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Caps Blanked By Devils, 5-0

Posted on 22 November 2010 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals, the top team in the Eastern Conference when the day started, headed to New Jersey on Monday night to play the team tied for last place in the East with the New York Islanders. In addition, the Devils had lost three straight contests, were going to be without their future Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur (elbow injury), had only won one of their eight home contests this season, and to top it all off there have been recent rumors that their head coach, John MacLean, was in danger of losing his job. With that kind of scenario either two things were going to happen at The Rock, the Caps were going to win easy or they were going to get the Devils best game and lose. The latter is what occurred as the Devils came out strong while Washington slept through the first period. New Jersey jumped to a 3-0 lead in that opening frame and increased it to five midway through the second stanza en route to a 5-0 blanking of the Caps. Washington drops to 14-6-2 and is now tied for first in the East with the Philadelphia Flyers, who defeated the Montreal Canadiens, 3-2 on Monday. In addition, their Southeast Division lead has dwindled to just four points over Tampa, who defeated the Boston Bruins, 3-1, this evening. The Bolts also have a game in hand.

Below are the details, lowlights, and analysis of the second straight road blanking for the Caps:

- The plan prior to the morning skate was to start Michal Neuvirth in goal but that is when this whole day started going bad for Washington. Neuvirth, according to Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau, tweaked something in his lower body and as a result Semyon Varlamov was recalled from Hershey. Varly, who had been down with the Bears on a rehab assignment for his bad groin, made it in time to the game to back up Braden Holtby, but his skates were late. Thus Neuvirth sat on the bench until Varly’s equipment arrived (in time for the start of period two). The head coach did say afterwards that the only way Varlamov was going to play was if Holtby was injured because it would have been too risky to throw in #1 without a warmup.

- Holtby, who was coming off of his worst game of the season in Atlanta last Friday night (gave up three goals in less than 10 minutes and was yanked), really needed his team to come out strong and get him a lead so that he could try and regain his confidence. That didn’t come close to happening and when Brooks Laich took a lazy stick infraction in the defensive zone the Devils received a power play just 4:36 into the contest. 73 seconds into the man advantage Patrick Elias scored off his body from the slot after Mike Green deflected a Mattias Tedenby centering pass to make it 1-0. Then #70 made his biggest mistake after a John Erskine giveaway at the blue line. Jason Arnott jumped on the turnover by #4 and raced down the right wing. Holtby, who is an aggressive goalie, came out to challenge and went a bit too far and when Tyler Sloan stupidly chased the Devil behind the net, #25 had an easy wrap around goal. Erskine and Sloan were then vicitimized again yielding a breakaway to Tedenby and when #4 hauled him down from behind, #21 received a penalty shot. Tedenby would beat Holtby with a nice backhand move to make it 3-0 at the 18:14 mark.

- The Saskatchewan native would also yield a couple of rebound goals in period two but he did make some good saves, many of which came because his teammates were downright awful and allowed what seemed to be a continuous flow of odd man rushes. Holtby played poorly tonight but he is a 21 year old kid and will have those moments. What was pathetic was the effort in front of him and team captain Alexander Ovechkin should apologize for himself and his entire team for hanging Holtby out to dry in New Jersey. #70 deserved better and his next game likely will come in the AHL, partly because his team didn’t show up on Monday.

- Speaking of Ovechkin, the Great #8 continues to be in a funk, especially on the road. Last season the Caps lost only 10 contests away from the Verizon Center in regulation and this year they have been defeated five times before overtime in the first 10 road games. Simply put, this squad has not been ready to play and Boudreau can preach and yell all he wants but if the team captain consistently mails it in, then the rest of the crew is going to start doing so as well and that is when you get back to back road defeats by 4-0 and 5-0 tallies.

- Many skaters were bad on Monday but the pair that stood out most was the Sloan/Erskine combo. They were directly involved in goals two and three. #89 only played 3:25 and didn’t come out for the last two periods. In addition, Green left the bench midway through the third period after playing 20:59 (he usually logs 25+ minutes). Afterwards Boudreau said both had suffered injuries and he would know more in the morning. Tom Poti is already out of the lineup due to a creaky groin but he did skate with the other scratches on Monday and possibly could play Wednesday in Carolina.

- John Carlson, who hails from Jersey and had numerous family and friends in attendance, was the best Capital on the ice but that wasn’t saying much. #74 played over 27 minutes and was even for the night.

Notes: Washington ended up outshooting the Devils 30-23 but 26 of those shots came in periods two and three, when this one was pretty much over…the face-off battle was tied at 23 apiece…the Caps were 0 for 3 on the power play while the Devils went 1 for 2…the Caps will get a much needed practice on Tuesday in Raleigh before taking on the Canes on Wednesday at 7pm.

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Caps Progressing At Season’s Quarter Pole

Posted on 21 November 2010 by Ed Frankovic

After Saturday night’s 5-4 shootout loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, the Washington Capitals have hit the season’s quarter pole with a 14-5-2 record, good for 30 points, which is tops in the Eastern Conference. Ironically, after 21 games in 2009-10 the Caps also had 30 points (13-4-4) and we all know how the rest of the season went as Washington went on to win the President’s Trophy and then lost in seven games to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Prior to the season, on Media Day, Caps GM George McPhee told those of us assembled at Kettler IcePlex that he wasn’t really focused on the regular season and had his sights set on a long playoff run. Obviously a team has to have a decent regular season to qualify for the post season and the way things are going for the Capitals so far, unless the bottom falls out on the team over the last 61 games, there will be playoff hockey in DC.

McPhee’s words indicated to me that he was going to use the games leading up until the trade deadline on February 28th as an analysis period for his squad. Over the summer the GM essentially chose to stand pat and go with the players that led his club to the best record in the NHL in 2009-10, although he did attempt to sign unrestricted free agent defensemen Willie Mitchell, only to be outbid by the Los Angeles Kings, who offered the d-man a two year contract. Given that situation, we have an idea of an area where the GM thinks his team could use assistance and McPhee has made it clear that if an opportunity to make the Caps better presents itself, he will pursue it.

There has been much debate in the media and blogosphere locally and nationally about what the Capitals need or should do to help them win a Stanley Cup. Clearly their current roster makes them Cup contenders but there are at least a dozen teams who could claim that as well. In The Washington Post on-line season preview, I provided my three keys for the Capitals in their quest to win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. The rest of this blog will present an analysis on those keys and also address some of the other theories/criticisms that have been mentioned nationally and locally on the Caps.

The first key I mentioned for 2010-11 was that the team needed to be healthy heading into the playoffs. In the last two seasons Washington has started the post season with both Alexander Ovechkin and Mike Green nursing injuries or illnesses of some sort. This year the Capitals cannot afford to have their two most important players not close to 100% when April rolls around. In November you can’t really evaluate that, but it should be noted that Green has already missed three games due to an upper body injury. #52 is logging an average of 25:46 a tilt, which currently puts him 6th in the NHL in time on ice a game, and that is expected from one of the top blue liners in the NHL. The Great #8, who missed six contests due to injury in 2009-10, has played all 21 games and clocking in 21:22 on average a night. Ovechkin has put up 10 goals and 16 assists and is tied for 3rd in the NHL in points, trailing only Steven Stamkos and Sidney Crosby. However, given that the Great #8 already has his trophy case filled with individual awards I imagine the fact that #91 and #87 are ahead of him in the scoring race matters little to him. In fact, based on what I’ve seen from Alex over the first 21 games I wouldn’t be surprised if he is trying to pace himself to get his body and mind ready for a long and physical post season run. As for the rest of the team and its health, the Caps have still managed to lead the NHL in points despite the loss of arguably their second best blue liner in Tom Poti for 16 games and their projected #1 goaltender, Semyon Varlamov, for all but two contests.

