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Caps Knock Off Islanders, 5-4, in Marathon Shootout

Posted on 11 November 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Wednesday night brought on another Capitals-Islanders battle and for the 7th time in the last 9 contests these two teams went to extra time to decide the outcome before a packed house (18,277) at the Verizon Center. When overtime did not yield a winner on came the shootout and it took 11 players for each team but Washington’s Chris Clark scored and Semyon Varlamov (25 saves), who was great in relief of Jose Theodore tonight, slammed the door on Mark Streit to give Washington a 5-4 victory. The win moves the Caps to 11-3-4 on the season, tops in the Eastern Conference, and they are now 3-1 this year with Alexander Ovechkin (upper body injury) out of the line-up.

The Caps, for the 15th time in 18 games scored first, and it took only 8 seconds as Alexander Semin took a Brendan Morrison pass in the neutral zone and blasted a rocket by Dwayne Roloson. The goal tied a team record for the fastest goal to start a game (March 14, 1987 at St. Louis). Semin, who Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau said on Wednesday morning was battling through an undisclosed injury, showed talent and determination on that early effort.

But the lead didn’t last long as the Islanders took advantage of a Washington offensive zone turnover and skated back the other way and threw what looked to be a harmless shot on Theodore. But Theo flashed his left pad erratically and threw the puck up the slot and right on the stick of Matt Moulson, who notched his 8th goal of the season to tie this one up just 62 seconds in.

A several minute horror show stretch for the Caps then continued as they made numerous mistakes in their own end, including a Mike Green golden giveaway when he and #60 couldn’t communicate properly on a puck behind Washington’s net, but Theodore did manage to make his only good stop of the night in that instance. Theo, however, then gave up a Streit point shot off of the face-off and it was 2-1 Islanders just 5:10 in. The blast appeared to be a very stoppable shot but it could have hit a Cap defensemen on the way in. Theodore’s night would end shortly thereafter as Semin made one of his patented offensive turnovers when trying to do too much. #28 tried to go horizontally across the blue line through several Islanders and Sean Bergenheim picked him clean. With both Caps defensemen in too far below the blue line (Shaone Morrisonn and Green) in bad position, #20 had an easy breakaway and he faked Theo to the ice and deposited the biscuit in the basket on the backhand making it 3-1 just 6:54 in.

With Varlamov in net Washington settled down and started finding their legs after the 10 minute mark. Then the line that Boudreau put together in the 3rd period explosion against the Panthers last Saturday night, Nicklas Backstrom-Mike Knuble-Tomas Fleischmann, got it going and they cycled the puck for over a minute before Jon Sim held Morrisonn behind the Islanders net and the Caps received what would be the only power play of the first period. The magic line of 19-14-22 went to the bench to rest for the first half of the power play but once they came out Backstrom took over and skated around the New York defense and fed Flash for an easy one timer to make it 3-2. It was Fleischmann’s sixth goal in just seven games this season since returning from injury.

Washington came out strong in the second period drawing two penalties and on the second one Green made a beautiful rush taking the puck around the Islander net and he fed a wide open Semin in the slot. #28 then buried it top shelf for his second goal of the night at the 5:35 mark to tie things up at three. The Caps were thoroughly outworking the Islanders and it finally paid off again when Mathieu Perreault made a nice back check at the Caps blue line that allowed Green to feed Eric Fehr on a rush. From there #16 fed the puck to Clark who then gave it back to Fehr. Fehr then put a nice backhand shot, that afterwards #16 said was intended to be a pass to Perreault, by Roloson to put the Caps up 4-3. Washington dominated the second period outshooting New York 14-8 and it was 12-3 in shots for the period, at one point.

Brendan Morrison took a lazy penalty (stick infraction) to start the 3rd period but the Caps killed it. Washington would then dominate much of the next 12 minutes of play and Semin had a couple of good chances to get the hat trick but Roloson kept the Isles in it. Dave Steckel took a penalty for holding at 4:50 and the Caps held strong with Varlamov making some big saves but then Milan Jurcina took a boarding penalty, and Boudreau said after the contest that the Islander forward embellished the hit, to give the Islanders another shot with the man advantage with 2:46 remaining. This one would cost the Caps a regulation victory as Trent Hunter fired a laser by Varly to tie it up at four with 2:08 remaining and send this contest to overtime.

The overtime did not have a whistle as the Caps controlled much of the play but could not beat Roloson. In the shootout, Backstrom went first and didn’t connect. Jeff Tambellini then led off for the Islanders and he blistered one top shelf by Varlamov putting pressure on the Caps to answer. Semin then came in with alot of speed and faked the Islander net minder to the ice and beat him with a backhand. From there we went to the “Twilight Zone” as numerous Caps and Islanders could not score with Varly having to make the tougher and more spectacular saves (and he showed off his amazing flexibility too). But finally, in the 11th round Clark beat Roloson top shelf and then #40 thwarted Streit to give Washington the victory.

“Once you go to overtime that much you always believe that you are able to catch up but I believe [the players] never thought they were out of it and even after we were down early I never thought we were out of it, it was too early. There were 50 minutes left in the game and we were down 3-1, I thought we had a good chance of coming back,” said Boudreau. 

Here are some quotes and post game analysis from this hard fought victory:

Boudreau’s line combinations seemed to gel tonight but the line of Perreault, Clark, and Fehr seemed to especially make things happen all night even though they were together just under 10 minutes of ice time for the contest. Had the Islanders not converted late, Fehr would have had the game winner.

“I thought we had alot of energy today and we had a lot of scoring chances. It was big for us when we were down, just keep pushing and put pucks on net, I think we had the will tonight to get to the puck and guys were competing hard. Every time there was a loose puck it just seemed that we were jumping on it” started Fehr on his line, “When I got it back from Clarkie I was trying to pass it back door to Perreault on the backhand and I guess the goalie thought I was doing that as well and it just snuck in,” finished Fehr on his goal that appeared to go in off of New York defenseman Jack Hillen.

“He’s a real spark plug. He makes some plays that are really nifty. I don’t want to, five games into his NHL career, make comparisons, but there’s a lot of small players that go side to side and make a great career being as competitive as they were. He looks like he’s got that little something that sparks any line he plays on,” added Boudreau on #85, agreeing that his line was good on Wednesday evening.

The Caps defenseman and Theodore were very shaky in the first 10 minutes but Washington got back to what made them successful on Saturday night after it was 3-1.

“We just wanted to outwork them. They are a hard working team, they’ve shown that against us in the past and it’s cost us. So we wanted to make sure that we worked it and tried to out work their team,” said Fehr who also mentioned “he feels great and strong and that he will be able to play the best hockey he has in awhile.”

“We had some lapses in our play. I don’t think we played our best game that we have in a while. But we showed a lot of character and fought and got the timely goals again and put ourselves in a position to win,” started Brian Pothier on the victory, “We should be closing teams out with a one goal lead with five minutes left in the game, we should be able to shut the door,” finished #2 on the recent trend of Washington taking late penalties in regulation to give up leads.

Theodore did not have a good night giving up three goals on five shots but Pothier said it was a team effort that led to the early hole.

“Unfortunately our goaltender getting pulled [turned it around]. We take that pretty seriously, he is one of our teammates, one of our brothers so to speak and he gets pulled and its embarrassing for him and it is not even his fault. The goals weren’t his fault, they were our fault. You get really upset with ourselves over that and we know we can play better and perform better and we didn’t want the same thing happening to Varly and we stepped up and performed,” finished Pothier on the team’s goaltending.

