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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 Game 5

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Caps Leadership Crew Delivers in Game Five Victory

Posted on 07 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

With one period remaining in game five at the Verizon Center on Saturday night, the Washington Capitals were trailing by a puck and were 20 minutes away from the golf course. To start the third period, the Pittsburgh Penguins won the faceoff and Sidney Crosby, who returned from injury after missing game four, went in on Braden Holtby (20 saves) and threw a strong backhander on #70 that the Holtbeast stopped.

Then the game changed dramatically. The Holtbeast made another big save, this one on Tom Kuhnhackl, and shortly thereafter Nicklas Backstrom carried the puck out of his own zone with some serious speed. As he crossed the offensive blue line he gave the puck to Andre Burakovsky, and Burkie gave it right back to Nicky, who had a step on Carl Hagelin. The Swede would then beat Marc-Andre Fleury (28 saves) just under his glove to the far post to tie the game up just 2:49 into period three.

Just 37 seconds after the goal, Cap killer Nick Bonino had a great chance from the slot, but Holtby made a monstrous save. It was the third huge stop by the Holtbeast early in period three and it seemed to lift the Capitals play.

The game would go back and forth, but things were starting to change for Washington, suddenly they were getting pucks to the net more frequently as they entered the offensive zone. With just over seven minutes gone, the Penguins appeared to have an easy clear, but John Carlson stepped up on Hagelin at the right point and forced a turnover. #74 then got the puck to Evgeny Kuznetsov, who dropped it to Marcus Johansson for a shot from the high slot. Jojo’s attempt, with T.J. Oshie in front, was blocked by Evgeni Malkin, but it caromed right to Evgeny Kuznetsov just above the goal line on the near post and Kuzy snapped it quickly by Fleury short side to give the Caps their first lead of the game. It would be the first time all series that the lead actually changed hands in this battle (h/t Mike Vogel (@VogsCaps)).

As if that wasn’t enough, after a faceoff loss and a Bryan Rust slap shot that was stopped by Holtby, the Caps went the other way on a rush. Nate Schmidt chipped the puck up the left wing boards to Alex Ovechkin and he gave the puck to Lars Eller (two assists). Eller then fed the Gr8 the biscuit at the defensive blue line as Ovi was flying up the rink with speed. Ovechkin was absolutely motoring and that forced Pens defensemen Ron Hainsey to get turned around, which gave Alex a chance to cut inside for a better shooting angle. Ovi fired, but the first shot was blocked by a sliding #65. The rebound, however, would come right on Ovechkin’s stick and he wristed one over Fleury’s glove to make it 4-2.

Wow, two goals in 27 seconds to seize the lead in an elimination game, that’s a big time step up by the Caps!

From there the Capitals kept the hammer down and nearly extended their lead. They would go on to close the game out and force a game six that will be on Monday night in Pittsburgh.

Afterwards Coach Barry Trotz praised his goaltender for the big saves he made and said “it lifted our bench.” He especially pointed out the one on Bonino. Holtby was the biggest reason the Capitals had a chance to rally in this affair. Pittsburgh didn’t have a ton of shots, but the ones they had seemed to be of high quality and #70 was dialed in for his club.

Trotz also had a big game with his tactics. His decision to move Ovechkin with Eller and Wilson while sliding Burakovsky up with Backstrom and Oshie got a lot of guys going. Wilson, who has been super this entire post season, made his presence known early with some huge hits on Penguins defensemen Justin Schultz and Trevor Daley. Willy had four hits overall while Ovi had six and Oshie seven as Washington, who won the shot attempt battle, 66-52, also outnumbered the Penguins in hits, 38-15. Simply put, Coach Trotz’ line shake up, which was intended to get more physicality and scoring opportunities, paid dividends on Saturday night.

On Friday I wrote about the Caps leadership’s inability to bring forth a big effort in a crucial game four with Crosby out of the lineup. On Saturday night, they all delivered. Backstrom had the game tying goal, Ovechkin had the insurance marker, and the Holtbeast stoned the Penguins on several quality scoring chances. That trio, which is the primary core of the team, really came through on Derby Day.

