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brian-maclellan

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Should the Caps Blow it Up or Stay the Course?

Posted on 29 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

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

Alas, once again, that is not the case.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Burkie Game 6

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Caps Dominate Game Six To Even Up The Series

Posted on 09 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring on Game Seven!

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Ovi Game 5

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Caps Leadership Crew Delivers in Game Five Victory

Posted on 07 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ovi Pens

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12 Thoughts on the Caps Following an Inexcusable Game 4 Defeat

Posted on 04 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Once again the Washington Capitals are on the brink of being eliminated in the second round of the postseason with Wednesday night’s 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in game four of the Stanley Cup Quarter Finals. The Pens lead the Caps three to one with game five set for Saturday night at the Verizon Center at 7:15 pm, a post Kentucky Derby start time.

Here are 12 thoughts on the Capitals following game four:

It was a huge game, Sidney Crosby was out of the lineup injured due to a concussion, yet the Caps came out as flat as a pancake in period one. Before 15 minutes were gone, the Pens had a 21-13 edge in shot attempts and a 1-0 lead on the scoreboard courtesy of Patric Hornqvist’s breakaway tally that he notched after he split Karl Alzner and Brooks Orpik. It was an awful defensive breakdown and miscommunication by two veteran defensemen you would normally expect to be tactically sound.

Offensive zone penalties were a big problem for Washington on Wednesday night, they took five of them that led to Penguins power plays. You can argue about the iffy calls on John Carlson and T.J. Oshie and perhaps the slashing on Alex Ovechkin in period three, but the bottom line is that four of the five were the result of laziness and not playing the right way. The first two penalties, by Ovechkin and Lars Eller, were in the first period when Washington seemed to be in sleep walking mode.

The Caps stabilized things in the last five minutes of period one, but the start to period two was another bad one. After failing to score on their carry over power play, shortly thereafter they lost several loose puck battles, which was a major problem in the first frame and a sign that they weren’t mentally or emotionally ready to play this contest. Jake Guentzel won one of those one on one battles and threw a puck to the middle of the ice and with Dmitry Orlov rushing to get back in position defensively, the puck hit his leg and went into the cage behind Braden Holtby.

After that goal, it was all Caps for the next several minutes and they tied the game up with two goals just 72 seconds apart. Marcus Johansson won a board battle, even after losing his stick, to keep a puck alive and Justin Williams grabbed it on the left wing wall and fed Evgeny Kuznetsov in the slot. Kuzy, for a change, was thinking shoot first, and his quick shot beat Marc-Andre Fleury to give the Capitals life. It was a smart play and by shooting right away, it caught Fleury off guard. Nate Schmidt would then tie the game by one-timing a missed Kevin Shattenkirk shot off of the backboards. Again, it was a fast shot like #92’s and it found the twine. Quicker shots are a must for Washington going forward. Waiting to fire away gives Fleury time to set up and it also allows the Penguins defensemen to get in the lanes to block shots.

Washington finally started to carry the play, like they should have been doing from the start, but then a bad penalty call on Carlson combined with a not so smart play by Andre Burakovsky on an extended zone time shift turned the game around. #65 caused the “so-called” penalty by being soft and carrying the puck up high in the offensive zone instead of keeping it low on the wall, where the Caps had just put reinforcements on the ice while the Pens were hemmed in due to the long change. Carlson tried to rotate down to give Burakovsky room and he and Scott Wilson collided and the bad zebras whistled a penalty. Penalty or not (and it really wasn’t a rough, which was listed as the call), Andre had already made the wrong decision and had lost the puck to the neutral zone.

Pittsburgh’s power play had been struggling in the series, but it finally connected to swing momentum big time. You’d like to see your goalie make a save there, though. Justin Schultz’s rocket was slated for the top shelf, but there was no screen and if the Holtbeast is in his usual mode he is out at the top of the crease and makes that stop. Instead he was deep in the cage and was beaten badly over the shoulder when he went down in the butterfly.

That goal came with 28 plus minutes remaining, lots of time left to recover, but the Caps couldn’t connect, including wasting a four minute power play that started in period two and carried over to the final stanza. The power play needs serious adjustments before Saturday. Ovechkin is not getting his looks and the Pens are being very aggressive on Nicklas Backstrom on the half wall making Washington’s usual plays ineffective. The Gr8 is at his best when he’s getting shots early and being physical. He only had four shot attempts in game four. Washington must figure out a way to get the power play going again and get Ovechkin more looks. Your move Caps coaching staff as well as Alex, who must work harder to create space for himself.

