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The Caps Must Put An End to Slow Starts

Posted on 07 March 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Through 65 games the Washington Capitals have the best record in the National Hockey League at 44-14-7 (95 points).

Virtually every form of online power rankings, whether it’s ESPN.COM, NHL.COM, or TSN.CA, has the Caps in the top spot in the league.

Reading the national press clippings after the acquisition of defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk, it’s pretty clear that most hockey experts believe the Capitals have the best team in the league and they have their greatest chance to finally win a Stanley Cup.

In terms of the best team in the league, well there is a certain club in the state of Pennsylvania that is still the reigning Stanley Cup Champions, so until the Capitals or someone else beats them, the Penguins continue to lay claim to the best team in the league title, in my book.

However, the experts are right that this is the Caps best chance ever to win a championship. I’ve been watching this franchise since 1974-75 and have seen some very good hockey teams that have put themselves in the Cup conversation, such as the 1985-86, 1991-92, 2008-09, 2009-10, and 2015-16 squads. They were all very good, yet they failed to bring home Lord Stanley.

Not one of those rosters was as talented and as deep as this current team. General Manager Brian MacLellan has done an absolutely amazing job of building a serious Cup contender from where he started from just three years ago. There are no holes after the Shattenkirk, Lars Eller, and Brett Connolly acquisitions that have occurred since last May’s loss to the Penguins. Coach Barry Trotz has changed the culture in the organization, for the better, and in his three seasons as Caps bench boss, the team has the best regular season record in the NHL.

Simply put, they have the talent and the coaching to put themselves in position to get the job done.

But all of that will amount to no more than a hill of beans in the spring if they don’t immediately address a big issue that has seriously crept back into their game, once again: SLOW STARTS!

From December 31st to February 11th, the Capitals went on a tear, jumping on their opponents early and often and in the process they scored five or more goals at the Verizon Center in 11 straight games, which tied an NHL record with the 1970-71 Boston Bruins. It was almost routine to see the Caps come out and score a goal in the first 10 minutes and put their opponents on their heels quickly. The way they played during that stretch reminded me of how Pittsburgh played from January 1st, 2016 until Sidney Crosby ultimately lifted his second Stanley Cup last June. They came out fast and they made their opponents feel uncomfortable instantly. Coach Trotz was then able to roll all four lines and all three defensive pairs to wear out the opposition; much like Mike Sullivan did last season. There was no “chasing the game” from Washington. They were playing the right way.

Since the bye week, however, Washington is a pedestrian 5-3-1 (11 points), but in only two of those games (at Nashville and vs. Edmonton) did they have a first 20 minutes that compared to what we saw before everyone took off for the beaches or the mountains for five days on February 12th. Basically, the Capitals have not been very close to the club we saw in the first 56 games. This post bye week team has been too lackadaisical in their efforts and their performances are eerily reminiscent of what we saw in the last couple of months of the 2015-16 regular season. That’s very concerning to me, we all know how last season ended, and I’d like to think the Caps players feel the same way.

On Monday night against the speedy Dallas Stars, the slow starts reached a boiling point. The Stars scored just 1:48 into the contest and would build a three goal lead by the six minute mark of period two. Sure the referees missed blatant goaltender interference on the first tally, but when you come out like you’ve been listening to “I Write the Songs” by Barry Manilow for hours before the game and let a team that has very slim playoff hopes skate all over you, you are putting yourselves at the mercy of the zebras. If the Caps come out strong, the goalie interference never happens and Coach Trotz doesn’t have to use his challenge before the contest is two minutes old. Washington has no one to blame but themselves for the sleep walking they did early on to end up so far behind the eight ball and as a result, they were the ones “chasing the game.”

After last season’s devastating loss to the Penguins, the club talked about having better starts to games and also developing a killer instinct. This was a very valid point, especially given that in games 2, 3, and 6 of the Pittsburgh series the Capitals got off to horrendous starts and found themselves expending massive energy to rally before losing each of those contests, and ultimately the series. The slow starts and lack of killer instinct also goes back to the Rangers series in the spring of May 2015 (see Game 6 and losing a 3-1 series lead).

Those teams had some holes, no doubt, and MacLellan has filled them, but the Capitals have reverted in the last three weeks with a subpar effort to the start of games. After the loss to Dallas, Coach Trotz said the fix to the problem has to come from “the room.”

To paraphrase Colonel Jessup from A Few Good Men, “You’re doggone right it does!”

This starts with the team’s leadership, specifically Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Brooks Orpik. All three of those players were guilty of terrible starts on Monday night and that’s just not acceptable. In fact, since the bye week, each game I find myself wondering, outside of T.J. Oshie, who in the top six is going to show up consistently (“Osh Babe” and the bottom six pretty much bring the effort every game).

Ovechkin told the media recently that it’s time to stop talking about winning the Cup and do something about it this spring. Well, this is when #8 needs to start stepping up and getting this team ready to play and rolling for the playoffs. He also needs to improve on his defensive zone play, because it’s slipped, once again. In hockey, offense comes from good defense, and he can certainly perform much better in his own zone than we’ve seen lately. His back checking has greatly improved over the last three seasons, but once he’s pinned in the defensive area, he’s struggled, especially this year. With his skill set, that can easily be changed with more effort, focus, and attention to detail. In fact, every player on this team should be looking at where they can get better, if they want to win the Cup.

There are 17 games left and just over a month before the hardest round of the playoffs to win, the first one, will commence. There is no finding your game once the post season starts. You need to be clicking and heading into that first week with momentum. Again, see Pittsburgh last season.

The Capitals, right now, don’t have any momentum, they’ve lost it on the beach, skiing, and doing other off-ice activities since February 11th. During their recent three game homestand, they scored a total of five goals. Oshie told me after the loss to Dallas that some nights the puck just doesn’t bounce your way and he also pointed out that it seemed like for a stretch this season, before the bye week, everything was going in. He’s correct that luck is a factor, but in sports, you mostly make your own fortune. The Capitals were scoring so many goals in January and early February because they were working hard to get pucks and bodies to the net via the quality scoring areas. They haven’t been working hard enough or very efficiently since the bye week to regain their offensive prowess. Oshie is the exception to that, all you have to do is look at his goal on Monday night, and I’ll give Ovechkin credit there for creating chaos in front of Caps killer Kari Lehtonen. Backstrom’s goal came from right in front, too, so the team can learn from the film of the Stars tilt to see what they need to do to start lighting the lamp again. To me it all starts with effort and attention to detail, the problem was it came too late on Monday night, nearly 30 minutes into the game.

When the Caps get an early lead, they are so deadly because of their depth. Oshie reiterated on Monday night that “depth” is the strength of this team. When you have 20 guys all pulling on the rope and four lines and three defensive pairs that can play, it makes the other team work extra hard and take chances to rally from behind. That opens up the ice for scoring chances for the Capitals, and they were burying them to the tune of nearly five pucks a night during that January to mid-February stretch. It was not pure luck, it was the result of playing the right way.

This is a tremendous opportunity that this Capitals team has this spring to win a championship. Teams like this, on paper, don’t come around very often and to hear the players talk, they are a very close knit group, as well. We’ve heard from the players and MacLellan that the chemistry is right with this crew.

It’s time to build on that and dial everything in on hockey for the next three plus months, starting with this upcoming three game road trip to California that starts Thursday in San Jose. 10 players need new contracts after this campaign, so they can’t fall back on MacLellan filling roster holes in the offseason or relying on throwing out catch phrases like “fixing the slow starts” or “finding a killer instinct” for next year to buy themselves time. The future is now. This team will never be the same or as stacked as it is now. Talk is cheap and I can’t help but think that these guys don’t want to endure another painful playoff disappointment and the doom and gloom of another breakdown day without a Stanley Cup.

Connolly told me back in December that if this club works on its habits, they can get to where they want to go. They did that in January and early February and were extremely successful, but the BAD habits have crept back in.

So to each and every player on this team, I have one thing to say if they want to become legends and deliver the Capitals their first Championship: IT IS TIME TO WORK AND BE 100% COMMITTED AND FOCUSED ON HOCKEY.

