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Caps Battle Back to Move On!!!

Posted on 29 April 2009 by Nicholas Miskelly

Caps Battle Back to Move On!!!

 

After attacking their way through game six, the Capitals aggressively forced a game seven.  They came out hawkish and physical in game six in what turned out to be an easy victory.

 

That victory forced a do-or-die game seven back in Washington.  Something had to give in this game as the red hot Capitals were only 1 and 4 in the clubs history when hosting a game 7.  The Rangers were even worse as they entered Tuesday’s game winless in their previous four game seven road games.  Who would change the trend?

 

Washington was hoping for a quick start but the first minute of the game was a terribly sloppy start as Varlamov appeared to be the only Capital player not overwhelmed by the pressure of playing in a game seven.  He showed no nerves at all as he had two huge saves, one of which was on a breakaway, in the first minute of the game after two quick Capital giveaways.

 

They were then able to regain a little control as they had some early offensive flurries around the Rangers net but it seemed that the nerves got to their early passing as their passes were not as sharp as expected.  This prevented the Capitals from finishing around the net as the early pressure resulted in no shots on goal for the Capitals.

           

As the Caps defense continued to struggle, their inability to come away with the puck from a corner scrum resulted in the Rangers first goal (an easy one) as Antropov put away an uncontested rebound from point blank range.  The Rangers too, came out aggressively and confidently as though they were the home favorite riding a two game winning streak.

 

Varlamov continued to keep the Caps in the game as he continued to face an offensive onslaught from the Rangers as the tentative and nervous Capitals were dominated and overwhelmed early by a light skating and attacking New York team.

 

The Caps were out played so badly they did not register their first shot until the end of the Ranger dominated opening period.  Though their shots were few, they were able to take advantage of one of the few Rangers mistakes late in the first period when Semin tied the game, scoring on an ugly but effective goal coming as a result of a Caps 3 on 2 break.

 

As the first period mercifully came to an end, I was left relieved to see the score tied at 1 as the Rangers outplayed and out hustled the Caps for most of that opening period.  The Caps were clearly the team that was playing tight and looked to be very nervous out on the ice.  This was one of their sloppiest periods of the playoffs.  I was also hoping that we saw the best the Rangers had to offer and that a re-energized Caps team would have an offensive take-over right from the start of the second period.

 

After a nervous and tentative first period, which saw the Caps take less shots (2) then they had giveaways (7), the Caps seemed to have an early jolt in the beginning of the second as Lundqvist made a big save on Kozlov’s early scoring opportunity; all created by a forced turnover by Ovechkin.  The Caps quickly matched their shot total from the entire first period only 2 and half minutes into the second period.  That was about all the excitement the Caps would have in the second period. 

 

After a flowing and exciting; back and forth but ultimately uneventful second period, the Rangers had to like the shape this game was taking.  After 2 periods of hockey the Caps and Rangers were playing a low scoring 1-1 game.

 

The Rangers had to be ecstatic to be playing this style of game as they were able to hold the Capitals potent offense in check.  Clearly by this point the Caps were hoping for an offensive explosion, like what occurred in games 5 and 6 that would have given the Capitals a comfortable lead to work with.  That was not the case but the Caps were even at 1 and had the advantage of the home crowd eagerly waiting to get into the game.  They were all on the edge of their seats waiting for the Capitals offense to give them a reason to explode.  After 6 games and 2 periods of hockey, this series all came down to one final period off hockey.  Winner Takes All!!!

 

The fans thought they would get that reason to explode early in the 3rd period as the Capitals went on a power play early on when Ovechkin was interfered with when trying to enter the Rangers’ zone.  It turned out that the fans would have to wait for the excitement as the Rangers, aided by the leagues number one penalty killing unit, kept the Caps from getting that much needed power play goal.

 

The Capitals were able to capture some momentum on that power play and change the flow of the game.  The Capitals became much more aggressive and were able to offensively dominate the entire final period of play.  The chances were there but the Caps could not break past the wall known to be Lundqvist.  They stayed persistent though and finally that persistence paid off as Fedorov scored while on a 2 on 2 break with Ovechkin with just under five minutes remaining in the game.

 

The offensive onslaught continued for the Capitals as Lundqvist stoned Semin with just under 3 minutes to go in the game.  Ovechkin set up Semin beautifully, during a 2 on 1 break, but Lundqvist kept the Rangers in the games with an incredible save.

 

That save was in vain as the Capitals kept the offensive pressure on for the remainder of the game.  The Rangers never got another scoring opportunity in the game as the Capitals overcame two tentative and sloppy periods of hockey to win the series with a 2 to 1 victory in game seven.

 

In the end, the Capitals were able to use an early cheap goal and a dominate 3rd period to propel themselves into the second round of the NHL playoffs.  There they will meet the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

 

With Varlamov on his game in the net, if the Capitals offense can string together three periods in a game like they played in that final period of game seven, they have shot at making this year a special year.  One thing is for sure that with all the offensive talent that Pittsburgh has, the Capitals surely can not afford to be as careless with the puck as they were in the first 2 periods of game seven.

 

The playoffs move on and luckily for all of us, the Capitals are moving along with them!!!!

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Fedorov Blast Carries Caps into 2nd Round to Face Penguins

Posted on 29 April 2009 by Ed Frankovic

For 40 minutes on Tuesday night in game 7 at the Verizon Center it looked like the New York Rangers wanted this game and playoff series more than the Washington Capitals. However, thanks to some great goaltending by rookie Simeon Varlamov (who just turned 21 on Monday the 27th), some lucky bounces that resulted in Alexander Semin’s game tying goal in the first period, a very spirited third period by the Caps that saw them out shoot the Rangers 13-1, and then a Hall of Fame wrist shot, short side, upstairs by Sergei Fedorov past outstanding Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist with just 4:59 left in the game the Caps are moving on to the second round to face the Pittsburgh Penguins after a 2-1 victory. Fedorov, who turned 39 back in December, had the following to say about the goal.

“It was just a regular break out. It was two-on-two in their zone. Not much else going on, so I decided to shoot the puck… I didn’t think too much about it. Entering the zone, make sure the puck went deep. The D[efense, Rangers Wade Redden] gave me some room, when I stopped so I choose to shoot. I knew the D[efense] was giving me short side. I guess Henrik went down and I shot it top shelf.”

This series win is the first ever for Caps owner Ted Leonsis, something that was news to Fedorov until I asked him if he and his teammates knew about it.

“Now we do. I guess it is great, he’s a great owner, he deserves to win. I feel even better that that happened. Ted deserves all of the credit in the world to bring this team together and we are just happy for him,” said the three time Stanley Cup Champion.

This game could have easily been 3-0 Rangers after the first period, if not for Varlamov, as the Rangers came out flying while the Caps looked lost. On the opening shift, Varlamov stopped a streaking Sean Avery, who had an outstanding game for the Rangers on Tuesday, and shortly thereaftet he robbed Nik Antropov with a pad save when #80 had a clear breakaway after taking a great pass from Michael Rozsival which split the Caps defense (John Erskine and Brian Pothier).  Later in the period he came up huge on a Derrick Morris point blast with Avery standing right in front of him.

“He is tremendously poised.  I still haven’t talked to him since game one.  I don’t want to screw him up, so I am leaving him alone.  With the way they were coming for the first two periods, for him to have the poise that he did was tremendous.  I don’t know what his stomach was doing but he seemed really calm out there,” said Boudreau on his rookie goaltender who only allowed just eight goals in six games, stopping 152 of 160 shots faced (.950) and recording a 1.34 GAA after replacing Jose Theodore after game one. Varlamov made 14 saves in game seven.

Washington did not register a single shot on goal until the 13th minute when they forced Lundqvist to make a save on a Caps power play. The Capitals goal, on their only other shot on net in the first period with 4:28 left, was a fluky one from Semin, who shot the puck right as a hustling and back checking Ryan Callahan came sliding in front of #28 and the biscuit ricocheted twice off of Callahan and then went by a down on the ground Lundqvist (22 saves on the night, some of which were nearly game saving in the third period), who was expecting a cleaner and harder shot. In the previous six game sevens that the Washington franchise has participated in they never have received as fortuitous a bounce as this one.

