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Caps Start 2013-14 With High Expectations Once Again

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Caps Start 2013-14 With High Expectations Once Again

Posted on 29 September 2013 by Ed Frankovic

It is awfully difficult to win a championship in professional sports but heading into 2013-14 that is once again the goal of the Washington Capitals, who have yet to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup since their inception in 1974. The Caps, who have made the playoffs the last six years, have another quality team as they prepare to open their season against the defending champs, the Chicago Blackhawks, in the Windy City on Tuesday night at 8pm on NBCSN.

On Sunday, Caps General Manager George McPhee made several moves to help put some clarity to the opening night roster culminating with a trade of center Matheiu Perreault to the Anaheim Ducks for a 4th round pick and AHLer John Mitchell. In addition, several players were sent to Hershey, including defenesemen Tyson Strachan and Dmitry Orlov. For now, here is what the Caps roster looks like:

Goalies (2): Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth

Defensemen (7): Mike Green, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, John Erskine, Jack Hillen, Steve Oleksy, and Connor Carrick

Forwards (14): Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, Mikhail Grabovski, Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, Martin Erat, Tom Wilson, Eric Fehr, Joel Ward, Jay Beagle, Jason Chimera, Aaron Volpatti, and Michael Latta

The move of Perreault was predicted here last week and makes sense from a hockey and salary cap standpoint. This Caps team needed to get bigger and more powerful up front and Wilson’s outstanding camp made keeping him up with the main club, rather than shipping him back to a weaker league (OHL), an easy decision. The 19 year old, who was the 16th overall pick in the 2012 NHL entry draft, brings a dimension that this Washington team needs more of in the post season: size and the ability to score the tough goals in close. Six months with Coach Adam Oates and some highly talented teammates is what is needed for Wilson to continue his development, the OHL is just not going to help him get any better.

As for the rest of the squad, the strengths appear to be in goal and up front. Braden Holtby has established himself as a number one goalie and has the chance to move into the elite category with a very strong season. As McPhee told the media last Tuesday, to win the Stanley Cup you have to have great goaltending. #70 is the guy being counted on to deliver that, but Neuvirth is a more than capable net minder and will be needed to play well so that Washington can qualify for the post season in a very competitive Metropolitan Division.

At forward, the Capitals have some serious depth on the wings but still aren’t sure who is going to be the third line center. Backstrom has the first line locked up with Grabovski manning the second unit. The club could go with Beagle as the 3rd line center and Latta pivoting the 4th to start the season, but that depends on the health of the others, primarily Laich, who has been battling a hip flexor issue. Right wing is just loaded up with Ovechkin, Brouwer, Fehr, Wilson, and Ward. Both Fehr and Erat were tried at center this preseason by Oates with some success, so the head coach has lots of options. Johansson could play 3rd line center at some point too. The Caps have not had as talented a crew of forwards to start the season in many years and with the players they have there is lots of room for flexibility.

On defense, the top three is awfully good with Green, Alzner, and Carlson. After that, it gets dicey. Erksine was super last spring in the regular season but is he really a top 4 d-man? #4 will have a chance to prove it starting this week. Oleksy came out of seemingly nowhere to take a 3rd pair spot in the spring and Hillen overcame an early season injury to play a lot of quality minutes last year. Carrick was the biggest surprise of training camp, has great offensive skills and his hockey IQ is high. Learning to play defense in the NHL is harder than any other position so Washington has to be careful to not put too much on the 19 year old, who has incredible potential. The organization still has high hopes for Orlov, but given his injury situation last season, starting him in Hershey made too much sense. The 2009 2nd round pick will play top pair minutes in the AHL and can hone his craft for what appears to be an inevitable jump back to the NHL at some point during the 82 game season.

Special teams will be an important component of Washington’s success. Last season the Caps were #1 in the NHL with the power play (26.8%). You can expect it to remain at least top 5 and Oates and assistant coach Blaine Forsythe will continually be tweaking things to counter opposition tactics. As for the penalty kill, Laich stated on Tuesday that is one of the areas this Capitals club will have to improve in if they want to do well in the regular season and playoffs. The PK has been one of the team’s weaknesses the last few years and it was 27th out of 30 in 2012-13 with a success rate of only 77.9%.

In summary, the expectations are high for this Capitals team. The playoffs are not a given, but if this club can stay relatively healthy, then they have the talent to compete for the division title. Every team in the Metropolitan Division has its issues. The Penguins are the pick of many but their goaltending and team defense certainly has its question marks. Will the Rangers respond positively to a new coach in Alain Vigneault? How will the Devils do with the departure of Ilya Kovalchuk? The Flyers added Vinny Lecavalier but will Ray Emery or Steve Mason step up and be a top goalie in a pressure packed Philly market? Are the Islanders ready to take the next step up the ladder or was their playoff run last spring a one time deal? Is Columbus going to play like the team that nearly qualified for the post season last spring or the cellar dweller crew that started 2013? Finally, will Cam Ward returning in net for Carolina propel them to a winning season? Nothing is set in stone heading into the season and in the salary cap era every team has holes and/or issues. What is important is that the Capitals get off to a good start since coming from behind in the standings is not going to be as achievable as it was in the Southeast Division.

 

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Handicapping the Caps Opening Night Roster

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Handicapping the Caps Opening Night Roster

Posted on 24 September 2013 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals held their annual media day luncheon on Tuesday at Kettler IcePlex and both Owner Ted Leonsis and General Manager George McPhee made it clear that winning the Stanley Cup was once again their barometer of success.  The Caps, who have made the playoffs in six straight seasons, will not have the benefit of getting into the dance via a Southeast Division title in 2013-14. Instead they will be in the Metropolitan Division competing with the likes of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Carolina Hurricanes, and Columbus Blue Jackets. It is a tougher task, but Leonsis and McPhee both feel that this year’s club is deeper than they’ve had in several years.

