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Caps Let Golden Opportunity Slip By in Loss

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Caps Let Golden Opportunity Slip By in Loss

Posted on 17 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals had a chance to pretty much end the season of the Winnipeg Jets on Friday night but they let a golden opportunity slip by in a 3-2 regulation loss in the second tilt of a five game road trip.

The loss, which wasted a superb goaltending effort from Tomas Vokoun (25 saves), ends the Caps four game winning streak. Winnipeg has now won the last two meetings against Washington and trail the Caps by just two points in the race for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. The Buffalo Sabres are just a point in back of Winnipeg. All three teams have 11 games remaining.

The Caps, who not only fought a desperate Jets team in a raucous MTS Centre, also had to play against the referees as well. Mike Leggo and Kyle Rehman were downright inconsistent in this one and they also missed a blatant head shot by Mark Stuart on Marcus Johansson that would’ve given Washington a 5 on 3 power play. Stuart should get one of those Brendan Shanahan tapes made on his behalf this weekend. In addition, Keith Aucoin was high sticked and was bleeding late but only two minutes were called. Add in several other missed hooks and holds (see Winnipeg winning goal) on the Jets against Alex Ovechkin and others, some of which were whistled on Washington the other way, and you have to wonder what these guys in stripes are watching?

But even despite the bad zebras, the Caps still had their chances. With 2:22 to go they received the power play they needed but curiously the coaching staff put Ovechkin and Dennis Wideman on the points with the goalie pulled instead of moving the Gr8 down low and putting Mike Green at the blueline. It was a move that doesn’t make any sense unless Green is not 100%. Ovechkin has been getting his goals from in close lately and with him in front of the net it opens up room for other Capitals players. It was a key sequence in the game and the personnel decisions were not up to par there, plain and simple.

On the plus side, Washington’s penalty killing was specatcular, and it had to be with ECHL calibre referees bowing to every whine from the Manitoba faithful (boy are those fans annoying, but they certainly helped their team on Friday). Jay Beagle, Matt Hendricks, and Karl Alzner, along with Vokoun were outstanding during a 99 second sequence where the Jets had a 2-1 lead and a five on three power play. #83 blocked several shots and Vokoun flat out robbed Blake Wheeler at the side of the net. It was top notch penalty killing that unfortunately was wasted in the loss as the Jets went 0 for 5 on the power play.

In games like this one, where you have a chance to separate yourself from the teams chasing you in the standings, your top players need to produce. Ovechkin and Alexander Semin did not do that on Friday night. Yes, the Gr8 was clutched and grabbed most of the night but he is too predictable with the puck. When a mediocore defenseman like Grant Clitsome takes him out so easily on the boards it is clearly a sign that Ovechkin needs to find some new moves. In addition, the two-time NHL MVP’s free lancing style in his own zone cost the team a goal. With the game tied Ovechkin abandoned his man to chase the puck behind the net. At that point the entire d-zone coverage broke down and ultimately Ovechkin’s original man, Nik Antropov, potted the tally that put the Jets up 2-1 late in period two. Ovechkin has to work harder and be smarter in his own end. Semin only played 12:19 and was -2. That was one of his worst games since Dale Hunter took over behind the bench.

So there are three games left on this important road trip and the Caps have split the first two tilts. They had a great chance to put some spread between them and their pursuers, but they didn’t get the job done and now move on to take on the Blackhawks in Chicago on Sunday night. That will be a tough test followed by a quick turnaround in Detroit on Monday. It is time for the stars to show up in the Windy City and Motown.

Notes: Johansson left for a portion of the contest after taking the hit from Stuart but did return. Stuart deserves three games for that hit, at least….Mike Knuble did not have a good game and his penalty late in period two was an awful decision and play…Beagle was outstanding playing 19:53 and winning 14 of 20 draws..the Jets are in town next week, so the Caps get another chance at putting the Winnipeg club away for the year.

 

 

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Hunter Getting It Done Despite Criticism

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Hunter Getting It Done Despite Criticism

Posted on 11 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

There were no two ways about Sunday’s Washington Capitals game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Caps had to win this contest with a five game road trip on the horizon. Brooks Laich continued to carry this club scoring a key shorthanded goal in the opening frame, Alexander Semin set up Mathieu Perreault for an early third period marker, and Michal Neuvirth stopped all 23 shots he faced en route to a 2-0 victory in his 100th NHL start.

It wasn’t flashy hockey, but it was team hockey as the Capitals did a super job of limiting Leafs odd man rushes and opportunities while generating puck possession and scoring chances for themselves. The victory moves Washington to 76 points with 13 games left and they trail the Southeast Division leading Florida Panthers by a single point. More importantly, the eighth place Capitals open up a four point cushion on the ninth place Sabres and Jets.

The Caps played some very good hockey this week going 3-0-1 and if you want to know my theory on why things have turned around check out yesterday’s blog where I discuss, in detail, the lineup changes that Coach Dale Hunter recently has made up the middle of the ice. Those moves continued to pay off again today as both Laich and Jay Beagle played big roles in the victory. The more balanced lineup is producing solid defensive hockey, something Hunter demands, and it is also generating more puck possession.

