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Sloppy Caps Win in Shootout

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Sloppy Caps Win in Shootout

Posted on 01 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

With the out of town scoreboard being the Washington Capitals friend on both Friday and Saturday night, the Caps found themselves in a struggle with the Montreal Canadiens, the last place team in the Eastern Conference, in their own building. Dale Hunter’s crew put out a decent effort, but the Caps over passed and shot wide on their chances plus they had several sloppy stretches in Nicklas Backstrom’s return to the lineup for the first time in 40 games. Fortunately for Washington, Michal Neuvirth was very good in net (39 saves, 2-2 in shootout) and Matt Hendricks and Alex Semin made super moves in the gimmick as the Capitals escaped with two points.

It was a huge victory on paper as the Caps moved two points ahead of the Buffalo Sabres, who lost on Friday at home against Pittsburgh and then Saturday in Toronto, with just three games remaining. Because the Capitals hold the tiebreaker over the Sabres (regulation or overtime wins), Washington’s magic number, which is points gained by the Caps or points lost by Buffalo, sits at four. In addition, if the Florida Panthers lose in regulation to the Detroit Red Wings in Hockeytown on Sunday, then the Capitals control their own destiny with respect to the Southeast Division title. The Caps are in Tampa on Monday, come home to face the Panthers on Thursday, before closing out their regualar season at Madison Square Garden on Saturday against the Rangers.

Things are shaping up nicely for the Caps standings wise, but if they want to close the deal, and more importantly, advance in the post season, they have to clean their game up. Washington squandered too many opportunities in this one. Alexander Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson (3 giveaways) played with Backstrom in his return. #19 was very good but his linemates were woefully inconsistent and that prevented them from connecting. Brooks Laich, another guy this team needs going to win regularly, was also sloppy on this night (4 giveaways) and was yet another reason the Capitals couldn’t sustain anything after a very good first 16 minutes or so.

The Caps never sat back in this game, in fact, the two Montreal goals came in transition as Washington was trying to push the pace. Max Pacioretty blew down the left wing late in the first period and when Karl Alzner over committed to help out his defensive partner, Dennis Wideman, Erik Cole was all alone in front and scored. The Habs second goal came when Thomas Plekenac just abused Roman Hamrlik one on one and then fired a sweet shot upstairs to beat Neuvirth (39 saves).

In overtime, the Capitals struggled once again on four and four because they couldn’t keep up with Monreal’s speed. That was disappointing given that the Habs played the night before in New York and should have been the tired club. The Caps are fortunate their goalie was on his game on this night and Neuvirth certainly showed that he can be the guy the way he played on Saturday. Last year #30 was very instrumental in Washington winning the Eastern Conference in the regular season and with Tomas Vokoun’s creaky groin, Neuvy needs to step up again for the Caps to win the division/make the post season.

At the end of the night, despite the fancy play that led to too many turnovers, the Caps come out on top and they are in a nice position to make the post season after things looked troublesome following the blowout loss to Buffalo on Tuesday. There are still three games to go and Washington must play better if they want to close things out and avoid an early trip to the golf course. The Southeast Divison will be likely there for the taking after Sunday’s slate is complete, but the Caps will need to win all three remaining games to pull that off and they won’t get that done if they perform like they did against Montreal.

Notes: Overall shot attempts were 68-68 but the Habs did a better job of getting theirs on goal…Mathieu Perreault scored the first Caps goal off of a nice feed from Semin and Jay Beagle scored the second after a sweet pass from Hendricks…those four players had good games but #85 only had 10:05 of ice time…Washington won the faceoff battle 38-28 with Backstrom going 12-6…Mike Green had 24:24 of ice time to lead the Caps…both teams did not score on the power play. The Caps had five chances to the Habs four. Washington must start connecting with the man advantage if they want to do post season damage.

