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Ovechkin, Neuvirth Carry Caps Past Habs

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Ovechkin, Neuvirth Carry Caps Past Habs

Posted on 10 April 2013 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals and Alexander Ovechkin have been on a roll of late, but apparently, all of those goals the Gr8 has scored and all of the wins the Caps have reeled off to seize the Southeast Division lead don’t matter to some of the hockey pundits in North America because they haven’t come against the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

To them and anyone else who wants to listen, I have two things to say:

You can only beat the team that’s next on your schedule, and

On Tuesday night the Caps beat that next team on their schedule, and one of the top teams in the East at that, in the Montreal Canadiens, 3-2, at the Bell Centre.

And guess what? Ovechkin scored again notching his league leading 26th tally of the season (although Steven Stamkos also scored his 26th on Tuesday) after a nifty move around Michael Ryder gave him space to snipe one past Carey Price in the slot. It was another of those “Wow” goals from the Gr8 and it came with his club trailing 1-0. It was a big goal by the captain and it lifted his team, who grabbed the lead shortly thereafter on an Eric Fehr tap in. Jack Hillen would add a third period goal with Ovechkin screening Price and then Michal Neuvirth (27 saves) held off a furious late push from the Canadiens for the victory.

The Habs don’t have a roster that you look at and fear, but they are awfully fast and they play well as a team. But the Caps are doing the same thing now and despite having three of the their top nine forwards out of the lineup, they are still finding ways to win. What impressed me tonight about Washington’s play was how good the spacing was between the forwards and the defensemen. This allowed the Caps to jump on Montreal’s errant passes and get the play going the other way.

Ovechkin and company are also doing a lot of the little things right. They are getting pucks and bodies to the net and that’s how you beat a very good goalie in Price. They also are blocking shots, which has to make former coach Dale Hunter proud. Even the Gr8 was throwing his body in front of pucks tonight.

Simply put, this club is coming together and gelling as a team. The top line continues to play extremely well and they are getting super goaltending. Neuvirth followed up a superb performance on Sunday with another gem. Washington looks confident on the ice and usually wins are what comes from that.

A win in Montreal was doubly huge because Winnipeg won at home so the Caps keep a two point lead on the Jets with eight games remaining. Winnipeg only has seven.

Next up for the Caps are the Carolina Hurricanes, who are in a major freefall, at the Verizon Center on Thursday night.

But that’s who the NHL says they must play, and Washington will gladly take a win against the Canes if they earn it.

Notes: Martin Erat skated late in the pregame warmup on Tuesday so that was encouraging. #10 was slammed into the boards and injured last Saturday night…Joel Ward is day to day after getting hurt blocking a shot on Sunday against Tampa…LW Brooks Laich did not make the trip to Montreal and was seeing a groin specialist on Tuesday…Montreal had 76 shot attempts to the Caps 46, but that and a quarter won’t even get you a cup of coffee. Neuvirth was able to see almost all of the shots that came his way while Washington excelled at getting traffic in front of Price…Ovechkin had 8 hits…the Caps lost the faceoff battle pretty handily, 41-24.

Programming Note: I’ll be on talking Caps hockey with Nestor Aparacio on Wednesday morning at 7:50. Listen live via WNST.NET

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Ovechkin Scores Twice But Neuvirth the Caps Hero vs Tampa

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Ovechkin Scores Twice But Neuvirth the Caps Hero vs Tampa

Posted on 08 April 2013 by Ed Frankovic

There are times in a sports season when a team needs a certain player to come up big and help carry their club to victory on a given night.

With the Washington Capitals facing a Tampa Bay Lightning squad that had its back to the wall, Coach Adam Oates really needed goalie Michal Neuvirth, who hadn’t played a game since March 16th, to be that guy on Sunday evening.

Number 30 delivered and the Caps might have been three or more goals down if not for some great saves the Czech net minder made in the opening frame, which saw Washington trail only 1-0 despite being out quality chanced by a two to one ratio. Bolts captain Vinny Lecavalier, who scored that big overtime goal in game two of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Caps in 2011 on Neuvirth that pretty much ended that series, was not able to beat Neuvy on this night and he had a couple of one on one chances in the first period. Simply put, #30 was the man on Sunday and was the game’s first star, in my book.

From Alexander Ovechkin to Nicklas Backstrom to John Carlson, they all praised the play of their goalie afterwards, for keeping Washington in the game until they could get their legs under them in the middle frame.

Hockey is a game that is so much based on good health and confidence. Right now, that combination is what has Washington’s top line of Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson firing on all cylinders. They are as dominant as any line in the NHL at this juncture and Ovechkin notched two goals, including the clinching empty netter, to tie Steven Stamkos for the league goal scoring lead at 25 tallies. Alex is playing outstanding and he seems as happy as I’ve seen him in years. I can’t help but think his life off of the ice, which includes a recent engagement, is a part of the picture, but the coaching of Oates and more importantly, the play of his linemates is making it easier for him.

