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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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Caps Set to Face Bruins With Holtby in Goal

Posted on 08 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The NHL unveiled the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoff schedule on Sunday afternoon and the 16 teams that qualified now start 0-0 as they vie for one of the most coveted trophies in all of sports. The Washington Capitals, by virtue of their thrashing of the New York Rangers on Saturday combined with Ottawa’s loss to the New Jersey Devils, ended up in 7th place in the Eastern Conference. As a result they draw the #2 seed, which is none other than the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins.

Washington will be a heavy underdog in this series but that doesn’t mean a whole lot once the puck is dropped. The Caps had a difficult regular season but for the first time since the first seven games of the season, their skaters are all healthy. Nicklas Backstrom had his best outing in the win over New York since returning from a 40 game absence due to a concussion. Mike Green is as healthy as he is going to be following hernia surgery in January and there are no other major ailments that coach Dale Hunter has to deal with at forward or on defense.

The problem though, is that both goalies Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth are injured leaving rookie Braden Holtby as the likely starter when this series kicks off on Thursday in Beantown. The good news is that Holtby hasn’t played like a rookie and #70 does not represent a big dropoff from Vokoun and Neuvirth. Holtby, who has been compared to a young Olie Kolzig, brings an added dimension with his ability to play the puck. NHL defensemen like a goalie who can do that effectively because it limits the number of times they can be rammed into the back boards by opposing forwards.

It will be up to Hunter and assistant coach Jim Johnson to take advantage of Holtby’s superior stickhandling skills to neutralize a Bruins team that likes to get the puck deep and physically pound their opponent with Milan Lucic and the scrappy Brad Marchand. Boston also has some serious skill up front in Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Tyler Seguin. Their defense is lead by 2009 Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara and in goal they have two time Vezina trophy winner, Tim Thomas. Boston is a very good team and the Caps will have their hands full, no doubt.

I will have my series preview up later in the week but for now here is the full schedule, including television information, for the first round series:

Thursday, April 12, 2012 7:30 p.m. Washington at Boston TV: CSN, NBCSN, CBC

Saturday, April 14, 2012 3 p.m. Washington at Boston TV: NBC, CBC

Monday, April 16, 2012 7:30 p.m. Boston at Washington TV: CSN, NBCSN, CBC

Thursday, April 19, 2012 7:30 p.m. Boston at Washington TV: CSN, NBCSN, CBC

*Saturday, April 21, 2012 3 p.m. Washington at Boston TV: NBC, CBC

*Sunday, April 22, 2012 TBD Boston at Washington TV: TBD

*Wednesday, April 25, 2012 TBD Washington at Boston TV: TBD

 

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Rangers Lucky They Lost to Caps Today

Posted on 07 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

John Tortorella should be thanking his lucky stars that Alexander Ovechkin scored his 38th goal of the season just 32 seconds into the game to pave the way for a Washington 4-1 rout over his New York Rangers.

Why? Because the number one seeded Rags weren’t going to beat the Capitals in a seven game series in the opening round of the playoffs, which would have been the scenario had the Rangers knocked off the Caps today.

The Caps OWWWWNNNN the BlueShirts since New York has no match for Washington’s skilled players. Ovechkin (1 goal), Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist) and Alexander Semin (1 assist) light up when they see the slow Rangers defense and Henrik Lundqvist often has the task of trying to be the difference. On Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, King Henrik had no chance as the Capitals swarmed him in the opening frame en route to a 3-0 lead. Braden Holtby stopped 35 shots but most of them were from the perimeter as #70 made a strong case to be the first round starting goalie against the Boston Bruins, especially with both Michal Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun not at 100% healthwise.

For the Rangers, they luck out and get the Ottawas Senators, which is a much easier matchup for them despite what Keith Jones of the Philadelphia Flyers, I mean NBC, thinks.

The Caps last chance to win the Southeast Division title went out the window when the Carolina Hurricanes laid down by playing goalie Brian Boucher in Florida. Give credit to the Cats though, they deserved the division title since the Caps were so inconsistent throughout the season. The Panthers take the #3 seed and will face the New Jersey Devils.