The Caps came back in this series from three games to one down to tie it up because they stuck to a simple game plan of dumping the puck behind the Rangers defensemen, then beating them to the puck, using Washington’s cycling game to wear out their defense, and generate scoring chances. Alexander Ovechkin’s quote after game six of “we play hard, we play simple” is what Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau has been stressing to his highly skilled team to be successful. Tonight the Rangers played the Caps style to near perfection for the first period and a good part of the second period but they lack the offensive ability to finish off many of the strong plays they would make on the boards and even though they dominated territorially, they only mustered 14 shots through two periods.

“For most of the game I thought we did a really good job of keeping the puck. It was probably the most we kept the puck all series. We couldn’t develop good scoring chances even with the puck and during the [third] period I think they turned it up a notch and we ended up backing up a little bit and they had the puck more than we did. It was still a game to be had. Who makes the next big play. They did, we didn’t. They win the game. I’m not frustrated with the team. I appreciate how hard they worked tonight. There were a lot of things during the past few weeks going on around this club and playing against a very good Washington Capitals team. That’s a good hockey team. I thought we checked our [butts] off tonight. We’re not an offensive juggernaut and that comes back and bites us. We’re just not developing enough offense. We knew we had to close down the neutral zone and we did that very well for two periods. But they amped it up, again we’re still in it, but they make a big play, we don’t get enough offense in the third period to get some scoring chances,” said Rangers Coach John Tortorella after the game.

In the third period it was all Caps as they were the ones playing the simple game and outworking the Rangers, who seemed to have expended all of their energy in the first two periods (throughout the entire third period during breaks in play I noticed several of the Rangers were hunched over and leaning on their sticks while the Caps were upright and appeared fresh).

“It’s just one of those things. That’s a great club over there. We stuck to our game plan and in the third we were right there, one shot a way. [The Capitals] did a great job; give them credit. In the third they took the play to us. It’s just one of those things. We still thought we had it though. Just one shot – that’s all we kept saying,” said Rangers forward Scott Gomez on the close game seven and New York’s approach.

“They played a great game. We had a little bit of trouble moving the puck out of our zone because their forwards are so fast and our D also seemed to be under pressure. After two periods we knew we had to get our work level up and our talent would eventually come out on top. We really simplified our game, actually, and our forwards had the puck ahead of them and forechecked really well on their defense. I think that is how we won in New York [in game six] and how we won in the third period,” said Fedorov.

Another big factor in this game was the Washington fans and the energy in the building, especially in the third period. When the Caps started playing better in that final stanza the crowd began getting into it more and the Washington players seemed to feed off of it. Then after the best video clip the Washington marketing crew offers at each home game was played on the big board (“Unleash the Fury”), the noise level kept rising and did not stop. I have NEVER been to a Capitals game where the crowd has been louder, it was unbelievable to be a part of, especially after the Fedorov goal where the fans kept cheering until the horn sounded.

“My ears are still ringing. It was loud. It was like going to a rock concert. It was awesome. It built up and built up. After that “unleash the fury” and after [Fedorov] scored the goal it didn’t quiet down,” said Captain Chris Clark who returned from a wrist injury to play his first NHL game since January.

“It was very loud, especially in the third. I think the fans felt that we were trying to make a push. We were trying to put the puck behind their D[efense] and forecheck as hard as we can. They were really cheering hard. They really want us to do well. They really wanted the victory. It was a great atmosphere. I’m sure any player that can play in an atmosphere like that would enjoy it and play hard. It was an amazing experience,” added Fedorov.

“I don’t know what Chicago is like as far as building, other than the National Anthem, but that was the loudest five minutes after we scored.  They never sat down, they never stopped cheering.  If you look at the energy we had just in checking; the people brought that out of us.  They wouldn’t let us not continue skating, not continue anything, it was really a thing to watch,” finished Boudreau on the crowd. It should be noted that because of Washington’s great fan aided forecheck, the Rangers were not able to pull Lundqvist for an extra attacker in the closing minute.

That is it for tonight but please check back late Wednesday night when I bring you some more analysis of the game and series win plus more quotes from the players and coaches (Mike Green and Tom Poti provided some good insight on the improved, since game six, Washington power play).  On Thursday I’ll preview the Penguins series and provide my second round predictions (btw, I went 7 for 8 in round one, with the only loss being President’s Trohy winning San Jose’s six game defeat to Anaheim). The complete playoff schedule with the Penguins has been announced and it is as follows:

Saturday, May 2nd at Washington (1pm on NBC)

Monday, May 4th at Washington (7pm on Versus)

Wednesday, May 6th at Pittsburgh (7pm on Versus)

Friday, May 8th at Pittsburgh (7pm on Versus)

*Saturday, May 9th at Washington (7pm on Versus)

*Monday, May 11th at Pittsburgh (TBD on Versus)

*Wednesday, May 13th at Washington (7pm on Versus)

* – if necessary

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Caps on Brink of Elimination, Losing Game 4, 2-1

Posted on 22 April 2009 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals are on the brink of elimination trailing by the same 3-1 deficit they faced last year against the Flyers before losing in overtime to Philly and the referees in game seven.  This time, however, they will have to try to come back on a much better goalie. Henrik Lundqvist was very good in net again tonight (38 saves) and he got help from the crossbar and post when he needed it in a Rangers 2-1 victory in game four of this best of seven playoff series.

Alexander Ovechkin scored his first goal of the playoffs in the third period to cut the lead to 2-1 and he was all over the ice with a goal, 11 shots on net, and four hits. The Great #8 also hit the post on the power play late in the third period that would have tied the game. Ovechkin, however, needs some help from some of the other players on his team.

Despite rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov giving up a terrible goal early in the second period to Chris Drury, the reason for the loss was Washington’s power play. First, I take issue with the coaches for keeping Tomas Fleischmann on the first unit when Brooks Laich is a much better fit against a goalie who is stopping nearly everything he sees. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau plus assistants Dean Evason and Jay Leach did take Fleischmann off of the top unit after several unsuccessful early power plays but instead of Laich they inserted Sergei Fedorov. As a result the Caps mainly had the puck on the perimeter trying to set up one timers instead of firing the puck and crashing the net for rebounds. 0 for 6 was the final tally on a pitiful power play and I can’t even remember many rebound chances.

Second, defenseman Mike Green was hardly noticeable tonight and prior to the game Caps GM George McPhee said #52 was under the weather for the first three games but he was healthy for Wednesday’s contest. He didn’t look it and seemed to lack energy, at times. The Caps need Green’s booming shot and they need to put a Laich, Eric Fehr, or Viktor Kozlov right in front of Lundqvist. Playoff hockey is about crashing the crease and going for rebounds. The Caps did not commit to that tonight (other than Ovechkin who tried like crazy to will his team to a win).

Alexander Semin, who had a great game three, had some good chances but he did not have that same drive in the offensive zone that he had on Monday. There were several times where he went softly in the corner and didn’t come out with the puck, unlike he did in game three when he was the show. #28 needs to learn that in the playoffs you have to pay the price night in and night out if you want to win (had he come out strong from behind the goal on his wrap around try in the second period he might have scored). The Caps also got too fancy early in the game at the Rangers blue line trying to make some cross ice passes.

The thing that makes the lack of power play success even more stinging in this loss is that the NHL Idiot of the Year, Sean Avery, took two bad penalties in the third period and Washington did not make the Rangers pay for it. Had the Caps tied the game on the power play I would imagine that Rangers Coach John Tortorella or assistant coach Jim Schoenfeld would have gone ballistic on #16, who is doing all he can to help the Caps win with his reckless play.

But Avery, Tortorella, and Schoenfeld can thank Lundqvist, the Rangers penalty killers, and a misconfigured Caps power play for bailing him out.

Game 5 is Friday night at the Verizon Center at 7pm and it is win or head home for the Caps.

Notes: Washington outshot the Rangers 39-21. The first Rangers goal came off of a clean Dave Steckel face off loss to Brandon Dubinsky and defenseman Paul Mara’s shot, that was heading well wide, hit John Erskine’s stick and went right into the net. The second Rangers goal came when Varlamov didn’t handle a weak Rangers shot with his glove and it bounced to the side of the net where Chris Drury buried it to make it 2-0. Varly did make some good saves but giving up that goal really hurt. I expect Boudreau to come back with Varlamov in game five on Friday, though. The Caps didn’t get the breaks tonight but you earn your breaks and had they played playoff hockey and gone to the net this series could have been tied.