Backstrom, after a shoulder injury in 2010, a nasty concussion in 2011, and some type of neck injury in December of 2012 did not reach 100% health again until several games into this lockout shortened campaign but Oates told the media after the game that for the last month and a half he is playing outstanding. Nicky doesn’t get the accolades that the Gr8 gets, and let’s be honest, Ovi is a rock star, but he is as important to the Capitals hockey team as Ovechkin is. In past years I’ve talked about how strong Backstrom is on his skates and he has that back again this year. He is winning a large majority of the one on one battles on the boards and as a result he is dominating play.

As for Johansson, Oates acknowledges that the young Swede has the hardest role on that line. He has to feel the pressure to get the puck to the two superstars and yet he’s playing as well as he ever has. His confidence is sky high right now. If he can work on taking his shot more often, that would help keep the opposing defenders and goalie more honest, which would open things up even greater for the entire line.

Washington really played well as a team from the second period on and their strong play in their own end led to numerous odd man rushes in this contest. In fact the winning tally by Joel Ward came on a 3 on 2 rush and #42 beat Bolts goalie Ben Bishop short side because the goaltender was cheating to his left thinking pass. It was a big goal and seemed to deflate the Bolts.

Carlson’s blast to tie the game up, also took some wind out of Tampa’s sails and it was a downright rocket. I am not sure I’ve seen a slap shot that hard in a game in a long time. To quote Crash Davis from Bull Durham, “Well, he really hit the <bleep> out of that one!” #74 is playing some good hockey paired with Jack Hillen (two assists).

Another player so key to the Capitals success, and they’ve now won four in a row and have a two point lead on Winnipeg in the Southeast Division, is Mike Green. #52 is the club’s number one defensemen and although he had 0 points in the game, he was outstanding at both ends of the rink. Mike’s health is good and as a result, he is very confident on the ice and playing as well as he has in his career. Another thing that helps out Green is the play of his partner, Karl Alzner. King Karl is hard to notice but all you have to do is look at Stamkos’ stat line tonight: three shots on net, 0 points, and -1. #27′s job was to shut down the league’s other premier goal scorer and he did it. Green and Alzner are the team’s top defensive pair and both logged over over 23 minutes at even strength to lead all players in that department. Overall Green played 26:37 while Alzner logged 25:34.

Unfortunately, as good as Ward was tonight in scoring the game winner and adding a helper, plus making a great back check to thwart a tying goal in period three, #42 had to leave the game after blocking a shot late in the contest. With Brooks Laich down for the count and slated to see a specialist on Tuesday plus Martin Erat still out day to day after being cheap shotted by Erik Gudbranson on Saturday, the Caps are likely going to be down three wingers when they face Montreal at the Bell Centre on Tuesday. Just when the Caps were finally getting healthy, the injury bug has struck again over the last three tilts, but that’s hockey.

Still, the team is on a roll and if the top line and defensive pair keep playing at the elite level while the goalies and other skaters do their respective jobs, then the Southeast Division is the Caps to seize. There are nine games to go, with six at the Verizon Center. After a very rough start and numerous injuries, their first goal, a division title, is very much there for the taking.

Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green, and Braden Holtby have all been carrying this team in recent weeks, as they need to be doing. But on Sunday night, Washington needed a big game from their other goalie, and Michal Neuvirth more than delivered as the catalyst in a critical victory over Tampa.

It was a game that wasn’t built up to be ultra important by Washington, but had Tampa been victorious, the whole Southeast Division race dynamic changes. Neuvirth would not let that happen on Sunday and so the Caps continue to control how this playoff race will play out.

Kudos, Michal.

Notes: Tampa is now eight points in back of the Caps. They have 10 games left, including another at the Verizon Center on Saturday…Backstrom was also dominant from the dot tonight going 13-7. The Caps won the face off battle, 35-32…Washington out shot Tampa 38-30 and shot attempts were 60-56 in favor of the Caps.

 

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Caps GM McPhee faces very critical week

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Caps GM McPhee faces very critical week

Posted on 27 March 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee is arguably facing his most critical week in his 16 year tenure.

His Caps sit at 15-17-1, 11th place in the Eastern Conference and 23rd overall in the NHL, with the trade deadline just one week away on April 3rd at 3pm.

It is waters they have not chartered since 2006-07 and a team that won four straight Southeast Division titles from 2008 to 2011 with 94, 108, 121, and 107 points, respectively, and had 92 points and finished eighth in the East last season, is currently moving towards a location often called “No Man’s Land.”

No Man’s Land is a spot in the NHL where you aren’t good enough to contend for the Stanley Cup, likely won’t make the playoffs, but also aren’t bad enough to land one of the top three spots in the draft. It is a position where it is very difficult to get better quickly, just ask the Calgary Flames or the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have been the President and Vice President of No Man’s Land in the NHL the last several years. Those teams, who have rabid and demanding fan bases, have recently routinely gone with the mind set that they are only a player or two away from the playoffs or contending in them. Both have been reluctant to take a critical step back in order to possibly move two or three steps forward (that might finally be changing in Calgary this spring, but is it too late?).

