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brian-maclellan

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Should the Caps Blow it Up or Stay the Course?

Posted on 29 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

After the Capitals added Kevin Shattenkirk at this season’s NHL trade deadline, I certainly thought I’d be writing a much happier ending to this recent Washington hockey season.

Alas, once again, that is not the case.

You already know the story; the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Washington Capitals in the playoffs for the second straight season, this time in a seven game series. In fact, it is now the ninth time in 10 playoff meetings that the Pens have knocked out the Caps. Jim Schoenfeld remains the only Capitals bench boss to defeat Mario Lemieux’s franchise in the post season (1994).

Let’s start with giving credit to the Penguins, because they certainly deserve that. Despite being outshot, 232-161, and outshot attempted, 484-317, in the series, they managed to hold the Caps to two goals or less in four of the seven tilts and as result, they won each of those games. There’s your series.

You don’t do that without outstanding play from your goaltender. Cleary, Marc Andre-Fleury’s performance against the Capitals was the biggest reason why the Penguins will likely be winning their fifth Stanley Cup this spring.

Next, you have to credit Sidney Crosby. Despite being injured in game three and missing game four, #87 was the difference maker for Pittsburgh. It was his two goals early in the second period of game one that staked the Pens to a two puck lead which gave his club the confidence it could win at the Verizon Center after being smoked there in the regular season. Then in a crucial game seven, Sid made the key pass on the winning goal after a Washington defensive zone turnover.

Finally, tip your hat to the entire Penguins team and coaching staff because they overcame a ton of injuries to defeat the Caps. Washington had injuries, as well, namely Alex Ovechkin’s knee and hamstring and Marcus Johansson’s fractured finger, but that’s a part of the game and the Pens found a way to persevere through all of their health issues.

The biggest reason the Pens won is because of their resolve. They certainly were outplayed by Washington for long stretches in this series, but they stuck to their system and when they received a break via a Caps turnover or mental mistake, they typically buried the biscuit. They were an opportunistic bunch who believed they could win. They also were able to plug guys into the lineup when some of their top guys were out. Without Crosby in game four, they jumped on the Caps early and held on for a win that ultimately gave the Caps no margin of error for a series comeback. So the Penguins deserve kudos for the depth they’ve created via strong drafting and development.

Congratulations Penguins, you clearly know how to win when the chips are down.

Now, were they the better team like they were in 2016 when they knocked off the Capitals in six games? The statistics say no, but the scoreboard says otherwise, and that is all that matters.

As for the Capitals, the roster assembled by General Manager Brian MacLellan, on paper, appeared to have no holes. Washington certainly did a lot of things correctly in the series. You don’t dominate the numbers as heavily as they did without doing many things right. Unfortunately, they did some big things wrong at inopportune times.

Washington carried the play in several periods in this series, didn’t score, and then tried to change their style of play. That is when they got into trouble and ended up losing. It was pretty obvious that the best Capitals game plan was to put pucks deep in the Penguins zone to try and further weaken a defense that was suffering from multiple injuries. Kris Letang was already out for the season and Trevor Daley was playing on bad wheels. But too often, the Capitals forgot that this is a shoot first league and they went into overpass mode. They were caught up far too easily in playing a pretty game and that is not the way you defeat a team as structured and as mentally tough as the Penguins.

Many Capitals players talked about the defeat being a mental thing on Caps Breakdown Day, and they are correct. Pittsburgh, no matter what the score or the situation, pretty much continued to play the same way. The Caps on the other hand, were not patient enough or mentally disciplined to stick with the game plan. As three time Stanley Cup Champion Justin Williams told me after game two, its okay to dominate a period and not score a goal, it happens in hockey. The problem for Washington though, is they wouldn’t maintain what they were doing and that’s when the fancy game and turnovers appeared on the ice. That’s a mental issue all the way.

While the Caps had a lot of shot attempts, they weren’t getting enough with traffic on Fleury and the players were rarely in position for rebounds. It’s a shoot first league and there were too many times, especially in the third period of game seven, when the Caps would cross the blue line and force the puck to the middle when getting it deep and wearing down the Penguins defense was the right play.

Again, that is a mental toughness issue, in my book. You have to be willing to pay the physical price in the playoffs by making the correct play. Taking a hit in the neutral zone and ensuring the puck gets deep in the offensive zone is a critical part of post season hockey. That applies inside both blue lines, as well. A number of the Penguins goals came as a result of lazy or careless turnovers. That’s a letdown on the mental side of the game. You can also attribute all of the terrible penalties the Capitals took in game four as a mental issue. Washington had a tendency to not come out strong in some contests, most notably games one and four. There is no reason why the Penguins should’ve had a 21-13 shot attempt advantage in the first 15 minutes of game four with Crosby out of the lineup in a must win for Washington. That’s inexcusable and both players and coaches need to answer for that.

Breaking things down by team component, let’s start with the coaching staff. All season long the Caps relied heavily on rolling four lines, but once Karl Alzner was deemed able to play with his hand injury and Brett Connolly struggled in his first post season appearance, Coach Barry Trotz went to seven defensemen and 11 forwards despite it being counter to what they’d done all season. Yes, the seven defensemen and 11 forwards strategy worked in game three, but it might have only been successful because Matt Niskanen was kicked out very early in the contest and the other six d-men were able to rotate normally. In game four, that configuration backfired badly as Alzner and Brooks Orpik, the two slowest Washington blue liners, were out on the ice together early in the game. Patrick Hornqvist, who isn’t exactly fast, split them like Moses parting the Red Sea to tally on a breakaway and it was 1-0 just over four minutes in. Pittsburgh gained a ton of confidence that they could win that contest without Crosby from that goal.

Following the game four loss, which was also heavily impacted by a very injured Ovechkin, who probably shouldn’t have played, Coach Trotz shook up his forward lines. He moved Andre Burakovsky with T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom and bumped the Gr8 down with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson. Those moves worked and Washington came storming back to tie up the series. They seemed poised for a big game seven, but Pens Coach Mike Sullivan adjusted and the Capitals didn’t play with the passion and urgency they had in the third period of game five and all of game six. Simply put, they cracked under the pressure. It’s apparent that the weight of being the #1 seed plus all of the past history of Washington recent playoff failures was heavily on the minds of these players.

Coach Barry Trotz has a track record of being tough on players who don’t follow the rules or the system as evidenced by the Ovechkin suspension in October of 2015 and Andre Burakovsky being benched in December of 2016. He even questionably pulled Braden Holtby after the second period in game two for what he thought was subpar goaltending. However, he and his staff let his skaters get away from the system too often in this series. Any deviation from the structure against a disciplined team like the Penguins can lead to a quality scoring chance, and that is what happened at key times in the series. If guys start playing the wrong way, they need to be benched for a shift or two so they get the message.

Johansson, Oshie, and Williams scored a lot of goals in the regular season going to the net. Jojo even won the Toronto series in OT of game six by doing just that. In the Penguins series, we didn’t see enough net presence and it was on the coaches to drill that into the players heads and enforce the strategy of getting pucks deep to set that up.

Again, I wasn’t a fan of the 7/11 configuration because it got the Caps away from the four line forward group that worked so well from late December until mid February. I understand why Brett Connolly was pulled out of the lineup for maybe a game or so to observe, but he also scored 15 goals in the regular season, many of which were tallied via going to the net. With some guys severely banged up and unable to shoot, like Johansson, why wasn’t he put back in for another chance? It was a mistake, in my opinion, to totally give up on a guy who could’ve been a better performer than the guys who were playing hurt. Case in point, Conor Sheary was performing poorly while being nicked up, so Sullivan benched him for games five and six of the Senators series. Yet in a crucial game seven, #43 was back in the lineup and played a major role in the first two Pittsburgh goals.

So did the Caps lose totally because of coaching? No, the coaching wasn’t great, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water here. This coaching staff has done a great job of building this team from the ruins of 2014. The two Presidents’ Trophies are evidence of that. Look at how far Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, and Tom Wilson have come in just a year. Each one of those players was a big part of why the Caps knocked off the Maple Leafs and dominated the possession statistics against the Penguins.

The playoff coaching certainly needed some improvements, but in totality, this is a very good coaching staff. Trotz and company will certainly take their share of the heat for the loss, but the biggest blame for the defeat is on the players themselves. They have to be stronger mentally and physically to do the correct things on the ice.

Let’s start right at the top of the players with Ovechkin. There’s no nice way to put this, it was a subpar season for Ovi and it all began last summer. How you handle off of the ice issues and life changing events is a big part of professional sports and with Alex getting married last summer it clearly impacted his ability to prepare for and play in 2016-17. After scoring 50 goals in 2015-16 and having a super 2016 post season, Alex looked slow and overweight for the large majority of the season. Clearly his conditioning wasn’t where it needed to be and then missing training camp due to the World Cup of Hockey didn’t help either. At age 31 and not in peak shape, the Gr8 lost some speed and that allowed defensemen to play him tighter so that he couldn’t get his shot off quickly at even strength. Ovechkin lived off of the power play in 2016-17 to score goals as he struggled in five on five situations.

