Tag Archive | "Knuble"

Caps Steal Victory From Jaws of Defeat

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Caps Steal Victory From Jaws of Defeat

Posted on 28 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

You can call it lucky. You can call it the result of hard work. Or you can call it the hockey gods finally smiling down on the Caps.

Whatever you want to call it, it was two points for the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night as they rallied from a 2-0 hole in the final four minutes to tie the game before Alexander Ovechkin scored in overtime to lift the Caps to a 3-2 victory over the New York Islanders.

If ever there was a game that this club needed a win in, it was on this night when they opened up a crucial five game homestand. The win over the Isles moves the Caps into 8th place in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of Winnipeg, and Washington has two games in hand on the Jets. With the Florida Panthers winning in Toronto, Washington still trails the Cats by three points in the Southeast Division and the Panthers have a game in hand.

The Caps carried the play for much of the night but Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov (31 saves) was really good and the Capitals also weren’t doing the little things necessary to score, like getting bodies to the cage. Washington outshot New York 13-3 in the opening frame but it was the Islanders who led 1-0. The four time Stanley Cup winning organization would go up 2-0 in period three and things looked bleak for the Caps. They had dominated much of the action but allowed two goals because Washington defenders left their feet in their own zone. Jeff Schultz was the culprit on the first Islanders tally while Matt Hendricks made the mistake on the second goal, that came just over two minutes into period three.

But this Capitals team kept working and found a way to fight back and cut the deficit on what looked like a routine play. Jason Chimera outworked Mark Streit for the puck in the left wing corner and Mathieu Perreault corraled the biscuit and fired it to Troy Brouwer at the top of the crease. #20 tapped it by Nabokov and the Verizon Center crowd came alive. Then it looked like the Caps were going to lose but Streit fired the puck in his own bench with 31 seconds left giving Washington an offensive zone face-off. Coach Dale Hunter smartly put out Jeff Halpern and #15 won the draw. Brooks Laich would fire on net and Brouwer tipped it home.

The comeback seemed rather easy and it took a simple formula: put pucks AND bodies to the cage and good things happened.

After that the stage was set for the dramatic Ovechkin to win it on one of his patented end to end rushes. The Gr8, who struggled to hit the net on several earlier shots, got this one through d-man Travis Hamonic and five hole on Nabokov to send the 136th straight sellout crowd out happily onto F street.

So the Caps have 19 games left and now sit at 69 points (32-26-5). The key now is to stay ahead of the Leafs and Jets and also make sure a team like Tampa doesn’t rally to catch them. If they do that they would grab at least the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference but this team really wants a fifth straight Southeast Division title (would bring the 3rd seed). A win like tonight surely helps that cause but with four more contests at the Verizon Center upcoming, the Capitals can’t afford to giveaway any games. Friday’s tilt with the New Jersey Devils should be a good one and is another nearly must win for Washington.

Notes: Schultz and Joel Ward had the lowest ice times for d-men and forwards, respectively. Both are slower skaters. Speaking of slower skaters, Mike Knuble, Roman Hamrlik, and John Erskine were the scratches. It is clear that Hunter is going to play guys who can play at a high pace and tempo…Hendricks had a poor game tonight by obstructing Michal Neuvirth’s view (22 saves) on the second goal and taking two minor penalties, one of which was late in the third period. #26 works hard but sometimes he is not very smart on the ice…the Caps were a perfect 3 for 3 on the penalty kill but their power play went 0 for 4 and if it doesn’t start connecting is going to eventually cost the club victories. Washington had two PP’s in the opening frame and couldn’t cash in, that is a momentum killer.

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Caps Rolling Dice With Current Crew

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Caps Rolling Dice With Current Crew

Posted on 27 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

In one of the quietest NHL trade deadlines ever, Washington Capitals General Manger George McPhee decided to not make any deals. Therefore, the Caps will play the final 20 games of the regular season and then hopefully the playoffs, with their current roster. The one added bonus to the equation would be if center Nicklas Backstrom is able to return, at some point, from his concussion. Noone knows the answer on if and when #19 will be back.

Those who saw McPhee’s press conference would be hard pressed to argue with anything the GM had to say. It was clear there were no big trades out there to make as evidenced by the fact that the biggest deal was likely Cody Hodgson going to Buffalo from Vancouver in exchange for Zack Kassian. The only move that would have made sense for GMGM, in my mind, was to add a top six forward. That type of player clearly wasn’t available for anything less than a first round round draft choice. When a third line center like Paul Gausted is moved for Nashville’s 1st round pick you know the prices are too high. If you can’t figure that out then hum a few bars and I’ll sing it for you.

So where do the Caps go from here? McPhee is counting on his team to make the post season and with Mike Green’s return the defense is much stronger. This is the first time since the beginning of the season that Green, Dennis Wideman, and John Carlson are all in the lineup together. That is a pretty strong right side of the ice, especially from a puck moving standpoint. The key will be to keep #52 healthy and with #6 staying and not getting moved, then the “One Man Breakout” will likely only log 22 to 24 minutes a game instead of the 28 to 30 he used to play when after Carlson there weren’t many other righthanded options on the point.

Up front, the team is rolling the dice with a couple of smallish centers. Both Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault are being asked to do a lot. If Backstrom were back the dynamic changes because 20 to 22 minutes a game is then covered by #19 and MJ90 and MP85 are only playing a combined 25 to 28 minutes instead of the 34 plus they are getting now. Coach Dale Hunter has no choice but to ride on with these two young, scrappy players. They will have their ups and downs so it is imperative that Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Troy Brouwer, and Brooks Laich have strong finishes. If they don’t then the Caps will be on the links come Masters time.

