game five will be at the Verizon Center on Saturday night at 7:15 pm. Letang will be back in the lineup for the Pens while Brooks Oprik is still out another game. Washington needs to examine what they are doing well and doing poorly, then adjust accordingly. The Penguins clearly made the changes they needed after getting dominated, yet winning, in game three and it showed early on. That gave the Penguins the confidence to win without their best defensemen. A big part of that was their effort. They routinely out worked the Capitals in the first 30 minutes.

All four games so far have been one goal tilts, so the margin between victory and defeat has been ever so slight. Murray has been great in net for the Penguins and the Caps have had too many defensive gaffes to maintain momentum and pressure on Pittsburgh.

Simply put, the Capitals must come out on Saturday night and focus on one shift at a time and play each like it’s potentially their last game of the season. Thinking about winning three in a row puts you in the wrong mindset. They just have to play with the passion and energy they had on Monday night, but eliminate those glaring mistakes.

If they don’t, it’s golf time.

Notes: John Carlson logged a game high 30:15…the Caps won the shot attempts battle, 69-61…Alex Ovechkin had seven shots on goal in 21:16 of ice time…Daniel Winnik missed the remainder of period two after taking a high hit at the blue line from Evgeni Malkin. Former NHL referee Kerry Fraser, via Twitter, thought charging should’ve been called on #71. Winnik did come back for some shifts in the 3rd period…Crosby left for some of the third period after an Ovechkin slash to #87’s hands, but returned…the Caps won the face off battle, 40-36. Evgeny Kuznetsov went 12-6…the Penguins went 0 for 4 on the power play while the Caps went 0 for 2…the Caps were out hit, 47-41.

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Game Six Backy

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Caps Win the Series as Holtby Shuts Out the Flyers

Posted on 24 April 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Braden Holtby made 26 saves behind another dominating 200 foot performance from the Capitals, who made the only goal of the game from Nicklas Backstrom stand up to extinguish the Flyers in game six, 1-0.

The Capitals will now move on to play the red hot and fast Pittsburgh Penguins later this week while the cheap shot artist Flyers will have all summer to hone their tactics on the golf course. It is always fun to knock off that team, which promotes Neanderthal-styled behavior and hockey on the ice, but more on them later.

Washington won this series with team defense by allowing only six goals in six games. The Holtbeast had two shutouts and only permitted five non empty net goals, one of which came off of his own teammate in game five. The Caps top three defensemen, John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Karl Alzner, were absolutely fabulous in this series. They were physical and Carlson showed why he’s a top ten NHL blue liner, in my book, with his defensive skills and offensive ability. He was downright sensational for Coach Barry Trotz in the six game series victory. Alzner is playing the best hockey of his career and Niskanen is just so good at both ends of the rink. His hitting ability is vastly underrated.

Another big part of the Caps team defense was the way their forwards were back checking when the puck came out of the Washington zone. The forwards routinely hauled back and stole puck after puck from the Flyers in the neutral zone or forced Philly into turning it over at the offensive blue line because the Capitals defensemen were able to step up and make plays. It was text book coverage all over the ice and Filthy had few odd man rushes in the series, as a result. They also had a minimal amount of quality scoring chances and the Caps set a franchise record with this performance in terms of fewest goals allowed in a seven game series (previous mark was 7 vs. Ottawa in 1998). Washington will need to maintain that type of defensive play against the offensively minded Penguins.

Michal Neuvirth was the single reason the Flyers were able to extend this series to six games. He was stellar in net in only allowing two goals in three games, one on a rebound by T.J. Oshie in game four and the Backstrom marker on Sunday, which he had no chance on. Alex Ovechkin made a super play at the blue line to get the puck to Marcus Johansson (six points in six games) and Jojo made a perfect pass to Nicky, who buried the shot into the yawning cage for the game winner at 8:59 of the second period.

Johansson was a big bright spot and a huge reason why Washington was able to finally bury the Flyers. The Caps had strong contributions up and down the lineup, especially from the bottom six forwards. Mike Richards, Tom Wilson, Daniel Winnik, Jojo, and Jay Beagle were all at or near the top of their respective games. Wilson was near perfect in game six and the Flyers were flat out afraid of him as the series went on. He opens up space on the ice for the Caps forwards. If he plays like that and stays out of the box, he is a real factor in the post season when the games are tight and hitting really matters.

