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Tough Weekend for Caps, But Not For Hershey

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Tough Weekend for Caps, But Not For Hershey

Posted on 18 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

After going 4-0-1 in the first nine days of a seven games in 11 day stretch, it appears fatigue finally caught up with the Washington Capitals as they dropped two tough one goal losses to the Nashville Predators (4-3) and Dallas Stars (5-4) over the weekend on days 10 and 11. In both contests the Capitals fell behind early, two pucks in Music City and then a 3-0 deficit in Big D, expended tons of energy in rallying, before wilting late to lose two heart breakers.

The loss to the Predators, in Coach Barry Trotz’ return to Smashville, was especially disheartening since the Caps led 3-2 with five minutes to go. But a soft penalty call on John Carlson, a bad PK, and then a Matt Niskanen untimely turnover added up to a horrible defeat.

In Dallas, it was the bad start, too many penalties, and just awful defense that cost Washington the game. They turned the puck over too much and allowed a super fast squad to beat them in transition. In addition, the Capitals strong defensive zone play that we’ve come to expect under Trotz looked very Oatesian in the Lone Star State and, at times, in Nashville.

Washington gave up nine goals in two games and that is unacceptable. Looking at all of those tallies against, it’s hard to fault the goaltender (Braden Holtby on Friday and Justin Peters on Saturday) on any of them.

Back to back situations also seem to plague this Capitals team. They are now 1-6-1 this season on the second half of those and 0-5-1 when game two is on the road. Again, unacceptable and the team they are chasing for the division lead, the New York Islanders, is 6-2 in those same instances. That’s a nine point swing and the reason why New York currently owns a five point lead in the division race over the Caps (61 points to 56).

The good news is the Caps top line continues to sizzle and Alex Ovechkin (25 goals) is playing some of the best hockey of his career. In addition, the Caps have a game against the Edmonton Oilers at home on Tuesday before getting a week off for the NHL all star break. Boy do the Caps need some rest.

Along with the defensive zone issues, Washington’s second line continues to be wildly inconsistent. Evgeny Kuznetsov was downright terrible in Nashville and he, along with Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer just aren’t where this team needs their second line to be.

Barring some major injuries, you can pretty much bet the house that the Caps will return to the playoffs this spring. But just making it is not enough. Ovechkin is not getting any younger nor is Brooks Orpik and some others, so the Capitals need to seriously think about what they need to do over the remaining 37 games to prepare themselves to win in the post season. The Eastern Conference has many good teams, but there is no clear cut front runner. GM Brian MacLellan and Trotz need to figure out what to do about the forward line combinations, including determining if some trades are needed, and solidify them for April and beyond. The East is there for the taking so just being content with getting back in the dance should not cut it.

It’s been an encouraging season and a major turnaround for Washington thanks to off season defensive acquisitions along with bringing in a talented and organized coaching staff. As George Allen used to say, “The Future is Now.” The Caps have to think like that, unlike the words we used to hear from the former GM about just getting in and hoping to win. You have to be aggressive at the trade deadline in an attempt to plug any holes and build depth for the unexpected injury that could occur down the stretch and in the post season. It will be interesting to see what MacLellan does since the Caps have some holes that the kids on the roster (Tom Wilson, Andre Burakovksy, and Kuznetsov) have not been able to fill so far this season.

Speaking of kids, it was a super weekend for the Washington AHL team, the Hershey Bears. Coach Troy Mann’s squad won both weekend tilts to seize first place in the East Division. The Bears are also a strong defensive team but have had trouble putting the biscuit in the basket. Lately though, they’ve gotten hot offensively and have won five of six games.

On Sunday, I took in the Bears tilt against the despised Lehigh Valley Phantoms (Philadelphia Flyers AHL club) at the Giant Center and came away very impressed with the team game that Hershey plays. Phoenix Copley got the start in net and he was solid, allowing only two tallies on 30 shots. Hershey does a decent job of keeping opponents on the perimeter and they transition from defense to offense well. I was impressed with the speed of Dustin Gazley. Gazley did a good job of helping a penalty killing unit that was a perfect eight for eight on Sunday.

Stan Galiev has 13 goals and is really improving. He is showing he belongs in the AHL now after a couple of years of bouncing back and forth between “The A” and the ECHL. Connor Carrick was okay on defense for Hershey, as well. Both played big roles in a Bears five on three situation in period two. Carrick manned the point, like Mike Green does in Washington, while Galiev had the Ovechkin spot on the PP. They moved the puck well in that situation but Phantoms goalie Anthony Stolarz, who was very shaky in the first period, was super in the middle frame and shut the Bears down to keep his club in it. Late in period three the Bears would score and then add an empty net tally to close out the victory.

Overall, I like Hershey’s team and they are poised to do well come AHL playoffs time. However, I didn’t see anyone I thought must be called up to DC this season. That’s also a testament to the strong roster the Capitals have at the NHL level, too. If there is a call up that could play a factor in Washington down the stretch, I’d have to say it would be goalie Philip Grubauer. With Peters struggling to get wins, one has to wonder if the team has much confidence in him? Grubauer does have NHL experience and has shown the ability to steal a game at that level where Peters just hasn’t come close to doing so in 2014-15.

Notes: The Caps out shot attempted Dallas, 68-51, but the only thing that counts is the final score…Hershey is 3-2-1 against Lehigh Valley but they play SIX more times this season…Grubauer returned from injury and won, 5-4, versus Albany on Saturday night.

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Caps Blank Flyers on Rivalry Night

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Caps Blank Flyers on Rivalry Night

Posted on 15 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

You only get two points for a win during the regular season in the National Hockey League, but some victories are better than others.

For the Washington Capitals and their fan base, many of whom have stuck with them for 40 years since 1974, beating the Philadelphia Flyers has always seemed worth more than two points.

