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A Detailed Look at the Caps After 45 Games

Posted on 15 January 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Following Jay Beagle’s stunning game winning goal with just over a second left in Carolina on Friday night, the Washington Capitals players headed to Atlantis, Florida, the Caribbean, Colorado, and other mostly warmer destinations for five days of rest and recovery during the team’s now annual bye “week.”

The victory improved the Caps to 28-14-3 (59 points) and they will remain in first place in the Metropolitan Division until they take the ice again on Thursday, against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center.

With the downtime, I’ve put together some lengthy thoughts on a hockey team that has once again positioned itself near the top of the NHL standings and is among the league’s best squads.

Shortchanged It’s called the “bye week,” but the Caps are only getting five days between games while most other teams are getting a six or seven day gap. In addition, the Capitals went into the break playing back to back games and will come out of it in the same fashion facing the Devils on the road and then the Montreal Canadiens at home on Friday evening. The bye break was something the players clamored for in recent years so that they could get away during what is a very long season. The downside of this plan, however, combined with the three day Christmas shutdown and the All-Star Break is a schedule made up of numerous back to back tilts and many three games in four night scenarios. This leads to a poor product on several occasions and a case in point was Washington’s 3-1 loss to Carolina last Thursday when it appeared that many on the squad were already on the beach.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes The 2017 summer saw some very important key Capitals players depart due to the NHL expansion draft and the rising salary cap to include defensemen Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt plus forwards Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, and Daniel Winnik. How General Manager Brian MacLellan and Coach Barry Trotz would handle those personnel losses would hold the key to the 2017-18 season. The Capitals were 30-9-6 (66 points) after 45 games in 2016-17, so they have only seven points less than they were at this point in a Presidents’ Trophy winning campaign. Last year’s team was experienced, stacked and averaged 28.4 years old. This year’s club has relied on contributions from several rookies, to include defensemen Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos as well as forwards Jakub Vrana (10 goals) and Chandler Stephenson (10 points). The average age of the team has dropped to 28.0, which is a significant change considering that each returning player is a year older. Plugging those rookies into the vacated spots alone clearly could not fill the void left by so many quality players. Therefore, Coach Trotz and his staff had to shift to a “rely on the returning players” philosophy while bringing along the young bucks. Comparing ice times in 2017-18 versus 2016-17 shows a very telling picture.

Player 2017-18 Avg TOI 2016-17 Avg TOI Delta
John Carlson 26:09 22:42 +3:42
Matt Niskanen 22:27 22:10 +:17
Dmitry Orlov 23:16 19:32 +3:44
Brooks Orpik 20:42 17:47 +2:55
Alex Ovechkin 19:42 18:21 +1:21
Nicklas Backstrom 19:40 18:15 +1:25
Evgeny Kuznetsov 18:54 16:57 +1:57
T.J. Oshie 18:40 17:51 +:49
Lars Eller 15:20 13:54 +1:26
Tom Wilson 15:29 12:55 +2:34
Brett Connolly 11:35 10:41 +:54
Jay Beagle 12:39 13:37 -:58
Andre Burakovsky 13:35 13:15 +:20

 

In a nutshell, the coaching staff is playing their key players more than last season when they could just roll four lines and wear teams down. There are some major changes in average time on ice on the back end, especially for Carlson, Orlov, and Orpik. Carlson, who is a Norris Trophy candidate despite two rocky games before the bye week break, has been outstanding, especially considering Niskanen has missed 14 games and has played less than 100% healthy in multiple others. As I’ve blogged on several occasions and GM MacLellan noted to The Washington Post last week, the unsung hero on the back end has been Orlov. Number nine has turned into such a strong two way defensemen and he continues to get better. The upside is still there, too, as he probably would have more points if he got more power play time. The concern is Orpik is playing nearly three minutes more than last season simply because he has to while Djoos comes up to speed. Without Brooks to carry a large load in the first 30 games while the rookies were learning and Niskanen was out, this team may have been sunk. Lately though, #44 has shown some wear on his wheels, so a January schedule that sees a lot of breaks should help him out. The improved play of Djoos and Bowey also will be critical in the second half of the season. I fully expect the Caps to add a defensemen at the trade deadline in late February.

Stars in the City There is no doubt that the “Coach’s Robot,” the Gr8, and “All Star” Nicklas Backstrom are a big reason why this team is still one of the best in the league. Ovechkin was overweight and not in ideal shape in 2016-17 and it showed during the regular season and the playoffs. He had only 33 regular season goals, most of which came on the power play, and he was slower and more prone to injury. Alex took management’s direction and trained totally differently this past summer and the results are blatantly obvious. He’s faster than he’s been since perhaps 2010, which has allowed him to generate better quality chances. He’s had several breakaway tallies and is leading the NHL in goals at 28 in 45 games (a 51 goals pace). 20 of those goals are at even strength this season, compared to just 16 in 2016-17. Backstrom had 86 points in 2016-17 and he’s on pace for 17 fewer this campaign, but most of that drop-off came when Trotz had the Gr8 on a different line. That experiment was smartly shelved and since the two have been Peaches and Herb’d, aka Reunited, the team has gone on a tear. There is no one on the planet who knows how to play better with Ovi than Nicky. Kuznetsov is a super talent, but he is so reliant on having the puck while Backstrom is such a strong two way guy that gets the biscuit from the opposition and allows Alex to get the touches he needs to score goals.

Carpe Diem With the departure of key forwards, several younger Capitals have seized the day and opportunity in 2017-18. Kuznetsov is playing nearly two minutes more a game (more on him in a minute), but looking at the average ice times for Eller and Wilson are very revealing. Willy is logging 2:34 more a night and at six goals and 18 points in 41 games he should shatter his career highs. Wherever Coach Trotz has put #43 this season he has produced and the nice thing is it’s been in a top nine role, no more fourth line Tommy. Eller, who is an unrestricted free agent this summer, has nine goals and 21 points in 44 games. He had 12 goals and 25 points in 81 total games in 2016-17. He’s playing 1:26 more a night and he’s become a better contributor, especially offensively, and that was sorely needed. The Washington third line, which was dominant last January when the Capitals were nearly unbeatable, has returned to play a big role in 2017-18. Eller and Connolly (10 goals) have been the staples there and there’s been a rotation of right wings to mostly include Oshie, Burakovsky, Vrana, and Wilson.

Not So Special In 2016-17 the Caps connected on 22.98% of their power plays and killed off 83.92% of their shorthanded situations. The league averages were 19.1% and 80.9%, respectively. In 2017-18, the power play has slowed to a 19.57% connection rate (NHL average is 19.4%) and is only thwarting 79.08% of their manpower disadvantages (NHL average is 80.6%). Simply put, the Capitals, unlike years past, have had to rely more on five on five goal differential to win games. This season they are +14 (91 to 77) in that category. There is lots of room for improvement on the special teams.

Dynamic Duo Looking at the team stats, the Caps have gone from outshooting opponents 30.4 to 27.8 per game in 2016-17 to being outshot 32.3 to 29 in 2017-18. That is a direct result of the change in personnel. Let’s be honest, the Capitals lost a lot of veteran players and are incorporating new blood into the squad. So why have they been able to still be successful? Well, outside of what has been mentioned already, the single biggest factor is the outstanding goaltending from Braden Holtby (24 wins) and Philipp Grubauer (7 quality starts in 12 games). The team save percentage has dropped from .925 to .917, but it’s clear that the quality of shots against has gone up a bit. These two continue to make the big save for Washington at the key time and goalie is the most important position in hockey.

Delivering the Overpass There’s a famous Bill Engvall “Here’s Your Sign” joke about a truck getting stuck with the punch line being, “Nope, I was delivering that overpass and my truck flat ran out of gas…Here’s Your Sign!” Perhaps the organization should bring the legendary comedian in to hand out “Here’s Your Sign” awards for all of those times the Capitals have tried to make an extra pass when they are in the high danger scoring areas? Guilty party number one on that list is Kuznetsov. When #92 plays the right way, and he’s had some nice stretches of that, the Caps dominate. He ranks second on the team in goals (13) and when he carries a shoot first mentality he is deadly on the ice because the defense has no idea what he is going to do, pass or shoot. Too often, though, he is in Harlem Globetrotters fancy pants mode, and that is much easier to defend. He needs to cut back on the circling pattern where he takes himself out of the high danger scoring area and eventually turns the puck over. That issue has crept into others on this team, to include Oshie, who I’d like to see shoot more. This is a shoot first league and with the goaltending being so good, rebounds or shots from high danger areas with traffic are the best way to beat them. Do the Caps think they have to make the pretty play so often because they practice against two of the best goalies in the league regularly? That could be a factor, but if they just looked at their recent tallies, many of them are just shots from the middle of the ice with players going to the net or using a defender to screen his own keeper. It’s not rocket science and it’s one of the big reasons the Caps are down in the shots on net and shots attempted statistics. They have the puck often, but many times they possess it for awhile and never generate a shot. They need to dump that habit and the cross ice pass at the offensive blue line if they want to go deep into the post season.