That way they will be playing the proper way and have the right habits come April 12th or whenever game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is officially scheduled.

If they do that, they can definitely beat anyone.

If they don’t, then to paraphrase the late great Herb Brooks.

They’ll take this wasted season to their freaking grave.

THEIR FREAKING GRAVE!

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Caps Go All In and Acquire Kevin Shattenkirk

Posted on 27 February 2017 by Ed Frankovic

After last season’s devastating playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, I wrote that the Capitals needed to upgrade their defensive depth. Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan spoke afterwards about upgrading the bottom six forwards.

Guess what? By acquiring defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk from the St. Louis Blues along with former Caps goalie Phoenix Copley for Zach Sanford, Brad Malone, the Caps first round pick in 2017, and a conditional draft pick(s), he’s now done both!

Over this past summer, MacLellan acquired third line center Lars Eller for two second round picks from Montreal and he signed third line winger, Brett Connolly, as a free agent for just $850,000.

That is some incredible work to fix your remaining roster holes without giving up any current key players.

“We are excited to welcome Kevin to our organization,” said MacLellan on Monday night after the deal. “We felt it was important to acquire another defenseman to strengthen and add depth to our blue line. Kevin is a skilled, puck moving defenseman who we think will help our team at even strength and on the power play. In addition, we are also pleased to welcome Pheonix back to the organization. We feel his addition solidifies our goaltending tandem in Hershey.”

This team is now very deep across the board and could survive a significant injury to their blue line that they just couldn’t overcome last season when Karl Alzner was playing through a bad groin and Brooks Orpik was initially injured in Philadelphia and then suspended for three games against Pittsburgh.

Coach Barry Trotz and assistant coach Todd Rierden have a crew that can be downright dominating on the back end now that they boast three very good defensive pairs in Karl Alzner – John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov – Matt Niskanen, and Brooks Orpik – Kevin Shattenkirk. Nate Schmidt becomes the 7th defensemen and Taylor Chorney the 8th.

Up front, they probably won’t have to worry about stopping both the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin lines only to get beat by the Nick Bonino led third line, like last season. Or if they face the Rangers, they have a better chance of containing the super fast and big Chris Kreider, who killed them in the 2015 playoffs and just a week ago Sunday beat Schmidt badly on a third period faceoff to score the game winning goal at Madison Square Garden. The Niskanen knee injury scare in Philadelphia last Wednesday night probably helped convince MacLellan that another right handed defenseman was definitely needed.

The forward lines, once Andre Burakovsky returns, will be:

Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – T.J. Oshie

Marcus Johansson – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Justin Williams

Brett Connolly – Lars Eller – Andre Burakovsky

Daniel Winnik – Jay Beagle – Tom Wilson.

I imagine that Jakub Vrana will be called up to fill #65’s slot until he recovers from his hand injury. Of course, MacLellan could also make a move to add another forward.

In a campaign when so many Capitals are in need of new contracts for next season and there likely won’t be enough money to go around, not to mention the Las Vegas expansion draft is looming in June, there is no time to waste. Bottom line, this current team, which was already very good before this trade was made, is not going to be intact next season so the future is now. This move is an add without really losing any key piece. Given that Oshie played with Shattenkirk in St. Louis and Carlson and Orpik also were his blue line teammates on Team USA in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, there should be some familiarity there. Shattenkirk is immensely talented and should fit in well, once he learns the Capitals systems. He has a good shot and could easily be the guy feeding Ovechkin on the top power play unit, if that’s the route the coaches go.

That’s not to say that the Penguins, Rangers, Blue Jackets, or any other team, for that matter, won’t defeat the Capitals in the playoffs, because anything can happen in the post season. But the Caps have just pushed all of their chips into the center in an attempt to win their first Stanley Cup and this move gives them a lot more defensive depth.

That really increases their odds of achieving their ultimate goal.

Simply put, it’s Cup or Bust!

Notes: Shattenkirk is reportedly already on his way to New York and will suit up for Washington on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers…St. Louis took on 39% of Shattenkirk’s $4.25M salary to complete the trade, per Frank Seravelli of TSN.

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Depleted Caps Out Skate the Super Fast Oilers in a 2-1 Victory

Posted on 24 February 2017 by Ed Frankovic

In a fun game to watch, the Washington Capitals increased their franchise record tying home winning streak to 13 games with a 2-1 victory over the super fast and talented Edmonton Oilers on Friday night.

The Caps were missing some big names due to the fact that the sore loser Neanderthal Flyers banged up Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, and T.J. “Pay the Man” Oshie in Filthy on Wednesday night. Washington was already without Andre Burakovsky, who fractured his hand before the bye week.

Riley Barber and Aaron Ness were called up from Hershey and suited up. Both Taylor Chorney and Nate Schmidt were in the lineup and boy did Caps Coach Barry Trotz get a SUPER outing from his six defensemen. The speedy Oilers, led by all world center Connor McDavid, are scoring machines, but Washington kept them predominantly to the perimeter in this game and the only goal they allowed was a turnover by Evgeny Kuznetsov and Justin Williams in the first minute of period two. Leon “Sniper” Draisaitl pounced on that miscue and beat Braden Holtby (30 saves) from the prime scoring area. There was nothing really the Holtbeast could do there, that one was on his forwards.

Speaking of Kuzy and Stick, those guys had that blunder and one other that led to an Oilers partial breakaway, but they were pretty much flying all night. Kuznetsov was matched up most of the evening against the 1st pick in the 2015 NHL draft and to be honest, #92 had bragging rights on this night. When it comes to skating, McDavid is almost unbeatable, but watching Kuznetsov stride in this one was an absolute joy. He had his wheels going so well he looked like he could have starred for the USSR Red Army teams of the 1970’s.

As for Williams, well he scored the game winner on a great no look pass from Jay Beagle just 5:48 into period three. Beagle’s line, the 4th unit of “Flip Phone” Beags, Tom Wilson, and Daniel Winnik was outstanding, once again, and sure seem to be making a strong case to be the best fourth line in the NHL right now. Wilson scored the opening salvo in this affair after a great pass from Dmitry Orlov at 12:22 of the 1st frame. #9’s ability to carry the puck in onside with his feet, Pele style, after a pass from Chorney, set the play up. Wilson, who is steadily improving in the offensive end, took the disc and fired it towards the net. Cam Talbot (23 saves) had no chance to stop the shot, which was just inside the far post, because Winnik was running traffic in front of the cage at the perfect time.

That 4th line not only played a big role in the two goals, but they continually seized momentum for Washington with strong shifts, especially with their forechecking and strong wall play. Simply put, they wore the Oilers big guns out and made them go 200 feet. By game’s end, big lug Milan Lucic was exhausted and resorted to barking at Wilson from the bench. Clearly #43 had gotten into #27’s grill big time.

On the back end, John Carlson was just outstanding logging 27:19 of ice time. Orlov played just five seconds short of his season high (24:24) and he was downright dominant. His overall game has just improved so much this season and that is a big reason why the Capitals are leading the league. Chorney was great in 18:37 of ice time and Karl Alzner was his usual steady self with an assist in 21:24.

The other thing the Capitals coaching staff will really like, besides the strong effort, was the fact that the Caps didn’t take a single penalty in this contest. That was a direct result of keeping their feet moving the whole game (effort) and keeping their sticks down. Washington was outshot attempted in this one (61-54), but in terms of having the puck, my eyes tell me the Capitals had the biscuit more often than their counterparts, but they did struggle to get shots from in close, and naturally they had several sequences where they over passed when a shot was the right play. Kuznetsov and Lars Eller were both guilty of not firing from the prime scoring zone in this one.

But overall, this was a gutsy effort by a depleted team against an up and coming hot Edmonton squad. The Caps played a high tempo game against one of the fastest teams in the league and their depth was the difference. That’s very encouraging.