As of today, the Caps have over 25 players in camp with just one week to go until the regular season opener in Chicago on October 1st. An NHL club can carry up to 23 players but they also have to be under the $64.3M salary cap. Coach Adam Oates noted that you have to factor in the dollars as well as who could get claimed for nothing via other teams on the waiver wire when finalizing the roster. Via Capgeek.com, Washington currently has 22 players at a total of $63.6M. That list of 22 players includes 13 forwards, 7 defensemen, and two goalies (Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth). So who is going to make it and who likely won’t? Here’s a look at where guys stand, from what I’ve seen in the games and gauging from comments made by Oates today:

Goalies:

In: Holtby, Neuvirth

Defensemen:

In: Mike Green, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, John Erskine

Likely In: Steve Oleksy, Jack Hillen

Bubble: Dmitry Orlov, Tomas Kundratek

Longshot: Connor Carrick

Forwards:

In: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, Brooks Laich, Mikhail Grabovski, Troy Brouwer, Martin Erat, Joel Ward, Eric Fehr, Jay Beagle, Jason Chimera

Bubble: Mathieu Perreault, Aaron Volpatti, Tom Wilson

Basically, the club has some tough choices to make at defense and it gets even harder at forward. McPhee stated that they could keep 19 year old Wilson up and stay under the cap, but acknowledged he might have to move a player to do so. The GM stated that he doesn’t like to keep teenagers on the roster, but Wilson has shown he can play and is making the decision on the big right winger very difficult. Ideally, Wilson would start the season in Hershey but since he is an Ontario Hockey League draft pick, he cannot play in the AHL until he is 20 years old. It appears there isn’t much to gain for Wilson going back to his junior team (Plymouth). Sure he’d get power play time and could dominate, but he did that last season. To me, Wilson brings a dynamic this Caps team needs. The kid is big, can skate, hits, and he goes to the net. Six months under Adam Oates in preparation for the post season, in my book, is just too hard to pass up. The Capitals need another power forward who can wear opposition defenders down in the playoffs and Wilson is a player who can do that.

Keeping Wilson though, likely means a move elsewhere has to be made. That brings us to Perreault. With McPhee and Oates announcing today that Erat is going to play center in these last few preseason games, after Fehr had his trial at center last week, it sure looks like the team is looking for options other than #85 to play the pivot position. So would Perreault, who counts just over $1M on the salary cap, be the player moved if Wilson is kept up with the big club? That’s certainly one viable option. McPhee noted that the trade chatter has picked up in recent days but did acknowledge again, that making trades in the salary cap era is very hard.

On defense, it’s hard to see the six guys who finished the season in the spring not being the top six starting on October 1st. The question then is who do you keep up as the 7th guy. Orlov is a player that has an immense amount of talent but he’s coming off a difficult year healthwise. When asked about #81 today and his performance against Chicago last Friday night, Oates stated that he’s mainly looking for Dmitry to get fully comfortable in games again. To me that spells a ticket to Hershey to start the season where Orlov can get in total hockey shape before making what seems to be the inevitable jump up to the big club at some point this season. Orlov can still go to Hershey without having to clear waivers while Kundratek cannot. Thus it appears that Kundratek is the likely choice for 7th D, but given that Erskine is coming off of surgery in the spring the GM and coach may opt to keep a left handed shot around. That would give Orlov an opening. As for Connor Carrick, the youngster has had an outstanding training camp and opened a lot of eyes. He has great hockey sense and possesses some “Mike Green” like skills. The future looks bright for Carrick, but I don’t see him on the big club this season.

Another issue that needs to be factored into the roster decisions are injuries. Laich made it clear that he was not 100% today and despite playing 20 minutes in Monday’s tilt against Boston and feeling fine afterwards, he woke up this morning not feeling right. #21 says he has October 1 circled on his calendar but as Oates stated, he’s a little snakebit right now with injuries after playing over 300 straight NHL games in a row. In addition to Laich, Ward is nicked up too, so that complicates the roster decisions.

While McPhee and Oates have some really hard choices, both acknowledged that this is a good thing for the hockey team. The Capitals have some depth in their organization and Laich feels like, when healthy, the Caps will have three lines that can score. That is something Washington has not had in several years and if you can generate balance, then it makes it harder to gear a defense towards stopping Ovechkin’s line and Green on the back end. The Rangers used that tactic this past spring, especially after Erat went down with an injury early in game four, so the Capitals have to be looking for ways to have a multi-dimensional attack.

Notes: Laich stated that he’s been working with a new stick for the last six weeks and is still learning to adjust to it. The stick has a different lie and curve than what he used for the past 12 years, so this is a big change. Oates played a factor in Laich’s decision to switch and #21 talked about how passionate the head coach was on the issue. Laich joked that when you see that type of passion than “the person is either really smart or crazy!” I’ll go with the former on Oates, after all, he did go to RPI…Oates had the Caps power play clicking on all cylinders last season and when asked if he expects adjustments from other teams, he said “absolutely.” The bench boss pointed out that video is used extensively in the NHL, as much as in the NFL, and that teams will adjust to what the Caps are doing and it is on him and assistant coach Blaine Forsythe, who runs the power play, to adjust back accordingly.

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Green scores

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Caps Knock Off Jets in Preparation for Baltimore Hockey Classic

Posted on 15 September 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Mike Green scored on a sweet, top shelf wrister in the shootout on Saturday night to give the Washington Capitals a 4-3 victory over the Winnipeg Jets in the Kraft Hockeyville game in Belleville, Ontario. This was the Caps pre-season opener and it was played in an Ontario Hockey League barn on Olympic sized ice.

