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Caps Follow Ovechkin’s Lead to Victory

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Caps Follow Ovechkin’s Lead to Victory

Posted on 18 March 2013 by Ed Frankovic

After a subpar effort in Boston on Saturday, the Washington Capitals needed a fast start to get back on track Sunday night against the Buffalo Sabres. They got just that as Alexander Ovechkin lasered home the biscuit 19 seconds into the contest after Nicklas Backstrom won an offensive zone draw and Marcus Johansson tapped the puck to the Gr8. The Caps would go on to grab a 4-1 lead, see it shrink to 4-3, before Mathieu Perreault put this one away with 4:55 to go. The victory improves Washington to 12-15-1 and seven points out of first place in the Southeast Division with 20 games remaining.

There were lots of good and some not so good in Washington’s play Sunday evening but one thing is for certain, the Sabres are a bad team and appear headed to battling Florida for the bottom spot in the Eastern Conference and perhaps the NHL standings.

The fact that Buffalo is bad was my primary takeaway of the night but there are several things worth pointing out in this contest as it relates to the Capitals:

- Ovechkin’s night included the early goal and he could have had several more. In 20:11 of ice time he had 16 shot attempts, five of which found the cage. He hit the post in the first period and had numerous scoring chances. He also doled out three hits and very importantly, he came to the aid of teammate Backstrom in the middle frame. The Sabres are not a physical team on the back end but their primary pest and chief punk, forward Steve Ott, is someone you have to watch out for at all times on the ice. Ott was up to no good most of the evening and after a whistle he reached for Backstrom’s throat area. Ovechkin quickly grabbed Ott from behind and took him to the ice. This was especially good to see given that many were questioning the ability of the Caps to come to the aid of their teammates after Matt Hendricks was jumped in Beantown on Saturday. The team captain was having none of the pesky Ott trying to take out the Capitals #1 center. Good to see there Ovi, great toughness and leadership.

- Washington’s power play is a thing of beauty at times and I credit much of that to Mike Ribeiro and Backstrom. The two of them are creative magicians with the puck and the Troy Brouwer tally that made it 2-1 is one you could watch over and over because of the work of numbers 9 and 19. Brouwer has been very good at being the guy in the middle of the ice who finds space for the in close quick shot or for screening the opposing goalie. Oates has done a good job with the power play and if Mike Green were back healthy, it would likely be even better. John Carlson has a great shot but his passing skills are not at 52′s level and once again on Sunday #74 had a hard time of putting the puck in the correct area for Ovechkin to get off his patented one timer. The Caps went 1 for 4 with the man advantage but if they could get the Gr8 the puck in his wheelhouse the damage could be far greater.

- Speaking of the power play, the Caps received one late when Ott was sent to the dressing room for basically being a horse’s rear. The score was 5-3 and I’m sure many players were thinking about the post game, at that point. I’ve blogged about Oates’ atttention to detail in the past and I noticed that old #77 was quite animated talking to his club before the start of that power play with 1:20 to go. Brouwer said afterwards that Oates was explaining he was going with two defensemen and for his team to be careful and not take chances. He also warned his club that the Sabres would pull Ryan Miller and make it a 5 on 5 situation. Buffalo did just that and the Caps were prepared.

- Once again Washington lost a defensemen in the game and were forced to play with five rearguards. Tom Poti took a cross check from Ott in the second period and didn’t return (played only 7:38 total). Oates said that #3 already had a bad back so the injury wasn’t all on Ott. As a result, Carlson logged 30:15 while Jack Hillen played a season high 23:03. Steve Oleksy played 21:09 but it wasn’t his best game as he screened Braden Holtby (27 saves) on the Sabres first goal and he got suckered into a penalty by Ott in the third period. In fairness to #61, Ott did ask him to go then when Oleksy dropped his mitts the Buffalo forward turtled. In his post game presser, Oates didn’t seem too happy with what Ott did and noted the pre penalty verbal exchange was clear on the video. With the injury to Poti it is unclear who will suit up in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. Tomas Kundratek, who was injured in Carolina on Thursday skated minimally on Sunday morning. Green is close to returning while John Erskine is on IR and did not skate on Sunday. In addition, Dmitry Orlov played for Hershey on Sunday night, notched two assists, and was the game’s third star so perhaps #81 could make his Caps season debut in the Steel City or sometime in the near future? One thing is for sure, the Caps have to be tired of losing defensemen in game and having to play short.

Overall, the Capitals got a much needed win on Sunday night. It came against one of the weaker teams in the league. Washington was sloppy, at times, and will need to play a much better game on Tuesday, when they face the Pittsburgh Penguins on the road. The Pens have won nine straight and have really clamped down in their own end. The Caps will have to be close to perfect to beat Sidney Crosby and company.