Where’s the Six Million Dollar Man? If you had told me on October 1st that Burakovksy would only have three goals after the Caps have played 45 games, I would have said the Caps would not be in playoff position. Luckily, I would’ve been wrong. #65 has played only 21 games due to injuries and overall malaise, but the man who signed a two year deal for a total of $6M is a very key cog in the wheel if Washington wants to challenge for the Stanley Cup. If I was Andre, the first thing I’d do after getting home from the Bahamas would be to pull out the tape of game six against the Penguins last spring and watch it. That’s the way Andre needs to play to be successful, very physical on the opposing boards and puck so that he can score and generate goals. He can be that player if he puts his mind to it and works hard. A return to form by Burakovsky is a must from now until June.

In summary, even with the personnel losses from last season, the Capitals have still positioned themselves among the best teams in the league. Despite what some statistics, such as Corsi, try to tell you, this positive outcome is not just pure luck. As I’ve chronicled, there’s been a method to the team’s success, which also includes a unique ability, much like the Pittsburgh Penguins have done the last two seasons, to counter attack and be deadly on the rush. Speed is an important aspect of hockey and the Capitals have improved in that department. Their save percentage is slightly down, but their goalies have been stellar and they aren’t living off of a higher shooting percentage. They are connecting on 10.5% of their shots, just like they did last season. The league average is around 9%, but the Caps have high end talent, unlike a Corsi loved team like Carolina, who throw a lot of pucks on net from everywhere, but don’t have the Ovechkins, Kuznetsovs, Backstroms and Oshies of the world who have great shots. Looking at another favorite analytic stat, PDO, which measures shooting percentage plus save percentage at even strength, it shows the Caps were at 102.4 in 2016-17 and this season they have dropped to 101.6 (meaning they’ve been less lucky). I’ve stated this axiom in blogs and on the air on WNST many times; it’s great to look at statistics, but in the grand scheme of things, hockey is a game of high skill and talent, it is non-linear and is chaos theory. The Washington Capitals have high end talent and the organization has structured the team around that. Now the question is can they continue to improve down the stretch so that they can peak in the post season?

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BAcky Blues

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Seven Detailed Thoughts on The Caps After Another Win

Posted on 07 January 2018 by Ed Frankovic

In the last few seasons under Coach Barry Trotz, the Washington Capitals have typically not fared well after several days off. With the Caps having not played since Tuesday’s OT victory in Carolina, a Sunday tilt against the St. Louis Blues would appear to be trouble for Washington. Coach Mike Yeo’s squad, however, had lost on Saturday in Philadelphia and was coming in playing their third game in four days. Basically, the scheduling gods had this one as an even affair, although the Caps, based on rest and playing at home, certainly seemed to have an advantage.

As expected, an angry Blues team put out a great effort against the Capitals and this contest went to overtime before Nicklas Backstrom notched his 9th goal of the season, after a long and super feed from T.J. Oshie, to give the Caps a 4-3 win and improve their record to 26-13-3 (55 points) on the campaign. Washington now leads the Metropolitan Division by three points over second place New Jersey, but the Devils have a game in hand.

Here are seven thoughts on the Caps following this come from behind victory.

Rollercoaster Ride The final score was 4-3, shots on goal were, 34-33, for the Blues, and my quality shot tracking had the Caps out on top, 24-23, for the game. So this match up was pretty much evenly played the whole way, right? This is in no way a plug for Hertz, but NOT EXACTLY! Washington came out and forged a really strong first period to take a 1-0 lead and the quality shot totals, by my count, were 8-3 for the good guys. In the middle frame, the Blues stormed the castle feasting off of one Capitals turnover after another to grab a 2-1 lead. The Blues held a commanding 14-6 advantage in quality shots in period two. The last full 20 minutes were another complete reversal as the Capitals dominated play with an 18-8 shots on goal advantage and an 8-4 margin in quality shots. In overtime, both teams had two quality opportunities, but it was the Super Swede who closed the deal with a sweet top shelf snipe.

Old Man Ovi Alex Ovechkin is 32 years old and father time should be starting to set in, that’s what all of the data compiled by the stats crowd will tell you should be happening. Well here’s a special note to the spreadsheet geeks, to quote the great Sundance Kid, “You figured wrong, Butch.” The Gr8 continues to skate as well as he has since his mid 20’s and he was a force again on Sunday afternoon. Ovi’s power play wrister was deflected home by Brett Connolly in the opening frame to give the Caps their first marker and then with his squad really needing a goal, he delivered with a laser to the top shelf eight minutes into period three to tie this one at two. In 22:50 of ice time, Alex had seven shot attempts, but because of a weird bounce off of his back late in the game, he was a minus one. Ovechkin now has 27 goals and 18 assists to lead Washington in both goals and points (45) in 42 games. The man voted by the fans to captain the Metropolitan Division All Star team in just over two weeks, once again is tied for the NHL lead in goals with Nikita Kucherov of Tampa.

Career Year Again for Conno? Connolly notched his ninth goal of the season on the aforementioned tip in and he’s now on pace for 18 tallies, after scoring 15 in 2016-17, which earned him a new two year deal at an annual average of $1.5 M. After a slow and injury riddled start, #10 is really amping up his play and this outing was his best of the season. Brett was all over the puck all game and he had five shots on net and seven overall attempts in 14:43. He led the Capitals in shot attempt percentage with 20 shots for and just five against when he was on the ice (80%). Playing with Lars Eller all game, plus Oshie from the middle of the second period on, the Washington third line was dominant. Connolly is no longer awkwardly reaching for pucks on the ice and he’s using his body to win the one on one battles. In addition, he has a very fast shot release and he goes to the high danger areas well to set himself up for quality chances. If #10 keeps doing that and shooting the biscuit, the goals will just keep coming.

Return of the Osh Babe It was pretty clear that the four days of no games did wonders for #77 (two assists). T.J. looked like his old self in this affair and he was dogging pucks like crazy. He didn’t score a goal, but he was a key factor in three of the Capitals four lamp lighters. On the Caps second goal, Ovechkin scored just three seconds into the power play. That doesn’t happen if Osh doesn’t win the draw cleanly to Backstrom, who quickly fed John Carlson (two assists in 26:30) at the point before #74 perfectly fed the Gr8 for his howitzer. Oshie started the game with Backstrom and Ovechkin, but then he was shifted to the Eller line after the Capitals looked worse than a really bad Mites team for the first eight minutes of period two. Oshie’s shot on net that Carter Hutton (29 saves) struggled with, led to Eller’s rebound tally that gave the Caps a 3-2 lead with just under 10 minutes left in regulation. Then, of course, the Osh Babe made a super long feed to Nicky on the game winning tally.

Second Period Woes What the heck was that to start period two for Washington? The Blues had the first eight quality chances of the frame and they all came in the first seven minutes. St. Louis scored twice during that stretch and it could’ve been more if not for Braden Holtby (31 saves). There were too many poor passes and bad decisions by the Capitals in their own end. Madison Bowey (1 assist) had another awful up the middle attempt and the rookie needs to stop making that same mistake, but even Matt Niskanen tried and failed on a similar play, and you know he knows better, right? I’m not sure what is happening to the Caps from period one to two this season, but it’s been a horror show on many occassions. They have too many turnovers and with the long change they end up getting hemmed in their own zone and on the ice for extra long stretches. This is a problem they must fix over the second half of the season. Perhaps they need to get some new tunes in the locker room because they’ve been coming out for period two like they’ve been listening to Air Supply and Barry Manilow records during the intermission?

Timely Saves Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, Holtby made some really key saves at very important times in this hockey game. You’re probably reading this thinking “No S—t Sherlock!” and you’d be right. The Holtbeast is so dialed in this season and let’s hope he keeps that up in the playoffs. The Blues could’ve won this game a few times, most notably, late in period two when #70 stopped Vladimir Sobotka with the Blues up a puck; a dynamite save on Magnus Paajarvi with just under two minutes to go in regulation and the game tied; and then a super stop on Patrick Berglund in overtime. Braden may not have the sexy save percentage he had the last three seasons, but he’s now 24-8 this year behind a much younger defense and team. The Holtbeast is the Capitals MVP through 42 games.

Well Isn’t That Special SNL’s church lady was definitely on the side of the Capitals in this affair. Washington was two for four on the man advantage while the Blues were one for two on their power plays. The most important penalty kill, though, came in the middle frame when St. Louis had a 2-1 lead and Evgeny Kuznetsov was in the sin bin for another lazy penalty. During that shorthanded situation, the Caps were just outstanding yielding no shots on goal or any quality chances. After that huge PK, the Capitals really took over the game.

Overall, this was a very up and down contest for the Caps. They were really strong in the first and third periods, but were a train wreck for most of the middle stanza. Their puck management still has moments where it is prone to disaster. However, the resolve of this club is amazing and they continue to find ways to win and different players have stepped up to help the team stay hot. On Sunday, the play of Connolly helped make the difference against a quality Blues team. The Caps have now reeled off nine straight victories at home. Their next two tilts are at Capital One Arena, as well (Vancouver on Tuesday and Carolina on Thursday).

