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Team USA Should Choose Caps John Carlson for Sochi Squad

Posted on 16 November 2013 by Ed Frankovic

With less than three months until Team USA plays its first game on February 13th vs Slovakia in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, things are heating up in the battle to make the team.

The rosters for many of the countries will be finalized over the next four to six weeks and make no mistake about it, earning a spot on a team is a big deal to NHL players.

Washington Capitals fans will have both Alexander Ovechkin (Russia) and Nicklas Backstrom (Sweden) to watch in Sochi, but there is another Caps player that is making a strong case to be on an Olympic roster, USA’s John Carlson.

That Carlson is in the running for a spot on the team is no surprise to Caps fans. #74 has been flat out dominant over the last few weeks and his 32:26 of ice time on Friday night in Detroit, including an eye popping 4:19 of play in the five minute overtime is quite telling. Carlson is a major reason that Washington is 6-1-1 in the month of November.

Team USA’s GM is David Poile and he is the ultimate decision maker for the roster, but he will get help from others to include Team USA’s head coach, Dan Byslma and Pens GM, Ray Shero.

Two quality NHL hockey writers, Pierre LeBrun and Scott Burnside, handicapped the Team USA roster on November 7th. In that post they list the following four players as locks to make Team USA’s defense:

Ryan Suter (Minnesota)

Paul Martin (Pittsburgh)

Jack Johnson (Columbus)

Ryan McDonagh (New York Rangers)

Given that there are likely going to be eight players chosen on defense, that leaves four roster spots remaining.

In the mix to make the roster, based on who attended Team USA’s camp last August, in addition to Carlson are:

Kevin Faulk (Carolina)

Kevin Shattenkirk (St. Louis)

Keith Yandle (Phoenix)

Brooks Orpik (Pittsburgh)

Dustin Byfuglien (Winnipeg)

Zach Bogosian (Winnipeg)

Matt Carle (Tampa Bay)

Cam Fowler (Anaheim)

Seth Jones (Nashville)

Danny DeKeyser (Detroit)

Erik Johnson (Colorado)

According to LeBrun and Burnside, they have Yandle, Shattenkirk, Faulk, and Orpik as the next four on their list. Carlson was further down on their rankings, but again, that list was done on November 7th and nine days later, we have more data.

The key for Poile is to have a crew that is playing as well as possible when February 13th arrives.

When talking to the former Caps GM out at Kettler IcePlex last August, it was clear to me that Poile is very concerned about the lack of success the Americans have had in the Olympics outside of North America and he pinpointed their ability to play on the Olympic sized ice, which is wider than the NHL rinks. This changes the game and puts a larger premium on skating ability.

It also, in my mind, puts more emphasis on having right handed players play the right side and vice versa with the left. Looking at the four locks to make the team in the ESPN article, one thing to note is that all four of those defensemen shoot left. So of the remaining four spots, one would have to think that at least three of them should be right handed shots.

The right handed shots on the above list are: Carlson, Jones, Erik Johnson, Kevin Faulk, Kevin Shattenkirk, Zach Bogosian, and Dustin Byfuglien.

Is Carlson in the top three or four on that list?

With the way #74’s played over the last month, absolutely!

Carlson’s four goals leads all USA defensemen (tied with McDonagh) and his 23:38 average time on ice puts him sixth overall out of the 16 players mentioned as possibilities. Carlson, and his defensive partner, Karl Alzner, routinely play against the top line of the opposition. So he’s no stranger to top players like Sidney Crosby, Geno Malkin, Eric Staal, Martin St. Louis, and John Tavares that will be donning the uniforms of Team USA’s opposition. There’s a reason Carlson gets those assignments game in and game out, he’s considered Washington’s top right handed defender in his own zone.

Another reason Team USA should choose Carlson is his skating ability. The 2010 World Junior Championship hero for Team USA is extremely mobile and that is something Poile’s team absolutely has to have in Sochi. I’m not sure a guy like Orpik is as effective on the big ice as he’d be in an NHL sized rink. Jones is a generational player and a raw talent, but he’s only 19 years old and is only just this year playing against the top competiton in the NHL. It just seems too risky to choose him now with so much pressure on the Americans to medal. Seth will eventually be there, but now is not the time. I’d also pass on a guy like Byfuglien who has had conditioning issues in the past and isn’t a super skater. He’s another guy more suited to NHL sized rinks. Bogosian, with all of the potential he brought when drafted high in Atlanta and his great skating ability, just hasn’t been consistent. Erik Johnson was super in Vancouver in 2010, but his game has been up and down recently and he is another much more suited to the NHL sized rink.

That leaves Carlson, Faulk, and Shattenkirk as my top three right handed shots. Carlson not only kills penalties but he also has a hard shot to bring to the power play. You can’t play 4:19 of a five minute overtime without being in great shape and #74 routinely is one of Washington’s best conditioned players. Overall, there is just no downside to putting Carlson on Team USA. He’s played in big games at the NHL level and in junior competitions in enemy rinks.

Carlson is playing the best hockey of his career right now and he deserves a really good look from Poile, Bylsma, and Shero (the Penguins are in town on Wednesday). If they see what we’ve seen Carlson do over the last several weeks, win the loose puck battles in all zones, get his shots to the net, and shut down the top line of the opposition, they should come to the same conclusion I’ve come to:

John Carlson deserves to be on the Team USA roster for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

 

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Crosby’s Pens Too Good For Ovechkin’s Caps

Posted on 19 March 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Caps fans may not like hearing this, but Sidney Crosby is one heck of a hockey player.

On the flip side, despite the constant bashing from clowns like Mike Milbury, Alexander Ovechkin is still a heck of a hockey player too.

On Tuesday night in Pittsburgh the two teams met in the Steel City and both players brought it in an exciting game. Ovechkin had a power play goal to give Washington the lead but Crosby answered back by setting up two goals. One of those setups, unfortunately for Washington, came after the Penguins had killed off a critical late four minute power play and they scored on the ensuing rush after a Capitals turnover to prevail, 2-1.

It was a crushing loss for the Caps who got Brooks Laich and Dmitry Orlov back in the lineup for the first time this season. The effort was good, but efforts don’t necessarily translate into points in the hockey world.

So now the Caps head to Winnipeg for a two game set with the Southeast Division leading Jets. Winnipeg has a nine point lead so Washington’s playoff chances continue to dwindle with the trade deadline set for two weeks from Wednesday (April 3).

The Caps will need to play hard like they did on Tuesday, but they also need to be more efficient. Their power play let them down and John Carlson continues to struggle with his passing at the point. A return of Mike Green would certainly be a boost to the man advantage situations. #52 is on the road trip.

At the end of the night, the hard work was there but the loss to the Penguins, who have now won 10 in a row, is a bitter one. Pittsburgh is a very good hockey team, even without Evgeny Malkin and Kris Letang, who are both out injured. Dan Bylsma has his club playing defensively as well as they have since they won the Stanley Cup in 2009. I am not sure how he turned a leaky blue line core around but part of the equation is the strong backchecking of their forwards. Pascal Dupuis’ late stick check on Ovechkin in the slot likely saved the victory. It is one example of how Pittsburgh is doing the little things in their own zone to thwart their opponents. Simply put, if the Pens keep playing like that, even Boston will have a hard time beating them in the Eastern Conference.

As for the Caps, well it was another lost game in a frustrating and disappointing lockout shortened campaign.

In the words of one Reg Dunlop, “We got a lot of losses.”

So Washington’s season is on the brink heading to Manitoba this weekend and if they don’t turn it around, the only way this loss to Pittsburgh on Tuesday will be worth it, in my book, is if they end up winning the draft lottery and getting defensemen Seth Jones.

