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Caps Over Pens 2018

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Holtby Stones the Pens in a 2-1 Caps Triumph

Posted on 07 November 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Justice was served at Capital One Arena on Wednesday night.

American hero, T.J. Oshie, who was high sticked by Olli Maatta and required two stitches in period one (amazingly, the four zebras missed it so no penalty was called) and then was elbowed in the head by Evgeni Malkin in period three and had to enter concussion protocol for the second time in the game (Geno was properly thrown out of the contest for a head shot), scored from the slot with 74 seconds left to give the Washington Capitals a 2-1 victory over their archrivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Oshie, who only played 13:51 on the evening due to his two locker room trips, was able to have a clean look for the game winner thanks to some great work by Alexander Ovechkin in front of the net, a super pass from John Carlson, and of course, a sensational overall sequence set up by Evgeny Kuznetsov.

The game winning goal doesn’t happen though, if not for Braden Holtby’s stellar performance in net. The Holtbeast made 41 saves, some of the ten bell variety, and he won his first game since October 22nd. This was easily Braden’s best outing of the 2018-19 season and he rarely allowed any rebound chances. The Capitals, while giving up a lot of shots, did a solid job of keeping the Penguins on the perimeter most of the night. The only tally allowed was a power play marker by Sidney Crosby after Dmitry Orlov was stripped of the puck in the corner in the first frame (and some may say he was hooked).

Washington was outshot in every period and there were times when the Penguins were totally outworking the Caps, especially for the majority of the final stanza when Oshie was in the dressing room. The Osh Babe is a tireless worker and wins a lot of puck battles. One of the reasons the Capitals extended power play on the Malkin ejection was so bad was due to no #77 on the ice. Pittsburgh simply outhustled the guys in red during those nearly four minutes of man advantage time (the first minute plus was played at 4 on 4).

As for Malkin, what was he thinking? His team was on the power play and dominating the game, and then he decided to put himself above the team by taking a stupid penalty that just may get him suspended. You don’t see Crosby or Ovechkin making boneheaded plays like that, but perhaps the pressure of losing four in a row coming into this tilt was weighing on him? Whatever the case, the Penguins were really skating well when he derailed things with his stupidity. You have to think that his teammates aren’t happy with him for that selfish play.

As for the Capitals, they seemed to struggle with Oshie missing so much time plus Tom Wilson serving game 14 of his 20 tilt punishment. In addition, Brooks Orpik missed his fourth straight contest due to a lower body injury. Those three players are heart and soul guys for the Caps and when they aren’t out there, you notice it.

There were stretches where Coach Todd Reirden’s club brought it and they had a number of quality chances, but Casey DeSmith was pretty good, at times, while the Caps also missed the net or chose not to shoot on odd man rushes (paging Andre Burakovsky). Washington was only one for six on the power play, but that one was a key second period tally by Ovechkin from the Ovi spot after Nicklas Backstrom intercepted a poor Kris Letang clear, fed the puck point to point to Carlson, and then Johnny slid a sweet pass to the Gr8, who did what he does best: score big goals. Alex now has 12 goals in the first 14 games.

Overall, this was not a pretty game for the defending Stanley Cup Champions, but the Caps are improving at covering the front of their net and there was more of a commitment defensively, like we saw against the Oilers on Monday night. So despite the 42 shots against, they did prevent rebound chances and allowed the Holtbeast to see the puck cleanly. Braden was clearly on in this one and he was the biggest reason the Capitals are now 7-4-3 (17 points) and in sole possession of second place in the Metropolitan Division.

It’s only November though, there’s a long way to go, and there’s a very good chance that these two teams are meeting in April/May in the post season, once again.

All hail the Holtbeast and the Osh Babe!

