Tag Archive | "Johansson"

Osh Beags Buf

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Caps Play Textbook Road Game in Win Over Buffalo

Posted on 10 December 2016 by Ed Frankovic

After Wednesday’s OT victory against the Boston Bruins, one in which the Capitals lost a three goal lead, Washington held a post game players only meeting to clear the air and get everyone on the same page.

It worked.

For the first time in several weeks, the Caps played a complete hockey game in a 4-1 victory in Buffalo that allowed the Capitals to sweep the Sabres, 3-0, this season.

Sure there were mistakes out there, the other team gets paid to play too, but Washington played a textbook road game. They were hustling and making smart decisions. They were also very positionally sound such that when someone made a mistake, there was a teammate there to make a play in support. After getting exposed by the Bruins badly after defensemen Matt Niskanen left the game on Wednesday in the first period, no one was hung out to dry against the Sabres on Friday night. In fact, they only gave up one odd man rush the entire night, a three on two late in period two.

Philipp Grubauer (27 saves) was stellar in net. He didn’t make any spectacular stops, but he was rock steady between the pipes, especially in the first 25 minutes when the game was scoreless. He and Braden Holtby have now formed the league’s best goalie tandem this season.

With Niskanen out of the lineup and day to day with an upper body injury, Taylor Chorney was put into action and paired with Nate Schmidt. Brooks Oprik and Dmitry Orlov linked up while John Carlson and Karl Alzner were the top duo. Those pairs provided balance and Orlov (2 assists in 16:52) had his best game of the season. He didn’t get out of position, he was tenacious on the puck, and he showed excellent hockey sense.

As for Carlson, well he was outstanding too and he finally broke his 25 game scoring drought with a key power play tally to make it 3-1 with 5:40 remaining and pretty much end this tilt. When Carlson and Orlov are paired with a partner who is strong defensively and knows how to support an offensive defensemen, they each are able to bring out the best side of their respective games.

The big key to this contest, once again, was getting the first goal. Jay Beagle and T.J. Oshie, who are both great at winning the one on one puck battles, each won one along the offensive boards. As a result, they were able to get the puck to an open Nicklas Backstrom (two assists, +2) at the left point and he fired it back to Beagle in the left wing corner. When both Sabres defenders converged on #83, that left Oshie all alone streaking to the net and Beags put a behind the back pass right to #77 who went skate to stick with the puck and buried it top shelf at 6:43 of period two. Washington is now 14-3-2 this season when scoring first.

With the score 1-0, the Caps earned a second period power play and then they really put a stranglehold on this contest. Evgeny Kuznetsov made a great late power play rush up the right wing boards squeezing by a Sabres defender en route. #92 then took the puck to the net instead of trying a drop pass or spinning away from any contact. As Kuzy did this, Jakub Vrana very smartly made a bee line for the paint. #13 stopped on the door step, something Comcast analyst Alan May pointed out is critical if you want to score goals, and he buried the great pass from Kuznetsov past Robin Lehner. It was Vrana’s first NHL goal and the game winning tally. Afterwards, he received a shaving cream pie in the face from Tom Wilson in celebration of his milestone.

If there was any gripe about the Capitals in this one, it came in the third period when they took three straight penalties. After holding the Sabres power play at bay on the first two, Kyle Okposo put a puck home from the doorstep with 7:57 to make this a one goal affair.

But as Oshie pointed out afterwards, the Capitals didn’t sit back and they immediately went on the forecheck, which is a real strength of this team when they put their mind and effort into it. As a result of that pressure, Brian Gionta took a bad interference penalty on Kuznetsov, which set the stage for Carlson’s first goal of the season.

Overall, the Caps effort was excellent across the board; there were mistakes, but because they were working as a unit, they minimized any damage, even when Buffalo was able to get a quality scoring chance. Grubauer was solid in net and the defense didn’t allow many second chances for the Sabres.

Coach Barry Trotz and the Capitals have to be pleased with this Friday night performance.

Notes: The win moves the Caps record to 16-7-3 (35 points)…Alex Ovechkin didn’t have any points, but he had six shots on net and four hits. He was working hard on the ice and didn’t make any mistakes or take any penalties. If he keeps playing like that, then the goals will start coming again…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:40…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 33-24. Beagle was an astounding 16-4…Marcus Johansson scored his 12th goal of the season into the empty net after Oshie (1G, 1A) won another puck battle to spring Jojo for an easy marker…the Caps were 2 for 3 on the power play and both tallies came at key junctures in the game and provided Washington with a two goal cushion…Buffalo went 1 for 5 with the man advantage…Andre Burakovsky had one shot on goal in 9:58. He was good in the first two periods, but in the final frame he made some bad plays and looked timid with the puck…next up for the Caps are the Vancouver Canucks at the Verizon Center at 5 pm on Sunday. Vancouver defeated the Lightning, 5-1, on Thursday and will visit Florida at 7 pm on Saturday and then take a late night flight to DC.

Comments Off on Caps Play Textbook Road Game in Win Over Buffalo

backy-bruins

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Backstrom Saves the Day for the Caps in OT

Posted on 07 December 2016 by Ed Frankovic

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

And then Nicklas Backstrom saved the day for the Capitals.

Nicky’s tally through the legs of Tuukka Rask 1:36 into overtime allowed to Caps to survive, 4-3, after they blew a three goal advantage.

Washington looked like gangbusters for the first 25 minutes building that 3-0 lead on the backs of two Justin Williams goals from the paint and then a sweet shot by Daniel Winnik on a two on one break after a superb feed from Jay Beagle. But with Matt Niskanen getting hurt on a dirty hit from Patrice Bergeron late in the first period and not returning, the Bruins took over the game physically and worked their way back into it. That hit by Bergeron only landed #37 in the sin bin for two minutes when it easily could’ve been called a major.

After Winnik’s marker, the Caps would then go 26 minutes and 27 seconds without a shot on goal. By then it was 3-3 with only 7:42 remaining in regulation.

Boston’s first goal was fluky. After Alex Ovechkin was picked off of the faceoff, the Bruins threw the puck on net. Brooks Orpik was pushing his man, Anton Blidh, away from the net while Holtby tried to clear the biscuit. Unfortunately he put it right on #81’s stick and he fired it off of the Holtbeast and Dmitry Orlov failed to tie up notorious Cap killer, Dominic Moore, and he deposited the puck into the open cage.

Then things got really hairy when Evgeny Kuznetsov, who set up the first two goals for Washington and played a super first period, made a terrible turnover at the offensive blue line with just over a minute left in the middle frame, and it led to a David Pastrnak breakaway. #88 beat Holtby through the five hole on the backhand and suddenly two goals in two minutes and 25 seconds late in period two made this a one puck hockey game.

With one of their top three defensemen out in Niskanen, the Caps were getting exposed badly. Boston simply amped up their game and physical play and the Capitals couldn’t match the push. That continued into the final frame and after an iffy penalty to Tom Wilson, Brad Marchand and Autin Czarnik set up Colin Miller in the slot and he lasered one by #70 late in the power play to even things up with 11:41 left.

About four minutes or so later, the Capitals finally started getting their legs going again and stabilized the ship, setting the stage for Backstrom’s OT heroics.

For the game, the Caps were outshot 34-20 and they allowed Boston to have too many easy outs from their own end. The forecheck and heavy hockey that earned them the 2-0 lead in the first frame disappeared. It was almost like the Capitals thought that they could just go back to the perimeter game and still win.

Luckily for them, they did, because they needed these two points. However, they cannot be happy about what happened after the first period. They once again forgot what makes them successful; winning one on one puck battles and using their size. The Caps typically handle the Bruins because the B’s employ a physical style that fits Washington’s lineup perfectly. But Coach Barry Trotz’s team quit playing and it was the Bruins who were doing the manhandling.

