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Washington Holds Off Carolina’s Late Charge to Win Again

Posted on 27 December 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Braden Holtby made 28 saves and T.J. Oshie’s second period power play marker held up as the game winning goal as the Washington Capitals knocked off the Carolina Hurricanes, 3-1, on Thursday night at Capital One Arena. The victory improves the Caps to 23-10-3 (49 points) on the season and they lead the second place Columbus Blue Jackets by two points, but Washington has a game in hand.

Here are 10 thoughts, highlights, and analysis of the first game out of the 2018 NHL Christmas break.

Petr Mrazek has a history of playing very well against Washington going back to his Detroit days and he turned in a gem on Thursday night. The Czech goalie made 30 saves and kept his team in it late into the third period. The Caps should’ve been up by more than two pucks, but he was stellar in net.

Washington’s power play has been struggling over the last 10 games and were in a 3 for 31 funk when the Osh Babe deflected home John Carlson’s point blast to make it 2-0 late in period two. That was the Caps fourth man advantage of the night and they were struggling to score. The Ovi spot has been walled off lately by the opponents and the Capitals have been a little too stagnant with the extra player, but they finally got smart and simplified things with bodies and pucks to the net. Good things happen when you do that, and it paid off there. If Washington can get those type of goals off of traffic, then the opponents will have to pull their defensive players back down tighter to the net, which will open things up in Alex’s office, once again.

Chandler Stephenson put the Capitals up 1-0 in period two when the fourth line was all over the Canes with a vicious forecheck. Devante Smith-Pelly forced Calvin De Haan to cough the puck up the middle of the ice and #18 jumped on it in the slot and snapped one over Mrazek to start the scoring. That fourth line of Stephenson, Travis Boyd, and DSP was pretty good all game.

DSP had a strong outing and he was a big reason the Capitals penalty killing went 4 for 4. Carolina really didn’t have a whole lot of chances until their last power play, when they nearly tied the game. Washington is doing an excellent job of keeping the opposing power plays on the perimeter and allowing their goalies to see any shots.

With 8:21 the play that changed the game, but fortunately, not the outcome, occurred. Matt Niskanen was heading back into his own right wing boards when Justin Williams hit him well before Nisky could get to the puck. That’s interference, especially considering some of the other ticky tacky calls made by the zebras on this night. The hit by Stick knocked Niskanen to his right and then Clark Bishop came barreling in and shoved Nisky in the back slamming him into the boards with an extra push. That’s boarding. The very experienced Capitals TV play by play man, Joe Beninati, reacted immediately to the bad hit with concern. Fortunately, Matt was able to avoid direct head contact with the boards and after staying down for a minute or so, Niskanen was able to get up and skate to the locker room on his own power. Coach Todd Reirden did not have a post game update on Nisky, so his status for Saturday’s game in Ottawa remains unclear.

Following the injury, the Capitals looked stunned because one of their leaders was out on a weird play and they didn’t get the power play they thought they rightfully deserved. Compounding the matter, shortly thereafter Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Carlson all were a little careless with the biscuit in the offensive zone and that led to a Michal Ferland breakaway. The Holtbeast, who has been outstanding in those situations this season thanks to the work he’s been putting in with goalie coach Scott Murray, stopped the one on one opportunity once again, but his teammates didn’t get back and Sebastian “I own the Caps” Aho fired the rebound into the empty cage with 7:35 left in the game. Suddenly a sure triumph was in doubt for the Caps.

The officiating by Jon McIsaac and Ghislain “Send Him Back to Quebec” Hebert was head scratching at times, and none more so than on that play where Niskanen was injured, but the linesmen then made a major blunder that nearly cost Washington the lead. The Canes dumped the puck directly into the Caps zone from behind the red line and Michal Kempny was way ahead of any Carolina player, but somehow the linesmen wiped out icing. A few seconds later Kempny was jailed for high sticking and with 3:48 to go the Canes had a man advantage situation to potentially tie up what was once a near blowout. Again, the Capitals PK came through, but the guys in stripes certainly were doing their best to give Rod Brind’Amour’s team a chance to even the numbers on the scoreboard.

Holtby was very good once again, he didn’t have to make a lot of quality saves, but the ones he had to deny were of the ten bell variety. He continues to be stellar on breakaways and the only goal he allowed was because the five skaters on the ice hung him out to dry.

With the NHL shut down for three days for Christmas, Carolina had to travel from Raleigh on Thursday morning for this tilt. That was an advantage for the Caps and again, they dominated this game, but Mrazek kept it close. Fortunately All Star Nicklas Backstrom won a neutral zone faceoff directly back to Carlson with just under a minute to go and #74 rifled it from inside his own blue line into the empty cage to seal the deal for Washington. Brind’Amour gambled with the neutral zone draw by keeping Mrazek on the bench for the sixth attacker and he rolled snake eyes there.

The Capitals lead the Metropolitan Division by two points over Columbus and they have a game in hand on John Tortorella’s team. Pittsburgh is five points back and Washington has a game in hand on the Pens, as well. In fourth place are the Islanders at 40 points, so the Caps are nine points clear of a playoff spot here in late December. I expect the top three teams in the Metro to pull away from the pack and the question remains if Coach Barry Trotz’ crew can beat out Montreal or perhaps Boston for the last playoff position. Bottom line, barring any crazy injuries, the Eastern Conference playoff race is turning into a nine teams for eight spots race with the top six (Tampa, Toronto, Washington, Columbus, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh) looking solid. There are still 46 games left for the Caps, though, so let’s not count the chickens before they hatch, although it is very tempting to do so.

Notes: The Corsi Canes out shot attempted the Caps, 57-56, but the quality chances were clearly in Washington’s favor, by a good margin…Carlson led the Capitals in ice time with 25:05. Niskanen left after logging 16:54. With Kempny in the box late, Madison Bowey and Jonas Siegenthaler had to kill off part of the penalty and they did so in fine fashion. That is encouraging for the Caps as they build defensive depth. Brooks Orpik is expected back in the lineup very soon, perhaps as early as Saturday in Ottawa, and that’s a welcome sign, especially if Niskanen is out for any length of time. Tyler Lewington was recalled as the 7th defensemen for Thursday’s game after being sent down following last Saturday’s shutout victory in Ottawa to save some salary cap room…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 33-27. Backstrom was 12-4.

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Braden Holtby Walls Off the Sabres in a 2-1 Capitals Triumph

Posted on 21 December 2018 by Ed Frankovic

“All in all it’s just another brick in the wall”

“All in all you’re just another brick in the wall”  – Pink Floyd

Braden Holtby put on a goaltending clinic on Friday night at Capital One Arena stopping 36 shots, many of which were of the ten bell variety, while Chandler Stephenson scored shorthanded, and then Tom Wilson potted the game winning tally to lead the Capitals to a 2-1 victory over the vastly improved Buffalo Sabres.

Simply put, if Holtby is not the Caps goaltender on this evening, Washington most certainly loses the hockey game. Braden was that good.

“He’s a leader on and off of the ice. He’s our backbone every night,” was how Willy described the Capitals savior in goal after the contest to Smokin’ Al Koken and per Isabelle Khurshudyan of The Washington Post, Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was absolutely fabulous in this affair, had the following to say about the Holtbeast.