Notes: Carlson led all skaters in ice time with 28:17. JC74 had two assists and had a really strong game…Orlov, after a superb outing on Monday, regressed in 23:44 of time, but he did block six shots…the Caps lost the faceoff battle, 31-28. Crosby was 17-8. Lars Eller went 7-3 to lead Washington…Ovechkin logged 24:32, had a goal, made a great play in front on the GWG, and eight shot attempts…All Star Backstrom drew a hook on Crosby that led to the Caps first power play goal…Kuznetsov logged 23:49 as Reirden rode his stars big time in this thrilling victory…next up for the Caps are the Blue Jackets in DC on Friday night.

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Ovi Game 3

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Ovechkin’s Late Goal and Backstrom’s Monster Night Propel Caps to a Game 3 Victory

Posted on 01 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Alex Ovechkin tallied with 1:07 remaining by batting home the rebound of his initial shot that hit the right post following a superb play and feed by the great Nicklas Backstrom to lead the Washington Capitals to a come from behind, 4-3, victory in game three in Pittsburgh. Braden Holtby made 19 saves and the Caps now lead this best of seven series, two games to one.

Wow, what a stud of a performance by Mr. Backstrom!

Nicky had three assists on goals by John Carlson, Chandler Stephenson, and of course the game winner by Ovi. Backstrom logged a game high, for all forwards, of 22:29 and he was on the ice for three of the Capitals four goals and none against. Simply put, he’s been outstanding in the last two games and along with the Holtbeast, he’s the biggest reason Washington has won the last two contests.

The Gr8 now has eight goals in the post season and he’s playing extremely well offensively. He still has some issues defensively, but he’s making an effort in his own zone and he’s producing at a great clip on the offensive end in just nine playoff tilts this spring. Tuesday’s goal was as big as they come in his career right now.

T.J. Oshie, after hurting his hand blocking a shot at the end of game two, had a strong outing on Backstrom’s line and it was his sensational pass to Stephenson in the slot that got the Caps a big goal to tie this one up at two after Pittsburgh had seized momentum with two quick strikes. Those goals came shortly after Carlson’s power play tally gave Washington a 1-0 lead early in period two.

Jake Guentzel continued his tear scoring the first Pens marker on a sweet deflection when Brett Connolly made the mistake of leaving Justin Schultz, which allowed #4 to move to the center of the ice and fire away with lots of traffic in front of Holtby. After a really ticky tacky hooking call on Brooks Orpik, the Penguins went ahead when Patric Hornqvist outmuscled Dmitry Orlov in front for a tap in power play lamp lighter.

Orlov would then get burnt again in a four on four situation by Guentzel and as a result, Matt Niskanen slid over to help leaving Sidney Crosby all alone back door. #59 made a great feed to #87 and Sid buried it.

That gave the Pens a 3-2 lead going into the third period, but Washington dominated that frame, outshooting the Penguins, 10-3. Still, Pittsburgh seemed to have the upper hand given they were at home, but speaking of hands, a Niskanen unscreened point blast after a nice D to D pass from Orlov eluded Matt “Glitchy Glove” Murray and went into the net just 5:06 into the period. That goal seemed to really take the starch out of Pittsburgh and the Capitals continued to amp their play up.

The Caps were storming the castle, but on a few occasions they got caught up in a rush game in the third period with the Pens and Holtby bailed them out once by stopping Brian Dumolin on a breakaway with a sweet toe save. Pittsburgh also somehow didn’t connect on a couple of three on two opportunities before Ovechkin’s magical goal. In the remainder of this series, the Capitals have to really make sure they keep a third forward high in the offensive zone so that the Pens can’t feast on their stellar rush game.

Overall, this was a crazy contest. The zebras, Francois St. Laurent and Kevin Pollock, as expected called a lot of penalties early on. In the first two periods each squad received four man advantage situations and both teams connected once. Through 40 minutes the difference was the Crosby goal at four on four. Things got a bit out of control in period two as the Penguins were going after Tom Wilson after Willy knocked Zach Aston-Reese out of the game and the series with a broken jaw on a clean shoulder to shoulder hit. This was all physics as Wilson is six foot four and Aston-Reese is four inches shorter. #46 was also crouching as he ran into Wilson, who was gliding on his skates upon impact.

