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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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Caps Collapse Late, Lose in Overtime

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Caps Collapse Late, Lose in Overtime

Posted on 07 May 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Just when Washington Capitals fans have thought they’ve seen it all, their beloved Caps found another way to lose a huge game, and perhaps a playoff series.

With the Caps clinging to a one goal lead and just 22 seconds left, Joel Ward did the UNTHINKABLE, he got careless with his stick and took a double minor penalty.

And you can guess what happened next, the Rangers pulled their goalie and tied the game with seven seconds left and then won it in ovetime on the second half of the power play on a Marc Staal point blast.

It was as cruel a loss as Caps fans can likely remember as they had a 3-2 series lead right there in the palm of their hand only to get careless.

The Rangers now lead this best of seven series three games to two with game six set for Verizon Center on Wednesday night. The Caps have never won a playoff series that was tied after four games when they’ve lost game five, they’d also won every playoff series in which they won game five in that same scenario.

What is even more of a killer is that Washington survived a terrible 1st period and seemed ready to take control of the series when John Carlson scored on the power play 4:20 into period three. The Caps would play a really good final stanza, up until the end, and get several odd man chances. Nicklas Backstrom hit the iron on a breakaway as Henrik Lundqvist got a piece of the shot, then the Capitals had a three on one but Staal made a great play to break that up. Those missed opportunities can sometimes come back to haunt you. 

Still with 22 seconds left, it looked good for Washington, then Ward, who was the hero in Boston in game seven, snatched the goat horns.  But the Caps could’ve still killed the six on four situation but the Rangers once again got a bounce they needed as Ryan Callahan tipped the puck to Brad Richards just before Braden Holtby was about to cover the puck. The Blueshirts pulled it out and then took advantage of the double minor carrying over to OT.

The question now is can the Capitals respond to adversity once again? This is as bad of a loss as I can remember in Washington hockey history. The only good news is there is still at least one more game to play.

Guess we will find out what this team is made of on Wednesday night.

Notes: In 12 Caps playoff games, the team scoring first has now won 11 of them…Alex Semin took two elbows to the head in the middle frame and only played one more shift that period. He did play in the third period. Dan Girardi had one of the elbows and it was #6 who smashed Mike Green in overtime and came up off of the ice on the play. If it was a Cap player doing that the New York media would start whining from here to California…

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Mentally Tough Caps Even Up Series

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Mentally Tough Caps Even Up Series

Posted on 05 May 2012 by Ed Frankovic

For all of the talk out of the Big Apple about the mental toughness of the Rangers in their three overtime victory early Thursday morning, the Washington Capitals sure answered back on Saturday with a gritty 3-2 victory at the Verizon Center on Mike Green’s late power play goal. It was a huge marker for #52 and the Caps, who now have tied this series up at two games apiece as it moves back to Manhattan for game five on Monday.

If you were projecting the future based on Caps team history, this was a contest that Washington probably would have lost following a heart breaking defeat in game three. But we just might be seeing a different Capitals club that is doing their best to rewrite that book with a brand new chapter. 

Today’s victory was a combination of the Young Guns stepping up their respective games combined with more solid play from some of the key guys who helped win two straight Calder Cups in Hershey plus some true blue collar grit from several grinders. Simply put, there were many players who contributed their part to the win.

Let’s go down the list starting with the Young Guns:

Alexander Ovechkin scored in the first period to give the Caps an important 1-0 lead off of a Rangers turnover. Why was that goal so key? Well in 11 playoff games this spring that the Caps have played, the first goal has won 10 of them (including today).

Nicklas Backstrom was probably the best forward on the ice today. #19 was a BEAST. His play on the second goal was pure power and skill as he showed his amazing strength on his skates by knocking Artem Anisimov to the ice like he was a flea and then the Young Swede skated into prime scoring position, took a sweet pass from Jason Chimera, and beat Henrik Lundqvist top shelf.

Green is a player that I felt would be the difference maker in this series in my round two preview. Today #52 made it happen for the Capitals. Game Over Greenie was +1 in 22:08 of ice and his rocket of a shot past King Henrik with 5:48 remaining was just what he and the team needed.

Alexander Semin was pointless but he came close to making it 3-1 in the middle frame. #28 was inches away from making a big play to break this game open or give the Caps the lead a few times but just couldn’t get a bounce. Perhaps in game five he will be rewarded for what was a good 17:02 from him on Saturday?

Now to the Hershey crew:

Karl Alzner and John Carlson were as solid as rocks on the back end. Alzner is the team’s shut down d-man and Carlson was all over the ice again winning lose puck battles and being a physical force. #74 is playing the best hockey of his young career and it was his strong play on the offensive blue line that kept the puck in the zone and as a result Carl Hagelin took his critical slashing penalty. #62 broke Carlson’s stick and the zebras had to call it, otherwise Marian Gaborik has a breakaway (the Rangers were upset that an Ovechkin slash on Brian Boyle minutes earlier wasn’t whistled but given that it happened in a non-threatening area of the ice, they let it go. Besides, the Rangers received two power plays in OT on Wednesday to none for the Caps so they can whine all they want, but they’ve had their share of the calls in this series.)

