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12 Caps Thoughts Heading Into the Playoffs

Posted on 10 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

After losing to the Florida Panthers, 2-0, on Sunday night at the Verizon Center, the Washington Capitals completed their 2016-17 regular season with a 55-19-8 record (118 points). Here are twelve Caps thoughts, including quotes from several players, as we move into the most wonderful time of the year, the Stanley Cup Playoffs

What a classy move by Caps GM Brian MacLellan, Coach Barry Trotz and the entire organization rewarding forward Garrett Mitchell, a 6th round pick in the 2009 draft and captain of the Hershey Bears for the last two seasons, with his first NHL game on Sunday night. The 25 year old has been a regular in Chocolatetown for six straight seasons without making “The Show.” Mitchell, who is a free agent after the spring, not only played, but started the game with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. Nicky even got himself thrown out of the opening draw so that Mitchell could begin his NHL debut taking the face off. Kudos to all involved and afterwards you could not wipe the smile off of Garrett’s face. It was truly a feel good moment for a player who has done everything asked of him since he’s been drafted.

With the Columbus Blue Jackets rallying from a 2-0 hole on the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday night to win, 3-2 in regulation, the Caps will now face the Leafs instead of the Bruins in round one. This is a matchup that I’ve wanted for several weeks and now Washington has a chance to show why it favors the Capitals. Toronto is certainly faster than Boston, but they are far less experienced than the B’s and they have a blue line that the Caps should be able to expose. Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev was also injured in game 82 for the Leafs and his status for game one on Thursday is in question.

The Capitals won the Jennings Trophy for the first time since 1983-84 for allowing the fewest goals per game in the NHL over the course of 82 contests. Coach Trotz credited all three aspects of the team’s game, offense, defense, and goaltending for the achievement, but he put extra emphasis on what Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer have done in net. Trotz stated that you really need strong goaltending in this league and he noted that if you look at the numbers for the Holtbeast and Grubauer they are very similar, especially in terms of save percentage.

Washington is at its best when they are playing a structured game and not giving up odd man rushes. Following Sunday night’s season finale, forward Daniel Winnik provided insight into the key to limiting them. “I think a lot of that just has to do with, you know I’d love to see our goal differential from when we’ve had the set lines and set d-pairings since December. I think that’s made a huge difference and tightening up our overall defensive game. A lot of that has come from limiting turnovers at the offensive blue line. I think we’ve done less of exchanging chances with teams. I think we have the best five on five goal differential in the league.”

T.J. Oshie (33), Marcus Johansson (24), and Justin Williams (24) all had career highs in goals this season and those three players have been very good at getting to the front of the opposing team’s net, something that is very important in playoff hockey. I asked Jojo on how the Caps have improved their ability to do that this season. “We’ve talked about [net presence] a lot. When it comes down to the playoffs most goals are scored from there. We have to get to those dirty areas and I think it’s shown that when you go there you are going to get goals and get rewarded. So I’m going to keep doing it.”

The addition of Kevin Shattenkirk from St. Louis at the NHL trade deadline has been a big one for the Caps. I asked Shattenkirk about the change in systems between the two clubs. “It seems like here we play a little more defense skating forward. We’re pushing up on teams and really trying to squeeze all of their time and space out of them. I think in St. Louis we received the rush a little more and allowed forwards to back check and apply pressure. But here I like that, I like playing on my toes. It keeps me engaged the whole game, it sets up well for me.”

I followed up with Shattenkirk by saying that I thought Coach Trotz’ system fits his skill set better. Here’s what Shatty had to say in reply, “It does, it does. I think especially when we turn pucks over in the neutral zone I think the skill that we have up front, the way that these forwards present themselves, our system allows us to turn back on teams and I think that’s a strong area of my game, getting those pucks and finding that outlet pass that we can turn right back on teams and get instant offense on it. All of that stuff really starts to feed into my game.”

Shattenkirk has been paired primarily with 2009 Stanley Cup Champion Brooks Orpik for the first time in his career. Here’s Kevin’s take on how he sees things working out so far. “I knew the style of defensemen I was going to be playing with here and he’s surprised me a bit. Playing here the last few years he’s changed his game in a way that he makes some poised plays. He’s not just an off of the wall and out kind of guy anymore, he makes plays through the middle and he makes plays at the blue line. We’ve been moving a lot from our offensive blue line and creating a lot of space for our forwards. He’s a guy that can dive in and dive back out. Every game has seemed to go better and better and I really like the way that we’re going.”

