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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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Caps Lack of Early Intensity Costing Them Games

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Caps Lack of Early Intensity Costing Them Games

Posted on 03 December 2014 by Ed Frankovic

“There used to be a time when teams would come in here and we’d score three goals in the first period and nobody wanted to come in here.” – Brooks Laich

That’s a very telling quote right there and it explains a good portion of why the Washington Capitals are currently sitting at 10-10-4 and in 4th place in the Metropolitan Division after a 4-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday night at the Verizon Center. Sure the game summary will show that the Capitals allowed three power play goals, so naturally the thing to point at is the penalty kill issues. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a very leaky unit right now, but to me, the problem is bigger than just penalty killing – it’s the way the Capitals are playing the game, especially early on.

Looking at the shot attempt totals for the game, it appears rosy for the Capitals since they won the overall battle, 70-56.

But let’s look at those shot attempts by period:

1st period: Caps 15, Canucks 21

2nd period: Caps 28, Canucks 22

3rd period: Caps 27, Canucks 13

In addition, the first two penalties of the game, in the second period, were against Washington. Troy Brouwer took an unnecessary offensive zone penalty for holding and Jay Beagle was called for hooking in the defensive zone after a series of Capitals mistakes. Both of those infractions, less than three minutes apart in the middle of period two, led to Canucks power play goals and a 3-1 edge for the visitors.

At that point, Washington finally showed some sense of urgency and dominated the rest of the contest. Suddenly pucks and bodies were going to the net, instead of the turnovers that were seen in the early part of the game, where the Capitals routinely attempted East-West passes instead of the North-South variety. The Caps only had 15 shot attempts in period one because they made it too easy for Vancouver and when they had the potential for shots, they tried to make the extra pass or fancy play.

A look at the Capitals giveaways by periods yields six in the first frame, none in the second, and three in the third period. One of those six in the first frame led to 4th liner Derek Dorsett’s goal.

Simply put, this team is killing itself with lousy starts and those are putting the club behind the eight ball in games. If they don’t change things soon, their chances of making the playoffs will drop considerably.

What is especially troubling is the Capitals home record of 5-5-4. That’s atrocious for a building that is routinely sold out. Washington’s terrible play has basically turned the Verizon Center into a library for the first 10 minutes of most games and that’s on the players, both Laich and Braden Holtby made that abundantly clear after Tuesday’s loss.

“That’s not the fans fault. We need to find something to make them get loud in the first 10 minutes…we know this building can be very hard to play in if we create that energy at the start of games,” said Holtby (28 saves).

Energy, that’s a great word. Anyone who has ever laced up the skates knows that hockey is an intense game that requires enormous energy. The Capitals can’t seem to find that coming out of the gate. They sit back and let the opponents dictate the game and a “sense of urgency” often doesn’t kick in until they are trailing. On Tuesday, that is what happened once again. Vancouver is a super hockey club, they are now 17-7-1 and in first place in the Western Conference, but the Caps dominated play once they ramped up their intensity.

Coach Barry Trotz stated afterwards that he has the players as prepared as he possibly can, John Carlson backed that up in his interview with the media after the game, as well. Trotz made it clear that the “sense of urgency” needs to come from the room. Whatever they are doing now, isn’t working. Whether they need to be more boisterous or cut out pre-game soccer or find some better tunes, Laich was very blunt that things need to change quickly.

“Whatever it is, as individuals you have to get yourself up for the games, you’ve got to get intense. Maybe manufacture some intensity in warmups before the game starts. You can’t wait until the puck drops and then try to get yourself into it. Certainly our first periods used to be better,” added Laich.

Washington is playing “the easy game” early on in contests. On rushes up the ice they are trying too often for the perfect play and it’s leading to turnovers that opponents are turning into odd man rushes. Trotz continues to call the NHL a “shoot first” league, but too many times, and especially on the second line, the extra pass is being made and then intercepted.

The Caps are just making it too comfortable for the opposition to come into Washington and play where fast starts used to get the Red clad fans rocking and intimidating the opponent.