On Wednesday night in front of a national television audience on NBC’s Rivalry Night, the Caps Braden Holtby stopped 21 shots to make Jason Chimera’s goal, just 3:13 into the game, stand up for a 1-0 victory in front of a sellout crowd at the Verizon Center.

The triumph, the Caps seventh straight at home, puts them at 24-11-8 (56 points) for the season and they are a staggering 14-1-4 in their last 19 games. In addition, they are 23-1-3 this season when scoring first.

Those are some good numbers there and holding the Flyers, a team that averages close to 29 shots a game, to just 21 on the cage is significant too. Overall the shot attempt battle was 55-54 for the Flyers, but Washington blocked 23 of those shots from Philadelphia (the duo of Brooks Orpik and John Carlson blocked nine of them).

As mentioned above and on tv, this was rivalry night and the history between these two clubs is long. In the early days, truckloads of Flyers fans would invade the Capital Centre for Caps-Flyers tilts and the beer would flow and the fights would erupt in the stands. Nowadays, there are Philly fans in attendance, I could see a smattering of orange jersey’s and thankfully we never got to hear them cheer, but it is nothing like the old days. Still, there is a special vibe or air in the building when the neighbors from up I-95 come to town and the Capitals coaching staff recognized it before the game.

“I was talking to [assistant coach] Lane Lambert and he said it’s ramped up a little bit when the Flyers are in town…we haven’t played a lot of our Metro division – people like the Rangers, the Flyers…so we could tell there’s a different energy in the building when those teams come in,” said Caps Coach Barry Trotz about his first home game against Philadelphia.

The Flyers had won the last four games, head to head, dating back to last season, so this was an important victory for the Capitals fan base. To many, Caps vs. Flyers is like Ravens-Steelers or Redskins-Cowboys in the NFL. Both teams respect each other, but they don’t like each other and when it comes to the fans, well they flat out despise the other fan base. So it was no surprise that down the stretch the Washington crowd was more into it than normal and their support seemed to energize the Caps players.

As for the game, it was an uneven one. Washington dominated early but couldn’t bury some great chances on Flyers 33 year old rookie goalie, Rob Zepp. The Zepper stopped Alex Ovechkin cold early on in a one on one situation and that seemed to help Philly, who was in jeopardy of being run out of the building, settle down. The game went back and forth for the sixty minutes with both sides carrying the play at various times.

Philadelphia had a stretch in the middle frame when it looked like they might take over the game but following a hard hit by Wayne Simmonds on Matt Niskanen in the neutral zone, Niskanen buried Scott Laughton with a hard, clean check that knocked #49 from the contest. Afterwards Trotz felt that the hit by Niskanen, who had the primary assist on Chimera’s goal, energized his club.

Overall the Caps had 26 shots on net but I thought they were too sloppy. There were far too many back passes that resulted in turnovers and the Washington top line of Nicklas Backstrom, Ovechkin, and Andre Burakovsky just didn’t look in sync. Burakovsky seems to be a bit intimidated by his linemates and is getting rid of the puck like it is a hot potato too often. The young Swede needs to settle down and carry the puck more, which is one of his strengths and allows him to create scoring chances.

At the end of the night, though, it was the Capitals vastly improved defensive play that allowed them to get another low scoring victory. Holtby, in his 26th straight contest and 20th straight start, was excellent again and when he needed assistance, guys like Orpik helped him out. #44 tied up Vincent Lecavalier’s stick late in the contest at the side of the net to prevent Vinny from notching a game tying tap in.

So now it is on to Nashville to face Trotz’ former team, the Predators, on Friday night. Trotz, in his post game presser, mentioned he chatted with Preds GM David Poile on Wednesday and that Poile was hopeful the Caps would beat Philly because he doesn’t like them. Poile was the Caps GM from 1982 to 1997, so he has a long history with the black and orange.

Trotz and the Caps did their former boss and more importantly, their fan base, proud on Wednesday night with a victory that now puts the Flyers 15 points behind the Capitals in the standings. It will be very difficult for Philadelphia to make the playoffs now.

Combine that fact, with the 1-0 blanking of the Broad Street Bullies, and you can bet that the food will taste better for several days.

Notes: Pekka Rinne, the Predators goalie and MVP, was injured in Tuesday’s game vs. Vancouver. Trotz stated that Rinne is out a couple of weeks so Washington gets a break and won’t have to face the super net minder in the Music City on Friday…Washington won the face off battle, 34-25, and Jay Beagle went 10-2…the Caps killed off all three Flyers man advantage situations while they went 0 for 2 with the man advantage (Ovechkin hit a post on one power play)…Carlson and Orpik led the Caps in ice time with 24:45 and 24:40, respectively…since Tom Wilson was a +1 on Wednesday, there is not a single active Capitals player with a negative +/- rating this season.

 

 

 

 

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Caps Heading in Right Direction at Season’s Midpoint

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Caps Heading in Right Direction at Season’s Midpoint

Posted on 11 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

What a difference a year makes.

At the 2013-14 midpoint, the Washington Capitals were sitting at 20-15-6, good for 46 points. But boy were things coming apart at the seams in a downward trend that started in early December. During that stretch, one in which Coach Adam Oates used three starting goalies to pretty much wreck Braden Holtby’s game, the Caps grew further apart as a team with three players asking for trades (Martin Erat, Dmitry Orlov, and Michal Neuvirth). They were a squad that relied almost exclusively on their power play to win games and were very poor at even strength. In addition, in game 41, a loss at home to Carolina in overtime, they iced a defense of Mike Green, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Dmitry Orlov, John Erskine, and Steve Oleksy. The Caps would go 18-15-8 the rest of the way looking like a totally lost team that would miss the post season and ultimately cost Oates and GM George McPhee their jobs. Over the course of the season, the Capitals used 14 different defensemen and four goalies (traded for Jaroslav Halak at the trade deadline). That version of the Capitals was a team in total chaos.

