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Caps Squander Chance To Win Series

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Caps Squander Chance To Win Series

Posted on 22 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

It was all there for the taking for the Washington Capitals on Sunday. They had a 3-2 series lead against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins and a chance to close them out in their own building.

And they blew it. Again.

Life as a Caps fan seems to be a never ending run of crushing defeats so why should 2012 be any different, right? That has to be what Capitals fans were thinking as they were filing out of the Verizon Center after the Bruins Tyler Seguin scored just over three minutes into overtime following a horrible attempted long pass up the middle of the ice by Nicklas Backstrom that was intercepted and turned around quickly on Washington. Seguin split Dennis Wideman and Roman Hamrlik, faked out goalie Braden Holtby (27 saves) one on one, then deposited the biscuit behind #70 to add yet another horrifying chapter to a book that could be distributed to many Capitals fans in this area and titled, ”My Life in Pain as a Caps Fan.”

About the only good news out of this crushing loss is there is still yet another contest to be played in Beantown on Wednesday night. But does anyone who has followed this team long term or even since the creation of the “Young Guns” feel like they will find a way to win? There probably aren’t a lot of takers given the black cloud that seems to follow this franchise around come each April and May.

So why did they fail to capitalize on a golden opportunity to win a series that has been ultra close for all six games (in fact, this is the first NHL series ever to go six games with each featuring one goal victories)?

To me, the focus has to be on the Young Guns. Let’s start with Backstrom, who made some super plays, like the setup of Jason Chimera for Washington’s second goal or the face-off win that allowed Alexander Ovechkin to tie the game with 4:52 to go in regulation. However, it was #19′s low probability feed to Marcus Johansson that utimately ended this one and the Young Swede who missed 40 regular season games due to a concussion probably doesn’t feel too good about his lack of backchecking on the Boston third goal. That tally was set up by an Alexander Semin turnover in the offensive zone after #28 tried to be too cute with the puck. Semin has been really good in this series but today he was below average. He took a bad penalty that led to the Bruins first goal and only their second power play goal of the series (now 2 for 20). He was -2 and did not register a point. Ovechkin scored the big tying tally but overall he looks out of sync. The Gr8 is trying to do too much himself and his defensive zone play still needs massive amounts of work. In addition, his performance on the point on the power play, which went 0 for 4 today, was less than stellar. About the only one of the four that had an okay game was Mike Green, who scored his first goal since October to tie the game up at one in the opening frame. But #52 only played 17 minutes, including not being put out on the first power play unit.

Instead of Green, the team is using Wideman on the right point and #6 didn’t do much good in over six minutes of power play time. In fact the first unit of Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, Keith Aucoin and Wideman needs to be blown up. There is not enough net presence with those five. I’d much prefer Ovechkin be moved on the half wall (of course I’ve been saying this for two years) with #19 on the other wall. Get Brooks Laich out in front or someone who will create traffic on Tim Thomas (36 saves) there. Finally, put Green back on the point and I’d even prefer John Carlson as the other blue liner instead of Wideman.

Playoff games are often won or lost via special teams and Boston was +1 in that department today. For the series, the Caps are 3 for 18 (16.7%) with the man advantage while they are 18 for 20 (90%) on the penalty kill. Game seven will likely be decided by special teams so it is paramount that Washington focus their efforts on those units in Tuesday’s practice.

Another thing Washington must do in game seven is to limit turnovers while staying out of the penalty box. Troy Brouwer’s decision to muck it up with Benoit Pouliot late in period two ended up putting the Caps in a 4 on 4 situation that quickly became a Boston 4 on 3. Somehow the Caps survived Zdeno Chara’s big shot in that instance but they may not be as lucky on Wednesday. Discipline is a big key for the Caps to have any chance.

So we move once again to a decisive game seven where the Caps overall franchise record is 2-7. They are 2-6 at home with the one away loss coming in Pittsburgh in 1995. Therefore, maybe since this one is on the road they may stand a better chance? After all, there is less pressure on the visitors and they don’t have ticket requests and distractions to deal with. They just have to show up and play hockey.

Show up and play hockey is exactly what they must do. They made too many mistakes on Sunday in a one goal loss, so if they clean up their act and the Young Guns perform at the level they are capable of, then anything can happen.

If they don’t, then we may have seen the end of the Young Guns along with some other big changes.

Notes: Defensemen Karl Alzner led the Caps in ice time with 24:21…because John Erskine only played 8 minutes and change, the Caps went mostly with five defensemen and that messes up the rotation…kind of hard to do this at this point, but perhaps Dmitry Orlov should get a sweater for game seven? He is more mobile than both Erskine and Jeff Schultz…Mike Knuble was +1 in only 5:58 of ice time but it was his work in front that allowed Green to score his goal. Seems like #22 has earned more minutes, no?