Notes: Brooks Laich told me he will be back in the lineup “very soon.” Let’s hope that means Tuesday in Pittsburgh or at worst, Thursday in Winnipeg…the Caps destroyed the Sabres from the face off dot, 41-23. Brouwer was 10-2, Perreault was 8-3, and Ribeiro was 5-1…Johansson had a goal and an assist in 18:57 of ice time. It was his best game of the season and he played on the top line with Ovechkin and Backstrom. Ribeiro (two assists) centered Brouwer and Eric Fehr to form a solid second unit…Perreault and Joel Ward had two points on the third line and Jason Chimera scored his first goal of the season, a big relief for #25.

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Caps Have The Right Coach in Adam Oates

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Caps Have The Right Coach in Adam Oates

Posted on 06 March 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Wow, now that was an entertaining hockey game.

The Washington Capitals spotted the Boston Bruins three first period goals then roared back with two in the middle frame, the tying tally with 6:05 to go in regulation, before winning the game, 4-3, with Eric Fehr’s top shelf wrister just 37 seconds into overtime. It was a contest that saw exciting plays and odd man rushes at both sides of the rink. There also was lots of physical play and some huge saves at both ends. No doubt anyone who paid to watch it received their money’s worth.

In addition, it was a win the Caps needed to keep their Southeast Division title hopes alive and they have won seven of their last 10 games to improve their record to 9-11-1 (19 points). It also was their most impressive victory of the season because it came against the team that likely is the best and most complete club in the Eastern Conference. Boston is 14-3-3. They have four good lines, three solid defensive pairs, and a good goalie (Tuukka Rask). Just two springs ago they won the Stanley Cup and are serious contenders once again in 2013.

So to give a quality team like the Bruins a three spot in the opening frame and come back and win says a lot about the Caps and their progress since their 2-8-1 start. This club, weak in talent in some key areas, is starting to play some good and inspired hockey.

In my book, the credit for that goes to Coach Adam Oates.

In Tuesday night’s victory, Washington actually came out and played a decent first period despite the early hole on the scoreboard. They were working hard and generating chances with a ferocious forecheck. But their special teams let them down in the first 20 minutes yielding a shorthanded goal on a penalty shot and a power play marker. Many teams might have packed it in and some coaches might have yelled at their club and likely ended any chances of a comeback.

But Oates didn’t do that. The Caps I talked to after the game, Fehr (1G, 2A), Steve Oleksy (1A), and Braden Holtby (30 saves), all to a man said it was the coach’s message between periods that allowed the Capitals to stay focused on the task at hand.

The Hall of Famer told the team that they did a lot of good things in the first period and to stick to their system. Oates’ troops did exactly that and Washington was able to chip away at the Bruins lead.

Much has been made of the Caps coaching system over the last 18 months. The popular and gregarious Bruce Boudreau did a lot of super things for the Caps but was let go in November of 2011. Bruce is a very good coach, as evidenced by what his Anaheim Ducks are doing so far this season, but his time had run its course in Washington. In came Dale Hunter and while he earned the players respect and nearly produced a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, the organization didn’t like his defensive system. So all last spring the talk around the team was that owner Ted Leonsis and GM George McPhee needed to hire a hybrid of the two coaches. One who had an aggressive system like Boudreau but also one who had a calm demeanor and would command respect, like Hunter.

Guess what? Oates is exactly a combination of the good of both Boudreau and Hunter. He REALLY knows hockey from a technical and tactical standpoint. But he also knows people and players too. He is calm and doesn’t get too high or low. When Washington was struggling early on he preached patience and adherence to the system. He cautioned it would take time but he was not afraid to point out individual or team shortcomings. He’s a straight shooter.

So when Oates came in to talk to the media after a thrilling victory, it was no surprise that he conducted his press conference in the same fashion as he did after a loss or during the early season struggles. He was honest, forthcoming, and it is clear he wasn’t too high about things even though his team is on a roll right now. He talked about continuing to work hard and about going over some of the things they were doing wrong that led to too many chances for Boston, which fortunately did not come back to haunt them on this night. He talked about players keeping their emotions in check. He talked about the thought process in deciding to keep Holtby in the game after allowing three early goals. Basically he said all of the things you’d expect from a good coach.

And that is what the Capitals have right now, a good hockey coach, who will only get better.

Management definitely needs to make some player moves to get this team back to the elite level, and making trades during a winning run certainly puts an organization in a stronger position to do that. So McPhee and Leonsis have that going for them, which is nice.

But one thing they don’t have to worry about is looking for a head coach again. The way this club works and reacts to their bench boss certainly justifies one thing for me:

They got the coaching decision absolutely right in choosing Adam Oates.

Notes: Washington lost the face off battle 36-32, primarily because Mike Ribeiro went 1-9 from the dot. However, the Caps second goal, scored by Tomas Kundratek, came directly off of a Nicklas Backstrom (3 assists) win from the dot…Alex Ovechkin had a wild night with an assist, two penalties, 13 attempted shots, three takeaways, three hits, and two blocked shots in 23:19 of ice time. He also crashed into the Bruins goal three times. He was up and down the ice on both offense and defense and it was clear he was on a mission to get a Caps victory…Defensemen Roman Hamrlik was put on waivers on Tuesday…Mike Green (groin) and Troy Brouwer (illness) both missed the game…Oleksy played just over 10 minutes in his NHL debut and had an assist and was +2. He was paired with Tom Poti on defense.