“He’s a god, and he’s always saving our ass.”

Washington, who lost a tough one to the Penguins at home on Wednesday night, 2-1, in a game they dominated for long stretches (outshot attempted Pittsburgh, 77-46, and those numbers were indicative of the play), needed a win to keep pace in a Metropolitan Division that is tightening up. They would get it to improve to 21-10-3 (45 points) and they lead the second place Columbus Blue Jackets by four points.

Early on the Capitals skated well and had the territorial advantage, but as they did on Wednesday versus their archrivals, they struggled to hit the net on their chances. Washington had to settle for a 0-0 first period in which there weren’t a ton of scoring opportunities for either team.

That all changed in period two where the game opened up a bit. Jonas Siegenthaler took a penalty just 2:37 into the middle frame when the Caps players, except for their all world goaltender, appeared to have stayed in the locker room listening to Baby It’s Cold Outside by the late, great Dean Martin. The way they played to start that second stanza also indicated that they might have been enjoying some of Dean’s favorite adult beverages during the intermission.

Anyways, the much maligned penalty killing unit, which was effectively dented all three times on three tries against the Sabres just six days ago, was great in not allowing any quality chances on Wilson’s first period hooking penalty. They then used that momentum and confidence gained to take it to 11 on their next PK, scoring shorthanded. Nic Dowd did his best Phil Mickelson imitation with a gorgeous flop shot out of the Caps zone that Chandler Stephenson, who was scratched on Wednesday against the Pens, raced to gather up in the offensive zone. Stephenson skated in with the puck and beat Carter Hutton over the shoulder with some nice top shelf cheese at the 2:50 mark.

The remainder of the period saw lots of chances both ways, with the Capitals “taking” a 2-0 lead, but due to a quick whistle by the zebras, a tuck in goal by Kuznetsov on the power play that certainly appeared to be over the line was not allowed. Washington’s power play looked good on that attempt, but once again, it was mostly a disaster on this evening going 0 for 4. The set up is too stagnant right now and the players simply aren’t working hard enough to generate the quality looks we are used to seeing from this unit. Perhaps going to a simplified structure where they put bodies in front of the net (cough, cough, Top Line Tommy) and fire away with the intent of scoring off of a tip, a screen or a rebound would be an idea for the second unit?

Washington would fail to score on both power plays they had in the middle frame and Buffalo started to bring a heavy forecheck that was causing lots of Caps turnovers in the defensive and neutral zones. Holtby made several big stops, including coming out nearly to the defensive blue line to prevent Conor Sheary from getting a breakaway after an errant pass by Jakub Vrana in the offensive zone. That was a crazy sequence, but it was indicative of the night Braden was having, he was going to do whatever he could do to prevent the Sabres from lighting up the scoreboard like a pinball machine.

Heading into the final frame, the Caps had a 1-0 lead, but a very poor and LONG shift by Alex Ovechkin (1:12) and T.J. Oshie (1:04) resulted in the Sabres scoring off of a bounce in front of the net that Holtby had no chance to stop. Ovi, who only had five shot attempts (1 SOG) and frankly just didn’t have it on this night, decided against an opportunity to take a neutral zone line change and then found himself hemmed in his own end. With his tank on empty, the Sabres moved the puck around until they finally worked hard and long enough to push one past the Caps Stanley Cup winning goalie.

Buffalo then received a power play just 23 seconds after the Johan Larsson tally, but the Caps penalty killing unit stepped up big time to preserve the tie.

That set the stage for Kuzy, who had his best game in weeks because he was skating and wanting the puck, to steal the biscuit from Hutton behind his own cage and backhand the disc to Willy in the lower right wing circle. Tom buried it for the game winner and his 10th goal in just 15 games this season with only seven minutes left. Kuznetsov was fantastic and when he competes like that, he’s easily in the top five players in the league. That line, with Kuzy, Willy, and the super fast Jakub Vrana, was the Caps best one against Buffalo.

As for the top line, they looked sllllooooowwwww. I’m not sure what was up with that trio, but perhaps it might be time for Coach Todd Reirden to go back to the top nine forward group that won them the Stanley Cup last June?

Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Wilson

Vrana-Backstrom-Oshie

Connolly-Eller-Burakovsky

Andre Burakovsky returned after being in the press box for four games and he was decent. He battled hard and skated well, but his timing is understandably off. He certainly deserves to stay in the lineup though, and getting him going must be a priority going forward.

On the back end, defensemen Madison Bowey had one of his better games logging 16:24. That allowed Coach Reirden, who played John Carlson over 29 minutes on Wednesday, to cut Carly’s ice time back to a much more sustainable 23:47. With the Capitals headed to Ottawa in a back to back situation, it was important that the ice time was spread around better than what we saw against the Penguins in the 2-1 defeat.

Buffalo had several more opportunities to tie things up late in period three, but Holtby, who tweaked something with just over two minutes left, but remained in the game, was a wall in net and would not allow his club to be beaten just four days before Christmas. It was his present to his team, and based on the quotes from Willy and Kuzy, they certainly appreciated it.

All Hail the Holtbeast!

Notes: The Caps will face Ottawa at 7:00 pm in Canada’s capital on Saturday night. The Sens played in New Jersey on Friday and were smoked, 5-2. So both teams will travel overnight and then play their last tilt before the NHL shuts down from Monday through Wednesday for the Christmas break. Pheonix Copley will almost surely get the start against the Senators which gives the Holtbeast five full days to recover from the minor tweak he suffered as well as the heavy workload he faced against Buffalo…the Capitals play the Hurricanes on December 27th at Capital One Arena…the Caps were outshot attempted, 72-50, in this one. The Sabres robbed some teams in their offseason trades (see St. Louis and Carolina) and now they have a squad that almost surely should make the postseason. They are a fast and very good hockey team…Washington won the faceoff battle, 28-23. Nicklas Backstrom was 14-6…Rasmus Dahlin was -2 and made a stupid dive onto Holtby very late in the game to move what would’ve been an offensive zone faceoff for Buffalo into the neutral zone. That’s a rookie mistake there and probably should’ve been a penalty…Vrana (5 SOG) and Wilson (4 SOG) had 9 of the Capitals 24 shots on goal.

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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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Caps Win Fourth Straight Over Columbus to Advance to Round Two

Posted on 23 April 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin scored in succession in the second period to give the Washington Capitals a 3-1 lead and then they took advantage of a Columbus blue line gambling to try to tie the game up with two rush goals, from Devante Smith-Pelly and Chandler Stephenson in the third period, en route to a 6-3 victory at Nationwide Arena in game six. The win, the Caps fourth straight in this series after losing the first two tilts on home ice in overtime, advances them to the second round with another show down against you know who. Braden Holtby was stellar in the cage, once again, stopping 35 of 38 shots, and the Holtbeast is a major reason why this Capitals club is moving on.

There were so many key moments in this hockey game and Coach Barry Trotz’ crew showed some serious intestinal fortitude in the triumph.

The Caps, after taking a 1-0 first period lead on Dmitry Orlov’s sensational individual effort tally, had a 32 second five on three power play in the middle frame, but couldn’t connect. That misfire led to the Columbus crowd getting into the game and gave their home team momentum. Nick Foligno then scored his first goal of the playoffs to tie the game up on an overlap play where a Blue Jackets forward simply skated into Brooks Orpik while #71 shot past a screened Holtby. There was clearly a missed Capitals forward assignment there and suddenly the Blue Jackets had life.