In the playoffs, the hit from Nazem Kadri was low and the Russian Machine didn’t break, but it certainly slowed him down further and probably contributed to suffering the hamstring injury, as well. However, had Ovi been in better condition and had his speed from the previous year, it’s quite possible he could have avoided the Kadri hit altogether.

Ovechkin has made great strides under this coaching staff with his back checking ability, something he rarely did prior to the Trotz era. He deserves a lot of credit for that. However, his ability to play in his own zone has regressed. Standing on the left wing boards straight legged with your stick at your hips parallel to the ice is bad defensive posture. He needs to get rid of that and work on being a better player in his own end. If he gets back in peak shape and works at it, there’s no reason he can’t turn proper defensive zone play into several rush goals in 2017-18. Again, it’s a focus on conditioning and hockey.

That gets us to Backstrom. #19 had a very good season, but game seven was nowhere near his best. MacLellan’s goal in adding Eller and Connolly was to improve the bottom six and allow Washington to play a faster game. The thought was that having four lines would allow Coach Trotz to play everyone more evenly so that they could maintain a high pace and be fresher in the postseason. At times, the Capitals were able to do that, but they were not consistent. Ovechkin and Backstrom both played lower average minutes than they had in past regular seasons, by design, and in the end, it was likely the wrong move as both looked tired, at times, in the post season. Nicky, in his twenties, has been able to survive playing with extra weight, but as he moves into his thirties, like Ovechkin, he needs to shed any extra pounds he has to play faster.

When Washington lost to the Penguins in 2015-16, you could not blame either Ovechkin or Backstrom because they dominated Crosby and Malkin in that series. It was the Nick Bonino line that won for the Pens in the spring of 2016. In 2016-17, you can’t say the same thing. Both Crosby and Malkin elevated their games while Ovechkin and Backstrom weren’t as good as they were the previous May. Sure the Caps only received one goal in the series from their bottom six, but they rarely played the fourth line due to the 7/11 strategy.

Crosby is the best player in the game for a reason; he works harder than anyone at his craft. Orpik was quoted recently as saying that #87 is always the first player on the ice and the last player off of it for the Penguins at practice. That needs to be Ovechkin and Backstrom going forward. We’ve heard from other players that both have made strides, especially Nicky, in speaking up in the locker room. Speeches are great, but actions speak louder and doing the proper things on and off of the ice is so much more critical to winning championships. Those two guys are the Capitals leaders and have been the core for 10 years so they must be setting the tempo that everything is hockey first in 2017-18. We should not have to hear from Orpik that the team needs to get focused on hockey, like we did after the disastrous California trip in March. There were several post game players only meetings this season, including one after game two against the Penguins, and while it’s good to clear the air, they aren’t as necessary if everyone is focused on hockey.

Ovechkin and Backstrom are clearly the core of the Capitals and the goaltender is the third critical piece to the triumvirate. Braden Holtby, who has been stellar in past post seasons, had his worst playoffs from a statistics standpoint. Now how much of that is on #70 and how much of it is on the team giving up too many golden chances? I’d lean more on the side of the team breakdowns, but this was not Braden’s spring. This series was likely over in five games if he doesn’t make some big stops early in period three before the Washington three goal explosion that led to a victory and a two game winning streak. In game seven, he had no chance on the winning goal. However, I still didn’t like the Justin Schultz winning tally in game four. If there was a goal he’d want back in the series, I’d bet it would be that one.

On defense, John Carlson played his best hockey of the season against the Penguins, but he did not have a consistent year. He needs to amp his conditioning up so that he can play faster, as well. The standouts of this postseason on the blue line were Orlov and Schmidt and that’s encouraging given where we were just a year ago with both of them. Bringing in Shattenkirk for Zach Sanford and a first round pick seemed like the right move at the time, but in the end, with no Stanley Cup, it’s a lost trade. #22 has enormous potential and talent, but he was slow in the playoffs. Again, I think that might be a conditioning issue, but he didn’t come over until March with Washington. Hindsight is 20/20 and the deal now is another one that weakens the Capitals reach back for young players. Sanford has a lot of promise and first round picks are valuable. I can’t fault Mac for making that move, but coming up Cup empty now makes it an overall organizational defeat.

So where do the Caps go from here? There are calls for firing the coach, trading Ovechkin, or “blowing it up” from many in the fan base and some around the club. Even a couple of players said “major changes” were needed just two days after losing to the Penguins. It’s a natural reaction when a team loses again after being the favorite.

Let’s be honest, this is a team that is largely based on European talent and it hasn’t produced a trip to the Eastern Conference finals yet. This club improved greatly with the additions of North American players Oshie and Williams in the summer of 2015. They are guys who have a high “dog the puck” type of work effort. Both are unrestricted free agents and the team needs more of that style. Word over the Memorial Day weekend is that the Capitals and the Osh Babe have verbally agreed to an extension so that is great news, this team is not a Cup contender without #77 going forward. It would be nice if they could find a way to get Williams back, as well, but that will be tougher given the salary cap situation. Per the Caps great team reporter, Mike Vogel (@VogsCaps), we’ve heard that the salary cap is going to be in the $76 to $77 Million range. That is a big help to Washington, who also have to deal with Burakovsky as a restricted free agent. There are some who think #65 deserves a big pay raise, but given his inconsistent output, I’m not sure Washington can commit to longer term and/or high dollars on him, just yet.

I just don’t see moving Ovechkin or Backstrom as feasible given the likely low return and to be honest, #19’s contract is a great one for the Caps. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who also improved significantly in the post season outside of a poor game seven, is up for a new contract. He’s a restricted free agent, but somewhere around $6M per season seems likely for him. As for Orlov and Schmidt, it’s apparent they’ve moved up big time on the depth chart of this defensive roster and deserve decent longer term contracts. I’m speculating that Orlov will be come in at around $4M and Schmidt in the $2 to $2.5M range. Both play with speed and drive possession, which is so important in today’s NHL. Unfortunately, there will have to be other changes on the blue line. Shattenkirk will get paid big bucks elsewhere and I’d expect the same for Alzner, who really had a rough campaign. King Karl admittedly had a hard time regaining his speed after offseason groin surgery and then he broke his hand in the first playoff tilt against Toronto.  As for Orpik, as much as he’s a strong leader and a fitness freak, which was a big help in starting to turn the culture of this team around in 2014-15, his on ice value compared to his salary cap hit is not equitable anymore. He’s a third pair defenseman and you can’t afford $5.5M annually for that type of player when you want to win a Cup. MacLellan will have to look at either working a deal to move him, getting Vegas to pick him in the expansion draft, or buying him out to clear some needed salary cap space.

If the Caps had players ready to make the leap from Hershey or the college ranks to the NHL, like the Penguins have been blessed with the last two seasons, the overall situation could be better. Perhaps the bottom six will see a player such as Travis Boyd or Riley Barber come up and help out? Jakub Vrana has shown glimpses of being able to handle the NHL, but after his demotion this year he dropped so far off of the map that he was scratched for some games by Bears Coach Troy Mann in the AHL playoffs. Vrana is streaky and inconsistent, much like Burakovsky has been, so do you want to rely on another guy who doesn’t go to the net or high traffic areas consistently to finally help get you past the Pittsburgh problem? Seems awfully risky to me.

Clearly MacLellan has a lot to address in this offseason given the number of contracts that are expiring, NHL expansion to Vegas, and salary cap constraints. He also has a head coach reportedly heading into the last year of his contract. Add in that the two core players on the roster will both be in their thirties in 2017-18 and it’s clear that the GM has a lot to consider when charting the course for next season.

It’s not an easy job and there are very hard decisions to make, but in this case, I think it’s worth staying the course for at least one more year with the head coach and core players. In regards to a coaching change, is there somebody out there better than this head coach and staff worth pursuing? After all, there are several young players who have really improved during the Trotz regime and they’ve won two straight Presidents’ Trophies. They will likely have lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions in the second round yet again (yes, I see the Penguins defeating the Predators in the Stanley Cup Final) and that’s simply a function of the current division and playoff setup. In reality, they are the second best team in hockey, so does making drastic changes make sense? I don’t think so.

Brian, however, has to put pressure on the coaches and players to improve and be in better condition so they can make the playoffs and then deliver next spring. In hindsight, the World Cup of Hockey, which included participation from Coach Trotz and several top players, put the Capitals behind the eight ball from a readiness standpoint heading into 2016-17. The lack of preparation, based on what I’ve seen and heard, is a big reason they weren’t able to knock off the Penguins in the second round, once again.

So it’s incumbent upon Coach Trotz, Ovechkin, Backstrom, and everyone else in line after them to start getting ready for 2017-18 as soon as possible. Ovi, Nicky, and all of the players need to put in the hard work this July, August, and September so that they are in the best condition to play at a maximum pace in April, May, and hopefully June. If they can’t do that over the next 12 months, then certainly it will be time to “blow it up.”

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Burkie Game 6

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Caps Dominate Game Six To Even Up The Series

Posted on 09 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

With their season on the line in a must win game six in Pittsburgh, the Washington Capitals needed their best performance of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and they delivered it. The Caps were relentless for the first 56 minutes building a 5-0 lead en route to a 5-2 victory over the Penguins in Steeltown on Monday night.