“It makes the other team shrink down a bit and possibly come out of their game plan. The games that we have had success in, we have had one or two goal leads in the first period. Stats are overwhelming, I think, for the team that scores first. Whatever it is, we need to figure it out. You can’t play from behind all the time, especially not against good hockey teams. You just can’t play from behind and expect to win in the long term,” finished Laich on the importance of fast starts and the first goal.

Nail meet Hammer.

It’s time for the Capitals players to be prepared to play the game the right way, with intensity, starting with the opening face off.

Notes: Mike Green missed his fourth straight game due to an upper body injury…the Caps won the face off battle, 32-29…Carlson had two goals and an assist in 22:28 of ice time. He was a big reason the Capitals were in the game after the miserable start…next up for Washington is the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh on Thursday at 7 pm.

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Return of Laich Helps Caps End Losing Streak

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Return of Laich Helps Caps End Losing Streak

Posted on 07 November 2014 by Ed Frankovic

For the first 30 minutes of Friday night’s hockey game in Chicago, it looked like the men against the boys.

The Blackhawks were dominating the Capitals up and down the ice and they held a 2-0 lead, which could’ve been worse, if not for Braden Holtby (38 saves).

But somehow the Caps managed to fight through it and an Andre Burakovsky’s sweet top shelf goal on a Capitals 2 on 1 rush gave Washington life with just under five minutes left in period two. Washington would then tally two more times late in the second frame by getting bodies and pucks to the net to take a 3-2 lead into the third period.

From there, Coach Barry Trotz elected to clamp things down and go into a defensive posture for the final 20 minutes against one of the best teams in the NHL. Trotz put Jay Beagle on the top line with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin and relied heavily on the line of Jason Chimera, Brooks Laich, and Joel Ward. Despite the fact that Washington rarely possessed the biscuit in that third period, it worked. Chicago had very few quality chances over the last 20 minutes as Washington won a huge road game and improved to 5-5-3 overall (13 points). It was Laich’s first game back in the lineup since injuring his shoulder on October 18th versus Florida. The Caps are 4-0-2 with #21 in the lineup.

This was not a pretty win, but the Caps have been pretty lately and losing a lot. No, this is just what this team needed, a grinding, gritty victory against a super hockey team. They received a huge performance from their goaltender and they played excellent team defense once they got the lead.

As Mike Vogel, the Caps team beat writer, tweeted once it became 3-2, this was the 12th time in 13 games that the Capitals had led in a game this season. Recently they’ve fallen apart and lost after taking the lead in the middle frame. So to play the way they did defensively and close it out is huge. They didn’t make the big turnovers, instead opting to chip the puck out, and they kept the Hawks to the perimeter. Players were fighting for each other, blocking shots, and eliminating their man in the defensive zone from getting prime scoring chances.

They played the right way in their own zone once they had a lead against a stacked offensive club.

Sure it would have been nice to have some more offense in that final frame, but the way things have been going and the way Chicago is so stingy on defense, Trotz elected to go the smarter route in terms of winning the hockey game.

That decision paid off and Washington comes away with a very big victory and ends their five game losing streak.

More importantly, they won this game as a total team, and that should be something they can build upon going forward.

Notes: Shot attempts were 66-32 in favor of Chicago and the Blackhawks won 35 of 60 faceoffs…Brooks Orpik led the Caps in ice time with 25:57. He and John Carlson were outstanding as a shut down defensive pair in this one against an elite club…the Caps are home against the suddenly surging Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night at 8 pm. The Canes have won four straight games after an 0-6-2 start.

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Ovechkin, Holtby Lead Caps Over Devils, 6-2

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Ovechkin, Holtby Lead Caps Over Devils, 6-2

Posted on 16 October 2014 by Ed Frankovic

Barry Trotz frequently calls the NHL a “Shoot First” league.

On Thursday night at the Verizon Center, his players took his advice and were rewarded with six biscuits in the basket in what became a 6-2 rout of the previously undefeated New Jersey Devils (3-1). Alex Ovechkin, Chris Brown, Marcus Johansson, Nicklas Backstrom, Joel Ward, and Andre Burakovsky all notched goals and Braden Holtby was outstanding stopping 26 of 28 shots.