Kuznetsov scored his fourth goal of the series and Burakovksy (1 goal, 1 assist) ended a 10 game goal scoring drought this post season. His tally with 30 seconds left in period one, after great plays by Eller and Kevin Shattenkirk to get him the puck, allowed #65 to break the seal on Fleury.

Schmidt and Shattenkirk played well paired together on the back end as the Caps blue liners were very solid overall.

On the down side, the Capitals power play went 0 for 3 and definitely needs some tweaking. They did get seven shots on net, but there weren’t many “grade A” chances. The Penguins power play is heating up and their second tally of the night was a passing exhibition that led to an easy Phil Kessel marker from the back door. Pittsburgh was one for two with the man advantage. The Caps did a good job of staying out of the box and that will be critical on Monday night in Pittsburgh.

Washington played very well on Saturday and found a way to win by simplifying their game and limiting offensive blue line turnovers. With game six in Pennsylvania on Monday, the Pens have to be feeling really good about their chances of closing the series out. They have been dominant at home and they have their lineup intact with Crosby and Conor Sheary back from injury.

The Caps have their backs against the wall and must maintain focus and pressure the Penguins defense. Both Eller and Holtby talked about Washington being more patient in the offensive zone paying off in game five. Getting shots through is important and the Caps found a way to fire away after the Pittsburgh defenders left their feet and were committed to blocking the shot. They’ll need to do that again in game six if they want to extend their season.

Notes: Hainsey led all skaters with 23:57 in ice time, but Brian Dumolin was right behind him at 23:54. Daley, who is clearly playing hurt, only logged 11:09…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 21:13. Jojo played 20:50 and Oshie logged 20:22 for Washington. Coach Trotz was able to do his best job of the series of spreading ice time around in this tilt. Ovechkin played 17:46 and had eight shot attempts. One went in and another hit the cross bar right before Backstrom tied the game up at two…the Pens creamed the Caps on faceoffs, 34-22. Eller was 6-6…the Penguins were 6-0 in this postseason when leading after two periods (h/t Ben Raby (@BenRaby31))…shots on goal were 32-22 for Washington.

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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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Caps Top Line & Wilson Deliver a Game 4 Victory

Posted on 19 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

With their backs nearly up against the wall, the Washington Capitals came out in game four on Wednesday night with their best period of hockey of the post season to take a 4-1 lead after 20 minutes. Then they did what was necessary to win, 5-4, to even up this best of seven series with the young and pesky Toronto Maple Leafs at two games apiece. Game five is Friday night at the Verizon Center.

Like they did in game three, the Caps really came out flying and once again it was the top line leading the charge. Washington did a great job at getting pucks deep and to the net early and often. That led to an offensive zone faceoff and they cashed in with a T.J. Oshie tally at 2:58. Nicklas Backstrom fed the Osh Babe for a goal into a wide open cage after a smart point shot from Nate Schmidt came off of the backboards to #19, who won a battle in front.

On the faceoff right after the goal, Evgeny Kuznetsov had a partial breakaway and he just barely missed making it 2-0. But the third line, which saw Tom Wilson get added to it for this tilt, kept up the heat and Lars Eller drew a high stick on Toronto. The Caps power play then scored in just 36 seconds with Alex Ovechkin notching his 3rd goal in four games on a rocket of a shot. Backstrom forced a turnover on the right wing wall that ended up with Kevin Shattenkirk and Shatty set up the Gr8 perfectly for the one timer just 4:34 into this one to make it 2-0.

The prosperity didn’t last too long as Zach Hyman scored on a deflection in front at 5:16 and a track meet appeared to be on. With just over 13 minutes gone, the Leafs were pressuring and a shot trickled through Holtby and was rolling on edge heading for the goal line when Willy stretched out and knocked it away from the net, under Holtby and out of the crease. That was a major turning point because the Capitals Eller immediately got the puck from Dmitry Orlov thereafter and skated down the right wing boards. #20 then circled behind the net and when he got into the left wing circle he fired it on the cage. “Johnny on the spot” was #43 to the side of the goal and he deflected the puck home to make it 3-1.

