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Backstrom, Grubauer Lead Caps Over Rangers

Posted on 28 December 2013 by Ed Frankovic

So much of sports can be described as a “Game of Inches.”

On Friday night at the Verizon Center, that was definitely the case as the Washington Capitals received a late goal from Eric Fehr to defeat the New York Rangers, 3-2. Fehr’s tally, his 6th of the season, was on a snap shot down the right side after a nice feed from Nicklas Backstrom (1G, 1A). Immediately before that goal, which came in a four on four situation, Dan Girardi hit the far post behind Philipp Grubauer (38 saves) after a Washington giveaway. If that puck is an inch to the right, it’s a 3-2 Rangers lead. But that’s the way it goes, and remember on Monday, if Alex Ovechkin’s shot from the slot is an inch lower than the Caps tie the Ducks late in regulation. As they say, “That’s Hockey.”

This victory improves the Caps to 20-14-4 (44 points) and puts them six points ahead of the Rangers, who they will only face one more time again this season, at Madison Square Garden.

The biggest difference in this game tonight was between the pipes. Grubauer was excellent for the Caps while Cam Talbot gave up some questionable goals. I know Talbot has been hot, but Henrik Lundqvist owns the Caps, and for some reason Alain Vigneault chose to go more with recent form than historical stats in his net minding decision. I can tell you I was certainly thrilled to not see King Henrik manning the cage for New York, so one would think the Capitals players were happy too?

The shot attempts in this contest ended up 71-55 for New York, but it was a fairly even game when it comes to quality chances. The Rangers shot attempts in the opening frame were primarily from the perimeter and it was really only the second period where they dominated play, and most of that was when the Caps had either their 4th line on the ice or their 3rd defensive pair on the blue line.

In the final period, after the Rangers got a quick tying tally on Carl Hagelin’s shorthanded goal, the Capitals carried more of the play. Coach Adam Oates did a nice job of shifting the ice time to his top two defensive pairs and limited the 3rd pair to just three and a half minutes. The difference was clearly noticeable and with the Rangers short a defensemen due to Anton Stralman’s in game injury, the Capitals seemed to wear the Rangers out more in that final frame.

Another positive was that the Caps did a better job on the back check on Friday after misreading two situations on Monday and allowing the tying and winning goal to the Ducks. Oates said that his team was better, but he also said the Rangers are a different type of team than Anaheim, which indicated it was an easier chore for his club against New York. However, Karl Alzner told me that Oates showed some video clips on back checking and King Karl said that the breakdowns on Monday were more of an individual thing. Whatever the case, Washington did a much better job in defensive zone coverage when the Rangers came up the ice on the rush.

Alzner said the team has been working more on their “end zone.” #27 said that the key to a solid back check and defensive zone is that when the puck is in the offensive zone there is always a third guy high. Some coaches require their center to always be that third guy (this is how Bryan Murray ran things for the Caps in the mid 1980′s) but many just let each shift play itself out and have the third guy be a read by the forwards themselves. From what I can gather, Oates’ system looks to be a “read and react accordingly” on the back check. So any of the three forwards could be the first player back. One thing the team is working on, according to Alzner, is more than just the third guy coming back strong because he said the coaches have pointed out it usually has been the third or even the fourth guy on the opposition that have been getting the quality chances against Washington this year.

It’s encouraging to see the focus of the team on these things and there is no doubt that practice time helps the reads and the communication, which is vital, on the ice.

As for Backstrom, he continues to dominate and any smart hockey person will tell you just how good #19 is compared to others in the league. The media may not be all over him from a publicity standpoint, but those in the game know just how good the center is and he is arguably as important to the Caps as any other player. On Friday night, Backstrom, along with Grubauer, were the primary reasons the Capitals stopped their two game losing streak.

Notes: John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 26:38. Mike Green (1G) played 19:10…the Rangers wore their top three d out with Girardi logging 27:35, Ryan McDonagh getting a game leading 29:53 and Michael Del Zotto playing 24:37…next up for the Caps are the Buffalo Sabres on the road on Sunday at 5pm.

 

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Caps Start 2013-14 With High Expectations Once Again

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Caps Start 2013-14 With High Expectations Once Again

Posted on 29 September 2013 by Ed Frankovic

It is awfully difficult to win a championship in professional sports but heading into 2013-14 that is once again the goal of the Washington Capitals, who have yet to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup since their inception in 1974. The Caps, who have made the playoffs the last six years, have another quality team as they prepare to open their season against the defending champs, the Chicago Blackhawks, in the Windy City on Tuesday night at 8pm on NBCSN.