“He looked a little down and the last time he was pulled Varly came in and shut the door so I thought he would be able to do it again. But Theo’s played so well for us and he will come back this week, play another game, and he will be great for us,” said Boudreau on his goaltending decision tonight and going forward. Boudreau seems to have a pretty good pulse on his goalies and his switch tonight was a big reason why the Caps were victorious.

The Caps, as mentioned above, are now 3-1 without Ovechkin and I asked Pothier about it.

“It says we have a great team [that we are still winning], we have the best player on planet Earth and that always helps when he is in the lineup. When he is not we still have to have a good functioning team and we can score goals, we can prevent goals, and we have what it takes to win and I think we’ve shown that and we just have to continue that,” finished Pothier.

Semin had two goals but also had several missed opportunities and had the costly giveaway that led to the third Islander tally.

“He looked like he wanted to play and when he wants to play he can, he could have had 6 [goals] and he makes some moves and he can shoot the puck and he is scary good when he is motivated. There was the good and the bad, the goal, the giveaway, the miss. He is like alot of us in Washington, at least he is exciting,” said Boudreau on Semin.

The Caps outshoot New York 41-31 and they are 1-0-1 this season with 40+ shots on goal. Washington was 6-7-1 with 40 or more shots last season. Washington won the face-off battle 39-30. Dave Steckel led the way at 11-6 while Backstrom was 10-6 and Morrison 10-7.

It appears that Michal Nylander is destined for the Russian KHL league but nothing official has been announced. Clark did discuss the topic afterwards though when asked about it.

“We didn’t have much of an issue [in the locker room], he was a great guy, he did what he had to do, he worked so hard on the ice and he kept himself in shape. I don’t think he knew what was going to happen. He wanted to put himself in the best position and he wasn’t one of those guys that was sulking and getting mad or sitting in the corner and being that guy. He actually was very professional about it and I’m glad that he finally gets a chance to play because he is a heckuva a player. If he couldn’t play here I’m glad he is not going to another team in the NHL because he is such a good player so it will be good for him,” finished Clark on the Nylander saga.

The Capitals next game is Friday night at the Verizon Center against the Minnesota Wild.

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Hat Tricks n Treats at Six Flags

Posted on 14 October 2009 by Chad Lamasa

Last night was the annual Washington Capitals season ticket holder party.

When I signed on to buy season tickets at the end of last season I didn’t know this was a perk that came along with it.

For the second consecutive year, the Capitals and their fans took over the Six Flags America in Bowie/Mitchellville. I didn’t have any expectations going into it. Although having gone to the first (hopefully) annual Capitals Convention a couple of weeks ago, I figured it would be a good time.

As an organization the Caps put some of the other franchises in the area to shame in terms of their fan friendliness.

From what I’ve been told by Ravens season ticket holders, they don’t offer anything like this. The Orioles version of this is to let the season ticket holders into Fanfest for free and earlier than non-season ticket holders.

I arrived to the park around 4:45 and had to wait about 45 minutes to get in. Once the gates opened we were given a free New Era Capitals hat. That almost would have been enough. However, that was just the beginning.

Only season ticket holders and their guests were allowed in. Hot dogs, chicken patties, potato salad, soda and ice cream, were provided at no cost. Beer could be purchased. Free food is always a plus to me, and it was pretty good.

The rides were all open (except the water park). I’m not really into rides so I didn’t take advantage of that. But there were people enjoying them, with virtually no lines.

The reason I went was for the players. Twenty-four of them were there signing autographs, including the four big guys, Ovie, Semin, Green and Backstrom.

Alex Ovechkin required a wristband to get an autograph. I passed on that as I got his in March when he signed in White Marsh. I got Semin’s autograph at the Convention so I passed on his as well.

The lines moved quickly as everyone was allowed only one item signed by each player. I took my son’s jersey and had it signed by Semyon Varlamov, Dave Steckel, Tomas Fleischmann, Milan Jurcina, Mike Green, Quintin Laing and Shaone Morrisonn.

Mike Green’s line was by far the longest line I got in, but it too moved quickly. I missed a couple of the guys because I was in line for Green.

I saw Milan Jurcina and Tomas Fleischmann wandering around the park earlier in the day and Michael Nylander was shooting hoops at one of the game stands.

It’s great to be able to get to say hello to these guys and spend a few seconds with them.

The entire coaching staff was there as well. I saw Coach Boudreau walking around and said hello to him.

A few minutes later we were in line for Semyon Varlamov’s autograph. Coach was ahead of us in line. I cracked a joke to my buddy about how he shouldn’t have to wait in line to get an autograph. But he was actually chatting with a family in front of us.

The mom grew up outside of Boston and was a converted Bruins fan. The son was a Caps fan. Coach asked if he made fun of his mom when we won the season opener in Boston. The boy said he would have but his parents went out that night and he was with a babysitter.

Coach then asked him why the Caps kept losing the last few games, unfortunately I missed the boy’s answer. Afterwards Coach took a couple of pictures with the boy and then walked off.

I hope he stays around for a long time. He seems like a genuine person and has done wonders for the team in the short time he’s been their coach.

I left the park around 8:30 after the autograph lines finished, but the park remained open until 10 o’clock and the rides were still available until the park closed.

I am six games into my first season as a season ticket holder, and after the great time I had at this event, I am already set to renew my tickets for next season. If for no other reason, than I would be able to attend this event again, whether it’s at Six Flags or another location.

GO CAPS!

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Caps Lose Late to Rangers, 3-2

Posted on 24 September 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Pre-season game #5 for the Washington Capitals took the team to Madison Square Garden to face the New York Rangers on Thursday night and a late defensive breakdown ended up costing the Caps the game, 3-2. Washington’s last pre-season game will be Sunday at the Verizon Center against the Rangers before the season opens on Thursday, October 1st in Boston.

Thanks to Japers Rink I was able to get a link to the game (MSG feed with Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti) on the internet and caught the third period. Based on what I saw the intensity and speed of the game was above that of a normal pre-season game. The game was tied 2-2 going into the third period with Washington getting goals from Alexander Semin and Keith Aucoin in the second period while the Rangers got two from new free agent acquisition Marian Gaborik (including one shorthanded) in the second stanza.

Early in the third period (2:15 in) former Capital Donald Brashear and Caps forward Brandon Sugden had a spirited bout, their second of the night (in their first matchup, which is already posted around the internet, Sugden wins a quick fight when Brashear loses his balance). After that the Caps and Rangers each received two power plays and on the first Washington power play Alexander Ovechkin turned the puck over in the offensive zone to Chris Drury who skated in on a breakaway but was denied by Jose Theodore (21 saves). However, the Great #8 did slash the Rangers captain giving New York a power play.

Washington would kill off that power play and was a perfect five for five on the night in the PK department but the power play was 0 for 4 and gave up a shorthanded goal. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau won’t be happy with the power play although new free agent forward and major net presence, Mike Knuble, did not play (he had the night off after a big game against Chicago on Wednesday).

Now back to the Rangers winning goal on a play that I’m pretty certain Boudreau and assistant coach Bob Woods will show and go over multiple times with his team on how mental and physical mistakes can lead to a puck ending up in the back of your net. Given that this happened in a tie game with just 1:10 to go in the contest it should get the players attention. Anyways, here is how the goal shook out:

First, Caps defenseman Tyler Sloan was very late in trying to hit Marian Gaborik at the red line when he really had no chance to get there in time. Sloan’s mental mistake (he should have stayed back and let Gaborik make the cross ice pass) effectively took him out of the play. Gaborik’s pass then hit Brandon Dubinsky on the right wing boards and #17 had some speed and got around Matt Bradley, who tried to hit Dubinsky but missed him, allowing the big winger who scored the game winning goal in game 1 of last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs against the Caps to take the puck to the front of the net. Sloan’s defensive partner, Milan Jurcina, then flattened Dubinsky but the puck squirted free to the slot where Christopher Higgins outworked and outmuscled Dave Steckel for the biscuit and he backhanded it past Theodore. On the replay you could then see Sloan at the top of the screen trying to get back in the play, but he was far too late because he made a bad decision in the neutral zone.

