Tag Archive | "hunter"

Can Ovechkin & Company Finally Make it Out of Round 2?

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Can Ovechkin & Company Finally Make it Out of Round 2?

Posted on 27 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

On Saturday afternoon at 3 pm the Washington Capitals will embark on a critical game one of their second round playoff series from Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers. The Blueshirts, coached by the fiery John Tortorella, are the number one seed in the Eastern Conference after a super regular season while the Caps are coming in as underdogs for the second straight series despite upsetting the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins in round one.

For Alexander Ovechkin, Mike Green, Brooks Laich, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin this will be their third venture into the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. So far they are 0-2. Last season they knocked off the Rags in five games before getting swept quickly by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Given that Washington has knocked off the Rangers two of the last three post seasons one has to wonder if perhaps the Capitals have the Rangers number? Maybe, but this is a different Rangers team.

Last spring they faced the Caps without an injured Ryan Callahan and then in the offseason they added a significant piece in center Brad Richards. Washington won that series in 2011 without Dennis Wideman (who had a so-so series, at best, against Boston) so the Rangers aren’t the only ones with a different roster for this matchup. New York is improved but I still think their defense is slow and they benefit a ton from Henrik Lundqvist bailing them out. Washington needs, like they did against Boston, to use their superior speed in the Caps forward to Rangers defense matchup. Guys like Marcus Johansson and Jason Chimera will play a key role once again.

When it comes to matchups, whatever forward-defensive combination coach Dale Hunter uses must contain Marian Gaborik and Richards. If those New York skill guys get on a roll then that spells trouble for Washington. You can bet that Jay Beagle, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson will factor into Hunter’s defensive matchups. As for Ovechkin, he had a rough series against the Bruins because he was facing Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, one of the best defensive pairs in the NHL. The Rangers will likely put Dan Girardi and Mark Staal up against the Gr8. But Ovechkin should be able to overcome Girardi better than he did the Boston duo of Chara and Seidenberg. Ovechkin needs to avoid trying too much one on one or trying to skate through the whole team. His best bet to score is to go to the net in this series. The Rangers defense doesn’t have the ability to move him down low so the Gr8 needs to drive to the cage as much as possible with the puck.

Braden Holtby comes off of a super round one performance and if he doesn’t try to do much and just plays his game, he should be fine. His puckhandling skills help prevented his defensemen from getting run regularly in round one and you can bet Tortorella will be instructing his forwards to pound the Washington defense, especially Green. To me, #52 is a major key to this series. If #52 continues to play well paired with Roman Hamrllik then that gives Hunter two really good defensive pairs to put on the ice (with 27-74) . The Rangers will try to run Green and he needs to be smart about how he plays going into the corners and on the rush. A good series from “Game Over Greenie” likely means the Caps will advance.

If Washington can find a way to win this series, then it signals that Ovechkin and company have finally turned the corner by buying into Hunter’s playoff style.

If not, then many players could be on their way out of town because it would be five straight post seasons without a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.

My prediction: The Caps kick the door in to get to the Final Four with a series victory in six games. Road warriors, baby, road warriors.

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Caps Stun Bruins in Overtime in Game 7 to Advance

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Caps Stun Bruins in Overtime in Game 7 to Advance

Posted on 25 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

It normally does not end this nice for the Washington Capitals and their fans. You see, the Caps are supposed to lose game sevens, in heartbreaking fashion, right?

Heading into overtime I am sure many Caps fans felt like another crushing blow was coming, right?

Not tonight!

Dale Hunter scored arguably the biggest goal in franchise history in overtime against the Philadelphia Flyers back in 1988 and on this night he was behind the bench for what is definitely the biggest goal in recent Capitals history. Joel Ward potted the rebound of a Mike Knuble shot 2:57 into overtime to propel the Caps into the second round. In the process they knock off, for the first time in franchise history, the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Washington won’t know its’ opponent until tomorrow night but if the New York Rangers defeat the Ottawa Senators then that is who they will face. Otherwise they will get either the Flyers or the Devils.

Wow, what a win! I still can’t believe it. 

Following or working for this team since 1974 naturally makes one a pessimist and I did not feel good about this matchup in the champions lair tonight. Having been at every game seven in franchise history and knowing they were 2-7 in such contests, it was tough to be optimistic (for the record, I was not in Boston for game seven, my first miss ever). But something is going on in these playoffs and being on the road seems to possess an advantage. Washington won three games in Boston and, as I said after Sunday’s game six loss, when you have a pivotal game like this sometimes it is better to be on the road because there are no distractions.

Whatever the case, this Capitals team has totally come together for the post season. They are playing the style their coach demands. At times it is downright boring, but they are so much better around their own net with this style. Braden Holtby (31 saves) played a very solid game in the cage and his defensemen cleared nearly every rebound (the exception: Tyler Seguin scored on one).

Several players who didn’t have great regular seasons amped up their respective games for the playoffs and that is why this Caps team was able to knock off a very good Boston team. Knuble and Ward fit in that category, for sure.  To me, the biggest reason the Capitals won was because of the play of the dynamic duo on defense, Karl Alzner and John Carlson. 27 and 74 were just a super defensive pair and they kept Boston’s scorers in check pretty much the whole series. There is no doubt that Carlson is playing his best hockey of the season and the play he made on a Bruins two on one in the third period was a game saver. Keep it up, John and Karl.