There’s no doubt that the addition of #22 has strengthened the Capitals power play and I asked him about the key to finding his role on that unit. “It’s great. For me it was a matter of the first couple of games, I think just like any player who would get that opportunity, you’re looking for Ovi all the time. I’m looking to go back to Nicky and let him make the plays. It wasn’t until the third or fourth game I started realizing that I had to shoot some pucks. Teams weren’t really worrying about me shooting pucks and that’s something we’ve worked on in practice, me just getting pucks into T.J. and Marcus, who are great around the net. Once I started to establish that, it seems like those other plays really opened up, the big plays, and Ovi only needs one shot a game to make it count and I just want to make sure that when that time comes I’m putting it in the right spot for him.”

The Capitals have yet to win a Stanley Cup, but both Williams (three times) and Orpik have raised Lord Stanley. Shattenkirk also went to the Western Conference finals last season while many of the Caps have yet to advance past the second round. I asked Shattenkirk what it takes to advance that deep in the postseason. “That’s a loaded question. There are a lot of things that factor into it. One is being even keeled. I think that we [in St. Louis] were the same last year as this team is now. We were the team that was out in the first and second round for four straight years. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, you just have to stick with it. You have to have resiliency about your team and make sure that you realize there’s going to be lows; you can’t put too much pressure on yourselves throughout the playoffs. The way we ride those waves is going to be important and like you said the two guys that we have with the most experience here [Williams and Orpik], we’re going to lean on those guys, hopefully I can be a fresh voice and we just have to keep the hunger there. This team has everything that we need in the locker room to win playoff games; we just have to make sure that we don’t beat ourselves up too bad.”

Coach Trotz has done an outstanding job of spreading minutes around the blue line this season, but once Shattenkirk came on board, things evened out more. I asked #22 if that allows the Caps to play faster. “It does and more than anything it’s the rhythm. In St. Louis it was more situational when I would play more minutes, here it’s we’ve got three pairs that can play. Depending what happens with penalties and power plays, that can skew things a little bit, but for the most part we’re all rolling and I think for us to have that rhythm as a defensive pair and as a defensive unit, it’s great for our team because you don’t want to have guys sitting three, four minutes in a row, especially in the playoffs in critical situations.”

The Capitals finished the season on an 11-2-1 run and you can pretty much throw that last loss to Florida out since it was a Hockey North America like no checking affair. Winnik was asked if he thinks momentum matters heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. “Completely. I think it matters how you play before the playoffs. I think Pittsburgh proved that, the previous winners, LA, so I think playing the way we are hopefully its good foreshadowing.”

Here’s the official Caps-Leafs first round schedule:

Date                                 TIME (ET)                                                            

Thursday, April 13             7 p.m.                   Toronto at Washington

Saturday, April 15             7 p.m.                   Toronto at Washington

Monday, April 17              7 p.m.                   Washington at Toronto

Wednesday, April 19        7 p.m.                   Washington at Toronto

*Friday, April 21                TBD                       Toronto at Washington

*Sunday, April 23              TBD                       Washington at Toronto

*Tuesday, April 25            TBD                       Toronto at Washington

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Caps Slay The Defending Champion Kings, 4-0

Posted on 04 February 2015 by Ed Frankovic

“I’m shuffling lines around, guys. I’ll let you know when I get it straightened out.” – Reg Dunlop, Charleston Chiefs

For 50 games, Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz has been juggling his forward line combinations trying to find the right fits.

In game number 51, which turned out to be a Caps 4-0 rout of the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings, he just may have found his best forward line up yet.

Trotz moved Marcus Johansson, who is having his best pro season, up into the top right wing spot, and inserted rookie forward Andre Burakovsky into Jojo’s spot on the second line giving the Caps a very offensively talented top six crew of forwards. In addition, the bench boss took Jason Chimera and Michael Latta out of the lineup and went with a fourth unit of Aaron Volpatti, Jay Beagle, and Tom Wilson. The third line, Washington’s checking trio of Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward, went unchanged.

The result was a thing of beauty as the Capitals gap control was as good as it has been all season.

Taking the strong blue line play that the Caps have enjoyed all season combined with elite goaltending from Braden Holtby plus a very motivated hockey club this was a thorough whipping of a Kings team that still has Norris Trophy leading candidate Drew Doughty, all world goalie Jonathan Quick, and super forward Anze Kopitar. But Los Angeles is really not a Cup contender this season since they’re playing with a much weaker blue line due to the loss of Willie Mitchell (salary cap) and Slava Voynov (domestic abuse charges). As I’ve been saying for years, it is tough to be consistent and win in the post season without a good blue line. Fortunately with the departure of former GM George McPhee, the Capitals finally figured it out in the offseason and brought in some talent that gives Washington a very deep crew on the back end.