On a positive note, I really liked the play of Quintin Laing and Jay Beagle. It was Laing’s pass to a streaking Beagle that provided Washington with their final power play of the night when Alexei Semenov of the Rangers was called for holding a very strong on his skates #83. Beagle also had a good shift with about two and a half minutes to go almost stuffing the puck past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (23 saves) drawing the following comment from Rosen, “Beagle very impressive here.”

Based on what I saw, I still stand by my prediction that both Beagle and Laing make the opening night roster and will be the 11th and 12th forwards (the other 10, if healthy, are Ovechkin, Knuble, Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, Chris Clark, Bradley, Steckel, Boyd Gordon, and Brendan Morrison). Alexandre Giroux played with Aucion and Clark and had a couple of chances in the third period, including one on a shorthanded two on one break, but he could not convert. I still see Giroux going to Hershey to start the season while Aucoin could stay up if Morrison’s neck becomes a bigger issue (missed the game tonight).

On defense, I liked some of what I saw in the offensive zone from Karl Alzner, who was very aggressive while playing the final 30 seconds of the Caps last power play but I didn’t like the tripping penalty he took at 5:59 of the final period. I tuned in to a few minutes of Steve Kolbe, Mike Vogel, and Brett “Stretch” Leonhardt on Caps radio between the second and third periods and Vogel talked like he still thought Alzner could make the team out of camp. Alzner, like John Carlson, has a bright future in the NHL but I don’t think he cracks the top 6 unless GM George McPhee trades another defensemen before next Thursday. The defensive pairings for the night were John Erskine-Mike Green, Jeff Schultz-Alzner, and Sloan-Jurcina.

One final Washington note, the Caps sent forwards Andrew Gordon, Oskar Osala, and Kyle Wilson to Hershey this afternoon.

NHL Note: Wayne Gretzky officially stepped down as Phoenix Coyotes coach (he had not been with the team during training camp due to potential conflict of interest issues – depending on who ends up owning the club the Great One is owed millions of dollars) and GM Don Maloney announced that former Capital Dave Tippett will take over behind the bench. For those of you who read this blog you know I think very highly of Tippett and said he would be back in the league with some team very soon (I still think New Jersey should have hired him but thank goodness for Washington’s sake they didn’t).

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Caps Fall to Sabres in Home Pre-Season Opener

Posted on 22 September 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, and Jose Theodore made their pre-season debuts tonight at the Verizon Center in Washington’s third of six games (previously they beat Buffalo and Chicago) that will be used to prepare the Caps for the regular season, which starts on Thursday, October 1st in Boston. As could be expected, the team was a little bit rusty and out of sync at times and as a result Washington went 0 for 5 on the power play, including not scoring on one five minute advantage, and also gave up two goals in 11 seconds to lose, 2-1, to the Sabres.

“It’s sort of expected.  I mean you have seen all three games.  It’s their first game, and that’s the way they played it as. I thought, you know, their timing was off… that’s the reason you have preseason games; that’s why they’ll be playing most of the games here on in,” said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau after the game about the top players who debuted on Monday night.

As for the power play, Boudreau pointed out that the lack of practice was a factor but basically said the there was no scoring because of the players execution, not due to a lack of effort.

“The first time they practiced it was this morning.  When you have a lot of players [Washington still has over 40 players in training camp], you don’t have that opportunity. But now… we had a couple chances in Chicago and we got no results, so we’ll start practicing that a lot more. I don’t know that they were holding back, they were trying to be too cute.  We talked about that in the beginning of the season, what works in power plays is shots. It’s a formula that works and that’s where we got to get back to,” added Boudreau on his team’s inability to score in 13 minutes of power play time.

Buffalo had 5:44 of power play time themselves putting special teams play at almost 1/3 of the entire game and that led to a contest that lacked flow throughout much of the night.

“Individually and as a team it was a bit of a frustrating game. When you have that many power plays it’s tough. The guys who are out there on the power play are trying so hard and they have a lot of skill and they want their abilities to click right away and sometimes it doesn’t happen this early in the season. So it is frustrating for the guys who are playing a lot of minutes and for the others it is tough to generate a lot of energy when you are a bit colder. So it is frustrating a bit for everyone but it is sort of a growing pain this early in the season and those guys with the high skill level who are playing the big minutes are going to come through, everybody knows it. So it is just one of those games you have to put behind you,” said Calder Cup winning forward Andrew Gordon, who played in the Caps thrilling 5-4 OT win in New York last December.

With that, here are some other quotes, comments, analysis, and tidbits from Monday’s game:

- Forward Mike Knuble was around the puck all night but didn’t score and he is still working on his chemistry with Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. After one power play shift where #22 lost the puck on the boards that allowed the Sabres penalty killers to get off the ice, he was clearly frustrated and kicked at the side boards as he went to the bench. The Michigan alum has a lot of passion for the game, something Boudreau and the team will leverage this season.

“He is what he is.  He grinds, he works, he gives you 100 percent every night; he’s what coaches love to have.  In the regular season, Mike [Knuble]‘s not going to miss three – he had three fabulous chances in the second period – and he’s going to convert one of those three, normally.  He gets them all from going to the net and getting his nose dirty and that’s what a coach loves to see,” said Boudreau on the Caps forward who should add a new dimension to the Washington offense.

- Soon to be 21-year old defenseman Karl Alzner (September 24th) played alongside Green for the first time and the two were on the ice when the two Sabres goals were scored.

“Yeah [it was the] first time and I usually like to play with offensive types of guys so it wasn’t that much of a change for me. I enjoyed it. You have to learn from each other’s styles.”

Alzner, who will likely have a tough time making the team because the Caps have 7 veteran defensemen under contract [Green, Tom Poti, Brian Pothier, Shaone Morrisonn, Milan Jurcina, John Erskine, and Jeff Schultz] while #27 (along with 2008 1st round draft pick John Carlson) still can be sent to Hershey without being subjected to waivers, definitely had to go through an adjustment playing with the 2009 Norris Trophy finalist as noted by Boudreau.

“I thought, well, he [Karl Alzner] was playing with Mike [Green] so he did a lot of backing up; because Mike likes to go.  He’s the same one, he’s got to get his timing down and he was a little off – pucks bouncing off his stick and everything else – so he was a little off.  I mean those two hadn’t played together at all during the preseason.  I think starting Wednesday we will start getting pairings [set]… so they can start getting more used to each other,” said Boudreau.

The 2007-08 Canadian World Junior Hockey team captain was critical of himself on the second Buffalo goal and the overall play of the Caps but he praised the fans who showed up to Rock the Red at a game that does not count in the standings.

“I probably overplayed it, definitely overplayed it. They say if you’re going to make mistakes make aggressive ones, and I guess that was an aggressive one. I think we were a little bit flat today and I don’t know the reason. The crowd was loud for an exhibition game so it’s a good thing. Our next game is at home so hopefully we can learn from that and turn it around,” finished Alzner, who is one of the nicest athletes I’ve ever met (and a guy you just can’t help rooting for).