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Caps Still Alive After Huge Win

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Caps Still Alive After Huge Win

Posted on 29 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals sure do know how to make things interesting. One game after laying an egg in their own building in a huge contest against the Buffalo Sabres, the Caps went into Boston and played a super road game to grab a 2-0 lead with four minutes left. No problem, right? Well, to quote that old Sundance Kid saying, “You Figured Wrong, Butch.” A couple of defensive breakdowns resulted in two late Bruins goals to force overtime and after Alexander Ovechkin (two assists) just missed late in overtime, it appeared the Capitals were going to lose once again in the shootout. After all, Boston was 8-2 in those things this year.

But the Caps got gimmick tallies from Matt Hendricks, Alex Semin (with the game on the line), and then Brooks Laich along with some big saves from Michal Neuvirth to gain a critical two points. It was a huge win over the defending Stanley Cup Champs, the Caps third victory over the B’s this season, and puts them back in a tie with the Buffalo Sabres for the eighth and final playoff spot. The Sabres have a game in hand and that one comes tomorrow night against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

This Caps team has had a roller coaster of a season and you just never know what the result will be. Tonight they had a terrible first period, one in which Jason Chimera was kicked out for charging (the Bruins player turned, which made it look bad, but what do you expect from the zebras?), goalie Tomas Vokoun left the game due to injury, and the Capitals could muster just two shots. But they managed to kill off the five minute major, overcome the goalie switch to Neuvirth and get out of that frame unscathed on the scoreboard, where it counts.

The second stanza was more tight checking with not much skating room and this one went to a critical third period, scoreless. The Capitals had to find a way to get a win in enemy territory and they took over with Ovechkin, Marcus Johansson (1 goal, 1 assist), Laich, and Dennis Wideman (1 goal) providing the offense. The Gr8 had another gear in the third period and overtime playing a major role in the victory. His pass to MJ90 on the second goal on a 2 on 1 was a thing of beauty. As for Johansson, the sophomore has had some of his best games against the boys from Beantown and he delivered tonight.

So it is back home to face the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night in another must win game. The good news is Nicklas Backstrom appears set to return against the Habs (btw, the player who injured #19, Rene Bourque, will be playing too).

The return of Backstrom is necessary if the team wants to get in the playoffs. They have four games remaining and they might need to win them all the way Buffalo is playing. There is no margin for error and any help they can get from other teams is surely appreciateed.

But they found a way to get it done themselves in Boston against the defending champs and now they can spend a night scoreboard watching.

Caps players and fans alike almost never utter the following words, but they will be tomorrow night:

Go Sidney Crosby!

Go Evgeni Malkin!

Go Marc-Andre Fleury!

Coach ‘em up, Dan Bylsma!

Notes: Washington lost the face-off battle 35-23 with Laich going 4-14…Vokoun had seven saves before likely re-injuring his bad groin while Neuvirth halted 19 Boston shots…attempted shots were 65-46 in favor of the Bruins. The Caps had 21 shots on net…Florida lost in overtime on Thursday so the Caps trail the division leading Panthers by four points but Florida has a game in hand.

 

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Caps Playoff Hopes Take Huge Hit

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Caps Playoff Hopes Take Huge Hit

Posted on 27 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals Coach Dale Hunter called Tuesday night’s game against the Buffalo Sabres for eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings a “game 7″ type of affair. Unfortunately, this one was like the game seven against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, a one-sided blow out by the visitors. The only good news on the night? Washington has five games remaining and still can make the postseason, but now they’ll need help.

The difference in this game started with the most important position in hockey, goalie.

Braden Holtby, who has performed nicely since his recall from Hershey last week, made a terrible stick handling mistake to give the Sabres an early easy goal then he struggled with his rebound conrol. His defense, notably John Carlson (-3) and Jeff Schultz (-2), went to sleep on him and the Sabres built a 3-0 lead early into the middle frame. That spelled the end of Holtby and on came Michal Neuvirth.