Jay Beagle was super once again in his own zone and even though he was 5-13 on face-offs, some of those key wins were at the end of the game. #83 is one of the best stories of the Caps season.

Braden Holtby continues to be unflappable in net and he made some big stops (18 saves overall). The two tallies against him were the result of poor coverage and bad breaks. On the first goal the puck bounces off of Brooks Laich’s skates right to Anisimov, who received a layup. The second tally started with bad officiating from the linesmen. The back linesman, who was directly in #70′s sight line, was calling icing but when the puck went over Dennis Wideman’s head the near linesman, for some crazy reason, waved it off. Holtby didn’t hear or see that and had his arm up thinking one of the Caps would touch up the puck. Instead Anisimov beat Wideman to the biscuit and #6 and Jeff Schultz both made the cardinal sin of vacating the front of the cage. That allowed Gaborik to get a lay up. Poor communication there first by the linesmen, second between Holtby and his d-pair, and more importantly, it was terrible non-talk by #6 and #55 to not decide who was staying out front. Holtby told me after the game had it not been icing he would have definitely played the puck. Oh well, there is one of those zebra breaks that went New York’s way. Overall, the missed calls have pretty much evened out through four games.

As for the grinders, the list of hard workers that got it done is long.

Let’s start with Matt Hendricks who is doing ALL of the intangibles. #26 blocks shots, wins puck battles and just sacrificies like no tomorrow for his team. I can’t say enough good things about his determination and effort.

Laich, Troy Brouwer, Roman Hamrlik, Joel Ward, Chimera, Mike Knuble, and Keith Aucoin all did the little things necessary to win a tight hockey game. These guys all want to win badly.

So at the end of the day, Coach Dale Hunter has to feel good about his club. As he’s said and I’ve blogged about time and time again, special teams is such a huge factor in the playoffs. Today the Capitals started and finished strong with their power play (1 for 2) while they received two key penalty kills in the middle frame (2 for 2 overall). The PK’s were especially important because the Rangers dominated the first 10 minutes of that period but Alzner, Carlson, and Beagle all confirmed to me afterwards that Washington’s mid game turnaround was sparked by those penalty kills. If the Rangers go up 2-1 there, the series may have been squarely in the corner of New York, but they didn’t get that key go ahead goal and Washington went on to get a huge victory.

It was a win that showed their mental toughness and came after a rough defeat. Holtby and the Caps are now 5-0 after a loss in these playoffs.

They now head to New York on Monday to try and write a new chapter in Capitals history, one that could have a positive ending, for the first time in a very long time.

Stay tuned.

Notes: The Caps outshot the Rangers 26-20 but attempted shots were 52-40 in favor of the Blueshirts…Green’s goal came with he and Wideman on the points on the PP and Ovechkin down low, something I’ve wanted to see more of. On the replay of the goal you see the Gr8 with a free lane to the net and I can’t help but think that Lundqvist’s peripheral vision catches that and prevents #30 from totally squaring up on Green’s shot…Schultz blocked nine shots but was -2 and Marcus Johansson was -1 with a couple of giveaways. Both need to be better, especialy MJ90 who played on the top line with Ovechkin and Laich…I was thrilled to see the 8-19-90 line broken up before puck drop today. It lacked net presence on Wednesday and in the playoffs you need someone to crash the cage on each shift. Hunter’s four lines on Saturday all had that element with the Knuble-Aucion-Ward line doing that the best…for more of my take on the game, check out a post game video I did over at On Frozen Blog.

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Caps Get Breaks in Game Two to Even Series

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Caps Get Breaks in Game Two to Even Series

Posted on 01 May 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Remember all of those posts the Washington Capitals hit in game one in their series opening loss to the New York Rangers? Well, it was the Blueshirts who clanked the iron repeatedly on Monday night as the Caps stole a win in New York on Alexander Ovechkin’s third period power play goal. The Gr8′s wrister with Troy Brouwer providing traffic with 7:27 left in regulation was just what the doctor ordered for Washington in a 3-2 victory. The series shifts to DC on Wednesday for game three at 730 pm.

This game seemed to have more of a pace to it than the opening salvo. The Rangers dominated the opening 10 minutes before Washington settled down and in true Dale Hunter hockey fashion, the Capitals scored in transition after playing good defense. Joel Ward, Mike Knuble, and Keith Aucion worked a masterful three on two and old man Knuble banged the puck home from the doorstep for the first marker.

Braden Holtby (26 saves) rebounded with a strong game after giving up some questionable goals on Saturday. Most notable was his save on Chris Kreider on a breakaway after the puck took a bounce on the Knicks ice over John Carlson’s stick at the offensive blue line. #70 made a huge save and Jay Beagle, Matt Hendricks, and Jason Chimera hustled at the other end to score after Henrik Lundqvist (22 saves) came out to play the puck and turned it over. That goal made it 2-0 Caps in the first period but from there it was some wild hockey and nail biting time for Capitals fans.

