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Vokoun Helps Caps Reach 4-0

Posted on 15 October 2011 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals raced out to an early 2-0 lead midway through the first period on goals by Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson and then once again rode the excellent goaltending of Tomas Vokoun (33 saves) en route to a 2-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators. This victory, the Capitals first in regulation in the 2011-12 campaign, improves their record to 4-0. This is the third time in franchise history they have started with four straight wins (1991-92 and 1997-98). The Caps are now 3-0 at the Verizon Center this season after Saturday night’s win.

Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis from the 109th consecutive home sellout:

- Vokoun once again bailed his teammates out, like he did on Thursday night in Pittsburgh. He continues to be solid with his positioning and make the big save despite still trying to figure out how his skaters are going to play in front of him. He still has had some adventures playing the puck and the communication with his defenders is not totally worked out yet. Still, if he isn’t in goal these last two games Washington likely loses. The Caps have to be encouraged by the 35 year old Czech’s ability to find ways to win games for his team.

“The one that he stopped on [Milan] Michalek – We have a great shift going and then all of the sudden the puck is sitting there. It’s nobody’s mistake, somebody thinks somebody’s taking it somebody else, and then he gets a breakaway. It’s not us playing badly…it was just a miscommunication and Tomas [Vokoun] came up big and he came up big in the last 20 seconds,” said Boudreau on his club and his goaltender.

- Washington outshot the Senators 14-8 in the first period and dominated the first 19 minutes of the contest. However, a terrible giveaway by Dennis Wideman in his own zone and then some poor play by Roman Hamrlik and the Washington forwards led to a goal for Ottawa with just over 25 seconds left in period one.  From then on out, the Senators seemed to have extra jump and in the middle frame they were all over the Caps outshooting them 12-4. The Capitals did too much watching and not enough skating in that period and an inferior opponent made them look bad, but fortunately for Washington, their goalie held the fort. In the third period, the Capitals had a little more jump but still, they were outplayed by Ottawa and outshot 14-8. Afterwards, Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau credited Ottawa for their hard work, and rightly so. But my issue is with the Caps play. It was unacceptable and if they can’t out work a team like Ottawa then there has to be some concern, especially when all we’ve heard the Washington players talk about since training camp opened was being the team that won the work ethic battle each night. In the last two games, including a tilt against hated rival Pittsburgh, the Capitals have been crushed in the effort department.

“They are not satisfied and that’s great. If we thought we were king of the world right now then it would probably be a little bit more difficult. It’s a tough league, whoever you play. You can say what you want about Ottawa, but they were a very motivated club tonight and they played very hard,” said Boudreau afterwards about a Senators team that responded well after being drilled 7-1 by Colorado in their last start.

- Ottawa came into this contest ranked first on the power play so a Capitals priority was to stay out of the box on Saturday night. The only penalty called on Washington was on Karl Alzner in the first period, and that was a questionable one, but the Caps killed it off. Washington received three power plays in the first 25 minutes scoring on their first one. Mike Knuble (2 assists) worked the puck out from behind the net, fed Alexander Semin at the left post, and #28 made a super cross crease pass to Backstrom for an easy tally. On the next two power plays, the Caps struggled to get things set up so they finished 1-3 on the night. It was encouraging to see Alexander Ovechkin off of the point on those three manpower advantages as Mike Green, Wideman, and Hamrlik manned the blue line in those situations. The power play still needs work but it is improving.

“We didn’t want to take any penalties against them and didn’t do that. We had some chances to break it open but we didn’t do it. In the clutch, we did what we had to do. Not every game is going to be beautiful and the other team wants to win too,” added Boudreau.

- Hamrlik has been mostly paired with Green and on paper should be an upgrade in the mobility department over #52′s old d-partners, Shaone Morrisonn, Jeff Schultz, and Scott Hannan. However, #44 is not as good of a skater as I first thought and has looked shaky in the last two games. He and Wideman, as mentioned above, were out of sync on the Ottawa tally. It is only October so hopefully the 38 year old Czech, who is -1 through four games but has been on the ice for 7 of the 11 goals the Caps have allowed (h/t  @JapersRink), finds his legs and improves once he gets more experience playing with Green and the other Washington defenders.

“The more you play, you get some confidence and you feel better out there. The other five defenseman on our team, they are good players; they can move the puck. I am getting used [to] the guys,” said Hamrlik following the game. #44 played in his 1,315th career NHL game, passing Bobby Holik for the most NHL games played by a Czech native.

 - At the end of the day, a win is a win and those two previous Capitals clubs that went 4-0 did have a lot of success, so that bodes well. One went to the Stanley Cup Finals (98) and the other blew a 3-1 first round lead to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Penguins in the first round following a super regular season. That was a very talented Capitals team that came very close to beating a loaded Pittsburgh club. Goaltending was the difference in that 1992 loss, but the Caps just might finally have a big game goalie now, like they did with Olie Kolzig in 1998.

Notes: Forward DJ King received his first start of the season with Jay Beagle being kept out for precautionary reasons after getting hurt in his fight with Arron Asham. King was pointless but even in nine shifts and 6:58 TOI…Johansson’s goal was a beautiful individual effort and the young Swede used his speed to sneak a wraparound tally by Alex Auld (24 saves)…Washington lost the faceoff battle, 33-28. Jeff Halpern was 3-2, the only Cap that was above 50%…next up for the Caps are the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night at the Verizon Center…Owner Ted Leonsis noted that the Caps are putting 400 individual tickets on sale online before each game to give fans who can’t afford season tickets access to the team for games. That is a great idea given that the team sold out all season tickets and now have a waiting list…the Hershey Bears had a chance to start 4-0 as well but lost in OT to the Norfolk Admirals, 6-5, in the home opener at the Giant Center. Braden Holtby made 22 saves in the loss. Keith Aucoin had four assists and Chris Bourque had a goal and was +1. Bourque had five points in a 7-5 victory in Norfolk on Friday night.

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The Playoff Impacts of Alexander Ovechkin’s Injury

Posted on 21 March 2011 by Ed Frankovic

Big news out of Kettler Iceplex today as Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau stated that Alexander Ovechkin would be out for an estimated seven to 10 days to deal with an injury situation. Naturally, with the NHL playoffs just over three weeks away, the exact nature of the injury will not be disclosed, much like with the Jason Arnott announcement one week ago today. The Great #8 joins Arnott, Mike Green, Eric Fehr, and Tom Poti as key components who are out of the Washington lineup right now. While on the surface this might seem like a big blow to the Capitals Stanley Cup chances, in reality, it isn’t. In fact, being extra cautious with ailing players right now makes a ton of sense and could likely pay off over the next few months.

Washington is in pretty good shape to lock up their fourth straight Southeast Division title with a five point lead on the Tampa Bay Lightning and even if they did manage to lose that margin over their last nine games (the Bolts have 10 tilts left), would it really matter? Likely not at all, as the Caps are going to be in the post season and what happens then and beyond is all this team will be judged on. Since training camp opened we’ve heard the organization talk about the first 82 games not mattering too much this year. General Manager George McPhee told me on Media Day back in October that he “really didn’t care about the regular season, as long as [the Caps] make the playoffs.” One could argue that every decision since then, from the schematic switch from an aggressive offensive system to a more responsible defensive posture all the way up to the moves made on NHL trade deadline day have been about one thing – doing what is needed to increase the likelihood that the Capitals play their best hockey in the post season this spring.

