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Caps Return to Form in Win Over Buffalo

Posted on 19 February 2018 by Ed Frankovic

After their worst performance of the season on Saturday night in the Windy City, the Washington Capitals used a very strong first 40 minutes to build a 2-0 lead and then they overcame some poor play from their blue line in the third period to hold on for a 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres in upstate New York.

The victory puts the Caps back in first place in the Metropolitan Division over idle Pittsburgh. Washington is now 34-18-7 (75 points) and they lead the Pens by a point plus they have two games in hand, which will be Tuesday’s home tilt against the NHL leading Tampa Bay Lightning and then in the Sunshine State against the Florida Panthers on Thursday.

Here are seven thoughts and analysis on where the Capitals stand after a 2-1-1 road trip, their longest of the season.

Boy, You’re Going to Carry That Weight – When the Caps bring the effort, they are usually a hard team to beat. On Saturday, they laid a big fat egg in a blowout, 7-1, loss to Chicago. It was the worst skating performance and game of the season and the captain, Alex Ovechkin, called himself out saying it was his worst outing as a Capital. He was right, but the whole team stunk and looked like they went out for a lot of Chitown pizza and beer with the dads on Friday night. Hey, over the course of 82 games, you are going to have clunkers and let’s not take anything away from Chicago, who still has some high powered players on their roster. The Blackhawks were a pissed off team after losing eight straight and they flat out rolled Washington, who offered a futile resistance in that affair. On Presidents Day, the Capitals were back to playing the right way and they deserved to win this game. When the team works and pulls on the rope in the right direction, they are one of the best in the NHL.

Poking the Bear – You had to figure Ovi was going to have a bounce back contest after Saturday’s no show, but Rasmus Ristolainen didn’t do Buffalo any favors by hitting the Gr8 up high early in the affair. That hit clearly angered Ovechkin and he was a force all game in earning the number one star. It was heavy hockey from Alex, who had four hits, as he and Tom Wilson just pounded the Buffalo defense as often as they could. The Gr8 notched his NHL leading 35th tally of the season with a beautiful tip of a Christian Djoos point shot in period two to open the scoring. That goal was the result of a nice forecheck by Brett Connolly after he exited the box, and then some great wall work by T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov, shortly thereafter.

Winning at the Track – Had you played the trifecta of 74-77-92 you would’ve had the trio that was on the ice for all three Washington tallies. Oshie (one assist) especially had a very strong game and is rounding back into proper form as we head into the final seven weeks of the regular season. Kuznetsov, after some early weak shifts, started playing the correct way and had his best performance of the road trip. Kuzy had three shots on net and his play to seal the deal with his empty net tally was a super forecheck, something this team needs to do well to succeed. As for Carlson, well he was really good, too, but he was the only one of the trio to be on for a goal against. John left Evander Kane wide open with three ticks left to put a small dent in Philipp Grubauer’s (32 saves) sweet stat line.

How Long, To Sing This Song – In honor of U2’s great song, 40, the first two periods by the Capitals were a textbook road performance. They played a north-south style and were very hard on pucks. As a result, they won the vast majority of the individual battles. They were only up 2-0 on Ovi’s 35th and Carlson’s 11th of the season, but it could’ve been more if not for Chad Johnson (27 saves) in net for the Sabres. Through 40 minutes, the Caps had 43 shot attempts to just 25 for Buffalo and the quality scoring chances had to be even more lopsided. Washington just couldn’t finish on several opportunities, but if they play like that more often, they will be hard to defeat. Again, it started with the effort and then they made the right decisions with the puck in all zones. It was very impressive hockey and the reason they left Buffalo with two points.

Hold the Line – After the contest, Coach Barry Trotz told the media that he wanted his team to continue to play the same way they did in the first 40 minutes in the third period. After watching the final frame again, his team pretty much listened to him. The first 3:30 of period three was just like the first two periods; the Capitals were forechecking and generating scoring chances. Then Nicklas Backstrom took a bad slashing penalty two thirds away from the Caps own net and the Sabres got some life with a power play. Washington stabilized things after killing off that infraction and while they didn’t get shots on net, they had some very good sustained pressure on Buffalo afterwards. The Lars Eller line, with Connolly and Andre Burakovsky, had a strong offensive zone pressure shift just inside the eight minute remaining mark, but then the Sabres came out of their own zone three on three. Madison Bowey then stepped up and flat out whiffed on defense in the neutral zone and that allowed Buffalo to break into the Washington zone with speed. Eller was forced to cover for the rookie’s mishap and by the time everyone was back on defense, the coverage was out of whack with #22 skating alone in the slot. The Sabres Scott Wilson fired on net from the high slot and Kyle Okposo deflected it home to make it a 2-1 ballgame with 7:32 remaining. Grubauer never saw the shot, mostly because of Bowey, but also due to the Brooks Oprik-Okposo battle in front. Washington was able to hold the line down the stretch, but there were some more mistakes by Bowey and Djoos in pressure filled situations. So what the statistics will show to look like a “Washington sat back” narrative, and I was at first guilty of accusing the Capitals of that, too, was really caused by poor play from the youngsters, and some others, on the Caps blue line.

Upgrading the Backend – Bowey and Djoos both have bright futures for the Capitals, but to quote George Allen, “The Future is Now,” and Washington can’t afford to go into the playoffs with two rookie blue liners. Madison has talent and potential, but the league really locks down from January on and he’s struggled since the game has gotten faster and more intense. On Monday, the Capitals traded a conditional 3rd round draft pick to the Blackhawks for left handed defensemen Michal Kempny. The 27 year old blue liner, who will wear #6, is a decent skating and puck moving player that is best in his own end. Washington’s struggles on the back end have been mostly because of poor passes, so hopefully Kempny can improve that aspect of the Caps game. With this acquisition, it makes the most sense to send Bowey down to Hershey to play a lot of minutes and hone his craft for next season. Madison could also come up if there are multiple injuries on defense. Djoos would probably be best on a third pair with Orpik, if Kempny can play the four hole with Carlson. There is also a strong possibility that GM Brian MacLellan adds another defensemen before the February 26th NHL trade deadline. Bottom line, the Caps inconsistent play since January 1st is likely most traced to the issues on defense. Bowey and Djoos should be good long term players, but Washington needs to try and win this year, so it’s up to the GM to keep upgrading this current deficiency.

You Make Me Wanna Cry – When the Capitals were temporarily bumped out of 1st place on Sunday night, Caps Twitter practically melted down. It was maddening to see so many people declare that the season was over and that MacLellan should start tearing the team down. Granted this is the same crew that complains when they are in first place, too, stating that the division title doesn’t mean anything and all that counts is the playoffs. Yes, the playoffs are what matters, but to want to rebuild for the future with a top eight team in a wide open race is ridiculous. Fortunately, it’s just an expected over emotionally based reaction by many on social media, but it’s really ludicrous. The Caps are a team that could go deep in the playoffs and possibly win a Stanley Cup should they continue to tweak the back end and play the right way. So for so many to lose their freaking minds is ridiculous, you make me wanna cry! [Cue the Godley & Cream].

Notes: Buffalo out shot the Caps, 17-6, in period three, including 31-12, in shot attempts. Again, I put that on the mistakes Washington made on defense, especially their young blue liners. When they make a mistake, it tends to lead to multiple chances for the opposition and causes a cumulative fatigue effect…the Capitals won the face-off battle, 35-33. Eller was 11-7…the Caps only had one power play while Buffalo had three. A weak interference call on Connolly shortened Washington’s only man advantage chance…Kuznetsov took a puck in the face, at one point, but came back to have a strong finish.

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Ovechkin’s Four Points Leads the Caps Over Minnesota, 5-2

Posted on 16 February 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals had several lapses in focus and effort in their two recent overtime losses, to the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday and a terrible late collapse in Winnipeg to the Jets on Tuesday. The good news was they managed to get a point in each of those games; the bad news was they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in “The Peg” giving up a shorthanded tying goal with 14 seconds left and then losing in the extra frame.

Heading into Thursday’s tilt in Minnesota, a place where the Wild were 10-0-3 in their last 13 games and were carrying the best home record in the NHL, the Capitals effort and focus was not a problem.

Yes, they were ticked about losing two games in a row, but as predicted on Twitter (@EdFrankovic), I knew they would be ready to go in this affair against the Wild since it was tilt #1 with their Dads in attendance. Washington almost always plays well with their fathers in the barn; they were 12-5 on the Dads Trip heading into this one at the Xcel Energy Center.

After a brilliant team effort, there were no passengers from the guys in white, Washington rode their top line for four goals and Andre Burakovsky (1 goal, 1 assist) turned in his best game of the season in a 5-2 victory. Philipp Grubauer was given the start in net and he was really sharp, making some outstanding saves whenever the Wild threatened to get within a goal.

The triumph improves the Capitals to 33-17-7 (73 points) and they are three points up on second place Pittsburgh in the Metropolitan Division. The Penguins have played two more games than Washington, who have 25 contests left to play before the post season.

Here are seven thoughts and analysis on this huge win.