 PROGRAMMING NOTE: I will be on WNST 1570 AM at 7:45 am on Wednesday morning talking Caps hockey with Drew Forrester. Listen Live via WNST.NET

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Have The Caps Put Themselves Back in the Playoff Race?

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Have The Caps Put Themselves Back in the Playoff Race?

Posted on 26 February 2013 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals played their second consecutive quality hockey game on Tuesday in a 3-0 white washing of the Carolina Hurricanes.

Braden Holtby’s 33 saves and Nicklas Backstrom’s goal and assist paved the way for a solid victory after Alexander Ovechkin put on that great show on Saturday against the Devils.

Coach Adam Oates’ club is exhibiting some serious signs of being a much better hockey team than we saw in the early part of this season and their shot output over the last two contests certainly indicates that. Washington has dominated both of these last two matchups.

So the question now becomes, have the Capitals put themselves back in the playoff race?

At 7-10-1 the answer would often be a solid “no.” But then again, the Caps play in the Southleast, er, Southeast Division. At 15 points, Washington is only four points out of the division lead, which would yield a third seed in the post season.

The Caps are now 5-2 in their last seven games and the way Holtby is playing in net and the fact that Ovechkin and Backstrom have kicked their games up to the elite level certainly gives Washington and their fans cause for optimism.

Backstrom clearly was the best skater on the ice in this one and owned the puck and his opponent most of the evening. Ovechkin (1 assist) didn’t have any shots on goal but the Gr8 had three takeaways, four hits, and some superb passes that should’ve had resulted in more Capitals goals if only there were additional finishers on this club. John Carlson (1G, 1A) is playing his best hockey of the season and was a force on the ice, as well.

In net, Holtby is in a major groove and his two top stops were while the Caps were on the power play. The first was on an Alex Semin breakaway early in a scoreless game and then on Eric Staal on an odd man rush in the third period. If either of those chances go in, the game might have gone differently. But #70 is playing large in net and looks ultra confident in the cage.

Simply put, if those four players are playing near the top of their respective games, the Capitals are going to be in every contest. That is what has been happening over this seven game stretch. Add in Mike Green returning to the lineup after missing three tilts due to a groin injury and it appears that things are finally heading in the right direction for the Caps.

The question is, can they keep this up? Teams will look to take away Ovechkin and Backstrom along with Mike Ribeiro. Those three players are the heart of the Washington offense. It will be up to players like Troy Brouwer, Eric Fehr, Mathieu Perreault, Joel Ward, and Jason Chimera to convert on the great setups they are getting from 9, 19, and 8. What would make things even better is if the Caps could get Brooks Laich back in the lineup in the near future.

So are the Caps back in the playoff race? Given the current standings, you’d have to say yes.

But tough games in Philadelphia on Wednesday, then in Winnipeg on Saturday before coming home to face the Boston Bruins on Tuesday loom large. How this team does in these three upcoming contests will go a long way towards answering things for the Capitals management.

A 2-1 or better mark certainly has to make owner Ted Leonsis and GM George McPhee seriously think about finding a way to add a finisher or two to the forward crew to give this club a chance to take the division and try and make some post season headway. However, if they drop two of three in regulation then the pendulum swings back to the longer term where finishing near the bottom of the standings will very likely yield a prize prospect.

It’s a fine line for this hockey team right now, but there is no doubt they are back in the playoff race with 30 games to go.

Notes: The Caps lost the faceoff battle for the first time in seven games, 31-29…Green played 21:54 in his first game back and looked fairly good, although there were some tentative moments along the walls, which is to be expected…the Caps were 2-2 on the penalty kill and 1-4 with the power play. Their third goal came 28 seconds after a Canes penalty expired but it was the PP pressure that resulted in the tally as Carolina never recovered territorially after the initial two minutes were up.

 

 

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Improving Caps Win 3rd Straight

Posted on 14 February 2013 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals did a lot of things right and several things wrong on Thursday night but the bottom line was the Caps got a much needed and deserved victory in Tampa by the score of 4-3.

Eric Fehr potted two tallies and Mathieu Perreault had three assists as Coach Adam Oates third line, that also includes Joel Ward, was the primary reason the Caps were victorious.

Jay Beagle had the eventual game winner to make it 4-1 with 12:31 to go but if you watched the entire game, you knew it was not going to be an easy finish against a very talented Lightning club. The Caps continue to have their struggles in their own zone with poor coverage and turnovers. The last eight plus minutes basically turned into “The Count Floyd Show” as the team survived one scary shift after another en route to a nailbiting win.

Beagle won some big draws late and Braden Holtby, who made several huge stops in this one but also had a breakdown or two himself, held strong at the finish.

It was a game the Caps had to have to stay in the playoff race and they worked hard to win it. The effort has certainly amped up here during this three game winning streak and Washington also did a good job of not taking bad penalties in this one. The Capitals only went to the sin bin twice and thwarted both Tampa power plays.

