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Ovechkin, Caps Ready For Regular Season

Posted on 06 October 2010 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals conducted their annual media day Tuesday at Kettler Iceplex in preparation for Friday night’s NHL regular season opener in Atlanta against the Thrashers (730pm on CSN). The Caps will then come home for a Saturday night tilt versus the New Jersey Devils at the Verizon Center (7pm on CSN). For the organization, and especially the players, this will be a chance to once again play some real games and suppress, at least for now, much of the talk and questions surrounding last year’s playoff disappointment.

“I think we are excited and everybody can’t wait for the season to start because it was a long preseason and long summer for us,” said superstar Alexander Ovechkin about getting back on the ice for real NHL games.

General Manager George McPhee feels like his team is well positioned to start the 2010-11 season.

“We’ve had a terrific camp, one of the better ones we’ve had, and we came through it without any injuries. We got a great look at the players we have and I think we are positioned to have a really good year again. It’s time to get it going. The summer really isn’t much fun pushing paper around in an office. When you have players to watch in practice, games to watch, that’s really why we are here,” said the man who has been the Caps GM since June of 1997.

For McPhee, Tuesday was roster cutdown day and forwards Mathieu Perreault, Andrew Gordon, and Jay Beagle along with defenseman Brian Fahey were assigned to Hershey, with both Gordon and Fahey needing to clear waivers first, meaning that 2009 1st round draft choice Marcus Johansson made the club along with 29 year old journeyman, Matt Hendricks. Johansson and Hendricks both had attributes that gave them the nod over the other cuts, with the young Swedish center nosing out the 22 year old Perreault for the third line center slot.

“We were looking at different spots. It might have been different had we been looking at a #2 center. I think Matty, at his stage right now, probably has more offensive upside, but Marcus has got more defensive upside and with the skating and just coming from Sweden where they preach defense all of the time. It is a really tough call and who knows how it would have went say had Matty had to clear waivers? In today’s salary cap world things happen. We know that they’re both great players and will be playing for the Washington Capitals for a lot of years,” said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau on the decision to keep the 19 year old Johansson over Perreault.

“He’s an exceptional player and I love the way he thinks the game, competes, and skates. I really think he can make us a better team. The nice thing is our center ice is going to be in good shape for a long time with the players we have here now and the players in the system. It might be as deep as its ever been and as good as its ever been,” added McPhee on Johansson and the depth the team is amassing at the pivot position, which includes 2010 first round pick Evgeny Kuznetsov, who is playing in the top Russian league, the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), this season.

When Johansson was drafted back in 2009, an NHL scout told me that the Caps made a good selection and that Marcus projected to be a third line center. Now the young man from Sweden will begin his NHL career in that 3rd line center slot, and he even has his team captain praising him.

“He’s impressed me alot. He’s an unbelievable guy and unbelievable player. He has an unbelievable future, I think. He’s amazed me all of the time, I am like ‘Wow, he is a great player,” said the two time Hart Trophy winner.

For Hendricks, making the team was all about his energy and ability to adapt. The bench boss also was very familiar with him, having coached him in 2006-07 in Hershey.

“Matt Hendricks is a different kind of player. First he can play all 3 forward positions. Second, he’s spent a year in the league and third, he can skate, is physical, and can finish his checks. He stirs it up when he has to stir it up. These are the attributes we really like about him and he’s a great dressing room guy as well. I’ve had him [on teams before], he’s a winner, and he competes his rear end off. He’s gonna be a guy, we have 14 forwards, that’ll be in and out of the lineup, but he’s the guy that brings instant energy,” said the 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winning coach.

McPhee said that it wasn’t just Boudreau who wanted the forward, who played 56 games for the Colorado Avalanche in 2009-10, on the roster to start the season.

“He’s one of those worker bees that you like to have in the lineup. Keeps everybody honest. He’s a terrific guy on the bench and in the room in terms of supporting teammates. He’s got great wheels and he plays hard. He can play left wing, right wing, center, he can play up in the lineup if there are injuries. He brings a lot of versatility and we know him from our experience in Hershey. We just felt that when we were putting our lineup together, asked everyone to submit their lists, he was on everybody’s list, he makes our team better,” finished McPhee on how Hendricks made the Capitals out of training camp.

As for the guys who were sent down, Gordon and Fahey were the ones at risk of being claimed by other teams, but McPhee basically said that is part of the business.

“I’m not concerned about [someone claiming Gordon], if someone claims him and gives him a chance, good for him. If it doesn’t, then we’ll have a stronger team in Hershey and a good kid to call up if we have injuries. We’ve got a good team here and sometimes you lose guys that need opportunities,” stated McPhee on the waiver process.

While the decisions themselves were not easy ones, the GM said that the one on one conversations with the players who didn’t make it was harder and is something he doesn’t like having to do.

“It’s always a tough day telling a player he is not ready to play here or he may have to go through waivers, that is the toughest part of the job and today was as difficult any day we’ve had. They are always tough. The good news is I sometimes look at this deadline as an artificial deadline. We have to set rosters tomorrow but it can change the next day. If someone isn’t performing well or we have injuries, we have good young players to recall to play. That’s really the strength of our organization. We have a good team but we have depth as well,” finished McPhee on setting his roster.

The depth in the organization is abundant and McPhee and his staff have done a super job of growing from within. Doing that has helped the team manage the salary cap as well, which is a necessity in today’s NHL.

“I think we’ve done a really good job on the cap. We’ve got a good team here, we’ve have cap space, we don’t have to spend it but if there is an opportunity to make the team better we will. We are in good shape for the future. I am really proud of where this organization is, we have a good team, we’ve have a good system, we have really good people in that room, we’ve managed our cap well, we won’t lose people that we don’t want to lose, so keep the fingers crossed and hope we continue to make good decisions  and do the right things for this hockey club,” started McPhee on the state of his organization.

“In a lot of ways we are lucky. We came up with this plan years ago and fortunately ownership stood by it, Ted stood by the plan. A lot of cities and ownership do not have the patience and we now are starting Friday night with 11 of our own first round picks in the lineup and the league average is four. The closest team to us is seven. So we put this plan together and we are in pretty good shape. It’s a good team, they’re our guys, and hopefully it leads to a Cup one of these days,” concluded the GM on the blueprint he sold to owner Ted Leonsis after the Jaromir Jagr debacle and what he sees as being the end result.

On the ice, things should be a little bit easier for the Caps skilled players as McPhee brought in tough forward DJ King, who will be on the radio on WNST at 815am on Wednesday morning with Drew Forrester, to ensure that the other club is not taking any liberties against his highly talented crew. Ovechkin spoke about that added dimension and what it was like last season after Donald Brashear went to the New York Rangers in free agency.

“I think everybody gonna feel safe and just concentrate on the game, it’s not about something else,” started a reassuring Ovechkin, “[Brashear] was the most experienced guy on the team. He would fight for us and if we needed something he would do it. Last year we missed him, but again it’s life and it’s hockey, it’s a business.”

As for the state of his game, Alexander the Great feels he is ready to go despite not scoring a single goal in his three preseason tilts, although he did rack up five assists.

“It was good lessons for me and it was a good scrimmage, good preseason games, and you don’t show in preseason your best stuff, you just have to be ready for the regular year,” added Ovechkin on training camp.

In goal, it appears that Michal Neuvirth will get the start between the pipes on Friday night with Semyon Varlamov nursing a minor injury. Varly, according to Corey Masisak of CSN Washington, skated for about 15 minutes on Tuesday morning.

“No, but he skated today, took some shots. He’ll probably take more shots tomorrow. It is one of those things where we don’t want to rush him. We’d rather have him for 70 games then 20 games. When he’s ready he’ll be the first one to let us know,” said Boudreau on Varlamov, when asked if there was a timetable for his return.

There has been some talk in the national and Canadian media about the Caps taking a risk with two young goalies but from where I am sitting it really isn’t one at all because both goalies have pretty impressive resumes at such a young age. More importantly, McPhee and the Caps organization have faith in the two goalies who were drafted in 2006.

“It is something that we’ve been excited about. We drafted these kids and this is the third year pro and we think they are both exceptional goaltenders and the thought of having them both compete for games and wins would be good for us. They are young, but they are talented. If it was just relying on one of them I’d be concerned but to have two like this, I think it is a nice tandem that can work very well for us this year,” said McPhee on Varlamov and Neuvirth.

On defense, 2007 first round draft choice, Karl Alzner, and 2008 1st round draft choice, John Carlson, will both start the season in DC for the first time. The two young blueliners were paired together in Hershey during their 2010 Calder Cup winning run. However, it does not appear likely that Boudreau will pair the two together when the season starts, instead opting for a combination that worked well in the playoffs last spring, Tom Poti and Carlson. With Mike Green likely to play with Jeff Schultz again that leaves Alzner to skate with either John Erskine or Tyler Sloan.

