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Tom Wilson Wild

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Tom Wilson’s Return Sparks the Caps to Victory

Posted on 14 November 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Tom Wilson was signed to a six year, $5.17M annual salary by the Washington Capitals this past off-season for a reason.

As T.J. Oshie tweeted on Tuesday afternoon, it was “Free Willy 3, The Rescue” for the Caps once Tom and the team found out that the neutral and independent arbitrator, Shyam Das, reduced Wilson’s 20 game suspension to just 14 overall. Unfortunately for the Capitals, 16 games have already passed, but Das, who cited George Parros’ incorrect math as the biggest reason for the reduction, did allow Top Line Tommy to recoup over $375K in salary by slicing the length of the punishment.

The Osh Babe was spot on that this was “The Rescue,” because a lifeless and blah Capitals hockey team that lost to Arizona, 4-1, on Sunday at Capital One Arena was turned into a group of energizer bunnies in a 5-2 thumping of the Minnesota Wild on their home rink.

Caps sensational play by play man, Joe Beninati, stated after the game that you could feel the buzz around the Capitals in the morning once the great news on Wilson came to light. Anyone on Twitter on Tuesday morning also felt the vibe. Suddenly the fan base was energized with their young leader coming back into the fold.

Speaking of the lineup, Coach Todd Reirden immediately went back to the three forward units that the Caps used in the Stanley Cup Final to defeat Vegas and suddenly Washington looked more like that club that defeated the Golden Knights in five games. Andre Burakovsky (one goal, one assist), Brett Connolly (one assist, +2), and Lars Eller (two assists) were flying from the get go and that gave Wild Coach Bruce Boudreau matchup issues because the Capitals finally had a deadly top nine on the ice, once again.

Eller would make a great play to set up Dmitry Orlov for his first goal of the season 6:33 into this tilt. Orly has been pretty inconsistent for most of the campaign, but in this affair, he was outstanding. Dima was skating and carrying the puck with confidence. After scoring the opening marker, he made a super pass to Wilson late in period one for a net crashing goal by Willy. That tally came with 28 seconds left in the first frame and put the Caps up, 2-0. Somehow, though, the clowns in stripes called Wilson for goalie interference after the puck went in, but it was Ryan Suter who shoved #43 into Devan Dubnyk (28 saves) and the Wild defensemen compounded the damage by hitting his own keeper in the head with his skate, knocking the goalie’s helmet off. It was just flat out horrible officiating by Kyle Rehman and Tom Chmielewksi, who did not have a good night. In fact, I think Chim Chim from the old Speed Racer cartoon could’ve done a better job than either of those two zebras.

Fortunately for the Caps, the officials didn’t matter despite giving Minnesota six power plays, because Washington played such a strong game. With Pheonix Copley (26 saves) in net, the Capitals had a committed defensive outing and allowed their goalie to see the opponents shots. They also blocked 20 attempts and cleared away five or so (according to the great Craig Laughlin) rebounds. Rebound control is the one area that #1 needs to keep improving on, but he used his positioning and size to thwart several Wild quality chances in this contest. Pheonix’s steady net minding, especially in period two when Minnesota had a bit of a push, prevented the Capitals from coughing up a multiple goal lead.

Once it was 3-1 heading into period three, Washington used its speed and talent to score two rush goals and put this one out of reach, at 5-1. Orlov notched his second goal of the night off of a great feed from Alex Ovechkin on a three on two. That easy finish was all set up by Wilson driving to the net and taking the Wild defensemen with him. Jakub Vrana made a dazzling play using his speed through the neutral zone and into the offensive end to feed Nicklas Backstrom in the high slot, who then put one on a tee for the Osh Babe to deposit the biscuit into the practically empty cage with Dubnyk out high expecting a shot from Backy. That goal with 10:12 to go pushed the lead to four pucks and from there it was just a question of how many power plays the Wild would get down the stretch (the correct answer is three).

The story of the night, however, was the intensity from Washington. The last time they played with passion that translated into winning the majority of the puck battles and solid back checking was opening night against Boston. Since that game way back on October 3rd, there has been a lack of a spark from this club. That all changed with the return of Wilson – as I tweeted before the game, every guy in that Capitals locker room loves Tom because of the energy and effort he brings to the room. He’s a battler on and off of the ice and he’ll protect his teammates at any cost. You simply can’t quantify what he means to the team, but all you had to do was watch Tuesday’s victory and you certainly can understand it.

It was definitely fun watching the Capitals play hockey again, and you’d be hard pressed to not give Wilson the majority of the credit for the amazing and quick turnaround.

Notes: Shots on goal were 27-14 for Washington after two periods and 33-28 for the game…the Caps were 0 for 2 on the power play while Minnesota was 1 for 6…Orlov led the Capitals in ice time with 24:20. John Carlson (+3) logged 23:35 and Matt Niskanen played 22:47…Eller had the most ice time of any Caps forward with 19:23…the Wild only blocked nine shots to the Capitals 20…Washington won the face off battle, 30-29. Eller was 11-8…the Caps are in Winnipeg on Wednesday night at 8 pm EST and Braden Holtby will be in the cage.

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Caps Over Pens 2018

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Holtby Stones the Pens in a 2-1 Caps Triumph

Posted on 07 November 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Justice was served at Capital One Arena on Wednesday night.

American hero, T.J. Oshie, who was high sticked by Olli Maatta and required two stitches in period one (amazingly, the four zebras missed it so no penalty was called) and then was elbowed in the head by Evgeni Malkin in period three and had to enter concussion protocol for the second time in the game (Geno was properly thrown out of the contest for a head shot), scored from the slot with 74 seconds left to give the Washington Capitals a 2-1 victory over their archrivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Oshie, who only played 13:51 on the evening due to his two locker room trips, was able to have a clean look for the game winner thanks to some great work by Alexander Ovechkin in front of the net, a super pass from John Carlson, and of course, a sensational overall sequence set up by Evgeny Kuznetsov.

The game winning goal doesn’t happen though, if not for Braden Holtby’s stellar performance in net. The Holtbeast made 41 saves, some of the ten bell variety, and he won his first game since October 22nd. This was easily Braden’s best outing of the 2018-19 season and he rarely allowed any rebound chances. The Capitals, while giving up a lot of shots, did a solid job of keeping the Penguins on the perimeter most of the night. The only tally allowed was a power play marker by Sidney Crosby after Dmitry Orlov was stripped of the puck in the corner in the first frame (and some may say he was hooked).

Washington was outshot in every period and there were times when the Penguins were totally outworking the Caps, especially for the majority of the final stanza when Oshie was in the dressing room. The Osh Babe is a tireless worker and wins a lot of puck battles. One of the reasons the Capitals extended power play on the Malkin ejection was so bad was due to no #77 on the ice. Pittsburgh simply outhustled the guys in red during those nearly four minutes of man advantage time (the first minute plus was played at 4 on 4).

As for Malkin, what was he thinking? His team was on the power play and dominating the game, and then he decided to put himself above the team by taking a stupid penalty that just may get him suspended. You don’t see Crosby or Ovechkin making boneheaded plays like that, but perhaps the pressure of losing four in a row coming into this tilt was weighing on him? Whatever the case, the Penguins were really skating well when he derailed things with his stupidity. You have to think that his teammates aren’t happy with him for that selfish play.

As for the Capitals, they seemed to struggle with Oshie missing so much time plus Tom Wilson serving game 14 of his 20 tilt punishment. In addition, Brooks Orpik missed his fourth straight contest due to a lower body injury. Those three players are heart and soul guys for the Caps and when they aren’t out there, you notice it.

