Tag Archive | "Reirden"

Niskanen GWOTG

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Caps Survive The Rangers on Niskanen’s OT Tally

Posted on 18 October 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Matt Niskanen scored 2:18 into overtime to give the Washington Capitals a 4-3 victory over the young and determined New York Rangers on Wednesday night at Capital One Arena. The triumph snapped a two game losing streak for the Caps and improved their record on this young 2018-19 season to 3-2-1.

What follows are 11 thoughts on the Caps after their win over the Blueshirts.

This was not a pretty performance, at all, but the Capitals star players stepped up to get two points, once again. Evgeny Kuznetsov drew three defenders to himself to set up the game winning goal, Alex Ovechkin notched two power play goals, John Carlson had a goal and two helpers, All Star Nicklas Backstrom had two assists, and Braden Holtby made 29 saves. The Caps are top heavy, but these stars very often deliver the goods.

The Rangers skated hard on Wednesday after playing on Tuesday night at home against Colorado. Washington didn’t jump on rookie Coach David Quinn’s squad early and that allowed New York to hang around and nearly steal a win. The Capitals simply had more talent than the young Rangers and that was the difference.

Coach Todd Reirden noted in his post game presser that the Capitals had been working on their neutral zone play and face-offs since the loss to the Leafs on Saturday night. The Caps were 35-31 on draws and tallied twice off of wins at the dot. They did, however, give up a goal on a lost face-off. Winning draws is important, especially for a team that has high end skill with the puck.

One thing I really didn’t like was the defensive zone coverage by Washington. It was too loose and that forced the Holtbeast to make a lot of big saves on rebounds. It’s only October, so pond hockey and a lack of defense is obvious in many NHL games, but the Capitals proved last spring they know how to play in their own end when it matters. There’s no way the Caps are able to play with that type of intensity on the back end for 82 games and then the post season, but you’d like to see better efforts in coverage around the Washington net. Too many opponents have had room to roam free in the first six games.

Washington did clamp down once this game was tied with 9:35 remaining. After that power play goal, the Rangers did not register another shot on net over the last 11:53 of this affair. Meanwhile, the Capitals generated seven shots on goal, including Niskanen’s rebound winner.

The Caps fourth line trio each played about seven minutes in this contest. That line took two of the four Capitals penalties, including Nathan Walker’s offensive zone holding infraction that led to the Rangers game tying tally. Walker is fast and pesky, but he has to be smarter in that situation and not take a penalty with a one goal lead in period three. Bad plays like that will put you out of the lineup quickly. All Walker had to do in that instance was to keep moving his feet and then he would not have had to hold Neal Pionk.

Don’t look now, but Ovi has six goals in six games already. The Gr8 is just a special player and his shot is so hard to stop. Even King Henrik Lundqvist was surprised at how quickly Ovechkin got off his shots against him.

The third line has had a lot of trouble this season, so it was good to see Brett Connolly, Lars Eller, and Andre Burakovsky have some good shifts, especially in the first 30 minutes. They were not as noticeable in the second half of the game, so that needs to be addressed. Burakovsky has looked a little slow and tentative in his six outings, although this was his best one yet, but that’s not saying much and #65 needs to start producing.

After the loss to the Leafs, there were many in the Canadian and National media talking about Toronto being a serious Cup contender. Yes, they are good with a top three center lineup of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Nazem Kadri, but none of them have won a playoff series yet, so let’s stop focusing on the parade on Yonge Street. They are a talented team, but as we’ve seen with the Caps, it takes a major defensive commitment to get to the Promised Land. It remains to be seen if the Leafs have that in them. There is a big difference between October pond hockey and the playoff grind. Eller was right to point out to the media that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are the gold standard and then things go from there for the Caps in ranking their opponents. The Penguins have won three Stanley Cups in the Crosby/Malkin era. Kadri has shown that he’s good at making some iffy hits and running his mouth.

Both teams went two for four on the power play. The two goals allowed by the Capitals came on deflections or crazy bounces with traffic in front. Again, the Caps must move their feet on defense better to prevent those type of goals.

Kuznetsov is great. He continues to play like he has the puck on a string and he is proving that he’s one of the best players in the NHL. His on ice awareness reminds me a lot of Wayne Gretzky.

Comments (0)

Ovi Kuzy goal celebration

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Kuznetsov Dazzles in Caps 5-2 Victory over Vegas

Posted on 10 October 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Evgeny Kuznetsov put on a show notching four points, including three amazing setups for goals, two of which went to Alexander Ovechkin, and Braden Holtby was superb in net with 29 saves to lead the Capitals to a 5-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday night at Capital One Arena. It was the teams’ first meeting since the Caps skated Lord Stanley’s Cup at T-Mobile Arena back in June.

