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Caps Still A Contender Despite Off Season Losses

Posted on 03 July 2017 by Ed Frankovic

For the past three years Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan built a squad to compete for the Cup with entry level or bridge contracts working in his favor. Unfortunately, despite having a complete roster this past season, which led to a second straight Presidents’ Trophy, they did not get the job done.

The Caps had the best team on paper this past spring, but when it came down to it, they couldn’t defeat Pittsburgh, once again.

Bottom line, they couldn’t handle the pressure of the top seed and they under performed.

They choked.

There is no way around that, all you have to do is go back and watch the panic they displayed in game seven after the Penguins took a 1-0 lead.

But we’ve already dissected that loss and the disappointing end to the season, so it’s time to move on.

On this journey, however, MacLellan, while talking about what he called a two year championship window (2015-16 and 2016-17), also clearly pointed out that after those two years were up that roster changes were inevitable due to the salary cap.

As the Caps GM and anyone else that closely follows this team knew all along, they had 11 players from this past spring’s roster that were up for new contracts.

Eleven!

So there was NO WAY this team was going to be the same and they were going to lose many pieces, especially with the salary cap only going up to $75M after the NHLPA mistakenly didn’t take advantage of the full escalator clause. That error is now putting many veteran NHL players out of work and could force many of them to have to take major pay cuts just to stay in the league.

So with five unrestricted free agents, six restricted free agents and the expansion draft guaranteeing one unprotected player was going to be taken by Vegas, the Caps GM had his work cut out for him.

MacLellan wisely took a strategy that focused on keeping the core of the team intact while letting players be exposed, unsigned, or traded where they had other options in the pipeline at those positions, such as on defense and at wing.

For the expansion draft he took the 7-3-1 protection approach which left them most vulnerable with either their 4th defensemen (Nate Schmidt) or the backup goalie (Philipp Grubauer). Leaving just those spots exposed was good asset management, especially when the Capitals knew they were losing one good player NO MATTER WHAT. That turned out to be the very popular, but still relatively inexperienced Schmidt. The 88 car, who is a very good skater and a positive player, was an undrafted free agent that had yet to play a full 82 game season and playoffs as a top four defensemen. The Capitals clearly liked Schmidt and openly stated the plan was for him to have the first shot at the fourth blue line slot this upcoming season, despite not having lengthy experience in that position at the NHL level.

Vegas GM George McPhee, who knew Schmidt well from his days with the Caps, opted to take Nate instead of Grubauer and the first roster hole became official.

Immediately after the expansion draft, the T.J. Oshie signing occurred allowing Washington to keep the 33 goal scorer and top line right wing at a bargain price of $5.75M for eight years.

This past weekend, with the start of free agency on July 1st, MacLellan focused his efforts on signing his restricted free agents. He inked defenseman Dmitry Orlov to a six year $30.6M deal, winger Brett Connolly to a two year $3M contract, and center Evgeny Kuznetsov to an eight year $62.4M monster extension. Over the same period unrestricted Washington free agents Karl Alzner signed with Montreal, Kevin Shattenkirk went, as expected, to the Rangers, and Justin Williams received a high paying two year deal ($9M) to return to Carolina.

The problem with the Caps signings was that the Orlov and Kuznetsov numbers came in a bit higher, especially in Kuznetsov’s case, than originally anyone expected. Both had leverage with the KHL, primarily Kuznetsov, and with Washington thin at center in the organization, Kuzy had even more extra leverage to get a big pay day. After all he could bolt to Russia, play in the Olympics and KHL this season, log another year overseas and then become an unrestricted NHL free agent in the summer of 2019. With no clear top two centers in the Capitals organizational pipeline, MacLellan had no choice but to re-sign Kuznetsov, mostly on #92’s terms. At that point, with restricted free agents Andre Burakovsky and Philipp Grubauer still the only ones needing new deals, someone was going to have to be moved now or in the future to make the overall salary cap dollars work.

The NHL allows teams to carry up to 10% over the salary cap until final roster cut downs, but with so many veteran players on the market likely to be cheaper going forward due to the small salary cap increase (bad move again, NHLPA) it was clear that the trade market was going to be decreasing rapidly going forward. Add in the fact that most teams spent a lot of money to give big increases to their own players (see Connor McDavid and Carey Price) and you can see why there hasn’t been a big trade market since the NHL expansion draft.

Case in point, just last week Vegas GM George McPhee, who selected top four defensemen Marc Methot from Ottawa in the expansion draft, was only able to obtain from the Dallas Stars a 2020 2nd round pick and goalie Dylan Ferguson (a 7th round pick in the 2017 draft) for the blue liner. You read that correctly, it’s the year 2020 for that second round pick!

So with MacLellan needing to deal because the trade market was looking bleak going forward, the Caps GM had to pick a player to move for salary cap room while also finding a dance partner. Marcus Johansson, who carries a $4.583M cap number, was the most likely candidate, especially with Burakovsky and 2014 NHL first round pick Jakub Vrana in place and ready to move up the depth chart at wing. Luckily the New Jersey Devils, who had set aside money to try and lure Shattenkirk to their club on July 1st, but failed to do so despite likely offering more money than the Rangers, had remaining budget and needed to make a splash to improve their team and appease their fan base.