Some wanted to see McPhee move Mike Knuble and Roman Hamrlik, two players who are sitting right now and aren’t very happy. When I hear that keeping them “poisons the room,” I strongly disagree. There isn’t a hockey player in the league who is happier sitting than playing, except for maybe Jaromir Jagr, in some instances. Hunter is a straight shooter and he doesn’t care about a players feelings, it is all about winning to him. There were people who complained when he sat Jeff Schultz and then there was an uproar when goalie Michal Neuvirth wasn’t played in back to back contests a couple of weeks back. Both players got the message, worked their rears off in practice, and are now playing at the top of their respective games. Knuble and Hamrlik may very well be needed at some point so to simply dump them for a lower level round draft pick made zero sense. The Caps expect those two to be professionals and focus on getting better, not providing sound bites to the local scribes.

So now it is time to move forward and see if the Capitals current crew can get on a roll and win the Southeast Division. They certainly have the talent on the roster to do it despite the lack of strong centermen. But every team in the Eastern Conference has flaws.

It is a wide open race and once the dance starts, anything can happen (see Montreal over the Caps and Penguins in 2010).

The trade deadline is over and there is no cavalry coming in to save the day. It is up to every player on the Caps roster to determine how bad they want to make the post season and then succeed if they get in.

 

 

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Victory Inches Caps Closer to Playoff Spot

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Victory Inches Caps Closer to Playoff Spot

Posted on 24 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

If only the Washington Capitals could play the Montreal Canadiens every night?

In a game the Caps had to win, they came out hard and dominated the Eastern Conference last place Habs en route to a 4-1 victory. It was Washington’s third straight win over Montreal this season and the combined score between the two teams is 10-1.

There were lots of good performances from Washington forwards to include Alexander Semin (1 assist, +2), Jason Chimera (1 goal, 1 assist, +2), Mathieu Perreault (1 goal, +1), and Alexander Ovechkin (1 goal). The Gr8 provided a spark by returning from his injury and his skating looked very good in period one when Washington needed him most.

On the back end all six defensemen were solid playing their role. Mike Green (+1), despite some turnovers, looked very good skating and moving the puck while Dmitry Orlov (1 assist, +1) had his best game in recent weeks. #81 was strong on his skates and he dealt out some nice hits. He has the occassional bad giveaway but he is playing extremely well for a rookie. I also thought Karl Alzner was superb and he did a nice job of getting pucks away from Washington’s net and moving it out of the defensive zone.

As important as the return of offense was for the Capitals, they also received excellent goaltending from Michal Neuvirth (30 saves). #30 didn’t give up many rebounds and the only marker he allowed he had little chance on (Rene Bourque’s shorthanded one timer).

But before getting too carried away about this victory, the real deal is that the Caps won at home against a team that is a mess. However, it was two points and that is what matters right now for Washington, who jump into ninth place in the Eastern Conference, just a point behind eighth place Florida (the Panthers have two games in hand on Washington) and only two points behind Southeast Division leading Winnipeg (the Caps have two games in hand on the Jets). 

The Capitals now go to Toronto for Saturday’s Hockey in Night in Canada against a team they are fighting with for a playoff spot (the Leafs have 65 points as well). After going 1-3 on their most recent road trip Coach Dale Hunter’s crew really needs a victory away from the Verizon Center. There are just 21 games left in the season and Saturday’s tilt from the Air Canada Centre is the last one before Monday’s 3 pm NHL trading deadline.

As I’ve mentioned in my last couple of blogs, the buy or sell decision has not totally been made, but a victory would likely shift the focus to buying. Had they lost tonight like they did in Carolina or Ottawa, the white flags may have been waved. But after Friday’s win, the Capitals have inched closer to a playoff spot and the players have another game to prove to GM George McPhee, and possibly more importantly to ownership, that they deserve a shot to save their season in the last quarter of it.

Notes: Slow skating Roman Hamrlik and Mike Knuble were two of the three scratches on Friday night. It is quite possible that both could be moved by Monday’s trade deadline…shots attempted were 53-50 in favor of the Caps, who carried the play for two periods before giving the Habs too much room in the final frame…Brooks Laich appears to be nearly over his knee injury and logged 21:54 of ice time. He was 11-7 on faceoffs…Ovechkin played 7 minutes in the opening frame and 17:43 overall. The Caps need him to step up and carry this team down the stretch. Friday night was a good start to that.

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Buy or Sell Decision Still Not Clear for Caps

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Buy or Sell Decision Still Not Clear for Caps

Posted on 22 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The Buy or Sell decision, on paper, looks like an easy one right now for the Washington Capitals.

Sell.

With Nicklas Backstrom showing no signs of returning in the regular season from his concussion the holes up the middle of the ice appear to be too much for Washington to overcome. On Wednesday night that was apparent once again as the Ottawa Senators raced to an early 2-0 lead, extended it to 4-0 after 40 minutes, then fought off a late Caps rally to prevail 5-2 on an empty net goal.

The Caps played without Alexander Ovechkin, who was injured in Carolina on Tuesday in the second frame, but came back to play in the third period. The Gr8 missed practice yesterday and was scratched Wednesday with an undisclosed lower body injury. To say it has not been a good year, healthwise, for the Capitals is an understatement.

With Monday’s NHL trade deadline looming and just two games left for Washington before then, the Caps remain two points outside of the eighth and final playoff position. They are also only two points behind division leading Florida, who now have two games in hand on the Capitals. But this club has been unable to put together consistent efforts and if the two road games this week are any indication, the team has run out of gas with their most important player, #19, still out of the lineup.

Given that unrestricted free agents Tomas Vokoun, Dennis Wideman, Alexander Semin, and Mike Knuble might yield some good returns surely going the sell route is a no-brainer for general manager George McPhee, right?

Not so fast. The Capitals just announced that ticket prices for next season are going up, on an average of 8%, so for the club to conduct a mini sale and pack it in could significantly hurt season renewals. In addition, there is very likely pressure on McPhee from ownership to not only make the playoffs, but actually go deep into the them. So if the above are the deciding factors then shouldn’t Washington be buyers?

Again, not so easy to decipher and Washington’s salary cap predicament makes it hard for the GM to add assets without moving salary out. In addition, it is even more of a buyer’s market than normal this year, especially when a defenseman like Kyle Quincey goes for a first round draft pick (traded from Tampa to Detroit).

