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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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Hey Rangers, Keep It Clean When Hitting Green

Posted on 18 April 2011 by Ed Frankovic

There is no doubt that the New York Rangers outworked the Washington Capitals on Sunday afternoon to cut the Caps series lead to two games to one. However, there is also no doubt that the Blueshirts have stepped over the line with some of their physical tactics in this series. In game three they repeatedly charged the crease and made contact with Capitals netminder Michal Neuvirth on several occassions and one of the incidents resulted in a goalie interference penalty on Erik Christensen. Trying to get the goalie off of his game by bumping him or getting bodies in his face has been around as long as the game has been played, so I don’t take much issue with that, as long as the referees make sure to whistle infractions when they are warranted. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau felt that the Rangers were given too much liberty around the net and made a point of bringing that up after Sunday’s tilt in his post game presser.

But the bigger issue to me is what we’ve been seeing from the Rangers since game one and it is sickening and bordering on pathetic: the constant unnecessary hits thrown at the head of Washington’s Mike Green. I blogged about both the goalie contact issue and the unnecessary shots to #52′s noggin in my game three recap and the Green situation was addressed by Boudreau at today’s Caps optional skate at Kettler Iceplex, specifically Marc Staal’s diry hit to Green’s head right before the Alexander Ovechkin goal (h/t to Mike Vogel  of WashingtonCaps.com and Katie Carrera of The Washington Post for the quotes).

“It was to the side of the head and it was a dirty shot. I hope the league looks at it,” Boudreau said to reporters after an optional practice at KCI on Monday. “Let’s face it, I’m listening to all the experts last night on the [Raffi] Torres hit on [Brent] Seabrook, they’re all saying there’s no puck. It’s not a hockey play. The guy’s in a vulnerable position and he hits the head. That’s exactly what we’re trying to get out of the league. And Staal comes in, there’s no puck, he takes his arm, he swings it at [Green’s] head, but it’s all forgotten because we score a goal to tie the game up.

“But it shouldn’t be forgotten and it wasn’t the only time they targeted Mike’s head,” Boudreau continued. “They targeted it a few times. That’s what we want to get out of the game.”

Ever wonder why NHL coaches and general managers don’t want to reveal injuries? All you have to do is watch how coach John Tortorella’s squad has targeted #52′s head since the commencement of this series to see why all injuries should be kept a secret, because the other team will go after that area to try and take that player out of the game or series if they are desperate and think it will give them an advantage. Mike Green, a two time Norris Trophy finalist, is a difference maker for the Caps and clearly another head injury to #52 would be a big boost to the Rangers chances of winning this series. Do the Rangers really want to win that way? Watching Brandon Prust come in and hit Green behind his own net while putting his arms up around #52′s head in period one was yet another clear sign to me that New York will do whatever it takes, even if it is cheap and classless, to get an edge in this first round matchup.

The Rangers know that the Caps are the more skilled team and unless they find a way to take one of the Capitals key players out of the series they likely aren’t going to prevail. What makes this tactic even worse is that we are talking about a topic that has been front and center of NHL discussions for at least the last year: head injuries. That is why it is so surprising that New York would stoop to such a low level by going after Green in that area, because they know he recently recovered from a concussion and they also know that the league is supposedly cracking down on this stuff. I say supposedly because NOTHING has been called so far in this series on New York when they’ve hit Green up high. Brandon Dubinsky flat out hammered Green in the head late in game two along the boards in what sure looked like a penalty. I asked #52 about that hit immediately following game two and he shrugged it off as #17 finishing his check, but Green wasn’t going to stir the pot or complain to the media after Washington was up 2-0. On Sunday the Rangers took those dirty moves to another level with the actions of Staal and Prust. Like Boudreau said, those type of hits have no place in the game, and I’m also surprised that a quality coach like Tortorella, who has already won a Stanley Cup, would want his players to employ this dirty tactic just to win a playoffs series.

As for the NHL and its’ crew of officials, so far I am pretty disgusted that they haven’t done anything about the clear targeting of Green’s head. I am okay with clean body checks but all one has to do is go back and watch the video to see the dirty infractions from New York on #52 in this series. This cannot continue in game four and beyond, it must addressed immediately. Does the league want cheap shots to the head taking out their top players in the most important time of the year, especially when they are just returning from a known head injury? Green should be protected from these cheap shots just like any other previously injured hockey player. After all, there is a certain #87 who is dealing with a concussion who will hopefully be back on the ice very soon. I am willing to wager a large sum of money that if anyone dares come anywhere near Mr. Crosby’s head, that the book gets thrown at that player, and RIGHTLY SO! Let’s get smart and consistent NHL and start cracking down on this buffoonery from the Rangers.

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Caps Neuvirth Blanks Pens Again

Posted on 22 February 2011 by Ed Frankovic

No Sidney Crosby, No Evgeni Malkin, No Mike Green, No Tom Poti, No Paul Martin, etc..it doesn’t matter, it’s the Capitals and Penguins and these two teams despise each other so everyone knew that the VERSUS game of the week was going to be can’t miss action on Monday night, and both teams delivered. Michal Neuvirth, who was called ”Shaky” by Pens Coach Dan Bylsma back in December during the HBO 24/7 series, stopped 39 shots to blank the Penguins for the second straight game. I imagine the Penguins 2009 Stanley Cup winning coach is regretting ever uttering those words now because Neuvy OWWWNNNSSS the Pens!

The victory for Washington, which completes a 10 day road trip at 3-2, gives them a 3-0-1 record against their archrivals this season and improves the team to 32-19-10 (74 points). They trail the Tampa Bay Lightning by a single point in the Southeast Division race but the Bolts have two games in hand.

Here are the highlights and analysis from an intense hockey game that was decided by an Alexander Ovechkin power play goal:

- The Caps won tonight, but let’s be honest, they did not play very well overall. They were severely outworked by what some may call an AHL team in the first period and as a result were shorthanded three times to just one for Pittsburgh in that stanza. In the second frame they came out and took the play to the Penguins and grabbed the lead on Ovechkin’s rocket. Washington had the better personnel on the ice tonight with all of the injuries for both teams but hard work will even things up quickly, and that is what happened on Monday night. In the third period, the Pens outshot the Caps 14-3, but many of those were from the perimeter as the Capitals were employing their defensive scheme that is working and frustrates the opposition. Overall the shots were 39-24 in favor of Pittsburgh, with the Caps winning the middle period, 14-7 and 1-0 on the scoreboard, which was the final tally.