The victory improves Washington to 41-12-7 (89 points) and they are +73 in terms of goal differential. More impressive, though, is the way this team is rebuilding their game after the bye week. This was the fourth game since beach time (well, skiing for Orlov) and you could see the positive result of the rest in the way the Capitals players were really moving their legs and skating. When they do that and get pucks and bodies to the cage, they are hard to beat.

Yes, they missed the “Osh Babe” and Burakovsky up front, but the depth of the team showed and that has to make both Coach Trotz and General Manager Brian MacLellan feel really good heading into Wednesday’s NHL trade deadline. I don’t expect anything major to happen from the Caps or around the league given how close the standings are and how many teams still think they can make the postseason (but let’s just hope the Flyers are golfing thanks to the Caps win on Wednesday. No one outside of that city wants to see those goons in the playoffs).

Notes: McDavid had an assist, but he was -1 in 21:42 of ice time…Brett Connolly moved up to the top line in #77’s absence and played well. He had one sequence where he made a great defensive play, then broke the puck out up the ice with speed to get a one on one with Talbot. Unfortunately he missed the net…Washington won the face off battle, 28-16. Flip Phone was 10-2…Barber played a team low 9:56 and Ness only received 10:37 of ice time, but both did not look out of place…Alex Ovechkin had nine shot attempts (3 SOG) in 18:31. He looked good in this one and something tells me a goal scoring streak is coming for him soon…Wilson had three shots on goal and five hits. He was a force all night…the injuries to Niskanen, Oprik, and Oshie are all believed to be minor, but they will not play on Saturday in Smashville. The Caps take on the Predators at 5:00, but I’m not sure why they are playing so early in the Music City?

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Grubauer and Connolly Lead the Caps over Buffalo, 3-1

Posted on 25 November 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan’s plan to upgrade the Caps bottom two lines following last spring’s bitter playoff defeat to the Pittsburgh Penguins is starting to pay dividends.

On Friday night at the Verizon Center off season acquisitions Brett Connolly (goal and an assist) and Lars Eller (assist) formed a strong trio with 2016 trade deadine addition, Daniel Winnik (goal), to help lead the Capitals to a hard fought, 3-1 victory over the pesky Buffalo Sabres. Those three forwards all logged around 12 minutes of even strength ice time and at night’s end each had roughly 15 minutes overall. They were hard on the puck all evening and that line set a nice tone for the Caps, who started fast again, by outworking the Sabres and putting bodies and shots to the cage.

At just 5:08 into the contest they broke the ice for Washington when Eller came down the left wing and fired a hard shot on Anders Nilsson (29 saves), who put a juicy rebound into the slot. Connolly was cruising into the “point’s zone” and he got enough of the biscuit to push it towards the right post where a hard skating Winnik came around the net and buried it from a sharp angle.

The Caps would play a strong first period, outshooting the Sabres, 13-6, but only led 1-0, thanks to some stellar play by Nilsson in net.

At the other end of the ice, Philipp Grubauer (32 saves) was very sharp in his first home start in forever on the front end of a back to back contest situation (the Caps are in the Big Smoke on Saturday night at 7 pm to take on the Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada). Buffalo had a power play just two plus minutes after Winnik’s lamp lighter to open the scoring and they have a very good one. However, Grubauer was the primary reason the Sabres weren’t able to tie the game up. For the night, the Caps backup goalie was their best penalty killer stopping seven shots in eight minutes of Buffalo man advantage time.

“I think that’s the privilege we have of having two great goalies. Either one that’s in gives us a really good chance of winning. Grubi’s played phenomenal this year so far and it’s really unfortunate that we couldn’t get him the shutout,” stated Winnik, who in honor of Movember, has grown one of the best moustaches you’ll ever see and it’s eerily reminiscent of the one Johnny had in Slap Shot. Kudos Mr. Winnik.

Marcus Johansson scored what would turn out to be the game winning goal from the slot. Jojo earned his 8th tally of the year when the Caps had a three on two rush up the ice. Justin Williams, who had several more good chances but didn’t score, came down the right wing and tried to pass cross ice to Nicklas Backstrom on the left wing side. The puck fortuitously hit the Sabres defensemen in the skate and bounced right to a streaking #90, who fired it quickly past Nilsson for a 2-0 Washington lead just three minutes and 25 seconds past the game’s midpoint.

The Caps had a 25-18 shots on goal advantage after two periods and a 49-44 edge in shot attempts, but the Sabres would have 5:32 of extra man time in the final frame. As mentioned above, Grubauer was the primary reason Buffalo would get blanked with the man advantage. They did, however, cut the deficit to a single goal with 10:02 to go when Sam Reinhart fired a shot through a Ryan O’Reilly screen and into the cage at even strength.

The Sabres then had a power play when just down a puck, but Gruabauer and the Caps penalty killers, most notably Winnik and Tom Wilson up front, prevented Buffalo from any great chances.

Then with 4:20 left and the crowd finally buzzing after “Unleash the Fury” was played on the video board, the Sabres took a too many men penalty when Washington fired the puck into the skates of a Buffalo player trying to change. At first it didn’t seem like the referees were going to call the infraction, but the crowd wisely groaned very loudly and off to the box Buffalo went. That penalty would provide the dagger for the Caps as Connolly, who earned 1st power play time at a crucial moment in the contest, buried the rebound of an Alex Ovechkin rocket to close out the scoring. #10 celebrated heavily and deservedly so. It was a big goal and he put himself in the right position to score an important tally that allowed the Caps to go 4-1 on this five game home stand that concluded on Friday. The only blemish was a zebra aided 3-2 victory for Columbus on Sunday.

Overall, the Caps put out a strong effort as a team, especially the Eller line as well as Wilson and Jay Beagle. Zach Sanford only saw 6:37 of ice time, but he nearly scored his first goal of the season on a beautiful rush move around a Sabres defensemen in the first period. Unfortunately for Zach, Nilsson made an awesome glove save on his backhand attempt.

The Caps did make some mistakes in this contest; most notably they were guilty of some bad decisions where they tried low percentage cross ice passes. Some of them were picked off and normally that would lead to odd man rushes. However, as Coach Barry Trotz pointed out afterwards, the Caps commitment level was there and that attention to detail prevented Buffalo from getting scoring chances off of those mistakes since another Capital seemed to be always in position to cover for the mishap. Connolly talked following the victory about trying to find the right balance of trying for the cross ice passes versus getting the pucks deep.

“We have so many guys here that can make really good plays. Coaches always talk about blue line turnovers and we got guys that can make plays on those blue lines. Eight times out of 10 they’re making those plays, but if we can just find the right mix of when to make those plays and when maybe to cut your losses and get it deep, then we’ll be better moving forward,” said Connolly, who was certainly one of the best Washington players on this night and is making an impact.

Connolly is absolutely correct, if there’s one criticism of this team, it’s that extra pass just inside the offensive blue line where the puck should’ve been put on or behind the net. Good things happen when you shoot is my motto, and as Coach Trotz likes to say, “The NHL is a shoot first league.”

“If we can just focus on trying to keep the puck out of our net we’ve got enough guys on the team that can score. I think that’s kind of been an area that obviously the coaches have been working with and just trying to cut our losses and not make those high risk plays, but if we’re coming back hard and we’re focused on helping the goalie out and the D out then we’re going to get chances at the other end, it’s just a matter of time and I think that once we figure that out we’ll be even better moving forward, so we’re moving in the right direction,” added Connolly.

Connolly, who MacLellan was able to bring in at a bargain price of $850,000, is right about the focus of the coaches and since Coach Trotz arrived this team has gotten monumentally better at playing away from the puck, something that has killed them in the post season in the past. The Caps have only given up 44 goals in 20 games and only the Minnesota Wild have given up fewer (38). There is the saying that “Defense Wins Championships.”

“We’re playing pretty well. We’re getting better every day. Guys are working hard in practice and we watch a lot of video and are getting better. It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. We’ve got a good group of guys here, a good team. We’re going in the right direction,” finished Connolly.

20 games in and sitting at 13-5-2 (28 points) and on pace for a 115 point season, it’s hard to argue with what one of the newest Capitals had to say following a very nice win the day after Thanksgiving.

