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Defensive Breakdowns Cost Caps in OT Defeat

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Defensive Breakdowns Cost Caps in OT Defeat

Posted on 31 January 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Despite having to play once again without Alexander Ovechkin (2nd of three game suspension), Nicklas Backstrom (concussion), and Mike Green (hernia surgery) the Washington Capitals are finding ways to get standings points that they desperately need. The Caps, who trailed 3-1 past the halfway point in Tampa on Tuesday night, rallied with two goals before falling in overtime, 4-3, to the Bolts on a Steven Stamkos tally.

The Capitals continue to give a super effort every night but right now they are clearly missing their big guns, especially on the power play (0 for 3 in Tampa), and they also are making too many defensive breakdowns. Every Bolts tally on Tuesday was the result of poor play in Washington’s own zone. The primary culprits in this one were Roman Hamrlik (-3) and John Carlson (-4) but Mathieu Perreault failed to cover Teddy Purcell on the Lightning’s first tally after #44 backed up giving Steve Downie a clear passing lane. Coach Dale Hunter has instituted a defense first system that has taken time to implement and in this game the Caps made some big blunders that gave the Bolts too many odd man rushes, something that tactically should not happen with this style of play. I am sure tomorrow morning’s video session will be poignant.

On the positive side, Brooks Laich and Matt Hendricks turned in superb performances and were two of the primary reasons the Capitals got a point. Winger Troy Brouwer was solid as well and his goal after #21 forced an offensive zone turnover tied this one up just under six minutes into the third period. The Caps offense, even without the big guns, showed a lot of life at even strength and the 29 shots on net were the most for Washington in weeks. Perreault has done a nice job of stepping up centering Alexander Semin and Marcus Johansson to give Hunter a true scoring line.

In goal, Tomas Vokoun was a difference maker again and his save on Vincent Lecavlier in overtime is one you’ll see highlights of quite a bit over the next 24 hours. #29 is making the key stop, with his biggest actually being on Stamkos on a breakaway early in period three in a 3-2 game. If #91 scores there the game is over.

This Caps team is certainly resilient under Hunter and they don’t quit. It isn’t pretty hockey right now but they have managed to get four points in the last three games against good competition (Pittsburgh, Boston, and Tampa). Hunter’s club has to work hard every night to be competitive and so far they are doing it. They have Wednesday night’s first place in the Southeast Division showdown battle in Florida (8 pm start) to tackle before they get Ovechkin back on Saturday in Montreal. What is not encouraging is that Backstrom has skated only a total of five minutes over the last 25 days. Clearly if #19 is out even longer term (he’s missed 11 games already), Washington’s chances of making the playoffs or going deep in them, are severely weakened.

But this is pro sports and other players have to step up. Guys like Laich and Perreault are doing that right now and that is keeping the Caps afloat.

Notes: Martin St. Louis’ goal to make it 2-1 not only was clearly offsides, but Lecavalier interferred with both Hamrlik (took out his skates) and Carlson on the play. Not sure what the zebras were looking at there? However the men in stripes did allow Laich to put his free hand around Matt Gilroy as he was skating around the net and he gave the puck up to Brouwer for the game tying tally. So the refs taketh and giveth in this contest…Washington recalled Cody Eakin and Joel Rechlicz from Hershey for the game. Rechlicz only played two shifts and 1:49 but his presence on the bench clearly made a difference. Tampa’s chief pest and punk Downie was nowhere near as agitating or dirty as he had been in the past. Just the fact that #54 might come out on the ice to pound someone helped Washington, in my opinion…Karl Alzner was +3 and along with Dennis Wideman were the best defensive pair…Dmitry Orlov took Hamrlik’s spot with Carlson in the last portion of the game. #81 allowed St. Louis to go around him on the game winning goal and Carlson did nothing as Stamkos swooped in for the OT winner. It was a 2 on 4 for Tampa on the winning play. #74 needs to improve in his own zone pronto…Mike Knuble was -3 in 19:50 of ice time…Washington is now 26-19-4. They have a one point lead over the Panthers but Florida has a game in hand.

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Caps Hard Work Leads to Surprising Win Over Defending Champs

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Caps Hard Work Leads to Surprising Win Over Defending Champs

Posted on 25 January 2012 by Ed Frankovic

When prognosticating Tuesday night’s Boston-Washington hockey game on paper beforehand, this looked like an easy win for the Bruins. The B’s have been one of the hottest teams in the league the last two plus months while the Capitals have been struggling to score goals. With Alexander Ovechkin out due to suspension and Nicklas Backstrom missing his 10th game because of a concussion, surely the highest scoring team in the NHL would have an easy night against the Caps, right?

Well to quote the Sundance Kid, “You figured wrong, Butch!”

The Caps came to play on Tuesday night and displayed as much effort and energy as they have all season. They battled a much bigger Boston club and in the end, the Bruins were done in by Washington’s little guys. Mathieu Perreault played the “Little Engine That Could” on this night notching his first career hat trick, including the game winner in the third period, and Cody Eakin chipped in a goal that Tuukka Rask should’ve had as the Capitals were victorious, 5-3, to improve their record to 26-19-3 and reclaim first place in the Southeast Division as a result of Florida’s 3-2 loss to the Flyers in the shootout.

There was a lot to like about this game despite the fact that the Bruins outshot the Caps, 32-23, and attempted 73 shots to just 50 for Washington. Despite the attempt imbalance, the Capitals had lots of scoring chances primarily because they seemed to develop a consistent offense to defense flow for the first time in awhile since Backstrom’s injury. The passing, after a shaky first several minutes, was much crisper and the Caps were coming through the neutral zone with some speed. The Capitals still have issues up the middle of the ice, but for the last two tilts, Perreault has really stepped up and filled a gaping hole in the pivot position by using his excellent offensive skill. You will still get the occassional MP85 defensive zone poor coverage or penalty (his trip in the second period led to the Bruins third goal on the power play) but at this point coach Dale Hunter needs to continue to take that risk because you can’t win without scoring goals. Plus, Perreault seems to have some nice chemistry with Alexander Semin (1 assist) and we saw glimpses of that in the first half of last season (before Perreault broke his nose in Carolina).

On the backend, the Caps still have some cleaning up to do. The first Bruins goal may be considered lucky to some since it went in off of Karl Alzner’s own stick but there were four big mistakes in Washington’s end before King Karl put a wicked backhander past Tomas Vokoun (29 saves). First, Dennis Wideman throws the puck up the right wing boards without checking on the position of his winger (Semin). Second, #28 gets beat to the puck by Bruins d-man Dennis Seidenberg, third, Wideman then loses Rich Peverley coming off of the boards giving Boston a two on one down low, and finally, Alzner goes to the ice to try and cut off the pass but he does it too quickly and that allows Peverley to slide the puck behind #27, who in a last ditch effort to breakup the centering feed, swings his stick around and puts the biscuit in his own net. I am a big proponent of defenders NOT leaving their feet in their own zone because, like in basketball, you give the offensive player a huge advantage. Alzner should’ve stayed on his skates there.