Alexander Semin scored to cut it to 3-1 and with Buffalo losing defensemen Christian Ehroff to an injury for the game and Andrej Sekera in the locker room for the end of the second frame, it looked like the Capitals had a chance to get back in it when blue liner Robyn Regehr was called for hooking with 3:07 to go. But Alexander Ovechkin misplayed a puck at the left point and Jason Pominville went in on a two on one and beat Neuvirth to pretty much end this game. The Sabres added a third period marker and left town 5-1 victors and control of their own destiny.

Ryan Miller stopped 44 of 45 shots for the Sabres but the Caps rarely got to the net for rebounds. Miller is one of the best netminders in the league and he has been on the top of his game as Buffalo has put together a meteoric rise to seize the last playoff spot with less than two weeks left in the regular season.

The Caps, who recently had a successful critical road trip at 2-2-1, followed that up with a dud of a three game home stand going 1-1-1. With games at Boston, Tampa, and the Rangers plus two home games against Montreal and Florida, things are not looking good for General Manager George McPhee’s crew. The Capitals will have to go 5-0 or 4-1 to likely make it as Buffalo faces Pittsburgh and Toronto on home ice while traveling to Toronto, Boston, and Philadelphia. With the way Miller is going in net, they might not lose.

As for Washington, this team has been wildly inconsistent and as I’ve chronicled here all year, they will continue to be that way with their weak play up the middle of the ice. Nicklas Backstrom has been cleared to return but the question remains, is he ready for NHL action at the most intense time of the year? It seems risky to put #19 back in but it may be the Capitals only hope because the crew of Brooks Laich, Mathieu Perreault, and Marcus Johansson have not done the job at the pivot spot to allow this club to put a winning streak together.

The bottom line now is the Caps need at least four wins, and possibly five in a row to make the post season. Given what we’ve seen for the first 77 games, that seems highly unlikely, but that is why they play the games.

Backstrom back or not, they’ll need top notch goaltending and better play from their defensemen. On Tuesday night they did not get that and now their season is totally on the line.

Notes: the Caps won the faceoff battle 37-23 and outshot the Sabres 45-31 but Buffalo made the most of their quality scoring chances…the Caps went 0 for 4 on the power play and gave up a shorthanded tally. The Sabres were 0 for 1  with the man advantage…Washington’s next game is in Boston on Thursday. The Sabres play the Penguins in Buffalo on Friday night.

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Bad Decisions Cost Caps Again

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Bad Decisions Cost Caps Again

Posted on 24 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Caps Lose Shootout But Road Trip A Success

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Caps Lose Shootout But Road Trip A Success

Posted on 22 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Despite losing a tough 2-1 game to the Flyers in a shooout on Thursday night, the Washington Capitals can call this recent five game road trip a success. The Caps went 2-2-1 away from the Verizon Center against the Islanders, Jets, Blackhawks, Red Wings, and Flyers with their season on the line. They come home up a point in the race for eighth place in the Eastern Conference over the Buffalo Sabres. Friday night’s game against Winnipeg now becomes a huge one as the Capitals can pretty much knock the Jets out of it with a victory. The Jets are in 10th place, five points behind Washington.

The Caps played very well in regulation in Philadelphia but several missed opportunities came back to haunt them. Alexander Ovechkin, who scored just 26 seconds into the game, was stopped by Ilya Bryzgalov (30 saves) early in period two when the Gr8 appeared to have a ton of open net to shoot at, then Mathieu Perreault hit the right post from the slot and Keith Aucoin caught iron from in close in the middle frame, as well. Finally, Marcus Johansson received a penalty shot but Brygalov tripped him and the referees mistakenly didn’t give MJ90 another attempt.

Washington carried much of the play in regulation but the Flyers had some good looks too, but Braden Holtby (27 saves) was excellent in his second straight start and deserved a better fate than to lose in the gimmick. In overtime, the Capitals, with Nicklas Backstrom still out and Alexander Semin missing due to a lower body injury, struggled in four on four. Ovechkin did get a golden chance but Brayden Coburn made a good move late to force the Gr8 to shoot wide.