As for the forwards, this was not Alexander Ovechkin’s best series but I am sure he will take the victory. The Gr8 had to go against the best defensemen in the league in Zdeno Chara and with Ovechkin’s issues on defense, Hunter had to cut his minutes, in some games. That will likely change going forward and there is no doubt if this team wants to get where they want to go, they will need Captain Alex. There is a long road ahead and Ovechkin will start scoring goals in bunches, soon.

So as predicted here, the Caps have stunned the Bruins in the opening round. It wasn’t in six games like I had it mapped out, but the Caps did it. Boston is a super team, but somehow the Capitals worked some matchups to their advantage and now they go through to round two.

It was not expected by many after that crushing game six on Sunday. But the players regrouped and played a masterful game to punch their ticket for another round.

Hold on and enjoy the ride, Caps fans!

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The Caps Season Can All Change on Sunday

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The Caps Season Can All Change on Sunday

Posted on 22 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals are on the verge of potentially changing their entire season in game six against the Boston Bruins on Sunday afternoon at the Verizon Center.

The much maligned in the media Caps, who were considered huge underdogs coming into this series with the Bruins, just might be able to change the perceptions of those who have been critical of them thanks to a gritty 4-3 victory on Saturday in Boston in game five of this best of seven series.

But media perceptions don’t really matter to this club, for perhaps the first time in a long while. That is primarily the case because they have taken on the identity of their head coach, Dale Hunter, and are singularly focused on results. Hunter doesn’t care what the media thinks, he just wants to win. His press conferences are proof of that. The coach pretty much says nothing, which is exactly what I would want my coach saying after each game, and especially in the playoffs. Too many words from the head coach can wear a team out and drain them emotionally, that won’t happen with Hunter (and as I predicted on twitter weeks ago, the New York Rangers are on the brink of elimination despite having the best record in the East, partially due to the fact that their coach likes to have too much conflict and discussion with the media). 

That identity I spoke of above is an almost unflappable demeanor, something this Capitals club struggled to display in the past. The minute adversity hit before, especially in the post season, they would often get caught up in it and fall apart. That doesn’t appear to be the case anymore. After the Caps gave up a 2-0 lead by allowing two goals in 28 seconds towards the end of period two today how many people were writing them off for the game and likely the series? I imagine you could get on twitter and find tweet after tweet burying this team when the Bruins turned up the heat.

However, this cast of characters, which received super goaltending from Braden Holtby (34 saves) once again, didn’t panic and came out composed for the final frame after they barely survived the last couple of minutes in period two. Mike Knuble scored a key goal on a rebound of a Joel Ward shot. But then adversity hit again when Marcus Johansson took too long to make a decision with the puck coming out of his own zone. Boston stripped the puck from MJ90 and Dennis Wideman was then whistled for a penalty. Next thing you know Boston scores their first power play goal of the series to tie it up. Caps nation, given past playoff failures, were probably saying “I’ve seen this movie before” and were waiting for the inevitable Bruins game winner to occur.

But it never happened. Hunter’s crew didn’t sulk and merely kept playing. Then they received a late power play when Nicklas Backstrom was hooked and Troy Brouwer took full advantage scoring with 1:27 to go on the rush. Washington would do a super job of preventing Boston from getting any really good chances late and as John Walton likes to say after victories it was “Good morning, Good afternoon, and Good night Boston!”

It was a huge win and puts the Caps in position to knock off the defending champs. But that win will be the hardest one they’ve ever tried to achieve. The Bruins faced the same situation in the Stanley Cup Finals, a 3-2 series deficit, and won the last two games to grab Lord Stanley’s Cup last season. You can bet that Boston will give everything they have on Sunday. Their coach is already whining again about the Capitals late power play to try and influence the referees, in a move we’ve seen from him far too often (hopefully the NHL is tired of it too). So the Caps will have to match the Bruins intensity and play smart once again. They have to stick to Hunter’s plan and not free lance defensively. If they stray from the blue print, then that means a game seven in Boston on Wednesday.

Simply put, the Caps have a chance to finally put a bad regular season behind them for good tomorrow. Will they finally be able to do that?

Puck drop is at 3pm, don’t miss it.

Notes: Alexander Ovechkin went for the big hit in the neutral zone and missed in period two and that led to the first Boston goal. Ovechkin only played 15:34 in game five and it is clear Hunter doesn’t like the matchups he is getting when the Gr8 is on the ice. Ovechkin needs to be better defensively as well…John Carlson and Karl Alzner were an outstanding duo again and they led the Caps in ice time with 25:05 and 24:37, respectively…Boston outshot the Caps 37-32 but shot attempts were even more lopsided, 70-48…the Caps went 1 for 3 on the power play and are 3 for 14 in the series. Boston went 1 for 4 and are 1 for 15 in the series.