For Washington, a mostly miserable regular season is finally over. It started with a 7-0 run, included inconsistent play, a coaching change, and some key injuries (Backstrom and Mike Green) during the majority of it, while finishing with a 5-2 stretch to qualify for the post season. The Caps get the very difficult task of facing the Boston Bruins in the first round and they will be heavy underdogs.

The Bruins are good and experienced while the Capitals underachieved in the regular season. Add in the fact that Washington will be playing the goalie that is 3rd on the depth chart and on paper, this looks like a mismatch. Most of the national and local media will predict it that way, but that takes pressure off of the Capitals.

Still, they do have internal pressure to win. This team was picked to go far in the postseason back in October and owner Ted Leonsis won’t be happy with a first round exit, even if it does come against the defending Stanley Cup Champions.

For the Caps to find a way to beat Boston, they need to continue to do the things they did right on Saturday on Broadway. They need to go to the net and get traffic on the opposing goalie. They need to use solid defense to generate transition offense, like Roman Hamrlik did setting up a three on two for the Backstrom goal that made it 4-0. They also need good goaltending, like Holtby provided tonight.

What they need to improve on are some very important things. First, they still have a tendency to try to make the perfect or fancy play and that leads to too many turnovers in all zones. Coach Dale Hunter has to get the players to clean that up. The simple play is the one that works best in playoffs, not the “thread the needle” type passes that are tried too often by this hockey club.

In addition, the power play was 1 for 3 in New York but does anyone feel confident in it? The Rangers best chances to score came when the Caps were a man up because of poor decision making. Dennis Wideman had a terrible night manning the point. Green wasn’t much better and he certainly didn’t have his legs when chasing down Rangers on shorthanded semi breakaways in this one. If the Caps want to get the power play going then look no farther than how they scored against Lundqvist. John Carlson got the puck in the middle of the ice at the blue line and fired it on net. He didn’t look to pass, he simply sent the biscuit flying towards the cage where it was deflected home by a New York player. Good things happen when you shoot and the more the guys on the power play start to figure it out the more goals they’ll get and the number of shorthanded odd man breaks and goals against (the Capitals allowed 10 of them this year) will go down. It is a simple formula.

So 82 games are in the books and for the record the team went 42-32-8 for 92 points. They were 3-1 against the Bruins this year as well. But none of that means anything now, but what does matter is the Capitals need to improve in some key areas if they want to have a chance of winning against Boston and get a shot at owning the Rangers again in the post season in round two.

The Caps did Tortorella and company a favor tonight, but the fiery Rangers coach will never admit it.

You’re welcome John and hope to see you in round two.

Notes: Hamrlik had two assists in 16:38 of ice time and I am saying that was his best game of the season. He looked confident and poised throughout the contest…Carlson was good too in 20:25 of ice time. That is two super games in a row for him and he deserves more power play time with his excellent shot…Laich centered the top line and won the key faceoff that got Washington rollling…Joel Ward returned and played solid on a 4th line with Mathieu Perreault and Keith Aucoin. Ward’s grinding style seems to be a good fit for the postseason and the Caps will need big things out of him to try to stop a potent Bruins club…the full playoff schedule will be announced Sunday at 1 pm on the NHL Network.

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Playoffs?! Playoffs?! Yes, the Caps Are Talking Playoffs

Posted on 06 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

In a season that has seen a coaching change, some key injuries, and more than its’ share of ups and downs, the Washington Capitals finally made the playoffs with one game remaining, after a 4-2 victory over the Florida Panthers combined with the Philadelphia Flyers win over the Buffalo Sabres, 2-1. The Caps, believe it or not, still have a shot at the Southeast Division title and can finish either 3rd, 7th or 8th in the East, depending on the outcome of Saturday’s contests. Their first round opponent could be the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, or New Jersey Devils.

But back to Thursday night, where the Caps faced a must win in their biggest game of the season. They got the job done, but it was not without another injury, and it was not an easy victory. Washington started sloppily in the opening frame but thanks to a Jay Beagle tally on a rebound of a Troy Brouwer shot plus some super goaltending by Michal Neuvirth, the Caps were fortunate to have a 1-0 lead. But things took a bad turn at the 5:39 mark of period two. Panther forward Marco Sturm fell into Neuvirth and #30 fell back awkwardly with his left leg trapped under him. He was in clear pain and he had to leave the contest after stopping all 13 shots he faced, many of them quality scoring chances.

