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Ovechkin, Vokoun Lead Caps over Devils

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Ovechkin, Vokoun Lead Caps over Devils

Posted on 11 November 2011 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin scored the game tying goal in the middle frame, then in the third period Jason Chimera beat Martin Brodeur on a shorthanded break with a beautiful move to lead the Washington Capitals to a 3-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils at “The Rock” on Friday night. Marcus Johansson added an insurance tally by putting home a Karl Alzner point blast with just over nine minutes left in regulation. Rookie Adam Larsson scored the Devils only goal in the first period on Tomas Vokoun (32 saves), who was extremely solid in the victory. The Caps are now 10-4 and face the Devils at the Verizon Center in Saturday’s rematch.

Here are the highlights and analysis of a grind it out Capitals victory:

- Ovechkin was a force over the last 30 minutes of this game and it wasn’t because of end to end rushes and pretty passing plays. Nope, the Gr8 played what Canadian icon Don Cherry would call “North American” hockey. Alexander the Great went to the net to score his goal by being parked at the right post and putting in Dennis Wideman’s blast that initially hit Ovechkin in the stomach. After that Ovie was ultra solid defensively getting a ton of even strength ice time when Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau went to just three lines in the third period (Alex Semin and Cody Eakin were benched, but more on that later). Ovechkin was constantly moving his feet and hitting Devils all over the ice, including one on Larsson that will have Saturday’s birthday boy likely waking up in some pain. On two consecutive shifts in the third period with the lead, the Gr8 skated to center ice and dumped the puck in the offensive zone and then changed, something that tells you he is buying into what Boudreau wants his club to do with a third period lead. In addition, in the last minute he went down to block a point shot despite the two goal lead (not to mention this is a November regular season game). He also grabbed Devils tough guy David Clarkson in scrums on two separate occassions. It was a vintage captain-type performance by Ovechkin and he should be proud of how he played in this one after a poor game on Tuesday.

- Vokoun was really strong after a shaky last start on Long Island. The Devils came out flying but #29 didn’t allow them to get a two goal bulge with solid positioning and good rebound control. As the game went on his teammates got better but he still had to make a few tough saves.

- Boudreau has been preaching accountability, and so have the players, so when things weren’t going well for a couple of his forwards, he stopped playing them. Those two tonight were Semin and Eakin. #28 took a penalty in the first period that was a garbage call (which in my opinion was based totally on reputation), but instead of being mentally tough and coming back strong after that, the Russian enigma moped. He didn’t win one on one battles and didn’t even get a shot on net so the Caps bench boss lassoed him to the pine. Eakin just looked weaker compared to the hard working Devils. Part of that is that he is still young and physically maturing but he also wasn’t moving his feet and using his speed.

“I thought a couple guys weren’t going so I shortened the bench a bit,” said Boudreau in his post game presser.

- One of the big stories coming into this game was the return of Mike Green, but #52 took a cheap hit to the groin and left leg from Ryan Carter along the right wing boards late in period one. Green went down grabbing his groin area, finished the shift, and then went down the tunnel after going to the bench. He returned for one power play shift early in period two and according to Steve Whyno of The Washington Times has a “different soreness” than the right ankle injury that kept him out of the previous six games. He is day to day.

- New Jersey was perfect at home on the penalty kill before this game and they did that again tonight against a very good Washington power play (3rd in NHL). The Devils prevented the Caps from getting set up in four man advantage situations and they only got five shots in those eight minutes of power play time. The Capitals passed the puck too much, especially on their first power play. Semin was set up for a perfect quick shot in the slot on a moving Brodeur (17 saves) but instead chose to wind up, wait, and then pass the puck. #28 needed to shoot there and he likely would’ve scored (and probably would’ve played a lot more too). The Caps need to get back to a simpler power play where they move the puck to the point, blast away, and go for rebounds.

- On the positive side of the special teams ledger was the Caps PK unit. Washington went five for five and also scored when Chimera gathered the puck in the neutral zone, went around Larsson like he was an orange road cone, and then faked Brodeur to the ice similar to a move he put on #30 last season at the Verizon Center. Alzner and the rest of the defense did a great job of allowing Vokoun to see the shots and then they made sure no Devils forwards were able to get in position for any rebounds.

- In closing, after the initial Devils push in period one and part of period two, the Caps seemed to be the stronger team despite the final shots imbalance (33-20). The Capitals three lines were skating well but more importantly, the five remaining defensemen, Wideman, Alzner, John Carlson, Roman Hamrlik, and John Erskine were excellent in their own end. Washington has the type of personnel that can wear a club out over 60 minutes and I believe that is what happened in this game. It is a recipe they used against the Ducks last week and one that works when your goaltender is playing well, like Vokoun was tonight.

Notes: Semin only played 8:25 and Eakin 7:07. Officially Green logged 7:44 of ice time, but they credited him with two shifts in the 2nd period when he only played one…Wideman led all Caps players with a beastly 27:11 of ice time. Carlson and Alzner played 23:32 and 22:14, respectively, while Erkine and Hamrlik both received just over 17 minutes of ice time. #44′s ice time of 17:31 was his lowest total of the season and only the 4th time in 14 games he’s been under 20 minutes. Given the way he’s played lately, the reduction makes sense…Jeff Schultz was the healthy defensive scratch and Mathieu Perreault the lone healthy forward…Washington lost the face-off battle 24-22 but Nicklas Backstrom (1 assist) went 12-8 and had the key draw win on the Ovechkin goal…the NHL Off Ice officials who work Devils games only credited Ovechkin with two hits so I am not sure exactly what sporting event they were watching tonight.

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Stars Outwork and Embarrass Caps, 5-2

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Stars Outwork and Embarrass Caps, 5-2

Posted on 08 November 2011 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals six game home unbeaten streak came to a crashing halt on Tuesday night as the Dallas Stars came in to the Verizon Center and whipped the Caps, 5-2. The Stars got two early tallies from former Boston Bruins forward Michael Ryder and then Adam Burish, Jamie Benn, and Eric Nystrom scored in the third period. Michal Neuvirth (31 saves) took the loss in this one but he could pretty much sue for non support after this mess of a game. The Caps fall to 9-4 overall while the Stars are off to a great start at 11-3.

Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis from what was easily Washington’s worst performance of the season:

- If Dr. Seuss were penning this blog this evening, he would only need to post three words: Stink. Stank. Stunk.

- Simply put, the Capitals were downright awful in this game. Their effort was lacking and it showed as they repeatedly were beaten to pucks, lost one on one battles, and were woefully out of position. Matt Hendricks was one of the few positives in this game as he worked hard all night, but when your best player is a guy who only had 12:19 of ice time and is a 4th liner, you know the rest of the guys were terrible.

- The problems for Washington start on the back end. The Caps are having trouble getting the puck out of their end with Mike Green out of the lineup. In addition, Roman Hamrlik has been struggling mightily and he was on for three of the five goals against. #44 looks slow and confused right now. On the game winner that came directly off of a faceoff just 24 seconds into period three, both he and John Carlson were two feet from each other in the corner leaving Nicklas Backstrom all alone in front. Carlson has been a victim of bad positioning too often this season. In addition, Jeff Schultz had a rough first period and his giveaway led to the first Dallas goal. Hamrlik and Schultz are not good skaters, and that is being kind, and teams are taking advantage of that right now. If Green can go this weekend against the Devils, that does change the dynamic since he will log 22 minutes or so, diminishing the amount of time some of the weaker d-men are on the ice.

- John Erskine was solid paired with Dennis Wideman in his third game back from shoulder surgery but he could be fined and/or suspended for an elbow he threw in the middle frame. If that happens and Green is not ready, then Dmitry Orlov could make his NHL debut on Friday night. At this point, I wouldn’t mind seeing the 2009 2nd round draft pick get a look because he can skate and move the puck and that is the area where Washington has struggled mightily since Green was injured.

- Despite all of the problems on the back end, the forwards were horrible too. There weren’t many hits and once again Alexander Semin took two careless stick penalties. The second one gave Dallas a power play and they scored to pretty much end this one at 4-2. #28 did have a nice goal off of a super feed from Backstrom, but overall he is flat out playing lazy. How much longer can the coaches and GM put up with these type of performances from him? In addition, the team captain was a non factor against a team he should dominate. Dallas is not a physical club but Alexander Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer need to have more than three hits each. Clearly, there was a lack of effort displayed in this tilt by Washington and Mike Knuble hinted at that after the second period in his interview with Craig Laughlin on Comcast.

