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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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Braden Holtby returns to Beast Mode to help the Caps bomb the Blue Jackets, 6-3

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Holtby, Kuznetsov Help the Caps Silence the Cannon

Posted on 19 January 2016 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals had six players with multi-point games, including a four assist evening from passing magician, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Braden Holtby was marvelous in net stopping 32 of 35 shots in a 6-3 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets at the Nationwide Arena.

Holtby, who said on Tuesday that he left Sunday’s game against the Rangers with a migraine that caused him to have blurry vision, was dialed in from the get go against John Tortorella’s squad. Columbus fired 10 of the first 11 shots, including Kerby Rychel’s first goal of the season on a two on one break, to take a 1-0 lead 9:30 into the contest. But if not for the Holtbeast, it could’ve easily been more.

Less than three minutes after the initial cannon shot, Washington’s first line answered with a sweet passing play from Alex Ovechkin (1G, 1A), and T.J. Oshie that Nicklas Backstrom (two goals) buried past Sergei Bobrovsky (22 saves on 27 shots). Just under four minutes later, Tom Wilson hit the Blue Jackets defensemen in his own zone after a good pinch by Taylor Chorney on the right wing boards and the Columbus player passed the puck right to Marcus Johansson (1G, 1A) in the high slot. Jojo then adeptly slid a no look pass to Jason Chimera, who had just returned to the game after blocking a shot with his left hand, and #25 sniped it by “Bob.” Chimera eats rocks for breakfast.

Washington would take that 2-1 lead to the dressing room, but on the opening shift of period two, Columbus nearly tied it up, but Holtby would not allow that to happen. Johansson, just over three minutes into the frame, then drew a double minor for high sticking on Justin Falk, who is one of the biggest stiff defensemen in the league, and that gave the Capitals back to back power plays.

It took Ovechkin just 13 seconds to extend the lead to 3-1 off of a great cross ice, box splitting feed from Kuznetsov and then Washington took full control of the contest when Kuzya hit Backstrom on the doorstep for a layup to make it 4-1 on the back end of that double minor.

The Blue Jackets then scored on a power play after Ryan Stanton took an ill advised penalty, but Andre Burakovsky fired a laser top shelf past Bobrovsky to restore the three goal lead heading into the final frame.

Washington came out slow again on the first shift of period three and it took another good save from Holtby to prevent any Columbus early momentum. Seriously, somebody needs to get the Caps some new locker room tunes because they are coming out to start periods playing like they’ve been listening to “Mandy” by Barry Manilow far too often.

Ryan Murray then took advantage of another Stanton mistake that ultimately allowed the Blue Jackets to fire that freaking cannon for the third time of the game.

But Jojo, who also eats rocks for breakfast, would hit the empty net and the Caps were able to leave town with a win and 35-8-3 record (73 points). The Holtbeast picked up his 30th victory on the season and he really earned this one. The quality chances were close, but Columbus had slightly more, while the shot attempts favored Torts’ crew at 67-50.

The Capitals played fairly well and dominated for stretches after the first 10 minutes or so, but they also had their share of breakdowns, mainly with the third defensive pair of Stanton and Chorney on the ice. This was Stanton’s first NHL game this season and he looked like he was playing just that. Not a good night for him and with John Carlson traveling with the team and likely to practice on Wednesday and/or Thursday, there is a good chance #20 won’t play against the Ducks on Friday at the Verizon Center as Snowmageddon Two descends on our Nation’s Hockey Capitol.

Overall, the difference in this game was the goaltending of Holtby and the Capitals superior skill. Washington just has so many weapons while Columbus shipped their number one center, Ryan Johansen, off to Nashville for defensemen Seth Jones (two assists, +2) recently. As a result, Coach Barry Trotz was able to limit the effectiveness of center Brandon Saad, who killed the Caps on January 2nd in a 5-4 Columbus shootout victory. On this night Saad was a non-factor going -2 in 19:30 of ice time.

So the Capitals just keep on rolling. With Carlson likely back in the lineup and Mike Richards (12:23 of ice time) getting his hands and legs in NHL game shape, this Washington team should keep improving. It’s amazing how well the Caps have performed without #74 (9-2-1), who is one of the best 10 to 15 defensemen in the league. This roster is deep and they still are missing Jay Beagle and Brooks Orpik, as well.

One of the biggest reasons this team has been able to keep winning despite the injuries has been the play of Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt. On Tuesday in Columbus, Orlov was just outstanding. The Blue Jackets had no answer for his ability to take the puck and skate it out and get the Washington rush going the other way. #9 was all over the ice at the Nationwide Arena and despite being pointless in 22:07, you could make a case that he was the best defensemen on the ice for the Caps (Matt Niskanen was darned good too with two assists in 28:31).

This was a game that was a potential trap one for the Caps. It was their 4th in six nights and they were playing one of the leaders in the Auston Matthews sweepstakes, so a letdown was quite possible. But the Holtbeast did his part to keep his club afloat despite bad period starts in all three frames, and the Washington skill took over to provide another three goal victory.