After last season’s playoff defeat, Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau indicated that a big part of the problem was that his club had become a one line team with Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Knuble. Alexander Semin, who scored 40 times in the regular season, was blanked in the post season and assisting that issue was the lack of a pivot to help get him the puck in prime scoring chances once the games got tighter and open space on the ice was severly reduced. Therefore, my second key to the season was to get more balanced scoring, which translates into finding a second line center to play with Semin. So far, McPhee and Boudreau have not been able to find consistent scoring from a unit other than their top line. Some of Semin’s best contests this season, and he is tied with Ovechkin for the team lead with 26 points, have been when he was moved up to the top unit. But as Boudreau will tell you, that makes his club much easier to check in a playoff series so despite the success of 8-19-28 he continues to tinker with his top two units to find the balance necessary for the post season. So far Tomas Fleischmann, Marcus Johansson, Mathieu Perreault, and Brooks Laich have gotten shots at the number two pivot spot without much consistency. In my book, Laich is the best fit because he is more physical than the other three, something that is needed badly in the playoffs. However, #21 really is at his best on the wing so at this point I believe the 2010-11 second line center solution lies in a to be determined trade by McPhee, at some point before February 28th.

My third key to the season was improved special teams play. Washington’s power play, ranked number one in the league in the 2009-10 regular season, ended up tallying just once in 30+ chances against Montreal in April. In fact, power play or not, Washington scored only once in each of the last three playoff tilts and while Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak deserves a great deal of credit, it was apparent that the Caps forwards were not paying the price necessary to get the puck by a hot net minder. One of the things the Caps needed to do to improve the power play was to go to the net and get high traffic tallies. So far in 2010-11 they have improved in that area, but the team can still get better. After a slow start to the power play to begin the season, Washington is now fifth overall in the NHL, clicking at a 23.7% rate (they connected at 25% in the regular season in 2009-10), and much of that improvement since the start of the year is due to getting goals in close. Only five of the 18 goals the Caps have scored with the man advantage have come from Ovechkin or Green, the primary point men, meaning the other 13 have pretty much come down low. Laich and Eric Fehr have two power play markers each while Jason Chimera has added one too.

The other half of the special teams, the penalty killing unit, has shown marked improvement after being in the bottom third of the league in 2009-10 and yielding some key goals to Montreal in the post season. This year the unit is staving off 84.6% of the attempts by its opponent, which puts them at ninth in the NHL. Assistant Coach Dean Evason spent a good part of the summer studying film and modifying his PK unit to be more aggressive. In addition, shorter shifts are being employed. Hall of Famer Rod Langway always used to say that you needed your goaltender to be your best penalty killer and so far Michal Neuvirth (12-3-1, .912 save pct.) has filled that role well. Clearly the change in the shift lengths, the new aggressive scheme, plus the play of young defenders Karl Alzner and John Carlson has helped to make the penalty killing crew very successful. In fact, the PK has become so strong that sometimes taking a penalty has helped the Caps gain momentum in a contest when in the past it seemed to put them on their heels. Simply put, through 21 games I would say that the special teams play has improved from last season.

As mentioned above, McPhee did try and bring in Mitchell over the summer and that was an attempted move that made sense. The Caps need depth on the blue line and we’ve seen that issue pop up already with Poti missing all but five games in 2010-11. Last night against the Flyers the fifth and sixth d-men, John Erskine and Tyler Sloan, played only 11:05 and 9:09, respectively in a 65 minute tilt. Thus the top four of Green, Jeff Schultz, Carlson, and Alzner carried the bulk of the minutes. That is okay on occasion, but if done frequently it could jeopardize the overall health of the unit in the long run. Therefore, in addition to another center, I would be very surprised if GMGM does not add at least one defensemen to his club before the trade deadline.

Those who don’t routinely watch the Caps on a game by game basis as much as the local media do, when critiquing the team, will typically take a look at their young goaltending roster and point to that as the team’s biggest weakness. I don’t buy that one bit and personally, when I hear that, I immediately dismiss the credibility of the person providing that analysis. Neuvirth has won back to back AHL Calder Cup Championships so he is battle tested and all you have to do is ask the 2008-09 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins about Varlamov’s play against them in the second round to know how tough he is in the clutch. Varly nearly single handily ended the Pens title hopes in the spring of 2009. Therefore, unless Varlamov can’t find a way to get healthy I don’t see McPhee making a move to bring in a goalie from outside the organization. After all, who would have thought the netminders in last season’s Cup Finals would be Michael Leighton and Antti Niemi? This Caps team has confidence in both Varlamov and Neuvirth so I fail to see how a guy such as Tomas Vokoun, who has never won anything in the post season, could help Washington between the pipes.

In summary, when evaluating where the Caps are at the season’s quarter pole in their quest for Lord Stanley, I would say they have improved from where they left off last April. Their overall team defense seems to have improved (even though their GAA is only .01 better than 2009-10), thanks to a stronger penalty kill and very consistent goaltending, primarily from Neuvirth, and they are doing a better job of scoring goals in the high traffic areas. However, if they want to increase their odds of winning it all, they will need to add some depth on the blue line and find another center to help give them two consistent scoring lines. Fortunately for McPhee, he has the flexibility to do that because his club is under the salary cap by an estimated $4M (only GMGM and team salary cap guru Don Fishman know the actual number). Many other Stanley Cup contenders do not have that luxury so the cap room could be called an “Ace in the Hole” for the Caps GM. What remains to be seen in order for McPhee to improve his squad is what players become available and at what price. Stay tuned.

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Semin Hat Trick Paces Caps over Bolts

Posted on 12 November 2010 by Ed Frankovic

When Alexander Semin is healthy and decides to play focused, he is as talented and skilled as anyone in the National Hockey League. On Thursday night, in the matchup of the top two teams in the Southeast Division, #28 took over the game scoring three goals and adding two assists as the Caps knocked off the Tampa Bay Lightning, 6-3, before the 69th straight sellout at the Verizon Center. Nicklas Backstrom notched four assists and Alexander Ovechkin added a goal and two assists while Michal Neuvirth shook off some early rebound problems to make 38 saves for his 10th victory of the sesason against just one loss. The win pushes the Caps to 12-4 overall and they lead the Eastern Conference by two points over the Flyers. They are also six points up on the Lightning, who have a game in hand.

Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis of Washington’s sixth straight victory, and eighth in their last nine titls:

- Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau did not start this game with Semin on the top line with Ovechkin and Backstrom, he had Mike Knuble (1 goal) up there, but after another sluggish opening stanza in which Washington could not get the puck behind the Bolts defense, the 2007-08 Jack Adams award winning bench boss switched up his personnel and tweaked the Capitals breakout pattern. Once again, another brilliant coaching move by Boudreau got the desired result.

“The [top two right wings] are interchangeable. We didn’t start with them like that but then we switched halfway through. Maybe it makes the other coach, especially when we are at home, alter their game,” started Boudreau, “[Tampa] hit three or four posts so I think we were lucky for a little bit. We had trouble adjusting to what they were doing and after the first period we made some adjustments and I thought we played a lot better in the second and third…We weren’t playing properly, we weren’t getting it in and only one man is going so it was easy for their D to get it and move it out. We changed our tactics up in the neutral zone and it worked. To make an analogy, it’s kind of like in baseball where you have trouble going through the lineup once and you are better the second time. I don’t know if we’ll get it or it will work the next time but it was pretty tough to get through their neutral zone,” finished Boudreau on what it took to get his team going.

- The Caps top players did light it up overall but they were credited with five of the 13 Capitals giveaways on the evening. Most of those were at the blue line and allowed Tampa to go in transition. Boudreau realizes that his top unit has great skill and can pull off some passes that other players just cannot, but he would prefer that those guys get the puck down low and use their size and skill where they can make the opponents pay for crowding the puck. In the third period they seemed to get the message and the key goal in the contest, Semin’s one timer off of a sweet Backstrom saucer pass from behind the net, came after Ovechkin and company cycled the biscuit in the corner and drew the Lightning defense in to that area.

 ”When you look at it on the replay it looked like what we talked about at the beginning of the game, [Semin] was in the right position. We wanted to take the puck from one side, because they surround the puck with four or five guys, and get it to the other side and make them run around. Evidently he knew what he was doing,” said Boudreau on Semin’s big goal with 9:14 remaining that made it 4-2.

“I think that was what was holding up back a little bit all night. They were standing pretty strong against their blue line and we were kind of turning it over there all of the time. But we were trying to make them play in their own end. It’s a 2-1 game [after two periods] and it ends 5-3 and you say it is kind of like the old Caps, you just outscore them, and turn it into a track meet,” added Knuble when asked if the game plan was to get pucks deep on Tampa.

