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Caps – Rangers 1st Round Schedule & Analysis

Posted on 10 April 2011 by Ed Frankovic

The National Hockey League announced their first round Stanley Cup Playoff schedule on their own television network (The NHL Network) on Sunday night at 10 pm. So without further adieu, here is the schedule for the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the New York Rangers:

Game 1: Wednesday, April 13 at Washington, 7:30 p.m.

Game 2: Friday, April 15 at Washington, 7:30 p.m.

Game 3: Sunday, April 17 at New York, 3:00 p.m.

Game 4: Wednesday, April 20 at New York, 7:00 p.m.

*Game 5: Saturday, April 23 at Washington, 3:00 p.m.

*Game 6: Monday, April 25 at New York, TBD

*Game 7: Wednesday, April 27 at Washington, TBD

So the series starts hot and heavy with three games in five days before there is a two day break leading up to game four in Madison Square Garden. Game five, if necessary, would be in Washington on NBC at 3 pm on April 23rd. Game three is also on NBC while the series opener will be shown on VERSUS and also Comcast Sports Net (CSN).

For the Caps, this is what they’ve been waiting nearly 12 months for, a shot at redemption after blowing a 3-1 series lead to the Montreal Canadiens last spring. The Capitals have made some big changes to their roster, and more importantly, have become a better defensive team since the debacle against the Habs in 2010. Defensemen Mike Green is expected to return to the lineup for game one while Dennis Wideman is pretty much out for the first round.

With the high expectations comes pressure for Washington. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau and captain Alexander Ovechkin are under the microscope locally and across North America. The change in style has certainly lowered the glamorous statistics that several individuals on this club historically enjoyed and Boudreau did a superb job of getting his club to forget individual awards, point totals, and big contracts to focus on winning when it matters most. The Great #8 has been adamant that all he cares about is winning and the fact that he and Alexander Semin have been spending lots of time with trade deadline acquisition Jason Arnott is an indicator that these guys are tired of the playoff loser label.

Here are my keys for the Caps to win this series:

1. Match the Rangers physical intensity – New York, who are coached by the very intense John Tortorella, will have a pretty simple game plan to dump the puck and try and hit the Caps to death. Washington needs to be ready for that and the best way to beat that is to get the Blueshirts to be the ones constantly turning and chasing the puck in their own zone. The Caps must be physical and willing to take the body. Finesse will not win against New York and the Capitals cannot turn the puck over at the offensive blue line. The Rangers outscored the Capitals 18-6 in the four games played this season so there is absolutely no reason for the Caps to be overlooking New York. The Rangers are mostly a young, blue collar type of team but they do have some snipers in Marian Gaborik and Cap-killer Vaclav Prospal. The best way to get numbers 10 and 20 off of their game is to get in their grill and hit them. Washington must not allow these two pure goal scorers to find space in the Caps zone where they can set up shop and unleash their deadly shots.

2. Get traffic in front of Henrik Lundqvist – King Henrik is one of the best goalies in the NHL and he can win a playoff series on his own. The Caps were blanked by the superstar Swedish net minder twice this season. Washington must be willing, unlike last spring, to pay the physical price and get bodies to the net. In addition, they need to get the puck there. The Rangers are very good at blocking shots so Boudreau must direct his blueliners where to put the biscuit so it can make it to the cage then the Capitals must go there and score the ugly goals. A perimeter game is not going to get it done so it will be interesting to see if a guy like Semin will go into the higher traffic areas to take more advantage of his super skill set. Lundqvist has played nearly all of the Rangers games down the stretch and New York has no real back up goalie so anything Washington can do to get him off of his game is needed.

3. Limit turnovers – The Caps cannot turn the puck over from their offensive blue line on back. The Rangers, if they get a lead, will no doubt try and play a neutral zone trap and counter attack the Capitals. In addition, when tied or trailing, Tortorella’s crew will apply a vicious forecheck on Washington. The Caps centers will be the key to the break out as the Rangers will likely jam the walls. Nicklas Backstrom, Jason Arnott, and Marcus Johansson will be the ones who have to be in the proper position to burn New York’s pressure and use their skill and speed to get the Caps some odd man rushes in transition.

 4. Solid Goaltending – Michal Neuvirth, who is expected to the get the game one start, and Semyon Varlamov, if he plays, must be on their respective games from the outset of this series. In game one of the past two post season openers Jose Theodore allowed some questionable goals to put Washington behind the eight ball early against the Rangers in 2009 and the Habs in 2010. #30 and #1 can’t do that and they also must be positionally sound to prevent allowing rebounds to a Rangers team that is offensively challenged and tries to compensate for that by going to the net hard.

5. Win the Special Teams Battle – The first thing the Caps need to do is be disciplined and not take retaliation penalties against a team that will try and goad you into those type of infractions. Sean Avery is the Rangers number one pest and he will do his best to get Washington off of their game. In addition, the best way to stay out of the box is to work hard and move your feet. Penalties happen from laziness and the Capitals can’t afford to put the Rangers on the man advantage. The Caps have improved their PK this year but the best way to do well in the playoffs is to not take many penalties. On the power play, the Caps showed signs of breaking out of their season long slump with the man advantage. The power play must continue to be simplified with pucks coming from the point with traffic in front. The Caps like to employ forwards on the points, at times, so Oveckhin, Brooks Laich and any other forward put back there must remember to be responsible. Shorthanded goals in the playoffs can really change momentum in a game and series so it is imperative that Boudreau’s crew not allow any.

6. Maintain Their Focus & Play It One Shift At a Time – A series is not won in a single game. The Caps, if they get ahead in the series, can’t get complacent or start looking ahead. On the flip side, if they get behind they can’t panic and stop playing their system. That is what happened in the two blow out losses to New York in the regular season. Given that Washington had a 10 minute lapse to start game five last year that likely cost them the Montreal series, I don’t think we’ll see that this year, but that is easier said than done. The first round is the hardest one to get out of and teams that have success don’t get too high or too low. They stick to their system and play it one shift at a time. The Caps must learn to do that this post season.

In summary, this series is going to come down to hard work and determination. The Rangers definitely bring that and for the Caps to win they need to match or beat New York’s intensity and desire. Washington is the more skilled team but playoff hockey is a different animal where many contests are of the one goal variety. The Capitals played over 40 one goal games this season and as a result should be more battle tested. New York is a club that never quits and proof of that is the way they made the playoffs on the last day of the season as well as their 5-3 victory over the Boston Bruins on Monday night after trailing 3-0. Coach Tortorella’s crew believes in themselves and the only way to beat a team like that is to out work them. If the Caps don’t do that this post season, then there is no doubt that there will be changes in Washington.

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Varlamov, Ovechkin Lead Caps Over Cats

Posted on 07 April 2011 by Ed Frankovic

Playing on back to back nights and traveling home from a late tilt in Canada the night before, the Washington Capitals were ripe for the taking in the first period of Wednesday night’s contest with the Florida Panthers. The Cats tried to take advantage of a tired Caps team and threw everything they could at Washington, but goalie Semyon Varlamov stopped all 18 shots he faced in the opening frame, many of which were of the quality variety. Varly blanked the Panthers while Mike Knuble and Jason Chimera both tallied on a recently resurgent Capitals power play to give Washington a 2-0 first period lead and from there the Caps closed the deal with a 5-2 victory. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau’s squad is now 48-22-11 (107 pts) and if Washington gets either one point in Florida in Saturday’s season finale or the Philadelphia Flyers don’t win both of their remaining two contests then the Capitals clinch the first seed in the Eastern Conference for the second straight year.

Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis from the Caps 101st straight sellout at the Verizon Center:

- If Varlamov doesn’t play superbly in period one then Florida likely jumps to an early lead and wins this game. #1 was outstanding with his positioning and as a result he didn’t give up many juicy rebounds after doing that on the first shot he faced. The young net minder, who has performed well in the large majority of his outings this season, has not received much in the way of offensive support from his teammates. Varly is now 11-9-5 on the season, is fourth in the NHL in GAA (2.23), and is tied for fourth in save percentage (.924). That win-loss record is much better if the Caps could score some goals for him and on this night they took advantage of two power plays in the opening frame to finally give him a lead to work with. Overall, the Capitals goaltenders are playing well and afterwards Boudreau talked about the great play from his Russian net minder.

“Yeah, we weren’t very good [in period one]…He kept us in it in period one. If it wasn’t for Varly it probably would have been 3-1 for them. We would have had to expend an awful lot of energy just to come back. It is difficult to do sometimes,” said Boudreau on Varlamov’s play and what his team would have needed had #1 not been so good.

“I feel we can put one of three guys in and I know we are going to get a good game. Again, it is no knock on anybody else but it is just the way I feel. It may not happen, but that is just the way I feel,” added the Caps head coach on the faith he has in all of his goalies for this upcoming post season, which will start next Wednesday or Thursday.

- The power play is rounding into form at the right time and the Caps have five tallies in man advantage situations in the last three games. Brooks Laich (two assists) is doing an excellent job on the right point of the power play by keeping it simple. #21 is moving the puck quickly and firing the biscuit at the cage often. Boudreau also likes having #21 out there because of his ability to play defense.

“[John] Carlson was getting too much ice time and he was getting tired. We seemed to have a defensemen injured in almost every game in recent weeks and I’ve always wanted a left-right combination [at the point] rather than two rights. And Brooks is such a responsible person, I thought he could get back there and do it, and he has, he’s done quite a fine job,” said Boudreau on his thought process for employing #21 on the point on the power play.

- Alexander Ovechkin had excellent passes to help set up goals one and three and he added goal five into an empty net on Nicklas Backstrom’s (two assists) shifty move and feed. The Great #8′s drop pass to Sean Collins (1 goal in 18:36 of ice time) at 11:42 of period two pretty much ended any thought of a Florida comeback. Alexander the Great now has 32 goals and 53 assists (85 points) in 78 games this season. He played 18:39 in the game against Florida and appears to be the healthiest he’s been heading into the postseason in his career.

“A couple of things happened, you either get very frustrated if you are their team or be very angry [when the other goalie is playing well]. I thought it was very important to get that third goal. Because you saw what finally did happen when they scored a goal. They came on and they played the last five minutes and I started to think of the Toronto game in November was reoccuring all over again because they were outworking us,” added Boudreau on the big tally by Collins and what he was thinking when Florida put a late push on in the final six minutes after Washington was up 4-0.

- In that opening frame, which was pretty much all Florida, the Cats had a full two and a half minutes of zone time on Washington starting after Laich was called for holding the stick. Backstrom, Carlson, Boyd Gordon, and Karl Alzner were pinned in their end and could not clear the puck. They finally iced the biscuit and with the Caps up 1-0 at the 13:05 mark Boudreau called his only timeout. It was a shrewd move by a very experienced head coach because his skaters were clearly gassed and were not allowed to change due to the icing infraction.

“I hate calling it out in the first period if you don’t have to because you don’t know how the game is going to go. But they were on the ice for two minutes and the other guys were putting on a fresh line so I thought this was as important a time as we were going to get, especially when we had the lead. If we were behind and I thought, geez, I might need it later, then I might have changed the goalie to give us a break or something but it’s what we did,” said Boudreau on his wise and successful decision to take the timeout early in the contest.

- Jason Arnott, Alexander Semin, and Scott Hannan all received the night off to rest nagging injuries and with those top players out along with Mike Green, Dennis Wideman, and Tom Poti, the Capitals had a depleted lineup for game #81 of the 2010-11 season. Green is expected to see action on Saturday in Florida while Poti will not suit up for that contest. General Manager George McPhee, in an interview with the Sports Reporters on 980 am, stated that Wideman’s leg is still open [to relieve pressure from his hematoma], and that the muscles around it are okay. GMGM said his hope was that #6 could come back in the second round of the playoffs, if the Caps make it that far.

- In summary, the Caps were far from perfect on this night but they have some excuses given injuries and a grueling schedule. But somehow this team keeps winning and it is 19-4-1 in the last 24 contests. Washington is now 3-1-1 versus the Cats, who give the Caps problems because they are a fast team that puts out a solid effort.

“Give them credit, they worked hard, and I think we were a little tired at the end. We’ve played a lot of hockey and that is a long flight from Toronto when you have to go through customs you get home late and stuff. I know it is a bit of an excuse but that’s the one I’m using tonight,” finished Boudreau on why the team struggled, at times, in this victory.

Notes: Washington closes out the regular season home schedule with the best winning percentage on home ice (25-8-8) and the least number of home losses (8) in the NHL…Knuble now has 13 points (nine goals, four assists) in his last 13 games. The old man seems to have found the fountain of youth again. Former Cap and CSN broadcaster Alan May told me after the second period that #22 said his success was due to his body getting in better shape as the season wore on…because of the one long PK shift, Alzner played 10 minutes in period one but only ended up logging 23:50 for the game. Boudreau was able to better monitor ice time when the Caps performed better in the final two frames. They only gave up 15 shots in the final 40 minutes after allowing 18 in period one…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 24:24…The Capitals won the face-off battle, 29-28. Laich was 9-3 while Gordon won 10 of 16 draws…final shots on goal were 33-25 in favor of Florida…Washington was 2-4 on the power play while Florida was 1-4, scoring on David Booth’s laser with just seven minutes remaining.

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Chimera Lifts Caps in OT, Wideman in Hospital

Posted on 01 April 2011 by Ed Frankovic

You know that sports story about the guy who was benched the game before coming back the next time out and being the hero? Well that happened on Thursday night at the Verizon Center as Jason Chimera scored the game winning goal in overtime to give the Washington Capitals a 4-3 victory against a scrappy Columbus Blue Jackets squad after being scratched in Tuesday’s shootout loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. #25 took the rebound of a Brooks Laich shot and potted it at the door step against his old club at 2:30 of extra time to improve the Caps record to 45-22-11 (101 points). This is the third-straight season the Capitals have reached the 100-point plateau and the only other time Washington has recorded three consecutive 100-point seasons was from 1983-84 through 1985-86. Tampa Bay defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins on this night so the Caps need any combination of points for or Bolts points lost that totals to four to clinch their fourth consecutive Southeast Division title. In addition, they pulled within one point of Eastern Conference leading Philadelphia, but the Flyers have a game in hand.

Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis of a contest in which Washington played nearly the last 40 minutes or so with just five defensemen due to John Erskine’s injury:

- This game was an up and down performance by the Caps and they did do some good things, like forwards going to the net for the tough, in traffic tallies. All four Washington goals came from in front or in the slot. John Carlson scored first on a rebound of a Laich shot, the second marker came from Mike Knuble at the top of the crease after Alexander Ovechkin (1 assist, +1 in 20:51 of ice time) set up Nicklas Backstrom (1 assist, +1 in 21:42) for a shot in the high slot, Jason Arnott  then notched his 16th goal of the season by finding open space in the slot and burying a nice feed from Marco Sturm, and then you had #25′s tap in for the win.