But Boudreau, like all coaches do, will likely tinker with the defensive pairs during the course of the season, but after all, that is what the regular season is pretty much about for the Caps this year, to figure things out for the post season, and McPhee made that pretty clear on Tuesday.

“In some ways, I don’t care about whether we win our division or the President’s Trophy or anything else, it is about making the playoffs and having a good playoff run and how we get there is less important than getting there and doing well this year,” finished McPhee.

Notes: Dany Sabourin will be the backup goalie this weekend if Varlamov is unable to dress..McPhee singled out forward Cody Eakin, who was sent back to juniors, as someone with a bright future for Washington…”A kid like Cody Eakin, we were so impressed with him in camp. He may have been the hardest one we’ve had to cut in a long time as a teenager because it just looked like he was getting better. He was probably a kid you could have kept here and he would have gotten better through the season, but coming up with a good NHL player is a two step process, you have to be make a good pick, we made a very good pick in the third round, but you have to develop them properly. Noone has ever not played in the NHL because they’ve played in junior too long, they miss playing in the NHL because you rush them. So we don’t have to do that now, we’ve got good players so we don’t have to rush anybody,” added McPhee on the 2009 3rd round pick and the Caps development process.

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Late July Caps & NHL Thoughts

Posted on 26 July 2010 by Ed Frankovic

NFL training camps are getting underway this week and that is also an indication that we are closer to the start of the NHL season than to the end of the previous one. Despite the fact that it is late July and most NHL executives are getting ready to go on vacation next week, things are still going on around the league. So without further adieu, here are some thoughts on the Caps and the NHL:

Clearly the biggest news item of recent weeks has been the Ilya Kovalchuk contract signing and then its rejection by the NHL. Today, as expected, the NHL Players Union filed a grievance seeking to get the 17 year, $102 Million deal to be ratified. The big issue is the last 5 years, when Kovalchuk is aged 40 to 44, as it pays him only $550,000 per season during that period. There are many who are insisting the agreement is legally binding but is it really given that it’s a blatant attempt to circumvent the salary cap? I think the league absolutely should have rejected it. After all, if this contract is approved, what is next? Contracts extended until guys are 50? 60? 90? Basically the NHL said to Kovalchuk, his agent (Jay Grossman), and the New Jersey Devils, in the words of John McEnroe, “YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS?!” What pains me even more about the deal is how it is being compared by some to Alexander Ovechkin’s 13 year contract. Again, bring in the McEnroe quote and I’ll even take it one step further and borrow a line from Mr. Hand of Fast Times at Ridgemont High to address those who even try to connect the Ovie contract with Kovy’s, “What are you people, ON DOPE??!!”

Ovechkin’s deal starts with the Great #8 receiving $9M a season in years one through six, then in years seven until 13 he gets $10M annually.  From above, we know that years 13-17 of the Kovalchuk deal pay him $550,000 annually but here are the salaries for the first 12 seasons, in order: $6 million each of the first two years, $11.5 million for the following five seasons, $10.5 million in the 2017-18 season, $8.5 million for the 2018-19 season, $6.5 million in 2019-20, $3.5 million in 2020-21, then $750,000 the following season before the joke gets even worse in years 13-17. The overall annual average hit the mark the Devils needed, $6M per season, so that they could come in under the cap. It is laughable and I am shocked that a team that has won three Stanley Cups would stoop to such low levels to try and obtain their fourth. So shame on the Devils and also on the Kovalchuk camp for agreeing to a deal that is a sham and threatens to make a mockery of the CBA and the salary cap. It is in the hands of the lawyers now but I sure hope that the arbitrator realizes what a disgrace to the NHL this deal is and he upholds the league’s decision to reject it.

Long time Capitals fans received some good news last week when former blue liner, Kevin Hatcher, was elected along with his brother Derian and former Blackhawks star, Jeremy Roenick, to the United States Hockey Hall of Fame. Here is a good chunk of the press release courtesy of Nate Ewell of the Caps outstanding media relations department:

Hatcher, who played 17 seasons in the NHL between Washington, Dallas, Pittsburgh, the New York Rangers and Carolina, will join his brother Derian Hatcher, Art Berglund, Dr. V. George Nagobads and Jeremy Roenick as the Hall’s class of 2010. The five-member class will be formally inducted into the Hall of Fame on Oct. 21 at HSBC Arena in Buffalo, N.Y.

Hatcher, who was drafted by Washington with the 17th overall pick in the 1984 Entry Draft, spent nine seasons with Washington and enjoyed his best years as a Capital. He recorded 149 goals and 277 assists (426 points) in 685 career games with Washington and captained the team for two seasons (1992-94). Hatcher played in three NHL All-Star Games while with the Capitals.

Hatcher ranks 11th in franchise history, third among defensemen, with 426 points and holds the club record for goals by a defenseman in a season (34 in 1992-93) and a career (149). He had 40 or more points seven times for the Capitals and at least 100 penalty minutes eight times. Hatcher recorded 48 points (16 goals, 32 assists) in 83 career playoff games.

Hatcher also excelled internationally, representing the United States at the 1984 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship, the 1987 and 1991 Canada Cups, the World Cup of Hockey in 1996 and the 1998 Olympic Winter Games.

Hatcher will join fellow Caps alumni Bobby Carpenter, Dave Christian, Phil Housley, Rod Langway and Craig Patrick as members of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. The Hall was founded in 1973 and includes 143 enshrined members. Inductees are chosen on the basis of extraordinary contributions to the game of hockey in the United States.

#4 was a dominant force during his time in Washington and during the 1990 season Wayne Gretzky made a comment that he thought Hatcher was the best defenseman in the NHL that year. The Caps might have made the Stanley Cup Finals that season had it not been for a cheap shot to Hatcher’s knee by forward Kris King of the New York Rangers in the Patrick Division Finals. King also injured Dino Ciccarelli, who will be inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame this fall, in that series. Combine that with the Scott Stevens shoulder injury and it was no surprise that Washington could not win a game versus Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals. Hatcher had a staggering 34 goals in the 1992-93 campaign and when his salary demands became very high he was dealt to the Dallas Stars after the 1994 season. I will always remember him as being among the elite group of Caps to wear the red, white, and blue.

At development camp two weeks ago Caps GM George McPhee was asked by Tarik El-Bashir of The Washington Post if the Capitals were pretty much done in free agency this summer and the GM nodded in agreement. This makes sense given that Washington does not have much salary cap room remaining (I’ve heard estimates of $8M left before the Tomas Fleischmann arbitration decision, that will come shortly after his hearing on July 28th) and the market is not abundant with players in the positions that the Caps appear to need at this time, which are second line center and a right handed shooting defensemen. I spoke with an NHL scout, who does not work for Washington, this past week about the current state of the free agent market and asked him who he thought the best remaining center and righty blue liner were available to potentially fill the Caps needs and he responded with “None.” Based on the words of McPhee and that assessment of the market by an external scout, it appears Washington will at least head into training camp with the roster as it stands now and allow some of their younger players from Hershey and perhaps 2009 1st round draft pick center Marcus Johansson, to take a shot at filling those needs.

Keep in mind that on defense that Washington has only Mike Green and John Carlson as right handed shooters while Tom Poti, Jeff Schultz, Karl Alzner, Tyler Sloan, and John Erskine are the left handed blue liners who are signed for the upcoming season. Caps coach Bruce Boudreau made it very clear last season that he prefers to have three right handed and three left handed defenseman in the lineup so I would imagine at some point between now and the 2010-11 NHL trade deadline (7 months away) that a right handed shooting d-man will be added. It will be interesting to see how the second line center battle plays out between Johansson, Mathieu Perreault, Brooks Laich, and perhaps Fleischmann. 2010 1st round pick Evgeny Kuznetsov was quite impressive in development camp but he is only 18 and needs to mature physically before Washington even thinks about giving him a shot in “The Show.” The young Russian also is signed to play in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) for two more seasons. From what I’ve seen of both Johansson and Kuznetzov, they have a lot of potential so if McPhee does make a move to add a new pivot, it will be likely be for the short term.

The Caps won the Southeast Division in 2009-10 by 38 points and the Eastern Conference by 18 points before being knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. In their own division, Carolina and Tampa Bay, on paper at least, appear to be the teams that have the best shot at thwarting a record fourth straight first place finish for the Caps. New Lightning GM Steve Yzerman added former Flyers forward Simon Gagne last week in exchange for d-man Matt Walker and a 4th round draft choice. Putting Gagne in with a crop of forwards that includes Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, Ryan Malone, and Vincent Lecavalier to go with an improved defense of Mattias Ohlund, Victor Hedman, Pavel Kubina, and Brett Clark has to give Bolts fans hope. But can they win with Dan Ellis and Mike Smith in goal? They also may have a tough time staying healthy as several of the players mentioned above are heading into the latter stages of their career. If I was wagering in Vegas, I’d still go with the Caps to capture the Southeast crown, once again.

