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brian-maclellan

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Should the Caps Blow it Up or Stay the Course?

Posted on 29 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

After the Capitals added Kevin Shattenkirk at this season’s NHL trade deadline, I certainly thought I’d be writing a much happier ending to this recent Washington hockey season.

Alas, once again, that is not the case.

You already know the story; the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Washington Capitals in the playoffs for the second straight season, this time in a seven game series. In fact, it is now the ninth time in 10 playoff meetings that the Pens have knocked out the Caps. Jim Schoenfeld remains the only Capitals bench boss to defeat Mario Lemieux’s franchise in the post season (1994).

Let’s start with giving credit to the Penguins, because they certainly deserve that. Despite being outshot, 232-161, and outshot attempted, 484-317, in the series, they managed to hold the Caps to two goals or less in four of the seven tilts and as result, they won each of those games. There’s your series.

You don’t do that without outstanding play from your goaltender. Cleary, Marc Andre-Fleury’s performance against the Capitals was the biggest reason why the Penguins will likely be winning their fifth Stanley Cup this spring.

Next, you have to credit Sidney Crosby. Despite being injured in game three and missing game four, #87 was the difference maker for Pittsburgh. It was his two goals early in the second period of game one that staked the Pens to a two puck lead which gave his club the confidence it could win at the Verizon Center after being smoked there in the regular season. Then in a crucial game seven, Sid made the key pass on the winning goal after a Washington defensive zone turnover.

Finally, tip your hat to the entire Penguins team and coaching staff because they overcame a ton of injuries to defeat the Caps. Washington had injuries, as well, namely Alex Ovechkin’s knee and hamstring and Marcus Johansson’s fractured finger, but that’s a part of the game and the Pens found a way to persevere through all of their health issues.

The biggest reason the Pens won is because of their resolve. They certainly were outplayed by Washington for long stretches in this series, but they stuck to their system and when they received a break via a Caps turnover or mental mistake, they typically buried the biscuit. They were an opportunistic bunch who believed they could win. They also were able to plug guys into the lineup when some of their top guys were out. Without Crosby in game four, they jumped on the Caps early and held on for a win that ultimately gave the Caps no margin of error for a series comeback. So the Penguins deserve kudos for the depth they’ve created via strong drafting and development.

Congratulations Penguins, you clearly know how to win when the chips are down.

Now, were they the better team like they were in 2016 when they knocked off the Capitals in six games? The statistics say no, but the scoreboard says otherwise, and that is all that matters.

As for the Capitals, the roster assembled by General Manager Brian MacLellan, on paper, appeared to have no holes. Washington certainly did a lot of things correctly in the series. You don’t dominate the numbers as heavily as they did without doing many things right. Unfortunately, they did some big things wrong at inopportune times.

Washington carried the play in several periods in this series, didn’t score, and then tried to change their style of play. That is when they got into trouble and ended up losing. It was pretty obvious that the best Capitals game plan was to put pucks deep in the Penguins zone to try and further weaken a defense that was suffering from multiple injuries. Kris Letang was already out for the season and Trevor Daley was playing on bad wheels. But too often, the Capitals forgot that this is a shoot first league and they went into overpass mode. They were caught up far too easily in playing a pretty game and that is not the way you defeat a team as structured and as mentally tough as the Penguins.

Many Capitals players talked about the defeat being a mental thing on Caps Breakdown Day, and they are correct. Pittsburgh, no matter what the score or the situation, pretty much continued to play the same way. The Caps on the other hand, were not patient enough or mentally disciplined to stick with the game plan. As three time Stanley Cup Champion Justin Williams told me after game two, its okay to dominate a period and not score a goal, it happens in hockey. The problem for Washington though, is they wouldn’t maintain what they were doing and that’s when the fancy game and turnovers appeared on the ice. That’s a mental issue all the way.

While the Caps had a lot of shot attempts, they weren’t getting enough with traffic on Fleury and the players were rarely in position for rebounds. It’s a shoot first league and there were too many times, especially in the third period of game seven, when the Caps would cross the blue line and force the puck to the middle when getting it deep and wearing down the Penguins defense was the right play.

Again, that is a mental toughness issue, in my book. You have to be willing to pay the physical price in the playoffs by making the correct play. Taking a hit in the neutral zone and ensuring the puck gets deep in the offensive zone is a critical part of post season hockey. That applies inside both blue lines, as well. A number of the Penguins goals came as a result of lazy or careless turnovers. That’s a letdown on the mental side of the game. You can also attribute all of the terrible penalties the Capitals took in game four as a mental issue. Washington had a tendency to not come out strong in some contests, most notably games one and four. There is no reason why the Penguins should’ve had a 21-13 shot attempt advantage in the first 15 minutes of game four with Crosby out of the lineup in a must win for Washington. That’s inexcusable and both players and coaches need to answer for that.

Breaking things down by team component, let’s start with the coaching staff. All season long the Caps relied heavily on rolling four lines, but once Karl Alzner was deemed able to play with his hand injury and Brett Connolly struggled in his first post season appearance, Coach Barry Trotz went to seven defensemen and 11 forwards despite it being counter to what they’d done all season. Yes, the seven defensemen and 11 forwards strategy worked in game three, but it might have only been successful because Matt Niskanen was kicked out very early in the contest and the other six d-men were able to rotate normally. In game four, that configuration backfired badly as Alzner and Brooks Orpik, the two slowest Washington blue liners, were out on the ice together early in the game. Patrick Hornqvist, who isn’t exactly fast, split them like Moses parting the Red Sea to tally on a breakaway and it was 1-0 just over four minutes in. Pittsburgh gained a ton of confidence that they could win that contest without Crosby from that goal.

Following the game four loss, which was also heavily impacted by a very injured Ovechkin, who probably shouldn’t have played, Coach Trotz shook up his forward lines. He moved Andre Burakovsky with T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom and bumped the Gr8 down with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson. Those moves worked and Washington came storming back to tie up the series. They seemed poised for a big game seven, but Pens Coach Mike Sullivan adjusted and the Capitals didn’t play with the passion and urgency they had in the third period of game five and all of game six. Simply put, they cracked under the pressure. It’s apparent that the weight of being the #1 seed plus all of the past history of Washington recent playoff failures was heavily on the minds of these players.

Coach Barry Trotz has a track record of being tough on players who don’t follow the rules or the system as evidenced by the Ovechkin suspension in October of 2015 and Andre Burakovsky being benched in December of 2016. He even questionably pulled Braden Holtby after the second period in game two for what he thought was subpar goaltending. However, he and his staff let his skaters get away from the system too often in this series. Any deviation from the structure against a disciplined team like the Penguins can lead to a quality scoring chance, and that is what happened at key times in the series. If guys start playing the wrong way, they need to be benched for a shift or two so they get the message.

Johansson, Oshie, and Williams scored a lot of goals in the regular season going to the net. Jojo even won the Toronto series in OT of game six by doing just that. In the Penguins series, we didn’t see enough net presence and it was on the coaches to drill that into the players heads and enforce the strategy of getting pucks deep to set that up.

Again, I wasn’t a fan of the 7/11 configuration because it got the Caps away from the four line forward group that worked so well from late December until mid February. I understand why Brett Connolly was pulled out of the lineup for maybe a game or so to observe, but he also scored 15 goals in the regular season, many of which were tallied via going to the net. With some guys severely banged up and unable to shoot, like Johansson, why wasn’t he put back in for another chance? It was a mistake, in my opinion, to totally give up on a guy who could’ve been a better performer than the guys who were playing hurt. Case in point, Conor Sheary was performing poorly while being nicked up, so Sullivan benched him for games five and six of the Senators series. Yet in a crucial game seven, #43 was back in the lineup and played a major role in the first two Pittsburgh goals.

So did the Caps lose totally because of coaching? No, the coaching wasn’t great, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water here. This coaching staff has done a great job of building this team from the ruins of 2014. The two Presidents’ Trophies are evidence of that. Look at how far Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, and Tom Wilson have come in just a year. Each one of those players was a big part of why the Caps knocked off the Maple Leafs and dominated the possession statistics against the Penguins.

The playoff coaching certainly needed some improvements, but in totality, this is a very good coaching staff. Trotz and company will certainly take their share of the heat for the loss, but the biggest blame for the defeat is on the players themselves. They have to be stronger mentally and physically to do the correct things on the ice.

Let’s start right at the top of the players with Ovechkin. There’s no nice way to put this, it was a subpar season for Ovi and it all began last summer. How you handle off of the ice issues and life changing events is a big part of professional sports and with Alex getting married last summer it clearly impacted his ability to prepare for and play in 2016-17. After scoring 50 goals in 2015-16 and having a super 2016 post season, Alex looked slow and overweight for the large majority of the season. Clearly his conditioning wasn’t where it needed to be and then missing training camp due to the World Cup of Hockey didn’t help either. At age 31 and not in peak shape, the Gr8 lost some speed and that allowed defensemen to play him tighter so that he couldn’t get his shot off quickly at even strength. Ovechkin lived off of the power play in 2016-17 to score goals as he struggled in five on five situations.

