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Caps Update and Pre-NHL Draft Thoughts

Posted on 24 June 2009 by Ed Frankovic

So it appears that Donald Brashear is not in the plans for next year for the Washington Capitals (check out more on that and an update on the Sergei Fedorov situation here). While Brashear did serve a purpose the last couple of seasons in DC by protecting Alexander Ovechkin and many other Caps players he is now 37 years old and following a knee injury he suffered in a losing fight to Nashville’s Wade Belak his value has drastically diminished. The question GM George McPhee has to answer is:

Can the Caps go forward with defenseman John Erskine and forward Matt Bradley as the guys who will take on opponents players and tough guys when they start taking liberties with the Great #8 and some of Washington’s other highly skilled players next season?

Here is my answer: No, I think McPhee needs to add a guy to try and fill the Brashear role next season because Erskine and Bradley aren’t good enough fighters to take on the league’s heavyweights plus both of them have other more important roles on the team than just being a fighter. During the regular season the Caps absolutely need someone who can fight and protect. Come playoff time that skill pretty much goes out the window (As an example of this, take a look at how little ice time forward and resident tough guy Eric Godard, who played 71 games and had 171 PIMs for the Pens in the regular season, received in the playoffs: 0!).

If one takes a look at the coverage and analysis from blogs and national publications about the Caps you will see various need assessments ranging from a second line center to a defensive d-man to a power forward who can go to the net and score the ugly goals. I’ll stand by my assertion that the biggest need is a second line center (I don’t think Fedorov will be back and if he does come back can he be counted on to play anywhere close to 82 games?).

Some of the other things McPhee needs to do this summer is solve the Michael Nylander (as in how can he get rid of this guy and his huge salary cap figure?) and Jose Theodore situations. I am 100% convinced that Theodore cannot be the #1 goalie for the Caps going into next year’s playoffs no matter how well he does in the regular season because the Washington players can’t possibly have any confidence at all in this guy after he opened the playoffs with one of the worst goaltending games in Caps playoff history. Rob Yunich over at Storming the Crease throws out some options on where McPhee could send #60. I think Edmonton or Colorado make the most sense but at $4.5M this might not happen until after the season gets rolling or even closer to the trade deadline. Bottom line in both situations is it doesn’t matter what the Caps get back  in return for these guys as long as they can unload the salary.

On to the 2009 NHL Entry Draft where TSN/NBC’s Pierre McGuire and former Flames GM Craig Button offer up their predictions. As I mentioned in my last blog, Button, who used to run the draft for the Dallas Stars back in the 90’s (he selected Jarome Iginla, Brendan Morrow, and Marty Turco) before moving on to Calgary, likes d-man Victor Hedman to be the first overall pick by the Islanders. McGuire and I see New York taking forward John Tavares.

Once again scanning the national publications and blogosphere several people have the Caps picking forward Landon Ferraro with the 24th selection in the first round on Friday night. Ferraro, who is the son of former Hartford Whalers and Islanders forward Ray, is only 5′ 11″ and 165 pounds. The younger Ferraro is reportedly very fast but given his genetics one can’t expect him to grow into the body necessary to be a power forward (next biggest Caps need behind a second line center). Since Ferraro is a right wing, is small, and the Caps have several other young, small, and speedy forwards in their system already (see Chris Bourque, Mathieu Perrault, and Francois Bouchard), I just don’t see any reason why McPhee and head scout Ross Mahoney would take him. McGuire picks him for the Caps while Button goes with defenseman Dmitri Orlov.

Another popular name associated with the Caps in the first round is Jacob Josefson. Button has him going in the top 10 while McGuirre has him taken by St. Louis with the 17th pick so it is unlikely he is around where Washington is currently slated to pick. However, you never know if the Caps will move up (or down) and last year there were over a dozen trades in the first round so trying to predict who Washington will select is extremely difficult. I would not be surprised at all to see McPhee trade this year’s pick for a player who can help the Caps next season. In fact, what will surprise me most is if McPhee and his staff leave Montreal without making a single trade that will immediately fill in some of the current needs for next season.

All players drafted this weekend will be invited to the 2009 Caps development camp which will be held July 13-18 at Kettler Ice Plex in Ballston, Virginia. Last year defensemen Karl Alzner and John Carlson and goalies Simeon Varlamov and Michal Nuevirth really stood out while we also got good looks at forwards Oskar Osala, Bouchard, Perrault, Jake Hauswirth and Steve Pinizzotto; defensemen Keith Seabrook and Patrick McNeill; and goalie Braden Holtby. The one player I will be looking at most during that time is last year’s first round draft pick (21st overall), Anton Gustafsson.

The son of former Capital Bengt-Ake Gustafsson did not attend the 2008 development camp and then after just one day of training camp last September he was done with another back injury. Anton, who was signed by the Caps to a three year contract back in May, hardly played at all this past season (27 regular season and 5 playoff games in Sweden) and his stats to date don’t inspire any confidence to me that he can play an 80 game season. Some have Gustafsson rated as the 5th best prospect in Washington’s system behind Alzner, Carlson, Varlamov, and Neuvirth. I talked with the NHL scouting director of one team last year after the draft in Ottawa and based on their due diligence he said there was no way his team would take Anton because they believed much of his injury situation was in his head. Clearly the book is still really out on Anton and he needs to show his skill and his ability to stay healthy at the development camp.

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Hershey Bears Calder Cup Champions; Penguins win Stanley Cup (Updated)

Posted on 12 June 2009 by Ed Frankovic

The Hershey Bears are the Calder Cup Champions after knocking off the Manitoba Moose, 4-1, in game six of their series tonight in Winnipeg. Hershey blitzed Moose goalie Cory Schneider for three goals in the first period and never looked back. Rookie goalie Michal Neuvirth, who won the Jack A. Butterfield trophy for AHL playoff MVP, made 24 saves to get the win.  Andrew Gordon, Chris Bourque, Alexandre Giroux and Keith Aucoin scored for Hershey. Congrats to the Bears and the Washington Capitals organization!

Revenge is a dish best served cold if you are a Penguins fan tonight as Pittsburgh held off a furious Red Wings rally to win the Stanley Cup in exciting fashion, 2-1, to avenge last season’s Stanley Cup Finals loss to Detroit. Hockey fans will be watching the incredible Marc-Andre Fleury save on Nicklas Lidstrom with one second left for years to come. Evgeni Malkin was the Conn Smythe Award Winner for Playoff MVP but in my mind, the Pens aren’t anywhere without Sidney Crosby (who was injured in game 7 and barely played after that). Crosby carried this team in the first two rounds, especially against the Caps, and he goes against the opponents best defensive group every game while Malkin gets the second unit.

In Detroit tonight, defenseman Brad Stuart is wearing the goat horns for taking the first penalty (slashing Malkin), then giving the puck away that allowed Maxime Talbot to make it 1-0 Pens, and then pinching at the blue line to set up a two on one for Pittsburgh that they, of course, scored on (Talbot again). I’ve been saying this all playoffs and will say it again – the Penguins are about as good a team as I’ve ever seen at converting two on one breaks.

Btw, please check out my on air discussion with Nestor today in the WNST audio vault (http://wnst.net/wordpress/section/audio/) for my pre game thoughts on the NHL and AHL finals.

For Caps and Baltimore sports fans it was tough seeing Pittsburgh win another trophy but given that the Caps lost two contests in OT to the Pens before bowing out in 7 games should make you and the entire Caps organization realize that they are very close to their first ever Stanley Cup victory. With some salary cap room freeing up from the Viktor Kozlov and Sergei Fedorov departures (and hopefully a Michael Nylander release too), Caps GM George McPhee should finally have some cap space to make the moves he needs to put Washington over the top. There is lots of talent in this organization in the NHL, AHL, and ECHL (the Caps team down there, the South Carolina Stingrays, won the Championship as well).

The NHL Awards show is next week from Las Vegas (Alexander Ovechkin should win the Hart Trophy for MVP and Mike Green is up for the Norris Trophy (best defenseman)), followed by the NHL draft the week after in Montreal (June 26 on Versus), and then free agency begins on July 1 so the NHL off-season will start fast and furious.

Congrats again to Coach Bob Woods and the Hershey Bears on their championship!

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Caps: Playing George McPhee / NHL Conference Finals Analysis and Predictions

Posted on 17 May 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Caps Analysis: Playing George McPhee

Tonight, after hearing the words of Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau and General Manager George McPhee on Friday at breakdown day combined with the knowledge I’ve gained from watching this hockey team plus input I’ve gotten from other scouting and knowledgeable sources, I am going to play George McPhee as he heads into the off-season and try and predict some of what he might do and what I would do with this hockey club if I were in his position.