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Disciplined Caps Ride Holtby’s Goaltending to Game 4 Victory

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Disciplined Caps Ride Holtby’s Goaltending to Game 4 Victory

Posted on 20 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

After Monday night’s WWE matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Boston Bruins in which the B’s grabbed a 2-1 series lead, the Caps talked about being more focused on the play between the whistles and staying disciplined. On Thursday night they did just that and although they had issues with the Bruins puck possession for large portions of this contest, the Capitals managed to win, 2-1, on Braden Holtby’s 44 save performance, to tie this best of seven series up at two games apiece. Game five is Saturday in Beantown with game six on Sunday at the Verizon Center.

The Caps saved their season on this night and they can thank their goaltender and special teams play. Marcus Johansson scored a marker on a sweet 2 on 1 break just 1:22 into the contest but it was all Boston in the opening frame after that as Washington failed to skate and be aggressive. Perhaps they were trying too hard to not be foolish and let their emotions take them off of their game like it did on Monday? Maybe, but it was clear the Bruins were clicking and pressing and Washington was sorely missing the suspended Nicklas Backstrom, who will return for game five. The Caps, who were outshot 14-3 in the first period, were very fortunate to escape those 20 minutes even steven. The second period started much the same way before the Capitals finally found their legs, plus according to Caps defensemen Karl Alzner, the coaches made some minor adjustments on the breakout.

In years past, special teams play has been a predictor of a series win for Washington. With the Caps killing off all 12 Bruins power plays and potting two man advantage tallies themselves so far in four games, the ledger reads +2 for the Capitals. That will need to continue for the Caps if they want to hang with the defending champs. The Capitals had three power plays in this game to just one for the B’s and two of the three produced excellent chances for the home team. Alexander Semin’s sick laser shot from the left wing half wall was a thing of beauty and ended up being the difference in the game.

What also helped produce the victory was a more solid third period, especially the last four minutes when Washington skated hard and seemed to win every puck battle. The Verizon Center was loud and had energy and both Alzner and Johansson credited the fans for helping the Caps have one of their better outings closing with a lead. Holtby didn’t have to face many quality shots down the stretch and the team was blocking shots. Several players, including Jay Beagle, Matt Hendricks, Joel Ward, and Mike Knuble worked their rears off to prevent Boston from getting a really good chance to tie the game up. Earlier in the period it appeared the Caps had fallen into the bad habit of trying too hard to protect the lead and as a result, they stopped skating. But something clicked down the stretch and the execution was phenomenal.

So the series goes to a pivotal weekend back to back affair. The Bruins have to be favored given that they carried so much of the play in this one, plus they are the champs and are playing at home. The Capitals are playing David to Goliath but they are sticking together and on this night they were much smarter. They still need to stop having pronounced lulls in the game, but if their goalie continues to play at this level, anything can happen.

Notes: The duo of Alzner and John Carlson was once again outstanding. Can’t say enough about how well #74 is playing, he’s amped his game up at the perfect time…Dennis Wideman had a poor opening frame and he pinched to give the Bruins a two on one, which Rich Peverley converted. But #6 recovered to play a strong final 40 minutes. He had been struggling in this series up until that point…Mike Green had 9:00 of ice time in the first period but played only 10:09 the rest of the way…Alex Ovechkin helped set up the Laich-Johansson two on one on the first goal and he received an assist on the play. The Gr8 was very inconsistent in this game and he only logged four shifts and a total of 1:58 in period three. His defensive zone must be better in close games, otherwise Hunter is not willing to risk playing him with a lead…with 9.5 seconds left, the puck was dropped and the game clock did not run for over five seconds as Bob McKenzie of TSN and Transition Game author, Ted Starkey, pointed out after the game…the faceoff battle was won by the Caps, 44-32…hits were 44-34 in favor of Washington. Hunter noted that his team was physical without taking bad penalties…1st Mariner Arena will host the 2nd Annual Baltimore Hockey Classic on Wednesday, September 26th between the Caps and the Columbus Blue Jackets. Tickets for Capitals season ticket holders will be made available on Friday with all others able to purchase them starting Monday, April 23rd at 10am.

Programming Note: Check out my Caps radio segment with Drew Forrester on Thursday morning here from the WNST audio vault.

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Bruins Ramp Up Physical Play, Take Game 3

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Bruins Ramp Up Physical Play, Take Game 3

Posted on 16 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

After the Caps won game two in Boston, Bruins Coach Claude Julien challenged his team to be tougher and more physical around Washington goalie Braden Holtby. On Monday night, his club responded by crashing the cage and playing an ultra physical game in a 4-3 victory at the Verizon Center. The Bruins now lead the best of seven series two games to one with game four on Thursday night in DC.

This game was there for the taking for the Caps as they opened up a 1-0 lead when their power play connected on its first try. Alexander Semin scored on a shot from the top of the circles with Brooks Laich running traffic on Tim Thomas with four minutes left in period one. Washington played pretty solid defense in that opening frame and Holtby was looking in great in net.

But Holtby finally blinked on a four on four situation and he let in a softie on Rich Peverley’s wrister. Alexander Ovechkin answered 13 seconds later and it seemed that the Caps were going to right the ship.

