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Caps Must Make Big Changes Going Forward

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Caps Must Make Big Changes Going Forward

Posted on 13 April 2014 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals closed out their 2013-14 season today with a 1-0 shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in a meaningless game. The Caps finish the season at 38-30-14 (90 points) and have failed to make the post season for the first time since 2006-07.

The failed season is unacceptable on numerous levels. Owner Ted Leonsis blogged over the weekend that the analysis of this club is “fair and deserved” and stated that they will not make any knee jerk reactions and conduct a thorough review before making any decisions.

Last Wednesday I blogged that the Caps need to move on from current GM George McPhee and Coach Adam Oates. I stand by those statements.

Both McPhee and Oates are good men that are very intelligent. There is no denying that. They’ve done many good things for the NHL and the Capitals organization.

My decision is not personal, they are both likeable people. But the bottom line is despite their intelligence they have failed to get the Caps to be in a position to do what they need to do: Compete for and Win a Stanley Cup.

This Capitals team, over the last three plus seasons has gotten further from lifting Lord Stanley. They are not contenders, as currently configured.

The defense is horribly thin with both Karl Alzner and Oates himself questioning the talent level this week. Putting together a quality defense has been McPhee’s achilles heel since he took over the job from David Poile in 1997. He has failed to get to the Eastern Conference Finals with two superstars, Jaromir Jagr and Alexander Ovechkin, primarily because of his inability to put together a strong blue line. Year after year stop gaps like Joel Kwiakowski, Jason Doig, Milan Jurcina, Tyler Sloan, Jack Hillen, etc. have been thrust into prominent roles when they simply weren’t qualified to be playing on a club that has Stanley Cup aspirations. This year’s defense was easily the worst since 2007-08 and the decision to rush a 19 year old Connor Carrick to the NHL was a disaster and hopefully hasn’t wrecked the future of a kid that has promise. Carrick should’ve been playing in Hershey all season but McPhee hamstrung himself with the salary cap by tying up too much of his money in forwards and forced an already weak defense to once again rot.

McPhee’s inability to get a second scoring line has been a problem for years. One of George’s best trades ever was acquiring Sergei Fedorov from Columbus at the 2008 deadline. #91 not only brought talent that allowed Coach Bruce Boudreau to have two legit scoring lines, but Fedorov also brought a wealth of experience and leadership to Washington’s locker room. He took pressure off of Ovechkin and Alexander Semin played his best hockey during that time. But once Fedorov left in 2009, partly to play with his brother but also because the failed Michael Nylander contract ate up the salary cap room that could have been used to entice Fedorov to stay, things began to unravel. Yes, the team had a great 2009-10 regular season but that team’s big holes were at 2nd line center and on defense. The Canadiens knew they only had to shut down one line to win and they did that. From there, things have gotten worse.

The declining talent is troubling and the Martin Erat for Filip Forsberg deal was an indication that this hockey department has lost its way. Whether Forsberg turns into a top six player or not is not what bothers me the most. What is troubling is that McPhee’s staff felt that Erat, who had struggled in 2012-13 and was clearly on the down side of his career, was worth a player that they had just lucked into in the first round at the previous draft. It made me start to wonder about the work ethic of the Caps hockey department when you see a move like that made.

Clearly not enough talent has been brought in to help Ovechkin and a lack of experienced leaders, something I blogged about back in the spring of 2011 that the Caps badly needed to add, has put an incredible amount of pressure and scrutiny on the Gr8. Sure Ovechkin could improve defensively, but he’s been a reason this team is not a bottom five hockey club for the last three years. He is not the problem. The lack of talent in the top six forwards and on defense along with little support in the leadership department has done serious damage to Ovechkin and probably impacted his ability to enjoy hockey. McPhee and the organization have failed Ovechkin, not the other way around.

As for Oates, I give him full credit for reinvigorating the Gr8 over the last 14 months. An MVP season followed by an NHL leading 51 goals for Ovechkin was made possible by things Oates did, including changing the Caps power play and moving Ovechkin to right wing. Clearly Oates was given a not very perfect set of tools to work with, he inherited an unbalanced roster, but overall he did not come close to optimizing what he was given.

Oates may be a “genius” on technical hockey issues, as Alzner called him on Sunday, but coaching is more of an art and not a science. It’s nice to be armed with technical details, but to be a successful coach you have to get people to work together. As The Washington Post’s  Katie Carrera wrote last week, former Caps goaltending coach Dave Prior said he was forced out because Oates felt he knew goaltending better than a man who has successfully coached it for years, including turning Olie Kolzig into one of the NHL’s top goaltenders.  The coaching staff’s decision to try and change Braden Holtby’s game was a disaster and led to an unneeded goaltending carousel that forced Michal Neuvirth out of town.

Being the smartest guy in the room is nice, but when it comes to being a successful leader, it isn’t about being smart. It’s about gathering input from the people around you, harnessing it, and using it to make the total greater than the sum of its parts. Oates failed to do that this season and the 2013-14 Caps were not a “team.”

You simply can’t have three players ask for trades in a season, that just shows organizational chaos and that falls on both the GM and the head coach. It was clear that both Oates and McPhee were not on the same page. Dustin Penner was brought in at the deadline and was misused. Several players were not properly deployed and a team that should be playing hockey on Wednesday finished 5th in its’ new division. The Caps went 12-15-3 against the Metropolitan Division in 2013-14 with many of the losses coming after December 27th. Overall they were 28-33 in games decided before the shootout. That is clearly not Stanley Cup contending calibre.

In the past, while the team has been steadily eroding since the spring of 2009, the organization’s motto has been “we’re close” and when they’ve been bounced out in either the first or second round the excuses have ranged from “facing a hot goaltender” to “injuries.”

There are no excuses this year and this team is not close to being a Stanley Cup contender as configured currently. Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Boston all suffered far worse injury situations and made the postseason. The Penguins survived five of their six defensemen out of the lineup, at one point. Those clubs have built depth and they have tremendous leadership and quality coaching. Washington does not compare in those three categories.

In sports, you are either getting better or you are getting worse. The Caps clearly fit the latter right now.

In summary, it seems apparent that the Caps “thorough review” should lead to the same conclusion I’ve arrived at: both the GM and the coaching staff need to be changed going forward.