If there was a down area in this series, it was the second line. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky had the puck quite a bit, but by the end of the series they looked tired and a bit timid, at times, as they were getting taken off of the puck too easily on the wall. Justin Williams was okay at even strength, save for his four penalty night in game five. This was a bad match up for that line against the physical Flyers, but I expect them to have more favorable results against the Penguins, and they’ll need to do so.

In game six, the Capitals wanted to be more disciplined, and they were. Unfortunately, a friendly fire high stick by a Flyers player on Ryan White was called a double minor on Backstrom just four minutes after the Flyers had killed off a five on three for the Caps early in the second period with the game scoreless. I’ll give the zebras some benefit of the doubt because it happened so fast, but the replay clearly showed it wasn’t Backstrom or any other Caps stick that hit White in the nose. Shouldn’t the officials be able to use replay there to get the call correct? I’m all for automatic review of high sticking calls in the post season, especially the double minor kind. So please fix this NHL!

This incorrect call came at a critical juncture and it was made worse when the referees mistakenly whistled Matt Niskanen for hooking Wayne Simmonds right off of the ensuing face off in front of Holtby. Watch the replay of that one again, that’s just good defense there.

Coach Trotz’ crew was suddenly down two men for infractions that weren’t committed by them, but credit the mental toughness of this Capitals team. They didn’t flinch one bit. They worked hard and killed off the four minutes, including two minutes of five on three by only allowing three shots on goal, which the Holtbeast turned away. Beagle, Carlson, Alzner, and Richards were just superb on those kills. Richards, as he has done repeatedly in this series, was so good at dropping down to cover the back door on Flyers power play opportunities. His stick prevented Jakub Voracek from giving the Flyers the lead on the five on three.

With momentum gained on that crucial kill, the Capitals scored just two and half minutes later to set the stage for the final frame, where the Caps just kept the Flyers to the outside to preserve the victory.

When the horn sounded, this was one sweet victory for the Capitals and their fans over their arch rivals since 1974. Washington now owns a 3-2 lifetime playoff series advantage on the Flyers (wins in 1984, 1988, and 2016; losses in 1989 and 2008).

After the Caps domination in game five in a 1-0 loss that allowed Philly to pull within 3-2 in the series, there were factions in the media and the fan base that immediately shifted into the “Here We Go Again” and “Caps are Going to Blow It Again” mode. The “Capitals are Cursed” mantra was thrown around far too much for my liking. I’m not surprised by it coming from some of the media, that’s their job to stir it up, but it was frustrating and disappointing to see so many fans fall blindly into it. To quote Bruce Springsteen, many in the fan base need to simply “Show a little faith.”

I’ve been steadfast all season in my belief that this team is different from past Capitals teams and they have shown that throughout the season. This is the best Caps team ever assembled and coached, period. Yet the first sign of trouble we had too many breaking their legs jumping off of the bandwagon.

Where’s the mental toughness?

Fortunately this Caps team has it and it is different. There are eight players who weren’t on this roster last season when they lost to the Rangers in May; Oshie, Williams, Richards, Winnik, Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, Taylor Chorney, and Mike Weber (who was excellent in 8:48 of ice time in game six). Those players have helped upgrade the talent and closeness of this club. Williams and Richards bring a wealth of experience (five Stanley Cups), too. There will be bumps in the road and it is the teams that stick together that fight through tough stretches and prevail. Again, show a little faith fans.

Finally, let’s talk about what it means to beat the Flyers.

Forgive me for not heeding Tim McGraw’s advice to “Always be humble and kind” here, because when it comes to the Flyers, all bets are off. They are despised by many and unlike the Pittsburgh Steelers, who the Ravens fan base very much despises, Philadelphia is not respected, where the football team that is run by the Rooneys in Steeltown is respected. Flyers owner Ed Snider passed away right before this series began and the people who work for him have always pretty much been first class to me off of the ice from Joe Kadelec, Gene Hart, Bobby Taylor, Bobby Clarke, and Dave Brown on down, including Gene Prince, who used to run the Spectrum and Wells Fargo Center press boxes.

But on the ice is a different story. Snider preached physical hockey and that’s okay, as long as it is done between the whistles. In this series, the Flyers crossed the line too many times. Simmonds cross checked Ovechkin in the back of the knee in game two and Brayden Schenn did the same thing to Kuznetsov in game four, with both coming well AFTER THE WHISTLE. They were bush league moves along with the intent to injure hit by Pierre-Edouard Bellmare on Orlov in game three, simply because the Flyers were being sore losers. The Capitals may have actually benefited by not hitting the empty net at the end of game six because it would’ve given the sore loser Flyer players time to get in at least another cheap shot or two.

