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Luck Not the Sole Reason for the Caps’ 2nd Round Exit

Posted on 13 May 2016 by Ed Frankovic

There have been 41 Washington Capitals seasons and zero Stanley Cup Championships.

Those are the facts, there is no denying them.

2015-16 was supposed to be different. It sure felt that way, from the general manager to the coaches to the players to the fans and even some in the media. Heck, I was front and center putting myself out there saying this team and this season would be different.

In many ways, it was, and we’ll touch on that later.

But in the end, as Justin Williams, John Carlson, and many other Capitals players proclaimed on breakdown day on May 12, 2016, the season was a “failure” following a devastating overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in game six that allowed the Pens to win a very closely contested series, four games to two.

Pittsburgh scored 16 goals and Washington tallied 15 times in the series. Each Penguins victory, two of which came in overtime, was achieved by a single goal. Both teams had stretches where they dominated the play, but ultimately it was the Penguins who prevailed.

Did the Capitals deserve a better fate from the Hockey Gods?

Maybe, I mean how often do you see a goal scored off of the back of a player? That happened in game three for Pittsburgh, a game in which the Caps carried the large majority of the play, but managed to lose. Numerous times in this series the Capitals had themselves in position to bury a puck at a key moment, and somehow it bounced over their players stick. Surely luck was not on their side, and as Matt Niskanen noted on breakdown day, you talk to guys around the league who have won championships and they’ll tell you need luck along the way to win.

There is truth to that, around these parts there is no denying that the two Super Bowls the Baltimore Ravens won included some luck. Al Del Greco hit the upright on a field goal right before halftime and then a blocked Del Greco field goal, in the fourth quarter, landed right in the hands of Anthony Mitchell and he then returned it for the game winning touchdown in 2000 against the Titans. Joe Flacco’s Hail Mary pass to Jacoby Jones in 2012 went over the head of a Broncos safety that mistimed his play on the ball for the tying touchdown to set up overtime and an eventual huge Ravens upset. All of those plays included luck, but the Ravens were also good enough to put themselves in position to get the breaks.

You certainly need some luck to win and the Capitals received some of that in series one when Jason Chimera’s innocent dump in deflection traveled 100 feet and through the wickets of Steve Mason into the cage in game two. The Caps took advantage and raced to a three to nothing series lead and eventually prevailed, four games to two over the Flyers.

In series two, Washington didn’t get the bounces and lost by a goal, but it wasn’t bad luck that did them in.

We’ll get that to what ultimately doomed them in a minute, but first, let’s put some perspective on where this team has come from over the last two years.

After a disastrous 2013-14 season, the Capitals were an absolute train wreck and a Stanley Cup seemed to be mostly an unobtainable goal in the near term. Following the conclusion of that season, I was full of piss and vinegar and rightfully called for the ultra-conservative and often panic stricken general manager to be let go, along with the divisive bench boss who seemed to insist on being the smartest guy in the room. I was furious that the blue line continually was not properly addressed by George McPhee for over 10 plus seasons. Fortunately, owner Ted Leonsis and team President Dick Patrick saw the same thing, when many in the national media were once again calling for the core of the team, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, to be shipped out instead.

Enter Coach Barry Trotz and promoted General Manager Brian MacLellan to commence a massive turnaround. They immediately went to work on two things the club desperately needed, a blue line fix and an identity as a team.

“Last year when I came here, that was the first thing we did, was fix the defense. We got two outstanding players in Brooks [Orpik] and Matt [Niskanen] and we started the process of building a culture and it started by fixing holes, by going out and getting the best people that we felt could do that and getting people who have won, then the next phase of that was to develop our own people,” said Caps coach Barry Trotz to Nestor Aparacio and I on February 29th, 2016 at a WNST radio event at Buffalo Wild Wings in Belair to continue the fight against leukemia and support the bone marrow registry.

Those moves laid the foundation for a very successful 2014-15 campaign that saw Washington return to the playoffs, defeat the New York Islanders in round one, and then lose in painful fashion, in overtime, in game seven against the New York Rangers. The Capitals only allowed 13 goals in seven games, but could only muster 12 goals themselves and lost twice in overtime in the final three contests.

It was an awful defeat, they lost a three games to one series lead, but everyone knew that the main problem was the Capitals didn’t have enough talent up front to score consistently. The loss was rough, but things were rapidly moving in the right direction after utter chaos just a year earlier. My end of the season blog focused on the need to improve the top six forwards and sure enough, MacLellan pulled it off dealing Troy Brouwer for T.J. Oshie and signing Justin Williams to a two year free agent deal. Unfortunately, adding those guys and the need to pay goalie Braden Holtby what he was rightfully worth, put the team up against the salary cap. With it not possible to move Brooks Laich’s boat anchor of a contract in the summer, the team was forced to part ways with grinding forward Joel Ward and defensemen Mike Green, both key players on the squad that fell just short against the Rags. They were tough personnel losses to a team that had become super close.

But Oshie and Williams fit in perfectly and the Ward and Green losses faded to the back of everyone’s mind as the Capitals stormed out of the gate and blew the league away in the regular season pretty much clinching the Presidents’ Trophy by Valentine’s Day. Holtby was legendary in the cage and he tied the NHL single season victory total for a goalie with 48 (tied with hall of famer, Martin Brodeur). It was so much fun and the team seemed to get tighter as a unit as the season moved on. This was surely setting up to be the year for a Cup parade, but quietly the Pittsburgh Penguins were addressing some serious issues they had themselves.

They fired their coach, Mike Johnston, and replaced him with former Rangers assistant Mike Sullivan. But more importantly, general manager Jimmy Rutherford made some great moves to transform his roster. In the summer, he traded high draft picks to Toronto to acquire scoring winger Phil Kessel and he dumped the slow and plodding Brandon Sutter for speedy Nick Bonino. After the season began, he also swapped David Perron for super-fast Cap killer Carl Hagelin. Suddenly he had a line that could skate like the wind, but he still had issues on the back end. Rob Scuderi was old and slower than molasses, but Rutherford somehow convinced Stan Bowman, who is considered an excellent GM, to deal mobile defensemen Trevor Daley for the past his prime Scuderi. It was a fleecing or highway robbery of a deal, whatever you want to call it. From there the Penguins were the best team in the league from January on and Washington knew they’d have their hands full with them, at some point. The Caps had become somewhat complacent given their huge standings lead while Pittsburgh pressed madly to move up the standings after wallowing out of playoff position for much of the first 40 games.

While the Penguins were making all of these moves, MacLellan not only added Oshie and Williams, but he brought in Mike Richards as a depth center. That move was excellent and if not for some of Richards outstanding penalty killing skills, the Flyers might have won game six, as well as game two. Richards ability to read back door passes and get his stick in lanes on defense and while shorthanded was very much needed. The Caps suddenly were not only super on the power play, but also on the penalty kill.

With the Richards move, the Caps only real question marks appeared to be on defense. The loss of Green was a blow, no doubt, you don’t replace a player of that caliber easily, and the Caps plan, partly due to limited salary cap room, was to go with rookies Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt on the back end as a third pairing. When Orpik was injured in early November with a cracked femur, suddenly those guys were forced to play more minutes than originally planned. They played well, too, perhaps clouding the judgement of the Capitals brass as the trade deadline approached. MacLellan did add Mike Weber as a depth defensemen and he somehow masterfully moved Laich out for an upgrade in forward Daniel Winnik. The move also freed up money on the current salary cap, but more importantly for 2016-17 when dollars would be needed to retain Marcus Johansson, who was having a career year, and others like Tom Wilson. Some wanted the Capitals to use that extra dough to acquire another defensemen given Oprik’s health issues and the lack of experience on the back end. Dan Hamhuis, among other experienced defensemen, were still out there reportedly to be had, but Washington passed.

After the trade deadline, at the WNST event with Coach Trotz on February 29th, I specifically asked him about the decision to go with the two players who had zero playoff experience on the back end.