In addition, the Bruins second goal came on a terrible cross ice attempt by John Carlson. Sophomore Tyler Seguin picked that one off and went in easily to beat Vokoun upstairs. Carlson has been making far too many giveaways lately and needs to be more responsible on his breakouts.

Vokoun once again turned in a solid performance in goal. He is in a groove right now and that is primarily coming from the fact that the Capitals, under Hunter, have drastically cut down the number of odd man rushes they allow. In addition, #29 is in better position to stop the puck because he has a very good idea where the opposing shots are coming from. Both of those things correlate directly to a higher save percentage.

At the end of the night, Hunter’s squad overcame their defensive zone mistakes because they played with energy, effort, and passion. The Bruins are a bigger team but Washington actually out hit them, 30-16. It was a victory that many could not see coming but one thing about this Caps club is they very often seem to be able to elevate their game against the league’s elite. Perhaps Boston was a bit distracted by their Conn Smythe winning goalie, Tim Thomas, and his decision to bail on the President and the White House yesterday? Maybe. But once the puck is dropped those type of things kind of disappear, so credit Washington for a hard working win that gives them the ability to take the week off sitting in first place in their division.

Notes: Ovechkin announced today that he will indeed skip the All Star Game this weekend in Ottawa due to his suspension…Marcus Johansson returned to the lineup after his illness but only played 12:28. He did have an assist and was +2 playing left wing with Perreault and Semin…Jeff Halpern was 11-4 on faceoffs, including a big win with 30 seconds left that directly led to Wideman’s lengthy empty net goal that made it 5-3…John Erskine, Joel Ward, and Jay Beagle all played under 10 minutes. Ward needs to show that he is worth the $3M a season General Manager George McPhee shelled out for him over these last 34 games and then the playoffs. Right now he is not skating well and as a result won’t see the ice much in Hunter’s system that relies heavily on speed and skating ability…the Caps return to practice next Monday at 2pm before departing for the Sunshine State. They play in Tampa on Tuesday and then face the Panthers on Wednesday night…speaking of Florida, congratulations to former Caps radio play by play man Steve Kolbe for landing a new gig with the Jacksonville Suns calling AA baseball. I spoke with the Baltimore native and Mount St. Joes grad last Thursday night and he was excited to be back in broadcasting after his 14 year run ended with the Caps this past offseason.

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Undermanned Caps Turn in Strong Effort

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Undermanned Caps Turn in Strong Effort

Posted on 22 January 2012 by Ed Frankovic

NBC decided to put the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins on national television this Sunday afternoon ahead of the NFL Championship games and as usual, they got a dandy between two clubs that respect each other, but flat out can’t stand one another.

Sure there was no Sidney Crosby, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, or Jordan Staal due to injuries, but Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, the top two picks in the 2004 NHL Entry draft, repsectively, put on an absolute show. Both had three points (1 goal, 2 assists) and finished plus three in the game, but it was Malkin who had the winner in overtime for Pittsburgh, in a 4-3 thriller.

Washington also played without center Marcus Johansson so coach Dale Hunter had to go to his first aid kit and bandage a lineup together. In the first period, it wasn’t working so well as the Pens raced out to a quick 2-0 lead prompting many of us on Twitter to surmise that it was going to be a long day for the Capitals.

But give Hunter credit once again for some great in game adjustments, the most important of which was putting Mathieu Perreault between Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, and those three were the guys who got the Caps back in it, and also the lead for about six minutes in the third period. The Gr8 and Semin are super talents, but in hockey, to win, you need good centers who can get skilled wingers the puck. Center has been the Caps biggest problem this year (and it could be argued it was the last two years as well) and that issue is significantly magnified while Backstrom is out of the lineup. Throw in an ill Johansson and you get the disaster that was the first period.

Hunter’s first intermission moves panned out but also the players reached down and grabbed their you know whats and competed. Let’s be honest, Washington can’t stand to lose to Pittsburgh so they were going to do whatever it took to try and win. And they almost pulled it off too. Michal Neuvirth (23 saves) was very good in net despite taking the defeat.

Laich would play 27:57 and he, Karl Alzner (24:09), and Jeff Halpern (11:39) put on a penalty killing clinic late in period two, with the score knotted at two, when the Penguins had a 51 second two man advantage. Pittsburgh would score once on the power play to open the scoring but Washington killed all four other Pens manpower advantage situations.

Alzner had a strong game playing with Dennis Wideman (26:49) but the duo of John Carlson and Roman Hamrlik had an up and down contest drawing the Malkin line. Those two were on the ice for three of the four goals against while being on for two Caps markers. Hamrlik was the one who caused most of the problems as Pittsburgh exposed his weaker skating ability. #44 had been playing better under Hunter’s new system, but I felt that today was his poorest game since the former Caps captain took over and it was his mistakes that allowed Malkin to set up the game tying goal and then win this one in overtime.

At the end of the day though, this was an encouraging contest for Washington after an unbloggable loss in Carolina on Friday (3-0). Several guys stepped up, most notably Perreault and Laich, to try and fill the gap up the middle of the ice that is so glaring right now. Perreault certainly earned himself some more ice time with this performance and his offensive skill seems to be the best fit with Ovechkin and Semin right now with Backstrom out. Even if Johansson comes back on Tuesday, I’d still keep 85 there because he is more gifted offensively and the two big guns need a center who can handle and pass the puck.

So the Caps will play one more game on Tuesday, at the Verizon Center, against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins before taking the rest of the week away from the rink for the All Star Break. If they can find a way to win or at least get a point against a very good Boston team that would be huge.

The Caps need some rest to heal up, but they are still battling despite being undermanned, so today’s point in Pittsburgh was well deserved.

Notes: John Erskine, Cody Eakin, Jay Beagle, and Joel Ward all played less than 10 minutes of ice time. Hunter likes to go with the guys who are getting it done as evidenced by the large variance in playing time down the lineup…Semin and Perreault each had two points. 28 was +3 while Perreault went +2…James Neal had two goals for the Pens, both assisted by Malkin.

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Road Trip Starts Well for Caps

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Road Trip Starts Well for Caps

Posted on 18 January 2012 by Ed Frankovic

After Tuesday night’s bad 3-0 loss to the New York Islanders I blogged afterwards that I felt that coach Dale Hunter had the Capitals situation in control based on how he historically stays on an even keel. I thought that he would not get emotional following that game and get the team focused, more importantly, on the task at hand, a contest in Montreal on Wednesday night.

Hunter and his team proceeded to prove me right one night following that terrible defeat on home ice with a 3-0 victory at the Bell Centre.

