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At Season’s Halfway Point, It’s Time to Grade the Caps

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At Season’s Halfway Point, It’s Time to Grade the Caps

Posted on 12 January 2012 by Ed Frankovic

With the Washington Capitals hitting their season midpoint, it is time for my fifth annual Caps mid-season grades and analysis. It’s been a rollercoaster ride for the Capitals in 2011-12. This Caps squad that added goalie Tomas Vokoun, defensemen Roman Hamrlik, and forwards Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern during the summer, shot out of the gate 7-0 but an injury to Mike Green coupled with some poor defensive zone play and shaky goaltending sent the team reeling for several weeks. That swoon ultimately led to the firing of Bruce Boudreau. Enter new coach Dale Hunter, who changed the defensive system switching from zone to man to man, and the Caps became a team that was better at keeping the biscuit out of their own cage but saw the offense struggle early on while the team focused on a defense first mentality. In Hunter’s scheme, the offense is created from defense, primarily from transition. Over the last couple of weeks the team has executed those tactics much more effectively and the result has been victories in five of the last seven games. The goals against average, which was 3.32 in 22 games under Boudreau, has declined to 2.47 in 19 games with Hunter.

Washington heads into the season’s second half at 22-17-2 (46 points) which is good for 8th place in the Eastern Conference and 16th overall in the NHL. For comparison’s sake, at the halfway point last season, the Caps were 23-12-6 (52 points) but there were some obvious holes on the roster, with second line center being the biggest. On trade deadline day in 2011 GM George McPhee would make some super deals adding defensemen Dennis Wideman and center Jason Arnott and the Caps went on a tear to seize the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the playoffs. However, both Arnott and Wideman were injured down the stretch and Washington couldn’t get past the second round of the playoffs, getting swept by the Bolts in four games. There were some who felt that McPhee needed to make a coaching change immediately after the second round loss to Tampa Bay but the GM said late this fall, just after switching to Hunter behind the bench just 22 games into the season, that he didn’t want all of the blame for the postseason failure to fall on Boudreau. But clearly Boudreau’s message was falling on deaf ears as a team that played super defense in the second half of 2010-11 became irresponsible in their own zone in the early part of this season.

The old adage, “Defense Wins Championships,” is spot on and Hunter has this team more focused in this area but there are still issues, especially when the club goes on the road. Washington is 15-5-1 at the Verizon Center but a terrible 7-12-1 away. If this Caps team is going to make a second half push to climb up the overall standings, then the road record must improve. The Capitals have not looked the same away from DC and their play in their own zone has been atrocious at times, case in point being this past Monday night in Los Angeles. From the defensemen to the centers to the wingers, the Caps must do a better job with their breakouts because they are making far too many giveaways that lead to more shots, chances, and zone time for their opponents. This Capitals team used to pride itself on being a puck possession crew but due to their own zone struggles, they end up wasting lots of time and energy just trying to get past the blue and red lines. That zaps energy and the ability to use their size and skill in the offensive zone.

Injuries have been a factor in the struggles, Green has pretty much been out since the start of the year and as a result Dennis Wideman and John Carlson have had to take on more minutes. In addition, the absence of 52 exposed the lack of speed that Roman Hamrlik, Jeff Schultz, and John Erskine possess. The good news is that Hamrlik has turned his game around with the new man to man system under Hunter but the other two aren’t even getting a sweater with the recent recall of Tomas Kundratek from Hershey. Assistant coach Jim Johnson is clearly trying to find the right combination on the back end and I wouldn’t be surprised if McPhee adds a defensemen at the trade deadline. In addition, the second line center problem has risen to the spotlight again, especially with Nicklas Backstrom out of the lineup the last three games due to the cheap shot to the head he took from Calgary’s Rene Bourque. Once again, I look for GMGM to address the center position, and possibly another forward slot at the trade deadline. The Capitals have two first round draft picks this year so the GM could decide to use one of them to upgrade the current roster.

To sum up the first half of the year, the coaching change was necessary but it clearly hasn’t solved all of the team’s issues and the personnel will need some upgrades by February 27th. Several players also need to execute better than they did in the first 41 games.

Speaking of players, it is time to move on to the individual grades, which are based on the expectations for each at the start of the season (after the opening night roster was announced). They also take in to account each individual’s yearly salary cap hit:

Top of the Class

Jason Chimera (A) – 14 goals and 7 assists put #25 on pace for a career high in offensive production. In addition, his offense has not come with a drop in defensive zone play as he is +6. Chimera has been excellent using his speed to get around opposing defenders to create offense or simply wear down the other team.

Karl Alzner (A) – The defensive defensemen is a +10 with much of his ice time coming against opposing number one forward lines. Sure there have been nights when #27 has had a rough matchup, but all year long he has been the club’s steadiest blueliner. Add in the fact that King Karl is getting more involved offensively, his 1 goal and 11 assists give him 12 points, the same total he had all last season, and he has really amped up his game in just his second full year in the NHL.

Nicklas Backstrom (A-) – Arguably the team’s MVP so far because he is so valuable on a team that is weak up center ice after #19. 42 points in 38 games for a team that has shifted to a defense first mentality is impressive. It is clear that Nicky got himself in supreme shape this past offseason and his strength on the puck is back this season. It is a shame that he is out right now, for who knows how long, due to Bourque’s reckless cheap shot.

Honor Society

Dennis Wideman (B) – with Green out #6 has been asked to be the team’s ice time leader on most nights. He has picked up the offensive slack notching eight goals and 21 assists, which helped put him in the all star game. Wideman overall though, is a -3, and that needs to improve. He has a tendency to overplay opponents in his own zone which breaks down the entire defensive system when it happens.

Tomas Vokoun (B) – 17-10 with a .915 save percentage are good numbers. He’s had some great games, the two victories over Pittsburgh spring immediately to mind, and some poor outings, such as the night against the Flyers when he couldn’t stop a beach ball. #29 was plagued by the bad goal a night blues for a while in the middle of the first half but he seems to be snapping out of it. For the Caps to get where they want to be he needs to be at the top of his game down the stretch and in the post season.

Jeff Halpern (B) – #15 is 217-148 from the faceoff dot (59.4%) and is the team’s best drawman. Slated to play on the 4th line, the Potomac native has worked himself up the depth chart with solid two way play. He has 3 goals and 8 helpers but is a +4.

Dmitry Orlov (B) – started the season in Hershey but because of the lack of mobility on the blue line, the 2009 2nd round pick was summoned to “The Show” and has acquitted himself so well that it is unlikely he goes back to the AHL. He has six assists, but is -3. He has great wheels and a surprising physical presence on the back end. If he can start hitting the net with his shot the Capitals offense would get a great boost.

Marcus Johansson (B-) – MJ90 has had an up and down first half but his numbers are decent: 9 goals and 15 assists. He is a -2 and surprisingly has had some rough nights in his own zone, something that was supposed to be a rarity for the normally solid defensive pivot. This kid will continue to get better and unfortunately he is forced to play center on one of the top two lines too often. In my book he is a third line center and would be one of the best in the NHL in that role, but he also has shown he can be a decent winger, with the right center (Backstrom).

