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Caps Set to Face Bruins With Holtby in Goal

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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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Caps Still Alive After Huge Win

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Caps Still Alive After Huge Win

Posted on 29 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals sure do know how to make things interesting. One game after laying an egg in their own building in a huge contest against the Buffalo Sabres, the Caps went into Boston and played a super road game to grab a 2-0 lead with four minutes left. No problem, right? Well, to quote that old Sundance Kid saying, “You Figured Wrong, Butch.” A couple of defensive breakdowns resulted in two late Bruins goals to force overtime and after Alexander Ovechkin (two assists) just missed late in overtime, it appeared the Capitals were going to lose once again in the shootout. After all, Boston was 8-2 in those things this year.

But the Caps got gimmick tallies from Matt Hendricks, Alex Semin (with the game on the line), and then Brooks Laich along with some big saves from Michal Neuvirth to gain a critical two points. It was a huge win over the defending Stanley Cup Champs, the Caps third victory over the B’s this season, and puts them back in a tie with the Buffalo Sabres for the eighth and final playoff spot. The Sabres have a game in hand and that one comes tomorrow night against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

This Caps team has had a roller coaster of a season and you just never know what the result will be. Tonight they had a terrible first period, one in which Jason Chimera was kicked out for charging (the Bruins player turned, which made it look bad, but what do you expect from the zebras?), goalie Tomas Vokoun left the game due to injury, and the Capitals could muster just two shots. But they managed to kill off the five minute major, overcome the goalie switch to Neuvirth and get out of that frame unscathed on the scoreboard, where it counts.

The second stanza was more tight checking with not much skating room and this one went to a critical third period, scoreless. The Capitals had to find a way to get a win in enemy territory and they took over with Ovechkin, Marcus Johansson (1 goal, 1 assist), Laich, and Dennis Wideman (1 goal) providing the offense. The Gr8 had another gear in the third period and overtime playing a major role in the victory. His pass to MJ90 on the second goal on a 2 on 1 was a thing of beauty. As for Johansson, the sophomore has had some of his best games against the boys from Beantown and he delivered tonight.

So it is back home to face the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night in another must win game. The good news is Nicklas Backstrom appears set to return against the Habs (btw, the player who injured #19, Rene Bourque, will be playing too).

The return of Backstrom is necessary if the team wants to get in the playoffs. They have four games remaining and they might need to win them all the way Buffalo is playing. There is no margin for error and any help they can get from other teams is surely appreciateed.

But they found a way to get it done themselves in Boston against the defending champs and now they can spend a night scoreboard watching.

Caps players and fans alike almost never utter the following words, but they will be tomorrow night:

Go Sidney Crosby!

Go Evgeni Malkin!

Go Marc-Andre Fleury!

Coach ‘em up, Dan Bylsma!

Notes: Washington lost the face-off battle 35-23 with Laich going 4-14…Vokoun had seven saves before likely re-injuring his bad groin while Neuvirth halted 19 Boston shots…attempted shots were 65-46 in favor of the Bruins. The Caps had 21 shots on net…Florida lost in overtime on Thursday so the Caps trail the division leading Panthers by four points but Florida has a game in hand.

 

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Caps Playoff Hopes Take Huge Hit

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Caps Playoff Hopes Take Huge Hit

Posted on 27 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals Coach Dale Hunter called Tuesday night’s game against the Buffalo Sabres for eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings a “game 7″ type of affair. Unfortunately, this one was like the game seven against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, a one-sided blow out by the visitors. The only good news on the night? Washington has five games remaining and still can make the postseason, but now they’ll need help.

The difference in this game started with the most important position in hockey, goalie.

Braden Holtby, who has performed nicely since his recall from Hershey last week, made a terrible stick handling mistake to give the Sabres an early easy goal then he struggled with his rebound conrol. His defense, notably John Carlson (-3) and Jeff Schultz (-2), went to sleep on him and the Sabres built a 3-0 lead early into the middle frame. That spelled the end of Holtby and on came Michal Neuvirth.

Alexander Semin scored to cut it to 3-1 and with Buffalo losing defensemen Christian Ehroff to an injury for the game and Andrej Sekera in the locker room for the end of the second frame, it looked like the Capitals had a chance to get back in it when blue liner Robyn Regehr was called for hooking with 3:07 to go. But Alexander Ovechkin misplayed a puck at the left point and Jason Pominville went in on a two on one and beat Neuvirth to pretty much end this game. The Sabres added a third period marker and left town 5-1 victors and control of their own destiny.