This was one heck of an effort by the Caps. The Penguins had a few good early shifts, as expected, but the Capitals withstood the pressure and then started finding their game.

Washington would get the first power play of this tilt, when Jake Guentzel lost his mind and hit Evgeny Kuznetsov (two assists) in the head. The Caps would not score on that man advantage, but they built momentum off of it and kept pushing the play. Early on they had nine of the first 10 shots on goal. Shortly thereafter, with Tom Wilson breaking to the net on a two on one, Sidney Crosby had no choice but to put his stick in Willy’s gloves to prevent a great scoring chance and the Caps were back on the man advantage with 11:56 gone in the opening frame.

The Capitals would not waste this power play and a great feed by Kuznetsov to T.J. Oshie allowed the Osh Babe to bury the biscuit in the slot and give the Caps a very important one goal lead. Kuznetsov then took an undisciplined slashing penalty following that tally, but Washington killed it off and they maintained their one puck edge after 20 minutes. It was a very strong frame for Coach Barry Trotz’ crew as they outshot the Penguins, 11-3.

Second periods have not been kind to the Capitals in this series, but they managed to extend their lead at 6:36 of the middle stanza. Oshie made a great play to bat down a Conor Sheary clear on the right wing boards and when the Penguins tried to wheel the biscuit around the left wing side, Andre Burakovsky hit and stole the puck from Ron Hainsey. #65 then broke in two on one on Marc-Andre Fleury (21 saves) and with the Flower leaning to his left thinking a pass was going to go to the Osh Babe, Burkie beat him short side to give the Capitals a huge two puck lead.

Burakovsky would then take a pretty careless offensive zone hooking penalty on Olli Maatta, he needed to keep his stick down there and just play the body, but his teammates picked him up and killed off the man advantage very easily. The remainder of the middle frame was very tight checking and the Pens mustered six shots on net to just five for Washington.

That set up a critical third period. Would the Capitals be able to hold onto their two goal lead and force a game seven? Nicklas Backstrom gave us a pretty good idea of the answer just 16 seconds in when he took a puck down the left side of the ice and with the Pittsburgh defender going down to block the shot, Nicky rifled it over Fleury’s glove to make it 3-0.

Lars Eller was whistled for holding at 1:34 and the Penguins had a chance to get back in it, but the Capitals penalty killing unit was stellar, once again, allowing only one shot attempt, a 56 footer by Maatta that Braden Holtby (16 saves) stopped cleanly.

Pittsburgh started to get a little frustrated with their lack of offense and that was evident when Bryan Rust crashed into the Holtbeast at 4:31 and headed off for goalie interference. The Caps best chance on their third power play was an Alex Ovechkin wrister from in close, but Fleury came up big.

Washington was smart, though, and didn’t sit back. They knew the Penguins would have to gamble and they were patient with their opportunities. After Matt Cullen and Jay Beagle collided in the neutral zone, Cullen slashed Beags in the gut and that set the Capitals up for their fourth power play of the evening. John Carlson would get two shots on net during the first part of the sequence and they were stopped by #29, but then the third one was the charm. His slapper through traffic beat Fleury to make it 4-0 with 8:43 remaining. Things were looking extremely good for the Caps, and then, just 72 seconds later, Burakovsky made a steal at the defensive zone blue line. Burkie carried the puck down the right wing side, faked Chad Rudwehel, who was making his NHL playoff debut, to the ice and cut to the slot to beat the Penguins keeper rather easily from in tight to the glove side. At that point, the Penguins fans exited the arena en masse.

The Capitals would keep up the heat, but Pittsburgh scored twice in four on four after two Washington giveaways. The Caps let up and those late goals should be a good reminder that they cannot ease off of the throttle on the speedy and highly skilled Penguins for even a moment.

Overall, this was a dominant win by Washington. They were very sound defensively allowing only 18 shots on goal. They controlled the puck, as evidenced by the 51-38 edge in shot attempts. This is the sixth straight game in the series that the Caps have outshot the Penguins and they also outhit them, 38-32.

The move to put Burakovsky with Backstrom and Oshie has paid huge dividends and Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan tried to counter the successful game five move by Coach Trotz by reuniting his HBK line (Carl Hagelin-Nick Bonino-Phil Kessel). It did not work as the Eller, Ovechkin and Wilson line gave them fits all night. Wilson had five hits and Ovechkin added three. The Gr8 only had five shot attempts, but that line wore down the Pens defense, which opened things up for the Backstrom unit. Nicky’s trio was outstanding on Monday night and with the way Kuznetsov and the second line is going, the Caps have three groups of forwards that can score. Add in some great hard working guys in Beagle and Daniel Winnik, who had an under the radar great game, including some super PK work, and Coach Trotz is getting big contributions from his forwards.

On the back end, Matt Niskanen, who had a team leading 23:43 in ice time, and Carlson (22:49) were excellent. #74’s game has been building all playoffs and like last spring, he excels when facing Crosby and company. The Kevin Shattenkirk and Nate Schmidt duo continues to move the puck up the ice quickly, which is a big change from last spring’s series, where the Capitals looked slow and intimidated on the back end. Dmitry Orlov also turned in a solid effort with an assist in 18:06. Karl Alzner and Brooks Orpik were each in the 11 to 12 minutes range in ice time and did well to win defensive zone board battles.

Finally, the Holtbeast was rock solid in net. He didn’t have to face a lot of rubber, but when he had shots he stopped them without allowing any rebounds until the late goal by Evgeni Malkin, who was uncovered. #70 looked calm and collected in the cage.

Washington played assertively and confidently in game six and seems to be wearing down the banged up Penguins.

So now it’s a one game, winner take all affair, in Washington on Wednesday night at 7:30 pm.

The Caps have done well to climb back into this series with some strong efforts, but none of that will matter if they don’t close the deal at the Verizon Center. The Penguins are 3-0 in game seven’s against the Capitals, including 2-0 on Washington’s home ice. This team now has a chance to change the history and do something they haven’t done since 1998, advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

It will take another outstanding effort and require extreme discipline to defeat the defending Stanley Cup Champions, who you know will bring their best to DC.

Bring on Game Seven!

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Ovi Game 5

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Caps Leadership Crew Delivers in Game Five Victory

Posted on 07 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

With one period remaining in game five at the Verizon Center on Saturday night, the Washington Capitals were trailing by a puck and were 20 minutes away from the golf course. To start the third period, the Pittsburgh Penguins won the faceoff and Sidney Crosby, who returned from injury after missing game four, went in on Braden Holtby (20 saves) and threw a strong backhander on #70 that the Holtbeast stopped.

Then the game changed dramatically. The Holtbeast made another big save, this one on Tom Kuhnhackl, and shortly thereafter Nicklas Backstrom carried the puck out of his own zone with some serious speed. As he crossed the offensive blue line he gave the puck to Andre Burakovsky, and Burkie gave it right back to Nicky, who had a step on Carl Hagelin. The Swede would then beat Marc-Andre Fleury (28 saves) just under his glove to the far post to tie the game up just 2:49 into period three.

Just 37 seconds after the goal, Cap killer Nick Bonino had a great chance from the slot, but Holtby made a monstrous save. It was the third huge stop by the Holtbeast early in period three and it seemed to lift the Capitals play.

The game would go back and forth, but things were starting to change for Washington, suddenly they were getting pucks to the net more frequently as they entered the offensive zone. With just over seven minutes gone, the Penguins appeared to have an easy clear, but John Carlson stepped up on Hagelin at the right point and forced a turnover. #74 then got the puck to Evgeny Kuznetsov, who dropped it to Marcus Johansson for a shot from the high slot. Jojo’s attempt, with T.J. Oshie in front, was blocked by Evgeni Malkin, but it caromed right to Evgeny Kuznetsov just above the goal line on the near post and Kuzy snapped it quickly by Fleury short side to give the Caps their first lead of the game. It would be the first time all series that the lead actually changed hands in this battle (h/t Mike Vogel (@VogsCaps)).

As if that wasn’t enough, after a faceoff loss and a Bryan Rust slap shot that was stopped by Holtby, the Caps went the other way on a rush. Nate Schmidt chipped the puck up the left wing boards to Alex Ovechkin and he gave the puck to Lars Eller (two assists). Eller then fed the Gr8 the biscuit at the defensive blue line as Ovi was flying up the rink with speed. Ovechkin was absolutely motoring and that forced Pens defensemen Ron Hainsey to get turned around, which gave Alex a chance to cut inside for a better shooting angle. Ovi fired, but the first shot was blocked by a sliding #65. The rebound, however, would come right on Ovechkin’s stick and he wristed one over Fleury’s glove to make it 4-2.

Wow, two goals in 27 seconds to seize the lead in an elimination game, that’s a big time step up by the Caps!

From there the Capitals kept the hammer down and nearly extended their lead. They would go on to close the game out and force a game six that will be on Monday night in Pittsburgh.

Afterwards Coach Barry Trotz praised his goaltender for the big saves he made and said “it lifted our bench.” He especially pointed out the one on Bonino. Holtby was the biggest reason the Capitals had a chance to rally in this affair. Pittsburgh didn’t have a ton of shots, but the ones they had seemed to be of high quality and #70 was dialed in for his club.