Before we begin, I agree with McPhee and Boudreau that this is a very good team right now and there are a lot of talented hockey players in the organization, many of them aged 25 and under. Clearly the future is bright. However, what the Caps need to do is finally win a Stanley Cup and not end up being a team that makes the playoffs 14 straight years without an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals, like they did from 1982-83 to 1995-96 under GM David Poile. Washington is close to achieving their goal but if I am McPhee I need to really adhere to my evaluation process and look hard at the personnel from a players and coaching standpoint to decide if I have what it takes to win it all.

Let’s start with the head coach. Clearly Boudreau is a guy this team likes playing for and his uptempo system seems to fit the talent. Based on what Bruce said on Friday, he has some guys on this team that don’t do what he wants them to do, which is go to the net. This is a problem because I can’t remember a Stanley Cup Champion team made up of perimeter hockey players. Given that combination some personnel moves are in order, and we’ll get to them soon enough. However, during the Penguins series a comment was made to me by an NHL scout who said that the Caps do not play well away from the puck (for the record, the scout criticized the Penguins ability to do this as well). This falls on coaching and personnel. What I don’t know, and if I am McPhee I am finding out, is the team’s lack of ability to play well away from the puck a function of the players not buying in or does the coaching need to improve? In this regard, a head coach and his assistants are responsible for the system. Boudreau is a lock to come back but I am not so sure he and McPhee are sold on the team of assistant coaches (Jay Leach, Dean Evason, and Dave Prior).

Prior is the goaltending coach and Olie Kolzig practically swore by him. Prior seems to be doing things right given that rookies Simeon Varlamov and Michael Neuvirth have emerged ahead of schedule but my question to him is what the heck happened with Jose Theodore? Theodore was wildly inconsistent and a major argument could be made that he was the biggest reason Washington is out after two rounds of the playoffs. If he has any kind of a game one against the Rangers then the Caps win that contest, at worst, 3-2, and they probably knock off New York in five games. If they beat the Rangers in five games then some of the injuries we heard about on Friday probably don’t happen and it is more likely that a healthier Caps team would have beaten the Penguins. After all, the beat up squad that expended a ton of energy to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the opening round took the defending Eastern Conference Champions to seven games.

Granted the team in front of Theodore wasn’t totally ready for playoff hockey at the outset of the post season but the Caps played decent enough to win the playoff opener, if not for Theodore. Yes, good came out of that in terms of seeing the future in Varlamov but #60 was paid $4.5M this past season and next to try and help the team win a Stanley Cup. He has failed miserably and if I am Boudreau and McPhee I just don’t know how he could regain the #1 job because even if he plays well in training camp and the regular season next year, like he did from late December to the end of March, who is to say he doesn’t put up another clunker in game one of next year’s playoffs? Was Theodore’s problem technical or was it a mental thing? Prior would probably know best but I’m starting to think it might be mental and if I am the Capitals players, I just don’t have any faith in that guy anymore. Therefore, I think McPhee needs to move him before next season’s trade deadline. The problem, though, is that could be tough given his salary and you are really risking things going with two young goaltenders. All you have to do to find a situation where that didn’t work out was in Montreal this year with Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak. Of course the Canadiens don’t have Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green so that might not be an accurate comparison. If I am McPhee, a Varlamov/Neuvrith combo isn’t such a bad thing next year. Brent Johnson, who Boudreau called “A great team guy,” could be added cheap for insurance too but his durability could be an issue.

Questions were asked about the defense on Friday, specifically if McPhee was going to acquire a free agent to help keep the front of the net more clear. McPhee responded by saying he has alot of good defensemen but reading between the lines and based on what many of us have seen this year, they have a bunch of good defensemen but many of them are very much alike. Tom Poti, Karl Alzner, and Jeff Schultz all have similar styles in that they are good skaters and move the puck well but aren’t physical. Schultz is clearly the weakest of that trio. Green is the #1 defenseman and I see Shaone Morrisonn as being the odd man out because he isn’t a good buy given the money he wants (reportedly in the $3M range). One of my scouting sources does not see him as a good defensemen, and that is wording it nicely. So I think #26 won’t be back. As for Milan Jurcina, this guy really improved this season and deserves to return. He is turning in to a good #5 or #6 defensemen. John Erskine also had a good season but he is injury prone and some of that comes from his physical style and some of it comes from his subpar skating ability. The team has already committed to #4 for two more years so he is definitely back, plus he is physical and the Caps are weak in that area. Brian Pothier has another season under contract at $2.5M, which is too much, if you ask me. Assuming Mo is out, Washington needs another physical blueliner and therefore McPhee can either trade or go the free agent route. Schultz is clearly trade bait along with Pothier and I’d even put Jurcina in a deal with other players if I could get a top 4 defenseman to go with Green, Poti, and Alzner.

At forward, Michael Nylander is not back and he will either be waived or retire (McPhee said a buyout does not make financial sense), so that frees up money right there. The concern is the top 6 forwards of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin, Viktor Kozlov, Sergei Fedorov, and Tomas Fleischmann are not exactly grind it out and go to the net type of players. I think Fleischmann, if he can build up his strength in the off-season, will score more next season (that pneumonia he had really sapped his energy). I don’t think I bring back Kozlov because he isn’t a big go to the net guy. Washington needs a #2 center, especially if Fedorov is not back (and even so he only played 52 regular season games this past year). There is talk of Brooks Laich jumping up to that role and that wouldn’t be bad but McPhee still needs another forward who can go to the net in his top 6. Do you trade Semin, who has so much talent but prefers the perimeter and appears to be easily knocked off his game due to injury?

Dave Steckel clearly is back and has upside as does Matt Bradley and Boyd Gordon. Eric Fehr needs to make the jump to becoming a 20 goal scorer but he can’t stay healthy. Apparently he draws the ire of the coaches too. #16 has the size and skating ability to be a go to the net player but I don’t think he will become a Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, or Bobby Ryan type of player that he was projected to be at one time. So McPhee needs to add another top 6 forward who is more physical and can get the grind out type of goals that a Bill Guerin is giving the Penguins since he moved over there at the trade deadline. Chris Clark is under contract for two more years but I have serious doubts about his ability to produce. His scoring touch seems gone (he did have wrist surgery) and he has lost a step. It is tough paying him $2.6M a season if he isn’t scoring at least 20 goals. I am not sold on Chris Bourque making it as a top 6 forward on this team but he might fit in elsewhere so perhaps he is part of a package deal for a defenseman or forward?

That leaves us with Donald Brashear, whose return Ovechkin lobbied for on Friday. I think #87 intimidated the opposition but he also was prone to bad penalties and his skating ability detoriated after his knee injury. I think McPhee needs a tough guy on the roster to prevent teams from taking liberties with Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Green but I’m not sure it is #87 anymore. Perhaps the top 4 defenseman that is added can be the physical intimidator that this team still needs? Or another cheaper tough guy could be added?

Whatever the case, I think McPhee is more active this summer than last but the salary cap will likely limit his options. One of the biggest questions he has to answer is on Semin, who is immensely talented but seems to lack the drive necessary to take the Caps to the next level.

NHL Conference Finals Anaylsis and Predictions

After going 7 of 8 in the first round (only lost with San Jose), I was only 2 for 4 in round two (won with Pittsburgh and Detroit). With four teams left we are pretty much guaranteed the rematch of a somewhat recent Stanley Cup Finals unless Chicago knocks off Detroit and Carolina beats Pittsburgh. Last year we had the Red Wings defeat the Penguins, in 2002 Detroit was victorious over Carolina, and in 1992 the Penguins knocked off the Blackhawks.

Western Conference: Detroit (2) vs. Chicago (4)

Detroit is the defending Stanley Cup Champions and they added forward Marian Hossa to the mix from last year. Chicago is an up and coming young team that clearly aided from the hiring of coach Joel Quennville and more importantly, Scotty Bowman at the executive level. Chicago is fast with forwards Patrick Kane, Martin Havlat, Kris Versteeg, Patrick Sharp, and Jonathan Toews. They have good goaltending in Nikolai Khabibulin and Cristobal Huet is the expensive backup. On defense, Brent Seabrook has really elevated his game and is logging over 26 minutes a night. Duncan Keith has been strong as well.