That’s asking a lot, but that’s what it takes to get over a Capitals loss to the Penguins these days.

 

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Caps Nightmare Season Continues With Debacle In Pittsburgh

Posted on 07 February 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Well, for 20 minutes it looked like the Caps were going to be able to hang with their archrival Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night.

But then bad penalties, lack of effort, and poor goaltending resurfaced and before you knew it, Sidney Crosby and company pumped in five second period goals to turn the contest into a laugher. Pittsburgh would finish with a 5-2 victory over the Caps at Consol Energy Center.

The Capitals are now 2-8-1. That is five points in nearly 25% of this shortened hockey season. The record is abysmal and it appears things aren’t going to get better any time soon because this team is just not very good. As I chronicled earlier in the season, they lack talent on offense and defense.

Now, in the last week or so, the goaltending has imploded. Michal Neuvirth got the start in the cage in this contest but after two soft second period goals, Coach Adam Oates had seen enough. In came Braden Holtby, who was promptly hung out to dry by some poor Capitals play and a lack of discipline. Washington took three penalties in the middle frame and the Penguins scored on each of those power plays. You will not win hockey games, at all, when you pile up penalties and fail to kill them off. The propensity to be whistled for infractions and weak penalty killing have been a factor in almost every Capitals loss through 11 games.

So what can the Capitals do going forward? Well, they need to play like they did in the opening frame for a full 60 minutes. In the first period the Caps were physical and worked hard. Alexander Ovechkin’s club was pressing the play and taking the body early on and Pittsburgh seemed to want no part of that. In addition, they also stayed out of the box, except for a very marginal holding call on Karl Alzner. It was an encouraging period, as the Pens only had five shots on goal.

However, in the middle stanza, it was clear the Penguins amped their game up and Washington just couldn’t compete with them. Pittsburgh’s talent level is far superior to the Capitals and once the guys in black started working hard, this one was over quickly.

So now a fierce rivalry that once existed and was one of the NHL’s best, seems to be fading away. The Penguins have Stanley Cup aspirations while Washington is falling apart.

It is extremely difficult to rebound from this start and still make the playoffs in a 48 game season. The NHL’s Eastern Conference is weak from top to bottom so there is still some hope, but right now the Caps are showing with their terrible play that they are more destined for the lottery and perhaps one of the top picks in the 2013 NHL draft, than a spot in the playoffs.

It has turned into a nightmare season very quickly, and there are still 37 games to go.

 

 

 

 

 

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Caps & Other Hockey Thoughts on the Eve of the Stanley Cup Finals

Posted on 29 May 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Now that it has been over two weeks and the dust has settled on another crushing playoff defeat, Capitals fans can look forward to the Stanley Cup Finals and the exciting things to come for their team following it. This Caps off-season will be like no other in the recent past because General Manager George McPhee not only has to select a new coach, he has two first round choices in the 2012 NHL draft (11th and 16th overall picks), and he also has a lot of salary cap room to work with for the first time since perhaps the summer of 2008. With the Alexander Semin departure freeing up $6.7M on the books and Dennis Wideman’s $3.5M hit expiring along with some other smaller contracts that have ended (see Mike Knuble and Tomas Vokoun), GMGM has some flexibility to reshape the team and hopefully fill the holes that has prevented the club from advancing past the second round of the playoffs over the last five years.

So with that as a stage setter, here are 10 thoughts on the Caps, the NHL, the Memorial Cup, as well as my Stanley Cup Finals prediction:

– With the Finals starting Wednesday (8 pm on NBC), Tuesday was media day at “The Rock” in New Jersey. One of my favorite quotes of the afternoon came from Kings coach Darryl Sutter when he was talking about what turned it around for his club after it struggled during much of the regular season. He began by talking about guys starting to understand his system but then focused on center Mike Richards ability to find his game again in mid March after suffering a concussion earlier in the campaign. He then said the addition of Jeff Carter from Columbus at the trade deadline was the final piece needed since it allowed him to spread the offensive wealth. Specifically, he was talking about Kings superstar forward Anze Kopitar, who was having a hard time scoring goals. “At that position, you can’t be great all by yourself,” said Sutter. That excellent quote, which explains a lot, could easily be uttered by several other teams in the league who struggle to win consistently without two true scoring lines (see the Caps and Alexander Ovechkin).

– It is always tough to watch the playoff round following the one in which your team is eliminated and that was truly the case this spring once Washington was bounced by the Rangers in seven games. I fully expected the Caps to knock off the Rags but the bounces did not go the Capitals way at all in games three and five and Henrik Lundqvist was superb in net. Coach John Tortorella also received excellent play from defensemen Michael Del Zotto and forward Marian Gaborik in that series. Against the Devils, it was a different story and New Jersey dominated the Blueshirts before dispatching them in six games. Del Zotto was terrible against Peter DeBoer’s club and Gaborik disappeared like Jimmy Hoffa. On Frozen Blog’s John Keeley, before the Devils series against New York, penned a super blog on Lou Lamoriello’s club. John was spot on about the Devils talent and style of play and had the Caps beaten the Rangers, I don’t think they would’ve have been able to defeat the three time Stanley Cup Champions, but I sure would have liked to have seen Dale Hunter and company try!

– Speaking of Tortorella, there is no doubt that he is a super hockey mind but his abrupt and abrasive press conferences following playoff defeats became a hot topic in the Washington and then the New Jersey series. It got so bad that super NHL Network analysts’ Kevin Weekes and Craig Button finally called him out on it. Everyone knew Torts was trying to deflect criticism of his club and put the heat on himself, but the Rangers bench boss clearly took it too far. However, the man who has a very classy side, as was displayed on HBO’s 24/7 series, smartly changed his ways and was insightful and more patient with the media even while his team lost the last three contests to give away a chance to play in the Stanley Cup Finals. He was even more revealing and truly honest this past Monday during his club’s breakdown day. He talked about how certain players get what the team is trying to do while others do not. He said it would be up to the organization to get rid of those not on board. You can’t be much more up front than that and it was certainly refreshing to hear a truthful assessment of a team following their defeat with no excuses offered (such as Phoenix blaming the referees in the Western Conference Finals). Kudos to Tortorella, who also FULLY endorsed assistant coach Mike Sullivan for any NHL head coaching opening. Well done John, I was tough on you this post season but you’ve gone way up again in my book with your late playoff changed ways with the media, who work hard to promote the game many of us truly love. Perhaps I’ll take a cue from Torts and go easier on the referees next season??!! On second thought, I will have to think a little bit more on that one. 😉

– As for Sullivan, it is rumored that Calgary is the leading destination for the former Boston Bruins bench boss given his past relationship with Flames GM Jay Feaster in Tampa. Many once fired coaches learn and improve the second time around (see Bill Belichick and Joe Torre) and “Sully” seems to be the hot prospect this spring. I imagine the Capitals have strong interest in the New York assistant too given that the style Washinton played under Hunter is similar to what Sullivan and Tortorella were using in New York. With all of the moving pieces McPhee has going on this summer it will be interesting to see if Washington’s GM sets up his roster first before picking a head coach (the patient route that New Jersey took last summer with DeBoer) or he selects a coach and shapes the roster to fit the new coach’s style. Put me in the first category as I think the Capitals need to play a style like they played this post season. They need to continue to be responsible in their own end. Now if GMGM adds some offensive talent, and there is no doubt he has top six forwards in mind, then the club can be more aggressive offensively like New Jersey and Los Angeles are doing now, but both teams still have a STRONG defensive foundation at the root of their respective systems.