Trotz also had a big game with his tactics. His decision to move Ovechkin with Eller and Wilson while sliding Burakovsky up with Backstrom and Oshie got a lot of guys going. Wilson, who has been super this entire post season, made his presence known early with some huge hits on Penguins defensemen Justin Schultz and Trevor Daley. Willy had four hits overall while Ovi had six and Oshie seven as Washington, who won the shot attempt battle, 66-52, also outnumbered the Penguins in hits, 38-15. Simply put, Coach Trotz’ line shake up, which was intended to get more physicality and scoring opportunities, paid dividends on Saturday night.

On Friday I wrote about the Caps leadership’s inability to bring forth a big effort in a crucial game four with Crosby out of the lineup. On Saturday night, they all delivered. Backstrom had the game tying goal, Ovechkin had the insurance marker, and the Holtbeast stoned the Penguins on several quality scoring chances. That trio, which is the primary core of the team, really came through on Derby Day.

Kuznetsov scored his fourth goal of the series and Burakovksy (1 goal, 1 assist) ended a 10 game goal scoring drought this post season. His tally with 30 seconds left in period one, after great plays by Eller and Kevin Shattenkirk to get him the puck, allowed #65 to break the seal on Fleury.

Schmidt and Shattenkirk played well paired together on the back end as the Caps blue liners were very solid overall.

On the down side, the Capitals power play went 0 for 3 and definitely needs some tweaking. They did get seven shots on net, but there weren’t many “grade A” chances. The Penguins power play is heating up and their second tally of the night was a passing exhibition that led to an easy Phil Kessel marker from the back door. Pittsburgh was one for two with the man advantage. The Caps did a good job of staying out of the box and that will be critical on Monday night in Pittsburgh.

Washington played very well on Saturday and found a way to win by simplifying their game and limiting offensive blue line turnovers. With game six in Pennsylvania on Monday, the Pens have to be feeling really good about their chances of closing the series out. They have been dominant at home and they have their lineup intact with Crosby and Conor Sheary back from injury.

The Caps have their backs against the wall and must maintain focus and pressure the Penguins defense. Both Eller and Holtby talked about Washington being more patient in the offensive zone paying off in game five. Getting shots through is important and the Caps found a way to fire away after the Pittsburgh defenders left their feet and were committed to blocking the shot. They’ll need to do that again in game six if they want to extend their season.

Notes: Hainsey led all skaters with 23:57 in ice time, but Brian Dumolin was right behind him at 23:54. Daley, who is clearly playing hurt, only logged 11:09…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 21:13. Jojo played 20:50 and Oshie logged 20:22 for Washington. Coach Trotz was able to do his best job of the series of spreading ice time around in this tilt. Ovechkin played 17:46 and had eight shot attempts. One went in and another hit the cross bar right before Backstrom tied the game up at two…the Pens creamed the Caps on faceoffs, 34-22. Eller was 6-6…the Penguins were 6-0 in this postseason when leading after two periods (h/t Ben Raby (@BenRaby31))…shots on goal were 32-22 for Washington.

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Shatty

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Shattenkirk’s OT Tally Gets Caps Back in the Series

Posted on 02 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Kevin Shattenkirk’s wrister past Marc-Andre Fleury just 3:13 into overtime gave the Washington Capitals a hard fought, 3-2, victory in game three in Pittsburgh. The Pens now lead the series two games to one. Game four is Wednesday night in Steeltown, once again.

Well, they’ll be talking about this contest for a long time.

Sidney Crosby was injured in a collision with Matt Niskanen just 5:24 in and did not return. #87 was skating across the top of the crease on a rush and he was hit by Alex Ovechkin’s stick up high, Ovi and Sid then clip skates, and Sid seemed to lose his balance as he glided above the crease. At that moment, Niskanen was coming to the middle to cover the front of the net and had his stick in a defensive position. Crosby went flying right into #2’s stick as Matt was bracing for the contact and fell to the ice. His knee bent back awkwardly, but after staying down, he got back up and gingerly skated to the dressing room. He would not return and Washington also lost arguably their best defensemen for the night with a five minute major for cross checking and a game misconduct. I didn’t like the call on Niskanen, it was truly a hockey play gone bad. In fact, I thought the only infraction on the play could’ve been on Ovi for a slash, I tweeted that at the time. If Sid doesn’t lose his balance there, he’s fine, but he is low going into Niskanen and that’s where the problem came in.

“Crosby’s trying to score, and as he’s doing that, he’s getting lower and lower. I wasn’t extending my arms trying to hit him in the head, it happened quickly. I wasn’t even trying to cross check him…a collision was going to happen there in the crease. When the play first starts, I think my stick is at about his arm level, probably, right about where the numbers are on the side of his jersey. Because he’s trying to make a play, he’s getting lower and lower and the collision happened. I hope he’s okay, I certainly didn’t mean to injure him, it’s an unfortunate play that happened really quick,” said Niskanen to the media after the game.

Anyways, it’s all done now and the Capitals had a critical game to try to win. Fortunately for them, Coach Barry Trotz put Karl Alzner back in the lineup with seven D and 11 forwards so the Caps had six defensemen left after Nisky was thrown out. The Caps would kill off the major, with some help from Evgeni Malkin, who took a two minute minor for closing his hand on the puck during the early portion of the power play.

After surviving the major, the Caps started to take over the play and they ended up with a power play when Carl Hagelin was boxed for high sticking. Only 43 seconds later, Bryan Rust batted the puck over the glass and the Caps were in business with a 1:17 five on three. It took some time, but 54 ticks later, Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist) fired the puck in off of Ian Cole in front, who was tied up with Justin Williams at the top of the crease, to give the Capitals their first lead of the series. Washington led in shots on goal, 9-8, after twenty minutes. Braden Holtby made some big stops too, including a breakaway by Rust after a terrible Caps line change.

In the middle frame, the Capitals had long stretches of trouble due to too many turnovers and too many penalties. Malkin and the Penguins really picked their game up, going for the three to nothing series lead. With Brooks Orpik incurring a holding the stick call and then Evgeny Kuznetsov taking two careless minors, the Pens had three straight power plays, but the Holtbeast (28 saves) was at his best in this series as well as this year’s playoffs and was the biggest reason Pittsburgh didn’t get the equalizer.

That set up a big third period. A strong 20 minutes and the Capitals would get back in the series, a bad one and they were pretty much done and headed to the golf course. Coach Trotz’ crew came out with authority and really took it to the Pens, but couldn’t extend the lead on two power plays. After those, Pittsburgh was pushing hard and the Caps were doing a good job of keeping a third forward back to prevent their potent rush game. That pressure, much like what the Capitals did in games one and two when trailing, causes you to take chances, and the Pens got burnt on one of them which led to a three on two break for Washington’s second line. Justin Williams carried the puck up the left wing and when a Pens defenseman dove at him to try and knock the disc away, Stick hit Marcus Johansson coming behind him down the slot. Jojo then drew the other Pens defenseman and Fleury to him and slid the puck neatly to Kuznetsov at the right side of the cage. Fleury flopped over like a fish out of water trying to make another acrobatic save, and he made many in this game, but #92 waited him out and snapped the puck over #29 to make it 2-0 with 10:14 to go.

From then until the three minute mark, the Capitals played extremely well and gave the Penguins pretty much nothing. With Fleury pulled, the Caps had a chance to hit the empty net, but after a great play by T.J. Oshie to get the puck out, Backstrom made a poor decision to shoot at the open cage from behind the red line. He missed wide and it was icing. Had he taken another second to look, he could’ve hit Ovechkin all alone on the left wing boards for a game icing tally.

Instead, the Penguins received an offensive zone faceoff and Malkin scored with 1:53 remaining short side on Holtby, who was screened by Alzner. No problem, right, the Caps weren’t going to give up another goalie pulled tally, correct? WRONG!

After a defensive zone faceoff win, Malkin totally took Backstrom out in the right wing corner, but the blatant interference was not called. That allowed the Penguins to keep the puck in and Justin Schultz fired a shot from the point that hit Oshie and then something else on the way into the net with #71 parked in front. It was two goals in just 48 seconds and this one was tied with 1:05 left in regulation.

Surely the Penguins were going to once again win this game in overtime and make the Capitals and their fan base suffer more mental anguish, correct? I mean, a goal by the Penguins in OT and this would’ve been labeled the biggest Washington collapse, ever!

The Caps, however, came out strong in overtime and carried the play, although Phil Kessel had a great look in the high slot early on that he just whistled wide. Just over 150 seconds in to the extra session, Johansson took an outlet feed and split the Penguins defense at the offensive blue line. It was a great play and move by Jojo and Trevor Daley hauled him down on the way to the cage. That gave the Capitals an overtime power play. 33 seconds into it Shatty got the puck in the slot and with Oshie providing some traffic, he put it far post past Fleury and the Capitals players celebrated.

Wow, what a game and what resolve by the Capitals to win that one after an epic late collapse! They played so well in that third frame and it’s tough to give up that two goal lead up in that fashion, but they made a mistake that led to an icing and then the officials missed a clear penalty on Malkin right before the game tying tally. They persevered once again after facing some serious adversity, so they have that to build on as well as some things they did extremely well in this game.