 

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The Caps Season Can All Change on Sunday

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The Caps Season Can All Change on Sunday

Posted on 22 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals are on the verge of potentially changing their entire season in game six against the Boston Bruins on Sunday afternoon at the Verizon Center.

The much maligned in the media Caps, who were considered huge underdogs coming into this series with the Bruins, just might be able to change the perceptions of those who have been critical of them thanks to a gritty 4-3 victory on Saturday in Boston in game five of this best of seven series.

But media perceptions don’t really matter to this club, for perhaps the first time in a long while. That is primarily the case because they have taken on the identity of their head coach, Dale Hunter, and are singularly focused on results. Hunter doesn’t care what the media thinks, he just wants to win. His press conferences are proof of that. The coach pretty much says nothing, which is exactly what I would want my coach saying after each game, and especially in the playoffs. Too many words from the head coach can wear a team out and drain them emotionally, that won’t happen with Hunter (and as I predicted on twitter weeks ago, the New York Rangers are on the brink of elimination despite having the best record in the East, partially due to the fact that their coach likes to have too much conflict and discussion with the media). 

That identity I spoke of above is an almost unflappable demeanor, something this Capitals club struggled to display in the past. The minute adversity hit before, especially in the post season, they would often get caught up in it and fall apart. That doesn’t appear to be the case anymore. After the Caps gave up a 2-0 lead by allowing two goals in 28 seconds towards the end of period two today how many people were writing them off for the game and likely the series? I imagine you could get on twitter and find tweet after tweet burying this team when the Bruins turned up the heat.

However, this cast of characters, which received super goaltending from Braden Holtby (34 saves) once again, didn’t panic and came out composed for the final frame after they barely survived the last couple of minutes in period two. Mike Knuble scored a key goal on a rebound of a Joel Ward shot. But then adversity hit again when Marcus Johansson took too long to make a decision with the puck coming out of his own zone. Boston stripped the puck from MJ90 and Dennis Wideman was then whistled for a penalty. Next thing you know Boston scores their first power play goal of the series to tie it up. Caps nation, given past playoff failures, were probably saying “I’ve seen this movie before” and were waiting for the inevitable Bruins game winner to occur.

But it never happened. Hunter’s crew didn’t sulk and merely kept playing. Then they received a late power play when Nicklas Backstrom was hooked and Troy Brouwer took full advantage scoring with 1:27 to go on the rush. Washington would do a super job of preventing Boston from getting any really good chances late and as John Walton likes to say after victories it was “Good morning, Good afternoon, and Good night Boston!”

It was a huge win and puts the Caps in position to knock off the defending champs. But that win will be the hardest one they’ve ever tried to achieve. The Bruins faced the same situation in the Stanley Cup Finals, a 3-2 series deficit, and won the last two games to grab Lord Stanley’s Cup last season. You can bet that Boston will give everything they have on Sunday. Their coach is already whining again about the Capitals late power play to try and influence the referees, in a move we’ve seen from him far too often (hopefully the NHL is tired of it too). So the Caps will have to match the Bruins intensity and play smart once again. They have to stick to Hunter’s plan and not free lance defensively. If they stray from the blue print, then that means a game seven in Boston on Wednesday.

Simply put, the Caps have a chance to finally put a bad regular season behind them for good tomorrow. Will they finally be able to do that?

Puck drop is at 3pm, don’t miss it.

Notes: Alexander Ovechkin went for the big hit in the neutral zone and missed in period two and that led to the first Boston goal. Ovechkin only played 15:34 in game five and it is clear Hunter doesn’t like the matchups he is getting when the Gr8 is on the ice. Ovechkin needs to be better defensively as well…John Carlson and Karl Alzner were an outstanding duo again and they led the Caps in ice time with 25:05 and 24:37, respectively…Boston outshot the Caps 37-32 but shot attempts were even more lopsided, 70-48…the Caps went 1 for 3 on the power play and are 3 for 14 in the series. Boston went 1 for 4 and are 1 for 15 in the series.

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Bruins Ramp Up Physical Play, Take Game 3

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Bruins Ramp Up Physical Play, Take Game 3

Posted on 16 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

After the Caps won game two in Boston, Bruins Coach Claude Julien challenged his team to be tougher and more physical around Washington goalie Braden Holtby. On Monday night, his club responded by crashing the cage and playing an ultra physical game in a 4-3 victory at the Verizon Center. The Bruins now lead the best of seven series two games to one with game four on Thursday night in DC.