– When it comes to defense, I have to wonder what the heck happened to the Pittsburgh Penguins this spring?! That club was most people’s pick to go to and win the Finals this June but Coach Dan Bylsma’s squad fell flat on their faces. The Pens clearly lost their focus down the stretch and their play away from the puck, especially in their own end, was just awful. They had the most talented roster in the Eastern Conference and laid an egg in the first round. It is more proof that you have to be responsible defensively if you want to win the Stanley Cup and Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and company seemed to have forgotten all of the good defensive lessons former coach Michel Therrien taught them before being dismissed during their 2008-09 Cup winning season. Wide open hockey does not work in the post season, plain and simple, just ask the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers and they will confirm that axiom.

– After Hunter left his post here in Washington, he immediately went to sit in the press box and watch his London Knights battle for the Memorial Cup, which is the championship tournament featuring a pre determined host city and the three winners of Canada’s top junior leagues (the Western Hockey League (WHL), the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMHJL), and the Ontario Hockey League (OHL)). London won from the OHL, Edmonton represented the WHL, while the defending Memorial Cup champs, the Saint John Sea Dogs, represented the QMHJL. The host city, Shawinigan, was the fourth club. The host Cataractes ended up defeating Hunter’s club in overtime of the final game to capture the Cup in a 2-1 thriller. Both goalies (Michael Houser of London and Gabriel Girard of Shawinigan) were impressive in the final match as were several other already NHL drafted players. Jarred Tinordi (Montreal), Austin Watson (Nashville), and Brandon Gormley (Phoenix) really stood out for me and seem poised to have good NHL careers. Russian Krill Kabanov (Islanders), who had one crazy junior career, did some nice things as well but it remains to be seen if he turns out to be an every day NHLer. The undrafted player that was high on my radar was Max Domi of London, son of former Leafs and Rangers tough guy, Tie. The 17 year old, who is draft eligible in 2013, was all over the ice with his speed and tenacious play. He isn’t big right now size wise, but he plays large and I have to think many teams will be very interested in him next June.

– Stan Galiev, of the Caps, played again for Saint John in the Memorial Cup, and the 2010 third round pick seems to have a bright future. He projects to be a top six offensive player but personally I think it would be wise for Washington to let him get at least a year in Hershey to properly develop and gain size and confidence.  The Russian forward will definitely help the Bears next season, who will not have former AHL Calder Cup MVP Chris Bourque back next year. Bourque, who very recently became a first time father, was traded on Sunday to Boston for center Zach Hamill. Hamill was the 8th overall pick in the 2007 draft and is still just 23 years old. He should help Hershey next season, as well.

– After last February’s NHL trade deadline I asked an NHL scout, with over 20 years in the business, why Tampa didn’t get a goalie this season when it was clear that it was their biggest hole and was certain to prevent them from making the playoffs despite the great goal scoring year Steven Stamkos was having. The scout said something that was quite telling. “It is not as easy as it seems to find what you need.” I expect Tampa to go after Vokoun or some other veteran goalie this summer to go along with youngster Dustin Tokarski, who won the 2008 Memorial Cup with Spokane.

– By the way, that scout’s quote is clearly relevant to what McPhee has been dealing with when it comes to second line center. GMGM knows he needs a center, but he’s been unable to get one for many reasons. As I said above, this summer might be his best chance, given the flexibility he finally has in terms of salary cap room. However, it takes two to tango and you can bet that other GM’s may not be willing to give what the Capitals desperately need without getting something significant back. Recent history shows though, that getting the superstar player while sacrificing lesser players, draft picks, and prospects is a recipe for success. Los Angeles, who did that to get Richards and Carter, and New Jersey, who did the same in acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk, both went that route and have been rewarded with a shot at the Cup. Pittsburgh did the same when it plucked Marian Hossa from Atlanta back in 2008. So it seems to make sense for GMGM to be aggressive and try and hit the home run on the center position this summer by giving up some assets to finally get an elite player to complement Nicklas Backstrom up the middle and alleviate some of the pressure on Ovechkin.

– Finally, I am going with the Kings in five games in the Stanley Cup Finals. Los Angeles is just rolling right now and my only concern with them is their eight day layoff. I can’t see their power play continuing to struggle the way it has to date in the post season. I love the way the Devils play the game and Zach Parise is one of the best players in the NHL right now. However, I think they are over matched in this series and if they don’t win game one, then this thing could be over quick. However, if New Jersey holds serve at home against a LA squad that is perfect on the road this post season, then anything can happen. That is why they play the games. Enjoy!

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Pens win

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Undermanned Caps Turn in Strong Effort

Posted on 22 January 2012 by Ed Frankovic

NBC decided to put the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins on national television this Sunday afternoon ahead of the NFL Championship games and as usual, they got a dandy between two clubs that respect each other, but flat out can’t stand one another.

Sure there was no Sidney Crosby, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, or Jordan Staal due to injuries, but Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, the top two picks in the 2004 NHL Entry draft, repsectively, put on an absolute show. Both had three points (1 goal, 2 assists) and finished plus three in the game, but it was Malkin who had the winner in overtime for Pittsburgh, in a 4-3 thriller.

Washington also played without center Marcus Johansson so coach Dale Hunter had to go to his first aid kit and bandage a lineup together. In the first period, it wasn’t working so well as the Pens raced out to a quick 2-0 lead prompting many of us on Twitter to surmise that it was going to be a long day for the Capitals.

But give Hunter credit once again for some great in game adjustments, the most important of which was putting Mathieu Perreault between Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, and those three were the guys who got the Caps back in it, and also the lead for about six minutes in the third period. The Gr8 and Semin are super talents, but in hockey, to win, you need good centers who can get skilled wingers the puck. Center has been the Caps biggest problem this year (and it could be argued it was the last two years as well) and that issue is significantly magnified while Backstrom is out of the lineup. Throw in an ill Johansson and you get the disaster that was the first period.

Hunter’s first intermission moves panned out but also the players reached down and grabbed their you know whats and competed. Let’s be honest, Washington can’t stand to lose to Pittsburgh so they were going to do whatever it took to try and win. And they almost pulled it off too. Michal Neuvirth (23 saves) was very good in net despite taking the defeat.

Laich would play 27:57 and he, Karl Alzner (24:09), and Jeff Halpern (11:39) put on a penalty killing clinic late in period two, with the score knotted at two, when the Penguins had a 51 second two man advantage. Pittsburgh would score once on the power play to open the scoring but Washington killed all four other Pens manpower advantage situations.

Alzner had a strong game playing with Dennis Wideman (26:49) but the duo of John Carlson and Roman Hamrlik had an up and down contest drawing the Malkin line. Those two were on the ice for three of the four goals against while being on for two Caps markers. Hamrlik was the one who caused most of the problems as Pittsburgh exposed his weaker skating ability. #44 had been playing better under Hunter’s new system, but I felt that today was his poorest game since the former Caps captain took over and it was his mistakes that allowed Malkin to set up the game tying goal and then win this one in overtime.

At the end of the day though, this was an encouraging contest for Washington after an unbloggable loss in Carolina on Friday (3-0). Several guys stepped up, most notably Perreault and Laich, to try and fill the gap up the middle of the ice that is so glaring right now. Perreault certainly earned himself some more ice time with this performance and his offensive skill seems to be the best fit with Ovechkin and Semin right now with Backstrom out. Even if Johansson comes back on Tuesday, I’d still keep 85 there because he is more gifted offensively and the two big guns need a center who can handle and pass the puck.

So the Caps will play one more game on Tuesday, at the Verizon Center, against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins before taking the rest of the week away from the rink for the All Star Break. If they can find a way to win or at least get a point against a very good Boston team that would be huge.

The Caps need some rest to heal up, but they are still battling despite being undermanned, so today’s point in Pittsburgh was well deserved.