In my estimation, Hunter has taken far too much unnecessary criticism, especially on twitter. There are those that say he is in over his head or doesn’t know what he is doing with the scratches or goalies, or even worse, that his system doesn’t work in the NHL. I even heard seen some people say that Hunter is just tanking it so that he can go back to juniors. Horse hockey, I say.

I’ve known Hunter since 1987 when he came to the Caps and he hates to lose as much as anybody. As I was leaving the Verizon Center long after last Tuesday’s OT loss to Carolina I ran into ole #32 in the hallway. I asked him if he was having fun, his response, “I don’t like losing.” We then proceeded to talk about the game for a couple of minutes pointing out both good and bad plays. I walked away from that conversation knowing what I already pretty much knew, Dale Hunter is as committed as ever to helping the Washington Capitals win.

Hunter knows hockey and he didn’t exactly inherit the Detroit Red Wings when he took over. Throw in an injury to the one player he could not afford to lose most, Nicklas Backstrom, and it is impressive that the bench boss has been able to keep the ship afloat given some of its’ issues. But as I chronicled yesterday, the coach is getting a handle on what he has to work with and with Laich and Beagle both totally healthy for the first time in his tenure he is employing a configuration that fits what he wants to do.

Simply put, this Capitals team CANNOT be the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers or even the 2009-10 Washington Capitals. Run and gun won’t work with Backstrom out and the other weaknesses up the middle of the ice. But they do have a slew of hard working guys, that cobbled together with skilled players like Alexander Ovechkin, Semin, Perreault, and Marcus Johansson will equate to wins if the right balance is found. It takes 20 guys working hard and together. Right now they appear to have that, the question is, can they keep it going? My answer is, yes, if they don’t sustain any more injuries, especially to Laich, who not only talks the talk, but walks the walk. #21 has been outstanding since finally overcoming what looked to be a bad knee injury against Boston back in early February.

Add in the work ethic and desire of Beagle as well as players like Matt Hendricks, Jason Chimera, Karl Alzner, etc and suddenly you have a cohesive team. Semin was outstanding this weekend and if Ovechkin works hard and trends up then this team starts to have some serious potential, especially if they manage to get Backstrom back.

But those projections must wait for now. The Capitals have a five game road trip that starts on Tuesday on Long Island against an Islanders team that has taken 5 of 6 points from Washington this year. The Caps must be ready from opening puck drop if they want to continue to try and win their division, or at the very least separate themselves from those behind them in the playoff hunt.

Today they did that beating a tired Maple Leafs team that worked hard under new coach Randy Carlyle but just don’t have the horses up front with Joffrey Lupul out. But everyone has injuries and good teams and coaches find ways to overcome them. Hunter is doing his best to do that, but the road ahead is tough, and the momentum gained this week must carry over for his team to get its’ fifth straight playoff berth.

Notes: The Caps only had one power play but it did everything except score. Washington had several scoring chances and had the puck in the Leafs zone the entire two minutes…the Capitals, by scoring shorthanded, won the special teams battle for the second straight game…Johansson missed an empty net late in regulation. The puck rolled on him after a sweet feed from Perreault and his shot attempt from four feet away went wide. MJ90 wasn’t happy but he was in the right place to score. His play has trended up since Hunter moved him back to the wing where he can be more effective in man to man coverage…the Caps lost the faceoff battle 24-15. Laich was only 4-10 but Beagle won 5 of 6 draws…there were lots of solid games by a lot of players and noone played less than 10 minutes. Each of Washington’s six defensemen played near the top of their ability as mistakes on the back end were definitely minimized.

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Hunter’s Latest Lineup Paying Dividends

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Hunter’s Latest Lineup Paying Dividends

Posted on 10 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Given that the Washington Capitals have struggled on the road all season long, it appeared, on paper, that Saturday’s tilt at Boston against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Bruins would be a loss for the Caps. But, as they say, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum or TD Garden, in this case. The Caps came up with one of their strongest performances of the season in a 4-3 victory over the B’s. It was a huge win for the Caps and it moves them within a point of first place Florida in the Southeast Division.

The Caps really came out flying and jumped to a 2-0 lead with some aggressive play. They then staved off two shaky penalty calls by Tim Peel and company and looked poised to exit the opening frame up a pair. But a bad icing by Troy Brouwer and a missed assignment on a faceoff with six seconds left led to a Milan Lucic goal. The question after that would be how the Capitals would respond to that late tally? When the Bruins tied the score on a breakaway by Brad Marchand that was caused by an Alexander Ovechkin giveaway while Dennis Wideman was heading to the bench on the long change, it looked like Boston had all of the momentum.

However, this Caps team seems to be getting mentally tougher and they responded with some outstanding hockey drawing three straight penalties. Jay Beagle would score off of a super feed from Alexander Semin just after the first man advantage situation expired and Brooks Laich re-directed home a Dennis Wideman feed on the third power play to make it 4-2 heading into the final frame. From there Washington did not give up any odd man rushes and forced the Bruins to shoot from the perimeter. After Mike Knuble missed an empty net that would have made it 5-2, Boston scored with 3:13 to go but Tomas Vokoun (30 saves), who was close to excellent in this one, slammed the door shut and the Caps left Beantown with two big points.

