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Caps Sweep Penguins, 6-3

Posted on 07 April 2010 by Ed Frankovic

In a game that meant so much more to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Washington Capitals went into the vaunted “Igloo” and despite having to play the Pens and the referees for the 15th straight time, the Caps still managed to come out on top, 6-3. Alexander Ovechkin continued his resurgence just in time for the playoffs notching two goals and he now is tied with Sidney Crosby (1 goal, 2 assists) for the NHL goal scoring lead at 48. Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay is just one goal back. Ovechkin is also tied with Henrik Sedin of Vancouver for the Art Ross Trophy race, at 106 points, pending Vancouver’s late game vs. Colorado. The Capitals won every regular season meeting between these two teams (SWEEEEEPP!) in 2009-10 with all four contests coming since January 21st. Washington now has a staggering 118 points (53-15-12) and will finish the regular season with games against the Thrashers on Friday and Boston on Sunday at the Verizon Center.

Here are the highlights, some quotes from Ovechkin, and analysis from what I hope is the last game ever between the Caps and Pens in Mellon Arena (i.e, I wish the Pens bad luck in the playoffs):

STAT OF THE NIGHT: For the 15th straight game between these two squads, the Caps did not receive more power plays than the Penguins. In fact, in ONLY four of those contests have the number of power plays for each team been even! That is ridiculous and clearly shows an officiating bias. The shots on Tuesday were 29-28, in favor of Pittsburgh, but the Penguins had four power plays to just one for Washington (the Caps scored just 4 seconds into their PP chance on Ovechkin’s first goal). In addition to being shortchanged on power play opportunities, both blind zebras, Greg Devorski and Ian Walsh, missed a nasty elbow by Max Talbot to the head of Alexander Semin (scored his 39th goal of the season and added an assist). The Caps did get a big break though on a quick whistle that negated what would have been a Penguins goal in the second period.

Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom (3 assists), and Mike Knuble (28th goal of the season) had their second straight good game and appear to be heating up for the playoffs. The Great #8 logged 19:12 of ice time while Backstrom played 20:35 with the difference being #19’s 1:25 on the PK. Knuble played 17:33 so Caps Coach Bruce Bourdeau continues to do a good job of not overplaying his top line down the stretch.

“I think that power play goal gave me more [relief]. I had lots chances to score goals the last four games and they didn’t go in.  Finally it goes in and the last 10 minutes I just felt unbelievable ,” said the Great #8, who also praised Crosby’s play, character, and leadership after this one in addition to recognizing the Caps defense and goaltender for super play (“Varly today played unbelievable.”). By the way, Ovechkin’s second marker came into an empty net with just 0.2 seconds remaining.

Semyon Varlamov (26 saves) was very solid tonight and it was hard to fault him on the three goals allowed. The first was a laser by Crosby on the power play after Tyler Sloan gave #87 far too much room coming off of the right wing boards. The middle tally by the Pens was a Jordan Leopold point blast that was heading wide but hit Shaone Morrisonn (-2 on the evening) and bounced right through Varly’s pad while the final Pittsburgh goal was another Leopold rocket after a Caps giveaway. On that shot Morrisonn dove to the ice late and didn’t allow #40 to pick up the shot. The back-to-back wins were the first ones since December 3rd & 7th, right before he started with all of the injuries. Boudreau has to feel very good about where his goaltending is at with just two regular season games remaining. Jose Theodore is on fire again and if he somehow struggles the 2007-08 Jack Adams award winning coach knows he has a surging Varly he can put in the cage as well.

Resiliency was the key word of the night for Washington. First, they lost defenseman John Erskine to a lower body injury (h/t Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post) in the first period and #4 logged only 3:52 of ice time. After that they had to go with just five blue liners. Even more impressive was their ability to respond so quickly to Pittsburgh tallies. After Crosby’s PP marker made it 2-1 at 6:18 of the second period, Tomas Fleischmann scored just 21 seconds later on a wicked top shelf wrister that chased Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to the showers (9 saves on 12  shots). #29 proceeded to lose it in the tunnel after Coach Dan Bylsma gave him the hook. Then after Leopold put one byVarly just 49 seconds into the third period, Ovechkin responded with his power play rocket by former Capital Brent Johnson (13 saves on 15 shots) just 1:51 later to restore a two goal Washington lead.

Another key tally was Matt Bradley’s 10th of the season with just two minutes left in the second period. That goal, off of a nice passing play with Quintin Laing and Dave Steckel, came after a long stretch where the Pens were dominating play and gave Washington momentum heading into period three.

Jeff Schultz is back. #55, who seems to play his best against the Pens (+12 in last 8 games versus PIT; h/t @JapersRink), was so solid in his own end tying up several Pens around the net all game and earning a +5 for the evening (he leads the NHL at +44, h/t to Corey Masisak). In addition, Sarge added two assists and wasn’t prone to some of the sloppy giveaways he had been making over the last month. Schultz logged 25:00 of ice time to lead all Caps (Tom Poti had 24:55).

Notes: Mike Green was a scratch and apparently is “dinged up” but could have played, if really necessary..El-Bashir is reporting he will play Friday against the Thrashers…Evgeni Malkin (sick) missed the game for the Penguins as did noted head hunter, Chris Kunitz (undisclosed)..Pittburgh won the face-off battle, 29-24, with Backstrom going 8-5, Jay Beagle 7-3, and Fleischmann 3-10. Crosby was 16-12 for the Pens…Karl Alzner was recalled today but was scratched…Kris Letang and Bill Guerin were both -3 for Pittsburgh, who are now two points behind the New Jersey Devils in the race for the Atlantic Division title (NJ defeated ATL, 3-0, on Tuesday night).

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Caps Fall in Shootout to Canes, 3-2

Posted on 25 March 2010 by Ed Frankovic

After beating the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins for the third time in three tries this season, one would expect the Washington Capitals to have a let down the very next night in Raleigh against the Hurricanes. Well, after a poor first 20 minutes that saw Carolina score their only two goals, the Caps dominated most of the final 45 minutes before falling in the shootout, 3-2, to the Canes. Manny Legace was outstanding for Carolina stopping 41 shots while Semyon Varlamov (29 saves) had his best Caps outing since early December. Washington, despite the shootout loss, sets a club record for points in a season with 109 (49-14-11) and they are now two points away from clinching the Eastern Conference #1 seed (h/t @TedStarkey). In the race for the President’s Trophy they lead Chicago by 10 points (they have a game in hand) and are up by 11 on the Sharks, who will play the Stars late on Thursday night.

Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis from the last Caps-Canes contest this season:

Perhaps the best news of the night was what appeared to be the return to form from Varlamov. #40 stopped several breakaways, including a golden chance by superstar Eric Staal in overtime. He was only beaten on a screened point blast plus a deflected quality scoring chance in the slot. He was aggressive and controlled in his cage displaying the confidence and swagger that the Capitals saw from him last spring and in November/December of this season. Jose Theodore is still the undisputed number one goalie right now but it would be very comforting for Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau and the organization to know that they have Varly in position to step in should anything weird happen down the stretch or in the playoffs. Varlamov, though, is winless in his last four starts (0-1-3, including two defeats in shootouts).

“He played great. I don’t know what it does for his confidence because I’m not him. If I were him I would feel pretty good about myself. It is unfortunate the one snuck in [Ray Whitney’s shootout goal], that’s the difference in the game,” said Boudreau on the goalie he rode for 13 straight games in the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As mentioned above, and expected, the Caps were slow out of the gate and appeared to be skating in cement in period one. Boudreau was so incensed that he used his timeout early to chew his troops out and they eventually got the message. Starting in period two they outshot the Canes 30-13 the rest of the way and tied the game up but couldn’t get the winner.

“That happens when you’ve played an emotional game the night before but I thought the last two periods we picked it up pretty good but at the same time you have to be ready. You can’t come from behind from every night,” commented Boudreau on his team’s fate on Thursday in Raleigh.

Carolina killer Alexander Semin notched his 35th tally of the season just 1:43 into period two and he fired five shots on goal plus five attempts blocked to go along with two that missed the cage. Washington’s second goal was a thing of beauty as Jason Chimera took a John Erskine breakout pass and flew down the left wing. With right wing Eric Fehr driving to the net and taking the Canes defenseman with him, #25 slid a nice pass into the slot and Team USA World Junior Championships hero, John Carlson, notched his first NHL goal. #74 is only 20 years old and there will be many more to come in what looks to be a very promising career. Carlson had a rough initial opening stanza paired with a very rusty Erskine (who really played well the last two periods). But after that he was all over the ice, doled out several big hits (credited with four by the stats crew), and he was superb with his breakout passes.