“We came out with a little bit of a lack of intensity in the first period,” said #22, who after the game took those comments even further with some harsh words for his squad, “We look great when we’re all committed. We all look like a bunch of clowns when we don’t. Of late I don’t know if we’re all committed. It’s sad to say and we all look bad because of the result.” (h/t Brian McNally of the Washington Examiner).

- Knuble hit the nail on the head and things need to change because there is too much talent on this team to play this poorly. The Caps played about seven minutes of good, hard hockey late in period two to tie the game up, but you can’t win taking the rest of the contest off. I imagine Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau will have a hard practice tomorrow to send a message because his team needs that right now, especially given his post game quotes below:

“We were fortunate to be tied at the end of the first two periods. We talked about playing one good period [third period]. In the first 15 or 20 seconds [in the third period] they scored a goal. We’ve lost a lot of battles in the third periods [in] the last two games. The compete level wasn’t as great as we’d like it to be. We have to get stronger in that area. We have to start winning those battles. The one-on-one compete is something that you should be taking a lot of pride in. When you look at when we were winning, we were winning [those] battles. When you don’t win the one-on-one battles, you’re not going to succeed. It’s an individual type [effort], as far as wanting to win those one-on-one battles. You could see, we lost a battle on the first, second and third goal [tonight]. They outbattled us for pucks.”

Notes: The Caps play a home and home series with the Devils that starts at “The Rock” on Friday night…Keri Lehtonen (30 saves) didn’t have to work to hard for the win for Dallas…surprisingly, the Caps won the faceoff battle 41-26, but winning the draw didn’t translate into good results. On the GWG they won the faceoff but four seconds later the puck was in their own net…Neuvirth wasn’t really bad but he did get too aggressive at times and that cost him on some goals, especially Ryder’s second tally.

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Balanced Caps Dominate Canes, 5-1

Posted on 04 November 2011 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals scored two quick goals to start the second period to grab a 2-1 lead and then they blew the game wide open in the final frame scoring three times en route to a 5-1 dominating victory over the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh. The Caps, who were 5-0-1 against the Canes last season, got goals from Jeff Halpern, Troy Brouwer, John Carlson, Cody Eakin (his 1st NHL tally), and Nicklas Backstrom while Anthony Stewart had the only marker for Carolina in the game’s first four minutes. Washington is now 9-2 overall in 2011-12 and they are 7-0-1 in their last eight games against the Canes, outscoring them 24-13 in the process.

Here are the highlights and analysis from Washington’s fourth straight win at the RBC Center:

- Typically the Caps and Hurricanes are known for playing close contests but in this game Washington used its’ depth to wear down Carolina and by just past the midpoint of the third period this one was all but over. 13 different Capitals players finished this game at +1 or better and even though the third line of Brooks Laich, Joel Ward, and Jason Chimera were all -1 on the night, they played a role in a final 20 minutes that saw the hosts get only five shots on net and not even a quality chance in that stanza until just a few minutes remained (h/t @ngreenberg). Washington’s defense was outstanding, especially Carlson, who arguably played his best game of the season, and that wasn’t because he scored the marker that ignited the three goal explosion in the final period. #74, who seems to have found some chemistry with Roman Hamrlik since they were paired together starting midway through Tuesday’s game against Anaheim, was as sound positionally as I’ve seen him be all season. His stick clogged the passing lanes, he didn’t chase the puck, and he used his size to keep the Canes offensive players away from Michal Neuvirth (24 saves).

- Eakin, who made his NHL debut on Tuesday, made a nice play in the neutral zone on Brouwer’s goal, which gave the Caps a lead they would not relinquish. Eakin allowed Marcus Johansson to get the puck just past the red line and MJ90 skated in across the blue line and saucered a beautiful pass to #20, who one timed it home. It was Eakin’s first NHL point and then in the third he scored his first NHL goal on a two on one break with Alexander Semin. #28 made the play with some super defensive stickwork and then he fed Eakin with the puck in the slot in the Canes zone. Semin then went to the net and that froze Cam Ward (27 saves) giving #50 room to beat him short side. The former Western Hockey League star, who was recalled from Hershey earlier this week, was +2 with two points in 8:45 of ice time.

- Backstrom, who is off to a super start with 16 points in 11 games, made a beast of a play on Carlson’s power play tally as he shouldered the Carolina defender mightily off of the puck and then slid a beauty of a feed to #74. #19 looks so much different and stronger this season, primarily because he didn’t have a shoulder injury that hampered his offseason workouts this past summer like it did in 2010.

- Neuvirth was good in this tilt, especially in the second period when the Canes had three straight power plays. He was also lucky that the game wasn’t tied at two because an early whistle wiped out what should have been a Carolina power play goal (h/t John Walton, who brought me the game via radio in the middle frame). #30′s positioning was solid and he was only beaten on Stewart’s tipped shot off of a faceoff. The defensive draw occurred because Karl Alzner made a bad backhand pass up the boards that led to a Canes quality scoring chance. Then Laich lost the faceoff and Jeff Schultz failed to tie up Stewart in the slot and he tipped home Jay Harrison’s point blast. But that was about the only really bad stretch for the Caps in this one.

- Ward, when he is on, can easily shut down a team. Other nights it just takes one goal to open the flood gates on him and Halpern’s greasy goal, which was helped by Matt Hendricks working hard in the crease area and Mike Knuble digging the puck out off of the back boards, was just what the Caps needed to get going. That tally came right after a dominating Washington first power play that spanned the end of the first period and the commencement of the second. Both Alex Ovechkin (two assists) and Semin had great chances on that man advantage. Overall the Caps went 1 for 3 on the power play while Carolina was held to 0 for 4. On Carlson’s power play tally, it was the Gr8 who provided the screen in front of Ward.

- In summary, this was a game where it was ultra clear the advantage Washington has talent and depth wise. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau, who scratched Mathieu Perreault tonight, did a super job with his in game adjustments and also once again stuck to his guns by evening out the ice time. That strategy has really shown its effects on the opponents in the final period in the last two tilts. It also works better when the game is played most of the time at five on five. The Caps did have that bad stretch of penalties in the second period, but other than that they were disciplined, another key for victory. This club has speed and size, which is a deadly duo that will wear a team out if the players buy into what the coaches are selling and repeatedly get pucks deep in their opponents zone. Washington executed the game plan on Friday night and turned this one into an easy win.

Notes: The Caps are in Long Island on Saturday night against the Islanders at 7pm on Comcast…if you ever can’t catch a period or a part of the game on television, which I had to do tonight for the middle frame, you absolutely have to tune in on radio to Walton, who definitely makes you feel like you are in the arena…Semin (1 assist) had his best game out of the last six and he continues to own the Canes during his career…the teams each won 29 of the 58 draws. Backstrom was the best for the Caps at 9-5…Brouwer took an awkward hit at the end of Tuesday’s game and appeared to have an upper body injury but he showed no ill effects tonight in a strong performance…John Erskine was excellent in his second game back from offseason shoulder surgery…Mike Green missed his fourth straight game and is doubtful for Saturday.

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Caps Looking for Consistency After 9 Games

Posted on 30 October 2011 by Ed Frankovic

After nine games into the season, the Washington Capitals sit at 7-2 and in a familiar spot, atop the Southeast Division. On the good side the Caps are leading the NHL in scoring with 3.78 goals per game and their overall net difference in goals for minus goals against is a league leading +12. However, a team that finished in the top four in the NHL in goals against last season, after Saturday night’s 7-4 defeat in Vancouver, has fallen into a tie for 15th in goals allowed per game at 2.56. In the 27 plus periods the Capitals have played they have been really good at times, bad at others, and downright ugly in limited spurts. Basically they’ve played what I will call Clint Eastwood hockey:  The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

Overall, one has to be pretty happy with this team. The off-season additions GM George McPhee made bringing in Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, and Jeff Halpern has given Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau four really good lines that at five on five have been quite dominant. On defense, free agent Roman Hamrlik has played very well with Mike Green when they’ve been paired together. In net, the steal of the summer, getting Tomas Vokoun for $1.5M, has been the biggest difference maker and despite a shaky first period last night, he is still 6-1 with a .932 save percentage.

Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are off to decent starts and the Gr8 has five goals and four assists while #19 has two goals and 10 assists. In addition, the Capitals power play is clicking at 25.7%, third in the NHL, and this is with top rearguard Mike Green missing the last two games, which no surprise have been losses (more on that in a minute). The addition of Hamrlik, not to mention that Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau was finally able to put both Green and Dennis Wideman in the lineup for the first time since #6 was acquired at last February’s trade deadline, has allowed Boudreau and assistant coach Dean Evason to move Ovechkin off of the point on the power play, for the most part. Alexander the Great already has two power play goals, both coming in the slot, and his presence down low has opened up lanes for other Capitals to score goals in man advantage situations. This is definitely a big development that could bode well for the remainder of the regular season and in the playoffs.

14 different Capitals players have scored a goal and a big reason for that is the depth of this team combined with a handful of forwards who have no problem going to the crease area to create traffic in front of opposing goaltenders. Brouwer, Ward, Ovechkin, Brooks Laich, Mike Knuble, Matt Hendricks, and even Mathieu Perreault have paid the price to get Washington the type of goals that help a team advance in the post season.

The good has clearly definitely outweighed the bad and the ugly combined, but if you asked anyone around the team, they would likely tell you that there are plenty of areas where this team can improve. Consistency is the word you’d hear most from the coaches and players as to what is needed, especially with a tough three game stretch this upcoming week (Anaheim at home on Tuesday then road games in Carolina and on Long Island on Friday and Saturday, respectively). Throughout the course of the opening nine games this team has tilted the ice on their opponents on several occassions, but when they’ve struggled it has mostly been due to penalty trouble and mental mistakes. Here are some of the things the team might be concerned about and looking to correct:

  • In the current two game slide the Capitals have allowed four power play goals in 13 opponent attempts and the Canucks game winner came just seconds after Ovechkin’s interference minor expired. First off, the team is taking way too many penalties. Yes, some of those likely were incorrect calls, but in Edmonton the Caps didn’t adjust their game when the zebras repeatedly called stick infractions. Without Green, the Washington defense is far LESS mobile. The absence of the “One Man Breakout” leads to more turnovers plus it puts slower players like Jeff Schultz and AHL call up Sean Collins on the ice more often. Green also had some nice chemistry going with Hamrlik and #44′s play has regressed with #52 out. The two time Norris Trophy finalist, who also does a decent job killing penalties, is hoping to return next weekend from an ankle injury.
  • As Alan May (@MayHockeyCSN) has diagrammed on Comcast a few times this year, the Capitals have been vulnerable to being beaten on the back side of their defensive zone coverage. On Saturday in Vancouver, the second Canucks goal illustrated that perfectly as John Carlson found himself totally out of position on the PK. #74, with his d-partner Karl Alzner battling along the boards, was all the way over at the faceoff dot instead of being closer to the front of the net. That gave Chris Higgins the ability to receive the puck below the goal line, skate out in front of Vokoun, then gather his own rebound for an easy marker. The Caps last year were a better shorthanded team because they went to shorter shifts and became more aggressive, but they also played smart. Too many times this season, and even in pre-season, defenseman have been leaving their goalie “hung out to dry” with poor positioning.
  • Alexander Semin was arguably the Caps top forward in the first five games of the season but in the last four games he has one point (an assist), is -3, and has taken a penalty in each contest. #28 needs someone to get him the puck so that he can unleash his great shot but he also can blame himself for his poor play over the last 10 days or so. Semin has shied away from contact and his compete level has dropped off as evidenced by a total of five shots on goal in those last four tilts. The Caps need balanced scoring and they will not be a consistent team without #28 contributing. The loss of Green also hurts Semin’s production because he is a rearguard that opens up room for offensive players. It will be interesting to see if Bodureau changes things up and puts Semin with a new center this week, perhaps Perreault (5 points in 7 games and +6)  instead of Marcus Johansson? That isn’t to say that MJ90 has not been productive, he has three game winning goals, but for some reason he and Semin have not formed the necessary chemistry that a second scoring line needs, at this juncture.
  • The Caps are currently sitting at 27th in the league in faceoff percentage at 47.9%. Backstrom, Laich, and Johansson are the top three guys taking draws and they are 43.9%, 44.8%, and 38.5%, respectively. Halpern is fourth on number of face-offs and he is winning 65.2% of them so that is why you’ll often see him taking key d-zone draws. When you lose a faceoff, your opponent has the puck so that forces the Caps to go get it. I am sure Boudreau and company would much rather start with the biscuit so it will be interesting to see if those stats change as the year progresses.

In summary, the Caps are off to a good start at 7-2 and the Green injury played a large role in the two losses. Green earns an average of $5+ million a year for a reason but it is imperative that Washington find a way to prevent such a dropoff in their level of play when their leading d-men is out of the lineup due to injury. The work ethic wasn’t the big problem on this recent road trip but execution and hockey smarts were and those are controllable. Fortunately we are only one month into a six month regular season journey so there is plenty of time for the team to improve and make adjustments. More importantly, this team is much stronger on paper than it was last October 31st so there is a huge potential upside if the club works hard and sticks together.

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Vokoun Helps Caps Reach 4-0

Posted on 15 October 2011 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals raced out to an early 2-0 lead midway through the first period on goals by Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson and then once again rode the excellent goaltending of Tomas Vokoun (33 saves) en route to a 2-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators. This victory, the Capitals first in regulation in the 2011-12 campaign, improves their record to 4-0. This is the third time in franchise history they have started with four straight wins (1991-92 and 1997-98). The Caps are now 3-0 at the Verizon Center this season after Saturday night’s win.

Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis from the 109th consecutive home sellout:

- Vokoun once again bailed his teammates out, like he did on Thursday night in Pittsburgh. He continues to be solid with his positioning and make the big save despite still trying to figure out how his skaters are going to play in front of him. He still has had some adventures playing the puck and the communication with his defenders is not totally worked out yet. Still, if he isn’t in goal these last two games Washington likely loses. The Caps have to be encouraged by the 35 year old Czech’s ability to find ways to win games for his team.

“The one that he stopped on [Milan] Michalek – We have a great shift going and then all of the sudden the puck is sitting there. It’s nobody’s mistake, somebody thinks somebody’s taking it somebody else, and then he gets a breakaway. It’s not us playing badly…it was just a miscommunication and Tomas [Vokoun] came up big and he came up big in the last 20 seconds,” said Boudreau on his club and his goaltender.

- Washington outshot the Senators 14-8 in the first period and dominated the first 19 minutes of the contest. However, a terrible giveaway by Dennis Wideman in his own zone and then some poor play by Roman Hamrlik and the Washington forwards led to a goal for Ottawa with just over 25 seconds left in period one.  From then on out, the Senators seemed to have extra jump and in the middle frame they were all over the Caps outshooting them 12-4. The Capitals did too much watching and not enough skating in that period and an inferior opponent made them look bad, but fortunately for Washington, their goalie held the fort. In the third period, the Capitals had a little more jump but still, they were outplayed by Ottawa and outshot 14-8. Afterwards, Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau credited Ottawa for their hard work, and rightly so. But my issue is with the Caps play. It was unacceptable and if they can’t out work a team like Ottawa then there has to be some concern, especially when all we’ve heard the Washington players talk about since training camp opened was being the team that won the work ethic battle each night. In the last two games, including a tilt against hated rival Pittsburgh, the Capitals have been crushed in the effort department.

“They are not satisfied and that’s great. If we thought we were king of the world right now then it would probably be a little bit more difficult. It’s a tough league, whoever you play. You can say what you want about Ottawa, but they were a very motivated club tonight and they played very hard,” said Boudreau afterwards about a Senators team that responded well after being drilled 7-1 by Colorado in their last start.

- Ottawa came into this contest ranked first on the power play so a Capitals priority was to stay out of the box on Saturday night. The only penalty called on Washington was on Karl Alzner in the first period, and that was a questionable one, but the Caps killed it off. Washington received three power plays in the first 25 minutes scoring on their first one. Mike Knuble (2 assists) worked the puck out from behind the net, fed Alexander Semin at the left post, and #28 made a super cross crease pass to Backstrom for an easy tally. On the next two power plays, the Caps struggled to get things set up so they finished 1-3 on the night. It was encouraging to see Alexander Ovechkin off of the point on those three manpower advantages as Mike Green, Wideman, and Hamrlik manned the blue line in those situations. The power play still needs work but it is improving.

