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brian-maclellan

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Should the Caps Blow it Up or Stay the Course?

Posted on 29 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

After the Capitals added Kevin Shattenkirk at this season’s NHL trade deadline, I certainly thought I’d be writing a much happier ending to this recent Washington hockey season.

Alas, once again, that is not the case.

You already know the story; the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Washington Capitals in the playoffs for the second straight season, this time in a seven game series. In fact, it is now the ninth time in 10 playoff meetings that the Pens have knocked out the Caps. Jim Schoenfeld remains the only Capitals bench boss to defeat Mario Lemieux’s franchise in the post season (1994).

Let’s start with giving credit to the Penguins, because they certainly deserve that. Despite being outshot, 232-161, and outshot attempted, 484-317, in the series, they managed to hold the Caps to two goals or less in four of the seven tilts and as result, they won each of those games. There’s your series.

You don’t do that without outstanding play from your goaltender. Cleary, Marc Andre-Fleury’s performance against the Capitals was the biggest reason why the Penguins will likely be winning their fifth Stanley Cup this spring.

Next, you have to credit Sidney Crosby. Despite being injured in game three and missing game four, #87 was the difference maker for Pittsburgh. It was his two goals early in the second period of game one that staked the Pens to a two puck lead which gave his club the confidence it could win at the Verizon Center after being smoked there in the regular season. Then in a crucial game seven, Sid made the key pass on the winning goal after a Washington defensive zone turnover.

Finally, tip your hat to the entire Penguins team and coaching staff because they overcame a ton of injuries to defeat the Caps. Washington had injuries, as well, namely Alex Ovechkin’s knee and hamstring and Marcus Johansson’s fractured finger, but that’s a part of the game and the Pens found a way to persevere through all of their health issues.

The biggest reason the Pens won is because of their resolve. They certainly were outplayed by Washington for long stretches in this series, but they stuck to their system and when they received a break via a Caps turnover or mental mistake, they typically buried the biscuit. They were an opportunistic bunch who believed they could win. They also were able to plug guys into the lineup when some of their top guys were out. Without Crosby in game four, they jumped on the Caps early and held on for a win that ultimately gave the Caps no margin of error for a series comeback. So the Penguins deserve kudos for the depth they’ve created via strong drafting and development.

Congratulations Penguins, you clearly know how to win when the chips are down.

Now, were they the better team like they were in 2016 when they knocked off the Capitals in six games? The statistics say no, but the scoreboard says otherwise, and that is all that matters.

As for the Capitals, the roster assembled by General Manager Brian MacLellan, on paper, appeared to have no holes. Washington certainly did a lot of things correctly in the series. You don’t dominate the numbers as heavily as they did without doing many things right. Unfortunately, they did some big things wrong at inopportune times.

Washington carried the play in several periods in this series, didn’t score, and then tried to change their style of play. That is when they got into trouble and ended up losing. It was pretty obvious that the best Capitals game plan was to put pucks deep in the Penguins zone to try and further weaken a defense that was suffering from multiple injuries. Kris Letang was already out for the season and Trevor Daley was playing on bad wheels. But too often, the Capitals forgot that this is a shoot first league and they went into overpass mode. They were caught up far too easily in playing a pretty game and that is not the way you defeat a team as structured and as mentally tough as the Penguins.

Many Capitals players talked about the defeat being a mental thing on Caps Breakdown Day, and they are correct. Pittsburgh, no matter what the score or the situation, pretty much continued to play the same way. The Caps on the other hand, were not patient enough or mentally disciplined to stick with the game plan. As three time Stanley Cup Champion Justin Williams told me after game two, its okay to dominate a period and not score a goal, it happens in hockey. The problem for Washington though, is they wouldn’t maintain what they were doing and that’s when the fancy game and turnovers appeared on the ice. That’s a mental issue all the way.

While the Caps had a lot of shot attempts, they weren’t getting enough with traffic on Fleury and the players were rarely in position for rebounds. It’s a shoot first league and there were too many times, especially in the third period of game seven, when the Caps would cross the blue line and force the puck to the middle when getting it deep and wearing down the Penguins defense was the right play.

Again, that is a mental toughness issue, in my book. You have to be willing to pay the physical price in the playoffs by making the correct play. Taking a hit in the neutral zone and ensuring the puck gets deep in the offensive zone is a critical part of post season hockey. That applies inside both blue lines, as well. A number of the Penguins goals came as a result of lazy or careless turnovers. That’s a letdown on the mental side of the game. You can also attribute all of the terrible penalties the Capitals took in game four as a mental issue. Washington had a tendency to not come out strong in some contests, most notably games one and four. There is no reason why the Penguins should’ve had a 21-13 shot attempt advantage in the first 15 minutes of game four with Crosby out of the lineup in a must win for Washington. That’s inexcusable and both players and coaches need to answer for that.

Breaking things down by team component, let’s start with the coaching staff. All season long the Caps relied heavily on rolling four lines, but once Karl Alzner was deemed able to play with his hand injury and Brett Connolly struggled in his first post season appearance, Coach Barry Trotz went to seven defensemen and 11 forwards despite it being counter to what they’d done all season. Yes, the seven defensemen and 11 forwards strategy worked in game three, but it might have only been successful because Matt Niskanen was kicked out very early in the contest and the other six d-men were able to rotate normally. In game four, that configuration backfired badly as Alzner and Brooks Orpik, the two slowest Washington blue liners, were out on the ice together early in the game. Patrick Hornqvist, who isn’t exactly fast, split them like Moses parting the Red Sea to tally on a breakaway and it was 1-0 just over four minutes in. Pittsburgh gained a ton of confidence that they could win that contest without Crosby from that goal.

Following the game four loss, which was also heavily impacted by a very injured Ovechkin, who probably shouldn’t have played, Coach Trotz shook up his forward lines. He moved Andre Burakovsky with T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom and bumped the Gr8 down with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson. Those moves worked and Washington came storming back to tie up the series. They seemed poised for a big game seven, but Pens Coach Mike Sullivan adjusted and the Capitals didn’t play with the passion and urgency they had in the third period of game five and all of game six. Simply put, they cracked under the pressure. It’s apparent that the weight of being the #1 seed plus all of the past history of Washington recent playoff failures was heavily on the minds of these players.

Coach Barry Trotz has a track record of being tough on players who don’t follow the rules or the system as evidenced by the Ovechkin suspension in October of 2015 and Andre Burakovsky being benched in December of 2016. He even questionably pulled Braden Holtby after the second period in game two for what he thought was subpar goaltending. However, he and his staff let his skaters get away from the system too often in this series. Any deviation from the structure against a disciplined team like the Penguins can lead to a quality scoring chance, and that is what happened at key times in the series. If guys start playing the wrong way, they need to be benched for a shift or two so they get the message.

Johansson, Oshie, and Williams scored a lot of goals in the regular season going to the net. Jojo even won the Toronto series in OT of game six by doing just that. In the Penguins series, we didn’t see enough net presence and it was on the coaches to drill that into the players heads and enforce the strategy of getting pucks deep to set that up.

Again, I wasn’t a fan of the 7/11 configuration because it got the Caps away from the four line forward group that worked so well from late December until mid February. I understand why Brett Connolly was pulled out of the lineup for maybe a game or so to observe, but he also scored 15 goals in the regular season, many of which were tallied via going to the net. With some guys severely banged up and unable to shoot, like Johansson, why wasn’t he put back in for another chance? It was a mistake, in my opinion, to totally give up on a guy who could’ve been a better performer than the guys who were playing hurt. Case in point, Conor Sheary was performing poorly while being nicked up, so Sullivan benched him for games five and six of the Senators series. Yet in a crucial game seven, #43 was back in the lineup and played a major role in the first two Pittsburgh goals.

So did the Caps lose totally because of coaching? No, the coaching wasn’t great, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water here. This coaching staff has done a great job of building this team from the ruins of 2014. The two Presidents’ Trophies are evidence of that. Look at how far Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, and Tom Wilson have come in just a year. Each one of those players was a big part of why the Caps knocked off the Maple Leafs and dominated the possession statistics against the Penguins.

The playoff coaching certainly needed some improvements, but in totality, this is a very good coaching staff. Trotz and company will certainly take their share of the heat for the loss, but the biggest blame for the defeat is on the players themselves. They have to be stronger mentally and physically to do the correct things on the ice.

Let’s start right at the top of the players with Ovechkin. There’s no nice way to put this, it was a subpar season for Ovi and it all began last summer. How you handle off of the ice issues and life changing events is a big part of professional sports and with Alex getting married last summer it clearly impacted his ability to prepare for and play in 2016-17. After scoring 50 goals in 2015-16 and having a super 2016 post season, Alex looked slow and overweight for the large majority of the season. Clearly his conditioning wasn’t where it needed to be and then missing training camp due to the World Cup of Hockey didn’t help either. At age 31 and not in peak shape, the Gr8 lost some speed and that allowed defensemen to play him tighter so that he couldn’t get his shot off quickly at even strength. Ovechkin lived off of the power play in 2016-17 to score goals as he struggled in five on five situations.