New York scored their first goal in four on four play, something the Caps have struggled with recently. Brooks Laich made a bad decision to change with the puck still in the neutral zone and Michael Del Zotto took advantage. The Rangers defenseman alertly pushed the puck up and Marian Gaborik got it to Brad Richards for an easy two on one goal. The Rangers would tie it up in the third period on the power play, which set the stage for Ovechkin’s game winner.

Basically, this series is pretty much dead even after two games. Rangers Coach John Tortorella had the last change for two games so Dale Hunter played it ultra conservatively and went mostly with his checkers, especially when leading. As a result, Ovechkin only played 13:36 and Alex Semin logged just 12:26 while grinders like Jay Beagle and Brouwer played 19:58 and 18:48, respectively. At the other end, Tortorella is pretty much going with three forward lines as four dressed Rangers played less than five minutes each (Stu Bickel, Mike Rupp, John Mitchell, and Artem Anisimov). This should be an advantage for Washington, especially as the series goes longer because the Caps have a more balanced lineup and the players should be more fresh.

Perhaps the best news of the night, though, was that the power play finally got untracked. They still have Ovechkin on the point but the Gr8 did make an adjustment, as former Caps PR director Nate Ewell pointed out. Alex went with a high wrister on the game winner instead of a slapper and Lundqvist struggled with it, especially with #20 battling with a Rangers defensemen right in front of him. If the Caps are going to win this series, special teams will need to be a difference maker. The Rangers play physical and they pounded Mike Green in the first period. That physical play though leads to penalties so a potent power play is really needed.

Looking at the three Capitals goals, they were all from in tight or with traffic. That is the only way to beat King Henrik. On Washington’s end, Holtby didn’t have much of a chance on either Rangers tally. They came as a result of Washington miscues.

So what do the Caps have to do to win Wednesday night? First thing is they need to play within themselves. They can’t go back to Harlem Globetrotters hockey with fancy drop passes a plenty in an effort to put on a show. They need to stick to this boring, grind it out style and take advantage of chances when they can. They need to get the pucks deep and wear out a not as deep New York roster. Finally, they have to get bodies and pucks to the net, otherwise Lundqvist will win the game.

Hunter now has the last change for two contests and can get the matchups he wants. The question is will the Capitals be able to execute in those matchups?

Smart, defensive hockey wins in the post season. Can the Capitals keep that up?

Notes: Another super game from John Carlson and Karl Alzner who led the team in ice time logging over 23 minutes each…Green played 8:31 in period one but finished with only 18:14 total. It made sense for Hunter to cut back his minutes because the Rangers were running him because 52 was ending up in too many tough situations with the puck…Jeff Schultz returned to the lineup for John Erskine and played 17:12..the face-off battle was even steven at 34 wins a piece.

 

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Bad Breaks and Mistakes Cost Caps in Game 1

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Bad Breaks and Mistakes Cost Caps in Game 1

Posted on 28 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

In hockey, there are bad breaks and there are mistakes. Both of those went against the Washington Capitals on Saturday in New York and as a result the Caps fell, 3-1, to the Rangers in game one of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Game two is on Monday Night from Madison Square Garden at 730 pm.

The disappointing thing in this game is the Capitals did a lot of good things and easily could have won. They hit at least three pipes and they held the Rangers to only 14 shots on goal. Normally when you hold an opponent to so few shots, you should win, but more on that in a moment. Washington only generated 18 shots on goal themselves but they missed the net or hit iron on several occassions. Alex Oveckhin missed the net on a golden chance in the third period, Nicklas Backstrom clanked the post twice, and Alex Semin hit the cross bar. Clearly Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (17 saves) had a golden horseshoe shoved away in the right place for this one. The Caps only goal was a thing of beauty, as Brooks Laich set up Jason Chimera for a sweet one timer by King Henrik with four seconds left in period two to knot the game heading into the final frame.

The Caps also did a good job of drawing penalties until the referees, Steve Kozari and Kevin Pollock, decided that tripping wasn’t going to be called on the Blueshirts over the last 30 minutes of the game. Blatant haul downs by the Rags on Marcus Johansson and Ovechkin were ignored. But that is what I expect from those two and you can’t blame this loss on the zebras, as bad as they were, at times. There was no way the power plays should have been four to four but Rangers Coach John Tortorella will probably still complain anyways about the refs, because that is what he does. Let him complain about that and the media too (which he did after the game), I hope it wears his team out emotionally.

