Tag Archive | "Hamrlik"

Bad Decisions Cost Caps Again

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Bad Decisions Cost Caps Again

Posted on 24 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

When you are up 3-0 in hockey, you should win the game. On Friday night at the Verizon Center, the Washington Capitals managed to give a critical game away to the desperate Winnipeg Jets, 4-3, in overtime. It was a costly loss as the Buffalo Sabres, by virtue of their victory over the New York Rangers, are now tied with the Caps for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Both teams have 82 points with just seven tilts remaining. In defeat, the Capitals wasted a two goal effort from Alexander Ovechkin (34th and 35th of the season) and some decent goaltending from Michal Neuvirth (38 saves).

After losing in the shootout to the Flyers on Thursday night, this was a worrisome game given that the Jets were in town waiting while the Caps went up and down I-95 the last two days prior to puck drop. But Washington came out as the stronger team dominating the play in the first 25 minutes. When Ovechkin scored top shelf on Ondrej Pavelec (20 saves) just 5:47 into the middle frame to put the Caps up three pucks, it looked like the rout was on. The Caps were outskating the Jets and playing with confidence. Only Pavelec’s stellar play in goal kept the Jets in it, at that point.

But a couple of things changed the entire course of the game in a matter of seconds. First, fourth liner Ben Maxwell scored when the Capitals had a major mental breakdown in their own end. Four Caps were back on the play as Tim Stapleton carried the puck into the Washington zone. Three defenders went to Stapleton with the fourth, Roman Hamrlik, also staring at the puck carrier. Bad decision number one as Stapleton found an all alone Maxwell in front for an easy goal. Then, on the ensuing face-off, third line center Jiri Slater goaded Washington first line center Brooks Laich into a fight. Bad decision number two as Washington was now forced to go without their top pivot for five minutes, which basically helped take red hot Ovechkin out of the game. That also sparked the Jets even more and they scored 71 seconds later to make it 3-2 with over 30 minutes left in regulation.

The Caps would then, for the first time this season, lose a game they were leading heading into the final frame (were 22-0-0, thanks @JapersRink & @ngreenberg). Shift after shift the energized Jets kept putting it on a tired Capitals club, but somehow the Caps held the lead, despite no shots on goal, until just under four minutes left in regulation. At that juncture, Jeff Halpern won a defensive zone draw but both John Carlson and Jeff Schultz failed to get to the biscuit and also did not cover their respective men. The result was a tap in goal and when the contest headed to OT, it was pretty obvious a tired Capitals team had run out of energy against a desperate Winnipeg club.

Some will blame the coach for the loss and the way the Caps played in the third period, but Dale Hunter’s troops didn’t get it done. When you have four guys back against two or three opponents, there should be no goal against, but that happened on the Jets first tally. Also, Laich decided to go with Slater on his own, likely a carryover from the previous week’s physical tilt in Manitoba. Brooksie is a hard worker, super teammate, and good guy, but #21 has to be smarter there and not take himself off of the ice in that situation. It was an important point in the game and to have their best pivot in the sin bin for five minutes really hurt the Capitals. Poor coverage was the problem on the game tying tally that came directly off of a won draw, that is bad execution, not coaching.

At the end of the night, the Jets are still likely done with both the Caps and the Sabres up four points on them. But Washington let another key point go by the way side. They made mental mistakes, took their foot off of the gas, and then lost confidence while Winnipeg got stronger as this game went on. The inevitable happened in the final frame, but fortunately for the Caps, they did pick up a point.

Still, they should have won up 3-0, despite being fatigued. Now they have Minnesota at home on Sunday evening before an all important matchup with Buffalo on Tuesday at the Verizon Center. Both contests are must wins, in my book.

 Notes: Not a good night for Marcus Johansson. The young Swede had one of the poorest games of his career. He was -3 and was pushed around in just 12:37 of ice time…Jay Beagle was 11-4 on draws and played 20:10…Ovechkin had 18:51 of ice time, not enough in my book. Part of the problem for Hunter though was he doesn’t have many decent options at center right now and when Laich is in the box he is forced to put either Johansson or the smaller Mathieu Perreault with the Gr8…Alex Semin returned to the lineup and had a strong game. He had an assist and was +1 in 16:13 of ice time. As good as 8 and 28 are though, with the major holes up the middle of the ice this Capitals team, as I’ve blogged many times since Nicklas Backstrom was injured, is going to be inconsistent. On Friday night, they received subpar play at center and that contributed mightily to the lack of third period forecheck, and ultimately the loss…Winnipeg went 4-1-1 against Washington this season while the Caps were 2-2-2 in the season series.

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Ovechkin Steps Up in Motown

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Ovechkin Steps Up in Motown

Posted on 19 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Just when the Washington Capitals appeared to be in big trouble in the race for the playoffs, their star players finally put together a huge effort as the Caps went into Motown and stunned the Detroit Red Wings, 5-3, behind 30 saves from Braden Holtby. This Wings team set an NHL record for consecutive home victories this season (23 games) and they’d only lost on home ice in regulation four times in 2011-12.