The win, which followed a nice rally in Pittsburgh to steal a point last Thursday night and then five days off, moves the Capitals to 2-0-1 (five points) on the season. They will face the New Jersey Devils at The Rock on Thursday night at 7 pm.

What follows are the highlights and analysis of a typical October game where defense and hitting were optional, most of the time.

It was clear that Coach Gerard Gallant’s squad was fired up for this one and they fought mightily throughout the contest, but at the end of the night, they lost for the same reason they were defeated in the Cup Final – they simply don’t have the high end offensive talent that Washington possesses. General Manager George McPhee has put together a nice team that works hard and plays their system, but he does not have an Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, or Nicklas Backstrom in his lineup. But not many teams in the NHL have that either. The 2017-18 Stanley Cup Champions are a very talented bunch and they still have room to improve. As the Great Count Floyd would say, “That’s scary stuff, Kids!”

For the last couple of years, I rode Kuznetsov hard in my blogs because I knew that with his talent, he had the ability to take over hockey games, like we saw from him in the World Juniors shortly after he was drafted. Kuzy did just that this past spring and was a major reason the Capitals won the Cup. He moved into the superstar category with his play, leading the NHL in post season points (32). The Russian center has now moved into elite status with the way he’s dominating out on the rink this October. His two-way game continues to improve and because he’s been shooting the puck more often and scoring goals, additional passing lanes are opening up for him. Those two feeds to Ovechkin for goals were just sensational. He’s a joy to watch.

Ovechkin is now up to four goals in three games and is really skating well. Ovi is so clutch when the Caps need it and with seven shots on goal, he easily could’ve notched a hat trick on Wednesday. After re-inventing his game last season with more speed, the Gr8 has picked up right where he left off.

Brett Connolly has been called upon to take Tom Wilson’s spot during Willy’s suspension. On the Capitals first goal, which came on the power play, Conno makes a great hit in the corner to keep the puck alive. Brett doesn’t have #43’s size, but he can skate and isn’t afraid to put his body in on the wall. If he keeps playing like that, the loss of Wilson, which is big for Washington, is partially mitigated. Connolly had two assists in this affair.

Backstrom had a goal and an assist to give Nicky six points in three games. The Jakub Vrana-Backstrom-T.J. Oshie line makes the job of matchups for the opposing coach very difficult night in and night out.

Washington went two for four on the power play to continue its torrid start to the season (5 for 10). The Caps had some issues with generating speed out of their own zone on their first man advantage situation because Vegas was very aggressive with forechecking pressure, but once they figured that out and got things set up, the magic began. You won’t see two prettier passing plays than the goals by Kuznetsov and Backstrom.

Vegas has a lot of heart and they just kept coming in this game. Washington was quite sloppy, at times, especially in the second and third periods. The Golden Knights cut two goal leads to one puck twice and thought they had a third one to make it 4-3, but that marker was wiped out by a clear offside challenge by the Caps video brain trust (well done Stretch and Timmy!). The Caps need to be smarter with the lead, they were lazy in their own end on several occasions and in the neutral zone and offensive blue line they made some poor decisions with the biscuit. If the Holtbeast wasn’t so rock solid in net, and he also had some help from the iron, this game could’ve been tied in the final frame. Coach Todd Reirden will have some good video to show his squad what not to do with the lead in this one.

Goaltending is so important in hockey and Holtby showed, once again, why he’s one of the best in the NHL. #70 was dialed in and made some very difficult stops, especially on William Karlsson, look very routine. Holts will get Thursday off and without Philipp Grubauer in net anymore, it will be up to Pheonix Copley to show that he can be a viable backup when he makes his debut against the Devils. The Capitals need Copley to start 25 or so games so that the Holtbeast is well rested for the post season.

Dmitri Jaskin, acquired from the Blues via the waiver wire, played solidly on the fourth line with Nic Dowd and Devante Smith-Pelly. Jaskin has size and goes to the net. That line had several scoring chances and looks like it could have some nice chemistry.

This was a nice win and the Capitals are hard to beat in a wide open game with all of the scoring punch they have. This type of hockey will be prevalent until the New Year, and then everyone will buckle down and start gearing up for playoff hockey. The bad news for the rest of the league is that Washington showed last spring that they can pretty much play any style and come out on top these days.