“That happens alot to individuals, they play great and nothing happens. They have a rough first period like John did and he ends up scoring the goal. He has come close to scoring on numerous occassions so he was due to have the goal here,” added Boudreau on his rookie defenseman.

Alexander Ovechkin, since his hat trick against the Penguins on February 7th, now has just scored in two (three goals total) of his last 13 games (h/t @JapersRink). The Great #8 had six shots on goal, five that missed the net, and seven others attempts that were blocked or deflected. He was thwarted by Legace in the shootout when a tally would have won the game. The stats guys said he had 0 hits but I do remember at least one (in the 3rd period) but he was not his usual physical self in 22:53 of ice time. The Great #8 also was whistled for goalie interference and the officiating, which was extremely inconsistent on Wednesday night versus Pittsburgh, was a topic of discussion for Boudreau after this one as well.

“That was the call [on Ovechkin]. Even though he is three feet out, Alex bumped into him, which is why I thought there should have been a call on Varly at the other end on the power play. The only thing I don’t know about is what is too many men on the ice anymore? I know what is in the rule book but I want to know exactly how it is being called,” finished Boudreau.

The Caps were 0 for 3 on the power play while Carolina went 1 for 5. Seriously, my biggest concern for Washington heading into the playoffs are four guys: the two referees and the two linesman. I just have 0 confidence in the zebras right now and I think Larry Brooks of the New York Post hit the nail on the head last week on Hockey Night in Canada Radio with Jeff Marek when he said the officiating is the area that needs the most improvement in the NHL. Caps Senior Media Relations Director, Nate Ewell, wrote on Twitter today that in the last 14 Caps-Pens games Washington has yet to play a contest in which they have more power plays than Sidney Crosby and company (in four of the games the opportunities evened out). I have one thing to say to the NHL on this, in the immortal words of John McEnroe:  “YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS??!!”

Notes: Next up for the Caps are the fading Calgary Flames at the Verizon Center on Sunday at 3pm…Washington easily won the face-off battle, 38-29, and Brendan Morrison went 11-4…Matt Bradley, who has eight goals this season, has not tallied in 23 games…Carolina won this one in the fifth round of the shootout. Ovechkin, Semin, and Tomas Fleischmann all had chances to win the game for Washington in the gimmick (Nicklas Backstrom was the only one to tally for the Caps).

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Fleischmann Wins it in OT for Caps, 4-3

Posted on 10 March 2010 by Ed Frankovic

If you attended Wednesday night’s Caps-Carolina game at the Verizon Center you definitely got your money’s worth witnessing this one. The Capitals and the Canes, who are two of the NHL’s hottest teams right now despite Carolina’s 13th position in the Eastern Conference standings, put on an exciting end-to-end brand of hockey with super goaltending and it took Tomas Fleischmann’s one timer (19th goal of the season) in OT off of a great pass by Eric Belanger to allow Washington to prevail, 4-3. Jose Theodore made 29 saves and stopped a penalty shot by Brandon Sutter and at least two near breakaways by Ray Whitney in another strong performance that continues to solidify his hold as the #1 goaltender for Washington. Manny Legace was really good in net for Carolina making 35 saves despite taking the loss.

The victory pushes the Capitals to 99 points (45-13-9) with 15 games to go in the regular season. They have a 15 point lead on second place Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference (the Pens have a game in hand) and in the race for the President’s Trophy they lead second place San Jose by six points (the Sharks have two games in hand).

Here are the highlights, analysis, and quotes from the victory that puts the Caps just a game away from potentially going over the century mark in points at the earliest point in a season in franchise history:

You might find this surprising, but one of the best players on the ice tonight did not score a point, was even for the game and was not on for any goals against either. This Capital had seven hits, logged 18:59 of ice time (including 4:55 on the penalty kill – 2nd most on the club), and blocked two shots. His defensive partner, John Carlson, had an assist on the Caps first goal by Alexander Semin but #74 and this player, according to the official scorers, changed before #28 buried the puck, which prevented them from getting a plus. In addition this defenseman did a super job of keeping the shooting lanes open for Theodore and he tied up opposing players sticks or bodies in front to deny the Canes from scoring all evening. He also did not take a single penalty. It was one of the best games I have seen this guy play all year so congrats Shaone Morrisonn for a very good performance! I’m pretty sure the coaches will recognize it and if you continue to play like that on a consistent basis the Caps are going to have a really good chance of winning Lord Stanley. So Kudos #26.

As for the rest of the d-men, Mike Green obviously was the most noticeable scoring two power play goals but he tripped Sutter to give the Cane a penalty shot and he also made a terrible giveaway that allowed Chad Larose to set up Tuomo Ruutu for the goal that knotted this one at two goals apiece in period two. #52, who was on the ice with partner Jeff Schultz for two of the three Carolina goals, led Washington in ice time logging 26:22 but was -1. #55 did not have one of his better games as he was slow to the puck on the play that eventually led to Green’s d-zone blunder and he screened Theodore on the Hurricanes third goal (power play tally). Joe Corvo and Tom Poti were okay as a pair on Wednesday with my biggest problem being that they were the duo that allowed Whitney to break in the clear on #60 a couple of times.

“He had two goals and a beautiful assist, but the assist was to the other team. His idea was right, but he was just being too casual and trying to finesse the puck in there. Everything that is passed has to be a hard pass. It has to be, it’s the only way it works,” said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau, who was clearly critical of #52’s brutal giveaway.

Up front, Semin (goal, +1, 5 shots on net) continues to own Carolina and he has three goals in three contests played against them this season, and 22 goals in 27 career games. #28 created a lot of opportunities with Brendan Morrison and Fleischmann. Morrison, who struggled against Tampa last Thursday was much better tonight and if he could just finish on some of his opportunities his season could end up being more like what we saw from him in the first 35 games. Belanger (1 assist, +1) and Brooks Laich (1 assist in 18:58) also had solid evenings. Alexander Ovechkin had an assist in 21:23 but his timing with Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble was slightly off and all were minus players on the night (Knuble was -2). However, since the Great #8 donned the “C” the Caps are a staggering 21-2-3.

Special teams played a big role in this one and Washington’s much maligned penalty killing allowed another goal but was better going 4 for 5. The team was much more aggressive on the puck and didn’t allow the Canes to get set up very often. The Caps power play was a difference maker going 2 for 4 with the only blemish being the trip by #52 that resulted in a penalty shot. The Capitals are now 13-2-2 on the season when they score two or more power-play goals.

“[The] power play was very effective tonight and our p-kill [penalty kill] I felt was a lot better. We gave up a goal, but they made a good play and things are going to happen, we just need to make an adjustment. But I felt that our penalty kill was the best penalty kill since I came over here,” said Belanger.

With 15 fowards and 8 defenseman Boudreau continues to rotate players in and out with Eric Fehr and Jason Chimera joining the frequently scratched Quintin Laing up front while John Erskine joined the other usual defensive scratch, Tyler Sloan, in the press box on Wednesday. Clearly it is a tough thing to do to keep moving guys in and out but in the long run this will pay off for the Caps in the playoffs by keeping guys more fresh and thus making them less likely to get injured.

“It is March 10th and the playoffs don’t start until about April 18th so I don’t want to set the lineup and then have someone get hurt and have to put someone in who has been out for 30 days…so I don’t like it, but as long as we can, we’ll keep rotating guys in and out of the line-up,” added Boudreau on his game to game logic on who plays and who sits.

The Capitals have scored first in each of their five games after the Olympic break and are now 30-6-5 on the year when they are the initial ones to light the lamp. Next up for the Caps are the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night at the Verizon Center. The Caps will clinch their third straight Southeast Divsion title, a race that has pretty much been over since November, if the Atlanta Thrashers lose on Thursday or if the Caps pick up a point in their next tilt against the Bolts.

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Caps Knock Off Sabres, 3-1, on Wild Deadline Day

Posted on 04 March 2010 by Ed Frankovic

On a wild NHL trade deadline day that saw Caps GM George McPhee make four separate deals, the Washington Capitals opened up their post Olympics break in Buffalo, a place the franchise has struggled in like no other. Making matters seemingly worse was that Washington was going to have to face the 2010 Olympic MVP, Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, in his first post-Olympics start in his own building. Miller (37 saves) was very good, as expected, but the Capitals were the better team on the night and broke a 1-1 tie on Mike Green’s goal off of a super Tomas Fleischmann feed just past the 10 minute mark of the third period. Then fourth line grinder and penalty killing specialist Boyd Gordon banked one off of the boards the length of the rink and into an empty net with 41 seconds remaining to seal a Capitals 3-1 victory.