“We talk about that, the blessing this year with Brooks being out for a long period of time, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt were in the lineup for 50 some games. We already know what they can do and it’s been really beneficial for us. I think by adding Mike Weber we’re eight deep at the NHL level,” explained Trotz on the rationale of where the organization stood on their blue line.

It seemed like a viable plan at the time and Weber certainly seemed like the type of guy who could fill in for an Orpik or even a Karl Alzner if there was an injury. But Oprik came back healthy down the stretch and despite the fact that Carlson missed 12 games with a cracked ankle/foot in March, the Caps only played Weber in 10 of the 21 contests that occurred before the post season began. Basically, the Capitals decided to ride Orlov, Schmidt and Taylor Chorney instead of Weber. #6 was a seven year veteran with more playoff experience (seven games) than the other three combined, but he spent most of the time in the press box becoming rusty. As anyone in hockey will tell you, performing in the regular season is one thing, but doing that in the playoffs is another story, so the Capitals were really taking a risk on the Orlov-Schmidt-Chorney trio.

When Orpik was concussed and injured his neck in game three against the Flyers, I remarked to MacLellan after that tilt that “this was the reason you went out and got Weber.” The GM seemed to nod his head in agreement, yet somehow it wasn’t until a series clinching victory in game six that Weber finally got a sweater for the Caps? The coaching staff went with Chorney over a more physical Weber against a chippy and dirty team like the Flyers. Weber, to that point, had never received the repetitions he really needed to play at a top four level that would be required when Orpik went down.

That leads me to where this season broke down. Yes, the Penguins were the faster team, but you can deter speed by keeping it to the outside and wearing it out with proper execution. The Bonino line, with seven goals, was the difference in the series and while they were fast, several of those goals came from right in front of the net following turnovers. Oprik’s terrible hit on Olli Maatta that took #3 out of three games and #44 too, as a result of a suspension, turned the entire series around, as well.  The Caps were flat the rest of game two and lost home ice. In game three, Schmidt made a costly turnover and then was manhandled in front by the small Hagelin for the eventual game winning goal. He would not play in two of the final three games. Orlov was benched for a game and the Caps only won once with Chorney in the lineup (game five of the Pens series). Weber did get a jersey for game four and played decently, but the game winning goal went off of his stick to Patrick Hornqvist and he was banished to the press box once again.

When Alzner’s groin, that he initially injured in the Flyers series, finally popped in game six, the Caps had little left on the back end other than Carlson and a tiring Niskanen, who played all 82 games and every playoff game with King Karl, to that point. After #27’s injury, Orpik took another awful penalty, a careless double minor for high sticking on Hornqvist with the puck 50 feet away in period two, and the Caps great penalty killing unit was suddenly forced to play both Chorney and Orlov in succession. Two goals in 29 seconds was the result and that put the Caps in a deep hole, 3-0. It was a terrible penalty that Orpik could not afford to take, once again, and it was especially bad knowing that Alzner was done for the game. In short, as much as I like Orpik and what he can bring to the Capitals, he had a nightmare 2015-16 season with his injuries and bad penalties. Simply put, the Penguins were faster, but they also were able to get to the front of the Capitals net, and most of those occasions came when members of the bottom half of the Washington defense were on the ice.

Now the encouraging part of the story is that this is where this Capitals teamed proved to be different.  Instead of folding tent like the 2009 Caps did in game seven against Pittsburgh when they went down 3-0, they fought back and forced overtime in game six showing tremendous fortitude and resolve. They probably should have won too, but failed to capitalize on a late power play that they received. At that juncture they seemed a little too comfortable at that moment at just being tied up, something that occurred too frequently during this season and in the Flyers series, as well.

On to overtime we went and the Capitals, who rode the top six forwards and Carlson and Niskanen on the back end heavily, were out of gas. Niskanen was forced to play with guys he wasn’t used to being paired with and miscommunication happened on the game winning tally, which was another goal that once again came from the doorstep on a rebound.

In a nutshell, the Capitals lost on their lack of defensive depth, something they thought they had, but really didn’t.  They put too much stock in the abilities of Orlov and Schmidt based on their regular season success and they failed to take advantage and develop or possibly misevaluated what Weber could bring to the lineup. It was a waste of a third round draft pick the way it all played out. The Penguins found their way through the Washington back end too easily and Holtby couldn’t prevent all of those second chance tallies.

In addition, their season long tendency to sit back and not take control of games cost them dearly. They didn’t attack in game two and show that killer instinct to seize a critical contest and the series. That lack of killer instinct also allowed a Kris Letang-less Penguins team to steal game four. The Pens gained confidence to win in those first 30 minutes when the Capitals needed to step on their throats and not allow them to believe they could prevail without their best defensemen. It was a major opportunity lost.

Finally, the Capitals loss of Ward took away a player who routinely went to the front of the net in the postseason to get ugly goals. Washington didn’t have much of that against the Penguins outside of a couple of Williams tallies (but one was with the goalie pulled). The Caps need their bottom six forwards to chip in with more greasy goals.

So where does that lead us heading in to 2016-17?

Obviously the team is extremely disappointed that they let a major chance to win a championship slip by once again. The lack of true defensive depth, killer instinct, and inability to add in some rebound goals was what ultimately cost them the series against what should become in June, the 2015-16 Stanley Cup winning Penguins.

Some will call for panic and to try to blow things up, like the San Jose Sharks nearly did following a loss to the Kings in 2014 after owning a 3-0 series lead. Two springs later, the Sharks are in the hunt for the Cup and credit for that goes to hanging on to their core, the addition of Ward up front, and bringing in Paul Martin on defense.

Washington needs to find a Paul Martin type on the back end because running out the same seven guys again, particularly the four after Carlson, Niskanen, and Alzner, carries significant risk.

Johansson will be the top offseason priority to sign to a long term deal. He’s a key piece to this team and had a remarkable regular and post season. He was one of the guys going to the net against the Flyers and scoring tough goals. He also brings a major element of speed.

Wilson is next on the priority list as a restricted free agent. #43 made significant contributions this year on the penalty kill and defensively. In some games, such as game five against the Penguins, he was a difference maker by drawing penalties and keeping the opponent out of the offensive zone. Still, he needs to develop his offensive skills so that he could possibly fill that Ward type of role in front of the net. His improvement is a must and the coaches need to aid that by playing him more. If they prefer not to do that or think he can’t do that, then a move is needed.

Orlov is a restricted free agent, as well, and he and Schmidt are similar players, along with Chorney. The Caps management team needs to determine if that is indeed the way to go to win a Stanley Cup on the back end. My recommendation would be to move at least one of them and upgrade the blue line, especially since Oprik is adding another year and he has an injury history.

Ovechkin is about to head into his 12th season and the Capitals need to win soon (Steve Yzerman’s first Cup came in his 14th season). The Gr8 was superb in these playoffs and downright dominant in several games, such as game five against the Penguins. Oshie, Williams, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Alzner are all free agents after next season and will require more dollars. Carlson has two more years to go at the deal of the century, a contract just under $4M per season. He was the Capitals best player in the post season and will command $7M plus in 2018-19.

Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky are two young players that had super regular seasons, but as a result of playing all 82 games, didn’t have the legs they had in 2015-16 when they were playoff difference makers. They need to learn from that and be better prepared physically next spring. They need to add strength and learn to get some ugly goals in front.

I typically wait several days before writing this blog to let the emotions of the playoff defeat die down, but I don’t think that will be possible this season. This was one tough loss and a major opportunity gone by the wayside. Everyone will feel the pain all summer and I certainly don’t want to be sitting here next season beginning my 2016-17 final blog with a 0 and 42 statistic.

I know the Capitals don’t want me to be doing so either.

Everything the Caps do between now and next April 15th has to be about the playoffs and winning the Cup. The team is tight and the culture is strong, but they need to develop that killer instinct. In addition, the management needs to address the personnel short comings on defense and the coaching staff needs to be quicker to adjust when things aren’t working.