But the key to becoming a really top team is to have not only strong goaltending and defense, but depth at forward. That has been the challenge for Trotz and his job has been tougher by having to work in two rookies in Evgeny Kuznetsov and Burakovsky, along with second year man Wilson. It’s not an easy task and being a rookie in the NHL is very difficult. But Trotz has brought each of them along differently given their age and history. Kuznetsov is starting to blossom into the second line center role and his behind the back pass to Troy Brouwer is one that you usually only see from the Nicklas Backstrom’s of the world. That 1st goal was so huge because the Caps were 24-1-4 when tallying first and 1-14-6 this season when yielding the first marker. That is quite a telling statistic.

On that Brouwer goal, of note was the forechecking pressure that Burakovsky put on Robyn Regehr. The heat from #65 forced Regehr to put Alec Martinez in bad position with the biscuit and the man who scored the Cup clinching tally against the Rangers made an errant pass to Karl Alzner on the left wing boards. Alzner found Kuznetsov below the goal line and a sweet pass later it was 1-0. Trotz praised Burakovsky afterwards and stated that pretty soon everyone will all know the kids name.

Not only did the super gap control lead to production, but it also kept Washington out of the penalty box. This Caps team has had a recent propensity of taking tripping, high sticking, interference, and hooking penalties that are often the result of poor positioning and a lack of structure. The Capitals only had to kill one penalty on Tuesday night, which was their lowest total since December 4th against Carolina (h/t to Alex Prewitt of The Washington Post). You can add in discipline to that equation as Washington did not retaliate against a big Kings club. John Carlson took a couple of cheap shots from Kyle Clifford late in period two that somehow didn’t garner a penalty call from Paul Devorski and Tom Kowal (imagine that!). #74 could have easily gotten upset and attacked Clifford but Carlson kept his head and didn’t take an unnecessary penalty at a time when the game was still in question. Big kudos to Carlson there, that’s putting your team first, something we’ve seen more and more of this club this season than any other in the recent past.

Overall, it was a dominant performance by the Caps and Holtby came up big when he needed to be in stopping 27 shots. He made some key saves, with perhaps his best one coming on Jeff Carter in period two when it was still 1-0. Carter, who is a true sniper, appeared to have the top right corner picked but #70 managed to get most of his glove on the biscuit and knock it to the corner. Holtby also stoned Marian Gaborik on a semi-breakaway in period two. Holtby has now gone three straight games without allowing a goal in regulation and the only tally he yielded came in OT against the Habs and league MVP Carey Price on Saturday.

So the Caps end up going 1-1-1 against some of the better teams in the league with the lone regulation blemish coming against the St. Louis Blues on Sunday. The Blues are my current pick to win the Stanley Cup so a one goal defeat to them, after Washington played the day before while St. Louis rested, is not a black mark at all.

Washington is now 26-15-10 (62 points) and 9-1-1 in their last 11 home games (h/t to @ThePeerless). But the upcoming schedule doesn’t get any easier. After a day off on Wednesday, the Caps travel to take on a speedy Ottawa team on Thursday night, then come right home on Friday to play one of top teams in the NHL standings in the Anaheim Ducks. Finally, on Sunday at 3 pm they get a hot Flyers team at the Verizon Center. We all know what I think of Philadelphia, but that’s a story for another day.

Notes: Brouwer had two goals in his 500th NHL game…Backstrom had a goal and an assist while Alex Ovechkin had an assist. The Gr8 had 11 shot attempts…Washington led the shot attempt totals after 40 minutes, 40-21, that’s pretty impressive over one of the best puck possession teams in the NHL. Game total shot attempts were 52-44 for the Caps…the Kings won the face off battle, 26-23, but Backstrom was 12-6 from the dot.

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Caps Start 2013-14 With High Expectations Once Again

Posted on 29 September 2013 by Ed Frankovic

It is awfully difficult to win a championship in professional sports but heading into 2013-14 that is once again the goal of the Washington Capitals, who have yet to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup since their inception in 1974. The Caps, who have made the playoffs the last six years, have another quality team as they prepare to open their season against the defending champs, the Chicago Blackhawks, in the Windy City on Tuesday night at 8pm on NBCSN.