But Alexander Ovechkin (two goals) and company had no need for history on this night and a huge first period, one in which the Caps outscored Detroit 3-0, resulted in one of the biggest victories of the season for Washington. The win keeps them in eighth place, just two points ahead of a streaking Buffalo Sabres team and four points ahead of 10th place Winnipeg. The Caps also pull within three points of the Southeast Divison leading Florida Panthers, who are in Philadelphia tomorrow night to take on the Flyers. It is hard to believe, but Capitals fans will be cheering for Danny Briere, Jaromir Jagr, and company on Tuesday night.

After a terrible first period in Chicago on Sunday night, this Capitals team looked totally different in Detroit. Washington came out skating and they drew a couple of early penalties. Ovechkin scored twice with the man advantage by moving into prime scoring position. On the first tally, Marcus Johansson gave him a sweet feed in the slot and the Gr8 went upper left top shelf. Mike Knuble then scored following a great breakout pass from Mike Green that led to some sweet passing between Mathieu Perreault and Jason Chimera before Papa Knoobs buried the biscuit setting the stage for Ovie’s 32nd goal of the season. Ovechkin fired the puck from the top of the slot but he alertly, like a basketball player, followed up his shot and went to the net for the rebound. Brooks Laich kept it alive and the Gr8 banged home the puck to give the Caps a huge early cushion.

From there it was hang onto to your seats as the inevitable Wings full court press was due to come. In the second frame they cut it to 3-1 but then Keith Aucoin buried one in front after some super work by Alexander Semin and Roman Hamrlik on the boards. When Todd Bertuzzi made it 4-2 just 36 seconds in to period three, the Wings assault ramped up even more. Dan Cleary scored after a Knuble giveaway with just over seven minutes left but Holtby closed the door and Chimera hit the empty net for the final marker.

It was an impressive victory and many players turned in solid efforts. The Caps need Ovechkin to carry them down the stretch and he did it on this night. Laich, after a subpar outing in Chicago, was excellent as 1st line center and when the Gr8 has someone playing well at the pivot position for him he can be lethal. Semin had two assists and put in his best game in weeks while Green finally looked totally comfortable on the ice. He was making great breakout passes, ended up with an assist, and was +2 in 22:52. All four of those guys, Ovechkin, Laich, Semin, and Green have to be good in the last nine games for the Capitals to make the playoffs.

Holtby got the call with Tomas Vokoun nursing a creaky groin and Michal Neuvirth having played the night before. #70 had the tough task of going against a team that creates traffic in front of the opposing goaltender better than any other club in the NHL, so kudos to Braden for staying strong in his crease and playing a big role in the Caps win. Goaltending is ultra important in hockey and Holtby delivered that on Monday night.

So the Caps come home late tonight to their own beds but will practice at least once at Kettler IcePlex before going to Philadelphia for a date with the Flyers on Thursday night. This five game road trip, that looked to possibly be a disaster after Sunday’s blowout in the Windy City, is now 2-2. They have a chance to make it a huge success on Broad Street on Thursday, but Philly is playing well, so a victory there won’t be easy.

But for tonight, the Capitals did the improbable, knocking off one of the best teams in the NHL in their own building. Good things happen when you crash the net and the Capitals stars delivered on a night when they were sorely needed.

Notes: The Caps defensive pair of Jeff Schultz and John Carlson were on the ice for all three Detroit goals. #55 did not play well while Hamrlik (+2) did, so we’ll probably see Dmitry Orlov back in for Sarge on Thursday in Philly…Chimera’s empty net goal came on the power play so Washington was 3 for 4 on the evening while the Wings went 1 for 3…Joel Ward was scratched and Jeff Halpern returned to the lineup. Halpern was 3-2 on face-offs but the Wings won 32 of the 56 total draws.

 

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Hunter Getting It Done Despite Criticism

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Hunter Getting It Done Despite Criticism

Posted on 11 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

There were no two ways about Sunday’s Washington Capitals game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Caps had to win this contest with a five game road trip on the horizon. Brooks Laich continued to carry this club scoring a key shorthanded goal in the opening frame, Alexander Semin set up Mathieu Perreault for an early third period marker, and Michal Neuvirth stopped all 23 shots he faced en route to a 2-0 victory in his 100th NHL start.

It wasn’t flashy hockey, but it was team hockey as the Capitals did a super job of limiting Leafs odd man rushes and opportunities while generating puck possession and scoring chances for themselves. The victory moves Washington to 76 points with 13 games left and they trail the Southeast Division leading Florida Panthers by a single point. More importantly, the eighth place Capitals open up a four point cushion on the ninth place Sabres and Jets.

The Caps played some very good hockey this week going 3-0-1 and if you want to know my theory on why things have turned around check out yesterday’s blog where I discuss, in detail, the lineup changes that Coach Dale Hunter recently has made up the middle of the ice. Those moves continued to pay off again today as both Laich and Jay Beagle played big roles in the victory. The more balanced lineup is producing solid defensive hockey, something Hunter demands, and it is also generating more puck possession.