So on Sunday night, just after announcing the blockbuster Kuznetsov deal, the Caps traded Jojo to the Devils and received 2018 2nd and 3rd round picks for the forward who just completed a career year in Washington with 24 goals and 58 points. 19 of those 58 points came on a first power play unit with Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Oshie, but Marcus did his share to earn those points by being the best on the team in man advantage zone entries (Kuznetsov will assume Johansson’s 1st PP spot going forward).

With the departure of the also very popular Johansson to go along with Schmidt and the three EXPECTED unrestricted free agent losses, some in the fan base and local and national media went nuts. This despite the fact that MacLellan had managed to pretty much ensure he’d re-sign six of the 11 players that needed new contracts for 2017-18 while also getting two draft picks for the departed Johansson to fill in holes that they had in the 2018 draft as a result of previously traded choices. Those draft picks should prove to be valuable going forward.

Following the Johansson trade, the fan response on Twitter and blog/Twitter posts of some in the local and national media were emotionally charged and a major overreaction in a negative sense. It seems that many conveniently forgot the facts, or chose to ignore them: the Caps were going to lose good players this off-season and when prices went up in the restricted free agent market, it likely cost them one more that they did not originally expect or could reasonably prepare for given the expansion draft.

Suddenly MacLellan, who along with Coach Barry Trotz and his coaching staff have done a wonderful job of turning around a team that was an absolute train wreck just three years ago, had become the village idiot on Twitter for losing Schmidt and Johansson. But in reality they are two replaceable players in the grand scheme of things when you look at the Capitals organizational depth. They have young quality defensemen in the organization and at wing both Burakovksy and Vrana are ready to move up to fill in the gaps left by the departure of Jojo.

Overall, the expansion draft and the upward costs of the restricted free agents resulted in the loss of those two players in addition to their unrestricted free agents (although MacLellan did keep Oshie from the UFA pile). In my opinion, however, you’d be hard pressed to pick any other two players from the 7-3-1 protected list and restricted free agent crew that make the dollars work while resulting in a better overall scenario for Washington going forward, especially given the other assets they currently have in the organization for replacements. Keep in mind that Vegas had the final say for the expansion draft, too, so the Caps did not get to choose who the Golden Knights selected. In addition, the idea of buying out Brooks Orpik was never a viable option and it would not have resulted in enough salary cap savings (only $3M) this season to allow all of the restricted free agent signings to occur (not to mention it would add wasted dollars to the salary cap for the next four seasons).

The Caps lost good players, but let’s get one thing straight in spite of everything that has transpired since the end of the season – the Capitals still have a VERY GOOD hockey team heading into 2017-18.

The projected line-up, based on input from the Caps GM during his Monday morning conference call, is now as follows:

Forwards:

Ovechkin – Backstrom – Oshie

Vrana – Kuznetsov – Burakovsky

Connolly – Eller – Wilson

TBD – Jay Beagle – TBD

Defense:

Orlov – Matt Niskanen

TBD – John Carlson

Orpik – TBD

Goalie:

Braden Holtby

Grubauer

The TBD’s at forward, right now, include the possibility of several Hershey players such as Chandler Stephenson, Nathan Walker, Travis Boyd, Riley Barber, or recently acquired players such as Tyler Graovac, Anthony Peluso or Devante Smith-Pelly (signed from New Jersey on Monday on a two way contract for the league minimum, $650,000). On defense, the TBD’s appear to be two of Taylor Chorney, Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos, Aaron Ness, and Tyler Lewington.

Yes, this is no longer a 118 or 120 point roster, but it’s still a good one, likely in the 100 to 105 point range given the strong centers, skilled scoring wingers, and quality goaltenders. In my opinion, Vegas not taking Grubauer will be a blessing in disguise for the Caps in 2017-18 because goaltending is the most important position in hockey. There will also be a lot less pressure on this team, the media and many fans have already written them off.

Finally, keep in mind that the other playoff teams in the Metropolitan Division have lost players too, due to the salary cap. In Pittsburgh, the two time defending champs saw Marc Andre-Fleury (expansion draft), Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, and Ron Hainsey all depart. Without Fleury, who was a great insurance policy for the oft-injured Matt Murray, the Capitals win that second round series this spring. The Rangers signed Shattenkirk, but they traded their number one center, Derek Stepan, backup goalie, Antti Raanta, and bought out defensemen Dan Girardi in the process of doing so. Columbus traded forward Brandon Saad to Chicago for Artemi Panarin, so they are still looking for a number one center to fill their biggest need. Bottom line, nobody has a roster without holes.

It’s clear the fact that the salary cap is impacting all teams gets lost in the noise when some look and analyze the Capitals.

Yes, they’ve become “top heavy” as MacLellan called them, but they are still a playoff team, at a minimum.

Fans are fans, though, so the negativity is to be expected, that’s just the way it is in professional sports. But you’d expect more out of the local and national media. Keep in mind, though, that there are critics in parts of the media who are fans, at heart, of other Metropolitan Division teams (for example, the Devils and the Flyers, to name a couple), or flat out just don’t like the Capitals organization, there’s no denying that. Then there are others who are just not experienced enough when it comes to the workings of the NHL or are trying to make their mark in their craft to move up the sports media ladder via page clicks – so please take their criticism and bashing with a grain of salt. They have an agenda.