- On the down side, the Capitals were sloppy in their own end quite a bit and two of the three goals allowed were from defensive zone breakdowns. Columbus’ first goal was the result of Matt Calvert beating Karl Alzner out of the corner and when Carlson went to challenge #11, Calvert banged the biscuit off of Michal Neuvirth (20 saves) and into the slot where Antoine Vermette beat Boyd Gordon to the puck and deposited it in the cage. The Blue Jackets second tally was aided by linesman David Brisebois picking Scott Hannan off while he was covering Tomas Kubalik in the left wing circle and that gave #33 time to find a charging Fedor Tyutin who put a point shot by #30 short side. That shot may have been tipped, which threw the young Czech goalie off. Finally, the Jackets tied the game with 5:37 left in regulation when Alzner and Sturm both seemed to think the other had Scottie Upshall in the right wing circle, and when #9 shook free he fired one past a seemingly stunned Neuvirth. The play away from the puck by Washington was something that Arnott commented on after this tilt.

“We definitely need work. In our own zone, little things, panicking with the puck too much. It all comes with confidence and everything and we got a few key defensemen out right now that can move the puck real well and can skate. I think everybody’s just got to chip in a little extra for us. But our zone, we have to clean up our own zone and its’ starts tomorrow with the video and try and correct it and come out with a better effort to back our goaltender up,” added a straightforward #44, who has become a major team leader since coming over on NHL trade deadline day (February 28th).

“Tonight we had a lot to learn. We talked about it before the game that this was an important thing about playing away from the puck and I thought we weren’t that good at it. So it will be hopefully a learning session tomorrow watching the video,” said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau when asked for his take on Arnott’s post game comments.

- The two blue liners that Arnott was referring to are Mike Green, who has been out since February 25th due to a concussion, and Dennis Wideman, who was injured on Tuesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes on a hit from Tuomo Ruutu. TSN’s Bob McKenzie tweeted tonight that #6 is in the hospital with a hematoma and the deadline day acquisition is out indefinitely. Knuble mentioned that Wideman had sent teammates some gruesome photos (h/t to Katie Carrera of The Washington Post) of the injury. Based on what I could gather from media members and then talking with a medical doctor there are A LOT of variables to this injury. A hematoma is basically a blood bruise and they are sometimes opened up to relieve pressure. Healing time depends primarily on how deep and large of an incision was made. The good news is that this is not a broken bone or ligament injury. In fact, Wideman could likely be able to work out with this injury once cleared and can stay in shape without contact. Given that the playoffs are two weeks away, it is highly possible he won’t play the rest of the regular season. It is far too early to tell if he will be able to play game one of the post season but again, the fact that this is not a bone or ligament issue is a good thing, according to the doctor I spoke with following the victory. As for #52, there was talk that he could take part in his first practice with the team on Friday. Green has been skating all week on his own before the rest of the Caps have begun their full sessions.

- Erkine got into a bout with Jared Boll, the player who injured Ovechkin on November 1st of 2009 . #4 pounded #40 but he only played one shift afterwards. Boudreau quickly dismissed any hand injury and said that the physical defenseman is day to day and was held out for precautionary reasons.

“It happens to everybody. Everybody’s got injuries. I’ve been on a lot of winning teams and they’ve had to fight with more guys being out than we have,” commented Boudreau when asked about the rash of injuries occurring this close to the post season.

- Jeff Schultz had a solid outing going +2 in 26:35 of ice time. #55 was very strong in the first period and was more physical than usual. With so many of the Caps top d-men out the club will need Sarge to get back to playing at the level he was at in 2009-10 when he lead the NHL in plus/minus at +50. Thursday night was an encouraging step for a d-man who has struggled, at times, this season.

- The Capitals top line was their best on the night, especially in the first two frames when the Caps had a 27-15 shots advantage. Ovechkin was buzzing all evening and narrowly missed notching his 30th goal of the season. I also thought Laich turned in a superb game. Alexander Semin was held off the scoresheet in 18:54 and he had a golden chance early in the contest and then kind of disappeared. He did get to take the first shift in the overtime period after being benched for the extra session on Tuesday following his bad penalty late in regulation. Washington has to hope that #28 ramps his game up in the post season. Too many times tonight he fumbled the puck or fell to the ice without cause or barely being touched. It is one of the reasons that he doesn’t draw as many penalties as he should, the referees see him going down so easy that sometimes they overlook when a penalty really is warranted.

- Speaking of penalties, there were only three minors called on this night and two of them overlapped. As a result this was mostly an even strength affair with the Caps having 41 seconds of man advantage time while the Blue Jackets logged 2:41 on the power play. Neither team scored during that time.

“That seems normal for us. I mean if you look, I think we’re, I didn’t look today, but I thought we had the second fewest power play opportunities in the league and in the upper third of penalties being called [against], so I think there is quite a discrepancy there,” added Boudreau when I mentioned that he didn’t get much time to work on his power play in the game on Thursday.

- At the end of the day, the Caps received a big two points but the injuries on the blue line are becoming a concern. Columbus plays a much more aggressive style under first year coach Scott Arniel, and as a result the shorthanded Washington defense struggled in numerous situations.

“Yes, and add to the fact that that is a really good forechecking team and they came at us and for two periods we only had five D and [that] didn’t help,” finished Boudreau when asked if his team struggled to move the puck out of their own zone versus Columbus.

Notes: Columbus won the faceoff battle, 32-26. Backstrom was 10-7 to lead the Caps…Hannan led the Capitals in ice time with 28:19 and was +2…Washington’s 4th line did not have one of their better tilts going -1. The holding call on Matt Hendricks, however, was pure nonsense and should have been a hook the other way…Tyler Sloan was -1 in 12:55 on the back line, not good, but Boudreau mentioned he was likely tired from lack of recent game time…Ovechkin led the team in shots with five but was not credited with a hit…the Caps are tied for second in the league in penalty kill percentage (86.2%)…next up for Washington are the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night at the Verizon Center at 7 pm. Buffalo is in a dogfight for a playoff spot.

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Caps Lose in Shootout, Wideman Hurt

Posted on 29 March 2011 by Ed Frankovic

After the Caps defeated the Carolina Hurricanes for the fifth straight time this season back on Friday, March 11, Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau stated that the “Canes were due to beat them.” On Tuesday night, in a game that meant far more to Carolina’s playoff fate than the Capitals, Boudreau’s words became prophetic but Washington didn’t fall easily, losing in a shootout, 3-2. In fact, Washington carried the play in much of this game but a somewhat soft shot by Jeff Skinner alluded Semyon Varlamov (24 saves) early in the third period to tie this tilt up after the Caps had seized the lead on goals by Alexander Semin and Marcus Johansson late in period two. The victory for Carolina pulls them within three points of the Buffalo Sabres for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Washington now has 99 points (44-22-11) and leads the Tampa Bay Lightning by six points with five games to go (the Bolts have a game in hand). Any combination of points gained by the Caps or points lost by Tampa that adds to six and Washington wins the Southeast Division for the 4th straight season.

Here are the highlights and analysis of a very fast paced and entertaining game:

- Many will be quick to point to the soft goal allowed by Varly and his inability to do well in the shootout as a reason for the loss, but #1 made some very big saves in this contest. He stopped a penalty shot by Skinner in period two and his left pad save on Eric Staal with the game tied in period three was stellar. Varlamov is just not getting much goal support and his squad didn’t tally until 34 minutes into this tilt, this coming off of 60 minutes of Caps scoreless hockey in Ottawa on Friday with the young Russian in the cage. It will be interesting to see what Boudreau does in these last five games with his goaltenders. Varlamov has the only NHL post season experience but Neuvirth is 14 for 14 in the last four years in North American playoff series’ (thanks @JapersRink).

- Alexander Ovechkin and Jason Arnott returned to the lineup on Tuesday night after missing three and six games, respectively. Both showed some rust but also made nice plays with the Great #8 having at least four great chances to win the game in overtime. Ovechkin (5 shots on goal), after playing only 4:53 of time in period one, ended up with 19:20 logged while #44 was -1 in just 14:13 of action. Ovechkin certainly looked totally healthy while Arnott seemed a little off. He also got in a bit of a goal mouth scrum early in the tilt, something the Caps brass likely didn’t want to see happen.

