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Backstrom, Neuvirth Get Caps Back to .500

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Backstrom, Neuvirth Get Caps Back to .500

Posted on 02 November 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Coming off of a huge and emotional win in Filthadelphia on Friday night, the Caps were back at home to take on the Florida Panthers at the Verizon Center on Saturday evening. As one might expect, Washington had a bit of a letdown and didn’t play a very good game overall. However, thanks to a super performance from Michal Neuvirth (31 saves) and a dominating effort from Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps somehow managed to get two points by beating the Cats, 3-2, in a shootout.

The victory, while pretty ugly, is an important one this early in the season. It moves the Capitals to 7-7 overall and they managed to win again without injured captain Alexander Ovechkin (upper body injury).

The biggest problem for the Caps on this night was something they’ve struggled with most of the season: effort. Simply put, the Capitals are not skating hard enough throughout games. There is too much puck watching and gliding going on and as a result the other team is owning the puck more. In addition, by not skating well, the Caps have opened themselves up to taking more penalties. Florida had six power plays on the night and it wasn’t until they scored on a 4 on 3 with just over two minutes left that they were finally able to beat a Capitals PK unit that had killed 30+ straight man advantages situations. Washington’s penalty killing has been outstanding, but six minors is far too many and the last one was just a terrible retaliation move by Steve Oleksy so late in a one goal game. #61 has to learn you have to keep your head when points are on the line.

Washington’s power play also struggled without Ovechkin, going 0 for 3 on the night. Playing against a below average goalie in Scott Clemmensen the Caps should have simplified things and focused on getting pucks and bodies to the cage, instead there was far too much perimeter passing. The Caps were minus one on the evening in the special teams department and when you aren’t playing well, that is difficult to overcome.

But the Caps did do enough good things to prevail. Backstrom was by far the best player on the ice and he has such a good shot that he needs to keep using, even when the Gr8 returns to the lineup. Eric Fehr played well again with Martin Erat on that top unit. I also liked, despite only getting about six minutes of ice time, the way the fourth line of Michael Latta, Tom Wilson, and Aaron Volpatti played. Latta earned his first NHL point with a sweet cross ice feed to John Carlson in the second period that Captain America buried with a nice shot. Carlson was also one of Washington’s better players, along with Karl Alzner.

The Caps red hot trio of Mikhail Grabovski, Joel Ward, and Jason Chimera struggled, primarily because those guys didn’t move their feet. Grabovski did have a nice goal in the shootout, along with Brooks Laich (scored despite fanning on his move) and Backstrom in the gimmick. Laich does not look himself on five on five right now. He’s been super on the PK but he hasn’t developed any chemistry with any linemates this season so far. Brooksie needs to get his legs churning too, I see too much hesitation from him, especially coming out of his own zone.

On the back end, Mike Green still isn’t playing near peak performance. He’s making far too many turnovers in his own end and in the neutral zone. Washington will need #52 performing at a high level when they play the better teams in the league.

On Saturday the Caps showed up and managed to just do enough to win against a weak Florida team. There was far too much lollygagging for my liking again, but a bit understandable given Friday night’s events. The team got the victory and now have a day off on Sunday to rest.

Coming up though, the schedule will get tougher so it’s important that the Caps get their effort up, especially on Tuesday against a New York Islanders club that gave them fits last season.

Notes: Shots were 33-23 in favor of Florida…Washington won the faceoff battle, 35-31…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 26:15. Green played 25:47…Fehr had four shots on net and led all forwards in that department.

 

 

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The Playoff Impacts of Alexander Ovechkin’s Injury

Posted on 21 March 2011 by Ed Frankovic

Big news out of Kettler Iceplex today as Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau stated that Alexander Ovechkin would be out for an estimated seven to 10 days to deal with an injury situation. Naturally, with the NHL playoffs just over three weeks away, the exact nature of the injury will not be disclosed, much like with the Jason Arnott announcement one week ago today. The Great #8 joins Arnott, Mike Green, Eric Fehr, and Tom Poti as key components who are out of the Washington lineup right now. While on the surface this might seem like a big blow to the Capitals Stanley Cup chances, in reality, it isn’t. In fact, being extra cautious with ailing players right now makes a ton of sense and could likely pay off over the next few months.

Washington is in pretty good shape to lock up their fourth straight Southeast Division title with a five point lead on the Tampa Bay Lightning and even if they did manage to lose that margin over their last nine games (the Bolts have 10 tilts left), would it really matter? Likely not at all, as the Caps are going to be in the post season and what happens then and beyond is all this team will be judged on. Since training camp opened we’ve heard the organization talk about the first 82 games not mattering too much this year. General Manager George McPhee told me on Media Day back in October that he “really didn’t care about the regular season, as long as [the Caps] make the playoffs.” One could argue that every decision since then, from the schematic switch from an aggressive offensive system to a more responsible defensive posture all the way up to the moves made on NHL trade deadline day have been about one thing – doing what is needed to increase the likelihood that the Capitals play their best hockey in the post season this spring.

As good as last season’s team was in a Presidents’ Trophy winning regular season, everyone witnessed the first round collapse and McPhee and Boudreau have been doing everything in their power to not let it happen again this season. Examining the club on paper, position by position, I don’t think there is any doubt that the 2010-11 Washington Capitals team, despite all of the criticism they’ve received this year, is a much better one heading into April than last year’s crew. With Arnott at second line center they finally have that big pivot man that is needed in the post season. #44 is a significant upgrade over last year’s second line center, Eric Belanger. In fact, add in rookie Marcus Johansson and the Nicklas Backstrom/Arnott/MJ90 trio is likely the best Washington has had up the middle in the Boudreau era.

On defense, the top five blue liners are Green, Dennis Wideman, John Carlson, Scott Hannan, and Karl Alzner. Boudreau can either go with Poti, if he is healthy, or opt for Jeff Schultz or John Erskine as his sixth defenseman, depending on the opponent. This is a major improvement over last year’s crew that included Joe Corvo and Shaone Morrisonn, two mediocore, at best, blue liners. Alzner didn’t even arrive on the scene in last year’s post season until game seven and by then it was too late. #27 is +15 in his first full season in the NHL.

In net, 2010-11 will be the first time in three seasons that the Capitals don’t have to start Jose Theodore in game one of the playoffs, thank goodness. Theo failed miserably in goal and whether Boudreau goes with the more NHL playoff experienced Semyon Varlamov or rookie Michal Neuvirth, who incidentally hasn’t ever lost a North American playoff series (h/t @JapersRink), it doesn’t matter, the goaltending should be better. Of course if both falter or are injured, rookie Braden Holtby, who won the NHL’s first star of the week on March 14th, is also an option.

Down the stretch in 2009-10, the majority of the Caps headlines were all about the regular season dominance and individual statistics and trophies. Both Ovechkin and Green were positioned for post season hardware nominations while Alexander Semin was focused on a 40 goal season in an attempt to try and maximize his free agent earning power for the summer of 2011. During that closing stretch #52 took a slash to the arm in Columbus and was never right for the post season. Ovechkin also played out the string and after the series was over it was revealed he was banged up as well. Following that game seven loss, the mad dash for stats, trophies, and big contracts all seemed so futile.

