Tag Archive | "ovechkin"

Sep 14, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA;Team Russia center  Alex Ovechkin (8) celebrates with the bench after scoring a goal against Team Canada during the third period in a World Cup of Hockey pre-tournament game at CONSOL Energy Center. Team Canada won 3-2 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

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Canada the Team to Beat in World Cup of Hockey

Posted on 15 September 2016 by Ed Frankovic

The World Cup of Hockey is now officially set to commence on Saturday, September 17th with all games played over the upcoming two weeks at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

Who’s going to win? Well that’s pretty easy, Canada. They have the best overall team and the home ice.

But you still have to play the games and if the pre tournament action is any indication, then this is going to be one heck of an event. All eight teams won at least one time in their three World Cup tune-ups. Some of the games were downright played at NHL playoff intensity level, with USA-Canada on Friday night being the most noteworthy. The Americans played a strong physical game, received excellent goaltending from Jonathan Quick, and took advantage of a rusty Carey Price to win, 4-2. The Canadians then returned the favor the next night in Ottawa, winning 5-3 (Quick and Price did not play).

Canada then needed overtime to defeat the Russians, 3-2, on Wednesday night to finish 2-1. USA, playing at the Verizon Center on Tuesday evening, raced out a 3-0 lead that could’ve been five or six zip if not for Finland goalie Pekka Rinne, before hanging on to a 3-2 victory.

Both the USA and Canada are in group A with Team Europe, who pan caked Sweden, 6-2, at the Verizon Center on Wednesday night, and the Czech Republic, who knocked off the North American speedsters on Wednesday afternoon in the first of a doubleheader at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.

Group B consists of Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the North Americans (USA and Canadian players aged 23 and under).

The top two squads in each group will advance to the semifinals where there will be a single elimination round. The top team in group A will play the runner up in group B while the first place team in group B gets the runner up in group A.

So there is a scenario where USA and Canada could meet in the finals, with the World Cup of Hockey being decided in a best of three games matchup.

Bottom line, this is going to be some really exciting hockey to watch.

Now, without further adieu, here are my picks for each group.

Group B:

First place: Russia. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Nikita Kucherov, and Evgeny Kuznetsov lead a talented forward group that is thin on the blue line. But they have some great goaltending that starts with Sergei Bobrovksy. If “Bob” gets hurt or struggles, then Semyon Varlamov is more than capable of coming in and shutting the door. This group sets up well for the Russians. They are bigger up front than the other three squads and I don’t see any of the other three teams having a blue line that can match that offensive talent.

Where it could go wrong for Russia: I mentioned their blue line, but to me, the biggest question mark with this squad is the coaching. Going back to 1980, when Viktor Tikhonov yanked Vladislav Tretiak in net after one period in Lake Placid, we’ve seen so many head scratching coaching decisions from this federation. In the pre tournament action, the Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Kucherov line was outstanding against the Czechs, but coach Oleg Znarok moved Kuzy off of the top line and to a wing, at times, in Wednesday’s game against the Canadians. Anyone who watched the NHL last season knows that Kuzy is a sensational playmaker with the puck. Putting him in position on the wall where he will rely on others to give him the puck coming out of their own zone makes very little sense.

Second place: Sweden. Many of the so-called experts are going with Sweden to win it all, but I watched the Swedes on Wednesday night at the Verizon Center and I was not impressed. Yes, they have a very talented and mobile defense led by Victor Hedman and Erik Karlsson, but that whole blue line was a turnover machine, along with young forwards such as Filip Forsberg, in their loss to Team Europe. Henrik Lundqvist didn’t get much help in front of him and he wasn’t very good either in net. He’s 34. Up front, the coaching staff seems to rely heavily on the Sedin-Sedin-Eriksson line. They will try to cycle you to death. Nicklas Backstrom is a rock up the middle for Sweden and I don’t think he’ll get kicked out of this tournament for using ZYRTEC like we saw in the Sochi Olympics in 2014. That galactic screw up has left several in the NHL with a bad taste in their mouths over how that whole silliness went down. The NHL is controlling this event, so I don’t think we’ll see something stupid like that in this tournament, but Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly did tell me on Wednesday that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is involved with this tournament. Sweden has the talent to come close to Canada, but I’m not seeing it and there are legitimate concerns about King Henrik in the cage (cue Coldplay’s Viva La Vida).

Where it could go wrong for Sweden: In addition to concerns about Hank in net and the blue line turnovers, the defense is not configured to clear the front of their own net. If I’m coaching in group B I’m sending a steady diet of players to the top of the circle on the Swedes and daring them to move my forwards out of there. I also don’t like the fact that they left Marcus Johansson off of the roster. Marcus can do so many things in the lineup yet they excluded him and took players such as Jakob Silverberg, Mikael Backlund, and Carl Soderberg who don’t have the experience or versatility that Jojo brings. Big mistake Sweden, big mistake.

As for Finland and North America, I still like both of these squads despite not picking them for the semifinals. Finland could squeeze in if Rinne plays at the top of his game, he’s that good and big in the cage. North America has some really fun and fast players. If Coach Todd McLellan gets his players to play smart and not turn the puck over, then they could sneak in, especially if Stanley Cup Champion Matt Murray continues to play well in net.

Group A:

First Place: Canada. They have the best roster, hands down, in this tournament. They will be playing at home. They are experienced having won gold in both Vancouver and Sochi. They have an excellent coaching staff, led by Mike Babcock. It’s almost a given that they will win this event.

Where it could go wrong for Canada: They’ll make the semifinals, and that is where they are most vulnerable if they run into a super hot goalie. But in a three game set, in either the preliminary round or in the finals, they are just too deep to be beaten. I give the Americans the best chance to take them down in the finals, but they will have to have Jonathan Quick pull a Mike Richter in net.

Second Place: USA. The American roster has been much maligned by several of the supposed experts in the media, but I’m not buying it. This club, put together by Kings GM Dean Lombardi, is built perfectly for this type of tournament on an NHL sized rink. They have great goaltending, led by Quick, a very mobile and strong two way defense, led by John Carlson and Ryan McDonagh, and a set of forwards that can hit and grind out goals with players like team captain Joe Pavelski and T.J. Oshie. They also have some top notch skilled snipers like Patrick Kane and Zach Parise. John Tortorella and Mike Sullivan are coaching this team and both have won Stanley Cups for a reason. Torts may not have shown any bench boss magic over an 82 game season in awhile, but a short tournament like this is right up his alley.

Where it could go wrong for USA: They could struggle to score goals if they don’t crash the net. Europe has a “can get really hot” goalie in Jaroslav Halak and the Czechs will start Michal Neuvirth, who has been in the zone in the cage recently, as well. In order to beat those guys, USA must get lots of traffic.

As for the Czechs and Europe, they are long shots to advance, but if any could do it, my money would be on Europe. While they are slow on the back end with the likes of the chippy Zdeno Chara, they are coached well by Ralph Krueger, who was a joy to cover on Wednesday night and was an advisor on the coaching staff for the victorious Canadian team in Sochi. Europe has one of the best forwards in the NHL in Anze Kopitar along with some other snipers like Tomas Vanek and the young Oilers forward, Leon Draisaitl, who had a hat trick at the Verizon Center against King Henrik.

Like I said earlier, this is going to be some intense hockey. The tournament starts at 3:30 pm on Saturday afternoon with USA taking on Europe on ESPN2. Canada plays the Czechs at 8 pm on ESPN News.

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World Cup of Hockey: Ranking the Goaltenders

Posted on 08 September 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Day one of the pretournament games for the World Cup of Hockey didn’t disappoint at all. In the first afternoon tilt, Finalnd’s Olli Maatta beat Sweden’s Jonas Enroth on a two on one rush in overtime to lead the Fins to a 3-2 victory over their archrivals. In the second matinee, Alex Ovechkin’s Russian squad took 3-1 and 4-2 leads and then hung on behind goalie Sergei Bobrovsky’s 29 saves to defeat the Czech Republic, 4-3. In the main event on Thursday night, Team North America, comprised of Canadian and American players all age 23 and under, smoked a slow looking Team Europe, which consists of all European players not from Russia, Sweden, Finland, or the Czech Republic, 4-0. North America was extremely fun to watch with their high speed game.