At that point, the game could’ve gone either way when Braden Holtby (12 saves) entered. Knowing that #70 came on cold with no warmup, the Capitals immediately picked up their play. In addition, they received a boost from Coach Dale Hunter’s line combination changes that he made after the opening 20 minutes. Hunts moved Brooks Laich (1 goal, 1 assist) to center Alexander Ovechkin (1 goal) and Marcus Johansson (1 assist) while moving Nicklas Backstrom with Alexander Semin (1 goal) and Jason Chimera. The switch triggered the Washington offense and Ovechkin and Laich tallied two minutes apart to give the Caps a 3-0 lead.

“He wanted myself on that line just to add a little bit more defensive responsibility. That opens up Marcus and Alex to go and attack. If they know that I am going to be third guy high and then try and win my battles low and get the puck to them, they’re both great skaters that if I can get the puck to them in our zone, they can skate it out. That was the only thought process, shortly after that they both come down and they score a goal. So, it’s good strategy by the coaches,” added Laich on coach Hunter’s line juggling to start the second period.

Washington has struggled with leads lately and tonight saw another round of that start to occur. When five guys swarmed the puck after the Panthers crossed the Caps blueline, Sean Bergenheim alertly fed a streaking Mikael Samuelsson, who was all alone coming down the left wing. #26 fired a laser top shelf by Holtby and suddenly the Cats had life. Florida would pressure Washington, who had several stretches where they could not get the puck out of their own zone, for the rest of the period,  but after 40 minutes it was 3-1.

But just 43 seconds into the final period, the Caps failed to dump the puck deep and Florida took advantage getting an easy entry into the zone as the Capitals forwards changed. Then with the Caps defenders running around, Ed Jovanovski fired from the middle of the point and it went through a maze of players before getting by Holtby. At that point every Capitals fan had to think, “We’ve seen this movie before!” and for the next nine minutes it seemed like only a matter of time before the Panthers were going to tie it up. Luckily, the Caps finally found their legs when the Beagle line generated a super forecheck and from there on out Washington carried much of the play with Semin closing the deal with his 21st goal of the season with 1:02 to go.

It was another game where the Capitals looked like world beaters for stretches and then there were other periods where they seemed like the worst team in the league. When they struggled their breakouts were not crisp and they were lazy, at times, in the neutral zone, and that allowed Florida to get more offensive zone time. They did not play well away from the puck at all during those downturns and it was especiallly apparent that they were sitting back in the first 10 minutes of the third. Defensemen Karl Alzner (1 assist) commented on why they struggled early in the third period but were better down the stretch.

“I think we relaxed a little bit more and started getting a little bit of confidence back. We were talking about that on the bench, if there is a play to be made, make the play. Play with confidence, play still on the offensive with what made us get that lead. And that is what happens with all of the teams, you tighten up and you play too much defense and then we get picked apart through the neutral zone. So it was just getting a little bit of our swagger back, I think,” added King Karl on the problems the Caps have had lately when they get a lead and how they adjusted on Thursday.

At the end of the night though, the Capitals achieved their first and most important regular season goal: to make the playoffs. It is a different feel this spring as Washington is likely not going in as a favorite in their series. Because of the injuries and coaching change, they still have not played their best hockey either. They have been wildly inconsistent and their confidence needs boosting. Alzner’s point about getting their swagger back is an important one, Washington needs to find that right balance to be successful in the confidence department.

In the past, the Caps have gone into the post season having had long stretches of solid play during the latter part of the regular season. Maybe they’ve been overconfident in past years, but that won’t be the case this year. Also one could argue that the last four seasons, the Caps had already played their best hockey going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Again, that certainly is NOT the case this year.

Will it make a difference in the post season results this year? We will find out, but one thing is for sure, there are plenty of things the team needs to work on before the first round starts. There is lots of room for upside and improvement and they’ll need to do so, especially if both Tomas Vokoun and Neuvirth aren’t healthy for the playoffs. Right now it looks like it is Holtby’s net, but #70 seems ready to handle that pressure.