Finally, with this being the last trip to Columbus for the season, the Capitals will not have to hear that cannon go off again until at least October, and that is a very good thing.

Notes: Justin Williams had two assists after getting hit early in the game with friendly fire. He was in obvious pain on the bench, but played on. He also eats rocks for breakfast…Richards was 8-6 on draws while Kuznetsov went 7-5, which was good because overall the Caps were down from the dot (29-34). Jojo was 3-10, his only blemish on an otherwise very good evening…Wilson had five hits and Ovechkin had four…Karl Alzner tied a club record with his 422nd game in a row. Kudos, King Karl!

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Washington finds a way to win against a pesky Blue Jackets squad, 2-1.

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Oshie & Williams Score in Caps Victory Over Columbus

Posted on 30 October 2015 by Ed Frankovic

When you play against a John Tortorella coached squad, the game is rarely pretty. That was the case at the Verizon Center on Friday night as the Capitals managed to do enough to defeat a pesky Columbus club, 2-1.

Justin Williams scored the first goal in the latter half of period two for the Caps. Karl Alzner did a super job of pinching in from the point and that allowed Marcus Johansson to feed Williams above the right circle for a shot that Sergei Bobrovsky didn’t really see, thanks to a Nicklas Backstrom screen. The Caps buzzed the tower in the last 10 minutes of period two, but somehow “Bob” (28 saves) kept his club in it.

In the third period, Columbus found some legs for the early part of the stanza before the Caps started to take over possession-wise with their first and second lines. It would be the first line who would give Washington a cushion it would really need down the stretch. Braden Holtby (29 saves) used his great puck handling ability to lift one high off of the glass for a clear on the left wing boards and that sprung Alex Ovechkin on a three on one break with Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. The Gr8 had a lane to the net, but instead of shooting he sent a beautiful pass that split the Columbus defense. The recipient of the pass, Backstrom, then teed it up perfectly for Oshie, who buried it under the cross bar with 8:01 left to make it 2-0.

The Blue Jackets would score at 14:45 in a goal mouth scramble that Coach Barry Trotz challenged. The Washington bench boss felt that Holtby was interfered with on the play. He was, and it was worse than what Jay Beagle was whistled for earlier in the season in the San Jose game, but go figure?

Fortunately, the Capitals clamped down and preserved the win to send Torts and company to a 2-9 record. Washington moves to 7-2 and will face the Panthers on Halloween night at 7 pm in Sunrise.

Backstrom, Williams, Ovechkin, Oshie, and Johansson had very strong games up front for the Caps. That second line was really the key to the victory. In addition, Matt Niskanen, Alzner, Nate Schmidt, and Dmitry Orlov were very good on the back end. Alzner got hit and shaken up early in period two and then came back to play a monster game. King Karl and Niskanen were downright dominant as a pair. Schmidt, who saw his first game action since the San Jose loss, performed better and better as the game went on. He was skating well and making solid clears. His only weakness is his size, which makes it tough for him in goal mouth scrambles. But #88 was really good against Columbus.

On the downside, the Capitals third line, which had to face the Blue Jackets best line, struggled for most of the night. Tom Wilson took two penalties that were unnecessary. You can add Brooks Orpik’s delay of game infraction to that list. #44 needed to make a pass in a situation where he had time with the biscuit. Instead, Columbus received an early third period power play when down just a puck.

However ugly it was, and a good chunk of the game was sloppy hockey, especially the first 30 minutes, the Capitals did what they had to do to defeat a desperate team. Good teams find ways to win close games and so far the Caps have been fairly good at that. 7-2 is an excellent start and another win in the division is important. The Caps are now 3-1 against their Metropolitan foes.

Notes: Andre Burakovsky was having a decent game and then he got hit in the head by Oshie’s stick and barely played in the third period. Overall, he only logged 7:09 of ice time…Michael Latta, who was back in after missing six games, only played 3:55 and Brooks Laich just 7:28. The performance of the 3rd and 4th lines is a bit of a concern right now…the Caps out shot attempted Columbus, 55-50, but shots on net favored the Blue Jackets at 30-28…Face offs were pretty much even, with the Caps short by one win (29-28). Beagle was 9-7, Backstrom 8-7, but Laich was 1-4.

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Kings Will Win The Cup, But It Won’t Be Easy

Posted on 03 June 2014 by Ed Frankovic

In a series that was the best I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, the Los Angeles Kings defeated the Chicago Blackhawks in overtime in game seven of the Western Conference Final to move on to face the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Western Conference, in terms of elite teams, is clearly the better side, but the way the Rangers are gelling, this is not going to be an easy series for the Kings. New York is playing with tremendous emotion, they have excellent speed, and Henrik Lundqvist is money in the cage. Los Angeles brings size, “deep” depth at forward, and a never say die mentality.