Notes: The Caps lost the faceoff battle, 38-36, but Dowd went 8-5…shot attempts were 68-51 for Vegas. Shots on goal were 31-29, also for the Golden Knights…Brooks Orpik was rammed hard into the glass by William Carrier late in period one. #44, who eats rocks for breakfast, didn’t play the rest of the period and went down the tunnel, but he did return for the last 40 minutes…John Carlson (two assists) led the Caps in ice time with 25:55…Michal Kempny returned from a concussion to make his regular season debut and logged 16:41. He did take two penalties, though.

Comments (0)

Caps Team Cup Banner

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Caps Bury Boston in Greatest Opening Night in Team History

Posted on 04 October 2018 by Ed Frankovic

We are the champions, my friends
And we’ll keep on fighting ’til the end
We are the champions
We are the champions
No time for losers
‘Cause we are the champions of the world

After 44 years of often times crushing defeats, the Washington Capitals players and fans were finally able to sing this legendary song together at Capital One Arena on Wednesday night in what was the greatest opening night in Caps history. The team was honored in a pregame ceremony that saw Alexander Ovechkin skate the Cup onto home ice to a thunderous ovation followed by an amazing video montage, and then the raising of the 2018 Stanley Cup Championship banner to the rafters.

To top it all off, the Capitals came out and buried the Boston Bruins, 7-0, to start the 2018-19 season in fine fashion.

Evgeny Kuznetsov notched two goals, Nicklas Backstrom had three assists, and Alex Ovechkin, T.J.Oshie, and John Carlson all had two points each while Braden Holtby stopped all 25 shots he faced in this affair. It was the 13th straight victory for the Caps over the B’s and more importantly, it gave Head Coach Todd Reirden his first NHL win in his debut as Washington’s bench boss.

This was a fun game and the fans, many of whom paid top dollar for tickets to attend this tilt, certainly received their money’s worth. The atmosphere was absolutely electric during the pregame ceremony and when Oshie scored just 24 seconds into the contest, it was apparent this was going to be Washington’s night. Kuznetsov followed that tally up just 83 seconds later on a power play goal right off of the face off and then the Caps exploded for three goals in the first seven and a half minutes of period two to put this one out of reach before the game’s midway point.

Below are my thoughts and analysis on the game and other impending Capitals issues:

Special Teams were a major key as the Caps went four for six on the power play and thwarted both of the Bruins man advantage situations. The Capitals are typically deadly with a manpower advantage and Boston certainly felt that in the season opener. Ovechkin and Carlson both tallied from the “Ovi spot” and Backstrom was just a magician on the ice dishing the biscuit around like he had the puck on a string. There is no doubt that if you take penalties against the Caps, you are going to pay the price. On the PK side of things, with Tom Wilson out 20 games due to suspension (more on that later), Devante Smith-Pelly stepped up and did a marvelous job while shorthanded and Reirden’s tactical change to add Kuzy to the mix paid off, as well. Evgeny logged 1:02 of penalty killing time and he helped the Caps to generate four shots on goal while down a skater, including a golden chance for Nathan Walker (Brooks Orpik had a nice pass on that sequence, too). The Caps penalty killing was somewhat of a weakness last season, but there is cause for optimism after game one, although they will face one of the best power plays in the league in the Penguins on Thursday night in Pittsburgh at 7 pm.

The Capitals played a really solid first period and big credit goes to the defense for moving the puck well out of their own end, which allowed the Caps to dominate possession. Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey, who were both rookies last season, played superbly on Wednesday. Coach Reirden was especially pleased with Bowey, who was paired with Orpik, given that this was his first meaningful hockey game in a long time. Even with Michal Kempny out due to injury (concussion – but skated for 15 minutes on Wednesday morning), the blue line was really solid. Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, and Matt Niskanen were stellar.

I spent a good part of my summer watching reruns of the Capitals Stanley Cup run and the thing that really stood out to me was the commitment level of the players, especially the forwards, to maintain their gap control through the neutral and defensive zones on the back check. The game winning goal against Pittsburgh was the result of that type of effort since it was Kuznetsov who knocked the puck off of Sidney Crosby’s stick before he went in and scored on a breakaway to send Washington to the Eastern Conference Finals. In the season opener, the gap control and commitment to back checking/pressure was still there. There were lots of sensational plays in this contest, but to me the one that stood out the most was DSP hustling and getting his stick in the passing lane on a potential golden chance for the Bruins. This came late in the second period with the score 6-0! Coach Reirden smiled when asked about that play and said everyone on the bench really noticed it. He also stated that this team is accountable and really plays for each other. In the post season the Capitals moved their feet and had a focus on taking the body, but there is no way to keep that style of physical play going through all 82 games and then the post season. However, you can continue to move your feet when you don’t have the puck and if you do that well, you are in position to steal or intercept the disc night after night and keep your opponents off of the score sheet. In game one, the Capitals skated hard on the back check and as a result, they dominated the game taking away time and space from some top notch players like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak.

