Tag Archive | "Malkin"

The Caps failed to score a goal all weekend and remain in 9th place in the Eastern Conference.

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Lost Weekend for Caps

Posted on 04 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Heading into the weekend the Washington Capitals were riding a three game winning streak after victories over the Canadiens, Leafs, and Islanders. On the docket were the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers, two clubs fairly firmly entrenched in the top eight of the Eastern Conference. With both games at home, a place where the Caps have a good record, these tilts seemed to be a prime indicator of whether or not Washington could move up the standings to make a strong push for a playoff position.

With the results now in, it is apparent the Capitals are in big trouble after 5-0 and 1-0 defeats at the Verizon Center. Washington is now in 9th place, just a point behind Winnipeg and the Caps have a game in hand, but when you don’t score you can’t win. In addition, Tampa Bay has caught fire and now trail the Caps by just a point. Buffalo is also a single point behind and the Leafs and Islanders are two and four, respectively. To quote an old Far Side cartoon, “WARNING: OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.”

With Steven Stamkos pouring in the goals (now at 47 and counting) and the Caps struggling to score, it is pretty apparent that with each passing game this club is getting closer to golfing come April 9th. It has been well chronicled here in this blog that the Capitals have big problems up the middle of the ice that have been magnified by the injury to Nicklas Backstrom. On Friday against New Jersey that could not have been more evident as smaller forwards Mathieu Perreault, Marcus Johansson, and Keith Aucoin made gaffes that led to Devils tallies. When Dale Hunter is forced to play numbers 85 and 90 for 35 plus minutes a game there is little margin for error for the Caps to get a victory. Both are smaller centers and no NHL defensemen is going to be afraid of being hit by them when they are moving the puck out of their own end. Thus the Caps receive fewer o-zone turnovers and have to work harder to get the puck back when those guys are on the ice. In addition, their size makes it difficult for them in defensive zone coverage. Johansson and Perreault have roles, but the ones they are being asked to fill now are simply too much for their abilities.

On Sunday night, Johansson’s man tipped the puck home for the only tally, although in fairness to number 90, Alexander Ovechkin lolligagged it out to the point allowing Pavel Kubina to find Eric Wellwood in front for the re-direct. The Gr8 would pay for that lack of effort and sit most of the remainder of the second period. In the third period he appeared to take Hunter’s message in the right way and was a force. Unfortunately when he has no true offensive center it is easy for the defense to cover him and he was blanked along with his teammates. Ovechkin did have several quality chances in that final frame, but he needs to play like that every shift from here on out if Washington wants to make the post season.

Michal Neuvirth, who might not have started had Tomas Vokoun been healthy (day to day), was excellent in goal and the Wellwood tally couldn’t be hung on him. But the margin of error for the Caps is so small right now so Neuvy gets another loss when he deserved better.

There is no way around this right now, the Caps are a flawed team and that is made worse with Nicklas Backstrom out. Too much is being asked of Johansson and Perreault due to the lack of depth at center. What makes things even worse is that Ovechkin has been unable to regain his dominant form from the pre 2010 Olympic break. The Gr8 has not been so great and the Capitals need him to be to make the playoffs. He needs to do whatever he can to change things on and off the ice so that when he plays these last 17 games he is highly effective. Great players find ways to adjust their game and get better. Larry Bird used to talk about developing a new move every offseason because he knew teams would adjust to what he was doing previously. Defenses have figured out how to slow Ovechkin down. Some of that is on the personnel around him, but most of it falls squarely on #8. He needs to reach down deep and do whatever he can to change things down the stretch, otherwise he is going to hear criticism like he’s never heard before, and many of it coming from the local area for perhaps the first time in his career.

Notes: Despite Sunday’s loss Jay Beagle, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Karl Alzner, Dmitry Orlov, Jason Chimera, Mike Knuble, and John Carlson played their rears off but the team just can’t finish right now…Ilya Bryzgalov made 34 saves for the Flyers in the Sunday shutout….the Caps play Carolina on Tuesday and Tampa on Thursday at the Verizon Center. Pretty safe to say they need to win both games otherwise you can cue up “Trouble” by Lindsey Buckingham.

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Pens win

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Undermanned Caps Turn in Strong Effort

Posted on 22 January 2012 by Ed Frankovic

NBC decided to put the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins on national television this Sunday afternoon ahead of the NFL Championship games and as usual, they got a dandy between two clubs that respect each other, but flat out can’t stand one another.

Sure there was no Sidney Crosby, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, or Jordan Staal due to injuries, but Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, the top two picks in the 2004 NHL Entry draft, repsectively, put on an absolute show. Both had three points (1 goal, 2 assists) and finished plus three in the game, but it was Malkin who had the winner in overtime for Pittsburgh, in a 4-3 thriller.

Washington also played without center Marcus Johansson so coach Dale Hunter had to go to his first aid kit and bandage a lineup together. In the first period, it wasn’t working so well as the Pens raced out to a quick 2-0 lead prompting many of us on Twitter to surmise that it was going to be a long day for the Capitals.

But give Hunter credit once again for some great in game adjustments, the most important of which was putting Mathieu Perreault between Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, and those three were the guys who got the Caps back in it, and also the lead for about six minutes in the third period. The Gr8 and Semin are super talents, but in hockey, to win, you need good centers who can get skilled wingers the puck. Center has been the Caps biggest problem this year (and it could be argued it was the last two years as well) and that issue is significantly magnified while Backstrom is out of the lineup. Throw in an ill Johansson and you get the disaster that was the first period.

Hunter’s first intermission moves panned out but also the players reached down and grabbed their you know whats and competed. Let’s be honest, Washington can’t stand to lose to Pittsburgh so they were going to do whatever it took to try and win. And they almost pulled it off too. Michal Neuvirth (23 saves) was very good in net despite taking the defeat.

Laich would play 27:57 and he, Karl Alzner (24:09), and Jeff Halpern (11:39) put on a penalty killing clinic late in period two, with the score knotted at two, when the Penguins had a 51 second two man advantage. Pittsburgh would score once on the power play to open the scoring but Washington killed all four other Pens manpower advantage situations.

Alzner had a strong game playing with Dennis Wideman (26:49) but the duo of John Carlson and Roman Hamrlik had an up and down contest drawing the Malkin line. Those two were on the ice for three of the four goals against while being on for two Caps markers. Hamrlik was the one who caused most of the problems as Pittsburgh exposed his weaker skating ability. #44 had been playing better under Hunter’s new system, but I felt that today was his poorest game since the former Caps captain took over and it was his mistakes that allowed Malkin to set up the game tying goal and then win this one in overtime.

At the end of the day though, this was an encouraging contest for Washington after an unbloggable loss in Carolina on Friday (3-0). Several guys stepped up, most notably Perreault and Laich, to try and fill the gap up the middle of the ice that is so glaring right now. Perreault certainly earned himself some more ice time with this performance and his offensive skill seems to be the best fit with Ovechkin and Semin right now with Backstrom out. Even if Johansson comes back on Tuesday, I’d still keep 85 there because he is more gifted offensively and the two big guns need a center who can handle and pass the puck.

So the Caps will play one more game on Tuesday, at the Verizon Center, against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins before taking the rest of the week away from the rink for the All Star Break. If they can find a way to win or at least get a point against a very good Boston team that would be huge.

The Caps need some rest to heal up, but they are still battling despite being undermanned, so today’s point in Pittsburgh was well deserved.

Notes: John Erskine, Cody Eakin, Jay Beagle, and Joel Ward all played less than 10 minutes of ice time. Hunter likes to go with the guys who are getting it done as evidenced by the large variance in playing time down the lineup…Semin and Perreault each had two points. 28 was +3 while Perreault went +2…James Neal had two goals for the Pens, both assisted by Malkin.

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The Caps get great goaltending from Tomas Vokoun to shut out the Penguins, 1-0.

