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Caps & Other Hockey Thoughts on the Eve of the Stanley Cup Finals

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Caps & Other Hockey Thoughts on the Eve of the Stanley Cup Finals

Posted on 29 May 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Now that it has been over two weeks and the dust has settled on another crushing playoff defeat, Capitals fans can look forward to the Stanley Cup Finals and the exciting things to come for their team following it. This Caps off-season will be like no other in the recent past because General Manager George McPhee not only has to select a new coach, he has two first round choices in the 2012 NHL draft (11th and 16th overall picks), and he also has a lot of salary cap room to work with for the first time since perhaps the summer of 2008. With the Alexander Semin departure freeing up $6.7M on the books and Dennis Wideman’s $3.5M hit expiring along with some other smaller contracts that have ended (see Mike Knuble and Tomas Vokoun), GMGM has some flexibility to reshape the team and hopefully fill the holes that has prevented the club from advancing past the second round of the playoffs over the last five years.

So with that as a stage setter, here are 10 thoughts on the Caps, the NHL, the Memorial Cup, as well as my Stanley Cup Finals prediction:

- With the Finals starting Wednesday (8 pm on NBC), Tuesday was media day at “The Rock” in New Jersey. One of my favorite quotes of the afternoon came from Kings coach Darryl Sutter when he was talking about what turned it around for his club after it struggled during much of the regular season. He began by talking about guys starting to understand his system but then focused on center Mike Richards ability to find his game again in mid March after suffering a concussion earlier in the campaign. He then said the addition of Jeff Carter from Columbus at the trade deadline was the final piece needed since it allowed him to spread the offensive wealth. Specifically, he was talking about Kings superstar forward Anze Kopitar, who was having a hard time scoring goals. “At that position, you can’t be great all by yourself,” said Sutter. That excellent quote, which explains a lot, could easily be uttered by several other teams in the league who struggle to win consistently without two true scoring lines (see the Caps and Alexander Ovechkin).

- It is always tough to watch the playoff round following the one in which your team is eliminated and that was truly the case this spring once Washington was bounced by the Rangers in seven games. I fully expected the Caps to knock off the Rags but the bounces did not go the Capitals way at all in games three and five and Henrik Lundqvist was superb in net. Coach John Tortorella also received excellent play from defensemen Michael Del Zotto and forward Marian Gaborik in that series. Against the Devils, it was a different story and New Jersey dominated the Blueshirts before dispatching them in six games. Del Zotto was terrible against Peter DeBoer’s club and Gaborik disappeared like Jimmy Hoffa. On Frozen Blog’s John Keeley, before the Devils series against New York, penned a super blog on Lou Lamoriello’s club. John was spot on about the Devils talent and style of play and had the Caps beaten the Rangers, I don’t think they would’ve have been able to defeat the three time Stanley Cup Champions, but I sure would have liked to have seen Dale Hunter and company try!

- Speaking of Tortorella, there is no doubt that he is a super hockey mind but his abrupt and abrasive press conferences following playoff defeats became a hot topic in the Washington and then the New Jersey series. It got so bad that super NHL Network analysts’ Kevin Weekes and Craig Button finally called him out on it. Everyone knew Torts was trying to deflect criticism of his club and put the heat on himself, but the Rangers bench boss clearly took it too far. However, the man who has a very classy side, as was displayed on HBO’s 24/7 series, smartly changed his ways and was insightful and more patient with the media even while his team lost the last three contests to give away a chance to play in the Stanley Cup Finals. He was even more revealing and truly honest this past Monday during his club’s breakdown day. He talked about how certain players get what the team is trying to do while others do not. He said it would be up to the organization to get rid of those not on board. You can’t be much more up front than that and it was certainly refreshing to hear a truthful assessment of a team following their defeat with no excuses offered (such as Phoenix blaming the referees in the Western Conference Finals). Kudos to Tortorella, who also FULLY endorsed assistant coach Mike Sullivan for any NHL head coaching opening. Well done John, I was tough on you this post season but you’ve gone way up again in my book with your late playoff changed ways with the media, who work hard to promote the game many of us truly love. Perhaps I’ll take a cue from Torts and go easier on the referees next season??!! On second thought, I will have to think a little bit more on that one. ;)

- As for Sullivan, it is rumored that Calgary is the leading destination for the former Boston Bruins bench boss given his past relationship with Flames GM Jay Feaster in Tampa. Many once fired coaches learn and improve the second time around (see Bill Belichick and Joe Torre) and “Sully” seems to be the hot prospect this spring. I imagine the Capitals have strong interest in the New York assistant too given that the style Washinton played under Hunter is similar to what Sullivan and Tortorella were using in New York. With all of the moving pieces McPhee has going on this summer it will be interesting to see if Washington’s GM sets up his roster first before picking a head coach (the patient route that New Jersey took last summer with DeBoer) or he selects a coach and shapes the roster to fit the new coach’s style. Put me in the first category as I think the Capitals need to play a style like they played this post season. They need to continue to be responsible in their own end. Now if GMGM adds some offensive talent, and there is no doubt he has top six forwards in mind, then the club can be more aggressive offensively like New Jersey and Los Angeles are doing now, but both teams still have a STRONG defensive foundation at the root of their respective systems.