In the playoffs, the hit from Nazem Kadri was low and the Russian Machine didn’t break, but it certainly slowed him down further and probably contributed to suffering the hamstring injury, as well. However, had Ovi been in better condition and had his speed from the previous year, it’s quite possible he could have avoided the Kadri hit altogether.

Ovechkin has made great strides under this coaching staff with his back checking ability, something he rarely did prior to the Trotz era. He deserves a lot of credit for that. However, his ability to play in his own zone has regressed. Standing on the left wing boards straight legged with your stick at your hips parallel to the ice is bad defensive posture. He needs to get rid of that and work on being a better player in his own end. If he gets back in peak shape and works at it, there’s no reason he can’t turn proper defensive zone play into several rush goals in 2017-18. Again, it’s a focus on conditioning and hockey.

That gets us to Backstrom. #19 had a very good season, but game seven was nowhere near his best. MacLellan’s goal in adding Eller and Connolly was to improve the bottom six and allow Washington to play a faster game. The thought was that having four lines would allow Coach Trotz to play everyone more evenly so that they could maintain a high pace and be fresher in the postseason. At times, the Capitals were able to do that, but they were not consistent. Ovechkin and Backstrom both played lower average minutes than they had in past regular seasons, by design, and in the end, it was likely the wrong move as both looked tired, at times, in the post season. Nicky, in his twenties, has been able to survive playing with extra weight, but as he moves into his thirties, like Ovechkin, he needs to shed any extra pounds he has to play faster.

When Washington lost to the Penguins in 2015-16, you could not blame either Ovechkin or Backstrom because they dominated Crosby and Malkin in that series. It was the Nick Bonino line that won for the Pens in the spring of 2016. In 2016-17, you can’t say the same thing. Both Crosby and Malkin elevated their games while Ovechkin and Backstrom weren’t as good as they were the previous May. Sure the Caps only received one goal in the series from their bottom six, but they rarely played the fourth line due to the 7/11 strategy.

Crosby is the best player in the game for a reason; he works harder than anyone at his craft. Orpik was quoted recently as saying that #87 is always the first player on the ice and the last player off of it for the Penguins at practice. That needs to be Ovechkin and Backstrom going forward. We’ve heard from other players that both have made strides, especially Nicky, in speaking up in the locker room. Speeches are great, but actions speak louder and doing the proper things on and off of the ice is so much more critical to winning championships. Those two guys are the Capitals leaders and have been the core for 10 years so they must be setting the tempo that everything is hockey first in 2017-18. We should not have to hear from Orpik that the team needs to get focused on hockey, like we did after the disastrous California trip in March. There were several post game players only meetings this season, including one after game two against the Penguins, and while it’s good to clear the air, they aren’t as necessary if everyone is focused on hockey.

Ovechkin and Backstrom are clearly the core of the Capitals and the goaltender is the third critical piece to the triumvirate. Braden Holtby, who has been stellar in past post seasons, had his worst playoffs from a statistics standpoint. Now how much of that is on #70 and how much of it is on the team giving up too many golden chances? I’d lean more on the side of the team breakdowns, but this was not Braden’s spring. This series was likely over in five games if he doesn’t make some big stops early in period three before the Washington three goal explosion that led to a victory and a two game winning streak. In game seven, he had no chance on the winning goal. However, I still didn’t like the Justin Schultz winning tally in game four. If there was a goal he’d want back in the series, I’d bet it would be that one.

On defense, John Carlson played his best hockey of the season against the Penguins, but he did not have a consistent year. He needs to amp his conditioning up so that he can play faster, as well. The standouts of this postseason on the blue line were Orlov and Schmidt and that’s encouraging given where we were just a year ago with both of them. Bringing in Shattenkirk for Zach Sanford and a first round pick seemed like the right move at the time, but in the end, with no Stanley Cup, it’s a lost trade. #22 has enormous potential and talent, but he was slow in the playoffs. Again, I think that might be a conditioning issue, but he didn’t come over until March with Washington. Hindsight is 20/20 and the deal now is another one that weakens the Capitals reach back for young players. Sanford has a lot of promise and first round picks are valuable. I can’t fault Mac for making that move, but coming up Cup empty now makes it an overall organizational defeat.

So where do the Caps go from here? There are calls for firing the coach, trading Ovechkin, or “blowing it up” from many in the fan base and some around the club. Even a couple of players said “major changes” were needed just two days after losing to the Penguins. It’s a natural reaction when a team loses again after being the favorite.

Let’s be honest, this is a team that is largely based on European talent and it hasn’t produced a trip to the Eastern Conference finals yet. This club improved greatly with the additions of North American players Oshie and Williams in the summer of 2015. They are guys who have a high “dog the puck” type of work effort. Both are unrestricted free agents and the team needs more of that style. Word over the Memorial Day weekend is that the Capitals and the Osh Babe have verbally agreed to an extension so that is great news, this team is not a Cup contender without #77 going forward. It would be nice if they could find a way to get Williams back, as well, but that will be tougher given the salary cap situation. Per the Caps great team reporter, Mike Vogel (@VogsCaps), we’ve heard that the salary cap is going to be in the $76 to $77 Million range. That is a big help to Washington, who also have to deal with Burakovsky as a restricted free agent. There are some who think #65 deserves a big pay raise, but given his inconsistent output, I’m not sure Washington can commit to longer term and/or high dollars on him, just yet.

I just don’t see moving Ovechkin or Backstrom as feasible given the likely low return and to be honest, #19’s contract is a great one for the Caps. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who also improved significantly in the post season outside of a poor game seven, is up for a new contract. He’s a restricted free agent, but somewhere around $6M per season seems likely for him. As for Orlov and Schmidt, it’s apparent they’ve moved up big time on the depth chart of this defensive roster and deserve decent longer term contracts. I’m speculating that Orlov will be come in at around $4M and Schmidt in the $2 to $2.5M range. Both play with speed and drive possession, which is so important in today’s NHL. Unfortunately, there will have to be other changes on the blue line. Shattenkirk will get paid big bucks elsewhere and I’d expect the same for Alzner, who really had a rough campaign. King Karl admittedly had a hard time regaining his speed after offseason groin surgery and then he broke his hand in the first playoff tilt against Toronto.  As for Orpik, as much as he’s a strong leader and a fitness freak, which was a big help in starting to turn the culture of this team around in 2014-15, his on ice value compared to his salary cap hit is not equitable anymore. He’s a third pair defenseman and you can’t afford $5.5M annually for that type of player when you want to win a Cup. MacLellan will have to look at either working a deal to move him, getting Vegas to pick him in the expansion draft, or buying him out to clear some needed salary cap space.

If the Caps had players ready to make the leap from Hershey or the college ranks to the NHL, like the Penguins have been blessed with the last two seasons, the overall situation could be better. Perhaps the bottom six will see a player such as Travis Boyd or Riley Barber come up and help out? Jakub Vrana has shown glimpses of being able to handle the NHL, but after his demotion this year he dropped so far off of the map that he was scratched for some games by Bears Coach Troy Mann in the AHL playoffs. Vrana is streaky and inconsistent, much like Burakovsky has been, so do you want to rely on another guy who doesn’t go to the net or high traffic areas consistently to finally help get you past the Pittsburgh problem? Seems awfully risky to me.

Clearly MacLellan has a lot to address in this offseason given the number of contracts that are expiring, NHL expansion to Vegas, and salary cap constraints. He also has a head coach reportedly heading into the last year of his contract. Add in that the two core players on the roster will both be in their thirties in 2017-18 and it’s clear that the GM has a lot to consider when charting the course for next season.

It’s not an easy job and there are very hard decisions to make, but in this case, I think it’s worth staying the course for at least one more year with the head coach and core players. In regards to a coaching change, is there somebody out there better than this head coach and staff worth pursuing? After all, there are several young players who have really improved during the Trotz regime and they’ve won two straight Presidents’ Trophies. They will likely have lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions in the second round yet again (yes, I see the Penguins defeating the Predators in the Stanley Cup Final) and that’s simply a function of the current division and playoff setup. In reality, they are the second best team in hockey, so does making drastic changes make sense? I don’t think so.

Brian, however, has to put pressure on the coaches and players to improve and be in better condition so they can make the playoffs and then deliver next spring. In hindsight, the World Cup of Hockey, which included participation from Coach Trotz and several top players, put the Capitals behind the eight ball from a readiness standpoint heading into 2016-17. The lack of preparation, based on what I’ve seen and heard, is a big reason they weren’t able to knock off the Penguins in the second round, once again.