On the positive side of things, the Capitals second line was really good with 20 shot attempts out of the 46 the 11 Caps forwards had in this tilt. The third line had 17 shot attempts, including Eller’s great chance on Fleury in the third period where he waited too long to fire away. A quick shot there by #20 in front and perhaps he gets the puck by #29 or a rebound comes back to him and he’s in control of the situation? Waiting on Fleury has proven to be deadly except in one instance, Kuznetsov’s goal in game three where he had all day to get the goalie out of position. Tom Wilson was very much involved on that third line and was probably the only player that matched the Penguins intensity in the first period. He, along with Jojo, have been superb in this post season.

On the bad side of the ledger, you can start with the leaders of this team, Ovechkin and Backstrom. They were pretty much no shows for this affair and played with a lack of urgency in a critical contest. That first line, adding in Oshie, had only eight shot attempts! I’ll say that again, eight shot attempts in an almost must win playoff contest. That’s just unacceptable for the Captain and one of the Alternates to perform that way. They did not do their respective jobs and if the Caps do not come back, they deserve the brunt of the criticism given their play in game four and their inability, yet again, to get out of the second round with their fourth different playoff coach.

The final shot attempts were 72-38, but who cares? The start is what matters in these games and the team that has scored first has won every contest. Fleury is in the Caps heads and Holtby is fighting the puck. Meanwhile anyone Coach Mike Sullivan puts on the ice brings a maximum effort while Coach Barry Trotz’ crew has too many passengers.

Simply put, the Capitals were not ready to play this game. Without Crosby in the lineup they had an opportunity to seize the game and the series and let Pittsburgh know that it was the Caps time to shine. Instead they totally shunned the saying on their “Will Over Skill” t-shirts and acted like all they had to do was show up to win. It was a lack of leadership and a total lack of focus. It is maddening that this core group of players still doesn’t fathom what it takes to win in the postseason and you can’t put a lot of it on the coaches or General Manager, this is their fourth playoff coach while it has been the same core in charge on the ice.

As Justin Williams told me after game two, the playoffs are all about doing the little things and winning the one on one battles to put yourself in position to score or defend and ultimately win the game. Washington has not been committed to doing that and as a result they are a game away from the golf course, once again. There is no excuse for the effort from Ovechkin and the top line in game four. It is disturbing and if the Caps don’t come back, the blame starts with the Gr8 for failing to appear in this contest. Washington had to come out on the offensive and not take their foot off of the gas to tie the series up. Instead, they never found the throttle and played scared, which allowed the Penguins to dictate what type of game this would be. It’s inexcusable from a group that knows this is the last time this crew will be together. We’ll find out what these guys are really made of over the next week.

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Shatty

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Shattenkirk’s OT Tally Gets Caps Back in the Series

Posted on 02 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Kevin Shattenkirk’s wrister past Marc-Andre Fleury just 3:13 into overtime gave the Washington Capitals a hard fought, 3-2, victory in game three in Pittsburgh. The Pens now lead the series two games to one. Game four is Wednesday night in Steeltown, once again.

Well, they’ll be talking about this contest for a long time.

Sidney Crosby was injured in a collision with Matt Niskanen just 5:24 in and did not return. #87 was skating across the top of the crease on a rush and he was hit by Alex Ovechkin’s stick up high, Ovi and Sid then clip skates, and Sid seemed to lose his balance as he glided above the crease. At that moment, Niskanen was coming to the middle to cover the front of the net and had his stick in a defensive position. Crosby went flying right into #2’s stick as Matt was bracing for the contact and fell to the ice. His knee bent back awkwardly, but after staying down, he got back up and gingerly skated to the dressing room. He would not return and Washington also lost arguably their best defensemen for the night with a five minute major for cross checking and a game misconduct. I didn’t like the call on Niskanen, it was truly a hockey play gone bad. In fact, I thought the only infraction on the play could’ve been on Ovi for a slash, I tweeted that at the time. If Sid doesn’t lose his balance there, he’s fine, but he is low going into Niskanen and that’s where the problem came in.

“Crosby’s trying to score, and as he’s doing that, he’s getting lower and lower. I wasn’t extending my arms trying to hit him in the head, it happened quickly. I wasn’t even trying to cross check him…a collision was going to happen there in the crease. When the play first starts, I think my stick is at about his arm level, probably, right about where the numbers are on the side of his jersey. Because he’s trying to make a play, he’s getting lower and lower and the collision happened. I hope he’s okay, I certainly didn’t mean to injure him, it’s an unfortunate play that happened really quick,” said Niskanen to the media after the game.

