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Caps defeat Edmonton

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Reirden’s Line Juggling Jump Starts a Capitals Win Over Edmonton

Posted on 06 November 2018 by Ed Frankovic

“Ooh, and it’s alright and it’s coming along
We gotta get right back to where we started from”

After several shoddy defensive efforts, the Washington Capitals buckled down in the third period of Monday’s game against Edmonton and grinded out a 4-2 victory. The triumph snapped a two game losing streak to improve the Caps record to 6-4-3 (15 points) and puts them in a tie with the Pittsburgh Penguins for second place in the Metropolitan Division, three points behind the division leading Islanders, who have played one more game than the Capitals and Pens. Sidney Crosby and company, losers of four straight games (0-3-1) are in town on Wednesday night (7:30 pm on NBC Sports Channel).

Following the win, I’ve put together eight thoughts on the Capitals.

Perhaps the biggest question of the offseason for Washington was how would Pheonix Copley perform as Braden Holtby’s backup with Philipp Grubauer being moved to Colorado? Well, Copley turned in his best outing of the young campaign with 31 saves against an Edmonton squad that had won five straight on the road. Pheonix made several big stops early on that gave the Capitals momentum, including a right pad gem on an all alone Milan Lucic in front and shortly thereafter a great chest save on a Jujhar Khaira deflection on the doorstep. All night the Caps goaltender made the key stops and rarely left any rebound opportunities. The only markers to beat him were essentially two power play goals. Connor MacDavid’s man advantage blast through traffic that beat Pheonix short side and then a Leon Draisaitl sweet deflection at even strength that came just three seconds after Devante Smith-Pelly left the penalty box (delay of game).

Coach Todd Rierden, looking for a spark after some really blah games from his squad, went all Reg Dunlop and shuffled up the forward lines for this rematch against the Oilers (Edmonton smoked the Caps, 4-1, on October 25th in Alberta). Dmitri Jaskin was put on the top unit with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin while Chandler Stephenson was shifted to the wing with T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom on the second line. The biggest move, however, was dropping Jakub Vrana to the fourth line with Travis Boyd and Smith-Pelly. Boyd, who was making his season debut after suffering a leg injury in a preseason game in St. Louis, was a spark plug using his speed and tenacity to set up goals on the line’s first two shifts, from Vrana and Devo, respectively. All game long that unit was a thorn in the side of Edmonton. It was easily DSP’s best game of the season after #25 had looked very slow through the first 12 games.

MacDavid is probably the fastest player in the NHL and his talent is legendary, but the Capitals did a very good job of shutting him down at even strength. Backstrom’s line had that task and they were outstanding. Credit should also go to the defensemen; I thought Dmitry Orlov had one of his best performances of the season on the back end. In addition to Nicky’s strong defense against McJesus, his pass to Oshie for the third goal was an absolute beauty. The Osh Babe’s top shelf cheese that hit the twine to convert the amazing pass was also a highly skilled shot.

Speaking of the D, with Brooks Orpik still out for the third straight affair with a lower body injury, Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos were paired together. Bowey had played well against Dallas in a 4-3 OT loss on Saturday night, but Djoos had been struggling recently. Both were on their game on Monday night and they were rewarded with more ice time. Bowey logged 15:05 and Djoos played 13:59. That allowed Coach Reirden to keep the minutes of his top four lower than in recent games. Both Matt Niskanen and Orlov were right around 21 minutes while John Carlson played 24:45 and Michal Kempny, who was +2 along with #74, logged 20:35. It’s very important that Reirden uses his third pair throughout the season; otherwise the top four will be wiped out for the playoffs.

Team defense had been pretty much nonexistent since the Vancouver victory, but on Monday, the Caps returned to the basics and their third period was very solid despite being outshot, 11-2. Of the 11 shots, it’s hard to remember any that were quality attempts from the high danger scoring area. The Capitals really did a nice job of keeping the Oilers on the perimeter. The forwards were committed to helping on defense and Washington was more physical in their own end than they’d been in the first 12 games. Simply put, that is how you lock things down in your own end with a two goal lead.

While the Capitals officially only had two shots on net in the final frame, they did have some other quality chances where they failed to shoot the puck from prime scoring areas. Evgeny Kuznetsov passed up a golden opportunity in the slot and instead elected to try and feed Brett Connolly at the side of the cage, who didn’t have much of an angle. In addition, on a two on one rush, Andre Burakovsky pulled up and curled back towards the blue line instead of making the smart play, which was to fire on Cam Talbot (19  saves) and either beat him clean or generate a rebound. Andre needs to be smarter on the ice. Quick shots are how you score goals at this level.

Ovechkin is the king of the quick shot and he notched his 11th goal of the season on a rebound of a Carlson power play blast. Good things happen when you shoot and Ovi took advantage of an open net when John’s point blast hit traffic on the way to the cage and bounced right to him in the Ovi spot. Alex would’ve had his 12th of the year had he not missed an open net (he hit the post) late in the contest. After the miss, the Gr8 found DSP all alone in front of the empty net and Devo hit the post, as well. Alex had a much more consistent game on Monday and a big part of that was Jaskin, who brought a physical presence and a strong defensive work ethic, something that top line has missed with Tom Wilson now up to serving 13 of the 20 games he was suspended for to start the season.

Overall, this was a very good win for Washington after some really poor outings. The Capitals didn’t dominate the entire game, but they worked hard for 60 minutes, which hadn’t been the case since the Canucks game on October 22nd. They need to keep that energy and focus at that level if they want to be successful, especially with Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Arizona in town for the next three tilts.

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Caps Team Cup Banner

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Caps Bury Boston in Greatest Opening Night in Team History

Posted on 04 October 2018 by Ed Frankovic

We are the champions, my friends
And we’ll keep on fighting ’til the end
We are the champions
We are the champions
No time for losers
‘Cause we are the champions of the world

After 44 years of often times crushing defeats, the Washington Capitals players and fans were finally able to sing this legendary song together at Capital One Arena on Wednesday night in what was the greatest opening night in Caps history. The team was honored in a pregame ceremony that saw Alexander Ovechkin skate the Cup onto home ice to a thunderous ovation followed by an amazing video montage, and then the raising of the 2018 Stanley Cup Championship banner to the rafters.

To top it all off, the Capitals came out and buried the Boston Bruins, 7-0, to start the 2018-19 season in fine fashion.

Evgeny Kuznetsov notched two goals, Nicklas Backstrom had three assists, and Alex Ovechkin, T.J.Oshie, and John Carlson all had two points each while Braden Holtby stopped all 25 shots he faced in this affair. It was the 13th straight victory for the Caps over the B’s and more importantly, it gave Head Coach Todd Reirden his first NHL win in his debut as Washington’s bench boss.

This was a fun game and the fans, many of whom paid top dollar for tickets to attend this tilt, certainly received their money’s worth. The atmosphere was absolutely electric during the pregame ceremony and when Oshie scored just 24 seconds into the contest, it was apparent this was going to be Washington’s night. Kuznetsov followed that tally up just 83 seconds later on a power play goal right off of the face off and then the Caps exploded for three goals in the first seven and a half minutes of period two to put this one out of reach before the game’s midway point.

Below are my thoughts and analysis on the game and other impending Capitals issues:

Special Teams were a major key as the Caps went four for six on the power play and thwarted both of the Bruins man advantage situations. The Capitals are typically deadly with a manpower advantage and Boston certainly felt that in the season opener. Ovechkin and Carlson both tallied from the “Ovi spot” and Backstrom was just a magician on the ice dishing the biscuit around like he had the puck on a string. There is no doubt that if you take penalties against the Caps, you are going to pay the price. On the PK side of things, with Tom Wilson out 20 games due to suspension (more on that later), Devante Smith-Pelly stepped up and did a marvelous job while shorthanded and Reirden’s tactical change to add Kuzy to the mix paid off, as well. Evgeny logged 1:02 of penalty killing time and he helped the Caps to generate four shots on goal while down a skater, including a golden chance for Nathan Walker (Brooks Orpik had a nice pass on that sequence, too). The Caps penalty killing was somewhat of a weakness last season, but there is cause for optimism after game one, although they will face one of the best power plays in the league in the Penguins on Thursday night in Pittsburgh at 7 pm.

The Capitals played a really solid first period and big credit goes to the defense for moving the puck well out of their own end, which allowed the Caps to dominate possession. Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey, who were both rookies last season, played superbly on Wednesday. Coach Reirden was especially pleased with Bowey, who was paired with Orpik, given that this was his first meaningful hockey game in a long time. Even with Michal Kempny out due to injury (concussion – but skated for 15 minutes on Wednesday morning), the blue line was really solid. Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, and Matt Niskanen were stellar.

I spent a good part of my summer watching reruns of the Capitals Stanley Cup run and the thing that really stood out to me was the commitment level of the players, especially the forwards, to maintain their gap control through the neutral and defensive zones on the back check. The game winning goal against Pittsburgh was the result of that type of effort since it was Kuznetsov who knocked the puck off of Sidney Crosby’s stick before he went in and scored on a breakaway to send Washington to the Eastern Conference Finals. In the season opener, the gap control and commitment to back checking/pressure was still there. There were lots of sensational plays in this contest, but to me the one that stood out the most was DSP hustling and getting his stick in the passing lane on a potential golden chance for the Bruins. This came late in the second period with the score 6-0! Coach Reirden smiled when asked about that play and said everyone on the bench really noticed it. He also stated that this team is accountable and really plays for each other. In the post season the Capitals moved their feet and had a focus on taking the body, but there is no way to keep that style of physical play going through all 82 games and then the post season. However, you can continue to move your feet when you don’t have the puck and if you do that well, you are in position to steal or intercept the disc night after night and keep your opponents off of the score sheet. In game one, the Capitals skated hard on the back check and as a result, they dominated the game taking away time and space from some top notch players like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak.