Holtby, who made 31 saves, was a big reason, once again, why this team was able to get a victory when they were outplayed badly for two periods.

And Backstrom delivered another key goal, like he did in Tampa last Saturday night when he got the Caps to overtime, but this time he potted the game winner.

So on Wednesday night, which was NBC Rivalry Night, we saw the good from the Caps in the first period, the bad in the second period and parts of the third, but thanks to Holtby and Backstrom, we didn’t have to deal with the ugly, which would’ve been a loss after a great start.

Notes: Rask has still never won a game at the Verizon Center…Williams doubled his goal output of the year just 7:57 into the contest. The first goal came at the 23 second mark. Kuznetsov assisted on both goals. Ovechkin assisted on the first one, and likely deserves a helper on the second, as well…Niskanen was +2 in only 6:44 and his short night due to injury showed how thin the Washington back end is when it loses either he, Karl Alzner, or John Carlson. I have to think GM Brian MacLellan will be trying hard to add a top 4 D before the trade deadline…the Caps only had seven shots total after they went up 3-0. They scored on the only shot in OT for either team…Marcus Johansson and Nate Schmidt both made nice plays to set up the winning goal and each earned an assist for their effort…T.J. Oshie returned to the lineup after missing seven games with an upper body injury (shoulder). He got banged up in the lower body area early, but he eats rocks for breakfast and stayed in the game. He only played 15:11, though…Carlson played 25:04 to lead the Caps in ice time and Alzner was close behind with 24:04…final shot attempts were 62-44 for Boston. It was ugly after Niskanen left the game…next up for the Caps are the Sabres in Buffalo on Friday. There is no practice on Thursday, so we won’t know about the status of #2 until Friday. He has an upper body injury.

Comments Off on Backstrom Saves the Day for the Caps in OT

jojo-sabres

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Johansson Rallies the Caps Past Buffalo in OT

Posted on 05 December 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Marcus Johansson blasted a slapper past Robin Lehner 2:38 into overtime to give the Washington Capitals a 3-2 victory to end their three game losing streak. It was fitting that Johansson, who also scored the game tying goal with 6:18 remaining, tallied the game winner because he’s been outstanding all season and now has 11 goals on the campaign.

The Caps other goal on this night came from their most determined player, Jay Beagle, who tallied his fifth of the season on a redirection of a great pass from Brooks Orpik in the middle frame. That tied the game at one.

Beagle, Johansson, and the injured T.J. Oshie have been the hardest working and best Capitals forwards this season.

Unfortunately for Washington, lately the word “hard working” has not been a part of the game plan for many of the players. Since Oshie went down with a shoulder injury against the Red Wings on Friday, November 18th, the Capitals have missed his energy and aggressiveness that typically rubs off on the other players. Oshie is the best on the team at winning one on one puck battles. His absence has showed as the team was 2-3-1 without #77 heading into Monday’s tilt with the Sabres.

Buffalo was missing three key defensemen in Zach Bogosian, Dmitry Kulikov, and Josh Gorges, however, they came to play at the Verizon Center while the Capitals appeared to continue to take the “It doesn’t matter until the playoffs” mantra a little too seriously.

For several weeks, the Caps effort has been suspect and multiple forwards such as Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Lars Eller, and Tom Wilson have been underperforming in terms of production. After losing to the Penguins last spring, Washington seemed to get caught up a little too much in being a speed team at the expense of an aspect of their game that makes them elite, heavy hockey.

The Capitals forecheck has been MIA for weeks and the lack of hitting from a big hockey club has been evident. Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that heading into this contest I had enough of the soft and uninspired play. Unfortunately, for 40 minutes on Monday, that trend continued.

After the second period, in which the Capitals trailed, 2-1, former Capital and stellar Comcast analyst Alan May summed up the Caps last 20 minutes of play, one in which they were outshot, 16-7, in a perfect seven words: “out hustled, out muscled, and out shot.”

You could take that statement and apply it to many of the periods the Caps have played since Oshie went down (and there were duds, at times, before #77 was hurt, too). They were downright awful and so far away from what had made them successful that they were getting manhandled by a cellar dweller team that was missing three NHL caliber defensemen.

Luckily for Washington, they have an all world goalie in Braden Holtby (31 saves), who once again, much like last Saturday in Tampa, kept the Caps in it until they could get their “you know what” together.

Apparently Coach Trotz finally reached a boiling point, as well, and according to Comcast Caps reporter Jill Sorenson he lit into the team after that second frame. It was well deserved because this club was playing as soft as butter.

The coach also tinkered with his lines and also shuffled up his defensive pairings, something I have been calling on for several weeks. John Carlson was reunited with Karl Alzner and Dmitry Orlov was paired with Matt Niskanen. Suddenly there was some stability on the back end now that you had an offensive minded defensemen paired with a solid defender in his own end on each of the top two pairs.

The fixes on the back end certainly helped support the forwards, who began playing with passion and were finally taking the body. Washington was relentless from the 13:00 mark of the third period on and it was because they were skating, hitting, and forcing turnovers. Even Kuznetsov, who has been shying away from physical play quite a bit, put a strong hit on Justin Falk to help force a neutral zone turnover and keep the pressure on Buffalo near the midpoint of the period.

Naturally, the results started coming once they played the way that fits them best. Fortunately, though, the opponents were a depleted Sabres lineup and they were able to get away with a 40 minute absence. That type of effort, though, won’t cut it against the better teams in the league.

Look, you absolutely cannot play “balls to the wall” hard every night in an 82 game season that’s followed by up to two months of playoffs, but you can’t keep taking nights off in a very balanced league. Washington had gotten too lackluster with their performances and heading into Monday found themselves in fifth place in points in the Metropolitan Division. Sure, they have games in hand on many of the teams above them, but given the trend of not showing up and being committed, things were getting dicey. For 40 minutes on Monday, there was little sign that Washington was going to break out of their funk.

Luckily they did, so it is okay to be pleased with the way the Capitals played in the third period and overtime. It’s good to know, like we saw when they blew the doors off of the Penguins, 7-1, a few weeks ago, that they can amp their game up. However, there are still guys on this roster who are struggling, and to get out of it they’ll have to be more committed to the physical aspects of the game and win more of the one on one puck battles. If they do that more consistently, the wins and points will come in bunches.

Notes: Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 26:27…Johansson logged 20:00 and scored on his only two shots, the first of which was a power play deflection of a Carlson blast that was on net (#74 been struggling to do that for several games)…Alex Ovechkin played 21:57 and only had one shot on net. He hasn’t played well since the hat trick game against the Blues. Right before the Sabres made it 2-1, he was at fault on what would’ve been Buffalo’s 2nd goal when he failed to take a proper pass from Brooks Orpik on the boards. Luckily the Caps correctly challenged and won it since the Sabres were offside on their zone entry…Beagle led the Caps with six shots on goal in 17:24 of ice time, including 36 seconds on the 2nd power play unit…Wilson didn’t have a shot on net, but he made a great play on the PK late in the game when it was tied. #43 has been really good at killing penalties, but the Caps need him to be more physically involved at even strength…Brett Connolly was scratched, which was surprising to me given that he played great against Buffalo in the Caps last win before Monday and he had been getting lots of chances, plus he is a good physical fore checker…next up for the Caps are the Bruins at the Verizon Center on Wednesday night at 8 pm (NBC Rivalry Night).

Comments Off on Johansson Rallies the Caps Past Buffalo in OT

connolly

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Grubauer and Connolly Lead the Caps over Buffalo, 3-1

Posted on 25 November 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan’s plan to upgrade the Caps bottom two lines following last spring’s bitter playoff defeat to the Pittsburgh Penguins is starting to pay dividends.