Wilson would then add another huge tally on a two on one rush to make it 4-1 at 16:04. Brooks Orpik lifted a great high clear over the heavy Leafs forecheck to Andre Burakovsky and he gave Willy a great pass. Tom then looked like a 30 goal scorer the way he quickly elevated the biscuit over Frederik Andersen’s left pad and into the cage.

In the middle frame, the Leafs cut the margin to 4-2 on another deflected shot on a power play. Backstrom took a holding call and James Van Riemsdyk lasered one off of Orlov’s stick and past Holtby. From there the Capitals played a strong second period and appeared to be headed to period three with a safe 4-2 lead. They would maintain that two goal advantage, but Eller and Orpik both took undisciplined penalties within three seconds of each other and so the deadly Leafs power play would have 1:55 of two man advantage time to start the final frame.

The Caps managed to kill them both, thanks to some great goaltending by the Holtbeast and super individual battle victories by several players, including Matt Niskanen and John Carlson. Washington continued to press the attack after that and appeared to take a 5-2 lead at 8:11 on a Schmidt tally. Ovechkin was cross checked in front setting a screen while Jake Gardiner was tied up with Backstrom at the side of the net, outside of the crease. Andersen initiated contact with #19 with his glove and then Gardiner hit his own goalie in the head with his stick. Gardiner tried to take Backstrom into the crease, but Nicky put his arms straight up when shoved by #51 and Andersen moved to his right. The shot came in and went top corner, but bad zebra Chris Lee immediately waved it off for goalie interference. The Caps challenged and they still didn’t give Washington what should’ve been a goal, but that’s what happens when the inmates run the asylum and get to review the call themselves. It was pure rubbish and should’ve been a 5-2 game, at that point. It’s spin the wheel these days on goalie interference calls because there is NO consistency to the rulings.

That non goal would be a little costly as Auston Matthews then scored in front on the rebound off of a point shot that hit traffic on the way in and confused Holtby.  That marker came with eight minutes left and suddenly the Air Canada Centre was hopping. However, the Caps responded just 59 seconds later to restore a two puck lead.

Burakovsky carried the disc into the offensive zone and instead of getting it deep, mistakenly he turned into the middle just inside the blueline. The Leafs then knocked it away from him, but it bounced right to Backstrom, who was in stellar puck support position. Oshie alertly kept going towards the net on the play and #19 fed him the rubber. The Osh Babe buried it to make it 5-3.

Pay the Man!

Washington mostly played well from there on out, although they iced the puck a few too many times for my liking. One of those allowed the Leafs to cut it to 5-4 on a Tyler Bozak tally from the paint with 26 seconds left. Toronto got one more chance, then the horn sounded, and it’s now back to home ice for the Caps.

Whew, what a game!

The Caps rode their top guys in this one and they delivered. The Ovechkin-Backstrom-Oshie line was downright dominant and the newly formed third line of Burakovsky-Eller-Wilson performed exceptionally, as well. Wilson (2 goals in 13:40) was just outstanding and he is playing the best hockey of his career against his home town team.

Toronto continues to do a great job of getting bodies and pucks to the net and they are getting good bounces. Washington did more of that in this one, too, and it paid off. Overall, the Capitals won the majority of the battles for 40 minutes and then the Leafs desperation took over in the final frame, at times.

The Capitals still need to be better in their breakouts when the Leafs are forechecking hard and the high lifter out of the zone is not a bad option (see the Caps fourth goal). Toronto has been doing that effectively, as well, in this very close series.

Owning the big moments has been a theme for Coach Barry Trotz and after not doing that with a 3-1 lead and a five on three power play in game three, they got some retribution by killing off the Leafs five on three to start period three. It was a huge shorthanded effort and it was done without some of their best PK guys. Orpik and Eller were in the box and Karl Alzner missed his second straight contest with an upper body injury.

After playing just over 15 minutes in game three, Coach Trotz said he needed to get Ovi more ice time in game four. The Gr8 logged 16:31, with only 36 seconds of it on the power play. There were a couple of times when the coach put the top line back out quickly after a previous shift, especially when the draw was in the offensive zone. That line is really going and I’d still like to see them play more because Toronto has no answer for them and that’s when the Capitals are dominating the game. It was Ovechkin’s line that had some of the few third period chances and they had the goal that should’ve made it 5-2. The best defense is a good offense, especially in this series, and it doesn’t appear that Toronto has an answer for Ovechkin and his linemates. So it’s imperative that the Capitals not sit those guys and sit back with a lead going forward.

