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Caps Still A Contender Despite Off Season Losses

Posted on 03 July 2017 by Ed Frankovic

For the past three years Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan built a squad to compete for the Cup with entry level or bridge contracts working in his favor. Unfortunately, despite having a complete roster this past season, which led to a second straight Presidents’ Trophy, they did not get the job done.

The Caps had the best team on paper this past spring, but when it came down to it, they couldn’t defeat Pittsburgh, once again.

Bottom line, they couldn’t handle the pressure of the top seed and they under performed.

They choked.

There is no way around that, all you have to do is go back and watch the panic they displayed in game seven after the Penguins took a 1-0 lead.

But we’ve already dissected that loss and the disappointing end to the season, so it’s time to move on.

On this journey, however, MacLellan, while talking about what he called a two year championship window (2015-16 and 2016-17), also clearly pointed out that after those two years were up that roster changes were inevitable due to the salary cap.

As the Caps GM and anyone else that closely follows this team knew all along, they had 11 players from this past spring’s roster that were up for new contracts.

Eleven!

So there was NO WAY this team was going to be the same and they were going to lose many pieces, especially with the salary cap only going up to $75M after the NHLPA mistakenly didn’t take advantage of the full escalator clause. That error is now putting many veteran NHL players out of work and could force many of them to have to take major pay cuts just to stay in the league.

So with five unrestricted free agents, six restricted free agents and the expansion draft guaranteeing one unprotected player was going to be taken by Vegas, the Caps GM had his work cut out for him.

MacLellan wisely took a strategy that focused on keeping the core of the team intact while letting players be exposed, unsigned, or traded where they had other options in the pipeline at those positions, such as on defense and at wing.

For the expansion draft he took the 7-3-1 protection approach which left them most vulnerable with either their 4th defensemen (Nate Schmidt) or the backup goalie (Philipp Grubauer). Leaving just those spots exposed was good asset management, especially when the Capitals knew they were losing one good player NO MATTER WHAT. That turned out to be the very popular, but still relatively inexperienced Schmidt. The 88 car, who is a very good skater and a positive player, was an undrafted free agent that had yet to play a full 82 game season and playoffs as a top four defensemen. The Capitals clearly liked Schmidt and openly stated the plan was for him to have the first shot at the fourth blue line slot this upcoming season, despite not having lengthy experience in that position at the NHL level.

Vegas GM George McPhee, who knew Schmidt well from his days with the Caps, opted to take Nate instead of Grubauer and the first roster hole became official.

Immediately after the expansion draft, the T.J. Oshie signing occurred allowing Washington to keep the 33 goal scorer and top line right wing at a bargain price of $5.75M for eight years.

This past weekend, with the start of free agency on July 1st, MacLellan focused his efforts on signing his restricted free agents. He inked defenseman Dmitry Orlov to a six year $30.6M deal, winger Brett Connolly to a two year $3M contract, and center Evgeny Kuznetsov to an eight year $62.4M monster extension. Over the same period unrestricted Washington free agents Karl Alzner signed with Montreal, Kevin Shattenkirk went, as expected, to the Rangers, and Justin Williams received a high paying two year deal ($9M) to return to Carolina.

The problem with the Caps signings was that the Orlov and Kuznetsov numbers came in a bit higher, especially in Kuznetsov’s case, than originally anyone expected. Both had leverage with the KHL, primarily Kuznetsov, and with Washington thin at center in the organization, Kuzy had even more extra leverage to get a big pay day. After all he could bolt to Russia, play in the Olympics and KHL this season, log another year overseas and then become an unrestricted NHL free agent in the summer of 2019. With no clear top two centers in the Capitals organizational pipeline, MacLellan had no choice but to re-sign Kuznetsov, mostly on #92’s terms. At that point, with restricted free agents Andre Burakovsky and Philipp Grubauer still the only ones needing new deals, someone was going to have to be moved now or in the future to make the overall salary cap dollars work.

The NHL allows teams to carry up to 10% over the salary cap until final roster cut downs, but with so many veteran players on the market likely to be cheaper going forward due to the small salary cap increase (bad move again, NHLPA) it was clear that the trade market was going to be decreasing rapidly going forward. Add in the fact that most teams spent a lot of money to give big increases to their own players (see Connor McDavid and Carey Price) and you can see why there hasn’t been a big trade market since the NHL expansion draft.

Case in point, just last week Vegas GM George McPhee, who selected top four defensemen Marc Methot from Ottawa in the expansion draft, was only able to obtain from the Dallas Stars a 2020 2nd round pick and goalie Dylan Ferguson (a 7th round pick in the 2017 draft) for the blue liner. You read that correctly, it’s the year 2020 for that second round pick!

So with MacLellan needing to deal because the trade market was looking bleak going forward, the Caps GM had to pick a player to move for salary cap room while also finding a dance partner. Marcus Johansson, who carries a $4.583M cap number, was the most likely candidate, especially with Burakovsky and 2014 NHL first round pick Jakub Vrana in place and ready to move up the depth chart at wing. Luckily the New Jersey Devils, who had set aside money to try and lure Shattenkirk to their club on July 1st, but failed to do so despite likely offering more money than the Rangers, had remaining budget and needed to make a splash to improve their team and appease their fan base.

So on Sunday night, just after announcing the blockbuster Kuznetsov deal, the Caps traded Jojo to the Devils and received 2018 2nd and 3rd round picks for the forward who just completed a career year in Washington with 24 goals and 58 points. 19 of those 58 points came on a first power play unit with Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Oshie, but Marcus did his share to earn those points by being the best on the team in man advantage zone entries (Kuznetsov will assume Johansson’s 1st PP spot going forward).

With the departure of the also very popular Johansson to go along with Schmidt and the three EXPECTED unrestricted free agent losses, some in the fan base and local and national media went nuts. This despite the fact that MacLellan had managed to pretty much ensure he’d re-sign six of the 11 players that needed new contracts for 2017-18 while also getting two draft picks for the departed Johansson to fill in holes that they had in the 2018 draft as a result of previously traded choices. Those draft picks should prove to be valuable going forward.

Following the Johansson trade, the fan response on Twitter and blog/Twitter posts of some in the local and national media were emotionally charged and a major overreaction in a negative sense. It seems that many conveniently forgot the facts, or chose to ignore them: the Caps were going to lose good players this off-season and when prices went up in the restricted free agent market, it likely cost them one more that they did not originally expect or could reasonably prepare for given the expansion draft.

Suddenly MacLellan, who along with Coach Barry Trotz and his coaching staff have done a wonderful job of turning around a team that was an absolute train wreck just three years ago, had become the village idiot on Twitter for losing Schmidt and Johansson. But in reality they are two replaceable players in the grand scheme of things when you look at the Capitals organizational depth. They have young quality defensemen in the organization and at wing both Burakovksy and Vrana are ready to move up to fill in the gaps left by the departure of Jojo.

Overall, the expansion draft and the upward costs of the restricted free agents resulted in the loss of those two players in addition to their unrestricted free agents (although MacLellan did keep Oshie from the UFA pile). In my opinion, however, you’d be hard pressed to pick any other two players from the 7-3-1 protected list and restricted free agent crew that make the dollars work while resulting in a better overall scenario for Washington going forward, especially given the other assets they currently have in the organization for replacements. Keep in mind that Vegas had the final say for the expansion draft, too, so the Caps did not get to choose who the Golden Knights selected. In addition, the idea of buying out Brooks Orpik was never a viable option and it would not have resulted in enough salary cap savings (only $3M) this season to allow all of the restricted free agent signings to occur (not to mention it would add wasted dollars to the salary cap for the next four seasons).

The Caps lost good players, but let’s get one thing straight in spite of everything that has transpired since the end of the season – the Capitals still have a VERY GOOD hockey team heading into 2017-18.

The projected line-up, based on input from the Caps GM during his Monday morning conference call, is now as follows:

Forwards:

Ovechkin – Backstrom – Oshie

Vrana – Kuznetsov – Burakovsky

Connolly – Eller – Wilson

TBD – Jay Beagle – TBD

Defense:

Orlov – Matt Niskanen

TBD – John Carlson

Orpik – TBD

Goalie:

Braden Holtby

Grubauer

The TBD’s at forward, right now, include the possibility of several Hershey players such as Chandler Stephenson, Nathan Walker, Travis Boyd, Riley Barber, or recently acquired players such as Tyler Graovac, Anthony Peluso or Devante Smith-Pelly (signed from New Jersey on Monday on a two way contract for the league minimum, $650,000). On defense, the TBD’s appear to be two of Taylor Chorney, Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos, Aaron Ness, and Tyler Lewington.

Yes, this is no longer a 118 or 120 point roster, but it’s still a good one, likely in the 100 to 105 point range given the strong centers, skilled scoring wingers, and quality goaltenders. In my opinion, Vegas not taking Grubauer will be a blessing in disguise for the Caps in 2017-18 because goaltending is the most important position in hockey. There will also be a lot less pressure on this team, the media and many fans have already written them off.

Finally, keep in mind that the other playoff teams in the Metropolitan Division have lost players too, due to the salary cap. In Pittsburgh, the two time defending champs saw Marc Andre-Fleury (expansion draft), Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, and Ron Hainsey all depart. Without Fleury, who was a great insurance policy for the oft-injured Matt Murray, the Capitals win that second round series this spring. The Rangers signed Shattenkirk, but they traded their number one center, Derek Stepan, backup goalie, Antti Raanta, and bought out defensemen Dan Girardi in the process of doing so. Columbus traded forward Brandon Saad to Chicago for Artemi Panarin, so they are still looking for a number one center to fill their biggest need. Bottom line, nobody has a roster without holes.

It’s clear the fact that the salary cap is impacting all teams gets lost in the noise when some look and analyze the Capitals.

Yes, they’ve become “top heavy” as MacLellan called them, but they are still a playoff team, at a minimum.

Fans are fans, though, so the negativity is to be expected, that’s just the way it is in professional sports. But you’d expect more out of the local and national media. Keep in mind, though, that there are critics in parts of the media who are fans, at heart, of other Metropolitan Division teams (for example, the Devils and the Flyers, to name a couple), or flat out just don’t like the Capitals organization, there’s no denying that. Then there are others who are just not experienced enough when it comes to the workings of the NHL or are trying to make their mark in their craft to move up the sports media ladder via page clicks – so please take their criticism and bashing with a grain of salt. They have an agenda.