Flash forward to now, especially since #44 arrived on deadline day, and we are reading about Ovechkin and Semin spending lots of time with Arnott picking his brain about what it takes to win in the post season (thanks @dcsportsbog). In my mind, #28 played his best hockey of the season when he was finally paired with a true second line center in Arnott, much like he did when Sergei Fedorov was here in 2008 and 2009. Semin re-upped for another year here and there is no more talk from him or his agent about “the dollars.” It seems that the two young Russians stars are on a mission to shut their critics up once and for all and that they just might have matured as a result of the Capitals past playoff disappointments.

Like I said earlier, on paper this team is better than last year’s at this stage, but that heavily depends on the health of Ovechkin, Arnott, Backstrom, Semin, and Green, as well as a few others. Therefore, the cautious approach to the last nine games of the NHL regular season that both McPhee and Boudreau appear to be taking makes great sense and hopefully will pay dividends for them starting April 13th and beyond, when health and the matchups will be huge factors in the quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup. It’s only 23 days away, but who’s counting?

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Varlamov Stones Blues as Caps Win, 4-1

Posted on 02 December 2010 by Ed Frankovic

Before Wednesday night, the Washington Capitals last victory in St. Louis came with Jim Schoenfeld as the head coach and David Poile as the General Manager (1996). Thanks to Semyon Varlamov, who was outstanding in goal tonight with 37 saves, the Caps eight game losing streak at the Scotttrade center is now over. Nicklas Backstrom had two goals and an assist as Washington got some revenge on Blues goalie, Jaroslav Halak (22 saves), who had stoned the Caps in their opening round playoff loss last spring when he was with Montreal. The victory on the road pushes the Caps to 18-6-2 overall and they’ve won four straight with Varly in the cage after he returned from a lengthy absence due to a groin injury. Washington leads the Southeast Division by seven points over Tampa Bay and the Eastern Conference by four points over those two teams they don’t like from Pennsylvania.

Here are the highlights and analysis of a rare road win in the “Show Me” state:

- Typically the Caps play some of their best hockey in front of Varlamov. Tonight was not one of those games as the Blues carried the majority of the play but #1 had the backs of his teammates and he made several super saves. His positioning was excellent and he had superb rebound control. Varly also is bigger than both Michael Neuvirth and Braden Holtby and he plays like a big goalie. That forces opponents to try and pick corners. The result is that they often miss the net.

- Washington is banged up on the back line and it is a good thing they made the Tomas Fleischmann for Scott Hannan trade now. Hannan, who sat out this one so he could learn the Caps system by observing from the press box, is slated to make his Caps debut in Dallas on Thursday evening (830 pm on Comcast). He will be needed big time because Tom Poti, who helped set up the second goal for Washington, did not play in the third period (logged only 11 minutes of total ice time). In addition, Mike Green appeared to be favoring his right shoulder quite a bit but he gutted this tilt out. John Carlson got banged up right before the Blues only tally with 31 seconds left in period two, but he managed to persevere. John Erskine also took a hard hit in the back by Brad Winchester in the final stanza and looked to be in some pain.

- Backstrom, Alexander Ovechkin, and Mike Knuble were the Caps best line on Wednesday and they were +2 each. It was Knuble’s hard, low shot on Halak that rebounded off of the goalie’s pads and right onto the stick of #19, who buried it to give Washington a key two goal cushion with just under 13 minutes remaining. Nicky also made a super feed to Brooks Laich on the power play in the first period to start the scoring (Alex Semin had the second assist on a gorgeous cross ice pass). Backstrom’s last tally came via an Oveckin pass with the net empty. The Great #8, who has not scored a goal in eight games, has eight assists during that drought, including seven during the four game winning streak. It was a very smart play by Oveckhin to get the puck to Backstrom for the tap in and close this game out with 35 seconds remaining. Sure he could have fired the biscuit into the empy cage to stop his personal goalless streak, but instead he showed his unselfishness, maturity, patience, and commitment to winning. That is what  a team captain does and it is so clear that Alexander the Great is not concerned at all with his individual statistics, he is only focused on winning despite what some of those biased analysts in Canada will try to tell you. Despite the focus on the team, Ovechkin is now 3rd in the league in scoring with 33 points (8 points behind Sidney Crosby and 7 in back of Steve Stamkos).

- Another game, another one in which the opponents get more power plays than Washington. The Caps received two early power plays and tallied on one of them but after that the Blues received four opportunities with the man advantage. St. Louis carried the play but the zebras missed some calls on the Blues, including an obvious stick slash when Ovechkin had a scoring chance. Oh well, like Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau said after Sunday’s win vs. Carolina, “I’ve given up trying to understand [the officiating].” St. Louis went 0 for 4 on the power play and Washington did a great job of being aggressive and forcing the Blues into some turnovers. Varlamov was also what he needed to be: the Caps best penalty killer.

Notes: The Caps won or tied the faceoff battle for the 13 straight contest (33-30) and they did it without their best draw man, Dave Steckel. Matt Hendricks, who seems to do all of the little things that help you win, was 10-3 while Boyd Gordon went 11-6…#39 sat so that DJ King could get a game and #17 had an assist on Washington’s second tally which was credited to Gordon when Halak fumbled the puck into his own cage…Green played 25:24 to lead the Caps in ice time…Boudreau did a nice job of rolling the lines and with the Caps going against Dallas on Thursday he needed to be able to do that for the second half of the back-to-back games. Varlamov’s goaltending really helped that cause…one would expect to see Neuvirth in the cage in Dallas…Washington returns home to the Verizon Center on Saturday night when they take on Atlanta for the third and final time in the regular season. The Thrashers are currently riding a six game winning streak but have lost both tilts at the Phone Booth.

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Caps Trade Fleischmann for Scott Hannan (Updated)

Posted on 30 November 2010 by Ed Frankovic

Caps Press Release on Trade:

The Washington Capitals have acquired defenseman Scott Hannan from the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for forward Tomas Fleischmann, vice president and general manager George McPhee announced today.

Hannan, 31, is an 11-year NHL veteran who has played for Colorado and the San Jose Sharks. The 6’1”, 225-pound defensive defenseman has played 775 career games, recording 30 goals, 150 assists, 456 penalty minutes and a +22 rating. This season Hannan has six assists and a +1 rating while playing all 23 games for the Avalanche.

Hannan has played at least 71 games in each of his 11 pro seasons, including 97.2% of the games since he made the NHL full-time in 2000-01. He has averaged 18:37 of ice time per game this season and 22:02 per game in the course of his career. His teams have made the playoffs eight times in 10 seasons prior to this one, playing a total of 73 playoff games.

A first-round pick of the Sharks, 23rd overall, in the 1997 Entry Draft, Hannan broke into the league after an all-star career with the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League. He was a teammate of current Capital Matt Bradley with the Sharks and signed with Colorado as a free agent on July 1, 2007.

COMMENT: As I blogged last week, Fleischmann was given the chance to become the number two center but didn’t really produce and the play of rookie Marcus Johansson had basically made “Flash” expendable. The 31 year old Hannan is a defensive defensemen who had his best seasons with the San Jose Sharks. Personally, I think he will help the Capitals defense and provide some much needed depth.