The Caps came out strong and got two early goals on Montreal goalie Carey Price (13 saves) then added a power play tally by Alexander Ovechkin in period two before riding some good penalty killing and goaltending in the final stanza. Michal Neuvirth stopped all 31 shots he faced, including 17 in the third period when referees Stephen Walkom and Gord Dwyer turned in one of the worst officiating periods in modern day hockey. Simply put, those two guys were a joke with the calls made on Washington and those not made against the Habs in those last 20 minutes. “Typical Montreal” as Flyers Coach Peter Laviolette would say.

But nothing was getting past Neuvirth on Wednesday, regardless of the zebras and their inept work. #30 hadn’t played since the day after Christmas and he made a statement to coach Hunter that he should get more time in the cage going forward. Tomas Vokoun, who started the last 10 games, has been playing well too so Dale has an enviable position of having two goalies that are hot, something that has not happened so far in the Capitals 2011-12 season. Simply put, this is a nice problem for a coach to have. Competition is good and forces players to improve.

The Caps had struggled on the road coming into this tilt going 7-12-1 this season and they hadn’t gotten a two goal lead away from the Verizon Center since November 3rd against Carolina (a 5-1 victory; h/t @VogsCaps). Tonight they got at least one gift from Price (Marcus Johansson’s goal) and took advantage of that by playing a classic road game. Washington only gave up 14 shots in the first two frames before the officiating bonanza. The Capitals, however, only had 10 shots on net through 40 minutes themselves, something they must improve on. Another thing that needs correcting is the execution of odd man rushes. Washington had three 2 on 1 breaks in the final frame and didn’t get a really good shot on net on any of them. Hunter needs to get the team to realize that many times the best pass is a shot that leads to a rebound.

Fortunately, the Capitals didn’t need to score on those odd man rushes on this night, but going forward they must start converting, especially when they go up against the better teams in the Eastern Conference (like the Boston Bruins).

But tonight, the Caps refocused after a bad loss, taking a cue from their head coach, and did what they needed to do, win a game on the road against a struggling team. With the next five of six away from the Verizon Center, this was a very good start to a big road stretch.

Notes:  The zebras called a bizarre six minute minor (2 for elbowing, 4 minutes for high sticking) on John Erskine in the final frame but Washington killed it off.. Brooks Laich was outstanding blocking shots on the penalty kill and was credited with four blocks overall…Montreal had seven power plays to just four for Washington…Mathieu Perreault got a sweater on Wednesday for the first time in a week and made the most of it potting the first Washington goal. #85 only played 6:09…Johansson took a hit from Josh Gorges to the hip/knee late in the third period and didn’t return. Hopefully MJ90 is okay because the Caps can’t afford to lose another center with Nicklas Backstrom still out…speaking of Backstrom, Matt Hendricks took on cheap shot specialist Rene Bourque 75 seconds into the game as a pay back for Bourque’s hit to #19′s head. Bourque won the fight but the message was sent…the Caps won 37 of the 63 face-offs (59%)…next up for the Caps are the Hurricanes in Raleigh on Friday night before a Sunday 12:30 pm start with the Penguins in Pittsburgh on NBC.

 

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At Season’s Halfway Point, It’s Time to Grade the Caps

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At Season’s Halfway Point, It’s Time to Grade the Caps

Posted on 12 January 2012 by Ed Frankovic

With the Washington Capitals hitting their season midpoint, it is time for my fifth annual Caps mid-season grades and analysis. It’s been a rollercoaster ride for the Capitals in 2011-12. This Caps squad that added goalie Tomas Vokoun, defensemen Roman Hamrlik, and forwards Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern during the summer, shot out of the gate 7-0 but an injury to Mike Green coupled with some poor defensive zone play and shaky goaltending sent the team reeling for several weeks. That swoon ultimately led to the firing of Bruce Boudreau. Enter new coach Dale Hunter, who changed the defensive system switching from zone to man to man, and the Caps became a team that was better at keeping the biscuit out of their own cage but saw the offense struggle early on while the team focused on a defense first mentality. In Hunter’s scheme, the offense is created from defense, primarily from transition. Over the last couple of weeks the team has executed those tactics much more effectively and the result has been victories in five of the last seven games. The goals against average, which was 3.32 in 22 games under Boudreau, has declined to 2.47 in 19 games with Hunter.

Washington heads into the season’s second half at 22-17-2 (46 points) which is good for 8th place in the Eastern Conference and 16th overall in the NHL. For comparison’s sake, at the halfway point last season, the Caps were 23-12-6 (52 points) but there were some obvious holes on the roster, with second line center being the biggest. On trade deadline day in 2011 GM George McPhee would make some super deals adding defensemen Dennis Wideman and center Jason Arnott and the Caps went on a tear to seize the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the playoffs. However, both Arnott and Wideman were injured down the stretch and Washington couldn’t get past the second round of the playoffs, getting swept by the Bolts in four games. There were some who felt that McPhee needed to make a coaching change immediately after the second round loss to Tampa Bay but the GM said late this fall, just after switching to Hunter behind the bench just 22 games into the season, that he didn’t want all of the blame for the postseason failure to fall on Boudreau. But clearly Boudreau’s message was falling on deaf ears as a team that played super defense in the second half of 2010-11 became irresponsible in their own zone in the early part of this season.

The old adage, “Defense Wins Championships,” is spot on and Hunter has this team more focused in this area but there are still issues, especially when the club goes on the road. Washington is 15-5-1 at the Verizon Center but a terrible 7-12-1 away. If this Caps team is going to make a second half push to climb up the overall standings, then the road record must improve. The Capitals have not looked the same away from DC and their play in their own zone has been atrocious at times, case in point being this past Monday night in Los Angeles. From the defensemen to the centers to the wingers, the Caps must do a better job with their breakouts because they are making far too many giveaways that lead to more shots, chances, and zone time for their opponents. This Capitals team used to pride itself on being a puck possession crew but due to their own zone struggles, they end up wasting lots of time and energy just trying to get past the blue and red lines. That zaps energy and the ability to use their size and skill in the offensive zone.

Injuries have been a factor in the struggles, Green has pretty much been out since the start of the year and as a result Dennis Wideman and John Carlson have had to take on more minutes. In addition, the absence of 52 exposed the lack of speed that Roman Hamrlik, Jeff Schultz, and John Erskine possess. The good news is that Hamrlik has turned his game around with the new man to man system under Hunter but the other two aren’t even getting a sweater with the recent recall of Tomas Kundratek from Hershey. Assistant coach Jim Johnson is clearly trying to find the right combination on the back end and I wouldn’t be surprised if McPhee adds a defensemen at the trade deadline. In addition, the second line center problem has risen to the spotlight again, especially with Nicklas Backstrom out of the lineup the last three games due to the cheap shot to the head he took from Calgary’s Rene Bourque. Once again, I look for GMGM to address the center position, and possibly another forward slot at the trade deadline. The Capitals have two first round draft picks this year so the GM could decide to use one of them to upgrade the current roster.

To sum up the first half of the year, the coaching change was necessary but it clearly hasn’t solved all of the team’s issues and the personnel will need some upgrades by February 27th. Several players also need to execute better than they did in the first 41 games.