The Caps have some key pieces they can build around in Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Tom Wilson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Holtby, but they need someone running the show that really knows the league and can reshape and balance the roster. The new GM can’t overvalue his current players like this regime has done on too many occasions. They need leadership on and off of the ice. Towards that end, Leonsis may want to consider requiring the hockey department to include not only a new GM but a new Director of Player Personnel that has Stanley Cup winning experience. Winning championships is not easy to do, so getting people that have won them before so that they can help teach the others in your organization how to do it seems like a no brainer to me.

They need people that know how to get managers and players to work together. They need a hockey department with a strong work ethic and an attention to detail. They need a coaching staff that gets the club to be a team.

It’s 39 years and counting without a Stanley Cup in Washington. I’ve been watching this club since 1974 and have pretty much seen it all. There’s a time to stand pat and let things run it’s course and there is a time for change. This club is not on the right path with the current management and coaching.

Time for a big change, because clearly the “status quo” method is not working.

 

 

 

 

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Grubauer Helps Ovechkin Net 400th Career Goal

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Grubauer Helps Ovechkin Net 400th Career Goal

Posted on 20 December 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin scored his 400th NHL goal on Friday night in the Caps huge 4-2 victory in Carolina. The Russian superstar became the 6th fastest (634 games, h/t Jeff Kryglik) to reach that number in NHL history.

Afterwards, the Gr8 knew exactly who to thank for the reaching the milestone on this night: rookie goalie Philip Grubauer.

The young German netminder, who Ovechkin termed the Caps “best player in the game,” was fantastic stopping 39 of 41 shots, many of the quality chance variety and it was his goaltending along with three Washington power play goals that gave the Caps a late 3-2 lead. With the Canes pulling goalie Cam Ward (25 saves), Nicklas Backstrom (4 assists) moved the puck off of the boards where the Gr8 could out race the Carolina defender and notch his first empty net tally of the season to seal this one for Washington. It was “Good morning, Good afternoon, and Good night Carolina,” as the great John Walton says, at that point.

The victory improves the Caps record to 19-13-3 (41 points), which gives them a five point cushion over the Flyers, who are in 3rd place in the Metropolitan Division.

The analysis of this one is pretty straightforward: Grubauer was the difference in this game like Justin Peters was the difference maker for Carolina just over two weeks ago when the Canes came in and stole a game in Washington. Tonight, for some reason, Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller chose to go with Ward over Peters, who totally owned and frustrated the Capitals at the Verizon Center on December 3rd.

Muller also set up his penalty kill to take away Ovechkin and it totally backfired. Caps Coach Adam Oates and assistant Blaine Forsythe adjusted to the tactic by putting a body in front of Ward and as a result, they notched the three extra man markers. Typically a team has two defenders in front of the net on the PK, making it harder for the offense to get bodies in front, but with the Canes shadowing Ovechkin, it was easy for the Caps to stand in front of or around Ward when they had the man advantage.

Sure Muller did a nice job of exploiting the Capitals defense with stretch passes all night, but overall Oates won the coaching match up in this tilt.

Washington’s neutral and defensive zones were below average in this contest. The spacing between the two defenders was off most of the game. In addition, the gaps between the defensive pair and the forwards was too great, giving the speedy Canes too much time and space.

Luckily, Grubauer was outstanding and the Caps defense did do a great job of clearing any rebounds. In addition, Backstrom was super in this contest and he now leads the NHL in assists with 33. Not too shabby for the underrated Swede.

In hockey, it is nice to have highly skilled players who can score, the Caps have that in Ovechkin and Backstrom.

Washington was mostly outplayed, but the great equalizer, goaltending, was the game’s determining factor.

Grubauer was greater than Ward, which allowed Oates to be greater than Muller in Raleigh on Friday night.

Notes: Shot attempts were heavily in favor of the Canes, 86-42, OUCH!…Marcus Johansson, who had a super second period, got hurt in that frame and left with a lower body injury…Johansson, John Carlson, and Troy Brouwer had the Caps first 3 goals…the Caps went 3 for 4 on the power play while Carolina was only 1 for 5…Next up for the Caps are the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night at the Verizon Center.

 

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Have The Caps Put Themselves Back in the Playoff Race?

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Have The Caps Put Themselves Back in the Playoff Race?

Posted on 26 February 2013 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals played their second consecutive quality hockey game on Tuesday in a 3-0 white washing of the Carolina Hurricanes.

Braden Holtby’s 33 saves and Nicklas Backstrom’s goal and assist paved the way for a solid victory after Alexander Ovechkin put on that great show on Saturday against the Devils.

Coach Adam Oates’ club is exhibiting some serious signs of being a much better hockey team than we saw in the early part of this season and their shot output over the last two contests certainly indicates that. Washington has dominated both of these last two matchups.

So the question now becomes, have the Capitals put themselves back in the playoff race?

At 7-10-1 the answer would often be a solid “no.” But then again, the Caps play in the Southleast, er, Southeast Division. At 15 points, Washington is only four points out of the division lead, which would yield a third seed in the post season.

The Caps are now 5-2 in their last seven games and the way Holtby is playing in net and the fact that Ovechkin and Backstrom have kicked their games up to the elite level certainly gives Washington and their fans cause for optimism.

Backstrom clearly was the best skater on the ice in this one and owned the puck and his opponent most of the evening. Ovechkin (1 assist) didn’t have any shots on goal but the Gr8 had three takeaways, four hits, and some superb passes that should’ve had resulted in more Capitals goals if only there were additional finishers on this club. John Carlson (1G, 1A) is playing his best hockey of the season and was a force on the ice, as well.

In net, Holtby is in a major groove and his two top stops were while the Caps were on the power play. The first was on an Alex Semin breakaway early in a scoreless game and then on Eric Staal on an odd man rush in the third period. If either of those chances go in, the game might have gone differently. But #70 is playing large in net and looks ultra confident in the cage.

Simply put, if those four players are playing near the top of their respective games, the Capitals are going to be in every contest. That is what has been happening over this seven game stretch. Add in Mike Green returning to the lineup after missing three tilts due to a groin injury and it appears that things are finally heading in the right direction for the Caps.