Broken Record Ovechkin was outstanding again in this affair and he continued his mastery over Devan Dubnyk. The Gr8 notched four points with a goal and three helpers and he now has 1,100 points in his career. For the game Alex had 13 shot attempts (seven on net) and was +4 in 17:48. Ovi’s goal was the result of a great forecheck by Lars Eller and Burakovsky, but Alexander the Great also found a soft spot in the Wild defense. His shot is the best in the league, primarily because he gets it off quickly and hard from the toughest positions. Dubnyk thought he had that one, but it went five hole to give Washington a 2-0 lead just six minutes into period two. After the Wild cut it to 3-1 in period three, Ovi took a sweet feed from Wilson and fired it on net with just under five minutes to go. The Wild goalie, who was red hot coming into this match up, bobbled the hard shot and Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist) was there for the rebound tally. All season long Ovechkin has been the biggest reason this team is in first place, so he’s the MVP of the league in my book. I’ve said it so often, but it’s the truth and he now has 65 points (34 G, 31 A) in 57 games.

Redemption Backstrom was a big factor when the Caps lost the late lead on Tuesday night. He had a lazy back check on the goal that made it 3-2 with just under six minutes left to give the Jets life. Then his bad backhanded pass to no one up the boards late in regulation combined with his inability to tie up his man in the slot, caused the tying goal. Hey, over the course of 82 games, especially in mid February when the playoffs are two months away, it’s easy to lose focus and not put out maximum effort. It happens.That was not a problem for Nicky in Minny with his dad in the rink. He and Ovechkin have been clicking together pretty much all season when assembled on the same line and they did it again against Bruce Boudreau’s squad. Fittingly, Bruce was the first one to put those two together to start the magic.

Wilson. Wilson. Willlllssssooonnn! Top line Tommy really got the team going in the second period with his early marker. As the great Alan May pointed out, the Caps went over eight minutes without a shot at the end of period one, but in the first minute of the middle frame #43 fired from the top of the left wing circle through the Wild defender and it eluded Dubnyk top shelf for a 1-0 lead. That really rattled the opposing goalie and got Washington going. It was Wilson’s eighth goal of the season, which set a career high, at the time. On the Caps fourth goal, Willy jumped up and went all Wilt Chamberlain to bat a puck down. The biscuit hit the Wild defender and Tom alertly snagged it and fed Ovi for his rocket that led to Backstrom’s rebound tally. Then, after Minnesota received a cheap call on Brooks Orpik and scored on the power play with 3:12 left, Wilson sealed the deal into the empty net for his new career high ninth marker of the campaign. With 25 games to go, you can bet that he’ll be in double figures before this year is out. Wilson, by the way, is a restricted free agent this summer. Cha-ching!

Grubi Dooby Doo! It was Grubi vs. Dubby on Thursday night and #31 was clearly the better keeper in this affair. Philipp has played well in many of his starts this season, although he probably still wants the game winning goal he allowed to Vegas back from two Sundays ago. In Minnesota, he was solid and very timely with some key saves, especially on the power play after the Wild made it 3-1. Most notable was a big stop and then strong push to his right to thwart an immediate rebound chance on a Wild power play. You could just feel a lot of wind come out of the sails of the Wild’s boat after that back to back sequence when the Caps were on the PK.

Ranger Dan Strikes Again I’ve never been a fan of Dan O’Halloran, especially since game two of the Caps 2015 second round playoff game against the Rangers where he gave New York three power plays in the first period to allow Henrik Lundqvist and company to steal that contest. In Thursday’s game, the Capitals carried much of the play, but somehow came out on the short end of the power play totals, five to two. Yes, one of the penalties was an automatic puck over the glass on Eller, but there were some big missed calls in the third period that nearly allowed the Wild to get back in the game. O’Halloran didn’t whistle a blatant cross check by Zack Parise on Dmitry Orlov after a net scramble when it was 3-1 and then when it was 4-1, Tyler Ennis elbowed Orpik right in the freaking mind, for all of you Slap Shot fans out there, and he didn’t call it. When #44 went after Ennis, it was Brooks who somehow ended up in the box when Washington should’ve been on at least a two minute power play for a clear head shot. Hopefully the Department of Player Safety takes a look at that and doles punishment out to Ennis, otherwise we should just call them Clowns ‘R Us from now on.

Return of Andre the Giant I’ve been very hard on Evgeny Kuznetsov this season for his inconsistent effort, but second in line in that department has been Burakovsky. Yes, he suffered a bad thumb injury that put him on the shelf for six weeks early on, but outside of a very good game in Dallas back in December, he’s been missing in action. With his dad, Robert (former NHLer), in the building for this one, #65 played by far his best game since game six of the Penguins series last spring. Andre was moving his feet and as I tweeted in the period two, he was skating with confidence. That confidence led to an all world end to end rush goal early in period three that gave the Caps a three puck lead. Taking passes from Grubauer and Brett Connolly, the 23 year old Swede with an NHL body and talent, skated behind his own net and then took off like a rocket down the ice. He pretty much went through the entire Minnesota team and wristed one over Dubnyk’s glove between the circles to stun their opponents. It was a sweet goal made by some strong defensive zone play and exceptionally powerful skating. If the Caps get Burakovsky going down the stretch that would really help them hold off the Penguins in the Metro division race. It’s good to see that type of game from Andre, now he needs to build off of that and really be a consistent difference maker like he was on Thursday.

Notes: The Dads Trip continues in the Windy City on Saturday night at 8:30. The Blackhawks have been struggling and after losing to the Ducks, 3-2, on Thursday, they are 12 points out of a playoff spot. Chicago still has Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith, but goalie Corey Crawford has been out injured and that has really hurt this squad…the Caps were out shot attempted, 57-49, but unlike the game in Winnipeg, they did not sit back with a two goal lead, they kept trying to score and as a result, despite O’Halloran’s incompetence, they were never really in big trouble of blowing the lead…John Carlson (+3) led the Capitals in ice time with 23:09…Taylor Chorney played his first game in over a month and logged 13:51. Madison Bowey was the defensive scratch while Alex Chiasson sat at forward. On the Dads Trip, everyone plays, so those two will be in the lineup against Chicago and the Holtbeast will be in the cage…the Caps lost the face off battle, 39-29. Jay Beagle, who was shaken up by Dustin Byfuglien’s dirty two handed slash to the midsection on Tuesday, a move that prevented #83 from feeding Oshie for an easy empty net game clincher, was 10-6. I’ve never been a D-Buff fan and I hope Wilson or Orpik beats his brains in when the Jets come to town next month as payback for that crap he pulled on Beags.

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Kuznetsov and Eller lead the Caps to a 4-2 Victory over Columbus

Posted on 10 February 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Evgeny Kuznetsov and Lars Eller each notched a goal and an assist and Braden Holtby made 35 saves to lead the Caps to a 4-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night at Capital One Arena. The back to back wins over Coach John Tortorella’s squad improves Washington to 32-17-5 (69 points) and puts them 11 points ahead of the Blue Jackets with 28 games remaining. The Penguins, who were defeated in a shootout, 4-3, in Dallas late Friday, are in second place. Sidney Crosby and company are five points behind the Capitals and the Caps have two games in hand.

These two clubs met on Tuesday at Nationwide Arena and it was the Blue Jackets who dominated play in the game, but thanks to great goaltending from the Holtbeast and some timely scoring, the Caps escaped the state of Ohio as 3-2 winners.

On Friday, Columbus played a very desperate style, but they once again came up short. Washington, while getting outshot, 37-17, and outshot attempted, 79-50, played a much better game in their home barn.

The Caps first period was cleaner in terms of puck management and John Carlson scored just 5:09 into this affair on the doorstep following two super passes from Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana. The Capitals carried the majority of the play in period one and they stretched the Blue Jackets out, which provided wider passing lanes for their zone exits. Coach Barry Trotz attributed the strong first period to his team “skating well.” The shot attempts were 21-20 for Columbus, but Washington had the scoring chance edge. Unfortunately for the Caps, Coach John Tortorella’s club tied the game up at the 6:28 mark when Tom Wilson’s intended pass to Carlson behind the Washington net hit an uneven spot in the left wing corner boards. The puck caromed into the slot and Pierre-Luc Dubois gobbled it up and quickly whipped it past Holtby.

Washington, however, seized some late momentum when Kuznetsov scored with two seconds left after coming out of the penalty box. Lars Eller and Tom Wilson killed the end of the Blue Jackets power play and then they rushed the puck into the Columbus zone. After the puck went below the goal line, Matt Niskanen fetched an errant clear on the right wing boards. Nisky fired it at the net, the disc hit Eller at the right post and then bounced far post where Kuzy was there to pot the rebound.

The Caps, however, could not keep the momentum as Artemi Panarin deflected home a Seth Jones point blast just 27 seconds into the middle frame. Jones, who led all skaters with 25:32 of ice time, was able to get the puck when Dmitry Orlov missed a breakout pass on the left wing boards. At that point, the contest could’ve gone either way, but Washington potted what would be the game winning tally when Jay Beagle outworked Jones in front of the net to notch his sixth goal of the season. This was one of those tallies generated by good ole fashioned hard work. After a sequence of puck cycling by the Caps fourth line, Devante Smith-Pelly took a feed from Orlov on the high left wing boards and he alertly fired the puck at the cage. The shot hit Chandler Stephenson en route to the net and Beags closed the deal on the rebound just 4:38 into period two.