Now, let’s discuss those guys in stripes. It was not a good night for them. In addition to fabricating the goalie interference call, they repeatedly let numerous Toronto holds and trips go throughout the tilt. Leo Komarov blatantly held Backstrom’s stick with the net empty late and it wasn’t called (yet Nicky was jailed for the same thing in period two). Outside of the no goal call, my biggest beef, though, is the way Coach Mike Babcock is just using the spineless zebras to gain more time for his club on icings by purposely putting the wrong players on the ice. He did this very effectively in overtime in game two, as well. From here on out in the series, if the Leafs don’t keep the right guys on the ice after an icing, it should be an automatic delay of game call against the Toronto bench. It’s a joke the way Babcock has been daring the referees to call him for doing that and they’ve backed down like chickens.

At the end of the night, the Caps played a strong game and won. They brought their best game of the series and can still improve on their performance. Toronto presses on all fronts and the Capitals have to make sure they are smart all 60 minutes by making quick and crisp breakouts and putting pucks and bodies to the net, like the Leafs are doing when they are in the Washington end.

After three games, Matthews said that the Leafs wanted it more and that’s why they were winning the series. Washington, however, showed their will in game four and grabbed back home ice advantage.

This is now a best of three affair.

Notes: Carlson was +3 in 21:49 of ice time and played his best game since his late season injury…Trotz rode Niskanen (25:38) and Orlov (23:31) on the back end. Shattenkirk (1 assist) only played 12:54. He took a hard hit in period three and seemed to be in some discomfort…the Caps were 1 for 1 on the power play while the Leafs went 1 for 4 in 5:08 of advantage time…shot attempts were 67-56 for Toronto. All of that margin, and then some, came after it was 4-1…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 32-29…the Leafs had 29 giveaways to the Caps nine. I’m not sure that stat is totally accurate (the Caps number seems low), but Washington did force a ton of first period turnovers with their strong forecheck and pressure…Gardiner played 25:38 for Toronto to lead their squad in time on ice.

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Holtby Slams the Door on the Blue Jackets in Caps 3-2 Victory

Posted on 02 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Braden Holtby made 35 saves and the Washington Capitals received second period goals from T.J. Oshie, Andre Burakovsky, and Matt Niskanen to defeat the Columbus Blue Jackets, 3-2 at Nationwide Arena on Sunday Night.

The Caps victory improves their record to 52-18-8 (112 points) and it pretty much ends any chance Columbus has of winning the Metropolitan Division. They are now six points behind with four games remaining and the Pittsburgh Penguins moved into second place, five points back, with their win over Carolina on Sunday. The Pens also have just four games remaining.

After playing the worst first period of the season and getting blown out in Arizona on Friday (6-3), Coach Trotz’ club came ready to play in this affair. Washington’s Justin Williams had several good chances to score, but Sergei Bobrovsky (27 saves) was excellent early on. Both Holtby and “Bob” were on their craft in the scoreless opening frame.

In the middle stanza the Caps took over quickly. Nicklas Backstrom made a great cross ice outlet pass to Oshie on the right wing boards that #77 skated after while Alex Ovechkin was flying down the center of the ice. It looked like Oshie, after corralling the loose biscuit, was going to pass the puck, but with the Gr8 smartly going to the net, Oshie was able to skate into the slot and lift a backhander past Bobrovsky at 1:12. Ovi creating havoc in front was certainly a big factor in Oshie’s 33rd tally of the season.

Pay the Man!

Just 1:44 later the Caps increased their cushion to two. Kevin Shattenkirk fed Lars Eller in the neutral zone and the third line center carried the puck down the right boards and eventually tracked towards going behind the net. #20 then did his best Evgeny Kuznetsov imitation to spin around and pass back to Burakovsky in the right wing circle. Andre then buried his 12th goal of the season top shelf and into a very tiny window with an incredibly skillful shot.