In full disclosure, I won’t walk away from the fact that I worked for this organization for 11 seasons either, but my track record of calling the team out when they make mistakes is well documented (see my 2014 end of season fire McPhee and Oates blog or simply check out the first few paragraphs above). If I thought MacLellan did a poor job of handling this off-season, I’d call him out. But given what he was up against and the undeniable rising salary costs for the top players in the game, I think he’s done the best job he possibly could to keep the Capitals a playoff team and, depending on how the new players that make the lineup this fall pan out, still a Stanley Cup contender.

It’s now up to the Capitals star players, starting with Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and Holtby, to produce their best performances to help carry this club through the regular season and deep into the postseason.

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Oshie Signs

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Caps Smartly Lock Up T.J. Oshie Long Term

Posted on 25 June 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Pay The Man!

All last season as T.J. Oshie racked up key goal after key goal for the Washington Capitals from in the paint that was the phrase I used over and over about #77, whether it was in a tweet, a blog, or on the air on WNST.

Well, the Caps have now “Paid The Man!”

On Friday, Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan announced an eight year, $46M deal between the club and the “Osh Babe.”

Yes, T.J. and his whole family, who are must follows for their enthusiasm and passion on Instagram and Twitter will be Capitals for life.

Well done, Caps, well done.

Oshie, who will be 31 on December 30th of this year, has been the missing piece the Capitals have been searching for at right wing since Alexander Ovechkin entered the league in 2005-06. The closest they’ve come to having a true number one right wing was Alexander Semin back in the 2008 to 2010 period. But #28 was just too inconsistent, too soft on the boards, and took too many bad penalties to be counted on long term. Bottom line, that guy had all of the talent in the world, but he really didn’t have the interest or drive to put in the time or effort to be great at hockey. He was and still is one of the most maddening Capitals players to watch in club history.

Fast forward five years and Washington, under Coach Barry Trotz in his first season (2014-15), squeaked into second place in the Metropolitan Division on the last day of the regular season and parlayed that into a trip to the second round against the New York Rangers. The Caps would lose a three to one series lead and immediately afterwards in the summer of 2015, MacLellan stated that the Capitals needed to add to their top six up front to compete for the Stanley Cup. Specifically, he was looking for players who would go to the net and score, but also be able to compliment the skill they had up front in Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, and Andre Burakovsky. Enter Oshie in a trade for Troy Brouwer and Justin Williams via free agency and the Caps had players that knew how to win the one on one battles and keep pucks alive on the wall where previously they struggled to do so. Washington went on to win back to back Presidents’ Trophies before losing the Stanley Cup Final each spring in the second round to the eventual repeat Champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Yes, they were devastating defeats, but let’s be honest, the Capitals were the second best team in hockey both seasons, but they had to face the best in round two because of the playoff format. As I wrote in my end of season blog, the biggest reason the Caps lost to the Penguins this spring was because they didn’t have enough players willing to go to the net and pay the price for the ugly goals. Oshie, Williams, and Johansson were the three Washington players who did that much better than any of the others on the club this past season.

Unfortunately for MacLellan, there is only so much money to go around and with the salary cap rising to just $75M and Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, and some others due for big raises, including Oshie, he was in a bind and could not keep this entire team intact for 2017-18.

In addition, they knew they were going to lose a decent player in the expansion draft to Vegas and it turned out to be defensemen Nate Schmidt. The 88 car, after being the sixth or seventh defensemen much of the regular season, really stepped up in the playoffs and was slated by MacLellan to be a top four blue liner with the Caps in 2017-18, despite having never done that at the NHL level for a full 82 games plus playoffs. Since the Golden Knights opted to draft Nate instead of goalie Philipp Grubauer (also a restricted free agent), Schmidt will likely play top four minutes for a full 82 games next season, but he won’t be going to the playoffs with the roster former Caps GM George McPhee has assembled for its inaugural season.

But back to Oshie, on the open market he could’ve easily grabbed a contract for four or five years at or above $7M a season. However, the Osh Babe made it clear he enjoyed playing in Washington and wanted to stay. Therefore, he opted for much longer term and lower money in the out years, which essentially results in a discount for the Capitals in the first five years of this deal. Oshie will get $32.5M ($6.5M AAV) yet only count $5.75M each year ($28.75M) against the salary cap in season’s one through five.

Again, looking more closely at the way this deal is structured, Oshie receives $22M of the $46M in the first three years. However, the Capitals could not afford a salary cap hit of $7.333M in the near term nor could they handle a five year deal where the cap hit was $6.5M.

Without T.J. though, they are simply not Stanley Cup contenders. There is no one on this club that dogs the puck like he does. He is a true number one right wing and they have no one in the pipeline in the organization that fits that role. I repeat, there is no top line right wing anywhere else in the organization. So the trade off to keep Oshie, which was a must do, was adding in years six through eight, where the Caps are on the hook for another $13.5M, for a player who will start the season at ages 35, 36, and 37, respectively.

Some are making this out to be a bad contract, but it really isn’t when you factor in salary cap growth and also the discount they receive for the player in years one through five.