Here are my thoughts and analysis on the opening contest in a slate of eight tune ups before the regular season starts on Tuesday, October 1st in Chicago:

- The first period was fast and furious! Washington carried the large majority of the play and the skill of the Caps really came out on the big ice. The Capitals had numerous scoring chances in a scoreless first frame but Winnipeg’s goaltender, Edward Pasquale, was the reason no red lights were turned on.

- Braden Holtby, outside of a second period turnover, was very aggressive and solid playing the puck. His stickhandling ability is a big advantage for the Caps and I expect Coach Adam Oates to make more use of it this season, especially since he has a full training camp to implement things.

- Speaking of Holtby, he made some good saves, but like many other NHL goalies, will have to adjust to the new net sizes. The Jets second tally came on a wraparound goal that is made easier by the changes made to the back of the cage (the shooting area in the front is still the same).

- 19 year old Tom Wilson is on a quest to make the Caps opening night roster and he did a lot of good things in this tilt. He continued to take the body but playing with Jay Beagle and Aaron Volpatti, he was a force on the ice. He showed solid speed and had some chances to score. In addition, he set up his teammates for scoring opportunities. Overall, #43 had a very positive first pre-season contest and he will challenge hard for a roster spot.

- Stanislav Galiev, Washington’s 3rd round choice in 2010, was involved in several quality scoring chances for Washington. The Russian winger, who didn’t tally in 17 games with Hershey last season and ended up playing 46 tilts in the ECHL with Reading, also scored a goal going to the net. #49 looks much improved and if he can play and contribute in Hershey this season, that would be a big step for his development.

- Alex Ovechkin took a nasty high stick that got lodged up under his visor in the opening frame, but after some stitches, the Gr8 returned to the game in the first frame and played his normal shift the rest of the night. Ovechkin continues to be a member of the “Eats Rocks for Breakfast” club.

- Washington’s power play was a mixed bag on the night. They failed to score on the four minute minor doled out after Ovechkin was mauled and had a four on three in overtime that they didn’t connect on, as well. However, they tied the game midway through the third period on a nifty passing play between Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, and Troy Brouwer. #20 got the tally from his normal spot, in the slot and in the middle of the opposition’s penalty killing box configuration.

- As one would expect, after the high tempo first period, the pace started to slow and the lack of game conditioning brought on a sloppier brand of hockey.

- Pasquale was the reason this contest went to the extra frame and gimmick, but Philipp Grubauer certainly showed he still has NHL ability. #31 didn’t allow a Jet to score in the shootout and he earned the victory in a barn he used to play in regularly.

- While the Caps owned the Jets last season, it will be nice to not have to face Evander Kane on a regular basis. #9 is a Caps killer and he had two tallies on Saturday night. Kane is a stud at wing and if he ever gets some decent line mates, look out!

- Jack Hillen got Washington on the board with a quick shot from the left side and he was paired with Steven Oleksy on defense. The other d-pairs were Green with Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt with Connor Carrick. Schmidt wore #88 and is a free agent signed out of the University of Minnesota that played in Hershey last spring. He had a decent game and showed some serious potential.

On Monday night, the Capitals will take on the Flyers in Philadelphia. Per Mike Vogel (@VogsCaps), Washington will field a lineup that will not include any players from Saturday’s game against Winnipeg. On Tuesday, the Capitals host the Eastern Conference Champion Boston Bruins at the Baltimore Arena in the 2nd Annual Baltimore Hockey Classic. The last one was a great event except for the ice conditions, but that issue has been addressed and there should be some quality hockey played. Game time is 7pm in Charm City.

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Caps 2013-14 Roster Pretty Much Set with Alzner Signing

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Caps 2013-14 Roster Pretty Much Set with Alzner Signing

Posted on 10 July 2013 by Ed Frankovic

It’s July 10th, but the Washington Capitals lineup, barring any trades, is mostly set for training camp in September with GM George McPhee announcing Wednesday that defensemen Karl Alzner has been signed for four years at $2.8M per season. Now McPhee only has restricted free agent LW Marcus Johansson to ink to complete the roster, and given that MJ90 doesn’t have much leverage, this one shouldn’t take too long. Following that signing, and using data from capgeek.com, the Caps will have 21 or so players with about $4M or so remaining against a salary cap of $64.3M for 2013-14.

Alzner, who is one of the best interviews going, seemed extremely happy with the new contract on his media conference call (full audio available here). The four year term for a player who is only 24 is a good deal for both sides at this price given Alzner’s significant ice time and strong two way play. Karl played much of last season with Mike Green and the duo formed an outstanding first d-pair that should get even better next season.

With that, here are my thoughts on the team going forward:

- Before game 5 against the Rangers, I chatted with New York assistant coach Jim Schoenfeld about the series and the Blueshirts strategy, at that point. Having worked for the former Caps bench boss, I put him on the spot and said, “It’s pretty obvious you guys are doing whatever you can to keep [Alex] Ovechkin and Green from beating you.” Now normally you’d expect a statement like that to be dodged by the opposition, but Schoeney didn’t hesitate, telling me, “I hope it keeps working!” With Brooks Laich out and the early game four injury to Martin Erat, Washington become a team that was much easier to shut down. You need balance in the NHL to win in the post season and not having those two players really hurt the Caps chances to advance. With Mike Ribeiro departing in free agency, the return of Laich and a fully integrated Erat are going to be key to Washington’s success next year. You can bet that the opponents will focus on Ovechkin and Green again, after all it worked for the Rangers, so the other guys in the lineup must step up.

- Free agency is pretty much over, and given the prices and term attached to many of the signings, it was a smart move by the Caps to sit this one out. Doing one of those deals would likely come back to bite the team down the road. Having a healthy Laich will be like a free agent signing for Washington. Also, there is hope that defensemen Dmitry Orlov will return to his 2011-12 form and crack the second pairing. In addition, there is a possibility that Evgeny Kuznetsov will come over to DC following his KHL season next spring.

