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Caps Over Pens Nov 2017

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Caps Get Total Team Effort in Victory Over Pittsburgh

Posted on 10 November 2017 by Ed Frankovic

When 20 men all row the boat in the same direction, good things happen.

On Friday night at Capital One Arena the Washington Capitals played, by far, their best game of the season to knock off the two time defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins, 4-1.

John Carlson, T.J. Oshie, Chandler Stephenson, and Jakub Vrana scored for the Caps and Braden Holtby stopped 27 of 28 shots to improve Washington to 9-7-1 (19 points).

Without further adieu, here are nine detailed thoughts and analysis on this huuuuugggggeeee victory.

  1. Nicklas Backstrom came into this game with a seven game scoreless streak and his linemate, T.J. Oshie, had not netted a goal in eight straight contests. In a smart attempt to shake the lines up, Coach Barry Trotz bumped Vrana down to the third line and added a player who works hard on every shift, Stephenson, to the mix. That trio was superb all evening and they spent a lot of time up against Sidney Crosby’s line. Nicky held Sid the Kid pointless and even broke his pointless drought with a great feed to Stephenson in the slot to make it 3-1 with 6:18 left. Crosby would play 18:58, have only three shot attempts, lose 14 of 22 draws, and ended up a minus two. It was a vintage two way game by Backstrom, one of the NHL’s best centers. Oshie also broke his slump with a sweet deflection of a Carlson point shot on the power play with 1:51 to go in period two. The Osh Babe also had great net presence on Carlson’s opening marker that hit Tom Kuhnackl’s stick and went in. #34 was trying to tie up Oshie and he was not successful.
  2. Speaking of Carlson, what a beast he was, once again! #74 had a goal and an assist in 28:43 of ice time. He has simply been sensational while Matt Niskanen has been out. The Caps have rode Carly and Brooks Orpik on the back end heavily and are 6-6 in Nisky’s absence. However, four of those six losses came on the tail end of back-to-back affairs. I attribute a lot of those losses to the lack of depth caused by the expansion draft, salary cap casualties, and key injuries. With #2 due back in the next week or so, that will alleviate a lot of pressure on Carlson and Orpik and really help get Dmitry Orlov back on track, too, since he’ll have his favorite d-pair partner again. Orlov has been very inconsistent and he tipped in the only Penguins goal in this one due to some bad defensive zone coverage.
  3. Sticking with the blue line, I thought this was Christian Djoos’ best game of his very young NHL career. His speed and ability to skate and move the puck provides a great match up against the Penguins and he was rock solid in 13:18 of ice time. Rookie Madison Bowey had a few giveaways in 15:44 of action, but he’s getting better and better. As I mentioned to Caps General Manager Brian MacLellan on Monday when we last chatted, the blessing in disguise of Niskanen’s injury will be the sped up development of both Djoos and Bowey. Those two kids have really improved and assistant coach Todd Reirden deserves credit for helping turn these guys into capable NHLers. Washington suddenly has more depth on the back end than they did on October 1st. I’d like to see Bowey stay up when Niskanen returns and Djoos, as well. Taylor Chorney should be the 7th defensemen and he’s been really good the last two weeks.
  4. The Andre Burakovksy injury (fractured thumb) was another big blow to the Capitals forward lines since he was expected to take over the production of Marcus Johansson this season. Vrana was gifted into the top six when #65 went out and he just hasn’t produced. His compete level and decision making was lacking and he deserved the demotion he received. Stephenson has taken full advantage of his opportunity and that has been a pleasant surprise. Any team could’ve had this guy right before the season for nothing and now he has five points in eight games. Washington really needed someone to step up with the Burakovsky, Brett Connolly, and Tyler Graovac injuries and he’s been one who has done that.
  5. After Thursday’s practice, Coach Trotz noted that with guys close to returning from injury he now has five lines of forwards and four defensive pairs practicing and he likes that because it brings competition. Well, I think it is no surprise that many players increased their compete level and were structured, strong on the walls, and won numerous one on one battles in this contest against the Penguins. When players are comfortable and aren’t pushed, they don’t do the hard work and little things necessary to win hockey games. Now that jobs are on the line, suddenly every guy with a Caps sweater on in Friday’s tilt was giving everything they had. There’s another example of socialism not working!
  6. I’ve been tough on Vrana and Alex Chiasson during the early part of this season. Both have had their on-ice issues and they have struggled to contribute in a substantial way. On this evening, both made a key play in an important situation that helped the Caps win. On Stephenson’s goal, Chiasson went to the net and created havoc in front of Matt Murray (27 saves). While he doesn’t have the best set of hands and his skating needs a lot of work, #39 at least knew to crash the cage there and what is likely keeping him in the lineup is his penalty killing. As for Vrana, he needs to compete harder and getting out there with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson is a good fit for him. #13 still can perform better and he needs to bury some of his chances, but his play on the empty net clincher was a combination smart decision and pure speed.
  7. Special teams have been a problem area for the Caps so far this season. The power play had become stagnant and the penalty kill was struggling having to kill too many opportunities. On Friday, both of those units were big reasons the Capitals were victorious. Caps assistant coach Blaine Forsythe added some new wrinkles to the power play and they connected twice in six opportunities (9:11 of man advantage time). Oshie gets a lot of credit for creating havoc in front of the net, but the passing was crisper and there was some good rotation. Alex Ovechkin (1 assist) had a great chance a couple of minutes before #77’s goal on the man advantage, but he shot wide. Perhaps the biggest story though, was the way Washington handled the Penguins power play, which is one of the deadliest in the league. The Caps did a great job of keeping the Pens on the perimeter and keeping the crease clear so that Holtby could see the puck. The Holtbeast was superb and was a major reason Pittsburgh went 0 for 4 with the man advantage.
  8. Liam O’Brien, who was called up a week ago, only played 4:36, but it was an important stretch. In the first period, one of the toughest guys in the league and lead agitator, Ryan Reaves, was trying to intimidate the Caps and help give the star players on the Penguins more room on the ice. Reaves was jawing at Tom Wilson from the get go in this one and he hit O’Brien on an early shift. #87, recognizing that Reaves was trying to set a tone and get Washington off of their game, took Ryan on and got beat quickly in a fight. However, he took Reaves off of the ice for five minutes and after that #75 was nowhere to be found and became a non factor in the contest. Well done, Liam, way to take one for the team.
  9. Finally, an immense amount of credit for the Capitals staying afloat during this early stretch with key injuries goes to Holtby. Braden is now 9-3 with a .924 save percentage this season. He’s been outstanding and the team’s MVP playing behind a much more inexperienced defense. The Holtbeast won his 200th career game on Friday and became the 2nd fastest goalie to 200 wins (319 games) since the legendary Ken Dryden did it with the Montreal Canadiens in 311 tilts (h/t Tarik El-Bashir of NBC Sports Washington).