As good as last season’s team was in a Presidents’ Trophy winning regular season, everyone witnessed the first round collapse and McPhee and Boudreau have been doing everything in their power to not let it happen again this season. Examining the club on paper, position by position, I don’t think there is any doubt that the 2010-11 Washington Capitals team, despite all of the criticism they’ve received this year, is a much better one heading into April than last year’s crew. With Arnott at second line center they finally have that big pivot man that is needed in the post season. #44 is a significant upgrade over last year’s second line center, Eric Belanger. In fact, add in rookie Marcus Johansson and the Nicklas Backstrom/Arnott/MJ90 trio is likely the best Washington has had up the middle in the Boudreau era.

On defense, the top five blue liners are Green, Dennis Wideman, John Carlson, Scott Hannan, and Karl Alzner. Boudreau can either go with Poti, if he is healthy, or opt for Jeff Schultz or John Erskine as his sixth defenseman, depending on the opponent. This is a major improvement over last year’s crew that included Joe Corvo and Shaone Morrisonn, two mediocore, at best, blue liners. Alzner didn’t even arrive on the scene in last year’s post season until game seven and by then it was too late. #27 is +15 in his first full season in the NHL.

In net, 2010-11 will be the first time in three seasons that the Capitals don’t have to start Jose Theodore in game one of the playoffs, thank goodness. Theo failed miserably in goal and whether Boudreau goes with the more NHL playoff experienced Semyon Varlamov or rookie Michal Neuvirth, who incidentally hasn’t ever lost a North American playoff series (h/t @JapersRink), it doesn’t matter, the goaltending should be better. Of course if both falter or are injured, rookie Braden Holtby, who won the NHL’s first star of the week on March 14th, is also an option.

Down the stretch in 2009-10, the majority of the Caps headlines were all about the regular season dominance and individual statistics and trophies. Both Ovechkin and Green were positioned for post season hardware nominations while Alexander Semin was focused on a 40 goal season in an attempt to try and maximize his free agent earning power for the summer of 2011. During that closing stretch #52 took a slash to the arm in Columbus and was never right for the post season. Ovechkin also played out the string and after the series was over it was revealed he was banged up as well. Following that game seven loss, the mad dash for stats, trophies, and big contracts all seemed so futile.

Flash forward to now, especially since #44 arrived on deadline day, and we are reading about Ovechkin and Semin spending lots of time with Arnott picking his brain about what it takes to win in the post season (thanks @dcsportsbog). In my mind, #28 played his best hockey of the season when he was finally paired with a true second line center in Arnott, much like he did when Sergei Fedorov was here in 2008 and 2009. Semin re-upped for another year here and there is no more talk from him or his agent about “the dollars.” It seems that the two young Russians stars are on a mission to shut their critics up once and for all and that they just might have matured as a result of the Capitals past playoff disappointments.

Like I said earlier, on paper this team is better than last year’s at this stage, but that heavily depends on the health of Ovechkin, Arnott, Backstrom, Semin, and Green, as well as a few others. Therefore, the cautious approach to the last nine games of the NHL regular season that both McPhee and Boudreau appear to be taking makes great sense and hopefully will pay dividends for them starting April 13th and beyond, when health and the matchups will be huge factors in the quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup. It’s only 23 days away, but who’s counting?

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Caps Sign Jeff Schultz to 4 Year Deal

Posted on 07 July 2010 by Ed Frankovic

Caps Sign Schultz

Below is the press release from the Capitals on the Jeff Schultz inking:

The Washington Capitals have signed defenseman Jeff Schultz to a four-year contract, vice president and general manager George McPhee announced today. In keeping with club policy, financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Schultz, 24, played 73 games for the Capitals in 2009-10 and led the NHL with a +50 rating, the best single-season rating in franchise history. He became the first defenseman to lead the NHL in plus/minus rating since 2005-06 (Michal Rozsival and Wade Redden) and the first Capital to lead the league in that category. Offensively he recorded career highs in assists (20) and points (23) and averaged a career-high 19:51 of ice time per game. He led the team with 129 blocked shots.

The Calgary, Alberta, native was the Capitals’ first-round choice, 27th overall, in the 2004 Entry Draft. He has played in 247 career games for Washington, recording 56 points (nine goals, 47 assists) and just 97 penalty minutes. He has a +80 rating in his career.

COMMENTS: According to Tarik El-Bashir of The Washington Post and Pierre LeBrun of ESPN, the dollars for the deal are $2.5M in the first two years, then $3M in the final two years for an annual salary cap hit of $2.75M.  Schultz had a career campaign in 2009-10 after starting the season as a healthy scratch in the season opener in Boston. He quickly beat out Shaone Morrisonn as Mike Green’s regular defensive partner making #26 expendable. Schultz, who can be a lightning rod for criticism from some media and fans, is a puck moving defenseman who uses his size (6′ 6″) and reach to neutralize opponents. He is not a physical defenseman nor is he fleet of the foot, but he is effective when on his game.

Unfortunately he has struggled in the post season, but you could make a decent list of other Caps who would join him on the playoff underachievers club. While some may find the numbers higher than expected, especially given that “Sarge” only made $715K in 2009-10, he has become a top 4 defenseman and compared to the Jeff Finger (4 years, $14M) and Mike Commodore (4 years, $15M) deals that Toronto and Columbus gave out, respectively, in the summer of 2008, this appears to be a steal. In addition, by locking up Schultz for four years the Capitals keep Sarge an extra year away from becoming an unrestricted free agent, so the 2004 1st round draft choice (27th overall) will not have a chance to hit the open market until he is 28 in 2014.

Also, there may be some who are concerned that tying up this much money in #55 might impact the future contracts for young defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner. Alzner, who has an estimated salary cap hit of $1.6M after bonuses for 2010-11, can become a restricted free agent after this upcoming season. Carlson, who has an estimated salary cap figure of just under $850K, is eligible to become a restricted free agent after the 2011-12 season. However, Tom Poti, who currently is a cap hit of $3.5M, will become an unrestricted free agent after 2010-11 and it is expected that the Caps will not have much interest in a then 34 year old d-man, unless he takes a significant pay cut. Thus much of the Poti freed up dollars will be used for expected increases to King Karl and the 2010 World Junior Championships American Hero.

Notes: In other Caps organizational news, the 2010 Calder Cup Champion HERSHEY BEARS announced today in conjunction with the Washington Capitals that the club has signed left wing Kyle Greentree and defenseman Brian Fahey.  Greentree has signed a two-year agreement, while Fahey has signed for the 2010-11 season. The announcement was made today by BEARS President/GM Doug Yingst.