- On Monday, McPhee stated once again that ”he likes his team.”  Why wouldn’t he make that statement given the six straight playoff appearances? But that doesn’t mean he isn’t on the look out for ways to improve his club. So if the right trade option came along, you can bet the Washington GM would make the move. It’s a fluid business and there are lots of games to play between October and the trade deadline. It’s a constant process of evaluating and analyzing. April and the playoffs are nine months away.

- Injuries are a big factor so a healthy Mike Green is going to be vital to Washington’s success in 2013-14. Once paired with Alzner, combined with the new system/style employed by Coach Adam Oates and assistant coach Calle Johansson, it appeared that #52 was not taking the big hits he used to sustain in previous seasons. Certainly Green is maturing as a player, but Alzner confirmed on Wednesday’s conference call that the coaching staff is focused on minimizing the shots his blue liners take in their own zone. That type of attention to detail from this coaching staff is something that could be a huge difference maker for the Capitals this upcoming season.

- The new division Washington will be in 2013-14 is going to be more fun, but much more competitive. Sure the Flyers did some big things, but right now I am not sure how much better they really are? And how will the signings they make impact them long term? The Rangers have a new coach, the Devils have a new goalie, the Blue Jackets signed Nathan Horton (but he’s out until December with a shoulder injury), and Carolina will get Cam Ward back. So you can say those teams are improving but to imply the Caps won’t be improved because they weren’t active in free agency doesn’t add up for me. As Alzner stated on Wednesday, another year of experience has to help. In addition, the better travel schedule should reduce some wear and tear on the Caps.

- Finally, I know it’s July, but if you want to catch some free hockey, the Caps Development Camp continues through Saturday with a live scrimmage each day down at Kettler IcePlex. Go check it out!

 

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Caps Draft Burakovsky as Big Trades Fail to Materialize

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Caps Draft Burakovsky as Big Trades Fail to Materialize

Posted on 30 June 2013 by Ed Frankovic

The days leading up to the 2013 NHL Draft generated a lot of hype for the extremely talented players slated to be taken at the top of the draft as well as for the possibility of some blockbuster trades given the NHL’s salary cap dropping from $70M in 2013 to just over $64M in 2013-14. Well the first several selections lived up to the billing but as far as deals went, outside of the Cory Schneider to New Jersey trade for the 9th overall pick, there wasn’t much that was done to impact the rosters of many clubs.

Center Nathan MacKinnon, as expected, went first overall to the Colorado Avalanche, but surprisingly the Florida Panthers chose forward Aleksander Barkov with the second pick and Tampa took winger Jonathan Drouin with the 3rd choice sending defensemen Seth Jones, who many had rated as the top player in the draft, to the Nashville Predators with the 4th pick. So former Capitals GM David Poile was the winner in this draft, in my opinion. Jones, who is big, can skate, and has offensive talents, gives the Preds another great right handed defensemen to go with the powerful Shea Weber down in Music City.

As for the the Caps, General Manager George McPhee stated that he tried hard to trade up into the top third of the first round but was unsuccessful. Thus Washington selected Austrian born/Swedish left winger Andre Burakovsky with the 23rd pick in the draft. The early line on the Swedish forward who reportedly has excellent offensive skills is mixed. TSN’s Bob MacKenzie listed him 24th on his board while Craig Button had Burakovsky as far down as 58th on his final list. McPhee and Director of Amatuer Scouting, Ross Mahoney, have not had a first round bust since Anton Gustafsson in 2008. Over the period of 2008-12, they’ve picked up John Carlson, Marcus Johansson, Evgeni Kuznetsov, Filip Forsberg, and Tom Wilson in the first round. Certainly one would hope that Burakovsky fits in with that last group but one scout I talked to, who called the 2012 1st round picks “home runs” for Washington, had him more in the Gustafsson camp. Guess we’ll find out over the next few years who is correct on that front? McPhee did state that he believes Burakovsky will take time to develop, so he is likely several years from the NHL, at this point.

In the second round, the Capitals took right handed shooting defensemen Madison Bowey from the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League with the 53rd pick and then traded their 3rd (84), 4th (114), and 5th (127) round selections to move up to the 61st spot to take forward Zach Sanford from Derry, New Hampshire. Sanford will play in the USHL this year and then is currently committed to Boston College in 2014-15. Bottom line, the NHL draft is a crap shoot since you are choosing 17 and 18 year olds and many selections take years to develop.

Going back to the trade front, it’s pretty easy to figure out that Washington wants to upgrade the left side of its defense. Specifically, they need a left handed shooting d-man to play with John Carlson on the second d-pair. In addition, with center Mike Ribeiro slated to test the free agent waters, the Caps will likely need to add a number two center once again. There was hope that perhaps one or both of those voids could be filled with trades in New Jersey but despite the buildup, there were no big deals for top 6 forwards or top 4 defensemen at Sunday’s draft. But there are still four more full days until free agency begins on Friday, July 5th.

The biggest news of the weekend was Tampa Bay using its’ compliance buyout on 1998 1st overall pick Vinny Lecavalier. Naturally there is interest galore in the 2004 Stanley Cup winning center and he’d be a nice fit in Washington. But he’d be great for a lot of teams. McPhee noted that Adam Oates met with Lecavlier, facilitated by the fact that Oates was an assistant with the Bolts back in 2009-10, and that the Caps coach thinks highly of him. At the end of the day though, this is likely to come down to money and Washington just might not have enough salary cap room to land Lecavalier.