- Oh, Alexander Semin, where to begin? #28 looked so good at times and his wicked top shelf shot from a really bad angle beat Cam Ward (38 saves) to tie the game in the middle stanza. At first I thought it was a bad goal allowed but given Semin’s skill, I am not sure there are any other players in the NHL who could bury it from there. Semin also had an assist on Johansson’s great individual effort and was +2 but his galactically stupid penalty late in regulation nearly cost Washington the game and Boudreau sent #28 a message by not playing him at all in the overtime. The Caps bench boss commented to the media afterwards that he was “Washington’s best offensive player, but again he’s been doing the same thing he’s been doing for five years with the penalty.” (h/t @SkyKerstein of DC’s 106.7, the FAN).

- Perhaps the most important, and also worst news of the night, was an injury to defensemen Dennis Wideman. #6 left in the second period with only 12:42 of ice time total after he went down trying to avoid a hit from Tuomo Ruutu. The Canes forward came barreling in and Wideman went down after being struck up high by #15 in either the upper chest or head. #6 stayed down on the ice for a couple of minutes but then got up under his own power, went to the bench, and then down the runway to the locker room. After the game Boudreau said Wideman was day to day (h/t @TedStarkey of The Washington Times). It will take a major CIA undercover operation to find out the true injury from Washington given how close it is to the NHL post season. Joe Beninati and Craig Laughlin were guessing a leg or knee but it could be upper body as well. Given that Mike Green is still not recovered from a concussion, the Capitals cannot afford to lose a player who had recently become their ice time leader on the blue line.

- Johansson scored a dazzling goal that could have been the game winner and the young Swede continues to get better and better. Other teams are obviously starting to respect his speed and #90 is starting to take advantage of that and use his powerful legs and surprisingly strong frame to generate scoring chances. MJ90 now has eight points in his last eight games and he was +2 in 16:52 of ice time in this contest. He does not appear to be hitting any rookie wall at all, he is improving as the season continues on.

- In summary, losing in the gimmick to an extremely desperate team is not a bad thing. The Caps did have some defensive breakdowns and their power play continues to be terrible (0 for 3). They did have Arnott and Wideman on the points with Ovechkin on the half wall on the three attempts but I would much prefer Backstrom be on that first unit rather than Semin, who seems to make the wrong play too often with the man advantage. The penalty kill went four for five with one major bad coverage situation leading to Carolina’s first tally. But the Capitals had several quality chances too, especially at even strength, so Ward deserves a great deal of credit for the Carolina win. All eyes will be on the Washington practice tomorrow and the status of Wideman and then the Caps are back at it at the Verizon Center on Thursday night versus the Columbus Blue Jackets at 7 pm.

Notes: John Carlson had an assist and logged a team leading 28:12 of ice time. It was the 19th time this season that #74 has been the team leader in that category…Washington is now 27-0-3 when leading after two periods. They are 26-11-8 in their last 45 games…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 31-24. Boyd Gordon was 8-5…the referees missed an inadvertent high stick on Karl Alzner against Staal (likely a double minor on the young Capital) and they missed a few other things as well, both ways! Memo to the NHL: Fredick L’Ecuyer probably shouldn’t be officiating NHL playoff games.

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Backstrom, Holtby Lead Caps over Habs

Posted on 26 March 2011 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals went into what Coach Bruce Boudreau stated at the morning skate would likely be a “Hornets Nest” to face a Montreal Canadiens team that had been shut out 7-0 by the Boston Bruins on Thursday night. But the Caps bench boss, who laid into his own squad following a weak effort in a 2-0 Friday night loss against Ottawa, came out a 2-0 winner at the Bell Centre thanks to a super defensive effort by his club. Nicklas Backstrom led the Capitals offense by setting up two goals and Braden Holtby, who took a three hour drive from Glen Falls, New York, to meet the team at 2 am in Habsville (h/t @VogsCaps), stopped all 18 shots he faced as Washington moved a step closer to clinching their fourth straight Southeast Division title. The Caps are now 44-22-10 (98 points) and any combination of seven points gained by the Caps or lost by the Lightning will likely clinch at least the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Here are the highlights and analysis of a win that gives the Capitals a 4-2 record on this now completed road trip:

- Backstrom was easily the best player on the ice tonight. #19 showed no ill effects of that fractured thumb he suffered via Kris Letang’s cheap slash back in February firing seven shots on Carey Price (31 saves). His first shot on #31 led to a rebound up the slot and Marco Sturm one timed it home for his first goal as a Cap in his 13th game just 84 seconds into the tilt. Backstrom had several quality chances but Price denied him from making it a greater margin for Washington, who dominated much of this contest. #19 and his linemates Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin carried nearly every shift they had and they finally closed the deal with 3:41 remaining on Semin’s tap in from Backstrom after Sturm made a nice play at the center line. The final statistics for Backstrom in this victory: 2 assists, +2, 21:25 of ice time, seven shots on goal, and 8-8 on faceoffs.

- The Caps came out red hot and drew three power plays in the opening stanza. As a result they had a 12-3 shots advantage and they kept the heat on in the second frame to take a 26-11 edge after 40 minutes. Holtby did have to make some quality stops during that time, and #70 did a good job of not giving up many rebounds by snaring the puck with his glove. The young net minder from Saskatchewan looked so calm and confident in net, like he said he would be at the morning skate (h/t @kcarerra). Boudreau has three goalies he can use and feel confident in. Semyon Varlamov had a solid return on Friday in Ottawa and Michal Neuvirth was playing super before getting sick this weekend.

- The Caps, who were 18-1-5 when leading after 20 minutes and 26-0-2 with a lead after two periods coming into this game, added one to the front end of those totals by playing a text book third period from a defensive standpoint. Montreal only had seven shots on net and most came from the perimeter. Washington routinely won the battles to the loose pucks and they were content to dump the biscuit deep as soon as they reached the center line, a great strategy when nursing a lead. The Capitals were also more physical than on Friday in Ottawa and in addition, their puck support was top notch. Whenever a Capital had the puck another Washington player was close by in case something happened. There were lots of good things on videotape for Boudreau to show his club “the right way” to play with a lead or dominate a team.

- Price was very good after the bad rebound on the Sturm tally and kept his club in it on some early Capitals power plays. Washington had four man advantages but the last two were pretty bad. The Caps struggled to get set up and get shots on net, something they did fairly well on their first two attempts. On the PK, the Capitals were a perfect 3 for 3 and they allowed only five shots on net in those six minutes. The return of Jason Arnott, Alexander Ovechkin, and hopefully Mike Green before the playoffs start has to help out a struggling Washington power play. Before #44 was injured, the configuration with him and Dennis Wideman on the points with the Great #8 down low resulted in some of the best man advantage situations the Caps have had all season.

- After a poor defensive effort on Friday, the Caps six blue liners were all very good on Saturday with Wideman, Scott Hannan, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson all standing out. Wideman is so tough, in fact, I think he eats rocks for breakfast. #6 was slammed into the boards in the third period and appeared to injure himself yet he seemed to just “rub some mud on it” and come back and play solid the rest of the way. That acquisition by George McPhee has been a huge difference maker for this team.

- So a road trip that looked extremely tough before it started and then even more daunting as the injuries to Arnott and Ovechkin were revealed ends with the Capitals getting eight out of a possible 12 points. Clearly this team has good depth and if they get healthy they can match up with any team in the NHL.

