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Backy Game 5

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Braden Holtby Robs Columbus in Game Five

Posted on 22 April 2018 by Ed Frankovic

They should call this one “The Great Game Robbery.”

Braden Holtby made 39 saves, including 15 stops in the third period when Columbus was storming the castle, and Nicklas Backstrom deflected home a Dmitry Orlov point shot at 11:53 of overtime to give the Capitals a 4-3 victory in game five to take a three games to two series lead. Game six is on Monday night from Ohio at 7:30 pm.

Backstrom scored twice in this affair plus Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie also tallied for the Caps while the Blue Jackets received two odd man rush goals from Matt Calvert and an Oliver Borkstand tip in that tied this one up at three early in period three.

After playing a near perfect contest on Thursday in game four, which included preventing the Blue Jackets from scoring any rush goals, the Caps reverted on home ice. Both of Columbus’ first two lamp lighters came on fast breaks when the Capitals made mistakes in the offensive zone. The first tally that gave CBus an early 1-0 lead was the result of an Alex Ovechkin misplay on the power play. Ovi was taken off of the puck on the left wing boards setting up a two on one the other way. John Carlson was back and chose to go down to cut the pass off, but Holtby never really got set and Calvert fired it through his pads for a shorthanded tally.

Nicky tied the game up just over three minutes later by banking one in off of Sergei Bobrovsky (25 saves) from below the goal line. In that first frame the Caps took three penalties, but somehow managed to keep the game even on the scoreboard after 20 minutes.

Period two featured a better performance by Washington and they outshot Columbus, 13-9, and forged a 3-2 lead heading into the final stanza of regulation. Kuzy scored on a two on one rush by faking like he was going to pass and then rifling the puck five hole on Bob. This season Kuznetsov has added some “shoot first” mentality to his game and that has opened things up for him with opposing goalies unsure of what he is going to do with the puck, especially given his propensity to look for the perfect set up. Evgeny now has four goals in this series.

The Capitals prosperity lasted all of 84 seconds as Oshie, who was covering the point for Matt Niskanen, fumbled the puck at the offensive blue line allowing #11 to go in all alone on Holtby. The speedy Calvert went to shoot the puck on his forehand and fanned on it, but that move froze Holtby and Matt gathered in the disc and backhanded it past #70’s outstretched left pad before Niskanen and Orlov could get back to help. It was sloppy hockey with the lead and the Capitals paid for it.

Oshie notched his goal, the third of the series, at 16:42 of period two with a sweet tip in of a Carlson power play blast. Despite some shoddy play that led to two rush goals for Columbus, Washington had a chance to seize command of the series with a strong final 20 minutes.

That would not happen as the Caps never really got out of the gate for the third frame. The Blue Jackets played their best period of the series and they tied it up just 2:30 in on a rare offensive zone pressure tally. A Caps turnover by Kuznetsov kept the puck in the Washington end allowing Ian Cole to fire one from the point that Bjorkstand tipped nicely home with traffic in front of Holtby. Then wave after wave of Columbus pressure came the rest of the period with the Blue Jackets laying it all out on the line. Fortunately for Washington, Holtby was superb and he allowed a Caps team that was manhandled in the last 20 minutes of regulation to survive to see extra time.

The Caps were a different team in overtime and they carried the play, but some mistakes led to some great chances for the opponents, including an all alone Boone Jenner shot from just above the crease that the Holtbeast came up large on. At the other end, Bobrovsky made stellar saves on Ovechkin from between the circles and Carlson on the door step before Backstrom ended things with a gorgeous deflection.

The Caps did some good things in this contest, most notably their five for five penalty killing, but they were outplayed in this tilt and for the first time in the series they were outshot in the game, 42-29. Shot attempts were 85-68, but it was 35-11 for Columbus in period three, when Holtby saved the Capitals bacon. Washington, who had lost five of their last six games on home ice in the playoffs, were too loose with the puck and were outworked for stretches of this affair. Goaltending, however, is the key to the post season and #70 is dialed in right now.

The Holtbeast went all Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to steal a game for Washington on home ice and he is now 17-4-2 as a starter against Columbus, lifetime.

Afterwards Coach John Tortorella, whose presser lasted less than two minutes, stated twice that his club would be back for a game seven before walking off. Caps Coach Barry Trotz countered with “It’s our job to not let that happen.”

Game six should be a dandy, but you can pretty much sum up game five with the following line from that great Paul Newman and Robert Redford movie.

“Esto es un robo.”

Notes: Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 33:16. Carlson played 27:23 and Orlov logged 27:00…Ovechkin had 13 shot attempts, including seven on net, but he was -1 in 23:40 of ice time…the Caps went 1 for 4 on the power play, but allowed a shorthanded tally…Backstrom had a helper on Oshie’s goal to go with his two tallies…Orlov had two assists. He’s been up and down this series, so it was good to see him set up the game winner…the Capitals were defeated at the dot, going 27-35 on draws. Jay Beagle was 8-3 and Backstrom was 8-8…Alex Chiasson and Jakub Vrana each played less than eight minutes…Seth Jones led Columbus in ice time with 31:51. Forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Mark Letestu both played less than eight minutes. Artemi Panarin played 27:11 and was -2. He was held pointless.

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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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Holtbeast Game 3

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The Holtbeast is Triumphant in Game 3 for the Caps

Posted on 18 April 2018 by Ed Frankovic

For the third straight game, there was overtime between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Washington Capitals, but this time, the contest went to double overtime. With the Caps staring at a potential three to zero hole in the series, Braden Holtby (33 saves) made several big stops, especially in the first extra session to extend the tilt. Washington came out with a lot of jump in the fifth stanza of hockey, outshooting CBus, 8-2, and they won the game on a rebound tally by Lars Eller after exactly 89 minutes of hockey. Brett Connolly, who had an earlier rebound goal that would have given the Caps a 2-0 second period lead wiped out due to offside, made the play by quickly firing a puck on Sergei Bobrovsky (42 saves) before “Bob” could get set. The puck pin balled into the twine behind the Blue Jackets keeper and the guys in white celebrated a clutch victory.

Whew, what a game!

Alex Ovechkin (two assists) on Tuesday afternoon stated that the Caps would come back to Washington for game five with the series knotted up. Thanks to the Holtbeast and a superb team effort, there is still a chance that could happen. Columbus, however, leads the series two games to one and they have home ice on Thursday night at 7:30.

There were a lot of things to like in this game for the Caps, who played without injured forward Andre Burakovsky (upper body injury). As the Secretary of Defense, Rod Langway, used to tell me when I worked for the team back in the 80’s and 90’s, “It all starts from the goaltender and then works out to the defense and forwards.”

Truer words could never be spoken about the post season and Philipp Grubauer struggled in his first two outings giving up several goals to his glove side when the Caps were carrying the majority of the play. The Holtbeast came in for period three and overtime and ended up getting the loss in game two, but that tally was hard to pin on #70.