On to Toronto.

Notes: Buffalo’s O’Reilly was the best Sabre on the ice and he had five shots on net in 23:53 of ice time (led all players on both teams). Coach Trotz raved about #90 and said he is one of the most underrated players in the NHL. Winnik said of O’Reilly, “Phenomenal player, I played with him in Colorado. Really underrated guy who finally got the credit he deserved with the World Cup nod for Canada.”…Washington lost the face off battle, 37-30. Beagle did go 11-6…Oveckhin had zero shot attempts in a rough first period for his line, but he finished with six for the game, including an assist on Connolly’s game clincher…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 23:09, but John Carlson played 23:00…Taylor Chorney, who was only in the line up for the third time this season, played extremely well with Brooks Orpik. I could make a case that this was his best game since he’s been a Capital. He was very good in his own end and at breaking the puck up the ice…speaking of underrated, that’s Johansson, who played 17:16 and is such a good two way player…the Holtbeast will get the start in net on Saturday against Auston Matthews and company from the Air Canada Centre. The Caps are fired up to play the Leafs and Karl Alzner remarked afterwards, “We’ve been seeing all of their highlights on tv, so it will be fun to finally play them.”

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Are You Ready To Take A Chance Again With the Caps?

Posted on 11 October 2016 by Ed Frankovic

It’s been five months since the overtime goal that ended the Washington Capitals season in Pittsburgh. The Penguins would go on to win their fourth Stanley Cup and each time they have done so they have knocked off the Caps en route to hoisting Lord Stanley.

That was not supposed to happen last spring. No, everything shaped up to be the Capitals year from training camp to a Presidents’ Trophy and right up until a three-zip games lead on the Flyers in round one. Washington then had to work extra hard to send Philadelphia to the golf course in six games. Game one against Pittsburgh in round two saw Washington’s T.J. Oshie exploit Olli Maatta for a hat trick and the Caps were up 1-0. Things were still looking good, but then, to quote John Cougar Mellencamp, “The walls came crumbling down.”

An ill advised hit on Maatta led to a three game suspension for Brooks Orpik in game two (and knocked the Pens weak link on D out of the lineup) and an injury to Karl Alzner further weakened the Capitals blue line, allowing Pittsburgh to use their superior speed to take over a close series and crush, once again, any dreams of Washington winning the Cup.

It was a painful finish and the summer was long. Many Caps fans needed that duration to move past that devastating loss. Some may never get over that defeat, it was that stinging. Even Caps General Manager Brian MacLellan remarked to me during the Sweden-Team Europe preliminary game at the Verizon Center in September that he will never get over it. I get it, I’ve been watching this team find ways to not get it done for over 40 years, it is hard to take, at times.

But now it’s time for another Capitals hockey season.

The grieving is over, it’s done and finished. It’s time to look ahead once again, but by learning from the past.

So for Caps fans, the start of every hockey season since 1974 has to feel invariably like the lyrics from this old classic song from the legendary Barry Manilow:

And I’m ready to take a chance again
Ready to put my love on the line with you
Been livin’ with nothing to show for it
You get what you get when you go for it
And I’m ready to take a chance again with you


Yes, it’s time to take the chance again on this hockey club.

As for learning from defeat, General Manager Brian MacLellan once again did his job this summer and improved the Capitals roster by making it faster. He traded for center Lars Eller at the draft and added forward Brett Connolly as a low cost free agent. Gone are Mike Richards, Jason Chimera, and Michael Latta.

With the addition of Eller, Washington is as deep as it has ever been at center with Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Eller, and Jay Beagle, in that order. When you look at the wings the Capitals have, especially in the top six, with Alex Ovechkin, Oshie, Andrei Burakovsky, and Justin Williams, this club can be explosive. MacLellan brought in Eller to improve the “top 9” and the current plan is to have Eller center Marcus Johansson and likely Tom Wilson. “Willy” is in a pivotal season and it’s time for him to take a big step forward offensively. He’s shown flashes of potential, but he has to be consistent and he must find a way to put more pucks in the net.

In training camp, 21 year old Zach Sanford from Boston College had a marvelous few weeks and earned himself a spot on the opening night roster sending the likes of Stan Galiev and others, such as Chandler Stephenson, Travis Boyd, Christian Thomas, and Jakub Vrana to Hershey for more game time and development.

In goal, the Capitals are rock solid with reigning Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby between the pipes, backed up by Philipp Grubauer. Holtby admitted over the summer that he did suffer an injury in the opening round series against the Flyers, which explains some of the slight drop off in his play in that Penguins series.

As for the Capitals blue line, it is the same as last spring, but the club is counting on more from Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt to improve the overall back end, especially from Orlov, who aspires to top four minutes. The question is can he be consistent and learn to avoid the big mistakes he’s prone to make that lead to opposing goals? Orpik is now 36, and even though he’s in great shape and eager to get over his nightmare 2015-16 campaign, the league is faster at a time when he’s battling losing more foot speed. Bottom line, the blue line depth is Washington’s biggest question mark. Everyone knows what Alzner, top 12 NHL defensemen John Carlson, and the super solid Matt Niskanen can do, so it’s all about the growth of Orlov and Schmidt plus the ability of Orpik to stay relevant in an up tempo league.

Are the Capitals better than last year? On paper, I’d say yes with the addition of Eller and the experience gained by Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Orlov, and Schmidt. Those four players had great to solid regular seasons, but then sputtered in the post season. Hopefully they’ve learned what it takes to follow up a strong regular season with an even better playoff performance, because ultimately that’s where you’re measured in the NHL.

As for the team itself, to include the coaches, well they need to be better prepared for games. The slow starts that plagued this team so often in the past, need to be eliminated. Too often this hockey club allows the other squad to dictate the game before they decide to start playing. You rarely see the elite Championship teams do that in pro sports (see Patriots, New England). Washington must learn from what the Penguins did to them last spring and play the same way, regardless of the score. They need to find the “killer instinct” — they have the skill. That’s why their “will over skill” training camp tee shirts are very appropriate. The Capitals MUST ditch their laissez-faire approach to games and learn to come out firing and take the will of their opponents.

Letting clubs hang around, like the Caps did with the Flyers last spring, leads to more injuries and subpar play. That must be a thing of the past.

It’s a mindset and Washington, who has as much; if not more, talent than any team in the NHL, needs to improve the mental part of their game.

Last season the Capitals earned 120 standings points. I’ve stated they are a better team heading into 2016-17, but will they surpass that point total again? Not likely, but I do believe they will once again win the Metropolitan Division.

As for the rest of the Metro, here’s a look at each team in order of predicted finish:

2nd: Pittsburgh – they are the defending champs and to win the Cup you still have to go through the Penguins. They have the same team from last year minus defensemen Ben Lovejoy so they should be right there in the spring. The recent concussion that Sidney Crosby incurred at practice last Friday will likely keep him out of action for at least a game, but that is a smart decision by those in Pittsburgh. Sid skated on Tuesday, but given that the Pens will make the post season and it’s only October why rush a guy back who has a history of concussions?

3rd: Rangers – Henrik Lundqvist will be 35 in March. He showed some signs of his old self in the World Cup of Hockey, but overall he’s slowing down and his consistency will be in question. New York is still paying for going for the Cup the last several years so they are in salary cup trouble. They lost Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle on the blue line and are left with some slow footed dudes back there (see Girardi, Dan). Up front, they traded Derek Brassard to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad, primarily to save cap space, and added past Capital killers Nathan Gerbe and Micahel Grabner. They also signed NCAA free agent Jimmy Vesey.

4th: Flyers – Philadelphia brings back basically the same lineup they had against the Capitals in the first round last April so I expect them to continue to improve unless injuries hit one or more of their key players (Claude Giroux, Jakab Voracek, Sean Couturier, and Shayne Gostisbehere).

5th: Islanders – New York lost Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, and Matt Martin at forward. Those are some big losses. Their blue line is fairly strong and they added Dennis Seidenberg to it. In net they have Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss. Halak was superb in the World Cup of Hockey. He’s known to have hot streaks, but can be injury prone and inconsistent.