Fast forward to today, after 41 games the Capitals are 22-11-8 (52 points) and following a sluggish start, have gone 12-1-4 in their last 17 games. Coach Barry Trotz has brought in a new system and a new attitude and GM Brian MacLellan added two quality players, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, to a blue line that had been the team’s Achilles heel for several seasons. Trotz, who had coached the Predators since their first season, brought in an experienced coaching staff in Todd Reirden (defensemen), Lane Lambert (forwards), and Mitch Korn (goalies). All three have done a super job and Korn has allowed Holtby to get back to basics and return to the dominant level he was at in the spring of 2012 when the Caps narrowly missed making the Eastern Conference Finals. To date, they’ve used two goalies, with Holtby clearly the #1 net minder and carrying almost the entire load. On defense, they have quality and stability, they’ve only used seven different players on the back end. Red Wings coach Mike Babcock made a point, following Saturday’s game, to comment on the vast difference in the Washington defense, stating “anytime you have [Mike] Green playing at number five you have a real good back end.” (h/t to CSN’s Chuck Gormley for the quote).

Things are looking very good for this Capitals team. The key word in that sentence being “team.” Center Nicklas Backstrom, who is having yet another superb season, talked on Sunday afternoon about how things are different than past years under Trotz.

“We’ve been talking a lot about before the season and during the season to stick together and work together and doing the right things. It’s real important that everyone is paying attention to small details like face off plays, what we’re doing before every draw, stuff like that, so I think a lot of guys are buying into that and we’re following the game plan. Maybe before we’ve been doing our own things, so that has helped us a lot, I think,” said #19 when asked about the culture change that Trotz is implementing with the Caps.

“They make each other accountable, they don’t accept just going through the motions. When you fight to just go through the motions, that’s not a good culture to have. We’re not doing that, we’re staying on task…I told the guys I didn’t like the way we were playing the last two games [before Detroit] and I told the guys [Saturday] morning that if we want to be the team we think we can be we’re going to get tested tonight. I didn’t like some of the red flags I saw those last two games, we still got points and we won games, but you have to be honest with yourself. There will be times where you lose games and I’ll be happy with the way we played, we just didn’t win the game. Even when you win, you have to be honest with yourself, did you deserve to win the game or did you luck out? I think we are pretty honest, we have good evaluations…so we recognize we have some work to do,” said Trotz when asked about the culture change and where the team is at.

After winning against the Red Wings, Trotz felt better about things but admitted they are still a work in progress.

“I was real happy in the third period with the way we managed the game. We didn’t generate a lot of offense, but we didn’t give up anything, even on six on five they had a little bit, but it wasn’t chaos out there, it was controlled and we forced them to try to execute at an extremely high level and they didn’t get any free looks or anything like that. So we’re better, just in our structure, we recognize possession and we recognized when they weren’t attacking the interior. We stayed patient and when they tried to, we’ll just make one adjustment that we need to do better and if it happens next game we’ll be even more prepared. We try to learn from things that happen, experiences that can make ourselves better, instead of hey we just got lucky. We look for things every day,” said Trotz.

All of the changes have certainly helped the Capitals put themselves back in the playoff picture and right now, it looks like they will make the post season. But there are 41 games to go and the race is tight. While just making the playoffs is key, this club has a bigger goal, to compete for a Stanley Cup. To get to that phase, they have a lot of work to do.

So in the second half the key will be to sustain their focus so that they can improve. Even doing that, there are question marks. One thing to be concerned about is Holtby’s work load. The key will be for Justin Peters to assert himself as a viable back up option, especially with nine back to back tilts scheduled. If Peters can’t perform, then MacLellan will have to find someone who will fill that role, otherwise the Caps not only risk missing the playoffs, but having a very fatigued goalie in April and beyond.

The defense needs to stay healthy and certainly with the depth they have in the top five, Trotz has been able to increase the probability of that by spreading out the minutes. Another key to staying healthy, and winning, is cutting down on the number of penalties the team takes. There have been recent stretches where the parade to the box has cost them points. Finally, they have to stabilize their forward line combinations. We’ve seen a rotating door with Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin on the top unit and the latest project is having rookie Andre Burakovsky fill the right wing role after Tom Wilson and some others struggled. The second scoring line has also been woefully inconsistent. Recently it has shown signs of life with Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Troy Brouwer lighting the lamp more frequently. How that trio plays will be a factor in any possible deep playoff run. Simply put, the forward situation is concerning and it remains to be seen if the young players, Burakovsky, Kuznetsov, and Wilson, can improve enough by April to make this club a contender. If it looks like that isn’t going to happen then MacLellan will have to make a move for a top six forward.

Most of all though, this club needs to continue the process and commitment they’ve built up over the first 41 games and Backstrom certainly brought that home with his thoughts on Sunday afternoon.

“I think that it’s about time that we realize how to play as a team and right now it looks good but we have a long way to go. We’re not done yet, it’s just halfway through the season. We’ve got lots of work to do and we’re not where we want to be yet, so we really need to be humble and make sure we work hard every day and every night,” finished Backstrom.

 

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Holtby Shines in Caps 3-1 Win over Detroit

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Holtby Shines in Caps 3-1 Win over Detroit

Posted on 10 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals were facing the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday night in their third game in four nights while the Wings hadn’t played since Wednesday. That’s a recipe for a tough game and likely a Caps loss, right?

Well, that was not the case on Saturday night as Washington jumped to an early lead on Troy Brouwer’s goal, expanded it to 2-0 on one of the prettiest 4 on 3 goals you’ll ever see, and closed out the victory with a strong third period to take a 3-1 decision, their fifth straight at the Verizon Center.

Braden Holtby stopped 26 of 27 shots, eight of which came in the last three minutes (five in last 1:03) when the Wings pulled their goalie, en route to his 12th win in the last 17 games. #70 is 12-1-4 over that stretch and continues to provide excellent goaltending.