The Capitals would continue to keep the heat on Columbus and Burakovsky, the game’s official number one star, set up Matt Niskanen all alone on Bobrovsky with a sensational pass on a two on one rush. The American defenseman skated in and quickly beat Bob to the far post for a 3-0 lead with 10:05 gone in period two.

From there things opened up since Columbus had to gamble to try and get back in the game. Washington certainly gave them their share of chances as they were caught out of position on multiple occasions, which led to several Blue Jacket odd man rushes. Fortunately the Holtbeast was dialed in and he kept it 3-0 after 40 minutes.

In the final frame, the Caps played fairly solid to preserve their three goal lead, but then at 9:22 Karl Alzner got caught in the offensive zone and Jack Johnson skated up the ice and around John Carlson and Tom Wilson to get a clean look against Holtby. #7 made no mistake about it and suddenly we had a game.

Things then became physical and heated. Josh Anderson took a run at Ovechkin at a whistle and then he hit the Gr8 in the head with a punch when everyone came to together at the Columbus blue line. It was clearly a John Tortorella type cheap shot tactic to try and bait the Caps into at least a four on four situation, but when it was all said and done, Anderson received four minutes for roughing, while Ovi only was whistled for a single minor for roughing. Wilson and Kyle Quincey also were sent to the sin bin and the Capitals received a power play with 8:39 remaining. Somehow the fact that Bobrovsky left the crease area to join the donnybrook wasn’t penalized.

Washington had a chance to close this one out, but they failed and sure enough, the Blue Jackets cut the lead to one on a Quincey point shot that Holtby didn’t see cleanly with Sam Gagner and Backstrom directly in front of him. That tally came with 4:27 left. Columbus would pull “Bob” for the extra attacker and they very nearly tied it up at the horn, but the Holtbeast stoned Seth Jones on the doorstep with three ticks left.

Whew!

This was a highly intense hockey game and provides a sneak preview of how things will go next week when the playoffs begin on April 12th. The contest was very physical and there were many post whistle scrums. It will be important for the Caps to keep their discipline because given their inability to play well at four on four this season, there is no doubt in my mind that opponents will try and bait them into penalties that could create that situation.

There were several positives that came out of this win. First off, the Holtbeast was outstanding and he outplayed Bobrovsky. Washington needs #70 to be at the top of his game if they want to make it out of the Metropolitan Division playoffs (rounds one and two). Second, despite playing only 13 shifts and just over eight minutes and 20 seconds of even strength time together, the 3rd line was very good. There is no doubt that when Burakovsky, Eller, and Brett Connolly are playing their game that the Capitals are extremely tough to match up against. Third, from a standings and home ice perspective, the Caps need just three more points (either Washington points gained or Pittsburgh points missed) to clinch the Presidents’ Trophy (Chicago has 107 points and only 3 games left). Given the way Washington plays so well at home and the fact that Coach Trotz can dictate the matchups in four of the seven tilts in each series, home ice is big from a strategic standpoint.

Finally, it was important for the Caps to win a low scoring game to remind them of how to close out a win in one of those tilts that we should see quite a bit of in the spring. It wasn’t a textbook “protect a lead” performance, but being able to hold off a very desperate team in their own building was big for Holtby and the entire Capitals club. Their defensive posture took a major step in the right direction after some shaky efforts on a road trip that saw them allow 13 goals in the first three games, including nine tallies to the two worst teams in the NHL. Defense wins championship and holding Tortorella’s crew to two tallies has to build confidence.

Confidence is such an important part of hockey and Washington needs to have that going into the post season.

Notes: Washington won the faceoff battle, 34-20. Jay Beagle was 10-6 while Kuznetsov went 9-3…shots on goal were 24-20, Caps, after 40 minutes, but ended up, 37-30, for Columbus. Shot attempts were 68-46 for CBus. A lot of that is score effects, but the Capitals have to learn to get more pressure and chances on their opponents when they are leading the game without abandoning their defensive structure…both teams were 0 for 2 on the power play…Carlson led the Capitals in ice time with 23:41…the Caps next game, and final one on this five game, eight day road trip, is in Toronto on Tuesday night.