On offense, Washington has 15 goals in three games. The power play looks great and clicked early on its only try and that goal by Troy Brouwer on a pretty passing play set the tone. With the Caps going 8 for their last 15 with the man advantage the Bolts knew they could not afford to take penalties. They did take some infractions but fortunately for them, zebras Frederic L’Ecuyer and Steve Kozari were pretty much letting things go in this one.

When Oates took over it was believed that Washington’s offense would return and it certainly has in the last week. The Caps had a lot of sustained pressure and poured 39 shots on Mathieu Garon. In this streak they are getting the biscuit deep and using the cycle game to generate chances. They are also crashing the net much more. Tonight they won the game with three of the four goals coming from their bottom two lines.

What is concerning is the Caps defensive zone play. There are times when Washington just doesn’t look like they know what they are doing in their own end. Oates must address this to keep this streak going because Holtby certainly bailed the team out several times in the first 50 minutes of this one.

Fortunately the head coach has two days to work on the defensive zone because one thing their next opponent, the New York Rangers, will do on Sunday is test Washington in their own end with hard work and a strong cycle game.

But that is for tomorrow and Saturday, on Thursday the Caps got a Florida sweep to move to 5-8-1. They still have issues on the defensive side and their top two lines could use some personnel upgrades. A Brooks Laich return soon would be an upgrade over Wojtek Wolski, for sure. It would also be nice if GM George McPhee could make a move while the team is winning to get another top six winger because playing Jason Chimera and/or Matt Hendricks with Mike Ribeiro and Alex Ovechkin isn’t a long term recipe for success.

One thing is becoming clear though, Oates is a smart hockey guy and he has this team’s attention.

The Hall of Fame bench boss has this hockey club playing hard and improving, despite some big holes in the lineup.

Notes: Washington won the faceoff battle, 36-29. That is a very important stat on the road. Beagle was 8-3 from the dot, Perreault won six of eight draws, while Nicklas Backstrom was 13-10…Karl Alzner had his best game of the season and logged 26:12 to lead the Caps in ice time…John Erskine was excellent again and played a whopping 23:42 on the blue line…Ribeiro and Ovechkin were both -2 on the night but I thought #9 was good. He made some super two way plays and his wingers just aren’t finishing right now. The Gr8 had defensive zone issues but he was better on D on his very last shift at the end of the game. His positioning and posture appear to be his biggest problems in his own end.

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Will This Late Rally Be A Turning Point in the Caps Season?

Posted on 12 February 2013 by Ed Frankovic

It was 5-3 Florida with just over five minutes to go and the Washington Capitals were likely staring at a 3-9-1 record in this lockout shortened 48 game season. 

The Seth Jones talk appeared all set to begin.

But somebody forgot to tell Adam Oates’ club that.

In a furious and spirited rally, the Capitals received late goals from Eric Fehr and Alex Ovechkin and then Nicklas Backstrom set up Troy Brouwer on a breakaway in overtime with one of the prettiest passes you’ll ever see. #20 was stopped by Panthers goalie Scott Clemmensen initially but the power forward alertly hit the brakes and banged home his own rebound for a wild 6-5 Caps victory in Florida on Tuesday night.

It was the Capitals second straight victory, their first on the road this season, and also the first time they’ve won when having to kill more than three penalties in a game.

They were terribly sloppy in their own end, especially in the second period, but somehow they killed off all five Florida power plays and went 2 for 3 on their own man advantage situations to scrape out a win.

Braden Holtby was the victim of some crazy bounces but he battled hard in the net and made some dandy saves when the Caps needed them most, including a huge stop on a Florida 3 on 0 in the middle frame. Basically, Holtby gave his club a chance and Washington delivered.

So the Caps stay alive and move to 4-8-1. They have a long way to go to climb back into the playoff race and their play is wildly inconsistent on the ice.

But one thing we saw tonight that you can’t question is this club’s heart. They played the last five plus minutes and overtime like they knew they had to find a way to win the game. If you play hard like that and go to the net, good things are bound to happen. That is how Washington came back.

Sure they are still scary in their own end in too many instances. They make too many turnovers, get out of position too easily, and aren’t physical enough in their own crease and slot areas. They must improve on that to salvage a season that has gotten off to a terrible start.

They still don’t have two top lines to consistently throw at the opposition and on defense they are hurting with the loss of Dennis Wideman to offseason free agency and Dmitry Orlov still out injured, so the margin for error is razor thin. They have to stay out of the box, get good goaltending and the effort has to be consistent to beat the better teams. Fortunately Florida is not one of the better clubs so the Caps managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat and get a much needed victory on a night when their play was very uneven.

But winning the way they did in the last five minutes could provide a valuable lesson about sticking together, working hard, and not quitting.

The Caps showed resiliency and that has to give some cause for optimism.

So the question is, will this late rally be the turning point in the Caps season?