In the final frame, there were no penalties called and five on five situations seem to favor the Capitals. Washington outworked the Penguins in the last 20 minutes and Murray’s struggles in net yielded the tying goal. #30 had no chance on the game winning goal as the Pens were gambling to take the lead and Olli Maatta got caught at the offensive blue line. Backstrom found another gear and beat Kris Letang badly to set up the Gr8 for the game winner.

The last two springs, the Penguins have surged to a 3-1 series lead and have won in six and seven games, respectively. This year, Pittsburgh will have to win game four to tie the series up on Thursday night. They’ll have to do it with a goaltender that appears to be having some struggles, as well.

Notes: Dumolin, who was injured throwing his head into Wilson’s shoulder pads in game two, looked fine in game three. Evgeni Malkin returned to the Pittsburgh lineup after missing three games and logged 19:07. He was -2 on the night, but did have an assist…Crosby had a goal and an assist in 20:41. He was not on the ice much of the game against Backstrom since Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan had the last change…Carlson played a game high 29:17 and had four shots on goal. He’s a big game player and performs extremely well against the Pens…Connolly was bumped down to the fourth line and played just 6:42. Jakub Vrana was moved up and played fairly well in 10:41 of ice time…the Penguins creamed the Caps in face-offs, 36-23, but Jay Beagle won two big draws in the final minute to help seal the deal for Washington…shots on goal were even at 22 as were shot attempts (48 each)…Wilson had a game high nine hits. Game four is Thursday at 7 pm from Pittsburgh.

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Oshie Pens

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Caps Defeat the Pens, 3-1, to Clinch the Metro Division Title

Posted on 02 April 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin played in his 1,000th NHL game on Sunday night and his teammates made it a special one for him defeating the two time defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins in Pittsburgh, 3-1, to wrap up their third consecutive Metropolitan Division title. Philipp Grubauer made his first ever start against the Pens and he was outstanding making 36 saves. T.J. Oshie, Dmitry Orlov, and Tom Wilson scored for the Caps before Patrick Hornqvist tallied on a rebound with 3:45 remaining to end #31’s shutout bid.

The Caps final three games, at St. Louis on Monday night and then home against the Predators and Devils on Thursday and Saturday, respectively, are essentially meaningless from a standings perspective. Washington’s first round playoff opponent will be the first wildcard team and right now that situation is as clear as mud.

The triumph improves Coach Barry Trotz’ team to 47-25-7 (101 points), which is right in the 100 to 105 point range that I predicted before the season when many were losing their collective minds over General Manager Brian MacLellan’s offseason decisions. BMac knew what he was doing by focusing up the middle of the ice and the Capitals will now go into the post season for the fourth straight year in his tenure after the final disastrous season of the George McPhee era ended with Adam Oates as head coach back in 2014.

The following bullets are my thoughts and analysis on the win in Pittsburgh as we head into the final week of the NHL season (hey, it’s Masters week, too, so FORE!).

Stone Cold – There’s no doubt that the biggest reason the Penguins defeated the Caps in last season’s playoffs was due to the stellar play of Marc Andre-Fleury in net. On Sunday night, Grubauer took advantage of the start and seemed to really have the Penguins number. Granted the Pens played on Saturday night against Montreal, but Philipp was exceptional and earned the game’s number one star. Grubi stopped all 12 shots on goal the Penguins fired on their five power plays and he also got a nice break when Evgeni Malkin’s laser on a five on three advantage in period two hit iron. Luck is a part of the game and Washington had its share in this one. Crosby fanned on a shot in the third period that the German goaltender was able to glove. However, the Capitals had some great looks, too, that they didn’t get good wood on, including a couple of Ovechkin shots that he just couldn’t put up and over a prone Matt Murray (31 saves). The most important position in the post season is goalie and with Grubauer playing outstanding and Holtby rebounding into form, Washington has to feel strong about that spot for next week and beyond.