In full disclosure, I won’t walk away from the fact that I worked for this organization for 11 seasons either, but my track record of calling the team out when they make mistakes is well documented (see my 2014 end of season fire McPhee and Oates blog or simply check out the first few paragraphs above). If I thought MacLellan did a poor job of handling this off-season, I’d call him out. But given what he was up against and the undeniable rising salary costs for the top players in the game, I think he’s done the best job he possibly could to keep the Capitals a playoff team and, depending on how the new players that make the lineup this fall pan out, still a Stanley Cup contender.

It’s now up to the Capitals star players, starting with Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and Holtby, to produce their best performances to help carry this club through the regular season and deep into the postseason.

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Should the Caps Blow it Up or Stay the Course?

Posted on 29 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

After the Capitals added Kevin Shattenkirk at this season’s NHL trade deadline, I certainly thought I’d be writing a much happier ending to this recent Washington hockey season.

Alas, once again, that is not the case.

You already know the story; the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Washington Capitals in the playoffs for the second straight season, this time in a seven game series. In fact, it is now the ninth time in 10 playoff meetings that the Pens have knocked out the Caps. Jim Schoenfeld remains the only Capitals bench boss to defeat Mario Lemieux’s franchise in the post season (1994).

Let’s start with giving credit to the Penguins, because they certainly deserve that. Despite being outshot, 232-161, and outshot attempted, 484-317, in the series, they managed to hold the Caps to two goals or less in four of the seven tilts and as result, they won each of those games. There’s your series.

You don’t do that without outstanding play from your goaltender. Cleary, Marc Andre-Fleury’s performance against the Capitals was the biggest reason why the Penguins will likely be winning their fifth Stanley Cup this spring.

Next, you have to credit Sidney Crosby. Despite being injured in game three and missing game four, #87 was the difference maker for Pittsburgh. It was his two goals early in the second period of game one that staked the Pens to a two puck lead which gave his club the confidence it could win at the Verizon Center after being smoked there in the regular season. Then in a crucial game seven, Sid made the key pass on the winning goal after a Washington defensive zone turnover.

Finally, tip your hat to the entire Penguins team and coaching staff because they overcame a ton of injuries to defeat the Caps. Washington had injuries, as well, namely Alex Ovechkin’s knee and hamstring and Marcus Johansson’s fractured finger, but that’s a part of the game and the Pens found a way to persevere through all of their health issues.

The biggest reason the Pens won is because of their resolve. They certainly were outplayed by Washington for long stretches in this series, but they stuck to their system and when they received a break via a Caps turnover or mental mistake, they typically buried the biscuit. They were an opportunistic bunch who believed they could win. They also were able to plug guys into the lineup when some of their top guys were out. Without Crosby in game four, they jumped on the Caps early and held on for a win that ultimately gave the Caps no margin of error for a series comeback. So the Penguins deserve kudos for the depth they’ve created via strong drafting and development.

Congratulations Penguins, you clearly know how to win when the chips are down.

Now, were they the better team like they were in 2016 when they knocked off the Capitals in six games? The statistics say no, but the scoreboard says otherwise, and that is all that matters.

As for the Capitals, the roster assembled by General Manager Brian MacLellan, on paper, appeared to have no holes. Washington certainly did a lot of things correctly in the series. You don’t dominate the numbers as heavily as they did without doing many things right. Unfortunately, they did some big things wrong at inopportune times.

Washington carried the play in several periods in this series, didn’t score, and then tried to change their style of play. That is when they got into trouble and ended up losing. It was pretty obvious that the best Capitals game plan was to put pucks deep in the Penguins zone to try and further weaken a defense that was suffering from multiple injuries. Kris Letang was already out for the season and Trevor Daley was playing on bad wheels. But too often, the Capitals forgot that this is a shoot first league and they went into overpass mode. They were caught up far too easily in playing a pretty game and that is not the way you defeat a team as structured and as mentally tough as the Penguins.

Many Capitals players talked about the defeat being a mental thing on Caps Breakdown Day, and they are correct. Pittsburgh, no matter what the score or the situation, pretty much continued to play the same way. The Caps on the other hand, were not patient enough or mentally disciplined to stick with the game plan. As three time Stanley Cup Champion Justin Williams told me after game two, its okay to dominate a period and not score a goal, it happens in hockey. The problem for Washington though, is they wouldn’t maintain what they were doing and that’s when the fancy game and turnovers appeared on the ice. That’s a mental issue all the way.

While the Caps had a lot of shot attempts, they weren’t getting enough with traffic on Fleury and the players were rarely in position for rebounds. It’s a shoot first league and there were too many times, especially in the third period of game seven, when the Caps would cross the blue line and force the puck to the middle when getting it deep and wearing down the Penguins defense was the right play.

Again, that is a mental toughness issue, in my book. You have to be willing to pay the physical price in the playoffs by making the correct play. Taking a hit in the neutral zone and ensuring the puck gets deep in the offensive zone is a critical part of post season hockey. That applies inside both blue lines, as well. A number of the Penguins goals came as a result of lazy or careless turnovers. That’s a letdown on the mental side of the game. You can also attribute all of the terrible penalties the Capitals took in game four as a mental issue. Washington had a tendency to not come out strong in some contests, most notably games one and four. There is no reason why the Penguins should’ve had a 21-13 shot attempt advantage in the first 15 minutes of game four with Crosby out of the lineup in a must win for Washington. That’s inexcusable and both players and coaches need to answer for that.

Breaking things down by team component, let’s start with the coaching staff. All season long the Caps relied heavily on rolling four lines, but once Karl Alzner was deemed able to play with his hand injury and Brett Connolly struggled in his first post season appearance, Coach Barry Trotz went to seven defensemen and 11 forwards despite it being counter to what they’d done all season. Yes, the seven defensemen and 11 forwards strategy worked in game three, but it might have only been successful because Matt Niskanen was kicked out very early in the contest and the other six d-men were able to rotate normally. In game four, that configuration backfired badly as Alzner and Brooks Orpik, the two slowest Washington blue liners, were out on the ice together early in the game. Patrick Hornqvist, who isn’t exactly fast, split them like Moses parting the Red Sea to tally on a breakaway and it was 1-0 just over four minutes in. Pittsburgh gained a ton of confidence that they could win that contest without Crosby from that goal.

Following the game four loss, which was also heavily impacted by a very injured Ovechkin, who probably shouldn’t have played, Coach Trotz shook up his forward lines. He moved Andre Burakovsky with T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom and bumped the Gr8 down with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson. Those moves worked and Washington came storming back to tie up the series. They seemed poised for a big game seven, but Pens Coach Mike Sullivan adjusted and the Capitals didn’t play with the passion and urgency they had in the third period of game five and all of game six. Simply put, they cracked under the pressure. It’s apparent that the weight of being the #1 seed plus all of the past history of Washington recent playoff failures was heavily on the minds of these players.

Coach Barry Trotz has a track record of being tough on players who don’t follow the rules or the system as evidenced by the Ovechkin suspension in October of 2015 and Andre Burakovsky being benched in December of 2016. He even questionably pulled Braden Holtby after the second period in game two for what he thought was subpar goaltending. However, he and his staff let his skaters get away from the system too often in this series. Any deviation from the structure against a disciplined team like the Penguins can lead to a quality scoring chance, and that is what happened at key times in the series. If guys start playing the wrong way, they need to be benched for a shift or two so they get the message.

Johansson, Oshie, and Williams scored a lot of goals in the regular season going to the net. Jojo even won the Toronto series in OT of game six by doing just that. In the Penguins series, we didn’t see enough net presence and it was on the coaches to drill that into the players heads and enforce the strategy of getting pucks deep to set that up.

Again, I wasn’t a fan of the 7/11 configuration because it got the Caps away from the four line forward group that worked so well from late December until mid February. I understand why Brett Connolly was pulled out of the lineup for maybe a game or so to observe, but he also scored 15 goals in the regular season, many of which were tallied via going to the net. With some guys severely banged up and unable to shoot, like Johansson, why wasn’t he put back in for another chance? It was a mistake, in my opinion, to totally give up on a guy who could’ve been a better performer than the guys who were playing hurt. Case in point, Conor Sheary was performing poorly while being nicked up, so Sullivan benched him for games five and six of the Senators series. Yet in a crucial game seven, #43 was back in the lineup and played a major role in the first two Pittsburgh goals.

So did the Caps lose totally because of coaching? No, the coaching wasn’t great, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water here. This coaching staff has done a great job of building this team from the ruins of 2014. The two Presidents’ Trophies are evidence of that. Look at how far Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, and Tom Wilson have come in just a year. Each one of those players was a big part of why the Caps knocked off the Maple Leafs and dominated the possession statistics against the Penguins.

The playoff coaching certainly needed some improvements, but in totality, this is a very good coaching staff. Trotz and company will certainly take their share of the heat for the loss, but the biggest blame for the defeat is on the players themselves. They have to be stronger mentally and physically to do the correct things on the ice.

Let’s start right at the top of the players with Ovechkin. There’s no nice way to put this, it was a subpar season for Ovi and it all began last summer. How you handle off of the ice issues and life changing events is a big part of professional sports and with Alex getting married last summer it clearly impacted his ability to prepare for and play in 2016-17. After scoring 50 goals in 2015-16 and having a super 2016 post season, Alex looked slow and overweight for the large majority of the season. Clearly his conditioning wasn’t where it needed to be and then missing training camp due to the World Cup of Hockey didn’t help either. At age 31 and not in peak shape, the Gr8 lost some speed and that allowed defensemen to play him tighter so that he couldn’t get his shot off quickly at even strength. Ovechkin lived off of the power play in 2016-17 to score goals as he struggled in five on five situations.

In the playoffs, the hit from Nazem Kadri was low and the Russian Machine didn’t break, but it certainly slowed him down further and probably contributed to suffering the hamstring injury, as well. However, had Ovi been in better condition and had his speed from the previous year, it’s quite possible he could have avoided the Kadri hit altogether.