Goaltending is so important in hockey and even though the Caps grabbed a two puck lead early, the Holtbeast was still needed. His best save of the night was on Bergeron, who was in all alone on #70, in period one. Boston didn’t get a ton of quality shots because of the great play in front of Holtby, but Braden did have a few ten bell saves in this tilt. He simply owns the Bruins and it was his first regular season shutout since 2016-17. The Holtbeast did have two shutouts in the playoffs, games six and seven against Tampa in the Eastern Conference Final. Game six was arguably the best playoff game I’ve ever seen Washington play.

With Kempny out due to injury and Wilson suspended on Wednesday for the first 20 games (eligible to return on November 21st), there were available spots in the lineup for new players. The aforementioned Bowey stepped up on the blue line and Nathan Walker and Nic Dowd received sweaters up front. Dowd filled the fourth line center role vacated by Jay Beagle (signed by Vancouver for four years at $3M per season) and scored a sweet backhanded tally in the high slot to make it 4-0 at the 6:13 mark of period two. DSP made a nice keep in at the point as Washington played their aggressive fore checking system perfectly on that goal scoring instance.

Willy, who will likely appeal the length of the suspension, is going to be missed because of his physical presence and talent. He’s helped make the top line with Ovi and Kuzy one of the best in the league. He is also a great penalty killer and gets in the collective heads of the Capitals opponents. He is a major plus to the Caps over 99% of the time, but hits like the one against St. Louis that led to the suspension need to be taken out of his game. As a result of his absence, the Capitals will have to play more of a finesse and high skill style early on, but the good news is the first half of the NHL season is nowhere near as physical as it is after January 1st, so if he was going to be out, this is the period where his loss should work best. As Backstrom said afterwards, the team needs Wilson, but it is also an opportunity for other players, such as Walker and Brett Connolly, to show that they can step up and minimize the impact of #43’s absence.

In summary, this was about as perfect of an opening night as you could get for the Capitals organization. The fans were energized from the time they walked into the arena and the players fed off of that energy with a quick start. Hearing We Are The Champions on the jumbotron and from the fans was special, and Backstrom summed it up best when he noted, “It was an amazing feeling, I want to experience that again.”

Cue the Osh Babe and the fans with the “Back to Back” chant.

Notes: Shot attempts were 64-53 for the Caps. Shots on goal were 37-25, Washington…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 24:06. Djoos logged 17:23 as #74’s partner at even strength. Niskanen (21:48) and Orlov (22:00) were a dominant duo in this game…the Caps were a putrid 19-41 from the dot, but one of the wins resulted in Kuznetsov’s first goal. Face offs are an area that will need improvement going forward. Beagle is no longer around to take the key defensive zone draws…Tuukka Rask has still never won at Capital One Arena…Marchand jumped Eller with just over six minutes left because he was being a baby and didn’t like Tiger’s celebration after his goal that made it 7-0. Lars was cut when Marchand ripped off #20’s helmet. Eller also never took off his gloves but still received the fighting major. I imagine Wilson took note of Marchand’s pest-like sequence and will file it away for reference for future games against Boston.

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Ovi Game 3 SCF

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Caps Take Series Lead With First Home Stanley Cup Final Triumph

Posted on 03 June 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Devante Smith-Pelly scored for Washington and Braden Holtby stopped 21 of 22 shots to lead the Capitals to a 3-1 victory in front of 18,506 raucous fans at Capital One Arena on Saturday night. The triumph was the Caps first ever win on home ice in the Stanley Cup Final and they now lead the best of seven series, two games to one. Game four is Monday night in DC.

This was the event of the year in town and the pregame featured a concert from Sting and Shaggy outside the arena and then Wheel of Fortune’s Pat Sajak, a long time Capitals season ticket holder, announced the pregame lineups where every Vegas player, except for former Capital Nate Schmidt, was booed.

The Capitals did a lot of things correct and still have things to clean up, so here are eight thoughts and analysis on this win that moves the team closer to their ultimate goal.

Do The Bird – Kuznetsov was injured on a hit by Brayden McNabb in period one of the second game and since that time, the Capitals have been a different team. Washington amped up their play without Kuzy in a 3-2 victory and on Saturday night, the tougher than you think Russian with high end skill returned to the lineup. Number 92 was flying in this affair in an attempt to prove that he will not be intimidated by physical play and his shot from the slot eventually set up Ovechkin’s net crashing tally that put Washington on the board just 1:10 into period two. At 12:50 of the middle frame, he put a serious dagger into Vegas’ hopes in this contest. T.J. Oshie did a great job of blocking a shot by Shea Theodore and he gathered in the disc and fed it to Jay Beagle in the neutral zone. Beags took off up ice with Kuzy on a two on one and Jay alertly gave the puck to the wizard to his right very quickly. Evgeny skated in and with the Golden Knights Colin Miller shading Beagle in an attempt to cut off the pass, Kuznetsov sailed in closer on Marc-Andre Fleury and put a superstar shot past the goalie over the right pad, under the blocker and off of the inside of the far post for a huge tally. The $7.8 million dollar man showed up big time on the game’s largest stage to lead the Capitals to a monumental win. He logged 18:52 of ice time, had six shot attempts, including four on net, and won five of seven draws. Kuznetsov was named the game’s number one star and deservedly so.

Come on now

Whawk! Hallelujah! Whoa

Whawk! Hallelujah! Whoa

Follow the Leader – Ovechkin had another beastly game and he nearly scored in the first two minutes when Kuznetsov fed him on a two on one, but Fleury somehow got his glove on his attempt. Ovi would not be denied on this night and his goal, on a rebound of John Carlson’s shot, was reminiscent of his 600th career goal against Winnipeg this year. This one came on a backhander with bodies strewn all over the ice in a goal mouth scramble. It was pure grit and determination by the Gr8 and his linemates, with Tom Wilson having a wrecking ball of a shift. The goal put the somewhat anxious crowd at ease and allowed Washington to play the style they wanted while Vegas had to start chasing the game. Alex had 10 shot attempts in this outing and five were on net in 17:28 of action. He also had two hits and two blocked shots. The blocked shots are something the Capitals have done a very good job of in this series and when the other players see Ovi “all in” and doing the little things like that, it energizes the team and motivates them to put themselves on the line, as well.

Defense Wins Championships – Washington, after their own zone struggles in the first game of this series, have become much better at team defense and walling off the front of their net. In game three they blocked 26 shots and the Holtbeast noted afterwards that the communication between the shot blocker and himself have been good to make sure the right lanes are taken away and he can see the shots. Vegas’ only goal was on a giveaway by Holtby in period three, but the Golden Knights did have some quality chances to score. In period two, Cody Eakin, Jonathan Marchessault, and Alex Tuch all had grade “A” opportunities, but either missed the net or Holtby made the save. Afterwards, Vegas Coach Gerard Gallant agreed that his team had the potential to score more goals, but noted that they were not able to get the second or third attempts to penetrate the Washington net. This is a credit to the Capitals team defense. Coach Barry Trotz noted that the Caps turned the page quickly on game one and seem to be finding their better levels again, but he didn’t like the chances the Golden Knights received in period two. The Capitals were certainly stingier in period three, especially after the Tomas Nosek goal just 3:29 into the final stanza. Coach Trotz also said that they can certainly get even better in limiting Vegas’ offense going forward.

“We probably gave them a little bit more zone time than we would have liked, but certainly the high danger areas we did pretty good with,” stated big game player, Carlson, afterwards.

Breaking the Fore Check – Vegas is a fast skating, straight line team that comes at you in your own end with speed and size. Washington has adapted to that style as this series as gone on, but it’s imperative that the first pass is a good one, because when it’s not, the Golden Knights swarm and use that fore check to generate goals. That’s where Holtby’s ability to play the puck makes a big difference. Despite that one miscue, the Holtbeast has been very good at stopping the dump ins and getting the puck to one of his defensemen where they can make a solid read and get the disc going the other way quickly. As for the Capitals blue liners, they have continued to improve from game one with their decision making. We saw fewer giveaways in game three and more quality passes that are leading to opportunities at the other end. The Caps must continue that trend if they are going to take game four.

Let’s Get Physical – This series has continued to be very physical as it’s progressed and the Caps outhit Vegas, 38-31, and this was not because the Golden Knights dominated possession. Washington is doing a good job of hitting the Vegas blue line in their own end and there have been lots of Capitals hits on Vegas forwards along the walls and on the backboards in Washington’s end. Wilson, Smith-Pelly, Beagle, and Ovechkin combined for 12 hits while the trio of Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, and Michal Kempny had 11. The hitting is important for the Capitals because it helps wear down the Vegas defensemen and slow down their transition game.