- When it comes to defense, I have to wonder what the heck happened to the Pittsburgh Penguins this spring?! That club was most people’s pick to go to and win the Finals this June but Coach Dan Bylsma’s squad fell flat on their faces. The Pens clearly lost their focus down the stretch and their play away from the puck, especially in their own end, was just awful. They had the most talented roster in the Eastern Conference and laid an egg in the first round. It is more proof that you have to be responsible defensively if you want to win the Stanley Cup and Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and company seemed to have forgotten all of the good defensive lessons former coach Michel Therrien taught them before being dismissed during their 2008-09 Cup winning season. Wide open hockey does not work in the post season, plain and simple, just ask the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers and they will confirm that axiom.

- After Hunter left his post here in Washington, he immediately went to sit in the press box and watch his London Knights battle for the Memorial Cup, which is the championship tournament featuring a pre determined host city and the three winners of Canada’s top junior leagues (the Western Hockey League (WHL), the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMHJL), and the Ontario Hockey League (OHL)). London won from the OHL, Edmonton represented the WHL, while the defending Memorial Cup champs, the Saint John Sea Dogs, represented the QMHJL. The host city, Shawinigan, was the fourth club. The host Cataractes ended up defeating Hunter’s club in overtime of the final game to capture the Cup in a 2-1 thriller. Both goalies (Michael Houser of London and Gabriel Girard of Shawinigan) were impressive in the final match as were several other already NHL drafted players. Jarred Tinordi (Montreal), Austin Watson (Nashville), and Brandon Gormley (Phoenix) really stood out for me and seem poised to have good NHL careers. Russian Krill Kabanov (Islanders), who had one crazy junior career, did some nice things as well but it remains to be seen if he turns out to be an every day NHLer. The undrafted player that was high on my radar was Max Domi of London, son of former Leafs and Rangers tough guy, Tie. The 17 year old, who is draft eligible in 2013, was all over the ice with his speed and tenacious play. He isn’t big right now size wise, but he plays large and I have to think many teams will be very interested in him next June.

- Stan Galiev, of the Caps, played again for Saint John in the Memorial Cup, and the 2010 third round pick seems to have a bright future. He projects to be a top six offensive player but personally I think it would be wise for Washington to let him get at least a year in Hershey to properly develop and gain size and confidence.  The Russian forward will definitely help the Bears next season, who will not have former AHL Calder Cup MVP Chris Bourque back next year. Bourque, who very recently became a first time father, was traded on Sunday to Boston for center Zach Hamill. Hamill was the 8th overall pick in the 2007 draft and is still just 23 years old. He should help Hershey next season, as well.

- After last February’s NHL trade deadline I asked an NHL scout, with over 20 years in the business, why Tampa didn’t get a goalie this season when it was clear that it was their biggest hole and was certain to prevent them from making the playoffs despite the great goal scoring year Steven Stamkos was having. The scout said something that was quite telling. “It is not as easy as it seems to find what you need.” I expect Tampa to go after Vokoun or some other veteran goalie this summer to go along with youngster Dustin Tokarski, who won the 2008 Memorial Cup with Spokane.

- By the way, that scout’s quote is clearly relevant to what McPhee has been dealing with when it comes to second line center. GMGM knows he needs a center, but he’s been unable to get one for many reasons. As I said above, this summer might be his best chance, given the flexibility he finally has in terms of salary cap room. However, it takes two to tango and you can bet that other GM’s may not be willing to give what the Capitals desperately need without getting something significant back. Recent history shows though, that getting the superstar player while sacrificing lesser players, draft picks, and prospects is a recipe for success. Los Angeles, who did that to get Richards and Carter, and New Jersey, who did the same in acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk, both went that route and have been rewarded with a shot at the Cup. Pittsburgh did the same when it plucked Marian Hossa from Atlanta back in 2008. So it seems to make sense for GMGM to be aggressive and try and hit the home run on the center position this summer by giving up some assets to finally get an elite player to complement Nicklas Backstrom up the middle and alleviate some of the pressure on Ovechkin.