Goaltending is so important in hockey and even though the Caps grabbed a two puck lead early, the Holtbeast was still needed. His best save of the night was on Bergeron, who was in all alone on #70, in period one. Boston didn’t get a ton of quality shots because of the great play in front of Holtby, but Braden did have a few ten bell saves in this tilt. He simply owns the Bruins and it was his first regular season shutout since 2016-17. The Holtbeast did have two shutouts in the playoffs, games six and seven against Tampa in the Eastern Conference Final. Game six was arguably the best playoff game I’ve ever seen Washington play.

With Kempny out due to injury and Wilson suspended on Wednesday for the first 20 games (eligible to return on November 21st), there were available spots in the lineup for new players. The aforementioned Bowey stepped up on the blue line and Nathan Walker and Nic Dowd received sweaters up front. Dowd filled the fourth line center role vacated by Jay Beagle (signed by Vancouver for four years at $3M per season) and scored a sweet backhanded tally in the high slot to make it 4-0 at the 6:13 mark of period two. DSP made a nice keep in at the point as Washington played their aggressive fore checking system perfectly on that goal scoring instance.

Willy, who will likely appeal the length of the suspension, is going to be missed because of his physical presence and talent. He’s helped make the top line with Ovi and Kuzy one of the best in the league. He is also a great penalty killer and gets in the collective heads of the Capitals opponents. He is a major plus to the Caps over 99% of the time, but hits like the one against St. Louis that led to the suspension need to be taken out of his game. As a result of his absence, the Capitals will have to play more of a finesse and high skill style early on, but the good news is the first half of the NHL season is nowhere near as physical as it is after January 1st, so if he was going to be out, this is the period where his loss should work best. As Backstrom said afterwards, the team needs Wilson, but it is also an opportunity for other players, such as Walker and Brett Connolly, to show that they can step up and minimize the impact of #43’s absence.

In summary, this was about as perfect of an opening night as you could get for the Capitals organization. The fans were energized from the time they walked into the arena and the players fed off of that energy with a quick start. Hearing We Are The Champions on the jumbotron and from the fans was special, and Backstrom summed it up best when he noted, “It was an amazing feeling, I want to experience that again.”

Cue the Osh Babe and the fans with the “Back to Back” chant.

Notes: Shot attempts were 64-53 for the Caps. Shots on goal were 37-25, Washington…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 24:06. Djoos logged 17:23 as #74’s partner at even strength. Niskanen (21:48) and Orlov (22:00) were a dominant duo in this game…the Caps were a putrid 19-41 from the dot, but one of the wins resulted in Kuznetsov’s first goal. Face offs are an area that will need improvement going forward. Beagle is no longer around to take the key defensive zone draws…Tuukka Rask has still never won at Capital One Arena…Marchand jumped Eller with just over six minutes left because he was being a baby and didn’t like Tiger’s celebration after his goal that made it 7-0. Lars was cut when Marchand ripped off #20’s helmet. Eller also never took off his gloves but still received the fighting major. I imagine Wilson took note of Marchand’s pest-like sequence and will file it away for reference for future games against Boston.

Comments Off on Caps Bury Boston in Greatest Opening Night in Team History

Why did the Caps lose to the Rangers? Who will be back for 2015-16?

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Here’s Why the Caps Lost and How They Can Be Better in 2015-16

Posted on 17 May 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Last Wednesday, in a thrilling and razor close series, the Caps found a way to end their season in heartbreaking fashion once again. They blew a 3-1 series lead in the second round for the first time in team history, including two games at Madison Square Garden in overtime. They were a 101 seconds from the Eastern Conference Finals in game five and fell short.

There have been 40 years of Washington Capitals hockey and 0 Stanley Cups.

As they say, it is what it is.

You can call the series loss whatever you want, a choke, a collapse, a lack of clutch play, or an absence of a killer instinct, it doesn’t matter, at this point. The bottom line is the Capitals lost while the Rangers, who I’ve been asserting since January are the best team in hockey, move on to take on Tampa and likely the Western Conference champion following that.

Make no mistake about it, the Rangers were the best team in the NHL in the regular season, and they are working on proving it in the post season. They were resilient and stuck to their process, for the most part, and that allowed them to move on. I expect them to win the Stanley Cup in June.