Taking those late eight score effect shots out the Capitals held Detroit, one of the best teams in the league, to just 19 shots for the first 57 minutes. That’s impressive, as Matt Niskanen stated afterwards.

“I thought we were really, really hard and felt the puck tonight. Good structure. They like to come with the puck through the middle with speed, and I thought we did a good job with just keeping the entire game on the walls and making it that kind of game. Taking away their strengths of speed and puck possession, really clogging things up in the right areas. There weren’t a lot of shots for either side,” said Niskanen, who led the Caps in ice time at 22:21 but did have the giveaway that led to the Wings only tally.

Last time the Caps faced the Wings, in October, Washington jumped to a 3-1 lead and dominated puck possession. But they got careless when ahead and forced passes up the middle of the ice and critical turnovers led to a loss. That was early on before Coach Barry Trotz’ system started kicking in. Now the Capitals are playing their system and making the opponent work hard for chances. Detroit certainly didn’t get many good looks tonight and despite the shot totals, the Caps had the better scoring chances in the third period with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andrei Burakovsky not connecting on grade A opportunities.

“I think we play good with the lead. I don’t think we changed too much after we got it. I thought we kept playing hard and stuck to our game plan like we should,” said John Carlson, who had the finish on the Washington second goal. Carlson also turned 25 on Saturday so the goal and victory was a nice birthday present for him.

The Capitals, who are now 21-1-3 when scoring the first goal, continue to get better defensively and they also were successful because they only took two penalties in this tilt. Washington killed both of those shorthanded situations while tallying on the power play. As a result, Trotz was able to spread the ice time around and that was key in this third game in four nights.

“It’s much easier when you only have to kill a couple [of penalties]. It helps your overall team game, too. You don’t lose momentum or waste any energy killing extra penalties that you don’t have to. The couple that they did get, we had good structure and pressure at key moments and were able to get some clears and disrupt them if they wanted to do anything,” finished Niskanen.

So Washington is now 22-11-8 at the season’s halfway point, good for 52 points and fourth place in a tightly bunched at the top Metropolitan division. This club, despite a schedule that has been brutal at times (seven back to backs so far, five of which had the second contest on the road plus nine more back to backs to go), is much improved because of several reasons. In no particular order they are: a deep, quality blue line thanks to the additions of Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, better defensive play due to a better system and coaching, improved goaltending thanks to Holtby and goalie coach Mitch Korn, and a commitment to hockey and details that we haven’t seen from this team in recent years. That commitment, which Trotz called “culture change” in our WNST interview with him in early December, is becoming very evident.

“I’ll be coming into the room or I’ll be walking in and I am hearing the same things that I am going to say. You want the team to take ownership in every part of the game – managing the game, managing the preparation, managing their commitment, managing situations on the ice and taking ownership that way. I think they have been. There’s a lot of talk, there’s a lot of preparation that goes into every game, and I think you see it on the bench. There is no ‘What are we doing? What’s up?’ There’s none of that. We’ve got a plan for everything we do now,’” stated Trotz on the team’s focus, that I’m not sure we’ve ever seen from the Caps current core group of players.

Notes: The Caps face Colorado at home on Monday night before taking on the despised Flyers at the Verizon Center on Wednesday…the Caps lost the face off battle, 32-24. Eric Fehr was 2-13 from the dot making puck possession much more difficult to obtain…the Caps only had 17 shots on net but in the last 30 minutes they played well and fanned or missed the goal on some great chances…Wings goalie Jimmy Howard left the game with a groin injury just after Brouwer’s goal, just 1:53 into the hockey game. He was replaced by Petr Mrazek (12 saves on 14 shots).

 

 

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Caps, Holtby Shut Down Devils in Road Win

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Caps, Holtby Shut Down Devils in Road Win

Posted on 06 December 2014 by Ed Frankovic

After Tuesday night’s Caps loss to Vancouver, the Capitals players talked about getting off to better starts in games. Two contests later, they are two for two when scoring first, and now are 11-1-1 this season when doing so (h/t @ThePeerless).

Braden Holtby was fabulous in net stopping 33 shots and Jay Beagle scored the game winner on a “Jari Kurri” type rush and finish to lead Washington to a 4-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils in East Rutherford on Saturday night. The Caps are now 6-1-1 in the Metropolitan Division and are 12-10-4 overall (28 points), good for 3rd place in the division.

As predicted, this was a grind it out type of contest, with the team winning the individual puck battles and minimizing mistakes the likely victor. The Caps did that most of this game, outside of Karl Alzner getting walked by Danius Zubrus on the only Devils goal.

In the second frame, all four lines were contributing, which hasn’t happened much this season and that is when the Capitals broke a 1-1 tie to forge a 3-1 lead that they would nurse through the 3rd period until Brooks Laich’s empty netter sealed the deal.

After Beagle’s goal, both the first line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Tom Wilson and the new second line, based on even strengh utilization, of Laich, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward pinned the Devils in their own zone and that then allowed Marcus Johansson to draw a Devils penalty on the next shift. On the ensuing power play, Adam Henrique received a clean breakaway but Holtby stopped him cold. Washington then went down and received a sweet power play goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov with Laich providing some nice traffic in front. That sequence turned out to be the difference in the game.

New Jersey had the puck most of the 3rd frame, but the Capitals did a super job of not allowing any odd man rushes and they kept the Devils mostly to the outside. There were some flurries of activity for the Devils, but Holtby was strong, once again.

This was a classic road victory as Washington kept their game very simple. The Caps limited neutral zone turnovers and they routinely got pucks in deep on the Devils to try to wear out an inexperienced defense and keep the puck away from a talented and experienced forward group.