“We didn’t want to take any penalties against them and didn’t do that. We had some chances to break it open but we didn’t do it. In the clutch, we did what we had to do. Not every game is going to be beautiful and the other team wants to win too,” added Boudreau.

- Hamrlik has been mostly paired with Green and on paper should be an upgrade in the mobility department over #52′s old d-partners, Shaone Morrisonn, Jeff Schultz, and Scott Hannan. However, #44 is not as good of a skater as I first thought and has looked shaky in the last two games. He and Wideman, as mentioned above, were out of sync on the Ottawa tally. It is only October so hopefully the 38 year old Czech, who is -1 through four games but has been on the ice for 7 of the 11 goals the Caps have allowed (h/t  @JapersRink), finds his legs and improves once he gets more experience playing with Green and the other Washington defenders.

“The more you play, you get some confidence and you feel better out there. The other five defenseman on our team, they are good players; they can move the puck. I am getting used [to] the guys,” said Hamrlik following the game. #44 played in his 1,315th career NHL game, passing Bobby Holik for the most NHL games played by a Czech native.

 - At the end of the day, a win is a win and those two previous Capitals clubs that went 4-0 did have a lot of success, so that bodes well. One went to the Stanley Cup Finals (98) and the other blew a 3-1 first round lead to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Penguins in the first round following a super regular season. That was a very talented Capitals team that came very close to beating a loaded Pittsburgh club. Goaltending was the difference in that 1992 loss, but the Caps just might finally have a big game goalie now, like they did with Olie Kolzig in 1998.

Notes: Forward DJ King received his first start of the season with Jay Beagle being kept out for precautionary reasons after getting hurt in his fight with Arron Asham. King was pointless but even in nine shifts and 6:58 TOI…Johansson’s goal was a beautiful individual effort and the young Swede used his speed to sneak a wraparound tally by Alex Auld (24 saves)…Washington lost the faceoff battle, 33-28. Jeff Halpern was 3-2, the only Cap that was above 50%…next up for the Caps are the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night at the Verizon Center…Owner Ted Leonsis noted that the Caps are putting 400 individual tickets on sale online before each game to give fans who can’t afford season tickets access to the team for games. That is a great idea given that the team sold out all season tickets and now have a waiting list…the Hershey Bears had a chance to start 4-0 as well but lost in OT to the Norfolk Admirals, 6-5, in the home opener at the Giant Center. Braden Holtby made 22 saves in the loss. Keith Aucoin had four assists and Chris Bourque had a goal and was +1. Bourque had five points in a 7-5 victory in Norfolk on Friday night.

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Caps Win Coaches Nightmare Hockey Game in Shootout

Posted on 10 October 2011 by Ed Frankovic

Through two games of the regular season, the Washington Capitals are playing what I will call Clint Eastwood hockey: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly! I’ll get to more on that in a minute but thanks to Tomas Vokoun’s superb overtime and shootout goaltending combined with gimmick tallies by Matt Hendricks and Alexander Semin, the Caps are 2-0 after a 6-5 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning at sold out Verizon Center on Monday evening. Instead of the young guns, it was the grinders who got it done for the Capitals on this night as Jason Chimera scored twice and he now has three goals in two games. Dennis Wideman, Troy Brouwer, and Marcus Johansson also tallied for Washington while Tampa got goals from five different players, none of which had the last name of Stamkos, St. Louis, or Lecavalier.

Wow, that was one crazy hockey game and one that both coaches likely would call a nightmare to be involved in. The Caps only allowed 23 Tampa shots in 65 minutes and for the most part played well defensively but their goalie gave up some really bad goals, three of which were shot from below the goal line. Vokoun (18 saves) was really shaky and struggling to properly hug his post in regulation and the Bolts took the charity en route to a 5-4 late third period lead. But then Tampa made another terrible turnover in their own end and that allowed Chimera to rifle one by Dwayne Roloson (33 saves) with Mike Knuble screening on the door step with 2:44 to go and that paved the way for the Washington triumph.

Here are the quotes and analysis from this second straight Southeast Division win for Washington:

- During the peak of the Caps losing streak last December, Coach Bruce Boudreau basically called out the mental toughness of his club. Through two games, he has to be pleased with how far his team has come in that department. In each of the first two contests Washington has had moments where they’ve just dominated play and had nothing to show for it. Then to compound those situations, they have given up a goal via a bad bounce or mental mistake. But so far the club has answered the bell and recovered instead of slumping then eventually losing in those instances. Tonight his goalie didn’t allow a terrible first 60 minutes to prevent him from showing how good he can be in overtime and in the shootout to get a win. In addition, instead of his skaters shrugging their shoulders and saying “Our goalie doesn’t have it today, it’s not our night boys,” they just kept working hard to try and get the win. Of everything that has happened in these first two games, perhaps that mental toughness is the most telling part of the 125 minutes of hockey in this campaign.

“If you asked Tomas (Vokoun), he’ll be the first one to tell you that’s probably not the way he wrote the script. I guess if you’re trying to look at the big picture, it takes a guy with a lot of mental toughness to play like that. And then in the overtime when you’re having four-on-three against you and you make those three or four huge saves.  I got to believe if it was me, I would have been so mentally out of it… and he comes up and he makes those big saves and he makes the save in the shootout. It told me a lot about his character and it ends up as a positive thing even if he didn’t have a positive game for the most part,” added Boudreau on what stood out for him with Vokoun on Monday.

 

- Tampa’s 3rd and 4th lines really helped the Bolts win last spring’s playoff series against the Caps but Washington’s bottom six forwards, if you will, came through tonight. The Brooks Laich, Joel Ward, and Chimera line once again carried the play when they were on the ice and Mathieu Perreault, Hendricks, and Jeff Halpern were a big positive as the fourth forward unit. When the young guns fail to score, and the Washington top line was atrocious on Columbus Day, the Caps rarely win but that was not the case tonight.

“[We’re] just three guys working hard. We all really take pride in going against their number one line and playing really good defense. And mostly when you play good defense, it leads to good offense,” said Chimera, who was the game’s number one star.

 

- As bad as Vokoun was in the first 60 minutes he at least redeemed himself in the extra portion of this contest. It would have been nice if Alexander Ovechkin could say that as well but the Gr8 was downright awful in this one. He made mental mistakes and worse yet he had an atrocious shift in the third period after coming out of the penalty box that led to the Bolts fifth goal. Ovechkin had a chance to generate some offense on that shift but basically just gave the puck up in the Bolts zone allowing Tampa to come the other way and create the pressure that led to the go ahead goal. Ovechkin does not want to watch the videotape of that shift because it will show his total lack of effort in both the offensive and defensive zones. In addition, he and Mike Green didn’t think on a 5 on 3 and allowed Pavel Kubina to get a shorthanded breakaway when he came out of the box in the second period. Overall Alexander the Great was -2 with just three shots on goal in 21:47 of ice time. What makes this performance even more disconcerting is the team captain opted out of the morning skate. Unacceptable move and performance from the guy who is supposed to lead the team.

- Marcus Johansson was a major positive after being scratched on Saturday for the opener. MJ90 looked like he was shot out of a cannon on most shifts and he used his speed to create scoring chances and draw penalties. The young Swede worked hard and showed that he is physically stronger on his skates than last season when he was pushed around, at times, below the goal line. Johansson had a goal and an assist and really played well with Semin and Brouwer. On Brouwer’s goal he took a Ryan Malone stick in the mouth but he still played over 15 minutes and was +1. The only downside for Marcus in this one was his 3-10 faceoff total. His play was inspired, something Boudreau definitely liked and took note of.

“That’s absolutely what you’re looking for. Here’s a guy that sat out a game, he came out, he just said, ‘I’ll show them’ and that’s the kind of attitude you’re hoping for,” commented Boudreau on how the sophomore Swede performed against Tampa.

