Tag Archive | "Johansson"

Defensive Zone Breakdowns Cost Caps in Loss to Ducks

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Defensive Zone Breakdowns Cost Caps in Loss to Ducks

Posted on 24 December 2013 by Ed Frankovic

After back to back dismal efforts against mediocore teams that saw the Caps fortuitously pull out three of a possible four points last weekend, Washington was back in action on Monday night against the number one team in the NHL: Bruce Boudreau’s Anaheim Ducks, who came in with an eight game winning streak.

The Capitals played much harder in this one and actually had a 2-0 early lead, but defensive mistakes at critical times ultimately did them in once again, and they were defeated, 3-2, to drop their record to 19-14-4 heading into the Christmas break.

This was a very close game, as evidenced by the shot attempt totals, which were 57-54 in favor of the Ducks. Washington was much better than last weekend in the puck possession department but Anaheim did a superior job of getting their attempts on net, winning that battle 29-19. The Caps did a lot of good things in this game and both Marcus Johansson and Alex Ovechkin hit iron in the third frame in what is a tough loss to a very good hockey team.

After Saturday’s overtime loss to the Devils I blogged that things needed to change and it was on Coach Adam Oates and GM George McPhee to figure out whether it was the players or the system that were causing the issues. Following tonight’s game, it appears to me that effort and also focus, on the part of the players, and not the system, is the major problem. Washington was motivated on Monday and brought a passion to get and own the puck. But the Ducks are a veteran and skilled team, and going against number one isn’t all about effort and passion, it’s about playing the right way and paying attention to detail.

That is where this Capitals team is falling down, attention to detail, especially in their own end. The Caps gave up the tying tally with just 27 seconds remaining in period two. Then they gave up the game winner with 5:36 left in regulation. Both goals were the result of poor reads that led to bad defensive zone coverage. Oates confirmed that after the game. On the game winner, the forwards all got caught too low on the back check allowing defenseman Hampus Lindholm to fire a shot through a maze of bodies past Philipp Grubauer. There was a lack of communication on the part of the Washington forwards on the ice and it resulted in a lot of space and time for the Ducks defenseman to shoot and score.

Anaheim’s second tally, however, is the one that is the most upsetting and disappointing. The five guys on the ice were out for a long shift and each one can shoulder their share of the blame. We won’t point out the names, but let’s just say there were a lot of contract dollars on the ice for the home club. The initial rush by Ben Lovejoy wasn’t played properly by the Capitals defensemen, who simply stopped moving his feet. But even still, Lovejoy was just looking to center the puck and if the other defenseman and the three forwards don’t puck watch and instead cover Anaheim players, there is no quality chance or goal. That did not happen as the Caps d-man went to the wrong post and the forwards allowed Saku Koivu and Andrew Cogliano to have a clear and uncovered path to the front of the cage. The result was an easy goal for Koivu that Grubauer had no chance on.

Simply put, it was a lack of effort at the end of a long shift and poor communication, as well. In his post game presser Oates said that communication should be going on at all times on the ice and he also said that at this point in the season, the reads and positioning should be automatic. It was not on the tying tally, as well as the game winner.

Those type of mistakes not only cost a squad points in the standings, but in the bigger picture, those are the type of errors that prevent a hockey team from being one of the better clubs in the league. Washington is in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference for this exact reason, they have too many breakdowns in their own end that are costing them hockey games.

Reading Oates’ answers, expression and demeanor afterwards, I got the feeling that he’s been pointing out these things over and over to his players. These aren’t hard hockey concepts but they require a mental toughness to continue to execute when you are tired or not in a position to score a goal. Everyone loves offense, but playing proper defense is the key to winning hockey games and a Stanley Cup. The Cup winner each season knows how to do the things that allow a club to transition from offense to defense. They play their positions well, they communicate on defense, and they focus even when they are tired at the end of a shift.

It’s the things you need to do to win hockey games and ultimately a championship.

Until this Caps team is ready to commit to that, they’ll do exactly what I said after Saturday’s loss to New Jersey: they will qualify for the playoffs and then find themselves out in either round one or two.

The talent is mostly there for the Caps to go where the players say they want to go, but saying it and then doing it requires a whole different level of focus and commitment.

Right now, I question that level of commitment from several of the players on this team.

Notes: Washington won the faceoff battle, 43-25…the Caps were 1 for 5 on the power play while the Ducks went 0 for 4 with the man advantage…Brooks Laich returned to the lineup and played 13:23…Mikhail Grabovski and Nicklas Backstrom had the two goals for Washington…next up, on Friday night at the Verizon Center, for the Caps is an improving Rangers team that has won two games in a row.

 

 

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Grubauer Helps Ovechkin Net 400th Career Goal

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Grubauer Helps Ovechkin Net 400th Career Goal

Posted on 20 December 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin scored his 400th NHL goal on Friday night in the Caps huge 4-2 victory in Carolina. The Russian superstar became the 6th fastest (634 games, h/t Jeff Kryglik) to reach that number in NHL history.

Afterwards, the Gr8 knew exactly who to thank for the reaching the milestone on this night: rookie goalie Philip Grubauer.

The young German netminder, who Ovechkin termed the Caps “best player in the game,” was fantastic stopping 39 of 41 shots, many of the quality chance variety and it was his goaltending along with three Washington power play goals that gave the Caps a late 3-2 lead. With the Canes pulling goalie Cam Ward (25 saves), Nicklas Backstrom (4 assists) moved the puck off of the boards where the Gr8 could out race the Carolina defender and notch his first empty net tally of the season to seal this one for Washington. It was “Good morning, Good afternoon, and Good night Carolina,” as the great John Walton says, at that point.