On Tuesday night, Braden gave up only two goals in 89:00 of action. The first, he’ll say he’d like back because it wasn’t a screened shot, but the goalie from Saskatchewan was forced to move to his left because the Washington defenders, to include the forwards, allowed another open lane for a diagonal pass that the Blue Jackets love to employ in the offensive zone. Artemi Panarin (1 goal, 1 assist) used his speed to create that alley way and Pierre Luc-Dubois rifled a perfect shot just under the bar. Columbus’ second goal came on a two on one after Ovechkin tried an east-west pass that Dmitry Orlov couldn’t handle cleanly in the offensive zone and then fumbled away. Cam Atkinson and Panarin compounded the blunder by executing the odd man rush beautifully. John Carlson failed on multiple occasions to block the pass and ultimately Panarin had an empty net to deposit the biscuit in and tie this affair up at two just 4:12 into the third period.

Goaltending is so important, and Bobrovksy has been stellar for Columbus. Washington had 45 shots on goal after firing 58 in game two, but it took two deflections and a two man advantage blast to dent him for three lamp lighters. The Caps are still working to get more bodies to the net, but in addition to Devante Smith-Pelly and Eller crashing the cage on the game winner, Tom Wilson notched his first playoff marker of 2018 with a sweet deflection of a Matt Niskanen laser from the point. That goal was all set up by some great corner work by the Gr8. If the Caps want to win on Thursday, they need to grind their way to the net to get traffic on “Bob” because he looks like he will stop everything he sees right now.

In the first two games, Columbus killed the Caps on the power play going four for eight. They repeatedly were able to make a cross ice pass from the high left wing circle side to the right side and beat Grubauer to his left up high. Niskanen stated after Sunday’s loss that “we have to fix our PK.” On Tuesday night, the Capitals penalty killing was much better and they kept their four man box tighter to not allow that pass, which when it’s successful forces the goalie to have to move laterally very quickly and make a tough save. In addition to good work by the four guys on the ice, the most important player on the PK is your goalie, and the Holtbeast was stellar. For the night, the Caps went four for four on the penalty kill.

Jakub Vrana was inserted into Burakovsky’s vacated slot on the second line and he played some strong hockey in 22:00 of ice time. #13 was engaged with the body, something he didn’t do well in game one, and he also used his speed to open up space. He, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie still have to get fully clicking, but Vrana drew both penalties just 67 seconds apart in the middle frame. That resulted in Carlson’s power play snipe that gave the Caps a 2-1 lead heading into period three. Backstrom made another of his awesome passes to set that tally up. Almost everyone thought he was going to Ovi at the top of the right point, but instead he went to the left point for #74, who buried it. Carlson now has seven points (1 goal, 6 assists) in the post season.

Washington’s forwards did a better job, especially Connolly and Vrana, of using their body in one on one board battles than they’d done in the two games played at Capital One Arena. That’s something both need to continue doing so that they can wear down a very deep Blue Jackets defense, led by Seth Jones. The playoffs are a different game so that style doesn’t exactly fit Connolly and Vrana’s skill set, but in game three, they didn’t shy away from the physical requirements of playoff hockey.

Columbus has scored almost all of their goals this series on the power play or on the rush, so in addition to being disciplined, the Caps have to stick to a north-south brand of hockey. The east-west style that features cross ice passes at the offensive blue line or even deep in the zone have led to at least two Blue Jackets tallies. It’s imperative that Coach Barry Trotz’ crew resist the impulse to try those plays and opt more for pucks on net or behind the cage.

As I’ve stated on WNST quite often the last couple of weeks, goaltending is so important in the playoffs. The Capitals finally received a quality performance from their starter on Tuesday night and now they are back in the series. Still, they have their work cut out for them and with John Tortorella getting the match up choices in Ohio, the Caps will need another huge outing from the Holtbeast.

Notes:  The officiating in this game was sketchy, but that’s no surprise since it featured Ranger Dan O’Halloran and Kyle Rehman. I’m not sure how they missed the high stick by David Savard on Oshie in overtime? They also allowed Columbus to cover the puck in the corner without signaling for delay of game or closing the hand on the biscuit…the Blue Jackets received the only power play of the overtimes…Columbus won the faceoff battle, 43-37, but Evgeny Kuznetsov went 12-8 and Jay Beagle was 9-6. Eller lost 14 of 19 draws while Backstrom split his 20 faceoffs…Trotz used all of his players, which may have been why Washington dominated the second OT. Alex Chiasson only logged 10:19, but Columbus had forwards Sonny Milano (5:55) and Oliver Bjorkstrand (8:09) barely see the ice. Christian Djoos made his NHL playoff debut taking a spot alongside Brooks Orpik (24:39) and acquitted himself very well in 17:17 of ice time…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 37:17 and Orlov was close behind with 36:00…Jones played 35:09 to lead all Blue Jacket players while Atkinson (31:51) and Panarin (31:39) played a ton at forward for Tortorella.

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Ovi 49

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Ovechkin Scores Twice But Can’t Get To 50 in a Caps Win

Posted on 08 April 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin put on a show on Saturday night at Capital One Arena, but despite 18 shot attempts, the Gr8 notched only two goals in a 5-3 win over the New Jersey Devils to finish the season with 49 tallies. Braden Holtby stopped 23 of 26 shots, although there was some very loose defense by his club, at times, to earn the victory.

The Caps finish the season at 49-26-7 (105 points) and will face the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which could start as early as Wednesday. Coach John Tortorella’s team rested several key players, such as Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Artemi Panarin, Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno, and Sergei Bobrovsky in their season finale against the Predators in Nashville. It is pretty apparent that CBus much preferred facing the Caps than the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins and now they have their wish.

As for the Devils, they fall to the second wild card spot and will face the winner of the Atlantic Division (either Boston or Tampa). New Jersey rested some key players on Saturday, as well; including star forward Taylor Hall and former Cap Marcus Johansson. The other Metropolitan Division matchup will be the battle of Pennsylvania.

Nicklas Backstrom, Michal Kempny, and Andre Burakovsky scored Washington’s other three goals, while rookie forward Shane Gersich notched his first ever NHL point, assisting on Kempny’s point blast that made it 3-1.

The following are my thoughts and analysis of the triumph on Fan Appreciation Night.

So Close – Ovi had a breakaway in period three that would have given him 50 for the season, but he shot high on Cory Schneider. The last 10 minutes or so were basically all about trying to get Alexander the Great his 50th tally, but with New Jersey covering him closely and not pulling their goalie, it was a tough task. Still, Alex got off some good shots and came oh so close to getting the big 5-0, once again, but Ovechkin still locked up his seventh Rocket Richard Trophy. Simply put, the Russian Machine is an amazing player that had the fans on the edge of their seats or standing. This was a meaningless hockey game for the Caps, but Ovi delivered for those in attendance. For the night, he logged 21:00, had eight shots on goal and was +1. For the campaign, Ovechkin had 355 shots on net and his shooting percentage was 13.8%, but that stat should really count all shot attempts, not just those on net. His 32 even strength goals at age 32 is remarkable. Ovechkin became just the second player since the 1967-68 expansion era to lead the NHL in goals at the age of 32 or older (Phil Esposito).

Pond Hockey – Since Washington clinched the Metro division in Pittsburgh on Sunday night, Washington has played three meaningless affairs. The Caps have done some good things in those tilts, they’ve won 2 of 3, but the games have been nothing like we’ll see next week in the post season. These contests these past six days have been wide open with very little hitting (hits were 15 to 10 for Washington against New Jersey). It’s clear that the Capitals players were saving their bodies, and rightly so, for the grind that starts on Wednesday. The first period against New Jersey was really loose, but again, the game just didn’t matter.