On Sunday, Caps General Manager George McPhee made several moves to help put some clarity to the opening night roster culminating with a trade of center Matheiu Perreault to the Anaheim Ducks for a 4th round pick and AHLer John Mitchell. In addition, several players were sent to Hershey, including defenesemen Tyson Strachan and Dmitry Orlov. For now, here is what the Caps roster looks like:

Goalies (2): Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth

Defensemen (7): Mike Green, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, John Erskine, Jack Hillen, Steve Oleksy, and Connor Carrick

Forwards (14): Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, Mikhail Grabovski, Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, Martin Erat, Tom Wilson, Eric Fehr, Joel Ward, Jay Beagle, Jason Chimera, Aaron Volpatti, and Michael Latta

The move of Perreault was predicted here last week and makes sense from a hockey and salary cap standpoint. This Caps team needed to get bigger and more powerful up front and Wilson’s outstanding camp made keeping him up with the main club, rather than shipping him back to a weaker league (OHL), an easy decision. The 19 year old, who was the 16th overall pick in the 2012 NHL entry draft, brings a dimension that this Washington team needs more of in the post season: size and the ability to score the tough goals in close. Six months with Coach Adam Oates and some highly talented teammates is what is needed for Wilson to continue his development, the OHL is just not going to help him get any better.

As for the rest of the squad, the strengths appear to be in goal and up front. Braden Holtby has established himself as a number one goalie and has the chance to move into the elite category with a very strong season. As McPhee told the media last Tuesday, to win the Stanley Cup you have to have great goaltending. #70 is the guy being counted on to deliver that, but Neuvirth is a more than capable net minder and will be needed to play well so that Washington can qualify for the post season in a very competitive Metropolitan Division.

At forward, the Capitals have some serious depth on the wings but still aren’t sure who is going to be the third line center. Backstrom has the first line locked up with Grabovski manning the second unit. The club could go with Beagle as the 3rd line center and Latta pivoting the 4th to start the season, but that depends on the health of the others, primarily Laich, who has been battling a hip flexor issue. Right wing is just loaded up with Ovechkin, Brouwer, Fehr, Wilson, and Ward. Both Fehr and Erat were tried at center this preseason by Oates with some success, so the head coach has lots of options. Johansson could play 3rd line center at some point too. The Caps have not had as talented a crew of forwards to start the season in many years and with the players they have there is lots of room for flexibility.

On defense, the top three is awfully good with Green, Alzner, and Carlson. After that, it gets dicey. Erksine was super last spring in the regular season but is he really a top 4 d-man? #4 will have a chance to prove it starting this week. Oleksy came out of seemingly nowhere to take a 3rd pair spot in the spring and Hillen overcame an early season injury to play a lot of quality minutes last year. Carrick was the biggest surprise of training camp, has great offensive skills and his hockey IQ is high. Learning to play defense in the NHL is harder than any other position so Washington has to be careful to not put too much on the 19 year old, who has incredible potential. The organization still has high hopes for Orlov, but given his injury situation last season, starting him in Hershey made too much sense. The 2009 2nd round pick will play top pair minutes in the AHL and can hone his craft for what appears to be an inevitable jump back to the NHL at some point during the 82 game season.

Special teams will be an important component of Washington’s success. Last season the Caps were #1 in the NHL with the power play (26.8%). You can expect it to remain at least top 5 and Oates and assistant coach Blaine Forsythe will continually be tweaking things to counter opposition tactics. As for the penalty kill, Laich stated on Tuesday that is one of the areas this Capitals club will have to improve in if they want to do well in the regular season and playoffs. The PK has been one of the team’s weaknesses the last few years and it was 27th out of 30 in 2012-13 with a success rate of only 77.9%.

In summary, the expectations are high for this Capitals team. The playoffs are not a given, but if this club can stay relatively healthy, then they have the talent to compete for the division title. Every team in the Metropolitan Division has its issues. The Penguins are the pick of many but their goaltending and team defense certainly has its question marks. Will the Rangers respond positively to a new coach in Alain Vigneault? How will the Devils do with the departure of Ilya Kovalchuk? The Flyers added Vinny Lecavalier but will Ray Emery or Steve Mason step up and be a top goalie in a pressure packed Philly market? Are the Islanders ready to take the next step up the ladder or was their playoff run last spring a one time deal? Is Columbus going to play like the team that nearly qualified for the post season last spring or the cellar dweller crew that started 2013? Finally, will Cam Ward returning in net for Carolina propel them to a winning season? Nothing is set in stone heading into the season and in the salary cap era every team has holes and/or issues. What is important is that the Capitals get off to a good start since coming from behind in the standings is not going to be as achievable as it was in the Southeast Division.

 

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