In the playoffs, the hit from Nazem Kadri was low and the Russian Machine didn’t break, but it certainly slowed him down further and probably contributed to suffering the hamstring injury, as well. However, had Ovi been in better condition and had his speed from the previous year, it’s quite possible he could have avoided the Kadri hit altogether.

Ovechkin has made great strides under this coaching staff with his back checking ability, something he rarely did prior to the Trotz era. He deserves a lot of credit for that. However, his ability to play in his own zone has regressed. Standing on the left wing boards straight legged with your stick at your hips parallel to the ice is bad defensive posture. He needs to get rid of that and work on being a better player in his own end. If he gets back in peak shape and works at it, there’s no reason he can’t turn proper defensive zone play into several rush goals in 2017-18. Again, it’s a focus on conditioning and hockey.

That gets us to Backstrom. #19 had a very good season, but game seven was nowhere near his best. MacLellan’s goal in adding Eller and Connolly was to improve the bottom six and allow Washington to play a faster game. The thought was that having four lines would allow Coach Trotz to play everyone more evenly so that they could maintain a high pace and be fresher in the postseason. At times, the Capitals were able to do that, but they were not consistent. Ovechkin and Backstrom both played lower average minutes than they had in past regular seasons, by design, and in the end, it was likely the wrong move as both looked tired, at times, in the post season. Nicky, in his twenties, has been able to survive playing with extra weight, but as he moves into his thirties, like Ovechkin, he needs to shed any extra pounds he has to play faster.

When Washington lost to the Penguins in 2015-16, you could not blame either Ovechkin or Backstrom because they dominated Crosby and Malkin in that series. It was the Nick Bonino line that won for the Pens in the spring of 2016. In 2016-17, you can’t say the same thing. Both Crosby and Malkin elevated their games while Ovechkin and Backstrom weren’t as good as they were the previous May. Sure the Caps only received one goal in the series from their bottom six, but they rarely played the fourth line due to the 7/11 strategy.

Crosby is the best player in the game for a reason; he works harder than anyone at his craft. Orpik was quoted recently as saying that #87 is always the first player on the ice and the last player off of it for the Penguins at practice. That needs to be Ovechkin and Backstrom going forward. We’ve heard from other players that both have made strides, especially Nicky, in speaking up in the locker room. Speeches are great, but actions speak louder and doing the proper things on and off of the ice is so much more critical to winning championships. Those two guys are the Capitals leaders and have been the core for 10 years so they must be setting the tempo that everything is hockey first in 2017-18. We should not have to hear from Orpik that the team needs to get focused on hockey, like we did after the disastrous California trip in March. There were several post game players only meetings this season, including one after game two against the Penguins, and while it’s good to clear the air, they aren’t as necessary if everyone is focused on hockey.

Ovechkin and Backstrom are clearly the core of the Capitals and the goaltender is the third critical piece to the triumvirate. Braden Holtby, who has been stellar in past post seasons, had his worst playoffs from a statistics standpoint. Now how much of that is on #70 and how much of it is on the team giving up too many golden chances? I’d lean more on the side of the team breakdowns, but this was not Braden’s spring. This series was likely over in five games if he doesn’t make some big stops early in period three before the Washington three goal explosion that led to a victory and a two game winning streak. In game seven, he had no chance on the winning goal. However, I still didn’t like the Justin Schultz winning tally in game four. If there was a goal he’d want back in the series, I’d bet it would be that one.

On defense, John Carlson played his best hockey of the season against the Penguins, but he did not have a consistent year. He needs to amp his conditioning up so that he can play faster, as well. The standouts of this postseason on the blue line were Orlov and Schmidt and that’s encouraging given where we were just a year ago with both of them. Bringing in Shattenkirk for Zach Sanford and a first round pick seemed like the right move at the time, but in the end, with no Stanley Cup, it’s a lost trade. #22 has enormous potential and talent, but he was slow in the playoffs. Again, I think that might be a conditioning issue, but he didn’t come over until March with Washington. Hindsight is 20/20 and the deal now is another one that weakens the Capitals reach back for young players. Sanford has a lot of promise and first round picks are valuable. I can’t fault Mac for making that move, but coming up Cup empty now makes it an overall organizational defeat.

So where do the Caps go from here? There are calls for firing the coach, trading Ovechkin, or “blowing it up” from many in the fan base and some around the club. Even a couple of players said “major changes” were needed just two days after losing to the Penguins. It’s a natural reaction when a team loses again after being the favorite.

Let’s be honest, this is a team that is largely based on European talent and it hasn’t produced a trip to the Eastern Conference finals yet. This club improved greatly with the additions of North American players Oshie and Williams in the summer of 2015. They are guys who have a high “dog the puck” type of work effort. Both are unrestricted free agents and the team needs more of that style. Word over the Memorial Day weekend is that the Capitals and the Osh Babe have verbally agreed to an extension so that is great news, this team is not a Cup contender without #77 going forward. It would be nice if they could find a way to get Williams back, as well, but that will be tougher given the salary cap situation. Per the Caps great team reporter, Mike Vogel (@VogsCaps), we’ve heard that the salary cap is going to be in the $76 to $77 Million range. That is a big help to Washington, who also have to deal with Burakovsky as a restricted free agent. There are some who think #65 deserves a big pay raise, but given his inconsistent output, I’m not sure Washington can commit to longer term and/or high dollars on him, just yet.

I just don’t see moving Ovechkin or Backstrom as feasible given the likely low return and to be honest, #19’s contract is a great one for the Caps. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who also improved significantly in the post season outside of a poor game seven, is up for a new contract. He’s a restricted free agent, but somewhere around $6M per season seems likely for him. As for Orlov and Schmidt, it’s apparent they’ve moved up big time on the depth chart of this defensive roster and deserve decent longer term contracts. I’m speculating that Orlov will be come in at around $4M and Schmidt in the $2 to $2.5M range. Both play with speed and drive possession, which is so important in today’s NHL. Unfortunately, there will have to be other changes on the blue line. Shattenkirk will get paid big bucks elsewhere and I’d expect the same for Alzner, who really had a rough campaign. King Karl admittedly had a hard time regaining his speed after offseason groin surgery and then he broke his hand in the first playoff tilt against Toronto.  As for Orpik, as much as he’s a strong leader and a fitness freak, which was a big help in starting to turn the culture of this team around in 2014-15, his on ice value compared to his salary cap hit is not equitable anymore. He’s a third pair defenseman and you can’t afford $5.5M annually for that type of player when you want to win a Cup. MacLellan will have to look at either working a deal to move him, getting Vegas to pick him in the expansion draft, or buying him out to clear some needed salary cap space.

If the Caps had players ready to make the leap from Hershey or the college ranks to the NHL, like the Penguins have been blessed with the last two seasons, the overall situation could be better. Perhaps the bottom six will see a player such as Travis Boyd or Riley Barber come up and help out? Jakub Vrana has shown glimpses of being able to handle the NHL, but after his demotion this year he dropped so far off of the map that he was scratched for some games by Bears Coach Troy Mann in the AHL playoffs. Vrana is streaky and inconsistent, much like Burakovsky has been, so do you want to rely on another guy who doesn’t go to the net or high traffic areas consistently to finally help get you past the Pittsburgh problem? Seems awfully risky to me.

Clearly MacLellan has a lot to address in this offseason given the number of contracts that are expiring, NHL expansion to Vegas, and salary cap constraints. He also has a head coach reportedly heading into the last year of his contract. Add in that the two core players on the roster will both be in their thirties in 2017-18 and it’s clear that the GM has a lot to consider when charting the course for next season.

It’s not an easy job and there are very hard decisions to make, but in this case, I think it’s worth staying the course for at least one more year with the head coach and core players. In regards to a coaching change, is there somebody out there better than this head coach and staff worth pursuing? After all, there are several young players who have really improved during the Trotz regime and they’ve won two straight Presidents’ Trophies. They will likely have lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions in the second round yet again (yes, I see the Penguins defeating the Predators in the Stanley Cup Final) and that’s simply a function of the current division and playoff setup. In reality, they are the second best team in hockey, so does making drastic changes make sense? I don’t think so.

Brian, however, has to put pressure on the coaches and players to improve and be in better condition so they can make the playoffs and then deliver next spring. In hindsight, the World Cup of Hockey, which included participation from Coach Trotz and several top players, put the Capitals behind the eight ball from a readiness standpoint heading into 2016-17. The lack of preparation, based on what I’ve seen and heard, is a big reason they weren’t able to knock off the Penguins in the second round, once again.

