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Ovi Old School

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A Detailed Look at the Caps After 45 Games

Posted on 15 January 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Following Jay Beagle’s stunning game winning goal with just over a second left in Carolina on Friday night, the Washington Capitals players headed to Atlantis, Florida, the Caribbean, Colorado, and other mostly warmer destinations for five days of rest and recovery during the team’s now annual bye “week.”

The victory improved the Caps to 28-14-3 (59 points) and they will remain in first place in the Metropolitan Division until they take the ice again on Thursday, against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center.

With the downtime, I’ve put together some lengthy thoughts on a hockey team that has once again positioned itself near the top of the NHL standings and is among the league’s best squads.

Shortchanged It’s called the “bye week,” but the Caps are only getting five days between games while most other teams are getting a six or seven day gap. In addition, the Capitals went into the break playing back to back games and will come out of it in the same fashion facing the Devils on the road and then the Montreal Canadiens at home on Friday evening. The bye break was something the players clamored for in recent years so that they could get away during what is a very long season. The downside of this plan, however, combined with the three day Christmas shutdown and the All-Star Break is a schedule made up of numerous back to back tilts and many three games in four night scenarios. This leads to a poor product on several occasions and a case in point was Washington’s 3-1 loss to Carolina last Thursday when it appeared that many on the squad were already on the beach.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes The 2017 summer saw some very important key Capitals players depart due to the NHL expansion draft and the rising salary cap to include defensemen Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt plus forwards Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, and Daniel Winnik. How General Manager Brian MacLellan and Coach Barry Trotz would handle those personnel losses would hold the key to the 2017-18 season. The Capitals were 30-9-6 (66 points) after 45 games in 2016-17, so they have only seven points less than they were at this point in a Presidents’ Trophy winning campaign. Last year’s team was experienced, stacked and averaged 28.4 years old. This year’s club has relied on contributions from several rookies, to include defensemen Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos as well as forwards Jakub Vrana (10 goals) and Chandler Stephenson (10 points). The average age of the team has dropped to 28.0, which is a significant change considering that each returning player is a year older. Plugging those rookies into the vacated spots alone clearly could not fill the void left by so many quality players. Therefore, Coach Trotz and his staff had to shift to a “rely on the returning players” philosophy while bringing along the young bucks. Comparing ice times in 2017-18 versus 2016-17 shows a very telling picture.

Player 2017-18 Avg TOI 2016-17 Avg TOI Delta
John Carlson 26:09 22:42 +3:42
Matt Niskanen 22:27 22:10 +:17
Dmitry Orlov 23:16 19:32 +3:44
Brooks Orpik 20:42 17:47 +2:55
Alex Ovechkin 19:42 18:21 +1:21
Nicklas Backstrom 19:40 18:15 +1:25
Evgeny Kuznetsov 18:54 16:57 +1:57
T.J. Oshie 18:40 17:51 +:49
Lars Eller 15:20 13:54 +1:26
Tom Wilson 15:29 12:55 +2:34
Brett Connolly 11:35 10:41 +:54
Jay Beagle 12:39 13:37 -:58
Andre Burakovsky 13:35 13:15 +:20

 

In a nutshell, the coaching staff is playing their key players more than last season when they could just roll four lines and wear teams down. There are some major changes in average time on ice on the back end, especially for Carlson, Orlov, and Orpik. Carlson, who is a Norris Trophy candidate despite two rocky games before the bye week break, has been outstanding, especially considering Niskanen has missed 14 games and has played less than 100% healthy in multiple others. As I’ve blogged on several occasions and GM MacLellan noted to The Washington Post last week, the unsung hero on the back end has been Orlov. Number nine has turned into such a strong two way defensemen and he continues to get better. The upside is still there, too, as he probably would have more points if he got more power play time. The concern is Orpik is playing nearly three minutes more than last season simply because he has to while Djoos comes up to speed. Without Brooks to carry a large load in the first 30 games while the rookies were learning and Niskanen was out, this team may have been sunk. Lately though, #44 has shown some wear on his wheels, so a January schedule that sees a lot of breaks should help him out. The improved play of Djoos and Bowey also will be critical in the second half of the season. I fully expect the Caps to add a defensemen at the trade deadline in late February.

Stars in the City There is no doubt that the “Coach’s Robot,” the Gr8, and “All Star” Nicklas Backstrom are a big reason why this team is still one of the best in the league. Ovechkin was overweight and not in ideal shape in 2016-17 and it showed during the regular season and the playoffs. He had only 33 regular season goals, most of which came on the power play, and he was slower and more prone to injury. Alex took management’s direction and trained totally differently this past summer and the results are blatantly obvious. He’s faster than he’s been since perhaps 2010, which has allowed him to generate better quality chances. He’s had several breakaway tallies and is leading the NHL in goals at 28 in 45 games (a 51 goals pace). 20 of those goals are at even strength this season, compared to just 16 in 2016-17. Backstrom had 86 points in 2016-17 and he’s on pace for 17 fewer this campaign, but most of that drop-off came when Trotz had the Gr8 on a different line. That experiment was smartly shelved and since the two have been Peaches and Herb’d, aka Reunited, the team has gone on a tear. There is no one on the planet who knows how to play better with Ovi than Nicky. Kuznetsov is a super talent, but he is so reliant on having the puck while Backstrom is such a strong two way guy that gets the biscuit from the opposition and allows Alex to get the touches he needs to score goals.

Carpe Diem With the departure of key forwards, several younger Capitals have seized the day and opportunity in 2017-18. Kuznetsov is playing nearly two minutes more a game (more on him in a minute), but looking at the average ice times for Eller and Wilson are very revealing. Willy is logging 2:34 more a night and at six goals and 18 points in 41 games he should shatter his career highs. Wherever Coach Trotz has put #43 this season he has produced and the nice thing is it’s been in a top nine role, no more fourth line Tommy. Eller, who is an unrestricted free agent this summer, has nine goals and 21 points in 44 games. He had 12 goals and 25 points in 81 total games in 2016-17. He’s playing 1:26 more a night and he’s become a better contributor, especially offensively, and that was sorely needed. The Washington third line, which was dominant last January when the Capitals were nearly unbeatable, has returned to play a big role in 2017-18. Eller and Connolly (10 goals) have been the staples there and there’s been a rotation of right wings to mostly include Oshie, Burakovsky, Vrana, and Wilson.

Not So Special In 2016-17 the Caps connected on 22.98% of their power plays and killed off 83.92% of their shorthanded situations. The league averages were 19.1% and 80.9%, respectively. In 2017-18, the power play has slowed to a 19.57% connection rate (NHL average is 19.4%) and is only thwarting 79.08% of their manpower disadvantages (NHL average is 80.6%). Simply put, the Capitals, unlike years past, have had to rely more on five on five goal differential to win games. This season they are +14 (91 to 77) in that category. There is lots of room for improvement on the special teams.

Dynamic Duo Looking at the team stats, the Caps have gone from outshooting opponents 30.4 to 27.8 per game in 2016-17 to being outshot 32.3 to 29 in 2017-18. That is a direct result of the change in personnel. Let’s be honest, the Capitals lost a lot of veteran players and are incorporating new blood into the squad. So why have they been able to still be successful? Well, outside of what has been mentioned already, the single biggest factor is the outstanding goaltending from Braden Holtby (24 wins) and Philipp Grubauer (7 quality starts in 12 games). The team save percentage has dropped from .925 to .917, but it’s clear that the quality of shots against has gone up a bit. These two continue to make the big save for Washington at the key time and goalie is the most important position in hockey.

Delivering the Overpass There’s a famous Bill Engvall “Here’s Your Sign” joke about a truck getting stuck with the punch line being, “Nope, I was delivering that overpass and my truck flat ran out of gas…Here’s Your Sign!” Perhaps the organization should bring the legendary comedian in to hand out “Here’s Your Sign” awards for all of those times the Capitals have tried to make an extra pass when they are in the high danger scoring areas? Guilty party number one on that list is Kuznetsov. When #92 plays the right way, and he’s had some nice stretches of that, the Caps dominate. He ranks second on the team in goals (13) and when he carries a shoot first mentality he is deadly on the ice because the defense has no idea what he is going to do, pass or shoot. Too often, though, he is in Harlem Globetrotters fancy pants mode, and that is much easier to defend. He needs to cut back on the circling pattern where he takes himself out of the high danger scoring area and eventually turns the puck over. That issue has crept into others on this team, to include Oshie, who I’d like to see shoot more. This is a shoot first league and with the goaltending being so good, rebounds or shots from high danger areas with traffic are the best way to beat them. Do the Caps think they have to make the pretty play so often because they practice against two of the best goalies in the league regularly? That could be a factor, but if they just looked at their recent tallies, many of them are just shots from the middle of the ice with players going to the net or using a defender to screen his own keeper. It’s not rocket science and it’s one of the big reasons the Caps are down in the shots on net and shots attempted statistics. They have the puck often, but many times they possess it for awhile and never generate a shot. They need to dump that habit and the cross ice pass at the offensive blue line if they want to go deep into the post season.

