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Caps Slay The Defending Champion Kings, 4-0

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Caps Slay The Defending Champion Kings, 4-0

Posted on 04 February 2015 by Ed Frankovic

“I’m shuffling lines around, guys. I’ll let you know when I get it straightened out.” – Reg Dunlop, Charleston Chiefs

For 50 games, Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz has been juggling his forward line combinations trying to find the right fits.

In game number 51, which turned out to be a Caps 4-0 rout of the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings, he just may have found his best forward line up yet.

Trotz moved Marcus Johansson, who is having his best pro season, up into the top right wing spot, and inserted rookie forward Andre Burakovsky into Jojo’s spot on the second line giving the Caps a very offensively talented top six crew of forwards. In addition, the bench boss took Jason Chimera and Michael Latta out of the lineup and went with a fourth unit of Aaron Volpatti, Jay Beagle, and Tom Wilson. The third line, Washington’s checking trio of Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward, went unchanged.

The result was a thing of beauty as the Capitals gap control was as good as it has been all season.

Taking the strong blue line play that the Caps have enjoyed all season combined with elite goaltending from Braden Holtby plus a very motivated hockey club this was a thorough whipping of a Kings team that still has Norris Trophy leading candidate Drew Doughty, all world goalie Jonathan Quick, and super forward Anze Kopitar. But Los Angeles is really not a Cup contender this season since they’re playing with a much weaker blue line due to the loss of Willie Mitchell (salary cap) and Slava Voynov (domestic abuse charges). As I’ve been saying for years, it is tough to be consistent and win in the post season without a good blue line. Fortunately with the departure of former GM George McPhee, the Capitals finally figured it out in the offseason and brought in some talent that gives Washington a very deep crew on the back end.

But the key to becoming a really top team is to have not only strong goaltending and defense, but depth at forward. That has been the challenge for Trotz and his job has been tougher by having to work in two rookies in Evgeny Kuznetsov and Burakovsky, along with second year man Wilson. It’s not an easy task and being a rookie in the NHL is very difficult. But Trotz has brought each of them along differently given their age and history. Kuznetsov is starting to blossom into the second line center role and his behind the back pass to Troy Brouwer is one that you usually only see from the Nicklas Backstrom’s of the world. That 1st goal was so huge because the Caps were 24-1-4 when tallying first and 1-14-6 this season when yielding the first marker. That is quite a telling statistic.

On that Brouwer goal, of note was the forechecking pressure that Burakovsky put on Robyn Regehr. The heat from #65 forced Regehr to put Alec Martinez in bad position with the biscuit and the man who scored the Cup clinching tally against the Rangers made an errant pass to Karl Alzner on the left wing boards. Alzner found Kuznetsov below the goal line and a sweet pass later it was 1-0. Trotz praised Burakovsky afterwards and stated that pretty soon everyone will all know the kids name.

Not only did the super gap control lead to production, but it also kept Washington out of the penalty box. This Caps team has had a recent propensity of taking tripping, high sticking, interference, and hooking penalties that are often the result of poor positioning and a lack of structure. The Capitals only had to kill one penalty on Tuesday night, which was their lowest total since December 4th against Carolina (h/t to Alex Prewitt of The Washington Post). You can add in discipline to that equation as Washington did not retaliate against a big Kings club. John Carlson took a couple of cheap shots from Kyle Clifford late in period two that somehow didn’t garner a penalty call from Paul Devorski and Tom Kowal (imagine that!). #74 could have easily gotten upset and attacked Clifford but Carlson kept his head and didn’t take an unnecessary penalty at a time when the game was still in question. Big kudos to Carlson there, that’s putting your team first, something we’ve seen more and more of this club this season than any other in the recent past.

Overall, it was a dominant performance by the Caps and Holtby came up big when he needed to be in stopping 27 shots. He made some key saves, with perhaps his best one coming on Jeff Carter in period two when it was still 1-0. Carter, who is a true sniper, appeared to have the top right corner picked but #70 managed to get most of his glove on the biscuit and knock it to the corner. Holtby also stoned Marian Gaborik on a semi-breakaway in period two. Holtby has now gone three straight games without allowing a goal in regulation and the only tally he yielded came in OT against the Habs and league MVP Carey Price on Saturday.

So the Caps end up going 1-1-1 against some of the better teams in the league with the lone regulation blemish coming against the St. Louis Blues on Sunday. The Blues are my current pick to win the Stanley Cup so a one goal defeat to them, after Washington played the day before while St. Louis rested, is not a black mark at all.

Washington is now 26-15-10 (62 points) and 9-1-1 in their last 11 home games (h/t to @ThePeerless). But the upcoming schedule doesn’t get any easier. After a day off on Wednesday, the Caps travel to take on a speedy Ottawa team on Thursday night, then come right home on Friday to play one of top teams in the NHL standings in the Anaheim Ducks. Finally, on Sunday at 3 pm they get a hot Flyers team at the Verizon Center. We all know what I think of Philadelphia, but that’s a story for another day.

Notes: Brouwer had two goals in his 500th NHL game…Backstrom had a goal and an assist while Alex Ovechkin had an assist. The Gr8 had 11 shot attempts…Washington led the shot attempt totals after 40 minutes, 40-21, that’s pretty impressive over one of the best puck possession teams in the NHL. Game total shot attempts were 52-44 for the Caps…the Kings won the face off battle, 26-23, but Backstrom was 12-6 from the dot.

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Tough Weekend for Caps, But Not For Hershey

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Tough Weekend for Caps, But Not For Hershey

Posted on 18 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

After going 4-0-1 in the first nine days of a seven games in 11 day stretch, it appears fatigue finally caught up with the Washington Capitals as they dropped two tough one goal losses to the Nashville Predators (4-3) and Dallas Stars (5-4) over the weekend on days 10 and 11. In both contests the Capitals fell behind early, two pucks in Music City and then a 3-0 deficit in Big D, expended tons of energy in rallying, before wilting late to lose two heart breakers.