So where did the Caps lose this one? Let’s start with beef #1, the power play. Special teams are so important in the post season and when you get four advantage situations in a scoreless game you need to capitalize on them. The Capitals did not on Saturday, including a 33 second five on three in the middle frame. I am going to sound like a broken record here, but there were not enough shots from the point with traffic in front or bodies around the net for rebounds. I don’t like the fact that Johansson had 3:18 of power play time while Laich only logged 2:09 and Mike Green had 2:18. Finesse does not work in the post season, grit does, so get Laich out there, move Ovechkin down low, and put Green or John Carlson on the point. Ovechkin had only 1 shot on goal in 21:03 of game time so clearly he is NOT needed on the point for the power play. If Washington wants to win this series, they need to take advantage of the dumb penalties an overly physical Rangers team will take.

Speaking of Green and being physical, as predicted in this blog last night the Rags would hit #52 and the other Caps ad nauseum early on to try and set a tone and get the Capitals to back down. It wouldn’t have worked very well had the power play been effective, and I still think the Caps responded okay to that early rough play. It is more than past time for the coaches to fix the power play, though. Also, Green did not have a good game at all and I labeled him as the key to the series. He was outmuscled by Artem Anisimov on the first goal and his brain cramp decision to attempt to change allowed Chris Kreider to get a semi breakaway and score the winning tally.

Braden Holtby (11 saves) gave up some goals he probably would want back but he wasn’t that bad. On the first marker he got caught trying to poke check Anisimov, on the second he got beat with a good but not impossible to stop shot, and the third he gave up five hole. But all three of them were the results of defensive mistakes, especially the second goal where the Caps coverage was horrible. In particular Chimera looked confused and then Dennis Wideman didn’t commit quick enough for Holtby to know whether Brad Richards was going to pass or shoot. As a result #19 had an open five hole to fire at and a skilled player like that is not going to miss.

As for the Washington skill players, they did not deliver on Saturday. Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, and Green all need to be performing for the Caps to get where they want to go. There are no injury excuses, this team is as healthy as it has been all season. Those four guys need to step up and get it done. Ovechkin must be better and he needs to more effectively use his talent to get by a slooooowwww Rangers defense. He isn’t playing Zdeno Chara anymore so 1 shot on net in 21 minutes is INEXCUSABLE.

Overall, the entire team needs to be willing to pay more of a price to score goals. If Lundqvist sees the shot, he is likely going to stop it. Washington needs to get more pucks and more bodies to the net. It is that simple.

Regular season point totals are hooey, especially given the injuries Washington had during the season, so I don’t want to hear the Rangers are supposed to win because of that. The Caps have the team their GM wants playing this time of year so they need to produce.

This is a very winnable series, but the Capitals have to play the right way. They didn’t do that consistently in game one, but the contest was on the road so the adage that a big advantage isn’t gained in a series until a team loses a game on home ice rings true this evening. New York had to win today and they did given their history of getting beaten by the Capitals in the post season two of the last three years  (yeah, I said that “crap” John and I hope you are reading too).

But the Caps should have won today.  Had they played smarter and more consistently they would have.

Will Monday be different?

Notes: John Erskine played only 8:17 as the Caps sixth defensemen. Cutting back his minutes messed up the rotation in the third period and as a result, it was Wideman and Karl Alzner on defense on the third goal…the Rangers dressed seven defensemen but stiffs Stu Bickel and Steve Eminger didn’t even combine to play 10 minutes total…fourth liner Mike Rupp took a bad penalty and played just 5:26…Tortorella basically relied on five defensemen and three lines so the Caps need to extend this series out because his top guys will eventually wear down playing so much.

 

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Can Ovechkin & Company Finally Make it Out of Round 2?

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Can Ovechkin & Company Finally Make it Out of Round 2?

Posted on 27 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

On Saturday afternoon at 3 pm the Washington Capitals will embark on a critical game one of their second round playoff series from Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers. The Blueshirts, coached by the fiery John Tortorella, are the number one seed in the Eastern Conference after a super regular season while the Caps are coming in as underdogs for the second straight series despite upsetting the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins in round one.

For Alexander Ovechkin, Mike Green, Brooks Laich, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin this will be their third venture into the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. So far they are 0-2. Last season they knocked off the Rags in five games before getting swept quickly by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Given that Washington has knocked off the Rangers two of the last three post seasons one has to wonder if perhaps the Capitals have the Rangers number? Maybe, but this is a different Rangers team.

Last spring they faced the Caps without an injured Ryan Callahan and then in the offseason they added a significant piece in center Brad Richards. Washington won that series in 2011 without Dennis Wideman (who had a so-so series, at best, against Boston) so the Rangers aren’t the only ones with a different roster for this matchup. New York is improved but I still think their defense is slow and they benefit a ton from Henrik Lundqvist bailing them out. Washington needs, like they did against Boston, to use their superior speed in the Caps forward to Rangers defense matchup. Guys like Marcus Johansson and Jason Chimera will play a key role once again.