Where’s the Six Million Dollar Man? If you had told me on October 1st that Burakovksy would only have three goals after the Caps have played 45 games, I would have said the Caps would not be in playoff position. Luckily, I would’ve been wrong. #65 has played only 21 games due to injuries and overall malaise, but the man who signed a two year deal for a total of $6M is a very key cog in the wheel if Washington wants to challenge for the Stanley Cup. If I was Andre, the first thing I’d do after getting home from the Bahamas would be to pull out the tape of game six against the Penguins last spring and watch it. That’s the way Andre needs to play to be successful, very physical on the opposing boards and puck so that he can score and generate goals. He can be that player if he puts his mind to it and works hard. A return to form by Burakovsky is a must from now until June.

In summary, even with the personnel losses from last season, the Capitals have still positioned themselves among the best teams in the league. Despite what some statistics, such as Corsi, try to tell you, this positive outcome is not just pure luck. As I’ve chronicled, there’s been a method to the team’s success, which also includes a unique ability, much like the Pittsburgh Penguins have done the last two seasons, to counter attack and be deadly on the rush. Speed is an important aspect of hockey and the Capitals have improved in that department. Their save percentage is slightly down, but their goalies have been stellar and they aren’t living off of a higher shooting percentage. They are connecting on 10.5% of their shots, just like they did last season. The league average is around 9%, but the Caps have high end talent, unlike a Corsi loved team like Carolina, who throw a lot of pucks on net from everywhere, but don’t have the Ovechkins, Kuznetsovs, Backstroms and Oshies of the world who have great shots. Looking at another favorite analytic stat, PDO, which measures shooting percentage plus save percentage at even strength, it shows the Caps were at 102.4 in 2016-17 and this season they have dropped to 101.6 (meaning they’ve been less lucky). I’ve stated this axiom in blogs and on the air on WNST many times; it’s great to look at statistics, but in the grand scheme of things, hockey is a game of high skill and talent, it is non-linear and is chaos theory. The Washington Capitals have high end talent and the organization has structured the team around that. Now the question is can they continue to improve down the stretch so that they can peak in the post season?

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Kuzy Canucks

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Caps Win 10th Straight At Home in 3-1 Triumph Over Vancouver

Posted on 09 January 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals scored three goals in a span of 10 minutes and Philipp Grubauer stopped 37 of 38 shots as the Caps reeled off their 10th straight victory at home to defeat the Vancouver Canucks, 3-1, at Capital One Arena on Tuesday night.

Washington, who will face Carolina in a home and home matchup on Thursday and Friday, have just those two tilts to play before their five day “bye” break begins on Saturday. With the triumph over Vancouver, the Capitals improve to 27-13-3 (57 points) and they lead the Metropolitan Division by a season high four points over the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have played one more game. New Jersey is five points behind the Caps, but they have two games in hand.

The Canucks destroyed the Capitals back in October, 6-2, when Washington wasn’t playing good hockey and were missing some top players (Matt Niskanen and Nicklas Backstrom). Since then, though, the Caps have been one of the league’s best squads while Vancouver has turned into the doormat I and many others expected them to be this season. Coach Travis Green’s club is now 16-21-6 (38 points) and only the Arizona Coyotes have fewer points than the Canucks in the Western Conference.

On paper, this looked like a mismatch, but the game started well for the visitors. Washington was sloppy with the puck giving the Canucks more shot opportunities. Grubauer didn’t have to make many big saves early, but a Devante Smith Pelly lazy offensive zone infraction put Vancouver on the power play. Coach Barry Trotz’ improving PK unit looked ready to kill it off, but when Chandler Stephenson jumped over the boards and battled for the puck before Tom Wilson could get to the bench, the Caps were boxed for too many dudes. That gave Vancouver a five on three and it was pretty much a five on two when Jay Beagle was hobbled after blocking a shot. The huge manpower difference for the Canucks resulted in a Daniel Sedin tip in of an Alex Edler point shot at 8:23.

With a 1-0 lead, Nikolay Goldobin nearly made it a two puck advantage, but Grubauer made a big save on #77 and then he hit the pipe with the rebound. It was one of those quality high danger stops at a key time that Washington has gotten a lot of this season from their stellar goaltending duo of #31 and Braden Holtby.

Just two minutes after that, John Carlson tied the game when he fired the puck on net from the right wing boards and it went five hole on Jacob Markstrom (33 saves). The big goalie was likely distracted by the net coming up in the air just beforehand along with Michael Del Zotto standing right in front of him messing with the cage. Green challenged the goal for goalie interference, but there was none of that and the tally stood.

Washington continued to press the play and less than three minutes later they took the lead when Madison Bowey gave Lars Eller a nice neutral zone feed. Eller then headed up the middle of the ice with speed and using the Vancouver defender as a screen, Lars shot from just inside the blue line and it beat the goalie, who was suffering from an obstructed view, top shelf. That goal, on a heck of a snipe, made it 2-1 with 2:08 left in the opening frame.

In the middle stanza, Washington was downright dominant controlling the puck for the majority of the period. Evgeny Kuznetsov increased the Capitals lead to 3-1 at the 4:57 mark when he took a feed from Niskanen just outside the offensive blue line and skated in with Erik Gudbranson charging towards him. Kuzy shot the puck and Markstrom batted the rebound in the air into the slot. Both Kuznetsov and Gudbranson swatted at the puck, but it was the stiff #44 who put it into his own net with his glove. The marker gives #92 13 goals for the season.

The Capitals were relentless in their pursuit of the puck and it was wave after wave of Washington players storming into the offensive end in period two, one in which the Caps have really struggled in this season. That was not the case on Tuesday and if not for a lot of over passing, this game should have gotten out of hand. Once again, the Capitals were trying for the perfect play, which was kind of silly considering the way they scored their first three goals, which were on pucks just directed at the net. As fun as it was to watch, the Caps skill and Harlem Globetrotters like play resulted in zero goals the remainder of the period. That was disappointing because Coach Trotz’ crew was really skating and working, but they again suffered from being too fancy.

The passing up of shots, especially from the high danger area of the ice, has to change if Washington wants to advance deep into the playoffs and reach their ultimate goal. This squad has a TON of skill and talent, but sometimes they out think themselves in trying to be too perfect and it allowed a crummy hockey team like Vancouver to stick around in this affair.

In the third period, the Canucks had 20 shots on net as they tried to come back, but 11 of those came in the last nine plus minutes and there weren’t many quality chances. Grubauer made some nice glove saves, but those were on shots he clearly had a great sight line on.

This was really a mismatch, but the Caps couldn’t finish. They often passed themselves out of a scoring chance or they waited too long to shoot and with Markstrom taking up so much cage with his size, they had trouble getting biscuits behind him. The NHL is a shoot first and shoot quick league, but the Caps seem to forget that, too often, and it takes away from their offense. Washington has the puck a lot, but based on shot attempts, you wouldn’t think so. The fact is this team is so focused on the perfect goal play that they decrease their chances of scoring. If they can get away from the extra cross ice pass in the offensive zone and focus on hard shots on net that either go in or produce rebounds, they will score even more.

Overall, this was a solid victory. Grubauer was very composed and poised in net. You never felt like he was going to give up a goal that would get Vancouver back in the contest. The Canucks didn’t have the puck a ton despite their 73-65 edge in shot attempts. Coach Green’s team often just throws the puck on net from everywhere, but the Capitals kept them on the perimeter quite a bit. On the flip side, the Caps got into the interior on offense, but they too often didn’t seize the right moment to fire on net. That’s why the scoreboard stayed close, despite the on ice domination that Washington displayed.

Notes: Jakub Vrana had a very active game with six shots on net. He was really moving his legs and opening up space on the ice…Brooks Oprik had a semi-breakaway in period three and was drilled by a Ben Hutton elbow to the head (no penalty was called) and sent flying to the ground. Smith-Pelly came in, immediately went after Hutton, and threw some good punches to let the Canuck know that the questionable hit was not well received by Washington. Orpik had a strong night going +1 in 20:49 and he had four shot attempts…Alex Ovechkin had six shot attempts and an assist in 19:25…the Caps were 0 for 2 on the power play while Vancouver was 1 for 3. I didn’t think Kevin Pollock and Kendrick Nicholson called a good game, they missed several infractions on the Canucks, but perhaps they were too busy focusing on offside since linesman Greg Devorski left after the first period due to an illness?…the Capitals won the faceoff battle, 33-28. Kuznetsov was 10-6…Wilson was very impressive with six shots on goal and seven hits…Bowey had an assist in 14:44 and he was much cleaner with his puck management…T.J. Oshie had 0 shots on goal in 17:39. His hands seemed to be betraying him in this affair…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 24:16.

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Grubi Sharks

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Grubauer and Ovechkin Help End Caps Drought vs. San Jose

Posted on 05 December 2017 by Ed Frankovic

The San Jose Sharks came into Capital One Arena for their annual meeting in the District with the Washington Capitals and, in recent years, you could steal a line from the classic movie, Spinal Tap, to characterize the way those matchups have gone for the Caps.

Shark Sandwich. S—t Sandwich.

San Jose goalie Martin Jones held a 4-0 lifetime record against the Caps and to top it all off, he had NEVER allowed a goal in the Washington barn.

On Monday night, everything changed.

After a sluggish start that saw the Sharks get seven of the games first eight shots, the Capitals started taking over. During that stretch they had nine of the last 10 shots on goal recorded in the opening period, including a beautiful tip in of a John Carlson shot by Devante Smith-Pelly that gave the Caps a 1-0 lead with 3:11 to go in the first frame. The goal ended Jones’ lengthy Capital One Arena shutout streak and seemed to provide the home team with some confidence.