Programming Note: Please listen live to Japers Rink Radio on Tuesday, July 27th at 8pm as I will be making my second appearance on a super radio show that is hosted by Stephen Pepper and Russell Waxman. We’ll be discussing Caps hockey and the rest of the NHL.

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Another Big Game 7 for Caps

Posted on 27 April 2010 by Ed Frankovic

Whether you are a new or old Washington Capitals fan, you have learned one thing: winning playoff series is rarely an easy thing for the Caps to accomplish. This season is no exception as Washington will take on Montreal in game seven on Wednesday night at 7pm at the Verizon Center after they were seemingly in control of the series, up 3-1, after four games. The Caps all time record in game sevens, coming into this tilt, stands at 2-6. It was 1-5 going into last year’s playoffs before they defeated the Rangers in the first round and then lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. I have attended all of the past game sevens and it is hard to say which one was the worst. Anyways, if you want to read about those first six game sevens in team history you can click here for my blog about them from last spring.

The good news is that history does not matter at all. Each hockey game is an independent event and any perceived momentum coming into the game seven can, and often does, go right out the window once the puck drops. The Alexander Ovechkin led Caps team will play their fourth straight game seven in four playoffs series and in each of the past three they definitely had momentum on their side going into the final tilt. Washington’s record in those three game sevens is 1-2. This year there is no doubt that Montreal has the momentum, primarily because of the play of goalie Jaroslav Halak (allowed two goals in last two games). But Wednesday’s game is a new chapter and with that here are my thoughts and keys to the game for the Caps, in no particular order:

- Start Fast:  The Caps need to have a good first period or at least be tied after the first stanza. Montreal has an 8-3 edge on the scoreboard in period one through the first six contests and a big part of that has been the lackluster effort from Washington to open these games. Three times in this series (games two, five, and six) the Habs have tallied twice in the first 10 minutes, that must cease on Wednesday for Washington to be victorious. The Canadiens, once ahead, fall back into their counter-attacking trap which has, for the most part, worked because of the way their goalie is playing. In addition, the team that has scored the first goal has won five of the six contests (game two was the lone exception).

- Crowd Support:  The Verizon Center crowd needs to help their team out. If you watched game six, and according to Comcast a lot of people did because it set ratings records for Caps hockey viewing, you heard the raucous Montreal crowd and as Halak made save after save in the early going it seemed to get even louder and fuel their hockey team. The 18,000 plus fans who will “Rock the Red” on Wednesday night in DC need to get behind their club and stay supportive and loud.

- Limit Penalties:  Washington needs to stay out of the box. The Caps have taken some bad penalties this series and Montreal has a power play goal in all but one contest (game five was the exception). Mike Cammalleri (five goals in the playoffs) has had a super year against Washington, especially on the power play when he gets time and space to get his shot off. If the Caps can take three or fewer minors on Wednesday that bodes well for them.

- Crank up the Power Play:  The Caps will get power play opportunities in this one, they have averaged five a game so far in the series but they are a putrid 1 for 30. Personally, I hope Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau makes some changes to the first unit, and my preference is to bump Alexander Semin from that crew. I would prefer that Ovechkin be moved down low to create traffic and havoc in front of Halak. I would put either John Carlson or Joe Corvo on the points on the top unit with Mike Green and have them focus on getting shots through or dumping the puck down low where the Caps can cycle the two Habs defenders and wear them out. The power play needs to rid itself of the standing around and overpassing we’ve seen in the first six games.

- Quality Goaltending:  Whether Boudreau goes with Semyon Varlamov or Jose Theodore as his starter does not matter. Either guy is capable of getting the job done and whichever one gets the call must find a way to cover any defensive mistakes. Halak is doing that for his squad and now it is the Caps turn to have the superior goalie. After all, Halak is due for a subpar performance.

- Better Defense: With Tom Poti out for game seven, plus the second round if there is one due to a fractured orbital bone, defenseman Karl Alzner was recalled from Hershey for game seven. I like this move because #27 matches up better than Tyler Sloan or John Erskine does with the small and fast Montreal forwards. The Caps have done a poor job of thwarting the Montreal attack from their defensive blue line to the top of the circles in their own end. Simply put, the d-men have been backing up way too much and giving the Habs forwards time and space to create shooting opportunities, many of which have been with traffic in front of Washington’s goalies. I’d like to see the Caps blue liners challenge the smaller forwards and make them give up the puck sooner. Cammalleri, Tomas Plekenac, Scott Gomez, and company have had too much leeway to operate in Washington’s zone. Shaone Morrisonn, who returned from injury on Monday, was at least a step slow in game six so he needs to rebound with a big performance, if he is healthy. If he is banged up then Sloan needs to play.

- Crash the Net:  If you take a look at the shot chart from game six, a lot of the 54 shots taken by Washington were from the blue line and the perimeter. The Caps need to fight harder to go to the slot and the front of the cage for chances and rebounds. Eric Fehr has two goals in this series that way, as does Ovechkin. Mike Knuble, Brooks Laich, Boyd Gordon, and hopefully an insertion of Scott Walker into the lineup all need to pay the price and find a way to score some ugly goals on Halak. So far in this matchup, if Halak sees the shot he has pretty much stopped it.

- Dump Puck and Cycle:  When the Caps have thrown the puck down low they have been able to generate chances from cycling the Montreal defense. For the most part, the Caps are bigger than Montreal (Hal Gill is the exception) and they should use their size to generate offense from below the goal line. Rookie d-man PK Subban played well for the Habs at home on Monday but at the Verizon Center the Caps need to hit him early and often to rattle him into making turnovers. Same thing goes for Roman Hamrlik and the other Canadiens d-men. Washington cannot afford to turn the puck over at the blue line, they need to dump it deep, hit the Habs, and get their powerful cycle game going.

In summary, the Caps need to bring emotion, discipline, and play a simple game on Wednesday night if they want to advance to play Philadelphia in the second round. Clearly the pressure is on, and if they don’t perform well and lose, it will be one long off-season with a lot of fingers pointed at several different people. But the Caps must avoid thinking about those types of things and focus on each individual shift in game seven. If they stay in the moment, listen to their coach, and give maximum effort, they will win and all of that stuff that the media likes to talk about goes away. Bottom line, keeping it simple in game seven leads to a higher probability of victory.

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Bad Start Costs Caps in Game 5 Loss, 2-1

Posted on 24 April 2010 by Ed Frankovic

With their season on the line, the Montreal Canadiens came out to start game five of their best of seven series with the Washington Capitals with a very spirited effort. The result of that hard work paid off as Mike Cammalleri scored just 1:30 into the contest and then Travis Moen scored at the 7:01 mark to give the Habs an early 2-0 lead and with Jaroslav Halak thwarting 37 of 38 shots on goal, the Canadiens were victorious, 2-1, and have forced a game six on Monday night at the Bell Centre.

Here are the stats, quotes, and analysis from a blown chance by the Caps to win their series and get some rest for the second round:

Often when you think about the result instead of the process, that is when bad things happen. I am going to accuse several Capitals of that tonight and we’ll get to some of the awful individual performances in a minute. But first, the following quote from a very disgusted Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau sums up this very non-entertaining hockey game.

“We have Game 5 in our building, and we play like crap the first 10 minutes and the game is over,” said the head coach on the contest that allows the Canadiens to creep back into the series.

Washington’s power play had five chances tonight and did not score. It is a major problem right now (1 for 24 in the series) and Montreal nearly notched a shorthanded goal in the first period that would have made it 3-0, but instead they hit the post. Simply put, there were several players on the Caps who didn’t come ready to play and that is why Washington will be practicing on Saturday instead of celebrating a series win on Friday night.

“I’d agree [the power play] it is part of the reason. I also don’t think we are getting 20 guys playing. We are getting 13 and 14 guys every night rather than everyone coming to play,” said Boudreau on what he saw as the reason why the Caps were unable to clinch on Friday night.

Let’s start with Mike Green, who was named a Norris Trophy finalist today along with Chicago’s Duncan Keith and Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty. #52 does not look anything like the guy who played so confidently down the stretch. He looks tentative with his decision making and as a result he is ending up making the wrong play on several occassions. Green is thinking way too much and not relying on his instincts. His work on the right point on the power play was atrocious as he fumbled several pucks to make it much easier for the Canadiens to kill off Washington manpower advantages. Green was a -1 in 24:53 and was whistled for holding in the first period.

Next on my list is Alexander Semin. #28 has exactly ONE point in this series and has not scored a goal in 12 straight playoff games. In fact, I saw a replay of his assist from Wednesday night and he is lucky he was awarded it because Semin fumbles the puck coming across the blue line but Montreal’s Josh Gorges swipes the puck right to Alexander Ovechkin for the big third goal that gave the Caps the lead in game four. Semin’s biggest problem in the first four games was his lack of compete level. He was a bit better tonight but he continues to be unwilling to use his speed and strength to drive around Montreal defenders, instead opting to make “Nylander-like” peel back circle plays that have often led to offensive zone turnovers. He did have nine shots on goal but he also had five attempts blocked and three that missed the net. His coach had the following to say about him afterwards.