Upon inception in 2005-06, the NHL salary cap was set at $39M and has grown over 13 seasons to the $75M figure it will be in 2017-18. Using linear regression of those 13 data points and extrapolating that into the future, the salary cap projects to be as follows: $79.4M in 2018-19, $82.13M in 2019-20, $84.87M in 2020-21, $87.60M in 2021-22, $90.33M in 2022-23, $93.07M in 2023-24, and $95.81 in 2024-25. Simply put, if the NHL continues to grow the game at the same rate it’s done since 2006, and that’s certainly achievable given that they overcame a lengthy lockout in 2012-13 that resulted in a flat salary cap from 2011-12 to 2013-14, then that $95.81M number is certainly achievable.

This is important because as Oshie ages it is natural to expect his production to decrease, especially in years six through eight. In year six he will be 35 years old to start the season, yet Williams just proved, that with quality players around him, you can still produce at a high level at that age and you’d have to expect that in those out years T.J. will have either Backstrom or Kuznetsov feeding him the puck.

Some will also point out that T.J.’s high shooting percentage in 2016-17 is not sustainable. Sure, based strictly on those numbers that’s likely true, but looking at where Oshie gets his shots from, it’s easy to see why he had 33 goals in just 68 games. Keep in mind that the 2016-17 shooting percentage figure does not take into account all of the shots he had in close that he missed the net on, either. Bottom line, #77 was the player who was likely to score the most goals as a Capital based on where his shots are coming from. All shots are not created equal and on this club, Oshie has gotten much better scoring chances than he ever did in St. Louis for some big reasons. First, he plays the right way by going to the net and secondly, you have to credit the highly skilled forwards on this club, primarily Backstrom and Ovechkin, his usual linemates, for helping open up the ice for T.J. Let’s not forget that many of those chances for all three of them often came as a result of Oshie’s ability to keep pucks alive in the offensive zone as well as get them out of his own end. He’s an elite player and he deserved to get paid that way.

The past two years Oshie’s salary cap hit was $4.5M which accounted for 6.3% (2016) and 6.16% (2017) of the Washington total. He was a super bargain at $4.5M, no doubt. There are no bargains out there for MacLellan to snag now for a number one right wing. Adding in the cap hits for Ovechkin and Backstrom, the trio combined for 25.25% and 24.44% of the total, in 2016 and 2017, respectively. In 2018, Oshie will account for 7.67% of the Capitals total yet the trio will be at 25.1% of the team total, which is lower than in 2016. As the salary cap increases, Oshie’s individual total drops and based on my league salary cap total projections, is only 6.36%, 6.18%, and 6.0% in years six, seven, and eight of the deal, respectively. Those percentages are certainly not horrible, and keep in mind that Ovechkin’s current salary cap figure will be off of the books starting in year five of Oshie’s deal.

Bottom line, if MacLellan doesn’t offer the eight year deal, there is no deal that keeps Oshie with the Capitals and that top line right wing hole becomes a much bigger one to fill than the fourth defensemen slot they vacated due to the losses of Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk to free agency and Schmidt to the Golden Knights.

Washington does have some very promising up and coming young defensemen in the system in Madison Bowey, Tyler Lewington, Christian Djoos, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Lucas Johansen, who should be able to step up at the NHL level in the near future, especially given how well Trotz and assistant coach Todd Reirden have done in developing both Orlov and Schmidt. So keeping Oshie in the top right wing slot instead of allocating the money for a fourth defensemen to be named later at an over market price is another reason why the Capitals got this one right.

Notes: Washington drafted four players in the 2017 NHL Draft. Defensemen Tobias Geisser, Sebastian Walfridsson, and Benton Maas were selected with the 120th, 151st, and 182nd picks, respectively. With the 213th pick of the draft (7th round), they took left wing Kristian Marthisen who was born in Norway but played in Sweden this past season…the Caps will host their annual development camp at Kettler Ice Plex this week from Monday to Saturday. Practices are open to the public.

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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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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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Shatty

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Shattenkirk’s OT Tally Gets Caps Back in the Series

Posted on 02 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Kevin Shattenkirk’s wrister past Marc-Andre Fleury just 3:13 into overtime gave the Washington Capitals a hard fought, 3-2, victory in game three in Pittsburgh. The Pens now lead the series two games to one. Game four is Wednesday night in Steeltown, once again.

Well, they’ll be talking about this contest for a long time.

Sidney Crosby was injured in a collision with Matt Niskanen just 5:24 in and did not return. #87 was skating across the top of the crease on a rush and he was hit by Alex Ovechkin’s stick up high, Ovi and Sid then clip skates, and Sid seemed to lose his balance as he glided above the crease. At that moment, Niskanen was coming to the middle to cover the front of the net and had his stick in a defensive position. Crosby went flying right into #2’s stick as Matt was bracing for the contact and fell to the ice. His knee bent back awkwardly, but after staying down, he got back up and gingerly skated to the dressing room. He would not return and Washington also lost arguably their best defensemen for the night with a five minute major for cross checking and a game misconduct. I didn’t like the call on Niskanen, it was truly a hockey play gone bad. In fact, I thought the only infraction on the play could’ve been on Ovi for a slash, I tweeted that at the time. If Sid doesn’t lose his balance there, he’s fine, but he is low going into Niskanen and that’s where the problem came in.