In the middle stanza, the Caps came out strong and a sweet steal by Alexander Ovechkin on Brent Burns in his own end led to a breakaway for the Gr8. Alex would go in all alone on Jones and beat him with a backhander to make it 2-0 with 7:11 gone in period two. Shortly thereafter the Capitals nearly grabbed a three puck lead, but Carlson’s shot on a three on one rush hit metal. San Jose, as you’d expect, then became the more desperate team and put pressure on Washington in their end. The Caps would have a series of turnovers on consecutive shifts and that shoddy play resulted in a Timo Meier tally after a bad giveaway by Matt Niskanen.

The Caps then settled the ship and started playing well again, although Philipp Grubauer (24 saves) did make some very big stops at key junctures. Things were still dicey when Evgeny Kuznetsov took a delay of game penalty for putting the puck over the glass, but the Capitals had a super penalty kill. Late in the PK, however, T.J. Oshie was injured when he threw the puck down the right wing offensive boards and while trying to finish his check, he made a hit and went down awkwardly. With the puck long gone, Jumbo Joe Thornton came in and with his fat rear crushed the Osh Babe’s head against the boards. #77 went down and then left the game for the night.

Washington received a power play shortly thereafter when Brenden Dillon took a high sticking minor. With Oshie in the locker room, Brett Connolly received the bump up to the first unit and he took advantage of the situation. Kuznetsov made a great play carrying the puck into the offensive zone and while taking a hit and falling to the ice, he managed to swing his stick with one hand and whack the puck to a wide open Ovechkin on the left wing boards. The Gr8 nicely used his skates to kick the puck to his stick and he spotted Connolly heading to the net ahead of the Sharks defenders. Ovi made a super backhand pass to #10 and he made a sweet move and buried the puck on the backhand to make it 3-1 (although the zebras didn’t immediately signal goal and then there was a five minute delay while San Jose challenged that the goal was a result of an offside zone entry).

In the third period, after the Caps failed to score on the power play they received when the Sharks unsuccessfully challenged the third goal, San Jose had some more great looks, but Grubauer shut the door.

Thornton then had to pay for his unnecessary hit on Oshie by taking on Tom Wilson. Willy won the bout quickly and easily with a punch to Jumbo Joe’s head that floored the big man. Both players received seven minutes in penalties, which was a good trade for the Caps. The Sharks started to get chippy after that and a teal parade to the penalty box ensued. Washington extended their lead to 4-1 when Jakub Vrana notched his eighth goal of the season from the doorstep after some excellent power play work by Wilson with 8:24 remaining.

The victory improves the Caps to 16-11-1 (33 points) and they are just two points out of first in a very tight Metropolitan Division that has the top five teams all within two points of each other.

Below are some thoughts and analysis on a huge Capitals win against a squad they defeated in regulation for just the second time in their last 26 meetings (h/t to Mike Vogel (@VogsCaps) for that stat).

As they did on Saturday against Columbus, the Capitals rode the biggest strength of their team for this win, goaltending. Grubauer was just superb in this affair and he made many quality saves at key times.

Ovechkin was flying in this tilt and he could’ve easily had a hat trick. Ovi had seven shot attempts, but I recall at least four quality scoring chances. The goal he scored doesn’t happen last season. His offseason conditioning change continues to pay dividends, he is at least a step faster than in 2016-17 and he now leads the NHL in goals with 20 in just 28 games (59 goal pace). As Drew Doughty stated last week when the Kings snuck a win out over Washington, the Ovechkin line (Ovi-Nicklas Backstrom-Wilson) is so hard to play against. Burns found that out on Monday night and he was outworked by the big and skilled trio.

The Oshie injury is a major concern. It’s upper body and hopefully not a serious concussion. The Osh Babe, along with Kuznetsov and Vrana, have been a dynamite second line trio and they’ve dominated play. T.J. is so good at winning the one on one battles, so not having him in the lineup will be a blow to the Capitals. It’s not clear how long #77 will be out, but Andre Burakovsky is due back within the week, so that should help.

Several right wingers stepped up in this game with Oshie out. First was Connolly, who has scored in two straight games. He’s playing with confidence and looks more like the guy who potted 15 tallies last season. This is a very encouraging development. Wilson also is performing well and Coach Barry Trotz loved his effort to help set up Vrana’s power play marker. It was a dirty and gritty goal and the first one for the second power play unit all season. Perhaps Willy deserves more time on that second unit based on how well he played on Monday? I also liked Smith-Pelly’s game on Monday, it was one of his best, in just 10:34 of action.

While the Capitals came out victorious in this game, Coach Trotz said afterwards there are still things that need cleaning up in their play. There were numerous bad clears in their own zone and too many offensive zone cross ice passes for my liking. The Caps had 16 giveaways, four of them from Carlson.  If they can focus on getting pucks to the net or behind the net, they’ll be even more successful and find that holding leads are much easier. Washington out shot attempted the Sharks, 21-12, and, 12-9, in shots on goal, in the final frame. After getting out shot, 17-3, in the last 20 minutes against Columbus on Saturday the Capitals did a better job of handling this two goal lead. There are still better decisions to be made with the biscuit when they are in front, but Monday represented some serious progress.

Overall, the Caps have now won five of their last six games and they will face the Chicago Blackhawks at home on Wednesday night. Puck drop is at 8 pm. The game is on NBC Sports Channel.

Notes: Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 27:34, including 7:11 of power play time…the Caps were 2 for 6 with the man advantage while San Jose went 0-1…Washington won the faceoff battle, 34-24. Kuznetsov was 11-4. Since the Calgary loss, he’s played very smart and solid hockey.

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Ovi Backy Leafs

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Alex Ovechkin’s Spectacular Night On and Off the Ice Leads the Caps over Toronto

Posted on 25 November 2017 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals were “Oh for” on the second half of back to back games this season, as in zero wins in four previous situations.

Alexander “Oh”vechkin made sure that streak ended on Saturday night in the Big Smoke.

The Gr8 potted two first period goals, one of which was an end to end highlight reel marker and the other was a puck pounded through Leafs goalie Curtis McElhinney with John Daly like power off of a faceoff. Then Alex sealed the deal for the Caps with an empty net goal with nine seconds remaining to secure a 4-2 victory.

Ovechkin’s brilliance gives the Caps a nice three game winning streak heading into a stretch of four days off. Washington has now hit four games over .500 for the first time this season, with a mark of 14-10-1 (29 points).

This was the third straight solid effort by the Capitals and it was their third such game in four days, so there is no doubt they are a tired, but happy bunch.

Here’s my thoughts and analysis of an entertaining hockey game:

Ovechkin now leads the NHL in goals with 18 in 25 games (pace of 59 goals) and he has 13 even strength markers counting the empty net tally he notched on Saturday. I’ve mentioned this a few times in blogs and several times on Twitter, but there is no doubt that the change he made in off season training has changed his game for the better. Ovi is much faster on the ice and he has that burst that he used to display in his earlier days. His first goal was just a thing of beauty; great skating, super puck handling, and then unbelievable hands to fake the defensemen and goalie out with a laser of a shot that would’ve only been stopped if a piece of wood was covering the entire net. It was a “Wow!” moment and at that point, everyone in attendance had their money’s worth.

Ovechkin invited 13 year old cancer survivor, Alex Luey to the game on Saturday night, because the youngster stated that the Gr8 was his favorite player. Boy did Ovi make it special for his fan on this evening with a spectacular performance. Luey was so overcome with joy after the win that he cried and hugged his parents. Our good friend, Ian Oland, over at Russian Machine Never Breaks chronicled the story. Please read it, it’ll warm your heart, something we all need these days.

In honor of his three goals, Ovechkin gets another bullet point in this blog. He was fantastic in this affair and his line was great. Coach Barry Trotz even had faith in him at the end of the game defensively by putting him on the ice with a one goal lead in the waning seconds. Ovi made his bench boss look good as he got the “Hattie” as a result of some great work on the boards by Alex and his teammates. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the Capitals are three wins and zero losses since Trotz reunited Ovechkin with long time center Nicklas Backstrom (two assists).

T.J. Oshie had a nice night, as well, with three assists. He had the big face off win on the Caps power play that led to the second goal, a howitzer from Ovechkin, and made a sweet outlet pass to Jakub Vrana for #13’s breakaway tally that gave Washington a 3-0 lead heading into the final frame. The Osh Babe was a dynamo all night, once again, and he constantly wins board battles and keeps pucks alive. He’s just a truly fantastic hockey player.

Speaking of fantastic, he didn’t get mentioned in the top three stars of the game (Ovechkin, Oshie, and Nikita Zaitsev), but in my book, after Ovi, the most outstanding player on the ice for the Capitals was defensemen Dmitry Orlov. Orlov had zero points tonight (+2), but he played one of the best games I’ve ever seen him have. He carried the Caps in their own zone and led the team in ice time at 26:25. He was physical (4 hits), great with his decision making, and just superb at breaking the puck out of the Capitals end. To top it all off, his play on the right wing boards, his offhand side, on the defensive zone faceoff before Ovi’s ENG was just sensational hard work and determination. Orlov fights off two Leafs there to get the puck to Oshie, who then got it down the ice where Osh Babe, Backy and Ovi could close the deal. I’m giving a standing ovation for the play of Orlov in Toronto on Hockey Night in Canada, well done, Dmitry! Very Impressive!

