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Poor Start and Missed Call Doom the Caps in Game Five

Posted on 19 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

For the second time in three games, the Washington Capitals fell behind 3-0 and once again, a late rally wasn’t enough to tie the contest up. As a result, the Caps lost game five, 3-2, and now trail their best of seven series with Tampa, three games to two. Game six is Monday night at Capital One Arena at 8 pm.

Here are nine thoughts on a very tough loss at Amalie Arena, where the home team finally won for the first time in this series.

Poor Period Starts Costly – The Caps gave up goals 19 seconds into the game and 33 seconds into the second period to Tampa’s fourth line! That is inexcusable and was the biggest difference in the outcome. Washington was not prepared mentally to start either period. On the first goal, Dmitry Orlov and Evgeny Kuzentsov made soft plays to lose the puck in the neutral zone and then Orlov badly misplayed the two on one going for the disc and missed badly, which left Cedric Paquette all alone on Braden Holtby (19 saves). On the second period Bolts tally that made it 3-0, Anton Stralman goes around Matt Niskanen like an orange road cone and forced the Holtbeast to have to make a one on one stop. The Caps defense and team was caught flat footed for large stretches of the first 21 minutes.

Bad Zebras! – Referees Wes McCauley and Mark Joannette plus linesmen Johnny Murray and Matt McPherson had a terrible night. On Tampa’s second goal, an Ondrej Palat shot from the slot that Niskanen screened Holtby on, Steven Stamkos CLEARLY trips Orlov at the Washington defensive blue line before the tally and there is no call. As a result the game was 2-0 where it should’ve been 1-0 with a Capitals power play coming. NBC’s Mike Milbury was adamant that the trip should’ve been called and it was at a crucial point in the game. There is NO EXCUSE for missing such a critical infraction that leads to a scoring chance. In addition, Ryan Callahan’s goal, after Stralman went around Niskanen, went in off of his glove. You can argue either way on that one, but once again, the call didn’t go the Caps way. There were also several missed icing calls on the Bolts when the Capitals were storming the castle in periods two and three. The officials cannot be a factor in the outcome of a game and they absolutely were in game five. The Capitals had no power plays in this affair. Unacceptable officiating, once again, and the league should be ashamed, especially after game four was called so well by Chris Rooney and Gord Dwyer. Tampa has at least two or three goals in this series on bad or missed rulings (the Bolts second goal in game two after the terrible high sticking call on T.J. Oshie, the uncalled Stamkos trip in game five, and arguably the power play goal after the Wilson penalty in game two where Chris Kunitz escaped an obvious hooking call).

Stuck in Quicksand – The first period was a disaster. The Bolts had 13 of their 22 shots for the game in that frame and if not for Holtby, it could’ve been worse than 2-0. Washington showed no sense of urgency in their play and weren’t moving their legs. When guys like Callahan and Stralman are going past you, your effort is not where it needs to be. It was a very disappointing start by the Caps in such a critical game. Yes, the missed penalty call hurt, but as we’ve seen for years, if you put the game in the referees’ hands, you will almost always not like the outcome.

Final Forty Push – After it was 3-0, we saw a different Capitals team. Unfortunately, it was too late. The Caps started skating, moving their feet, and being physical. For some reason in that first frame Washington was afraid to hit anyone or use their body to win a puck battle. Against a team like Tampa, you have to be engaged physically and mentally on all shifts, otherwise they will burn you with their effort and skill. The Caps have a lot of skill, but the will was missing in the first 21 minutes and now they have a hill to climb to come back and win this series. Over the last 40 minutes, the shots on goal were 26-9 for the Capitals. They also hit some posts, too. Christian Djoos struck iron off of a faceoff win when it was 3-1 in period two and Alex Ovechkin hit the cross bar when it was that same score in period three. John Carlson had some great looks in this one and missed the net in the second frame in close and in the dying seconds he couldn’t get off a one timer on a great feed. When he tried to go top shelf, Andrei Vasilevskiy (28 saves) slid over and cut off the short side to save the game for Tampa.

Scoring Drought – After putting up 10 goals in the first two games, the Capitals only have six tallies in the last three tilts and two of those have come with the goalie pulled. Washington is not getting enough net presence on Tampa and the Bolts are doing a good job of clogging the shooting lanes. The Caps have to simplify their attack and make the Bolts scramble in their own end. They did some of that in stretches, but we also saw guys passing up quick shots in the slot and a return of bad drop passes. North-south hockey is how the Capitals have to play if they are going to win game six. Come across the blue line and fire the puck on net. That forces the Bolts D to turn and go get the rebounds and with Washington coming with speed, they can then hit the Tampa defense and force turnovers.

Line Changes – Coach Barry Trotz adjusted his lines for period two putting Nicklas Backstrom back with Ovechkin and Tom Wilson. That line was on the ice for the Callahan tally that made it 3-0, but played better after that. Backy is clearly not close to 100%, but with Kuznetsov having a poor first frame, something had to be done. Kuzy would score the Caps first goal on a deflection of a Niskanen point shot in period two and he, Oshie, and Chandler Stephenson played fairly well together. Ovi heated up in the third frame and his rocket cut the game to 3-2 with 96 seconds left. The Caps nearly tied this one up late, but again, they need to be much better earlier.

On Fumes? – Lars Eller struggled and looked slow for much of this contest after taking five penalties in games three and four and you can’t help but think that playing all of those extra minutes with Backstrom out has taken a toll on him. However, after sitting on the bench for a good stretch in period three, he came out with some jump with the extra attacker on and looked better. The Caps need #20 to return to form if they are going to win game six.

Clearing the Mind – The Capitals have seen a 2-0 series lead turn into a 3-2 deficit yet there have been some lengthy stretches where the Caps have carried the play. Washington can’t focus on any of that and must make sure they are ready to go from puck drop on Monday night. They have to play hard and smart. They have been prone to the big mistake in this series and that’s why they are on the brink of elimination. Tampa has blown a 3-2 lead before, just two years ago to the Penguins when the Bolts also had home ice advantage. Washington must come out and check from the get go. No soft plays and make the simple decision, which is usually going north with the puck up the boards. The start in game four was good right up until Michal Kempny’s poor decision to try a blind back pass up the middle of the ice. Kempny was much better in game five, but Niskanen and Orlov along with many others didn’t come ready to play. This team has been resilient all year. Many have already written them off, but until one team wins four games it’s not over. The Capitals need to give everything they have on Monday night to force a game seven where anything can happen.

Notes: Washington won the faceoff battle, 27-26, and Backstrom won 12 of 17 draws with a bad hand…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:54 and he also led the team in shots on net, with eight…Djoos played 15:06 on the back end since the Capitals were trailing and he was very good at moving the puck. He needs to look to shoot a little more, since he has a good one…Tampa’s fourth line of Kunitz, Paquette, and Callahan logged nearly 15 minutes and was +2. They simply outworked the Capitals when they were on the ice and that’s something the Caps need to address…shot attempts were 29-8 for Tampa in period one and 51-19 for Washington the rest of the way.