“Crosby’s trying to score, and as he’s doing that, he’s getting lower and lower. I wasn’t extending my arms trying to hit him in the head, it happened quickly. I wasn’t even trying to cross check him…a collision was going to happen there in the crease. When the play first starts, I think my stick is at about his arm level, probably, right about where the numbers are on the side of his jersey. Because he’s trying to make a play, he’s getting lower and lower and the collision happened. I hope he’s okay, I certainly didn’t mean to injure him, it’s an unfortunate play that happened really quick,” said Niskanen to the media after the game.

Anyways, it’s all done now and the Capitals had a critical game to try to win. Fortunately for them, Coach Barry Trotz put Karl Alzner back in the lineup with seven D and 11 forwards so the Caps had six defensemen left after Nisky was thrown out. The Caps would kill off the major, with some help from Evgeni Malkin, who took a two minute minor for closing his hand on the puck during the early portion of the power play.

After surviving the major, the Caps started to take over the play and they ended up with a power play when Carl Hagelin was boxed for high sticking. Only 43 seconds later, Bryan Rust batted the puck over the glass and the Caps were in business with a 1:17 five on three. It took some time, but 54 ticks later, Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist) fired the puck in off of Ian Cole in front, who was tied up with Justin Williams at the top of the crease, to give the Capitals their first lead of the series. Washington led in shots on goal, 9-8, after twenty minutes. Braden Holtby made some big stops too, including a breakaway by Rust after a terrible Caps line change.

In the middle frame, the Capitals had long stretches of trouble due to too many turnovers and too many penalties. Malkin and the Penguins really picked their game up, going for the three to nothing series lead. With Brooks Orpik incurring a holding the stick call and then Evgeny Kuznetsov taking two careless minors, the Pens had three straight power plays, but the Holtbeast (28 saves) was at his best in this series as well as this year’s playoffs and was the biggest reason Pittsburgh didn’t get the equalizer.

That set up a big third period. A strong 20 minutes and the Capitals would get back in the series, a bad one and they were pretty much done and headed to the golf course. Coach Trotz’ crew came out with authority and really took it to the Pens, but couldn’t extend the lead on two power plays. After those, Pittsburgh was pushing hard and the Caps were doing a good job of keeping a third forward back to prevent their potent rush game. That pressure, much like what the Capitals did in games one and two when trailing, causes you to take chances, and the Pens got burnt on one of them which led to a three on two break for Washington’s second line. Justin Williams carried the puck up the left wing and when a Pens defenseman dove at him to try and knock the disc away, Stick hit Marcus Johansson coming behind him down the slot. Jojo then drew the other Pens defenseman and Fleury to him and slid the puck neatly to Kuznetsov at the right side of the cage. Fleury flopped over like a fish out of water trying to make another acrobatic save, and he made many in this game, but #92 waited him out and snapped the puck over #29 to make it 2-0 with 10:14 to go.

From then until the three minute mark, the Capitals played extremely well and gave the Penguins pretty much nothing. With Fleury pulled, the Caps had a chance to hit the empty net, but after a great play by T.J. Oshie to get the puck out, Backstrom made a poor decision to shoot at the open cage from behind the red line. He missed wide and it was icing. Had he taken another second to look, he could’ve hit Ovechkin all alone on the left wing boards for a game icing tally.

Instead, the Penguins received an offensive zone faceoff and Malkin scored with 1:53 remaining short side on Holtby, who was screened by Alzner. No problem, right, the Caps weren’t going to give up another goalie pulled tally, correct? WRONG!

After a defensive zone faceoff win, Malkin totally took Backstrom out in the right wing corner, but the blatant interference was not called. That allowed the Penguins to keep the puck in and Justin Schultz fired a shot from the point that hit Oshie and then something else on the way into the net with #71 parked in front. It was two goals in just 48 seconds and this one was tied with 1:05 left in regulation.

Surely the Penguins were going to once again win this game in overtime and make the Capitals and their fan base suffer more mental anguish, correct? I mean, a goal by the Penguins in OT and this would’ve been labeled the biggest Washington collapse, ever!

The Caps, however, came out strong in overtime and carried the play, although Phil Kessel had a great look in the high slot early on that he just whistled wide. Just over 150 seconds in to the extra session, Johansson took an outlet feed and split the Penguins defense at the offensive blue line. It was a great play and move by Jojo and Trevor Daley hauled him down on the way to the cage. That gave the Capitals an overtime power play. 33 seconds into it Shatty got the puck in the slot and with Oshie providing some traffic, he put it far post past Fleury and the Capitals players celebrated.

Wow, what a game and what resolve by the Capitals to win that one after an epic late collapse! They played so well in that third frame and it’s tough to give up that two goal lead up in that fashion, but they made a mistake that led to an icing and then the officials missed a clear penalty on Malkin right before the game tying tally. They persevered once again after facing some serious adversity, so they have that to build on as well as some things they did extremely well in this game.