On the ensuing neutral zone faceoff, Lukas Sedlak was whistled for high sticking Nicklas Backstrom and that put Washington on the power play. The Caps couldn’t score with their first unit, but they connected on a rush with part of the second unit on the ice. Eller, T.J. Oshie (assist) and Alex Ovechkin had a three on two and with the Osh Babe going to the net far post, Eller caught Sergei Bobrovsky cheating a little to his right and #20 beat him short side at 6:06. That was six goals in just over 26 minutes of hockey, but that would be all of the red lights for this night.

With the Caps up two pucks, they focused on keeping the Blue Jackets to the perimeter, but in the last 10 minutes of period two, they were not very successful. Columbus had a number of good looks, especially on a late power play with Wilson in the box for tripping, but they were either stopped by the Holtbeast, missed the net, or blocked. Holtby was at his best during this stretch.

In the final stanza, the Capitals limited scoring opportunities for Columbus and they forced their opponents to have to settle for a lot of long range outside shots. The Caps team defense was solid and they didn’t allow the Blue Jackets to get any tipped or screened goals, something they live off of. Washington was outshot attempted 29-14 in period two and 29-16 in period three, but a lot of that is score effects, although winger Brett Connolly thought they needed to be attacking a bit more.

“I think we spent a little too much time in our own end in the third, I think you want to go at teams, but sometimes they push and you’ve just got to be in good position defensively. You try to get in front of pucks and Holts was good a couple of times there to make saves. I thought we were better tonight than in Columbus, a little more solid all around,” said the winger who has 13 goals this season.

Connolly is correct and afterwards Coach Trotz stated that there were “no passengers” on his bench for this one. Washington did skate well, especially early, and the top player in this tilt was Kuznetsov. When he is on, he is flat out dominant and that was the case on Friday. Linemates Vrana and Oshie also performed extremely well. Vrana employed his speed and he was engaged physically in his own end, something the Caps bench boss noted to the media afterwards.

Special teams provided an edge for the Caps, just like it did on Tuesday. Washington went one for four with the man advantage while the Capitals PK unit was a perfect three for three. The Caps generated five of their 17 shots on goal for the game on the power play. At one point in period two, the Capitals had four goals on “Bob” in 11 shots. Volume of shots isn’t something coach Trotz is overly concerned about; he’s more focused on quality shots. He was pleased with the goals and said any time you get four on [Bobrovsky] you should win.

This was a big triumph against a very desperate club that works hard, throws a lot of pucks on the net, and tries to generate ugly goals. The Capitals kept the Blue Jackets off of and out of the line of sight of Holtby. It was another victory that wasn’t pretty. There are no style points in the NHL, but the Caps were better than they were on Tuesday and they had to be to knock off a club that is fighting for their playoff lives.

Notes: Alex Ovechkin had five shot attempts, but none were on net…Kuznetsov was the #1 star. He had two points, four shots on goal, and logged 20:16…Alex Chiasson took the scratched Andre Burakovsky’s spot on the third line. He played only 9:05…Washington lost the faceoff battle, 32-27. Beagle was 6-5…the Caps next game is against the Detroit Red Wings at 3:00 pm from Capital One Arena on Sunday afternoon.

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Holtby Mutes the Cannon in a Caps 3-2 Victory

Posted on 07 February 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Columbus Blue Jackets are probably most known for the loud cannon that goes off after every goal they score in addition to another explosion at the end of the game, when they win, at Nationwide Arena.

On Tuesday night in the college hometown of the great Jack Nicklaus, Braden Holtby provided some sensational goaltending and Nicklas Backstrom tallied with 42 seconds left after a sweet feed from T.J. Oshie to prevent that freaking cannon from going off for the third time of the night. The 3-2 Washington triumph over Coach John Tortorella’s squad, which afterwards he called “a gut punch,” improves the Caps to 31-17-5 (67 points) and preserves their four point lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins, who defeated Vegas, 5-4, on Tuesday. The Capitals have two games in hand on Sidney Crosby and company.

Here are seven thoughts on this win, which improved the Capitals to 9-1-2 against Columbus in their last 12 meetings. The teams will meet again on Friday night at Capital One Arena.

Best Goalie in the NHL – Time and time again this year the Holtbeast has bailed the Caps out and won games for them, it’s a big reason, along with the outstanding play of Alexander Ovechkin, why Washington is in first place in the Metropolitan Division. I’d chronicle all of the big stops that #70 made in this affair, but to quote the great Mark Ratner from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, “That would take too long.” The Caps have largely gone with a blue line of two rookies all season so the amount of high quality shots Braden has faced this year has increased drastically. Tuesday was more of the same, especially in periods one and two when the Capitals were terribly sloppy with the puck and allowed 28 shots on goal, including 17 in the middle frame. To hold Columbus to just two goals given the opportunities they had is incredible. The Holtbeat is now 27-10-2 on the season with a .915 save percentage. He’s the best goalie in the NHL, in my book.

MVP, MVP, MVP – The Gr8 turned in another superb performance on Tuesday with two assists, 12 shot attempts, and eight shots on goal. Sergei Bobrovsky absolutely robbed Ovi a couple of times, but Alex was able to still make a huge difference in this game with his passing and shooting. On Washington’s second goal, he takes a nice drop pass from Christian Djoos and feeds Tom Wilson all alone in the slot. Top line Tommy then makes a gorgeous move to beat Bob on the backhand for his seventh goal of the season. Then, with the game tied in the last minute, Ovechkin does what he does best; he fired the puck on net from the left wing boards. It was not a high scoring chance opportunity, but when you have a shot like Ovi’s, putting it on the cage is never a bad thing. The Gr8’s high smoker handcuffed Bobrovsky and the disc bounced to the goaltender’s right. There the Osh Babe won a very key puck battle and then fed Backstrom behind his back for his open net game winning tally. All night it was Ovechkin’s line, which smartly included Backstrom and Wilson for most of the evening, and Oshie in a couple of key spots, that was dominant. Alex was on for all three Capitals tallies and was a +2 in this affair. He was not on the ice for either Columbus marker. He now has 32 goals and 26 assists (58 points) in 53 games. Don’t let any clowns on the internet tell you he isn’t MVP material because they are just biased haters. Alex is the biggest reason why Washington leads the Metropolitan Division with 29 games to go.

Cleanup on Aisle Four! – Man oh man, what is with all of these turnovers in the Caps own end? I’m not sure what is going on, but the coaching staff has to do something to fix these issues whether it’s just poor execution or a scheme change is needed or a combination of both. The opponents are getting too many great chances and add in the fact that this team doesn’t handle the opposing rush very well plus they too often are caught puck watching on rebounds and you have a total mess in the defensive zone. On the first goal, Holtby makes the initial save, but the five Capitals players on the ice don’t cover anyone and the Blue Jackets pot the rebound through traffic. Perhaps Coach Barry Trotz should take these guys out on the basketball court and teach them how to box out on a rebound so that they can take those fundamentals to the ice? We’ve seen too many easy goals lately where there are Caps defenders right in the area to make a play to prevent a goal, but they don’t. This disturbing trend needs to stop and if not for Holtby we’d be talking about a bunch of goals against, after the 11 allowed in the previous two tilts, and a third straight loss.

Big Mac Victory – Five on five play is so important in hockey, but sometimes you need your special teams to win a game. After losing Friday’s tilt to the Pens because of three power play goals allowed, the Capitals rebounded with a perfect three for three on the penalty kill and one for one on the power play at Nationwide Arena. John Carlson’s laser through a Blue Jacket screen tied the game up in the first five minutes, but more importantly, the Caps killed off two Columbus power plays in the last 10 minutes, one of which would have given their opponents the lead. Brooks Orpik had a humongous block as the last CBus power play was expiring and that allowed the puck to go to the other end where Ovi, Oshie, and Backstrom worked their game winning goal magic. Washington’s special sauce in this win was the play of their penalty kill and power play units.

Clueless in Columbus – With one of the two linesmen having to bail out due to sickness, Dean Morton and Graham Skilliter had to call both penalties and monitor a blue line. I sure hope that is what they are using for their excuse for missing some key infractions on the Blue Jackets. In period two, Seth Jones got away with a blatant slash on Ovechkin’s right hand and even worse, just before the Columbus game tying goal late in period three, Devante Smith-Pelly’s stick was slashed in half by a CBus defender, but the zebras didn’t call a penalty. That was ridiculous and Morton should probably be working down at the local high end restaurant asking you how you’d like your steak cooked.

A Near Gordie – It’s no secret that Top Line Tommy is having a great season. Reunited with Backstrom and Ovechkin, Wilson was once again a force on the ice. He scored a goal and beat up top line winger Josh Anderson. Anderson was pretty much invisible after that first period bout and he finished the game a -2. #43 continues to drive the play and bring a much needed physicality (five hits) to the Capitals offense. All Wilson needed on this night was an assist to get the Gordie Howe hat trick, but he fell short.

Add It Up – In summary, the Capitals pretty much stole two points on Tuesday night thanks to Holtby and some of their stars, to include the Gr8. They were outshot attempted 67-48 and shots on goal were 39-25. It’s been awhile since the Caps have played a complete game. There is lots of room for improvement and Andre Burakovksy (-1 in 6:34 of action, including no third period shifts) remains on a milk carton. Coach Trotz tried reuniting #65 with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly on the third line to get him going, but once again #65 brought the line down. His shot takes too long to get off and he skates with his head down, too often. Jones flattened him easily in the first period at the Caps offensive blue line on one instance. As we head into the February 26th trade deadline, GM Brian MacLellan has a tough decision to make on this player who just isn’t stepping up as needed. The organization gave him a two year, $6M bridge contract last summer but when I go all Violent Femmes and try to add it up, maybe it’s got something to do with luck, but he’s not giving the team the necessary production. Actually, it’s not luck, Andre just isn’t doing the things necessary to be successful and the sand in the hour glass could be running out on his time in Washington.