Dale Hunter’s crew has been playing better recently and is 2-0-1 in their last three games with the one loss coming to Carolina in overtime, a game in which they had 49 shots on goal. What has been the change that has turned things around? Is it an urgency to their game? Are they firing more pucks on net and battling to the cage? Are they playing desperate hockey? The answer to each of those questions is yes, for the most part, but that doesn’t explain it all.

To me, it is some recent lineup adjustments that has spurred this better play on. For the first time since Nicklas Backstrom went out with his concussion injury in early January, Hunter seems to be getting consistently solid play up the middle of the ice. The head coach moved Brooks Laich to center and Marcus Johansson to wing. In addition, Beagle’s role has been expanded and he is centering the third line. This configuration gives the Capitals bigger and stronger guys to fill the important low man role in Hunter’s man to man defensive system. Laich and Beagle are more solid on defense than the smaller Johansson, who can be moved out of position easier because of his lack of physical size. You still have Mathieu Perreault centering the second line but he is only playing 13 to 14 minutes. So instead of 35 plus minutes a game with a smaller center duo, Hunter now has Laich (21:48) and Beagle (18:10) playing above 35 minutes at the pivot. Huge difference at both ends of the ice, if you ask me.

The added bonus to this configuration is Johansson has played better this season as a winger and he doesn’t have so much pressure on him. It is a more balanced scheme. So why didn’t Hunter come up with this sooner, since it appears to be working so well? Well, Laich was playing a good bit of center shortly after Backstrom got hurt but then he injured his knee in the Boston game in early February. It took several weeks for #21 to get healthy and you can’t play the pivot position if your body isn’t right because the spot requires so much energy. As for Beagle, he missed 31 games due to a concussion and it’s taken him a couple of months since then to get in true hockey shape. He is a tireless worker and is finally back to the condition he was before he was knocked out by Arron Asham in October.

So it has taken time to develop, but Hunter’s best center configuration appears to have to include Laich and Beagle right now. Both are good defenders and among the hardest workers on the club. You can’t win in the NHL without centers and that was a big reason why the Capitals have struggled to find consistency since Backstrom went down. If Hunter sticks with Laich as top line pivot and #83 slotted in the third line position, and both stay healthy, then I think that gives Washington the best chance to do well over the last 14 games and win the Southeast Division. There may be some bad matchups along the way, but overall this lineup increases the Capitals win probability.

On Sunday at 5 pm the Caps are right back at it against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Verizon Center. A win would put them at 76 points with 13 contests left on the docket, including a five game road trip that starts Tuesday on Long Island. Saturday’s victory over the Bruins was important, but a loss against the Leafs would pretty much waste what would be a very big weekend for this hockey team.

So they can’t afford a let down, there is too much at stake, plus the Caps have some tough games coming up away from home.

Notes: Roman Hamrlik and Knuble were back in the lineup for the suspended Mike Green and scratched Jeff Halpern. Both were solid in their 13:29 and 11:26 of ice time, respectively…Matt Hendricks and Semin had the other goals. Both played excellent games with #28 getting two points and being a +2…Karl Alzner and John Carlson did a nice job against a red hot Boston line of Lucic, David Krejci, and Tyler Seguin. Both Krejci and Seguin were held off of the scoresheet…Washington finally won the special teams battle for the first time since 2/17 going 1 for 3 on the PP while killing both Boston man advantage situations (thanks to @JapersRink for that info).

 

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Lost Weekend for Caps

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Lost Weekend for Caps

Posted on 04 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Heading into the weekend the Washington Capitals were riding a three game winning streak after victories over the Canadiens, Leafs, and Islanders. On the docket were the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers, two clubs fairly firmly entrenched in the top eight of the Eastern Conference. With both games at home, a place where the Caps have a good record, these tilts seemed to be a prime indicator of whether or not Washington could move up the standings to make a strong push for a playoff position.

With the results now in, it is apparent the Capitals are in big trouble after 5-0 and 1-0 defeats at the Verizon Center. Washington is now in 9th place, just a point behind Winnipeg and the Caps have a game in hand, but when you don’t score you can’t win. In addition, Tampa Bay has caught fire and now trail the Caps by just a point. Buffalo is also a single point behind and the Leafs and Islanders are two and four, respectively. To quote an old Far Side cartoon, “WARNING: OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.”

With Steven Stamkos pouring in the goals (now at 47 and counting) and the Caps struggling to score, it is pretty apparent that with each passing game this club is getting closer to golfing come April 9th. It has been well chronicled here in this blog that the Capitals have big problems up the middle of the ice that have been magnified by the injury to Nicklas Backstrom. On Friday against New Jersey that could not have been more evident as smaller forwards Mathieu Perreault, Marcus Johansson, and Keith Aucoin made gaffes that led to Devils tallies. When Dale Hunter is forced to play numbers 85 and 90 for 35 plus minutes a game there is little margin for error for the Caps to get a victory. Both are smaller centers and no NHL defensemen is going to be afraid of being hit by them when they are moving the puck out of their own end. Thus the Caps receive fewer o-zone turnovers and have to work harder to get the puck back when those guys are on the ice. In addition, their size makes it difficult for them in defensive zone coverage. Johansson and Perreault have roles, but the ones they are being asked to fill now are simply too much for their abilities.