Coach Barry Trotz rolled his forward lines most of the night, but on defense, he went heavily with the trio of John Carlson (25:22), Brooks Oprik (25:18) and Matt Niskanen (24:36). Karl Alzner, who scored Washington’s 1st goal after Wilson forced a turnover, logged 20:44 but the other two D, Nate Schmidt and Jack Hillen, played only 11:15 and 9:35, respectively. This was an important game to win so Barry shortened his bench to give his club the best probability of doing that. It worked, as it did in Carolina on Thursday.

So the Caps have a little bit of momentum right now and their goalie, Holtby, is playing well. The team is making a better effort to get net presence and it is starting to pay off. They still don’t have a bonafide second line that can score when the Ovechkin line isn’t producing, but by relying less on the old second line (MJ90, Brouwer and either Kuznetsov or Andre Burakovsky) the Caps aren’t giving up untimely goals due to bad turnovers or missed defensive assignments.

Having Laich back has been a big plus since he helps Trotz better balance his lines, plus 21′s great work ethic rubs off on the rest of the squad. The team is a still a work in progress and as reported by TSN’s Bob McKenzie earlier this week, GM Brian MacLellan is trying to improve the forward position via the trade market.

But for now, this is what Trotz has to work with and lately he’s been using an old tactic of shortening the bench to try and close out games. Holtby has also helped him do that successfully.

Now it is on to Tampa to try to avenge a tough 4-3 defeat they endured there back in November. The Bolts lead the Eastern Conference with 39 points so this will be another good barometer on where the Capitals stand.

Notes:  Face offs were even at 34-34….shot attempts were 66-42 in favor of NJ but they were close to +20 in the 3rd period alone, so that can be explained mostly by score effects…the Caps were 1 for 2 on the power play and they successfully killed off both Devils power plays…That bitter loss to Tampa last month came as a result of a critical Burakovsky missed defensive coverage in the slot in the last 10 minutes. Burakovsky was scratched in NJ and I don’t expect him to play in Tampa either. He really would be best served getting some games down in Hershey to learn the center position, and more importantly, how to play defense. He’s only 19 and after all, if guys like Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf played close to 20 games in the AHL at the age of 20, why wouldn’t it be a bad thing for #65 to get some work down there and rebuild his confidence?

 

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Bottom Two Lines & Holtby Lead Caps over Canes

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Bottom Two Lines & Holtby Lead Caps over Canes

Posted on 04 December 2014 by Ed Frankovic

There are no style points in the NHL, you can look it up.

So despite all of the complaints from your fan base on twitter for not being perfect, a win is a win is a win.

On Thursday night in Carolina, the Capitals did what they needed to do to get a victory they desperately needed against a division opponent.

They didn’t put a dangerous Canes team that features Eric Staal, Alex Semin, and Jeff Skinner on the power play, they received excellent goaltending from Braden Holtby (29 saves), and they got super performances from their defense as well as their bottom six forwards.

The win moves the Caps to 11-10-4 (26 points) and ties them with the New York Rangers for 3rd place in the Metropolitan Division.

With the Caps struggling with slow starts and nine of the next 12 games on the road, Coach Barry Trotz’ club desperately needed an early goal to start things out right.

Jay Beagle delivered that after Jason Chimera, who might have had his best game of the season, outraced the Carolina d-man and fired a hard shot on Anton Khudobin. The Canes goalie couldn’t handle the puck and #83 scooped it into the net just over two minutes into the contest.

It was exactly the start this team needed and they had some other chances in the next two periods but couldn’t convert. Carolina then tied the game early in the third frame after an Andre Burakovsky offensive zone turnover led to a Canes counter attack. #65 then lost Semin in the slot and #28 fired a nasty backhander up under the cross bar to beat his old teammate. It was another nightmare defensive zone coverage shift for Burakovsky, who seems to be having more and more of those lately.

The kid is only 19 so asking him to play 2C in the NHL, at this point, is treacherous. Burakovsky has enormous potential but he doesn’t know how to play defense and trying to learn it against the world’s best players is not an easy chore. Perhaps the team should look at moving him down to Hershey so he can properly learn the defensive side of the house while building up his offensive confidence? You don’t want to wreck a player that has such a huge upside. Detroit routinely over cooks guys in the minors and Nashville put Filip Forsberg, who was 19 last season, down on the farm and he’s averaging a point a game now and carrying his club offensively. The NHL is a man’s league and if you aren’t ready it will destroy you over an 82 game season. So GM Brian MacLellan and Trotz should seriously consider what’s best for this player from a long term development standpoint.

Now back to the hard earned victory in Carolina where Washington’s bottom two lines carried the day. The third unit of Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward would net the game winner with just under four minutes left as excellent fore checking pressure led to a Canes turnover and Fehr buried it top shelf. Had he not put the biscuit in the basket the Caps would’ve had a power play anyways, but Fehr rendered that point moot.

So as stated earlier, this was not a pretty victory, but it was a big step in the right direction from a work ethic standpoint. The Caps didn’t come out sluggish and they really carried a lot of the wall play and individual puck battles, something they have not done well since their torrid six game start. There is still sloppy play and the top two lines are woefully inconsistent, especially the second unit. The top line was mediocore, at best, on Thursday as Alex Oveckin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Tom Wilson looked very sleepy for most of the contest.

In addition, the Caps power play failed to connect on two tries. The Canes shadowed the Gr8 and the other four forwards didn’t read and react to that properly, so assistant coach Blaine Forsythe has some work to do with that crew.

But defensively, the Capitals didn’t give Carolina a whole lot of space due to a hard work ethic. When the Canes did get some room, Washington did a nice job of blocking shots with none bigger than Brooks Orpik’s block of Semin’s grade A chance in the slot with the Carolina goalie pulled.

A win is a win is a win and when you work hard, like most of the Caps did on Thursday, you get the two points you deserved.