The victory improves the Caps record to 19-13-3 (41 points), which gives them a five point cushion over the Flyers, who are in 3rd place in the Metropolitan Division.

The analysis of this one is pretty straightforward: Grubauer was the difference in this game like Justin Peters was the difference maker for Carolina just over two weeks ago when the Canes came in and stole a game in Washington. Tonight, for some reason, Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller chose to go with Ward over Peters, who totally owned and frustrated the Capitals at the Verizon Center on December 3rd.

Muller also set up his penalty kill to take away Ovechkin and it totally backfired. Caps Coach Adam Oates and assistant Blaine Forsythe adjusted to the tactic by putting a body in front of Ward and as a result, they notched the three extra man markers. Typically a team has two defenders in front of the net on the PK, making it harder for the offense to get bodies in front, but with the Canes shadowing Ovechkin, it was easy for the Caps to stand in front of or around Ward when they had the man advantage.

Sure Muller did a nice job of exploiting the Capitals defense with stretch passes all night, but overall Oates won the coaching match up in this tilt.

Washington’s neutral and defensive zones were below average in this contest. The spacing between the two defenders was off most of the game. In addition, the gaps between the defensive pair and the forwards was too great, giving the speedy Canes too much time and space.

Luckily, Grubauer was outstanding and the Caps defense did do a great job of clearing any rebounds. In addition, Backstrom was super in this contest and he now leads the NHL in assists with 33. Not too shabby for the underrated Swede.

In hockey, it is nice to have highly skilled players who can score, the Caps have that in Ovechkin and Backstrom.

Washington was mostly outplayed, but the great equalizer, goaltending, was the game’s determining factor.

Grubauer was greater than Ward, which allowed Oates to be greater than Muller in Raleigh on Friday night.

Notes: Shot attempts were heavily in favor of the Canes, 86-42, OUCH!…Marcus Johansson, who had a super second period, got hurt in that frame and left with a lower body injury…Johansson, John Carlson, and Troy Brouwer had the Caps first 3 goals…the Caps went 3 for 4 on the power play while Carolina was only 1 for 5…Next up for the Caps are the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night at the Verizon Center.

 

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Caps Rally From 3 Down To Best Flyers in Shootout

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Caps Rally From 3 Down To Best Flyers in Shootout

Posted on 15 December 2013 by Ed Frankovic

If you attended or watched the Caps-Flyers contest today, you saw one wild hockey game.

After a strong start by the Capitals, Philadelphia rebounded to tie the game late in the first period, dominated the second frame, and scored two quick goals early in the third period to take a 4-1 advantage. The third of those four goals came from Sean Couturier from the corner and behind the goal line. He shot the puck off of Philipp Grubauer and into the cage for a goal that deflated the Caps and the crowd. Then when Jakub Voracek deflected a Michael Raffl shot home at 3:32 of the final frame (74 seconds after the third goal), it looked like the Flyers would avenge the 7-0 drubbing they took from the Capitals back on November 1st.

But not so fast with the 2013-14 Capitals, who had already come back four times after two periods to win contests this season. The Caps started getting pucks and bodies to the net and Mike Green’s goal with 8:40 left gave Washington life. After a failed power play, the Caps kept the pressure on and Dmitry Orlov lasered one by Steve Mason with 3:31 to go after a face off win and suddenly it was a one goal hockey game. The Verizon Center crowd went nuts and the Capitals kept on coming with wave after wave like they were storming the beaches of Normandy. With Grubauer pulled and the extra attacker on, Mason decided to try and play the puck behind his own net but he gave it right to Joel Ward. #42 then found a streaking Alex Ovechkin in the slot and the Gr8 doesn’t fail in the clutch, snapping one by Mason giving the Capitals their third goal in just under eight minutes to send the game to overtime.

The Caps would go on to win, 2-1, in the gimmick and improve to 18-12-3 (39 points), good for a four point lead over the third place Carolina Hurricanes in the Metropolitan division.

Trying to make sense of this game, quite honestly, makes little sense. Green told me afterwards that the vast swings in play were simply typical momentum shifts you see in games. He said that there are real no answers for it. #52 is probably right.

Both the Caps and the Flyers wanted this game very badly and were giving all they had at various times. Washington did manage to get those last three goals by getting pucks to the point for shots with traffic. Green stated afterwards that the coaches and players noticed that Philly was sagging back and that the forwards were reminded that the defensemen were getting room to shoot. With big guns like Green, John Carlson, and Orlov on the point, it made sense for the Caps to “simplify” as Marcus Johansson (1 goal, 1 assist) called it and get shots with traffic on Mason. Clearly it worked and the Flyers were likely guilty of thinking they had the game won when they were up 3 pucks.

With the Caps offensive skills, they are rarely out of a game these days.

Once the game goes to the skills exhibition, it’s anyone’s to win. However, Grubauer said that he watched video of the two previous shootouts this week and he learned some things from it. He said that his objective was not to commit and make the first move because it gives the shooter an advantage that they often capitalize on. Only world class forward Claude Giroux got one by the German goalie while Eric Fehr and Nicklas Backstrom scored for the Caps in the shootout. Grubauer made 24 saves plus the two shootout stops and is now 3-0-1. He made some great saves at other times during this contest, but would definitely like the second and third goals back. With the Caps going to Philadelphia on Tuesday for round three of the season series, I’d imagine that Braden Holtby gets the nod in the cage given his good record on Broad Street.

