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Hunter’s Latest Lineup Paying Dividends

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Hunter’s Latest Lineup Paying Dividends

Posted on 10 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Given that the Washington Capitals have struggled on the road all season long, it appeared, on paper, that Saturday’s tilt at Boston against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Bruins would be a loss for the Caps. But, as they say, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum or TD Garden, in this case. The Caps came up with one of their strongest performances of the season in a 4-3 victory over the B’s. It was a huge win for the Caps and it moves them within a point of first place Florida in the Southeast Division.

The Caps really came out flying and jumped to a 2-0 lead with some aggressive play. They then staved off two shaky penalty calls by Tim Peel and company and looked poised to exit the opening frame up a pair. But a bad icing by Troy Brouwer and a missed assignment on a faceoff with six seconds left led to a Milan Lucic goal. The question after that would be how the Capitals would respond to that late tally? When the Bruins tied the score on a breakaway by Brad Marchand that was caused by an Alexander Ovechkin giveaway while Dennis Wideman was heading to the bench on the long change, it looked like Boston had all of the momentum.

However, this Caps team seems to be getting mentally tougher and they responded with some outstanding hockey drawing three straight penalties. Jay Beagle would score off of a super feed from Alexander Semin just after the first man advantage situation expired and Brooks Laich re-directed home a Dennis Wideman feed on the third power play to make it 4-2 heading into the final frame. From there Washington did not give up any odd man rushes and forced the Bruins to shoot from the perimeter. After Mike Knuble missed an empty net that would have made it 5-2, Boston scored with 3:13 to go but Tomas Vokoun (30 saves), who was close to excellent in this one, slammed the door shut and the Caps left Beantown with two big points.

Dale Hunter’s crew has been playing better recently and is 2-0-1 in their last three games with the one loss coming to Carolina in overtime, a game in which they had 49 shots on goal. What has been the change that has turned things around? Is it an urgency to their game? Are they firing more pucks on net and battling to the cage? Are they playing desperate hockey? The answer to each of those questions is yes, for the most part, but that doesn’t explain it all.

To me, it is some recent lineup adjustments that has spurred this better play on. For the first time since Nicklas Backstrom went out with his concussion injury in early January, Hunter seems to be getting consistently solid play up the middle of the ice. The head coach moved Brooks Laich to center and Marcus Johansson to wing. In addition, Beagle’s role has been expanded and he is centering the third line. This configuration gives the Capitals bigger and stronger guys to fill the important low man role in Hunter’s man to man defensive system. Laich and Beagle are more solid on defense than the smaller Johansson, who can be moved out of position easier because of his lack of physical size. You still have Mathieu Perreault centering the second line but he is only playing 13 to 14 minutes. So instead of 35 plus minutes a game with a smaller center duo, Hunter now has Laich (21:48) and Beagle (18:10) playing above 35 minutes at the pivot. Huge difference at both ends of the ice, if you ask me.

The added bonus to this configuration is Johansson has played better this season as a winger and he doesn’t have so much pressure on him. It is a more balanced scheme. So why didn’t Hunter come up with this sooner, since it appears to be working so well? Well, Laich was playing a good bit of center shortly after Backstrom got hurt but then he injured his knee in the Boston game in early February. It took several weeks for #21 to get healthy and you can’t play the pivot position if your body isn’t right because the spot requires so much energy. As for Beagle, he missed 31 games due to a concussion and it’s taken him a couple of months since then to get in true hockey shape. He is a tireless worker and is finally back to the condition he was before he was knocked out by Arron Asham in October.

So it has taken time to develop, but Hunter’s best center configuration appears to have to include Laich and Beagle right now. Both are good defenders and among the hardest workers on the club. You can’t win in the NHL without centers and that was a big reason why the Capitals have struggled to find consistency since Backstrom went down. If Hunter sticks with Laich as top line pivot and #83 slotted in the third line position, and both stay healthy, then I think that gives Washington the best chance to do well over the last 14 games and win the Southeast Division. There may be some bad matchups along the way, but overall this lineup increases the Capitals win probability.

On Sunday at 5 pm the Caps are right back at it against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Verizon Center. A win would put them at 76 points with 13 contests left on the docket, including a five game road trip that starts Tuesday on Long Island. Saturday’s victory over the Bruins was important, but a loss against the Leafs would pretty much waste what would be a very big weekend for this hockey team.

So they can’t afford a let down, there is too much at stake, plus the Caps have some tough games coming up away from home.

Notes: Roman Hamrlik and Knuble were back in the lineup for the suspended Mike Green and scratched Jeff Halpern. Both were solid in their 13:29 and 11:26 of ice time, respectively…Matt Hendricks and Semin had the other goals. Both played excellent games with #28 getting two points and being a +2…Karl Alzner and John Carlson did a nice job against a red hot Boston line of Lucic, David Krejci, and Tyler Seguin. Both Krejci and Seguin were held off of the scoresheet…Washington finally won the special teams battle for the first time since 2/17 going 1 for 3 on the PP while killing both Boston man advantage situations (thanks to @JapersRink for that info).