Full Speed Ahead – All post season, it has been so important for the Capitals to get the lead. When you are ahead at the game’s midpoint, you start forcing your opponent to change their strategy and gamble more often. The opponents will activate their defense and this opens up the opportunity for counter attacks, if you play well in your end and get the puck out to the right places. Washington has improved with that and in games two and three they’ve locked the lead down well. If not for Fleury (23 saves), game three would have been a bigger spread on the scoreboard, something Vegas Coach Gallant noted afterwards. The Caps third goal with just over six minutes remaining was the cumulative result of being physical and taking the counter attack when presented. Beagle made a super play in the offensive zone to force a Theodore turnover and then Smith-Pelly read the play perfectly and broke to the net all alone. His top shelf cheese that beat Fleury was a high skill event and a big make up for his giveaway in game one on the Nosek winning tally. It was a huge goal from the fourth line and Washington continues to get production from all of its players.

“It’s good to get contributions from everyone, we expect that, whether it’s goals or blocks or just getting the puck out on the wall. Everything matters so much, at this point. It’s good to see those guys get rewarded for their hard work,” added Carlson after the game on the Smith-Pelly goal that was set up by Beagle.

Where Do We Go From Here? – This was the first time all post season the Capitals have won the first home game of a series so now they have a chance to take a strangle hold 3-1 lead on Monday night. Vegas has endured their first two game losing streak of the playoffs and now have to deal with some adversity. Washington has been accused of lacking killer instinct in the past and now they have a chance to rewrite more narratives in game four. They must do, as Coach Trotz said, get even better with their game because the Golden Knights will be desperate to tie things up. You don’t get opportunities like this very often, so the Caps must seize the moment.

Notes: Orpik was hit hard up high in period two and didn’t play the last 12:25, but Coach Trotz said he was fine after the game…the blue line trio of Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, and Carlson logged 27:16, 26:04, and 22:23 of ice time, respectively. Orpik only played 11:57 and Christian Djoos had just 8:40 of ice time…Schmidt led Vegas in TOI with a low total of 21:12…the Caps were 0 for 4 on the power play while Vegas went 0 for 2…shot attempts were 62-58 for the Golden Knight thanks to a 19-13 period three advantage for Vegas, who started that frame down two goals…the Capitals were much better on draws in game three, going 39-23. Nicklas Backstrom was 11-7, Lars Eller 10-7, and Oshie went 5-0. Getting the puck first against a fast Vegas team is very important…the crowd at Capital One Arena was extremely loud, especially once the Capitals seized the lead. They also didn’t panic after the Holtby giveaway that made it 2-1. They stuck behind their squad.

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Caps Win Game 4

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Caps Lock Down Columbus, 4-1, to Even Up the Series

Posted on 19 April 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals first line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Tom Wilson collected a total of seven points and Braden Holtby made 23 of 24 saves to give the Caps a 4-1 victory in game four of this best of seven series and send things back to DC knotted up at two games apiece. Game five is Saturday afternoon at 3 pm at Capital One Arena.

After winning in double overtime on a goal mouth scramble bounce in game three, the Caps continued their push to the front of Sergei Bobrovsky’s net and it paid off with some big tallies. Wilson scored first just 6:16 into this affair. John Carlson and Chandler Stephenson broke out on Ian Cole on a two on one rush thanks to a super breakout pass by Alex Chiasson. Bob made the initial save on Carlson and Thomas Vanek managed to clear the rebound before Stephenson could deposit the loose change. The problem for the Blue Jackets was that the puck went right to Kuznetsov, who put one on a tee for a fresh off of the bench Wilson, and Top Line Tommy lasered the biscuit into the twine.

Another rebound marker, this one on the power play, by T.J. Oshie just before the midpoint of the game gave Washington a two goal cushion. Carlson made a super keep in at the blue line of a failed Cam Atkinson clear and that set the whole play in motion against a fatigued Columbus PK unit. Oshie wheeled the puck behind the net and to the right wing half wall to the great Nicklas Backstrom. Nicky fed #74 at the right point and he fired on net. Bobrovsky made the initial save, but the biscuit bounced right to Ovi charging in from the left wing circle. The Gr8 shot, but Bob denied him. Kuznetsov poked at the puck, but Bob padded it up into the slot, where the Osh Babe quickly snapped it, with his amazing hands, into the goal.

In both games one and two, the Capitals had two goal leads, but they frittered each away with bad penalties, untimely offensive zone miscues that led to Blue Jacket rush goals, and some shaky goaltending. In game four, the Caps stayed disciplined, limited their offensive and neutral zone mistakes by getting pucks deep, and of course, the Holtbeast was a confident wall in the cage.

For the last 10 minutes of the second frame, the Caps played smart and made Columbus work for every inch. Washington took that 2-0 lead to the locker room after 40 minutes and they came right out in period three and played the same exact way. The Blue Jackets, who were working doubly hard to try and fight through the Capitals neutral zone trap and strong defensive blue line front, were being forced to go 200 feet to generate opportunities and fatigue started taking over.

The Caps extended their lead to three pucks just 2:49 into the final stanza. Wilson went flying through the neutral and offensive zones on the right wing boards with the puck and attempted to fire on Bob, as he should do in that situation. Willy’s shot was blocked and he and the Columbus player slid into the right wing corner with the puck. Kuzy alertly skated quickly in to retrieve the disc and he fed Ovechkin in the high slot. The Gr8 then quickly went backhand to forehand and sniped one below Sergei’s left pad to really stick a dagger in Columbus.

From there on out, the Blue Jackets tried everything they could to sneak a player behind the Washington defense and they also pinched on the walls trying to keep pucks in the offensive zone. Columbus’ only goal came off of a faceoff win, at 6:22 of period three, on a Boone Jenner deflection with tons of traffic in front. After that, the Caps exploited the Blue Jackets “cheat” for several scoring opportunities, most notably an Ovechkin breakaway that would have made it 4-1, but Bob robbed him glove side.

Over a minute after Columbus dispensed of their keeper with 3:29 remaining, Kuznetsov stole a puck in the neutral zone and hit the empty net with 2:19 left to end the scoring and even up the series.

This was one heck of a team effort by the Caps.

On Wednesday morning, I asked Coach Barry Trotz about how the team would shut down the Blue Jackets potent rush game and he stated that the key was getting numbers back and the forwards exhibiting strong back pressure on their opponents.

Boy did his team follow that game plan perfectly!

Time after time a Columbus player would appear to have some speed and a lane in the neutral zone only to be slowed by a wall of Caps defenders at the Washington blue line. Then a back checking forward would either stick lift the Columbus player to steal the puck or the Blue Jackets would force a pass into the middle of the ice where the Capitals would grab the disc and go the other way. This pattern went on for much of the third period and you could see the Blue Jackets were being forced to use the whole rink to generate opportunities, but it just wasn’t happening because of the defensive posture of Washington.

On the night, Columbus only had 24 shots on goal and failed to hit double digits in any period. When shots did get through, Holtby was dialed in and took away any hope of a victory for the home squad. The Holtbeast is now 16-4-2 as a starter against the Blue Jackets, lifetime.

A successful lineup adjustment that Coach Barry Trotz made from game three to game four was to put Stephenson back up with Backstrom and Oshie on the second unit while bumping Jakub Vrana down to line four. That move paid dividends once the Caps got the lead because #18 is a really strong two way player who can skate. Vrana is a very good skater, too, and in his limited time (6:41) he played well, but with Coach John Tortorella having the match up advantage, Trotzy had to counter with a strong two way line. By doing that, the Kuznetsov trio was able to win their match up and be the difference in the hockey game.

Overall, this was an outstanding performance and the best the Capitals have played in the post season this spring. They played a simple game and have now won six of their last seven road playoffs tilts dating back to last April. That is the good news, but the bad news is they have lost five of their last six playoff contests at home. The key to winning again wearing Red is to pretend it is a road contest and play a simple style. There is no need to be trying to impress the fans with fancy passes and pretty plays. This is the playoffs and dirty, gritty goals are what make the difference between winning and losing. The Washington fans will gladly trade pretty plays for a simple W this time of year.

On Thursday night, the Capitals played a textbook road game and left the state of Ohio with two victories, just as their captain said they would do before game 3.

Promise Delivered.

Notes: Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 24:29 and was outstanding. Nisky is playing the best hockey of his season. His defensive partner, Dmitry Orlov, logged 24:10. #9 has made some mistakes in this series and has another gear he can get to, but his fellow blue liner has really stabilized things on the back end…Michal Kempny (18:14), Brooks Orpik (17:01) and Christian Djoos (12:36) all played well on defense…Washington, who got Jay Beagle back in game two after he was out due to an upper body injury, owned the face off circle going 36-20. Beags was a downright dominant, 14-3. Winning draw after draw forces the opposition, especially when trailing, to expend a lot of energy to try and get the puck back…the leader in ice time for the series, Seth Jones, played 26:22 minutes of action that included being hounded by a Caps player pretty much all night…Artemi Panarin, who was the best skater in the series in the first three games, was held in check in game four. He had only one shot on net, took two penalties, and was -1 in 20:56 of ice time…the Caps were 1 for 3 on the power play while CBus went 0 for 3.