“He did put in a better effort, I thought, than the last three or four games. If we don’t get him scoring, then it is too easy to check certain guys. He just has to come through,” added Boudreau, who even tried putting #28 with Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom for a shift or two in the third period.

Montreal coach Jacques Martin put three former Stanley Cup winners, Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, and Travis Moen together and that trio scored the game winner and frustrated the Caps attack. Ovechkin did manage to score his fifth goal of the playoffs on a rebound in front of Halak, but the other lines, and in particular the second, did not bury the chances they had.

“We have to score on the power play. We had lots of chances. Sasha (Capitals Forward Alexander Semin) has to score in the middle when he has a chance, Flash (Capitals Forward Tomas Fleischmann) had a chance {to score}. Our top guys have to score goals,” added the team captain on what needs to happen for the Caps to come out on top.

Semyon Varlamov (26 saves) gave up the two tallies but it was hard to fault him on either goal because his defense let him down. Cammalleri’s goal was scored on a rush after an offensive zone turnover. #13 trailed the play up the ice but a lazy back checking effort allowed him to rip one top shelf by Varly. The second goal came off of a Caps faceoff loss and Joe Corvo and Tyler Sloan did not do a good job of coverage. I thought both Corvo (-1 in 12:51) and Sloan (-1 in 10:16) were among the guys on Boudreau’s list of non-performers in game five.

On the backend, John Carlson (+1) had a strong game picking up an assist in 22:46 of ice time. He was credited with four giveaways but for the most part he was creating things on the ice when he was out there. Boudreau mentioned that he would spend the next two days thinking about changing some personnel on his power play and #74 is a guy I would really like to see what he could do. Right now he is performing much better than Green and deserves a spot on the point to show off his ability to get pucks through to the net (or they can move Ovechkin down low and play Carlson with Green or even Tom Poti). Poti (+1) and Schultz (-1) were also decent tonight with #55 having to do alot of covering for his Norris Trophy contending defensive partner.

Finally this, by no means, is the reason the Caps lost on Friday night but the officiating, to include the two referees and two linesman, were absolutely awful in game five. They misinterpreted rules, missed blatant penalties, and overlooked a clear offsides. The missed penalties were the slash on Ovechkin that occurred during the rush on the “too many men on the ice” whistled on the Habs, a neutral zone blow to the head of Eric Belanger, and Varlamov playing a puck while it was outside of the trapezoid. In the first period, when many of the officiating problems occurred, one of the Montreal players shot the puck in on Varly while a Canadien was still on his way out of the zone yet play was allowed to continue. Finally, on the face-off before the Habs second goal, Boudreau argued with the officials on its placement and the decision by the zebras contributed to the winning tally.

“Well the puck was hit ahead with a glove. We knew it was supposed to be in our zone but it should have been to the left of the goalie not the right of the goalie because he did it on the left side. All four of them missed it and then when I’m trying to explain it to them they had the whole rule wrong, they were saying ‘no it’s inside’ and I said yeah its inside but its’ on the wrong side, so that was the debate,” said Boudreau on officials Dennis LaRue and Chris Rooney plus linesman Derek Arnell and Scott Driscoll. Boudreau also let the two officials have it when they ignored the slash on Ovechkin that should have awarded the Caps with a 5 on 3 advantage in the second period.

Supervisor of officials Kevin Collins likely was not pleased with the work of his crew on Friday night but again, that was not why the Capitals lost. Yes, it would have been better had that controversial face-off been moved to the left side where Backstrom, a lefty, has a greater chance of winning the draw, but the goal was the result of a lame effort by the five guys on the ice (19, 8, 22, 77, and 89).

Notes: Washington won the face-off battle 30-25 with Backstrom going 11-12…the Caps had a communication error at the end of the game that prevented them from having a 6 on 5 with the goalie pulled in the last minute or so. Varlamov was waved to the bench for the extra attacker and Eric Fehr jumped on the ice but then Varly mistakenly raced to the net when he saw the puck heading into the Washington zone. The Caps were whistled for too many men and it was a costly mistake, one that was indicative of a lack of mental focus from the team on Friday night…Fleischmann only logged 7:26 of time and he looks physically spent. He has repeatedly been knocked off of the puck very easily in the postseason. Could this be the result of the missed training camp due to a blood clot finally catching up with the man who scored 23 goals and 51 points in 69 contests?…The Capitals fell to 8-19 all time in Game 5s, 5-12 when playing at home. They are now 2-7 in Game 5s when leading the series 3-1…In each of the five games this series, the road team has scored the first goal of the game.

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Varlamov Stones Habs, Ovechkin Nets 2 in Caps 6-3 Win

Posted on 21 April 2010 by Ed Frankovic

In Varly We Trust. At least that is what Washington Capitals fans think should be printed on their currency as their money goaltender, Semyon Varlamov (36 saves), turned in another stellar performance at the Bell Centre in Montreal to lead the Caps to a 6-3 victory that puts the Canadiens on the brink of elimination. Washington leads the first round series, three games to one, and can wrap things up Friday night at 7pm at the Verizon Center.  If not for #40′s second period, however, the Capitals are probably coming home all tied up.

Alexander Ovechkin notched two goals and an assist and Mike Knuble had two tallies, including a shorthanded momentum turning one timer off of a perfect Boyd Gordon saucer pass with just 11 seconds left in the middle stanza. Montreal had buzzed the Caps net all period long firing 21 shots on goal (and scoring once on a fluky bounce off of the back boards), but when #22 swatted it home to tie it up, the Capitals were in position to take a commanding lead in the series.

“That goal was big..we knew we’d only have to play a good twenty minutes to win at that point,” said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau after the victory.

“I think it was a pretty good goal. We play great shorthanded…[Boyd Gordon] Gordo, what can you say about him? He is such a hard working guy,” added Ovechkin on the tally that was the turning point in this contest.

The third period was all Capitals as they fired 20 shots on Carey Price (32 saves on 36 shots) but it finally took an Alexander Semin appearance to put Washington ahead with 8:51 remaining. #28 carried the puck up the left wing boards at the end of a long shift, and making his best play of the series, he drew the Habs defenseman to him and slid a pass to the Great #8. From there it was like fishing in your momma’s barrel as Ovechkin flew down the slot and got a quick shot off before Price could get set. The goal put the Caps up 3-2 and stunned the Montreal fans as well as their team.

“Semin was on the ice because of a line change, so I can’t take credit for [putting him with Ovechkin]…they like playing together and they look for each other,” said Boudreau on the third Caps goal.

Montreal was clearly still stunned and when Matt Bradley made a strong play behind the Montreal net and then slid the puck across the crease, Jason Chimera was there to bang it home to make it 4-2 just 52 seconds after the Great #8 tally.

To close out the game the Caps played very smart hockey down the stretch, for the most part, sandwiching two empty net tallies around a bad decision by Tyler Sloan at the Caps blue line. #89, who struggled on a few shifts, slid too close to the left wings boards and that led to a two on one rush which resulted in a Dominic Moore backhanded goal with 78 seconds left.

Here is the rest of the analysis from a victory that gives Ovechkin and company their first 3-1 series lead in their four post season matchups:

Varlamov is now 4-0 at the Bell Centre in his career and looks more and more like the guy who helped the Caps advance to the second round last post season. However, he has a much better glove hand now thanks to some honing of his craft. Varly and goaltending Coach Arturs Irbe have turned what was once a weakness for #40 into an area that was on spectacular display on Wednesday night. It seems it is much more difficult to go upstairs glove side on the young Russian goalie nowadays.

Ovechkin, after being held pointless in the series opener, now has four goals and four assists in the last three games. He was very solid on Wednesday dishing out four hits and his first tally was a power play marker that broke an 0 for 15 drought by the Caps with the man advantage in this series. Boudreau likes to say “Great players make great plays in big games” and the Great #8 did that again this evening scoring the first and third goals. The Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-Knuble line was a combined +10. Backstrom had an empty net goal and two assists.

The first two Caps power plays were pretty good but the third one was nearly disastrous. According to Boudreau, Semin waved his stick up to come off the ice and as a result Eric Fehr jumped into the play. But then #28 decided to play the puck and the Caps, who were hoping to get a power play tally to even the game up, instead were called for too many men on the ice and were forced to go shorthanded. It was a boneheaded decision by Semin and he should be buying Gordon and Knuble dinners for the rest of the playoffs for not only killing the bad penalty, but scoring the game tying goal. Semin was not good tonight, except for those nine seconds when he was on the ice with Ovechkin for the third goal.