However, the Caps started to forget to do the little things, which is playing good defense away from the puck. That ability had gotten them the good showing in Boston but the defensive discipline started to slip away in the middle period and when Mathieu Perreault lost Daniel Paille in front of the net, #20 had a layup to tie the game up. Things then got worse in Washington’s own end as Laich allowed Brian Rolston to score again from in front early in period three. Laich would then tie it up with six minutes left scoring on a breakaway after a great feed from Nicklas Backstrom.

Boston received a questionable power play late, and I won’t even go there with the NHL referees who are having a tough playoffs across the board, but then Milan Lucic paid the price for his extra curricular physical play getting a four minute rough to just two minutes for Matt Hendricks. It seemed to be a good break for Washington but four on four has not been their game this year and the B’s took the lead late on Chara’s point blast that hit a Capitals stick on the way in. The Caps pressured late with Holtby pulled but couldn’t connect.

So Julien tried his coaching move and his team responded. The Bruins outhit the Caps 58-36. Washington is more skilled and doesn’t want to get into that type of game but the way this one was being called, it played right into Boston’s hands.

Now it is time for Dale Hunter to make adjustments. First thing the Caps need to do is not get into the post whistle scrums and focus on the play with the clock moving. That wrestling stuff seems to heavily favor Boston. Washington also needs to clean up their own zone again and watch the guys away from the puck. Finally, they must correct their neutral zone, as the Caps tried too many cross ice plays that were intercepted.

Simply put, the Caps have the speed advantage in this series and need to get back to using that by dumping the puck behind the slow Boston defense and employing their cycle game to generate chances. The neutral zone miscues give the Bruins more time to set up their physical play and pound the Washington defense. The turnovers and poor coverage are not a recipe for playoff success.

Your move Dale.

Notes: The Caps lost the faceoff battle 37-33.  Marcus Johansson was 1-5…Perreault only played 4:23 and his ice time suffered for his defensive lapse in period two…Laich had three points (1G, 2A)…Mike Green led the Caps in ice time with 26:35….Backstrom was given a match penalty for cross checking Peverley as time expired. That carries an automatic one game suspension unless it is rescinded. Replays seem to come to #19′s aid but with the NHL, who knows?!

 

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Can the Caps Shock the Defending Champs?

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Can the Caps Shock the Defending Champs?

Posted on 11 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

If you are a hockey fan this is the best time of the year, the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It is a two month stretch like no other in sports and the reward is one of the most coveted trophies going. For Washington Capitals fans, this is also a traditional time of great hope typically followed by torment and frustration. You see those of us who have supported this team from its’ inception in the 1974-75 season are still waiting for the first visit from Lord Stanley to the local franchise.

The last few years have renewed the promise of a championship that Capitals fans started feeling back in the 1980′s and 90′s but unfortunately, the endings that came with it then have once again returned recently. Great regular seasons were abruplty ended by seemingly out of nowhere losing streaks in 2010 and 2011. This after the crushing game seven losses to the Flyers and Penguins in 2008 and 2009, respectively. New Capitals fans, and there are many of them and that is a good thing, can now understand what the long time sufferers have endured. The rite of spring around here for hockey fans often leads to group therapy sessions on the links after the first or second round of the playoffs.

Ironically, it has been some of the Capitals teams that have struggled in the regular season that have had the best playoff runs in team history. The 1990 Caps crew coached by Terry Murray finished two games under .500 but knocked off the Devils and Rangers before losing to the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals. Then in 1998, the 4th seeded Caps beat Boston, Ottawa, and Buffalo before Ron Wilson’s club was swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the Finals. Both Murray and Wilson were first year Capitals coaches in those seasons (Murray took over for his brother, Bryan).

This year, the Caps are a 7th seed after a rough regular season that saw Dale Hunter come in after just 22 games to replace Bruce Boudreau behind the bench. Washington, who were picked by many back in October to win the Eastern Conference, appears to be flying under the radar if you read most of the national and local series previews and predictions.

So can this crew of players, who underachieved in the first 82 games, find a way to knock off the defending Stanley Cup Champion Bruins?

Let’s take a closer look.

My first reaction when the matchup was established was that I did not want the Caps to play the defending Stanley Cup Champions. The Bruins have experience at winning in the post season and they have two players who are among the best at their position in the entire league in defensemen Zdeno Chara and goalie Tim Thomas. However, Boston has been the hunted all season and they will have pressure to win again. The Caps have had a subpar regular season but outside of in net, they are finally healthy at the right time.

One would have to think the Capitals have yet to play their best hockey simply because they have had the key injuries. Boston’s best stretch came in November and December when they were nearly unbeatable. There are lots of good forwards on Boston but to me, the most important one is Patrice Bergeron. From a media standpoint he is an “under the radar” guy but everyone in the NHL knows how good this guy really is. #37 makes it happen for Boston and if Washington can find a way to slow him down then that could prove decisive. This series should be a very tight checking one and to me the team that takes care of the puck the best will win.

When it comes to series matchups, the one to watch is definitely Alexander Ovechkin vs. Zdeno Chara. There is no doubt that #33 loves playing against the Great 8 and he will use his stick and size to try and slow Ovechkin down. Alex has a major speed advantage so Hunter will need to try to find a way to get Ovechkin moving when he is approaching Chara. Alex also has to find a way to effectively use his teammates. His play away from the puck will be key to this matchup. If he plays strong in his own zone and creates some turnovers, he will get breakaways and/or odd man rushes. If he doesn’t bear down below the blue line then he will be easily neurtralized.