6th: Devils – New Jersey traded defensemen Adam Larsson to Edmonton for former NHL #1 draft pick, Taylor Hall, so New Jersey should have more offense. Cory Schneider is great in net, but this team has a questionable blue line and some young players cutting their teeth in the NHL at forward.

7th: Hurricanes – Justin Faulk and 19 year old Noah Hanifan are a nice start on defense and up front Jeff Skinner, Teuvo Teravainen, and Elias Lindholm are three talented players aged 24 and younger, but this club lacks the depth to earn a playoff spot. They’ll play hard every night though, so teams that take them lightly will be in trouble.

8th: Blue Jackets – If the World Cup of Hockey proved anything for USA Hockey, it’s that the game has passed Coach John Tortorella by. Why John Davidson and company hired this dinosaur to be their bench boss last October after firing Todd Richards is beyond me? They have two superb young defensemen in Seth Jones and Ryan Murray and up front they boast the talented Brandon Saad. After that, their forwards are a mix match of styles with too many slow plodders filtered in. They do have Sergei Bobrovsky in net, but can he stay healthy?

The NHL regular season slate opens on Wednesday with four games, but the Caps will begin their season in Pittsburgh on Thursday at 8 pm. I don’t expect Crosby to play, which is disappointing. On Saturday at 7 pm, Washington has its home opener against the Islanders.

Drop the puck!!!!

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Holtby End

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Luck Not the Sole Reason for the Caps’ 2nd Round Exit

Posted on 13 May 2016 by Ed Frankovic

There have been 41 Washington Capitals seasons and zero Stanley Cup Championships.

Those are the facts, there is no denying them.

2015-16 was supposed to be different. It sure felt that way, from the general manager to the coaches to the players to the fans and even some in the media. Heck, I was front and center putting myself out there saying this team and this season would be different.

In many ways, it was, and we’ll touch on that later.

But in the end, as Justin Williams, John Carlson, and many other Capitals players proclaimed on breakdown day on May 12, 2016, the season was a “failure” following a devastating overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in game six that allowed the Pens to win a very closely contested series, four games to two.

Pittsburgh scored 16 goals and Washington tallied 15 times in the series. Each Penguins victory, two of which came in overtime, was achieved by a single goal. Both teams had stretches where they dominated the play, but ultimately it was the Penguins who prevailed.

Did the Capitals deserve a better fate from the Hockey Gods?

Maybe, I mean how often do you see a goal scored off of the back of a player? That happened in game three for Pittsburgh, a game in which the Caps carried the large majority of the play, but managed to lose. Numerous times in this series the Capitals had themselves in position to bury a puck at a key moment, and somehow it bounced over their players stick. Surely luck was not on their side, and as Matt Niskanen noted on breakdown day, you talk to guys around the league who have won championships and they’ll tell you need luck along the way to win.

There is truth to that, around these parts there is no denying that the two Super Bowls the Baltimore Ravens won included some luck. Al Del Greco hit the upright on a field goal right before halftime and then a blocked Del Greco field goal, in the fourth quarter, landed right in the hands of Anthony Mitchell and he then returned it for the game winning touchdown in 2000 against the Titans. Joe Flacco’s Hail Mary pass to Jacoby Jones in 2012 went over the head of a Broncos safety that mistimed his play on the ball for the tying touchdown to set up overtime and an eventual huge Ravens upset. All of those plays included luck, but the Ravens were also good enough to put themselves in position to get the breaks.

You certainly need some luck to win and the Capitals received some of that in series one when Jason Chimera’s innocent dump in deflection traveled 100 feet and through the wickets of Steve Mason into the cage in game two. The Caps took advantage and raced to a three to nothing series lead and eventually prevailed, four games to two over the Flyers.

In series two, Washington didn’t get the bounces and lost by a goal, but it wasn’t bad luck that did them in.

We’ll get that to what ultimately doomed them in a minute, but first, let’s put some perspective on where this team has come from over the last two years.

After a disastrous 2013-14 season, the Capitals were an absolute train wreck and a Stanley Cup seemed to be mostly an unobtainable goal in the near term. Following the conclusion of that season, I was full of piss and vinegar and rightfully called for the ultra-conservative and often panic stricken general manager to be let go, along with the divisive bench boss who seemed to insist on being the smartest guy in the room. I was furious that the blue line continually was not properly addressed by George McPhee for over 10 plus seasons. Fortunately, owner Ted Leonsis and team President Dick Patrick saw the same thing, when many in the national media were once again calling for the core of the team, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, to be shipped out instead.

Enter Coach Barry Trotz and promoted General Manager Brian MacLellan to commence a massive turnaround. They immediately went to work on two things the club desperately needed, a blue line fix and an identity as a team.

“Last year when I came here, that was the first thing we did, was fix the defense. We got two outstanding players in Brooks [Orpik] and Matt [Niskanen] and we started the process of building a culture and it started by fixing holes, by going out and getting the best people that we felt could do that and getting people who have won, then the next phase of that was to develop our own people,” said Caps coach Barry Trotz to Nestor Aparacio and I on February 29th, 2016 at a WNST radio event at Buffalo Wild Wings in Belair to continue the fight against leukemia and support the bone marrow registry.

Those moves laid the foundation for a very successful 2014-15 campaign that saw Washington return to the playoffs, defeat the New York Islanders in round one, and then lose in painful fashion, in overtime, in game seven against the New York Rangers. The Capitals only allowed 13 goals in seven games, but could only muster 12 goals themselves and lost twice in overtime in the final three contests.

It was an awful defeat, they lost a three games to one series lead, but everyone knew that the main problem was the Capitals didn’t have enough talent up front to score consistently. The loss was rough, but things were rapidly moving in the right direction after utter chaos just a year earlier. My end of the season blog focused on the need to improve the top six forwards and sure enough, MacLellan pulled it off dealing Troy Brouwer for T.J. Oshie and signing Justin Williams to a two year free agent deal. Unfortunately, adding those guys and the need to pay goalie Braden Holtby what he was rightfully worth, put the team up against the salary cap. With it not possible to move Brooks Laich’s boat anchor of a contract in the summer, the team was forced to part ways with grinding forward Joel Ward and defensemen Mike Green, both key players on the squad that fell just short against the Rags. They were tough personnel losses to a team that had become super close.

But Oshie and Williams fit in perfectly and the Ward and Green losses faded to the back of everyone’s mind as the Capitals stormed out of the gate and blew the league away in the regular season pretty much clinching the Presidents’ Trophy by Valentine’s Day. Holtby was legendary in the cage and he tied the NHL single season victory total for a goalie with 48 (tied with hall of famer, Martin Brodeur). It was so much fun and the team seemed to get tighter as a unit as the season moved on. This was surely setting up to be the year for a Cup parade, but quietly the Pittsburgh Penguins were addressing some serious issues they had themselves.

They fired their coach, Mike Johnston, and replaced him with former Rangers assistant Mike Sullivan. But more importantly, general manager Jimmy Rutherford made some great moves to transform his roster. In the summer, he traded high draft picks to Toronto to acquire scoring winger Phil Kessel and he dumped the slow and plodding Brandon Sutter for speedy Nick Bonino. After the season began, he also swapped David Perron for super-fast Cap killer Carl Hagelin. Suddenly he had a line that could skate like the wind, but he still had issues on the back end. Rob Scuderi was old and slower than molasses, but Rutherford somehow convinced Stan Bowman, who is considered an excellent GM, to deal mobile defensemen Trevor Daley for the past his prime Scuderi. It was a fleecing or highway robbery of a deal, whatever you want to call it. From there the Penguins were the best team in the league from January on and Washington knew they’d have their hands full with them, at some point. The Caps had become somewhat complacent given their huge standings lead while Pittsburgh pressed madly to move up the standings after wallowing out of playoff position for much of the first 40 games.