The question is, can they keep this up? Teams will look to take away Ovechkin and Backstrom along with Mike Ribeiro. Those three players are the heart of the Washington offense. It will be up to players like Troy Brouwer, Eric Fehr, Mathieu Perreault, Joel Ward, and Jason Chimera to convert on the great setups they are getting from 9, 19, and 8. What would make things even better is if the Caps could get Brooks Laich back in the lineup in the near future.

So are the Caps back in the playoff race? Given the current standings, you’d have to say yes.

But tough games in Philadelphia on Wednesday, then in Winnipeg on Saturday before coming home to face the Boston Bruins on Tuesday loom large. How this team does in these three upcoming contests will go a long way towards answering things for the Capitals management.

A 2-1 or better mark certainly has to make owner Ted Leonsis and GM George McPhee seriously think about finding a way to add a finisher or two to the forward crew to give this club a chance to take the division and try and make some post season headway. However, if they drop two of three in regulation then the pendulum swings back to the longer term where finishing near the bottom of the standings will very likely yield a prize prospect.

It’s a fine line for this hockey team right now, but there is no doubt they are back in the playoff race with 30 games to go.

Notes: The Caps lost the faceoff battle for the first time in seven games, 31-29…Green played 21:54 in his first game back and looked fairly good, although there were some tentative moments along the walls, which is to be expected…the Caps were 2-2 on the penalty kill and 1-4 with the power play. Their third goal came 28 seconds after a Canes penalty expired but it was the PP pressure that resulted in the tally as Carolina never recovered territorially after the initial two minutes were up.

 

 

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Caps Holes Evident in Loss to Rangers

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Caps Holes Evident in Loss to Rangers

Posted on 17 February 2013 by Ed Frankovic

 

Typically in pro sports, wins and losses comes down to talent. On Sunday night in New York at Madison Square Garden talent was the difference as the New York Rangers knocked off the Washington Capitals, 2-1, despite an outstanding goaltending performance from the Caps Braden Holtby (38 saves).

The Caps came into this game already missing Brooks Laich up front and Dmitry Orlov on the back end and when they had to play without their best defensemen, Mike Green (lower body injury), you knew it was going to be tough sledding for Washington. And that is exactly what happened as the Rangers used their talent up front to dominate puck possession and the shot clock for the first 30 minutes of this contest. The only thing that made it a game to that point was Holtby, who somehow managed to keep the scoreboard knotted at one.

Unfortunately for Washington, Holtby couldn’t score goals from the opposing crease and that is what doomed the Capitals in this one. Over the last 30 minutes Coach Adam Oates’ team started to carry more of the play, but when you only have three top six forwards and are relying on guys like Wojtek Wolksi and Jason Chimera to score from the left wing on the top two lines you are in trouble. Don’t get me wrong, I like Chimera. He is a lunch pail, hard working forward, but he is a third line left winger. Wolski, well that’s another story. The former first round pick isn’t on his fifth team for nothing, although that is what the Caps pretty much paid for him. In this case, the old saying, “You get what you paid for” certainly applies. Wolski had several opportunities to score on Sunday night after some sweet set ups from Nicklas Backstrom, yet Wolski couldn’t find the net on many of them.

On the back end with Green out, Oates had two choices in either Tom Poti or Roman Hamrlik. Neither are good ones at this point as both older players have shown that their careers are pretty much finished. Poti got the call on Sunday and played less than 10 minutes. On the Rangers first goal, Poti was downright terrible turning the puck over and then failing to tie up Carl Hagelin by the net as #62 put the biscuit home. Oates barely played #3 after that one.

Still, given the talent imbalance, I have to give the Capitals players credit for battling a team that many have picked to come out of the Eastern Conference to play for the Stanley Cup this spring down to the wire. There was no lack of effort from Washington’s players and Oates has impressed me with what he’s done in many areas with this team. But at the end of the day, they just don’t have enough finishers. The Caps opponents know they just need to key on Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Mike Ribeiro and they are in good shape. Even still, the Capitals almost tied this one up late, so kudos on the effort.

But despite the late surge the effort yielded 0 points and Washington fell to 5-9-1, good for last place in the Eastern Conference.

Two years ago in the post season the Capitals eliminated the Rangers in five games. After that series, Rangers Coach John Tortorella said, “We are not there yet,” describing his lack of talent compared to Washington’s, at the time. Last spring, the Caps and New York played a seven game series that was pretty much a dead heat but the Rangers got the bounces and moved on.

So what transpired last summer from a management perspective for these two clubs? Well the Rangers went out and acquired former #1 draft pick Rick Nash while the Caps acquired Ribeiro to fill their gaping hole at second line center. Unfortunately the Capitals let Alex Semin and Dennis Wideman walk in free agency without replacing them. Sure they were counting on Orlov to fill some of Wideman’s shoes, but Wideman didn’t get upwards of $5M a year for nothing. Semin received $7M from the Hurricanes, who are in first place in the Southeast Division. Based on that, combined with the injuries to Laich and Orlov, it is pretty easy to see why the teams sure seem headed in opposite directions right now.

To get back into the playoff race will be extremely difficult for the Caps, at this point, unless management makes some moves. That doesn’t appear easy, even if they are willing to do so. Sure Washington has some good young talent overseas and at the junior level. But Evgeny Kuznetsov (2010 1st round pick) won’t be in the NHL until 2014, Filip Forsberg (2012 1st round pick) is playing in Sweden this year, and Tom Wilson (2012 1st round pick) needs the proper time to develop. There is no immediate help in the system this season so the answer would have to come from trades, which are difficult to pull off in the salary cap era.

Therefore, it just looks like the Caps will have to gut this out and see where things take them. If they aren’t making up ground by the trade deadline (April 3rd), then a decision will have to be made on Ribeiro, who will be a free agent this summer. Based on the way #9 has played, he will bring value in return. Then again, it may be worth signing him if Washington thinks it is in position to compete with the elite of the East starting in October. It also doesn’t make any sense to rush Laich and Orlov back from their injuries, as well.

In no way am I advocating quitting on the season, you never do that. However, given that there are some prize players at the top of the draft board this year, particularly American defensemen Seth Jones, who just helped Team USA win the Gold Medal in the World Juniors in January, the Caps need to be smart about things because adding a player like Jones given what is in the pipeline the next two years changes the dynamic of your team.