Ryan Miller stopped 44 of 45 shots for the Sabres but the Caps rarely got to the net for rebounds. Miller is one of the best netminders in the league and he has been on the top of his game as Buffalo has put together a meteoric rise to seize the last playoff spot with less than two weeks left in the regular season.

The Caps, who recently had a successful critical road trip at 2-2-1, followed that up with a dud of a three game home stand going 1-1-1. With games at Boston, Tampa, and the Rangers plus two home games against Montreal and Florida, things are not looking good for General Manager George McPhee’s crew. The Capitals will have to go 5-0 or 4-1 to likely make it as Buffalo faces Pittsburgh and Toronto on home ice while traveling to Toronto, Boston, and Philadelphia. With the way Miller is going in net, they might not lose.

As for Washington, this team has been wildly inconsistent and as I’ve chronicled here all year, they will continue to be that way with their weak play up the middle of the ice. Nicklas Backstrom has been cleared to return but the question remains, is he ready for NHL action at the most intense time of the year? It seems risky to put #19 back in but it may be the Capitals only hope because the crew of Brooks Laich, Mathieu Perreault, and Marcus Johansson have not done the job at the pivot spot to allow this club to put a winning streak together.

The bottom line now is the Caps need at least four wins, and possibly five in a row to make the post season. Given what we’ve seen for the first 77 games, that seems highly unlikely, but that is why they play the games.

Backstrom back or not, they’ll need top notch goaltending and better play from their defensemen. On Tuesday night they did not get that and now their season is totally on the line.

Notes: the Caps won the faceoff battle 37-23 and outshot the Sabres 45-31 but Buffalo made the most of their quality scoring chances…the Caps went 0 for 4 on the power play and gave up a shorthanded tally. The Sabres were 0 for 1  with the man advantage…Washington’s next game is in Boston on Thursday. The Sabres play the Penguins in Buffalo on Friday night.

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Bad Decisions Cost Caps Again

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Bad Decisions Cost Caps Again

Posted on 24 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

When you are up 3-0 in hockey, you should win the game. On Friday night at the Verizon Center, the Washington Capitals managed to give a critical game away to the desperate Winnipeg Jets, 4-3, in overtime. It was a costly loss as the Buffalo Sabres, by virtue of their victory over the New York Rangers, are now tied with the Caps for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Both teams have 82 points with just seven tilts remaining. In defeat, the Capitals wasted a two goal effort from Alexander Ovechkin (34th and 35th of the season) and some decent goaltending from Michal Neuvirth (38 saves).

After losing in the shootout to the Flyers on Thursday night, this was a worrisome game given that the Jets were in town waiting while the Caps went up and down I-95 the last two days prior to puck drop. But Washington came out as the stronger team dominating the play in the first 25 minutes. When Ovechkin scored top shelf on Ondrej Pavelec (20 saves) just 5:47 into the middle frame to put the Caps up three pucks, it looked like the rout was on. The Caps were outskating the Jets and playing with confidence. Only Pavelec’s stellar play in goal kept the Jets in it, at that point.

But a couple of things changed the entire course of the game in a matter of seconds. First, fourth liner Ben Maxwell scored when the Capitals had a major mental breakdown in their own end. Four Caps were back on the play as Tim Stapleton carried the puck into the Washington zone. Three defenders went to Stapleton with the fourth, Roman Hamrlik, also staring at the puck carrier. Bad decision number one as Stapleton found an all alone Maxwell in front for an easy goal. Then, on the ensuing face-off, third line center Jiri Slater goaded Washington first line center Brooks Laich into a fight. Bad decision number two as Washington was now forced to go without their top pivot for five minutes, which basically helped take red hot Ovechkin out of the game. That also sparked the Jets even more and they scored 71 seconds later to make it 3-2 with over 30 minutes left in regulation.

The Caps would then, for the first time this season, lose a game they were leading heading into the final frame (were 22-0-0, thanks @JapersRink & @ngreenberg). Shift after shift the energized Jets kept putting it on a tired Capitals club, but somehow the Caps held the lead, despite no shots on goal, until just under four minutes left in regulation. At that juncture, Jeff Halpern won a defensive zone draw but both John Carlson and Jeff Schultz failed to get to the biscuit and also did not cover their respective men. The result was a tap in goal and when the contest headed to OT, it was pretty obvious a tired Capitals team had run out of energy against a desperate Winnipeg club.