Starting Fast – The Capitals have not had many great starts this calendar year, but on Sunday on NBC Sports Channel, they came out well. Ovi nearly scored early in front, but Murray was able to stop it when Alex couldn’t get full control of the pass for one of his patented Gr8 shots. Washington kept pushing the pace though, and they gave the Pens a dose of their own medicine scoring on the rush. John Carlson got the puck up to Andre Burakovsky to give the Caps a three on two entering the offensive zone. Burkie then put a sweet pass on Oshie’s stick on the right wing side of the ice and the Osh Babe beat Murray five hole, like a rented mule, just 6:25 into the game. Getting the first goal was really important in this one because the Pens had played the night before and would need momentum plus the crowd for adrenaline. They would not receive that, pretty much all night.

Tactic Change – When Washington was in Pittsburgh on February 2nd, they found themselves in a track meet affair and lost, 7-4. Trying to play run and gun hockey with the Penguins is a recipe for disaster and the Caps proved it that night. This time, however, the Capitals made some adjustments to throttle the Pens rush game. Once they got ahead, instead of trying to chase the black and gold in the offensive zone, they backed out and clogged up the neutral zone passing lanes. It was a very 1990’s New Jersey Devils neutral zone trap style of hockey. As a result, the Pens were unable to utilize their stretch or flip passes once Coach Trotz’ team went into that configuration. The few odd man opportunities the Penguins received were the result of offensive zone turnovers. The Caps need to continue to clean those up, but they were certainly better structurally against Pittsburgh than they’ve been in the previous three 2017-18 regular season matchups.

Feeling Too Much Shame – If there was one thing to not like about Sunday’s game, it was the five penalties the Capitals took that put the Pens on man advantage situations. Pittsburgh has the best power play in the league and to gift them four of those opportunities was playing with fire. I didn’t like Chandler Stephenson’s hold, the too many men infraction, Matt Niskanen’s delay of game, and Ovechkin’s slash, they were unnecessary. The only penalty that occurred to negate a scoring chance was Tom Wilson’s on Malkin. #71 is a beast and he’s been on fire, so sometimes you have to break the rules to stop him. Fortunately Grubauer, Brooks Orpik (team high 5:57 of shorthanded time), Carlson, Niskanen, Lars Eller (4:04 of PK time) and the other forwards deployed while shorthanded did a great job. Hornqvist is an absolute force in front of the net and you need size to battle him to allow your goalies to see the shots. Orpik and Carlson had the lion share of that duty on Sunday.

Fly By Night – It’s no secret the highly skilled and talent Penguins love to RUSH the puck with their speed to create chances and as stated earlier, the Capitals throttled that primarily with a tactic change. In addition, however, they used the RUSH to their advantage, too. Washington’s second goal came eight seconds after a great penalty kill as Orlov skated up the middle of the ice and used the Pens defensemen as a screen. Dima shot from the slot and it beat Murray to make it 2-0 with 6:14 left in the middle frame. That goal seemed to really deflate the Penguins and their fans. It was a simple play by the Russian defensemen and the Caps continued to pour shots on Murray as they went up the ice once they had the lead. Too often the Capitals get into trouble by trying to be fancy at the offensive blue line, but on Sunday night they did what their coaches have asked of them, they put the puck on net or behind the opposing defensemen instead of trying to beat guys one on one. It was smart hockey, they generated 34 shots on net doing so, and the Penguins typically use that style as well as any team in the league. Hopefully Washington continues to play smart as they did on Sunday in the post season. The cross ice plays in April and beyond often end up getting you earlier tee times.

Bad Blood – Nobody likes to lose, but the Penguins got downright dirty at the end of this one. Hornqvist slashed Carlson and Orpik in frustration and the latter infraction earned him a late penalty that all but ended this contest. Malkin then went totally mental and interfered with Oshie in the neutral zone and sent his stick flying into the Caps bench. The Osh Babe took exception and got into it with Geno. With the linesman trying to send Malkin to the showers, #71 then went crazy trying to go after Evgeny Kuznetsov (1 assist). I’m sure #92 was giving him the business in their native Russian tongue, too. It was pretty clear the Pens were trying to set the tone for the next time these two teams could meet, which would likely be in round two. Even Mark “Hot Plate” Recchi found himself heading to the locker room early when the zebras kicked him out of the game for verbal abuse. It was a bad look for Mike Sullivan’s team and he’s no choir boy either.