Notes: John Erskine, Cody Eakin, Jay Beagle, and Joel Ward all played less than 10 minutes of ice time. Hunter likes to go with the guys who are getting it done as evidenced by the large variance in playing time down the lineup…Semin and Perreault each had two points. 28 was +3 while Perreault went +2…James Neal had two goals for the Pens, both assisted by Malkin.

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The Caps get great goaltending from Tomas Vokoun to shut out the Penguins, 1-0.

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Beating Pittsburgh Always Sweet for Caps

Posted on 11 January 2012 by Ed Frankovic

It wasn’t textbook hockey and it certainly wasn’t pretty, but the Washington Capitals found a way to get a win over their archrival Pittsburgh Penguins at the Verizon Center on Wednesday night. Tomas Vokoun turned in a superb goaltending performance stopping 30 shots and Jason Chimera continued to march toward a career high in goals by notching the only tally in a 1-0 Caps victory, his 14th of the year.

With so many top players out of the game due to injury (Sidney Crosby, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Jordan Staal, and Kris Letang) combined with the short turnarounds these two teams faced (Caps took the redeye back from LA on Tuesday morning while the Pens played Tuesday night), it was no surprise that the game lacked energy and intensity in the first 40 minutes. The Penguins actually carried much of the play getting 10 more shot attempts and holding a 20-12 advantage in shots on goal. But the only thing that mattered was the scoreboard as Chimera scored after Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern forced Evgeni Malkin into a turnover at the Washington blue line.

Under coach Dale Hunter, the Capitals are focused on limiting or even better, eliminating, odd man rushes and although the Penguins had the shots advantage, they didn’t get any odd man breaks. The Caps did, and Chimera was able to go in one on one on Marc Andre-Fleury (19 saves) and he beat him with a quick shot. Washington’s 1-2-2 defense was mostly effective at keeping Pittsburgh to the outside and when the Penguins were able to penetrate it through the first two periods Vokoun was a wall in net.

In the third period the Caps found some energy and dominated the first 16 minutes. Alexander Ovechkin (0 points) was all over the ice setting up his teammates for chances and getting some of his own, but Fleury was brilliant to give his club a chance. Even though Pittsburgh basically threw the kitchen sink at the Caps in the final four minutes, the uptick in effort in that final frame was really needed from Hunter’s crew. In the previous two games against the Pens, which saw the teams split one goal contests, Pittsburgh was the more dominant team. So it was imperative for the Capitals to take over at that point, and again, if not for Fleury, Washington wins easily.

Still of concern to me though, is the Capitals struggles to find consistency coming out of their own zone. Clearly with #19 out the biggest weakness for Washington is up the middle of the ice. Brooks Laich, Marcus Johansson, Jeff Halpern, and Mathieu Perreault were tonight’s pivots and in my opinion, none of them are currently first or second line centers. Compounding the center problem is the wingers are making poor decisions with the puck which is leading to too many turnovers. Part of the issue for the defensemen are the forwards are simply not doing the little things to help them get the puck out and going in transition. It is a situation that led to numerous breakdowns out in California and the only way to fix the center/winger problem this year is a trade (or two) by General Manager George McPhee.

The Caps are clearly a different team at home and they’ve won seven of their last eight at the Phone Booth, outscoring their opponents 28-13. Fortunately for them they have three more games at the Verizon Center over the next six days with the Lightning on Friday, the Hurricanes Sunday, and the Islanders on Tuesday night. Wednesday night’s win puts the Caps in just eighth place in the Eastern Conference so it is very important that they rack up more points on this stay in DC. The Capitals have struggled mightily on the road and they still have four games scheduled against the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins, who look even better this year than last. So it isn’t going to get any easier schedule wise for the Caps after the next three tilts.

But for tonight, a win over Pittsburgh has to feel good, no matter how they got it. Good goaltending is the most important thing in hockey and Vokoun seems to be getting into a groove (I don’t put the left coast losses on him, at all). Now they just need to get the entire squad playing like they did for most of Wednesday’s third period on a more consistent basis.

Notes: Matt Hendricks only played 7:44 but had one of his better games of the season with a fight win over Craig Adams and a post hit…the Caps won the facefoff battle, 25-20, and Jeff Halpern went 10-2, including several big defensive draws late in the contest…the Penguins didn’t get a power play all night while Washington went 0 for 2 with the man advantage…Malkin was 3-11 on faceoffs…Ovechkin had 4 shots on net and 3 hits…Backstrom was put on IR retroactive to last week.

 

 

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Chris Kunitz

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Caps Fall Short Against Penguins, 2-1

Posted on 01 December 2011 by Ed Frankovic

Capitals versus Penguins usually brings out the best in both hockey teams and on Thursday night, that was the case for 40 minutes. But Chris Kunitz outworked Marcus Johansson in the Washington zone, John Erskine lost his balance then fell, and #14 shot a soft one by Tomas Vokoun (33 saves) for the game winner just 2:36 into period three and the Pens shut it down from there. The 2-1 victory for Pittsburgh is the Caps fourth straight loss and they fall to 12-11-1 overall. They are currently in 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings.

Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis of Pittsburgh’s first victory over the Caps in regulation since March of 2008:

– Washington played with a lot of energy in this one and Alexander Ovechkin had 10 hits as the Capitals out banged the Penguins 43-28. After two periods the shots were 25-15 in favor of the Pens, but the quality scoring chances were razor close at 12-11 in favor of the visitors (h/t Neil Greenberg, @ngreenberg on Twitter). It was a game that could’ve gone either way heading into the 3rd period but when Vokoun couldn’t stop a Kunitz knuckler, it allowed the Penguins to shut the game down in a style they are extremely good at playing.

“They had the lead, they didn’t have to do anything, they just chipped and chased and played safe,” said Caps Coach Dale Hunter on the Penguins third period tactics.

– Washington’s best period was the middle frame when they really got their forecheck going. The team was also a bit unlucky too as Nicklas Backstrom hit the crossbar on a great feed from Ovechkin that would’ve given the Caps the lead. The hard forecheck is something Hunter likes to do and Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma commented on it that afterwards.

“There’s about [the Capitals] that is scary with the skill that they bring. I thought today, especially starting in the second [period], they came at us hard and forechecked hard and were tough to handle that way. They were very aggressive on the forecheck and getting to the offensive zone; that might be something we haven’t seen,” said the Pens Stanley Cup winning bench boss.

“It’s pretty disappointing when you lose that kind of game…We just didn’t score on the chances we had. We hit the post, I missed an empty net and [Marc-Andre] Fleury made a couple of great saves, ” added Ovechkin.

– Chimera continues to play well and he now has 10 goals in 24 games, easily putting him on pace for a career high. #25 scored after Joel Ward outworked the Pens defender to the puck to wipe out a potential icing call. Those two, along with Brooks Laich, continue to form a super checking line. Unfortunately the Caps are having trouble finishing plays and that was a big reason they lost this one.

“It can’t be down the line. It’s got to be now. We got to get people stepping up and scoring some goals, doing the little things. It was a good game overall. They had a lot of shots but a lot of them were outside. It’s a tough way to lose, but we got that kind of effort, it’ll be better. We came out pretty good. If we keep effort like that, the wins will come,” said Chimera.

– Here’s Sidney Crosby’s numbers tonight: 20:21 of ice time, 3 shots on goal, 2 giveaways, 6-16 on face-offs and -1 overall. Nice work by Karl Alzner and the rest of the guys on #87, who had his five game points scoring streak halted. Sid the Kid had 4:17 of power play time but Washington did a great job of killing off the three Pittsburgh power plays. Hunter noted that he has stuck with Dean Evason’s plan on the penalty kill.