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Varlamov Starts in Goal But Caps Lose Again

Posted on 18 April 2009 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals turned in another very good effort on Saturday afternoon at sold out Verizon Center (18,277), but it wasn’t enough for a win as Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist stopped all 35 shots he faced to lead the Rangers to a 1-0 victory and take a two games to none lead in this best of seven series. Game three is Monday night at Madison Square Garden (Note: WNST will have a Rock the Red viewing party at Silver Spring Mining Company, Gary Rissling’s bar, in Perry Hall on Bel Air Road).

For the Caps goaltending had been the hot topic since Wednesday night’s loss in which #1 goalie Jose Theodore struggled. For Saturday’s tilt on national television (NBC), Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau pulled the plug on #60 and went with rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov, who is only 21 years old and was playing his first ever NHL playoff game after only six previous NHL games (4-0-1), and he stopped 23 of 24 Rangers shots in the loss.

The only goal of the game came in the first period just 7:44 into the contest in a sequence where the Caps had the potential for a four on two rush out of their own zone but because of an average breakout it became a four on three break with defenseman moving Mike Green up ice. At the Rangers blue line, Alexander Ovechkin, instead of getting the puck deep, tried a cross ice pass that was intercepted by New York, who then had three on two break the other way with Viktor Kozlov and Tom Poti back for Washington. When Kozlov misread the play and went to hit Brandon Dubinsky, the Ranger forward pushed the puck ahead to Marcus Naslund who skated down the left wing and with Varlamov shaded over for the shot, Poti was unable to cut off the pass (something a defenseman MUST do on a two on one break), allowing Ryan Callahan to streak down the right side of the slot and bury Naslund’s pass into an open net. On that goal, which Varlamov had no chance on, Boudreau said the Rangers got away with an interference call as Ovechkin was halted from back checking effectively by one of the New York players at the red line (Boudreau said the Ranger player just stopped skating to impede the Great #8). Overall Boudreau was pleased with his goalie, though.

“I thought he played well. I didn’t think there was anything that could be done on the first goal. He made a really good save about three minutes after that. I was very happy with his game,” said Boudreau on Varlamov.

Shortly thereafter the Caps had a two on one of their own with Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Semin but the New York defenseman correctly did not give #91 a lane for a pass and Fedorov’s shot was stopped by Lundqvist. Washington outshot the Rangers 13-6 in the first period in which New York received the only power play.

The second period did not start very well for Washington as the Rangers received three straight man advantages but the combination of Varlamov and the Caps defense thwarted New York’s power play (0 for 5 on the afternoon). Varlamov’s biggest save was on Nikolai Zherdev on the first power play of the second period and he gave up a rebound but Chris Drury shot it high. Washington then started playing better towards the end of the period and failed on a power play (a Michael Roszival hook on Ovechkin) with Lundqvist making a big save on a Green point shot he didn’t see but Brooks Laich couldn’t convert the rebound (a Ranger legally tied up his stick). Then with 1:03 left in the period Nik Antropov tripped Michael Nylander but the Caps could not convert. Second period shots were 10-6 New York in a period they controlled most of the play.

The third period was all Caps as they poured 16 shots on Lundqvist but could not solve the very hot net minder. Helping out New York’s cause was some great shot blocking (29) and some luck (the Caps missed the net a few times and hit the crossbar). The final shots tally was 35-24 in favor of the Caps but the scoreboard read, 1-0, Rangers.

Here are some quotes and thoughts on the game:

As I mentioned above the Rangers are very good at blocking shots, one of the keys to their 2-0 series lead. “It’s the playoffs and you got to sacrifice your body. Our guys did a great job of that tonight. You got to do that against a team like that. They’re going to shoot everything, ” said Dubinsky. “We blocked a lot of shots. A lot of guys blocked shots and sacrificed their bodies in a series like this. We had a lot of blocks in the first game – especially on face offs. Tonight, again, a couple blocks where they had pretty good shots. We did a lot of good things. I think these first two games have been really focused, and we’ve minimized our mistakes. And that’s been the difference,” added Lundqvist.

The Caps did get 35 shots through and Lundqvist gave up some rebounds and was handcuffed on about a half of a dozen of them but Washington either wasn’t there for the rebound or did not get to the net. “A lot of our shots were coming from the outside, but rebounds were coming to spots where we should be, we just weren’t there to see it,” said Green, who only had two shots on net and did not have one of his better performances. “Their defense is doing a helluva job, blocking us out. We talk about getting to the net and going for rebounds. It’s not like we’re sitting there saying we’re going to take the shots on the side,” said Boudreau.

Varlamov did well and he had the support of his teammates, including Theodore. “After the warm-up, he walk over to me and say ‘Don’t worry about it.  I was 20-years-old when I play my first game, it was in Montreal.  You know don’t worry about it, I think you’ll do fine.’” Boudreau was complimentary of how #60 handled the news on being sat on Saturday and he was quiet on who would play on Monday as well. “He was very professional. He understood. He obviously wants to play. He knows there’s an opportunity for him to play again if we continue this.” I expect Varlamov to start game three but based on what Boudreau did today nothing surprises me with this coach. Today’s move, which some could have seen as hitting the panic button, was clearly a good one and it nearly won Washington the game.

Is Lundqvist in the Caps heads? Here are some thoughts from the Caps on the goalie who has been the difference so far in this series. “Obviously, we couldn’t get anything by him. And the ones that got by him, hit the crossbar (Ovechkin’s chance in the third period). It was probably the only one that beat him,” said Boudreau, who also mentioned that when he played he didn’t get frustrated by goalies, only referees. “I don’t know, it is hard to say.  I think we had a lot of chances today too and he was pretty good.  There is nothing to say about that.  I don’t know, we have to do something new.  Maybe we have to go even more to the net.  I mean more traffic, we have to try and get the rebounds and those kind of things.  He is a good goalie and he is pretty big in the net,” added Nicklas Backstrom (13-6 on face-offs). “Again lots of chances, he played great.  He’s a good goalie and he played great,” finished Ovechkin.

Rangers coach John Tortorella, who won the Stanley Cup in 2004 with Tampa and goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, had this to say about his goalie and the Caps. “Third period, he was just outstanding. That’s a good offensive team we’re playing against. I thought we did some pretty good things. Third period they turned it up; they loaded up a line. Give them (the Capitals) credit. They’re a pretty good hockey club. Hank (Lundqvist) stood tall.”

How are the Caps going to handle being down two games to none? “Of course no because we were number two in our conference, but it is the playoffs anything can happen.  Now we just have to regroup and we are going on the road for two games.  It is going to be a little uphill, but we still have chances – it is the best of seven, so we still have chances,” said Backstrom when asked if he ever expected this deficit. “We have opportunity to bounce back and we have to use that opportunity.  It is going to be a hard road trip, but we have to figure out our mind and try and win game.  Try and score goals and win game.  That is what it is all about,” said the Great #8. “Same as it was before, we can’t get down – we have to stay up.  If we get down on ourselves it’s going to make it tough on ourselves even more.  We will be fine.  We just need to change a few things that are costing us here,” finished Green.

The Caps power play was 0 for 4 due to all of the blocked shots and some overpassing. The Caps need to find a way to fake the Ranger shot blockers to the ice and move around them. They also need to get more traffic in front of the net. Don’t be surprised to see Chris Clark inserted into the lineup for Nylander (only Cap without a shot attempt today) as #17 is much better at going to the net and creating havoc. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Boudreau move Ovechkin down in front of the net on the power play, something he did in last year’s playoffs against the Flyers. Either Fedorov, Poti, or Brian Pothier could be used on the point instead. I also think that Eric Fehr could be used on the power play and #16 has to get himself to the front of the net at even strength as well. Brooks Laich is the only Cap who consistenly is going to the net. I think it might be time to move the smallish Tomas Fleischmann off of the power play.

The Caps can draw on the experience of rallying from a three games to one deficit in last year’s playoffs against Philadelphia and they will need to do that in game three, otherwise game four becomes win or head to the golf course. “We can’t quit,” is what Boudreau said he would tell his team and not coming back in this series, even though the Rangers are a very good team, could really hurt the confidence of this club going forward into next season.