Speaking of bush league and being sore losers, it was just two and a half years ago when goalie Ray Emery raced across the ice and jumped Holtby then started pounding him in a game the Caps would end up winning 7-0. It was disgraceful, but the dinosaur like fans in Filthy loved it and a media member made a bozo move naming Emery the game’s third star. That’s typical Philadelphia Flyer mentality. They’ve been setting the game back for 40 years on the ice, so they’ll get no praise from me.

Look, the Flyers overachieved this year and have some good young players, but they are cement heads on the ice and that leads to their overall reputation. As Niskanen repeatedly told me in this series, “it’s in their DNA.” They’ll continue to be nothing but losers until they clean that stuff up and shame on the NHL for allowing  too much of it to happen far too often. It also leads to many of their fans acting like babies and idiots on occassion, witness game three’s bracelet throwing spree. Simply put, on the ice, that team is pretty much classless.

But good for Coach Trotz for praising the Flyers season in his post game presser, he is a classy man as is Caps GM, Brian MacLellan. Those two know what they are doing and have assembled a roster that will go up against the vaunted Penguins, who own a 7-1 all time series record against the Caps. But none of that matters and the last time these teams met in the playoffs was 2009.

Again, this Capitals team is different. It is a challenging match up and Washington will need to play their game properly to win the series. This club is mentally tough and I’m not guaranteeing a victory, but the fan base needs to show a little faith, in fact a lot of faith, and stick by them as they go up against Sidney Crosby and company.

Oh, and one more thing, see ya Flyers!

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The Caps start slow, but finish strong in a 3-2 victory over Pittsburgh

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Caps Rally to Beat Pens Via Heavy Hockey

Posted on 02 March 2016 by Ed Frankovic

It is not how you start, it is how you finish.

On Tuesday night at the Verizon Center, the Washington Capitals came out sluggish and dug a 2-0 hole just 23:45 into this contest. The Caps were not skating at all and were not physically or mentally engaged in the game. As a result their gap control was terrible and the speedy Penguins took advantage of the space they were allowed on the ice.

But everything changed on the shift after the Peter Hornqvist tally, as Coach Barry Trotz shuffled the deck and put Mike Richards out with Tom Wilson and Jason Chimera to try and generate some much needed energy. Boy did it pay off as those guys were all over Pittsburgh and with #43 creating havoc in front, Richards notched his second goal of the season with a shot that Pens goalie Matthew Murray (34 saves) never saw just 39 seconds after it was 2-0. Afterwards, Richards said the goal belonged to Wilson, because he thought Willy tipped it, but regardless of that, the Caps were back in the game and they came to life with a vengeance.

For the final 35+ minutes this was mostly heavy hockey by the Caps. They were slow out of the gates due to no practice on Monday and it looked even worse with the Pens having played on Monday in a 6-0 rout of Arizona. In typical fashion, the Capitals started tilting the ice with their physical play and later in the period Justin Williams came down the left wing, kept his feet moving, and wrapped a puck around the right wing side of the Pens cage. Evgeny Kuznetsov had alertly positioned himself in front of the net and he whacked the biscuit home to tie the game up, with 3:57 left in period two, and totally ignited the Verizon Center crowd.

From there the Caps continued to pressure Pittsburgh. As expected, with the Pens having played the night before and Washington possessing a deeper and more physical team, the Capitals carried the play in the last 20 minutes and would win the game on the power play.

Evgeni Malkin high sticked T.J. Oshie in the neutral zone and that set up the #1 ranked unit in the league for a man advantage with 7:15 remaining. Pittsburgh, according to Matt Niskanen, became focused on shadowing Alex Ovechkin, and that allowed Nicklas Backstrom to feed #2 for three straight blasts from the point with traffic in front. As they say, the third time is a charm, and Niskanen’s rocket found the back of the cage. Following the game, the unselfish defensemen stated that Oshie had tipped the puck and deserved the goal.

So that’s two goals for Washington in which the official goal scorer said it wasn’t his goal. That’s a team that plays for each other and one that only cares about one thing, winning. This club has great team chemistry.

Winning is what they did as they held Sidney Crosby (1 assist) to no shots on goal and improved to 46-12-4 (96 points). With 20 games remaining they have yet to lose back to back tilts in regulation and the rest of the league remains in their dust.

As for Oshie, well he is one tough son of a gun. He took a knee on knee hit from Crosby and had to leave for a couple of shifts, he was trucked in the neutral zone by Ovechkin, and he also got clipped up high by Malkin to set up the winning power play sequence. You’d think a guy that was banged up that physically in this contest would spend the rest of the night staying on the perimeter, right? No, not Oshie, he was right there in front, doing what is necessary, to score or at least help score the game winning goal. Simply put, Oshie eats rocks for breakfast.