The Caps were oh so close, though. How tight was this series? Here are some numbers to back that up:

13-12, Rangers, in goals (all games decided by a single goal).

236-223, Rangers, in shots on goal (1.86 per game).

458-438, Rangers, in shots attempted (2.86 per game).

232-220, Capitals, in hits (1.71 per game).

One stat that wasn’t close was face-offs, the Caps dominated those, 250-199 (55.7%), thanks primarily to Nicklas Backstrom and Jay Beagle. Ironically, though, it was some key draws that ultimately did Washington in. Most notably the series winning sequence where Eric Fehr was beaten badly by Derek Stepan, which caused both Fehr and Andre Burakovsky to become confused defensively, allowing Stepan to sneak to the far post for a wide open rebound goal. Another key draw that the Capitals lost was the one with 3.6 seconds left in the opening frame in game six. Chris Kreider scored on a rebound with 0.3 seconds remaining to give New York a 2-0 lead that the Capitals ultimately could not overcome despite a furious and dominating rally.

Simply put, the Rangers, who had a major focus lapse at the end of game one, didn’t have as many “lack of focus” sequences as the Capitals did in the series, and that’s ultimately why they won. Washington struggled out of the gate in many first periods as well as in the third period in game six. Also, after a dominating first period in game seven, their best opening frame by a mile in the series, they took some terrible penalties to lose all of the momentum they had built up. Mike Green’s cross checking penalty on Dan Girardi was a classic lack of focus moment. It was a terrible decision at the wrong time, especially after two straight Capitals penalty kills, and it was a big factor in Washington not winning game seven.

Adding to the lack of focus issue was a putrid Washington power play. For the series the Caps were 1 for 15, while New York went 3 for 18. That’s a big factor in a super tight series. The Caps, who had the best power play in the NHL in the regular season, struggled with zone entries and when they were able to get set up, were far too predictable in their attempts to force Alexander Ovechkin the puck. The playoffs are all about adjustments. The Washington coaching staff did a nice job of making adjustments in the series at even strength, but they failed to change course on the power play. That was a mistake. They have used a set up where they put two guys in front of the opposing goalie and fire away from the point, but they failed to employ that strategy in the Rangers series.

In the opening round series win over the Islanders, the Capitals had success at getting pucks deep and hitting the New York defense with a relentless fore-check. Washington had a much harder time of that with the Rangers. The New York forwards are lightning fast, but their defense was an area that the Caps needed to exploit better with pressure and physicality. In game three, particularly in period two, the Rangers defensemen were petrified of Tom Wilson. “Willy” had his best game of the series and had the Rangers defense backing up from him. I’m surprised that the Capitals coaches didn’t try to use that tactic and advantage more often in the series. In addition, when New York did get the puck, the Capitals first forward too often flushed or chased the Rangers D-man behind the net causing an easy exit for New York on too many occasions. I didn’t think that was a wise strategy and I’m not sure if it was the coaches instructing the players to do that or the players choosing to do it on their own? Either way, it is best, especially with no red line, to shade the defensemen one way or the other and try to trap him before he exits the defensive zone. Washington did that well in their 5-2 regular season beat down of New York at Madison Square Garden, but they couldn’t repeat that fore-checking success in the playoffs against the Blueshirts.

Overall, the better team won the series. But in sports the better team doesn’t always win and the Capitals let an opportunity to close out the series and possibly win the Stanley Cup slip by.

It was a bitter defeat and it was as close as Washington has come to making the conference finals since 1998. Make no mistake about it, it stinks to lose, but the Capitals are once again a Stanley Cup contender after not being one since prior to the Montreal loss in 2010 (and you could argue that team had too many holes as well, especially at second line center and on defense).

So going forward there should be lots of optimism, but a busy summer of business and roster tweaking looms ahead for General Manager Brian MacLellan and Head Coach Barry Trotz. The Capitals were a big and physical team, but they struggled against teams with speed. Adding team speed will need to be addressed with the off season moves.

Trotz and MacLellan have done a magnificent job of changing the culture to be much more team focused and the personnel moves to upgrade the blueline, something I called for along with a “team first” concept last May before either was hired, were spot on. Last summer’s decisions were validated with the strong regular season and playoff performance.

With John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen under contract this team has the foundation for a strong blueline for next season and beyond. Orpik had a fantastic season and brought a physical presence to the back end this club has not had since Brendan Witt left. #44 will be 35 years old in September, but the way he conditions and maintains himself, he’s a very young 35 and should be fine next year. Alzner, under the tutelage of Todd Reirden in Trotz’ system, had his best season as a pro.