In summary, this was a gritty and gutsy effort by the Caps on Friday night. They played structured and strong hockey and won a lot of little battles all over the ice. It was a team effort and they played the way they’ll need to in order to be successful this season.

It was their best game.

Notes: Pittsburgh is now 9-7-2 (20 points) and has a -17 goal differential. They’ve lost key depth, too, due to the salary cap and have yet to win on the tail end of back to back games, as well. They had not played since Tuesday, though, like the Capitals. Historical Cap killers Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, and Matt Cullen are no longer wearing the black and gold and Washington benefited from that…the Caps outhit the Penguins, 30-17…shot attempts were 59-56 for Pittsburgh, but the Caps got more on the cage, 31-28…the Caps won the face off battle, 34-26. Jay Beagle was 13-4 and Backstrom went 7-4…Orpik played 21:38 on the back end and had one of his best games of the season. He kept Patrick Hornqvist and company off of the Holtbeast all night long…next up for the Caps are the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday night at 7:00 pm at Capital One Arena.

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Caps Rally from an Early Hole to Win, 3-2

Posted on 07 November 2017 by Ed Frankovic

John Carlson notched his first tally of the season with 45 seconds left in overtime to give the Washington Capitals a hard earned, 3-2, victory over the Arizona Coyotes at Capital One Arena on Monday night. The win is the Caps third in a row, their longest such winning streak of this young NHL season, and improves their record to 8-6-1 (17 points).

Carlson, who logged a team high 27:41 of ice time, now has a goal and 11 assists in Washington’s first 15 games and he’s been a work horse on the back end with Matt Niskanen missing the last 10 contests due to a hand injury. #74 will continue to have to carry the load for awhile because Nisky isn’t close to returning to the lineup yet.

Here are Nine Thoughts and Analysis on Monday’s win in which the Caps had to be patient and overcome adversity:

  • Braden Holtby (24 saves) gave up goals on his first two shots. Clayton Keller beat him in tight on a two on one rush where Holts and Brooks Orpik miscommunicated and then Christian Fischer scored from the door step before the game was seven minutes old to make it 2-0. At that point the Caps had 10 shot attempts and the only two that the Yotes had were deposited into the cage. Washington dominated the puck possession early on and had some great chances, but it was Arizona who lit the lamp the first two times.
  • Lars Eller and Dmitry Orlov each made mistakes on the two Arizona goals. Eller had a shot block which produced the two on one rush that Keller scored on and Orlov was beaten on the blue line by Christian Dvorak on the Fischer tap in. Both players made up for their miscues on the Washington first tally, just under two minutes after it was 2-0. Orlov carried the puck up the ice nicely to lead the rush, alertly dumped it behind the net when he didn’t have a clean pass, and then raced Yotes goalie, Scott Wedgewood (37 saves), for the biscuit. #9’s pressure forced Wedgewood to throw the puck up the boards and it went right to Eller high on the right wing wall. Lars smartly fired the puck towards the cage, but Oliver Ekman-Larsson (OEL) blocked it. Johnny on the spot, Devante Smith-Pelly, gathered in the loose change and put a sweet backhander past Wedgewood to get the Caps on the board.
  • With the score 2-1 and Washington dominating, the Coyotes nearly scored on their third shot on goal, but the Holtbeast delivered with what he called “his best save of the game.” Had that shot gone in from Brad Richardson, this game could’ve gotten ugly, but #70 was dialed in and continues to give his team a chance to win with stellar netminding.
  • Coach Barry Trotz harped on the Capitals poor special teams play heading into this contest and on Monday night he received better results. Washington’s penalty killing unit was a perfect three for three, including two big third period kills. The Caps also drew several penalties on the Coyotes because they were dominating the play and they had six opportunities to score, however, they only did so once, in period two to tie the game up with just over five minutes remaining. Alex Ovechkin buried his 12th goal of the season from his office on a one time blast following a sweet feed from Carlson. Washington was extra fortunate there because one of the Arizona players broke his stick, so it was effectively a five on three. The Caps had a lot of zone time with their power play on Monday night, but it still has work to do. Passes were in players skates and there needs to be more net presence.
  • Washington’s top six has struggled to score in recent games and Nicklas Backstrom has now gone a career high six straight contests without recording a point. Nicky, T.J. Oshie, and Jakub Vrana combined for 15 of the Caps 75 total shot attempts on this night, but that is just not enough. For some reason Oshie didn’t have his hands in this affair, he had three giveaways and couldn’t finish some chances, but he kept working hard and it was his strong backcheck on OEL that led to the turnover that set up the winning goal. Evgeny Kuznetsov (two assists) carried the puck in after the turnover and fed a streaking Oshie in the slot. As the Osh Babe was going to shoot, OEL stuck his stick in and forced T.J. to fan on his shot. However, he managed to slide the puck to Carlson, who was down low off of Wedgewood’s right post, and #74 gave Washington a happy ending.
  • Kuznetsov had two assists, but there are things that are not good in his game right now. He’s too fancy and not hard enough on the puck. #92 is losing too many one on one battles and his decision making on shot vs. pass needs some serious refining. Early in overtime he fed Oshie for a rush into the Coyotes zone and #77 gave him a perfect drop pass that Kuzy should 100 times out of 100 shoot. He did not and instead forced a bad pass into the corner. Arizona went the other way and it took a great shoulder save by the Holtbeast to keep this game alive. Simply put, Kuznetsov needs to use his very good shot more often. As Coach Trotz often says, “It’s a shoot first league.” Kuzy needs to follow that wisdom because his over passing is hurting the team.
  • Madison Bowey was nicked up in period two and missed several shifts, but he came back to play 3:11 in the final frame. In the opening minute of period three he drew a slashing penalty on Jordan Martinook. Christian Djoos had one of his better games logging 16:24 of ice time and putting two shots on goal. I’d like to see Djoos firing the puck towards the net when he has an opportunity inside the blue line and he’s positioned in the center of the ice. Shots from those areas provide the greatest opportunity to either score or produce a rebound.
  • Chatting with former Flyers player and current scout, Dave Brown, in the press box on Monday night, he pointed out the parity in the league due to the expansion draft and the salary cap. Dave stated that to win games on a regular basis, “You really need your star players to carry you.” As I mentioned above, the Capitals top six forwards have been struggling, but it was those guys who delivered goals two and three in this come from behind triumph.
  • The Capitals are in Buffalo on Tuesday night at 7 pm and so far this season they are 0-3 in back to back games. Philipp Grubauer will get the start for Washington. Coach Trotz said that he is much more worried about mental fatigue than physical exhaustion for the Sabres game. Trotz pointed out that his club has to simplify their strategy and make sure they get pucks deep in this affair. Turnovers can compound things quickly for a tired team and make staying in the game much tougher. So far this season, the Caps have not shown the mental toughness for a full 60 minutes to be victorious in the second half of back to back tilts.