Let’s take a look at the match-up in terms of offense, defense, goaltending, coach, and intangibles.

Offense: The Kings lead the NHL in goals for per game in the post season, at 3.48 while New York is 8th at 2.70. Los Angeles has an excellent top six crew of forwards and the bottom six is as good, if not better, than any team in the league. Coach Darryl Sutter has a talented group of players that really filled its’ biggest need with the Marian Gaborik acquisition at the trade deadline (In a related story, Kings GM Dean Lombardi is wanted on felony robbery charges in the state of Ohio). Justin Williams, after the Kings won a thrilling series with the Blackhawks, called “Gabby” the missing piece for LA. He was dead on, since adding an offensive talent like #12 allowed Sutter to balance his lineup. The Kings survived a series of 0 goals from their best offensive player, Anze Kopitar, in the Western final, so that tells you how deep this crew of Kings forwards is. Mike Richards is mostly playing on the bottom two lines, and he’s a second line center on many NHL clubs. The Kings “That 70’s line” of Tyler Toffoli, Jeff Carter, and Tanner Pearson brings speed and energy. Carter was amazing in the series against the Blackhawks and is a big reason the Kings have a chance to win their 2nd Cup in three years. New York has not scored a lot of goals and Martin St. Louis is their points leader with 13 in 20 games. Chris Kreider has come in to give New York a shot in the arm on offense and he has 10 points in 10 games. The Rangers will rely heavily on his speed and that of guys like Carl Hagelin and Matt Zuccarello. Simply put, though, the Rangers don’t score a lot of goals. Their power play is operating at a 13+% level while Los Angeles is cruising at 25+%. In addition, the Kings can throw four interchangeable lines at you while the Rangers struggle to find a fourth unit. Advantage: Heavily for the Kings.

Defense: The Rangers have a very good top four defense in Ryan McDonough, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, and Anton Stralman. Their third pair of John Moore and Kevin Klein is solid too. New York’s deep defense allows Coach Alain Vigneualt to not worry alot about exposing one of his pairs to a major mismatch. Any of the three pairs can face high end talent. The question for New York is what pair do they put against the Kopitar line and which one gets the Carter line? I’d imagine we see 27 and 5 go against Kopitar, Gaborik and Brown while Staal and Stralman get the 70’s line, at least initially. As for the Kings, Drew Doughty is the best defensemen in the NHL and he’ll log a ton of minutes. Doughty will make some mistakes but he’ll more than make up for that with numerous “how’d he do that type of plays?” The questions, though, for LA come with the rest of their crew. The injury to Robyn Regehr has been huge and getting Willie Mitchell back in game two against Chicago was very important. Mitchell and Doughty are great penalty killers. Slava Voynov elevated his game in the Blackhawks series and along with Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez and Matt Greene, they are key to Los Angeles’ ability to win. Will the Rangers speed be too much for those guys? Somehow the Kings were able to overcome Chicago’s speed up front, but the Rangers are likely faster. However, the Rangers forwards don’t have the high end skill like Chicago had with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Sharp. The Kings, however, are one injury away from the slow footed Jeff Schultz being inserted in the lineup. Advantage: Rangers, because of their balance and depth.

Goaltending: Does it get any better than Jonathan Quick vs. Henrik Lundqvist? These are the best goalies in the NHL going head to head for Lord Stanley. Amazingly, they both play different styles. Quick is far more aggressive and moves around much more than King Henrik. Lundqvist is the ONLY goalie in the league who can pull off the “deep in the net” style that he employs. That allows him to rarely be out of position on shots. The Rangers defense knows how #30 is going to play and they are a solid defensive unit. The Rangers are 2nd in the playoffs in goals against yielding 2.25 a game while the Kings are more leaky, at 2.86 per contest (9th overall). But those stats speak more to the style of play and defense of the teams than the net minders. Los Angeles has run into issues when they turn the puck over in the neutral zone, and that has led to a lot of odd man rushes against. Sutter must limit those against a fast Rangers club. Both goalies have had strong outings and also some poor ones, mostly because the team in front of them has struggled, at times. Overall, the Rangers have been more consistent, but they haven’t played the high end talent that Los Angeles has faced in San Jose, Anaheim, and then the 2013 Cup Champion Blackhawks. Advantage: Neither team, goaltending is a dead heat.

Coaching: I was not a John Tortorella fan and when they canned the fiery bench boss and replaced him with Vigneault, I expected marked improvement from New York. Did I think it would translate into a Stanley Cup Final run? Absolutely not. But give credit to the new bench boss (and GM Glen Sather too for some “ballsy” moves behind the bench and with personnel). He managed to survive a terrible schedule early in the post season and rally from a 3-1 hole against Pittsburgh. He’s doing a super job. Sutter is in an elite coach. He maintains an even keel so his team doesn’t get too high or low emotionally and he is a master tactician. Most other coaches would be golfing by now after facing a 3-0 hole in the opening round, but Sutter, assistant coach John Stevens, and the rest of the staff found a way to turn it around, mostly by fixing their poor neutral zone play. Sutter has a keen sense of who has it rolling on a given night and who just doesn’t have it. That’s why guys will move up and down the line-up. He somehow was able to win against the Ducks with both Regehr and Mitchell out, that speaks volumes to the coaching given that that they won with a guy who played the entire season in the AHL in Schultz. Advantage: Los Angeles.