In net, Braden Holtby stepped up and was dominant, again, as predicted here. Holtby is a restricted free agent and will be a priority to sign to a long term deal. He played 73 games, including 72 starts, winning 41 of them with nine shutouts. Ideally you’d prefer Holtby to play between 60 and 65 games, so Washington needs to figure out its’ backup goaltender situation in the offseason. Justin Peters is signed for another campaign, but he struggled in his nine starts and 12 appearances going 3-6-1 with just a .888 save percentage. Basically, he played like an AHLer. The other option would be to bring up Philipp Grubauer, who started game two against the Islanders and won, although he wasn’t real sharp in that tilt. Better play from the backup, who will likely see the cage on the latter half of back to back game situations, is necessary in order to not give away valuable standings points during the regular season.

The main priority, other than signing Holtby, for MacLellan and Trotz is to find a top line right wing. That position is the team’s biggest hole and a big factor in why the team isn’t moving on. There is no player on the current roster that can fill that gap, so that has to be the outside focus this summer via free agency or trade.

Second line center, well we won’t be talking about that issue any more. Evgeny Kuznetsov showed in the playoffs that he has that spot covered. What a super finish to his first full NHL season for the young 22 year old Russian! He is so good and strong with the puck and he has the ability to take over games as he did in game five against the Islanders and game six against the Rangers.

With Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and now the emergence of Burakovsky, the Capitals have four legitimate top six forwards. Ovechkin had a monster season with 53 goals and 81 points. He swung his plus/minus from -35 to +10. A much improved blue line, a structured system, and hard work by the Gr8 led to a sensational turnaround. Big credit should be given to the Capitals coaching staff for properly developing young offensive minded forwards Kuznetsov and Burakovsky. Without their astute handling this team doesn’t get as far as it did. Trotz clearly knew what he was doing in bringing along these two kids in the manner in which it unfolded. Both are strong on the puck and improved immensely in their own zone from where they were in the season opener back in October. Right wing is the big issue now, as mentioned above.

As for Wilson, well the Capitals have to better utilize his talents. His hands and puck skills, as well as his skating, must improve. He has the potential to be at least a third line force or possibly a second liner, at some point. Opposing defensemen fear a guy like him and he can open up lots of space for his line mates. The coaches have to find a way to make him a bigger factor in 2015-16.

Making things tough on MacLellan this offseason will be the salary cap and the contracts he likely won’t be able to move in Troy Brouwer (0 playoff goals) and Brooks Laich (1 playoff goal). That is $8.1M tied up in two players who are bottom six forwards. Joel Ward, at $3M, had far better production than those two in the post season, but the 34 year old is headed to unrestricted free agency and will likely end up elsewhere for more money.

As for Marcus Johansson, he’s a restricted free agent who had a strong regular season, but disappeared too much in the Rangers series. Marcus is bumped off of the puck too easily in the playoffs and is not a threat to throttle opposing defensemen. I’m not sure where he fits in the team’s plans, but if the Caps keep him they can’t overpay him for his regular season statistics when he’s not producing in the playoffs.

When it comes to Jason Chimera, Coach Trotz stated in his final presser that he and #25 butted heads, at times, during the regular season. Chimera had a poor regular season, but in the playoffs he was a different guy. He gave the Rangers fits with his speed and tenacity. He’s under contract next year for $1.9M so he’ll likely be around. It would be nice if “Chimmer” brought the way he played in the post season on a consistent basis to next year’s regular season.

Beagle, Fehr, and Curtis Glencross are all unrestricted free agents so they’ll only return if the price and fit is right. Beagle is great on draws and on the penalty kill so he has a greater chance of being back. Fehr scored 19 goals and goes to the net well. His injury history will likely keep his price down and increase his chances of a return to Washington. He’s definitely a well liked player in the locker room. Glencross added speed, but he had the propensity to make the big mistake. His giveaway in overtime of game five was totally the wrong play. He needed to stride to the red line and dump the puck. If Laich had the advantage he thought he had, then gaining the red line and rimming it would have worked too, instead he opted for the high risk pass and Laich mistakenly changed when he should have headed back on defense. It was a costly lack of focus by both players there.

Speaking of next year’s regular season, making the playoffs is not going to be any easier. It wasn’t until the last week of the regular season that the Capitals clinched a spot in the dance since it took until game 80 to do that. You have to think the Blue Jackets, Flyers, Hurricanes, and Devils will find ways to be better next year, so Washington will have to work hard just to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2015-16.