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O Halloran Ovi

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Caps Overcome Adversity in 6-2 Rout of Tampa

Posted on 14 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals reeled off five unanswered goals to erase a 2-1 first period deficit to knock off the
Tampa Bay Lightning, 6-2, in game two of the Eastern Conference Final and the Caps will head home to the DMV with a 2-0 series lead.

Tom Wilson put the Capitals on the board just 28 seconds into this affair by tipping home a Matt Niskanen point blast. Washington came out fast and furious when the Bolts were supposed to be the more desperate team and they had some chances to increase their lead. On a rush to the Tampa net at the 6:48 mark, Wilson skated hard to the cage hoping for a back door pass, was hooked by Chris Kunitz and then spun around by Ryan McDonagh and crashed into goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and the goal frame. Referee Dan O’Halloran, who the Capitals were 0-6 lifetime as a zebra in the playoffs coming into this affair, ignored the Kunitz hook and McDonagh contact and instead called Willy for goalie interference. Tampa needed all of 20 seconds to tie it up on a Brayden Point shot.

Sure, that call on Wilson could’ve gone either way, and there are valid arguments on both sides, but then something happened that should never occur in a playoff game of this magnitude. Victor Hedman was hit in the face by a puck and T.J. Oshie, who put his stick up to try and get the biscuit, but never came close to contacting Hedman’s upper body, was boxed for a phantom high sticking penalty. How does that happen with two referees and two linesmen? Surely one of them had to see it was not high sticking? Anyways, that was a bad call, for sure, and Steven Stamkos scored back door late in that power play to give the Bolts a 2-1 lead at 10:22 that they certainly didn’t deserve.

At that point, it was really important how the Capitals players and coaches would react. Would they lose their minds and get caught up in the incompetent O’Halloran officiating or would they remain calm, stick to their game plan, and focus on getting even on the scoreboard?

Judging by the last 49 plus minutes, it was clearly the latter. Even in the final nine minutes of period one, the Capitals pushed the play and had several scoring chances drawing extensive praise from Mike Milbury on NBC and then Keith Jones and Eddie Olczyk between periods. Olczyk even disagreed with the call on Wilson, pointing out the missed hook on Kunitz on a scoring chance.

The Caps would not tie it up in period one, but the tone was set and early in period two they got even. John Carlson stole an errant Tampa pass and sprung Alex Chiasson, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Jay Beagle on a three on one rush. Chiasson fed DSP and Devante was able to one time home a puck that didn’t really settle on the ice for him. The biscuit hit the far post and went in behind Vasilevskiy to really give Washington a huge goal and momentum.

The remainder of the period was tense back and forth and the Caps were getting the better of the chances, but #88 was playing fairly well in the cage. At 15:48 of period two, Michal Kempny took an unnecessary interference penalty so the Tampa power play, which had scored three of the Bolts four goals in the series, had a chance to give the home squad the lead. Washington, however, would easily kill of the infraction and they immediately started pressing the Tampa defense again.

With just over a minute left in period two, Oshie went in on a fore check and forced Anton Stralman to turn the puck over. The speedy Jakub Vrana pounced on the loose disc and alertly fed a camped in front Lars Eller on the doorstep and #20 put the biscuit in the basket for a 3-2 Caps lead with 62 seconds to go in the middle frame. Speed kills, and Tampa was supposed to be the faster team, but a fresh Andre Burakovsky put massive pressure on the fore check on the Bolts and Vasilevskiy stuck his skate out and tripped #65 with 10 seconds remaining. Once again, the Capitals won a big offensive zone faceoff as Eller beat Tyler Johnson drawing the puck to Alex Ovechkin (1 goal, 1 assist) on the left wing boards. Ovi quickly wheeled it around the back boards to Evgeny Kuznetsov and with Eller crashing the cage, Kuzy fired on net from just above the goal line. The Bolts keeper was intent on stopping that pass to Lars, but Evgeny put a lot of mustard on it and it banked in off of his pads and into the cage for a 4-2 Washington lead with just three seconds left.

That last minute, like the last 10 seconds of period one on Friday night in game one, was a huge lift to the Caps and a major deflator for Tampa. However, there were still 20 minutes left and given how the Bolts responded with a strong third period in game one, the Capitals had to be careful and concerned.

It was Washington, however, that carried the even strength play in period three and just 3:34 into the final stanza they increased their lead to three pucks. Wilson made a great chip out past a pinching Braydon Coburn on the Bolts left wing boards getting the disc to Kuzy, who immediately recognized he had a two on one with Alexander the Great. When Stralman left his feet early to try and cut off the pass to Ovi, Kuzy skated in closer and slid the puck to Ovechkin backdoor. The Gr8 made no mistake about burying the super feed over Vasilevskiy’s outstretched pad.

At that point, only a Capitals turnover or penalty would allow Tampa to get back in the game and Kempny made another poor decision at 6:55 with a high cross check on Cedric Paquette in front of Braden Holtby. Washington, however, would do another stellar job on the PK and the Bolts found themselves constantly struggling to get through the maze of players the Caps had stacked in the neutral zone and on their own blue line. Time and time again the Bolts would rush up the ice and be swarmed by guys in white at the blue line. The result was lots of turnovers when Tampa didn’t dump the puck in. At 12:57, Washington would get yet another odd man rush and Eller fed a flying Brett Connolly in the high slot where #10 one timed it past the Bolts goaltender to make it 6-2. One of Connolly’s big strengths is his ability to get off a shot very quickly and his tally bit the hand that once fed him in Tampa.

This was a huge victory and in the series the Capitals are dominating the Bolts at even strength. Washington’s speedy forwards that include Burakovsky, Vrana, Kuzentsov, Eller, Chandler Stephenson, and Connolly are really forcing the Tampa defense into poor positioning and mistakes. In the series, the Caps have outscored the Lightning, 8-1, when the manpower is even.

The Caps are playing good defense and blocking a lot of shots, plus anything that gets through to Holtby (35 saves) is pretty much being stopped. Most of Tampa’s looks are coming from the perimeter while Washington is getting into the high danger scoring areas more often. Simply put, the Capitals have looked faster and fresher and getting both Burakovsky and Wilson back plus the emergence of Vrana and Stephenson have changed the offensive dynamic for Coach Barry Trotz. Nicklas Backstrom has yet to play in this series due to his injured right hand, but with Kuzy and Eller stepping up and then Stephenson centering a very good third line with Burkie and Connolly, this Caps team has a dangerous top nine. Everyone knew about the firepower of Ovechkin and Oshie, but the Capitals have pretty much everyone on those first three lines clicking on all cylinders. Add in some fourth line goals (Beagle in game one and DSP in game two) and it’s easy to see why the Caps are up in this series.