On Friday night at the Verizon Center off season acquisitions Brett Connolly (goal and an assist) and Lars Eller (assist) formed a strong trio with 2016 trade deadine addition, Daniel Winnik (goal), to help lead the Capitals to a hard fought, 3-1 victory over the pesky Buffalo Sabres. Those three forwards all logged around 12 minutes of even strength ice time and at night’s end each had roughly 15 minutes overall. They were hard on the puck all evening and that line set a nice tone for the Caps, who started fast again, by outworking the Sabres and putting bodies and shots to the cage.

At just 5:08 into the contest they broke the ice for Washington when Eller came down the left wing and fired a hard shot on Anders Nilsson (29 saves), who put a juicy rebound into the slot. Connolly was cruising into the “point’s zone” and he got enough of the biscuit to push it towards the right post where a hard skating Winnik came around the net and buried it from a sharp angle.

The Caps would play a strong first period, outshooting the Sabres, 13-6, but only led 1-0, thanks to some stellar play by Nilsson in net.

At the other end of the ice, Philipp Grubauer (32 saves) was very sharp in his first home start in forever on the front end of a back to back contest situation (the Caps are in the Big Smoke on Saturday night at 7 pm to take on the Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada). Buffalo had a power play just two plus minutes after Winnik’s lamp lighter to open the scoring and they have a very good one. However, Grubauer was the primary reason the Sabres weren’t able to tie the game up. For the night, the Caps backup goalie was their best penalty killer stopping seven shots in eight minutes of Buffalo man advantage time.

“I think that’s the privilege we have of having two great goalies. Either one that’s in gives us a really good chance of winning. Grubi’s played phenomenal this year so far and it’s really unfortunate that we couldn’t get him the shutout,” stated Winnik, who in honor of Movember, has grown one of the best moustaches you’ll ever see and it’s eerily reminiscent of the one Johnny had in Slap Shot. Kudos Mr. Winnik.

Marcus Johansson scored what would turn out to be the game winning goal from the slot. Jojo earned his 8th tally of the year when the Caps had a three on two rush up the ice. Justin Williams, who had several more good chances but didn’t score, came down the right wing and tried to pass cross ice to Nicklas Backstrom on the left wing side. The puck fortuitously hit the Sabres defensemen in the skate and bounced right to a streaking #90, who fired it quickly past Nilsson for a 2-0 Washington lead just three minutes and 25 seconds past the game’s midpoint.

The Caps had a 25-18 shots on goal advantage after two periods and a 49-44 edge in shot attempts, but the Sabres would have 5:32 of extra man time in the final frame. As mentioned above, Grubauer was the primary reason Buffalo would get blanked with the man advantage. They did, however, cut the deficit to a single goal with 10:02 to go when Sam Reinhart fired a shot through a Ryan O’Reilly screen and into the cage at even strength.

The Sabres then had a power play when just down a puck, but Gruabauer and the Caps penalty killers, most notably Winnik and Tom Wilson up front, prevented Buffalo from any great chances.

Then with 4:20 left and the crowd finally buzzing after “Unleash the Fury” was played on the video board, the Sabres took a too many men penalty when Washington fired the puck into the skates of a Buffalo player trying to change. At first it didn’t seem like the referees were going to call the infraction, but the crowd wisely groaned very loudly and off to the box Buffalo went. That penalty would provide the dagger for the Caps as Connolly, who earned 1st power play time at a crucial moment in the contest, buried the rebound of an Alex Ovechkin rocket to close out the scoring. #10 celebrated heavily and deservedly so. It was a big goal and he put himself in the right position to score an important tally that allowed the Caps to go 4-1 on this five game home stand that concluded on Friday. The only blemish was a zebra aided 3-2 victory for Columbus on Sunday.

Overall, the Caps put out a strong effort as a team, especially the Eller line as well as Wilson and Jay Beagle. Zach Sanford only saw 6:37 of ice time, but he nearly scored his first goal of the season on a beautiful rush move around a Sabres defensemen in the first period. Unfortunately for Zach, Nilsson made an awesome glove save on his backhand attempt.

The Caps did make some mistakes in this contest; most notably they were guilty of some bad decisions where they tried low percentage cross ice passes. Some of them were picked off and normally that would lead to odd man rushes. However, as Coach Barry Trotz pointed out afterwards, the Caps commitment level was there and that attention to detail prevented Buffalo from getting scoring chances off of those mistakes since another Capital seemed to be always in position to cover for the mishap. Connolly talked following the victory about trying to find the right balance of trying for the cross ice passes versus getting the pucks deep.

“We have so many guys here that can make really good plays. Coaches always talk about blue line turnovers and we got guys that can make plays on those blue lines. Eight times out of 10 they’re making those plays, but if we can just find the right mix of when to make those plays and when maybe to cut your losses and get it deep, then we’ll be better moving forward,” said Connolly, who was certainly one of the best Washington players on this night and is making an impact.

Connolly is absolutely correct, if there’s one criticism of this team, it’s that extra pass just inside the offensive blue line where the puck should’ve been put on or behind the net. Good things happen when you shoot is my motto, and as Coach Trotz likes to say, “The NHL is a shoot first league.”

“If we can just focus on trying to keep the puck out of our net we’ve got enough guys on the team that can score. I think that’s kind of been an area that obviously the coaches have been working with and just trying to cut our losses and not make those high risk plays, but if we’re coming back hard and we’re focused on helping the goalie out and the D out then we’re going to get chances at the other end, it’s just a matter of time and I think that once we figure that out we’ll be even better moving forward, so we’re moving in the right direction,” added Connolly.

Connolly, who MacLellan was able to bring in at a bargain price of $850,000, is right about the focus of the coaches and since Coach Trotz arrived this team has gotten monumentally better at playing away from the puck, something that has killed them in the post season in the past. The Caps have only given up 44 goals in 20 games and only the Minnesota Wild have given up fewer (38). There is the saying that “Defense Wins Championships.”

“We’re playing pretty well. We’re getting better every day. Guys are working hard in practice and we watch a lot of video and are getting better. It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. We’ve got a good group of guys here, a good team. We’re going in the right direction,” finished Connolly.

20 games in and sitting at 13-5-2 (28 points) and on pace for a 115 point season, it’s hard to argue with what one of the newest Capitals had to say following a very nice win the day after Thanksgiving.

On to Toronto.

Notes: Buffalo’s O’Reilly was the best Sabre on the ice and he had five shots on net in 23:53 of ice time (led all players on both teams). Coach Trotz raved about #90 and said he is one of the most underrated players in the NHL. Winnik said of O’Reilly, “Phenomenal player, I played with him in Colorado. Really underrated guy who finally got the credit he deserved with the World Cup nod for Canada.”…Washington lost the face off battle, 37-30. Beagle did go 11-6…Oveckhin had zero shot attempts in a rough first period for his line, but he finished with six for the game, including an assist on Connolly’s game clincher…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 23:09, but John Carlson played 23:00…Taylor Chorney, who was only in the line up for the third time this season, played extremely well with Brooks Orpik. I could make a case that this was his best game since he’s been a Capital. He was very good in his own end and at breaking the puck up the ice…speaking of underrated, that’s Johansson, who played 17:16 and is such a good two way player…the Holtbeast will get the start in net on Saturday against Auston Matthews and company from the Air Canada Centre. The Caps are fired up to play the Leafs and Karl Alzner remarked afterwards, “We’ve been seeing all of their highlights on tv, so it will be fun to finally play them.”

Comments Off on Grubauer and Connolly Lead the Caps over Buffalo, 3-1

nicky-oshie

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Caps Destroy the Penguins, 7-1

Posted on 16 November 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Motivation and effort were not an issue on Wednesday night at the Verizon Center as the Washington Capitals totally destroyed the Pittsburgh Penguins, 7-1. Nicklas Backstrom had two goals and three assists while T.J. Oshie also scored twice and added two helpers to lead the Caps offense out of its recent slumber. Braden Holtby made 25 saves in net against the defending Stanley Cup Champions as Washington improved to 10-4-2.