Ovechkin has made great strides under this coaching staff with his back checking ability, something he rarely did prior to the Trotz era. He deserves a lot of credit for that. However, his ability to play in his own zone has regressed. Standing on the left wing boards straight legged with your stick at your hips parallel to the ice is bad defensive posture. He needs to get rid of that and work on being a better player in his own end. If he gets back in peak shape and works at it, there’s no reason he can’t turn proper defensive zone play into several rush goals in 2017-18. Again, it’s a focus on conditioning and hockey.

That gets us to Backstrom. #19 had a very good season, but game seven was nowhere near his best. MacLellan’s goal in adding Eller and Connolly was to improve the bottom six and allow Washington to play a faster game. The thought was that having four lines would allow Coach Trotz to play everyone more evenly so that they could maintain a high pace and be fresher in the postseason. At times, the Capitals were able to do that, but they were not consistent. Ovechkin and Backstrom both played lower average minutes than they had in past regular seasons, by design, and in the end, it was likely the wrong move as both looked tired, at times, in the post season. Nicky, in his twenties, has been able to survive playing with extra weight, but as he moves into his thirties, like Ovechkin, he needs to shed any extra pounds he has to play faster.

When Washington lost to the Penguins in 2015-16, you could not blame either Ovechkin or Backstrom because they dominated Crosby and Malkin in that series. It was the Nick Bonino line that won for the Pens in the spring of 2016. In 2016-17, you can’t say the same thing. Both Crosby and Malkin elevated their games while Ovechkin and Backstrom weren’t as good as they were the previous May. Sure the Caps only received one goal in the series from their bottom six, but they rarely played the fourth line due to the 7/11 strategy.

Crosby is the best player in the game for a reason; he works harder than anyone at his craft. Orpik was quoted recently as saying that #87 is always the first player on the ice and the last player off of it for the Penguins at practice. That needs to be Ovechkin and Backstrom going forward. We’ve heard from other players that both have made strides, especially Nicky, in speaking up in the locker room. Speeches are great, but actions speak louder and doing the proper things on and off of the ice is so much more critical to winning championships. Those two guys are the Capitals leaders and have been the core for 10 years so they must be setting the tempo that everything is hockey first in 2017-18. We should not have to hear from Orpik that the team needs to get focused on hockey, like we did after the disastrous California trip in March. There were several post game players only meetings this season, including one after game two against the Penguins, and while it’s good to clear the air, they aren’t as necessary if everyone is focused on hockey.

Ovechkin and Backstrom are clearly the core of the Capitals and the goaltender is the third critical piece to the triumvirate. Braden Holtby, who has been stellar in past post seasons, had his worst playoffs from a statistics standpoint. Now how much of that is on #70 and how much of it is on the team giving up too many golden chances? I’d lean more on the side of the team breakdowns, but this was not Braden’s spring. This series was likely over in five games if he doesn’t make some big stops early in period three before the Washington three goal explosion that led to a victory and a two game winning streak. In game seven, he had no chance on the winning goal. However, I still didn’t like the Justin Schultz winning tally in game four. If there was a goal he’d want back in the series, I’d bet it would be that one.

On defense, John Carlson played his best hockey of the season against the Penguins, but he did not have a consistent year. He needs to amp his conditioning up so that he can play faster, as well. The standouts of this postseason on the blue line were Orlov and Schmidt and that’s encouraging given where we were just a year ago with both of them. Bringing in Shattenkirk for Zach Sanford and a first round pick seemed like the right move at the time, but in the end, with no Stanley Cup, it’s a lost trade. #22 has enormous potential and talent, but he was slow in the playoffs. Again, I think that might be a conditioning issue, but he didn’t come over until March with Washington. Hindsight is 20/20 and the deal now is another one that weakens the Capitals reach back for young players. Sanford has a lot of promise and first round picks are valuable. I can’t fault Mac for making that move, but coming up Cup empty now makes it an overall organizational defeat.

So where do the Caps go from here? There are calls for firing the coach, trading Ovechkin, or “blowing it up” from many in the fan base and some around the club. Even a couple of players said “major changes” were needed just two days after losing to the Penguins. It’s a natural reaction when a team loses again after being the favorite.

Let’s be honest, this is a team that is largely based on European talent and it hasn’t produced a trip to the Eastern Conference finals yet. This club improved greatly with the additions of North American players Oshie and Williams in the summer of 2015. They are guys who have a high “dog the puck” type of work effort. Both are unrestricted free agents and the team needs more of that style. Word over the Memorial Day weekend is that the Capitals and the Osh Babe have verbally agreed to an extension so that is great news, this team is not a Cup contender without #77 going forward. It would be nice if they could find a way to get Williams back, as well, but that will be tougher given the salary cap situation. Per the Caps great team reporter, Mike Vogel (@VogsCaps), we’ve heard that the salary cap is going to be in the $76 to $77 Million range. That is a big help to Washington, who also have to deal with Burakovsky as a restricted free agent. There are some who think #65 deserves a big pay raise, but given his inconsistent output, I’m not sure Washington can commit to longer term and/or high dollars on him, just yet.

I just don’t see moving Ovechkin or Backstrom as feasible given the likely low return and to be honest, #19’s contract is a great one for the Caps. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who also improved significantly in the post season outside of a poor game seven, is up for a new contract. He’s a restricted free agent, but somewhere around $6M per season seems likely for him. As for Orlov and Schmidt, it’s apparent they’ve moved up big time on the depth chart of this defensive roster and deserve decent longer term contracts. I’m speculating that Orlov will be come in at around $4M and Schmidt in the $2 to $2.5M range. Both play with speed and drive possession, which is so important in today’s NHL. Unfortunately, there will have to be other changes on the blue line. Shattenkirk will get paid big bucks elsewhere and I’d expect the same for Alzner, who really had a rough campaign. King Karl admittedly had a hard time regaining his speed after offseason groin surgery and then he broke his hand in the first playoff tilt against Toronto.  As for Orpik, as much as he’s a strong leader and a fitness freak, which was a big help in starting to turn the culture of this team around in 2014-15, his on ice value compared to his salary cap hit is not equitable anymore. He’s a third pair defenseman and you can’t afford $5.5M annually for that type of player when you want to win a Cup. MacLellan will have to look at either working a deal to move him, getting Vegas to pick him in the expansion draft, or buying him out to clear some needed salary cap space.

If the Caps had players ready to make the leap from Hershey or the college ranks to the NHL, like the Penguins have been blessed with the last two seasons, the overall situation could be better. Perhaps the bottom six will see a player such as Travis Boyd or Riley Barber come up and help out? Jakub Vrana has shown glimpses of being able to handle the NHL, but after his demotion this year he dropped so far off of the map that he was scratched for some games by Bears Coach Troy Mann in the AHL playoffs. Vrana is streaky and inconsistent, much like Burakovsky has been, so do you want to rely on another guy who doesn’t go to the net or high traffic areas consistently to finally help get you past the Pittsburgh problem? Seems awfully risky to me.

Clearly MacLellan has a lot to address in this offseason given the number of contracts that are expiring, NHL expansion to Vegas, and salary cap constraints. He also has a head coach reportedly heading into the last year of his contract. Add in that the two core players on the roster will both be in their thirties in 2017-18 and it’s clear that the GM has a lot to consider when charting the course for next season.

It’s not an easy job and there are very hard decisions to make, but in this case, I think it’s worth staying the course for at least one more year with the head coach and core players. In regards to a coaching change, is there somebody out there better than this head coach and staff worth pursuing? After all, there are several young players who have really improved during the Trotz regime and they’ve won two straight Presidents’ Trophies. They will likely have lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions in the second round yet again (yes, I see the Penguins defeating the Predators in the Stanley Cup Final) and that’s simply a function of the current division and playoff setup. In reality, they are the second best team in hockey, so does making drastic changes make sense? I don’t think so.

Brian, however, has to put pressure on the coaches and players to improve and be in better condition so they can make the playoffs and then deliver next spring. In hindsight, the World Cup of Hockey, which included participation from Coach Trotz and several top players, put the Capitals behind the eight ball from a readiness standpoint heading into 2016-17. The lack of preparation, based on what I’ve seen and heard, is a big reason they weren’t able to knock off the Penguins in the second round, once again.

So it’s incumbent upon Coach Trotz, Ovechkin, Backstrom, and everyone else in line after them to start getting ready for 2017-18 as soon as possible. Ovi, Nicky, and all of the players need to put in the hard work this July, August, and September so that they are in the best condition to play at a maximum pace in April, May, and hopefully June. If they can’t do that over the next 12 months, then certainly it will be time to “blow it up.”

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Burkie Game 6

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Caps Dominate Game Six To Even Up The Series

Posted on 09 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

With their season on the line in a must win game six in Pittsburgh, the Washington Capitals needed their best performance of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and they delivered it. The Caps were relentless for the first 56 minutes building a 5-0 lead en route to a 5-2 victory over the Penguins in Steeltown on Monday night.

This was one heck of an effort by the Caps. The Penguins had a few good early shifts, as expected, but the Capitals withstood the pressure and then started finding their game.

Washington would get the first power play of this tilt, when Jake Guentzel lost his mind and hit Evgeny Kuznetsov (two assists) in the head. The Caps would not score on that man advantage, but they built momentum off of it and kept pushing the play. Early on they had nine of the first 10 shots on goal. Shortly thereafter, with Tom Wilson breaking to the net on a two on one, Sidney Crosby had no choice but to put his stick in Willy’s gloves to prevent a great scoring chance and the Caps were back on the man advantage with 11:56 gone in the opening frame.

The Capitals would not waste this power play and a great feed by Kuznetsov to T.J. Oshie allowed the Osh Babe to bury the biscuit in the slot and give the Caps a very important one goal lead. Kuznetsov then took an undisciplined slashing penalty following that tally, but Washington killed it off and they maintained their one puck edge after 20 minutes. It was a very strong frame for Coach Barry Trotz’ crew as they outshot the Penguins, 11-3.

Second periods have not been kind to the Capitals in this series, but they managed to extend their lead at 6:36 of the middle stanza. Oshie made a great play to bat down a Conor Sheary clear on the right wing boards and when the Penguins tried to wheel the biscuit around the left wing side, Andre Burakovsky hit and stole the puck from Ron Hainsey. #65 then broke in two on one on Marc-Andre Fleury (21 saves) and with the Flower leaning to his left thinking a pass was going to go to the Osh Babe, Burkie beat him short side to give the Capitals a huge two puck lead.