 

- Special teams is something that every coach focuses on. After Saturday’s poor PK performance, the Caps were better on Monday and they had to be because they took two stupid too many men on the ice infractions. Washington’s shorthanded unit came up large, especially in the OT thanks to Vokoun, and forced the Bolts to go 0-4 in 5:20 overall of man advantage time. Now for the ugly of the ugliest on the night: the Capitals power play! It was just pathetic and reverted mostly to the mode of last season where the Caps would pass the puck around the perimeter to try and get one-timers. There was not enough of passing it to the point for slappers with traffic and net crashing for rebound goals. Too much young guns out there tonight, if you ask me, especially when Ovechkin and Green were on the points. I’d like to see more of John Carlson, Wideman, and Roman Hamrlik on the blue line with guys like Brouwer, Knuble, and Laich screening in front. It is not a hard concept and I hope the coaches hold the young guns accountable and sit them for a few power plays to show them how it should be done. Washington was a putrid 0-7 in 9:14 of power play time. They were so bad that they took themselves off of three power plays with their own penalties. Again, this is unacceptable!

- I railed on Ovechkin’s play tonight and Green (0 pts, -1) and Nicklas Backstrom (0 pts, -2) both had poor nights as well. But did anyone see Vinny Lecavalier or Steven Stamkos tonight? What about Steve Downie? Malone, other than his stick infraction to the face of MJ90? Nope, those guys all stunk in this one as well. As for Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 system, the Caps pretty much hammered it tonight as Washington effectively used their speed to go around orange looking pylons on the Bolts defense named Kubina and Eric Brewer. My gut tells me teams will figure that system out quickly this year after having a summer to digest it on video.

- At the end of the day, the Caps are 2-0. When they play their system and think on the ice, they have shown they can be dominant. Mentally this club looks to be a lot stronger, at least through two games, but they need to clean a lot of things up going forward. Fortunately there are 80 more tilts to hone their game before the post season.

Notes: Tampa won the faceoff battle 34-32…Brouwer led the Caps and all Bolts with seven hits…Chimera had seven shots on goal, most of any player in the contest…Jay Beagle and DJ King were the forward scratches…next up for the Caps are the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night from the Steel City at 7 pm.

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Green’s Goal Leads Caps in OT

Posted on 09 October 2011 by Ed Frankovic

Mike Green blasted a slapper that nicked off of the shin pads of Carolina defensemen Bryan Allen and then through the legs of goalie Brian Boucher (32 saves) to give the Washington Capitals a 4-3 overtime victory in their season opener at sold out Verizon Center(18,506) on Saturday night. When these two teams play, the game always seems to be close, and despite the fact that the Caps went 5-0-1 against the Hurricanes in 2010-11, five of the contests were decided by one goal. This night was no exception and Carolina sent this marker to the extra session with a tally with their netminder pulled and the extra attacker on the ice with 79 seconds remaining. Alexander Semin, Jason Chimera, and Brooks Laich scored for the Caps before #52′s game winner while Eric Staal had two goals and assisted on the other to Jussi Jokinen.

Here are the quotes, highlights, and analysis from an entertaining start to the 2011-12 Capitals season:

- While the Capitals were victorious on this night, the coaching staff will not be happy with several things when they dissect the videotape of this one. Carolina was able to get a lot of quality scoring chances and all three of their tallies came with a manpower advantage. The first two were power play goals and the last one came on a 6 on 5. The Caps, who were 2nd in the NHL in penalty killing last season, gave up goals on two consecutive shorthanded situations (overall Carolina went 2 for 4 on the PP). Each of those came on cross ice passes that allowed Staal to pretty much have an open net. On the final Canes goal, both Karl Alzner and John Carlson got caught behind the Caps net allowing Jokinen to notch an easy game tying tally. Carlson made the same mistake, leaving the front of the net when his d-partner is already behind the cage, in the pre-season game against Buffalo last weekend. The Caps want to be aggressive defensively but playing smart is important too. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau was not pleased with the penalty kill and winger Joel Ward talked about the miscues his club made to allow those goals.

“I’m a little disappointed in our penalty killing, but that will get better. Dean [Evason] does such a good job, him and Woody [assistant coch Bob Woods too], I know that’ll pick up. Specialty teams in today’s game are so important and that is what it came down to again tonight,” commented Boudreau on Washington’s shorthanded ability on Saturday.

“Just bad sticks and just in positioning, kind of not bearing down on certain chances, getting pucks out of our own zone. We definitely have to concentrate and just be more sturdy, so there is some work we’ve got to do. Fortunately it is only game one,” added Ward on how Carolina was able to get the open looks that led to their goals.

- Washington’s power play went 2 for 5 and the last two goals were scored in man advantage situations. However, in the first period the Caps had two power plays and both were not good at all. Alexander Ovechkin played the point for over three of those four minutes and was not effective. When Boudreau received a late third period power play with the game tied, he opted to put the Gr8 in the slot instead. That move worked well as Ovechkin received a puck between the circles and had a golden chance to give Washington the lead only to be tripped and slashed. The Capitals were awarded a five on three and 30 seconds later Laich scored on a rebound of an Ovechkin point shot that went wide and bounced to #21 at the right post. I was okay with the Gr8 being on the point on the 5 on 3 but in 5 on 4 situations he would be best utilized on the half wall where he can fire one timers or feed the point and go to the cage for rebounds. Despite the early troubles, Boudreau attributed some credit for the victory to his team’s play with the manpower advantage.

“When our power play is scoring, then we’re usually successful. I wouldn’t doubt [it was nerves on the first two power plays]. You were all asking me about nerves. It’s the first game, the crowd is into it, lot of new guys, nerves were there. It’s like the first day being on the job and going into the office. You’re nervous whether you are a 20 year vet doing the job or just brand new. The first period the passes weren’t very crisp and I’m hoping that was due to nerves,” finished Boudreau on the impact of his power play on the game.

- Michal Neuvirth (28 saves) received the start over Tomas Vokoun primarily due to his stellar preseason plus he shut the Canes out in the first meeting between these two clubs last October. It is hard to fault #30 on any of the three goals as they all came via cross ice passes to the back side of the defense. When Semin took a very unnecessary and undisciplined boarding penalty at the end of  regulation, Boudreau and company needed #30 to come up big in net. The two time AHL champion goalie did just that robbing both Jokinen and Staal on quality chances. Given the issues Washington had in their own end, at times, I am not sure they would’ve won this contest with Vokoun in goal given that he is still learning the intricacies of the Caps defensive zone play.

- This game could be put in the Clint Eastwood file (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) but one thing Washington was good with was not getting emotionally or mentally drained when something went against them. This occurred at a couple of key points in the game. The first occurrence was in the second period when Washington had the heat on the Canes for seven or eight consecutive shifts. However, Carlson took a tripping penalty and Staal scored to make it 1-0. At that point a mentally weak team might have slumped their shoulders or moped, but that didn’t happen. Just over two minutes later #74 hit a streaking Semin for a breakaway and the highly skilled Russian beat Boucher like a rented mule depositing the puck by him on the backhand. The second time was when the Canes tied the game up late in regulation and despite Semin’s stupid infraction, they managed to find a way to keep working and pull out a victory.

“We were working, then things weren’t going our way..then we stayed positive at the end when that bad goal went in for them at the end to tie it up. I think that’s the biggest thing, that just shows our character right now. I’m telling you positivity is everything, especially around here..but at the end of the day, it was imperative that we didn’t quit. We kept working hard and sticking to our game plan. It’s something that we worked on over the course of preseason is the mindset that were going to be the hardest working team. Sometimes it just gets too high and too low during the game and it’s just a matter of staying on an even keel and we were fortunate enough to get the win tonight,” said Green, discussing his team’s resiliency and their focus on work ethic.

- Green was paired with Roman Hamrlik in game one and the two meshed well. Last season #52 spent much of his time with either Jeff Schultz or Scott Hannan and neither of those guys skate as well as #44 does so Green will have less pressure on him to move the puck by himself. In addition, that should prevent him from taking so many big hits and his health is key to his offense. As I mentioned in my season preview for The Washington Post’s Capitals Insider, it looked to me in preseason that Green’s slap shot was back, something he agreed with when I asked him about it after the win over Carolina.

“Yeah, it’s a lot better when you are a 100%. You don’t have the aches and pains that restrict you from certain things and yeah, I feel good,” commented Green on his ability to fire the biscuit this season.