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Ovechkin and Oshie Carry the Caps Over the Wild in OT

Posted on 29 March 2017 by Ed Frankovic

T.J. Oshie scored 1:52 into overtime after a great feed from Marcus Johansson to give the Washington Capitals a 5-4 victory over the Minnesota Wild. The triumph starts the Caps off on the right foot on their five game, eight day road trip.

On the last Capitals extended road trip, to California just over two weeks ago, Coach Barry Trotz stated that Washington’s star players were repeatedly not their star players in three straight losses.

At the Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday night, that would not be the case.

Washington’s first line and power play was simply on fire in this one. It all started in period one when Alex Ovechkin did a great job of fore checking and stole the biscuit from the Wild in the offensive zone. The Gr8 then fed Nicklas Backstrom behind him and #19 quickly fired on net. Devan Dubnyk (15 saves) made the initial stop but the Osh Babe was there for the rebound to make it 1-0.

Pay the Man!

After the Wild tied the game as a result of the Minnesota third line outworking the Caps third line in the middle frame, Washington scored two straight power play goals to take a 3-1 lead. Both of the tallies came from the Gr8 in his favorite spot, the left wing circle.

But the Wild, who would go 0 for 5 on the evening on the power play in 9:33 of extra man time, were carrying the play at even strength, primarily against the Caps bottom two lines. Martin Hanzal, who set up the first goal for Jason Pominville, crashed the net and put home the rebound of a Pominville shot to make it 3-2 with 4:47 left in period two.

In the third period, the Capitals were doing a decent job of keeping the Wild on the perimeter and when Evgeny Kuznetsov made a super move to go by two Minnesota defenders on a rush and draw a slashing call, the Washington top unit took the ice again with 7:39 remaining with a chance to give the Caps a two goal cushion.

It took all of eight seconds for them to do that and the Gr8 got the hat trick after Jojo made a great play in the right wing corner to get the puck to Backstrom. Nicky then slid a beautiful cross ice pass to Ovechkin and he made no mistake about abusing Dubnyk, once again. For the second straight year, Ovi notched a hat trick in this building and it looked like this one was pretty much over, right?

Not so fast. A Dmitry Orlov clear was missed by Lars Eller on the right wing boards and Jared Spurgeon fired the loose puck at the net. It looked to me that Pominville tipped it by Braden Holtby (26 saves) from right in front, but the puck may have hit #9 instead. Either way, it was 4-3 with 4:57 left and the Wild suddenly had a lot of life.

The Caps would prevent the Wild from getting more pressure for the next few shifts, especially the Caps top line, which nearly scored again to get the two goal cushion back. However, with Dubnyk pulled, the Wild tied the game with 26.6 seconds left when Eric Staal put home a shot from the back door that Holtby had no chance on. The goal was reviewed for offside from the Toronto situation room, but even though it appeared to be offside, the league was consistent in claiming that the puck was not touched before the tag up, as they have done in two other exact situations recently, the Chicago-Colorado game on Sunday, March 12th and the Wild-Blackhawks game in this same barn back in February.

Whether you liked the call or not, and it is open to interpretation, the bottom line is that the Capitals blew a two goal lead, primarily because their bottom six had a very bad night. The third line, in particular, was on the wrong side of things in this one. Eller was -4, Andre Burakovsky was -3, and Brett Connolly was -2. Not a good night for those guys, who only had three shot attempts from their line (all from #20). They usually carry the play, but Hanzal, Pominville, and Jason Zucker had their number on Tuesday night.

Overall, the Caps won because of their star players. Ovechkin had the three power play goals and an assist, Oshie had two goals, Johansson had four assists, and Backstrom had three helpers, as well. In addition, the Capitals received good goaltending from the Holtbeast despite the fact that he allowed four goals on 30 shots. #70 made several numerous big saves throughout this contest as Washington struggled at even strength.

For Holtby, this was his 40th win of the campaign for the 3rd straight season and he joins Martin Brodeur and Evgeny Nabokov as the only two other NHL goalies to achieve that feat. Well done, Braden!

The victory improves the Caps to 50-17-8 (108 points) and they lead the Columbus Blue Jackets by three points and the Pittsburgh Penguins by five points with seven games remaining. Home ice is very important for the playoffs, especially since Washington has won a club record 31 of 38 contests at the Verizon Center this season.