Speaking of players, it is time to move on to the individual grades, which are based on the expectations for each at the start of the season (after the opening night roster was announced). They also take in to account each individual’s yearly salary cap hit:

Top of the Class

Jason Chimera (A) – 14 goals and 7 assists put #25 on pace for a career high in offensive production. In addition, his offense has not come with a drop in defensive zone play as he is +6. Chimera has been excellent using his speed to get around opposing defenders to create offense or simply wear down the other team.

Karl Alzner (A) – The defensive defensemen is a +10 with much of his ice time coming against opposing number one forward lines. Sure there have been nights when #27 has had a rough matchup, but all year long he has been the club’s steadiest blueliner. Add in the fact that King Karl is getting more involved offensively, his 1 goal and 11 assists give him 12 points, the same total he had all last season, and he has really amped up his game in just his second full year in the NHL.

Nicklas Backstrom (A-) – Arguably the team’s MVP so far because he is so valuable on a team that is weak up center ice after #19. 42 points in 38 games for a team that has shifted to a defense first mentality is impressive. It is clear that Nicky got himself in supreme shape this past offseason and his strength on the puck is back this season. It is a shame that he is out right now, for who knows how long, due to Bourque’s reckless cheap shot.

Honor Society

Dennis Wideman (B) – with Green out #6 has been asked to be the team’s ice time leader on most nights. He has picked up the offensive slack notching eight goals and 21 assists, which helped put him in the all star game. Wideman overall though, is a -3, and that needs to improve. He has a tendency to overplay opponents in his own zone which breaks down the entire defensive system when it happens.

Tomas Vokoun (B) – 17-10 with a .915 save percentage are good numbers. He’s had some great games, the two victories over Pittsburgh spring immediately to mind, and some poor outings, such as the night against the Flyers when he couldn’t stop a beach ball. #29 was plagued by the bad goal a night blues for a while in the middle of the first half but he seems to be snapping out of it. For the Caps to get where they want to be he needs to be at the top of his game down the stretch and in the post season.

Jeff Halpern (B) – #15 is 217-148 from the faceoff dot (59.4%) and is the team’s best drawman. Slated to play on the 4th line, the Potomac native has worked himself up the depth chart with solid two way play. He has 3 goals and 8 helpers but is a +4.

Dmitry Orlov (B) – started the season in Hershey but because of the lack of mobility on the blue line, the 2009 2nd round pick was summoned to “The Show” and has acquitted himself so well that it is unlikely he goes back to the AHL. He has six assists, but is -3. He has great wheels and a surprising physical presence on the back end. If he can start hitting the net with his shot the Capitals offense would get a great boost.

Marcus Johansson (B-) – MJ90 has had an up and down first half but his numbers are decent: 9 goals and 15 assists. He is a -2 and surprisingly has had some rough nights in his own zone, something that was supposed to be a rarity for the normally solid defensive pivot. This kid will continue to get better and unfortunately he is forced to play center on one of the top two lines too often. In my book he is a third line center and would be one of the best in the NHL in that role, but he also has shown he can be a decent winger, with the right center (Backstrom).

John Carlson (B-) – #74 has been very inconsistent this season. At times he has been one of the best players on the ice and in other games he has looked lost in his own zone. The system change may have hurt him more than any other d-man because he is still learning how to take time and space away from opponents. Offensively though, he has been there with five goals and 17 assists. I’d like to see him get more power play time.

Cody Eakin (B-) – I didn’t expect the 2009 3rd round NHL pick to spend much time with the Caps this year but due to injuries, a friendly contract that allows him to go up and down without having to clear waivers, and his speed, he’s played in nearly half of the tilts. He has been most effective when using his speed to beat opponents and when he hasn’t done that he has looked overmatched and benched in some games, as a result. Personally I’d rather see him play 20+ minutes a night in the AHL to properly develop his game. He just isn’t physically big enough for the NHL, at this time.

Average Joe’s

Troy Brouwer (C+) – #20 has 11 goals and 20 points and has been a real solid net presence. He also has done a good job of being physical in the offensive zone.

Roman Hamrlik (C) – #44 really struggled under Boudreau and part of that was a lingering groin issue. However, with Hunter’s system he is in familiar territory and doesn’t look like he is skating in concrete, like he did early on.

John Erskine (C) – Started the season on IR due to a shoulder injury. Last year he was one of the best players in the first 41 games but when you can’t lift and work out in the offseason due to an injury it really sets you back. #4′s main role appears to be spot starts where his phyiscal presence is needed. His best games seem to always be against the Rangers.

Joel Ward (C) – Needs to score more than five goals in the second half. His skating is a little worrisome, not sure if he was out of shape or he had an injury but he doesn’t look as quick as he did in the 2011 playoffs when he was a Nashville Predator. His +5 rating saves him from a worse grade.

Michal Neuvirth (C-) – #30 really struggled in the first part of the year before improving once Hunter took over. At one point Neuvy was the #1 goalie but he let in a couple of bad ones in Buffalo the day after Christmas and it’s pretty much been the Vokoun show ever since. 5-7-2 with an .886 save percentage are not good numbers at all, although he is over 90% since number 32 took over.

Brooks Laich (C-) – Another guy, because of the holes up the middle of the ice, gets forced to play out of position. I see #21 as a 2nd or 3rd line winger where he can use his size and drive to help the Caps break out of their zone. As a pivot he just doesn’t have the hands to be effective coming out of his own end. You’ll never get a bad effort from the fan favorite but at the dollars he’s making the Caps need more than a point every other game and a -7 rating. More production please Brooksie.

Alex Ovechkin (C-) – 17 goals, 16 assists, -8. We’ve seen good Ovie and bad Ovie this year. Most of the bad came under Boudreau but he has 0 points in the last three games after 9 in the previous 6. The good news is he was all over the ice against the Penguins hitting and creating chances on Wednesday night. That is the Ovechkin the Caps need to win games. If he doesn’t have it, the Capitals usually lose. The Gr8 needs to continue to improve in his own zone, if he bears down more the breakaways and odd man rushes will come in bunches each night.

Not Making the Grade

Alexander Semin (D) – Was super in the first five games before becoming a penalty machine and a scapegoat for Boudreau. Under the new regime he seems more energized and had six really good games in a row before getting injured in Columbus. If he can get healthy again he can be dominant in this system where he is, in my mind, the best winger at getting the puck out of the Washington zone. But only 10 goals in 37 games is not cutting it, the Capitals need more from this supremely talented player who is making $6.7M.

Matt Hendricks (D) – 1 goal in 37 games is not good for this fourth liner. If he plays like he did against Pittsburgh on Wednesday night he’ll get more ice time and his production will improve. He has to play physical to be effective.

Mathieu Perreault (D) – 3 goals in 26 games is way under where I thought MP85 would be. He has not been the sparkplug that he had been in the past and perhaps his size is why he just isn’t going to be consistent at the NHL level?