The next two weeks will do a lot towards shaping the Capitals roster for 2013-14. The GM has not decided if he will use a compliance buyout or not, routinely scratched Jeff Schultz is slated to count $2.75M against the Capitals salary cap, but he says he has ownership’s support to use that mechanism, if necessary. McPhee still has to sign restricted free agents Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson but the only questions there are pretty much the dollars. It will be interesting to see what the GM does to fill what look to be two holes heading into a season in which they move into an extremely competitive new division. Is Dmitry Orlov ready to be an NHL second pair defensemen? The Devils improved themselves by adding Schneider in goal while the Flyers have lost Ilya Bryzgalov and Danny Briere to costly compliance buyouts. In addition, Philly signed 35 year old defensemen Mark Streit to a long term deal for four years at $21M. So Paul Holmgren and company continue to do some crazy things and don’t appear to be any better, at this point.

But there are a couple of more weeks where the big action still looks to take place via trades and free agency, so stay tuned!

Notes: The Caps will hold development camp at Kettler Iceplex from July 8-13…Team USA will holds its Olympic orientation camp at Kettler as well from August 25-29 in preparation for the 2014 Olympic Games that will be played in Sochi, Russia. Poile is USA’s GM while the Penguins Dan Bylsma will coach the squad. This is a big deal for the area to host this type of event.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: I will be on the Morning Reaction with Drew Forrester talking NHL and Caps draft at 7:25 am Monday morning.

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Ribeiro OT Tally Gives Caps a 3-2 Series Lead

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Ribeiro OT Tally Gives Caps a 3-2 Series Lead

Posted on 11 May 2013 by Ed Frankovic

The New York Rangers had the Washington Capitals on the ropes early on in game five on Friday night.

Brian Boyle scored after a vicious forecheck just 53 seconds into the contest and then for the next 10 or so minutes New York was all over Washington. The Blueshirts received two power plays and were dominating play. But Braden Holtby (24 saves) made some big stops and the Caps rode the energy from the crowd at the Verizon Center until they could find their legs.

Then Coach Adam Oates, aided by his assistant coaches, made an adjustment that helped change the course of the game. Oates switched his defensive pairs moving a more mobile Jack Hillen with John Carlson on the second defensive duo while John Erskine slid down and skated with Steve Oleksy to start period two. The move, which Oates credited to assistant coach Calle Johansson, gave the Capitals some better matchups on the ice and they slowly started to take over the game. After trailing in shots late in the first period, 10-5, they would out shoot the Rangers 30-15 over the remainder of contest but it took Mike Ribeiro to tally in overtime to win, 2-1.

After game four I blogged about the importance of home ice, adjustments, and the influence of last change in the matchups. All three were a factor on Friday night. In addition to the defensive pair adjustment personnel wise, the Caps made a minor move on their power play that allowed Joel Ward to score just 14 seconds into their first man advantage and tie the game. Alex Ovechkin (9 shots on goal) was moved closer to the net and that seemed to confuse the Rangers, who were all set to once again deny both Mike Green and the Gr8 shots from higher up in the offensive zone. The shift created a 4 on 3 down low and opened up the passing lanes in the high slot, which is where Ward shot from to score.

Home ice was also critical, not just because the fantastic Verizon Center faithful were extremely loud and provided energy, but the Washington forwards could put their stick down second on faceoffs and Oates could work the matchups in his favor. In game four the Capitals were beaten soundly, 34-19, on draws but in game five Washington held a 42-30 advantage from the dot. Ribeiro was a super 19-8 and that was a big difference in the hockey game. That second line with #9, Troy Brouwer, and Eric Fehr was very strong for the Caps and they received right around 21 minutes of ice time each. Given that the Caps top line had its issues with getting out of their own zone for parts of the game, it was critical that Oates get production from his other lines. The Ribeiro line as well as the third unit of Mathieu Perreault, Ward, and Jason Chimera played well. Chimera used his speed, was a physical presence, and his hit on Ryan Clowe in the first period knocked the big winger out of the contest.

Speaking of physical, Tom Wilson made his NHL debut and looked very good in 6:24 of ice time. The rookie right wing, who was Washington’s 1st round pick (16th overall) last June, had four hits and helped wear down a Rangers defense that looked gassed in the third period and overtime. Oates and Ovechkin both praised #43 afterwards for his play and the Gr8 noted that with Wilson the Caps have four really big and powerful right wings in the lineup.

So home ice is 5 for 5 now in this very close series. Washington was able to withstand the early punches from New York and then wear the Rangers out and get a victory. The Caps fans were a big part of this game as they kept their energy up despite an early Rangers lead.  But you can bet that at Madison Square Garden the Rags will get big time support from their fans, as well. Oates feels that the Capitals will need to survive the first 10 minutes on Sunday in game 6 (faceoff at 4:30 pm).

If Washington wins, it is on to the second round with home ice. If not, game 7 is on Monday night at the Verizon Center.

Home ice has been a big key in this series and the Caps held serve on Friday night.

Now the pressure is on a Rangers team that many picked to go to the Stanley Cup Finals before the season started.

Notes: The Rangers had four power plays to just two for the Caps and the overall series tally is now at 21-14…shot attempts were 71-67  in favor of Washington…Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh both played over 29 minutes for the Rangers while Green played 29:16 to lead the Caps in ice time. Green’s partner, Karl Alzner, played 28:27.

 

 

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Ovechkin, Holtby Lead Caps in Game 1 Victory

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Ovechkin, Holtby Lead Caps in Game 1 Victory

Posted on 03 May 2013 by Ed Frankovic

All season long the Capitals have ridden Alexander Ovechkin’s offense and Braden Holtby’s goaltending. So it was no surprise that with the New York Rangers up 1-0 in the second period despite being outplayed, that a Holtby save on a Carl Hagelin breakaway and then a Gr8 power play tally on the rebound of a Mike Green point shot, helped even things up for Washington. From there the Caps killed off a critical five on three Rangers power play and riding the boisterous Verizon Center crowd, the Caps got a sweet goal from Marcus Johansson on a breakaway after a pretty feed from Steve Oleksy and then a tally from Jason Chimera with Mathieu Perreault running traffic in front of Henrik Lundqvist just 46 seconds later.