Let’s start with the Holtbeast, who apparently met with his sports psychologist before this game, per the great Carol Maloney of NBC4 (@carolmaloney4) in Washington. #70 was really solid in this game making several big stops and if not for him, the Penguins don’t go 0 for 5 on the power play in nine minutes of advantage time. The Pens fired 10 of their 30 shots on goal for the game when up a man, but Holtby was dynamite.

Alzner and the rest of the penalty killers, especially Daniel Winnik and Tom Wilson, were superb, as well. Winnik also saved a goal with his stick early in the game on one of the rare pucks to get by the Holtbeast until the last two minutes of regulation.

Up front, Jojo was dynamite all night. Williams (two assists) was strong, too, on that second line. Kuznetsov was very up and down in this one. He took some bad penalties, especially the second one, when he held the Penguins forward when a hit was the right decision. You can’t have soft plays in the post season, because that will burn you. Fortunately the Caps PK bailed him out and then he rewarded the team with great patience on his tally.

For the evening, the Capitals did win the shot attempt battle, 63-55. They weren’t as dominant as games one and two, but they got the job done. They were better in front of the Holtbeast for over 57 minutes with a tighter defensive posture, but a costly icing and a missed penalty call allowed a go for broke Pens team to take this one to overtime.

Shattenkirk then made his presence known with authority, and #22 needed that. He had been struggling before this tilt and his power play decisions were a bit hesitant, at times, up until the overtime. Shatty was anything but hesitant on the game winning goal and he looked like the guy who was great down the regular season stretch run after GM Brian MacLellan acquired him at the trade deadline.

Simply put, Holtby and Shattenkirk were two guys Washington needed to step up for a victory, and those two did just that.

So now it’s on to a critical game four on Wednesday night. In addition to losing Crosby, Connor Sheary left the game when Patric Hornqvist, who returned from the dead to play this game but looked slower than normal, went for a big hit on Lars Eller. Instead he hit #43 with friendly fire right in the head when Eller sidestepped a hard charging #72.

This game also got ugly, at times, and Malkin and Chris Kunitz were in the middle of it quite a bit for the men in black.

It will be crucial for the Capitals to stay out of that stuff and just play hockey on Wednesday night if they want to even up this series.

Notes: It’s been announced that game five will be at 7:15 on NBC on Saturday night after the Kentucky Derby…shots on goal were 33-30 for the Caps, they were 2 for 5 on the power play getting nine shots on net in 7:16 of power play time…Ovechkin had six shot attempts (two on net) in 19:27 of ice time…John Carlson led the Caps in time on ice with 25:35…Alzner played more than Coach Trotz envisioned, with 21:34. He performed fairly well coming off of his upper body injury…the Caps lost the face off battle, 36-31, including some key ones late in the game. Jay Beagle was 6-3…Sheary only played 4:01. Kessel led the Penguins in ice time with 23:17…special thanks to WNST station owner, Nestor Aparcio, for being in Pittsburgh and getting me all of the locker room quotes.

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Game two Pens

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Crosby and Fleury Carry the Pens Past the Caps in Game Two

Posted on 30 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals find themselves in a 2-0 series hole after a 6-2 loss at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night at the Verizon Center. Games three and four will be in Steeltown on Monday and Wednesday, respectively.

The Caps came out and played a superb opening frame, doing everything but score a goal. They dominated possession with a 35-8 edge in shot attempts and they even received two power plays. Unfortunately for the Capitals, Marc-Andre Fleury (34 saves) was at the top of his game again and the Pens also blocked 13 shots to keep things scoreless after twenty minutes.

In game one, the Penguins would score twice in the first 64 seconds of period two, but it was Washington who came out strong to start the stanza. Just 29 ticks in, Jake Guentzel was boxed for hooking and the Capitals power play came on the ice for its third attempt of the evening. The Caps top unit was put on first and just over 30 seconds in they were set up in the offensive zone. Kevin Shattenkirk had the puck at the point and instead of making an open pass to Alex Ovechkin, who only had two of the Capitals 35 first period shot attempts; he hesitated, and then fired the puck on net. The shot was blocked and that allowed the speedy Matt Cullen to go in on a breakaway and beat Braden Holtby via the five hole.

Coach Barry Trotz’ crew, however, would answer that potentially devastating shorthanded tally when Nicklas Backstrom got the puck to Ovechkin at the point. The Gr8 then found Matt Niskanen all alone in the slot and Nisky beat Fleury to the far post to tie the game up at 2:09 of period two. The Caps would continue to carry most of the play, but then a series of turnovers allowed Sidney Crosby to steal the puck, come into the Washington zone with speed, and then feed Phil Kessel on a two on one that #81 placed perfectly top shelf, short side on the Holtbeast at 13:04. If Washington gets the puck deep there, the goal doesn’t happen.

Things then got worse three minutes and ten seconds later. Justin Williams carried into the offensive zone, wound up to fire on net, and Crosby went down to block the shot. The puck then caromed off of #87 and out to the neutral zone to give Jake Guentzel a two on one rush. The Caps defender appeared to give Holtby the shooter and #59 beat #70 short side. It was an odd man rush goal, but one many felt that the Holtbeast should have stopped. That goal deflated the building and to start the final frame, Coach Trotz yanked Holtby for Philipp Grubauer.

That move did not go well as Kessel scored on the power play just 2:19 into the third period after Shattenkirk took a terrible delay of game penalty. Backstrom would score on a rebound of an Ovechkin shot to make it 4-2 with 16:16 to go, but any hope of a comeback was ended when Malkin tallied from the paint less than two minutes later.

Simply put, this was a very tough loss for the Caps and they now have to go into Pittsburgh and try to win at least one game to bring the series back to DC for a game five. I wasn’t a fan of pulling Holtby for Grubauer, but Coach Trotz said afterwards he didn’t regret the move because he felt he had to try and change things up.

It was a bit of a panic move, much like some of the plays Washington made in period two where the “game opened up” as Brooks Orpik described it to me afterwards. #44 felt that the Caps got away from their strong first period by trying to do different things and he thought that was a mistake. He’s right and the Shattenkirk play on the power play was a perfect example of that. That puck has to go to Ovechkin or back to Backstrom, or at worst, #22 has to fire a wrist shot through traffic quickly. On goal two, three Capitals rushed to Crosby and left Kessel wide open. For the third Penguins goal, Williams needs to get that puck deep and not into #87’s shin pads. Those plays and Trotz pulling Holtby were all examples, in my mind, of not sticking to what was working and getting away from the script.

Game two is now over, so there is nothing Washington can do about it. Afterwards, the media had to wait between 10 and 15 minutes to enter the locker room due to a team meeting. There weren’t many details given, but Williams, when asked who spoke up, noted “Backy” [Nicklas Backstrom].

While many in Caps Nation were in full “Here We Go Again” and doomsday mode, the Capitals locker room was anything but that.

“We’re in a little hole. We need to focus on game 3 and winning that and that was it,” said Stick on the team’s predicament.

As for not deviating from what was working in period one, Williams had some very telling words.

“Yes, repetition in playoffs and wearing a team down is crucial. We had a good first period, yes, we didn’t score a goal. That happens. We just got away a little bit and they capitalized on their opportunities,” added #14 on what the Caps were trying to do and how things went awry.

The Capitals had many looks in this game, 88 shot attempts, to be exact, and when their shots did make it past the Penguin defenders it rang iron on at least three occasions.

“You’re not going to get me to say “Whoa is me” and “Oh, I can’t believe it.” You make your own breaks and I truly believe that. We’re going to work our butts off to get one in our column. A lot of guys said some good stuff after the game here. We have an opportunity; I’ve been down 3-0 and 2-0, a couple of times. You just have to win one game, one at a time. It’s an overused cliché, but it’s exactly right come playoff time. We’re right there, we’re just not quite there,” stated Williams.

As for Holtby getting pulled after yielding tallies on three odd man rushes, Stick wasn’t willing to give anyone a pass on the loss.

“Listen, everybody’s in the same boat right here, we’re just not doing quite enough and to beat the Cup Champs you have to do everything right. We’re not going to shy away from it. We’re going to go there and see what we’re made of.”

I asked Williams if the Caps were trying to be too perfect with their play, which was causing mistakes, but he said they weren’t.

“No, we’re just a hair off. Sometimes you go to the puck and you just get it tipped away. There’s little tips here and there. There’s little races, little battles throughout the ice that we’re not quite there,” stated the three time Stanley Cup Champion.

As for all of the shot blocks, the Penguins had 33 of them in game two. I asked Williams about the blocks, especially the one Crosby had on him, and what the Capitals need to do to adjust.

“You have to give credit where it’s due and they’re blocking a lot of shots. Just like any chess match, they make a move, you need to try and do something to alter that, shoot for tips, shoot wide, change shooting angles, all of those things. They’re blocking a lot of shots. I’m not sure what the stats are, but we’re not getting them through,” finished Williams.

Getting them through and behind Fleury is imperative if Washington wants to make this a series. We’ll find out what adjustments are made on Monday in game three.