The Capitals were headed to No Man’s Land once before, in the days of Jaromir Jagr, but owner Ted Leonsis and McPhee went the “blow it up” route and started over. For the most part, especially from a business standpoint, they had success and it landed them Alexander Oveckhin, who is worth the price of admission on most nights, all by himself. It is important to note that hockey is first and foremost a business to many owners. So the bottom line is vital. Thus the push to just get into the playoffs can often be the difference between being in the red or black. The bottom line can drive an approach that constantly looks at the short term solution instead of the bigger picture.

This is a danger I see for the Caps right now. They are a team that has an incredible home sellout streak of 169 games and the marketable product in Ovechkin. But everyone knows in the Baltimore/DC area that winning is your most marketable item. This region demands a winner and when a club can’t consistently do that, the fan base erodes exponentially (see the Baltimore Orioles for 14 years). So owner Ted Leonsis surely is leery of what the impacts of a losing season or missing the playoffs would do to his club that generates full building after full building these days. So it can be a risk to have a losing season.

Clearly the Caps would love to make a run and reach the postseason this year but after last night’s loss to New York Islanders, they are seven points out of first place in the Southeast Division and four points behind the Rangers for eighth place overall in the Eastern Conference. With no Western Conference matchups, it is very difficult to make up ground. To reach the post season, the Capitals will likely need to go 11-4 or something along those lines. Is that really doable with this team, one that is finally healthy and still couldn’t beat John Tavares and company, at home, in a very important game?

That is a question that McPhee needs to ask himself because the way I see it right now he has three options over the next week:

1. Stand pat and do nothing

2. Become a buyer and try to make the post season

3. Sell off some assets ensuring a post season miss but put yourself in position to snag one of the elite players in what appears to be a draft with some impact players at the top.

In option one it will be difficult to make the postseason and the Caps likely end up 9th or 10th in the East. They would have low odds to win the new draft lottery to pick first overall and probably would draft around the 10th to 14th spot in New Jersey in June. In addition, unless they sign Mike Ribeiro, they likely lose him to unrestricted free agency after the season.

In the second choice, McPhee would really need to add an impact player to get this team to go 11-4 down the stretch. It would have to be a top line winger and to do that they have to give something up, likely their first round pick this year or perhaps one of their recent first round picks (Evgeny Kuznetsov, Filip Forsberg, or Tom Wilson). It is a mortgage the future type of move that might get them in the postseason but likely doesn’t put them in a real position to contend for the Stanley Cup given what the Pittsburgh Penguins roster looks like now after acquiring Brenden Morrow and Doug Murray. Making the playoffs would help the bottom line but would the price be too great? Then they’d still have the issue of trying to sign Ribeiro along with the asset they acquired at the deadline. The Caps currently have only $15M of salary cap space for 2013-14 with just 15 players under contract. Two top six forwards would eat up much of that and McPhee still has to sign defensemen Karl Alzner who is a restricted free agent, as well as some other players. Sure the competitor in me would like to give it a shot but depending on what you have to give up this season for a top six forward asset, doesn’t appear to make a lot of sense.

Therefore, option three seems to be the smart move. Signing Ribeiro is going to be awfully tough to do and with number 9 at 33 years old and wanting a five year deal, it just doesn’t seem like a wise option on his terms. Remember Michal Nylander? That signing in 2007 arguably cost McPhee the salary cap space he needed in 2009 to shore up a Washington defense that was likely the biggest thing holding them back from beating the Penguins in 2009 and going on to win the Stanley Cup. So why hamstring yourself with a big contract to an aging player and risk that scenario all over again when you are planning on contending again?

But if you can get a number one draft pick or more this year for Ribeiro, then you should deal him. Sure you will definitely miss the playoffs but you also now have two first round picks and could package them to possibly move up to number one, two, or three and get one of Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon, or Jonathan Drouin. Jones, according to my sources, is the best player in the draft and NHL ready now. He very likely will be a number one defensemen on a team in the NHL in a couple of years. He’s a team changer. Snag him and you suddenly have options to possibly move some of your other defensemen, like Mike Green, who you are paying $6M a season now.

In addition to Ribeiro or Green, there are other guys on this roster that teams might be interested in such as Marcus Johansson or Joel Ward or one of the three goalies (Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth, or Philip Grubauer) at the trade deadline.

What McPhee and his staff need to do is work to the Baltimore Ravens model of “Right Player, Right Price.” You have to know the value you place on every player on your team and in the league and make moves accordingly. Washington’s pro scouts will really need to be doing their jobs well and feeding the GM the info he requires to make some hard decisions. If you do it right you don’t overpay for your own guys and can end up with better players at or below that price (see the Ravens getting Elvis Dumervil, Chris Canty, and Marcus Spears for the same overall amount the Cleveland Browns paid for Paul Kruger).