As for Ovechkin, he had a sweet pass to set up Johansson for the first goal on the power play and his tying tally was his 27th goal of the season. He had seven shots on net in 25:08 of ice time. He, Green, Johansson, and numerous others were way better than they’d been in Florida on Friday and that was a big reason the Caps came back. The Flyers let off the gas and appeared to run out of energy too. Perhaps they used up too much fuel when they seized the middle portion of the game?

Who knows? Like Green said, there are no easy answers for it.

One thing for sure, though, is this Capitals team has character and does not fold the tent when down. Five of their victories have now come from third period rallies and that is very impressive.

The naysayers will complain about too many wins coming from shootouts or state that they are in a weak division, but this team has been in nearly every game this season. They are still figuring out the best way to play on the back end under Oates’ system and that has been complicated by a rotation of different personnel on defense. The coach told me after the game that he prefers that his defensemen move the puck within the first five feet once they get it, and that has to be an adjustment for guys like Green and Orlov, who like to carry the biscuit. Perhaps that is why #52 has been very up and down this season?

Former Coach Bruce Boudreau called Green the “One Man Breakout” and Orlov has that capability too. But if your head coach doesn’t prefer that style, one would have to think that would cause mistakes and an adjustment period? It’s something to continue to watch as the season progresses. Do the players adhere to Oates’ preferred method or is there a give and take between players and coaches to maximize some seriously strong defensive puck handling ability on the back end that the Caps could and probably should take advantage of? After all, what if Glen Sather told Paul Coffey he couldn’t skate with the puck more than five feet, how would that have worked out in Edmonton?

Oates is a smart hockey mind and I understand why he wants the puck moved up as quickly as possible. If a defensemen is coming with speed, he can pass the puck and then get it back from a player who is further up the ice. The puck moves faster than the players, at least that is the philosophy of the strategy, but if the forwards aren’t open or are being taken away by the opposition then the defensemen certainly have to adjust, right? It’s an interesting topic and I’m guessing that there have been many discussions on it between the head coach, assistant Calle Johansson, and some of the defensemen.

Whatever they end up doing, one thing is for sure: you can’t win hockey games with a bad defense. The Caps need to find a way to maximize the skills they have back there. Carlson and Karl Alzner are playing great hockey but the team needs Green and Orlov to play at a strong level too for Washington to be a puck possession dominating club.

Stay tuned.

Notes: Mikhail Grabovski didn’t play due to illness and that forced Oates to move Jay Beagle to center Troy Brouwer and Fehr while Michael Latta was recalled from Hershey and centered the fourth line. Nate Schmidt was sent to Chocolatetown to make room for #46, who ended up leaving the game early with a lower body injury. Latta did have a good scrap with Zac Rinaldo in period two. Steve Oleksy fought Wayne Simmonds early in period three, right before the third Philly goal…Washington had the shots on goal advantage, 33-28, but the Flyers won the shot attempt battle, 55-50…Washington was 40-29 from the dot, including some big offensive zone draw wins in the final 10 minutes…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 29:38.

 

 

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Ovechkin’s 4 Goals Rallies Caps Past Bolts in Shootout

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Ovechkin’s 4 Goals Rallies Caps Past Bolts in Shootout

Posted on 10 December 2013 by Ed Frankovic

There is something about snow that tends to bring out the best in Alexander Ovechkin, so it’s no coincidence that one of his nicknames, besides the Gr8, is Snovechkin.

On Tuesday night, in a game the Capitals really had no business winning, Alex Snovechkin scored four goals, including the game tying tally with just 33 seconds left in regulation.

Washington would go on to win in the shootout, 6-5, and steal two points from a hard working and undermanned Tampa Bay Lightning club.

Ovechkin had the four markers and his center, Nicklas Backstrom, had a goal and four helpers for a five point night. Those two guys, along with rookie Philip Grubauer in net and some good fortune, are the reason the Caps scraped out two points after trailing 3-0 early on.

The Caps looked nothing like the team that manhandled the Rangers on Sunday at the Garden as the Lightning, without top players Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, came out flying while several Capitals coasted through their early shifts. Most notable was defensemen Mike Green who had the worst period I’ve ever seen #52 play. He took four minors, a 10 minute misconduct, and badly misplayed the two on one break that gave the Lightning a 3-0 lead and chased starter Braden Holtby. #70 wasn’t that bad, but clearly Adam Oates wanted to wake his sleep walking team up, at that point.

The move eventually helped and Ovechkin would get yet another goal this season off of a face off in the opening frame to give the Caps some life. Then when the Bolts Richard Panik took a major for boarding Karl Alzner late in period two, the Gr8 scored twice on the power play to send this one tied, at 4-4, to the third period.

At that point one would think the Caps would take over and win this one against a depleted Tampa squad, but the Bolts are well coached by John Cooper and they carried much of the play. They grabbed the lead when Martin St. Louis, who is one of the smallest but also one of the best players in the NHL, set up Ondrej Palat in the slot at 8:36 of the final period. St. Louis is a Caps killer and he had three points in this game. His work ethic is amazing and several Capitals could learn a lot from watching him.

Work ethic was something that was not there for many Capitals in this tilt. Washington was too fancy and made many bad passes. Martin Erat had a hat trick of giveaways, one of which led to a goal. It should have been three for three if not for Grubauer’s great goaltending on the other two occassions. The Capitals forwards did a mostly lousy job of helping out their defense in this game and Oates will have plenty of video to show of their mistakes.

But the good news is this Capitals team is resilient. They don’t quit and they keep scrapping. It really helps to have skill and talent and Ovechkin and Backstrom took over to save the day on a night when many Washington players just didn’t bring their better performances to the rink.