Holtbeast – As mentioned in the opening paragraph, defense appeared optional, at times, on Saturday night. All three Devils goals were converted due to poor Washington coverage. Holtby had to make some tough stops in this affair and he looks ready for the post season. Whether Coach Barry Trotz and Goaltending Coach Scott Murray go with #70 or Philipp Grubauer in game one remains to be seen, but given Holtby’s record against Columbus, I’m thinking he’ll get the nod in the cage. Holtby went 34-16-4 behind a blue line that featured two rookies for the first 50 or so games.

Backy Got Back – Backstrom went 21 games without a goal during one stretch this season so it’s incredible that he finished with 21 tallies along with his 50 assists. #19 is such a good two way player and you know he’s going to bring it every night. Over the last eight games, he’s had two goals and 14 assists. Nicky logged 19:14 centering Burakovsky and Brett Connolly since the Osh Babe was given the night off to get closer to 100% health.

New Kid in Town – Kempny has been mostly paired with John Carlson since he came over at the trade deadline from Chicago for a draft choice. Against the Devils, #6 had his best game yet with a goal and a helper while going +4. Kempny brings speed and puck moving ability that was needed on the blue line. Michal has only 3 points in 22 games with the Caps and two of them came on Saturday night.

Pay The Man 2 – Carlson earned his 68th point with his assist on Backstrom’s goal and he leads all NHL defensemen in points. He was also +4 and brought his plus/minus back to even steven. #74 is an unrestricted free agent this summer and he’s going to get paid well. There are reports the salary cap could go as high as $82 Million and if that’s the case, Washington has a better chance of keeping him. But that is a story for the summer and right now the Caps need John, who is a big game player, to perform well at both ends of the rink. Carly is an ice time eater and he plays in all situations. There aren’t many blue liners around the league that can do the things he does.

For Whom the Bell Tolls – Evgeny Kuznetsov finished with a career high 83 points in 79 games and he has really become a dominant player. Kuzy scored 27 goals this season and when he is unpredictable from a pass vs. shoot perspective, he is very difficult to stop. #92 went 11-7 in draws on Saturday in 19:19 of ice time. If he continues to take shots when he is in the high danger areas, especially between the circles, the Capitals will be a hard team to defeat. The dynamic Russian forward is really the key guy who must be on each night for the Caps to be successful in the post season.

Facing the Cannon – I’ll have more on the Blue Jackets as we move into the week, but this is going to be a very physical and tough matchup. Coach Tortorella’s team is a system squad that blocks shots and likes to throw pucks and bodies at the opposing team’s goalie. Washington’s blue line and forwards are really going to have to amp their game up to deal with all of the traffic they will try to apply on the Caps goalie. Every matchup is tough in the post season and as Coach Barry Trotz often states, the difference between two teams in the standings is often the result of one team having a bad week or short stretch. Columbus totaled just eight points less than the Caps. This is going to be a hard series and Assistant Coach Todd Reirden’s d-men will have to play well against some big guys such as Brandon Dubinsky and Foligno.

Closing Time – The triumph over the Devils slams the regular season book shut for a Caps team that many predicted would not win the division or even make the playoffs. That was not the case from this Capitals historian, blogger, and radio man. Despite the personnel losses, I still predicted a 100 to 105 point season. General Manager Brian MacLellan built this team up the middle of the ice with strong goaltending and Coach Trotz and his staff did a GREAT job of getting several players to really improve. Eight players had career years offensively and this team took first place despite having four rookies regularly in the lineup for the first 50 games. Tom Wilson had his best season as a pro and he’s now a first line beast. He will be a real key in the post season because he opens up space for the Caps up front.

Notes: The full playoff schedule will be announced on Sunday…T.J. Oshie, Jay Beagle, and Travis Boyd didn’t play on Saturday due to injury or illness…the Caps were 32-22 on draws. In addition to #92’s success, Backstrom was 9-7 and Lars Eller was 6-3…Dmitry Orlov led the Capitals in ice time with 23:48.

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Holtby Wilson CMB

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Holtby Mutes the Cannon in a Caps 3-2 Victory

Posted on 07 February 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Columbus Blue Jackets are probably most known for the loud cannon that goes off after every goal they score in addition to another explosion at the end of the game, when they win, at Nationwide Arena.

On Tuesday night in the college hometown of the great Jack Nicklaus, Braden Holtby provided some sensational goaltending and Nicklas Backstrom tallied with 42 seconds left after a sweet feed from T.J. Oshie to prevent that freaking cannon from going off for the third time of the night. The 3-2 Washington triumph over Coach John Tortorella’s squad, which afterwards he called “a gut punch,” improves the Caps to 31-17-5 (67 points) and preserves their four point lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins, who defeated Vegas, 5-4, on Tuesday. The Capitals have two games in hand on Sidney Crosby and company.

Here are seven thoughts on this win, which improved the Capitals to 9-1-2 against Columbus in their last 12 meetings. The teams will meet again on Friday night at Capital One Arena.

Best Goalie in the NHL – Time and time again this year the Holtbeast has bailed the Caps out and won games for them, it’s a big reason, along with the outstanding play of Alexander Ovechkin, why Washington is in first place in the Metropolitan Division. I’d chronicle all of the big stops that #70 made in this affair, but to quote the great Mark Ratner from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, “That would take too long.” The Caps have largely gone with a blue line of two rookies all season so the amount of high quality shots Braden has faced this year has increased drastically. Tuesday was more of the same, especially in periods one and two when the Capitals were terribly sloppy with the puck and allowed 28 shots on goal, including 17 in the middle frame. To hold Columbus to just two goals given the opportunities they had is incredible. The Holtbeat is now 27-10-2 on the season with a .915 save percentage. He’s the best goalie in the NHL, in my book.

MVP, MVP, MVP – The Gr8 turned in another superb performance on Tuesday with two assists, 12 shot attempts, and eight shots on goal. Sergei Bobrovsky absolutely robbed Ovi a couple of times, but Alex was able to still make a huge difference in this game with his passing and shooting. On Washington’s second goal, he takes a nice drop pass from Christian Djoos and feeds Tom Wilson all alone in the slot. Top line Tommy then makes a gorgeous move to beat Bob on the backhand for his seventh goal of the season. Then, with the game tied in the last minute, Ovechkin does what he does best; he fired the puck on net from the left wing boards. It was not a high scoring chance opportunity, but when you have a shot like Ovi’s, putting it on the cage is never a bad thing. The Gr8’s high smoker handcuffed Bobrovsky and the disc bounced to the goaltender’s right. There the Osh Babe won a very key puck battle and then fed Backstrom behind his back for his open net game winning tally. All night it was Ovechkin’s line, which smartly included Backstrom and Wilson for most of the evening, and Oshie in a couple of key spots, that was dominant. Alex was on for all three Capitals tallies and was a +2 in this affair. He was not on the ice for either Columbus marker. He now has 32 goals and 26 assists (58 points) in 53 games. Don’t let any clowns on the internet tell you he isn’t MVP material because they are just biased haters. Alex is the biggest reason why Washington leads the Metropolitan Division with 29 games to go.