Burakovsky would then take a pretty careless offensive zone hooking penalty on Olli Maatta, he needed to keep his stick down there and just play the body, but his teammates picked him up and killed off the man advantage very easily. The remainder of the middle frame was very tight checking and the Pens mustered six shots on net to just five for Washington.

That set up a critical third period. Would the Capitals be able to hold onto their two goal lead and force a game seven? Nicklas Backstrom gave us a pretty good idea of the answer just 16 seconds in when he took a puck down the left side of the ice and with the Pittsburgh defender going down to block the shot, Nicky rifled it over Fleury’s glove to make it 3-0.

Lars Eller was whistled for holding at 1:34 and the Penguins had a chance to get back in it, but the Capitals penalty killing unit was stellar, once again, allowing only one shot attempt, a 56 footer by Maatta that Braden Holtby (16 saves) stopped cleanly.

Pittsburgh started to get a little frustrated with their lack of offense and that was evident when Bryan Rust crashed into the Holtbeast at 4:31 and headed off for goalie interference. The Caps best chance on their third power play was an Alex Ovechkin wrister from in close, but Fleury came up big.

Washington was smart, though, and didn’t sit back. They knew the Penguins would have to gamble and they were patient with their opportunities. After Matt Cullen and Jay Beagle collided in the neutral zone, Cullen slashed Beags in the gut and that set the Capitals up for their fourth power play of the evening. John Carlson would get two shots on net during the first part of the sequence and they were stopped by #29, but then the third one was the charm. His slapper through traffic beat Fleury to make it 4-0 with 8:43 remaining. Things were looking extremely good for the Caps, and then, just 72 seconds later, Burakovsky made a steal at the defensive zone blue line. Burkie carried the puck down the right wing side, faked Chad Rudwehel, who was making his NHL playoff debut, to the ice and cut to the slot to beat the Penguins keeper rather easily from in tight to the glove side. At that point, the Penguins fans exited the arena en masse.

The Capitals would keep up the heat, but Pittsburgh scored twice in four on four after two Washington giveaways. The Caps let up and those late goals should be a good reminder that they cannot ease off of the throttle on the speedy and highly skilled Penguins for even a moment.

Overall, this was a dominant win by Washington. They were very sound defensively allowing only 18 shots on goal. They controlled the puck, as evidenced by the 51-38 edge in shot attempts. This is the sixth straight game in the series that the Caps have outshot the Penguins and they also outhit them, 38-32.

The move to put Burakovsky with Backstrom and Oshie has paid huge dividends and Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan tried to counter the successful game five move by Coach Trotz by reuniting his HBK line (Carl Hagelin-Nick Bonino-Phil Kessel). It did not work as the Eller, Ovechkin and Wilson line gave them fits all night. Wilson had five hits and Ovechkin added three. The Gr8 only had five shot attempts, but that line wore down the Pens defense, which opened things up for the Backstrom unit. Nicky’s trio was outstanding on Monday night and with the way Kuznetsov and the second line is going, the Caps have three groups of forwards that can score. Add in some great hard working guys in Beagle and Daniel Winnik, who had an under the radar great game, including some super PK work, and Coach Trotz is getting big contributions from his forwards.

On the back end, Matt Niskanen, who had a team leading 23:43 in ice time, and Carlson (22:49) were excellent. #74’s game has been building all playoffs and like last spring, he excels when facing Crosby and company. The Kevin Shattenkirk and Nate Schmidt duo continues to move the puck up the ice quickly, which is a big change from last spring’s series, where the Capitals looked slow and intimidated on the back end. Dmitry Orlov also turned in a solid effort with an assist in 18:06. Karl Alzner and Brooks Orpik were each in the 11 to 12 minutes range in ice time and did well to win defensive zone board battles.

Finally, the Holtbeast was rock solid in net. He didn’t have to face a lot of rubber, but when he had shots he stopped them without allowing any rebounds until the late goal by Evgeni Malkin, who was uncovered. #70 looked calm and collected in the cage.

Washington played assertively and confidently in game six and seems to be wearing down the banged up Penguins.

So now it’s a one game, winner take all affair, in Washington on Wednesday night at 7:30 pm.

The Caps have done well to climb back into this series with some strong efforts, but none of that will matter if they don’t close the deal at the Verizon Center. The Penguins are 3-0 in game seven’s against the Capitals, including 2-0 on Washington’s home ice. This team now has a chance to change the history and do something they haven’t done since 1998, advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

It will take another outstanding effort and require extreme discipline to defeat the defending Stanley Cup Champions, who you know will bring their best to DC.

Bring on Game Seven!

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Shatty

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Shattenkirk’s OT Tally Gets Caps Back in the Series

Posted on 02 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Kevin Shattenkirk’s wrister past Marc-Andre Fleury just 3:13 into overtime gave the Washington Capitals a hard fought, 3-2, victory in game three in Pittsburgh. The Pens now lead the series two games to one. Game four is Wednesday night in Steeltown, once again.

Well, they’ll be talking about this contest for a long time.

Sidney Crosby was injured in a collision with Matt Niskanen just 5:24 in and did not return. #87 was skating across the top of the crease on a rush and he was hit by Alex Ovechkin’s stick up high, Ovi and Sid then clip skates, and Sid seemed to lose his balance as he glided above the crease. At that moment, Niskanen was coming to the middle to cover the front of the net and had his stick in a defensive position. Crosby went flying right into #2’s stick as Matt was bracing for the contact and fell to the ice. His knee bent back awkwardly, but after staying down, he got back up and gingerly skated to the dressing room. He would not return and Washington also lost arguably their best defensemen for the night with a five minute major for cross checking and a game misconduct. I didn’t like the call on Niskanen, it was truly a hockey play gone bad. In fact, I thought the only infraction on the play could’ve been on Ovi for a slash, I tweeted that at the time. If Sid doesn’t lose his balance there, he’s fine, but he is low going into Niskanen and that’s where the problem came in.

“Crosby’s trying to score, and as he’s doing that, he’s getting lower and lower. I wasn’t extending my arms trying to hit him in the head, it happened quickly. I wasn’t even trying to cross check him…a collision was going to happen there in the crease. When the play first starts, I think my stick is at about his arm level, probably, right about where the numbers are on the side of his jersey. Because he’s trying to make a play, he’s getting lower and lower and the collision happened. I hope he’s okay, I certainly didn’t mean to injure him, it’s an unfortunate play that happened really quick,” said Niskanen to the media after the game.

Anyways, it’s all done now and the Capitals had a critical game to try to win. Fortunately for them, Coach Barry Trotz put Karl Alzner back in the lineup with seven D and 11 forwards so the Caps had six defensemen left after Nisky was thrown out. The Caps would kill off the major, with some help from Evgeni Malkin, who took a two minute minor for closing his hand on the puck during the early portion of the power play.

After surviving the major, the Caps started to take over the play and they ended up with a power play when Carl Hagelin was boxed for high sticking. Only 43 seconds later, Bryan Rust batted the puck over the glass and the Caps were in business with a 1:17 five on three. It took some time, but 54 ticks later, Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist) fired the puck in off of Ian Cole in front, who was tied up with Justin Williams at the top of the crease, to give the Capitals their first lead of the series. Washington led in shots on goal, 9-8, after twenty minutes. Braden Holtby made some big stops too, including a breakaway by Rust after a terrible Caps line change.

In the middle frame, the Capitals had long stretches of trouble due to too many turnovers and too many penalties. Malkin and the Penguins really picked their game up, going for the three to nothing series lead. With Brooks Orpik incurring a holding the stick call and then Evgeny Kuznetsov taking two careless minors, the Pens had three straight power plays, but the Holtbeast (28 saves) was at his best in this series as well as this year’s playoffs and was the biggest reason Pittsburgh didn’t get the equalizer.

That set up a big third period. A strong 20 minutes and the Capitals would get back in the series, a bad one and they were pretty much done and headed to the golf course. Coach Trotz’ crew came out with authority and really took it to the Pens, but couldn’t extend the lead on two power plays. After those, Pittsburgh was pushing hard and the Caps were doing a good job of keeping a third forward back to prevent their potent rush game. That pressure, much like what the Capitals did in games one and two when trailing, causes you to take chances, and the Pens got burnt on one of them which led to a three on two break for Washington’s second line. Justin Williams carried the puck up the left wing and when a Pens defenseman dove at him to try and knock the disc away, Stick hit Marcus Johansson coming behind him down the slot. Jojo then drew the other Pens defenseman and Fleury to him and slid the puck neatly to Kuznetsov at the right side of the cage. Fleury flopped over like a fish out of water trying to make another acrobatic save, and he made many in this game, but #92 waited him out and snapped the puck over #29 to make it 2-0 with 10:14 to go.

From then until the three minute mark, the Capitals played extremely well and gave the Penguins pretty much nothing. With Fleury pulled, the Caps had a chance to hit the empty net, but after a great play by T.J. Oshie to get the puck out, Backstrom made a poor decision to shoot at the open cage from behind the red line. He missed wide and it was icing. Had he taken another second to look, he could’ve hit Ovechkin all alone on the left wing boards for a game icing tally.

Instead, the Penguins received an offensive zone faceoff and Malkin scored with 1:53 remaining short side on Holtby, who was screened by Alzner. No problem, right, the Caps weren’t going to give up another goalie pulled tally, correct? WRONG!

After a defensive zone faceoff win, Malkin totally took Backstrom out in the right wing corner, but the blatant interference was not called. That allowed the Penguins to keep the puck in and Justin Schultz fired a shot from the point that hit Oshie and then something else on the way into the net with #71 parked in front. It was two goals in just 48 seconds and this one was tied with 1:05 left in regulation.

Surely the Penguins were going to once again win this game in overtime and make the Capitals and their fan base suffer more mental anguish, correct? I mean, a goal by the Penguins in OT and this would’ve been labeled the biggest Washington collapse, ever!

The Caps, however, came out strong in overtime and carried the play, although Phil Kessel had a great look in the high slot early on that he just whistled wide. Just over 150 seconds in to the extra session, Johansson took an outlet feed and split the Penguins defense at the offensive blue line. It was a great play and move by Jojo and Trevor Daley hauled him down on the way to the cage. That gave the Capitals an overtime power play. 33 seconds into it Shatty got the puck in the slot and with Oshie providing some traffic, he put it far post past Fleury and the Capitals players celebrated.