Some will blame the coach for the loss and the way the Caps played in the third period, but Dale Hunter’s troops didn’t get it done. When you have four guys back against two or three opponents, there should be no goal against, but that happened on the Jets first tally. Also, Laich decided to go with Slater on his own, likely a carryover from the previous week’s physical tilt in Manitoba. Brooksie is a hard worker, super teammate, and good guy, but #21 has to be smarter there and not take himself off of the ice in that situation. It was an important point in the game and to have their best pivot in the sin bin for five minutes really hurt the Capitals. Poor coverage was the problem on the game tying tally that came directly off of a won draw, that is bad execution, not coaching.

At the end of the night, the Jets are still likely done with both the Caps and the Sabres up four points on them. But Washington let another key point go by the way side. They made mental mistakes, took their foot off of the gas, and then lost confidence while Winnipeg got stronger as this game went on. The inevitable happened in the final frame, but fortunately for the Caps, they did pick up a point.

Still, they should have won up 3-0, despite being fatigued. Now they have Minnesota at home on Sunday evening before an all important matchup with Buffalo on Tuesday at the Verizon Center. Both contests are must wins, in my book.

 Notes: Not a good night for Marcus Johansson. The young Swede had one of the poorest games of his career. He was -3 and was pushed around in just 12:37 of ice time…Jay Beagle was 11-4 on draws and played 20:10…Ovechkin had 18:51 of ice time, not enough in my book. Part of the problem for Hunter though was he doesn’t have many decent options at center right now and when Laich is in the box he is forced to put either Johansson or the smaller Mathieu Perreault with the Gr8…Alex Semin returned to the lineup and had a strong game. He had an assist and was +1 in 16:13 of ice time. As good as 8 and 28 are though, with the major holes up the middle of the ice this Capitals team, as I’ve blogged many times since Nicklas Backstrom was injured, is going to be inconsistent. On Friday night, they received subpar play at center and that contributed mightily to the lack of third period forecheck, and ultimately the loss…Winnipeg went 4-1-1 against Washington this season while the Caps were 2-2-2 in the season series.

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Poor Start Dooms Caps on Road Again

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Poor Start Dooms Caps on Road Again

Posted on 18 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals needed a good start in Chicago on Sunday night after losing a tough contest on Friday night in Winnipeg. They did not get that at all at the Uniter Center. The Blackhawks fired the first 12 shots on net and potted two goals in a dominating first period.

In the middle frame, the Caps came out strong and cut it to 2-1 on a Mike Knuble goal after a nice interception by Keith Aucoin. But defensive zone breakdowns, which have plagued this club all season long, showed up time and time again and when John Carlson fanned on a pass the Hawks scored to make it 3-1. They would go up 4-1 before Alexander Ovechkin scored a pretty goal going around Duncan Keith to make it 4-2. With 20 minutes left the Caps needed two goals to tie, but they couldn’t muster much offense and ended up losing 5-2, with an empty netter providing the final margin.

Simply put, this team has not played well early on in games when they’ve had the previous day off this season. It took the Caps far too long to get their legs in this one and with their weaknesses up the middle of the ice, that poor start was just too much to overcome. The poor opening frames and weak pivot play has led to much inconsistency since Nicklas Backstrom went out in early January. #19 has been skating and appears set to return at some point, but the question might be, will it be too late to save this season?

As I am typing this, the Caps are still in eighth place in the Eastern Conference with the Winnipeg Jets playing at home against Carolina. If the Jets win, they tie the Caps in the standings. But Winnipeg would have some serious momentum and the Capitals go to Detroit on Monday night and Philadelphia on Thursday night. On paper, those two contests both appear to be losses.

So a five game road trip that now stands at 1-2, could easily become 1-4 if Washington does not start playing a full 60 minutes of hockey.

On Sunday they weren’t ready for puck drop and the Blackhawks buried them for it.

There are 10 games left in the season and if they don’t start showing some urgency from the opening face-off, they just be might smacking Titleist’s instead of pucks come April 9th.

Notes: Michal Neuvirth got the start in net with Tomas Vokoun dealing with a nagging injury. Braden Holtby was recalled from Hershey and was the back-up…the Caps finally received a power play in the third period but as expected, without much in game work, it looked pretty bad…not many guys were good tonight, except for Knuble and perhaps Aucoin. Neuvirth received no support and Jeff Schultz had his worst game on defense since playing his way back into the lineup. Dennis Wideman was  a -3 and not very good either.