The loss to the Predators, in Coach Barry Trotz’ return to Smashville, was especially disheartening since the Caps led 3-2 with five minutes to go. But a soft penalty call on John Carlson, a bad PK, and then a Matt Niskanen untimely turnover added up to a horrible defeat.

In Dallas, it was the bad start, too many penalties, and just awful defense that cost Washington the game. They turned the puck over too much and allowed a super fast squad to beat them in transition. In addition, the Capitals strong defensive zone play that we’ve come to expect under Trotz looked very Oatesian in the Lone Star State and, at times, in Nashville.

Washington gave up nine goals in two games and that is unacceptable. Looking at all of those tallies against, it’s hard to fault the goaltender (Braden Holtby on Friday and Justin Peters on Saturday) on any of them.

Back to back situations also seem to plague this Capitals team. They are now 1-6-1 this season on the second half of those and 0-5-1 when game two is on the road. Again, unacceptable and the team they are chasing for the division lead, the New York Islanders, is 6-2 in those same instances. That’s a nine point swing and the reason why New York currently owns a five point lead in the division race over the Caps (61 points to 56).

The good news is the Caps top line continues to sizzle and Alex Ovechkin (25 goals) is playing some of the best hockey of his career. In addition, the Caps have a game against the Edmonton Oilers at home on Tuesday before getting a week off for the NHL all star break. Boy do the Caps need some rest.

Along with the defensive zone issues, Washington’s second line continues to be wildly inconsistent. Evgeny Kuznetsov was downright terrible in Nashville and he, along with Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer just aren’t where this team needs their second line to be.

Barring some major injuries, you can pretty much bet the house that the Caps will return to the playoffs this spring. But just making it is not enough. Ovechkin is not getting any younger nor is Brooks Orpik and some others, so the Capitals need to seriously think about what they need to do over the remaining 37 games to prepare themselves to win in the post season. The Eastern Conference has many good teams, but there is no clear cut front runner. GM Brian MacLellan and Trotz need to figure out what to do about the forward line combinations, including determining if some trades are needed, and solidify them for April and beyond. The East is there for the taking so just being content with getting back in the dance should not cut it.

It’s been an encouraging season and a major turnaround for Washington thanks to off season defensive acquisitions along with bringing in a talented and organized coaching staff. As George Allen used to say, “The Future is Now.” The Caps have to think like that, unlike the words we used to hear from the former GM about just getting in and hoping to win. You have to be aggressive at the trade deadline in an attempt to plug any holes and build depth for the unexpected injury that could occur down the stretch and in the post season. It will be interesting to see what MacLellan does since the Caps have some holes that the kids on the roster (Tom Wilson, Andre Burakovksy, and Kuznetsov) have not been able to fill so far this season.

Speaking of kids, it was a super weekend for the Washington AHL team, the Hershey Bears. Coach Troy Mann’s squad won both weekend tilts to seize first place in the East Division. The Bears are also a strong defensive team but have had trouble putting the biscuit in the basket. Lately though, they’ve gotten hot offensively and have won five of six games.

On Sunday, I took in the Bears tilt against the despised Lehigh Valley Phantoms (Philadelphia Flyers AHL club) at the Giant Center and came away very impressed with the team game that Hershey plays. Phoenix Copley got the start in net and he was solid, allowing only two tallies on 30 shots. Hershey does a decent job of keeping opponents on the perimeter and they transition from defense to offense well. I was impressed with the speed of Dustin Gazley. Gazley did a good job of helping a penalty killing unit that was a perfect eight for eight on Sunday.

Stan Galiev has 13 goals and is really improving. He is showing he belongs in the AHL now after a couple of years of bouncing back and forth between “The A” and the ECHL. Connor Carrick was okay on defense for Hershey, as well. Both played big roles in a Bears five on three situation in period two. Carrick manned the point, like Mike Green does in Washington, while Galiev had the Ovechkin spot on the PP. They moved the puck well in that situation but Phantoms goalie Anthony Stolarz, who was very shaky in the first period, was super in the middle frame and shut the Bears down to keep his club in it. Late in period three the Bears would score and then add an empty net tally to close out the victory.

Overall, I like Hershey’s team and they are poised to do well come AHL playoffs time. However, I didn’t see anyone I thought must be called up to DC this season. That’s also a testament to the strong roster the Capitals have at the NHL level, too. If there is a call up that could play a factor in Washington down the stretch, I’d have to say it would be goalie Philip Grubauer. With Peters struggling to get wins, one has to wonder if the team has much confidence in him? Grubauer does have NHL experience and has shown the ability to steal a game at that level where Peters just hasn’t come close to doing so in 2014-15.

Notes: The Caps out shot attempted Dallas, 68-51, but the only thing that counts is the final score…Hershey is 3-2-1 against Lehigh Valley but they play SIX more times this season…Grubauer returned from injury and won, 5-4, versus Albany on Saturday night.

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Caps Blank Flyers on Rivalry Night

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Caps Blank Flyers on Rivalry Night

Posted on 15 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

You only get two points for a win during the regular season in the National Hockey League, but some victories are better than others.

For the Washington Capitals and their fan base, many of whom have stuck with them for 40 years since 1974, beating the Philadelphia Flyers has always seemed worth more than two points.

On Wednesday night in front of a national television audience on NBC’s Rivalry Night, the Caps Braden Holtby stopped 21 shots to make Jason Chimera’s goal, just 3:13 into the game, stand up for a 1-0 victory in front of a sellout crowd at the Verizon Center.

The triumph, the Caps seventh straight at home, puts them at 24-11-8 (56 points) for the season and they are a staggering 14-1-4 in their last 19 games. In addition, they are 23-1-3 this season when scoring first.

Those are some good numbers there and holding the Flyers, a team that averages close to 29 shots a game, to just 21 on the cage is significant too. Overall the shot attempt battle was 55-54 for the Flyers, but Washington blocked 23 of those shots from Philadelphia (the duo of Brooks Orpik and John Carlson blocked nine of them).