 - In summary, a win is a win, despite the mistakes Washington made in this tilt. But a sold out and boisterous crowd got to see a Capitals victory, something Ward was just happy be a part of.

“It was pretty loud, that is for sure. You can tell the fans were right into it. We had a couple of chances to put away the game but that is just how it goes, it is a pretty competitive league and we kind of capitalized on our chances and things worked out in the end,” finished Ward (1 assist).

Next up for the Caps are the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday night at the Verizon Center at 7 pm. Vokoun is expected to the get the start in goal.

Notes: Nicklas Backstrom went 15-10 on faceoffs and had two assists. The young Swede looked much stronger on his skates than last season. Perhaps his conditioning has improved and that shoulder he injured in the 2010 Montreal series might finally be totally healed?…Washington won the face-off battle 37-31 and Laich was 10-6…Marucs Johansson was scratched in favor of Mathieu Perreault who was +1 in 12:50 of ice time…Green led all players with 23:18 of ice time…Schultz played the fewest minutes on defense, logging 15:47…Hershey improved to 2-0 on the road and overall with a 3-2 victory over the Wilkes Barre-Scranton Penguins. The Bears are in Norfolk on Friday night and then come home for Saturday’s opener at the Giant Center against the Admirals again.

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Caps Makeover Continues: Vokoun Signed in Net

Posted on 02 July 2011 by Ed Frankovic

Yesterday was Canada Day and Washington Capitals GM George McPhee made the Caps one of the big NHL winners on the Great White North’s holiday with his acquisitions of forward Joel Ward, d-man Roman Hamrlik, center Jeff Halpern, and two draft choices (a 1st and 2nd round pick) for a restricted free agent goalie (Semyon Varlamov) that possibly could have been had for just a second round pick via an offer sheet. Late that afternoon, as part of his job, McPhee stated that he was done with his moves in his chat with the media. But the man who has been the Capitals GM since 1997 was simply just keeping a poker face and playing his cards close to the vest. Those who read my blog know that he wasn’t done and this morning owner Ted Leonsis confirmed that the team was still likely to make some trades and maybe sign another free agent (I tweeted this info on twitter last night and this morning, so for Caps updates please follow me @EdFrankovic).

Today, on McPhee’s birthday, the Capitals signed free agent goalie Tomas Vokoun to a one year deal for a measly $1.5M. This is an amazing signing, given the price. Vokoun is a very good goalie, maybe not as naturally talented as Varlamov, but he can steal games for a team and it is something you need in the post season (see Thomas, Tim – Boston Bruins). He shut out the Caps twice last season and has thwarted them several times in the past, so the organization knows how good he can be. This move also provides some insurance in goal. Yes, the Capitals could have gone and would have likely been comfortable with just Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby in net, but with the price so low and injuries likely to happen at some point, this move makes perfect sense. Holtby needs to play and another year with the majority of his time in Hershey won’t hurt him either. Neuvirth was very good in the post season but in the Tampa series he never flat out won a game when Washington desperately needed it. Vokoun, who is 35 today and has played 13 years in the NHL, is clearly looking for a chance to win a Stanley Cup before his time is up and the Capitals give him a great chance to do so.

So are the Caps done now? I still say, NO! The biggest reason is the salary cap, but a clear locker room transformation is occurring as well that is contributing to these acquisitions and decisions to let others leave. So far Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon, Varlamov, Marco Sturm, and Andrew Gordon have signed elsewhere. In addition, it is evident that Scott Hannan and Jason Arnott very likely won’t be back. McPhee still has to sign defensemen Karl Alzner and forward Troy Brouwer (acquired for the Caps 2011 first round pick at last weekend’s draft in Minnesota), who are restricted free agents. King Karl, who made in the $1.7M range last year, is set up for a huge raise and I can’t see his new average annual salary at lower than $3.14M per season. Why do I say that? Because for that figure or less, Alzner could be signed by another team now to an offer sheet and all Washington would receive in return, if they chose not to match, would be a second round pick. McPhee is too smart to let that happen. Leonsis blogged this morning that both King Karl and Brouwer will be inked. Brouwer counted $1.025M against the cap last season and I expect him to garner in the $2M plus range going forward.

The issue with those signings is that the Capitals go over the $64.3M salary cap once they ink both #27 and Brouwer. The Caps can exceed the cap by 10% ($70M) up until game one of the regular season, but clearly someone has to be moved out, even if Tom Poti and his $2.8M salary cap hit is off of the books due to retirement or long term injured reserve (LTIR). We’ll get to who the likely trade candidates are in a minute, but besides the dollars, an interesting thing is going on with the Capitals here, the team is bringing in veterans who are leaders to counter balance a young locker room. In addition, these are guys who have playoff or big game experience. Brouwer won a Stanley Cup in Chicago in 2010, Hamrlik (chosen 1st overall in 1992 NHL draft by Tampa) has a Gold Medal from the Czech Republic in the 1998 Winter Olympic games, Halpern is a former Caps team captain, and Ward has 17 points in 18 playoff games the last two seasons, including a great second round series versus the Canucks this past spring.

In addition, Brouwer, Ward, and Halpern are guys who can score from the tough areas in front of the opponent’s cage, something Washington did not have enough of on their roster after Mike Knuble and the recently re-signed Brooks Laich (6 years, $27M). Hamrlik should help a struggling power play as well since he has a decent shot that can be launched from the left point. The Caps did not have that type of left handed defensemen on last year’s roster. These are positive moves on the ice and off of it and if guys adopt #21′s work ethic, this team could be extremely good when it matters.

The previous two off-seasons the Capitals didn’t make many moves expecting that growth from within would help improve the club. That worked, but only in the regular season as evidenced by a Presidents’ Trophy (2010) and an Eastern Conference regular season title (2011) before first and second round playoff losses, respectively. This year McPhee, who along with Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau is likely feeling pressure to produce in the post season, isn’t taking any chances by standing pat. He is being aggressive, but also smart at the same time. The types of players he is bringing in signals that his most recent post season analysis dictated that he add leadership, work ethic, and grit to go along with some highly skilled players. But like I said above, his work is not done yet, there has to be some subtraction to make the numbers work.

Will it be Alexander Semin and his $6.7M salary? After all, #28 hasn’t delivered in the playoffs the last three years other than against the New York Rangers. As talented and skilled as he is, the types of goals he scores from October to early April don’t seem to occur in the playoffs when the game changes. He also isn’t known as the hardest worker, so could a Semin trade become addition by subtraction? There could be merit to that statement. Other candidates to be moved are Mike Green at $5.2M (entering last year of his contract), Jeff Schultz ($2.75M cap hit), and Eric Fehr ($2.2M).  I don’t see Green getting traded since the team needs guys who can move the puck on the back line. As for #55 and #16, possibly, but moving only one doesn’t seem to make the math totally work, after all, McPhee also likes to have some salary cap room to work with during the season. So if it isn’t 28 or 52, then both Sarge and Fehr would probably need to be moved to make salary cap room.  But if Semin is traded, even for just a draft pick (and hopefully a #1), that should free up more than enough salary cap room for Alzner and Brouwer and might even allow GMGM to go after a second line center.

In summary, I applaud these moves by McPhee. The Caps, on paper, have become a better team. But the club is not done, so stayed tuned as the makeover continues in preparation for a training camp that is now just over two months away.

Notes: I will be on with Drew Forrester on the Comcast Morning Show on WNST on Tuesday, July 5th at 925 am talking about the Capitals and other things happening around the NHL. Listen Live on 1570AM or on WNST.NET…forward Chris Bourque (Caps 2004 2nd round draft pick and three time Hershey Bears Calder Cup winner) has been re-signed by the team today. He is expected to play in Hershey but could be an injury call up…defensemen Sean Collins was re-signed yesterday and will play primarily in Hershey as well…Below is the Capitals full press release on the Vokoun signing:

The Washington Capitals have signed free agent goaltender Tomas Vokoun to a one-year contract, vice president and general manager George McPhee announced today. In keeping with club policy, financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“We are excited to add an elite veteran goaltender to the Capitals,” said McPhee. “We now have a nice blend of talent, depth, experience and youth in the goaltending position.”