Notes: Final shot attempts were 88-45 for the Caps. They also won the faceoff battle, 41-33. Lars Eller went 10-3…Ovechkin led the Caps in ice time with 23:19. Crosby played 20:12, but Brian Dumolin led Pittsburgh in ice time at 24:07…Patric Hornqvist blocked a shot in period one after playing 5:02 and didn’t return. A source tells me he’s out for the rest of the series and likely the season..Ron Hainsey took an Ovechkin shot to the head in period three and did not return…Ovechkin ended up with 12 shots attempts, but only three were on net…the Caps had 37 hits to just 19 for the Penguins.

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Jojo Rebound

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10 Thoughts on the Caps As They Head into Game Two

Posted on 28 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals lost game one to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night by a 3-2 count. The Pens lead the second round best of seven series with game two slated for Saturday night at 8 pm at the Verizon Center.

Here are 10 thoughts on this series after 60 minutes of hockey.

1. Before anyone goes jumping off of the ledge, the Caps, who are 1-8 in all time playoff series’ against Pittsburgh, were 8-1 in game one action in those nine previous encounters. So the Penguins have certainly proven that it’s not how you start the series, it’s how you finish it.

2. Speaking of starts, the Capitals did not have a strong start, especially the beginning of the second period where Sidney Crosby scored twice in 64 seconds after terrible turnovers by Washington. As I blogged before this series began, the Pens love to generate chances off of the rush and get odd man breaks. They did that well enough in the first game to overcome an 83-41 Caps advantage in shot attempts. The Capitals were very good for stretches of this contest, but their start was weak and they made too many “big mistakes.”

3. Washington did a great job of containing Crosby in last spring’s playoffs, but along with Marc-Andre Fleury (33 saves), he was the biggest reason it’s 1-0 Penguins. The Capitals cannot afford to turn pucks over carelessly when he’s on the ice and on the second goal, nobody on the Caps finds #87 and covers him. As a result he scored on an easy rebound goal. You simply cannot not know where Crosby is on the ice, so the Capitals must be more attentive to where the best player in the NHL is, at all times!

4. That was one great hit by John Carlson on Evgeni Malkin that led to the Caps first goal by Alex Ovechkin. Carlson is playing the best hockey of his season. He was dynamite last spring and Washington needs him to be dominant on the back end if they are going to win this series. #74 seems to really raise his game against Pittsburgh.

5. Turnovers are certainly something that has plagued the Capitals when they don’t win and game one was no exception. Without Kris Letang on defense, the Pens are not as fast, so Coach Mike Sullivan really has his two defensemen focused on cutting off the middle of the ice at the their own blue line and on back to Fleury. In the series opener, the Caps had their highest success on zone entries carrying the puck wide on the Penguins defense across the blue line. When they tried to cut to the middle too soon, it resulted in turnovers and that opens up Pittsburgh’s massive rush offense. So zone entries wide and carrying the puck deep needs to be the modus operandi going forward.

6. There is a lot of talk in hockey about luck deciding outcomes in a contest, or bad luck, as Washington suffered in game one. Jake Guentzel saved a sure goal by T.J. Oshie in the crease in period one and there were pucks around Fleury all night that the Capitals just couldn’t get to and bury. Fleury was good, but he was also fortunate. Washington just needs to keep doing what they are doing with pucks and bodies to the cage and it will pay off. They don’t need to get frustrated and change the game plan. Getting pucks deep on the Pittsburgh defense is so important.

7. After the Capitals called timeout with 26 seconds remaining with the Holtbeast pulled, Ovechkin found himself at the point and Kevin Shattenkirk was in the “Ovi spot” in the left wing circle. The Gr8 passed the puck to #22, but he missed the net on a great look. The Penguins had to be very happy to have Shattenkirk shooting from there instead of Ovechkin. I’m not sure if that configuration was planned coming out of the timeout or not, but it would seem that going forward that the Capitals coaching staff needs to find a way to get the Gr8 more of the critical looks? Alex only had eight shot attempts in game one and just three of them made it on net.

8. Given the intensity of game one and Washington’s domination in terms of puck possession, it was pretty upsetting to see the only two power plays go to Pittsburgh. Surely zebras Dan O’Halloran and Kevin Pollock could’ve called at least one infraction on the Pens, who were masters of the clutch, grab, and hold in this modern day style of game? It sure looked like there was delay of game on Bryan Rust in the slot on that loose puck late in the third period. I also didn’t like either call on the Caps, especially the late third period slashing penalty on Matt Niskanen when he was just going for the rebound of a loose puck off of Fleury’s pads. There were a lot of rebounds allowed by Fleury in this tilt and that play happens hundreds of times during games in the regular season and playoffs with a penalty very rarely called. The fact that it came at that point in the game and it was on Washington sure is fishy. Coach Barry Trotz labeled it “a pretty light call” afterwards, especially given everything else that was let go during the contest. Be better and more consistent zebras (although I’ve long given up on the arrogant O’Halloran)!

9. The Caps are at their best when they press the play on the Penguins and force their defense to have to make plays and work. Unfortunately, that strategy sometimes opens the Capitals up to the possibility of the Pens getting some quick offense on a stretch pass, if Washington does not stay structured. Somehow Pittsburgh was able to connect on one in the last 10 minutes to win the game. That cannot happen going forward. There were several mistakes made on that play by Washington. Shattenkirk needs to keep Scott Wilson wide at the defensive blue line and prevent a cross ice pass while Brooks Orpik was too far to his left and up the ice, and Nick Bonino exploited the gap with his superior speed. The Caps forwards also need to make sure someone is in position to stop that long pass or at least ensure that they are with any opposing forwards charging up the ice. As Coach Trotz said afterwards, all three Penguins goals were very preventable.

10. With the Capitals having lost the last six games they’ve played in Pittsburgh, it is imperative that Washington plays their best game on Saturday night to even this series up. It won’t be easy, but if they minimize their mistakes and bring the effort they brought the last 25 plus minutes of game one (they had the puck way more and also out hit the Penguins, 41-17), then they should be in good shape.

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Sid Ovi

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Ten Thoughts on the Penguins Before Round Two Begins

Posted on 25 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Following their first round victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs in six games, the task for the Washington Capitals gets significantly harder as they take on the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in a second round series that starts at 7:30 pm on Thursday night at the Verizon Center.

Here are ten thoughts on the Pens as we head into game one.

1. Pittsburgh had a ton of injuries this season, but they still managed to stay close to the Capitals in the standings until very late in the campaign. They are an extremely well coached team led by the best player in the league, Sidney Crosby. Coach Mike Sullivan’s club is playing well right now despite the fact that they are missing defenseman Kris Letang, forward Carl “Cap Killer” Hagelin, and goaltender Matt Murray due to injury. Letang is done for the season while Murray is not even skating, yet. Hagelin is a possibility to return, at some point, during this series.

2. The Pens scored 21 goals in five games against the Columbus Blue Jackets in round one. They notched them in so many different ways, too. Here’s the break down on those tallies: Eight from offensive zone pressure shifts, six power play markers (officially only five, but Evgeni Malkin’s goal in game two came just one second after a CBus penalty expired), four rush goals, one off of a face off, one as a result of a strong forecheck, and one empty net tally. Six power play goals jumps out there, the Capitals cannot afford to take careless penalties.

3. A big key to those goals is how decisive they are with the puck, they pass it quickly to open space and it leads to a lot of one timers. They were able to exploit a very young Blue Jackets defense and get Vezina Trophy candidate, Sergei Bobrovsky, moving around quite a bit, which made it easier to find open looks. Columbus never knew what hit them.

4. Another thing they like to do is use the long stretch pass out of their zone from a defenseman to the forwards. If the opponent makes a mistake in the neutral zone or has a bad line change, they typically exploit it. The Caps must be crisp in the neutral zone and make sure they get pucks deep into the Penguins zone, especially when they are changing players.

5. When it comes to getting pucks to the net, I’ve already mentioned how quickly they do that. What makes them even more dangerous is all of their forwards are skilled at crashing the cage. Patric Hornqvist, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Nick Bonino, and Scott Wilson all had in close tallies in round one. Guentzel and Rust each had five goals in the five game series and most of them were from just outside the paint. Chris Kunitz is another player who specializes in dirty goals, but he was out due to injury in round one. He is expected to suit up for the series opener. Crosby is a wizard when he has the puck behind the opponents cage so it is imperative that Washington does a very good job in picking up Penguins forwards in front and around the net when #87 has the puck. The Blue Jackets failed in that area miserably.

6. Pittsburgh is missing Letang on the back end, and he was a work horse for the Pens against the Capitals last spring logging over 25 minutes a game. However, this season the team has learned to play without him since he’s been on the sidelines since February. As a result, they have three pairs of defenders that get pretty even ice time based on the Columbus series: Justin Schultz and Ian Cole, Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley, and Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey.

7. The Penguins are very difficult to beat on their home ice. In fact, you have to go back to December 14, 2015 to find the last time the Capitals won in Pittsburgh. That’s six straight losses at the Igloo II, counting last spring’s playoffs.