As mentioned above and on tv, this was rivalry night and the history between these two clubs is long. In the early days, truckloads of Flyers fans would invade the Capital Centre for Caps-Flyers tilts and the beer would flow and the fights would erupt in the stands. Nowadays, there are Philly fans in attendance, I could see a smattering of orange jersey’s and thankfully we never got to hear them cheer, but it is nothing like the old days. Still, there is a special vibe or air in the building when the neighbors from up I-95 come to town and the Capitals coaching staff recognized it before the game.

“I was talking to [assistant coach] Lane Lambert and he said it’s ramped up a little bit when the Flyers are in town…we haven’t played a lot of our Metro division – people like the Rangers, the Flyers…so we could tell there’s a different energy in the building when those teams come in,” said Caps Coach Barry Trotz about his first home game against Philadelphia.

The Flyers had won the last four games, head to head, dating back to last season, so this was an important victory for the Capitals fan base. To many, Caps vs. Flyers is like Ravens-Steelers or Redskins-Cowboys in the NFL. Both teams respect each other, but they don’t like each other and when it comes to the fans, well they flat out despise the other fan base. So it was no surprise that down the stretch the Washington crowd was more into it than normal and their support seemed to energize the Caps players.

As for the game, it was an uneven one. Washington dominated early but couldn’t bury some great chances on Flyers 33 year old rookie goalie, Rob Zepp. The Zepper stopped Alex Ovechkin cold early on in a one on one situation and that seemed to help Philly, who was in jeopardy of being run out of the building, settle down. The game went back and forth for the sixty minutes with both sides carrying the play at various times.

Philadelphia had a stretch in the middle frame when it looked like they might take over the game but following a hard hit by Wayne Simmonds on Matt Niskanen in the neutral zone, Niskanen buried Scott Laughton with a hard, clean check that knocked #49 from the contest. Afterwards Trotz felt that the hit by Niskanen, who had the primary assist on Chimera’s goal, energized his club.

Overall the Caps had 26 shots on net but I thought they were too sloppy. There were far too many back passes that resulted in turnovers and the Washington top line of Nicklas Backstrom, Ovechkin, and Andre Burakovsky just didn’t look in sync. Burakovsky seems to be a bit intimidated by his linemates and is getting rid of the puck like it is a hot potato too often. The young Swede needs to settle down and carry the puck more, which is one of his strengths and allows him to create scoring chances.

At the end of the night, though, it was the Capitals vastly improved defensive play that allowed them to get another low scoring victory. Holtby, in his 26th straight contest and 20th straight start, was excellent again and when he needed assistance, guys like Orpik helped him out. #44 tied up Vincent Lecavalier’s stick late in the contest at the side of the net to prevent Vinny from notching a game tying tap in.

So now it is on to Nashville to face Trotz’ former team, the Predators, on Friday night. Trotz, in his post game presser, mentioned he chatted with Preds GM David Poile on Wednesday and that Poile was hopeful the Caps would beat Philly because he doesn’t like them. Poile was the Caps GM from 1982 to 1997, so he has a long history with the black and orange.

Trotz and the Caps did their former boss and more importantly, their fan base, proud on Wednesday night with a victory that now puts the Flyers 15 points behind the Capitals in the standings. It will be very difficult for Philadelphia to make the playoffs now.

Combine that fact, with the 1-0 blanking of the Broad Street Bullies, and you can bet that the food will taste better for several days.

Notes: Pekka Rinne, the Predators goalie and MVP, was injured in Tuesday’s game vs. Vancouver. Trotz stated that Rinne is out a couple of weeks so Washington gets a break and won’t have to face the super net minder in the Music City on Friday…Washington won the face off battle, 34-25, and Jay Beagle went 10-2…the Caps killed off all three Flyers man advantage situations while they went 0 for 2 with the man advantage (Ovechkin hit a post on one power play)…Carlson and Orpik led the Caps in ice time with 24:45 and 24:40, respectively…since Tom Wilson was a +1 on Wednesday, there is not a single active Capitals player with a negative +/- rating this season.

 

 

 

 

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Ovechkin 74th GWG Leads Caps Over Avs

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Ovechkin 74th GWG Leads Caps Over Avs

Posted on 12 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals were the better team on Monday night at the Verizon Center earning a 2-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche, plain and simple.

This game really should not have been this close, but former Caps goalie Semyon Varlamov was outstanding, along with the posts around him, for two periods to keep a game that should’ve been 5-1 in favor of Washington to just 2-1 after 40 minutes. Colorado would finally show up for the 3rd period throwing 18 pucks at Braden Holtby (31 saves), but most were from the perimeter and #70 continued his hot run to preserve the victory for the Capitals.

Washington improves to 23-11-8 (54 points) and have closed to within three points of the Metropolitan Division leading Islanders, who face the red hot New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. If the Rangers win again in regulation and the Penguins don’t win against Minnesota, then the entire Metro, from 1st to 4th, will be separated by just three points (Pittsburgh has 56 points). Bottom line, this race is ultra close and all four teams could win the banner come April.

Back to Monday’s win over Patrick Roy’s Avs, Washington was flat out dominant for 40 minutes out shooting Colorado, 32-14. Somehow, primarily due to Varly and his goal posts, this game was tied after the Avs scored on a power play midway through period two. But Varlamov ended up causing his team’s demise by taking a stupid shot at Tom Wilson and the Gr8, Alex Ovechkin, buried the game winning goal on the power play with just over two minutes left in the middle frame. That goal was set up by hard work on the boards from Marcus Johansson and then two pretty backhanded passes from Nicklas Backstrom and Troy Brouwer.

Ovechkin now has 22 goals on the season and he’ll head to another NHL All Star game next week.