Wilson was outstanding in this contest and he was a big reason the game changed. #43 was flying around and scaring Penguins players while staying in control. He was simply unmanageable by the Pittsburgh defense for the final 35+ minutes.

All three Capitals goals were scored in front via hard work plays to get the puck to the prime scoring area while other teammates worked hard to battle in front to make the job for Murray, who played very well, extremely difficult.

When the Penguins did get a chance late, and Carl Hagelin had a golden opportunity with 33 seconds left, Braden Holtby (28 saves) came up with a big and sassy glove save to deny one of Washington’s biggest rivals. The Holtbeast now has 40 wins this season and is closing in on Martin Brodeur’s NHL record of 48 victories in a regular season.

Bottom line, though, this Caps team, that is still missing John Carlson, is deep and can wear their opponents down and agonizingly take hockey games from you.

They are a force to be reckoned with when they are focused.

The Penguins learned that, once again, on Tuesday night.

Notes: Mike Weber made his Caps debut and logged 12:24 on defense, paired mostly with Nate Schmidt. He blocked a team leading five shots…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time, at 24:26…Washington won the face off battle, 30-25. Backstrom was 11-9…the Caps had 32 hits to just 19 for the Pens…Washington outshot the Pens 37-30. Shot attempts were 64-58 for the Penguins. Washington dug a big first period hole in shot attempts with their poor play…the Caps will face Brooks Laich and the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night at the Verizon Center at 7 pm. Philipp Grubauer will be in net. Daniel Winnik, who was acquired in the Laich trade, arrived in town on Tuesday and should be in the lineup on the fourth line against the Leafs.

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The Caps five game winning streak comes to a halt as the Pens win at the Verizon Center.

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Fleury and the Pens Stymie the Caps Offense

Posted on 28 October 2015 by Ed Frankovic

When Evgeny Kuzentsov scored on a lucky bounce just 88 seconds into period three of a scoreless hockey game, it appeared the Washington Capitals would continue their winning ways against one of their three biggest rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins (Flyers and Rangers).

Instead, some costly breakdowns on the defensive side of the puck turned a Caps lead into a quick one goal deficit in a matter of less than three minutes.

Beau Bennett scored after a great stretch pass from Olli Maata to Nick Bonino allowed him to streak in on the right wing and fire two biscuits on Braden Holtby (22 saves) and even things up just 24 seconds after the Kuznetsov goal. On that play, Washington’s forwards failed to cut off the center of the ice to yield a successful pass that is typically intercepted at the red line, when played properly. Compounding the problem was Brooks Orpik was too far to the center of the ice as he was trying to stop Bonino and that gave Bennett the lane to the cage.

If that wasn’t bad enough, then just over two minutes later, after the Capitals got caught in deep in the offensive zone, the Penguins worked a perfect cycle game and Phil Kessel beat Matt Niskanen to the net for the game winning tally. Bonino then added an empty net goal late to make it a 3-1 final.

The Caps now fall to 6-2 and their five game winning streak was snapped.

There were some things to like for Washington in this game. They killed off a lengthy five on three early on and another Penguins power play in the first period to go a perfect three for three on the PK on the night. Holtby was especially strong early on. In addition, they out-shot the Pens, 34-25, and out-shot attempted them for the game, 66-55. Marc Andre Fleury (33 saves) was outstanding in this game, so he deserves much credit for the win.

On the downside, I thought the Penguins did a great job of pre scouting the Capitals breakout and power play (0 for 3). Washington had a lot of trouble generating speed through the neutral zone and when they did, the Capitals often over passed the puck. They had 34 shots, but turnovers in the offensive zone probably cost them another seven to 10 attempts to the cage. When the other goalie is hot, you have to get pucks and traffic on him and the Caps were only successful at that in spurts.

I’ve seen the talk of the Penguins possibly getting rid of head coach Mike Johnston from some who cover the game. I’m not sure if there is any truth to those rumors, but based on what I saw, and granted this was the first time I’ve seen the Pens all season, I thought he did a great job of getting his club ready to play against the Caps. They had bodies and sticks in the Washington lanes all night and their puck support was strong.

Overall, the Pens deserved this one for their superior play in the final frame. They took advantage of the Caps mistakes and their goalie was excellent.