- Finally, I am going with the Kings in five games in the Stanley Cup Finals. Los Angeles is just rolling right now and my only concern with them is their eight day layoff. I can’t see their power play continuing to struggle the way it has to date in the post season. I love the way the Devils play the game and Zach Parise is one of the best players in the NHL right now. However, I think they are over matched in this series and if they don’t win game one, then this thing could be over quick. However, if New Jersey holds serve at home against a LA squad that is perfect on the road this post season, then anything can happen. That is why they play the games. Enjoy!

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Another Crushing End to a Caps Hockey Season

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Another Crushing End to a Caps Hockey Season

Posted on 12 May 2012 by Ed Frankovic

There are no moral victories in pro sports, so the fact that the Capitals, after a dismal regular season made it to game seven of the second round, only to lose 2-1 to New York, shouldn’t make any Caps fan feel good about the season. Nope, this campaign is another failure in my book because Washington didn’t even get to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The game five meltdown, which officially stands as the worst loss in team history by my accounting, cost the Capitals a chance to play the New Jersey Devils for a shot at the Stanley Cup Finals. Instead they lose to a club they beat in FIVE games in the spring of 2011. The Rangers didn’t have Ryan Callahan last April when the Capitals dominated them, but they didn’t have Brandon Dubinsky in this series either. What the Blueshirts did have are two bonafide top line centers. GM Glen Sather, who once moaned in Edmonton about not being able to spend money to stay competitive, went out and got Brad Richards and at the end of the day, he was the difference between the Capitals going golfing and the Rags moving on to face Marty Brodeur and company.

It is a bitter pill to swallow for Caps fans and the core of Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin, Mike Green, and Brooks Laich has now gone five years without advancing past the second round. Ovechkin, after a great game six, was pretty much a non factor in the most important game of his career. It will be an interesting off-season now with Semin, Dennis Wideman, Tomas Vokoun, and Mike Knuble all unrestricted free agents. In addition, #52 is a restricted free agent.

Meanwhile, Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Laich will be back for sure, as well as Joel Ward, given their contracts. Roman Hamrlik will also likely be back since he gets $3.5M for another season (and he played very well in the post season).  Jeff Schultz is still due $2.75M for each of the next two seasons so he’s not going anywhere either.

Despite the overall failure, there were some good things that came out of this season. We know that Karl Alzner and John Carlson are a super defensive pair and should both be locked up long term, at some point. Braden Holtby stepped up and proved that he just might be the number one goalie going forward, his puck handling skills certainly helps the defense. We also know that this team can play the type of hockey necessary to win in the post season from a defensive standpoint. Guys like Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle were major positives in an underachieving regular season. I am squarely in the corner of hoping that Dale Hunter is the coach next season. I’d just like to see him have more of his type of players.

The Caps have two first round picks in the upcoming draft, which reportedly is a good one. But General Manager George McPhee must FINALLY address the real problem facing this club, a lack of another center to go along with Backstrom. The Caps continue to rotate players in and out of that position and it is the MAIN reason why they are so wildly inconsistent (see only 4 shots in period three tonight when their season was on the line). Marucs Johansson, Mathieu Perreault, and Laich were all tried there this season and the problem was never really solved. It also IS the reason why the Caps nearly missed the playoffs before a late rally. No Backstrom for 40 games meant a lack of top two centers for half of the season.

Another reason for the season failure is the power play. The Caps were given a chance to tie the game up late in regulation in this one and it failed miserably. I still want to know why Johansson is on the first unit instead of someone with more strength along the boards and more ability to get to the front of the net? Also, Carlson would have been a much better choice than Wideman on the point and the indecision and lack of chemistry between #6 and #52 prevented the Capitals from getting set up at a critical time in the season. Special teams decide playoff series and the Rangers won it with their PP in game five while the Caps blew their golden opportunity to tie the game with the man advantage in game seven.

So another season goes in the books for the Caps. I call this one an overall failure and another major opportunity to win their first Stanley Cup wasted.

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Caps Get Breaks in Game Two to Even Series

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Caps Get Breaks in Game Two to Even Series

Posted on 01 May 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Remember all of those posts the Washington Capitals hit in game one in their series opening loss to the New York Rangers? Well, it was the Blueshirts who clanked the iron repeatedly on Monday night as the Caps stole a win in New York on Alexander Ovechkin’s third period power play goal. The Gr8′s wrister with Troy Brouwer providing traffic with 7:27 left in regulation was just what the doctor ordered for Washington in a 3-2 victory. The series shifts to DC on Wednesday for game three at 730 pm.