There were so many positives to take out of this game, starting with the effort and passion. The Caps, who played in Columbus and lost in OT on Tuesday, then flew home afterwards while the Penguins rested in DC, were all over the ice for the full 60 minutes. They were skating, hitting, and putting pucks in the correct places on the rink. They played a north-south game that gave the Penguins fits and this one was over quickly.

Washington tallied three times in the first frame with Oshie opening the scoring shorthanded on a rebound goal after a Jay Beagle breakaway was stopped by Matt Murray. Backstrom then made it 2-0 with 2:30 left in period one on a goal similar to his marker in Columbus on Tuesday, a shot from the slot while using the defender as a screen. Then with eight seconds remaining and the Caps on a four on three advantage, Oshie buried the rebound of a John Carlson blast.

The Caps then gave Pittsburgh little hope of getting back in the game with a dominant second period. They outshot the Pens, 13-6, in those middle 20 minutes, but somehow only potted one puck (Dmitry Orlov’s first goal of the season on a three on two rush set up by Backstrom and Marcus Johansson) past Marc Andre-Fleury. Fleury entered this affair late in period one when starter Murray was hit in the head twice by Evgeni Malkin and was forced to leave the contest.

What was most pleasing was the way the Capitals didn’t take their foot off of the gas in the third period. Washington came out flying and they kept the pressure on Pittsburgh. There was no sitting back like they did recently against Columbus and Chicago, or when they blew a 3-0 lead against Winnipeg a couple of weeks ago. No, on this night, the Caps displayed a killer instinct that they’ve been talking about developing for years.

They stomped on the Penguins throats in this one with Justin Williams finally scoring just over five minutes into the last frame, albeit on a 5 on 3, and then Alex Ovechkin made it 6-0 on a sweet breakaway goal just after the 10 minute mark. Phil Kessel would break the Holtbeast shutout with 3:32 left when Orlov didn’t tie him up at the side of the net, but Backstrom erased that marker with a goal just 30 seconds later to close out the scoring.

It was a win the Capitals badly needed after scoring just five goals in their previous four games. They played with a purpose and got back to the things that make them successful; coming into the offensive zone with speed, getting pucks on net or below the goal line so they can use their size, and crashing the cage for rebounds. There was maximum effort and attention to detail. Gone from their game were the sloppy east-west passes they had been employing at the opponents blue line and it made a huge difference in the outcome. The Penguins defense repeatedly had to go back and get pucks deep in their own zone and the Caps took over that part of the ice, which is one of their strengths.

Bottom line on NBC Rivalry night, there was an ass-kicking that took place and the Capitals delivered it to their arch rivals on Wednesday evening.

So see ya Penguins and take your arrogant banner tweet home with you.

Notes: The Caps won the face-off battle, 45-35 and out shot attempted the Penguins, 68-46. That’s all about the effort as Washington totally manhandled Mike Sullivan’s club…in addition to his five points, Backstrom was 18-9 on face-offs.  Most of those draws came against Sidney Crosby, who went 8-18 and was a -3 on the evening. His biggest contribution in this affair was yelling at the referees…the Caps were rewarded for their effort with seven power plays and scored on two of them, a 4 on 3 and a 5 on 3. The only area you could complain about for the Capitals was the 5 on 4 man advantage which went 0 for 5 in this tilt and needs work…Ovechkin left the game briefly in period two after Kris Letang tripped him, but the Russian Machine that Never Breaks returned to get a breakaway tally and end his four game goalless streak in the third period…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 24:14. Ovechkin played 18:38…Letang led the Pens with 23:50, but he was -5 (on the ice for every Washington even strength goal)…final shots on goal were 39-26 in favor of the good guys.

Comments Off on Caps Destroy the Penguins, 7-1

braden-holtby

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Holtby Delivers for the Caps in Winnipeg

Posted on 02 November 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Playing their third game in four nights in Western Canada, the weary Washington Capitals relied heavily on some timely scoring plays and their goaltender, Braden Holtby, to defeat the Winnipeg Jets, 3-2. It was the Caps third straight victory to finish their four game road trip after an opening loss in Edmonton last Wednesday. The win improves their overall record to 6-2-1 (13 points).

The Caps likely lose this game if not for the Holtbeast, who stopped 43 shots. Washington scored the game’s first two goals. Karl Alzner notched his 2nd marker of the season with a sweet shot from the top of the slot after Brett Connolly made a great hit in the corner to force a Winnipeg turnover. After #10’s super forecheck, Evgeny Kuznetsov (two assists) alertly grabbed the biscuit and swung it to Marcus “Red Hot” Johansson (1 goal, 1 assist), who then found Alzner all alone. King Karl put it precisely in the right top corner to give the Caps a 1-0 lead with 19:16 gone in period one.

Washington would double their lead in the middle frame, again as a result of a forced turnover. Johansson stripped the Jets of the puck in the neutral zone and fed Kuznetsov, who streaked down the left wing boards. Tom Wilson smartly made a bee line for the left side of the net and all of the Jets defenders went towards him thinking that Kuzy was going to try one of his patented no look, behind the back passes. To quote the great Ron White, “They were wrong!” and Kuzy carried around the cage and fed an all alone Jojo in the slot. #90 buried it at 8:15 of the middle stanza for his 6th goal of the season and his team leading 11th point.

From there the game went back and forth with the Jets firing a lot of pucks from the outside. Holtby did have to make a huge save on one sequence after Dmitry Orlov was beaten (again) on defense and then T.J. Oshie somehow played second goalie to keep the disc from crossing the red line. After that the Caps did a good job of holding the Jets to perimeter shots through 40 minutes.

But in the final stanza, the Capitals legs grew fatigued and they started reaching instead of moving their feet to play defense. The Caps were still up 2-0 with 10 minutes to go and per Mike Vogel (@VogsCaps) the team was 71-1-6 under Coach Barry Trotz when leading at that point in the game.

Things were looking good; especially after Oshie hustled to draw a trip and take the Jets off of a power play. Shortly thereafter though, Nate Schmidt got outmuscled in a four on four situation and Alzner went down to block a pass putting himself out of position for a Jets rebound and the subsequent goal at the 13:04 mark.

No problem still, right? Well, not so fast. Washington was fading and when Brooks Orpik missed a hit on the right wing boards and John Carlson made a bad decision to try and hit Joel Armia, the puck was passed easily to Adam Lowry all alone in front of Holtby. He then deked the pride of Saskatchewan to the ice and deposited the biscuit in the basket to tie the game up with 2:25 left.

At that point, overtime seemed imminent, but Washington forced an offensive zone draw and Coach Trotz had Jay Beagle take the faceoff. Beags won the draw back to Carlson and then fought his way towards the net. Carlson’s point shot found #83 in front and he backhanded it past Connor Hellebucyk for the win with just 30 ticks remaining.

It was a huge goal and the first of the season for the Regal Beagle.

This was not one of the Capitals better performances, but that’s to be expected given the travel and schedule. They needed a top game from their all world goalie and they received it. In addition, there are several guys who are in the groove offensively, such as Oshie, Johansson, Beagle, and Kuznetsov and the Caps rode them to victory.

The line of Johansson, Kuznetsov, and Wilson has been really strong as has been the Andre Burakovsky, Lars Eller, and Oshie unit. Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Justin Williams continue to try and find chemistry, but given how well the other three lines, to include Beagle, Connolly, and Zach Sanford are playing, Coach Trotz likely needs to let those stars work their way through it.

On defense, the Alzner and Matt Niskanen pair has been excellent. Carlson and Orlov have not been a duo you can wager your cash on so far this season and I put most of that on #9. He’s still deficient too often in his own zone. Orpik and Schmidt form a decent third pair since #88 is good at rushing the puck and #44 is sound defensively, but both made mistakes on the Jets goals in this one. Simply put, one has to think that GM Brian MacLellan is looking at potential defensemen to bring in in the event that things don’t improve on the back end.