Stay tuned…

Notes: Washington’s next game is Thursday at 7:30pm in Tampa…The Caps scored two goals directly off of faceoff wins. Karl Alzner and Ovechkin had those tallies…Backstrom (2 assists) was 19-10 on draws and Mike Ribeiro (1 goal, 2 assists) was 8-5…Jason Chimera was -3 in just 5:43 of ice time. #25′s play has really dropped off, which is something the Capitals do not need. Chimmer needs to get back to skating and playing hard…John Erskine had two goals bank in off of him but Washington is now 4-2-1 with #4 in the lineup.

 

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Caps Get Much Needed Blowout Victory

Posted on 09 February 2013 by Ed Frankovic

The Florida Panthers should reconsider playing hockey at the Verizon Center going forward.

After getting absolultely smoked by the Washington Capitals, 5-0 on Saturday night, they are now 0-4 and have been outscored 16-2 by the Caps in those games.

It was a victory that this Caps club desperately needed. They played with energy, determination, and heart. They got super goaltending from Braden Holtby and they only allowed two power plays to the Cats.

Coach Adam Oates shook up the lineup at forward sitting underachieving Marcus Johansson and putting Mathieu Perreault on a unit with Joel Ward and Eric Fehr. Boy did that move pay dividends as the 42-85-16 unit was all over Florida with a ferocious forecheck and pressure that led to two goals for that line. Ward now has five goals on the season and is tied with Troy Brouwer for the team lead.

Brouwer also had a big night with two tallies, including one going in off of his rear. But good things happen when you go to the net, something this Washington club needs to do more of if they want to climb their way up the standings.

On the back end, the defense received a boost from John Erskine’s return to the lineup after serving a three game suspension. The loss of #4 forced Oates to put in either Tom Poti or Roman Hamrlik and at this stage, neither one of those defensemen looks like they are NHL calibre anymore. Erskine was solid in 17 minutes and change and he had a spirited first period fight with Florida tough guy, George Parros. Perhaps that bout gave Washington a bit of a spark?

Whatever the case, the whole team looked good and Alexander Ovechkin finally notched an even strength goal. The Gr8 was physical and engaged and looks like he is sick and tired of losing because his intensity has gone way up over the last two games.

So the Caps move to 3-8-1 after this whitewashing of a Florida team that looked totally lost. The Caps get them again in Sunrise on Tuesday in another must win for Washington.

It is only one victory, albeit an impressive one, but the Capitals have dug themselves quite a hole and they will need to play like this each and every night for a sustained period to get back into the playoff race. It certainly won’t hurt if the opponents continue to play poorly like the Panthers did in this one.

Notes: Holtby’s great pass on a bad Florida change set up Brouwer’s 2nd tally, a power play goal…Washington won the faceoff battle, 25-24….every Caps player had at least 10 minutes of ice time with Mike Green logging the most at 24:11. Oates had to be pleased that his team stayed out of the box and he could roll all four lines.

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With Caps Struggling Will McPhee Make A Move to Help Oates?

Posted on 24 January 2013 by Ed Frankovic

We are only three games into a 48 game season and the Washington Capitals look like a broken hockey team.

After coming out and playing a solid first period, the Caps got into penalty trouble and gave up two goals to the Canadiens in the first five minutes of period two.

Gone went any confidence this team had built up in the opening frame and anyone who has ever played hockey knows that confidence is one of the most important attributes you need to play the game.

From there it just snowballed as Montreal expanded their lead to 4-0 after 40 minutes. With Washington’s shut down defensive pair from last season, Karl Alzner and John Carlson, struggling mightily, it becomes harder to turn things around. Coach Adam Oates response in the third period to that problem duo was to move Alzner with Mike Green and Carlson with Tom Poti.

Up front, there isn’t much good news either. Alexander Ovechkin still doesn’t have a goal and the power play can’t finish. There were some good chances but the forwards aren’t paying the price in front of the net to either deflect pucks home or put away rebounds that were there for the taking by Carey Price. Currently this forward crew is playing too much on the perimeter and appears soft. There isn’t enough hitting and looking at some of the players on the forward roster, that is not surprising.

In net, neither goalie looks totally sharp but with the continual breakdowns in front of them, their confidence has to be shot too.

Clearly the Brooks Laich injury is a big issue but a single hockey player can’t fix this mess right now. Unfortunately, Oates doesn’t have the luxury of having a few days to work things out in practice as Washington plays six games in the next 10 days.

So the coach’s only option now is to mix the combinations up and perhaps put some of the current scratches back in the lineup. I imagine we will see Eric Fehr at forward and perhaps John Erskine and/or Jeff Schultz on defense in New Jersey on Friday night.

Oates also has to find a way to get the players to work harder and smarter, then somehow hope they get some positive results and regain their confidence.

If that doesn’t happen, this could get ugly fast. A loss to the Devils would put the Caps at 0-4 in this short season with a hot Sabres team coming in to the Verizon Center on Sunday.

Two Sundays ago after the team’s initial practice, Caps GM George McPhee, when asked by the media if he was going to make any moves stated,  “I like our team.”

I wonder if he’d still give the same answer after watching these first three games?