The difference, after turnovers, is going to be goaltending. If Braden Holtby remains composed and plays the way the whole organization knows he can play, then the Capitals have a chance to advance. #70 must be smart on when to be aggressive and help his defense by moving the puck. The Bruins are big and like to pound defensemen so Holtby’s stick handling could neutralize the forechecking ability of Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand. Tim Thomas runs hot and cold. It is vitally important that the Capitals get a lot of traffic on him. He can be rattled and guys like Matt Hendricks, Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer, and Brooks Laich need to do that by crashing the crease.

The Capitals won three of the four regular season games and the one loss came with a depleted lineup (no Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, or Oveckhin plus Laich was injured in the middle frame). I’ve never been one to base playoff predictions off of regular season records, but statistics guru Neil Greenberg (@ngreenberg) tweeted that 77% of the time the team that won the regular season series is victorious in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

So the Caps have that going for them….which is nice.

But surely Washington won’t be able to knock off a deep and experienced Bruins club, right? After the regular season Washington had, this should be easy pickings for the B’s, correct?

I say, not so fast. This is not a bad matchup for Washington and they should be able to use their speed guys like Marcus Johansson and Jason Chimera to take advantage of Boston’s defense. As I said above, if Holtby holds up and the Caps limit their turnovers, they are right in it.

Call me crazy, call me a homer, call me whatever you want, but I say, yes, the Caps are gonna shock the NHL and knock off the defending champs in six games.

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Will the Caps Best Hockey Come in the Post Season?

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Will the Caps Best Hockey Come in the Post Season?

Posted on 11 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Just two days before they open their playoff series in Boston against the Bruins on Thursday night (7:30 pm on Comcast Sportsnet) the Washington Capitals hit the ice at Kettler IcePlex and had a high intensity and spirited practice. The Caps went 5-2 down the stretch, and after what appeared to be a disastrous loss to Buffalo on March 27th, they shook it off and played some good hockey. In my book, this Capitals team, which missed Mike Green for most of the season and Nicklas Backstrom for 40 games, still has yet to play its’ best hockey. In years past that has not been the case, so I spoke with some of the players to get their take on that premise.

“We’ve been better in the past couple of weeks, I think we’ve been playing better hockey, but we’ve got more to offer. Our best player, [Alexander Ovechkin], he’s been playing better and he’s gonna get better and with the playoffs coming I think everybody is going to put everything on the line. It’s different for us this year as a seventh seed instead of the first seed, so I think it’s going to be different. We’re ready, we’re hungry for the playoffs, I think we’ll be ready to go,” said center Mathieu Perreault, who scored 16 goals in 2011-12.

“I think everybody knows it’s a long and season and it’s tough to ask any team to keep at that level where you play your best or have your best, I would say, and we haven’t. Lately, especially at the end of the season, I think we play solid games. I think we played pretty good against some tough teams and we’ve proven we can play against anybody. But, that’s past, that’s over. I think this is a new season that is going to start with the playoffs, it’s totally different hockey. Now we have to bring our best,” added defenseman Roman Hamrlik, who I thought played his finest game of the year in the season finale in New York.

It is one thing to admit you haven’t played your best hockey and another thing to then go out and do it. Both former coach Bruce Boudreau and new coach Dale Hunter have talked about playing simple. This Caps team is highly talented and skilled, especially at wing, but the club has a tendency to try and make the perfect play. So can these guys put those past patterns aside and simplify their game?

“Lately we try to keep it simple, our D is just up the wall to the winger, chip it in and get on the forecheck. I think we are a better team when we do that and we work down low. We are a good team cycling the puck to the net so we are going to have to do that,” added Perreault on a reason why the team has played better in the last five games.

“What do we have to do? We talked about that the whole season. Just play our system, stick with what we have to do. Make the first quick pass on the tape and get the puck quickly and out of our zone and cycle the team and play in their zone. Try to stay out of the box. They have a pretty good power play. Be mentally ready and prepared for a big challenge. They won last year and everybody knows they’re a championship team. They have a pretty good solid hard working team and we have to bring everything we’ve got,” said Hamrlik, echoing the importance of the easy pass and cycle game.

Certainly special teams is going to be a huge factor, especially the power play in this series (btw, if you haven’t read this post by Caps beat writer Mike Vogel, then make sure you check it out). The unit has been very bad at home and one of the major reasons is the overpassing of the puck. On Tuesday the team practiced it and there was an emphasis on shots from the point with traffic in front of the opposing goalie. But we’ve seen and heard that before only to see that strategy abandoned come game time. Last Saturday against the Rangers, the power play was mostly atrocious and yielded several shorthanded chances. But when John Carlson was on the ice, things were different and Washington scored. #74 stuck to the formula the coaches have been selling so it is paramount that Green, Oveckhin, Dennis Wideman, and others buy in. A playoff series can be won alone on special teams, as the Vogel story points out.