- As I mentioned above, the Capitals had the better talent with guys like Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Nicklas Backstrom on the ice. The Great #8 turned in a hard working performance while the other two did not play well. Backstrom did have a big shot block in the closing seconds but he just doesn’t look like the strong on the boards and confident #19. I wonder if that shoulder injury he suffered last spring is still a factor or perhaps it is holding back his ability to gain upper body strength because he just doesn’t look like the same elite player? I am a big Backstrom fan and I’d like to be wrong on that analysis and hope that #19 is simply saving himself for the playoffs, but still, his recent play is a concern for me right now. As for Semin, I am not sure he broke much of a sweat in 17 minutes of hockey. He routinely turned the puck over in the offensive zone with too many moves and he was not physical at all along the wall like he can be when he puts his mind to playing hockey.

- But when Neuvirth is playing as well as he did tonight, it doesn’t matter. #30 was outstanding and he controlled the Penguins shots giving up very few rebounds. His positioning was superb as well. In addition, his defensemen were very good in front of him by letting their net minder see the shots or if that was going to fail, blocking them. I thought Jeff Schultz, Scott Hannan, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson were really good on the back end tonight and they had to be. Each played over 21 and a half minutes as Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau wisely did not put the John Erskine and Tyler Sloan duo out too often (played 12:12 and 11:29, respectively).

- Up front Boudreau got a really solid game from rookie Marcus Johansson, who had the first assist on the Ovechkin power play tally (Mike Knuble had the other helper). MJ90, who is only 20 years old, will occassionally get taken off the puck fairly easily due to his youth and lack of size. However, he is finding a way to fight through that and make a difference. He is a guy who the Caps bench boss is not afraid to put out in his own zone in a close game, which the same cannot be said for Mathieu Perreault (only 8:09 of ice time, but he did get banged up early on too in this one). I don’t think Johansson is a 2nd line center right now and certainly not the guy there for the playoffs, but he can be effective on the 3rd line, provided he still has something left in the tank after this long rookie regular season, which is his first on North American rinks (Sweden has larger rinks and therefore, less contact).

- Boudreau made a very wise move using his timeout with just over 16 minutes left in the third period as his club was running around in their own end and had just iced the puck. After that the Capitals gave up some shots, but not many quality chances as they were content to get the puck to the red line and dump it deep. With that strategy a depleted Penguins lineup had to bring it the length of the ice to score, and they couldn’t do that leaving the fans at the CONSOL Energy center with nothing to cheer for on the evening, other than perhaps a Ryan Craig-Matt Bradley fight, but from my vantage point, #10 defeated the Pens call up in the bout. Craig went after Bradley after the Caps winger absolutely PASTED cheap shot artist Matt Cooke into the right wing boards in period two.

- In summary, this was a win at the end of a long road trip that solidifies the Capitals as a playoff team. Now it is all about positioning in the standings as well as waiting to see what General Manager George McPhee will do to improve the squad before next Monday’s trade deadline (2/28 at 3pm).

Notes: The Caps lost the face off battle 36-33 (Backstrom 13-17)…the Caps thwarted all three Pittsburgh power plays and scored on one of their three. However, before the Great #8′s laser, the Pens had two good shorthanded chances, including a Jordan Staal breakaway…DJ King was a late addition to the lineup because the scrappy Matt Hendricks was out sick (thanks to the awesome WashingtonCaps.com beat writer, Mike Vogel). King played only 4:25 but on one of his early shifts, he and his linemates at the time, Dave Steckel and Bradley, had two good chances to score…Ovechkin had 8 shots on goal, 10 that were blocked, and he threw four hits…the Pens traded d-man Alex Goligoski to the Dallas Stars today for winger James Neal and blue liner Matt Niskanen. I give the Penguins a strong edge in that move…next up for the Caps are the New York Rangers on Friday night at 7pm at the Verizon Center. The Rangers are 2-1 against Washington this year with their last victory coming right before the All Star Break in the gimmick.

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Not So “Shaky” Caps Neuvirth Blanks Pens, 3-0

Posted on 06 February 2011 by Ed Frankovic

During the Capitals-Penguins game back on December 23rd at the Verizon Center, Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma was captured on camera by HBO in their superb 24/7 series as saying that Michal Neuvirth was “shaky.” Well Bylsma’s crew may have won that contest, 3-2, in an extended shootout, but as they say, revenge is a dish best served cold. On Super Bowl Sunday at a sold out and rowdy Verizon Center, Neuvirth (22 saves) and his teammates ICED the Pittsburgh Penguins, 3-0, in the second straight strong team performance from the Caps. Brooks Laich, Marcus Johansson (shorthanded), and Mike Knuble (empty net goal) scored for Washington, who improved to 29-15-10 (68 points) and remain three points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Southeast Division race. The Caps are a comfortable 10 points ahead of the ninth place Atlanta Thrashers in the Eastern Conference standings and they have a game in hand on Atlanta. The top eight teams in each conference qualify for the postseason.

Below are the highlights, quotes, and analysis from the Caps eighth straight victory on Super Bowl Sunday at the Verizon Center (Washington is 14-3-1 since 1988 on the NFL’s biggest day):

- It was important for Washington to follow up a 60 minute Friday night winning effort in Tampa with another strong showing. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau received all of that in this contest’s first 30 minutes as Washington raced out to a 2-0 lead and held a dominating 17-8 advantage on the shots board. For the next 14 plus minutes the Capitals would skate hard and deliver a strong effort, however, their hockey IQ was not good at all. Time after time during that stretch Washington had opportunities for quality chances yet they continued to over pass the puck and failed to get off any good shots on Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (21 saves). In fact, from the 9:55 mark of the second period until 4:24 into period three the Caps did not register a single shot on goal. Nicklas Backstrom tried forcing a pass on a two on one rush and Boyd Gordon attempted to pass the biscuit across the slot when he was all alone on #29 were two specific examples of numerous instances during that stretch when a shot on net may have led to a three goal lead. Boudreau’s crew seemed to forget, like they did when up 2-0 on Montreal on Tuesday evening, that the simple hockey strategy of getting pucks deep and to the net were what gave them the lead in those games. Afterwards, Washington defenseman Karl Alzner talked about what the Caps did so well to get the two goal margin and then agreed that the club lost its focus for that shotless stretch before regrouping.