Washington would then answer that tally just over four minutes later and it was none other than the Gr8 who seized the moment and turned the tide back for the Caps. Ovechkin put a massive hit on Oliver Bjorkstrand as #28 was trying to make a pass up the right wing boards and the puck went straight to Christian Djoos inside the blue line. Djoos alertly moved it quickly to his right for Tom Wilson and Willy then found Evgeny Kuznetsov coming with speed down the high slot and that backed the Columbus defense up. Kuzy, with too much traffic in front to get a clear shot off, fed Djoos down in the left wing circle and with the Blue Jackets sagging in front, Christian put it on a tee for Orpik at the left point. #44 smashed a shot that Sergei Bobrovsky (22 saves) stopped with his right pad, but he threw the disc right into the slot. The Captain was parked there between three Blue Jackets and he backhanded the rebound quickly into the cage for a 2-1 lead.

Ovechkin then drew a holding penalty on Seth Jones and Washington went on a late second period power play. 63 seconds into the man advantage, John Carlson made a super pass to Ovi in his office and the Gr8 lasered one off of the near post and past Bob for a 3-1 lead.

At that point, the zebras tried to really help out Columbus. Stephenson was called for a weak roughing call with five seconds left in period two so the Blue Jackets, trailing by two pucks, started period three on the man advantage. The Caps easily killed that one off, but then Matt Calvert blatantly tripped Djoos behind the net, gathered in the puck below the goal line while #29 was still down on the ice, and backhanded a pass to Pierre Luc-Dubois in the low slot. #18 fired quickly past Holtby and suddenly it was 3-2 on a goal that should’ve never been. Clearly Dan O’Rourke and Jean Hebert were out to lunch on that play.

In the past that goal might have derailed the Capitals, and I’m going to steal the words of legendary Ravens Head Coach Brian Billick from the 2000 NFL Playoffs with the following line, “BUT NOT TODAY.”

This Caps team did not sulk. Sure the coaches let the bad zebras have it, and rightly so, but this Washington club just pressed on and kept working. 91 seconds later Smith-Pelly burnt David Savard on the left wing boards in the defensive zone and sped down the ice with Ian Cole giving chase. Cole isn’t exactly the fastest skater and as DSP opened up to shoot, Cole put his stick in the lane. The shot went top shelf over Bob’s glove for a 4-2 Caps advantage.

The zebras then struck again calling Djoos for a very shaky interference penalty, but Jay Beagle made a super clear off of the left wing boards that sprung the speedy Stephenson for a shorthanded breakaway. Chandler opened up Bobrovsky and slid the puck five hole to give the Caps a 5-2 lead with 14:30 to go. It was two quick and huge goals after a terrible missed call by the referees led to a Columbus marker. That is how you respond to adversity, right there!

Coach John Tortorella’s crew would not quit and they used sheer power and some missed Capitals defensive zone coverage to will themselves within two goals at 5-3. An all alone Foligno notched his second goal of the game from the doorstep and with 11:38 still to go, this tilt was not over.

Credit the Caps mental toughness again, they knew that the only way the Blue Jackets could come back was with some physical cycling tallies so Washington did a good job of walling off the front of their own net and kept the Columbus shots coming from the perimeter. When pucks got through the wall of white, the Holtbeast was there to clean them up. The zebras gave the Blue Jackets one more power play, but for the fourth straight contest, Columbus was blanked with the man advantage (0 for 4 in this game).

Lars Eller then hit the empty net with 14 seconds remaining and the Blue Jackets were officially dispatched.

This was one heck of a comeback win for Washington after dropping the first two tilts at Capital One Arena. The switch in the cage to Holtby turned things around as CBus couldn’t rely on their top shelf shots going over #70’s glove hand like occurred in the first two games. The Holtbeast was sensational in this series, especially in the game five robbery on Saturday afternoon.

After the Holtbeast, you can go on and on down the line calling out super performances from the Capitals in this series. Every guy contributed to the four straight triumphs from Beagle’s face off wins and great PK work to Backstrom and Ovechkin coming up large as superstars in games five and six, respectively.

Perhaps the biggest play of the series, and the turning point, was Brett Connolly’s decision to shoot the puck in the second overtime of game three that Eller deposited into the cage off of his boot for the win. If #10 doesn’t fire quickly and generate a rebound, then the Blue Jackets could’ve eventually scored and gone up three games to none. Good things happen when you shoot!

Washington, as the series went on and especially in the three road wins, played the right way. They put pucks on net or behind the Columbus defense and went for rebound and gritty goals. When the Caps were wearing their road whites, there was not a whole lot of the East-West passing that has gotten the Capitals into trouble in the postseason. They need to keep that mentality when they start round two at home. Pittsburgh has elite talent that can go the other way and bury you with rush goals when you make those types of mistakes. The Capitals have seen the results of that style of play the last two springs. Now they get a chance to perform the right way against the two time defending Stanley Cup Champions.

The Caps have a goalie who has found his groove, a defense that is getting some monster performances from guys like Carlson, Niskanen, and Orpik and a power play that is clicking. They are also generating scoring from their bottom six forwards, something we haven’t seen consistently during the last three springs. It’s going to take everything the Caps have to defeat the extremely talented and heavily favored Penguins, for sure.

But that talk can wait another day because on Monday night Washington showed that they are a tight knit club that is mentally tough and can overcome some serious adversity. That’s clearly something they can build on this spring.

Notes: Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 26:53. Orlov logged 25:33, and Carlson played 24:50…Oprik and Beagle each had two assists and were +2. This was a good match up for both of them and Washington clearly missed #83 in game one (upper body injury)…Orpik had five of the 23 shots the Caps blocked…Columbus won the face off battle, 30-25, but Beagle went 9-3 for the Caps…Stephenson assisted on Orlov’s goal and notched four points in the series. He filled in nicely on the second line for an injured Andre Burakovsky (upper body, minor surgery)…the Holtbeast stopped 137 of the 147 shots he faced in the series (.932 save percentage).

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Caps Win Game 4

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Caps Lock Down Columbus, 4-1, to Even Up the Series

Posted on 19 April 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals first line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Tom Wilson collected a total of seven points and Braden Holtby made 23 of 24 saves to give the Caps a 4-1 victory in game four of this best of seven series and send things back to DC knotted up at two games apiece. Game five is Saturday afternoon at 3 pm at Capital One Arena.

After winning in double overtime on a goal mouth scramble bounce in game three, the Caps continued their push to the front of Sergei Bobrovsky’s net and it paid off with some big tallies. Wilson scored first just 6:16 into this affair. John Carlson and Chandler Stephenson broke out on Ian Cole on a two on one rush thanks to a super breakout pass by Alex Chiasson. Bob made the initial save on Carlson and Thomas Vanek managed to clear the rebound before Stephenson could deposit the loose change. The problem for the Blue Jackets was that the puck went right to Kuznetsov, who put one on a tee for a fresh off of the bench Wilson, and Top Line Tommy lasered the biscuit into the twine.