John Carlson (B-) – #74 has been very inconsistent this season. At times he has been one of the best players on the ice and in other games he has looked lost in his own zone. The system change may have hurt him more than any other d-man because he is still learning how to take time and space away from opponents. Offensively though, he has been there with five goals and 17 assists. I’d like to see him get more power play time.

Cody Eakin (B-) – I didn’t expect the 2009 3rd round NHL pick to spend much time with the Caps this year but due to injuries, a friendly contract that allows him to go up and down without having to clear waivers, and his speed, he’s played in nearly half of the tilts. He has been most effective when using his speed to beat opponents and when he hasn’t done that he has looked overmatched and benched in some games, as a result. Personally I’d rather see him play 20+ minutes a night in the AHL to properly develop his game. He just isn’t physically big enough for the NHL, at this time.

Average Joe’s

Troy Brouwer (C+) – #20 has 11 goals and 20 points and has been a real solid net presence. He also has done a good job of being physical in the offensive zone.

Roman Hamrlik (C) – #44 really struggled under Boudreau and part of that was a lingering groin issue. However, with Hunter’s system he is in familiar territory and doesn’t look like he is skating in concrete, like he did early on.

John Erskine (C) – Started the season on IR due to a shoulder injury. Last year he was one of the best players in the first 41 games but when you can’t lift and work out in the offseason due to an injury it really sets you back. #4′s main role appears to be spot starts where his phyiscal presence is needed. His best games seem to always be against the Rangers.

Joel Ward (C) – Needs to score more than five goals in the second half. His skating is a little worrisome, not sure if he was out of shape or he had an injury but he doesn’t look as quick as he did in the 2011 playoffs when he was a Nashville Predator. His +5 rating saves him from a worse grade.

Michal Neuvirth (C-) – #30 really struggled in the first part of the year before improving once Hunter took over. At one point Neuvy was the #1 goalie but he let in a couple of bad ones in Buffalo the day after Christmas and it’s pretty much been the Vokoun show ever since. 5-7-2 with an .886 save percentage are not good numbers at all, although he is over 90% since number 32 took over.

Brooks Laich (C-) – Another guy, because of the holes up the middle of the ice, gets forced to play out of position. I see #21 as a 2nd or 3rd line winger where he can use his size and drive to help the Caps break out of their zone. As a pivot he just doesn’t have the hands to be effective coming out of his own end. You’ll never get a bad effort from the fan favorite but at the dollars he’s making the Caps need more than a point every other game and a -7 rating. More production please Brooksie.

Alex Ovechkin (C-) – 17 goals, 16 assists, -8. We’ve seen good Ovie and bad Ovie this year. Most of the bad came under Boudreau but he has 0 points in the last three games after 9 in the previous 6. The good news is he was all over the ice against the Penguins hitting and creating chances on Wednesday night. That is the Ovechkin the Caps need to win games. If he doesn’t have it, the Capitals usually lose. The Gr8 needs to continue to improve in his own zone, if he bears down more the breakaways and odd man rushes will come in bunches each night.

Not Making the Grade

Alexander Semin (D) – Was super in the first five games before becoming a penalty machine and a scapegoat for Boudreau. Under the new regime he seems more energized and had six really good games in a row before getting injured in Columbus. If he can get healthy again he can be dominant in this system where he is, in my mind, the best winger at getting the puck out of the Washington zone. But only 10 goals in 37 games is not cutting it, the Capitals need more from this supremely talented player who is making $6.7M.

Matt Hendricks (D) – 1 goal in 37 games is not good for this fourth liner. If he plays like he did against Pittsburgh on Wednesday night he’ll get more ice time and his production will improve. He has to play physical to be effective.

Mathieu Perreault (D) – 3 goals in 26 games is way under where I thought MP85 would be. He has not been the sparkplug that he had been in the past and perhaps his size is why he just isn’t going to be consistent at the NHL level?

Mike Knuble (D) – 3 goals in 41 games for the aging winger. #22 has definitely lost a step and that has cost him lots of ice time. Can he find the fountain of youth once again in the second half?

Whereabouts Unknown

Jeff Schultz (F) – Is this the same guy who was +50 just two years ago? #55 has lost foot speed and confidence. He looks clumsy and a step behind when he plays. I am not sure he is with this team much longer and at $2.75M against the salary cap he is an expensive scratch each night.

Incomplete: Mike Green, Jay Beagle, Sean Collins, DJ King, and Tomas Kundratek

Management Grades

Bruce Boudreau (D) - The likeable Gabby eventually ran out of things to tell his club and they tuned him out. He and assistant coach Bob Woods couldn’t get the defense to be better and as a result it cost them their jobs.

Dale Hunter (B) – Dale brought in a radical system change with arguably some personnel that aren’t exact fits. But when you see the turnaround a guy like Hamrlik had and the goals against dropping so significantly, even with some shaky goaltending early in his regime, it was definitely the right thing to do tactically. The team is becoming a harder club to play against but they still lack some sandpaper type grit. He has definitely turned Semin around and Ovechkin is buying in too. His success rides on Vokoun, the play of 8 and 28, and the personnel tweaks he works with McPhee on to upgrade the roster by the end of February. Another Hunter strength is he is a man of few words so his message is easy to receive. He also stays on an even keel, which is good for the players as they don’t waste energy on emotional issues.

General Manager George McPhee (B) – It is hard for GM’s to do anything in the first half of a season but he did the one thing he had to do, switch coaches. Going forward until trade deadline day are critical times for McPhee. He has to find a way to get some better fits for what Hunter wants to do to be successful in the spring. His off season moves are looking better after a rough first 22 games, especially with Hamrlik’s improved play and the fact that Vokoun has stolen some wins. Still, he has that nagging second line center issue that he will have to address again by the end of February.

In final analysis, over the first half of the sesason there were nights when the Caps looked like they can play with anyone in the league, but on other occassions they were run out of the barn. Those games came mostly under Boudreau but Monday’s loss in Los Angeles was a bit of a scare. Hopefully fatigue was to blame for that one. Going forward this team has a lot of work to be done to get where they want to be. The execution needs to be markedly better and personnel moves will be needed if they want to compete with the likes of Boston. If that doesn’t happen then the ownership will likely take some drastic measures after the season is over. I don’t think anyone wants that to happen.

 

 

 

 

 

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Caps Special at Home Again

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Caps Special at Home Again

Posted on 03 January 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin is red hot and that usually means the Washington Capitals are winning hockey games. The Gr8 scored a power play goal just 1:11 into Tuesday’s game against the Calgary Flames then Troy Brouwer potted a rebound of Oveckhin’s power play point shot in the middle frame and the Caps went on to win 3-1 against the Calgary Flames at the Verizon Center.

Special teams are often a difference maker in hockey games and that was definitely the case on Tuesday as Washington went 2 for 3 with the man advantage and killed off all four of Calgary’s power plays. Nicklas Backstrom had three assists before exiting the game after taking a terrible cheap shot elbow to the head in the neutral zone from Rene Bourque. #19 will be evaluated on Wednesday and hopefully he doesn’t have a concussion. Nicky did play one shift after absorbing the unnecessary blow from Bourque, who has already been suspended once this season for a bad hit on Chicago’s Brent Seabrook. Those type of hits have no place in the NHL right now and the Flames forward needs to sit at least three games for that stupid play.