In my estimation, Hunter has taken far too much unnecessary criticism, especially on twitter. There are those that say he is in over his head or doesn’t know what he is doing with the scratches or goalies, or even worse, that his system doesn’t work in the NHL. I even heard seen some people say that Hunter is just tanking it so that he can go back to juniors. Horse hockey, I say.

I’ve known Hunter since 1987 when he came to the Caps and he hates to lose as much as anybody. As I was leaving the Verizon Center long after last Tuesday’s OT loss to Carolina I ran into ole #32 in the hallway. I asked him if he was having fun, his response, “I don’t like losing.” We then proceeded to talk about the game for a couple of minutes pointing out both good and bad plays. I walked away from that conversation knowing what I already pretty much knew, Dale Hunter is as committed as ever to helping the Washington Capitals win.

Hunter knows hockey and he didn’t exactly inherit the Detroit Red Wings when he took over. Throw in an injury to the one player he could not afford to lose most, Nicklas Backstrom, and it is impressive that the bench boss has been able to keep the ship afloat given some of its’ issues. But as I chronicled yesterday, the coach is getting a handle on what he has to work with and with Laich and Beagle both totally healthy for the first time in his tenure he is employing a configuration that fits what he wants to do.

Simply put, this Capitals team CANNOT be the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers or even the 2009-10 Washington Capitals. Run and gun won’t work with Backstrom out and the other weaknesses up the middle of the ice. But they do have a slew of hard working guys, that cobbled together with skilled players like Alexander Ovechkin, Semin, Perreault, and Marcus Johansson will equate to wins if the right balance is found. It takes 20 guys working hard and together. Right now they appear to have that, the question is, can they keep it going? My answer is, yes, if they don’t sustain any more injuries, especially to Laich, who not only talks the talk, but walks the walk. #21 has been outstanding since finally overcoming what looked to be a bad knee injury against Boston back in early February.

Add in the work ethic and desire of Beagle as well as players like Matt Hendricks, Jason Chimera, Karl Alzner, etc and suddenly you have a cohesive team. Semin was outstanding this weekend and if Ovechkin works hard and trends up then this team starts to have some serious potential, especially if they manage to get Backstrom back.

But those projections must wait for now. The Capitals have a five game road trip that starts on Tuesday on Long Island against an Islanders team that has taken 5 of 6 points from Washington this year. The Caps must be ready from opening puck drop if they want to continue to try and win their division, or at the very least separate themselves from those behind them in the playoff hunt.

Today they did that beating a tired Maple Leafs team that worked hard under new coach Randy Carlyle but just don’t have the horses up front with Joffrey Lupul out. But everyone has injuries and good teams and coaches find ways to overcome them. Hunter is doing his best to do that, but the road ahead is tough, and the momentum gained this week must carry over for his team to get its’ fifth straight playoff berth.

Notes: The Caps only had one power play but it did everything except score. Washington had several scoring chances and had the puck in the Leafs zone the entire two minutes…the Capitals, by scoring shorthanded, won the special teams battle for the second straight game…Johansson missed an empty net late in regulation. The puck rolled on him after a sweet feed from Perreault and his shot attempt from four feet away went wide. MJ90 wasn’t happy but he was in the right place to score. His play has trended up since Hunter moved him back to the wing where he can be more effective in man to man coverage…the Caps lost the faceoff battle 24-15. Laich was only 4-10 but Beagle won 5 of 6 draws…there were lots of solid games by a lot of players and noone played less than 10 minutes. Each of Washington’s six defensemen played near the top of their ability as mistakes on the back end were definitely minimized.

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Hunter’s Latest Lineup Paying Dividends

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Hunter’s Latest Lineup Paying Dividends

Posted on 10 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Given that the Washington Capitals have struggled on the road all season long, it appeared, on paper, that Saturday’s tilt at Boston against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Bruins would be a loss for the Caps. But, as they say, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum or TD Garden, in this case. The Caps came up with one of their strongest performances of the season in a 4-3 victory over the B’s. It was a huge win for the Caps and it moves them within a point of first place Florida in the Southeast Division.

The Caps really came out flying and jumped to a 2-0 lead with some aggressive play. They then staved off two shaky penalty calls by Tim Peel and company and looked poised to exit the opening frame up a pair. But a bad icing by Troy Brouwer and a missed assignment on a faceoff with six seconds left led to a Milan Lucic goal. The question after that would be how the Capitals would respond to that late tally? When the Bruins tied the score on a breakaway by Brad Marchand that was caused by an Alexander Ovechkin giveaway while Dennis Wideman was heading to the bench on the long change, it looked like Boston had all of the momentum.

However, this Caps team seems to be getting mentally tougher and they responded with some outstanding hockey drawing three straight penalties. Jay Beagle would score off of a super feed from Alexander Semin just after the first man advantage situation expired and Brooks Laich re-directed home a Dennis Wideman feed on the third power play to make it 4-2 heading into the final frame. From there Washington did not give up any odd man rushes and forced the Bruins to shoot from the perimeter. After Mike Knuble missed an empty net that would have made it 5-2, Boston scored with 3:13 to go but Tomas Vokoun (30 saves), who was close to excellent in this one, slammed the door shut and the Caps left Beantown with two big points.