Montreal scored a power play tally for the fourth straight game (1 for 4) but it gave up a shorthanded goal for the second time in two contests. Washington has been very aggressive on the PK and it has forced the Habs to take shots from bad angles, for the most part. Their only connection was a Brian Gionta put back of a Andrei Markov point blast that banked hard off of the end boards.

What a two game set for Gordon in Montreal, eh? #15 was 8-4 on face-offs in this tilt to go with 13-2 on Monday. He had the shorthanded goal on Monday and then set up Knuble for his PK tally tonight. Gordon and Knuble are a potent penalty killing combo.

Puck possession is made a lot easier when you win the face-offs and Washington dominated from the dot again, going 39-26, on the road, no less. Backstrom was 12-9 while Eric Belanger was 12-7.

Joe Corvo took a cheap shot to the head from Maxim Lapierre in the first period but managed to still log 17:44 of ice time. #77 played one of his stronger games in a Caps uniform and if not for Sloan’s poor play on the third Montreal goal he is a +1.

Speaking of cheap shots and tempers, Price was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after the fourth Caps goal for firing the puck out of the net at Washington. Then he hacked at the back of Backstrom’s legs after #19 deposited the biscuit in the basket on the Caps last empty net tally. Clearly Ovechkin and company are in this goalie’s head.

Notes: Brendan Morrison, who was +25 on the road coming into Wednesday’s game, was an uncharacteristic -2 in the victory in just 9:17 of ice time…Tom Poti was +3 and John Carlson +2 on the blue line…final shots on goal totals were 39 for Montreal and 38 for the Caps but there were wild swings (MTL had 21-9 edge in 2nd pd while Caps had 20-6 advantage in 3rd pd)…Cap killer Tomas Plekenac was held pointless and went -2…Shaone Morrisonn missed the game (either hurt or sick) while d-man Jaroslav Spacek was unable to go for the Habs…Good news down on the farm: The Hershey Bears dominated the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (NY Islanders AHL team) outshooting them, 34-7, in a 4-1 victory. Karl Alzner scored his first playoff goal this post season and Michal Neuvirth stopped six, yes only six shots, en route to the series clincher. The Bears won the series four games to one and will take on the Albany River Rats (Carolina’s AHL team) in round two starting on Saturday night at 7pm at the Giant Center.

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Ovechkin Gets 50th Goal & Backstrom hits 100 Points in Caps Win

Posted on 10 April 2010 by Ed Frankovic

Friday night at the Verizon Center certainly lived up to its billing as the Caps began the night by accepting the Presidents’ Trophy from NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and then they proceeded to go out and rack up some individual milestones en route to a 5-2 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers. We’ll get to all of the neat 2009-10 player statistics in a minute, but for the Caps franchise this was an historic evening because for the first time in club history their overall record is above .500! Yes, it is true, Alexander Ovechkin and company along with some great squads from the 1980′s have finally teamed up to erase a pitiful first eight years of existence of Capitals hockey (the club was 212 games under .500 during that span) to push Washington’s overall record to 1,215-1,214-303-71. Believe me, there were times when I never thought this organization, who have their best shot ever at their first Stanley Cup this spring, would make up for some seasons where on many nights the goal of the team seemed to be to just get the puck out of their own end.

Things are clearly different in Caps land now, as evidenced by victory after victory and sell out after sell out at the Phone Booth (this was the 47th straight regular season sellout and 55th in succession including playoffs). Washington hit 120 points on the evening (54-15-12) and swept the Thrashers (6-0) in the season series. The Caps also improved to 30-5-5 at home and tied the team record for home wins, set in 1985-86. In addition, only 7 other teams have posted 120 point seasons (Montreal -4, Detroit -2, and Boston -1) so the Caps are the first non-original 6 team to achieve that (h/t @capsmedia).

Now let’s get to the highlights, quotes, stats, and analysis from a game that was meaningless in the standings:

We’ll start with the Great #8, who notched goals 49 and 50 and added an assist to take over the NHL points lead (109 to 108 over Henrik Sedin) as well as the NHL goals race (leads by one over Sidney Crosby and two over Steven Stamkos). Crosby and Stamkos each have two games left while Sedin has one (at Calgary on Saturday). According to Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau, Ovechkin has asked for Sunday off against Boston, so who knows if he will win either award? Clearly though, Washington’s team captain is focused on the greater goal, the Stanley Cup.

“The great ones do. Whether it’s Sidney [Crosby] or Alex [Ovechkin] or whoever, they seem to come up at the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded needing a homerun and they do it. That’s one of the reason it makes them better than other people,” said Boudreau on Ovechkin’s ability to rise to the occassion, when needed.

Next up is one Nicklas Backstrom who notched two tallies himself (up to 33 on the year) as well as an assist while going plus +4 on the evening. #19 now has 101 points (68 assists). Ovechkin and Backstrom, by both reaching 100 points, became the first Washington teammates to record 100 point seasons! It seems like just yesterday that former GM David Poile traded for Joe Juneau in the hopes of acquiring a player who could score 100 points, doesn’t it??!!

“I’m just really proud of him. He’s such a great young man. You like to see great people succeed. I’m sitting there thinking ‘Nicky just got his hundredth and Alex just got his 50th, who’s picking up the puck?’ It shows that he’s one of the elite players in the league and he does it every night. I think that’s his third game in a row with three points. He’s a good player,” added Boudreau on the center he seems to take great pride in coaching.

Alexander Semin turned in another stellar performance notching three assists and was also +4, but Sasha, despite an amazing 11 shots on net could not get his 40th goal of the season. Perhaps #28 will get that against Boston on Sunday, a team he has scored some big goals against the last two seasons? I’ve really been impressed with Semin’s play since Ovechkin took over as team captain and this is just one of many things that bodes well for Washington as they head into the post-season.

Jose Theodore won his 30th game this season and extended his streak of 23 straight starts without a regulation loss (20-0-3). #60 stopped 29 of 31 shots with one getting by him when Brendan Morrison deflected it into his own cage and the other tally came on a shorthanded breakaway goal by Clarke Macarthur. This is the third consecutive super outing for the man who appears to have locked up the job to start game one of the Stanley Cup playoffs, likely next Thursday.

“I felt pretty good. I kept my focus for 60 minutes. In the third I made a couple of big saves and then the guys picked it up and scored some big goals,” commented Theodore on his performance.”

The NHL’s plus minus leader coming into Friday night’s affair, Jeff Schultz, managed to extend his lead on second place Ovechkin to two since #55 went +4 to Ovie’s +3 (his giveaway led to the shorthanded goal). Sarge, who has taken his game to another level this season, was injured in the opening contest of last year’s post season so not only does it appear the Caps have a healthy Mike Green (1 assist, +2) this year, they also would have a much improved “double nickel” on the blue line.

Finally, trade deadline acquisition Joe Corvo had an assist and went +2 in 18:52 of ice time. This was significant because it was the first time in #77′s 17 games with Washington that he was a plus player. It has taken the former Carolina Hurricane time to adjust to his new team but his play on Friday was encouraging after a stretch where he has had some struggles.

Now on to some things I didn’t like in this contest and I’ll start with Washington’s power play. I don’t know if it was because they were trying to reach the individual plateau’s or if they were reverting to some bad habits but the Caps were 0 for 5 and gave up a shorthanded goal with Thrashers in the sin bin? Included in those situations was a 44 second 5 on 3. I’ll give some credit to Atlanta goalie Ondrej Pavelec (shelled with 47 shots but made 42 saves) who did his best to keep his seemingly disinterested squad in it until the floodgates opened in the third period, but most of the blame lies on overpassing and a lack of net presence from the Caps. The unit is number one in the league but they have now given up two shorthanded goals in a week. They have allowed eight this season and only five other NHL clubs have given up more. Simply put, Washington has got to clean up their play on the points and limit those turnovers that have been resulting in odd man rushes against.

Brendan Morrison returned to the lineup and looked out of sync, especially in the first 35 minutes. He took a tripping call in the first period and the first Atlanta goal banked in past Theodore from the slot off of the leg of #9. Sure that was a big fluke but had Morrison not made a turnover in the neutral zone just before the goal that whole sequence likely does not happen. #9 had the opportunity to spring Tomas Fleischmann in on a two on one break but instead of banking a pass off of the right wing side boards he tried to thread the needle up the middle and the Thrashers intercepted the biscuit and headed the other way. Morrison did improve over the last 25 minutes, drawing a penalty and nearly connecting on a good chance.