If you asked me before the road trip if I would take 5 points in 5 games, I would’ve snatched it and ran given the Caps road woes this season. But tonight was a chance to get greedy and get a sixth point and a bigger cushion in the standings. Washington played well enough to do just that but failed to finish. It is never fun to lose to the Flyers, especially when you out chance them.

In the big scheme of things though, a .500 trip against the teams they faced this late in the season was ultra important. The Capitals control their own destiny with five games at home and just three on the road. They can’t ask for much more than that at this point and they really need their fans to help them have a huge advantage at home, like the Winnipeg fans did last Friday night where every call pretty much went against the Caps.

Notes: Minnesota is in on Sunday while the Sabres are in town on Tuesday on the upcoming three game home stand…the Flyers only goal was scored by Claude Giroux right after Aucoin hit the post and Dennis Wideman blew a tire in his own zone allowing #28 to go in alone on Holtby…the Caps won the face-off battle, 30-24.

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Poor Start Dooms Caps on Road Again

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Poor Start Dooms Caps on Road Again

Posted on 18 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals needed a good start in Chicago on Sunday night after losing a tough contest on Friday night in Winnipeg. They did not get that at all at the Uniter Center. The Blackhawks fired the first 12 shots on net and potted two goals in a dominating first period.

In the middle frame, the Caps came out strong and cut it to 2-1 on a Mike Knuble goal after a nice interception by Keith Aucoin. But defensive zone breakdowns, which have plagued this club all season long, showed up time and time again and when John Carlson fanned on a pass the Hawks scored to make it 3-1. They would go up 4-1 before Alexander Ovechkin scored a pretty goal going around Duncan Keith to make it 4-2. With 20 minutes left the Caps needed two goals to tie, but they couldn’t muster much offense and ended up losing 5-2, with an empty netter providing the final margin.

Simply put, this team has not played well early on in games when they’ve had the previous day off this season. It took the Caps far too long to get their legs in this one and with their weaknesses up the middle of the ice, that poor start was just too much to overcome. The poor opening frames and weak pivot play has led to much inconsistency since Nicklas Backstrom went out in early January. #19 has been skating and appears set to return at some point, but the question might be, will it be too late to save this season?

As I am typing this, the Caps are still in eighth place in the Eastern Conference with the Winnipeg Jets playing at home against Carolina. If the Jets win, they tie the Caps in the standings. But Winnipeg would have some serious momentum and the Capitals go to Detroit on Monday night and Philadelphia on Thursday night. On paper, those two contests both appear to be losses.

So a five game road trip that now stands at 1-2, could easily become 1-4 if Washington does not start playing a full 60 minutes of hockey.

On Sunday they weren’t ready for puck drop and the Blackhawks buried them for it.

There are 10 games left in the season and if they don’t start showing some urgency from the opening face-off, they just be might smacking Titleist’s instead of pucks come April 9th.

Notes: Michal Neuvirth got the start in net with Tomas Vokoun dealing with a nagging injury. Braden Holtby was recalled from Hershey and was the back-up…the Caps finally received a power play in the third period but as expected, without much in game work, it looked pretty bad…not many guys were good tonight, except for Knuble and perhaps Aucoin. Neuvirth received no support and Jeff Schultz had his worst game on defense since playing his way back into the lineup. Dennis Wideman was  a -3 and not very good either.

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Caps Let Golden Opportunity Slip By in Loss

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Caps Let Golden Opportunity Slip By in Loss

Posted on 17 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals had a chance to pretty much end the season of the Winnipeg Jets on Friday night but they let a golden opportunity slip by in a 3-2 regulation loss in the second tilt of a five game road trip.

The loss, which wasted a superb goaltending effort from Tomas Vokoun (25 saves), ends the Caps four game winning streak. Winnipeg has now won the last two meetings against Washington and trail the Caps by just two points in the race for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. The Buffalo Sabres are just a point in back of Winnipeg. All three teams have 11 games remaining.