This game was there for the taking for the Caps as they opened up a 1-0 lead when their power play connected on its first try. Alexander Semin scored on a shot from the top of the circles with Brooks Laich running traffic on Tim Thomas with four minutes left in period one. Washington played pretty solid defense in that opening frame and Holtby was looking in great in net.

But Holtby finally blinked on a four on four situation and he let in a softie on Rich Peverley’s wrister. Alexander Ovechkin answered 13 seconds later and it seemed that the Caps were going to right the ship.

However, the Caps started to forget to do the little things, which is playing good defense away from the puck. That ability had gotten them the good showing in Boston but the defensive discipline started to slip away in the middle period and when Mathieu Perreault lost Daniel Paille in front of the net, #20 had a layup to tie the game up. Things then got worse in Washington’s own end as Laich allowed Brian Rolston to score again from in front early in period three. Laich would then tie it up with six minutes left scoring on a breakaway after a great feed from Nicklas Backstrom.

Boston received a questionable power play late, and I won’t even go there with the NHL referees who are having a tough playoffs across the board, but then Milan Lucic paid the price for his extra curricular physical play getting a four minute rough to just two minutes for Matt Hendricks. It seemed to be a good break for Washington but four on four has not been their game this year and the B’s took the lead late on Chara’s point blast that hit a Capitals stick on the way in. The Caps pressured late with Holtby pulled but couldn’t connect.

So Julien tried his coaching move and his team responded. The Bruins outhit the Caps 58-36. Washington is more skilled and doesn’t want to get into that type of game but the way this one was being called, it played right into Boston’s hands.

Now it is time for Dale Hunter to make adjustments. First thing the Caps need to do is not get into the post whistle scrums and focus on the play with the clock moving. That wrestling stuff seems to heavily favor Boston. Washington also needs to clean up their own zone again and watch the guys away from the puck. Finally, they must correct their neutral zone, as the Caps tried too many cross ice plays that were intercepted.

Simply put, the Caps have the speed advantage in this series and need to get back to using that by dumping the puck behind the slow Boston defense and employing their cycle game to generate chances. The neutral zone miscues give the Bruins more time to set up their physical play and pound the Washington defense. The turnovers and poor coverage are not a recipe for playoff success.

Your move Dale.

Notes: The Caps lost the faceoff battle 37-33.  Marcus Johansson was 1-5…Perreault only played 4:23 and his ice time suffered for his defensive lapse in period two…Laich had three points (1G, 2A)…Mike Green led the Caps in ice time with 26:35….Backstrom was given a match penalty for cross checking Peverley as time expired. That carries an automatic one game suspension unless it is rescinded. Replays seem to come to #19′s aid but with the NHL, who knows?!

 

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Caps Coming Together As A Team At Right Time

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Caps Coming Together As A Team At Right Time

Posted on 14 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

After Thursday’s tough 1-0 overtime loss to the Bruins, something happened, in defeat, with the Washington Capitals that spoke volumes to me. The Caps, with captain Alexander Ovechkin as one of the leaders, came out and mobbed rookie goalie Braden Holtby almost as if the team had won the game instead of leaving #70 to skate off by himself while the rest of the players filed off of the bench and down the tunnel, like typically happens more often than not around the league in overtime playoff losses.

What did that tell me? That this hockey club, that has had an extremely tumultuous season, is coming together as a team, at the right time. Today, they backed that feeling up for me with a gritty, 2-1, win in Boston in double overtime to tie this best of seven series up at one game apiece.

Holtby (43 saves) was excellent in goal again and so far he appears to be the catalyst for the Caps recent bonding. The rookie goalie is making timely saves so the team has confidence in him and as a result they are giving the defending Stanley Cup Champions fits so far. After Boston carried most of game one, the Capitals came out and more than held their own in this contest. Ovechkin (1 assist) had a much stronger effort and he relied more on his power than finesse, in this tilt. In fact, his strong play on the wall led to Troy Brouwer’s goalmouth tally that gave the Caps a 1-0 lead late in period two. It was a sandpaper type of goal and one Washington needed to prove they could find a way to get a puck past Tim Thomas (37 saves), who has been playing phenomenal, as well.

Even after Benouit Pouliot scored with just under eight minutes left in regulation to tie the game up, on a play where he bowled over Holtby after tipping the puck by him, the young goalie and his club didn’t appear panicked. Washington stuck to Coach Dale Hunter’s game plan of being responsible in their own zone and it worked.