UPDATE: The media had a chance to participate in a conference call with Scott Hannan this afternoon and here are some of the things the defenseman, who will wear #23 for the Caps, had to say:

On his emotions and initial thoughts on the trade:

- “I’m really excited to go to a first place team and compete for the Stanley Cup.”

- “I like being with a team that I can fit in with and I look forward to stepping into a good team in Washington.”

- “You have conflicting emotions when trades happen, Colorado’s been good to me.”

On how his play has been impacted going from San Jose to Colorado and now to Washington:

- “I think my style of play has stayed the same [since his days with San Jose]. I am a defensive player, I kill penalties.”

- “I was fortunate to learn from a lot of players that were [in San Jose and Colorado].”

On the timing of the deal and when he first learned of it:

- “First I heard of the trade was [Monday], I am not sure I saw a trade coming but any time you are in the last year of a deal these things can happen.”

On the differences between the conferences from a style of play and in terms of travel time:

- “I think things are more open in the East and tighter in the West. I am looking forward to the [shorter] travel.”

 

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Semin Hat Trick Helps Caps Bury Bolts, 6-0

Posted on 26 November 2010 by Ed Frankovic

Is there any doubt about who rules the Southeast Division? The Washington Capitals hosted the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were riding a five game winning streak and had closed within four points of the 1st place Caps, and promptly buried them, 6-0,  behind Alexander Semin’s third hat trick of the season, and second in as many tilts against the Bolts. Semyon Varlamov made 17 saves for his third career regular season shutout  and Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson had two assists apiece in this white washing of Steve Stamkos and company. The Caps are now 16-6-2 and lead the Southeast Division by six points over the Bolts, who have a game in hand. They also lead the Eastern Conference over the Philadelphia Flyers by a point.

Let’s get to the highlights, quotes, and analysis from a 60 minute Capitals effort:

- Goaltending and special teams were the big difference in this contest. Tampa’s netminding duo of Mike Smith and Dan Ellis are average, at best, and both of them saw the ice in this tilt.  After Johansson cleanly won an offensive zone draw against Stamkos, John Carlson lasered one into the cage to make it 1-0 just 3:09 into the contest, a lead Washington would take to the dressing room. But Karl Alzner took an uncharasterically bad penalty for interference against Steve Downie with one second left in that stanza and that set Tampa up for the first of two early second period power plays. That is where the game really turned for the Caps as they would kill both of those thanks to some great work by Boyd Gordon, Semin, and the entire PK unit. In addition, they did a super job of not letting Stamkos get set up for his vicious one timer from the left wing circle.

- Shortly after the Caps thwarted those two Bolts power plays, Smith couldn’t handle a point shot from John Erskine and it trickled by the shaky net minder to make it 2-0. That goal definitely hurt the Lightning, still they pressed on and opened the game up. That is where they got burnt as Semin made a nice back check to help Washington take the puck away from Tampa and he and Johansson went 2 on 1 the other way. MJ90 then made a gorgeous pass to #28, who rammed it home on the one-timer for his first marker of the night.

- Then Semin would complete his natural hat trick in just 4:29 with two power play tallies (fastest NHL natural hat trick since Bobby Ryan of Anaheim on 1/9/2009; h/t @capsmedia). With Mattias Ritola in the box for tripping, Ovechkin had his point shot blocked but he gathered in the biscuit and slid it over to Backstrom in the right wing circle. #19 then went cross ice to Semin who one-timed another by Smith to end his evening. Stamkos, who was downright awful on Friday, was called for interference and then Mattias Ohlund tripped Oveckhin in the neutral zone to give Washington a 5 on 3. It took only 19 seconds to connect as Ovechkin slid the puck to Backstrom, who then made a sweet cross crease pass to Semin. #28 had the puck almost on the goal line but rifled it top shelf on a sliding Ellis. It was an amazing display of skill by both Backstrom and Semin to put Washington up 5-0 and effectively end the contest at 11:21 of period two.

- Overall the Caps would go 2 for 4 on the power play while they held the Lightning to no goals in five attempts. Even after yielding those tallies to the Caps the Lightning are still killing penalties at an 87% clip, tied for 3rd in the league. They are also fifth in the NHL with the power play at 24%. So the outstanding special teams performance by Washington came against a strong opponent in those categories.  The Caps are 4th in the NHL at 24.1% with an advantage and their much improved shorthanded unit is now up to eighth in the league at 84.3%.

“We played good defensively. Power play works good. PK [penalty kill] did an unbelievable job. I think we play a good 60 solid minutes,” said Ovechkin on the Caps keys to the victory.

 

“I don’t know if it was perfect, but it’s as good as we’ve played all year. When you score a couple on the power play and you kill a 5-on-3, I thought it was a good game by us,” said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau on the effort by his club, who totally dominated the Lightning in all facets of the game.

 

- Varlamov’s best save of night was early in the contest when Martin St. Louis had a chance in the slot after moving around Alzner. After that he didn’t have to do a whole lot in this one as Boudreau said afterwards that his team was determined to play a very good game. But a team’s good play or bad play is often based on the confidence they have in their goaltender, as anyone who has played this great sport will tell you. I think it is no coincidence that their two worst games of the season, in Atlanta and New Jersey, came with rookie goalie Braden Holtby struggling in the cage early on while some of their better contests, such as the last two tilts, have been with Varlamov, their #1 goalie, between the pipes.

“When you get some goals against you early it takes the wind out of your sails some time. I think the guys were pissed. They were ticked off, we took a lot of flak this week and that is a proud bunch in there. The week is not over yet but they knew they were better than what they showed and they knew they were better than what people were saying about us. So I think they dug deep and we’ll try to dig deep again on Sunday,” said the 2007-08 Jack Adams award winning bench boss on the mind set of his club since losing three in a row.

 

- Carlson and Alzner continue to shine as a defensive pair and Boudreau spoke glowingly of the two young defenseman for their efforts on shutting down the Stamkos-St. Louis-Downie line. Tom Poti, in just his second contest back from injury, added a goal as well and was superb all evening.

 

“[Carlson] and Alzner, for a 21 year old guy and 22, having the duty of shutting down that line did a real good job, and Carly adds that offensive element as well. I thought he was at his best tonight,” started Boudreau on his two rookie defensemen, “I was really impressed with Tom, just his demeanor and you could tell his experience back there when he got the puck he made the right plays he did the right things with it. We missed him [while he was out],” finished Boudreau on #3.

 

- The 20 year old Johansson continues to get better and his play is making Tomas Fleischmann more expendable. MJ90 played a big role on the first and third goals and overall he logged 12:31 of ice time, including 1:53 on the power play (2nd unit). He is a very good skater and just needs to keep improving his play along the boards, particularly behind the net where he gets taken off of the puck fairly easily when he doesn’t move his feet. As for #14, he was scratched today with the return of Mike Knuble (fractured jaw). Fleischmann has really struggled this year and part of his problem is his lack of physical play. He has not been finishing his checks on the forecheck at all and when opposing defenseman feel no threat, it is much easier for them to clear their own end.

- We’ve blogged in the past about the clean hit and then the subsequent fight that occurs. Tonight Erskine made a good solid shoulder check on Nate Thompson and #44 went awkwardly into the boards and stayed down. The zebras, who did a great job on Friday night, did not call a penalty. However, a few minutes later the Bolts Ryan Malone decided to take exception to the hit on his teammate and went after #4. Erskine proceeded to pummel the former Penguins forward. Erskine, who was drafted in 1998 by Craig Button’s Dallas Stars scouting staff in the 2nd round (39th overall), is “pretty tough” as an NHL scouting director told me last season.