The Caps, who not only fought a desperate Jets team in a raucous MTS Centre, also had to play against the referees as well. Mike Leggo and Kyle Rehman were downright inconsistent in this one and they also missed a blatant head shot by Mark Stuart on Marcus Johansson that would’ve given Washington a 5 on 3 power play. Stuart should get one of those Brendan Shanahan tapes made on his behalf this weekend. In addition, Keith Aucoin was high sticked and was bleeding late but only two minutes were called. Add in several other missed hooks and holds (see Winnipeg winning goal) on the Jets against Alex Ovechkin and others, some of which were whistled on Washington the other way, and you have to wonder what these guys in stripes are watching?

But even despite the bad zebras, the Caps still had their chances. With 2:22 to go they received the power play they needed but curiously the coaching staff put Ovechkin and Dennis Wideman on the points with the goalie pulled instead of moving the Gr8 down low and putting Mike Green at the blueline. It was a move that doesn’t make any sense unless Green is not 100%. Ovechkin has been getting his goals from in close lately and with him in front of the net it opens up room for other Capitals players. It was a key sequence in the game and the personnel decisions were not up to par there, plain and simple.

On the plus side, Washington’s penalty killing was specatcular, and it had to be with ECHL calibre referees bowing to every whine from the Manitoba faithful (boy are those fans annoying, but they certainly helped their team on Friday). Jay Beagle, Matt Hendricks, and Karl Alzner, along with Vokoun were outstanding during a 99 second sequence where the Jets had a 2-1 lead and a five on three power play. #83 blocked several shots and Vokoun flat out robbed Blake Wheeler at the side of the net. It was top notch penalty killing that unfortunately was wasted in the loss as the Jets went 0 for 5 on the power play.

In games like this one, where you have a chance to separate yourself from the teams chasing you in the standings, your top players need to produce. Ovechkin and Alexander Semin did not do that on Friday night. Yes, the Gr8 was clutched and grabbed most of the night but he is too predictable with the puck. When a mediocore defenseman like Grant Clitsome takes him out so easily on the boards it is clearly a sign that Ovechkin needs to find some new moves. In addition, the two-time NHL MVP’s free lancing style in his own zone cost the team a goal. With the game tied Ovechkin abandoned his man to chase the puck behind the net. At that point the entire d-zone coverage broke down and ultimately Ovechkin’s original man, Nik Antropov, potted the tally that put the Jets up 2-1 late in period two. Ovechkin has to work harder and be smarter in his own end. Semin only played 12:19 and was -2. That was one of his worst games since Dale Hunter took over behind the bench.

So there are three games left on this important road trip and the Caps have split the first two tilts. They had a great chance to put some spread between them and their pursuers, but they didn’t get the job done and now move on to take on the Blackhawks in Chicago on Sunday night. That will be a tough test followed by a quick turnaround in Detroit on Monday. It is time for the stars to show up in the Windy City and Motown.

Notes: Johansson left for a portion of the contest after taking the hit from Stuart but did return. Stuart deserves three games for that hit, at least….Mike Knuble did not have a good game and his penalty late in period two was an awful decision and play…Beagle was outstanding playing 19:53 and winning 14 of 20 draws..the Jets are in town next week, so the Caps get another chance at putting the Winnipeg club away for the year.

 

 

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Hunter Getting It Done Despite Criticism

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Hunter Getting It Done Despite Criticism

Posted on 11 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hunter’s Latest Lineup Paying Dividends

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Hunter’s Latest Lineup Paying Dividends

Posted on 10 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Season Saving Win for Caps?

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Season Saving Win for Caps?

Posted on 08 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

After 40 minutes, in a game they had to win, things looked terribly bleak for the Washington Capitals.

They had just parlayed a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 deficit following a lackluster middle frame that saw them take three bad penalties, shoot on net just three times, and allow two power play goals. It was hardly the type of effort and production you would see from a team with their season likely on the line.