On Tuesday the Caps did just enough to win, they should be thankful that snowstorms, even an over hyped one like the area had today, brings out the best in their captain.

It was the Alexander Ovechkin show on Tuesday. That’s now 26 goals in 29 games this season. To quote the Gr8, that is “Sick, Unbelievable…”

Notes: Eric Fehr, who is playing super and brought his game on Tuesday, Mikhail Grabovski, and Troy Brouwer all scored in the gimmick for the Caps…Grubauer got his 2nd NHL win in his 1st career NHL shootout…because the Caps were trailing the fourth line played sparingly and Aaron Volpatti and Tom Wilson played less than five minutes each…the Caps are now 17-12-2 (36 points)…John Carlson played an all worldly 34:48 in this one…the Caps won the face off battle, 36-22 and Backstrom was 15-7…Washington was 3 for 5 on the power play while Tampa went 2 for 5…Green was a lot better after his misconduct and had an assist. The referees were not the problem for him in the opening frame, it was his lack of skating and too much reliance on using his stick. Lazy hockey, plain and simple.

 

 

 

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Oates Frustrated After Caps Comeback Falls Short

Posted on 23 November 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Caps Coach Adam Oates was notably upset after this one, and that is highly unusual.

The normally calm bench boss who does a great job of answering post game questions, win or lose, was frustrated and he said as much as he closed down his presser.

He was frustrated at his team, particularly some of the “veterans” who aren’t helping the younger guys.

My take is he was also frustrated with an officiating crew that somehow had the power plays five to two in favor of Montreal despite the fact that the Caps carried the large majority of the play for the last 44 minutes.

More importantly, he knew that all of the energy his club spent trying to come back from a 3-0 deficit was mostly wasted and could potentially hurt them for their game on Saturday night in Toronto. The Caps will face the Leafs at the Air Canada Centre on Hockey Night in Canada and they will not be getting in to the Big Smoke until early Saturday morning after having to clear customs.

The problem in Friday’s game was Washington came out sluggish, looking like the team that was dominated by Pittsburgh on Wednesday, and they dug themselves a 3-0 hole. Oates called the errors some of the same ones his team has been making over and over. There were wrong reads on passes (Alex Urbom’s pass to Mikhail Grabovski that led to the first goal), bad icing penalties which caused his club to give up a face-off goal due to bad coverage by some inexperienced defensemen (Tyson Strachan and Nate Schmidt), and poor penalty killing technique (Strachan and Urbom) that allowed the Habs to get a tap in goal from Daniel Briere, which was the eventual game winner.

The veterans Oates was likely upset with on the face off goal were the team’s first line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson. Those guys needed to be better with the puck in that situation and not get whistled for icing with a weaker defensive pairing on the ice.

Still, despite the early ugliness, there were lots of good things that occurred. Perhaps it was because Montreal relaxed or maybe because Washington simply played better?

I’m going with the latter. It was clear that Mike Green, who returned after missing three games, was rusty in period one. Oates called him “shaky” in that period but after the first frame, suddenly the Caps were coming out of their zone much better. A lot of that has to do with #52′s ability to move the puck. John Carlson (two assists) continued to be his dominant self so Oates was back to having a strong right side defense and those two players were on the ice for a combined 45+ minutes. It’s no surprise to me that the Capitals are a much better club and have the puck more often when both Green and Carlson are in the lineup.

The Caps had a ton of scoring chances the last 40 minutes but this game was won by one person, Peter Budaj. The former Colorado goalie stopped both Aaron Volpatti and Backstrom on breakaways in the middle frame and he came up large on several other situations where the Capitals were putting on extreme pressure. Only two Ovechkin goals got by him, one that hit the leg of Josh Gorges and changed direction and the other on a Gr8 deflection of a Carlson blast. Ovechkin now has 19 goals in 21 games played this season.

In the NHL though, playing well doesn’t ensure you get any standing points and the Caps fall to 12-10-1 after this defeat. It stings because a strong final two stanzas is negated by a bad start, once again. It’s hard to determine why this team struggles out of the gate because they are a good skating team. Somehow they are too sloppy early and that seems to be a mental thing.

Still, despite the loss, the way Washington dominated the last two thirds of the game, except when they had to kill off some silly penalty calls (i.e, Brooks Laich hold, Martin Erat roughing), is encouraging. After being outshot heavily at even strength in the three games Green was out, the Caps found themselves dead even in even strength shots on goal at 21 each with the Habs. Shot attempts for the game were 66-57 in favor of Washington and that is pretty significant when you consider that Rob Martell and Dan O’Halloran gifted Montreal with three extra man advantage situations. How does that Peter Laviolette line about the refs and the Canadiens from 24/7 go again?!

But enough on that, the zebras make mistakes, as Ovechkin told me afterwards. The Gr8 stated it was okay and everyone makes mistakes, he just would have liked to have seen his club get a call late like it sure seemed they deserved.

But that’s hockey and sports, in general. Some nights you have to play good enough to overcome the opposition and the guys in the stripes.

The Caps nearly pulled that off, but a hot Habs goalie and a bad first 16 minutes were the recipe for defeat.

Notes: Carlson’s chances of making Team USA for the Olympics continues to go up. I chatted with Team USA scout and former Thrashers GM Don Waddell on Friday and he was lavish in his praise of #74. Judging by our conversation, if Waddell was picking the team, Carlson would be on it. But David Poile is the GM of Team USA so he has the final say. Still, the way Carlson is going, he seems like a lock to me…The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, was in the house for this one and in typical #99 fashion, he signed lots of autographs while sitting in owner Ted Leonsis’ box…Washington dominated from the faceoff dot, 45-32. Backstrom was 14-7…the Caps second line of Laich, Martin Erat, and Troy Brouwer struggled for the first 40 minutes but they looked a little more cohesive in the third period. Erat played center and Laich moved to left wing. Those guys could really use a goal to get some confidence back.

