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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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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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