Mike Knuble (D) – 3 goals in 41 games for the aging winger. #22 has definitely lost a step and that has cost him lots of ice time. Can he find the fountain of youth once again in the second half?

Whereabouts Unknown

Jeff Schultz (F) – Is this the same guy who was +50 just two years ago? #55 has lost foot speed and confidence. He looks clumsy and a step behind when he plays. I am not sure he is with this team much longer and at $2.75M against the salary cap he is an expensive scratch each night.

Incomplete: Mike Green, Jay Beagle, Sean Collins, DJ King, and Tomas Kundratek

Management Grades

Bruce Boudreau (D) - The likeable Gabby eventually ran out of things to tell his club and they tuned him out. He and assistant coach Bob Woods couldn’t get the defense to be better and as a result it cost them their jobs.

Dale Hunter (B) – Dale brought in a radical system change with arguably some personnel that aren’t exact fits. But when you see the turnaround a guy like Hamrlik had and the goals against dropping so significantly, even with some shaky goaltending early in his regime, it was definitely the right thing to do tactically. The team is becoming a harder club to play against but they still lack some sandpaper type grit. He has definitely turned Semin around and Ovechkin is buying in too. His success rides on Vokoun, the play of 8 and 28, and the personnel tweaks he works with McPhee on to upgrade the roster by the end of February. Another Hunter strength is he is a man of few words so his message is easy to receive. He also stays on an even keel, which is good for the players as they don’t waste energy on emotional issues.

General Manager George McPhee (B) – It is hard for GM’s to do anything in the first half of a season but he did the one thing he had to do, switch coaches. Going forward until trade deadline day are critical times for McPhee. He has to find a way to get some better fits for what Hunter wants to do to be successful in the spring. His off season moves are looking better after a rough first 22 games, especially with Hamrlik’s improved play and the fact that Vokoun has stolen some wins. Still, he has that nagging second line center issue that he will have to address again by the end of February.

In final analysis, over the first half of the sesason there were nights when the Caps looked like they can play with anyone in the league, but on other occassions they were run out of the barn. Those games came mostly under Boudreau but Monday’s loss in Los Angeles was a bit of a scare. Hopefully fatigue was to blame for that one. Going forward this team has a lot of work to be done to get where they want to be. The execution needs to be markedly better and personnel moves will be needed if they want to compete with the likes of Boston. If that doesn’t happen then the ownership will likely take some drastic measures after the season is over. I don’t think anyone wants that to happen.

 

 

 

 

 

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Beating Pittsburgh Always Sweet for Caps

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Beating Pittsburgh Always Sweet for Caps

Posted on 11 January 2012 by Ed Frankovic

It wasn’t textbook hockey and it certainly wasn’t pretty, but the Washington Capitals found a way to get a win over their archrival Pittsburgh Penguins at the Verizon Center on Wednesday night. Tomas Vokoun turned in a superb goaltending performance stopping 30 shots and Jason Chimera continued to march toward a career high in goals by notching the only tally in a 1-0 Caps victory, his 14th of the year.

With so many top players out of the game due to injury (Sidney Crosby, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Jordan Staal, and Kris Letang) combined with the short turnarounds these two teams faced (Caps took the redeye back from LA on Tuesday morning while the Pens played Tuesday night), it was no surprise that the game lacked energy and intensity in the first 40 minutes. The Penguins actually carried much of the play getting 10 more shot attempts and holding a 20-12 advantage in shots on goal. But the only thing that mattered was the scoreboard as Chimera scored after Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern forced Evgeni Malkin into a turnover at the Washington blue line.

Under coach Dale Hunter, the Capitals are focused on limiting or even better, eliminating, odd man rushes and although the Penguins had the shots advantage, they didn’t get any odd man breaks. The Caps did, and Chimera was able to go in one on one on Marc Andre-Fleury (19 saves) and he beat him with a quick shot. Washington’s 1-2-2 defense was mostly effective at keeping Pittsburgh to the outside and when the Penguins were able to penetrate it through the first two periods Vokoun was a wall in net.

In the third period the Caps found some energy and dominated the first 16 minutes. Alexander Ovechkin (0 points) was all over the ice setting up his teammates for chances and getting some of his own, but Fleury was brilliant to give his club a chance. Even though Pittsburgh basically threw the kitchen sink at the Caps in the final four minutes, the uptick in effort in that final frame was really needed from Hunter’s crew. In the previous two games against the Pens, which saw the teams split one goal contests, Pittsburgh was the more dominant team. So it was imperative for the Capitals to take over at that point, and again, if not for Fleury, Washington wins easily.

Still of concern to me though, is the Capitals struggles to find consistency coming out of their own zone. Clearly with #19 out the biggest weakness for Washington is up the middle of the ice. Brooks Laich, Marcus Johansson, Jeff Halpern, and Mathieu Perreault were tonight’s pivots and in my opinion, none of them are currently first or second line centers. Compounding the center problem is the wingers are making poor decisions with the puck which is leading to too many turnovers. Part of the issue for the defensemen are the forwards are simply not doing the little things to help them get the puck out and going in transition. It is a situation that led to numerous breakdowns out in California and the only way to fix the center/winger problem this year is a trade (or two) by General Manager George McPhee.

The Caps are clearly a different team at home and they’ve won seven of their last eight at the Phone Booth, outscoring their opponents 28-13. Fortunately for them they have three more games at the Verizon Center over the next six days with the Lightning on Friday, the Hurricanes Sunday, and the Islanders on Tuesday night. Wednesday night’s win puts the Caps in just eighth place in the Eastern Conference so it is very important that they rack up more points on this stay in DC. The Capitals have struggled mightily on the road and they still have four games scheduled against the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins, who look even better this year than last. So it isn’t going to get any easier schedule wise for the Caps after the next three tilts.

But for tonight, a win over Pittsburgh has to feel good, no matter how they got it. Good goaltending is the most important thing in hockey and Vokoun seems to be getting into a groove (I don’t put the left coast losses on him, at all). Now they just need to get the entire squad playing like they did for most of Wednesday’s third period on a more consistent basis.

Notes: Matt Hendricks only played 7:44 but had one of his better games of the season with a fight win over Craig Adams and a post hit…the Caps won the facefoff battle, 25-20, and Jeff Halpern went 10-2, including several big defensive draws late in the contest…the Penguins didn’t get a power play all night while Washington went 0 for 2 with the man advantage…Malkin was 3-11 on faceoffs…Ovechkin had 4 shots on net and 3 hits…Backstrom was put on IR retroactive to last week.

 

 

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Caps Special at Home Again

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Caps Special at Home Again

Posted on 03 January 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin is red hot and that usually means the Washington Capitals are winning hockey games. The Gr8 scored a power play goal just 1:11 into Tuesday’s game against the Calgary Flames then Troy Brouwer potted a rebound of Oveckhin’s power play point shot in the middle frame and the Caps went on to win 3-1 against the Calgary Flames at the Verizon Center.