There were stretches where Coach Todd Reirden’s club brought it and they had a number of quality chances, but Casey DeSmith was pretty good, at times, while the Caps also missed the net or chose not to shoot on odd man rushes (paging Andre Burakovsky). Washington was only one for six on the power play, but that one was a key second period tally by Ovechkin from the Ovi spot after Nicklas Backstrom intercepted a poor Kris Letang clear, fed the puck point to point to Carlson, and then Johnny slid a sweet pass to the Gr8, who did what he does best: score big goals. Alex now has 12 goals in the first 14 games.

Overall, this was not a pretty game for the defending Stanley Cup Champions, but the Caps are improving at covering the front of their net and there was more of a commitment defensively, like we saw against the Oilers on Monday night. So despite the 42 shots against, they did prevent rebound chances and allowed the Holtbeast to see the puck cleanly. Braden was clearly on in this one and he was the biggest reason the Capitals are now 7-4-3 (17 points) and in sole possession of second place in the Metropolitan Division.

It’s only November though, there’s a long way to go, and there’s a very good chance that these two teams are meeting in April/May in the post season, once again.

All hail the Holtbeast and the Osh Babe!

Notes: Carlson led all skaters in ice time with 28:17. JC74 had two assists and had a really strong game…Orlov, after a superb outing on Monday, regressed in 23:44 of time, but he did block six shots…the Caps lost the faceoff battle, 31-28. Crosby was 17-8. Lars Eller went 7-3 to lead Washington…Ovechkin logged 24:32, had a goal, made a great play in front on the GWG, and eight shot attempts…All Star Backstrom drew a hook on Crosby that led to the Caps first power play goal…Kuznetsov logged 23:49 as Reirden rode his stars big time in this thrilling victory…next up for the Caps are the Blue Jackets in DC on Friday night.

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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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Connolly SCF

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Caps Championship Thoughts and More Breakdown Day Coverage

Posted on 14 June 2018 by Ed Frankovic

It’s been exactly a week since the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup and the vibe I’ve been getting around the DMV is that people are still basking in the afterglow of the victory and are dying for more information and news on the team. It’s pretty apparent that this group of players, coaches, training staff, and managers will be heroes, at least in this part of the country, for the rest of their lives. Owner Ted Leonsis and Team President Dick Patrick have put their heart and soul, plus a lot of money, into this organization over the years and are finally being rewarded with a Championship.

Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby, Coach Barry Trotz, and the others on this team have silenced the critics with this amazing season that included a Metropolitan Division title, when most people had them barely getting into the post season or not making it at all. Once game three of the Columbus series began, they went on an incredible 16-6 run in which they overcame a games deficit in all four rounds to capture Lord Stanley’s Cup. It was a remarkable display of grit, toughness, perseverance, and desire to do what had never been done by the franchise before.

There were many moments along the way where they seemed destined to fail, but somehow found a way to push through. Columbus hits the post in game three of the first overtime that would’ve given them a 3-0 series lead before Lars Eller’s magical goal off of a Brett Connolly shot. Tom Kuhnhackl hits the post in overtime of game six before Evgeny Kuznetsov takes that super pass from Ovechkin to finally slay the Penguins dragon. The Caps give up a two game series lead to Tampa with three straight losses, but shut out the Bolts over the final 159 minutes of the series to storm into the Cup Final. In game two of the Stanley Cup Final, with 1:59 remaining and a one goal lead, the Holtbeat makes “The Save” on Alex Tuch to prevent overtime and propel Washington to four straight wins and hockey’s ultimate prize.

It was clear that the tightness of this team provided the foundation that allowed them to rise up and seize the critical moments in the postseason that the Washington Capitals had never done before, in any era. It was legendary, that’s the best way for me to describe it and as each moment since has transpired, I am appreciating more and more what they’ve accomplished. Many in Caps Nation surely feel the same way. Thank you, 2018 Washington Capitals.

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Wednesday was breakdown day at Kettler IcePlex, as I chronicled yesterday in this blog, but as promised, below is the transcript of a one on one exclusive interview WNST was able to obtain with Connolly, who came to Washington in 2016 looking for an opportunity after stints with Tampa and Boston, and has completely seized it.

WNST: You’ve been telling me for two years since you’ve been here that you guys have a good team, but the way you guys played and came together, that was amazing.

Connolly:  Yeah, it was amazing, such a good group, such a committed group, such a highly skilled group. We really just came together at the right time, especially after that Pittsburgh series where we first really believed we could win this. It’s such a big moment for all of us, we’re all just so happy that we could ultimately get this done for all of our fans, for our families, it was such a special moment.

WNST: Coach Trotz told us when he came out to Baltimore that this team this year, whenever he asked someone to move around in the lineup, that he received no push back. That seems to really speak to the type of team you had this year?

Connolly: Yeah, I think you have to be playing the guys that are playing well, whether you’re a veteran guy or a rookie guy, it doesn’t matter. I think we were just cheering for whoever was in, whoever was getting more ice time that night. If a guy wasn’t playing well we’d pick him up, he’d ultimately change his game and they’d figure it out. It was just a good environment to be in, everyone was playing their best hockey at the right time of the year.

WNST: The way you, Jakub Vrana, and Andre Burakovsky played in the playoffs, all three of you guys have always had high skill, but the way the three of you took the body, were in the proper position on the walls, it seemed like that was the biggest jump you guys made and was a big part of the team’s success. Would you agree with that?

Connolly: Yes, I think so. I think I got a little taste of [the playoffs] last year, I didn’t play a whole lot, there were a lot of other guys deserving of that chance and I just wasn’t, but I think I got a little confidence from that, just knowing what to expect. I think we all really just played solid, just did what was asked of us, we didn’t really care. I think overall a lot of our games got better throughout the playoffs. It was ultimately why a lot of us were successful and had good stats and helped the team win.

WNST: It seems like every time an obstacle was thrown at you guys, you overcame it. First one, game three against Columbus, you score a goal that would’ve made it 2-0, it comes back on an offside, but on the game winning goal in double overtime, you make a smart play by shooting quickly and the puck goes in off of Lars Eller for the team’s first win.

Connolly: Simple, but that’s the playoffs, really simple. I had a couple of those in the postseason, just need a break sometimes and I just tried to shoot it as quick as I could and as hard as I could. You know we were earning all of our breaks in the playoffs, we were working for each other and I think we legitimately deserved everything we got.

WNST: The last goal of the Stanley Cup playoffs, you didn’t score the goal, but it was your shot, with again Lars going to the net. This team did that the whole playoffs.

Connolly: Yeah, just the same thing. Lars was hungry all playoffs, he’s a guy that’s going to the net all of the time. He really, really elevated his game the whole playoffs. Really awesome to see, he really turned a lot of heads. Such a big moment for the city, for me, him, and Burkie, whoever was on the ice, at that point.

WNST: You’ve been here two years, I grew up here, I’ve been around this team for 44 years. I don’t know how much you realize what legends you guys are going to be around this area to finally bring a Cup here. This team was gone in 1982, but for the Save the Caps. Then in 2004 it is gone again if Ovi doesn’t comes along. You guys now go and win a Cup and have put it over the top.

Connolly: It’s pretty cool. We saw the support at the parade. People are on cloud nine and it’s amazing to see everybody so happy. It’s really cool to be a part of something like that. To put so many smiles on so many people’s faces. There’s been so much good support the last couple of years I’ve been here, but that parade was insane and it was something that I’ll never forget and a lot of guys will never forget.

WNST: What are you going to do with the Cup?

Connolly: I’m going to go home to British Columbia, Prince George, just take it around town. I don’t know what we’ll do, but just try to get as many people to see it as possible.

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Connolly is definitely one of the better interviews on the team and I’ve appreciated his insight since he joined the Caps last season. He has worked hard to improve and he’s made General Manager Brian MacLellan and his scouting staff look super smart for bringing him to town. Kudos, Brett.