The End – Officially, the game ended after the Penguins late hissy fit, but when Wilson deflected Niskanen’s shot past Murray just 23 seconds into period three to increase the score to 3-0, this game was pretty much over. Again, putting pucks at or towards the net with bodies going there is the way you win big hockey games. If Washington employs that style more often, the end of this season could be something special.

Notes: Jay Beagle suffered an upper body injury in period one and didn’t return. He only played 3:22 and Coach Trotz stated afterwards he’s probably not playing against the Blues…I’d like to see Oshie and Orpik get the night off, too. Those guys play a hard style so they need to be physically ready for next week. Both have missed games recently due to minor injuries, so it would be best to get both healthy…shot attempts were 59-57 for the Pens, but their edge primarily came from the power play. Washington was very good at five on five…both teams went 0 for 5 on the power play…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:58. Kris Letang played the most for Pittsburgh with 25:08…the Capitals lost the faceoff battle, 35-34, which wasn’t bad since Beagle was done in period one. Eller was 9-6 while Sidney Crosby went 16-9 for the home team…Devante Smith-Pelly led the Caps in hits with seven. He also logged 2:41 of shorthanded time with Beags out of the game…Ovechkin had eight shot attempts, including four on net, and four hits in 22:47 of ice time…Hits were 33-30 for the Caps.

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Ovi Sid GHog Day

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Eight Caps Thoughts After a GroundHog Day Loss in Pennsylvania

Posted on 03 February 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals wasted two goals and an assist from NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin on Friday night in a sloppy 7-4 defeat to the two time defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The loss drops the Caps to 30-16-5 (65 points) and they now lead the second place Pens by four points (29-21-3), but the Capitals have two games in hand.

Without further adieu, here are eight detailed thoughts on this game played on Groundhog Day at the Consol Energy Center.

Dana Carvey’d – Coming into this game, the Capitals knew they had a disadvantage in the special teams department and that’s how this one played out. The Pens went 3 for 4 with the man advantage while the Caps were a great big Dunkin Donuts hole, 0 for 3, with their power plays. “Well, isn’t that special!” to quote the great Saturday Night Live Church Lady. Pittsburgh’s penalty kill was very aggressive on Washington, although the Caps had seven shots on goal while up a man. On the flip side, the Penguins are just deadly and confident when they have the puck. Patrick Hornqvist, who left this game with a lower body injury after being crushed on a clean hit by Brooks Orpik, was a force in front of the net on the Pens third goal and all three power play tallies came on shots from in front, mostly on rebounds. With the contest 4-4 in the final frame, Lars Eller had a simple PK clear that he flubbed and the Penguins cashed in right after the turnover to seize momentum and pull away down the stretch. There’s no doubt that the difference in this contest was the special teams, and I’ll have more on the zebras later, don’t you worry!