- Erskine absolutely flattened 33-year old Jeff Cowan with a clean, neutral zone hit in the first period and the Sabres Paul Gaustad responding by jumping #4. Gaustad would get two minutes for instigating, five for fighting and a 10 minute misconduct. This pattern of players responding to clean hits is something that is disturbing to me and has been discussed on many NHL forums, including Hockey Night in Canada Radio. After the contest I asked Boudreau about his thoughts on the play and the retaliation.

“I think that is what happens now, it was a clean hit but it is like you are not allowed to hit hard and you see it everywhere. I can understand if it was a dirty hit, if it was from behind into the boards, let’s protect our teammates, but it was just a clean hit and the referee did a great job on the call because that is exactly what it warranted. But I wish you could see more clean hits like that without retribution,” said Boudreau.

- Boudreau singled out Jay Beagle and Chris Bourque as a couple of the bubble forwards that caught his eye. He also said defenseman Sean Collins (+1) was a lot better than he was in his first pre-season game.

- Semin played on a line with Keith Aucoin and Alexandre Giroux and Aucoin notched the only Caps tally thanks to a Semin screen in front of Sabres goalie Patrick Lalime (19 saves). #28 had a pretty good game and showed some of the outstanding skill he possesses while also hitting the post with just over 11 minutes remaining in the third period. With Semin, it is all about being healthy and mentally focused to play, when he does that he can be as good as any player in the league.

- Alzner was paired with Carlson in his first pre-season game last Thursday in Buffalo.

- Theodore (19 saves) was okay in net with Boudreau speculating that perhaps the second goal might have been stoppable despite the defensive breakdown.

- Beagle was 7-3 on face-offs (70%) while Backstrom was 9-6 (60%). Dave Steckel was 9-7 (56%) while Aucoin was 3-5 (37.5%). Overall it was 28-22 Caps (56%) from the dot.

- Because of the extensive power play time Green played 27:53 (led all players) and the Great #8 had 26:42 of ice time.

- The attendance was announced as a near capacity 18,075 but there were noticeable areas of empty seats. However, the pre-season crowd was impressive given where hockey was just two Septembers ago in this area. The Caps next game is Wednesday at the Verizon Center against Chicago.

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Caps Have Cup in Mind as Training Camp Set to Begin

Posted on 06 September 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Hockey is officially back starting tomorrow, September 7th as Washington Capitals rookie camp opens and then is followed by the veterans joining the action on Saturday, September 12th at Kettler Ice Plex in Ballston, Virginia. The Caps, who have made the playoffs the past two seasons as Southeast Division Champions, are looking to avenge last year’s second round seven game series loss to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins and get their hands on the cup themselves next June. As I blogged on many occasions during last season, the Caps became legitimate Stanley Cup contenders in 2008-09 and this year they appear to be even closer to reaching their goal. The Capitals continue to be a young team, led by soon to be 24  year old Alexander Ovechkin (9/17), and should mature even more this season as superstars in the making Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green are about to embark on just their third full season in the league.

Caps GM George McPhee has put together a very solid team that is deep on defense and Coach Bruce Boudreau’s aggressive style is exactly the type of system that fits the personnel McPhee has assembled. In short, this is a competitive and exciting team to watch and Caps tickets will continue to be tough to obtain.

So after losing an ultra close series to the Penguins and watching them host Lord Stanley’s Cup, just where do the Caps stand now in relation to the rest of the league? Well, I had a chance to catch up with an NHL scouting director recently to get his take on the off-season and he made a point of saying that he thinks that the Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings have lost ground since the Stanley Cup Finals. He felt that the departures of Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill on defense would hurt Pittsburgh and said Detroit is an aging team with shaky goaltending (but they still have Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, and Pavel Datsyuk). He also criticized the moves made by the Chicago Blackhawks (he is not a Marian Hossa fan and going with Cristobal Huet in net is risky) and felt that the hiring of Brent Sutter as head coach in Calgary would really help them considerably.

So given that the Pens needed seven games to dispose of the Caps and Washington has improved despite forwards Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov heading to Russia (but McPhee added Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison) you could make an argument that the Caps are the favorites to win the Eastern Conference in 2009-10. I’m sure the Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers, and Carolina Hurricanes (along with the defending champs) would beg to differ with that statement. For Washington to win the East they need to have the every day mind set that they are the team to beat and conduct themselves accordingly, starting this week in training camp, so that when April comes around they are ready to roll and not endure the bumps they faced early in last seasons playoffs (lost 3 of the first 4 opening series games to the Rangers).

It is a long way until April but as I alluded to above, everything the Caps do now sets the stage for the playoffs in April so here are some of the things I will be watching closely this next month in preparation for the start of the regular season:

1. Goaltending Battle – Back during development camp in July Boudreau announced that Jose Theodore, who has one year left on his current contract, was his #1 goalie heading into training camp. 21 year old Simeon Varlamov stole that job from #60 in the playoffs last spring and he is clearly the netminder of the future for Washington. In addition, 21 year old Michal Neuvirth led the Hershey Bears to the Calder Cup (AHL Championship) in June and is in the mix. Also up and coming is 19 year old Braden Holtby who looks to play in Hershey this year after a strong junior season in Saskatoon in 2008-09. By the way, Varlamov, Neuvrith, and Holtby all take the ice on Monday, September 7th when rookie camp commences.

2. Top Six Forwards Cohesion – Boudreau routinely shuffled his lines last season often putting Ovechkin and Backstrom with Alexander Semin when he needed scoring. Will that be the top line or will Knuble with the Great #8 and Backstrom work better while Semin plays with Morrison and either Tomas Fleischmann or Brooks Laich on the second line? Boudreau has mentioned he would like more stability with his top six forwards.

3. Which 7 players on D make the team? – The Caps have a lot of NHL caliber defensemen starting with Green, then you have veteran Tom Poti as the likely #2 defensemen. After that it gets interesting. Brian Pothier, who is an unrestricted free agent following this season, claims to finally be healthy and in shape and seeks to become a top 4 defensemen but he will battle the likes of 20 year old Karl Alzner (turns 21 on 9/24), Shaone Morrisonn, the much improved Milan Jurcina, the physical John Erskine, 23 year old and former 2004 first round pick Jeff Schultz, and 19 year old potential star John Carlson. That is 9 guys clamoring for 7 slots and as we all know, competition typically makes guys get better, so this will be fun to watch.

Other interesting stories will be:

- The return of team captain/forward Chris Clark, who claims to finally be healthy again. Can he regain his skating ability and scoring touch (he had 30 goals playing with Ovechkin in 2006-07)?

- The progression of Fleischmann (19 goals in 2008-09), who improved despite battling a severe case of pnuemonia last season. Will the 25 year old become a consistent top 6 forward?

- The impact that the loss of Donald Brashear will have on the team. Do the Caps need a tough guy? Can Matt Bradley and Erskine handle that role? Or will a potent power play be enough of a deterrent to other teams?

- Can forward Chris Bourque finally make the Caps or will he be traded? Bourque may get caught in a numbers game in DC.

- Will 2008 first round draft pick Anton Gustaffson make it through training camp without getting injured?

- How close are young guys like Matthieu Perrault (21) and Oskar Osala (21) to becoming the call ups of choice from Hershey this season?

We will see how things unfold these next several days and weeks. If you want to get out to Kettler and catch the practice sessions they are FREE and OPEN to the public. Click to get the complete team roster and training camp schedule. As always, please drop me a comment if you have a question or something to say about the Caps.