In closing, there is one regular season game left at Madison Square Garden on Saturday against the Rangers (6:30 pm start). A win by the Caps and a regulation loss by the Panthers gives the Caps the Southeast Division title, home ice, and a date with the Devils. If the Cats get at least a point, the Caps win, and Ottawa loses in regulation, then Washington goes to Boston as the 7th seed. Finally, if the Caps lose or both Florida and Ottawa get at least a point, then it is the eighth seed and another series against John Tortorella and the Rangers.

Whoever they face, the Capitals have the potential to be a dangerous team, especially if they improve their play with the puck as well as away from it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Rangers would prefer facing either Florida or Ottawa instead of a team that underachieved in the first 82 games and finally has a healthy set of skaters, especially if they find their game and get their swagger back.

Notes: Semin’s ice time was increased to 19:19 after #28 only played 14 minutes on Monday. Smart move by Hunter to get the hard working winger more playing time…John Carlson logged 20:05 and had his best game in weeks, maybe even in months…Ovechkin now has 37 goals on the campaign…the Caps lost the faceoff battle 29-32, with Beagle (1 goal, 18:35 of ice time) going 10-6. #83 has been one of the most positive stories of the 2011-12 season and the coaching staff continues to use him in a key role on this team…Neuvirth is reportedly day to day with a lower body injury so expect the Caps to call up Dany Sabourin from Hershey if Vokoun isn’t ready yet…Joel Ward should be closer to returning and they will need #42 to play like he did for Nashville in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs…the Sabres loss put the Panthers in the post season for the first time since 1999-2000.

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Caps Can’t Close in Tampa

Posted on 02 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Just when the Washington Capitals had a chance to put themselves on the brink of making the post season, they found a way to mess it up. After tying the game on a late Jason Chimera tally, the Caps lost a defensive zone faceoff and allowed Bolts sniper Steven Stamkos to score on a rebound from the doorstep with 1:03 remaining for the game winner. Stamkos would add his league leading 58th goal into an empty net to make it 4-2.

It was an opportunity blown for the Caps, who now have to sit back and root for the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday before taking on the Florida Panthers at the Verizon Center on Thursday night. If the Buffalo Sabres win tomorrow, they tie the Capitals in the standings with two games remaining, but the Caps own the tiebreaker (more regulation or overtime wins).

This was another sloppy game and it started slowly for the Capitals. Part of that was their inconsistent play but another reason was the officiating tandem of Kelly Sutherland and Frederick L’Ecuyer. Those two zebras gave Tampa two early power plays while missing some obvious infractions committed by the Bolts. It would go that way most of the night despite Washington carrying the play. Tampa received four power plays to just two for Washington and there were some questionable non-icing calls that went against the Caps late in regulation. They might as well have put Buffalo Sabres or Florida Panthers jerseys on the referees tonight because they were anything but objective.

But the Caps did not play well enough to win despite the bad officiating. They made key mistakes at the wrong time. Mathieu Perreault made a great pass to set up the first Caps goal by Alexander Semin (goal, assist), but he then made a terrible giveaway in his own zone shortly after Mike Green was robbed by Dwayne Roloson (31 saves) with a dandy glove save that would have made it 2-0, Washington. Perreault’s horrible turnover forced Dmitry Orlov to take a penalty and then Teddy Purcell scored on the power play to tie it up. 25 ticks later the Bolts scored again.

Chimera’s late goal (3:17 left) off of a rebound of a Semin shot after Green skated through the Tampa defense seemed to be the type of marker that would propel the Capitals to a victory, or at least a point. But Jay Beagle lost the draw to Stamkos with 1:15 to go and #91 provided the dagger. It was another late loss for Washington and if they miss the playoffs they have a whole slew of these contests to go back and revisit from 2011-12.

So now the Caps will have to sit and wait until Thursday to play again, with the hope that Buffalo loses on Tuesday against the Leafs or on Thursday in Philadelphia. Otherwise they’ll need a win vs the Panthers and a victory against the Rangers on Saturday to be sure to qualify for the post season (assuming the Sabres win in Boston on Saturday too).