Playoff games are often won or lost on special teams or on faceoffs. With both teams still failing to score on the power play in this series, it was an offensive zone draw that proved decisive for the Caps. Patrice Bergeron actually won it, but Nicklas Backstrom managed to push the puck below the goal line where Marcus Johansson corraled it. With three Boston defenders focused on MJ90, the young swede slid the puck to a wide open #19 in the slot, who fired one past Thomas for the game winner.

The Caps bench erupted and instead of going down 2-0, Washington is more than in this series.

The Bruins are still the favorites right now. After all, they have a ton of experience from last season to fall back on. They are a deep team with an excellent goalie. They play a physical game. They are supposed to win.

But the Capitals are healthy at the right time at forward and on defense, and the young Holtby is seizing a huge opportunity in goal to provide a backbone for this team. He is making key saves and also helping his defense out with his superior stick handling skills.

The kid is playing well but the pundits are still backing the defending champs.

But with those expectations comes more pressure for Boston. The Caps have internal pressure to win, but the media has mostly written them off.

It seems the lack of belief in them, along with some timely health, and the emergence of Holtby in net has allowed this Capitals club to come together as a team at the right time.

The key will be keeping it up by sticking together, listening to their coaches, and putting the team first. That is how you win playoff games and a series.

Notes: Karl Alzner and John Carlson were outstanding on defense today and that is four really good games in a row for #74, who is peaking at the right time…Johansson was the game’s first star while Alzner got the second. #27 is super smart on the ice…the Caps won the faceoff battle 34-30 with Jay Beagle going 11-6. #83 has been dominant on draws in this series…Mike Green was +2 and he led all Capitals in ice time with 33:28. He and Roman Hamrlik are playing very well together…Dennis Wideman and Jeff Schultz were once again on the ice for the Boston goal and have been the weakest defensive pair for the Caps. Wideman’s ice time was just over 20 minutes, where it likely should be with the other two D-pairs playing so well.

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Can the Caps Shock the Defending Champs?

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Can the Caps Shock the Defending Champs?

Posted on 11 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

If you are a hockey fan this is the best time of the year, the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It is a two month stretch like no other in sports and the reward is one of the most coveted trophies going. For Washington Capitals fans, this is also a traditional time of great hope typically followed by torment and frustration. You see those of us who have supported this team from its’ inception in the 1974-75 season are still waiting for the first visit from Lord Stanley to the local franchise.

The last few years have renewed the promise of a championship that Capitals fans started feeling back in the 1980′s and 90′s but unfortunately, the endings that came with it then have once again returned recently. Great regular seasons were abruplty ended by seemingly out of nowhere losing streaks in 2010 and 2011. This after the crushing game seven losses to the Flyers and Penguins in 2008 and 2009, respectively. New Capitals fans, and there are many of them and that is a good thing, can now understand what the long time sufferers have endured. The rite of spring around here for hockey fans often leads to group therapy sessions on the links after the first or second round of the playoffs.

Ironically, it has been some of the Capitals teams that have struggled in the regular season that have had the best playoff runs in team history. The 1990 Caps crew coached by Terry Murray finished two games under .500 but knocked off the Devils and Rangers before losing to the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals. Then in 1998, the 4th seeded Caps beat Boston, Ottawa, and Buffalo before Ron Wilson’s club was swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the Finals. Both Murray and Wilson were first year Capitals coaches in those seasons (Murray took over for his brother, Bryan).

This year, the Caps are a 7th seed after a rough regular season that saw Dale Hunter come in after just 22 games to replace Bruce Boudreau behind the bench. Washington, who were picked by many back in October to win the Eastern Conference, appears to be flying under the radar if you read most of the national and local series previews and predictions.

So can this crew of players, who underachieved in the first 82 games, find a way to knock off the defending Stanley Cup Champion Bruins?

Let’s take a closer look.

My first reaction when the matchup was established was that I did not want the Caps to play the defending Stanley Cup Champions. The Bruins have experience at winning in the post season and they have two players who are among the best at their position in the entire league in defensemen Zdeno Chara and goalie Tim Thomas. However, Boston has been the hunted all season and they will have pressure to win again. The Caps have had a subpar regular season but outside of in net, they are finally healthy at the right time.

One would have to think the Capitals have yet to play their best hockey simply because they have had the key injuries. Boston’s best stretch came in November and December when they were nearly unbeatable. There are lots of good forwards on Boston but to me, the most important one is Patrice Bergeron. From a media standpoint he is an “under the radar” guy but everyone in the NHL knows how good this guy really is. #37 makes it happen for Boston and if Washington can find a way to slow him down then that could prove decisive. This series should be a very tight checking one and to me the team that takes care of the puck the best will win.