Smoked at Texas Hold ‘Em – The Capitals are at their best when they go up and down the ice in a five man structured unit. If this was a poker game, the Caps ability to do that on Friday night could be labeled a flop! The Penguins do an excellent job at spreading the Caps out and Washington’s back end was very poor all night, too. There isn’t a single blue liner that I thought brought anywhere close to their A game in this affair. Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov were woefully out of position on Phil Kessel’s game opening goal, the ninth straight time Washington has allowed the first tally. On the second goal, Christian Djoos made a spectacular cross ice pass in his own zone to Carl Hagelin that Braden Holtby had little chance on. Rookie mistake there by #29 and to use the words from the bench boss in Major League, I hope Coach Barry Trotz or Assistant Coach Todd Rierden told the young blue liner, “Good try kid, but don’t ever bleeping do that again!” The right play there was to put the puck up the left wing boards quickly. There has been talk that Hagelin is on the trading block in Pittsburgh. The Caps have to certainly hope he’s moved because he’s killed Washington throughout the years whether he’s been with the Rangers or the Penguins. Finally, on Evgeni Malkin’s marker just a minute into period three, John Carlson stood prone in the slot like an orange road cone as Geno, who was an absolute beast in this game with two goals and two assists, shot on the Holtbeast and then in Moses Malone-like fashion, he buried the biscuit on the rebound. There were three Capitals there and no one boxed #71 out, but #74 deserves the most blame in that instance. Getting into a rush game with the Penguins was not wise given how fast and skilled they are and Washington might just need to switch up tactics if they meet up again in the playoffs. Wait a minute, it’s Groundhog Day, right?! Of course the Caps and Pens will see each other again, likely in early May. Caps stellar TV analyst Alan May pointed out that fire wagon hockey against the Penguins is not a smart decision and that a strategy of employing five men at the Caps defensive blue line to slow the Pens down and then counter attack, might be a configuration worth trying. The Capitals are a good rush team too, see Ovi’s first goal where he abused Kris Letang, but Washington is very poor in defending the rush. They tend to over pursue coming back, puck watch, and leave opposing players wide open for great looks. I’ve seen the stacked blue line deployment work very well in the past, the Flyers defeated a more talented and faster Capitals team in 1989 in the first round by doing just that (Pete Peeters also stunk in net for the Caps in that series, but that’s a story for another day).

No Seconds Guys – In game six of last season’s playoff series the line of Andre Burakovsky, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie dominated the Penguins to force a game seven. That second line unit, in the several times that Coach Trotz has assembled it this season, has been unable to reproduce its magic. The biggest problem, from what I’m seeing, is the terrible play of #65. His defensive zone is a train wreck. He’s too soft on the wall and his ability to take a breakout pass and get the offense going the other way has disappeared. In the two games since the All Star Break, he’s been a turnover machine and a big reason why is because his fundamentals are off. You can’t take a pass and get moving quickly the other way when you have your back to the opposing defensemen. You’re an easy mark there and your only options are lateral or backwards. Burakovsky has to move his feet better, get his rear facing the boards, and put his stick in the proper position with force to take a breakout pass. This line needs to be changed, pronto!

Ovechkin the Great – It’s been an MVP season for the Gr8 and as stated above, he had two goals and an assist in this one. His 32 goals lead Malkin, who’s playing some incredible hockey, by four in the Rocket Richard Trophy race. Alex how has 56 points (24 assists) and he has the highest percentage of his team’s goals in the NHL, which is why he’s the most valuable to his club. Ovi is playing with speed and power. He totally turned Letang around on the goal that got Washington back in this one at 2-1. He assisted on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s goal that knotted the game at three in period two as he and Tom Wilson just muscled their way through the Penguin defense. After more Malkin heroics, Ovechkin tied this game back up at four just under two minutes into period three when he buried a sweet feed from #92. No matter who Alex is paired with this season, he’s been delivering on the ice. He’s had a great campaign to date and the only thing that’s really gone against him off of it was that partisan hit piece that The Washington Post did on him and his long time, well established, and very understandable relationship with Vladimir Putin, but we know the Democracy Dies in Darkness crowd, whatever that saying is supposed to mean, has a bit too much Russia on their collective minds. But again, that’s another story. [Aside: Speaking of great Russia stories, have you ever seen Sean Connery as James Bond in From Russia With Love? Now that’s a good story involving Russia.] Bottom line, the cuddly Ovi came to play, once again, but a lot of other players didn’t bring a quality game in the Steel City on Friday night; too many passengers.