While the Penguins were making all of these moves, MacLellan not only added Oshie and Williams, but he brought in Mike Richards as a depth center. That move was excellent and if not for some of Richards outstanding penalty killing skills, the Flyers might have won game six, as well as game two. Richards ability to read back door passes and get his stick in lanes on defense and while shorthanded was very much needed. The Caps suddenly were not only super on the power play, but also on the penalty kill.

With the Richards move, the Caps only real question marks appeared to be on defense. The loss of Green was a blow, no doubt, you don’t replace a player of that caliber easily, and the Caps plan, partly due to limited salary cap room, was to go with rookies Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt on the back end as a third pairing. When Orpik was injured in early November with a cracked femur, suddenly those guys were forced to play more minutes than originally planned. They played well, too, perhaps clouding the judgement of the Capitals brass as the trade deadline approached. MacLellan did add Mike Weber as a depth defensemen and he somehow masterfully moved Laich out for an upgrade in forward Daniel Winnik. The move also freed up money on the current salary cap, but more importantly for 2016-17 when dollars would be needed to retain Marcus Johansson, who was having a career year, and others like Tom Wilson. Some wanted the Capitals to use that extra dough to acquire another defensemen given Oprik’s health issues and the lack of experience on the back end. Dan Hamhuis, among other experienced defensemen, were still out there reportedly to be had, but Washington passed.

After the trade deadline, at the WNST event with Coach Trotz on February 29th, I specifically asked him about the decision to go with the two players who had zero playoff experience on the back end.

“We talk about that, the blessing this year with Brooks being out for a long period of time, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt were in the lineup for 50 some games. We already know what they can do and it’s been really beneficial for us. I think by adding Mike Weber we’re eight deep at the NHL level,” explained Trotz on the rationale of where the organization stood on their blue line.

It seemed like a viable plan at the time and Weber certainly seemed like the type of guy who could fill in for an Orpik or even a Karl Alzner if there was an injury. But Oprik came back healthy down the stretch and despite the fact that Carlson missed 12 games with a cracked ankle/foot in March, the Caps only played Weber in 10 of the 21 contests that occurred before the post season began. Basically, the Capitals decided to ride Orlov, Schmidt and Taylor Chorney instead of Weber. #6 was a seven year veteran with more playoff experience (seven games) than the other three combined, but he spent most of the time in the press box becoming rusty. As anyone in hockey will tell you, performing in the regular season is one thing, but doing that in the playoffs is another story, so the Capitals were really taking a risk on the Orlov-Schmidt-Chorney trio.

When Orpik was concussed and injured his neck in game three against the Flyers, I remarked to MacLellan after that tilt that “this was the reason you went out and got Weber.” The GM seemed to nod his head in agreement, yet somehow it wasn’t until a series clinching victory in game six that Weber finally got a sweater for the Caps? The coaching staff went with Chorney over a more physical Weber against a chippy and dirty team like the Flyers. Weber, to that point, had never received the repetitions he really needed to play at a top four level that would be required when Orpik went down.

That leads me to where this season broke down. Yes, the Penguins were the faster team, but you can deter speed by keeping it to the outside and wearing it out with proper execution. The Bonino line, with seven goals, was the difference in the series and while they were fast, several of those goals came from right in front of the net following turnovers. Oprik’s terrible hit on Olli Maatta that took #3 out of three games and #44 too, as a result of a suspension, turned the entire series around, as well.  The Caps were flat the rest of game two and lost home ice. In game three, Schmidt made a costly turnover and then was manhandled in front by the small Hagelin for the eventual game winning goal. He would not play in two of the final three games. Orlov was benched for a game and the Caps only won once with Chorney in the lineup (game five of the Pens series). Weber did get a jersey for game four and played decently, but the game winning goal went off of his stick to Patrick Hornqvist and he was banished to the press box once again.

When Alzner’s groin, that he initially injured in the Flyers series, finally popped in game six, the Caps had little left on the back end other than Carlson and a tiring Niskanen, who played all 82 games and every playoff game with King Karl, to that point. After #27’s injury, Orpik took another awful penalty, a careless double minor for high sticking on Hornqvist with the puck 50 feet away in period two, and the Caps great penalty killing unit was suddenly forced to play both Chorney and Orlov in succession. Two goals in 29 seconds was the result and that put the Caps in a deep hole, 3-0. It was a terrible penalty that Orpik could not afford to take, once again, and it was especially bad knowing that Alzner was done for the game. In short, as much as I like Orpik and what he can bring to the Capitals, he had a nightmare 2015-16 season with his injuries and bad penalties. Simply put, the Penguins were faster, but they also were able to get to the front of the Capitals net, and most of those occasions came when members of the bottom half of the Washington defense were on the ice.

Now the encouraging part of the story is that this is where this Capitals teamed proved to be different.  Instead of folding tent like the 2009 Caps did in game seven against Pittsburgh when they went down 3-0, they fought back and forced overtime in game six showing tremendous fortitude and resolve. They probably should have won too, but failed to capitalize on a late power play that they received. At that juncture they seemed a little too comfortable at that moment at just being tied up, something that occurred too frequently during this season and in the Flyers series, as well.

On to overtime we went and the Capitals, who rode the top six forwards and Carlson and Niskanen on the back end heavily, were out of gas. Niskanen was forced to play with guys he wasn’t used to being paired with and miscommunication happened on the game winning tally, which was another goal that once again came from the doorstep on a rebound.

In a nutshell, the Capitals lost on their lack of defensive depth, something they thought they had, but really didn’t.  They put too much stock in the abilities of Orlov and Schmidt based on their regular season success and they failed to take advantage and develop or possibly misevaluated what Weber could bring to the lineup. It was a waste of a third round draft pick the way it all played out. The Penguins found their way through the Washington back end too easily and Holtby couldn’t prevent all of those second chance tallies.

In addition, their season long tendency to sit back and not take control of games cost them dearly. They didn’t attack in game two and show that killer instinct to seize a critical contest and the series. That lack of killer instinct also allowed a Kris Letang-less Penguins team to steal game four. The Pens gained confidence to win in those first 30 minutes when the Capitals needed to step on their throats and not allow them to believe they could prevail without their best defensemen. It was a major opportunity lost.

Finally, the Capitals loss of Ward took away a player who routinely went to the front of the net in the postseason to get ugly goals. Washington didn’t have much of that against the Penguins outside of a couple of Williams tallies (but one was with the goalie pulled). The Caps need their bottom six forwards to chip in with more greasy goals.

So where does that lead us heading in to 2016-17?

Obviously the team is extremely disappointed that they let a major chance to win a championship slip by once again. The lack of true defensive depth, killer instinct, and inability to add in some rebound goals was what ultimately cost them the series against what should become in June, the 2015-16 Stanley Cup winning Penguins.

Some will call for panic and to try to blow things up, like the San Jose Sharks nearly did following a loss to the Kings in 2014 after owning a 3-0 series lead. Two springs later, the Sharks are in the hunt for the Cup and credit for that goes to hanging on to their core, the addition of Ward up front, and bringing in Paul Martin on defense.

Washington needs to find a Paul Martin type on the back end because running out the same seven guys again, particularly the four after Carlson, Niskanen, and Alzner, carries significant risk.

Johansson will be the top offseason priority to sign to a long term deal. He’s a key piece to this team and had a remarkable regular and post season. He was one of the guys going to the net against the Flyers and scoring tough goals. He also brings a major element of speed.

Wilson is next on the priority list as a restricted free agent. #43 made significant contributions this year on the penalty kill and defensively. In some games, such as game five against the Penguins, he was a difference maker by drawing penalties and keeping the opponent out of the offensive zone. Still, he needs to develop his offensive skills so that he could possibly fill that Ward type of role in front of the net. His improvement is a must and the coaches need to aid that by playing him more. If they prefer not to do that or think he can’t do that, then a move is needed.

Orlov is a restricted free agent, as well, and he and Schmidt are similar players, along with Chorney. The Caps management team needs to determine if that is indeed the way to go to win a Stanley Cup on the back end. My recommendation would be to move at least one of them and upgrade the blue line, especially since Oprik is adding another year and he has an injury history.