Vokoun, 34, completed his 13th NHL season while posting a record of 22-28-5 with a 2.55 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage in 57 games with the Florida Panthers. It marked the eighth consecutive season in which he has recorded 20 or more wins and the third-straight season he has registered a save percentage of .920 or higher. He finished the season ranked sixth in the league in shutouts (6), 10th in save percentage, 12th in saves (1,616) and tied for 19th in goals-against average.

“I’m very excited to join the Washington Capitals organization,” said Vokoun. “It is a terrific team with a lot of talent and I look forward to doing everything I can for us to reach our ultimate goal in winning the Stanley Cup.”

The 6’, 215-pound netminder has played the fifth-most games among active goaltenders (632) and ranks 39th all-time in career NHL wins (262), 17th in saves (16,957) and 27th in shutouts (44). His .917 career save percentage is tied for sixth in the NHL among active goaltenders and he ranks eighth in wins, fifth in shutouts and 18th in goals-against average (2.56). Vokoun is tied for the best save percentage (.922) in the NHL since the 2005-06 season and is also tied for the fourth-most shutouts in that span (32). The two-time NHL All-Star (2004, 2008), has finished in the top ten in save percentage in five of the last six seasons. In 11 career postseason games with Nashville, Vokoun is 3-8 with a 2.47 goals-against average, a .922 save percentage and one shutout. He is also currently ranked sixth in playoff save percentage among active goaltenders that have appeared in at least 10 games.

The Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic, native led the Czech national team to a gold medal during the 2010 World Championships, posting a record of 7-1 with a 1.57 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage. He also helped backstop the Czechs to a gold medal in the 2005 World Championships and was awarded the Directorate’s Best Goaltender Award while being selected to the tournament All-Star team. In addition, Vokoun captured a bronze medal at the 2006 Olympics and represented the Czech Republic in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. In total, he has represented his country at two Olympics (2006, 2010), one World Cup (2004), four World Championships (2003, 2004, 2005, 2010) and one World Junior Championship (1996), posting a 31-12-1 record with a 1.80 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage in international play.

Vokoun was originally selected by the Montreal Canadiens in the 9th round (226th overall) of the 1994 NHL Entry Draft.   

 

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Caps Re-Sign Laich / GM McPhee Talks Moves

Posted on 28 June 2011 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee re-signed hard working and fan favorite forward Brooks Laich to a monster six year, $27.5M deal today. Below is most of the official press release from the Caps, followed with info from GMGM’s press conference, and then my take on what may transpire over the next few weeks for Washington.

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“We are very pleased to have Brooks Laich continue his career as a Washington Capital,” said McPhee. “Brooks has excelled as one of the League’s finer two-way players and is just entering his prime. His combination of size, speed, versatility and leadership makes him a valuable part of our club.”

Laich, 28, finished fourth on the Capitals in points (48), fifth in goals (16) and third in assists (32) while posting a plus-14 plus/minus rating and collecting 46 penalty minutes. For the third time in his career, he played in all 82 of Washington’s regular-season games and finished second on the Caps with 207 shots on goal. In addition, Laich closed out the 2010-11 campaign fifth on the team in hits (113) and won 51.3 percent of his faceoffs. He scored his 100th career NHL goal on Mar. 15 at Montreal and finished second on the team in points during the playoffs (7) while leading the Caps with six postseason assists in nine games. Laich also finished first amongst Capitals forwards in average shorthanded ice time per game (2:18) and was instrumental in leading the Caps penalty kill unit that ranked second in the NHL during the regular season.      

“I’m thrilled to make the commitment to remain a Capital,” said Laich. “It is a wonderful organization with terrific fans and I’m very happy to continue to call Washington home for many years to come.”

The 6’2”, 215-pound center set career-highs in goals (25), assists (34) and points (59) during the 2009-10 season and scored 20 or more goals in three straight seasons from 2007-2010. In 475 career regular-season games, Laich has recorded 237 points (100 goals, 137 assists) and is a plus-14. In 37 career playoff games, he has tallied seven goals and 16 assists for 23 points.

The Wawota, Saskatchewan, native is second among active Capitals players in franchise games played (474), fifth in points (237), third in goals (100) and fifth in assists (137). Laich is 15th amongst his 2001 draft class in points but is one of only three players in the top 15 to be drafted later than the third round.

Laich was a sixth-round draft pick (193rd overall) by Ottawa in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. He was acquired from Ottawa along with the Senators’ second-round draft pick in 2005 (traded to Colorado) and future considerations for Peter Bondra on Feb. 18, 2004. 

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Laich has really turned himself into a very good hockey player with his drive and hard work. He was set to become a free agent on July 1st and several teams would likely have bid on him. McPhee spoke to the media this afternoon (video available on washingtoncaps.com) and talked about the importance of signing his own players. He also highlighted #21′s ability to play center, something he thinks we’ll see more of in 2011-12. Laich made $2.4M last season, so this is a hefty raise, but given that the salary cap is going up close to $5M per team and there are several clubs that aren’t even at the cap floor of $48.3M, the deal doesn’t look as bad given what the open market might have resulted in contract-wise for #21.

McPhee also mentioned that there is a lot of talking going on between teams in the league right now but he is not imminently close to any deals. He did say that he thinks that prices will be way up in free agency so he doesn’t expect the Caps to be players there in a thin market, he sees the more likely scenario of Washington making a trade with another club. As for the Varlamov situation, the GM said that the club will either have three goalies next season, meaning Varly re-signs with the Caps, or they’ll go with two (Michael Neuvirth and Braden Holtby).

The Laich signing ($4.5M per year cap hit) gives the Caps some high cap figure players towards the $64.3M ceiling to include Alexander Ovechkin (~$9.5M), Nicklas Backstrom ($6.7M), Alexander Semin ($6.7M), Mike Green ($5.25M), and Dennis Wideman ($3.9M). Tom Poti ($2.875M), Jeff Schultz ($2.75M), Eric Fehr ($2.2M), and Mike Knuble ($2.0M) are also signed for at least the upcoming season and will make over $2M. Karl Alzner, Troy Brouwer, and Varlamov are the next three guys who would likely be over $2M if they are re-signed. Washington could get some salary cap relief if Poti is unable to recover from his groin problems that plagued him significantly last year (potential retirement?). However, #3′s status will not be known until training camp. McPhee felt that the Capitals are in good shape with the salary cap and they have flexibility to do what is needed to be done to try and win a Stanley Cup.

Both Green and Semin head into the last year of their current deals in 2011-12 so the threat of possibly losing an asset next summer begins looming with both players. McPhee historically has done a good job of not giving up high end players without receiving something in return. I would imagine the team may still be looking for a center if Jason Arnott is not back, as I expect to be the case. Backstrom is the clear #1 and Marcus Johansson is a natural fit to be a super third line center. Putting MJ90 on the second line could put too much pressure on the young Swede so it seems like Laich is the fall back #2 center if another pivot is not added.

More depth on defense is also a likely possibility, especially if unrestricted free agent Scott Hannan is not re-signed. GMGM talked again about the injuries on defense being a big reason for the second round playoff loss to Tampa, so one way to avoid that next year is to find more puck movers in case the injury bug hits again, which seems to be a frequent situation with #52 come post season time.

The GM talked last Saturday after the Brouwer trade about adding more guys with Cup experience so I don’t think he is done putting the 2011-12 club together yet. Clearly the next two weeks are going to be interesting times for Capitals fans, so stay glued to the internet for any breaking Caps news!

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Evaluation Process Time for Caps. Who Stays, Who Goes?

Posted on 06 May 2011 by Ed Frankovic

Today was breakdown day for the 2010-11 Washington Capitals, the least favorite day for NHL teams that do not win the Stanley Cup, and with it came interviews with General Manager George McPhee, Head Coach Bruce Boudreau, and several players at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. We’ll get to that info in a minute, but perhaps what was even bigger news, at least in my view, was Thursday morning’s blog entry from Capitals Owner Ted Leonsis. Particularly the following sentences:

In times like these people are emotional; angry; and demand change. I understand.

The best course of action for us though is to let a few days pass; be very analytic about what needs to be improved; articulate that plan; and then execute upon it.

Clearly we know we have to improve to build a franchise that is as good as our fan base.

I appreciate your emails. I appreciate all of the advice we are being given by media and bloggers. I understand that we are what our record says we are.

Thank you for your support during this grind of a season.