In yesterday’s blog, I failed to mention that Kuznetsov’s injury from the Brayden McNabb hit in game two was to his left shoulder. Fortunately, Kuzy is a smaller version of the Russian Machine that Never Breaks and came back in game three to lead his team to victory with an outstanding performance. All season long, in this blog and in my radio sessions with WNST owner Nestor Aparacio, I showered number 92 with tough love. He is an immensely talented hockey player who I knew, if he took his game to another level and played the right way, would be such a key to the Capitals finally breaking through into the later rounds of the playoffs. Boy did he do just that, and more. Evgeny led all players in scoring in the playoffs and he delivered when the team really needed him to do so. He has moved himself from the very good category to the elite/superstar level with his postseason performance. He earned every bit of the $7.8M he received from the Caps this past season.

The Caps now have a short turnaround for training camp, which will start around September 10th or so. It’s already June 14th, so there will be less time to get ready. Jay Beagle, who has won championships at the ECHL, AHL, and now the NHL level did point out that the short time to get ready isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Beags said that in the three summers following his ECHL and two AHL triumphs, he was more motivated to train and that he didn’t have to work hard to prevent losing focus like he’s done when the team has been eliminated earlier in the spring. So it would appear that this summer the Caps players do have that going for them….which is nice.

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Caps win Cup

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Caps End 44-Year Drought With Stanley Cup Win

Posted on 08 June 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals have won the Stanley Cup!!!

Pardon my French, but 44 years of futility is freaking over!

There will be no more doubting Conn Smythe Trophy Award winner Alexander Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom or Braden Holtby or General Manager Brian MacLellan or Coach Barry Trotz or Brooks Orpik and on and on down the list of Washington Capitals players, coaches, and managers. This is truly an incredible group of people who bonded together and showed that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They have made a long suffering fan base very proud and the Baltimore-Washington area will NEVER EVER forget this cast of champions!

As for the Stanley Cup clinching game itself, WOW!

The Caps jumped out to 1-0 and 2-1 leads, saw Vegas tie the game on a tally that sure looked like goalie interference and then surge ahead very late in period two with a power play goal. The Golden Knights had a 3-2 advantage after 40 minutes in a very hotly contested physical affair and had their eyes on sending things back to Capital One Arena down just three games to two.

Previous Washington teams might’ve folded, at that point, and started contemplating that game six in DC on Sunday night, but not the 2018 Washington Capitals. This club came out with a passion in period three and fought tooth and nail to get the equalizer, which came from an incredible individual effort by Devante Smith-Pelly to notch his 7th goal of the postseason after Orpik made an outstanding keep in at the offensive blue line to set the tally up. That marker came with 10:08 remaining and the Caps kept the hammer down.

With 7:37 to go, Luca Sbisa turned the puck over to Andre Burakovsky behind his own net and Burkie fed Brett Connolly alone in the slot. Conno fired on net and the puck squeezed through Marc-Andre Fleury’s pads and Lars Eller, who applied the fore check pressure to set up the turnover after a smart dump in by Michal Kempny, grabbed the disc and deposited it into the cage for what would be the first ever Stanley Cup clinching goal for the Capitals and his seventh of the post season, as well.

Imagine that, sevens were wild in the third period, in Vegas??!!

Washington had 13 of the first 18 shots on goal in period three to storm the castle and take a 4-3 lead.

From there, the Capitals went into their 1-1-3 defensive posture and really didn’t give Vegas any quality chances, despite six Golden Knights shots on goal. Any attempts that made it through were gobbled up by Holtby (28 saves), who kept this a one goal game early in period three by gloving a top shelf wrister from David Perron in the slot. It was a big stop and nearly as important as “The Save” in game two, because if the Caps go down two pucks there, then a game six would very likely have occurred.

Backstrom (1 assist) had a chance to end the series with an empty net tally with under a minute to go, but somehow missed the cage invoking memories of Esa Tikkanen not scoring in game two of the 1998 Stanley Cup Final. But Nicky’s teammates wouldn’t allow the miss to bite the team in the rear and the Caps killed off the remainder of the clock and celebrated wildly when it was over, led by their very emotional captain.

This team won the Cup because it learned to play defense better than any other Capitals squad in the Ovechkin era. Washington listened to the coaching staff and walled off the front of their net regularly in the post season. They received outstanding goaltending from the Holtbeast, who along with Evgeny Kuznetsov (32 playoff points), could’ve won the Conn Smythe Trophy, based on their on ice production.

But the Gr8 (power play goal, his NHL leading 15th tally of the 2018 playoffs) definitely deserved the MVP trophy for his incredible leadership. Who can forget the Ovechkin line, “We’re going to Columbus to win two games and bring this series tied back to DC” in the first round? Time after time he scored the big goal (first goal in game 7 in Tampa) or made a great back check and pass to win a series (Pittsburgh, game 6) or blocked a shot and dove to clear a puck at an important juncture (SCF game two). Ovi led by example on and off of the ice. He made it clear before game five that the team shouldn’t be talking about celebrations or any of the stuff that comes with winning because they hadn’t won anything yet. Simply put, all playoffs long, Alex talked the talk and then backed it up by walking the walk.

Seeing his emotions as he was given the Cup from Commissioner Gary Bettman was incredible, then watching him skate around with Lord Stanley and pass it to Backstrom is a memory that Capitals fans will remember forever. Two players who former General Manager George McPhee drafted and built the franchise around finally made it to the promised land after 11 years of failures.

As Ovi and Nicky will tell you, this wasn’t about them, though, this was about a team that picked each other up through injuries, suspensions, mistakes, adversity, and questionable officiating along the way. You can go up and down the lineup and point to contributions each player made.

  • Kuznetsov dominated with his skating and became a superstar this spring. He took his game to a whole new level and backed up the big contract he received last summer.
  • T. J. Oshie did just about everything you could ask for from scoring big goals (see game six vs. Tampa), winning the vast majority of board battles, and playing great defense to close out games. The Caps don’t win the Cup without the Osh Babe. There’s a reason I blogged and tweeted “Pay the Man” throughout 2016-17.
  • Tom Wilson evolved into a complete player this campaign and “Top Line Willy” was just a wrecking ball and force all post season. He’s built for the playoffs.
  • John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmity Orlov, and trade deadline bargain Kempny played a lot of minutes on the blue line in four grueling series. “Big Game” Carlson showed how a number one defensemen should perform in the playoffs and I’ll say this again about him, “Pay the Man!” Niskanen was so solid and took the heat for he and Orlov’s rough game five in Tampa. That’s leadership, right there, and it took the pressure off of Dmitry, allowing Dima to get back on track quickly in game six.
  • Orpik was a team leading +17 in the post season and “Batya” had the key game winning goal in game two that turned the Stanley Cup Final around. For all of the grief the Corsi crew gives him, he thrived in the post season on defense, the PK, and he even chipped in offensively with five points.
  • Eller stepped up, especially when Backstrom broke his hand. He played second and third line center doing whatever was asked of him. The Capitals also don’t win the Cup without “Tiger.”
  • Jay Beagle was a beast on faceoffs all post season and a dominant force in all three zones. Nobody works harder than “Beags.”
  • Connolly (6 goals, 3 assists in the playoffs) was a totally different player from the guy who was scratched in the 2017 postseason by using his speed, great shot, and more importantly, his body to win puck and board battles.
  • Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky used their skill and speed to score or set up huge goals. Vrana had the critical game winner in game five against the Pens and Andre notched two huge breakaway tallies in game seven to defeat the Bolts. Those two guys learned to win board battles by adding a physical element to their game and that was critical to the team’s success. They became excellent playoff style hockey players, something this squad badly needed after the off season losses of forwards Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson to the top six.
  • Chandler Stephenson (7 playoff points) played up and down the lineup and used his superior speed to set up goals and make opposing defensemen lose confidence. He was also a key cog on the penalty kill.
  • Smith-Pelly notched big goal after big goal, with his game going to an incredible level in the Cup Final after a rough game one.
  • Christian Djoos took advantage of the downtime down the regular season stretch he endured due to Jakub Jerabek’s strong play to jump back in against Columbus in game three and become part of a quality third pair duo with Orpik.
  • Even forwards such as Alex Chiasson (goal in game six against Pittsburgh), Nathan Walker (assist in game six against Pittsburgh), and Travis Boyd contributed when the injury bug and suspension to Wilson hit against the Pens.