Anyways, it’s all done now and the Capitals had a critical game to try to win. Fortunately for them, Coach Barry Trotz put Karl Alzner back in the lineup with seven D and 11 forwards so the Caps had six defensemen left after Nisky was thrown out. The Caps would kill off the major, with some help from Evgeni Malkin, who took a two minute minor for closing his hand on the puck during the early portion of the power play.

After surviving the major, the Caps started to take over the play and they ended up with a power play when Carl Hagelin was boxed for high sticking. Only 43 seconds later, Bryan Rust batted the puck over the glass and the Caps were in business with a 1:17 five on three. It took some time, but 54 ticks later, Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist) fired the puck in off of Ian Cole in front, who was tied up with Justin Williams at the top of the crease, to give the Capitals their first lead of the series. Washington led in shots on goal, 9-8, after twenty minutes. Braden Holtby made some big stops too, including a breakaway by Rust after a terrible Caps line change.

In the middle frame, the Capitals had long stretches of trouble due to too many turnovers and too many penalties. Malkin and the Penguins really picked their game up, going for the three to nothing series lead. With Brooks Orpik incurring a holding the stick call and then Evgeny Kuznetsov taking two careless minors, the Pens had three straight power plays, but the Holtbeast (28 saves) was at his best in this series as well as this year’s playoffs and was the biggest reason Pittsburgh didn’t get the equalizer.

That set up a big third period. A strong 20 minutes and the Capitals would get back in the series, a bad one and they were pretty much done and headed to the golf course. Coach Trotz’ crew came out with authority and really took it to the Pens, but couldn’t extend the lead on two power plays. After those, Pittsburgh was pushing hard and the Caps were doing a good job of keeping a third forward back to prevent their potent rush game. That pressure, much like what the Capitals did in games one and two when trailing, causes you to take chances, and the Pens got burnt on one of them which led to a three on two break for Washington’s second line. Justin Williams carried the puck up the left wing and when a Pens defenseman dove at him to try and knock the disc away, Stick hit Marcus Johansson coming behind him down the slot. Jojo then drew the other Pens defenseman and Fleury to him and slid the puck neatly to Kuznetsov at the right side of the cage. Fleury flopped over like a fish out of water trying to make another acrobatic save, and he made many in this game, but #92 waited him out and snapped the puck over #29 to make it 2-0 with 10:14 to go.

From then until the three minute mark, the Capitals played extremely well and gave the Penguins pretty much nothing. With Fleury pulled, the Caps had a chance to hit the empty net, but after a great play by T.J. Oshie to get the puck out, Backstrom made a poor decision to shoot at the open cage from behind the red line. He missed wide and it was icing. Had he taken another second to look, he could’ve hit Ovechkin all alone on the left wing boards for a game icing tally.

Instead, the Penguins received an offensive zone faceoff and Malkin scored with 1:53 remaining short side on Holtby, who was screened by Alzner. No problem, right, the Caps weren’t going to give up another goalie pulled tally, correct? WRONG!

After a defensive zone faceoff win, Malkin totally took Backstrom out in the right wing corner, but the blatant interference was not called. That allowed the Penguins to keep the puck in and Justin Schultz fired a shot from the point that hit Oshie and then something else on the way into the net with #71 parked in front. It was two goals in just 48 seconds and this one was tied with 1:05 left in regulation.

Surely the Penguins were going to once again win this game in overtime and make the Capitals and their fan base suffer more mental anguish, correct? I mean, a goal by the Penguins in OT and this would’ve been labeled the biggest Washington collapse, ever!

The Caps, however, came out strong in overtime and carried the play, although Phil Kessel had a great look in the high slot early on that he just whistled wide. Just over 150 seconds in to the extra session, Johansson took an outlet feed and split the Penguins defense at the offensive blue line. It was a great play and move by Jojo and Trevor Daley hauled him down on the way to the cage. That gave the Capitals an overtime power play. 33 seconds into it Shatty got the puck in the slot and with Oshie providing some traffic, he put it far post past Fleury and the Capitals players celebrated.

Wow, what a game and what resolve by the Capitals to win that one after an epic late collapse! They played so well in that third frame and it’s tough to give up that two goal lead up in that fashion, but they made a mistake that led to an icing and then the officials missed a clear penalty on Malkin right before the game tying tally. They persevered once again after facing some serious adversity, so they have that to build on as well as some things they did extremely well in this game.