McPhee has made some very smart decisions on players before, such as Semyon Varlamov, who he traded for a 1st and 2nd round pick. The 1st rounder is now Forsberg while the Capitals haven’t taken any hit at all in the goaltending department. Sergei Fedorov for Theo Ruth was another blue ribbon deal by the GM that made the Caps a legit Stanley Cup contender for two straight springs. But he’s also had some not so good decisions (re-signing an aging Tom Poti for two years, the four year deal for Jeff Schultz, and the two years given to an aging Roman Hamrlik). Those contracts have impacted Washington’s salary cap while not yielding quality results on the ice.

With Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, and John Carlson having long term deals clearly they are the guys for McPhee to build around going forward. Everyone else should be up grabs. It is Asset Management 101 at this point for Washington. They need to do what they can to transform a team that was one of the best in the league from 2008 to 2010, but has steadily declined, back into a Cup contender.

Sure its a risk from a marketing standpoint, but the fans in this area recognize when you are going in the right direction and will have the patience to endure a reshaping of the roster, especially if they believe it will eventually lead to Washington’s first Stanley Cup. So it’s a low risk play and if the moves are done right and there is a championship in the next few years or so, then you have people locked into your team long term (see the Philadelphia Flyers, who still sell out despite not winning a Cup since 1975).

So this is a huge week for McPhee and one he has three roads he can possibly take. They aren’t easy decisions and only he and his staff really know what options are going to be available to him in return for his current assets.

The path he ultimately chooses will likely make or break his and the Capitals future.

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Ovechkin’s Big Night Rallies Caps to Victory

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Ovechkin’s Big Night Rallies Caps to Victory

Posted on 14 March 2013 by Ed Frankovic

After 20 minutes on Thursday night, with the Capitals trailing 2-0 to division leading Carolina, you can bet the season obituaries on the Caps 2013 season were in draft form just waiting to be published.

But Alexander Ovechkin, Michal Neuvirth, and the rest of the Washington Capitals had other plans.

Playing yet another game with just five defensemen due to a first period injury to Tomas Kundratek, Adam Oates’ team showed guts and stuck together for a huge win in Raleigh. Joey Crabb scored from in front in the middle frame to make it 2-1 before Ovechkin scored on the power play on a sweet Troy Brouwer feed to tie it up just over a minute into period three. With time ticking away, Ovechkin then took a great John Carlson pass to break in alone on Canes goalie Dan Ellis. The Gr8 beat the goalie but managed to hit the near post and then the puck laid on the goal line just inside the far post. Luckily Mike Ribeiro came charging home to push the puck barely across the line with the winning tally with 2:16 left in regulation.

It was a must win and keeps the Capitals slim playoff hopes alive with 22 games to go. But the playoff talk and the discussion about buying or selling can wait for another time because tonight the Caps have something to be really pleased about and it isn’t about statistics or some tactical thing that took place on the ice. 

For those who follow Ovechkin on twitter, the captain posted a photo of him, Troy Brouwer, Brooks Laich, Mike Green, Marcus Johansson, Wojtek Wolski and Nicklas Backstrom after a sushi dinner on Wednesday evening. The Gr8 noted that the crew was then taking in a movie afterwards. This team bonding was great to see because it is clear that these guys still like each other and can have some fun together despite all of the losing and external talk of their impending doom.

There is no doubt this has been a trying and tough season for the Caps organization and their fans. Things have gone nearly as bad as possible on many fronts. The result has been an “over the top” amount of criticism on Ovechkin. The Gr8 was once the league’s top player as he was the MVP in 2008 and 2009. When you get to the top in ANY profession it is extremely hard to stay there and after the honeymoon is over, like it or not, people start getting jealous and look to take shots at you. Likeable people and players suddenly are under the microscope 24/7 and things get very intense making it difficult to continue to be everyone’s darling. You make a little mistake and the dirty laundry crew is there ready to pounce. For the Gr8, this started in Vancouver in 2010 and has continued for three years. The toll it has taken on Ovechkin, who was such a jovial and carefree guy earlier in his career, has to be great, one would think.

It isn’t easy being #1 in your sport. Just ask golfers like David Duval, Tiger Woods, or Rory McIlroy. The sharks are circling everywhere. Being #1 destroyed Duval’s game and it takes a special mentality to hold onto to the top for a long time, as Woods displayed for many years. But to do that you almost have to shut people out and change your ways. Already McIlroy is starting to experience that, as the loveable Irishmen took massive heat for walking off of the course in Florida just a couple of weeks ago. In Oveckhin’s case, he had the #1 mantle for over two years, which is a remarkable feat. But unfortunately with that came the higher standards and when his team didn’t win a Stanley Cup, he took the brunt of the heat. It is the nature of sports.

So now is a critical stage for Ovechkin and his career. He can go one of two ways. He can internalize the criticism and drive himself crazy trying to prove the critics all wrong, which will likely lead to a decrease in production and total unhappiness, or he can try and forget about the pressure and the ambulance chasers and just go out and have fun and play the game.

On Wednesday night Ovechkin went out and had fun with his teammates at a restaurant and then a movie. The next night he played a super game and his team rallied for a big victory. That had to be fun for the Gr8 and his teammates.