“Yes, we are trying to be cute sometimes with the skill that we have, especially on the point and the top of the power play we should use [the shot] more if we see an open lane and there is a little bit of traffic. That is how most of the goals are going in, they’re through traffic or screens or they’re banging them in around the goal line. I think that we’ve been talking about that a little bit more,” added Carlson, who certainly gets it and should see more man advantage time on the point, in my book.

Another big factor for the Caps to play their best begins in net with goalie Braden Holtby. Not only does #70 need to stop the puck, but against a physical team like Boston he has to help his defense out with his superior puck handling skills. Holtby hasn’t been up all season so the defense isn’t as used to his habits as a team would like. That puts a heavy onus on the communication between the net minder and the defenders.

“I had Carey Price in Montreal. He loves to go behind the net and he likes to play the puck and it helps you, from my experience it is like a third defensemen. He goes and he plays the puck and it makes it easy on yourself and helps us for not facing too much to the boards and getting hit. First we have to talk to him and it is all about communication. The games he played he did a pretty good job so hopefully he’s going to continue to do that,” said Hamrlik on Holtby and the importance of communication with a stick handling adept goalie.

“I think the communication is always there, I think it is still hard because obviously when the D are coming back for the puck we see one thing and he’s looking up and he sees another thing. It’s tough to communicate perfectly every time, but we do our best. He helps us out, especially on just little plays where we can go behind the net and he can get out of the net and play it to us. We still have time to maybe get the back of the net so they can’t pressure us right off of the bat. That is huge, first off we don’t get run every time and we have time to make a play, make the right play, and break out of the zone,” added Carlson providing some interesting scenarios for where #70 can make a huge difference.

So when you sum it up, for Washington to play its’ best hockey of the season they are going to have to simplify their game, win the special teams battle, and get stops plus puck movement from their goalie. As Hamrlik told me, there is a battle going on for every inch of space in the post season. Boston is a very good team and will try and be physical with Washington. That doesn’t bother guys like Perreault, who says that he doesn’t mind going into the high traffic areas. If #85 is doing that, then one would hope that Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, and others do that as well. Even Ovechkin should make a habit of stopping in front of the net more often because the closer you are to the net, the higher the probability of the shot going in.

The formula is there for Washington to upset Boston, who are the heavy favorites based on the numerous series’ previews I’ve seen, but the execution is what matters.

Will this year be different? We’ll find out soon enough.

Notes: The Caps recalled forward Mattias Sjogren from Sweden today and he will practice with the team during the postseason. He is not eligible to play for Hershey in the AHL playoffs…both injured goalies Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth tried skating on Tuesday. #30 had the better session, but it doesn’t look like either guy will be ready to start a game any time soon…Hamrlik has a lot of playoff history against Boston and remember the Canadiens won the first two games of the opening round series last season before losing in overtime in game seven to the B’s..I will have my final series preview and prediction up on Wednesday night.

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Caps Set to Face Bruins With Holtby in Goal

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Caps Set to Face Bruins With Holtby in Goal

Posted on 08 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The NHL unveiled the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoff schedule on Sunday afternoon and the 16 teams that qualified now start 0-0 as they vie for one of the most coveted trophies in all of sports. The Washington Capitals, by virtue of their thrashing of the New York Rangers on Saturday combined with Ottawa’s loss to the New Jersey Devils, ended up in 7th place in the Eastern Conference. As a result they draw the #2 seed, which is none other than the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins.

Washington will be a heavy underdog in this series but that doesn’t mean a whole lot once the puck is dropped. The Caps had a difficult regular season but for the first time since the first seven games of the season, their skaters are all healthy. Nicklas Backstrom had his best outing in the win over New York since returning from a 40 game absence due to a concussion. Mike Green is as healthy as he is going to be following hernia surgery in January and there are no other major ailments that coach Dale Hunter has to deal with at forward or on defense.

The problem though, is that both goalies Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth are injured leaving rookie Braden Holtby as the likely starter when this series kicks off on Thursday in Beantown. The good news is that Holtby hasn’t played like a rookie and #70 does not represent a big dropoff from Vokoun and Neuvirth. Holtby, who has been compared to a young Olie Kolzig, brings an added dimension with his ability to play the puck. NHL defensemen like a goalie who can do that effectively because it limits the number of times they can be rammed into the back boards by opposing forwards.

It will be up to Hunter and assistant coach Jim Johnson to take advantage of Holtby’s superior stickhandling skills to neutralize a Bruins team that likes to get the puck deep and physically pound their opponent with Milan Lucic and the scrappy Brad Marchand. Boston also has some serious skill up front in Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Tyler Seguin. Their defense is lead by 2009 Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara and in goal they have two time Vezina trophy winner, Tim Thomas. Boston is a very good team and the Caps will have their hands full, no doubt.