- On Washington’s fifth goal, that sealed the victory with 4:52 remaining, the top line generated two big scoring chances by playing solid in their own end, something that can plague that line, at times. Ovechkin fought off two Bolts defenders on the left wing boards and sprung Semin for a partial breakaway. #28 went in alone on Lightning goalie Dan Ellis (20 saves in 25 shots) but as he tried to go to the back hand he lost the puck into the corner. However, Semin recovered, looked up, found Ovechkin coming late, and the Great #8 made no mistake on this shot and buried it by Ellis short side. It was a hard working goal capped off with superior skill from two top players.

- Neuvirth gave up the first goal once again and it came as a result of poor rebound control. #30 couldn’t handle Sean Bergenheim’s backhander from the right wing side and the biscuit bounced into the slot where Teddy Purcell banged it home. Neuvy would battle the puck a bit more at the beginning of this one but as the game went on he got stronger making several huge stops in the third period when Tampa was pressing. The Bolts fired 16 times on Neuvirth in that last stanza. Washington is now 9-3 when giving up the first goal, something that typically gives a club a less than 50% chance of winning that contest.

- The officiating in New York was abysmal on Tuesday and tonight it was the worst I’ve seen all season against Washington. The Caps only had one power play, and Semin tallied on it just 16 seconds in, while the Lightning had four attempts (1 for 4). There were two blatant missed calls by Chris Lee and Kevin Pollock that should have gone against Tampa in this tilt. The first came after Matt Bradley delivered a perfectly clean and legal check to Mike Lundin and Tampa right wing Adam Hall skated all of the way across the ice and dropped the gloves with #10. Bradley would win the fight but typically an instigator or an extra minor is called in that situation against the team that takes exception to the contact. Nothing was called in this case.

“I didn’t really get [an explanation], that is what I asked. I thought it was distance traveled. He traveled a long ways. I guess the thing that didn’t make it [instigating] was Brads saw him coming and was ready for it but it is because the guy traveled so far. I said I don’t care if it’s an instigator, I just thought that it was a clean hit and a good hit. The guy didn’t get hurt and whatever, that [Hall] came and started the fight. Give him the extra two or something, I thought would have been the right call, but if he didn’t see it, he didn’t see it,” said Boudreau on Hall jumping Bradley after his hit.

The second blatant infraction missed by the blind zebra pair of Lee and Pollock nearly allowed Tampa to have a chance to tie the game up in the last 10 minutes. Brooks Laich was hauled down on the right wing boards in the offensive zone but play was permitted to carry on and the Lightning rush that ensued, after Laich lost the puck, resulted in NHL league leading points man, Steven Stamkos, scoring his 14th goal of the season to make it 4-3 with 7:17 left. A loud chorus of boos rained down on Lee and Pollock after the Stamkos tally.

Notes: Semin extended his point streak to six games (7 goals, 6 assists)…with Semin (12 goals) and Ovechkin (9), the Capitals are the only team in the NHL with two nine-goal scorers. The duo has combined for eight goals and 20 points in the past five games…the Caps won the face-off battle 40-31 with Dave Steckel going 20-9 and Backstrom winning 12 of 18 draws. Tomas Fleischmann was 3-9…Tom Poti returned to the lineup and scored the Caps first goal and his first tally of the season at 2:21 of the second period. #3 logged only 16:41 of ice time so the Caps coaches were clearly trying to ease him back from his groin injury…speaking of injuries, the Caps are now 10-0 with Boyd Gordon in the lineup but #15 left after only three shifts (1:42) and Boudreau said he will miss a week…the Lightning were without top six forwards Steve Downie and Simon Gagne due to injuries plus Vincent Lecavalier fractured his right hand in the contest. He logged only 14:29 of ice time and afterwards it was announced he would miss three to four weeks, which includes a tilt against the Caps on November 26th at the Verizon Center…forward Marcus Johansson was recalled from Hershey on Wednesday but was scratched…Goalie Semyon Varlamov is down in Hershey rehabbing his groin injury and should see some work with the Bears this weekend…the Caps go to Buffalo on Saturday night before returning home to face the Thrashers at home at 5pm on Sunday…Caps radio play by play man Steve Kolbe called his 1,000th game, kudos Steve!

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Travel Weary Caps Lose in Minnesota Again

Posted on 28 October 2010 by Ed Frankovic

For those of us who have watched sports for a long time, there are certain games on a club’s schedule, in any sport, that you circle on the calendar and say, “You know what? That is going to be a really tough game to win.” For the Washington Capitals on Thursday night, their game in Minnesota against the Wild was one of those such tilts. The Caps, who played a splendid contest in a 3-0 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday night, had to travel to the central time zone and take on a team that was 5-0 lifetime against them in the Xcel Energy Center and hadn’t played since Monday evening’s loss to Los Angeles in a shootout. So, as expected, the Capitals struggled to find their energy for much of the contest and as a result dropped a 2-1 decision and their overall record now falls to 6-4 in 2010-11.

The Caps, who didn’t score until Alexander Ovechkin buried his first tally in six games with just over 90 seconds remaining, have now only scored seven goals in six trips to the Wild’s building. Minnesota goalie, Niklas Backstrom, didn’t face a lot of rubber (only 21 shots) but he did have to make some big saves, including several on Nicklas Backstrom, one of which was the save of the game in the middle stanza with the score 1-0 Wild.

Let’s get to the quotes, highlights, and analysis of a game that, if it was the norm for NHL hockey, would put the league out of business due to boredom (and yes I pretty much blame Minnesota’s style of play for that statement):

- The Caps didn’t show up once again in the first period and got themselves behind the eight ball in a game after the first period for the sixth time in the last seven tilts. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau was visibly unhappy after the contest and he let it be known that the effort was unacceptable and he wanted nothing to do with any excuses.

“I can think of  about seven guys, off the top of my mind, right now, that had a disappointing effort for the first 50 minutes. You can’t play 10 minutes in this league and hope to win a game. I don’t know what it is but it’s something that we’ve got to come out better. We can’t let the other team take the game to us. For the first half of the game we looked like we were in quick sand. We weren’t moving the puck, we couldn’t handle the puck. I think we might have had a few excuses about being tired which all it was was an excuse because 18 of those 20 guys have played in the American Hockey League at some point and that’s 3 in 3 nights with a lot of busing and they’ve got to play. So I am not buying any of this excuse about being fatigued, emotionally or physically. I’m not very happy with what happened,” stated Boudreau on why his club fell for the sixth straight time in Minnesota.

- The crew that were the heroes in Raleigh on Wednesday were a big part of the losing equation on Thursday night – the fourth line of Dave Steckel, Matt Bradley, and Matt Hendricks. Steckel had a horror show shift that led to Chuck Kobasew tapping in an Andrew Brunette pass from the left post to open the scoring. #39 had a couple of chances to gather the puck and get it out yet he failed, he also wasn’t helped by some lousy coverage in front by defenseman John Carlson. Then with the game still 1-0 late in period two, Bradley got beat to his own net by the strong skating Eric Nystrom and #10 took a holding penalty. The Wild would score on that power play to gain a 2-0 advantage heading into period three.

- It seems like ages ago that Washington had a potent power play that was ranked #1 in the league in the 2009-10 regular season. The Caps continue to struggle to score with the extra man although the puck movement was better on Thursday. The big problem is still a lack of traffic in front of the opposing goalie and few of the Washington forwards want to pay the price and go to the top of the crease for rebounds and deflections. In addition, Ovechkin continues to play the two full minutes on the point and that is leading to odd man rushes and scoring chances as, and after, the power play expires. Simply put, the Great #8 is out there too long and the opponents are taking advantage of it. I’d like to see Ovechkin moved down low, at least for half of the power play, where he can cause havoc in front with his big body and get some rebound goals. With Carlson up this year from the AHL, his shot should be used more from the point.

- Mike Green definitely makes a difference for the Caps and tonight he logged over 30 minutes of ice time. But he is clearly not 100% healthy and he can’t fire the puck the way he normally does due to his shoulder injury. #52 had a golden chance early on to score but he didn’t get the puck up high quick enough and Backstrom slid over to make the save. Green also took a cheap shot from Greg Xanon in the head that the referees missed. He also continues to take a lot of hits and given that he isn’t totally healthy it seems like it would be better if he could be rested before he gets hurt even worse. With Tom Poti out and a thin blue line corps in Hershey, however, GM George McPhee doesn’t have the luxury of being able to sit #52 out until he is healthy.