With Philipp Grubauer getting the front end of the back to back situation for the first time this season, Braden Holtby was the starter in this tilt and the Holtbeast was a big factor in the victory, as well. Some of the most important things he did in period two, other than stopping the puck from going in the net, was to halt play at key times. On a couple of occasions in that middle frame, where the Capitals defense endures a long change, Holtby froze the puck after extended shifts instead of giving up a rebound. Those stoppages were important because it allowed Coach Trotz to get fresh legs on the ice, which was especially key in the back to back games situation. Down the stretch, when it looked like the Caps might fade and give up the three goal lead, the Holtbeast made some big stops, especially when the Leafs pulled their goalie.

Both the Capitals and Leafs played in the USA on Friday and had to travel to Toronto for Saturday’s game. The Leafs were at home and are a younger team, so going in, the edge had to be for the Maple Leafs in this affair. For forty minutes, it was mostly Caps and the older team was the one skating faster and getting the better scoring chances. Washington deserved that three goal lead.

In the first 10 plus minutes of the third period, the young legs of the Leafs appeared and they dominated that part of the game. Washington didn’t help themselves either with some poor decision making. Chandler Stephenson’s ill timed back pass to noone allowed Toronto to go down and cut the score to 3-2 with 13:51 remaining. Shortly thereafter Matt Niskanen carried the puck behind the Leafs net and then tried a low percentage pass to Oshie at the right point. #77 fortunately got his boot on the disc, otherwise it was an odd man rush the other way. When you are winning in the third period, you have to make the safe play, and putting the puck back behind the net if you don’t have a clear shot or pass is always the next best thing to do.

What a change we’ve seen in Vrana in just eight days! After coming out of his healthy scratch in Colorado to the third line, where he performed well, #13 was promoted to the second line with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Oshie for Wednesday’s tilt with Ottawa. Boy has this line clicked and Vrana notched his seventh goal of the campaign on a breakaway where he just blew by the Leafs defender like he was an orange road cone. With Andre Burakovsky still out another three weeks or so following hand surgery, the Capitals really needed Vrana to come alive and he’s finally doing that. His progress over the last week or so has been extremely encouraging.

Overall, things are really starting to become clearer about this hockey team. The biggest key is getting both Kuznetsov and Backstrom to play well and that’s been the case since Coach Trotz went all Reg Dunlop again and shuffled up the lines. The Capitals have talent, but they have to have a work ethic that is strong to succeed in this very balanced league. Over the last three games they’ve brought the energy and determination to win so many one on one battles. Their puck support has been excellent, as well. That strong work ethic leads to fewer penalties and on Saturday they only took one, which was very important given the back-to-back games situation. Sure they’ll be patches where they look tired, like Saturday’s first 10 minutes of the third period, but that will happen over the course of the season. The key is how the team fights through those stretches. On Saturday night, they came out on top of a very good and young Toronto team.

The Capitals are certainly moving in the right direction and this short break is much needed to recharge the batteries so that they can take advantage of an upcoming five game home stand that includes important Metropolitan Division match ups with the Blue Jackets and the Rangers.

Notes: Niskanen logged 24:14 while John Carlson played 22:38. Nisky was good in the first two periods, but he had some bad passes in the third. He’s clearly still getting his timing back from being out for 13 games…the Leafs won the face off battle, 34-25…the Caps had 37 hits. Brooks Orpik led the team with six…the Leafs outshot the Caps, 29-21. Ovechkin had four shots on goal…the Leafs outshot attempted the Capitals, 56-43…the Capitals were 1 for 3 on the power play and a perfect one for one on the PK…Washington’s next game is Thursday night against the Los Angeles Kings at Capital One Arena.

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Ovi TB

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Grubauer Stops Tampa to Earn his 1st Victory of 2017-18

Posted on 25 November 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Anyone who follows my blogs or twitter feed (@EdFrankovic), which is all about hockey, knows that I’ve been staunch in defending the talent level of the Washington Capitals despite their recent off season personnel losses due to expansion and the salary cap. My main question, however, so far in this 2017-18 season, has been about their work ethic and attention to detail.

On Wednesday night against the Ottawa Senators, much like their recent wins over the Penguins and Wild, the Capitals brought the effort and focus and succeeded with a big victory.

The latest question, though, is would they be able to duplicate that type of great effort in their next game against a very good opponent?

Friday evening against the best team in the NHL, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Caps proved that they could do just that. Washington gave up an early power play tally just 82 seconds into the contest after a very weak and bogus hooking call on Brooks Orpik. Yanni Gourde should probably be nominated for an Academy award after his dive gave his club a man advantage opportunity. The best player in the NHL, Nikita Kucherov, shot the puck on the ensuing power play and it bounced off of the pants of Vladislav Nemestnikov and past Philipp Grubauer for an early lead for the Bolts.

At that point, you had to wonder how the Capitals would react. Grubaeur, whose 26th birthday is on Saturday, had yet to win a game this season despite some strong efforts, including a 4-3 overtime loss to Tampa back on October 9th. In many of those affairs, which were the latter of half of back to back contests, the team in front of him had little energy and didn’t provide much offensive support.

But this game was a different circumstance and Washington was undeterred after the early Bolts tally and brought a maximum effort for the full 60 minutes. The result was a very impressive 3-1 win over Tampa and gave Grubi his first triumph of the season. Grubauer made several quality stops in this tilt and his teammates played like there was no way they were going to let Tampa take this contest.

Simply put, it was great hockey by the Capitals and shows that when they decide to work and stick to the system, they can play with anyone in the NHL.

Alex Ovechkin (15th goal), Devante Smith-Pelly, and Jay Beagle (empty net) all scored for Washington in this game, one in which the Capitals never let up and dominated the majority of the play. The Caps outshot the Bolts, 38-26, and they had a lot of quality scoring chances. After it was 1-0, the Capitals generated several great opportunities to tie the game, but as has been their issue for several years now, they over passed the puck and failed to capitalize on those chances. T.J. Oshie had a couple of golden opportunities, but the Osh Babe uncharacteristically passed when he should’ve shot.

The Caps finally evened things up with 1:24 remaining in the opening frame when they converted on a three on two rush. The great Nicklas Backstrom carried the puck up the middle of the ice and he dished it to his right as they crossed the offensive blue line. Tom Wilson received that pass and with #19 heading straight to the net, the passing lane to Ovechkin opened up and Willy put it perfectly on the Gr8’s stick. Ovi then made no mistake about depositing the puck into the cage.

Washington would keep pressing the play getting the better of the scoring chances, but Tampa had their share, as well, only to be thwarted by Grubauer.

What happened next was karma for the hard work displayed by all 18 Caps skaters in this contest. Dmitry Orlov spotted Smith-Pelly open up the middle of the ice and he fed #25 just before the Tampa blue line. Smith-Pelly carried the puck into the offensive zone and quickly dished it to his left to Beagle. DSP then made a bee line to the front of the net and the very smart Beagle shot the biscuit. The puck hit Bolts goalie Andrei Vasilevksiy in the pads and bounced right to Johnny on the spot, Smith-Pelly, for a sweet rebound goal with 5:24 to go in the middle frame. It was simple and solid hockey and it was exactly what the Capitals needed to seize the lead against a very good Tampa squad.

In the third period, Washington kept the pressure up and didn’t sit back. They finally were able to clinch the victory when Beagle hit the empty net with 2:08 remaining.

This hard earned victory improved the Caps record to 13-10-1 (27 points) and they’ll head to the Big Smoke on Saturday for a date at the Air Canada Centre against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It wasn’t a fancy or pretty win, but it was a very good one as the Caps worked hard for 60 minutes and didn’t let Tampa seize any real momentum. Sure the Bolts scored first, but Washington played great hockey and deserved this victory, the Capitals second one in a row and their third in four games.

Now they have to head to Toronto to try and sweep their first set of back to back games this season. If they put in the effort they displayed on Friday evening, they should finally get the job done.

Notes: Grubauer stopped 25 of the 26 shots he faced…Braden Holtby will get the start on Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada…the Caps destroyed Tampa at the dot going 40-18. Beagle was 14-3…Tampa had the shot attempt advantage at 68-64…Ovechkin had 14 shot attempts, including nine on net. He now has 15 goals in 24 games (51 goal pace). He looks much more comfortable playing with Backstrom (cue Reunited by Peaches and Herb)…Matt Niskanen played his best game of the season logging a team leading 24:30 and he was a +3…Lars Eller had five shots on goal and was 9-2 in draws…Tampa was 1 for 3 on the power play while the Capitals went 0 for 3.

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Caps over Devils Burkie

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Burakovsky’s Bout Spurs the Caps to a 5-2 Win in New Jersey

Posted on 13 October 2017 by Ed Frankovic

“You mess with the bull, you get the horns.”

That was the message the New Jersey Devils received from the Washington Capitals on Friday night at the Prudential Center.

Nicklas Backstrom had a goal and three helpers, T.J. Oshie had two goals and an assist, Alex Ovechkin had his league leading 9th goal of the season and a gorgeous assist on Backstrom’s tally, and Evgeny Kuznetzov had two assists in a 5-2 Capitals victory that improved their record to 3-1-1 (7 points) and put them in sole possession of first place in the Metropolitan Division.