Notes: the Caps out shot attempted Arizona, 75-49. Ovechkin had 10 shot attempts after having 0 in the first 20 minutes…the Capitals won the face off battle, 34-24. Jay Beagle was 11-2…Tom  Wilson beat up Luke Schenn, once again…Liam O’Brien only played 5:58. Nathan Walker was scratched again…Orlov played 24:19 and Orpik was third in blue line time on ice for the Caps with 23:18…Taylor Chorney hit iron twice in the first period…OEL led all skaters with 31:13 of ice time.

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Caps Thoughts After the Season Opening Victory in Ottawa

Posted on 06 October 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Alex Ovechkin’s hat trick and shootout tally allowed the Washington Capitals to overcome 3-1 and 4-3 third period deficits to win, 5-4, in Ottawa on Thursday night in the Caps season opener. Evgeny Kuznetsov had three helpers and Braden Holtby made 28 saves, several of which came at key junctures in the hockey game.

Simply put, when your star players are your star players, you often win.

With that, here are nine thoughts on the Caps victory over a very good Senators team that was missing its best player in defensemen Erik Karlsson.

I predicted 50 goals for Ovi this year after he changed his offseason training and slimmed down. The Gr8 was super in this affair with 11 shot attempts, 3 goals plus a shootout tally. He also hit the post in period two. The Gr8, Kuzy, and Jakub Vrana were a very good line and when #13 keeps his legs pumping he opens up space on the ice for his teammates.

Brett Connolly has a good shot and he buried his 1st of the season from the high danger area. It was a great keep in and pass by Matt Niskanen at the offensive blue line and Lars Eller made a great feed to #10 on that goal. I really liked the way Eller went to the net and created space for Connolly to score.

It’s not often your goalie plays well giving up four goals, but the Holtbeast was strong in the cage. The 1st Sens marker was eerily reminiscent of the weird lamp lighters Toronto scored in the playoffs last season. Braden made several big stops, including a gem on Johnny Oduya early on. His best of the night was likely the shoulder save when Ottawa was on the power play in overtime.

Ottawa had five power plays to just one for the Caps, yet Washington out shot attempted them 62-56. Nine of the Senators 32 shots on goal came on the power play. Simply put, the Capitals were very good at even strength and the season opening performance in terms of puck possession is encouraging.

Washington won this game thanks to four even strength goals and a perfect 5 for 5 on the penalty kill. Holts was stellar in net while the team was shorthanded and the Caps did well with their clears. Brooks Orpik and John Carlson were super in shorthanded situations. Devante Smith-Pelly also did well on the PK stepping in for the suspended Tom Wilson (out for the first four games).

Three of the four Ottawa goals were off of bad turnovers (Carlson, Niskanen, and Smith-Pelly). Better puck management is paramount going forward. There were forced passes in the neutral zone and pucks sent up the middle of the ice in the defensive end. Both of those are no no’s. In the words of famed Charlestown Chiefs goalie Dennis Lemieux, “You don’t do that, never, never…”

Coach Barry Trotz rode his top players in the season opener. The top two lines each played right around 20 minutes. On the back end, Trotzy rode his top 4D hard. Orpik played 24:47 while Dmitry Orlov and Niskanen were each over 25 minutes. Carlson logged 27:45 to lead the club in ice time. I thought Orlov was fabulous in this contest and it’s amazing how much his game has progressed since he has been paired with Minnesota Matt. The third pairing of Aaron Ness and Taylor Chorney were right around 11 to 12 minutes of ice time.

The referees were Chris Lee and Frederick L’Ecuyer and the power plays were 5 to 1 for Ottawa. The league is supposed to be cracking down on certain things (slashing) yet Washington’s only man advantage was the result of Ottawa having too many dudes on the ice. Those are the facts. It was a bit of a head scratching game from a zebras perspective. Anyone seen Oliver Stone lately??!!