Ovechkin is about to head into his 12th season and the Capitals need to win soon (Steve Yzerman’s first Cup came in his 14th season). The Gr8 was superb in these playoffs and downright dominant in several games, such as game five against the Penguins. Oshie, Williams, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Alzner are all free agents after next season and will require more dollars. Carlson has two more years to go at the deal of the century, a contract just under $4M per season. He was the Capitals best player in the post season and will command $7M plus in 2018-19.

Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky are two young players that had super regular seasons, but as a result of playing all 82 games, didn’t have the legs they had in 2015-16 when they were playoff difference makers. They need to learn from that and be better prepared physically next spring. They need to add strength and learn to get some ugly goals in front.

I typically wait several days before writing this blog to let the emotions of the playoff defeat die down, but I don’t think that will be possible this season. This was one tough loss and a major opportunity gone by the wayside. Everyone will feel the pain all summer and I certainly don’t want to be sitting here next season beginning my 2016-17 final blog with a 0 and 42 statistic.

I know the Capitals don’t want me to be doing so either.

Everything the Caps do between now and next April 15th has to be about the playoffs and winning the Cup. The team is tight and the culture is strong, but they need to develop that killer instinct. In addition, the management needs to address the personnel short comings on defense and the coaching staff needs to be quicker to adjust when things aren’t working.

The last thing management needs to do is panic and make radical changes, this team is ultra close, but more is necessary to get over the hump.

So the time is now for the Capitals to start getting at next year and doing everything in their power to make sure no stone is left unturned and no holes are left exposed when injuries or uncomfortable situations present themselves in the spring of 2017 playoffs.

There were a lot of things to like from this team this year, but the ultimate prize was not captured and the season was a major disappointment, or a failure, as many players called it.

The clock is ticking.

They must end this awful postseason losing cycle once and for all.

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Ovi Playoffs

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Table Set for the Caps As They Begin the Stanley Cup Playoffs

Posted on 11 April 2016 by Ed Frankovic

“This is it…make no mistake where you are…This is it…your back’s to the counter…This is it…don’t be a fool anymore”Kenny Loggins

The Stanley Cup Playoffs begin for the Caps on Thursday, April 14th at 7 pm from the Verizon Center against the Philadelphia Flyers.

They are finally here.

The Washington Capitals organization and their fans have been waiting for this day to come since Derek Stepan’s puck went past Braden Holtby into the back of the cage in overtime of game 7 last spring, on May 13th, 2015.

334 days ago, to be exact.

I remember the frustration, anger, and pain that came immediately afterwards. It’s a feeling long time Caps fans know far too well.

My first tweet immediately, once that shot went in, was simple and to the point.

“Why must the Capitals always lose this way?”

It was agonizing for all who are emotionally invested in this team, to include the players and the entire organization.

But as that night progressed and the group healing began on Twitter, we all really knew, that the despite the bitter loss, this team was extremely close to much bigger things. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Jason Chimera, Karl Alzner, and many others had taken their game to new levels under Coach Barry Trotz and his excellent coaching staff. GM Brian MacLellan had rebuilt the defense in the summer of 2014 to continue to help turn a ship around that began steering in the right direction with the hiring of Coach Trotz.

For once a crushing Capitals season ending didn’t feel like an end all be all, once the analytic side of everyone took over.

MacLellan, the very next day, then said what everyone was thinking.

“We need to improve our top six forwards group.”

It was as transparent and refreshing of a statement as you could hear from the man calling the personnel shots. But saying it and then completing it are two entirely different actions.

But Mac pulled it off, landing Justin “Stick” Williams in free agency and then getting T.J. Oshie in a blockbuster trade with the Blues.

They were brilliant moves in July of 2015.

After those additions I felt, and then blogged before the season began, that on paper, this was the best Caps team ever.

The Presidents’ Trophy winning 2015-16 regular season, where the Caps were NEVER defeated back to back in regulation contests, confirmed just that.

Along the way MacLellan and Trotz added to the deck bringing in two time Stanley Cup Champion Mike Richards, in another amazing move that stabilized the bottom six forwards and penalty killing unit.

Kuznetsov continued his rise towards the NHL’s elite. Tom Wilson improved his game as both Coach Trotz and GM MacLellan had stated they needed after the loss to the Rangers. The Caps would then develop such a great standings points lead that they were able to manage their roster and ice times down the stretch so that it could be as healthy as ever entering the most important season.

That time is now here.

The playoffs are a totally different animal. The space on the ice is limited and the game is extremely physical and fast.

You have to play through your opponent.

It’s a shift by shift, period by period, game by game, and series by series struggle.

You must stick together as a team and play smart.

Discipline is paramount and you have to remain focused on and off of the ice.

So now the table is set.

The past stings for the Capitals organization, but now they have a great chance to change all of that.

It’s all there for the taking.

This is it!

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The Caps dominate the Canes and win 2-0 in their preseason opener.

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Expectations High as Caps Win Preseason Opener

Posted on 21 September 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Yes, it is only preseason, but thank goodness hockey is back!

Just over four months ago the Washington Capitals season came to a crushing halt in overtime against the New York Rangers, a series the Caps could have easily won. During the summer, Capitals 2nd year GM, Brian MacLellan, talked the talk and then walked the walk once again, upgrading his top six forwards like he stated he would by inking former Kings forward Justin Williams to a free agent contract and then trading Troy Brouwer, a 2nd round pick, and minor league goalie Phoenix Copley to St. Louis to acquire Team USA Olympic hero, TJ Oshie.

Needless to say expectations are high around here for the 2015-16 Capitals season, as they should be.

The Caps are in the second year of the Barry Trotz era and MacLellan has done his best to give the coach one of, if not the strongest roster in Capitals history.

The only downer of the off season have been the surgeries to first line center, Nicklas Backstrom (hip), and top left handed defensemen, Brooks Orpik (wrist). Orpik should be back by the start of the regular season on October 10th, while Backstrom is slated to return some time in the first 10 regular season games.

But the hockey season is a long, grueling marathon so it is best that these two take their time to get right because the Capitals Stanley Cup aspirations are linked to both of them, as well as the overall health of the team.

Simply put, on paper this roster looks extremely strong and the coaching staff is excellent.

So with that background, the Caps opened training camp on Thursday and on Monday night they took on the Carolina Hurricanes at the Verizon Center in preseason tilt number one of seven. Needless to say the opening period was anything but beautiful, as expected. The team looked sloppy and out of sync. The good news is $30+M man Braden Holtby was excellent in the cage thwarting all 11 shots he faced.

In the middle frame, the Capitals started to click and they fired 13 biscuits on Canes goalie Eddie Lack in the first 10 minutes. But Lack would stop all 22 shots he’d face in the opening two periods. Holtby could’ve spent the first 10 minutes of period two on twitter, since he only faced three shots and he exited just after the game’s midway point. Dan Ellis came on in relief and was a perfect 12 for 12, with a couple of dandy saves.

Overall, the Capitals really dominated the last 40 minutes and they finally broke through with two goals in period three. Tom Wilson, who is slated to play a bigger role this year, snapped a sweet shot by Drew Macintyre for the game winner and then rookie Stan Galiev (2010 3rd round pick) forced the Carolina defense into a turnover and Derek Roy, who MacLellan recently convinced to come to camp on a free agent tryout, scored to add the icing on the cake. Roy, who played the majority of his career as a top 6 six forward on the Buffalo Sabres, is 32, but looked very good. He had several quality scoring chances in 18:12 of ice time. It seems that if the Caps and Roy can agree on contract terms, there is a very good chance he’ll be wearing a Caps sweater on opening night against the New Jersey Devils. Roy can play center or wing and kills penalties, so he looks to be a nice fit and yet another shrewd move by MacLellan.