As for Ovechkin, well he is rolling right now and had his fourth straight multiple point game. It is no coincidence that the Capitals have won all four of those games. You win when your best players are your best players and Ovie now has 11 points in his last seven games and for the year now is up to 17 goals and 16 assists. Look out NHL, the Gr8 is back and playing extremely well under Caps Coach Dale Hunter. Backstrom is up to 42 points and in the top 10 in the NHL in scoring.

The penalty killing was superb against the Flames. The #1 person in that equation is usually your goaltender and Tomas Vokoun (18 saves) was excellent between the pipes. But Washington’s skaters really got it done against Calgary giving up only three shots on net while shorthanded and on the next to last penalty late in regulation, the Flames didn’t even get a shot on goal! Overall the Caps blocked a season high 24 shots and as assistant coach Jim Johnson likes to say, good things are going to happen when his club blocks between 20 and 25 shots in a game. That is some solid work there on the defensive end and a big reason for the victory.

In addition to Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Vokoun, the Capitals received another really solid game from sophomore Marcus Johansson. The young Swede, who was recently shifted to the wing by Hunter, made a super pass to set up the Gr8′s one timer for the first tally and his one on three rush in the middle frame allowed Backstrom to grab the puck and find an all alone Dennis Wideman for the goal that gave Washington a two puck cushion. MJ90 has four points in his last four games and looks very comfortable on left wing next to Backstrom.

Mike Green made his return to the lineup for the first time since being injured on November 11th and #52 looked rusty in 15:43 of ice time. He was caught out of position on two occassions that led to Flames quality scoring chances but Vokoun had his back both times. The off night is to be expected when a guy misses 29 of 30 hockey games and it was clear he needs conditioning work. But getting Green back on Tuesday was important for Washington as they prepare to take on some of the NHL’s elite teams. They have San Jose and Los Angeles in California on Saturday and Monday before coming home next Wednesday to take on the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The bad news is that Alexander Semin missed this game with an undisclosed injury and if Backstrom turns out to have concussion like symptoms that would take two of the Capitals top six forwards out of the lineup. Semin has been playing superbly the last six games so losing him really weakens a Washington offense that is starting to hit its’ stride by generating chances from solid defensive play.

So the Caps once again scored early at home and rode that to victory. They’ve now won six of their last seven at the Verizon Center. Winning on the road though, has been a much tougher chore and they have not tallied in the opening 20 minutes in the last six away games. In addition, they haven’t won a game in San Jose since 1993 so the odds are stacked against them on Saturday night. The good news is they have the rest of the week to prepare for it. Green should be in better shape by then and hopefully Semin and Backstrom are okay because the Sharks are hot right now making the game a good barometer for how much Washington has improved since Hunter took over behind the bench.

Notes: The Caps are now 21-15-2 overall and 9-6-1 under Hunter…Washington dominated the draws going 34-20 from the face-off dot…Curtis Glencross scored the Flames only goal when Karl Alzner and John Carlson both made uncharacteristic mistakes on a play that also included a sweet pass from Jarome Iginla to set up #20 in front for an easy marker…with Semin out, Hunter dressed 7 defensemen but John Erskine only played 4:48…Jeff Schultz and Mathieu Perreault were the other scratches…the Caps game in San Jose starts at 1030 pm Eastern Time on Saturday night…I was on with Drew Forrester on the WNST Morning Show talking Caps hockey on Tuesday morning and you can hear the audio from that here.

 

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Onus on McPhee to Correct Caps Issues

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Onus on McPhee to Correct Caps Issues

Posted on 19 November 2011 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals went into Toronto to face a depleted Maple Leafs club on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday looking to snap a three game losing streak and they were blasted, 7-1, in what was clearly their worst performance of the season. Caps killer Joffrey Lupul had a goal and three assists and Phil Kessel also potted one and added a helper. Jonas Gustavsson made 40 saves for Toronto but by the time he needed to make them his team was already comfortably ahead. Washington has now lost four straight contests and is 10-7-1 overall after starting with seven straight wins.

Rather than do a detailed look at this game like I normally do, tonight I am going to focus on the big issues facing this team:

- We will address the problems on the blue line next, but the effort hasn’t been there the last two games and has been missing in noticeable stretches all season. To me the first order of business for General Manager George McPhee is to sit down with head coach Bruce Boudreau and team captain Alexander Ovechkin to have a “clear the air” meeting because it looks like the entire hockey team is not listening to either one of its’ leaders right now. Boudreau’s constant line shuffling is not getting results and when the team captain is not giving 100% every shift the rest of the guys will start to take them off at some point, too. This team looks rudderless right now and if there is any strife in the locker room or between coaches and players it needs to be worked out, pronto. A Leafs squad that had several AHLers on it made a team some have picked to go to the Stanley Cup Finals look like the 1974-75 Caps. The horrible play on this recent road trip has to be a major concern.

- I know I’ve written several times that the Mike Green injury is a big blow to this Capitals team but you can’t put all of the their problems on one player. #52 is the best d-man on the Caps, he stabilizes the blue line and they are 8-0 with him in the lineup. However, when he went out last February the Caps played great hockey down the stretch (16-3-1) and overtook several teams to capture the Eastern Conference #1 seed. So what has gone so wrong this season that they can’t overcome the absence of the One Man Breakout? In the playoffs against Tampa when both Green and Dennis Wideman were out, the Lightning used their speed to go by some of the slower Capitals defensemen. Right now teams are taking advantage of Jeff Schultz, Roman Hamrlik, and to a lesser degree John Erskine. Schultz may have hit rock bottom in this game tonight with a horrible giveaway that started the whole debacle. Wideman is not playing like he did before his awful hip injury last spring and Karl Alzner has been the only defensemen who is performing above expectations. Boudreau did make a good move putting John Carlson back with Alzner tonight because #74 had his best game in awhile, but that just left an awful pairing of Hamrlik and Schultz, which Toronto coach Ron Wilson took advantage of fully.

- Special teams have just been atrocious during this bad stretch, especially the power play. There is far too much overhandling and passing of the puck and not enough shots on goal with traffic. The coaching staff needs to put guys out there who will simplify their game and outwork the opponent. I don’t think a guy like Alexander Semin fits that bill right now. The penalty kill has regressed primarily because of the poor play by the defensemen but the forwards aren’t doing their part either. On the Leafs sixth goal tonight Nicklas Backstrom did a super job of screening Michal Neuvirth (who was in the game because the team stunk in front of #1 goalie Tomas Vokoun early on).

- Overall, there is so much talent on this team that something is clearly wrong. The coaches and players don’t appear to be on the same page. McPhee has put together, on paper, what looks to be the best team he’s had in several years but the sum of the parts is far less than the whole right now. It is his job to find out where the problems are and correct them.

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Caps Disintegrate in Winnipeg

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Caps Disintegrate in Winnipeg

Posted on 17 November 2011 by Ed Frankovic

The Winnipeg Jets scored three goals in the second period to turn a close hockey game into a comfortable 4-1 victory over the Washington Capitals in Manitoba on Thursday night. Alexander Semin tallied for the Caps just 3:53 into the game but Evander Kane, who is a Capitals killer, scored twice to start the party for the Jets. The Caps are now 10-6-1 and have lost three straight games.