Cleanup on Aisle Four! – Man oh man, what is with all of these turnovers in the Caps own end? I’m not sure what is going on, but the coaching staff has to do something to fix these issues whether it’s just poor execution or a scheme change is needed or a combination of both. The opponents are getting too many great chances and add in the fact that this team doesn’t handle the opposing rush very well plus they too often are caught puck watching on rebounds and you have a total mess in the defensive zone. On the first goal, Holtby makes the initial save, but the five Capitals players on the ice don’t cover anyone and the Blue Jackets pot the rebound through traffic. Perhaps Coach Barry Trotz should take these guys out on the basketball court and teach them how to box out on a rebound so that they can take those fundamentals to the ice? We’ve seen too many easy goals lately where there are Caps defenders right in the area to make a play to prevent a goal, but they don’t. This disturbing trend needs to stop and if not for Holtby we’d be talking about a bunch of goals against, after the 11 allowed in the previous two tilts, and a third straight loss.

Big Mac Victory – Five on five play is so important in hockey, but sometimes you need your special teams to win a game. After losing Friday’s tilt to the Pens because of three power play goals allowed, the Capitals rebounded with a perfect three for three on the penalty kill and one for one on the power play at Nationwide Arena. John Carlson’s laser through a Blue Jacket screen tied the game up in the first five minutes, but more importantly, the Caps killed off two Columbus power plays in the last 10 minutes, one of which would have given their opponents the lead. Brooks Orpik had a humongous block as the last CBus power play was expiring and that allowed the puck to go to the other end where Ovi, Oshie, and Backstrom worked their game winning goal magic. Washington’s special sauce in this win was the play of their penalty kill and power play units.

Clueless in Columbus – With one of the two linesmen having to bail out due to sickness, Dean Morton and Graham Skilliter had to call both penalties and monitor a blue line. I sure hope that is what they are using for their excuse for missing some key infractions on the Blue Jackets. In period two, Seth Jones got away with a blatant slash on Ovechkin’s right hand and even worse, just before the Columbus game tying goal late in period three, Devante Smith-Pelly’s stick was slashed in half by a CBus defender, but the zebras didn’t call a penalty. That was ridiculous and Morton should probably be working down at the local high end restaurant asking you how you’d like your steak cooked.

A Near Gordie – It’s no secret that Top Line Tommy is having a great season. Reunited with Backstrom and Ovechkin, Wilson was once again a force on the ice. He scored a goal and beat up top line winger Josh Anderson. Anderson was pretty much invisible after that first period bout and he finished the game a -2. #43 continues to drive the play and bring a much needed physicality (five hits) to the Capitals offense. All Wilson needed on this night was an assist to get the Gordie Howe hat trick, but he fell short.

Add It Up – In summary, the Capitals pretty much stole two points on Tuesday night thanks to Holtby and some of their stars, to include the Gr8. They were outshot attempted 67-48 and shots on goal were 39-25. It’s been awhile since the Caps have played a complete game. There is lots of room for improvement and Andre Burakovksy (-1 in 6:34 of action, including no third period shifts) remains on a milk carton. Coach Trotz tried reuniting #65 with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly on the third line to get him going, but once again #65 brought the line down. His shot takes too long to get off and he skates with his head down, too often. Jones flattened him easily in the first period at the Caps offensive blue line on one instance. As we head into the February 26th trade deadline, GM Brian MacLellan has a tough decision to make on this player who just isn’t stepping up as needed. The organization gave him a two year, $6M bridge contract last summer but when I go all Violent Femmes and try to add it up, maybe it’s got something to do with luck, but he’s not giving the team the necessary production. Actually, it’s not luck, Andre just isn’t doing the things necessary to be successful and the sand in the hour glass could be running out on his time in Washington.

Notes: Matt Niskanen led the Capitals in ice time with 23:17 and Oprik logged 22:56, including 4:38 of PK time. Jones led all skaters with 27:31 TOI…the Caps won the face-off battle, 28-26. Backstrom went 11-8.

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Holtby and Kuznetsov Help Caps Squeak by Columbus

Posted on 03 December 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Jeff Spicoli: Woah, you’re gonna flunk me?

Mr. Hand: Don’t worry Spicoli. You’ll probably squeak by.

On Saturday night against the young and hard working Columbus Blue Jackets, the Washington Capitals played a Jeff Spicoli-like hockey game. They squeaked by with two points, primarily due to their all world goaltender, Braden Holtby.

The Caps stormed out of the gate, against a CBus squad that had played and won the night before, thanks to some great forechecking and smart hockey. Brett Connolly and Alex Chiasson scored two markers from the slot before the game was 130 seconds old and it looked as if Coach Barry Trotz’ crew was going to lay a woodshed beating on the Blue Jackets.

That would not be the case.

Columbus outworked Washington over the last 15 minutes of the opening frame, but couldn’t dent the Holtbeast (32 saves) despite several quality chances. Coach John Tortorella’s squad carried that momentum into the middle frame and cut the deficit to one after a brutal Capitals turnover gave Artemi Panarin an easy back door tally. The Blue Jackets kept churning and the Caps kept giving the puck away, but #70 held the fort.

At about the game’s midpoint, the guys in red starting playing again and they nearly extended their lead. They looked poised to do that when they received a power play with less than five minutes to go in period two. After a face off win, John Carlson (two assists) blasted one from the point that may have been tipped by T.J. Oshie, but it hit the post. Columbus then went the other way and Mike Foligno was robbed by Holtby in a one on one sequence. Soon thereafter, Oshie made a poor pass to Nicklas Backstrom in his own end and Brandon Dubinsky gathered in the loose change and fed Matt Calvert in the slot. Calvert quickly deposited it by a screened Holtby with 3:32 left before the second intermission.

Suddenly the game was tied and Columbus had all of the momentum. Dmitry Orlov then drew a blatant holding call on Boone Jenner with 48 ticks left in period two. Washington needed just all of 10 seconds to regain the lead. Evgeny Kuznetsov made a great read and steal of a Columbus pass behind their net after a Jackets face off win and fed Backstrom on the right wing half wall. #19 moved it to #74 at the top of the point, who slid it to Alex Ovechkin in his office, and the Gr8 beat Sergei Bobrovsky (19 saves) short side for a key goal. That marker was Ovi’s 19th of the season (tied for the league lead with Nikita Kucherov of Tampa).

The Caps came out in period three and put the early pedal to the medal. Oshie had a nice zone entry and after stopping inside the blue line, he fed a charging Kuznetsov coming into the offensive zone. Carlson jumped up in the play and was heading to the net. Somehow #92 got the puck to Carlson and he tapped it back to Kuzy, who then put it into the vacant cage to make it 4-2 with 18:52 left in the contest.

With Columbus having played on Friday and then traveling to DC, one would think they’d be tired and go away, right? Not so fast. Coach Tortorella’s crew kept coming in waves into the Caps end, but somehow Braden made some amazing stops, including an all world glove save on Cam Atkinson, and then he got a great goal line clear from Jay Beagle to preserve a 4-3 victory.