“I think it was just sticking to the system, we did everything the way we wanted to do it. We got pucks in, we didn’t have many turnovers at the offensive blue line, defensive blue line, and that’s what we need every single game. That’s two games back to back where we stuck to everything the coaches told us to do and we got good results,” said #27 on what is driving the team’s recent success.

“We started taking the foot off of the gas a little and they put on a bit of a push. When you have a lead sometimes the tendency is to make nice plays to try to get more points and more goals on the board and that is what was happening. We came back after the intermission and we’ve got a lot of guys who are thinking the right way now, just kind of focus back in together and turn it up again,” added Alzner when asked what happened during the last 10 minutes of the second period.

- Neuvirth, who found out on Saturday night that he possibly would be starting with Semyon Varlamov feeling sick, was poised in the cage and did a super job of not giving up juicy rebounds and he froze the puck when the Capitals occassionally started scrambling around in their own zone. He didn’t have to be spectacular because his teammates were willing to sacrifice their bodies to block shots but #30 was clearly determined to make Bylsma regret his in game comments from that pre-Christmas tilt.

“Of course. I watched every episode (of HBO’s 24/7), but this is hockey. It didn’t really bother me. But now I’m really happy that I shut them down. It’s even better for me right now. Before the game, I remembered when he said that and I kind of looked at him during the warm up and told myself that I got to shut these guys out tonight,” responsed the rookie goalie, who earned his second shutout of the season and NHL career, when asked about Bylsma’s 24/7 captured comments.

- The Caps did right the ship during those last 15 minutes of period three by getting back to dumping the puck deep and forcing a depleted Pittsburgh squad, that was without Sidney Crosby (concussion) and likely Evgeni Malkin for the season (torn ACL and MCL in his knee), to try and go through all five Capitals to score. Washington, who was also missing Alexander Semin, Eric Fehr, and Tom Poti, plus lost top defensemen Mike Green for the last two periods due to a shot that hit him near the ear and required stitches, played their defensive system superbly and when guys like superstar Alexander Ovechkin are laying out on the ice to block slappers from the point, you know the team is committed to winning at all costs.

“It’s all about commitment. It’s a commitment to winning. You block shots, one of your teammates goes down, another one picks it up,” commented Boudreau on the excellent defensive effort.

 

- Washington’s power play, which went 0 for 4, did have several good chances to score on Sunday as the Capitals did a decent job of getting the puck between the dots at the top of the point and blasting away. Ovechkin had a few slappers that made their way to the cage and the Caps just missed banging home rebounds from in front. The Capitals had registered man advantage markers in their two previous games and Boudreau felt that this unit was good once again on Sunday.

 

“I thought we could have had three or four. Sometimes you just don’t get it in and you are playing against the league’s best penalty killing team. But we had good chances and bottom line there is Fleury made some great saves there in the end to keep it at two,” said Boudreau on his power play unit.

 

“It’s really tough, guys they sacrifice their bodies all of the time now. They block absolutely everything. So it’s difficult. That is why we are trying to move the puck, spread it out as much as we can and get shots. Nobody likes when we don’t shoot the puck, we can hear that, but sometimes you just can’t do it. You have to shoot it off to the side of the net there or make plays. It doesn’t always work out but you do what you can,” added Alzner when asked about the difficulty in today’s NHL of getting off center point blasts with the man advantage.

 

- There were no penalties called in the first period and with the majority of the action in the Caps offensive zone it was clear that referee Dave Jackson was going to let the teams play in front of him. I was fine with that and I imagine the players and coaches did as well. As for the other zebra, Paul Devorski, one of the worst officials in the league still needs to buy a clue. Specifically, the man who allowed the Flyers to score their first goal in game seven of their 2008 playoff series against Washington because Philly ran Caps goalie Cristobal Huet, still has no idea on how to properly call goaltender interference. On Sunday, Matt Hendricks was shoved into Fleury while Knuble appeared to score the Capitals second goal and #10, instead of waving the goal off due to coincidental contact with the net minder and calling for a faceoff, said no goal and also assessed #26 with a two minute minor for goalie interference. It was a terrible interpretation of the rules, but fortunately for Washington they scored shorthanded on Johansson’s screened backhander with just five ticks left in the Penguins man advantage. Devorski also only assesed Pittsburgh cheap shot artist Matt Cooke a two minute minor when he delivered an ugly knee to knee hit on Ovechkin late in the contest. The Great #8 was luckily okay but one can’t help but wonder how Cooke, who has a history of dirty play, escaped a major and what should be a suspension? After all, Ovechkin received a five minute major, game misconduct, and then a two game suspension for a similar play in Carolina last season.

 

“I’m never going to say anything bad about an official. They are watching from their own eyes, they are seeing what they are seeing and they are making calls that they think are right. I am not always going to agree with them, on the same point, but I didn’t feel like I purposely went into the goaltender, I felt like I was pushed from behind. I don’t think I was in the blue. I think Fleury was out quite a bit out of his crease. That’s the game I play, the style I play, those things are going to happen. It’s tough when we score a goal too,” said Hendricks on the goalie interference infraction he was incorrectly assessed.

 

“It’s Matt Cooke, okay, need we say more. It’s not like it’s his first rodeo, he’s done it to everybody and then he goes to the ref and says ‘What did I do?’ He knows damn well what he did. There is no doubt in my mind that he’s good at it and he knows how to do it and he knows how to pick this stuff. We as a league still buy into this, that ‘Oh, it still was an accidental thing’,” said Boudreau on the dirty play by #24 against his former teammate, Ovechkin.