Wow, what a game and what resolve by the Capitals to win that one after an epic late collapse! They played so well in that third frame and it’s tough to give up that two goal lead up in that fashion, but they made a mistake that led to an icing and then the officials missed a clear penalty on Malkin right before the game tying tally. They persevered once again after facing some serious adversity, so they have that to build on as well as some things they did extremely well in this game.

Let’s start with the Holtbeast, who apparently met with his sports psychologist before this game, per the great Carol Maloney of NBC4 (@carolmaloney4) in Washington. #70 was really solid in this game making several big stops and if not for him, the Penguins don’t go 0 for 5 on the power play in nine minutes of advantage time. The Pens fired 10 of their 30 shots on goal for the game when up a man, but Holtby was dynamite.

Alzner and the rest of the penalty killers, especially Daniel Winnik and Tom Wilson, were superb, as well. Winnik also saved a goal with his stick early in the game on one of the rare pucks to get by the Holtbeast until the last two minutes of regulation.

Up front, Jojo was dynamite all night. Williams (two assists) was strong, too, on that second line. Kuznetsov was very up and down in this one. He took some bad penalties, especially the second one, when he held the Penguins forward when a hit was the right decision. You can’t have soft plays in the post season, because that will burn you. Fortunately the Caps PK bailed him out and then he rewarded the team with great patience on his tally.

For the evening, the Capitals did win the shot attempt battle, 63-55. They weren’t as dominant as games one and two, but they got the job done. They were better in front of the Holtbeast for over 57 minutes with a tighter defensive posture, but a costly icing and a missed penalty call allowed a go for broke Pens team to take this one to overtime.

Shattenkirk then made his presence known with authority, and #22 needed that. He had been struggling before this tilt and his power play decisions were a bit hesitant, at times, up until the overtime. Shatty was anything but hesitant on the game winning goal and he looked like the guy who was great down the regular season stretch run after GM Brian MacLellan acquired him at the trade deadline.

Simply put, Holtby and Shattenkirk were two guys Washington needed to step up for a victory, and those two did just that.

So now it’s on to a critical game four on Wednesday night. In addition to losing Crosby, Connor Sheary left the game when Patric Hornqvist, who returned from the dead to play this game but looked slower than normal, went for a big hit on Lars Eller. Instead he hit #43 with friendly fire right in the head when Eller sidestepped a hard charging #72.

This game also got ugly, at times, and Malkin and Chris Kunitz were in the middle of it quite a bit for the men in black.

It will be crucial for the Capitals to stay out of that stuff and just play hockey on Wednesday night if they want to even up this series.

Notes: It’s been announced that game five will be at 7:15 on NBC on Saturday night after the Kentucky Derby…shots on goal were 33-30 for the Caps, they were 2 for 5 on the power play getting nine shots on net in 7:16 of power play time…Ovechkin had six shot attempts (two on net) in 19:27 of ice time…John Carlson led the Caps in time on ice with 25:35…Alzner played more than Coach Trotz envisioned, with 21:34. He performed fairly well coming off of his upper body injury…the Caps lost the face off battle, 36-31, including some key ones late in the game. Jay Beagle was 6-3…Sheary only played 4:01. Kessel led the Penguins in ice time with 23:17…special thanks to WNST station owner, Nestor Aparcio, for being in Pittsburgh and getting me all of the locker room quotes.

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Jojo Rebound

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10 Thoughts on the Caps As They Head into Game Two

Posted on 28 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals lost game one to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night by a 3-2 count. The Pens lead the second round best of seven series with game two slated for Saturday night at 8 pm at the Verizon Center.

Here are 10 thoughts on this series after 60 minutes of hockey.

1. Before anyone goes jumping off of the ledge, the Caps, who are 1-8 in all time playoff series’ against Pittsburgh, were 8-1 in game one action in those nine previous encounters. So the Penguins have certainly proven that it’s not how you start the series, it’s how you finish it.

2. Speaking of starts, the Capitals did not have a strong start, especially the beginning of the second period where Sidney Crosby scored twice in 64 seconds after terrible turnovers by Washington. As I blogged before this series began, the Pens love to generate chances off of the rush and get odd man breaks. They did that well enough in the first game to overcome an 83-41 Caps advantage in shot attempts. The Capitals were very good for stretches of this contest, but their start was weak and they made too many “big mistakes.”

3. Washington did a great job of containing Crosby in last spring’s playoffs, but along with Marc-Andre Fleury (33 saves), he was the biggest reason it’s 1-0 Penguins. The Capitals cannot afford to turn pucks over carelessly when he’s on the ice and on the second goal, nobody on the Caps finds #87 and covers him. As a result he scored on an easy rebound goal. You simply cannot not know where Crosby is on the ice, so the Capitals must be more attentive to where the best player in the NHL is, at all times!

4. That was one great hit by John Carlson on Evgeni Malkin that led to the Caps first goal by Alex Ovechkin. Carlson is playing the best hockey of his season. He was dynamite last spring and Washington needs him to be dominant on the back end if they are going to win this series. #74 seems to really raise his game against Pittsburgh.

5. Turnovers are certainly something that has plagued the Capitals when they don’t win and game one was no exception. Without Kris Letang on defense, the Pens are not as fast, so Coach Mike Sullivan really has his two defensemen focused on cutting off the middle of the ice at the their own blue line and on back to Fleury. In the series opener, the Caps had their highest success on zone entries carrying the puck wide on the Penguins defense across the blue line. When they tried to cut to the middle too soon, it resulted in turnovers and that opens up Pittsburgh’s massive rush offense. So zone entries wide and carrying the puck deep needs to be the modus operandi going forward.

6. There is a lot of talk in hockey about luck deciding outcomes in a contest, or bad luck, as Washington suffered in game one. Jake Guentzel saved a sure goal by T.J. Oshie in the crease in period one and there were pucks around Fleury all night that the Capitals just couldn’t get to and bury. Fleury was good, but he was also fortunate. Washington just needs to keep doing what they are doing with pucks and bodies to the cage and it will pay off. They don’t need to get frustrated and change the game plan. Getting pucks deep on the Pittsburgh defense is so important.

7. After the Capitals called timeout with 26 seconds remaining with the Holtbeast pulled, Ovechkin found himself at the point and Kevin Shattenkirk was in the “Ovi spot” in the left wing circle. The Gr8 passed the puck to #22, but he missed the net on a great look. The Penguins had to be very happy to have Shattenkirk shooting from there instead of Ovechkin. I’m not sure if that configuration was planned coming out of the timeout or not, but it would seem that going forward that the Capitals coaching staff needs to find a way to get the Gr8 more of the critical looks? Alex only had eight shot attempts in game one and just three of them made it on net.

8. Given the intensity of game one and Washington’s domination in terms of puck possession, it was pretty upsetting to see the only two power plays go to Pittsburgh. Surely zebras Dan O’Halloran and Kevin Pollock could’ve called at least one infraction on the Pens, who were masters of the clutch, grab, and hold in this modern day style of game? It sure looked like there was delay of game on Bryan Rust in the slot on that loose puck late in the third period. I also didn’t like either call on the Caps, especially the late third period slashing penalty on Matt Niskanen when he was just going for the rebound of a loose puck off of Fleury’s pads. There were a lot of rebounds allowed by Fleury in this tilt and that play happens hundreds of times during games in the regular season and playoffs with a penalty very rarely called. The fact that it came at that point in the game and it was on Washington sure is fishy. Coach Barry Trotz labeled it “a pretty light call” afterwards, especially given everything else that was let go during the contest. Be better and more consistent zebras (although I’ve long given up on the arrogant O’Halloran)!

9. The Caps are at their best when they press the play on the Penguins and force their defense to have to make plays and work. Unfortunately, that strategy sometimes opens the Capitals up to the possibility of the Pens getting some quick offense on a stretch pass, if Washington does not stay structured. Somehow Pittsburgh was able to connect on one in the last 10 minutes to win the game. That cannot happen going forward. There were several mistakes made on that play by Washington. Shattenkirk needs to keep Scott Wilson wide at the defensive blue line and prevent a cross ice pass while Brooks Orpik was too far to his left and up the ice, and Nick Bonino exploited the gap with his superior speed. The Caps forwards also need to make sure someone is in position to stop that long pass or at least ensure that they are with any opposing forwards charging up the ice. As Coach Trotz said afterwards, all three Penguins goals were very preventable.

10. With the Capitals having lost the last six games they’ve played in Pittsburgh, it is imperative that Washington plays their best game on Saturday night to even this series up. It won’t be easy, but if they minimize their mistakes and bring the effort they brought the last 25 plus minutes of game one (they had the puck way more and also out hit the Penguins, 41-17), then they should be in good shape.

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Sid Ovi

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Ten Thoughts on the Penguins Before Round Two Begins

Posted on 25 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Following their first round victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs in six games, the task for the Washington Capitals gets significantly harder as they take on the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in a second round series that starts at 7:30 pm on Thursday night at the Verizon Center.

Here are ten thoughts on the Pens as we head into game one.

1. Pittsburgh had a ton of injuries this season, but they still managed to stay close to the Capitals in the standings until very late in the campaign. They are an extremely well coached team led by the best player in the league, Sidney Crosby. Coach Mike Sullivan’s club is playing well right now despite the fact that they are missing defenseman Kris Letang, forward Carl “Cap Killer” Hagelin, and goaltender Matt Murray due to injury. Letang is done for the season while Murray is not even skating, yet. Hagelin is a possibility to return, at some point, during this series.

2. The Pens scored 21 goals in five games against the Columbus Blue Jackets in round one. They notched them in so many different ways, too. Here’s the break down on those tallies: Eight from offensive zone pressure shifts, six power play markers (officially only five, but Evgeni Malkin’s goal in game two came just one second after a CBus penalty expired), four rush goals, one off of a face off, one as a result of a strong forecheck, and one empty net tally. Six power play goals jumps out there, the Capitals cannot afford to take careless penalties.

3. A big key to those goals is how decisive they are with the puck, they pass it quickly to open space and it leads to a lot of one timers. They were able to exploit a very young Blue Jackets defense and get Vezina Trophy candidate, Sergei Bobrovsky, moving around quite a bit, which made it easier to find open looks. Columbus never knew what hit them.