The win pushes the Caps to 42-13-8 overall and restores their 13 point lead over the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference with 19 games remaining. Washington now owns a three point lead on the San Jose Sharks in the race for the President’s Trophy. Let’s start with the highlights, quotes, and analysis of this victory and then I’ll provide some quotes and analysis on the trades the Caps made today.

Washington started slowly in this one taking two minor penalties and getting outshot 7-3 in the opening 10 minutes. After that, the Capitals dominated territorially holding a 37-17 shots advantage over the last 50 minutes. Even though the score was 1-1 in the second period you could see that the Caps were winning almost every battle.

“I think the rustiness was we were shorthanded for four minutes and guys just needed to get their legs going. I told them that was our best game in 10 games..by far our best game defensively where we didn’t leave the goalie out to dry too many times,” said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau summarizing the victory.

Defensively the Caps were much more sound and another factor in the victory, I thought, was Washington’s superior conditioning and one can’t help but point to Boudreau’s practice regimen that started last Wednesday, February 24. The Caps could have won this one in bigger fashion, though, if not for some overpassing and an inability to convert on odd man rushes.

“Six good practices I thought and [our team] got back to the basics and [Buffalo] turned the puck over so many times in the neutral zone from our pressure that if we could have scored on our 2 on 1’s we would have had an easier game,” added Boudreau attributing the solid play to time spent at Kettler Ice Plex while noting the bad execution by his team in finishing off their potential scoring opportunities.

The best line on the ice for Washington was the Fleischmann, Eric Fehr, and Jason Chimera unit. They were each plus two on the evening and set up the only two markers that beat Miller. Flash, despite not getting an assist, made the play behind the Sabres net to set up Jeff Schultz for a point blast that was first deflected by Fehr and then tipped again by Chimera to open the scoring. On the game winner #14 carried the puck into the offensive zone on a nice rush then hit a streaking Green in the slot and the 2009 Norris Trophy finalist whipped it past Team USA’s superstar goaltender.

The Gordon-Dave Steckel-Matt Bradley line was also very good on Wednesday so it was nice to see #15 rewarded with an empty net marker.

“That whole line was really good tonight, evidentally with 15 forwards they don’t want to sit out, so they were showing that they want to play and they’re highly energetic and very smart defensively,” commented Boudreau on his fourth line and the threat of them losing ice time due to the trades made on Wednesday.

As for Alexander Ovechkin and his linemates, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Knuble, they had some chances but mostly did not convert due to overpassing. Ovechkin struggled all night to get shots off (he only had 4 on goal) as did fellow Team Russia comrade Alexander Semin (2 shots on goal). Boudreau had an explanation for the lack of production.

“[Ovechkin] looked a little tired, I don’t think it had anything to do with disappointment. I thought all of our Olympian guys looked tired and all our other guys gave us lots of energy,” added Boudreau, although Fleischmann could be considered the lone “Olympic” exception to that statement.

Finally, this game is not a win without another super effort by Jose Theodore in goal (23 saves). #60 made the big save when he had to and did not allow many rebounds. The only tally that went by him was the result of a defensive zone miscommunication between Brooks Laich and Green that caused the puck to pinball around and right onto Jochen Hecht’s stick in the slot.

The Caps will fly home on Wednesday night and take on the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Verizon Center on Thursday evening at 7pm. Three of the four players acquired on Wednesday (forwards Scott Walker and Eric Belanger plus defenseman Joe Corvo) should get in the line-up while defenseman Milan Jurcina is out with a sports hernia and likely won’t be ready for action until the playoffs.

In my blog on Tuesday night about the trade deadline and the Caps, I mentioned the holes the team seemed to have but also pointed out that Washington had great team chemistry that they did not want to disrupt. To address the weaknesses, it was noted that some of the team’s young players were likely off limits. Well, what GM George McPhee and his staff managed to do today was follow the plan that the GM had been preaching to the media all along:  Improve the club if they can but don’t allow it to subtract from being good next year. Based on the moves McPhee made today combined with what some other contenders did or did not do, Washington’s chances to win their first Stanley Cup have improved.

The Philadlephia Flyers, who were touted as being a top team in the East after acquiring Chris Pronger last summer, did not add a goalie and they will go with Michael Leighton in net, a guy the Capitals have rarely had trouble solving. In addition, the Flyers were in the running for Corvo but Washington beat them to the punch. The Devils already made their big splash before the Olympic break adding Ilya Kovalchuk and the Penguins tried to improve their squad with d-man Jordan Leopold and forward Alexei Ponikarovsky on Tuesday. Getting the players the Caps acquired it appears that they gained ground on their pursuers but the Washington GM said what those teams did was not a factor in how he and his staff operated on Wednesday.

“You look at a Kovalchuk, we have those kind of players, and you look at a Ponikarovsky and we have have four left wingers and who does he replace? Basically, what it comes down to is we look at the positions we want to sure up. It is hard to go over someone so you look to fill the holes you have. We wanted to add a top 4 D and add another center who is good on face-offs and has speed and can play both ends of the rink. We got both of those guys [in Corvo and Belanger] and then to add Walker and Juice was nice,” added McPhee on the transactions Washington made on Wednesday.

Addressing team chemistry and an in game incident that occurred between Chimera and Belanger earlier in the season when #25 was a Blue Jacket and the man who will wear #18 was with Minnesota, the Washington GM was confident the deals he made would not cause any locker room friction.

“It’s not a concern. In our business guys play hard against each other and often when they become teammates they are the first two guys to go to dinner together. It is a contact sport but people end up on the same team and they become teammates so I am not worried about [past Belanger-Chimera incident] and we moved one player off of our team so we kept our team basically intact and we have alot of good guys and a lot of committed people that want to win a Cup,” said the former Hobey Baker Award winner that goes to the nation’s top collegiate player.

As for each individual move, it is hard to not see the logic the GM had for making each deal and here is what he had to say about them, in the order they occurred:

Walker trade:

“Scott Walker is tough, tougher than me, and he is a guy that we can play up and down the line-up. We drafted him as a defenseman in Vancouver,” commented McPhee on the versatile Walker, who some hockey announcers compared to the Caps GM from a hard nosed while on the ice standpoint.

Belanger deal:

“We talked about [how loaded the Penguins are down the middle] a lot and we like his experience and ability to shut people down but he’s on pace for 18 goals this year and that’s fine. He can help us on our penalty killing and we just got another guy who is hard to play against,” added McPhee on a player Boudreau projects to be the team’s third line center.

Jurcina addition:

“He had success here in our system. We know Juice, I know Walker, and Bruce knows Belanger and Corvo so we know the personalities that we are getting.”

Corvo acquisition:

“Brian Pothier was a good guy and I want to thank him for everything he did for us but we thought Corvo would be a little bit better for us.”

One area where the Caps did not make a move was in goal, something many pundits, who don’t watch this team on a day to day basis like many of us locally do, were calling for Washington to upgrade.

“We are happy with our goaltending. We’ve got two young kids in Varly (Semyon Varlamov) and (Michal) Neuvirth and an experienced one in Theodore and (Braden) Holtby is playing alot. People asked alot about (the three young goaltenders) but they are untouchables, we were not moving those goalies,” McPhee said on what looks to be the best young goaltending trio in any NHL system.

The Capitals GM was not surprised that there were “no huge deals” made and he said draft choices were the asking price in many transactions. Washington gave up two second round picks plus sixth and seventh round markers, as well. The key for Washington was not losing any of the three goalies nor their top two defensemen prospects in Karl Alzner and John Carlson.

“These days it is hard to make trades and going in I didn’t sense any big trades happening. 2nd round picks were the currency of the day. We had an untouchable list and we didn’t give away any of those players.  I don’t think [giving up 4 picks] does hurt us, we’ve had a lot of picks recently and we have a lot of young talent in our system and I’m really pleased with the way we’ve been drafting. We’ve done well with the [Stefan] Della Rovere’s, the Cody Eakins, [Dmitri] Orlov, so we have a lot of kids coming,” commented McPhee on the importance of youth in the organization.

Today was definitely the day where moving the contracts for Michael Nylander and Chris Clark really paid off. After the trade deadline a team can carry as many players as they want as long as they stay under the salary cap. Washington now has 15 forwards, 8 defenseman plus Jurcina on IR and Alzner in Hershey, and three goalies (counting Neuvirth in Hershey as well). Prior to the lockout, when there was no salary cap, typically teams with a big budget could stockpile players for the post season. McPhee has now found a way to do this post lockout setting the Caps up to handle any injuries much better than they were able to react in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring.