Notes: Andre Burakovsky returned to the lineup after two games (healthy scratch) and did some good things in 10:52. His biggest problem, though, is his long shot release and it’s preventing him from scoring goals. The Caps need more from #65 so he has to find a way to more quickly shoot the puck, much like Connolly has been doing…Niskanen returned after missing the Carolina game due to an upper body injury and played 24:19…the Capitals lost the face off battle, 36-26, but Jay Beagle went 9-5…Barry Trotz will be coaching the Metropolitan Division players at the All Star Game in Tampa since the Caps owned 1st place at the halfway mark.

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Wilson NJ

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Ovechkin’s Three Apples Puts the Caps Back in First Place

Posted on 30 December 2017 by Ed Frankovic

It had been 11 games since the Washington Capitals came out and jumped on a team to tally the first two goals in the first period (December 6th vs. Chicago). On Saturday night the Caps did just that to take advantage of a Devils team that played on Friday night en route to a 5-2 win at Capital One Arena.

Alex Ovechkin (three apples), Nicklas Backstrom (goal, two assists), and John Carlson (goal, two assists) all had three points each as Washington received a very strong performance from their top line and top blue liner to improve their record to 24-13-3 (51 points) and put them back in first place in the Metropolitan Division by a point. New Jersey (22-1-6) has two games in hand.

Braden Holtby was super solid in net making 25 of 27 saves and the Capitals will close out December with a perfect eight wins in eight tries at Capital One Arena. There is no place like home for Coach Barry Trotz’ club and they have now won 15 of their last 17 in front of their very boisterous fan base.

Here are my thoughts and analysis of this win that came at the end of some brutal scheduling:

Schedule Craziness This was the third game in four nights for both teams and Washington also played back to back before the Christmas break. So that’s effectively five games in six possible nights for the Caps and despite a three game losing skid in there, they came out of it 2-1-2 (six points). So even with a bit of a rough patch with no practice time, Trotz and company managed to survive and reclaim 1st place heading into Tuesday’s tilt in Carolina.

Tom Wilson’s War This is a trick title to this bullet because based on it you’d think that number 43 was dropping the gloves to announce his presence with authority again. Nope, Willy is doing it with his stick. Just 2:26 into this affair, now third line Tom went to the net and finished off a beautiful pass from Christian Djoos with Brett Connolly parked at the top of the paint. Wilson slid in behind #10 and after the sweet feed from the rookie blue liner, he snapped it by Cory Schneider (30 saves). Wilson, who earlier in December seemed to help Ovi and Backy get out of their funks with his stint on the top line, was bumped down in Thursday’s rally over Boston to jump start Lars Eller and Connolly to get them motoring again. #43 did just that and he’s on pace to shatter his total for points in a season. Tom now has six goals and 12 assists in 36 games and he’s a staggering +11 this year. Wilson helped Lars Eller lead the team in shot attempt percentage on the night (15 for and six against, 71.43%).

Top Line Production After a rough first shift, the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Devante Smith-Pelly line really got it going. Djoos was the recipient of a great passing play to make it 2-0 at 11:09 of period one when he dropped the puck to Ovi coming across the blue line and then kept going to the net. The Gr8 then fed Backstrom with a sweet diagonal feed and Nicky went cross ice to #29, who snuck the puck behind Schneider into the yawning cage for a layup. That one was prettier than Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman and it was the type of start the Caps needed against a tired opponent. The top line would also set up Matt Niskanen for another layup in the third frame, to make it 4-1 just 4:25 into that stanza. Nisky carried the puck across the offensive blue line and once again it was a drop pass to Ovechkin that was the key to the sequence. Ovi fed DSP with another gem and #25 went cross ice to #2 for the second tic-tac-toe tally of the night for a defensemen. The three forwards on the Caps top line had 23 of the 47 shot attempts from Caps centers or wingers. Ovi logged 20 minutes and had nine shot attempts (six on net), Backstrom played 19:48 and had four shot attempts, and DSP had 10 in 16:25 (but only four hit the net).

Blueline Hat Trick I mentioned the key Djoos and Niskanen tallies, but Carlson also scored for Washington to make it a trio of goals for Caps defensemen. This one came on a second period power play that generated several quality chances. Schneider made some big saves to keep it a 2-1 game, but Washington would not allow the Devils to clear and Backstrom fed a pinching in from the point #74 nicely and Johnny rocketed it by #35 to restore a Capitals two goal lead. That power play marker at 7:01 really took some life from the Devils and set the stage for a third period where Washington kept the hammer down. The Caps have now gotten a goal from their previously struggling power play in each of the last two tilts and it is looking better as there’s been crisper passing and more movement.

Two In, Two Out Coach Trotz made two interesting lineup changes on Saturday. He scratched Andre Burakovsky, who has been pretty much terrible since his great game in Dallas on December 19th, and he put Chandler Stephenson back in. #18 is fast and his speed is a good match for New Jersey. I don’t expect #65 to be out for more than a game as the organization really needs him if they want to go deep into the post season. The other change was to get an up and down Madison Bowey a view from the press box so he can course correct some of his recent turnover struggles. Inserted into his spot was Taylor Choreny, who had a relatively unimpressive 13:25 of action. #4 had no shot attempts, but he also had no official giveaways. He was on the ice for the Devils first tally and that was a result of one of his failed clears. I’d expect Bowey to be back in against the Canes on Tuesday.

Overall, this was a very tidy win for the Caps, who are really making home ice pay off for them. Coach Trotz gets the last change and the crowd definitely helps the energy level. For the first in time in over three weeks, they had more significantly more energy than their opponent in the early going and that fast start took a lot of hope from the Devils. Washington’s passing was much cleaner in this affair and that helped negate a New Jersey forecheck, as well as their speed. Djoos had a quality game, except for a turnover and poor coverage on Travis Zajac’s goal that made it 4-2 with 11 minutes left. Christian is definitely improving and that is another key to the Capitals potential post season success. #29 has the ability to step up with his speed and stop opposing rushes while creating offense the other way.

Notes: It was another post concussion quiet night from T.J. Oshie (+1), who logged only 12:10. The Osh Babe had one shot attempt (blocked) and it came after he passed up a great chance in the high slot…the Caps out shot attempted the Devils, 67-60…Carlson led the Caps in time on ice with 25:58. Dmitry Orlov continues to excel on the back end and he played 21:27, was +1, and had three hits…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 31-25. Jay Beagle was dominant, going 13-3. Backstrom (7-10) also had a couple of huge wins on draws in the last minute when the Devils pulled Schneider and it led to his empty net tally…the Caps gave former #90, Marcus Johansson, a warm reception in his first game back in DC and a nice video tribute to boot…with the win, Coach Trotz now sits fifth all time in NHL coaching victories with 737 (passed Lindy Ruff).

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Burkie Holtby

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Burakovsky Delivers for the Caps in the Lone Star State

Posted on 20 December 2017 by Ed Frankovic

The Caps welcomed back T.J. Oshie into the lineup after he missed six games due to a Joe Thornton cheap shot, but the real welcome back on Tuesday night in Dallas should go to Andre Burakovksy. The Swedish winger, who missed 20 games with a fractured thumb and had been struggling since returning to the lineup 10 days ago, scored twice, including the game winner just 1:51 into overtime. Burkie also assisted on the game tying tally with 3:36 remaining in regulation when he outworked Dallas defenders in the left wing boards and then set up Brett Connolly in the high slot, who fired a quick laser past Ben Bishop (24 saves) to tie the game at three.

Wow, what a hockey game!

This was a physical and fast paced game. Dallas was downright cheap with some of their play, including an Antoine Roussel hit to Oshie in the first period that no one in the Capitals organization liked.

All game the Stars tried to be physical and there were several extracurricular scrums following whistles. It was vintage Ken “I learned to coach in the Flyers organization” Hitchcock.

Washington, however, would not back down in this affair. They started the scoring 10:35 into this game when Connolly made a great play in his own end to get the puck out, then with Lars Eller (+3) smartly driving the net, #10 fed a sweet backhanded cross ice pass to Burakovsky (two goals, one assist, +3) and he buried it quickly. It was a great shot and it came with none of the recent hesitation we’ve seen from Andre.

The Stars would tie the game up on a power play they received when the turtling Roussel jumped Wilson on a centre ice faceoff, then fell on his back and covered up. Willy received four minutes to just two for the Stars player in a call by Steve Kozari and Furman South that left many heads scratching.

As has been the case lately, especially on the road, the Capitals struggled in the middle frame. The biggest problem is that with the long change they don’t simplify their game and they turn too many pucks over at the offensive blue line. Instead of getting pucks deep and wearing out their opponent, the opposition gets the disc and goes the other way and exhausts Washington.