As for the Capitals who suited up and played on Thursday, the Gr8 and Evgeny Kuznetsov were both held pointless in 15:17 and 15:57 of ice time, respectively. Ovechkin did have three hits. Russia’s Dmitry Orlov had an assist and led his team in ice time, with 20:12. Nicklas Backstrom was also held without a point in 16:58 of ice time and he went 8-7 on face-offs.

Friday night has one game, and it is a big one: USA vs. Canada from Columbus, Ohio at 7 pm on ESPNU.

On Wednesday night, I provided my World Cup of Hockey blue line rankings. Now we take a look at the goalies from each squad. Keep in mind that this is a SHORT tournament and having a hot goalie is very important to win, so I give more weight to those teams who I believe have net minders who are prone to hot streaks. Depth is important too, because if one goalie is off of his game, it’s paramount that you have a quality backup.

So without further adieu, here’s my rankings of each team’s goaltending from worst to first:

Eighth – Team Czech Republic – Peter Mrazek (DET), Michal Neuvirth (PHI), and Ondrej Pavelec (WPG). Each of these goalies has the ability to steal a game or two, but there’s no long term success history for any of them at the NHL level, and especially in this big time type of a tournament.

Seventh – Team Europe – Jaroslav Halak (NYI), Tomas Greiss (NYI), and Philipp Grubauer (WAS). Halak looked pretty rusty in the game against North America. He battled injuries last spring and if he doesn’t recover quickly, Greiss or Neuvy will see the cage. Halak has gotten hot in the past, but that was many moons ago.

Sixth – Team Sweden – Henrik Lundqvist (NYR), Jacob Markstrom (VAN), and Jhonas Enroth (TOR). Markstrom and Enroth are not very good and King Henrik is now 34 years old. Sure Lundqvist has shown the ability to get in the zone and steal several games in a row, but we haven’t seen that since the spring of 2015 when he helped the Rangers rally from a 3-1 series deficit against the Caps. This is Sweden’s biggest weakness.

Fifth – Team North America – Matt Murray (PIT), John Gibson (ANA), and Connor Hellebuyck (WPG). Murray plays so big with his solid positioning and he looked to have not missed a beat in his debut against Team Europe on Thursday night. He’s won a Stanley Cup, which none of the Sweden, Europe, or Czech Republic goalies can claim. Gibson played very well in the World Championships a few years back, so he’ll be the backup.

Fourth – Team Russia – Semyon Varlamov (COL), Sergei Bobrovsky (CMB), and Andrei Vasilevskiy (TB). This is a really strong trio and all have big game experience. Each of them has the ability to get hot. I’m guessing “Bob” will be the starter. He battled injuries last season and Varlamov has a history of groin issues, as well.

Third – Team Finland – Pekka Rinne (NAS), Tuukka Rask (BOS), and Mikko Koskinen (KHL). It’ll be Rinne first and if he falters, Tuukka will take over. Both are goalies that can get extremely hot and dominate for several games, so that makes them dangerous. The good news for Rask is there are no games at the Verizon Center in actual tournament play, he’s never won in the phone booth.

Second – Team USA – Jonathan Quick (LA), Ben Bishop (TB), and Corey Schneider (NJ). All three are very good goalies and can get super hot. Quick is the likely starter given his two Stanley Cup rings and experience in the Sochi Olympics, where he helped the USA to only fall 1-0 in a semi-final game against Canada, one in which they had no business being that close in.

First – Team Canada – Carey Price (MTL), Braden Holtby (WAS), and Corey Crawford (CHI). This is a no brainer. They have the last two Vezina Trophy winners, including the 2014-15 MVP in Price and a two time Stanley Cup Champion in Crawford. Yes, Price is returning from injury, so there’s questions surrounding him, but if he can’t play then either the Holtbeast or Crawford have plenty of talent and experience to do the job. Canada is flat out loaded at every position.

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ARLINGTON, VA - AUGUST 26:  John Carlson poses after being named a candidate for the 2014 USA Hockey Olympic Team at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex on August 26, 2013 in Arlington, Virginia.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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World Cup of Hockey: Ranking the Bluelines of the 8 Squads

Posted on 07 September 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Hockey is back!

The NHL managed World Cup of Hockey officially begins on Saturday, September 17 and will run for two weeks. It will include eight teams — Team Canada, Team Czech Republic, Team Europe, Team Finland, Team North America, Team Russia, Team Sweden and Team USA — and feature more than 170 of the best players in the NHL. All tournament games will be played at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

As expected, the 2015-16 Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals have numerous players participating, including Alex Ovechkin (Russia Captain), Nicklas Backstrom (Sweden), Braden Holtby (Canada), John Carlson (USA), Evgeny Kuznetsov (Russia), T.J. Oshie (USA), Matt Niskanen (USA), Dmitry Orlov (Russia), and Philipp Grubauer (Europe).

Pre-tournament games, which will all be televised on ESPN’s network, will be played in the following cities: Columbus, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.; Montreal, Ottawa and Quebec City; Prague; Gothenburg; Helsinki; and St. Petersburg. The first three pre-tourney games are on Thursday, September 8th starting with Team Russia vs. Team Czech Republic in St. Petersburg at 12:30 pm on ESPN3, so you can tune in and watch the Gr8 already. Team USA plays its first pre-tourney game against Canada this Friday, September 9th in Columbus at 7 pm on ESPNU.

The Verizon Center will host two games next week, both at 7 pm. On Tuesday, Team USA will face Team Finland and on Wednesday, Team Sweden will take on Team Europe. Tickets are available.

The tournament will be grouped into two divisions of four teams, as follows:

Group A: USA, Canada, Czech Republic, and Europe

Group B: Sweden, Russia, Finland, and North America.

The top two teams in each group will advance and then play a single elimination semi-final round before the World Cup is decided in a best of three series. This should be an exciting way to break into the NHL season!

Over the next week, I’ll provide you with my analysis of the teams and I’ll start with my rankings by squad in terms of their defensive corps, starting from the worst to the best.

Eighth – Team Czech Republic:  Zbenyk Michalek (AZ), Radko Gudas (PHI), Michal Kempny (CHI), Jakub Nackladal (Free Agent), Michal Jordan (Free Agent), Andrej Sustr (TB), and Roman Polak (TOR). Woah, not much there on the blueline, so it’s easy to see why this is the weakest group of seven in the tournament. If only this was basketball and they had “THE” Michael Jordan.

Seventh – Team Finland:  Jyrki Jokipakka (CGY), Olli Maatta (PIT), Esa Lindell (DAL), Sami Lepisto (Free Agent), Ville Pokka (CHI), Sami Vatanen (ANA), and Rasmus Ristolainen (BUF). Vatanen has the potential to be a star in the league, but after that, I don’t see anything here that will scare the likes of Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin over the next several weeks.

Sixth – Team Russia: Dmitry Kulikov (FLA), Dmitry Orlov (WAS), Nikita Zaitsev (TOR), Alexey Marchenko (DET), Alexei Emelin (MON), Andrei Markov (MON), and Nikita Nesterov (TB). There are some good young players here on this defensive roster, but outside of Markov and Emelin, there isn’t a ton of big game experience. This will definitely be the weakest part of Team Russia and if they don’t advance to the semi-finals, this position will likely be the main reason why they won’t win on the world stage, once again.

Fifth – Team Europe: Andrej Sekera (EDM), Luca Sbisa (VAN), Mark Streit (PHI), Christian Ehrhoff (Free Agent), Zdeno Chara (BOS), Dennis Seidenberg (Free Agent), and Roman Josi (NAS). This crew has several players that are long in the tooth, but that brings experience. Josi is the best player of the group and his stock in the NHL is rising quickly.

Fourth – Team North America: Seth Jones (CMB), Colton Parakyo (STL), Aaron Ekblad (FLA), Jacob Trouba (WPG), Ryan Murray (CMB), Morgan Reilly (TOR), and Shayne Gostisbehere (PHI). Lots of upcoming talent here, but they are certainly inexperienced. That’s to be expected for a team that is comprised of players aged 23 and under. Ekblad is a stud on the back end and “Ghost” carried the Flyers to the playoffs last spring. Jones is a future star, too.