“We’re real deep now, we have alot of players. Bruce and I talked about if we wanted to move people out, but we have the cap space to keep everybody..so let’s keep everybody and we did all of this with the playoffs in mind,” said McPhee on the logic in adding so much depth to the team, which will give Boudreau some minor headaches in trying to figure out which players to dress each night.

Overall this was a tremendous win for the Capitals on NHL deadline day. Not only did they get a top four defenseman and add depth to their lineup, they did not take on any players that have any more years on their contract. Each guy acquired is a free agent this summer, something McPhee said factored into the decision making process in trades.

“There was one guy [we looked at that was not a free agent this summer] but we just didn’t want to take on any term. We are a good team now and we will be in September so we didn’t want to take on any bad contracts and with respect to the cap we will be in good shape. That is why I am really happy today, we made our team better today and we are going to be really good again next September,” finished McPhee.

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Caps Eyeing 1st Ever President’s Trophy?

Posted on 25 February 2010 by Ed Frankovic

With 20 games to go in the 2009-10 regular season the Washington Capitals are in a position they have never been in before: 1st place overall in the National Hockey League. The Caps, with a 41-13-8 record, have a one point lead over the San Jose Sharks and a three point advantage over the Chicago Blackhawks (who have a game in hand) in the race for the President’s Trophy. In addition to the trophy, first place in the NHL regular season carries with it home ice advantage for the entire playoffs as well as a $250,000 $350,000  bonus to the organization (h/t @JapersRink). So even though Washington seemingly has the Eastern Conference locked up (they have a 13 point lead over second place New Jersey) there appears to be much to play for down the stretch.

Two years ago, after Bruce Boudreau took over as head coach, Washington basically had to run the gauntlet to make the post season going 11-1 down the stretch to win the Southeast Division on the last game of the season before losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in overtime of game seven in the first round of the playoffs. Last season, Washington had a very good regular season and cruised from March and into April knowing they were going to be the two or three seed in the East. Then they struggled in the initial part of their first round series before rallying from a three games to one deficit to defeat the Rangers, eventually losing to the Stanley Cup Champion Penguins in round two, and once again in seven games.

So with 1st place in the Eastern Conference seemingly locked up and facing a tough upcoming 20 games over 40 days stretch, I talked to a couple of Caps on Wednesday to get their take on what they want to improve on, what they hope to accomplish before the post season, and if they are thinking about the possibility of capturing first place overall at the end of the year for the first time ever in Washington.

Forward Mike Knuble was surprised to hear about the Capitals current lead in the East and then provided some rationale as to why they have done so well.

“13 points? Is that what it is between first and second? This time when we come back maybe we’ll start watching the standings more because maybe you are anticipating who you might get in the first round but even that is going to fluctuate until the last day. I broke in the league with Detroit and they were President’s Trophy winning teams but I don’t remember a lead this big, our play wire to wire has just been so consistent, we haven’t fluctuated too much, we just kind of plugged along, won a ton of games…guys have been really consistent even with a few injuries here and there and guys have gotten suspended and other players have stepped up and played really well so it’s been a fun group,  a fun year,” said the first year Capitals right wing, who has notched 23 goals in 50 games this season.

Knuble, who was on that Flyers team that defeated the Caps in the 2008 post season, when asked what the Caps could improve on felt that Washington needs to get back to dominating from the opening face-off, like they did for much of the early portion of this season.

“Our starts have been not so great even during that streak we were still pulling out games. Some of our starts were suspect and just a little bit better level of play for 60 minutes…our resolve when we do get down and ability to come back is uncanny. I don’t know how you put a finger on it but we have a great will to win and those are great things to have because we know it is not like the end of the world if we do go down. I’ve never played on a team that thinks that way, that just wills themselves to win games,” added #22.

“We want to be the best team and set yourself up come playoff time and give yourself any edge you can. I think we want to do more of the same, keep playing hard, keep playing well, and just try to be the best, that is what we want to do,” added right wing Boyd Gordon on the prospect of winning the President’s Trophy. 

Knuble, though, made a point to say that the Capitals goals go far beyond the regular season.

“Guys have bigger goals than a good regular season so [the President’s Trophy] will just be the first little thing we are trying to achieve and then there will be more to go. But to play well, take care of ourselves then we’ll get [first overall]. So now we have such a big lead and you say ‘what’s there to play for?’ But it is up to the guys in the room, keeping things honest, the coaching staff does a good job of keeping things honest and not letting things slide. There’s always something to work on, there’s always a bigger picture to work for so these guys have been around and tasted a little bit of playoff success and I think we are ready for more,” said the man who has 15 goals in the last 22 games playing on the first line with Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.

Gordon also pointed out that there is still about 25% of the regular season to go and that Washington can not get complacent.

“I think 20 games is still a lot of season and a lot can happen so we know in this league it is tough to win every night so we are not going to take things for granted, we are going to play hard and not get into bad habits if we have a big lead going into the playoffs. So it is one of those things where you have to be ready to go again and be in playoff form,” added the 2002 Caps first round draft pick (one of three first round selections that year), who is also one of Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau’s top penalty killing specialists.

As Boudreau has stated recently, the Olympic break came at a good time for his squad. Now with Ovechkin, Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Semyon Varlamov, and Tomas Fleischmann all eliminated from medal contention those guys can get a quick recharge before joining their well rested teammates back at practice (it sounds like the Olympians who played will be back on Sunday with Varlamov likely on the ice on Saturday).

“The break will serve us well too, a couple of guys are injured, one guy had surgery over the break, and as long as these guys come back from the Olympics in a good frame of mind and good health we’ll be okay,” finished Knuble on how he sees the stretch run playing out for the Capitals.

Another hot topic over the next week will be the NHL trade deadline. Caps General Manager George McPhee is in a different position than he was last year at this time in that he has lots of salary cap room and doesn’t have any major roster limits that might prevent him from moving a draft pick for a player. The problem though, this season, is that there aren’t a lot of teams in sell mode which will likely drive acquisition prices up. Toronto, Carolina, Edmonton, Columbus, Florida, and the New York Islanders appear to be the primary sellers at this point. Even though McPhee has much more flexibility this season, it doesn’t mean he will make a deal or two, but you can bet that the players are aware of what is going on as a critical day in the NHL season arrives next week.

“I guess you always have to assume they are going to [make trades], until they don’t. I’m glad it is not my job to make those decisions,” said Knuble on the typical mindset of the player before the deadline and the challenges he sees for McPhee in trying to help bring the Capitals organization its first ever Stanley Cup.

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Caps Back at Practice, Ready for Stretch Drive

Posted on 25 February 2010 by Ed Frankovic

After a 10 day Olympic break, the Washington Capitals hit the ice at Kettler Ice Plex on Wednesday afternoon for practice without the five players who were still competing in the Olympics as of this afternoon (Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Semyon Varlamov, Tomas Fleischmann, and Nicklas Backstrom). Before Washington went on break they followed a club record 14 game winning streak with three losses in a row on the road, although one defeat (Montreal) came in overtime and another (St. Louis) occurred in the shootout. Boudreau blamed the losses on “sloppy” play, and rightfully so, but injuries also played a role in the last three games. Jason Chimera, who injured a groin and missed all three defeats, practiced today but the Caps coach had him exit early in an attempt to get him 100% for the Buffalo Sabres next Wednesday, March 3rd, when the Capitals resume their NHL schedule. In addition, Mike Green said he was totally healed from his bumps and bruises while his fellow defensemen Tom Poti and Shaone Morrisonn all appear recovered from their ailments.

Without the full squad Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau did a lot of drills and mini-games followed by 15 minutes of skating to close out the session. Many of the players, who didn’t skate at all during the break, were gassed by the end of what the 2007-08 Jack Adams Trophy deemed an easier practice then they will face on Thursday. Overall the mood in the Washington dressing room following today’s session was very loose and relaxed.

“It’s good to be back, feels good to be back around the guys here and reminisce on where everybody went, it’s good to get back on the ice and get started again,” said Caps defenseman Jeff Schultz about today’s return from the break, “Today was just trying to get the legs and mind back and in a hockey mode here and beginning each day we are going to ramp it up a bit harder and try and get back to the fundamentals and go from there,” added #55 on what he sees the team accomplishing with practices on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday before heading to Buffalo.

Even when the Caps were in the midst of that winning streak, Boudreau, in his pressers with the media, said he warned the players about “bad habits.” I asked the man nicknamed “Sarge” what he thought the head coach meant by “sloppy play.”