“I left it the same. I like aggressive, no time, no space. Dean’s (assistant coach Dean Evason) been doing it, so I left it with him, they had a good record last year. Just had a couple bad games this year out west but other than that, it’s been good.”

– At the end of the night, Caps fans are likely discouraged that they aren’t winning or scoring goals but if they continue to improve in their own end and keep up the energy level those will come. This team was really playing poorly and giving up lots of chances towards the end of Bruce Boudreau’s tenure so you can’t just flip a switch and turn it on. Bad habits die hard. What is concerning is the lack of speed in some areas. Hunter likes to play an aggressive system and you need speed to execute that. Some personnel tweaks may be needed and I’m sure the new coach and General Manager George McPhee will discuss it. The good news is the trading deadline is still nearly three months away (February 27th).

Notes: Congratulations to Boudreau on getting the Anaheim Ducks head coaching position…Washington buried the Pens at the faceoff dot, going 37-17. Backstrom was 14-2…Wideman led the Caps in ice time with 26:02. John Carlson logged 25:25 and Alzner (+1) had 21:35…Ovechkin played 19:22 while Alexander Semin only got 12:45. #28 played hard but he needs someone to get him the puck. Johansson is not cutting it as second line center right now…Greenberg had the final quality chance total at 19-14, meaning the Pens had a 7-3 advantage in the final frame…the Caps next game is Saturday night at home against the Ottawa Senators.

 

 

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2011-12 NHL Regular Season Preview

Posted on 05 October 2011 by Ed Frankovic

To some people, the National Hockey League season is just too long. For me, it can never come quick enough and once NFL play gets cranked up I become very enthusiastic knowing that the NHL season is right around the corner. On Thursday, October 6th, the NHL season officially gets underway with a VERSUS doubleheader as the Philadelphia Flyers take on the Boston Bruins at 7 pm  followed by the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Vancouver Canucks at 10 pm. For those with the Centre Ice package or living in Canada, the Montreal Canadiens will face the Toronto Maple Leafs at 7 pm from the Air Canada Centre.

In June, the Bruins defeated the Canucks to win Lord Stanley’s Cup by rallying from a three games to two deficit behind the stellar goaltending of Tim Thomas. If you read my 2010-11 pre-season predictions, you would know that I predicted that the Beantown goalie would have a comeback year. Little did I know he’d get his name on one of the most coveted trophies in all of sports. But before I get too cocky, I also brought you some worthless picks, like choosing the New Jersey Devils to win the Atlantic Division or the Calgary Flames to make the playoffs. In the immortal words of one Arthur Fonzarelli…I was wrrrrrrrrrrong.

So without further adieu, here are my 2011-12 NHL regular season rankings by conference. Please note that this does not mean I pick both #1 seeds to reach the Stanley Cup Finals, it only means I am choosing that team to get the #1 seed in the regular season.

Eastern Conference

1. Washington Capitals – The two time defending Eastern Conference regular season champion Caps didn’t click on all cylinders last year and despite several important injuries, such as the concussion to Mike Green, they still managed to win the East. GM George McPhee was extremely busy this offseason adding goalie Tomas Vokoun, defensemen Roman Hamrlik and forwards Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, and Jeff Halpern. This team is suddenly more equipped to compete in the post season. In addition, the players all realize that they can’t blow off the regular season like they did last year, to some extent, and should be more focused on trying to peak their game for April and beyond.

2. Buffalo Sabres – Expecting the Bruins here? Not so fast. I am counting on the Stanley Cup hangover combined with an aggressive off season by the Sabres to put Buffalo atop the Northeast Division. Coach Lindy Ruff will rely on goalie Ryan Miller in net but Jhonas Enroth has shown that he can be a backup that allows the former Michigan State star to not play so many games. GM Darcy Regier brought in offensive minded defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and he overpaid for forward Ville Leino at 6 years for $27M. But Buffalo has a super goal scorer in Tomas Vanek and a crew of other solid forwards.

3. Pittsburgh Penguins – Evgeni Malkin is back and NHL’s Network’s EJ Hradek has already declared him as his choice for the Hart and Art Ross trophies, this despite coming off of major knee surgery. It remains to be seen how “Geno” holds up during the season but what is really to like about the Pens is their goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, and a superb defense. If Sidney Crosby is able to return at some point, the Penguins become the favorites in the East to win the Cup. But Sid is still not cleared for contact, even in practice, so who knows when he will return?

4. Tampa Bay Lightning – Head Coach Guy Boucher did a masterful job of taking this team one win away from the Stanley Cup Finals. Steven Stamkos received big money and d-man Victor Hedman continues to improve. Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier are both a year older but #26 brings it every night while #4 is not as consistent. The Bolts are going with Dwayne Roloson in net again and he is older than dirt. Will he hold up? If so, it should be a great season at the St. Pete Times Forum.

5. Boston Bruins – The Bruins partied all summer on TV with Lord Stanley and earned their multiple parades. The question now is how much do they have in the tank for the upcoming season? Thomas is now 37 years old on a team that relied heavily on its goaltending and defense. The good news is 19 year old Tyler Seguin should be even better as a sophomore.

6. New York Rangers – Coach John Tortorella, after his club lost to the Caps in the first round in April, pointed out that his club still was not there yet, from a talent perspective. So Rangers GM Glen Slather went out and inked center Brad Richards to a monster contract. The former Conn Smythe award winner will help a club that struggles to score goals and generate offense, but he did miss time with a concussion last season so there are health concerns there. Henrik Lundqvist continues to be one of the best goalies in the NHL and who can argue with the work ethic of Ryan Callahan up front? The biggest question is will Marian Gaborik have a good year or become a fading star?

7. New Jersey Devils – Martin Brodeur is now 39 years old, that is a major concern for a guy who, at times last year, looked like father time was starting to catch up with him. Zach Parise is back and wearing the “C” after missing almost the entire season due to a serious knee injury. 18 year old Adam Larsson (4th overall pick in 2011 NHL entry draft) brings some much needed mobility to the Devils blue line and former Kitchener Rangers and Florida Panthers coach Peter DeBoer is the new bench boss. Can he get Ilya Kovalchuk to produce like Jacques Lemaire did during the second half of last season?

8. Montreal Canadiens – Carey Price had a great season in the cage in 2010-11 and I look for him to have another strong year. Still, this team is small up front but they did add Erik Cole from Carolina and he plays a fast game. If Andrei Markov can stay healthy the Canadiens should make the playoffs. If not, they will hit the links at Royal Montreal once it opens up its’ gates in the spring.

9. Philadelphia Flyers – After trading for the rights to Ilyz Bryzgalov Flyers GM Paul Holmgren declared that the Russian goaltender was his final piece of the puzzle. Holmgren, however, forget that he had to sign the expensive net minder to a contract and then realized in order to do that he had to break up his club to stay under the salary cap. He moved Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, his top two centers, to Los Angeles and Columbus, respectively. In return he received up and coming center Jakub Voracek and former first round draft choice, Brayden Schenn (who isn’t NHL ready yet, IMO). The biggest laugh came when they signed Jaromir Jagr to a deal. #68 is a guy that reportedly is happier when he isn’t playing. I see bad things arising for the Flyers.

10. Carolina Hurricanes – Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner, and Cam Ward will carry this team a long way but they just don’t have enough firepower and talent on defense to sneak into the post season. How long does Paul Maurice last as the head coach?

11. Toronto Maple Leafs – The Leafs haven’t figured out yet that you need to really stink to get better and every spring they win just enough games to come close to making the playoffs while ruining their draft position. It also hasn’t helped that the GM traded two of those high picks to the Bruins. I like Dion Phaneuf, the Flames should not have moved him, but Phil Kessel is inconsistent and Tim Connolly, their big ticket free agent acquisition, seems to always get injured. Coach Ron Wilson sure likes to hear himself talk though. If they beat the Habs on Thursday they should party on Yonge Street before the losses start to mount.