So it’s incumbent upon Coach Trotz, Ovechkin, Backstrom, and everyone else in line after them to start getting ready for 2017-18 as soon as possible. Ovi, Nicky, and all of the players need to put in the hard work this July, August, and September so that they are in the best condition to play at a maximum pace in April, May, and hopefully June. If they can’t do that over the next 12 months, then certainly it will be time to “blow it up.”

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Burkie Game 6

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Caps Dominate Game Six To Even Up The Series

Posted on 09 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

With their season on the line in a must win game six in Pittsburgh, the Washington Capitals needed their best performance of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and they delivered it. The Caps were relentless for the first 56 minutes building a 5-0 lead en route to a 5-2 victory over the Penguins in Steeltown on Monday night.

This was one heck of an effort by the Caps. The Penguins had a few good early shifts, as expected, but the Capitals withstood the pressure and then started finding their game.

Washington would get the first power play of this tilt, when Jake Guentzel lost his mind and hit Evgeny Kuznetsov (two assists) in the head. The Caps would not score on that man advantage, but they built momentum off of it and kept pushing the play. Early on they had nine of the first 10 shots on goal. Shortly thereafter, with Tom Wilson breaking to the net on a two on one, Sidney Crosby had no choice but to put his stick in Willy’s gloves to prevent a great scoring chance and the Caps were back on the man advantage with 11:56 gone in the opening frame.

The Capitals would not waste this power play and a great feed by Kuznetsov to T.J. Oshie allowed the Osh Babe to bury the biscuit in the slot and give the Caps a very important one goal lead. Kuznetsov then took an undisciplined slashing penalty following that tally, but Washington killed it off and they maintained their one puck edge after 20 minutes. It was a very strong frame for Coach Barry Trotz’ crew as they outshot the Penguins, 11-3.

Second periods have not been kind to the Capitals in this series, but they managed to extend their lead at 6:36 of the middle stanza. Oshie made a great play to bat down a Conor Sheary clear on the right wing boards and when the Penguins tried to wheel the biscuit around the left wing side, Andre Burakovsky hit and stole the puck from Ron Hainsey. #65 then broke in two on one on Marc-Andre Fleury (21 saves) and with the Flower leaning to his left thinking a pass was going to go to the Osh Babe, Burkie beat him short side to give the Capitals a huge two puck lead.

Burakovsky would then take a pretty careless offensive zone hooking penalty on Olli Maatta, he needed to keep his stick down there and just play the body, but his teammates picked him up and killed off the man advantage very easily. The remainder of the middle frame was very tight checking and the Pens mustered six shots on net to just five for Washington.

That set up a critical third period. Would the Capitals be able to hold onto their two goal lead and force a game seven? Nicklas Backstrom gave us a pretty good idea of the answer just 16 seconds in when he took a puck down the left side of the ice and with the Pittsburgh defender going down to block the shot, Nicky rifled it over Fleury’s glove to make it 3-0.

Lars Eller was whistled for holding at 1:34 and the Penguins had a chance to get back in it, but the Capitals penalty killing unit was stellar, once again, allowing only one shot attempt, a 56 footer by Maatta that Braden Holtby (16 saves) stopped cleanly.

Pittsburgh started to get a little frustrated with their lack of offense and that was evident when Bryan Rust crashed into the Holtbeast at 4:31 and headed off for goalie interference. The Caps best chance on their third power play was an Alex Ovechkin wrister from in close, but Fleury came up big.

Washington was smart, though, and didn’t sit back. They knew the Penguins would have to gamble and they were patient with their opportunities. After Matt Cullen and Jay Beagle collided in the neutral zone, Cullen slashed Beags in the gut and that set the Capitals up for their fourth power play of the evening. John Carlson would get two shots on net during the first part of the sequence and they were stopped by #29, but then the third one was the charm. His slapper through traffic beat Fleury to make it 4-0 with 8:43 remaining. Things were looking extremely good for the Caps, and then, just 72 seconds later, Burakovsky made a steal at the defensive zone blue line. Burkie carried the puck down the right wing side, faked Chad Rudwehel, who was making his NHL playoff debut, to the ice and cut to the slot to beat the Penguins keeper rather easily from in tight to the glove side. At that point, the Penguins fans exited the arena en masse.

The Capitals would keep up the heat, but Pittsburgh scored twice in four on four after two Washington giveaways. The Caps let up and those late goals should be a good reminder that they cannot ease off of the throttle on the speedy and highly skilled Penguins for even a moment.

Overall, this was a dominant win by Washington. They were very sound defensively allowing only 18 shots on goal. They controlled the puck, as evidenced by the 51-38 edge in shot attempts. This is the sixth straight game in the series that the Caps have outshot the Penguins and they also outhit them, 38-32.

The move to put Burakovsky with Backstrom and Oshie has paid huge dividends and Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan tried to counter the successful game five move by Coach Trotz by reuniting his HBK line (Carl Hagelin-Nick Bonino-Phil Kessel). It did not work as the Eller, Ovechkin and Wilson line gave them fits all night. Wilson had five hits and Ovechkin added three. The Gr8 only had five shot attempts, but that line wore down the Pens defense, which opened things up for the Backstrom unit. Nicky’s trio was outstanding on Monday night and with the way Kuznetsov and the second line is going, the Caps have three groups of forwards that can score. Add in some great hard working guys in Beagle and Daniel Winnik, who had an under the radar great game, including some super PK work, and Coach Trotz is getting big contributions from his forwards.

On the back end, Matt Niskanen, who had a team leading 23:43 in ice time, and Carlson (22:49) were excellent. #74’s game has been building all playoffs and like last spring, he excels when facing Crosby and company. The Kevin Shattenkirk and Nate Schmidt duo continues to move the puck up the ice quickly, which is a big change from last spring’s series, where the Capitals looked slow and intimidated on the back end. Dmitry Orlov also turned in a solid effort with an assist in 18:06. Karl Alzner and Brooks Orpik were each in the 11 to 12 minutes range in ice time and did well to win defensive zone board battles.

Finally, the Holtbeast was rock solid in net. He didn’t have to face a lot of rubber, but when he had shots he stopped them without allowing any rebounds until the late goal by Evgeni Malkin, who was uncovered. #70 looked calm and collected in the cage.

Washington played assertively and confidently in game six and seems to be wearing down the banged up Penguins.

So now it’s a one game, winner take all affair, in Washington on Wednesday night at 7:30 pm.

The Caps have done well to climb back into this series with some strong efforts, but none of that will matter if they don’t close the deal at the Verizon Center. The Penguins are 3-0 in game seven’s against the Capitals, including 2-0 on Washington’s home ice. This team now has a chance to change the history and do something they haven’t done since 1998, advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

It will take another outstanding effort and require extreme discipline to defeat the defending Stanley Cup Champions, who you know will bring their best to DC.

Bring on Game Seven!

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Ovi Pens

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12 Thoughts on the Caps Following an Inexcusable Game 4 Defeat

Posted on 04 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Once again the Washington Capitals are on the brink of being eliminated in the second round of the postseason with Wednesday night’s 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in game four of the Stanley Cup Quarter Finals. The Pens lead the Caps three to one with game five set for Saturday night at the Verizon Center at 7:15 pm, a post Kentucky Derby start time.

Here are 12 thoughts on the Capitals following game four:

It was a huge game, Sidney Crosby was out of the lineup injured due to a concussion, yet the Caps came out as flat as a pancake in period one. Before 15 minutes were gone, the Pens had a 21-13 edge in shot attempts and a 1-0 lead on the scoreboard courtesy of Patric Hornqvist’s breakaway tally that he notched after he split Karl Alzner and Brooks Orpik. It was an awful defensive breakdown and miscommunication by two veteran defensemen you would normally expect to be tactically sound.

Offensive zone penalties were a big problem for Washington on Wednesday night, they took five of them that led to Penguins power plays. You can argue about the iffy calls on John Carlson and T.J. Oshie and perhaps the slashing on Alex Ovechkin in period three, but the bottom line is that four of the five were the result of laziness and not playing the right way. The first two penalties, by Ovechkin and Lars Eller, were in the first period when Washington seemed to be in sleep walking mode.

The Caps stabilized things in the last five minutes of period one, but the start to period two was another bad one. After failing to score on their carry over power play, shortly thereafter they lost several loose puck battles, which was a major problem in the first frame and a sign that they weren’t mentally or emotionally ready to play this contest. Jake Guentzel won one of those one on one battles and threw a puck to the middle of the ice and with Dmitry Orlov rushing to get back in position defensively, the puck hit his leg and went into the cage behind Braden Holtby.