Tyler Graovac only logged 6:22, a team low, and was a minus one. He didn’t get any PK time either. I’d expect that Nathan Walker goes into the lineup on Saturday night for the 7 pm home opener against Montreal. Congrats to Nathan on being the 1st Australian hockey player to make it to “The Show!”

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Caps Still A Contender Despite Off Season Losses

Posted on 03 July 2017 by Ed Frankovic

For the past three years Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan built a squad to compete for the Cup with entry level or bridge contracts working in his favor. Unfortunately, despite having a complete roster this past season, which led to a second straight Presidents’ Trophy, they did not get the job done.

The Caps had the best team on paper this past spring, but when it came down to it, they couldn’t defeat Pittsburgh, once again.

Bottom line, they couldn’t handle the pressure of the top seed and they under performed.

They choked.

There is no way around that, all you have to do is go back and watch the panic they displayed in game seven after the Penguins took a 1-0 lead.

But we’ve already dissected that loss and the disappointing end to the season, so it’s time to move on.

On this journey, however, MacLellan, while talking about what he called a two year championship window (2015-16 and 2016-17), also clearly pointed out that after those two years were up that roster changes were inevitable due to the salary cap.

As the Caps GM and anyone else that closely follows this team knew all along, they had 11 players from this past spring’s roster that were up for new contracts.

Eleven!

So there was NO WAY this team was going to be the same and they were going to lose many pieces, especially with the salary cap only going up to $75M after the NHLPA mistakenly didn’t take advantage of the full escalator clause. That error is now putting many veteran NHL players out of work and could force many of them to have to take major pay cuts just to stay in the league.

So with five unrestricted free agents, six restricted free agents and the expansion draft guaranteeing one unprotected player was going to be taken by Vegas, the Caps GM had his work cut out for him.

MacLellan wisely took a strategy that focused on keeping the core of the team intact while letting players be exposed, unsigned, or traded where they had other options in the pipeline at those positions, such as on defense and at wing.

For the expansion draft he took the 7-3-1 protection approach which left them most vulnerable with either their 4th defensemen (Nate Schmidt) or the backup goalie (Philipp Grubauer). Leaving just those spots exposed was good asset management, especially when the Capitals knew they were losing one good player NO MATTER WHAT. That turned out to be the very popular, but still relatively inexperienced Schmidt. The 88 car, who is a very good skater and a positive player, was an undrafted free agent that had yet to play a full 82 game season and playoffs as a top four defensemen. The Capitals clearly liked Schmidt and openly stated the plan was for him to have the first shot at the fourth blue line slot this upcoming season, despite not having lengthy experience in that position at the NHL level.

Vegas GM George McPhee, who knew Schmidt well from his days with the Caps, opted to take Nate instead of Grubauer and the first roster hole became official.

Immediately after the expansion draft, the T.J. Oshie signing occurred allowing Washington to keep the 33 goal scorer and top line right wing at a bargain price of $5.75M for eight years.

This past weekend, with the start of free agency on July 1st, MacLellan focused his efforts on signing his restricted free agents. He inked defenseman Dmitry Orlov to a six year $30.6M deal, winger Brett Connolly to a two year $3M contract, and center Evgeny Kuznetsov to an eight year $62.4M monster extension. Over the same period unrestricted Washington free agents Karl Alzner signed with Montreal, Kevin Shattenkirk went, as expected, to the Rangers, and Justin Williams received a high paying two year deal ($9M) to return to Carolina.

The problem with the Caps signings was that the Orlov and Kuznetsov numbers came in a bit higher, especially in Kuznetsov’s case, than originally anyone expected. Both had leverage with the KHL, primarily Kuznetsov, and with Washington thin at center in the organization, Kuzy had even more extra leverage to get a big pay day. After all he could bolt to Russia, play in the Olympics and KHL this season, log another year overseas and then become an unrestricted NHL free agent in the summer of 2019. With no clear top two centers in the Capitals organizational pipeline, MacLellan had no choice but to re-sign Kuznetsov, mostly on #92’s terms. At that point, with restricted free agents Andre Burakovsky and Philipp Grubauer still the only ones needing new deals, someone was going to have to be moved now or in the future to make the overall salary cap dollars work.

The NHL allows teams to carry up to 10% over the salary cap until final roster cut downs, but with so many veteran players on the market likely to be cheaper going forward due to the small salary cap increase (bad move again, NHLPA) it was clear that the trade market was going to be decreasing rapidly going forward. Add in the fact that most teams spent a lot of money to give big increases to their own players (see Connor McDavid and Carey Price) and you can see why there hasn’t been a big trade market since the NHL expansion draft.

Case in point, just last week Vegas GM George McPhee, who selected top four defensemen Marc Methot from Ottawa in the expansion draft, was only able to obtain from the Dallas Stars a 2020 2nd round pick and goalie Dylan Ferguson (a 7th round pick in the 2017 draft) for the blue liner. You read that correctly, it’s the year 2020 for that second round pick!

So with MacLellan needing to deal because the trade market was looking bleak going forward, the Caps GM had to pick a player to move for salary cap room while also finding a dance partner. Marcus Johansson, who carries a $4.583M cap number, was the most likely candidate, especially with Burakovsky and 2014 NHL first round pick Jakub Vrana in place and ready to move up the depth chart at wing. Luckily the New Jersey Devils, who had set aside money to try and lure Shattenkirk to their club on July 1st, but failed to do so despite likely offering more money than the Rangers, had remaining budget and needed to make a splash to improve their team and appease their fan base.

So on Sunday night, just after announcing the blockbuster Kuznetsov deal, the Caps traded Jojo to the Devils and received 2018 2nd and 3rd round picks for the forward who just completed a career year in Washington with 24 goals and 58 points. 19 of those 58 points came on a first power play unit with Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Oshie, but Marcus did his share to earn those points by being the best on the team in man advantage zone entries (Kuznetsov will assume Johansson’s 1st PP spot going forward).