Notes: Matt Niskanen led the Capitals in ice time with 23:17 and Oprik logged 22:56, including 4:38 of PK time. Jones led all skaters with 27:31 TOI…the Caps won the face-off battle, 28-26. Backstrom went 11-8.

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Ovi Sid GHog Day

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Eight Caps Thoughts After a GroundHog Day Loss in Pennsylvania

Posted on 03 February 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals wasted two goals and an assist from NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin on Friday night in a sloppy 7-4 defeat to the two time defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The loss drops the Caps to 30-16-5 (65 points) and they now lead the second place Pens by four points (29-21-3), but the Capitals have two games in hand.

Without further adieu, here are eight detailed thoughts on this game played on Groundhog Day at the Consol Energy Center.

Dana Carvey’d – Coming into this game, the Capitals knew they had a disadvantage in the special teams department and that’s how this one played out. The Pens went 3 for 4 with the man advantage while the Caps were a great big Dunkin Donuts hole, 0 for 3, with their power plays. “Well, isn’t that special!” to quote the great Saturday Night Live Church Lady. Pittsburgh’s penalty kill was very aggressive on Washington, although the Caps had seven shots on goal while up a man. On the flip side, the Penguins are just deadly and confident when they have the puck. Patrick Hornqvist, who left this game with a lower body injury after being crushed on a clean hit by Brooks Orpik, was a force in front of the net on the Pens third goal and all three power play tallies came on shots from in front, mostly on rebounds. With the contest 4-4 in the final frame, Lars Eller had a simple PK clear that he flubbed and the Penguins cashed in right after the turnover to seize momentum and pull away down the stretch. There’s no doubt that the difference in this contest was the special teams, and I’ll have more on the zebras later, don’t you worry!

Smoked at Texas Hold ‘Em – The Capitals are at their best when they go up and down the ice in a five man structured unit. If this was a poker game, the Caps ability to do that on Friday night could be labeled a flop! The Penguins do an excellent job at spreading the Caps out and Washington’s back end was very poor all night, too. There isn’t a single blue liner that I thought brought anywhere close to their A game in this affair. Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov were woefully out of position on Phil Kessel’s game opening goal, the ninth straight time Washington has allowed the first tally. On the second goal, Christian Djoos made a spectacular cross ice pass in his own zone to Carl Hagelin that Braden Holtby had little chance on. Rookie mistake there by #29 and to use the words from the bench boss in Major League, I hope Coach Barry Trotz or Assistant Coach Todd Rierden told the young blue liner, “Good try kid, but don’t ever bleeping do that again!” The right play there was to put the puck up the left wing boards quickly. There has been talk that Hagelin is on the trading block in Pittsburgh. The Caps have to certainly hope he’s moved because he’s killed Washington throughout the years whether he’s been with the Rangers or the Penguins. Finally, on Evgeni Malkin’s marker just a minute into period three, John Carlson stood prone in the slot like an orange road cone as Geno, who was an absolute beast in this game with two goals and two assists, shot on the Holtbeast and then in Moses Malone-like fashion, he buried the biscuit on the rebound. There were three Capitals there and no one boxed #71 out, but #74 deserves the most blame in that instance. Getting into a rush game with the Penguins was not wise given how fast and skilled they are and Washington might just need to switch up tactics if they meet up again in the playoffs. Wait a minute, it’s Groundhog Day, right?! Of course the Caps and Pens will see each other again, likely in early May. Caps stellar TV analyst Alan May pointed out that fire wagon hockey against the Penguins is not a smart decision and that a strategy of employing five men at the Caps defensive blue line to slow the Pens down and then counter attack, might be a configuration worth trying. The Capitals are a good rush team too, see Ovi’s first goal where he abused Kris Letang, but Washington is very poor in defending the rush. They tend to over pursue coming back, puck watch, and leave opposing players wide open for great looks. I’ve seen the stacked blue line deployment work very well in the past, the Flyers defeated a more talented and faster Capitals team in 1989 in the first round by doing just that (Pete Peeters also stunk in net for the Caps in that series, but that’s a story for another day).

No Seconds Guys – In game six of last season’s playoff series the line of Andre Burakovsky, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie dominated the Penguins to force a game seven. That second line unit, in the several times that Coach Trotz has assembled it this season, has been unable to reproduce its magic. The biggest problem, from what I’m seeing, is the terrible play of #65. His defensive zone is a train wreck. He’s too soft on the wall and his ability to take a breakout pass and get the offense going the other way has disappeared. In the two games since the All Star Break, he’s been a turnover machine and a big reason why is because his fundamentals are off. You can’t take a pass and get moving quickly the other way when you have your back to the opposing defensemen. You’re an easy mark there and your only options are lateral or backwards. Burakovsky has to move his feet better, get his rear facing the boards, and put his stick in the proper position with force to take a breakout pass. This line needs to be changed, pronto!

Ovechkin the Great – It’s been an MVP season for the Gr8 and as stated above, he had two goals and an assist in this one. His 32 goals lead Malkin, who’s playing some incredible hockey, by four in the Rocket Richard Trophy race. Alex how has 56 points (24 assists) and he has the highest percentage of his team’s goals in the NHL, which is why he’s the most valuable to his club. Ovi is playing with speed and power. He totally turned Letang around on the goal that got Washington back in this one at 2-1. He assisted on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s goal that knotted the game at three in period two as he and Tom Wilson just muscled their way through the Penguin defense. After more Malkin heroics, Ovechkin tied this game back up at four just under two minutes into period three when he buried a sweet feed from #92. No matter who Alex is paired with this season, he’s been delivering on the ice. He’s had a great campaign to date and the only thing that’s really gone against him off of it was that partisan hit piece that The Washington Post did on him and his long time, well established, and very understandable relationship with Vladimir Putin, but we know the Democracy Dies in Darkness crowd, whatever that saying is supposed to mean, has a bit too much Russia on their collective minds. But again, that’s another story. [Aside: Speaking of great Russia stories, have you ever seen Sean Connery as James Bond in From Russia With Love? Now that’s a good story involving Russia.] Bottom line, the cuddly Ovi came to play, once again, but a lot of other players didn’t bring a quality game in the Steel City on Friday night; too many passengers.

Reg Dunlop Time – With so many guys floating against the Pens, it’s time for Coach Trotz to go all Reg Dunlop and shuffle his lines around for Sunday’s matinee against the speedy Vegas Golden Knights. The Rock Vegas hockey club skated all over the Capitals back on December 23rd when Washington was on their 3rd game in four nights. Well, turnabout is fair play and the Vegas Strong crew will be having their 3rd match in less than four days on Sunday in DC. Vegas Coach Gerard Gallant stated that “For the first time all season, we looked like a tired hockey team” (h/t to the great Vegas Golden Knights Twitter account) after his club lost 5-2 in Minnesota on Groundhog Day. Vegas has been traveling across the country all week. They rallied with three goals to beat Calgary on Tuesday, beat the Winnipeg Jets in OT on Thursday, and were run out of the Excel Energy Center on Friday. The Caps must jump on these guys with speed up front at Capital One Arena on Sunday at 12:30 pm. My proposed lines to try and get things going early are:

Ovechkin – Backstrom – Wilson

Jakub Vrana – Kuznetsov – Oshie

Brett Connolly – Eller – Burakovsky

Chandler Stephenson – Jay Beagle – Devante Smith-Pelly

Hung Out to Dry – Holtby has been stellar for the Caps this season and he made some huge saves early in this tilt just to keep the Caps in it. Braden gave up six lamp lighters and was pulled in period three, but the only one I thought he probably should have had was the sixth goal by Phil Kessel (two goals, one assist). The snipe beat the Holtbeast short side, but that was on a three on two and #81, next to Ovi, might have the second best shot in the league. So let’s cut Holtby some slack, although Caps Nation is very well known for overreacting on Twitter after losses, because the skaters in front of him had no real regard for defense in this affair outside of a few players (Ovi and Willy were good in all zones on Friday).

Burrito Salesmen – With a special teams game something the Capitals did not want to get into, those who follow me on Twitter (@EdFrankovic) knew that this was going to be a poorly officiated affair. By no means do I put this loss on the referees, the Caps were too loose and employed the wrong style to come out on top on Friday, but the performances by Chris Rooney and Tim Peel were terrible. Two of the Penguins power plays were the wrong calls, the clean hit by Wilson on a falling Ian Cole and Madison Bowey’s tripping penalty that was initally interference on the Penguins. The clowns on ice also missed several other infractions against the Penguins (for example, Burakovsky taking a stick from Cole to the face). Power plays were 4 to 3 for the Pens. Yes, the lazy offensive zone penalties by both Backstrom and Stephenson were spot on, but I don’t know what color the moon is on Rooney Tunes and Peel’s planet most nights they officiate games? Simply put, those two zebras remind me of a line from Damone in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, “I came this close to working at the 7-11.” In this case, both of those fools should be putting chili on hot dogs, microwaving burritos, and slinging slurpees at the local quick stop or 7-11. They are just awful at refereeing.