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Beating Pittsburgh Always Sweet for Caps

Posted on 11 January 2012 by Ed Frankovic

It wasn’t textbook hockey and it certainly wasn’t pretty, but the Washington Capitals found a way to get a win over their archrival Pittsburgh Penguins at the Verizon Center on Wednesday night. Tomas Vokoun turned in a superb goaltending performance stopping 30 shots and Jason Chimera continued to march toward a career high in goals by notching the only tally in a 1-0 Caps victory, his 14th of the year.

With so many top players out of the game due to injury (Sidney Crosby, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Jordan Staal, and Kris Letang) combined with the short turnarounds these two teams faced (Caps took the redeye back from LA on Tuesday morning while the Pens played Tuesday night), it was no surprise that the game lacked energy and intensity in the first 40 minutes. The Penguins actually carried much of the play getting 10 more shot attempts and holding a 20-12 advantage in shots on goal. But the only thing that mattered was the scoreboard as Chimera scored after Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern forced Evgeni Malkin into a turnover at the Washington blue line.

Under coach Dale Hunter, the Capitals are focused on limiting or even better, eliminating, odd man rushes and although the Penguins had the shots advantage, they didn’t get any odd man breaks. The Caps did, and Chimera was able to go in one on one on Marc Andre-Fleury (19 saves) and he beat him with a quick shot. Washington’s 1-2-2 defense was mostly effective at keeping Pittsburgh to the outside and when the Penguins were able to penetrate it through the first two periods Vokoun was a wall in net.

In the third period the Caps found some energy and dominated the first 16 minutes. Alexander Ovechkin (0 points) was all over the ice setting up his teammates for chances and getting some of his own, but Fleury was brilliant to give his club a chance. Even though Pittsburgh basically threw the kitchen sink at the Caps in the final four minutes, the uptick in effort in that final frame was really needed from Hunter’s crew. In the previous two games against the Pens, which saw the teams split one goal contests, Pittsburgh was the more dominant team. So it was imperative for the Capitals to take over at that point, and again, if not for Fleury, Washington wins easily.

Still of concern to me though, is the Capitals struggles to find consistency coming out of their own zone. Clearly with #19 out the biggest weakness for Washington is up the middle of the ice. Brooks Laich, Marcus Johansson, Jeff Halpern, and Mathieu Perreault were tonight’s pivots and in my opinion, none of them are currently first or second line centers. Compounding the center problem is the wingers are making poor decisions with the puck which is leading to too many turnovers. Part of the issue for the defensemen are the forwards are simply not doing the little things to help them get the puck out and going in transition. It is a situation that led to numerous breakdowns out in California and the only way to fix the center/winger problem this year is a trade (or two) by General Manager George McPhee.

The Caps are clearly a different team at home and they’ve won seven of their last eight at the Phone Booth, outscoring their opponents 28-13. Fortunately for them they have three more games at the Verizon Center over the next six days with the Lightning on Friday, the Hurricanes Sunday, and the Islanders on Tuesday night. Wednesday night’s win puts the Caps in just eighth place in the Eastern Conference so it is very important that they rack up more points on this stay in DC. The Capitals have struggled mightily on the road and they still have four games scheduled against the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins, who look even better this year than last. So it isn’t going to get any easier schedule wise for the Caps after the next three tilts.

But for tonight, a win over Pittsburgh has to feel good, no matter how they got it. Good goaltending is the most important thing in hockey and Vokoun seems to be getting into a groove (I don’t put the left coast losses on him, at all). Now they just need to get the entire squad playing like they did for most of Wednesday’s third period on a more consistent basis.

Notes: Matt Hendricks only played 7:44 but had one of his better games of the season with a fight win over Craig Adams and a post hit…the Caps won the facefoff battle, 25-20, and Jeff Halpern went 10-2, including several big defensive draws late in the contest…the Penguins didn’t get a power play all night while Washington went 0 for 2 with the man advantage…Malkin was 3-11 on faceoffs…Ovechkin had 4 shots on net and 3 hits…Backstrom was put on IR retroactive to last week.

 

 

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Chris Kunitz

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Caps Fall Short Against Penguins, 2-1

Posted on 01 December 2011 by Ed Frankovic

Capitals versus Penguins usually brings out the best in both hockey teams and on Thursday night, that was the case for 40 minutes. But Chris Kunitz outworked Marcus Johansson in the Washington zone, John Erskine lost his balance then fell, and #14 shot a soft one by Tomas Vokoun (33 saves) for the game winner just 2:36 into period three and the Pens shut it down from there. The 2-1 victory for Pittsburgh is the Caps fourth straight loss and they fall to 12-11-1 overall. They are currently in 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings.

Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis of Pittsburgh’s first victory over the Caps in regulation since March of 2008:

– Washington played with a lot of energy in this one and Alexander Ovechkin had 10 hits as the Capitals out banged the Penguins 43-28. After two periods the shots were 25-15 in favor of the Pens, but the quality scoring chances were razor close at 12-11 in favor of the visitors (h/t Neil Greenberg, @ngreenberg on Twitter). It was a game that could’ve gone either way heading into the 3rd period but when Vokoun couldn’t stop a Kunitz knuckler, it allowed the Penguins to shut the game down in a style they are extremely good at playing.

“They had the lead, they didn’t have to do anything, they just chipped and chased and played safe,” said Caps Coach Dale Hunter on the Penguins third period tactics.

– Washington’s best period was the middle frame when they really got their forecheck going. The team was also a bit unlucky too as Nicklas Backstrom hit the crossbar on a great feed from Ovechkin that would’ve given the Caps the lead. The hard forecheck is something Hunter likes to do and Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma commented on it that afterwards.

“There’s about [the Capitals] that is scary with the skill that they bring. I thought today, especially starting in the second [period], they came at us hard and forechecked hard and were tough to handle that way. They were very aggressive on the forecheck and getting to the offensive zone; that might be something we haven’t seen,” said the Pens Stanley Cup winning bench boss.

“It’s pretty disappointing when you lose that kind of game…We just didn’t score on the chances we had. We hit the post, I missed an empty net and [Marc-Andre] Fleury made a couple of great saves, ” added Ovechkin.

– Chimera continues to play well and he now has 10 goals in 24 games, easily putting him on pace for a career high. #25 scored after Joel Ward outworked the Pens defender to the puck to wipe out a potential icing call. Those two, along with Brooks Laich, continue to form a super checking line. Unfortunately the Caps are having trouble finishing plays and that was a big reason they lost this one.

“It can’t be down the line. It’s got to be now. We got to get people stepping up and scoring some goals, doing the little things. It was a good game overall. They had a lot of shots but a lot of them were outside. It’s a tough way to lose, but we got that kind of effort, it’ll be better. We came out pretty good. If we keep effort like that, the wins will come,” said Chimera.

– Here’s Sidney Crosby’s numbers tonight: 20:21 of ice time, 3 shots on goal, 2 giveaways, 6-16 on face-offs and -1 overall. Nice work by Karl Alzner and the rest of the guys on #87, who had his five game points scoring streak halted. Sid the Kid had 4:17 of power play time but Washington did a great job of killing off the three Pittsburgh power plays. Hunter noted that he has stuck with Dean Evason’s plan on the penalty kill.

“I left it the same. I like aggressive, no time, no space. Dean’s (assistant coach Dean Evason) been doing it, so I left it with him, they had a good record last year. Just had a couple bad games this year out west but other than that, it’s been good.”

– At the end of the night, Caps fans are likely discouraged that they aren’t winning or scoring goals but if they continue to improve in their own end and keep up the energy level those will come. This team was really playing poorly and giving up lots of chances towards the end of Bruce Boudreau’s tenure so you can’t just flip a switch and turn it on. Bad habits die hard. What is concerning is the lack of speed in some areas. Hunter likes to play an aggressive system and you need speed to execute that. Some personnel tweaks may be needed and I’m sure the new coach and General Manager George McPhee will discuss it. The good news is the trading deadline is still nearly three months away (February 27th).