Dale Hunter’s crew has been playing better recently and is 2-0-1 in their last three games with the one loss coming to Carolina in overtime, a game in which they had 49 shots on goal. What has been the change that has turned things around? Is it an urgency to their game? Are they firing more pucks on net and battling to the cage? Are they playing desperate hockey? The answer to each of those questions is yes, for the most part, but that doesn’t explain it all.

To me, it is some recent lineup adjustments that has spurred this better play on. For the first time since Nicklas Backstrom went out with his concussion injury in early January, Hunter seems to be getting consistently solid play up the middle of the ice. The head coach moved Brooks Laich to center and Marcus Johansson to wing. In addition, Beagle’s role has been expanded and he is centering the third line. This configuration gives the Capitals bigger and stronger guys to fill the important low man role in Hunter’s man to man defensive system. Laich and Beagle are more solid on defense than the smaller Johansson, who can be moved out of position easier because of his lack of physical size. You still have Mathieu Perreault centering the second line but he is only playing 13 to 14 minutes. So instead of 35 plus minutes a game with a smaller center duo, Hunter now has Laich (21:48) and Beagle (18:10) playing above 35 minutes at the pivot. Huge difference at both ends of the ice, if you ask me.

The added bonus to this configuration is Johansson has played better this season as a winger and he doesn’t have so much pressure on him. It is a more balanced scheme. So why didn’t Hunter come up with this sooner, since it appears to be working so well? Well, Laich was playing a good bit of center shortly after Backstrom got hurt but then he injured his knee in the Boston game in early February. It took several weeks for #21 to get healthy and you can’t play the pivot position if your body isn’t right because the spot requires so much energy. As for Beagle, he missed 31 games due to a concussion and it’s taken him a couple of months since then to get in true hockey shape. He is a tireless worker and is finally back to the condition he was before he was knocked out by Arron Asham in October.

So it has taken time to develop, but Hunter’s best center configuration appears to have to include Laich and Beagle right now. Both are good defenders and among the hardest workers on the club. You can’t win in the NHL without centers and that was a big reason why the Capitals have struggled to find consistency since Backstrom went down. If Hunter sticks with Laich as top line pivot and #83 slotted in the third line position, and both stay healthy, then I think that gives Washington the best chance to do well over the last 14 games and win the Southeast Division. There may be some bad matchups along the way, but overall this lineup increases the Capitals win probability.

On Sunday at 5 pm the Caps are right back at it against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Verizon Center. A win would put them at 76 points with 13 contests left on the docket, including a five game road trip that starts Tuesday on Long Island. Saturday’s victory over the Bruins was important, but a loss against the Leafs would pretty much waste what would be a very big weekend for this hockey team.

So they can’t afford a let down, there is too much at stake, plus the Caps have some tough games coming up away from home.

Notes: Roman Hamrlik and Knuble were back in the lineup for the suspended Mike Green and scratched Jeff Halpern. Both were solid in their 13:29 and 11:26 of ice time, respectively…Matt Hendricks and Semin had the other goals. Both played excellent games with #28 getting two points and being a +2…Karl Alzner and John Carlson did a nice job against a red hot Boston line of Lucic, David Krejci, and Tyler Seguin. Both Krejci and Seguin were held off of the scoresheet…Washington finally won the special teams battle for the first time since 2/17 going 1 for 3 on the PP while killing both Boston man advantage situations (thanks to @JapersRink for that info).

 

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Caps Steal Victory From Jaws of Defeat

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Caps Steal Victory From Jaws of Defeat

Posted on 28 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

You can call it lucky. You can call it the result of hard work. Or you can call it the hockey gods finally smiling down on the Caps.

Whatever you want to call it, it was two points for the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night as they rallied from a 2-0 hole in the final four minutes to tie the game before Alexander Ovechkin scored in overtime to lift the Caps to a 3-2 victory over the New York Islanders.

If ever there was a game that this club needed a win in, it was on this night when they opened up a crucial five game homestand. The win over the Isles moves the Caps into 8th place in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of Winnipeg, and Washington has two games in hand on the Jets. With the Florida Panthers winning in Toronto, Washington still trails the Cats by three points in the Southeast Division and the Panthers have a game in hand.

The Caps carried the play for much of the night but Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov (31 saves) was really good and the Capitals also weren’t doing the little things necessary to score, like getting bodies to the cage. Washington outshot New York 13-3 in the opening frame but it was the Islanders who led 1-0. The four time Stanley Cup winning organization would go up 2-0 in period three and things looked bleak for the Caps. They had dominated much of the action but allowed two goals because Washington defenders left their feet in their own zone. Jeff Schultz was the culprit on the first Islanders tally while Matt Hendricks made the mistake on the second goal, that came just over two minutes into period three.

But this Capitals team kept working and found a way to fight back and cut the deficit on what looked like a routine play. Jason Chimera outworked Mark Streit for the puck in the left wing corner and Mathieu Perreault corraled the biscuit and fired it to Troy Brouwer at the top of the crease. #20 tapped it by Nabokov and the Verizon Center crowd came alive. Then it looked like the Caps were going to lose but Streit fired the puck in his own bench with 31 seconds left giving Washington an offensive zone face-off. Coach Dale Hunter smartly put out Jeff Halpern and #15 won the draw. Brooks Laich would fire on net and Brouwer tipped it home.