 

Notes: Despite the fact that everyone who knows anything about hockey and Dave Steckel realizes that the contact he had with Crosby on New Years Day was incidental, Penguins forward Tim Wallace tried to make a name for himself by challenging #39 to a 3rd period fight, which Steckel obliged…the Capitals dominated the Pens from the dot winning 32 of 49 draws. Backstrom was a sensational 14-3…Johansson and Mathieu Perreault, two young small centermen, have had back to back strong contests but Boudreau has often commented that he’s seen flashes of this before and wants consistency from the pair. He also mentioned today that MJ90 has had to deal with numerous differences in the NHL game and he pointed out that in the Swedish league that Marcus played in last season skaters aren’t even allowed to use their feet to win a faceoff…Green was dressed and doing interviews after the victory but I suspect the area where he took the puck will swell and it might be wise to sit him out until he is totally healthy. “He’s day-to-day. He’s got a little bit of a headache right now. You get hit in the head with a puck and you’re gonna have a headache. We’ll reevaluate him tomorrow,” added Boudreau….the Caps killed off both Penguins power plays and are still ranked 2nd in the NHL on the PK (86.3%)…Boudreau improved to 10-1-3 in his tenure against the Penguins and the Capitals are 9-0-2 in the last 11 regular season meetings versus Pittsburgh…Semin is expected to play in Washington’s next game against San Jose at the Verizon Center on Tuesday night. #28 hasn’t played since early January.

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Bolts Blank Uninspired Caps to Take Southeast Lead

Posted on 13 January 2011 by Ed Frankovic

There was a battle for the top spot in the Southeast Division on Wednesday night between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Washington Capitals, but only one team showed up. I am not surprised. After winning the Presidents’ Trophy last season and getting bounced in the first round by Montreal, the Caps have been inconsistent this regular season and have appeared to basically be in a “waiting for the playoffs mode” with this contest being no exception. When the Capitals want to play, as they will likely do on Friday against the NHL standings leading Vancouver Canucks or next Tuesday night in Philadelphia against the Flyers, they typically can compete with anyone. But the Lightning, who Washington has owned in the Bruce Boudreau era, despite having a great season, just do not get the Capitals motivated, yet. As a result, a tired and uninspired Capitals club fell behind 2-0 in the first period and mailed it in the rest of the game en route to a 3-0 defeat. The Bolts now lead the Southeast Division over the Caps by two points (57 to 55):

Here are the lowlights and analysis from a lackluster Capitals performance:

- It is clear that the Capitals are definitely becoming the Penguins or Flyers to the Lightning. Guy Boucher’s club came out flying while the Caps still looked like they were sleeping following Tuesday night’s OT loss in Florida. Nate Thompson, who isn’t exactly going to challenge Steven Stamkos or Sidney Crosby for any all star spots, cruised into the Washington zone with speed forcing a slow footed Jeff Schultz to back up way too far. #44 then hit the brakes and threw the puck on net and Tom Poti, who really shouldn’t be playing yet because he isn’t 100% healthy, couldn’t handle Dominic Moore in front of the net. #19 then banked one in off of a sprawling Semyon Varlamov for the first marker just 3:58 in to the contest. Varly would then give up a rebound on a Victor Hedman point shot, because he had too much traffic in front of him (3 and 55 didn’t box out well), and Sean Bergenheim batted the biscuit in the basket baseball style to make it 2-0. The Bolts outshot the Caps 14-9 in that first intermission and dominated the play.

- From there, things just got worse for Washington as they didn’t play hard and the referees, Tim Kowal and Steve Kozari, officiated this one like they had money on the game in Vegas. I could try and list all of the missed and incorrect calls but in the immortal words of Mark Ratner from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, “That would take too long.” However, the sequence where Steve Downie dropped his mitts early and got two sucker punches in on Scott Hannan bears mentioning; not only because Downie is a gutless thug, but because the zebras, who I termed the Krusty the Klown pair, gave four minutes to #23 and only two to the Lightning pest that you just want to crush with your shoe. The referees were not the reason the Capitals lost on this evening, their lack of effort and the solid goaltending from Dwayne Roloson (23 saves) takes precedence, but the NHL seriously needs to look at many of these crews to try and find some sanity and consistency because I sure as heck am not seeing it in the league so far this season from the zebras.

- The positives for Washington were few and far between:

  • Varlamov did stop 35 of 38 shots. He was totally hung out to dry by Schutlz and Mike Green on the Simon Gagne goal to make it 3-0 late in period two. The former Flyers tally came on a 2 on 0 break after Sarge and #52 lolligagged it from the Bolts blue line after an offensive zone faceoff.
  • The Caps killed off all six Tampa power play chances (9:37 of shorthanded time).
  • Blue liners John Carlson and Karl Alzner logged 25:27  and 24:35 of ice time, respectively, and did not allow a goal. Most of those minutes came against the Bolts top line. Stamkos and Martin St. Louis were both held without a point thanks to the two young defensemen.
  • Alexander Ovechkin (-2, 4 hits, 2 shots on net in 18:38 of ice time) didn’t run out of hockey sticks. Well he almost did as he broke numerous twigs on the night and word has it that the team equipment crew had to run out to the truck to reload on the bench for the Great #8.

- Poti (-2), who only played five minutes and change before leaving with yet another injury, and Schultz (-3) had bad nights on defense. However, as I mentioned in this video that was shot with my media friends John Keeley of On Frozen Blog and Ted Starkey of The Washington Times on Saturday night at the Verizon Center, the Capitals are in good shape from a defense and goaltending posture. What General Manager George McPhee needs to do is go out and get at least one, and likely two, top six forwards to give Washington a better chance at going deep into the post season and competing for a Stanley Cup. With Varlamov and Neuvirth, they have improved in the cage and the defense is much better this season thanks to the emergence of Alzner and Carlson plus the acquisition of Hannan, so that leaves an offense that has been blanked six times this year as the club’s problem point. That is no surprise since last year’s squad finished games five through seven of the Montreal series with exactly one goal in each tilt. The Caps GM has until 3pm on February 28th to make some moves to get this offense going again, stay tuned.