On the back end, all six defensemen are doing a great job of making solid breakout passes. There have been some hiccups, most notably a turnover by Niskanen that led to Johnson hitting the post when the game was tied in period two, but overall the pass out of the zone is allowing Washington to move into the Tampa end with speed and put a not so fast D that includes Dan Girardi, Coburn, and McDonagh on their heels. Dmitry Orlov has been sensational with his ability to turn defense into offense for the Capitals.

Add in some clutch goaltending and you can see why this series is at two games to nil.

But the series is not over until one team gets to four wins and Washington must stick to the script at home and play the same way they’ve done in amassing a 7-1 road record in this 2018 post season. The Caps can’t try to impress their fans with over passing and fancy plays. They must adhere to a game plan that is hard on the puck, swarms the Bolts in all zones, and is focused on north-south hockey. The cross ice passes, especially at the offensive blue line, are the ones Washington must keep out of their arsenal because the Bolts feast on odd man rushes. Finally, staying out of the box is paramount. O’Halloran and Brad Meier had a poor first period and it was nearly costly for the Caps. Even strength play has been good for the Capitals so far in this series, so it’s to their advantage to keep it that way.

Notes: Carlson had two assists and led the Caps in ice time with 25:01. Niskanen logged 23:10 and Orlov played 22:44…the Caps were one for three on the power play while Tampa went two for four…the face off edge went to the Lightning, 36-28, but the Capitals won that huge draw late in period two on the power play. Beagle was 11-7 and Eller went 10-9 from the dot…Orpik and Wilson each had six hits while Ovechkin had five…game three is Tuesday at 8 pm from Capital One Arena.

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Caps Dominate First 40 Minutes in a Game One Victory

Posted on 12 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

For the first time since the second round of the 2015 playoffs, the Washington Capitals started a series on the road. The Caps played a textbook first 40 minutes racing out to a 4-0 lead and then closed out a 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on Friday night.

The Caps, who many experts have picked to lose this series, withstood an opening three minutes of pressure from the Bolts before they flipped the script and carried the play for the rest of the first two frames. Washington played fast and structured as they swarmed the puck and prevented the speedy Lightning from getting much time or space. Michal Kempny put the Capitals on the board at 7:28 on a point shot that went through a maze of players, including Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, and past Andrei Vasilevskiy glove side.

After the goal, the team that is now 6-1 on the road in these 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, kept their foot down trying to increase their margin, but couldn’t convert. Then, with under 10 seconds remaining in period one, some wild stuff ensued. Matt Niskanen failed to get off a shot in the offensive zone and the Bolts sprung Nikita Kucherov one on one on Dmitry Orlov. The very talented Kucherov would score by outmuscling #9 and then tapping the puck by Holtby, but the linesmen immediately waved it off noting the very obvious six skaters in blue on the ice. Washington received a power play for the too many men infraction with eight seconds remaining and the Gr8 lasered one by Vasilevskiy with Lars Eller providing some traffic high in the slot just two ticks later. The whole sequence was set up by a big faceoff win by T.J. Oshie, who got the puck to Evgeny Kuznetsov (two assists), and Kuzy quickly fed Ovechkin (one goal, one assist) for his rocket.

Washington outshot the Lightning, nine to two, in period one and in period two, they kept bringing it, outshooting the Bolts, 16-8. Just 2:40 into the frame, Jay Beagle put the rebound of a flubbed Brett Connolly shot past #88 to make it 3-0. Orlov made a nice play at the right point to set the quality chance up. Kucherov took a bad roughing penalty at 6:01 and 41 seconds later Tampa was down four pucks. Kuznetsov received a pass from Eller in the left wing corner and he rotated the puck to John Carlson at the top of the point. Carly slid one over to Ovi in his office for a one timer, but Alex didn’t get all of it and it “muffined” its way toward the net where Oshie (two assists) poked at it before Lars finally put the rebound home.

All four of the Capitals goals, which came in the first 26:42 of this affair, occurred with bodies in front and that’s a smart way to beat Vasileskiy, who was pulled for Louis Domingue for the third period. Washington did a lot of things correctly building the lead and only had a few shifts where they found themselves caught in a rush game with the Bolts. Up and down the ice is definitely the way Tampa wants to play and the Capitals settled down late in the middle frame to prevent Coach Jon Cooper’s squad from getting any momentum.

In the final stanza, the Bolts had some push and after a bad defensive zone shift, Alex Chiasson took a penalty to prevent a scoring chance in front of the net at 3:23. 22 seconds later it was 4-1 as Washington got caught puck chasing on the penalty kill and that allowed Kucherov to thread a pass through the outstretched Capitals PK box right to Steven Stamkos in his office for an easy back door marker. The Lightning seemed to come to life after that goal and when Chiasson lost his head and took an undisciplined roughing penalty on Kucherov by the Tampa bench at 8:59, the Bolts had a big chance to cut the margin to two.

This time, however, the Capitals had a super penalty kill and afterwards were pretty much in full control with nine minutes to go. Tampa kept pushing the pace, but Washington was doing a good job of clogging the neutral zone and preventing their opponents from getting set up in the offensive zone with a blue line wall and great back checking by the forwards. At that point, only an offensive zone mistake or a penalty would allow the home team to cut into the margin, and unfortunately for the Caps, the former occurred. After winning an offensive zone faceoff, Kempny was a little too greedy inside the offensive blue line and then he lost his footing giving Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat a two on one rush on Carlson with speed. Ovechkin tried to hustle back, but Palat beat Holtby short side with a sweet shot while #74 went down to block the pass. Suddenly, with 6:57 to go in regulation, this was a two goal game.

The contest appeared to still be in doubt, much to the delight of NBC’s Doc Emrick, but the Capitals stabilized themselves, got their legs moving, and then clamped things down. Washington had several good shifts that forced the Bolts to defend and it wasn’t until the dying seconds that Tampa was able to get another shot on goal. NBC’s Mike Milbury was effusive in his praise of how the Caps turned their effort up when they really needed to do so down the stretch.

For the Capitals, this was their first opening game triumph in three playoff series this spring and with Tampa feeling good about their chances coming in it was important for them to do so. Washington jumped on the Bolts with their speedy lineup that included the return of both Andre Burakovksy and Wilson. Willy had three shots on net in 15:09 and Burkie looked very strong on the puck in 14:02 of action. Nicklas Backstrom missed his second straight playoff tilt due to an injured right hand, but he did skate and stickhandle some on Thursday before the Caps departed for the Sunshine State. Coach Barry Trotz stated after the morning skate that Nicky is still day to day. Chandler Stephenson and Jakub Vrana logged 14:28 and 13:19, respectively, and used their skating ability to wear out a Tampa defense that has some slower defensemen. Vrana had five shots on net and really gave the Bolts defenders headaches.