After that goal, it was all Caps for the next several minutes and they tied the game up with two goals just 72 seconds apart. Marcus Johansson won a board battle, even after losing his stick, to keep a puck alive and Justin Williams grabbed it on the left wing wall and fed Evgeny Kuznetsov in the slot. Kuzy, for a change, was thinking shoot first, and his quick shot beat Marc-Andre Fleury to give the Capitals life. It was a smart play and by shooting right away, it caught Fleury off guard. Nate Schmidt would then tie the game by one-timing a missed Kevin Shattenkirk shot off of the backboards. Again, it was a fast shot like #92’s and it found the twine. Quicker shots are a must for Washington going forward. Waiting to fire away gives Fleury time to set up and it also allows the Penguins defensemen to get in the lanes to block shots.

Washington finally started to carry the play, like they should have been doing from the start, but then a bad penalty call on Carlson combined with a not so smart play by Andre Burakovsky on an extended zone time shift turned the game around. #65 caused the “so-called” penalty by being soft and carrying the puck up high in the offensive zone instead of keeping it low on the wall, where the Caps had just put reinforcements on the ice while the Pens were hemmed in due to the long change. Carlson tried to rotate down to give Burakovsky room and he and Scott Wilson collided and the bad zebras whistled a penalty. Penalty or not (and it really wasn’t a rough, which was listed as the call), Andre had already made the wrong decision and had lost the puck to the neutral zone.

Pittsburgh’s power play had been struggling in the series, but it finally connected to swing momentum big time. You’d like to see your goalie make a save there, though. Justin Schultz’s rocket was slated for the top shelf, but there was no screen and if the Holtbeast is in his usual mode he is out at the top of the crease and makes that stop. Instead he was deep in the cage and was beaten badly over the shoulder when he went down in the butterfly.

That goal came with 28 plus minutes remaining, lots of time left to recover, but the Caps couldn’t connect, including wasting a four minute power play that started in period two and carried over to the final stanza. The power play needs serious adjustments before Saturday. Ovechkin is not getting his looks and the Pens are being very aggressive on Nicklas Backstrom on the half wall making Washington’s usual plays ineffective. The Gr8 is at his best when he’s getting shots early and being physical. He only had four shot attempts in game four. Washington must figure out a way to get the power play going again and get Ovechkin more looks. Your move Caps coaching staff as well as Alex, who must work harder to create space for himself.

On the positive side of things, the Capitals second line was really good with 20 shot attempts out of the 46 the 11 Caps forwards had in this tilt. The third line had 17 shot attempts, including Eller’s great chance on Fleury in the third period where he waited too long to fire away. A quick shot there by #20 in front and perhaps he gets the puck by #29 or a rebound comes back to him and he’s in control of the situation? Waiting on Fleury has proven to be deadly except in one instance, Kuznetsov’s goal in game three where he had all day to get the goalie out of position. Tom Wilson was very much involved on that third line and was probably the only player that matched the Penguins intensity in the first period. He, along with Jojo, have been superb in this post season.

On the bad side of the ledger, you can start with the leaders of this team, Ovechkin and Backstrom. They were pretty much no shows for this affair and played with a lack of urgency in a critical contest. That first line, adding in Oshie, had only eight shot attempts! I’ll say that again, eight shot attempts in an almost must win playoff contest. That’s just unacceptable for the Captain and one of the Alternates to perform that way. They did not do their respective jobs and if the Caps do not come back, they deserve the brunt of the criticism given their play in game four and their inability, yet again, to get out of the second round with their fourth different playoff coach.

The final shot attempts were 72-38, but who cares? The start is what matters in these games and the team that has scored first has won every contest. Fleury is in the Caps heads and Holtby is fighting the puck. Meanwhile anyone Coach Mike Sullivan puts on the ice brings a maximum effort while Coach Barry Trotz’ crew has too many passengers.

Simply put, the Capitals were not ready to play this game. Without Crosby in the lineup they had an opportunity to seize the game and the series and let Pittsburgh know that it was the Caps time to shine. Instead they totally shunned the saying on their “Will Over Skill” t-shirts and acted like all they had to do was show up to win. It was a lack of leadership and a total lack of focus. It is maddening that this core group of players still doesn’t fathom what it takes to win in the postseason and you can’t put a lot of it on the coaches or General Manager, this is their fourth playoff coach while it has been the same core in charge on the ice.

As Justin Williams told me after game two, the playoffs are all about doing the little things and winning the one on one battles to put yourself in position to score or defend and ultimately win the game. Washington has not been committed to doing that and as a result they are a game away from the golf course, once again. There is no excuse for the effort from Ovechkin and the top line in game four. It is disturbing and if the Caps don’t come back, the blame starts with the Gr8 for failing to appear in this contest. Washington had to come out on the offensive and not take their foot off of the gas to tie the series up. Instead, they never found the throttle and played scared, which allowed the Penguins to dictate what type of game this would be. It’s inexcusable from a group that knows this is the last time this crew will be together. We’ll find out what these guys are really made of over the next week.

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Jojo Rebound

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10 Thoughts on the Caps As They Head into Game Two

Posted on 28 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals lost game one to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night by a 3-2 count. The Pens lead the second round best of seven series with game two slated for Saturday night at 8 pm at the Verizon Center.

Here are 10 thoughts on this series after 60 minutes of hockey.

1. Before anyone goes jumping off of the ledge, the Caps, who are 1-8 in all time playoff series’ against Pittsburgh, were 8-1 in game one action in those nine previous encounters. So the Penguins have certainly proven that it’s not how you start the series, it’s how you finish it.

2. Speaking of starts, the Capitals did not have a strong start, especially the beginning of the second period where Sidney Crosby scored twice in 64 seconds after terrible turnovers by Washington. As I blogged before this series began, the Pens love to generate chances off of the rush and get odd man breaks. They did that well enough in the first game to overcome an 83-41 Caps advantage in shot attempts. The Capitals were very good for stretches of this contest, but their start was weak and they made too many “big mistakes.”

3. Washington did a great job of containing Crosby in last spring’s playoffs, but along with Marc-Andre Fleury (33 saves), he was the biggest reason it’s 1-0 Penguins. The Capitals cannot afford to turn pucks over carelessly when he’s on the ice and on the second goal, nobody on the Caps finds #87 and covers him. As a result he scored on an easy rebound goal. You simply cannot not know where Crosby is on the ice, so the Capitals must be more attentive to where the best player in the NHL is, at all times!

4. That was one great hit by John Carlson on Evgeni Malkin that led to the Caps first goal by Alex Ovechkin. Carlson is playing the best hockey of his season. He was dynamite last spring and Washington needs him to be dominant on the back end if they are going to win this series. #74 seems to really raise his game against Pittsburgh.

5. Turnovers are certainly something that has plagued the Capitals when they don’t win and game one was no exception. Without Kris Letang on defense, the Pens are not as fast, so Coach Mike Sullivan really has his two defensemen focused on cutting off the middle of the ice at the their own blue line and on back to Fleury. In the series opener, the Caps had their highest success on zone entries carrying the puck wide on the Penguins defense across the blue line. When they tried to cut to the middle too soon, it resulted in turnovers and that opens up Pittsburgh’s massive rush offense. So zone entries wide and carrying the puck deep needs to be the modus operandi going forward.

6. There is a lot of talk in hockey about luck deciding outcomes in a contest, or bad luck, as Washington suffered in game one. Jake Guentzel saved a sure goal by T.J. Oshie in the crease in period one and there were pucks around Fleury all night that the Capitals just couldn’t get to and bury. Fleury was good, but he was also fortunate. Washington just needs to keep doing what they are doing with pucks and bodies to the cage and it will pay off. They don’t need to get frustrated and change the game plan. Getting pucks deep on the Pittsburgh defense is so important.

7. After the Capitals called timeout with 26 seconds remaining with the Holtbeast pulled, Ovechkin found himself at the point and Kevin Shattenkirk was in the “Ovi spot” in the left wing circle. The Gr8 passed the puck to #22, but he missed the net on a great look. The Penguins had to be very happy to have Shattenkirk shooting from there instead of Ovechkin. I’m not sure if that configuration was planned coming out of the timeout or not, but it would seem that going forward that the Capitals coaching staff needs to find a way to get the Gr8 more of the critical looks? Alex only had eight shot attempts in game one and just three of them made it on net.

8. Given the intensity of game one and Washington’s domination in terms of puck possession, it was pretty upsetting to see the only two power plays go to Pittsburgh. Surely zebras Dan O’Halloran and Kevin Pollock could’ve called at least one infraction on the Pens, who were masters of the clutch, grab, and hold in this modern day style of game? It sure looked like there was delay of game on Bryan Rust in the slot on that loose puck late in the third period. I also didn’t like either call on the Caps, especially the late third period slashing penalty on Matt Niskanen when he was just going for the rebound of a loose puck off of Fleury’s pads. There were a lot of rebounds allowed by Fleury in this tilt and that play happens hundreds of times during games in the regular season and playoffs with a penalty very rarely called. The fact that it came at that point in the game and it was on Washington sure is fishy. Coach Barry Trotz labeled it “a pretty light call” afterwards, especially given everything else that was let go during the contest. Be better and more consistent zebras (although I’ve long given up on the arrogant O’Halloran)!