Notes:  Boyd Gordon returned to the lineup after missing close to a month due to injury, and as a result forward Brian Willsie was sent back to Hershey after just one game (1 assist in just over six minutes of ice time)…Each team won 31 faceoffs on Wednesday. Dave Steckel went 5-1 for Washington.. Nearly 500 fans helped the Washington Capitals raise $304,900 for charity at the second Caps Care Casino Night and Auction on Jan. 9 at the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center in Alexandria, Va. A majority of the money raised will benefit Washington Capitals Charities, which supports community programs in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

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Caps Win Winter Classic over Pens

Posted on 02 January 2011 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals shut the critics up tonight. It is as simple as that. For several weeks all this Capitals team has heard was they are underachievers and were no match for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who started this whole build up to the Winter Classic with a twelve game winning streak while the Caps were mired in an eight game skid that was brought on due to injuries, illnesses, and a system change. But when the HBO cameras close down Saturday night and the 24/7 show airs its final episode on Wednesday at 10pm the Capitals will have finished on a 5-0-1 tear and only two points behind the Penguins for first place in the Eastern Conference. How is that for irony?

This 3-1 victory, in the rain in a city that was apparently overrun with tens of thousands of Caps fans, was as big as they come in the regular season and Washington is now 23-12-5 overall (51 points) while the Penguins, despite all of the hype and accolades, are only 25-12-3 (53 points).

Here is my analysis on the huge win, the Caps 6th straight regular season victory in Pittsburgh:

- Semyon Varlamov was outstanding in net and has now won three games in a row. Varly stopped 32 of 33 shots and as I’ve blogged many times, when healthy he is the Caps #1 goalie. But Michal Neuvirth is a very good goalie too and as I’ve also written numerous times, goaltending is not a problem at all for this club. Varly proved that he could play in the clutch in that 2009 playoff run that ended in a game seven loss to the Pens in round two and tonight he showed how good he is once again. His only issue continues to be durability.

- After the Caps victory over Montreal on Tuesday night, I caught up with Eric Fehr as I left the locker room and he told me he felt as healthy as he’s felt in a long time. Last year when he told me that in early November he went on a goal scoring tear. Tonight he was outstanding and notched two goals playing with Marcus Johansson and Jason Chimera. Could this be a turning point for #16? That line, when put together by Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau, seems to gel because of the speed of #90 and #25, and tonight they were the Capitals best unit.

- I can’t say enough about the Capitals young defensive pair of John Carlson and Karl Alzner. The two played 26:28 and 24:45, respectively, leading the team in time on ice. You think their head coach has confidence in them? As #74 said afterwards on NBC, he and King Karl weren’t happy with allowing Sidney Crosby two points in last Thursday’s shootout loss at the Verizon Center. Tonight the duo shut down the NHL’s leading scorer and #87 didn’t have too many scoring chances unlike Alexander Ovechkin, who had numerous quality attempts and also had a goal wiped out due to what the zebras deemed incidental contact with Marc-Andre Fleury. Washington’s defense was better on day one with both Carlson and Alzner up to start the season and the addition of Scott Hannan gives GM George McPhee and Boudreau the most solid blue line they have had in years.

- Boudreau commented afterwards that he had spoken with McPhee earlier in the day and they decided that the best strategy was to play a simple, grind it out game given the ice conditions. The players got the message and they routinely sent the pucks deep and made the Penguins have to turn their backs to play the biscuit. Clearly it worked with the game’s turning play being Fleury’s misplay of the puck behind the cage that Johansson then centered to Fehr for the eventual game winner. But for those who have watched the Caps lately, a recent similar pattern occurred once Washington took a lead into the third period: they backed off on the aggressive forechecking and set up a neutral zone wall that continues to frustrate the opposition. In fact, the Capitals actually started doing this in the last couple of minutes in period two. The strategy is working, although the Pens came out really strong early in period three. The Caps are still working on implementing this system change, but the early returns are very good and to quote Boudreau, “gives them another tool in the toolbox” to use.

- The Caps scored a power play goal! The Caps scored a power play goal! Mike Knuble’s rebound conversion from the doorstep was exactly what Washington needed when trailing by a goal (Evgeni Malkin opened the scoring for Pittsburgh). On the night the Caps went 1 for 2 with the man advantage while they killed off all four Penguins power plays so special teams made a big difference once again for the Capitals.

- In summary, this was a great win and those that have stood by their Capitals club through the adversity should feel proud of how this Winter Classic sequence has turned out. The Caps are a much better hockey team then they were a month ago. The critics will continue to point to the past playoff failures but if Washington keeps working and builds on the system change and more defensive posture, the organization might finally have a post season reward that will silence the detractors once and for all.

Notes: The faceoff battle was even at 33 all. Nicklas Backstrom was 10-6 to lead Washington…Olie Kolzig commented afterwards that the key for Varly is to keep his groin healthy, which is tougher given the way he plays with the butterfly. Kolzig, to me, was the shining star of the NHL Network coverage over the weekend…Washington has no time to celebrate though as they have a huge tilt with the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday at the Verizon Center. Steve Stamkos and company have been red hot and going back and forth with the Caps for the Southeast Division lead. They also made a big attempt to improve their weak goaltending today by trading for former Islanders net minder Dwayne Roloson.

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Caps Lose in Shootout to Penguins

Posted on 24 December 2010 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins played what was likely their most intense hockey game of the season so far in an entertaining contest to watch. However, when it was all said and done, the Caps were defeated in the 7th round of the shootout, and lost the game, 3-2, to their archrivals. Sidney Crosby had a goal and an assist for the visitors but Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was the game’s number one star thwarting 32 of the 34 shots he faced. Mike Green and Mike Knuble tallied for the Capitals, on the power play and shorthanded, respectively. After both Alexander Ovechkin and Kris Letang traded tallies to open the gimmick for their teams, Pascal Dupuis became the next shooter to score in the bottom of the 7th round. Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Knuble, Brooks Laich, Mathieu Perreault, and Green all failed to beat #29 before the Pens sent the Caps home slightly disappointed for Christmas. Washington’s record is now 20-12-5, good for 45 points, which puts them in a tie for first place in the Southeast Division with the Tampa Bay Lightning, who won their tilt in a shootout against the New York Rangers on Thursday night. The Bolts have two games in hand on the Capitals. The Atlanta Thrashers, who lost to the Boston Bruins this evening, are two points behind both teams.