Dallas would take the lead at 11:09 of the middle frame and they held a large possession advantage in that period. After the goal though, Caps captain Alexander Ovechkin seemed on a mission and he was flying on the ice and using his body to throttle Star players. Suddenly Washington came to life and Dmitry Orlov scored a beauty of a goal when the Stars defenders thought for sure #9 was going to drop pass to the Gr8, who was barreling in the zone right behind Dima. Orlov then faked the pass, backhanded the biscuit through his skates, toe dragged the disc, and then flew around John Klingberg to score a goal top shelf that was reminiscent of Paul Coffey’s end to end rushes with the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980’s. Boy was that tally sweet!

In that middle frame the Capitals were outshot 14-5 and the shot attempts through 40 minutes were 50-31 for the Stars. The reason the Caps were able to stay in this game, once again, was because of their all world goaltender, Braden Holtby (33 saves). The Holtbeast made a huge save on a Stars four on two rush when it was 2-1. If it goes 3-1, Washington probably loses this contest.

In the third stanza and overtime, the Caps came to play, out shot attempting Dallas, 25-20, but a neutral zone turnover and poor gap control allowed the Stars to take a 3-2 lead with 4:07 left. After playing such a good road game to that point, you would have thought the team would be deflated and feel like the Big D curse was going to strike again, but not this Washington bunch. The third line came out and had a completely dominant shift with Burakovsky winning some big one on one battles on the wall to set up Connolly for a great tally just 41 seconds after Hitchcock’s chippy Stars thought they were going to get two points.

In overtime, Holtby made a great stick shaft save on a Stars three on two to get a defensive zone faceoff and then Washington went the other way with the puck and worked their cycle game in the offensive zone. Burakovsky actually had two other opportunities to shoot, but he passed up the openings and kept circling. Burkie and John “Norris Trophy Worthy” Carlson worked a nice overlap play that gave #65 a straight line to the net and he roofed one by Bishop to give Washington an amazing victory in Dallas, their second straight 4-3 overtime win in two years in the Lone Star State.

In summary, this was a gutsy effort by the Caps. Jakub Vrana stuck up for Oshie early on before Wilson could announce his presence to that punk Roussel with authority. In addition, the Osh Babe sacrificed his leg to block a shot late in the game, but he eats rocks for breakfast and came back out for his next shift. This was a tough game and the Stars brought their intensity that often crossed the line. But this Capitals squad continues to come together and work as a team. The young rookies on defense, Christian Djoos (1 assist) and Madison Bowey are getting better and better and the forward lines are starting to really take shape. Alex Chiasson had another good game despite being moved to the fourth line while the third line was the difference in this affair, along with Holtby.

The Caps have now won four games in a row, are 22-12-1 (45 points) and are back in sole possession of first place in the Metropolitan Division. The division race is really tight and every game matters. The scary thing is that this Capitals club, which is winning games despite injuries and rookies scattered across the lineup, can still get a lot better.

On Thursday night, however, they can sit back and enjoy this win over the chippy and cheap Hitchcock led Stars. Scoreboard Hitch!

Notes: Carlson was outstanding again on the back end logging a team leading 27:07. He had an assist on the GWG and he was +2…Orlov is playing super on defense, as well. His only mistake was backing up a bit too much on the Stars third goal. Dima played 23:54. He’s been super since Halloween…Connolly is now up to seven goals on the season and if that 3rd line can gel like it did last January, look out!…Ovi had eight shot attempts and no points, but he continues to fly on the ice. His speed and tenacity is making a difference out there. I thought his play after the Stars took the lead in the middle frame helped turn the Caps fortunes around. Dallas knew they couldn’t contain him and over focused on the Gr8, opening up the lanes for others, and Orlov took full advantage of that. Wow, I’ll say this again, what a goal that was by Dmitry!…Final shot attempts were 70-56 for Dallas. Shots on goal were 36-28 for the Stars…the faceoff battle was tied at 28 apiece. Jay Beagle went 11-6…the Caps were 0 for 3 on the power play while Dallas went 1 for 4. Next up for the Capitals are the Coyotes in Arizona on Friday night, then they play the Vegas Golden Knights in Rock Vegas on Saturday night before they go on a three day Christmas break from December 24th through 26th.

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Holtby Holds the Fort Until the Caps Offense Arrives

Posted on 12 December 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Coming off a dud of a performance on Long Island on Monday night, a 3-1 loss to New York at the Barclay Center, the Capitals came home on Tuesday to face a team, the Colorado Avalanche, which flat out smoked them in their last meeting back on November 16th, 6-2.

The young Avs, led by Nathan MacKinnon’s five points, used their speed and desire to totally destroy the Caps in the Mile High City on that Thursday night. On Monday evening, the surging Avalanche knocked off the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins in the Steel City, 2-1, and looked to improve on their surprising 14-13-2 record at Capital One Arena.

Coach Barry Trotz’ squad, however, had other ideas and they played a smart game structurally to slow the young Colorado team down to grind out a 5-2 victory that improves the Capitals to 19-12-1 (39 points) and back into a first place tie with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who were blitzed by the Edmonton Oilers, 7-2, in CBus on Tuesday. [Note: anyone have the 10 second clip of John Tortorella’s post game presser? LOL!]

This was not a pretty win, but it was a needed one, and several players stepped up to help deliver a well deserved two points and give Washington their eighth triumph in their last 10 games.

With that let’s get right to my thoughts, highlights, and analysis of this tilt:

Braden Holtby (22 saves) continues to be the Caps MVP. The team’s biggest problem lately has been puck management as NBC Sports Washington analyst, Alan May, calls it. There are just too many poor passes and bad decisions going on out on the ice for this club right now. Case in point, in the second period in a 1-1 game, Brooks Orpik possesses the puck at his own blue line with a defender barreling down on him and #44 has no real passing option because all four of the other Capital players are on the other side of the ice, and most of them are up the rink. There’s no left wing in sight and the center is floating on the far boards. Instead of eating the puck there and waiting for help, Orpik goes cross ice with it and the result is a Colin Wilson breakaway. Fortunately for every one of the Caps out there, the Holtbeast made a right arm/body save on Wilson to keep the game tied. It was a HUGE stop at a key time in a game that the Capitals were very sloppy in up until that point. Braden made several other big saves in this contest, but none bigger than that one and once again you can point to his play as a major reason the Capitals were victorious. For the season, Holtby is now 17-7-0. His .918 save percentage is also pretty darned good considering he’s playing behind a very young defense after several key personnel losses in the off season due to the expansion draft (Nate Schmidt) and the tight salary cap (Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk). All hail the Holtbeast, once again! If you don’t think he’s playing well, then you should go watch another sport, this guy is one of the top goaltenders in the NHL and is performing better than his Vezina trophy winning season, in my opinion, as well as a couple of other guys who know their puck that cover this hockey club.

Speaking of performing really well, on the back end the Caps received superb outings from both John Carlson (1 goal and +2 in 21:10) and Dmitry Orlov (+1 in 23:39). Carlson’s hammer of a shot (3rd goal of the season) late in the second period after he came off of the bench on a change gave the Caps the 2-1 lead they would take to period three and expand on. Carly took two penalties in this affair, but overall, he’s been dominant on the back end no matter who he has been paired with this season. #74 is due a nice long term contract extension with the Caps for his play, especially since number one defensemen aren’t easy to find. As for Orlov, this guy is really playing sensational at both ends of the rink. He’s physical when needed on the boards and his breakouts are such a key to Washington’s offense. He had no points on Tuesday night, but if you go back and break his shifts down, he was a major reason that MacKinnon was nowhere to be found in this game. #9’s progression over the last 12 months has been amazing and big credit goes to Dima and assistant coach Todd Rierden.

Continuing on the back end, Madison Bowey had his second two assist game in 14:36 of ice time. His feed to Brett Connolly on a delayed penalty call on the Avalanche allowed #10 to get off his great shot, a one-timer, that he rifled into the cage for a 3-1 advantage with 14:45 remaining. #22 continues to mature at the NHL level. His game is ascending and that will be very important to the Caps in the second half of the season and hopefully into the playoffs. Christian Djoos is also on the uptick, especially in his own end. The kid played 16:25 and was +1 in this affair. #29 is a very good puck mover, but what has really impressed me lately is his defensive zone positioning. Again, credit the player and the coaching staff, who have proven that they can properly develop young defensemen.

Up front, let’s start with the grinders, the fourth line. I loved the game that Devante Smith-Pelly brought to the rink. He was physical and moving his feet. He also made smart decisions with the puck by getting it deep over and over and making Colorado struggle to get the puck out of their end. His linemates, Jay Beagle and Chandler Stephenson, also worked hard in this affair, something we saw from very few Capitals against the Islanders in Monday night’s debacle. That line all played at least 14 minutes each and it was fitting that DSP scored his fifth goal of the season into the empty net with 45 seconds left, after a nice pass from Stephenson. Beagle and Smith-Pelly combined for seven of the Capitals 27 shots on net in the victory. Those guys were skating hard and Coach Trotz rightly rewarded them with additional ice time.