Special teams are often a difference maker in hockey games and that was definitely the case on Tuesday as Washington went 2 for 3 with the man advantage and killed off all four of Calgary’s power plays. Nicklas Backstrom had three assists before exiting the game after taking a terrible cheap shot elbow to the head in the neutral zone from Rene Bourque. #19 will be evaluated on Wednesday and hopefully he doesn’t have a concussion. Nicky did play one shift after absorbing the unnecessary blow from Bourque, who has already been suspended once this season for a bad hit on Chicago’s Brent Seabrook. Those type of hits have no place in the NHL right now and the Flames forward needs to sit at least three games for that stupid play.

As for Ovechkin, well he is rolling right now and had his fourth straight multiple point game. It is no coincidence that the Capitals have won all four of those games. You win when your best players are your best players and Ovie now has 11 points in his last seven games and for the year now is up to 17 goals and 16 assists. Look out NHL, the Gr8 is back and playing extremely well under Caps Coach Dale Hunter. Backstrom is up to 42 points and in the top 10 in the NHL in scoring.

The penalty killing was superb against the Flames. The #1 person in that equation is usually your goaltender and Tomas Vokoun (18 saves) was excellent between the pipes. But Washington’s skaters really got it done against Calgary giving up only three shots on net while shorthanded and on the next to last penalty late in regulation, the Flames didn’t even get a shot on goal! Overall the Caps blocked a season high 24 shots and as assistant coach Jim Johnson likes to say, good things are going to happen when his club blocks between 20 and 25 shots in a game. That is some solid work there on the defensive end and a big reason for the victory.

In addition to Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Vokoun, the Capitals received another really solid game from sophomore Marcus Johansson. The young Swede, who was recently shifted to the wing by Hunter, made a super pass to set up the Gr8′s one timer for the first tally and his one on three rush in the middle frame allowed Backstrom to grab the puck and find an all alone Dennis Wideman for the goal that gave Washington a two puck cushion. MJ90 has four points in his last four games and looks very comfortable on left wing next to Backstrom.

Mike Green made his return to the lineup for the first time since being injured on November 11th and #52 looked rusty in 15:43 of ice time. He was caught out of position on two occassions that led to Flames quality scoring chances but Vokoun had his back both times. The off night is to be expected when a guy misses 29 of 30 hockey games and it was clear he needs conditioning work. But getting Green back on Tuesday was important for Washington as they prepare to take on some of the NHL’s elite teams. They have San Jose and Los Angeles in California on Saturday and Monday before coming home next Wednesday to take on the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The bad news is that Alexander Semin missed this game with an undisclosed injury and if Backstrom turns out to have concussion like symptoms that would take two of the Capitals top six forwards out of the lineup. Semin has been playing superbly the last six games so losing him really weakens a Washington offense that is starting to hit its’ stride by generating chances from solid defensive play.

So the Caps once again scored early at home and rode that to victory. They’ve now won six of their last seven at the Verizon Center. Winning on the road though, has been a much tougher chore and they have not tallied in the opening 20 minutes in the last six away games. In addition, they haven’t won a game in San Jose since 1993 so the odds are stacked against them on Saturday night. The good news is they have the rest of the week to prepare for it. Green should be in better shape by then and hopefully Semin and Backstrom are okay because the Sharks are hot right now making the game a good barometer for how much Washington has improved since Hunter took over behind the bench.

Notes: The Caps are now 21-15-2 overall and 9-6-1 under Hunter…Washington dominated the draws going 34-20 from the face-off dot…Curtis Glencross scored the Flames only goal when Karl Alzner and John Carlson both made uncharacteristic mistakes on a play that also included a sweet pass from Jarome Iginla to set up #20 in front for an easy marker…with Semin out, Hunter dressed 7 defensemen but John Erskine only played 4:48…Jeff Schultz and Mathieu Perreault were the other scratches…the Caps game in San Jose starts at 1030 pm Eastern Time on Saturday night…I was on with Drew Forrester on the WNST Morning Show talking Caps hockey on Tuesday morning and you can hear the audio from that here.

 

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Hunter’s Adjustments Propels Caps Comeback

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Hunter’s Adjustments Propels Caps Comeback

Posted on 31 December 2011 by Ed Frankovic

The Caps failed to score a first period goal on the road for the sixth straight game and after 40 minutes they trailed 2-0 to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

So much for using that start fast formula on the road that they’ve used lately at home that I blogged about last night, eh?!

But since Dale Hunter took over behind the bench this Washington Capitals squad has yet to quit in a game, regardless of the deficit and some lineup juggling by the Caps bench boss ignited a three goal in under three minutes explosion in the final frame. Alexander Ovechkin, who scored the first goal for the Caps, then lasered one by Steve Mason (22 saves) to make it 4-2 and Tomas Vokoun (35 saves) closed the door as the Capitals won their third straight game. It was a huge victory and moves the Caps to 20-15-2 overall. They are now just five points behind Southeast Division leading Florida. Washington has two games in hand.

After Columbus did a good job of shutting down Washington’s top line for 40 minutes, Hunter split them up putting Ovechkin with Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer while Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin added Marcus Johansson on left wing. The move gave the Caps energy and took Columbus off of their game plan. On the back end, the defensemen became extremely active and Dennis Wideman (1 goal, 2 assists) turned in a super period paired with Roman Hamrlik. On Ovechkin’s nail in the coffin on the power play, Dmitry Orlov made an intelligent move carrying the puck down the left wing boards and behind the net drawing the defense to him before slipping a sweet pass to the Gr8 who buried it with authority. Make no mistake about this, Orlov continues to get better and deserves to be up with the big club the rest of the season.

I know I mentioned the standings above, but as I’ve pretty much done since Hunter took over, I have tried to ignore them because this club needed to drastically fix its’ play before it could start rising back to the top of the Eastern Conference. After 15 games in under the Capitals legend the team has totally improved on the backend and now that they have corrected that, the offense, as predicted by Hunter, is coming on. Ovechkin, Semin, and Nicklas Backstrom have bought in defensively and they are really starting to reap big rewards for that. The Gr8 is on fire with four goals in his last two games and has nine points in his last six games. Semin’s goal that tied the game was a thing of beauty and he’s had six solid tilts in a row. Backstrom is the team’s MVP so far this season but he’s even gone to a higher level the last couple of weeks.

Another thing to be really encouraged about is the week Vokoun just had in goal. #29 came on in relief on Monday and stopped 16 of 17 shots then went 3-0 as a starter. Vokoun is making the big save at the right time. 14 seconds after Ovechkin tallied to cut it to 2-1, he made a huge stop on Mark Letestu on a quality chance in the slot. If Letestu scores there the game is over. Instead Orlov and Grant Clitsome go off for roughing shortly thereafter and the Capitals score twice on the four on four. I’ve said this so many times, but everything starts for a team in goal and Washington is finally getting some consistent netminding.