Third – Team Sweden: Niklas Hjalmmarsson (CHI), Anton Stralman (TB), Mattias Ekholm (NAS), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (ARI), Hampus Lindholm (ANA), Erik Karlsson (OTT), and Victor Hedman (TB). Outstanding crew of defensemen here led by Hedman and Karlsson and it was hard to put them third, but the other two teams are just slightly better as a whole. Karlsson has the Norris Trophy notoriety, but if you ask me, Hedman might be as good as any defensemen in the NHL outside of Drew Doughty. The guy is just awesome on the back end and plays a lot of minutes.

Second – Team USA: Matt Niskanen (WAS), John Carlson (WAS), Jack Johnson (CMB), Ryan Suter (MIN), Ryan McDonagh (NYR), Dennis Byfuglien (WPG), and Erik Johnson (COL). There isn’t a “Wow!” factor with this crew, but each one of these blue liners is very good and experienced. Carlson is a top dozen defensemen in the NHL, in my book, but he doesn’t get a lot of publicity. He continues to get better and better and will be on the top pairing with either Suter or McDonagh.

First – Team Canada: Jay Bouwmeester (STL), Shea Weber (MON), Jake Muzzin (LA), Drew Doughty (LA), Alex Pietrangelo (STL), Marc-Edouard Vlassic (SJ), and Brent Burns (SJ). TONS of ability and experience here led by the best defensemen in the NHL in Doughty. This blue line is ultra deep and keep in mind they left Kris Letang of Pittsburgh and P.K. Subban of Nashville off of the squad. I probably would have had both of them on the team, but GM Doug Armstrong and Coach Mike Babcock are calling the shots for this tournament. Bottom line, Canada is loaded on defense (and at other positions too!) and they easily could put another group of seven together that wouldn’t be too far behind Sweden and the USA.

On Thursday night, I’ll rank the goaltenders for each team.

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Luck Not the Sole Reason for the Caps’ 2nd Round Exit

Posted on 13 May 2016 by Ed Frankovic

There have been 41 Washington Capitals seasons and zero Stanley Cup Championships.

Those are the facts, there is no denying them.

2015-16 was supposed to be different. It sure felt that way, from the general manager to the coaches to the players to the fans and even some in the media. Heck, I was front and center putting myself out there saying this team and this season would be different.

In many ways, it was, and we’ll touch on that later.

But in the end, as Justin Williams, John Carlson, and many other Capitals players proclaimed on breakdown day on May 12, 2016, the season was a “failure” following a devastating overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in game six that allowed the Pens to win a very closely contested series, four games to two.

Pittsburgh scored 16 goals and Washington tallied 15 times in the series. Each Penguins victory, two of which came in overtime, was achieved by a single goal. Both teams had stretches where they dominated the play, but ultimately it was the Penguins who prevailed.

Did the Capitals deserve a better fate from the Hockey Gods?

Maybe, I mean how often do you see a goal scored off of the back of a player? That happened in game three for Pittsburgh, a game in which the Caps carried the large majority of the play, but managed to lose. Numerous times in this series the Capitals had themselves in position to bury a puck at a key moment, and somehow it bounced over their players stick. Surely luck was not on their side, and as Matt Niskanen noted on breakdown day, you talk to guys around the league who have won championships and they’ll tell you need luck along the way to win.

There is truth to that, around these parts there is no denying that the two Super Bowls the Baltimore Ravens won included some luck. Al Del Greco hit the upright on a field goal right before halftime and then a blocked Del Greco field goal, in the fourth quarter, landed right in the hands of Anthony Mitchell and he then returned it for the game winning touchdown in 2000 against the Titans. Joe Flacco’s Hail Mary pass to Jacoby Jones in 2012 went over the head of a Broncos safety that mistimed his play on the ball for the tying touchdown to set up overtime and an eventual huge Ravens upset. All of those plays included luck, but the Ravens were also good enough to put themselves in position to get the breaks.

You certainly need some luck to win and the Capitals received some of that in series one when Jason Chimera’s innocent dump in deflection traveled 100 feet and through the wickets of Steve Mason into the cage in game two. The Caps took advantage and raced to a three to nothing series lead and eventually prevailed, four games to two over the Flyers.

In series two, Washington didn’t get the bounces and lost by a goal, but it wasn’t bad luck that did them in.

We’ll get that to what ultimately doomed them in a minute, but first, let’s put some perspective on where this team has come from over the last two years.

After a disastrous 2013-14 season, the Capitals were an absolute train wreck and a Stanley Cup seemed to be mostly an unobtainable goal in the near term. Following the conclusion of that season, I was full of piss and vinegar and rightfully called for the ultra-conservative and often panic stricken general manager to be let go, along with the divisive bench boss who seemed to insist on being the smartest guy in the room. I was furious that the blue line continually was not properly addressed by George McPhee for over 10 plus seasons. Fortunately, owner Ted Leonsis and team President Dick Patrick saw the same thing, when many in the national media were once again calling for the core of the team, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, to be shipped out instead.

Enter Coach Barry Trotz and promoted General Manager Brian MacLellan to commence a massive turnaround. They immediately went to work on two things the club desperately needed, a blue line fix and an identity as a team.

“Last year when I came here, that was the first thing we did, was fix the defense. We got two outstanding players in Brooks [Orpik] and Matt [Niskanen] and we started the process of building a culture and it started by fixing holes, by going out and getting the best people that we felt could do that and getting people who have won, then the next phase of that was to develop our own people,” said Caps coach Barry Trotz to Nestor Aparacio and I on February 29th, 2016 at a WNST radio event at Buffalo Wild Wings in Belair to continue the fight against leukemia and support the bone marrow registry.

Those moves laid the foundation for a very successful 2014-15 campaign that saw Washington return to the playoffs, defeat the New York Islanders in round one, and then lose in painful fashion, in overtime, in game seven against the New York Rangers. The Capitals only allowed 13 goals in seven games, but could only muster 12 goals themselves and lost twice in overtime in the final three contests.

It was an awful defeat, they lost a three games to one series lead, but everyone knew that the main problem was the Capitals didn’t have enough talent up front to score consistently. The loss was rough, but things were rapidly moving in the right direction after utter chaos just a year earlier. My end of the season blog focused on the need to improve the top six forwards and sure enough, MacLellan pulled it off dealing Troy Brouwer for T.J. Oshie and signing Justin Williams to a two year free agent deal. Unfortunately, adding those guys and the need to pay goalie Braden Holtby what he was rightfully worth, put the team up against the salary cap. With it not possible to move Brooks Laich’s boat anchor of a contract in the summer, the team was forced to part ways with grinding forward Joel Ward and defensemen Mike Green, both key players on the squad that fell just short against the Rags. They were tough personnel losses to a team that had become super close.

But Oshie and Williams fit in perfectly and the Ward and Green losses faded to the back of everyone’s mind as the Capitals stormed out of the gate and blew the league away in the regular season pretty much clinching the Presidents’ Trophy by Valentine’s Day. Holtby was legendary in the cage and he tied the NHL single season victory total for a goalie with 48 (tied with hall of famer, Martin Brodeur). It was so much fun and the team seemed to get tighter as a unit as the season moved on. This was surely setting up to be the year for a Cup parade, but quietly the Pittsburgh Penguins were addressing some serious issues they had themselves.

They fired their coach, Mike Johnston, and replaced him with former Rangers assistant Mike Sullivan. But more importantly, general manager Jimmy Rutherford made some great moves to transform his roster. In the summer, he traded high draft picks to Toronto to acquire scoring winger Phil Kessel and he dumped the slow and plodding Brandon Sutter for speedy Nick Bonino. After the season began, he also swapped David Perron for super-fast Cap killer Carl Hagelin. Suddenly he had a line that could skate like the wind, but he still had issues on the back end. Rob Scuderi was old and slower than molasses, but Rutherford somehow convinced Stan Bowman, who is considered an excellent GM, to deal mobile defensemen Trevor Daley for the past his prime Scuderi. It was a fleecing or highway robbery of a deal, whatever you want to call it. From there the Penguins were the best team in the league from January on and Washington knew they’d have their hands full with them, at some point. The Caps had become somewhat complacent given their huge standings lead while Pittsburgh pressed madly to move up the standings after wallowing out of playoff position for much of the first 40 games.