 

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Season Saving Win for Caps?

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Season Saving Win for Caps?

Posted on 08 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

After 40 minutes, in a game they had to win, things looked terribly bleak for the Washington Capitals.

They had just parlayed a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 deficit following a lackluster middle frame that saw them take three bad penalties, shoot on net just three times, and allow two power play goals. It was hardly the type of effort and production you would see from a team with their season likely on the line.

But Dale Hunter apparently tore into the team in the intermission and Washington came out strong with one of their best periods in a long time to tie the game up with just under four minutes left on Marcus Johansson’s goal off of a Tampa turnover after a super play by Dennis Wideman. Alexander Ovechkin then buried a sweet pass from Dmitry Orlov in OT after Jason Chimera did the work in the corner to win it for the Capitals.

“His message was basically just to man up. Play hard and play as a team. We had a lot of one-on-one play and a lot of turnovers. It was one of the ‘keys’ that we had on the board, was no turnovers. He yelled at us pretty much for one of the first times that he has ever yelled at us and the guys just snapped out of it,” Karl Alzner told the media after the game on #32′s rare display of emotion.

“We knew that if we could get two points tonight it puts us in a good spot to contend for a playoff spot here, but if we weren’t able to pick up these two points, we’d be on the outside looking in and in a real tough place to get back in,” added forward Troy Brouwer on the win.

Brouwer is absolutely correct. Had the Capitals lost this game in regulation they would’ve still been in it but would have finished a key home stand with just three points. Instead they go 2-2-1 (five points) at the Verizon Center on the five game stretch and with teams around them losing and also suffering more injuries (Buffalo lost Tomas Vanek to injury against Boston) they are still alive. Add in the fact that the Florida Panthers got smoked, 5-0, in Philadelphia on Thursday and have to travel to Pittsburgh on Friday night and the Caps could find themselves with a chance to tie for the Southeast Division lead with a victory in Boston on Saturday afternoon.

It was a strange turn of events and Tampa Coach Guy Boucher has to be kicking himself for taking his foot off of the Capitals throats following the defeat. After all the man who was labeled a genius last spring had a 2-1 lead, the best goal scorer in the league in Steven Stamkos, and was employing a rookie playing his first full NHL game in goal. The Bolts had dominated Washington in the second period yet Boucher chose to go to the 1-3-1, which allowed the Caps to get the first 11 shots on goal in the third period? Terrible coaching and Hunter’s crew worked hard to take advantage of the tactical error despite the strong play in goal by Dustin Tokarski (29 saves).

At the other end of the ice, the Caps should be thankful that Tomas Vokoun kept his club in it when the Bolts were actually trying to score. Hunter and company will need many more of those performances from #29 if they want to stay in the playoff race.

As for Ovechkin, it once again was not one of his better games but he rose to the occassion in overtime. Chimera would have been the goal scoring hero had he finished off a great pass from the Gr8 on a two on one just seconds before Ovechkin’s game winner. But #25 didn’t get down and his hustle was what allowed Orlov and Ovechkin to win it.

It was a win the Capitals absolutely had to have, and they found a way to get it.

In closing, I will leave you with my final thoughts on tonight’s victory:

Feel the city breakin’
And ev’rybody shakin’
And we’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.
- Barry Gibb

Notes: The Caps had 68 shots attempted to just 45 for Tampa. The imbalance came from the Bolts going into a shell in the final frame, something I am sure Stamkos (1 assist), Martin St. Louis (1 assist), and Teddy Purcell (1 goal, 1 assist) were not happy about…Mike Green had a big hit on Brett Connolly in the middle frame. #52 went in to cut off #14 as he was coming behind the net. Connolly got hit by Orlov and lost his balance causing Green to catch him in the head with his upper arm. After the game Connolly called it a “hockey play” and blamed himself (h/t Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune)…Johansson’s goal was his 13th of the season and he beat Tokarski five hole…MJ90 has been asked to do a lot this year and he has given 100% effort at it. He hasn’t always produced but the 21 year old has a bright future…Keith Aucoin had a sweet deflection of an Alzner blast on the 1st Caps goal…the Caps have a busy weekend taking on the Bruins in Boston on Saturday at 1pm followed by a game on Sunday at the Verizon Center at 5pm against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

 

 

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Lost Weekend for Caps

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Lost Weekend for Caps

Posted on 04 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Heading into the weekend the Washington Capitals were riding a three game winning streak after victories over the Canadiens, Leafs, and Islanders. On the docket were the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers, two clubs fairly firmly entrenched in the top eight of the Eastern Conference. With both games at home, a place where the Caps have a good record, these tilts seemed to be a prime indicator of whether or not Washington could move up the standings to make a strong push for a playoff position.

With the results now in, it is apparent the Capitals are in big trouble after 5-0 and 1-0 defeats at the Verizon Center. Washington is now in 9th place, just a point behind Winnipeg and the Caps have a game in hand, but when you don’t score you can’t win. In addition, Tampa Bay has caught fire and now trail the Caps by just a point. Buffalo is also a single point behind and the Leafs and Islanders are two and four, respectively. To quote an old Far Side cartoon, “WARNING: OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.”