Let’s get right to the highlights, quotes, and analyis of a game that certainly had a playoff feel to it, as confirmed by Penguins coach Dan Bylsma:

“You talk about the hype and the buildup and the rivalry and the puck drops and it’s exactly what the buildup is.  Sometimes [games like these] are overbuilt but this was a playoff type of game and the building [was] rocking,” said the Pens bench boss on the contest and the atmosphere in the Verizon Center.

 

- The biggest positive of the night for Washington, in my book, was the play of both Green and his defensive partner Scott Hannan. Those two guys have struggled since Hannan was traded to the Caps from Colorado and the power play marker by #52 broke his own 14 game drought. He logged 34:03 of ice time adding eight hits, five blocked shots, and he also had six shots on net. Green also nearly won the game in OT but Fleury managed to cover the puck with his glove after #52 had deked the net minder to the ice and was about to slide the biscuit by him. Hannan was outstanding in his 27:09 of ice time and the duo finally played like the top pairing that the organization expected from them when they were put together after Jeff Schultz went down with a fractured thumb in the Toronto contest. Perhaps they are finally learning each other’s tendencies or getting comfortable playing as a duo? Whatever it was, those two guys were dynamite against Pittsburgh.

“That was his best game in a long time. He was good defensively and he jumped into the plays and made things happen offensively,” started Boudreau on Green, “We were talking in [the coaches room] and that is why we got him,” finished the Washington bench boss when I asked him about the strong play of Green’s defensive partner.

 

- In net, Michal Neuvirth (25 saves) made his first ever start against the Penguins and he was fantastic. #30 gave up Crosby’s super tip just 3:21 in to the game and 17 seconds into period three the guys in front of him did a Keystone cops routine by bumping into each other, knocking over the two time Calder Cup Champion net minder and allowing Chris Kunitz to score from the slot. In between the two tallies Neuvy stopped Evgeni Malkin on a penalty shot and thwarted Crosby on a breakaway. The young Czech net minder is 2-1-1 in this current run as the Washington starting goalie.

 

- The Capitals penalty kill was a major reason why Washington made it to the gimmick. The Caps killed off all five Penguins power plays and they also tied the game up with 5:29 to go on Knuble’s shorthanded marker off of a great feed from Laich. Last season when trailing, an opponents man advantage situation frequently resulted in another opposition tally, however, this season the Capitals are using the PK to stay in games and then use the energy generated from that unit to take back control of the play. The improvement of the shorthanded unit this season is one of the big positives to the first half of the 2010-11 season.

 

“PK did a great job. To get that goal in the third there on the PK that is huge. The system we played tonight on the PK and what Deano [assistant Coach Dean Evason] drew up for us, we executed it and we got the job done,” said forward Jay Beagle, who logged 10:44 of ice time, including 2:46 when Washington was shorthanded.

 

- Washington’s power play, however, was another story. While they did finally connect on a two man advantage in period two, they also failed to convert in the opening frame on a 109 second five on three. Overall the Caps were 1 for 6 on the PP and a big problem is the lack of puck movement. Like standing and dribbling gets you nowhere in basketball, the Caps players are holding on to the puck too long instead of moving it quickly and crisply to get the defenders and the goaltender scrambling around. Simply put, despite the fact that the Pens own the best PK percentage in the league (88%), Washington made it easy for their opponents to look good shorthanded on Thursday night. On the last couple of man advantage situations the Caps did do a better job of passing the puck faster and shooting more often, and if they do that, the power play will get hot again.

 

- The final tallies on power plays in this one was 6 to 5 in favor of the Caps but if you factor in the penalty shot then it is even-steven. The Capitals carried the play for much of the night and should have had a greater advantage in power plays but zebras Kelly Sutherland and Francois St. Laurent saw a completely different game, in some instances, and as is often the case, evened up the calls instead of sticking to officiating the contest correctly.

 

“We knew they were going to get [power plays]. I think we had one more power play than them which would have been the first time in 16 games that we had more power plays than they did. But we knew there were going to be penalties called against us because we knew there was never going to be that big of a discrepancy when playing them,” said Boudreau on the tendency of NHL referees to focus on the numbers of PP opportunities for each team instead of calling things as they play out.

 

The coach nailed it and if you ask me, shouldn’t a guy with a last name like St. Laurent be peddling men’s ties instead of badly refereeing hockey games?

 

- I am not sure what was going on with the playing surface but the ice along the boards adjacent to the Capitals bench seemed to have more bumps and holes in it than New York Avenue. As players attempted to carry the puck out of the zone on that side found out, the routine play was turned into a house of horrors and on several occassions the puck carrier overskated the biscuit. Overall I thought the surface, which I have deemed “Wizards Ice” because it seems that the Caps always play the night following a basketball game, prevented the Caps from some odd man rushes because they had to exit the “bad zone” two of the three periods and in overtime.

 

- Tom Poti was injured in period one and Boudreau termed him day-to-day. #3 only played 5 shifts (3:34) after hitting his head. As a result of Poti’s early exit the Caps had to play with just five defensemen for the rest of the game, but Karl Alzner said that is a situation that you have to deal with and move on from.

 

“It makes it a little bit tougher and definitely you run out of energy, especially if you are trying to match any sort of lines there then it gets more difficult. But that is how you have to play. You have to do it sometimes and it’s easier to keep yourself in the game if you are going every other shift but obviously we’d rather finish the game with six [defensemen],” said the 21 year old defenseman on the shortened bench after Poti’s head injury.

 

- Overall this was another step in the right direction for the Capitals and Boudreau said if they continue to play like they did on Thursday they will win lots of games. I asked Alzner about the mood of the players following the defeat in the skills competition.