But Dale Hunter apparently tore into the team in the intermission and Washington came out strong with one of their best periods in a long time to tie the game up with just under four minutes left on Marcus Johansson’s goal off of a Tampa turnover after a super play by Dennis Wideman. Alexander Ovechkin then buried a sweet pass from Dmitry Orlov in OT after Jason Chimera did the work in the corner to win it for the Capitals.

“His message was basically just to man up. Play hard and play as a team. We had a lot of one-on-one play and a lot of turnovers. It was one of the ‘keys’ that we had on the board, was no turnovers. He yelled at us pretty much for one of the first times that he has ever yelled at us and the guys just snapped out of it,” Karl Alzner told the media after the game on #32′s rare display of emotion.

“We knew that if we could get two points tonight it puts us in a good spot to contend for a playoff spot here, but if we weren’t able to pick up these two points, we’d be on the outside looking in and in a real tough place to get back in,” added forward Troy Brouwer on the win.

Brouwer is absolutely correct. Had the Capitals lost this game in regulation they would’ve still been in it but would have finished a key home stand with just three points. Instead they go 2-2-1 (five points) at the Verizon Center on the five game stretch and with teams around them losing and also suffering more injuries (Buffalo lost Tomas Vanek to injury against Boston) they are still alive. Add in the fact that the Florida Panthers got smoked, 5-0, in Philadelphia on Thursday and have to travel to Pittsburgh on Friday night and the Caps could find themselves with a chance to tie for the Southeast Division lead with a victory in Boston on Saturday afternoon.

It was a strange turn of events and Tampa Coach Guy Boucher has to be kicking himself for taking his foot off of the Capitals throats following the defeat. After all the man who was labeled a genius last spring had a 2-1 lead, the best goal scorer in the league in Steven Stamkos, and was employing a rookie playing his first full NHL game in goal. The Bolts had dominated Washington in the second period yet Boucher chose to go to the 1-3-1, which allowed the Caps to get the first 11 shots on goal in the third period? Terrible coaching and Hunter’s crew worked hard to take advantage of the tactical error despite the strong play in goal by Dustin Tokarski (29 saves).

At the other end of the ice, the Caps should be thankful that Tomas Vokoun kept his club in it when the Bolts were actually trying to score. Hunter and company will need many more of those performances from #29 if they want to stay in the playoff race.

As for Ovechkin, it once again was not one of his better games but he rose to the occassion in overtime. Chimera would have been the goal scoring hero had he finished off a great pass from the Gr8 on a two on one just seconds before Ovechkin’s game winner. But #25 didn’t get down and his hustle was what allowed Orlov and Ovechkin to win it.

It was a win the Capitals absolutely had to have, and they found a way to get it.

In closing, I will leave you with my final thoughts on tonight’s victory:

Feel the city breakin’
And ev’rybody shakin’
And we’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.
- Barry Gibb

Notes: The Caps had 68 shots attempted to just 45 for Tampa. The imbalance came from the Bolts going into a shell in the final frame, something I am sure Stamkos (1 assist), Martin St. Louis (1 assist), and Teddy Purcell (1 goal, 1 assist) were not happy about…Mike Green had a big hit on Brett Connolly in the middle frame. #52 went in to cut off #14 as he was coming behind the net. Connolly got hit by Orlov and lost his balance causing Green to catch him in the head with his upper arm. After the game Connolly called it a “hockey play” and blamed himself (h/t Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune)…Johansson’s goal was his 13th of the season and he beat Tokarski five hole…MJ90 has been asked to do a lot this year and he has given 100% effort at it. He hasn’t always produced but the 21 year old has a bright future…Keith Aucoin had a sweet deflection of an Alzner blast on the 1st Caps goal…the Caps have a busy weekend taking on the Bruins in Boston on Saturday at 1pm followed by a game on Sunday at the Verizon Center at 5pm against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

 

 

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