To me, the results speak for themselves.

So the question now is will McPhee make a move or two to try to shake things up and get this season back on track?

Notes: Joey Crabb scored late in the final period to close the book on the Caps 4-1 loss…Carlson has been on the ice for 9 of the 14 goals against this season…Washington did win the faceoff battle, 30-25, so they got that going for them…Ovechkin had one hit and three shots on goal in 22:26 of ice time. The Gr8 needs to find a way to be more physically involved.

 

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Predicting the Caps Season Is As Clear As Mud Right Now

Posted on 18 January 2013 by Ed Frankovic

 

The Washington Capitals start their short but jam packed 48 game season in Tampa Bay tomorrow night when they take on the Lightning (7 pm CSN).

Since the magical run in the spring of 2008, I’ve felt like I’ve had a pretty good read on this team and could accurately say before the season started that the Caps were definitely a playoff team each of the last four campaigns.

Last year’s club struggled through a coaching change and key injuries to Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green before squeaking into the dance and then coming a game away from a date with the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Championship.

This season, I have no idea how this team, with a new coach and system, will respond in a season where taking a game or two off is just not an option.

Hockey starts in net and Washington will go with youngsters Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth. Personally, I am pretty confident in that duo right now, especially given the way those two compete. Holtby’s ability to play the puck certainly is an advantage I expect coach Adam Oates to put to use frequently.

On defense, Dennis Wideman departed in free agency (Calgary) but with a healthy Mike Green and an emerging John Carlson, they didn’t need him at the dollars he was looking for and received. With Karl Azner in the mix as the Caps most solid defensive defensemen to go with the aging, but savvy Roman Hamrlik, Washington has a decent top four. After that it is a crap shoot with Jeff Schultz, John Erskine, Jack Hillen, and a 35 year old Tom Poti, who miraculously is back after missing two years due to groin and hip injuries. Dmitry Orlov would probably be my number five d-man on this club, but he is hurt right now. So this defensive crew could be really good or teams could expose the third pair, if it doesn’t step up. Any two week or more injury to either Green, Carlson, or Alzner could be devasting.

Up front, the Capitals have three legitimate top six forwards in Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Ribeiro. Luckily two of those three are centers, something the Caps haven’t been able to say since 2009. The question though, is who is going to be the wingers to fill out the top two lines? Troy Brouwer, because of his net presence is clearly the best answer on the roster. Brooks Laich would be your next best bet but he is out injured and may not play for the first two weeks. General Manager George McPhee is taking a flyer on forward Wojtek Wolski, who was signed off of the scrap heap this past summer. Wolski is 6-3 and 210 and he will need to play “big” if he wants to stick around in the top six.

Third year man Marcus Johansson is on the top line right now with the Gr8 and Backstrom. MJ90 has a lot of speed but he puts no physical fear into opposing defenders and he was often rubbed off of the puck easily in the corner in his freshmen and sophomore campaigns. Playing the third year Swede on the top line is asking a lot of the youngster.

I really like the third line of Jason Chimera-Jay Beagle-Joel Ward, especially now that we know Ward is not dealing with the hernia injury he had in 2011-12. The fourth line features heart and soul hard worker Matt Hendricks and likely a rotation of two of the following three players: re-signed Eric Fehr, Mathieu Perreault, and Joey Crabb.

Clearly this team will need above average to excellent seasons from Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Green if it is going to win the Southeast Division. None of them had even average seasons last year, although Green and Backstrom had injury excuses. So to predict this team is a lock for the postseason is no sure bet.

Many of the so-called experts are already giving the Stanley Cup to the New York Rangers since they added forward Rick Nash while giving up pretty much nothing. We all witnessed how smart the experts were in the NFL last week when Ray Lewis and company went in and won in Denver when practically every talking head out there had a “Brady vs. Manning” AFC Championship matchup set in stone. Yes, the Rangers look good on paper, but you have to play the games.

The bottom line is the Caps could be really good or they could fall flat on their faces. McPhee has been consistent this week in saying “I like our team.”

Well the games start tomorrow, then come rapidly at a fast and furious pace, so Caps fans are about to find out if their GM is on the mark.

 

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Will Donald Fehr Wreck the Caps Off Season?

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Will Donald Fehr Wreck the Caps Off Season?

Posted on 17 May 2012 by Ed Frankovic

“We’re getting too down. As soon as we get a goal scored against us it kind of feels like it’s the end of the world. It’s just one goal. It’s bound to happen every game. We’re killing our momentum by having them score and then giving up another one.”

“We were too slow. We were soft. We weren’t making the smart plays, helping each other get open. If you’re not working hard for each other you’re not going to be successful.”

Those are some really telling quotes there, aren’t they? While doing some end of season spring cleaning, I stumbled upon the quote sheet that the Caps super PR department distributes after games and the above were from November 25, 2011 after the Caps lost, 6-3, to the New York Rangers. Those two quotes were from the always honest and straight forward Karl Alzner.

The night after that contest Washington would get blown out, 5-1, in Buffalo and that would spell the end of the Bruce Boudreau era and bring Dale Hunter into the fold.