On Sunday night, Johansson’s man tipped the puck home for the only tally, although in fairness to number 90, Alexander Ovechkin lolligagged it out to the point allowing Pavel Kubina to find Eric Wellwood in front for the re-direct. The Gr8 would pay for that lack of effort and sit most of the remainder of the second period. In the third period he appeared to take Hunter’s message in the right way and was a force. Unfortunately when he has no true offensive center it is easy for the defense to cover him and he was blanked along with his teammates. Ovechkin did have several quality chances in that final frame, but he needs to play like that every shift from here on out if Washington wants to make the post season.

Michal Neuvirth, who might not have started had Tomas Vokoun been healthy (day to day), was excellent in goal and the Wellwood tally couldn’t be hung on him. But the margin of error for the Caps is so small right now so Neuvy gets another loss when he deserved better.

There is no way around this right now, the Caps are a flawed team and that is made worse with Nicklas Backstrom out. Too much is being asked of Johansson and Perreault due to the lack of depth at center. What makes things even worse is that Ovechkin has been unable to regain his dominant form from the pre 2010 Olympic break. The Gr8 has not been so great and the Capitals need him to be to make the playoffs. He needs to do whatever he can to change things on and off the ice so that when he plays these last 17 games he is highly effective. Great players find ways to adjust their game and get better. Larry Bird used to talk about developing a new move every offseason because he knew teams would adjust to what he was doing previously. Defenses have figured out how to slow Ovechkin down. Some of that is on the personnel around him, but most of it falls squarely on #8. He needs to reach down deep and do whatever he can to change things down the stretch, otherwise he is going to hear criticism like he’s never heard before, and many of it coming from the local area for perhaps the first time in his career.

Notes: Despite Sunday’s loss Jay Beagle, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Karl Alzner, Dmitry Orlov, Jason Chimera, Mike Knuble, and John Carlson played their rears off but the team just can’t finish right now…Ilya Bryzgalov made 34 saves for the Flyers in the Sunday shutout….the Caps play Carolina on Tuesday and Tampa on Thursday at the Verizon Center. Pretty safe to say they need to win both games otherwise you can cue up ”Trouble” by Lindsey Buckingham.

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Caps Steal Victory From Jaws of Defeat

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Caps Steal Victory From Jaws of Defeat

Posted on 28 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

You can call it lucky. You can call it the result of hard work. Or you can call it the hockey gods finally smiling down on the Caps.

Whatever you want to call it, it was two points for the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night as they rallied from a 2-0 hole in the final four minutes to tie the game before Alexander Ovechkin scored in overtime to lift the Caps to a 3-2 victory over the New York Islanders.

If ever there was a game that this club needed a win in, it was on this night when they opened up a crucial five game homestand. The win over the Isles moves the Caps into 8th place in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of Winnipeg, and Washington has two games in hand on the Jets. With the Florida Panthers winning in Toronto, Washington still trails the Cats by three points in the Southeast Division and the Panthers have a game in hand.

The Caps carried the play for much of the night but Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov (31 saves) was really good and the Capitals also weren’t doing the little things necessary to score, like getting bodies to the cage. Washington outshot New York 13-3 in the opening frame but it was the Islanders who led 1-0. The four time Stanley Cup winning organization would go up 2-0 in period three and things looked bleak for the Caps. They had dominated much of the action but allowed two goals because Washington defenders left their feet in their own zone. Jeff Schultz was the culprit on the first Islanders tally while Matt Hendricks made the mistake on the second goal, that came just over two minutes into period three.

But this Capitals team kept working and found a way to fight back and cut the deficit on what looked like a routine play. Jason Chimera outworked Mark Streit for the puck in the left wing corner and Mathieu Perreault corraled the biscuit and fired it to Troy Brouwer at the top of the crease. #20 tapped it by Nabokov and the Verizon Center crowd came alive. Then it looked like the Caps were going to lose but Streit fired the puck in his own bench with 31 seconds left giving Washington an offensive zone face-off. Coach Dale Hunter smartly put out Jeff Halpern and #15 won the draw. Brooks Laich would fire on net and Brouwer tipped it home.

The comeback seemed rather easy and it took a simple formula: put pucks AND bodies to the cage and good things happened.

After that the stage was set for the dramatic Ovechkin to win it on one of his patented end to end rushes. The Gr8, who struggled to hit the net on several earlier shots, got this one through d-man Travis Hamonic and five hole on Nabokov to send the 136th straight sellout crowd out happily onto F street.

So the Caps have 19 games left and now sit at 69 points (32-26-5). The key now is to stay ahead of the Leafs and Jets and also make sure a team like Tampa doesn’t rally to catch them. If they do that they would grab at least the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference but this team really wants a fifth straight Southeast Division title (would bring the 3rd seed). A win like tonight surely helps that cause but with four more contests at the Verizon Center upcoming, the Capitals can’t afford to giveaway any games. Friday’s tilt with the New Jersey Devils should be a good one and is another nearly must win for Washington.