- There weren’t many guys who played well on Thursday but the Caps did get another consistent performance from Michal Neuvirth in goal. #30 made only 15 saves but a chunk of them were of the quality variety. It was his strong performance that gave Washington a chance to try and tie the game late. Other than that, there were a lot of passengers and the only guy that Boudreau identified as giving what he had was #19 for DC.

“You are looking down the bench but you couldn’t find enough guys who were going, poor Nicky had to play every second shift,” said Boudreau when asked  by Mike Vogel (@VogsCaps) about trying to shuffle the deck late in the game to get his team going.

- Minnesota plays a boring, defensive game and they block a lot of shots but the 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winner seemed tired of hearing about that and put a good bit of that on his own troops.

“It’s determination on their part. But I know if teams were blocking shots when I played, I’d shoot at their head, they won’t block too many then. We’re allowing them to block shots. Shoot it where they are not. It’s one thing sliding and making a great block save but they are just standing there and we are hitting them in the shin pads.” finished a frustrated Boudreau on his clubs lack of offense.

Notes: The Caps next game is in Calgary at 10pm on Saturday night (CSN)…Tyler Sloan only played 7:40 after a good game on Wednesday. #89 made a turnover early in the game that led to a Mathieu Perreault penalty and after that we didn’t see much of him…Alexander Semin had a SH semi-breakaway in the third period but missed the net…Washington outshot the Wild 11-5 in period three..the Caps only had two power plays compared to five for the Wild…Backstrom was 17-7 on face-offs while Perreault went 1-5 and Brooks Laich was 0-5. Overall the Caps lost from the dot, 34-31.

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Banged Up Caps Hit the Road

Posted on 26 October 2010 by Ed Frankovic

There isn’t anyone named Hawkeye or Trapper on the club, but the Washington Capitals squad certainly is resembling a M*A*S*H unit as they get ready to start a three games in four nights road trip that starts in Carolina on Wednesday night (7pm on CSN), then moves to Minnesota for a tilt with the Wild on Thursday (8pm on CSN) and concludes on Hockey Night in Canada in Calgary on Saturday night (10pm on CSN).

Defenseman Tom Poti will not be in the lineup on Wednesday night, he also missed last Saturday’s OT victory over Atlanta, so Hershey Bears d-man, Brian Fahey, was recalled today. Fahey played in one game already this year, the Caps 3-2 OT win in Nashville on October 16th. Fahey skated less than 10 minutes in that tilt and was a -2. Mike Green, who logged only 5:39 of ice time on Saturday due to a sore shoulder, is hoping to play a full game in Raleigh. In addition, John Carlson is looking to totally recover from his bad wheel (took a puck in the leg in Nashville) and Karl Alzner will be battling jet lag after traveling to British Columbia and back for his grandfather’s funeral.

In goal, Semyon Varlamov is still on the shelf with a creaky groin so Michal Neuvirth will start on Wednesday against the speedy Canes. Dany Sabourin, who was called up from the Bears to back up #30 on Saturday, was returned to Hershey and Braden Holtby (Caps 2008 draft choice) will be making the trip to NC, Minnesota, and then Alberta. Holtby is 4-0-1 this season in Chocolate Town and could make his 1st NHL start on this trip, depending on how things go, according to Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau.

At forward, several guys have been out of the lineup to include Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon, and Marcus Johansson. At least one of those is expected to go on Wednesday, with Bradley being the most likely. Center Mathieu Perreault, who was recalled on Saturday and had a dynamite contest playing with Alexander Semin and Brooks Laich, remains up while Jay Beagle was returned to Hershey.

This will be a difficult road swing for Washington. Carolina always gets up for the Caps and they are off to a better start this year than last season, when injuries to superstar Eric Staal and goalie Cam Ward caused them to lose 14 games in a row early on. The Wild have an excellent goalie in Niklas Backstrom, who lost, 3-2, to Los Angeles in a shootout on Monday night. Calgary seems intent on getting back into the postseason after missing out last April. Rene Bourque is off to a hot start (tied for the NHL lead in scoring at this posting) and Jarome Iginla seems to be playing better since reuniting with forward Alex Tanguay. On defense, so far Jay Bouwmeester is significantly better than he was in 2009-10 and when he was with Florida he typically matched up against Alexander Ovechkin’s line. In goal, the Flames have the always tough Mikka Kiprusoff to try and beat with the biscuit.

The bottom line is the Caps will have to be ready to play from the get go against every one of these teams on this road trip and the first line of Ovechkin, Mike Knuble, and Nicklas Backstrom needs to break out of its funk. Washington may have lost in the first round of the playoffs last season, but because of their Presidents’ Trophy winning regular season, they have a bullseye on their back right now and teams are gunning for them.

Notes:  The Washington Capitals continue to excel off the ice as well. The club raised more than $35,000 for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) through their Hockey Fights Cancer Night on Oct. 23. The mission of LLS, the world’s largest voluntary health agency dedicated to blood cancer, is to cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease and myeloma, and improve the quality of life of patients and their families. LLS funds lifesaving blood cancer research around the world and provides free information and support services.

The Capitals auctioned autographed jerseys that the players wore during pregame warmups at the team’s Oct. 23 home game against Atlanta. The jerseys featured Hockey Fights Cancer patches on the front with the players’ names and numbers stitched in grey on the back. The red and grey jerseys are the same colors as LLS’s logo.

Fourteen jerseys went for $1,000 or more, with Ovechkin’s jersey the top seller at $1,800. Other top bid recipients were jerseys worn and autographed by Backstrom, Bradley, Carlson, Jason Chimera, Green, D.J. King, Knuble, Laich, Perreault, Poti, Jeff Schultz, Semin and Varlamov. There was also a special “Rock the Red” guitar donated by Paul Reed Smith and autographed by the entire Caps team that was auctioned off for $7,000.

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Semin Hat Trick Leads Caps in OT Win

Posted on 23 October 2010 by Ed Frankovic

After losing two straight games to the Boston Bruins and struggling to score goals, everyone expected the Washington Capitals to break out against the Atlanta Thrashers on Saturday night at the Verizon Center. After all, Atlanta had played Friday night at home (and got blown out by Tampa Bay) while the Caps sat plus the Thrashers were one of the worst teams in the NHL in penalty killing. But for the Caps these days, nothing is coming easy, but after trailing 2-1 going into the third period they rallied to take a 3-2 lead on an Alexander Semin hat trick, promptly gave up the tying goal with 32 seconds left to Evander Kane, before Tomas Fleischmann won it in overtime backhanding home an Eric Fehr blast that Thrashers goalie Chris Mason (40 saves) could not handle. It was a huge win for the boys in red, white, and blue and the battered Caps are now 5-3. They don’t play again until Wednesday and they need that rest with all of the injuries they have.

Let’s get right to the highlights, quotes, and analysis of the Capitals eighth straight home victory over Atlanta:

- The analysis can’t totally begin until we fully comprehend how banged up this Washington hockey club is right now. Defenseman Tom Poti is out day to day and therefore Mike Green, who is nursing an upper body injury, had to dress but he would only play on Caps power plays logging just 5:32 of ice time. Therefore, Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau had to go with five defensemen throughout the rest of the contest. In net, Semyon Varlamov, who was 4-0 against the Thrashers in his career, re-injured his groin so Michal Neuvirth (29 saves) got the start and Dany Sabourin was recalled from Hershey. Up front things aren’t much better as Marcus Johansson sufferred a hip flexor in Boston and with Matt Bradley and Boyd Gordon still hurt GM George McPhee recalled Mathieu Perreault and Jay Beagle from Hershey to play against the Thrashers. So a team that had lost two in a row and were finding it hard to light the lamp was going to have to dig deep to get a victory on Saturday, and they did outshooting Atlanta 44-32.

“It was good. I would have liked to have him more. I wasn’t nervous about him at all. We made the decision before the game that we would see how Mike is; if he is comfortable we will play him more, but the intent was to play him on the power play,” said Boudreau on the play and ice time given to Green on Saturday.