On Sunday, Caps General Manager George McPhee made several moves to help put some clarity to the opening night roster culminating with a trade of center Matheiu Perreault to the Anaheim Ducks for a 4th round pick and AHLer John Mitchell. In addition, several players were sent to Hershey, including defenesemen Tyson Strachan and Dmitry Orlov. For now, here is what the Caps roster looks like:

Goalies (2): Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth

Defensemen (7): Mike Green, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, John Erskine, Jack Hillen, Steve Oleksy, and Connor Carrick

Forwards (14): Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, Mikhail Grabovski, Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, Martin Erat, Tom Wilson, Eric Fehr, Joel Ward, Jay Beagle, Jason Chimera, Aaron Volpatti, and Michael Latta

The move of Perreault was predicted here last week and makes sense from a hockey and salary cap standpoint. This Caps team needed to get bigger and more powerful up front and Wilson’s outstanding camp made keeping him up with the main club, rather than shipping him back to a weaker league (OHL), an easy decision. The 19 year old, who was the 16th overall pick in the 2012 NHL entry draft, brings a dimension that this Washington team needs more of in the post season: size and the ability to score the tough goals in close. Six months with Coach Adam Oates and some highly talented teammates is what is needed for Wilson to continue his development, the OHL is just not going to help him get any better.

As for the rest of the squad, the strengths appear to be in goal and up front. Braden Holtby has established himself as a number one goalie and has the chance to move into the elite category with a very strong season. As McPhee told the media last Tuesday, to win the Stanley Cup you have to have great goaltending. #70 is the guy being counted on to deliver that, but Neuvirth is a more than capable net minder and will be needed to play well so that Washington can qualify for the post season in a very competitive Metropolitan Division.

At forward, the Capitals have some serious depth on the wings but still aren’t sure who is going to be the third line center. Backstrom has the first line locked up with Grabovski manning the second unit. The club could go with Beagle as the 3rd line center and Latta pivoting the 4th to start the season, but that depends on the health of the others, primarily Laich, who has been battling a hip flexor issue. Right wing is just loaded up with Ovechkin, Brouwer, Fehr, Wilson, and Ward. Both Fehr and Erat were tried at center this preseason by Oates with some success, so the head coach has lots of options. Johansson could play 3rd line center at some point too. The Caps have not had as talented a crew of forwards to start the season in many years and with the players they have there is lots of room for flexibility.

On defense, the top three is awfully good with Green, Alzner, and Carlson. After that, it gets dicey. Erksine was super last spring in the regular season but is he really a top 4 d-man? #4 will have a chance to prove it starting this week. Oleksy came out of seemingly nowhere to take a 3rd pair spot in the spring and Hillen overcame an early season injury to play a lot of quality minutes last year. Carrick was the biggest surprise of training camp, has great offensive skills and his hockey IQ is high. Learning to play defense in the NHL is harder than any other position so Washington has to be careful to not put too much on the 19 year old, who has incredible potential. The organization still has high hopes for Orlov, but given his injury situation last season, starting him in Hershey made too much sense. The 2009 2nd round pick will play top pair minutes in the AHL and can hone his craft for what appears to be an inevitable jump back to the NHL at some point during the 82 game season.

Special teams will be an important component of Washington’s success. Last season the Caps were #1 in the NHL with the power play (26.8%). You can expect it to remain at least top 5 and Oates and assistant coach Blaine Forsythe will continually be tweaking things to counter opposition tactics. As for the penalty kill, Laich stated on Tuesday that is one of the areas this Capitals club will have to improve in if they want to do well in the regular season and playoffs. The PK has been one of the team’s weaknesses the last few years and it was 27th out of 30 in 2012-13 with a success rate of only 77.9%.

In summary, the expectations are high for this Capitals team. The playoffs are not a given, but if this club can stay relatively healthy, then they have the talent to compete for the division title. Every team in the Metropolitan Division has its issues. The Penguins are the pick of many but their goaltending and team defense certainly has its question marks. Will the Rangers respond positively to a new coach in Alain Vigneault? How will the Devils do with the departure of Ilya Kovalchuk? The Flyers added Vinny Lecavalier but will Ray Emery or Steve Mason step up and be a top goalie in a pressure packed Philly market? Are the Islanders ready to take the next step up the ladder or was their playoff run last spring a one time deal? Is Columbus going to play like the team that nearly qualified for the post season last spring or the cellar dweller crew that started 2013? Finally, will Cam Ward returning in net for Carolina propel them to a winning season? Nothing is set in stone heading into the season and in the salary cap era every team has holes and/or issues. What is important is that the Capitals get off to a good start since coming from behind in the standings is not going to be as achievable as it was in the Southeast Division.

 

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