Yes, this was a special crew of players because of how they united and after two very shaky games against Columbus, bought in to what the outstanding coaching staff was selling to go on a remarkable run. Washington was 16-6 beginning with game three of the first round. The switch to Holtbeast was a game or two late for me, but perhaps it was meant to be so that the rest of the club could finally understand the way they needed to play to have the ultimate success?

Yes, it’s true, Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals are really Stanley Cup Champions!!

When is the parade??!!

Addendum

The ride was absolutely amazing and for me, this championship is extra special. As a nine year old boy in 1974, my father was in the sports journalism business at WLMD in Laurel and dragged me time and time again to Capital Centre to watch a terrible expansion team play a sport that quickly got my attention. It wasn’t until I was a senior in high school in 1983 that the Capitals finally made the playoffs thanks to David Poile, Rod Langway, Scott Stevens, and Bryan Murray. That’s when hockey became my favorite sport. From there I covered the team for the PG Post-Sentinel for a few years, meeting current WNST owner Nestor Aparacio in the process. That press box stint led to a Capitals team statistician position with Dr. Mike Herr and several other great people for 11 years. From 1986 to 1997 I traveled to games in Philly and everywhere in the playoffs with the team enjoying really great times while learning so much about hockey from great players such as Langway and Dale Hunter, and hockey personnel Jack Button, although I learned even more from his son, Tod. But there were so many heartbreaks along the way and several times it was to the Penguins, who won five Stanley Cups, defeating the Caps each time. In 2007, Nestor reached out to me and told me he was starting a WNST website and he wanted me to blog on it, doing whatever I wanted since I was someone he trusted and had inside access given my time with the Caps. Naturally I’ve turned that into this Caps blog and regular radio show sessions with Nestor. We’ve chronicled the highs and even more heartbreak since 2008 during the Ovechkin era. I was able to be on the ice in Hershey when Carlson, Beagle, and Holtby won the Calder Cup in 2010 (thanks John Walton!). But in 2014, I had seen enough of a bad culture and the lack of a cohesive team that led to me calling for the firing of Coach Adam Oates and GM McPhee, and the hiring of Trotz. Three years of crushing playoff defeats followed in the Trotz and GM Brian MacLellan era, but on July 3, 2017, I penned a “Caps are still a contender blog” despite the fact that many had written the GM, coach, and players off. Thankfully the GM, the coaches, and the guys on the ice delivered in a way that many hockey fans around this area will appreciate for the rest of their lives. I know I will, but most of all, I really appreciate my father, Ed, who will turn 80 on July 7th, for introducing me to the Capitals and the sport of hockey. Exchanging texts with him after the Capitals won the Cup was a very special moment for me and many of the people who reached out to me afterwards are great people that I’ve met along the way watching, working, covering, and just being around this great sport. I’ve made so many lifelong and life changing friends and people through hockey. I’d need numerous blogs to list all of them, you know who you are! I owe all of it to my father, so thanks Dad! I know you predicted back in 1974 that the Caps would sell out every game some day and they’d win a Stanley Cup. You are now correct on both counts!

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Holts Game 2 VGK

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Holtby, Eller, and Orpik lead Caps to a Gritty Game 2 Win

Posted on 31 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Braden Holtby made 37 saves, including what was likely the greatest stop in Caps history on Alex Tuch with 1:59 remaining, to lead the Washington Capitals to a 3-2 victory in game two of the Stanley Cup Final. The triumph evens the series up at one as things move to Capital One Arena for games three and four on Saturday and Monday, respectively.

Things started slowly again for the Capitals as they struggled with the swarming speed and intensity of Vegas. James Neal grabbed a flipped puck out of the air at the Caps defensive blue line away from Dmitry Orlov, who failed to get the disc with his glove, as well as the man. Neal skated in and beat the Holtbeast far side 7:58 into this affair. The shot appeared to change direction slightly when Michal Kempny put his stick into the shooting lane.

At 14:39 of period one, it would get worse for Washington. Brayden McNabb put a hard and slightly high hit on Evgeny Kuzentsov in the neutral zone and with Kuzy putting his arms up to brace himself for the collision he went down on the ice holding his left arm. Per Capitals PR, he suffered an upper body injury and was questionable to return, but never did. Afterwards Caps Coach Barry Trotz had no update on the Russian’s status, but did take issue with the contact stating that the league would look at it for potential supplemental discipline.

At that point, given Vegas’ series and game lead, the Capitals looked to be in big trouble. But this resilient Washington team seemed to be galvanized by the Kuznetsov injury and immediately began playing much better.

Nearly three minutes later, in a four on four situation with T.J. Oshie and Deryk Engelland in the box for roughing, the Caps tied things up. Lars Eller (one goal, two assists) won an offensive zone draw and pushed the puck to Andre Burakovsky in the right wing corner. Burkie hit Kempny in the high slot forcing Marc Andre-Fleury to come out and challenge. Kempny spotted Eller at the far post and the man nicknamed “Tiger” buried the great pass for the equalizer.

In the second frame, the Capitals seemed to find their game. Tuch was jailed for cross checking John Carlson in front of the Caps net at 5:13 and just 25 seconds later the Capitals grabbed the lead. Nicklas Backstrom fed Eller on the goal line to Fleury’s left. Lars then threaded a super pass through Fleury to Alex Ovechkin on the back side. The Gr8 used his great hands to get off a quick shot that hit the back of the Vegas goaltender and into the cage.

Just over four minutes later, Washington took its first two goal lead of the series. Burakovsky fed Eller on the rush and #20 drove to the middle of the ice in the offensive zone. Lars then made a superb dish to his right to Brooks Orpik, who was jumping up in the play. Orpik fired on net and with Brett Connolly battling with Tuch in front of Fleury, the puck hit the Vegas forward and the left post before crossing the goal line. The Washington players went nuts given the goal scorer, who had a 220 game goalless drought end. In addition to the long drought, “Batya” is who Coach Trotz referred to as the most respected player on the team, so everyone was excited when he tallied in a such a big game.

Shortly thereafter Jakub Vrana hit the post, otherwise it would’ve been 4-1. Vegas then had a push for several minutes across the last two periods that was aided by four straight minor penalties on the Caps. On the second infraction, which was on Oshie for interference despite Colin Miller’s embellishment, Shea Theodore ripped a point shot through a maze of bodies to beat Holtby with 2:13 left in period two.

Heading into the last stanza the Caps were up 3-2 and they survived a 68 second Golden Knights five on three power play just under five minutes in. The Capitals penalty killing unit was outstanding creating what Coach Trotz called another galvanizing moment for his squad. Typically these events decide a hockey game one way or the other and it was the Caps who parlayed the key special teams situation into a one goal victory, but not before several close calls and big saves from the Holtbeast.

This was a massive win for the Capitals and they have a chance to take the series lead on home ice. The game two triumph was not pretty, but it was gutsy and gritty. Guys were selling out to block shots and diving to clear the disc from their own end throughout the last 14 minutes at even strength. Even the Captain was contributing in the defensive heroics and Coach Trotz mentioned when an elite goal scorer is doing it, everyone on the bench takes notice and follows suit.

After the slow start, nearly everyone had a good game starting with Holtby, who was dialed in. Matt Niskanen agreed that the team did a good job of simplifying their play on the mushy Vegas ice by getting multiple players to the loose pucks. Washington won a lot of little battles in this one and did a much better job with defensive zone coverage. It was a total team effort with one of their top players out due to injury.