Let’s start with the Holtbeast, who apparently met with his sports psychologist before this game, per the great Carol Maloney of NBC4 (@carolmaloney4) in Washington. #70 was really solid in this game making several big stops and if not for him, the Penguins don’t go 0 for 5 on the power play in nine minutes of advantage time. The Pens fired 10 of their 30 shots on goal for the game when up a man, but Holtby was dynamite.

Alzner and the rest of the penalty killers, especially Daniel Winnik and Tom Wilson, were superb, as well. Winnik also saved a goal with his stick early in the game on one of the rare pucks to get by the Holtbeast until the last two minutes of regulation.

Up front, Jojo was dynamite all night. Williams (two assists) was strong, too, on that second line. Kuznetsov was very up and down in this one. He took some bad penalties, especially the second one, when he held the Penguins forward when a hit was the right decision. You can’t have soft plays in the post season, because that will burn you. Fortunately the Caps PK bailed him out and then he rewarded the team with great patience on his tally.

For the evening, the Capitals did win the shot attempt battle, 63-55. They weren’t as dominant as games one and two, but they got the job done. They were better in front of the Holtbeast for over 57 minutes with a tighter defensive posture, but a costly icing and a missed penalty call allowed a go for broke Pens team to take this one to overtime.

Shattenkirk then made his presence known with authority, and #22 needed that. He had been struggling before this tilt and his power play decisions were a bit hesitant, at times, up until the overtime. Shatty was anything but hesitant on the game winning goal and he looked like the guy who was great down the regular season stretch run after GM Brian MacLellan acquired him at the trade deadline.

Simply put, Holtby and Shattenkirk were two guys Washington needed to step up for a victory, and those two did just that.

So now it’s on to a critical game four on Wednesday night. In addition to losing Crosby, Connor Sheary left the game when Patric Hornqvist, who returned from the dead to play this game but looked slower than normal, went for a big hit on Lars Eller. Instead he hit #43 with friendly fire right in the head when Eller sidestepped a hard charging #72.

This game also got ugly, at times, and Malkin and Chris Kunitz were in the middle of it quite a bit for the men in black.

It will be crucial for the Capitals to stay out of that stuff and just play hockey on Wednesday night if they want to even up this series.

Notes: It’s been announced that game five will be at 7:15 on NBC on Saturday night after the Kentucky Derby…shots on goal were 33-30 for the Caps, they were 2 for 5 on the power play getting nine shots on net in 7:16 of power play time…Ovechkin had six shot attempts (two on net) in 19:27 of ice time…John Carlson led the Caps in time on ice with 25:35…Alzner played more than Coach Trotz envisioned, with 21:34. He performed fairly well coming off of his upper body injury…the Caps lost the face off battle, 36-31, including some key ones late in the game. Jay Beagle was 6-3…Sheary only played 4:01. Kessel led the Penguins in ice time with 23:17…special thanks to WNST station owner, Nestor Aparcio, for being in Pittsburgh and getting me all of the locker room quotes.

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Game two Pens

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Crosby and Fleury Carry the Pens Past the Caps in Game Two

Posted on 30 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals find themselves in a 2-0 series hole after a 6-2 loss at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night at the Verizon Center. Games three and four will be in Steeltown on Monday and Wednesday, respectively.

The Caps came out and played a superb opening frame, doing everything but score a goal. They dominated possession with a 35-8 edge in shot attempts and they even received two power plays. Unfortunately for the Capitals, Marc-Andre Fleury (34 saves) was at the top of his game again and the Pens also blocked 13 shots to keep things scoreless after twenty minutes.

In game one, the Penguins would score twice in the first 64 seconds of period two, but it was Washington who came out strong to start the stanza. Just 29 ticks in, Jake Guentzel was boxed for hooking and the Capitals power play came on the ice for its third attempt of the evening. The Caps top unit was put on first and just over 30 seconds in they were set up in the offensive zone. Kevin Shattenkirk had the puck at the point and instead of making an open pass to Alex Ovechkin, who only had two of the Capitals 35 first period shot attempts; he hesitated, and then fired the puck on net. The shot was blocked and that allowed the speedy Matt Cullen to go in on a breakaway and beat Braden Holtby via the five hole.

Coach Barry Trotz’ crew, however, would answer that potentially devastating shorthanded tally when Nicklas Backstrom got the puck to Ovechkin at the point. The Gr8 then found Matt Niskanen all alone in the slot and Nisky beat Fleury to the far post to tie the game up at 2:09 of period two. The Caps would continue to carry most of the play, but then a series of turnovers allowed Sidney Crosby to steal the puck, come into the Washington zone with speed, and then feed Phil Kessel on a two on one that #81 placed perfectly top shelf, short side on the Holtbeast at 13:04. If Washington gets the puck deep there, the goal doesn’t happen.

Things then got worse three minutes and ten seconds later. Justin Williams carried into the offensive zone, wound up to fire on net, and Crosby went down to block the shot. The puck then caromed off of #87 and out to the neutral zone to give Jake Guentzel a two on one rush. The Caps defender appeared to give Holtby the shooter and #59 beat #70 short side. It was an odd man rush goal, but one many felt that the Holtbeast should have stopped. That goal deflated the building and to start the final frame, Coach Trotz yanked Holtby for Philipp Grubauer.