The last thing management needs to do is panic and make radical changes, this team is ultra close, but more is necessary to get over the hump.

So the time is now for the Capitals to start getting at next year and doing everything in their power to make sure no stone is left unturned and no holes are left exposed when injuries or uncomfortable situations present themselves in the spring of 2017 playoffs.

There were a lot of things to like from this team this year, but the ultimate prize was not captured and the season was a major disappointment, or a failure, as many players called it.

The clock is ticking.

They must end this awful postseason losing cycle once and for all.

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John Carlson has a memorable return from injury with an OT blast that gives the Holtbeast his 45th victory of the season

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Carlson Tallies the Game Winner as Holtbeast Blanks the Devils

Posted on 25 March 2016 by Ed Frankovic

In his first game back after missing 12 contests, John Carlson showed why he is so valuable to this Washington Capitals team as he fired a laser just inside the far post past Scott Wedgewood to give the Caps a 1-0 overtime victory over the New Jersey Devils.

Carlson’s rocket, after a super feed from Jason Chimera, ended Wedgewood’s shutout streak at 159:34 and put Washington just a single point away from clinching the Presidents’ Trophy. In addition, Braden Holby (22 saves) earned his 3rd shutout of the season, in Martin Brodeur’s old building. The Holtbeast notched season triumph number 45 and he is just three victories away from tying Marty’s all time NHL leading single season win total.

Washington came out strong early on, which has been a recent trend, once again dominating the shot attempts, but they failed to find the handle on several sequences around the net. The Caps would outshoot the Devils, 10-4, in that opening frame, however, Wedgewood and several missed opportunities kept this one scoreless.

The second period mirrored the first, with the Caps outshooting the Devils, 9-6. Both goalies made some decent stops and with New Jersey having played the night before in Pittsburgh and ending the Pens six game winning streak on Thursday, one would think they would be the more tired club in the final frame.

That was not the case as the Devils fired 11 shots on Holtby while Washington had just five. The Caps were guilty, once again, of over passing the puck and therefore, were not able to not consistently get the biscuit to the cage. Alex Ovechkin drew a penalty with 2:16 remaining, but Washington’s power play struggled to get set up and off to overtime we went.

In the extra session, Wedgewood made a huge stop on Ovechkin to extend the game. Shortly thereafter, Marcus Johansson made another great zone entry and he gave the puck to Chimera on the left wing boards. Chimmer skated behind the net looking for a pass and he came patiently out the other side to tee it up for #74 for the game winner.

This was tough sledding for the Caps as New Jersey basically conserved energy by guarding their own net like a fort. They tried to sit back and counter attack, but Washington did a nice job of not forcing plays which will often lead to odd man rushes. However, skating through the Devils and trying to get pucks to the front of the opposing goaltender was exactly how Craig Laughlin termed it, “like a tractor pull.”

It was not going to be pretty hockey, much like the case in the Capitals previous visit to the Prudential Center. In that contest Washington had to overcome the Devils in a shootout. Simply put, New Jersey doesn’t have the fire power that the Caps have so they really have only one way to try and win, sit back and hope for mistakes. That style earned them a point on Friday night, but their season is basically over, except for the mathematics.

Overall, this was a solid effort from the Capitals and Coach Trotz will be pleased that they stuck to their game plan without getting frustrated. They kept doing what they were supposed to do and maintained strong puck support all evening, which prevented the opportunistic Devils from capitalizing on any turnovers.

Perhaps the most encouraging item of the evening was getting Carlson back. His goal, in my book, was just icing on the cake to a solid performance in which he actually appears to be moving much more like the player he was before originally sustaining a lower body injury against Montreal back on December 26th. Carlson is the Capitals number one defensemen and an elite NHL blue liner, so his return to form is important for the post season. Washington was finally able to ice its top six defenders and it was clear how much of a difference it makes in terms of controlling the play.

The victory improves the Capitals to 53-15-5 and an astounding 111 points with nine games remaining. They are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games despite really having nothing to play for. On Saturday at the Verizon Center, Washington will take on the St. Louis Blues, who rolled over the Canucks on Friday night. It will be a matchup of two teams coming off of shutout victories that also had to travel to the District afterwards. As mentioned above, any point earned by the Caps yields them the franchises second Presidents’ Trophy.

That piece of hardware has been a foregone conclusion for weeks and the team focus has been on better starts and building their game for the playoffs. On Friday in New Jersey, large portions of this game were playoff-like in terms of the lack of open space on the ice, so it was another good tune up in order to help the Caps prepare for the all-important post season.

Notes: Both teams failed to score on the power play (NJ was 0 for 3 and Washington went 0 for 2)…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 24:14. Carlson logged 19:27 and Nate Schmidt had the lowest for a blue liner with 16:25. That is excellent ice time management by the coaching staff since no one was overworked…the Capitals dominated from the dot, going 32-20 (62%). Mike Richards was 9-2 and Nicklas Backstrom went 10-7…Ovechkin had nine shot attempts with four that made their way through to Wedgewood…T.J. Oshie missed the game due to the flu. Stan Galiev received a sweater as a result and logged 8:21. He had two shots on goal.

Special thanks to budding journalist, Anthony Poisal, for providing me with key statistics and assisting in the development of this game story.

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Alexander Ovechkin doesn't miss another opportunity at delivering in the clutch to help the Caps win again.

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Ovechkin Wins The Game Again for the Caps

Posted on 06 February 2016 by Ed Frankovic

For the second straight contest, Alexander Ovechkin was the hero for the Capitals late, scoring the game winner in the shootout to give Washington a hard fought, 3-2, victory over a pesky New Jersey Devils team on Saturday afternoon at “The Rock.”

Another big hero in this contest was Paul Carey, who notched his 1st NHL goal to tie the game up at two with 5:53 to go after the Devils tallied twice in the third period to seize a 2-1 lead. All game, the Capitals fourth line of Michael Latta, Brooks Laich, and Carey played well. Laich drew an early penalty and Carey also put Washington on the power play when Jordin Tootoo interfered with him in the third period. The Caps, however, are currently in a 0 for 15 funk with the man advantage and squandered both of those opportunities. The problems with that unit includes all of the following: losing too many initial power play draws, poor zone entries that make setting up difficult (get well soon Marcus Johansson), too much fancy play, not enough net crashing, and a lack of shots being taken towards the net.

On the game tying goal, though, Carey and his linemates did what you have to do to score on a very well coached and strong defensive Devils team, go to the net. Carey parked himself in the slot and Matt Niskanen made a whale of a play with a pass off of Carey’s stick that #28 redirected home.

Washington’s first goal, again came on a crash the net sequence after Evgeny Kuznetsov tried one of his vintage behind the back passes as he’s skating behind the opponents cage. The biscuit bounced out to Justin Williams in the lower right slot and “Stick” put the puck towards the net. Cory Schneider (27 saves) made the initial stop, but “Johnny on the Spot,” Andre Burakovsky, was camped at the right post and batted it home to give the Caps a one goal lead in the middle frame that they would take to the third period. That is now six goals in five game for #65 and he’s up to 10 goals on the year (and 14 points in his last 15 games).

For two periods the Capitals gave New Jersey pretty much nothing in this tilt and the Devils only had 14 shots on net. But in the third, Mike Richards took a tripping penalty that New Jersey’s Joseph Bladisi, who was one of the better Devils in this one, tallied on from the doorstep. Less than six minutes later, an ill advised offensive zone pass by Washington led to an odd man rush for the Devils. When the Caps over back checked, Adam Henrique was all alone in the slot and he beat Braden Holtby (22 saves) with a wicked top shelf snipe.

This Capitals team, however, is quite resilient and even though their top line was struggling with the Travis Zajac unit of New Jersey, the team fought back with the fourth lines marker. Overall, the Capitals second line, led by Kuznetsov, was their best, dominating the Devils in the shot attempt department by about a dozen.