When it comes to matchups, whatever forward-defensive combination coach Dale Hunter uses must contain Marian Gaborik and Richards. If those New York skill guys get on a roll then that spells trouble for Washington. You can bet that Jay Beagle, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson will factor into Hunter’s defensive matchups. As for Ovechkin, he had a rough series against the Bruins because he was facing Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, one of the best defensive pairs in the NHL. The Rangers will likely put Dan Girardi and Mark Staal up against the Gr8. But Ovechkin should be able to overcome Girardi better than he did the Boston duo of Chara and Seidenberg. Ovechkin needs to avoid trying too much one on one or trying to skate through the whole team. His best bet to score is to go to the net in this series. The Rangers defense doesn’t have the ability to move him down low so the Gr8 needs to drive to the cage as much as possible with the puck.

Braden Holtby comes off of a super round one performance and if he doesn’t try to do much and just plays his game, he should be fine. His puckhandling skills help prevented his defensemen from getting run regularly in round one and you can bet Tortorella will be instructing his forwards to pound the Washington defense, especially Green. To me, #52 is a major key to this series. If #52 continues to play well paired with Roman Hamrllik then that gives Hunter two really good defensive pairs to put on the ice (with 27-74) . The Rangers will try to run Green and he needs to be smart about how he plays going into the corners and on the rush. A good series from “Game Over Greenie” likely means the Caps will advance.

If Washington can find a way to win this series, then it signals that Ovechkin and company have finally turned the corner by buying into Hunter’s playoff style.

If not, then many players could be on their way out of town because it would be five straight post seasons without a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.

My prediction: The Caps kick the door in to get to the Final Four with a series victory in six games. Road warriors, baby, road warriors.

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Caps Squander Chance To Win Series

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Caps Squander Chance To Win Series

Posted on 22 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

It was all there for the taking for the Washington Capitals on Sunday. They had a 3-2 series lead against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins and a chance to close them out in their own building.

And they blew it. Again.

Life as a Caps fan seems to be a never ending run of crushing defeats so why should 2012 be any different, right? That has to be what Capitals fans were thinking as they were filing out of the Verizon Center after the Bruins Tyler Seguin scored just over three minutes into overtime following a horrible attempted long pass up the middle of the ice by Nicklas Backstrom that was intercepted and turned around quickly on Washington. Seguin split Dennis Wideman and Roman Hamrlik, faked out goalie Braden Holtby (27 saves) one on one, then deposited the biscuit behind #70 to add yet another horrifying chapter to a book that could be distributed to many Capitals fans in this area and titled, ”My Life in Pain as a Caps Fan.”

About the only good news out of this crushing loss is there is still yet another contest to be played in Beantown on Wednesday night. But does anyone who has followed this team long term or even since the creation of the “Young Guns” feel like they will find a way to win? There probably aren’t a lot of takers given the black cloud that seems to follow this franchise around come each April and May.

So why did they fail to capitalize on a golden opportunity to win a series that has been ultra close for all six games (in fact, this is the first NHL series ever to go six games with each featuring one goal victories)?

To me, the focus has to be on the Young Guns. Let’s start with Backstrom, who made some super plays, like the setup of Jason Chimera for Washington’s second goal or the face-off win that allowed Alexander Ovechkin to tie the game with 4:52 to go in regulation. However, it was #19′s low probability feed to Marcus Johansson that utimately ended this one and the Young Swede who missed 40 regular season games due to a concussion probably doesn’t feel too good about his lack of backchecking on the Boston third goal. That tally was set up by an Alexander Semin turnover in the offensive zone after #28 tried to be too cute with the puck. Semin has been really good in this series but today he was below average. He took a bad penalty that led to the Bruins first goal and only their second power play goal of the series (now 2 for 20). He was -2 and did not register a point. Ovechkin scored the big tying tally but overall he looks out of sync. The Gr8 is trying to do too much himself and his defensive zone play still needs massive amounts of work. In addition, his performance on the point on the power play, which went 0 for 4 today, was less than stellar. About the only one of the four that had an okay game was Mike Green, who scored his first goal since October to tie the game up at one in the opening frame. But #52 only played 17 minutes, including not being put out on the first power play unit.

Instead of Green, the team is using Wideman on the right point and #6 didn’t do much good in over six minutes of power play time. In fact the first unit of Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, Keith Aucoin and Wideman needs to be blown up. There is not enough net presence with those five. I’d much prefer Ovechkin be moved on the half wall (of course I’ve been saying this for two years) with #19 on the other wall. Get Brooks Laich out in front or someone who will create traffic on Tim Thomas (36 saves) there. Finally, put Green back on the point and I’d even prefer John Carlson as the other blue liner instead of Wideman.

Playoff games are often won or lost via special teams and Boston was +1 in that department today. For the series, the Caps are 3 for 18 (16.7%) with the man advantage while they are 18 for 20 (90%) on the penalty kill. Game seven will likely be decided by special teams so it is paramount that Washington focus their efforts on those units in Tuesday’s practice.

Another thing Washington must do in game seven is to limit turnovers while staying out of the penalty box. Troy Brouwer’s decision to muck it up with Benoit Pouliot late in period two ended up putting the Caps in a 4 on 4 situation that quickly became a Boston 4 on 3. Somehow the Caps survived Zdeno Chara’s big shot in that instance but they may not be as lucky on Wednesday. Discipline is a big key for the Caps to have any chance.