Greentree, 26, led Rockford (AHL) with 25 goals in 64 games last season. The 6’3”, 215-pound left wing has played four games in the NHL, two with Philadelphia in 2007-08 and two with Calgary in 2008-09.  His most prolific goal scoring season as a professional came two years ago, scoring 39 goals for Quad City (AHL). Greentree made his AHL debut with the Philadelphia Phantoms during the 2006-07 campaign.

 

Fahey, 29, played last season with Lake Erie (AHL), where he had 11 goals and 25 points in 71 games. A blueliner for the BEARS briefly during the 2003-04 season, he enjoyed his best season as a professional while skating for Chicago (AHL) in 2007-08.  Fahey scored 14 goals and assisted on 37 others that season for the Wolves during the regular season, and helped Chicago win the Calder Cup. He was also a four-year standout for the University of Wisconsin, playing in 156 games during his time in Madison.

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Caps Wisely Quiet on Day 1 of NHL Free Agency

Posted on 02 July 2010 by Ed Frankovic

NHL free agency began on Thursday, July 1st and the Washington Capitals did not make a single signing. Based on the dollars and length of contracts being inked on day one, it appears to me that Caps GM George McPhee was very wise to stay out of the bidding wars and prevented himself from overpaying for a player that the organization might regret acquiring in a few months or a year or so down the road (see Michael Nylander in 2007).

There has been a lot of talk about the Caps needing a second line center and some even want a physical defenseman to improve the back end. I have been an advocate of another player at center ice but given that the Sharks Patrick Marleua re-upped in San Jose there was not what anyone would call a blue chip player to be inked starting Thursday at noon. One of the next best options appeared to be Matt Cullen from Ottawa, but he hit the jackpot getting $10.5 over three years from the Minnesota Wild. At this late hour, not much is left on the center market, and the player some are calling the best pivot man available, Matthew Lombardi of Phoenix, is asking for $4M plus. In the immortal words of Jeff Spicoli and his stoner buds from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, I say, “No Dice!” to that figure.

On defense, there were some big signings, such as former Nashville Predators blue liner Dan Hamhuis cashing in for $27M over six years in Vancouver. In addition, the New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Ottawa Senators essentially “traded” defensemen with Sergei Gonchar going to Ottawa, Anton Volchenkov moving to New Jersey, and Paul Martin headed to the Steel City. The Penguins also gave former Phoenix Coyotes d-man Zybnek Michalek $20M over five years. In summary, each of these moves was for too much money and too long in terms of years.

Other acquisitions by some NHL general managers were bordering on ridiculous,  especially the Toronto Maple Leafs signing of third line forward Colby Armstrong for $9M for 3 years or the New York Rangers inking fourth line heavyweight Derek Boogaard for $6.5M for four years. Basically, it was a crazy day and those teams that didn’t spend a large sum of money or none at all, were the winners.

Back to the Caps. Just because McPhee did nothing on July 1st, and he hinted at that possibility when he was on the Comcast Morning Show on WNST on Wednesday morning, doesn’t mean the roster is set with what they finished the season with personnel-wise. There are still three more months before the season starts and seven months until the NHL trade deadline. Sure the team and its fans are disappointed with the round one playoff failure this past spring and there is certainly more heat on both McPhee and Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau for the 2010-11 season, but the bottom line is the Capitals still have a young team with a great deal of talent that should continue to mature and improve. 

Yes, the club needs to get tougher and grittier, especially in front of both nets, but to go out and throw caution to the wind in free agency would have been a ”panic” move. Looking inside the organization first for improvements, makes the most sense. Washington’s farm team, the two time defending AHL Champion Hershey Bears, definitely has some players up front that warrant further evaluation such as center Mathieu Perreault and wingers Andrew Gordon and Steve Pinizzotto. Jay Beagle and even Chris Bourque could be guys who have outside shots to make the club in training camp, as well. Both McPhee and Boudreau have already pretty much stated that d-men Karl Alzner and John Carlson will be up full time during 2010-11 and that instantly improves a blue line crew that had its issues, at times, this past season. Another player who the squad will keep an eye on at development camp and then in September is 2009 1st round pick Marcus Johansson (center), but given that he is only 19 and the Caps don’t like to rush young players to the NHL, that possibility appears to be a much longer shot.

The reason so many of the aforementioned players will get a good look in September is because Washington has already indicated that several skaters from the roster, such as Joe Corvo, Eric Belanger, Scott Walker, Brendan Morrison, Shaone Morrisonn, and Milan Jurcina will very likely not be back with the club. Therefore, just because there were no July 1 acquisitions does not mean McPhee and company are going with the same crew they had last season when they won the Presidents’ Trophy, change is going to occur by attrition and internal promotion alone. The question still remains, and likely will do so for several months, what will the Caps bring in from outside of the organziaton for 2010-11, if anything at all? That answer is as clear as mud right now, but McPhee appears to be sticking with an astute plan of “Right player, right price” at this juncture. Stay tuned.

Note: For all of my instant thoughts on free agency and the NHL, please follow me on twitter (@Emfrank123). I had several tweets this evening that formed the basis for this blog, all available at twitter now.

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Halak Stones Caps Again, Forces Game 7

Posted on 26 April 2010 by Ed Frankovic

For the fourth straight playoff series under Head Coach Bruce Boudreau in his three seasons behind the bench the Washington Capitals will play a game seven. In this instance, however, they come in to the final tilt having lost game six for the first time. Jaroslav Halak was superb in goal once again for Montreal and he stopped 53 of 54 shots to lead the Canadiens to a 4-1 victory at the Bell Centre. Game seven is Wednesday night at 7pm at the Verizon Center. The Caps are 1-2 in these same past situations under Boudreau.

Let’s get to the highlights and analysis from an awesome display of goaltending by Halak, who is unbeaten for Montreal when facing 45 or more shots:

In my blog on Sunday, I spoke of Washington coming out faster in the early stages to try and take a “jacked up” Montreal crowd out of the game. The Capitals did put pressure on Montreal early, getting six of the first seven shots, but #41 was huge in goal and his play sparked the Bell Centre crowd into a frenzy. Then when Mike Cammalleri scored at 7:30 and followed it up at the 9:09 mark, the Caps chances of surviving the first period looked bleak. The Capitals would catch a break when Maxim Lapierre took a dive to give Washington a 74 second five on three advantage, but the anemic Caps power play could not convert (0 for 6 on the night). Not scoring on a five on three is usually a good sign you are not going to win the contest. So, despite outshooting the Habs, 18-10, in the opening stanza the Capitals would trail 2-0 and their first period deficit in this series is now 8-3.

The rest of the game was dominated by Washington and they outshot the Habs, 36-12, but despite four more power plays (now 1 for 30 in the series), they could only get one puck past the Team Slovakia goaltender in the 2010 Winter Olympic games. That one goal was a nice redirect in front by Eric Fehr off of a Mike Green point blast and it came at even strength with the score 3-0 and just 4:50 remaining in the contest.