The win improves Washington’s record to 15-11-1 (31 points) and puts them just four points in back of first place Columbus in the Metropolitan Division.

Here’s my thoughts and analysis of an important Caps victory.

The Holtbeast was the reason Washington won this game, plain and simple. The Capitals, while scoring four goals, were largely inept with the puck in this affair. It was turnover city in their own end and Oshie, Backstrom, Orlov, and Ovechkin were all guilty of terrible giveaways. Ovechkin (cross ice from his own end) and Oshie had especially bad ones in period three that need cleaning up going forward. For most of the game, the Caps were soft on their breakouts and the weak bump backs to the defensemen or soft chips from the winger to the center of the ice were time after time stolen by a young, hungry, well coached, and talented Columbus team. For some reason, the Capitals didn’t adjust and it resulted in numerous quality chances for the Blue Jackets. In the final frame it was all CBus as they outshot the Caps, 17-3. Tortorella’s well conditioned and youthful squad looked like the more rested club despite the actual schedule. Washington continually made poor decisions with the puck as they came across the blue line and they are lucky that Holtby flat out saved their asses.

That start, though, was totally awesome. Coach Trotz juggled his bottom six and it paid off. Connolly, who had been scratched for two games, was put back in. Tyler Graovac was sent to the press box and Nathan Walker, who only played seven games all season, was lost to Edmonton for minimal cash via the waiver wire (the Caps hoped to sneak him through to Hershey to get some playing time). Lars Eller, who had been struggling, was put with Connolly and Chandler Stephenson on the third line and they got the ball rolling early. Orlov made his best play of the night, a nice carry in to the offensive zone, enabling the Caps to set up a cycle situation. Eller received the puck on the right wing boards from Brooks Orpik and #20 found Connolly alone in the slot. With Stephenson in front of Bob, #10 one timed the biscuit home. It was a goal very reminiscent of Connolly’s tallies last season. This game was easily Brett’s best of the 2017-18 campaign. Gone were the lunging and reaching plays he’d been making most of the year and instead he was moving his feet and using his body to win puck battles. If he keeps that up, he will be successful like he was in 2016-17.

Washington’s second goal was just another case of getting pucks and bodies to the net. Matt Niskanen made a nice pinch in on the right wing boards and he fired a hard, low shot on Bobrovsky that bounced into the slot. Chiasson gathered the rebound in the high danger area and whipped it by #72 at the 2:06 mark. Those two goals were textbook smart hockey. Good things happen when you shoot and had Washington stuck to that recipe, it might have been “Just a walk in the park, Kazansky,” but the Caps reverted to bad form shortly afterwards.

On the good side, Kuznetsov continues to play well. He was Coach Trotz’s best forward in this one and since the Calgary game that’s been the case, consistently. Kuzy is not over passing and he’s shooting the puck. He’s now up to nine goals and his line, with Jakub Vrana and Oshie, is playing well. The Osh Babe needs to start shooting more, though. #13 has been using his speed to get to the net and open up lanes for his line mates. Jakub and Kuzy are a major reason the Caps have won four of their last five games. Orpik (assist, +2 in 22:40) was the Capitals best blue liner in this one, although Carlson had a good game, as well.

Many others on this club were flat out inconsistent on Saturday night. Niskanen, who has been mostly struggling all season, primarily due to missing 13 games with a hand injury, still does not look 100% healthy on the ice and the Capitals need their best blue liner from last season back in top form. Hopefully whatever is ailing him is taken care of here in the short term.

Washington has to lose the cross ice passes, especially when up two pucks in the third period. Aside from the many defensive zone blunders, there were too many times that the Capitals tried that fancy pass inside the offensive blue line instead of putting the puck on or behind the net. It was just bad hockey and you rarely see Columbus make those mistakes. They are a very impressive team and, at this point, I have to make them the favorites to win the Metro division because they are structured and play hard. Columbus certainly deserved a better fate on Saturday, but goaltending was the difference.

On Monday night the Caps will take on the San Jose Sharks, a team who routinely whips their butts. If the Caps play like they did on Saturday against Columbus, it will be another blowout by the guys in teal and black. Holtby can’t keep nearly single handedly winning games for the Caps, this team has to get back to consistently playing the right way, like they did in the three affairs sandwiched around Thanksgiving.

Sneaking by may have cut it for Spicoli at Ridgemont High and for the Caps on Saturday night against Columbus, but that method is a long term recipe for failure.

Coach Trotz’s crew needs to say “Aloha” to the turnovers and poor decisions and get back to playing hard, intelligent hockey.

Notes: Washington won the face off battle, 37-23. Beagle, who lifted Panarin’s stick to stave off the tying goal, was 10-2. Backstrom was 13-8…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 24:55, but Carlson logged 24:42…Madison Bowey, who struggled in Thursday’s bad loss to the Kings, only played 10:21. Rookie Christian Djoos only received 12:41 of time. It’s a learning process for both young blue liners…Stephenson was rocked by a Seth Jones hit in period one. He played in the first 40 minutes, but left before the 3rd period with an upper body injury and is day to day…Ovechkin and Backstrom were both -2…once again, Holtby’s glove save on Cam Atkinson late in the game was unbelievable. Braden made a ton of Ten Bell saves in this affair. All hail the Holtbeast!

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Holtby Slams the Door on the Blue Jackets in Caps 3-2 Victory

Posted on 02 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Braden Holtby made 35 saves and the Washington Capitals received second period goals from T.J. Oshie, Andre Burakovsky, and Matt Niskanen to defeat the Columbus Blue Jackets, 3-2 at Nationwide Arena on Sunday Night.

The Caps victory improves their record to 52-18-8 (112 points) and it pretty much ends any chance Columbus has of winning the Metropolitan Division. They are now six points behind with four games remaining and the Pittsburgh Penguins moved into second place, five points back, with their win over Carolina on Sunday. The Pens also have just four games remaining.

After playing the worst first period of the season and getting blown out in Arizona on Friday (6-3), Coach Trotz’ club came ready to play in this affair. Washington’s Justin Williams had several good chances to score, but Sergei Bobrovsky (27 saves) was excellent early on. Both Holtby and “Bob” were on their craft in the scoreless opening frame.

In the middle stanza the Caps took over quickly. Nicklas Backstrom made a great cross ice outlet pass to Oshie on the right wing boards that #77 skated after while Alex Ovechkin was flying down the center of the ice. It looked like Oshie, after corralling the loose biscuit, was going to pass the puck, but with the Gr8 smartly going to the net, Oshie was able to skate into the slot and lift a backhander past Bobrovsky at 1:12. Ovi creating havoc in front was certainly a big factor in Oshie’s 33rd tally of the season.

Pay the Man!

Just 1:44 later the Caps increased their cushion to two. Kevin Shattenkirk fed Lars Eller in the neutral zone and the third line center carried the puck down the right boards and eventually tracked towards going behind the net. #20 then did his best Evgeny Kuznetsov imitation to spin around and pass back to Burakovsky in the right wing circle. Andre then buried his 12th goal of the season top shelf and into a very tiny window with an incredibly skillful shot.