Let’s start with the Holtbeast, who apparently met with his sports psychologist before this game, per the great Carol Maloney of NBC4 (@carolmaloney4) in Washington. #70 was really solid in this game making several big stops and if not for him, the Penguins don’t go 0 for 5 on the power play in nine minutes of advantage time. The Pens fired 10 of their 30 shots on goal for the game when up a man, but Holtby was dynamite.

Alzner and the rest of the penalty killers, especially Daniel Winnik and Tom Wilson, were superb, as well. Winnik also saved a goal with his stick early in the game on one of the rare pucks to get by the Holtbeast until the last two minutes of regulation.

Up front, Jojo was dynamite all night. Williams (two assists) was strong, too, on that second line. Kuznetsov was very up and down in this one. He took some bad penalties, especially the second one, when he held the Penguins forward when a hit was the right decision. You can’t have soft plays in the post season, because that will burn you. Fortunately the Caps PK bailed him out and then he rewarded the team with great patience on his tally.

For the evening, the Capitals did win the shot attempt battle, 63-55. They weren’t as dominant as games one and two, but they got the job done. They were better in front of the Holtbeast for over 57 minutes with a tighter defensive posture, but a costly icing and a missed penalty call allowed a go for broke Pens team to take this one to overtime.

Shattenkirk then made his presence known with authority, and #22 needed that. He had been struggling before this tilt and his power play decisions were a bit hesitant, at times, up until the overtime. Shatty was anything but hesitant on the game winning goal and he looked like the guy who was great down the regular season stretch run after GM Brian MacLellan acquired him at the trade deadline.

Simply put, Holtby and Shattenkirk were two guys Washington needed to step up for a victory, and those two did just that.

So now it’s on to a critical game four on Wednesday night. In addition to losing Crosby, Connor Sheary left the game when Patric Hornqvist, who returned from the dead to play this game but looked slower than normal, went for a big hit on Lars Eller. Instead he hit #43 with friendly fire right in the head when Eller sidestepped a hard charging #72.

This game also got ugly, at times, and Malkin and Chris Kunitz were in the middle of it quite a bit for the men in black.

It will be crucial for the Capitals to stay out of that stuff and just play hockey on Wednesday night if they want to even up this series.

Notes: It’s been announced that game five will be at 7:15 on NBC on Saturday night after the Kentucky Derby…shots on goal were 33-30 for the Caps, they were 2 for 5 on the power play getting nine shots on net in 7:16 of power play time…Ovechkin had six shot attempts (two on net) in 19:27 of ice time…John Carlson led the Caps in time on ice with 25:35…Alzner played more than Coach Trotz envisioned, with 21:34. He performed fairly well coming off of his upper body injury…the Caps lost the face off battle, 36-31, including some key ones late in the game. Jay Beagle was 6-3…Sheary only played 4:01. Kessel led the Penguins in ice time with 23:17…special thanks to WNST station owner, Nestor Aparcio, for being in Pittsburgh and getting me all of the locker room quotes.

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Jojo Rebound

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10 Thoughts on the Caps As They Head into Game Two

Posted on 28 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sid Ovi

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Ten Thoughts on the Penguins Before Round Two Begins

Posted on 25 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Following their first round victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs in six games, the task for the Washington Capitals gets significantly harder as they take on the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in a second round series that starts at 7:30 pm on Thursday night at the Verizon Center.

Here are ten thoughts on the Pens as we head into game one.

1. Pittsburgh had a ton of injuries this season, but they still managed to stay close to the Capitals in the standings until very late in the campaign. They are an extremely well coached team led by the best player in the league, Sidney Crosby. Coach Mike Sullivan’s club is playing well right now despite the fact that they are missing defenseman Kris Letang, forward Carl “Cap Killer” Hagelin, and goaltender Matt Murray due to injury. Letang is done for the season while Murray is not even skating, yet. Hagelin is a possibility to return, at some point, during this series.

2. The Pens scored 21 goals in five games against the Columbus Blue Jackets in round one. They notched them in so many different ways, too. Here’s the break down on those tallies: Eight from offensive zone pressure shifts, six power play markers (officially only five, but Evgeni Malkin’s goal in game two came just one second after a CBus penalty expired), four rush goals, one off of a face off, one as a result of a strong forecheck, and one empty net tally. Six power play goals jumps out there, the Capitals cannot afford to take careless penalties.

3. A big key to those goals is how decisive they are with the puck, they pass it quickly to open space and it leads to a lot of one timers. They were able to exploit a very young Blue Jackets defense and get Vezina Trophy candidate, Sergei Bobrovsky, moving around quite a bit, which made it easier to find open looks. Columbus never knew what hit them.