So it’s incumbent upon Coach Trotz, Ovechkin, Backstrom, and everyone else in line after them to start getting ready for 2017-18 as soon as possible. Ovi, Nicky, and all of the players need to put in the hard work this July, August, and September so that they are in the best condition to play at a maximum pace in April, May, and hopefully June. If they can’t do that over the next 12 months, then certainly it will be time to “blow it up.”

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Burkie Game 6

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Caps Dominate Game Six To Even Up The Series

Posted on 09 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

With their season on the line in a must win game six in Pittsburgh, the Washington Capitals needed their best performance of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and they delivered it. The Caps were relentless for the first 56 minutes building a 5-0 lead en route to a 5-2 victory over the Penguins in Steeltown on Monday night.

This was one heck of an effort by the Caps. The Penguins had a few good early shifts, as expected, but the Capitals withstood the pressure and then started finding their game.

Washington would get the first power play of this tilt, when Jake Guentzel lost his mind and hit Evgeny Kuznetsov (two assists) in the head. The Caps would not score on that man advantage, but they built momentum off of it and kept pushing the play. Early on they had nine of the first 10 shots on goal. Shortly thereafter, with Tom Wilson breaking to the net on a two on one, Sidney Crosby had no choice but to put his stick in Willy’s gloves to prevent a great scoring chance and the Caps were back on the man advantage with 11:56 gone in the opening frame.

The Capitals would not waste this power play and a great feed by Kuznetsov to T.J. Oshie allowed the Osh Babe to bury the biscuit in the slot and give the Caps a very important one goal lead. Kuznetsov then took an undisciplined slashing penalty following that tally, but Washington killed it off and they maintained their one puck edge after 20 minutes. It was a very strong frame for Coach Barry Trotz’ crew as they outshot the Penguins, 11-3.

Second periods have not been kind to the Capitals in this series, but they managed to extend their lead at 6:36 of the middle stanza. Oshie made a great play to bat down a Conor Sheary clear on the right wing boards and when the Penguins tried to wheel the biscuit around the left wing side, Andre Burakovsky hit and stole the puck from Ron Hainsey. #65 then broke in two on one on Marc-Andre Fleury (21 saves) and with the Flower leaning to his left thinking a pass was going to go to the Osh Babe, Burkie beat him short side to give the Capitals a huge two puck lead.

Burakovsky would then take a pretty careless offensive zone hooking penalty on Olli Maatta, he needed to keep his stick down there and just play the body, but his teammates picked him up and killed off the man advantage very easily. The remainder of the middle frame was very tight checking and the Pens mustered six shots on net to just five for Washington.

That set up a critical third period. Would the Capitals be able to hold onto their two goal lead and force a game seven? Nicklas Backstrom gave us a pretty good idea of the answer just 16 seconds in when he took a puck down the left side of the ice and with the Pittsburgh defender going down to block the shot, Nicky rifled it over Fleury’s glove to make it 3-0.

Lars Eller was whistled for holding at 1:34 and the Penguins had a chance to get back in it, but the Capitals penalty killing unit was stellar, once again, allowing only one shot attempt, a 56 footer by Maatta that Braden Holtby (16 saves) stopped cleanly.

Pittsburgh started to get a little frustrated with their lack of offense and that was evident when Bryan Rust crashed into the Holtbeast at 4:31 and headed off for goalie interference. The Caps best chance on their third power play was an Alex Ovechkin wrister from in close, but Fleury came up big.

Washington was smart, though, and didn’t sit back. They knew the Penguins would have to gamble and they were patient with their opportunities. After Matt Cullen and Jay Beagle collided in the neutral zone, Cullen slashed Beags in the gut and that set the Capitals up for their fourth power play of the evening. John Carlson would get two shots on net during the first part of the sequence and they were stopped by #29, but then the third one was the charm. His slapper through traffic beat Fleury to make it 4-0 with 8:43 remaining. Things were looking extremely good for the Caps, and then, just 72 seconds later, Burakovsky made a steal at the defensive zone blue line. Burkie carried the puck down the right wing side, faked Chad Rudwehel, who was making his NHL playoff debut, to the ice and cut to the slot to beat the Penguins keeper rather easily from in tight to the glove side. At that point, the Penguins fans exited the arena en masse.

The Capitals would keep up the heat, but Pittsburgh scored twice in four on four after two Washington giveaways. The Caps let up and those late goals should be a good reminder that they cannot ease off of the throttle on the speedy and highly skilled Penguins for even a moment.

Overall, this was a dominant win by Washington. They were very sound defensively allowing only 18 shots on goal. They controlled the puck, as evidenced by the 51-38 edge in shot attempts. This is the sixth straight game in the series that the Caps have outshot the Penguins and they also outhit them, 38-32.

The move to put Burakovsky with Backstrom and Oshie has paid huge dividends and Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan tried to counter the successful game five move by Coach Trotz by reuniting his HBK line (Carl Hagelin-Nick Bonino-Phil Kessel). It did not work as the Eller, Ovechkin and Wilson line gave them fits all night. Wilson had five hits and Ovechkin added three. The Gr8 only had five shot attempts, but that line wore down the Pens defense, which opened things up for the Backstrom unit. Nicky’s trio was outstanding on Monday night and with the way Kuznetsov and the second line is going, the Caps have three groups of forwards that can score. Add in some great hard working guys in Beagle and Daniel Winnik, who had an under the radar great game, including some super PK work, and Coach Trotz is getting big contributions from his forwards.

On the back end, Matt Niskanen, who had a team leading 23:43 in ice time, and Carlson (22:49) were excellent. #74’s game has been building all playoffs and like last spring, he excels when facing Crosby and company. The Kevin Shattenkirk and Nate Schmidt duo continues to move the puck up the ice quickly, which is a big change from last spring’s series, where the Capitals looked slow and intimidated on the back end. Dmitry Orlov also turned in a solid effort with an assist in 18:06. Karl Alzner and Brooks Orpik were each in the 11 to 12 minutes range in ice time and did well to win defensive zone board battles.

Finally, the Holtbeast was rock solid in net. He didn’t have to face a lot of rubber, but when he had shots he stopped them without allowing any rebounds until the late goal by Evgeni Malkin, who was uncovered. #70 looked calm and collected in the cage.

Washington played assertively and confidently in game six and seems to be wearing down the banged up Penguins.

So now it’s a one game, winner take all affair, in Washington on Wednesday night at 7:30 pm.

The Caps have done well to climb back into this series with some strong efforts, but none of that will matter if they don’t close the deal at the Verizon Center. The Penguins are 3-0 in game seven’s against the Capitals, including 2-0 on Washington’s home ice. This team now has a chance to change the history and do something they haven’t done since 1998, advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

It will take another outstanding effort and require extreme discipline to defeat the defending Stanley Cup Champions, who you know will bring their best to DC.

Bring on Game Seven!

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Jojo SWG

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Johansson’s OT Tally Wins the Series for the Caps

Posted on 24 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

It took six close games, five of them decided in overtime, for the Washington Capitals to finally extinguish the Toronto Maple Leafs with Marcus Johansson tallying his second goal of the night to give the Caps a 2-1 victory 6:31 into the extra session. The Caps will now move on to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in round two, starting on Thursday night at the Verizon Center, in what is a rematch of last spring’s second round battle.

Like game five, this was another tight defensive battle with strong goaltending. Neither team scored through 40 minutes, with the Leafs owning the lead in the shot attempt totals, at 47-38, but the Caps had the better of the scoring chances, especially their second line.

In the third period, it was anyone’s game, but Washington started to take over with their depth. The Capitals had several good scoring chances, but then a weird bounce and a missed defensive assignment cost them the first goal.

Morgan Reilly dumped the puck in to the Caps end and it took a crazy carom off of the glass into the slot. Auston Matthews, who is already a star in this league at age 19, jumped on the puck and went in alone on Braden Holtby (37 saves). The kid from the desert went top shelf on the Holtbeast to make it 1-0 just 7:45 into the final frame. It was a fortuitous break for Toronto, but the goal was preventable. Had Evgeny Kuznetsov kept skating instead of gliding at the Caps defesnsive blue line, he could have beaten Matthews to the puck. It’s a good lesson for #92 and the whole team to learn in the playoffs – a single missed stride can cost your team a goal.

In the past, the Matthews tally might have devastated the Caps bench, but not this year. No, this team amped their game up and started taking the play to the Maple Leafs and just over five minutes after #34 had all of Yonge Street thinking there was going to be a game seven, the Caps tied it up.