That move did not go well as Kessel scored on the power play just 2:19 into the third period after Shattenkirk took a terrible delay of game penalty. Backstrom would score on a rebound of an Ovechkin shot to make it 4-2 with 16:16 to go, but any hope of a comeback was ended when Malkin tallied from the paint less than two minutes later.

Simply put, this was a very tough loss for the Caps and they now have to go into Pittsburgh and try to win at least one game to bring the series back to DC for a game five. I wasn’t a fan of pulling Holtby for Grubauer, but Coach Trotz said afterwards he didn’t regret the move because he felt he had to try and change things up.

It was a bit of a panic move, much like some of the plays Washington made in period two where the “game opened up” as Brooks Orpik described it to me afterwards. #44 felt that the Caps got away from their strong first period by trying to do different things and he thought that was a mistake. He’s right and the Shattenkirk play on the power play was a perfect example of that. That puck has to go to Ovechkin or back to Backstrom, or at worst, #22 has to fire a wrist shot through traffic quickly. On goal two, three Capitals rushed to Crosby and left Kessel wide open. For the third Penguins goal, Williams needs to get that puck deep and not into #87’s shin pads. Those plays and Trotz pulling Holtby were all examples, in my mind, of not sticking to what was working and getting away from the script.

Game two is now over, so there is nothing Washington can do about it. Afterwards, the media had to wait between 10 and 15 minutes to enter the locker room due to a team meeting. There weren’t many details given, but Williams, when asked who spoke up, noted “Backy” [Nicklas Backstrom].

While many in Caps Nation were in full “Here We Go Again” and doomsday mode, the Capitals locker room was anything but that.

“We’re in a little hole. We need to focus on game 3 and winning that and that was it,” said Stick on the team’s predicament.

As for not deviating from what was working in period one, Williams had some very telling words.

“Yes, repetition in playoffs and wearing a team down is crucial. We had a good first period, yes, we didn’t score a goal. That happens. We just got away a little bit and they capitalized on their opportunities,” added #14 on what the Caps were trying to do and how things went awry.

The Capitals had many looks in this game, 88 shot attempts, to be exact, and when their shots did make it past the Penguin defenders it rang iron on at least three occasions.

“You’re not going to get me to say “Whoa is me” and “Oh, I can’t believe it.” You make your own breaks and I truly believe that. We’re going to work our butts off to get one in our column. A lot of guys said some good stuff after the game here. We have an opportunity; I’ve been down 3-0 and 2-0, a couple of times. You just have to win one game, one at a time. It’s an overused cliché, but it’s exactly right come playoff time. We’re right there, we’re just not quite there,” stated Williams.

As for Holtby getting pulled after yielding tallies on three odd man rushes, Stick wasn’t willing to give anyone a pass on the loss.

“Listen, everybody’s in the same boat right here, we’re just not doing quite enough and to beat the Cup Champs you have to do everything right. We’re not going to shy away from it. We’re going to go there and see what we’re made of.”

I asked Williams if the Caps were trying to be too perfect with their play, which was causing mistakes, but he said they weren’t.

“No, we’re just a hair off. Sometimes you go to the puck and you just get it tipped away. There’s little tips here and there. There’s little races, little battles throughout the ice that we’re not quite there,” stated the three time Stanley Cup Champion.

As for all of the shot blocks, the Penguins had 33 of them in game two. I asked Williams about the blocks, especially the one Crosby had on him, and what the Capitals need to do to adjust.

“You have to give credit where it’s due and they’re blocking a lot of shots. Just like any chess match, they make a move, you need to try and do something to alter that, shoot for tips, shoot wide, change shooting angles, all of those things. They’re blocking a lot of shots. I’m not sure what the stats are, but we’re not getting them through,” finished Williams.

Getting them through and behind Fleury is imperative if Washington wants to make this a series. We’ll find out what adjustments are made on Monday in game three.

Notes: Final shot attempts were 88-45 for the Caps. They also won the faceoff battle, 41-33. Lars Eller went 10-3…Ovechkin led the Caps in ice time with 23:19. Crosby played 20:12, but Brian Dumolin led Pittsburgh in ice time at 24:07…Patric Hornqvist blocked a shot in period one after playing 5:02 and didn’t return. A source tells me he’s out for the rest of the series and likely the season..Ron Hainsey took an Ovechkin shot to the head in period three and did not return…Ovechkin ended up with 12 shots attempts, but only three were on net…the Caps had 37 hits to just 19 for the Penguins.

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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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Jojo SWG

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Johansson’s OT Tally Wins the Series for the Caps

Posted on 24 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

It took six close games, five of them decided in overtime, for the Washington Capitals to finally extinguish the Toronto Maple Leafs with Marcus Johansson tallying his second goal of the night to give the Caps a 2-1 victory 6:31 into the extra session. The Caps will now move on to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in round two, starting on Thursday night at the Verizon Center, in what is a rematch of last spring’s second round battle.

Like game five, this was another tight defensive battle with strong goaltending. Neither team scored through 40 minutes, with the Leafs owning the lead in the shot attempt totals, at 47-38, but the Caps had the better of the scoring chances, especially their second line.