With the departure of the also very popular Johansson to go along with Schmidt and the three EXPECTED unrestricted free agent losses, some in the fan base and local and national media went nuts. This despite the fact that MacLellan had managed to pretty much ensure he’d re-sign six of the 11 players that needed new contracts for 2017-18 while also getting two draft picks for the departed Johansson to fill in holes that they had in the 2018 draft as a result of previously traded choices. Those draft picks should prove to be valuable going forward.

Following the Johansson trade, the fan response on Twitter and blog/Twitter posts of some in the local and national media were emotionally charged and a major overreaction in a negative sense. It seems that many conveniently forgot the facts, or chose to ignore them: the Caps were going to lose good players this off-season and when prices went up in the restricted free agent market, it likely cost them one more that they did not originally expect or could reasonably prepare for given the expansion draft.

Suddenly MacLellan, who along with Coach Barry Trotz and his coaching staff have done a wonderful job of turning around a team that was an absolute train wreck just three years ago, had become the village idiot on Twitter for losing Schmidt and Johansson. But in reality they are two replaceable players in the grand scheme of things when you look at the Capitals organizational depth. They have young quality defensemen in the organization and at wing both Burakovksy and Vrana are ready to move up to fill in the gaps left by the departure of Jojo.

Overall, the expansion draft and the upward costs of the restricted free agents resulted in the loss of those two players in addition to their unrestricted free agents (although MacLellan did keep Oshie from the UFA pile). In my opinion, however, you’d be hard pressed to pick any other two players from the 7-3-1 protected list and restricted free agent crew that make the dollars work while resulting in a better overall scenario for Washington going forward, especially given the other assets they currently have in the organization for replacements. Keep in mind that Vegas had the final say for the expansion draft, too, so the Caps did not get to choose who the Golden Knights selected. In addition, the idea of buying out Brooks Orpik was never a viable option and it would not have resulted in enough salary cap savings (only $3M) this season to allow all of the restricted free agent signings to occur (not to mention it would add wasted dollars to the salary cap for the next four seasons).

The Caps lost good players, but let’s get one thing straight in spite of everything that has transpired since the end of the season – the Capitals still have a VERY GOOD hockey team heading into 2017-18.

The projected line-up, based on input from the Caps GM during his Monday morning conference call, is now as follows:

Forwards:

Ovechkin – Backstrom – Oshie

Vrana – Kuznetsov – Burakovsky

Connolly – Eller – Wilson

TBD – Jay Beagle – TBD

Defense:

Orlov – Matt Niskanen

TBD – John Carlson

Orpik – TBD

Goalie:

Braden Holtby

Grubauer

The TBD’s at forward, right now, include the possibility of several Hershey players such as Chandler Stephenson, Nathan Walker, Travis Boyd, Riley Barber, or recently acquired players such as Tyler Graovac, Anthony Peluso or Devante Smith-Pelly (signed from New Jersey on Monday on a two way contract for the league minimum, $650,000). On defense, the TBD’s appear to be two of Taylor Chorney, Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos, Aaron Ness, and Tyler Lewington.

Yes, this is no longer a 118 or 120 point roster, but it’s still a good one, likely in the 100 to 105 point range given the strong centers, skilled scoring wingers, and quality goaltenders. In my opinion, Vegas not taking Grubauer will be a blessing in disguise for the Caps in 2017-18 because goaltending is the most important position in hockey. There will also be a lot less pressure on this team, the media and many fans have already written them off.

Finally, keep in mind that the other playoff teams in the Metropolitan Division have lost players too, due to the salary cap. In Pittsburgh, the two time defending champs saw Marc Andre-Fleury (expansion draft), Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, and Ron Hainsey all depart. Without Fleury, who was a great insurance policy for the oft-injured Matt Murray, the Capitals win that second round series this spring. The Rangers signed Shattenkirk, but they traded their number one center, Derek Stepan, backup goalie, Antti Raanta, and bought out defensemen Dan Girardi in the process of doing so. Columbus traded forward Brandon Saad to Chicago for Artemi Panarin, so they are still looking for a number one center to fill their biggest need. Bottom line, nobody has a roster without holes.

It’s clear the fact that the salary cap is impacting all teams gets lost in the noise when some look and analyze the Capitals.

Yes, they’ve become “top heavy” as MacLellan called them, but they are still a playoff team, at a minimum.

Fans are fans, though, so the negativity is to be expected, that’s just the way it is in professional sports. But you’d expect more out of the local and national media. Keep in mind, though, that there are critics in parts of the media who are fans, at heart, of other Metropolitan Division teams (for example, the Devils and the Flyers, to name a couple), or flat out just don’t like the Capitals organization, there’s no denying that. Then there are others who are just not experienced enough when it comes to the workings of the NHL or are trying to make their mark in their craft to move up the sports media ladder via page clicks – so please take their criticism and bashing with a grain of salt. They have an agenda.

In full disclosure, I won’t walk away from the fact that I worked for this organization for 11 seasons either, but my track record of calling the team out when they make mistakes is well documented (see my 2014 end of season fire McPhee and Oates blog or simply check out the first few paragraphs above). If I thought MacLellan did a poor job of handling this off-season, I’d call him out. But given what he was up against and the undeniable rising salary costs for the top players in the game, I think he’s done the best job he possibly could to keep the Capitals a playoff team and, depending on how the new players that make the lineup this fall pan out, still a Stanley Cup contender.

It’s now up to the Capitals star players, starting with Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and Holtby, to produce their best performances to help carry this club through the regular season and deep into the postseason.

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Should the Caps Blow it Up or Stay the Course?

Posted on 29 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

After the Capitals added Kevin Shattenkirk at this season’s NHL trade deadline, I certainly thought I’d be writing a much happier ending to this recent Washington hockey season.

Alas, once again, that is not the case.

You already know the story; the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Washington Capitals in the playoffs for the second straight season, this time in a seven game series. In fact, it is now the ninth time in 10 playoff meetings that the Pens have knocked out the Caps. Jim Schoenfeld remains the only Capitals bench boss to defeat Mario Lemieux’s franchise in the post season (1994).