That second period sequence would pretty much end up deciding this contest and the Capitals were victorious, 3-1, and lead the best of seven game series, 1-0. Game two is Saturday at 12:30 pm at the Verizon Center (NBC telecast).

There was a lot to like in this win:

  • Holtby (35 saves) was very good and despite giving up a fluky first goal to Carl Hagelin, he buckled down and shut the door on New York. #70 was excellent with his rebound control and he looked poised in the cage.
  • The Caps won the special teams battle as they went 1 for 5 with the man advantage while killing all four Ranger power plays.
  • Washington received solid efforts from all four lines with the third unit of Perreault, Chimera, and Eric Fehr being big difference makers
  • Coach Adam Oates’ crew did a good job of moving the puck out of their own zone to thwart, for the most part, a very strong New York forecheck. Karl Alzner pointed out that the Rangers clog the boards so it was important for Washington to not turn the puck over to their waiting opponents and overall the Caps were successful doing that.
  • Caps fans were extremely loud and helped provide the team with energy. Troy Brouwer mentioned that at least three times in his post game media scrum and was very appreciative of the home crowd.

On the flip side, here are some of the things Oates will want to see improved for game two:

  • Washington allowed too many odd man rushes. Hagelin’s breakaway, had he converted, would’ve made it 2-0. In addition, a Johansson giveaway led to a New York two on one in period three but the Rangers somehow hit the crossbar and didn’t score. There were some other poor passes that led to Rags chances that need to be avoided going forward.
  • Green took some big hits from Mats Zuccarello late in the game. Washington does not want #52 getting run and they did well at this until the end of the game. Green (1 assist, 26:38 of ice time) is so critical to this team and there is no doubt the Rangers are targeting him.

Overall it was a physical game and the Caps held up extremely well. They battled against a gritty club but used their skill and desire to gain the victory. The Caps went hard to the net and were rewarded. There were several post whistle scrums and Brouwer made a point to praise the NHL officials for communicating with the players. #20 said the refs talked to the players, let them know where the line was, and backed it up with calls when the line was crossed. Troy noted that in the playoffs that everything is a battle and the referees did a good job of not overreacting to the scrums. Brouwer also praised his teammates for not getting caught up in the emotion of the moment and taking unnecessary penalties.

The keys for Washington going forward, first and foremost, is to realize this is just a single game and be ready to battle again on Saturday and beyond. The Rangers are a team that scraps, like their head coach, so it will be hard to take their will completely. Oates talked about holding serve at home and if the Caps clean up some of the turnovers and minimize odd man rush issues, then they should carry the play again.

Notes: The Rangers rely heavily on their key players. D man Dan Girardi logged 29:00 and the Hagelin, Derek Stepan, Ryan Callahan line saw a lot of minutes…Washington won the faceoff battle, 32-30. Backstrom went 14-11…Ovechkin had five shots on net and five hits…Rangers forward Rick Nash logged 23:04.

 

 

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Will Ovechkin & Caps Avenge 2012 Series Loss to Rangers?

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Will Ovechkin & Caps Avenge 2012 Series Loss to Rangers?

Posted on 28 April 2013 by Ed Frankovic

For the Caps organization and their fans, the memory of last spring’s Eastern Conference semifinal game five overtime defeat to the Rangers that ultimately led to a series loss in seven games still stings. Washington was basically twenty five seconds away from a win on enemy ice with a chance to wrap the series up at the Verizon Center, but an unfortunate double minor for high sticking turned that whole storyline around. Instead of moving on to play the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals the Caps headed to the golf course.

But just one year later, Alexander Ovechkin and the Caps have a chance to avenge that crushing defeat against a Rangers team that many predicted to win the Stanley Cup before the season started. The addition of Rick Nash to the Rags lineup seemed to give them that big time gun they lacked and on paper they had two nice scoring lines in Nash, Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik, Derek Stepan, Ryan Callahan, and Carl Hagelin. But the game isn’t played on paper and the war between Gaborik and stubborn head coach John Tortorella ultimately led to #10 being shipped to Columbus. GM Glen Sather went out and added left wing Ryane Clowe from San Jose at the trade deadline to give Torts a player that better fit his dump and chase, grinding style. New York, despite losing top four defensemen Marc Staal to an eye injury, played well down the stretch and moved up to the six seed to face Washington in a series that will begin on Thursday night at the Verizon Center. However, they lost Clowe to an injury last Thursday in Carolina and it is unclear if he will be able to go against the Caps. Thus it looks like the Rangers could possibly start the series without a top 4 D man in Staal, a top 6 forward in Clowe as well as a depth forward in injured Brian Boyle.

As for Washington, well they are a much different team than the one they had in last year’s series. The Caps were offensively challenged from a system and player standpoint last spring but General Manager George McPhee brought in new coach Adam Oates, who plays the up tempo style that better fits Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. In addition, the GM has assembled a true second scoring line, something Washington hasn’t had in the post season since 2009. Center Mike Ribeiro was added in a deal with Dallas and then at the trade deadline McPhee brought in speedy left winger Martin Erat from Nashville. With the emergence of Marcus Johansson and the improvement in the Caps power play in Oates’ system, Washington is a very dangerous offensive team once again.

In the bottom six forwards department, the Caps have a super crew that has gotten a big boost from a healthy Eric Fehr. At some point the Caps will also get Joel Ward back too. Washington has a chance to win this series if their bottom six forwards can outplay the respective crew from New York.