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Holtbeast Game 3

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The Holtbeast is Triumphant in Game 3 for the Caps

Posted on 18 April 2018 by Ed Frankovic

For the third straight game, there was overtime between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Washington Capitals, but this time, the contest went to double overtime. With the Caps staring at a potential three to zero hole in the series, Braden Holtby (33 saves) made several big stops, especially in the first extra session to extend the tilt. Washington came out with a lot of jump in the fifth stanza of hockey, outshooting CBus, 8-2, and they won the game on a rebound tally by Lars Eller after exactly 89 minutes of hockey. Brett Connolly, who had an earlier rebound goal that would have given the Caps a 2-0 second period lead wiped out due to offside, made the play by quickly firing a puck on Sergei Bobrovsky (42 saves) before “Bob” could get set. The puck pin balled into the twine behind the Blue Jackets keeper and the guys in white celebrated a clutch victory.

Whew, what a game!

Alex Ovechkin (two assists) on Tuesday afternoon stated that the Caps would come back to Washington for game five with the series knotted up. Thanks to the Holtbeast and a superb team effort, there is still a chance that could happen. Columbus, however, leads the series two games to one and they have home ice on Thursday night at 7:30.

There were a lot of things to like in this game for the Caps, who played without injured forward Andre Burakovsky (upper body injury). As the Secretary of Defense, Rod Langway, used to tell me when I worked for the team back in the 80’s and 90’s, “It all starts from the goaltender and then works out to the defense and forwards.”

Truer words could never be spoken about the post season and Philipp Grubauer struggled in his first two outings giving up several goals to his glove side when the Caps were carrying the majority of the play. The Holtbeast came in for period three and overtime and ended up getting the loss in game two, but that tally was hard to pin on #70.

On Tuesday night, Braden gave up only two goals in 89:00 of action. The first, he’ll say he’d like back because it wasn’t a screened shot, but the goalie from Saskatchewan was forced to move to his left because the Washington defenders, to include the forwards, allowed another open lane for a diagonal pass that the Blue Jackets love to employ in the offensive zone. Artemi Panarin (1 goal, 1 assist) used his speed to create that alley way and Pierre Luc-Dubois rifled a perfect shot just under the bar. Columbus’ second goal came on a two on one after Ovechkin tried an east-west pass that Dmitry Orlov couldn’t handle cleanly in the offensive zone and then fumbled away. Cam Atkinson and Panarin compounded the blunder by executing the odd man rush beautifully. John Carlson failed on multiple occasions to block the pass and ultimately Panarin had an empty net to deposit the biscuit in and tie this affair up at two just 4:12 into the third period.

Goaltending is so important, and Bobrovksy has been stellar for Columbus. Washington had 45 shots on goal after firing 58 in game two, but it took two deflections and a two man advantage blast to dent him for three lamp lighters. The Caps are still working to get more bodies to the net, but in addition to Devante Smith-Pelly and Eller crashing the cage on the game winner, Tom Wilson notched his first playoff marker of 2018 with a sweet deflection of a Matt Niskanen laser from the point. That goal was all set up by some great corner work by the Gr8. If the Caps want to win on Thursday, they need to grind their way to the net to get traffic on “Bob” because he looks like he will stop everything he sees right now.

In the first two games, Columbus killed the Caps on the power play going four for eight. They repeatedly were able to make a cross ice pass from the high left wing circle side to the right side and beat Grubauer to his left up high. Niskanen stated after Sunday’s loss that “we have to fix our PK.” On Tuesday night, the Capitals penalty killing was much better and they kept their four man box tighter to not allow that pass, which when it’s successful forces the goalie to have to move laterally very quickly and make a tough save. In addition to good work by the four guys on the ice, the most important player on the PK is your goalie, and the Holtbeast was stellar. For the night, the Caps went four for four on the penalty kill.

Jakub Vrana was inserted into Burakovsky’s vacated slot on the second line and he played some strong hockey in 22:00 of ice time. #13 was engaged with the body, something he didn’t do well in game one, and he also used his speed to open up space. He, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie still have to get fully clicking, but Vrana drew both penalties just 67 seconds apart in the middle frame. That resulted in Carlson’s power play snipe that gave the Caps a 2-1 lead heading into period three. Backstrom made another of his awesome passes to set that tally up. Almost everyone thought he was going to Ovi at the top of the right point, but instead he went to the left point for #74, who buried it. Carlson now has seven points (1 goal, 6 assists) in the post season.

Washington’s forwards did a better job, especially Connolly and Vrana, of using their body in one on one board battles than they’d done in the two games played at Capital One Arena. That’s something both need to continue doing so that they can wear down a very deep Blue Jackets defense, led by Seth Jones. The playoffs are a different game so that style doesn’t exactly fit Connolly and Vrana’s skill set, but in game three, they didn’t shy away from the physical requirements of playoff hockey.

Columbus has scored almost all of their goals this series on the power play or on the rush, so in addition to being disciplined, the Caps have to stick to a north-south brand of hockey. The east-west style that features cross ice passes at the offensive blue line or even deep in the zone have led to at least two Blue Jackets tallies. It’s imperative that Coach Barry Trotz’ crew resist the impulse to try those plays and opt more for pucks on net or behind the cage.

As I’ve stated on WNST quite often the last couple of weeks, goaltending is so important in the playoffs. The Capitals finally received a quality performance from their starter on Tuesday night and now they are back in the series. Still, they have their work cut out for them and with John Tortorella getting the match up choices in Ohio, the Caps will need another huge outing from the Holtbeast.

Notes:  The officiating in this game was sketchy, but that’s no surprise since it featured Ranger Dan O’Halloran and Kyle Rehman. I’m not sure how they missed the high stick by David Savard on Oshie in overtime? They also allowed Columbus to cover the puck in the corner without signaling for delay of game or closing the hand on the biscuit…the Blue Jackets received the only power play of the overtimes…Columbus won the faceoff battle, 43-37, but Evgeny Kuznetsov went 12-8 and Jay Beagle was 9-6. Eller lost 14 of 19 draws while Backstrom split his 20 faceoffs…Trotz used all of his players, which may have been why Washington dominated the second OT. Alex Chiasson only logged 10:19, but Columbus had forwards Sonny Milano (5:55) and Oliver Bjorkstrand (8:09) barely see the ice. Christian Djoos made his NHL playoff debut taking a spot alongside Brooks Orpik (24:39) and acquitted himself very well in 17:17 of ice time…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 37:17 and Orlov was close behind with 36:00…Jones played 35:09 to lead all Blue Jacket players while Atkinson (31:51) and Panarin (31:39) played a ton at forward for Tortorella.

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Ovi 600

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Ovechkin Hits 600 Career Goals in Caps Thrilling OT Victory

Posted on 12 March 2018 by Ed Frankovic

With his wife in the building along with budding young super star, Patrick Laine, who had tied him for the NHL lead with 40 tallies coming into Monday’s night contest, Alexander Ovechkin took his game to another level notching his 599th and 600th career goals before Evgeny Kuznetsov scored on a breakaway in overtime to give Washington a 3-2 triumph over the very good and very fast Winnipeg Jets.

Philipp Grubauer made 26 saves for his 10th win of the season thanks in part to Chandler Stevenson’s diving break up of a two on one Winnipeg rush to set up Kuzy’s winning marker with 49 seconds left in overtime.

Wow! What a hockey game!

Below are my thoughts and analysis on this thrilling affair at Capital One Arena:

Back in 1st Place, Baby! – Washington’s win improves their record to 39-23-7 (85 points) and they leapfrog the Penguins back into the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. The Caps have a game in hand on the Pens with 13 contests remaining in the regular season. More importantly, the Capitals opened up a four point lead on the Flyers, who lost to Vegas on Monday night and have also played one more game than Coach Barry Trotz’ squad.

Nobody Does It Better – He isn’t a Russian spy, no, he’s a Russian goal scoring machine. Granted I never saw Rocket Richard or Bobby Hull play back in the day, but I’ve been watching hockey since the early 70’s and given the way the game is played now and the quality of goaltending, Ovechkin is, for my money, the greatest goal scorer I’ve ever seen. He has a sensational shot that he can get off in so many different ways. His first of the night was a low snapper from the point that found its way through Tyler Myers, T.J. Oshie and then Connor Hellebuyck (40 saves) and into the net for a five on three power play marker to give the Capitals an early 1-0 lead. Then, after Nikolaj Ehlers tied the game just 58 seconds later by stealing a poor back pass by Lars Eller, the Gr8 became the 4th fastest player in NHL history to score 600 goals when he tallied 3:53 into period two (only Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Brett Hull have reached the 600 mark faster). Matt Niskanen made a great keep in on the left wing boards and he fed Kuznetsov in front just outside the right post. Kuzy shot, but the puck bounced to Tom Wilson in the slot. Willy fired the puck on net and Hellebuyck stopped it, but he couldn’t control the rebound. Ovi came in strong on the left post side and then whacked at it twice over a falling Dustin Byfuglien and finally, on his third try, he lifted the biscuit into the basket over a sprawling Hellebuyck to spark bedlam in the arena. It was clear from the outset of this game that Alex was on a mission to get 600 and help his team earn two critical standings points. His stat line for the night is monstrous: two goals, 15 shot attempts, eight shots on goal, five hits and 0 turnovers in 23:07 of ice time. With that, it’s time to cue the Carly Simon.