4. Another thing they like to do is use the long stretch pass out of their zone from a defenseman to the forwards. If the opponent makes a mistake in the neutral zone or has a bad line change, they typically exploit it. The Caps must be crisp in the neutral zone and make sure they get pucks deep into the Penguins zone, especially when they are changing players.

5. When it comes to getting pucks to the net, I’ve already mentioned how quickly they do that. What makes them even more dangerous is all of their forwards are skilled at crashing the cage. Patric Hornqvist, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Nick Bonino, and Scott Wilson all had in close tallies in round one. Guentzel and Rust each had five goals in the five game series and most of them were from just outside the paint. Chris Kunitz is another player who specializes in dirty goals, but he was out due to injury in round one. He is expected to suit up for the series opener. Crosby is a wizard when he has the puck behind the opponents cage so it is imperative that Washington does a very good job in picking up Penguins forwards in front and around the net when #87 has the puck. The Blue Jackets failed in that area miserably.

6. Pittsburgh is missing Letang on the back end, and he was a work horse for the Pens against the Capitals last spring logging over 25 minutes a game. However, this season the team has learned to play without him since he’s been on the sidelines since February. As a result, they have three pairs of defenders that get pretty even ice time based on the Columbus series: Justin Schultz and Ian Cole, Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley, and Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey.

7. The Penguins are very difficult to beat on their home ice. In fact, you have to go back to December 14, 2015 to find the last time the Capitals won in Pittsburgh. That’s six straight losses at the Igloo II, counting last spring’s playoffs.

8. With Murray injured in the game one warm-ups against Columbus, Marc-Andre Fleury was thrown into the battle in goal. It was literally baptism by fire in these 2017 Playoffs for the 2009 Stanley Cup Champion and his perfect 16 save performance in period one stabilized things for the Pens until they found their game. They then quickly demolished Columbus. If Coach John Tortorella’s squad gets a goal or two in that opening frame, is the series different? We’ll never know because Fleury was so good in net to start the series.

9. Washington did well containing the Crosby and Malkin lines last spring, but it was the Hagelin-Bonino-Phil Kessel third line that did them in. This go round, that line is not together due to the knee injury to #62. However, Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel are playing as well as ever. Malkin, who was battling an upper body injury in the playoffs last year, is at the peak of his game now and is very difficult to take off of the puck. Kessel is on his line, along with Rust and they’ve been on fire. The best way to stop Malkin is to prevent him from getting the biscuit. He’s in beast mode heading into round two and leads the NHL in playoff scoring.

10. The Caps have spent all kinds of time and effort since last May’s playoff loss to put themselves in position for a rematch. They’ve added Lars Eller, Brett Connolly, and Kevin Shattenkirk to their lineup to try and match the Penguins fast paced play. They are a year more experienced, which has proven to bode well for Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, and Evgeny Kuznetsov so far in this postseason. So now they’ve finally gotten to this point and have their chance to slay the dragon, once and for all. It will not be easy. The Penguins are the Defending Champs, and therefore, King of the Hill, until they are defeated. Last season’s series, which was razor close just like the movie Rocky, was essentially the Stanley Cup Finals in round two. Will this season’s series have a Rocky II type ending?

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Shatty

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Caps Go All In and Acquire Kevin Shattenkirk

Posted on 27 February 2017 by Ed Frankovic

After last season’s devastating playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, I wrote that the Capitals needed to upgrade their defensive depth. Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan spoke afterwards about upgrading the bottom six forwards.

Guess what? By acquiring defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk from the St. Louis Blues along with former Caps goalie Phoenix Copley for Zach Sanford, Brad Malone, the Caps first round pick in 2017, and a conditional draft pick(s), he’s now done both!

Over this past summer, MacLellan acquired third line center Lars Eller for two second round picks from Montreal and he signed third line winger, Brett Connolly, as a free agent for just $850,000.

That is some incredible work to fix your remaining roster holes without giving up any current key players.

“We are excited to welcome Kevin to our organization,” said MacLellan on Monday night after the deal. “We felt it was important to acquire another defenseman to strengthen and add depth to our blue line. Kevin is a skilled, puck moving defenseman who we think will help our team at even strength and on the power play. In addition, we are also pleased to welcome Pheonix back to the organization. We feel his addition solidifies our goaltending tandem in Hershey.”

This team is now very deep across the board and could survive a significant injury to their blue line that they just couldn’t overcome last season when Karl Alzner was playing through a bad groin and Brooks Orpik was initially injured in Philadelphia and then suspended for three games against Pittsburgh.