Lars Eller made a strong offensive zone entry on the left wing boards and he fed a streaking Johansson in the slot. Marcus pushed the puck ahead to escape the Leaf defender and then he pinballed one in off of Frederik Andersen (34 saves) into the net with just 7:09 remaining. It was a monstrous tally and it came because the Capitals started to push the play.

Washington would continue to do that and then in the overtime, they took their game to 11.

The Caps had no thoughts of sitting back on Coach Mike Babcock’s squad and they thoroughly outworked and dominated a young Leafs team in the overtime. They had several scoring chances, Comcast’s Alan May had it 7 to 1, with Jojo getting his second of the night and the series winner on a play where he simply did what he had done all season long to score a career high in goals (24), he went to the front of the net.

A Leafs icing forced Babcock to leave a tired crew on the ice, which included game one goat, Martin Marincin, as well as his fourth line (Kasperi Kapanen-Brian Boyle-Matt Martin). Coach Barry Trotz took his third line off and inserted Johansson, Kuznetsov, and Mr. Clutch, Justin Williams. Kuznetsov, who like many other Caps centers struggled on draws all game, won a huge face off against Boyle. When Stick received the puck from John Carlson on the right wing half wall, he smartly fired it on net. Jojo was parked in the slot above the paint and he appeared to tip the initial shot into Andersen’s pads and then fought off Marincin to bury the game and series clincher.

Wow, what a game and what a performance by the Caps once they were down, 1-0! They pushed the play and looked like the team that won the Presidents’ Trophy this season. It’s the way they’ll need to play in the second round if they want to defeat the defending Stanley Cup Champions.

Winning the first round is always the toughest; ask any hockey player, coach or executive and they’ll back me up. It was even harder for Washington because everyone picked them to win quickly and the Leafs had nothing to lose. Simply put, there was a TON OF PRESSURE on the Capitals to win this series and move on to face the Penguins for the rematch from last spring.

As Coach Barry Trotz told me, Nestor Aparacio, and the great crowd at Greenmount Station back on March 20th, every series takes a piece out of you. Toronto took some pieces out of the Caps. Karl Alzner didn’t play after game two due to an upper body injury, Nazem Kadri put a cheap shot on Alex Ovechkin and knocked Ovi out for two plus minutes of game five (but the Russian Machine Never Breaks), and Leo Komarov put a dirty hit on Nate Schmidt late in game six (but the 88 car also returned to play four shifts after the hit, including being on the ice for the game winner).

Luckily the Gr8 and Schmidt, plus T.J. Oshie, who I could see mouth “I’m all right” to Caps trainer Greg “Smitty” Smith after blocking a shot right before the winning goal, should be ready for Thursday night’s game one against the Penguins at the Verizon Center. The Leafs may have taken some pieces out of the Caps, that’s still to be determined how much, but in my book, Washington was able to ramp their game up to a tempo they’ll need to be at against Pittsburgh. I’m not sure they get to that pace level in a series against the Bruins or Ottawa. So I’m still glad the Capitals faced the Leafs. It was a very hard series, but they overcame an inordinate amount of pressure and persevered.

Anyways, the Penguins series should be one heck of a rematch. The Caps have waited a whole year for it, but we’ll talk more about it as the week progresses, but let’s hope there’s a Rocky 2 type of ending this spring.

Notes: Final shot attempts were 70-67, for Washington. It was all Caps after the Leafs marker…Ovechkin had 12 shot attempts, including seven on goal, in 22:45…the Caps lost the face off battle, 39-22, but they won some key ones, including right before the series winning tally. Kuznetsov was 6-8 (best Caps percentage)…Oshie had another strong game with five shots on goal in 19:35…the Caps were shorthanded for just 22 seconds and they had 2:22 of power play time…the Holtbeast was outstanding in this tilt, which included a huge save on Komarov, who was all alone after he took his run at Schmidt and #88 limped to the bench…Dmitry Orlov led the Caps in ice time with 25:38 and his partner, Matt Niskanen, logged 25:15. They played the hard minutes and that allowed Carlson and Schmidt to help the Capitals drive the play when they were on the ice…the Caps won the last three games of this series, which came after Coach Trotz tweaked his forward lines right before game four (bumped Tom Wilson up to the third line).

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Jojo Bs

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Caps Keep Rolling in Beantown

Posted on 08 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

On Saturday afternoon in Beantown, the Washington Capitals just kept on rolling, defeating the Boston Bruins, 3-1, with goals from Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Justin Williams. Philipp Grubauer received the start in the cage and he stopped 21 shots. #31 was excellent between the pipes, once again, to run his 2016-17 record to a very impressive 13-6-2.

For the Caps (55-18-8, 118 points), this was a meaningless game in terms of standings points. They’ve already won the Federal League, er, Presidents’ Trophy, and are just trying to figure out who they’ll play in round one, which will likely start at the Verizon Center on Thursday night. The Bruins are one of the teams they could face and if there was any hesitation from Washington on wanting to play them, the Caps could’ve tanked this affair to ensure that they wouldn’t face Brad Marchand and company.

Instead the Capitals dominated the Bruins like they’d gladly take on a team that they’ve now gone 9-0 against since Barry Trotz took over as Washington’s bench boss (h/t to Ben Raby). The Caps were physical early on and very structured defensively. Boston, who was missing their top scorer Marchand due to suspension (he speared a Bolt earlier in the week and was feeling shame in the press box for two games), had a hard time getting through Washington’s neutral zone and defense and most of their 48 shot attempts came from the perimeter, which made it difficult to put a biscuit by Grubauer.

On offense, the Capitals were sloppy at times, but when they fired the puck, they got it to the net to the tune of 32 shots on goal. Washington’s first tally, just 4:21 into the contest, came on a speedy three on two rush led by Jojo. Marcus carried the puck up the center of the ice and as he crossed the offensive blue line he worked a great give and go around Zdeno Chara with Justin Williams that culminated with Jojo beating Anton Khudobin on the backhand for his career high 24th marker.

Boston was already missing their best offensive blue liner, Torrey Krug, and things got worse for the Bruins defense when Brandon Carlo was injured on a play in the left wing corner. Carlo went back to gather in a loose puck with Alex Ovechkin in hot pursuit. Carlo was skating into the corner and with the Gr8 expecting him to turn to play the puck, he went to finish his check. However, #25 lost an edge and went down awkwardly right as Ovi was going to deliver the boom. Fortunately Ovechkin let up, but Carlo still crashed hard into the boards and had to leave the game. You could see Alex felt bad about it, he gave him the stick tap as Carlo was working his way up, but it was just a hockey play gone wrong. Washington led, 1-0, after 20 minutes and in shot attempts, it was 20-15 for the good guys.

In the middle frame, things were tight checking and calm for the first 12 minutes or so, but Evgeny Kuznetsov took a lazy hooking penalty (Move Your Feet!) and that gave Boston some life. They would not score on the man advantage, but after Kuzy came out of the box he made a terrible own zone turnover that Colin Miller would deposit behind Grubauer on a rebound. Simply put, it was back to back bad shifts by #92 that allowed the game to be tied up, and he knows better than to make those two mistakes – they must cease starting on Thursday because he is critical to the Caps post season success.

Washington, however, would not be deterred by that tally. They amped up the pressure and scored the next three goals, but only two of them counted due to bad zebras. First, Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom made two sensational passes to set Shattenkirk up in the slot for a sweet tally. That goal was just 56 ticks after the Bruins had tied the contest and it clearly deflated Boston. Shattenkirk would score again just 1:22 later, but the NHL reviewers in Toronto and the on ice zebras combined to call goalie interference on Williams, who was shoved partly into the Qdoba guy in net by his own player. That play was similar to the goal Dallas scored against the Caps to open the game back on March 6th where the reviewer ruled Brooks Orpik pushed the Stars player into Braden Holtby so the goal stood. In this case, a nowhere near as egregious infraction occurred, but they waved the tally off. Spin the wheel NHL, you continue to make no sense or have any consistency on these calls! Simply put, it’s a big joke the way these reviews and rulings go down.

Anyways, the next Capitals goal would have no chance of being reviewed and overturned. Washington won an offensive zone faceoff back to Nate Schmidt (+3) and he spotted Kuznetsov wide open on the right side of the slot. Kuzy took Schmidty’s great pass and slid the puck perpendicularly through a seam in the Bruins defense to Williams, who quickly buried it into a wide open cage for his career high 24th goal of the season. That was a thing of beauty with 50 seconds left in period two. The Caps still had the edge in shot attempts, 40-33, and 24-15 in shots on goal.

With Khudobin out of the game due to “not feeling well,” Tuukka Rask came in to play the final 20 minutes. After some heated earlier moments in this tilt, this last stanza was glorified preseason hockey with neither club wanting to risk any injuries. When the final horn sounded, the shot attempts ended up, 52-48, for the Caps and 32-21 in terms of shots on goal.