”Nobody does it better, makes me feel sad for the rest, nobody does it half as good as you, baby, you’re the best…”

Pivot Patrol – Once again, the Capitals received super play from their top two centers in Nicklas Backstrom (1 assist) and Kuznetsov (1 goal, 1 assist). Backstrom had six shots on goal, a takeaway, and was 10-8 in faceoffs in 20:58 of ice time while Kuzy had four shots on net, two takeaways in 23:13 of time. It was #92 who once again centered Ovi and Willy while Backy was the pivot man for Andre Burakovsky and Brett Connolly. Eller had a rough first period with his poor back pass in a four on four situation that led to Ehlers goal, but Coach Trotz received a strong game from Jay Beagle, who was 13-4 on draws logging 10:02. After losing to the Jets in OT on February 13th, the Washington bench boss made a smart adjustment by having #83 take the opening draw in the extra session and he won it cleanly back to John Carlson. From there Kuzy took the puck up the middle of the ice and drew a slash from Bryan Little that put the Caps on a 4 on 3 power play just 19 seconds into overtime. Washington would not convert despite some great looks, especially Oshie’s rebound attempt in front that somehow Hellebuyck got his glove on. When #19 and #92 are engaged, the Capitals are very hard to beat.

Jet! – It’s no surprise that Winnipeg is a Cup contender out west with the speed and talent they have in their lineup. Adding Paul Stastny at the trade deadline to go with a crew of amazing forwards that includes Laine, Ehlers, Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, and the currently injured Mark Schiefele really puts them in the elite of the Western Conference with the Nashville Predators and the surprising Vegas Golden Knights. With Hellebuyck playing well in net, and he was the main reason the Caps didn’t win in regulation, they have a legitimate chance to make the Stanley Cup Finals. Speaking of the kid, Laine, the young man was outdone by the his boyhood hero, the Gr8, but he did get his 41st goal of the season in the third period after a terrible set of turnovers by Washington in their own zone following a sequence where Ovechkin decided to pass up a great shot opportunity that could’ve given him the hat trick and his team a two goal lead. Winnipeg is very talented and as I said in the opening salvo, a very fast squad. I seem to always get that great Paul McCartney tune in my head when I see the Jets fly up and down the milky ice these days.

All the Right Moves – The Caps had 43 shots on net and 73 shot attempts to 28 and 62, respectively, for the Jets. Washington built on the way they played in San Jose by getting more pucks and bodies to the net. It’s simple hockey and there were fewer occasions where I muttered to myself or tweeted “so and so should’ve shot the puck” in this affair. On defense, the Caps held one of the best offensive teams in the league to under 30 shots on goal and that’s now five straight games they have done so. As I wrote after Saturday’s win, Washington needs to play this style of hockey to do well in the post season. More shots directed towards the net and solid team defense. With the additions of Michal Kempny and Jakub Jerabek the blue line has been stabilized. Carlson seems to gel well with Kempny, who excels at breakout passes and Brooks Orpik turned in his second high quality performance in a row paired with Jerabek, who also is adept at getting the puck out of the Caps end quickly. Orpik logged 18:43, including a tied for the team high 3:54 on the PK (Niskanen). #44 was a big factor in Winnipeg going 0 for 3 with the man advantage. The team defense improvements are allowing Grubauer to see the shots and #31 is so dialed in right now that you can see Washington’s confidence in their own end building. GM Brian MacLellan’s low cost additions on the blue line have started to really work with time. Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey are going to be very good players in this league, but they are still rookies and realistically, the Caps aren’t going to go deep in the post season with two very green players on the blue line. While Kempny and Jerabek don’t have a lot of NHL experience, both have played at least eight seasons professionally, something Alan May astutely pointed out in the Caps pregame show.

Good Day at the Zoo – I’ll admit that Jean Hebert and Dean Morton aren’t my favorite zebras, but I have to tip my hat to them for a job well done in a very fast paced hockey game. All seven penalties called in this affair were spot on and it took guts for Hebert to blow the whistle on Little in overtime, but he clearly got Kuznetsov on the glove and deserved to go to the box and feel shame. The referee duo set the tone early that stick infractions and trips were not going to be allowed and they stuck to that mantra. Any stick put on an opponent in the glove area was correctly whistled in this one. They allowed physical contact to take place and they were consistent. You can’t ask for more than that and that’s three games in a row where I’ve felt that the guys in stripes were spot on, well done zebras!

Notes: The Caps will be in action on Thursday in Brooklyn before coming home to face the Islanders at Capital One Arena on Friday in a back to back set. I’d expect Grubauer to start in New York while Braden Holtby gets back in the cage on Friday at home…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 25:14…Byfuglien logged 30:56 for Winnipeg…Devante Smith-Pelly had six hits to lead Washington in that department…the Caps were 1 for 4 on the power play. They failed to score in OT and they also took themselves off of it right after Ovi scored his 1st goal when Oshie was called for slashing. Shortly thereafter Eller made his mistake in the 4 on 4 and the game was tied…Ovi has 600 goals and 509 assists in 1,109 games. He’s a sure fire 1st ballot Hall of Famer. Nobody does it better…

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Kuzy Sens

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Kuznetsov Takes Over In Caps Win Over Ottawa

Posted on 27 February 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Evgeny Kuznetsov scored twice, sandwiched around a Tom Wilson laser, and Philipp Grubauer made 28 saves to lead the Washington Capitals to a 3-2 victory over the Ottawa Senators at sold out Capital One Arena on Tuesday night. The Caps triumph leap frogs them over the Philadelphia Flyers and back into first place in the Metropolitan Division with a 36-21-7 (79 points) record. Philly has a game in hand on Washington. The Pittsburgh Penguins are in third position, three points behind, after losing a one goal game at home against the New Jersey Devils (3-2).

Without further adieu, here are eight thoughts and analysis on this much needed win.

Man of the Match – I’ve written the following so many times before, and it’s still true each and every time. When Kuzy wants to play the right way, the Capitals are extremely hard to beat. Evgeny and his linemates, T.J. Oshie (1 assist) and Jakub Vrana (1 assist) were flat out dominant in this hockey game. Kuznetsov’s first goal came shortly after a penalty on Matt Niskanen expired. Oshie made a great stretch pass coming out of the defensive zone to Nisky and #2 executed a super back pass off of the left wing boards to #77. The Osh Babe then cruised down the slot and found #92 skating back door. Kuzy fired quickly beating Mike Condon five hole for a 1-0 Washington lead with just under five minutes left in period one. Then, with just 11 seconds left in period two, Kuznetsov took a nice neutral zone pass from Niskanen and cruised in to the Senators zone with speed. Kuzy then went for the wraparound and buried the biscuit. According to Courtney Laughlin, that was Washington’s first wrap around goal all season. The tally gave the Caps a 3-1 lead heading into the final frame. For the evening, Evgeny had six shots on net and was +2 in 16:39 of ice time. When he is shooting the puck, he is deadly and he now has 19 goals on the campaign to go with 42 assists for 61 points in 64 games.

Best Supporting Wingers – Vrana did everything but score in this tilt. He was flying all over the ice opening up lanes for his teammates and he gave the Ottawa defense fits. Jakub led the Caps in five on five shot percentage with an amazing 21 shot attempts for and only three against. He had a breakaway in the final frame that he shot over the crossbar. If he keeps playing like that, the goals will come. As for Oshie, he was dogging pucks like crazy and seemed to finally have his legs and hands back in sync. He had a couple of quality chances, but just could not bury the biscuit. Still, the way these guys played on Tuesday is so critical to the Caps success because they can’t count on Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Top Line Tom Wilson to carry the load every night. The second line had 11 of the Capitals 22 shots on goal on Tuesday. Well done, men.

Knocking on the Door – Willy had a fight and a goal in this affair, but once again was just an apple away from getting the Gordie against the Senators. Tom notched his career high 11th of the season firing a rocket past Condon after taking a great pass from Backstrom inside the offensive blue line in period two. #43 was physical with three hits and he was in the face of the Senators all night long. He also spent 3:22 of his 16:50 of ice time killing penalties. Sooner or later Wilson is going to get the Gordie Howe Hat Trick the way he’s performing. He is a beast on the ice and the Ovi-Backy-Willy line is not only quick, but very heavy. It’s a perfect trio for post season hockey.

Back End Improvement – Niskanen had arguably his best game of the season with two great assists in 22:59 of ice time. Matt played with fire and determination. Brooks Orpik, who has struggled mightily since the All Star Break, had one of his better outings going +2 in 19:59 of work. I didn’t like the penalty he took that put Washington down two men in the middle frame and led to Mike Hoffman’s power play tally, but the high sticking call on #44 in the third stanza was complete rubbish and embellishment by Zack Smth. Orpik, who many on Caps Twitter want to be scratched, gets a sweater each night because of one primary reason; he’s a good penalty killer. Brooks logged 5:05 of PK time in this affair which saw Washington go shorthanded seven times to just two for Ottawa. If the Capitals are going to go anywhere this spring, they’ll need top performances from their defense and getting Nisky and Orpik back playing at a higher level is crucial, especially since the Caps were unable to add a high end defensemen at the trade deadline due to high prices, as GM Brian MacLellan called Monday’s madness.