4. Another thing they like to do is use the long stretch pass out of their zone from a defenseman to the forwards. If the opponent makes a mistake in the neutral zone or has a bad line change, they typically exploit it. The Caps must be crisp in the neutral zone and make sure they get pucks deep into the Penguins zone, especially when they are changing players.

5. When it comes to getting pucks to the net, I’ve already mentioned how quickly they do that. What makes them even more dangerous is all of their forwards are skilled at crashing the cage. Patric Hornqvist, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Nick Bonino, and Scott Wilson all had in close tallies in round one. Guentzel and Rust each had five goals in the five game series and most of them were from just outside the paint. Chris Kunitz is another player who specializes in dirty goals, but he was out due to injury in round one. He is expected to suit up for the series opener. Crosby is a wizard when he has the puck behind the opponents cage so it is imperative that Washington does a very good job in picking up Penguins forwards in front and around the net when #87 has the puck. The Blue Jackets failed in that area miserably.

6. Pittsburgh is missing Letang on the back end, and he was a work horse for the Pens against the Capitals last spring logging over 25 minutes a game. However, this season the team has learned to play without him since he’s been on the sidelines since February. As a result, they have three pairs of defenders that get pretty even ice time based on the Columbus series: Justin Schultz and Ian Cole, Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley, and Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey.

7. The Penguins are very difficult to beat on their home ice. In fact, you have to go back to December 14, 2015 to find the last time the Capitals won in Pittsburgh. That’s six straight losses at the Igloo II, counting last spring’s playoffs.

8. With Murray injured in the game one warm-ups against Columbus, Marc-Andre Fleury was thrown into the battle in goal. It was literally baptism by fire in these 2017 Playoffs for the 2009 Stanley Cup Champion and his perfect 16 save performance in period one stabilized things for the Pens until they found their game. They then quickly demolished Columbus. If Coach John Tortorella’s squad gets a goal or two in that opening frame, is the series different? We’ll never know because Fleury was so good in net to start the series.

9. Washington did well containing the Crosby and Malkin lines last spring, but it was the Hagelin-Bonino-Phil Kessel third line that did them in. This go round, that line is not together due to the knee injury to #62. However, Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel are playing as well as ever. Malkin, who was battling an upper body injury in the playoffs last year, is at the peak of his game now and is very difficult to take off of the puck. Kessel is on his line, along with Rust and they’ve been on fire. The best way to stop Malkin is to prevent him from getting the biscuit. He’s in beast mode heading into round two and leads the NHL in playoff scoring.

10. The Caps have spent all kinds of time and effort since last May’s playoff loss to put themselves in position for a rematch. They’ve added Lars Eller, Brett Connolly, and Kevin Shattenkirk to their lineup to try and match the Penguins fast paced play. They are a year more experienced, which has proven to bode well for Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, and Evgeny Kuznetsov so far in this postseason. So now they’ve finally gotten to this point and have their chance to slay the dragon, once and for all. It will not be easy. The Penguins are the Defending Champs, and therefore, King of the Hill, until they are defeated. Last season’s series, which was razor close just like the movie Rocky, was essentially the Stanley Cup Finals in round two. Will this season’s series have a Rocky II type ending?

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Williams Game 5

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Williams’ OT Tally Gives the Caps the Series Lead

Posted on 22 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

In a very evenly played hockey game, Mr. Game Seven, Justin Williams, scored a massively huge goal for the Washington Capitals just 64 seconds into overtime to propel the Caps to a 2-1 game five victory, and more importantly, a three games to two series lead over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Game six is Sunday at 7 pm in the Big Smoke.

After several wide open and high scoring affairs in this series, the Capitals got back to playing better defensively in this one, although they had a very shaky start. On the game’s first shift Washington gave up a two on one break and Braden Holtby (24 saves) made a marvelous glove save on Leo Komarov. The Caps were extremely sloppy over the first five minutes, but then they settled down and dominated period one.

Washington’s game amped up as the period progressed and they received their first power play of the game when Lars Eller drew a hook at 14:18 on Brian Boyle, who seemingly takes a penalty on every shift (whether it is called or not is another story). The Caps struggled to get set up until the last 30 seconds or so of the man advantage, but that is when they had three or four really good looks. Unfortunately either Frederik Andersen (26 saves) made the stop or they missed the net.

A minute or so after the power play ended, a potential season ending play and a scary moment for the Capitals ensued. As Alex Ovechkin was exiting the defensive zone, Nazem Kadri came in and hit the Gr8 with his hip into Ovi’s knees a good second or two after the puck was gone. It was dirty and with Jake Gardiner landing on Ovechkin as he was falling, Alex stayed down on the ice. He was then helped to the locker room at 17:32 of the first frame.

Smartly the Capitals didn’t retaliate immediately, instead they dented the Leafs on the scoreboard. 43 seconds into the man advantage on Kadri for tripping, T.J. Oshie buried the biscuit on the backhand following a rebound of a super shot from Nick Backstrom that hit the cross bar. That snap shot laser was set up by a sweet pass from Kevin Shattenkirk to #19. It was a great way to pay back Toronto for their illegal play.

“There’s only one Ovi. When you see him down like that you get a little nervous and you get a little upset. I thought we responded the right way with the goal right away,” said Oshie after the contest on how the team felt when the Gr8 was initially injured.

Pay the Man!

Fortunately for the Capitals, who outshot attempted the Leafs in period one, 19-11, the Gr8 returned to play in the second period and looked no worse for the wear. Kadri would definitely be a marked man, though, for the rest of the contest.

Toronto, who all series long have tried to put as many bodies and pucks as they can on the Washington net, tied the contest up on that type of play. Zach Hyman was once again integral to traffic in front of Holtby and after William Nylander threw the biscuit on #70, it bounced around in the paint. With Hyman taking two defenders with him, Auston Matthews was wide open for the back door layup at the six minute mark of the middle frame.

The Leafs then carried the play for much of the rest of the period primarily due to three minor penalties on Washington. Matt Niskanen lost his head a bit late in the period and put a nice Paul Bunyan slash on Kadri after #43 was hitting and interfering with the Gr8 as he was entering the offensive zone. With the zebras not calling it, #2 took matters into his own hands, but in the playoffs, you can’t do that, you need to wait for the right opportunity to get retribution with a clean and monstrous check.

Washington survived that man advantage and as the final stanza progressed, the Caps had the better of the chances with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Williams having opportunities to win it. But there was no sale in regulation and off to the extra period we went.

On a defensive zone draw in the first minute of OT, Coach Barry Trotz put Jay Beagle out to take it and he won it cleanly to Niskanen. Nisky saw open ice ahead of him with the Leafs backing up and he wisely skated quickly to the red line and dumped the puck beautifully into the left wing corner where Marcus Johansson was able to use his superior speed and retrieve it below the goal line. Jojo then fed Kuzy in the right wing circle. With Beagle going off on a change for Williams as the dump in occurred, #14 came into the slot uncovered and once #92 passed it right on his tape, Stick put it five hole past Andersen for the victory.

Here’s my thoughts and analysis after the big victory, including some quotes from the players.

The Leafs still tried to get bodies and puck to the net as much as possible, but the Capitals adjusted their structure well, for the most part, and walled Toronto and lots of pucks from the crease out before they could hit something crazily and go in. When pucks did get through, the Holtbeast was really on his game.

“Holts was outstanding. They did a really good job of getting tips and traffic on him, but he was able to find the shots,” added Oshie after the Holtbeast’s best performance of the post season.

John Carlson and Nate Schmidt were really good for the third straight contest. The duo, alone, had 12 of the 58 Washington shot attempts in this game. The 88 car, who played 17:22, really brings energy and speed to the Capitals backend and he’s been a perfect fit in this matchup against Toronto.

Ovechkin played 19:29 despite the cheap shot he took from Kadri. He had only five shot attempts, but his line was the second best one for Washington on this evening and made things tough for Coach Mike Babcock’s squad.

The Caps best line was the Johansson-Kuznetsov-Williams trio. They were all over the Leafs all night and it was fitting that they notched the game winning tally. The three of them had 15 shot attempts and Kuzy had six shots on goal, himself. But it was Stick who really stabilizes that line with his tenacious play and ability to win board battles and keep pucks alive. Justin now has three goals in this series and he thrives in the post season.

“He’s one of those guys that when everyone gets tense and grab their sticks a little tight, he gets more focused and finds a way to pull off the big play,” finished Oshie.

Pay that Man (Williams), too!

It was a big play alright, and now the Caps can close the series out in Toronto on Sunday with a win. That will not be an easy task as the Leafs are playing well and with intensity. They’ve forced Washington to raise their level of play and if the Capitals can survive this series, they should be very prepared for you know who.

But first things first, there is still another game to win and what Coach Trotz’ crew needs to do is play in their own zone solidly like they did most of game five. They also need to press the play and attack the Leafs defense. Pucks must go on net or deep and the forwards need to fight for the rebounds and loose discs. It’s simple hockey, but it takes commitment and determination in order to be successful.

Notes: Power plays were four to three for Toronto. I thought the zebras missed several calls on the Leafs. The game was even and yet the visitors ended up with 8:00 of man advantage time to just 4:43 for Ovi and company. That’s awfully fishy!…final shot attempts were 63-58 for Toronto…the Caps were 36-30 on draws and Beagle was 9-4, including the big d zone one in OT that led to the winning goal…Carlson led the Capitals in ice time with 23:17. He was outstanding once again and appears to finally be recovered from his late season injury…Wilson took four minor penalties and only played 10:16. He needs to stay out of the box…Brett Connolly only played 6:12, but he was much better in game five. He was more physical; he just needs to look for his shot more often. A quick release in the slot could net him a tally…Ovi had six of the Caps 34 hits. The Leafs had 23 hits…there was another four on four instance and Washington carried the play. Schmidt was a definite factor in that domination.

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Willy GWG

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Wilson and Williams Lead Caps to 3-2 OT Victory in Game One

Posted on 14 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Tom Wilson picked a perfect time to score his first career NHL playoff goal. Willy batted down a poor clear up the boards by Leafs defenseman Martin Marincin with his glove and before Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen could get fully set, he fired the biscuit top shelf over the left shoulder of #31 as he went down into the butterfly position. The perfect shot gave the Washington Capitals a come from behind, 3-2, victory just 5:15 into overtime in the first game of their best of seven series.