Notes: Schultz and Joel Ward had the lowest ice times for d-men and forwards, respectively. Both are slower skaters. Speaking of slower skaters, Mike Knuble, Roman Hamrlik, and John Erskine were the scratches. It is clear that Hunter is going to play guys who can play at a high pace and tempo…Hendricks had a poor game tonight by obstructing Michal Neuvirth’s view (22 saves) on the second goal and taking two minor penalties, one of which was late in the third period. #26 works hard but sometimes he is not very smart on the ice…the Caps were a perfect 3 for 3 on the penalty kill but their power play went 0 for 4 and if it doesn’t start connecting is going to eventually cost the club victories. Washington had two PP’s in the opening frame and couldn’t cash in, that is a momentum killer.

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Time to Buy for the Caps

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Time to Buy for the Caps

Posted on 26 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Hockey fans, it’s time to stop the presses! Why? Because the Washington Capitals have finally won back to back games for the first time since mid January.

All kidding aside, the two victories this weekend over Montreal and then at Toronto, while against subpar teams, is significant because it shows that this club still has a decent chance to make the playoffs. More importantly, if they can add some help up front, specifically in the pivot position, and get Nicklas Backstrom back from injury before the playoffs, then anything can happen.

The Caps have been really struggling on the road and given that they played on Friday night, flew to Toronto, and had to clear customs might have indicated that Washington was ripe for the pickings against a desperate Maple Leafs crew. But that theory went totally out the window, thanks to Marcus Johansson’s wraparound tally in the game’s first minute. For once the Capitals could finally play with a lead on the road and the goal definitely energized them. Before four minutes had elapsed, Alexander Semin would score off a nifty steal and from there the Caps built a 4-0 lead through 40 minutes and won fairly easily.

Michal Neuvirth was outstanding in net with 28 saves. The 2006 second round pick has always been underrated and those who have followed him closely know that he is mentally strong. The young Czech netminder, instead of feeling sorry for himself and pouting following coach Dale Hunter’s decision to sit him against San Jose on February 13th, has worked even harder since and in the games he’s played this week has been extremely strong in goal. Hunter may have made the wrong short term decision to sit Neuvirth against the Sharks, but in the long run, it worked because #30 has taken his play to the next level. Sometimes coaches tell it like it is or play head games with players in attempt to make them stronger and improve their performance. Whether Hunter was trying that or not with his goaltender in that instance, that sequence of events has gotten results.

As for the rest of the team, much of the inconsistency in their play over the last month has stemmed from many factors. The Nicklas Backstrom injury has been extremely difficult to overcome given the lack of quality centers on the depth chart after #19. Johansson is only in his second year in the league and he is more suited to play third line center. Mathieu Perreault has been practically written off several times due to his size and lack of steady results. Both players have been forced to take on increased roles and they’ve had good games and bad ones. On Saturday night both had solid outings but to think they can continue to keep it up, in Backstrom’s absence, is asking an awfully lot.

In addition to the talent gaps up the middle of the ice, the team’s inconsistent play has led to a serious lack of confidence and anyone that has played hockey knows that if your mind isn’t right when you step out onto the ice, you are pretty much beaten before taking a single stride. The Caps have had confidence problems, especially after that terrible fluky loss to Winnipeg at home back on February 9th. But these two wins could get their minds right and if General Manager George McPhee can move some of the dead weight on his current roster and bring in some reenforcements, then it becomes an iterative process of better play and increased confidence, a mode a hockey team wants to be in down the stretch. We’ve seen the Caps do this before from the trade deadline on but can they find a way this year with Backstrom likely on the shelf for at least a couple of more weeks?

Another thing to be happy about is the play of Mike Green. #52 has steadily improved since coming back from hernia surgery and he’s stabilized the defense. With Green getting more minutes, Dennis Wideman, who has had many good games but then his share of clunkers this season, has seen his ice time reduced.

So Saturday’s victory puts the Caps at 31-26-5 (67 points) with 20 games remaining. The Southeast Division is wide open between the Caps, Florida Panthers, and Winnipeg Jets with the winner getting the 3rd seed in the playoffs in the East. Surely if McPhee can add some help, and Hunter is likely looking for some size and definitely speed (note it has been the slower skaters who have been routinely getting seats in the press box), then the Capitals could be poised to win their fifth straight division crown.

That is why this team has to be buyers, at this point. Washington needs help up front to get to where they want to go, fortunately it appears that the prices for forwards are not at as high a premium as we’ve seen with defensemen, based on this week’s trades.

This has been a disappointing season so far for the Caps, but McPhee has a chance to turn it all around with the right moves on Monday. It won’t be easy, but given what is at stake for him and the organization, the next two days are going to be extremely important for his and the team’s future.