Bad Zebras– Washington was called for seven penalties in this tilt and Ottawa had two lengthy five on three power plays. The Sens didn’t score on either of those, but did connect right after the first five on three went to a five on four. Dave Jackson and Kyle Rehman were the officials on Tuesday and they did not have a good night. Outside of the mistake on the Oprik high stick and the non called embellishment on Smith, the two zebras missed several other hooking and tripping infractions on the Senators while Washington was not so lucky. Jackson is usually a good referee, but on Tuesday he and his partner were out to lunch.

I’ll Be There for You – Washington was shorthanded seven times in the game and as Coach Barry Trotz said afterward, “We took some penalties, warranted or not, but we didn’t complain and we fought through it. We had each other’s backs.” The PK was just incredible on Tuesday and it started with Jay Beagle winning defensive zone faceoffs. For the night #83 was an astounding 17-3 on draws, so many of those Ottawa power plays started with 15 seconds immediately killed off while the Senators went back to their end to get the puck. On a couple of the third period power plays, the Caps didn’t even allow a shot on net. John Carlson was outstanding with his clears and he led the way in shorthanded ice time with 6:58. Power play time in this game was 11:14 to 4:00 in favor of the visitors. Your goalie often has to be your best penalty killer and #31 stopped four of five Ottawa power play shots. The one he didn’t get was one he never saw – he was totally screened on Hoffman’s blast that made it 2-1.

The Bottom Line – When it was all said and done, the Caps, who were creamed on Monday in Columbus and then had to fly home, were able to persevere and knock off a rested Ottawa squad that hadn’t played since Saturday afternoon. It was not pretty, but it was gritty and the effort was there, despite the fatigue. The Capitals have now finished a grueling stretch of 15 games in 28 days that saw them go 7-6-2. That’s not bad considering all of the breaks they had in January that prevented them from practicing and sharpening their game. It’s been a rocky February, especially for the defense, who has really hung the goaltenders out to dry too much, particularly Braden Holtby. Washington has lots of talent and when motivated can compete with any team in the league, especially when Kuznetsov and Backstrom are playing well. Their next outing is Saturday night at the Naval Academy Stadium where they’ll take on the Auston Matthews-less Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL outdoor Stadium Series game at 8 pm. You can bet that the Caps will be heavily motivated to win that one.

Notes: Defensemen Jakub Jerabek, who was acquired for a late round draft pick from Montreal last week, made his Caps debut and played 12:35. Michal Kempny logged 15:58 on defense, as well. Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey were the scratches on D…Travis Boyd was recalled from Hershey and he and Alex Chiasson didn’t dress for Ottawa…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 36-24, thanks to Beagle…Ovechkin only had four shot attempts. He notched his NHL leading 39th goal on Monday in CBus. Ovi looked tired on Tuesday and he also had to sit for long stretches due to the Capitals being shorthanded so often. He had only four shot attempts in 18:27 of ice time…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 24:01…Erik Karlsson scored Ottawa’s second goal just 3:14 into period three. It was an extreme short side tally that Grubauer wants back…Ovi  is three goals short of 600 for his career.

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Kuzy Sabres

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Caps Roll Buffalo to Retake 1st Place in the Metro

Posted on 24 February 2018 by Ed Frankovic

After giving away Thursday night’s game in Florida to the Panthers, the Washington Capitals needed a victory very badly. On Saturday night at Capital One Arena the Washington stars came out to play as the Caps rolled the Buffalo Sabres, 5-1, getting two goals from Alexander Ovechkin and four points from Evgeny Kuznetsov (one goal, three assists). Andre Burakovsky had the game winning tally with a gorgeous end to end rush goal and Philipp Grubauer made 28 saves.

The triumph, combined with the Penguins loss to the Panthers on Saturday, puts Washington back in first place in the Metropolitan Division with a 35-20-7 (77 points) record with 20 games remaining. The Pens have 19 games to play while second place Philadelphia is also at 76 points with 20 games left. This race is close now, but as we’ll discuss later in this blog, Pittsburgh made a huge trade that changes the landscape in the Eastern Conference.

Here are eight thoughts and analysis following a game the Capitals pretty much had to have against a struggling squad.

Second Fiddle – There’s an Alabama song that goes, “If you’re going to play in Texas, you have to have a fiddle in the band.” For the Washington Capitals, when Kuznetsov plays the second fiddle role well in support of top line center Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps are a hard team to beat. Kuzy’s opening salvo was a superb individual effort that was only surpassed by Burkie’s second period beautiful lamp lighter. The talent that #92 has is insane and the question often becomes, which Kuzy is going to show up each night? When Kuznetsov is skating and playing the right way, like he did on Saturday with four shots on goal, the opposing defense is in big trouble.

Catch Me If You Can – The Penguins have been on a tear lately and Geno Malkin hit goal #36 on Saturday night while both teams were simultaneously playing. For #71, that’s something like 14 goals in his last 13 games as the Pens have been on fire despite their loss in the Sunshine State. Ovechkin must have been hearing the Malkin footsteps in the goal scoring race because Ovi was in beast mode against Buffalo. The Gr8 had 11 shots on net and his two third period markers pushed him up to 38 total tallies for the season. His 37th was a sweet top shelf cheese shot on the power play and then he closed out the scoring with a great deflection of a John Carlson blast in the final two minutes. Alex is arguably playing the best hockey of his career. His skating is outstanding – he could’ve scored on several other chances in which he used his speed to generate opportunities – and he’s playing well in all three zones.

He’s Going to 11– Burakovsky, after being benched again a few weeks ago, is finally playing like the guy who dominated game six against the Penguins last spring. He’s skating the best he has all year and he’s attacking the net. Over his last seven games he’s scored four goals and has two assists. Andre’s number, 65, adds to 11, and he’s reaching that level right now. Hopefully he can keep it up because he’s a difference maker when he plays this way, along with Lars Eller, because he gives Washington a third scoring line.

Solid as a Rock – Grubauer defeated the Sabres for the second straight time this week and he’s now won three games in a row. Over his last four appearances, that include a mop up third period in the Chicago debacle last Saturday night, he’s stopped 102 of 108 shots for a .944 save percentage. #31 is now 7-7-3 with a .919 save percentage this season. The Capitals are not in first place and are likely fighting for their playoff lives if they don’t have Philipp as their backup goaltender.

How Do You Like Them Apples? – Carlson, who was burnt badly on the game tying tally in Florida on Thursday night, continues to put up the points on the back end. He made a super pass to Ovi for his power play marker that broke this one open and then he made a smart play to fire the puck on net late allowing Ovechkin to notch a sweet deflection goal. John is an unrestricted free agent this summer and he’s having a monster year offensively. If the Caps are confident they can sign him long term, then the back end is set for many years to come. If not, General Manager Brian MacLellan needs to work the phones hard to get a top return for #74 before Monday’s 3 pm trading deadline. Carlson’s offense certainly dictates a huge payday, but his defensive zone, like many blue liners on Washington, has been very lax and inconsistent since the All Star Break. That needs to improve if the Caps want to make a serious playoff run this spring.

Southbound Again – On Saturday night, the Capitals played the right way, for the most part. They were shooting the puck and playing the north-south style they will need to employ to be successful from here on out. Washington had 36 shots on goal, including 16 in a third period that saw them start the frame up two pucks. Getting pucks and bodies to the cage is how you score in the playoffs and Coach Barry Trotz’ crew did that fairly well against a weak Buffalo squad that was without both Jack Eichel (injured) and Evander Kane (scratched in advance of a trade). There was no sitting back with the lead and as a result, they won going away after a really bad shift to start period three. The Sabres needed only 14 seconds to slice the Caps 2-0 lead in half. Backstrom and the top d-pair of Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen each had defensive zone breakdowns that led to a sweet backhanded goal for Sam Reinhart. Other than that sequence and a really terrible offensive zone cross ice pass by T.J. Oshie in period three with a one goal lead, there was not a lot to be upset about for the Caps.  Washington, as a team, needs to ditch that cross ice crap at the offensive blue line. #77 was better on the puck in this affair, but he needs to start shooting more often. He has a great shot, but has been falling into a Harlem Globetrotters “pretty play” mentality too often, of late.

Landscape Change – On Friday, the Pittsburgh Penguins completed a very shady deal with the Ottawa Senators and Vegas Golden Knights to get center Derrick Brassard. Caps fans remember him from his days with the Rangers and the Blue Jackets. The Pens were hurt by the offseason losses of Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen as third and fourth line centers, respectively, so this really improves their roster. PIT gave up defensemen Ian Cole (to Ottawa) and fourth line goon, Ryan Reaves (to Vegas) in a deal that sees former Capital GM George McPhee retain 40% of Brassard’s salary to prevent Derrick from going to Winnipeg and also to stick it to the franchise who fired him (and that firing should’ve been done a lot sooner). Pittsburgh also gave up their 2018 first round pick and top goalie prospect, Filip Gustavsson from Sweden. The add of Brassard clearly puts the Penguins as the front runner for their third straight Stanley Cup. For Washington to have a chance against the Pens, they’ll need to upgrade their defense by Monday’s deadline with a legit second pair blue liner to play with Carlson. A depth forward that can skate would help, as well.