Braden Holtby made 21 saves in the cage in a solid performance and overall Washington played their most complete game of the season.

Tom Wilson returned from a bogus George Parros imposed four game suspension to bring physicality and energy to the lineup and that jump started the third line allowing the Washington stars to take over the contest. Jakub Vrana tipped in a shot from Devante Smith-Pelly late in period two for a critical tally that made it 3-1, which was big because the Caps needed some strong contributions from their bottom six forwards (Vrana is in the top six, but DSP is on the fourth line).

Perhaps the biggest development of the night, though, was Andre Burakovsky’s first fight that came 2:33 into the final frame with the Capitals clinging to a one goal lead. Blake Coleman dangerously took out Dmitry Orlov’s legs and sent him slamming hard into the boards. A penalty was being called, but #65 wasn’t about to just walk away without letting Coleman know he crossed the line. Burkie dropped his mitts and went after the bigger Devil and lost the fight, although he didn’t take any hard shots to the head. Instantly the Capitals bench stood up and applauded the “good ole fashioned guts” from Andre “Killer” Burakovsky. It was a moment of team toughness and togetherness that this club displayed and you can bet that Andre will get a lot of “ataboys” from his teammates on the way to Philadelphia for Saturday night’s tilt against the despised Flyers.

Shortly after the Burakovsky bout, Lars Eller took a high stick to the face and that’s when Osh Babe, Ovi, Backy, and Kuzy made sure that young Andre’s first NHL fight wouldn’t go for naught. The Caps scored two pretty power play goals on the double minor to salt this one away.

Then it was payback time.

With 7:29 remaining, Coleman manned up and fought Wilson. Blake was whipped so badly that “Rag Doll” by Aerosmith would’ve been a fitting song to pipe through the public address system at that moment. Simply put, Willy let it be known that Coleman wasn’t walking out of the arena nearly injuring Orlov and beating up on the previously undefeated prize pupil, Burakovsky.

This is the kind of stuff that brings an already tight team even closer together. You can see that this Caps club is in it for each other. Everyone around the league and even many in town are already writing these guys off and foolishly trying to tie the local DC baseball teams post season failures to this hockey franchise. It’s pathetic, if you ask me. Baseball has nothing to do with hockey, period.

Anyone who really knows hockey sees the immense talent on this team despite the off season subtractions due to the salary cap. Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and Oshie are all top NHL players. Combined they have 37 points in just five games. To quote a famous movie from the mid-90’s, yes, “37!” These guys are good and they are still a work in progress with Vrana as a new piece in the top six and Burakovsky moving up as well for the departed Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson. Many are convinced that Oshie can’t score 33 goals again this year because of his high 2016-17 shooting percentage, but as I pointed out all summer, that shooting percentage didn’t including shots that missed the net. Oshie gets a lot of in close chances because of the guys he’s playing with and with the Gr8 on absolute fire, he’s getting more room and hitting the corners with his attempts so far. He’s notched five goals in five games, which is amazing, but when Alexander the Great already has nine, yes nine goals, it’s easy to overlook #77’s production. Last year I often wrote, “Pay the Man!” Boy am I glad the man got paid. Thanks Brian MacLellan.

Getting Wilson back reignited the third line and Brett Connolly and Eller had one of their best games of the season. When you have at least three lines going, it makes it very difficult for the opponents to match up. The Caps needed a presence from the bottom six forwards and they delivered on Friday.

On defense, things got tough with Matt Niskanen exiting the game on what appeared to be a missed slashing call by the inconsistent zebras. It was the second critical missed opponent slash in two tilts. On Wednesday night the referees failed to call a Carter Rowney slash on Kuznetsov on a rush late in that contest that would’ve given Washington a power play and a chance to tie the game.

Nisky will be reevaluated tomorrow, according to Coach Barry Trotz. That slash, with the Caps shorthanded, allowed the Devils to score on the power play and get within one goal with 3:32 to go in period two.

After Smith-Pelly’s key goal made it 3-1, things got close again in the first minute of period three when Kyle Palmieri took a great pass from Damon Severson and split Christian Djoos and Orlov for a breakaway marker.

When Orlov got dumped into the boards and stayed down on the next shift, things were looking bad for Washington, but then “Killer” Burkakovsky stepped in and took one for the team and the Capitals star players made sure to make the Devils pay the price on the scoreboard the rest of the way.

This was a feel good victory against a division opponent that was 3-0 and had just defeated the talented Toronto Maple Leafs earlier in the week.

Impressive messages were sent this night by the Capitals on the scoreboard, with their fists, and with their hearts.

On to the “City of Brotherly Love.”

Notes: Given the Capitals salary cap situation, if Niskanen can’t play on Saturday night in Filthy, it’s likely that Taylor Chorney will get a sweater because calling up Madison Bowey, a deserving right handed shooting blue liner, would require someone else to be sent to Hershey, unless #2 has to go on long term injury (which would be a bad scene)…the Caps were for 3 for 5 on the power play while New Jersey went 1 for 4…John Carlson led the Capitals in ice time with 27:26.  Niskanen only played 12:18 before exiting the contest so the other four guys played extra minutes than in a normal situation. Brooks Orpik logged 22:04, Orlov 21:12, Djoos 16:47 and Aaron Ness played 13:38…shot attempts were 52-46 in favor of the Caps…New Jersey won the faceoff battle, 39-27.  Jay Beagle went 8-5…Backstrom got hit with a puck in warmups and then notched four points…expect Philipp Grubauer to get the start in net against the Flyers on Saturday night.

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nathan-walker

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12 Caps Thoughts After Four Preseason Games

Posted on 24 September 2017 by Ed Frankovic

With the Washington Capitals completing four of their seven preseason tilts, I’ve written 12 thoughts on the Caps as we head into the final week of games that don’t count in the standings.

  1. Following Saturday’s 4-1 defeat to the Carolina Hurricanes at the Capital One Arena (formerly the Verizon Center), Coach Barry Trotz lamented about the team’s lack of even strength offense pointing out that his club has only one even strength tally in four contests (Devante Smith-Pelly’s game winner in Montreal on Wednesday night).
  2. The reason for the scoring problems are numerous, but first and foremost, has to be the instability on the back end. Puck possession begins with a defense that can get the biscuit out of its own end efficiently. Washington has two defensive openings and the coaching staff and General Manager Brian MacLellan are taking a look at several players, most of which have little to no NHL experience, for those slots. As a result, there has been a lot of turnovers and ragged positional play from the Washington blueline, thus far.
  3. The Caps have talked about promoting from within their organization and building a team with more speed. Having watched Nathan Walker play in both of his 2017-18 “auditions,” I think it’s safe to say this 23 year old, who has spent his last four seasons in Hershey, will be making “The Show” this fall. Walker’s speed opens up the ice for his teammates and creates scoring chances. His likely center, Jay Beagle, told the media on Saturday night that #79 is great with the puck and brings a lot of energy and grit to the hockey team.
  4. Also in the promoting from within department, the other pretty close to a lock to make the roster up front is 2014 first round pick, Jakub Vrana. So far #13 has a goal and an assist in three games and he’s had several quality scoring chances.
  5. Washington’s goaltending has been very solid in the preseason led by Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer. Both have high save percentages and they’ve looked sharp. They’re getting a lot of action because of the Caps issues in the puck possession department. Grubauer played the last 40 minutes on Saturday against Carolina and he was decent, but he did lose the third goal, by Julien Gauthier, because he struggled to pick the puck up as it left Gauthier’s long stick. As a result, Carolina received a high, short side lamplighter that pretty much ended this affair at the 2:35 mark of period three.
  6. Tyler Graovac, who was acquired this spring from the Minnesota Wild for the Caps 2018 5th round pick, was the best player on the ice in Friday’s contest against St. Louis. #91 is six foot five and can really skate. He is vying for one of the last forward spots on the roster with Smith-Pelly, Chandler Stephenson, and Alex Chiasson.
  7. Speaking of Chiasson, he had a power play goal in Saturday’s defeat to the Canes. On that tally, all five Capitals touched the disc before Chiasson deposited it into the cage from the “Oshie” spot in the slot in front of the opposing goaltender. #39 isn’t the fastest skater, but he has scored 50 goals in 320 NHL games, including 12 tallies in 81 tilts last season for the Calgary Flames. There is a very good chance that Chiasson makes the opening night roster.
  8. For the past two seasons forward Marcus Johansson, who is now with the New Jersey Devils, has been the primary forward to carry the puck into the opposing zone on the Capitals first power play unit. Now that slot belongs to Evgeny Kuznetsov and I don’t think you’ll see any drop off at all in quality zone entries. Through the first four games of this preseason #92 has been the best Cap and his skating has been stellar.
  9. There was lots of talk in the offseason that Alex Ovechkin had lost weight and was going to play faster. On the first day of training camp, the Gr8 stated that he did not lose weight, although his official roster weight is now 235 versus 239 that was listed last season. Ovi talked about training differently to get faster. It’s only been two preseason games, but so far, I’m not seeing the results of that training change. Perhaps Alex is just easing into the season? No cause for concern yet, but Washington is going to need him to be going full tilt from the get go in 2017-18.
  10. On the backend, the battle for the last two spots is fierce. Christian Djoos has been mentioned in that conversation quite a bit and on Saturday night against the Canes, he showed off his offensive talents. On one shift in the second period he displayed his ability to move around at the offensive blue line and even rush the net when given the opportunity. He did just that and ended up drawing a penalty. On the downside, though, his defensive zone needs work. On the Canes game winning goal, Djoos was outmuscled behind his own cage by Marcus Kruger and that one on one battle loss proved very costly. Djoos’ primary competition for one of the blue line spots is Aaron Ness, Madison Bowey, and Tyler Lewington.
  11. Travis Boyd, who is a bit of a long shot to make the opening night roster, drew two penalties on Saturday against Carolina. #72 will likely end up in Hershey to start the season, but I’m pretty sure he will get some NHL game action at some point in 2017-18.
  12. Tom Wilson didn’t play on Saturday night due to a two game suspension he received for interfering with the Blues Robert Thomas. #43 hit the Blues center along the boards a second or so after the puck was gone. Thomas really had no way to defend himself and “Willy” made the mistake of focusing too much on the man instead of the puck. This is Wilson’s first NHL suspension, although he’s been fined several times.