Simply put, the way Washington played in periods one and two is how they have to perform to win this series. They have to continually be hard on the puck and committed to protecting their defensive zone against a very fast, up front, Tampa squad. Again, the Bolts, much like the Penguins, want a rush game where chances get traded at each end. The Caps would be wise to make sure they pressure the Lightning in their own zone, but also keep the third forward high in order to prevent odd man rushes against. Traffic and net presence was also a big factor in the victory and that must continue.

In round two, the Bolts were blown out of game one by Boston and then won the next four games to take that series rather quickly. Tampa will be looking to leverage that same recipe in game two on Sunday. Washington has the talent to skate with the Atlantic Division winners, but they have to be smart and play the right way, like they did in grabbing a big early lead in game one.

Notes: Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 25:48. Carlson logged 21:55…Eller played 20:35 to lead all Washington forwards in ice time…Bolts defensemen Victor Hedman led all players with 27:49, but he had no shots on goal…Domingue stopped all seven shots he faced in the final frame and some of them were on odd man rushes as the Caps were effective at generating some great counter attacks with the lead…Washington won the face off battle, 27-23. Beagle was 9-2 and Oshie was 3-0…Brooks Orpik had five of the Capitals 15 hits…game two is Sunday night at 8 pm.

 

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Carlson Scores Twice as Holtby Blanks the Bolts

Posted on 23 December 2016 by Ed Frankovic

John Carlson scored twice in the first period and Braden Holtby stopped all 23 shots he faced as the Washington Capitals snapped a two game losing streak to defeat the depleted Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-0, at the Verizon Center on Friday night.

Let’s be honest, given all of the injuries the Bolts have, including starting goalie Ben Bishop, top goal scorer Steven Stamkos, top point earner Nikita Kucherov as well as Ryan Callahan and Ondrej Palat, it was going to be very difficult for Tampa to knock off the Caps. Add in the fact that Coach Jon Cooper’s crew played in Tampa on Thursday night and then had to fly to Washington in the wee hours of the night for the game and it was a recipe for a Capitals rout.

That pretty much was the case as Washington raced out to the lead just 55 seconds into the contest when Karl Alzner made a nice cross ice pass to Carlson at the offensive blue line. With Jay Beagle screening in front, the Carlson blast went off of Tampa goalie Andre Vasilevskiy’s glove and into the cage. It was a simple goal, but that type of shot and net presence is how you best beat NHL goalies these days.

The Capitals would dominate the first 10 minutes and the Bolts struggled to get a shot on goal, garnering just a total of two for the period. With 4:18 remaining in the opening frame, Nicklas Backstrom (two assists) made a strong play along the boards in the left wing corner and fed the puck to Marcus Johansson behind the Bolts cage. From there Jojo spotted Carlson all alone creeping in from the right point and #74 tattooed the pass past Vasilevskiy into the net to give Washington a two goal cushion.

That first period by the Caps was what they needed, although the Lightning did get two power plays, and Washington did a good job of making the hill very hard for Tampa to climb early in this one on Friday.

In the second period, the Capitals continued to throw pucks at the Bolts backup goalie, who had played well in the past two post seasons when called on, but they struggled to solve him further. Finally at 10:48, they connected when Dmitry Orlov made a strong defensive play in his own zone to steal the puck and then he flipped it over the Bolts D to an all alone Alex Ovechkin, who snuck on behind the Tampa D when Brett Connolly changed. The Gr8 skated in and when Vasiliveskiy went for the poke check, Ovi went to his backhand and beat the net minder like a rented mule to make it 3-0 and pretty much end this affair.

The Bolts lost forward Jonathan Drouin to injury along the way and their best defensemen, Victor Hedman, also missed time due to an ailment. It was a bad scene for Cooper’s crew, who has to be thrilled that they have reached the NHL’s three day Holiday break.

The Capitals ended the scoring in the final frame when Johansson came out of the box and Backstrom sent him in all alone on Vasilevskiy with a sweet cross ice pass. Jojo made no mistake about the shot for his 13th tally of the season to end the scoring. At that point, Cooper cried mercy and put in Kristers Gudlevskis in goal to get him some work.

Overall, this was a workmanlike victory for the Caps and the Holtbeast didn’t need to do a whole lot to earn a shutout. However, the way Braden has been bailing the Capitals out so much lately, including earning them a point in Filthy on Wednesday in a shootout loss to the Flyers and keeping them in the game with the Habs last Saturday in a 2-1 loss, he deserved an easy win.

Up front, Caps Coach Barry Trotz had to be pleased with the play of the Brett Connolly-Beagle-Tom Wilson line since they were on the ice to set up two of the goals (Carlson’s first and the Ovi breakaway) and the play of the Johansson-Backstrom-TJ Oshie unit, who were responsible for the two other goals. The third trio, Jakub Vrana-Lars Eller- Andre Burakovsky, that was so dominant in notching the only two goals in the terrible shootout loss in Philadelphia on Wednesday, was just okay on this night. They were a bit sloppy.

On the backend, all three defensive pairs played well and since the switch up of Orlov and Carlson in early December, both have drastically improved their respective games. It’s not surprising, given that you now have an offensive minded blue liner paired with a defensive minded one. The third pairing of Brooks Orpik and Taylor Chorney was good, as well.

The Capitals penalty kill continues to roll on and Tampa had the equivalent of John Blutarsky’s grade point average in terms of shots on goal with the man advantage, Zero Point Zero!

Now, in honor of Festivus, it’s time to air the grievances.

Let’s start with the Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Justin Williams line. This group is just out of sync. Williams works his rear off, but #92, who pretty much was the reason the Caps lost in Philly on Wednesday due to his horrible defensive zone giveaways, is just making all kinds of wrong plays. That has led to long shifts in their own zone and Ovechkin’s uneven play hasn’t helped either. Like another famed Seinfeld episode, they have “low flow” right now and they are giving up too many good chances against because of poor decision making.

Finally, I’m not sure what game referees Kelly Sutherland and Ghislain Hebert were watching on Friday? Somehow, despite the fact that the Caps dominated possession and the overall play, the Bolts received three power plays to just two for Washington. It was ludicrous how many infractions those two missed on Tampa, including a blatant high stick on Orpik in the third period that led to Coach Trotz unloading with a mighty string of harsh words and likely expletives for Sutherland, who was clearly checking his unfinished shopping list throughout this one. It was a poor performance from the guys in stripes and they’re lucky that they weren’t victims to the feats of strength. The good news is the Caps played well enough that the clowns on ice didn’t matter.

At the end of the night, with 50 games to go, the Capitals did what they had to do, get two points. They are now 20-8-4 (44 points) and are six points behind the Metropolitan Division and NHL leading Columbus Blue Jackets, who have won 12 games in a row. On that note cue Bob and Doug Mckenzie’s Twelve Days of Christmas. Somebody get me a beer and a jelly donut…and take off you hosers!