Notes: Washington lost the face off battle 32-28. Michael Latta was 3-10 on draws…Orpik had seven hits, seven blocked shots and led the team in ice time with 25:13…Burakovsky only played 10:02, lowest on the team…Evgeny Kuznetsov was a healthy scratch….courtesy of Adam Vingan, this was the Caps first victory scoring two or fewer goals in a regulation game since March 11, 2012 (Dale Hunter was head coach)…next up for the Caps are the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night. Last time these two teams played the Devils won, 1-0, at the Verizon Center. So expect another hard working, low scoring game.

 

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Ovechkin’s 12th of Season Propels Caps Over Islanders

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Ovechkin’s 12th of Season Propels Caps Over Islanders

Posted on 28 November 2014 by Ed Frankovic

Plain and simple, that was the Washington Capitals best game they’ve played all season.

The Caps outshot attempted New York, 70-60, dominated the face off battle, 34-21, received great goaltending from Braden Holtby (26 saves), finally scored at even strength, and their coach, Barry Trotz, made some outstanding pre and in game moves.

It was a very important in division win against a club that had won five in a row, in the Islanders.

So in two games, which I proclaimed were a measuring stick for Washington, they stood up very well taking three of four possible points to stay in 3rd place in the Metropolitan Division. The Islanders did get two points in the first game thanks to referee Kyle Rehman’s Thanksgiving Eve gift, but if I’m New York, I feel like the Islanders are improved but the Caps are a different and still improving club, as well, and should be even better as the season progresses.

Alex Ovechkin once again had the game winning goal, notching his 12th of the season after Tom Wilson made a great rush up the ice with the puck to get the Islanders moving backwards. The Gr8 used the New York D as a screen and rifled it by Chad Johnson, who more resembled OchoStinko tonight (22 saves on 26 shots).

Sure this victory would have been better had the Capitals beaten Jaroslav Halak, but you can only beat who the other team lines up against you. Johnson did have some quality saves, he had to because Washington had tons of excellent scoring chances, especially in periods two and three.

Holtby was outstanding and he had to be sharp from the get go as the Islanders really dominated the first five minutes. Washington only had one shot at the midway point of period one but then they took over. Before the game, Trotz switched up his lines moving Evgeny Kuznetsov up to the 2nd line with Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer while Andre Burakovsky moved down to the fourth line. Boy did that move pay off as Kuzy had a super game with a goal and an assist while MJ90 dominated the ice with a goal and an assist. Both played just under 16 minutes while Brouwer had an assist in just over 17 minutes. Washington needed that performance from their second line since it had gone six straight games without a goal. No doubt Kuznetsov deserves more playing time going forward. He still has some defensive issues, but Burakovsky is struggling more in the d-zone right now so 92 needs to remain there for at least the near future.

Defensemen Matt Niskanen had another stellar game pitching in three assists in 22:35 of ice time (team lead) and his hockey IQ is extremely high. Joel Ward’s empty net goal came because #2 was willing to take a hit as he threw the puck up the right wing boards to Ward. If Niskanen goes in soft at all on that play the Islanders likely come away with the biscuit. Just a smart and tough play by a very good defensemen there.

In addition to Trotz’ pre game line changes, he did a great job with the matchups late in period two once the Caps got the lead and especially in period three when the Capitals pulled away, for once. Barry likely learned from the two goals the Islanders scored late in period one when he got burned with Burakovsky on the ice against John Tavares on the first goal. #65 screened his own goalie and left one of the best pure goal scorers in the league all alone at the side of the net on that tally. The Islanders then tied it after Wilson mistakenly fought Matt Martin. Anders Lee scored shortly after the bout on a deflection in front when Karl Alzner failed to either block the point shot or tie up a New York forward in front.

But other than that, there wasn’t much to be unhappy about. Washington continued to do a better job of getting bodies to the front of the net so that bodes well for more goals going forward. It is very important to get points right now so that the Caps can make the playoffs and also move up in the division, but it’s even better when they play the right way and win.

On Friday, they played the right way and received a much earned 5-2 victory to improve to 10-8-4.

Notes: Burakovsky had the lowest ice time for the Caps (9:10), but he did score the first goal on the PP by going to the net and deflecting Niskanen’s shot home…the Caps got Brooks Laich back on Friday and they are now 5-0-2 with #21 in the lineup. His hard work rubs off on the rest of the team and he allows Trotz the ability to better balance the lines…the Caps play the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday at 7 pm on Hockey Night in Canada. I’d expect Justin Peters in net for Washington since Trotz and Mitch Korn won’t want to wear Holtby out.

 

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Ovechkin’s 2 Power Play Goals Not Enough in OT Loss

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Ovechkin’s 2 Power Play Goals Not Enough in OT Loss

Posted on 27 November 2014 by Ed Frankovic

After 20 games of basically “working on their new system”, the Washington Capitals have a chance to get an idea on where they stand as a team in a home and home series with the red hot New York Islanders on Thanksgiving Eve and then on Friday.

Round 1, played in the Nassau Coliseum, went to the Isles, 3-2, in overtime when John Tavares scored on the power play. The OT loss drops the Caps to 9-8-4 after 21 games.

So, what did I really like about Wednesday’s game?

Let’s start with the Washington power play which went 2 for 2. Nicklas Backstrom (two assists) was an absolute magician with both of his assists that led to Alexander Ovechkin tallies (the Gr8 now has 11 goals in 21 games). Matt Niskanen’s feed to Ovi on the first goal was also a perfect tape to tape pass that allowed the Gr8 to laser one by Jaroslav Halak (25 saves).

The Caps, despite looking like they were going to get run out of the dump, er rink, in the first 10 minutes, steadied themselves and played their way back into this contest.

Braden Holtby (32 saves) was solid in net and kept Washington in it with some key saves.

Jay Beagle was 10-5 on face offs.