The Caps spent Sunday afternoon working on their power play and Boudreau juggled his lines in an attempt to get Alexander Semin going. #28 was goalless coming into game six and had just one assist in the series, so the 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winner put him with Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich. They had some chances early, but it was Semin’s giveaway that led to the Shaone Morrisonn cross-check penalty that resulted in Cammalleri’s first tally. Semin, who had 6:55 of the 10:26 of power play time Washington received, did fire seven shots on net but he had six blocked and missed three others, including some good looks from in the slot. In addition, he continues to shy away from contact and is still allergic to the front of the net. Bottom line, I think he should be moved off of the first power play unit and his time on ice should be cut. The guy who scored 40 times in the regular season is just not producing nor showing any sign that he will pay the price to score an ugly goal.

Alexander Ovechkin, who scored the only goal for Washington in game five, fired eight shots on net, had four blocked, and two that missed the cage. The Great #8 went to the net, at times, but I would really like to see Boudreau and power play coach Dean Evason move Alexander the Great down low, remove Semin from the first unit, and put one of the other defenseman out on the point with Green (1 assist), with a preference to John Carlson. Carlson had 1:21 of late power play time and seemed to do a better job of getting the puck through to the cage. Joe Corvo, who played 4:12 with the man advantage, had a game high 10 shots on net, including being robbed in the slot by Halak on one of the finest grabs with a glove you will ever see.

Semyon Varlamov (18 saves on 21 shots) was 4-0 at the Bell Centre before game six but this would not be his night. He had no chance on Cammalleri’s first goal, which he scored because Eric Belanger’s blocked shot bounced right to him, and on the second goal Boyd Gordon goes down and deflects it just enough to get by #40. On the third Montreal tally, Varlamov has to make that save but Morrisonn deflected it up ever so slightly with his stick after Tomas Fleischmann, another Capital who has disappeared in the playoffs, went off on a bad line change. Even though Varly gave up a shaky third tally to the Habs, I still imagine he will be between the pipes for game seven on Wednesday for Boudreau.

At times during this series, Washington has struggled with the speed of the small Canadiens forwards, particularly Cammalleri (five goals). Morrisonn, who missed the last two games due injury, returned tonight but he looked to have lost a step. He took a costly cross checking penalty that led to the first Montreal goal and he was on the ice for the second and third ones, as well. If #26 is trying to play with an injury that slows him down then I have to believe it would better for Washington to scratch him and go with Tyler Sloan or call up Karl Alzner from Hershey (John Erskine is likely not a good match either for the speed of the Canadiens). Tom Poti, who played superb in the first five games, appeared to take a puck to the face at the end of the second period and never returned so Washington could need to put two new lefties in for game seven on the blue line.

Judging by Boudreau’s post game quotes though, it doesn’t appear that he’ll make many lineup changes, but he has a day or so to figure that out. When you get 54 shots on goal you are doing something right so it is not like Montreal is carrying the play, but the Habs are scoring first and then riding their hot goaltender. It will now be up to Washington’s crowd to help spark the Capitals to an early lead and turn the Verizon Center into the dominating place it was for the Caps during the regular season. The truth is, the Caps are 2-1 on the road and should have already locked this series up if they had any kind of energy and performance at home. Washington is 1-2 at the Phone Booth with the one win coming due to a great third period rally. The pressure is squarely on the guys in the red, white, and blue to get it done and right or wrong, Ovechkin is going to be the guy with the most heat on him. It is time for the Great #8 to find a way to get his squad playing the best they have all season, because it looks like it will take that type of effort to beat Halak.

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Varlamov Stones Habs, Ovechkin Nets 2 in Caps 6-3 Win

Posted on 21 April 2010 by Ed Frankovic

In Varly We Trust. At least that is what Washington Capitals fans think should be printed on their currency as their money goaltender, Semyon Varlamov (36 saves), turned in another stellar performance at the Bell Centre in Montreal to lead the Caps to a 6-3 victory that puts the Canadiens on the brink of elimination. Washington leads the first round series, three games to one, and can wrap things up Friday night at 7pm at the Verizon Center.  If not for #40′s second period, however, the Capitals are probably coming home all tied up.

Alexander Ovechkin notched two goals and an assist and Mike Knuble had two tallies, including a shorthanded momentum turning one timer off of a perfect Boyd Gordon saucer pass with just 11 seconds left in the middle stanza. Montreal had buzzed the Caps net all period long firing 21 shots on goal (and scoring once on a fluky bounce off of the back boards), but when #22 swatted it home to tie it up, the Capitals were in position to take a commanding lead in the series.

“That goal was big..we knew we’d only have to play a good twenty minutes to win at that point,” said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau after the victory.

“I think it was a pretty good goal. We play great shorthanded…[Boyd Gordon] Gordo, what can you say about him? He is such a hard working guy,” added Ovechkin on the tally that was the turning point in this contest.

The third period was all Capitals as they fired 20 shots on Carey Price (32 saves on 36 shots) but it finally took an Alexander Semin appearance to put Washington ahead with 8:51 remaining. #28 carried the puck up the left wing boards at the end of a long shift, and making his best play of the series, he drew the Habs defenseman to him and slid a pass to the Great #8. From there it was like fishing in your momma’s barrel as Ovechkin flew down the slot and got a quick shot off before Price could get set. The goal put the Caps up 3-2 and stunned the Montreal fans as well as their team.

“Semin was on the ice because of a line change, so I can’t take credit for [putting him with Ovechkin]…they like playing together and they look for each other,” said Boudreau on the third Caps goal.

Montreal was clearly still stunned and when Matt Bradley made a strong play behind the Montreal net and then slid the puck across the crease, Jason Chimera was there to bang it home to make it 4-2 just 52 seconds after the Great #8 tally.

To close out the game the Caps played very smart hockey down the stretch, for the most part, sandwiching two empty net tallies around a bad decision by Tyler Sloan at the Caps blue line. #89, who struggled on a few shifts, slid too close to the left wings boards and that led to a two on one rush which resulted in a Dominic Moore backhanded goal with 78 seconds left.

Here is the rest of the analysis from a victory that gives Ovechkin and company their first 3-1 series lead in their four post season matchups:

Varlamov is now 4-0 at the Bell Centre in his career and looks more and more like the guy who helped the Caps advance to the second round last post season. However, he has a much better glove hand now thanks to some honing of his craft. Varly and goaltending Coach Arturs Irbe have turned what was once a weakness for #40 into an area that was on spectacular display on Wednesday night. It seems it is much more difficult to go upstairs glove side on the young Russian goalie nowadays.

Ovechkin, after being held pointless in the series opener, now has four goals and four assists in the last three games. He was very solid on Wednesday dishing out four hits and his first tally was a power play marker that broke an 0 for 15 drought by the Caps with the man advantage in this series. Boudreau likes to say “Great players make great plays in big games” and the Great #8 did that again this evening scoring the first and third goals. The Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-Knuble line was a combined +10. Backstrom had an empty net goal and two assists.

The first two Caps power plays were pretty good but the third one was nearly disastrous. According to Boudreau, Semin waved his stick up to come off the ice and as a result Eric Fehr jumped into the play. But then #28 decided to play the puck and the Caps, who were hoping to get a power play tally to even the game up, instead were called for too many men on the ice and were forced to go shorthanded. It was a boneheaded decision by Semin and he should be buying Gordon and Knuble dinners for the rest of the playoffs for not only killing the bad penalty, but scoring the game tying goal. Semin was not good tonight, except for those nine seconds when he was on the ice with Ovechkin for the third goal.