Intangibles: Ever since St. Louis’ mom passed away unexpectedly, the Rangers have been a different team. Anyone who has played hockey, at any level, knows that it is a team game that requires intensity and an emotional commitment. New York clearly has that and throw Dominic Moore’s personal situation into the mix as well. The Rangers are on a mission. On the other hand, the Kings have won three game seven’s on the road, a feat that has never been done before in NHL history. They came back from a three game hole in the first round and were down 3-2 against the Ducks and survived. They were losing 2-0 early in game seven against the Hawks and scraped out a W. One thing that favors LA is the travel schedule. While the Rangers sat for days waiting to figure out who they would play, once they finally did they had to fly cross country to California. So I think that negates any rest they received. Both teams have played a lot of hockey. Advantage: Slight edge to Kings due to home ice.

So I think this is going to be an excellent series, but it will be lower scoring. It will be hard to top the Chicago-LA Western Final, no doubt. Both teams could win this thing, especially if the Kings can’t get net presence on Lundqvist. But I think the Kings will find a way and overcome a Rangers team that seems to keep improving.

The Pick: Despite the fact that broadcaster Kenny Albert and Rangers assistant GM, Jim Schoenfeld, are some of my favorite people in hockey, it’s Los Angeles in 6.

 

 

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Embarrassing Weekend for Caps & NHL

Posted on 19 January 2014 by Ed Frankovic

For those following along on this blog and in my recent radio session with Drew Forrester on WNST, the fact that the Capitals have lost five in a row is not a surprise to you. On Friday they were whipped 5-1 by the Columbus Blue Jackets and on Sunday night it was a 4-1 drubbing to the despised New York Rangers. Things are bad in Caps land, no doubt.

The optimists will point to some fancy stats, particularly the Caps 5v5 Close Fenwick percentage, and talk about how the Capitals puck possession statistics are at a season high. But that and a dollar might get you a cup of coffee these days. Washington is making far too many mistakes on the ice, to include the propensity to take terrible penalties.

They are like that NFL team that can pile up the yards on offense but turn the ball over several times a game, get flagged often, and have a weak defense. Yes, the Caps have the puck more than their opposition a lot lately, but when they lose it, the mishap is resulting in a biscuit in the back of their net far more often than the puck possession edge is leading to goals for them.

Outside of Alex Ovechkin and perhaps John Carlson, there aren’t many guys playing well right now on this club. The defense is a shambles as Washington just doesn’t have six legit NHL blue liners. After Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Mike Green, the quality takes a severe drop. Dmitry Orlov, who made the terrible turnover that started the loss to New York just 70 seconds into the game, is trying to do too much on a disastrous pairing with Green. Both 52 and 81 have the same styles but because Washington is so weak depth wise on defense, Coach Adam Oates is practically forced to play them together because the other options are far worse.

The goaltending has had its share of ups and downs and the latest casualty of a horse being ridden too hard and long appears to be Philipp Grubauer. The rookie goalie was bad on goals two and three against the Rangers and yanked for the second straight contest. He likely will be heading back to Hershey since logically the way to go right now is with Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth in goal. As for Neuvirth, with a limited goalie trade market, it makes little sense to just dump the young goalie because he wants out. Neuvy has played well in his two recent games so the smart move for the Caps is to just go with the duo they planned on having all season and then decide what to do in the off season. GM George McPhee likely can’t get a good enough return to make it worth his while to move Neuvirth. Goaltending is a precious commodity (see Edmonton and Philadelphia for examples of teams with weak net minding) so for the Caps to move a good goalie who has won a playoff series and has a salary cap friendly contract would be foolish.

As for the offense, it stinks after you get past the Gr8. Part of the problem is the defense is not good at getting the puck out of their own zone but this crew of forwards lacks chemistry and the intestinal fortitude to get the greasy goals needed to be a playoff team. They also don’t defend well either. There is an over abundance of right wings and a dearth of left wingers. Martin Erat, who asked to be traded back in November, took three minor penalties on Sunday in New York, one of which cost Green a goal. The 32 year old winger, who is on the downside of his career, is not helping his trade case, at this point.

Basically, it’s a train wreck for the Caps right now and the schedule doesn’t get any easier with a home game on Tuesday against a speedy Ottawa team (2-0 vs. Caps this season) followed by five straight games on the road.

The embarrassing weekend has dropped the Capitals out of a playoff spot and if they don’t find a way to turn things around quickly, they will be in even worse shape heading into the Olympic break in early February.