Notes: Washington won the faceoff battle, 35-30. Laich was 11-6…Wideman once again logged the most ice time for the Caps (25:31)…Kelly Sutherland was one of the officials again on Saturday after Friday’s refereeing debacle and was much better…Boudreau wisely used his timeout in the second period when the Caps five skaters were gassed after back to back icings. The move paid off as Washington won the draw and cleared the zone, great coaching!…the Capitals went 3-0-1 against Montreal this season…next up for the Caps are the Carolina Hurricanes at the Verizon Center on Tuesday night at 7pm. It is a must win for the Canes, who have not defeated Washington all season despite playing the Capitals very tough on each occassion. After the last Caps victory over Carolina, Boudreau said to me afterwards, “that means they are due to beat us,” when I brought up Washington’s 5-0 record against them in 2010-11.

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Senators Blank Caps, 2-0

Posted on 25 March 2011 by Ed Frankovic

Absolutely nothing went the Capitals way on Friday night in Ottawa. Craig Anderson made several good saves plus was a little lucky when he had to be, Washington made some huge defensive gaffes, and the officiating was downright horrible. When you add that all up it leads to a Caps shutout loss, 2-0, to the Senators. The defeat drops the Capitals record to 43-22-10 (96 points) but they still lead the Southeast Division by seven points as a result of Tampa’s 4-3 loss against the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday night.

Here are the highlights and analysis of a game in which the NHL Director of Officiating, Terry Gregson, should be pretty embarrassed about:

- Anderson (31 saves) was very good for the Sens but he was also the beneficiary of some overpassing by Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin on a Washington power play in the second period when the game was scoreless. In addition, rookie Marcus Johansson rifled one through #41′s pads in the third period but the puck just trickled wide and an Ottawa defender scooped it out of harm’s way. Still, the journeyman goalie, who recently signed a big four year contract ($12.75M total) to stay in Ottawa, was very solid and calm in net and was easily the game’s number one star.

- The Caps made some big mistakes in their own zone and it cost them on both Ottawa goals. On the first tally, Scott Hannan chased Jason Spezza the wrong way around the Capitals cage and that allowed #19 to put a pass in front to a streaking Colin Greening out of the corner. Greening badly beat Caps d-man John Erskine to the front of the net but the puck hit both of his skates and then he interfered with Semyon Varlamov (21 saves) as he knocked the puck in the cage with his skate for an Ottawa 1-0 lead at 12:25 of the middle frame. Referee Stephane Auger called it a goal but then huddled with the other zebra, Kelly Sutherland. After they conferred with the league in Toronto, the goal stood despite being obvious goalie interference, which apparently is not reviewable. On the second Senators goal, early in period three, Karl Alzner blindly throws the puck up the boards right to Milan Michalek, who feeds it to Erik Condra in the slot. #38 then slid one by Varly as he went down too late into the butterfly position. There were other poor plays by the Washington defensemen on this night that didn’t lead to goals. Overall I would grade the defense as “below average” in this contest. They only gave up 23 shots but they made some big mistakes that will cost them in the post season if they don’t clean it up.

- As for the offense, the Caps did have the 31 shots but there were not a lot from in front of the cage. The Capitals showed some very good puck movement on their first two power plays and Brooks Laich looked excellent on the right point, but Semin made several wrong decisions with the biscuit that prevented Washington from lighting the lamp. On one sequence #28 held onto the puck below the goal line and skated up the right wing boards when Backstrom was wide open in front. He also was a victim of too many moves and over passing on some down low two on ones with the man advantage. Backstrom also tried to force a pass when he had a great chance on Anderson with the game scoreless. The Capitals routinely didn’t get pucks deep and cycle the Senators defense, who likely would have tired having played in New York the night before. Simply put, this was a LAZY offensive effort by Washington, in my book.

- Varlamov, who started for the first time since winning in Buffalo on February 20th, was good in goal. He had to face some quality chances and he did fairly well. He’d probably like another shot at the 2nd goal but Alzner did help Michalek put that one on a tee for Condra. Michal Neuvirth was slated to start this game but came down with an illness and it is possible that Braden Holtby could be recalled for Saturday’s game in Montreal either to start or backup Varly.

- As for the officiating, it was definitely the worst Caps game I’ve seen called all season. I’ve already talked about the mistake on the Senators first goal, which was the result of goalie interference, but there were two other BLATANT mistakes made in this game. First, Matt Hendricks took a stick to the head early on but after an initial high sticking penalty was called on David Hale, and it should have been a double minor since #26 was cut, the referees took #36 out of the penalty box. Shortly thereafter Al Koken of Comcast interviewed assistant coach Bob Woods on the bench who told him that the referees thought that Hendricks was cut with a skate. If you ask me, not only were the four referees blind for missing that, but they are also stupid. If a skate was up that high around Hendricks head and caught him where he was cut, he likely would have lost his eye and bled pretty badly. The other big miss was on a clean shoulder check on Patrick Wiercioch by Matt Bradley above the goal line. Wiercioch went down hard and slid into the boards. Somehow the referees called it boarding prompting Hockey Night in Canada’s Jeff Marek to question that logic via Twitter. Bradley also got jumped for the clean check by Zack Smith and the Caps would have had a power play if boarding wasn’t called on #10. Finally, the game was also called very inconsistently with hits and holds not very clearly defined, which had to make it tough for the players to know what the rules were on this given night. After the game on Twitter, HNIC’s Cassie Campbell stated how bad the officiating was and referenced the no call on the high stick to Hendricks. Gregson and the NHL cannot let this type of officiating happen starting April 13th.

- The Caps are now 3-2 on this six game road trip and they once again played without Alexander Ovechkin, Jason Arnott, Mike Green, Eric Fehr, and Tom Poti. On Monday we should know more about the status of those five with Green’s injury being the most concerning. Saturday’s tilt in Montreal is the final meeting between the Caps and the Canadiens in the regular season (Caps are 2-0-1). Right now the Habs sit in sixth place in the Eastern Conference and both teams could meet again in the first round of the playoffs depending on what happens down the stretch.

Notes: Dennis Wideman led the Caps in ice time with 24:25. Laich led the Caps forwards playing 23:30…the Capitals were smoked on faceoffs, 32-19. Johansson went 1-9 and Backstrom was 7-13…Washington had five shots on net on their three power plays. They only gave up four shots while shorthanded on three attempts.

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The Playoff Impacts of Alexander Ovechkin’s Injury

Posted on 21 March 2011 by Ed Frankovic

Big news out of Kettler Iceplex today as Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau stated that Alexander Ovechkin would be out for an estimated seven to 10 days to deal with an injury situation. Naturally, with the NHL playoffs just over three weeks away, the exact nature of the injury will not be disclosed, much like with the Jason Arnott announcement one week ago today. The Great #8 joins Arnott, Mike Green, Eric Fehr, and Tom Poti as key components who are out of the Washington lineup right now. While on the surface this might seem like a big blow to the Capitals Stanley Cup chances, in reality, it isn’t. In fact, being extra cautious with ailing players right now makes a ton of sense and could likely pay off over the next few months.

Washington is in pretty good shape to lock up their fourth straight Southeast Division title with a five point lead on the Tampa Bay Lightning and even if they did manage to lose that margin over their last nine games (the Bolts have 10 tilts left), would it really matter? Likely not at all, as the Caps are going to be in the post season and what happens then and beyond is all this team will be judged on. Since training camp opened we’ve heard the organization talk about the first 82 games not mattering too much this year. General Manager George McPhee told me on Media Day back in October that he “really didn’t care about the regular season, as long as [the Caps] make the playoffs.” One could argue that every decision since then, from the schematic switch from an aggressive offensive system to a more responsible defensive posture all the way up to the moves made on NHL trade deadline day have been about one thing – doing what is needed to increase the likelihood that the Capitals play their best hockey in the post season this spring.