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Caps News: New Goalie Coach and Other Tidbits

Posted on 13 August 2009 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals have announced today that they have a new goalie coach. Here is the press release from the Caps outstanding Media Relations staff:

The Washington Capitals have hired Arturs Irbe as the organization’s goaltending coach, vice president and general manager George McPhee announced today. Irbe replaces Dave Prior, who recently resigned after 12 years with the club to spend more time with his family.
Irbe, 42, is a native of Riga, Latvia, and served as the goaltending coach for his hometown Dinamo Riga last season in the Kontinental Hockey League. He has also worked with the Latvian national team, which he represented in the 2002 and 2006 Olympics. Irbe is also a former teammate of Capitals’ assistant coach Dean Evason, as both players were with the San Jose Sharks from 1991-93.
Irbe native is a 13-year NHL veteran and played for San Jose, Dallas, Vancouver and Carolina. He played in 568 games and compiled a career record of 218-236-79 while appearing in two NHL All-Star Games (1994, 1999). His last NHL season was 2003-04, and he finished his NHL career with a 2.83 goals-against average and an .899 save percentage. Irbe played professionally in Europe after he left the NHL and retired completely after appearing in six games with Slovakia’s HK Nitra in 2006-07.
Irbe is fluent in English, Latvian, Russian and also speaks some German. He was selected in the 10th round, 196th overall, in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft by the Minnesota North Stars. He spent five years in the San Jose organization and made his NHL debut in the 1991-92 season when he appeared in 13 games. Irbe played in 74 games for the Sharks during 1993-94 and set an NHL record (since broken) by playing 4,412 minutes in the regular season. He spent the 1996-97 season with Dallas and the 1997-98 season with Vancouver before joining Carolina for the final six years of his career.
Irbe became a fixture in the Carolina net and played more than 50 games in each of his first four seasons with the Hurricanes. He registered career-best marks in GAA (2.22) and in save percentage (.923) during the 1998-99 season, his first with Carolina. He played a career high 77 games during the 2000-01 season and a year later he helped lead Carolina to the Stanley Cup final. 

COMMENT: Some might say the handwriting was on the wall that this change was likely coming when Prior went public with comments that it was not his preference to switch from Jose Theodore to Semyon Varlamov after game 1 of the Rangers playoff series this past spring. Clearly the Varlamov switch, orchestrated by Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau after consultation with GM George McPhee, was the right move. Prior and former Caps goalie Olie Kolzig were very close and Kolzig relied on him heavily during his time in Washington blossoming into one of the best goalies in the NHL. Prior served the Caps well and according to Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post he had input into drafting Varlamov and young goalie Michal Neuvirth (helped Hershey win the AHL Calder Cup this past spring).  Irbe speaks Russian and with Varlamov the clear favorite to take over as long term #1 goalie of this team he will need someone he is comfortable with and can communicate with easily. However, in the short term, Boudreau said this morning that Theodore is still the #1 guy heading into training camp.

It has been a relatively quiet summer for the Caps since my last blog in mid-July but here is a summary of Caps news since then:

Defenseman Milan Jurcina, who really improved last season, has gone through arbitration and the Caps have him back in the fold.

We’ve also heard recently that defensman Brian Pothier feels like he will have a good season because he can finally get himself in shape in the off-season after dealing with concussion related issues last summer.

In addition, defenseman Karl Alzner, who spent 30 games with the Caps last season, had nice things to say about fellow young defenseman John Carlson and admitted that he will have to work hard to make the team out of training camp this year with Carlson, Pothier, Jurcina, John Erskine, Mike Green, Tom Poti, Jeff Schultz, and Shaone Morrisonn all in the fold on defense. The good news for Karl is that the salary cap situation is a little better for the Caps this season. It will be interesting to see if McPhee can move one of the other defenseman to make more room for Alzner and possibly Carlson (although I think a year of moving between Hershey and Washington would be good for Carlson).

Forward Eric Fehr is fighting injuries again.

And finally, the Michael Nylander saga continues as #92 went out with comments that Boudreau told the Swede that he wasn’t good enough to play for Washington which caused the Coach (who also has a book for sale that is doing quite well) to deny that publicly. So I will say this, Nylander isn’t good enough to play for the Caps based on what I saw from him last year and I don’t expect him to be any better this season. It would be nice if McPhee could just get rid of this guy but with #92′s no movement clause and high salary the GM may have to work miracles to make that happen.  There is talk that Nylander could become a distraction but I don’t see that happening – there are too many good guys in that locker room to let a “has been” second line center stand in the way of the team keeping focused on their goal of winning a Stanley Cup next year.

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Caps Update and NHL News

Posted on 30 June 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Caps Update

When the clock strikes midnight tonight it is Canada Day and with that comes the start of NHL free agency. Today Caps GM George McPhee mentioned that he didn’t see Washington as being a big player in that arena because of the lack of success the Caps and most teams have had in free agency as well as his team’s salary cap situation. The Caps do have needs going into next year if they want to win the Stanley Cup and I list them in the following priority order: second-line center, a first or second line power forward that goes to the net, and a physical defenseman.

Last weekend the Caps drafted Swedish center Marcus Johansson with their first round pick, 24th overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. This was the third time in the last four years that Washington has selected a center from Sweden with their first selection. Last year they took center Anton Gustafsson, son of former Cap Bengt-Ake Gustafsson, and in 2006 they selected Nicklas Backstrom with the fourth overall pick in the draft. Backstrom is already one of the best centers in the NHL while Gustafsson has struggled to get onto the ice back in Sweden due to injuries.

I spoke with another NHL team’s scouting director this evening and he said that he thought Johansson was a good pick by the Caps and will likely be a 3rd or 4th line center in the NHL. Considering how much of a crap shoot the NHL draft can be this doesn’t seem to be a bad scenario for the 24th overall pick. The scout also said that Johansson is definitely better than Gustafsson.

Forwards Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov are already gone from this past season’s Caps roster and it appears enforcer Donald Brashear won’t be back either. The Caps also qualified eight players yesterday in Chris Bourque, Eric Fehr, Boyd Gordon, Milan Jurcina, Shaone Morrisonn, Steve Pinizzotto, Jeff Schultz and Kyle Wilson while they did not extend offers to Andrew Joudrey, Daren Machesney, Travis Morin, and Sasha Pokulok. Pokulok was the 14th overall pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft so he has definitely reached bust status.

NHL News

Last Saturday morning the Calgary Flames traded with the Florida Panthers for the right to negotiate with superstar defenseman Jay Bouwmeester sending the Cats unrestricted free agent defenseman Jordan Leopold and a 3rd round pick. That move has definitely paid off for both the Flames and Bouwmeester as they have agreed to a reported five year deal worth $6.6M per season. This certainly gets Calgary back in the elite category in the Western Conference just like the Chris Pronger acquisition has shifted some of the power balance back to Philadelphia in the East.

Another big trade occurred today with the New York Rangers shipping center Scott Gomez and his huge contract to the Montreal Canadiens for Long Island native Christopher Higgins. The Rangers also receive former Montreal first round draft pick Ryan McDonagh and Pavel Donatanko while the Habs got forward Tom Pyatt and defenseman Mike Busto in return. With the acquisiton of Gomez, who has 5 years and $33.5M left on the deal he signed with the Rangers in 2007, any talk of Vincent LeCavalier being moved from Tampa to Montreal now goes out the window.