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Caps Lose Game 1 to Rangers

Posted on 16 April 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau, when talking about goaltenders, always likes to say “I don’t care how many goals they give up but they need to make the big save at the right time to allow us to win the game.” Tonight Caps goaltender Jose Theodore did not make the big save when needed, and at the other end of the rink, New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist was outstanding stopping 32 of 35 shots and was my number one star of the game (officially, he was not chosen for any of the three stars afterwards) in a Rangers 4-3 win. New York leads the best of seven series 1-0 with game two set for Saturday at 1pm at the Verizon Center.

This was a game the Caps should have won tonight as they dominated most of the game, except for a bad spell in the second period, but poor goaltending and a couple of defensive zone miscues cost them. Oh and there were a couple of missed interference calls on the Rangers first goal by Scott Gomez, who was great tonight with a goal and two assists. The Rangers only had 21 shots but scored four times something that really bugged Boudreau after the game.

“We allowed 21 shots and five power plays. I thought we did a great job defensively. I don’t know how many chances to score they had, I haven’t figured that out yet, but I don’t think it was a lot. They scored four goals. That’s crazy. I thought we played a great job defensively,” said the disappointed Capitals head coach.

Actually the Rangers only had four power plays and I didn’t think the team was great defensively, I’ll give them a grade of good or a B+ and you’ll see why it wasn’t an A when I go through the Rangers goals below:

Goal 1 (tied the game at one): Gomez carried the puck up ice and behind the play Ranger forward Nik Antropov knocked Cap forward Tomas Fleischmann to the ice (missed interference penalty #1) and then Sean Avery clipped Caps defenseman Mike Green’s skates at the blue line (missed interference penalty #2) allowing Gomez to go in alone on Theodore, who badly played #19′s shot, and was beaten upstairs over the blocker.

Goal 2 (put Rangers up 2-1): On a Ranger power play (John Erskine high stick), Caps defenseman Shaone Morrisonn breaks his stick (I can’t stand these new sticks, bring back the wooden/fiberglass ones!) making it practically a five on three and Nik Antropov scores from the right wing boards up high as Theodore is down in a butterfly. This was one Theodore definitely should have had.

Goal 3 (put Rangers up 3-1): On another Rangers power play (Sergei Fedorov called for delay of game – puck over glass), Marcus Naslund receives a nice drop pass from Gomez inside the blue line, who then skates by defenseman Tom Poti and to the net, and while Poti is in no man’s land backing up into Theodore, Naslund fires a wrister into the top shelf. Theo could have had this one but I put most of the blame on Poti for not challenging Naslund on the play.

Goal 4 (game winner with 8:17 remaining): Caps defensemen Jeff Schultz, on a two on two play, tries to take the body on Rangers forward Brandon Dubinsky and #17 absolutely abuses him cutting to the inside while #55 fell towards the boards. Dubinsky then had an open lane to the net and Green took Naslund to cut off the pass and allowed Theodore to take the shooter, but #60 once again could not make the big save getting beaten short side by Dubinsky.

So while Theodore should get the majority of the blame, Poti and Schultz didn’t put him in good situations on two of the four goals (and the zebras owe Washington one too for missing the interference penalties that set the table for Gomez on the first goal). Boudreau wasn’t in the mood to take any of the heat off of Theodore either after the game and Theo said himself that he cost the team the game.

“He’s right. There’s times when you sit there and you can say that I didn’t make the save that was needed. But I’m sure he’s going to bounce back. He’s a professional and he’s played this game long enough. I’m sure he feels bad enough,” said Boudreau.

As for Washington’s skaters, Alexander Ovechkin had the best game of any Capital with 13 shots on goal, two assists, six hits (many of them big ones and on Avery too!), and drew three penalties. Two of those penalty calls were the result of strong defensive plays by the Great #8. The first one he backchecked hard to take the puck from Naslund who quickly hauled him down and the second one came after he intercepted the puck just inside the Rangers blue line and was tripped by Dan Girardi. Both of those penalties resulted in Washington power play goals. Ovechkin, who logged 26:07 of ice time, was the best Washington player on Wednesday and was a +1. But Lundqvist was the difference tonight.

“We’re going to need it. As I said, goaltending was a key part tonight and if we’re going to compete, we’re going to have to get good goaltending,” said Rangers Coach John Tortorella.

“I thought we played all right. We played a tough game. We played physical. As long as we keep that play up, the goals will come. I thought their goalie played really well tonight and won the game for them. We still feel the same way – we can win the series and nothing’s really changed,” added Green, who had two assists in 30:47 of ice time but was -2 overall (tripped by Avery on first goal and on ice with Schultz on winning goal).

Here are some other notes and tidbits from game one:

The Caps top line was really good tonight. I mentioned Ovechkin already but he, Viktor Kozlov (first ever playoff goal in 22 games) and Nicklas Backstrom (great play and pass to set up Kozlov’s goal) seemed to control the play and the puck nearly every time they were on the ice. Backstrom also continued his excellent home face-off streak going 13-5 from the dot.

As well as the Ovechkin line played to go with a fairly decent game from Alexander Semin (had a power play goal, however, he missed the net on some good scoring chances), the Caps didn’t get much help elsewhere offensively. The secondary scoring will need to show up for Washington to win this series. Fleischmann had a goal tipping Ovechkin’s shot to give the Caps the lead and came close to getting some other quality scoring chances. Brooks Laich had a decent game going to the net but Washington will need him to score and guys like Fedorov, Eric Fehr (only 9:18 of ice time), and Michael Nylander need to help offensively, too.

The Caps dominated the scoreless first period outshooting the Rangers, 14-4 but the Swedish netminder was the difference. “First game in the playoffs, we knew they would come really hard.  I think just for us to have a tie after the first [period was good].  We knew as the game went on we would improve our game,” said Lundqvist.

The sold out Caps crowd (18,277) was very loud and into the game and Tortorella made mention of it afterwards. “I thought the building was tremendous. It’s great to see the people in the building in Washington,” said the former Tampa Bay Lightning and Stanley Cup winning (2004) coach who took over the Rangers bench from Tom Renney in late February.

Overall the Caps were 46-20 (70%) on face-offs. The Caps were two for seven on the power play while the Rangers were two for four. Advantage: Rangers.

Jim Schoenfeld, who was the Caps head coach from 1994-1997, has been with the Rangers organization for several years and is assistant GM to Glen Sather. “Schoeny” has been doing double duty as the only assistant coach behind the bench helping out Tortorealla since he assumed head coaching duties.

Naslund had a goal and an assist for the Rangers but he also took three penalties. “I don’t know how many penalties we took. It was too many. It’s just too dangerous with that group they put out there. I felt the penalty killers did everything they possibly could – especially at the end, the last two penalties they had to kill – to keep that puck out of the net,” finished Tortorella.

The Rangers were without forward Chris Drury, who has an undisclosed injury, but I watched him very closely in warmups and he did not skate well, barely crossed over, and seemed to be favoring his right leg. He didn’t look good and it will be interesting to see how long he will be out.

In my Caps/Rangers series analysis and prediction blog I said this would go seven games, with Washington winning. Boudreau said the team will make changes, if necessary, and they’ll move forward.

“I didn’t think we were going to win in four straight games. You always have the desire to win the first game, but we won the first game last year and it didn’t do us any good. So, we’ll just have to go a different route. Just like New York that they stole one here, we’re confident that we’re a pretty good team and we’ll play pretty well on Saturday,” said Boudreau.

“What can I say? It’s the playoffs. It’s seven games. You can’t concentrate on one game. It’s seven games. It’s one week. It’s ok. It happens. We can’t win all of our games right away,” ended Ovechkin.