The Caps are now up 1-0 and to quote the great Tom Hanks from Castaway.

Wilson! Wilson!!!! Wiiiilllllllllsssssooonnnnnn!!!

All season long the Capitals have had some issues when playing on more than a day’s rest and this game was no exception. Coach Barry Trotz did not like his teams first 30 minutes, at all, since Washington did not move their feet and they were extremely sloppy with their passes. It was bad hockey and as a result Toronto raced out to a 2-0 lead just 9:44 into the post season. Mitch Marner opened the scoring for the Leafs at 1:35 with a shot from the slot. Then with Nazem Kadri parked in the crease after cross checking Alex Ovechkin, Jake Gardiner’s shot from the slot went by Braden Holtby (35 saves). The zebras initially waved it off, but upon Coach Mike Babcock’s challenge they reversed the on ice call. Afterwards, the Holtbeast gave his take on how the Capitals should have handled that situation.

“I don’t know. I think that’s the right call. It’s more, in the future, us kind of pushing him out more, myself too, creating that goalie interference to create more space throughout the rest of the game. It’s kind of what you need to do when they are going to put a guy in the crease like that and wait for you to hit him. It was a common theme throughout the night so you look for patterns like that and we’re going to adjust next game.”

Speaking of patterns, for most of the first 30 minutes the Capitals were “playing slow,” as Nicklas Backstrom called it afterwards. Their passing was not crisp and they were not getting enough shots on net. Defensively, they were out of sync and the Leafs had 27 shots on goal just past the game’s halfway mark. It was not the type of hockey we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from Washington, but Trotz pointed out “there was no panic.”

Kevin Shattenkirk, who had an assist and nine shots on net in this tilt, told me on Sunday that the team would have stretches in the post season where they would not play well, but the key was just to stay on an even keel. Coach Trotz’ crew did just that and fortunately Mr. Game Seven, Justin Williams, scored the first two goals for the Capitals to even things up. “Stick’s” first goal came just after a five on three power play ended. Shattenkirk was winding up to shoot, but as he did so his stick broke and the puck slid over to T.J. Oshie to the left of the net. Most players would shoot from that position, but Osh Babe saw #14 wide open in front of the net and he put the puck right on Stick’s tape for an easy marker. That goal, which came less than three minutes after the Leafs went up two pucks, settled the Caps down a bit, but they still couldn’t take control of the game.

In the middle frame, Washington went over eight minutes without a shot on net, mainly because they were trying too much for the perfect play and as a result they over passed themselves out of position. But on a rush up the ice late in period two, Evgeny Kuznetsov found Matt Niskanen alone in the slot and #2 fired the puck on net. As Nisky told me afterwards, it wasn’t a great shot, but Andersen didn’t know where it was and with the puck under him he got up. That allowed Williams, who alertly hit the brakes at the top of the crease, to poke it in past the Leafs net minder to even the game up with four minutes to go.

“It was kind of a weird one, I was playing the wing at first on the breakout and then I was the fourth guy on the rush, probably not much of a chance of that shot going in, but Stick was able to pounce on a loose rebound, so I was just the fourth guy in the middle there. I was able to find just enough ice, it was a nice play by Kuzy,” said Niskanen on how he got the puck to set up the rebound goal for Wiliams.

Washington then received a late power play when Matt Martin was jailed for cross checking, but the Leafs were aggressive on the PK and only gave up one good look, to Shattenkirk. After two periods the Leafs had a 46-44 edge in shot attempts, including 28-25 in shots on goal.

In the third period, the Caps depth started to take over and the ice tilted Washington’s way, but Toronto still had some good chances. Coach Trotz’ crew had a 24-12 advantage in shot attempts and a 13-7 margin in shots on goal. It was much better hockey, but the Leafs still did a good job at jamming the walls on the Caps breakout forcing Washington to make a difficult zone exit or simply dump the puck in the air over the Leafs D.

In the overtime, the Capitals dominated with their depth and eventually it was Washington’s fourth line that got the game winner. With the Caps top trio not having a real quality game, it was imperative that a goal come from the bottom six, and Wilson delivered.

Overall, the Caps have to be really happy that their second line kept them in the game early on. Williams is known for his leadership and his ability to score big goals. He did just that in this one by paying the price and going to the net.

“He knows what time of year it is. You can see he goes to where you score goals. He’s so good at board battles and making little plays that move the game along, but he knows where the money’s at and that’s in the crease, so he goes there and really got us going tonight, for sure,” stated Niskanen on #14.

“Big time plays out of Justin Williams, he’s no stranger to them and he was someone who we really rallied around tonight,” added Shattenkirk.

Goaltending, on both sides, was very good in this game. Holtby had some rebound issues early, but as the game went on, he shut the door and made several big stops. Andersen was under siege a great deal as time progressed and the Caps ended up with 44 shots on goal. He made many saves, and Shattenkirk praised him when asked afterwards.

“He was [very good], and I think my biggest mistake was I was taking too long to shoot. I was allowing him to set on me and really just take away all of the angles. I have to be a little bit quicker with how I’m shooting the puck. I’m happy that I was putting myself in the right positioning to get those chances,” started #22.

As for the lack of shots in that eight plus minute stretch in the middle frame, Shattenkirk had an answer for it, as well.

“They did a good job of boxing out and sometimes we were just waiting for guys to get to the net and when we do that, it’s hard, because he’s a big goalie and when he sets himself he’s hard to score on from outside the tight areas.”

So the message going forward is for the Caps to shoot the puck quicker. Wilson proved that method will work with his game winning tally.

The Capitals took a while to find their rhythm on Thursday night after three days off against a talented and speedy Leafs squad, but now they get back to a game every other day schedule, one that has worked well for them this season. Coach Trotz stated afterwards that this contest was a wake up call and finished with the following:

“I’m sure you’ll see a much different team next game.”

Notes: Dmitry Orlov led the Caps in ice time with 25:22. Niskanen logged 24:36…The Leafs rode their top four D hard. Gardiner played 26:27, Matt Hunwick logged 26:04, Morgan Reilly was in at 24:24, and Roman Polak had 23:52. Connor Carrick and Marincin, the third pair, were right around 14 minutes…Washington’s third line had 17 shifts together for a total of 10:39 of ice time. Like most of the team, they were at their best in the third period…the Caps lost the face off battle, 38-33. Kuznetsov was 8-2, but Lars Eller was 3-11…game two is at the Verizon Center on Saturday at 7 pm.

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Shattenkirk Caps

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12 Caps Thoughts Heading Into the Playoffs

Posted on 10 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

After losing to the Florida Panthers, 2-0, on Sunday night at the Verizon Center, the Washington Capitals completed their 2016-17 regular season with a 55-19-8 record (118 points). Here are twelve Caps thoughts, including quotes from several players, as we move into the most wonderful time of the year, the Stanley Cup Playoffs

What a classy move by Caps GM Brian MacLellan, Coach Barry Trotz and the entire organization rewarding forward Garrett Mitchell, a 6th round pick in the 2009 draft and captain of the Hershey Bears for the last two seasons, with his first NHL game on Sunday night. The 25 year old has been a regular in Chocolatetown for six straight seasons without making “The Show.” Mitchell, who is a free agent after the spring, not only played, but started the game with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. Nicky even got himself thrown out of the opening draw so that Mitchell could begin his NHL debut taking the face off. Kudos to all involved and afterwards you could not wipe the smile off of Garrett’s face. It was truly a feel good moment for a player who has done everything asked of him since he’s been drafted.

With the Columbus Blue Jackets rallying from a 2-0 hole on the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday night to win, 3-2 in regulation, the Caps will now face the Leafs instead of the Bruins in round one. This is a matchup that I’ve wanted for several weeks and now Washington has a chance to show why it favors the Capitals. Toronto is certainly faster than Boston, but they are far less experienced than the B’s and they have a blue line that the Caps should be able to expose. Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev was also injured in game 82 for the Leafs and his status for game one on Thursday is in question.

The Capitals won the Jennings Trophy for the first time since 1983-84 for allowing the fewest goals per game in the NHL over the course of 82 contests. Coach Trotz credited all three aspects of the team’s game, offense, defense, and goaltending for the achievement, but he put extra emphasis on what Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer have done in net. Trotz stated that you really need strong goaltending in this league and he noted that if you look at the numbers for the Holtbeast and Grubauer they are very similar, especially in terms of save percentage.

Washington is at its best when they are playing a structured game and not giving up odd man rushes. Following Sunday night’s season finale, forward Daniel Winnik provided insight into the key to limiting them. “I think a lot of that just has to do with, you know I’d love to see our goal differential from when we’ve had the set lines and set d-pairings since December. I think that’s made a huge difference and tightening up our overall defensive game. A lot of that has come from limiting turnovers at the offensive blue line. I think we’ve done less of exchanging chances with teams. I think we have the best five on five goal differential in the league.”

T.J. Oshie (33), Marcus Johansson (24), and Justin Williams (24) all had career highs in goals this season and those three players have been very good at getting to the front of the opposing team’s net, something that is very important in playoff hockey. I asked Jojo on how the Caps have improved their ability to do that this season. “We’ve talked about [net presence] a lot. When it comes down to the playoffs most goals are scored from there. We have to get to those dirty areas and I think it’s shown that when you go there you are going to get goals and get rewarded. So I’m going to keep doing it.”

The addition of Kevin Shattenkirk from St. Louis at the NHL trade deadline has been a big one for the Caps. I asked Shattenkirk about the change in systems between the two clubs. “It seems like here we play a little more defense skating forward. We’re pushing up on teams and really trying to squeeze all of their time and space out of them. I think in St. Louis we received the rush a little more and allowed forwards to back check and apply pressure. But here I like that, I like playing on my toes. It keeps me engaged the whole game, it sets up well for me.”

I followed up with Shattenkirk by saying that I thought Coach Trotz’ system fits his skill set better. Here’s what Shatty had to say in reply, “It does, it does. I think especially when we turn pucks over in the neutral zone I think the skill that we have up front, the way that these forwards present themselves, our system allows us to turn back on teams and I think that’s a strong area of my game, getting those pucks and finding that outlet pass that we can turn right back on teams and get instant offense on it. All of that stuff really starts to feed into my game.”