As I’ve stated since this series started, Vegas is a hard working team and is not a fluke. If the Capitals want to win this series, they’ll need to bring the will they brought to game two each night going forward.

Notes: the Caps were 1 for 2 on the power play while Vegas went 1 for 5…the Golden Knights won the face-off battle, 38-27. Eller was 10-6. Jay Beagle said the Capitals will look at film to help make the necessary adjustments to win more draws…shot attempts were 69-44, for Vegas, but a lot of those came from the perimeter…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time at 27:13, including 5:25 of PK time…Orpik had six hits and two blocked shots in 19:13 of playing time. He was outstanding in this contest…Vrana played well using his speed to open up space. He had eight shot attempts, but only three on net. If he gets them on goal, he’ll take over the red light district…once Kuzy went out, Backstrom centered Ovi and Tom Wilson, Eller centered Oshie and Vrana, while Chandler Stephenson moved into the 3rd line pivot slot.

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Callahan goal

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Poor Start and Missed Call Doom the Caps in Game Five

Posted on 19 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

For the second time in three games, the Washington Capitals fell behind 3-0 and once again, a late rally wasn’t enough to tie the contest up. As a result, the Caps lost game five, 3-2, and now trail their best of seven series with Tampa, three games to two. Game six is Monday night at Capital One Arena at 8 pm.

Here are nine thoughts on a very tough loss at Amalie Arena, where the home team finally won for the first time in this series.

Poor Period Starts Costly – The Caps gave up goals 19 seconds into the game and 33 seconds into the second period to Tampa’s fourth line! That is inexcusable and was the biggest difference in the outcome. Washington was not prepared mentally to start either period. On the first goal, Dmitry Orlov and Evgeny Kuzentsov made soft plays to lose the puck in the neutral zone and then Orlov badly misplayed the two on one going for the disc and missed badly, which left Cedric Paquette all alone on Braden Holtby (19 saves). On the second period Bolts tally that made it 3-0, Anton Stralman goes around Matt Niskanen like an orange road cone and forced the Holtbeast to have to make a one on one stop. The Caps defense and team was caught flat footed for large stretches of the first 21 minutes.

Bad Zebras! – Referees Wes McCauley and Mark Joannette plus linesmen Johnny Murray and Matt McPherson had a terrible night. On Tampa’s second goal, an Ondrej Palat shot from the slot that Niskanen screened Holtby on, Steven Stamkos CLEARLY trips Orlov at the Washington defensive blue line before the tally and there is no call. As a result the game was 2-0 where it should’ve been 1-0 with a Capitals power play coming. NBC’s Mike Milbury was adamant that the trip should’ve been called and it was at a crucial point in the game. There is NO EXCUSE for missing such a critical infraction that leads to a scoring chance. In addition, Ryan Callahan’s goal, after Stralman went around Niskanen, went in off of his glove. You can argue either way on that one, but once again, the call didn’t go the Caps way. There were also several missed icing calls on the Bolts when the Capitals were storming the castle in periods two and three. The officials cannot be a factor in the outcome of a game and they absolutely were in game five. The Capitals had no power plays in this affair. Unacceptable officiating, once again, and the league should be ashamed, especially after game four was called so well by Chris Rooney and Gord Dwyer. Tampa has at least two or three goals in this series on bad or missed rulings (the Bolts second goal in game two after the terrible high sticking call on T.J. Oshie, the uncalled Stamkos trip in game five, and arguably the power play goal after the Wilson penalty in game two where Chris Kunitz escaped an obvious hooking call).

Stuck in Quicksand – The first period was a disaster. The Bolts had 13 of their 22 shots for the game in that frame and if not for Holtby, it could’ve been worse than 2-0. Washington showed no sense of urgency in their play and weren’t moving their legs. When guys like Callahan and Stralman are going past you, your effort is not where it needs to be. It was a very disappointing start by the Caps in such a critical game. Yes, the missed penalty call hurt, but as we’ve seen for years, if you put the game in the referees’ hands, you will almost always not like the outcome.

Final Forty Push – After it was 3-0, we saw a different Capitals team. Unfortunately, it was too late. The Caps started skating, moving their feet, and being physical. For some reason in that first frame Washington was afraid to hit anyone or use their body to win a puck battle. Against a team like Tampa, you have to be engaged physically and mentally on all shifts, otherwise they will burn you with their effort and skill. The Caps have a lot of skill, but the will was missing in the first 21 minutes and now they have a hill to climb to come back and win this series. Over the last 40 minutes, the shots on goal were 26-9 for the Capitals. They also hit some posts, too. Christian Djoos struck iron off of a faceoff win when it was 3-1 in period two and Alex Ovechkin hit the cross bar when it was that same score in period three. John Carlson had some great looks in this one and missed the net in the second frame in close and in the dying seconds he couldn’t get off a one timer on a great feed. When he tried to go top shelf, Andrei Vasilevskiy (28 saves) slid over and cut off the short side to save the game for Tampa.

Scoring Drought – After putting up 10 goals in the first two games, the Capitals only have six tallies in the last three tilts and two of those have come with the goalie pulled. Washington is not getting enough net presence on Tampa and the Bolts are doing a good job of clogging the shooting lanes. The Caps have to simplify their attack and make the Bolts scramble in their own end. They did some of that in stretches, but we also saw guys passing up quick shots in the slot and a return of bad drop passes. North-south hockey is how the Capitals have to play if they are going to win game six. Come across the blue line and fire the puck on net. That forces the Bolts D to turn and go get the rebounds and with Washington coming with speed, they can then hit the Tampa defense and force turnovers.

Line Changes – Coach Barry Trotz adjusted his lines for period two putting Nicklas Backstrom back with Ovechkin and Tom Wilson. That line was on the ice for the Callahan tally that made it 3-0, but played better after that. Backy is clearly not close to 100%, but with Kuznetsov having a poor first frame, something had to be done. Kuzy would score the Caps first goal on a deflection of a Niskanen point shot in period two and he, Oshie, and Chandler Stephenson played fairly well together. Ovi heated up in the third frame and his rocket cut the game to 3-2 with 96 seconds left. The Caps nearly tied this one up late, but again, they need to be much better earlier.

On Fumes? – Lars Eller struggled and looked slow for much of this contest after taking five penalties in games three and four and you can’t help but think that playing all of those extra minutes with Backstrom out has taken a toll on him. However, after sitting on the bench for a good stretch in period three, he came out with some jump with the extra attacker on and looked better. The Caps need #20 to return to form if they are going to win game six.

Clearing the Mind – The Capitals have seen a 2-0 series lead turn into a 3-2 deficit yet there have been some lengthy stretches where the Caps have carried the play. Washington can’t focus on any of that and must make sure they are ready to go from puck drop on Monday night. They have to play hard and smart. They have been prone to the big mistake in this series and that’s why they are on the brink of elimination. Tampa has blown a 3-2 lead before, just two years ago to the Penguins when the Bolts also had home ice advantage. Washington must come out and check from the get go. No soft plays and make the simple decision, which is usually going north with the puck up the boards. The start in game four was good right up until Michal Kempny’s poor decision to try a blind back pass up the middle of the ice. Kempny was much better in game five, but Niskanen and Orlov along with many others didn’t come ready to play. This team has been resilient all year. Many have already written them off, but until one team wins four games it’s not over. The Capitals need to give everything they have on Monday night to force a game seven where anything can happen.

Notes: Washington won the faceoff battle, 27-26, and Backstrom won 12 of 17 draws with a bad hand…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:54 and he also led the team in shots on net, with eight…Djoos played 15:06 on the back end since the Capitals were trailing and he was very good at moving the puck. He needs to look to shoot a little more, since he has a good one…Tampa’s fourth line of Kunitz, Paquette, and Callahan logged nearly 15 minutes and was +2. They simply outworked the Capitals when they were on the ice and that’s something the Caps need to address…shot attempts were 29-8 for Tampa in period one and 51-19 for Washington the rest of the way.