Another rebound marker, this one on the power play, by T.J. Oshie just before the midpoint of the game gave Washington a two goal cushion. Carlson made a super keep in at the blue line of a failed Cam Atkinson clear and that set the whole play in motion against a fatigued Columbus PK unit. Oshie wheeled the puck behind the net and to the right wing half wall to the great Nicklas Backstrom. Nicky fed #74 at the right point and he fired on net. Bobrovsky made the initial save, but the biscuit bounced right to Ovi charging in from the left wing circle. The Gr8 shot, but Bob denied him. Kuznetsov poked at the puck, but Bob padded it up into the slot, where the Osh Babe quickly snapped it, with his amazing hands, into the goal.

In both games one and two, the Capitals had two goal leads, but they frittered each away with bad penalties, untimely offensive zone miscues that led to Blue Jacket rush goals, and some shaky goaltending. In game four, the Caps stayed disciplined, limited their offensive and neutral zone mistakes by getting pucks deep, and of course, the Holtbeast was a confident wall in the cage.

For the last 10 minutes of the second frame, the Caps played smart and made Columbus work for every inch. Washington took that 2-0 lead to the locker room after 40 minutes and they came right out in period three and played the same exact way. The Blue Jackets, who were working doubly hard to try and fight through the Capitals neutral zone trap and strong defensive blue line front, were being forced to go 200 feet to generate opportunities and fatigue started taking over.

The Caps extended their lead to three pucks just 2:49 into the final stanza. Wilson went flying through the neutral and offensive zones on the right wing boards with the puck and attempted to fire on Bob, as he should do in that situation. Willy’s shot was blocked and he and the Columbus player slid into the right wing corner with the puck. Kuzy alertly skated quickly in to retrieve the disc and he fed Ovechkin in the high slot. The Gr8 then quickly went backhand to forehand and sniped one below Sergei’s left pad to really stick a dagger in Columbus.

From there on out, the Blue Jackets tried everything they could to sneak a player behind the Washington defense and they also pinched on the walls trying to keep pucks in the offensive zone. Columbus’ only goal came off of a faceoff win, at 6:22 of period three, on a Boone Jenner deflection with tons of traffic in front. After that, the Caps exploited the Blue Jackets “cheat” for several scoring opportunities, most notably an Ovechkin breakaway that would have made it 4-1, but Bob robbed him glove side.

Over a minute after Columbus dispensed of their keeper with 3:29 remaining, Kuznetsov stole a puck in the neutral zone and hit the empty net with 2:19 left to end the scoring and even up the series.

This was one heck of a team effort by the Caps.

On Wednesday morning, I asked Coach Barry Trotz about how the team would shut down the Blue Jackets potent rush game and he stated that the key was getting numbers back and the forwards exhibiting strong back pressure on their opponents.

Boy did his team follow that game plan perfectly!

Time after time a Columbus player would appear to have some speed and a lane in the neutral zone only to be slowed by a wall of Caps defenders at the Washington blue line. Then a back checking forward would either stick lift the Columbus player to steal the puck or the Blue Jackets would force a pass into the middle of the ice where the Capitals would grab the disc and go the other way. This pattern went on for much of the third period and you could see the Blue Jackets were being forced to use the whole rink to generate opportunities, but it just wasn’t happening because of the defensive posture of Washington.

On the night, Columbus only had 24 shots on goal and failed to hit double digits in any period. When shots did get through, Holtby was dialed in and took away any hope of a victory for the home squad. The Holtbeast is now 16-4-2 as a starter against the Blue Jackets, lifetime.

A successful lineup adjustment that Coach Barry Trotz made from game three to game four was to put Stephenson back up with Backstrom and Oshie on the second unit while bumping Jakub Vrana down to line four. That move paid dividends once the Caps got the lead because #18 is a really strong two way player who can skate. Vrana is a very good skater, too, and in his limited time (6:41) he played well, but with Coach John Tortorella having the match up advantage, Trotzy had to counter with a strong two way line. By doing that, the Kuznetsov trio was able to win their match up and be the difference in the hockey game.

Overall, this was an outstanding performance and the best the Capitals have played in the post season this spring. They played a simple game and have now won six of their last seven road playoffs tilts dating back to last April. That is the good news, but the bad news is they have lost five of their last six playoff contests at home. The key to winning again wearing Red is to pretend it is a road contest and play a simple style. There is no need to be trying to impress the fans with fancy passes and pretty plays. This is the playoffs and dirty, gritty goals are what make the difference between winning and losing. The Washington fans will gladly trade pretty plays for a simple W this time of year.

On Thursday night, the Capitals played a textbook road game and left the state of Ohio with two victories, just as their captain said they would do before game 3.

Promise Delivered.

Notes: Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 24:29 and was outstanding. Nisky is playing the best hockey of his season. His defensive partner, Dmitry Orlov, logged 24:10. #9 has made some mistakes in this series and has another gear he can get to, but his fellow blue liner has really stabilized things on the back end…Michal Kempny (18:14), Brooks Orpik (17:01) and Christian Djoos (12:36) all played well on defense…Washington, who got Jay Beagle back in game two after he was out due to an upper body injury, owned the face off circle going 36-20. Beags was a downright dominant, 14-3. Winning draw after draw forces the opposition, especially when trailing, to expend a lot of energy to try and get the puck back…the leader in ice time for the series, Seth Jones, played 26:22 minutes of action that included being hounded by a Caps player pretty much all night…Artemi Panarin, who was the best skater in the series in the first three games, was held in check in game four. He had only one shot on net, took two penalties, and was -1 in 20:56 of ice time…the Caps were 1 for 3 on the power play while CBus went 0 for 3.

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Oshie Pens

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Caps Defeat the Pens, 3-1, to Clinch the Metro Division Title

Posted on 02 April 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin played in his 1,000th NHL game on Sunday night and his teammates made it a special one for him defeating the two time defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins in Pittsburgh, 3-1, to wrap up their third consecutive Metropolitan Division title. Philipp Grubauer made his first ever start against the Pens and he was outstanding making 36 saves. T.J. Oshie, Dmitry Orlov, and Tom Wilson scored for the Caps before Patrick Hornqvist tallied on a rebound with 3:45 remaining to end #31’s shutout bid.

The Caps final three games, at St. Louis on Monday night and then home against the Predators and Devils on Thursday and Saturday, respectively, are essentially meaningless from a standings perspective. Washington’s first round playoff opponent will be the first wildcard team and right now that situation is as clear as mud.

The triumph improves Coach Barry Trotz’ team to 47-25-7 (101 points), which is right in the 100 to 105 point range that I predicted before the season when many were losing their collective minds over General Manager Brian MacLellan’s offseason decisions. BMac knew what he was doing by focusing up the middle of the ice and the Capitals will now go into the post season for the fourth straight year in his tenure after the final disastrous season of the George McPhee era ended with Adam Oates as head coach back in 2014.

The following bullets are my thoughts and analysis on the win in Pittsburgh as we head into the final week of the NHL season (hey, it’s Masters week, too, so FORE!).