With Steven Stamkos pouring in the goals (now at 47 and counting) and the Caps struggling to score, it is pretty apparent that with each passing game this club is getting closer to golfing come April 9th. It has been well chronicled here in this blog that the Capitals have big problems up the middle of the ice that have been magnified by the injury to Nicklas Backstrom. On Friday against New Jersey that could not have been more evident as smaller forwards Mathieu Perreault, Marcus Johansson, and Keith Aucoin made gaffes that led to Devils tallies. When Dale Hunter is forced to play numbers 85 and 90 for 35 plus minutes a game there is little margin for error for the Caps to get a victory. Both are smaller centers and no NHL defensemen is going to be afraid of being hit by them when they are moving the puck out of their own end. Thus the Caps receive fewer o-zone turnovers and have to work harder to get the puck back when those guys are on the ice. In addition, their size makes it difficult for them in defensive zone coverage. Johansson and Perreault have roles, but the ones they are being asked to fill now are simply too much for their abilities.

On Sunday night, Johansson’s man tipped the puck home for the only tally, although in fairness to number 90, Alexander Ovechkin lolligagged it out to the point allowing Pavel Kubina to find Eric Wellwood in front for the re-direct. The Gr8 would pay for that lack of effort and sit most of the remainder of the second period. In the third period he appeared to take Hunter’s message in the right way and was a force. Unfortunately when he has no true offensive center it is easy for the defense to cover him and he was blanked along with his teammates. Ovechkin did have several quality chances in that final frame, but he needs to play like that every shift from here on out if Washington wants to make the post season.

Michal Neuvirth, who might not have started had Tomas Vokoun been healthy (day to day), was excellent in goal and the Wellwood tally couldn’t be hung on him. But the margin of error for the Caps is so small right now so Neuvy gets another loss when he deserved better.

There is no way around this right now, the Caps are a flawed team and that is made worse with Nicklas Backstrom out. Too much is being asked of Johansson and Perreault due to the lack of depth at center. What makes things even worse is that Ovechkin has been unable to regain his dominant form from the pre 2010 Olympic break. The Gr8 has not been so great and the Capitals need him to be to make the playoffs. He needs to do whatever he can to change things on and off the ice so that when he plays these last 17 games he is highly effective. Great players find ways to adjust their game and get better. Larry Bird used to talk about developing a new move every offseason because he knew teams would adjust to what he was doing previously. Defenses have figured out how to slow Ovechkin down. Some of that is on the personnel around him, but most of it falls squarely on #8. He needs to reach down deep and do whatever he can to change things down the stretch, otherwise he is going to hear criticism like he’s never heard before, and many of it coming from the local area for perhaps the first time in his career.

Notes: Despite Sunday’s loss Jay Beagle, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Karl Alzner, Dmitry Orlov, Jason Chimera, Mike Knuble, and John Carlson played their rears off but the team just can’t finish right now…Ilya Bryzgalov made 34 saves for the Flyers in the Sunday shutout….the Caps play Carolina on Tuesday and Tampa on Thursday at the Verizon Center. Pretty safe to say they need to win both games otherwise you can cue up ”Trouble” by Lindsey Buckingham.

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Time to Buy for the Caps

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Time to Buy for the Caps

Posted on 26 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Hockey fans, it’s time to stop the presses! Why? Because the Washington Capitals have finally won back to back games for the first time since mid January.

All kidding aside, the two victories this weekend over Montreal and then at Toronto, while against subpar teams, is significant because it shows that this club still has a decent chance to make the playoffs. More importantly, if they can add some help up front, specifically in the pivot position, and get Nicklas Backstrom back from injury before the playoffs, then anything can happen.

The Caps have been really struggling on the road and given that they played on Friday night, flew to Toronto, and had to clear customs might have indicated that Washington was ripe for the pickings against a desperate Maple Leafs crew. But that theory went totally out the window, thanks to Marcus Johansson’s wraparound tally in the game’s first minute. For once the Capitals could finally play with a lead on the road and the goal definitely energized them. Before four minutes had elapsed, Alexander Semin would score off a nifty steal and from there the Caps built a 4-0 lead through 40 minutes and won fairly easily.

Michal Neuvirth was outstanding in net with 28 saves. The 2006 second round pick has always been underrated and those who have followed him closely know that he is mentally strong. The young Czech netminder, instead of feeling sorry for himself and pouting following coach Dale Hunter’s decision to sit him against San Jose on February 13th, has worked even harder since and in the games he’s played this week has been extremely strong in goal. Hunter may have made the wrong short term decision to sit Neuvirth against the Sharks, but in the long run, it worked because #30 has taken his play to the next level. Sometimes coaches tell it like it is or play head games with players in attempt to make them stronger and improve their performance. Whether Hunter was trying that or not with his goaltender in that instance, that sequence of events has gotten results.