While the Penguins were making all of these moves, MacLellan not only added Oshie and Williams, but he brought in Mike Richards as a depth center. That move was excellent and if not for some of Richards outstanding penalty killing skills, the Flyers might have won game six, as well as game two. Richards ability to read back door passes and get his stick in lanes on defense and while shorthanded was very much needed. The Caps suddenly were not only super on the power play, but also on the penalty kill.

With the Richards move, the Caps only real question marks appeared to be on defense. The loss of Green was a blow, no doubt, you don’t replace a player of that caliber easily, and the Caps plan, partly due to limited salary cap room, was to go with rookies Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt on the back end as a third pairing. When Orpik was injured in early November with a cracked femur, suddenly those guys were forced to play more minutes than originally planned. They played well, too, perhaps clouding the judgement of the Capitals brass as the trade deadline approached. MacLellan did add Mike Weber as a depth defensemen and he somehow masterfully moved Laich out for an upgrade in forward Daniel Winnik. The move also freed up money on the current salary cap, but more importantly for 2016-17 when dollars would be needed to retain Marcus Johansson, who was having a career year, and others like Tom Wilson. Some wanted the Capitals to use that extra dough to acquire another defensemen given Oprik’s health issues and the lack of experience on the back end. Dan Hamhuis, among other experienced defensemen, were still out there reportedly to be had, but Washington passed.

After the trade deadline, at the WNST event with Coach Trotz on February 29th, I specifically asked him about the decision to go with the two players who had zero playoff experience on the back end.

“We talk about that, the blessing this year with Brooks being out for a long period of time, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt were in the lineup for 50 some games. We already know what they can do and it’s been really beneficial for us. I think by adding Mike Weber we’re eight deep at the NHL level,” explained Trotz on the rationale of where the organization stood on their blue line.

It seemed like a viable plan at the time and Weber certainly seemed like the type of guy who could fill in for an Orpik or even a Karl Alzner if there was an injury. But Oprik came back healthy down the stretch and despite the fact that Carlson missed 12 games with a cracked ankle/foot in March, the Caps only played Weber in 10 of the 21 contests that occurred before the post season began. Basically, the Capitals decided to ride Orlov, Schmidt and Taylor Chorney instead of Weber. #6 was a seven year veteran with more playoff experience (seven games) than the other three combined, but he spent most of the time in the press box becoming rusty. As anyone in hockey will tell you, performing in the regular season is one thing, but doing that in the playoffs is another story, so the Capitals were really taking a risk on the Orlov-Schmidt-Chorney trio.

When Orpik was concussed and injured his neck in game three against the Flyers, I remarked to MacLellan after that tilt that “this was the reason you went out and got Weber.” The GM seemed to nod his head in agreement, yet somehow it wasn’t until a series clinching victory in game six that Weber finally got a sweater for the Caps? The coaching staff went with Chorney over a more physical Weber against a chippy and dirty team like the Flyers. Weber, to that point, had never received the repetitions he really needed to play at a top four level that would be required when Orpik went down.

That leads me to where this season broke down. Yes, the Penguins were the faster team, but you can deter speed by keeping it to the outside and wearing it out with proper execution. The Bonino line, with seven goals, was the difference in the series and while they were fast, several of those goals came from right in front of the net following turnovers. Oprik’s terrible hit on Olli Maatta that took #3 out of three games and #44 too, as a result of a suspension, turned the entire series around, as well.  The Caps were flat the rest of game two and lost home ice. In game three, Schmidt made a costly turnover and then was manhandled in front by the small Hagelin for the eventual game winning goal. He would not play in two of the final three games. Orlov was benched for a game and the Caps only won once with Chorney in the lineup (game five of the Pens series). Weber did get a jersey for game four and played decently, but the game winning goal went off of his stick to Patrick Hornqvist and he was banished to the press box once again.

When Alzner’s groin, that he initially injured in the Flyers series, finally popped in game six, the Caps had little left on the back end other than Carlson and a tiring Niskanen, who played all 82 games and every playoff game with King Karl, to that point. After #27’s injury, Orpik took another awful penalty, a careless double minor for high sticking on Hornqvist with the puck 50 feet away in period two, and the Caps great penalty killing unit was suddenly forced to play both Chorney and Orlov in succession. Two goals in 29 seconds was the result and that put the Caps in a deep hole, 3-0. It was a terrible penalty that Orpik could not afford to take, once again, and it was especially bad knowing that Alzner was done for the game. In short, as much as I like Orpik and what he can bring to the Capitals, he had a nightmare 2015-16 season with his injuries and bad penalties. Simply put, the Penguins were faster, but they also were able to get to the front of the Capitals net, and most of those occasions came when members of the bottom half of the Washington defense were on the ice.

Now the encouraging part of the story is that this is where this Capitals teamed proved to be different.  Instead of folding tent like the 2009 Caps did in game seven against Pittsburgh when they went down 3-0, they fought back and forced overtime in game six showing tremendous fortitude and resolve. They probably should have won too, but failed to capitalize on a late power play that they received. At that juncture they seemed a little too comfortable at that moment at just being tied up, something that occurred too frequently during this season and in the Flyers series, as well.

On to overtime we went and the Capitals, who rode the top six forwards and Carlson and Niskanen on the back end heavily, were out of gas. Niskanen was forced to play with guys he wasn’t used to being paired with and miscommunication happened on the game winning tally, which was another goal that once again came from the doorstep on a rebound.

In a nutshell, the Capitals lost on their lack of defensive depth, something they thought they had, but really didn’t.  They put too much stock in the abilities of Orlov and Schmidt based on their regular season success and they failed to take advantage and develop or possibly misevaluated what Weber could bring to the lineup. It was a waste of a third round draft pick the way it all played out. The Penguins found their way through the Washington back end too easily and Holtby couldn’t prevent all of those second chance tallies.

In addition, their season long tendency to sit back and not take control of games cost them dearly. They didn’t attack in game two and show that killer instinct to seize a critical contest and the series. That lack of killer instinct also allowed a Kris Letang-less Penguins team to steal game four. The Pens gained confidence to win in those first 30 minutes when the Capitals needed to step on their throats and not allow them to believe they could prevail without their best defensemen. It was a major opportunity lost.

Finally, the Capitals loss of Ward took away a player who routinely went to the front of the net in the postseason to get ugly goals. Washington didn’t have much of that against the Penguins outside of a couple of Williams tallies (but one was with the goalie pulled). The Caps need their bottom six forwards to chip in with more greasy goals.

So where does that lead us heading in to 2016-17?

Obviously the team is extremely disappointed that they let a major chance to win a championship slip by once again. The lack of true defensive depth, killer instinct, and inability to add in some rebound goals was what ultimately cost them the series against what should become in June, the 2015-16 Stanley Cup winning Penguins.

Some will call for panic and to try to blow things up, like the San Jose Sharks nearly did following a loss to the Kings in 2014 after owning a 3-0 series lead. Two springs later, the Sharks are in the hunt for the Cup and credit for that goes to hanging on to their core, the addition of Ward up front, and bringing in Paul Martin on defense.

Washington needs to find a Paul Martin type on the back end because running out the same seven guys again, particularly the four after Carlson, Niskanen, and Alzner, carries significant risk.

Johansson will be the top offseason priority to sign to a long term deal. He’s a key piece to this team and had a remarkable regular and post season. He was one of the guys going to the net against the Flyers and scoring tough goals. He also brings a major element of speed.

Wilson is next on the priority list as a restricted free agent. #43 made significant contributions this year on the penalty kill and defensively. In some games, such as game five against the Penguins, he was a difference maker by drawing penalties and keeping the opponent out of the offensive zone. Still, he needs to develop his offensive skills so that he could possibly fill that Ward type of role in front of the net. His improvement is a must and the coaches need to aid that by playing him more. If they prefer not to do that or think he can’t do that, then a move is needed.