“Just kind of the small details, our defensive zone, our forecheck, maybe just guys being out of position or waiting an extra second before making their decision, it is kind of stuff like that and we were missing a couple of guys,” stated the man who is second in the NHL in plus/minus at +37 (trails Ovechkin, who is at +43). 

One area the Capitals are hoping to improve on before the playoffs is their penalty killing. Currently they rank 25th overall in the league at 79.1% but a look inside the numbers shows quite a disparity between their ability to do so at home versus away. In DC the Caps are 4th in the NHL killing 98 of 112 (87.5%) shorthanded situations while away from the friendly confines of the Verizon Center they are 29th overall, stopping only 99 of 137 (72.4%) chances. So why the big difference between home and away?

The Caps have played 29 home games and 33 on the road and their average number of shorthanded situations per game (3.86/gm at home vs. 4.15/gm on the road) doesn’t shed any light on the disparity. At home the Capitals players, when taking face-offs, can place their stick down second giving them an advantage on winning draws, which allows the team to clear the puck right away and kill precious time, so that might be a factor. However, I find it hard to believe that alone is the reason for the difference. Playing in the Phone Booth with the crowd behind them has to help some too, but still, the home vs. away PK percentage delta is certainly an eye opener. I spoke with both Schultz and forward Boyd Gordon about the penalty killing and if they had any ideas on the reasons why it was so much better at home.

“I don’t know what it is, we’ve talked about that and we are doing the right things it’s just that sometimes they get some lucky bounces, our system is put in place well and some nights we are good and some nights we are bad, but I think we are working hard out there, doing whatever we can, like blocking shots and stuff,” said Schultz.

“I wish I knew, it’s one of those things where it can’t be, there shouldn’t be that much discrepancy. I mean if you want to win in the playoffs you obviously can’t be really good in one place and terrible in the next, we’d like to be good at both, home and away, but it is one of those things that we have to be better on and we know that our power play is so good that if we can shut down the other team’s power play we have a better chance of winning,” said Gordon.

“I think in PK it helps to win the draw, obviously, and it helps tremendously to not let the other team get set up. Before the break obviously our numbers weren’t that good but we seem to have stretches where it is really good for 6, 7 games and then we’ll have that one game where we give up 3 or 4 and that just kills the numbers, so if we can just keep away from having those really bad games we’d be more consistent and alot better off, we’ll be great for 6 games and then the Rangers go 4 for 7 on us and it just kills the percentages” added the 2002 first round draft pick.

Despite the issues with killing penalties on the road, Washington still has an insurmountable 13 point lead in the Eastern Conference plus a one point lead over the San Jose Sharks for the President’s Trophy, which is awarded to the team with the best record at the end of the regular season. Improving their game and being first overall is something that Schultz says will motivate the team over the last 20 games.

“I think getting a good foundation for our fundamentals and our system. Be really sharp in playing them each game. We want to be first in the league. That’s been a goal of ours and anytime you are first place that is where you want to be,” said #55 when discussing the team’s focus areas for the stretch run.

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Semin Gets Hat Trick but Caps Lose Again

Posted on 11 February 2010 by Ed Frankovic

The Olympic Break can not come soon enough for the Washington Capitals. After their 14 game winning streak was snapped in Montreal on Tuesday night in overtime the Caps had to face a very hot Ottawa Senators club (winners of 12 of 13 prior to this one) on Wednesday evening and despite a hat trick from Alexander Semin they were defeated 6-5 at Scotiabank Place. The Capitals are banged up (Tom Poti, Shaone Morrisonn, and Jason Chimera all were out with injuries/ailments) and a tired team at this point but they still have a 14 point lead in the Eastern Conference with 21 games left in the season. They fall to 41-13-7 (89 points) and will play in St. Louis on Saturday before the NHL shuts down for the Vancouver 2010 games.

Let’s get to the highlights, analysis, and quotes:

I am going to make this blog shorter tonight because Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau has been saying for two weeks that his team needs some serious practice time to get back to playing their system and the last two nights have proved him totally correct. So for me to sit here and nitpick this guy or that guy, especially after the team just won 14 straight games, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Let’s start with the total team defense: It was atrocious. Too many giveaways, bad decisions, sitting back too much, etc. You name it and the Caps did it wrong at some point on Wednesday night. Poti and Morrisonn, two of the regular d-men, were out with a groin injury and the flu, respectively, plus John Erskine is playing dinged up. Add in that Karl Alzner, who was recalled from Hershey today (along with forward Chris Bourque) had to endure a day of planes, trains, and automobiles, and you can see why the mental focus and execution was not there. Still no excuse and those in the camp of “Caps need to add a defenseman before the trade deadline” have gained alot of ammuniton after the last several games.

Semyon Varlamov (22 saves) played his first game since December 7th and outside of the first 18 minutes in the second period, he struggled big time giving up some goals in which he was not screened. He did not get much help from his defense and two of the goals were power play tallies (Ottawa scored on both of their man advantage situations while the Caps did not score on either of theirs). Boudreau lit into both his defense and his goalie after the game.

 “Our thought our defense was horrible and our goaltending was horrible. You can use whatever term you want I don’t think [Varlamov] was ready to play. The puck is going through the legs, he’s been making that save since he was 7 years old so unless his memory bank has lost it he should have made the save,” started Boudreau, “The giveaways part from our defense were more horrible than the goaltending and I didn’t think the goaltending was good,” finished Boudreau on the defense and goaltending.

Washington has been extremely sloppy lately and Boudreau has noted, on several occassions, even during the winning streak, that the team was trending down (he talked about this after the victory over Tampa Bay on January 31) and bad habits were become more and more apparent.

“[Bad habits] have been creeping in for about 7 games now and I’ve been telling them every friggin night about bad habits. The break can’t come soon enough for me, where we can get 5 or 6 good days of practice and get back on track here. It’s tough to practice when you have 3 games in 4 nights,” added Boudreau on the problems and the solution to correcting them.

Semin, who was pretty much a no show in Montreal and didn’t do alot against the Penguins on Sunday except draw a penalty that set up the game winning goal, was on tonight. #28 scored three goals on Ottawa’s Brian Elliott (19 saves), added an assist on Tomas Fleischmann’s tally (the Caps first of the evening), and fired nine shots on the cage in just over 18 minutes of ice time. He also had 6 shots blocked something that the Senators defense, especially Anton Volchenkov (11 blocks), do very well while the Caps didn’t work hard enough to put themselves in position to thwart shot attempts.

The shots on goal in this one were low (28-24 Sens) because Ottawa did such a good job of not letting Washington get the puck through to Elliott, who was not on his game either. Boudreau commented on that as well.

 “Their goalie wasn’t very good either but they got more shots so they scored more goals,” finished Boudreau on the sloppy contest.

Clearly there is no need to panic, but team defense is something Washington will need to pay more attention to if they want to win the Stanley Cup. Brooks Laich has repeatedly talked about his team sticking to its system if they want to get where Pittsburgh got to last year. Right now, Washington is nowhere close to playing their system. The only reason they’ve been able to win or stay in games the last two nights has been because of their high skill level and great goaltending (up until tonight). At the end of the day, I thought Alan May of Comcast summed up the Caps situation, in respect to getting ready for the post season over these last 21 games, best.

“It is time to put an end to the madness in the d-zone,” said May.

Notes: Alex Ovechkin, who played 29+ plus minutes in Montreal logged nearly 27 minutes in Ottawa & looked tired. He had an assist, but only had 1 shot on goal and took a bad penalty in the 3rd period for interference (slid Mike Fisher’s stick away from him while it laid on the ice)..Fleischmann (-3) was on the ice for all four even strength goals (thanks for that one Japers Rink!)..Flash also struggled in face-offs going 2 and 9 and Ottawa’s second tally by Milan Michalek came after #14 lost a draw to Jason Spezza..Spezza had a goal and two assists but was a -2..Washington has hat tricks in three straight games (Ovechkin, Laich, Semin) but surprisingly have lost the last two games. Before those two losses the Caps had won the previous eight games in which they notched a hat trick (h/t to Caps Sr. Media Relations Director Nate Ewell for that stat)…the Caps-Canadiens game on Tuesday night set Comcast viewing records in the greater DC/Baltimore area scoring a 5.8 rating, which translates to an average audience of 148,00 households.

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Streak Over: Caps Rally, Then Lose in OT, 6-5

Posted on 11 February 2010 by Ed Frankovic

With a 14 game winning streak in tow the Washington Capitals headed to Montreal to take on the Canadiens in one of the toughest buildings to play in the NHL. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau had been warning everyone that the team has been sloppy lately and he was prophetic on Wednesday night as Washington made several mistakes in their own zone and took several bad penalties. As a result they fell into a 5-2 hole after two periods, put on a furious rally in the third period to tie the game at 5 with 18 seconds left, and then lost with eight seconds to go in overtime on another defensive zone breakdown. The loss snaps the third longest streak in NHL history in addition to one of the most exciting winning runs I have ever witnessed in all of sports.