Thank you for caring so much. I am so very sorry we let you all down.

Wow! That is some true, from the heart, direct feedback to the Caps fan base (gratuitous shot at Orioles ownership can be taken at any time). Leonsis clearly gets it and he realizes that he has a problem right now. It is nice to win four straight Southeast Division titles, a Presidents’ Trophy, and a second Eastern Conference regular season title, but his club is two for six in playoff series’ the last four years. Both wins came against mismatched New York Rangers teams and this year’s four game second round loss to Tampa Bay was shocking to nearly everyone. Right now, this club bears a lot of resemblance to those great 1980′s Capitals teams that were coached by Bryan Murray that also could not get past the second round. Back then the major problem was poor goaltending, but that wasn’t really the case this post season. So what are the problems, how are they going to be identified, and what will be done to fix them?

That brings us back to breakdown day and the evaluation process that McPhee described begins today.

“It’s important to do [an evaluation] and what we’ve always done is meet with the coaches and get their evaluations of players, and how the season went. Then I’ll meet with our pro scouts and then I’ll meet with ownership and we put it all together. We put together a plan and then move forward. I’d like to think we’ve been doing a lot of good things,” stated the man who has been the Caps GM since the summer of 1997.

Immediately following that response, Tarik El-Bashir of The Washington Post asked the GM if Boudreau would be back next season. After a slight pause, the GM gave the following answer.

“I expect him to be back, yeah, he’s a good coach..either you are a good coach or you are not,” stated McPhee.

So clearly the GM is likely in the coach’s corner at this stage of the process, which is at the absolute beginning. If we combine what McPhee said above about the evaluation process with the owner’s blog, it is clear to me that NOTHING has been decided yet, so the decision on Boudreau and anyone else in the organization has yet to be finalized. In addition to Leonsis, I would also imagine that Team President Dick Patrick will have a say in all hockey matters too, so we may be several days or weeks from decisions on management and coaches. After that is decided, the entire hockey department will focus on which players stay and which go, in addition to preparing for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

Locks to be back are Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, right off the bat, because of their talent and long term contracts. #19 struggled in the post season and courtesy of Mike Vogel of Dump ‘n Chase we learned today that Backstrom re-injured his thumb in the Rangers series and played hurt against the Bolts. Additional players who will most certainly be back are John Carlson, Michal Neuvirth, Karl Alzner (although he is a restricted free agent), Marcus Johansson, Braden Holtby, and Dennis Wideman. Mike Green, Mike Knuble, and Alexander Semin are under contract for another season. Knuble played with a fractured thumb that required four pins (hurt in game 3 of Rangers series), Green suffered a hip flexor injury, and Carlson played in pain with a hip pointer making it difficult for him to hit or be hit. With #52 and #74 ailing, and #6 out due to injury, it was clear that the Capitals biggest problem in the Tampa series was the lack of puck rushing defenseman, like I stated after game four. McPhee discussed that today.

“I thought that the [blue line] was our biggest issue in the playoffs. I thought our puck distribution and puck possession wasn’t where it needed to be due to those injuries,” commented GMGM on why he thought his team failed against Tampa.

As a result, slower defensemen Jeff Schultz, John Erskine, and Scott Hannan were exposed by a quicker Tampa crew of forwards. Both #4 and #55 are resigned for next year but are third defensive pair guys, at best. Hannan is an unrestricted free agent and will not get anywhere close to the $4.5M he made this season.

McPhee talked about the infusion of young talent into his lineup this year and the Capitals will certainly benefit going forward from their progression.

“The good news is we introduced some really good young players to our team this year to our fans and we think they liked what they saw in Neuvirth, Johansson, Carlson, and Alzner and we have some terrific young players I am thinking hard about introducing next year,” stated McPhee, who did not dismiss the possibility of center Evgeny Kuznetsov, d-man Dmitri Orlov, and forward Cody Eakin getting a shot at playing for the 2011-12 Caps squad.

It’s pretty clear from hearing McPhee today that he thinks he has the personnel on the roster or in the system to get the Caps where they want to be.

“There’s a certain place I want to get to with the team. I think we have it within in our organization to get there. I don’t think we have to go outside the organization. I want to spend more time talking to our scouts about that. We’ve really got some good ones, some difference makers,” added McPhee on how he sees team improvement occuring on the personnel front.

This squad, if it does not bring back Jason Arnott, who hurt his knee shortly after coming to the Caps at the trade deadline and had minor surgery done on it in March, still needs a second line center. Johansson made a lot of progress this year but he is really a third line center. Kuznetsov suffered a shoulder injury this spring and given that he will be only 19 and is not physically developed, he likely isn’t the answer at the two hole, yet. So maybe #44 is back? He told the media today that he wants to return. As for #90, he was playing hurt against Tampa, but he impressed the GM with his rapid development this season.

“He’s really good defensively, a lot of kids don’t have that this early in their careers and we expect his offensive game to continue to blossom,” added GMGM on his young Swedish center, who was selected in the first round of the 2009 NHL entry draft.

On the goaltending front, the GM is extremely happy with his trio of net minders.

“I’m really pleased with where we are with the goaltending. We drafted well, we’ve developed them well. They are three terrific kids with lots of upside.We are in no rush to change anything there. No pressure points in terms of waivers or anthying like that. We’re comfortable with that. It’s the most important position in the league. They’re good. We’ll continue to play them to see how they do. They did really well this year. All three of them played and played well. We have good goaltending,” said McPhee of a stable of goalies that many teams in the league would love to have.

I was happy to hear that the GM plans to stick with all three of them. To rush out and trade one of them would be a big mistake. What would have happened to this franchise had Olie Kolzig been traded in the early or mid 1990′s when he was seemingly passed in the organization by Byron Dafoe and Jim Carey? “Olie the Goalie” turned out to be the best of the three despite early injury problems that had him playing in the ECHL, at one point. #37 was the face of the franchise for many years until Ovechkin arrived on the scene. So a cautious approach with young goalies is a must for the Capitals brass. None of us, at this time, know who will be the best goalie long term between Semyon Varlamov, Neuvirth, and Holtby.

So it was clear, when hearing what McPhee had to say today, that he is pretty confident in staying the course, for the most part, and continuing to improve from within.

“We were the #1 seed in our conference and we played the #8 seed, and we had just four more wins than them. Nobody is that much better than everyone else. What we’re doing here, I believe is we are putting a good team on the ice every year, and hopefully one of these years we win it. But we’re in the mix every year, it could be worse, we could be missing the playoffs…thank goodness we’ve been drafting well, we’ve been really good at it recently…so I don’t expect us to lose any ground, I expect us to get better,” stated McPhee on player development.

“I don’t see major changes. Every team can continue to add to it and make it better. But we’ll see this summer. It’s not easy to step back for a manager either, we’re all here to win a Cup, as we all know, only one team wins it. Hopefully it will be that much better when we win it,” finished McPhee.

I wouldn’t expect McPhee, who has drafted or acquired all of these players, to think otherwise on where his personnel is right now given the fairly successful results of the past four seasons, at least based on the regular season. But to me there are major questions with how his talent is being implemented and that could impact some of GMGM’s personnel decisions going forward.

Are the Capitals playing the right system? Why does the power play continue to struggle after it was such an achilles heel in the 2010 post season? Why does Ovechkin continue to be placed on the point when it seems he would be better served down low or on the half wall? Had the power play been corrected could it have been the difference in games one and two of the Tampa series and allowed the Caps to overcome their key defensive injuries? Speaking of injuries, why is it that Green gets hurt every year? Is he not taking care of himself, is he being over targeted by other teams, or is it a function of not being taught how to move the puck more efficiently and avoid big hits? (You don’t see Nicklas Lidstrom with these continual post season injury issues). Why is Semin so inconsistent? Are the star players listening to the coaching staff? How come Tampa was able to hide its non-highly mobile defense and be so effective?

I could go on and on with these questions but you get the picture. Hopefully the evaluation process examines all of these issues because as I stated on twitter today, “collectively” this group of coaches and players have NOT gotten it done in the post season. This franchise needs to figure out why that is happening and fix it going forward before another year is wasted.

NOTE: Special thanks to Ted Starkey of The Washington Times for sending me the audio for Boudreau and McPhee’s media sessions from breakdown day.

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