12. Ottawa Senators – Craig Anderson is a good goalie and Erik Karlsson and Jared Cowen are up and coming young defensemen but it will be a long year for one of the good guys, GM Bryan Murray.

13. Winnipeg Jets – The excitement of moving and being the big stars in town will help the former Thrashers get off to a decent start but the travel schedule will eventually catch up to them. Evander Kane is a tough and emerging power forward but Zach Bogosian has not lived up to the expectations on defense.

14. Florida Panthers – GM Dale Tallon had success in Chicago and is a likeable person, but he spent too much money on a boat load of floaters. This franchise really needs to hope they can build through the draft.

15. New York Islanders – They picked up 36 year old Evgeni Nabokov in net in case Rick DiPietro gets hurt again (and he will), but it will be tough stopping pucks behind that defense. John Tavares will be in his third year and needs to step up. Can the speedy Michal Grabner repeat his great season from last year? Teams will be focused on him more in 2011-12 so it will be tougher.

Western Conference

1. Vancouver Canucks – Despite playing a long season and losing in the final game, I expect this talented squad to come back and win the West. The Sedin twins continue to shine. Missing Ryan Kesler (shoulder surgery) until at least November doesn’t help though. It will be interesting to see if Roberto Luongo can regain his form after playing so poorly in game six of the Stanley Cup Finals. The Northwest division, which used to be really strong, now stinks so the Canucks will pile up points en route to the number one seed.

2. San Jose Sharks – GM Doug Wilson’s club may be the best in the West but they are in the toughest division in the conference. The additions of Brent Burns and Martin Havlat should help while losing Dany Heatley could be addition by subtraction. For some reason Heatley just didn’t pan out in San Jose.

3. Detroit Red Wings – It is hard to pick against one of the best run franchises in all of sports, especially with Nicklas Lidstrom back for another year and Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetteberg still on the roster. The Brian Rafalski retirement will hurt on the blue line, though.

4. Chicago Blackhawks – With Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Marian Hossa up front, this club is strong on talent. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook log a lot of minutes on defense and comprise one of the best d-pairs in the league. Corey Crawford looks to be the guy in net. Will their role players produce this year? If so, they can play with anyone in the league.

5. Los Angeles Kings – Drew Doughty received a long term contract (8 years at a total of $56M), like the Kings brass wanted, and now the pressure is on the d-man to deliver a deeper playoff run for LA. With so many ex-Flyers working in the Kings organization (Ron Hextall, Terry Murray, and John Stevens), it made sense for the embattled center to land on the left coast. He should do well there and a young Kings team should be even better with another year of experience under their belt. It is time for them to move into the NHL’s elite.

6. Anaheim Ducks – The best line in hockey (Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, and Corey Perry) will carry this team to the playoffs again. The big question is whether goalie Jonas Hiller can return to form after his concussion like symptoms from last season? Sophomore Cam Fowler must improve in his own end this season.

7. Nashville Predators – Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are arguably the best d-pair in the league and Pekka Rinne is a big goalie that is difficult to beat. Mike Fisher, aka Mr. Carrie Underwood, and David Legwand are two good centers for a club that typically plays low scoring games. Barry Trotz is one of the best coaches in the league. Music city is a fun town and has a good hockey team, on a low budget.

8. Calgary Flames – GM Jay Feaster has turned the attitude around in the organization and he made some big changes this summer, like shipping out main stay d-man Robyn Regehr and often injured forward Daymond Langkow, but goalie Mikka Kiprusoff and captain Jarome Iginla still are around and run this team. Jay Bouwmeester has a big contract but has never made the playoffs, will that change this season?

9. St. Louis Blues – I like many of their young players, especially center Patrik Berglund and defensemen Alex Pietrangelo. The trade to bring in Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk for Eric Johnson was a good one, but will it lead to a post season position? Only if Jaroslav Halak returns to the form he had in the 2010 playoffs

10. Columbus Blue Jackets  – Acquiring Carter from the Flyers should help take some of the heat off of Rick Nash but what this team really needs is goalie Steve Mason to return to the form that put his club in the post season in 2008-09. The franchise desperately needs to make the playoffs this year after missing the last two seasons.

11. Dallas Stars – Marc Crawford is gone as coach so that is a step in the right direction, but this club lost center Brad Richards and has ownership issues, which almost always creates a distraction. The roster is full of middle of the road players.

12. Minnesota Wild –  GM Chuck Fletcher has to be feeling some pressure to produce in his 3rd year in the position. He went out and acquired Heatley, who came nowhere close to expectations in San Jose. Niklas Backstrom is a super goalie but his defense leaves a lot to be desired.

13. Edmonton Oilers – Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are the last two number one overall picks in the NHL draft and have enormous potential. The Oilers also have Ales Hemsky, Ryan Smyth, Jordan Eberle, and Shawn Horcoff as solid forwards. Their defense is not very good and goaltending is a huge issue..

14. Colorado Avalanche – The Avs put a lot of stock into Semyon Varlamov, who has shown flashes of brilliance but never stayed healthy for a lengthy period of time. They likely gave up a lottery pick in trading with the Caps for the young Russian goalie. JS Giguere was also signed and he can help in goal when Varly is hurt. Erik Johnson anchors the defense and 18 year old Gabriel Landeskog, the 2nd overall pick in the NHL draft, will get a lot of attention. Matt Duchene enters his third season and has a chance to be an elite player in the league.

15. Phoenix Coyotes  –  Dave Tippett is a great coach but without Bryzgalov, he can’t work miracles. Some young players need to step up for this club to have any chance. The ownership woes are like a black cloud over this team. Will they stay in Phoenix?

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Caps Off-Season Focus Should Be On Leadership

Posted on 17 May 2011 by Ed Frankovic

It’s been nearly two weeks since the Washington Capitals were eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs in disappointing fashion. These last two hockey seasons the Capitals have been a squad that has been outstanding in the regular season but struggled when battling for Lord Stanley. In 2010, after losing to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round, the club talked continuously about “running into a hot goalie” as the primary reason for their post season failure following a Presidents’ Trophy winning campaign. This year the Capitals are pinning the majority of the loss to the Bolts on injuries, specifically those to Dennis Wideman, Mike Green, and John Carlson, the three defensemen that Coach Bruce Boudreau heavily counted on to push the puck up the ice.

The Caps have a highly skilled and talented team that is still very young. But let’s be honest, their second straight Eastern Conference regular season title followed by an earlier than expected playoff defeat will only bring increased pressure next year on a team led primarily by Alexander Ovechkin, who will turn 26 in September. Another post season clunker in 2012 could seriously damage the confidence level of many of the young players on the team so the heat is clearly on the organization this summer to address some of the team’s deficiencies to help get them at least to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012.

The glass half full people will point to the numerous one goal losses the last two post seasons to justify their argument that the Capitals are getting closer to breaking through. The Caps lost three of the four games dropped to the Habs in 2010 by a single tally and this spring Tampa won two games by a goal and another by two due to a late empty netter. Surely had the bounces or breaks gone their way Washington might have won one or both of those series, right? Maybe, but I am not totally buying into that. A great quote from Hall of Famer Bob Gainey will back my position up.

“One-goal games are easy to hide behind. One-goal games are two goals away from winning, and that’s a lot in the NHL,” Gainey once said about one of his own clubs in a very telling statement.