Notes: The Caps held Tampa to their lowest shot total of the season (17)…Washington is now a league best 11-1-1 at home…Semin is second in the NHL in goals to Stamkos (21 to 17)…the Capitals are 11-0 when #28 scores a goal and 12-1-2 when he registers a point or more….Brian Fahey, who was paired with Erskine, had his first NHL point (an assist) in 11:21 of ice time in his best game as a Capital…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 33-27 and have been at 50% or better for 11 straight games (last season their longest such streak was seven games)…Next up for the Caps are the Carolina Hurricanes at the Verizon Center at 5pm on Sunday…down on the farm the Hershey Bears buried the Syracuse Crunch on the road, 5-1. Andrew Gordon had two goals and was the game’s number one star while Mathieu Perreault added a tally and two assists. Dany Sabourin won in Syracuse for the third straight time in three tries this season. The Bears host Adirondack at 7pm on Saturday at the Giant Center.

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Ovechkin, Backstrom, Varlamov Lead Caps Over Canes, 3-2

Posted on 25 November 2010 by Ed Frankovic

After his team was blanked 5-0 in its last two road games, Alexander Ovechkin came out with a vengeance on Wednesday night in Carolina skating hard, hitting Canes, and firing the biscuit on net often. The result was a three assist night in a 3-2 victory over the Hurricanes in Raleigh on Thanksgiving Eve. Nicklas Backstrom tallied on Ovie’s first two assists and Brooks Laich tapped home the game winner on the power play with 7:53 remaining. Semyon Varlamov, who was playing his first game since early October at the NHL level due a bad groin, was outstanding in goal stopping 30 of 32 shots. The victory halts an overall three game slide and improves the Capitals record to 15-6-2. The win keeps them four points ahead of the red hot Tampa Bay Lightning, who defeated the New York Rangers on Wednesday, 5-3. The Bolts will now come in to the Verizon Center on Friday for a 5pm tilt. That game should be a great one.

Here are the highlights and analysis from a huge Caps win in Raleigh:

- Ovechkin (3 assists, 10 shots on goal, 5 hits) was clearly the main story on Wednesday night. The Great #8, who is the team captain and leader of this Washington squad, had been struggling of late, especially on the road. However, from the very first shift it was clear that he was ready to go and a tactical switch by Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau seemed to help jump start the two time Hart Trophy winner. Boudreau, in an attempt to get Ovechkin more space and get him to churn his powerful legs, inserted him on the right wing of Backstrom and it yielded big dividends. The Swedish superstar center, who turned 23 on Tuesday, scored the first two goals of the game on Ovie set ups from the right wing boards. The first was an Ovechkin blast from the top of the right wing circle and when Justin Peters (35 saves) couldn’t handle the rebound, Nicky beat Joe Corvo to the biscuit and slapped it home. Then, in a 4 on 4 situation early in the second period, Alexander the Great outworked the Canes in the right wing corner and fed Backstrom with a nice pass. #19 had all kinds of room coming off of the wall and he lasered it by Peters for a 2-0 lead. The hard work by those two, with Laich on the left wing, would continue all night and they could have had five points each if not for some great goaltending by Peters. But Peters made a big mistake in the 3rd period trying to play the puck while shorthanded and when he cleared it right to the Great #8 at the point, Alex fired it on the cage and Laich tapped it home to break a two all tie and give the Caps the victory.

- Varlamov, who made three appearances in Hershey over the last 10 days in an attempt to rehab his injury, was outstanding. His positioning was great and he had numerous big saves, especially early on when Carolina had the Caps on their heels a bit in the first five minutes. #1 held his ground well on several occassions on goal mouth scrambles and he fought through some screens to thwart other opportunities for the Canes from the point. The only two tallies he allowed were a Sergei Samsonov deflection from the top of the crease on a Joni Pitkanen blast and an Eric Staal power play marker from in tight after the referees missed a clear hook on the Caps John Carlson. Both of those came in the first 10 minutes of the third period when Carolina was storming the castle. Now the key for Varly is to stay healthy, because as good as Michal Neuvirth is playing, Varlamov is the best goalie in the organization.

- It was clear that Boudreau’s “Send a Message”  practice/skate on Tuesday resonated with his troops as Washington did not float through this contest like they did in Atlanta and New Jersey. The team skated hard and did a super job of puck support. When one player lost the puck it seemed like there was always a Capital close by to cover for the turnover. I also don’t remember too many odd man rushes for the Canes, something Washington needed to cut down on.

- I spoke about the stars contribution to this victory but two other Capitals deserve a lot of credit in the win: Matt Bradley and Matt Hendricks. Bradley took on Troy Bodie at the 8:16 mark and was cut in a losing bout. But there is something about #10 bleeding that brings out the best in his teammates and after that they seemed to really kick things into gear, culminated by Backstrom’s opening tally five minutes later. In addition, Hendricks, who fought on Monday only to see his club not respond to it, did a lot of little things including drawing a tripping penalty and jumping into any scrums to stand up for his mates, most notably was confronting Erik Cole after he bumped Varly and then tried to get at Tom Poti. Role players like #10 and #26 are what win regular season games and make a difference in the post season.

-  Poti made his return to the lineup after missing 14 of the last 15 games due to a groin injury and he was sturdy in 24:30 of ice time. #3 was +1 and played the second most on defense to ice time leader, Carlson, who logged 26:39 because Mike Green was out of action due to an injury. The top 4 blue liners, Carlson, Poti, Jeff Schultz, and Karl Alzner were fairly solid, while Hershey recall Brian Fahey struggled a bit and that impacted his partner John Erskine, who only played 10:47. It was Erskine’s penalty that led to the game tying goal after he and #44 were running around in their own zone. Fahey and Erskine did not see the ice in the last 5:59 of this tilt.

Notes: Michal Neuvirth dressed as the back up goalie, meaning his lower body injury that occurred in the morning skate on Monday was not serious…both teams went 1 for 4 on the power play…Tampa has won five games in a row for their first winning streak of 5 or more in three seasons, so Friday’s Caps-Bolts tilt will be “Can’t Miss” hockey…Oveckhin only had 3 shots blocked tonight to go with the 10 he had on net, clearly the move to RW helped him big time - great coaching by Boudreau…the Caps won the face-off battle 37-29 with Boyd Gordon going 13-4 and Dave Steckel winning 11 of 15 draws. Backstrom was 5-13…Tyler Sloan was also out due to an injury…the Hershey Bears lost 3-2 to the Worcester Sharks at the Giant Center. Mathieu Perreault and Jay Beagle tallied in the losing effort for the boys from Chocolatetown.

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Caps Progressing At Season’s Quarter Pole

Posted on 21 November 2010 by Ed Frankovic

After Saturday night’s 5-4 shootout loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, the Washington Capitals have hit the season’s quarter pole with a 14-5-2 record, good for 30 points, which is tops in the Eastern Conference. Ironically, after 21 games in 2009-10 the Caps also had 30 points (13-4-4) and we all know how the rest of the season went as Washington went on to win the President’s Trophy and then lost in seven games to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Prior to the season, on Media Day, Caps GM George McPhee told those of us assembled at Kettler IcePlex that he wasn’t really focused on the regular season and had his sights set on a long playoff run. Obviously a team has to have a decent regular season to qualify for the post season and the way things are going for the Capitals so far, unless the bottom falls out on the team over the last 61 games, there will be playoff hockey in DC.