Speaking of embarrassing, the NHL should have its’ tail between its’ legs after the events of Saturday night, which was “Hockey Day” in Canada.

Let’s start with the debacle in Detroit. The Los Angeles Kings had a 2-1 lead late in regulation when a Wings point shot deflected off of the stick of a Kings defensemen up in the air and hit the netting behind the goal some 20 feet up. The puck then proceeded to ricochet off of the netting and off of the back of Kings goalie Jonathan Quick and in the cage for what the zebras called on the ice the tying goal. Kings D-man Drew Doughty immediately put his hand up to signal the puck went out of play but somehow all four officials MISSED the puck hitting the netting. Then a bigger issue comes into play. Because pucks off of the netting are not reviewable the league office in Toronto could not disallow the goal because it is not in the rule book. What a joke. If the league doesn’t immediately change that rule tomorrow then they are a disgrace. The shootout loss cost LA a critical point that could decide home ice advantage for them and the Wings got two points they desperately need, but did not deserve, in a very tight Eastern Conference playoff race. Shame on you NHL for not having this scenario covered and double shame on the blind referees who missed this obvious call.

Now for the big embarrassment of the weekend, and those of you who follow the game will be not be surprised that Vancouver Coach John Tortorella was the main culprit. The stubborn and fiery coach, who has already worn out his welcome in Tampa and New York, is currently coaching a struggling Canucks team that just went 0-3 on a road trip. Flames coach Bob Hartley, the Canucks opponent on Saturday night, put a starting lineup together that was ultra tough. Calgary has been a bad team all year but their early season strong work ethic had recently waned. So Hartley rewarded a fourth line that had scored in the previous game with a start in Vancouver. So naturally, the man who seems to look for fights, Tortorella, overreacted and put his tough guys out on the ice to start the game. The result, as many have seen, was an instant line brawl right out of Slap Shot. It was a disgrace and an embarrassment to hockey. What made things even worse was Torts, after the first period was over, was caught on Hockey Night in Canada cameras trying to get at Hartley in the entrance to the Flames locker room. A major dust up occurred with Flames goalie coach and former Washington Capital Clint Malarchuk having to be restrained from going after Torts. Tortorella’s actions after the period was over are far worse than anything else because the game should never be played off of the ice. Torts crossed the line there and should be suspended for several games and fined heavily.

Those who try to say that Tortorella’s hand was forced aren’t going to get any agreement from me. If Torts had remained calm and thought his way through things he would have put out his 2nd or 3rd line to start the game. The line brawl would not have occurred and you can bet that the referees would have been watching closely at the Flames fourth unit and whistled any penalties had they come close to crossing the line. It was an avoidable situation for Tortorella but he was too busy being hard headed and trying to “man up” that he missed a chance to teach his team the right lesson about showing self discipline. Now he’s going to sit for awhile and his ability to get his club to show restraint seems to have been diminished greatly.

What an embarrassment for hockey from Tortorella, there is no other way to put it.

 

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Caps & Ovechkin Must Adjust To Win Series

Posted on 08 May 2013 by Ed Frankovic

On Sunday night, I blogged that the playoffs are all about adjustments. The Capitals were winning the series 2-0, at that point, and were dominating the play.

After two games in the Big Apple, the series with New York is now tied. Rangers coach John Tortorella made adjustments to his special teams’ units and with New York getting five extra power plays in the two games, it is no surprise everything is all knotted up heading into a crucial game five on Friday night at the Verizon Center.

The key words there are “Verizon Center.”

Washington gets the last change and that gives Coach Adam Oates the ability to get the matchups he wants. In game four in New York, Tortorella put Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh out against Alex Ovechkin and the Caps top line repeatedly, and it worked.

As for the Caps power play, well they only received two of them while the Rags got four in game four. Jason Chimera, who took a bad penalty late in period two, was cross checked after the Caps third goal but no call was made. But zebras will be zebras and you have to rise above them to win hockey games. 

On Washington’s man advantage the Rangers are selling out to not let Ovechkin and Mike Green beat them. With Mike Ribeiro and Nicklas Backstrom not shooting the puck, it was difficult for the Capitals to score. Hopefully Oates makes some adjustments there to get the man advantage going again. To steal a Tortorella term, the power play was “too stagnant” at Madison Square Garden.

As for Washington’s penalty kill, it has been made tougher thanks to the adjustments the Rangers have made. Brian Boyle reeked havoc in front of Braden Holtby on his power play shifts (2:30 of PP time) and it made a difference on the goal that came after Chimera’s 2nd period infraction. That penalty and tally was a killer because Washington had all of the momentum at that point having tied the game in the last 30 seconds of the middle frame on Troy Brouwer’s backhander.

But overall, the Caps were just too sloppy once again. Holtby started that with a turnover that gave the Rangers a gift goal, which eventually was the difference in the game. #70 made some big stops but he’d probably want that pass and the third goal back. As for the other two markers, well you can pin those on poor defensive zone coverage. That is something that was not an issue in games one and two but was a big factor in New York.