But there are still 33 contests to go and the Eastern Conference is pretty weak after the Rangers, Boston Bruins, and New Jersey Devils. The Penguins and Hurricanes certainly appear to be in the next grouping but after that, there are no really strong teams so anything can happen.

Still, when you see the holes in the Capitals lineup, it is tough to get excited about this short lockout stained season.

Notes: Backstrom was 12-6 on faceoffs and Washington won the battle there overall, 31-27, but on the Rangers game winning PPG, Jay Beagle was beaten cleanly on the draw and the Rags scored in seven seconds for the ball game…the Rangers had 20 shots in the 1st period but Holtby, in amazing fashion, stopped them all…Tomas Kundratek played a career high 23:25 with Green out of the lineup…Washington’s power play missed #52 and went 0 for 4…the Caps have a crucial two game series with the Devils starting on Thursday. If they lose both tilts, then the Jones talk will heat up even more…for more of my take on the team, check out my on-air session with Thyrl Nelson of WNST from Friday’s MobTown Sportsbeat show here

 

 

 

 

 

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Farewell, Sasha Minor

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Farewell, Sasha Minor

Posted on 27 July 2012 by Tim Horsey

On Thursday, one of the most gifted players on the NHL market was finally scooped up after a grueling 26 days on the free-agent market. There had been rumors of a return to his former franchise and a possible return to his homeland (Mother Russia), but when all the dust was settled, Alexander Semin became a Carolina Hurricane.

Semin signed a one-year, 7-million dollar deal with the Hurricanes on Thursday. Semin, who has always been top-5 player in terms of skill in the NHL, can certainly boost the offensive production of any franchise.

That is, if the “good” Semin decides to show up and play consistently, something that plagued his time as a member of the Washington Capitals.

One can speculate about the terms of Semin’s new deal, but the general consensus is that Semin is the type of player that GMs are scared-to-death to lock up to a long-term deal. He is the embodiment of Katy Perry’s “Hot and Cold”, going stretches where his lethal shot tears holes through the net, then follows that up with games in which he contributes nothing but 2-to-3 stick penalties.

The cliché here being, “you take the good with the bad.”

When Semin is good, he is very good. After being drafted by the Capitals with the 13th pick in the 2002 draft, Semin totaled 197 goals, 211 assists, and 408 points. He ranks 5th on the Capitals all-time goal-scoring list. He is only one of 18 players in the NHL to average at least 30 goals during the last six seasons. And at only 28, Semin is in the prime of his career.

Carolina, in particular, is very wary of Semin’s elite goal-scoring ability. During his seven seasons in Washington, Semin totaled 27 goals and 45 points, his highest totals against NHL team.

But, there is also “Sasha Minor.” Semin has logged 450 penalty minutes over his career, a number that is much too high for top-six, goal-scoring forward. But the biggest problem with Semin is his consistency, or should I say, his lack of it. He also was never a good playoff producer. In his 51 Stanley Cup playoff games, Semin only scored 15 goals, and had just two points (both assists) in the 2009 playoffs, where the Caps were upset by 8-seeded Montreal in seven games.

If you are one of my loyal listeners from Dropping the Gloves, which is back on the air this fall Wednesdays from 1-2 p.m. on WMUCSports.com (I’m not above shameless plugs), you pretty much know my opinion on Semin. I like players who first and foremost provide a consistency to the team. Your teammates, coaches, and fans should know what to expect from you on any given night. For seven seasons, the Capitals looked to Semin to be a bonafide number-two scoring option behind Alex Ovechkin, and for seven seasons, they got nothing but a player with the occasional hat trick and the more than occasional hooking minor. I also like clutch performers, and although I understand Semin is not the only Capital who seems to shy away in crunch time, he is one of the main culprits.

Many fans like Semin (my co-host on Dropping the Gloves is a huge supporter), but I just could not handle the inconsistency. I honestly thought that Semin was going to be dealt at the trade deadline, and when I heard the rumors that Semin may return to the Caps this offseason, I was disappointed. Again, I understand the temptation. When he is on his game, Semin is one of the deadliest snipers in the game, who also provides stick-handling skills that are all-world. But when he is off, which is way too often for my taste, his game is filled with inconsistency and lazy stick penalties.

I wish Semin the best in his time in Carolina (except against the Caps, of course). He’ll probably go on to become the consistent scoring threat that all Caps fans dreamed of for seven years, but at least he is no longer a headache for the Washington organization. Farewell Sasha Minor.

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Big Night in Pittsburgh for Caps

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Big Night in Pittsburgh for Caps

Posted on 22 June 2012 by Ed Frankovic

For over three years, the Capitals have been looking for a solution to their second line center problem. On Friday night in Pittsburgh at the 2012 NHL draft, Washington Caps General Manager George McPhee may have finally filled that hole by obtaining 32 year old center Mike Ribeiro from the Dallas Stars in exchange for Cody Eakin and the Capitals second round pick in the 2012 draft (which was obtained in the Semyon Valramov trade last summer). Ribeiro is a highly skilled playmaker who has a bit of an edge to him. He’s been a player I have always liked because he makes the guys around him better. To top it off, McPhee gave up a player in Eakin that scouts I spoke to projected to be a fourth line player, and perhaps a third liner, at best in the NHL. So giving up a smaller forward and a second round pick for a top six legitimate forward is big for Washington. Of course the down side is Ribeiro’s age and he only has one year left on his current contract ($5M).

Shortly after McPhee announced the big trade, his night got even better as club after club selected defensemen ahead of the Caps, who were set to pick 11th and 16th in the first round. Washington was fortunate as Swedish forward Filip Forsberg, who was ranked third overall on TSN’s board, fell to the 11th slot. The talented winger, who reportedly likes to play a physical game, is signed to play another year in Europe, but that is a good thing, in my book. Rushing players to the NHL is usually not wise and this will allow Forsberg to develop even more physically.