We all know what happened from there in a roller coaster season that nearly put the Capitals into the Eastern Conference Finals before a tough end in New York last Saturday night.

Unfortunately, Hunter announced on Monday that he is heading back to Ontario to be with his family and to work with his London Knights franchise. Selfishly I would have loved for Dale to stay here and coach this team because I felt that when he took over he was the right guy for the job and I still believe that. It is clear that this team came together under ole number 32 like they haven’t done in recent years. Reading those two quotes above from Alzner should remind EVERYONE just how far this hockey team came in the nearly six months Hunter was behind the bench.

The Caps no longer were mentally weak and found ways to come back from some crushing defeats (see late season loss to Buffalo, games one, three, and six to Boston, as well as games three and five to the Rangers). They also became a tougher team to play against and the word soft could only be used to describe perhaps a couple of players instead of most of the team. Washington’s players certainly learned to stick together and play for one another and at the end of the season I will say that this club overall became greater than the sum of their parts, which in the past often didn’t seem to be the case.

But the season is over and Hunter is gone. There were lessons learned that should be carried forward and that locker room unity we saw hopefully continues next fall, if there is a 2012-13 hockey season, but more on that in a minute.

Every season hockey rosters turn over and with free agency coming on July 1st, the Caps will no doubt undergo some changes. I would bet my last dollar that both Alex Semin and Dennis Wideman won’t be back. Add goalie Tomas Vokoun to that list too. Right there that is over $11M in salary cap room for General Manager George McPhee to work with. There will be other changes too and it is well documented in this blog that McPhee’s number one player issue is improving the middle of the ice. We all saw how inconsistent the Caps were when Nicklas Backstrom went down for 40 games. They nearly missed the playoffs because they had a hole at the number one and two center positions. Finding a true second line center isn’t easy and many Caps fans were hoping that 2010 first round pick Evgeny Kuznetsov might be the answer to that next fall, or at the very least he could come over and play on one of the top two lines as a winger. That isn’t happening. Kuznetsov, who turns 20 on Saturday, is staying in Russia. He can make more money there in the KHL and the uncertain NHL labor situation (the CBA expires on 9/15/2012) definitely didn’t help the Capitals cause.

The importance of quality centers cannot be overstated. There is no doubt that good centers help puck possession and other fancy stats. The Caps struggled in that area simply because they had pivots who could not break the puck out of their own zone very well, especially when #19 was injured. Hunter knew he had issues there and I firmly believe he put in place a strategy that gave him the best chance to win with the absence of strong centers. That was to focus on their own end and try to generate scoring chances via transition. He nearly pulled it off and if Alex Ovechkin or Troy Brouwer score from in tight in overtime in game three or they survive the last 25 seconds of game five they defeat the Rangers and instead they are the ones facing the New Jersey Devils.

Just look at the difference Brad Richards has made for a Rangers team that Washington manhandled in the first round in the spring of 2011! The bad news is there are no players like Richards on the free agent market this year, so McPhee has his work cut out for him.

Speaking of the market, does anyone have any idea how that will shake out this summer? After all, the head of the NHL players union is game killer Donald Fehr (see 1994 MLB strike and World Series cancellation) so you can bet that the NHL owners won’t be giving their GM’s a whole lot of rope to play with in the summer given the economic uncertainty facing the league with no collective bargaining agreement in place after September 15th.

So Fehr alone could wreck McPhee’s chances of retooling the Capitals this summer and getting them ready for a Stanley Cup run in 2013. It will not be a fun NHL offseason from that standpoint alone. McPhee does have two first round draft picks in this June’s NHL Entry draft so he needs to use those to help re-stock the prospect pipeline. He could package one of the picks in a trade to obtain a top six forward, but that seems to be a less likely scenario.

But given all of that, there are still places where this Caps team can improve on over the summer and it starts with each individual player. Regardless of who the next coach will be, every guy who wore a red sweater this past season needs to remember what brought them post season success: hard work, sticking together, and defensive hockey. The days of wide open play are over. The Caps kept doing that towards the end of the Boudreau era and all it led to was what I call “Odd Man Rush City” for the opponents. You can’t win that way in the NHL and even the Edmonton Oilers learned to play the right way before winning their first Cup in 1984. Defense wins championships, plain and simple.

You do need offense though and one way to improve that is by GMGM finding another top center. Washington needs two scoring lines and they didn’t have that this season. The result is it makes it much easier to defend Alexander Ovechkin. Hunter tried putting Backstrom with Semin on the second line to try and balance things out. It was a move that Boudreau smartly used in 2008 and 2009, but he had Sergei Fedorov to center the Gr8.