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Caps Get Ready for Rangers / Series Analysis and Prediction

Posted on 13 April 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Monday at Kettler IcePlex in Ballston, Virginia the Washington Capitals hit the ice for their first playoff practice of 2009 with a goal of winning the Stanley Cup this spring. Defending Hart Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin addressed the team’s ultimate goal after practice with the media and the Great #8 basically said that just winning one or two series is not good enough because they want to win the Cup, but to do that they have to focus first on just beating a very good New York Rangers team (you can see the Ovechkin interview at WashingtonCaps.com). Caps Head Coach Bruce Boudreau, along the same lines,  mentioned the following on the Rangers and the overall goal in his post practice news conference, “I was just watching a couple of their games right now and [the Rangers] are going to be a very difficult opponent…our goal has always been to win the Cup, and it was last year, the people that said [last year] was a successful season were the media, we didn’t say it was a successful season, because we didn’t finish our goal. We thought we should have beat Philadelphia last year and we didn’t. So I think all people with a lot of character want to win the Cup when they get the opportunity. Now that it is down to 16 teams anything less for any player or any team in this league would be a disappointment.”

Things appear vastly different for the Caps going into the playoffs this season from last year emotionally and physically. Instead of having to win almost every game down the stretch to make the playoffs and paying the physical and mental toll that goes with that grind game in and game out, Washington enjoyed a very solid regular season that landed them the second seed in the Eastern Conference. As I’ve mentioned recently, they were able to play what I will call “stress free” hockey the last 10 games before the quest for the Cup will begin this Wednesday. I asked Caps forward Brooks Laich today how this year is different from last season.

“I think we are more relaxed and I think we are more prepared. This year heading into the playoffs we were preparing for the playoffs where as last year heading in we were just trying to get there. Every day was a struggle to get there and we were finally there. This year we’ve had some time to think about it, work on our game leading up to the playoffs, and I think we are a more confident group this year. The experience gained from last year should do wonders for our group this year,” said Laich, who set a career high for goals and points this year with 23 and 57, respectively.

Laich then expanded further on those thoughts comparing last year’s playoff series to how they are approaching the match-up with New York this upcoming week.

“We won the first game last year and we didn’t play real well in that one then we lost the next three and we didn’t play really well until our backs were up against the wall and it was win or go home. For some reason we just relaxed, we weren’t squeezing our sticks so tight, we just relaxed and played and had a lot of fun and then we started to be successful. I think that is what we are going to do this year. We are not going to go in and try and be overly intense and then get out of position and make mistakes. We are going to relax, we are going to play our game and hopefully that will be enough,” added Laich.

#21 was also asked about the wait just to get to the playoffs.

“It has been a long wait. Knowing that you are going to be in, we knew a couple of weeks ago we were, but we still had stuff we wanted to play for, like 2nd in the conference which we did, but it is always in the back of your mind – let’s get this thing going. I think the guys are really excited and we had a good practice today. We like the match-up, the Rangers are a very good hockey team, and it is going to be a long series,” finished Laich.

As for Mike Green, the leading goal and point scorer among all NHL defensemen this season (31 goals and 42 assists), I asked him if the wait has been tough and if the playoffs were on his mind for awhile.

“Yes, last year every day we were fighting and this year you are resting and thinking about that first game so, yes, we can’t wait until Wednesday. Last year it seemed like we were playing playoff hockey from a month left in the season and this year maybe we are a little more rested and maybe mentally not as tired as were last year but we can’t use that as an excuse last year, no matter what we have to make sure we are working hard and doing the right things to move on. I think we are all just excited to get started,” said Green.

Green then talked about what the Caps needed to do to be successful against the Rangers.

“This year we are confident but not over confident like we were last year. We learned last year how tough the NHL playoffs are and a lot of us had never been in the playoffs before…they are a good team and they’ve got some good players over there that are pretty dangerous. As long as we play good defensively we usually don’t have a problem scoring goals. We know [NY goalie Henrik] Lundqvist is gonna play well but as long as we play defense we’ll be fine,” finished Green.

On the topic of experience, I chatted with three time Stanley Cup Champion Sergei Fedorov to find out his thoughts on this team and what they gained from last year’s playoff series.

“Well certainly we didn’t get up to the goals we wanted to get last year but certainly we got that experience playing in the playoffs, so I think is going to be very positive for us and I think it is going to help us,” started Fedorov, “Obviously when you win once or twice you always want to win it again. It is a precious trophy and the hardest trophy to win. I think we do have nice chemistry, in general, guys like each other and like to play with each other and work together. We’ll see how it is going to go. I’m sure the first round will be nerve racking but if we are willing to work hard like we did in the regular season I don’t see why we can’t win,” added #91.

I also asked Fedorov about the World Championship he, Ovechkin, and Semin won with Russia last year and if that could help the team this year.

“I hope so, but the format is much different. In the world cup you just play straight 10 games every other day and the quarter finals just appear out of nowhere, then semi-final, and all of sudden final. [Stanley Cup] Playoffs are obviously different, you have your opponent and you know them inside out and play them until you win four games out of seven, so you know your opponent much better than in the world cup,” finished Fedorov, who certainly will play a key role in how far Washington goes in the post season.

Backstrom improves at the dot: I had a chance to talk with Nicklas Backstrom on Monday about his recent improvements on face-offs, he is a remarkable 55-19 in his last four home games, and here is what #19 had to say.

“I don’t know, maybe I try to do something different. I try to shift a little bit more and it works sometimes,” started Backstrom, who was then asked if any of the other players, such as Fedorov, gave him any tips, “Actually no, I just have been mad at myself for struggling before. It is something that is going to be important in all situations and everyone knows,” finished Backstrom.

Whatever he is doing, it is clearly working, and perhaps just the extra focus and effort is the real reason for his huge improvement.

Roster notes: Everyone was skating for the big club this morning including Boyd Gordon (missed several weeks with a fractured finger), Donald Brashear (out since Nashville game due to knee injury) and Chris Clark (wrist surgery). Clark is still expected to be out until the second round (he is unable to fully shoot the puck) but Gordon and Brashear are available for Game 1 against the New York Rangers on Wednesday at the Verizon Center at 7pm. Forward Keith Aucoin, who had a nice recent stint with the big club, was assigned to Hershey on Sunday since Gordon is now healthy. The only other injury note is that Tom Poti is still nursing a sore groin and is questionable for Wednesday’s series opener.

Caps-Rangers Series Analysis and Prediction

This series pits the number one penalty killing team in the NHL in the Rangers and the number two overall power play from the Caps. Here are some thoughts from a couple of players on that topic.

“Two things, they are aggressive and great goaltending,” started Laich on why New York is so successful while shorthanded, “they don’t get out of position, they have smart forwards, they have reliable defensemen, and you have to beat Lundqvist to get the goal, so it is going to be a good match-up of our power play versus their penalty kill,” finished Laich.

“It will be interesting to see how it plays out. We rely on our power play, if we struggle we usually don’t get a lot of momentum but I think everyone will raise their game for the playoffs,” said Green.

The Caps were 3-0-1 against New York in the regular season but most people know that really doesn’t matter and Green confirmed that with the following.

“I think the playoffs is a whole new season. I don’t think we are going to talk about our record against them during the regular season because it is a long season and teams get tired at different times so maybe that was the case [for the wins against the Rangers] but everyone is going to be rested come Wednesday,” said the Norris Trophy candidate.

What I like about Washington: Their skill and team speed. The Caps have never had a team with this much speed and offensive talent with guys like Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Backstrom, and Green. Add in guys like Fedorov and Laich to go with role players like Tomas Fleischmann, Eric Fehr (Stat of the day: With Fehr in the lineup the Caps were 39-16-6, as opposed to their 11-8-2 record when he did not play), Matt Bradley, and Boyd Gordon and you have a great group of forwards (#2 in the East in goal scoring). I also really like Jose Theodore in net and anyone that lists him as the number one concern for this team heading into the playoffs has not really been paying close attention to Caps games. Theodore has been very good since December 23rd (the 5-4 comeback win against the Rangers).

The concern about the Caps: Team defense. Washington has shown to be loose in their own end, at times. This typically happened when Washington was not playing against some of the better teams in the league. When Washington played clubs like the Rangers, Bruins, and Devils they were good, for the most part, defensively. They will need to play at a high level in their own end to win this series.

What I like about New York: Great goalie in Lundqvist. Playoff experienced forwards in Scott Gomez (two Stanley Cup wins with New Jersey) and Chris Drury (Stanley Cup victory with Colorado) and a head coach with a Stanley Cup ring and a system that works in John Tortorella. They have been hot down the stretch (12-6-1)  and as Boudreau pointed out today they played a real tough schedule over the last 10 games. They are also more physical since Tortorella took over so they may try to play that angle against the Caps with Sean Avery, Colton Orr, and Brandon Dubinsky. They also added big forward Nik Antropov  (6′ 6″, 230 lbs) at the trade deadline and he is very skilled and tough to move in the corner or in front of the net.