“It’s over, it was a great run, when only two teams have gotten better than you in that situation in all of hockey it is a great run. That is why the guys are so deflated, they were really trying in the third period and when they scored with [18] seconds to go you could see the excitement on the bench. I’m more disappointed because I knew they really wanted it but just didn’t play well enough to win,” said Boudreau after the tough loss.

A tough loss it was and as Coach Boudreau said, the players are deflated. Let’s get to the highlights, injury info, and analysis:

Despite losing the Caps pick up a point in the standings and are now 41-12-7 and maintain their 14 point lead in the Eastern Conference race. With San Jose losing in Columbus on Wednesday they also have a two point lead in the battle for the President’s Trophy (best record in NHL) . The Caps play in Ottawa on Thursday night and then St. Louis on Saturday before the NHL will shut down for two plus weeks for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Coming into this contest Washington was +61 in 5 on 5 play while the Canadiens were -20. Also, the Capitals had not given up a goal in the first minute of any period this season. Unfortunately both of those stats did not back up what happened to Washington on the opening shift as the Caps made several mistakes, including a really bad giveaway by Tom Poti, and Scott Gomez beat Michal Neuvirth short side to make 1-0 just 36 seconds into the contest. Surely this was not a good sign for Washington. The Caps would also give up a tally just 41 seconds into the second period.

The Caps and the Canadiens had the #1 and #2 power plays in the NHL, respectively, so staying out of the box was likely going to be important for both teams. Whether it was the referees, and we will get to their problems in a minute, or sloppy/lazy play the Caps had 7 power plays while Montreal received 5. Both teams scored once on the evening with the man advantage.

Officiating was definitely an issue on Wednesday night and referees Eric Furlatt and Kyle Rehman made some poor decisions, especially when they disallowed what appeared to be a goal by Alexander Ovechkin in the second period that would have cut Montreal’s lead to 4-3. After Habs goalie Carey Price (33 saves) robbed Mike Knuble on a shot down the left wing, the puck bounced into the slot at the feet of Hal Gill. The Great #8 came flying in and hit Gill, with the puck present, and Oveckhkin, Gill, Price, and the puck all went into each other with the biscuit sliding into the cage. The official behind the net immediately ruled it a goal but then after a zebra convention at mid ice they decided to waive the tally off. Bad decision and Scott Morrison and Jeff Marek, both of Hockey Night in Canada, stated via their Twitter accounts that it was a terrible ruling. After the game, Morrison (on Twitter) and Boudreau (in his press conference) stated they were told the goal was wiped out because Price did not have the opportunity to play the puck. Huh? Seems to me his own defenseman went into him as Price was lunging forward out of his crease so I am not sure how they could wave it off? But they did and shortly thereafter the Habs made it 5-2. The linesman did not have a good night either and when watching replays of the fourth Montreal tally it sure looks like Maxim Lapierre is offsides when the puck is brought into Washington’s zone so I am sure that one will be looked at as well by the men in charge of the officials. The words “home cooking” could definitely be used to describe this contest considering those two plays.

On the positive side of things, this was one heck of a come back and Brooks Laich notched his first hat trick (20 goals on season) and just the second one by a Capital all year (Ovechkin’s on Sunday vs. the Penguins was the first). The Caps, who had outscored teams 30-6 in the 3rd period during the streak, won that period 3-0 on Wednesday on a power play goal from Mike Green and the last two Laich tallies.

Neuvirth started this one but left after making 12 saves on 14 shots in just over 25 minutes and according to Boudreau he aggravated a previous injury. Jose Theodore (21 saves) came on in relief and despite getting heckled by his old fans and giving up four goals he made several great stops, including a glove save on Andrei Markov when it was 5-3 that was a thing of beauty. It would have been nice to see #60 keep his 10 game winning streak going and also shut up all of the Montreal fans but he was “left out to dry” by his team, as Boudreau put it after the contest.

Montreal was definitely amped up to try and halt Washington’s streak and Gomez, Brian Gionta, and Cap killer Tomas Plekenac (two goals) all had good games. Plekenac, in fact, scored the game winner when Alexander Semin missed the net at the far end to allow the Habs to come back 2 on 2 and when Brian Pothier and Jeff Schultz appeared to miscommunicate #14 went to the net eluding Sarge and he tapped in Sergei Kostitsyin’s pass. Schultz, who is second to Oveckin in NHL +/-, had one of the worst games he’s had all season in defeat. However, he was not the only one who struggled as Poti (-2, left game in the 3rd period due to injury and is day-to-day according to Boudreau), Erskine (-2), and Shaone Morrisonn had some issues defensively. Boudreau didn’t blame it all on the defensemen saying that the “Forwards were lazy in our zone too.” Brendan Morrison took two penalties and was -1 in just over 12 minutes of ice time. #9 is struggling big time right now and he clearly missed left wing Jason Chimera (day to day with a groin pull).

Semin, who was a guy who had been playing the best hockey of his career up until Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh, had another off night. #28 routinely turned the puck over, missed the net on numerous shots, and took a bad penalty. Perhaps his mind is on Vancouver and Team Russia’s chances in next week’s Olympics?

Skater-wise for Washington several guys stood out with good games in Laich (3 goals), Green (1 goal, 1 assist in 30:52 of ice time), Ovechkin (2 assists, +1 in 29:30 of time), Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist), and Knuble (1 assist). Is there a better top line in hockey right now than Ovie-Backstrom-Knuble? I don’t think so.

With Neuvirth injured, Semyon Varlamov on the road trip, and the winning streak now over, I would bet that Varly gets a start, probably in St. Louis. To me that is very important for this team and the young goalie as they get ready for the all important post season that starts in April. Keep in mind that Varly was 12-1-2 and the clear #1 Caps goalie before he injured his groin on December 7th (and he subsequently injured his knee in Hershey on a rehabilitation assignment). Now he will likely battle Theodore for the right to start game 1 of the playoffs. Theo has been great over the last month plus but if Varlamov gets healthy, based on his performance in last year’s playoffs, he would be my choice to start things off. But there are still two more months of hockey before that decision needs to be made by Boudreau and GM George McPhee.

This Caps team sure is exciting and if you think it was nerve racking in the third period and overtime with the streak on the line, just wait until the postseason starts! Washington is a very good and entertaining club and they should be proud of an incredible winning streak that has taken interest in an already exceptional hockey team to a new level in the entire DC-Maryland-Virginia area. I look forward to seeing the ratings from Wednesday’s loss because they likely broke more Comcast Caps viewing records. Finally, look no further than this Twitter post from Marek (Hockey Night in Canada Radio host on Sirius 127 M-F from 4-7 pm) to me after the game to sum up what even people outside of this region are saying about the Caps:

“Great run, great streak. The most fun team in the NHL to watch right now, hands down.”

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Caps & NHL News / Ovechkin Named NHL 1st Star of Week

Posted on 08 February 2010 by Ed Frankovic

Caps News

The Caps were given Monday off after playing three games in four nights (and four in six as well) and have moved Tuesday’s practice at Kettler Ice Plex forward to 9 am in an attempt to beat another snowstorm that is headed into this region on Tuesday afternoon. Washington plays in Montreal on Wednesday, Ottawa on Thursday, and finally St. Louis on Saturday before stopping for the Olympic break. Five Capitals will take part in the Olympics (Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Semyon Varlamov with Russia; Nicklas Backstrom with Sweden; and Tomas Fleischmann with the Czech Republic).

The Caps have won 14 straight and can tie the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins for 17 victories in a row if they defeat all three opponents this week but with each contest on the road it will be a tough order, especially the back to back tilts in Quebec Canada.

Effective this Friday, February 12th, the NHL will not allow any trades again until March 1, which is after the Olympic break concludes. The actual trade deadline is Wednesday, March 3rd so there are exactly 7 days left before no more deals can be made. There has been much talk of the Capitals needing to add a goalie or a defenseman from fans and media locally as well as around the league. Personally, with Jose Theodore, Semyon Varlamov, and Michal Neuvirth in net I see no need for GM George McPhee to go out and acquire a veteran goalie, such as someone like Marty Turco. On defense, Washington has nine players that are NHL calibre defensemen to include Mike Green, Tom Poti, Jeff Schultz, Brian Pothier, Shaone Morrisonn, John Erskine, Karl Alzner, Tyler Sloan, and John Carlson. Therefore, unless McPhee is presented with a great offer I can’t see him making a move on the blue line.