The Red Wings, though, are an incredible bunch and with Tomas Holmstrom and Johan “Mule” Franzen up front along with guys like Jiri Hudler and Daniel Cleary they score the ugly goal. The big question has been, where is Pavel Datsyuk? He only has 1 goal and 4 assists in 11 playoff games. I imagine he is nursing some injury. The other question on Detroit is can Chris Osgood hold up in goal? The two time Stanley Cup Champion always appears to be a lightning rod for criticism.

Prediction: The Red Wings are the men and the Hawks are the boys, Detroit in 5 games.

Eastern Conference: Pittsburgh (4) vs. Carolina (6)

This series sees two brothers, Eric and Jordan Staal, facing off against each other. The Hurricanes are the fastest team in the Eastern Conference and they used that speed and the superb goaltending of Cam Ward to knock off the Devils and Bruins in dramatic seven game fashion. Both of those teams did not match up well, from a skating standpoint, with the Hurricanes. However, the Penguins have speed plus experience. Sidney Crosby is the leading candidate for the Conn Smythe trophy right now and if Evgeni Malkin plays like he did in games three and five of the Washington series the Pens will be tough to beat. Their weakness is in goal with Marc-Andre Fleury plus the Sergei Gonchar knee injury has to be a concern. Staal and Erik Cole have been flying on a line together for the Canes and Ray Whitney has had a good playoffs as well. Carolina’s defense is a cast of no names that collectively play well together with Joni Pitkanen being the offensive qb.

Prediction: The Canes are fast but Pittsburgh has too much talent and can keep up with Carolina in the skating department. Penguins in 6 games.

If these predictions hold up, we will have a rematch of last year’s Stanley Cup Finals.

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NHL Referees Under Scrutiny/ News from Caps Breakdown Day / NHL Playoffs / Memorial Cup Thoughts

Posted on 16 May 2009 by Ed Frankovic

NHL Referees Under Scrutiny

We have seen three playoff game sevens take place in the National Hockey League this week and some of the big time hockey commentators are taking issue with penalty calls in both the Caps-Penguins game on Wednesday and then the Ducks-Red Wings game on Thursday. Don Cherry, Mike Milbury, and Ron MacLean, all of Hockey Night in Canada, have each separately blasted the slashing call on Shaone Morrisonn that led to the opening power play goal by Sidney Crosby in game 7 on Wednesday night. In fact, on Thursday afternoon (the day after the game) during the Hockey Night in Canada Radio broadcast on Sirius 122, MacLean was still adamant that what #26 did was not a penalty. MacLean, who was on air with host Jeff Marek and guest Paul Stewart (former NHL referee), went into great detail on why it should not have been called a penalty. Cherry and Milbury both said between periods of the game on Wednesday that the call had too much influence on the outcome of the game.

Then on Thursday night both Versus commentators, Keith Jones and Brian Engblom, took issue with the slashing call  made on the Ducks Ryan Getzlaf on Tomas Holmstrom that led to the first goal of that contest for the eventually victorious Red Wings.

Clearly slashing penalties, which seem to have gone up in correlation with the number of broken sticks (and that has increased due to these new flimsy and supposedly technologically advanced products), are one thing that needs to be looked at before next season. I asked both Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau and GM George McPhee about this today at Caps breakdown day.

“This is a really tough game to officiate, I think we have to say that, there is so much going on out there, it is so fast, it is not easy to officiate. What you want them to do is officiate and not try and manage the game and let each game take on its own identity and officiate it. I, like other managers and commentators, worry about some of the penalties that are called. And the first penalty the other night [on Morrisonn], for example, eight minutes left in the first period, there is no score, you got a player on their team that is trying to dump it in at our blue line. Our defenseman comes over and takes a hack at him, the puck goes in our end, that player is going off on a line change, his stick was broken, he drops it, and the referee calls it a penalty. It wasn’t a scoring chance, nobody was hurt, there wasn’t physical contact, but because there was a broken stick the referee called a penalty. Now that I don’t get in an NHL playoff game and it was game seven. So those kinds of things require more judgement and in fact, [the referee] didn’t even have his hand up until the player turned around and started skating to the bench without the stick. They get the first goal and score eight seconds later and it is over. So those things are going to have to be better, no question,” said McPhee, who clearly felt the referees had too much influence on the outcome of game seven on Wednesday.

“I was thinking this thought this morning. There are three or four penalties that they call all of the time because it takes the judgement out. The slash with the broken stick is one of them even though they didn’t call one against Pittsburgh the other night but they decided to call us but that is neither here nor there. The shooting over the glass, the hook on anything on the hands, no matter how slight. So those are penalties the refs know that if they see they can put their hand up and they can’t get called on it. All of the others are judgement calls and I would like to see some sort of variation of letting the refs have some judgement on how hard the slash was because some of these sticks can break if you breathe on them. Some you can use a sledgehammer on them. I wish the referees didn’t have the automatic judgement if the sticks breaks or if he knocks it out of his hands then it is a penalty. But that is not for me to answer, that is for [NHL Director of Officiating] Stephen Walkom to decide and [NHL Director of Hockey Operations] Colin Campbell and we’ll find out if there is a possibility if they could have a good middle ground there,” said Boudreau on how he sees the games are being officiated now.

Breakdown Day

Today was breakdown day at Kettler Ice Plex as the Washington Capitals were conducting exit interviews with the players before they head out of town for the summer. Boudreau and McPhee discussed alot of things about the team and the players were also available as they floated in and out of the locker room.

More Game 7 Thoughts

Here are some excerpts from Boudreau on Game 7 and not moving on to the Eastern Conference Finals:

“I’m not sure why we picked that night to have a clunker…only thing I can think of is it was our fifth elimination game and it was their first and their is such a different feeling of determination and maybe we were a little too complacent in game seven thinking, ok, we are going to stave off elimination again and didn’t have the same feeling as game six. It certainly didn’t feel that way in and around the dressing room before the game. You search for answers and you don’t want one game to ruin a heckuva of a good season.”

“I think we are all bummed out because watching last night we felt we certainly could have beaten either Boston or Carolina, you turn it on and watch it, then turn it off, then turn it on and watch it and get so mad thinking we are capable of beating the next next teams and then it would give me hope saying we are very close. I don’t know what has to be done but I think we are a real good team now with certainly the core coming back, if you look at the Alex’s and the Nicky’s, and the Semin’s and Green’s are under contract so there is high optimism for the future and beyond. At this point, I want to take a day off and then start again.”

“Every year your younger players are going to take lessons and be more mature. You look at Mike [Green] being 23 and Alex [Ovechkin] 23, and Nicky [Backstrom] being 21, and [Alex] Semin 25, these guys are going to take this as an experience and be more mature when the situation comes next year. They understood what it took to get beyond the first round this year, I think, because of the year’s previous experience. I think this experience is going to make them be better and be able to go further in the future.”

Injury and Contract News

Below is a rundown on the players as provided to the media by both Boudreau and McPhee today. Boudreau did comment that “All of our key players had an injury.”

Alexander Ovechkin: Injured his groin in game four of the Rangers series and also hurt his wrist sometime in the playoffs. Both injuries required pain injections before games. Can you imagine what Ovechkin might have done in the Penguins series had he been 100% healthy? The Great #8 had 14 points in 7 games in a losing effort.

Alexander Semin: McPhee said that #28 suffered a really bad sprained thumb in the playoffs and that it had to be frozen so that Semin could play some of the games. He had a tough time holding the stick so that explains a good part of the reason why he became invisible in much of the Penguins series after a decent first round against the Rangers. McPhee was also asked if he will be working on a long term contract for Semin this summer, since #28 only has 1 more year left on his current deal, and the GM was non-committal on whether he would be doing that. In fairness to Semin, he was non-committal on a long term deal for Nicklas Backstrom, who only has 1 year left, as well.

Goalies/Simeon Varlamov: The young goalie will not go down to Hershey to play because Boudreau said he is emotionally spent. He felt that perhaps the weight of five elimination games, and he won the first four, might have finally caught up to #40 in game seven when he struggled on the second, third, and fourth Pittsburgh goals. Boudreau also said it makes no sense to have him go down there and become the backup goalie with the way Michael Neuvirth is playing (had back to back shutouts in games 6 and 7 of the Wilkes-Barre Scranton series to carry Hershey into the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Providence Bruins). McPhee said the number one goalie job will be decided in training camp between #40, Jose Theodore, Neuvirth, and even perhaps Brent Johnson, although Johnson is the only one without a current contract for next season. Theodore apparently told the media (I had left by that point) that he plans to be the #1 goalie for the 2009-10 season. Boudreau says “he sees [the competition] as a great battle.”