Notes: Eller had an empty net goal to make it 4-1 with 2:12 remaining. That was Lars’ 14th goal of the season…shot attempts were 77-63 for Washington…the Caps were one for one on the power play and two for two on the penalty kill…the Capitals tied the faceoff battle at 31 apiece. Backstrom was 11-8 and Jay Beagle was 8-6. Ryan O’Reilly went 19-9 for the Sabres…Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov led the Caps in ice time with 23:58 and 23:50, respectively. They are the Capitals best defensive pair, but that isn’t saying a whole lately as the blueline has been struggling since the All Star Break…Michal Kempny, who was on the ice for two goals against on Thursday, played 16:59. Christian Djoos had sixth defensemen minutes, with 15:03 of ice time, but he was +2…Madison Bowey and recently acquired from Montreal, Jakub Jerabek, were the scratches on defense…Jakub Vrana rode the pine on offense as Alex Chiasson went back into the lineup on the third line…the Caps are in Columbus on Monday and then come home to take on Ottawa on Tuesday. After that, the next tilt is the Stadium Series game against Toronto on Saturday night (8 pm) at the Naval Academy stadium in Annapolis. Auston Matthews will not play for the Leafs due to a shoulder injury.

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Caps Return to Form in Win Over Buffalo

Posted on 19 February 2018 by Ed Frankovic

After their worst performance of the season on Saturday night in the Windy City, the Washington Capitals used a very strong first 40 minutes to build a 2-0 lead and then they overcame some poor play from their blue line in the third period to hold on for a 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres in upstate New York.

The victory puts the Caps back in first place in the Metropolitan Division over idle Pittsburgh. Washington is now 34-18-7 (75 points) and they lead the Pens by a point plus they have two games in hand, which will be Tuesday’s home tilt against the NHL leading Tampa Bay Lightning and then in the Sunshine State against the Florida Panthers on Thursday.

Here are seven thoughts and analysis on where the Capitals stand after a 2-1-1 road trip, their longest of the season.

Boy, You’re Going to Carry That Weight – When the Caps bring the effort, they are usually a hard team to beat. On Saturday, they laid a big fat egg in a blowout, 7-1, loss to Chicago. It was the worst skating performance and game of the season and the captain, Alex Ovechkin, called himself out saying it was his worst outing as a Capital. He was right, but the whole team stunk and looked like they went out for a lot of Chitown pizza and beer with the dads on Friday night. Hey, over the course of 82 games, you are going to have clunkers and let’s not take anything away from Chicago, who still has some high powered players on their roster. The Blackhawks were a pissed off team after losing eight straight and they flat out rolled Washington, who offered a futile resistance in that affair. On Presidents Day, the Capitals were back to playing the right way and they deserved to win this game. When the team works and pulls on the rope in the right direction, they are one of the best in the NHL.

Poking the Bear – You had to figure Ovi was going to have a bounce back contest after Saturday’s no show, but Rasmus Ristolainen didn’t do Buffalo any favors by hitting the Gr8 up high early in the affair. That hit clearly angered Ovechkin and he was a force all game in earning the number one star. It was heavy hockey from Alex, who had four hits, as he and Tom Wilson just pounded the Buffalo defense as often as they could. The Gr8 notched his NHL leading 35th tally of the season with a beautiful tip of a Christian Djoos point shot in period two to open the scoring. That goal was the result of a nice forecheck by Brett Connolly after he exited the box, and then some great wall work by T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov, shortly thereafter.

Winning at the Track – Had you played the trifecta of 74-77-92 you would’ve had the trio that was on the ice for all three Washington tallies. Oshie (one assist) especially had a very strong game and is rounding back into proper form as we head into the final seven weeks of the regular season. Kuznetsov, after some early weak shifts, started playing the correct way and had his best performance of the road trip. Kuzy had three shots on net and his play to seal the deal with his empty net tally was a super forecheck, something this team needs to do well to succeed. As for Carlson, well he was really good, too, but he was the only one of the trio to be on for a goal against. John left Evander Kane wide open with three ticks left to put a small dent in Philipp Grubauer’s (32 saves) sweet stat line.

How Long, To Sing This Song – In honor of U2’s great song, 40, the first two periods by the Capitals were a textbook road performance. They played a north-south style and were very hard on pucks. As a result, they won the vast majority of the individual battles. They were only up 2-0 on Ovi’s 35th and Carlson’s 11th of the season, but it could’ve been more if not for Chad Johnson (27 saves) in net for the Sabres. Through 40 minutes, the Caps had 43 shot attempts to just 25 for Buffalo and the quality scoring chances had to be even more lopsided. Washington just couldn’t finish on several opportunities, but if they play like that more often, they will be hard to defeat. Again, it started with the effort and then they made the right decisions with the puck in all zones. It was very impressive hockey and the reason they left Buffalo with two points.

Hold the Line – After the contest, Coach Barry Trotz told the media that he wanted his team to continue to play the same way they did in the first 40 minutes in the third period. After watching the final frame again, his team pretty much listened to him. The first 3:30 of period three was just like the first two periods; the Capitals were forechecking and generating scoring chances. Then Nicklas Backstrom took a bad slashing penalty two thirds away from the Caps own net and the Sabres got some life with a power play. Washington stabilized things after killing off that infraction and while they didn’t get shots on net, they had some very good sustained pressure on Buffalo afterwards. The Lars Eller line, with Connolly and Andre Burakovsky, had a strong offensive zone pressure shift just inside the eight minute remaining mark, but then the Sabres came out of their own zone three on three. Madison Bowey then stepped up and flat out whiffed on defense in the neutral zone and that allowed Buffalo to break into the Washington zone with speed. Eller was forced to cover for the rookie’s mishap and by the time everyone was back on defense, the coverage was out of whack with #22 skating alone in the slot. The Sabres Scott Wilson fired on net from the high slot and Kyle Okposo deflected it home to make it a 2-1 ballgame with 7:32 remaining. Grubauer never saw the shot, mostly because of Bowey, but also due to the Brooks Oprik-Okposo battle in front. Washington was able to hold the line down the stretch, but there were some more mistakes by Bowey and Djoos in pressure filled situations. So what the statistics will show to look like a “Washington sat back” narrative, and I was at first guilty of accusing the Capitals of that, too, was really caused by poor play from the youngsters, and some others, on the Caps blue line.

Upgrading the Backend – Bowey and Djoos both have bright futures for the Capitals, but to quote George Allen, “The Future is Now,” and Washington can’t afford to go into the playoffs with two rookie blue liners. Madison has talent and potential, but the league really locks down from January on and he’s struggled since the game has gotten faster and more intense. On Monday, the Capitals traded a conditional 3rd round draft pick to the Blackhawks for left handed defensemen Michal Kempny. The 27 year old blue liner, who will wear #6, is a decent skating and puck moving player that is best in his own end. Washington’s struggles on the back end have been mostly because of poor passes, so hopefully Kempny can improve that aspect of the Caps game. With this acquisition, it makes the most sense to send Bowey down to Hershey to play a lot of minutes and hone his craft for next season. Madison could also come up if there are multiple injuries on defense. Djoos would probably be best on a third pair with Orpik, if Kempny can play the four hole with Carlson. There is also a strong possibility that GM Brian MacLellan adds another defensemen before the February 26th NHL trade deadline. Bottom line, the Caps inconsistent play since January 1st is likely most traced to the issues on defense. Bowey and Djoos should be good long term players, but Washington needs to try and win this year, so it’s up to the GM to keep upgrading this current deficiency.

You Make Me Wanna Cry – When the Capitals were temporarily bumped out of 1st place on Sunday night, Caps Twitter practically melted down. It was maddening to see so many people declare that the season was over and that MacLellan should start tearing the team down. Granted this is the same crew that complains when they are in first place, too, stating that the division title doesn’t mean anything and all that counts is the playoffs. Yes, the playoffs are what matters, but to want to rebuild for the future with a top eight team in a wide open race is ridiculous. Fortunately, it’s just an expected over emotionally based reaction by many on social media, but it’s really ludicrous. The Caps are a team that could go deep in the playoffs and possibly win a Stanley Cup should they continue to tweak the back end and play the right way. So for so many to lose their freaking minds is ridiculous, you make me wanna cry! [Cue the Godley & Cream].

Notes: Buffalo out shot the Caps, 17-6, in period three, including 31-12, in shot attempts. Again, I put that on the mistakes Washington made on defense, especially their young blue liners. When they make a mistake, it tends to lead to multiple chances for the opposition and causes a cumulative fatigue effect…the Capitals won the face-off battle, 35-33. Eller was 11-7…the Caps only had one power play while Buffalo had three. A weak interference call on Connolly shortened Washington’s only man advantage chance…Kuznetsov took a puck in the face, at one point, but came back to have a strong finish.

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Eight Caps Thoughts After a GroundHog Day Loss in Pennsylvania

Posted on 03 February 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals wasted two goals and an assist from NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin on Friday night in a sloppy 7-4 defeat to the two time defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The loss drops the Caps to 30-16-5 (65 points) and they now lead the second place Pens by four points (29-21-3), but the Capitals have two games in hand.

Without further adieu, here are eight detailed thoughts on this game played on Groundhog Day at the Consol Energy Center.