Notes: Congratulations to Boudreau on getting the Anaheim Ducks head coaching position…Washington buried the Pens at the faceoff dot, going 37-17. Backstrom was 14-2…Wideman led the Caps in ice time with 26:02. John Carlson logged 25:25 and Alzner (+1) had 21:35…Ovechkin played 19:22 while Alexander Semin only got 12:45. #28 played hard but he needs someone to get him the puck. Johansson is not cutting it as second line center right now…Greenberg had the final quality chance total at 19-14, meaning the Pens had a 7-3 advantage in the final frame…the Caps next game is Saturday night at home against the Ottawa Senators.

 

 

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Caps Beat Pens Thanks to Vokoun

Posted on 13 October 2011 by Ed Frankovic

When Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee signed Tomas Vokoun last July, there was a lot of talk about the Caps getting a goalie who could flat out steal games. Well on Thursday night in Pittsburgh, that is exactly what happened as Vokoun made 39 saves to lead the Capitals to a 3-2 overtime victory. Defensemen Dennis Wideman netted the game winner on Washington’s only power play of the contest after Penguins forward James Neal had tied this one up at two on the power play with 3:45 left in regulation.

Here are the highlights and analysis of a game that saw the Penguins dominate most of the contest:

– Michal Neuvirth likely would have had this start given his recent success against the Pens, but when he came down with a lower body injury that forced the Caps to recall Braden Holtby from Hershey today and give Vokoun the chance to get wins in consecutive starts. The 35 year old Czech delivered, building on his great OT and shootout performance in Monday’s 6-5 victory over Tampa Bay. Vokoun didn’t have to be spectacular but he was very solid and didn’t give the Penguins many second chances. If the Caps can improve their play in their own end, and they were pretty bad tonight, just think how good this goalie could be for this team?

– Evgeni Malkin had an outstanding game for Pittsburgh. His two cross ice seam passes set up James Neal’s two tallies. One of the reasons #71 was able to make those plays is because the Washington players were not playing positionally sound or smart in their own end. On the first goal, both Alexander Semin and Marcus Johansson chase the puck carrier leaving the back side open. In the first three games we’ve seen opponents exploit the Capitals habit of over chasing and/or watching the puck carrier. The Capitals have to learn to play better without the puck in their own zone and clog the passing lanes and not over commit. I imagine Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau and assistant coach Blaine Forsythe will be showing lots of video on Friday to try and correct these d-zone breakdowns.

– The Capitals players have talked about being the team with the better work ethic in every game. Tonight they were soundly defeated in that category. The Penguins out shot the Caps 12-3 in the first period and 18-3 in the third. It was only in the middle frame that the Capitals had the upper hand, outshooting Pittsburgh, 11-9. I am not sure why the Capitals were so flat early on but one of the reasons for the third period letdown was the Arron Asham-Jay Beagle fight. Beagle had just coincidentally knocked off the helmet of Kris Letang, which would earn him a roughing penalty, and Asham took exception calling on #83 to fight. Beagle, who is definitely not a fighter, but as he told me on media day last Thursday knows he will need to do so at times, was floored with a couple of rights and went to the ice bleeding. He had to be helped off of the rink afterwards but that didn’t stop Asham from making a couple of classless gestures. Asham admitted after the game that he got caught up in the moment, but still, to celebrate after knocking out a non-fighter was totally uncalled for. The fight clearly negatively impacted the Capitals, who had played 25 decent minutes of hockey in a row, since they struggled mightily the rest of the way until overtime.

– Alexander Ovechkin, after a subpar opening two games, made a difference in this one. He deflected in Green’s point shot early in the third period to give the Capitals a 2-1 lead and he drew the only penalty officially called on the Penguins in the game. That came in overtime when he faked Jordan Staal out of his jock in the neutral zone and #11 tripped the Gr8. On the 4 on 3 power play Green hit the right pipe but on the ensuing rush Wideman took a nice feed from Nicklas Backstrom (two assists) and buried it past former Capitals goalie Brent Johnson (16 saves).

– When you are outworked, you normally will find yourself on the short end of the stick in total number of power plays. The Penguins received five while Washington only had one, although I do think the Pens got away with a few things, especially some goalie interference by Chris Kunitz. In addition, Tyler Kennedy did hit Backstrom in the head in the third period, similiar to the Beagle shot on Letang, although #19’s lid stayed on so maybe it didn’t look so bad to the blurry eyed zebras? (Note: the referees initially waved off Ovechkin’s goal, they thought it hit the cross bar). It is hard to argue about the calls against the Caps, they were of the lazy or not too smart variety. Brooks Laich’s cross check on Malkin came after a failed clear. What made that situation even worse was that Green already had lost his stick so what the Caps should’ve done was ice the puck.  Instead they got running around and eventually found themselves shorthanded. The last penalty though, on Troy Brouwer, might have been the worst. The Caps were up a goal and he needlessly hauled down a Pens player in the neutral zone. That one ended up allowing Neal to tie the game. Brouwer did make a nice play on Ovechkin’s goal, he was in front of Johnson battling with Zbynek Michalek providing traffic.

– In summary, the Caps were fortunate to win this contest and move to 3-0. Washington has been playing with fire by going to extra time in each tilt and they have had some very poor play in their own zone. The good news though, is they are getting balanced production in their lineup and Boudreau is not having to put his big guns out on the ice for extended minutes. Green has already seen a reduction in his ice time and that should only keep him fresher and hopefully injury free.

Notes: Steve Whyno of The Washington Times tweeted that Asham had 83 career NHL fights while this was Beagle’s first…the Caps lost the faceoff battle 26-23 but Jeff Halpern went 6-2…Mike Knuble scored the Caps first goal by crashing the net hard…Karl Alzner had another strong game and picked up his third assist of the season…the Penguins were without Sidney Crosby, although he has been cleared for contact effective today, and defensemen Brooks Orpik…Washington is now 11-0-2 in their last 13 regular season games against Pittsburgh (h/t @SkyKerstein of DC’s 106.7 THE FAN)…next up for the Caps are the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night at the Verizon Center.

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2011-12 NHL Regular Season Preview

Posted on 05 October 2011 by Ed Frankovic

To some people, the National Hockey League season is just too long. For me, it can never come quick enough and once NFL play gets cranked up I become very enthusiastic knowing that the NHL season is right around the corner. On Thursday, October 6th, the NHL season officially gets underway with a VERSUS doubleheader as the Philadelphia Flyers take on the Boston Bruins at 7 pm  followed by the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Vancouver Canucks at 10 pm. For those with the Centre Ice package or living in Canada, the Montreal Canadiens will face the Toronto Maple Leafs at 7 pm from the Air Canada Centre.

In June, the Bruins defeated the Canucks to win Lord Stanley’s Cup by rallying from a three games to two deficit behind the stellar goaltending of Tim Thomas. If you read my 2010-11 pre-season predictions, you would know that I predicted that the Beantown goalie would have a comeback year. Little did I know he’d get his name on one of the most coveted trophies in all of sports. But before I get too cocky, I also brought you some worthless picks, like choosing the New Jersey Devils to win the Atlantic Division or the Calgary Flames to make the playoffs. In the immortal words of one Arthur Fonzarelli…I was wrrrrrrrrrrong.

So without further adieu, here are my 2011-12 NHL regular season rankings by conference. Please note that this does not mean I pick both #1 seeds to reach the Stanley Cup Finals, it only means I am choosing that team to get the #1 seed in the regular season.

Eastern Conference

1. Washington Capitals – The two time defending Eastern Conference regular season champion Caps didn’t click on all cylinders last year and despite several important injuries, such as the concussion to Mike Green, they still managed to win the East. GM George McPhee was extremely busy this offseason adding goalie Tomas Vokoun, defensemen Roman Hamrlik and forwards Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, and Jeff Halpern. This team is suddenly more equipped to compete in the post season. In addition, the players all realize that they can’t blow off the regular season like they did last year, to some extent, and should be more focused on trying to peak their game for April and beyond.

2. Buffalo Sabres – Expecting the Bruins here? Not so fast. I am counting on the Stanley Cup hangover combined with an aggressive off season by the Sabres to put Buffalo atop the Northeast Division. Coach Lindy Ruff will rely on goalie Ryan Miller in net but Jhonas Enroth has shown that he can be a backup that allows the former Michigan State star to not play so many games. GM Darcy Regier brought in offensive minded defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and he overpaid for forward Ville Leino at 6 years for $27M. But Buffalo has a super goal scorer in Tomas Vanek and a crew of other solid forwards.