As for the rest of the team, much of the inconsistency in their play over the last month has stemmed from many factors. The Nicklas Backstrom injury has been extremely difficult to overcome given the lack of quality centers on the depth chart after #19. Johansson is only in his second year in the league and he is more suited to play third line center. Mathieu Perreault has been practically written off several times due to his size and lack of steady results. Both players have been forced to take on increased roles and they’ve had good games and bad ones. On Saturday night both had solid outings but to think they can continue to keep it up, in Backstrom’s absence, is asking an awfully lot.

In addition to the talent gaps up the middle of the ice, the team’s inconsistent play has led to a serious lack of confidence and anyone that has played hockey knows that if your mind isn’t right when you step out onto the ice, you are pretty much beaten before taking a single stride. The Caps have had confidence problems, especially after that terrible fluky loss to Winnipeg at home back on February 9th. But these two wins could get their minds right and if General Manager George McPhee can move some of the dead weight on his current roster and bring in some reenforcements, then it becomes an iterative process of better play and increased confidence, a mode a hockey team wants to be in down the stretch. We’ve seen the Caps do this before from the trade deadline on but can they find a way this year with Backstrom likely on the shelf for at least a couple of more weeks?

Another thing to be happy about is the play of Mike Green. #52 has steadily improved since coming back from hernia surgery and he’s stabilized the defense. With Green getting more minutes, Dennis Wideman, who has had many good games but then his share of clunkers this season, has seen his ice time reduced.

So Saturday’s victory puts the Caps at 31-26-5 (67 points) with 20 games remaining. The Southeast Division is wide open between the Caps, Florida Panthers, and Winnipeg Jets with the winner getting the 3rd seed in the playoffs in the East. Surely if McPhee can add some help, and Hunter is likely looking for some size and definitely speed (note it has been the slower skaters who have been routinely getting seats in the press box), then the Capitals could be poised to win their fifth straight division crown.

That is why this team has to be buyers, at this point. Washington needs help up front to get to where they want to go, fortunately it appears that the prices for forwards are not at as high a premium as we’ve seen with defensemen, based on this week’s trades.

This has been a disappointing season so far for the Caps, but McPhee has a chance to turn it all around with the right moves on Monday. It won’t be easy, but given what is at stake for him and the organization, the next two days are going to be extremely important for his and the team’s future.

Notes: Alexander Ovechkin had two assists in a fairly strong performance. His one big mistake though was turning the puck over on the power play in the third period with the Caps up 4-1. The Gr8 can’t make those type of mental miscues. Neuvirth bailed him out with the breakaway save so Ovie certainly owes #30 dinner…Green had 23:00 of ice time and Jeff Schultz logged 21:40. Give #55 credit for working hard and improving his game with assistant coach Jim Johnson the last couple of months. He has gotten tougher to play against despite his lack of speed…Karl Alzner and John Carlson both played over 22 minutes while Wideman and Dmitry Orlov were essentially the third d-pair in this tilt…The Caps next game is Tuesday at the Verizon Center against the Islanders. It is the start of a critical five game home stand. It will be interesting to see what moves McPhee makes between now and the trade deadline at 3pm on Monday.

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McPhee Faces Dilemma as Caps Continue to Struggle

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McPhee Faces Dilemma as Caps Continue to Struggle

Posted on 20 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Monday night in Carolina appeared to be a must win for the Caps as the team tries to stay in the battle for the Southeast Division title and a playoff spot. With Mike Green set to play his second game after returning in Tampa on Saturday night there certainly was cause for optimism.

Boy did that go out the window quickly!

Roman Hamrlik took a stupid elbowing penalty then Tomas Vokoun gave up a huge rebound goal just 3:41 into the contest. 88 seconds later Marcus Johansson made a horrible turnover at the Caps blue line and the puck ended up in the back of Washington’s net. Dale Hunter yanked Vokoun in favor of Michal Neuvirth but the team continued to struggle with only #30 keeping it close as long as he could.

Then when Alexander Ovechkin turned the puck over in the offensive zone the Hurricanes received another odd man rush and they buried it with just 30 seconds left in the opening frame. Things would get worse in period two when Washington received a power play as Johansson made another gaffe by blindly throwing the puck to Dennis Wideman at the point and Eric Staal collected the biscuit to score on a breakaway. Game over.

It was about as ugly as it could get in this one as the Caps repeatedly turned the puck over in their own end and looked totally out of snyc. They could not defend an odd man rush successfully and when they received them they struggled to get quality chances. Simply put, this team is falling apart when they need to be winning games in a tight playoff race.

For over two years the team has struggled up the middle of the ice since Sergei Fedorov left after the 2008-09 season. In 2010 and 2011 they brought in Eric Belanger and Jason Arnott, respectively, at the trade deadline to try and fill that hole. Last season the Arnott acquisition showed how much of a difference adding that component makes as the Capitals caught fire down the stretch to grab the number one seed in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately last year’s #44 injured his knee and his effectiveness tailed off as the post season progressed.