Williams did take a late tripping call with a minute to go and the Caps penalty killing unit delivered by first forcing overtime and then thwarting another 60 seconds of four on three play. After the teams were all even at four on four, New Jersey had a long shift in the OT and had the Capitals players dog tired. Luckily a thunderous Ovechkin hit on Jacob Josefson allowed Washington to get the puck out and send the game to the gimmick.

From there, T.J. Oshie scored five hole on Schneider, while only Reid Boucher beat the Holtbeast in three tries. That set the stage for the Gr8 to win the game with a nasty backhander after a slick motorcycle kick move that froze Schneider like he was targeted by Elsa.

The victory was Washington’s second in a row and they improved to 37-9-4 (78 points). This was a game in which the Capitals had to play greasy to get a win because the Devils are so strong defensively. Washington did just enough of that to earn Holtby his league leading 32nd victory of the season.

Now it’s back home to face the despised Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday at noon. The Capitals have had trouble defeating the Philly crew in the Barry Trotz era. The Flyers are rebuilding and have a young defense as well as a deadly power play run by Claude Giroux, so staying out of the box is paramount. The Flyers are fighting for their playoff lives and last time they were in noted Caps killer, Jakub Voracek, had two goals in a 4-3 Filthy win just before the all star break.

Bottom line here: it’s time for Trotz and company to just come out and bury the Flyers.

Notes: On Sunday, it’s very likely Holtby will get the call in net while the Flyers will probably go with Michal Neuvirth, who won his last start at the VC…Washington was 0 for 3 on the power play while the Devils went 1 for 2…the Caps dominated at even strength, out shot attempting New Jersey, 48-29…the Caps lost the faceoff battle, 30-26, which I mentioned was a problem on the power play. Laich went 3-1…Jason Chimera led the Caps with five hits while Ovi had four…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 28:04. Karl Alzner, John Carlson, and Nate Schmidt all logged over 23 minutes while the third pair of Dmitry Orlov and Taylor Chorney each played just 12 minutes and change…Carey was called up, along with Connor Carrick, on Friday as Zach Sill was sent down to Hershey along with Aaron Ness. Coach Trotz stated that they wanted to see more of Carey, who was up for a short time earlier in the season…Coach Trotz credited assistant coach Blaine Forsythe for picking Ovechkin instead of Nicklas Backstrom in the shootout.

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Braden Holtby returns to Beast Mode to help the Caps bomb the Blue Jackets, 6-3

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Holtby, Kuznetsov Help the Caps Silence the Cannon

Posted on 19 January 2016 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals had six players with multi-point games, including a four assist evening from passing magician, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Braden Holtby was marvelous in net stopping 32 of 35 shots in a 6-3 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets at the Nationwide Arena.

Holtby, who said on Tuesday that he left Sunday’s game against the Rangers with a migraine that caused him to have blurry vision, was dialed in from the get go against John Tortorella’s squad. Columbus fired 10 of the first 11 shots, including Kerby Rychel’s first goal of the season on a two on one break, to take a 1-0 lead 9:30 into the contest. But if not for the Holtbeast, it could’ve easily been more.

Less than three minutes after the initial cannon shot, Washington’s first line answered with a sweet passing play from Alex Ovechkin (1G, 1A), and T.J. Oshie that Nicklas Backstrom (two goals) buried past Sergei Bobrovsky (22 saves on 27 shots). Just under four minutes later, Tom Wilson hit the Blue Jackets defensemen in his own zone after a good pinch by Taylor Chorney on the right wing boards and the Columbus player passed the puck right to Marcus Johansson (1G, 1A) in the high slot. Jojo then adeptly slid a no look pass to Jason Chimera, who had just returned to the game after blocking a shot with his left hand, and #25 sniped it by “Bob.” Chimera eats rocks for breakfast.

Washington would take that 2-1 lead to the dressing room, but on the opening shift of period two, Columbus nearly tied it up, but Holtby would not allow that to happen. Johansson, just over three minutes into the frame, then drew a double minor for high sticking on Justin Falk, who is one of the biggest stiff defensemen in the league, and that gave the Capitals back to back power plays.

It took Ovechkin just 13 seconds to extend the lead to 3-1 off of a great cross ice, box splitting feed from Kuznetsov and then Washington took full control of the contest when Kuzya hit Backstrom on the doorstep for a layup to make it 4-1 on the back end of that double minor.

The Blue Jackets then scored on a power play after Ryan Stanton took an ill advised penalty, but Andre Burakovsky fired a laser top shelf past Bobrovsky to restore the three goal lead heading into the final frame.

Washington came out slow again on the first shift of period three and it took another good save from Holtby to prevent any Columbus early momentum. Seriously, somebody needs to get the Caps some new locker room tunes because they are coming out to start periods playing like they’ve been listening to “Mandy” by Barry Manilow far too often.

Ryan Murray then took advantage of another Stanton mistake that ultimately allowed the Blue Jackets to fire that freaking cannon for the third time of the game.

But Jojo, who also eats rocks for breakfast, would hit the empty net and the Caps were able to leave town with a win and 35-8-3 record (73 points). The Holtbeast picked up his 30th victory on the season and he really earned this one. The quality chances were close, but Columbus had slightly more, while the shot attempts favored Torts’ crew at 67-50.

The Capitals played fairly well and dominated for stretches after the first 10 minutes or so, but they also had their share of breakdowns, mainly with the third defensive pair of Stanton and Chorney on the ice. This was Stanton’s first NHL game this season and he looked like he was playing just that. Not a good night for him and with John Carlson traveling with the team and likely to practice on Wednesday and/or Thursday, there is a good chance #20 won’t play against the Ducks on Friday at the Verizon Center as Snowmageddon Two descends on our Nation’s Hockey Capitol.

Overall, the difference in this game was the goaltending of Holtby and the Capitals superior skill. Washington just has so many weapons while Columbus shipped their number one center, Ryan Johansen, off to Nashville for defensemen Seth Jones (two assists, +2) recently. As a result, Coach Barry Trotz was able to limit the effectiveness of center Brandon Saad, who killed the Caps on January 2nd in a 5-4 Columbus shootout victory. On this night Saad was a non-factor going -2 in 19:30 of ice time.

So the Capitals just keep on rolling. With Carlson likely back in the lineup and Mike Richards (12:23 of ice time) getting his hands and legs in NHL game shape, this Washington team should keep improving. It’s amazing how well the Caps have performed without #74 (9-2-1), who is one of the best 10 to 15 defensemen in the league. This roster is deep and they still are missing Jay Beagle and Brooks Orpik, as well.

One of the biggest reasons this team has been able to keep winning despite the injuries has been the play of Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt. On Tuesday in Columbus, Orlov was just outstanding. The Blue Jackets had no answer for his ability to take the puck and skate it out and get the Washington rush going the other way. #9 was all over the ice at the Nationwide Arena and despite being pointless in 22:07, you could make a case that he was the best defensemen on the ice for the Caps (Matt Niskanen was darned good too with two assists in 28:31).

This was a game that was a potential trap one for the Caps. It was their 4th in six nights and they were playing one of the leaders in the Auston Matthews sweepstakes, so a letdown was quite possible. But the Holtbeast did his part to keep his club afloat despite bad period starts in all three frames, and the Washington skill took over to provide another three goal victory.

Finally, with this being the last trip to Columbus for the season, the Capitals will not have to hear that cannon go off again until at least October, and that is a very good thing.

Notes: Justin Williams had two assists after getting hit early in the game with friendly fire. He was in obvious pain on the bench, but played on. He also eats rocks for breakfast…Richards was 8-6 on draws while Kuznetsov went 7-5, which was good because overall the Caps were down from the dot (29-34). Jojo was 3-10, his only blemish on an otherwise very good evening…Wilson had five hits and Ovechkin had four…Karl Alzner tied a club record with his 422nd game in a row. Kudos, King Karl!

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The Washington Capitals continue to improve as they dominate the NHL.