Stone Cold – There’s no doubt that the biggest reason the Penguins defeated the Caps in last season’s playoffs was due to the stellar play of Marc Andre-Fleury in net. On Sunday night, Grubauer took advantage of the start and seemed to really have the Penguins number. Granted the Pens played on Saturday night against Montreal, but Philipp was exceptional and earned the game’s number one star. Grubi stopped all 12 shots on goal the Penguins fired on their five power plays and he also got a nice break when Evgeni Malkin’s laser on a five on three advantage in period two hit iron. Luck is a part of the game and Washington had its share in this one. Crosby fanned on a shot in the third period that the German goaltender was able to glove. However, the Capitals had some great looks, too, that they didn’t get good wood on, including a couple of Ovechkin shots that he just couldn’t put up and over a prone Matt Murray (31 saves). The most important position in the post season is goalie and with Grubauer playing outstanding and Holtby rebounding into form, Washington has to feel strong about that spot for next week and beyond.

Starting Fast – The Capitals have not had many great starts this calendar year, but on Sunday on NBC Sports Channel, they came out well. Ovi nearly scored early in front, but Murray was able to stop it when Alex couldn’t get full control of the pass for one of his patented Gr8 shots. Washington kept pushing the pace though, and they gave the Pens a dose of their own medicine scoring on the rush. John Carlson got the puck up to Andre Burakovsky to give the Caps a three on two entering the offensive zone. Burkie then put a sweet pass on Oshie’s stick on the right wing side of the ice and the Osh Babe beat Murray five hole, like a rented mule, just 6:25 into the game. Getting the first goal was really important in this one because the Pens had played the night before and would need momentum plus the crowd for adrenaline. They would not receive that, pretty much all night.

Tactic Change – When Washington was in Pittsburgh on February 2nd, they found themselves in a track meet affair and lost, 7-4. Trying to play run and gun hockey with the Penguins is a recipe for disaster and the Caps proved it that night. This time, however, the Capitals made some adjustments to throttle the Pens rush game. Once they got ahead, instead of trying to chase the black and gold in the offensive zone, they backed out and clogged up the neutral zone passing lanes. It was a very 1990’s New Jersey Devils neutral zone trap style of hockey. As a result, the Pens were unable to utilize their stretch or flip passes once Coach Trotz’ team went into that configuration. The few odd man opportunities the Penguins received were the result of offensive zone turnovers. The Caps need to continue to clean those up, but they were certainly better structurally against Pittsburgh than they’ve been in the previous three 2017-18 regular season matchups.

Feeling Too Much Shame – If there was one thing to not like about Sunday’s game, it was the five penalties the Capitals took that put the Pens on man advantage situations. Pittsburgh has the best power play in the league and to gift them four of those opportunities was playing with fire. I didn’t like Chandler Stephenson’s hold, the too many men infraction, Matt Niskanen’s delay of game, and Ovechkin’s slash, they were unnecessary. The only penalty that occurred to negate a scoring chance was Tom Wilson’s on Malkin. #71 is a beast and he’s been on fire, so sometimes you have to break the rules to stop him. Fortunately Grubauer, Brooks Orpik (team high 5:57 of shorthanded time), Carlson, Niskanen, Lars Eller (4:04 of PK time) and the other forwards deployed while shorthanded did a great job. Hornqvist is an absolute force in front of the net and you need size to battle him to allow your goalies to see the shots. Orpik and Carlson had the lion share of that duty on Sunday.

Fly By Night – It’s no secret the highly skilled and talent Penguins love to RUSH the puck with their speed to create chances and as stated earlier, the Capitals throttled that primarily with a tactic change. In addition, however, they used the RUSH to their advantage, too. Washington’s second goal came eight seconds after a great penalty kill as Orlov skated up the middle of the ice and used the Pens defensemen as a screen. Dima shot from the slot and it beat Murray to make it 2-0 with 6:14 left in the middle frame. That goal seemed to really deflate the Penguins and their fans. It was a simple play by the Russian defensemen and the Caps continued to pour shots on Murray as they went up the ice once they had the lead. Too often the Capitals get into trouble by trying to be fancy at the offensive blue line, but on Sunday night they did what their coaches have asked of them, they put the puck on net or behind the opposing defensemen instead of trying to beat guys one on one. It was smart hockey, they generated 34 shots on net doing so, and the Penguins typically use that style as well as any team in the league. Hopefully Washington continues to play smart as they did on Sunday in the post season. The cross ice plays in April and beyond often end up getting you earlier tee times.

Bad Blood – Nobody likes to lose, but the Penguins got downright dirty at the end of this one. Hornqvist slashed Carlson and Orpik in frustration and the latter infraction earned him a late penalty that all but ended this contest. Malkin then went totally mental and interfered with Oshie in the neutral zone and sent his stick flying into the Caps bench. The Osh Babe took exception and got into it with Geno. With the linesman trying to send Malkin to the showers, #71 then went crazy trying to go after Evgeny Kuznetsov (1 assist). I’m sure #92 was giving him the business in their native Russian tongue, too. It was pretty clear the Pens were trying to set the tone for the next time these two teams could meet, which would likely be in round two. Even Mark “Hot Plate” Recchi found himself heading to the locker room early when the zebras kicked him out of the game for verbal abuse. It was a bad look for Mike Sullivan’s team and he’s no choir boy either.

The End – Officially, the game ended after the Penguins late hissy fit, but when Wilson deflected Niskanen’s shot past Murray just 23 seconds into period three to increase the score to 3-0, this game was pretty much over. Again, putting pucks at or towards the net with bodies going there is the way you win big hockey games. If Washington employs that style more often, the end of this season could be something special.

Notes: Jay Beagle suffered an upper body injury in period one and didn’t return. He only played 3:22 and Coach Trotz stated afterwards he’s probably not playing against the Blues…I’d like to see Oshie and Orpik get the night off, too. Those guys play a hard style so they need to be physically ready for next week. Both have missed games recently due to minor injuries, so it would be best to get both healthy…shot attempts were 59-57 for the Pens, but their edge primarily came from the power play. Washington was very good at five on five…both teams went 0 for 5 on the power play…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:58. Kris Letang played the most for Pittsburgh with 25:08…the Capitals lost the faceoff battle, 35-34, which wasn’t bad since Beagle was done in period one. Eller was 9-6 while Sidney Crosby went 16-9 for the home team…Devante Smith-Pelly led the Caps in hits with seven. He also logged 2:41 of shorthanded time with Beags out of the game…Ovechkin had eight shot attempts, including four on net, and four hits in 22:47 of ice time…Hits were 33-30 for the Caps.

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Kuzy CBus

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Kuznetsov and Eller lead the Caps to a 4-2 Victory over Columbus

Posted on 10 February 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Evgeny Kuznetsov and Lars Eller each notched a goal and an assist and Braden Holtby made 35 saves to lead the Caps to a 4-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night at Capital One Arena. The back to back wins over Coach John Tortorella’s squad improves Washington to 32-17-5 (69 points) and puts them 11 points ahead of the Blue Jackets with 28 games remaining. The Penguins, who were defeated in a shootout, 4-3, in Dallas late Friday, are in second place. Sidney Crosby and company are five points behind the Capitals and the Caps have two games in hand.

These two clubs met on Tuesday at Nationwide Arena and it was the Blue Jackets who dominated play in the game, but thanks to great goaltending from the Holtbeast and some timely scoring, the Caps escaped the state of Ohio as 3-2 winners.

On Friday, Columbus played a very desperate style, but they once again came up short. Washington, while getting outshot, 37-17, and outshot attempted, 79-50, played a much better game in their home barn.