It’s only October 28th and the Caps will learn from this loss. They were too loose, at times, in this contest and they couldn’t bail themselves out with offense. Coach Trotz will have lots of good videotape to show and use after this one.

There are 74 games remaining. The Caps have the makings of a powerful team and are picked by many to win the division. That will happen, more likely than not, but on Wednesday, they didn’t bring anywhere close to their “A” game and lost a close one to a good hockey team.

Next up are the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday. C-Bus is now coached by John Tortorella. Torts is 2-1 since taking over and they are riding a two game winning streak after starting 0-8. Expect a physical game and you can bet Columbus will be clutching, grabbing, hitting, and blocking shots. Tonight’s loss against the Penguins should be good preparation for that type of hockey since Pittsburgh did a fairly good job of keeping the Capitals to the perimeter.

So stay calm and be ready for Friday night.

Notes: The Caps lost the face off battle, 35-29. Sidney Crosby was held pointless but he was 18-8 from the dot…Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Oveckin both played over 22 minutes. John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:16 and Niskanen was close behind at 24:36…Brooks Laich only played 7:16 and Chandler Stephenson just 5:42. It was their line that got caught in the offensive zone on the game winner and allowed the Penguins to get a cycle advantage to set it up. Laich changed before the goal went in.

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Caps Not Focused in Loss To Pens

Posted on 26 February 2015 by Ed Frankovic

There are some nights where a hockey team just looks out of sync.

On Wednesday night versus the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Washington Capitals were guilty as charged.

The Caps had another lackluster start to a game, provided the Pens with six power play opportunities, gave up a shorthanded tally, and struggled to make passes in a 4-3 loss to the Pens at the Verizon Center on Rivalry Night on NBCSN.

It was a poor performance in an ugly game in which Coach Barry Trotz said his team was not focused.

“I didn’t like our start. I thought Pittsburgh established their forecheck real early. We were sluggish out of the gate, and it showed…We actually drew three penalties and it showed on our power play. We weren’t sharp the way we needed to be. I thought we took all bad penalties, unnecessary penalties. I mean you can get momentum off the penalty kill, but we’d get momentum off a penalty kill and then we’d take another penalty. Those are just unacceptable for me. You’re not going to win hockey games,” said the Caps bench boss afterwards.

The Capitals were pretty bad on Wednesday while the Penguins came out trying to avenge their three losses by a combined score of 10-1 to the Caps in 2014-15. They clearly dominated the first 30 minutes and Evgeni Malkin (3 assists) was flying all night. Pittsburgh was the better team and deserved to win.

Even still, the Penguins Marc Andre-Fleury took a stupid and selfish penalty late allowing Alex Ovechkin to notch his NHL leading 39th goal and pull Washington to within a puck with 3:34 remaining. The Caps would surge, but it was too late.

Still, given the emphasis Pittsburgh put on this game and how poorly Washington looked, the Caps have to be encouraged that they still only lost by a goal.

“Well I think that we are a lot more relentless than we have been. We have a lot of great players, lot of skill, guys that are willing to battle to at least get it close, and we hate losing. So, that’s nice, but we just needed one more at the end,” added Karl Alzner when asked about why this Caps team is able to hang around in games when they don’t have anywhere close to their “A” game.

On the flip side, the Penguins should be concerned. Their defense is fairly soft and they have to rely heavily on their top players. On Wednesday Malkin and Sidney Crosby were better than Washington’s top players for the first time in four tries.

The Caps have not looked focused since going into a defensive shell in Saturday’s shootout win over the Islanders. Could it be that the NHL trade deadline, which is on Monday, March 2nd, is causing a distraction? Trotz didn’t think it should be a distraction for the Capitals players because in his words, the team is trying to “add players.” But each player deals with it differently, which defensemen Matt Niskanen pointed out to me following the defeat.

“I think it’s different for everyone, it depends on your situation…it can be a real nervous time. Some guys like to follow it on TSN, the internet, or whatever, stay up to date and be prepared. Some guys don’t even want to look or would rather not know,” said Niskanen.

The question then posed to Niskanen was could the NHL trade deadline cause players or a team to lose it’s focus?

“Yeah, potentially it could be, I think. I think inevitably there is a lot going on in some people’s minds and potentially could draw some of the energy right out of you, you’re worried about other things rather than just playing your best. You’re wondering if they’re shopping you, it could potentially weigh on some guys,” finished #2.

Whatever the case may be, and there are some players on the Caps who could potentially be moved out to bring players in given Washington’s salary cap situation, the Capitals have not played well over the last 120 minutes or so.