One thing is for certain, this team lacks confidence on the ice. They are not a hard team to play against at all, something that was expected to improve under coach Dale Hunter. At this point, it is clear coaching isn’t the main problem. Both Hunter and Bruce Boudreau have their strengths and weaknesses but the holes on the roster are making it too difficult for any bench boss to keep the team consistent once an injury or two hit.

The question now is can McPhee do something in the next four days to save the season? He has two first round picks in the this year’s draft available to bargain with, but again, he’d likely have to move salary with it in order to take on a top player in return. McPhee has been reluctant to trade 1st round picks in the past so why would this year be any different, especially in a season where the NHL entry draft is supposedly very good? The difference could be the job pressure he has to be feeling, but then again, who is to say that ownership may not give him full reign to make those short term yielding type of trades?

One thing is certain, the next four days are going to be very interesting because everything appears to be a possibility right now for the Caps, from buy to sell to simply standing pat.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: I’ll be on the WNST Morning Reaction with Drew Forrester at 7:35 am on Thursday talking Caps hockey. Listen on 1570 AM in Baltimore or live via WNST.NET

 

 

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Caps Maintain Focus in Huge Win

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Caps Maintain Focus in Huge Win

Posted on 17 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Losing 1-0 to the Florida Panthers on Friday night, the Washington Capitals reached a critical juncture in the game and possibly their season when not only was Mike Knuble’s apparent game tying goal disallowed, but referee Eric Furlatt called goaltender interference on #22. That put the Panthers on the power play late in the second frame and into the third period. It was a VERY tough call against the Caps, and one can aruge that the zebra totally blew it, especially the part where Knuble had to go to the sin bin.

But what happened immediately after the call is what was most important. Caps Coach Dale Hunter didn’t go nuts on the bench, as some managers might do, instead the even keeled #32 remained calm. After all his team was totally dominating the Cats on the shot board and in scoring chances so Hunter had to feel like his team was going to come out on top, right?

With a three game losing streak and all kinds of negative stuff being written about his personnel decisions and his contract status with the team it probably would’ve been fairly easy and understandable for the hockey and farming expert to go ballistic. But anyone who has closely watched or been around Hunter since he took over as head coach notices that win or lose he remains on an even keel. That calm is a major intangible because when a coach loses it, players often feed off of the negative energy and lose focus.

Washington came out and killed off Knuble’s penalty then kept taking it to the Panthers over the last 20 minutes. Alexander Ovechkin finally broke through on the power play by going to the net (Knuble was there too and earned an assist) and Alexander Semin won it on a shot that deflected off of Sean Bergenheim’s stick past Jose Theodore (39 saves). It was a much needed victory and pulls the Capitals within two points of Southeast Division leading Florida with 25 games to go.

What is even more impressive is that the Caps are starting to win the quality scoring chance battle consistently and their puck possession has improved dramatically. According to super stats man Neil Greenberg (@ngreenberg), Washington has outchanced the opposition in the last six games. With Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green out and Brooks Laich playing injured, this trend is awfully encouraging because just imagine what might happen when Hunter gets his full line-up back, hopefully at some point this season?

Tomas Vokoun was back in goal after missing two games with the flu and after a shaky start he was good, though he didn’t have to do a whole lot the last 40 minutes because the Capitals carried the play. The 35 year old veteran certainly is a presence for Washington in net and he is 3-0 with just 1 goal allowed in three tilts versus his old club in 2011-12.

So now it is on to Tampa for game number two of a difficult and important four game road trip. The Caps found a way to fight and claw and get a win. Taking a cue from their head coach, they didn’t panic when Knuble’s goal was washed out and as a result they were victorious. Learning where to properly focus your energy is a key in pro sports, the Caps certainly did that correctly on Friday night and were rewarded. Kudos to Hunter and the players.

Finally, I’ll close with this memo to the Florida Panthers, courtesy of the Far Side:

Warning: Objects in mirror are closer than they appear!

Notes: Hunter and Jim Johnson’s hard work with defenseman Jeff Schultz is reaping some dividends. #55 logged 14:24 and was on the ice in the last two minutes of an ultra important contest…I thought Dmitry Orlov was fabulous tonight. He hit the crossbar and narrowly missed on another attempt but did pick up an assist on Semin’s GWG…Jeff Halpern did a great job on the last two d-zone face-offs and Kris Versteeg’s cheap head shot to #15 probably deserves an NHL review. It was a dangerous play…speaking of dangerous and not so smart plays, Cats d-man Mike Weaver left his feet trying to block the puck and not only took a stick in the mouth but got himself terribly out of position on Ovechkin’s game tying goal. I am a big believer that leaving your skates on defense should only be done as a last resort…Laich logged over 17 minutes, markedly up over the amount he played in each of the last four games. Perhaps his knee is getting better?…shots on goal were 41-23 in favor of the Caps and shots attempted were 75-50, again advantage Washington.

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Margin For Error Getting Smaller for Caps

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Margin For Error Getting Smaller for Caps

Posted on 12 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals, who continue to play without Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green plus are going with a banged up Brooks Laich, did a lot of good things in a 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers today at Madison Square Garden. The Blueshirts have the best record in the NHL right now but they were barely able to hang on against a Caps team that is not even close to full strength. There is some comfort in the thought that if Washington were to get healthy they’d easily dispatch the team they ran out of the playoffs last spring once again, but moral victories really aren’t meaning much these days because the margin for error for the Caps is getting smaller.

The Capitals are currently sitting in 9th place, a point out of the playoffs, and after Monday night’s tough home tilt against the San Jose Sharks, they play four games on the road. Washington trails the Leafs in 8th by a point and have a game in hand while they are three points back of Ottawa in 7th with three games in hand. In addition, they are four points back of Southeast Division leading Florida, who occupy the third seed right now. All of those teams are well within reach but that only happens if the Caps stop making critical mistakes, start finishing more of their chances, and win more games.