So we move once again to a decisive game seven where the Caps overall franchise record is 2-7. They are 2-6 at home with the one away loss coming in Pittsburgh in 1995. Therefore, maybe since this one is on the road they may stand a better chance? After all, there is less pressure on the visitors and they don’t have ticket requests and distractions to deal with. They just have to show up and play hockey.

Show up and play hockey is exactly what they must do. They made too many mistakes on Sunday in a one goal loss, so if they clean up their act and the Young Guns perform at the level they are capable of, then anything can happen.

If they don’t, then we may have seen the end of the Young Guns along with some other big changes.

Notes: Defensemen Karl Alzner led the Caps in ice time with 24:21…because John Erskine only played 8 minutes and change, the Caps went mostly with five defensemen and that messes up the rotation…kind of hard to do this at this point, but perhaps Dmitry Orlov should get a sweater for game seven? He is more mobile than both Erskine and Jeff Schultz…Mike Knuble was +1 in only 5:58 of ice time but it was his work in front that allowed Green to score his goal. Seems like #22 has earned more minutes, no?

 

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Disciplined Caps Ride Holtby’s Goaltending to Game 4 Victory

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Disciplined Caps Ride Holtby’s Goaltending to Game 4 Victory

Posted on 20 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

After Monday night’s WWE matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Boston Bruins in which the B’s grabbed a 2-1 series lead, the Caps talked about being more focused on the play between the whistles and staying disciplined. On Thursday night they did just that and although they had issues with the Bruins puck possession for large portions of this contest, the Capitals managed to win, 2-1, on Braden Holtby’s 44 save performance, to tie this best of seven series up at two games apiece. Game five is Saturday in Beantown with game six on Sunday at the Verizon Center.

The Caps saved their season on this night and they can thank their goaltender and special teams play. Marcus Johansson scored a marker on a sweet 2 on 1 break just 1:22 into the contest but it was all Boston in the opening frame after that as Washington failed to skate and be aggressive. Perhaps they were trying too hard to not be foolish and let their emotions take them off of their game like it did on Monday? Maybe, but it was clear the Bruins were clicking and pressing and Washington was sorely missing the suspended Nicklas Backstrom, who will return for game five. The Caps, who were outshot 14-3 in the first period, were very fortunate to escape those 20 minutes even steven. The second period started much the same way before the Capitals finally found their legs, plus according to Caps defensemen Karl Alzner, the coaches made some minor adjustments on the breakout.

In years past, special teams play has been a predictor of a series win for Washington. With the Caps killing off all 12 Bruins power plays and potting two man advantage tallies themselves so far in four games, the ledger reads +2 for the Capitals. That will need to continue for the Caps if they want to hang with the defending champs. The Capitals had three power plays in this game to just one for the B’s and two of the three produced excellent chances for the home team. Alexander Semin’s sick laser shot from the left wing half wall was a thing of beauty and ended up being the difference in the game.

What also helped produce the victory was a more solid third period, especially the last four minutes when Washington skated hard and seemed to win every puck battle. The Verizon Center was loud and had energy and both Alzner and Johansson credited the fans for helping the Caps have one of their better outings closing with a lead. Holtby didn’t have to face many quality shots down the stretch and the team was blocking shots. Several players, including Jay Beagle, Matt Hendricks, Joel Ward, and Mike Knuble worked their rears off to prevent Boston from getting a really good chance to tie the game up. Earlier in the period it appeared the Caps had fallen into the bad habit of trying too hard to protect the lead and as a result, they stopped skating. But something clicked down the stretch and the execution was phenomenal.

So the series goes to a pivotal weekend back to back affair. The Bruins have to be favored given that they carried so much of the play in this one, plus they are the champs and are playing at home. The Capitals are playing David to Goliath but they are sticking together and on this night they were much smarter. They still need to stop having pronounced lulls in the game, but if their goalie continues to play at this level, anything can happen.

Notes: The duo of Alzner and John Carlson was once again outstanding. Can’t say enough about how well #74 is playing, he’s amped his game up at the perfect time…Dennis Wideman had a poor opening frame and he pinched to give the Bruins a two on one, which Rich Peverley converted. But #6 recovered to play a strong final 40 minutes. He had been struggling in this series up until that point…Mike Green had 9:00 of ice time in the first period but played only 10:09 the rest of the way…Alex Ovechkin helped set up the Laich-Johansson two on one on the first goal and he received an assist on the play. The Gr8 was very inconsistent in this game and he only logged four shifts and a total of 1:58 in period three. His defensive zone must be better in close games, otherwise Hunter is not willing to risk playing him with a lead…with 9.5 seconds left, the puck was dropped and the game clock did not run for over five seconds as Bob McKenzie of TSN and Transition Game author, Ted Starkey, pointed out after the game…the faceoff battle was won by the Caps, 44-32…hits were 44-34 in favor of Washington. Hunter noted that his team was physical without taking bad penalties…1st Mariner Arena will host the 2nd Annual Baltimore Hockey Classic on Wednesday, September 26th between the Caps and the Columbus Blue Jackets. Tickets for Capitals season ticket holders will be made available on Friday with all others able to purchase them starting Monday, April 23rd at 10am.