The comeback seemed rather easy and it took a simple formula: put pucks AND bodies to the cage and good things happened.

After that the stage was set for the dramatic Ovechkin to win it on one of his patented end to end rushes. The Gr8, who struggled to hit the net on several earlier shots, got this one through d-man Travis Hamonic and five hole on Nabokov to send the 136th straight sellout crowd out happily onto F street.

So the Caps have 19 games left and now sit at 69 points (32-26-5). The key now is to stay ahead of the Leafs and Jets and also make sure a team like Tampa doesn’t rally to catch them. If they do that they would grab at least the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference but this team really wants a fifth straight Southeast Division title (would bring the 3rd seed). A win like tonight surely helps that cause but with four more contests at the Verizon Center upcoming, the Capitals can’t afford to giveaway any games. Friday’s tilt with the New Jersey Devils should be a good one and is another nearly must win for Washington.

Notes: Schultz and Joel Ward had the lowest ice times for d-men and forwards, respectively. Both are slower skaters. Speaking of slower skaters, Mike Knuble, Roman Hamrlik, and John Erskine were the scratches. It is clear that Hunter is going to play guys who can play at a high pace and tempo…Hendricks had a poor game tonight by obstructing Michal Neuvirth’s view (22 saves) on the second goal and taking two minor penalties, one of which was late in the third period. #26 works hard but sometimes he is not very smart on the ice…the Caps were a perfect 3 for 3 on the penalty kill but their power play went 0 for 4 and if it doesn’t start connecting is going to eventually cost the club victories. Washington had two PP’s in the opening frame and couldn’t cash in, that is a momentum killer.

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Caps Rolling Dice With Current Crew

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Caps Rolling Dice With Current Crew

Posted on 27 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

In one of the quietest NHL trade deadlines ever, Washington Capitals General Manger George McPhee decided to not make any deals. Therefore, the Caps will play the final 20 games of the regular season and then hopefully the playoffs, with their current roster. The one added bonus to the equation would be if center Nicklas Backstrom is able to return, at some point, from his concussion. Noone knows the answer on if and when #19 will be back.

Those who saw McPhee’s press conference would be hard pressed to argue with anything the GM had to say. It was clear there were no big trades out there to make as evidenced by the fact that the biggest deal was likely Cody Hodgson going to Buffalo from Vancouver in exchange for Zack Kassian. The only move that would have made sense for GMGM, in my mind, was to add a top six forward. That type of player clearly wasn’t available for anything less than a first round round draft choice. When a third line center like Paul Gausted is moved for Nashville’s 1st round pick you know the prices are too high. If you can’t figure that out then hum a few bars and I’ll sing it for you.

So where do the Caps go from here? McPhee is counting on his team to make the post season and with Mike Green’s return the defense is much stronger. This is the first time since the beginning of the season that Green, Dennis Wideman, and John Carlson are all in the lineup together. That is a pretty strong right side of the ice, especially from a puck moving standpoint. The key will be to keep #52 healthy and with #6 staying and not getting moved, then the “One Man Breakout” will likely only log 22 to 24 minutes a game instead of the 28 to 30 he used to play when after Carlson there weren’t many other righthanded options on the point.

Up front, the team is rolling the dice with a couple of smallish centers. Both Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault are being asked to do a lot. If Backstrom were back the dynamic changes because 20 to 22 minutes a game is then covered by #19 and MJ90 and MP85 are only playing a combined 25 to 28 minutes instead of the 34 plus they are getting now. Coach Dale Hunter has no choice but to ride on with these two young, scrappy players. They will have their ups and downs so it is imperative that Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Troy Brouwer, and Brooks Laich have strong finishes. If they don’t then the Caps will be on the links come Masters time.

Some wanted to see McPhee move Mike Knuble and Roman Hamrlik, two players who are sitting right now and aren’t very happy. When I hear that keeping them “poisons the room,” I strongly disagree. There isn’t a hockey player in the league who is happier sitting than playing, except for maybe Jaromir Jagr, in some instances. Hunter is a straight shooter and he doesn’t care about a players feelings, it is all about winning to him. There were people who complained when he sat Jeff Schultz and then there was an uproar when goalie Michal Neuvirth wasn’t played in back to back contests a couple of weeks back. Both players got the message, worked their rears off in practice, and are now playing at the top of their respective games. Knuble and Hamrlik may very well be needed at some point so to simply dump them for a lower level round draft pick made zero sense. The Caps expect those two to be professionals and focus on getting better, not providing sound bites to the local scribes.

So now it is time to move forward and see if the Capitals current crew can get on a roll and win the Southeast Division. They certainly have the talent on the roster to do it despite the lack of strong centermen. But every team in the Eastern Conference has flaws.

It is a wide open race and once the dance starts, anything can happen (see Montreal over the Caps and Penguins in 2010).