The Bruins were clearly missing their leading scorer in this one, but they still have some punch up front with Patrice Bergeron, David Backes, David Pastrnak, and David Krejci. Washington did a great job at keeping Boston from the paint and at the other end, the Caps took advantage of a slow blue line to score some pretty goals. If the Capitals do get Boston, it is a good matchup from a pace of play perspective. Washington is faster than Butch Cassidy’s crew and the only downside would be the chippy after the whistle type of stuff Boston likes to get into. They are nowhere near as dirty as the Flyers, but I’d still prefer to not have to go to battle against those guys. The Caps would have a great chance at prevailing, but like last year’s first round matchup against those smelly guys from Filthy, it would likely come at a physical price.

The best news of all, however, was that Washington appeared to come out of the game unscathed in terms of injuries and will have one more regular season contest on Sunday at the Verizon Center, against Florida, before the post season begins. John Carlson, who has missed three straight games with a lower body injury, is supposed to suit up to shake off the rust.

The Caps will want to stay healthy and not get anyone suspended, so I expect a “friendly” game against Jaromir Jagr and company.

With Toronto defeating the Penguins, 5-3, on Saturday night, Washington will now face either Boston or Toronto in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If the Leafs earn at least a point on Sunday evening against Columbus, it’s the Caps vs. Boston.

Notes: The 3 pm scheduled puck drop did not occur until 3:28, thanks NBC (NOT!)…Brett Connolly missed the matinee due to illness, he did not even make the trip. Paul Carey took his place in the lineup and played well in 13:21 of ice time. His great skating ability was a big advantage against some cement laden skaters on the Bruins…the Caps were 0 for 4 on the power play, but two for two on the penalty kill…Shattenkirk was brilliant again in this one and led the Caps in time on ice with 22:54. That guy is good and getting better and better in Trotz’ system…the Caps are 19-0-0 against the Bruins when #19 gets a point (h/t to Rob Carlin of Comcast)…Jay Beagle was clipped by a careless Krejci high stick late in the game. A double minor was called…the Capitals are 10-1 in their last 11 games.

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Caps Win TO

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Caps Move Closer to Home Ice for the Playoffs With Win in Toronto

Posted on 04 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

With three road wins in four tries on a season long five game trip, the Washington Capitals kept the hammer down in the Big Smoke on Tuesday night with a dominating 4-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Philipp Grubauer made 27 saves in the triumph and the Caps are now 53-18-8 (114 points). They are just a Capitals point gained or a point lost by the Pittsburgh Penguins during the last three games from clinching the Metropolitan Division title and their third Presidents’ Trophy.

With the Leafs playing in Buffalo on Monday night, it was imperative that Washington get up on Toronto to make a weary team expend a lot of energy playing catch up. The Caps game plan was pretty simple early and throughout the contest, get pucks deep on the Leafs D and forecheck them. Alex Ovechkin (1 assist) was really bringing the hammer on Coach Mike Babcock’s players and his four hits definitely opened up the ice for Washington while wearing out Toronto.

From the get go, the Capitals third line of Brett Connolly (two assists), Lars Eller (goal), and Andre Burakovsky (assist) were superior to any Toronto line they faced, which was predominantly the James Van Riemsdyk, Mitch Marner, and Tyler Bozak trio. Eller would break the ice for the Caps at 14:34 of period one when Burakovsky made a great play to negate an icing call and then the triumvirate cycled the puck beautifully until #65 found Eller in the slot and #20 buried it by Curtis McElhinney for his 12th goal of the season.

Washington would dominate that opening frame with a 13-3 lead in shots on goal and a 22-14 margin in shot attempts. Toronto had very few scoring chances on Grubauer because the Caps had the puck a lot and they defended the front of their own net very well.

Speaking of beautiful, that is a goal that really broke this game open, a bit. Eller drew a holding the stick call on Marner and that put the Caps on the man advantage 8:34 into period two. Boy did the Caps power play look daunting, too. With Nicklas Backstrom and Kevin Shattenkirk running the show at the half wall and top of the point, respectively, and the other three guys moving around well, the Leafs had no clue what to defend. It all broke down for Toronto when Ovechkin rotated to the top of the point and #22 went into Ovi’s office. With the Leafs so focused on the Gr8, the cross ice lane from Backstrom to Shattenkirk across the top of the circles was wide open. Backstrom’s feed to Shattenkirk was perfect and Kevin one-timed it home for his first goal as a Capital. That made it 2-0 at the game’s halfway point.

From there, Washington really played smart and forced Toronto to have to go into their own end and retrieve pucks often. While the Leafs closed the gap by one in shot attempts after two periods, to 41-34, the shots on goal were 26-13.

In the third period, the Caps didn’t sit back and they upped their lead to 3-0 when Nate Schmidt tallied off of a great feed from Connolly at 8:11. #88 was in the game because John Carlson was a late scratch due to a lower body injury (He is day to day and will not play against the Rangers on Wednesday night). Schmidty was excellent in this affair and he was paired for the first time in recent memory with Karl Alzner. They were the lowest pair in terms of time on ice, but with Coach Trotz playing the matchups against Babcock, Washington’s depth took over and those guys were +3, with two of those goals coming with the Eller line.

The last goal for Washington was tallied by Tom Wilson on a breakaway. Daniel Winnik and Jay Beagle made great plays inside the Caps defensive zone to get the puck out and then #26 flipped it high in the air over the Leafs defensemen and #43 flew in and beat McElhinney on the backhand. It was a well deserved goal for Wilson, who protected his goalies and teammates all night from some Toronto cheap stuff (Matt Martin’s push of Matt Niskanen into the net and Marner’s ice spray face wash of Grubauer).

The Leafs would get a very late PP goal from Marner to avoid being shut out.

Overall, this was a very solid game by the Capitals. Their defensive posture has really improved over the last two contests and what I really liked against Toronto was that I’m having a hard time remembering if the Leafs even had an odd man rush in this affair. Recently the Caps have been breaking down and giving those up en masse. That was not the case in the Big Smoke and as everyone knows, “Defense Wins Championships.”

The defense was certainly there on Tuesday night and the Capitals used their size and depth up front to dominate a Toronto team that is on the verge of clinching a playoff berth. It was a confidence building win for Washington against a club they very well could face in the first round of the playoffs.

Notes: final shots on goal were 38-28 and shot attempts were 58-55 for the Caps…Eller and Connolly were both +2 and Burakovsky was +1. Eller drew two penalties…the only mistake that line really made all night was #65’s penalty with 2:15 remaining which ultimately cost Gruabuer the shutout…the Caps lost the face off battle, 30-28, but Eller was 8-4…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 23:34 and his partner, Dmitry Orlov logged 22:10…Schmidt played 14:11 while Alzner had 16:00 of time on ice…the Caps-Rangers game is at 8 pm on Wednesday night on NBC Sports Channel. It will likely be Braden Holtby against Henrik Lundqvist in net.

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Ovi Wild

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Ovechkin and Backstrom Lead the Caps Over the Wild

Posted on 14 March 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Alex Ovechkin scored a huge power play goal and helped set up Washington’s first tally while Nicklas Backstrom added three assists as the Caps defeated the Minnesota Wild, 4-2, at the Verizon Center on Tuesday night. The victory breaks the Caps four game losing streak and puts them back in sole possession of first place in the NHL at 45-17-7 (97 points).

Well that was more like it!

The Caps top guys were their top guys on this night, unlike the 0-3 California trip we would all like to forget.

The Capitals were skating hard and competing. They constantly won the loose puck battles and they did a great job of going to the net. This looked like the team that lit the scoreboard up like a pinball machine from December 31st to February 11th.

This affair didn’t start real well for the Caps, though. The Wild had several early scoring chances as Washington was trying to get back on east coast time, but Braden Holtby (30 saves) was outstanding in the net to keep this one scoreless. The Capitals then started getting their legs going to play with pace and they gradually took over the contest. Late in the first period, Ovechkin made a great tape to tape breakout pass to spring Backstrom in the neutral zone and #19 carried it into the Wild end. T.J. Oshie made a nice nudge of the puck back to #19 in the right wing corner and Nicky then took the puck around the net and tried to hit a flying and charging Gr8 in the slot. The pass nicked Ovi, but Nate Schmidt was properly placed in the middle of the ice and he gathered in the loose biscuit and fired it at Devan Dubnyk (36 saves). The puck, which looked to be going wide, hit Eric Staal and went in. That goal came with just 11.7 seconds left in the frame.