McPhee’s words indicated to me that he was going to use the games leading up until the trade deadline on February 28th as an analysis period for his squad. Over the summer the GM essentially chose to stand pat and go with the players that led his club to the best record in the NHL in 2009-10, although he did attempt to sign unrestricted free agent defensemen Willie Mitchell, only to be outbid by the Los Angeles Kings, who offered the d-man a two year contract. Given that situation, we have an idea of an area where the GM thinks his team could use assistance and McPhee has made it clear that if an opportunity to make the Caps better presents itself, he will pursue it.

There has been much debate in the media and blogosphere locally and nationally about what the Capitals need or should do to help them win a Stanley Cup. Clearly their current roster makes them Cup contenders but there are at least a dozen teams who could claim that as well. In The Washington Post on-line season preview, I provided my three keys for the Capitals in their quest to win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. The rest of this blog will present an analysis on those keys and also address some of the other theories/criticisms that have been mentioned nationally and locally on the Caps.

The first key I mentioned for 2010-11 was that the team needed to be healthy heading into the playoffs. In the last two seasons Washington has started the post season with both Alexander Ovechkin and Mike Green nursing injuries or illnesses of some sort. This year the Capitals cannot afford to have their two most important players not close to 100% when April rolls around. In November you can’t really evaluate that, but it should be noted that Green has already missed three games due to an upper body injury. #52 is logging an average of 25:46 a tilt, which currently puts him 6th in the NHL in time on ice a game, and that is expected from one of the top blue liners in the NHL. The Great #8, who missed six contests due to injury in 2009-10, has played all 21 games and clocking in 21:22 on average a night. Ovechkin has put up 10 goals and 16 assists and is tied for 3rd in the NHL in points, trailing only Steven Stamkos and Sidney Crosby. However, given that the Great #8 already has his trophy case filled with individual awards I imagine the fact that #91 and #87 are ahead of him in the scoring race matters little to him. In fact, based on what I’ve seen from Alex over the first 21 games I wouldn’t be surprised if he is trying to pace himself to get his body and mind ready for a long and physical post season run. As for the rest of the team and its health, the Caps have still managed to lead the NHL in points despite the loss of arguably their second best blue liner in Tom Poti for 16 games and their projected #1 goaltender, Semyon Varlamov, for all but two contests.

After last season’s playoff defeat, Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau indicated that a big part of the problem was that his club had become a one line team with Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Knuble. Alexander Semin, who scored 40 times in the regular season, was blanked in the post season and assisting that issue was the lack of a pivot to help get him the puck in prime scoring chances once the games got tighter and open space on the ice was severly reduced. Therefore, my second key to the season was to get more balanced scoring, which translates into finding a second line center to play with Semin. So far, McPhee and Boudreau have not been able to find consistent scoring from a unit other than their top line. Some of Semin’s best contests this season, and he is tied with Ovechkin for the team lead with 26 points, have been when he was moved up to the top unit. But as Boudreau will tell you, that makes his club much easier to check in a playoff series so despite the success of 8-19-28 he continues to tinker with his top two units to find the balance necessary for the post season. So far Tomas Fleischmann, Marcus Johansson, Mathieu Perreault, and Brooks Laich have gotten shots at the number two pivot spot without much consistency. In my book, Laich is the best fit because he is more physical than the other three, something that is needed badly in the playoffs. However, #21 really is at his best on the wing so at this point I believe the 2010-11 second line center solution lies in a to be determined trade by McPhee, at some point before February 28th.

My third key to the season was improved special teams play. Washington’s power play, ranked number one in the league in the 2009-10 regular season, ended up tallying just once in 30+ chances against Montreal in April. In fact, power play or not, Washington scored only once in each of the last three playoff tilts and while Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak deserves a great deal of credit, it was apparent that the Caps forwards were not paying the price necessary to get the puck by a hot net minder. One of the things the Caps needed to do to improve the power play was to go to the net and get high traffic tallies. So far in 2010-11 they have improved in that area, but the team can still get better. After a slow start to the power play to begin the season, Washington is now fifth overall in the NHL, clicking at a 23.7% rate (they connected at 25% in the regular season in 2009-10), and much of that improvement since the start of the year is due to getting goals in close. Only five of the 18 goals the Caps have scored with the man advantage have come from Ovechkin or Green, the primary point men, meaning the other 13 have pretty much come down low. Laich and Eric Fehr have two power play markers each while Jason Chimera has added one too.

The other half of the special teams, the penalty killing unit, has shown marked improvement after being in the bottom third of the league in 2009-10 and yielding some key goals to Montreal in the post season. This year the unit is staving off 84.6% of the attempts by its opponent, which puts them at ninth in the NHL. Assistant Coach Dean Evason spent a good part of the summer studying film and modifying his PK unit to be more aggressive. In addition, shorter shifts are being employed. Hall of Famer Rod Langway always used to say that you needed your goaltender to be your best penalty killer and so far Michal Neuvirth (12-3-1, .912 save pct.) has filled that role well. Clearly the change in the shift lengths, the new aggressive scheme, plus the play of young defenders Karl Alzner and John Carlson has helped to make the penalty killing crew very successful. In fact, the PK has become so strong that sometimes taking a penalty has helped the Caps gain momentum in a contest when in the past it seemed to put them on their heels. Simply put, through 21 games I would say that the special teams play has improved from last season.

As mentioned above, McPhee did try and bring in Mitchell over the summer and that was an attempted move that made sense. The Caps need depth on the blue line and we’ve seen that issue pop up already with Poti missing all but five games in 2010-11. Last night against the Flyers the fifth and sixth d-men, John Erskine and Tyler Sloan, played only 11:05 and 9:09, respectively in a 65 minute tilt. Thus the top four of Green, Jeff Schultz, Carlson, and Alzner carried the bulk of the minutes. That is okay on occasion, but if done frequently it could jeopardize the overall health of the unit in the long run. Therefore, in addition to another center, I would be very surprised if GMGM does not add at least one defensemen to his club before the trade deadline.

Those who don’t routinely watch the Caps on a game by game basis as much as the local media do, when critiquing the team, will typically take a look at their young goaltending roster and point to that as the team’s biggest weakness. I don’t buy that one bit and personally, when I hear that, I immediately dismiss the credibility of the person providing that analysis. Neuvirth has won back to back AHL Calder Cup Championships so he is battle tested and all you have to do is ask the 2008-09 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins about Varlamov’s play against them in the second round to know how tough he is in the clutch. Varly nearly single handily ended the Pens title hopes in the spring of 2009. Therefore, unless Varlamov can’t find a way to get healthy I don’t see McPhee making a move to bring in a goalie from outside the organization. After all, who would have thought the netminders in last season’s Cup Finals would be Michael Leighton and Antti Niemi? This Caps team has confidence in both Varlamov and Neuvirth so I fail to see how a guy such as Tomas Vokoun, who has never won anything in the post season, could help Washington between the pipes.