This game seemed to have more of a pace to it than the opening salvo. The Rangers dominated the opening 10 minutes before Washington settled down and in true Dale Hunter hockey fashion, the Capitals scored in transition after playing good defense. Joel Ward, Mike Knuble, and Keith Aucion worked a masterful three on two and old man Knuble banged the puck home from the doorstep for the first marker.

Braden Holtby (26 saves) rebounded with a strong game after giving up some questionable goals on Saturday. Most notable was his save on Chris Kreider on a breakaway after the puck took a bounce on the Knicks ice over John Carlson’s stick at the offensive blue line. #70 made a huge save and Jay Beagle, Matt Hendricks, and Jason Chimera hustled at the other end to score after Henrik Lundqvist (22 saves) came out to play the puck and turned it over. That goal made it 2-0 Caps in the first period but from there it was some wild hockey and nail biting time for Capitals fans.

New York scored their first goal in four on four play, something the Caps have struggled with recently. Brooks Laich made a bad decision to change with the puck still in the neutral zone and Michael Del Zotto took advantage. The Rangers defenseman alertly pushed the puck up and Marian Gaborik got it to Brad Richards for an easy two on one goal. The Rangers would tie it up in the third period on the power play, which set the stage for Ovechkin’s game winner.

Basically, this series is pretty much dead even after two games. Rangers Coach John Tortorella had the last change for two games so Dale Hunter played it ultra conservatively and went mostly with his checkers, especially when leading. As a result, Ovechkin only played 13:36 and Alex Semin logged just 12:26 while grinders like Jay Beagle and Brouwer played 19:58 and 18:48, respectively. At the other end, Tortorella is pretty much going with three forward lines as four dressed Rangers played less than five minutes each (Stu Bickel, Mike Rupp, John Mitchell, and Artem Anisimov). This should be an advantage for Washington, especially as the series goes longer because the Caps have a more balanced lineup and the players should be more fresh.

Perhaps the best news of the night, though, was that the power play finally got untracked. They still have Ovechkin on the point but the Gr8 did make an adjustment, as former Caps PR director Nate Ewell pointed out. Alex went with a high wrister on the game winner instead of a slapper and Lundqvist struggled with it, especially with #20 battling with a Rangers defensemen right in front of him. If the Caps are going to win this series, special teams will need to be a difference maker. The Rangers play physical and they pounded Mike Green in the first period. That physical play though leads to penalties so a potent power play is really needed.

Looking at the three Capitals goals, they were all from in tight or with traffic. That is the only way to beat King Henrik. On Washington’s end, Holtby didn’t have much of a chance on either Rangers tally. They came as a result of Washington miscues.

So what do the Caps have to do to win Wednesday night? First thing is they need to play within themselves. They can’t go back to Harlem Globetrotters hockey with fancy drop passes a plenty in an effort to put on a show. They need to stick to this boring, grind it out style and take advantage of chances when they can. They need to get the pucks deep and wear out a not as deep New York roster. Finally, they have to get bodies and pucks to the net, otherwise Lundqvist will win the game.

Hunter now has the last change for two contests and can get the matchups he wants. The question is will the Capitals be able to execute in those matchups?

Smart, defensive hockey wins in the post season. Can the Capitals keep that up?

Notes: Another super game from John Carlson and Karl Alzner who led the team in ice time logging over 23 minutes each…Green played 8:31 in period one but finished with only 18:14 total. It made sense for Hunter to cut back his minutes because the Rangers were running him because 52 was ending up in too many tough situations with the puck…Jeff Schultz returned to the lineup for John Erskine and played 17:12..the face-off battle was even steven at 34 wins a piece.

 

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Caps Stun Bruins in Overtime in Game 7 to Advance

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Caps Stun Bruins in Overtime in Game 7 to Advance

Posted on 25 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

It normally does not end this nice for the Washington Capitals and their fans. You see, the Caps are supposed to lose game sevens, in heartbreaking fashion, right?

Heading into overtime I am sure many Caps fans felt like another crushing blow was coming, right?

Not tonight!

Dale Hunter scored arguably the biggest goal in franchise history in overtime against the Philadelphia Flyers back in 1988 and on this night he was behind the bench for what is definitely the biggest goal in recent Capitals history. Joel Ward potted the rebound of a Mike Knuble shot 2:57 into overtime to propel the Caps into the second round. In the process they knock off, for the first time in franchise history, the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Washington won’t know its’ opponent until tomorrow night but if the New York Rangers defeat the Ottawa Senators then that is who they will face. Otherwise they will get either the Flyers or the Devils.

Wow, what a win! I still can’t believe it. 