 

“It’s the second best result we could have asked for. We played a pretty good game. It was low scoring, it wasn’t one of those run and gun games so we’re working on that. It’s nice that that is coming through a little bit but we obviously wanted to win and keep Crosby off the scoresheet as much as we could but that’s a tough guy to keep off so we did decent, but we can do better though,” finished #27, the Capitals 2007 1st round draft choice (5th overall).

 

Notes: Dave Steckel, who leads the NHL in faceoff percentage at 63.6%, was 13-4 on draws but overall Washington lost the battle at the dot, 37-34…Eric Fehr, who received top line minutes in the last period in Boston and in Ottawa on Sunday, started on a line with Ovechkin and Perreault but after one period was yanked off of it. #16 ended up getting only 9:49 of ice time but he did manage to fire four shots on net in that time…the tripping call on Ovechkin was downright awful and again I put the blame on that one on Wizards ice and bad zebras…Hannan went even on the night and was -8 coming into the game against Pittsburgh…Washington is 7-0-2 in its last nine regular season games against Pittsburgh…next up for the Caps, after two days off for the Christmas break, is a game in Carolina at 7pm on Sunday night against the Hurricanes.

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Hershey Grads Help Caps Win 2nd Straight

Posted on 22 December 2010 by Ed Frankovic

There is a reason the Hershey Bears won back to back AHL Calder Cup titles the last two seasons and a national audience on VERSUS on Tuesday night witnessed it first hand as several Chocolatetown graduates played big roles in the Washington Capitals 5-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils at the Verizon Center. Andrew Gordon, who has 16 goals in 26 games for the Bears this year, notched his first ever NHL goal and also had an assist on Jason Chimera’s breakaway marker that made it 3-1. Defenseman John Carlson also scored on a laser and added an assist while goaltender Michal Neuvirth stopped 35 of 36 shots to earn his 14th win of this season. It was the Caps second straight victory following their eight game losing streak and coupled with the St. Louis Blues 4-2 victory over Atlanta, Washington is back in first place in the Southeast Division with 44 points (20-12-4). The Thrashers are a point back with the same number of games played as the Caps while the Tampa Bay Lightning are at 42 points with three games in hand.

Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis from a game that was close in the first 30 minutes and ended with the Verizon Center chanting “We Want Pittsburgh!”:

- In addition to Gordon, Carlson, and Neuvirth several other Bears from the back to back Calder Cup Championships contributed to the win including defenseman Karl Alzner (+3), Jay Beagle (goal, +1), and Mathieu Perreault (+1). Gordon, Beagle, and Perreault each where involved in a Washington goal simply by going to the net. Gordon’s goal from the doorstep was set up by a super play by Marcus Johansson, Beagle’s tally from just above the crease was the result of a great pass from Dave Steckel, and the smaller Perreault crashed the cage on Martin Broduer (23 saves) allowing Mike Knuble to deflect Tom Poti’s shot by the future Hall of Fame goalie. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau praised the Chocolatetown contingent right out of the gate in his post game presser.

“I thought they all played great, Beagle, Gordo, Carlson, they had lots of energy and they followed direction and they played with passion and enthusiasm. When you do that, usually, no matter what league you’re in you’re going to have success,” said the coach about his players who have simply dominated in the AHL and now are getting a chance to display their merit in “The Show.”

- #30 was super solid in net and he made several quality saves early in the second period when the Devils had their highest points in this tilt. The only shot that beat him was on a Devils power play by Patrick Elias with Dainius Zubrus setting a vicious screen at the top of the crease. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau certainly is feeling confident in Neuvirth right now and you can bet the house he will start against the Penguins on Thursday.

“He was pretty solid. He’s always been a guy that’s gotten stronger as the game goes on and does alot by confidence. The game in Ottawa got him confidence,” said Boudreau on the key to Neuvirth’s recent success.

- The Capitals best d-pair these days continues to be #74 and #27 and they followed up their super game in Ottawa with a tremendous outing on Tuesday. Alzner and Carlson, who were sensational playing together in Hershey, are a perfect pairing that continues to get better. They are positionally sound and the thing they really excel at is getting the puck out of Washington’s zone and in transition with quick and smart passes. Carlson had 23:42 of ice time, including 7:24 on the power play, and despite the fact that the Caps power play stunk in this one (0 for 5), #74 was likely the best player on it because he was shooting the biscuit at the cage instead of trying crazy cross ice seam passes that Alexander Semin kept attempting to execute.

“We’ve been playing good since day one. We’ve been feeling pretty comfortable. We were apart for a while and then got back together a couple of games ago. It’s just a matter of consistency in this game, it seems. Anytime you can play good and contribute, it’s really good,” added #74, who scored the game winning goal for Team USA in the Gold Medal game against Canada in the World Juniors Championships last winter.

 

- Steckel, who is also a Hershey alum but wasn’t on the two recent Calder Cup winning teams but was on the 2006 AHL Championship club coached by Boudreau, is really playing well lately after a subpar 2009-10. #39 was 7-2 on draws and is now #1 in the NHL in faceoff percentage (63.1%) for those taking at least 20 draws this season. His pass to Beagle for the game winning goal was outstanding and it came after some hard work along the boards and in the corner.

 

- I would also be remiss if I didn’t praise the play of the rookie, Johansson. #90, who looked healthy and as a result showed off his ultra fast skating tonight, was paired with the speedy Chimera and the grinding Gordon and they were the line of the game for Washington. The young Swede looked like he was shot out of a cannon on the first goal as he flew down the left wing boards and fed an all alone #63 in front for the first tally. Johansson also set up Gordon for a one timer that Brodeur made his best save of the night on in period two when the game was still close. Former Capital Brian Engblom on VERSUS, after the 2nd period, called #90 the best player on the ice for either team, quite a compliment for the 2009 1st round draft choice.

 

- On the down side, the Capitals power play was simply awful in 8:42 of time, including a lengthy (78 seconds) two man advantage. I put the blame on this on Semin and Mike Green because those guys are not shooting the puck and trying to make too many fancy passes. Boudreau did give Carlson more point time and he moved Alexander Ovechkin down low in an attempt to get him out of his goal scoring slump (2 tallies in the last 18 games).