Mike Green: He was a hot topic and both McPhee and Boudreau would not elaborate on his injury. They merely said he was having more tests but it appears the shoulder that he originally injured when trying to skate around Chris Pronger and three other Ducks back in November still has not fully healed. It does not look like #52 or any other Capital will need surgery based on what McPhee told the media. I asked Boudreau what Green had to do to avoid the big hits he took this year, especially when he became a big target of the opposition in the playoffs. “I think that is experience. He has seen it now, he knows what to expect and nobody likes to get hit so as quick as he is he is going to have to get quicker,” finished Boudreau on the Norris Trophy candidate.

Other defensemen: Tom Poti played with a fractured foot since game 1 of the Penguins series and John Erskine also suffered a fractured foot (missed two games). Morrisonn had an injured ankle that he suffered in game five of the Penguins series and also was dealing with groin issues. It is no wonder the Caps had a hard time getting the puck out of their own end given that four of their top six defensemen were badly banged up.

Sergei Fedorov: Both McPhee and Boudreau were non-committal on #91’s return but said a lot of that would be up to Sergei. Fedorov told the media that he wants to come back next year and had his agent seek out an extension back in January, which the Caps have delayed until the off-season. It will be interesting to see how much (or little) money the three time Stanley Cup Champion will take to come back and play next season. Boudreau raved about his leadership and apparently #91 still loves being around the younger players.

Viktor Kozlov: Another free agent who really wants to come back and play for the Caps next season.

Donald Brashear: Ovechkin said the Caps need him back or, at a minimum, someone who can fit his role as policeman.

Michael Nylander: Both McPhee and Boudreau described #92’s season as “A tough year.” It is clear Nylander does not fit on this team but McPhee did say it does not make financial sense to buy him out. He also said he wasn’t sure Nylander could come back and play for this team, therefore, the options left appear to be a trade (unlikely given the contract – 2 more years at $5.5 and $3M), send him to the minors, or ask him to retire.

Evaluation Process

McPhee said the evaluation process is that he talks to each player, the coaching staff, and then next week the pro scouting staff comes in to offer their perspectives on things. Once the GM has all of that info he then will start making his decisions on personnel, to include the coaching staff. Boudreau is a lock to be back but as for assistant coaches Dean Evason and Jay Leach there was no firm commitment given to them returning by either Bruce or George. As far as the system goes, Boudreau felt that what he asking of his players does not need changing but some of the guys aren’t getting the message.

“I don’t think it’s systems. We just have to get them to play the systems a little bit better. They’ve learned it for a year now. I’m not in charge of the personnel. But we’ll see what the personnel looks like next year. Sometimes you try to change people and sometimes they don’t want to change. Every team in the NHL would love guys who drive to the net. That’s one thing coaches love. But sometimes you have guys who you know are going to play a little bit on the perimeter. You can tell them until the cows come home but it doesn’t always work. But they have such great strengths in other areas. What do you do? That is not even a system thing because every team, that is what you preach going to the net, going to the net. You either go to the net because you don’t mind it or you don’t,” said Boudreau.

NHL Playoffs

The schedule for the Conference Finals has been released and the Chicago Blackhawks will meet the Detroit Red Wings in game one of the Western Conference Finals on Sunday at 3pm on NBC and on Monday night the Penguins will host the Carolina Hurricanes at 730pm in game one of the Eastern Conference Finals on Versus. I’ll have my series predictions up tomorrow night but given that I’ve been on the Detroit bandwagon all year you can bet I’m picking them.

Memorial Cup

The Memorial Cup, the Canadian Hockey League Championship, began today from Rimouski, Quebec City. All of the games are on the NHL Network so even down here in the United States hockey fans can follow the games. The teams involved are the host team (Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League), the Kelowna Rockets (Western Hockey League Champions), the Windsor Spitfire (Ontario Hockey League Champions), and the Drummondville Voltigeurs (QMJHL Champions). Last year the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL won and in game one tonight Kelowna was quite impressive in defeating Rimouski, 4-1. Calgary Flames 2007 first round draft choice (24th overall), Mikael Backlund, had a superb game Friday and I was also impressed with big, mobile defenseman Tyler Myers (12th overall pick by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2008 NHL entry draft) and forward Jamie Benn (2007 5th round pick by the Dallas Stars). All of those players are with Kelowna. Windsor has a really good team as well so I expect them to battle the Rockets for the trophy.

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Pens Win 5-3 to Tie Series at Two; Varlamov Struggles

Posted on 08 May 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Simeon Varlamov is human after all. The young 21 year old goalie finally had a bad game tonight and he was the primary reason that the Pittsburgh Penguins won, 5-3, at the Igloo to tie this series up at two games apiece heading into Saturday night’s game five at the Verizon Center (7 pm). Varly gave up two really soft ones, Ruslan Fedotenko’s long shot that #40 missed with his glove that made it 3-1 Pens in the first period, and then after Washington battled back to cut the Pens lead to 4-3, he gave up a short side marker to Maxime Talbot that all but ended this game with just over five minutes left.

In addition, the first goal scored by Sergei Gonchar from just inside the blue line, after Nicklas Backstrom’s marker gave Washington a 1-0 lead just 36 seconds in, deflected off of Milan Jurcina and went through the legs of Varly. He also wasn’t so strong on the second Pittsburgh goal (Bill Guerin) as he fumbled the puck away after making a superb stop on Sydney Crosby. Crosby was all alone in front after Mike Green turned the puck over to Chris Kunitz and Green then struggled to get back and it was he, Brooks Laich, and Sergei Fedorov all scrambling in front of Varly to help him as #13 buried the rebound. The really odd thing on the whole play is that defenseman Shaone Morrisonn was nowhere to be found in the picture? I’m not sure what he was doing on that whole sequence but a defensive defensemen like #26 needs to be way more responsible.

Goaltending was the big reason the Caps lost this one but there were other weak performances turned in by the guys in white tonight. Alexander Semin (-3) was just AWFUL turning the puck over too much and not getting his shots off or on net. Morrisonn (-2) was brutal and Green (-2), despite making a nice play to set up Chris Clark’s goal that cut the Pens lead to 3-2 in the second period, did not have a good game either. Even Alexander Ovechkin (1 assist) had a subpar game as he only had one assist and routinely could not get his shot off or on net either.

If the Caps want to win this series, they need to get all of the players mentioned above- Varlamov, Green, Ovechkin, Semin, and Morrisonn – having more production and stronger efforts. Green and Morrisonn were routinely hammered by the Penguins forwards in their own zone and they have become turnover prone. Green also tried to do too much carrying the puck into the Pens zone and it led to some odd man rushes for Pittsburgh.

In Thursday night’s blog I listed the eight keys for the Caps to help them win game four. Here is a rundown on how they did against that criteria:

1. Move Your Feet Boys!: The Caps were much better in this department on Friday and even though they were outshot 28-22 they were much more in control of the puck at times and had several chances that they didn’t bury. They will need to do more of this on Saturday and hopefully the great “Rock the Red” crowd on Saturday will help out.

2. Get The Puck Deep!: Washington did do this quite a bit on Friday but they need to do more of it. Semin and Ovechkin were the biggest offenders in this category as they tried to go one on one far too much, especially Semin.

3. Better Breakouts!: Overall there was improvement but the Green giveaway and Morrisonn skateaway led to the second Penguins goal. Pittsburgh did not dominate as much as they did in game three and that was because the Caps were coming out of their zone much better.

4. Get Shots on Net!: The Caps were outshot for the fourth straight time in this series and they only had 22 shots. Fedorov hit the post early on when it was tied and there were other chances that were shot wide. Ovechkin only had 2 shots on net so you know Washington did not get it done in this category on Friday. Washington did a decent job of going to the net at even strength as Clark’s goal was a rebound and Jurcina’s blast was aided by Matt Bradley crashing the crease.

5. Stay Out of the Box!: The Penguins had six power plays, that is far too many. Clark and Tomas Fleischmann both took stupid cross checking penalties and Ovechkin’s trip on Gonchar was a bad penalty as well (Gonchar did not return after the trip and looked to have a knee problem). Fedorov and Backstrom both took penalties in the defensive zone because they were out of position and had to knock Malkin and Crosby down, respectively, to prevent scoring chances.