3. Pittsburgh Penguins – Evgeni Malkin is back and NHL’s Network’s EJ Hradek has already declared him as his choice for the Hart and Art Ross trophies, this despite coming off of major knee surgery. It remains to be seen how “Geno” holds up during the season but what is really to like about the Pens is their goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, and a superb defense. If Sidney Crosby is able to return at some point, the Penguins become the favorites in the East to win the Cup. But Sid is still not cleared for contact, even in practice, so who knows when he will return?

4. Tampa Bay Lightning – Head Coach Guy Boucher did a masterful job of taking this team one win away from the Stanley Cup Finals. Steven Stamkos received big money and d-man Victor Hedman continues to improve. Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier are both a year older but #26 brings it every night while #4 is not as consistent. The Bolts are going with Dwayne Roloson in net again and he is older than dirt. Will he hold up? If so, it should be a great season at the St. Pete Times Forum.

5. Boston Bruins – The Bruins partied all summer on TV with Lord Stanley and earned their multiple parades. The question now is how much do they have in the tank for the upcoming season? Thomas is now 37 years old on a team that relied heavily on its goaltending and defense. The good news is 19 year old Tyler Seguin should be even better as a sophomore.

6. New York Rangers – Coach John Tortorella, after his club lost to the Caps in the first round in April, pointed out that his club still was not there yet, from a talent perspective. So Rangers GM Glen Slather went out and inked center Brad Richards to a monster contract. The former Conn Smythe award winner will help a club that struggles to score goals and generate offense, but he did miss time with a concussion last season so there are health concerns there. Henrik Lundqvist continues to be one of the best goalies in the NHL and who can argue with the work ethic of Ryan Callahan up front? The biggest question is will Marian Gaborik have a good year or become a fading star?

7. New Jersey Devils – Martin Brodeur is now 39 years old, that is a major concern for a guy who, at times last year, looked like father time was starting to catch up with him. Zach Parise is back and wearing the “C” after missing almost the entire season due to a serious knee injury. 18 year old Adam Larsson (4th overall pick in 2011 NHL entry draft) brings some much needed mobility to the Devils blue line and former Kitchener Rangers and Florida Panthers coach Peter DeBoer is the new bench boss. Can he get Ilya Kovalchuk to produce like Jacques Lemaire did during the second half of last season?

8. Montreal Canadiens – Carey Price had a great season in the cage in 2010-11 and I look for him to have another strong year. Still, this team is small up front but they did add Erik Cole from Carolina and he plays a fast game. If Andrei Markov can stay healthy the Canadiens should make the playoffs. If not, they will hit the links at Royal Montreal once it opens up its’ gates in the spring.

9. Philadelphia Flyers – After trading for the rights to Ilyz Bryzgalov Flyers GM Paul Holmgren declared that the Russian goaltender was his final piece of the puzzle. Holmgren, however, forget that he had to sign the expensive net minder to a contract and then realized in order to do that he had to break up his club to stay under the salary cap. He moved Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, his top two centers, to Los Angeles and Columbus, respectively. In return he received up and coming center Jakub Voracek and former first round draft choice, Brayden Schenn (who isn’t NHL ready yet, IMO). The biggest laugh came when they signed Jaromir Jagr to a deal. #68 is a guy that reportedly is happier when he isn’t playing. I see bad things arising for the Flyers.

10. Carolina Hurricanes – Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner, and Cam Ward will carry this team a long way but they just don’t have enough firepower and talent on defense to sneak into the post season. How long does Paul Maurice last as the head coach?

11. Toronto Maple Leafs – The Leafs haven’t figured out yet that you need to really stink to get better and every spring they win just enough games to come close to making the playoffs while ruining their draft position. It also hasn’t helped that the GM traded two of those high picks to the Bruins. I like Dion Phaneuf, the Flames should not have moved him, but Phil Kessel is inconsistent and Tim Connolly, their big ticket free agent acquisition, seems to always get injured. Coach Ron Wilson sure likes to hear himself talk though. If they beat the Habs on Thursday they should party on Yonge Street before the losses start to mount.

12. Ottawa Senators – Craig Anderson is a good goalie and Erik Karlsson and Jared Cowen are up and coming young defensemen but it will be a long year for one of the good guys, GM Bryan Murray.

13. Winnipeg Jets – The excitement of moving and being the big stars in town will help the former Thrashers get off to a decent start but the travel schedule will eventually catch up to them. Evander Kane is a tough and emerging power forward but Zach Bogosian has not lived up to the expectations on defense.

14. Florida Panthers – GM Dale Tallon had success in Chicago and is a likeable person, but he spent too much money on a boat load of floaters. This franchise really needs to hope they can build through the draft.

15. New York Islanders – They picked up 36 year old Evgeni Nabokov in net in case Rick DiPietro gets hurt again (and he will), but it will be tough stopping pucks behind that defense. John Tavares will be in his third year and needs to step up. Can the speedy Michal Grabner repeat his great season from last year? Teams will be focused on him more in 2011-12 so it will be tougher.

Western Conference

1. Vancouver Canucks – Despite playing a long season and losing in the final game, I expect this talented squad to come back and win the West. The Sedin twins continue to shine. Missing Ryan Kesler (shoulder surgery) until at least November doesn’t help though. It will be interesting to see if Roberto Luongo can regain his form after playing so poorly in game six of the Stanley Cup Finals. The Northwest division, which used to be really strong, now stinks so the Canucks will pile up points en route to the number one seed.

2. San Jose Sharks – GM Doug Wilson’s club may be the best in the West but they are in the toughest division in the conference. The additions of Brent Burns and Martin Havlat should help while losing Dany Heatley could be addition by subtraction. For some reason Heatley just didn’t pan out in San Jose.

3. Detroit Red Wings – It is hard to pick against one of the best run franchises in all of sports, especially with Nicklas Lidstrom back for another year and Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetteberg still on the roster. The Brian Rafalski retirement will hurt on the blue line, though.

4. Chicago Blackhawks – With Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Marian Hossa up front, this club is strong on talent. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook log a lot of minutes on defense and comprise one of the best d-pairs in the league. Corey Crawford looks to be the guy in net. Will their role players produce this year? If so, they can play with anyone in the league.

5. Los Angeles Kings – Drew Doughty received a long term contract (8 years at a total of $56M), like the Kings brass wanted, and now the pressure is on the d-man to deliver a deeper playoff run for LA. With so many ex-Flyers working in the Kings organization (Ron Hextall, Terry Murray, and John Stevens), it made sense for the embattled center to land on the left coast. He should do well there and a young Kings team should be even better with another year of experience under their belt. It is time for them to move into the NHL’s elite.

6. Anaheim Ducks – The best line in hockey (Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, and Corey Perry) will carry this team to the playoffs again. The big question is whether goalie Jonas Hiller can return to form after his concussion like symptoms from last season? Sophomore Cam Fowler must improve in his own end this season.

7. Nashville Predators – Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are arguably the best d-pair in the league and Pekka Rinne is a big goalie that is difficult to beat. Mike Fisher, aka Mr. Carrie Underwood, and David Legwand are two good centers for a club that typically plays low scoring games. Barry Trotz is one of the best coaches in the league. Music city is a fun town and has a good hockey team, on a low budget.

8. Calgary Flames – GM Jay Feaster has turned the attitude around in the organization and he made some big changes this summer, like shipping out main stay d-man Robyn Regehr and often injured forward Daymond Langkow, but goalie Mikka Kiprusoff and captain Jarome Iginla still are around and run this team. Jay Bouwmeester has a big contract but has never made the playoffs, will that change this season?

9. St. Louis Blues – I like many of their young players, especially center Patrik Berglund and defensemen Alex Pietrangelo. The trade to bring in Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk for Eric Johnson was a good one, but will it lead to a post season position? Only if Jaroslav Halak returns to the form he had in the 2010 playoffs

10. Columbus Blue Jackets  – Acquiring Carter from the Flyers should help take some of the heat off of Rick Nash but what this team really needs is goalie Steve Mason to return to the form that put his club in the post season in 2008-09. The franchise desperately needs to make the playoffs this year after missing the last two seasons.