Coach Barry Trotz and assistant coach Todd Rierden have a crew that can be downright dominating on the back end now that they boast three very good defensive pairs in Karl Alzner – John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov – Matt Niskanen, and Brooks Orpik – Kevin Shattenkirk. Nate Schmidt becomes the 7th defensemen and Taylor Chorney the 8th.

Up front, they probably won’t have to worry about stopping both the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin lines only to get beat by the Nick Bonino led third line, like last season. Or if they face the Rangers, they have a better chance of containing the super fast and big Chris Kreider, who killed them in the 2015 playoffs and just a week ago Sunday beat Schmidt badly on a third period faceoff to score the game winning goal at Madison Square Garden. The Niskanen knee injury scare in Philadelphia last Wednesday night probably helped convince MacLellan that another right handed defenseman was definitely needed.

The forward lines, once Andre Burakovsky returns, will be:

Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – T.J. Oshie

Marcus Johansson – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Justin Williams

Brett Connolly – Lars Eller – Andre Burakovsky

Daniel Winnik – Jay Beagle – Tom Wilson.

I imagine that Jakub Vrana will be called up to fill #65’s slot until he recovers from his hand injury. Of course, MacLellan could also make a move to add another forward.

In a campaign when so many Capitals are in need of new contracts for next season and there likely won’t be enough money to go around, not to mention the Las Vegas expansion draft is looming in June, there is no time to waste. Bottom line, this current team, which was already very good before this trade was made, is not going to be intact next season so the future is now. This move is an add without really losing any key piece. Given that Oshie played with Shattenkirk in St. Louis and Carlson and Orpik also were his blue line teammates on Team USA in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, there should be some familiarity there. Shattenkirk is immensely talented and should fit in well, once he learns the Capitals systems. He has a good shot and could easily be the guy feeding Ovechkin on the top power play unit, if that’s the route the coaches go.

That’s not to say that the Penguins, Rangers, Blue Jackets, or any other team, for that matter, won’t defeat the Capitals in the playoffs, because anything can happen in the post season. But the Caps have just pushed all of their chips into the center in an attempt to win their first Stanley Cup and this move gives them a lot more defensive depth.

That really increases their odds of achieving their ultimate goal.

Simply put, it’s Cup or Bust!

Notes: Shattenkirk is reportedly already on his way to New York and will suit up for Washington on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers…St. Louis took on 39% of Shattenkirk’s $4.25M salary to complete the trade, per Frank Seravelli of TSN.

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Caps Pens OHalloran

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Caps Win Streak Ends at Nine in OT Loss to Pens

Posted on 16 January 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Alex Ovechkin was tripped by Sidney Crosby in overtime without a call and shortly thereafter the Penguins crashed the crease to score, 8-7, and win a wild affair that ends the Capitals nine game winning streak.

The Caps led 3-0 early in the second period and Evgeny Kuznetsov had a chance to make it 4-0 on the power play, but Matt Murray somehow made a big save.

Then the play that changed the game occurred. Patrick Hornqvist, who is certainly not one of the cleaner players in the league, punched T.J. Oshie in the head in the left wing corner in the Caps end. After a Braden Holtby cover of the puck, a scrum broke out. Daniel Winnik and Hornqvist were sent to the box for roughing when Washington should have had a power play. Oshie went down the tunnel for evaluation, but would return.

That put the game at four on four, and with the Caps being in their third game in four nights against a more rested Penguins squad, Pittsburgh used their speed and some poor defensive zone play by the Capitals to make it 3-2.

Honestly, the Capitals were fortunate to be up 3-0, before then. The puck was bouncing their way while the Penguins had some tough luck on their chances. But the “puck luck” would totally swing the Pens way and they scored three more goals to go up, 5-3, and chase Braden Holtby in the middle frame.

At that point, you had to figure this one was over given how much hockey Washington had played recently, but Coach Barry Trotz’s crew battled back hard and tied it up at five when Brett Connolly tallied at even strength and then Lars Eller (2 goals, +3) scored shorthanded.

Another controversial play then occurred that went the home team’s way, once again. Hornqvist was crashing the net and fell over Winnik’s arm. He slid extra far into Philipp Grubauer and then whacked number 31’s pad while Evgeni Malking (3 goals) was notching what would ultimately be his hat trick tally. This sure looked like textbook goalie interference or at least incidental contact, and Trotz wisely challenged. But the NHL guys in Toronto wearing their Pens Stanley Cup t-shirts ruled “goal.” Guess you can’t fight city hall, eh?!