On defense, the Caps have Mike Green playing as well as ever and paired with Karl Alzner he is not getting run in the corners as often. That will be something that Oates must continue to avoid, the big hits on his defense because that is the way the Rangers like to play, dump the puck below the goal line and wear you out down low. The Caps may have lost Dennis Wideman on the back end to free agency last summer but from one to six, they are a more improved club from last spring. John Erskine is playing super with John Carlson and the third defensive pair of Jack Hillen and Steve Oleksy is solid and mobile. Washington has more depth on the back end than New York, who prefer to give their top four of Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, Ryan McDonagh, and Anton Stralman a ton of minutes. John Moore and former Capital Steve Eminger are the third pairing.

In net, you’ve got a super battle between Henrik Lundqvist and Braden Holtby. Last spring was #70′s first NHL playoffs and he performed extremely well. Outside of game one in New York, Holtby was outstanding. Holtby is a year more experienced and his puck handling still makes a big difference for Washington. Oates has used #70′s skills in that area even more than former coach Dale Hunter did and they will need it to combat the Rangers dump and forecheck style.

Behind the bench you’ve got the abrasive but very experienced Tortorella versus the technically savvy Oates. Oates knows the Rags very well from his coaching days with the Devils last spring, so he is very familiar with what Torts wants his players to do. Torts will try to work the referees and manipulate the New York media to put the pressure on him, instead of his players. But both teams are under pressure to win now, so those tactics are just a waste of time and energy. Oates seems to be the type that doesn’t bother getting caught up in that stuff.

In the special teams department, the Caps have the best power play in the league (26.8%) while New York has struggled (15.7%), but in a seven game series, anything can happen. But this Washington team can play well at five on five too and my take is that the more five on five action there is, the more it favors the Caps given their superior depth. The Rangers have some very skilled players so staying out of the box is paramount. The Caps penalty killing finished 27th in the NHL at 77.9% during the regular season.

This is the fourth post season meeting between these clubs in five years. It is the tightest Eastern Conference matchup and a battle of two surging clubs with different styles of play.

The complete series schedule is listed below:

Thursday, May 2 7:30 p.m. NY Rangers at Washington  TV: CSN, NBC Sports Network, TSN

Saturday, May 4 12:30 p.m. NY Rangers at Washington  TV: NBC, TSN

Monday, May 6 7:30 p.m. Washington at NY Rangers  TV: CSN, NBC Sports Network, TSN

Wednesday, May 8 7:30 p.m. Washington at NY Rangers  TV: CSN, NBC Sports Network, TSN

*Friday, May 10 7:30 p.m. NY Rangers at Washington  TV: CSN, TSN

*Sunday, May 12 TBD Washington at NY Rangers  TV: TBD

*Monday, May 13 TBD NY Rangers at Washington TV: TBD

* – if necessary

Notes and Assorted Musings: The Caps ended the regular season with 164 power plays to 163 for their opponents. Why is this important? Well for the first time in 16 seasons Washington finally had more power plays than their opposition in a season. Overall they are down 471 power plays over the course of the streak, which coincides with McPhee’s tenure as GM. People always say that “the calls even out” so given that, shouldn’t we see more balance in the power play totals? Clearly it is not the case here and to give you an idea of the odds of this happening, it is akin to flipping a coin 15 straight times and getting heads for each result. The odds of that happening are 1 in 32,768! (s/t to Mike Vogel of the Caps for pointing out the power play stats in his blog last night)…it has been reported that Brooks Laich did indeed undergo surgery this spring and he is targeting a return in the second round of the playoffs, if the Caps can advance that far…down on the farm, the Hershey Bears won both games 1 and 2 versus the Providence Bruins over the weekend and can win their best of five opening round series with a victory at the Giant Center this weekend in either game three or four.

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Ovechkin Notches 32nd Goal But Caps Lose in OT

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Ovechkin Notches 32nd Goal But Caps Lose in OT

Posted on 26 April 2013 by Ed Frankovic

The Ottawa Senators defeated the Washington Capitals, 2-1, in overtime, in a game that meant nothing in terms of playoff seeding to the Caps but was ultra important for the Sens post season chances.

With one team being desperate while the other was hoping to win, but more importantly, not sustain any injuries, it was not a surprise that Ottawa was the club that had more net presence for the majority of the contest. With NHL goalies being as good as they are these days, it made sense that the Sens came out on top given their willingness to crash the crease.

Crash is the operative word there. The scrappy Senators, who are offensively challenged with number one forward Jason Spezza out due to a back injury, know that in order to score goals they have to get the puck to their star offensive defensemen, Sergei Gonchar and Erik Karlsson, and blast the biscuit away with traffic in front. They must try to get the opposing goalie off of his game by getting in his grill and initiating contact when they can. On Thursday night they were very good at doing that.

On the flip side, the Capitals knew this was coming and were prepared to do what they could to stand up for their goaltender, Michal Neuvirth. Unfortunately for Washington, their keeper protection tactics were not allowed on this night by referees Tim Peel and Kevin Pollock. Late in the first period in which the Caps carried the play and the scoring chances but only received one power play, Matt Hendricks was whistled for a very questionable roughing penalty while trying to protect Neuvy after one of his 41 saves on the evening. Hendricks shouldered Sens forward Erik Condra and he lost his balance and fell into the net. Nearly 100 times out of a 100, that is not a penalty, but Pollock and Peel felt otherwise.

Suddenly a precedence was set. Ottawa basically had the green light to poke or contact Neuvirth with the comfort of knowing they weren’t going to the box. Even Daniel Alfredsson, one of the cleanest players in the league, realized he could take some liberties so it seemed that whistle after whistle the Capitals were forced to push Ottawa players away from their net minder. Ottawa even had a goal disallowed for contacting Neuvirth before the puck went in (not sure why the Caps didn’t get a power play out of that considering there was physical contact with #30 by Ottawa?). Add in the fact that some ticky tack calls went against Alexander Ovechkin and Mike Green after similar things were let go on the Senators in the first period and the frustration started building on the Washington side. The result was a five to one power play discrepancy and for the second time in three games against each other, Paul Maclean’s team scored the game winner on a late power play tally.