Montreal scored a power play tally for the fourth straight game (1 for 4) but it gave up a shorthanded goal for the second time in two contests. Washington has been very aggressive on the PK and it has forced the Habs to take shots from bad angles, for the most part. Their only connection was a Brian Gionta put back of a Andrei Markov point blast that banked hard off of the end boards.

What a two game set for Gordon in Montreal, eh? #15 was 8-4 on face-offs in this tilt to go with 13-2 on Monday. He had the shorthanded goal on Monday and then set up Knuble for his PK tally tonight. Gordon and Knuble are a potent penalty killing combo.

Puck possession is made a lot easier when you win the face-offs and Washington dominated from the dot again, going 39-26, on the road, no less. Backstrom was 12-9 while Eric Belanger was 12-7.

Joe Corvo took a cheap shot to the head from Maxim Lapierre in the first period but managed to still log 17:44 of ice time. #77 played one of his stronger games in a Caps uniform and if not for Sloan’s poor play on the third Montreal goal he is a +1.

Speaking of cheap shots and tempers, Price was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after the fourth Caps goal for firing the puck out of the net at Washington. Then he hacked at the back of Backstrom’s legs after #19 deposited the biscuit in the basket on the Caps last empty net tally. Clearly Ovechkin and company are in this goalie’s head.

Notes: Brendan Morrison, who was +25 on the road coming into Wednesday’s game, was an uncharacteristic -2 in the victory in just 9:17 of ice time…Tom Poti was +3 and John Carlson +2 on the blue line…final shots on goal totals were 39 for Montreal and 38 for the Caps but there were wild swings (MTL had 21-9 edge in 2nd pd while Caps had 20-6 advantage in 3rd pd)…Cap killer Tomas Plekenac was held pointless and went -2…Shaone Morrisonn missed the game (either hurt or sick) while d-man Jaroslav Spacek was unable to go for the Habs…Good news down on the farm: The Hershey Bears dominated the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (NY Islanders AHL team) outshooting them, 34-7, in a 4-1 victory. Karl Alzner scored his first playoff goal this post season and Michal Neuvirth stopped six, yes only six shots, en route to the series clincher. The Bears won the series four games to one and will take on the Albany River Rats (Carolina’s AHL team) in round two starting on Saturday night at 7pm at the Giant Center.

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Caps Crush Habs, 5-1, Behind Varlamov

Posted on 20 April 2010 by Ed Frankovic

There were numerous Montreal fans who booed the American anthem to start Monday night’s game between the Washington Capitals and the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre. So what happened to the local hometown team for the next several hours is what I call KARMA!! Semyon Varlamov (26 saves) stoned the Habs in the first period and then the Caps exploded for four second period tallies en route to a 5-1 beatdown of Jacques Martin’s club to give Washington a 2-1 lead in their best of seven game series. Game four is on Wednesday night in Montreal at 7pm on Comcast in HD.

As expected with 22,000+ loud and singing fans at the Bell Centre, the Canadiens came out with a ton of energy and carried the majority of play in the opening stanza. The Habs would out shoot the Caps, 10-7, in the first period and Montreal had some really good scoring chances only to be denied by Varlamov. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau, as I suggested in my blog last night, went with #40 over Jose Theodore in goal, and it was just another in a LONG line of great decisions by the 2007-08 Jack Adams award winner. If not for the play of Varly then the Canadiens come out of period one with at least a one goal lead. The young Russian goalie would continue to make the big save when Washington needed it and he controlled or smothered any rebounds. Varlamov’s record at the Bell Centre is now 3-0 with a 1.63 GAA and .940 save percentage!

At the other end of the ice, Jaroslav Halak stopped all seven Capitals shots in period one, with a couple being of the quality variety, but #41 would be shellacked and chased in period two. First, after a terrible penalty by Tomas Fleischmann for hooking Andrei Markov led to a Montreal power play chance just 54 seconds into period two, Boyd Gordon broke down ice with the puck and he and Mike Knuble whacked at it several times before putting it by Halak for a shorthanded marker. Then Brooks Laich fired a shot on net off of a Mike Green feed and with Eric Fehr and Brendan Morrison screening Halak, it found the back of the cage to make it 2-0 at 4:42 of the second. Less than four minutes later that line would strike again as Fehr banged home a rebound of a Morrison shot to make it 3-0 and send #41 to the showers.

On came Carey Price and with 6:10 to go in period two, Knuble threw the puck behind the net and Nicklas Backstrom fed Alexander Ovechkin in the slot for a one-timer that #31 never had a chance on and the rout was on. In period three, Caps killer Tomas Plekenac scored an early power play goal, then Washington took another penalty, but the Caps killed it off and then Matt Bradley tallied in the last minute to make it 5-1.

Here is the rest of the analysis of a win by a Caps club that had the best road record (24-10-7) in the NHL this season:

What a game by Gordon! Not only did he score the shorthanded tally that totally turned the tide Washington’s way, but he was an incredible 13-2 on face-offs. He also was +2 on the night and did a super job at the Washington blue line of thwarting Montreal rushes. The decision to re-insert #15 into the line-up and scratch Dave Steckel was yet another shrewd move by Boudreau.

Fehr OWWWWNNNNSSSS the Canadiens. #16 had a goal and an assist and it was his sixth tally in seven contests versus Montreal this season. Fehr was super efficient going +2 in only 9:21 of ice time.

Laich (+2) returned to form tonight notching a goal and an assist logging 18:56. Boudreau shifted him down to the third line with Fehr and Morrison and they clicked in their eight plus minutes together. Morrison, who was even in the regular season at home but was +23 on the road, went +2 in Montreal. You can bet the farm he is playing on Wednesday!

On the blue line, Tom Poti was outstanding going +3 in 23:40 of time. Is it me or do games against Northeast Division teams, such as Boston, Buffalo, and Montreal, bring out the best from the Beantown native? In addition, USA hero John Carlson (+2 in 20:19) was very good for the third straight evening while Green and Jeff Schultz both rebounded from poor outings to have strong contests. Both #52 and #55 were +2 as well with Green notching an assist on Laich’s goal. The only bad news on the backend was that Shaone Morrisonn logged only 10:52 of ice time and did not play in the last 24:52 of this tilt.

The problem child of the evening though, was once again Washington’s power play. It was a pitiful 0 for 7 in game three and is now 0 for 14 in the series. I could deal with that if the club was getting good shots and pressure on Montreal but that has not been the case, at all. The Caps seemed to always lose momentum in the first three games whenever they were awarded a power play. With a chance to put the contest away for good up 4-0, they received a four minute one late in the second period that carried early into the third when Plekenac interfered with Fehr and then lost his mind on the officials. But during the second minor, Laich took a careless penalty and after Plekenac came out of the box he scored for the Habs with the man advantage. Besides Laich’s bad decision that resulted in a penalty, the biggest problem was too much passing and not enough shots with traffic in front. But at least the Caps have figured that out when it is five on five.