 

 

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Pens Expose Caps D in Dominating Victory

Posted on 20 November 2013 by Ed Frankovic

It was NHL rivalry night on NBC on Wednesday night.

It was Penguins-Capitals, two teams that have despised each other since the early 90′s, playing for first place in the new Metropolitan division.

It was Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, arguably the top 2 players in the NHL going head to head once again.

Should be a great game, right?

Nope, it was pretty much a dud. At least from the Washington Capitals side. The Penguins came in and dominated a Capitals club that was missing #1 defensemen Mike Green, winning rather easily 4-0.

The shots on net were 40-18 in favor of the guys from Pittsburgh as the Pens seemingly had the puck on a string all night (see Crosby’s goal that made it 3-0 late in period two). It was a thorough rear whipping delivered by the Pens against Washington.

Give credit to Pittsburgh, they are a good hockey team. As good as Crosby is, there is a guy wearing #71 over there that when he decides to play, can be just as good as #8 and #87. On Wednesday, Malkin was on. His play on the second Pittsburgh goal, against Washington’s top D pair of Karl Alzner and John Carlson, really took the wind out of the Capitals sails and Geno would go on to dominate many of his other shifts against a Caps defense, that frankly has four guys who are third pair defensemen, on their best nights.

When your defensemen can’t get the puck from the opposition and struggle to get it out of their own end cleanly, it’s tough to generate offense. That is what we saw from Washington tonight. Missing Green is a big factor. Normally Coach Adam Oates will get 45 to 50 minutes out of Green and Carlson on the right side, but tonight, all he had again was #74. The Caps got by without Green against a rare subpar Detroit Red Wings squad and a tired Blues team over the weekend, but going against a rested Penguins team that had their full lineup, it was a mismatch between Pittsburgh’s forwards and the Capitals defense.

Yes, Green makes a big difference for Washington but GM George McPhee has to have some concerns about the left side of his defense. Alex Urbom and Nate Schmidt are playing their hearts out but they are not meant to be getting more than 12 to 14 minutes a night at the NHL level. Schmidt has a bright future and could eventually be a 2nd pair defensemen, but right now he’s just not ready and is playing due to the injuries to John Erskine and Jack Hillen. Even still, in the summer we heard talk that the team was hoping that Dmitry Orlov could step up and be a top 4 d-man. Unfortunately, he hasn’t played at the NHL level this year yet. Part of that is because Washington has been smart about not rushing a player who has had a recent concussion history and putting him in a bad situation. Just last week McPhee stated that #81 was ready and was Hershey’s best d-man so perhaps we’ll see him Friday against Montreal?

The D certainly deserves the lion share of the blame but the Caps power play went 0 for 3 in the first frame too. Ovechkin hit the post and from there things went downhill.

It was an ugly game and a less than average effort against a disliked rival.

The Pens came to play on Wednesday and took advantage of matchups to dominate the game. Kudos to them.

For the Caps, the good news is this is just one game and it is only November. The team, despite the issues on the back end, is still 12-9-1 and in second place in their division.

There are concerns on defense, but there is plenty of time to evaluate and possibly make moves when the time is right or a good deal presents itself.

No need to panic, the Caps still have a very solid team. But it is frustrating to get smoked by one of your archrivals in your own building when first place is on the line. So November or not, it is telling in some regards. Now it is up to the team and management to adjust.

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Ovechkin, Holtby Lead Caps into 1st Place

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Ovechkin, Holtby Lead Caps into 1st Place

Posted on 17 November 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Facing a very good St. Louis Blues squad that had won the night before, the Washington Capitals came out on flying on Sunday evening getting two Alexander Ovechkin tallies and a sweet rebound goal from Mikhail Grabovski to grab a 3-0 first period lead and they rode that to an impressive 4-1 victory at the Verizon Center.

Braden Holtby made 46 saves on the night, many of which came AFTER the Caps grabbed a 4-1 lead on John Carlson’s 5th goal of the season (and in the month of November) at the midway point of this contest.

With the win the Capitals are now 12-8-1 and in FIRST PLACE in the new Metropolitan Division, taking a one point lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have a game in hand and come to town on NHL rivalry night on NBC on Wednesday (8 pm start).

Granted the Blues were tired from arriving at 3 am on Sunday morning, which is life in the NHL, but nonetheless, this was an impressive victory for the Caps who were the first team in the NHL to hold St. Louis under two goals all season. The Blues are a strong team and Washington showed that they are a club on a serious rise after a 1-4 start to the season.

There were lots of good play to go around in this one but it obviously started with the Gr8 and Nicklas Backstrom. Do yourself a favor and go back and watch the Capitals goals on the night once again. Ovechkin’s rocket of a shot on the first goal was an absolute laser and his second was on a rebound in front of the net. Coach Adam Oates has been trying to get Alexander the Great to hang out in the low slot a little more to use his size and reach and it is paying off. That’s now a league leading (tied with the Blues Alexander Steen) 17 goals in just 19 games for Alex, WOW! As for Backstrom, his masterful passing helped set up both Ovechkin tallies as well as Carlson’s power play blast that effectively ended any chance the Blues had of getting back into the game. There are not enough words in the English dictionary to describe how great of a passer #19 is. The sneaky neutral zone touch pass he made to Ovechkin on the 1st goal was made to look so easy by the Swedish center, but it is a very difficult thing to do. The guy is playing at an extremely high level this season.