Afterwards both Karl Alzner and Ovechkin, who scored his league leading 32nd goal on a sweet move after a nifty pass from Marcus Johansson, admitted that getting called for penalties when they were trying to protect Neuvirth was frustrating. Even Coach Adam Oates, who fielded several questions about the players losing their cool and retaliating, smartly took the fifth when asked about the curious call on Hendricks that set the tone for the remaining 40 minutes.

But in the NHL you are going to have nights where the game is not called in your favor, although it seems that tends to be the norm these days for Washington, so you have to rise above the frustration and play to the whistle. However, what is pleasing is how this club sticks up for one another, especially their goaltender. The Caps players should take pride in that despite how Peel and Pollock called the contest. Sticking together is how they overcame adversity this season and won the Southeast division title.

In the end, the Caps lost a game tonight, but given that they didn’t have much to play for and mostly avoided going to the net to prevent getting hit with their own shots, it isn’t something to be too concerned about. Ottawa is a potential first round matchup now (they are currently in the 6th spot) and even though the Sens were 3-0 against the Caps, they all were close games. The Senators were a desperate club on Thursday and still had to get some help from the guys in the stripes to win the contest.

But Washington still has momentum and they continue to play as a team. There is one more game to go against Boston on Saturday night before the real season begins next week.

Notes: The Caps still could play any of Ottawa, Toronto, the Islanders, or the Rangers in the first round…the Capitals won the faceoff battle heavily, 41-28, with Hendricks going 6-0…Ottawa had more shot attempts, 68-43, but they had five power plays while Washington only had one.

 

 

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Ovechkin’s 2013 Caps are a Special Team

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Ovechkin’s 2013 Caps are a Special Team

Posted on 23 April 2013 by Ed Frankovic

24-10-1.

That’s what it takes to go from 2-8-1 and last in the NHL to clinching the Southeast Division for the fifth time in the last six years.

Kudos to Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals for a run that, to me, is more remarkable than the one they made in 2007-08, although both have to be categorized as special.

Special. That is a key word tonight and that is how this 2013 Caps team should be described.

It takes a really special group to do what this hockey club did after a terrible start. They overcame some big time injuries and major doubts from the critics, many of whom chose to blast Ovechkin for all of Washington’s problems. They were buried many times this season. Yet they stuck together and proved that their General Manager George McPhee was absolutely right back in January and early February during the losing times when he said “I think we have a good team.”

Credit the GM for standing up for the club he assembled, credit the head coach for putting the team in winning situations, and most importantly, credit the players for staying together and not quitting on a season that had the makings of a disaster at several points.

It took resolve and hard work. This team continues to get better and better as the season progresses. Their captain once again looks like the two time MVP he was in 2008 and 2009, only this year he is a better player overall. His defensive skills have improved, look no further than the back check he made to cover teammate Mike Green after #52 got caught pinching at the Washington blue line in the first period of Tuesday night’s Southeast Division clinching victory. Ovechkin’s passing, often underrated, is as good as its ever been. He is seeing the ice extremely well and he has embraced the transition to right wing. Opposing defenses are on their heels against the Gr8 once again.

Nicklas Backstrom is arguably playing at his highest career level and what a story Marcus Johansson has been being the guy to round out a top line that has been as good as any other in the NHL over the last month? Add in a second unit of Martin Erat, Mike Ribeiro, and Troy Brouwer and for the first time since 2008-09 the Caps are going into the post season with two legitimate scoring lines. Hard to believe that is possible given Brooks Laich’s injury but the Erat trade is exactly what Washington needed to compete in the post season.

Of course this team is not special without forwards like Mathieu Perreault, Matt Hendricks, Eric Fehr, Joel Ward, Jay Beagle, and Jason Chimera finding ways to contribute. In this playoff clinching win, the bottom six forwards scored three of the four Capitals tallies when Winnipeg had Ondrej Pavelec in the cage.

If you really want to pinpoint where the turnaround came from, it isn’t hard to figure out. The defense was a train wreck early on as Mike Green, John Erskine, and Jack Hillen were injured for long periods of time forcing the team to rely on players who don’t really belong in the NHL anymore. Once Oates and assistant coach Calle Johansson were able to put a solid defensive lineup on the ice, combined with the improved health of forwards Backstrom, Johansson, and Laich (for a 10 game stretch) then it became a challenge for opponents to match up with a club that could move the puck out of its zone quickly and up the ice where its skill could take over. Add in super goaltending from Braden Holtby and some great spot starts from Michal Neuvirth combined with the struggles of the rest of the division and what looked to be a season playing for a draft pick is now one where you can’t help but play “what if” as the Capitals prepare for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

This team right now is better than the ones that entered the post season the last three years. The 2013 crew is a special group because they never gave up and stuck together to make an improbable run to the third seed in the Eastern Conference. They are a team that will be a tough out it in the playoffs and they have enormous potential to go deep in the postseason.

The question is, can they stay healthy and keep it going?

It’s a good question to ask, but for Tuesday night and the rest of the week, Caps fans should just enjoy this “special” team and not worry about the playoffs until Monday.

Notes: Ovechkin notched his league leading 31st goal into the empty net to seal the victory…Green and Karl Alzner were downright dominant in this contest. Green logged 24:27 and had an assist while King Karl played 23:33. The two Western Canadian boys compliment each other well on the ice…Washington won the faceoff battle 39-31 and outshot the Jets 41-27. Shot attempts were 72-48 in favor of Washington despite the Jets getting three power plays to just one for the Caps…next up for the Capitals are the Ottawa Senators at the Verizon Center on Thursday night.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: I’ll be on with Drew Forrester on WNST 1570AM Baltimore talking Caps hockey on Wednesday morning at 7:45am. Listen Live at WNST.NET

 

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