The Caps first period was cleaner in terms of puck management and John Carlson scored just 5:09 into this affair on the doorstep following two super passes from Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana. The Capitals carried the majority of the play in period one and they stretched the Blue Jackets out, which provided wider passing lanes for their zone exits. Coach Barry Trotz attributed the strong first period to his team “skating well.” The shot attempts were 21-20 for Columbus, but Washington had the scoring chance edge. Unfortunately for the Caps, Coach John Tortorella’s club tied the game up at the 6:28 mark when Tom Wilson’s intended pass to Carlson behind the Washington net hit an uneven spot in the left wing corner boards. The puck caromed into the slot and Pierre-Luc Dubois gobbled it up and quickly whipped it past Holtby.

Washington, however, seized some late momentum when Kuznetsov scored with two seconds left after coming out of the penalty box. Lars Eller and Tom Wilson killed the end of the Blue Jackets power play and then they rushed the puck into the Columbus zone. After the puck went below the goal line, Matt Niskanen fetched an errant clear on the right wing boards. Nisky fired it at the net, the disc hit Eller at the right post and then bounced far post where Kuzy was there to pot the rebound.

The Caps, however, could not keep the momentum as Artemi Panarin deflected home a Seth Jones point blast just 27 seconds into the middle frame. Jones, who led all skaters with 25:32 of ice time, was able to get the puck when Dmitry Orlov missed a breakout pass on the left wing boards. At that point, the contest could’ve gone either way, but Washington potted what would be the game winning tally when Jay Beagle outworked Jones in front of the net to notch his sixth goal of the season. This was one of those tallies generated by good ole fashioned hard work. After a sequence of puck cycling by the Caps fourth line, Devante Smith-Pelly took a feed from Orlov on the high left wing boards and he alertly fired the puck at the cage. The shot hit Chandler Stephenson en route to the net and Beags closed the deal on the rebound just 4:38 into period two.

On the ensuing neutral zone faceoff, Lukas Sedlak was whistled for high sticking Nicklas Backstrom and that put Washington on the power play. The Caps couldn’t score with their first unit, but they connected on a rush with part of the second unit on the ice. Eller, T.J. Oshie (assist) and Alex Ovechkin had a three on two and with the Osh Babe going to the net far post, Eller caught Sergei Bobrovsky cheating a little to his right and #20 beat him short side at 6:06. That was six goals in just over 26 minutes of hockey, but that would be all of the red lights for this night.

With the Caps up two pucks, they focused on keeping the Blue Jackets to the perimeter, but in the last 10 minutes of period two, they were not very successful. Columbus had a number of good looks, especially on a late power play with Wilson in the box for tripping, but they were either stopped by the Holtbeast, missed the net, or blocked. Holtby was at his best during this stretch.

In the final stanza, the Capitals limited scoring opportunities for Columbus and they forced their opponents to have to settle for a lot of long range outside shots. The Caps team defense was solid and they didn’t allow the Blue Jackets to get any tipped or screened goals, something they live off of. Washington was outshot attempted 29-14 in period two and 29-16 in period three, but a lot of that is score effects, although winger Brett Connolly thought they needed to be attacking a bit more.

“I think we spent a little too much time in our own end in the third, I think you want to go at teams, but sometimes they push and you’ve just got to be in good position defensively. You try to get in front of pucks and Holts was good a couple of times there to make saves. I thought we were better tonight than in Columbus, a little more solid all around,” said the winger who has 13 goals this season.

Connolly is correct and afterwards Coach Trotz stated that there were “no passengers” on his bench for this one. Washington did skate well, especially early, and the top player in this tilt was Kuznetsov. When he is on, he is flat out dominant and that was the case on Friday. Linemates Vrana and Oshie also performed extremely well. Vrana employed his speed and he was engaged physically in his own end, something the Caps bench boss noted to the media afterwards.

Special teams provided an edge for the Caps, just like it did on Tuesday. Washington went one for four with the man advantage while the Capitals PK unit was a perfect three for three. The Caps generated five of their 17 shots on goal for the game on the power play. At one point in period two, the Capitals had four goals on “Bob” in 11 shots. Volume of shots isn’t something coach Trotz is overly concerned about; he’s more focused on quality shots. He was pleased with the goals and said any time you get four on [Bobrovsky] you should win.

This was a big triumph against a very desperate club that works hard, throws a lot of pucks on the net, and tries to generate ugly goals. The Capitals kept the Blue Jackets off of and out of the line of sight of Holtby. It was another victory that wasn’t pretty. There are no style points in the NHL, but the Caps were better than they were on Tuesday and they had to be to knock off a club that is fighting for their playoff lives.

Notes: Alex Ovechkin had five shot attempts, but none were on net…Kuznetsov was the #1 star. He had two points, four shots on goal, and logged 20:16…Alex Chiasson took the scratched Andre Burakovsky’s spot on the third line. He played only 9:05…Washington lost the faceoff battle, 32-27. Beagle was 6-5…the Caps next game is against the Detroit Red Wings at 3:00 pm from Capital One Arena on Sunday afternoon.

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Chandler Flyers

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Caps Rally to Blast the Flyers, 5-3

Posted on 31 January 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Chandler Stephenson scored twice in 47 seconds early in the middle frame to erase a two goal deficit and Braden Holtby made 27 saves to lead Washington to a 5-3 victory over the despised Flyers on Wednesday night. T.J. Oshie notched the game winning goal on the power play in the third period and the Caps improved to 30-15-5 (65 points). They lead second place Pittsburgh by six points and have two games in hand.

Fresh after the five day All Star Break, the Capitals first period could be summed up in three simple Dr. Seuss like terms: Stink. Stank. Stunk.

The team played slow and there were turnovers galore. Both Flyers tallies came on the rush and Philadelphia would have had another goal if not for a dandy glove save by #70. It was ugly hockey and Coach Barry Trotz’ crew continued their trend of starting poorly coming out of a long break.

From the beginning of the second period on, the game was mostly a different story, especially after Stephenson scored his third and fourth goals of the season. In the opening frame, the Caps were pass happy and unwilling to throw the puck on net against a career backup in Michal Neuvirth. Credit Lars Eller for changing that pattern and igniting the Caps offense. #20 outraced a Flyer to negate an icing and he then sent the puck into Neuvy’s pads from the goal line. The Czech goalie, who was coming off a stomach bug, fumbled the disc in his pads and “Johnny on the Spot” Stephenson banged the biscuit home to give his team some life. Madison Bowey caught the Flyers in a bad line change and sprung #18 for a breakaway with a super long feed. Chandler then beat the Philly netminder five hole, like a rented mule, to tie this one up just 3:01 into period two.

After that, the Flyers had a quick push back, especially with the Capitals being sloppy in their own zone on several occasions. Coach Dave Hakstol’s team should’ve had the lead if not for two great saves by Holtby in the slot after another terrible Washington turnover. The Holtbeast made the first save and then stretched out his left pad to stop goal scoring phenom, Claude Giroux, at the left post. It was, once again, clutch goaltending from the best net minder in the league.