There were a couple of chippy instances by Atlanta in the last period that gave me some concern. First, rookie Evander Kane took some liberties with Green while he was down on the ice and after #52 got up Scott Walker came over and said some things to the Thrashers rookie that weren’t exactly of the “Happy Easter” variety. It would have been nice to hear exactly what #24 said and Washington cannot afford to have #52 injured or banged up for the post season. In addition, on the Capitals last power play second year d-man Zach Bogosian threw a vicious elbow into the chops of Semin knocking #28 to the ground and breaking part of his twig. After a few moments Sasha got up and seemed to be okay on his next shift, but again, the Caps don’t need to expose their star players to cheap shots of that variety. Anyone who thinks that Semin was diving there needs to go back and watch the hit again, it was blatant, dirty, and could warrant a league review.

A couple of other things that were not pleasing was that defenseman Tyler Sloan only took one shift for 19 seconds in period three (only played 9:53 overall) so something happened to him. In addition, Boudreau ended up playing Ovechkin 23:11 (after getting only 5:54 in the first period) on the night but clearly Ovie wanted to get his numbers and the five power plays resulted in 7:45 of ice time for the Great #8. The final stat I did not like was that Eric Fehr was -2. Boudreau mentioned afterwards that he wants to get all 20 guys going for the playoffs and he said “he had about 16 of the 20″ doing that on Friday. 

I had a chance to talk with Caps forward Quintin Laing after the game to get his take on some things and here is the transcript:

WNST: What’s been the difference on the penalty killing, it seems like it has definitely improved the last several games?

Laing: I think in zone, we are a little more aggressive and we are making the other team make quality passes instead of sitting back and letting them make mediocore passes and getting away with it so if we are going to get beat they are going to have to make two or three good passes in a row. If they do, then you have to tip your hat to them, all you can do is make it difficult. I think just being a little more aggressive in our zone is helping.

WNST: How has the PK changed over the years? It used to be that teams just played a strict box, it seems that you guys play sort of a diamond where you keep one guy high to take away the shot from the top?

Laing: It seems like every team has that one big shooter that they set up in the middle of the ice and they try to feed them. So you got to take that away up top and that is where the diamond comes in. In front it used to be the d-man could just do anything, you could cross check, slash, do anything to get the guy out of the goalies way but now, the rules have changes so you got to play a little more passively there and block more shots. So it has changed a little bit but taking away their big shooter is what the diamond is all about.

WNST: So the change is a function of the forwards can camp out in front so you have to take that shot away because there is going to be traffic?

Laing: Yeah, because the d-man won’t be able to do anything in front so you either have to block the shots or gets sticks in. As the forward up top you are just trying to not let that puck come through at a good angle. You want it to come from a bad angle where the goalie can see it.

WNST: You had a couple of good chances in the first period tonight?

Laing: Bruce talked about it before the game, just throw the pucks at the net and go to the net. That is what our line did, we just kind of threw pucks and I went to the net a couple of times and almost scored. I was kind of ticked at myself because you don’t get too many chances like that but I am happy with the way things went. Getting chances is fun but scoring on them is more fun.

WNST: Did the puck catch you on the wrong part of the stick or one time I think you were in pretty tight?

Laing: Yeah, on one I was in close and tried to chip it over him and it him and on the other one the puck was kind of rolling and I tried to hit but didn’t get the top half of the net, but it is good to get those chances.

WNST: What did you think of the intensity out there? It seemed like maybe there was a bit of a gentleman’s agreement where the big hits weren’t going to come tonight. There was some contact, it just seemed like there was a little different flow than games with playoff implications.

Laing: Yeah, there wasn’t 40 hits a team tonight, it was kind of a little more passive. I think we got the two, three goal lead and it kind of deflated them a bit but yeah, it wasn’t a big hitting type of atmosphere that the playoffs are sure to bring.

Final Notes:  The Capitals have scored first in each of their last five games (5-0-0) and are now 38-7-6 on the season when they score the first goal of the game. Washington’s AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, knocked off the Norfolk Admirals, 6-1, at Norfolk Scope, and became the first team in AHL history to win 60 games in a single season. Jason Chimera scored his 15th goal of the season on a nice feed from Eric Belanger (made it 4-2 Capitals). The Caps won the face-off battle, 34-29. The Capitals last contest of the regular season is Sunday at noon at the Verizon Center on NBC. The battle for the 8th and final Eastern Conference playoff spot, and the Caps first round playoff opponent, is now clear as mud. Washington could still face any of Boston, Philadelphia, the Rangers, or Montreal.

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Theodore, Green lead Caps over Columbus

Posted on 03 April 2010 by Ed Frankovic

The 2009-10 Washington Capitals continue to re-write the team record books. On Saturday night they defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets, 3-2, to notch their 51st win of the season and move just one point away from clinching their first ever President’s Trophy. Washington, which raced out to a 3-0 first period lead and is now 51-15-12 (114 points) overall, can clinch 1st place in the NHL regular season with either a point in any of their four remaining games or a point missed by San Jose in any of their four contests. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau, when asked afterwards, had the following to say about the achievement.

“It is nice to set records, it gives us a goal to shoot for next year,” added the low key 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winner.

Let’s get right to the highlights, more quotes from the Coach, and analysis from this victory over the Blue Jackets:

The biggest news of the night was the return to form of Jose Theodore, who was just outstanding all game, WHEW! #60 made 34 saves as Columbus really turned up the heat after trailing by three after just 13:44. Both Blue Jackets goals were not the fault of Jose and he made several super stops, especially in the second period when the Caps decided to allow too many odd man rushes against. After two shaky goaltending performances earlier in the week against Calgary and Ottawa, Boudreau has gotten super starts from both Semyon Varlamov and Theodore, in succession.

“It is more significant that Theo had a good game and for the most part I thought we played good defensively,” started Boudreau on the victory, “I thought they had a few [chances] where they could put them in but that had nothing to do with the defense, alot of it was with our forwards not being where they are supposed to be,” added Boudreau on why there were so many quality chances for Columbus on the rush.

While Theo was certainly Washington’s number one star on the night, the guy I bragged about after Thursday’s win versus Atlanta, Mike Green, was once again in his 2009-10 Norris Trophy winning form versus Columbus. #52 scored the game winner by grabbing an errant clear and rifling one by Steve Mason, who replaced an injured Mathieu Garon just 10:49 into this one, on a 5 on 3 Caps power play. The goal was Greenie’s 19th of the season and he now has a career high in points with 74. More important than the goal, however, was his rock solid play in his own zone, as his head coach pointed out.

“He was fabulous. Mike Green was fabulous tonight. Notwithstanding scoring the winning goal but I just thought every time on he was a force defensively, not necessarily offensively, but he was a force defensively. He’s been like that for awhile, he just doesn’t get the recognition that he should defensively,” added Boudreau on a player that should win the Norris Trophy this season.

There will be the Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty for Norris Trophy camps but if you look at Green’s numbers, to include ice time and plus/minus, he should win hands down. By the way, Keith has the luxury of playing with Keith Seabrook night in and night out. As the NHL network’s Craig Button told me today via text, “Mike Green is a star and is becoming a more complete player, which is part of the development sequence.” People often forget that Green is still ONLY 24 years old in a league where playing in your own end takes years to learn.

Washington killed off all three Columbus power plays, including a 1:23 two man advantage. During that sequence Brooks Laich got his stick in the passing lanes and made several super plays. In fact, he was so good on one sequence on the boards it allowed Tom Poti to go the other way and get a quality shorthanded chance, but Mason made a nice glove save.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Washington power play was a pitiful 1 for 6 (only goal was Green’s unassisted 5 on 3 tally) and once again there was too much passing and perimeter play. What made things on 5 on 4 even worse was the lackadaiscal play of Alexander Ovechkin on the left point. The Great #8 made a bad decision pinching in that gave Rick Nash (2 assists) and Antoine Vermette (2 goals) a two on one break and they finished it off easily around Joe Corvo. Then in the third period Ovechkin failed to look behind him in the slot in the defensive zone and RJ Umberger nearly tied the contest up. To be blunt, the Great #8 floated in his own zone all evening. His coach saw much of the same and had a theory on how he could break out of his funk.

“He looked a little off tonight. You just keep throwing him out there and hoping it’s going to happen. I think he just has to work a little harder defensively and it will make his offensive go better,” said Boudreau on the two-time defending NHL MVP, who was -2 in this contest.

On the second Blue Jackets goal, both Poti and Tyler Sloan decided to chase Nash behind the net and #61 quickly recognized it and hit a wide open Vermette in front. Watching the replay, it was Sloan’s responsibility but for some reason #3 left his side of the ice? Still, I was not thrilled with Sloan’s overall play, he made a bad decision in the offensive zone in the second period that led to a Blue Jackets 4 on 2 break. His last shift, with under four minutes left, was not good either and he looked in over his head when the pressure picked up. I fully expect come playoff time that Sloan will be in the press box along with John Erskine, meaning John Carlson will be the sixth defenseman (#74 is out with an injury right now).