11. Dallas Stars – Marc Crawford is gone as coach so that is a step in the right direction, but this club lost center Brad Richards and has ownership issues, which almost always creates a distraction. The roster is full of middle of the road players.

12. Minnesota Wild –  GM Chuck Fletcher has to be feeling some pressure to produce in his 3rd year in the position. He went out and acquired Heatley, who came nowhere close to expectations in San Jose. Niklas Backstrom is a super goalie but his defense leaves a lot to be desired.

13. Edmonton Oilers – Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are the last two number one overall picks in the NHL draft and have enormous potential. The Oilers also have Ales Hemsky, Ryan Smyth, Jordan Eberle, and Shawn Horcoff as solid forwards. Their defense is not very good and goaltending is a huge issue..

14. Colorado Avalanche – The Avs put a lot of stock into Semyon Varlamov, who has shown flashes of brilliance but never stayed healthy for a lengthy period of time. They likely gave up a lottery pick in trading with the Caps for the young Russian goalie. JS Giguere was also signed and he can help in goal when Varly is hurt. Erik Johnson anchors the defense and 18 year old Gabriel Landeskog, the 2nd overall pick in the NHL draft, will get a lot of attention. Matt Duchene enters his third season and has a chance to be an elite player in the league.

15. Phoenix Coyotes  –  Dave Tippett is a great coach but without Bryzgalov, he can’t work miracles. Some young players need to step up for this club to have any chance. The ownership woes are like a black cloud over this team. Will they stay in Phoenix?

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Caps Neuvirth Blanks Pens Again

Posted on 22 February 2011 by Ed Frankovic

No Sidney Crosby, No Evgeni Malkin, No Mike Green, No Tom Poti, No Paul Martin, etc..it doesn’t matter, it’s the Capitals and Penguins and these two teams despise each other so everyone knew that the VERSUS game of the week was going to be can’t miss action on Monday night, and both teams delivered. Michal Neuvirth, who was called “Shaky” by Pens Coach Dan Bylsma back in December during the HBO 24/7 series, stopped 39 shots to blank the Penguins for the second straight game. I imagine the Penguins 2009 Stanley Cup winning coach is regretting ever uttering those words now because Neuvy OWWWNNNSSS the Pens!

The victory for Washington, which completes a 10 day road trip at 3-2, gives them a 3-0-1 record against their archrivals this season and improves the team to 32-19-10 (74 points). They trail the Tampa Bay Lightning by a single point in the Southeast Division race but the Bolts have two games in hand.

Here are the highlights and analysis from an intense hockey game that was decided by an Alexander Ovechkin power play goal:

– The Caps won tonight, but let’s be honest, they did not play very well overall. They were severely outworked by what some may call an AHL team in the first period and as a result were shorthanded three times to just one for Pittsburgh in that stanza. In the second frame they came out and took the play to the Penguins and grabbed the lead on Ovechkin’s rocket. Washington had the better personnel on the ice tonight with all of the injuries for both teams but hard work will even things up quickly, and that is what happened on Monday night. In the third period, the Pens outshot the Caps 14-3, but many of those were from the perimeter as the Capitals were employing their defensive scheme that is working and frustrates the opposition. Overall the shots were 39-24 in favor of Pittsburgh, with the Caps winning the middle period, 14-7 and 1-0 on the scoreboard, which was the final tally.

– As I mentioned above, the Capitals had the better talent with guys like Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Nicklas Backstrom on the ice. The Great #8 turned in a hard working performance while the other two did not play well. Backstrom did have a big shot block in the closing seconds but he just doesn’t look like the strong on the boards and confident #19. I wonder if that shoulder injury he suffered last spring is still a factor or perhaps it is holding back his ability to gain upper body strength because he just doesn’t look like the same elite player? I am a big Backstrom fan and I’d like to be wrong on that analysis and hope that #19 is simply saving himself for the playoffs, but still, his recent play is a concern for me right now. As for Semin, I am not sure he broke much of a sweat in 17 minutes of hockey. He routinely turned the puck over in the offensive zone with too many moves and he was not physical at all along the wall like he can be when he puts his mind to playing hockey.

– But when Neuvirth is playing as well as he did tonight, it doesn’t matter. #30 was outstanding and he controlled the Penguins shots giving up very few rebounds. His positioning was superb as well. In addition, his defensemen were very good in front of him by letting their net minder see the shots or if that was going to fail, blocking them. I thought Jeff Schultz, Scott Hannan, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson were really good on the back end tonight and they had to be. Each played over 21 and a half minutes as Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau wisely did not put the John Erskine and Tyler Sloan duo out too often (played 12:12 and 11:29, respectively).

– Up front Boudreau got a really solid game from rookie Marcus Johansson, who had the first assist on the Ovechkin power play tally (Mike Knuble had the other helper). MJ90, who is only 20 years old, will occassionally get taken off the puck fairly easily due to his youth and lack of size. However, he is finding a way to fight through that and make a difference. He is a guy who the Caps bench boss is not afraid to put out in his own zone in a close game, which the same cannot be said for Mathieu Perreault (only 8:09 of ice time, but he did get banged up early on too in this one). I don’t think Johansson is a 2nd line center right now and certainly not the guy there for the playoffs, but he can be effective on the 3rd line, provided he still has something left in the tank after this long rookie regular season, which is his first on North American rinks (Sweden has larger rinks and therefore, less contact).

– Boudreau made a very wise move using his timeout with just over 16 minutes left in the third period as his club was running around in their own end and had just iced the puck. After that the Capitals gave up some shots, but not many quality chances as they were content to get the puck to the red line and dump it deep. With that strategy a depleted Penguins lineup had to bring it the length of the ice to score, and they couldn’t do that leaving the fans at the CONSOL Energy center with nothing to cheer for on the evening, other than perhaps a Ryan Craig-Matt Bradley fight, but from my vantage point, #10 defeated the Pens call up in the bout. Craig went after Bradley after the Caps winger absolutely PASTED cheap shot artist Matt Cooke into the right wing boards in period two.

– In summary, this was a win at the end of a long road trip that solidifies the Capitals as a playoff team. Now it is all about positioning in the standings as well as waiting to see what General Manager George McPhee will do to improve the squad before next Monday’s trade deadline (2/28 at 3pm).

Notes: The Caps lost the face off battle 36-33 (Backstrom 13-17)…the Caps thwarted all three Pittsburgh power plays and scored on one of their three. However, before the Great #8’s laser, the Pens had two good shorthanded chances, including a Jordan Staal breakaway…DJ King was a late addition to the lineup because the scrappy Matt Hendricks was out sick (thanks to the awesome WashingtonCaps.com beat writer, Mike Vogel). King played only 4:25 but on one of his early shifts, he and his linemates at the time, Dave Steckel and Bradley, had two good chances to score…Ovechkin had 8 shots on goal, 10 that were blocked, and he threw four hits…the Pens traded d-man Alex Goligoski to the Dallas Stars today for winger James Neal and blue liner Matt Niskanen. I give the Penguins a strong edge in that move…next up for the Caps are the New York Rangers on Friday night at 7pm at the Verizon Center. The Rangers are 2-1 against Washington this year with their last victory coming right before the All Star Break in the gimmick.

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Not So “Shaky” Caps Neuvirth Blanks Pens, 3-0

Posted on 06 February 2011 by Ed Frankovic

During the Capitals-Penguins game back on December 23rd at the Verizon Center, Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma was captured on camera by HBO in their superb 24/7 series as saying that Michal Neuvirth was “shaky.” Well Bylsma’s crew may have won that contest, 3-2, in an extended shootout, but as they say, revenge is a dish best served cold. On Super Bowl Sunday at a sold out and rowdy Verizon Center, Neuvirth (22 saves) and his teammates ICED the Pittsburgh Penguins, 3-0, in the second straight strong team performance from the Caps. Brooks Laich, Marcus Johansson (shorthanded), and Mike Knuble (empty net goal) scored for Washington, who improved to 29-15-10 (68 points) and remain three points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Southeast Division race. The Caps are a comfortable 10 points ahead of the ninth place Atlanta Thrashers in the Eastern Conference standings and they have a game in hand on Atlanta. The top eight teams in each conference qualify for the postseason.