Let’s be honest, this team has a strong group of 13 forwards with the additions of Eller, Connolly, and Sanford, but the defense, which let them down when suspensions and injuries hit last spring is still a big question mark.

On Tuesday night in Winnipeg, however, the Caps were fortunate to have one of the game’s best goalies deliver them the two points.

Long live the Holtbeast!

Notes: Shot attempts were 61-48 for Winnipeg and shots on goal were 45-27…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 23:50…Ovechkin had 12 shot attempts, but only three made it on net…the Caps did dominate from the dot and that was key in the victory, going 37-28. Beagle and Backstrom were both 10-5…Connolly led the Capitals in hits with four and he was one of the best Washington players in this one…the Caps and Winnipeg will play again in their final meeting of the season on Thursday night at the Verizon Center.

 

Comments Off on Holtby Delivers for the Caps in Winnipeg

jojo-flames

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Caps Build on Victory in Vancouver, Defeat Flames, 3-1

Posted on 31 October 2016 by Ed Frankovic

A night after playing the right way in Vancouver and dominating the Canucks in a 5-2 victory, the Washington Capitals were back at it in Calgary on Sunday night. Traveling in the wee hours of the morning, losing an hour of time (Pacific to Mountain time zone), and going into the higher elevation of the Rockies against a rested and red hot Flames team (winners of three straight) appeared to be a daunting task.

But Coach Barry Trotz’ crew passed the test with flying colors taking the play to Calgary for much of the night en route to a 3-1 triumph and improved their record to 5-2-1 on the season.

Washington made no lineup changes following Saturday’s win. Coach Trotz stated beforehand that he felt the guys who played against the Canucks deserved a sweater again because of how hard and how well they performed. On Sunday, it was more of the same as the Capitals moved their feet and won the majority of the loose puck battles.

It was that hard work that got the Caps on the board early, and to no surprise, it was Jay Beagle who battled behind the Flames net to find a wide open Brett Connolly in the slot, and #10 buried the biscuit for his first tally as a Washington Capital just 121 seconds into this contest. Zach Sanford was a big factor on the play by knocking the puck away from Calgary captain Mark Giordano on the goal line and as a result, he earned his first NHL point.

Just over five minutes later the Capitals would get the only other goal they’d need on the power play. Alex Ovechkin made a sweet pass to Marcus Johansson at the side of the net for an easy tap in. That two goal early burst continued a trend of strong first periods this season, something that was hard to come by in 2015-16 for Washington.

The Capitals would continue to work hard and carry the play, but Brian Elliott (26 saves) was really strong in net, something the Flames did not have last season, at all. Calgary would get a goal back later in the first period when rookie Matthew Tkachuk knocked Nate Schmidt to the ice in the right wing circle and that allowed Mikael Backlund to beat Braden Holtby (21 saves) from a bad angle. The Holtbeast likely wanted that shot back, since he was a little too deep in his cage, but the goal easily could have been waved off for interference by Tkachuk on Schmidt, however, that play is not reviewable.

Nonetheless, the Capitals were undeterred and kept taking pucks deep in the Flames zone and putting pressure on Elliott. The Calgary net minder would give the home team some hope heading into the final frame with his club only down a puck.

After a shaky first five minutes of period three, a tired Capitals crew fought through the fatigue and really throttled the Calgary rush through the neutral zone from then on out forcing the Flames to routinely dump the puck. Washington’s structure was very good and the Caps blue liners rarely had trouble getting the puck out to the forwards, who from the 10 minute mark on basically did whatever they could to get the biscuit on net or below the Calgary goal line. As a result, the Holtbeast didn’t have to make any huge saves down the stretch. It was textbook execution with a one goal lead.

With just over a minute remaining, the Flames finally pulled their goalie for the extra attacker on an offensive zone draw, but Beagle (two assists) and Johansson (two goals) forced Johnny Gaudreau into a turnover at the blue line and they went the other way on a two on one rush with the net empty. Beags feathered a sweet backhand pass to Jojo in the center of the ice and the Swedish forward, who has been superb in the first nine games, deposited the puck into the yawning cage to end the scoring.

This was not a pretty win, but it was a fundamentally sound one. The Capitals played the right way once again and limited their turnovers. They moved the puck out of their end with pace and precision and they made the Flames defensemen have to turn their backs to play the puck in their own zone. It was smart hockey with a lead and something Coach Trotz and his crew had to do given the circumstances of the back-to-back contests situation.

Holtby didn’t have to do anything spectacular in this one, but he did make some strong stops to preserve the lead. T.J. Oshie, Beagle, Sanford, and Johansson were all strong on the puck like they were in Vancouver and Evgeny Kuznetsov had one of his better games, as well. #92 didn’t shy away from contact and he limited his turnovers. He still has a ways to go to get out of the funk that started late last season, carried into the postseason, and now into October, but his last two outings have been encouraging.

Washington talked last season about playing fast, but in Edmonton they tried to do that without using their size and strength. Over this recent weekend, they did that and got back to a heavier hockey style that fits them. Playing fast and heavy are not mutually exclusive. You need both and the Caps showed on Saturday and Sunday how combining those elements can be extremely effective for themselves.

Notes: Washington out shot attempted Calgary, 51-45, and out shot them, 29-22…the Caps lost the face off battle, 32-28. Kuznetsov was 2-12. Nicklas Backstrom (1 assist) was 9-5…Ovechkin only played 15:05 due to the minimal power play time and Coach Trotz spreading the ice time around in a back to back situation. The Caps were 1 for 2 in their 2:35 of man advantage situations…Washington’s penalty killing unit was a perfect two for two…John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 23:47…next up for the Caps are the Winnipeg Jets in Manitoba at 8 pm on Tuesday.

Comments Off on Caps Build on Victory in Vancouver, Defeat Flames, 3-1

jojo-canucks

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Johansson and Oshie Lead Caps Over Vancouver, 5-2

Posted on 30 October 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Playing the right way is so important in hockey.

On Wednesday night in Edmonton, the Capitals tried to play the “easy game” against the high flying Oilers and they were run out of the new Rogers Place, 4-1. Several players were passengers in that contest and failed to exert the energy needed to defeat a team that is on a roll. Simply put, they were soft.

After two plus days of having that black cloud of a loss hang over their heads, the Caps came out on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday (and into Sunday on the east coast) and played their brand of hockey. They were getting pucks deep, using their size to win the one on one battles, and using all five players on the ice to put pucks and bodies at the Vancouver Canucks net. The result was a 5-2 win that was closer than it should have been due to some luck (or specifically bad luck for Washington).

Marcus Johansson (two goals, one assist) and TJ Oshie (goal and an assist) were the stars for the Capitals with Tom Wilson (goal) having his best game in a long time. Philipp Grubauer (23 saves) got the call in net and he was solid making several key stops when the Capitals had some breakdowns that led to odd man rushes. With the game 3-2 in the third period, Grubauer thwarted a couple of chances on a Canucks power play, and more importantly, he didn’t yield any big rebounds when the outcome was still in doubt over those final 20 minutes. He is now 2-0 on the season.

Washington has been off to a slow start in the special teams department and they had allowed a power play goal in five of the six games they’d played this season. On Saturday, the Canucks went 0 for 3 with the man advantage and they didn’t have many good looks until their third period opportunity. On the flip side, the Caps scored on their first power play when Vancouver overplayed John Carlson and Alex Ovechkin, which allowed Nicklas Backstrom, Oshie and Johansson to dominate down low and score when Jojo put home the rebound of T.J.’s shot that caught iron and fell prone in the crease.

Special teams aside, the first 40 minutes, and especially the middle frame, saw complete domination by the Caps. The Caps were getting the puck in the offensive zone cleanly and carrying it down towards the goal line. When the Canucks collapsed, the Capitals forwards were finding the points for shots while they crashed the net. It was simple, but very effective hockey.