In the middle stanza, Washington really played well, but Dubnyk kept his club in it for the first 14+ minutes. However, an obvious Mikael Granlund high stick on John Carlson (two assists) negated a Wild power play and put the game at four on four for 48 seconds. There was no sale for either team in that scenario, but then the Capitals had their 72 second man advantage. Ovechkin had a great look late in the power play and missed the net, but right as Granlund was coming out of the box, the Gr8 took another nice feed from Carlson and put “a muffin” by Dubnyk to give Washington a 2-0 cushion.

The Caps weren’t done in that period, however. Ryan Suter, who whined all night, took a very clear slash on Ovechkin at 16:46. Washington’s power play then scored on the rush with Backstrom carrying the puck across the blue line and then feeding a streaking Evgeny Kuznetsov in the slot. #92 beat Dubnyk with a sweet shot upstairs.

To quote the great Will Ferrell, “Come on, we’re all going streaking!”

That made it 3-0 and all was feeling right in the world with Ovi finally scoring a goal and the Capitals dominating play.

Things then got amped up at the end of period two when Ryan White first took a run at Tom Wilson and then a nasty one on Brooks Orpik behind the Caps net. There was no penalty called on White, but Wilson, remembering that it was the dirty White who concussed #44 in last spring’s game three in Philadelphia, dropped the gloves and beat the stuffing out of him. Wilson earned 17 minutes in penalties, including the instigator minor and an automatic 10 minute misconduct, but the Capitals looked possessed on that penalty kill and then at even strength at the end of period two and nearly made it 4-0.

It’s too bad they didn’t because just 37 seconds into period three a weird bounce on the boards allowed the Wild to score. Washington then took a parade of penalties that started with a Brett Connolly interference. I wasn’t a fan of that call, but then Backstrom had to hook Eric “Cap Killer” Staal when he had a clear lane to the net and that gave the Wild a five on three. The Capitals would survive that event, but right as #10 was coming back on the ice, Staal put the biscuit in the basket to make it 3-2 with 15:23 remaining. Uh oh!

Things got even hairier when Justin Williams, who had eight shots on goal in this game, was whistled for hooking. It was another call I didn’t like because it sure looked like the Wild player was hit by sniper fire. It was total embellishment and Minnesota did a lot of that on this night. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Coach Bruce Boudreau had brought in Greg Louganis as a diving consultant at some point this season. All evening long a Capital would touch a Wild player and too often they’d fall to the ice. Either they are unbelievably soft or they think the zebras are so clueless that they’ll call anything. A combination of both is likely true, if you ask me.

Anyways, Washington was relentless with their pressure on that penalty kill and the Wild didn’t even get a shot on the Holtbeast. Once the Caps were done with the parade to the box (Minnesota had seven power plays), they took over the remaining 13 minutes and really never gave the Wild a chance to tie it.

In fact, the intense forechecking and pressure Washington was exhibiting led to an insurance tally with 5:41 to go. Minnesota cleared their zone and tried to change, but Dmitry Orlov alertly caught them and fired a quick pass up to Jay Beagle just outside the offensive blue line. Beagle skated in down the left wing with Daniel Winnik flanked to his right on a two on one and when the Wild defender chose to cut the pass off, #83 wristed one top shelf to end any potential drama.

This was a much needed win for the Capitals and the way it went down was also big. The Caps were playing with fire and intensity, something we didn’t see on the left coast. Ovechkin, who showed signs of breaking out of his winter hibernation in California with 15 shot attempts in LA and then eight more in Anaheim, had a goal, an assist, and four hits in 18:11 of work. Backstrom was flat out dominant at center and on the backend, the defense, which was missing Kevin Shattenkirk due to a two game suspension, was very active in the play, which helped get the offense back on track. This was Carlson’s best game in a long time and Karl Alzner had a really good outing, too. Matt Niskanen and Orlov were excellent, as well. In fact, 11 of the 40 shots on goal came from Carlson, Niskanen, and Orlov. Add in Schmidt’s goal and it was a big night for the blue line.

Simply put, the Capitals were competing and they moved up and down the ice in a well structured five man unit. I loved the team’s intensity and also Wilson sticking up for Orpik, those type of things send a strong message to anyone trying to play dirty and it was clear this team is together.

This win was a very big response to a bad and unfocused road trip.

Washington certainly looked focused and dialed in on Tuesday. All is right in Caps land, once again.

Notes: Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 24:38 and Carlson was right behind him at 24:05…the shot attempts favored the Capitals, 67-54…Zach Parise was held without a shot on goal in 18:17 of ice time. He’s one of the best players, if not the best, for Minnesota…the Caps third line didn’t have a shot on net, but they only played together for just over six minutes due to all of the penalties…the Caps host the Nashville Predators on Thursday at 7 pm and Shattenkirk will return to the lineup…TJ Luxmore and Jon McIsaac were your clueless and very inconsistent zebras on Tuesday night (some would also call them incompetent, and they wouldn’t be wrong).

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Beags habs

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Holtby Holds the Fort In Caps 3-2 Win Over Montreal

Posted on 04 February 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Heading into Saturday afternoon’s game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre, the Washington Capitals were 31-1-5 in franchise history when Jay Beagle scores a goal and 8-0 this season (thanks Adam Miller).

Just 3:06 into the matinee, #83 sniped one by Carey Price after a sweet feed from Daniel Winnik following a strong play by Tom Wilson in the neutral zone to keep the play onside.

So you know how this one turns out, right? It would be a Caps victory in Quebec.

However, it wasn’t easy.

After Beagle’s tally there was a lengthy delay (about 11 minutes) due to a hole in the bottom of the boards behind Braden Holtby (20 saves). Montreal took advantage of that Super Bowl 47 like stoppage to right their ship and tie the game up at one less than three minutes after play resumed. Nate Schmidt tried an ill advised centering pass on the right wing boards in his own zone and that allowed Alexander Radulov to snipe one to get the Habs back in the game. Schmidt needed to either eat the puck along the boards there until he could get help or reverse the play by putting the disc along the boards behind his own cage.

The Caps would then settle down and they began carrying the play again with lots of offensive zone pressure. Washington’s third line of Lars Eller, Brett Connolly, and Andre Burakovsky was especially good. When the Caps turned the puck over or Montreal took a hold of it, Washington ferociously back checked and reclaimed the biscuit. They did an excellent job in the first two frames of going up and down the ice in five man units and that prevented the very fast Habs squad from turning this game into a track meet.

The two way effort paid off midway through the middle frame. Eller sprung Connolly up the ice on a three on two with Burakovsky and Schmidt. #88 then atoned for his previous mistake by making a very smart play as he crossed the blue line with speed – he kept driving to the net. By doing that he took the Habs defensemen with him and that opened up a passing lane for #10, who laid a sweet cross ice feed to #65 and he snapped it short side, top shelf by Price for a 2-1 lead.

Washington would continue pressing the play in period two and they had several good looks. Alex Ovechkin hit the post and was also denied in tight by #31. Justin Williams had a great shot from the slot, but he didn’t elevate the puck and Price got his pad on it. After 40 minutes, shots on goal were 24-12 for the Caps and 41-26 in terms of shot attempts. In short, they were playing a super road game to that point.

In the third period, they did a good job of keeping Montreal to the outside early in the frame and when Radulov took a hooking penalty on the Gr8, the Caps cashed in on the power play. With the Habs overplaying the pass to Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom alertly chose to fire a shot from the middle of the ice up high and with Price leaning right, the puck eluded him to give Washington a 3-1 lead with 14:44 to go.

Things then got interesting. Montreal really put the pressure on and at 7:49 of period three Max Pacioretty cut the lead to one when they totally outworked the Caps fourth line for a goal. The game would go back and forth with teams trading some chances and when the Caps received a power play with 5:46 to go, they looked to close this one out. However, the Caps made a big offensive zone turnover and Torrey Mitchell received a shorthanded breakaway. As he was about to shoot, the puck bounced on him a bit, so he didn’t get all of the rubber, but the Holtbeast was already in good position and he made a huge stop. Braden would make a few more quality saves down the stretch and the Capitals did a decent job of not allowing the Habs to penetrate the paint until the final horn sounded.

When it was all said and done, the Capitals would head out of the hallowed hockey city with a 3-2 victory to improve to 35-11-6 (76 points) on the season.

This was a game that I was not worried about for Washington from a motivational standpoint. Every NHL player LOVES to play in Montreal. It is a great city and has a lot of hockey history. Simply put, if you can’t get up to play there, you don’t have a pulse.

As I routinely write, when the Caps are motivated, they are hard to beat because of their skill, depth, and goaltending. Montreal gets paid to play, too, and they are fighting for their division title, so the Habs really brought it, especially late. Both Price and Holtby put on net minding clinics and it is easy to see why they are the best two goalies in the NHL.