Washington would get the next two goals on the power play, but the first tally was a not so frequent one from the second unit. Once again, it was Eller who made a smart play instead of trying to thread the needle across the high slot to Alex Ovechkin. Lars spotted Andre Burakovsky parked at the top of the crease and his pass to #65 was deflected home at 14:32 of period two. The Caps would press the play towards the end of the second stanza, but couldn’t convert again.

As expected, the Flyers came out storming the castle in period three and Washington, who must’ve been listening to Air Supply’s Greatest Hits during the intermission, were sleep skating and guilty of turning the puck over multiple times. Burakovsky had two bad giveaways that led to Philly chances, but the Holtbeast bailed him out.

Tom Wilson then drew a hooking call on rookie Nolan Patrick just past the four minute mark and the Caps top power play unit made the Flyers pay dearly. Washington worked the puck around the perimeter and then Evgeny Kuznetsov gave Oshie a sweet feed in his diamond spot between the Flyers penalty killers that T.J. buried past Neuvirth on a one timer to make it 4-2. It was a much needed goal for the Osh Babe, who notched his 12th of the season, because it was his first goal since tallying in Arizona back on December 22nd.

The Capitals refused to sit back after going up two pucks and they pressed the play. Ovechkin missed a wide open net on a one timer that would’ve made it a three goal margin, but that wasn’t troubling since shortly thereafter they earned more quality chances. They would eventually cash in when Christian Djoos took a sweet cross ice feed from Jay Beagle on an odd man rush and fired the puck on net. Devante Smith-Pelly was crashing the cage and the disc hit him and went into the twine to make it 5-2 with 10:54 remaining.

The Flyers would get a goal with 9:20 to go, but from there the Capitals clamped things down and gave Philadelphia very little chances. Holtby shut the door with the Caps doing a solid job of letting him see any remaining shots.

Overall, this was a big division victory after a really poor first frame. The Caps top line of Kuznetsov, Wilson, and Ovi were each a minus two in the game, but they did a lot of good things. Wilson drew an important penalty and they were physical. The key to the contest, though, was Eller showing the Capitals that firing the puck on a shaky goalie and then going for rebounds was the way to prevail. It’s simple hockey, but it works well in this league. Washington has some big bodies up front so it’s imperative that they use their size to get to the front of the cage and make life difficult on opposing keepers. That style, versus the Harlem Globetrotters exhibition the team tries to play too often, is one that wins playoff games and series.

At the other end of the ice, the club has plenty of work to do to clean up their zone exits and coverage as they work through a stretch of 15 games in 28 days. Fortunately on Rivalry Night on NBC their all world goalie bailed them out and held them in the contest until they found their legs.

As a result, my number one star for the tilt was once again the Holtbeast.

Notes: The Caps take on the Penguins in the Steel City on Friday night…Burakovsky had four giveaways…Matt Niskanen had a strong game, one of his best all season, and he led the Capitals in ice time with 24:03…the Capitals were 2 for 3 on the power play and 1 for 1 on the penalty kill…Alex Lyon replaced Neuvirth once this one went to a 5-2 margin in period three…the Caps lost the battle of the draws, 36-26. Nicklas Backstrom was 10-10…shots on goal were 30-25 for Philly, but shot attempts were 52-49 for Washington…the Caps were 0-1-1 against the Flyers coming into this affair…the win snapped a three game home losing streak…anytime the Capitals defeat their biggest rival since 1974-75 you can bet that the sun shines brighter, the air smells cleaner, and the food and drink taste much better. Enjoy your Thursday, Caps fans!

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A Detailed Look at the Caps After 45 Games

Posted on 15 January 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Following Jay Beagle’s stunning game winning goal with just over a second left in Carolina on Friday night, the Washington Capitals players headed to Atlantis, Florida, the Caribbean, Colorado, and other mostly warmer destinations for five days of rest and recovery during the team’s now annual bye “week.”

The victory improved the Caps to 28-14-3 (59 points) and they will remain in first place in the Metropolitan Division until they take the ice again on Thursday, against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center.

With the downtime, I’ve put together some lengthy thoughts on a hockey team that has once again positioned itself near the top of the NHL standings and is among the league’s best squads.

Shortchanged It’s called the “bye week,” but the Caps are only getting five days between games while most other teams are getting a six or seven day gap. In addition, the Capitals went into the break playing back to back games and will come out of it in the same fashion facing the Devils on the road and then the Montreal Canadiens at home on Friday evening. The bye break was something the players clamored for in recent years so that they could get away during what is a very long season. The downside of this plan, however, combined with the three day Christmas shutdown and the All-Star Break is a schedule made up of numerous back to back tilts and many three games in four night scenarios. This leads to a poor product on several occasions and a case in point was Washington’s 3-1 loss to Carolina last Thursday when it appeared that many on the squad were already on the beach.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes The 2017 summer saw some very important key Capitals players depart due to the NHL expansion draft and the rising salary cap to include defensemen Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt plus forwards Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, and Daniel Winnik. How General Manager Brian MacLellan and Coach Barry Trotz would handle those personnel losses would hold the key to the 2017-18 season. The Capitals were 30-9-6 (66 points) after 45 games in 2016-17, so they have only seven points less than they were at this point in a Presidents’ Trophy winning campaign. Last year’s team was experienced, stacked and averaged 28.4 years old. This year’s club has relied on contributions from several rookies, to include defensemen Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos as well as forwards Jakub Vrana (10 goals) and Chandler Stephenson (10 points). The average age of the team has dropped to 28.0, which is a significant change considering that each returning player is a year older. Plugging those rookies into the vacated spots alone clearly could not fill the void left by so many quality players. Therefore, Coach Trotz and his staff had to shift to a “rely on the returning players” philosophy while bringing along the young bucks. Comparing ice times in 2017-18 versus 2016-17 shows a very telling picture.

Player 2017-18 Avg TOI 2016-17 Avg TOI Delta
John Carlson 26:09 22:42 +3:42
Matt Niskanen 22:27 22:10 +:17
Dmitry Orlov 23:16 19:32 +3:44
Brooks Orpik 20:42 17:47 +2:55
Alex Ovechkin 19:42 18:21 +1:21
Nicklas Backstrom 19:40 18:15 +1:25
Evgeny Kuznetsov 18:54 16:57 +1:57
T.J. Oshie 18:40 17:51 +:49
Lars Eller 15:20 13:54 +1:26
Tom Wilson 15:29 12:55 +2:34
Brett Connolly 11:35 10:41 +:54
Jay Beagle 12:39 13:37 -:58
Andre Burakovsky 13:35 13:15 +:20

 

In a nutshell, the coaching staff is playing their key players more than last season when they could just roll four lines and wear teams down. There are some major changes in average time on ice on the back end, especially for Carlson, Orlov, and Orpik. Carlson, who is a Norris Trophy candidate despite two rocky games before the bye week break, has been outstanding, especially considering Niskanen has missed 14 games and has played less than 100% healthy in multiple others. As I’ve blogged on several occasions and GM MacLellan noted to The Washington Post last week, the unsung hero on the back end has been Orlov. Number nine has turned into such a strong two way defensemen and he continues to get better. The upside is still there, too, as he probably would have more points if he got more power play time. The concern is Orpik is playing nearly three minutes more than last season simply because he has to while Djoos comes up to speed. Without Brooks to carry a large load in the first 30 games while the rookies were learning and Niskanen was out, this team may have been sunk. Lately though, #44 has shown some wear on his wheels, so a January schedule that sees a lot of breaks should help him out. The improved play of Djoos and Bowey also will be critical in the second half of the season. I fully expect the Caps to add a defensemen at the trade deadline in late February.