What is also an issue is the potential loss of forward Martin Erat. #10 was hurt on a weird sequence that ended up with he and Ovechkin getting called for penalties on the same play in the first period. It appeared to be a left arm injury and with him out for the rest of the game, Oates moved Eric Fehr up with Ribeiro and Brouwer. That bumped Joel Ward up with Mathieu Perreault and Chimera. That third line was Washington’s best all evening and it was #42’s best game of the post season.

So the series now becomes a best of three, in four nights, no less. The Caps get two at home but they need to get back to playing the way they did in the first two games. They played poorly in both New York tilts but still had a chance to tie them up before the buzzer sounded. It’s a close series and injuries play a role. Erat is out and who knows who else in the Caps lineup is not 100% since injuries are never discussed come post season?

Long time, and now even short time Caps fans have been here before and know the team’s history in the post season. Washington left town on Sunday night with all of the momentum in the series, but heading into Friday, the Rangers have it.

The last change and special teams adjustments are the key, in my book, for the Caps to win this series.

Notes: The Capitals were beaten badly on faceoffs, 34-19…with Hershey losing to Providence on Wednesday night their season is now over so some players will be recalled to Washington as “Black Aces.” If Erat is out for Friday it will be interesting to see if Aaron Volpatti plays or rookie Tom Wilson gets a sweater in a huge game.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: I’ll be on WNST’s morning show with Drew Forrester at 7:45am on Thursday talking Caps hockey. Listen Live at WNST.NET

 

 

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Ovechkin, Caps Seek Commanding Series Lead on Monday

Posted on 05 May 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Fresh off of a huge 1-0 overtime victory on Saturday afternoon, the Washington Capitals take on the New York Rangers in game three of their best of seven first round playoff series on Monday night at 7:30 pm at Madison Square Garden (CSN, NBCSN). A win for the Caps and it is a 3-0 series lead, and for a Washington franchise that is 39 years old, it would be unchartered waters in a best of seven (the Caps did defeat the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders, three games to none, in best of five first round matchups in 1984 and 1986, respectively).

This Capitals team continues to get better each game under first year head coach Adam Oates. After winning 3-1 in the first tilt, the Capitals played another very good game but thanks to the superb play of Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (37 saves), the Caps weren’t able to gain the victory until the extra session. But Washington carried much of the play in that contest and despite the Rags getting forwards Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett back into the lineup for the first time this series, the Caps still have more depth and as a result, have been able to win the first two games. A big difference has been special teams with the Caps going for 2 for 7 with the man advantage while New York is 0 for 7. But that still leaves a ton of even strength time and if you look at the ice times of both squads, it is pretty apparent that Oates has more confidence in all of his skaters while Rangers bench boss John Tortorella relies mostly on three lines and five defensemen. The fact that Tortorella’s skilled guys are playing more at even strength could be a factor in why their power play is not as effective.

But as a former Capitals assistant coach has told me repeatedly, the playoffs are all about adjustments, and you can bet that Torts will do whatever he can in his own barn to get the Rags back in the series. Madison Square Garden will be amped up and with home ice the fiery coach now has last change. Midway through game two he switched up his lines putting Rick Nash with Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan and that line was the Rangers best. The typical matchup had that unit against the Caps second line of Mike Ribeiro, Martin Erat, and Troy Brouwer. Does that matchup continue in New York? Will Ryan Clowe be back in for the Rangers giving them another top six forward? What can Tortorella do to fix his ailing power play? Those are the easiest things that seem changeable for a Rangers club that the Caps have on the ropes. The Rangers are struggling to generate offense so does New York, which is primarily a defensive team that is coached to mostly play dump and chase, change things up and open up the game? I have a hard time seeing them try that given they haven’t been practicing it all season and they would likely be playing with fire with the Capitals highly skilled top two lines.

As for Washington, even when winning, they make adjustments and that’s another reason why they continue to improve. Oates’ club was much better on their breakouts on Saturday and the number of giveaways and odd man rushes dropped drastically.  The Capitals also seem to have the Rangers tendencies down, especially in the offensive zone. A Rags team that relies heavily on diving to block shots was burnt on the game winner as Ribeiro faked Callahan to the ice before dishing to Mike “Game Over” Green for the winner. Oates might not have any lineup changes but given his penchant for video analysis and his technical savvy, you can bet that he’s given his club some things to help the team be even better.

After minimizing turnovers, which can lead to odd man rushes, another important thing for Washington to do to win in New York is to limit the ability of Rangers defensemen Michael Del Zotto to rush the puck up the ice. It was Del Zotto, along with the traded Marian Gaborik, who really hurt the Caps in last year’s series loss. After Del Zotto, New York really doesn’t have any guys on the blue line who are excellent puck rushers while the Capitals boast Green and John Carlson plus Jack Hillen and Steve Oleksy bring that capability, as well. It is an advantage for the Caps that their defense is more mobile.