When it comes to series matchups, the one to watch is definitely Alexander Ovechkin vs. Zdeno Chara. There is no doubt that #33 loves playing against the Great 8 and he will use his stick and size to try and slow Ovechkin down. Alex has a major speed advantage so Hunter will need to try to find a way to get Ovechkin moving when he is approaching Chara. Alex also has to find a way to effectively use his teammates. His play away from the puck will be key to this matchup. If he plays strong in his own zone and creates some turnovers, he will get breakaways and/or odd man rushes. If he doesn’t bear down below the blue line then he will be easily neurtralized.

The difference, after turnovers, is going to be goaltending. If Braden Holtby remains composed and plays the way the whole organization knows he can play, then the Capitals have a chance to advance. #70 must be smart on when to be aggressive and help his defense by moving the puck. The Bruins are big and like to pound defensemen so Holtby’s stick handling could neutralize the forechecking ability of Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand. Tim Thomas runs hot and cold. It is vitally important that the Capitals get a lot of traffic on him. He can be rattled and guys like Matt Hendricks, Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer, and Brooks Laich need to do that by crashing the crease.

The Capitals won three of the four regular season games and the one loss came with a depleted lineup (no Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, or Oveckhin plus Laich was injured in the middle frame). I’ve never been one to base playoff predictions off of regular season records, but statistics guru Neil Greenberg (@ngreenberg) tweeted that 77% of the time the team that won the regular season series is victorious in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

So the Caps have that going for them….which is nice.

But surely Washington won’t be able to knock off a deep and experienced Bruins club, right? After the regular season Washington had, this should be easy pickings for the B’s, correct?

I say, not so fast. This is not a bad matchup for Washington and they should be able to use their speed guys like Marcus Johansson and Jason Chimera to take advantage of Boston’s defense. As I said above, if Holtby holds up and the Caps limit their turnovers, they are right in it.

Call me crazy, call me a homer, call me whatever you want, but I say, yes, the Caps are gonna shock the NHL and knock off the defending champs in six games.

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Will the Caps Best Hockey Come in the Post Season?

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Will the Caps Best Hockey Come in the Post Season?

Posted on 11 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Just two days before they open their playoff series in Boston against the Bruins on Thursday night (7:30 pm on Comcast Sportsnet) the Washington Capitals hit the ice at Kettler IcePlex and had a high intensity and spirited practice. The Caps went 5-2 down the stretch, and after what appeared to be a disastrous loss to Buffalo on March 27th, they shook it off and played some good hockey. In my book, this Capitals team, which missed Mike Green for most of the season and Nicklas Backstrom for 40 games, still has yet to play its’ best hockey. In years past that has not been the case, so I spoke with some of the players to get their take on that premise.

“We’ve been better in the past couple of weeks, I think we’ve been playing better hockey, but we’ve got more to offer. Our best player, [Alexander Ovechkin], he’s been playing better and he’s gonna get better and with the playoffs coming I think everybody is going to put everything on the line. It’s different for us this year as a seventh seed instead of the first seed, so I think it’s going to be different. We’re ready, we’re hungry for the playoffs, I think we’ll be ready to go,” said center Mathieu Perreault, who scored 16 goals in 2011-12.

“I think everybody knows it’s a long and season and it’s tough to ask any team to keep at that level where you play your best or have your best, I would say, and we haven’t. Lately, especially at the end of the season, I think we play solid games. I think we played pretty good against some tough teams and we’ve proven we can play against anybody. But, that’s past, that’s over. I think this is a new season that is going to start with the playoffs, it’s totally different hockey. Now we have to bring our best,” added defenseman Roman Hamrlik, who I thought played his finest game of the year in the season finale in New York.

It is one thing to admit you haven’t played your best hockey and another thing to then go out and do it. Both former coach Bruce Boudreau and new coach Dale Hunter have talked about playing simple. This Caps team is highly talented and skilled, especially at wing, but the club has a tendency to try and make the perfect play. So can these guys put those past patterns aside and simplify their game?

“Lately we try to keep it simple, our D is just up the wall to the winger, chip it in and get on the forecheck. I think we are a better team when we do that and we work down low. We are a good team cycling the puck to the net so we are going to have to do that,” added Perreault on a reason why the team has played better in the last five games.

“What do we have to do? We talked about that the whole season. Just play our system, stick with what we have to do. Make the first quick pass on the tape and get the puck quickly and out of our zone and cycle the team and play in their zone. Try to stay out of the box. They have a pretty good power play. Be mentally ready and prepared for a big challenge. They won last year and everybody knows they’re a championship team. They have a pretty good solid hard working team and we have to bring everything we’ve got,” said Hamrlik, echoing the importance of the easy pass and cycle game.