Pittsburgh would extend the lead to 7-5 in the final frame when Bryan Rust cross checked Karl Alzner from behind on the right wing boards and that allowed Conor Sheary to feed Crosby for what surely looked like the game clincher.

But credit the Caps, they fought back with a vengeance and Oshie backhanded the biscuit home to cut it to 7-6 with 10:31 to go on the power play. Eller would then tie it up on a rebound with 5:32 left and somehow this one was even up when Washington had looked dead and buried twice.

The game then went to overtime and the missed trip on Crosby led to the winning goal sequence.

Overall, this was a very good point for the Capitals. You can complain that they blew a 3-0 lead, but Washington was clearly running on fumes and showed resiliency to overcome the speedy Penguins and the atrocious work of Dan O’Halloran and Frederick L’Ecuyer. Fittingly, the Caps did have four power plays to just one for Pittsburgh, the first time in 10 games that has happened, and it was the first time in 10 games the Capitals have lost.

But it wasn’t the number of calls, it was the HUGE misses by the guys in stripes that mattered, but that’s hockey.

It hurts that the winning streak is over and the long stretch of not allowing an even strength goal went by the wayside, but as Coach Trotz often mentions, there are games on the schedule when you know you are at a big disadvantage and this was one of them. The Caps were on their third game in four nights while Pittsburgh was off on Sunday and recently had their bye week.

Still, the Capitals, who were missing John Carlson on the back end, had a lot of breakdowns in their game and I’ll attribute that to fatigue. The Penguins had numerous odd man rushes and you just can’t get into a track meet with them. Pittsburgh was missing Kris Letang, as well, so the Caps needed to play a simpler game of getting pucks deep and pounding a defense that really misses #58.

What is impressive, though, is the mental toughness and battle this Capitals team showed to rally from both two goal holes and force overtime. That standings point could be huge in the end and Washington went 2-0-2 in the regular season against the Pens. On home ice it was all Capitals and both games at the Igloo II were extra time affairs, so home ice will be important in the playoffs.

It sure looks like Washington, with the additions of Eller and Connolly (1 goal, +2), and the additional experience for guys like Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky (1 goal, 1 assist, +3), Dmitry Orlov, and Nate Schmidt have closed the gap on the Penguins. But there’s a long way to go and trades could still happen. I expect that Pens GM Jim Rutherford is not thrilled with his blue line and might try and make a move or two.

For Washington, now that they’ve stabilized the bottom six, it’s up to their top two lines to win the war in the spring over Pittsburgh. On Monday night, the Pens top six won the game. Ovechkin (two assists) was -4, Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal) went -3, and Kuznetsov (1 assist) was -2. It was Washington’s third and fourth lines that gave them a chance to win when they had the odds stacked against them, and they nearly pulled it off.

The Caps are now 29-9-6 (64 points) and are still five points up on the Penguins (PIT has a game in hand). They are two points up on the Columbus Blue Jackets, but Coach John Tortorella’s team has two games in hand.

There’s a long way to go in this season (38 games) and being healthy in the spring is the most important thing, but the Capitals are certainly a strong team and losing on Monday night was a glass “half full” defeat, in my book.

Notes: Shot attempts were 67-52 for Pittsburgh…faceoffs were 33 apiece. Jay Beagle was 9-7…Alzner was -3 in 17:55. It was not one of his better games and leaving his feet on the second Penguins goal is something he can’t do there. Better to stay up and cut off the pass to the guy behind him…Crosby had a goal and three assists and was +3, but he was aided by the guys in stripes on his goal and then the overtime tally…counting the playoffs, the Caps have now lost six straight games in Pittsburgh, four of them after regulation.

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Ovi 1000

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Alex Ovechkin Hits 1,000 Points in Caps 5-2 Win Over Pittsburgh

Posted on 11 January 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Alex Ovechkin came into Wednesday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins needing just one point to reach 1,000 in his career.

It didn’t take him long to get it.

Just 35 seconds into this tilt on NBC Rivalry Night, the Gr8 received a breakout pass from Nicklas Backstrom, after T.J. Oshie made a great defensive zone hit and steal, and he carried the biscuit into the slot and zipped it by Marc Andre-Fleury to give the Capitals a lead they would never relinquish.

An already energized Verizon Center went nuts and when the Gr8 scored on a power play ROCKET at 8:06 of the second period, it was becoming clearer that Washington was going to win its seventh straight contest.

Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has really turned it on since we’ve started 2017, then fed Justin Williams for his 12th goal of the campaign on one of his patented behind the net passes just 4:31 into the final frame to make it 3-0.