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Kuznetsov Shines as Caps Dominate the Canucks, 4-1

Posted on 14 January 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Another game, another Washington Capitals victory.

On Thursday night at the Verizon Center, it just didn’t seem fair as the Caps just thoroughly dominated a Canucks team that came in to town feeling pretty good about itself. As it turned out, if not for some stellar goaltending by Ryan Miller (36 saves), the Washington 4-1 triumph could’ve been more lopsided because the Caps played that well.

It’s getting scary how good Washington is, and they keep getting better.

The Caps out shot Vancouver, 40-30, out shot attempted them, 73-58, and would’ve blanked them on the scoreboard if not for a mid third period five on three power play goal by Radim Vrbata.

It was the men versus the boys for most of the night and Evgeny Kuznetsov (two goals, one assist) was the primary star, once again. #92 scored the opening tally on a two on one with Dmitry Orlov after #9 made a great play at the Capitals defensive blue line to turn things the other way. Karl Alzner would make it 2-0 on a long bomb heading into the final twenty minutes following a sequence where the Canucks lost their focus in the corner.

In the third period, Kuznetsov helped increase the Caps lead to 3-0 with one of his absolutely sick, no-look, behind the back passes to Tom Wilson in the slot and Willy one timed it home for his 4th goal of the season. It was a goal of beauty and Andre Burakovsky (two assists, +3) deserved applause as well for his work down low on the boards to get the puck to Kuzya. Kuznetsov would then close out the scoring with an empty net goal with one second left to make it 4-1.

Washington is now 33-7-3 (69 points) and they’ve won five games in a row and 11 straight at the Verizon Center. So how could they possibly still be getting better?

Well, let me explain. Remember how this Caps team often found itself having to chip the puck out of their own end last season? That strategy ultimately doomed them in game seven against the Rangers.

This season, with the additions of T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, plus the emergence of Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, Wilson, and Burakovsky to go along with superstars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals have a high talent level that can make the proper passes to get the puck going into the offensive zone as quickly and efficiently as possible. Add in a speedy Jason Chimera plus a very mobile defense that has benefited from the addition of Orlov and the rapid ascension of Nate Schmidt and you’ve got yourself one heck of a puck moving hockey team.

In the last few weeks we’ve seen that ability to go from defense to offense take off and I asked Williams about the keys to the Washington breakout and its strategy after the victory over Ottawa on Sunday night.

“First of all, we want to play a quick game. And if we want to stretch it out, we’ll stretch it out. I think that everybody wants the puck on the ice and that’s great because when you want the puck you are calling for the puck. That makes it easier for the guy who has the puck if he can’t see you, to make a play….that happens all throughout the ice, communication,” stated the three time Stanley Cup winner on the secrets of the Caps success.

What Williams says sounds so simple, but it is not. It takes five guys on the ice working together and communicating to make the magic happen. In game 43 of 82, the Capitals sure seem to be getting better and better at this and they seemingly had the puck on a string all evening against the Canucks.

They can beat you with skill.

They can beat you with speed.

They can beat you with power.

Sure I read a lot of Dr. Seuss in the day, but the Caps seem to possess so many key facets to being able to win and they just keep iterating on their game and improving. It is really a scary sight for the rest of the league and they are doing this without John Carlson, Brooks Orpik, Jay Beagle, and newly acquired two time Stanley Cup Champion Mike Richards.

On Thursday, all four lines were going. The Gr8 was held pointless but he, Oshie, and Backstrom were dominant. Ovechkin had 11 shot attempts (five on net), and many were quality chances. Again, Miller is the reason this wasn’t a 7-1 affair, like on Sunday against Ottawa.

It seems that everyone on this team is playing “the system” as Coach Barry Trotz likes to call it. They skate, they push the pace, and they punish you. The Caps had 20 hits to Vancouver’s eight and Washington had the puck most of the game!

It is heavy hockey with talent and skill at a very fluid pace.

That’s one scary combination and the Capitals still feel like they can keep improving.

Right now I’m not sure there is a better group of top nine forwards in the league and the mobile defense continues to make plays that allows the forward group to excel.

It’s enjoyable hockey and tons of fun to watch.

Notes: Ovechkin was honored before the game with a lengthy video tribute from many other prominent NHL 500 goal scorers, including a wonderful closing sequence from The Great One, Wayne Gretzky. Caps owner Ted Leonsis and Team President Dick Patrick presented Ovi with a golden stick listing all of his goals up to 500…the Caps dominated face offs going 34-20. Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and Johansson all had five more wins than losses from the dot…the Caps were 0 for 2 on the power play while the Canucks were 1 for 3…Braden Holtby made 29 saves and played well. He’s now 20-0-2 in his last 23 starts…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time at 28:28. Alzner logged 24:59…the Capitals are in Buffalo on Saturday at 7 pm before coming home to take on the Rangers at 5 pm on Sunday.

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There is nothing Alexander Ovechkin can't do when it comes to hockey.

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Ovechkin Scores 499 to Win It in Overtime for the Caps

Posted on 09 January 2016 by Ed Frankovic

It’s hard to see a hockey game end any more exciting than that one did.

Wow!

Alexander Ovechkin, after Braden Holtby made a big save on Rick Nash and Nate Schmidt followed it up with a game saving block of Derek Stepan’s empty net bid, took the puck in three on three overtime, went end-to-end down the left wing beating both Nash and Ryan McDonagh with blazing speed, and ripped the 499th goal of his career by King Henrik Lundqvist to give the Washington Capitals an amazing comeback 4-3 victory after they had surrendered a 2-0 third period lead.

Once again…Wow!

I’m practically out of breath after this amazing game.

Washington carried most of the play over New York for two periods and seemed to have things in control heading into the final frame. However the Caps looked a little lethargic and tired while the Rangers, off since Tuesday night, came storming back to seize the lead, 3-2, with three goals in less than 10 minutes of play. Washington made too many defensive zone mistakes during that stretch and with just over five minutes to go it looked like New York was headed to its fifth win in the last six games against the Capitals.

But this Caps team is just too proud, too determined, and too tight of a unit to allow their archrivals to stick it to them again in a dagger like fashion. The Capitals put on a furious assault on Lundqvist and nearly tied the game on an Andre Burakovsky shot that hit iron. During that stretch, with 3:50 to go, the Rangers did get a two on one break and Nash fed McDonagh for what looked like a layup, but he either shot it wide or the Holtbeast (23 saves) just got a piece of it as the biscuit slid wide.

Still, with less than 30 seconds left the Caps were on their last life, but Ovechkin did a great job to gather a puck in the left wing corner and instead of firing on net, he fed Matt Niskanen at the left point. #2 saw that there were several Blueshirts in his lane so he slid the disc over to Justin Williams. The super smart Williams saw all star Nicklas Backstrom in front of King Henrik and he fired a shot on net with #19 screening. Lundqvist made the first save, but he couldn’t corral what he couldn’t see, and then Nicky put the rebound home with just six seconds left!

The Caps bench went nuts and then overtime came. It was a wild three on three affair and the Rangers looked to win it off of an offensive zone faceoff, but Holtby made the huge stop on Nash in the slot and #88 made his magic stick block on game seven hero Stepan setting the stage for the Gr8.

Ovechkin, who definitely has a flair for the dramatic, made no mistake about this one and after scoring he slid on his knees and did a spin in front of the Washington bench as his teammates stood by ready to mug him in celebration. Schmidt and Holtby embraced, as well, and this close knit group clearly enjoyed getting a victory in amazing fashion when it looked like the curse of the Rangers might live on.

Have I said “Wow!” in this blog yet?

Wow!

That was some game and this team just keeps finding ways to get it done. Ovechkin opened the scoring on the power play with a layup after a Dan Girardi givewaway to move to 498 career goals. Williams pushed the lead to a pair in the middle frame on a breakaway after a big Gr8 hit on McDonagh allowed Schmidt to get the puck and send #14 in all alone on the King. Williams pin balled it in on a diving Lundqvist and it looked like from there the Caps would cruise to another win.