In summary, when evaluating where the Caps are at the season’s quarter pole in their quest for Lord Stanley, I would say they have improved from where they left off last April. Their overall team defense seems to have improved (even though their GAA is only .01 better than 2009-10), thanks to a stronger penalty kill and very consistent goaltending, primarily from Neuvirth, and they are doing a better job of scoring goals in the high traffic areas. However, if they want to increase their odds of winning it all, they will need to add some depth on the blue line and find another center to help give them two consistent scoring lines. Fortunately for McPhee, he has the flexibility to do that because his club is under the salary cap by an estimated $4M (only GMGM and team salary cap guru Don Fishman know the actual number). Many other Stanley Cup contenders do not have that luxury so the cap room could be called an “Ace in the Hole” for the Caps GM. What remains to be seen in order for McPhee to improve his squad is what players become available and at what price. Stay tuned.

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Semin Hat Trick Paces Caps over Bolts

Posted on 12 November 2010 by Ed Frankovic

When Alexander Semin is healthy and decides to play focused, he is as talented and skilled as anyone in the National Hockey League. On Thursday night, in the matchup of the top two teams in the Southeast Division, #28 took over the game scoring three goals and adding two assists as the Caps knocked off the Tampa Bay Lightning, 6-3, before the 69th straight sellout at the Verizon Center. Nicklas Backstrom notched four assists and Alexander Ovechkin added a goal and two assists while Michal Neuvirth shook off some early rebound problems to make 38 saves for his 10th victory of the sesason against just one loss. The win pushes the Caps to 12-4 overall and they lead the Eastern Conference by two points over the Flyers. They are also six points up on the Lightning, who have a game in hand.

Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis of Washington’s sixth straight victory, and eighth in their last nine titls:

- Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau did not start this game with Semin on the top line with Ovechkin and Backstrom, he had Mike Knuble (1 goal) up there, but after another sluggish opening stanza in which Washington could not get the puck behind the Bolts defense, the 2007-08 Jack Adams award winning bench boss switched up his personnel and tweaked the Capitals breakout pattern. Once again, another brilliant coaching move by Boudreau got the desired result.

“The [top two right wings] are interchangeable. We didn’t start with them like that but then we switched halfway through. Maybe it makes the other coach, especially when we are at home, alter their game,” started Boudreau, “[Tampa] hit three or four posts so I think we were lucky for a little bit. We had trouble adjusting to what they were doing and after the first period we made some adjustments and I thought we played a lot better in the second and third…We weren’t playing properly, we weren’t getting it in and only one man is going so it was easy for their D to get it and move it out. We changed our tactics up in the neutral zone and it worked. To make an analogy, it’s kind of like in baseball where you have trouble going through the lineup once and you are better the second time. I don’t know if we’ll get it or it will work the next time but it was pretty tough to get through their neutral zone,” finished Boudreau on what it took to get his team going.

- The Caps top players did light it up overall but they were credited with five of the 13 Capitals giveaways on the evening. Most of those were at the blue line and allowed Tampa to go in transition. Boudreau realizes that his top unit has great skill and can pull off some passes that other players just cannot, but he would prefer that those guys get the puck down low and use their size and skill where they can make the opponents pay for crowding the puck. In the third period they seemed to get the message and the key goal in the contest, Semin’s one timer off of a sweet Backstrom saucer pass from behind the net, came after Ovechkin and company cycled the biscuit in the corner and drew the Lightning defense in to that area.

 ”When you look at it on the replay it looked like what we talked about at the beginning of the game, [Semin] was in the right position. We wanted to take the puck from one side, because they surround the puck with four or five guys, and get it to the other side and make them run around. Evidently he knew what he was doing,” said Boudreau on Semin’s big goal with 9:14 remaining that made it 4-2.

“I think that was what was holding up back a little bit all night. They were standing pretty strong against their blue line and we were kind of turning it over there all of the time. But we were trying to make them play in their own end. It’s a 2-1 game [after two periods] and it ends 5-3 and you say it is kind of like the old Caps, you just outscore them, and turn it into a track meet,” added Knuble when asked if the game plan was to get pucks deep on Tampa.

- On Washington’s fifth goal, that sealed the victory with 4:52 remaining, the top line generated two big scoring chances by playing solid in their own end, something that can plague that line, at times. Ovechkin fought off two Bolts defenders on the left wing boards and sprung Semin for a partial breakaway. #28 went in alone on Lightning goalie Dan Ellis (20 saves in 25 shots) but as he tried to go to the back hand he lost the puck into the corner. However, Semin recovered, looked up, found Ovechkin coming late, and the Great #8 made no mistake on this shot and buried it by Ellis short side. It was a hard working goal capped off with superior skill from two top players.

- Neuvirth gave up the first goal once again and it came as a result of poor rebound control. #30 couldn’t handle Sean Bergenheim’s backhander from the right wing side and the biscuit bounced into the slot where Teddy Purcell banged it home. Neuvy would battle the puck a bit more at the beginning of this one but as the game went on he got stronger making several huge stops in the third period when Tampa was pressing. The Bolts fired 16 times on Neuvirth in that last stanza. Washington is now 9-3 when giving up the first goal, something that typically gives a club a less than 50% chance of winning that contest.

- The officiating in New York was abysmal on Tuesday and tonight it was the worst I’ve seen all season against Washington. The Caps only had one power play, and Semin tallied on it just 16 seconds in, while the Lightning had four attempts (1 for 4). There were two blatant missed calls by Chris Lee and Kevin Pollock that should have gone against Tampa in this tilt. The first came after Matt Bradley delivered a perfectly clean and legal check to Mike Lundin and Tampa right wing Adam Hall skated all of the way across the ice and dropped the gloves with #10. Bradley would win the fight but typically an instigator or an extra minor is called in that situation against the team that takes exception to the contact. Nothing was called in this case.

“I didn’t really get [an explanation], that is what I asked. I thought it was distance traveled. He traveled a long ways. I guess the thing that didn’t make it [instigating] was Brads saw him coming and was ready for it but it is because the guy traveled so far. I said I don’t care if it’s an instigator, I just thought that it was a clean hit and a good hit. The guy didn’t get hurt and whatever, that [Hall] came and started the fight. Give him the extra two or something, I thought would have been the right call, but if he didn’t see it, he didn’t see it,” said Boudreau on Hall jumping Bradley after his hit.

The second blatant infraction missed by the blind zebra pair of Lee and Pollock nearly allowed Tampa to have a chance to tie the game up in the last 10 minutes. Brooks Laich was hauled down on the right wing boards in the offensive zone but play was permitted to carry on and the Lightning rush that ensued, after Laich lost the puck, resulted in NHL league leading points man, Steven Stamkos, scoring his 14th goal of the season to make it 4-3 with 7:17 left. A loud chorus of boos rained down on Lee and Pollock after the Stamkos tally.