Certainly special teams is going to be a huge factor, especially the power play in this series (btw, if you haven’t read this post by Caps beat writer Mike Vogel, then make sure you check it out). The unit has been very bad at home and one of the major reasons is the overpassing of the puck. On Tuesday the team practiced it and there was an emphasis on shots from the point with traffic in front of the opposing goalie. But we’ve seen and heard that before only to see that strategy abandoned come game time. Last Saturday against the Rangers, the power play was mostly atrocious and yielded several shorthanded chances. But when John Carlson was on the ice, things were different and Washington scored. #74 stuck to the formula the coaches have been selling so it is paramount that Green, Oveckhin, Dennis Wideman, and others buy in. A playoff series can be won alone on special teams, as the Vogel story points out.

“Yes, we are trying to be cute sometimes with the skill that we have, especially on the point and the top of the power play we should use [the shot] more if we see an open lane and there is a little bit of traffic. That is how most of the goals are going in, they’re through traffic or screens or they’re banging them in around the goal line. I think that we’ve been talking about that a little bit more,” added Carlson, who certainly gets it and should see more man advantage time on the point, in my book.

Another big factor for the Caps to play their best begins in net with goalie Braden Holtby. Not only does #70 need to stop the puck, but against a physical team like Boston he has to help his defense out with his superior puck handling skills. Holtby hasn’t been up all season so the defense isn’t as used to his habits as a team would like. That puts a heavy onus on the communication between the net minder and the defenders.

“I had Carey Price in Montreal. He loves to go behind the net and he likes to play the puck and it helps you, from my experience it is like a third defensemen. He goes and he plays the puck and it makes it easy on yourself and helps us for not facing too much to the boards and getting hit. First we have to talk to him and it is all about communication. The games he played he did a pretty good job so hopefully he’s going to continue to do that,” said Hamrlik on Holtby and the importance of communication with a stick handling adept goalie.

“I think the communication is always there, I think it is still hard because obviously when the D are coming back for the puck we see one thing and he’s looking up and he sees another thing. It’s tough to communicate perfectly every time, but we do our best. He helps us out, especially on just little plays where we can go behind the net and he can get out of the net and play it to us. We still have time to maybe get the back of the net so they can’t pressure us right off of the bat. That is huge, first off we don’t get run every time and we have time to make a play, make the right play, and break out of the zone,” added Carlson providing some interesting scenarios for where #70 can make a huge difference.

So when you sum it up, for Washington to play its’ best hockey of the season they are going to have to simplify their game, win the special teams battle, and get stops plus puck movement from their goalie. As Hamrlik told me, there is a battle going on for every inch of space in the post season. Boston is a very good team and will try and be physical with Washington. That doesn’t bother guys like Perreault, who says that he doesn’t mind going into the high traffic areas. If #85 is doing that, then one would hope that Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, and others do that as well. Even Ovechkin should make a habit of stopping in front of the net more often because the closer you are to the net, the higher the probability of the shot going in.

The formula is there for Washington to upset Boston, who are the heavy favorites based on the numerous series’ previews I’ve seen, but the execution is what matters.

Will this year be different? We’ll find out soon enough.

Notes: The Caps recalled forward Mattias Sjogren from Sweden today and he will practice with the team during the postseason. He is not eligible to play for Hershey in the AHL playoffs…both injured goalies Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth tried skating on Tuesday. #30 had the better session, but it doesn’t look like either guy will be ready to start a game any time soon…Hamrlik has a lot of playoff history against Boston and remember the Canadiens won the first two games of the opening round series last season before losing in overtime in game seven to the B’s..I will have my final series preview and prediction up on Wednesday night.

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Caps Set to Face Bruins With Holtby in Goal

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Caps Set to Face Bruins With Holtby in Goal

Posted on 08 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The NHL unveiled the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoff schedule on Sunday afternoon and the 16 teams that qualified now start 0-0 as they vie for one of the most coveted trophies in all of sports. The Washington Capitals, by virtue of their thrashing of the New York Rangers on Saturday combined with Ottawa’s loss to the New Jersey Devils, ended up in 7th place in the Eastern Conference. As a result they draw the #2 seed, which is none other than the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins.

Washington will be a heavy underdog in this series but that doesn’t mean a whole lot once the puck is dropped. The Caps had a difficult regular season but for the first time since the first seven games of the season, their skaters are all healthy. Nicklas Backstrom had his best outing in the win over New York since returning from a 40 game absence due to a concussion. Mike Green is as healthy as he is going to be following hernia surgery in January and there are no other major ailments that coach Dale Hunter has to deal with at forward or on defense.