Seriously, if Holtby is not dead on his game in the first frame, this contest could have easily gone differently. The only two markers #70 allowed were through traffic and he routinely made the big save in the first 30 minutes until the Capitals wore out the oldest team in the league over the last half of the game. Holtby’s arm save on Jaromir Jagr was highlight reel material and it came with the game tied at two (special thanks to my friends at Russian Machine Never Breaks for the picture of that save). Jagr was in total disbelief after that stop.

After being out shot attempted 29-13 in period one, the Capitals turned the tables on New Jersey going 43-27 over the last two frames. Washington is well on their way to being a puck possession team again, especially if they keep heeding the wisdom of Trotz.

Johansson, who has been known mostly as a passer since he came into the league in 2010, unleashed a filthy snap shot by Cory Schneider in the middle frame to notch the game winner. In the past, MJ90 may have tried to make a move or looked to dish the puck, but instead, under the prodding of his coach, he is firing away. Good things happen when you shoot.

Positive things also happen from winning the board battles and the Capitals are doing much better there this season. Brooks Laich’s hard work on the wall allowed Johansson to receive the puck in a prime scoring position. It’s the little things that win hockey games and this club is doing more of that so far.

So the Caps are now 2-0-2 with the only two losses coming in the gimmick. They trail the New York Islanders (4-0) by two points in the Metropolitan Division.

But it is too early to be checking the standings. It’s a time to build on an early strong work ethic and continue to listen to an experienced coach who has this Capitals team playing as a unit unlike we’ve seen in several seasons. A strong blue line is making a huge difference and the Caps now are a team that can break the puck out of their own end smoothly and generate quick offense. Sure, there are still moments where they get hemmed in, like we saw in the first frame, but they are learning that if they keep playing the system they will eventually win out.

Things are looking up and the vibe around the team and players is so much more positive than it has been in several years.

The key now is to keep working hard and stay the course.

Notes: John Carlson led the Caps in ice time at 21:23. That’s a low total and it is a product of the depth on defense and the fact that the Capitals pulled away in the 3rd period…12 Caps had points in this one…Andre Burakovsky scored his 2nd goal of the season in the 3rd period with an amazing wrist shot and Chris Brown’s goal in the first frame was a laser over the shoulder of Schneider…next up for the Caps are the Florida Panthers at the Verizon Center on Saturday night at 7pm.

 

 

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Expectations Are High for the Caps in 2014-15

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Expectations Are High for the Caps in 2014-15

Posted on 14 September 2014 by Ed Frankovic

After an off season of much needed major changes, the Washington Capitals are finally set to open training camp this Friday, September 19th at Kettler IcePlex.

Expectations for the 2014-15 Caps, who will host the 2015 Winter Classic against the Chicago Blackhawks at Nationals Park at 1 pm on January 1st, are extremely high after they spent big dollars to upgrade their defense and brought in an experienced NHL coach in Barry Trotz to work with new General Manager Brian MacLellan.

How much of an impact will those changes have on a team that missed the post season in 2013-14?

The impact will be significant and I’ll go so far as to say that a Metropolitan Division title and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final is very much within their reach.

Here are seven items, in order of importance, on why to be optimistic about the Capitals chances this season.

1. Improved Defense. Last year it was painfully clear that the Capitals blue line was their biggest issue from a talent standpoint so MacLellan wisely went out and upgraded what has been the weakest part of this team for several years. Adding Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen to Mike Green, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Dmitry Orlov gives the Caps three strong defensive pairs. This is easily the most talented blue line the Capitals have had since 1998. When you have a sub par defense, it is much harder to get the puck out of your own zone and also feed it to your offensive players so that they can generate scoring chances. Therefore, it is no surprise that Washington’s puck possession statistics had steadily declined over the last several seasons with management failing to address the blue line deficiencies. Expect to see the Capitals improve greatly in puck possession this season now that they have a legitimate defense. For more about the depth the Caps have compiled on defense and a summary on each player, check out Mike Vogel’s recent Dump ‘n Chase blog here.