The NHL scouting director I spoke with today said that the Canadiens benefit because Gomez is the best player in the deal despite his high salary while the Rangers were clearly looking to get some salary cap room. He also said that the only real prospect in the deal was McDonagh. I’m giving the nod on this one to the Rangers for clearing major salary cap room but given Glen Sather’s free agent acquisition history he could easily put his team back in the same boat with another high priced signing. We’ll see if the New York GM has learned from some past mistakes.

The Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins re-signed free agent forward Bill Guerin to a one year $2M deal as they attempt to make a run at repeating as the NHL champions. Guerin was a big factor in the Penguins resurgence from the trading deadline all the way to their title run. GM Ray Shero will now turn his attention to resigning forward Ruslan Fedotenko, who now has two Stanley Cup rings (Tampa in 2004), and defensemen Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill.

With the Pronger, Bouwmeester, and Gomez moves happening the domino effect could start taking place on Canada Day and there are some big names still available in forwards Marian Hossa (Detroit), Marian Gaborik (Minnesota), Daniel and Henrik Sedin (Vancouver) not to mention Ottawa’s Dany Heatley, who says he wants to be traded out of Canada’s capital city.

I asked the NHL scouting director if the salary cap was slowing down movement (there surprisingly weren’t many trades at the NHL draft last weekend) and he said that was true. I then asked him if we will see some crazy signings like we saw last year, such as the Leafs giving defenseman Jeff Finger for four years at $3.5M a season or Columbus inking defenseman Mike Commodore for four years at $4M annually, and he said that definitely will occur because there are some teams with lots of salary cap space available.

Check back for news and analysis over the next several days as things in the NHL get really interesting.

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Caps: Playing George McPhee / NHL Conference Finals Analysis and Predictions

Posted on 17 May 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Caps Analysis: Playing George McPhee

Tonight, after hearing the words of Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau and General Manager George McPhee on Friday at breakdown day combined with the knowledge I’ve gained from watching this hockey team plus input I’ve gotten from other scouting and knowledgeable sources, I am going to play George McPhee as he heads into the off-season and try and predict some of what he might do and what I would do with this hockey club if I were in his position.

Before we begin, I agree with McPhee and Boudreau that this is a very good team right now and there are a lot of talented hockey players in the organization, many of them aged 25 and under. Clearly the future is bright. However, what the Caps need to do is finally win a Stanley Cup and not end up being a team that makes the playoffs 14 straight years without an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals, like they did from 1982-83 to 1995-96 under GM David Poile. Washington is close to achieving their goal but if I am McPhee I need to really adhere to my evaluation process and look hard at the personnel from a players and coaching standpoint to decide if I have what it takes to win it all.

Let’s start with the head coach. Clearly Boudreau is a guy this team likes playing for and his uptempo system seems to fit the talent. Based on what Bruce said on Friday, he has some guys on this team that don’t do what he wants them to do, which is go to the net. This is a problem because I can’t remember a Stanley Cup Champion team made up of perimeter hockey players. Given that combination some personnel moves are in order, and we’ll get to them soon enough. However, during the Penguins series a comment was made to me by an NHL scout who said that the Caps do not play well away from the puck (for the record, the scout criticized the Penguins ability to do this as well). This falls on coaching and personnel. What I don’t know, and if I am McPhee I am finding out, is the team’s lack of ability to play well away from the puck a function of the players not buying in or does the coaching need to improve? In this regard, a head coach and his assistants are responsible for the system. Boudreau is a lock to come back but I am not so sure he and McPhee are sold on the team of assistant coaches (Jay Leach, Dean Evason, and Dave Prior).

Prior is the goaltending coach and Olie Kolzig practically swore by him. Prior seems to be doing things right given that rookies Simeon Varlamov and Michael Neuvirth have emerged ahead of schedule but my question to him is what the heck happened with Jose Theodore? Theodore was wildly inconsistent and a major argument could be made that he was the biggest reason Washington is out after two rounds of the playoffs. If he has any kind of a game one against the Rangers then the Caps win that contest, at worst, 3-2, and they probably knock off New York in five games. If they beat the Rangers in five games then some of the injuries we heard about on Friday probably don’t happen and it is more likely that a healthier Caps team would have beaten the Penguins. After all, the beat up squad that expended a ton of energy to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the opening round took the defending Eastern Conference Champions to seven games.

Granted the team in front of Theodore wasn’t totally ready for playoff hockey at the outset of the post season but the Caps played decent enough to win the playoff opener, if not for Theodore. Yes, good came out of that in terms of seeing the future in Varlamov but #60 was paid $4.5M this past season and next to try and help the team win a Stanley Cup. He has failed miserably and if I am Boudreau and McPhee I just don’t know how he could regain the #1 job because even if he plays well in training camp and the regular season next year, like he did from late December to the end of March, who is to say he doesn’t put up another clunker in game one of next year’s playoffs? Was Theodore’s problem technical or was it a mental thing? Prior would probably know best but I’m starting to think it might be mental and if I am the Capitals players, I just don’t have any faith in that guy anymore. Therefore, I think McPhee needs to move him before next season’s trade deadline. The problem, though, is that could be tough given his salary and you are really risking things going with two young goaltenders. All you have to do to find a situation where that didn’t work out was in Montreal this year with Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak. Of course the Canadiens don’t have Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green so that might not be an accurate comparison. If I am McPhee, a Varlamov/Neuvrith combo isn’t such a bad thing next year. Brent Johnson, who Boudreau called “A great team guy,” could be added cheap for insurance too but his durability could be an issue.

Questions were asked about the defense on Friday, specifically if McPhee was going to acquire a free agent to help keep the front of the net more clear. McPhee responded by saying he has alot of good defensemen but reading between the lines and based on what many of us have seen this year, they have a bunch of good defensemen but many of them are very much alike. Tom Poti, Karl Alzner, and Jeff Schultz all have similar styles in that they are good skaters and move the puck well but aren’t physical. Schultz is clearly the weakest of that trio. Green is the #1 defenseman and I see Shaone Morrisonn as being the odd man out because he isn’t a good buy given the money he wants (reportedly in the $3M range). One of my scouting sources does not see him as a good defensemen, and that is wording it nicely. So I think #26 won’t be back. As for Milan Jurcina, this guy really improved this season and deserves to return. He is turning in to a good #5 or #6 defensemen. John Erskine also had a good season but he is injury prone and some of that comes from his physical style and some of it comes from his subpar skating ability. The team has already committed to #4 for two more years so he is definitely back, plus he is physical and the Caps are weak in that area. Brian Pothier has another season under contract at $2.5M, which is too much, if you ask me. Assuming Mo is out, Washington needs another physical blueliner and therefore McPhee can either trade or go the free agent route. Schultz is clearly trade bait along with Pothier and I’d even put Jurcina in a deal with other players if I could get a top 4 defenseman to go with Green, Poti, and Alzner.

At forward, Michael Nylander is not back and he will either be waived or retire (McPhee said a buyout does not make financial sense), so that frees up money right there. The concern is the top 6 forwards of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin, Viktor Kozlov, Sergei Fedorov, and Tomas Fleischmann are not exactly grind it out and go to the net type of players. I think Fleischmann, if he can build up his strength in the off-season, will score more next season (that pneumonia he had really sapped his energy). I don’t think I bring back Kozlov because he isn’t a big go to the net guy. Washington needs a #2 center, especially if Fedorov is not back (and even so he only played 52 regular season games this past year). There is talk of Brooks Laich jumping up to that role and that wouldn’t be bad but McPhee still needs another forward who can go to the net in his top 6. Do you trade Semin, who has so much talent but prefers the perimeter and appears to be easily knocked off his game due to injury?