9. The Caps are at their best when they press the play on the Penguins and force their defense to have to make plays and work. Unfortunately, that strategy sometimes opens the Capitals up to the possibility of the Pens getting some quick offense on a stretch pass, if Washington does not stay structured. Somehow Pittsburgh was able to connect on one in the last 10 minutes to win the game. That cannot happen going forward. There were several mistakes made on that play by Washington. Shattenkirk needs to keep Scott Wilson wide at the defensive blue line and prevent a cross ice pass while Brooks Orpik was too far to his left and up the ice, and Nick Bonino exploited the gap with his superior speed. The Caps forwards also need to make sure someone is in position to stop that long pass or at least ensure that they are with any opposing forwards charging up the ice. As Coach Trotz said afterwards, all three Penguins goals were very preventable.

10. With the Capitals having lost the last six games they’ve played in Pittsburgh, it is imperative that Washington plays their best game on Saturday night to even this series up. It won’t be easy, but if they minimize their mistakes and bring the effort they brought the last 25 plus minutes of game one (they had the puck way more and also out hit the Penguins, 41-17), then they should be in good shape.

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Leafs win

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“Stubborn” Caps Need to Look in the Mirror

Posted on 16 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

“I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways..” – Michael Jackson

Through two games of their opening round Stanley Cup Playoff series, which is now tied 1-1 after Saturday’s 4-3 double overtime loss, the Washington Capitals have not resembled the team that had the best record in the NHL this season.

They’ve turned way too many pucks over in all areas of the ice, especially in the neutral zone and their own end. They’ve also overpassed on too many occasions taking themselves out of quality shooting and scoring opportunities in the offensive zone. Proof of this is the giveaway stats from game two: 28 for Washington and just 17 for Toronto.

They were crushed on faceoffs, 61-39, in game two, which was a reason why they “chased the game” as Coach Barry Trotz described how his team was playing.

On the other side, Coach Mike Babcock was incredibly confident in his post game presser following Kasperi Kapanen’s winning tally after 91 minutes and 53 seconds of hockey. Babcock, who had to go with five defensemen when Roman Polak was injured late in period two, was masterful in working tentative zebras Tim Peel and Eric Furlatt for extra time on a couple of OT icings with a shortened bench. He also said his team will get better and better as the series goes on. He noted that he gets the matchup choices now with games three and four in the Big Smoke.

Babcock sure isn’t intimidated or impressed with the Capitals.

Why should he be?

Sure, the Caps have a nice collection of talented players that look daunting on paper. You can go up and down the lineup and rattle off their high draft positions and individual accomplishments. But hockey isn’t about throwing your resume on the ice to decide who wins, especially in the playoffs. It’s all about playing hard and smart, winning the one on one battles.

That’s what forward Zach Hyman of the Leafs, a fifth round draft choice by the Florida Panthers, did in game two. To me, #11 is the perfect example of why Toronto is having no problems hanging with the Presidents’ Trophy winners, he’s constantly winning board battles and wearing out a Capitals defense that is supposed to be the difference maker in this series. So far the Caps have been atrocious in their own end and the primary reasons have been a lack of focus and effort. On the Leafs second goal on Saturday, two Washington forwards were in the slot with all of their weight on their front skate ready to rush up the ice instead of being focused on covering the Toronto players. That left Kapanen all alone to notch his first tally of the playoffs.

At even strength, Washington has only three goals in this series. One came as a result of a great forecheck (Tom Wilson’s game 1 OT winner), one was after back to back shifts where they wore out the Leafs and prevented them from changing (Nicklas Backstrom’s game tying tally that all started with Lars Eller winning a couple of board battles), and the other was a rebound marker by Justin Williams on the rush.

So that’s one rush goal in two games, yet that’s the style the Capitals have found themselves in too often in this series. That’s a reason why they went eight minutes without a shot on goal in period two in game one. Bad hockey!

When they’ve played smart and gotten the puck deep in Toronto’s end, they’ve had more success. They just haven’t done enough of that as Brooks Orpik told me after game two.

“I think sometimes we get a little narrow playing a rush game and I think our strength is when we get to their zone and start wearing teams down. That’s usually when we have our most success. They do a good job in the neutral zone and we know they are well coached. Sometimes it’s not a pretty game. It’s just simple and you have to take what they give you. You can’t be stubborn in that aspect,” said the 2009 Stanley Cup Champion.

Hammer meet nail head!

Orpik doesn’t talk to the media a lot and he’s a man of few words. So when he talks, everybody better listen up.

Stubborn. Unfocused. Fancy. Lazy. Soft.

All of those words could be used to describe the Capitals in the first two games.

Williams talked about “getting kicked in the teeth” when they lost to the Penguins last May. Right now that shoe is pretty close to the Capitals mouth.

So on Sunday and Monday when the coaches get them together to watch video, they will see a lot of what they’re doing wrong. Turnovers, over passing, losing board battles, and a lack of focus.  They’ll also see things they are doing correctly, like the shifts that led to the game tying goal. What they’ll see on that Backstrom goal was no fancy plays or passes, just hard work, focus, and a willingness to do the right things to generate quality scoring chances. The tally was simple hockey, a shot towards the cage that found its way to a player going to the net. It’s not rocket science.

So the Caps coaches and leaders need to stress the “play simple” message. They must play a smart game in all zones, go up and down the ice in a structured unit of five, and most importantly become Zach Hyman-like and take over the individual battles.

So it’s probably a good idea for each Cap to don their “Will over Skill” shirt on the flight to Toronto and ingrain it in their respective brains, because that’s the only way they’ll win this series.

Don’t be stubborn.

Play simple, hard, and smart!

“…take a look at yourself and make that change.”

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Shattenkirk Caps

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12 Caps Thoughts Heading Into the Playoffs

Posted on 10 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

After losing to the Florida Panthers, 2-0, on Sunday night at the Verizon Center, the Washington Capitals completed their 2016-17 regular season with a 55-19-8 record (118 points). Here are twelve Caps thoughts, including quotes from several players, as we move into the most wonderful time of the year, the Stanley Cup Playoffs

What a classy move by Caps GM Brian MacLellan, Coach Barry Trotz and the entire organization rewarding forward Garrett Mitchell, a 6th round pick in the 2009 draft and captain of the Hershey Bears for the last two seasons, with his first NHL game on Sunday night. The 25 year old has been a regular in Chocolatetown for six straight seasons without making “The Show.” Mitchell, who is a free agent after the spring, not only played, but started the game with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. Nicky even got himself thrown out of the opening draw so that Mitchell could begin his NHL debut taking the face off. Kudos to all involved and afterwards you could not wipe the smile off of Garrett’s face. It was truly a feel good moment for a player who has done everything asked of him since he’s been drafted.

With the Columbus Blue Jackets rallying from a 2-0 hole on the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday night to win, 3-2 in regulation, the Caps will now face the Leafs instead of the Bruins in round one. This is a matchup that I’ve wanted for several weeks and now Washington has a chance to show why it favors the Capitals. Toronto is certainly faster than Boston, but they are far less experienced than the B’s and they have a blue line that the Caps should be able to expose. Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev was also injured in game 82 for the Leafs and his status for game one on Thursday is in question.

The Capitals won the Jennings Trophy for the first time since 1983-84 for allowing the fewest goals per game in the NHL over the course of 82 contests. Coach Trotz credited all three aspects of the team’s game, offense, defense, and goaltending for the achievement, but he put extra emphasis on what Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer have done in net. Trotz stated that you really need strong goaltending in this league and he noted that if you look at the numbers for the Holtbeast and Grubauer they are very similar, especially in terms of save percentage.

Washington is at its best when they are playing a structured game and not giving up odd man rushes. Following Sunday night’s season finale, forward Daniel Winnik provided insight into the key to limiting them. “I think a lot of that just has to do with, you know I’d love to see our goal differential from when we’ve had the set lines and set d-pairings since December. I think that’s made a huge difference and tightening up our overall defensive game. A lot of that has come from limiting turnovers at the offensive blue line. I think we’ve done less of exchanging chances with teams. I think we have the best five on five goal differential in the league.”

T.J. Oshie (33), Marcus Johansson (24), and Justin Williams (24) all had career highs in goals this season and those three players have been very good at getting to the front of the opposing team’s net, something that is very important in playoff hockey. I asked Jojo on how the Caps have improved their ability to do that this season. “We’ve talked about [net presence] a lot. When it comes down to the playoffs most goals are scored from there. We have to get to those dirty areas and I think it’s shown that when you go there you are going to get goals and get rewarded. So I’m going to keep doing it.”