Speaking of physical, that is the route the Capitals went with their next first round choice at 16th overall choosing 6′ 4″ winger Tom Wilson from the Plymouth Whalers. Craig Button praised Wilson earlier in the week on the NHL Network and in this blog post on Wilson, he appears to be a team guy who can play any role asked of him, as evidenced by the fact that when moved up a line in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) playoffs this spring, his offensive stats rose dramatically.

McPhee also mentioned that he is done interviewing for the Capitals head coaching position and will attempt to make a decision in the coming days. There is much speculation that Adam Oates could be the choice, but GMGM plays things very close to the vest so I think he may be the only one who knows for sure which direction he is leaning.

Overall, it was a big night of action for the Caps in Pittsburgh and the Capitals have eight more picks to work with on day two of the draft on Saturday. Getting Ribeiro fills a major void and the two forwards selected help re-stock the prospect cupboards to go along with forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and Stanislav Galiev. Both Russian players from the 2010 draft appear to be have top six potential and heading into tonight that was Washington’s biggest weakness at the NHL level. They still could use a top six winger or two, especailly with Alex Semin set to depart in free agency, but wingers are easier to find than centers. Free agency begins on July 1st. Caps development camp is set for July 9-14 at Kettler IcePlex so everyone will get a chance to see the new draftees, Forsberg and Wilson, in action in the coming weeks.

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It’s Time for the Caps to Make Some Big Moves

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It’s Time for the Caps to Make Some Big Moves

Posted on 15 June 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee held a “State of the Caps” press conference Thursday at Kettler IcePlex in preparation for some important events coming up on the NHL calendar, namely the NHL draft on June 22-23 in Pittsburgh and the beginning of free agency on July 1st.  In addition, McPhee stated that the coaching search is continuing and he is in no rush to hire a new bench boss to replace Dale Hunter, who announced he is returning to his junior team (London Knights) following the Caps second round playoff loss to the Rangers.

It was an insightful session, granted you realize that there was no way McPhee was going to show any of his cards as he prepares for as important an off-season as the Capitals have had in several years. For a quick synopsis of the press conference, I highly recommend Mike Vogel’s Dump ‘n Chase blog.

So why is this such an important off-season for the Capitals?

For me, the team is finally in a salary cap position to re-tool the roster given that high priced players Alexander Semin and Dennis Wideman are set to test the free agent waters. In addition, McPhee has two first round picks in the upcoming draft, the 11th and 16th overall selections. Given the salary cap room and assets in the system, GMGM has a big opportunity to try and obtain the pieces this Capitals team needs to finally get over the hump in the post season.

Since the lockout, McPhee has chosen to go the draft route to build this Capitals team adding free agents or players via trades, when needed. It is a strategy that has worked well in getting Washington to become a consistent playoff team (five years in a row). The Caps have an explosive talent in Alexander Ovechkin and the combination of the Gr8 and winning has seen the Verizon Center become a “place to be,” as evidenced by the fact that the team has sold out 153 consecutive games.

McPhee made mention of that in his press conference, talking about the value of “building from within.” He compared the Los Angeles Kings, who raised Lord Stanley’s Cup for the first time ever this past week, to his own club pointing out that significant players Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick were all LA draft picks. Clearly Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Karl Alzner, Mike Green, and Braden Holtby form a comparable group for Washington to the Kings crew listed above. Both teams successfully stockpiled picks for several years and used the draft to help build a large portion of the core of their team.

But that is where the comparisons stop for me. After the names listed above the Kings can add Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Justin Williams, and Dustin Penner. Those are four top six forwards to go with Kopitar and Brown and each one was acquired in a trade with the Richards and Carter deals falling in the blockbuster category. Kings GM Dean Lombardi recognized the holes on his top two lines long ago, as LA was reportedly one of the finalists in both the Ilya Kovalchuk (2010 trade deadline) and Brad Richards (summer 2011) sweepstakes, before the Devils and Rangers obtained their respective services. To get each of those top four forwards, Lombardi traded the following:

Richards (acquired summer 2011):  forward Wayne Simmonds (2nd round in 2007), forward Brayden Schenn (1st round & 5th overall in 2009), and a 2012 second round pick

Carter (acquired trade deadline 2012): defensemen Jack Johnson (1st round & 3rd overall in 2005) and a 1st round pick in either 2012 or 2013

Williams (acquired trade deadline 2009): forward Patrick O’Sullivan and a 2nd round pick

Penner (acquired trade deadline 2011): defensemen Colten Teubert (1st round & 13th overall in 2008), a 1st round pick in 2011, and a conditional 2nd round pick

Those four, with Kopitar and Brown are arguably as good a top six group of forwards as any in the league. To get those players Lombardi had to give up assets, high drafted players along with high draft picks. Lombardi has also done well in the free agent market adding key defensemen Rob Scuderi (in 2009 from the Penguins) and Willie Mitchell (in 2010 from the Canucks). McPhee actually had Mitchell in town in 2010 before he eventually inked with the Kings. Simply put, the Kings GM made some very bold moves and took chances to build what is now a championship winning club.

Coaching is important in hockey, but there is no substitute for quality players. Darryl Sutter didn’t start working magic with the Kings until the Carter trade occurred, which gave Los Angeles two scoring lines. As McPhee said in his press conference, the coach he is looking for is one who will get the entire team to buy in. Dale Hunter did that this year with the Caps and they had some success, but in the end they were done in by their inability to score goals. I put that issue on the personnel as the Capitals were essentially a one line team, making it much easier to shut down the Caps big guns.

So the coaching system by itself, in my opinion, is mostly irrelevent, because the major driver in winning or losing is the talent level. As we stand now, assuming Semin leaves, there are at least two, and perhaps three or four, openings on the top two lines. Fill those gaps and whatever coach McPhee brings in can implement whatever system he chooses to try. After all, a coaching system can be changed or tweaked by the bench boss, but you don’t have a lot of opportunities to change the personnel, especially once the season starts. As GMGM stated at his presser on Thursday, the next few weeks seem to be the best time to make moves to improve your club. McPhee said it is not his desired route, he prefers to make changes while games and practices are occurring, but that is the way things have shaken out since the lockout ended and the NHL entered the salary cap era.

In pro sports, consistent winners almost always have a good draft history, so there is no question that is the main building block for a successful organization. The Caps have done that over the last five plus years. However, to get to the elite level and break through to win a championship, it is clear that management needs to take some additional chances. Recent Stanley Cup victories by the Kings, Bruins, Blackhawks, and Penguins bear that out.