Dave Steckel clearly is back and has upside as does Matt Bradley and Boyd Gordon. Eric Fehr needs to make the jump to becoming a 20 goal scorer but he can’t stay healthy. Apparently he draws the ire of the coaches too. #16 has the size and skating ability to be a go to the net player but I don’t think he will become a Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, or Bobby Ryan type of player that he was projected to be at one time. So McPhee needs to add another top 6 forward who is more physical and can get the grind out type of goals that a Bill Guerin is giving the Penguins since he moved over there at the trade deadline. Chris Clark is under contract for two more years but I have serious doubts about his ability to produce. His scoring touch seems gone (he did have wrist surgery) and he has lost a step. It is tough paying him $2.6M a season if he isn’t scoring at least 20 goals. I am not sold on Chris Bourque making it as a top 6 forward on this team but he might fit in elsewhere so perhaps he is part of a package deal for a defenseman or forward?

That leaves us with Donald Brashear, whose return Ovechkin lobbied for on Friday. I think #87 intimidated the opposition but he also was prone to bad penalties and his skating ability detoriated after his knee injury. I think McPhee needs a tough guy on the roster to prevent teams from taking liberties with Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Green but I’m not sure it is #87 anymore. Perhaps the top 4 defenseman that is added can be the physical intimidator that this team still needs? Or another cheaper tough guy could be added?

Whatever the case, I think McPhee is more active this summer than last but the salary cap will likely limit his options. One of the biggest questions he has to answer is on Semin, who is immensely talented but seems to lack the drive necessary to take the Caps to the next level.

NHL Conference Finals Anaylsis and Predictions

After going 7 of 8 in the first round (only lost with San Jose), I was only 2 for 4 in round two (won with Pittsburgh and Detroit). With four teams left we are pretty much guaranteed the rematch of a somewhat recent Stanley Cup Finals unless Chicago knocks off Detroit and Carolina beats Pittsburgh. Last year we had the Red Wings defeat the Penguins, in 2002 Detroit was victorious over Carolina, and in 1992 the Penguins knocked off the Blackhawks.

Western Conference: Detroit (2) vs. Chicago (4)

Detroit is the defending Stanley Cup Champions and they added forward Marian Hossa to the mix from last year. Chicago is an up and coming young team that clearly aided from the hiring of coach Joel Quennville and more importantly, Scotty Bowman at the executive level. Chicago is fast with forwards Patrick Kane, Martin Havlat, Kris Versteeg, Patrick Sharp, and Jonathan Toews. They have good goaltending in Nikolai Khabibulin and Cristobal Huet is the expensive backup. On defense, Brent Seabrook has really elevated his game and is logging over 26 minutes a night. Duncan Keith has been strong as well.

The Red Wings, though, are an incredible bunch and with Tomas Holmstrom and Johan “Mule” Franzen up front along with guys like Jiri Hudler and Daniel Cleary they score the ugly goal. The big question has been, where is Pavel Datsyuk? He only has 1 goal and 4 assists in 11 playoff games. I imagine he is nursing some injury. The other question on Detroit is can Chris Osgood hold up in goal? The two time Stanley Cup Champion always appears to be a lightning rod for criticism.

Prediction: The Red Wings are the men and the Hawks are the boys, Detroit in 5 games.

Eastern Conference: Pittsburgh (4) vs. Carolina (6)

This series sees two brothers, Eric and Jordan Staal, facing off against each other. The Hurricanes are the fastest team in the Eastern Conference and they used that speed and the superb goaltending of Cam Ward to knock off the Devils and Bruins in dramatic seven game fashion. Both of those teams did not match up well, from a skating standpoint, with the Hurricanes. However, the Penguins have speed plus experience. Sidney Crosby is the leading candidate for the Conn Smythe trophy right now and if Evgeni Malkin plays like he did in games three and five of the Washington series the Pens will be tough to beat. Their weakness is in goal with Marc-Andre Fleury plus the Sergei Gonchar knee injury has to be a concern. Staal and Erik Cole have been flying on a line together for the Canes and Ray Whitney has had a good playoffs as well. Carolina’s defense is a cast of no names that collectively play well together with Joni Pitkanen being the offensive qb.

Prediction: The Canes are fast but Pittsburgh has too much talent and can keep up with Carolina in the skating department. Penguins in 6 games.

If these predictions hold up, we will have a rematch of last year’s Stanley Cup Finals.

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Pens Win 5-3 to Tie Series at Two; Varlamov Struggles

Posted on 08 May 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Simeon Varlamov is human after all. The young 21 year old goalie finally had a bad game tonight and he was the primary reason that the Pittsburgh Penguins won, 5-3, at the Igloo to tie this series up at two games apiece heading into Saturday night’s game five at the Verizon Center (7 pm). Varly gave up two really soft ones, Ruslan Fedotenko’s long shot that #40 missed with his glove that made it 3-1 Pens in the first period, and then after Washington battled back to cut the Pens lead to 4-3, he gave up a short side marker to Maxime Talbot that all but ended this game with just over five minutes left.

In addition, the first goal scored by Sergei Gonchar from just inside the blue line, after Nicklas Backstrom’s marker gave Washington a 1-0 lead just 36 seconds in, deflected off of Milan Jurcina and went through the legs of Varly. He also wasn’t so strong on the second Pittsburgh goal (Bill Guerin) as he fumbled the puck away after making a superb stop on Sydney Crosby. Crosby was all alone in front after Mike Green turned the puck over to Chris Kunitz and Green then struggled to get back and it was he, Brooks Laich, and Sergei Fedorov all scrambling in front of Varly to help him as #13 buried the rebound. The really odd thing on the whole play is that defenseman Shaone Morrisonn was nowhere to be found in the picture? I’m not sure what he was doing on that whole sequence but a defensive defensemen like #26 needs to be way more responsible.

Goaltending was the big reason the Caps lost this one but there were other weak performances turned in by the guys in white tonight. Alexander Semin (-3) was just AWFUL turning the puck over too much and not getting his shots off or on net. Morrisonn (-2) was brutal and Green (-2), despite making a nice play to set up Chris Clark’s goal that cut the Pens lead to 3-2 in the second period, did not have a good game either. Even Alexander Ovechkin (1 assist) had a subpar game as he only had one assist and routinely could not get his shot off or on net either.

If the Caps want to win this series, they need to get all of the players mentioned above- Varlamov, Green, Ovechkin, Semin, and Morrisonn – having more production and stronger efforts. Green and Morrisonn were routinely hammered by the Penguins forwards in their own zone and they have become turnover prone. Green also tried to do too much carrying the puck into the Pens zone and it led to some odd man rushes for Pittsburgh.

In Thursday night’s blog I listed the eight keys for the Caps to help them win game four. Here is a rundown on how they did against that criteria:

1. Move Your Feet Boys!: The Caps were much better in this department on Friday and even though they were outshot 28-22 they were much more in control of the puck at times and had several chances that they didn’t bury. They will need to do more of this on Saturday and hopefully the great “Rock the Red” crowd on Saturday will help out.

2. Get The Puck Deep!: Washington did do this quite a bit on Friday but they need to do more of it. Semin and Ovechkin were the biggest offenders in this category as they tried to go one on one far too much, especially Semin.

3. Better Breakouts!: Overall there was improvement but the Green giveaway and Morrisonn skateaway led to the second Penguins goal. Pittsburgh did not dominate as much as they did in game three and that was because the Caps were coming out of their zone much better.