Notes: Alexander Ovechkin had two assists in a fairly strong performance. His one big mistake though was turning the puck over on the power play in the third period with the Caps up 4-1. The Gr8 can’t make those type of mental miscues. Neuvirth bailed him out with the breakaway save so Ovie certainly owes #30 dinner…Green had 23:00 of ice time and Jeff Schultz logged 21:40. Give #55 credit for working hard and improving his game with assistant coach Jim Johnson the last couple of months. He has gotten tougher to play against despite his lack of speed…Karl Alzner and John Carlson both played over 22 minutes while Wideman and Dmitry Orlov were essentially the third d-pair in this tilt…The Caps next game is Tuesday at the Verizon Center against the Islanders. It is the start of a critical five game home stand. It will be interesting to see what moves McPhee makes between now and the trade deadline at 3pm on Monday.

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Victory Inches Caps Closer to Playoff Spot

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Victory Inches Caps Closer to Playoff Spot

Posted on 24 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

If only the Washington Capitals could play the Montreal Canadiens every night?

In a game the Caps had to win, they came out hard and dominated the Eastern Conference last place Habs en route to a 4-1 victory. It was Washington’s third straight win over Montreal this season and the combined score between the two teams is 10-1.

There were lots of good performances from Washington forwards to include Alexander Semin (1 assist, +2), Jason Chimera (1 goal, 1 assist, +2), Mathieu Perreault (1 goal, +1), and Alexander Ovechkin (1 goal). The Gr8 provided a spark by returning from his injury and his skating looked very good in period one when Washington needed him most.

On the back end all six defensemen were solid playing their role. Mike Green (+1), despite some turnovers, looked very good skating and moving the puck while Dmitry Orlov (1 assist, +1) had his best game in recent weeks. #81 was strong on his skates and he dealt out some nice hits. He has the occassional bad giveaway but he is playing extremely well for a rookie. I also thought Karl Alzner was superb and he did a nice job of getting pucks away from Washington’s net and moving it out of the defensive zone.

As important as the return of offense was for the Capitals, they also received excellent goaltending from Michal Neuvirth (30 saves). #30 didn’t give up many rebounds and the only marker he allowed he had little chance on (Rene Bourque’s shorthanded one timer).

But before getting too carried away about this victory, the real deal is that the Caps won at home against a team that is a mess. However, it was two points and that is what matters right now for Washington, who jump into ninth place in the Eastern Conference, just a point behind eighth place Florida (the Panthers have two games in hand on Washington) and only two points behind Southeast Division leading Winnipeg (the Caps have two games in hand on the Jets). 

The Capitals now go to Toronto for Saturday’s Hockey in Night in Canada against a team they are fighting with for a playoff spot (the Leafs have 65 points as well). After going 1-3 on their most recent road trip Coach Dale Hunter’s crew really needs a victory away from the Verizon Center. There are just 21 games left in the season and Saturday’s tilt from the Air Canada Centre is the last one before Monday’s 3 pm NHL trading deadline.

As I’ve mentioned in my last couple of blogs, the buy or sell decision has not totally been made, but a victory would likely shift the focus to buying. Had they lost tonight like they did in Carolina or Ottawa, the white flags may have been waved. But after Friday’s win, the Capitals have inched closer to a playoff spot and the players have another game to prove to GM George McPhee, and possibly more importantly to ownership, that they deserve a shot to save their season in the last quarter of it.

Notes: Slow skating Roman Hamrlik and Mike Knuble were two of the three scratches on Friday night. It is quite possible that both could be moved by Monday’s trade deadline…shots attempted were 53-50 in favor of the Caps, who carried the play for two periods before giving the Habs too much room in the final frame…Brooks Laich appears to be nearly over his knee injury and logged 21:54 of ice time. He was 11-7 on faceoffs…Ovechkin played 7 minutes in the opening frame and 17:43 overall. The Caps need him to step up and carry this team down the stretch. Friday night was a good start to that.

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Margin For Error Getting Smaller for Caps

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Margin For Error Getting Smaller for Caps

Posted on 12 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals, who continue to play without Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green plus are going with a banged up Brooks Laich, did a lot of good things in a 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers today at Madison Square Garden. The Blueshirts have the best record in the NHL right now but they were barely able to hang on against a Caps team that is not even close to full strength. There is some comfort in the thought that if Washington were to get healthy they’d easily dispatch the team they ran out of the playoffs last spring once again, but moral victories really aren’t meaning much these days because the margin for error for the Caps is getting smaller.

The Capitals are currently sitting in 9th place, a point out of the playoffs, and after Monday night’s tough home tilt against the San Jose Sharks, they play four games on the road. Washington trails the Leafs in 8th by a point and have a game in hand while they are three points back of Ottawa in 7th with three games in hand. In addition, they are four points back of Southeast Division leading Florida, who occupy the third seed right now. All of those teams are well within reach but that only happens if the Caps stop making critical mistakes, start finishing more of their chances, and win more games.

Backstrom doesn’t appear to be coming back any time soon, Green might return later in the month, and when Laich only logs 12 minutes in an important game you know he isn’t close to 100% either. So Dale Hunter’s team needs to “pull up their socks” and start playing better. On Sunday they made a horrible defensive zone giveaway that led to poor positioning and an easy Ryan Callahan goal that gave New York a 1-0 lead after Washington had carried much of the play. That type of mistake is a killer and puts an offensively challenged team behind the eight ball quickly.