At that point, the only thing that could thwart Washington was a parade to the penalty box and that began with a questionable call on Dmitry Orlov at 6:28 after it sure looked like Patrick Hornqvist should’ve been going off with him. This scrum resulted following a cheap swipe by Carl Hagelin on Braden Holtby (30 saves) after he had covered a puck.

The Penguins have a great power play and Evgeni Malkin scored to make it 3-1. Pittsburgh would push hard for another, but a Steven Oleksy knee on knee hit put him in the box for the second time in this one. Simply put, Oleksy is an AHLer and looked overmatched out there. Those hits weren’t intentional, he just isn’t fast enough to play at the top level.

On the ensuing power play, somehow the Caps messed up at their offensive blue line and Matt Cullen received a shorthanded breakaway, but the Holtbeast got a piece of the shot to calm things down. About 10 seconds later, Backstrom scored after another brilliant pass by Oshie to make it 4-1 with 6:49 remaining. Game pretty much over, well except for those guys in stripes, who just had to continue to make their mark in this one.

Oshie was jailed for his third minor penalty of the night and Sidney Crosby, who was held in check well by the Caps on Wednesday, fed Hornqvist perfectly on the door step for a tap in with 2:36 to go.

The Caps would keep the Penguins without any real chances from then on, though, and Lars Eller launched one off of the dome of Kris Letang and into the empty net to seal the deal.

Oshie, who missed Monday’s big win in Montreal, would notch three assists and Backstrom had a goal and three helpers. Holtby was outstanding again, but it was El Capitain, Ovechkin, who set the tone early in this one and staked his club to a two goal lead to make no doubt about whose night this was going to be.

Ovi only played 16:52, he’s being paced for the post season, but he had two goals, 11 shot attempts, seven shots on goal, and two hits. He even set up Backstrom when it was 2-0 for an open net shot, but the puck fluttered a bit on Nicky and he shot it high.

This was a vintage Ovechkin game and he rose to the occasion after Pierre McGuire threw all of Crosby and the Pens championships in the Gr8’s face in a pregame interview. Yes, Caps fans, it was another tough night of watching NBC and having to listen to some weird analysis, but when you come out on top over the defending Stanley Cup Champions, it seems worth it.

Once again, the Capitals were on the short end of the stick in power plays for the seventh straight game, but they’ve won all seven. They have not had more power plays than their opponents since December 17th against Montreal. By the rulebook, those were penalties on the Caps, no argument there, but what is ridiculous is the continual lack of calls against their opponents. It’s not being called fairly and I still don’t know how the heck both referees missed Ian Cole’s butt end to the face of Marcus Johansson? I could point out at least a half dozen or more infractions committed by the Penguins that weren’t called, but the league will continue to do nothing about improving their officiating to make it more consistent. It’s like they are trained to officiate the score.

Anyways, despite what Mike Milbury said after the game, the Capitals weren’t the only team trying their hardest out there. Washington was very sloppy tonight, but their back checking was outstanding and covered for several of their mistakes. When they didn’t have that support, the Holtbeast was there to shut the door. Braden is on fire and he continues to make the timely clutch save. If Cullen makes it 3-2, who knows what happens? That’s why you need a great goaltender, and Holtby is certainly that.

The win improves the Caps to 27-9-5 (59 points) and they take over 2nd place in the Metropolitan Division, just a point behind the Columbus Blue Jackets. At the halfway point of the season, Washington is looking like a Cup contender and the recent uptick in the play of Kuznetsov has made them a much more dangerous team because the opponents can’t put all of their focus on Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Oshie. Add in the strong recent play of the Brett Connolly-Eller-Andre Burakovsky line and Washington looks much more daunting than last spring.

But there’s still 41 games left and we are three months from the playoffs, so it’s not worth getting too high over. January has certainly been encouraging for the Capitals, but to quote the great Phil Collins, “still it would seem we’ve still got a long, long way to go.”

Notes: The Pens won the shot attempt battle, 64-51, but I thought the Capitals had more of the quality scoring chances. Washington did a great job of keeping Pittsburgh on the perimeter at even strength…Matt Niskanen was +3 and led the Caps in ice time at 23:11…John Carlson had two assists and five shots on net in 22:19…Orlov had an assist and was +2 in 20:18. Outside of getting beat one on one by Crosby in period one, he was really good…the Capitals cleaned up on draws, 43-26. Backstrom and Beagle were both 14-7…the Caps will face the Chicago Blackhawks at 7 pm on Friday night at the Verizon Center.

 

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