Here are the lowlights and analysis from the Capitals first game this season against the former Atlanta Thrashers:

- The problems for Washington start on the blue line. The Capitals are 8-0 with Mike Green in the lineup and now 2-6-1 with the Calgary native out injured. #52 is the Caps best d-man and he is excellent at breaking the puck out of Washington’s end. With him missing the Caps have to rely more on Dennis Wideman and John Carlson to move the puck. Karl Alzner is a good first pass guy but not a puck rusher, but he has been the best Capitals d-man lately. Roman Hamrlik, John Erskine, and Jeff Schultz are subpar skaters and their lack of speed is getting exposed by other teams. Tonight Kane had all kinds of room and dominated, like he did against Washington last season when the Thrashers won all three games against the Capitals that were played in Atlanta.

- On the first Jets goal, Carlson had the puck in the left wing corner and instead of making an easy pass behind the net to his partner at the time (Wideman) for a simple break out, he sent the biscuit to Marcus Johansson in the slot. MJ90 had Bryan Little right on him and the Swede fumbled the puck. Then as he was tripped to the ice he mistakenly fired the disc up the boards where several Jets were waiting. Winnipeg then had a clear lane to the cage and Kane scored easily.

- Goal two resulted from Joel Ward over handling the puck in the corner and turning it over. However, Kane wasn’t in a great position to score and had a bad angle but somehow his high shot beat Michal Neuvirth (27 saves) short side. #30 should’ve had that one and he went down way too soon. It was a terrible time to let in a softie.

- The Caps then got into penalty trouble but somehow they managed to get a two on zero shorthanded break with Brooks Laich and Jeff Halpern skating in on Ondrej Pavelec (31 saves). In that situation the puck has to go on net but somehow #21 shot high and the Jets went the other way with the biscuit. Blake Wheeler then went past Hamrlik like he was an orange road cone and when Schultz was too slow to get back to help, #26 slammed it home. Neuvirth wasn’t good on that one either. Erskine then got into a fight with Chris Thorburn but 13 seconds later Hamrlik took another penalty. Winnipeg scored on a goal mouth scramble as Schultz managed to cover noone to pretty much end this one.

- Washington did have a chance shortly thereafter to try and get back in the game when they had over a minute of 5 on 3 time. But their power play, which was a putrid 0 for 5 on the night, overpassed the puck. The Caps talked earlier in the season about simplifying their manpower advantage situations by looking to move the puck to the point and then firing it with traffic in front, but recently they have gotten away from that and the poor results speak for themselves. The Caps penalty kill also regressed allowing two goals in five attempts.

- Semin’s goal was a nice one, but it should not have counted because Washington was offside. #28 played hard early but then he took a bad penalty in the middle frame when he said something to the zebras after he felt an infraction should have been called on Winnipeg. From there on out his work ethic tailed off big time.

- In closing, after a strong effort on Tuesday night for 55 minutes in Nashville, this team has disintegrated. Washington is making poor decisions on the ice and they are playing with no confidence. The third period pretty much turned into a glorified scrimmage and some of the Capitals seemed to lose their drive. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau needs to do something to get this team going pronto. The only defensemen who is playing up to his capabilities right now is Alzner and the forwards aren’t doing their jobs either. I expect a major re-shuffling of the lines and blue line pairs for Saturday night’s game in Toronto.

Notes: The Caps won the face-off battle 35-26 with Nicklas Backstrom going 15-8…Carlson led the team in ice time logging 25:06…Erskine only played 10:58…the Caps are now 1-4-1 in their last six games.

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Caps Lose Late in Music City

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Caps Lose Late in Music City

Posted on 16 November 2011 by Ed Frankovic

In a hockey game that had end to end action and two goalies playing at the top of their respective abilities, the Washington Capitals snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by giving up the winning goal with 24 seconds left in regulation. The Predators then hit the empty net and a Caps team that played hard for the large majority of the night and for the most part worked its’ tails off, will leave the Music City 3-1 losers. The loss drops the Caps to 10-5-1 and their next contest is Thursday night in Winnipeg.

Here are the highlights and analysis from an extremely entertaining game that had a very frustrating ending for Caps fans:

- Tomas Vokoun (28 saves) and Pekka Rinne (39 saves) put on a goaltending clinic for the first 55 minutes. Both teams had quality chances with some memorable saves being Rinne’s behind the back glove stop on Marcus Johansson in tight and Vokoun’s pad denial on Mike Fisher’s clean shorthanded breakaway. Rinne made several good glove saves but if the hard working Capitals were guilty of one thing, it was a lack of traffic on the Predators goalie. Vokoun can’t be faulted on the first goal, and more on that a little later, but on the second goal he was a little bit too aggressive and that led to a vacant cage for the game winner by Colin Wilson. Still, Vokoun played well enough to win but some guys let down after Washington took a lead with just under five minutes to go.

- I thought the Caps worked very hard and carried the play for the second and third periods and when Troy Brouwer beat Rinne with 4:46 left it looked like the Caps would take two points to the Honky Tonks on Broadway after this one. But Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau then made a personnel move he probably regrets. He completed the line change that put Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom out with Brouwer for the ensuing faceoff. In addition, blue liners Karl Alzner and Roman Hamrlik came off for Jeff Schultz and John Carlson. Yes, this was the way the rotation was working out, but that late in the game it might have been wise for Bruce, knowing that the Predators were going to come with massive energy, to put a checking line out against the Nashville top line. Instead, d-man Shea Weber (1 goal, 1 assist, +3) came pinching down the right side past his man, Ovechkin, and around Jeff Schultz, who was frozen like an orange road cone, and fed a streaking Martin Erat down the slot for the game winner. Both Carlson and Backstrom did not do their job to protect the center of the ice. It was a horrible shift by the players from perhaps a crew that shouldn’t have been on the ice at a critical time. The way the Jeff Halpern, Matt Hendricks, and Mike Knuble line was dominating play in the final period, they were the better choice, but hindsight is always 20/20. I’m sure Bruce will make a note of this and it will likely influence his thought process going forward.

- After that, the Caps had some more chances but Rinne did his job and then a game that should have gone to overtime, didn’t. John Erskine and Dennis Wideman got running around in their own end and when Erskine lost his stick, he became vulnerable. Vokoun then overcommited to Erat, who went around #29 to the side of the net and then niftily slid the puck to Wilson in the slot for a tap in. Game over.

- Despite the loss, there was a lot of good in this contest for Washington. They played hard and they skated well, except for the one shift that led to the tying goal. Joel Ward, playing on a line with Johansson and Cody Eakin, had a superb effort against his former teammates. Alexander Semin had his best game in a month, despite taking another lazy penalty (caused by reaching with his stick instead of moving his feet). #28 had some good chances in the first period but just couldn’t beat Rinne.

- Boudreau mixed up his defensive pairs with Mike Green still out due to a groin injury and with Hamrlik playing with Alzner, #44 had his best game in weeks. King Karl is quite the steadying influence. The other two d-pairs were the shakier ones. Wideman is so good he can carry a slower Erskine. Carlson has the speed to cover for the immobile Schultz, but he doesn’t have the defensive zone savvy to do it all of the time and ultimately it was that d-pair that was abused on the goal that turned the whole game around. Get well soon #52.