The Caps did battle back getting a sweet goal from Alexander Semin after Jason Chimera used his speed against a slow Rangers defense to open up a lane for 28 to unleash his deadly shot. However, they gave the lead back with another sequence where they went running around in their own end. Troy Brouwer eventually left his skates, something you only want to do as a last resort on defense, and that allowed Ryan McDonagh to beat Michal Neuvirth (25 saves) under the right arm.

When your lineup is missing key players, special teams become even more important and Washington cost themselves the game with their struggling power play in the third period. Trailing 2-1 with over 13 minutes left Alexander Ovechkin, John Carlson, and Mathieu Perreault all made bad decisions and as a result, the Rangers received a two on one break and Brandon Prust, who rarely scores, netted the eventual game winner (Carlson would score late to give the Caps a chance). Those mistakes, which were also the result of guys trying to do too much individually, were backbreakers and ultimately cost the Caps from getting at least a point, something they sorely need right now.

Ovechkin certainly didn’t have one of his better games and he should have been using his speed and power to get around an over rated Rangers defense more often. Instead the Gr8 seemed to battle a terrible ice surface and the puck all afternoon. The Caps need their star player to step up and carry this team right now if they are going to make the playoffs. He has to find ways to get more shots on goal and help his teammates be better. That did not happen against New York on Sunday. In his defense, a winger needs a playmaking center to get him the puck and he doesn’t have that with Backstrom out. Marcus Johansson has a bright future but he is being asked to do a lot in just his second year in the league. Perhaps Hunter might want to put Ovechkin back with Perreault and Semin to generate more offense because those are the two other most skilled offensive players in the lineup at this juncture?

Whatever Hunter decides to do, he needs to get this team playing better hockey quickly before they fall too far behind the teams they are chasing. They don’t have the skill to overcome in game lapses like they’ve been able to do in the past so the number of breakdowns on defense must decrease. In addition, the power play has to be better. Simply put, this team has to start being more efficient or they might find themselves golfing come mid-April. The margin for error is that small in a crowded Eastern Conference race.

Notes: The Rangers crushed the Caps at the faceoff dot, 31-19…Neuvirth got the start today due to Tomas Vokoun being sick. #30 was not the reason Washington lost, he had no chance on goals 1 and 3…the Caps hit at least three posts, by my count, so if it weren’t for bad luck lately they’d have no luck at all…Mike Knuble and Jeff Schultz were the Capitals scratches.

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Caps Respond to Hunter’s Challenge

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Caps Respond to Hunter’s Challenge

Posted on 07 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

On Monday and Tuesday, Washington Capitals coach Dale Hunter stressed the importance of Tuesday night’s game against the Florida Panthers, which was for first place in the Southeast Division, calling it a playoff game. With the Caps struggling with some key injuries and being losers of six of their last nine games, the big question was how would his team respond to his challenge?

After a 4-0 victory over the Cats at the Verizon Center, Hunter and everyone else had their answer. The Caps are still alive and kicking this season and have the horses to turn it on, when necessary. Washington made a statement that they aren’t the four time defending division champs for nothing. They stated that with authority by scoring 13 seconds into the game (Mathieu Perreault) and then Alexander Ovechkin tallied on the power play midway through the first period to stake the Capitals to a lead they never really had to worry about.

“We jumped on them early. It changed the game a bit when we got two quick goals. They had to play a different game and it ended up at our advantage. We knew what was on the line tonight. We’re battling with Florida. Every two points means a lot, ” said Hunter afterwards.

They received excellent goaltending from Tomas Vokoun (42 saves), who like Tim Thomas did to Washington on Sunday, made key stops in the opening frame when the Caps did have some major defensive breakdowns.

“Tomas [Vokoun] was sharp all night. We might not have had the lead in the first period if it wasn’t for Tomas [Vokoun]. They had a lot of breakaways and he came up big for us. He was one of the main reasons why we won. I thought Tomas [Vokoun] had a great game. They threw a lot of pucks from all angles and he had to be sharp all the time. He came up big and gave them no momentum. I thought he was a first star,” added Hunter.

Not only did Hunter’s “playoff” mantra seem to inspire the Caps, but the ability of Brooks Laich to be able to play after suffering what looked to be a vicious knee injury on Sunday had to amp up the rest of the Washington players. After all, if #21 is going to play through pain, shouldn’t the rest of the guys feel obligated to lay it on the line too? That is pretty much what happened as several Capitals used their strengths in this contest. Marcus Johansson was all over the ice displaying his speed to open things up for Ovechkin (2 goals), Troy Brouwer (5 hits) and Joel Ward (4 hits) were physical presences, and Jason Chimera was seemingly everywhere (1 goal, 1 assist, 8 shots on goal).

The Capitals were really good in nearly every facet of the game, outside of a few first period breakdowns. They won the special teams battle scoring on their only power play, shut down the Panthers on all four of theirs, and also scored shorthanded (Chimera). Vokoun was much better than Florida goalie Scott Clemmensen (20 saves). The Caps number one goalie saw a lot of rubber but not a significant number of quality chances in the last two periods. Most of the Florida shots, after it was 3-0, were from the perimeter or were with no traffic in front. When a goalie knows where the shots are coming from and he can see them, it is much easier to make the save and that is what is mostly happening for Washington in Hunter’s system.