2. Experienced Coach. To quote the great Jim Ignatowski from Taxi, “There’s no substitute for experience.” The Capitals badly needed a coaching change and they sorely needed someone who knows the league. Hiring Barry Trotz, who previously coached in Nashville since 1997, was a no brainer. Trotz cut his teeth in the coaching business with the Capitals back in Baltimore in the early 1990′s and was the Predators only bench boss until they decided to go a different direction this past off season. The Predators routinely spent well below the NHL salary cap yet Trotz was often able to get a less talented squad to bond together and overachieve. In 2011, they gave the Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks all they could handle before bowing out in six games in round two.  Now Barry comes to Washington, a team that spends to the cap on personnel, and he has a crew of talented players that have struggled to bond and succeed. Getting players to work together is a Trotz specialty and Barry has already put that process in motion by appointing a leadership group to help foster communication between the coaches and the players, something that has not happened very well in DC the last several years. Leadership should not be all on the captain and alternates, it’s a group effort, and Trotz recognizes in order to win everyone has to be on the same page (As an example, this “leadership as a group” concept worked very well for Ken Hitchcock when he coached the Stanley Cup Champion Dallas Stars in 1999). Trotz’s ability to get the Caps to be “a team” is his most important task, but his knowledge of systems and the other coaches and personnel around the league will be a huge plus too. The Capitals hit a home run with this choice as coach, he was the best commodity on the market and looks to be a great fit.

3. Braden Holtby. The coaching change and revamped defense will arguably benefit #70 more than any other Caps player. He should face less shots on net because the Capitals will have the puck more thanks to a better defense and a new system. In addition, he will work with proven goalie coach Mitch Korn, who came over from Nashville with Trotz. Korn, who has helped Tomas Vokoun and Pekka Rinne rise to the top of their games, should bring out the best in Holtby’s strengths. Also, the NHL has expanded the trapezoid by two feet on each side which will allow Holtby to play the puck more, something that he is good at and a skill that takes the heat off of the defensemen. Holtby has the ability to be a 3rd d-man, at times, so I expect Trotz to utilize that strength, something that former Coach Adam Oates failed to develop. I’d also expect the league to totally dump the trapezoid in the coming years. After all, they are trying to promote skill and allowing the goalies to play the puck fits in with that motto while also helping to reduce injuries on defensemen (perhaps we’d see fewer concussions?). Simply put, the Martin Brodeur rule needs to go.

4. Alex Ovechkin. The Gr8 scored 51 goals last season but much has been made of his -35. Plus minus is a team statistic and let’s face it, with the thin blue line the Capitals had last season it is no surprise they gave up so many even strength goals. Ovechkin had 24 of his tallies on the power play last campaign so it might be tough for him to hit 51 overall given that opponents will likely key on him on the man advantage. But Alex only had 28 assists in 2013-14 for a total of 79 points. With the improved talent around him, I have to think Ovechkin gets at least 90 points in 2013-14. Alex and his line mates should spend less time in their own zone with the improved blue line and as mentioned above, they’ll get the puck in better position to head up the ice, as well. 100 points for the Gr8 in 2014-15 could very well happen.

5. Mike Green. Heading into the final year of his contract, Green is in great shape and happy to be a part of Trotz’s leadership group. #52 is a very talented player who can drive puck possession. Unfortunately, due to a lack of blue line depth the last several years, the Capitals coaching staff has struggled to find the right partner for him. It’s very possible Orpik could be the stay at home and physical player that Green needs to succeed at an elite level once again. This could be a big year for Green because he won’t have all of the pressure on him to carry the back end with the additions of Orpik and Niskanen.

6. Evgeny Kuznetsov. “Kuzy” came over last spring and he had a lot of adjusting to do to play in the NHL yet he still managed nine points in 17 games. Judging by those last several games, he is an immense talent who likely will produce on one of the Capitals top two lines in 2014-15. The 22 year old has had the off season to prepare for a grueling 82 game grind but he knows what he is up against now because of last spring’s experience and he’ll be better because of it. Expect him to bigger, stronger, and more productive.

7. Brooks Laich. It’s hard to believe, but it hasn’t even been two years since Laich initially injured his groin during the 2012-13 NHL lockout. With the Caps eliminated from the post season last spring, #21 has had nearly six months to get healthy and initial reports are he is finally pain free and happy on the ice again. Laich is a heart and soul guy who is tough to play against. Brooks will fill a grinder role and be a fixture on the penalty kill. He’s also a guy who can work the front of the net on the second power play unit.