Last summer GM George McPhee made several moves that looked very positive towards helping Washington get over the playoff hump. However, he was unable to land a second line center putting the pressure on Brooks Laich and Johansson to produce behind Nicklas Backstrom. With Backstrom now missing his 21st straight game due to a concussion, the gap up the middle of the ice is getting nearly impossible to overcome. Laich’s recent knee injury only magnified that deficiency as #21 is unable to center one of the top two lines while banged up. It is a major reason why the Capitals have not won two straight games in over a month.

So what does McPhee and Coach Dale Hunter do now? The NHL trade deadline is just a week away (Monday, February 27th at 3 pm). Hunter can only shuffle lines so much and Vokoun, who was playing very well coming into this tilt, can only bail out the club so often. Just a week ago McPhee said he felt that if Backstrom could come back this season that he thinks the team is a Stanley Cup contender. Their play on the ice says otherwise. However, if he could get a decent center in a trade, say a guy like Derick Brassard from Columbus, would that be enough to allow the Caps to sneak into the post season either via a division title or by passing a team like Toronto?

That is a question that McPhee will have to think long and hard about the next six plus days. He has two number one draft picks and a second rounder in what is reportedly a very good draft this June. Does he move any of them for a forward to try and win this season? After all he has 2010 first round pick Evgeny Kuznetsov pretty much ready to play in the NHL next season. Kuzy looks to be a bonafide top six forward, but is he a center?

Much of what McPhee does also hinges on the prospects of Backstrom getting healthy because without him, let’s face it, this team can’t go deep in the playoffs, even if the GM adds another center.

One thing is for certain, the Caps were horrible on Monday night and they had no confidence on the ice the entire game. If the Capitals next three games before the trade deadline (at Ottawa, home against Montreal, and at Toronto) go anything like they did in Carolina, then the GM should probably start playing for next season.

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Caps Maintain Focus in Huge Win

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Caps Maintain Focus in Huge Win

Posted on 17 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Losing 1-0 to the Florida Panthers on Friday night, the Washington Capitals reached a critical juncture in the game and possibly their season when not only was Mike Knuble’s apparent game tying goal disallowed, but referee Eric Furlatt called goaltender interference on #22. That put the Panthers on the power play late in the second frame and into the third period. It was a VERY tough call against the Caps, and one can aruge that the zebra totally blew it, especially the part where Knuble had to go to the sin bin.

But what happened immediately after the call is what was most important. Caps Coach Dale Hunter didn’t go nuts on the bench, as some managers might do, instead the even keeled #32 remained calm. After all his team was totally dominating the Cats on the shot board and in scoring chances so Hunter had to feel like his team was going to come out on top, right?

With a three game losing streak and all kinds of negative stuff being written about his personnel decisions and his contract status with the team it probably would’ve been fairly easy and understandable for the hockey and farming expert to go ballistic. But anyone who has closely watched or been around Hunter since he took over as head coach notices that win or lose he remains on an even keel. That calm is a major intangible because when a coach loses it, players often feed off of the negative energy and lose focus.

Washington came out and killed off Knuble’s penalty then kept taking it to the Panthers over the last 20 minutes. Alexander Ovechkin finally broke through on the power play by going to the net (Knuble was there too and earned an assist) and Alexander Semin won it on a shot that deflected off of Sean Bergenheim’s stick past Jose Theodore (39 saves). It was a much needed victory and pulls the Capitals within two points of Southeast Division leading Florida with 25 games to go.

What is even more impressive is that the Caps are starting to win the quality scoring chance battle consistently and their puck possession has improved dramatically. According to super stats man Neil Greenberg (@ngreenberg), Washington has outchanced the opposition in the last six games. With Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green out and Brooks Laich playing injured, this trend is awfully encouraging because just imagine what might happen when Hunter gets his full line-up back, hopefully at some point this season?

Tomas Vokoun was back in goal after missing two games with the flu and after a shaky start he was good, though he didn’t have to do a whole lot the last 40 minutes because the Capitals carried the play. The 35 year old veteran certainly is a presence for Washington in net and he is 3-0 with just 1 goal allowed in three tilts versus his old club in 2011-12.

So now it is on to Tampa for game number two of a difficult and important four game road trip. The Caps found a way to fight and claw and get a win. Taking a cue from their head coach, they didn’t panic when Knuble’s goal was washed out and as a result they were victorious. Learning where to properly focus your energy is a key in pro sports, the Caps certainly did that correctly on Friday night and were rewarded. Kudos to Hunter and the players.

Finally, I’ll close with this memo to the Florida Panthers, courtesy of the Far Side:

Warning: Objects in mirror are closer than they appear!

Notes: Hunter and Jim Johnson’s hard work with defenseman Jeff Schultz is reaping some dividends. #55 logged 14:24 and was on the ice in the last two minutes of an ultra important contest…I thought Dmitry Orlov was fabulous tonight. He hit the crossbar and narrowly missed on another attempt but did pick up an assist on Semin’s GWG…Jeff Halpern did a great job on the last two d-zone face-offs and Kris Versteeg’s cheap head shot to #15 probably deserves an NHL review. It was a dangerous play…speaking of dangerous and not so smart plays, Cats d-man Mike Weaver left his feet trying to block the puck and not only took a stick in the mouth but got himself terribly out of position on Ovechkin’s game tying goal. I am a big believer that leaving your skates on defense should only be done as a last resort…Laich logged over 17 minutes, markedly up over the amount he played in each of the last four games. Perhaps his knee is getting better?…shots on goal were 41-23 in favor of the Caps and shots attempted were 75-50, again advantage Washington.