- So a great effort is rewarded with 0 points against a very good Nashville team. The entire team will likely have a tough time sleeping after this game. They deserved better, but then again, if you relax for one shift in this league, the talent level is so even that it will come back to bite you, and that is what happened on Tuesday night in Nashville.

Notes: Mathieu Perreault was the forward scratch…Ovechkin and Backstrom were both -2 (although the last one was an empty net goal)…Washington won the face-off battle, 33-29. Hendricks went 4-0 and Backstrom 11-7…the Caps were 0 for 3 on the PP, including about a half of a minute of 5 on 3 time. Nashville went 0 for 2 in 2:32 of power play time. Green did not travel to Nashville with the Caps, who practice tomorrow at 1pm CST at the Bridgestone Arena before departing for Winnipeg.

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Ovechkin, Vokoun Lead Caps over Devils

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Ovechkin, Vokoun Lead Caps over Devils

Posted on 11 November 2011 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin scored the game tying goal in the middle frame, then in the third period Jason Chimera beat Martin Brodeur on a shorthanded break with a beautiful move to lead the Washington Capitals to a 3-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils at “The Rock” on Friday night. Marcus Johansson added an insurance tally by putting home a Karl Alzner point blast with just over nine minutes left in regulation. Rookie Adam Larsson scored the Devils only goal in the first period on Tomas Vokoun (32 saves), who was extremely solid in the victory. The Caps are now 10-4 and face the Devils at the Verizon Center in Saturday’s rematch.

Here are the highlights and analysis of a grind it out Capitals victory:

- Ovechkin was a force over the last 30 minutes of this game and it wasn’t because of end to end rushes and pretty passing plays. Nope, the Gr8 played what Canadian icon Don Cherry would call “North American” hockey. Alexander the Great went to the net to score his goal by being parked at the right post and putting in Dennis Wideman’s blast that initially hit Ovechkin in the stomach. After that Ovie was ultra solid defensively getting a ton of even strength ice time when Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau went to just three lines in the third period (Alex Semin and Cody Eakin were benched, but more on that later). Ovechkin was constantly moving his feet and hitting Devils all over the ice, including one on Larsson that will have Saturday’s birthday boy likely waking up in some pain. On two consecutive shifts in the third period with the lead, the Gr8 skated to center ice and dumped the puck in the offensive zone and then changed, something that tells you he is buying into what Boudreau wants his club to do with a third period lead. In addition, in the last minute he went down to block a point shot despite the two goal lead (not to mention this is a November regular season game). He also grabbed Devils tough guy David Clarkson in scrums on two separate occassions. It was a vintage captain-type performance by Ovechkin and he should be proud of how he played in this one after a poor game on Tuesday.

- Vokoun was really strong after a shaky last start on Long Island. The Devils came out flying but #29 didn’t allow them to get a two goal bulge with solid positioning and good rebound control. As the game went on his teammates got better but he still had to make a few tough saves.

- Boudreau has been preaching accountability, and so have the players, so when things weren’t going well for a couple of his forwards, he stopped playing them. Those two tonight were Semin and Eakin. #28 took a penalty in the first period that was a garbage call (which in my opinion was based totally on reputation), but instead of being mentally tough and coming back strong after that, the Russian enigma moped. He didn’t win one on one battles and didn’t even get a shot on net so the Caps bench boss lassoed him to the pine. Eakin just looked weaker compared to the hard working Devils. Part of that is that he is still young and physically maturing but he also wasn’t moving his feet and using his speed.

“I thought a couple guys weren’t going so I shortened the bench a bit,” said Boudreau in his post game presser.

- One of the big stories coming into this game was the return of Mike Green, but #52 took a cheap hit to the groin and left leg from Ryan Carter along the right wing boards late in period one. Green went down grabbing his groin area, finished the shift, and then went down the tunnel after going to the bench. He returned for one power play shift early in period two and according to Steve Whyno of The Washington Times has a “different soreness” than the right ankle injury that kept him out of the previous six games. He is day to day.

- New Jersey was perfect at home on the penalty kill before this game and they did that again tonight against a very good Washington power play (3rd in NHL). The Devils prevented the Caps from getting set up in four man advantage situations and they only got five shots in those eight minutes of power play time. The Capitals passed the puck too much, especially on their first power play. Semin was set up for a perfect quick shot in the slot on a moving Brodeur (17 saves) but instead chose to wind up, wait, and then pass the puck. #28 needed to shoot there and he likely would’ve scored (and probably would’ve played a lot more too). The Caps need to get back to a simpler power play where they move the puck to the point, blast away, and go for rebounds.

- On the positive side of the special teams ledger was the Caps PK unit. Washington went five for five and also scored when Chimera gathered the puck in the neutral zone, went around Larsson like he was an orange road cone, and then faked Brodeur to the ice similar to a move he put on #30 last season at the Verizon Center. Alzner and the rest of the defense did a great job of allowing Vokoun to see the shots and then they made sure no Devils forwards were able to get in position for any rebounds.

- In closing, after the initial Devils push in period one and part of period two, the Caps seemed to be the stronger team despite the final shots imbalance (33-20). The Capitals three lines were skating well but more importantly, the five remaining defensemen, Wideman, Alzner, John Carlson, Roman Hamrlik, and John Erskine were excellent in their own end. Washington has the type of personnel that can wear a club out over 60 minutes and I believe that is what happened in this game. It is a recipe they used against the Ducks last week and one that works when your goaltender is playing well, like Vokoun was tonight.

Notes: Semin only played 8:25 and Eakin 7:07. Officially Green logged 7:44 of ice time, but they credited him with two shifts in the 2nd period when he only played one…Wideman led all Caps players with a beastly 27:11 of ice time. Carlson and Alzner played 23:32 and 22:14, respectively, while Erkine and Hamrlik both received just over 17 minutes of ice time. #44′s ice time of 17:31 was his lowest total of the season and only the 4th time in 14 games he’s been under 20 minutes. Given the way he’s played lately, the reduction makes sense…Jeff Schultz was the healthy defensive scratch and Mathieu Perreault the lone healthy forward…Washington lost the face-off battle 24-22 but Nicklas Backstrom (1 assist) went 12-8 and had the key draw win on the Ovechkin goal…the NHL Off Ice officials who work Devils games only credited Ovechkin with two hits so I am not sure exactly what sporting event they were watching tonight.

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Balanced Caps Dominate Canes, 5-1

Posted on 04 November 2011 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals scored two quick goals to start the second period to grab a 2-1 lead and then they blew the game wide open in the final frame scoring three times en route to a 5-1 dominating victory over the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh. The Caps, who were 5-0-1 against the Canes last season, got goals from Jeff Halpern, Troy Brouwer, John Carlson, Cody Eakin (his 1st NHL tally), and Nicklas Backstrom while Anthony Stewart had the only marker for Carolina in the game’s first four minutes. Washington is now 9-2 overall in 2011-12 and they are 7-0-1 in their last eight games against the Canes, outscoring them 24-13 in the process.