After two periods, shot attempts were 45-31 and shots on goal were 26-19 in favor of Washington and Comcast had the scoring chances as 16-9. Somehow, though, a 2-1 first period lead was only 3-2 after two stanzas. Jacob Markstrom (30 saves) played fairly well in net for the Canucks and he also received a break when a Capitals goal was waved off in the second period due to goaltender contact in the crease by Backstrom.

But the Caps were not going to be denied by the bad breaks or numerous unfinished scoring chances. They kept playing the same way all evening, for the most part, and they grinded out a win. In the end the Capitals outshot Vancouver, 35-25, and the shot attempts were 62-44 for the Caps. Sure the Canucks played on Friday night and they’ve been struggling, but Washington totally outworked them and deserved the win.

The victory didn’t come easy and each goal was the result of proper structure and hard work. It was the type of victory they needed and Coach Barry Trotz will be very pleased with it.

To quote that old Smith Barney commercial, the Capitals captured these two points the old fashioned way, “They Earned It.”

Notes: The Caps are now 4-2-1 on the season and they’ll travel to Calgary overnight to take on the Flames on Sunday night at 9:30. Braden Holtby will be between the pipes…the Caps won the face off battle, 37-32. Justin Williams was 6-0. Ovechkin, who had four shots on goal, was only credited with three hits but he was physical all over the rink all night…Coach Trotz did his best Reg Dunlop imitation and shuffled his lines for this game to try and get more offense and it worked. Ovi and Nicky played with Williams, Oshie was on a line with Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky, and Evgeny Kuznetsov (one assist) had a great game centering Jojo and Wilson…Dmitry Orlov rebounded from a poor outing in Alberta to log 19:17 of ice time. He was much more defensively sound in this contest…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 23:27…Daniel Winnik was scratched, but he’ll likely be in the lineup against the Flames. I’d expect Zach Sanford or Brett Connolly, who were both minus one and played under eight minutes, to be in the press box…the Caps were one for two with the man advantage…Oshie’s tally at 17:33 made it 4-2 and then Karl Alzner banked one in from long distance in four on four action with Markstrom pulled to end the scoring.

Comments Off on Johansson and Oshie Lead Caps Over Vancouver, 5-2

ovi-avs

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Ovechkin and Oshie Help Caps Blank the Avs, 3-0

Posted on 18 October 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Alex Ovechkin made no mistake about who the best player on the ice was on Tuesday night at the Verizon Center. The Gr8 scored the game winning power play goal in the first period off of a nice Dmitry Orlov feed and assisted on T.J. Oshie’s second tally of the night late in the third period to close out a 3-0 Caps victory over the Colorado Avalanche.

The Caps improved to 2-0-1 on this young season and they’ve taken over first place in the Metropolitan Division.

Ovi was everywhere in this one with nine shot attempts, five of which were on net, three takeaways, two hits, and a whole new rash of penalty minutes (three minors). His goal and assist were his first points of the season and his line with Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov had 15 of the 40 shots on goal the Capitals would throw at Semyon Varlamov in this tilt. If not for Varly, it would’ve been more of a blowout.

Oshie (two goals) led the Caps with six shots on net and he was downright dominant on the boards and in front of the net. His first goal was a power play marker in the slot that came off of a sweet feed from Nicklas Backstrom. Washington’s power play looked really strong against Colorado going two for five and improving it on the season from John Blutarsky’s grade point average (0.0) to 15.3% (2 for 13) overall. Special teams were strong in this one for the Caps since they also blanked the Avalanche on all three of their shorthanded situations.

The Caps have now played 185 minutes of hockey and have allowed exactly one even strength goal and just three overall. With Braden Holtby, who was honored in the pregame for his 2015-16 Vezina Trophy winning season with his adorable family present, sitting this one out to prepare for Florida on Thursday and the Rangers on Saturday, Philipp Grubauer received the call between the pipes and he posted his first NHL shutout. Grubauer didn’t have to make too many big saves, but he made them when they counted and stopped all 18 biscuits he faced. Yes, you read that correctly, the Avalanche only had 18 shots on goal.

Part of that was the fact that Colorado did the Capitals a huge favor by knocking off the Penguins on Monday night in overtime and then coming in tired for this game. The other factor was Washington’s dominant skating and effort. The Caps were simply all over the Avs from the opening puck drop, outshooting them 20-5 in period one, and never really gave Colorado a chance to win the game.

The closest opportunity they had to get in the game was late in period two when Nathan MacKinnon had a wide open cage, but missed the net when the puck rolled on him. Had the 2012 #1 NHL pick scored there, it would’ve been a 2-1 affair, but he misfired and the Capitals once again gave up minimal chances in the final frame to provide Grubauer with likely the easiest shutout he’ll ever have.

Going up and down the lineup, it was hard to find a Washington player that did not perform well. Orlov had a highlight reel hit on Avs superstar Matt Duchene and played a strong two way game. His shot is a real asset to the offense. Brett Connolly received his first sweater of the season and had some quality scoring chances. Overall, #10 had four shots on goal and four hits in 11:47 of ice time. He fit nicely on the line with Justin Williams and Lars Eller. Tom Wilson, playing with Daniel Winnik and Jay Beagle, had a quality game and he got under the skin of future NHL Hall of Famer, Jarome Iginla, and coerced #12 to take an instigator penalty in the middle stanza. That infraction was costly for the Avs since Oshie notched Washington’s second tally of the night on the ensuing power play.

On defense, John Carlson and Matt Niskanen each played over 22 minutes while Orlov and Karl Alzner were right around 19 minutes. Brooks Orpik, who was +1 and very solid on the back end, logged 16:29 while Nate Schmidt saw just under 13 minutes of action. Coach Barry Trotz and assistant coach Todd Rierden have been able to rotate their defensemen fairly well in the three games this season, which should help keep everyone fresh and healthy.

Simply put, this was a complete effort and strong performance from the Caps. In the three games they’ve played, they have looked very good and have started quickly in all of them. Faster starts and a killer instinct were things this team wanted to work on this campaign and so far, so good. Their only blemish was losing in the skills competition in Pittsburgh, and those things are coin flips.

On Tuesday night, the special teams were back clicking and Washington was doing a nice job of putting pucks on the net with traffic. Those types of things add up to lots of victories.

Most importantly on this evening, the Captain came to play and he was downright dominant. The Gr8 showed that when he’s focused, he’s the best goal scorer this game has ever seen.

Notes: Shot attempts were 61-36 for the Caps, that’s pure domination…Marcus Johansson had two power play assists…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 31-27, Backstrom went 13-4 and Beagle was 6-3…no Capital played less than 10 minutes and none played over 24 minutes, that’s balance…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 23:42…the Avs were 2-0 coming into this game…Washington is in Florida on Thursday at 7:30 pm and home against the Rags at 7 pm on Saturday night.

Comments Off on Ovechkin and Oshie Help Caps Blank the Avs, 3-0

Holtby End

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Luck Not the Sole Reason for the Caps’ 2nd Round Exit

Posted on 13 May 2016 by Ed Frankovic

There have been 41 Washington Capitals seasons and zero Stanley Cup Championships.

Those are the facts, there is no denying them.

2015-16 was supposed to be different. It sure felt that way, from the general manager to the coaches to the players to the fans and even some in the media. Heck, I was front and center putting myself out there saying this team and this season would be different.

In many ways, it was, and we’ll touch on that later.

But in the end, as Justin Williams, John Carlson, and many other Capitals players proclaimed on breakdown day on May 12, 2016, the season was a “failure” following a devastating overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in game six that allowed the Pens to win a very closely contested series, four games to two.

Pittsburgh scored 16 goals and Washington tallied 15 times in the series. Each Penguins victory, two of which came in overtime, was achieved by a single goal. Both teams had stretches where they dominated the play, but ultimately it was the Penguins who prevailed.