Below are the highlights, quotes, and analysis from the Caps eighth straight victory on Super Bowl Sunday at the Verizon Center (Washington is 14-3-1 since 1988 on the NFL’s biggest day):

– It was important for Washington to follow up a 60 minute Friday night winning effort in Tampa with another strong showing. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau received all of that in this contest’s first 30 minutes as Washington raced out to a 2-0 lead and held a dominating 17-8 advantage on the shots board. For the next 14 plus minutes the Capitals would skate hard and deliver a strong effort, however, their hockey IQ was not good at all. Time after time during that stretch Washington had opportunities for quality chances yet they continued to over pass the puck and failed to get off any good shots on Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (21 saves). In fact, from the 9:55 mark of the second period until 4:24 into period three the Caps did not register a single shot on goal. Nicklas Backstrom tried forcing a pass on a two on one rush and Boyd Gordon attempted to pass the biscuit across the slot when he was all alone on #29 were two specific examples of numerous instances during that stretch when a shot on net may have led to a three goal lead. Boudreau’s crew seemed to forget, like they did when up 2-0 on Montreal on Tuesday evening, that the simple hockey strategy of getting pucks deep and to the net were what gave them the lead in those games. Afterwards, Washington defenseman Karl Alzner talked about what the Caps did so well to get the two goal margin and then agreed that the club lost its focus for that shotless stretch before regrouping.

“I think it was just sticking to the system, we did everything the way we wanted to do it. We got pucks in, we didn’t have many turnovers at the offensive blue line, defensive blue line, and that’s what we need every single game. That’s two games back to back where we stuck to everything the coaches told us to do and we got good results,” said #27 on what is driving the team’s recent success.

“We started taking the foot off of the gas a little and they put on a bit of a push. When you have a lead sometimes the tendency is to make nice plays to try to get more points and more goals on the board and that is what was happening. We came back after the intermission and we’ve got a lot of guys who are thinking the right way now, just kind of focus back in together and turn it up again,” added Alzner when asked what happened during the last 10 minutes of the second period.

– Neuvirth, who found out on Saturday night that he possibly would be starting with Semyon Varlamov feeling sick, was poised in the cage and did a super job of not giving up juicy rebounds and he froze the puck when the Capitals occassionally started scrambling around in their own zone. He didn’t have to be spectacular because his teammates were willing to sacrifice their bodies to block shots but #30 was clearly determined to make Bylsma regret his in game comments from that pre-Christmas tilt.

“Of course. I watched every episode (of HBO’s 24/7), but this is hockey. It didn’t really bother me. But now I’m really happy that I shut them down. It’s even better for me right now. Before the game, I remembered when he said that and I kind of looked at him during the warm up and told myself that I got to shut these guys out tonight,” responsed the rookie goalie, who earned his second shutout of the season and NHL career, when asked about Bylsma’s 24/7 captured comments.

– The Caps did right the ship during those last 15 minutes of period three by getting back to dumping the puck deep and forcing a depleted Pittsburgh squad, that was without Sidney Crosby (concussion) and likely Evgeni Malkin for the season (torn ACL and MCL in his knee), to try and go through all five Capitals to score. Washington, who was also missing Alexander Semin, Eric Fehr, and Tom Poti, plus lost top defensemen Mike Green for the last two periods due to a shot that hit him near the ear and required stitches, played their defensive system superbly and when guys like superstar Alexander Ovechkin are laying out on the ice to block slappers from the point, you know the team is committed to winning at all costs.

“It’s all about commitment. It’s a commitment to winning. You block shots, one of your teammates goes down, another one picks it up,” commented Boudreau on the excellent defensive effort.

 

– Washington’s power play, which went 0 for 4, did have several good chances to score on Sunday as the Capitals did a decent job of getting the puck between the dots at the top of the point and blasting away. Ovechkin had a few slappers that made their way to the cage and the Caps just missed banging home rebounds from in front. The Capitals had registered man advantage markers in their two previous games and Boudreau felt that this unit was good once again on Sunday.

 

“I thought we could have had three or four. Sometimes you just don’t get it in and you are playing against the league’s best penalty killing team. But we had good chances and bottom line there is Fleury made some great saves there in the end to keep it at two,” said Boudreau on his power play unit.

 

“It’s really tough, guys they sacrifice their bodies all of the time now. They block absolutely everything. So it’s difficult. That is why we are trying to move the puck, spread it out as much as we can and get shots. Nobody likes when we don’t shoot the puck, we can hear that, but sometimes you just can’t do it. You have to shoot it off to the side of the net there or make plays. It doesn’t always work out but you do what you can,” added Alzner when asked about the difficulty in today’s NHL of getting off center point blasts with the man advantage.

 

– There were no penalties called in the first period and with the majority of the action in the Caps offensive zone it was clear that referee Dave Jackson was going to let the teams play in front of him. I was fine with that and I imagine the players and coaches did as well. As for the other zebra, Paul Devorski, one of the worst officials in the league still needs to buy a clue. Specifically, the man who allowed the Flyers to score their first goal in game seven of their 2008 playoff series against Washington because Philly ran Caps goalie Cristobal Huet, still has no idea on how to properly call goaltender interference. On Sunday, Matt Hendricks was shoved into Fleury while Knuble appeared to score the Capitals second goal and #10, instead of waving the goal off due to coincidental contact with the net minder and calling for a faceoff, said no goal and also assessed #26 with a two minute minor for goalie interference. It was a terrible interpretation of the rules, but fortunately for Washington they scored shorthanded on Johansson’s screened backhander with just five ticks left in the Penguins man advantage. Devorski also only assesed Pittsburgh cheap shot artist Matt Cooke a two minute minor when he delivered an ugly knee to knee hit on Ovechkin late in the contest. The Great #8 was luckily okay but one can’t help but wonder how Cooke, who has a history of dirty play, escaped a major and what should be a suspension? After all, Ovechkin received a five minute major, game misconduct, and then a two game suspension for a similar play in Carolina last season.

 

“I’m never going to say anything bad about an official. They are watching from their own eyes, they are seeing what they are seeing and they are making calls that they think are right. I am not always going to agree with them, on the same point, but I didn’t feel like I purposely went into the goaltender, I felt like I was pushed from behind. I don’t think I was in the blue. I think Fleury was out quite a bit out of his crease. That’s the game I play, the style I play, those things are going to happen. It’s tough when we score a goal too,” said Hendricks on the goalie interference infraction he was incorrectly assessed.

 

“It’s Matt Cooke, okay, need we say more. It’s not like it’s his first rodeo, he’s done it to everybody and then he goes to the ref and says ‘What did I do?’ He knows damn well what he did. There is no doubt in my mind that he’s good at it and he knows how to do it and he knows how to pick this stuff. We as a league still buy into this, that ‘Oh, it still was an accidental thing’,” said Boudreau on the dirty play by #24 against his former teammate, Ovechkin.

 

Notes: Despite the fact that everyone who knows anything about hockey and Dave Steckel realizes that the contact he had with Crosby on New Years Day was incidental, Penguins forward Tim Wallace tried to make a name for himself by challenging #39 to a 3rd period fight, which Steckel obliged…the Capitals dominated the Pens from the dot winning 32 of 49 draws. Backstrom was a sensational 14-3…Johansson and Mathieu Perreault, two young small centermen, have had back to back strong contests but Boudreau has often commented that he’s seen flashes of this before and wants consistency from the pair. He also mentioned today that MJ90 has had to deal with numerous differences in the NHL game and he pointed out that in the Swedish league that Marcus played in last season skaters aren’t even allowed to use their feet to win a faceoff…Green was dressed and doing interviews after the victory but I suspect the area where he took the puck will swell and it might be wise to sit him out until he is totally healthy. “He’s day-to-day. He’s got a little bit of a headache right now. You get hit in the head with a puck and you’re gonna have a headache. We’ll reevaluate him tomorrow,” added Boudreau….the Caps killed off both Penguins power plays and are still ranked 2nd in the NHL on the PK (86.3%)…Boudreau improved to 10-1-3 in his tenure against the Penguins and the Capitals are 9-0-2 in the last 11 regular season meetings versus Pittsburgh…Semin is expected to play in Washington’s next game against San Jose at the Verizon Center on Tuesday night. #28 hasn’t played since early January.