Here are the highlights and analysis from Washington’s fourth straight win at the RBC Center:

- Typically the Caps and Hurricanes are known for playing close contests but in this game Washington used its’ depth to wear down Carolina and by just past the midpoint of the third period this one was all but over. 13 different Capitals players finished this game at +1 or better and even though the third line of Brooks Laich, Joel Ward, and Jason Chimera were all -1 on the night, they played a role in a final 20 minutes that saw the hosts get only five shots on net and not even a quality chance in that stanza until just a few minutes remained (h/t @ngreenberg). Washington’s defense was outstanding, especially Carlson, who arguably played his best game of the season, and that wasn’t because he scored the marker that ignited the three goal explosion in the final period. #74, who seems to have found some chemistry with Roman Hamrlik since they were paired together starting midway through Tuesday’s game against Anaheim, was as sound positionally as I’ve seen him be all season. His stick clogged the passing lanes, he didn’t chase the puck, and he used his size to keep the Canes offensive players away from Michal Neuvirth (24 saves).

- Eakin, who made his NHL debut on Tuesday, made a nice play in the neutral zone on Brouwer’s goal, which gave the Caps a lead they would not relinquish. Eakin allowed Marcus Johansson to get the puck just past the red line and MJ90 skated in across the blue line and saucered a beautiful pass to #20, who one timed it home. It was Eakin’s first NHL point and then in the third he scored his first NHL goal on a two on one break with Alexander Semin. #28 made the play with some super defensive stickwork and then he fed Eakin with the puck in the slot in the Canes zone. Semin then went to the net and that froze Cam Ward (27 saves) giving #50 room to beat him short side. The former Western Hockey League star, who was recalled from Hershey earlier this week, was +2 with two points in 8:45 of ice time.

- Backstrom, who is off to a super start with 16 points in 11 games, made a beast of a play on Carlson’s power play tally as he shouldered the Carolina defender mightily off of the puck and then slid a beauty of a feed to #74. #19 looks so much different and stronger this season, primarily because he didn’t have a shoulder injury that hampered his offseason workouts this past summer like it did in 2010.

- Neuvirth was good in this tilt, especially in the second period when the Canes had three straight power plays. He was also lucky that the game wasn’t tied at two because an early whistle wiped out what should have been a Carolina power play goal (h/t John Walton, who brought me the game via radio in the middle frame). #30′s positioning was solid and he was only beaten on Stewart’s tipped shot off of a faceoff. The defensive draw occurred because Karl Alzner made a bad backhand pass up the boards that led to a Canes quality scoring chance. Then Laich lost the faceoff and Jeff Schultz failed to tie up Stewart in the slot and he tipped home Jay Harrison’s point blast. But that was about the only really bad stretch for the Caps in this one.

- Ward, when he is on, can easily shut down a team. Other nights it just takes one goal to open the flood gates on him and Halpern’s greasy goal, which was helped by Matt Hendricks working hard in the crease area and Mike Knuble digging the puck out off of the back boards, was just what the Caps needed to get going. That tally came right after a dominating Washington first power play that spanned the end of the first period and the commencement of the second. Both Alex Ovechkin (two assists) and Semin had great chances on that man advantage. Overall the Caps went 1 for 3 on the power play while Carolina was held to 0 for 4. On Carlson’s power play tally, it was the Gr8 who provided the screen in front of Ward.

- In summary, this was a game where it was ultra clear the advantage Washington has talent and depth wise. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau, who scratched Mathieu Perreault tonight, did a super job with his in game adjustments and also once again stuck to his guns by evening out the ice time. That strategy has really shown its effects on the opponents in the final period in the last two tilts. It also works better when the game is played most of the time at five on five. The Caps did have that bad stretch of penalties in the second period, but other than that they were disciplined, another key for victory. This club has speed and size, which is a deadly duo that will wear a team out if the players buy into what the coaches are selling and repeatedly get pucks deep in their opponents zone. Washington executed the game plan on Friday night and turned this one into an easy win.

Notes: The Caps are in Long Island on Saturday night against the Islanders at 7pm on Comcast…if you ever can’t catch a period or a part of the game on television, which I had to do tonight for the middle frame, you absolutely have to tune in on radio to Walton, who definitely makes you feel like you are in the arena…Semin (1 assist) had his best game out of the last six and he continues to own the Canes during his career…the teams each won 29 of the 58 draws. Backstrom was the best for the Caps at 9-5…Brouwer took an awkward hit at the end of Tuesday’s game and appeared to have an upper body injury but he showed no ill effects tonight in a strong performance…John Erskine was excellent in his second game back from offseason shoulder surgery…Mike Green missed his fourth straight game and is doubtful for Saturday.

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Backstrom, 3rd Line Rally Caps Past Ducks in OT

Posted on 02 November 2011 by WNST Staff

On Sunday night I blogged about the Washington Capitals trying to find some consistency after an uneven opening nine game stretch that still saw them win seven of those contests. Tonight, against the Anaheim Ducks, the Caps continued their “Clint Eastwood” version of hockey as they were both bad and ugly in the game’s first 30+ minutes to fall behind 3-0, before the good came in waves en route to a 5-4 overtime victory. Nicklas Backstrom tied the game with Tomas Vokoun (11 saves) on the bench with 42 seconds left, then he won it 2:18 into overtime on a great pass from Jeff Schultz. Washington got a superb performance from their third line of Joel Ward, Brooks Laich, and Jason Chimera while the Ducks rode the Saku Koivu, Teemu Selanne, and Andrew Cogliano unit for the first part of the game. The win improves the Capitals to 8-2 heading into Friday night’s tilt in Carolina against the Hurricanes.

Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis of the Caps sixth home win in six tries this season (1st time in Capitals franchise history):

- How good were Saku Koivu (1 goal, 1 assist, +3) and Teemu Selanne (2 goals, 2 assists, +3) in the game’s first 30 minutes?! Those two seemingly ageless hockey players made the Caps defense, particularly Roman Hamrlik (-3 and on for all four Ducks tallies), look silly. I’ve seen several Anaheim games this year and it looks like the 41 year old #8 could play another five years the way he moves on the ice. What a great player! Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau felt that the Ducks were flying early but he was also smart to keep rolling all four of his lines and that paid off over the second half of this contest as Washington wore down Anaheim.

“It’s really difficult to keep up the pace they had in the first 30 minutes. It was like, ‘Whoa, are they fast?!’ We just stayed close enough. I thought when they got the fourth goal it might be something. It says a lot for the resiliency of the team. The third goal that we got (by Troy Brouwer), which might have been a bit on the lucky side, it sort of bouyed the guys up again and reinvigorated them. After that they thought they were going to tie it, they believed they were going to tie it,” said Boudreau on his club, who out shot Anaheim 40-15 in the game, including 31-9 over the last 42:18.

- The third line of Laich-Ward-Chimera continues to be Washington’s best through the first 10 games. That lunchpail crew is big, skates well, and are tireless workers. They were a combined +9 and had 7 points among them. Credit Boudreau for deciding to put that unit out with Backstrom with the goalie pulled late instead of using Alex Ovechkin(1 assist) or Alex Semin. Both the Gr8 and #28 were not getting it done, particularly Ovie, who just seemed to fight the puck all night. When he carried the puck, he should’ve been passing or dumping it, and vice versa, but over the course of 82 games those things will happen. The good thing though was that when his number was called in OT, he went to the front of the Ducks net and distracted Jonas Hiller (35 saves), allowing Backstrom to pot the winner. Some people will look to villify Alexander the Great for being sat on the bench late in regulation but when his coach put him on the ice in OT, he did what he could to help his team win the game. That’s leadership in my book.