Notes: Semin extended his point streak to six games (7 goals, 6 assists)…with Semin (12 goals) and Ovechkin (9), the Capitals are the only team in the NHL with two nine-goal scorers. The duo has combined for eight goals and 20 points in the past five games…the Caps won the face-off battle 40-31 with Dave Steckel going 20-9 and Backstrom winning 12 of 18 draws. Tomas Fleischmann was 3-9…Tom Poti returned to the lineup and scored the Caps first goal and his first tally of the season at 2:21 of the second period. #3 logged only 16:41 of ice time so the Caps coaches were clearly trying to ease him back from his groin injury…speaking of injuries, the Caps are now 10-0 with Boyd Gordon in the lineup but #15 left after only three shifts (1:42) and Boudreau said he will miss a week…the Lightning were without top six forwards Steve Downie and Simon Gagne due to injuries plus Vincent Lecavalier fractured his right hand in the contest. He logged only 14:29 of ice time and afterwards it was announced he would miss three to four weeks, which includes a tilt against the Caps on November 26th at the Verizon Center…forward Marcus Johansson was recalled from Hershey on Wednesday but was scratched…Goalie Semyon Varlamov is down in Hershey rehabbing his groin injury and should see some work with the Bears this weekend…the Caps go to Buffalo on Saturday night before returning home to face the Thrashers at home at 5pm on Sunday…Caps radio play by play man Steve Kolbe called his 1,000th game, kudos Steve!

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Caps Continue to Improve, Beat Bruins 5-3

Posted on 05 November 2010 by Ed Frankovic

After losing two games earlier in the season to the Boston Bruins in back to back tilts, the Washington Capitals played like they had something to prove against the B’s on Friday night at the Verizon Center. Washington jumped out to a 3-0 lead after two periods, gave away the lead, then scored twice in the final ten minutes en route to a 5-3 victory before a sold out crowd. The Caps third straight win, and fifth in their last six games, improves their record to 9-4, good for first place in the Southeast Division and first overall in the Eastern Conference.

Let’s get right to the highlights, quotes, and analysis of a contest that saw the Caps outshoot the Bruins, 39-18:

- There were a lot of positives on Friday in this tilt but to me the biggest thing about this club right now is it is continuing to improve and the second period they played was easily their best of the season. Washington outshot the Bruins 17-6 and notched three tallies in the middle stanza, including a dandy shorthanded goal by Alexander Semin that was made possible by defenseman Mike Green (1 goal, 1 assist) jumping up into the play and then making an all-world pass back to #28, who fired the puck five hole on Bruins goalie Tim Thomas (7-0 coming into this game). The glass “half-empty” crew will likely be out in full force for Washington losing a three goal third period lead but Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau was having none of that after this victory.

“I feel great about the way we played the first two periods, we played tremendous. So I am not going to try to spin any negatives on this one. That is a great team that we kept down with 11 or 12 shots in two periods. They came out really hard in the third and got two power play goals and we had a couple of breakdowns. Then we righted the ship and I don’t think they had more than one chance after that. I don’t want to get negative here,” stated Boudreau when asked if he was disappointed in giving up three goals again in the third period.

- Thomas and Michal Neuvirth (11 saves on 14 shots), two of the top goalies in the NHL this season, started the game and both were yanked from the cage in this one. The Bruins net minder was replaced by Tuukka Rask (stopped 12 of 13 shots) for the third period, likely in an attempt by Boston coach Claude Julien to try and change the momentum, while Neuvirth, who had very little work since the opening 10 minutes, gave up three tallies in a six minute stretch. At that point, Boudreau had a huge decision to make with Braden Holtby, who had previously never played in an NHL game, sitting on the bench. But the 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winning coach made another great tactical decision based on something that only coaches typically notice and that led him to the switch.

“With us, I thought Neuvy didn’t look very good on goals two and three and he was looking over [at the bench]. Any time a goalie is looking [at the bench], I thought okay [let's make the switch]. It wasn’t I didn’t know if it was fair to Braden, his first game, to put him in with 10 minutes to go against Boston in a tie game, but I thought he did outstanding,” said Boudreau on another tactical decision that led to a Caps victory.

Neuvirth, who Boudreau said appeared to be tired on Wednesday against the Leafs, could be wearing down from playing in 12 of the 13 games so far this season, but who knows if that is really the case?

“You’d have to ask him [on the goals allowed]. He might be tired. In the American League it is two of three games but then you get four days off and here it is every other day you have to play,” surmised Boudreau on the schedule adjustments his young goalie is having to make in the NHL.

- Green is clearly the straw that stirs the drink for the Caps with his rushes from the back end. He notched his third goal in three games by faking Bruins forward Gregory Campbell out of his jock and to the ice on Washington’s second tally and the aforementioned setup he made on the Semin shorthanded marker is a sequence that only highly talented defensemen like a Bobby Orr or Paul Coffey are able to make. #52 logged 25:43 of ice time and was the game’s number one star for his play at both ends of the rink.

“Best offensive defenseman in the NHL, which means he’s the best one in the world. So when you don’t have him it is a detriment. He blocks shots, he blocked about five shots in the third period alone and he played a lot of hockey, he was a real plus for us,” said Boudreau on the blue liner who was +2 on Friday night.

- As former Capital Alan May blogged on Monday, the Caps jettisoned some of the older players from last season’s roster and brought up young players like John Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Neuvirth. May pointed out that it will take time for those players to adjust to the rigors of the NHL but he also noted that the team continues to win and it will likely pay off in the long run (i.e, April). Carlson had the game winner with 6:35 to go on a point blast off of a face-off win by Boyd Gordon that included great hustle and a nice pass by Eric Fehr, as well. #74 and his partner, Alzner, just continue to get better and better each game with tonight’s contest being their strongest yet.

“Alzner and Carlson were very good. Our defense was very good, in general. Tyler’s [Sloan] best game too. Alzner and Carlson played really good against the Leafs and then were good in Calgary and they are just getting better,” added Boudreau on his young defensive pair that won back to back Calder Cups in Hershey.

- As said above, the Caps continue to improve and their effort is getting stronger. They continued to go to the net hard and are following Boudreau’s system much more closely after some shaky tilts early on. Overall the head coach was very pleased because this win came against a squad that was 7-2 on the season prior to tonight.

“One of the things we talked about in the firts two games was Boston is a real strong team that wins a lot of one on one battles so we were real cognizant of trying to compete and battle with them. It’s a great video clip because when you win battles you have success and we’ll be showing that one, for sure,” finished Boudreau on the victory over the Bruins.

Notes: Alexander Oveckin had an empty net goal and an assist but, according to the stat sheet, he did not register a single hit…like the game winner, the Caps first goal by Sloan came off of a face-off win (Tomas Fleischmann) and Mike Knuble did a great job screening Thomas…both Knuble and Fehr had strong games and appear to be on the verge of breaking through with some goals…Boston won the face-off battle, 42-35…Jeff Schultz made a very headsy play on the empty net clincher. Instead of trying to fire through a maze of players and risking a blocked attempt, #55 dumped the puck deep along the left wing boards where Nicklas Backstrom (two assists) corralled it and fed the Great #8 for an easy tap in…the Caps are undefeated with Gordon (1 assist, +1) in the lineup (7-0). Next up for the Caps are the despised Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday at 5pm, so after the Ravens hopefully defeat the Miami Dolphins, fans can rush home and watch the Caps knock off those “scumbags” (as WNST Morning Show host, Drew Forrester, calls them) on the ice.