The Caps were relatively healthy in 2014-15. You can attribute a part of that to luck, but the way the roster was handled and the ice time spread out properly, especially on the blue line, allowed the players to be fresher and not more susceptible to injuries. The coaching staff along with the training staff, led by Greg “Smitty” Smith, did an outstanding job of knowing when to push and back off of this team in terms of practice time, as well.

In terms of the regular season and qualifying for the playoffs in 2014-15, Green played a huge factor in the Caps just getting there. His ability to rush the puck and drive offensive pressure is something this team needed from the back end due to the lack of up front scoring. Unfortunately, #52 was not that same player in the Rangers series. In 14 post season tilts he had two assists and no goals. Against the Blueshirts he struggled to gets shots on goal and his two penalties in game seven were terrible. Green improved a ton defensively this season under Trotz, but under pressure in the biggest game of the season, he failed in key situations. I’ve always been a Green supporter, however, he’s an unrestricted free agent and I can’t see the Capitals spending big money on him when they have other more pressing needs in the top six at right wing. Someone will offer Green a big contract and he’ll have no choice but to take it. Washington will look to Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt to fill the holes that will likely be vacated by Green and Tim Gleason. However, that is a big risk given Orlov and Schmidt’s injury history, not to mention that both players do not have the offensive talent of #52. MacLellan may need to add a defensemen in the summer, as well.

Overall, the fans have to be positive about the state of affairs despite a tough, stinging, and emotional loss that had many proclaiming “Same Old Caps” when it was said and done.

Hey, I get it. I’ve been watching this team since 1974 and I’ve seen the highs and mostly lows when it comes to the post season.

However, I’m as optimistic as I’ve been in five years. The team finally has a coach and GM duo that understands the importance of a blue line and a structure that leads to proper play. The core players are on board with the team concept and style of play. Backstrom stated that they are playing the right way for only the second time since he’s been with the Caps, with the other being the partial season that Dale Hunter coached the team. The way the Capitals played in 2014-15 during the regular season and the playoffs backs that premise up.

Now they need to take the next steps necessary to be good enough to get to the final and win. That starts with finding a top line right wing. In my book, that player is not in the organization right now, so it’s up to them to find one.

Washington made great strides in 2014-15 and because of the better talent level and improved system, they had the puck more than their opponents once again after a downward trend in that category.

But the future is now; there can be no sitting back and patting each other on the back after a second round exit. There is no pity in sports, especially hockey. Yes, the team had a good season, but there is lots of room for improvement from the game starts to protecting leads to putting clubs away when they’re on the ropes. It’s going to take commitment, effort, and focus from the coaches and the players.

In summary, Washington Capitals hockey is back after what was a train wreck situation just a year ago. Now it’s up to the leadership of the club, on and off the ice, to remain relentless until that donut hole next to Stanley Cup titles is finally gone.

 

Comments (1)

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Caps Heading in Right Direction at Season’s Midpoint

Posted on 11 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

What a difference a year makes.

At the 2013-14 midpoint, the Washington Capitals were sitting at 20-15-6, good for 46 points. But boy were things coming apart at the seams in a downward trend that started in early December. During that stretch, one in which Coach Adam Oates used three starting goalies to pretty much wreck Braden Holtby’s game, the Caps grew further apart as a team with three players asking for trades (Martin Erat, Dmitry Orlov, and Michal Neuvirth). They were a squad that relied almost exclusively on their power play to win games and were very poor at even strength. In addition, in game 41, a loss at home to Carolina in overtime, they iced a defense of Mike Green, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Dmitry Orlov, John Erskine, and Steve Oleksy. The Caps would go 18-15-8 the rest of the way looking like a totally lost team that would miss the post season and ultimately cost Oates and GM George McPhee their jobs. Over the course of the season, the Capitals used 14 different defensemen and four goalies (traded for Jaroslav Halak at the trade deadline). That version of the Capitals was a team in total chaos.

Fast forward to today, after 41 games the Capitals are 22-11-8 (52 points) and following a sluggish start, have gone 12-1-4 in their last 17 games. Coach Barry Trotz has brought in a new system and a new attitude and GM Brian MacLellan added two quality players, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, to a blue line that had been the team’s Achilles heel for several seasons. Trotz, who had coached the Predators since their first season, brought in an experienced coaching staff in Todd Reirden (defensemen), Lane Lambert (forwards), and Mitch Korn (goalies). All three have done a super job and Korn has allowed Holtby to get back to basics and return to the dominant level he was at in the spring of 2012 when the Caps narrowly missed making the Eastern Conference Finals. To date, they’ve used two goalies, with Holtby clearly the #1 net minder and carrying almost the entire load. On defense, they have quality and stability, they’ve only used seven different players on the back end. Red Wings coach Mike Babcock made a point, following Saturday’s game, to comment on the vast difference in the Washington defense, stating “anytime you have [Mike] Green playing at number five you have a real good back end.” (h/t to CSN’s Chuck Gormley for the quote).