Still, you have to play the games and it is critical that Washington doesn’t get overconfident or lose focus on playing one shift at a time. Based on what I’ve seen from Oates, he will have his club ready to go in a hostile environment.

So will this be the year that Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals finally take a 3-0 lead in a best of seven playoff series?

 

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Will Ovechkin & Caps Avenge 2012 Series Loss to Rangers?

Posted on 28 April 2013 by Ed Frankovic

For the Caps organization and their fans, the memory of last spring’s Eastern Conference semifinal game five overtime defeat to the Rangers that ultimately led to a series loss in seven games still stings. Washington was basically twenty five seconds away from a win on enemy ice with a chance to wrap the series up at the Verizon Center, but an unfortunate double minor for high sticking turned that whole storyline around. Instead of moving on to play the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals the Caps headed to the golf course.

But just one year later, Alexander Ovechkin and the Caps have a chance to avenge that crushing defeat against a Rangers team that many predicted to win the Stanley Cup before the season started. The addition of Rick Nash to the Rags lineup seemed to give them that big time gun they lacked and on paper they had two nice scoring lines in Nash, Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik, Derek Stepan, Ryan Callahan, and Carl Hagelin. But the game isn’t played on paper and the war between Gaborik and stubborn head coach John Tortorella ultimately led to #10 being shipped to Columbus. GM Glen Sather went out and added left wing Ryane Clowe from San Jose at the trade deadline to give Torts a player that better fit his dump and chase, grinding style. New York, despite losing top four defensemen Marc Staal to an eye injury, played well down the stretch and moved up to the six seed to face Washington in a series that will begin on Thursday night at the Verizon Center. However, they lost Clowe to an injury last Thursday in Carolina and it is unclear if he will be able to go against the Caps. Thus it looks like the Rangers could possibly start the series without a top 4 D man in Staal, a top 6 forward in Clowe as well as a depth forward in injured Brian Boyle.

As for Washington, well they are a much different team than the one they had in last year’s series. The Caps were offensively challenged from a system and player standpoint last spring but General Manager George McPhee brought in new coach Adam Oates, who plays the up tempo style that better fits Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. In addition, the GM has assembled a true second scoring line, something Washington hasn’t had in the post season since 2009. Center Mike Ribeiro was added in a deal with Dallas and then at the trade deadline McPhee brought in speedy left winger Martin Erat from Nashville. With the emergence of Marcus Johansson and the improvement in the Caps power play in Oates’ system, Washington is a very dangerous offensive team once again.

In the bottom six forwards department, the Caps have a super crew that has gotten a big boost from a healthy Eric Fehr. At some point the Caps will also get Joel Ward back too. Washington has a chance to win this series if their bottom six forwards can outplay the respective crew from New York.

On defense, the Caps have Mike Green playing as well as ever and paired with Karl Alzner he is not getting run in the corners as often. That will be something that Oates must continue to avoid, the big hits on his defense because that is the way the Rangers like to play, dump the puck below the goal line and wear you out down low. The Caps may have lost Dennis Wideman on the back end to free agency last summer but from one to six, they are a more improved club from last spring. John Erskine is playing super with John Carlson and the third defensive pair of Jack Hillen and Steve Oleksy is solid and mobile. Washington has more depth on the back end than New York, who prefer to give their top four of Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, Ryan McDonagh, and Anton Stralman a ton of minutes. John Moore and former Capital Steve Eminger are the third pairing.

In net, you’ve got a super battle between Henrik Lundqvist and Braden Holtby. Last spring was #70’s first NHL playoffs and he performed extremely well. Outside of game one in New York, Holtby was outstanding. Holtby is a year more experienced and his puck handling still makes a big difference for Washington. Oates has used #70’s skills in that area even more than former coach Dale Hunter did and they will need it to combat the Rangers dump and forecheck style.

Behind the bench you’ve got the abrasive but very experienced Tortorella versus the technically savvy Oates. Oates knows the Rags very well from his coaching days with the Devils last spring, so he is very familiar with what Torts wants his players to do. Torts will try to work the referees and manipulate the New York media to put the pressure on him, instead of his players. But both teams are under pressure to win now, so those tactics are just a waste of time and energy. Oates seems to be the type that doesn’t bother getting caught up in that stuff.

In the special teams department, the Caps have the best power play in the league (26.8%) while New York has struggled (15.7%), but in a seven game series, anything can happen. But this Washington team can play well at five on five too and my take is that the more five on five action there is, the more it favors the Caps given their superior depth. The Rangers have some very skilled players so staying out of the box is paramount. The Caps penalty killing finished 27th in the NHL at 77.9% during the regular season.

This is the fourth post season meeting between these clubs in five years. It is the tightest Eastern Conference matchup and a battle of two surging clubs with different styles of play.