The concern about the Rangers: Goal scoring, they only had 210 goals, by far the fewest of any Eastern Conference playoff team. They also have the worst power play in the league at 13.7%. The Rangers did manage to score eight goals in the two games at Madison Square Garden but only tallied twice at the Verizon Center.

Analysis: Much has been made of Avery’s potential impact on this series and several media members asked the Caps players and coaches if he will try and rattle them. Avery will do what he does best, as Boudreau put it, but given how much damage he has done to the league he needs to be really careful because he is on a short leash and anything close to the line will result in the referees sending him to the box giving an edge to a Caps team with a potent power play. The Caps need to not get caught up in his taunts and mind games and just play hockey. This will be a really close, hard fought series but I think Washington has just enough firepower and skill to squeak this one out, but it won’t be easy. The Caps home crowd could be the difference maker in this playoff series.

“Everyone knows the Rangers are a good team and it is going to be close games. Hopefully we can have some home advantage,” added Backstrom.

Prediction: Caps in 7 games.

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Caps Win Behind Varlamov; Devils Lose

Posted on 07 April 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov stopped 29 of 31 shots, many of them on quality chances including a great one on Ilya Kovalchuk from point blank range in the first period, to lead the Caps to a 4-2 victory in Atlanta and move the Caps within one point of clinching second place in the Eastern Conference. Varlamov, who will not turn 21 until April 27th, is now 4-0-1 on the season with a .918 save percentage. Tonight he allowed an inconsistent Capitals performance to be turned into the team’s first win in Phillips Arena in three tries this season. The Caps won the season series from Altanta, 4-2, and are now 15-7 in Southeast Division contests. Washington’s final two games are in Tampa on Thursday (Caps are 5-0 vs. the Lightning) and in Florida on Saturday (Caps are 3-2 vs. the Panthers). Either one Caps point or one missed Devils point will lock up second place for Washington and mean that they will likely face Montreal or the Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which start next week.

With goalie Brent Johnson still out recovering from hip surgery, Varlamov’s performance tonight had to make Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau and GM George McPhee feel pretty confident that the young netminder could come in and handle things in a playoff series, if necessary. But let’s face it, the Caps are going to ride #1 goalie Jose Theodore as much as possible in this post season.

Also very good for the Caps tonight was their penalty killing, which stopped all six Thrasher power plays despite defenseman Tom Poti (sore groin) being out of the lineup. The sore groin explains a good portion of the reason why #3 seems to have been struggling lately. To successfully kill penalties everything starts with your goalie, at least that is what Rod Langway used to tell me, and tonight Varlamov did his part and the shorthanded Cap skaters did a superb job as well clogging the passing lanes, blocking shots, and making decent clears. Last time Washington was in Atlanta the Thrashers scored on their first three power play chances but they would get the donut hole on Tuesday.

Sergei Fedorov had the insurance goal tonight thanks to Alexander Ovechkin (2 assists) crashing the net but he took three penalties, allowed Marty Reasoner to deflect Tobias Enstrom’s point blast by Varlamov in the second period, and was only four and nine on face-offs. #91 still does not look 100% healthy to me.

Tomas Fleischmann’s first goal was the result of a lucky bounce off of the Thrashers but as Boudreau said last Friday night, when you are playing well you make your own breaks. #14 is rounding into form right now with his 19th goal of the season, he also added  an assist, and was +2 for the evening. He is also getting better at killing penalties. Could he be this year’s John Druce?

Eric Fehr, Nicklas Backstrom, Brian Pothier, and John Erskine were all also +2 for the game.

The Thrashers first goal was a colossal defensive breakdown as Milan Jurcina fumbled the puck in his skates while the rest of the Caps vacated the center of the ice leaving Varlamov to try and fend off Ron Hainsey and Rich Peverley on his own (Peverley scored on a nice backhand fake but he had all day to make the move). These type of breakdowns must be eliminated when the post season begins.

I’m not sure who picked the stars in Atlanta tonight but I don’t know what game he or she was watching, Varlamov was the clear #1 star in my book.

Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins, who had two assists in Pittsburgh’s 6-4 win over Tampa tonight, still leads #8 by two points with two games to go in the scoring race. A tie between the two at the end of the year would result in the Art Ross Trophy for the Great #8 since he has more goals (55 to 34). Ovechkin will get the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals and also should win the Hart Trophy (NHL MVP) but Alex would trade all of these trophies for the Stanley Cup.

The Caps are only one point away from clinching second place because Martin Brodeur turned in another subpar performance on Tuesday giving up four goals on 18 shots while Martin Gerber (who was also great against the Caps this season) stopped 47 of 48 shots to lead the Leafs to a 4-1 victory at The Rock. Brodeur, since setting the record for most wins by an NHL goalie a couple of weeks back, has really struggled lately. For once I say let the Leafs fans party on Yonge Street after this one as they did Washington a huge favor.

Up I-95 in Philadelphia on Tuesday night the Flyers dealt the Florida Panthers a major blow to their playoff chances with a 2-1 victory. Anyone who saw the highlights of this one knows that Florida goalie Tomas Vokoun, who made some very good saves in the contest, gave up a bad goal to Jeff Carter to cost his team the game. The Panthers are two points behind the Rangers and three points behind the Canadiens with two games to go. Florida is at Atlanta on Thursday and then host Washington on Saturday. Montreal is at Boston on Thursday and then host the Penguins on Saturday while the Rangers host the Flyers on Thursday and then go to Philly on Sunday. I don’t see Florida getting in the post season and GM Jacques Martin’s decision to not move impending free agent defenseman Jay Bouwmeester looks even worse now.

The Flyers have clinched a playoff berth but likely can’t win the Atlantic Division (Devils need one point to clinch) so they have to be focused on trying to beat out the Penguins and the streaking Hurricanes for fourth place in the Eastern Conference. Carolina won their ninth game in a row (thumped the Islanders 9-0) but only have two games left while the Flyers have three (they have the Islanders on Saturday to go with the two Ranger games).

That is it for now as I’m off to watch Calgary and Vancouver. A Flames win in regulation clinches the Northwest Division title for them and the #3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. The Canucks lead 1-0 midway through the 2nd period.

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Saturday Night Caps and Hockey Thoughts

Posted on 04 April 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Tarik El-Bashir is reporting in his Capitals Insider blog that Sergei Fedorov limped off at practice today from an injury sustained in Friday night’s loss overtime to Buffalo. After Friday’s game, we talked to a subdued #91 and I posted his quotes in my blog last night. Anyways, Fedorov definitely walked over slowly to meet with us after the game and seemed bummed out. I had thought he was just upset about the game but apparently there is more to this. We’ll see how effective he is on Sunday but the Caps need the three time Stanley Cup Champion to be healthy when the playoffs start at Verizon Center on either Wednesday, April 15th or Thursday, April 16th. By the way, Fedorov, who had the costly giveaway that resulted in the Sabres winning goal, showed alot of class coming out and talking to the media after a tough loss and a possible injury. He is a true professional, very accountable, and a leader for his teammates. He didn’t duck or back away from any of the questions thrown his way.

The Caps are now tied with the New Jersey Devils for 2nd place in the Eastern Conference as Martin Brodeur and company held off a furious Sabres rally in Buffalo tonight to win, 3-2. The Caps have four games left while the Devils have three but because New Jersey has two more wins than Washington, the first tie-breaker goes to New Jersey. The Devils have Toronto at home, then are in Ottawa, and finish with the streaking Hurricanes at home on Saturday. The Caps have Atlanta at home tomorrow, then are in Atlanta, Tampa Bay, and Florida during the week. It looks like Washington may have to win all four games to get second place or at least go 3-0-1 because the only game I see New Jersey having trouble with is Carolina. The Devils just need one point or a Philadelphia missed point to clinch the Atlantic Division title.