Recently the Capitals have struggled on the road, especially the botched California trip. Washington was clearly focused on getting off to a better start on this extended stint away from home and thanks to their star players they found a way to get a “W.” Special teams were the big difference maker in this one as the Caps went three for four on the power play and a perfect five for five on the PK. But at even strength, Washington was deficient, especially the Eller line. That will need to change if the rest of this trip is going to be successful.

Notes: Shot attempts were 51-35 for the Wild (SOG were 30-20)…the Caps were creamed on faceoffs, 33-18. That stat is a good reason why they were dominated in puck possession in this one…Zach Parise took a high stick in the face from Tom Wilson in the first period and didn’t return. #43 received a double minor and then he was bloodied in a fight with Chris Stewart later in the frame…Ovechkin now has 33 goals and the Osh Babe has 32. What a duo they are with Backstrom feeding them the biscuit. To quote the Great Count Floyd, “That’s scary stuff, kids!”…the Caps are right back at it on Wednesday night in Colorado against the Avalanche at 10 pm. Expect Philipp Grubauer to get his first start since March 11th (at Los Angeles).

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Winnik Bench Yotes

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Winnik’s Hard Work Leads Caps to a 4-1 Win Over Arizona

Posted on 26 March 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Daniel Winnik scored with 4:39 remaining on a rush goal to break a 1-1 tie and Braden Holtby made 28 saves to lead the Washington Capitals to a 4-1 victory over the Arizona Coyotes at the Verizon Center on Saturday night. The triumph improves the Caps record to 49-17-8 (106 points) and they lead both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets in the Metropolitan Division by three points with eight games remaining.

The Caps got off to a very good start in this affair dominating the entire first frame. Alex Ovechkin scored his 30th goal of the season just 8:31 in after a great feed from Nicklas Backstrom from below the goal line. T.J. Oshie and Marcus Johansson made a couple of good passes on that power play to set it all up, with Jojo getting the 2nd assist. For the Gr8, this was his 12th straight season with over 30 goals and he becomes just the third player in NHL history to do that (former Capital Mike Gartner and some guy named Gretzky, you might’ve have heard of him). It was fitting that the goal came from his patented spot in the left wing circle on the power play, but this was not a one-timer, it was just a top shelf snap shot that Mike Smith (29 saves) had no chance on because he had to be deep in his net with #19 holding the puck behind the cage just before the great feed to Ovi.

Washington would lead the shot attempt board, 28-8, after period one, but mainly because of Smith and the Capitals inability to get any rebounds or a lot of traffic, it was only 1-0.

In the second period, the Capitals continued their domination and with 7:47 gone, Arizona’s Connor Murphy (-3) took a double minor for high sticking. The Caps would have possession in the offensive zone for nearly the entire four minutes, but once again Smith stood tall. That PK seemed to energize the Coyotes and like the Empire in Star Wars, they began striking back. Arizona’s Alex Goligoski had a glorious chance in the 38th minute to even things up for his club, but he missed the ocean from the beach on a shot just above the crease. Washington was VERY LUCKY there that #33 shot wide, but the Yotes did earn a power play on that sequence (Justin Williams for hooking). The Caps PK was very strong in that instance and Jay Beagle had a shorthanded breakaway right before the close of the period that he didn’t connect on, so this one went to the third frame with just one puck separating the two teams.

Shot attempts were still 56-27 for the Caps, but late in that second period Arizona began to close the gap.

Just like on Thursday against Columbus, the Capitals struggled to start the third period after dominating the first 40 minutes. Arizona would get a power play after a Beagle holding the stick penalty to prevent a scoring chance at 5:40, but Washington would kill it off. Still, Coach Barry Trotz’ squad was playing mostly perimeter hockey looking for the perfect play to extend their lead and that allowed the Coyotes to hang around. Luke Schenn, who is slow and one of the more chippier players in the league, took a roughing call midway through the period and Washington had their fourth power play of the night and a chance to give themselves a two goal cushion. That didn’t happen and they failed to generate many good looks, only an Ovechkin blast that missed the cage. In fact, the Caps didn’t have a single shot on net on that man advantage. That’s inexcusable with a one goal lead. You have to simplify, at that point, and get bodies and pucks to the net.