Montreal would go 1 for 5 with the man advantage on the night but they gave up Gordo’s shortie, so their power play was not effective either. In addition, Plekenac, Mike Cammalleri, and Andrei Kostitsyn, a line that scored all five Habs goals on Saturday, each were a woeful -4.

In the kudos department, Jason Chimera deserves quite a bit of those for not fighting or retaliating on several occassions when Montreal players took unnecessary shots or tried to goad him into striking back. #25 smartly kept his head with his club in control on the scoreboard.

Yesterday I mentioned that three players needed to step up in game three after poor performances in games one and two at the Verizon Center. Both Green and Schultz did that tonight after a shaky first period. The third member of the trio, Alexander Semin, still seems to be missing in action despite waking up a few times in the third period. Simply put, #28 needs to start competing more. He was beaten or taken off the puck easily on several occassions, including a missed clear in front of the Caps net when the game was still scoreless that led to a great Montreal chance. There is no excuse for Semin to be this soft at this time of the year. He is pointless in the series.

Notes: Final shots were 36-27 for the Caps…Washington also won the face-off battle 42-30, thanks to Gordon…after praising the officials for games 1 and 2, I thought they made some curious calls this evening by caving to the pressure of the Montreal fans. The call I liked least was the goalie interference infraction whistled on Knuble midway through the 3rd period. That one smelled of excessive whining to the supervisor of officials (Kevin Collins) between games…Early message to Caps fans attending Friday night’s game five at the Verizon Center: Be respectful of the visiting team’s anthem. If you can’t do that, then you shouldn’t go to the game. Besides, O Canada is a great song and the Canucks are our long time ally.

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Caps Drop Playoff Opener in OT

Posted on 16 April 2010 by Ed Frankovic

Caps killer Tomas Plekenac scored from the slot 13:19 into overtime to give the Montreal Canadiens a 3-2 victory in the opening game of their best of seven game series with the Washington Capitals. Plekenac, who scored the game winner in OT against the Capitals on February 10th to end Washington’s club record 14 game winning streak, was sprung on a 3 on 2 break by Jaroslav Spacek and when Shaone Morrisonn was pulled too far over to the right wing boards, #14 cut to the slot, was given far too much room by Caps d-man Joe Corvo, and snapped a laser by Jose Theodore. Game two is Saturday night at the Verizon Center at 7pm.

Let’s get right to the highlights, quotes and analysis of the first ever playoff game between these two teams:

Washington had 47 shots on Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak (45 saves) and Alexander Ovechkin had none of them. The Great #8 simply did not have a good game and I would put Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom in that same category. #19 did score to give the Caps the lead in the third period, but on a 3 on 1 break in overtime, in which the Swede had the puck coming off of the right wing boards, Washington would fail to get off a shot. Semin had 6 shots on net but he missed wide on several good chances and also was careless with the puck on numerous occassions. The Great #8 had five shots blocked and three others that missed the net. Ovechkin was too predictable coming down the left wing and Montreal did a good job of taking his space away. Simply put, if the Caps want to come back and win this series these three guys must play alot better and it starts with the guy wearing the “C.”

“He didn’t play good. I mean, they gapped up on him really well, but I don’t think Alex played very well. I can’t put my finger on it right now, but when you get 50 shots on goal and Ovechkin doesn’t get any and you have four power plays, they took him away pretty good, but I just didn’t think he was very good tonight,” said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau on the play of Washington’s leader.

Theodore (35 saves) had a decent performance and it was hard to fault him on any of the three tallies he allowed. Jose did a nice job of not giving up big rebounds and he was superb at freezing the puck on several occassions when Washington was running around in their own end.

“I thought he was good. I thought he kept us in. In the first period we were really good. In the second period, when they were putting a big push on, he made some big saves to keep it a tied game,” added Boudreau on #60.

As Boudreau mentioned, the Caps were very good in the first period outshooting Montreal 19-7 by playing their system and taking away time and space from the Habs. But thanks to Halak, and Washington’s lack of desire to go hard to the net, the opening stanza ended in a 1-1 tie. After the first period the Canadiens carried most of the play as the Caps, when they received opportunities to make things happen, often turned the puck over due to overpassing and being in the all too familiar “too cute mode.” Washington’s two goals came as a result of going to the cage and creating traffic in front of Halak. Joe Corvo scored on a floater to tie this one up at one thanks to some hard work by Matt Bradley, Eric Belanger, and Jason Chimera. The Caps had two skaters in front of the net and #41, therefore, had no way to see the shot. The second goal was on a rush where Washington drove to the net. But there weren’t many other moments where the Caps were willing to pay the price to go to the paint area to get rewarded, and thus a big reason for the defeat.

“You can’t fault Jose. We didn’t execute. We need to play better and harder all the way around. We need to bear down a little more right around the net,” said Caps forward Mike Knuble, who notched an assist on Backstrom’s goal.

Special teams played a role in the Montreal victory as they scored first on a Mike Cammalleri blast with Backstrom in the box for a retaliation penalty. #19, after getting his feet taken out in the corner, then cross checked the Habs player and was correctly sent off. The Canadiens went 1 for 4 with the man advantage while Washington was blanked in their four chances. Once again, the problem was trying for the perfect play instead of shooting and going for rebounds in front. Credit should also go to Montreal for getting in the passing lanes and blocking shots.

“They know you can’t do it, but every now and then you make a mistake. Nicky (Backstrom) retaliated and you can count on one hand how many times Nicky’s retaliated this year. I think it was an honest play. With (Alexander) Semin, he just knows he can’t do the lift the stick on the hands. He caught him on the hands. We had already had a power play so you knew they were going to get one. It was a bad play by him,” commented the 2007-08 Jack Adams award winner on the penalties his club took.

At the end of a long night, this was just one game in what shapes up to be a very close series. Game two clearly becomes more important for Washington as they do not want to go down two games heading into Montreal for Monday’ night’s tilt. The Caps, after a film session tomorrow with their coaches, will know what needs to be done to get a victory, but the question is, are they willing to pay the physical price for it?

Notes: Corvo (17:40 of ice time) did not see a regular shift in OT likely due to a shot he took in the hand earlier in the game…Rookie John Carlson, (1 assist in 21:56) despite making a couple of giveaways due to bad reads, had a very good first NHL playoff game and arguably could have been labeled the Caps best defenseman on Thursday night…Belanger was 18-3 on face-offs and the Caps overall won the battle at the dot, 45-26…In the history of the franchise, the Capitals have won five of nine playoff series in which they have lost Game 1…The Capitals have played 37 overtime games in their playoff history, and fell to 15-22 all-time in playoff overtime games.