Oates moved Marcus Johansson back up with Ovechkin and Backstrom on Friday in Detroit in that comeback victory and it was absolutely the right thing to do. MJ90 works well in that role and he was struggling a bit at both ends as the 2nd line center. Moving Martin Erat down to the second LW spot and Brooks Laich to center again with Troy Brouwer is another good combination.

As for the third line of Grabovski, Joel Ward, and Jason Chimera, they continue to be a trailblazing group. Chimera used his speed to agitate a big Blues defensive crew all evening and #84 had a sweet tally banging home the rebound of Chimera’s shot out of the air for the third first period tally, which ended Jaroslav Halak’s night (3 goals on 6 shots). That trio is playing as well as any in the league. The Caps should send Toronto coach Randy Carlyle and GM Dave Nonis some really nice holiday presents for buying that guy out, he’s been an outstanding addition for Washington.

On defense, it all starts again with Carlson and Karl Alzner. In my Saturday WNST story on Carlson, I stated my case for #74 to be on the Team USA Olympic team this February. Team USA assistant coach Peter Laviolette was in the house on Sunday scouting for Team USA (h/t @Jeff_Kryglik of WNST) and he had to take notice of how dominant Carlson is out there. He skates extremely well and has a very good stick. He used them effectively at both ends of the ice, with many of the PK clears coming from his blade. Alzner is a great partner for Carlson and they are the first duo out on all Caps penalty kills. Neither was on the ice when St. Louis got their lone marker with the man advantage in period two.

No victory is complete without good goaltending and Holtby was super, stopping any Blues early shots that could have given them momentum. St. Louis had the quantity of shots tonight but the quality ones were not in abundance, but when they had them, #70 was there to shut the door. Again, most of that quantity of shots did come after it was 4-1 (the result of score effects, as the hockey analytics community would call that scenario).

The Caps also received good performances from several others. Second defensive pair Tyson Strachan and Nate Schmidt played well again after a nice NHL debut together on Friday (they were paired in Hershey early on in the AHL with good success too). Michael Latta continues to be an added bonus to the Filip Forsberg trade doing the little things that a fourth line center needs to do, and even Tom Wilson let Ryan Reaves know that his cheap shot from behind on Backstrom would not be tolerated and #43 promptly leveled him to the Verizon Center ice.

It was a super win for Washington against a top hockey club on Sunday and they’ve earned first place in their division.

Next up, Sidney Crosby and the Penguins on Wednesday.

I can’t wait.

Notes: Mike Green missed his second consecutive game with a leg contusion but did skate this morning. There is a chance he could play on Wednesday but given the strong play of Strachan, there is no need to risk any further damage this early in the season. The Caps will need #52 big time the rest of the year and in the playoffs…Ovechkin had 14 shot attempts (5 on net) and 4 hits to go with his 2 goals…Carlson had 25:01 of ice time to lead the Caps while Team Canada defenseman Alex Pietrangelo led all skaters at 25:57.

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Ovechkin Nets Winner as Caps Grind Out OT Victory

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Ovechkin Nets Winner as Caps Grind Out OT Victory

Posted on 13 November 2013 by Ed Frankovic

“Every night is a grind.”

That was what Caps Coach Adam Oates had to say after his team rallied in the third period before winning in overtime on Alexander Ovechkin’s 14th goal of the season, 4-3, over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

As usual, the Washington bench boss is spot on.

Playing their fifth game in eight nights the Capitals had an up and down performance but grinded to get a much needed two points to push their record to 10-8-1. It wasn’t pretty as several players, including the Gr8 himself, struggled for much of the game. Mike Green and Marcus Johansson also had a rough go, but both found a way to make a play late in the contest that helped their team win. Green’s work on the boards with under two minutes left in regulation allowed Washington to tie the game on Mikhail Grabovski’s sixth goal of the season and MJ90 finally got his legs going and flew past a Columbus defender to set Ovechkin up for the OT winner.

It was a much needed victory after two defeats out West in two nights that included a lot of travel.

The travel played a role in this contest, the Caps played a solid first period carrying the scoring chance opportunities, but they couldn’t finish and as a result the first stanza ended, 0-0. As the game wore on, some players looked to be feeling the effects of the frequent flyer miles, however, one unit continued to carry the play: the third line of Grabovski, Jason Chimera, and Joel Ward. Those guys used their speed and gave the Blue Jackets fits all night. Oates was once again impressed with the unit, half jokingly calling them “the first line” in his post game presser. He also pointed out that he saw good chemistry between Ward and Chimera last spring and it has continued in the first quarter of this season.

As good as the third line was, there was no better player on the ice on Tuesday night than John Carlson. Hopefully someone from Team USA saw this one because #74 was flat out dominant against Columbus. He was winning every puck battle in every zone, he scored a big goal after a great feed from Martin Erat and he had the second assist on the game winner. Carlson logged 24:32 of ice time that was only bested by his d-partner Karl Alzner at 24:55. Oates praised Carlson’s game saying he’s been playing great hockey lately along with Alzner and reminded everyone that the duo is the first unit on the ice on every penalty kill.

Alzner, who rightfully gave himself credit for allowing Carlson to play more aggressive given his defensive style, said that Carlson getting his first goal 10 days ago against Florida allowed #74 to get his confidence going. King Karl pointed out that “Carlson can win games for us” and that he was a “huge, huge factor” in the victory. Carlson now has four goals in his last six games.