The Fabulous Thunderbirds Finish – Overall, despite all of the bad things the Caps did in this affair, it was not such a bad loss. Yes, they were sloppy and unstructured, but they battled back from 2-0, 3-1, and 4-3 deficits to put themselves in position to win the game when they didn’t have many guys clicking. There is a lot of talent on this Caps club, much like we see the Penguins display; and they are a great hockey team, but the three goal margin was not indicative of how close this contest really was, it could’ve gone either way. Nobody likes losing to one of their arch rivals, but its only game 51 out of 82. The playoffs are two and a half months away and things will change before these teams meet again in late April/early May. Washington will no doubt add a blue liner, I just can’t see this organization relying very heavily on two rookies and being successful in the post season. Plus, I’m sure Mario Lemieux and company will go all Don Corleone and offer a sucker team a deal that they can’t refuse that will bolster their squad while keeping them under the salary cap. But it’s all good and both teams badly want to win. Losing isn’t fun, especially when the Caps have become Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, losing to Pittsburgh so often. But that movie has a happy ending, so just maybe?! This was a fun game to watch, but a coach’s nightmare with the lack of structure. You have to take the bad with the good, so with that, wrap this one up, I’ll take it! I’ve got no choice.

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Chandler Flyers

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Caps Rally to Blast the Flyers, 5-3

Posted on 31 January 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Chandler Stephenson scored twice in 47 seconds early in the middle frame to erase a two goal deficit and Braden Holtby made 27 saves to lead Washington to a 5-3 victory over the despised Flyers on Wednesday night. T.J. Oshie notched the game winning goal on the power play in the third period and the Caps improved to 30-15-5 (65 points). They lead second place Pittsburgh by six points and have two games in hand.

Fresh after the five day All Star Break, the Capitals first period could be summed up in three simple Dr. Seuss like terms: Stink. Stank. Stunk.

The team played slow and there were turnovers galore. Both Flyers tallies came on the rush and Philadelphia would have had another goal if not for a dandy glove save by #70. It was ugly hockey and Coach Barry Trotz’ crew continued their trend of starting poorly coming out of a long break.

From the beginning of the second period on, the game was mostly a different story, especially after Stephenson scored his third and fourth goals of the season. In the opening frame, the Caps were pass happy and unwilling to throw the puck on net against a career backup in Michal Neuvirth. Credit Lars Eller for changing that pattern and igniting the Caps offense. #20 outraced a Flyer to negate an icing and he then sent the puck into Neuvy’s pads from the goal line. The Czech goalie, who was coming off a stomach bug, fumbled the disc in his pads and “Johnny on the Spot” Stephenson banged the biscuit home to give his team some life. Madison Bowey caught the Flyers in a bad line change and sprung #18 for a breakaway with a super long feed. Chandler then beat the Philly netminder five hole, like a rented mule, to tie this one up just 3:01 into period two.

After that, the Flyers had a quick push back, especially with the Capitals being sloppy in their own zone on several occasions. Coach Dave Hakstol’s team should’ve had the lead if not for two great saves by Holtby in the slot after another terrible Washington turnover. The Holtbeast made the first save and then stretched out his left pad to stop goal scoring phenom, Claude Giroux, at the left post. It was, once again, clutch goaltending from the best net minder in the league.

Washington would get the next two goals on the power play, but the first tally was a not so frequent one from the second unit. Once again, it was Eller who made a smart play instead of trying to thread the needle across the high slot to Alex Ovechkin. Lars spotted Andre Burakovsky parked at the top of the crease and his pass to #65 was deflected home at 14:32 of period two. The Caps would press the play towards the end of the second stanza, but couldn’t convert again.

As expected, the Flyers came out storming the castle in period three and Washington, who must’ve been listening to Air Supply’s Greatest Hits during the intermission, were sleep skating and guilty of turning the puck over multiple times. Burakovsky had two bad giveaways that led to Philly chances, but the Holtbeast bailed him out.

Tom Wilson then drew a hooking call on rookie Nolan Patrick just past the four minute mark and the Caps top power play unit made the Flyers pay dearly. Washington worked the puck around the perimeter and then Evgeny Kuznetsov gave Oshie a sweet feed in his diamond spot between the Flyers penalty killers that T.J. buried past Neuvirth on a one timer to make it 4-2. It was a much needed goal for the Osh Babe, who notched his 12th of the season, because it was his first goal since tallying in Arizona back on December 22nd.

The Capitals refused to sit back after going up two pucks and they pressed the play. Ovechkin missed a wide open net on a one timer that would’ve made it a three goal margin, but that wasn’t troubling since shortly thereafter they earned more quality chances. They would eventually cash in when Christian Djoos took a sweet cross ice feed from Jay Beagle on an odd man rush and fired the puck on net. Devante Smith-Pelly was crashing the cage and the disc hit him and went into the twine to make it 5-2 with 10:54 remaining.

The Flyers would get a goal with 9:20 to go, but from there the Capitals clamped things down and gave Philadelphia very little chances. Holtby shut the door with the Caps doing a solid job of letting him see any remaining shots.

Overall, this was a big division victory after a really poor first frame. The Caps top line of Kuznetsov, Wilson, and Ovi were each a minus two in the game, but they did a lot of good things. Wilson drew an important penalty and they were physical. The key to the contest, though, was Eller showing the Capitals that firing the puck on a shaky goalie and then going for rebounds was the way to prevail. It’s simple hockey, but it works well in this league. Washington has some big bodies up front so it’s imperative that they use their size to get to the front of the cage and make life difficult on opposing keepers. That style, versus the Harlem Globetrotters exhibition the team tries to play too often, is one that wins playoff games and series.

At the other end of the ice, the club has plenty of work to do to clean up their zone exits and coverage as they work through a stretch of 15 games in 28 days. Fortunately on Rivalry Night on NBC their all world goalie bailed them out and held them in the contest until they found their legs.

As a result, my number one star for the tilt was once again the Holtbeast.

Notes: The Caps take on the Penguins in the Steel City on Friday night…Burakovsky had four giveaways…Matt Niskanen had a strong game, one of his best all season, and he led the Capitals in ice time with 24:03…the Capitals were 2 for 3 on the power play and 1 for 1 on the penalty kill…Alex Lyon replaced Neuvirth once this one went to a 5-2 margin in period three…the Caps lost the battle of the draws, 36-26. Nicklas Backstrom was 10-10…shots on goal were 30-25 for Philly, but shot attempts were 52-49 for Washington…the Caps were 0-1-1 against the Flyers coming into this affair…the win snapped a three game home losing streak…anytime the Capitals defeat their biggest rival since 1974-75 you can bet that the sun shines brighter, the air smells cleaner, and the food and drink taste much better. Enjoy your Thursday, Caps fans!

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Ovi Cats

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Ovechkin Leads the Caps Past Florida, 4-2

Posted on 25 January 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Heading into the Thursday night’s game in Sunrise against the Florida Panthers, the Washington Capitals, losers of three straight contests, badly needed a victory.

Coming off of their bye week, they went 0-1-2 against the Devils, Canadiens, and Flyers while displaying some shoddy hockey in the process. Passes were off, the compete level was down from many players, and they didn’t even score a goal at even strength in their last two contests.

With two days of practice under their belts, the Caps hoped to get a win in the Sunshine State in their only contest in nine days due to the upcoming All Star break. They also wanted to play better.

Led by Alexander Ovechkin (1 goal and 1 assist – the 500th assist of his career), Washington did just that en route to a 4-2 victory over the Cats.  The win extends the Capitals lead in the Metropolitan Division to six points (29-15-5) and the teams in second place are now the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Columbus Blue Jackets (57 points). The Caps and Blue Jackets both have two games in hand on the Pens.

Things didn’t start well for Coach Barry Trotz’ crew in this affair. Washington took three minor penalties in the first 10 minutes, but they managed to kill each of them with some outstanding efforts. Unfortunately, the Caps didn’t turn the momentum they earned on the PK into a lead. Less than a minute after the third successful penalty kill, Nicklas Backstrom made a horrible decision to try a soft pass back to Christian Djoos in the defensive zone. The brain fart by #19 put the puck right on Jamie McGinn’s stick and he fed Denis Malgin for an easy tally.

From there, the Capitals started to wake up, and when MacKenzie Weegar was boxed for holding, the Washington power play connected. The Gr8 made a super diagonal pass to Evgeny Kuznetsov (two assists) at the far post and then Kuzy slid a sweet feed to Backstrom, who had his stick properly on the ice, which allowed him to bury the biscuit back door. That goal with 2:35 left in the opening frame seemed to relieve the pressure that was on Washington.

In the middle stanza, the Caps started to carry the play, but another defensive zone turnover led to a Florida tally. Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky made some very weak plays in their own end and the result was a back post tap in marker for Malgin at 6:40.

From that point on, this game was pretty much all Capitals. Ovechkin notched his 30th goal of the season tipping home a Brooks Orpik shot just 71 seconds after the Cats had taken the lead. Washington would storm the castle in the second period firing 17 shots on net, but it wasn’t until late in the frame that they finally forged ahead.