Let’s start with giving credit to the Penguins, because they certainly deserve that. Despite being outshot, 232-161, and outshot attempted, 484-317, in the series, they managed to hold the Caps to two goals or less in four of the seven tilts and as result, they won each of those games. There’s your series.

You don’t do that without outstanding play from your goaltender. Cleary, Marc Andre-Fleury’s performance against the Capitals was the biggest reason why the Penguins will likely be winning their fifth Stanley Cup this spring.

Next, you have to credit Sidney Crosby. Despite being injured in game three and missing game four, #87 was the difference maker for Pittsburgh. It was his two goals early in the second period of game one that staked the Pens to a two puck lead which gave his club the confidence it could win at the Verizon Center after being smoked there in the regular season. Then in a crucial game seven, Sid made the key pass on the winning goal after a Washington defensive zone turnover.

Finally, tip your hat to the entire Penguins team and coaching staff because they overcame a ton of injuries to defeat the Caps. Washington had injuries, as well, namely Alex Ovechkin’s knee and hamstring and Marcus Johansson’s fractured finger, but that’s a part of the game and the Pens found a way to persevere through all of their health issues.

The biggest reason the Pens won is because of their resolve. They certainly were outplayed by Washington for long stretches in this series, but they stuck to their system and when they received a break via a Caps turnover or mental mistake, they typically buried the biscuit. They were an opportunistic bunch who believed they could win. They also were able to plug guys into the lineup when some of their top guys were out. Without Crosby in game four, they jumped on the Caps early and held on for a win that ultimately gave the Caps no margin of error for a series comeback. So the Penguins deserve kudos for the depth they’ve created via strong drafting and development.

Congratulations Penguins, you clearly know how to win when the chips are down.

Now, were they the better team like they were in 2016 when they knocked off the Capitals in six games? The statistics say no, but the scoreboard says otherwise, and that is all that matters.

As for the Capitals, the roster assembled by General Manager Brian MacLellan, on paper, appeared to have no holes. Washington certainly did a lot of things correctly in the series. You don’t dominate the numbers as heavily as they did without doing many things right. Unfortunately, they did some big things wrong at inopportune times.

Washington carried the play in several periods in this series, didn’t score, and then tried to change their style of play. That is when they got into trouble and ended up losing. It was pretty obvious that the best Capitals game plan was to put pucks deep in the Penguins zone to try and further weaken a defense that was suffering from multiple injuries. Kris Letang was already out for the season and Trevor Daley was playing on bad wheels. But too often, the Capitals forgot that this is a shoot first league and they went into overpass mode. They were caught up far too easily in playing a pretty game and that is not the way you defeat a team as structured and as mentally tough as the Penguins.

Many Capitals players talked about the defeat being a mental thing on Caps Breakdown Day, and they are correct. Pittsburgh, no matter what the score or the situation, pretty much continued to play the same way. The Caps on the other hand, were not patient enough or mentally disciplined to stick with the game plan. As three time Stanley Cup Champion Justin Williams told me after game two, its okay to dominate a period and not score a goal, it happens in hockey. The problem for Washington though, is they wouldn’t maintain what they were doing and that’s when the fancy game and turnovers appeared on the ice. That’s a mental issue all the way.

While the Caps had a lot of shot attempts, they weren’t getting enough with traffic on Fleury and the players were rarely in position for rebounds. It’s a shoot first league and there were too many times, especially in the third period of game seven, when the Caps would cross the blue line and force the puck to the middle when getting it deep and wearing down the Penguins defense was the right play.

Again, that is a mental toughness issue, in my book. You have to be willing to pay the physical price in the playoffs by making the correct play. Taking a hit in the neutral zone and ensuring the puck gets deep in the offensive zone is a critical part of post season hockey. That applies inside both blue lines, as well. A number of the Penguins goals came as a result of lazy or careless turnovers. That’s a letdown on the mental side of the game. You can also attribute all of the terrible penalties the Capitals took in game four as a mental issue. Washington had a tendency to not come out strong in some contests, most notably games one and four. There is no reason why the Penguins should’ve had a 21-13 shot attempt advantage in the first 15 minutes of game four with Crosby out of the lineup in a must win for Washington. That’s inexcusable and both players and coaches need to answer for that.

Breaking things down by team component, let’s start with the coaching staff. All season long the Caps relied heavily on rolling four lines, but once Karl Alzner was deemed able to play with his hand injury and Brett Connolly struggled in his first post season appearance, Coach Barry Trotz went to seven defensemen and 11 forwards despite it being counter to what they’d done all season. Yes, the seven defensemen and 11 forwards strategy worked in game three, but it might have only been successful because Matt Niskanen was kicked out very early in the contest and the other six d-men were able to rotate normally. In game four, that configuration backfired badly as Alzner and Brooks Orpik, the two slowest Washington blue liners, were out on the ice together early in the game. Patrick Hornqvist, who isn’t exactly fast, split them like Moses parting the Red Sea to tally on a breakaway and it was 1-0 just over four minutes in. Pittsburgh gained a ton of confidence that they could win that contest without Crosby from that goal.

Following the game four loss, which was also heavily impacted by a very injured Ovechkin, who probably shouldn’t have played, Coach Trotz shook up his forward lines. He moved Andre Burakovsky with T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom and bumped the Gr8 down with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson. Those moves worked and Washington came storming back to tie up the series. They seemed poised for a big game seven, but Pens Coach Mike Sullivan adjusted and the Capitals didn’t play with the passion and urgency they had in the third period of game five and all of game six. Simply put, they cracked under the pressure. It’s apparent that the weight of being the #1 seed plus all of the past history of Washington recent playoff failures was heavily on the minds of these players.