The addition of Kevin Shattenkirk from St. Louis at the NHL trade deadline has been a big one for the Caps. I asked Shattenkirk about the change in systems between the two clubs. “It seems like here we play a little more defense skating forward. We’re pushing up on teams and really trying to squeeze all of their time and space out of them. I think in St. Louis we received the rush a little more and allowed forwards to back check and apply pressure. But here I like that, I like playing on my toes. It keeps me engaged the whole game, it sets up well for me.”

I followed up with Shattenkirk by saying that I thought Coach Trotz’ system fits his skill set better. Here’s what Shatty had to say in reply, “It does, it does. I think especially when we turn pucks over in the neutral zone I think the skill that we have up front, the way that these forwards present themselves, our system allows us to turn back on teams and I think that’s a strong area of my game, getting those pucks and finding that outlet pass that we can turn right back on teams and get instant offense on it. All of that stuff really starts to feed into my game.”

Shattenkirk has been paired primarily with 2009 Stanley Cup Champion Brooks Orpik for the first time in his career. Here’s Kevin’s take on how he sees things working out so far. “I knew the style of defensemen I was going to be playing with here and he’s surprised me a bit. Playing here the last few years he’s changed his game in a way that he makes some poised plays. He’s not just an off of the wall and out kind of guy anymore, he makes plays through the middle and he makes plays at the blue line. We’ve been moving a lot from our offensive blue line and creating a lot of space for our forwards. He’s a guy that can dive in and dive back out. Every game has seemed to go better and better and I really like the way that we’re going.”

There’s no doubt that the addition of #22 has strengthened the Capitals power play and I asked him about the key to finding his role on that unit. “It’s great. For me it was a matter of the first couple of games, I think just like any player who would get that opportunity, you’re looking for Ovi all the time. I’m looking to go back to Nicky and let him make the plays. It wasn’t until the third or fourth game I started realizing that I had to shoot some pucks. Teams weren’t really worrying about me shooting pucks and that’s something we’ve worked on in practice, me just getting pucks into T.J. and Marcus, who are great around the net. Once I started to establish that, it seems like those other plays really opened up, the big plays, and Ovi only needs one shot a game to make it count and I just want to make sure that when that time comes I’m putting it in the right spot for him.”

The Capitals have yet to win a Stanley Cup, but both Williams (three times) and Orpik have raised Lord Stanley. Shattenkirk also went to the Western Conference finals last season while many of the Caps have yet to advance past the second round. I asked Shattenkirk what it takes to advance that deep in the postseason. “That’s a loaded question. There are a lot of things that factor into it. One is being even keeled. I think that we [in St. Louis] were the same last year as this team is now. We were the team that was out in the first and second round for four straight years. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, you just have to stick with it. You have to have resiliency about your team and make sure that you realize there’s going to be lows; you can’t put too much pressure on yourselves throughout the playoffs. The way we ride those waves is going to be important and like you said the two guys that we have with the most experience here [Williams and Orpik], we’re going to lean on those guys, hopefully I can be a fresh voice and we just have to keep the hunger there. This team has everything that we need in the locker room to win playoff games; we just have to make sure that we don’t beat ourselves up too bad.”

Coach Trotz has done an outstanding job of spreading minutes around the blue line this season, but once Shattenkirk came on board, things evened out more. I asked #22 if that allows the Caps to play faster. “It does and more than anything it’s the rhythm. In St. Louis it was more situational when I would play more minutes, here it’s we’ve got three pairs that can play. Depending what happens with penalties and power plays, that can skew things a little bit, but for the most part we’re all rolling and I think for us to have that rhythm as a defensive pair and as a defensive unit, it’s great for our team because you don’t want to have guys sitting three, four minutes in a row, especially in the playoffs in critical situations.”

The Capitals finished the season on an 11-2-1 run and you can pretty much throw that last loss to Florida out since it was a Hockey North America like no checking affair. Winnik was asked if he thinks momentum matters heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. “Completely. I think it matters how you play before the playoffs. I think Pittsburgh proved that, the previous winners, LA, so I think playing the way we are hopefully its good foreshadowing.”

Here’s the official Caps-Leafs first round schedule:

Date                                 TIME (ET)                                                            

Thursday, April 13             7 p.m.                   Toronto at Washington

Saturday, April 15             7 p.m.                   Toronto at Washington

Monday, April 17              7 p.m.                   Washington at Toronto

Wednesday, April 19        7 p.m.                   Washington at Toronto

*Friday, April 21                TBD                       Toronto at Washington

*Sunday, April 23              TBD                       Washington at Toronto

*Tuesday, April 25            TBD                       Toronto at Washington

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Ovi Williams

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Caps Blank Rangers to Clinch Presidents’ Trophy

Posted on 05 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Playing their sixth game in nine nights and less than 24 hours after a huge victory in Toronto on Tuesday night, the Washington Capitals came home to the Verizon Center to take on a resting, but limited New York Rangers squad on Wednesday night. The Caps needed just a single point to clinch their second straight Presidents’ Trophy, and they overachieved defeating the Rags, 2-0, behind goals from Justin Williams and Evgeny Kuznetsov along with 24 saves from Braden Holtby.

The victory improves the Caps to 54-18-8 (116 points) and renders their last two regular season games, at Boston on Saturday afternoon (3 pm) and home against Florida on Sunday night (7 pm), as meaningless. All that is left to decide now is who Washington will face in the first round next week. It could be Boston, Ottawa, Toronto, Tampa, or the New York Islanders, with those last two clubs having a very slim chance of making the postseason. If you ask me who I’d prefer to face, I’ll give you the same answer I’ve provided to Nestor Aparacio on air on WNST for a couple of months now – the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s a good matchup for the Caps against a young team that is fast, but not physical, and likely just thrilled to go from last in the league to qualifying for the playoffs in a single year. The team I’d least like to face is Boston. They are hot, experienced and physical. You aren’t allowed to tank games, but if I’m the Capitals, I find a way to lose on Saturday to ensure that the Bruins aren’t Washington’s first round opponent.

Whoever it is, though, Washington will have to play well to advance. The first round is the hardest to win. Following Wednesday’s victory, NBC analyst Keith Jones stated that the Caps have no holes in their lineup, but he still picks the defending champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins, to repeat. As for his studio partner, Mike Milbury, well the man who is never shy to say what he feels says this is the Capitals year, that they shouldn’t be afraid of anyone, and they should act like it.

But words are just that so Washington, which leads the NHL in goals against, will have to play solid defensively like they’ve done in their last three games (allowed three goals in three games) to advance in the playoffs. There have not been many odd man rushes allowed in the two most recent wins and the Caps have really stayed tight in their own end and prevented the opposition from getting quality scoring chances in the paint. In addition, their gap control between the forwards and defensemen has been the best it’s been since the bye week, and that is very important because Coach Barry Trotz wants his defensemen up in the play and joining the rush. Structure is so important, especially with the talent the Capitals have on their roster.

On Wednesday night, after a shaky first period where they were sloppy and had far too many offensive blue line turnovers, the Caps played very structured and really throttled the Rangers with a strong neutral zone over the last 40 minutes. Time after time New York would get the puck out and just run into a wall of Caps, who would gather in the biscuit and put it back in the Rangers end. It was textbook hockey, especially after Williams deflected home an Alex Ovechkin shot in period two to give the Capitals a one goal lead. That tally was on the power play and Kuznetsov made a great pass to the Gr8, who took his time to shoot the puck. The disc first hit the glove of Rangers defensemen Kevin Klein, who created a nice screen on Henrik Lundqvist (23 saves), and then Williams’ leg to ramp up and over the King’s left pad. Initially the tally was credited to Ovi, but later changed to “Mr. Hair.”

The Caps led 1-0 after two frames and then in that final period they extended their lead. Brooks Orpik went down and painfully blocked a Rangers shot and the Capitals went the other way. Williams fed Marcus Johansson on the right wing and as Jojo carried the puck across the offensive blue line, Kuzy broke away from the defense and #90 saucered a beauty of a pass to #92 and he went in alone on King Henrik and beat him like a rented mule at 5:42 of the final stanza. Washington would lock it down from there with great forechecking and a suffocating neutral zone. The Holtbeast didn’t have to make many tough saves over the last 40 minutes, but he was super solid in earning his ninth shutout of the campaign.

New York was playing without Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh, and Mats Zuccarello, but the Caps were once again without John Carlson. With both teams pretty much knowing where their seeding was going to be for the playoffs, there wasn’t a whole ton of intensity to this affair. But the Capitals had something to play for and they got the job done to lock up some more prestigious hardware for the second straight season.

AND THE CAPS HAVE WON THE FEDERAL LEAGUE!!!

Every man in that Caps locker room will tell you, however, that the Presidents’ Trophy is nice, hey it’s real and it’s spectacular, but it’s not the trophy they really want.