Sure the Caps still are in a big hole in the standings and the playoffs are a bit of a long shot this season. But there is still time to generate plenty of positives from this season. Having fun and playing as a team might be more important than any statistics or tactical strategy, at this point. To me, that was the big thing to take away from Thursday’s victory in Carolina for Ovechkin and the Caps.

So Alex, what do you say to some sushi and a movie on Friday night with your teammates in Beantown?

Notes: Neuvirth had a big night stopping 36 shots…Backstrom and Ovechkin were reunited and the Gr8 had 6 shots on goal, two points (1G, 1A), and three hits…Steve Oleksy, in just his sixth NHL game, logged 27:55 to lead his club in ice time. Amazing stuff by #61…Kundratek only played 3:14…the Caps next game is Saturday afternoon at 1pm in Boston.

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Caps Nightmare Season Continues With Debacle In Pittsburgh

Posted on 07 February 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Well, for 20 minutes it looked like the Caps were going to be able to hang with their archrival Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night.

But then bad penalties, lack of effort, and poor goaltending resurfaced and before you knew it, Sidney Crosby and company pumped in five second period goals to turn the contest into a laugher. Pittsburgh would finish with a 5-2 victory over the Caps at Consol Energy Center.

The Capitals are now 2-8-1. That is five points in nearly 25% of this shortened hockey season. The record is abysmal and it appears things aren’t going to get better any time soon because this team is just not very good. As I chronicled earlier in the season, they lack talent on offense and defense.

Now, in the last week or so, the goaltending has imploded. Michal Neuvirth got the start in the cage in this contest but after two soft second period goals, Coach Adam Oates had seen enough. In came Braden Holtby, who was promptly hung out to dry by some poor Capitals play and a lack of discipline. Washington took three penalties in the middle frame and the Penguins scored on each of those power plays. You will not win hockey games, at all, when you pile up penalties and fail to kill them off. The propensity to be whistled for infractions and weak penalty killing have been a factor in almost every Capitals loss through 11 games.

So what can the Capitals do going forward? Well, they need to play like they did in the opening frame for a full 60 minutes. In the first period the Caps were physical and worked hard. Alexander Ovechkin’s club was pressing the play and taking the body early on and Pittsburgh seemed to want no part of that. In addition, they also stayed out of the box, except for a very marginal holding call on Karl Alzner. It was an encouraging period, as the Pens only had five shots on goal.

However, in the middle stanza, it was clear the Penguins amped their game up and Washington just couldn’t compete with them. Pittsburgh’s talent level is far superior to the Capitals and once the guys in black started working hard, this one was over quickly.

So now a fierce rivalry that once existed and was one of the NHL’s best, seems to be fading away. The Penguins have Stanley Cup aspirations while Washington is falling apart.

It is extremely difficult to rebound from this start and still make the playoffs in a 48 game season. The NHL’s Eastern Conference is weak from top to bottom so there is still some hope, but right now the Caps are showing with their terrible play that they are more destined for the lottery and perhaps one of the top picks in the 2013 NHL draft, than a spot in the playoffs.

It has turned into a nightmare season very quickly, and there are still 37 games to go.

 

 

 

 

 

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Any Way You Slice It, The Caps Defeating the Flyers Is Always Fun

Posted on 02 February 2013 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals early season struggles have been well chronicled, but on Friday night at the Verizon Center the Caps gave their fans an evening to forget about the string of six losses in seven games by defeating the despised Philadelphia Flyers, 3-2.

For two teams that are usually near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, this was an unusual affair as the loser would likely reside in the basement of the conference at the end of the night. That “cellar dwellar” title goes to the Flyers after Braden Holtby played an excellent game in net making 29 saves and center Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist) had his best effort of this lockout shortened season.

Believe it or not, we are at the 1/6th point of a 48 tilt campaign. The Caps are still 2-5-1 and have a lot of work ahead of them, but I thought they did some good things in the victory over the Flyers.

To steal a line from the movie “What About Bob?”, Washington managed to do some ”baby stepping” on Friday.

There was progress in the penalty department as the Caps only allowed three power plays despite taking another delay of game penalty. Washington killed off all three of those Philadelphia Flyers power plays. In their two wins they have only had to survive two shorthanded situations (vs Buffalo) and the three on Friday. Stay out of the box and not allow a power play goal and your chances of winning go up dramatically, much like not turning the ball over in football generally leads to victories.

In addition, there seemed to be more cohesion with the lines as Coach Adam Oates put Alexander Ovechkin with Mike Ribeiro and Wojtek Wolksi together with Backstrom centering Troy Brouwer and Marcus Johansson on the second line. That left a good checking unit in Jason Chimera, Jay Beagle, and Joel Ward. Ovechkin had seven shots on goal, his highest total of the season, and he had more jump than usual. However, he and his linemates will be called on the carpet for the total lack of defensive assistance they provided to Mike Green and Karl Alzner on the first Flyers tally. Defensive zone is still an issue for this team, one that I am sure Oates will continue to address and tweak going forward. You can’t win if you are bad in your own zone and Washington has plenty of room for improvement there.