Shattenkirk has been paired primarily with 2009 Stanley Cup Champion Brooks Orpik for the first time in his career. Here’s Kevin’s take on how he sees things working out so far. “I knew the style of defensemen I was going to be playing with here and he’s surprised me a bit. Playing here the last few years he’s changed his game in a way that he makes some poised plays. He’s not just an off of the wall and out kind of guy anymore, he makes plays through the middle and he makes plays at the blue line. We’ve been moving a lot from our offensive blue line and creating a lot of space for our forwards. He’s a guy that can dive in and dive back out. Every game has seemed to go better and better and I really like the way that we’re going.”

There’s no doubt that the addition of #22 has strengthened the Capitals power play and I asked him about the key to finding his role on that unit. “It’s great. For me it was a matter of the first couple of games, I think just like any player who would get that opportunity, you’re looking for Ovi all the time. I’m looking to go back to Nicky and let him make the plays. It wasn’t until the third or fourth game I started realizing that I had to shoot some pucks. Teams weren’t really worrying about me shooting pucks and that’s something we’ve worked on in practice, me just getting pucks into T.J. and Marcus, who are great around the net. Once I started to establish that, it seems like those other plays really opened up, the big plays, and Ovi only needs one shot a game to make it count and I just want to make sure that when that time comes I’m putting it in the right spot for him.”

The Capitals have yet to win a Stanley Cup, but both Williams (three times) and Orpik have raised Lord Stanley. Shattenkirk also went to the Western Conference finals last season while many of the Caps have yet to advance past the second round. I asked Shattenkirk what it takes to advance that deep in the postseason. “That’s a loaded question. There are a lot of things that factor into it. One is being even keeled. I think that we [in St. Louis] were the same last year as this team is now. We were the team that was out in the first and second round for four straight years. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, you just have to stick with it. You have to have resiliency about your team and make sure that you realize there’s going to be lows; you can’t put too much pressure on yourselves throughout the playoffs. The way we ride those waves is going to be important and like you said the two guys that we have with the most experience here [Williams and Orpik], we’re going to lean on those guys, hopefully I can be a fresh voice and we just have to keep the hunger there. This team has everything that we need in the locker room to win playoff games; we just have to make sure that we don’t beat ourselves up too bad.”

Coach Trotz has done an outstanding job of spreading minutes around the blue line this season, but once Shattenkirk came on board, things evened out more. I asked #22 if that allows the Caps to play faster. “It does and more than anything it’s the rhythm. In St. Louis it was more situational when I would play more minutes, here it’s we’ve got three pairs that can play. Depending what happens with penalties and power plays, that can skew things a little bit, but for the most part we’re all rolling and I think for us to have that rhythm as a defensive pair and as a defensive unit, it’s great for our team because you don’t want to have guys sitting three, four minutes in a row, especially in the playoffs in critical situations.”

The Capitals finished the season on an 11-2-1 run and you can pretty much throw that last loss to Florida out since it was a Hockey North America like no checking affair. Winnik was asked if he thinks momentum matters heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. “Completely. I think it matters how you play before the playoffs. I think Pittsburgh proved that, the previous winners, LA, so I think playing the way we are hopefully its good foreshadowing.”

Here’s the official Caps-Leafs first round schedule:

Date                                 TIME (ET)                                                            

Thursday, April 13             7 p.m.                   Toronto at Washington

Saturday, April 15             7 p.m.                   Toronto at Washington

Monday, April 17              7 p.m.                   Washington at Toronto

Wednesday, April 19        7 p.m.                   Washington at Toronto

*Friday, April 21                TBD                       Toronto at Washington

*Sunday, April 23              TBD                       Washington at Toronto

*Tuesday, April 25            TBD                       Toronto at Washington

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Jojo Bs

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Caps Keep Rolling in Beantown

Posted on 08 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

On Saturday afternoon in Beantown, the Washington Capitals just kept on rolling, defeating the Boston Bruins, 3-1, with goals from Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Justin Williams. Philipp Grubauer received the start in the cage and he stopped 21 shots. #31 was excellent between the pipes, once again, to run his 2016-17 record to a very impressive 13-6-2.

For the Caps (55-18-8, 118 points), this was a meaningless game in terms of standings points. They’ve already won the Federal League, er, Presidents’ Trophy, and are just trying to figure out who they’ll play in round one, which will likely start at the Verizon Center on Thursday night. The Bruins are one of the teams they could face and if there was any hesitation from Washington on wanting to play them, the Caps could’ve tanked this affair to ensure that they wouldn’t face Brad Marchand and company.

Instead the Capitals dominated the Bruins like they’d gladly take on a team that they’ve now gone 9-0 against since Barry Trotz took over as Washington’s bench boss (h/t to Ben Raby). The Caps were physical early on and very structured defensively. Boston, who was missing their top scorer Marchand due to suspension (he speared a Bolt earlier in the week and was feeling shame in the press box for two games), had a hard time getting through Washington’s neutral zone and defense and most of their 48 shot attempts came from the perimeter, which made it difficult to put a biscuit by Grubauer.

On offense, the Capitals were sloppy at times, but when they fired the puck, they got it to the net to the tune of 32 shots on goal. Washington’s first tally, just 4:21 into the contest, came on a speedy three on two rush led by Jojo. Marcus carried the puck up the center of the ice and as he crossed the offensive blue line he worked a great give and go around Zdeno Chara with Justin Williams that culminated with Jojo beating Anton Khudobin on the backhand for his career high 24th marker.

Boston was already missing their best offensive blue liner, Torrey Krug, and things got worse for the Bruins defense when Brandon Carlo was injured on a play in the left wing corner. Carlo went back to gather in a loose puck with Alex Ovechkin in hot pursuit. Carlo was skating into the corner and with the Gr8 expecting him to turn to play the puck, he went to finish his check. However, #25 lost an edge and went down awkwardly right as Ovi was going to deliver the boom. Fortunately Ovechkin let up, but Carlo still crashed hard into the boards and had to leave the game. You could see Alex felt bad about it, he gave him the stick tap as Carlo was working his way up, but it was just a hockey play gone wrong. Washington led, 1-0, after 20 minutes and in shot attempts, it was 20-15 for the good guys.

In the middle frame, things were tight checking and calm for the first 12 minutes or so, but Evgeny Kuznetsov took a lazy hooking penalty (Move Your Feet!) and that gave Boston some life. They would not score on the man advantage, but after Kuzy came out of the box he made a terrible own zone turnover that Colin Miller would deposit behind Grubauer on a rebound. Simply put, it was back to back bad shifts by #92 that allowed the game to be tied up, and he knows better than to make those two mistakes – they must cease starting on Thursday because he is critical to the Caps post season success.

Washington, however, would not be deterred by that tally. They amped up the pressure and scored the next three goals, but only two of them counted due to bad zebras. First, Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom made two sensational passes to set Shattenkirk up in the slot for a sweet tally. That goal was just 56 ticks after the Bruins had tied the contest and it clearly deflated Boston. Shattenkirk would score again just 1:22 later, but the NHL reviewers in Toronto and the on ice zebras combined to call goalie interference on Williams, who was shoved partly into the Qdoba guy in net by his own player. That play was similar to the goal Dallas scored against the Caps to open the game back on March 6th where the reviewer ruled Brooks Orpik pushed the Stars player into Braden Holtby so the goal stood. In this case, a nowhere near as egregious infraction occurred, but they waved the tally off. Spin the wheel NHL, you continue to make no sense or have any consistency on these calls! Simply put, it’s a big joke the way these reviews and rulings go down.

Anyways, the next Capitals goal would have no chance of being reviewed and overturned. Washington won an offensive zone faceoff back to Nate Schmidt (+3) and he spotted Kuznetsov wide open on the right side of the slot. Kuzy took Schmidty’s great pass and slid the puck perpendicularly through a seam in the Bruins defense to Williams, who quickly buried it into a wide open cage for his career high 24th goal of the season. That was a thing of beauty with 50 seconds left in period two. The Caps still had the edge in shot attempts, 40-33, and 24-15 in shots on goal.

With Khudobin out of the game due to “not feeling well,” Tuukka Rask came in to play the final 20 minutes. After some heated earlier moments in this tilt, this last stanza was glorified preseason hockey with neither club wanting to risk any injuries. When the final horn sounded, the shot attempts ended up, 52-48, for the Caps and 32-21 in terms of shots on goal.

The Bruins were clearly missing their leading scorer in this one, but they still have some punch up front with Patrice Bergeron, David Backes, David Pastrnak, and David Krejci. Washington did a great job at keeping Boston from the paint and at the other end, the Caps took advantage of a slow blue line to score some pretty goals. If the Capitals do get Boston, it is a good matchup from a pace of play perspective. Washington is faster than Butch Cassidy’s crew and the only downside would be the chippy after the whistle type of stuff Boston likes to get into. They are nowhere near as dirty as the Flyers, but I’d still prefer to not have to go to battle against those guys. The Caps would have a great chance at prevailing, but like last year’s first round matchup against those smelly guys from Filthy, it would likely come at a physical price.

The best news of all, however, was that Washington appeared to come out of the game unscathed in terms of injuries and will have one more regular season contest on Sunday at the Verizon Center, against Florida, before the post season begins. John Carlson, who has missed three straight games with a lower body injury, is supposed to suit up to shake off the rust.

The Caps will want to stay healthy and not get anyone suspended, so I expect a “friendly” game against Jaromir Jagr and company.

With Toronto defeating the Penguins, 5-3, on Saturday night, Washington will now face either Boston or Toronto in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If the Leafs earn at least a point on Sunday evening against Columbus, it’s the Caps vs. Boston.

Notes: The 3 pm scheduled puck drop did not occur until 3:28, thanks NBC (NOT!)…Brett Connolly missed the matinee due to illness, he did not even make the trip. Paul Carey took his place in the lineup and played well in 13:21 of ice time. His great skating ability was a big advantage against some cement laden skaters on the Bruins…the Caps were 0 for 4 on the power play, but two for two on the penalty kill…Shattenkirk was brilliant again in this one and led the Caps in time on ice with 22:54. That guy is good and getting better and better in Trotz’ system…the Caps are 19-0-0 against the Bruins when #19 gets a point (h/t to Rob Carlin of Comcast)…Jay Beagle was clipped by a careless Krejci high stick late in the game. A double minor was called…the Capitals are 10-1 in their last 11 games.

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