6. Allow Varly to See the Puck!: Jurcina started the night off bad for Varly by giving Gonchar too much room to shoot, then he screened #40, and ultimately deflected the puck partially so that the young goalie totally missed the shot. The Caps were below average in this category and Varlamov compounded things by giving up two goals on clear shots, something he had not done so far in the playoffs. Afterwards Boudreau said he was going to come right back with #40 on Saturday but if he struggles early Jose Theodore could end up in net. We’ll see if Friday was a just a fluky off performance by the guy who has been great in net in these playoffs. Boudreau says Varlamov is a competitor and he expects a strong game from him on Saturday night.

7. Slow Down Geno!: The Caps did a MUCH better job on Malkin on Friday night. He was not able to come through the neutral zone with the speed he had in game three. Malkin had an assist but was -1. Washington must continue to throttle him on Saturday night.

8. Continue Hot Power Play!: 0 for 4 and it was just terrible tonight. Green, Ovechkin, Semin, and Backstrom were out of sync on the man advantage and this really hurt because the Caps could have tied the score at the end of the third period on their last man advantage. Washington was too intent on passing on the perimeter or trying for low percentage cross ice setups instead of throwing it to the point for a blast and rebound try. If the Caps don’t get the power play going on Saturday they can forget winning the game.

Overall, this was not a dominant Pittsburgh performance like we saw in game three but the Caps did not convert their chances, took some careless penalties, and did not get production from their big guns, especially on the power play. Add in subpar goaltending and now it is a tied series that is a basically a best of three affair that starts Saturday in DC.

Notes: The team scoring first has lost every game in this series. Jay Beagle was recalled from Hershey today and took Michael Nylander’s spot in the lineup (Eric Fehr is still injured). Defenseman Karl Alzner was sent back down to Hershey as well.

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Pens Get Back in Series with OT Win

Posted on 06 May 2009 by Ed Frankovic

The Pittsburgh Penguins totally outplayed the Washington Capitals on Wednesday in game three, outshooting  the Caps, 42-23, but because of Simeon Varlamov and a late power play goal by Nicklas Backstrom, his first of the playoffs, this game went to overtime tied 2-2. But after Tom Poti made a bad decision to try and shoot the puck instead of dumping it in behind the Pens net, the Penguins were able to get an offensive zone face-off and when the Caps lost it clean (Sydney Crosby beat Dave Steckel), the puck went back to Kris Letang who fired it on net and it hit Shaone Morrisonn and deflected by Varlamov for a 3-2 win at 11:23 of OT. Game four is Friday night in Pittsburgh with Washington up two games to one in this best of seven series.

The Caps played a better first period tonight and Alexander Ovechkin scored his 8th goal of the playoffs into a vacated net just 1:23 in to the game as a result of a fluky bounce behind the Pens net. Shortly thereafter, Nicklas Backstrom nearly made it 2-0 when he had a great wraparound try but instead of putting his shoulder down and taking that extra half of a stride to get in front for the layup he tried to put the puck in from a bad angle and it went through the crease and wide. The first period was even at eight shots a piece but as things went on Pittsburgh started to dominate.

Pittsburgh would carry the play and shots, 15-4, in the second period as their pressure on Washington was relentless. The Caps could not break the Penguins forecheck and when they got to neutral ice they did not play smart by dumping the puck deep. The Pens tied the game at one midway through period two when Poti pinched at the Caps blue line and Backstrom got caught out of position giving the Penguins a two one break on Milan Jurcina. When Jurcina went down to cut off the pass the puck bounced right back on Ruslan Fedotenko’s stick and he shot it by Varlamov, who was sliding to his right in anticipation of a pass.The Penguins had two power plays in the middle period but Varlamov and some good penalty killing kept this game tied.

In the third period the Caps were a little better but Evgeni Malkin, who was really flying tonight, started to take over and he went through Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Alexander Semin before #28 hooked him to give the Penguins their sixth straight power play of the night. When you play with fire, you usually get burned and Malkin fired a great shot top shelf on a screened Varlamov to give the Pens a 2-1 lead with just 4:59 left. But credit the Caps for not quitting and when Pascal Dupuis was called for interference with 2:28 left the powerful Washington power play got their second chance of the night with Backstrom delivering as he banked it off of Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (21 saves). That sent the game into overtime where Pittsburgh prevailed and Fleury is now 4-0 in overtime games.

Here are my thoughts and analysis on this one:

Pittsburgh absolutely had to have this game and they sure played like it. Varlamov was great tonight and he was the only reason the Caps had a chance. The Penguins did a superb job of coming into Washington’s zone with speed as they were keeping a forward back, typically Malkin when it was his shift, and when the Caps pressured the Pens defense at the red line they would pass the puck back to #71, who then came through the neutral zone like a locomotive. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau will have to make some tactical adjustments to interrupt this very effective Pittsburgh method of breaking Washington’s neutral zone defense.

The Caps could not match Pittsburgh’s desire tonight, plain and simple. Ovechkin, Fedorov, and Viktor Kozlov were the only effective ones for the first half of the game but when Fedorov took what looked to be a butt end to the ribs from Hal Gill and missed the rest of the period, Boudreau had to adjust his lines. At that point Bruce went with Semin, Backstrom, and Ovechkin and they had some good shifts and others where they were not positionally sound (especially on the shift where Malkin went through all of them and drew a penalty).

Fedorov did return for the third period but he did not look as strong or effective as he had been before the injury. Kozlov had some good shifts.

If I am the Caps, I am calling up forward Keith Aucoin from Hershey for game four because Michael Nylander was terrible tonight in his 7:27 of ice time. Nylander looked lost out there and seemed to be afraid of being hit. Chris Clark, once again, was not very good and he only saw 6:35 of ice time. Boudreau is basically playing with only 10 forwards with those two struggling and it showed as the other Caps got worn out against the Pittsburgh assault.

Probably the best part of Washington’s game tonight was their penalty killing as they held Pittsburgh to 1 for 7, including a two minute power play in overtime when Brian Pothier put the puck over the glass for a delay of game. Varlamov was the primary reason the penalty kill was effective but Steckel, Boyd Gordon, Brooks Laich, and the Caps defensemen did a good job.

Mike Green had an assist tonight on Ovechkin’s goal but he did not factor in offensively, primarily because the Caps could not get the puck into the Pittsburgh end. He also had some chances where the puck rolled off of his stick. Ovechkin also tried to go one-on-one quite a bit but Rob Scuderi and Gill did a good job on him. Boudreau was not getting the matchups he wanted since Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma had the last change. In Washington, Boudreau tried to put the Great #8 against Sergei Gonchar when the opportunity presented itself.

This Penguins domination tonight was just a carry over from alot of what we saw in game two. The Caps escaped in that one but if they don’t start skating and playing smarter they will not win another game in this series. The Penguins are winning the one-on-one battles right now.

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Varlamov Starts in Goal But Caps Lose Again

Posted on 18 April 2009 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals turned in another very good effort on Saturday afternoon at sold out Verizon Center (18,277), but it wasn’t enough for a win as Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist stopped all 35 shots he faced to lead the Rangers to a 1-0 victory and take a two games to none lead in this best of seven series. Game three is Monday night at Madison Square Garden (Note: WNST will have a Rock the Red viewing party at Silver Spring Mining Company, Gary Rissling’s bar, in Perry Hall on Bel Air Road).

For the Caps goaltending had been the hot topic since Wednesday night’s loss in which #1 goalie Jose Theodore struggled. For Saturday’s tilt on national television (NBC), Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau pulled the plug on #60 and went with rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov, who is only 21 years old and was playing his first ever NHL playoff game after only six previous NHL games (4-0-1), and he stopped 23 of 24 Rangers shots in the loss.

The only goal of the game came in the first period just 7:44 into the contest in a sequence where the Caps had the potential for a four on two rush out of their own zone but because of an average breakout it became a four on three break with defenseman moving Mike Green up ice. At the Rangers blue line, Alexander Ovechkin, instead of getting the puck deep, tried a cross ice pass that was intercepted by New York, who then had three on two break the other way with Viktor Kozlov and Tom Poti back for Washington. When Kozlov misread the play and went to hit Brandon Dubinsky, the Ranger forward pushed the puck ahead to Marcus Naslund who skated down the left wing and with Varlamov shaded over for the shot, Poti was unable to cut off the pass (something a defenseman MUST do on a two on one break), allowing Ryan Callahan to streak down the right side of the slot and bury Naslund’s pass into an open net. On that goal, which Varlamov had no chance on, Boudreau said the Rangers got away with an interference call as Ovechkin was halted from back checking effectively by one of the New York players at the red line (Boudreau said the Ranger player just stopped skating to impede the Great #8). Overall Boudreau was pleased with his goalie, though.