Stars in the City There is no doubt that the “Coach’s Robot,” the Gr8, and “All Star” Nicklas Backstrom are a big reason why this team is still one of the best in the league. Ovechkin was overweight and not in ideal shape in 2016-17 and it showed during the regular season and the playoffs. He had only 33 regular season goals, most of which came on the power play, and he was slower and more prone to injury. Alex took management’s direction and trained totally differently this past summer and the results are blatantly obvious. He’s faster than he’s been since perhaps 2010, which has allowed him to generate better quality chances. He’s had several breakaway tallies and is leading the NHL in goals at 28 in 45 games (a 51 goals pace). 20 of those goals are at even strength this season, compared to just 16 in 2016-17. Backstrom had 86 points in 2016-17 and he’s on pace for 17 fewer this campaign, but most of that drop-off came when Trotz had the Gr8 on a different line. That experiment was smartly shelved and since the two have been Peaches and Herb’d, aka Reunited, the team has gone on a tear. There is no one on the planet who knows how to play better with Ovi than Nicky. Kuznetsov is a super talent, but he is so reliant on having the puck while Backstrom is such a strong two way guy that gets the biscuit from the opposition and allows Alex to get the touches he needs to score goals.

Carpe Diem With the departure of key forwards, several younger Capitals have seized the day and opportunity in 2017-18. Kuznetsov is playing nearly two minutes more a game (more on him in a minute), but looking at the average ice times for Eller and Wilson are very revealing. Willy is logging 2:34 more a night and at six goals and 18 points in 41 games he should shatter his career highs. Wherever Coach Trotz has put #43 this season he has produced and the nice thing is it’s been in a top nine role, no more fourth line Tommy. Eller, who is an unrestricted free agent this summer, has nine goals and 21 points in 44 games. He had 12 goals and 25 points in 81 total games in 2016-17. He’s playing 1:26 more a night and he’s become a better contributor, especially offensively, and that was sorely needed. The Washington third line, which was dominant last January when the Capitals were nearly unbeatable, has returned to play a big role in 2017-18. Eller and Connolly (10 goals) have been the staples there and there’s been a rotation of right wings to mostly include Oshie, Burakovsky, Vrana, and Wilson.

Not So Special In 2016-17 the Caps connected on 22.98% of their power plays and killed off 83.92% of their shorthanded situations. The league averages were 19.1% and 80.9%, respectively. In 2017-18, the power play has slowed to a 19.57% connection rate (NHL average is 19.4%) and is only thwarting 79.08% of their manpower disadvantages (NHL average is 80.6%). Simply put, the Capitals, unlike years past, have had to rely more on five on five goal differential to win games. This season they are +14 (91 to 77) in that category. There is lots of room for improvement on the special teams.

Dynamic Duo Looking at the team stats, the Caps have gone from outshooting opponents 30.4 to 27.8 per game in 2016-17 to being outshot 32.3 to 29 in 2017-18. That is a direct result of the change in personnel. Let’s be honest, the Capitals lost a lot of veteran players and are incorporating new blood into the squad. So why have they been able to still be successful? Well, outside of what has been mentioned already, the single biggest factor is the outstanding goaltending from Braden Holtby (24 wins) and Philipp Grubauer (7 quality starts in 12 games). The team save percentage has dropped from .925 to .917, but it’s clear that the quality of shots against has gone up a bit. These two continue to make the big save for Washington at the key time and goalie is the most important position in hockey.

Delivering the Overpass There’s a famous Bill Engvall “Here’s Your Sign” joke about a truck getting stuck with the punch line being, “Nope, I was delivering that overpass and my truck flat ran out of gas…Here’s Your Sign!” Perhaps the organization should bring the legendary comedian in to hand out “Here’s Your Sign” awards for all of those times the Capitals have tried to make an extra pass when they are in the high danger scoring areas? Guilty party number one on that list is Kuznetsov. When #92 plays the right way, and he’s had some nice stretches of that, the Caps dominate. He ranks second on the team in goals (13) and when he carries a shoot first mentality he is deadly on the ice because the defense has no idea what he is going to do, pass or shoot. Too often, though, he is in Harlem Globetrotters fancy pants mode, and that is much easier to defend. He needs to cut back on the circling pattern where he takes himself out of the high danger scoring area and eventually turns the puck over. That issue has crept into others on this team, to include Oshie, who I’d like to see shoot more. This is a shoot first league and with the goaltending being so good, rebounds or shots from high danger areas with traffic are the best way to beat them. Do the Caps think they have to make the pretty play so often because they practice against two of the best goalies in the league regularly? That could be a factor, but if they just looked at their recent tallies, many of them are just shots from the middle of the ice with players going to the net or using a defender to screen his own keeper. It’s not rocket science and it’s one of the big reasons the Caps are down in the shots on net and shots attempted statistics. They have the puck often, but many times they possess it for awhile and never generate a shot. They need to dump that habit and the cross ice pass at the offensive blue line if they want to go deep into the post season.

Where’s the Six Million Dollar Man? If you had told me on October 1st that Burakovksy would only have three goals after the Caps have played 45 games, I would have said the Caps would not be in playoff position. Luckily, I would’ve been wrong. #65 has played only 21 games due to injuries and overall malaise, but the man who signed a two year deal for a total of $6M is a very key cog in the wheel if Washington wants to challenge for the Stanley Cup. If I was Andre, the first thing I’d do after getting home from the Bahamas would be to pull out the tape of game six against the Penguins last spring and watch it. That’s the way Andre needs to play to be successful, very physical on the opposing boards and puck so that he can score and generate goals. He can be that player if he puts his mind to it and works hard. A return to form by Burakovsky is a must from now until June.

In summary, even with the personnel losses from last season, the Capitals have still positioned themselves among the best teams in the league. Despite what some statistics, such as Corsi, try to tell you, this positive outcome is not just pure luck. As I’ve chronicled, there’s been a method to the team’s success, which also includes a unique ability, much like the Pittsburgh Penguins have done the last two seasons, to counter attack and be deadly on the rush. Speed is an important aspect of hockey and the Capitals have improved in that department. Their save percentage is slightly down, but their goalies have been stellar and they aren’t living off of a higher shooting percentage. They are connecting on 10.5% of their shots, just like they did last season. The league average is around 9%, but the Caps have high end talent, unlike a Corsi loved team like Carolina, who throw a lot of pucks on net from everywhere, but don’t have the Ovechkins, Kuznetsovs, Backstroms and Oshies of the world who have great shots. Looking at another favorite analytic stat, PDO, which measures shooting percentage plus save percentage at even strength, it shows the Caps were at 102.4 in 2016-17 and this season they have dropped to 101.6 (meaning they’ve been less lucky). I’ve stated this axiom in blogs and on the air on WNST many times; it’s great to look at statistics, but in the grand scheme of things, hockey is a game of high skill and talent, it is non-linear and is chaos theory. The Washington Capitals have high end talent and the organization has structured the team around that. Now the question is can they continue to improve down the stretch so that they can peak in the post season?

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