Backstrom doesn’t appear to be coming back any time soon, Green might return later in the month, and when Laich only logs 12 minutes in an important game you know he isn’t close to 100% either. So Dale Hunter’s team needs to “pull up their socks” and start playing better. On Sunday they made a horrible defensive zone giveaway that led to poor positioning and an easy Ryan Callahan goal that gave New York a 1-0 lead after Washington had carried much of the play. That type of mistake is a killer and puts an offensively challenged team behind the eight ball quickly.

The Caps did battle back getting a sweet goal from Alexander Semin after Jason Chimera used his speed against a slow Rangers defense to open up a lane for 28 to unleash his deadly shot. However, they gave the lead back with another sequence where they went running around in their own end. Troy Brouwer eventually left his skates, something you only want to do as a last resort on defense, and that allowed Ryan McDonagh to beat Michal Neuvirth (25 saves) under the right arm.

When your lineup is missing key players, special teams become even more important and Washington cost themselves the game with their struggling power play in the third period. Trailing 2-1 with over 13 minutes left Alexander Ovechkin, John Carlson, and Mathieu Perreault all made bad decisions and as a result, the Rangers received a two on one break and Brandon Prust, who rarely scores, netted the eventual game winner (Carlson would score late to give the Caps a chance). Those mistakes, which were also the result of guys trying to do too much individually, were backbreakers and ultimately cost the Caps from getting at least a point, something they sorely need right now.

Ovechkin certainly didn’t have one of his better games and he should have been using his speed and power to get around an over rated Rangers defense more often. Instead the Gr8 seemed to battle a terrible ice surface and the puck all afternoon. The Caps need their star player to step up and carry this team right now if they are going to make the playoffs. He has to find ways to get more shots on goal and help his teammates be better. That did not happen against New York on Sunday. In his defense, a winger needs a playmaking center to get him the puck and he doesn’t have that with Backstrom out. Marcus Johansson has a bright future but he is being asked to do a lot in just his second year in the league. Perhaps Hunter might want to put Ovechkin back with Perreault and Semin to generate more offense because those are the two other most skilled offensive players in the lineup at this juncture?

Whatever Hunter decides to do, he needs to get this team playing better hockey quickly before they fall too far behind the teams they are chasing. They don’t have the skill to overcome in game lapses like they’ve been able to do in the past so the number of breakdowns on defense must decrease. In addition, the power play has to be better. Simply put, this team has to start being more efficient or they might find themselves golfing come mid-April. The margin for error is that small in a crowded Eastern Conference race.

Notes: The Rangers crushed the Caps at the faceoff dot, 31-19…Neuvirth got the start today due to Tomas Vokoun being sick. #30 was not the reason Washington lost, he had no chance on goals 1 and 3…the Caps hit at least three posts, by my count, so if it weren’t for bad luck lately they’d have no luck at all…Mike Knuble and Jeff Schultz were the Capitals scratches.

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Defensive Breakdowns Cost Caps in OT Defeat

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Defensive Breakdowns Cost Caps in OT Defeat

Posted on 31 January 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Despite having to play once again without Alexander Ovechkin (2nd of three game suspension), Nicklas Backstrom (concussion), and Mike Green (hernia surgery) the Washington Capitals are finding ways to get standings points that they desperately need. The Caps, who trailed 3-1 past the halfway point in Tampa on Tuesday night, rallied with two goals before falling in overtime, 4-3, to the Bolts on a Steven Stamkos tally.

The Capitals continue to give a super effort every night but right now they are clearly missing their big guns, especially on the power play (0 for 3 in Tampa), and they also are making too many defensive breakdowns. Every Bolts tally on Tuesday was the result of poor play in Washington’s own zone. The primary culprits in this one were Roman Hamrlik (-3) and John Carlson (-4) but Mathieu Perreault failed to cover Teddy Purcell on the Lightning’s first tally after #44 backed up giving Steve Downie a clear passing lane. Coach Dale Hunter has instituted a defense first system that has taken time to implement and in this game the Caps made some big blunders that gave the Bolts too many odd man rushes, something that tactically should not happen with this style of play. I am sure tomorrow morning’s video session will be poignant.

On the positive side, Brooks Laich and Matt Hendricks turned in superb performances and were two of the primary reasons the Capitals got a point. Winger Troy Brouwer was solid as well and his goal after #21 forced an offensive zone turnover tied this one up just under six minutes into the third period. The Caps offense, even without the big guns, showed a lot of life at even strength and the 29 shots on net were the most for Washington in weeks. Perreault has done a nice job of stepping up centering Alexander Semin and Marcus Johansson to give Hunter a true scoring line.

In goal, Tomas Vokoun was a difference maker again and his save on Vincent Lecavlier in overtime is one you’ll see highlights of quite a bit over the next 24 hours. #29 is making the key stop, with his biggest actually being on Stamkos on a breakaway early in period three in a 3-2 game. If #91 scores there the game is over.

This Caps team is certainly resilient under Hunter and they don’t quit. It isn’t pretty hockey right now but they have managed to get four points in the last three games against good competition (Pittsburgh, Boston, and Tampa). Hunter’s club has to work hard every night to be competitive and so far they are doing it. They have Wednesday night’s first place in the Southeast Division showdown battle in Florida (8 pm start) to tackle before they get Ovechkin back on Saturday in Montreal. What is not encouraging is that Backstrom has skated only a total of five minutes over the last 25 days. Clearly if #19 is out even longer term (he’s missed 11 games already), Washington’s chances of making the playoffs or going deep in them, are severely weakened.

But this is pro sports and other players have to step up. Guys like Laich and Perreault are doing that right now and that is keeping the Caps afloat.