Notes: the Caps scored all four of their goals at even strength…Carlson led the team in ice time with 23:50…Kuznetsov only played 13:40 and he was 3-8 on draws. He needs a “reset” so maybe this Christmas break will do that for him…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 31-28. Eller was 6-1…Orlov played 18:24 and was outstanding…Oshie turned 30 on Friday night. It’s too bad he didn’t get a contract extension for his birthday. He’s a tireless worker and there is no replacement for him in the entire organization. Sign the man!…Daniel Winnik, Zach Sanford, and Nate Schmidt were the scratches…next up for the Caps are the Islanders in Brooklyn on Tuesday night at 7:00 pm.

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Down 3-0, the Caps ride their power play to overtake Tampa and win, 5-3.

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Ovechkin and Oshie Rally Caps Past Tampa, 5-3

Posted on 19 December 2015 by Ed Frankovic

It’s a really good thing the Verizon Center roof is secured tightly, otherwise it might have blown off as the Washington Capitals put on a furious rally from a 3-0 deficit, including four third period goals, to sweep the Tampa Bay Lightning out of town, 5-3.

The comeback was fueled by outstanding offense from T.J. Oshie and Alexander Ovechkin, who both had two goals and two assists as the Capitals rode three power play tallies in four attempts to victory, including Marcus Johansson’s sweet game winning goal with 5:44 remaining. Ovechkin had 19 shot attempts, including nine shots on goal in this contest; those are some amazing numbers right there.

Philipp Grubauer (seven saves) came on in relief of Braden Holtby (three goals allowed on 12 shots) with 10:54 remaining in the middle period and the Caps trailing by a trio of pucks. Holtby wasn’t bad, the Capitals had terrible breakdowns in front of him on each of the three Tampa tallies, and Coach Barry Trotz said his decision was more about the skaters and not the Holtbeast.

“I pulled Holtby because I was tired of Braden bailing the team out…he’s been our MVP,” said the Washington bench boss, who has guided the Caps to a 23-6-2 start (48 points) this season.

Coach Trotz was okay with Washington’s first period, where they outshot Tampa, 10-4, and out attempted the Bolts, 22-18, despite trailing 1-0. Ben Bishop was perfect in that opening frame and was the biggest reason the Caps were losing.

Then came an abysmal start to the middle frame by Washington. They were sloppy and letting the fast Tampa squad skate all over them. The Caps also made many mistakes, including some terrible mental ones. On the Bolts second goal, the Washington defender comes back and over skates his man after getting caught up ice, then he goes down and blocks #70’s view of the shot, which was buried by Andrej Sustr (1st of the season). On the third Tampa marker, the Caps won a faceoff and turned the puck over in the neutral zone right in front of the Capitals bench. That’s not disastrous, but for some reason, two of the forwards, including the right wing from the far side of the ice, decided to change. Bad, bad, bad hockey decision and it resulted in Steven Stamkos, the 2nd best shooter in the NHL (Ovechkin), burying one by Holtby from the slot in between the circles. Braden had no chance on that one since the Capitals boneheaded mistakes allowed #91 to have an easy lane to the net. Afterward, Coach Trotz commented on that particular sequence.

“That’s details and that angered me quite a bit,” stated the bench boss, who is fighting a cold, which he said prevented him from yelling during the game, and specifically at that moment.

The goalie change would wake the Capitals up and they finally got on the board with just over six minutes left in period two. Oshie drew Bishop out of his cage on the power play and made a ridiculous, no look pass to the Gr8, who quickly buried the biscuit.

That gave Washington life and after 40 minutes they trailed by two pucks, 3-1. Coach Trotz and Oshie afterwards both stated that the locker room, between the 2nd and 3rd periods, was positive and the team wanted to focus on playing a heavier game with more hits. Basically this tilt was a match up of speed vs. size and through the first two frames speed was killing. Shot attempts were 40-35 for the Bolts, including a dominating 22-13 in the second period.

Tampa had only really been using three lines most of the night, so when the Caps amped up their intensity and started taking the body in those last 20 minutes, the Bolts got tired and became unglued.

But all of that doesn’t happen if not for a huge save by Grubauer on Vladislav Namestnikov with just over seven minutes into period three. It was one of only seven he had to make in relief, but it was a great scoring chance, and if it goes in, it’s 4-1 and that’s your ballgame. But #31 came up big and immediately following the save, Oshie corralled the puck, skated down the right wing, and fired one over the shoulder of Bishop to electrify the Verizon Center.

Matt Niskanen then laid out J.T. Brown with a big hit, which was a little bit of a pay back for what Brown did to Nate Schmidt last Saturday in Tampa. That not only fired up the home crowd further, but Victor Hedman took an interference penalty.

That brought out the famed “Unleash the Fury” video montage and with the crowd buzzing, Ovechkin made a sweet curl and drag move around the Tampa defender and put one past Bishop to tie the contest up. Verizon Center was really rocking after that and the Capitals kept coming into the offensive zone like they were storming the beaches of Normandy. During that sequence, Dmitry Orlov drew a tripping penalty on Anton Stralman. Once again the power play made the Bolts pay with Ovechkin and Oshie making two sweet passes to set up Jojo for the one timer, which he buried from the lower right wing circle to make it 4-3.

The Caps would really lock things down from there and with less than a minute left, Ovechkin made a super play in his own zone with Bishop pulled allowing him to get the puck to Nicklas Backstrom just inside the Caps side of the red line. Nicky then fed Oshie, who hit the empty net from just outside the blue line to close this one out. Backstrom picked up his 600th career NHL point on that play.

Following the game, Oshie praised the environment in helping the Capitals win.

“Let’s get this out of the way right now, Unleash the Fury is hilarious…that’s the loudest it’s been in here all year.”

It certainly was loud and the Caps ability to find ways to win games when they are not playing their best continues to be encouraging. They were dominated badly during the middle portion of this game, but they regrouped and refocused, played to their strengths, and crushed Tampa down the stretch to win the season series, 3-0.

Now the Capitals will head to New York on Sunday night for a rematch with the Rangers, who drubbed Washington, 5-2, earlier in the season. The Rags have been struggling lately and with the Caps winning their fourth straight game, Washington is now six points ahead of New York (48-42) with three games in hand (New York was defeated, 5-2, in Winnipeg on Friday night) in the Metropolitan Division. The Caps, who were knocked out of the playoffs last season by the Blueshirts, will be extra focused for this one, but when Backstrom was asked about it, he provided a bit of the old Crash Davis “play them one game at a time, good Lord willing” type of answer.

“It’s going to be a good match up. Yeah, it will be fun, we lost against them last year, so we need a rematch here.”

#19 clearly didn’t want to give New York any bulletin board material and prefers to let the Caps game on the ice do the talking.

If Washington plays anything like they did in period three on Friday night, then there will be fireworks on 33rd street in Manhattan on Sunday.