If I am the Capitals, who are working through the final analysis of the 2010-11 season and beginning their planning for 2011-12, that quote from Gainey should be a reminder and a clear indicator that minor incremental changes aren’t what this hockey team needs to get to the next level. Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Green, and company are at a critical juncture in their development. They have talent and skill and they really want to win when it matters. The desire is clearly there from the interactions I’ve had with those three and we’ve also read the reports that Ovechkin spent extensive time this spring with former Stanley Cup winner Jason Arnott trying to pick his brain in an attempt to help put the Capitals over the top. Just last week owner Ted Leonsis mentioned in a radio interview that #8 offered to change his off season training regimen to try to finally deliver a Cup. Given all of this information, it seems to me that the big problem this team has right now is it just doesn’t know how to win when the chips are down.

Yes, General Manager George McPhee needs to improve some weak areas on this club, specifically finding a stronger second line center and bolstering a defense that seems to always be an injury or two away from major problems. There is no doubt some on the ice upgrades are necessary to improve their chances for success. But to me, what this organization seems to need more than anything, is an infusion of leadership. Simply put, they need to add personnel with Stanley Cup winning experience at the management level and on the ice. The role of those additions would be to help Ovechkin and many of the talented younger players on the team to understand the process of what it takes to capture a Stanley Cup, the hardest trophy to win in all of sports.

Armed with this premise on the Caps need to add leadership, I began looking at the personnel of past Cup winners to include not only the players but the coaches and the front office. Last season’s Chicago Blackhawks were a young club, similar to the Caps, but they did employ legendary Scotty Bowman, a nine time Stanley Cup winner as a coach who also has an additional three rings as a member of management, in their front office. On the ice they had Andrew Ladd, who won with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. In addition, three of their key players, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook, were members of the 2010 Olympic Canadian gold medal winning hockey team, so they gained invaluable experience playing alongside previous Cup winners Scott Niedermayer, Martin Brodeur, Dan Boyle, Chris Pronger, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Sidney Crosby, and Eric Staal.

In 2009, Crosby won his first Stanley Cup with the Penguins, who are owned by two-time Stanley Cup winner, as a player, Mario Lemieux. Mario has won at every level so you can bet that if Sid the Kid ever has any questions on what is needed to come out on top he doesn’t have to walk very far for advice. In addition, GM Ray Shero’s father, Fred, won two Stanley Cups as coach of the Philadelphia Flyers in 1974 and 1975 so the knowledge and pedigree were there as well. On the ice, Crosby was flanked by previous Cup winners Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz.

Continuing to go through the list of past Cup winners, it seemed that every team had multiple past links to Lord Stanley. Even the highly talented Edmonton Oilers of the 1980’s had guys like Pat Hughes, Rick Chartraw, and Dave Lumley on their roster who previously earned Cups with the Bowman-led Canadiens of the late 1970’s. As highly skilled as those Oilers teams were with Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson, and Jari Kurri, General Manager and Coach Glen Sather still knew he needed experienced leaders, even if they were simply role players on the ice, to help teach his young talent how to win.

As my researched progressed, another team really started to stand out when examining their roster, coaches, and front office, the 1998-99 Dallas Stars. That Cup winning team’s best player was Mike Modano, the first overall pick in the 1988 NHL Entry Draft and their team captain was defenseman Derian Hatcher, the 8th overall pick in the 1990 NHL draft. Both of those players were in their mid to late 20’s, just like Ovechkin and Green will be heading into next season, and they had suffered several tough defeats in the post season in previous years. But that is where comparison to the current Caps team pretty much ended since Modano and Hatcher had lots of help when they finally broke through. Their GM was Gainey, Doug Jarvis (four time Stanley Cup winner with Montreal and former Washington Capital) was an assistant coach, and the club had eight players who already had their names etched on the most famous trophy in sports in Joe Nieuwendyk, Guy Carbonneau, Brian Skrudland, Mike Keane, Sergei Zubov, Shawn Chambers, Craig Ludwig, and Doug Lidster. It was a fascinating combination of young hockey talent with experienced players and management.

The Director of Player Personnel on that 1999 Cup winning Stars team was current NHL Network analyst Craig Button, the son of former Capitals Director of Player Personnel, Jack Button. Craig had started with the Stars in Minnesota in 1988 so he was heavily involved in the steps necessary to build this Cup winner and he worked with hockey legends Bob Clarke and Gainey in the process. With “the need for experienced leadership” hypothesis seemingly cemented via pure research, I contacted Button to discuss the subject, determine how important it really was to Dallas’ success, and attempted to gather insight into how they developed it in their organization.

“Leadership is clearly important and takes on a lot of different elements. It is extremely rare to find a team where it is mostly about one guy. Mark Messier is one of the greatest leaders of all time, in any sport, but people like him are few and far between, so you need a collective effort,” started Button.

The Stars had built their team around Modano and Hatcher but since a run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1991, they had ownership issues and moved to Dallas into a new NHL market before the 1993-94 campaign. That first season in Texas was an outstanding one with Modano putting up big numbers and Dallas advanced to the second playoff round before losing to the Vancouver Canucks. They then had two poor seasons and the pressure to win was mounting on a young team, but a couple of moves they made in 1995-96 added talent and more importantly, leadership, to the equation. Former Canadiens captain Carbonneau was acquired from St. Louis and in a blockbuster deal, Nieuwendyk was brought in from Calgary for Corey Millen and top prospect at the time, Jarome Iginla. Getting the former Flame was the move that stood out for Button because the Stars knew to win the West they would have to defeat Colorado, who had Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg as their top two center men, and Detroit, who boasted Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov at the pivot position.

“We needed that one-two punch up in the middle but we also needed influence on our younger players. Joe came in and he was such a pro. He was a strong man and a really good player but he took the pressure off of Modano. He helped the younger players understand how to be a professional,” added Button.

Button talked about the tough decision the organization faced to make that trade and he also felt that his club caught a bit of a break with Nieuwendyk’s situation with the Flames.

“We knew Jarome was going to be a really good player, maybe not a 50 goal scorer. But we also knew he wasn’t going to help Modano and the other younger guys on our team, who really wanted to win now but didn’t know how, figure out how to do that. So we made the trade knowing that we had good pieces in place but we needed someone to help Modano, Hatcher, Richard Matvichuk, and some of our other younger players. We also caught a break that Joe was available thanks to a contract dispute in Calgary,” recalled Button.

In the summer of 1996 they added d-man Zubov, who had won the Cup with the Rangers in 1994, and the still young Stars went on to win their division and grab the #2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. But they were upset in seven games in the first round by “hot goalie” Curtis Joseph and the Edmonton Oilers. Prior to the following season the Stars added goalie Ed Belfour and went on to win the franchise’s first ever Presidents’ Trophy in 1997-98. At the trade deadline they added Mike “you brought me here to win a Cup” Keane, but when Nieuwendyk injured his knee in game one of the post season on a check from Bryan Marchment, their chances of winning a championship took a big hit. Still, the Stars didn’t let that major injury derail them totally and they managed to take the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Red Wings to six games that spring in the Western Conference Finals. It was after that final loss that the presence of leadership helped set the stage, once again, for a strong offseason and the eventual Cup run the following June.

“We had just lost a tough series to Detroit and everyone knew the injury to Joe really hurt. It was really quiet in the dressing room following that game but after five minutes or so of dead silence, Jarvis spoke out and he said, ‘You know what we have here boys? We’ve got a team here!’ Suddenly the mood lightened and a couple of days later we had a great team party with the entire organization,” spoke Button of a leadership moment, that in hindsight, likely re-energized their club at a critical juncture.