Orlov is a restricted free agent, as well, and he and Schmidt are similar players, along with Chorney. The Caps management team needs to determine if that is indeed the way to go to win a Stanley Cup on the back end. My recommendation would be to move at least one of them and upgrade the blue line, especially since Oprik is adding another year and he has an injury history.

Ovechkin is about to head into his 12th season and the Capitals need to win soon (Steve Yzerman’s first Cup came in his 14th season). The Gr8 was superb in these playoffs and downright dominant in several games, such as game five against the Penguins. Oshie, Williams, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Alzner are all free agents after next season and will require more dollars. Carlson has two more years to go at the deal of the century, a contract just under $4M per season. He was the Capitals best player in the post season and will command $7M plus in 2018-19.

Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky are two young players that had super regular seasons, but as a result of playing all 82 games, didn’t have the legs they had in 2015-16 when they were playoff difference makers. They need to learn from that and be better prepared physically next spring. They need to add strength and learn to get some ugly goals in front.

I typically wait several days before writing this blog to let the emotions of the playoff defeat die down, but I don’t think that will be possible this season. This was one tough loss and a major opportunity gone by the wayside. Everyone will feel the pain all summer and I certainly don’t want to be sitting here next season beginning my 2016-17 final blog with a 0 and 42 statistic.

I know the Capitals don’t want me to be doing so either.

Everything the Caps do between now and next April 15th has to be about the playoffs and winning the Cup. The team is tight and the culture is strong, but they need to develop that killer instinct. In addition, the management needs to address the personnel short comings on defense and the coaching staff needs to be quicker to adjust when things aren’t working.

The last thing management needs to do is panic and make radical changes, this team is ultra close, but more is necessary to get over the hump.

So the time is now for the Capitals to start getting at next year and doing everything in their power to make sure no stone is left unturned and no holes are left exposed when injuries or uncomfortable situations present themselves in the spring of 2017 playoffs.

There were a lot of things to like from this team this year, but the ultimate prize was not captured and the season was a major disappointment, or a failure, as many players called it.

The clock is ticking.

They must end this awful postseason losing cycle once and for all.

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Ovie Game 5 Pens

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Ovechkin, Holtby, and Oshie Help Caps Force a Game 6

Posted on 08 May 2016 by Ed Frankovic

With their season on the line, the Washington Capitals received huge performances from their stars in a 3-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night.

Alex Ovechkin was an absolute beast in this contest with a goal and an assist, T.J. Oshie had the same, and Braden Holtby made 30 saves to force a game 6 at the Consol Energy Center on Tuesday at 8 pm.

Wow, what a hockey game!

Both teams left it all on the ice in this one and it was the battle of superb forechecks for the first 40 minutes. After a great start by the Caps, the Penguins put on a clinic with their 1-2-2 pressure forcing Washington into poor puck management and turnovers throughout the later half of the opening stanza. The shots on net were 12-4 for the Pens after 20 minutes, but shot attempts were 25-21 for Pittsburgh since the Capitals missed the net 10 times.

In the middle frame, the Caps did a better job of breaking out by swarming the puck and using the high glass or lob over the Penguins defense. That forced Pittsburgh to do more retreating and allowed the Capitals to carry the play. Washington out shot attempted the black and gold, 26-19, and took a 2-1 lead on Oshie’s rebound of another strong Ovechkin shot. Justin Williams then pounced on a Pens turnover and beat Matt Murray five hole to give the Caps their 1st two goal cushion of this series. The lead could’ve been extended more, but the Caps missed the net 12 additional times, including some great chances for Jason Chimera and Nicklas Backstrom.

In the third period the Capitals played smart using a 1-3-1 type of setup in the neutral zone and, as a result, Pittsburgh had to dump the puck in way more than they wanted. The Caps continued to swarm the loose biscuit and that helped them win a lot of the battles against a speedier team.

Pittsburgh didn’t have many quality chances in that last frame as the Caps played with desperation.

Desperation is what the Caps will continue to feel, because a Penguins victory on Tuesday closes this series out.

Pittsburgh got Kris Letang (30:11 of ice time) back after a one game suspension and his play stepping up in the neutral zone was a big factor early.

The Caps, however, will get Brooks Orpik back on Tuesday after his three game suspension. His veteran leadership and presence should help stabilize a Washington back end that has made too many big mistakes in this series.

On Saturday night though, the Caps defensemen were very solid and the only goal allowed by Washington was while they were shorthanded.

The Capitals received stellar goaltending from the Holtbeast, including back to back huge stops on Patrick Hornqvist (pad save) and Justin Schultz (glove save) late in period two. #70 was dialed in, like his teammates, and they’ll need to be in game six.

Pittsburgh still is in the driver’s seat in this series since the Caps have no margin for error. However, coming into game five, Pittsburgh was 8-0 lifetime against Washington in previous such occasions.

Washington will need to bring their best game if they want to have a chance at extending the series, once again.

Desperation, that’s what every Capitals player has to bring to every battle on every shift on Tuesday night.

Notes: Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 27:28. He was outstanding, along with Karl Alzner (25:02). John Carlson had an assist in 24:50. He was dominant, as well…final shot attempts were 69-58 for the Penguins, but that was due to 3rd period score effects…Tom Wilson only played 7:20, but he drew a key slashing penalty on Ian Cole that led to Oshie’s PPG. Willy also was super on the PK and late in regulation. The Caps were 2 for 5 with the man advantage while the Penguins went 1 for 2.

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Game 4 Pens

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Caps Season On the Brink After Overtime Loss

Posted on 05 May 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Instead of losing a three games to one series lead this spring, the Washington Capitals will have to find a way to rally to win one.

Patrick Hornqvist’s goal just 2:36 in overtime off of a Mike Weber failed clear allowed the Penguins to seize a 3-2 victory in a thrilling contest and put them on the brink of the Eastern Conference Finals with just one more victory over the Caps.

The Penguins, who were playing without top defensemen Kris Letang, put together a spirited effort and gave Washington big problems with their speed through the neutral zone in the first 30 minutes to take a 2-1 lead after Jay Beagle’s early marker made it 1-0 Capitals.

Pittsburgh was given pretty much no chance to win before the game by Mike Milbury on NBC, but they amped up their physical play and did a much better job of their zone exits in period one and for the first half of period two. Washington had too many struggles coming out of their own zone and they were on their heels for much of the first 30 minutes.

Braden Holtby (30 saves) made some big stops to keep it a 2-1 game and then the Caps started playing to their strengths, which was keeping the puck on the walls and cycling the smaller Pens. Justin Williams made a great play in the corner and he fed John Carlson for a brilliant tally with 3:41 to go in the middle frame to tie the game.

A nerve racking third period, in which the Penguins received the only power play, yielded no goals. The Caps did a great job of killing off a high sticking penalty by Karl Alzner on Sidney Crosby with 3:38 to go, allowing no shots on the Holtbeast.

In overtime, Mike Richards had a great chance to win it, but Matt Murray (34 saves) came up large once again setting the stage for the misplay by Weber and an easy marker for Hornqvist.

This was one tough way to lose again for Washington.

They didn’t play with the passion and sense of urgency we saw on Monday night when they dominated in a 3-2 loss, instead they looked nervous and out of sync too often for the first half of this game. That is certainly a surprise, given what was at stake and the loss of Letang for Pittsburgh.

So now the Caps get two days off to regroup and game five will be at the Verizon Center on Saturday night at 7:15 pm. Letang will be back in the lineup for the Pens while Brooks Oprik is still out another game. Washington needs to examine what they are doing well and doing poorly, then adjust accordingly. The Penguins clearly made the changes they needed after getting dominated, yet winning, in game three and it showed early on. That gave the Penguins the confidence to win without their best defensemen. A big part of that was their effort. They routinely out worked the Capitals in the first 30 minutes.

All four games so far have been one goal tilts, so the margin between victory and defeat has been ever so slight. Murray has been great in net for the Penguins and the Caps have had too many defensive gaffes to maintain momentum and pressure on Pittsburgh.