What I do see a need for, however, is another center because after Backstrom on the top line, Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau has been going with Tomas Fleischmann on the 2nd unit and Brendan Morrisonn on the third. Both guys have played well this season but have slowed their scoring pace recently. It should be noted that #14 and #9 are not big, physical centers and do have some recent injury history. Therefore, I believe McPhee needs to acquire another pivot for depth as well as in anticipation of a potential matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who go Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal, 1-2-3, respectively, at center. The NHL Playoffs are a two month ordeal for those that reach the Stanley Cup Finals and with the level of intensity the post season brings, injuries are bound to happen so a team must have solid depth to win the Cup.

The good news is McPhee has lots of salary cap space to work with and he can take on a rental or a two. The bad news is the crop of potential centers seems pretty thin because good ones are hard to find and teams typically hang on to them once they get them. I have gone over the NHL center list several times and just don’t see many available fits for Washington. Three weeks back I mentioned a guy like Shawn Horcoff, who can skate and is big, would be a nice fit but immediately dismissed it due to his contract and price. The Michigan State alum is locked up long term and making too much money to go after (signed through 2014-15 at $5.5M per season). I did see two names on the list of players who are unrestricted free agents that might be good stretch drive and playoff rentals but they are admittedly past their prime. Mike Modano (39) of Dallas and Doug Weight (38) of the Islanders have extensive playoff and international experience and are still good pivot men. The question is would they be available (Weight likely will be while Modano is a question mark) and would they fit in a locker room that has extremely good chemistry right now?  Mike Comrie (28) of Edmonton is another possible option but he isn’t exactly a big center (only 5 foot 10). Comrie, who has already played for 5 NHL teams (Edmonton, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Ottawa, and the Islanders), just recently returned to the line-up after he missed numerous games due to a bout with mono. For the record, I have no inside information that the Caps are even interested in any of these players, this is merely my look at a position that appears to be one of need for Washington.

Roster decisions at this time are tough ones and that is why McPhee gets paid the big bucks, to figure out the right moves (or correct non-moves) necessary to bring a very talented Capitals team their first Stanley Cup.

NHL News

Bob Gainey resigned as GM of the Montreal Canadiens today and will be replaced, apparently long term based on what he told Jeff Marek on Hockey Night in Canada Radio today, by Pierre Gauthier. Gainey was in the last year of his contract and I had heard rumblings of him stepping down from a source close to him as far back as December 2008 so I was not surprised at the news. Gainey will remain on as an advisor for the Habs and he has to be happy that they went with his replacement choice in Gauthier. Gauthier was GM of the Ottawa Senators from 1995-1998 and GM of the Anaheim Ducks from 1998-2002. In the summer of 2003, Gauthier joined Montreal as Director of Professional Scouting and then in the summer of 2006, he was named Assistant General Manager while keeping the responsibilities attached to professional scouting.

It has been mentioned for weeks on hockey radio shows and web sites that the Penguins are looking for some wingers to go with their talented centers and today speedy left wing Ethan Moreau (34) of Edmonton is rumored to be possibly heading to Pittsburgh in a deal. However, that same source (@NHLSourcesSay on Twitter) said the deal may be held up by the Pens additional interest in Leafs left wing Alexei Ponikarovsky (29). Rumors are just that, so you need to take them for what they are worth (sometimes not much), but I will be surprised if the Penguins don’t add a forward or two to help their struggling power play since they could use some players who go to the net.

It has been a week since the Calgary Flames completed two huge trades sending Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom, and prospect Keith Aulie to the Maple Leafs for Ian White, Jamal Mayers, Matt Stajan, and Nik Hagman in one deal and then Olli Jokinen and Brandon Prust to the Rangers for Christopher Higgins and Ales Kotalik in the other, and the moves still don’t make alot of sense to me from a Flames standpoint. I know things weren’t working for GM Darryl Sutter’s team but outside of gaining about $4M in salary cap space next season I don’t see how he improved his hockey club? Phaneuf, who has had a couple of rough years, is still a phenomenal talent. Prust is a tough guy who everyone on the team seemed to really like and he brought energy and effort game in and game out. None of the guys Sutter received in return are what I would call positive “difference makers.” I consider Kotalik as one of the worst players in the league when you factor in his current contract (signed through 2011/12 at $3M per season). The guy can’t skate at all and is too streaky. One would have to think Sutter’s job could be in jeopardy if these moves, which smell of panic, don’t work out.

Ovechkin, Backstrom NHL Stars of Week

Fresh off yesterday’s Super Bowl Sunday hat trick performance that propelled the Washington Capitals to a thrilling 5-4 come from behind victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins on NBC, Alexander Ovechkin has been named the NHL 1st star of the week. This is the second time in four weeks and the third time this season that the Great #8 has won the 1st star. It’s the 13th time in his career that he has been named either one of the Three Stars of the Week or NHL Player of the Week. Teammate Nicklas Backstrom has been named the NHL’s Third Star of the Week for the second week in a row; it’s the third time this season and the fourth time in his career that he has been one of the three stars of the week. Toronto Maple Leafs goalie, Jean-Sebastian Giguere, was the second star of the week. Below is the press release from the NHL:

Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin, Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom have been named the NHL ‘Three Stars’ for the week ending Feb. 7.


        Ovechkin led all NHL scorers last week with 10 points (seven goals, three assists) as the Capitals went 4-0-0, extending their franchise-record win streak to 14. Ovechkin notched one goal in a 4-1 victory over the Boston Bruins Feb. 2, recorded two goals and one assist in a 6-5 win over the New York Rangers Feb. 4 and tallied one goal and one assist in a 5-2 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers Feb. 5. He finished the week by recording three goals and one assist in a 5-4 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins Feb. 7. Ovechkin, who has tallied goals in each of his past five games, leads the NHL in goals (42), points (86) and plus-minus (+41). The Capitals 14-game winning streak is a franchise record and matches the third-longest winning streak in NHL history. The last streak longer than 14 games was the Pittsburgh Penguins’ NHL-record 17-game winning streak in 1992-93.


        Acquired from the Anaheim Ducks in a trade Jan. 31, Giguere became the first goaltender in Maple Leafs history to record shutouts in his first two games with the club. He recorded 30 saves as the Maple Leafs defeated the New Jersey Devils 3-0 on Feb. 1 and again stopped 30 shots for his third shutout of the season and 34th of his career in a 5-0 victory over the Ottawa Senators Feb. 5, snapping the Senators’ franchise-record 11-game winning streak. Giguere has posted a 6-8-5 record with a 2.83 goals-against average and .909 save percentage in 22 appearances with Anaheim and Toronto this season.


        Backstrom matched Ovechkin with 10 points last week (two goals, eight assists), climbing to fourth place in the NHL scoring race (25-48–73 in 59 games) and extending his point streak to eight games (4-13–17). Backstrom began the week by notching one assist in a 4-1 victory over the Boston Bruins Feb. 2. He tied a career high with five points (one goal, four assists) in a 6-5 win over the New York Rangers Feb. 4, tallied one goal and one assist in a 5-2 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers Feb. 5 and collected two assists in a 5-4 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins Feb. 7.

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Caps Tie Club Record With 10th Straight Win

Posted on 01 February 2010 by Ed Frankovic

For the first time in nearly 26 years the Washington Capitals have a double digit win streak. Alexander Ovechkin and company fought off a third period surge from the Tampa Bay Lightning at a subdued, but once again sold out Verizon Center to capture their 10th straight and club record-tying victory, by a 3-2 margin. The Great #8 had the game winner with under seven minutes remaining and added a first period assist to run his season totals to 35 goals, 41 assists, and +35 in 47 games. Meanwhile the Caps improve to 37-12-6 (80 points) and widened their Eastern Conference lead to eight points (over New Jersey). The last time Washington won 10 games in a row was during the 1983-84 season and on Tuesday night in Beantown the Caps will try for a franchise record 11 straight victories against the Bruins.

Here are quotes, analysis, and highlights from the record tying win:

Crowd Dead: Home ice has definitely been good to the Caps this year and they are now 21-3-3 at the Phone Booth. Seven of the 10 wins on this streak have come at the often raucous Verizon Center. Today, however, was the quietest I have heard the building since early in the 2007-08 season (pre-Bruce Boudreau era). I don’t know what the deal was but the arena lacked energy. It could have been the boring style of play that the Lightning brought, it could have been the lack of first period scoring chances, or it could have been the 3pm start, who knows? One would think that just the chance to win 10 straight games would have had the fans fired up but they weren’t this afternoon. Whatever the case, the crowd that loves to “Rock the Red” typically is a huge help to Washington but it wasn’t really until the video board played “Unleash the Fury” with eight minutes left that they got into this one. Even still, the arena was at a much lower decible level than normal shortly after Ovechkin put the Caps ahead late in the third period. The head coach definitely noticed the lower decibel levels on Sunday.