Programming Note: Check out my Caps radio segment with Drew Forrester on Thursday morning here from the WNST audio vault.

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Bruins Ramp Up Physical Play, Take Game 3

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Bruins Ramp Up Physical Play, Take Game 3

Posted on 16 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

After the Caps won game two in Boston, Bruins Coach Claude Julien challenged his team to be tougher and more physical around Washington goalie Braden Holtby. On Monday night, his club responded by crashing the cage and playing an ultra physical game in a 4-3 victory at the Verizon Center. The Bruins now lead the best of seven series two games to one with game four on Thursday night in DC.

This game was there for the taking for the Caps as they opened up a 1-0 lead when their power play connected on its first try. Alexander Semin scored on a shot from the top of the circles with Brooks Laich running traffic on Tim Thomas with four minutes left in period one. Washington played pretty solid defense in that opening frame and Holtby was looking in great in net.

But Holtby finally blinked on a four on four situation and he let in a softie on Rich Peverley’s wrister. Alexander Ovechkin answered 13 seconds later and it seemed that the Caps were going to right the ship.

However, the Caps started to forget to do the little things, which is playing good defense away from the puck. That ability had gotten them the good showing in Boston but the defensive discipline started to slip away in the middle period and when Mathieu Perreault lost Daniel Paille in front of the net, #20 had a layup to tie the game up. Things then got worse in Washington’s own end as Laich allowed Brian Rolston to score again from in front early in period three. Laich would then tie it up with six minutes left scoring on a breakaway after a great feed from Nicklas Backstrom.

Boston received a questionable power play late, and I won’t even go there with the NHL referees who are having a tough playoffs across the board, but then Milan Lucic paid the price for his extra curricular physical play getting a four minute rough to just two minutes for Matt Hendricks. It seemed to be a good break for Washington but four on four has not been their game this year and the B’s took the lead late on Chara’s point blast that hit a Capitals stick on the way in. The Caps pressured late with Holtby pulled but couldn’t connect.

So Julien tried his coaching move and his team responded. The Bruins outhit the Caps 58-36. Washington is more skilled and doesn’t want to get into that type of game but the way this one was being called, it played right into Boston’s hands.

Now it is time for Dale Hunter to make adjustments. First thing the Caps need to do is not get into the post whistle scrums and focus on the play with the clock moving. That wrestling stuff seems to heavily favor Boston. Washington also needs to clean up their own zone again and watch the guys away from the puck. Finally, they must correct their neutral zone, as the Caps tried too many cross ice plays that were intercepted.

Simply put, the Caps have the speed advantage in this series and need to get back to using that by dumping the puck behind the slow Boston defense and employing their cycle game to generate chances. The neutral zone miscues give the Bruins more time to set up their physical play and pound the Washington defense. The turnovers and poor coverage are not a recipe for playoff success.

Your move Dale.

Notes: The Caps lost the faceoff battle 37-33.  Marcus Johansson was 1-5…Perreault only played 4:23 and his ice time suffered for his defensive lapse in period two…Laich had three points (1G, 2A)…Mike Green led the Caps in ice time with 26:35….Backstrom was given a match penalty for cross checking Peverley as time expired. That carries an automatic one game suspension unless it is rescinded. Replays seem to come to #19′s aid but with the NHL, who knows?!

 

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Will the Caps Best Hockey Come in the Post Season?

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Will the Caps Best Hockey Come in the Post Season?

Posted on 11 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Just two days before they open their playoff series in Boston against the Bruins on Thursday night (7:30 pm on Comcast Sportsnet) the Washington Capitals hit the ice at Kettler IcePlex and had a high intensity and spirited practice. The Caps went 5-2 down the stretch, and after what appeared to be a disastrous loss to Buffalo on March 27th, they shook it off and played some good hockey. In my book, this Capitals team, which missed Mike Green for most of the season and Nicklas Backstrom for 40 games, still has yet to play its’ best hockey. In years past that has not been the case, so I spoke with some of the players to get their take on that premise.

“We’ve been better in the past couple of weeks, I think we’ve been playing better hockey, but we’ve got more to offer. Our best player, [Alexander Ovechkin], he’s been playing better and he’s gonna get better and with the playoffs coming I think everybody is going to put everything on the line. It’s different for us this year as a seventh seed instead of the first seed, so I think it’s going to be different. We’re ready, we’re hungry for the playoffs, I think we’ll be ready to go,” said center Mathieu Perreault, who scored 16 goals in 2011-12.