Holtby, Carlson, and Orlov have been big drivers in the Caps hot streak, along with the first line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Tom Wilson, but if Evgeny Kuznetsov (three assists) and Jakub Vrana (goal) don’t completely turn their games around after the earlier Colorado loss (Vrana was a healthy scratch) and abysmal effort against the Flames, the Capitals don’t have multiple lines that can score. The Kuznetsov and Vrana duo has been red hot and with the top line playing well on most nights (although they were just okay against the Avs), that second line needs to produce and they’ve done so, even without T.J. Oshie for the last four tilts. Vrana’s speed really opens things up on the ice, especially because he’s driving towards the net, and Kuzy continues to make the right pass versus shoot decisions, something he was not doing consistently well for the first six weeks of the season. #92’s play to set up #13 for the first goal was just pure confidence with the puck and he drew both Avs to him so that he could feed Jakub for the top shelf peanut butter shot past former Capital Semyon Varlamov (22 saves). His last helper at 16:19 of the 3rd frame to make it 4-1, to Matt Niskanen, was a thing of beauty. After Andre Burakovsky knocked Erik Johnson off of the puck in a four on four situation, Kuzy grabbed the disc and drove the net. He then froze the Avs defender by faking like he was going to pull the biscuit back and then he slid it behind the defensemen to a wide open Nisky, who buried it for his second goal of the season (and second in three games).

Finally, another thing that really helped the Capitals win this one was their penalty killing. The Caps were a perfect four for four in 6:25 of shorthanded time and they DID NOT ALLOW A SHOT ON GOAL. Those kills were huge because Colorado, on their first three power plays, either had a chance to tie the game or take the lead. Wilson was excellent with his skating on the PK as were the other three forwards, Lars Eller, Alex Chiasson, and Beagle. Orpik was also really good keeping Colorado on the perimeter in his team leading 4:35 of shorthanded time.

In summary, this was not a win with style points, there are none in hockey, but the Caps did what they needed to prevail. Their goaltender and grinding fourth line prevented Colorado from gaining any momentum until the superior skill of the Capitals took over in the third period.

Notes: Connolly’s goal was his fourth in the last six games. He is going to the right places on the rink to receive great feeds and burying the biscuit with his excellent shot. He’s up to six goals now and with Burakovsky back, he and Eller will hopefully take off like that same 3rd line did last January…Oshie skated again on Tuesday for the 3rd straight day and will likely practice on Friday (the Caps are off on Wednesday and head to Beantown to face the Bruins on Thursday night). If the Osh Babe does well out at that practice, then there is a good chance he’ll be in the lineup against the Ducks on Saturday night at 8 pm (who will be without the injured Corey Perry)….the Caps won the face-off battle, 27-24. Eller was 8-4…shot attempts were 56-55 for Colorado…the Capitals had 16 giveaways to just six for Colorado. Puck management needs to improve going forward! There are too many bad passes by Washington players, especially in their own end…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 25:05…the Caps had 24 hits and Smith-Pelly led the team with four. He was a work horse on Tuesday.

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Caps Amp Up Their Effort Level in 5-2 Win Over Ottawa

Posted on 23 November 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Coming into Wednesday’s Thanksgiving Eve contest against the Ottawa Senators, the Washington Capitals had lost three of their last four games.

Why had they been losing?

Well, it’s not rocket science; they just weren’t working hard enough to be victorious.

In a nutshell, they were playing lazy hockey which led to bad penalties and in Monday’s loss to the Flames, the poor play resulted effectively in three power play goals against in a 4-1 defeat.

Simply put, it was a bad scene and Caps fans had to wonder which Washington team was going to show up against Erik Karlsson and company. Would it be the team that dominated the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night or the soft and seemingly out to lunch club that lost by a combined 16-6 to Nashville, Colorado, and Calgary?

In attempt to get things going offensively, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz made some big changes to his forward lineup after declaring before the game that there would be no moves up front. Most notably, he reunited Nicklas Backstrom with Alex Ovechkin and he put Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has been very inconsistent with his effort level from game to game, with a surging Jakub Vrana and the always hawking the puck, T.J. Oshie. Tom Wilson was promoted to the Backstrom line while Devante Smith-Pelly, who had a terrible giveaway that turned the Calgary game for the worse, was sent to the bottom six.

Coach Trotz pretty much pulled a Reg Dunlop by saying one thing and then doing another. To quote Slap Shot, Barry pulled the old “mind <bleep>.” Ottawa was preparing for one thing and the Caps showed up with a different plan.

The moves worked wonders, but most importantly, the Capitals brought their lunch pails to this affair and worked hard on every shift. Players were going in strong on the puck on the boards and battling. There was very little reaching and as a result, they didn’t take a single penalty until late in period two.

On offense, the personnel changes clicked and Washington raced out to a 4-0 lead by the game’s midpoint and then cruised to a 5-2 win. The Caps are now 12-10-1 (25 points) and continue to occupy the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

Things are very tight standings wise and it will likely remain that way all season with so much parity in the league as a result of expansion and a slower salary cap escalation in 2017-18.

That’s why the work ethic is so important.

Washington’s most consistent hard worker is none other than the Osh Babe himself and T.J. had another stellar game on Wednesday night.  Oshie kept the puck inside the offensive blue line with great hustle and hands on the Caps first goal sequence beating two Senators in the process. Oshie gathered in the biscuit and fed Kuznetsov for a quality chance at the left post. Kuzy smartly shot, but Craig Anderson made a pad save, however, Vrana was there for the loose change and he deposited the disc into the cage to make it 1-0 just over 15 minutes into the game.

The Caps then extended their lead to two pucks with just five seconds left in the opening frame. Brooks Orpik made a huge defensive zone hit to separate the Ottawa player from the puck. That allowed Backstrom to gather in the biscuit in the corner and he made a sweet long zone exit pass to Alex Chiasson up the right side of the ice. Ovechkin then beat Codi Ceci down the rink and received an excellent feed from #39 to spring him on a breakaway. The Gr8 beat Anderson upstairs for a huge tally very late in the period. Ovechkin trained differently this past summer, focusing more on speed, and that goal proved that his off-season change is paying dividends. As I blogged after the Minnesota win, Alex is definitely faster this season. That goal does not happen last year.

In the middle frame, pesky Alex Burrows took a tripping penalty and Washington’s power play made the Senators pay. The Caps worked the puck around and John Carlson fired on net with both Oshie and Backstrom in front of the goal. Carlson’s shot hit Anderson in the pads and bounced into the slot. The Osh Babe beat four Senators to the disc and fed it back to Kuznetsov, who fired a laser just inside the far post to make it 3-0 at 7:41. Just over two minutes later Vrana scored his second goal of the night on a rush shot where he caught Anderson cheating and leaning to his left, which allowed #13 to beat the goalie high short side.

That was pretty much the game there and despite having to kill off a 76 second two man advantage late in period two, the outcome was never in doubt. After the Senators made it 4-2 late in period three, Chiasson closed out the scoring with a lengthy backhand shot into the empty cage with 91 seconds remaining and clinch this one for the good guys.

Overall, this was a much needed triumph for the Caps. They got big performances out of Kuznetsov (1 goal, two assists) and Backstrom, their top two centers. It’s no secret that when those two guys are good, the team typically wins, and vice versa. It is also good to see the progression from Vrana, who has gone from a healthy scratch against the Avs just six days ago to a productive spot in the top six of the forward lineup. The Vrana-Kuznetsov-Oshie line is a new combination, but it works well with #13’s speed and Oshie’s on the puck tenacity. Simply put, Oshie makes any line he’s on better.

Putting Ovi and Backy back together seemed to get #19 going, too. I’ve been calling for these two superstars to be put on the same line again and Coach Trotz delivered by reuniting the duo. They were superb on Wednesday night.

This was a stabilizing victory for Washington and they did it the Smith Barney way, they earned it!

Now they need to consistently bring the energy.

Notes: the Caps were 1 for 1 on the power play and a perfect 3 for 3 on the PK…Braden Holtby was rock solid in net (29 saves). His biggest and most important stop was on a tip by Jean-Gabriel Pageau when the game was scoreless. The Holtbeast continues to make the hard saves look routine…John Carlson led the Caps in ice time at 25:19. Dmitry Orlov played an outstanding 22:00 minutes and Orpik was dynamite in 21:54…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 30-24. Lars Eller went 10-2…next up for the Caps is the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday at 5 pm at Capital One Arena. The Bolts are the best team in the NHL right now.

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Caps Over Pens Nov 2017

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Caps Get Total Team Effort in Victory Over Pittsburgh

Posted on 10 November 2017 by Ed Frankovic

When 20 men all row the boat in the same direction, good things happen.

On Friday night at Capital One Arena the Washington Capitals played, by far, their best game of the season to knock off the two time defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins, 4-1.

John Carlson, T.J. Oshie, Chandler Stephenson, and Jakub Vrana scored for the Caps and Braden Holtby stopped 27 of 28 shots to improve Washington to 9-7-1 (19 points).