- Those who’ve followed this blog know that I have been praising Backstrom’s play in the early going particularly pointing out his improved strength and conditioning. #19 seems to have his upper body strength back after a bad shoulder injury that he suffered against the Canadiens in the 2010 playoffs. He also is a step quicker then he was last season. The result is four goals and 10 assists in 10 games.

“I thought Nicky was going to do something. I didn’t know about the overtime thing though,” added Boudreau on his player decisions late in regulation.

- The Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan line is arguably the best in the NHL but tonight they were a combined -6. Perry drew a penalty on Vokoun and then scored on the ensuing power play to make it 4-2, but overall he was neutralized well by Washington. Size doesn’t seem to hurt the Capitals defense but they have been having some issues with speed lately, especially with Mike Green out of the lineup. The good news is #52 practiced on Tuesday and will likely do so again on Wednesday. So there is a strong possibility he will be back on the ice on Friday in Raleigh.

- John Erskine returned from shoulder surgery allowing the Caps to ship d-man Sean Collins back to Hershey. For his first game this season #4 was outstanding with an assist and a +1 rating. In addition, Cody Eakin received his first NHL start and he skated well also nearly scoring on a couple of occassions. He did weaken late but for his debut in “The Show” he more than passed the test.

“With John I was really, really pleasantly surprised. He looked like he didn’t miss a beat. He’s probably pretty tired right now, but I thought he played a great game. Considering he’s been off for so long and hasn’t even had a meaningful scrimmage yet,” said Boudreau on the left handed defenseman.

“He handled himself quite admirably…You can see he can skate with these guys…I thought he was going to score on his first shift,” started Boudreau on Eakin, who also pointed out that #50 did get nervous in the third period and had a bad giveaway.

- In summary, tonight’s game once again proved that this Capitals squad is not a one line team. They are very talented up front and when playing five on five hockey are very hard to beat. They are big and can wear opposing teams down when they stick to the coaches game plan of getting pucks deep and working the cycle. The special teams were off in this one as the Ducks scored on their only power play while the Caps went 0 for 3 with the man advantage. A big part of the issue on special teams is the absence of Green, but other guys need to pick up the slack. At the end of the night Boudreau, who sometimes does not get the credit he deserves, pushed all of the right buttons in this thrilling comeback victory. He stuck to his game plan, changed up his d-pairs when Hamrlik and Wideman were struggling together, and he went with the right four forwards when the chips were down late. Those moves played a role in the win and should not be overlooked at all.

Notes: Karl Alzner unsuspectingly went +3 on the night in 18:02 of ice time. #27 is so smooth sometimes you don’t even notice him…Wideman (1 goal, 1 assist, +1) played well after struggling early when paired with Hamrlik…Anahiem won 30 of the 56 draws with Marcus Johansson the best Capital at 10-7. Backstrom only won 6 of 18 face-offs…Brouwer got hit awkwardly into the right wing boards late in regulation and did not return. It could be a right shoulder injury so stay tuned.

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Caps Blow 3rd Period Lead; Now On Verge of Elimination

Posted on 03 May 2011 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals had the Tampa Bay Lightning right where they wanted them heading into period three with a 3-2 lead. But the Caps seemed to forget everything they thought they learned this season and were totally outworked in the final stanza for the third straight game and lost, 4-3. Only some brilliant saves by Michal Neuvirth (26 saves) down the stretch gave the Capitals any hope as the Bolts outshot Washington 15-5 in the final frame, scoring two goals in 24 seconds just over five minutes into period three off of some terrible giveaways and defensive breakdowns. The Capitals now trail this best of seven series three games to none and if they lose on Wednesday night their season is over.

Here are the highlights and analysis of a game that saw some terrible efforts from a handful of Capitals:

- Tampa outworked the Caps in period three, plain and simple. They came out flying and Washington couldn’t match their surge. The Bolts repeatedly got to the loose pucks while the Capitals seemed to play like they were skating in quicksand. In every game in this series, the Bolts have dominated the last frame and you have to give Tampa Coach Guy Boucher credit for that. He makes sure his team sits back in their 1-3-1 for 40 minutes to conserve energy and then he lets his outstanding forwards loose in the final frame. The recipe has worked to perfection while Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau has been unable to get some of his players to match the compete level of the Lightning skaters.

- Alexander Ovechkin (1 goal, 1 assist) certainly gave his all tonight, although he made some mistakes. However, if Alexander Semin (1 assist, -2) had competed like the Great #8 did, Washington probably wins. It was the wrong time for #28 to have one of his worst games of the season. Nicklas Backstrom continues to be missing in action. I have no idea how his play has fallen so far off but he looks nothing like the confident, powerful forward from the last few seasons. Marcus Johansson (-2), who did draw an important penalty that helped the Caps grab the lead in the middle frame, had an off night and for the most part he looked tentative and out of position. But MJ90 is a rookie and he’s been great so far so he can’t shoulder the blame that several of the Washington blue liners deserve. John Erskine was absolutely awful as was Jeff Schultz. The slow duo was -2 and -1, respectively, and just could not keep up with the speed of several Tampa forwards. Mike Green (1 assist, -1) was weak in his own zone and ended up leaving after one shift in period three due to a lower body injury (h/t @SkyKerstein). Losing #52 certainly hurt Washington’s chances of winning down the stretch.

- Despite being on the ice for the fluky game winning goal, Karl Alzner and John Carlson were the best d-pair (both +1) and even though the Caps season is pretty much over, there is future hope with those two on the back end. The loss of Dennis Wideman has really hurt this run but he is under contract next year as well, but so is a slow Schultz and an oft-injured Tom Poti. Green will be in the last year of his contract too, so something has to give on the back end.

- In summary, this is nearly as low as it gets for a Washington team that seemed to have high hopes coming out of round one of the Stanley Cup playoffs. They had several days to rest and heal while the Lightning had to keep playing. The Caps could never get their momentum, and more importantly, their confidence back in these three games. The 3-0 hole looms large and I just can’t see the Caps coming back at all, especially if Green is out again on Wednesday.

Notes: Washington outshot the Bolts 27-15 through two periods, but only led 3-2 due to terrible mistakes on the backend…the Caps were +1 in the special teams department for the first time in the series but their PP only tallied on a 5 on 3 advantage. For the series, the Capitals are 1 for 16 on the power play. Tampa went 0 for 4 in game three…the Caps correctly had a first period goal wiped out due to too many men on the ice. Clearly there were some guys who suffered from a total lack of focus in the most crucial game of the season.