The Caps next preseason game is on Wednesday at 7:00 pm in DC against the New Jersey Devils.

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Kuznetsov Bird

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Caps Still A Contender Despite Off Season Losses

Posted on 03 July 2017 by Ed Frankovic

For the past three years Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan built a squad to compete for the Cup with entry level or bridge contracts working in his favor. Unfortunately, despite having a complete roster this past season, which led to a second straight Presidents’ Trophy, they did not get the job done.

The Caps had the best team on paper this past spring, but when it came down to it, they couldn’t defeat Pittsburgh, once again.

Bottom line, they couldn’t handle the pressure of the top seed and they under performed.

They choked.

There is no way around that, all you have to do is go back and watch the panic they displayed in game seven after the Penguins took a 1-0 lead.

But we’ve already dissected that loss and the disappointing end to the season, so it’s time to move on.

On this journey, however, MacLellan, while talking about what he called a two year championship window (2015-16 and 2016-17), also clearly pointed out that after those two years were up that roster changes were inevitable due to the salary cap.

As the Caps GM and anyone else that closely follows this team knew all along, they had 11 players from this past spring’s roster that were up for new contracts.

Eleven!

So there was NO WAY this team was going to be the same and they were going to lose many pieces, especially with the salary cap only going up to $75M after the NHLPA mistakenly didn’t take advantage of the full escalator clause. That error is now putting many veteran NHL players out of work and could force many of them to have to take major pay cuts just to stay in the league.

So with five unrestricted free agents, six restricted free agents and the expansion draft guaranteeing one unprotected player was going to be taken by Vegas, the Caps GM had his work cut out for him.

MacLellan wisely took a strategy that focused on keeping the core of the team intact while letting players be exposed, unsigned, or traded where they had other options in the pipeline at those positions, such as on defense and at wing.

For the expansion draft he took the 7-3-1 protection approach which left them most vulnerable with either their 4th defensemen (Nate Schmidt) or the backup goalie (Philipp Grubauer). Leaving just those spots exposed was good asset management, especially when the Capitals knew they were losing one good player NO MATTER WHAT. That turned out to be the very popular, but still relatively inexperienced Schmidt. The 88 car, who is a very good skater and a positive player, was an undrafted free agent that had yet to play a full 82 game season and playoffs as a top four defensemen. The Capitals clearly liked Schmidt and openly stated the plan was for him to have the first shot at the fourth blue line slot this upcoming season, despite not having lengthy experience in that position at the NHL level.

Vegas GM George McPhee, who knew Schmidt well from his days with the Caps, opted to take Nate instead of Grubauer and the first roster hole became official.

Immediately after the expansion draft, the T.J. Oshie signing occurred allowing Washington to keep the 33 goal scorer and top line right wing at a bargain price of $5.75M for eight years.

This past weekend, with the start of free agency on July 1st, MacLellan focused his efforts on signing his restricted free agents. He inked defenseman Dmitry Orlov to a six year $30.6M deal, winger Brett Connolly to a two year $3M contract, and center Evgeny Kuznetsov to an eight year $62.4M monster extension. Over the same period unrestricted Washington free agents Karl Alzner signed with Montreal, Kevin Shattenkirk went, as expected, to the Rangers, and Justin Williams received a high paying two year deal ($9M) to return to Carolina.

The problem with the Caps signings was that the Orlov and Kuznetsov numbers came in a bit higher, especially in Kuznetsov’s case, than originally anyone expected. Both had leverage with the KHL, primarily Kuznetsov, and with Washington thin at center in the organization, Kuzy had even more extra leverage to get a big pay day. After all he could bolt to Russia, play in the Olympics and KHL this season, log another year overseas and then become an unrestricted NHL free agent in the summer of 2019. With no clear top two centers in the Capitals organizational pipeline, MacLellan had no choice but to re-sign Kuznetsov, mostly on #92’s terms. At that point, with restricted free agents Andre Burakovsky and Philipp Grubauer still the only ones needing new deals, someone was going to have to be moved now or in the future to make the overall salary cap dollars work.

The NHL allows teams to carry up to 10% over the salary cap until final roster cut downs, but with so many veteran players on the market likely to be cheaper going forward due to the small salary cap increase (bad move again, NHLPA) it was clear that the trade market was going to be decreasing rapidly going forward. Add in the fact that most teams spent a lot of money to give big increases to their own players (see Connor McDavid and Carey Price) and you can see why there hasn’t been a big trade market since the NHL expansion draft.

Case in point, just last week Vegas GM George McPhee, who selected top four defensemen Marc Methot from Ottawa in the expansion draft, was only able to obtain from the Dallas Stars a 2020 2nd round pick and goalie Dylan Ferguson (a 7th round pick in the 2017 draft) for the blue liner. You read that correctly, it’s the year 2020 for that second round pick!

So with MacLellan needing to deal because the trade market was looking bleak going forward, the Caps GM had to pick a player to move for salary cap room while also finding a dance partner. Marcus Johansson, who carries a $4.583M cap number, was the most likely candidate, especially with Burakovsky and 2014 NHL first round pick Jakub Vrana in place and ready to move up the depth chart at wing. Luckily the New Jersey Devils, who had set aside money to try and lure Shattenkirk to their club on July 1st, but failed to do so despite likely offering more money than the Rangers, had remaining budget and needed to make a splash to improve their team and appease their fan base.

So on Sunday night, just after announcing the blockbuster Kuznetsov deal, the Caps traded Jojo to the Devils and received 2018 2nd and 3rd round picks for the forward who just completed a career year in Washington with 24 goals and 58 points. 19 of those 58 points came on a first power play unit with Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Oshie, but Marcus did his share to earn those points by being the best on the team in man advantage zone entries (Kuznetsov will assume Johansson’s 1st PP spot going forward).

With the departure of the also very popular Johansson to go along with Schmidt and the three EXPECTED unrestricted free agent losses, some in the fan base and local and national media went nuts. This despite the fact that MacLellan had managed to pretty much ensure he’d re-sign six of the 11 players that needed new contracts for 2017-18 while also getting two draft picks for the departed Johansson to fill in holes that they had in the 2018 draft as a result of previously traded choices. Those draft picks should prove to be valuable going forward.

Following the Johansson trade, the fan response on Twitter and blog/Twitter posts of some in the local and national media were emotionally charged and a major overreaction in a negative sense. It seems that many conveniently forgot the facts, or chose to ignore them: the Caps were going to lose good players this off-season and when prices went up in the restricted free agent market, it likely cost them one more that they did not originally expect or could reasonably prepare for given the expansion draft.

Suddenly MacLellan, who along with Coach Barry Trotz and his coaching staff have done a wonderful job of turning around a team that was an absolute train wreck just three years ago, had become the village idiot on Twitter for losing Schmidt and Johansson. But in reality they are two replaceable players in the grand scheme of things when you look at the Capitals organizational depth. They have young quality defensemen in the organization and at wing both Burakovksy and Vrana are ready to move up to fill in the gaps left by the departure of Jojo.

Overall, the expansion draft and the upward costs of the restricted free agents resulted in the loss of those two players in addition to their unrestricted free agents (although MacLellan did keep Oshie from the UFA pile). In my opinion, however, you’d be hard pressed to pick any other two players from the 7-3-1 protected list and restricted free agent crew that make the dollars work while resulting in a better overall scenario for Washington going forward, especially given the other assets they currently have in the organization for replacements. Keep in mind that Vegas had the final say for the expansion draft, too, so the Caps did not get to choose who the Golden Knights selected. In addition, the idea of buying out Brooks Orpik was never a viable option and it would not have resulted in enough salary cap savings (only $3M) this season to allow all of the restricted free agent signings to occur (not to mention it would add wasted dollars to the salary cap for the next four seasons).

The Caps lost good players, but let’s get one thing straight in spite of everything that has transpired since the end of the season – the Capitals still have a VERY GOOD hockey team heading into 2017-18.