The trade deadline is over and there is no cavalry coming in to save the day. It is up to every player on the Caps roster to determine how bad they want to make the post season and then succeed if they get in.

 

 

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Victory Inches Caps Closer to Playoff Spot

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Victory Inches Caps Closer to Playoff Spot

Posted on 24 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

If only the Washington Capitals could play the Montreal Canadiens every night?

In a game the Caps had to win, they came out hard and dominated the Eastern Conference last place Habs en route to a 4-1 victory. It was Washington’s third straight win over Montreal this season and the combined score between the two teams is 10-1.

There were lots of good performances from Washington forwards to include Alexander Semin (1 assist, +2), Jason Chimera (1 goal, 1 assist, +2), Mathieu Perreault (1 goal, +1), and Alexander Ovechkin (1 goal). The Gr8 provided a spark by returning from his injury and his skating looked very good in period one when Washington needed him most.

On the back end all six defensemen were solid playing their role. Mike Green (+1), despite some turnovers, looked very good skating and moving the puck while Dmitry Orlov (1 assist, +1) had his best game in recent weeks. #81 was strong on his skates and he dealt out some nice hits. He has the occassional bad giveaway but he is playing extremely well for a rookie. I also thought Karl Alzner was superb and he did a nice job of getting pucks away from Washington’s net and moving it out of the defensive zone.

As important as the return of offense was for the Capitals, they also received excellent goaltending from Michal Neuvirth (30 saves). #30 didn’t give up many rebounds and the only marker he allowed he had little chance on (Rene Bourque’s shorthanded one timer).

But before getting too carried away about this victory, the real deal is that the Caps won at home against a team that is a mess. However, it was two points and that is what matters right now for Washington, who jump into ninth place in the Eastern Conference, just a point behind eighth place Florida (the Panthers have two games in hand on Washington) and only two points behind Southeast Division leading Winnipeg (the Caps have two games in hand on the Jets). 

The Capitals now go to Toronto for Saturday’s Hockey in Night in Canada against a team they are fighting with for a playoff spot (the Leafs have 65 points as well). After going 1-3 on their most recent road trip Coach Dale Hunter’s crew really needs a victory away from the Verizon Center. There are just 21 games left in the season and Saturday’s tilt from the Air Canada Centre is the last one before Monday’s 3 pm NHL trading deadline.

As I’ve mentioned in my last couple of blogs, the buy or sell decision has not totally been made, but a victory would likely shift the focus to buying. Had they lost tonight like they did in Carolina or Ottawa, the white flags may have been waved. But after Friday’s win, the Capitals have inched closer to a playoff spot and the players have another game to prove to GM George McPhee, and possibly more importantly to ownership, that they deserve a shot to save their season in the last quarter of it.

Notes: Slow skating Roman Hamrlik and Mike Knuble were two of the three scratches on Friday night. It is quite possible that both could be moved by Monday’s trade deadline…shots attempted were 53-50 in favor of the Caps, who carried the play for two periods before giving the Habs too much room in the final frame…Brooks Laich appears to be nearly over his knee injury and logged 21:54 of ice time. He was 11-7 on faceoffs…Ovechkin played 7 minutes in the opening frame and 17:43 overall. The Caps need him to step up and carry this team down the stretch. Friday night was a good start to that.

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How Caps Handle This Loss May Define Rest of Season

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How Caps Handle This Loss May Define Rest of Season

Posted on 09 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

I have been watching hockey for nearly 40 years and I would have to really think hard to find an ending similar to how the Caps managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against Winnipeg at the Verizon Center, in a shootout, 3-2, on Thursday night.

After the Caps took a 2-0 lead on Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin third period power play goals the Jets received the man advantage with 4:05 left when Roman Hamrlik took a bad slashing penalty. Shortly thereafter we entered the twilight zone as Brooks Laich was called for playing the puck with a broken stick, even though he didn’t realize it, leading to a six on three goal (the Jets pulled their goalie) and just 12 seconds later a dump in from center ice hit Karl Alzner’s stick at the blue line, changed direction, and went into the net past Tomas Vokoun! It was one of the most bizarre sequences I have ever seen in hockey, or sports, for that matter.

This was a game the Capitals really needed on Thursday night and they certainly played like they really wanted it. They carried much of the play and if not for Winnipeg’s Ondrej Pavelec (32 saves), Washington wins fairly handily. But that is hockey. Washington couldn’t put the Jets away and as a result they only received a point in a game they likely deserved two. The defeat drops the Capitals into a first place tie with the Florida Panthers, who beat the Los Angeles Kings, 3-1, on Thursday. Florida has a game in hand so technically they have the division lead.

What will be most telling now, though, is how Dale Hunter’s club handles this crushing defeat. Will they realize that they played some quality hockey and were only done in by some bad breaks or will they wallow in self pity? If they are smart they will take a look at the last four games they’ve played and realize that they should not hang their heads at all. They are playing much better despite not having Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, not to mention Laich is playing on a bum knee. This club is improving despite their weakness up the middle of the ice. Their passes are much crisper overall and they are coming out of their own zone with greater speed, and that helps generate more scoring chances. There is a lot of cause for optimism.