Sunday afternoon out at Kettler was an optional skate for the Capitals but the fourth line of Jason Chimera, Jay Beagle, and Tom Wilson (along with Michael Latta) all worked with assistant coach Lane Lambert on wall play and scoring from in front of the net. It turns out that session would really pay off as Washington’s first goal came off of a face off. Mike Green fed Wilson in the high slot for a shot that #43 put on the net. Chimera then deflected it and Beagle out worked the Avs defender at the far post and backhanded the biscuit by Varlamov. Beagle has 12 points this season, all in Capitals wins (h/t @JapersRink for that super stat). Officially, the Caps are 11-0-0 when Beagle gets a point (h/t to Caps PR team). Hard work pays off, and Beagle is certainly a guy who brings the effort every night.

The Caps won their sixth straight at home and are now 22-1-3 when tallying first. It was a solid victory against a fast Colorado team that likes to score off of the rush. With the Avs only goal coming on the power play, you can correctly say that Coach Barry Trotz’ club stuck to their game plan to get a big two points.

Now Washington gets a chance for some revenge on the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday at 8 pm at the Verizon Center. Flyers goalie Steve Mason is out injured so they’ll face either Ray Emery or Rob Zepp, who made 21 saves in his second NHL win in as many starts on Monday night when Philly throttled Tampa, 7-3.

Notes: Ovechkin’s game winning goal was his franchise leading 74th. Peter Bondra is now in 2nd place with 73…the Caps won the shot attempt battle, 79-56. The Avs closed a huge gap with their third period push…Evgeny Kuznetsov continues to improve and he had four shots on goal and four other attempts in one of his best games of the season…the Caps won the face off battle, 37-29…Brooks Orpik led the Caps in ice time with 24:47. John Carlson logged 24:42…defensemen Nate Schmidt suffered a fractured bone in a stint down in Hershey on Sunday night and will miss 6-8 weeks…goalie Justin Peters was recalled after playing two games for the Bears this past weekend. He had a shutout in Albany on Friday, then made 31 saves in a tough loss (allowed 3 goals) on Sunday…expect Peters to play Saturday in Dallas after Washington faces the Predators in Nashville on Friday night.

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Caps Heading in Right Direction at Season’s Midpoint

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Caps Heading in Right Direction at Season’s Midpoint

Posted on 11 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

What a difference a year makes.

At the 2013-14 midpoint, the Washington Capitals were sitting at 20-15-6, good for 46 points. But boy were things coming apart at the seams in a downward trend that started in early December. During that stretch, one in which Coach Adam Oates used three starting goalies to pretty much wreck Braden Holtby’s game, the Caps grew further apart as a team with three players asking for trades (Martin Erat, Dmitry Orlov, and Michal Neuvirth). They were a squad that relied almost exclusively on their power play to win games and were very poor at even strength. In addition, in game 41, a loss at home to Carolina in overtime, they iced a defense of Mike Green, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Dmitry Orlov, John Erskine, and Steve Oleksy. The Caps would go 18-15-8 the rest of the way looking like a totally lost team that would miss the post season and ultimately cost Oates and GM George McPhee their jobs. Over the course of the season, the Capitals used 14 different defensemen and four goalies (traded for Jaroslav Halak at the trade deadline). That version of the Capitals was a team in total chaos.

Fast forward to today, after 41 games the Capitals are 22-11-8 (52 points) and following a sluggish start, have gone 12-1-4 in their last 17 games. Coach Barry Trotz has brought in a new system and a new attitude and GM Brian MacLellan added two quality players, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, to a blue line that had been the team’s Achilles heel for several seasons. Trotz, who had coached the Predators since their first season, brought in an experienced coaching staff in Todd Reirden (defensemen), Lane Lambert (forwards), and Mitch Korn (goalies). All three have done a super job and Korn has allowed Holtby to get back to basics and return to the dominant level he was at in the spring of 2012 when the Caps narrowly missed making the Eastern Conference Finals. To date, they’ve used two goalies, with Holtby clearly the #1 net minder and carrying almost the entire load. On defense, they have quality and stability, they’ve only used seven different players on the back end. Red Wings coach Mike Babcock made a point, following Saturday’s game, to comment on the vast difference in the Washington defense, stating “anytime you have [Mike] Green playing at number five you have a real good back end.” (h/t to CSN’s Chuck Gormley for the quote).

Things are looking very good for this Capitals team. The key word in that sentence being “team.” Center Nicklas Backstrom, who is having yet another superb season, talked on Sunday afternoon about how things are different than past years under Trotz.

“We’ve been talking a lot about before the season and during the season to stick together and work together and doing the right things. It’s real important that everyone is paying attention to small details like face off plays, what we’re doing before every draw, stuff like that, so I think a lot of guys are buying into that and we’re following the game plan. Maybe before we’ve been doing our own things, so that has helped us a lot, I think,” said #19 when asked about the culture change that Trotz is implementing with the Caps.

“They make each other accountable, they don’t accept just going through the motions. When you fight to just go through the motions, that’s not a good culture to have. We’re not doing that, we’re staying on task…I told the guys I didn’t like the way we were playing the last two games [before Detroit] and I told the guys [Saturday] morning that if we want to be the team we think we can be we’re going to get tested tonight. I didn’t like some of the red flags I saw those last two games, we still got points and we won games, but you have to be honest with yourself. There will be times where you lose games and I’ll be happy with the way we played, we just didn’t win the game. Even when you win, you have to be honest with yourself, did you deserve to win the game or did you luck out? I think we are pretty honest, we have good evaluations…so we recognize we have some work to do,” said Trotz when asked about the culture change and where the team is at.

After winning against the Red Wings, Trotz felt better about things but admitted they are still a work in progress.

“I was real happy in the third period with the way we managed the game. We didn’t generate a lot of offense, but we didn’t give up anything, even on six on five they had a little bit, but it wasn’t chaos out there, it was controlled and we forced them to try to execute at an extremely high level and they didn’t get any free looks or anything like that. So we’re better, just in our structure, we recognize possession and we recognized when they weren’t attacking the interior. We stayed patient and when they tried to, we’ll just make one adjustment that we need to do better and if it happens next game we’ll be even more prepared. We try to learn from things that happen, experiences that can make ourselves better, instead of hey we just got lucky. We look for things every day,” said Trotz.