“I thought he played well. I didn’t think there was anything that could be done on the first goal. He made a really good save about three minutes after that. I was very happy with his game,” said Boudreau on Varlamov.

Shortly thereafter the Caps had a two on one of their own with Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Semin but the New York defenseman correctly did not give #91 a lane for a pass and Fedorov’s shot was stopped by Lundqvist. Washington outshot the Rangers 13-6 in the first period in which New York received the only power play.

The second period did not start very well for Washington as the Rangers received three straight man advantages but the combination of Varlamov and the Caps defense thwarted New York’s power play (0 for 5 on the afternoon). Varlamov’s biggest save was on Nikolai Zherdev on the first power play of the second period and he gave up a rebound but Chris Drury shot it high. Washington then started playing better towards the end of the period and failed on a power play (a Michael Roszival hook on Ovechkin) with Lundqvist making a big save on a Green point shot he didn’t see but Brooks Laich couldn’t convert the rebound (a Ranger legally tied up his stick). Then with 1:03 left in the period Nik Antropov tripped Michael Nylander but the Caps could not convert. Second period shots were 10-6 New York in a period they controlled most of the play.

The third period was all Caps as they poured 16 shots on Lundqvist but could not solve the very hot net minder. Helping out New York’s cause was some great shot blocking (29) and some luck (the Caps missed the net a few times and hit the crossbar). The final shots tally was 35-24 in favor of the Caps but the scoreboard read, 1-0, Rangers.

Here are some quotes and thoughts on the game:

As I mentioned above the Rangers are very good at blocking shots, one of the keys to their 2-0 series lead. “It’s the playoffs and you got to sacrifice your body. Our guys did a great job of that tonight. You got to do that against a team like that. They’re going to shoot everything, ” said Dubinsky. “We blocked a lot of shots. A lot of guys blocked shots and sacrificed their bodies in a series like this. We had a lot of blocks in the first game – especially on face offs. Tonight, again, a couple blocks where they had pretty good shots. We did a lot of good things. I think these first two games have been really focused, and we’ve minimized our mistakes. And that’s been the difference,” added Lundqvist.

The Caps did get 35 shots through and Lundqvist gave up some rebounds and was handcuffed on about a half of a dozen of them but Washington either wasn’t there for the rebound or did not get to the net. “A lot of our shots were coming from the outside, but rebounds were coming to spots where we should be, we just weren’t there to see it,” said Green, who only had two shots on net and did not have one of his better performances. “Their defense is doing a helluva job, blocking us out. We talk about getting to the net and going for rebounds. It’s not like we’re sitting there saying we’re going to take the shots on the side,” said Boudreau.

Varlamov did well and he had the support of his teammates, including Theodore. “After the warm-up, he walk over to me and say ‘Don’t worry about it.  I was 20-years-old when I play my first game, it was in Montreal.  You know don’t worry about it, I think you’ll do fine.’” Boudreau was complimentary of how #60 handled the news on being sat on Saturday and he was quiet on who would play on Monday as well. “He was very professional. He understood. He obviously wants to play. He knows there’s an opportunity for him to play again if we continue this.” I expect Varlamov to start game three but based on what Boudreau did today nothing surprises me with this coach. Today’s move, which some could have seen as hitting the panic button, was clearly a good one and it nearly won Washington the game.

Is Lundqvist in the Caps heads? Here are some thoughts from the Caps on the goalie who has been the difference so far in this series. “Obviously, we couldn’t get anything by him. And the ones that got by him, hit the crossbar (Ovechkin’s chance in the third period). It was probably the only one that beat him,” said Boudreau, who also mentioned that when he played he didn’t get frustrated by goalies, only referees. “I don’t know, it is hard to say.  I think we had a lot of chances today too and he was pretty good.  There is nothing to say about that.  I don’t know, we have to do something new.  Maybe we have to go even more to the net.  I mean more traffic, we have to try and get the rebounds and those kind of things.  He is a good goalie and he is pretty big in the net,” added Nicklas Backstrom (13-6 on face-offs). “Again lots of chances, he played great.  He’s a good goalie and he played great,” finished Ovechkin.

Rangers coach John Tortorella, who won the Stanley Cup in 2004 with Tampa and goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, had this to say about his goalie and the Caps. “Third period, he was just outstanding. That’s a good offensive team we’re playing against. I thought we did some pretty good things. Third period they turned it up; they loaded up a line. Give them (the Capitals) credit. They’re a pretty good hockey club. Hank (Lundqvist) stood tall.”

How are the Caps going to handle being down two games to none? “Of course no because we were number two in our conference, but it is the playoffs anything can happen.  Now we just have to regroup and we are going on the road for two games.  It is going to be a little uphill, but we still have chances – it is the best of seven, so we still have chances,” said Backstrom when asked if he ever expected this deficit. “We have opportunity to bounce back and we have to use that opportunity.  It is going to be a hard road trip, but we have to figure out our mind and try and win game.  Try and score goals and win game.  That is what it is all about,” said the Great #8. “Same as it was before, we can’t get down – we have to stay up.  If we get down on ourselves it’s going to make it tough on ourselves even more.  We will be fine.  We just need to change a few things that are costing us here,” finished Green.

The Caps power play was 0 for 4 due to all of the blocked shots and some overpassing. The Caps need to find a way to fake the Ranger shot blockers to the ice and move around them. They also need to get more traffic in front of the net. Don’t be surprised to see Chris Clark inserted into the lineup for Nylander (only Cap without a shot attempt today) as #17 is much better at going to the net and creating havoc. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Boudreau move Ovechkin down in front of the net on the power play, something he did in last year’s playoffs against the Flyers. Either Fedorov, Poti, or Brian Pothier could be used on the point instead. I also think that Eric Fehr could be used on the power play and #16 has to get himself to the front of the net at even strength as well. Brooks Laich is the only Cap who consistenly is going to the net. I think it might be time to move the smallish Tomas Fleischmann off of the power play.

The Caps can draw on the experience of rallying from a three games to one deficit in last year’s playoffs against Philadelphia and they will need to do that in game three, otherwise game four becomes win or head to the golf course. “We can’t quit,” is what Boudreau said he would tell his team and not coming back in this series, even though the Rangers are a very good team, could really hurt the confidence of this club going forward into next season.

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Caps Lose Game 1 to Rangers

Posted on 16 April 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau, when talking about goaltenders, always likes to say “I don’t care how many goals they give up but they need to make the big save at the right time to allow us to win the game.” Tonight Caps goaltender Jose Theodore did not make the big save when needed, and at the other end of the rink, New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist was outstanding stopping 32 of 35 shots and was my number one star of the game (officially, he was not chosen for any of the three stars afterwards) in a Rangers 4-3 win. New York leads the best of seven series 1-0 with game two set for Saturday at 1pm at the Verizon Center.

This was a game the Caps should have won tonight as they dominated most of the game, except for a bad spell in the second period, but poor goaltending and a couple of defensive zone miscues cost them. Oh and there were a couple of missed interference calls on the Rangers first goal by Scott Gomez, who was great tonight with a goal and two assists. The Rangers only had 21 shots but scored four times something that really bugged Boudreau after the game.

“We allowed 21 shots and five power plays. I thought we did a great job defensively. I don’t know how many chances to score they had, I haven’t figured that out yet, but I don’t think it was a lot. They scored four goals. That’s crazy. I thought we played a great job defensively,” said the disappointed Capitals head coach.

Actually the Rangers only had four power plays and I didn’t think the team was great defensively, I’ll give them a grade of good or a B+ and you’ll see why it wasn’t an A when I go through the Rangers goals below:

Goal 1 (tied the game at one): Gomez carried the puck up ice and behind the play Ranger forward Nik Antropov knocked Cap forward Tomas Fleischmann to the ice (missed interference penalty #1) and then Sean Avery clipped Caps defenseman Mike Green’s skates at the blue line (missed interference penalty #2) allowing Gomez to go in alone on Theodore, who badly played #19’s shot, and was beaten upstairs over the blocker.

Goal 2 (put Rangers up 2-1): On a Ranger power play (John Erskine high stick), Caps defenseman Shaone Morrisonn breaks his stick (I can’t stand these new sticks, bring back the wooden/fiberglass ones!) making it practically a five on three and Nik Antropov scores from the right wing boards up high as Theodore is down in a butterfly. This was one Theodore definitely should have had.