After the game, Corey Masisak (former Washington Times Caps beat writer), tweeted a quote that was given to him by the Columbus Blue Jackets beat reporter (Aaron Portzline) from Blue Jackets forward (and former Flyer) RJ Umberger about the Caps. Here is the full quote, courtesy of Portzline’s blog post:

“I don’t think any team in the West would be overmatched by them,” Umberger said. “They play the wrong way. They want to be moving all the time. They float around in their zone, looking for breakaways and odd-man rushes. A good defensive team is going to beat them (in the playoffs). If you eliminate your turnovers and keep them off the power play, they’re going to get frustrated because they’re in their zone a lot.”

My first reaction to this is: SOUR GRAPES from an Ex-Philadelphia Flyer who just lost a game. Secondly, I find it hard to take serious comments from a guy who bases his thinking off of a sample size of two games, especially when talking about a team that has 114 points with four games to go. That same Caps squad he criticizes is 10-5-3 against the Western Conference this season (although some writers will twist that into a statement like “the Caps are only 10-8 against the West”).  If Umberger wanted to criticize the Caps play on Saturday alone, and not the overall body of work, he had a point because clearly Washington took their foot off of the gas against a cellar dwellar team after it was 3-0. But to rip them the way he did is bordering on ludicrous.

By the way, in contrast to Umberger’s outburst, John Keeley (On Frozen Blog) and I chatted with former Caps coach Bryan Murray after his Ottawa Senators beat Washington 5-4 in overtime on Tuesday. The first thing out of Murray’s mouth about the 2009-10 Caps was “that is a great team you have here.” Personally I will take Murray’s analysis over that of Umberger any day of the week.

Washington’s four remaining games include two at home against Boston (Monday & next Sunday), one at the Verizon Center against the Thrashers (Friday), and Tuesday night’s road tilt in Pittsburgh. Tonight’s performance was not solid, they were outshot 27-16 the last two periods, but the Caps still managed to get the job done. Overall, I am sure Boudreau wants to tighten things up for the post season. Towards that end, I will leave you with more contents from a text on the Caps I received from Button today.

“The Caps have goaltending good enough to win. The determining factor for me will be the team’s approach to playing. If they want to play a game of exchanging scoring chances it won’t matter who their goaltender is because they won’t win with that style. The way they played versus Atlanta is a recipe for success. Don’t forget, the Penguins won last year because of a commitment to a complete game and that has to be the focus for the Caps, in my opinion.”

It is hard to argue with Button’s logic, this team has two good goalies right now, not to mention Laich pointed out to me back on Labor Day that the Pens won the Cup because they stuck to their system. If Washington plays its system the way Boudreau wants them to do, they have the talent to win it all this year, despite what a center from a 14th place team in the Western Conference might have to say.

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Caps Crush Panthers Without Ovechkin, 7-3

Posted on 16 March 2010 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals are now 7-2 without Alexander Ovechkin in the lineup this season, but before anyone gets too excited about that statistic, please remember that four of those wins have come against the Florida Panthers (and the two losses were against the New Jersey Devils while the Caps were 1-0-1 against NJ with Ovie). The Caps received a super game from the Jason Chimera-Brendan Morrison-Eric Fehr line (they scored three times) and also got two tallies from Brooks Laich to bury the Cats, 7-3. The victory allowed the Capitals to sweep the season series (6-0) from Florida and they are now 16-3 against Southeast Division foes in 2009-10. Even more impressive is their overall record of 47-14-9 (103 points) and Washington’s magic number to clinch the Eastern Conference is just 11 points (h/t Nate Ewell). In addition, when San Jose loses in Dallas on Tuesday, and they are down 7-2 in the 3rd period as I post this blog, the Caps will have a seven point lead in the race for the President’s Trophy with the Sharks having one game in hand.

Here is the analysis from a game that really wasn’t much of one after Washington broke things open in the middle stanza:

Perhaps the best thing about Washington’s offensive performance against Florida was the way in which they stormed the crease and tallied on hard working goals from in front. The Caps went 2 for 4 on the power play and both lamp lighters, by Alexander Semin and Laich, were on rebounds. Washington fired 39 shots on net, many of them from in close, which is a good sign for the post season. This team is much more offensively potent than the one that tended to primarily rely on pretty passing goals last year.

Good to see Morrison (1 goal, 2 assists) have a huge night as he has struggled a bit since the midway point. His tally was his first since January 26th. #9′s line was super fast all evening and Chimera and Fehr were stong in transition and on the boards in the offensive zone. It will be interesting to see if this combo stays together and if so, will they be able to keep that type of play up against a stronger opponent?

Washington’s penalty kill held the Panthers off the board on all three of its attempts, which is encouraging, but you have to factor in that the Panters are 29th in the NHL with the manpower advantage.

Jose Theodore (34 saves) received his second straight start and was really good in goal, especially in the first period when Florida fired 13 shots on net. The Caps still need to tighten up in the defensive zone before the playoffs but if they continue to get this type of goaltending from #60 they will be very hard to beat come April and beyond.

At the other end, Tomas Vokoun was not very good but he had grounds to sue for lack of support from his defense. #29, who surprisingly was not moved at the trade deadline, was yanked after allowing 5 goals on 21 shots. He was replaced by Scott Clemmensen, who gave up two goals on 18 shots, but if the Caps hit the net a little better in the last 20 minutes his numbers would have rivaled those of Vokoun.

Nicklas Backstrom had another strong game notching a goal and an assist plus he doled out 4 hits in just over 18 minutes of action. #19 was only 4-6 on face-offs though.

About the worst news of the night was that penalty killing specialist Boyd Gordon re-injured his back (h/t Tarik El-Bashir) when he was tripped by Shawn Matthias in the first period (wait, an injury on a hockey play, does that mean we are going to see another NHL suspension??!!). This is bad news for the Caps and Gordo, who told me during the Olympic break that he was finally feeling good again healthwise beginning shortly after the New Year (which was right before Washington went on that 14 game winning streak).

Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau scratched Tom Poti and John Erskine on defense while Dave Steckel and Scott Walker were the forwards who sat with the suspended Ovechkin. Clearly Boudreau picked the right contest to get Quintin Laing and Tyler Sloan some much needed game action.

Basically, this one was a mismatch pretty quickly in a contest that used to be tight between these two teams (think Florida misses former defenseman Jay Bouwmeester?). Next up for the Capitals are the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday in Raleigh. Ovechkin will sit out the 2nd game of his suspension and will return on Saturday night in Tampa. Speaking of the Great #8, here is his comments on what happened in Chicago and the subsequent action taken by the league:

“I am very sorry that Brian was injured and I hope he is able to return to his team soon. NHL hockey is a physical game. We all play hard every time we are on the ice and have battles each shift in every game we play so we can do our jobs and win. As players we must accept responsibility for our actions and I am no different but I did not intend to injure Brian and that is why I was disappointed with the NHL’s decision yesterday. Every time I have the honor to play for my team, I will continue to do what I have done since I was taught to play. I will play hard, play with passion and play with respect for my teammates, opponents and fans. I look forward to returning to my team and doing everything I can to be the best player I can be.”

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Lightning Edge Caps, 3-2

Posted on 12 March 2010 by Ed Frankovic

Antero Niittymaki stopped 28 shots on Friday night at the Verizon Center to lead the Tampa Bay Lightning to a 3-2 victory over the Caps, who finished this five game homestand at 3-1-1. For the most part, the Capitals did not work hard against a Bolts team that is fighting for their playoff lives, and therefore they came out on the short end of the stick in this contest. The loss drops the Caps to 45-14-9 (99 points) and it was the first time they’ve lost at home in regulation in 2010. The Capitals still have a 14 point lead in the Eastern Conference standings since the Pittsburgh Penguins were defeated for the fifth time in five tries this season against Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils. The Pens have scored just three goals in those five contests so clearly they will want to avoid a potential playoff matchup with New Jersey. Sidney Crosby did score his 45th goal of the season to take the lead, by one, over Alexander Ovechkin in the race for the Rocket Richard trophy. Ovechkin had assists on both Caps goals versus Tampa.

Coming into Friday evening’s game against the Caps, Tampa Bay goalie Antero Niittymaki was 4-0 in his last four outings vs. Washington and #30 did it once again to DC on this night. The net minder held the fort for the Bolts over the first 30 minutes while the Caps fired shot after shot on him, including 12 straight to start the second period. However, all Washington could garner to that point was a Tomas Fleischmann power play one-timer off of a super Ovechkin feed at 16:54 of the opening period. It was the sixth straight game that the Caps opened the scoring.