GMGM stated last month that he tried to move one of next week’s first round selections for a top six forward at last February’s trade deadline but the return wasn’t deemed great enough that day. So McPhee knows what he needs to do, but coming out and saying that in a press conference now only drives prices up, so it is rare that you’ll hear the GM openly state his intentions.  

Based on the talk on twitter from several NHL insiders just today, the trade market is getting hot again and prices are not likely as high as they were in late February since there are more teams willing to move players. Washington needs an influx of high end players, especially at forward, if they want to challenge for a Stanley Cup.

That is why this offseason is so important for the Capitals. They can’t afford to play on the edges anymore, so McPhee must be aggressive and try to make some big moves to improve the talent level. Hopefully he can find the right dance partners in the coming weeks.

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Caps & Other Hockey Thoughts on the Eve of the Stanley Cup Finals

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Caps & Other Hockey Thoughts on the Eve of the Stanley Cup Finals

Posted on 29 May 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Now that it has been over two weeks and the dust has settled on another crushing playoff defeat, Capitals fans can look forward to the Stanley Cup Finals and the exciting things to come for their team following it. This Caps off-season will be like no other in the recent past because General Manager George McPhee not only has to select a new coach, he has two first round choices in the 2012 NHL draft (11th and 16th overall picks), and he also has a lot of salary cap room to work with for the first time since perhaps the summer of 2008. With the Alexander Semin departure freeing up $6.7M on the books and Dennis Wideman’s $3.5M hit expiring along with some other smaller contracts that have ended (see Mike Knuble and Tomas Vokoun), GMGM has some flexibility to reshape the team and hopefully fill the holes that has prevented the club from advancing past the second round of the playoffs over the last five years.

So with that as a stage setter, here are 10 thoughts on the Caps, the NHL, the Memorial Cup, as well as my Stanley Cup Finals prediction:

- With the Finals starting Wednesday (8 pm on NBC), Tuesday was media day at “The Rock” in New Jersey. One of my favorite quotes of the afternoon came from Kings coach Darryl Sutter when he was talking about what turned it around for his club after it struggled during much of the regular season. He began by talking about guys starting to understand his system but then focused on center Mike Richards ability to find his game again in mid March after suffering a concussion earlier in the campaign. He then said the addition of Jeff Carter from Columbus at the trade deadline was the final piece needed since it allowed him to spread the offensive wealth. Specifically, he was talking about Kings superstar forward Anze Kopitar, who was having a hard time scoring goals. “At that position, you can’t be great all by yourself,” said Sutter. That excellent quote, which explains a lot, could easily be uttered by several other teams in the league who struggle to win consistently without two true scoring lines (see the Caps and Alexander Ovechkin).

- It is always tough to watch the playoff round following the one in which your team is eliminated and that was truly the case this spring once Washington was bounced by the Rangers in seven games. I fully expected the Caps to knock off the Rags but the bounces did not go the Capitals way at all in games three and five and Henrik Lundqvist was superb in net. Coach John Tortorella also received excellent play from defensemen Michael Del Zotto and forward Marian Gaborik in that series. Against the Devils, it was a different story and New Jersey dominated the Blueshirts before dispatching them in six games. Del Zotto was terrible against Peter DeBoer’s club and Gaborik disappeared like Jimmy Hoffa. On Frozen Blog’s John Keeley, before the Devils series against New York, penned a super blog on Lou Lamoriello’s club. John was spot on about the Devils talent and style of play and had the Caps beaten the Rangers, I don’t think they would’ve have been able to defeat the three time Stanley Cup Champions, but I sure would have liked to have seen Dale Hunter and company try!

- Speaking of Tortorella, there is no doubt that he is a super hockey mind but his abrupt and abrasive press conferences following playoff defeats became a hot topic in the Washington and then the New Jersey series. It got so bad that super NHL Network analysts’ Kevin Weekes and Craig Button finally called him out on it. Everyone knew Torts was trying to deflect criticism of his club and put the heat on himself, but the Rangers bench boss clearly took it too far. However, the man who has a very classy side, as was displayed on HBO’s 24/7 series, smartly changed his ways and was insightful and more patient with the media even while his team lost the last three contests to give away a chance to play in the Stanley Cup Finals. He was even more revealing and truly honest this past Monday during his club’s breakdown day. He talked about how certain players get what the team is trying to do while others do not. He said it would be up to the organization to get rid of those not on board. You can’t be much more up front than that and it was certainly refreshing to hear a truthful assessment of a team following their defeat with no excuses offered (such as Phoenix blaming the referees in the Western Conference Finals). Kudos to Tortorella, who also FULLY endorsed assistant coach Mike Sullivan for any NHL head coaching opening. Well done John, I was tough on you this post season but you’ve gone way up again in my book with your late playoff changed ways with the media, who work hard to promote the game many of us truly love. Perhaps I’ll take a cue from Torts and go easier on the referees next season??!! On second thought, I will have to think a little bit more on that one. ;)

- As for Sullivan, it is rumored that Calgary is the leading destination for the former Boston Bruins bench boss given his past relationship with Flames GM Jay Feaster in Tampa. Many once fired coaches learn and improve the second time around (see Bill Belichick and Joe Torre) and “Sully” seems to be the hot prospect this spring. I imagine the Capitals have strong interest in the New York assistant too given that the style Washinton played under Hunter is similar to what Sullivan and Tortorella were using in New York. With all of the moving pieces McPhee has going on this summer it will be interesting to see if Washington’s GM sets up his roster first before picking a head coach (the patient route that New Jersey took last summer with DeBoer) or he selects a coach and shapes the roster to fit the new coach’s style. Put me in the first category as I think the Capitals need to play a style like they played this post season. They need to continue to be responsible in their own end. Now if GMGM adds some offensive talent, and there is no doubt he has top six forwards in mind, then the club can be more aggressive offensively like New Jersey and Los Angeles are doing now, but both teams still have a STRONG defensive foundation at the root of their respective systems.