Top line Tom Wilson and Ovechkin kept the puck alive on the wall deep in the Florida end and when the disc came around the right wing boards, Kuznetsov gathered it and made a dandy of a move and pass to Wilson in the right wing circle. With Ovi in front of the net, Willy found John Carlson all alone in the slot and #74 buried the puck, top shelf.

Kuznetsov, who was fabulous in this tilt until getting injured in the third period with what is likely a groin injury, drew a penalty at the second period horn. That put the Caps on the power play again to start period three. Washington pounded the rock on Florida rookie goalie, Harri Sateri (42 saves), but it wasn’t until Brett Connolly scored on the rush with eight seconds left in the man advantage that they finally grabbed a two goal cushion. Burakovksy made a great play to set that one up and #10 shot quickly into the vacant left side of the cage for his 13th tally of the season.

The Caps had a chance to blow this one wide open when they received a two man advantage for a full two minutes at the 4:33 mark, but despite a ton of shots, they couldn’t score. They hit at least one post and Sateri made several big saves. Down the stretch the Capitals carried most of the play, pouring a total of 19 shots on net in the final frame. For the night, the shots on net tally were 46-34, for Washington.

Overall, the Capitals finally played a solid contest, their first since the win over Vancouver on Tuesday, January 9th. Braden Holtby (32 saves) was very good in net to earn his 25th win of the season and Ovechkin was the best player on the ice for Washington with #92 a close second. I’ve been very tough on Kuznetsov on Twitter, but that’s because I know he can play a lot better and he’s a key to the Caps dominating. On Thursday night, Kuzy was dominant, but unfortunately, he was injured late and if he’s out for an extended period of time, there’s a big hole up the middle of the ice. The All Star Break could not come at a better time since the Caps don’t play again until Wednesday, January 31st against the Flyers at Capital One Arena.

Notes: John Carlson had 10 shots on net and Ovechkin had eight. It’s good to see the Capitals shooting the puck and not overpassing. They were more of a north-south team in this affair and that’s how they must play to be effective. I didn’t like the soft defensive zone plays by the Backstrom line that led to the two Florida goals. Those type of mental lapses and lack of effort need to be cleaned up…the Caps were 2 for 6 on the power play and a perfect four for four while shorthanded…the Caps were creamed, 37-27, at the dot. Backstrom went 8-6…Ovechkin led the Caps in ice time with 24:54, Carlson was just three seconds behind the Gr8…Devante Smith-Pelly was the healthy scratch at forward…the All Star Game is in Tampa this weekend and the Caps will be represented by Coach Trotz, Ovechkin, and Holtby. The always fun skills competition takes place on Saturday night and on Sunday is the very exciting three on three tournament. Music will be provided by Kid Rock between the 1st and 2nd periods (games) on Sunday.

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Ovi Old School

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A Detailed Look at the Caps After 45 Games

Posted on 15 January 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Following Jay Beagle’s stunning game winning goal with just over a second left in Carolina on Friday night, the Washington Capitals players headed to Atlantis, Florida, the Caribbean, Colorado, and other mostly warmer destinations for five days of rest and recovery during the team’s now annual bye “week.”

The victory improved the Caps to 28-14-3 (59 points) and they will remain in first place in the Metropolitan Division until they take the ice again on Thursday, against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center.

With the downtime, I’ve put together some lengthy thoughts on a hockey team that has once again positioned itself near the top of the NHL standings and is among the league’s best squads.

Shortchanged It’s called the “bye week,” but the Caps are only getting five days between games while most other teams are getting a six or seven day gap. In addition, the Capitals went into the break playing back to back games and will come out of it in the same fashion facing the Devils on the road and then the Montreal Canadiens at home on Friday evening. The bye break was something the players clamored for in recent years so that they could get away during what is a very long season. The downside of this plan, however, combined with the three day Christmas shutdown and the All-Star Break is a schedule made up of numerous back to back tilts and many three games in four night scenarios. This leads to a poor product on several occasions and a case in point was Washington’s 3-1 loss to Carolina last Thursday when it appeared that many on the squad were already on the beach.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes The 2017 summer saw some very important key Capitals players depart due to the NHL expansion draft and the rising salary cap to include defensemen Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt plus forwards Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, and Daniel Winnik. How General Manager Brian MacLellan and Coach Barry Trotz would handle those personnel losses would hold the key to the 2017-18 season. The Capitals were 30-9-6 (66 points) after 45 games in 2016-17, so they have only seven points less than they were at this point in a Presidents’ Trophy winning campaign. Last year’s team was experienced, stacked and averaged 28.4 years old. This year’s club has relied on contributions from several rookies, to include defensemen Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos as well as forwards Jakub Vrana (10 goals) and Chandler Stephenson (10 points). The average age of the team has dropped to 28.0, which is a significant change considering that each returning player is a year older. Plugging those rookies into the vacated spots alone clearly could not fill the void left by so many quality players. Therefore, Coach Trotz and his staff had to shift to a “rely on the returning players” philosophy while bringing along the young bucks. Comparing ice times in 2017-18 versus 2016-17 shows a very telling picture.

Player 2017-18 Avg TOI 2016-17 Avg TOI Delta
John Carlson 26:09 22:42 +3:42
Matt Niskanen 22:27 22:10 +:17
Dmitry Orlov 23:16 19:32 +3:44
Brooks Orpik 20:42 17:47 +2:55
Alex Ovechkin 19:42 18:21 +1:21
Nicklas Backstrom 19:40 18:15 +1:25
Evgeny Kuznetsov 18:54 16:57 +1:57
T.J. Oshie 18:40 17:51 +:49
Lars Eller 15:20 13:54 +1:26
Tom Wilson 15:29 12:55 +2:34
Brett Connolly 11:35 10:41 +:54
Jay Beagle 12:39 13:37 -:58
Andre Burakovsky 13:35 13:15 +:20

 

In a nutshell, the coaching staff is playing their key players more than last season when they could just roll four lines and wear teams down. There are some major changes in average time on ice on the back end, especially for Carlson, Orlov, and Orpik. Carlson, who is a Norris Trophy candidate despite two rocky games before the bye week break, has been outstanding, especially considering Niskanen has missed 14 games and has played less than 100% healthy in multiple others. As I’ve blogged on several occasions and GM MacLellan noted to The Washington Post last week, the unsung hero on the back end has been Orlov. Number nine has turned into such a strong two way defensemen and he continues to get better. The upside is still there, too, as he probably would have more points if he got more power play time. The concern is Orpik is playing nearly three minutes more than last season simply because he has to while Djoos comes up to speed. Without Brooks to carry a large load in the first 30 games while the rookies were learning and Niskanen was out, this team may have been sunk. Lately though, #44 has shown some wear on his wheels, so a January schedule that sees a lot of breaks should help him out. The improved play of Djoos and Bowey also will be critical in the second half of the season. I fully expect the Caps to add a defensemen at the trade deadline in late February.

Stars in the City There is no doubt that the “Coach’s Robot,” the Gr8, and “All Star” Nicklas Backstrom are a big reason why this team is still one of the best in the league. Ovechkin was overweight and not in ideal shape in 2016-17 and it showed during the regular season and the playoffs. He had only 33 regular season goals, most of which came on the power play, and he was slower and more prone to injury. Alex took management’s direction and trained totally differently this past summer and the results are blatantly obvious. He’s faster than he’s been since perhaps 2010, which has allowed him to generate better quality chances. He’s had several breakaway tallies and is leading the NHL in goals at 28 in 45 games (a 51 goals pace). 20 of those goals are at even strength this season, compared to just 16 in 2016-17. Backstrom had 86 points in 2016-17 and he’s on pace for 17 fewer this campaign, but most of that drop-off came when Trotz had the Gr8 on a different line. That experiment was smartly shelved and since the two have been Peaches and Herb’d, aka Reunited, the team has gone on a tear. There is no one on the planet who knows how to play better with Ovi than Nicky. Kuznetsov is a super talent, but he is so reliant on having the puck while Backstrom is such a strong two way guy that gets the biscuit from the opposition and allows Alex to get the touches he needs to score goals.

Carpe Diem With the departure of key forwards, several younger Capitals have seized the day and opportunity in 2017-18. Kuznetsov is playing nearly two minutes more a game (more on him in a minute), but looking at the average ice times for Eller and Wilson are very revealing. Willy is logging 2:34 more a night and at six goals and 18 points in 41 games he should shatter his career highs. Wherever Coach Trotz has put #43 this season he has produced and the nice thing is it’s been in a top nine role, no more fourth line Tommy. Eller, who is an unrestricted free agent this summer, has nine goals and 21 points in 44 games. He had 12 goals and 25 points in 81 total games in 2016-17. He’s playing 1:26 more a night and he’s become a better contributor, especially offensively, and that was sorely needed. The Washington third line, which was dominant last January when the Capitals were nearly unbeatable, has returned to play a big role in 2017-18. Eller and Connolly (10 goals) have been the staples there and there’s been a rotation of right wings to mostly include Oshie, Burakovsky, Vrana, and Wilson.

Not So Special In 2016-17 the Caps connected on 22.98% of their power plays and killed off 83.92% of their shorthanded situations. The league averages were 19.1% and 80.9%, respectively. In 2017-18, the power play has slowed to a 19.57% connection rate (NHL average is 19.4%) and is only thwarting 79.08% of their manpower disadvantages (NHL average is 80.6%). Simply put, the Capitals, unlike years past, have had to rely more on five on five goal differential to win games. This season they are +14 (91 to 77) in that category. There is lots of room for improvement on the special teams.