Following or working for this team since 1974 naturally makes one a pessimist and I did not feel good about this matchup in the champions lair tonight. Having been at every game seven in franchise history and knowing they were 2-7 in such contests, it was tough to be optimistic (for the record, I was not in Boston for game seven, my first miss ever). But something is going on in these playoffs and being on the road seems to possess an advantage. Washington won three games in Boston and, as I said after Sunday’s game six loss, when you have a pivotal game like this sometimes it is better to be on the road because there are no distractions.

Whatever the case, this Capitals team has totally come together for the post season. They are playing the style their coach demands. At times it is downright boring, but they are so much better around their own net with this style. Braden Holtby (31 saves) played a very solid game in the cage and his defensemen cleared nearly every rebound (the exception: Tyler Seguin scored on one).

Several players who didn’t have great regular seasons amped up their respective games for the playoffs and that is why this Caps team was able to knock off a very good Boston team. Knuble and Ward fit in that category, for sure.  To me, the biggest reason the Capitals won was because of the play of the dynamic duo on defense, Karl Alzner and John Carlson. 27 and 74 were just a super defensive pair and they kept Boston’s scorers in check pretty much the whole series. There is no doubt that Carlson is playing his best hockey of the season and the play he made on a Bruins two on one in the third period was a game saver. Keep it up, John and Karl.

As for the forwards, this was not Alexander Ovechkin’s best series but I am sure he will take the victory. The Gr8 had to go against the best defensemen in the league in Zdeno Chara and with Ovechkin’s issues on defense, Hunter had to cut his minutes, in some games. That will likely change going forward and there is no doubt if this team wants to get where they want to go, they will need Captain Alex. There is a long road ahead and Ovechkin will start scoring goals in bunches, soon.

So as predicted here, the Caps have stunned the Bruins in the opening round. It wasn’t in six games like I had it mapped out, but the Caps did it. Boston is a super team, but somehow the Capitals worked some matchups to their advantage and now they go through to round two.

It was not expected by many after that crushing game six on Sunday. But the players regrouped and played a masterful game to punch their ticket for another round.

Hold on and enjoy the ride, Caps fans!

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The Caps Season Can All Change on Sunday

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The Caps Season Can All Change on Sunday

Posted on 22 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals are on the verge of potentially changing their entire season in game six against the Boston Bruins on Sunday afternoon at the Verizon Center.

The much maligned in the media Caps, who were considered huge underdogs coming into this series with the Bruins, just might be able to change the perceptions of those who have been critical of them thanks to a gritty 4-3 victory on Saturday in Boston in game five of this best of seven series.

But media perceptions don’t really matter to this club, for perhaps the first time in a long while. That is primarily the case because they have taken on the identity of their head coach, Dale Hunter, and are singularly focused on results. Hunter doesn’t care what the media thinks, he just wants to win. His press conferences are proof of that. The coach pretty much says nothing, which is exactly what I would want my coach saying after each game, and especially in the playoffs. Too many words from the head coach can wear a team out and drain them emotionally, that won’t happen with Hunter (and as I predicted on twitter weeks ago, the New York Rangers are on the brink of elimination despite having the best record in the East, partially due to the fact that their coach likes to have too much conflict and discussion with the media). 

That identity I spoke of above is an almost unflappable demeanor, something this Capitals club struggled to display in the past. The minute adversity hit before, especially in the post season, they would often get caught up in it and fall apart. That doesn’t appear to be the case anymore. After the Caps gave up a 2-0 lead by allowing two goals in 28 seconds towards the end of period two today how many people were writing them off for the game and likely the series? I imagine you could get on twitter and find tweet after tweet burying this team when the Bruins turned up the heat.

However, this cast of characters, which received super goaltending from Braden Holtby (34 saves) once again, didn’t panic and came out composed for the final frame after they barely survived the last couple of minutes in period two. Mike Knuble scored a key goal on a rebound of a Joel Ward shot. But then adversity hit again when Marcus Johansson took too long to make a decision with the puck coming out of his own zone. Boston stripped the puck from MJ90 and Dennis Wideman was then whistled for a penalty. Next thing you know Boston scores their first power play goal of the series to tie it up. Caps nation, given past playoff failures, were probably saying “I’ve seen this movie before” and were waiting for the inevitable Bruins game winner to occur.

But it never happened. Hunter’s crew didn’t sulk and merely kept playing. Then they received a late power play when Nicklas Backstrom was hooked and Troy Brouwer took full advantage scoring with 1:27 to go on the rush. Washington would do a super job of preventing Boston from getting any really good chances late and as John Walton likes to say after victories it was “Good morning, Good afternoon, and Good night Boston!”