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Caps Win Winter Classic over Pens

Posted on 02 January 2011 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals shut the critics up tonight. It is as simple as that. For several weeks all this Capitals team has heard was they are underachievers and were no match for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who started this whole build up to the Winter Classic with a twelve game winning streak while the Caps were mired in an eight game skid that was brought on due to injuries, illnesses, and a system change. But when the HBO cameras close down Saturday night and the 24/7 show airs its final episode on Wednesday at 10pm the Capitals will have finished on a 5-0-1 tear and only two points behind the Penguins for first place in the Eastern Conference. How is that for irony?

This 3-1 victory, in the rain in a city that was apparently overrun with tens of thousands of Caps fans, was as big as they come in the regular season and Washington is now 23-12-5 overall (51 points) while the Penguins, despite all of the hype and accolades, are only 25-12-3 (53 points).

Here is my analysis on the huge win, the Caps 6th straight regular season victory in Pittsburgh:

– Semyon Varlamov was outstanding in net and has now won three games in a row. Varly stopped 32 of 33 shots and as I’ve blogged many times, when healthy he is the Caps #1 goalie. But Michal Neuvirth is a very good goalie too and as I’ve also written numerous times, goaltending is not a problem at all for this club. Varly proved that he could play in the clutch in that 2009 playoff run that ended in a game seven loss to the Pens in round two and tonight he showed how good he is once again. His only issue continues to be durability.

– After the Caps victory over Montreal on Tuesday night, I caught up with Eric Fehr as I left the locker room and he told me he felt as healthy as he’s felt in a long time. Last year when he told me that in early November he went on a goal scoring tear. Tonight he was outstanding and notched two goals playing with Marcus Johansson and Jason Chimera. Could this be a turning point for #16? That line, when put together by Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau, seems to gel because of the speed of #90 and #25, and tonight they were the Capitals best unit.

– I can’t say enough about the Capitals young defensive pair of John Carlson and Karl Alzner. The two played 26:28 and 24:45, respectively, leading the team in time on ice. You think their head coach has confidence in them? As #74 said afterwards on NBC, he and King Karl weren’t happy with allowing Sidney Crosby two points in last Thursday’s shootout loss at the Verizon Center. Tonight the duo shut down the NHL’s leading scorer and #87 didn’t have too many scoring chances unlike Alexander Ovechkin, who had numerous quality attempts and also had a goal wiped out due to what the zebras deemed incidental contact with Marc-Andre Fleury. Washington’s defense was better on day one with both Carlson and Alzner up to start the season and the addition of Scott Hannan gives GM George McPhee and Boudreau the most solid blue line they have had in years.

– Boudreau commented afterwards that he had spoken with McPhee earlier in the day and they decided that the best strategy was to play a simple, grind it out game given the ice conditions. The players got the message and they routinely sent the pucks deep and made the Penguins have to turn their backs to play the biscuit. Clearly it worked with the game’s turning play being Fleury’s misplay of the puck behind the cage that Johansson then centered to Fehr for the eventual game winner. But for those who have watched the Caps lately, a recent similar pattern occurred once Washington took a lead into the third period: they backed off on the aggressive forechecking and set up a neutral zone wall that continues to frustrate the opposition. In fact, the Capitals actually started doing this in the last couple of minutes in period two. The strategy is working, although the Pens came out really strong early in period three. The Caps are still working on implementing this system change, but the early returns are very good and to quote Boudreau, “gives them another tool in the toolbox” to use.

– The Caps scored a power play goal! The Caps scored a power play goal! Mike Knuble’s rebound conversion from the doorstep was exactly what Washington needed when trailing by a goal (Evgeni Malkin opened the scoring for Pittsburgh). On the night the Caps went 1 for 2 with the man advantage while they killed off all four Penguins power plays so special teams made a big difference once again for the Capitals.

– In summary, this was a great win and those that have stood by their Capitals club through the adversity should feel proud of how this Winter Classic sequence has turned out. The Caps are a much better hockey team then they were a month ago. The critics will continue to point to the past playoff failures but if Washington keeps working and builds on the system change and more defensive posture, the organization might finally have a post season reward that will silence the detractors once and for all.

Notes: The faceoff battle was even at 33 all. Nicklas Backstrom was 10-6 to lead Washington…Olie Kolzig commented afterwards that the key for Varly is to keep his groin healthy, which is tougher given the way he plays with the butterfly. Kolzig, to me, was the shining star of the NHL Network coverage over the weekend…Washington has no time to celebrate though as they have a huge tilt with the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday at the Verizon Center. Steve Stamkos and company have been red hot and going back and forth with the Caps for the Southeast Division lead. They also made a big attempt to improve their weak goaltending today by trading for former Islanders net minder Dwayne Roloson.

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NHL Regular Season Predictions

Posted on 06 October 2010 by Ed Frankovic

With the NHL season set to kickoff it is time for my 4th annual regular season predictions here at WNST.NET. The season officially begins at Noon on Thursday, October 7th as the Carolina Hurricanes meet the Minnesota Wild from Helsinki, Finland (VERSUS). Then at 7pm on VERSUS, the Penguins take on the Flyers in Pittsburgh followed by a 10pm matchup between the defending Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks and the Avalanche from Denver. For those with the Centre Ice package, you can catch the Canadiens at the Leafs on CBC at 7pm followed by the Battle of Alberta, Calgary at Edmonton, at 10pm. For hockey fans it is a great lineup of five games on opening day. The Washington Capitals will commence their regular season schedule on Friday night, October 8th from Atlanta at 730pm (Comcast HD). The Caps will play their home opener on Saturday night against the New Jersey Devils (7pm).

Please note that the top 3 seeds in each conference represent the division winners. Now without further delay, below are my predictions by conference and a short blurp on each club:

Eastern Conference

1. Washington Capitals – The Caps will win the Southeast Division no problem and top the conference, and likely the NHL, because they have an extremely talented team that is another year older and hopefully more mature, plus they play in a weak division. Goalie Michal Neuvirth and young defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner are up from Hershey full time while 2009 1st round pick, Marcus Johansson of Sweden, made the squad out of camp and will play 3rd line center. They also added tough forward DJ King for protection for their star players. Will they get 121 points again? Likely not, but this team will still win the East. But as GM George McPhee told us on Tuesday, he doesn’t care about the regular season and he is focused on a long playoff run.

2. New Jersey Devils – Not only did they manage to survive the Summer of Kovalchuk and ink Ilya to a 15 year deal, they added shot blocking extraordinaire Anton Volchenkov and penalty killing ace Henrik Tallinder. Jason Arnott returns up front to go with Zach Parise. They did lose Paul Martin to the Penguins and Martin Brodeur is a year older. GM Lou Lamoriello brought in Johan Hedberg to take some of the load off of the best goalie in the history of hockey. It will be interesting to see how new coach John Maclean runs the ship.

3. Boston Bruins  – GM Peter Chiarelli must thank his lucky stars for Leafs GM Brian Burke. The B’s GM was able to draft future superstar Tyler Seguin with the front end of two 1st rounders Boston received for Phil Kessel last summer. The Bruins are stacked at center ice and still have Zdeno Chara on the back end. I expect goalie Tim Thomas to make a comeback this year and challenge Tuuka Rask for the starting netminder job.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins – Loaded up the middle as well with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal (though Staal is out for awhile due to complications from his 2010 post season foot injury), but this club is weak on the wings. On defense, PP specialist Sergei Gonchar took big money to go to Ottawa but GM Ray Shero went out and signed Martin from New Jersey and Zbynek Michalek from Phoenix. Big question is will Marc Andre-Fleury return to his Stanley Cup winning form after a terrible post season?