Simply put, the Capitals must come out on Saturday night and focus on one shift at a time and play each like it’s potentially their last game of the season. Thinking about winning three in a row puts you in the wrong mindset. They just have to play with the passion and energy they had on Monday night, but eliminate those glaring mistakes.

If they don’t, it’s golf time.

Notes: John Carlson logged a game high 30:15…the Caps won the shot attempts battle, 69-61…Alex Ovechkin had seven shots on goal in 21:16 of ice time…Daniel Winnik missed the remainder of period two after taking a high hit at the blue line from Evgeni Malkin. Former NHL referee Kerry Fraser, via Twitter, thought charging should’ve been called on #71. Winnik did come back for some shifts in the 3rd period…Crosby left for some of the third period after an Ovechkin slash to #87’s hands, but returned…the Caps won the face off battle, 40-36. Evgeny Kuznetsov went 12-6…the Penguins went 0 for 4 on the power play while the Caps went 0 for 2…the Caps were out hit, 47-41.

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Murray Game 3

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Hockey Gods and Mistakes Fail the Caps in Game Three Loss

Posted on 03 May 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Very much like in game five against the Flyers in round one, the Hockey Gods were not on the Capitals side on Monday night in game three in Pittsburgh.

Washington threw 85 shot attempts at the Penguins and Matt Murray stopped 47 of the 49 shots on goal while Pittsburgh was opportunistic on their chances (they only had 36 shot attempts), and lucky, to hold on for a 3-2 victory. The Pens now lead the best of seven series, two games to one.

This was one heck of a hockey game and an outstanding effort from the Capitals.

Unfortunately, they made some critical mistakes that caused the first three pucks to go into their net, none of which you can put on Braden Holtby (20 saves on 23 shots). On the first goal, a puck deflected high in the sky in the Washington zone and the Caps had a hard time finding it. That allowed Trevor Daley to get the puck and fire it on net. Patrick Hornqvist was alone in the high slot screening while Sidney Crosby was battling both Mike Richards and Matt Niskanen in front of the Holtbeast. Hornqvist makes a great tip and Holtby never sees it. Sure, it was a bit of a lucky bounce that got the Pens the puck, but the Caps coverage was terrible, particularly the left wing on the play, who should‘ve immediately moved to take Daley. If he does that, Daley likely doesn’t get the puck nor does he have such a great lane to move to the center of the ice and fire away.

On the second goal, yes, that’s a lucky bounce off of the back of Tom Kuhnhackl, but the Washington forward fails to cut off the Kris Letang stretch pass in the neutral zone and that gives Matt Cullen a lane to the net and creates a two on one.

That’s two good bounces for Pittsburgh, but let’s be honest, the Caps put themselves in position for the lucky bounces to burn them. They must clean that up the rest of this series.

On the third Penguins goal, in period two, the Washington defensemen makes a soft play in the corner and crazily fires the puck into the slot. Nick Bonino easily picks it off and Holtby does his best to delay him from scoring, but the Caps defender who turned the puck over then gets outmuscled by Carl Hagelin in front for what proved to be the winning goal.

The Caps were really carrying the play from the start of the game, but they were down three pucks because of BIG MISTAKES. Two goal holes are usually manageable, but the third one really was the dagger on this night. Not a good play at all by the Washington defensemen.

Murray continued to be stellar in net and a Caps furious rally, which started with Alex Ovechkin’s laser over the goalie’s shoulder at 8:02 of the final frame, nearly was completed. Justin Williams tallied with Holtby pulled with 55 ticks left and then Marcus Johansson nearly tied it in the dying seconds, but he shot wide after a brilliant set up from Ovechkin.

The Gr8 was an absolute beast in this one. He was the best skater on the ice. He had a goal, an assist, seven shots on goal, 18 shot attempts, and nine hits in 24:21 of ice time! Unbelievable!

Sadly, as Coach Barry Trotz will tell you, there is only one stat that matters though, the scoreboard, and it read 3-2, bad guys.

It was a disappointing loss for Washington in that they played well for large portions of this game. They had 58 hits to just 25 for the Penguins and they had the puck the entire game. They played with desperation and passion. In addition to cleaning up the mistakes, they need to maintain their discipline a bit more and their power play needs to convert. I’d like to see more shots coming from the middle of the ice with traffic with that unit.

Discipline is going to be paramount moving forward. With Brooks Orpik getting three games for his hit to the head on Olli Maatta after game two, there was a standard set by the league that those type of hits, late and to the head, would not be tolerated. A three game suspension is huge for the playoffs, but Orpik took it like a man and a team leader, while Coach Trotz agreed with a suspension, too. However, he did take issue with the length of it. Good cop, bad cop, that’s the way that has to play out, right?

Well, now the league has another issue to deal with on Tuesday. With the Pens up 2-0 late in the opening frame, Letang stupidly launches himself into Johansson’s head after the puck was long gone as #90 crosses the blue line. Jojo went down and a two minute penalty was called on #58. Marcus would leave the game and go through the concussion protocol, but somehow he wasn’t concussed and just had neck issues from the whiplash of the hit, which started at the chin area. It is a hit, like Oprik’s, that needs to be out of the game. I’d expect Letang to be suspended and the league will look like hypocrites if it is not the same or very close (two games) to the Orpik penalty of three tilts.

Overall, the Caps did a lot of super things in this game. They played with the energy they need to bring to win for all 60 minutes, they just need to be smarter in their own zone and stay out of the box. The best way to retaliate to stupid or dirty plays by Pittsburgh, like the slash by Chris Kunitz to the chest of Justin Williams that had #14 in pain, is to stay composed, stick to the game plan and their structure, and put the biscuit in the basket.

Chasing for revenge is just wasted energy.

The Caps showed on Monday night that when they put their collective minds to it and bring the passion, they can dominate the game. They’ll absolutely have to bring that effort, with a stronger commitment to avoiding the big mistakes in their own end in game four, if they want to avoid a three to one games hole.

Notes: Game four is Wednesday at 8 pm from Pittsburgh; game five will be at 7:15 on Saturday night at the Verizon Center…Bryan Rust took a shot to the leg and played just 19 seconds…Letang logged 27:57 of ice time. He blocked five shots. Overall, the Pens blocked 19 Capitals shots…John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 27:59. He had an assist and eight shots on net…Marc Andre-Fleury was the back up for Pittsburgh, so his concussion issues appear to be over.

 

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Pens Win game 2

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Caps Gift Wrap Game Two for Pittsburgh

Posted on 01 May 2016 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals failed in their bid to preserve home ice advantage as Eric Fehr’s tip in with 4:28 remaining in regulation won game two for the Pittsburgh Penguins, 2-1, to tie up this best of seven series.

There is no sugar coating this one, the Caps totally stunk for the first 40 minutes. They weren’t dominated because of the Penguins speed, as you might have thought, no, it was a function of a lousy work ethic and sloppy execution. Passes weren’t on the mark, especially at the Pittsburgh blue line, and that allowed the Pens to get to the loose pucks quicker and resulted in superior possession for the visitors through 40 minutes. Shot attempts were an astounding 63-25 after two periods and in the second frame, it was 38-13 for the black and gold.

That’s just pitiful.

Amazingly, the Capitals were only down a goal, thanks to Braden Holtby (33 saves), who was stellar in the cage once again. Additionally, the Caps penalty killing unit was excellent holding Pittsburgh to zero for five on the power play after 40 minutes. The problem there is that Washington took too many penalties, some of which were warranted, like Brooks Orpik’s interference on Olli Maatta just 4:13 into the game and the Caps bench minor for too many dudes. Orpik, who knocked Maatta from the contest with the head shot, will likely get a call from the league and may be suspended for game three, so Mike Weber needs to be ready. The other problem was that Maatta was looking like he was in over his head in game one so Washington took a Pens defensemen out of the lineup that they picked on miserably, and with success, in the series opener.