As good as last season’s team was in a Presidents’ Trophy winning regular season, everyone witnessed the first round collapse and McPhee and Boudreau have been doing everything in their power to not let it happen again this season. Examining the club on paper, position by position, I don’t think there is any doubt that the 2010-11 Washington Capitals team, despite all of the criticism they’ve received this year, is a much better one heading into April than last year’s crew. With Arnott at second line center they finally have that big pivot man that is needed in the post season. #44 is a significant upgrade over last year’s second line center, Eric Belanger. In fact, add in rookie Marcus Johansson and the Nicklas Backstrom/Arnott/MJ90 trio is likely the best Washington has had up the middle in the Boudreau era.

On defense, the top five blue liners are Green, Dennis Wideman, John Carlson, Scott Hannan, and Karl Alzner. Boudreau can either go with Poti, if he is healthy, or opt for Jeff Schultz or John Erskine as his sixth defenseman, depending on the opponent. This is a major improvement over last year’s crew that included Joe Corvo and Shaone Morrisonn, two mediocore, at best, blue liners. Alzner didn’t even arrive on the scene in last year’s post season until game seven and by then it was too late. #27 is +15 in his first full season in the NHL.

In net, 2010-11 will be the first time in three seasons that the Capitals don’t have to start Jose Theodore in game one of the playoffs, thank goodness. Theo failed miserably in goal and whether Boudreau goes with the more NHL playoff experienced Semyon Varlamov or rookie Michal Neuvirth, who incidentally hasn’t ever lost a North American playoff series (h/t @JapersRink), it doesn’t matter, the goaltending should be better. Of course if both falter or are injured, rookie Braden Holtby, who won the NHL’s first star of the week on March 14th, is also an option.

Down the stretch in 2009-10, the majority of the Caps headlines were all about the regular season dominance and individual statistics and trophies. Both Ovechkin and Green were positioned for post season hardware nominations while Alexander Semin was focused on a 40 goal season in an attempt to try and maximize his free agent earning power for the summer of 2011. During that closing stretch #52 took a slash to the arm in Columbus and was never right for the post season. Ovechkin also played out the string and after the series was over it was revealed he was banged up as well. Following that game seven loss, the mad dash for stats, trophies, and big contracts all seemed so futile.

Flash forward to now, especially since #44 arrived on deadline day, and we are reading about Ovechkin and Semin spending lots of time with Arnott picking his brain about what it takes to win in the post season (thanks @dcsportsbog). In my mind, #28 played his best hockey of the season when he was finally paired with a true second line center in Arnott, much like he did when Sergei Fedorov was here in 2008 and 2009. Semin re-upped for another year here and there is no more talk from him or his agent about “the dollars.” It seems that the two young Russians stars are on a mission to shut their critics up once and for all and that they just might have matured as a result of the Capitals past playoff disappointments.

Like I said earlier, on paper this team is better than last year’s at this stage, but that heavily depends on the health of Ovechkin, Arnott, Backstrom, Semin, and Green, as well as a few others. Therefore, the cautious approach to the last nine games of the NHL regular season that both McPhee and Boudreau appear to be taking makes great sense and hopefully will pay dividends for them starting April 13th and beyond, when health and the matchups will be huge factors in the quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup. It’s only 23 days away, but who’s counting?

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Caps Beat Stanley Cup Champs in OT

Posted on 13 March 2011 by Ed Frankovic

Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau felt that his club was fortunate to get a victory against Carolina on Friday night. On Sunday afternoon they clearly deserved to win against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks but due to a soft goal allowed and a late power play tally with the net minder pulled, the Caps needed overtime to defeat the Hawks, 4-3. Mike Knuble scored on a nifty move in front of Chicago goalie Corey Crawford (38 saves) after some hard work and then a sweet pass from Marcus Johansson with 1:09 remaining in the extra session. Washington won its’ eighth straight overall, the fifth in a row since the NHL trade deadline on February 28th, and all three tilts at the Verizon Center on this most recent homestand. The Capitals are 40-20-10 (90 points) with 12 games remaining and they lead the Tampa Bay Lightning by five points in the Southeast Division race (Bolts have a game in hand). They also trail the Eastern Conference leading Philadelphia Flyers by a single point, but Philly has two games in hand.

Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis from a game in which the Caps had the lead after 20 minutes for the first time in 14 contests (Caps 15-1-5 when ahead after the 1st period):

- With the playoffs coming up in about a month, we’ve heard Boudreau talk a lot about how important matchups are to his club’s success. The squads that typically give Washington trouble are fast teams, such as Montreal, and Chicago fit that mold today. The Hawks have some great skating players and for the Capitals to get a victory they were going to have to get the puck deep and use one of their biggest strengths, their size.

“I think we are a bigger and fairly strong team, but there are teams that are definitely overall quicker, so we have to play to our strengths to succeed and lately we have been doing that. I think we were overall carrying the play. We played better than them. I mean it might not happen the next time we play them, and they might not be tired from being on the road for eight or nine games, but I thought today that we were the better team,” said Boudreau, providing his analysis of the victory.

 

“We’ll take the point. We weren’t very good today. They [the Capitals] played well. They played hard. I thought we had a little delay in our game. We were very generous in all the goals that we gave them and could’ve done a better job defending in those situations,” added Blackhawks Coach Joel Quenneville agreeing with “Gabby” that the Caps were the dominant team on Sunday.

 

- Let’s get to those Capitals goals as all four came from hard work and the last two were the result of the Caps winning one on one battles below the goal line. Washington fell behind early on a Nick Leddy blast from the top of the slot but after Chicago received a power play the biscuit bounced over the stick of Brent Seabrook at the left point and Boyd Gordon took advantage getting a break down the right wing boards and he lasered one by Crawford for a Washington shorty. Goal number two came from Jason Arnott on the power play with Brooks Laich and Alex Ovechkin crashing the net down low. #44′s laser from the left point hit the inside of the left post to give the Caps a 2-1 lead. The most important goals though, were the Laich marker in the 3rd period that put Washington ahead and the game winner. Matt Hendricks and Eric Fehr completely outworked the Hawks defense down low and #16 found an all alone in the slot #21 and he buried it. Finally, in OT, Johahnsson did some of his finest work of the year below the circles and fought off a Chicago check then worked his way to the top of the left wing circle where he put a perfect pass on Knuble’s forehand with #22′s back to the cage. Knuble then spun around and potted the puck by Crawford for the win. Those last two tallies were the direct result of Washington using size, speed, and determination.

 

“Real heads up play by Marcus. It would have been very easy for him to bury his head there and try to jam it through, but I kind of laid my stick to the side and he put it on the tape. It was a very smart play by him,” said Knuble on MJ90, who has stepped up in a big way with Nicklas Backstrom missing his third straight contest (more on MJ90 later).

 

- With Ovechkin (0 points, 6 shots on goal) and Alex Semin (1 assist, 4 shots on net) unable to light the lamp for Washington this game became all about the Caps grinders and role players. Laich earned his 15th goal of the season and he is heating up at the right time while third line left wing Jason Chimera likely earned the unsung hero of the day award. #25 was very physical all game and his speed and desire to go the net rattled not only Crawford, who will likely win an Oscar next year for his fall and stick throw late in period two that would make Saturday Night Live’s Chevy Chase proud, but also the Hawks number two d-man in Brent Seabrook. #7 stupidly fought Chimera late in period two and with Brian Campbell not taking a shift just after the game’s midpoint, Quenneville was short two blue liners for a good stretch, which clearly worked to Washington’s advantage.

 

“I thought he was real big factor in the game tonight…He’s a physical guy. He’s the one who sort of instigated that little [dustup] there and he does a good job and takes one of their top defenders off the ice. I think he did a good job,” added Laich on the role Chimera played in the win in just 10:26 of ice time.