The Capitals would continue to keep the heat on Columbus and Burakovsky, the game’s official number one star, set up Matt Niskanen all alone on Bobrovsky with a sensational pass on a two on one rush. The American defenseman skated in and quickly beat Bob to the far post for a 3-0 lead with 10:05 gone in period two.

From there things opened up since Columbus had to gamble to try and get back in the game. Washington certainly gave them their share of chances as they were caught out of position on multiple occasions, which led to several Blue Jacket odd man rushes. Fortunately the Holtbeast was dialed in and he kept it 3-0 after 40 minutes.

In the final frame, the Caps played fairly solid to preserve their three goal lead, but then at 9:22 Karl Alzner got caught in the offensive zone and Jack Johnson skated up the ice and around John Carlson and Tom Wilson to get a clean look against Holtby. #7 made no mistake about it and suddenly we had a game.

Things then became physical and heated. Josh Anderson took a run at Ovechkin at a whistle and then he hit the Gr8 in the head with a punch when everyone came to together at the Columbus blue line. It was clearly a John Tortorella type cheap shot tactic to try and bait the Caps into at least a four on four situation, but when it was all said and done, Anderson received four minutes for roughing, while Ovi only was whistled for a single minor for roughing. Wilson and Kyle Quincey also were sent to the sin bin and the Capitals received a power play with 8:39 remaining. Somehow the fact that Bobrovsky left the crease area to join the donnybrook wasn’t penalized.

Washington had a chance to close this one out, but they failed and sure enough, the Blue Jackets cut the lead to one on a Quincey point shot that Holtby didn’t see cleanly with Sam Gagner and Backstrom directly in front of him. That tally came with 4:27 left. Columbus would pull “Bob” for the extra attacker and they very nearly tied it up at the horn, but the Holtbeast stoned Seth Jones on the doorstep with three ticks left.

Whew!

This was a highly intense hockey game and provides a sneak preview of how things will go next week when the playoffs begin on April 12th. The contest was very physical and there were many post whistle scrums. It will be important for the Caps to keep their discipline because given their inability to play well at four on four this season, there is no doubt in my mind that opponents will try and bait them into penalties that could create that situation.

There were several positives that came out of this win. First off, the Holtbeast was outstanding and he outplayed Bobrovsky. Washington needs #70 to be at the top of his game if they want to make it out of the Metropolitan Division playoffs (rounds one and two). Second, despite playing only 13 shifts and just over eight minutes and 20 seconds of even strength time together, the 3rd line was very good. There is no doubt that when Burakovsky, Eller, and Brett Connolly are playing their game that the Capitals are extremely tough to match up against. Third, from a standings and home ice perspective, the Caps need just three more points (either Washington points gained or Pittsburgh points missed) to clinch the Presidents’ Trophy (Chicago has 107 points and only 3 games left). Given the way Washington plays so well at home and the fact that Coach Trotz can dictate the matchups in four of the seven tilts in each series, home ice is big from a strategic standpoint.

Finally, it was important for the Caps to win a low scoring game to remind them of how to close out a win in one of those tilts that we should see quite a bit of in the spring. It wasn’t a textbook “protect a lead” performance, but being able to hold off a very desperate team in their own building was big for Holtby and the entire Capitals club. Their defensive posture took a major step in the right direction after some shaky efforts on a road trip that saw them allow 13 goals in the first three games, including nine tallies to the two worst teams in the NHL. Defense wins championship and holding Tortorella’s crew to two tallies has to build confidence.

Confidence is such an important part of hockey and Washington needs to have that going into the post season.

Notes: Washington won the faceoff battle, 34-20. Jay Beagle was 10-6 while Kuznetsov went 9-3…shots on goal were 24-20, Caps, after 40 minutes, but ended up, 37-30, for Columbus. Shot attempts were 68-46 for CBus. A lot of that is score effects, but the Capitals have to learn to get more pressure and chances on their opponents when they are leading the game without abandoning their defensive structure…both teams were 0 for 2 on the power play…Carlson led the Capitals in ice time with 23:41…the Caps next game, and final one on this five game, eight day road trip, is in Toronto on Tuesday night.

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Braden Holtby and the Caps End Columbus’ 16 Game Win Streak

Posted on 05 January 2017 by Ed Frankovic

The streak is over while another one continues…

Braden Holtby, aka The Holtbeast, stopped 29 shots and the Washington Capitals went to the net with authority for the fourth straight game to bury Columbus, 5-0, and end the Blue Jackets winning streak at 16 games while increasing the Caps victory run to four.

#70, who was pulled after 20 minutes against the Leafs on Tuesday, was dynamite in this one and several of his best saves came in the opening frame. About the only mistake he made was an early big rebound that he left in the slot which Brandon Saad shot wide. For the rest of the game, it was downhill for the Blue Jackets.

Nate Schmidt, who was scratched for two games, came to play and around the five minute mark his point shot found Jay Beagle parked all alone in front of Sergei Bobrovsky (18 saves). “Bob” made the first save, but Daniel Winnik made a great play to corral the rebound and put it behind the goaltender for a one goal Caps lead just 5:06 into this affair.

Just 20 seconds after that tally, Evgeny Kuznetsov (two assists) would take a terrible offensive zone penalty and the NHL’s best power play, at 28.3%, was looking to even things up. But the Caps penalty killing has been stellar this year and the only shot on net that CBus got was a 45 footer from Saad.

Washington then put the Blue Jackets down by two goals for the first time all season, according to Joe Beninati, as John Carlson scored off of his skate going to the net after both Kuznetsov and Marcus Johansson made nice passes.

Despite the Capitals lead, Columbus carried the play and led in shots on goal, 11-6, after one period, but the Holtbeast was the big difference.

From there, the Capitals took over the game. Schmidt, who looked recharged after sitting out, received a great pass from Alex Ovechkin (1 assist) in the right wing circle a third of the way through period two. Two Blue Jackets went to the ice to block #88’s initial shot, they both missed, and then they went sliding by as the rebound went right back to Schmidt. Nate then fired it again as a third Columbus defender tried to block the shot and that player ended up deflecting it past Bobrovsky to make it 3-0. I’ve talked often about not leaving your feet on defense and Columbus, who thrives on blocking shots, did just that and it cost them.

At that point, you could see the Columbus energy start to diminish and Washington’s just getting stronger. It takes a ton of effort to maintain a long winning streak and with their hopes of tying the Pittsburgh Penguins NHL record dying, you could see the stress of it starting to zap the Blue Jackets.

The Caps third line then ended all doubt as Lars Eller and Brett Connolly put on a great forecheck/backcheck combination and that forced a Blue Jackets turnover. Carlson gathered up the errant pass just inside the offensive blue line and fed Andre Burakovsky in the slot, who snapped the biscuit by Bob at 16:27 of period two. At that point, the game was pretty much over.

Burakovksy backed up his “it will be fun to end the streak” talk from the AM skate with that goal and he and his linemates continue to look like the answer Coach Barry Trotz and GM Brian MacLellan have been trying to find with that third unit for several years.

The last nail in the coffin was then added by Justin Williams just 5:36 into the third period when Kuznetsov won a puck battle on the left wing boards and fed #14 in the left wing corner. Williams skated in on Bobrovsky, and roofed it to make it 5-0. That prompted Columbus coach John Tortorella to take out his #1 goalie and insert Curtis McElhinney.