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Caps Sweep Penguins, 6-3

Posted on 07 April 2010 by Ed Frankovic

In a game that meant so much more to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Washington Capitals went into the vaunted “Igloo” and despite having to play the Pens and the referees for the 15th straight time, the Caps still managed to come out on top, 6-3. Alexander Ovechkin continued his resurgence just in time for the playoffs notching two goals and he now is tied with Sidney Crosby (1 goal, 2 assists) for the NHL goal scoring lead at 48. Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay is just one goal back. Ovechkin is also tied with Henrik Sedin of Vancouver for the Art Ross Trophy race, at 106 points, pending Vancouver’s late game vs. Colorado. The Capitals won every regular season meeting between these two teams (SWEEEEEPP!) in 2009-10 with all four contests coming since January 21st. Washington now has a staggering 118 points (53-15-12) and will finish the regular season with games against the Thrashers on Friday and Boston on Sunday at the Verizon Center.

Here are the highlights, some quotes from Ovechkin, and analysis from what I hope is the last game ever between the Caps and Pens in Mellon Arena (i.e, I wish the Pens bad luck in the playoffs):

STAT OF THE NIGHT: For the 15th straight game between these two squads, the Caps did not receive more power plays than the Penguins. In fact, in ONLY four of those contests have the number of power plays for each team been even! That is ridiculous and clearly shows an officiating bias. The shots on Tuesday were 29-28, in favor of Pittsburgh, but the Penguins had four power plays to just one for Washington (the Caps scored just 4 seconds into their PP chance on Ovechkin’s first goal). In addition to being shortchanged on power play opportunities, both blind zebras, Greg Devorski and Ian Walsh, missed a nasty elbow by Max Talbot to the head of Alexander Semin (scored his 39th goal of the season and added an assist). The Caps did get a big break though on a quick whistle that negated what would have been a Penguins goal in the second period.

Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom (3 assists), and Mike Knuble (28th goal of the season) had their second straight good game and appear to be heating up for the playoffs. The Great #8 logged 19:12 of ice time while Backstrom played 20:35 with the difference being #19′s 1:25 on the PK. Knuble played 17:33 so Caps Coach Bruce Bourdeau continues to do a good job of not overplaying his top line down the stretch.

“I think that power play goal gave me more [relief]. I had lots chances to score goals the last four games and they didn’t go in.  Finally it goes in and the last 10 minutes I just felt unbelievable ,” said the Great #8, who also praised Crosby’s play, character, and leadership after this one in addition to recognizing the Caps defense and goaltender for super play (“Varly today played unbelievable.”). By the way, Ovechkin’s second marker came into an empty net with just 0.2 seconds remaining.

Semyon Varlamov (26 saves) was very solid tonight and it was hard to fault him on the three goals allowed. The first was a laser by Crosby on the power play after Tyler Sloan gave #87 far too much room coming off of the right wing boards. The middle tally by the Pens was a Jordan Leopold point blast that was heading wide but hit Shaone Morrisonn (-2 on the evening) and bounced right through Varly’s pad while the final Pittsburgh goal was another Leopold rocket after a Caps giveaway. On that shot Morrisonn dove to the ice late and didn’t allow #40 to pick up the shot. The back-to-back wins were the first ones since December 3rd & 7th, right before he started with all of the injuries. Boudreau has to feel very good about where his goaltending is at with just two regular season games remaining. Jose Theodore is on fire again and if he somehow struggles the 2007-08 Jack Adams award winning coach knows he has a surging Varly he can put in the cage as well.

Resiliency was the key word of the night for Washington. First, they lost defenseman John Erskine to a lower body injury (h/t Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post) in the first period and #4 logged only 3:52 of ice time. After that they had to go with just five blue liners. Even more impressive was their ability to respond so quickly to Pittsburgh tallies. After Crosby’s PP marker made it 2-1 at 6:18 of the second period, Tomas Fleischmann scored just 21 seconds later on a wicked top shelf wrister that chased Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to the showers (9 saves on 12  shots). #29 proceeded to lose it in the tunnel after Coach Dan Bylsma gave him the hook. Then after Leopold put one byVarly just 49 seconds into the third period, Ovechkin responded with his power play rocket by former Capital Brent Johnson (13 saves on 15 shots) just 1:51 later to restore a two goal Washington lead.

Another key tally was Matt Bradley’s 10th of the season with just two minutes left in the second period. That goal, off of a nice passing play with Quintin Laing and Dave Steckel, came after a long stretch where the Pens were dominating play and gave Washington momentum heading into period three.

Jeff Schultz is back. #55, who seems to play his best against the Pens (+12 in last 8 games versus PIT; h/t @JapersRink), was so solid in his own end tying up several Pens around the net all game and earning a +5 for the evening (he leads the NHL at +44, h/t to Corey Masisak). In addition, Sarge added two assists and wasn’t prone to some of the sloppy giveaways he had been making over the last month. Schultz logged 25:00 of ice time to lead all Caps (Tom Poti had 24:55).

Notes: Mike Green was a scratch and apparently is “dinged up” but could have played, if really necessary..El-Bashir is reporting he will play Friday against the Thrashers…Evgeni Malkin (sick) missed the game for the Penguins as did noted head hunter, Chris Kunitz (undisclosed)..Pittburgh won the face-off battle, 29-24, with Backstrom going 8-5, Jay Beagle 7-3, and Fleischmann 3-10. Crosby was 16-12 for the Pens…Karl Alzner was recalled today but was scratched…Kris Letang and Bill Guerin were both -3 for Pittsburgh, who are now two points behind the New Jersey Devils in the race for the Atlantic Division title (NJ defeated ATL, 3-0, on Tuesday night).

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Bradley, Varlamov Help Caps Beat Thrashers, 2-1

Posted on 01 April 2010 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals faced another desperate team on Thursday night, in the Eastern Conference ninth place Atlanta Thrashers who were just two points out of a playoff spot coming into this contest, and they managed to get some super timely goaltending from Semyon Varlamov (19 saves) along with a big third period goal from Matt Bradley to win, 2-1. This victory halted a three game losing streak for Washington, although one defeat came in a shootout while another was in overtime, and gave them win #50 on the season. This is the first time in franchise history that the Capitals have had back to back 50 win seasons. Washington’s overall record is 50-15-12 (112 points) and they need just three points, gained via themselves or missed ones by the Sharks, to capture the franchise’s first ever President’s Trophy. 

The Caps are now 32-1-1 when they hold an opponent to two goals or less (the regulation loss was in LA, 2-1, in January) and are 34-7-6 on the season when they score the first goal of the game.

Let’s get right to the highlights, quotes, and analysis of a game that was atypical of past Caps-Thrashers tilts:

I’m gonna start with Mike Green because he deserves the most praise tonight. Watching this contest I only felt comfortable when #52 was on the ice when it came to the Caps blueliners. Green, who has been overly criticized for his defensive zone play over the years, has taken his game to another level since the Olympic break and he has been ultra consistent on a game to game basis. The Calgary native continues to rack up the points to lead the NHL by d-men (18 goals, 55 assists) and his rocket of a shot on a nice Alexander Ovechkin feed was tipped home by Nicklas Backstrom to give Washington a lead late in period one.  Here are the stats on #52 tonight: 24:20 of ice time, 1 assist, four hits (led the team), and was +1 (now +35 on the year). Afterwards Green spoke to Comcast’s Lisa Hillary.