One of the areas I was most confident in this team coming into the season was goaltending. Holtby was outstanding in this one after Michael Neuvirth had given the Caps a chance to win the previous four games. Both Holtby and Neuvy are the type of goalies you want to have in this short compact season: young and ultra competitive. Also, they both have a short memory, which is very important at the NHL level.

Washington’s power play still continues to sputter (o for 5 vs. Flyers), mostly due to their inability to get the puck in the zone to set up. Oates attributed that to “bad reads” on Friday night. I’d still like to see more bodies and pucks to the net with the man advantage. For me, Brooks Laich can’t get back soon enough to join the second line and bump Johansson down to the fourth unit or even out of the lineup. Plus #21 is a super net presence in man advantage situations and his penalty killing is outstanding. With Laich skating on Friday morning, it appears we are getting closer to getting a key piece back into Washington’s forward lineup.

Another problem with the power play is faceoffs. Right now the Caps are losing those opening man advantage draws and that wastes a good 15 seconds right off of the bat. It also allows the defense to set up. Philadelphia was 40-29 from the dot against Washington on Friday, with Ribeiro going a terrible 5-12. The Caps centers have to be better at draws going forward.

On the backend, John Erskine has played very well and is getting the fourth highest D-man minutes. However, his elbow to the head of Wayne Simmonds will likely draw some Brendan Shanahan reaction in the form of a fine and possibly a suspension. It would be nice if Dmitry Orlov was ready to go but that won’t happen yet, although it appears he practiced late this week in Hershey and is inching closer to a return. Getting Orlov back and playing at the NHL level would help the Caps defense and also strengthen the second power play unit (a left handed point shot is definitely needed).

Summing up this one, the Capitals did some good things and got a victory on Friday night. They needed one of those very badly. What makes it even sweeter is it came against the Flyers, who along with the Penguins, are the most disliked teams the Caps compete against.

Washington has a lot of work to do to get better and climb back into the top eight slots in the East. If they keep working hard, playing smart, and sticking together, they have a chance to win consistently. But they don’t have much room for error.

Still, any way you slice it, a win over the Flyers is always good, no matter what the records are coming into the affair.

Next up, the Pittsburgh Penguins on Super Bowl Sunday.

Notes: John Carlson made a great poke check to spring Backstrom for the Caps first goal that tied the game at one. #19 beat Ilya Bryzgalov on the back hand on a breakaway as Philly got caught in a line change…Matt Hendricks and Flyers goon Zac Rinaldo were both ejected for the dropping the mits on a faceoff before the puck was officially in play. That is an automatic game misconduct…Wolski and Brouwer had the Caps other goals.

 

 

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Ovechkin’s Best Game of Season Gets Oates His First Win

Posted on 27 January 2013 by Ed Frankovic

For the Caps to win consistently, they need above average games from their three star players.

On Sunday afternoon, Washington got exactly that from Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green.

Add some superb goaltending from Michal Neuvirth (22 saves) into the equation and it resulted in a 3-2 Caps victory over Buffalo, Washington’s first of the season in five tries. It also was Coach Adam Oates first head coaching victory at the NHL level.

This was a game the Caps absolutely had to have after an 0-3-1 start, especially with two road games this week in Ottawa and Toronto followed by home tilts on Friday with the despised Flyers and Super Bowl Sunday afternoon with the hated Penguins.

Fortunately they won it because the real Ovechkin showed up at the Verizon Center on Sunday. The Gr8 was skating hard, hitting (3 hits), and shooting the biscuit (5 shots on goal). He also scored the game winner on a perfect power play feed from Green, who continues to carry the Caps defense (27:58 of ice time). When Ovechkin plays like that, more often than not, the Capitals win.

Oates clearly saw a change in Ovechkin and Backstrom in this one because he reunited 19 and 8 six minutes into period two and more importantly, he put a physical Troy Brouwer along with them. In my opinion, those are the three best players at their respective positions on the team and to “load up” the first line seems to make the most sense.

Washington continued to get another strong game from Joel Ward. #42, who told me at the team’s first practice that he was finally healthy after hernia surgery, continues to work hard and go to the net. He is strong in the corners and is back skating like the dominant player he was in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs with the Nashville Predators. Ward had a goal and assist in 15:23 of ice time, which included 1:45 of power play time. He certainly merits that man advantage time and deservers a spot on the second unit simply because he goes to the net where the garbage goals are scored.

The Caps also did their best job of the season of staying out of the penalty box. They only had to kill off two minors (and the call on Joey Crabb was borderline, at best) and they now are 9 for their last 10 on the PK.  On the power play, the Caps did get the winning tally with the man advantage and went 1 for 3. Washington still needs to get more traffic on the opposing goalie because perfect passing plays are not always going to be available like they executed on the game winner. If they get bodies and pucks to the net on a consistent basis they will improve on the 4 for 23 rate they have through five games.