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Boneheaded Hockey Costing Caps

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Boneheaded Hockey Costing Caps

Posted on 07 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

To win in sports, you not only have to work hard, but you also have to play smart.

On Tuesday night at the Verizon Center the Washington Capitals had the first part of the above equation firing 49 shots on goal on Carolina goalie Cam Ward (46 saves). However, they failed several times to make the correct decision on “hockey plays” and lost, 4-3, in overtime to the Hurricanes. It was the Caps third straight defeat, in a game they sorely needed, and they stay in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, two points behind the Winnipeg Jets, with 16 games remaining.

Coach Dale Hunter was brought in last November primarily to try and get the Capitals to play better defensively. Hunter instituted a system that was designed to allow fewer odd man rushes against. For the most part it has worked, but on this night, it didn’t matter what system the team was playing because the team had key mental breakdowns in crucial situations.

  • On the third Canes goal Dennis Wideman, with defensive partner Mike Green already up by the opponents cage, chose to take a Baltimore Oriole like swing at a bouncing puck at the Carolina blue line instead of backing up. Naturally #6 missed like the O’s normally do and Brandon Sutter went in on a breakaway to give the Hurricanes a 3-2 lead just 105 seconds into the third period
  • Then after the Caps rallied to tie the game on a beautiful passing play between Brooks Laich and Marcus Johansson with just under three minutes remaining, Wideman in overtime decided to go after another less than 50-50 puck in the offensive zone. He was once again unsuccessful and as a result the Canes had a two on one break to score the game winner when Green didn’t play it correctly and allowed the puck carrier to make a pass for an easy shot.
  • You can add to the list a complete defensive zone coverage breakdown that occurred just 40 seconds after the Caps took a 2-0 lead. Matt Hendricks and Troy Brouwer both got caught watching the puck carrier and Jirl Tlusty received a pass from Jerome Samson for a tap in goal.
  • Less than four minutes after that, Alexander Ovechkin tried too much one on one play in the offensive zone and turned the puck over. The Canes would go the other way and score when Green lost Chad Larose at the side of the net. It was another goal Michal Neuvirth (32 saves) had no chance on. Had the Gr8 simply passed the puck to an open point man, the Capitals likely would have kept possession of the puck in that sequence and Carolina doesn’t take advantage of a bad Caps turnover. Again, another mental mistake.

This pattern is what I call “boneheaded” hockey. What makes it more troubling is it is coming from players who have been in the league quite a bit. Some will try and blame Hunter for this but at this stage the players should know better. Case in point, with the Caps up 1-0 early in period two, rookie defensemen Dmitry Orlov had to make a split second decision on a puck in the offensive zone. #81 correctly chose to back up instead of gambling and seconds later Washington got the puck back and Orlov’s shot was put home by Jay Beagle. Smart hockey there by a rookie, so if he has it down don’t tell me the coaches aren’t teaching it. The mental mistakes are on the players and they have to decrease them drastically if Washington wants to claw its’ way into the playoffs.

This loss puts the Caps 1-2-1 with one game left on this five game homestand. Washington needed a minimum of six points on this stay at the Verizon Center and even with a win over Tampa on Thursday night, they will only get five points. That is not going to be an easy task as the Bolts have been rolling thanks to the play of Steven Stamkos (48 goals). The Capitals may catch a break though, as Lightning goalie Mathieu Garon was injured in a 7-3 loss to Ottawa on Tuesday night. Tampa’s weakness all season long has been goaltending.

So the Caps have a chance to expose an opponents weakness to obtain a key win on Thursday night. But Washington has weaknesses too and one big one right now is bad decision making. It is time for the boneheaded hockey to stop if the Caps want to have any chance of participating in the post season this spring.

Notes:  The Caps were buried from the face-off dot, 44-27, by Carolina…Ovechkin had 20:04 of ice time and five shots on net but he was held pointless for the third straight game…Orlov was slew footed by Jeff Skinner but the zebras missed it and in the melee that ensued, #81 pushed the linesman and received a 10 minute conduct. During that stretch Hunter only had five d-men and with Green and Wideman paired together the Sutter breakaway occurred. 6 and 52 were also on the ice together for the Canes game winner. Those two don’t seem to make smart decisions when paired together so hopefully Hunter avoids that d-pairing in the future…Keith Aucoin had an assist in 5:25 of action…Mike Knuble was scratched…Eric Staal (1 assist) extended his point streak to 12 games but overall Karl Alzner and John Carlson did a very good job of holding #12 in check.

 

 

 

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