But the road ahead is very tough as they face the first place in the Eastern Conference New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Sunday before coming home to play the always difficult San Jose Sharks on Monday night. After that they go on the road for five of the following six against several teams they are battling in the standings.

Crushing defeats often define a player or a team. The good players or teams move on quickly, learning what is important in the loss, and they find a way to take their game to the next level immediately. Two Sundays ago at Torrey Pines golfer Kyle Stanley made an 8 on the 18th hole when all he needed was a 7 to win. A sequence of crazy things did him in, much like they did to the Capitals tonight. But Stanley moved on and just this past week he came back to win in Phoenix after most people would have written him off for a good long time. Clearly Stanley has talent but he was mentally tough and he didn’t let the bad breaks do him in permanently. This Caps team has talent, even without Backstrom and Green. The fact that they’ve stayed in the playoff race shows that they have mental toughness too.

A loss like tonight, though, will really test them mentally. In fact, my experience tells me that how they handle this one may just define the rest of the season. They have a day off tomorrow before practicing on Saturday, then heading to the “Gahden” to face the Rangers. If they focus on the positives over the last four games and not dwell on what might have been against the Jets, they will be okay. Clearly it will be up to the even keeled demeanor of Hunter and the leadership in the locker room to help this team keep the proper focus going forward. Stay tuned…

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Lots of Positives in Caps Win

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Lots of Positives in Caps Win

Posted on 04 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The Montreal Canadiens are not a good hockey team but just 10 days ago they destroyed the league leading Detroit Red Wings, 7-2, at the Bell Centre. In Montreal on Saturday the Washington Capitals did what they had to do and knocked off a reeling, but dangerous, Habs team, 3-0, behind 29 fairly ordinary saves from Tomas Vokoun. It was a game that the Caps had to win given where they are in the standings (9th place in the East heading into the game and three points out of first in the Southeast Division) and despite the fact that it wasn’t very pretty hockey coach Dale Hunter’s crew secured two points.

There were lots of positives in this game. Brooks Laich continued his solid and consistent play and had two assists while Alexander Semin turned in a super third period assisting on Matt Hendricks goal that made it 2-0 before putting this one away on a penalty shot with 8:03 to go. #28 skated in on Peter Budaj (20 saves) and fired a slapper that went top shelf under the cross bar. Not many players have the skill to pull that move off but Semin’s talent level has never been questioned. It is pretty clear that Semin elevates his game when his close friend Alexander Ovechkin is in the lineup (back today after sitting out three games due to suspension) and he did it again in Montreal. The Gr8, after not playing in 13 days, was visibly rusty but just his presence in the game seemed to energize his teammates.

The Caps were outshot in this tilt, primarily because of a poor second period, but that didn’t matter today because the chances Montreal received were not grade A quality scoring opportunities. Washington put in a strong defensive zone effort and kept the Canadiens to the outside and away from prime positions on the ice. Outside of perhaps Tomas Plekenac’s late shorthanded semi-breakaway, I am not sure the Habs had a clear odd man rush the entire game. Achieving that is exactly what Hunter’s style of play is designed to accomplish and as a result Vokoun faced some rubber but not a lot of ones where Montreal had a really good chance to score.

In my opinion, the biggest positive on Saturday was the play of 22 year old John Carlson on defense. I thought this was by far his best game in weeks and he played magnificently. Part of that was because he was paired back up with Karl Alzner again, but #74 looked confident on the ice and he actually bailed out King Karl big time with the game 1-0 in the second period. After #27 made a bad pass up the middle of the ice, Carlson came flying out from behind the net and went down and blocked the shot. It was impressive stuff and it was the right time to leave your feet on defense, something you don’t normally want to do. Outside of that gaffe, Alzner was fabulous himself. He made play after play in his own end and the one time he had to leave his feet he also blocked perhaps Montreal’s best scoring chance of the day. Numbers 27 and 74 were outstanding on Saturday and their respective ice times of 22:01 and 22:30 were the highest on the team. The Caps certainly hope that Carlson builds off of this excellent performance because they need him playing well with Mike Green still out due to surgery.

On the down side, the power play was still terrible. In 4:31 of man advantage time the Capitals had just ONE shot on goal. Washington had trouble getting set up in the offensive zone and even when they finally did there was too much overhandling of the puck. Assistant Coach Dean Evason has to get these players to simplify once they get in scoring position and shoot the puck. With Green and Nicklas Backstrom out injured there is no doubt that two of Washington’s best puck handlers on the power play are missing but this unit still should be better. At a critical point in the game today in period two the Caps had a penalty shot stopped (Troy Brouwer) and they followed that up with a pitiful power play. A better opponent might have taken advantage of the Capitals missed opportunities but on Saturday the Caps were fortunate to be playing a falling apart Montreal club.

At the end of the afternoon, though, the good far outweighed the bad and Washington improved to 27-20-4 (58 points). The Caps need to get points right now and hope that Green, who skated four days in a row this week and appears to be on or perhaps even ahead of schedule on his surgery recovery, and Backstrom are back in the lineup at some point. The news on #52 was very good this week and they have a chance to go 2-1-1 in the four games since last Sunday’s all star game if they can find a way to defeat the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins on Sunday at 12:30 at the Verizon Center (on NBC).