Reg Dunlop Time – With so many guys floating against the Pens, it’s time for Coach Trotz to go all Reg Dunlop and shuffle his lines around for Sunday’s matinee against the speedy Vegas Golden Knights. The Rock Vegas hockey club skated all over the Capitals back on December 23rd when Washington was on their 3rd game in four nights. Well, turnabout is fair play and the Vegas Strong crew will be having their 3rd match in less than four days on Sunday in DC. Vegas Coach Gerard Gallant stated that “For the first time all season, we looked like a tired hockey team” (h/t to the great Vegas Golden Knights Twitter account) after his club lost 5-2 in Minnesota on Groundhog Day. Vegas has been traveling across the country all week. They rallied with three goals to beat Calgary on Tuesday, beat the Winnipeg Jets in OT on Thursday, and were run out of the Excel Energy Center on Friday. The Caps must jump on these guys with speed up front at Capital One Arena on Sunday at 12:30 pm. My proposed lines to try and get things going early are:

Ovechkin – Backstrom – Wilson

Jakub Vrana – Kuznetsov – Oshie

Brett Connolly – Eller – Burakovsky

Chandler Stephenson – Jay Beagle – Devante Smith-Pelly

Hung Out to Dry – Holtby has been stellar for the Caps this season and he made some huge saves early in this tilt just to keep the Caps in it. Braden gave up six lamp lighters and was pulled in period three, but the only one I thought he probably should have had was the sixth goal by Phil Kessel (two goals, one assist). The snipe beat the Holtbeast short side, but that was on a three on two and #81, next to Ovi, might have the second best shot in the league. So let’s cut Holtby some slack, although Caps Nation is very well known for overreacting on Twitter after losses, because the skaters in front of him had no real regard for defense in this affair outside of a few players (Ovi and Willy were good in all zones on Friday).

Burrito Salesmen – With a special teams game something the Capitals did not want to get into, those who follow me on Twitter (@EdFrankovic) knew that this was going to be a poorly officiated affair. By no means do I put this loss on the referees, the Caps were too loose and employed the wrong style to come out on top on Friday, but the performances by Chris Rooney and Tim Peel were terrible. Two of the Penguins power plays were the wrong calls, the clean hit by Wilson on a falling Ian Cole and Madison Bowey’s tripping penalty that was initally interference on the Penguins. The clowns on ice also missed several other infractions against the Penguins (for example, Burakovsky taking a stick from Cole to the face). Power plays were 4 to 3 for the Pens. Yes, the lazy offensive zone penalties by both Backstrom and Stephenson were spot on, but I don’t know what color the moon is on Rooney Tunes and Peel’s planet most nights they officiate games? Simply put, those two zebras remind me of a line from Damone in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, “I came this close to working at the 7-11.” In this case, both of those fools should be putting chili on hot dogs, microwaving burritos, and slinging slurpees at the local quick stop or 7-11. They are just awful at refereeing.

The Fabulous Thunderbirds Finish – Overall, despite all of the bad things the Caps did in this affair, it was not such a bad loss. Yes, they were sloppy and unstructured, but they battled back from 2-0, 3-1, and 4-3 deficits to put themselves in position to win the game when they didn’t have many guys clicking. There is a lot of talent on this Caps club, much like we see the Penguins display; and they are a great hockey team, but the three goal margin was not indicative of how close this contest really was, it could’ve gone either way. Nobody likes losing to one of their arch rivals, but its only game 51 out of 82. The playoffs are two and a half months away and things will change before these teams meet again in late April/early May. Washington will no doubt add a blue liner, I just can’t see this organization relying very heavily on two rookies and being successful in the post season. Plus, I’m sure Mario Lemieux and company will go all Don Corleone and offer a sucker team a deal that they can’t refuse that will bolster their squad while keeping them under the salary cap. But it’s all good and both teams badly want to win. Losing isn’t fun, especially when the Caps have become Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, losing to Pittsburgh so often. But that movie has a happy ending, so just maybe?! This was a fun game to watch, but a coach’s nightmare with the lack of structure. You have to take the bad with the good, so with that, wrap this one up, I’ll take it! I’ve got no choice.

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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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