Notes: Martin St. Louis’ goal to make it 2-1 not only was clearly offsides, but Lecavalier interferred with both Hamrlik (took out his skates) and Carlson on the play. Not sure what the zebras were looking at there? However the men in stripes did allow Laich to put his free hand around Matt Gilroy as he was skating around the net and he gave the puck up to Brouwer for the game tying tally. So the refs taketh and giveth in this contest…Washington recalled Cody Eakin and Joel Rechlicz from Hershey for the game. Rechlicz only played two shifts and 1:49 but his presence on the bench clearly made a difference. Tampa’s chief pest and punk Downie was nowhere near as agitating or dirty as he had been in the past. Just the fact that #54 might come out on the ice to pound someone helped Washington, in my opinion…Karl Alzner was +3 and along with Dennis Wideman were the best defensive pair…Dmitry Orlov took Hamrlik’s spot with Carlson in the last portion of the game. #81 allowed St. Louis to go around him on the game winning goal and Carlson did nothing as Stamkos swooped in for the OT winner. It was a 2 on 4 for Tampa on the winning play. #74 needs to improve in his own zone pronto…Mike Knuble was -3 in 19:50 of ice time…Washington is now 26-19-4. They have a one point lead over the Panthers but Florida has a game in hand.

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At Season’s Halfway Point, It’s Time to Grade the Caps

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At Season’s Halfway Point, It’s Time to Grade the Caps

Posted on 12 January 2012 by Ed Frankovic

With the Washington Capitals hitting their season midpoint, it is time for my fifth annual Caps mid-season grades and analysis. It’s been a rollercoaster ride for the Capitals in 2011-12. This Caps squad that added goalie Tomas Vokoun, defensemen Roman Hamrlik, and forwards Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern during the summer, shot out of the gate 7-0 but an injury to Mike Green coupled with some poor defensive zone play and shaky goaltending sent the team reeling for several weeks. That swoon ultimately led to the firing of Bruce Boudreau. Enter new coach Dale Hunter, who changed the defensive system switching from zone to man to man, and the Caps became a team that was better at keeping the biscuit out of their own cage but saw the offense struggle early on while the team focused on a defense first mentality. In Hunter’s scheme, the offense is created from defense, primarily from transition. Over the last couple of weeks the team has executed those tactics much more effectively and the result has been victories in five of the last seven games. The goals against average, which was 3.32 in 22 games under Boudreau, has declined to 2.47 in 19 games with Hunter.

Washington heads into the season’s second half at 22-17-2 (46 points) which is good for 8th place in the Eastern Conference and 16th overall in the NHL. For comparison’s sake, at the halfway point last season, the Caps were 23-12-6 (52 points) but there were some obvious holes on the roster, with second line center being the biggest. On trade deadline day in 2011 GM George McPhee would make some super deals adding defensemen Dennis Wideman and center Jason Arnott and the Caps went on a tear to seize the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the playoffs. However, both Arnott and Wideman were injured down the stretch and Washington couldn’t get past the second round of the playoffs, getting swept by the Bolts in four games. There were some who felt that McPhee needed to make a coaching change immediately after the second round loss to Tampa Bay but the GM said late this fall, just after switching to Hunter behind the bench just 22 games into the season, that he didn’t want all of the blame for the postseason failure to fall on Boudreau. But clearly Boudreau’s message was falling on deaf ears as a team that played super defense in the second half of 2010-11 became irresponsible in their own zone in the early part of this season.

The old adage, “Defense Wins Championships,” is spot on and Hunter has this team more focused in this area but there are still issues, especially when the club goes on the road. Washington is 15-5-1 at the Verizon Center but a terrible 7-12-1 away. If this Caps team is going to make a second half push to climb up the overall standings, then the road record must improve. The Capitals have not looked the same away from DC and their play in their own zone has been atrocious at times, case in point being this past Monday night in Los Angeles. From the defensemen to the centers to the wingers, the Caps must do a better job with their breakouts because they are making far too many giveaways that lead to more shots, chances, and zone time for their opponents. This Capitals team used to pride itself on being a puck possession crew but due to their own zone struggles, they end up wasting lots of time and energy just trying to get past the blue and red lines. That zaps energy and the ability to use their size and skill in the offensive zone.

Injuries have been a factor in the struggles, Green has pretty much been out since the start of the year and as a result Dennis Wideman and John Carlson have had to take on more minutes. In addition, the absence of 52 exposed the lack of speed that Roman Hamrlik, Jeff Schultz, and John Erskine possess. The good news is that Hamrlik has turned his game around with the new man to man system under Hunter but the other two aren’t even getting a sweater with the recent recall of Tomas Kundratek from Hershey. Assistant coach Jim Johnson is clearly trying to find the right combination on the back end and I wouldn’t be surprised if McPhee adds a defensemen at the trade deadline. In addition, the second line center problem has risen to the spotlight again, especially with Nicklas Backstrom out of the lineup the last three games due to the cheap shot to the head he took from Calgary’s Rene Bourque. Once again, I look for GMGM to address the center position, and possibly another forward slot at the trade deadline. The Capitals have two first round draft picks this year so the GM could decide to use one of them to upgrade the current roster.

To sum up the first half of the year, the coaching change was necessary but it clearly hasn’t solved all of the team’s issues and the personnel will need some upgrades by February 27th. Several players also need to execute better than they did in the first 41 games.

Speaking of players, it is time to move on to the individual grades, which are based on the expectations for each at the start of the season (after the opening night roster was announced). They also take in to account each individual’s yearly salary cap hit:

Top of the Class

Jason Chimera (A) – 14 goals and 7 assists put #25 on pace for a career high in offensive production. In addition, his offense has not come with a drop in defensive zone play as he is +6. Chimera has been excellent using his speed to get around opposing defenders to create offense or simply wear down the other team.

Karl Alzner (A) – The defensive defensemen is a +10 with much of his ice time coming against opposing number one forward lines. Sure there have been nights when #27 has had a rough matchup, but all year long he has been the club’s steadiest blueliner. Add in the fact that King Karl is getting more involved offensively, his 1 goal and 11 assists give him 12 points, the same total he had all last season, and he has really amped up his game in just his second full year in the NHL.

Nicklas Backstrom (A-) – Arguably the team’s MVP so far because he is so valuable on a team that is weak up center ice after #19. 42 points in 38 games for a team that has shifted to a defense first mentality is impressive. It is clear that Nicky got himself in supreme shape this past offseason and his strength on the puck is back this season. It is a shame that he is out right now, for who knows how long, due to Bourque’s reckless cheap shot.