“I think everybody knows it’s a long and season and it’s tough to ask any team to keep at that level where you play your best or have your best, I would say, and we haven’t. Lately, especially at the end of the season, I think we play solid games. I think we played pretty good against some tough teams and we’ve proven we can play against anybody. But, that’s past, that’s over. I think this is a new season that is going to start with the playoffs, it’s totally different hockey. Now we have to bring our best,” added defenseman Roman Hamrlik, who I thought played his finest game of the year in the season finale in New York.

It is one thing to admit you haven’t played your best hockey and another thing to then go out and do it. Both former coach Bruce Boudreau and new coach Dale Hunter have talked about playing simple. This Caps team is highly talented and skilled, especially at wing, but the club has a tendency to try and make the perfect play. So can these guys put those past patterns aside and simplify their game?

“Lately we try to keep it simple, our D is just up the wall to the winger, chip it in and get on the forecheck. I think we are a better team when we do that and we work down low. We are a good team cycling the puck to the net so we are going to have to do that,” added Perreault on a reason why the team has played better in the last five games.

“What do we have to do? We talked about that the whole season. Just play our system, stick with what we have to do. Make the first quick pass on the tape and get the puck quickly and out of our zone and cycle the team and play in their zone. Try to stay out of the box. They have a pretty good power play. Be mentally ready and prepared for a big challenge. They won last year and everybody knows they’re a championship team. They have a pretty good solid hard working team and we have to bring everything we’ve got,” said Hamrlik, echoing the importance of the easy pass and cycle game.

Certainly special teams is going to be a huge factor, especially the power play in this series (btw, if you haven’t read this post by Caps beat writer Mike Vogel, then make sure you check it out). The unit has been very bad at home and one of the major reasons is the overpassing of the puck. On Tuesday the team practiced it and there was an emphasis on shots from the point with traffic in front of the opposing goalie. But we’ve seen and heard that before only to see that strategy abandoned come game time. Last Saturday against the Rangers, the power play was mostly atrocious and yielded several shorthanded chances. But when John Carlson was on the ice, things were different and Washington scored. #74 stuck to the formula the coaches have been selling so it is paramount that Green, Oveckhin, Dennis Wideman, and others buy in. A playoff series can be won alone on special teams, as the Vogel story points out.

“Yes, we are trying to be cute sometimes with the skill that we have, especially on the point and the top of the power play we should use [the shot] more if we see an open lane and there is a little bit of traffic. That is how most of the goals are going in, they’re through traffic or screens or they’re banging them in around the goal line. I think that we’ve been talking about that a little bit more,” added Carlson, who certainly gets it and should see more man advantage time on the point, in my book.

Another big factor for the Caps to play their best begins in net with goalie Braden Holtby. Not only does #70 need to stop the puck, but against a physical team like Boston he has to help his defense out with his superior puck handling skills. Holtby hasn’t been up all season so the defense isn’t as used to his habits as a team would like. That puts a heavy onus on the communication between the net minder and the defenders.

“I had Carey Price in Montreal. He loves to go behind the net and he likes to play the puck and it helps you, from my experience it is like a third defensemen. He goes and he plays the puck and it makes it easy on yourself and helps us for not facing too much to the boards and getting hit. First we have to talk to him and it is all about communication. The games he played he did a pretty good job so hopefully he’s going to continue to do that,” said Hamrlik on Holtby and the importance of communication with a stick handling adept goalie.

“I think the communication is always there, I think it is still hard because obviously when the D are coming back for the puck we see one thing and he’s looking up and he sees another thing. It’s tough to communicate perfectly every time, but we do our best. He helps us out, especially on just little plays where we can go behind the net and he can get out of the net and play it to us. We still have time to maybe get the back of the net so they can’t pressure us right off of the bat. That is huge, first off we don’t get run every time and we have time to make a play, make the right play, and break out of the zone,” added Carlson providing some interesting scenarios for where #70 can make a huge difference.

So when you sum it up, for Washington to play its’ best hockey of the season they are going to have to simplify their game, win the special teams battle, and get stops plus puck movement from their goalie. As Hamrlik told me, there is a battle going on for every inch of space in the post season. Boston is a very good team and will try and be physical with Washington. That doesn’t bother guys like Perreault, who says that he doesn’t mind going into the high traffic areas. If #85 is doing that, then one would hope that Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, and others do that as well. Even Ovechkin should make a habit of stopping in front of the net more often because the closer you are to the net, the higher the probability of the shot going in.

The formula is there for Washington to upset Boston, who are the heavy favorites based on the numerous series’ previews I’ve seen, but the execution is what matters.

Will this year be different? We’ll find out soon enough.

Notes: The Caps recalled forward Mattias Sjogren from Sweden today and he will practice with the team during the postseason. He is not eligible to play for Hershey in the AHL playoffs…both injured goalies Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth tried skating on Tuesday. #30 had the better session, but it doesn’t look like either guy will be ready to start a game any time soon…Hamrlik has a lot of playoff history against Boston and remember the Canadiens won the first two games of the opening round series last season before losing in overtime in game seven to the B’s..I will have my final series preview and prediction up on Wednesday night.

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