Did the Capitals deserve a better fate from the Hockey Gods?

Maybe, I mean how often do you see a goal scored off of the back of a player? That happened in game three for Pittsburgh, a game in which the Caps carried the large majority of the play, but managed to lose. Numerous times in this series the Capitals had themselves in position to bury a puck at a key moment, and somehow it bounced over their players stick. Surely luck was not on their side, and as Matt Niskanen noted on breakdown day, you talk to guys around the league who have won championships and they’ll tell you need luck along the way to win.

There is truth to that, around these parts there is no denying that the two Super Bowls the Baltimore Ravens won included some luck. Al Del Greco hit the upright on a field goal right before halftime and then a blocked Del Greco field goal, in the fourth quarter, landed right in the hands of Anthony Mitchell and he then returned it for the game winning touchdown in 2000 against the Titans. Joe Flacco’s Hail Mary pass to Jacoby Jones in 2012 went over the head of a Broncos safety that mistimed his play on the ball for the tying touchdown to set up overtime and an eventual huge Ravens upset. All of those plays included luck, but the Ravens were also good enough to put themselves in position to get the breaks.

You certainly need some luck to win and the Capitals received some of that in series one when Jason Chimera’s innocent dump in deflection traveled 100 feet and through the wickets of Steve Mason into the cage in game two. The Caps took advantage and raced to a three to nothing series lead and eventually prevailed, four games to two over the Flyers.

In series two, Washington didn’t get the bounces and lost by a goal, but it wasn’t bad luck that did them in.

We’ll get that to what ultimately doomed them in a minute, but first, let’s put some perspective on where this team has come from over the last two years.

After a disastrous 2013-14 season, the Capitals were an absolute train wreck and a Stanley Cup seemed to be mostly an unobtainable goal in the near term. Following the conclusion of that season, I was full of piss and vinegar and rightfully called for the ultra-conservative and often panic stricken general manager to be let go, along with the divisive bench boss who seemed to insist on being the smartest guy in the room. I was furious that the blue line continually was not properly addressed by George McPhee for over 10 plus seasons. Fortunately, owner Ted Leonsis and team President Dick Patrick saw the same thing, when many in the national media were once again calling for the core of the team, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, to be shipped out instead.

Enter Coach Barry Trotz and promoted General Manager Brian MacLellan to commence a massive turnaround. They immediately went to work on two things the club desperately needed, a blue line fix and an identity as a team.

“Last year when I came here, that was the first thing we did, was fix the defense. We got two outstanding players in Brooks [Orpik] and Matt [Niskanen] and we started the process of building a culture and it started by fixing holes, by going out and getting the best people that we felt could do that and getting people who have won, then the next phase of that was to develop our own people,” said Caps coach Barry Trotz to Nestor Aparacio and I on February 29th, 2016 at a WNST radio event at Buffalo Wild Wings in Belair to continue the fight against leukemia and support the bone marrow registry.

Those moves laid the foundation for a very successful 2014-15 campaign that saw Washington return to the playoffs, defeat the New York Islanders in round one, and then lose in painful fashion, in overtime, in game seven against the New York Rangers. The Capitals only allowed 13 goals in seven games, but could only muster 12 goals themselves and lost twice in overtime in the final three contests.

It was an awful defeat, they lost a three games to one series lead, but everyone knew that the main problem was the Capitals didn’t have enough talent up front to score consistently. The loss was rough, but things were rapidly moving in the right direction after utter chaos just a year earlier. My end of the season blog focused on the need to improve the top six forwards and sure enough, MacLellan pulled it off dealing Troy Brouwer for T.J. Oshie and signing Justin Williams to a two year free agent deal. Unfortunately, adding those guys and the need to pay goalie Braden Holtby what he was rightfully worth, put the team up against the salary cap. With it not possible to move Brooks Laich’s boat anchor of a contract in the summer, the team was forced to part ways with grinding forward Joel Ward and defensemen Mike Green, both key players on the squad that fell just short against the Rags. They were tough personnel losses to a team that had become super close.

But Oshie and Williams fit in perfectly and the Ward and Green losses faded to the back of everyone’s mind as the Capitals stormed out of the gate and blew the league away in the regular season pretty much clinching the Presidents’ Trophy by Valentine’s Day. Holtby was legendary in the cage and he tied the NHL single season victory total for a goalie with 48 (tied with hall of famer, Martin Brodeur). It was so much fun and the team seemed to get tighter as a unit as the season moved on. This was surely setting up to be the year for a Cup parade, but quietly the Pittsburgh Penguins were addressing some serious issues they had themselves.

They fired their coach, Mike Johnston, and replaced him with former Rangers assistant Mike Sullivan. But more importantly, general manager Jimmy Rutherford made some great moves to transform his roster. In the summer, he traded high draft picks to Toronto to acquire scoring winger Phil Kessel and he dumped the slow and plodding Brandon Sutter for speedy Nick Bonino. After the season began, he also swapped David Perron for super-fast Cap killer Carl Hagelin. Suddenly he had a line that could skate like the wind, but he still had issues on the back end. Rob Scuderi was old and slower than molasses, but Rutherford somehow convinced Stan Bowman, who is considered an excellent GM, to deal mobile defensemen Trevor Daley for the past his prime Scuderi. It was a fleecing or highway robbery of a deal, whatever you want to call it. From there the Penguins were the best team in the league from January on and Washington knew they’d have their hands full with them, at some point. The Caps had become somewhat complacent given their huge standings lead while Pittsburgh pressed madly to move up the standings after wallowing out of playoff position for much of the first 40 games.

While the Penguins were making all of these moves, MacLellan not only added Oshie and Williams, but he brought in Mike Richards as a depth center. That move was excellent and if not for some of Richards outstanding penalty killing skills, the Flyers might have won game six, as well as game two. Richards ability to read back door passes and get his stick in lanes on defense and while shorthanded was very much needed. The Caps suddenly were not only super on the power play, but also on the penalty kill.

With the Richards move, the Caps only real question marks appeared to be on defense. The loss of Green was a blow, no doubt, you don’t replace a player of that caliber easily, and the Caps plan, partly due to limited salary cap room, was to go with rookies Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt on the back end as a third pairing. When Orpik was injured in early November with a cracked femur, suddenly those guys were forced to play more minutes than originally planned. They played well, too, perhaps clouding the judgement of the Capitals brass as the trade deadline approached. MacLellan did add Mike Weber as a depth defensemen and he somehow masterfully moved Laich out for an upgrade in forward Daniel Winnik. The move also freed up money on the current salary cap, but more importantly for 2016-17 when dollars would be needed to retain Marcus Johansson, who was having a career year, and others like Tom Wilson. Some wanted the Capitals to use that extra dough to acquire another defensemen given Oprik’s health issues and the lack of experience on the back end. Dan Hamhuis, among other experienced defensemen, were still out there reportedly to be had, but Washington passed.

After the trade deadline, at the WNST event with Coach Trotz on February 29th, I specifically asked him about the decision to go with the two players who had zero playoff experience on the back end.

“We talk about that, the blessing this year with Brooks being out for a long period of time, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt were in the lineup for 50 some games. We already know what they can do and it’s been really beneficial for us. I think by adding Mike Weber we’re eight deep at the NHL level,” explained Trotz on the rationale of where the organization stood on their blue line.

It seemed like a viable plan at the time and Weber certainly seemed like the type of guy who could fill in for an Orpik or even a Karl Alzner if there was an injury. But Oprik came back healthy down the stretch and despite the fact that Carlson missed 12 games with a cracked ankle/foot in March, the Caps only played Weber in 10 of the 21 contests that occurred before the post season began. Basically, the Capitals decided to ride Orlov, Schmidt and Taylor Chorney instead of Weber. #6 was a seven year veteran with more playoff experience (seven games) than the other three combined, but he spent most of the time in the press box becoming rusty. As anyone in hockey will tell you, performing in the regular season is one thing, but doing that in the playoffs is another story, so the Capitals were really taking a risk on the Orlov-Schmidt-Chorney trio.