- When it comes to defense, I have to wonder what the heck happened to the Pittsburgh Penguins this spring?! That club was most people’s pick to go to and win the Finals this June but Coach Dan Bylsma’s squad fell flat on their faces. The Pens clearly lost their focus down the stretch and their play away from the puck, especially in their own end, was just awful. They had the most talented roster in the Eastern Conference and laid an egg in the first round. It is more proof that you have to be responsible defensively if you want to win the Stanley Cup and Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and company seemed to have forgotten all of the good defensive lessons former coach Michel Therrien taught them before being dismissed during their 2008-09 Cup winning season. Wide open hockey does not work in the post season, plain and simple, just ask the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers and they will confirm that axiom.

- After Hunter left his post here in Washington, he immediately went to sit in the press box and watch his London Knights battle for the Memorial Cup, which is the championship tournament featuring a pre determined host city and the three winners of Canada’s top junior leagues (the Western Hockey League (WHL), the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMHJL), and the Ontario Hockey League (OHL)). London won from the OHL, Edmonton represented the WHL, while the defending Memorial Cup champs, the Saint John Sea Dogs, represented the QMHJL. The host city, Shawinigan, was the fourth club. The host Cataractes ended up defeating Hunter’s club in overtime of the final game to capture the Cup in a 2-1 thriller. Both goalies (Michael Houser of London and Gabriel Girard of Shawinigan) were impressive in the final match as were several other already NHL drafted players. Jarred Tinordi (Montreal), Austin Watson (Nashville), and Brandon Gormley (Phoenix) really stood out for me and seem poised to have good NHL careers. Russian Krill Kabanov (Islanders), who had one crazy junior career, did some nice things as well but it remains to be seen if he turns out to be an every day NHLer. The undrafted player that was high on my radar was Max Domi of London, son of former Leafs and Rangers tough guy, Tie. The 17 year old, who is draft eligible in 2013, was all over the ice with his speed and tenacious play. He isn’t big right now size wise, but he plays large and I have to think many teams will be very interested in him next June.

- Stan Galiev, of the Caps, played again for Saint John in the Memorial Cup, and the 2010 third round pick seems to have a bright future. He projects to be a top six offensive player but personally I think it would be wise for Washington to let him get at least a year in Hershey to properly develop and gain size and confidence.  The Russian forward will definitely help the Bears next season, who will not have former AHL Calder Cup MVP Chris Bourque back next year. Bourque, who very recently became a first time father, was traded on Sunday to Boston for center Zach Hamill. Hamill was the 8th overall pick in the 2007 draft and is still just 23 years old. He should help Hershey next season, as well.

- After last February’s NHL trade deadline I asked an NHL scout, with over 20 years in the business, why Tampa didn’t get a goalie this season when it was clear that it was their biggest hole and was certain to prevent them from making the playoffs despite the great goal scoring year Steven Stamkos was having. The scout said something that was quite telling. “It is not as easy as it seems to find what you need.” I expect Tampa to go after Vokoun or some other veteran goalie this summer to go along with youngster Dustin Tokarski, who won the 2008 Memorial Cup with Spokane.

- By the way, that scout’s quote is clearly relevant to what McPhee has been dealing with when it comes to second line center. GMGM knows he needs a center, but he’s been unable to get one for many reasons. As I said above, this summer might be his best chance, given the flexibility he finally has in terms of salary cap room. However, it takes two to tango and you can bet that other GM’s may not be willing to give what the Capitals desperately need without getting something significant back. Recent history shows though, that getting the superstar player while sacrificing lesser players, draft picks, and prospects is a recipe for success. Los Angeles, who did that to get Richards and Carter, and New Jersey, who did the same in acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk, both went that route and have been rewarded with a shot at the Cup. Pittsburgh did the same when it plucked Marian Hossa from Atlanta back in 2008. So it seems to make sense for GMGM to be aggressive and try and hit the home run on the center position this summer by giving up some assets to finally get an elite player to complement Nicklas Backstrom up the middle and alleviate some of the pressure on Ovechkin.

- Finally, I am going with the Kings in five games in the Stanley Cup Finals. Los Angeles is just rolling right now and my only concern with them is their eight day layoff. I can’t see their power play continuing to struggle the way it has to date in the post season. I love the way the Devils play the game and Zach Parise is one of the best players in the NHL right now. However, I think they are over matched in this series and if they don’t win game one, then this thing could be over quick. However, if New Jersey holds serve at home against a LA squad that is perfect on the road this post season, then anything can happen. That is why they play the games. Enjoy!

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Another Crushing End to a Caps Hockey Season

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Another Crushing End to a Caps Hockey Season

Posted on 12 May 2012 by Ed Frankovic

There are no moral victories in pro sports, so the fact that the Capitals, after a dismal regular season made it to game seven of the second round, only to lose 2-1 to New York, shouldn’t make any Caps fan feel good about the season. Nope, this campaign is another failure in my book because Washington didn’t even get to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The game five meltdown, which officially stands as the worst loss in team history by my accounting, cost the Capitals a chance to play the New Jersey Devils for a shot at the Stanley Cup Finals. Instead they lose to a club they beat in FIVE games in the spring of 2011. The Rangers didn’t have Ryan Callahan last April when the Capitals dominated them, but they didn’t have Brandon Dubinsky in this series either. What the Blueshirts did have are two bonafide top line centers. GM Glen Sather, who once moaned in Edmonton about not being able to spend money to stay competitive, went out and got Brad Richards and at the end of the day, he was the difference between the Capitals going golfing and the Rags moving on to face Marty Brodeur and company.

It is a bitter pill to swallow for Caps fans and the core of Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin, Mike Green, and Brooks Laich has now gone five years without advancing past the second round. Ovechkin, after a great game six, was pretty much a non factor in the most important game of his career. It will be an interesting off-season now with Semin, Dennis Wideman, Tomas Vokoun, and Mike Knuble all unrestricted free agents. In addition, #52 is a restricted free agent.

Meanwhile, Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Laich will be back for sure, as well as Joel Ward, given their contracts. Roman Hamrlik will also likely be back since he gets $3.5M for another season (and he played very well in the post season).  Jeff Schultz is still due $2.75M for each of the next two seasons so he’s not going anywhere either.