Coach Barry Trotz has a track record of being tough on players who don’t follow the rules or the system as evidenced by the Ovechkin suspension in October of 2015 and Andre Burakovsky being benched in December of 2016. He even questionably pulled Braden Holtby after the second period in game two for what he thought was subpar goaltending. However, he and his staff let his skaters get away from the system too often in this series. Any deviation from the structure against a disciplined team like the Penguins can lead to a quality scoring chance, and that is what happened at key times in the series. If guys start playing the wrong way, they need to be benched for a shift or two so they get the message.

Johansson, Oshie, and Williams scored a lot of goals in the regular season going to the net. Jojo even won the Toronto series in OT of game six by doing just that. In the Penguins series, we didn’t see enough net presence and it was on the coaches to drill that into the players heads and enforce the strategy of getting pucks deep to set that up.

Again, I wasn’t a fan of the 7/11 configuration because it got the Caps away from the four line forward group that worked so well from late December until mid February. I understand why Brett Connolly was pulled out of the lineup for maybe a game or so to observe, but he also scored 15 goals in the regular season, many of which were tallied via going to the net. With some guys severely banged up and unable to shoot, like Johansson, why wasn’t he put back in for another chance? It was a mistake, in my opinion, to totally give up on a guy who could’ve been a better performer than the guys who were playing hurt. Case in point, Conor Sheary was performing poorly while being nicked up, so Sullivan benched him for games five and six of the Senators series. Yet in a crucial game seven, #43 was back in the lineup and played a major role in the first two Pittsburgh goals.

So did the Caps lose totally because of coaching? No, the coaching wasn’t great, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water here. This coaching staff has done a great job of building this team from the ruins of 2014. The two Presidents’ Trophies are evidence of that. Look at how far Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, and Tom Wilson have come in just a year. Each one of those players was a big part of why the Caps knocked off the Maple Leafs and dominated the possession statistics against the Penguins.

The playoff coaching certainly needed some improvements, but in totality, this is a very good coaching staff. Trotz and company will certainly take their share of the heat for the loss, but the biggest blame for the defeat is on the players themselves. They have to be stronger mentally and physically to do the correct things on the ice.

Let’s start right at the top of the players with Ovechkin. There’s no nice way to put this, it was a subpar season for Ovi and it all began last summer. How you handle off of the ice issues and life changing events is a big part of professional sports and with Alex getting married last summer it clearly impacted his ability to prepare for and play in 2016-17. After scoring 50 goals in 2015-16 and having a super 2016 post season, Alex looked slow and overweight for the large majority of the season. Clearly his conditioning wasn’t where it needed to be and then missing training camp due to the World Cup of Hockey didn’t help either. At age 31 and not in peak shape, the Gr8 lost some speed and that allowed defensemen to play him tighter so that he couldn’t get his shot off quickly at even strength. Ovechkin lived off of the power play in 2016-17 to score goals as he struggled in five on five situations.

In the playoffs, the hit from Nazem Kadri was low and the Russian Machine didn’t break, but it certainly slowed him down further and probably contributed to suffering the hamstring injury, as well. However, had Ovi been in better condition and had his speed from the previous year, it’s quite possible he could have avoided the Kadri hit altogether.

Ovechkin has made great strides under this coaching staff with his back checking ability, something he rarely did prior to the Trotz era. He deserves a lot of credit for that. However, his ability to play in his own zone has regressed. Standing on the left wing boards straight legged with your stick at your hips parallel to the ice is bad defensive posture. He needs to get rid of that and work on being a better player in his own end. If he gets back in peak shape and works at it, there’s no reason he can’t turn proper defensive zone play into several rush goals in 2017-18. Again, it’s a focus on conditioning and hockey.

That gets us to Backstrom. #19 had a very good season, but game seven was nowhere near his best. MacLellan’s goal in adding Eller and Connolly was to improve the bottom six and allow Washington to play a faster game. The thought was that having four lines would allow Coach Trotz to play everyone more evenly so that they could maintain a high pace and be fresher in the postseason. At times, the Capitals were able to do that, but they were not consistent. Ovechkin and Backstrom both played lower average minutes than they had in past regular seasons, by design, and in the end, it was likely the wrong move as both looked tired, at times, in the post season. Nicky, in his twenties, has been able to survive playing with extra weight, but as he moves into his thirties, like Ovechkin, he needs to shed any extra pounds he has to play faster.

When Washington lost to the Penguins in 2015-16, you could not blame either Ovechkin or Backstrom because they dominated Crosby and Malkin in that series. It was the Nick Bonino line that won for the Pens in the spring of 2016. In 2016-17, you can’t say the same thing. Both Crosby and Malkin elevated their games while Ovechkin and Backstrom weren’t as good as they were the previous May. Sure the Caps only received one goal in the series from their bottom six, but they rarely played the fourth line due to the 7/11 strategy.

Crosby is the best player in the game for a reason; he works harder than anyone at his craft. Orpik was quoted recently as saying that #87 is always the first player on the ice and the last player off of it for the Penguins at practice. That needs to be Ovechkin and Backstrom going forward. We’ve heard from other players that both have made strides, especially Nicky, in speaking up in the locker room. Speeches are great, but actions speak louder and doing the proper things on and off of the ice is so much more critical to winning championships. Those two guys are the Capitals leaders and have been the core for 10 years so they must be setting the tempo that everything is hockey first in 2017-18. We should not have to hear from Orpik that the team needs to get focused on hockey, like we did after the disastrous California trip in March. There were several post game players only meetings this season, including one after game two against the Penguins, and while it’s good to clear the air, they aren’t as necessary if everyone is focused on hockey.

Ovechkin and Backstrom are clearly the core of the Capitals and the goaltender is the third critical piece to the triumvirate. Braden Holtby, who has been stellar in past post seasons, had his worst playoffs from a statistics standpoint. Now how much of that is on #70 and how much of it is on the team giving up too many golden chances? I’d lean more on the side of the team breakdowns, but this was not Braden’s spring. This series was likely over in five games if he doesn’t make some big stops early in period three before the Washington three goal explosion that led to a victory and a two game winning streak. In game seven, he had no chance on the winning goal. However, I still didn’t like the Justin Schultz winning tally in game four. If there was a goal he’d want back in the series, I’d bet it would be that one.