The only question for the last 15 minutes was would the Holtbeast get a shutout? The zebras once again tried to help the Blue Jackets giving them a 76 second five on three with Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen in the sin bin. Washington, however, was fantastic on the kill with Holtby making three saves, including two in tight on Cam Atkinson. Tom Wilson, who had one of his best games of the season, then drew a tripping infraction on a two on one with Eller, who had just blocked a shot to spring it and any real scare was over with 5:30 remaining.

Columbus received one more power play, but the Holtbeast gobbled three shots up and he easily earned his number one star of the game award.

This was quite an effort from Washington and in arguably their two biggest games this season, home against the Penguins and on Thursday against the Blue Jackets, they have won by a combined 12-1. There is no doubt that this club, when focused and motivated, can play with any team in the NHL.

The bottom six forwards were outstanding in this affair and the Caps gap control was sensational all game. They throttled the Blue Jackets ability to generate quick scoring chances and after a rough first period, they dominated the boards and loose puck battles.

It was a huge victory to knock off the first place Blue Jackets, who had a very impressive 16 game run. Washington is now 24-9-5 (53 points) and is just five points behind Columbus, who have a game in hand.

For the Caps, this was an encouraging and dominating victory, especially from the second period until it was 5-0.

Everyone in hockey says that the NHL season really doesn’t begin until January.

So far in the first month of 2017 the Caps are 3-0.

Notes: Shots on goal were 29-27 for CBus and shot attempts were 51-50 for the Caps…Washington was a perfect 5 for 5 on the penalty kill, but were 0 for 4 with the man advantage…Carlson was the second star and Schmidt was the third star. Both were really good on the back end, as was Dmitry Orlov (22:42)…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 23:18…Williams now has 11 goals on the season, he’s on fire right now…Orpik and Schmidt were both +3…Kuznetsov had four shots on goal…Brandon Dubinsky was -4 for the Blue Jackets.

 

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Team USA’s Real Problem: Lack of Center Ice Talent

Posted on 22 September 2016 by Ed Frankovic

The 2016 World Cup of Hockey was supposed to help USA Hockey right the “wrongs” of Sochi and restore the team to at least the level they reached in Vancouver in 2010 (silver medal), but after two games, their entire tournament went kaput.

A stunning tournament opening 3-0 loss to Team Europe and then the not surprising at all 4-2 defeat at the hands of the Canadian power house leaves USA Hockey eliminated from the World Cup of Hockey after Thursday night’s meaningless game against the Czechs.

USA Hockey is now in disarray and searching for answers.

So how did it get this bad?

Well for starters, the choice of head coach put things headed in the wrong direction. John Tortorella is a fiery man and he’s won a Stanley Cup, but that was back in 2004 when the game was drastically different. Post lockout, Torts has had minimal success in Tampa, New York, Vancouver, and now Columbus. There are many who feel that the game has passed him by. His record since the lockout, and especially most recently, backs that up.

The fingers can also be pointed at USA Hockey management, as Craig Custance duly noted on Wednesday afternoon. After Sochi they publicly blamed players such as Phil Kessel for the problems. Bobby Ryan, who was left off of the team, had his name dragged through the mud in an article detailing the management conversations that went into selecting the 2014 Olympic team. For this tournament USA Hockey vowed to construct a team that was tough, gritty, and would stick together. Dean Lombardi was given the reigns, but let’s be honest, the blueprint for this roster came from longtime USA Hockey manager, Brian Burke. “Truculence” is one of Burke’s favorite words, he loves that style of play and he won a Cup in Anaheim with that style, but also with some very skilled and talented players in Scott Neidermayer, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry.

So the trio of Burke, Lombardi, and Tortorella were the architects of this 2016 mission and they not only played a style that lacked imagination, but resulted in no real flow and little offense. Following the defeat, Kessel and Ryan, who still feel slighted from 2014, took to twitter and basically blasted the management of USA Hockey. It also irked many of the USA players such as Zach Parise, David Backes, and Derek Stepan and they took public issue with the tweets. There are multiple camps on this one, many feel that the USA Hockey management deserved the brunt of the attack, and they are primarily right, but some think that those guys were just calling attention to themselves and piling on. I am not happy with USA Hockey management as well, but I tend to be in the latter camp. I felt the tweets were unnecessary. However, as someone in the game noted to me on Wednesday night, when you’ve got pride, you’ve been blamed for past failures and you see the current team, which you are not on, have no success, then it’s hard to take major issue with those players for pouring more gas on the fire. That’s a fair point, even though the players on the team who lost likely won’t forget the shots they feel were also sent their way by the tweets from those players.

But let’s get to the real problem that is killing USA Hockey at the pro level, and adding wingers Kessel and Ryan to this team would not have helped one iota in this area: center ice.

That same NHL scout, who basically gave Kessel and Ryan a pass for their tweets, noted that as much as we in the media and fans want to call USA’s loss to Team Europe an embarrassment, it really wasn’t. Europe has one of the best centers in the NHL in Anze Kopitar and they also have an up and coming center ice star in Leon Draisaitl. The scout felt that Europe’s third center, Frans Neilsen was equal to Stepan. So it’s no surprise that Europe beat the Americans and the most entertaining coach of the tournament, Ralph Krueger, smartly rode #11 as much as he could against the USA.

Simply put, the USA is woefully weak up the center of the ice in an era where you must be strong there to have a chance to succeed. Their #1 center was Stepan, and he’s a number two on his NHL team. After that there isn’t much to note. Tyler Johnson is a center, but he was left off of the team. Arguably, the best centers the USA have are Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel, but they were on Team North America because they are still teenagers. In contrast, you look at Canada and they go Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews up the middle of the ice, not to mention they have guys like Patrice Bergeron and Joe Thornton as additional pivot men.

So given the USA’s lack of center ice men to choose from, in Burke, Lombardi, and Torts’ defense, they felt they had to play a certain style to have a chance to win. It doesn’t make that choice right, because the game is about puck possession and speed these days, but that was likely their thinking.

Now USA could’ve played a different way and swapped out some wingers and added Johnson, but would it have mattered? Maybe a little bit, but they still weren’t beating Canada.

Look no further than the words from the coach who is going to win this tournament, Mike Babcock. The Leafs bench boss said himself that Team Canada is playing the exact same system that he used in Toronto this past season to finish DEAD LAST in the NHL. Babcock made it abundantly clear, it’s not about systems, it’s about the players. He has the best players to choose from in Canada and he will win. They are loaded at the most important position, center (and every other position, too).

Yes, I’d like to see Team USA play more of an up tempo speed game like Team North America is playing right now, but you have to have the talent to do that. It wasn’t there with this roster or the pool of players they had to choose from.

The bottom line is USA Hockey can swap out the management philosophy, and I think they absolutely should, but until they get some center ice men at the NHL level, it’s not going to make a huge difference.

Luckily they have Matthews and Eichel coming in the near future, but will that be enough to close the very large gap that exists between the USA and Canada at center?