Despite the overall failure, there were some good things that came out of this season. We know that Karl Alzner and John Carlson are a super defensive pair and should both be locked up long term, at some point. Braden Holtby stepped up and proved that he just might be the number one goalie going forward, his puck handling skills certainly helps the defense. We also know that this team can play the type of hockey necessary to win in the post season from a defensive standpoint. Guys like Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle were major positives in an underachieving regular season. I am squarely in the corner of hoping that Dale Hunter is the coach next season. I’d just like to see him have more of his type of players.

The Caps have two first round picks in the upcoming draft, which reportedly is a good one. But General Manager George McPhee must FINALLY address the real problem facing this club, a lack of another center to go along with Backstrom. The Caps continue to rotate players in and out of that position and it is the MAIN reason why they are so wildly inconsistent (see only 4 shots in period three tonight when their season was on the line). Marucs Johansson, Mathieu Perreault, and Laich were all tried there this season and the problem was never really solved. It also IS the reason why the Caps nearly missed the playoffs before a late rally. No Backstrom for 40 games meant a lack of top two centers for half of the season.

Another reason for the season failure is the power play. The Caps were given a chance to tie the game up late in regulation in this one and it failed miserably. I still want to know why Johansson is on the first unit instead of someone with more strength along the boards and more ability to get to the front of the net? Also, Carlson would have been a much better choice than Wideman on the point and the indecision and lack of chemistry between #6 and #52 prevented the Capitals from getting set up at a critical time in the season. Special teams decide playoff series and the Rangers won it with their PP in game five while the Caps blew their golden opportunity to tie the game with the man advantage in game seven.

So another season goes in the books for the Caps. I call this one an overall failure and another major opportunity to win their first Stanley Cup wasted.

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Fast Start, Special Teams Propel Caps into Game 7

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Fast Start, Special Teams Propel Caps into Game 7

Posted on 10 May 2012 by Ed Frankovic

After losing game five in traumatic fashion and facing post season elimination, the Washington Capitals needed a fast start in game six on Wednesday night at the Verizon Center to stay alive in their best of seven series with the New York Rangers.

Boy did they get just what the doctor ordered.

All series I’ve been talking about the Capitals needing to use their speed to take advantage of a slooowww New York Rangers defense and right out of the gate the Caps did just that. Jason Chimera went flying by Anton Stralman and the Rangers d-man had to haul him down. Out trotted the Caps power play but instead of Alexander Ovechkin at the point, like he typically is, Coach Dale Hunter had Mike Green and Dennis Wideman manning the blue line with the Gr8 down low with Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson. Talk about making the right move at the right time, Ovechkin alertly worked himself into the slot and found himself wide open. Super Swede #19 fed him beautifully and the Gr8 one timed it top right corner past Henrik Lundqvist only 88 seconds into the contest. Verizon Center erupted and Hunter said afterwards that every team plays better with a lead. He also talked about the changed power play configuration, which this team actually practiced before the playoffs began and have used a couple of times this post season, but not much, if at all, in this series.

“It’s just one of those changes we make. We thought that Ovi, with his big shot, could get a shot off. On the play, one of their players fell and really left an opening and a shot from there by Ovi doesn’t miss very often,” said Hunter.

The goal was doubly important because it came on the power play and when you score first and carry the special teams battle, you normally win the hockey game. On this night Washington would go 1 for 3 with the man advantage while killing off all five Blueshirts power plays (10 minutes worth).

Another big key to victory was the play of the Backstrom-Chimera-Alex Semin line. That unit gave the Rangers fits all evening and it was the strong play on the boards of #’s 19 and 28 that allowed the Capitals to get their first two goal lead since game two. Backstrom started it behind the net and then Semin made a strong move off of the wall shedding his Ranger defender. #28 found an open John Carlson on the far boards, who blasted one towards the net. Backstrom had come out to position himself in the prime scoring position and the puck hit him and bounced right to Chimera, who deposited it in the empty cage.

The goal, just a second before the 11 minute mark, was crucial. After that Jeff Halpern, who replaced an injured Jay Beagle in the lineup, took a four minute high sticking penalty and Caps fans everywhere had to be thinking, following the Joel Ward infraction that cost Washington game five, “here we go again.” But the Capitals penalty killing, which started with great goaltending from Braden Holtby (30 saves), was superb and New York lost momentum when the four minutes were up.

In the final frame, the Caps played sound defensively. They counterattacked and had opportunities to score with Ovechkin having two good chances and setting up Johansson for another, but King Henrik (21 saves) stood tall. New York had another late surge and scored with the goalie pulled after a Caps lost face-off with 50 seconds remaining. The Rangers don’t quit, that is for sure, and that late game play is something Washington must improve on if they want to advance. Following that goal, though, the Capitals did win a few draws and Holtby didn’t have to make any big stops until the final horn sounded.

So it all comes down to a pivotal game seven on Saturday night at 730pm. The #1 seeded Rangers playing on home ice have to be the favorites. However, as I said before game seven in Boston, there can be an advantage to being the road team. The home team has distractions with ticket requests and extra pressure being the favored club while the visitors just show up and play a hockey game. It is a nice position for Washington to be in, but don’t get me wrong, there is pressure on this team to win this series as many players jobs are likely riding on it.

Historically, the Caps have stunk in game sevens (3-7), however, most of those (8 of the 10) have been on home ice. They won the last one in Boston on the road, but can they do it again and win on Broadway to finally make it to the Eastern Conference Finals?

We shall see, but it is vitally important that the core of this team, which is Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green, Semin, and Brooks Laich, find a way to break through in their fifth straight post-season.

Notes: Karl Alzner and Carlson did a great job against Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards, and either Carl Hagelin or Ryan Callahan on their defensive shifts. Alzner told me playing against those guys is “a lot of fun.” A battle on the boards ensues on every shift, it seems, and Alzner says that those guys are so skilled that you have to be sure you move the puck quickly or they can take it back fast…Matt Hendricks said that the Rangers like to come out of the cycle and get the puck into the slot. The Caps cut those attempts off most of the evening…Washington won the face-off battle 38-27 with Backstrom going 10-5…Richards, Callahan, and Gaborik all played over 22 minutes each…the Caps ice time distribution was much more balanced with Alzner leading the way with 23:13 and Carlson logging 22:00.

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