Last season was pretty much a disaster for the Capitals yet they only missed the post season by a handful of points. They are playing in a division that is wide open and you can throw the entire Eastern Conference into that equation, as well.

Clearly the play of the defense along with how this team bonds together under the new coaching staff are the two biggest keys to the season.

The talent is there for the Caps, but now they need to show a sense of urgency and execute.

Notes: Orlov and Tom Wilson, who were both injured after the Caps season ended, could see action late in September…the Caps first preseason game is this Sunday, September 21st at 5pm at the Verizon Center against the Buffalo Sabres.

 

 

 

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Season Saving Win For Caps?

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Season Saving Win For Caps?

Posted on 08 March 2014 by Ed Frankovic

For over 40 minutes on Saturday night, it sure looked like the Washington Capitals were headed for a fourth straight loss and about to sustain a serious blow to their playoff chances.

The Caps looked listless for the third straight contest and couldn’t find a way to get a goal, extending their scoreless streak to over 100 minutes. Making things worse was they were playing a strong defensive team in Phoenix with one of the top goalies in the NHL in Mike Smith.

But suddenly, a team that wasn’t working very hard to overcome some lineup holes, started doing the little things right, like getting pucks and bodies to the net.

Karl Alzner scored a seeing eye goal from the blueline that only finds the back of the cage because Troy Brouwer and Jay Beagle went to the front of the net and took their defenders with them. Keith Yandle managed to screen his own keeper with 10:15 to go and suddenly the Caps and the Verizon Center had life for the first time since before Dmitry Orlov’s awful hit last Sunday.

Joel Ward, Jason Chimera, and Brooks Laich then outworked the Coyotes down low and #25 found Brooksie all alone in front of the cage and he put it by Smith to tie things up just 32 seconds later.

The Caps instantly became a new team. Orlov then drew a penalty to put Washington on the power play and when Troy Brouwer potted the rebound of a great Nicklas Backstrom shot, the Capitals grabbed a 3-2 lead.

Then, instead of sitting back, Washington became an even more energized squad and dominated the last five minutes of regulation to salt away a huge victory.

Jaroslav Halak notched 31 saves to earn his first victory in his Caps debut and he can thank referee Tim Peel for a quick whistle that disallowed a Phoenix goal in period one. But that’s the breaks of the game, a Backstrom shot that appeared to be a goal last Sunday against Philly didn’t count and hurt Washington in that one, so it looks like things eventually evened up.

Halak was shaky early on and probably wanted at least one of the two goals back, but his save on Antoine Vermette in the third period on a one on one was absolutely a must and a key reason why the Capitals were able to overcome the two goal deficit. I’ve been saying all season long that goaltending is not the major issue for the Caps and I stand by it. Halak was good, but defensive mistakes and lapses in focus continue to plague this Washington club and is the primary reason they are on the outside looking in at the postseason, right now.

But that’s a story for another day, the Capitals are alive and still in the hunt after a huge rally over a good Phoenix team.

They started skating and doing the simple things and were rewarded.

The question now is can they keep this energy level up on Monday when they start a critical home and home with the Pittsburgh Penguins?

Washington gained some much needed positive vibes and confidence tonight that they need to carry into Monday’s tilt.

They will also likely get newly signed Evgeny Kuznetsov (2010 Caps 1st round draft choice) in the lineup for the game against the Pens. “Kuzy” will wear #92 and likely skate on the second line. He arrived in DC today and signed his entry level contract (two years) with the Capitals this afternoon. He will burn up that first year in less than 20 games and then will have another season left, but General Manager George McPhee called that aspect of the deal, “worth it.”

It’s hard to argue that because the Caps need skilled offensive players and Kuznetsov (just 21 years old), who carried the Russian squad to World Juniors Gold in 2011, has the potential to really improve the offense. But coming to North America and playing on the smaller rinks will be an adjustment. He is not “a savior” for the Caps season, but make no mistake about it, this club needs forward help with Laich playing through serious pain and Mikhail Grabovski still on the shelf due to a wonky ankle.

The road is not easy for the Caps as they have the hardest schedule in the NHL in their remaining 17 games, but rallying tonight and inking Kuzentsov at least gives them a fighting chance to pull off a seventh straight playoffs appearance.