Notes: the Caps outshot Tampa, 23-19, but overall shot attempts were 56-52 for the Bolts…Ovechkin now has 16 goals and 13 assists in 30 games. Oshie has 12 goals and nine assists in 31 games. The Caps are undefeated when the American shootout whiz scores a goal…John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 26:17…the Capitals lost the face off battle, 24-23…the Bolts went 0 for 3 on the power play.

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Washington gets lethal with the man advantage in a convincing victory over Tampa.

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Caps Dominate Lightning in 4-2 Victory

Posted on 27 November 2015 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals power play has been generating a lot of chances in recent games, but had failed to cash in on numerous scoring opportunities. That all changed on Friday evening at the Verizon Center as the Caps man advantage caught fire going three for four allowing Washington to build a 4-0 in just over 45 minutes of hockey. From there the Capitals would go on to a 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning, the 2014-15 Eastern Conference Champions.

As I blogged on Wednesday night, I expected the Capitals to be pumped up and focused for this contest and they were just that. Through 40 minutes they outshot the Bolts, 31-14, including 18 in the opening period, and thanks to two late second period tallies they opened up a 3-0 advantage. Seriously, it could’ve been five or six to nothing if not for the stellar goaltending of Andrei Vasilevskiy (33 saves), who kept his club hanging around until the dam finally broke in the last two minutes of that middle stanza.

Alex Ovechkin (12th), Jason Chimera (6th), and T.J. Oshie (6th) notched power play goals for the Caps and Marcus Johansson (4th) had the only even strength marker on a John Carlson (two assists) pass that banked off of his skate and into the cage. Good things happen when you go to the net. Evgeny Kuznetsov had another fabulous tilt with two assists, including a brilliant feed to Chimera for the second goal that really seemed to deflate Tampa. Chimera himself had a super assist on the Caps opening tally spotting the Gr8 open in the slot with the man advantage and Ovi buried it far post, top shelf at 7:09 of the opening period. That’s now four games in a row where the Caps have scored first, after nine straight yielding the game’s first marker, and they’ve won every single one of those contests.

Braden Holtby was strong in net, especially down the stretch when the Lightning put 17 of their 20 third period shots on the Holtbeast after it was 4-0. Holtby made a huge stop on Steven Stamkos with the Bolts on the power play and the game 4-2 late in the third period. Overall, Braden stopped 32 shots and improved to 14-4 on the season. He has now tied his career high winning streak at six games.

For nearly 50 minutes, this was arguably the best Washington has played all season. Every line was contributing and Andre Burakovsky, despite no points, had one of his better efforts carrying the biscuit and battling on the boards when he was on the ice with Chimera and Jay Beagle.

The Caps kept a speedy Bolts team at bay with constant puck pressure and when Washington had possession, they supported the play well making it hard for Tampa to get their excellent transition game going. Coach Barry Trotz had to be extremely pleased with the way his club dominated the Lightning until late in the third period.

With the win, the Capitals improve to 16-5-1 (33 points) and trail the Metropolitan Division leading New York Rangers by just a single point, since New York lost to Boston on Friday afternoon. The Caps have a game in hand. Both teams are in action on Saturday with the Rags hosting the Flyers in the afternoon while Washington travels to face the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre on Hockey Night in Canada at 7 pm. Earlier this month, the Leafs gave the Caps all they could handle at the Verizon Center and it took Nicklas Backstrom’s goal with one second left to tie the game and then Ovechkin’s goal in the shootout to earn a victory. Mike Babcock’s club did not play on Friday so they will be rested for the Capitals. I’d expect Philipp Grubauer to get the call in net for Washington.

Notes: Ovechkin logged 23:00 of ice time and had 11 shot attempts (6 SOG) and five hits…Oshie’s goal was a brilliant top shelf marker on the rush to make it 4-0, but he also led the Caps in hits with eight. One of those was a bone crushing smash of Victor Hedman on the back boards…the Caps outshot attempted Tampa 62-56, but most of the Bolts damage came after the game was over at 4-0…Washington won the face off battle, 41-33. Kuznetsov went 10-4…the Caps lost the first game of this five game home stand to Dallas, but then knocked off Colorado, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Tampa in succession to go 4-1. They are now 10-3-1 at the Verizon Center this season…This was Coach Trotz’ 1,300th NHL game. Only nine other coaches in NHL history have reached that milestone. Kudos Trotzy!

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Caps Play Best Game in 4 Years

Posted on 09 December 2014 by Ed Frankovic

Craig Laughlin called the Caps “Relentless” after Tuesday night’s 5-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

That choice of words was extremely accurate as the Capitals routinely swarmed the puck and pinned a very good Bolts team in their own end on numerous occasions en route to a huge win on the road.

My take on that victory: It was the best game the Caps have played in about four years, considering the opponent.

Washington played Coach Barry Trotz’ system effectively, limiting turnovers and odd man rushes while playing fast and physical. It was an exciting game to watch and a style, that if the Caps can continue to master, will push them back up towards the elite teams in the league.

They also overcame a nine minute stretch in the second period where they had to kill off three straight minor penalties, two of which were very questionable calls. That’s six minutes of shorthanded time against one of the best pure goal scorers in the league in Steven Stamkos, yet the Caps PK unit was marvelous and goaltender Braden Holtby (33 saves) was outstanding.

This win gives the Caps a three for three road trip and Holtby was a staggering 3-0 with a 1.67 goals against average and a .950 save percentage.

Another key to the Capitals great road trip: fast starts.

Alex Ovechkin (two goals) scored in the first minute of this one by crashing the net with Tom Wilson (1 assist) and the Caps seemed to feed off of that early success. In the first 10 minutes Washington could’ve been up at least two or three pucks but Ben Bishop (30 saves) was strong early before finally being overwhelmed by the Caps offensive attack. The Caps are now 12-1-1 when notching the first tally.

What I also really liked about this game was the Capitals did not make the extra pass just inside the offensive blue line, instead getting pucks and bodies towards the cage. The first, third, and fourth Washington goals were all about net presence and not over passing. Troy Brouwer’s game winner was a sweet shot off of an excellent feed by Marcus Johansson (two assists), but Evgeny Kuznetsov made the play at both ends by chipping the puck out in a perfect spot for MoJo and then driving to the net to free up a lane for Brouwer to roof one past Bishop. If Kuznetsov can continue to improve along with Brooks Laich staying healthy, then the entire forward lineup becomes more balanced for Washington.

So the Caps are red hot as they come home to face the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night before playing the Bolts on Saturday. Home ice has been an issue for the Capitals this year. It will be up to them to find a way to come out fast, like they’ve done on the road this week, and get the Verizon Center crowd into the game early.

Notes: Washington is now 13-10-4 (30 points), good for 3rd place in the Metropolitan Division…Brooks Orpik led the Capitals in ice time with 26:25. Trotz has been relying on #44 heavily during this recent run and his strong defensive play is paying off. Sure Stamkos beat him on the second goal, but overall, opponents are paying a much steeper price in the Washington end and it wears the other club out, eventually…the Caps won the face off battle, 27-22. Nicklas Backstrom (2 assists) was 10-5 while Kuznetsov was 0-4…Mike Green did not make the trip to Tampa but reportedly is close to a return to the lineup for Washington, they need him back.