Honor Society

Dennis Wideman (B) – with Green out #6 has been asked to be the team’s ice time leader on most nights. He has picked up the offensive slack notching eight goals and 21 assists, which helped put him in the all star game. Wideman overall though, is a -3, and that needs to improve. He has a tendency to overplay opponents in his own zone which breaks down the entire defensive system when it happens.

Tomas Vokoun (B) – 17-10 with a .915 save percentage are good numbers. He’s had some great games, the two victories over Pittsburgh spring immediately to mind, and some poor outings, such as the night against the Flyers when he couldn’t stop a beach ball. #29 was plagued by the bad goal a night blues for a while in the middle of the first half but he seems to be snapping out of it. For the Caps to get where they want to be he needs to be at the top of his game down the stretch and in the post season.

Jeff Halpern (B) – #15 is 217-148 from the faceoff dot (59.4%) and is the team’s best drawman. Slated to play on the 4th line, the Potomac native has worked himself up the depth chart with solid two way play. He has 3 goals and 8 helpers but is a +4.

Dmitry Orlov (B) – started the season in Hershey but because of the lack of mobility on the blue line, the 2009 2nd round pick was summoned to “The Show” and has acquitted himself so well that it is unlikely he goes back to the AHL. He has six assists, but is -3. He has great wheels and a surprising physical presence on the back end. If he can start hitting the net with his shot the Capitals offense would get a great boost.

Marcus Johansson (B-) – MJ90 has had an up and down first half but his numbers are decent: 9 goals and 15 assists. He is a -2 and surprisingly has had some rough nights in his own zone, something that was supposed to be a rarity for the normally solid defensive pivot. This kid will continue to get better and unfortunately he is forced to play center on one of the top two lines too often. In my book he is a third line center and would be one of the best in the NHL in that role, but he also has shown he can be a decent winger, with the right center (Backstrom).

John Carlson (B-) – #74 has been very inconsistent this season. At times he has been one of the best players on the ice and in other games he has looked lost in his own zone. The system change may have hurt him more than any other d-man because he is still learning how to take time and space away from opponents. Offensively though, he has been there with five goals and 17 assists. I’d like to see him get more power play time.

Cody Eakin (B-) – I didn’t expect the 2009 3rd round NHL pick to spend much time with the Caps this year but due to injuries, a friendly contract that allows him to go up and down without having to clear waivers, and his speed, he’s played in nearly half of the tilts. He has been most effective when using his speed to beat opponents and when he hasn’t done that he has looked overmatched and benched in some games, as a result. Personally I’d rather see him play 20+ minutes a night in the AHL to properly develop his game. He just isn’t physically big enough for the NHL, at this time.

Average Joe’s

Troy Brouwer (C+) – #20 has 11 goals and 20 points and has been a real solid net presence. He also has done a good job of being physical in the offensive zone.

Roman Hamrlik (C) – #44 really struggled under Boudreau and part of that was a lingering groin issue. However, with Hunter’s system he is in familiar territory and doesn’t look like he is skating in concrete, like he did early on.

John Erskine (C) – Started the season on IR due to a shoulder injury. Last year he was one of the best players in the first 41 games but when you can’t lift and work out in the offseason due to an injury it really sets you back. #4′s main role appears to be spot starts where his phyiscal presence is needed. His best games seem to always be against the Rangers.

Joel Ward (C) – Needs to score more than five goals in the second half. His skating is a little worrisome, not sure if he was out of shape or he had an injury but he doesn’t look as quick as he did in the 2011 playoffs when he was a Nashville Predator. His +5 rating saves him from a worse grade.

Michal Neuvirth (C-) – #30 really struggled in the first part of the year before improving once Hunter took over. At one point Neuvy was the #1 goalie but he let in a couple of bad ones in Buffalo the day after Christmas and it’s pretty much been the Vokoun show ever since. 5-7-2 with an .886 save percentage are not good numbers at all, although he is over 90% since number 32 took over.

Brooks Laich (C-) – Another guy, because of the holes up the middle of the ice, gets forced to play out of position. I see #21 as a 2nd or 3rd line winger where he can use his size and drive to help the Caps break out of their zone. As a pivot he just doesn’t have the hands to be effective coming out of his own end. You’ll never get a bad effort from the fan favorite but at the dollars he’s making the Caps need more than a point every other game and a -7 rating. More production please Brooksie.

Alex Ovechkin (C-) – 17 goals, 16 assists, -8. We’ve seen good Ovie and bad Ovie this year. Most of the bad came under Boudreau but he has 0 points in the last three games after 9 in the previous 6. The good news is he was all over the ice against the Penguins hitting and creating chances on Wednesday night. That is the Ovechkin the Caps need to win games. If he doesn’t have it, the Capitals usually lose. The Gr8 needs to continue to improve in his own zone, if he bears down more the breakaways and odd man rushes will come in bunches each night.

Not Making the Grade

Alexander Semin (D) – Was super in the first five games before becoming a penalty machine and a scapegoat for Boudreau. Under the new regime he seems more energized and had six really good games in a row before getting injured in Columbus. If he can get healthy again he can be dominant in this system where he is, in my mind, the best winger at getting the puck out of the Washington zone. But only 10 goals in 37 games is not cutting it, the Capitals need more from this supremely talented player who is making $6.7M.

Matt Hendricks (D) – 1 goal in 37 games is not good for this fourth liner. If he plays like he did against Pittsburgh on Wednesday night he’ll get more ice time and his production will improve. He has to play physical to be effective.

Mathieu Perreault (D) – 3 goals in 26 games is way under where I thought MP85 would be. He has not been the sparkplug that he had been in the past and perhaps his size is why he just isn’t going to be consistent at the NHL level?

Mike Knuble (D) – 3 goals in 41 games for the aging winger. #22 has definitely lost a step and that has cost him lots of ice time. Can he find the fountain of youth once again in the second half?