Nice catch over at On Frozen Blog as apparently the Sabres were offside on the play that resulted in Jason Pominville’s overtime winning goal on Friday. Check out that piece and the seemingly conclusive picture at http://onfrozenblog.com/2009/04/04/a-bad-non-call-decides-a-bad-game.html (oh and kudos to Japers Rink for being a great one stop shop for Caps coverage. I especially enjoy his “What We’re Reading Section” and that led me right to OFB).

Good news down on the farm tonight as rookie goalie Michal Neuvirth saved 40 of 42 shots to give the Hershey Bears a 3-2 win over the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins in a shootout. The Bears now have 104 points with three games to go (they lead second place Bridgeport by four points and the third place Penguins by five points in the Eastern Conference East Division). Neuvirth had been under the weather prompting the Bears to call up Brandon Holtby (19 years old), Washington’s fourth round choice in the 2008 NHL entry draft, from Saskatoon of the Western Hockey League to back up Darren Machesney. I saw Holtby play in last year’s rookie development camp and was impressed with him. The Caps future in net looks very good when you add Holtby into the mix to go with Jose Theodore (signed for next year), Simeon Varlamov, Neuvirth, and Machesney. Holtby won 40 games for the Saskatoon Blades this season and is already under contract with Washington.

The Caps set a single season attendance record last night and will add to it Sunday afternoon at the Verizon Center against the Thrashers. Before last night’s game I was sitting on a chair talking on the cell phone to my wife when owner Ted Leonsis strolled by and said hello and shook my hand. I would have loved to have had a quick chat with him but the real boss was on the phone. I’m not sure if Ted knows who I am or not but the one thing that has been consistent about the owner is this: he makes every possible attempt to connect with the fans and thank them for their support (when shown on the video screens at home games his first move is typically a “thank you” kiss to the fans). Leonsis, who made some mistakes early on (but which owner hasn’t?) and is very passionate about Caps hockey, deserves alot of credit for sticking to his plan and also for not holding grudges against any detractors during his tenure (he’s clearly won Tom Boswell of the Washington Post over). Leonsis is successful because he takes a “kill you with kindness” approach. There is a certain baseball team here in the area who could learn alot from Leonsis about running a sports team.

You probably need an Alpha Bits secret decoder ring to figure out who is going to make the playoffs in the Western Conference as Anaheim, St. Louis, Nashville, Minnesota, and Edmonton are fighting for the last two post season spots. As I said to Mike Vogel of WashingtonCaps.com last night, if I am Detroit or San Jose the last team I want to play in the first round is Anaheim. The Ducks are only two years removed from winning the Stanley Cup and with a defense that includes Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, Ryan Whitney, and James Wisniewski they are not going to be an easy out. The Ducks are 8-2 in their last 10 games and Jonas Hiller has won six of his last seven games in goal and seems to have wrestled the #1 job, at least temporarily, from Stanley Cup winning goalie Jean-Sebastian Giguere. They lead the San Jose Sharks 4-2 after two periods tonight at San Jose and play them again on Sunday in Anaheim. Ducks rookie Bobby Ryan has scored his 29th goal of the season and if not for the play of Columbus goalie Steve Mason, who is a lock to win the Calder Trophy, he would get my vote for rookie of the year over goalie Pekka Rinne (Nashville), and forwards Blake Wheeler (Boston), Kris Versteeg (Chicago), and Patrick Berglund (St. Louis).

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Caps Win Southeast Division Title But Lose in OT

Posted on 04 April 2009 by Ed Frankovic

It was a bittersweet night for the Washington Capitals as they wrapped up their second straight Southeast Division Title but, more importantly according to Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau, they did not defeat the Buffalo Sabres on Friday to lose ground in the Eastern Conference standings. The Caps 5-4 overtime loss to an inspired, playing for their playoff lives hockey club in the Buffalo Sabres, combined with the New Jersey Devils overtime win over the Tampa Bay Lightning reduces Washington’s lead on the Devils for second place in the East to just two points with four games to go.

“[Winning the Southeast Division] is not our goal. Before the season started we said we were going to win and we have one goal in mind and we aren’t there yet,” started Boudreau “It is bittersweet because we wanted that extra point because New Jersey won. We figured we were going to win the division. We didn’t think we were going to lose five in a row and Carolina end up winning 12 in a row. I mean they might win the 12 in a row but we’ve got to get smarter to be able to play better. We had guys staying on too late, we had guys doing cross ice passes in overtime…it’s just not a smart play,” finished Boudreau.

The Caps went 3 for 7 on the power play and are now number one in the league in that category. However, they had two lengthy 5 on 3 power plays but only scored once on those two man advantages. They were outscored 4-1 at even strength and Boudreau reiterated that it was due to mental mistakes.

“We want to be the number one at everything, if we can. If our power play is going well, we dictate a lot of the way the game is played.  Teams that might be physical teams don’t want to play physical because of the fact they might take penalties. We’ve got to start scoring more five-on-five goals. When one thing goes good, something else usually goes bad. We want everything to go good. The power play can’t be good at the expense of five-on-five. When it comes down to it in the playoffs, usually after the series settles down teams only [get three or four power play chances]. Penalties definitely aren’t called as much on the little things in the playoffs as they are in the regular season,” said Boudreau.

As for Buffalo being desperate, needing to win every game from here on out (and the Caps are hoping the Sabres can defeat the Devils in Buffalo on Saturday night), and playing at a high energy level, Boudreau commented, “We played a team that if you look on paper, boy they’re pretty good.  They ran into some injuries and some bumps on the road, but they’re a dangerous team if they make the playoffs. Their first two lines are as good as anybody’s, their defense is solid and they’ve got one of the best goalies in the league. I thought we matched their energy. That was a great test for us as far as a playoff-type game.”

#1 goalie Jose Theodore was given the night off and rookie Simeon Varlamov got the call in net. Varlamov was 3-0 coming into this contest so he suffered his first defeat at the NHL level. The first three goals went off of Capitals before entering the net but Boudreau wasn’t about to say they were lucky.

“I think everything evens out. [Tim] Connolly misses a wide open shot [in the opening minute] so then one goes in off our foot. Do you sit there and say ‘oh geez it went off Kozi’s [Viktor Kozlov] leg?’ No they should have had a goal anyway so it evens out in the end. Yes they were tough breaks but when you win you make your own breaks,” said Boudreau on the deflections.

As for the goals that got by Varlamov, Boudreau said, “They were tough goals. Redirect goals. Only the last one I thought there was much he could have done about it. Obviously, when [Jason] Pominville scored [the game winner] he made a good shot, he’s a good player.”

Here are my comments and thoughts on the game, including some quotes from Sergei Fedorov:

Varlamov: I thought he was very good in the second period but did not look comfortable in the first and third periods where he struggled to control his rebounds. In his defense, the guys in red in front of him had several breakdowns, especially in the defensive zone, that made it difficult for him to figure out where the shots were going to come from causing #40 to flop, at times, all over the crease. This was especially apparent on the fourth Buffalo goal.

Aucoin: Keith Aucoin came into tonight’s game with a goal, two assists and a plus five rating in seven games but he had a rough one on Friday. In the third period, when he was on the ice with Dave Steckel and Matt Bradley the trio gave up several quality scoring chances and had numerous giveaways. In fact it was an Aucoin giveaway on a simple play on the right wing boards that started the whole sequence that allowed Maxim Afiingenov to tie the game at four with 9:39 remaining.

Ovechkin: The Great #8, Alexander Ovechkin, had a goal (his 55th) and two assists but was -2 for the contest. He was called for a very questionable goalie interference penalty in the third period (he was shoved into Sabres goalie Ryan Miller by the Sabres defenseman) and he had trouble getting clean shots off due to some good play by the Buffalo defense. Ovechkin now has 104 points on the season and trails the Penguins and NHL leader, Evgeni Malkin, by four points [Malkin has played two more games as Alexander the Great missed two games while in Russia visiting his ailing grandfather early in the year and the game against Toronto due to a bad foot. The Pens have five games left and the Caps have four remaining].