Goal 3 (put Rangers up 3-1): On another Rangers power play (Sergei Fedorov called for delay of game – puck over glass), Marcus Naslund receives a nice drop pass from Gomez inside the blue line, who then skates by defenseman Tom Poti and to the net, and while Poti is in no man’s land backing up into Theodore, Naslund fires a wrister into the top shelf. Theo could have had this one but I put most of the blame on Poti for not challenging Naslund on the play.

Goal 4 (game winner with 8:17 remaining): Caps defensemen Jeff Schultz, on a two on two play, tries to take the body on Rangers forward Brandon Dubinsky and #17 absolutely abuses him cutting to the inside while #55 fell towards the boards. Dubinsky then had an open lane to the net and Green took Naslund to cut off the pass and allowed Theodore to take the shooter, but #60 once again could not make the big save getting beaten short side by Dubinsky.

So while Theodore should get the majority of the blame, Poti and Schultz didn’t put him in good situations on two of the four goals (and the zebras owe Washington one too for missing the interference penalties that set the table for Gomez on the first goal). Boudreau wasn’t in the mood to take any of the heat off of Theodore either after the game and Theo said himself that he cost the team the game.

“He’s right. There’s times when you sit there and you can say that I didn’t make the save that was needed. But I’m sure he’s going to bounce back. He’s a professional and he’s played this game long enough. I’m sure he feels bad enough,” said Boudreau.

As for Washington’s skaters, Alexander Ovechkin had the best game of any Capital with 13 shots on goal, two assists, six hits (many of them big ones and on Avery too!), and drew three penalties. Two of those penalty calls were the result of strong defensive plays by the Great #8. The first one he backchecked hard to take the puck from Naslund who quickly hauled him down and the second one came after he intercepted the puck just inside the Rangers blue line and was tripped by Dan Girardi. Both of those penalties resulted in Washington power play goals. Ovechkin, who logged 26:07 of ice time, was the best Washington player on Wednesday and was a +1. But Lundqvist was the difference tonight.

“We’re going to need it. As I said, goaltending was a key part tonight and if we’re going to compete, we’re going to have to get good goaltending,” said Rangers Coach John Tortorella.

“I thought we played all right. We played a tough game. We played physical. As long as we keep that play up, the goals will come. I thought their goalie played really well tonight and won the game for them. We still feel the same way – we can win the series and nothing’s really changed,” added Green, who had two assists in 30:47 of ice time but was -2 overall (tripped by Avery on first goal and on ice with Schultz on winning goal).

Here are some other notes and tidbits from game one:

The Caps top line was really good tonight. I mentioned Ovechkin already but he, Viktor Kozlov (first ever playoff goal in 22 games) and Nicklas Backstrom (great play and pass to set up Kozlov’s goal) seemed to control the play and the puck nearly every time they were on the ice. Backstrom also continued his excellent home face-off streak going 13-5 from the dot.

As well as the Ovechkin line played to go with a fairly decent game from Alexander Semin (had a power play goal, however, he missed the net on some good scoring chances), the Caps didn’t get much help elsewhere offensively. The secondary scoring will need to show up for Washington to win this series. Fleischmann had a goal tipping Ovechkin’s shot to give the Caps the lead and came close to getting some other quality scoring chances. Brooks Laich had a decent game going to the net but Washington will need him to score and guys like Fedorov, Eric Fehr (only 9:18 of ice time), and Michael Nylander need to help offensively, too.

The Caps dominated the scoreless first period outshooting the Rangers, 14-4 but the Swedish netminder was the difference. “First game in the playoffs, we knew they would come really hard.  I think just for us to have a tie after the first [period was good].  We knew as the game went on we would improve our game,” said Lundqvist.

The sold out Caps crowd (18,277) was very loud and into the game and Tortorella made mention of it afterwards. “I thought the building was tremendous. It’s great to see the people in the building in Washington,” said the former Tampa Bay Lightning and Stanley Cup winning (2004) coach who took over the Rangers bench from Tom Renney in late February.

Overall the Caps were 46-20 (70%) on face-offs. The Caps were two for seven on the power play while the Rangers were two for four. Advantage: Rangers.

Jim Schoenfeld, who was the Caps head coach from 1994-1997, has been with the Rangers organization for several years and is assistant GM to Glen Sather. “Schoeny” has been doing double duty as the only assistant coach behind the bench helping out Tortorealla since he assumed head coaching duties.

Naslund had a goal and an assist for the Rangers but he also took three penalties. “I don’t know how many penalties we took. It was too many. It’s just too dangerous with that group they put out there. I felt the penalty killers did everything they possibly could – especially at the end, the last two penalties they had to kill – to keep that puck out of the net,” finished Tortorella.

The Rangers were without forward Chris Drury, who has an undisclosed injury, but I watched him very closely in warmups and he did not skate well, barely crossed over, and seemed to be favoring his right leg. He didn’t look good and it will be interesting to see how long he will be out.

In my Caps/Rangers series analysis and prediction blog I said this would go seven games, with Washington winning. Boudreau said the team will make changes, if necessary, and they’ll move forward.

“I didn’t think we were going to win in four straight games. You always have the desire to win the first game, but we won the first game last year and it didn’t do us any good. So, we’ll just have to go a different route. Just like New York that they stole one here, we’re confident that we’re a pretty good team and we’ll play pretty well on Saturday,” said Boudreau.

“What can I say? It’s the playoffs. It’s seven games. You can’t concentrate on one game. It’s seven games. It’s one week. It’s ok. It happens. We can’t win all of our games right away,” ended Ovechkin.

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Caps Rally in 3rd to Beat Thrashers, 6-4

Posted on 05 April 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Sunday at the Verizon Center was Fan Appreciation Day and for 40 minutes the Washington Capitals lolligagged their way through their contest with the Atlanta Thrashers showing little to nothing to their fans who came out to Rock the Red before the real Caps team showed up in the final period and gave them something worth watching. After being yelled out by their head coach Bruce Boudreau  in the second intermission, Washington came out hard and outscored Atlanta, 4-1, in the third period en route to a 6-4 victory. In that period they finally got back to playing their pressure fore check and cycling game which allowed them to take over the contest and rally from a 3-2 deficit.

“Our guys were sleepwalking through the first two periods. It seemed like they wanted it more. It happens a lot when you depend on your power play to win you games and then the power play wasn’t going very well, so it was time the five-on-five stepped up a little bit,” started Boudreau, “I hope that wasn’t what it took (to win the game). I hope it opened their eyes. I hope it doesn’t take me coming in and screaming and yelling to get going because we have (too many) good players for that. They gotta learn to do it on their own. I don’t want to (scream at the players) often. I prefer everything to be parenting. If you yell at your kids too much, eventually they just tune you out. When I raise my voice, I’d like it to mean something,” finished Boudreau.

As Boudreau mentioned the Caps power play, which was ranked number one in the league coming into today, was just awful on its first five attempts going scoreless and also giving up a shorthanded goal to Jim Slater that put the Thrashers up 2-1 early in the second period. Finally on the sixth one the head coach had seen enough and shook things up by putting forward Keith Aucoin on the man advantage and just 15 seconds into the power play he finished off a nice pass from Alexander Ovechkin to tie the game at two in the second period. It was Aucoin’s second goal of the season in nine NHL contests with the Caps. Washington had one other power play after that in the third period and although they did not score, they had the puck in the Thrashers end nearly the whole two minutes. Overall the power play was 1 for 7 for the game, not something the team will be happy about. Aucoin, after having a tough Friday night against Buffalo played very well today with a goal and an assist in just over 10 minutes of ice time. He also hit the post on another scoring chance in the third period.

“Keith Aucoin has been great.  Every time he is in the line-up he has been a spark plug for us.  He’s a great passer, he’s got a lot of energy, and he hits well for a smaller guy,” said Caps forward Eric Fehr, who scored a great goal as he was falling to the ice to give the Caps the lead, 4-3, early in the third period.

“He’s definitely played very well for us. We’ll probably have to make a decision here sooner or later. He’s done really well,” said Boudreau on Aucoin, who has scored a point in four of his last five games with Washington.

The Caps gave up six power play chances to Atlanta but killed each one of them and while Boudreau won’t be happy about the number of penalties taken (and Dan Marouelli was one of the referees so I knew the whistle would be blowing alot today), he has to be pleased with the penalty killing which was very solid to include goalie Jose Theodore (20 saves on 24 shots). Theodore was good when he was in the net and really can’t be faulted on any of the first three goals, but the fourth goal with 44 seconds left was all on #60. Theo, with the Thrashers net vacant at the other end, took the puck next to the Caps net and tried to shoot it the length of the ice but fanned on it putting it right on Slava Kozlov’s stick and the Thrasher buried the early Christmas present to make it 5-4. The ONLY good thing about this play is that Theodore likely got this out of his system and won’t try a boneheaded move like that again, especially in the playoffs.