Notes: Kevin Shattenkirk, when interviewed afterwards on NBC, told Pierre McGuire that the one thing he didn’t know about the Caps players from the outside prior to his trade to DC was “the hunger” they have for winning it all this season…the Caps were 1 for 4 on the power play in just 3:40 of man advantage time. The Rangers didn’t have a power play since the Capitals were outskating them and possessing the puck most of the time…final shot attempts were 52-45 for Washington. Shots on goal were 25-24 for the Caps…Matt Niskanen led the Capitals in ice time with 22:56 and each Washington skater logged at least 10 minutes…Orpik, who eats rocks for breakfast, and Williams, led the Capitals in shots on goal with four each.

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Shootout win over CBus

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Caps Dominate But Need the Shootout to Defeat Columbus

Posted on 23 March 2017 by Ed Frankovic

In a game completely dominated by the Capitals, Washington had to rally from an early third period one puck hole to defeat the Columbus Blue Jackets, 2-1, in a shootout on Thursday night at the Verizon Center.

Coach Barry Trotz’ crew carried the play throughout this contest and after 40 scoreless minutes, they had a 58-24 shot attempts advantage. Columbus, who had played the night before in a disappointing home loss to Toronto, were simply hanging on and their goaltender, Segei Bobrovsky (44 saves), allowed them to go into that final frame with a chance.

Washington’s first 40 minute dominance included three power plays that they failed to score on, and that almost cost them the game. The Blue Jackets would muster the most energy they had all evening in the first minute of the third period and after they hit the crossbar on a chance, future NHL star Seth Jones gathered in the rebound and fired a shot past Braden Holtby (29 saves) for a 1-0 lead. The Caps were scrambling around on that entire shift and looked like they had left their effort in the locker room. It was a big goal for the visitors and a defining moment in the game.

At that point, it was an “Ok Caps, what are you made of now?” moment.

They could either feel sorry for themselves for dominating the first two periods with nothing to show for it or they could just keep working. They chose the latter, but they had to kill off a Brooks Orpik holding penalty first before they finally would get a chance to even things up.

That huge penalty kill was the third period turning point as Columbus didn’t even muster a single shot attempt! Sometimes your power play provides the momentum for a club, and other times it’s the PK unit. For Washington, they really got back to their game after that stellar effort on the Blue Jackets first power play.

The Caps would tilt the ice and possess the puck for the next couple of minutes and that’s when Dmitry Orlov fired a rocket from the center point past Bob that evened things up with just 6:39 gone in period three. Washington then kept their shots barrage going, but Bobrovsky was having one of those nights and this one went to overtime.

In the three on three circus event, the Blue Jackets had more chances to score, but the referees missed at least a couple of calls on Columbus, including a blatant slash on Andre Burakovsky’s stick late in the five minute session to prevent what would’ve been a Capitals odd man rush. Hey, the zebras are gonna zebra!

Jones had the best chance in that OT on a one on one with Holtby in the first minute, but he shot wide.

In the shootout, on some rough ice, T.J. Oshie went first and beat Bob five hole. The next five shooters did not connect and the Holtbeast finally won his first gimmick of the season against five losses.

Several Capitals had strong performances, but once again it was the top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Oshie that were the best up front. They had numerous chances to score and the Gr8 had 17 shot attempts, including eight on net. Oshie had five shots on goal, as well. #77’s best chance of the night came in period two when Ovi hit him with a great pass all alone in the slot, but the puck rolled off of his stick before he could set his body to fire away. You have to really like the way this line is amping up its game heading into the stretch drive and postseason.

In addition, the Holtbeast didn’t have to make as many saves as Bobrovsky did, but in the middle frame he made two big stops on grade A Blue Jacket chances, a Brandon Dubinsky semi-breakaway and then a stellar blocker stop on Boone Jenner, who thought he had an open net after the puck came off of the back boards. Holtby was fantastic and earned the game’s first star, by a whisker over Bob.

After this hard earned victory, the Capitals are 48-17-8 (104 points) and with both the Penguins and Blue Jackets having shootout losses on Thursday night, Washington leads the Pens by two points and CBus by three with nine games left. First place is important, but it’s not the end all, be all, with all three teams having already clinched a postseason berth.

Notes: The Caps tied the franchise record for home victories with 30. They are 30-6-2 and can break the mark if they defeat the Coyotes on Saturday night…Washington is an astounding 33-4-3 in games in which they have exactly one day of rest…shots on goal were 45-30. The Blue Jackets looked like John Tortorella’s old Ranger teams by blocking 23 shots…Kevin Shattenkirk had five shots on goal in 21:01…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 22:51. That’s a low total for the ice time leader, depth!

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Ovechkin and Holtby Carry the Caps Over the Flames, 4-2

Posted on 21 March 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Alex Ovechkin had a goal and an assist, Nicklas Backstrom notched a goal and two assists, and Braden Holtby made 29 saves to lead the Washington Capitals to a 4-2 victory over the Calgary Flames at the Verizon Center on Tuesday night.

Kevin Shattenkirk added two assists and Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie (1 goal, 1 assist) also tallied for the Caps.

In short, Coach Barry Trotz’ star players shined on Tuesday night and that’s why Washington won.

But it wasn’t pretty and there are things that definitely need cleaning up.

The Caps came out fast in the first frame with the fourth line having a monster early shift, but Daniel Winnik’s shot in the slot hit the shaft of the stick of Flames goalie, Brian Elliott, and went over the net. Just 6:47 in, though, the Capitals would take the lead. Lars Eller forced Johnny Gaudreau to have to slow down in the neutral zone and then Andre Burakovsky flew in and picked the pocket of Johnny Hockey and went the other way. #65 then fed Kuznetsov streaking to the net all alone and Kuzy slid the puck inside the far post for an early marker.

The Caps prosperity, however, didn’t last long. At 10:06 Sean Monahan finished off a sublime feed from Gaudreau on a two on one break. Shattenkirk was doing his job pinching in on the boards on the right wing wall, but the Flames got control and went the other way. Winnik came charging back, but he and Brooks Oprik seemed to get their signals crossed and Monahan had an easy lane to the cage to get a back door goal.

The rest of the first frame was really sloppy by the Caps, but Calgary, who came in with a 12-1 record in their last 13 games, had several mishaps, as well.

In the second period, Washington really seemed to find their game, although there were some tense moments. Midway through the period, Michael Stone took a hooking penalty on Justin Williams, who was crashing the net. On the ensuing power play, a pass to Oshie in the slot was defended well and the Flames went the other way on a two on one break. Shattenkirk left his feet trying to break up the pass, and he missed badly. Mikael Backlund went in on Holtby and instead of shooting he passed across the crease to Michael Frolik, who appeared to have an open net. Somehow Braden stuck out his pad and made an incredible save to keep the game tied. If Calgary scores there, who knows what happens the rest of the way?

The Caps were clearly energized by the humongous stop and really played as well as I’ve seen them play this season in the last eight and half minutes of period two. They were skating and shooting the puck like crazy. Elliott was playing very well, but on the Washington second tally he had no chance. Backstrom, after taking a pass from Dmitry Orlov at the point on the right wing half wall, slid a diagonal pass to Ovi in the left wing circle. The Gr8 then passed it to the Osh Babe on the doorstep and he directed it home, top shelf. The goal was Oshie’s 30th of the season and the way Ovechkin described it after the game was perfect, “Ka-ching!” (h/t @jjregancsn of Comcast).

Ovi and company weren’t done, though. With 20 seconds left in the period, the Gr8 split the Calgary defesnse and drew a penalty. It took the Caps just 17 ticks to make it a two goal cushion as Shattenkirk’s shot hit Elliott and then knuckleballed behind him and slid towards the net. It looked like Backstrom nudged the puck before it crossed the line, but as of this posting just before midnight, the goal remained #22’s. (UPDATE: On Wednesday morning the goal has been changed by the NHL to be Backstrom from Shattenkirk and Oshie, so Ovechkin lost one of his two original assists).

In that middle period, the Capitals were downright dominant and that was the result of the top line just carrying the play. Coach Trotz put those guys on the ice quite a bit and the Flames had no answer.

So given how well the Caps locked down Saturday’s win in Tampa, this 3rd frame was going to be a “Walk in the park, Kazansky” right? Well, not so fast.

Calgary wasn’t going to lie down and for some reason Washington decided to revert to some very bad habits; drop passes and back passes in the offensive zone with a two goal lead instead of getting pucks on net or deep in the offensive zone. It was bad hockey and if they do stuff like that against the Penguins in the playoffs, they will likely lose. The Caps would still carry the two goal cushion into the final five minutes, but they kept trading end to end rush situations and that allowed Troy Brouwer to finish off a nice passing play with 4:56 remaining to make this a one goal game. What was even worse was just a dozen seconds later, this game was nearly tied! Mark Giordano somehow ended up with a clear lane to Holtby on a two on one break, but the Holtbeast made a huge save to preserve the lead.