Whereabouts Unknown

Jeff Schultz (F) – Is this the same guy who was +50 just two years ago? #55 has lost foot speed and confidence. He looks clumsy and a step behind when he plays. I am not sure he is with this team much longer and at $2.75M against the salary cap he is an expensive scratch each night.

Incomplete: Mike Green, Jay Beagle, Sean Collins, DJ King, and Tomas Kundratek

Management Grades

Bruce Boudreau (D) - The likeable Gabby eventually ran out of things to tell his club and they tuned him out. He and assistant coach Bob Woods couldn’t get the defense to be better and as a result it cost them their jobs.

Dale Hunter (B) – Dale brought in a radical system change with arguably some personnel that aren’t exact fits. But when you see the turnaround a guy like Hamrlik had and the goals against dropping so significantly, even with some shaky goaltending early in his regime, it was definitely the right thing to do tactically. The team is becoming a harder club to play against but they still lack some sandpaper type grit. He has definitely turned Semin around and Ovechkin is buying in too. His success rides on Vokoun, the play of 8 and 28, and the personnel tweaks he works with McPhee on to upgrade the roster by the end of February. Another Hunter strength is he is a man of few words so his message is easy to receive. He also stays on an even keel, which is good for the players as they don’t waste energy on emotional issues.

General Manager George McPhee (B) – It is hard for GM’s to do anything in the first half of a season but he did the one thing he had to do, switch coaches. Going forward until trade deadline day are critical times for McPhee. He has to find a way to get some better fits for what Hunter wants to do to be successful in the spring. His off season moves are looking better after a rough first 22 games, especially with Hamrlik’s improved play and the fact that Vokoun has stolen some wins. Still, he has that nagging second line center issue that he will have to address again by the end of February.

In final analysis, over the first half of the sesason there were nights when the Caps looked like they can play with anyone in the league, but on other occassions they were run out of the barn. Those games came mostly under Boudreau but Monday’s loss in Los Angeles was a bit of a scare. Hopefully fatigue was to blame for that one. Going forward this team has a lot of work to be done to get where they want to be. The execution needs to be markedly better and personnel moves will be needed if they want to compete with the likes of Boston. If that doesn’t happen then the ownership will likely take some drastic measures after the season is over. I don’t think anyone wants that to happen.

 

 

 

 

 

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Red Light District Returns for Caps Young Guns

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Red Light District Returns for Caps Young Guns

Posted on 20 December 2011 by Ed Frankovic

“Your best players need to be your best players.”

You hear that saying from coaches a lot, but it is ultra true, and on Tuesday night, the Washington Capitals, who used to live off of the efforts of their “Young Guns,” erupted for four goals in a 4-1 victory over the Nashville Predators. Alexander Oveckhin scored early on after a beautiful feed from Karl Alzner, Nicklas Backstrom followed that up with a sweet wraparound goal, and then Alexander Semin tallied on a sick top shelf wrister after one of his patented gaffes led to Nashville’s only goal in the third period. Troy Browuer closed out the scoring on the power play with #19 right next to him in front of the Predators cage. Michal Neuvirth (20 saves) was outstanding in net and for once the Capitals could breathe easier down the stretch and not have to hang on for dear life in a one goal victory.

Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis from a win that improves the Caps to 17-14-1:

- This was a much needed offensive game for the Capitals after a pretty dismal display in Colorado on Saturday night. Washington can be very guilty of overhandling and overpassing of the puck but in the first period it was pretty clear that Coach Dale Hunter stressed the need to get the biscuit and bodies to the cage. The result was the Caps played their best first period in the Hunter era dominating a Predators team that is known for hard work and good defense. The shots were 11-4 for the good guys after the first frame and if not for some decent saves by Anders Lindback (19 saves total) this one would have been a blowout.

“I thought we came out well in the first period. We were ready to play and we took the play to them pretty good and we jumped on them early. We made a few mistakes in the third and gave up some scoring chances but I think the first set the tone for the game where the guys came out and played hard,” said Hunter.

- Solid coaching from Hunter tonight with his line combinations. #32 split up Ovechkin and Backstrom and that forced Predators Coach Barry Trotz to pick a line to play his top d-pair of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter against. Trotz chose the Backstrom-Semin-MJ90 unit and as a result Ovechkin, Brooks Laich, and Brouwer were able to go against a different defensive pairing. Alexander Ovechkin set the tone with his physical play and also credit coach Hunter for using the last change to his advantage and getting the Gr8 out against weaker d-man, John Blum, when he could. Ovechkin abused the young #7, who was recently recalled from the AHL, to spark his club. Alexander the Great had seven shots on goal in just over 15 minutes of ice time and he also had three hits.

“He’s a special player and he came out here scoring and hitting. He was a complete player tonight. Especially in the first [period], we needed a lift and he came out and played hard.”added Hunter.

“They {the Capitals} have two lines with {Nicklas} Backstrom and {Alexander} Semin and obviously the {Alex} Ovechkin line, so we’re pretty young on the back end and we had to split them {our defensemen} up tonight,” added the Predators coach, admitting that Hunter put him in a tough situation tactically, given Nashville’s defensive lineup.

- Neuvirth played his third straight game and appears to be regaining the form he had last season when he carried Washington in a lot of contests en route to the top seed in the Eastern Conference. #30 is saving over 92% of his shots while under Coach Hunter and will likely see the net again on Friday night in New Jersey. He had excellent positioning on Tuesday and did not allow many rebounds. He made several big stops, with one on Jordan Tootoo in the slot standing out in the third period. This is the kind of goaltending this club needs to get on a roll and gain confidence.

- One thing the Capitals have to improve on is their penchant for taking bad penalties. Washington was shorthanded five times and if not for some super penalty killing they could have lost the stranglehold they had on this contest at even strength. The infractions were as follows: too many men on the ice, a lazy boarding by Semin after he reached with his stick and got his skates tangled up with Tootoo, an Alzner puck over the glass for delay of game, a retaliatory cross check by Jason Chimera, and a careless slash by Joel Ward. Every one of those penalties did not take away a scoring chance for the Predators so they are BAD ones and show a lack of discipline. That needs to be cleaned up.