Braden Holtby earned the victory in this one stopping 24 of 27 pucks thrown his way. He can’t be faulted on any of the three goals. Two were one on one situations and the other was a deflection in front where #70 didn’t have much of a chance to see the biscuit. Holtby also took a skate to the top of his head after that goal and said he had to “shake the cobwebs out” afterwards. 

Braden is only 24 years old, but it is evident he is becoming a team leader, much like Olie Kolzig did when he was the Washington goalie. Following the game, Alzner pointed out that the bench was mad after Columbus took the lead and that allowed them to respond and come back. Holtby partially agreed with the “mental toughness” aspect of that, but also was quick to note that it took a couple of shifts before things turned around as Columbus had a three on one break right after the goal and had they scored there, this one would have been a loss. Holtby certainly isn’t afraid to hold his teammates accountable, and that is the mark of a leader. This team needs that given its tendency to forget about their own zone, at times.

Oates was clearly happy to get two points on this night, but he wasn’t thrilled about some of the mistakes his club made, particularly the third Columbus goal. Many will point to Green missing the puck as it took a Washington Wizards hop over his stick allowing Cam Atkinson to get a breakaway tally, however, the Hall of Fame coach was upset with the team’s decision making in the offensive zone. Nate Schmidt pinched down to take a shot and he didn’t hit the net, which was compounded by some of Washington’s forwards not being in position to help cover for #88. Oates said his team broke “one of their rules” in that situation. You can bet that will be addressed on Wednesday.

The coach also likely isn’t pleased with his power play, which went 0 for 3 and allowed a short handed goal. Luckily, though, the penalty was a perfect 3 for 3 and scored too.

The PK excellence is what you need to do to get two points when your big guns aren’t clicking for much of the night.

You have to find a way to grind it out, and that’s what the Caps did on Tuesday to get the victory.

Notes: The Caps outshot Columbus 34-27 and the attempts were 57-55 overall for the game…the Caps were crushed on face-offs, 36-22, but Michael Latta went 3 for 3 centering a fourth line that played just over five minutes but performed extremely well when they had their numbers called…Alzner discussed defensive zone positioning with me afterwards and noted that part of the issue with goals being scored on passes from behind their net was that he and Carlson were still learning when Johansson is going to chase or stay back. On Tuesday night, you could see that the trio was doing a better job of communicating and executing. Columbus didn’t sneak into any gaps for quick shots on passes from behind the net. MJ90 didn’t play center at all last spring so it’s been awhile since 27 & 74 have had to play D while #90 is playing the pivot spot, which explains some of the recent issues…next up for the Caps are the Red Wings in Motown on Friday night…six of the eleven NHL games on Tuesday were decided in OT or the shootout which shows just how close the league is and why every night is “a grind.”

 

 

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Effort Wasn’t Problem in Caps’ Road Trip Defeats

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Effort Wasn’t Problem in Caps’ Road Trip Defeats

Posted on 11 November 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Through the first 14 games of the Washington Capitals season, effort was a problem on many of the nights when the Caps were on the wrong end of the score.

This past weekend, against two very good Western Conference clubs, the Phoenix Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche, effort was not the problem. The Caps played hard both nights but lost both games, although the Coyotes defeat was in the gimmick. When the Capitals feel a challenge, they typically bring the effort. Make no mistake, the Capitals wanted to show that they could compete with the elite of the West on this past weekend’s road trip.

But they fell short, painfully squandering a two goal lead late in Arizona on Saturday night when they should have definitely had two points. In Colorado, they got down early on a goal that should not have counted then after tying the game, gave up a goal just 28 seconds later before eventually losing 4-1.

What were the major causes of defeat over the weekend? The power play, poor defensive zone play, and shoddy goaltending.

Let’s start with the power play. Washington has been deadly this season with the 5 on 4 man advantage and have won many games because of it. But on Saturday and Sunday, they had some golden opportunities on 5 on 3′s to tie the game or expand their lead and in Saturday’s loss to Phoenix, they failed to score on a two minute 4 on 3 in overtime. Statistically teams do better on 5 on 3 or 4 on 3 power plays, but the Caps are 0 for their last 11 with a two man advantage and their 4 on 3 power play isn’t clicking either.

It seems to me that what is working so well on 5 on 4 isn’t going to work in the other situations because of one reason: the passing lanes are different. When the opponent only has three players on the ice, they shrink down to a tight triangle making the lanes for cross ice passes that the Caps love so much in the 5 on 4 disappear. You simply can’t spread out the penalty kill the way Washington does so effectively five on four when the other team only has three skaters. So the solution seems to be for Coach Adam Oates and assistant Blaine Forsythe to come up with a different configuration and practice it (Troy Brouwer was quoted after Saturday’s loss as saying the team doesn’t work on those situations a lot). My advice, go to a set up that puts a body or two in front of the net and blast away from the point. With the defense backing up in tight, the guys on top can come in closer and if you put traffic in front, the goalie has a tougher time of seeing the puck, and if you use big bodies like Brouwer or perhaps Tom Wilson, you have strong guys in front who can pot the rebounds. It isn’t fancy, like Washington’s 5 on 4 setup, but it’s likely the best way to score with a packed in defense.

As for the defensive zone, the Caps continue to have too many breakdowns. There are lots of turnovers and poor coverage. Yes, they are undermanned back there with Jack Hillen and John Erskine out with injuries but a quick check of many of the recent goals against has the John Carlson and Karl Alzner duo on the ice for several of them. Two of the goals against on Sunday in Colorado were on plays from behind the net where Washington was caught watching the puck carrier and didn’t pay attention to the gaps around them, which allowed the Avs players to find holes and get quick looks that Braden Holtby had no chance on. This has happened on far too many occasions this season. The forwards, on many of those goals, are just as guilty of puck watching. The Caps have to learn better positioning in their own end and pay attention to their surroundings. A guy with the puck behind the net is not a threat to score so why is everyone staring him down and not anticipating where he is going to pass the puck? The coaches need to work with the defense and forwards to correct this problem. Washington would be better off collapsing down and allowing a pass up the boards to the point rather than the ones that keep going into the low slot and ending up in the back of the Capitals net.