It was a huge win and puts the Caps in position to knock off the defending champs. But that win will be the hardest one they’ve ever tried to achieve. The Bruins faced the same situation in the Stanley Cup Finals, a 3-2 series deficit, and won the last two games to grab Lord Stanley’s Cup last season. You can bet that Boston will give everything they have on Sunday. Their coach is already whining again about the Capitals late power play to try and influence the referees, in a move we’ve seen from him far too often (hopefully the NHL is tired of it too). So the Caps will have to match the Bruins intensity and play smart once again. They have to stick to Hunter’s plan and not free lance defensively. If they stray from the blue print, then that means a game seven in Boston on Wednesday.

Simply put, the Caps have a chance to finally put a bad regular season behind them for good tomorrow. Will they finally be able to do that?

Puck drop is at 3pm, don’t miss it.

Notes: Alexander Ovechkin went for the big hit in the neutral zone and missed in period two and that led to the first Boston goal. Ovechkin only played 15:34 in game five and it is clear Hunter doesn’t like the matchups he is getting when the Gr8 is on the ice. Ovechkin needs to be better defensively as well…John Carlson and Karl Alzner were an outstanding duo again and they led the Caps in ice time with 25:05 and 24:37, respectively…Boston outshot the Caps 37-32 but shot attempts were even more lopsided, 70-48…the Caps went 1 for 3 on the power play and are 3 for 14 in the series. Boston went 1 for 4 and are 1 for 15 in the series.

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Disciplined Caps Ride Holtby’s Goaltending to Game 4 Victory

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Disciplined Caps Ride Holtby’s Goaltending to Game 4 Victory

Posted on 20 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

After Monday night’s WWE matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Boston Bruins in which the B’s grabbed a 2-1 series lead, the Caps talked about being more focused on the play between the whistles and staying disciplined. On Thursday night they did just that and although they had issues with the Bruins puck possession for large portions of this contest, the Capitals managed to win, 2-1, on Braden Holtby’s 44 save performance, to tie this best of seven series up at two games apiece. Game five is Saturday in Beantown with game six on Sunday at the Verizon Center.

The Caps saved their season on this night and they can thank their goaltender and special teams play. Marcus Johansson scored a marker on a sweet 2 on 1 break just 1:22 into the contest but it was all Boston in the opening frame after that as Washington failed to skate and be aggressive. Perhaps they were trying too hard to not be foolish and let their emotions take them off of their game like it did on Monday? Maybe, but it was clear the Bruins were clicking and pressing and Washington was sorely missing the suspended Nicklas Backstrom, who will return for game five. The Caps, who were outshot 14-3 in the first period, were very fortunate to escape those 20 minutes even steven. The second period started much the same way before the Capitals finally found their legs, plus according to Caps defensemen Karl Alzner, the coaches made some minor adjustments on the breakout.

In years past, special teams play has been a predictor of a series win for Washington. With the Caps killing off all 12 Bruins power plays and potting two man advantage tallies themselves so far in four games, the ledger reads +2 for the Capitals. That will need to continue for the Caps if they want to hang with the defending champs. The Capitals had three power plays in this game to just one for the B’s and two of the three produced excellent chances for the home team. Alexander Semin’s sick laser shot from the left wing half wall was a thing of beauty and ended up being the difference in the game.

What also helped produce the victory was a more solid third period, especially the last four minutes when Washington skated hard and seemed to win every puck battle. The Verizon Center was loud and had energy and both Alzner and Johansson credited the fans for helping the Caps have one of their better outings closing with a lead. Holtby didn’t have to face many quality shots down the stretch and the team was blocking shots. Several players, including Jay Beagle, Matt Hendricks, Joel Ward, and Mike Knuble worked their rears off to prevent Boston from getting a really good chance to tie the game up. Earlier in the period it appeared the Caps had fallen into the bad habit of trying too hard to protect the lead and as a result, they stopped skating. But something clicked down the stretch and the execution was phenomenal.

So the series goes to a pivotal weekend back to back affair. The Bruins have to be favored given that they carried so much of the play in this one, plus they are the champs and are playing at home. The Capitals are playing David to Goliath but they are sticking together and on this night they were much smarter. They still need to stop having pronounced lulls in the game, but if their goalie continues to play at this level, anything can happen.