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Semin Laser Powers Caps to Game 1 OT Victory

Posted on 14 April 2011 by Ed Frankovic

For over 50 minutes on Wednesday night at the Verizon Center, many probably thought they were watching a repeat of last season’s playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens. The Rangers were leading 1-0 and the Caps, who carried much of the play in this contest, hit the iron three times, had Nicklas Backstrom stopped on a breakaway, and generated several other quality chances that were thwarted by New York’s outstanding goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist (31 saves). But this year’s Washington Capitals team is more experienced and resilient, and Alexander Ovechkin scored a gritty goal to tie the game with 6:16 to go in regulation and then after Jason Arnott intercepted a Marc Staal clearing attempt and fed #28 the biscuit, Alexander Semin (1 goal, 1 assist) rifled a one-timed laser by Lundqvist to give the Caps a 2-1 victory 18:24 into overtime. The Capitals jump out to a quick 1-0 lead in this best of seven game series with the second tilt scheduled for Friday night at the Verizon Center at 7:30 pm.

“It was an important game for everybody, I think. I think we started well, we have a couple opportunities to score goals, I hit the crossbar two times, we missed a breakaway, but we make one mistake in our zone and they use it. It’s playoffs and [we] don’t give up, we play hard and we score some dirty goal, but it is what it is,” summarized the Great #8 when asked about the importance of this victory.

 

Below are the rest of highlights, quotes, and analysis of the 102nd consecutive home sellout for Washington:

- As has been chronicled fairly well, the Capitals changed their system in December to be better able to handle playoff hockey. After their first post season outing, suffice it to say that this team is significantly better than last year’s crew despite narrowly squeaking out a win. The Caps didn’t panic when Matt Gilroy scored from the slot after John Erskine and Mike Green were both beaten behind the Caps cage, which allowed Wojtek Wolski to slide the puck to #97 for a goal that Washington goalie Michal Neuvirth (24 saves) had little chance of stopping, just 1:56 into the third period. Shortly thereafter, Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau felt that he needed to switch the lines up to get the equalizer and he put Ovechkin out with Semin. After a super feed from Green from Washington’s own end, Ovechkin took the puck to the cage bowling over Blueshirt defensemen Dan Girardi en route, and that allowed he and Semin to whack away at the biscuit until it slid through King Henrik’s legs. Because Staal knocked the net off right after the puck went in, there was a lengthy review but the goal stood and a nervous and somewhat quiet Verizon Center erupted.

- This was exactly the type of game I was expecting to begin this series. There wasn’t much room out on the ice and both teams worked hard to minimize any defensive breakdowns. Both squads back checked well with the Capitals doing an outstanding job of not giving the Rangers forwards time and space. They had the one breakdown on the Rangers goal and the only other big gaffe came in period two when Marian Gaborik was all alone at the top of the crease but Neuvirth came up with a timely save to keep the game scoreless. Other than that, the two players who are highly skilled on New York, Gaborik and Vinny Prospal, didn’t have opportunities to hurt the Capitals like they’ve done in the past. These type of games are highly competitive and stressful but you can bet that every one from here on out will likely be played the same way.

“I think it’s going to be games like that the whole series,” added Ovechkin on the style of play.

- The Rangers are a very physical team and Coach John Tortorella does an excellent job of getting his players in the right spots to pressure the puck. A team that is weak up the middle of the ice likely would crumble but since the Capitals acquired Arnott to play second line center they have drastically improved their club. Backstrom, #44, and Marcus Johansson played a major role in this victory by helping out the Caps blue line in getting pucks out of Washington’s own zone and then moving it in transition. #19 hounded the puck all night and even though he didn’t get a point, his strong play helped wear out the Rangers defensive crew, particularly their top pair of Staal and Girardi, who logged 33:48 and 32:50, respectively. Those two guys were very tired and fatigue leads to mental mistakes. That is what caused the Staal giveaway to Arnott on the game winning sequence.

- On the Washington blue line, getting #52 back makes a huge difference as the Capitals have someone else, along with the John Carlson-Karl Alzner duo, to move the puck up the ice quickly. Green played a very solid 26:30 in his first action since February 25th, when he was injured against the Rangers. The Caps blue line is deeper than New York’s and as a result, the highest ice time of any defender for Washington was Scott Hannan at 28:39. The rest of the defensive crew had pretty balanced time on ice with Jeff Schultz at 27:49, Carlson with 26:19, Alzner logging 23:42, and Erskine playing 19:18. This was one of Sarge’s (#55) best games of the season and he blocked six shots. #27 led Washington with eight blocks in another strong outing. The fact that New York relied so heavily on one defensive pair while Boudreau was able to spread the wealth bodes well for the Caps as we move to game two.

“I thought his first period might have been as good as he has played in a playoff game. I thought it was outstanding for a guy that hasn’t played in six weeks to come back in a game like that,” added Boudreau on the play of #52.

 

- #30 was superb in net. In addition to the big save on Gaborik, he made an early important one against Erik Christensen. Neuvirth, who is a fierce competitor as evidenced by his 14 for 14 playoff series record in North America, did a super job of not allowing rebounds and he was very good at covering the puck for a defensive zone faceoff when the Caps were near the end of a shift. Lundqvist was really good, but so was the young Czech goalie.

“He was fine. Very calm and very focused on the puck and in the game. In the second period, they have great opportunities to score goal and he made [a] huge save [to] keep us in the game after two periods. Again, I think both goalies played very well,” commented Oveckhin on the goaltending in game one.

- Semin (+2), who scored in the playoffs for the first time in 14 games (last one came in game 7 in 2009 vs. the Rangers), played like a man intent on showing how badly he wants to win. He logged 22:15 and never appeared to let up. Afterwards, Boudreau talked about how important #28 is to Washington’s post season success.

“For our team, well we are not getting anywhere without Alex Semin scoring. You just look at the regular season, Ovie got 32, he got 27, and Mike [Knuble] got 24 and then after that it drops off. We need him to go to create that other offensive threat and I thought the [game winning] shot, I could barely see it, and Arnott made a great play to keep it in, and [Semin] didn’t hesitate, he just shot it,” said Boudreau on Semin and the winning tally.

Ovechkin was asked afterwards what he said to his very good friend Semin out on the ice after he scored, but the Great #8 couldn’t get over in time to talk with Sasha. The reason for that was the quote of the night from the Great #8.

“Well, I was stuck on the bench, my laces were stuck. I tried jumping and I was stuck. It’s a huge goal for whole team. We are all happy for Sasha [Alexander Semin] because last year he was little bit upset he didn’t score a goal and right now it’s very important for him to score a goal, step-up and show his leadership. It doesn’t matter who score right now, it’s all about winning and character and see how good this group is right now,” concluded Ovechkin on the winning goal and the focus of the team he captains.

 

- In closing for tonight, the Capitals have an advantage in this series if they can continue to dump the puck deep and wear out the Rangers defense. New York is a hard working team but they don’t possess big speed issues for Washington, which is more vulnerable to that type of style with Dennis Wideman out for at least the first round. Getting Green back and unharmed was very important. Going forward the Capitals have to keep their focus, be mentally tough no matter the score of the game, and play one shift at at time. They stuck to the process in game one, now they need to do it again on Friday night.

Notes: Washington won the faceoff battle, 43-37. Brooks Laich was 13-5 and Boyd Gordon won 8 out of 12 draws…both teams went 0 for 2 on the power play. Ovechkin took a roughing penalty late in regulation but the Caps killed it, with Laich blocking a huge point shot on one sequence…the Caps outhit the Rangers, 35-31, in a physical hockey game.

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