Notes: Washington once again lost the face off battle for the fifth straight contest, 33-26. Losing draws makes it very difficult to win the puck possession battle. The Capitals will need to improve in this area if they are going to get on a run and make the playoffs…John Carlson led the Caps in ice time at 23:50 and he had an assist on the game winning tally.

 

 

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Memo To NHL: Ovechkin & Caps Look Motivated

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Memo To NHL: Ovechkin & Caps Look Motivated

Posted on 01 March 2014 by Ed Frankovic

Forget all of that Olympic hangover/depression talk, Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals are on fire.

The Gr8 scored the first two goals of the game, on the power play, to lead the Caps to an impressive victory over the Boston Bruins.

The Bruins are arguably the best team in the East so to win in Beantown carries a lot of weight and puts an exclamation point on Washington’s four game winning streak.

There were lots of good things in this triumph for Coach Adam Oates’ crew.

They killed off a two minute five on three power play in the first ten minutes thanks to some outstanding shorthanded work by John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Brooks Laich, Nicklas Backstrom, John Erskine, and most importantly, Braden Holtby. If the B’s score early on that two man advantage, then this game could have gone differently. Instead the Capitals buckled down and had what was likely their most important penalty kill of the season.

Holtby is back playing at the peak of his game and he’s won all four starts during this winning streak performing super solid in the cage. #70 stopped 36 shots in this one and he had no chance on the two goals allowed. Braden’s confidence is back and the team appears more confident in front of him, as a result.

The power play struck early, when it mattered. The Caps were two for six with the man advantage, but they scored on their second and third power plays to get a key lead on the road in a tough building. Boston was 23-6-2 in their barn coming into this game.

Perhaps most importantly, players other than the top line, Carlson, and Holtby stepped up, which is needed against the elite teams in the league. Joel Ward had the goal that made it 3-0 and it was his nice cross ice pass to Marcus Johansson that helped set up the second Ovechkin tally. Eric Fehr provided the dagger for the Capitals with a huge breakaway marker on Tuukka Rask midway through the third period. #16, who has been Oates’ first choice in shootouts this season, made it look easy on Rask, who is one of the best goalies in the world. Surprisingly, Rask still has yet to beat the Capitals, the only club in the Eastern Conference that he has not been able to best. He’s 0-3-3 now against Ovechkin and company (h/t to Adam Vingan).

Alzner and Erskine had supreme efforts on the back end. King Karl and Carlson faced a super top Boston line of David Krejci, Jarome Iginla, and Milan Lucic and neutralized them. Erskine, who has looked close to done this season due to bad wheels, played his best game of the season, in my book.

Despite the huge win in an intense hockey game, there are still things the team needs to improve if they are going to make the post season. The Caps were out shot at even strength by a 30-16 margin, out attempted 67-44 on the shot board, and they were creamed from the face off dot, 38-25. Boston is one of the best teams in the league for a reason: they are great on face offs and they know how to own the puck. Patrice Bergeron, who is the best two way center in the NHL, scored a power play goal and went 14-7 on draws.

In addition, the Caps need to be smarter in key situations in games. With the Caps up 3-1 in the middle frame, Mike Green forced a cross ice pass in the offensive zone that led to the Bruins second goal. The play was a poor decision, especially since #52 had a Washington forward going to the net. Greenie has to think more clearly there and direct the biscuit at the cage. Finally, with the Caps up 4-2 and Boston having an empty net, Laich (who was fabulous in this contest) decided to try and force a pass to Ovechkin for the hat trick with about a minute left instead of hitting what looked to be an easy empty net goal. #21 was too unselfish there and should have gone for the goal to lock up the win. Ovechkin wouldn’t have been upset either because it was the Gr8′s strong defensive play that got the puck out of the defensive zone to begin with and he would’ve gotten an assist and a plus. Forget the stats though (and plus/minus is a stat that has some serious flaws), the Caps need wins and Boston still could’ve come back at that point (see game 7 of the playoffs against Toronto last spring).

Overall, this was a big victory for the Capitals and they were determined to beat a quality opponent. This club still has some holes on the back end and it still causes inconsistency.