“When you pay attention to detail and you do the simple things, which is what is asked of us most nights, you come out successful like that. Tonight, I thought the last seven minutes of the game we really played tight defense as as team. We were protecting the lines, we were getting the pucks deep, guys were coming off hard, that is what it is going to take to win in the playoffs,” said Green, who just seems so focused on the ice right now.

As for Bradley, it had been 25 games (last goal vs. Wings on 1/19) since he tallied, and you could kind of see it coming the way he was working hard and being one of the FEW guys on the team who was going to the net. The Professor notched his ninth marker of the season to go with 13 assists and he has matched his career high with five games remaining. The fan favorite is a guy that Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau likes having on his team as well.

“He’s got nine goals, which is the most he’s ever had since I’ve been here and it’s been awhile since he scored. He does his job all of the time and he comes out and he tries. I don’t know how you can get mad at him or think that he is one who is not doing his job, because he knows what his job is, to prevent other guys from scoring, not scoring goals but he got one tonight and everyone gets rewarded now and again…He knocked [Thrashers 48 year old defenseman, Chris Chelios] off of the puck. I don’t think Chelli saw him coming and he did what he was supposed to do, he took it to the net, and I don’t know how it went in but he snuck it underneath him some how,” said Boudreau on the Professor, who beat Atlanta goalie, Ondrej Pavelec (22 saves), via the five hole.

As I alluded to above, this was not the usual wide open, end-to-end hockey contest between the Caps and the Thrashers. Atlanta brought a simple game plan and intensity to this one but they still can’t knock off the Capitals. They are 0-5 against them this season.

“They play normally a very aggressive style like us but they’re battling for their playoff lives. I think they thought if we were going to go chance for chance than we have more scoring power than them so they can’t afford to do that. They were smart, John [Anderson, Thrashers head coach] comes prepared,” said Boudreau on Atlanta’s style of play in game five of their six game regular season series.

With only 42 shots on goal total and numerous whistles, Boudreau said there were 44 of those in the first two periods alone, this one had a post season feel to it.

“I thought it was a playoff game, it was tense and there wasn’t a lot of shots but those are the hardest games to play…we beared down and proved we could play defensive when we want and had to and tonight was one of those nights,” added a pretty satisfied coach on his club’s effort on Thursday night.

Varlamov seems to be gaining ground fast in the goaltending competition and he was very solid tonight stopping Maxim Afinogenov on a breakaway in period one and making a few other key saves on quality chances by Atlanta, including one from Tobias Enstrom from the slot. I can’t remember a single rebound that was put in harm’s way in this game by #40 and he just looked very confident between the pipes, despite some iffy plays, at times, by defensemen not named Green.

“Great confidence boost for him. He hadn’t won in awhile. Held them to one goal. It was a tough one that beat him. I didn’t they think had a great many chances but the ones they had were good ones and he was up to the task,” remarked the coach who rode Varlamov in the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“I know it’s probably tough for goalies to go in and out of the lineup like that. We see how hard he works in practice and he’s ready to play. Tonight, when he needed to make a big save he did and that motivates us to play harder,” added Mike Knuble on the play of Varly.

 

Now about those other defensemen. Tom Poti and Shaone Morrisonn gave a textbook demonstration on how NOT to play a 2 on 2 break and the decision to jump in the air for the puck in the first period by #3 allowed Afinogenov to get his breakaway. Sometimes I wonder what Poti is thinking out there? Joe Corvo was abused badly by Enstrom and it led to a great scoring chance in the slot. Also, I felt that Jeff Schultz continues to struggle a bit with his decision making and lack of speed. How do we get back the pre-March version of #55? Only the combined mental mistakes by #3 and #26 cost Washington a goal though.

 

“We just got pulled over to the boards a little bit. It was a give and go and I didn’t think it was necessary for Tom [Poti] to come that far across and the guy jumped behind him and got a play,” commented Boudreau on a terrible defensive play by both Poti and Morrisonn.

 

Washington only had 20 shots and a big reason for that is the forwards seem to be stuck in “Drop Pass City” right now. There are too many cross-ice and back pass attempts when a simple shot and then a drive to the net for a rebound would be more appropriate and effective. The perfect case in point was the sequence in the second period where Backstrom made a nice play in the offensive zone, peeled off looking to pass, and dropped it for Ovechkin (1 assist), who was opened up for a one-timer. The problem was that play had to be timed perfectly to work and when the Great #8 fumbled the puck in his skates, he tripped Afingenov, who did sell it pretty well too. What Alexander the Great should have been doing was driving to the net and the super Swede could have then fired one on goal and hopefully off of Pavelec’s pads for a rebound.

 

One of the reasons Ovechkin is stuck in the mid-40′s in goals is because he is not going to the net to get the tap-ins that he has tallied on in the past (see OT winner vs. Montreal on 1/31/2008). In addition, Ovie is becoming very predictable with his moves. He is getting the puck in the neutral zone and then cutting laterally across the blue line and time after time he is being met by a wall of defenders that would make the Redcoats in the Revolutionary War proud. This same move continues to lead to turnovers or poke checks that send the Caps back into the neutral zone or forced to defend an odd man rush. Simply put, the ultra strong and powerful Ovechkin needs to do what he has done in the past and used a couple of times on Thursday: either drive hard to the outside and around the defender or make a head fake, take one stride max, and fire the biscuit on net using his opponent as a screen. I would prefer more of the former because he hasn’t used that technique too often lately and it would prevent the opposition blue liners from cheating positionally. Overall, the top line and whatever line Alexander Semin seems to be on has to get away from turnovers at the opponents blue line before the playoffs start. The Penguins feasted off of Washington turnovers in the final five games of last season’s second round playoff series.

 

I thought the hit by Colby Armstrong on Mathieu Perreault was downright dirty and #20 has a reputation for doing these things. It was far worse than what got Green suspended for three games back in January. The play, however, did not lead to a Washington power play as Morrisonn was called for roughing.

 

“It was a pretty clear, solid elbow to the face…It was flagrant, it was an elbow to the head,” said Boudreau on the dirty play by Armstrong.

 

Overall, despite some of the things I wasn’t too happy about, this was a major step in the right direction towards post season hockey for Boudreau’s crew tonight. Backstrom felt like things were good but he said there are still improvements that can be made.

 

“We were a little bit sloppy the last couple of games. I think we were better than the {few} games before. We still have some things to work on and get ready and work a little bit harder. We need to play better like {we played} earlier this season,” added #19, who notched his 30th goal of the season, which seemed to bring out a larger than normal celebration from one of the best centers in the league. Could Nicky have a bonus clause in his contract for hitting the 30 mark?

 

Notes: The Caps will practice at 11am on Friday at Kettler Ice Plex and then head to Columbus for a date with the Blue Jackets on Saturday night…Dave Steckel was 11-3 on face-offs, including a clean win with 12 seconds left that allowed Green to easily wheel the puck around the boards and run out the clock…the Caps were 32-28 overall from the dot (Backstrom was 6-11)…Washington only received one power play and failed to score while the Thrashers went 0 for 3…Rookie defenseman John Carlson missed the game with an injury.

 

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