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Semin Hat Trick Leads Caps in OT Win

Posted on 23 October 2010 by Ed Frankovic

After losing two straight games to the Boston Bruins and struggling to score goals, everyone expected the Washington Capitals to break out against the Atlanta Thrashers on Saturday night at the Verizon Center. After all, Atlanta had played Friday night at home (and got blown out by Tampa Bay) while the Caps sat plus the Thrashers were one of the worst teams in the NHL in penalty killing. But for the Caps these days, nothing is coming easy, but after trailing 2-1 going into the third period they rallied to take a 3-2 lead on an Alexander Semin hat trick, promptly gave up the tying goal with 32 seconds left to Evander Kane, before Tomas Fleischmann won it in overtime backhanding home an Eric Fehr blast that Thrashers goalie Chris Mason (40 saves) could not handle. It was a huge win for the boys in red, white, and blue and the battered Caps are now 5-3. They don’t play again until Wednesday and they need that rest with all of the injuries they have.

Let’s get right to the highlights, quotes, and analysis of the Capitals eighth straight home victory over Atlanta:

- The analysis can’t totally begin until we fully comprehend how banged up this Washington hockey club is right now. Defenseman Tom Poti is out day to day and therefore Mike Green, who is nursing an upper body injury, had to dress but he would only play on Caps power plays logging just 5:32 of ice time. Therefore, Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau had to go with five defensemen throughout the rest of the contest. In net, Semyon Varlamov, who was 4-0 against the Thrashers in his career, re-injured his groin so Michal Neuvirth (29 saves) got the start and Dany Sabourin was recalled from Hershey. Up front things aren’t much better as Marcus Johansson sufferred a hip flexor in Boston and with Matt Bradley and Boyd Gordon still hurt GM George McPhee recalled Mathieu Perreault and Jay Beagle from Hershey to play against the Thrashers. So a team that had lost two in a row and were finding it hard to light the lamp was going to have to dig deep to get a victory on Saturday, and they did outshooting Atlanta 44-32.

“It was good. I would have liked to have him more. I wasn’t nervous about him at all. We made the decision before the game that we would see how Mike is; if he is comfortable we will play him more, but the intent was to play him on the power play,” said Boudreau on the play and ice time given to Green on Saturday.

- After a good first couple of shifts by the Capitals, sparked by the Perreault-Semin-Brooks Laich line, the Thrashers dominated the first period and initial portion of the game. Atlanta outshot the Caps 13-4 in the opening stanza and scored first on the power play. John Erskine took a boarding penalty and when Neuvirth couldn’t handle Anthony Stewart’s shot from the right wing corner, something #30 struggled with a few times on Saturday, Andrew Ladd outworked Karl Alzner in front of the Washington net and put the biscuit in the basket. The Caps appeared to be in a fog for much of the first two periods giving up 27 of the 32 shots they allowed and if not for Neuvirth they might not have been able to come back.

“I don’t know [what happened]. I knew they [Atlanta] were going to come out and be very good. They played really well, skated really well; they didn’t give us much of a chance to breathe. But it is really difficult to keep that pace up and we got a little momentum off a power play and were able to move it forward,” explained Boudreau on the Caps slow start on Saturday night.

- Neuvirth, who is the team’s MVP the first eight games this season, really kept Washington in this one despite the problems he had with shots from the right wing boards. #30′s breakaway stop on Jim Slater with the Thrashers leading 2-1 in the second period was one of those saves that are game changers. After that huge save, and the stupid charging major and game misconduct that Dustin Byfuglien took on Neuvy trying to rattle the young goalie, the Capitals started to play with more intensity and resemble the squad that won the Presidents’ Trophy last season. Of course, they still aren’t finishing plays well enough to hit that level yet, but most of the players were exhibiting the intensity and energy necessary to start getting there.

- Intensity and energy is exactly what Perreault (2 assists, 9-5 on face-offs, +3) brings to the lineup and is the primary reason I thought he had made the team out of training camp, only to be sent down, mostly because of the Capitals ability to do so without having him go through waivers. #85 was the right player to pair with Semin tonight because he isn’t afraid to go to the boards and corners to get the puck for #28. Semin, to his credit, was outstanding all evening and played strong on the puck. That line, which included Laich, is the other reason the Caps got victory #5. Laich still isn’t producing at the level #21 expects as his hands are failing him, but he is getting there and with Perreault up for an extended period that could help get him going as well.

“(Semin) is such a good player. He makes the job easier for me on the ice and hopefully we can get some more games like that. We bounced back in the second and third periods. We felt the emotion on the bench. Everyone wanted to really win tonight,” said Perreault on playing with #28 and the mood of his squad.

- As for the Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Knuble line, well they are just not producing and look out of sync. Knuble appears a step slow right now, Backstrom seems to be battling the puck, and Ovie’s problem is he is not continuing to move his feet on his shifts. The Great #8 is in the right position to get scoring chances or make the big hit but when the opportunity presents itself he is coasting or gliding on his skates instead of continuing to churn his powerful legs. Case in point, he was incorrectly called for goalie interference late in the third period but that situation never happens if Ovie keeps skating when he corrals the puck in the offensive zone. In fact, had he turned on his jets he likely would have scored and ended the tilt right then.

- Special teams were once again a problem for DC on Saturday night. They allowed a power play goal and the second tally, Kane’s first of two goals, came 11 seconds after John Carlson exited the box (high sticking). On that goal there were five Caps around Kane yet he somehow was all alone in front of Neuvirth to bang home a pass from Rich Peverly from behind the cage. Both Erskine and Tyler Sloan incorrectly abandoned the front of the net and Carlson left Kane as well. It was shoddy defense and something that needs to be corrected. The power play moved the puck better with Green out on the ice but Ovechkin struggled at his point early on. The 2009-10 regular season number one unit went 0 for 3 and is now 4 for 33 this season (h/t @PckhdsThghts). Perhaps it is time to move Ovie down low and go with just defensemen on the points, preferably Carlson and Green, and put Poti, when healthy, in the mix on the second unit?

- There are alot of guys struggling to score on the club and the Caps had only two goals in their last 77 shots at one point tonight, both of which came as a result of goalie misplays (h/t @VogsCaps), but that game winning goal by Flash has to do wonders for his confidence and for Fehr as well. Those two guys are ones that Boudreau and McPhee expect to take their game to the next level this season but so far it has not happened. Flash just doesn’t seem to want to consistently pay the price in front of the net, on the boards, and in the corners and he was the lone weak link on face-offs on Saturday, going 2-6. Simply put, he needs to play bigger if he is going to stay in the NHL. As for Fehr, I just can’t put my finger on it, he should be doing better and one way for him to get going is to continue to use his powerful shot and get to the front of the cage more consistently.

Notes: The Caps handily won the face-off battle 41-23 with Dave Steckel going 13-3…Washington’s three game road trip starts Wednesday in Carolina and takes them to Minnesota on Thursday and then on Hockey Night in Canada at the Calgary Flames on Saturday…the next home game is Wednesday, November 3rd against the Toronto Maple Leafs…Down on the farm, Braden Holtby won his 3rd straight start stopping 17 shots in a Bears 5-1 victory over the Adirondack Phantoms. Hershey plays the Phantoms again on Sunday at 5pm at the Giant Center and tickets are available. There were three fights in the second period on Saturday night so the Sunday matinee should be an entertaining tilt.

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