However, the big guns look very motivated as we head down the stretch, especially Ovechkin (43 goals in 57 games this season), Nicklas Backstrom, Carlson, and Holtby. If the rest of the squad can hold their own, and that’s a big if given their defensive zone issues, then they should be able to climb into a playoff position.

That quest continues tomorrow in a huge contest against the Flyers at the Verizon Center at 12:30 pm. Currently, Philadelphia is a point ahead of the Caps in the Metropolitan Division. A regulation win on Sunday puts Washington back in sole position of third place, and a playoff spot.

Notes: Martin Erat and Mikhail Grabovski both did not play due to injury…Johansson, who notched his 30th assist of the season, returned to the lineup after missing the Florida game due to jet lag (caused by Visa issues)…Carlson logged 24:46 of ice time to lead Washington. He was outstanding in this contest once again.

 

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Ovechkin’s Late Goal Wins It For Caps

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Ovechkin’s Late Goal Wins It For Caps

Posted on 27 February 2014 by Ed Frankovic

Tonight’s Caps-Panthers game pretty much summed up the Washington Capitals season to date:

The elite players did just enough for the Capitals to overcome some bad penalties and terrible play by their bottom two defensive pairs to beat a bad Florida Panthers squad, 5-4.

It’s plain and simple to me: the gap in talent between the high and low end players on the roster is exactly the reason why this club struggles to find consistency.

Alexander Ovechkin scored the game winning goal (41st of the season) off of a sweet feed from Brooks Laich with 4:17 to go. Earlier in the contest the Gr8 fed Laich for a one timer that made it 2-0. Both Ovechkin and Laich would have a goal and two helpers and their center, Nicklas Backstrom, also had a goal and two assists while being on the ice for all five Washington tallies. This was easily Laich’s best performance of the 2013-14 season.

John Carlson was an absolute BEAST on defense. Go back and watch the last 45 seconds again, if you get the chance. #74 almost single handily killed that Panthers 6 on 4. Carlson has really stepped up his game this year and he is in the ELITE category on defense. During the Olympics, an NHL scout from the Western Conference told me that only two defensemen on Team USA could play for Team Canada, Ryan Suter and Carlson. That is high and correct praise for the 2008 1st round pick. Carlson logged 24:33 and had two assists on Thursday night. Simply put, for the Caps to make the playoffs, Coach Adam Oates will likely have to put Carlson on the ice for 30 minutes a game unless George McPhee can make a trade to upgrade the bottom three defensemen, but more on that later.

Troy Brouwer had an excellent night chipping in two goals by doing what he and the other grinders on this club need to do more of for Washington to be successful: crash the net. #20 notched two power play markers with his strong presence in front. It’s not rocket science on what you need to do to achieve in this league, work hard and get to the front of the cage.

As for Braden Holtby, it’s hard to fault him on the four goals. When Carlson wasn’t on the ice it was like watching the Count Floyd show in Washington’s end: Scary Stuff! With the game tied, 4-4, the Panthers had a power play midway through period three and #70 was at his absolute best on that kill. He made two huge stops in tight to keep the Cats off of the board. His goaltending allowed Ovechkin and Laich to produce the late game heroics. It’s just a shame that Holtby has to keep playing behind a couple of pairs of d-men who look lost in their own end too often.

As for those defensemen, first Dmitry Orlov and Mike Green allowed the Panthers to overcome a 2-0 hole with defensive blunders and after the Caps went up 4-2 late in period two, they gave it back with some shoddy defensive zone play in the final frame. The Cats pulled to within 4-3 when John Erskine and Connor Carrick were abused by the Panthers power play. Just over a minute later, Karl Alzner got beat in the corner and Green couldn’t help him out in front, letting Brad Boyes tie it up at four with his second goal of the night. For much of the third period, the Caps defensive zone was a train wreck when Carlson wasn’t on the ice, and that is being nice.

At the end of the night, the Capitals earned a much needed two points against an inferior opponent. They have to keep winning if they want to make the playoffs. Right now they are on the outside looking in. They’ve won four of their last five but it hasn’t come against the top dogs in the NHL.