As for the goaltending, well it was great for a 10+ game stretch heading into last weekend. Michal Neuvirth needed to have the second Coyotes goal and Carlson screened him on the third one. #74 needed to either go down and block the shot there or move out of the way. That was a stoppable shot if #30 saw it sooner. As for Holtby, it was tough to blame him on the first three Avs goals and even Gabriel Landeskog’s tally was a breakaway after #92 went right around Alexander Ovechkin. Still, Braden probably should have had that one.

The good news is that a lot of these things are very correctable. The defense is in need of an upgrade at some point on the left side, but when some of the Caps top guys are making the mistakes, a trade isn’t going to help.

Overall the talent and effort is there for the Capitals right now, despite the hole on the left side of the defense. But this is the salary cap era and every team has a weakness area that needs to be addressed at some point.

Washington has enough talent and the effort has been consistent over the last couple of weeks. Now they have to execute better by playing smarter in key situations.

They’ll get a chance to turn it around against Columbus on Tuesday night at the Verizon Center.

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Holtby Shines Again as Caps Win in Shootout

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Holtby Shines Again as Caps Win in Shootout

Posted on 07 November 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Braden Holtby is in the zone right now. The Washington net minder, who was unfairly assaulted last week by a lunatic Flyers goalie, stopped 33 shots and all three shootout attempts from a very good Minnesota Wild hockey club to allow his team to prevail, 3-2, in the gimmick, at the Verizon Center.

Alex Ovechkin notched a power play goal early on and Marcus Johansson tied it late after some hard work by Tom Wilson and Brooks Laich before Nicklas Backstrom scored the lone tally in the skills competition to push Washington’s record to 9-7.

The Capitals have a four game winning streak and now head out west to take on Phoenix and Colorado on Saturday and Sunday evenings, respectively.

Call me a glass half full guy tonight. This wasn’t a pretty victory, but the Caps did work hard against a team that does the same. Minnesota doesn’t allow a lot of shots or chances so you have to be patient against them, especially since it seems all American defensemen Ryan Suter never leaves the ice (36:51 played on Thursday night). The shots on goal were 35-27 in favor of the Wild but a closer look at shot attempts had the Caps winning that battle, 57-51.

Both goalies were good and each team went 1 for 3 on the power play. So it is no surprise that this contest ended up in extra time. It was a fairly even battle but the Capitals prevailed because they are really good in shootouts under Coach Adam Oates (4-0 this season).

Ovechkin notched his 13th goal in 14 games, but to me, the skater who has been really instrumental during this streak is Backstrom. Nicky is dominating the play when he is on the ice. He is so strong on his skates and wins the large majority of board battles. His stick handling and passing are amazing and he’s shooting the puck more. His move around Suter late in the game, lifting the puck to create a lane to shoot from, was a thing of beauty and Josh Harding had to come up big to stop that one. Ovechkin is going to get his goals and he’ll get even more if Backstrom continues to play at the high level he’s playing right now. #19 doesn’t get the credit he deserves around the league, but I doubt he cares. From talking to him over the years I know he cares most about winning.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the last four wins is the Capitals goaltending. They’ve gotten four super starts in a row (three by Holtby and one from Neuvirth). Holtby made some huge stops late in regulation when the Wild were gifted with a power play (memo to Ian Walsh: what a garbage call on Erat!) that also gave them a hard to defend 4 on 3 in overtime for 61 seconds. There is no doubt in hockey that goaltending is the most important position and #70 delivered there.

The thing to like about this win, outside of super goaltending and the play of Backstrom, was the effort. Washington played hard but the other guys get paid too so it isn’t going to be all roses every night. This club kept grinding against a stingy team and found a way to tie it up late when Minnesota usually closes those types of games out.

On the flip side, the Caps still are turning the puck over too much and do have a tendency to puck watch and not cover their opponents in their own end at times. That needs to improve. The injuries to Jake Hillen and John Erskine have put the Caps in a bind on the left side of their defense. Alex Urbom and Nate Schmidt are playing because of the injuries. I’ve liked Schmidt since his first preseason game in Baltimore but sometimes he’s in over his head in the NHL. He could use a year in the AHL to properly develop. But there are really no alternatives at this point until GM George McPhee makes a deal for a defensemen. Trades are best made when a team is going well and the Caps are certainly heading in that direction. They have a good forward in Eric Fehr sitting in the press box and Evgeny Kuznetsov likely slated to come over in the spring to play in the NHL, so McPhee has some strengths he can leverage to try and upgrade his defense, which sure seems needed if Washington wants to go deep in the post season. But it takes two to tango and there is plenty of time to make any necessary moves.

Tonight the Caps can thank Holtby and effort for a win against what appears to be a good Western Conference team. Next up are two that just may be even better.

Notes: Washington lost handily in the faceoff department, 34-25…Wilson only played 6:30 but he was a huge factor in the tying goal helping Johansson get the puck and come out of the corner to score while Laich ran havoc in front of the cage…credit Schmidt for not getting down on himself after some tough shifts. The kid played 23:53 and is learning. He had some really good shifts too, so overall he’s been impressive. It is baptism by fire for him…by the way, the Flyers lost 3-0 tonight, boy do those goons stink!

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