For those who watched the post game press conference with Hunter on Comcast, things looked exactly the same from old number 32 for the 15th time despite the dramatic comeback. It was hard to tell whether the team won or lost and Hunts always seems to be on such an even keel. Clearly his club is feeding off of his consistency behind the bench and his competitive drive is contagious.

Winning in Columbus is still no big feat, that Blue Jackets club is pretty bad. The Caps have a Calgary Flames team home on Tuesday before taking off to the west coast to take on some quality Western Conference talent in San Jose and Los Angeles. We’ll have an even better idea how far the team has come after those contests.

Happy New Year!

Notes: The Blue Jackets second goal should not have counted as referees Brad Meier and Francois St. Laurent missed an obvious interference penalty on Derek Dorsett in front of the Washington net. The Columbus pest shoved John Carlson to the ground with the puck on the boards but no call was made. Terrible work from the zebras…the Caps blocked 22 shots while the Blue Jackets only thwarted five. Assistant Coach Jim Johnson says if Washington blocks between 20 and 25 shots in a game that is a good sign…Hamrlik and Wideman were both +3. #44 looks so much better since returning from an early season groin injury. He is a smart player who is excelling in Hunter’s system…Washington won the faceoff battle, 32-31. Jeff Halpern was 8-3…Jeff Schultz had an awful first period giveaway and only played 9:46…Cody Eakin’s recall did necessitate a player going on injured reserve as I mentioned last night, but instead of Mathieu Perreault, the team retroactively put Mike Green in that capacity to meet the 23 man roster limit.

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Caps Finding Winning Formula

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Caps Finding Winning Formula

Posted on 31 December 2011 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals are starting to parlay a months worth of learning new coach Dale Hunter’s philosophy into winning hockey games.

On Friday night at the Verizon Center the Caps used the formula that worked well against the New York Rangers in Wednesday’s victory once again versus the Sabres. Washington won 3-1 over Buffalo via a fast start that led to an early goal, solid goaltending, and scoring from their top line in transition. At times the team struggled to get the puck out of its’ own zone against a feisty Sabres crew, but the team persevered by playing decent defensive hockey and Tomas Vokoun (25 saves) made timely saves. More importantly, the Washington number one line of Alexander Ovechkin (two goals), Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist), and Alexander Semin (two assists) is heating up and when the stars start scoring goals, it makes winning much more achieveable.

Hunter spent much of his first 30 days on the job trying to find the right line combinations and he seems to have settled on a strategy that former Caps coach Terry Murray often used back in the early 9o’s by putting his best offensive players together on one line and then loading up another line with solid checkers to match against opponents top unit.

“They’re very good players and they’ve played together before and we put back a checking line together and we put a scoring line together. So it’s just that combination, I guess,” added Hunter on his current line combo strategy.

Former coach Bruce Boudreau would occassionally put 8-19-28 together but it became a crap shoot, because the trio had a habit of not carrying their weight defensively. Hunter seems to have those guys buying into using solid defense to set up their deadly skill that can really shine in transition. All three Washington tallies came on the rush against Buffalo and Sabres goalie Ryan Miller (18 saves) had no chance on any of the goals. The passes that Semin and Backstrom made tonight were of the “Wow!” variety and with the Gr8 potting two goals, you can finally see confidence coming back and the pressure to produce releasing from those guys. Simply put, by playing well in their own end they are setting themselves up to be creative on the rush and the goals are starting to come. When that happens the game is a lot of fun and usually leads to a hot streak.

“We just have to play it simple. We made pretty plays by our simple plays. We just have to continue what we do right now. It’s nice when you make some pretty plays and when you score the goals. Especially when the team needs it. It’s pretty good,” said Ovechkin on why his line is starting to score multiple times a night.

When I watched the line closely the last two games, Backstrom is the first key to the defensive success. #19 is doing a good job of winning the one on one battles with the opponents center. The next critical thing is for the wingers to be in the right spots and make the correct play coming out of the zone. I was very impressed with Semin’s ability to do this on Friday night. He has the skill, but more importantly the patience and smarts on where to put the puck coming out of the zone to generate opportunities. Sometimes he chips it off of the boards allowing Ovechkin to slide over and get the puck and other times the defense becomes so aware of his skill that he simply waits for the opposing d-men to back off and then he either skates it out or finds a seam for a breakout pass. He was the best Capitals winger at getting the biscuit out of the Washington end in this one. As for Ovechkin, his defense is getting better but he is best suited to be the first guy out of the zone for the pass that gets the defense on its’ heels.

This was still no easy victory. The Sabres carried the play from the midpoint of the game until about seven minutes remained in regulation. Buffalo did what a lot of teams want to do to the Capitals, which is get the pucks deep and make the Washington defensemen and forwards chase. Much was made of Rangers coach John Tortorella’s “they don’t want to defend” remark the other night but what Torts was saying was the Caps have great skill up front and are very comfortable with the puck so you have to make them work to get it. Heck what top line in the entire NHL wants to play defense? Buffalo was pretty good getting the puck below the goal line but Washington countered by keeping the Sabres to the outside and the most important aspect of winning hockey, good goaltending, helped get the Caps the results they needed in their zone.

So the Caps have now come out strong in three straight home games but in the two road games last weekend, they fell behind 3-0 and 4-0, respectively. On Saturday night in Columbus they have a chance to show that they can use this formula on the road and be successful. It is one thing to dominate at home and get early energy from the friendly fans, but going on the road and getting a lead is a much harder feat. If the Capitals want to climb up the standings and reclaim their “elite” status, they need to start doing that on Saturday against the Blue Jackets.

Notes: Ovechkin’s first goal, on the power play, was the result of a fortuitous bounce. The Gr8 was passing to a streaking Brooks Laich on the rush but the disc hit a Sabres defender and went by Miller. Good things happen when players put pucks and bodies to the cage…The coaches made a smart personnel change right before the game clinching third goal with 5:50 left in regulation. The Sabres were really on Washington for the better part of the final frame but right after one of his checking lines had a good shift to stem the tide, Dale had the top line on the ice for a neutral zone faceoff, originally with Dennis Wideman and Roman Hamrlik. But then he pulled 44 off and trotted out Dmitry Orlov and #81 would use his great skating ability to get the puck out of Washington’s zone to Semin, who then made a behind the back through the legs pass to Backstrom, who hit a streaking Ovechkin for the nail in the coffin…the Laich, Jason Chimera, and Joel Ward line with the Karl Alzner/John Carlson d-pairing did a lot of the matching up against Buffalo’s top unit of Tomas Vanek, Jochen Hecht, and Jason Pominville in the second half of the game. It was a tough assignment and the Sabres had the puck for most of the time on ice, but they only managed one tally (Hecht from Vanek and Pominville in the second period)…Cody Eakin was in the building and officially recalled from Hershey after the tilt. It appears that one of the forwards is hurt and may go on injured reserve. My guess is it is Mathieu Perreault, who took a stick in the abdomen in Buffalo on Monday…It will be interesting to see who is in net for Washington in Columbus. Vokoun is hot but you don’t want to wear a guy out on back to back nights. In addition, Michal Neuvirth was really playing well before his bad first period on Monday that came after two days of no practice and a horror show travel day. My gut tells me that Neuvy gets the call on Saturday in Ohio…the Caps won the faceoff battle 33-27.