I was not a fan of the holding call on Taylor Chorney in the corner (looked like that should have fallen under the Brian Burke bear hug rule to me) and the goalie interference on Evgeny Kunzetsov that wiped out Nate Schmidt’s apparent goal was a complete joke. Afterwards, Coach Barry Trotz was not happy with that call either, saying it was clearly incidental contact (Pens goalie Matt Murray (23 saves) uses his stick paddle to take Kuzy down) and that he would’ve been okay with no goal, but to put #92 in the box was not right, in his eyes. The coach is correct, but referee Dan O’Halloran is known to be one to put the Caps on lots of penalty killing situations in the playoffs (see game two against the Rangers last spring). How is he still reffing games while Dave Jackson is done for the playoffs?

Officiating aside, the Capitals were “getting embarrassed out there” as Justin Williams called it, for the first 40 minutes. There is no excuse to have such a terrible effort in a playoff game on home ice. Sure the Penguins were going to be more desperate down a game, but if you are a team that wants to win it all, you can’t have those types of lapses and gift away a game with a poor work ethic that leads to horrendous execution.

On the positive side, the Holtbeast was able to keep the Caps just a puck down and they finally started playing their game in the final frame. In the third period, Washington out shot attempted the Pens, 25-16, and they tied the game on one of their only two power plays when Marcus Johansson put home the rebound of a John Carlson point shot. That goal came just 4:08 into the period and the Capitals carried play for several minutes afterwards. Mike Richards seemingly had the game on his stick for the win with just over five minutes left after a great feed from behind the net by Jason Chimera, but somehow he missed wide. #10 wanted to smash his stick as he headed to the bench for a change, but he managed to hold it together. It was a big opportunity missed, then the Capitals had a turnover followed by a miscommunication in their own end that allowed Evgeni Malkin to scoop up the loose biscuit and fire it towards the net. Fehr got his stick on the puck before Orpik, and it went up over Holtby and in the corner of the net.

So now the series shifts back to Pittsburgh on Monday and Wednesday for games 3 and 4, respectively. The Caps have had too many bad periods so far in this series, four by my count, out of seven total. That’s not going to cut it, so this club needs to be the more aggressive team and dictate the play going forward. No more sitting back and trying to take punches before reacting. They need to get rid of the blue line turnovers and find ways to get pucks deep on the Pens. That should allow their fore check to start working, instead of vice versa. Pittsburgh won on Saturday because of the mistakes the Caps made, not because of the Penguins speed.

That is what is disappointing, the Capitals did this too themselves, and there is no excuse to be doing that at this juncture of the season.

Notes: the 8 pm start was really an 8:30 one due to the delay for the NHL draft lottery, which was won by the Toronto Maple Leafs. So Auston Matthews, the kid from the desert, will be in the Big Smoke next season…the Caps dominated the Pens from the dot, 44-26. Nicklas Backstrom was 18-2…Kris Letang played 35:22 for Pittsburgh to lead all players, but it was his tripping infraction on Williams that set up the Caps power play goal…John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 26:47, but he was on for both goals against, along with Orpik…the Caps did have several quality chances in this one, Chimera hit a post, and Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin (only 3 shots on goal) were both stopped in front by Murray, to name a few. The best quality chance was the Richards one, though, and that miss proved very costly…Dmitry Orlov, who played less than six minutes in game one, was scratched.

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Game Six Backy

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Caps Win the Series as Holtby Shuts Out the Flyers

Posted on 24 April 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Braden Holtby made 26 saves behind another dominating 200 foot performance from the Capitals, who made the only goal of the game from Nicklas Backstrom stand up to extinguish the Flyers in game six, 1-0.

The Capitals will now move on to play the red hot and fast Pittsburgh Penguins later this week while the cheap shot artist Flyers will have all summer to hone their tactics on the golf course. It is always fun to knock off that team, which promotes Neanderthal-styled behavior and hockey on the ice, but more on them later.

Washington won this series with team defense by allowing only six goals in six games. The Holtbeast had two shutouts and only permitted five non empty net goals, one of which came off of his own teammate in game five. The Caps top three defensemen, John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Karl Alzner, were absolutely fabulous in this series. They were physical and Carlson showed why he’s a top ten NHL blue liner, in my book, with his defensive skills and offensive ability. He was downright sensational for Coach Barry Trotz in the six game series victory. Alzner is playing the best hockey of his career and Niskanen is just so good at both ends of the rink. His hitting ability is vastly underrated.

Another big part of the Caps team defense was the way their forwards were back checking when the puck came out of the Washington zone. The forwards routinely hauled back and stole puck after puck from the Flyers in the neutral zone or forced Philly into turning it over at the offensive blue line because the Capitals defensemen were able to step up and make plays. It was text book coverage all over the ice and Filthy had few odd man rushes in the series, as a result. They also had a minimal amount of quality scoring chances and the Caps set a franchise record with this performance in terms of fewest goals allowed in a seven game series (previous mark was 7 vs. Ottawa in 1998). Washington will need to maintain that type of defensive play against the offensively minded Penguins.

Michal Neuvirth was the single reason the Flyers were able to extend this series to six games. He was stellar in net in only allowing two goals in three games, one on a rebound by T.J. Oshie in game four and the Backstrom marker on Sunday, which he had no chance on. Alex Ovechkin made a super play at the blue line to get the puck to Marcus Johansson (six points in six games) and Jojo made a perfect pass to Nicky, who buried the shot into the yawning cage for the game winner at 8:59 of the second period.

Johansson was a big bright spot and a huge reason why Washington was able to finally bury the Flyers. The Caps had strong contributions up and down the lineup, especially from the bottom six forwards. Mike Richards, Tom Wilson, Daniel Winnik, Jojo, and Jay Beagle were all at or near the top of their respective games. Wilson was near perfect in game six and the Flyers were flat out afraid of him as the series went on. He opens up space on the ice for the Caps forwards. If he plays like that and stays out of the box, he is a real factor in the post season when the games are tight and hitting really matters.

If there was a down area in this series, it was the second line. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky had the puck quite a bit, but by the end of the series they looked tired and a bit timid, at times, as they were getting taken off of the puck too easily on the wall. Justin Williams was okay at even strength, save for his four penalty night in game five. This was a bad match up for that line against the physical Flyers, but I expect them to have more favorable results against the Penguins, and they’ll need to do so.

In game six, the Capitals wanted to be more disciplined, and they were. Unfortunately, a friendly fire high stick by a Flyers player on Ryan White was called a double minor on Backstrom just four minutes after the Flyers had killed off a five on three for the Caps early in the second period with the game scoreless. I’ll give the zebras some benefit of the doubt because it happened so fast, but the replay clearly showed it wasn’t Backstrom or any other Caps stick that hit White in the nose. Shouldn’t the officials be able to use replay there to get the call correct? I’m all for automatic review of high sticking calls in the post season, especially the double minor kind. So please fix this NHL!

This incorrect call came at a critical juncture and it was made worse when the referees mistakenly whistled Matt Niskanen for hooking Wayne Simmonds right off of the ensuing face off in front of Holtby. Watch the replay of that one again, that’s just good defense there.

Coach Trotz’ crew was suddenly down two men for infractions that weren’t committed by them, but credit the mental toughness of this Capitals team. They didn’t flinch one bit. They worked hard and killed off the four minutes, including two minutes of five on three by only allowing three shots on goal, which the Holtbeast turned away. Beagle, Carlson, Alzner, and Richards were just superb on those kills. Richards, as he has done repeatedly in this series, was so good at dropping down to cover the back door on Flyers power play opportunities. His stick prevented Jakub Voracek from giving the Flyers the lead on the five on three.

With momentum gained on that crucial kill, the Capitals scored just two and half minutes later to set the stage for the final frame, where the Caps just kept the Flyers to the outside to preserve the victory.

When the horn sounded, this was one sweet victory for the Capitals and their fans over their arch rivals since 1974. Washington now owns a 3-2 lifetime playoff series advantage on the Flyers (wins in 1984, 1988, and 2016; losses in 1989 and 2008).

After the Caps domination in game five in a 1-0 loss that allowed Philly to pull within 3-2 in the series, there were factions in the media and the fan base that immediately shifted into the “Here We Go Again” and “Caps are Going to Blow It Again” mode. The “Capitals are Cursed” mantra was thrown around far too much for my liking. I’m not surprised by it coming from some of the media, that’s their job to stir it up, but it was frustrating and disappointing to see so many fans fall blindly into it. To quote Bruce Springsteen, many in the fan base need to simply “Show a little faith.”