The complete series schedule is listed below:

Thursday, May 2 7:30 p.m. NY Rangers at Washington  TV: CSN, NBC Sports Network, TSN

Saturday, May 4 12:30 p.m. NY Rangers at Washington  TV: NBC, TSN

Monday, May 6 7:30 p.m. Washington at NY Rangers  TV: CSN, NBC Sports Network, TSN

Wednesday, May 8 7:30 p.m. Washington at NY Rangers  TV: CSN, NBC Sports Network, TSN

*Friday, May 10 7:30 p.m. NY Rangers at Washington  TV: CSN, TSN

*Sunday, May 12 TBD Washington at NY Rangers  TV: TBD

*Monday, May 13 TBD NY Rangers at Washington TV: TBD

* – if necessary

Notes and Assorted Musings: The Caps ended the regular season with 164 power plays to 163 for their opponents. Why is this important? Well for the first time in 16 seasons Washington finally had more power plays than their opposition in a season. Overall they are down 471 power plays over the course of the streak, which coincides with McPhee’s tenure as GM. People always say that “the calls even out” so given that, shouldn’t we see more balance in the power play totals? Clearly it is not the case here and to give you an idea of the odds of this happening, it is akin to flipping a coin 15 straight times and getting heads for each result. The odds of that happening are 1 in 32,768! (s/t to Mike Vogel of the Caps for pointing out the power play stats in his blog last night)…it has been reported that Brooks Laich did indeed undergo surgery this spring and he is targeting a return in the second round of the playoffs, if the Caps can advance that far…down on the farm, the Hershey Bears won both games 1 and 2 versus the Providence Bruins over the weekend and can win their best of five opening round series with a victory at the Giant Center this weekend in either game three or four.

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Green Leads Caps over Bruins, Next Up: The Rangers

Posted on 28 April 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Caps Coach Adam Oates made it pretty clear on Wednesday that he intended to play the last two regular season games to win to try and keep Washington’s second half of the season momentum going into to the postseason. The Capitals faced a desperate Ottawa club that needed two points to make the playoffs on Thursday but lost in overtime and on Saturday night, against a Bruins squad that needed a win to keep pace with the Montreal Canadiens in order to win the Northeast Division, they scored three power play goals to rally for a 3-2 victory in overtime, as well.

The win against Boston came against one of the East’s best teams and certainly makes Oates’ decision to not rest guys seem like the right choice. No Caps player came out of the game injured and Washington showed that they can handle a physical club, even when they really didn’t have anything to play for. It is very encouraging, especially since Washington will now face the physical New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs, which will likely start on Tuesday at the Verizon Center (full schedule to be released on Sunday night at 11pm on the NHL Network).

Saturday night was a lesson to teams that if they take penalties, and the referees actually call them, then they are likely to pay the price. The Capitals have the NHL’s best power play and they went 3 for 5 on Saturday night. Mike Green bombed in two man advantage goals and then his shot on a 4 on 3 OT power play went off of Tuukka Rask’s chest and Eric Fehr backhanded it home from the top of the crease.

The win ended the Caps 48 game campaign at 27-18-3 for 57 points. Pretty impressive considering they were 2-8-1 (5 points) after 11 games.

It was a year that started very poorly and took a long time to get rolling. But a healthy lineup and the play of Alexander Ovechkin and Green was so key to the turnaround. The Gr8 didn’t add to his NHL leading goal total of 32, but he had two assists. Ovechkin locked up the Richard Trophy on Saturday night for his goal scoring title and #52’s two markers gives him the NHL goal scoring lead for defensemen, despite missing 13 games. As I said on WNST last week, Green is the “straw that stirs the drink” for the Capitals on the back end. When he is healthy, this is a totally different hockey team.

Speaking of different, the games get that way now. Penalties are typically called at a lower rate and the physical play amps up. I’d bet every dollar I have that Rags Coach John Tortorella is trying to find a way to get some clean shots on Green to disrupt Washington’s attack. Therefore it will be key that Oates continues to make sure Green doesn’t take the big hits like has happened in previous seasons. Clearly the ability of Braden Holtby (34 saves) to play the puck helps minimize that and defensive partner Karl Alzner has done a good job of handling more of the corner play to prevent Green from getting run.

It will be a very difficult series as these clubs face each other in the postseason for the fourth time in five seasons.

I’ll have more on the matchup on Sunday and Monday night, but the fact that the Capitals were able to win again, despite having little to play for, tells me that this team is ready for the postseason.

And they have momentum.

Notes: Washington killed off both Boston power plays on the evening…shot attempts were even at 65 each but the Caps won the faceoff battle, 33-25…Mike Ribeiro had two assists in a solid game. His only major blemish was losing a defensive zone faceoff that led to Milan Lucic’s goal to open the scoring…the Caps signed goalie Michal Neuvirth to a two year contract extension on Saturday morning ($2.4M in 2013-14 and $2.6M in 2014-15)…the Capitals announced that the 2013 Baltimore Hockey Classic will be played at 1st Mariner Arena on Wednesday, September 17th against the Boston Bruins.

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