Dana Carvey’d – Coming into this game, the Capitals knew they had a disadvantage in the special teams department and that’s how this one played out. The Pens went 3 for 4 with the man advantage while the Caps were a great big Dunkin Donuts hole, 0 for 3, with their power plays. “Well, isn’t that special!” to quote the great Saturday Night Live Church Lady. Pittsburgh’s penalty kill was very aggressive on Washington, although the Caps had seven shots on goal while up a man. On the flip side, the Penguins are just deadly and confident when they have the puck. Patrick Hornqvist, who left this game with a lower body injury after being crushed on a clean hit by Brooks Orpik, was a force in front of the net on the Pens third goal and all three power play tallies came on shots from in front, mostly on rebounds. With the contest 4-4 in the final frame, Lars Eller had a simple PK clear that he flubbed and the Penguins cashed in right after the turnover to seize momentum and pull away down the stretch. There’s no doubt that the difference in this contest was the special teams, and I’ll have more on the zebras later, don’t you worry!

Smoked at Texas Hold ‘Em – The Capitals are at their best when they go up and down the ice in a five man structured unit. If this was a poker game, the Caps ability to do that on Friday night could be labeled a flop! The Penguins do an excellent job at spreading the Caps out and Washington’s back end was very poor all night, too. There isn’t a single blue liner that I thought brought anywhere close to their A game in this affair. Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov were woefully out of position on Phil Kessel’s game opening goal, the ninth straight time Washington has allowed the first tally. On the second goal, Christian Djoos made a spectacular cross ice pass in his own zone to Carl Hagelin that Braden Holtby had little chance on. Rookie mistake there by #29 and to use the words from the bench boss in Major League, I hope Coach Barry Trotz or Assistant Coach Todd Rierden told the young blue liner, “Good try kid, but don’t ever bleeping do that again!” The right play there was to put the puck up the left wing boards quickly. There has been talk that Hagelin is on the trading block in Pittsburgh. The Caps have to certainly hope he’s moved because he’s killed Washington throughout the years whether he’s been with the Rangers or the Penguins. Finally, on Evgeni Malkin’s marker just a minute into period three, John Carlson stood prone in the slot like an orange road cone as Geno, who was an absolute beast in this game with two goals and two assists, shot on the Holtbeast and then in Moses Malone-like fashion, he buried the biscuit on the rebound. There were three Capitals there and no one boxed #71 out, but #74 deserves the most blame in that instance. Getting into a rush game with the Penguins was not wise given how fast and skilled they are and Washington might just need to switch up tactics if they meet up again in the playoffs. Wait a minute, it’s Groundhog Day, right?! Of course the Caps and Pens will see each other again, likely in early May. Caps stellar TV analyst Alan May pointed out that fire wagon hockey against the Penguins is not a smart decision and that a strategy of employing five men at the Caps defensive blue line to slow the Pens down and then counter attack, might be a configuration worth trying. The Capitals are a good rush team too, see Ovi’s first goal where he abused Kris Letang, but Washington is very poor in defending the rush. They tend to over pursue coming back, puck watch, and leave opposing players wide open for great looks. I’ve seen the stacked blue line deployment work very well in the past, the Flyers defeated a more talented and faster Capitals team in 1989 in the first round by doing just that (Pete Peeters also stunk in net for the Caps in that series, but that’s a story for another day).

No Seconds Guys – In game six of last season’s playoff series the line of Andre Burakovsky, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie dominated the Penguins to force a game seven. That second line unit, in the several times that Coach Trotz has assembled it this season, has been unable to reproduce its magic. The biggest problem, from what I’m seeing, is the terrible play of #65. His defensive zone is a train wreck. He’s too soft on the wall and his ability to take a breakout pass and get the offense going the other way has disappeared. In the two games since the All Star Break, he’s been a turnover machine and a big reason why is because his fundamentals are off. You can’t take a pass and get moving quickly the other way when you have your back to the opposing defensemen. You’re an easy mark there and your only options are lateral or backwards. Burakovsky has to move his feet better, get his rear facing the boards, and put his stick in the proper position with force to take a breakout pass. This line needs to be changed, pronto!

Ovechkin the Great – It’s been an MVP season for the Gr8 and as stated above, he had two goals and an assist in this one. His 32 goals lead Malkin, who’s playing some incredible hockey, by four in the Rocket Richard Trophy race. Alex how has 56 points (24 assists) and he has the highest percentage of his team’s goals in the NHL, which is why he’s the most valuable to his club. Ovi is playing with speed and power. He totally turned Letang around on the goal that got Washington back in this one at 2-1. He assisted on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s goal that knotted the game at three in period two as he and Tom Wilson just muscled their way through the Penguin defense. After more Malkin heroics, Ovechkin tied this game back up at four just under two minutes into period three when he buried a sweet feed from #92. No matter who Alex is paired with this season, he’s been delivering on the ice. He’s had a great campaign to date and the only thing that’s really gone against him off of it was that partisan hit piece that The Washington Post did on him and his long time, well established, and very understandable relationship with Vladimir Putin, but we know the Democracy Dies in Darkness crowd, whatever that saying is supposed to mean, has a bit too much Russia on their collective minds. But again, that’s another story. [Aside: Speaking of great Russia stories, have you ever seen Sean Connery as James Bond in From Russia With Love? Now that’s a good story involving Russia.] Bottom line, the cuddly Ovi came to play, once again, but a lot of other players didn’t bring a quality game in the Steel City on Friday night; too many passengers.

Reg Dunlop Time – With so many guys floating against the Pens, it’s time for Coach Trotz to go all Reg Dunlop and shuffle his lines around for Sunday’s matinee against the speedy Vegas Golden Knights. The Rock Vegas hockey club skated all over the Capitals back on December 23rd when Washington was on their 3rd game in four nights. Well, turnabout is fair play and the Vegas Strong crew will be having their 3rd match in less than four days on Sunday in DC. Vegas Coach Gerard Gallant stated that “For the first time all season, we looked like a tired hockey team” (h/t to the great Vegas Golden Knights Twitter account) after his club lost 5-2 in Minnesota on Groundhog Day. Vegas has been traveling across the country all week. They rallied with three goals to beat Calgary on Tuesday, beat the Winnipeg Jets in OT on Thursday, and were run out of the Excel Energy Center on Friday. The Caps must jump on these guys with speed up front at Capital One Arena on Sunday at 12:30 pm. My proposed lines to try and get things going early are:

Ovechkin – Backstrom – Wilson

Jakub Vrana – Kuznetsov – Oshie

Brett Connolly – Eller – Burakovsky

Chandler Stephenson – Jay Beagle – Devante Smith-Pelly

Hung Out to Dry – Holtby has been stellar for the Caps this season and he made some huge saves early in this tilt just to keep the Caps in it. Braden gave up six lamp lighters and was pulled in period three, but the only one I thought he probably should have had was the sixth goal by Phil Kessel (two goals, one assist). The snipe beat the Holtbeast short side, but that was on a three on two and #81, next to Ovi, might have the second best shot in the league. So let’s cut Holtby some slack, although Caps Nation is very well known for overreacting on Twitter after losses, because the skaters in front of him had no real regard for defense in this affair outside of a few players (Ovi and Willy were good in all zones on Friday).

Burrito Salesmen – With a special teams game something the Capitals did not want to get into, those who follow me on Twitter (@EdFrankovic) knew that this was going to be a poorly officiated affair. By no means do I put this loss on the referees, the Caps were too loose and employed the wrong style to come out on top on Friday, but the performances by Chris Rooney and Tim Peel were terrible. Two of the Penguins power plays were the wrong calls, the clean hit by Wilson on a falling Ian Cole and Madison Bowey’s tripping penalty that was initally interference on the Penguins. The clowns on ice also missed several other infractions against the Penguins (for example, Burakovsky taking a stick from Cole to the face). Power plays were 4 to 3 for the Pens. Yes, the lazy offensive zone penalties by both Backstrom and Stephenson were spot on, but I don’t know what color the moon is on Rooney Tunes and Peel’s planet most nights they officiate games? Simply put, those two zebras remind me of a line from Damone in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, “I came this close to working at the 7-11.” In this case, both of those fools should be putting chili on hot dogs, microwaving burritos, and slinging slurpees at the local quick stop or 7-11. They are just awful at refereeing.

The Fabulous Thunderbirds Finish – Overall, despite all of the bad things the Caps did in this affair, it was not such a bad loss. Yes, they were sloppy and unstructured, but they battled back from 2-0, 3-1, and 4-3 deficits to put themselves in position to win the game when they didn’t have many guys clicking. There is a lot of talent on this Caps club, much like we see the Penguins display; and they are a great hockey team, but the three goal margin was not indicative of how close this contest really was, it could’ve gone either way. Nobody likes losing to one of their arch rivals, but its only game 51 out of 82. The playoffs are two and a half months away and things will change before these teams meet again in late April/early May. Washington will no doubt add a blue liner, I just can’t see this organization relying very heavily on two rookies and being successful in the post season. Plus, I’m sure Mario Lemieux and company will go all Don Corleone and offer a sucker team a deal that they can’t refuse that will bolster their squad while keeping them under the salary cap. But it’s all good and both teams badly want to win. Losing isn’t fun, especially when the Caps have become Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, losing to Pittsburgh so often. But that movie has a happy ending, so just maybe?! This was a fun game to watch, but a coach’s nightmare with the lack of structure. You have to take the bad with the good, so with that, wrap this one up, I’ll take it! I’ve got no choice.

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