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O Halloran Ovi

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Caps Overcome Adversity in 6-2 Rout of Tampa

Posted on 14 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals reeled off five unanswered goals to erase a 2-1 first period deficit to knock off the
Tampa Bay Lightning, 6-2, in game two of the Eastern Conference Final and the Caps will head home to the DMV with a 2-0 series lead.

Tom Wilson put the Capitals on the board just 28 seconds into this affair by tipping home a Matt Niskanen point blast. Washington came out fast and furious when the Bolts were supposed to be the more desperate team and they had some chances to increase their lead. On a rush to the Tampa net at the 6:48 mark, Wilson skated hard to the cage hoping for a back door pass, was hooked by Chris Kunitz and then spun around by Ryan McDonagh and crashed into goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and the goal frame. Referee Dan O’Halloran, who the Capitals were 0-6 lifetime as a zebra in the playoffs coming into this affair, ignored the Kunitz hook and McDonagh contact and instead called Willy for goalie interference. Tampa needed all of 20 seconds to tie it up on a Brayden Point shot.

Sure, that call on Wilson could’ve gone either way, and there are valid arguments on both sides, but then something happened that should never occur in a playoff game of this magnitude. Victor Hedman was hit in the face by a puck and T.J. Oshie, who put his stick up to try and get the biscuit, but never came close to contacting Hedman’s upper body, was boxed for a phantom high sticking penalty. How does that happen with two referees and two linesmen? Surely one of them had to see it was not high sticking? Anyways, that was a bad call, for sure, and Steven Stamkos scored back door late in that power play to give the Bolts a 2-1 lead at 10:22 that they certainly didn’t deserve.

At that point, it was really important how the Capitals players and coaches would react. Would they lose their minds and get caught up in the incompetent O’Halloran officiating or would they remain calm, stick to their game plan, and focus on getting even on the scoreboard?

Judging by the last 49 plus minutes, it was clearly the latter. Even in the final nine minutes of period one, the Capitals pushed the play and had several scoring chances drawing extensive praise from Mike Milbury on NBC and then Keith Jones and Eddie Olczyk between periods. Olczyk even disagreed with the call on Wilson, pointing out the missed hook on Kunitz on a scoring chance.

The Caps would not tie it up in period one, but the tone was set and early in period two they got even. John Carlson stole an errant Tampa pass and sprung Alex Chiasson, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Jay Beagle on a three on one rush. Chiasson fed DSP and Devante was able to one time home a puck that didn’t really settle on the ice for him. The biscuit hit the far post and went in behind Vasilevskiy to really give Washington a huge goal and momentum.

The remainder of the period was tense back and forth and the Caps were getting the better of the chances, but #88 was playing fairly well in the cage. At 15:48 of period two, Michal Kempny took an unnecessary interference penalty so the Tampa power play, which had scored three of the Bolts four goals in the series, had a chance to give the home squad the lead. Washington, however, would easily kill of the infraction and they immediately started pressing the Tampa defense again.

With just over a minute left in period two, Oshie went in on a fore check and forced Anton Stralman to turn the puck over. The speedy Jakub Vrana pounced on the loose disc and alertly fed a camped in front Lars Eller on the doorstep and #20 put the biscuit in the basket for a 3-2 Caps lead with 62 seconds to go in the middle frame. Speed kills, and Tampa was supposed to be the faster team, but a fresh Andre Burakovsky put massive pressure on the fore check on the Bolts and Vasilevskiy stuck his skate out and tripped #65 with 10 seconds remaining. Once again, the Capitals won a big offensive zone faceoff as Eller beat Tyler Johnson drawing the puck to Alex Ovechkin (1 goal, 1 assist) on the left wing boards. Ovi quickly wheeled it around the back boards to Evgeny Kuznetsov and with Eller crashing the cage, Kuzy fired on net from just above the goal line. The Bolts keeper was intent on stopping that pass to Lars, but Evgeny put a lot of mustard on it and it banked in off of his pads and into the cage for a 4-2 Washington lead with just three seconds left.

That last minute, like the last 10 seconds of period one on Friday night in game one, was a huge lift to the Caps and a major deflator for Tampa. However, there were still 20 minutes left and given how the Bolts responded with a strong third period in game one, the Capitals had to be careful and concerned.

It was Washington, however, that carried the even strength play in period three and just 3:34 into the final stanza they increased their lead to three pucks. Wilson made a great chip out past a pinching Braydon Coburn on the Bolts left wing boards getting the disc to Kuzy, who immediately recognized he had a two on one with Alexander the Great. When Stralman left his feet early to try and cut off the pass to Ovi, Kuzy skated in closer and slid the puck to Ovechkin backdoor. The Gr8 made no mistake about burying the super feed over Vasilevskiy’s outstretched pad.

At that point, only a Capitals turnover or penalty would allow Tampa to get back in the game and Kempny made another poor decision at 6:55 with a high cross check on Cedric Paquette in front of Braden Holtby. Washington, however, would do another stellar job on the PK and the Bolts found themselves constantly struggling to get through the maze of players the Caps had stacked in the neutral zone and on their own blue line. Time and time again the Bolts would rush up the ice and be swarmed by guys in white at the blue line. The result was lots of turnovers when Tampa didn’t dump the puck in. At 12:57, Washington would get yet another odd man rush and Eller fed a flying Brett Connolly in the high slot where #10 one timed it past the Bolts goaltender to make it 6-2. One of Connolly’s big strengths is his ability to get off a shot very quickly and his tally bit the hand that once fed him in Tampa.

This was a huge victory and in the series the Capitals are dominating the Bolts at even strength. Washington’s speedy forwards that include Burakovsky, Vrana, Kuzentsov, Eller, Chandler Stephenson, and Connolly are really forcing the Tampa defense into poor positioning and mistakes. In the series, the Caps have outscored the Lightning, 8-1, when the manpower is even.

The Caps are playing good defense and blocking a lot of shots, plus anything that gets through to Holtby (35 saves) is pretty much being stopped. Most of Tampa’s looks are coming from the perimeter while Washington is getting into the high danger scoring areas more often. Simply put, the Capitals have looked faster and fresher and getting both Burakovsky and Wilson back plus the emergence of Vrana and Stephenson have changed the offensive dynamic for Coach Barry Trotz. Nicklas Backstrom has yet to play in this series due to his injured right hand, but with Kuzy and Eller stepping up and then Stephenson centering a very good third line with Burkie and Connolly, this Caps team has a dangerous top nine. Everyone knew about the firepower of Ovechkin and Oshie, but the Capitals have pretty much everyone on those first three lines clicking on all cylinders. Add in some fourth line goals (Beagle in game one and DSP in game two) and it’s easy to see why the Caps are up in this series.

On the back end, all six defensemen are doing a great job of making solid breakout passes. There have been some hiccups, most notably a turnover by Niskanen that led to Johnson hitting the post when the game was tied in period two, but overall the pass out of the zone is allowing Washington to move into the Tampa end with speed and put a not so fast D that includes Dan Girardi, Coburn, and McDonagh on their heels. Dmitry Orlov has been sensational with his ability to turn defense into offense for the Capitals.

Add in some clutch goaltending and you can see why this series is at two games to nil.

But the series is not over until one team gets to four wins and Washington must stick to the script at home and play the same way they’ve done in amassing a 7-1 road record in this 2018 post season. The Caps can’t try to impress their fans with over passing and fancy plays. They must adhere to a game plan that is hard on the puck, swarms the Bolts in all zones, and is focused on north-south hockey. The cross ice passes, especially at the offensive blue line, are the ones Washington must keep out of their arsenal because the Bolts feast on odd man rushes. Finally, staying out of the box is paramount. O’Halloran and Brad Meier had a poor first period and it was nearly costly for the Caps. Even strength play has been good for the Capitals so far in this series, so it’s to their advantage to keep it that way.