Notes: The duo of Alzner and John Carlson was once again outstanding. Can’t say enough about how well #74 is playing, he’s amped his game up at the perfect time…Dennis Wideman had a poor opening frame and he pinched to give the Bruins a two on one, which Rich Peverley converted. But #6 recovered to play a strong final 40 minutes. He had been struggling in this series up until that point…Mike Green had 9:00 of ice time in the first period but played only 10:09 the rest of the way…Alex Ovechkin helped set up the Laich-Johansson two on one on the first goal and he received an assist on the play. The Gr8 was very inconsistent in this game and he only logged four shifts and a total of 1:58 in period three. His defensive zone must be better in close games, otherwise Hunter is not willing to risk playing him with a lead…with 9.5 seconds left, the puck was dropped and the game clock did not run for over five seconds as Bob McKenzie of TSN and Transition Game author, Ted Starkey, pointed out after the game…the faceoff battle was won by the Caps, 44-32…hits were 44-34 in favor of Washington. Hunter noted that his team was physical without taking bad penalties…1st Mariner Arena will host the 2nd Annual Baltimore Hockey Classic on Wednesday, September 26th between the Caps and the Columbus Blue Jackets. Tickets for Capitals season ticket holders will be made available on Friday with all others able to purchase them starting Monday, April 23rd at 10am.

Programming Note: Check out my Caps radio segment with Drew Forrester on Thursday morning here from the WNST audio vault.

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Ovechkin Steps Up in Motown

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Ovechkin Steps Up in Motown

Posted on 19 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Just when the Washington Capitals appeared to be in big trouble in the race for the playoffs, their star players finally put together a huge effort as the Caps went into Motown and stunned the Detroit Red Wings, 5-3, behind 30 saves from Braden Holtby. This Wings team set an NHL record for consecutive home victories this season (23 games) and they’d only lost on home ice in regulation four times in 2011-12.

But Alexander Ovechkin (two goals) and company had no need for history on this night and a huge first period, one in which the Caps outscored Detroit 3-0, resulted in one of the biggest victories of the season for Washington. The win keeps them in eighth place, just two points ahead of a streaking Buffalo Sabres team and four points ahead of 10th place Winnipeg. The Caps also pull within three points of the Southeast Divison leading Florida Panthers, who are in Philadelphia tomorrow night to take on the Flyers. It is hard to believe, but Capitals fans will be cheering for Danny Briere, Jaromir Jagr, and company on Tuesday night.

After a terrible first period in Chicago on Sunday night, this Capitals team looked totally different in Detroit. Washington came out skating and they drew a couple of early penalties. Ovechkin scored twice with the man advantage by moving into prime scoring position. On the first tally, Marcus Johansson gave him a sweet feed in the slot and the Gr8 went upper left top shelf. Mike Knuble then scored following a great breakout pass from Mike Green that led to some sweet passing between Mathieu Perreault and Jason Chimera before Papa Knoobs buried the biscuit setting the stage for Ovie’s 32nd goal of the season. Ovechkin fired the puck from the top of the slot but he alertly, like a basketball player, followed up his shot and went to the net for the rebound. Brooks Laich kept it alive and the Gr8 banged home the puck to give the Caps a huge early cushion.

From there it was hang onto to your seats as the inevitable Wings full court press was due to come. In the second frame they cut it to 3-1 but then Keith Aucoin buried one in front after some super work by Alexander Semin and Roman Hamrlik on the boards. When Todd Bertuzzi made it 4-2 just 36 seconds in to period three, the Wings assault ramped up even more. Dan Cleary scored after a Knuble giveaway with just over seven minutes left but Holtby closed the door and Chimera hit the empty net for the final marker.

It was an impressive victory and many players turned in solid efforts. The Caps need Ovechkin to carry them down the stretch and he did it on this night. Laich, after a subpar outing in Chicago, was excellent as 1st line center and when the Gr8 has someone playing well at the pivot position for him he can be lethal. Semin had two assists and put in his best game in weeks while Green finally looked totally comfortable on the ice. He was making great breakout passes, ended up with an assist, and was +2 in 22:52. All four of those guys, Ovechkin, Laich, Semin, and Green have to be good in the last nine games for the Capitals to make the playoffs.

Holtby got the call with Tomas Vokoun nursing a creaky groin and Michal Neuvirth having played the night before. #70 had the tough task of going against a team that creates traffic in front of the opposing goaltender better than any other club in the NHL, so kudos to Braden for staying strong in his crease and playing a big role in the Caps win. Goaltending is ultra important in hockey and Holtby delivered that on Monday night.

So the Caps come home late tonight to their own beds but will practice at least once at Kettler IcePlex before going to Philadelphia for a date with the Flyers on Thursday night. This five game road trip, that looked to possibly be a disaster after Sunday’s blowout in the Windy City, is now 2-2. They have a chance to make it a huge success on Broad Street on Thursday, but Philly is playing well, so a victory there won’t be easy.

But for tonight, the Capitals did the improbable, knocking off one of the best teams in the NHL in their own building. Good things happen when you crash the net and the Capitals stars delivered on a night when they were sorely needed.