I will have my series preview up later in the week but for now here is the full schedule, including television information, for the first round series:

Thursday, April 12, 2012 7:30 p.m. Washington at Boston TV: CSN, NBCSN, CBC

Saturday, April 14, 2012 3 p.m. Washington at Boston TV: NBC, CBC

Monday, April 16, 2012 7:30 p.m. Boston at Washington TV: CSN, NBCSN, CBC

Thursday, April 19, 2012 7:30 p.m. Boston at Washington TV: CSN, NBCSN, CBC

*Saturday, April 21, 2012 3 p.m. Washington at Boston TV: NBC, CBC

*Sunday, April 22, 2012 TBD Boston at Washington TV: TBD

*Wednesday, April 25, 2012 TBD Washington at Boston TV: TBD

 

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Playoffs?! Playoffs?! Yes, the Caps Are Talking Playoffs

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Playoffs?! Playoffs?! Yes, the Caps Are Talking Playoffs

Posted on 06 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

In a season that has seen a coaching change, some key injuries, and more than its’ share of ups and downs, the Washington Capitals finally made the playoffs with one game remaining, after a 4-2 victory over the Florida Panthers combined with the Philadelphia Flyers win over the Buffalo Sabres, 2-1. The Caps, believe it or not, still have a shot at the Southeast Division title and can finish either 3rd, 7th or 8th in the East, depending on the outcome of Saturday’s contests. Their first round opponent could be the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, or New Jersey Devils.

But back to Thursday night, where the Caps faced a must win in their biggest game of the season. They got the job done, but it was not without another injury, and it was not an easy victory. Washington started sloppily in the opening frame but thanks to a Jay Beagle tally on a rebound of a Troy Brouwer shot plus some super goaltending by Michal Neuvirth, the Caps were fortunate to have a 1-0 lead. But things took a bad turn at the 5:39 mark of period two. Panther forward Marco Sturm fell into Neuvirth and #30 fell back awkwardly with his left leg trapped under him. He was in clear pain and he had to leave the contest after stopping all 13 shots he faced, many of them quality scoring chances.

At that point, the game could’ve gone either way when Braden Holtby (12 saves) entered. Knowing that #70 came on cold with no warmup, the Capitals immediately picked up their play. In addition, they received a boost from Coach Dale Hunter’s line combination changes that he made after the opening 20 minutes. Hunts moved Brooks Laich (1 goal, 1 assist) to center Alexander Ovechkin (1 goal) and Marcus Johansson (1 assist) while moving Nicklas Backstrom with Alexander Semin (1 goal) and Jason Chimera. The switch triggered the Washington offense and Ovechkin and Laich tallied two minutes apart to give the Caps a 3-0 lead.

“He wanted myself on that line just to add a little bit more defensive responsibility. That opens up Marcus and Alex to go and attack. If they know that I am going to be third guy high and then try and win my battles low and get the puck to them, they’re both great skaters that if I can get the puck to them in our zone, they can skate it out. That was the only thought process, shortly after that they both come down and they score a goal. So, it’s good strategy by the coaches,” added Laich on coach Hunter’s line juggling to start the second period.

Washington has struggled with leads lately and tonight saw another round of that start to occur. When five guys swarmed the puck after the Panthers crossed the Caps blueline, Sean Bergenheim alertly fed a streaking Mikael Samuelsson, who was all alone coming down the left wing. #26 fired a laser top shelf by Holtby and suddenly the Cats had life. Florida would pressure Washington, who had several stretches where they could not get the puck out of their own zone, for the rest of the period,  but after 40 minutes it was 3-1.

But just 43 seconds into the final period, the Caps failed to dump the puck deep and Florida took advantage getting an easy entry into the zone as the Capitals forwards changed. Then with the Caps defenders running around, Ed Jovanovski fired from the middle of the point and it went through a maze of players before getting by Holtby. At that point every Capitals fan had to think, “We’ve seen this movie before!” and for the next nine minutes it seemed like only a matter of time before the Panthers were going to tie it up. Luckily, the Caps finally found their legs when the Beagle line generated a super forecheck and from there on out Washington carried much of the play with Semin closing the deal with his 21st goal of the season with 1:02 to go.

It was another game where the Capitals looked like world beaters for stretches and then there were other periods where they seemed like the worst team in the league. When they struggled their breakouts were not crisp and they were lazy, at times, in the neutral zone, and that allowed Florida to get more offensive zone time. They did not play well away from the puck at all during those downturns and it was especiallly apparent that they were sitting back in the first 10 minutes of the third. Defensemen Karl Alzner (1 assist) commented on why they struggled early in the third period but were better down the stretch.

“I think we relaxed a little bit more and started getting a little bit of confidence back. We were talking about that on the bench, if there is a play to be made, make the play. Play with confidence, play still on the offensive with what made us get that lead. And that is what happens with all of the teams, you tighten up and you play too much defense and then we get picked apart through the neutral zone. So it was just getting a little bit of our swagger back, I think,” added King Karl on the problems the Caps have had lately when they get a lead and how they adjusted on Thursday.

At the end of the night though, the Capitals achieved their first and most important regular season goal: to make the playoffs. It is a different feel this spring as Washington is likely not going in as a favorite in their series. Because of the injuries and coaching change, they still have not played their best hockey either. They have been wildly inconsistent and their confidence needs boosting. Alzner’s point about getting their swagger back is an important one, Washington needs to find that right balance to be successful in the confidence department.

In the past, the Caps have gone into the post season having had long stretches of solid play during the latter part of the regular season. Maybe they’ve been overconfident in past years, but that won’t be the case this year. Also one could argue that the last four seasons, the Caps had already played their best hockey going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Again, that certainly is NOT the case this year.