Overall, it was a good victory for the Caps but they beat a team that was without their best player in Tomas Vanek. Washington has dug itself a little standings hole here early and with Tampa jumping out to a 4-1 start, the Capitals will need similar efforts every night to make a run for the division or get into the post season.

With Brooks Laich still out up front and Dmitry Orlov still sidelined on the back end, the Caps are missing two players that I expected a lot from this season. The team is already short top six forwards so Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green along with the goaltenders, have to be on their games each night for this team to contend.

They did that on Sunday, so the club can breathe a sigh of relief. However, the games continue to come fast and furious in this 48 tilt season so there is a very small margin of error going forward.

Notes: Oates showed defensive confidence in Backstrom and Ovechkin putting them on the ice in the last minute. Both did their job in their own end with #19 making a great play to get the puck to Ovechkin for what looked to be an easy open net, but somehow the Gr8 didn’t bury the biscuit on a play he typically scores on 99 times out of 100…Washington dominated from the dot, 33-20, and outshot the Sabres, 30-24…Jay Beagle was 12-3 on faceoffs…Jason Chimera had two assists in another solid game.

 

 

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Ovechkin Deserves Much of the Blame for Caps Bad Start

Posted on 25 January 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Michal Neuvirth was stellar in net on Friday night as the Capitals rallied from a 2-0 third period deficit to force overtime before losing to the New Jersey Devils, 3-2.

Sure it was nice to finally get a point, and the Capitals were the last team in the league to do so, but this team needs wins in a short 48 game season.

Washington is now 0-3-1 and you can criticize the bad penalty killing and complain about a system change due to the new coach, but to me the single biggest problem with this team is the terrible play of Alexander Ovechkin.

In 92:29 of ice time in the four games he has 0 goals, 1 assist, 13 shots on goal, and just 8 hits. At $9M a year, that production just doesn’t cut it.

Ovechkin continues to struggle on the point on the power play and he is not getting his shots through and on net. With all of the power play time Washington had on Friday, if the team captain is producing there then maybe the Caps win in regulation or don’t need Mike Green’s late game tying tally?

I’ve written this several times before but Ovechkin would be a better fit down low on the power play. His size and strength would force opponents to focus more on him and that would open things up for his teammates. Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter both did that, at times, but it didn’t seem to last long, for whatever reason. However, there were several times when that move was very effective.

Much was made of Hunter sitting Ovechkin in the post season last spring due to his defensive deficiencies. Those problems continue this year. Oates tried him on the PK but after he was caught standing like a statue on the second Winnipeg goal on Tuesday night, that experiment seems to have ended.

Alex can be very guilty of trying to do things on his own too much and not use his teammates effectively. His turnover in overtime that led to the winning goal on Friday was an example of that. In addition, after turning the puck over Ovechkin was late coming back on defense. As a result he over reacted to the play and got caught down low, which opened up the Washington defense for an easy goal. Oates will not like what he sees of #8 on the sequence that led to the Devils winning tally.

I am not sure what is going on with a guy who should be one of, if not the best player in the NHL? Given that he played in the KHL during the lockout, you can’t blame his poor play on a lack of conditioning.

Whatever the problem is, it is up to Oates to figure it out and stop Ovechkin from performing so poorly. Like a quarterback in football, it is tough to win when your top player is not scoring and Ovechkin still has a big donut hole on the stat sheet in the goals column.

The bottom line is the Caps can’t win consistently without Ovechkin playing well and until they get him untracked, this team will have trouble winning games.

So fair or not, he deserves much of the blame for Washington’s terrible start to this season.

 

 

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With Caps Struggling Will McPhee Make A Move to Help Oates?

Posted on 24 January 2013 by Ed Frankovic

We are only three games into a 48 game season and the Washington Capitals look like a broken hockey team.

After coming out and playing a solid first period, the Caps got into penalty trouble and gave up two goals to the Canadiens in the first five minutes of period two.

Gone went any confidence this team had built up in the opening frame and anyone who has ever played hockey knows that confidence is one of the most important attributes you need to play the game.

From there it just snowballed as Montreal expanded their lead to 4-0 after 40 minutes. With Washington’s shut down defensive pair from last season, Karl Alzner and John Carlson, struggling mightily, it becomes harder to turn things around. Coach Adam Oates response in the third period to that problem duo was to move Alzner with Mike Green and Carlson with Tom Poti.

Up front, there isn’t much good news either. Alexander Ovechkin still doesn’t have a goal and the power play can’t finish. There were some good chances but the forwards aren’t paying the price in front of the net to either deflect pucks home or put away rebounds that were there for the taking by Carey Price. Currently this forward crew is playing too much on the perimeter and appears soft. There isn’t enough hitting and looking at some of the players on the forward roster, that is not surprising.

In net, neither goalie looks totally sharp but with the continual breakdowns in front of them, their confidence has to be shot too.