They lost as a team on Wednesday with a poor performance to a club that was out for some revenge and wanted it more.

They played lousy and still only lost 4-3.

There’s no use worrying about it now, it’s over and done with and time to look forward.

Washington drops to 33-19-10 (76 points) and trails the Islanders, Rangers, and Penguins by six, four and three points, respectively. Next up are the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday in Raleigh and then the Toronto Maple Leafs at home on Sunday night at 7pm. Both of those clubs are in tank mode so the Capitals should get two victories.

Notes: Both teams were 1 for 6 on the power play, but the Pens added a shorthanded goal…Shot attempts were 56-53 in favor of the Capitals…shots on goal favored the Pens, 26-24…Nicklas Backstrom led the Caps in ice time with 24:16 while Kris Letang logged 29:53 for Pittsburgh.

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Disciplined Caps Defeat Pens for 3rd Straight Time

Posted on 17 February 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Wow, that was some hockey game between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night.

In a contest that was poorly officiated, both ways, the Caps were the more disciplined team while the Pens lost their minds and took stupid penalties to basically gift wrap two points to Washington.

Joel Ward, who was cheaply hit with just under five minutes left by long time dirty man Chris Kunitz, scored the game winning tally on a five on three power play with 4:13 remaining. The goal was set up by an out of this world feed from Nicklas Backstrom, who leads the NHL in assists with 44. Then after the Pens received a late power play, John Carlson stole the puck and fired the biscuit from inside his blue line into the empty cage to give the Caps a big, 3-1, victory.

It was the third straight Capitals win over Pittsburgh this year and the Caps have outscored the Pens, 10-1, in those three games. Braden Holtby was excellent in net making 32 saves and he’s knocked off the Pens each time this season. At the other end of the rink, Marc-Andre Fleury was darned good as well (30 saves) while taking the loss.

Pittsburgh’s inability to score on Holtby this season resulted in the Pens displaying a game long mindset of crashing the net at all costs. The Caps were likely upset at the lack of goalie interference being called in this one, and rightly so, but that’s hockey. However, it was that aggression and focus on being physical that led to the Pens crossing the line, which ultimately cost them the game.

Coach Barry Trotz should be extremely proud of the way his club went into a hostile environment and maintained their poise and composure. This is a side of the Capitals we haven’t really seen in recent years and the maturity has been brought by the coaching staff as well as the additions of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen.

Orpik was dynamite in this contest as he and Carlson totally shut down Sidney Crosby, once again.

Alexander Ovechkin continued his MVP calibre season scoring the first goal on the power play on a breakaway and he also had an assist on the game winning goal by Ward.

The play you’ll likely see and hear a lot about, however, was one where Ovechkin came into the zone and was battling with Kris Letang for the puck. The Gr8 whacked at the biscuit but #58 blocked the puck with his right skate. Ovi’s shot attempt took out Letang’s feet and he went awkwardly crashing into the boards. Could a penalty have been called on Ovechkin? Probably, but the zebras didn’t do so (and they had already made many poor calls and non-calls, both ways, in this one up to that point). With Letang off to the locker room, the Penguins fans went nuts, as did their players. On the ensuing face off, Kunitz and David Perron took turns cross checking the Gr8 in the mid section while Ovi just laughed at the two (and no penalties were called on Pittsburgh either).

Letang would return shortly thereafter so it was good he wasn’t injured. But it was Letang who took an undisciplined slashing penalty on Marcus Johansson that gave Washington the five on three that allowed the Capitals to move to 31-17-10 (72 points).

With the victory, Washington completes an impressive 3-1 road trip against some of the top clubs in the league. They are now just a point behind the Pens in the standings. The Caps are still five points in back of the Metropolitan Division leading New York Islanders.

This was a high intensity and physical contest so the Caps have to be extremely pleased with the way they played and conducted themselves. They put the game above cheap shots and settling scores. They played with passion and structure and carried the play for extended periods, particularly in period one. But Pittsburgh brought their game too, so it was quite the even contest. Holtby was particularly sharp in the middle frame when the Penguins were at their best.

Overall, this felt like a playoff game and a Capitals club that flew cross country on Monday and was playing their third game in four nights turned in a stellar performance. It was hard to find a Caps player that didn’t bring it on Tuesday. There was no back down and no instances of someone putting the individual above the team, unlike what Kunitz and Letang did to cost their squad at least a point.