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Caps Not Paying the Price for Victory

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Caps Not Paying the Price for Victory

Posted on 13 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals outchanced and outshot the San Jose Sharks on Monday night at the Verizon Center yet still lost, 5-3. Sure there were some crazy bounces that went San Jose’s way, but when you go back and watch the goals again the common theme on the large majority of them were players in front of the net. When it came to that battle, the Sharks won handily, and that is why they are leaving town with two points while the Capitals continue to fail to capitalize on chances to move up in the standings.

This was a difficult loss to take because at one point the score was 2-0 for the visitors yet the Caps had 11 scoring chances to just six for the Sharks (h/t @ngreenberg). Washington is not finishing plays, but more importantly, they aren’t getting the type of “greasy goals” you need to win hockey games. In the NHL the goalies are VERY good and if they see the shots, they are gonna stop them. The Caps did have some open looks but continue to shoot wide. They are in a slump and trying to pick corners, and as a result the back glass is getting a work out instead of the red light.

Where the goals must start coming from is Washington’s power play. The Caps had four man advantage situations in the first 32 minutes and couldn’t capitalize. Lack of shots with bodies in front of Tomas Greiss (39 saves) was the problem and had the Capitals gotten a goal or two from their power play this contest may have gone differently. Speaking of special teams, the Caps penalty killing allowed three goals in six tries and was also a major factor in the loss. Sure the first goal was a lucky deflection at the blue line that skipped off of the Verizon Center ice past Braden Holtby (30 saves in 1st 2011-12 NHL start), but the second tally was a terrible breakdown in coverage by Washington. John Carlson overcommitted on the boards and was beaten, then Karl Alzner left his feet to try and block a pass and missed (if he stays up he likely thwarts it with his stick), and Jeff Halpern doesn’t slide down and take out Joe Pavelski (two goals, two assists), who scored on the doorstep.

It is those type of defensive zone mistakes that are costing the Capitals.

Some will tell you it is Hunter’s decision to bench Mike Knuble instead of Jay Beagle. Others will wonder why Joel Rechlisz was recalled when he all he did was play 1:59. You will also hear that Holtby shouldn’t have started over Michal Neuvirth (Tomas Vokoun is still ill). NONE of those decisions were what decided the game.

As I pointed out at the start of the game, “Recker” had a role to play and that was to let Brad Winchester know he wasn’t going to take liberties with Washington’s star players like he did out in California last month. Anybody notice Winchester tonight? Nope, I didn’t either. Rechlisz did his job which is more than I can say for several Capitals. On Joel’s first shift, early in the game, he actually created havoc in front of the Sharks net. There were 11 other forwards wearing red who could have followed #54′s lead the rest of the game but they failed to do so until it was 5-1.

Picking on Hunter for those three decisions is playing on the edges, in my opinion. This team has some gaping talent holes right now with Nicklas Backstrom injured, Brooks Laich going on 1 knee (played less than 10 minutes again), and Mike Green recovering from surgery. However, there is still ability on this roster and guys like Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Dennis Wideman, Alzner, and Carlson have to be much better than they were on Monday night. San Jose seemed to have an ”E-Z Pass” to the front of the Caps net all night. Washington didn’t make going there uncomfortable for them. That needs to change.

So let’s dig in the right place, the Capitals top end players aren’t getting it done and the entire lineup is not paying the price in front of either net to score and prevent goals. That area in front of the cages is where hockey games are won and lost. Right now the Capitals aren’t doing what is necessary and as a result the L’s are starting to pile up.

Notes: Washington does not play until Friday in Florida, which is the start of a four game trip that also takes them to Tampa, Carolina, and then Ottawa. It is a critical stretch in the Caps bid to make the playoffs. With three days off and the trading deadline nearing (3 pm on February 27th), there is a chance that General Manager George McPhee could make a deal to bolster the club before it is too late…the Caps won the faceoff battle 35-33.

 

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Margin For Error Getting Smaller for Caps

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Margin For Error Getting Smaller for Caps

Posted on 12 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals, who continue to play without Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green plus are going with a banged up Brooks Laich, did a lot of good things in a 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers today at Madison Square Garden. The Blueshirts have the best record in the NHL right now but they were barely able to hang on against a Caps team that is not even close to full strength. There is some comfort in the thought that if Washington were to get healthy they’d easily dispatch the team they ran out of the playoffs last spring once again, but moral victories really aren’t meaning much these days because the margin for error for the Caps is getting smaller.