But New York, who has really struggled since the season’s quarter pole, didn’t quit either, so give them credit for racing back into the game and grabbing the lead.

The Rangers, however, have to feel decimated after this one. They couldn’t hold a late lead and Washington increased their Metropolitan lead over them to 16 points at the season’s halfway mark. New York is now tied with their cross town rival, the Islanders, for second place (Caps have a game in hand on the Isles).

With Marcus Johansson out due to suspension (he is eligible to return Thursday against Vancouver) and Jay Beagle, Brooks Orpik, and John Carlson all injured, the Caps knew they needed big games from their top two lines on Saturday afternoon and they received just that. The Gr8 had two goals and was +2, Backstrom had his tally and was +2 while Williams notched a goal and assist (+1).

On the back end, Schmidt was the star with two assists and the big shot block in 21:20 of ice time, but Niskanen had a big assist on the game tying tally in 28:34 while Karl Alzner blocked seven shots, including one with his head in period two. King Karl eats rocks for breakfast.

Wow!

So now on Sunday night at the Verizon Center, the Ovechkin 500th goal watch is in full effect. The Caps, who just finished a stretch of six road contests in seven games, went 5-1-1 to put a stranglehold on their division. They will now have to play for the third time in four nights against Ottawa, but at least it will be at home, which should be rocking with the Gr8, the man who saved hockey in this area, on the cusp of another major milestone.

Do. Not. Miss. It.

Notes: The Caps were 1 for 3 on the power play while New York went 0 for 3, but the Rangers tying goal came right after a Washington power play expired. The Capitals clearly missed Johansson’s ability to get clean zone entries with the man advantage which, at numerous times, made the PP look out of sync…several on the Caps bottom two lines had their struggles in this one in the last 20 minutes…Mike Richards skated on Friday but won’t play for awhile. He needs to get in hockey shape and a conditioning stint in Chocolatetown is not out of the question…Washington won the face off battle, 31-28, with Backstrom going a dominating, 15-7…see you for Ovie’s 500th on Sunday night, so be there or be square!

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Washington jumps out to a quick 2-0 lead en route to a suffocating 4-1 victory over the Islanders.

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Ovechkin Hits 497 as Caps Dominate Islanders

Posted on 07 January 2016 by Ed Frankovic

You are not going to find a more complete road win than that one.

The Washington Capitals dominated the New York Islanders on Thursday night at the Barclays Center, 4-1, with a suffocating victory against a speedy Isles club.

The Caps did an outstanding job of back checking and staying together in five man units which kept New York on the perimeter and away from the high danger areas all game. It was a stellar effort in which Washington continued to win the majority of the loose puck battles.

Braden Holtby stopped 34 of 35 shots, with the only tally against a snipe from between the circles while the Caps defender screened the Holtbeast. Other than that, #70 was perfect and he ran his record in his last 21 games to an astonishing 18-0-2. On this night, though, he didn’t have to steal the contest by himself because his teammates turned in one of their best performances of the season away from the friendly confines of the Verizon Center.

On offense, the Capitals took advantage of a rusty Jaroslav Halak by throwing biscuits at the cage early and often (38 shots on goal total). Jason Chimera notched his 12th goal of the campaign just 5:45 into the contest after Marcus Johansson battled to grab the puck in the left wing corner. Jojo is having his best season as a Capital despite getting called for a neutral zone penalty in period one. Alex Ovechkin made it 2-0 at 15:45 after Karl Alzner alertly jumped on a puck in the defensive zone, made a great rush up the ice, and threaded a Nicklas Backstrom-esque pass backwards to the Gr8, who ripped it thru Halak and into the cage.

After the Islanders tallied early in period two, New York had a power play that they nearly scored on. The Caps would kill it off and shortly after the infraction expired, Backstrom hounded the Islanders defense behind New York’s cage, stole the puck, and then put one “on a tee” for Nate Schmidt, who got every bit of the shot that went through Halak again and into the twine. That made it 3-1 heading into period three.

In the final frame, coaches could record those 20 minutes and use it as an educational session on how to totally shut down an opponent with a two goal lead. The Islanders got NOTHING in that period as Washington carried the play and took away any chance New York had of getting a victory. The Caps were relentless in their puck pursuit.

When Isles Coach Jack Capuano pulled his netminder with over three minutes remaining the Caps did a super job of quickly getting the puck out, especially Ovechkin, and Backstrom (goal, assist, and +3) skated in and put the biscuit in the basket to close out the scoring.

All around the lineup the Capitals received excellent outings, especially from their defensemen. They were all impressive and Aaron Ness (12:34 of ice time) has really shown to be a super addition. #55 really skates well and is decisive with the puck. Matt Niskanen logged a team high 25:50 while Dmitry Orlov (22:50) turned in one of his best games of the season. #9 and Schmidt were super. This Caps defense is extremely mobile, but they can also play physical in the corners to win the puck battles. It’s hard to believe how well this team is playing on the back end with both John Carlson and Brooks Orpik out. As I blogged after Tuesday’s win over Boston, this injury situation is turning into a blessing in disguise because Ness has been a find and Taylor Chorney continues to get better and better. Kudos to Coach Barry Trotz and assistant coach Todd Rierden for the job they’ve done with this crop of blueliners.

Up front, I thought all four lines were good, but I was especially pleased with the top line. They had been in a bit of a funk recently, however, that was not the case in Brooklyn on Thursday. Ovechkin was back skating and shooting (497th career goal, 8 shots on net, 11 total shot attempts, and three hits) and all star Nicky was just outstanding with his two points and ability to win key draws. #19 was 12-7 from the dot and that forced the Islanders to do a lot of chasing just to try and get the puck back. By game’s end the Islanders looked totally out of gas while the Caps were still flying.

This victory pushes the Caps to a 30-7-3 (63 points) record and they lead the Islanders by 14 points in the Metropolitan Division. They remain first in both the Eastern Conference and the NHL standings.

All in all, this was just a stellar hockey game by a team that really seems to enjoy playing together. They stick up for one another and when they play the Trotz system, they are very, very difficult to beat.

Even with some big injuries to Carlson, Orpik, and Jay Beagle, the Capitals are finding ways to win.

On Thursday night, they won convincingly, and that has to be disconcerting to the rest of the league.

Simply put, to quote the great Count Floyd, the play of the Washington Capitals is “Scary Stuff, kids!”

Notes: Nine of the Islanders 35 shots came on their two power plays…Washington signed two time Stanley Cup Champion Mike Richards to a one year, $1M contract on Wednesday evening. Richards will wear the #10 he had in Los Angeles and will practice on Friday with the team. He has not played since April and won’t be in the lineup until he’s good and ready. Coach Trotz said Thursday that he’ll start as a center on the fourth line once he’s game capable. I really like this addition because he’s a guy who’s won at all levels and really provides depth to the bottom six forwards…the Caps outshot New York 38-35 and I imagine the quality chances were even more lopsided towards Washington’s end…next up for the Caps are the New York Rangers on Saturday at Madison Square Garden at 1 pm. This is the third and final visit for the Caps to the gaaahhhden (until the playoffs).

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Braden Holtby defeats Boston once again as Evgeny Kuznetsov turns in another stellar performance.

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Kuznetsov Dazzles as Holtby Stops the Bruins

Posted on 05 January 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Who own da Bruins?

Braden Holtby owwwwnnnnssss the Bruins.

The Holtbeast stopped 25 of 27 shots, including a big one on Zdeno Chara late in the game, to preserve a 3-2 victory for a banged up Capitals team at TD Garden in Boston. The Bruins, who are also dealing with an injury to star forward David Krejci and a suspension to knucklehead Brad Marchand, put on a strong third period push after falling behind, 3-1, but it wasn’t enough.