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Sep 14, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA;Team Russia center  Alex Ovechkin (8) celebrates with the bench after scoring a goal against Team Canada during the third period in a World Cup of Hockey pre-tournament game at CONSOL Energy Center. Team Canada won 3-2 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

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Canada the Team to Beat in World Cup of Hockey

Posted on 15 September 2016 by Ed Frankovic

The World Cup of Hockey is now officially set to commence on Saturday, September 17th with all games played over the upcoming two weeks at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

Who’s going to win? Well that’s pretty easy, Canada. They have the best overall team and the home ice.

But you still have to play the games and if the pre tournament action is any indication, then this is going to be one heck of an event. All eight teams won at least one time in their three World Cup tune-ups. Some of the games were downright played at NHL playoff intensity level, with USA-Canada on Friday night being the most noteworthy. The Americans played a strong physical game, received excellent goaltending from Jonathan Quick, and took advantage of a rusty Carey Price to win, 4-2. The Canadians then returned the favor the next night in Ottawa, winning 5-3 (Quick and Price did not play).

Canada then needed overtime to defeat the Russians, 3-2, on Wednesday night to finish 2-1. USA, playing at the Verizon Center on Tuesday evening, raced out a 3-0 lead that could’ve been five or six zip if not for Finland goalie Pekka Rinne, before hanging on to a 3-2 victory.

Both the USA and Canada are in group A with Team Europe, who pan caked Sweden, 6-2, at the Verizon Center on Wednesday night, and the Czech Republic, who knocked off the North American speedsters on Wednesday afternoon in the first of a doubleheader at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.

Group B consists of Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the North Americans (USA and Canadian players aged 23 and under).

The top two squads in each group will advance to the semifinals where there will be a single elimination round. The top team in group A will play the runner up in group B while the first place team in group B gets the runner up in group A.

So there is a scenario where USA and Canada could meet in the finals, with the World Cup of Hockey being decided in a best of three games matchup.

Bottom line, this is going to be some really exciting hockey to watch.

Now, without further adieu, here are my picks for each group.

Group B:

First place: Russia. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Nikita Kucherov, and Evgeny Kuznetsov lead a talented forward group that is thin on the blue line. But they have some great goaltending that starts with Sergei Bobrovksy. If “Bob” gets hurt or struggles, then Semyon Varlamov is more than capable of coming in and shutting the door. This group sets up well for the Russians. They are bigger up front than the other three squads and I don’t see any of the other three teams having a blue line that can match that offensive talent.

Where it could go wrong for Russia: I mentioned their blue line, but to me, the biggest question mark with this squad is the coaching. Going back to 1980, when Viktor Tikhonov yanked Vladislav Tretiak in net after one period in Lake Placid, we’ve seen so many head scratching coaching decisions from this federation. In the pre tournament action, the Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Kucherov line was outstanding against the Czechs, but coach Oleg Znarok moved Kuzy off of the top line and to a wing, at times, in Wednesday’s game against the Canadians. Anyone who watched the NHL last season knows that Kuzy is a sensational playmaker with the puck. Putting him in position on the wall where he will rely on others to give him the puck coming out of their own zone makes very little sense.

Second place: Sweden. Many of the so-called experts are going with Sweden to win it all, but I watched the Swedes on Wednesday night at the Verizon Center and I was not impressed. Yes, they have a very talented and mobile defense led by Victor Hedman and Erik Karlsson, but that whole blue line was a turnover machine, along with young forwards such as Filip Forsberg, in their loss to Team Europe. Henrik Lundqvist didn’t get much help in front of him and he wasn’t very good either in net. He’s 34. Up front, the coaching staff seems to rely heavily on the Sedin-Sedin-Eriksson line. They will try to cycle you to death. Nicklas Backstrom is a rock up the middle for Sweden and I don’t think he’ll get kicked out of this tournament for using ZYRTEC like we saw in the Sochi Olympics in 2014. That galactic screw up has left several in the NHL with a bad taste in their mouths over how that whole silliness went down. The NHL is controlling this event, so I don’t think we’ll see something stupid like that in this tournament, but Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly did tell me on Wednesday that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is involved with this tournament. Sweden has the talent to come close to Canada, but I’m not seeing it and there are legitimate concerns about King Henrik in the cage (cue Coldplay’s Viva La Vida).

Where it could go wrong for Sweden: In addition to concerns about Hank in net and the blue line turnovers, the defense is not configured to clear the front of their own net. If I’m coaching in group B I’m sending a steady diet of players to the top of the circle on the Swedes and daring them to move my forwards out of there. I also don’t like the fact that they left Marcus Johansson off of the roster. Marcus can do so many things in the lineup yet they excluded him and took players such as Jakob Silverberg, Mikael Backlund, and Carl Soderberg who don’t have the experience or versatility that Jojo brings. Big mistake Sweden, big mistake.

As for Finland and North America, I still like both of these squads despite not picking them for the semifinals. Finland could squeeze in if Rinne plays at the top of his game, he’s that good and big in the cage. North America has some really fun and fast players. If Coach Todd McLellan gets his players to play smart and not turn the puck over, then they could sneak in, especially if Stanley Cup Champion Matt Murray continues to play well in net.

Group A:

First Place: Canada. They have the best roster, hands down, in this tournament. They will be playing at home. They are experienced having won gold in both Vancouver and Sochi. They have an excellent coaching staff, led by Mike Babcock. It’s almost a given that they will win this event.

Where it could go wrong for Canada: They’ll make the semifinals, and that is where they are most vulnerable if they run into a super hot goalie. But in a three game set, in either the preliminary round or in the finals, they are just too deep to be beaten. I give the Americans the best chance to take them down in the finals, but they will have to have Jonathan Quick pull a Mike Richter in net.

Second Place: USA. The American roster has been much maligned by several of the supposed experts in the media, but I’m not buying it. This club, put together by Kings GM Dean Lombardi, is built perfectly for this type of tournament on an NHL sized rink. They have great goaltending, led by Quick, a very mobile and strong two way defense, led by John Carlson and Ryan McDonagh, and a set of forwards that can hit and grind out goals with players like team captain Joe Pavelski and T.J. Oshie. They also have some top notch skilled snipers like Patrick Kane and Zach Parise. John Tortorella and Mike Sullivan are coaching this team and both have won Stanley Cups for a reason. Torts may not have shown any bench boss magic over an 82 game season in awhile, but a short tournament like this is right up his alley.

Where it could go wrong for USA: They could struggle to score goals if they don’t crash the net. Europe has a “can get really hot” goalie in Jaroslav Halak and the Czechs will start Michal Neuvirth, who has been in the zone in the cage recently, as well. In order to beat those guys, USA must get lots of traffic.

As for the Czechs and Europe, they are long shots to advance, but if any could do it, my money would be on Europe. While they are slow on the back end with the likes of the chippy Zdeno Chara, they are coached well by Ralph Krueger, who was a joy to cover on Wednesday night and was an advisor on the coaching staff for the victorious Canadian team in Sochi. Europe has one of the best forwards in the NHL in Anze Kopitar along with some other snipers like Tomas Vanek and the young Oilers forward, Leon Draisaitl, who had a hat trick at the Verizon Center against King Henrik.

Like I said earlier, this is going to be some intense hockey. The tournament starts at 3:30 pm on Saturday afternoon with USA taking on Europe on ESPN2. Canada plays the Czechs at 8 pm on ESPN News.

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