- After a good first couple of shifts by the Capitals, sparked by the Perreault-Semin-Brooks Laich line, the Thrashers dominated the first period and initial portion of the game. Atlanta outshot the Caps 13-4 in the opening stanza and scored first on the power play. John Erskine took a boarding penalty and when Neuvirth couldn’t handle Anthony Stewart’s shot from the right wing corner, something #30 struggled with a few times on Saturday, Andrew Ladd outworked Karl Alzner in front of the Washington net and put the biscuit in the basket. The Caps appeared to be in a fog for much of the first two periods giving up 27 of the 32 shots they allowed and if not for Neuvirth they might not have been able to come back.

“I don’t know [what happened]. I knew they [Atlanta] were going to come out and be very good. They played really well, skated really well; they didn’t give us much of a chance to breathe. But it is really difficult to keep that pace up and we got a little momentum off a power play and were able to move it forward,” explained Boudreau on the Caps slow start on Saturday night.

- Neuvirth, who is the team’s MVP the first eight games this season, really kept Washington in this one despite the problems he had with shots from the right wing boards. #30′s breakaway stop on Jim Slater with the Thrashers leading 2-1 in the second period was one of those saves that are game changers. After that huge save, and the stupid charging major and game misconduct that Dustin Byfuglien took on Neuvy trying to rattle the young goalie, the Capitals started to play with more intensity and resemble the squad that won the Presidents’ Trophy last season. Of course, they still aren’t finishing plays well enough to hit that level yet, but most of the players were exhibiting the intensity and energy necessary to start getting there.

- Intensity and energy is exactly what Perreault (2 assists, 9-5 on face-offs, +3) brings to the lineup and is the primary reason I thought he had made the team out of training camp, only to be sent down, mostly because of the Capitals ability to do so without having him go through waivers. #85 was the right player to pair with Semin tonight because he isn’t afraid to go to the boards and corners to get the puck for #28. Semin, to his credit, was outstanding all evening and played strong on the puck. That line, which included Laich, is the other reason the Caps got victory #5. Laich still isn’t producing at the level #21 expects as his hands are failing him, but he is getting there and with Perreault up for an extended period that could help get him going as well.

“(Semin) is such a good player. He makes the job easier for me on the ice and hopefully we can get some more games like that. We bounced back in the second and third periods. We felt the emotion on the bench. Everyone wanted to really win tonight,” said Perreault on playing with #28 and the mood of his squad.

- As for the Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Knuble line, well they are just not producing and look out of sync. Knuble appears a step slow right now, Backstrom seems to be battling the puck, and Ovie’s problem is he is not continuing to move his feet on his shifts. The Great #8 is in the right position to get scoring chances or make the big hit but when the opportunity presents itself he is coasting or gliding on his skates instead of continuing to churn his powerful legs. Case in point, he was incorrectly called for goalie interference late in the third period but that situation never happens if Ovie keeps skating when he corrals the puck in the offensive zone. In fact, had he turned on his jets he likely would have scored and ended the tilt right then.

- Special teams were once again a problem for DC on Saturday night. They allowed a power play goal and the second tally, Kane’s first of two goals, came 11 seconds after John Carlson exited the box (high sticking). On that goal there were five Caps around Kane yet he somehow was all alone in front of Neuvirth to bang home a pass from Rich Peverly from behind the cage. Both Erskine and Tyler Sloan incorrectly abandoned the front of the net and Carlson left Kane as well. It was shoddy defense and something that needs to be corrected. The power play moved the puck better with Green out on the ice but Ovechkin struggled at his point early on. The 2009-10 regular season number one unit went 0 for 3 and is now 4 for 33 this season (h/t @PckhdsThghts). Perhaps it is time to move Ovie down low and go with just defensemen on the points, preferably Carlson and Green, and put Poti, when healthy, in the mix on the second unit?

- There are alot of guys struggling to score on the club and the Caps had only two goals in their last 77 shots at one point tonight, both of which came as a result of goalie misplays (h/t @VogsCaps), but that game winning goal by Flash has to do wonders for his confidence and for Fehr as well. Those two guys are ones that Boudreau and McPhee expect to take their game to the next level this season but so far it has not happened. Flash just doesn’t seem to want to consistently pay the price in front of the net, on the boards, and in the corners and he was the lone weak link on face-offs on Saturday, going 2-6. Simply put, he needs to play bigger if he is going to stay in the NHL. As for Fehr, I just can’t put my finger on it, he should be doing better and one way for him to get going is to continue to use his powerful shot and get to the front of the cage more consistently.

Notes: The Caps handily won the face-off battle 41-23 with Dave Steckel going 13-3…Washington’s three game road trip starts Wednesday in Carolina and takes them to Minnesota on Thursday and then on Hockey Night in Canada at the Calgary Flames on Saturday…the next home game is Wednesday, November 3rd against the Toronto Maple Leafs…Down on the farm, Braden Holtby won his 3rd straight start stopping 17 shots in a Bears 5-1 victory over the Adirondack Phantoms. Hershey plays the Phantoms again on Sunday at 5pm at the Giant Center and tickets are available. There were three fights in the second period on Saturday night so the Sunday matinee should be an entertaining tilt.

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Questions Begin to Mount as Caps Lose to Bruins Again

Posted on 21 October 2010 by Ed Frankovic

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. The Washington Capitals outshot their opponents but lost to a hot goalie.

Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins, who defeated the Caps on Tuesday night at the Verizon Center, did it again on Thursday in the Bruins home opener, stopping 38 of 39 shots en route to a 4-1 B’s triumph over an extremely inconsistent Capitals hockey team. The only goal by DC was from Jason Chimera, who tallied into an empty net after the Boston goalie misplayed the biscuit with just over 10 minutes left in the third period. With the loss Washington falls to 4-3 overall and after only seven contests some of the same issues from last spring’s playoffs are showing up in 2010-11.

So without further adieu, let’s get to the highlights, quotes and analysis from the Caps 2nd straight defeat to the Bruins in as many games:

- Thomas was good, but as was discussed on the Caps postgame show on Comcast, where were any Capitals to go to the net and screen the B’s goalie or fight for second chances? I did not see a whole lot of that and that is it what it takes to solve a goalie who is in a groove. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, perimeter hockey does not work and Boston used the same strategy the Canadiens employed last spring. They simply packed their defense in early on and made the Caps try and beat them with shots from the outside. When the Caps made a mistake, the Bruins would then counter attack and seek opportunities. The strategy is a bit of a risky one but when the opponent scores first, the Capitals tend to get lazy and play bad positional hockey that leads to penalties and more goals against. This is what happened on Thursday evening.

- Washington dominated the first 17 or so minutes and couldn’t score, primarily because noone fought for rebounds plus guys like Nicklas Backstrom, who had one of his worst games in a long time, missed glorious scoring chances. Then Matt Hendricks took a bad penalty in the offensive zone  with under two minutes left and when Jason Chimera got sucked to the side boards on the penalty kill, Patrice Bergeron slid a nice pass to Michael Ryder down low and he easily beat Semyon Varlamov (30 saves). That pass was able to be made because John Carlson was too high in the slot battling a Bruins forward, who was already tied up with John Erskine. Thus a 13-8 Caps first period shots advantage went for naught as the Bruins grabbed a 1-0 lead.

- In the second period it was mostly Boston carrying the play as they had an 18-13 shots advantage and tallied twice to give them a 3-0 lead heading into period three. Speedy forward Jonathan Caron scored a huge goal to make it 2-0 after the Caps top line got caught on the ice too long and ran out of gas. Then midway through the period Alexander Semin took a hooking penalty and Nathan Horton blasted one through traffic, something that we aren’t seeing from the Caps power play, to make it 3-0 and pretty much end this game at 12:29 of the middle stanza.

“We got caught out there too long with Nicky’s line, they got one change in while the puck was in our zone, a great one by them, and we were too tired to move and they scored to make it 2-0. Then they scored on the power play to make it 3-0 and it’s pretty tough to come back on a team with a goalie playing like that when it is 3-0,” said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau on the turning point in the contest.