Without further adieu, here are nine detailed thoughts and analysis on this huuuuugggggeeee victory.

  1. Nicklas Backstrom came into this game with a seven game scoreless streak and his linemate, T.J. Oshie, had not netted a goal in eight straight contests. In a smart attempt to shake the lines up, Coach Barry Trotz bumped Vrana down to the third line and added a player who works hard on every shift, Stephenson, to the mix. That trio was superb all evening and they spent a lot of time up against Sidney Crosby’s line. Nicky held Sid the Kid pointless and even broke his pointless drought with a great feed to Stephenson in the slot to make it 3-1 with 6:18 left. Crosby would play 18:58, have only three shot attempts, lose 14 of 22 draws, and ended up a minus two. It was a vintage two way game by Backstrom, one of the NHL’s best centers. Oshie also broke his slump with a sweet deflection of a Carlson point shot on the power play with 1:51 to go in period two. The Osh Babe also had great net presence on Carlson’s opening marker that hit Tom Kuhnackl’s stick and went in. #34 was trying to tie up Oshie and he was not successful.
  2. Speaking of Carlson, what a beast he was, once again! #74 had a goal and an assist in 28:43 of ice time. He has simply been sensational while Matt Niskanen has been out. The Caps have rode Carly and Brooks Orpik on the back end heavily and are 6-6 in Nisky’s absence. However, four of those six losses came on the tail end of back-to-back affairs. I attribute a lot of those losses to the lack of depth caused by the expansion draft, salary cap casualties, and key injuries. With #2 due back in the next week or so, that will alleviate a lot of pressure on Carlson and Orpik and really help get Dmitry Orlov back on track, too, since he’ll have his favorite d-pair partner again. Orlov has been very inconsistent and he tipped in the only Penguins goal in this one due to some bad defensive zone coverage.
  3. Sticking with the blue line, I thought this was Christian Djoos’ best game of his very young NHL career. His speed and ability to skate and move the puck provides a great match up against the Penguins and he was rock solid in 13:18 of ice time. Rookie Madison Bowey had a few giveaways in 15:44 of action, but he’s getting better and better. As I mentioned to Caps General Manager Brian MacLellan on Monday when we last chatted, the blessing in disguise of Niskanen’s injury will be the sped up development of both Djoos and Bowey. Those two kids have really improved and assistant coach Todd Reirden deserves credit for helping turn these guys into capable NHLers. Washington suddenly has more depth on the back end than they did on October 1st. I’d like to see Bowey stay up when Niskanen returns and Djoos, as well. Taylor Chorney should be the 7th defensemen and he’s been really good the last two weeks.
  4. The Andre Burakovksy injury (fractured thumb) was another big blow to the Capitals forward lines since he was expected to take over the production of Marcus Johansson this season. Vrana was gifted into the top six when #65 went out and he just hasn’t produced. His compete level and decision making was lacking and he deserved the demotion he received. Stephenson has taken full advantage of his opportunity and that has been a pleasant surprise. Any team could’ve had this guy right before the season for nothing and now he has five points in eight games. Washington really needed someone to step up with the Burakovsky, Brett Connolly, and Tyler Graovac injuries and he’s been one who has done that.
  5. After Thursday’s practice, Coach Trotz noted that with guys close to returning from injury he now has five lines of forwards and four defensive pairs practicing and he likes that because it brings competition. Well, I think it is no surprise that many players increased their compete level and were structured, strong on the walls, and won numerous one on one battles in this contest against the Penguins. When players are comfortable and aren’t pushed, they don’t do the hard work and little things necessary to win hockey games. Now that jobs are on the line, suddenly every guy with a Caps sweater on in Friday’s tilt was giving everything they had. There’s another example of socialism not working!
  6. I’ve been tough on Vrana and Alex Chiasson during the early part of this season. Both have had their on-ice issues and they have struggled to contribute in a substantial way. On this evening, both made a key play in an important situation that helped the Caps win. On Stephenson’s goal, Chiasson went to the net and created havoc in front of Matt Murray (27 saves). While he doesn’t have the best set of hands and his skating needs a lot of work, #39 at least knew to crash the cage there and what is likely keeping him in the lineup is his penalty killing. As for Vrana, he needs to compete harder and getting out there with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson is a good fit for him. #13 still can perform better and he needs to bury some of his chances, but his play on the empty net clincher was a combination smart decision and pure speed.
  7. Special teams have been a problem area for the Caps so far this season. The power play had become stagnant and the penalty kill was struggling having to kill too many opportunities. On Friday, both of those units were big reasons the Capitals were victorious. Caps assistant coach Blaine Forsythe added some new wrinkles to the power play and they connected twice in six opportunities (9:11 of man advantage time). Oshie gets a lot of credit for creating havoc in front of the net, but the passing was crisper and there was some good rotation. Alex Ovechkin (1 assist) had a great chance a couple of minutes before #77’s goal on the man advantage, but he shot wide. Perhaps the biggest story though, was the way Washington handled the Penguins power play, which is one of the deadliest in the league. The Caps did a great job of keeping the Pens on the perimeter and keeping the crease clear so that Holtby could see the puck. The Holtbeast was superb and was a major reason Pittsburgh went 0 for 4 with the man advantage.
  8. Liam O’Brien, who was called up a week ago, only played 4:36, but it was an important stretch. In the first period, one of the toughest guys in the league and lead agitator, Ryan Reaves, was trying to intimidate the Caps and help give the star players on the Penguins more room on the ice. Reaves was jawing at Tom Wilson from the get go in this one and he hit O’Brien on an early shift. #87, recognizing that Reaves was trying to set a tone and get Washington off of their game, took Ryan on and got beat quickly in a fight. However, he took Reaves off of the ice for five minutes and after that #75 was nowhere to be found and became a non factor in the contest. Well done, Liam, way to take one for the team.
  9. Finally, an immense amount of credit for the Capitals staying afloat during this early stretch with key injuries goes to Holtby. Braden is now 9-3 with a .924 save percentage this season. He’s been outstanding and the team’s MVP playing behind a much more inexperienced defense. The Holtbeast won his 200th career game on Friday and became the 2nd fastest goalie to 200 wins (319 games) since the legendary Ken Dryden did it with the Montreal Canadiens in 311 tilts (h/t Tarik El-Bashir of NBC Sports Washington).

In summary, this was a gritty and gutsy effort by the Caps on Friday night. They played structured and strong hockey and won a lot of little battles all over the ice. It was a team effort and they played the way they’ll need to in order to be successful this season.

It was their best game.

Notes: Pittsburgh is now 9-7-2 (20 points) and has a -17 goal differential. They’ve lost key depth, too, due to the salary cap and have yet to win on the tail end of back to back games, as well. They had not played since Tuesday, though, like the Capitals. Historical Cap killers Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, and Matt Cullen are no longer wearing the black and gold and Washington benefited from that…the Caps outhit the Penguins, 30-17…shot attempts were 59-56 for Pittsburgh, but the Caps got more on the cage, 31-28…the Caps won the face off battle, 34-26. Jay Beagle was 13-4 and Backstrom went 7-4…Orpik played 21:38 on the back end and had one of his best games of the season. He kept Patrick Hornqvist and company off of the Holtbeast all night long…next up for the Caps are the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday night at 7:00 pm at Capital One Arena.

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Tom Wilson Helps the Caps Plow by Boston, 3-2

Posted on 04 November 2017 by Ed Frankovic

For the second straight game, the Washington Capitals got big performances from their third line and goalie Braden Holtby (31 saves) to win a hockey game by a single puck.

Tom Wilson scored twice and Alex Ovechkin notched his 11th goal of the season as the Caps defeated the Boston Bruins, 3-2, in Beantown on Saturday night.

Unlike their most recent win against the Islanders, Washington deserved this victory as a team where it was really the Holtbeast and subpar netminding from Jaroslav Halak that gifted the Capitals two points on Thursday.

The Caps were more physically engaged in this affair and they announced their presence with authority in the first period, jumping out to a 2-0 lead. One of the Capitals biggest problems is passing up shooting opportunities, but in this game they earned their early two puck advantage by putting the biscuit on net. Wilson would open the scoring after a shot resulted in an offensive zone faceoff. Lars Eller battled for the ensuing draw along with linemate Chandler Stephenson and the disc bounced free to Willy near the goal line and he alertly snapped it quickly on the cage. The shot eluded Tuukka Rask and just 7:01 into this one, the guys in white had an early lead.

Ovechkin would then nearly make it 2-0 on a clean breakaway. Evgeny Kuznetsov made a sweet feed out of the Washington zone to spring the Gr8. Rask, however, had other plans and thwarted Ovi’s attempt to go five hole. Alex was clearly ticked off at not finishing, but he channeled that frustration into some hard wall work and he seized the puck behind the Boston net. He then wheeled it around the boards back to the point and from there the puck made its way to Dmitry Orlov at the left point and he went cross ice nicely to Kuzy, who then found a seam to Ovechkin, who had moved all alone in the slot. The Gr8 then pounced like a shark in blood infested waters and rifled a one-timer by Rask to make it 2-0.