All of the changes have certainly helped the Capitals put themselves back in the playoff picture and right now, it looks like they will make the post season. But there are 41 games to go and the race is tight. While just making the playoffs is key, this club has a bigger goal, to compete for a Stanley Cup. To get to that phase, they have a lot of work to do.

So in the second half the key will be to sustain their focus so that they can improve. Even doing that, there are question marks. One thing to be concerned about is Holtby’s work load. The key will be for Justin Peters to assert himself as a viable back up option, especially with nine back to back tilts scheduled. If Peters can’t perform, then MacLellan will have to find someone who will fill that role, otherwise the Caps not only risk missing the playoffs, but having a very fatigued goalie in April and beyond.

The defense needs to stay healthy and certainly with the depth they have in the top five, Trotz has been able to increase the probability of that by spreading out the minutes. Another key to staying healthy, and winning, is cutting down on the number of penalties the team takes. There have been recent stretches where the parade to the box has cost them points. Finally, they have to stabilize their forward line combinations. We’ve seen a rotating door with Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin on the top unit and the latest project is having rookie Andre Burakovsky fill the right wing role after Tom Wilson and some others struggled. The second scoring line has also been woefully inconsistent. Recently it has shown signs of life with Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Troy Brouwer lighting the lamp more frequently. How that trio plays will be a factor in any possible deep playoff run. Simply put, the forward situation is concerning and it remains to be seen if the young players, Burakovsky, Kuznetsov, and Wilson, can improve enough by April to make this club a contender. If it looks like that isn’t going to happen then MacLellan will have to make a move for a top six forward.

Most of all though, this club needs to continue the process and commitment they’ve built up over the first 41 games and Backstrom certainly brought that home with his thoughts on Sunday afternoon.

“I think that it’s about time that we realize how to play as a team and right now it looks good but we have a long way to go. We’re not done yet, it’s just halfway through the season. We’ve got lots of work to do and we’re not where we want to be yet, so we really need to be humble and make sure we work hard every day and every night,” finished Backstrom.

 

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Holtby Shines in Caps 3-1 Win over Detroit

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Holtby Shines in Caps 3-1 Win over Detroit

Posted on 10 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals were facing the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday night in their third game in four nights while the Wings hadn’t played since Wednesday. That’s a recipe for a tough game and likely a Caps loss, right?

Well, that was not the case on Saturday night as Washington jumped to an early lead on Troy Brouwer’s goal, expanded it to 2-0 on one of the prettiest 4 on 3 goals you’ll ever see, and closed out the victory with a strong third period to take a 3-1 decision, their fifth straight at the Verizon Center.

Braden Holtby stopped 26 of 27 shots, eight of which came in the last three minutes (five in last 1:03) when the Wings pulled their goalie, en route to his 12th win in the last 17 games. #70 is 12-1-4 over that stretch and continues to provide excellent goaltending.

Taking those late eight score effect shots out the Capitals held Detroit, one of the best teams in the league, to just 19 shots for the first 57 minutes. That’s impressive, as Matt Niskanen stated afterwards.

“I thought we were really, really hard and felt the puck tonight. Good structure. They like to come with the puck through the middle with speed, and I thought we did a good job with just keeping the entire game on the walls and making it that kind of game. Taking away their strengths of speed and puck possession, really clogging things up in the right areas. There weren’t a lot of shots for either side,” said Niskanen, who led the Caps in ice time at 22:21 but did have the giveaway that led to the Wings only tally.

Last time the Caps faced the Wings, in October, Washington jumped to a 3-1 lead and dominated puck possession. But they got careless when ahead and forced passes up the middle of the ice and critical turnovers led to a loss. That was early on before Coach Barry Trotz’ system started kicking in. Now the Capitals are playing their system and making the opponent work hard for chances. Detroit certainly didn’t get many good looks tonight and despite the shot totals, the Caps had the better scoring chances in the third period with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andrei Burakovsky not connecting on grade A opportunities.

“I think we play good with the lead. I don’t think we changed too much after we got it. I thought we kept playing hard and stuck to our game plan like we should,” said John Carlson, who had the finish on the Washington second goal. Carlson also turned 25 on Saturday so the goal and victory was a nice birthday present for him.

The Capitals, who are now 21-1-3 when scoring the first goal, continue to get better defensively and they also were successful because they only took two penalties in this tilt. Washington killed both of those shorthanded situations while tallying on the power play. As a result, Trotz was able to spread the ice time around and that was key in this third game in four nights.

“It’s much easier when you only have to kill a couple [of penalties]. It helps your overall team game, too. You don’t lose momentum or waste any energy killing extra penalties that you don’t have to. The couple that they did get, we had good structure and pressure at key moments and were able to get some clears and disrupt them if they wanted to do anything,” finished Niskanen.

So Washington is now 22-11-8 at the season’s halfway point, good for 52 points and fourth place in a tightly bunched at the top Metropolitan division. This club, despite a schedule that has been brutal at times (seven back to backs so far, five of which had the second contest on the road plus nine more back to backs to go), is much improved because of several reasons. In no particular order they are: a deep, quality blue line thanks to the additions of Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, better defensive play due to a better system and coaching, improved goaltending thanks to Holtby and goalie coach Mitch Korn, and a commitment to hockey and details that we haven’t seen from this team in recent years. That commitment, which Trotz called “culture change” in our WNST interview with him in early December, is becoming very evident.

“I’ll be coming into the room or I’ll be walking in and I am hearing the same things that I am going to say. You want the team to take ownership in every part of the game – managing the game, managing the preparation, managing their commitment, managing situations on the ice and taking ownership that way. I think they have been. There’s a lot of talk, there’s a lot of preparation that goes into every game, and I think you see it on the bench. There is no ‘What are we doing? What’s up?’ There’s none of that. We’ve got a plan for everything we do now,'” stated Trotz on the team’s focus, that I’m not sure we’ve ever seen from the Caps current core group of players.