8. With Murray injured in the game one warm-ups against Columbus, Marc-Andre Fleury was thrown into the battle in goal. It was literally baptism by fire in these 2017 Playoffs for the 2009 Stanley Cup Champion and his perfect 16 save performance in period one stabilized things for the Pens until they found their game. They then quickly demolished Columbus. If Coach John Tortorella’s squad gets a goal or two in that opening frame, is the series different? We’ll never know because Fleury was so good in net to start the series.

9. Washington did well containing the Crosby and Malkin lines last spring, but it was the Hagelin-Bonino-Phil Kessel third line that did them in. This go round, that line is not together due to the knee injury to #62. However, Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel are playing as well as ever. Malkin, who was battling an upper body injury in the playoffs last year, is at the peak of his game now and is very difficult to take off of the puck. Kessel is on his line, along with Rust and they’ve been on fire. The best way to stop Malkin is to prevent him from getting the biscuit. He’s in beast mode heading into round two and leads the NHL in playoff scoring.

10. The Caps have spent all kinds of time and effort since last May’s playoff loss to put themselves in position for a rematch. They’ve added Lars Eller, Brett Connolly, and Kevin Shattenkirk to their lineup to try and match the Penguins fast paced play. They are a year more experienced, which has proven to bode well for Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, and Evgeny Kuznetsov so far in this postseason. So now they’ve finally gotten to this point and have their chance to slay the dragon, once and for all. It will not be easy. The Penguins are the Defending Champs, and therefore, King of the Hill, until they are defeated. Last season’s series, which was razor close just like the movie Rocky, was essentially the Stanley Cup Finals in round two. Will this season’s series have a Rocky II type ending?

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Ovi 1000

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Alex Ovechkin Hits 1,000 Points in Caps 5-2 Win Over Pittsburgh

Posted on 11 January 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Alex Ovechkin came into Wednesday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins needing just one point to reach 1,000 in his career.

It didn’t take him long to get it.

Just 35 seconds into this tilt on NBC Rivalry Night, the Gr8 received a breakout pass from Nicklas Backstrom, after T.J. Oshie made a great defensive zone hit and steal, and he carried the biscuit into the slot and zipped it by Marc Andre-Fleury to give the Capitals a lead they would never relinquish.

An already energized Verizon Center went nuts and when the Gr8 scored on a power play ROCKET at 8:06 of the second period, it was becoming clearer that Washington was going to win its seventh straight contest.

Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has really turned it on since we’ve started 2017, then fed Justin Williams for his 12th goal of the campaign on one of his patented behind the net passes just 4:31 into the final frame to make it 3-0.

At that point, the only thing that could thwart Washington was a parade to the penalty box and that began with a questionable call on Dmitry Orlov at 6:28 after it sure looked like Patrick Hornqvist should’ve been going off with him. This scrum resulted following a cheap swipe by Carl Hagelin on Braden Holtby (30 saves) after he had covered a puck.

The Penguins have a great power play and Evgeni Malkin scored to make it 3-1. Pittsburgh would push hard for another, but a Steven Oleksy knee on knee hit put him in the box for the second time in this one. Simply put, Oleksy is an AHLer and looked overmatched out there. Those hits weren’t intentional, he just isn’t fast enough to play at the top level.

On the ensuing power play, somehow the Caps messed up at their offensive blue line and Matt Cullen received a shorthanded breakaway, but the Holtbeast got a piece of the shot to calm things down. About 10 seconds later, Backstrom scored after another brilliant pass by Oshie to make it 4-1 with 6:49 remaining. Game pretty much over, well except for those guys in stripes, who just had to continue to make their mark in this one.

Oshie was jailed for his third minor penalty of the night and Sidney Crosby, who was held in check well by the Caps on Wednesday, fed Hornqvist perfectly on the door step for a tap in with 2:36 to go.

The Caps would keep the Penguins without any real chances from then on, though, and Lars Eller launched one off of the dome of Kris Letang and into the empty net to seal the deal.

Oshie, who missed Monday’s big win in Montreal, would notch three assists and Backstrom had a goal and three helpers. Holtby was outstanding again, but it was El Capitain, Ovechkin, who set the tone early in this one and staked his club to a two goal lead to make no doubt about whose night this was going to be.

Ovi only played 16:52, he’s being paced for the post season, but he had two goals, 11 shot attempts, seven shots on goal, and two hits. He even set up Backstrom when it was 2-0 for an open net shot, but the puck fluttered a bit on Nicky and he shot it high.

This was a vintage Ovechkin game and he rose to the occasion after Pierre McGuire threw all of Crosby and the Pens championships in the Gr8’s face in a pregame interview. Yes, Caps fans, it was another tough night of watching NBC and having to listen to some weird analysis, but when you come out on top over the defending Stanley Cup Champions, it seems worth it.

Once again, the Capitals were on the short end of the stick in power plays for the seventh straight game, but they’ve won all seven. They have not had more power plays than their opponents since December 17th against Montreal. By the rulebook, those were penalties on the Caps, no argument there, but what is ridiculous is the continual lack of calls against their opponents. It’s not being called fairly and I still don’t know how the heck both referees missed Ian Cole’s butt end to the face of Marcus Johansson? I could point out at least a half dozen or more infractions committed by the Penguins that weren’t called, but the league will continue to do nothing about improving their officiating to make it more consistent. It’s like they are trained to officiate the score.

Anyways, despite what Mike Milbury said after the game, the Capitals weren’t the only team trying their hardest out there. Washington was very sloppy tonight, but their back checking was outstanding and covered for several of their mistakes. When they didn’t have that support, the Holtbeast was there to shut the door. Braden is on fire and he continues to make the timely clutch save. If Cullen makes it 3-2, who knows what happens? That’s why you need a great goaltender, and Holtby is certainly that.

The win improves the Caps to 27-9-5 (59 points) and they take over 2nd place in the Metropolitan Division, just a point behind the Columbus Blue Jackets. At the halfway point of the season, Washington is looking like a Cup contender and the recent uptick in the play of Kuznetsov has made them a much more dangerous team because the opponents can’t put all of their focus on Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Oshie. Add in the strong recent play of the Brett Connolly-Eller-Andre Burakovsky line and Washington looks much more daunting than last spring.

But there’s still 41 games left and we are three months from the playoffs, so it’s not worth getting too high over. January has certainly been encouraging for the Capitals, but to quote the great Phil Collins, “still it would seem we’ve still got a long, long way to go.”

Notes: The Pens won the shot attempt battle, 64-51, but I thought the Capitals had more of the quality scoring chances. Washington did a great job of keeping Pittsburgh on the perimeter at even strength…Matt Niskanen was +3 and led the Caps in ice time at 23:11…John Carlson had two assists and five shots on net in 22:19…Orlov had an assist and was +2 in 20:18. Outside of getting beat one on one by Crosby in period one, he was really good…the Capitals cleaned up on draws, 43-26. Backstrom and Beagle were both 14-7…the Caps will face the Chicago Blackhawks at 7 pm on Friday night at the Verizon Center.

 

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nicky-oshie

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Caps Destroy the Penguins, 7-1

Posted on 16 November 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Motivation and effort were not an issue on Wednesday night at the Verizon Center as the Washington Capitals totally destroyed the Pittsburgh Penguins, 7-1. Nicklas Backstrom had two goals and three assists while T.J. Oshie also scored twice and added two helpers to lead the Caps offense out of its recent slumber. Braden Holtby made 25 saves in net against the defending Stanley Cup Champions as Washington improved to 10-4-2.

There were so many positives to take out of this game, starting with the effort and passion. The Caps, who played in Columbus and lost in OT on Tuesday, then flew home afterwards while the Penguins rested in DC, were all over the ice for the full 60 minutes. They were skating, hitting, and putting pucks in the correct places on the rink. They played a north-south game that gave the Penguins fits and this one was over quickly.

Washington tallied three times in the first frame with Oshie opening the scoring shorthanded on a rebound goal after a Jay Beagle breakaway was stopped by Matt Murray. Backstrom then made it 2-0 with 2:30 left in period one on a goal similar to his marker in Columbus on Tuesday, a shot from the slot while using the defender as a screen. Then with eight seconds remaining and the Caps on a four on three advantage, Oshie buried the rebound of a John Carlson blast.

The Caps then gave Pittsburgh little hope of getting back in the game with a dominant second period. They outshot the Pens, 13-6, in those middle 20 minutes, but somehow only potted one puck (Dmitry Orlov’s first goal of the season on a three on two rush set up by Backstrom and Marcus Johansson) past Marc Andre-Fleury. Fleury entered this affair late in period one when starter Murray was hit in the head twice by Evgeni Malkin and was forced to leave the contest.

What was most pleasing was the way the Capitals didn’t take their foot off of the gas in the third period. Washington came out flying and they kept the pressure on Pittsburgh. There was no sitting back like they did recently against Columbus and Chicago, or when they blew a 3-0 lead against Winnipeg a couple of weeks ago. No, on this night, the Caps displayed a killer instinct that they’ve been talking about developing for years.

They stomped on the Penguins throats in this one with Justin Williams finally scoring just over five minutes into the last frame, albeit on a 5 on 3, and then Alex Ovechkin made it 6-0 on a sweet breakaway goal just after the 10 minute mark. Phil Kessel would break the Holtbeast shutout with 3:32 left when Orlov didn’t tie him up at the side of the net, but Backstrom erased that marker with a goal just 30 seconds later to close out the scoring.