I’ve been steadfast all season in my belief that this team is different from past Capitals teams and they have shown that throughout the season. This is the best Caps team ever assembled and coached, period. Yet the first sign of trouble we had too many breaking their legs jumping off of the bandwagon.

Where’s the mental toughness?

Fortunately this Caps team has it and it is different. There are eight players who weren’t on this roster last season when they lost to the Rangers in May; Oshie, Williams, Richards, Winnik, Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, Taylor Chorney, and Mike Weber (who was excellent in 8:48 of ice time in game six). Those players have helped upgrade the talent and closeness of this club. Williams and Richards bring a wealth of experience (five Stanley Cups), too. There will be bumps in the road and it is the teams that stick together that fight through tough stretches and prevail. Again, show a little faith fans.

Finally, let’s talk about what it means to beat the Flyers.

Forgive me for not heeding Tim McGraw’s advice to “Always be humble and kind” here, because when it comes to the Flyers, all bets are off. They are despised by many and unlike the Pittsburgh Steelers, who the Ravens fan base very much despises, Philadelphia is not respected, where the football team that is run by the Rooneys in Steeltown is respected. Flyers owner Ed Snider passed away right before this series began and the people who work for him have always pretty much been first class to me off of the ice from Joe Kadelec, Gene Hart, Bobby Taylor, Bobby Clarke, and Dave Brown on down, including Gene Prince, who used to run the Spectrum and Wells Fargo Center press boxes.

But on the ice is a different story. Snider preached physical hockey and that’s okay, as long as it is done between the whistles. In this series, the Flyers crossed the line too many times. Simmonds cross checked Ovechkin in the back of the knee in game two and Brayden Schenn did the same thing to Kuznetsov in game four, with both coming well AFTER THE WHISTLE. They were bush league moves along with the intent to injure hit by Pierre-Edouard Bellmare on Orlov in game three, simply because the Flyers were being sore losers. The Capitals may have actually benefited by not hitting the empty net at the end of game six because it would’ve given the sore loser Flyer players time to get in at least another cheap shot or two.

Speaking of bush league and being sore losers, it was just two and a half years ago when goalie Ray Emery raced across the ice and jumped Holtby then started pounding him in a game the Caps would end up winning 7-0. It was disgraceful, but the dinosaur like fans in Filthy loved it and a media member made a bozo move naming Emery the game’s third star. That’s typical Philadelphia Flyer mentality. They’ve been setting the game back for 40 years on the ice, so they’ll get no praise from me.

Look, the Flyers overachieved this year and have some good young players, but they are cement heads on the ice and that leads to their overall reputation. As Niskanen repeatedly told me in this series, “it’s in their DNA.” They’ll continue to be nothing but losers until they clean that stuff up and shame on the NHL for allowing  too much of it to happen far too often. It also leads to many of their fans acting like babies and idiots on occassion, witness game three’s bracelet throwing spree. Simply put, on the ice, that team is pretty much classless.

But good for Coach Trotz for praising the Flyers season in his post game presser, he is a classy man as is Caps GM, Brian MacLellan. Those two know what they are doing and have assembled a roster that will go up against the vaunted Penguins, who own a 7-1 all time series record against the Caps. But none of that matters and the last time these teams met in the playoffs was 2009.

Again, this Capitals team is different. It is a challenging match up and Washington will need to play their game properly to win the series. This club is mentally tough and I’m not guaranteeing a victory, but the fan base needs to show a little faith, in fact a lot of faith, and stick by them as they go up against Sidney Crosby and company.

Oh, and one more thing, see ya Flyers!

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Oshie Fight

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Neuvirth Stymies the Caps in Game 5

Posted on 23 April 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Sometimes the hockey gods decide to prevent you from winning a hockey game.

On Friday night, at the Phone Booth, that was the case as the Washington Capitals fired 44 shots on goal against Michal Neuvirth and allowed only 11 against, but somehow lost the contest, 2-0.

For the Caps, this was the first time all season they’ve been defeated in back to back games in regulation, but fortunately this streak has come after they grabbed a 3-0 series lead. Game six will be Sunday at noon from Philadelphia on NBC.

Washington came out extremely fired up for this one and things got smoking hot fast as T.J. Oshie dropped the gloves with Brayden Schenn off of the opening faceoff. Oshie said that the Capitals players did not like what Schenn did to Evgeny Kuznetsov in game 4 (he cross checked him in the back of the legs after a stoppage in play) and he was the one who fought since he was the first one to Schenn.

The Caps were hoping for a fast start, but that was derailed quickly by a careless double minor for high sticking on Justin Williams. Williams would also take a goalie interference penalty in the opening frame and as a result, the Capitals had to spend six minutes of time killing his penalties.

At even strength, Washington totally dominated play and for the first frame, the Caps out shot the Flyers, 14-6, and in shot attempts it was 21-12.

Things would get even more lopsided in period two, but the Flyers would grab a 1-0 lead on a fluky goal. Williams took another careless high sticking minor and just three seconds after #14 stepped on the ice Ryan White scored when his shot banked off of Taylor Chorney’s skate and into the cage. The tally came 7:52 in to period two.

It was a lucky bounce and goal, but if the Capitals aren’t in the box for a terrible penalty, the bad bounce likely isn’t costly. Washington had 30 shots on goal to just eight for the Flyers after 40 minutes and shot attempts were a staggering 51-16. As Coach Barry Trotz routinely says, though, the only statistic that matters is the goals.

In the third period, the Capitals really kept their foot on the gas pedal pouring 31 shot attempts on the Flyers (only 11 SOG for the game) while Philly only had 11. For the game, shot attempts ended up an astounding 82-27 for Washington. That is simply amazing.

The Caps effort for 60 minutes was the best it has been this postseason. They were dominant and only were burned by taking bad penalties. Afterwards, Coach Trotz stated that he thought his team deserved the six penalties. I concur.

Simply put, the Capitals played a dynamite game and Neuvy stole this one for the Flyers. However, the Caps need to cut back on their penalties. All four of Williams’ minors were careless and Jason Chimera’s boarding penalty showed a lack of awareness. Jakub Voracek was clearly vulnerable and had his back facing #25 when Chimmer plowed him into the boards head first. It was a terrible penalty at a critical time as the Capitals were pouring tons of shots at Neuvirth.

The penalties are extremely disruptive to the Capitals line rotations and it saps momentum from the team. Had this game stayed at even strength more often, Washington likely wins because they are just better than the Flyers.

But the scoreboard is all that matters now. It’s 3-2 and the Capitals have a chance to win this series on Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center.

Clearly the Capitals want to duplicate the puck possession they had on Friday, but they also want to generate more stress for Neuvirth. The way to do that is get more pucks and bodies on the cage. Washington is the bigger and better team, but in a single game, they just didn’t get the breaks while taking some terrible infractions, and it proved costly.

Adjustments will be made for game six and Coach Trotz stated he would look at the lineup to possibly make some changes. The coach mentioned that they needed more from the middle of the lineup. To me that hits right at the low offensive output from Kuznetsov and Williams, so does Trotz reunite the TKO line (Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Oshie)? It might be a good idea, although Washington was very good in this tilt outside of the bone headed penalties.

Overall, you had to like the effort and energy the Capitals put into game five. They played like a desperate team and lost on a lucky bounce. They need to keep up that same intensity on Sunday and stay out of the sin bin.

It is never good to lose two games in a row in regulation, especially in the playoffs, but the Capitals can take solace in the fact that they still are in the drivers seat in this series with two games remaining, if necessary.

Notes: Alex Ovechkin had eight hits, eight shots on goal, and 14 total shots for the night in 21:41 of ice time…John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 27:52…Chris Vandelvelde had the other Flyers goal into an empty net with 31 seconds remaining in regulation…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 38-34…Claude Giroux was the high man for Flyers time on ice, with 23:01…the Caps had 35 hits to just 17 for the Flyers.

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