 

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Caps Embracing Hunter’s Defensive System

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Caps Embracing Hunter’s Defensive System

Posted on 23 December 2011 by Ed Frankovic

When Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee made the coaching switch to Dale Hunter on November 28th he stated that his team was not responding anymore to Bruce Boudreau. Specifically, McPhee talked about how poor the Caps were playing defensively and the GM knew that if he didn’t do something, his club was going to have little chance of competing in the post season this spring.

Enter Caps legend Dale Hunter, who not only brought a new voice and an unrivaled work ethic to the locker room, but a different defensive approach. Out went total zone coverage in the Capitals end and newly installed was a system focused on taking away gaps with man to man coverage down low. For most fans, this might not seem like a big deal to be able to implement. After all, we watch college basketball and see teams switching from zone to man and back again, many times in the same contest. But hockey is a different game and despite what one might think intuitively, this new system that Hunter has put in is quite a change. It is not a true man to man, because you’ll never see a defensemen following a forward out to the blue line, which would make a team easy to attack, but once the matchups are established down low the defensemen and third forward stick with their man while they are below the faceoff dots.

On the surface this is a Caps team that is 5-5 under Hunter and to those who are quick to resort to knee jerk reactions you’ll hear that “This is the same team just with a different coach.” But a closer look at the numbers shows that statement to be woefully incorrect. Through 22 games under Boudreau the Caps allowed 73 goals or 3.32 a tilt while scoring 3.18 per game (70 goals). In the 10 games under Hunter, the Caps have given up only 24 goals or 2.4 per game while scoring 2.5 per game (25 goals). In those 10 games, on seven occassions they’ve given up two goals or less. Keep in mind that the two teams that went to the Stanley Cup Finals last season, the Canucks and the Bruins, were first and second, in goals allowed per game at 2.20 and 2.30, respectively. So those who like to throw around the old adage that “Defense Wins Championships” sure look to be right.

In order for the Capitals to be truly successful in Hunter’s coaching scheme, the players obviously have to buy into it, understand it, and then execute it. It is focused on taking away any gaps the opposition might have in the Washington zone and by being aggressive on a body it has the capability to create more offense via quick transitions.

“It’s not that much different than what I was playing in Montreal. Now that Huntsy is here we are more desperate and it is more man on man in our defensive zone. He’s looking for good defense creating good offense. From my experience it’s a good thing because everybody works hard in the defensive zone,” said 20 year NHL veteran Roman Hamrlik, who was on the 2010 Canadiens team that knocked off both the Capitals and Penguins in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

For others, like Karl Alzner and Mathieu Perreault, the approach Hunter has implemented is definitely different for them.

“It’s been a pretty big change, it’s tough to go from zone to man on man because you always go back to that zone coverage. When you don’t know where your man is you just kind of wait back and sometimes you lose that guy and if one person loses them then you can get in trouble. In the Colorado game, I thought Colorado did a good job of cycling and picking us and when you get picked it is tough. So it’s a different system to learn but I think once you get it it is really hard for teams to win against you. You have to make sure you battle hard and that is what Huntsy really likes is that guys being accountable and making sure they do their job. If everyone is doing their job I don’t think there is a better system than that,” started Alzner on the change, “I’ve played bits and pieces of it before, but never full out on man on man and so for me, still, I sometimes I forget off faceoffs to follow my guy and I just kind of just stay in front of the net. Which, if you’re gonna be out of position, be out of position in front of the net. But sometimes you forget about it but you have to just keep reminding yourself what to do.”

“For a centermen it’s quite a difference because once you get your man you have to stay with him instead of just being in good position and keeping an eye on your guy. You gotta be right on him. It took a few games to get used to but I think now guys are getting the system pretty good. Whoever is first back goes, so everybody has to be able to play down low. For me I’d rather always be down low but the guys I play with Hendy, Knubs, or Beags, those are all guys that can play down low, so it is no big deal. Whoever gets there first, just go down low and then we fill in the wing spot,” said Perreault on how it works in the defensive end.

One of the most important things in any team sport is communication. Hamrlik and Alzner both think that Hunter’s system puts a premium on talking on the ice.

“It’s all about communication and reading the play. You can just stay with your man or you can switch with the forward, you call switch and the forward takes the high guy. It’s simple but it’s all about communication. Talking is a big help,”  said Hamrlik on the importance of communication in the new scheme.

“It’s tons, you have to be talking the entire time, which is good though because you want to be talking, even if we’re playing zone, and I think this way it just forces you to do it a little bit more or else you are going to get scored on. So it’s good, it just helps everybody out and even when we do turn the puck over we are so used to talking and calling switches and stuff then you are going to be so used to calling for the puck and letting guys know who is open and then we are going to get out of the zone like last game,” added Alzner when asked if there is an increase in communication with Hunter’s system.

Clearly the players understand it and are buying into the new plan but the execution takes some time, which is a reason why Washington’s offense slowed down initially due to the increased focus on defense. Tuesday’s game against Nashville seemed to be an encouraging sign as the Caps dominated early on and created scoring chances off of their defense.

“It’s getting better, I don’t think it is going to change overnight, but it’s getting much better. There are still lots of things we can work on out on the ice to get better every day as a team. I think the defensive zone is much better. It’s all about communication, have good position, don’t lose too many battles, one on one in the corner. Trust, let’s say I play with [Dennis] Wideman then I have to trust that he is going to do his job or the goalie’s gonna stop the puck, stuff like that,” said Hamrlik when asked how far along the team is at executing the defensive system.

The execution will come with practice and repitition, especially if the players think it will work. With the goals against improving so rapidly, it looks like the players have bought in. But going forward teams will start having film to digest of the Caps playing the new system and will devise ways to try to defeat it. Will it still be effective?

“Yeah, it is good, there are some teams that are good at playing against it and then there are some teams that don’t really know what to do against it. I think you have to know who you are playing against and you can always play versions of the man on man, but personally I think it is pretty tough to play against,” finished Alzner.

It’s only been 10 games and despite the fact that the Caps are only .500 under Hunter, you can see a progression on the ice, especially on defense. The number of odd man rushes against is way down and there aren’t any more questions about effort. In this system, if you aren’t working hard you will be exposed pretty quickly and everyone will be able to see who made the mistake, because this style is predicated on winning the one on one battles. So far the Capitals have embraced Hunter’s system and if they keep that up, the desired results, lots of victories, will come.

 

 

 

 

 

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