It was a win the Capitals badly needed after scoring just five goals in their previous four games. They played with a purpose and got back to the things that make them successful; coming into the offensive zone with speed, getting pucks on net or below the goal line so they can use their size, and crashing the cage for rebounds. There was maximum effort and attention to detail. Gone from their game were the sloppy east-west passes they had been employing at the opponents blue line and it made a huge difference in the outcome. The Penguins defense repeatedly had to go back and get pucks deep in their own zone and the Caps took over that part of the ice, which is one of their strengths.

Bottom line on NBC Rivalry night, there was an ass-kicking that took place and the Capitals delivered it to their arch rivals on Wednesday evening.

So see ya Penguins and take your arrogant banner tweet home with you.

Notes: The Caps won the face-off battle, 45-35 and out shot attempted the Penguins, 68-46. That’s all about the effort as Washington totally manhandled Mike Sullivan’s club…in addition to his five points, Backstrom was 18-9 on face-offs.  Most of those draws came against Sidney Crosby, who went 8-18 and was a -3 on the evening. His biggest contribution in this affair was yelling at the referees…the Caps were rewarded for their effort with seven power plays and scored on two of them, a 4 on 3 and a 5 on 3. The only area you could complain about for the Capitals was the 5 on 4 man advantage which went 0 for 5 in this tilt and needs work…Ovechkin left the game briefly in period two after Kris Letang tripped him, but the Russian Machine that Never Breaks returned to get a breakaway tally and end his four game goalless streak in the third period…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 24:14. Ovechkin played 18:38…Letang led the Pens with 23:50, but he was -5 (on the ice for every Washington even strength goal)…final shots on goal were 39-26 in favor of the good guys.

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Sep 14, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA;Team Russia center  Alex Ovechkin (8) celebrates with the bench after scoring a goal against Team Canada during the third period in a World Cup of Hockey pre-tournament game at CONSOL Energy Center. Team Canada won 3-2 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

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Canada the Team to Beat in World Cup of Hockey

Posted on 15 September 2016 by Ed Frankovic

The World Cup of Hockey is now officially set to commence on Saturday, September 17th with all games played over the upcoming two weeks at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

Who’s going to win? Well that’s pretty easy, Canada. They have the best overall team and the home ice.

But you still have to play the games and if the pre tournament action is any indication, then this is going to be one heck of an event. All eight teams won at least one time in their three World Cup tune-ups. Some of the games were downright played at NHL playoff intensity level, with USA-Canada on Friday night being the most noteworthy. The Americans played a strong physical game, received excellent goaltending from Jonathan Quick, and took advantage of a rusty Carey Price to win, 4-2. The Canadians then returned the favor the next night in Ottawa, winning 5-3 (Quick and Price did not play).

Canada then needed overtime to defeat the Russians, 3-2, on Wednesday night to finish 2-1. USA, playing at the Verizon Center on Tuesday evening, raced out a 3-0 lead that could’ve been five or six zip if not for Finland goalie Pekka Rinne, before hanging on to a 3-2 victory.

Both the USA and Canada are in group A with Team Europe, who pan caked Sweden, 6-2, at the Verizon Center on Wednesday night, and the Czech Republic, who knocked off the North American speedsters on Wednesday afternoon in the first of a doubleheader at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.

Group B consists of Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the North Americans (USA and Canadian players aged 23 and under).

The top two squads in each group will advance to the semifinals where there will be a single elimination round. The top team in group A will play the runner up in group B while the first place team in group B gets the runner up in group A.

So there is a scenario where USA and Canada could meet in the finals, with the World Cup of Hockey being decided in a best of three games matchup.

Bottom line, this is going to be some really exciting hockey to watch.

Now, without further adieu, here are my picks for each group.

Group B:

First place: Russia. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Nikita Kucherov, and Evgeny Kuznetsov lead a talented forward group that is thin on the blue line. But they have some great goaltending that starts with Sergei Bobrovksy. If “Bob” gets hurt or struggles, then Semyon Varlamov is more than capable of coming in and shutting the door. This group sets up well for the Russians. They are bigger up front than the other three squads and I don’t see any of the other three teams having a blue line that can match that offensive talent.

Where it could go wrong for Russia: I mentioned their blue line, but to me, the biggest question mark with this squad is the coaching. Going back to 1980, when Viktor Tikhonov yanked Vladislav Tretiak in net after one period in Lake Placid, we’ve seen so many head scratching coaching decisions from this federation. In the pre tournament action, the Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Kucherov line was outstanding against the Czechs, but coach Oleg Znarok moved Kuzy off of the top line and to a wing, at times, in Wednesday’s game against the Canadians. Anyone who watched the NHL last season knows that Kuzy is a sensational playmaker with the puck. Putting him in position on the wall where he will rely on others to give him the puck coming out of their own zone makes very little sense.

Second place: Sweden. Many of the so-called experts are going with Sweden to win it all, but I watched the Swedes on Wednesday night at the Verizon Center and I was not impressed. Yes, they have a very talented and mobile defense led by Victor Hedman and Erik Karlsson, but that whole blue line was a turnover machine, along with young forwards such as Filip Forsberg, in their loss to Team Europe. Henrik Lundqvist didn’t get much help in front of him and he wasn’t very good either in net. He’s 34. Up front, the coaching staff seems to rely heavily on the Sedin-Sedin-Eriksson line. They will try to cycle you to death. Nicklas Backstrom is a rock up the middle for Sweden and I don’t think he’ll get kicked out of this tournament for using ZYRTEC like we saw in the Sochi Olympics in 2014. That galactic screw up has left several in the NHL with a bad taste in their mouths over how that whole silliness went down. The NHL is controlling this event, so I don’t think we’ll see something stupid like that in this tournament, but Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly did tell me on Wednesday that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is involved with this tournament. Sweden has the talent to come close to Canada, but I’m not seeing it and there are legitimate concerns about King Henrik in the cage (cue Coldplay’s Viva La Vida).

Where it could go wrong for Sweden: In addition to concerns about Hank in net and the blue line turnovers, the defense is not configured to clear the front of their own net. If I’m coaching in group B I’m sending a steady diet of players to the top of the circle on the Swedes and daring them to move my forwards out of there. I also don’t like the fact that they left Marcus Johansson off of the roster. Marcus can do so many things in the lineup yet they excluded him and took players such as Jakob Silverberg, Mikael Backlund, and Carl Soderberg who don’t have the experience or versatility that Jojo brings. Big mistake Sweden, big mistake.

As for Finland and North America, I still like both of these squads despite not picking them for the semifinals. Finland could squeeze in if Rinne plays at the top of his game, he’s that good and big in the cage. North America has some really fun and fast players. If Coach Todd McLellan gets his players to play smart and not turn the puck over, then they could sneak in, especially if Stanley Cup Champion Matt Murray continues to play well in net.

Group A:

First Place: Canada. They have the best roster, hands down, in this tournament. They will be playing at home. They are experienced having won gold in both Vancouver and Sochi. They have an excellent coaching staff, led by Mike Babcock. It’s almost a given that they will win this event.

Where it could go wrong for Canada: They’ll make the semifinals, and that is where they are most vulnerable if they run into a super hot goalie. But in a three game set, in either the preliminary round or in the finals, they are just too deep to be beaten. I give the Americans the best chance to take them down in the finals, but they will have to have Jonathan Quick pull a Mike Richter in net.

Second Place: USA. The American roster has been much maligned by several of the supposed experts in the media, but I’m not buying it. This club, put together by Kings GM Dean Lombardi, is built perfectly for this type of tournament on an NHL sized rink. They have great goaltending, led by Quick, a very mobile and strong two way defense, led by John Carlson and Ryan McDonagh, and a set of forwards that can hit and grind out goals with players like team captain Joe Pavelski and T.J. Oshie. They also have some top notch skilled snipers like Patrick Kane and Zach Parise. John Tortorella and Mike Sullivan are coaching this team and both have won Stanley Cups for a reason. Torts may not have shown any bench boss magic over an 82 game season in awhile, but a short tournament like this is right up his alley.

Where it could go wrong for USA: They could struggle to score goals if they don’t crash the net. Europe has a “can get really hot” goalie in Jaroslav Halak and the Czechs will start Michal Neuvirth, who has been in the zone in the cage recently, as well. In order to beat those guys, USA must get lots of traffic.

As for the Czechs and Europe, they are long shots to advance, but if any could do it, my money would be on Europe. While they are slow on the back end with the likes of the chippy Zdeno Chara, they are coached well by Ralph Krueger, who was a joy to cover on Wednesday night and was an advisor on the coaching staff for the victorious Canadian team in Sochi. Europe has one of the best forwards in the NHL in Anze Kopitar along with some other snipers like Tomas Vanek and the young Oilers forward, Leon Draisaitl, who had a hat trick at the Verizon Center against King Henrik.

Like I said earlier, this is going to be some intense hockey. The tournament starts at 3:30 pm on Saturday afternoon with USA taking on Europe on ESPN2. Canada plays the Czechs at 8 pm on ESPN News.

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