 

- Braden Holtby (27 saves) won his fourth game of the week and in his last seven games in “The Show” he’s turned aside 201 of 208 shots (.978 save percentage). That is amazing for a 21 year old! #70 would probably like to have the first two goals back, especially the second one that Tomas Kopecky scored from behind the goal line when Holtby failed to cover the near post correctly. On the initial tally, Leddy beat him in the slot but Michael Frolik likely screened him. On that play Chicago scored on a 3 on 5 rush, which should never happen. The d-men, Karl Alzner and John Carlson played it right but the forwards did not. Both Fehr and Hendricks got caught out of position and Leddy had time and room to shoot from a prime position. The Caps have been much improved in their own zone but that was not one of those occassions. The back pressure must be consistent otherwise skilled forwards will get the Washington d-men backing up and then cut to the middle to get in the quality scoring areas, like Jonathan Toews did in period one. Overall, Holtby did what he had to do, he made some huge stops, including one on Frolik late in the game after a Dennis Wideman giveaway. Still, I expect to see more of Michal Neuvirth on this upcoming six game Caps road trip.

 

- As for the 20 year old Swede, I am not sure if the Caps win all four games this week with Backstrom out if #90 is also not in the lineup. Johansson has amped up his game big time and he has four assists in his last five games and is +4. He is a great passer and today he fired seven shots on the cage as well. MJ90 could have had two or three goals and he likely will want the two shots he had alone in front on Crawford back after Ovechkin set him up on the doorstep in the third period. He took two minors but to me they were ticky-tacky calls, especially the one that allowed the Hawks to pull their goalie and get the equalizer. What Johansson did in the last two minutes happened over 20 times previously in the contest with no call but because MJ90 is a rookie and he put his hands up as if to say “I did nothing,” the zebras sent him off. Boudreau after the game labeled the call as “Chintzy” (h/t Sky Kerstein of 106.7 FM in DC). My only advice to Marcus is to keep playing and don’t put your hands up next time because when you are a rookie or a new guy in the league, the referees will try and make an example of you.

 

- In summary, the Hawks could have been labeled as tired from a long road trip but they hadn’t played since Wednesday so I am not buying it. Washington showed that they can match up with a very good club even without their #1 center (Backstrom), #1 blue liner (Mike Green), and top two goalies (Semyon Varlamov and Neuvirth). With the five point division lead the Capitals now embark on what is a grueling six game road trip. They start Tuesday in Montreal, then have to clear customs and travel to Detroit for a date with the Red Wings on Wednesday before going to red hot New Jersey on Friday for a game against the desperate Devils. Things then pick up again in Philadelphia on Tuesday the 22nd and on Friday the 25th they are in Ottawa followed by a tilt against the Habs on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday the 26th. Simply put, if the Caps come out of this trip with six points they have to be happy and anything at eight points or more could set them up for locking down the Southeast Division and give them a shot at first overall in the East. But that doesn’t appear to matter to a lot of people in the organization, who seem to be focused on getting their players back healthy and then putting things together on the ice for the post season. This team, when healthy, can compete with any club in the league if they buy in to what their coaches are selling.

 

Notes: The Caps once again captured the faceoff battle, 27-23 and Laich won seven of eight draws…Washington, who came into tonight’s contest ranked third in the league in the penalty kill (85.8%), killed off three of four Blackhawks power-play chances. Until Toews’ third-period goal, the Caps had 12-consecutive penalty kills over their three-game home stand against Edmonton, Carolina and Chicago…the Caps only had two power plays (go figure?) but connected on one in fine fashion. They are 22-3-4 when scoring a power play goal…Scott Hannan was +3 in 18:44 of ice time while John Erskine was +2 in 15:32…Wideman had two assists…the Hershey Bears lost in a shootout to the Norfolk Admirals on Sunday at the Giant Center, 3-2. The Chocolate and White just concluded a very tough 7 games in 9 day stretch at 3-2-2, which was pretty good considering their best goalie carried the load for the big club this week (Holtby).

 

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Ovechkin, Holtby Lead Caps to 6th Straight Win

Posted on 10 March 2011 by Ed Frankovic

After two thrilling and draining victories on the road in Florida where the Caps seized first place in the Southeast Division for the first time since December, Washington came home to Verizon Center to face one of the worst teams in the NHL in the Edmonton Oilers. The question of the night for Capitals fans was which version of their team would show up? After 25 minutes the answer wasn’t really clear in a scoreless game but shortly thereafter the Caps took over in dominating fashion with Alexander Ovechkin potting two goals and adding an assist and Eric Fehr, who returned to the lineup after missing the last 22 games due to a bad shoulder, tallied twice as well. Alexander Semin (1 goal, 1 assist) capped the scoring on a pretty give and go with newcomer Marco Sturm and Braden Holtby earned his first NHL shutout stopping 22 shots.

The victory was Washington’s sixth straight and they improve to 38-20-10 (86 points) to remain two points up on the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Southeast Division (The Bolts beat Chicago, 4-3, in a shootout, aka the “Carnival Game” as coined by Greg Wyshynski over at Puck Daddy). The Lightning have a game in hand on the Caps. Washington is also now in second place in the Eastern Conference, just two points behind Philadelphia (who have two games in hand).

Here are the highlights and analysis of the Capitals first victory by more than a goal in their last eight wins:

- On paper, this doesn’t look like it was a tough shutout for Holtby but I beg to differ. The 21 year old from Saskatchewan received no goal support for the first 25 minutes and with the game scoreless he had to face Andrew Cogliano on a shorthanded breakaway after an Ovechkin turnover. #70 made a nice pad save and then the Great #8 paid Holtby back with a power play goal on the ensuing rush. Jason Arnott made a super pass to set Ovie up for an easy marker. Holtby faced 10 of his 22 shots in the first period and once the Caps seized the lead, his night did become a lot easier. Still, with Holtby, Michal Neuvirth, and Semyon Varlamov the Capitals continue to be loaded with young goalies. General Manager George McPhee and his scouts have drafted well and the two goalie coaches since the trio was selected, first Dave Prior and now Arturs Irbe, deserve a great deal of credit for their development. In addition, the kids themselves get kudos for listening, competing, and getting better. All three of them are fierce competitors. Heck, who can forget Holtby tomahawk chopping Evgeny Kuznetsov in development camp last July after the young Russian did too much showboating after a goal in a scrimmage? And don’t forget that Neuvirth had to listen to Jonathan Bernier hype last May when the Hershey Bears were set to face the Manchester Monarchs in the AHL Eastern Conference Finals. In that series Neuvy totally outplayed the Kings first round draft pick, who was the first goalie chosen in the 2006 draft (same one in which the Caps took both Varlamov and Neuvirth). All three aforementioned Capitals goalies has at least one shutout this season (h/t Caps Media Relations department).

- After a franchise record of 43 games without doing so, Washington finally scored two power play goals in a contest (h/t Mike Vogel), and as hard as it is to believe, it was Ovechkin’s first home PPG of the 2010-11 season. The Great #8 scored his down low after a great cross ice feed from Arnott from the right point. The second power play goal is what this team needs more of - a John Carlson point blast with Brooks Laich and Fehr in front (Fehr banged home a lose puck). The additions of #44 and Dennis Wideman now gives Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau much more flexibility with his power play units and he can take the Great #8 off of the point for at least half of the two minutes, especially when Mike Green returns to the lineup later in the month (more on that in the Notes below). The Caps were 2 for 5 with the man advantage and 4 for 4 on the PK against the worst special teams club in the NHL. Edmonton is ranked dead last in the league on the power play and is 29th out of 30 teams in penalty killing. Despite the weak competition, the Capitals needed to have a night of success on the PP in order to get their confidence with it going up again.