The star for the Caps on this night was, you guessed it, Evgeny Kuznetsov. The Russian wizard set up Andre Burakovsky for a sweet top shelf marker in period one and then when the Capitals finally abandoned forcing the puck to Alex Ovechkin on the power play, the slick stickhandling Kuzya skated in from the right wing circle and snapped one by Tuukka Rask to make it, 2-0. Rask, who probably desires a contract clause that prohibits him from playing against the Capitals, had a strong outing (26 saves) and kept his club in it through two periods.

The Caps were dominant, leading the shots on goal, 23-14, in those opening frames and their only big hiccup in the first 40 minutes was a bad coverage situation that allowed Lou Eriksson to cut the lead in half on a play that Holtby had no chance on.

Marcus Johansson, who was great centering Tom Wilson and Jason Chimera despite missing some time in the middle frame, had the game winner by going to the cage and putting home a rocket of a shot by Dmitry Orlov that hit the pipe and ricocheted in front with just over nine minutes remaining. Jojo only played 12:12, but that new line that Coach Barry Trotz put together in Columbus since Jay Beagle is out for six weeks looks really good.

Burakovsky has also taken advantage of the lineup change playing with Kuznetsov and “Mr. Stick” Justin Williams. That trio was super and Washington received stellar performances from their second and third units. Kuznetsov and Williams were both around 20 minutes of ice time and Burakovsky played 16:56 in one of his best games of the season. That’s important because the Capitals really need him to gain confidence in time for the playoffs.

As for the first unit, well they are in a bit of a funk right now, and it was an ill timed giveaway after it was 3-1 that led to a Matt Niskanen (27:19 TOI) penalty with 8:47 remaining. That bad shift and infraction just 32 sections after the Caps grabbed a two goal cushion proved costly when Patrice Bergeron tallied on the rush with 8:08 remaining.

But Washington would do a good job of not giving up any real quality chances down the stretch and despite the fact that the Caps looked a little gassed once again, they held on, with some solid netminding from #70 to boot.

With their top defensive pair out in John Carlson (day to day) and Brooks Orpik (week to week), Orlov (20:06) and Nate Schmidt (18:43) have really stepped up and done a nice job as the second duo. The third pair of Taylor Chorney and Aaron Ness were solid on Tuesday, as well. Coach Trotz didn’t have to hide anyone on the blue line with Ness logging 12:55 and Chorney at 15:46. Those are decent ice times for a third pairing and the injuries have helped Washington develop some back side depth.

The victory halts a two game losing streak, although the second was in the gimmick so the Caps received a point, and pushes their overall record to an NHL leading 29-7-3 (61 points). They have a 12 point lead over the second place Islanders and a 13 point lead over the third place Rangers, in the Metropolitan Division. Those two teams are their next two opponents in New York on Thursday and Saturday, respectively. Washington has a game in hand on each team, as well.

It seems unlikely that #74 will be in the lineup on Thursday, and the Capitals have no need to rush him back with the lead they have overall in the standings (including a nine point cushion over the red hot Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference, who have won 10 in a row and lead the Atlantic Division). The Islanders recently lost top pair defensemen Johnny Boychuk for 4 to 6 weeks so they have no injury sympathy for the Caps. New York will be fired up for this one, given it is the first meeting since Washington defeated the Isles in game seven of last spring’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, this contest will take place in Brooklyn since the Islanders moved out of Nassau Coliseum over the summer.

As you recall, it was Kuznetsov who scored the series winner in dazzling fashion to send the Islanders to the links last April. On Tuesday in Beantown, #92 was the main reason the Capitals won once again, giving Holtby his 25th victory of the season.

Notes: Ovechkin had only six shot attempts, including two on net. He’s looked sluggish the last few games, but fortunately the Capitals have a deep lineup and can still win when he’s not scoring…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 27-26, and Jojo went 6-4…Wilson left for a bit in the middle period when Johansson was out too, but he still played 13:42. It was when those two were out that the 4th line gave up the Bruins first tally with some poor back checking and coverage…the Caps were 1 for 3 on the power play while Boston went 1 for 4…Zach Sill had five hits in 7:57, one of them was a missed boarding penalty, though…Stan Galiev only played 5:42 and was -1.

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The Caps fight hard but get 0 power plays in a tough loss in Carolina

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Caps Winning Streak Ends at 9 in Carolina

Posted on 31 December 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Well, I guess all good things have to come to an end.

In a contest in which the odds were heavily stacked against them, even before referees Steve Kozari and Mike Leggo put on their Canes colored glasses, the Washington Capitals, who were undermanned without Jay Beagle, John Carlson, and Brooks Orpik in the lineup, battled as hard as they could before falling in the third period to Carolina, 4-2.

Gone went their nine game winning streak. Ditto for their string of five consecutive road wins.

But their streak of never quitting continued. Sure, the way they fought back, once again, is a moral victory on New Year’s Eve. After all, they gave everything they had to rally and defeat the Sabres on Wednesday night without Nicklas Backstrom and Beagle in the third period plus Carlson, Orpik, and Michael Latta out for the entire contest. They then had to travel to Raleigh to face a rested Hurricanes team that has been playing well.

But that’s hockey and there are no excuses.

Washington was dominated for stretches of this tilt and, at times, were their own worst enemy. Case in point, the Carolina third goal where Hershey call up Zach Sill inexplicably left sniper Jeff Skinner all alone in the slot for the game winning goal. That gave the Canes a 3-1 lead early in the third period.

However, the Caps did come out of this one with a lot of positives.

Let’s start with the pregame good news. Word is that Carlson should be back for Tuesday’s road game in Boston, so #74, who is in the top 10 to 15 defensemen in the league, should only miss a total of four games. Next, Backstrom, who scored the Capitals first goal on a whale of a snipe, was deemed healthy and looked good after suffering an upper body injury against the Sabres. Also, Latta, who stepped up for Justin Williams on Monday night and was injured fighting a circus clown, returned to the lineup and had some very strong shifts with Andre Burakovsky and Brooks Laich. Burakovsky, who scored on Wednesday to break a two month scoreless drought, logged 12:18, went +2, and was flying on the ice. That’s very encouraging and he will be very much needed come April and beyond. Remember when he dominated Caps-Rangers game four last spring? That’s what Coach Trotz and company need from this kid.

In addition, Alex Ovechkin notched his fourth goal in three games to move to 21 on the season and 496 in his career. The Gr8 came awfully close to tying this contest up late. In 20:05 of ice time Alexander the Great had 10 shot attempts, including six on net and four hits.

In goal, Philipp Grubauer almost singlehandedly gave the Caps a chance with a super effort making 33 saves, many of which were from the high danger zone. Coach Trotz should have no issue with giving Braden Holtby some rest over the remainder of the season given how well #31 is playing.

On the downside, the Caps have been piecing it together on the blue line with all of the injuries and that’s two games in a row where Coach Trotz has basically sat Connor Carrick and gone with just a five man rotation for the third period. Perhaps Aaron Ness, who was recalled from Hershey on Thursday, will get a sweater against the big Blue Jackets? That would make sense, and it in no way is a knock on the progress of Carrick. The young blue liner is only 21 and it really takes a player physically and mentally until 23 or 24 to thoroughly become a game in and game out NHL blue liner. Nate Schmidt is now 24 and is coming into his own, but two years ago, he was at a spot similar to where Carrick’s development is now.

In addition, the officiating was just downright pitiful. Carolina is one of the least penalized teams in the NHL, but you want to tell me they didn’t commit any infractions in this one while the Caps were called for three penalties? Sorry, but I’m going all Reg Dunlop, at this point.

WE ALL SAW IT WITH OUR OWN EYES!!!

Yes, the Jordan Staal trip on Evgeny Kuznetsov in the faceoff dot that allowed the Canes to get an odd man rush the other way that they scored the opening tally on. Also, the BLATANT interference on Tom Wilson that was not called with Grubauer pulled and the Caps storming the castle late. Willy had the lane to the puck to set up a chance to tie the game, but due to the non-call, the Hurricanes were able to get to the biscuit easily and hit the empty net to close this one out.