Notes: The Caps face Colorado at home on Monday night before taking on the despised Flyers at the Verizon Center on Wednesday…the Caps lost the face off battle, 32-24. Eric Fehr was 2-13 from the dot making puck possession much more difficult to obtain…the Caps only had 17 shots on net but in the last 30 minutes they played well and fanned or missed the goal on some great chances…Wings goalie Jimmy Howard left the game with a groin injury just after Brouwer’s goal, just 1:53 into the hockey game. He was replaced by Petr Mrazek (12 saves on 14 shots).

 

 

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Caps Smoke Leafs, 6-2

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Caps Smoke Leafs, 6-2

Posted on 07 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Wednesday night in the “Big Smoke” the Washington Capitals did a lot of things correct against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

They scored the first goal to move to 20-1-2 when doing that this season.

They received stellar goaltending from Braden Holtby (31 saves).

They shot the puck extremely well, scoring “peanut butter style” (aka, top shelf) three times and tallying another time off of the far post.

They got traffic on Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier.

They received two goals from their second scoring line (Marcus Johansson had both tallies) and three from their third line (Eric Fehr had two and Brooks Laich had the other).

And, they STAYED out of the penalty box (the Leafs only had two power play chances).

All of those things added up to a 6-2 white washing of a struggling Toronto team.

The victory moves the Caps to 21-11-7 (49 points) and just four points behind the second place New York Islanders in the Metropolitan Division (the Caps have a game in hand too).

Washington did not play a perfect game, they struggled a little bit in the first period with getting pucks on the net, but once they got their legs going in period two, the Leafs really were no match for them. The Capitals certainly received some bounces in this game, but make no mistake about it, they were the better team despite losing the shot attempt battle, 59-53.

The difference in the contest was primarily defensive zone coverage. Washington’s was very good and the Leafs may have had shots on goal, but not a lot of quality ones. On the flip side, Toronto was atrocious on defense and time after time the Capitals received lots of space and open looks and when you provide that to a club as skilled as the Caps, you are going to get burned badly.

With Washington having to travel and play in Philadelphia on Thursday night (and clear customs too), a lopsided victory was important and it allowed Coach Barry Trotz to spread the ice time around (the lack of special teams play helped too). John Carlson, who was outstanding in this one going +3 with two helpers, led the Capitals in ice time with 24:13. The only player under 10 minutes was Tom Wilson, who logged only 6:46 and didn’t play after it looked like he hit his head doling out a check in the middle frame.

Wilson did come back and sit on the bench in period three (h/t @alexprewitt of The Washington Post), but his potential injury was likely the only real negative of the night.

So the Capitals are now 11-1-3 in their last 15 games. They are no doubt getting superb goaltending. Their only regulation loss in this run was on a back to back event in New York just before Christmas. On Thursday they will seek to win their first game all season on the latter half of a back to back sequence, when the second game is played on the road (0-4 so far this year in those situations). The question is does Trotz go with Holtby or finally play Justin Peters, who hasn’t seen the net since November 29th? Given that the Caps face the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday and have a busy upcoming schedule (7 games in 11 days), my money is on finally seeing #35 in the cage.

Notes: Washington lost the face off battle, 36-23…Ovechkin notched an empty net goal that was made possible by another super effort by Jay Beagle on the boards and a good cross ice feed from Nicklas Backstrom…Vincent “the diver” Trocheck of Florida, who went down from apparent sniper fire near Brooks Orpik on Sunday, was fined $2,000 by the NHL on Tuesday. That lack of integrity move by Trocheck gave the Panthers a 5 on 3 late in the game, that Washington fortunately killed off. It’s nice to see the NHL crack down on that “soccer like” move by Trocheck. The NHL doesn’t need that type of garbage.

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Caps Keep Rolling with Win Over Florida

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Caps Keep Rolling with Win Over Florida

Posted on 04 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Roberto Luongo has historically given the Washington Capitals fits, going 15-1 in his last 16 starts against the Caps.

So Sunday’s tilt with the Panthers at the Verizon Center, against a pesky Florida squad that is big and had previously taken the Capitals to two shootouts, loomed like a tough one coming off of the big Winter Classic victory on Thursday.

Despite being shorthanded five times, including three times in the final period, the Capitals carried the play for much of this contest and garnered a well earned 4-3 victory over the Panthers to improve to 20-11-7 (47 points).

The Capitals are now 10-1-3 in their last 14 games.

Alexander Ovechkin (goal and an assist) had another stellar game and it was his open ice collision with Luongo in the first period that eventually drove the net minder from the cage after forty minutes. Luongo gave up three goals but because his club also tallied three times, he wasn’t saddled with the loss. Al Montoya, who played the third period, gave up a goal on five shots to take the defeat.

Braden Holtby was in net for Washington, his 15th straight start, and he stopped 29 of 32 shots en route to his 18th victory (18-8-6). His save percentage on the season is at .920 and he continues to play well. About the only goal you could fault him on was the third Florida tally, by Nick Bjugstad, which came from down low and beat #70 top shelf in the closing minutes.

After a strong opening period that was scoreless, the Caps struck first on the PP with Ovechkin’s 19th tally of the season off of a sweet pass from Nicklas Backstrom. That first goal is so important this year since the Capitals are now 19-1-2 in that situation against a 1-10-5 record when the opponent gets on the board first. Despite the early lead, the Capitals would play keystone cops at the offensive blue line which led to a two on zero Cats rush. Somehow Holtby managed to stop the first two shots on that sequence, but his defensive help didn’t come quickly or properly enough and the third shot found the back of the twine. Just 85 seconds later Florida took the lead.

In the past, the Caps might have wilted, but not this more resilient bunch under Coach Barry Trotz. The Capitals would storm back, thanks primarily to the line of Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward to grab a 3-2 edge heading into period three. From there Ovechkin set up Andre Burakovsky for the fourth goal that ended up being the game winner.