Washington earned a point and with Philadelphia, the Rangers, and the Hurricanes all losing in regulation, the Capitals moved back into third place in the Metropolitan division.

Now to the parts of the game that I didn’t like, at all.

First, this team needs to find a way to score a 5 on 5 goal. It’s been over two games without one now. The blame goes to the forwards who just aren’t playing well at all. The lines aren’t working, especially the second line of Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky, and Troy Brouwer. They’ve gone six games without a goal and late in period three Coach Barry Trotz benched Burakovsky. To paraphrase the great golfer Greg Norman, “They should blow that line up!” In fact, none of the line combinations are really working. The first unit is winning the shot attempt battle, most of the time, but Tom Wilson is still too junior to be a first line right winger. #43 probably belongs on the third line at this stage of his career. Basically, the Caps are in a tough spot currently because Wilson, Burakovsky, and Evgeny Kuznetsov are all young and talented players but none of them are really ready for top six forward minutes at this point in their careers. In the future they all could be in that category, but these kids are still very young and the NHL is a man’s league. Coach Trotz and GM Brian MacLellan need to figure something out and that might have to involve some forward trades to shake things up. This team needs to win now because Ovechkin is not getting any younger so BMac hopefully is working the phones.

I really have to just laugh at this point when it comes to the NHL referees because their ability to be so inept at the wrong moment is impeccable. The third period and OT calls on Backstrom were ludicrous given the way the game had been called to that point, especially the holding the stick call in OT after the Islanders player flat out tripped #19. Holtby thought for sure the Caps were going on a power play so he headed to the bench. The call, which essentially gift wrapped New York a victory, was as bad as Starship’s song “We Built This City.” Coach Trotz, his staff, and many of the players were disgusted with the two Backstrom calls afterwards. Please get it together NHL referees because I am wearing out the hashtag #badzebras on twitter!

The shot attempts, if they are accurate, and I have my doubts about the NHL off ice officials on Long Island, were 71-44 in favor of the Isles. That’s not good. The Islanders did dominate much of the first period and because of the Capitals problems up front they did not generate enough shots. The Caps did try to get more net presence but they still look totally out of sync up front too often.

Backstrom was totally smoked on the face off on the Islanders second goal. This was the fourth time this season that he’s lost a defensive zone draw and the opponent has scored. It was the sixth time in 21 games that it has happened to Washington (credit to Adam Vingan for those two very significant statistics). That must stop! What is happening to the Caps is they are losing the draws cleanly and that is allowing the puck to go back to the point while the opponents forwards crash the net. The result has been the six goals on tips and screens. When taking a d-zone draw you have to focus on not losing the draw cleanly, you must at least tie your opponent up to give your forwards more time to get to the point men. The defensemen also have to do a better job of boxing out the opposing forwards on those plays. But it all starts with the center not getting beaten so easily on the draw.

The Caps penalty kill went only one for three. Granted one of the goals was off of a face off and the other was on the dope smoking call that led to the Islanders OT four on three. Still, you can’t give up two power play goals and expect to win. I especially didn’t like that Tavares deked Karl Alzner to the ground on the game winner. #27 has a tendency to go to the ice in those situations and that is the wrong play. He needs to stay upright there and if he does, it makes Holtby’s job a lot easier.

Finally, the Islanders 3rd jersey’s are awful. New York has a great home jersey that they should NEVER abandon. You would think that franchise would have learned from that Gordon’s Fisherman garb they wore back in the 1990′s that was so disgraceful and despised?!

So there you have it, the good and the bad after the first of two key games between the Caps and the Islanders.

Washington is home on Friday at 5 pm. This is another measuring stick game, in my opinion.

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Caps Give Game Away to Wings

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Caps Give Game Away to Wings

Posted on 30 October 2014 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals did several good things on Wednesday night against the Detroit Red Wings.

They dominated the Wings for nearly two periods and won the puck possession battle, out shot attempting Detroit, 58-42, overall.

But the Caps made some glaring mistakes, including some awful turnovers, and as a result they lost, 4-2, and now fall to 4-3-2 through nine games.

The stat of the night was the 10-3 deficit in the giveaway column and three of those 10 led to quality scoring chances and goals for the Wings.

Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky, and John Carlson had the misplays that did the most damage, but give Detroit credit, especially on the 2nd and 3rd goals as the talented Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk were instrumental in those markers. In addition, Datsyuk ended any chance of a Capitals comeback notching the fourth Detroit tally on the power play by taking advantage of Washington having Evgeny Kuzentsov out on the penalty kill (he got stuck on at the end of a 4 on 4 situation). Bottom line is Datsyuk and Zetterberg are elite NHL players and if you don’t play properly against them, they will defeat you.

Alexander Ovechkin was held without a point for the fifth straight game. That’s concerning and the Gr8 could help his cause by going to the front of the net and using his size and strength for some gritty type goals. Ovi did have 13 shot attempts, 7 of which were on net, so he had chances.

Still, the way the Caps are dominating puck possession is a good sign. The upgrades to the Caps blue line hasn’t gone unnoticed, at least by Wings Coach Mike Babcock.

“I didn’t think we were very good early. I thought they skated way better than us. [Washington] spent a lot of money in the off season to improve their back-end, and they’ve done that,” stated Babcock after the contest (it is believed that Detroit was in both the Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen sweepstakes, only to lose them to the Caps).

Burakovsky, who is only 19, made some super plays in spite of his mistake on Detroit’s second goal. He is big and plays fast. His speed and ability to carry the puck led to the Capitals second goal by Troy Brouwer, who buried a sweet no look pass from Carlson after Burakovsky had the entire Detroit crew chasing him.