- As Boudreau said after the tilt, rookie Marcus Johansson was Washington’s best forward in the game. The young Swede sure can skate and his stick handling is pretty good too. MJ90 continues to get better and he is now playing 2nd line center between the very inconsistent Semin and a struggling Brooks Laich. He was a very respectable 5-4 on faceoffs on the road, where it is tougher to win draws. As for the rest of the centers on Washington, they were downright bad on Thursday. Backstrom couldn’t handle the puck all night and Tomas Fleischmann looks lost as a pivot. Even 4th line center Dave Steckel was a non factor and his stock continues to plummet. Center is still the area of biggest weakness on this Caps team and through seven games that is highly evident. How long does GM George McPhee stay with this crew of center ice men?

“Marcus was probably our best forward and I thought him and Chimera were really skating,” started the 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winner on #90 and #26 before adding, “[changing the lines] is something I’ve got to think about with guys not producing. Is it because they are not playing well or because they are snakebit? I think they can all play better, it is a combination of both,” finished Boudreau.

- One area where the Caps are not struggling is in net. Varlamov played solid and did all he could to keep his team in the game but he was left out to dry too often. Boston had several breakaways and quality chances but #1 stopped most of them. It was really only on the penalty kill where he was unable to keep his finger in the dyke as a shorthanded unit that was 25 for 25 coming into Thursday’s tilt gave up three tallies on just four chances. Add in the fact that the Capitals power play went 0 for 4 with superstar Mike Green out of the lineup and you get a special teams differential of -3. NHL teams rarely win games when on the bottom end of that stat.

“We had lots of chances to score, we just didn’t. Normally our special teams, through seven games our penalty killing has been great, but our power play, which kept us at the top last year, hasn’t come through for us, so we’ll have to work on that tomorrow,” said Boudreau.

Notes: The Caps next game is home against the Thrashers on Saturday night before they embark on a three game road trip…Matt Bradley and Boyd Gordon were both scratched due to injury…Washington won the face-off battle, 29-27…Alexander Ovechkin was credited with eight shots and five hits in 25:53 of ice time but he was held pointless and went -1.

Special thanks to Ted Starkey (@TedStarkey) of The Washington Times for forwarding the post game quotes that were used in this blog.

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Defensive Mistakes Doom Caps in Loss to Bruins

Posted on 19 October 2010 by Ed Frankovic

On a night when the Washington Capitals would extend their 2010-11 perfect penalty killing mark to 25 straight successes, the Caps were defeated, 3-1, at the Verizon Center by the Boston Bruins. Tim Thomas was superb in goal stopping 35 shots and his club turned some Washington defensive gaffes into tallies en route to their first regulation victory in DC since 2006. The defeat drops the Caps to 4-2 overall and the two squads will meet again in Beantown on Thursday night.

Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis from Tuesday night’s tilt:

Let’s start with the positives for Washington, because there weren’t a whole lot of them. First is clearly the penalty killing unit that was just outstanding once again. Using more players, the goal is to use four sets of forwards and all six defensemen on each minor, and employing an aggressive scheme has worked magic for assistant coach Dean Evason, who runs the special teams. With the Caps down 2-0 in the first period and Boston controlling the play, Washington’s Alexander Semin was whistled for tripping. Last season that might have spelled doom for the Caps because it often seemed that at critical junctures the penalty killing would fail when Washington needed a stop most. Now early on in this campaign the Caps shorthanded crew is not only thwarting the opposition, but the whole team seems to be getting an energy boost from the work of this unit.

Second, rookie Marcus Johansson had his best game as a Cap and notched his first ever NHL goal at 7:42 of the second period. The tally was set up by a good forecheck by Matt Hendricks and Jason Chimera. After Hendricks forced the puck away from Matt Hundwick, Chimera slid a pass to MJ90 near the right post and the young Swede buried it by Thomas. Johansson, who still struggled again on draws going 2-7, and Hendricks were the only Caps who were in the plus category (+1) on the night.

Third, when previously undefeated rookie goalie Michal Neuvirth left the game in the first period due to a reported illness after giving up the first two Boston tallies, Semyon Varlamov came in and made some good saves on some quality chances. Overall #1 yielded only a third period goal, that he never saw due to net traffic, on 14 shots. It was encouraging to get the Russian goalie back in the cage and he played rather well.

Finally in the positive department is the play of rookie defenseman John Carlson, who logged over 24 minutes of ice time, was not on for a goal against, and was clearly Washington’s best blue liner on a night when they sorely missed the great Mike Green (out day to day with an upper body injury).

The Caps did seem to have some energy and put out more effort at times, but overall it was a mediocore performance, at best. Some might point to the Caps shot advantage of 36-21 as a positive, but I won’t hear it. Washington did not do a good job of going to the net, especially on their anemic power play which continues to spend too much time passing the biscuit on the perimeter. The Caps received a late four minute power play with 1:20 to go so they pulled Varly and had a 6 on 4 advantage. However, Semin was the primary culprit of a crew that seemed to show no urgency or desire to get the puck to the net. Atrocious is what I call that last 80 second sequence and Evason needs to get this power play untracked quickly. My suggestion is to sit some of the skill guys and go with a crash the net and blast from the point mentality.

Tyler Sloan showed on Tuesday night why he is typically in the press box on game night. On the first Boston goal, his partner Karl Alzner pinched in the offensive zone. It was not a smart pinch by #27 but in the Caps aggressive system it is something the d-men are authorized to do. Unfortunately Nicklas Backstrom did not do a good job of covering for Alzner and Boston broke down the ice 2 on 1 on #89. Sloan then proceeded to defend like he had never faced an odd man breakaway in his career. First he failed on the opportunity to press the puck carrier, Nathan Horton, in the neutral zone and then he didn’t cut off the pass to David Krejci on the 2 on 1. It was awful defense and it gave Neuvirth no chance to stop Krejci’s shot. #89 needs to make sure he takes the pass and gives the shooter to the goalie in that situation. Sloan was also on the ice for the final Bruins goal but the primary blame on that one goes to the Caps forwards (Chimera and Eric Fehr) who failed to cover the points.

Speaking of not covering their point man, team captain Alexander Ovechkin was caught once again floating in the d-zone and that allowed Bruins d-man Johnny Boychuck to slide down on the right side and take a cross ice pass from Krejci. Neuvirth came out to cut the angle down on the Bruins d-man and #30 stopped the initial shot but Jeff Schultz was unable to clear the puck or Milan Lucic and #17 banged it home to make it 2-0. Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Mike Knuble would all be -2 on the night and the Great #8 struggled against big Bruins defender Zdeno Chara all evening.

“Sometimes you have tougher nights than others. I thought his effort was there, I just didn’t think things were going well for that whole line,” said Boudreau on the play of Ovechkin and his first line.”

As for Neuvirth, who was outstanding in the first five games, Boudreau didn’t know that his young net minder was carrying any issues into the contest and was surprised when #30 pulled himself.

“After the second goal, he complained of dizziness and a headache. Then he came off, that was the first I knew of it,” said the 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winner on his starting goalie.”

In 2009-10 the Washington Capitals swept the season series from the Boston Bruins, primarily because the Caps used their significant advantage in the team speed department. In 2010-11 that advantage seems to have been reduced as the B’s now have a once again healthy Lucic plus they’ve added Horton and 2010 NHL 2nd overall draft pick, Tyler Seguin, who can flat out fly. In the first two periods the Bruins were able to keep pace with a Washington team that is still faster, but because Boston was more disciplined with their positioning they built an early 2-0 lead.

“I feel we’ve got pretty good balance on our lines. We’re capable of playing an up tempo game,” said Bruins Coach Claude Julien on his squad’s ability to handle speed in 2010-11.

Boston also has to be pleased with the resurgence of Thomas, who underwent hip surgery last spring, and appears to have regained the form that led Boston to the number one seed in the Eastern Conference in 2008-09. He never looked shaky on Tuesday night and didn’t give Caps forwards much to shoot at in a stellar night’s work.

“That’s my style. I had to battle through some screens and there were some funny little tips that you had to stay on your toes for. We did a good job not giving them break aways or odd man rushes or all alone in the slot or anything like that. We did any excellent job. The times that I gave up rebounds, the D [defense] did a good job clearing them out too,” said the Bruins goalie, who is now 3-0 on the season.