Dynamic Duo Looking at the team stats, the Caps have gone from outshooting opponents 30.4 to 27.8 per game in 2016-17 to being outshot 32.3 to 29 in 2017-18. That is a direct result of the change in personnel. Let’s be honest, the Capitals lost a lot of veteran players and are incorporating new blood into the squad. So why have they been able to still be successful? Well, outside of what has been mentioned already, the single biggest factor is the outstanding goaltending from Braden Holtby (24 wins) and Philipp Grubauer (7 quality starts in 12 games). The team save percentage has dropped from .925 to .917, but it’s clear that the quality of shots against has gone up a bit. These two continue to make the big save for Washington at the key time and goalie is the most important position in hockey.

Delivering the Overpass There’s a famous Bill Engvall “Here’s Your Sign” joke about a truck getting stuck with the punch line being, “Nope, I was delivering that overpass and my truck flat ran out of gas…Here’s Your Sign!” Perhaps the organization should bring the legendary comedian in to hand out “Here’s Your Sign” awards for all of those times the Capitals have tried to make an extra pass when they are in the high danger scoring areas? Guilty party number one on that list is Kuznetsov. When #92 plays the right way, and he’s had some nice stretches of that, the Caps dominate. He ranks second on the team in goals (13) and when he carries a shoot first mentality he is deadly on the ice because the defense has no idea what he is going to do, pass or shoot. Too often, though, he is in Harlem Globetrotters fancy pants mode, and that is much easier to defend. He needs to cut back on the circling pattern where he takes himself out of the high danger scoring area and eventually turns the puck over. That issue has crept into others on this team, to include Oshie, who I’d like to see shoot more. This is a shoot first league and with the goaltending being so good, rebounds or shots from high danger areas with traffic are the best way to beat them. Do the Caps think they have to make the pretty play so often because they practice against two of the best goalies in the league regularly? That could be a factor, but if they just looked at their recent tallies, many of them are just shots from the middle of the ice with players going to the net or using a defender to screen his own keeper. It’s not rocket science and it’s one of the big reasons the Caps are down in the shots on net and shots attempted statistics. They have the puck often, but many times they possess it for awhile and never generate a shot. They need to dump that habit and the cross ice pass at the offensive blue line if they want to go deep into the post season.

Where’s the Six Million Dollar Man? If you had told me on October 1st that Burakovksy would only have three goals after the Caps have played 45 games, I would have said the Caps would not be in playoff position. Luckily, I would’ve been wrong. #65 has played only 21 games due to injuries and overall malaise, but the man who signed a two year deal for a total of $6M is a very key cog in the wheel if Washington wants to challenge for the Stanley Cup. If I was Andre, the first thing I’d do after getting home from the Bahamas would be to pull out the tape of game six against the Penguins last spring and watch it. That’s the way Andre needs to play to be successful, very physical on the opposing boards and puck so that he can score and generate goals. He can be that player if he puts his mind to it and works hard. A return to form by Burakovsky is a must from now until June.

In summary, even with the personnel losses from last season, the Capitals have still positioned themselves among the best teams in the league. Despite what some statistics, such as Corsi, try to tell you, this positive outcome is not just pure luck. As I’ve chronicled, there’s been a method to the team’s success, which also includes a unique ability, much like the Pittsburgh Penguins have done the last two seasons, to counter attack and be deadly on the rush. Speed is an important aspect of hockey and the Capitals have improved in that department. Their save percentage is slightly down, but their goalies have been stellar and they aren’t living off of a higher shooting percentage. They are connecting on 10.5% of their shots, just like they did last season. The league average is around 9%, but the Caps have high end talent, unlike a Corsi loved team like Carolina, who throw a lot of pucks on net from everywhere, but don’t have the Ovechkins, Kuznetsovs, Backstroms and Oshies of the world who have great shots. Looking at another favorite analytic stat, PDO, which measures shooting percentage plus save percentage at even strength, it shows the Caps were at 102.4 in 2016-17 and this season they have dropped to 101.6 (meaning they’ve been less lucky). I’ve stated this axiom in blogs and on the air on WNST many times; it’s great to look at statistics, but in the grand scheme of things, hockey is a game of high skill and talent, it is non-linear and is chaos theory. The Washington Capitals have high end talent and the organization has structured the team around that. Now the question is can they continue to improve down the stretch so that they can peak in the post season?

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Kuzy Canucks

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Caps Win 10th Straight At Home in 3-1 Triumph Over Vancouver

Posted on 09 January 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals scored three goals in a span of 10 minutes and Philipp Grubauer stopped 37 of 38 shots as the Caps reeled off their 10th straight victory at home to defeat the Vancouver Canucks, 3-1, at Capital One Arena on Tuesday night.

Washington, who will face Carolina in a home and home matchup on Thursday and Friday, have just those two tilts to play before their five day “bye” break begins on Saturday. With the triumph over Vancouver, the Capitals improve to 27-13-3 (57 points) and they lead the Metropolitan Division by a season high four points over the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have played one more game. New Jersey is five points behind the Caps, but they have two games in hand.

The Canucks destroyed the Capitals back in October, 6-2, when Washington wasn’t playing good hockey and were missing some top players (Matt Niskanen and Nicklas Backstrom). Since then, though, the Caps have been one of the league’s best squads while Vancouver has turned into the doormat I and many others expected them to be this season. Coach Travis Green’s club is now 16-21-6 (38 points) and only the Arizona Coyotes have fewer points than the Canucks in the Western Conference.

On paper, this looked like a mismatch, but the game started well for the visitors. Washington was sloppy with the puck giving the Canucks more shot opportunities. Grubauer didn’t have to make many big saves early, but a Devante Smith Pelly lazy offensive zone infraction put Vancouver on the power play. Coach Barry Trotz’ improving PK unit looked ready to kill it off, but when Chandler Stephenson jumped over the boards and battled for the puck before Tom Wilson could get to the bench, the Caps were boxed for too many dudes. That gave Vancouver a five on three and it was pretty much a five on two when Jay Beagle was hobbled after blocking a shot. The huge manpower difference for the Canucks resulted in a Daniel Sedin tip in of an Alex Edler point shot at 8:23.

With a 1-0 lead, Nikolay Goldobin nearly made it a two puck advantage, but Grubauer made a big save on #77 and then he hit the pipe with the rebound. It was one of those quality high danger stops at a key time that Washington has gotten a lot of this season from their stellar goaltending duo of #31 and Braden Holtby.

Just two minutes after that, John Carlson tied the game when he fired the puck on net from the right wing boards and it went five hole on Jacob Markstrom (33 saves). The big goalie was likely distracted by the net coming up in the air just beforehand along with Michael Del Zotto standing right in front of him messing with the cage. Green challenged the goal for goalie interference, but there was none of that and the tally stood.

Washington continued to press the play and less than three minutes later they took the lead when Madison Bowey gave Lars Eller a nice neutral zone feed. Eller then headed up the middle of the ice with speed and using the Vancouver defender as a screen, Lars shot from just inside the blue line and it beat the goalie, who was suffering from an obstructed view, top shelf. That goal, on a heck of a snipe, made it 2-1 with 2:08 left in the opening frame.

In the middle stanza, Washington was downright dominant controlling the puck for the majority of the period. Evgeny Kuznetsov increased the Capitals lead to 3-1 at the 4:57 mark when he took a feed from Niskanen just outside the offensive blue line and skated in with Erik Gudbranson charging towards him. Kuzy shot the puck and Markstrom batted the rebound in the air into the slot. Both Kuznetsov and Gudbranson swatted at the puck, but it was the stiff #44 who put it into his own net with his glove. The marker gives #92 13 goals for the season.

The Capitals were relentless in their pursuit of the puck and it was wave after wave of Washington players storming into the offensive end in period two, one in which the Caps have really struggled in this season. That was not the case on Tuesday and if not for a lot of over passing, this game should have gotten out of hand. Once again, the Capitals were trying for the perfect play, which was kind of silly considering the way they scored their first three goals, which were on pucks just directed at the net. As fun as it was to watch, the Caps skill and Harlem Globetrotters like play resulted in zero goals the remainder of the period. That was disappointing because Coach Trotz’ crew was really skating and working, but they again suffered from being too fancy.

The passing up of shots, especially from the high danger area of the ice, has to change if Washington wants to advance deep into the playoffs and reach their ultimate goal. This squad has a TON of skill and talent, but sometimes they out think themselves in trying to be too perfect and it allowed a crummy hockey team like Vancouver to stick around in this affair.

In the third period, the Canucks had 20 shots on net as they tried to come back, but 11 of those came in the last nine plus minutes and there weren’t many quality chances. Grubauer made some nice glove saves, but those were on shots he clearly had a great sight line on.

This was really a mismatch, but the Caps couldn’t finish. They often passed themselves out of a scoring chance or they waited too long to shoot and with Markstrom taking up so much cage with his size, they had trouble getting biscuits behind him. The NHL is a shoot first and shoot quick league, but the Caps seem to forget that, too often, and it takes away from their offense. Washington has the puck a lot, but based on shot attempts, you wouldn’t think so. The fact is this team is so focused on the perfect goal play that they decrease their chances of scoring. If they can get away from the extra cross ice pass in the offensive zone and focus on hard shots on net that either go in or produce rebounds, they will score even more.