That first frame was a dominant one for the Capitals and things were looking good, but then the Bruins came to life in the middle stanza. David Pastrnak got behind the Capitals defense and scored five hole on the Holtbeast just 3:37 into the period. From there the Bruins stormed into the Washington end as if “the British were coming.” It was wave after wave of black and yellow jerseys but Holtby, as he usually is against the Bruins, was dialed in and held the fort.

Then with just 1:10 left in the period, Brooks Orpik made a huge keep in at the left point and he fired the puck towards the net. Wilson was in the high slot and he deflected it beautifully by Rask to give the Caps a two goal advantage heading into period three.

From there things got hairy as Coach Barry Trotz’ crew, who had been penalty free for the first 40 minutes, took four minors. Washington killed off the first three, but a late Wilson tripping infraction resulted in another goal for Pastrnak with 2:32 to go. The Caps would manage to hold off the Bruins with Orpik making a huge block just before the final buzzer.

It was a gritty victory in a tough place to play. The Caps do seem to have Boston’s number, much like the Penguins own the Capitals, and on this night Ovi and company earned a much needed triumph to improve their record to 7-6-1 (15 points).

Here are some thoughts and analysis on the Capitals second win in a row:

  • Wilson had a big donut hole in the goals column coming into this one, but he’s been playing well when slotted with Eller on the third line. In this affair he was the best player on the ice notching his first two tallies of the season and delivering some big time hits to the likes of Brad Marchand and others. He was just sensational on the penalty kill, as well, and nearly scored shorthanded to get the hat trick. I really like the way this Stephenson-Eller-Wilson line is playing. They are hard on the puck and skate well.
  • Getting a goal from Ovechkin was big because he had gone five games without one. What was even better was how it was scored. It was the result of hard work, especially by the captain. Winning the board battles is a big key to winning games, and that’s what Coach Trotz needs from his top lines.
  • Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie didn’t have any points in this affair, but both defended well against the likes of Patrice Bergeron, Marchand, and Pastrnak. Jakub Vrana was their linemate for about half of their shifts (10:40 of ice time) and #13 just isn’t getting it done to help produce offensively. Vrana is playing too much of a perimeter game and needs to win more one on one battles so that Backy and the Osh Babe can start scoring again. Too many pucks are dying with Vrana right now.
  • The Caps power play was 0 for 2 and once again they moved the puck well around the perimeter, but didn’t shoot enough. The 1st unit was on the ice quite a bit for the second man advantage opportunity, but it was an offensive pass fest. Last season Marcus Johansson, along with Oshie, did a good job of getting to the front of the net for rebounds and tip in goals. With Jojo gone, no one is in there helping out #77 in front. That is something the coaching staff should probably look at. Do they want Backstrom and/or Kuznetsov getting to the front of the net to help Oshie? Seems like whoever is the low man on the power play on the opposite side of Ovechkin should be crashing that far post more often, much like Sidney Crosby does for the Penguins.
  • Holtby won’t be happy about the second goal he allowed, but he’s playing sensational. He not only made the first stops, but there were several rebound chances that he put himself in great position to thwart. There were numerous times in period two where the Bruins had a chance to equalize things and #70 said “No way, Jose.” The Caps knew they were going to have to rely on their goaltending this season with such a young defense, that has gotten even younger with Matt Niskanen out, and Braden has delivered. They don’t get these last two wins without outstanding goaltending.
  • Speaking of Niskanen, the Capitals are now 4-5 without #2 this campaign. Three of the five losses have come on the tail end of back to back game situations. On Saturday morning, Matt was skating with a stick and puck for the first time since his injury in New Jersey, so he’s getting closer to returning, but I think it’s a stretch to think he’ll be back for the game against Buffalo on Tuesday, the first one he’s eligible to play due to long term injured reserve. Even playing next Friday against the Penguins seems like a long shot right now. Madison Bowey has stepped up well in Niskanen’s absence and Christian Djoos was better defensively on Saturday night, so the young guys are handling the “baptism by fire” approach, so far.

Overall, this was a stronger performance from the Caps. They are doing a better job of defending in their own end and the younger players are gaining confidence. That should help when Niskanen returns to the lineup since the minutes being given to Carlson and Orpik right now are not sustainable long term.

Notes: the Caps now face Arizona at Capital One Arena on Monday night at 7 pm before immediately flying out to Buffalo for Tuesday’s date with the Sabres…Carlson played a team high 29:18 while the 37 year old Orpik was stellar in 25:08 of action. Orlov, who was much better in this affair, logged only 18:54, but they were very effective minutes. Coach Trotz needs consistency out of #9…Taylor Chorney had his best game of the season logging 15:23 on the back end. Bowey (+3) played 14:39 and Djoos was at 13:27…Backstrom led the forwards in ice time at 19:31…the Capitals lost the faceoff battle, 31-29. Eller (1 assist in 14:19) was 8-3…power plays were four to two for Boston. I have no gripe with the calls on the Capitals, but Ian Walsh and Chris Rooney missed several infractions on the Bruins, especially a high stick by Marchand on Orpik right before the second Bruins goal.

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Eller Isles

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Eller and Holtby Lead the Caps over the Islanders

Posted on 02 November 2017 by Ed Frankovic

They always say goaltending is the great equalizer in hockey, and Thursday night’s Caps-Islanders game proves that axiom.

Lars Eller scored two goals and added an assist as Washington’s third line was dominant all evening and Braden Holtby stopped 35 of 38 shots, many of them of the high danger variety, to give the Capitals a much needed 4-3 victory over the New York Islanders at Capital One Arena.

The Isles outplayed the Caps quite a bit in this one, outshot attempting the home squad, 72-48, including 38-19 in shots on goal for the game and 16-2 in the third period. Jaroslav Halak, however, was a sieve for New York in net while the Holtbeast bailed out numerous Caps turnovers and soft plays in this affair.

The triumph puts Washington back to .500 at 6-6-1 (13 points) and improves their home record to 2-3.

Here are eight thoughts on this ugly win.

  1. Chandler Stephenson, Eller, and Tom Wilson were the best line on the ice for the Caps. Not only did they score three times (Taylor Chorney scored the Caps 1st goal from the point with Willy parked in front of the net), they drew two penalties. Washington really needed some production from the bottom six and the third line delivered.
  2. Alex Chiasson hasn’t had much production in his short time with the Caps, but he did do something only a few guys were doing on Thursday night, he shot the puck. #39 had two of the Capitals 19 shots on goal (Eller had three) and his second period laser just 12 seconds after Anders Lee had knotted the game, gave Washington a one puck lead heading into the final frame. Chiasson still has a lot of work to do to deserve to stay in the lineup, most notably, he needs to be quicker and also do a better job of winning board battles. He’s basically playing right now due to injuries to Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky.
  3. Did I mention that Halak stunk tonight? I guess the Caps top six didn’t get that memo because they repeatedly over passed all game. This was not smart hockey. One time the Caps had a three on one break and didn’t even get off a shot on goal. This over passing pattern needs to cease and desist and it’s the top guys who are most guilty. Simplify your game and get the puck on net, especially when the opposing goalie doesn’t appear to be able to stop a beach ball! Halak gave up four goals on 19 shots. He was horrendous and cost his team the game.
  4. Speaking of not playing smart hockey, Washington was whistled for another too many men on the ice penalty and it took the Islanders just 21 seconds to tie the game at two. How does this keep happening this season? The coaches and players better figure out the line changes fast or people are going to lose their jobs over that type of brain dead hockey.
  5. In honor of Halloween, the Caps special teams should be featured on Count Floyd’s Monster Chiller Horror Theatre this week with Alan May filling in for the great Joe Flaherty. The power play was a train wreck with soft perimeter passing that the Islanders easily exploited with hard work. The best chance on the Capitals four power plays was a Casey Cizikas shorthanded breakaway that the Holtbeast fortunately gobbled up. Washington’s penalty killing unit continued to underwhelm going two for four. On the first Isles power play tally John Carlson doesn’t cover one of the hottest goal scorers in the league, John Tavares, off of the faceoff because he gets caught puck watching. #91 is initially denied by the great Holtby in close, but then he deposits the rebound since #74 is slow to arrive. “Scary stuff, Kids!!!” is the best way to sum up the Capitals special teams. Coach Barry Trotz and assistant Coach Blaine Forsythe better fix this mess quickly!
  6. If tomorrow was Christmas, I’d give Evgeny Kuznetsov a yo-yo because that’s the way his season has gone so far. One night he looks like the best player on the planet (see the Edmonton win) and then some nights he’s just invisible. I don’t think #92 won a single board battle against the Islanders. He looked out to lunch the whole game. It was a pitiful effort and inexcusable for a guy making $7.8M a season. It’s hard for Alex Ovechkin to do what he does best, score, when his center is continually making poor decisions or not working hard enough to get the puck for his team.
  7. Rookie Madison Bowey was really good again on the back end in 13:25 of ice time. His alert play and drive to the net on Eller’s first goal was just smart and talented hockey. Even though Lee scored the Islanders third goal with #22 covering him, he still played very well and was another reason the Caps had a chance in this affair. That Islanders third goal was primarily on the bad icing by Dmitry Orlov and then Kuznetsov losing a key defensive zone draw. When Matt Niskanen returns from injury, Bowey better not be the guy sent back to Hershey, he has proven to be a very solid right handed blue liner and he has four assists in eight games. I like a Niskanen-Carlson-Bowey right side of the ice on defense.
  8. A guy who takes a lot of abuse from the over Corsi focused crowd, but is playing some outstanding hockey is Brooks Orpik. With Niskanen out, #44 has really stepped up and he logged 24:33 of ice time and was +2 in this one. The 37 year old is in outstanding shape and is playing far more minutes than normal, but he’s getting it done. With the erratic play of Orlov since Niskanen went out injured and rookie Christian Djoos’ defensive zone weaknesses, Coach Trotz has turned to “Batya” to stabilize the back end and he’s done just that.