Overall, the Capitals played well but they still have issues taking penalties. They were shorthanded for a total of 9:13 and as chronicled after the Winter Classic win, the number of infractions they are taking must decrease. Granted the call against Brooks Orpik that gave the Cats a 5 on 3 was downright ridiculous and Trotz called out Vincent Trocheck for diving on that play in his post game presser.

Florida is a big and physical team, but the Capitals outworked them on Sunday and that’s why they won the game and the Panthers coach, Gerard Gallant, made that clear afterwards.

“We weren’t good enough. I mean, we battled back and found a way to come close there at the end, but not good enough. We didn’t play hard enough. They were more physical than we were tonight. They wanted the puck battles and that’s why we ended up losing the game at the end,” said Gallant.

Burakovsky, who is only 19 and played in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) last season, received his first start on the first line with Ovechkin and Backstrom and he played well in 12:05 of even strength time. His skill, primarily his hands and shooting ability, is something sorely needed in that top line position and he delivered on Sunday. Trotz liked #65’s play and commended him afterwards.

“He was playing with two big stars, and he didn’t look intimidated. A couple times he shot the puck where sometimes you should make the extra pass, but he got the puck and he just made plays. I like that. Defensively he was pretty sound. We didn’t spend much time in our own end, but he was pretty sound in terms of his tracking and all that, so I was really happy for him. He’s such a great kid and he comes from a great family. He’s a really good hockey player…but I think in the scheme of things, looking at his whole career, he’s going to be a really good player for us,” said Trotz.

So the Capitals continue to keep finding ways to win hockey games and they get two days of practice at Kettler Ice Plex before facing the Maple Leafs in Toronto Wednesday and then they finally play the Flyers, for the first time this season, on Thursday, in Philadelphia. Those are two tough games in a back to back situation and the Caps last loss was on the 2nd night of one of those in New York right before Christmas. It will be interesting to see if Trotz goes with Holtby in net twice or turns to Justin Peters for a start for the first time since November 29th.

Notes: Washington won the face off battle 43-29 with Backstrom going 18-8 from the dot…shot attempts favored the Caps, 63-60…the Panthers were 0 for 5 on the power play while the Caps went 1 for 2 in only 3:16 of man advantage time. Yes, the Caps have been taking too many penalties lately, but some of the calls recently have been beyond bad. Bottom line, the officiating needs to improve too and they need to start penalizing the divers, like Trocheck, and not the players with integrity, such as Orpik.

 

 

 

 

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Caps Win A Perfect Winter Classic

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Caps Win A Perfect Winter Classic

Posted on 01 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis was smiling and beaming in the locker room following the Caps 3-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2015 Bridgestone Winter Classic and he had every right to be doing so.

Leonsis, who fought long and hard for the outdoor game in the DC area, watched his club pull out a late victory over the best team in the NHL in the Blackhawks on an amazing stage.

The temperature was perfect, the ice was as good as it could be (kudos to Dan Craig of the NHL) and the venue, Nationals Park, was spectacularly laid out, including the replica of the Nation’s Capitol building with a copy of the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pond out in front of it that led to the ice rink.

Washington’s star player, Alexander Ovechkin, had an outstanding game with a goal and an assist while goalie Braden Holtby was excellent in the cage again stopping 33 shots. Troy Brouwer scored the winner on the power play with just 12 seconds to go leading to a wild celebration and flying seat cushions at Nats Park.

The victory, the Caps 9th in a very difficult December schedule, moves them to 19-11-7 and back into 3rd place in the Metropolitan Division. Washington is now 18-1-2 when scoring first this season (they scored the first two tallies in this one).

It was a magical day for Washington and Leonsis, who believed that the greater Maryland and Virginia area could make a large hockey event work, and he was proven right.

Now for some analysis of this one.

Washington was extremely solid in periods one and three but they really struggled in the middle frame when they took three minor penalties. Two of those overlapped for 91 seconds so that meant the Caps had to survive a five on three situation against a talented Hawks team. Somehow the Capitals managed to do that, thanks to good goaltending, solid PK work, and over passing by Chicago. Afterwards Blackhawks coach Joel Quennville noted that when you don’t score on a five on three you often lose the game. He also wasn’t happy about his team’s lack of shots on goal during that situation. The two time Stanley Cup Champion was correct on both counts.

Part of the reason the Capitals were able to hold off a talented power play was Washington’s “Honest Abe” player of the game, Brooks Orpik. When last seen on Monday night, #44 was writhing in pain on the ice in Long Island clutching his right knee. Somehow what looked to be a potentially season ending injury was only a minor tweak and Coach Barry Trotz was able to field his best left handed defensemen against Chicago. Not only did Orpik suit up, but he logged a Washington game leading 24:44 of ice time, including 5:43 of the 7:26 the Caps were shorthanded! You just can’t over state what Orpik has meant to this team and both Eric Fehr (breakaway goal) and Ovechkin called him a “warrior” afterwards.

When Orpik was handed the Abe Lincoln gear that goes with being named, by his teammates, the Honest Abe player of the game, in #44 style he provided a quick and simple speech that closed with “I thought everybody was fully committed, so let’s keep it going.”

Trotz noted that Orpik is a guy that doesn’t lead by talk, but by showing up every day and doing things properly. He’s been a great example for his teammates and he’s been an invaluable player on the back end.

“You can only admire what he does and brings to the group. He just makes everybody better. He doesn’t say a whole lot in the room, he says everything with how he plays and how he lives and his actions and his commitment to the game. So, it really is an important piece to what we’re trying to do here in Washington,” said Trotz on Orpik.