Notes: The Washington coaching staff has got to get the power play going. Right now it is just terrible. There is too much passing at the top and not enough shots with traffic. Why not move Alexander Ovechkin down low or at least on the half wall again?…Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, and Troy Brouwer were all -2. The Caps need those guys scoring if they are going to win their last two games…Michal Neuvirth (26 saves) was in goal and he was outplayed by Roloson. He needed to stop the Purcell shot. The other two were the result of long shots with traffic…speaking of traffic, the Capitals need to get more of that in front of the other clubs goalie. Washington makes it too easy on opposing netminders too often.

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Sloppy Caps Win in Shootout

Posted on 01 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

With the out of town scoreboard being the Washington Capitals friend on both Friday and Saturday night, the Caps found themselves in a struggle with the Montreal Canadiens, the last place team in the Eastern Conference, in their own building. Dale Hunter’s crew put out a decent effort, but the Caps over passed and shot wide on their chances plus they had several sloppy stretches in Nicklas Backstrom’s return to the lineup for the first time in 40 games. Fortunately for Washington, Michal Neuvirth was very good in net (39 saves, 2-2 in shootout) and Matt Hendricks and Alex Semin made super moves in the gimmick as the Capitals escaped with two points.

It was a huge victory on paper as the Caps moved two points ahead of the Buffalo Sabres, who lost on Friday at home against Pittsburgh and then Saturday in Toronto, with just three games remaining. Because the Capitals hold the tiebreaker over the Sabres (regulation or overtime wins), Washington’s magic number, which is points gained by the Caps or points lost by Buffalo, sits at four. In addition, if the Florida Panthers lose in regulation to the Detroit Red Wings in Hockeytown on Sunday, then the Capitals control their own destiny with respect to the Southeast Division title. The Caps are in Tampa on Monday, come home to face the Panthers on Thursday, before closing out their regualar season at Madison Square Garden on Saturday against the Rangers.

Things are shaping up nicely for the Caps standings wise, but if they want to close the deal, and more importantly, advance in the post season, they have to clean their game up. Washington squandered too many opportunities in this one. Alexander Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson (3 giveaways) played with Backstrom in his return. #19 was very good but his linemates were woefully inconsistent and that prevented them from connecting. Brooks Laich, another guy this team needs going to win regularly, was also sloppy on this night (4 giveaways) and was yet another reason the Capitals couldn’t sustain anything after a very good first 16 minutes or so.

The Caps never sat back in this game, in fact, the two Montreal goals came in transition as Washington was trying to push the pace. Max Pacioretty blew down the left wing late in the first period and when Karl Alzner over committed to help out his defensive partner, Dennis Wideman, Erik Cole was all alone in front and scored. The Habs second goal came when Thomas Plekenac just abused Roman Hamrlik one on one and then fired a sweet shot upstairs to beat Neuvirth (39 saves).

In overtime, the Capitals struggled once again on four and four because they couldn’t keep up with Monreal’s speed. That was disappointing given that the Habs played the night before in New York and should have been the tired club. The Caps are fortunate their goalie was on his game on this night and Neuvirth certainly showed that he can be the guy the way he played on Saturday. Last year #30 was very instrumental in Washington winning the Eastern Conference in the regular season and with Tomas Vokoun’s creaky groin, Neuvy needs to step up again for the Caps to win the division/make the post season.

At the end of the night, despite the fancy play that led to too many turnovers, the Caps come out on top and they are in a nice position to make the post season after things looked troublesome following the blowout loss to Buffalo on Tuesday. There are still three games to go and Washington must play better if they want to close things out and avoid an early trip to the golf course. The Southeast Divison will be likely there for the taking after Sunday’s slate is complete, but the Caps will need to win all three remaining games to pull that off and they won’t get that done if they perform like they did against Montreal.

Notes: Overall shot attempts were 68-68 but the Habs did a better job of getting theirs on goal…Mathieu Perreault scored the first Caps goal off of a nice feed from Semin and Jay Beagle scored the second after a sweet pass from Hendricks…those four players had good games but #85 only had 10:05 of ice time…Washington won the faceoff battle 38-28 with Backstrom going 12-6…Mike Green had 24:24 of ice time to lead the Caps…both teams did not score on the power play. The Caps had five chances to the Habs four. Washington must start connecting with the man advantage if they want to do post season damage.

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