In the third period, it was anyone’s game, but Washington started to take over with their depth. The Capitals had several good scoring chances, but then a weird bounce and a missed defensive assignment cost them the first goal.

Morgan Reilly dumped the puck in to the Caps end and it took a crazy carom off of the glass into the slot. Auston Matthews, who is already a star in this league at age 19, jumped on the puck and went in alone on Braden Holtby (37 saves). The kid from the desert went top shelf on the Holtbeast to make it 1-0 just 7:45 into the final frame. It was a fortuitous break for Toronto, but the goal was preventable. Had Evgeny Kuznetsov kept skating instead of gliding at the Caps defesnsive blue line, he could have beaten Matthews to the puck. It’s a good lesson for #92 and the whole team to learn in the playoffs – a single missed stride can cost your team a goal.

In the past, the Matthews tally might have devastated the Caps bench, but not this year. No, this team amped their game up and started taking the play to the Maple Leafs and just over five minutes after #34 had all of Yonge Street thinking there was going to be a game seven, the Caps tied it up.

Lars Eller made a strong offensive zone entry on the left wing boards and he fed a streaking Johansson in the slot. Marcus pushed the puck ahead to escape the Leaf defender and then he pinballed one in off of Frederik Andersen (34 saves) into the net with just 7:09 remaining. It was a monstrous tally and it came because the Capitals started to push the play.

Washington would continue to do that and then in the overtime, they took their game to 11.

The Caps had no thoughts of sitting back on Coach Mike Babcock’s squad and they thoroughly outworked and dominated a young Leafs team in the overtime. They had several scoring chances, Comcast’s Alan May had it 7 to 1, with Jojo getting his second of the night and the series winner on a play where he simply did what he had done all season long to score a career high in goals (24), he went to the front of the net.

A Leafs icing forced Babcock to leave a tired crew on the ice, which included game one goat, Martin Marincin, as well as his fourth line (Kasperi Kapanen-Brian Boyle-Matt Martin). Coach Barry Trotz took his third line off and inserted Johansson, Kuznetsov, and Mr. Clutch, Justin Williams. Kuznetsov, who like many other Caps centers struggled on draws all game, won a huge face off against Boyle. When Stick received the puck from John Carlson on the right wing half wall, he smartly fired it on net. Jojo was parked in the slot above the paint and he appeared to tip the initial shot into Andersen’s pads and then fought off Marincin to bury the game and series clincher.

Wow, what a game and what a performance by the Caps once they were down, 1-0! They pushed the play and looked like the team that won the Presidents’ Trophy this season. It’s the way they’ll need to play in the second round if they want to defeat the defending Stanley Cup Champions.

Winning the first round is always the toughest; ask any hockey player, coach or executive and they’ll back me up. It was even harder for Washington because everyone picked them to win quickly and the Leafs had nothing to lose. Simply put, there was a TON OF PRESSURE on the Capitals to win this series and move on to face the Penguins for the rematch from last spring.

As Coach Barry Trotz told me, Nestor Aparacio, and the great crowd at Greenmount Station back on March 20th, every series takes a piece out of you. Toronto took some pieces out of the Caps. Karl Alzner didn’t play after game two due to an upper body injury, Nazem Kadri put a cheap shot on Alex Ovechkin and knocked Ovi out for two plus minutes of game five (but the Russian Machine Never Breaks), and Leo Komarov put a dirty hit on Nate Schmidt late in game six (but the 88 car also returned to play four shifts after the hit, including being on the ice for the game winner).

Luckily the Gr8 and Schmidt, plus T.J. Oshie, who I could see mouth “I’m all right” to Caps trainer Greg “Smitty” Smith after blocking a shot right before the winning goal, should be ready for Thursday night’s game one against the Penguins at the Verizon Center. The Leafs may have taken some pieces out of the Caps, that’s still to be determined how much, but in my book, Washington was able to ramp their game up to a tempo they’ll need to be at against Pittsburgh. I’m not sure they get to that pace level in a series against the Bruins or Ottawa. So I’m still glad the Capitals faced the Leafs. It was a very hard series, but they overcame an inordinate amount of pressure and persevered.

Anyways, the Penguins series should be one heck of a rematch. The Caps have waited a whole year for it, but we’ll talk more about it as the week progresses, but let’s hope there’s a Rocky 2 type of ending this spring.

Notes: Final shot attempts were 70-67, for Washington. It was all Caps after the Leafs marker…Ovechkin had 12 shot attempts, including seven on goal, in 22:45…the Caps lost the face off battle, 39-22, but they won some key ones, including right before the series winning tally. Kuznetsov was 6-8 (best Caps percentage)…Oshie had another strong game with five shots on goal in 19:35…the Caps were shorthanded for just 22 seconds and they had 2:22 of power play time…the Holtbeast was outstanding in this tilt, which included a huge save on Komarov, who was all alone after he took his run at Schmidt and #88 limped to the bench…Dmitry Orlov led the Caps in ice time with 25:38 and his partner, Matt Niskanen, logged 25:15. They played the hard minutes and that allowed Carlson and Schmidt to help the Capitals drive the play when they were on the ice…the Caps won the last three games of this series, which came after Coach Trotz tweaked his forward lines right before game four (bumped Tom Wilson up to the third line).

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