4. Get Shots on Net!: The Caps were outshot for the fourth straight time in this series and they only had 22 shots. Fedorov hit the post early on when it was tied and there were other chances that were shot wide. Ovechkin only had 2 shots on net so you know Washington did not get it done in this category on Friday. Washington did a decent job of going to the net at even strength as Clark’s goal was a rebound and Jurcina’s blast was aided by Matt Bradley crashing the crease.

5. Stay Out of the Box!: The Penguins had six power plays, that is far too many. Clark and Tomas Fleischmann both took stupid cross checking penalties and Ovechkin’s trip on Gonchar was a bad penalty as well (Gonchar did not return after the trip and looked to have a knee problem). Fedorov and Backstrom both took penalties in the defensive zone because they were out of position and had to knock Malkin and Crosby down, respectively, to prevent scoring chances.

6. Allow Varly to See the Puck!: Jurcina started the night off bad for Varly by giving Gonchar too much room to shoot, then he screened #40, and ultimately deflected the puck partially so that the young goalie totally missed the shot. The Caps were below average in this category and Varlamov compounded things by giving up two goals on clear shots, something he had not done so far in the playoffs. Afterwards Boudreau said he was going to come right back with #40 on Saturday but if he struggles early Jose Theodore could end up in net. We’ll see if Friday was a just a fluky off performance by the guy who has been great in net in these playoffs. Boudreau says Varlamov is a competitor and he expects a strong game from him on Saturday night.

7. Slow Down Geno!: The Caps did a MUCH better job on Malkin on Friday night. He was not able to come through the neutral zone with the speed he had in game three. Malkin had an assist but was -1. Washington must continue to throttle him on Saturday night.

8. Continue Hot Power Play!: 0 for 4 and it was just terrible tonight. Green, Ovechkin, Semin, and Backstrom were out of sync on the man advantage and this really hurt because the Caps could have tied the score at the end of the third period on their last man advantage. Washington was too intent on passing on the perimeter or trying for low percentage cross ice setups instead of throwing it to the point for a blast and rebound try. If the Caps don’t get the power play going on Saturday they can forget winning the game.

Overall, this was not a dominant Pittsburgh performance like we saw in game three but the Caps did not convert their chances, took some careless penalties, and did not get production from their big guns, especially on the power play. Add in subpar goaltending and now it is a tied series that is a basically a best of three affair that starts Saturday in DC.

Notes: The team scoring first has lost every game in this series. Jay Beagle was recalled from Hershey today and took Michael Nylander’s spot in the lineup (Eric Fehr is still injured). Defenseman Karl Alzner was sent back down to Hershey as well.

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Pens Get Back in Series with OT Win

Posted on 06 May 2009 by Ed Frankovic

The Pittsburgh Penguins totally outplayed the Washington Capitals on Wednesday in game three, outshooting  the Caps, 42-23, but because of Simeon Varlamov and a late power play goal by Nicklas Backstrom, his first of the playoffs, this game went to overtime tied 2-2. But after Tom Poti made a bad decision to try and shoot the puck instead of dumping it in behind the Pens net, the Penguins were able to get an offensive zone face-off and when the Caps lost it clean (Sydney Crosby beat Dave Steckel), the puck went back to Kris Letang who fired it on net and it hit Shaone Morrisonn and deflected by Varlamov for a 3-2 win at 11:23 of OT. Game four is Friday night in Pittsburgh with Washington up two games to one in this best of seven series.

The Caps played a better first period tonight and Alexander Ovechkin scored his 8th goal of the playoffs into a vacated net just 1:23 in to the game as a result of a fluky bounce behind the Pens net. Shortly thereafter, Nicklas Backstrom nearly made it 2-0 when he had a great wraparound try but instead of putting his shoulder down and taking that extra half of a stride to get in front for the layup he tried to put the puck in from a bad angle and it went through the crease and wide. The first period was even at eight shots a piece but as things went on Pittsburgh started to dominate.

Pittsburgh would carry the play and shots, 15-4, in the second period as their pressure on Washington was relentless. The Caps could not break the Penguins forecheck and when they got to neutral ice they did not play smart by dumping the puck deep. The Pens tied the game at one midway through period two when Poti pinched at the Caps blue line and Backstrom got caught out of position giving the Penguins a two one break on Milan Jurcina. When Jurcina went down to cut off the pass the puck bounced right back on Ruslan Fedotenko’s stick and he shot it by Varlamov, who was sliding to his right in anticipation of a pass.The Penguins had two power plays in the middle period but Varlamov and some good penalty killing kept this game tied.

In the third period the Caps were a little better but Evgeni Malkin, who was really flying tonight, started to take over and he went through Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Alexander Semin before #28 hooked him to give the Penguins their sixth straight power play of the night. When you play with fire, you usually get burned and Malkin fired a great shot top shelf on a screened Varlamov to give the Pens a 2-1 lead with just 4:59 left. But credit the Caps for not quitting and when Pascal Dupuis was called for interference with 2:28 left the powerful Washington power play got their second chance of the night with Backstrom delivering as he banked it off of Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (21 saves). That sent the game into overtime where Pittsburgh prevailed and Fleury is now 4-0 in overtime games.

Here are my thoughts and analysis on this one:

Pittsburgh absolutely had to have this game and they sure played like it. Varlamov was great tonight and he was the only reason the Caps had a chance. The Penguins did a superb job of coming into Washington’s zone with speed as they were keeping a forward back, typically Malkin when it was his shift, and when the Caps pressured the Pens defense at the red line they would pass the puck back to #71, who then came through the neutral zone like a locomotive. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau will have to make some tactical adjustments to interrupt this very effective Pittsburgh method of breaking Washington’s neutral zone defense.

The Caps could not match Pittsburgh’s desire tonight, plain and simple. Ovechkin, Fedorov, and Viktor Kozlov were the only effective ones for the first half of the game but when Fedorov took what looked to be a butt end to the ribs from Hal Gill and missed the rest of the period, Boudreau had to adjust his lines. At that point Bruce went with Semin, Backstrom, and Ovechkin and they had some good shifts and others where they were not positionally sound (especially on the shift where Malkin went through all of them and drew a penalty).

Fedorov did return for the third period but he did not look as strong or effective as he had been before the injury. Kozlov had some good shifts.

If I am the Caps, I am calling up forward Keith Aucoin from Hershey for game four because Michael Nylander was terrible tonight in his 7:27 of ice time. Nylander looked lost out there and seemed to be afraid of being hit. Chris Clark, once again, was not very good and he only saw 6:35 of ice time. Boudreau is basically playing with only 10 forwards with those two struggling and it showed as the other Caps got worn out against the Pittsburgh assault.

Probably the best part of Washington’s game tonight was their penalty killing as they held Pittsburgh to 1 for 7, including a two minute power play in overtime when Brian Pothier put the puck over the glass for a delay of game. Varlamov was the primary reason the penalty kill was effective but Steckel, Boyd Gordon, Brooks Laich, and the Caps defensemen did a good job.

Mike Green had an assist tonight on Ovechkin’s goal but he did not factor in offensively, primarily because the Caps could not get the puck into the Pittsburgh end. He also had some chances where the puck rolled off of his stick. Ovechkin also tried to go one-on-one quite a bit but Rob Scuderi and Gill did a good job on him. Boudreau was not getting the matchups he wanted since Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma had the last change. In Washington, Boudreau tried to put the Great #8 against Sergei Gonchar when the opportunity presented itself.

This Penguins domination tonight was just a carry over from alot of what we saw in game two. The Caps escaped in that one but if they don’t start skating and playing smarter they will not win another game in this series. The Penguins are winning the one-on-one battles right now.

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