Kuznetsov scored Washington’s first tally following a great breakout pass by Braden Holtby to Joel Ward. Kuzy is getting better each game with the North American rink. As for Holtby, he was hung out to dry a few times but Trotz would’ve liked to have seen him stop the winning tally. Holtby was super at moving the puck and #70 told me that there isn’t more emphasis on moving the puck from past regimes, however, he did say the team was more aware of that play and are on the same page. So that’s a good sign going forward because having a goalie that can play the puck so well is like having a third defensemen on the ice.

At the end of the night, the Capitals new look and style is being recognized by their opponents.

“In the first period, I thought, [Washington] took it to us there. They played a good period. They’re playing really hard, they’re playing a little different style than they’re used to playing. Before it was more wide open but you see that Trotz came in and really has them playing hard,” said Justin Abdelkader, who scored twice for Detroit.

Still, puck possession only takes you so far if you don’t finish your chances, and the Capitals missed several good looks. Jimmy Howard (25 saves) made some timely stops, as well. In addition, you cannot have the glaring mistakes that Washington has been making lately. The team has to play hard, but also smart.

The Caps are struggling right now, having dropped three of their last four games, but Trotz sees this as a chance to overcome some adversity and be better for it in the long run.

“When [things] are not coming easy, the thing is to keep guys focused on not trying to cheat and trying to look for the easy way out of things. You’ve just got to put your nose to the grindstone and plow through it. If you can get everybody on the same page plowing through a bit of adversity, when you get through that adversity you become a better group,” finished Trotz.

It sounds simple, but looking for the quick fix is human nature, so it will be very important for this talented team to stay the course and pay extra attention to Coach Trotz so they can build on the good things they are doing and minimize the mistakes.

It’s a work in progress.

Notes: Detroit had a clear goal wiped out to start the game when the referees called a phantom interference penalty on Luke Glendening. That zebra miscue led to a very weird first period. Bottom line is the referees must be better. I’ve seen several games around the league this season where the officiating has been subpar…there were only 40 faceoffs in the contest and the teams split them. Burakovsky was 5-1 for Washington…Ovechkin, Brooks Orpik, and Nicklas Backstrom were all -2. Ovi and Backstrom were not on the same line until the 3rd period…Tom Wilson made his season debut and only played 8:14. His timing was noticeably and understandably off…next up for the Caps is the Lightning in Tampa on Saturday night.

 

 

 

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Ward & Orpik Lead Caps over Flames

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Ward & Orpik Lead Caps over Flames

Posted on 26 October 2014 by Ed Frankovic

Those following this blog and listening to the frequent radio bits I’ve been doing recently with Nestor Aparacio know that I’m high on this year’s Capitals team because of two primary reasons: the addition of an experienced coach in Barry Trotz and the improved blue line.

After seven games, the Capitals are now 4-1-2 after a 3-1 victory over the Calgary Flames on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday.

The reason they are off to such a great start: they are playing a structured system and they have the players on the back end to execute it.

Washington’s defensive crew was once again outstanding in the game against Calgary as the Caps dominated puck possession and kept the Flames on the perimeter for the majority of the evening.

Brooks Orpik was dynamite for the Capitals in this one doling out 10 hits and setting up the game winning goal with a super breakout pass. There are some in the fancy stats community that will put little stock in hits, citing that most of the time the club with more hits are the ones chasing the biscuit around and losing the puck possession battle. That was not the case in Calgary on Saturday, when Oprik took the body the result on several occasions was the Calgary player was removed from the puck and the Capitals went the other way in transition. Simply put, #44 brings a presence to the Capitals back end that they have not had in several years. His addition, and the super signing of Matt Niskanen, has allowed Trotz to spread the minutes out on defense (John Carlson led the club in ice time at a modest 22:52 against the Flames). That minimizes the ability of the opponents to get a matchup advantage at certain points in the game and it also allows the Capitals players to stay fresher. Mike Green is having a monster season in this system by playing roughly 20 minutes a game. #52 can play to his strengths and he was fabulous again on Saturday. You can add Karl Alzner to that list too, his feed to Nicklas Backstrom on the 3rd goal was a super stretch pass. #27 is playing his best hockey in years, as well.

Up front, Trotz tweaked his lines after the loss in Edmonton moving Eric Fehr back up with Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. That line scored the Caps 3rd goal and the Gr8 drew the penalty that led to the game’s first goal, a Joel Ward power play marker. Ward, who was shifted down to the 4th line, had his best outing of 2014-15 with the two goals to earn the game’s number one star. Ward, who had the coverage mistake on the Oilers first goal on Wednesday, was back to moving his feet and winning the puck battles.

Andre Burakovsky didn’t have a point on Saturday, but he continues to play like he’s 25 and his line dominated in the possession department. This young man has been the most pleasant surprise of the young season. Evgeny Kuznetsov, flanked by Jay Beagle and Jason Chimera, also had a strong game and looks to be adjusting to the North American rink. If Washington can get some scoring coming from multiple lines they are going to be a hard team to beat in the Metropolitan Division and in the Eastern Conference.

In net, Braden Holtby had his usual Saturday night special performance. He stopped 20 of 21 shots, with the biggest being a shorthanded breakaway late in regulation with the game at 3-1. That save effectively ended the Flames chances, which is what you want your goaltender to do, make the big save when you need it. Overall though, Braden benefitted from the strong defensive play from his teammates as Calgary was kept wide for many of their shot attempts.

So now it is on to Vancouver for a Sunday night date with the Canucks for the Caps. A win in BC would give the Capitals a nice 2-1 road trip. Back to back games are tough, especially given the long flight from Calgary to Vancouver in the early hours of Sunday morning, but because Trotz is able to spread the ice time around, the Capitals should have no major excuses in terms of fatigue.

Notes: The Caps out shot attempted the Flames, 52-46…Washington won the faceoff battle, 30-28..the Caps had 30 hits to 25 for Calgary…the penalty called on Orpik near the end of the 2nd period was ridiculous. Referees Kelly Sutherland and Paul Devorski did not have one of their better nights.

 

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