The Capitals are currently sitting in 9th place, a point out of the playoffs, and after Monday night’s tough home tilt against the San Jose Sharks, they play four games on the road. Washington trails the Leafs in 8th by a point and have a game in hand while they are three points back of Ottawa in 7th with three games in hand. In addition, they are four points back of Southeast Division leading Florida, who occupy the third seed right now. All of those teams are well within reach but that only happens if the Caps stop making critical mistakes, start finishing more of their chances, and win more games.

Backstrom doesn’t appear to be coming back any time soon, Green might return later in the month, and when Laich only logs 12 minutes in an important game you know he isn’t close to 100% either. So Dale Hunter’s team needs to “pull up their socks” and start playing better. On Sunday they made a horrible defensive zone giveaway that led to poor positioning and an easy Ryan Callahan goal that gave New York a 1-0 lead after Washington had carried much of the play. That type of mistake is a killer and puts an offensively challenged team behind the eight ball quickly.

The Caps did battle back getting a sweet goal from Alexander Semin after Jason Chimera used his speed against a slow Rangers defense to open up a lane for 28 to unleash his deadly shot. However, they gave the lead back with another sequence where they went running around in their own end. Troy Brouwer eventually left his skates, something you only want to do as a last resort on defense, and that allowed Ryan McDonagh to beat Michal Neuvirth (25 saves) under the right arm.

When your lineup is missing key players, special teams become even more important and Washington cost themselves the game with their struggling power play in the third period. Trailing 2-1 with over 13 minutes left Alexander Ovechkin, John Carlson, and Mathieu Perreault all made bad decisions and as a result, the Rangers received a two on one break and Brandon Prust, who rarely scores, netted the eventual game winner (Carlson would score late to give the Caps a chance). Those mistakes, which were also the result of guys trying to do too much individually, were backbreakers and ultimately cost the Caps from getting at least a point, something they sorely need right now.

Ovechkin certainly didn’t have one of his better games and he should have been using his speed and power to get around an over rated Rangers defense more often. Instead the Gr8 seemed to battle a terrible ice surface and the puck all afternoon. The Caps need their star player to step up and carry this team right now if they are going to make the playoffs. He has to find ways to get more shots on goal and help his teammates be better. That did not happen against New York on Sunday. In his defense, a winger needs a playmaking center to get him the puck and he doesn’t have that with Backstrom out. Marcus Johansson has a bright future but he is being asked to do a lot in just his second year in the league. Perhaps Hunter might want to put Ovechkin back with Perreault and Semin to generate more offense because those are the two other most skilled offensive players in the lineup at this juncture?

Whatever Hunter decides to do, he needs to get this team playing better hockey quickly before they fall too far behind the teams they are chasing. They don’t have the skill to overcome in game lapses like they’ve been able to do in the past so the number of breakdowns on defense must decrease. In addition, the power play has to be better. Simply put, this team has to start being more efficient or they might find themselves golfing come mid-April. The margin for error is that small in a crowded Eastern Conference race.

Notes: The Rangers crushed the Caps at the faceoff dot, 31-19…Neuvirth got the start today due to Tomas Vokoun being sick. #30 was not the reason Washington lost, he had no chance on goals 1 and 3…the Caps hit at least three posts, by my count, so if it weren’t for bad luck lately they’d have no luck at all…Mike Knuble and Jeff Schultz were the Capitals scratches.

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How Caps Handle This Loss May Define Rest of Season

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How Caps Handle This Loss May Define Rest of Season

Posted on 09 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

I have been watching hockey for nearly 40 years and I would have to really think hard to find an ending similar to how the Caps managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against Winnipeg at the Verizon Center, in a shootout, 3-2, on Thursday night.

After the Caps took a 2-0 lead on Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin third period power play goals the Jets received the man advantage with 4:05 left when Roman Hamrlik took a bad slashing penalty. Shortly thereafter we entered the twilight zone as Brooks Laich was called for playing the puck with a broken stick, even though he didn’t realize it, leading to a six on three goal (the Jets pulled their goalie) and just 12 seconds later a dump in from center ice hit Karl Alzner’s stick at the blue line, changed direction, and went into the net past Tomas Vokoun! It was one of the most bizarre sequences I have ever seen in hockey, or sports, for that matter.

This was a game the Capitals really needed on Thursday night and they certainly played like they really wanted it. They carried much of the play and if not for Winnipeg’s Ondrej Pavelec (32 saves), Washington wins fairly handily. But that is hockey. Washington couldn’t put the Jets away and as a result they only received a point in a game they likely deserved two. The defeat drops the Capitals into a first place tie with the Florida Panthers, who beat the Los Angeles Kings, 3-1, on Thursday. Florida has a game in hand so technically they have the division lead.

What will be most telling now, though, is how Dale Hunter’s club handles this crushing defeat. Will they realize that they played some quality hockey and were only done in by some bad breaks or will they wallow in self pity? If they are smart they will take a look at the last four games they’ve played and realize that they should not hang their heads at all. They are playing much better despite not having Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, not to mention Laich is playing on a bum knee. This club is improving despite their weakness up the middle of the ice. Their passes are much crisper overall and they are coming out of their own zone with greater speed, and that helps generate more scoring chances. There is a lot of cause for optimism.