When Orpik was concussed and injured his neck in game three against the Flyers, I remarked to MacLellan after that tilt that “this was the reason you went out and got Weber.” The GM seemed to nod his head in agreement, yet somehow it wasn’t until a series clinching victory in game six that Weber finally got a sweater for the Caps? The coaching staff went with Chorney over a more physical Weber against a chippy and dirty team like the Flyers. Weber, to that point, had never received the repetitions he really needed to play at a top four level that would be required when Orpik went down.

That leads me to where this season broke down. Yes, the Penguins were the faster team, but you can deter speed by keeping it to the outside and wearing it out with proper execution. The Bonino line, with seven goals, was the difference in the series and while they were fast, several of those goals came from right in front of the net following turnovers. Oprik’s terrible hit on Olli Maatta that took #3 out of three games and #44 too, as a result of a suspension, turned the entire series around, as well.  The Caps were flat the rest of game two and lost home ice. In game three, Schmidt made a costly turnover and then was manhandled in front by the small Hagelin for the eventual game winning goal. He would not play in two of the final three games. Orlov was benched for a game and the Caps only won once with Chorney in the lineup (game five of the Pens series). Weber did get a jersey for game four and played decently, but the game winning goal went off of his stick to Patrick Hornqvist and he was banished to the press box once again.

When Alzner’s groin, that he initially injured in the Flyers series, finally popped in game six, the Caps had little left on the back end other than Carlson and a tiring Niskanen, who played all 82 games and every playoff game with King Karl, to that point. After #27’s injury, Orpik took another awful penalty, a careless double minor for high sticking on Hornqvist with the puck 50 feet away in period two, and the Caps great penalty killing unit was suddenly forced to play both Chorney and Orlov in succession. Two goals in 29 seconds was the result and that put the Caps in a deep hole, 3-0. It was a terrible penalty that Orpik could not afford to take, once again, and it was especially bad knowing that Alzner was done for the game. In short, as much as I like Orpik and what he can bring to the Capitals, he had a nightmare 2015-16 season with his injuries and bad penalties. Simply put, the Penguins were faster, but they also were able to get to the front of the Capitals net, and most of those occasions came when members of the bottom half of the Washington defense were on the ice.

Now the encouraging part of the story is that this is where this Capitals teamed proved to be different.  Instead of folding tent like the 2009 Caps did in game seven against Pittsburgh when they went down 3-0, they fought back and forced overtime in game six showing tremendous fortitude and resolve. They probably should have won too, but failed to capitalize on a late power play that they received. At that juncture they seemed a little too comfortable at that moment at just being tied up, something that occurred too frequently during this season and in the Flyers series, as well.

On to overtime we went and the Capitals, who rode the top six forwards and Carlson and Niskanen on the back end heavily, were out of gas. Niskanen was forced to play with guys he wasn’t used to being paired with and miscommunication happened on the game winning tally, which was another goal that once again came from the doorstep on a rebound.

In a nutshell, the Capitals lost on their lack of defensive depth, something they thought they had, but really didn’t.  They put too much stock in the abilities of Orlov and Schmidt based on their regular season success and they failed to take advantage and develop or possibly misevaluated what Weber could bring to the lineup. It was a waste of a third round draft pick the way it all played out. The Penguins found their way through the Washington back end too easily and Holtby couldn’t prevent all of those second chance tallies.

In addition, their season long tendency to sit back and not take control of games cost them dearly. They didn’t attack in game two and show that killer instinct to seize a critical contest and the series. That lack of killer instinct also allowed a Kris Letang-less Penguins team to steal game four. The Pens gained confidence to win in those first 30 minutes when the Capitals needed to step on their throats and not allow them to believe they could prevail without their best defensemen. It was a major opportunity lost.

Finally, the Capitals loss of Ward took away a player who routinely went to the front of the net in the postseason to get ugly goals. Washington didn’t have much of that against the Penguins outside of a couple of Williams tallies (but one was with the goalie pulled). The Caps need their bottom six forwards to chip in with more greasy goals.

So where does that lead us heading in to 2016-17?

Obviously the team is extremely disappointed that they let a major chance to win a championship slip by once again. The lack of true defensive depth, killer instinct, and inability to add in some rebound goals was what ultimately cost them the series against what should become in June, the 2015-16 Stanley Cup winning Penguins.

Some will call for panic and to try to blow things up, like the San Jose Sharks nearly did following a loss to the Kings in 2014 after owning a 3-0 series lead. Two springs later, the Sharks are in the hunt for the Cup and credit for that goes to hanging on to their core, the addition of Ward up front, and bringing in Paul Martin on defense.

Washington needs to find a Paul Martin type on the back end because running out the same seven guys again, particularly the four after Carlson, Niskanen, and Alzner, carries significant risk.

Johansson will be the top offseason priority to sign to a long term deal. He’s a key piece to this team and had a remarkable regular and post season. He was one of the guys going to the net against the Flyers and scoring tough goals. He also brings a major element of speed.

Wilson is next on the priority list as a restricted free agent. #43 made significant contributions this year on the penalty kill and defensively. In some games, such as game five against the Penguins, he was a difference maker by drawing penalties and keeping the opponent out of the offensive zone. Still, he needs to develop his offensive skills so that he could possibly fill that Ward type of role in front of the net. His improvement is a must and the coaches need to aid that by playing him more. If they prefer not to do that or think he can’t do that, then a move is needed.

Orlov is a restricted free agent, as well, and he and Schmidt are similar players, along with Chorney. The Caps management team needs to determine if that is indeed the way to go to win a Stanley Cup on the back end. My recommendation would be to move at least one of them and upgrade the blue line, especially since Oprik is adding another year and he has an injury history.

Ovechkin is about to head into his 12th season and the Capitals need to win soon (Steve Yzerman’s first Cup came in his 14th season). The Gr8 was superb in these playoffs and downright dominant in several games, such as game five against the Penguins. Oshie, Williams, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Alzner are all free agents after next season and will require more dollars. Carlson has two more years to go at the deal of the century, a contract just under $4M per season. He was the Capitals best player in the post season and will command $7M plus in 2018-19.

Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky are two young players that had super regular seasons, but as a result of playing all 82 games, didn’t have the legs they had in 2015-16 when they were playoff difference makers. They need to learn from that and be better prepared physically next spring. They need to add strength and learn to get some ugly goals in front.

I typically wait several days before writing this blog to let the emotions of the playoff defeat die down, but I don’t think that will be possible this season. This was one tough loss and a major opportunity gone by the wayside. Everyone will feel the pain all summer and I certainly don’t want to be sitting here next season beginning my 2016-17 final blog with a 0 and 42 statistic.

I know the Capitals don’t want me to be doing so either.

Everything the Caps do between now and next April 15th has to be about the playoffs and winning the Cup. The team is tight and the culture is strong, but they need to develop that killer instinct. In addition, the management needs to address the personnel short comings on defense and the coaching staff needs to be quicker to adjust when things aren’t working.

The last thing management needs to do is panic and make radical changes, this team is ultra close, but more is necessary to get over the hump.

So the time is now for the Capitals to start getting at next year and doing everything in their power to make sure no stone is left unturned and no holes are left exposed when injuries or uncomfortable situations present themselves in the spring of 2017 playoffs.

There were a lot of things to like from this team this year, but the ultimate prize was not captured and the season was a major disappointment, or a failure, as many players called it.

The clock is ticking.

They must end this awful postseason losing cycle once and for all.

Comments Off on Luck Not the Sole Reason for the Caps’ 2nd Round Exit