The problem though, is that both goalies Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth are injured leaving rookie Braden Holtby as the likely starter when this series kicks off on Thursday in Beantown. The good news is that Holtby hasn’t played like a rookie and #70 does not represent a big dropoff from Vokoun and Neuvirth. Holtby, who has been compared to a young Olie Kolzig, brings an added dimension with his ability to play the puck. NHL defensemen like a goalie who can do that effectively because it limits the number of times they can be rammed into the back boards by opposing forwards.

It will be up to Hunter and assistant coach Jim Johnson to take advantage of Holtby’s superior stickhandling skills to neutralize a Bruins team that likes to get the puck deep and physically pound their opponent with Milan Lucic and the scrappy Brad Marchand. Boston also has some serious skill up front in Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Tyler Seguin. Their defense is lead by 2009 Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara and in goal they have two time Vezina trophy winner, Tim Thomas. Boston is a very good team and the Caps will have their hands full, no doubt.

I will have my series preview up later in the week but for now here is the full schedule, including television information, for the first round series:

Thursday, April 12, 2012 7:30 p.m. Washington at Boston TV: CSN, NBCSN, CBC

Saturday, April 14, 2012 3 p.m. Washington at Boston TV: NBC, CBC

Monday, April 16, 2012 7:30 p.m. Boston at Washington TV: CSN, NBCSN, CBC

Thursday, April 19, 2012 7:30 p.m. Boston at Washington TV: CSN, NBCSN, CBC

*Saturday, April 21, 2012 3 p.m. Washington at Boston TV: NBC, CBC

*Sunday, April 22, 2012 TBD Boston at Washington TV: TBD

*Wednesday, April 25, 2012 TBD Washington at Boston TV: TBD

 

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Caps Still Alive After Huge Win

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Caps Still Alive After Huge Win

Posted on 29 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals sure do know how to make things interesting. One game after laying an egg in their own building in a huge contest against the Buffalo Sabres, the Caps went into Boston and played a super road game to grab a 2-0 lead with four minutes left. No problem, right? Well, to quote that old Sundance Kid saying, “You Figured Wrong, Butch.” A couple of defensive breakdowns resulted in two late Bruins goals to force overtime and after Alexander Ovechkin (two assists) just missed late in overtime, it appeared the Capitals were going to lose once again in the shootout. After all, Boston was 8-2 in those things this year.

But the Caps got gimmick tallies from Matt Hendricks, Alex Semin (with the game on the line), and then Brooks Laich along with some big saves from Michal Neuvirth to gain a critical two points. It was a huge win over the defending Stanley Cup Champs, the Caps third victory over the B’s this season, and puts them back in a tie with the Buffalo Sabres for the eighth and final playoff spot. The Sabres have a game in hand and that one comes tomorrow night against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

This Caps team has had a roller coaster of a season and you just never know what the result will be. Tonight they had a terrible first period, one in which Jason Chimera was kicked out for charging (the Bruins player turned, which made it look bad, but what do you expect from the zebras?), goalie Tomas Vokoun left the game due to injury, and the Capitals could muster just two shots. But they managed to kill off the five minute major, overcome the goalie switch to Neuvirth and get out of that frame unscathed on the scoreboard, where it counts.

The second stanza was more tight checking with not much skating room and this one went to a critical third period, scoreless. The Capitals had to find a way to get a win in enemy territory and they took over with Ovechkin, Marcus Johansson (1 goal, 1 assist), Laich, and Dennis Wideman (1 goal) providing the offense. The Gr8 had another gear in the third period and overtime playing a major role in the victory. His pass to MJ90 on the second goal on a 2 on 1 was a thing of beauty. As for Johansson, the sophomore has had some of his best games against the boys from Beantown and he delivered tonight.

So it is back home to face the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night in another must win game. The good news is Nicklas Backstrom appears set to return against the Habs (btw, the player who injured #19, Rene Bourque, will be playing too).

The return of Backstrom is necessary if the team wants to get in the playoffs. They have four games remaining and they might need to win them all the way Buffalo is playing. There is no margin for error and any help they can get from other teams is surely appreciateed.

But they found a way to get it done themselves in Boston against the defending champs and now they can spend a night scoreboard watching.

Caps players and fans alike almost never utter the following words, but they will be tomorrow night:

Go Sidney Crosby!

Go Evgeni Malkin!

Go Marc-Andre Fleury!

Coach ‘em up, Dan Bylsma!