The projected line-up, based on input from the Caps GM during his Monday morning conference call, is now as follows:

Forwards:

Ovechkin – Backstrom – Oshie

Vrana – Kuznetsov – Burakovsky

Connolly – Eller – Wilson

TBD – Jay Beagle – TBD

Defense:

Orlov – Matt Niskanen

TBD – John Carlson

Orpik – TBD

Goalie:

Braden Holtby

Grubauer

The TBD’s at forward, right now, include the possibility of several Hershey players such as Chandler Stephenson, Nathan Walker, Travis Boyd, Riley Barber, or recently acquired players such as Tyler Graovac, Anthony Peluso or Devante Smith-Pelly (signed from New Jersey on Monday on a two way contract for the league minimum, $650,000). On defense, the TBD’s appear to be two of Taylor Chorney, Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos, Aaron Ness, and Tyler Lewington.

Yes, this is no longer a 118 or 120 point roster, but it’s still a good one, likely in the 100 to 105 point range given the strong centers, skilled scoring wingers, and quality goaltenders. In my opinion, Vegas not taking Grubauer will be a blessing in disguise for the Caps in 2017-18 because goaltending is the most important position in hockey. There will also be a lot less pressure on this team, the media and many fans have already written them off.

Finally, keep in mind that the other playoff teams in the Metropolitan Division have lost players too, due to the salary cap. In Pittsburgh, the two time defending champs saw Marc Andre-Fleury (expansion draft), Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, and Ron Hainsey all depart. Without Fleury, who was a great insurance policy for the oft-injured Matt Murray, the Capitals win that second round series this spring. The Rangers signed Shattenkirk, but they traded their number one center, Derek Stepan, backup goalie, Antti Raanta, and bought out defensemen Dan Girardi in the process of doing so. Columbus traded forward Brandon Saad to Chicago for Artemi Panarin, so they are still looking for a number one center to fill their biggest need. Bottom line, nobody has a roster without holes.

It’s clear the fact that the salary cap is impacting all teams gets lost in the noise when some look and analyze the Capitals.

Yes, they’ve become “top heavy” as MacLellan called them, but they are still a playoff team, at a minimum.

Fans are fans, though, so the negativity is to be expected, that’s just the way it is in professional sports. But you’d expect more out of the local and national media. Keep in mind, though, that there are critics in parts of the media who are fans, at heart, of other Metropolitan Division teams (for example, the Devils and the Flyers, to name a couple), or flat out just don’t like the Capitals organization, there’s no denying that. Then there are others who are just not experienced enough when it comes to the workings of the NHL or are trying to make their mark in their craft to move up the sports media ladder via page clicks – so please take their criticism and bashing with a grain of salt. They have an agenda.

In full disclosure, I won’t walk away from the fact that I worked for this organization for 11 seasons either, but my track record of calling the team out when they make mistakes is well documented (see my 2014 end of season fire McPhee and Oates blog or simply check out the first few paragraphs above). If I thought MacLellan did a poor job of handling this off-season, I’d call him out. But given what he was up against and the undeniable rising salary costs for the top players in the game, I think he’s done the best job he possibly could to keep the Capitals a playoff team and, depending on how the new players that make the lineup this fall pan out, still a Stanley Cup contender.

It’s now up to the Capitals star players, starting with Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and Holtby, to produce their best performances to help carry this club through the regular season and deep into the postseason.

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Oshie Signs

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Caps Smartly Lock Up T.J. Oshie Long Term

Posted on 25 June 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Pay The Man!

All last season as T.J. Oshie racked up key goal after key goal for the Washington Capitals from in the paint that was the phrase I used over and over about #77, whether it was in a tweet, a blog, or on the air on WNST.

Well, the Caps have now “Paid The Man!”

On Friday, Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan announced an eight year, $46M deal between the club and the “Osh Babe.”

Yes, T.J. and his whole family, who are must follows for their enthusiasm and passion on Instagram and Twitter will be Capitals for life.

Well done, Caps, well done.

Oshie, who will be 31 on December 30th of this year, has been the missing piece the Capitals have been searching for at right wing since Alexander Ovechkin entered the league in 2005-06. The closest they’ve come to having a true number one right wing was Alexander Semin back in the 2008 to 2010 period. But #28 was just too inconsistent, too soft on the boards, and took too many bad penalties to be counted on long term. Bottom line, that guy had all of the talent in the world, but he really didn’t have the interest or drive to put in the time or effort to be great at hockey. He was and still is one of the most maddening Capitals players to watch in club history.

Fast forward five years and Washington, under Coach Barry Trotz in his first season (2014-15), squeaked into second place in the Metropolitan Division on the last day of the regular season and parlayed that into a trip to the second round against the New York Rangers. The Caps would lose a three to one series lead and immediately afterwards in the summer of 2015, MacLellan stated that the Capitals needed to add to their top six up front to compete for the Stanley Cup. Specifically, he was looking for players who would go to the net and score, but also be able to compliment the skill they had up front in Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, and Andre Burakovsky. Enter Oshie in a trade for Troy Brouwer and Justin Williams via free agency and the Caps had players that knew how to win the one on one battles and keep pucks alive on the wall where previously they struggled to do so. Washington went on to win back to back Presidents’ Trophies before losing the Stanley Cup Final each spring in the second round to the eventual repeat Champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Yes, they were devastating defeats, but let’s be honest, the Capitals were the second best team in hockey both seasons, but they had to face the best in round two because of the playoff format. As I wrote in my end of season blog, the biggest reason the Caps lost to the Penguins this spring was because they didn’t have enough players willing to go to the net and pay the price for the ugly goals. Oshie, Williams, and Johansson were the three Washington players who did that much better than any of the others on the club this past season.

Unfortunately for MacLellan, there is only so much money to go around and with the salary cap rising to just $75M and Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, and some others due for big raises, including Oshie, he was in a bind and could not keep this entire team intact for 2017-18.

In addition, they knew they were going to lose a decent player in the expansion draft to Vegas and it turned out to be defensemen Nate Schmidt. The 88 car, after being the sixth or seventh defensemen much of the regular season, really stepped up in the playoffs and was slated by MacLellan to be a top four blue liner with the Caps in 2017-18, despite having never done that at the NHL level for a full 82 games plus playoffs. Since the Golden Knights opted to draft Nate instead of goalie Philipp Grubauer (also a restricted free agent), Schmidt will likely play top four minutes for a full 82 games next season, but he won’t be going to the playoffs with the roster former Caps GM George McPhee has assembled for its inaugural season.

But back to Oshie, on the open market he could’ve easily grabbed a contract for four or five years at or above $7M a season. However, the Osh Babe made it clear he enjoyed playing in Washington and wanted to stay. Therefore, he opted for much longer term and lower money in the out years, which essentially results in a discount for the Capitals in the first five years of this deal. Oshie will get $32.5M ($6.5M AAV) yet only count $5.75M each year ($28.75M) against the salary cap in season’s one through five.

Again, looking more closely at the way this deal is structured, Oshie receives $22M of the $46M in the first three years. However, the Capitals could not afford a salary cap hit of $7.333M in the near term nor could they handle a five year deal where the cap hit was $6.5M.

Without T.J. though, they are simply not Stanley Cup contenders. There is no one on this club that dogs the puck like he does. He is a true number one right wing and they have no one in the pipeline in the organization that fits that role. I repeat, there is no top line right wing anywhere else in the organization. So the trade off to keep Oshie, which was a must do, was adding in years six through eight, where the Caps are on the hook for another $13.5M, for a player who will start the season at ages 35, 36, and 37, respectively.

Some are making this out to be a bad contract, but it really isn’t when you factor in salary cap growth and also the discount they receive for the player in years one through five.

Upon inception in 2005-06, the NHL salary cap was set at $39M and has grown over 13 seasons to the $75M figure it will be in 2017-18. Using linear regression of those 13 data points and extrapolating that into the future, the salary cap projects to be as follows: $79.4M in 2018-19, $82.13M in 2019-20, $84.87M in 2020-21, $87.60M in 2021-22, $90.33M in 2022-23, $93.07M in 2023-24, and $95.81 in 2024-25. Simply put, if the NHL continues to grow the game at the same rate it’s done since 2006, and that’s certainly achievable given that they overcame a lengthy lockout in 2012-13 that resulted in a flat salary cap from 2011-12 to 2013-14, then that $95.81M number is certainly achievable.

This is important because as Oshie ages it is natural to expect his production to decrease, especially in years six through eight. In year six he will be 35 years old to start the season, yet Williams just proved, that with quality players around him, you can still produce at a high level at that age and you’d have to expect that in those out years T.J. will have either Backstrom or Kuznetsov feeding him the puck.

Some will also point out that T.J.’s high shooting percentage in 2016-17 is not sustainable. Sure, based strictly on those numbers that’s likely true, but looking at where Oshie gets his shots from, it’s easy to see why he had 33 goals in just 68 games. Keep in mind that the 2016-17 shooting percentage figure does not take into account all of the shots he had in close that he missed the net on, either. Bottom line, #77 was the player who was likely to score the most goals as a Capital based on where his shots are coming from. All shots are not created equal and on this club, Oshie has gotten much better scoring chances than he ever did in St. Louis for some big reasons. First, he plays the right way by going to the net and secondly, you have to credit the highly skilled forwards on this club, primarily Backstrom and Ovechkin, his usual linemates, for helping open up the ice for T.J. Let’s not forget that many of those chances for all three of them often came as a result of Oshie’s ability to keep pucks alive in the offensive zone as well as get them out of his own end. He’s an elite player and he deserved to get paid that way.