Tuesday’s victory was a feel good win and should give the team some confidence going into another important game against Winnipeg on Thursday at the Verizon Center. With Nicklas Backstrom out the Capitals have struggled to be consistent, so they now have a chance to build on several of the good things they did on Tuesday. As I blogged after Sunday’s loss to Boston, the Caps had their chances but didn’t finish them in a 4-1 defeat. On this night, Washington made sure they put the biscuit in the basket and the reward is first place in the Southeast Division, once again.

Notes: The Caps are now 28-21-4 (60 points). Florida is a point back but has a game in hand…Washington was much better on face-offs after getting smoked on Sunday by the B’s. The Capitals went 32-25 from the dot with Laich winning 7 of 8 of his draws…#21 only played 9:28…the Capitals outhit the Panthers 31-19.

 

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Caps Can’t Convert Chances in Loss to Bruins

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Caps Can’t Convert Chances in Loss to Bruins

Posted on 05 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Tim Thomas didn’t win the Conn Smythe Trophy as 2011 Stanley Cup Playoff MVP for nothing and on Sunday at the Verizon Center he showed once again why the Boston Bruins are the defending NHL Champions. Thomas’ stellar play in goal (35 saves) propelled the B’s to a 4-1 victory over the Washington Capitals on Super Bowl Sunday.

Despite the loss, there were a lot of positives once again for Washington (27-21-4). They outshot Boston, 36-30, but more importantly, they had a slight edge in scoring chances despite trailing 2-0 after 40 minutes. Alexander Semin had a clean breakaway that Thomas thwarted and Alexander Ovechkin missed a mostly open net in period one while the Bruins converted on a Dennis Wideman mistake in the Caps end that left Milan Lucic all alone in front of Tomas Vokoun (26 saves) and they notched a Brad Marchand tally when Washington had three players behind their own net to Boston’s lone Patrice Bergeron. Somehow #37 was able to get the puck to #63 at the side of the net for a tap in with Karl Alzner, John Carlson, and Brooks Laich all in the vicinity of the Bruins center. Getting both defensemen caught behind the net is a no-no in hockey no matter what the system, but especially in a man to man defense, and that mental mistake was costly.

This contest was different than Saturday’s tilt in Montreal where there wasn’t a whole lot of skating room on the ice. With both teams having played on Saturday the game was more open and it was entertaining hockey. An undermanned Capitals squad managed to hold its’ own against the defending champs and if not for Thomas this game could have easily been a Washington victory.

“Yeah, we did have some good [chances]. Thomas played a pretty good game. He made some big saves as he usually does. It’s frustrating when you see that you do have a chance to score and it doesn’t go in. Ovie had that open net and I don’t know exactly what kept it out there. It’s gonna happen, that’s a good team over there. You can’t really give them a whole lot without paying for it. For what we did give them we paid for it,” added Alzner.

The really bad news for the Capitals is they may have lost another one of their top players when Laich crashed hard into the boards with Dennis Seidenberg in period two. #21 went to the ice and crawled towards the Washington bench before being helped through the door and then down the tunnel. Amazingly the assistant captain came out to test his leg at the next timeout but he immediately went back down the runway to the locker room. Brooks will be re-evaluated on Monday and based on the replay his left knee is likely the issue.

With Nicklas Backstrom already out due to a concussion and no true second line center on the roster the Laich situation, if serious, could be a killer for the Capitals playoff chances. But injuries are a part of sports and guys like Marcus Johansson, Mathieu Perreault, and Jeff Halpern will have to step their respective games up even more. In addition, General Manager George McPhee will have more pressure on him to add some forwards at the trade deadline, which is just three weeks away (February 27th). Mike Green’s successful return from surgery is another key piece to the playoff puzzle since having 52 in the lineup changes the entire dynamic for the Caps on the back end.

But back to today’s game, Thomas was superb and when a goalie is on, he is tough to beat. That was the case with Boston today, as it was last June when #30 was the difference between the B’s and the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Capitals had their chances on Sunday and could have moved back into first place in the Southeast Division with a victory. Now they’ll have to wait until Tuesday night’s game against the Panthers at the Verizon Center to try and do that again, and likely without one of their leaders and top players in Laich.

Notes: Marcus Johansson had the only Capitals goal with just under eight minutes to go. MJ90 actually was trying to pass to Joel Ward but that attempt hit Seidenberg’s skate and went in the net…speaking of skates, it sure looked to me that Tyler Seguin’s goal, Boston’s third, went in off of his skate. #19 appeared to have turned his skate to accept the pass and the biscuit banked in off of it. It may have hit his stick but the baffling thing to me was why the game wasn’t delayed while the replay was thoroughly reviewed by the supposed wizards in Toronto?…not only is the lack of centers hurting Washington’s ability to break out of their own zone, it is really starting to show up in the faceoff column. Boston demolished the Caps from the dot, 43-24…Dmitry Orlov, who broke his nose when hit by the puck in Montreal on Saturday, took another one to the face on Sunday. Talk about bad luck!

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