On Saturday they face one of those squads in the Boston Bruins. After that it is a home and home with the despised Flyers, who are ahead of the Caps in the standings. They’ll need more than the top line, the power play, Carlson, and Holtby playing well to beat those teams.

But for tonight, the Caps were victorious in Florida.

They can thank their top players for this one.

Notes: Mikhail Grabovski returned from injury and was hurt again in the first period and didn’t return. The team labeled it a lower body injury…Washington won the face off battle, 33-28…Carrick and Erskine logged 17 and 18 minutes, respectively. The Caps were able to overcome them tonight but it will be much tougher against Boston. I’d like to see those two play under 15 minutes each, and closer to 12 to 13 minutes…Washington was 2 for 2 on the power play and killed 5 of 6 Cats man advantage situations. Six penalties is way too high, the team needs to clean that up.

 

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Neuvirth, Ovechkin Steal a Point for Caps in Detroit

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Neuvirth, Ovechkin Steal a Point for Caps in Detroit

Posted on 31 January 2014 by Ed Frankovic

A night after getting totally whipped in Columbus, the Washington Capitals went into Detroit to take on the Red Wings.

Granted this isn’t the vintage Wings teams that won four Stanley Cups from 1997 to 2008, but they still have a good hockey club and Detroit showed it by dominating the Capitals in puck possession (shot attempts were 81-54 for Detroit) and finally winning in a shootout, 4-3.

This game is 7-2 or worse if not for Michal Neuvirth (42 saves), who was absolutely outstanding throughout the night. Neuvy, who made several ten bell saves in regulation, stopped the first six shootout attempts but none of his teammates could dent Jimmy Howard in the gimmick and Patrick Eaves finally notched the game winner with a sweet glove high shot just inside the right post before Jay Beagle couldn’t convert in the 7th round.

Neuvirth, however, would have gotten the loss if not for a late push from the Caps that saw Alexander Ovechkin tie the game with seven seconds remaining after a nice feed from John Carlson (two assists). Joel Ward did a super job in front of the net on the tying tally.

Another Cap that had a good outing was Casey Wellman, who scored a huge goal to knot this one at two. Wellman took an excellent stretch pass from Ovechkin (1 goal, 1 assist), skated in on Howard and fired three shots before the last one finally hit the twine. Jason Chimera (1 goal, 1 assist) had a strong game along with Carlson and Karl Alzner.

Sadly, after Wellman’s great individual effort, John Erskine blew a tire in the offensive zone and that allowed Gustav Nyquist to beat a screened Neuvirth for what looked to be the game winning goal until the Gr8 late game magic.

Ovechkin now has 39 goals on the campaign and he rebounded after a poor outing in Columbus. The Caps worked harder against Detroit but they were outclassed by the Wings, which is a concern.

The Caps, without Green on the back end, had to rely heavily on Carlson (31:18 of ice time) and Alzner (23:19) on the blue line, and hope that Dmitry Orlov, Tyson Strachan, John Erskine, and Connor Carrick could hold the fort as the bottom four defenders. Unfortunately the Erskine & Carrick pair struggled and finished -2 on the night.

So an important five game road trip ends with the Capitals getting five points. The Caps are two points behind third place Carolina in the Metro Division and two points in back of the Wings, who own the 8th and final Eastern Conference playoff spot currently. Washington now has four straight home games, including Super Bowl Sunday’s tilt against the Wings. Given that the Capitals are 13th in the conference, one would have to think they need to win at least three of the four contests on home ice this week before the Olympic break hits to stay in playoff contention.

They were fortunate to get a point in Motown on Friday night. They can thank Neuvirth for this one along with some late game heroics from Ovechkin.

Notes: The Wings played without star center Pavel Datsyuk and forward Johan Franzen while the Caps didn’t have Mike Green or Mikhail Grabovski, due to injuries. According to Katie Carrera of the Washington Post, Coach Adam Oates confirmed that Green is undergoing concussion protocol and in addition, Brooks Laich was shut down for the third period due to “tightness.” Finding healthy bodies to play continues to get tougher for Washington…five Washington forwards didn’t even ATTEMPT a shot tonight (Martin Erat, Marcus Johansson, Eric Fehr, Beagle, and Tom Wilson), that is not good at all.

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