EVENT NOTE: Nestor Aparacio and I will be interviewing Coach Barry Trotz on Wednesday night at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Belair, MD. Come on out and show your love of the Caps and also support the fight against cancer. We’ll be swabbing people to help build the pool of potential bone marrow transplant donors.

 

 

 

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Fehr Propels Caps Over Bolts to Halt 4 Game Skid

Posted on 10 January 2014 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals, losers of their last four games, desperately needed a win on Thursday night in Tampa.

After blowing a 3-1 lead, Eric Fehr deflected home a Mike Green point shot with 51 seconds left to break a 3-3 tie and end the Capitals losing skid. It was a hard earned victory and the Caps move back into 3rd place in the Metropolitan Division at 21-16-6 (48 points).

There were a lot of things to like in this game, starting with the play of goalie Philipp Grubauer (33 saves). The young netminder made one of the best saves of the year in the final frame with Washington clinging to a 3-2 lead on a two on one Tampa rush. Grubauer went to the splits and somehow managed to deny what seemed to be a sure goal for the Bolts. Yes, the Caps would yield the tying goal after that, but if that one goes in, on a shorthanded rush mind you, Washington likely doesn’t recover. The young German goalie is playing extremely well and right now is the #1 guy. Now I would rest him on Friday night when the Caps take on the Leafs at the Verizon Center (7 pm) and give Braden Holtby a start after a long flight home from Florida, but then I’d go back with Grubauer on Sunday afternoon against the Sabres.

Up front, the line of Alex Ovechkin (1 assist), Mikhail Grabovski (1 goal), and Fehr (2 goals) was outstanding generating 21 of the 57 shot attempts the Capitals had in this contest (Tampa had 58 shot attempts). On the three tallies that members of the line were involved in, they did a great job of getting traffic on the opposing net. Grabovski provided the screen on Fehr’s first tally off of a sweet pass from the Gr8. By the way, if you are one of those people who think Ovechkin is selfish with the puck and can’t pass, then I suggest you put down the dope you’re smoking and check yourself in to the next rehab center. Alex’s passing is underrated and he moved the biscuit extremely well, once again, in this one. It was his steal in the defensive zone, quick up ice rush, and good pass that set the whole winning goal sequence up.

I also liked the strong defensive play of John Carlson and Karl Alzner. That duo is as solid as it gets and neither was on the ice for a goal against. Each picked up an assist and were +1 in 26:08 and 21:52 of ice time, respectively. Carlson’s volleyball swat of a Grubauer rebound in the third period likely saved a goal.

Washington’s power play was once again a thing of beauty and they continue to find different ways to score. Grabovski got the first PPG by going to the cage and then with the Bolts over playing Ovechkin, Marcus Johansson did his best Julius Erving imitation and stuffed one home late in the opening frame to make it 3-1. The Caps also killed off the only Lightning power play so the special teams were a big factor in the victory.

Now to the things I did not like, and some of them are disturbing trends.

First, and foremost, the Capitals are allowing FAR TOO MANY odd man rushes. Two of the three Bolts goals were off of them, a first period breakaway after Troy Brouwer made a bad pass with both Dmitry Orlov and Green in poor position and a two on one in the second period when John Erskine got caught too far up the ice. On that two on one, Connor Carrick did not do a good job of letting Grubauer know the pass was going to be cut off and as a result, B.J. Crombeen beat him short side for his first goal in over 50 games. Goalies need to know where the shots are coming from to stop them and the Caps defenders are doing a lousy job of helping that occur. Washington defenders are getting caught up ice too often and the other defender is too many times doing a lousy job of playing the odd man rush. Coach Adam Oates and assistant coach Calle Johansson have got to get this team to first minimize the number of odd man breaks against, and then better prepare their defenders to play them when they do happen.

The line of Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, and Brouwer was not good. They only generated 10 shot attempts and were on the ice for two goals against, one of them the tying goal off of a defensive zone face off. Brouwer was the worst of the three with his awful turnover and then screening Grubauer on the tying goal. Either block the shot there or get out of the way. Overall, Washington’s forwards are not doing a good enough job of blocking shots this season and that needs to change. More often than not, they are screens instead of a goalie assistant in their own zone.

Erskine and whomever he is paired with continues to be a struggling duo. #4’s lack of speed is hurting him and he was woefully out of a position on the Crombeen tally.

Despite the things that still must be cleaned up, this team needed a victory and they got one against a very good Tampa team. Yes, the Bolts are without Steven Stamkos and they were just returning from a grueling road trip, but they are a quality hockey club so a win for the Caps, in regulation, is a good step in the right direction.

We’ll see if they can parlay that into a winning streak with the struggling Leafs and woeful Sabres coming to DC this weekend.

 

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Caps Win on Green OT Tally After Losing 4 Goal Lead

Posted on 13 April 2013 by Ed Frankovic

The most important thing happened for the Washington Capitals on Saturday night. Mike Green lasered one in on the power play in overtime to give the Caps a 6-5 victory over Tampa Bay and now they lead the Southeast Division by four points over Winnipeg with just six games to go.

It was two much needed points but what looked to be a laugher in the second frame with Washington up 5-1, turned into a horror show as Tampa rallied to tie the game with three third period tallies. But Adam Oates’ team can breathe a big sigh of relief after this one thanks to Marcus Johansson drawing a key penatly in the extra session followed by Green’s game winner.

Speaking of Oates, he has a ton of video, good and bad, to show his club the next time they reconvene at Kettler IcePlex (either Sunday or Monday).

The good was the Caps offensive zone passing, which led to some very pretty goals over the first 26 minutes of this contest. Tampa isn’t exactly known for defense and goaltending but the Capitals were playing well and with confidence. Alexander Ovechkin pumped in his league leading 27th tally and also added an assist. Mathieu Perreault’s line scored twice on pretty passing plays in the middle frame with both Eric Fehr and Jason Chimera finishing via tap-ins. Even the fourth line got on the score sheet as Jay Beagle fed defensemen Jack Hillen for a goal while Aaron Volpatti did a super job of going to the net to create traffic. Troy Brouwer notched the first marker on the power play on a sweet feed from Mike Ribeiro.

However, the bad is what the team seemed to be focusing on after the game and that could turn out to be a positive. Washington’s defensive zone was horrible over the last 30 minutes and it primarily had to do with players not moving their feet. When you stop skating suddenly the other team is quicker to the puck and massive open ice appears for the opponent. The high slot was vacated by Washington defenders nearly the entire third period while the wingers were caught down low too often. This made it easy for the Bolts to get point shots with traffic. It was a recipe for disaster and Braden Holtby fortunately made some big saves late otherwise the Caps would have lost. This wasn’t really about X’s and O’s in the final frame, it was all about effort and the lack of skating. That’s easily correctable.