After Tampa tied it late in the first period (Brandon Bochenski snapper inside the far post), the Caps put on the heat to start the middle stanza but could not score. Then the tide turned after a lazy play by Alexander Semin that gave the Bolts an offensive zone face-off. #28, instead of taking one more stride to get to the red line, shot the puck into the Lightning zone before hitting the mid stripe forcing a tired Washington crew to take a d-zone draw. Nate Thompson won the face-off to Stephane Veilleux and he sent it back to defenseman Matt Walker. Walker’s point blast then deflected off of the skate of Brooks Laich and up past Semyon Varlamov (24 saves), who was down in the butterfly position. The tally gave Tampa life and they started to dominate play for the rest of the period. Less than 4 minutes later another Walker point shot hit off of the elbow of Vincent Lecavalier, who was working hard to get to the front of the net, and it went by Varlamov to make it 3-1. The officials initially waved the goal off, they thought it hit a high stick, but a video review correctly reversed the call on the ice. Washington would add a power play marker by Laich with 8:51 remaining in the contest but despite having the puck most of the way down the stretch they didn’t battle hard enough in front of the Tampa goalie to get a good chance at an equalizer.

“It was probably the best road game we played all year. Not just because we beat Washington. The overall game. They came pretty hard beginning of the second period, first ten minutes, but other than that we were in total control the whole time. Guys played hard. They got two nice power-play goals, but they’ve got all those guys out there, so it’s going to happen. We didn’t get rattled. We played a really good game,” said the Finnish net minder, who the Caps will likely see in Tampa next Saturday night.

Here are my thoughts, analysis, and some quotes from a game that was not very entertaining to watch:

Ovechkin had 1 shot on goal and only two hits. He did have two power play assists but at even strength his line could not get going prompting Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau to move Semin up to replace Mike Knuble in the latter half of this contest. Lightning coach Rick Tocchet credited defenseman Mike Lundin with shutting down the Great #8 but Ovie just didn’t seem his usual self on Friday either.

“He did a really nice job. [Alex] Ovechkin’s the best player in the world. You’ve got [to] play on your toes against him. You can’t play on your heels. Lunds [Lundin] was gapping up well with him. Give Lunds [Lundin] lots of credit. He did a nice job,” said Tocchet on the play of his 6-2, 197 lbs d-man.

The line-up shuffling continued on Friday in an attempt for Boudreau to get everyone game ready for the post season and this iteration resulted in two of the top six Washington defensemen sitting in the press box in Jeff Schultz and John Carlson. Seventh on the depth chart, in my opinion, is in Hershey (Karl Alzner) so John Erskine and Tyler Sloan got some action and neither was very good. Yes, they could use rust as an excuse but it is clear there is a drop off in ability with #4 and #89 compared to the rest of the blue line crew. In addition, Boyd Gordon and Eric Belanger were scratched up front, along with the other standard forward scratch, Quintin Laing. Boudreau said after the game that he has no idea when the shuffling will stop but given that the playoffs are still a month away it does not make sense to have the same five guys sit every game.

Varlamov took the loss in net but the only goal you could conceivably blame on him was the first, and even I won’t go there. The first tally was on a 2 on 1 break as Mike Green got caught at the red line before Varly was beaten on a nice shot by Bochenski. Some will argue he should have come out and challenged more but #40 had to wait to figure out what his lone defenseman, Shaone Morrisonn, was going to do on the play: cut off the pass or take the shooter. #26 was a little hesitant with his decision forcing Varly to hang back a hair too long. But let’s be real, the culprit on goal number one was Green. As mentioned above the second and third goals were both deflections from guys in front of the Caps goalie so putting the loss on #40 seems rather ridiculous to me and the head coach confirmed it afterwards.

“You want to blame that one on the goalie? Come on?!…We got outworked,” finished Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau.

Outworked is correct and that was the reason Washington lost, plain and simple. Next up for the Capitals are the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday at the United Center at 1230pm on NBC. This should be a good one, except for the commentary from Mike Milbury.

Notes: Forward Eric Fehr had his legs taken out from under him in the second period and he was helped down the tunnel to the dressing room but he later returned, although he didn’t have the same jump he had before that play occurred (and the referees missed a penalty there too). The Caps won the face-off battle, 32-18. Washington was 2 for 4 on the power play while the Bolts failed on their only attempt. Tampa is in 10th place in the East, four points behind 8th place Boston and one point in back of the 9th place Rangers. Tampa forward Steven Stamkos, who has 42 goals and is right on the heels of Crosby and Ovechkin, was held without a point for the first time in 18 contests.

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Theodore, Poti Carry Caps to Club Record 11th Straight Win

Posted on 02 February 2010 by Ed Frankovic

If you are not watching the Washington Capitals these days you are missing out. Tuesday night in Boston the Caps defeated the Bruins, 4-1, and set a franchise record with their 11th straight victory thanks primarily to a monster goaltending performance by Jose Theodore (41 saves). The best skater on the ice was defenseman Tom Poti, who went to college at nearby Boston University, and #3 set up two goals (2 assists), was on the ice for every Caps tally (+4), and logged 6:28 of penalty killing time (played 21:11 overall). All three Washington goals, before Alexander Ovechkin’s empty net clincher, came from right in front of Boston’s Tim Thomas (22 saves) as Mike Knuble, Brooks Laich, and Boyd Gordon all got “points from the paint’ to pace the Capitals offense. The Caps, who played fairly poorly in 30 of the first 40 minutes, are now a staggering 38-12-6 (82 points) and they lead the entire Eastern Conference by at least 10 points! They are 14-1 since Ovechkin was named team captain back on Tuesday, January 5th.

Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis:

$4.5 Million Man on Fire: The night the Caps last lost a game, a 7-4 stinker in Tampa, I tweeted (@Emfrank123) that is was time for the guy making $4.5M to step up in net. Since that game #60 is 8-0 and up until tonight the game he played against the Detroit Red Wings back on January 19th, where he stopped 44 of 46 shots, was his best as a Cap. However, having seen the highlights of this contest against the Bruins again after watching it live, I am ranking this performance as #1 by Jose as a Capital. The Caps had numerous defensive zone breakdowns and Theo was hung out to dry several times but he would only be beaten on a Bruins 5 on 3 power play tally. Michael Ryder and Blake Wheeler had at least four golden opportunities and were denied plus David Krejci (who scored the only B’s goal) received a questionable penalty shot but when Jose challenged him #46 fired wide. Theodore has a history of playing his best hockey in the final year of his contract and guess what? This is the last season of his two year deal with the Capitals.

“Jose was tremendous. They had so many more quality chances than we did,” said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau on his goalie.

Caps No Shows in First period: The Bruins came into this one having lost seven straight contests and 11 of their last 13 games. They had not won a game in 2010 but you couldn’t tell that by the way they played most of the first 40 minutes. Boston thoroughly outplayed the Caps in period one but only had a single tally to show for it, thanks to Theodore. Poti also was one of the few Capitals to have a good first period, one in which Washington took four penalites, two of which overlapped for 41 seconds and Boston took only eight seconds to convert for their only goal of the evening. Overall the Bruins had 6 power plays in the contest and Washington needs to get back to being more disciplined.

“I thought they played to win and they kept coming at us but I thought they got frustrated. We hung around in the first period when they had four power plays and I figured if they didn’t have a two goal lead after one then we got a chance to win it,” commented Boudreau on the Bruins effort.

Third Period Domination: Much like they did in Pittsburgh on January 21, the Caps took control in the final period of a contest that was tied and denied Boston the lead in a game they should have been winning. Alexander Semin, who was having an off night up until that point primarily due to three stick infractions, made a super pass to Laich in the slot to give the Caps a 2-1 lead. 2:47 after that Poti, who had set up Knuble’s first tally by pinching down on the left wing boards and centering the puck, did the same thing except from the right wing boards and Gordon potted his first tally in 11 games to make it 3-1 to stun the hometown Bruins and their fans.

“When you have really skilled players they can go along all game normal and then be difference makers and he is one of those guys that when you need it he will make the great play whether he has had success or whether he has taken three hooking penalties,” added Boudreau on Semin.

Washington knows how to win: Let’s face it, the Caps really didn’t have a right to win this one after their lackluster opening period but in hockey, a goalie can keep a team in it, and that is what happened on Tuesday night. Add to the fact that this highly skilled Washington team continues to mature and seems to just know how to win you end up with an 11 game club record winning streak.

“We didn’t play really well yet found a way to win because [the players] believed that they could win,” finished Boudreau.

There isn’t a whole lot to add to this one, several Caps did not have good games tonight so it doesn’t make much sense to pick at this guy or that guy. Theodore and Poti really stood out and they deserve the accolades for the victory and were my (and officially the NHL’s) number one and two stars, respectively. Laich was my third star but a guy like Gordon, who scored a big goal and killed 4:12 of Bruins power play time had a nice night as well.

Next up for the Caps are the New York Rangers on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden (Comcast HD). Rangers GM Glen Sather just made a big trade with the Calgary Flames getting center Olli Jokinen and the tough Brandon Prust for stiff Ales Kotalik and snake bitten Christopher Higgins so I expect the Blueshirts to be pumped up to try and prevent the Caps from winning their 12th straight. But for tonight (and tomorrow), we can all say, “The Caps go to 11!”

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