Fedorov: Sergei Fedorov had two goals that he called “lucky shots” but he also took a very lazy hooking penalty behind the Buffalo net in the second period that led to the Sabres third goal on the power play (Buffalo was 1 for 5). He also made the horrible cross ice pass in overtime, on his backhand no less, that led to the game winning goal [and Mike Green made a bad change and defenseman Jeff Schultz didn't properly read the play instead opting to hit Tim Connolly which allowed #19 to find a wide open Pominville streaking down the slot - and he then beat Varlamov five hole]. Fedorov knows that he should have gone off the boards instead of trying the wild cross ice feed intended for Ovechkin. Here is what #91 had to say afterwards about the contest:

“It was a tough game, I think they played great as a team, they skate well and we know that. We tried to match their push and try to play as best as we can. It’s obviously tough stats but we are looking forward to our next game, I guess we’ll talk about [the 4-1 even strength goal deficit] tomorrow and try to clean up some plays in there and try to be stronger in our zone. I think we matched every thing they got [from an energy standpoint] overall but defensively we could have played a little bit better,” said the three time Stanley Cup Champion.

When asked what the team’s emotions and thoughts were after the contest on a night they won the Southeast Division for the second straight season, the two time Selke Trophy winner commented, “pretty much like we lost the game and after that we don’t think much about it.”

Other stats, facts, and comments: The Caps won the face-off battle 44-30. Green led all players in ice time with 28:13. Milan Jurcina and Tom Poti were paired together and were -2. Poti is struggling right now, in my opinion. Brooks Laich had two assists and was one of the better Caps on Friday.

Next up for the Caps are the Atlanta Thrashers on Sunday at 3pm at the Verizon Center.


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Green Scores Twice, Ovechkin Once in Cap Victory

Posted on 01 April 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Mike Green scored his 29th and 30th goals of the season in the third period and Alexander Ovechkin added his 54th of the season in the second period as the Washington Capitals rallied from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits to complete a four game season sweep of the New York Islanders on Wednesday night, 5-3, at the Verizon Center. The win combined with New Jersey getting buried by Pittsburgh (6-1) for their sixth straight loss gives Washington a three point lead over the Devils for 2nd place in the Eastern Conference with just five games to go in the regular season. This victory also gives the Caps 101 points and it is only the fourth time in team history they have eclipsed the century mark. If the Caps get at least seven points in their remaining five games they will set the franchise mark for total points in a regular season beating the 1985-86 team (107 points).

This game started slowly for Washington and once again a shorthanded bad clear (Tom Poti) led to an opposing goal as a screened Jose Theodore was beaten by Kyle Okposo’s top shelf shot for the first tally of the evening. Then to start the second period the Islanders made it 2-0 as Poti and Jeff Schultz had another poor defensive zone shift that allowed Frans Nielsen to put one in off of his skate while charging to the net.

But things then began to change when John Erskine stepped up in Donald Brashear’s absence (knee injury) and fought Joel Rechlicz 100 seconds into the second period. That brought some adrenaline to the Caps along with a Schultz fight and even though Green was correctly called for charging Andy Hilbert to put Washington shorthanded (even though several Islanders jumped Green and Schultz had to fight Tim Jackman when the Islander instigated – that sequence should have been an even up call causing Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau to shout “What the #$%& are you guys looking at?” to the referees) you could sense that the Caps were now into this game.

On the ensuing Islander power play the Caps did a good job of preventing New York from making it 3-0 and then Sergei Fedorov took over at the end of the penalty kill and finished his great shift with an unbelievably great pass from behind the net to a wide open Ovechkin who shot it in off of Islanders goalie Joey MacDonald. The Caps then kept the intensity up and Eric Fehr pressured New York into a bad defensive zone pass that went right to Keith Aucoin in the slot and his first shot ricocheted off of MacDonald’s pads back to Aucoin who buried the puck for his first goal of the season (he had five tallies last year in Carolina).

With the game tied 2-2 it looked like this would be a repeat of the early December Caps 5-2 victory where the home squad scored three goals in the final period to break open a tight game but when Michael Nylander made a bad kicking backwards pass to Green and Shaone Morrisonn, it was intercepted by Richard Park and he went in alone on Theodore and beat him top shelf on a beautiful back hand move. Suddenly it was 3-2 Islanders early in the final period.

But Washington put the heat on and shortly thereafter Alexander Semin almost tied the game with two great chances but MacDonald was lucky and good to preserve the New York lead. The Caps would tie it as the Islanders, who tried to take take advantage of no Brashear with some chippy play all night, crossed the line and were caught by the zebras for roughing giving the Caps a power play. Green then got his 29th in the slot on a great feed from Semin and then just 83 seconds later Green put in the game winner (his 30th) on a point shot that MacDonald had trouble with because Tomas Fleischmann went to the net and screened the goalie (in fact, it was close to #14′s goal as he swatted at the puck and looked to just barely miss it).

Here are some other thoughts on the game and notes on the Caps on a busy day:

Goaltending: Theodore was good tonight even though he gave up three goals on 27 shots. Each of the three goals were the result of defensive zone breakdowns and there were many others that lead to quality chances. Since December 23rd #60 is now 22-10-4 and his save percentage over that span, before tonight, was .911. He recorded his 30th win of the season, the third 30-win season of his career. He is now .500 for his career (213-213-44); the last time he was .500 in his career was Nov. 9, 1998.

Fleischmann: While #14 did not have a point for the 14th straight game this was one of his better games in weeks. He went to the net hard and did a good job of backchecking on several occassions. He is due to score and my biggest complaint is that he needs to be more careful with his defensive zone passes. I have a feeling this guy breaks out soon and the playoffs would be a perfect time.

Fedorov and Backstrom: I thought both of these guys were big keys to the game tonight setting the pace up the middle of the ice for Washington. Fedorov brought the Caps back in it in the second period and he was 11-7 on face-offs. It was his best game in weeks but he has been battling the flu. As for #19, this kid just keeps getting better and better and now has 22 goals and 60 assists (82 points). He is SO strong on the puck along the boards thanks to some great lower body strength. He is one of the most underrated players in the league, in my opinion. Backstrom also was 16-8 from the face off dot on Wednesday (Washington was 45-24 for the game).

Concern area: I continue to be worried about the Caps play in their own end. It seems that there are several times in a game where they just are running around with no thought to proper positioning. They also have sequences where they are very careless with the puck. Clearing the front of their own net has not been their strong suit lately and come playoff time guys will have to start blocking more shots. In fact, Green was just a guest call in tonight on the NHL Network’s “On the Fly” show and indicated that defensive zone was the one thing they really needed to do better in when asked by Hall of Famer Larry Murphy if there was a concern area (For those those who missed it, you can catch it on replay in the AM on the NHL Network).

2009 Masterton Trophy: Brian Pothier has been nominated by the Professional Hockey Writers Association for the 2009 Bill Masterton Trophy that typically is awarded to the player who “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.” #2, who scored his first goal in 14 months against Tampa last Friday night, missed all that time due to post-concussion syndrome. Pothier will go up against Southeast Division rivals Rod Brind’Amour of Carolina, Slava Kozlov of Atlanta, Richard Zednik of Florida, Cory Murphy of Tampa Bay and several other to be named players from each team in the NHL.

Caps Sign Draft Pick: The Washington Capitals have signed forward Stefan Della Rovere to a three-year entry-level contract beginning next season, vice president and general manager George McPhee announced today. Della Rovere, 18, will join the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL and could make his debut Wednesday night at Charlotte. He is also eligible to return to his junior team next season. Della Rovere captained the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) this year and recorded 51 points (27g-24a) and 146 penalty minutes in 57 regular-season games. He played in all five playoff games for the Colts, recording two goals and two assists before the team was eliminated in the first round by the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors. Della Rovere was named to the 2009 OHL Eastern Conference All-Star team, where he recorded one goal.

The 5’11”, 200-pound Richmond Hill, Ontario, native was a member of Team Canada that won the gold medal at the 2009 World Junior Championship in Ottawa. He also participated in the 2008 ADT Canadian Hockey League (CHL) Canada/Russia Challenge, an annual six-game exhibition tournament between all-star teams representing the three leagues of the CHL and a select team of Russian junior players. Della Rovere was Washington’s seventh-round choice, 204th overall, in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

Next up for the Caps are the Buffalo Sabres on Friday night at the Verizon Center. The Sabres are five points out of the playoffs with six games to go and after tonight’s overtime loss in Atlanta are on the verge of being eliminated. The Capitals practice on Thursday at Kettler Ice Plex will be at noon and will likely be an optional one.

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