Notes: Tom Poti returned to the lineup and logged 20:31 of ice time. #3 played okay but he was out of position on the 3rd Boston goal, which left Sloan having to fight off two B’s defenders in front of Varly…DJ King dressed and only logged 4:05 of ice time. Boyd Gordon was scratched as a result. Word has it he was a healthy scratch and if so that situation should be reversed in Boston on Thursday night (Gordon plays, King sits). Lucic had a Gordie Howe hat trick (goal, assist, and fight) and he slugged it out with John Erskine in the 3rd period…Hendricks and Gregory Campbell fought once again, they had a bout 2 seconds into the preseason tilt in Beantown in September. I gave the edge to #26 in this scrap…the Caps narrowly won the face-off battle, 28-27…the Caps attendance of 18,398 gave them their 64th straight home sellout.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Caps forward Matt Hendricks will be on WNST 1570 Baltimore at 925 am on Wednesday with Drew Forrestor on the Comcast Morning Show. Listen Live on WNST.NET.

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Ovechkin Wins It For Caps in OT

Posted on 12 October 2010 by Ed Frankovic

How does that saying go again?

Big players, make big plays in games at big times. Well, that was the case again on Monday night for Alexander Ovechkin as the Great #8, who did not have a very good contest until that point, managed to score with 32 seconds left in overtime to lead the Washington Capitals to a 3-2 victory over the Ottawa Senators. The goal was not of the highlight reel variety but it got the desired result, a win for the Caps. The Russian superstar took a pass from John Carlson in the neutral zone, skated down the right wing, and using Sens d-man Chris Phillips as a partial screen, he managed to sneak a change up by Ottawa goalie Pascal Leclaire via the five hole.

Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau said afterwards that Ovie would be one of the first to criticize his overall play in the game but nonetheless, he did what makes him so special, deliver when needed.

“Only Alex [Ovechkin] can play like he did and score the overtime winner and be the hero, but he got the overtime goal and that’s what superstars do,” said the 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winner on the two-time Hart Trophy winner.

The victory pushes the Caps record to 2-1 and their next tilt is on Wednesday at 7pm at the Verizon Center against the New York Islanders.

Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis from the 62nd straight sellout at the Verizon Center:

- Through three games of the Capitals season there is little doubt that the team’s MVP so far is rookie goalie Michal Neuvirth (29 saves). #30 was outstanding again on Monday night stopping a Daniel Alfredsson quality chance just 20 seconds into the game and he bookended that with two superb saves on Ryan Shannon in the overtime period to give Washington a chance to win. In between the two time Calder Cup winning netminder made numerous solid saves and both of the tallies he allowed were not his fault.

“I was kind of getting ready for a shootout. But when he scored, I was maybe the happiest guy in the building. That was a huge goal for us and a huge win. They really came hard. I think they had 12 or 13 shots in the first period. They really wanted to win tonight, but they took us to overtime, but we got the huge goal for us,” said Neuvirth on his mindset before Ovechkin scored and his thoughts on the game overall.

On Sunday night I was watching the Calgary Flames-LA Kings tilt on my Centre Ice package and in between the second and third period they had a Flames analyst panel on to discuss the upcoming season. One of the panelists picked the Caps to win the Stanley Cup but then he said that he still had concerns about their goaltending, a common theme heard from people outside the DC market who haven’t watched both Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov play over the last two seasons. Varlamov has been very good in the playoffs, just ask the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins about how good Varly was in that series until game 7 and as for Neuvy, he just doesn’t seem to get the national credit he deserves. In 2008-09 he was the MVP of the AHL playoffs and before last year’s Eastern Conference finals matchup with the Manchester Monarchs all people kept talking about was Kings prospect goalie Jonathan Bernier. That fired up Neuvirth and he went on to outplay the 11th overall pick in the 2006 NHL draft. Bottom line is Neuvirth is a battler and he continues to improve and gain more confidence.

- This contest was a sloppy one and both goaltenders were super, until Leclaire gave up a softy to Ovechkin. Both teams took too many penalties but neither power play could connect, with both squads going 0 for 5 with the man advantage. Last season the Caps were number one in the NHL in power play percentage in the regular season but in the bottom third on the penalty kill. So far this season the PK is a perfect 13 for 13 while the power play has only one marker.

“I was hoping the (penalty kill) would do well. We went through a lot of ideas all summer long. The power play will get better. If you look at our trends over the past three years, for whatever reason in October it hasn’t been solid and then it starts getting better in November and it gets better once we have familiarity,” said Boudreau on his analysis of what is going on in three games with his special teams.

- Both Senators goals were the result of mistakes by Capitals forwards, something that has been a common theme in the first three tilts in 2010-11. On the initial Ottawa goal, Eric Fehr goes for a defensive zone hit and misses Jarkko Ruutu, who then goes to the net and taps home a nice feed from Matt Carkner. Fortunately for Fehr, he would atone for that gaffe on his next shift banging home a great pass from Matt Hendricks in the slot area to give the Caps a 2-1 lead midway through period two. On the second Senators tally, Nicklas Backstrom made a bad decision in the neutral zone and turned the puck over to Ryan Shannon, who fed Peter Regin racing down the slot. Regin would deke Carlson, get Neuvirth leaning to #30′s left, and then bury a pretty biscuit into the top left corner of the cage. Backstrom is clearly pressing as he tried to make a play out of something that wasn’t there. Normally #19 would not have skated back towards the Caps zone on his forehand with a one goal third period lead and instead would have turned up the right wing boards and either carried the puck in or dumped it into the Senators zone. The 2006 first round pick (#5 overall) has 0 points and is only a +1 in three games.

- On defense, Tom Poti was a late scratch so Tyler Sloan suited up and logged 13:40 of ice time. Mike Green had an outstanding game playing 31:53 and he is now +4 this season. He only has one assist in the points department but overall his play has been very solid, especially in the defensive end. John Erskine was -2 but the forwards were the real culprits on the two Ottawa goals, however, #4 did fall down in OT to give the Sens a quality chance but Neuvirth bailed him out. He also was very fortunate to get an even up call with Ruutu with 6:02 left in regulation. Erskine drove the shaft of his stick into the face of #73 but the Senator was called for unsportsmanlike conduct for embellishing the stupid shot that #4 took at him. The physical defenseman typically does a decent job of keeping his head (see his play vs. Sean Avery in the 2009 playoff series vs NY) but on this occassion he lost his composure and nearly cost his team.

Notes: Matt Bradley was injured early and only played 3:23…Marcus Johansson only saw 8:05 of action and had his 2nd bad night from the face-off dot going 2-7…overall the Caps were 22-32 on draws against Mr. Carrie Underwood (Mike Fisher) and company…special thanks to the Caps outstanding media relations department for providing the post game quotes.

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Ovechkin, Caps Ready For Regular Season

Posted on 06 October 2010 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals conducted their annual media day Tuesday at Kettler Iceplex in preparation for Friday night’s NHL regular season opener in Atlanta against the Thrashers (730pm on CSN). The Caps will then come home for a Saturday night tilt versus the New Jersey Devils at the Verizon Center (7pm on CSN). For the organization, and especially the players, this will be a chance to once again play some real games and suppress, at least for now, much of the talk and questions surrounding last year’s playoff disappointment.

“I think we are excited and everybody can’t wait for the season to start because it was a long preseason and long summer for us,” said superstar Alexander Ovechkin about getting back on the ice for real NHL games.

General Manager George McPhee feels like his team is well positioned to start the 2010-11 season.

“We’ve had a terrific camp, one of the better ones we’ve had, and we came through it without any injuries. We got a great look at the players we have and I think we are positioned to have a really good year again. It’s time to get it going. The summer really isn’t much fun pushing paper around in an office. When you have players to watch in practice, games to watch, that’s really why we are here,” said the man who has been the Caps GM since June of 1997.

For McPhee, Tuesday was roster cutdown day and forwards Mathieu Perreault, Andrew Gordon, and Jay Beagle along with defenseman Brian Fahey were assigned to Hershey, with both Gordon and Fahey needing to clear waivers first, meaning that 2009 1st round draft choice Marcus Johansson made the club along with 29 year old journeyman, Matt Hendricks. Johansson and Hendricks both had attributes that gave them the nod over the other cuts, with the young Swedish center nosing out the 22 year old Perreault for the third line center slot.