But the road ahead is very tough as they face the first place in the Eastern Conference New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Sunday before coming home to play the always difficult San Jose Sharks on Monday night. After that they go on the road for five of the following six against several teams they are battling in the standings.

Crushing defeats often define a player or a team. The good players or teams move on quickly, learning what is important in the loss, and they find a way to take their game to the next level immediately. Two Sundays ago at Torrey Pines golfer Kyle Stanley made an 8 on the 18th hole when all he needed was a 7 to win. A sequence of crazy things did him in, much like they did to the Capitals tonight. But Stanley moved on and just this past week he came back to win in Phoenix after most people would have written him off for a good long time. Clearly Stanley has talent but he was mentally tough and he didn’t let the bad breaks do him in permanently. This Caps team has talent, even without Backstrom and Green. The fact that they’ve stayed in the playoff race shows that they have mental toughness too.

A loss like tonight, though, will really test them mentally. In fact, my experience tells me that how they handle this one may just define the rest of the season. They have a day off tomorrow before practicing on Saturday, then heading to the “Gahden” to face the Rangers. If they focus on the positives over the last four games and not dwell on what might have been against the Jets, they will be okay. Clearly it will be up to the even keeled demeanor of Hunter and the leadership in the locker room to help this team keep the proper focus going forward. Stay tuned…

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Caps Respond to Hunter’s Challenge

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Caps Respond to Hunter’s Challenge

Posted on 07 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

On Monday and Tuesday, Washington Capitals coach Dale Hunter stressed the importance of Tuesday night’s game against the Florida Panthers, which was for first place in the Southeast Division, calling it a playoff game. With the Caps struggling with some key injuries and being losers of six of their last nine games, the big question was how would his team respond to his challenge?

After a 4-0 victory over the Cats at the Verizon Center, Hunter and everyone else had their answer. The Caps are still alive and kicking this season and have the horses to turn it on, when necessary. Washington made a statement that they aren’t the four time defending division champs for nothing. They stated that with authority by scoring 13 seconds into the game (Mathieu Perreault) and then Alexander Ovechkin tallied on the power play midway through the first period to stake the Capitals to a lead they never really had to worry about.

“We jumped on them early. It changed the game a bit when we got two quick goals. They had to play a different game and it ended up at our advantage. We knew what was on the line tonight. We’re battling with Florida. Every two points means a lot, ” said Hunter afterwards.

They received excellent goaltending from Tomas Vokoun (42 saves), who like Tim Thomas did to Washington on Sunday, made key stops in the opening frame when the Caps did have some major defensive breakdowns.

“Tomas [Vokoun] was sharp all night. We might not have had the lead in the first period if it wasn’t for Tomas [Vokoun]. They had a lot of breakaways and he came up big for us. He was one of the main reasons why we won. I thought Tomas [Vokoun] had a great game. They threw a lot of pucks from all angles and he had to be sharp all the time. He came up big and gave them no momentum. I thought he was a first star,” added Hunter.

Not only did Hunter’s “playoff” mantra seem to inspire the Caps, but the ability of Brooks Laich to be able to play after suffering what looked to be a vicious knee injury on Sunday had to amp up the rest of the Washington players. After all, if #21 is going to play through pain, shouldn’t the rest of the guys feel obligated to lay it on the line too? That is pretty much what happened as several Capitals used their strengths in this contest. Marcus Johansson was all over the ice displaying his speed to open things up for Ovechkin (2 goals), Troy Brouwer (5 hits) and Joel Ward (4 hits) were physical presences, and Jason Chimera was seemingly everywhere (1 goal, 1 assist, 8 shots on goal).

The Capitals were really good in nearly every facet of the game, outside of a few first period breakdowns. They won the special teams battle scoring on their only power play, shut down the Panthers on all four of theirs, and also scored shorthanded (Chimera). Vokoun was much better than Florida goalie Scott Clemmensen (20 saves). The Caps number one goalie saw a lot of rubber but not a significant number of quality chances in the last two periods. Most of the Florida shots, after it was 3-0, were from the perimeter or were with no traffic in front. When a goalie knows where the shots are coming from and he can see them, it is much easier to make the save and that is what is mostly happening for Washington in Hunter’s system.

Tuesday’s victory was a feel good win and should give the team some confidence going into another important game against Winnipeg on Thursday at the Verizon Center. With Nicklas Backstrom out the Capitals have struggled to be consistent, so they now have a chance to build on several of the good things they did on Tuesday. As I blogged after Sunday’s loss to Boston, the Caps had their chances but didn’t finish them in a 4-1 defeat. On this night, Washington made sure they put the biscuit in the basket and the reward is first place in the Southeast Division, once again.

Notes: The Caps are now 28-21-4 (60 points). Florida is a point back but has a game in hand…Washington was much better on face-offs after getting smoked on Sunday by the B’s. The Capitals went 32-25 from the dot with Laich winning 7 of 8 of his draws…#21 only played 9:28…the Capitals outhit the Panthers 31-19.

 

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