Things are looking very good for this Capitals team. The key word in that sentence being “team.” Center Nicklas Backstrom, who is having yet another superb season, talked on Sunday afternoon about how things are different than past years under Trotz.

“We’ve been talking a lot about before the season and during the season to stick together and work together and doing the right things. It’s real important that everyone is paying attention to small details like face off plays, what we’re doing before every draw, stuff like that, so I think a lot of guys are buying into that and we’re following the game plan. Maybe before we’ve been doing our own things, so that has helped us a lot, I think,” said #19 when asked about the culture change that Trotz is implementing with the Caps.

“They make each other accountable, they don’t accept just going through the motions. When you fight to just go through the motions, that’s not a good culture to have. We’re not doing that, we’re staying on task…I told the guys I didn’t like the way we were playing the last two games [before Detroit] and I told the guys [Saturday] morning that if we want to be the team we think we can be we’re going to get tested tonight. I didn’t like some of the red flags I saw those last two games, we still got points and we won games, but you have to be honest with yourself. There will be times where you lose games and I’ll be happy with the way we played, we just didn’t win the game. Even when you win, you have to be honest with yourself, did you deserve to win the game or did you luck out? I think we are pretty honest, we have good evaluations…so we recognize we have some work to do,” said Trotz when asked about the culture change and where the team is at.

After winning against the Red Wings, Trotz felt better about things but admitted they are still a work in progress.

“I was real happy in the third period with the way we managed the game. We didn’t generate a lot of offense, but we didn’t give up anything, even on six on five they had a little bit, but it wasn’t chaos out there, it was controlled and we forced them to try to execute at an extremely high level and they didn’t get any free looks or anything like that. So we’re better, just in our structure, we recognize possession and we recognized when they weren’t attacking the interior. We stayed patient and when they tried to, we’ll just make one adjustment that we need to do better and if it happens next game we’ll be even more prepared. We try to learn from things that happen, experiences that can make ourselves better, instead of hey we just got lucky. We look for things every day,” said Trotz.

All of the changes have certainly helped the Capitals put themselves back in the playoff picture and right now, it looks like they will make the post season. But there are 41 games to go and the race is tight. While just making the playoffs is key, this club has a bigger goal, to compete for a Stanley Cup. To get to that phase, they have a lot of work to do.

So in the second half the key will be to sustain their focus so that they can improve. Even doing that, there are question marks. One thing to be concerned about is Holtby’s work load. The key will be for Justin Peters to assert himself as a viable back up option, especially with nine back to back tilts scheduled. If Peters can’t perform, then MacLellan will have to find someone who will fill that role, otherwise the Caps not only risk missing the playoffs, but having a very fatigued goalie in April and beyond.

The defense needs to stay healthy and certainly with the depth they have in the top five, Trotz has been able to increase the probability of that by spreading out the minutes. Another key to staying healthy, and winning, is cutting down on the number of penalties the team takes. There have been recent stretches where the parade to the box has cost them points. Finally, they have to stabilize their forward line combinations. We’ve seen a rotating door with Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin on the top unit and the latest project is having rookie Andre Burakovsky fill the right wing role after Tom Wilson and some others struggled. The second scoring line has also been woefully inconsistent. Recently it has shown signs of life with Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Troy Brouwer lighting the lamp more frequently. How that trio plays will be a factor in any possible deep playoff run. Simply put, the forward situation is concerning and it remains to be seen if the young players, Burakovsky, Kuznetsov, and Wilson, can improve enough by April to make this club a contender. If it looks like that isn’t going to happen then MacLellan will have to make a move for a top six forward.

Most of all though, this club needs to continue the process and commitment they’ve built up over the first 41 games and Backstrom certainly brought that home with his thoughts on Sunday afternoon.

“I think that it’s about time that we realize how to play as a team and right now it looks good but we have a long way to go. We’re not done yet, it’s just halfway through the season. We’ve got lots of work to do and we’re not where we want to be yet, so we really need to be humble and make sure we work hard every day and every night,” finished Backstrom.

 

Comments Off on Caps Heading in Right Direction at Season’s Midpoint