Notes: Washington lost the face-off battle 35-23 with Laich going 4-14…Vokoun had seven saves before likely re-injuring his bad groin while Neuvirth halted 19 Boston shots…attempted shots were 65-46 in favor of the Bruins. The Caps had 21 shots on net…Florida lost in overtime on Thursday so the Caps trail the division leading Panthers by four points but Florida has a game in hand.

 

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Hunter’s Latest Lineup Paying Dividends

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Hunter’s Latest Lineup Paying Dividends

Posted on 10 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Caps Can’t Convert Chances in Loss to Bruins

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Caps Can’t Convert Chances in Loss to Bruins

Posted on 05 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Tim Thomas didn’t win the Conn Smythe Trophy as 2011 Stanley Cup Playoff MVP for nothing and on Sunday at the Verizon Center he showed once again why the Boston Bruins are the defending NHL Champions. Thomas’ stellar play in goal (35 saves) propelled the B’s to a 4-1 victory over the Washington Capitals on Super Bowl Sunday.

Despite the loss, there were a lot of positives once again for Washington (27-21-4). They outshot Boston, 36-30, but more importantly, they had a slight edge in scoring chances despite trailing 2-0 after 40 minutes. Alexander Semin had a clean breakaway that Thomas thwarted and Alexander Ovechkin missed a mostly open net in period one while the Bruins converted on a Dennis Wideman mistake in the Caps end that left Milan Lucic all alone in front of Tomas Vokoun (26 saves) and they notched a Brad Marchand tally when Washington had three players behind their own net to Boston’s lone Patrice Bergeron. Somehow #37 was able to get the puck to #63 at the side of the net for a tap in with Karl Alzner, John Carlson, and Brooks Laich all in the vicinity of the Bruins center. Getting both defensemen caught behind the net is a no-no in hockey no matter what the system, but especially in a man to man defense, and that mental mistake was costly.

This contest was different than Saturday’s tilt in Montreal where there wasn’t a whole lot of skating room on the ice. With both teams having played on Saturday the game was more open and it was entertaining hockey. An undermanned Capitals squad managed to hold its’ own against the defending champs and if not for Thomas this game could have easily been a Washington victory.

“Yeah, we did have some good [chances]. Thomas played a pretty good game. He made some big saves as he usually does. It’s frustrating when you see that you do have a chance to score and it doesn’t go in. Ovie had that open net and I don’t know exactly what kept it out there. It’s gonna happen, that’s a good team over there. You can’t really give them a whole lot without paying for it. For what we did give them we paid for it,” added Alzner.

The really bad news for the Capitals is they may have lost another one of their top players when Laich crashed hard into the boards with Dennis Seidenberg in period two. #21 went to the ice and crawled towards the Washington bench before being helped through the door and then down the tunnel. Amazingly the assistant captain came out to test his leg at the next timeout but he immediately went back down the runway to the locker room. Brooks will be re-evaluated on Monday and based on the replay his left knee is likely the issue.

With Nicklas Backstrom already out due to a concussion and no true second line center on the roster the Laich situation, if serious, could be a killer for the Capitals playoff chances. But injuries are a part of sports and guys like Marcus Johansson, Mathieu Perreault, and Jeff Halpern will have to step their respective games up even more. In addition, General Manager George McPhee will have more pressure on him to add some forwards at the trade deadline, which is just three weeks away (February 27th). Mike Green’s successful return from surgery is another key piece to the playoff puzzle since having 52 in the lineup changes the entire dynamic for the Caps on the back end.

But back to today’s game, Thomas was superb and when a goalie is on, he is tough to beat. That was the case with Boston today, as it was last June when #30 was the difference between the B’s and the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Capitals had their chances on Sunday and could have moved back into first place in the Southeast Division with a victory. Now they’ll have to wait until Tuesday night’s game against the Panthers at the Verizon Center to try and do that again, and likely without one of their leaders and top players in Laich.

Notes: Marcus Johansson had the only Capitals goal with just under eight minutes to go. MJ90 actually was trying to pass to Joel Ward but that attempt hit Seidenberg’s skate and went in the net…speaking of skates, it sure looked to me that Tyler Seguin’s goal, Boston’s third, went in off of his skate. #19 appeared to have turned his skate to accept the pass and the biscuit banked in off of it. It may have hit his stick but the baffling thing to me was why the game wasn’t delayed while the replay was thoroughly reviewed by the supposed wizards in Toronto?…not only is the lack of centers hurting Washington’s ability to break out of their own zone, it is really starting to show up in the faceoff column. Boston demolished the Caps from the dot, 43-24…Dmitry Orlov, who broke his nose when hit by the puck in Montreal on Saturday, took another one to the face on Sunday. Talk about bad luck!

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