Speaking of fanning on shots, the Great #8 had one of those days where he could have had several goals, although he did get two assists to close within two points of league leader Evgeni Malkin, who was shut out today in a 4-2 loss to the Florida Panthers (Malkin is up 108 to 106). He was -2 on the day though and dropped to +8 on the season (he was +28 last season so the drop off is somewhat concerning).

“Sometimes they go in, sometimes they don’t. I thought in the third period, we could’ve had three more. Ovi (Caps forward Alex Ovechkin) should’ve had three or four by himself, but they weren’t going in tonight (for him). I think when you go to the net and you work hard, you get rewarded. In the third period, I thought we worked hard,” said Boudreau on Ovechkin (11 shots on goal) and the rest of the team.

As for the other positives, one of the biggest was Tomas Fleischmann who broke a 15 game goal scoring drought in the first period. He also was one of the few guys who worked hard in the opening two periods.

“I just kept going and try and work hard.  I knew it was going to come and the break came today, straight to my glove and I was out there alone by myself, lucky I put it in,” said #14 on breaking his drought just 2:13 into the game.

“I hope it does wonders for his confidence. I’ve been in his situation and (I saw) the relief (in) his eyes when he finally scored. He was like, ‘Oh man, I can play the game.’ You start to doubt yourself after awhile, no matter who you are, when you have trouble scoring. He’s got the spark. He plays a lot. He tries hard, but I hope that adds a little confidence to his game,” added Boudreau on Fleischmann.

Other positives came from Michael Nylander who was +2 and had a goal and an assist and defensemen Jeff Schultz and Milan Jurcina each were +2 on the afternoon. Fehr was also a +2. Brooks Laich was his usual solid self scoring his career high 20th goal and adding two assists in a +1 performance. I don’t know where this team would be without the play and leadership of #21.

“It’s good to have that secondary scoring and get it working. It was really nice to see Fleischmann and Fehr score, two guys that hadn’t scored in awhile. And Michael Nylander. It’s what we need though. We can’t depend on four guys to score all of our goals every game,” finished Boudreau.

Another negative, besides the poor effort in the first 40 minutes, was the terrible play defenseman Tom Poti made on the Thrashers first goal by Colby Armstrong. Poti was caught flat footed, badly misplaying Armstrong by giving him too much space, and that allowed the forward to cut  across the slot on his forehand and fire a bullet by Theodore. Poti played that one like a rookie and he knows he needs to be more on the opponent and force him to his back hand where Theodore can cut off the angle much easier. Poti did play well on the penalty kill today and he logged 7:31 of shorthanded ice time.

I also thought Mike Green (pointless) did not have a good game missing the net on his power play shots, over handling the puck several times on rushes and in the offensive zone, and lacking energy and grit in his own end a few times in the first two periods.

With the win the Caps are now 48-23-8 for 104 points and they lead the New Jersey Devils by two points for second place in the Eastern Conference with three games to go in the regular season. The Capitals finished their home schedule for the season with the second-most wins in franchise history (29-9-3, trailing only the 30-8-2 mark of the 1985-86 season) and recorded their 29th sellout of the season, and 25 of the last 27 games have been sold out. The Caps finished the regular season with a new record in total attendance, 741,992. Washington is now 20-0-1 when recording five or more goals (only loss was to the Devils in November in a shootout). They have scored four or more goals in four straight games.

Next up on Tuesday is the Thrashers again in Atlanta. Washington is winless in two trips there this season and their magic number to clinch second place in the East is 5 points (any combination of Caps points gained or NJ points lost).

Other Notes: Brian Pothier was the healthy scratch on defense on Sunday. Donald Brashear missed his 10th straight game with a bad knee. Washington outshot Atlanta, 33-24, and won the face off battle, 39-22. Fehr’s excellent production came in only 8:08 of ice time. Alexander Semin scored his 31st goal and added an assist in a +1 showing (Semin is now +25 on the season).


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Ovechkin, Backstrom Carry Caps Past Lightning, 5-3

Posted on 27 March 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin notched his 52nd and 53rd goals of the season plus he added two assists and Nicklas Backstrom had two goals and an assist as the Washington Capitals knocked off the Tampa Bay Lightning for the fifth time this season and the tenth straight time overall, 5-3, at the Verizon Center. With the win the Caps moved within two points of clinching their second straight Southeast Division title.

Tonight’s game winner was also a special one as defenseman Brian Pothier scored his first goal of the season by firing the puck at the net and it deflected off of the Lightning’s Vinnie Prospal and past goalie Mike McKenna with 15:30 to go in the game. Good things typically happen when you shoot the puck. Ovechkin’s goal into an empty net then sealed the victory with seven seconds left.

Even with the win, I still didn’t like the way the Caps played most of the night, especially in their own zone, and Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau will have plenty of mistakes on video to show his troops that will need to get corrected over the last six games of the regular season heading into the playoffs.

Here are some more notes and thoughts on this game:

Goaltending: Caps goalie Jose Theodore (33 saves) was great early on stopping several quality chances and he also thwarted Martin St. Louis on a clean breakaway in the second period. He also made some good stops down the stretch in  a tie game but he just did not look comfortable in the goal this evening. Prospal’s goal to tie the game at three early in the third period was just awful. I have no idea where #60 was looking on that play. Also, he struggled with his rebounds, at times, and was very lucky that Evgeny Artyukhin cross checked John Erskine to wipe out an apparent game tying goal by Jeff Halpern. As anyone who regularly reads this blog knows I am a Theodore supporter but tonight he was not consistent at all.

Power Play: The Caps power play was really good in the first period scoring three times to make Tampa pay for taking some stupid penalties but they did not connect after that (except for a waved off goal late in the contest) and were 3 for 9 for the game. Several of the power plays looked out of sink and clearly the fact that Alex Semin was out with the flu impacted the overall chemistry. The Caps plan seemed to be to go to the net and get rebound goals and they did an okay job of that in the first period but they must do it more consistently.

Defensive Zone: I grade the Caps a D- in their own zone tonight. They routinely had defensive coverage breakdowns, did a poor job of clearing the front of the net, the forwards were weak on the boards at getting the puck out, and their were too many bad passes. If Washington plays this way in their own zone in the first round of the playoffs they will get creamed unless Theodore stands on his head. The Caps were just not smart defensively in their own zone. Also, what was Erskine doing retaliating to Artyukhin’s cross check with one of his own? #4 lost his head which cost Washington a power play and just 29 seconds later Prospal tied the game.  Boneheaded plays like that can cost you playoff games.

Nylander: I thought #92 was terrible tonight. There were two times in the third period where instead of passing the puck to a wide open Ovechkin in front of the net he chose to hold onto it and the Caps didn’t even get a quality scoring chance on the shift. If the Great #8 is going to the net Nylander has to get him the puck (Backstrom does not make these kind of simple mistakes). No wonder he only has 30 points in 65 games and tonight he played 5:02 of power play time without a point. I would rather see Eric Fehr out there crashing the net instead of Nylander with his weak shot and tendency to hold onto the puck too long.

Other stats, notes, and thoughts: Brooks Laich had 3 assists and as usual crashed the net hard. The Caps outshot Tampa, 39-36. Martin St. Louis was great for the visitors with a goal and two assists. Vincent Lecavalier had some chances but I thought he floated most of the evening (perhaps he wants to go play in Montreal?). Forwards Keith Aucoin and Oscar Osala were recalled from Hershey and played tonight with Semin and Donald Brashear still out of the lineup. Jeff Schultz was the defensive scratch and based on the way most of the defenseman played tonight I don’t think Boudreau can afford to scratch him  and his +13 rating again anytime soon.

The Caps are now in second place in the Eastern Conference with 99 points but the New Jersey Devils are playing in Chicago tonight (tied 2-2 midway through the 3rd period). The Devils, counting tonight’s game in Chicago, have three games in hand. Washington is now off until Wednesday, April 1 when they face the New York Islanders at the Verizon Center for the second of four straight home games. The final 3 games of the regular season are on the road. This four day break will give the Caps some time to rest and recover and more importantly, give Boudreau some extended video and practice time. Washington typically plays very well after Boudreau gets to have a few practice sessions in a row.

Final Note: I’ll be chasing a white ball in Myrtle Beach the next four days so I’ll be off the blog until Tuesday night.

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