Notes: Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 23:43, but Orpik played 23:23 while Backstrom logged 23:03. Trotz did a nice job of spreading the ice time around and that helps the Caps play fast and reduces the chance of injury…Ovechkin’s goal was his NHL leading 37th tally. He also has 59 points in 58 games (4th in NHL, right behind Backstrom, who has 60 points)…face offs were 26 all and shot attempts were 58-55 for Pittsburgh…Washington was 2 for 5 on the power play while the Pens were 0 for 3…The Caps face the Winnipeg Jets at the Verizon Center at home on Thursday…


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Ovechkin Nets 2 as Holtby Blanks Pens

Posted on 28 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

During their four game losing streak, the Washington Capitals surrendered 17 goals in four games, falling by a single puck each time. During those games the Caps looked nothing like the team that was solid defensively and worked hard on the back check during the first half of the season. Instead they lollygagged in their own zone and they lollygagged on the way back into the neutral and defensive zones.

What did that make the Capitals?

Well, to quote Richard Wuhl from Bull Durham, LOLLYGAGGERS!!

Enter Sidney Crosby and the despised Pittsburgh Penguins to the Verizon Center on Wednesday for NBC rivalry night and suddenly the team we saw so much defensive improvement and promise in before the skid was back as the Capitals dominated the Pens in a 4-0 victory.

Nothing like a team from western PA that you despise to regain your focus and get back to playing the right way.

On behalf of the Washington Capitals and their fans, thanks Penguins!

Pittsburgh was without Evgeni Malkin, who always seems to play well against Washington, but they had Crosby returning to the lineup and some of their top D who didn’t play in the last Caps-Pens game (a 3-0 Capitals win), such as Christian Ehrhoff and Paul Martin.

Alex Ovechkin set the tone early for the Caps by going to the cage and deflecting a Karl Alzner point shot by Marc-Andre Fleury just 4:50 into the contest. Given Washington’s record when getting that first tally, you can be sure that bookmakers in Rock Vegas were taking this game off of the boards, at that point.

Then, when Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green set Ovi up for a power play howitzer to make it 2-0 with some of the best passes you’ll ever see, I could hear John Blutarsky exclaiming “The Germans Have Bombed Pearl Harbor!”

Still it was just 2-0 heading into period three and we all know how poorly the Caps have played with the lead in recent weeks. But that would not be the case against the Pens and the Caps fired 14 final stanza biscuits on Fleury with Eric Fehr sealing the deal at the 8:58 mark. Then Green, who was outstanding again on Wednesday, put the icing on the cake burying an Evgeny Kuznetsov feed on a two on one with 7:36 remaining.

From there the Penguins decided to be sore losers, with David Perron sucker punching Troy Brouwer late in the contest. Noted chief punk and total pest Steve Downie also was a crap disturber all evening before getting his face bloodied by Michael Latta midway through the final frame. Downie, who will never be accused of being smart, was tagged with an extra 10 minute abuse of officials penalty, as well.

Speaking of the officials, well it was Tim Peel night at the VC and as expected, he was inconsistent. In addition, he called a penalty on Ovechkin for basically being too strong for Ehrhoff on a check that #10 initiated. Pretty bad stuff there.

Despite the zebra incompetence, the Caps were just too good to have Peel and company hose them on this night. Pittsburgh quality scoring chances were severely limited over the last half of the game and Holtby was excellent (27 saves) from the outset.

Simply put, it was one of the finer games the Capitals have played all year and it was on the tail end of a back-to-back situation. They were 1-6-1 in those situations heading into Wednesday night.

This season the Caps have lost to Edmonton twice, Buffalo once, and then Curtis McElhinney and the Blue Jackets on Tuesday, that’s not good.

However, this squad gets up for the better teams and they have mostly delivered in those contests (2-0 vs. the Blackhawks, 2-0 vs. the Pens, 2-1 vs. Tampa, etc.).

So it is clear that when this team is focused they can play with anyone.

Keeping that focus going forward is going to be key. With Montreal, St. Louis, and the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings the next three clubs on the schedule, it will be interesting to see if Washington continues to play well against the NHL elite.

Since that set of games doesn’t begin until Saturday, for the next couple of days the Caps and their fans can savor this tasty victory over another Pennsylvania team they do not like.

Notes: Ovechkin has 29 goals on the season and now leads the NHL in that department…the Caps out shot the Pens, 36-27…Washington was 1-3 on the power play while killing all four Penguins man advantage situations…the Caps BURIED the Penguins on face-offs, 39-24. Fehr went 17-5 from the dot and most of those were against Crosby (7-17)…Brooks Orpik had an assist and led the Capitals in ice time with 22:55. That might have been #44’s best game of the season…Green had six shots on net in 18:49, getting a helper to go with his goal…special thanks to Adam Vingan for the Ovechkin post game photo.