Notes: Carlson had two assists and led the Caps in ice time with 25:01. Niskanen logged 23:10 and Orlov played 22:44…the Caps were one for three on the power play while Tampa went two for four…the face off edge went to the Lightning, 36-28, but the Capitals won that huge draw late in period two on the power play. Beagle was 11-7 and Eller went 10-9 from the dot…Orpik and Wilson each had six hits while Ovechkin had five…game three is Tuesday at 8 pm from Capital One Arena.

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Kempny Game 1

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Caps Dominate First 40 Minutes in a Game One Victory

Posted on 12 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

For the first time since the second round of the 2015 playoffs, the Washington Capitals started a series on the road. The Caps played a textbook first 40 minutes racing out to a 4-0 lead and then closed out a 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on Friday night.

The Caps, who many experts have picked to lose this series, withstood an opening three minutes of pressure from the Bolts before they flipped the script and carried the play for the rest of the first two frames. Washington played fast and structured as they swarmed the puck and prevented the speedy Lightning from getting much time or space. Michal Kempny put the Capitals on the board at 7:28 on a point shot that went through a maze of players, including Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, and past Andrei Vasilevskiy glove side.

After the goal, the team that is now 6-1 on the road in these 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, kept their foot down trying to increase their margin, but couldn’t convert. Then, with under 10 seconds remaining in period one, some wild stuff ensued. Matt Niskanen failed to get off a shot in the offensive zone and the Bolts sprung Nikita Kucherov one on one on Dmitry Orlov. The very talented Kucherov would score by outmuscling #9 and then tapping the puck by Holtby, but the linesmen immediately waved it off noting the very obvious six skaters in blue on the ice. Washington received a power play for the too many men infraction with eight seconds remaining and the Gr8 lasered one by Vasilevskiy with Lars Eller providing some traffic high in the slot just two ticks later. The whole sequence was set up by a big faceoff win by T.J. Oshie, who got the puck to Evgeny Kuznetsov (two assists), and Kuzy quickly fed Ovechkin (one goal, one assist) for his rocket.

Washington outshot the Lightning, nine to two, in period one and in period two, they kept bringing it, outshooting the Bolts, 16-8. Just 2:40 into the frame, Jay Beagle put the rebound of a flubbed Brett Connolly shot past #88 to make it 3-0. Orlov made a nice play at the right point to set the quality chance up. Kucherov took a bad roughing penalty at 6:01 and 41 seconds later Tampa was down four pucks. Kuznetsov received a pass from Eller in the left wing corner and he rotated the puck to John Carlson at the top of the point. Carly slid one over to Ovi in his office for a one timer, but Alex didn’t get all of it and it “muffined” its way toward the net where Oshie (two assists) poked at it before Lars finally put the rebound home.

All four of the Capitals goals, which came in the first 26:42 of this affair, occurred with bodies in front and that’s a smart way to beat Vasileskiy, who was pulled for Louis Domingue for the third period. Washington did a lot of things correctly building the lead and only had a few shifts where they found themselves caught in a rush game with the Bolts. Up and down the ice is definitely the way Tampa wants to play and the Capitals settled down late in the middle frame to prevent Coach Jon Cooper’s squad from getting any momentum.

In the final stanza, the Bolts had some push and after a bad defensive zone shift, Alex Chiasson took a penalty to prevent a scoring chance in front of the net at 3:23. 22 seconds later it was 4-1 as Washington got caught puck chasing on the penalty kill and that allowed Kucherov to thread a pass through the outstretched Capitals PK box right to Steven Stamkos in his office for an easy back door marker. The Lightning seemed to come to life after that goal and when Chiasson lost his head and took an undisciplined roughing penalty on Kucherov by the Tampa bench at 8:59, the Bolts had a big chance to cut the margin to two.

This time, however, the Capitals had a super penalty kill and afterwards were pretty much in full control with nine minutes to go. Tampa kept pushing the pace, but Washington was doing a good job of clogging the neutral zone and preventing their opponents from getting set up in the offensive zone with a blue line wall and great back checking by the forwards. At that point, only an offensive zone mistake or a penalty would allow the home team to cut into the margin, and unfortunately for the Caps, the former occurred. After winning an offensive zone faceoff, Kempny was a little too greedy inside the offensive blue line and then he lost his footing giving Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat a two on one rush on Carlson with speed. Ovechkin tried to hustle back, but Palat beat Holtby short side with a sweet shot while #74 went down to block the pass. Suddenly, with 6:57 to go in regulation, this was a two goal game.

The contest appeared to still be in doubt, much to the delight of NBC’s Doc Emrick, but the Capitals stabilized themselves, got their legs moving, and then clamped things down. Washington had several good shifts that forced the Bolts to defend and it wasn’t until the dying seconds that Tampa was able to get another shot on goal. NBC’s Mike Milbury was effusive in his praise of how the Caps turned their effort up when they really needed to do so down the stretch.

For the Capitals, this was their first opening game triumph in three playoff series this spring and with Tampa feeling good about their chances coming in it was important for them to do so. Washington jumped on the Bolts with their speedy lineup that included the return of both Andre Burakovksy and Wilson. Willy had three shots on net in 15:09 and Burkie looked very strong on the puck in 14:02 of action. Nicklas Backstrom missed his second straight playoff tilt due to an injured right hand, but he did skate and stickhandle some on Thursday before the Caps departed for the Sunshine State. Coach Barry Trotz stated after the morning skate that Nicky is still day to day. Chandler Stephenson and Jakub Vrana logged 14:28 and 13:19, respectively, and used their skating ability to wear out a Tampa defense that has some slower defensemen. Vrana had five shots on net and really gave the Bolts defenders headaches.

Simply put, the way Washington played in periods one and two is how they have to perform to win this series. They have to continually be hard on the puck and committed to protecting their defensive zone against a very fast, up front, Tampa squad. Again, the Bolts, much like the Penguins, want a rush game where chances get traded at each end. The Caps would be wise to make sure they pressure the Lightning in their own zone, but also keep the third forward high in order to prevent odd man rushes against. Traffic and net presence was also a big factor in the victory and that must continue.

In round two, the Bolts were blown out of game one by Boston and then won the next four games to take that series rather quickly. Tampa will be looking to leverage that same recipe in game two on Sunday. Washington has the talent to skate with the Atlantic Division winners, but they have to be smart and play the right way, like they did in grabbing a big early lead in game one.

Notes: Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 25:48. Carlson logged 21:55…Eller played 20:35 to lead all Washington forwards in ice time…Bolts defensemen Victor Hedman led all players with 27:49, but he had no shots on goal…Domingue stopped all seven shots he faced in the final frame and some of them were on odd man rushes as the Caps were effective at generating some great counter attacks with the lead…Washington won the face off battle, 27-23. Beagle was 9-2 and Oshie was 3-0…Brooks Orpik had five of the Capitals 15 hits…game two is Sunday night at 8 pm.

 

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Kuzy Bird Game 6

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Kuznetsov’s OT Goal Puts the Caps in the Eastern Conference Final

Posted on 08 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Ding Dong, the witch is dead!!

Evgeny Kuznetsov scored 5:27 into overtime on a breakaway after a great defensive play and pass from Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals finally defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in a playoff series in the Ovi era, four games to two. This was only the second time in 11 tries that the Caps have won a post season matchup against the Pens (last time was 1994). For the Penguins, their hopes of being the first team to threepeat since the New York Islanders won four Cups in a row from 1980 to 1983 has ended, but what a run they had. I tip my hat to that club, especially Sidney Crosby, the best player in the NHL.

So how did the Capitals win a game six without Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, and Andre Burakovsky?