5. Philadelphia Flyers – They still are loaded up front with Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Danny Briere, Claude Giroux, and Scott Hartnell but Simon Gagne, who helped turn the Flyers whole post season around in 2010, was traded in a salary cap saving move. Their defense is strong, anchored by Chris Pronger, Matt Carle, Kimmo Timonen, and Brayden Coburn plus newly acquired former Bolt Andrej Mezsaros, but their goaltending is weak, weak, weak..especially with Michael Leighton out for at least a month with a back injury.

6. Montreal Canadiens – Jaroslav Halak is now in St. Louis so can head case goalie Carey Price finally reach his potential? Brian Gionta, Michael Cammalleri, Tomas Plekenac, and Scott Gomez, all midget forwards, are the primary scoring threats for the Habs. We shall see how d-man, and playoff sensation PK Subban does in a full season of work at the NHL level.

7. Ottawa Senators – Questions all over the place on this team but GM Bryan Murray and Coach Cory Clouston seem to find a way to make things work well. We will see how Mr. Carrie Underwood (Mike Fisher) does in his first season of marriage.

8. New York Rangers – Oglethorpe??!! That should be the battle cry of the Rangers this year who added to their already large contingent of goons with former Wild tough guy Derek Boogaard. This team struggled to score goals so they added former King Alexander Frolov to the offense to go with Martin “Rubber Band Groin” Gaborik. Goalie King Henrik Lundqvist’s play will likely decide if they are in the post season or golfing come mid April of 2011.

9. Buffalo Sabres – Ryan Miller is GREAT, but even he can’t work miracles behind this defense. 2nd year d-man Tyler Myers is approaching star status but the loss of Tallinder will prove to be too much to overcome.

10. Carolina Hurricanes – I expect both forward Eric Staal and goalie Cam Ward to have better seasons after battling early year injuries that derailed their 2009-10, but one look at their defensive lineup makes you wonder how they will manage to battle for a playoff spot? At one point last year they were in the Taylor Hall-Tyler Seguin sweepstakes but then they screwed that up by starting to win games. Caps fans should be happy about that.

11. Tampa Bay Lightning – They added Steve Yzerman as GM but they really needed Yzerman the player. They have a solid defense with 2nd year man Victor Hedman, Mattias Ohlund, and the aging Pavel Kubina plus Steven Stamkos can light the lamp up front. The big questions on this team are: 1. Can the aging Marty St. Louis and Vincent LeCavalier put a consistent year together (I have more faith in #26 to do that than #4), and 2. Can Mike Smith and Dan Ellis stop any pucks? (Likely not very many).

12. Toronto Maple Leafs – Enjoy the party on Yonge Street on Thursday Leafs fans, that is the only time all season you can dream. This team is weak up front and will need a minor miracle to make the post season.

13. Atlanta Thrashers – Don Waddell received a Dilbert like promotion in the front office and new GM Rick Dudley brings in Craig Ramsay as head coach. They traded for Dustin Byfuglien from Chicago but instead of crashing the crease, the big man will likely play defense. Personally, I think once they failed to sign Kovalchuk long term they should have folded this franchise, one with big time ownership problems.

14. New York Islanders – Team injury is in for a long season. D-man Mark Streit is hurt and likely lost for the entire campaign and forward Kyle Okposo injured his shoulder and needs surgery. You need a Ouija board to figure out if goalie Rick DiPietro will ever be healthy and return to form as well. At least they have John Tavares to watch in the dumpy Nassau Coliseum (get this team a new building!).

15. Florida Panthers – Dale Tallon is taking the Caps approach by starting over and building via the draft. The former Hawks GM stockpiled draftpicks and this year they will likely finish last and have a great shot at the #1 pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. I expect goalie Tomas Vokoun to be moved at some point before the trade deadline.

Western Conference

1. San Jose Sharks – Antti Niemi is an upgrade over playoff bust Evengi Nabokov in goal. D-man Rob Blake retired but this club is still loaded with two very good lines that can light the lamp.

2. Vancouver Canucks – These guys are the “sexy” preseason Stanley Cup choice. I don’t see it but their division is weak so they cruise into the playoffs. Will the Sedins be able to match a stellar 2009-10? Roberto Luongo gave up the captaincy in an attempt to focus more on his job.

3. Detroit Red Wings – Do people have jobs anymore in Hockeytown so that they can buy tickets to watch the vaunted Red Wing machine take back their Central division title in 2010-11? If a tree falls in the woods and noone is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Basically the Ken Holland/Jim Nill machine will continue to pump out players from obscure places and field a top notch team. This could be Nicklas Lidstrom’s last season in the NHL.

4. Chicago Blackhawks – The Windy City got the Cup but then felt the brunt of the Cap. Salary cap issues forced GM Stan Bowman to unload eight players from the championship team but they still have Jonathan Toews (3rd best player in the league after Ovie and Sid the Kid), Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook. Seabrook is a free agent after this season and will want more money so Bowman’s 2011 summer won’t go well either, unless he pulls a rabbit out of his hat and repeats as Cup champions. But can goalie Marty Turco help this club win another Cup?

5. Los Angeles Kings – Drew Doughty is a phenomenal defenseman and Los Angeles has plenty of young players that should mature in 2010-11. Can goalie Jonathan Quick build on a sensational year or will he be pushed out by the young Jonathan Bernier? Coach Terry Murray is a superb tactician and will have this team in the post season once again.

6. Calgary Flames – I am sure this pick elicited several laughs. A team that re-signed Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay and has serious center ice issues, especially with Daymond Langkow out injured, surely can’t be taken serious for a post season spot, can they? I say yes because GM Darryl Sutter will make some moves to save his job. Plus Jarome Iginla is due for a monster year, if he can find someone to get him the puck. I see Tanguay filling that role.

7. St. Louis Blues – Will Halak be the difference? Team President John Davidson and GM Doug Armstrong are counting on it. Gone are Keith Tkachuk (retirement) and Paul Kariya (post concussion syndrome). Will Patrick Berglund ever reach his potential or did the Blues ruin this kid by putting him in the NHL too early?

8. Phoenix Coyotes – I’ve gone back and forth on these guys. I think they could easily have a downturn and miss the playoffs after losing Michalek to the Pens. But I think Ilya Bryzgalov is the one guy who can prevent that. It will be interesting to see if 21 year old Kyle Turris can produce at the NHL level this year.

9. Nashville Predators – GM David Poile and Coach Barry Trotz can get it done with one of the smallest budgets in the league but this year I think the odds are too stacked against them to make the playoffs. They lost Dan Hamhuis and Jason Arnott and that will be too much to overcome.

10. Colorado Avalanche – Surprise team of 2009-10 thanks to goalie Craig Anderson but I think in 2010-11 they turn back in to a pumpkin.

11. Minnesota Wild – GM Chuck Fletcher added a bunch of grinding forwards in Eric Nystrom (Flames), Matt Cullen (Senators), and John Madden (Hawks). That will make for good defensive yet very boring hockey in the twin cities. Who is going to score the goals?

12. Anaheim Ducks – What? Scott Niedermayer finally retired?? Say it isn’t so! This team is rebuilding and has a great 1st line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Bobby Ryan but after that, forget about it!

13. Dallas Stars – I am not a Marc Crawford fan. Every day he wakes up he should thank Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy for winning him his Stanley Cup. Mike Modano is now in Motown and they are relying on the ever-brittle Kari Lehtonen in net. Seems like a recipe for disaster, if you ask me. Is owner Tom Hicks going to sell the team?

14. Columbus Blue Jackets – Coach Scott Arniel has Rick Nash, and that is pretty much all. This franchise is also in trouble financially in Buckeye town.

15. Edmonton Oilers – Well, they named Shawn Horcoff team captain and they have Hall, the 1st overall pick in the 2010 draft on their club, but after that I quote Dr. Seuss to sum up the rest of their squad: Stink, Stank, Stunk!

Enjoy the hockey puckheads!!

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