Ovechkin is at the top of my list of who can definitely improve next year. Better personnel will help him right off of the bat, if those moves can be made. But the Gr8 also can help himself by applying what Hunter was trying to teach him: good defense leads to more offense. Ovechkin needs to work on his defensive game regardless of the system implemented by the new coach. Pavel Datsyuk and Fedorov are great offensive talents but they both are/were very good defensively too. There is no reason why Alex can’t get better in his own zone. If he gets rid of the straight legged and gliding posture, bears down more, and does extra film study of opposing defenders to learn their tendencies, I am willing to bet that the Gr8 could score 10 more goals next season just by going from defense to offense more efficiently. His size and speed are some of his greatest assets and if he used them better in his own zone he could become the most dominant player in the league, once again. But Ovie has to want to do that and put the work in, plain and simple. Maybe he should give Ray Lewis a call to learn about work ethic and the benefits of film study?

Marcus Johansson is next on my list. MJ90 had a rough playoffs and was moved off of the puck too easily by the Rangers. Given that he was on one of the top two lines, that really hurt Washington’s chances to win the series. I’d much prefer him on the third line where he could really be effective and not have so much pressure on him, but with the lack of talent in the top six forward area, Marcus was forced to play up. He’s only 21 and he has great speed, but he needs to build strength and be stronger on the puck. The playoffs are all about winning the battles on the wall and he was not equipped to do that this spring.

We saw lots of promise out of Braden Holtby and Dmitry Orlov and both must avoid the sophomore slump. Alzner and John Carlson became a flat out dominant pair on the ice and they will be expected to do that and more next season. Carlson deserves first unit power play time, in my opinion. He has a great shot and isn’t afraid to use it. #74 was super in the playoffs and I see no reason why he can’t continue that level of play next season. Brooks Laich is a rock for this team but he needs to score more, hopefully the new coach gets him more power play time.

Right down the roster every player must find a way to improve while staying within the team structure. That brings us to the most important off-season decision that is non-player related, hiring the next head coach. The new bench boss must be a guy the players respect. Hunter certainly commanded it for his reputation as a player but also because every guy on the roster was held accountable, regardless of their contract or star power. That must continue.

McPhee smartly said he will take his time with the decision but there are some names out there that immediately bubble to the top of the list based on discussions I’ve had with people very familiar with the NHL coaching landscape: Craig Ramsay, Mike Sullivan, Jim Playfair, and Mike Eaves. Ramsay, Sullivan, and Playfair all have NHL head coaching experience while Eaves has been coaching at Wisconsin since 2002. Take a look at their respective coaching records yourself and you will be impressed with each candidate. McPhee certainly couldn’t go wrong picking any of those four, but perhaps he goes a different route and chooses someone with more ties to the Caps organization, such as a Terry Murray or Adam Oates?

It will be interesting to see what McPhee does, and this is a critical decision for him with this hockey team coming off of some positive playoff production.

There is a good vibe to this hockey team right now despite a disappointing end to the season, but the 2012 summer holds a lot for the Washington Capitals with so many important things on the agenda to address.

It is imperative they do the right things this summer. Let’s also hope that the NHL labor negotiations, and particularly Fehr, don’t wreck what is a very crucial off-season for the Caps.

 

 

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Trey Miller Shines In Navy Spring Game

Posted on 14 April 2012 by WNST Staff

Blue Defeats Gold, 21-0, In Annual Spring Football Game

ANNAPOLIS, Md.-Blue quarterback Trey Miller ran for two touchdowns while completing seven of nine passes for 104 yards to lead the Blue to a 21-0 victory over the Gold on Saturday afternoon at  Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

Miller scored on option runs of five yards in the first quarter and 14 yards in the second to give the Blue a 14-0 halftime lead.

“Trey has improved tremendously this spring,” said Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo.  “He has a great temperament and is an extremely hard worker.  This is his time.”

Blue fullbacks Noah Copeland and Prentice Christian combined to rush for 129 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries.  Copeland led the way with nine carries for 66 yards, while Christian contributed 63 yards and a touchdown on seven carries.

“Noah just continues to work every day,” said Niumatalolo.  “Coach Judge says he is always taking notes in meetings and has never taken the fact that he’s the starter for granted. He is a lot tougher than what we thought.  He’s like Jessica Sanchez on American Idol. You look at her and she’s so little but when she sings she has such an incredibly powerful voice it shocks you.  That’s Noah.  He may not be the size of an Eckel or a Kettani, but looks can be deceiving.  He’s powerful.”

Nose guard Travis Bridges led the defense with seven tackles and a sack, while linebacker Brye French added six tackles, two tackles for a loss and a sack.  Defensive end Josh Dowling-Fitzpatrick caused a fumble that was recovered by outside linebacker Keegan Wetzel and also recovered a fumble.

“Travis Bridges has all the tools to be a very good nose guard for us and Brye French was probably the MVP of the spring,” said Niumatalolo.

Fullback Mike Patrick led the Gold with 52 yards rushing on seven carries.  The Blue held the Gold to 115 yards of total offense.

Outside linebacker D.J. Sargenti led the Gold with 10 tackles, two tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks.  George Jamison and Jerad Fehr added five tackles each for the Gold.

“All in all it was a good day,” said Niumatalolo.  “We got a couple of guys banged up which tempers things a little bit, but I’m pleased with where we are heading into fall camp.”

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