They received super goaltending from Braden Holtby and they played as a team, sticking to the game plan the coaching staff gave them. There was complete buy in from every player on that roster and they outworked Pittsburgh in a contest the Pens had to have in their own building. The leadership from the coaching staff to the captain to the alternate captains to the veterans on down was just amazing.

To come back and win game five without Backstrom, who has a right hand injury, and then game six in PPG Arena is the stuff of legends and that Kuznetsov goal and “Bird Celly” will go down in Caps lore along with Dale Hunter’s OT goal against the Flyers in 1988 and Joey Juneau’s OT goal in 1998 that put the Capitals in the Stanley Cup Final.

The postseason is so much about goaltending and all year on WNST I’ve been telling station owner and host, Nestor Aparacio, that the Caps needed 2012 Braden Holtby this spring. The Holtbeast didn’t even get the starting nod against Columbus, but after Philipp Grubauer’s early struggles, #70 took over and he’s locked things down for Washington making the key saves at the right times. The Penguins had more high danger chances than the Caps in this series, but it was Holtby who badly outplayed Pens goalie Matt Murray and that’s why the Capitals are moving on. It was a reversal of last spring when Marc Andre-Fleury stole the series from Washington. The Holtbeast went 8-3 in the first two rounds with a 2.04 GAA and a .926 save percentage.

Goaltending alone, however, was not enough to do it. Washington’s defensive unit of John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, Michal Kempny, Brooks Oprik, and Christian Djoos was dynamite. The Penguins averaged five goals in their first round victories over the Flyers and they are a team that loves to score on the rush and on the power play. The Caps, for the most part, did not allow the Pens to get into their rush game, especially in game six when the commitment from a lineup with five rookies (Djoos, Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson, Nathan Walker, and Travis Boyd) was just outstanding. The Pens only goal came off of a faceoff win that clicked off of Stephenson and by Holtby. What I really like about this defense is their ability to move the puck. We all knew Carlson, Niskanen, and Orlov were adept at that, but the sneaky low cost deal to obtain Kempny by GM Brian MacLellan has turned out much better than the Kevin Shattenkirk move last spring. Credit goes to Brian, pro scout Chris Patrick, and the rest of the pro scouting staff that identified Kempny as well as Jakub Jerabek for two low cost, but much needed acquisitions. Bringing in Jerabek worked for quite awhile and it allowed Djoos to reset and become a strong and confident player again after some expected mid season rookie struggles. Niskanen and Orlov had the daunting task of facing the Jake Guentzel-Crosby-Patric Hornqvist line all series and they did excellent work. Nisky logged a team high 29:38 in game six. Carlson was a stud, as well, providing timely offense, especially on the power play. He is a big game player and I’ll say it again, “Pay the Man!”

Up front, Backstrom was a beast in games two and three when the Capitals really took over this series before the league derailed things by incorrectly suspending Wilson for three games. Nicky dominated Crosby in those tilts and was playing his best hockey. Unfortunately a Justin Schultz shot injured his right hand in period one of game five and he finally said “No Mas” in period three. At that point, there was one player who had to take over for the Caps, and that was Kuznetsov since he is the club’s other top center. Boy did Kuzy step up! In period three of game five he was as strong on the puck in all zones as I’ve ever seen him and in game six, he made the big finish to end the second round curse in the Ovechkin era. Kuznetsov only had one point in the first three contests, but he finished with a flourish getting five in the last three tilts. He was especially dominant in game five when his early final frame goal tied the game up and allowed Washington to take over that period and contest after being badly outplayed for 40 minutes.

As for the captain himself, his goal in game three in Pittsburgh was a real back breaker for the Pens and then his defensive steal and alert pass to Kuznetsov in OT finally put Alex into round three. The Gr8 had three goals and four assists in the series.

Let’s also not forget the work of T.J. Oshie who notched some big power play goals and also a huge empty net clincher in game five when he stripped Phil Kessel of the puck clean in a move that would make a Chicago pick pocket artist from the 1920’s proud. The Osh Babe is playing his best hockey of the year in this postseason.

Another big reason the Capitals are finally into the third round is they’ve had secondary scoring, unlike the droughts they’ve had from the third and fourth lines in the last three postseason second round losses. Alex Chiasson delivered a huge goal to give the Caps the lead in period two and it was set up by Nathan Walker, who was making his NHL playoff debut. The insertion of Walker, after Shane Gersich struggled in game five, was a move of brilliance and it paid off. #79 only played 8:29, but he was a positive on each of his shifts with energy and hustle that wore out the Penguins.

Lars Eller was a quiet hero in all of the action and he stepped up in Backstrom’s absence as the second line center in game six. In the previous two playoff losses to the Pens, centers Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen were the big difference makers for Pittsburgh. This spring, Eller outplayed big dollar trade deadline acquisition, Derrick Brassard, and Jay Beagle’s unit each game was better than the Pens fourth line.

After the terrible decision by the league to suspend Wilson, and I firmly believe it was media and Pens pressure induced, the Penguins dominated the next five periods of the series. Game four was pretty much all Pittsburgh and the first 40 minutes of game five certainly indicated that a getting healthier Pens team was starting to click. Fortunately for the Caps, the Holtbeast kept them in it and then two Kris Letang mistakes opened the door for the comeback and victory in game five. Washington dominated the third period of game five and they were the better team in just about all four periods in game six. That was what was so special about this win, on paper there was no way the Capitals, with all of the rookies and patched together forward lines, should’ve defeated the two time Stanley Cup Champions to close out the series on the Penguins home ice.

But they did and major credit goes to the players and the coaching staff for coming up with a game plan that worked. They stayed out of the box (only 1 penalty) and they didn’t get into a rush game. Washington had far more odd man rushes in this affair and ultimately it was one of those that decided the series.

For Coach Barry Trotz, this has to be big time satisfying for him and his staff. He’s taken heat all year for not being able to take a team, on paper that looked better than the Penguins in 2016 and 2017, into the Eastern Conference Final. Sometimes though, it’s not about what’s on paper, it’s how a team responds to each other and the heart they display on the ice.

Trotzy told Nestor and I out at Michael’s Café in Timonium in late March, “Last year I’d try to move guys around and I almost always got push back from some players who claimed they didn’t perform well with certain guys. This season, I’ve moved guys around all of the time to try things out and I’ve had no issues from anyone.”

In Carroll County back in March 2017 Trotz talked about that Presidents’ Trophy winning club and said this, “This may not be our best team, we won’t know until the year is over.”

Those two quotes from the coach certainly make a lot of sense now. That 2017 team was very talented, but maybe it was too talented and perhaps a bit selfish?

It’s safe to say now that this 2018 Washington Capitals group is clearly their best team, at least in the Ovechkin era. This is a club that has seen player after player step up when someone has faltered, injured, or gotten ridiculously suspended. It’s seen a Vezina Trophy goalie get benched, not pout but work harder, and then come back to take over and win two playoff series. It’s seen their best center go out due to injury and their second best pivot step up and become the dominant player we all knew he could be. It’s seen a Captain who was overweight and ultimately injured because of it last spring check his ego at the door and work his butt off to become a faster and better player in 2017-18. You can go on and on down the list at the players who have stepped up after the salary cap and expansion forced some big holes in this roster, especially on defense and on the wings.

This was certainly one huge game and series victory over Pittsburgh. The Capitals will have all Monday night to celebrate it, and they should.

But they are only halfway to their ultimate goal and the test gets much harder in round three. The Tampa Bay Lightning are an extremely good hockey club that is well rested and healthy. Coach Jon Cooper’s squad is heavy favorites to knock off the Caps in round three.

Then again, the Penguins were heavy favorites to win game six on Monday night, and that didn’t happen.

The game is played on the ice, not on paper, the Capitals have proved that.

So keep the faith, get behind the team like Coach Trotz has asked of you, and let’s play round three!

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