Just 20 seconds later, Calgary sealed their fate when they took a delay of game penalty. Coach Trotz gambled on his top guys and kept Ovi on the left point and it paid off. The Capitals worked the puck around well tiring out the Flames defenders and when Shattenkirk faked a shot inside the blue line and fed the Gr8 nicely in the left circle, Ovechkin went top shelf to close this one out with 2:51 left in regulation.

It was fitting that Ovi got that goal because he was fantastic in this affair. His legs have been coming around in recent weeks and on this night, he played his best game of the season. He was dominant and creating all kinds of chances and havoc for Calgary. Backstrom and Oshie were superb, too and it was nice to see Shattenkirk have a big outing.

As Coach Trotz told Nestor Aparacio and I at our WNST puck talk at Greenmount Station in Hampstead on Monday night, this trade has been a big transition for #22. The Blues play a more passive system where the defense sits back further from the forwards. In Washington’s structure, however, Trotz wants the defense up in the play with good gap control and support to the centers and wingers. That’s caused quite an adjustment for Shattenkirk, but he’s starting to feel more comfortable.

Overall, this was a good win against a very hot team, and I can sum up each period for the Caps with one word:

First period – sloppy

Second period – dominant

Third period – careless

The win was important though, because the Penguins also won so they are just a point behind the Caps (47-17-8, 102 points) with 10 games to go. Columbus is two points back and their game in hand is against the Leafs on Wednesday night. The Blue Jackets then come to DC on Thursday for a first place showdown.

I still don’t like the way the Capitals played in the 3rd period and parts of the first frame. Coach Trotz also noted on Monday night at the WNST event that the Caps are first in the league in puck possession, but 16th in shots. There’s the smoking gun on over passing and some bad decision making, at times, in the offensive zone. That needs to change if Washington wants to win in the postseason.

They were fortunate that they were really playing at the top of their game in period two and also that the Holtbeast was in Vezina form in key situations. The stars made enough plays to provide a W, but that final frame leaves more to be desired in respect to Washington’s overall game.

Notes: Final shot attempts were 62-60 for the Caps. It was 52-35 after 40 minutes, so Calgary had a 25-10 advantage in the last 20 minutes. That stinks…Washington gave up far too many odd man rushes in this contest…Shots on goal were 40-31 for the Capitals…Ovechkin had 13 shot attemps, 11 of them were on goal. He was dynamite on Tuesday…John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with a low total of 22:21… the Caps lost the face off battle, 27-25, but Eller was 9-4.

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Ovechkin and Backstrom Lead the Caps Over the Wild

Posted on 14 March 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Alex Ovechkin scored a huge power play goal and helped set up Washington’s first tally while Nicklas Backstrom added three assists as the Caps defeated the Minnesota Wild, 4-2, at the Verizon Center on Tuesday night. The victory breaks the Caps four game losing streak and puts them back in sole possession of first place in the NHL at 45-17-7 (97 points).

Well that was more like it!

The Caps top guys were their top guys on this night, unlike the 0-3 California trip we would all like to forget.

The Capitals were skating hard and competing. They constantly won the loose puck battles and they did a great job of going to the net. This looked like the team that lit the scoreboard up like a pinball machine from December 31st to February 11th.

This affair didn’t start real well for the Caps, though. The Wild had several early scoring chances as Washington was trying to get back on east coast time, but Braden Holtby (30 saves) was outstanding in the net to keep this one scoreless. The Capitals then started getting their legs going to play with pace and they gradually took over the contest. Late in the first period, Ovechkin made a great tape to tape breakout pass to spring Backstrom in the neutral zone and #19 carried it into the Wild end. T.J. Oshie made a nice nudge of the puck back to #19 in the right wing corner and Nicky then took the puck around the net and tried to hit a flying and charging Gr8 in the slot. The pass nicked Ovi, but Nate Schmidt was properly placed in the middle of the ice and he gathered in the loose biscuit and fired it at Devan Dubnyk (36 saves). The puck, which looked to be going wide, hit Eric Staal and went in. That goal came with just 11.7 seconds left in the frame.

In the middle stanza, Washington really played well, but Dubnyk kept his club in it for the first 14+ minutes. However, an obvious Mikael Granlund high stick on John Carlson (two assists) negated a Wild power play and put the game at four on four for 48 seconds. There was no sale for either team in that scenario, but then the Capitals had their 72 second man advantage. Ovechkin had a great look late in the power play and missed the net, but right as Granlund was coming out of the box, the Gr8 took another nice feed from Carlson and put “a muffin” by Dubnyk to give Washington a 2-0 cushion.

The Caps weren’t done in that period, however. Ryan Suter, who whined all night, took a very clear slash on Ovechkin at 16:46. Washington’s power play then scored on the rush with Backstrom carrying the puck across the blue line and then feeding a streaking Evgeny Kuznetsov in the slot. #92 beat Dubnyk with a sweet shot upstairs.

To quote the great Will Ferrell, “Come on, we’re all going streaking!”

That made it 3-0 and all was feeling right in the world with Ovi finally scoring a goal and the Capitals dominating play.

Things then got amped up at the end of period two when Ryan White first took a run at Tom Wilson and then a nasty one on Brooks Orpik behind the Caps net. There was no penalty called on White, but Wilson, remembering that it was the dirty White who concussed #44 in last spring’s game three in Philadelphia, dropped the gloves and beat the stuffing out of him. Wilson earned 17 minutes in penalties, including the instigator minor and an automatic 10 minute misconduct, but the Capitals looked possessed on that penalty kill and then at even strength at the end of period two and nearly made it 4-0.

It’s too bad they didn’t because just 37 seconds into period three a weird bounce on the boards allowed the Wild to score. Washington then took a parade of penalties that started with a Brett Connolly interference. I wasn’t a fan of that call, but then Backstrom had to hook Eric “Cap Killer” Staal when he had a clear lane to the net and that gave the Wild a five on three. The Capitals would survive that event, but right as #10 was coming back on the ice, Staal put the biscuit in the basket to make it 3-2 with 15:23 remaining. Uh oh!

Things got even hairier when Justin Williams, who had eight shots on goal in this game, was whistled for hooking. It was another call I didn’t like because it sure looked like the Wild player was hit by sniper fire. It was total embellishment and Minnesota did a lot of that on this night. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Coach Bruce Boudreau had brought in Greg Louganis as a diving consultant at some point this season. All evening long a Capital would touch a Wild player and too often they’d fall to the ice. Either they are unbelievably soft or they think the zebras are so clueless that they’ll call anything. A combination of both is likely true, if you ask me.

Anyways, Washington was relentless with their pressure on that penalty kill and the Wild didn’t even get a shot on the Holtbeast. Once the Caps were done with the parade to the box (Minnesota had seven power plays), they took over the remaining 13 minutes and really never gave the Wild a chance to tie it.

In fact, the intense forechecking and pressure Washington was exhibiting led to an insurance tally with 5:41 to go. Minnesota cleared their zone and tried to change, but Dmitry Orlov alertly caught them and fired a quick pass up to Jay Beagle just outside the offensive blue line. Beagle skated in down the left wing with Daniel Winnik flanked to his right on a two on one and when the Wild defender chose to cut the pass off, #83 wristed one top shelf to end any potential drama.

This was a much needed win for the Capitals and the way it went down was also big. The Caps were playing with fire and intensity, something we didn’t see on the left coast. Ovechkin, who showed signs of breaking out of his winter hibernation in California with 15 shot attempts in LA and then eight more in Anaheim, had a goal, an assist, and four hits in 18:11 of work. Backstrom was flat out dominant at center and on the backend, the defense, which was missing Kevin Shattenkirk due to a two game suspension, was very active in the play, which helped get the offense back on track. This was Carlson’s best game in a long time and Karl Alzner had a really good outing, too. Matt Niskanen and Orlov were excellent, as well. In fact, 11 of the 40 shots on goal came from Carlson, Niskanen, and Orlov. Add in Schmidt’s goal and it was a big night for the blue line.

Simply put, the Capitals were competing and they moved up and down the ice in a well structured five man unit. I loved the team’s intensity and also Wilson sticking up for Orpik, those type of things send a strong message to anyone trying to play dirty and it was clear this team is together.

This win was a very big response to a bad and unfocused road trip.

Washington certainly looked focused and dialed in on Tuesday. All is right in Caps land, once again.

Notes: Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 24:38 and Carlson was right behind him at 24:05…the shot attempts favored the Capitals, 67-54…Zach Parise was held without a shot on goal in 18:17 of ice time. He’s one of the best players, if not the best, for Minnesota…the Caps third line didn’t have a shot on net, but they only played together for just over six minutes due to all of the penalties…the Caps host the Nashville Predators on Thursday at 7 pm and Shattenkirk will return to the lineup…TJ Luxmore and Jon McIsaac were your clueless and very inconsistent zebras on Tuesday night (some would also call them incompetent, and they wouldn’t be wrong).

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