Overall, this was a solid victory. Grubauer was very composed and poised in net. You never felt like he was going to give up a goal that would get Vancouver back in the contest. The Canucks didn’t have the puck a ton despite their 73-65 edge in shot attempts. Coach Green’s team often just throws the puck on net from everywhere, but the Capitals kept them on the perimeter quite a bit. On the flip side, the Caps got into the interior on offense, but they too often didn’t seize the right moment to fire on net. That’s why the scoreboard stayed close, despite the on ice domination that Washington displayed.

Notes: Jakub Vrana had a very active game with six shots on net. He was really moving his legs and opening up space on the ice…Brooks Oprik had a semi-breakaway in period three and was drilled by a Ben Hutton elbow to the head (no penalty was called) and sent flying to the ground. Smith-Pelly came in, immediately went after Hutton, and threw some good punches to let the Canuck know that the questionable hit was not well received by Washington. Orpik had a strong night going +1 in 20:49 and he had four shot attempts…Alex Ovechkin had six shot attempts and an assist in 19:25…the Caps were 0 for 2 on the power play while Vancouver was 1 for 3. I didn’t think Kevin Pollock and Kendrick Nicholson called a good game, they missed several infractions on the Canucks, but perhaps they were too busy focusing on offside since linesman Greg Devorski left after the first period due to an illness?…the Capitals won the faceoff battle, 33-28. Kuznetsov was 10-6…Wilson was very impressive with six shots on goal and seven hits…Bowey had an assist in 14:44 and he was much cleaner with his puck management…T.J. Oshie had 0 shots on goal in 17:39. His hands seemed to be betraying him in this affair…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 24:16.

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BAcky Blues

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Seven Detailed Thoughts on The Caps After Another Win

Posted on 07 January 2018 by Ed Frankovic

In the last few seasons under Coach Barry Trotz, the Washington Capitals have typically not fared well after several days off. With the Caps having not played since Tuesday’s OT victory in Carolina, a Sunday tilt against the St. Louis Blues would appear to be trouble for Washington. Coach Mike Yeo’s squad, however, had lost on Saturday in Philadelphia and was coming in playing their third game in four days. Basically, the scheduling gods had this one as an even affair, although the Caps, based on rest and playing at home, certainly seemed to have an advantage.

As expected, an angry Blues team put out a great effort against the Capitals and this contest went to overtime before Nicklas Backstrom notched his 9th goal of the season, after a long and super feed from T.J. Oshie, to give the Caps a 4-3 win and improve their record to 26-13-3 (55 points) on the campaign. Washington now leads the Metropolitan Division by three points over second place New Jersey, but the Devils have a game in hand.

Here are seven thoughts on the Caps following this come from behind victory.

Rollercoaster Ride The final score was 4-3, shots on goal were, 34-33, for the Blues, and my quality shot tracking had the Caps out on top, 24-23, for the game. So this match up was pretty much evenly played the whole way, right? This is in no way a plug for Hertz, but NOT EXACTLY! Washington came out and forged a really strong first period to take a 1-0 lead and the quality shot totals, by my count, were 8-3 for the good guys. In the middle frame, the Blues stormed the castle feasting off of one Capitals turnover after another to grab a 2-1 lead. The Blues held a commanding 14-6 advantage in quality shots in period two. The last full 20 minutes were another complete reversal as the Capitals dominated play with an 18-8 shots on goal advantage and an 8-4 margin in quality shots. In overtime, both teams had two quality opportunities, but it was the Super Swede who closed the deal with a sweet top shelf snipe.

Old Man Ovi Alex Ovechkin is 32 years old and father time should be starting to set in, that’s what all of the data compiled by the stats crowd will tell you should be happening. Well here’s a special note to the spreadsheet geeks, to quote the great Sundance Kid, “You figured wrong, Butch.” The Gr8 continues to skate as well as he has since his mid 20’s and he was a force again on Sunday afternoon. Ovi’s power play wrister was deflected home by Brett Connolly in the opening frame to give the Caps their first marker and then with his squad really needing a goal, he delivered with a laser to the top shelf eight minutes into period three to tie this one at two. In 22:50 of ice time, Alex had seven shot attempts, but because of a weird bounce off of his back late in the game, he was a minus one. Ovechkin now has 27 goals and 18 assists to lead Washington in both goals and points (45) in 42 games. The man voted by the fans to captain the Metropolitan Division All Star team in just over two weeks, once again is tied for the NHL lead in goals with Nikita Kucherov of Tampa.

Career Year Again for Conno? Connolly notched his ninth goal of the season on the aforementioned tip in and he’s now on pace for 18 tallies, after scoring 15 in 2016-17, which earned him a new two year deal at an annual average of $1.5 M. After a slow and injury riddled start, #10 is really amping up his play and this outing was his best of the season. Brett was all over the puck all game and he had five shots on net and seven overall attempts in 14:43. He led the Capitals in shot attempt percentage with 20 shots for and just five against when he was on the ice (80%). Playing with Lars Eller all game, plus Oshie from the middle of the second period on, the Washington third line was dominant. Connolly is no longer awkwardly reaching for pucks on the ice and he’s using his body to win the one on one battles. In addition, he has a very fast shot release and he goes to the high danger areas well to set himself up for quality chances. If #10 keeps doing that and shooting the biscuit, the goals will just keep coming.

Return of the Osh Babe It was pretty clear that the four days of no games did wonders for #77 (two assists). T.J. looked like his old self in this affair and he was dogging pucks like crazy. He didn’t score a goal, but he was a key factor in three of the Capitals four lamp lighters. On the Caps second goal, Ovechkin scored just three seconds into the power play. That doesn’t happen if Osh doesn’t win the draw cleanly to Backstrom, who quickly fed John Carlson (two assists in 26:30) at the point before #74 perfectly fed the Gr8 for his howitzer. Oshie started the game with Backstrom and Ovechkin, but then he was shifted to the Eller line after the Capitals looked worse than a really bad Mites team for the first eight minutes of period two. Oshie’s shot on net that Carter Hutton (29 saves) struggled with, led to Eller’s rebound tally that gave the Caps a 3-2 lead with just under 10 minutes left in regulation. Then, of course, the Osh Babe made a super long feed to Nicky on the game winning tally.

Second Period Woes What the heck was that to start period two for Washington? The Blues had the first eight quality chances of the frame and they all came in the first seven minutes. St. Louis scored twice during that stretch and it could’ve been more if not for Braden Holtby (31 saves). There were too many poor passes and bad decisions by the Capitals in their own end. Madison Bowey (1 assist) had another awful up the middle attempt and the rookie needs to stop making that same mistake, but even Matt Niskanen tried and failed on a similar play, and you know he knows better, right? I’m not sure what is happening to the Caps from period one to two this season, but it’s been a horror show on many occassions. They have too many turnovers and with the long change they end up getting hemmed in their own zone and on the ice for extra long stretches. This is a problem they must fix over the second half of the season. Perhaps they need to get some new tunes in the locker room because they’ve been coming out for period two like they’ve been listening to Air Supply and Barry Manilow records during the intermission?

Timely Saves Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, Holtby made some really key saves at very important times in this hockey game. You’re probably reading this thinking “No S—t Sherlock!” and you’d be right. The Holtbeast is so dialed in this season and let’s hope he keeps that up in the playoffs. The Blues could’ve won this game a few times, most notably, late in period two when #70 stopped Vladimir Sobotka with the Blues up a puck; a dynamite save on Magnus Paajarvi with just under two minutes to go in regulation and the game tied; and then a super stop on Patrick Berglund in overtime. Braden may not have the sexy save percentage he had the last three seasons, but he’s now 24-8 this year behind a much younger defense and team. The Holtbeast is the Capitals MVP through 42 games.

Well Isn’t That Special SNL’s church lady was definitely on the side of the Capitals in this affair. Washington was two for four on the man advantage while the Blues were one for two on their power plays. The most important penalty kill, though, came in the middle frame when St. Louis had a 2-1 lead and Evgeny Kuznetsov was in the sin bin for another lazy penalty. During that shorthanded situation, the Caps were just outstanding yielding no shots on goal or any quality chances. After that huge PK, the Capitals really took over the game.

Overall, this was a very up and down contest for the Caps. They were really strong in the first and third periods, but were a train wreck for most of the middle stanza. Their puck management still has moments where it is prone to disaster. However, the resolve of this club is amazing and they continue to find ways to win and different players have stepped up to help the team stay hot. On Sunday, the play of Connolly helped make the difference against a quality Blues team. The Caps have now reeled off nine straight victories at home. Their next two tilts are at Capital One Arena, as well (Vancouver on Tuesday and Carolina on Thursday).

Notes: Andre Burakovsky returned to the lineup after two games (healthy scratch) and did some good things in 10:52. His biggest problem, though, is his long shot release and it’s preventing him from scoring goals. The Caps need more from #65 so he has to find a way to more quickly shoot the puck, much like Connolly has been doing…Niskanen returned after missing the Carolina game due to an upper body injury and played 24:19…the Capitals lost the face off battle, 36-26, but Jay Beagle went 9-5…Barry Trotz will be coaching the Metropolitan Division players at the All Star Game in Tampa since the Caps owned 1st place at the halfway mark.

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