Will it make a difference in the post season results this year? We will find out, but one thing is for sure, there are plenty of things the team needs to work on before the first round starts. There is lots of room for upside and improvement and they’ll need to do so, especially if both Tomas Vokoun and Neuvirth aren’t healthy for the playoffs. Right now it looks like it is Holtby’s net, but #70 seems ready to handle that pressure.

In closing, there is one regular season game left at Madison Square Garden on Saturday against the Rangers (6:30 pm start). A win by the Caps and a regulation loss by the Panthers gives the Caps the Southeast Division title, home ice, and a date with the Devils. If the Cats get at least a point, the Caps win, and Ottawa loses in regulation, then Washington goes to Boston as the 7th seed. Finally, if the Caps lose or both Florida and Ottawa get at least a point, then it is the eighth seed and another series against John Tortorella and the Rangers.

Whoever they face, the Capitals have the potential to be a dangerous team, especially if they improve their play with the puck as well as away from it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Rangers would prefer facing either Florida or Ottawa instead of a team that underachieved in the first 82 games and finally has a healthy set of skaters, especially if they find their game and get their swagger back.

Notes: Semin’s ice time was increased to 19:19 after #28 only played 14 minutes on Monday. Smart move by Hunter to get the hard working winger more playing time…John Carlson logged 20:05 and had his best game in weeks, maybe even in months…Ovechkin now has 37 goals on the campaign…the Caps lost the faceoff battle 29-32, with Beagle (1 goal, 18:35 of ice time) going 10-6. #83 has been one of the most positive stories of the 2011-12 season and the coaching staff continues to use him in a key role on this team…Neuvirth is reportedly day to day with a lower body injury so expect the Caps to call up Dany Sabourin from Hershey if Vokoun isn’t ready yet…Joel Ward should be closer to returning and they will need #42 to play like he did for Nashville in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs…the Sabres loss put the Panthers in the post season for the first time since 1999-2000.

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Caps Can’t Close in Tampa

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Caps Can’t Close in Tampa

Posted on 02 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Just when the Washington Capitals had a chance to put themselves on the brink of making the post season, they found a way to mess it up. After tying the game on a late Jason Chimera tally, the Caps lost a defensive zone faceoff and allowed Bolts sniper Steven Stamkos to score on a rebound from the doorstep with 1:03 remaining for the game winner. Stamkos would add his league leading 58th goal into an empty net to make it 4-2.

It was an opportunity blown for the Caps, who now have to sit back and root for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday before taking on the Florida Panthers at the Verizon Center on Thursday night. If the Buffalo Sabres win tomorrow, they tie the Capitals in the standings with two games remaining, but the Caps own the tiebreaker (more regulation or overtime wins).

This was another sloppy game and it started slowly for the Capitals. Part of that was their inconsistent play but another reason was the officiating tandem of Kelly Sutherland and Frederick L’Ecuyer. Those two zebras gave Tampa two early power plays while missing some obvious infractions committed by the Bolts. It would go that way most of the night despite Washington carrying the play. Tampa received four power plays to just two for Washington and there were some questionable non-icing calls that went against the Caps late in regulation. They might as well have put Buffalo Sabres or Florida Panthers jerseys on the referees tonight because they were anything but objective.

But the Caps did not play well enough to win despite the bad officiating. They made key mistakes at the wrong time. Mathieu Perreault made a great pass to set up the first Caps goal by Alexander Semin (goal, assist), but he then made a terrible giveaway in his own zone shortly after Mike Green was robbed by Dwayne Roloson (31 saves) with a dandy glove save that would have made it 2-0, Washington. Perreault’s horrible turnover forced Dmitry Orlov to take a penalty and then Teddy Purcell scored on the power play to tie it up. 25 ticks later the Bolts scored again.

Chimera’s late goal (3:17 left) off of a rebound of a Semin shot after Green skated through the Tampa defense seemed to be the type of marker that would propel the Capitals to a victory, or at least a point. But Jay Beagle lost the draw to Stamkos with 1:15 to go and #91 provided the dagger. It was another late loss for Washington and if they miss the playoffs they have a whole slew of these contests to go back and revisit from 2011-12.

So now the Caps will have to sit and wait until Thursday to play again, with the hope that Buffalo loses on Tuesday against the Leafs or on Thursday in Philadelphia. Otherwise they’ll need a win vs the Panthers and a victory against the Rangers on Saturday to be sure to qualify for the post season (assuming the Sabres win in Boston on Saturday too).

Notes: The Washington coaching staff has got to get the power play going. Right now it is just terrible. There is too much passing at the top and not enough shots with traffic. Why not move Alexander Ovechkin down low or at least on the half wall again?…Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, and Troy Brouwer were all -2. The Caps need those guys scoring if they are going to win their last two games…Michal Neuvirth (26 saves) was in goal and he was outplayed by Roloson. He needed to stop the Purcell shot. The other two were the result of long shots with traffic…speaking of traffic, the Capitals need to get more of that in front of the other clubs goalie. Washington makes it too easy on opposing netminders too often.

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