- The Saturday before the trade deadline I had an email discussion about the Capitals with NHL On The Fly’s Craig Button and he was quick to point out that a return of Fehr to the lineup would help a struggling power play unit. He was clearly right and #16 was playing his best hockey of the season right before he was injured in a collision with Dave Steckel in January. Fehr can play on any of the top three lines and I really like it when assistant coach Dean Evason puts the big bodied forward in front of the opposing goalie with either Mike Knuble or Laich on the power play. There is no substitute for big players who are tough to move from in front of the cage (see former Flyers tap in machine Tim Kerr back in the 80′s).

- There were several Capitals players who had good outings on Wednesday night but rookie Marcus Johansson continues to take his game to a higher level. With Nicklas Backstrom missing his first NHL game ever (stopping a streak of 341 straight contests), MJ90 got the tough task of centering Ovechkin, something he had not had much success with this year, granted it has only been a handful of games. Tonight, the two seemed to finally show some comfort together and the third tally of the night, which broke the game open in the third period, was of the highlight reel variety. The Great #8 hustled in the offensive zone and stole the puck from Kurtis Foster allowing he and the young Swede to go in alone on Nikolai Khabibulin (31 saves). The two made four quick passes to get the 2004 Stanley Cup winning goalie moving back and forth like a tennis ball and Ovechkin finished the deal with a top shelf wrister inside the right post. Johansson has definitely improved since the all star break and instead of hitting the rookie wall, like one would expect, he has taken his game to an even higher level in the last three Capitals victories (2 assists, +2 in those 3 games plus played over 17 minutes in last two tilts).

- Overall this was a solid win but Washington still has gone 12 straight games without leading after the first 20 minutes. The six game winning streak is nice but this team still has lots of room for improvement. But they have been winning through injuries to Green, Fehr, Backstrom, Varlamov, and Tom Poti so once Boudreau gets his full complement of players back and in game shape this team could be a daunting force heading into the post season. The key is for the whole squad to continue to buy in to the defensive mindset and improve their commitment to limiting their turnovers which will force the opposition to chase pucks in their own end.

Notes: Green was placed retroactively on LTIR back to 2/25 to make salary cap room for Fehr to return to the roster. #52 is eligible to return on 3/22 when the Caps face the Flyers in Philadelphia…Backstrom’s fractured thumb was banged up in Tampa on Monday and he might miss Friday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes at the Verzion Center (7 pm) as well…Varlamov skated briefly prior to the pre game skate today (h/t Katie Carrera of The Washington Post)…the Caps are 17-0 when Semin scores a goal this season and 31-0-3 when they tally 3 or more times…the Caps won the face-off battle, 33-22, and Laich won 15 of 21 draws.

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Caps Get Big Road Win in Buffalo

Posted on 20 February 2011 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals came to play in Buffalo on Sunday afternoon, but so did Sabres goalie Ryan Miller. In a town that the Caps have an awful record playing in, it took a third period power play goal from Marcus Johansson to finally get a victory in Buffalo over Miller, who made 37 saves, several of which were of the ten bell variety in the first period when Washington was storming the castle. The former Michigan State goalie is one of the best in the league and it was play like we saw today from him that allowed Team USA to nearly defeat a much better and stronger Team Canada in the Winter Olympics last February. But much like Team USA’s fate, the Sabres fell as well and the Capitals improved to 31-19-10 (72 points) overall and trail the Southeast Division leading Tampa Bay Lightning by just three points. The Caps are also 12 points ahead of the tied for ninth place in the Eastern Conference Sabres and Atlanta Thrashers.

Here are the highlights and analysis of the Caps eighth victory in nine Sunday games this season:

- The Caps scored a power play goal! Repeat, the Caps scored a power play goal!! And it was the game winner as well. Granted they had four power plays in the first period, including a 94 second two man advantage, that they did not score on so it is not like this struggling unit is anywhere near fixed. Washington’s game winner did not come via an in-zone set up, rather it came off of the rush as Alexander Ovechkin carried the puck in and fired it on Miller, who gave up a rebound. Mathieu Perreault (1 goal, 1 assist) alertly fired it quickly from the left wing boards and Marcus Johansson went to the net and tipped it in with 9:50 remaining. On the day this unit was 1 for 5 in 7:31 of power play time and that is just not going to get it done when the chips are on the line for Washington. Yes they miss Mike Green, but John Carlson is not a big drop off and my problem with this unit is the lack of traffic in front and the minimal movement from the five guys on the ice. If Ovechkin was switched down low on the half wall and replaced by a to be brought in strong left handed point shot, then I think this unit would improve quite a bit. Some options could be d-man Bryan McCabe of Florida or forward Alexei Kovalev of Ottawa. Both are expected to be moved by the trade deadline on February 28th.

- Washington dominated this game for the first two frames but there was the nine minute stretch to start period three where Buffalo really came on strong. However Matt Hendricks, like he has done so many times this season, made a play to turn this game around. #26, who has a great on ice work ethic, dumped the puck in on the right wing boards and former Cap Shaone Morrisonn took his second penalty of the game with a lazy play like he had done for the Caps too many times over the last several seasons before being let go via the free agency route. The Sabres had outworked Washington up to that point of the final stanza and the hard work of Hendricks turned the whole period around. Johansson’s power play goal ensued to set up the victory. Kudos to Hendricks, who brings the intangibles and energy to this club.

- Once Washington got the lead, Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau wisely shortened his bench and the Sabres saw a steady dose of Dave Steckel, Matt Bradley, and Boyd Gordon down the stretch (5 or 6 shifts each in last nine minutes). The 39-10-15 unit stifled any Buffalo attacks and it was Steckel who won the last face-off with four seconds remaining to close the victory out for the Caps.

- Semyon Varlamov (28 saves) was very solid in net and his best save of the game was likely on Mike Grier on a reboud attempt in close when the outcome was very much in doubt. The one tally he allowed was a Buffalo power play goal in which Scott Hannan skated in his sight line and Jason Pominville snapped one by him on the high glove side. The goaltending for Washington continues to be very good and I will be very surprised if GM George McPhee makes any type of major goalie move at the deadline. He may get some depth for Hershey, but I don’t see him wasting salary cap space on goaltending when the team has other more pressing holes.

- Carlson led the Caps in ice time (24:29) and because so much of that came on the power play, the blue line duo that saw the most ice time was Hannan (20:38) and Jeff Schultz (22:07). Karl Alzner only played 15:43 because his partner needed to rest after each power play. However, at the end of the game, when it mattered the most, it was 27 and 74 out for the last 37 seconds of this contest.

- In summary, this was an important victory for the Caps as they move to 2-2 on their 10 day, five game road trip which wraps up in Pittsburgh on Monday night (730pm on VERSUS). They performed well against a Buffalo team that was desperate for a victory, yet the Capitals outplayed them for the majority of this contest. They still have issues, like up the middle of the ice where the smallish and young Perreault and Johansson just aren’t consistent enough for the post season plus the power play is in peril, but they still have Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin who are elite players in the NHL and when they want to play, they can carry this club.

Notes: Mike Green missed his fourth straight game on this road trip and fifth contest in the last six…Tom Poti is still out injured as well so the blue line continues to be filled with a few players who aren’t good puck carriers/movers…Washington lost the face-off battle, 29-24 (Backstrom went 7-12)…Ovechkin and Semin made some nice defensive plays in the final period but the Great #8 was also guilty of some floating in the neutral zone or in his own end, at times…Tyler Sloan did block three shots in just over 15 minutes of ice time, but Brooks Laich and Bradley had the most important ones of the game in the third period…Perreault took a bad hooking penalty in the third period and his defensive zone play is his biggest weakness. If only Johansson had Perreault’s offensive skills to go with MJ90′s fairly strong defensive prowess you would likely have your number two center, but that is not the case. Johansson will eventually be a strong third line center, he is only 20 years old. But the future is now for the Caps and since this is a wide open Eastern Conference, the need to upgrade at the trade deadline at the center position is vital for a long playoff run and shot at the Stanley Cup.

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