“We were looking at different spots. It might have been different had we been looking at a #2 center. I think Matty, at his stage right now, probably has more offensive upside, but Marcus has got more defensive upside and with the skating and just coming from Sweden where they preach defense all of the time. It is a really tough call and who knows how it would have went say had Matty had to clear waivers? In today’s salary cap world things happen. We know that they’re both great players and will be playing for the Washington Capitals for a lot of years,” said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau on the decision to keep the 19 year old Johansson over Perreault.

“He’s an exceptional player and I love the way he thinks the game, competes, and skates. I really think he can make us a better team. The nice thing is our center ice is going to be in good shape for a long time with the players we have here now and the players in the system. It might be as deep as its ever been and as good as its ever been,” added McPhee on Johansson and the depth the team is amassing at the pivot position, which includes 2010 first round pick Evgeny Kuznetsov, who is playing in the top Russian league, the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), this season.

When Johansson was drafted back in 2009, an NHL scout told me that the Caps made a good selection and that Marcus projected to be a third line center. Now the young man from Sweden will begin his NHL career in that 3rd line center slot, and he even has his team captain praising him.

“He’s impressed me alot. He’s an unbelievable guy and unbelievable player. He has an unbelievable future, I think. He’s amazed me all of the time, I am like ‘Wow, he is a great player,” said the two time Hart Trophy winner.

For Hendricks, making the team was all about his energy and ability to adapt. The bench boss also was very familiar with him, having coached him in 2006-07 in Hershey.

“Matt Hendricks is a different kind of player. First he can play all 3 forward positions. Second, he’s spent a year in the league and third, he can skate, is physical, and can finish his checks. He stirs it up when he has to stir it up. These are the attributes we really like about him and he’s a great dressing room guy as well. I’ve had him [on teams before], he’s a winner, and he competes his rear end off. He’s gonna be a guy, we have 14 forwards, that’ll be in and out of the lineup, but he’s the guy that brings instant energy,” said the 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winning coach.

McPhee said that it wasn’t just Boudreau who wanted the forward, who played 56 games for the Colorado Avalanche in 2009-10, on the roster to start the season.

“He’s one of those worker bees that you like to have in the lineup. Keeps everybody honest. He’s a terrific guy on the bench and in the room in terms of supporting teammates. He’s got great wheels and he plays hard. He can play left wing, right wing, center, he can play up in the lineup if there are injuries. He brings a lot of versatility and we know him from our experience in Hershey. We just felt that when we were putting our lineup together, asked everyone to submit their lists, he was on everybody’s list, he makes our team better,” finished McPhee on how Hendricks made the Capitals out of training camp.

As for the guys who were sent down, Gordon and Fahey were the ones at risk of being claimed by other teams, but McPhee basically said that is part of the business.

“I’m not concerned about [someone claiming Gordon], if someone claims him and gives him a chance, good for him. If it doesn’t, then we’ll have a stronger team in Hershey and a good kid to call up if we have injuries. We’ve got a good team here and sometimes you lose guys that need opportunities,” stated McPhee on the waiver process.

While the decisions themselves were not easy ones, the GM said that the one on one conversations with the players who didn’t make it was harder and is something he doesn’t like having to do.

“It’s always a tough day telling a player he is not ready to play here or he may have to go through waivers, that is the toughest part of the job and today was as difficult any day we’ve had. They are always tough. The good news is I sometimes look at this deadline as an artificial deadline. We have to set rosters tomorrow but it can change the next day. If someone isn’t performing well or we have injuries, we have good young players to recall to play. That’s really the strength of our organization. We have a good team but we have depth as well,” finished McPhee on setting his roster.

The depth in the organization is abundant and McPhee and his staff have done a super job of growing from within. Doing that has helped the team manage the salary cap as well, which is a necessity in today’s NHL.

“I think we’ve done a really good job on the cap. We’ve got a good team here, we’ve have cap space, we don’t have to spend it but if there is an opportunity to make the team better we will. We are in good shape for the future. I am really proud of where this organization is, we have a good team, we’ve have a good system, we have really good people in that room, we’ve managed our cap well, we won’t lose people that we don’t want to lose, so keep the fingers crossed and hope we continue to make good decisions  and do the right things for this hockey club,” started McPhee on the state of his organization.

“In a lot of ways we are lucky. We came up with this plan years ago and fortunately ownership stood by it, Ted stood by the plan. A lot of cities and ownership do not have the patience and we now are starting Friday night with 11 of our own first round picks in the lineup and the league average is four. The closest team to us is seven. So we put this plan together and we are in pretty good shape. It’s a good team, they’re our guys, and hopefully it leads to a Cup one of these days,” concluded the GM on the blueprint he sold to owner Ted Leonsis after the Jaromir Jagr debacle and what he sees as being the end result.

On the ice, things should be a little bit easier for the Caps skilled players as McPhee brought in tough forward DJ King, who will be on the radio on WNST at 815am on Wednesday morning with Drew Forrester, to ensure that the other club is not taking any liberties against his highly talented crew. Ovechkin spoke about that added dimension and what it was like last season after Donald Brashear went to the New York Rangers in free agency.

“I think everybody gonna feel safe and just concentrate on the game, it’s not about something else,” started a reassuring Ovechkin, “[Brashear] was the most experienced guy on the team. He would fight for us and if we needed something he would do it. Last year we missed him, but again it’s life and it’s hockey, it’s a business.”

As for the state of his game, Alexander the Great feels he is ready to go despite not scoring a single goal in his three preseason tilts, although he did rack up five assists.

“It was good lessons for me and it was a good scrimmage, good preseason games, and you don’t show in preseason your best stuff, you just have to be ready for the regular year,” added Ovechkin on training camp.

In goal, it appears that Michal Neuvirth will get the start between the pipes on Friday night with Semyon Varlamov nursing a minor injury. Varly, according to Corey Masisak of CSN Washington, skated for about 15 minutes on Tuesday morning.

“No, but he skated today, took some shots. He’ll probably take more shots tomorrow. It is one of those things where we don’t want to rush him. We’d rather have him for 70 games then 20 games. When he’s ready he’ll be the first one to let us know,” said Boudreau on Varlamov, when asked if there was a timetable for his return.

There has been some talk in the national and Canadian media about the Caps taking a risk with two young goalies but from where I am sitting it really isn’t one at all because both goalies have pretty impressive resumes at such a young age. More importantly, McPhee and the Caps organization have faith in the two goalies who were drafted in 2006.

“It is something that we’ve been excited about. We drafted these kids and this is the third year pro and we think they are both exceptional goaltenders and the thought of having them both compete for games and wins would be good for us. They are young, but they are talented. If it was just relying on one of them I’d be concerned but to have two like this, I think it is a nice tandem that can work very well for us this year,” said McPhee on Varlamov and Neuvirth.

On defense, 2007 first round draft choice, Karl Alzner, and 2008 1st round draft choice, John Carlson, will both start the season in DC for the first time. The two young blueliners were paired together in Hershey during their 2010 Calder Cup winning run. However, it does not appear likely that Boudreau will pair the two together when the season starts, instead opting for a combination that worked well in the playoffs last spring, Tom Poti and Carlson. With Mike Green likely to play with Jeff Schultz again that leaves Alzner to skate with either John Erskine or Tyler Sloan.

But Boudreau, like all coaches do, will likely tinker with the defensive pairs during the course of the season, but after all, that is what the regular season is pretty much about for the Caps this year, to figure things out for the post season, and McPhee made that pretty clear on Tuesday.

“In some ways, I don’t care about whether we win our division or the President’s Trophy or anything else, it is about making the playoffs and having a good playoff run and how we get there is less important than getting there and doing well this year,” finished McPhee.

Notes: Dany Sabourin will be the backup goalie this weekend if Varlamov is unable to dress..McPhee singled out forward Cody Eakin, who was sent back to juniors, as someone with a bright future for Washington…”A kid like Cody Eakin, we were so impressed with him in camp. He may have been the hardest one we’ve had to cut in a long time as a teenager because it just looked like he was getting better. He was probably a kid you could have kept here and he would have gotten better through the season, but coming up with a good NHL player is a two step process, you have to be make a good pick, we made a very good pick in the third round, but you have to develop them properly. Noone has ever not played in the NHL because they’ve played in junior too long, they miss playing in the NHL because you rush them. So we don’t have to do that now, we’ve got good players so we don’t have to rush anybody,” added McPhee on the 2009 3rd round pick and the Caps development process.

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