Clearly the Brooks Laich injury is a big issue but a single hockey player can’t fix this mess right now. Unfortunately, Oates doesn’t have the luxury of having a few days to work things out in practice as Washington plays six games in the next 10 days.

So the coach’s only option now is to mix the combinations up and perhaps put some of the current scratches back in the lineup. I imagine we will see Eric Fehr at forward and perhaps John Erskine and/or Jeff Schultz on defense in New Jersey on Friday night.

Oates also has to find a way to get the players to work harder and smarter, then somehow hope they get some positive results and regain their confidence.

If that doesn’t happen, this could get ugly fast. A loss to the Devils would put the Caps at 0-4 in this short season with a hot Sabres team coming in to the Verizon Center on Sunday.

Two Sundays ago after the team’s initial practice, Caps GM George McPhee, when asked by the media if he was going to make any moves stated,  “I like our team.”

I wonder if he’d still give the same answer after watching these first three games?

To me, the results speak for themselves.

So the question now is will McPhee make a move or two to try to shake things up and get this season back on track?

Notes: Joey Crabb scored late in the final period to close the book on the Caps 4-1 loss…Carlson has been on the ice for 9 of the 14 goals against this season…Washington did win the faceoff battle, 30-25, so they got that going for them…Ovechkin had one hit and three shots on goal in 22:26 of ice time. The Gr8 needs to find a way to be more physically involved.

 

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Predicting the Caps Season Is As Clear As Mud Right Now

Posted on 18 January 2013 by Ed Frankovic

 

The Washington Capitals start their short but jam packed 48 game season in Tampa Bay tomorrow night when they take on the Lightning (7 pm CSN).

Since the magical run in the spring of 2008, I’ve felt like I’ve had a pretty good read on this team and could accurately say before the season started that the Caps were definitely a playoff team each of the last four campaigns.

Last year’s club struggled through a coaching change and key injuries to Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green before squeaking into the dance and then coming a game away from a date with the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Championship.

This season, I have no idea how this team, with a new coach and system, will respond in a season where taking a game or two off is just not an option.

Hockey starts in net and Washington will go with youngsters Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth. Personally, I am pretty confident in that duo right now, especially given the way those two compete. Holtby’s ability to play the puck certainly is an advantage I expect coach Adam Oates to put to use frequently.

On defense, Dennis Wideman departed in free agency (Calgary) but with a healthy Mike Green and an emerging John Carlson, they didn’t need him at the dollars he was looking for and received. With Karl Azner in the mix as the Caps most solid defensive defensemen to go with the aging, but savvy Roman Hamrlik, Washington has a decent top four. After that it is a crap shoot with Jeff Schultz, John Erskine, Jack Hillen, and a 35 year old Tom Poti, who miraculously is back after missing two years due to groin and hip injuries. Dmitry Orlov would probably be my number five d-man on this club, but he is hurt right now. So this defensive crew could be really good or teams could expose the third pair, if it doesn’t step up. Any two week or more injury to either Green, Carlson, or Alzner could be devasting.

Up front, the Capitals have three legitimate top six forwards in Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Ribeiro. Luckily two of those three are centers, something the Caps haven’t been able to say since 2009. The question though, is who is going to be the wingers to fill out the top two lines? Troy Brouwer, because of his net presence is clearly the best answer on the roster. Brooks Laich would be your next best bet but he is out injured and may not play for the first two weeks. General Manager George McPhee is taking a flyer on forward Wojtek Wolski, who was signed off of the scrap heap this past summer. Wolski is 6-3 and 210 and he will need to play “big” if he wants to stick around in the top six.

Third year man Marcus Johansson is on the top line right now with the Gr8 and Backstrom. MJ90 has a lot of speed but he puts no physical fear into opposing defenders and he was often rubbed off of the puck easily in the corner in his freshmen and sophomore campaigns. Playing the third year Swede on the top line is asking a lot of the youngster.

I really like the third line of Jason Chimera-Jay Beagle-Joel Ward, especially now that we know Ward is not dealing with the hernia injury he had in 2011-12. The fourth line features heart and soul hard worker Matt Hendricks and likely a rotation of two of the following three players: re-signed Eric Fehr, Mathieu Perreault, and Joey Crabb.

Clearly this team will need above average to excellent seasons from Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Green if it is going to win the Southeast Division. None of them had even average seasons last year, although Green and Backstrom had injury excuses. So to predict this team is a lock for the postseason is no sure bet.

Many of the so-called experts are already giving the Stanley Cup to the New York Rangers since they added forward Rick Nash while giving up pretty much nothing. We all witnessed how smart the experts were in the NFL last week when Ray Lewis and company went in and won in Denver when practically every talking head out there had a “Brady vs. Manning” AFC Championship matchup set in stone. Yes, the Rangers look good on paper, but you have to play the games.

The bottom line is the Caps could be really good or they could fall flat on their faces. McPhee has been consistent this week in saying “I like our team.”

Well the games start tomorrow, then come rapidly at a fast and furious pace, so Caps fans are about to find out if their GM is on the mark.

 

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