Notes: Dennis Wideman scored the Caps first goal on a fluky, dipping slap shot after Laich won the offensive zone face-off…Roman Hamrlik went +2 and was significantly better than he had been in the two games in Florida…Jeff Schultz recieved 13:53 of ice time, the most he’s had in a game since December 5th…John Erskine and Jay Beagle were the scratches while enforcer Joel Rechlicz cleared waivers and was sent to Hershey…the Caps only took one penalty, a poor one by Mike Knuble, and they killed that one fairly easily against the worst home power play in the NHL…Washington lost the face-off battle, 29-24…Alzner and Carlson did get stuck on the ice for a 2:28 shift at the end of period two because the Caps forwards kept failing to get the puck deep. Part of Washington’s struggles in the middle frame were due to that and as a result the d-men can’t get off the ice with the long change…Budaj got the nod in goal for the Habs since Carey Price is playing on Sunday against Winnipeg.

 

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Defensive Breakdowns Cost Caps in OT Defeat

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Defensive Breakdowns Cost Caps in OT Defeat

Posted on 31 January 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Despite having to play once again without Alexander Ovechkin (2nd of three game suspension), Nicklas Backstrom (concussion), and Mike Green (hernia surgery) the Washington Capitals are finding ways to get standings points that they desperately need. The Caps, who trailed 3-1 past the halfway point in Tampa on Tuesday night, rallied with two goals before falling in overtime, 4-3, to the Bolts on a Steven Stamkos tally.

The Capitals continue to give a super effort every night but right now they are clearly missing their big guns, especially on the power play (0 for 3 in Tampa), and they also are making too many defensive breakdowns. Every Bolts tally on Tuesday was the result of poor play in Washington’s own zone. The primary culprits in this one were Roman Hamrlik (-3) and John Carlson (-4) but Mathieu Perreault failed to cover Teddy Purcell on the Lightning’s first tally after #44 backed up giving Steve Downie a clear passing lane. Coach Dale Hunter has instituted a defense first system that has taken time to implement and in this game the Caps made some big blunders that gave the Bolts too many odd man rushes, something that tactically should not happen with this style of play. I am sure tomorrow morning’s video session will be poignant.

On the positive side, Brooks Laich and Matt Hendricks turned in superb performances and were two of the primary reasons the Capitals got a point. Winger Troy Brouwer was solid as well and his goal after #21 forced an offensive zone turnover tied this one up just under six minutes into the third period. The Caps offense, even without the big guns, showed a lot of life at even strength and the 29 shots on net were the most for Washington in weeks. Perreault has done a nice job of stepping up centering Alexander Semin and Marcus Johansson to give Hunter a true scoring line.

In goal, Tomas Vokoun was a difference maker again and his save on Vincent Lecavlier in overtime is one you’ll see highlights of quite a bit over the next 24 hours. #29 is making the key stop, with his biggest actually being on Stamkos on a breakaway early in period three in a 3-2 game. If #91 scores there the game is over.

This Caps team is certainly resilient under Hunter and they don’t quit. It isn’t pretty hockey right now but they have managed to get four points in the last three games against good competition (Pittsburgh, Boston, and Tampa). Hunter’s club has to work hard every night to be competitive and so far they are doing it. They have Wednesday night’s first place in the Southeast Division showdown battle in Florida (8 pm start) to tackle before they get Ovechkin back on Saturday in Montreal. What is not encouraging is that Backstrom has skated only a total of five minutes over the last 25 days. Clearly if #19 is out even longer term (he’s missed 11 games already), Washington’s chances of making the playoffs or going deep in them, are severely weakened.

But this is pro sports and other players have to step up. Guys like Laich and Perreault are doing that right now and that is keeping the Caps afloat.

Notes: Martin St. Louis’ goal to make it 2-1 not only was clearly offsides, but Lecavalier interferred with both Hamrlik (took out his skates) and Carlson on the play. Not sure what the zebras were looking at there? However the men in stripes did allow Laich to put his free hand around Matt Gilroy as he was skating around the net and he gave the puck up to Brouwer for the game tying tally. So the refs taketh and giveth in this contest…Washington recalled Cody Eakin and Joel Rechlicz from Hershey for the game. Rechlicz only played two shifts and 1:49 but his presence on the bench clearly made a difference. Tampa’s chief pest and punk Downie was nowhere near as agitating or dirty as he had been in the past. Just the fact that #54 might come out on the ice to pound someone helped Washington, in my opinion…Karl Alzner was +3 and along with Dennis Wideman were the best defensive pair…Dmitry Orlov took Hamrlik’s spot with Carlson in the last portion of the game. #81 allowed St. Louis to go around him on the game winning goal and Carlson did nothing as Stamkos swooped in for the OT winner. It was a 2 on 4 for Tampa on the winning play. #74 needs to improve in his own zone pronto…Mike Knuble was -3 in 19:50 of ice time…Washington is now 26-19-4. They have a one point lead over the Panthers but Florida has a game in hand.

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