Those were two critical sequences where the zebras landed on the incorrect side of the play, as well as the Capitals, and were a major influence on the outcome. There is no denying that.

There were other missed calls, as well, most notably another Staal interference on Marcus Johansson in the third period. Basically, I started wondering if Kozari and Leggo were distant relatives of the Staal family. Maybe I’ll give Oliver Stone a call to check on that?

When it comes to the officiating on Thursday night, it’s pretty clear the prosecution (aka, me) rests its case, but with Gary Bettman and company as the judge and jury, we all know this poor performance will be swept under the rug. NFL officiating is bad, but at least they admit their mistakes, unlike the way the NHL tries to ignore the evidence in a Nixon administration-like fashion.

Oh well, I guess all NHL referees can’t be of the calibre of Dave Jackson, so the trend of poor officiating will continue, especially when it comes to plays involving Wilson. So thanks again, 30 Thoughts!

With the defeat, the Caps fall to 28-7-2 and still lead the Eastern Conference by 11 points over the New York Islanders. Washington is still a bit banged up and now head to Columbus to face a Blue Jackets team that just defeated the Dallas Stars, 6-3, on Tuesday night. They are coached by the insufferable John Tortorella and will play a hard, physical style. The Caps have a chance to keep another streak going on Saturday, they’ve gone 37 games without a two game losing streak, but now that one is in jeopardy with key guys still out.

But that’s hockey and all that matters is wins and losses, there are no excuses, so the Caps need to get back on the horse to prevail on Saturday night.

Notes: Did I mention the power plays were 3 to 0 for Carolina?…the Caps lost the face off battle, 31-28. Williams was 2-0, but the Caps were 0 for 0 on draws on the power play…the shot attempts were 69-53 for the Canes, but they had seven shots on goal on their power plays alone while the Caps had, oh wait, I forgot they had no power plays, did I say that yet?…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 28:25 including 0:00 on the power play…the Caps had no power plays in this game.

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Despite losing two players to injury, the Caps go "Next Man Up" to defeat Buffalo, 5-2

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Ovechkin, Kuznetsov Carry Banged Up Caps to their 9th Straight Victory

Posted on 31 December 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Injuries are a part of sports, there is no denying that, but it’s how a team reacts to them that’s important.

So with the Washington Capitals trailing, 2-1, after 40 minutes on Wednesday night to the Buffalo Sabres at the Verizon Center, and with both Nicklas Backstrom (upper body) and Jay Beagle (upper body injury that will require surgery) having to leave the game, Coach Barry Trotz needed his big guns to step up.

They did just that as Evgeny Kuznetsov (two assists), reunited with Alex Ovechkin (two goals) and T.J. Oshie (one assist) to reform the TKO line, caught fire to lead the Capitals to a four goal final frame and a 5-2 victory, their ninth straight win. Kuznetsov, the game’s number one star, put on a clinic on the ice on how to shred a defense with dazzling moves and superior puck management. The young Russian made a super pass to the Gr8 just 1:24 into the 3rd period to tie the game up. Then, after the Caps lost the initial draw on a power play, Oshie outworked two Sabres in the left wing corner to get the puck to Kuzya. After trading passes with Matt Niskanen (1 assist in 25:40 of ice time), #92 fed Marcus Johansson in front for the game winner with 11:28 remaining.

Johansson (1 goal, 1 assist) was another of the players who really stepped up in the third period moving to the center position after having played wing for most of the last several seasons. Jojo, with Backstrom out for the third period, logged a season high 20:11. Andre Burakovsky took advantage of his opportunity, as well, and had a huge goal just 84 seconds following the Johansson tally. After a successful Brooks Laich offensive zone forecheck, Johansson was able to grab the puck and feed #65 in the slot for Andre’s third goal of the season and his first since October 23rd. Ovechkin would add an empty net goal, his 20th of the season, with 1:13 remaining to close this one out.

It was a very strong final 20 minutes and Coach Barry Trotz commented afterwards that the whole team really did step up. The Coach called it “Next Man Up” and the resilient Capitals out shot attempted the Sabres, 28-20, in that period to take full control of the hockey game.

“We got it from our top people, and I thought we got it from everybody. Our lines are all messed up, obviously, with a couple guys out, especially in the middle, and I thought Jojo [Marcus Johansson] stepped in and played center. I thought Ovi [Alex Ovechkin] and the big line really stepped up. I thought our defense core as a whole really got resilient. A guy like Zach Sill came in and did a really good job. I just thought everybody said, “hey, let’s find a way to win, it doesn’t bother us, just go.” It’s an opportunity for guys to step up and they did,” added the man whose team now leads the NHL with a 28-6-2 record (58 points).

Overall, this was a strong game for Washington, save for some sloppy sequences where they over passed the puck in the middle frame, which led to some Sabres quality scoring chances. Even with multiple turnovers and the occasional extra pass, the Capitals dominated with 43 shots on goal and 76 shot attempts to just 27 and 55, respectively, for Buffalo.

“It’s a fine line, you don’t want to discourage skill, guys are making those plays where sometimes you’re looking for a better shot and when it works a lot of times they’re the ones that go in because the goalie has to move from side to side. So I understand the reasoning behind it, but you’re kind of flirting with danger there when you’re making those cross ice passes and when there’s extra guys jumping in the rush you open yourself up to odd man rushes the other way, as well. You don’t want to discourage it, but I think just recognize how the game is going and be smart about it when you try those plays,” said Niskanen on the Caps skill and their tendency, at times, to pass up shots for another pass.

Coach Trotz, when talking about the over passing, stated that he’d like to see more shots, as well, even though he pointed out they did have 43 of them on Wednesday, but he doesn’t want to stifle the creativity and high end skill that many of his players possess. To him, the key is “game management” and knowing the situation you are in, much like what Niskanen stated.

With John Carlson out of the lineup for the second straight contest, and Trotz stated afterward that #74 will not travel to Carolina and Columbus for the next two games, the defense was forced to step up, too. Niskanen was outstanding leading the club in time on ice while Nate Schmidt (23:23), Dmitry Orlov (21:53), and Karl Alzner (20:24) all logged significant minutes. Taylor Chorney played 13:12 and Connor Carrick (-2), who only logged one third period shift before Ovechkin’s empty net goal, chipped in with 11:04.

Braden Holtby won his league leading 24th game of the season and is now a staggering 16-0-1 in his last 18 tilts with two shutouts, a 1.76 goals-against average and a .942 save percentage. #70 was at his best in the second period, and he also received some good fortune on two pucks that hit iron, making several big stops. In the final period he didn’t have to do too much as Washington dominated play and didn’t allow many quality scoring chances.

So now it is on to Carolina for a game in Raleigh at 6 pm on New Year’s Eve. The speedy, well skating Hurricanes will once again be rested against a Capitals team that will have played the night before. Last time this sequence occurred, Philipp Grubauer stole a win for Washington. Given that the Caps play in Columbus on Saturday, you can expect #31 to be in the cage again versus the Hurricanes. He also might have to steal another win given the list of Capitals now in the infirmary. Backstrom will travel to Carolina and hopefully can play, as well as Michael Latta. But you can expect a forward and defensemen call up from Hershey as a precaution for Thursday’s game.

It’s once again “Next Man Up,” especially if the Capitals want to extend their winning streak to 10 games.

Notes: Justin Williams had the Caps first goal into a vacant net after a furious forecheck in which he and Kuznetsov forced goalie Chad Johnson (38 saves) to turn the puck over…the Caps lost the faceoff battle, 33-30, which is no surprise with their 1st, 3rd, and 4th line centers out for the third period and more…Sill, recalled from Hershey on Wednesday, was only 3-9 from the dot in 10:08 of ice time…Ovechkin had 10 shots on goal and 15 shot attempts…notorious Cap killer Evander Kane had six shots on net and 10 shot attempts total for Buffalo…rookie Jack Eichel had 13 shot attempts (six on goal) and two assists to earn the game’s third star.

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