Two points are two points though, and this victory gives the Caps seven wins in a row. They are a hot hockey club and hopefully they don’t lose any confidence from the blown lead and realize this was an effort problem, not a lack of skill or system problem.

If they focus on the effort issue and maintain their confidence level, they’ll be all right going forward.

Notes: Volpatti went down injured after blocking a third period shot and didn’t return…Martin Erat played his first game since being injured last Saturday in Florida. #10 had 15:11 of ice time…the Caps won the faceoff battle 39-29 but were outshot 40-38 and the shot attempts were 67-57 for Tampa….the Caps power play went 2 for 5 while the Bolts were 0 for 2 with the man advantage…Washington held Steven Stamkos without a goal, he trails Ovechkin by one in the goal scoring race…Martin St. Louis, a Cap killer, had two goals for Tampa…the Capitals next five games are against Canadian teams (home vs TOR on Tuesday, then at OTT on Thur, and at MTL on Sat, before coming home to face WPG and OTT the following week). The last game of the year is home against the Bruins on Saturday, April 27th. Only Winnipeg isn’t in playoff position right now but they are playing well so this final stretch is going to be tough for Washington…congratulations to former Capitals assistant Coach Keith Allain on winning the NCAA Hockey Championship as the head coach at Yale.

 

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Ovechkin Scores Twice But Neuvirth the Caps Hero vs Tampa

Posted on 08 April 2013 by Ed Frankovic

There are times in a sports season when a team needs a certain player to come up big and help carry their club to victory on a given night.

With the Washington Capitals facing a Tampa Bay Lightning squad that had its back to the wall, Coach Adam Oates really needed goalie Michal Neuvirth, who hadn’t played a game since March 16th, to be that guy on Sunday evening.

Number 30 delivered and the Caps might have been three or more goals down if not for some great saves the Czech net minder made in the opening frame, which saw Washington trail only 1-0 despite being out quality chanced by a two to one ratio. Bolts captain Vinny Lecavalier, who scored that big overtime goal in game two of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Caps in 2011 on Neuvirth that pretty much ended that series, was not able to beat Neuvy on this night and he had a couple of one on one chances in the first period. Simply put, #30 was the man on Sunday and was the game’s first star, in my book.

From Alexander Ovechkin to Nicklas Backstrom to John Carlson, they all praised the play of their goalie afterwards, for keeping Washington in the game until they could get their legs under them in the middle frame.

Hockey is a game that is so much based on good health and confidence. Right now, that combination is what has Washington’s top line of Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson firing on all cylinders. They are as dominant as any line in the NHL at this juncture and Ovechkin notched two goals, including the clinching empty netter, to tie Steven Stamkos for the league goal scoring lead at 25 tallies. Alex is playing outstanding and he seems as happy as I’ve seen him in years. I can’t help but think his life off of the ice, which includes a recent engagement, is a part of the picture, but the coaching of Oates and more importantly, the play of his linemates is making it easier for him.

Backstrom, after a shoulder injury in 2010, a nasty concussion in 2011, and some type of neck injury in December of 2012 did not reach 100% health again until several games into this lockout shortened campaign but Oates told the media after the game that for the last month and a half he is playing outstanding. Nicky doesn’t get the accolades that the Gr8 gets, and let’s be honest, Ovi is a rock star, but he is as important to the Capitals hockey team as Ovechkin is. In past years I’ve talked about how strong Backstrom is on his skates and he has that back again this year. He is winning a large majority of the one on one battles on the boards and as a result he is dominating play.

As for Johansson, Oates acknowledges that the young Swede has the hardest role on that line. He has to feel the pressure to get the puck to the two superstars and yet he’s playing as well as he ever has. His confidence is sky high right now. If he can work on taking his shot more often, that would help keep the opposing defenders and goalie more honest, which would open things up even greater for the entire line.

Washington really played well as a team from the second period on and their strong play in their own end led to numerous odd man rushes in this contest. In fact the winning tally by Joel Ward came on a 3 on 2 rush and #42 beat Bolts goalie Ben Bishop short side because the goaltender was cheating to his left thinking pass. It was a big goal and seemed to deflate the Bolts.

Carlson’s blast to tie the game up, also took some wind out of Tampa’s sails and it was a downright rocket. I am not sure I’ve seen a slap shot that hard in a game in a long time. To quote Crash Davis from Bull Durham, “Well, he really hit the <bleep> out of that one!” #74 is playing some good hockey paired with Jack Hillen (two assists).

Another player so key to the Capitals success, and they’ve now won four in a row and have a two point lead on Winnipeg in the Southeast Division, is Mike Green. #52 is the club’s number one defensemen and although he had 0 points in the game, he was outstanding at both ends of the rink. Mike’s health is good and as a result, he is very confident on the ice and playing as well as he has in his career. Another thing that helps out Green is the play of his partner, Karl Alzner. King Karl is hard to notice but all you have to do is look at Stamkos’ stat line tonight: three shots on net, 0 points, and -1. #27’s job was to shut down the league’s other premier goal scorer and he did it. Green and Alzner are the team’s top defensive pair and both logged over over 23 minutes at even strength to lead all players in that department. Overall Green played 26:37 while Alzner logged 25:34.

Unfortunately, as good as Ward was tonight in scoring the game winner and adding a helper, plus making a great back check to thwart a tying goal in period three, #42 had to leave the game after blocking a shot late in the contest. With Brooks Laich down for the count and slated to see a specialist on Tuesday plus Martin Erat still out day to day after being cheap shotted by Erik Gudbranson on Saturday, the Caps are likely going to be down three wingers when they face Montreal at the Bell Centre on Tuesday. Just when the Caps were finally getting healthy, the injury bug has struck again over the last three tilts, but that’s hockey.

Still, the team is on a roll and if the top line and defensive pair keep playing at the elite level while the goalies and other skaters do their respective jobs, then the Southeast Division is the Caps to seize. There are nine games to go, with six at the Verizon Center. After a very rough start and numerous injuries, their first goal, a division title, is very much there for the taking.

Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green, and Braden Holtby have all been carrying this team in recent weeks, as they need to be doing. But on Sunday night, Washington needed a big game from their other goalie, and Michal Neuvirth more than delivered as the catalyst in a critical victory over Tampa.

It was a game that wasn’t built up to be ultra important by Washington, but had Tampa been victorious, the whole Southeast Division race dynamic changes. Neuvirth would not let that happen on Sunday and so the Caps continue to control how this playoff race will play out.

Kudos, Michal.

Notes: Tampa is now eight points in back of the Caps. They have 10 games left, including another at the Verizon Center on Saturday…Backstrom was also dominant from the dot tonight going 13-7. The Caps won the face off battle, 35-32…Washington out shot Tampa 38-30 and shot attempts were 60-56 in favor of the Caps.

 

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