That summer they went out and signed free agent Brett Hull but the interesting thing in that whole process was that the entire leadership team, from Gainey, Button, assistant GM Doug Armstrong, the coaches, and the players were all involved. Hull was a great talent but his dynamic personality could easily control and even disrupt a locker room. The Stars knew they needed more scoring but they didn’t want to risk that “team” concept they had developed that Jarvis glowingly spoke of following their playoff loss. Gainey met with Modano, and Hatcher, followed by meetings with the older leadership core (Carbonneau, Ludwig, Skrudland, Keane, Nieuwendyk, etc.) to ensure they understood what he was thinking and to emphasize their importance to the club and how they could be instrumental in integrating a player such as Hull into the locker room. When Hull came in he knew exactly what his role would be because he heard a consistent message from both management and players.

Before the puck even dropped on the 1998-99 season, the Stars leadership across the board had everything set up and the result was a second Presidents’ Trophy and eventually their first Stanley Cup in June. But along the way, that leadership had to play a key role. Around the trade deadline Button mentioned that Carbonneau went to Coach Ken Hitchcock to try to “manage” the team’s practice schedule down the stretch. The then 39 year old forward said that in order for his team to continue to play into June, some days off would need to be added. Hitchcock, who was not known as an easy coach, agreed, showing trust in his appointed leadership group.

“The coaching staff is only around the players about 20% of the time, the other 80% of the time you have to have leadership that understands what the team needs and calms everything down. They understand the ups and downs and the ebbs and flows and can keep everyone focused,” added Button.

That trust and reliance on leadership would pay dividends in the 1999 Western Conference Finals against Coloardo. The Stars had just lost game five at home, 7-5, and faced elimination in Denver in game six. After the first period, Dallas was down 1-0 despite playing solidly in the opening frame, and Button said that Hitchcock was walking towards the players’ room to talk to his troops when he overheard one of his leaders addressing the team.

“Hitch said he heard the players talking and emphasizing ‘to keep doing what we’re doing and we will be fine’. At that moment Ken knew he didn’t need to say much, if anything at all, because he knew the players already had his message,” said Button.

Dallas would score the last four goals of game six and go home and win 4-1 again in game seven to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. They would face the Buffalo Sabres and win, ironically on a game six triple overtime goal by Hull.

Clearly the Stars organization was loaded with great leaders on and off the ice, but if they didn’t have the strong leadership they definitely don’t win the Stanley Cup that year.

“Sure what we had in Dallas was special. Was it an embarrassment of riches? No question about it, but you can never underestimate the importance of being around proven leaders and the impact they can have,” finished Button on the Stars’ Cup winning experience.

It seems apparent that the Washington Capitals can learn some lessons from that Stars team, a club that endured similar circumstances prior to hoisting Lord Stanley.  Under contract, the Caps still have Mike Knuble with a Stanley Cup ring on their roster, but he is the only player. In the front office, it appears that Director of Player Personnel and assistant GM Brian MacLellan is the only manager with a Stanley Cup (as a player with the 1989 Calgary Flames).

McPhee will likely be making numerous personnel moves this summer, player turnover is inevitable and occurs every off season with each NHL team, so it seems important that he look for guys with Cup winning experience and leadership, as Button noted Dallas did during their Cup building process.

“It is not just about skill, you need to find the personality fits and get a team more than what that player can just do on the ice,” said Button of his experiences.

Off the ice, Leonsis and Team President Dick Patrick might also discuss with McPhee the idea of bringing in another person at the management level with Stanley Cup experience. In that scenario they need to find a person who will work with the existing crew in a non-threatening manner.

This year Washington has seen firsthand and, unfortunately in a bad way for them, the impact of what a proven winner like Steve Yzerman can do to help turn around a struggling club. With the Wings former #19 at the helm in Tampa Bay, the Bolts added some key people with leadership experience (i.e, defensemen Pavel Kubina and scout Pat Verbeek) and Yzerman was also able to get one of his existing star players, team captain Vincent Lecavalier, to elevate his game to a level he hadn’t really been at since the Lightning’s 2004 Stanley Cup victory. As a result, a team that relies on key young players Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman is still very much in the running for this year’s Stanley Cup just one year after finishing 41 points behind the Capitals in 2009-10.

In closing, the Capitals have a very talented and young team that really wants to be successful and win in the post season. Unfortunately, they haven’t figured out how to do that yet. Washington could certainly address that issue by adding experienced leaders to the organization this off-season, on and off the ice, like several past Cup winners have done before finally breaking through. It might cost the organization more money and they may have to part with one of their future prospects, like Dallas did with Iginla, but if they really want to help take the pressure off of Ovechkin and some of their other star players, then it is definitely the right thing to do. If they decide not to go that route, then they will likely continue to pursue a championship via the “trial and error” path, which in no way guarantees success.

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Caps 2nd Round Opponent Still TBD

Posted on 26 April 2011 by Ed Frankovic

It was another of day of rest for the Washington Capitals on Tuesday and on Wednesday morning, when GM George McPhee, Coach Bruce Boudreau, and the rest of the players wake up, their second round playoff opponent is still to be determined. With the Philadelphia Flyers knocking off the Buffalo Sabres in game 7 on Tuesday night and the Montreal Canadiens forcing a game 7 on Wednesday night with the Boston Bruins, the Caps can still play either Montreal, Tampa Bay or Pittsburgh in round two. The Penguins and Lightning will also play a game 7 on Wednesday. It will be a night of channel flipping and can’t miss hockey.

The good news in all of this: whatever team Washington draws for the second round will be worn down while the Capitals will likely have had nearly a full week of rest. If Montreal manages to win in Beantown, then the Caps get a rematch from last season’s post season debacle. However, if the higher seeded Bruins prevail, the Capitals play the winner of the Tampa Bay-Pittsburgh battle. Sidney Crosby (concussion) is still out for the Pens and it doesn’t look like he will be back this weekend since he has not fully practiced with contact yet.

This has been one exciting playoff year and Washington has given themselves a huge advantage by closing out their series with the New York Rangers in just five games. That feat was the quickest the Capitals have ever gotten out of the first round since the NHL expanded the opening round format, in 1987, to a best of seven from a best of five. The Caps had first round three game sweeps of the Flyers in 1984 and the Islanders in 1986. Since then they’ve needed at least six games to claim a first round series until 2011.

On Tuesday, the Capitals took the ice for their first full practice since Saturday (Monday was an optional skate). Mike Green and Mike Knuble both participated in the full practice while Alexander Semin missed it with the flu, according to Boudreau. In addition, Dennis Wideman skated in full pads for about 50 minutes on Tuesday with the first 45 of them prior to the full squad hitting the ice. Special thanks to Mike Vogel (WashingtonCaps.com), Steve Whyno (The Washington Times), Katie Carrera (The Washington Post), Sky Kerstein (106.7 The FAN in DC), and Dave Nichols (Caps News Network) for providing all practice info via twitter and blogs.

With Wideman not fully practicing yet, one would have to surmise that he likely won’t return to the Caps lineup until game two of the second round, at the earliest, and he was reportedly “a little lightheaded” at one point today. Knuble stated after the skate that he was day-to-day so who knows if he would play if a game one was on Friday? One thing is certain though, the Caps earned this rest and they needed it. Now they just have to wait to figure out who they will play in round two.

Notes: With the Hershey Bears losing in OT in game six on Sunday night, they were eliminated from the post season. It was a sad night in Chocolatetown and their shot at a 3rd straight Calder Cup has ended. Tuesday the Caps recalled goaltender Braden Holtby to help out at practice and remain sharp in case he is needed going forward. Tim Leone of The Patriot-News and Penn-Live.com tweeted that forwards Mathieu Perreault, Steve Pinizzotto, and Andrew Gordon (when healthy, sprained ankle) plus d-man Patrick McNeill will also be recalled by Washington for what could be a long playoff run. The other good news out of Hershey today was that the Caps and the Bears have extended their working agreement for another season (through 2011-12).

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