“I thought the crowd was quieter than most. [Tampa] came out and all they wanted to do was check and I think they had only one or two scoring chances in the first period. It wasn’t a real up and down tempo. There were a lot of whistles and no penalties, so it was a quiet game in that respect,” said Boudreau on the lack of energy in the building.

Style of Hockey to Expect Going Forward: On Friday night the Caps had to deal with the Panthers trap and today it was an ultra conservative, defense first minded Lightning squad that the high powered Capitals had to defeat. Washington will likely face a lot of this type of play from here on out because teams are afraid of getting into a shootout with such an offensively talented club like the Caps. Boudreau spoke to his team about dealing with that going forward.

“We talked about that they are putting you to sleep and you’ve got to stay strong and this is how some teams will play that we might meet in the playoffs. They are a very defensive minded team,” added Boudreau on Tampa’s style of play.

“The first two periods it was kind of a boring game, both sides, but then in the third they started putting more pressure and they got the skill to come back from a two goal game and that is what they did tonight and they have Vinny [Lecavalier], [Steven] Stamkos, [Martin] St. Louis, all these guys that could score goals and I thought we never panicked tonight, scored the big goal at the end and just played solid D,” said Caps goalie Jose Theodore (25 saves) on the lack of flow and how is team prevailed.

“I would say they dulled the game down is the way to describe it. They didn’t want to match firepower with firepower, especially the way that our offense has been clicking so they tried to beat us another way by chipping pucks deep, keeping pucks low, falling back in the neutral zone, trying to limit our speed. I thought they did a good job of taking away our speed and our offensive chances early on then our power play gets a goal and we were able to get another one after that and just fortunate that we pulled it through at the end,” said forward Brooks Laich, who made it 2-0 Caps in the second period with his 16th tally of the season from three feet out. The goal was set up by a nice passing play between Tomas Fleischmann (2 assists) and Alexander Semin (1 assist).

“I think we are going to see that even more down the stretch here. Teams that we have been playing here are just scraping for points. So none of these teams want to get into a pond hockey game with us, they don’t want to be exchanging chances. They are clamping down and they figure the best way to beat us or get a point is to play well defensively, try to give up as least amount of chances as possible, and hang around for a point. It’s patience really, stick to the game plan, just because you don’t get one early in the game don’t get frustrated, you don’t have to go beating guys one on one on the red line. These teams are waiting for turnovers and try to have a transition game against us but it speaks to the fact that some playoff games might be like this, you are not going to score 4, 5, or 6 goals a night come playoff time so you have to be able to adjust and adapt and play in these tight games,” said center Brendan Morrison, who played the point on the first power play unit with Mike Green out of the lineup due to a three game suspension.

Sloan Excels With Green Out: Tyler Sloan (+1), who played six games in a row for the Caps before sitting out the last four tilts, was very good today in 16:30 of ice time. He  drew a tripping penalty on Alex Tanguay just 5:48 into the contest and he also made a super takeaway on the ultra talented Stamkos in the second period.

“He’s a heckuva a player and he had good speed going wide but I didn’t panic, I just kept backpedaling, I knew he couldn’t cut inside on me so he kept going wide. When you are playing the right side and you’re a left shot, your stick is on that side so it is easier to poke check,” started Sloan on the steal he made against Stamkos. “No, I haven’t, he’s a pretty skilled and he can try just about anything, I just knew he had nowhere to go, he was running out of room and he as soon as he got to the point of no return I turned and pokechecked,” finished #89 when asked if he had ever seen the 2008 1st overall pick in the NHL entry draft try that move before and how he finished the play off.

Sloan enjoyed being paired with the solid Jeff Schultz for the first time since his NHL debut.

“You know what, I think the last time I played with Schultzie was my first game in the NHL in Calgary. I don’t know if we have [played together] since then. Maybe a little bit once in awhile on the PK but not a regular shift since last year. We’re the Calgary connection. Schultzie is a great player, he is easy to play with. We both make the simple play and he is pretty defensive so it allows me to jump up in the play a little bit and use my skating,” added Sloan on his day paired with #55.

I asked Boudreau if #89’s good play carried extra merit because he has been in and out of the line-up so often.

“I think if you look at it’s hard but it shouldn’t be hard, you should be prepared and ready to play. He could have been 30 games in the minors and you come up and your stuck in the lineup and be just as good as anybody on the ice. So we practice all of the time and he’s practicing. That is one aspect of your job when you are the sixth, seventh defenseman is to stay ready because if you are not ready and you get thrown in the game and you don’t do a good job than you don’t continue to stay the sixth or seventh defenseman. That is why Quintin Laing, no matter when I put him in, I know he is gonna be great because he’s ready and he knows his roll and so does Tyler and I thought Tyler played really good, by the way, I’m just saying it’s not something extraordinary that he played good, he should be playing good,” added Boudreau on Sloan.

Goaltending Battle: Theodore was hurt on Long Island this past Tuesday night and Michal Neuvirth stepped in to keep the winning streak alive. Neuvirth’s reward, with #60 healthy again, was a trip to Hershey to try and get in five games with the Bears so he can play in the AHL during the upcoming Olympic break. Theo picked up where he left off before the minor hip injury with a solid peformance. The players are aware of how well the goalies have been playing.

“It is nice to have a couple of guys that you can throw in there. That is a cursed blessing because you have a couple of goalies that are playing well right now but there is only one of them that can play each game so I think it is a good competition. They are pushing each other to play better in net and for us, as players, there is nothing better than playing in front of hot goalies,” added #21 on the excellent goaltending Washington has been receiving during the winning streak.

Face-off Domination Aids Win Again: The Caps once again won the face-off battle, 31-23, but I hadn’t seen today’s ending before. With goalie Mike Smith (28 saves) pulled for an extra attacker the Bolts pressured late and forced several face-offs in Washington’s end. Dave Steckel (5-6 on the day) is the Caps number one man from the dot and he won a draw with 10 seconds left. Tom Poti, who had a solid outing on Sunday, iced the puck taking the game clock down to 2.4 seconds. That set up one final draw for the Lightning to try and tie it. Tampa, as I pointed out to John Keeley (On Frozen Blog) who was sitting next to me in the press box, had been cheating on face-offs all evening by leaning in early. Lecavalier must have assumed he could do it again for this final draw but it all blew up in his face and he was given a penalty for pushing it too far with the officials. Boudreau explained what he saw from his vantage point on the bench.

“Obviously they kicked him out and he didn’t want to get kicked out and he had a few choice words for the linesman. I think they were going to let it go but he just persisted and persisted and that is when they gave him the penalty. I think the referee was just protecting his linesman from getting abused and once that happens and the face-off is down the other end it takes all of their chance of winning the game or tying it up away,” said the 2007-08 NHL Coach of the Year on how the game finished.

“Usually if you are cheating they will give you a warning, if you cheat again they will throw you out, that is kind of the protocol and they might give some leniency to guys that have been around a little longer than that. That is the general rule of thumb. They’ll let you encroach a bit but if you are totally crossing the line then they’ll throw you out,” said Morrison on how draws are usually monitored in a given contest.

Why Are the Caps Winning So Often?: This Caps squad has a lot of talent, no doubt, but in the last month things have really gelled and Washington has become a real dominant team. The club is healthy up front for pretty much the first time all season and the line combinations have been stable over the course of the last 11 games so those are contributing factors. But it is more than just health and set lines, according to Laich and the vetern center, Morrison.

“I think we are starting to learn. I think our team is starting to mature and you’ve seen that in this streak. I thought the game we played in Pittsburgh when we were tied going into the third and then we got up two goals in the third I thought we really sufficated them. We took control of the game and we didn’t get into a run and gun, risky hockey game. We are being more disciplined, not giving up so many power play chances, so I think we are starting to mature and I think that is why you are starting to see a winning streak build up there,” said Laich, who stressed before the season that Washington must learn to stick to their system if they want to win a Stanley Cup, like Pittsburgh did last June.

“We aren’t thinking about 11 or 12, it’s all about the process. If we come in and take care of things night in and night out, things will take care of themselves,” finished Morrsion on why the Caps have been able to win 10 games in a row.

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