After the power play expired, the Capitals were caught flat flooted in the offensive zone and Anthony Duclair and Peter Holland raced by the entire Washington skating five for a breakaway on Holtby. Braden naturally did his job to stop the initial shot, but the Caps lollygagged their way back and allowed Duclair to pot the rebound to tie the game up. 29 seconds later the Coyotes had a chance to take the lead when Tom Wilson was given an extra roughing penalty for a scrum with Holland.

Arizona would get five shot attempts on that power play, including four on net. Their best chance came after a terrible turnover by Nicklas Backstrom, who instead of just clearing the puck on the right wing boards, tried to get fancy with a breakout pass up the middle of the ice and he was stripped of the biscuit by rookie Jakob Chychrun (son of former Flyer, Jeff). It was a lost focused moment by #19, something we don’t typically see from him. Luckily, the Holtbeast made a big save to bail out Nicky and keep things tied up.

The whole first 15 minutes of period three was pretty much a lack of focus stretch for Washington since they were outshot attempted, 17-8, by one of the worst teams in the league. That’s unacceptable in such an important game from a standings perspective!

Fortunately for the Caps, Dmitry Orlov made a great play coming out of the defensive zone and he sprung #26 down the right wing boards for a clear lane to Smith with just under five minutes left in regulation. Winnik skated in and made no mistake about hitting the twine to notch his 10th goal of the season. That tally shook the young Dave Tippett coached squad and just 32 seconds later Williams put a sweet shot over Smith’s shoulder and under the bar for a 3-1 lead.

Arizona then pulled the goalie and who else, Winnik, scored the empty net goal on a Smith Barney type of effort. Daniel tallied that ENG the old fashioned way, he earned it! It was a hard fought and gritty goal from the red line to the crease from a player who brings it every night. He’s been a great teammate and tireless worker since coming over at the trade deadline last season and that second tally ties his career high for goals in a season at 11. He was the well deserved number one star in this tilt, which included him getting interfered with chasing a loose puck that caused him to crash into the end boards and get shaken up. But #26, who eats rocks for breakfast, shook that off and kept working. He, along with Holtby, were the difference in the game.

Overall, the Caps out shot attempted Arizona, 69-46, but there wasn’t a ton of traffic on Smith in this one and as a result, there weren’t many rebound attempts. I especially didn’t like the first 15 minutes of period three. There was a lack of focus from Washington and there weren’t enough guys willing to lay it on the line and stick their nose into the thick of the Coyotes defense to get a dirty or greasy goal. In the playoffs, that is how you will have to score, the perimeter way leads to the golf course. So while the Caps were winning the statistic battle, from a hockey eye perspective, they weren’t playing the right way.

However, a guy like Winnik pretty much always plays the right way and he was the man on Saturday night in a much needed victory for the Caps. Fancy wasn’t going to get the Caps a win, it was going to take some hard work and honest hockey, and that’s what Daniel did to help turn a close game into a late laugher.

Pay that Man, too??!!

Notes: Shots on goal were 33-29 for Washington. Arizona had a 15-7 third period advantage…Holtby now has 39 wins and one more will give him three straight seasons with 40 victories, making him the 3rd goalie in NHL history to do so (Martin Brodeur and Evgeni Nabokov)…Orlov’s assist on Winnik’s GWG gives him a career high in assists (26) and points (32) in a season…Kevin Shattenkirk played well once again and had two assists…the Caps are 5-0-1 in their last six games…Washington lost the faceoff battle, 31-24, but #83 was 13-5…the Caps were 1 for 4 on the power play and four for four on the PK…the Capitals set a club record for home wins in a season (31). They only have two home games left (Rangers on 4/5 and Florida on 4/9). Washington hits the road for five straight tilts over eight days, starting in Minnesota on Tuesday, then Colorado on Wednesday, Arizona on Friday, Columbus on Sunday, and then ending in Toronto on Tuesday, April 4th.

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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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Ovi Flames tongue

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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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