Overall, the Capitals should be thankful that Holtby was superb and Halak was a hunk of swiss cheese in this game because the Caps were outworked and probably deserved to lose.

There are a lot of things that need fixing in the Capitals game and it starts with effort from some of the top guys. Special teams are on the list shortly thereafter. They are 3-5 without Niskanen and it’s not clear, at this time, if he’ll be able to return next Tuesday in Buffalo when he’s eligible to come off of long term injured reserve. Matt’s absence is putting pressure on the team’s depleted depth that took a big hit with the expansion draft and the salary cap restrictions. They are 0-3 in back to back games and they will do that again next week when they face Arizona on Monday and then the Sabres in Buffalo on Tuesday. Before that happens, though, they’ll face Boston in Beantown on Saturday night.

Those three squads aren’t exactly world beaters, but neither are the Capitals the way they are playing right now. More guys need to get dialed in and work harder and smarter, otherwise the teams in their division will start pulling away in the standings.

There is definitely room for concern with this club right now, and it isn’t all due to a reduced level of talent, there is plenty of it there to win games.

They are very lucky, right now, to have an all world goalie in Holtby, because he was the difference on Thursday night.

All hail the Holtbeast!

Notes: Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 27:28…Ovechkin had only six shot attempts and just two shots on goal. A winger needs his center to get him the puck. Kuzy didn’t do that on Thursday…Chorney scored a goal, but took a bad penalty in the third period. He only played 12:16, lowest of all Caps defensemen…the Caps were at least good overall in face-offs going 32-20. Eller was 9-3. Kuznetsov was 8-3, but had the costly lost draw after an icing in the final frame that led to the Islanders third goal…Devante Smith-Pelly had four hits and Wilson had three, one of #43’s was a neutral zone doozy…Stephenson had two assists, including a “Backstrom-esque” feed on Eller’s first goal.

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Caps over Devils Burkie

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Burakovsky’s Bout Spurs the Caps to a 5-2 Win in New Jersey

Posted on 13 October 2017 by Ed Frankovic

“You mess with the bull, you get the horns.”

That was the message the New Jersey Devils received from the Washington Capitals on Friday night at the Prudential Center.

Nicklas Backstrom had a goal and three helpers, T.J. Oshie had two goals and an assist, Alex Ovechkin had his league leading 9th goal of the season and a gorgeous assist on Backstrom’s tally, and Evgeny Kuznetzov had two assists in a 5-2 Capitals victory that improved their record to 3-1-1 (7 points) and put them in sole possession of first place in the Metropolitan Division.

Braden Holtby made 21 saves in the cage in a solid performance and overall Washington played their most complete game of the season.

Tom Wilson returned from a bogus George Parros imposed four game suspension to bring physicality and energy to the lineup and that jump started the third line allowing the Washington stars to take over the contest. Jakub Vrana tipped in a shot from Devante Smith-Pelly late in period two for a critical tally that made it 3-1, which was big because the Caps needed some strong contributions from their bottom six forwards (Vrana is in the top six, but DSP is on the fourth line).

Perhaps the biggest development of the night, though, was Andre Burakovsky’s first fight that came 2:33 into the final frame with the Capitals clinging to a one goal lead. Blake Coleman dangerously took out Dmitry Orlov’s legs and sent him slamming hard into the boards. A penalty was being called, but #65 wasn’t about to just walk away without letting Coleman know he crossed the line. Burkie dropped his mitts and went after the bigger Devil and lost the fight, although he didn’t take any hard shots to the head. Instantly the Capitals bench stood up and applauded the “good ole fashioned guts” from Andre “Killer” Burakovsky. It was a moment of team toughness and togetherness that this club displayed and you can bet that Andre will get a lot of “ataboys” from his teammates on the way to Philadelphia for Saturday night’s tilt against the despised Flyers.

Shortly after the Burakovsky bout, Lars Eller took a high stick to the face and that’s when Osh Babe, Ovi, Backy, and Kuzy made sure that young Andre’s first NHL fight wouldn’t go for naught. The Caps scored two pretty power play goals on the double minor to salt this one away.

Then it was payback time.

With 7:29 remaining, Coleman manned up and fought Wilson. Blake was whipped so badly that “Rag Doll” by Aerosmith would’ve been a fitting song to pipe through the public address system at that moment. Simply put, Willy let it be known that Coleman wasn’t walking out of the arena nearly injuring Orlov and beating up on the previously undefeated prize pupil, Burakovsky.

This is the kind of stuff that brings an already tight team even closer together. You can see that this Caps club is in it for each other. Everyone around the league and even many in town are already writing these guys off and foolishly trying to tie the local DC baseball teams post season failures to this hockey franchise. It’s pathetic, if you ask me. Baseball has nothing to do with hockey, period.

Anyone who really knows hockey sees the immense talent on this team despite the off season subtractions due to the salary cap. Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and Oshie are all top NHL players. Combined they have 37 points in just five games. To quote a famous movie from the mid-90’s, yes, “37!” These guys are good and they are still a work in progress with Vrana as a new piece in the top six and Burakovsky moving up as well for the departed Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson. Many are convinced that Oshie can’t score 33 goals again this year because of his high 2016-17 shooting percentage, but as I pointed out all summer, that shooting percentage didn’t including shots that missed the net. Oshie gets a lot of in close chances because of the guys he’s playing with and with the Gr8 on absolute fire, he’s getting more room and hitting the corners with his attempts so far. He’s notched five goals in five games, which is amazing, but when Alexander the Great already has nine, yes nine goals, it’s easy to overlook #77’s production. Last year I often wrote, “Pay the Man!” Boy am I glad the man got paid. Thanks Brian MacLellan.

Getting Wilson back reignited the third line and Brett Connolly and Eller had one of their best games of the season. When you have at least three lines going, it makes it very difficult for the opponents to match up. The Caps needed a presence from the bottom six forwards and they delivered on Friday.

On defense, things got tough with Matt Niskanen exiting the game on what appeared to be a missed slashing call by the inconsistent zebras. It was the second critical missed opponent slash in two tilts. On Wednesday night the referees failed to call a Carter Rowney slash on Kuznetsov on a rush late in that contest that would’ve given Washington a power play and a chance to tie the game.

Nisky will be reevaluated tomorrow, according to Coach Barry Trotz. That slash, with the Caps shorthanded, allowed the Devils to score on the power play and get within one goal with 3:32 to go in period two.

After Smith-Pelly’s key goal made it 3-1, things got close again in the first minute of period three when Kyle Palmieri took a great pass from Damon Severson and split Christian Djoos and Orlov for a breakaway marker.

When Orlov got dumped into the boards and stayed down on the next shift, things were looking bad for Washington, but then “Killer” Burkakovsky stepped in and took one for the team and the Capitals star players made sure to make the Devils pay the price on the scoreboard the rest of the way.

This was a feel good victory against a division opponent that was 3-0 and had just defeated the talented Toronto Maple Leafs earlier in the week.

Impressive messages were sent this night by the Capitals on the scoreboard, with their fists, and with their hearts.

On to the “City of Brotherly Love.”

Notes: Given the Capitals salary cap situation, if Niskanen can’t play on Saturday night in Filthy, it’s likely that Taylor Chorney will get a sweater because calling up Madison Bowey, a deserving right handed shooting blue liner, would require someone else to be sent to Hershey, unless #2 has to go on long term injury (which would be a bad scene)…the Caps were for 3 for 5 on the power play while New Jersey went 1 for 4…John Carlson led the Capitals in ice time with 27:26.  Niskanen only played 12:18 before exiting the contest so the other four guys played extra minutes than in a normal situation. Brooks Orpik logged 22:04, Orlov 21:12, Djoos 16:47 and Aaron Ness played 13:38…shot attempts were 52-46 in favor of the Caps…New Jersey won the faceoff battle, 39-27.  Jay Beagle went 8-5…Backstrom got hit with a puck in warmups and then notched four points…expect Philipp Grubauer to get the start in net against the Flyers on Saturday night.

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