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Caps Becoming the Team No One Wants to Play

Posted on 28 December 2014 by Ed Frankovic

Back on November 15, prior to the St. Louis Blues defeating the Washington Capitals, Blues Coach Ken Hitchcock, pointed out the differences he was seeing in the Barry Trotz coached Caps from past squads. Specifically, he said the following (courtesy of Alex Prewitt of The Washington Post):

“With the skill level he has to work with, it’s going to be a very difficult team to have to compete against. Hopefully we got them in the middle of their transition phase, but you can just see where it’s going to be in a month if the buy-in continues. It’s a lot of talented people that are beginning to understand structure and discipline and it’s going to be hard to play against.”

Fast forward to December 27, 2014, just over a month later, and after a 3-0 beat down of the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Consol Energy center the Caps are in the midst of an 8-1-2 run and have indeed become a club that is hard to play against.

Ever since Bruce Boudreau was fired, the Pens have pretty much owned the Capitals. They had won eight straight against Washington heading into Saturday’s tilt and were sitting atop the entire Eastern Conference at 22-7-5.  The Caps had to travel the day of the game and go into a hostile arena, but they never flinched and dominated the Penguins in nearly all facets of the game.

You get two points for every game you win, but this victory on Saturday meant more than that. It was a validation of the hard work this club is putting in learning the Trotz system, and more importantly, it is re-enforcement that they are becoming a team and changing their culture, and are no longer just a bunch of guys who show up for games and try to win them.

This team is as committed as I’ve ever seen it. They are hard on the puck at both ends and they are doing the things that win hockey games, like driving the net, something they had struggled with for several years. On the game’s final tally, Eric Fehr’s second of the night, all three Capitals forwards were in front of the net. When was the last time you can remember the Caps doing something like that?

It was a joy to watch and Sidney Crosby, who was -3 on the night as a result of being shut down by John Carlson and Brooks Orpik, was so frustrated that he threw his stick.

Yes, the Penguins know it now, this is a different Capitals team. They no longer float in their own zone waiting for breakaways, instead they hound the puck carrier up and down the ice. They hit, they block shots, and they protect their goalie, Braden Holtby (31 saves), who was outstanding once again.

Washington won despite their captain, Alex Ovechkin, having 0 points. But don’t mistake the point total for a lack of production. The Gr8 was a beast in this game with 18 shots attempts, including 10 on goal.  Ovi also had 5 hits in 23:34 of ice time. He and Nicklas Backstrom were dominant despite not getting any offensive points. But if they keep playing like that, the points will certainly come. The Capitals top duo is wearing out opponents and that is making it easier for the other lines to contribute.

Fehr notched two goals by going to the net on a very strong line with Joel Ward and Brooks Laich while Marcus Johansson had a huge marker on a two on one break to make it 2-0 in the third period. MJ90 wisely shot the puck on that odd man rush and he beat Marc Andre-Fleury to really put the Pens behind the eight ball.

Overall, the Caps carried the play in this one out shot attempting the Penguins, 63-53, and the Caps also survived a five on three Pens power play late in regulation. Washington played well and when they made any type of mistake, their goalie came through with a clutch save.

Simply put, this is a different Capitals team, and like Hitchcock stated, if the buy-in continues, look out.

That buy-in must continue. The addition of Orpik, who was +3 in 24:04 of ice time, has changed the dimension for the Caps on the back end. Teams have a lot more trouble getting to the front of the Washington cage for easy goals. Bringing in Matt Niskanen has also allowed Carlson and Mike Green to be fresher and play more to their strengths. Those two former Penguins have been difference makers this season, whether you like their contracts or not.

The Caps are now 18-11-6 but are still in 4th place in the Metropolitan Division. The transformation is still occurring and Trotz also has the tough task of trying to fit in three younger players in the lineup in Tom Wilson, Andre Burakovsky, and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Those three all have promising futures because of their skill sets, but they are still green when it comes to the NHL. It’s a tough balancing act, but so far the team is finding ways to win while developing the young guys.

So now it’s on to Long Island for Monday’s tilt against the Islanders, a team they went 1-0-1 against in late November. The Caps are just five points in back of New York, who are now without goalie Jaroslav Halak. It’s another big game for Washington and they have a chance to make things very uncomfortable for their opponents once again.

The way Washington is playing and dominating their division opponents, they are quickly becoming the team in the Metro that noone wants to play.



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