- Good things happen when you shoot the puck. In the second period Semin had a two on one rush with Marcus Johansson (two assists) and he tried to saucer a pass to MJ90 instead of firing away. In the final frame, after Semin turned the puck over at the blue line on the previous shift to allow the Preds to make it a one goal game, MJ90 gave Semin a beautiful drop pass and #28 fired off his back foot from a bad angle but it WENT IN. It was an incredible display of skill and it only shows that if he would just fire more we might see a return in production from him. In fact, the whole team needs to shoot more. Dennis Wideman’s simple power play blast that was batted home by Brouwer is another perfect example.

- So at the end of the night, Hunter’s Caps earned one of their better victories on the season. They came out hard, dictated the pace early on, and the Young Guns delivered. It was a game that gives hope of an offensive resurgence for this red light challenged team. The question now is can they keep it up and find some consistency or are they going to continue to be a one game on, one game off team? If they shoot the puck more, get to the opposing net with a passion, receive quality goaltending, and stay out of the penalty box then they will find themselves back near the top of the NHL standings. Easier said than done, though.

Notes: Mike Knuble was honored beforehand for his 1,000th NHL game. #22 played only 10:07 and didn’t attempt a shot on goal…Mike Green participated fully during the morning skate and appears close to a return. That would be a huge boost to this hockey team as the Caps are 8-0 when he plays…Jeff Schultz was the sixth defensemen and he didn’t look too good on one shift and barely played after that (6:01 total for the game)…Wideman led the Caps with 28:44 of ice time…Washington won the face-off battle, 35-23, after a subpar outing in Denver in that department on Saturday. Jeff Halpern, who played 18:05, was 14-5 from the dot.

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Caps Effort Needs to be More Focused

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Caps Effort Needs to be More Focused

Posted on 05 December 2011 by Ed Frankovic

Former Washington Capitals Coach Jim Schoenfeld once said about his club back in the mid-90′s, “I don’t care how hard you work, you’ll never open a can of beans with a banana.”

That saying is a perfect description of why the Washington Capitals got behind 5-1 in Florida on Monday night before their furious late rally fell a goal short to the Panthers. The Caps are clearly working harder under new Coach Dale Hunter, but their energy was extremely misguided in the first half of this game. Washington took several poor penalties and to top it off, their goaltender, Michal Neuvirth, gave up a few softies. That combination led to three Panthers power play goals. Perhaps the biggest example of waste of energy was the Cats fifth goal. The Caps had five guys all back in their own zone but they got so focused on the puck carrier, former Capital Tomas Fleischmann, that #14 skated right between all of them and then slid a pass to Stephen Weiss for a tap in. It was likely the worst single defensive play in the entire Capitals season. It is very difficult to win when you play that bad for 32 minutes, although the Capitals made this one very interesting late, something they can take some pride in.

10 days ago this game probably would have looked like those blowouts in Winnipeg, Toronto, and Buffalo, but under Hunter, the team seems to be finding some mental toughness, although clearly they aren’t all the way there yet. Alexander Ovechkin is skating his rear off but at times he is still trying to do too much himself. You can see that he wants it bad but he doesn’t know how to get the results right now. He had a golden chance to break out of his slump on the final faceoff in the last dozen seconds and send this one to extra time but his laser sailed wide of the cage.

There will be some that will say, “See, the coaching change isn’t working!” But those people are flat out wrong. This team had big work work ethic and confidence problems under Bruce Boudreau over his last three weeks behind the bench. The work ethic is back, but like I said above, it is still misguided for stretches of the game. The confidence is clearly an issue and you need look no further than Ovechkin to see that. He doesn’t have a goal in four games under Hunter and he is pressing. It is a tough cycle and the only way to dig out of that is with hard work and resolve.

On the other hand, the team can work as hard as possible and be smarter but one thing that the skaters can’t fix is their goaltending. Neuvirth was downright terrible at times in the first period and Tomas Vokoun has allowed his share of easy goals this season, too. Unless one of those guys starts stepping up and making the saves, it is going to be harder for the Capitals to regain their confidence. After Saturday night’s strong performance against the Senators I figured #30 would be ready to get on a roll on Monday but he regressed once again. Hunter and goaltending coaches Dave Prior and Olie Kolzig have to be scratching their heads right now because what looked to be a real strength is the squad’s biggest weakness right now.

So far under Hunter the Caps are a poor 1-3 but we’ve seen glimpses of what could be for Washington if they get their effort focused in the right places. They also need some quality goaltending. Caps legend Rod Langway used to say everything starts with the goaltender and it goes out from there. Right now the guys wearing the goalie pads need to step it up.

So it is on to Ottawa for Wednesday’s tilt with the Senators. Hunter correctly blamed the penalties after the contest for primarily putting the Caps behind the eight ball but what I liked was his team is starting to take on his character of working hard and not quitting. They nearly tied this game up after some putrid hockey and that shows heart.

“[the guys] showed character, and that is what winners are all about,” added Hunter in his final analysis, following the loss.

I’m thinking he’s right and that the wins will eventually start to come in bunches if they continue to work hard but play smarter.

Now where’s that can opener?

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Notes: The NHL Board of Governors meeting concluded Monday night from Pebble Beach, California and there was big news on realignment for next season. The league will go to four conferences. Washington is in a conference with the following teams: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, New Jersey, and Carolina. Basically it is the old Patrick Division plus the Canes. I really like this for the Caps and it should help bring those old rivalry games back to the Verizon Center. Word has it that each squad will play every team in their own division six times and they will also play every team in the league at least twice (home and away). Right now, it appears that the top four teams in each conference will qualify for the playoffs with first place playing fourth place and second facing third in the first round.

John Carlson played 26:04, had eight shots on goal, was +3 and had three assists. He was the Capitals best player on this night…the Caps won the faceoff battle 33-29…Ovechkin was -2 and only got four of his nine shot attempts on net.

 

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