Notes: The Caps defensive pair of Jeff Schultz and John Carlson were on the ice for all three Detroit goals. #55 did not play well while Hamrlik (+2) did, so we’ll probably see Dmitry Orlov back in for Sarge on Thursday in Philly…Chimera’s empty net goal came on the power play so Washington was 3 for 4 on the evening while the Wings went 1 for 3…Joel Ward was scratched and Jeff Halpern returned to the lineup. Halpern was 3-2 on face-offs but the Wings won 32 of the 56 total draws.

 

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Poor Start Dooms Caps on Road Again

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Poor Start Dooms Caps on Road Again

Posted on 18 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hunter’s Latest Lineup Paying Dividends

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Hunter’s Latest Lineup Paying Dividends

Posted on 10 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Lost Weekend for Caps

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Lost Weekend for Caps

Posted on 04 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Heading into the weekend the Washington Capitals were riding a three game winning streak after victories over the Canadiens, Leafs, and Islanders. On the docket were the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers, two clubs fairly firmly entrenched in the top eight of the Eastern Conference. With both games at home, a place where the Caps have a good record, these tilts seemed to be a prime indicator of whether or not Washington could move up the standings to make a strong push for a playoff position.

With the results now in, it is apparent the Capitals are in big trouble after 5-0 and 1-0 defeats at the Verizon Center. Washington is now in 9th place, just a point behind Winnipeg and the Caps have a game in hand, but when you don’t score you can’t win. In addition, Tampa Bay has caught fire and now trail the Caps by just a point. Buffalo is also a single point behind and the Leafs and Islanders are two and four, respectively. To quote an old Far Side cartoon, “WARNING: OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.”

With Steven Stamkos pouring in the goals (now at 47 and counting) and the Caps struggling to score, it is pretty apparent that with each passing game this club is getting closer to golfing come April 9th. It has been well chronicled here in this blog that the Capitals have big problems up the middle of the ice that have been magnified by the injury to Nicklas Backstrom. On Friday against New Jersey that could not have been more evident as smaller forwards Mathieu Perreault, Marcus Johansson, and Keith Aucoin made gaffes that led to Devils tallies. When Dale Hunter is forced to play numbers 85 and 90 for 35 plus minutes a game there is little margin for error for the Caps to get a victory. Both are smaller centers and no NHL defensemen is going to be afraid of being hit by them when they are moving the puck out of their own end. Thus the Caps receive fewer o-zone turnovers and have to work harder to get the puck back when those guys are on the ice. In addition, their size makes it difficult for them in defensive zone coverage. Johansson and Perreault have roles, but the ones they are being asked to fill now are simply too much for their abilities.

On Sunday night, Johansson’s man tipped the puck home for the only tally, although in fairness to number 90, Alexander Ovechkin lolligagged it out to the point allowing Pavel Kubina to find Eric Wellwood in front for the re-direct. The Gr8 would pay for that lack of effort and sit most of the remainder of the second period. In the third period he appeared to take Hunter’s message in the right way and was a force. Unfortunately when he has no true offensive center it is easy for the defense to cover him and he was blanked along with his teammates. Ovechkin did have several quality chances in that final frame, but he needs to play like that every shift from here on out if Washington wants to make the post season.

Michal Neuvirth, who might not have started had Tomas Vokoun been healthy (day to day), was excellent in goal and the Wellwood tally couldn’t be hung on him. But the margin of error for the Caps is so small right now so Neuvy gets another loss when he deserved better.

There is no way around this right now, the Caps are a flawed team and that is made worse with Nicklas Backstrom out. Too much is being asked of Johansson and Perreault due to the lack of depth at center. What makes things even worse is that Ovechkin has been unable to regain his dominant form from the pre 2010 Olympic break. The Gr8 has not been so great and the Capitals need him to be to make the playoffs. He needs to do whatever he can to change things on and off the ice so that when he plays these last 17 games he is highly effective. Great players find ways to adjust their game and get better. Larry Bird used to talk about developing a new move every offseason because he knew teams would adjust to what he was doing previously. Defenses have figured out how to slow Ovechkin down. Some of that is on the personnel around him, but most of it falls squarely on #8. He needs to reach down deep and do whatever he can to change things down the stretch, otherwise he is going to hear criticism like he’s never heard before, and many of it coming from the local area for perhaps the first time in his career.

Notes: Despite Sunday’s loss Jay Beagle, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Karl Alzner, Dmitry Orlov, Jason Chimera, Mike Knuble, and John Carlson played their rears off but the team just can’t finish right now…Ilya Bryzgalov made 34 saves for the Flyers in the Sunday shutout….the Caps play Carolina on Tuesday and Tampa on Thursday at the Verizon Center. Pretty safe to say they need to win both games otherwise you can cue up ”Trouble” by Lindsey Buckingham.

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