This was a fun hockey game to watch and Washington benefitted from winning the special teams battle going 1 for 4 with the man advantage and stopping all three Habs power plays.

Both teams could’ve won this affair, although I thought the Caps were the better team for the majority of the tilt, until they earned the two goal lead. They then hung on to win and as the stats dictate, when Beagle scores a goal, it’s pretty much points in the bank for Washington.

Woof!

Notes: The Caps won the shot attempt battle, 51-49. Ovechkin and Beagle each had five shots on net. This was by far #83’s best outing since he went down with a virus just before the all star break. “Flip Phone” Beags seemed to finally have his legs back…John Carlson took his first penalty of the season, but he played solidly and led the Caps in ice time with 24:16…Holtby is now 11-0-0 in his last 13 starts…the Caps won the face off battle, 28-25. All Star Backstrom was 15-4 and Beagle was 9-6…Burakovsky and Beagle now both have 11 goals on the season. #65 and that whole line has been a huge difference maker for Coach Barry Trotz’ club….the Caps will face the Los Angeles Kings at noon on Super Bowl Sunday at the Verizon Center on NBC. LA defeated the Flyers on Saturday, 1-0, in overtime….the Kings are coming in hot, they’ve won five in a row as they make their way to DC. Expect to see Philipp Grubauer between the pipes for the Caps.

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Orlov wink

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Caps Score Six More Goals in Rout of Carolina

Posted on 23 January 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Dmitry Orlov scored twice, Braden Holtby made 25 saves, and the Washington Capitals continued to crash the net to bury the Carolina Hurricanes, 6-1, at the Verizon Center on Monday night. The Caps have now gone 14 straight games without losing in regulation (12-0-2).

That streak started with a terrible shootout loss to the New Jersey Devils back on December 29th where the Caps had 40+ shots on goal, but not many from the paint or prime scoring area.

Since then, everything has changed. The Capitals have gone to the net with authority since that perimeter defeat and they’ve rocketed to the top of the NHL standings (32-9-6, 70 points) and are now third in the NHL in goals for (155) after a slow offensive start to the season.

All four lines are going and the goals are a flowing.

Carolina came out of the gate fast in this one and took an early lead after a weak holding call on T.J. Oshie. Jordan “Can’t Stand Ya” Staal scored just six seconds after “Osh Babe” was sent to the sin bin. Shortly thereafter, the Hurricanes had some good looks and it took a Nate Schmidt block of a sure tap in with his stick and a couple of big saves by the Holtbeast to keep this a 1-0 affair.

Washington then received a power play and Orlov unleashed a rocket that nicked Staal’s stick and went by Cam Ward (19 saves) short side. Justin Williams had set up shop in front of the Carolina net minder and that didn’t help the Stanley Cup winning goalie, either. Then with just under three minutes to go in the opening frame, Williams skated to the top of the high slot and snapped one towards the cage. Marcus Johansson was tied up in the middle of the ice with a Carolina defender and as a result, Ward never saw the biscuit go inside the far post to make it 2-1.

After killing off an early Carolina penalty in period two, the Hurricanes pressed the play for several minutes, but then they came undone by more Washington net presence. The third line of Brett Connolly, Andre Burakovsky, and Lars Eller, which has been very stellar, created offensive zone pressure and with #20 screening Ward, Orlov fired another laser that found the twine to make it 3-1 with 8:06 gone in period two.

The Caps then smelled blood in the water and kept going hard to the net. Tom Wilson nearly made it 4-1 on a deflection in front off of a great Jay Beagle pass, but the shot went over the crossbar. Evgeny Kuznetsov would then get it to a three goal cushion with 1:20 left in the middle stanza when he drove to the net and fired a shot on the cage that hit Karl Alzner in the back right in front, yes, I said Karl Alzner. King Karl tipped the puck to his left and Kuzy smartly was following up his original shot and buried the rebound. Williams was also in front there battling with Carolina defenders.

That whole sequence though was set up by #14’s great back check at the other end that broke up a potential Canes odd man rush. All night long the Caps were aggressive in the offensive zone, but when they got beat and Carolina went the other way, they back checked with a vengeance. It was outstanding hustle and hockey and the coaching staff has to be extremely pleased with that aspect of Washington’s game. When you do that, you can cover up for the mistakes you make, and the Capitals did make a lot of those, but again, they back checked well and covered the front of their net in terrific fashion.

In the final frame, the Capitals top line kept their point scoring streak alive after all star Nicklas Backstrom out worked three Canes for the puck in the neutral zone and slid it ahead to Alex Ovechkin. The Gr8 carried the biscuit into the zone and he found Oshie flying down the slot all alone. #77 gathered in the great feed from Ovi and abused Ward with a dandy of a move and backhander. It was Oshie’s 18th goal of the season. Pay the Man! Eller then closed out the scoring when the sensational third line scored late, once again from in close with all kinds of traffic on Ward.

All six goals the Capitals had were either in close or with lots of traffic. That’s been a consistent aspect of this team’s game since January 1st and it’s why they are consistently scoring and winning. In addition, they have played excellent team defense, especially at home, and that starts with the hustle and back checking.

Sure they got out shot and out shot attempted, but most of that occurred after the Capitals were in command (Washington out shot attempted Carolina 20-14 in period one). This trend of a high shooting percentage would normally be overly alarming, but when you look at where the goals are coming from and what the Capitals are doing to earn them, it makes a lot of sense why they are lighting the lamp so often.

Add in superb team defense, especially the back checking aspect, plus great goaltending, and you see why they’ve earned 26 points in their last 14 games.

On to Ottawa.

Notes: Shot attempts were 61-42 for Carolina. That and Fifty Cents might get them a Coke (not stinking Pepsi) at a local soda machine…each skater on Eller’s line was +2 for the game…the Caps blocked 20 shots and were 3 for 4 on the penalty kill…Daniel Winnik was sensational on the PK, once again…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 36-25. Beagle was 12-7, Eller was 9-5, and Backstrom went 8-5…Kuznetsov had a goal and an assist and continues to play extremely well. He’s going to the hard areas of the rink more often…Orlov led the Caps in ice time with 22:40, but Matt Niskanen logged 22:22. Coach Trotz was able to roll the lines with such a big lead…the Caps play in Canada’s Capitol at 7:30 on Tuesday night. Philipp Grubauer will be in net for Washington…John Carlson missed his fourth straight game and likely won’t return until after the all star break. Taylor Chorney once again suited up in #74’s absence and he beat up Joakin Nordstrom at the buzzer. It was payback for a high hit that #4 did not like late in a blowout contest.

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Kuzy Habs

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Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Holtby Lead Caps Over Montreal, 4-1

Posted on 09 January 2017 by Ed Frankovic

“I said, Train kept a rolling, all night long, Train kept a rolling, all night long…”

Alex Ovechkin had a goal and two assists, Evgeny Kuznetsov scored the game winner just 54 seconds after Montreal tied the game up, then set up Brent Connolly’s 5th tally of the season to make it a two goal cushion, and Braden Holtby made 22 saves as the Washington Capitals played arguably their best road game of the campaign to knock off the Habs, 4-1, at the Bell Centre.

For the Gr8, he now stands at 999 career points and he has a date with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins on Wednesday night in an attempt at hitting four digits.

Before that big tilt takes place, however, the Caps can enjoy their flight home from Quebec after taking two games in the Great White North, a 1-0 win over Ottawa on Saturday in which the Holtbeast stole the show, and then Monday night’s dominating victory over a bit depleted Canadiens squad. These two triumphs increase the Capitals current winning streak to six games and they are now 26-9-5 (57 points) overall.

The Habs were without key players Brendan Gallagher, Andrei Markov, Andrew Shaw, and David Desharnais, but Washington was missing its top right winner, T.J. Oshie, who was injured thanks to one clean and one non-clean hit from Dion Phaneuf on Saturday in Canada’s capital city. Oshie did skate on Monday morning, so there’s a chance he could return for the Pens game on Rivalry night on NBC this Wednesday at 8 pm.

The Capitals were skating well in this contest against a speedy Montreal club that makes it very hard to get to the front of the net to disrupt all world goalie, Carey Price. Early on it was a chess match with both teams having good chances, but the Caps got on the board first when Karl Alzner made a strong pinch in the left wing corner and with the Gr8 covering the point, the puck went back to Ovi. Alex fired a hard, low shot on net and with Connolly screening in the high slot, Price (35 saves) could not control the rebound and all star Nicklas Backstrom backhanded the puck home at 11:03 of period one.