The past two years Oshie’s salary cap hit was $4.5M which accounted for 6.3% (2016) and 6.16% (2017) of the Washington total. He was a super bargain at $4.5M, no doubt. There are no bargains out there for MacLellan to snag now for a number one right wing. Adding in the cap hits for Ovechkin and Backstrom, the trio combined for 25.25% and 24.44% of the total, in 2016 and 2017, respectively. In 2018, Oshie will account for 7.67% of the Capitals total yet the trio will be at 25.1% of the team total, which is lower than in 2016. As the salary cap increases, Oshie’s individual total drops and based on my league salary cap total projections, is only 6.36%, 6.18%, and 6.0% in years six, seven, and eight of the deal, respectively. Those percentages are certainly not horrible, and keep in mind that Ovechkin’s current salary cap figure will be off of the books starting in year five of Oshie’s deal.

Bottom line, if MacLellan doesn’t offer the eight year deal, there is no deal that keeps Oshie with the Capitals and that top line right wing hole becomes a much bigger one to fill than the fourth defensemen slot they vacated due to the losses of Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk to free agency and Schmidt to the Golden Knights.

Washington does have some very promising up and coming young defensemen in the system in Madison Bowey, Tyler Lewington, Christian Djoos, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Lucas Johansen, who should be able to step up at the NHL level in the near future, especially given how well Trotz and assistant coach Todd Reirden have done in developing both Orlov and Schmidt. So keeping Oshie in the top right wing slot instead of allocating the money for a fourth defensemen to be named later at an over market price is another reason why the Capitals got this one right.

Notes: Washington drafted four players in the 2017 NHL Draft. Defensemen Tobias Geisser, Sebastian Walfridsson, and Benton Maas were selected with the 120th, 151st, and 182nd picks, respectively. With the 213th pick of the draft (7th round), they took left wing Kristian Marthisen who was born in Norway but played in Sweden this past season…the Caps will host their annual development camp at Kettler Ice Plex this week from Monday to Saturday. Practices are open to the public.

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Shattenkirk Caps

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12 Caps Thoughts Heading Into the Playoffs

Posted on 10 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

After losing to the Florida Panthers, 2-0, on Sunday night at the Verizon Center, the Washington Capitals completed their 2016-17 regular season with a 55-19-8 record (118 points). Here are twelve Caps thoughts, including quotes from several players, as we move into the most wonderful time of the year, the Stanley Cup Playoffs

What a classy move by Caps GM Brian MacLellan, Coach Barry Trotz and the entire organization rewarding forward Garrett Mitchell, a 6th round pick in the 2009 draft and captain of the Hershey Bears for the last two seasons, with his first NHL game on Sunday night. The 25 year old has been a regular in Chocolatetown for six straight seasons without making “The Show.” Mitchell, who is a free agent after the spring, not only played, but started the game with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. Nicky even got himself thrown out of the opening draw so that Mitchell could begin his NHL debut taking the face off. Kudos to all involved and afterwards you could not wipe the smile off of Garrett’s face. It was truly a feel good moment for a player who has done everything asked of him since he’s been drafted.

With the Columbus Blue Jackets rallying from a 2-0 hole on the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday night to win, 3-2 in regulation, the Caps will now face the Leafs instead of the Bruins in round one. This is a matchup that I’ve wanted for several weeks and now Washington has a chance to show why it favors the Capitals. Toronto is certainly faster than Boston, but they are far less experienced than the B’s and they have a blue line that the Caps should be able to expose. Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev was also injured in game 82 for the Leafs and his status for game one on Thursday is in question.

The Capitals won the Jennings Trophy for the first time since 1983-84 for allowing the fewest goals per game in the NHL over the course of 82 contests. Coach Trotz credited all three aspects of the team’s game, offense, defense, and goaltending for the achievement, but he put extra emphasis on what Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer have done in net. Trotz stated that you really need strong goaltending in this league and he noted that if you look at the numbers for the Holtbeast and Grubauer they are very similar, especially in terms of save percentage.

Washington is at its best when they are playing a structured game and not giving up odd man rushes. Following Sunday night’s season finale, forward Daniel Winnik provided insight into the key to limiting them. “I think a lot of that just has to do with, you know I’d love to see our goal differential from when we’ve had the set lines and set d-pairings since December. I think that’s made a huge difference and tightening up our overall defensive game. A lot of that has come from limiting turnovers at the offensive blue line. I think we’ve done less of exchanging chances with teams. I think we have the best five on five goal differential in the league.”

T.J. Oshie (33), Marcus Johansson (24), and Justin Williams (24) all had career highs in goals this season and those three players have been very good at getting to the front of the opposing team’s net, something that is very important in playoff hockey. I asked Jojo on how the Caps have improved their ability to do that this season. “We’ve talked about [net presence] a lot. When it comes down to the playoffs most goals are scored from there. We have to get to those dirty areas and I think it’s shown that when you go there you are going to get goals and get rewarded. So I’m going to keep doing it.”

The addition of Kevin Shattenkirk from St. Louis at the NHL trade deadline has been a big one for the Caps. I asked Shattenkirk about the change in systems between the two clubs. “It seems like here we play a little more defense skating forward. We’re pushing up on teams and really trying to squeeze all of their time and space out of them. I think in St. Louis we received the rush a little more and allowed forwards to back check and apply pressure. But here I like that, I like playing on my toes. It keeps me engaged the whole game, it sets up well for me.”

I followed up with Shattenkirk by saying that I thought Coach Trotz’ system fits his skill set better. Here’s what Shatty had to say in reply, “It does, it does. I think especially when we turn pucks over in the neutral zone I think the skill that we have up front, the way that these forwards present themselves, our system allows us to turn back on teams and I think that’s a strong area of my game, getting those pucks and finding that outlet pass that we can turn right back on teams and get instant offense on it. All of that stuff really starts to feed into my game.”

Shattenkirk has been paired primarily with 2009 Stanley Cup Champion Brooks Orpik for the first time in his career. Here’s Kevin’s take on how he sees things working out so far. “I knew the style of defensemen I was going to be playing with here and he’s surprised me a bit. Playing here the last few years he’s changed his game in a way that he makes some poised plays. He’s not just an off of the wall and out kind of guy anymore, he makes plays through the middle and he makes plays at the blue line. We’ve been moving a lot from our offensive blue line and creating a lot of space for our forwards. He’s a guy that can dive in and dive back out. Every game has seemed to go better and better and I really like the way that we’re going.”

There’s no doubt that the addition of #22 has strengthened the Capitals power play and I asked him about the key to finding his role on that unit. “It’s great. For me it was a matter of the first couple of games, I think just like any player who would get that opportunity, you’re looking for Ovi all the time. I’m looking to go back to Nicky and let him make the plays. It wasn’t until the third or fourth game I started realizing that I had to shoot some pucks. Teams weren’t really worrying about me shooting pucks and that’s something we’ve worked on in practice, me just getting pucks into T.J. and Marcus, who are great around the net. Once I started to establish that, it seems like those other plays really opened up, the big plays, and Ovi only needs one shot a game to make it count and I just want to make sure that when that time comes I’m putting it in the right spot for him.”

The Capitals have yet to win a Stanley Cup, but both Williams (three times) and Orpik have raised Lord Stanley. Shattenkirk also went to the Western Conference finals last season while many of the Caps have yet to advance past the second round. I asked Shattenkirk what it takes to advance that deep in the postseason. “That’s a loaded question. There are a lot of things that factor into it. One is being even keeled. I think that we [in St. Louis] were the same last year as this team is now. We were the team that was out in the first and second round for four straight years. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, you just have to stick with it. You have to have resiliency about your team and make sure that you realize there’s going to be lows; you can’t put too much pressure on yourselves throughout the playoffs. The way we ride those waves is going to be important and like you said the two guys that we have with the most experience here [Williams and Orpik], we’re going to lean on those guys, hopefully I can be a fresh voice and we just have to keep the hunger there. This team has everything that we need in the locker room to win playoff games; we just have to make sure that we don’t beat ourselves up too bad.”

Coach Trotz has done an outstanding job of spreading minutes around the blue line this season, but once Shattenkirk came on board, things evened out more. I asked #22 if that allows the Caps to play faster. “It does and more than anything it’s the rhythm. In St. Louis it was more situational when I would play more minutes, here it’s we’ve got three pairs that can play. Depending what happens with penalties and power plays, that can skew things a little bit, but for the most part we’re all rolling and I think for us to have that rhythm as a defensive pair and as a defensive unit, it’s great for our team because you don’t want to have guys sitting three, four minutes in a row, especially in the playoffs in critical situations.”

The Capitals finished the season on an 11-2-1 run and you can pretty much throw that last loss to Florida out since it was a Hockey North America like no checking affair. Winnik was asked if he thinks momentum matters heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. “Completely. I think it matters how you play before the playoffs. I think Pittsburgh proved that, the previous winners, LA, so I think playing the way we are hopefully its good foreshadowing.”

Here’s the official Caps-Leafs first round schedule:

Date                                 TIME (ET)                                                            

Thursday, April 13             7 p.m.                   Toronto at Washington

Saturday, April 15             7 p.m.                   Toronto at Washington

Monday, April 17              7 p.m.                   Washington at Toronto

Wednesday, April 19        7 p.m.                   Washington at Toronto

*Friday, April 21                TBD                       Toronto at Washington

*Sunday, April 23              TBD                       Washington at Toronto

*Tuesday, April 25            TBD                       Toronto at Washington

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