The down side is that the Caps had to kill off so many penalties, whether you agree with the officiating or not (and it was not a good day for the guys in stripes, especially the last two calls by Francois St. Laurent on Matt Niskanen and Jonathan Toews). Washington too frequently is chirping at the referees and taking bad penalties. John Carlson’s cross check to the face that put the Caps down two men was a retaliation and unnecessary one. Too often the Caps are losing their focus and some of the penalties are just not smart, like Jason Chimera’s holding infraction and Brouwer’s board in the first period that took the Capitals off of the power play. Despite the issues, Trotz did point out a positive that has come from these mental lapses.

“The thing that we have been really good at this year is, when we get off what I call the rails a little bit and we lose our focus, we’re able to get back and find ways to win.”

That was certainly true on New Year’s Day, but the players I spoke with afterwards, including Orpik, Niskanen and Mike Green (two assists) all said the team needs to limit the number of infractions.

“Yeah we talked about [penalties] before and obviously the 2nd period we took quite a few penalties…every team has a good power play these days…moving forward I think we have to be more disciplined. When you are down that much it taxes certain guys that are penalty killers…we got a lot of good guys that don’t kill penalties so that throws them off a bit and takes them out of their rhythm. There are a lot of things it has an effect on,” said Orpik on Washington’s penalty issues, which helped aid Chicago in out shot attempting the Caps, 26-11, in period two.

“Barry talked about discipline and we sort of needed to refocus. I think we got away from our focus. I think we had a good 1st [period] and once we got into that second period maybe we got caught up with the emotion and the energy of the building and then our focus changed to complaining about penalties and what not…We got to be a little more disciplined,” added Green (two assists in 14:59) on what the team discussed after period two.

Clearly the Capitals aren’t helping themselves with some of these bad penalties. Complaining to the referees, whether justified or not, will not help the cause. Simply put, the players have to focus on their game and let Trotz and GM Brian MacLellan deal with the officiating.

In the end though, this was a huge two points for the Capitals on a perfect day at Nationals Park and the large majority of the 42,832 that attended went home happy, much like Capitals owner Ted Leonsis.

Notes: Power plays were 6 to 4 for Chicago and the overall shot attempts ended up 62-58 for the Blackhawks…the Caps lost the face off battle 42-36 but Nicklas Backstrom was 16-13…next up for the Caps are the Florida Panthers on Sunday at the Verizon Center at 3 pm.

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Caps Set to Face Blackhawks in Bridgestone Winter Classic

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Caps Set to Face Blackhawks in Bridgestone Winter Classic

Posted on 31 December 2014 by Ed Frankovic

Well, it’s finally here.

We are less than 24 hours from puck drop at Nationals Park for the NHL’s Annual Winter Classic, sponsored by Bridgestone, between the Washington Capitals and the Chicago Blackhawks.

For those following along on EPIX in Ross Greenberg’s Road to the Winter Classic, you’ve watched two highly skilled teams orchestrated behind the bench by two very upfront coaches, in Barry Trotz and Joel Quennville.

Washington’s off season coaching change along with the personnel moves they’ve made on defense (via new GM Brian MacLellan) have propelled this club to an 8-2-3 December, and major cause for optimism, as I chronicled on Sunday.

The Caps are hot, but in this match up they are facing the best team in the NHL in the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks are led by Jonathan Toews, who has won two Stanley Cups and two Olympic Gold Medals in the last four years. He’s arguably the best player in the NHL, depending on who you talk to. Add to Towes the likes of Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook and it’s easy to see why this club is so good and narrowly missed winning Cup number three last year (they were knocked out by the Los Angeles Kings in game 7 of the Western Conference Finals in OT).

Chicago is talented, structured, and disciplined. They are everything the Capitals and Alex Ovechkin want to become on a consistent basis. Under Trotz, the Capitals are making steps towards that, but they are still a work in progress.

So let’s talk about Thursday’s game, which based on the weather conditions, may see a 60 to 90 minute delay due to weather. It’s not precipitation or temperature, but the sun that could cause the delay. With the shadows not covering the ice until roughly 2:30 pm, the potential for injuries due to glare (someone not seeing a puck properly) or bad ice (the sun can make the surface uneven) are much higher at the scheduled start time of 1 pm.

Now to the match up. The big question in Caps land is will Washington’s top left handed defensemen and major physical presence, Brooks Orpik, play after suffering a right knee injury on Monday?

Orpik did not skate during the normal team practice Wednesday at Nationals Park, but he did at Kettler Ice Plex in the morning, per a video shot by a fan that the super Capitals blog, Russian Machine Never Breaks, obtained. From that video, it’s apparent that Orpik could likely play, as he was moving well, but he’ll be a game time decision.

If Orpik is out, then Nate Schmidt goes into Orpik’s slot next to John Carlson, who by the way is having a very quiet monster season. #74 is fourth in the NHL in scoring by defensemen with four goals and 23 assists. He’s also a team leading +14! Yes, the 2010 American hero in the IIHF World Junior Championships has actually improved on last year’s super Olympic team making season playing alongside the steady and snarly Orpik. So hopefully Orpik’s absence, if it occurs, does not impact Carlson, as well.

Trotz routinely puts Carlson and Orpik against the opponents top line, so the question now becomes which D pair, if 44 is out, does he go with against the Toews-Kane line? My guess is he may switch that to the Matt Niskanen-Karl Alzner duo.

Up front, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have been DOMINATING on their shifts in puck possession in recent weeks and they are due for a big game on the scoresheet. Does it come Thursday against Chicago?

To win, I really think that 8 and 19 will have to carry the day and Braden Holtby will need to be his usual stellar self, especially if Orpik doesn’t play.

As chronicled over at another great Caps web site, Japers Rink, the Caps power play is in a recent funk and needs to snap out of it to aid the Caps chances of beating the mighty Blackhawks.

The Caps have also been getting solid production from the line of Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward.

Chicago is a great team and they bring four good lines. Washington will need their second scoring line and their fourth line to be near their best to get a victory.

This game on New Year’s Day is only for two points, but let’s be honest, it’s a huge deal and the players will approach it like a playoff one.

It’s the NHL’s regular season signature event and a can’t miss one for hockey fans.

 

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