This game would then go back and forth for the next 35 plus minutes with Washington having the edge in quality scoring chances. The Caps, however, got into penalty trouble in the final frame and after Lars Eller took a bad neutral zone infraction trying to impede a Montreal rush, Tomas Plekanec scored with just one tick left on the man advantage via a goal mouth scramble. Holtby was contacted slightly by Paul Byron, but even more so by Brooks Orpik, who knocked over the Holtbeast while trying to clear out Byron. Coach Barry Trotz challenged for goalie interference, but the goal stood.

At that point the Bell Centre was hopping and a Caps team that had carried most of the play to that point, was at a critical juncture.

Enter Kuznetsov, who received a pass from Ovechkin in the neutral zone, worked his way strongly around Max Pacioretty to gain the offensive zone, then undressed Jeff Petry with a sweet outside in move, and finally chipped the puck by a stunned Price to give the Capitals a massive answer on the scoreboard after the Habs seemed to have all of the momentum. That goal, with 11:48 remaining, was like a shot of adrenaline to Washington and on Kuzy’s next shift, he took advantage of a Price miscue with the puck by his own net and fed Connolly in the slot to make it 3-1 with nine minutes remaining.

Washington’s penalty kill would thwart the fourth Montreal power play of the night and then #92 drew a hooking infraction on his fellow Russian countryman, Alexander Radulov, with 3:56 to go. At that point the only thing that could get the Habs some life would be a shorthanded tally, but there would be none of that.

Coach Trotz went for the dagger putting out the regular number one power play unit and Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist) fed Ovi at the top of the left circle and the Gr8 rifled it by Price just 32 seconds into the man advantage. Game over.

Wow, this was some hockey game and it is easy to see why Price and Holtby were two of the three goalies for Team Canada this past fall in the World Cup of Hockey. Holtby, who on Monday was named the NHL’s third star of the week, was outstanding once again. In his last three games he’s allowed just one goal on 82 shots! The Holtbeast is now 7-0-1 lifetime at the hallowed Bell Centre (h/t to Caps beat writer, Mike Vogel).

For the night, the Caps outshot Montreal, 39-23, and deserved this victory. They did a better job of getting bodies in front of Price, unlike the 2-1 loss they suffered to the Habs at the Verizon Center on December 17th where Coach Michel Therien’s club sealed off the front of the net extremely well.

The Caps are now 5-0 in January and Kuznetsov looks like the player who made the NHL All Star team last season. He is moving more into the tougher areas of the ice and Petry was likely fooled so badly because he thought #92 was going to do his usual peel to the wing and look for a pass play. Instead, Evgeny went hard to the net and he’s been doing that, along with shooting the biscuit, more frequently during this winning streak. As a result, the points are piling up for him and the wins are too, for the Caps. This is the Kuznetsov the Capitals will need in the spring if they are going to win the Stanley Cup.

Now he just needs to keep the train rolling…

“I said, Train kept a rolling, all night long, Train kept a rolling, all night long…”

Notes: shot attempts were 68-62 for the Caps…Washington was 1 for 2 on the power play while the Habs went 1 for 4…Matt Niskanen led the Capitals in ice time with 23:06…Coach Trotz spreads his ice time around because of the deep Washington roster, although Liam O’Brien, who made his 2016-17 debut, only played 6:08…Tom Wilson, who was hurt blocking a shot on Saturday, played 10:22 and that allowed Coach Trotz to hold Paul Carey, who had been recalled earlier in the day from Hershey, out of the contest…the Caps lost the face off battle, 31-27…Alzner blocked six shots…Wilson and Connolly each had three hits doing a super job on the forecheck… Connolly took Oshie’s spot on the top line and he played very well…Nate Schmidt played just 13:59, but was outstanding at breaking the puck up the ice with speed on the back end, especially in the first period when the Capitals set the tone.

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Caps End Streak

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Braden Holtby and the Caps End Columbus’ 16 Game Win Streak

Posted on 05 January 2017 by Ed Frankovic

The streak is over while another one continues…

Braden Holtby, aka The Holtbeast, stopped 29 shots and the Washington Capitals went to the net with authority for the fourth straight game to bury Columbus, 5-0, and end the Blue Jackets winning streak at 16 games while increasing the Caps victory run to four.

#70, who was pulled after 20 minutes against the Leafs on Tuesday, was dynamite in this one and several of his best saves came in the opening frame. About the only mistake he made was an early big rebound that he left in the slot which Brandon Saad shot wide. For the rest of the game, it was downhill for the Blue Jackets.

Nate Schmidt, who was scratched for two games, came to play and around the five minute mark his point shot found Jay Beagle parked all alone in front of Sergei Bobrovsky (18 saves). “Bob” made the first save, but Daniel Winnik made a great play to corral the rebound and put it behind the goaltender for a one goal Caps lead just 5:06 into this affair.

Just 20 seconds after that tally, Evgeny Kuznetsov (two assists) would take a terrible offensive zone penalty and the NHL’s best power play, at 28.3%, was looking to even things up. But the Caps penalty killing has been stellar this year and the only shot on net that CBus got was a 45 footer from Saad.

Washington then put the Blue Jackets down by two goals for the first time all season, according to Joe Beninati, as John Carlson scored off of his skate going to the net after both Kuznetsov and Marcus Johansson made nice passes.

Despite the Capitals lead, Columbus carried the play and led in shots on goal, 11-6, after one period, but the Holtbeast was the big difference.

From there, the Capitals took over the game. Schmidt, who looked recharged after sitting out, received a great pass from Alex Ovechkin (1 assist) in the right wing circle a third of the way through period two. Two Blue Jackets went to the ice to block #88’s initial shot, they both missed, and then they went sliding by as the rebound went right back to Schmidt. Nate then fired it again as a third Columbus defender tried to block the shot and that player ended up deflecting it past Bobrovsky to make it 3-0. I’ve talked often about not leaving your feet on defense and Columbus, who thrives on blocking shots, did just that and it cost them.

At that point, you could see the Columbus energy start to diminish and Washington’s just getting stronger. It takes a ton of effort to maintain a long winning streak and with their hopes of tying the Pittsburgh Penguins NHL record dying, you could see the stress of it starting to zap the Blue Jackets.

The Caps third line then ended all doubt as Lars Eller and Brett Connolly put on a great forecheck/backcheck combination and that forced a Blue Jackets turnover. Carlson gathered up the errant pass just inside the offensive blue line and fed Andre Burakovsky in the slot, who snapped the biscuit by Bob at 16:27 of period two. At that point, the game was pretty much over.

Burakovksy backed up his “it will be fun to end the streak” talk from the AM skate with that goal and he and his linemates continue to look like the answer Coach Barry Trotz and GM Brian MacLellan have been trying to find with that third unit for several years.

The last nail in the coffin was then added by Justin Williams just 5:36 into the third period when Kuznetsov won a puck battle on the left wing boards and fed #14 in the left wing corner. Williams skated in on Bobrovsky, and roofed it to make it 5-0. That prompted Columbus coach John Tortorella to take out his #1 goalie and insert Curtis McElhinney.

The only question for the last 15 minutes was would the Holtbeast get a shutout? The zebras once again tried to help the Blue Jackets giving them a 76 second five on three with Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen in the sin bin. Washington, however, was fantastic on the kill with Holtby making three saves, including two in tight on Cam Atkinson. Tom Wilson, who had one of his best games of the season, then drew a tripping infraction on a two on one with Eller, who had just blocked a shot to spring it and any real scare was over with 5:30 remaining.

Columbus received one more power play, but the Holtbeast gobbled three shots up and he easily earned his number one star of the game award.

This was quite an effort from Washington and in arguably their two biggest games this season, home against the Penguins and on Thursday against the Blue Jackets, they have won by a combined 12-1. There is no doubt that this club, when focused and motivated, can play with any team in the NHL.

The bottom six forwards were outstanding in this affair and the Caps gap control was sensational all game. They throttled the Blue Jackets ability to generate quick scoring chances and after a rough first period, they dominated the boards and loose puck battles.

It was a huge victory to knock off the first place Blue Jackets, who had a very impressive 16 game run. Washington is now 24-9-5 (53 points) and is just five points behind Columbus, who have a game in hand.

For the Caps, this was an encouraging and dominating victory, especially from the second period until it was 5-0.

Everyone in hockey says that the NHL season really doesn’t begin until January.

So far in the first month of 2017 the Caps are 3-0.

Notes: Shots on goal were 29-27 for CBus and shot attempts were 51-50 for the Caps…Washington was a perfect 5 for 5 on the penalty kill, but were 0 for 4 with the man advantage…Carlson was the second star and Schmidt was the third star. Both were really good on the back end, as was Dmitry Orlov (22:42)…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 23:18…Williams now has 11 goals on the season, he’s on fire right now…Orpik and Schmidt were both +3…Kuznetsov had four shots on goal…Brandon Dubinsky was -4 for the Blue Jackets.

 

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