 

“Well, we were 0-for-5 on the power play, so it didn’t work very well. But we haven’t had any success with him on the point lately either. I am just trying to move things and change things around. I thought if we got shots at the net and he’s right there, maybe he could get a rebound or something, get an ugly goal that would jump start him. That was the thought process,” said Boudreau, who is attempting to win his 4th straight Southeast Division title as the Caps bench boss in as many seasons.

 

Notes: Forward Matt Bradley, a major fan favorite, broke his finger and will miss 2-4 weeks (h/t Mike Vogel, aka @VogsCaps)…Eric Fehr, who played four really good periods in a row with Ovechkin and Backstrom on the top line in the two previous games, missed the contest due to a death in the family…the Caps won the face-off battle, 28-26…Washinton’s PK unit was 1 for 4 and it would have been perfect had defenseman Scott Hannan made a simple clearing play instead of waiting for an extra second in the corner. As a result he was stripped from behind of the biscuit and the Caps failed to clear the zone prior to the goal. #23 continues to struggle in his transition from Colorado to Washington…on Wednesday night at 10pm on HBO, Episode 2 of 24/7, which covers the Caps and Penguins as they head into the Winter Classic on January 1st, airs. It should be a much more enjoyable hour of viewing for Caps fans after last week’s tough one in the middle of the eight game losing streak. Not to mention the Penguins lost two straight games last week…Former Capital and VERSUS studio analyst Keith Jones blasted Semin after the game for his effort. Boudreau characterized #28′s performance with the following quote, “Rusty, but he’ll get better though.” Given that Semin was hurt (lower body injury) and just recovered from the flu we’ll give him a pass for his bad game…Thursday night’s Capitals-Penguins tilt at the Verizon Center should be a great one and it will be time for the Capitals star players like Ovechkin (1 assist, +1, 4 hits), Nicklas Backstrom, Green, and Semin to get it going because the Caps will need them to defeat Sidney Crosby and company. Don’t miss it!

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Raycroft, Zebras Beat Caps, 2-1

Posted on 03 December 2010 by Ed Frankovic

Andrew Raycroft of the Dallas Stars stopped 37 of 38 shots and received some help from the referees as an apparent Capitals game tying goal was waved off with eight seconds left in regulation to end Washington’s winning streak at four games. The Caps, who were shorthanded four times in the middle period and twice in the third, lost 2-1 and fell to 18-7-2 on the season. They still lead the Southeast Division by seven points since both the Tampa Bay Lightning and Atlanta Thrashers also were defeated on Thursday night.

Here are the highlights of a tilt that was difficult to watch because the ice in Texas was so horrible and the zebras were nearly as bad:

- On the wiped out Caps goal with eight seconds left, Alexander Oveckin is in front of the cage making contact with d-man Stephane Robidas. Neither player is touching Raycroft and as Washington is about to fire the biscuit into the net, Stars defensemen Karlis Skrastins comes sliding in from the right post and bangs into his own goalie. The Caps score and raise their sticks but referee Dan O’Rourke waved it off immediately and when the face-off was moved outside the Stars zone, Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau went postal on the zebras and earned an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. That was simply the culmination of a frustrating night in which it seemed everything was let go in the opening stanza then every ticky tack call in the book went against Washington in the middle frame. The Caps would kill off the first three Stars man advantages but they finally tired out and Mike Ribeiro scored to give Dallas the lead on their fourth power play of the second period.

- The Caps, who outshot the Stars 38-21, would pressure hard in the final stanza and on their second power play of the period and third of the night, they finally scored as Mike Green carried the puck in from the right point and made an outstanding pass to Mike Knuble in the slot, who buried it into a vacant left side of the net. Overall the Stars had six power plays (although the last one was for 8 seconds) while Washington just had three in a disturbing trend that continues to see the Capitals come out on the short end of the stick from the referees.

- Michael Neuvirth got the start in net after Semyon Varlamov had played the previous night in St. Louis (Caps won 4-1). #30 made several big stops in this tilt but the game winning tally is one he would like to have back. Brandon Segal received a cross ice feed from Brendan Morrow and Karl Alzner reached out trying to block the shot and the puck may or may not have nicked #27′s stick on the way to the cage. Nonetheless, the biscuit eluded Neuvirth top shelf and the Stars jumped back in front just 20 seconds after the Caps had worked hard to tie this one up. It was a goal that cannot be allowed in that situation.

- From there Washington stormed the castle but just couldn’t solve Raycroft. They also missed the net several times too. Part of that may have been trying to pick corners because the Stars goalie was playing well and the other part could have been the bad surface. Hockey Night in Canada’s Jeff Marek tweeted that the ice in Dallas was the worst he’s seen all year in the NHL. Passing was difficult and both teams suffered from players overskating the puck or having it stick to the ice. Is Fred Biletnikoff in charge of the zamboni at American Airlines arena? Inquiring minds want to know because it sure looked like the ice was covered with “Stick ‘Em.”

- Scott Hannan made his Caps debut on defense and he played solid, although it was his penalty that resulted in the Stars first tally. #23 blocked four shots in 19:02 of ice time. He looked comfortable in Boudreau’s aggressive system, which is different than the one he played in with Colorado.

Notes: Washington won the face-off battle, 30-28, and this was the 14th straight contest in which the Caps were 50% or better on draws, so much for those struggles from the dot we heard about after just first four tilts into season…Matt Hendricks fought Segal (won the bout, too) and also drew a penalty. #26 does all of the little things and it is clear why Boudreau and GM George McPhee wanted this type of player on their squad…Eric Fehr had the second assist on the Caps only goal…Ovechkin fired five shots on net, had four attempts blocked, and missed the cage on three other tries in 22:27 of ice time…Tom Poti did not play due to a bad groin and John Erskine appeared to injure his leg in the first period. #4 left for awhile but returned and logged only 11:23 of ice time…next up for the Capitals are the Atlanta Thrashers at the Verizon Center on Saturday night at 7pm. Atlanta had their six game winning streak snapped by the Pittsburgh Penguins and Sidney Crosby’s hat trick, 3-2, on Thursday night.

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