Alex Ovechkin had six shots on goal playing on a line with Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov. After the opening period of rust was worked out, that line performed well. Roy was with Galiev and 2014 first round pick, Jakub Vrana. All three had strong performances. Brooks Laich centered Wilson and Jason Chimera and they also carried the play when they were on the ice. Riley Barber, Carter Camper, and Sean Collins comprised the fourth line. On defense, Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner were the top pairing and excelled. Dmitry Orlov had a nice first game back from a year plus wrist injury and played well. His defensive partner, Connor Carrick struggled though, taking three penalties. The third pair of Christian Djoos and Aaron Ness were a pleasant surprise. Djoos had an assist and was on the ice for both Capitals goals.

With the NHL moving to three on three overtime this season in an attempt to reduce the number of shootouts, each team will have three preseason contests in which, regardless of the final score, they try out the new format. The Caps and Canes did just that. Boy, was it fun to watch, despite the fact that Carolina scored on an odd man rush just 57 seconds into overtime to end the night. Kuznetsov had a two on one with Ovechkin and when his rocket of a shot missed the net, the Hurricanes went the other way and tic-tac-toe’d it into the net past Ellis.

In summary, it was a good night for the Caps to be on the ice. They were victorious, 2-0. On Tuesday, they face the Boston Bruins on the road and according to excellent Caps reporter, Mike Vogel (@VogsCaps), there will be a fresh lineup playing in Beantown. So Williams will likely be making his Caps debut. The game is not televised and neither is Thursday’s tilt with the Montreal Canadiens at the Molson Centre.

 

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Caps GM Brian MacLellan Completes Caps Top Two Lines by Landing TJ Oshie.

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MacLellan Strikes Again Landing Oshie in Trade with Blues

Posted on 02 July 2015 by Ed Frankovic

As if Caps fans weren’t happy enough after last night’s signing of three time Stanley Cup Champion Justin Williams, Washington GM Brian MacLellan struck again landing top six forward TJ Oshie from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for third line forward Troy Brouwer, minor league goalie Phoenix Copley, and a third round pick in 2016.

Oshie will count $4.175M against the Capitals salary cap, which is just over $500K more than they were paying for Brouwer.

Wow! What a great move by the aggressive GM who in 13 months, along with head coach Barry Trotz, have changed the dynamic, culture, and roster of a team that was headed downhill under ex-GM George McPhee and former head coach Adam Oates.

MacLellan has now brought in two top four defensemen in Brooks Oprik and Matt Niskanen and two top six forwards in Oshie and Williams. That’s impressive given the salary cap limits MacLellan inherited from his predecessor.

It’s clear that both Williams and Oshie are excited to be members of the Capitals organization based on their conference calls with the media on Thursday. Williams indicated that his seven year old son told him a month ago “to go to Washington so he can play with Ovechkin, he’s the best.” Justin said that his son was all smiles when he woke up and heard the news. Both were thrilled to be playing with such skilled centers as Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

What’s even more exciting is that for the first time since 2009 the Caps have a legit top two forward lines. Based on the media conference call held with MacLellan on Thursday, it appears those lines will be configured as follows:

Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – TJ Oshie

Andrei Burakovsky – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Justin Williams

That is an impressive top six. Is it October yet??!!

The Caps GM will now hopefully get deals done with Braden Holtby, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Marcus Johansson. MacLellan indicated that he’s flexible on term with Holtby, who is clearly priority one. After #70, the Capitals need to lock Kuznetsov down. As for Johansson, well his leverage just got significantly weaker. While his regular season stats have benefitted from him playing in the top six, his playoff performances and pass-first mentality is something that isn’t worth breaking the bank for. MJ90 will now play on the third line with the Caps, but he still should see power play time, if he is resigned and kept (a trade is a clear possibility).

Brouwer’s move is also significant because it opens up the third line right wing slot for Tom Wilson, who the organization expects to improve considerably, especially since he has a complete off season and training camp to get ready (Wilson was injured last summer). Third line center is still an open hole and it appears unlikely that Eric Fehr will be back to fill it. Joel Ward’s tenure in DC is clearly over too.

There are still cheap options out in the free agent market for a third line center, such as Shawn Matthias, but that will have to wait until at least Holtby and Kuznetsov are inked.

Coach Trotz told the media today that the fifth, six, and seventh defensemen spots are wide open. Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, and Taylor Chorney will be the favorites to snag those slots, but depending on how negotiations go over the next few weeks, there could be money left for MacLellan to add another defensemen, likely a legit 3rd pair right handed d-man.

Overall, the last 24 hours in Caps land have been electric. MacLellan has proven to be very aggressive and has backed up his words every time he’s talked about the areas he’d like to see the Capitals improve in terms of personnel. He’s been transparent and refreshing. The second year GM clearly gets that the Caps have to win now given how close this club came in 2015 and he’s done it without mortgaging the future.

Dare I say it again, is it October yet??!!

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williams

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Caps Make Surprising Free Agent Splash Inking 3 Time Stanley Cup Winner

Posted on 02 July 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan stated that he thought that his team would be relatively quiet during free agency, and for good reason. The Caps still need to sign restricted free agents Braden Holtby, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Marcus Johansson and they were roughly $19M or so under the cap heading into this week.

While there were numerous deals that occurred during the early portion of NHL free agency, including the Penguins trading for Phil Kessel and Mike Green signing a three year, $18M deal with the Detroit Red Wings, MacLellan stayed true to his words throughout the majority of the day and didn’t make anything more than minor moves, re-signing restricted free agent forward Stan Galiev and depth defensemen Taylor Chorney for $700K.

In addition, on Tuesday, the Columbus Blue Jackets boldy traded for center Brandon Saad from Chicago, so some Metropolitan division teams appeared to be improving their forward cores.

With Joel Ward and Eric Fehr on the open market and unsigned, there was the thought that the Caps GM might be trying to bring both back to at least keep pace with some of the other teams in the division up front. It seemed that MacLellan’s patience was paying off in that regard with Ward and Fehr still available late on Wednesday night. Then lightning struck the Capitals, but in a good way.

Washington was able to ink 33 year old forward and three time Stanley Cup winner, Justin Williams, to a two year deal at $3.25M per season. The dollar amount and term are likely lower than what Ward will receive on the open market and the former King, Hurricane, and Flyer is a slightly younger player (Ward is 10 months older) with a wealth of championship experience.

Williams, who missed the post season this year with a tired Los Angeles team, is a smart player who has incredible possession numbers over the past five seasons. I watch a lot of Kings games and he is as intelligent and solid a player as they come. He can play anywhere from first line right wing to third line right wing giving the coaching staff a lot of flexibility with their lineup decisions.

While he isn’t speedy, he is very clutch, and his nickname, “Mr. Game 7,” is well earned, he’s 7-0 in those tilts (h/t @VogsCaps).

This move, combined with the promotion of Philip Grubauer to back up goalie, along with the projected improvement from Kuznetsov and Andrei Burakovsky (rookies last season), and the expected better season from Tom Wilson has the Caps positioned to be a strong contender in the Eastern Conference once again.

Sure the loss of Green will hurt some, but Washington is expecting Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt to help fill the void on the blue line. You can also expect Matt Niskanen to step up on the offensive side of the puck now that he’ll get more power play opportunities that went to old number 52.

MacLellan still has work to do to get the three big RFA’s (70, 92, and 90) signed, and he has roughly $14.4M to achieve that (h/t to @AlexPrewitt and @GeneralFanager). It would be ideal if he can ink those three and also find a way to bring back Fehr, too, since he can play third line center as well as wing.

But a day that looked to be a sad one in Caps history with the departure of Green, who was always a class guy in the community, with the fans, and the media during his 10 year tenure, turned out to be much more positive with the surprise signing of Williams.

The game is always played and decided on the ice, but the Capitals organization and their fans should feel even better about their club with the addition of a proven winner, in Mr. Game 7. Williams should help a Caps franchise that has struggled to win those contests (4-10 in game 7s) throughout their 40 year history.

Notes: Caps development camp will be held at Kettler IcePlex next week (July 7-11). All four draft picks, including first round choice Ilya Samsonov from Russia (22nd overall), are expected to attend…MacLellan signed center and face-off/penalty killing specialist, Jay Beagle, to a three year deal at a cap hit of $1.75M per season on Monday.

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