On defense, John Carlson played his best hockey of the season against the Penguins, but he did not have a consistent year. He needs to amp his conditioning up so that he can play faster, as well. The standouts of this postseason on the blue line were Orlov and Schmidt and that’s encouraging given where we were just a year ago with both of them. Bringing in Shattenkirk for Zach Sanford and a first round pick seemed like the right move at the time, but in the end, with no Stanley Cup, it’s a lost trade. #22 has enormous potential and talent, but he was slow in the playoffs. Again, I think that might be a conditioning issue, but he didn’t come over until March with Washington. Hindsight is 20/20 and the deal now is another one that weakens the Capitals reach back for young players. Sanford has a lot of promise and first round picks are valuable. I can’t fault Mac for making that move, but coming up Cup empty now makes it an overall organizational defeat.

So where do the Caps go from here? There are calls for firing the coach, trading Ovechkin, or “blowing it up” from many in the fan base and some around the club. Even a couple of players said “major changes” were needed just two days after losing to the Penguins. It’s a natural reaction when a team loses again after being the favorite.

Let’s be honest, this is a team that is largely based on European talent and it hasn’t produced a trip to the Eastern Conference finals yet. This club improved greatly with the additions of North American players Oshie and Williams in the summer of 2015. They are guys who have a high “dog the puck” type of work effort. Both are unrestricted free agents and the team needs more of that style. Word over the Memorial Day weekend is that the Capitals and the Osh Babe have verbally agreed to an extension so that is great news, this team is not a Cup contender without #77 going forward. It would be nice if they could find a way to get Williams back, as well, but that will be tougher given the salary cap situation. Per the Caps great team reporter, Mike Vogel (@VogsCaps), we’ve heard that the salary cap is going to be in the $76 to $77 Million range. That is a big help to Washington, who also have to deal with Burakovsky as a restricted free agent. There are some who think #65 deserves a big pay raise, but given his inconsistent output, I’m not sure Washington can commit to longer term and/or high dollars on him, just yet.

I just don’t see moving Ovechkin or Backstrom as feasible given the likely low return and to be honest, #19’s contract is a great one for the Caps. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who also improved significantly in the post season outside of a poor game seven, is up for a new contract. He’s a restricted free agent, but somewhere around $6M per season seems likely for him. As for Orlov and Schmidt, it’s apparent they’ve moved up big time on the depth chart of this defensive roster and deserve decent longer term contracts. I’m speculating that Orlov will be come in at around $4M and Schmidt in the $2 to $2.5M range. Both play with speed and drive possession, which is so important in today’s NHL. Unfortunately, there will have to be other changes on the blue line. Shattenkirk will get paid big bucks elsewhere and I’d expect the same for Alzner, who really had a rough campaign. King Karl admittedly had a hard time regaining his speed after offseason groin surgery and then he broke his hand in the first playoff tilt against Toronto.  As for Orpik, as much as he’s a strong leader and a fitness freak, which was a big help in starting to turn the culture of this team around in 2014-15, his on ice value compared to his salary cap hit is not equitable anymore. He’s a third pair defenseman and you can’t afford $5.5M annually for that type of player when you want to win a Cup. MacLellan will have to look at either working a deal to move him, getting Vegas to pick him in the expansion draft, or buying him out to clear some needed salary cap space.

If the Caps had players ready to make the leap from Hershey or the college ranks to the NHL, like the Penguins have been blessed with the last two seasons, the overall situation could be better. Perhaps the bottom six will see a player such as Travis Boyd or Riley Barber come up and help out? Jakub Vrana has shown glimpses of being able to handle the NHL, but after his demotion this year he dropped so far off of the map that he was scratched for some games by Bears Coach Troy Mann in the AHL playoffs. Vrana is streaky and inconsistent, much like Burakovsky has been, so do you want to rely on another guy who doesn’t go to the net or high traffic areas consistently to finally help get you past the Pittsburgh problem? Seems awfully risky to me.

Clearly MacLellan has a lot to address in this offseason given the number of contracts that are expiring, NHL expansion to Vegas, and salary cap constraints. He also has a head coach reportedly heading into the last year of his contract. Add in that the two core players on the roster will both be in their thirties in 2017-18 and it’s clear that the GM has a lot to consider when charting the course for next season.

It’s not an easy job and there are very hard decisions to make, but in this case, I think it’s worth staying the course for at least one more year with the head coach and core players. In regards to a coaching change, is there somebody out there better than this head coach and staff worth pursuing? After all, there are several young players who have really improved during the Trotz regime and they’ve won two straight Presidents’ Trophies. They will likely have lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions in the second round yet again (yes, I see the Penguins defeating the Predators in the Stanley Cup Final) and that’s simply a function of the current division and playoff setup. In reality, they are the second best team in hockey, so does making drastic changes make sense? I don’t think so.

Brian, however, has to put pressure on the coaches and players to improve and be in better condition so they can make the playoffs and then deliver next spring. In hindsight, the World Cup of Hockey, which included participation from Coach Trotz and several top players, put the Capitals behind the eight ball from a readiness standpoint heading into 2016-17. The lack of preparation, based on what I’ve seen and heard, is a big reason they weren’t able to knock off the Penguins in the second round, once again.

So it’s incumbent upon Coach Trotz, Ovechkin, Backstrom, and everyone else in line after them to start getting ready for 2017-18 as soon as possible. Ovi, Nicky, and all of the players need to put in the hard work this July, August, and September so that they are in the best condition to play at a maximum pace in April, May, and hopefully June. If they can’t do that over the next 12 months, then certainly it will be time to “blow it up.”

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Bad Change Costs the Caps in OT Loss to Nashville

Posted on 17 March 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Nashville’s Viktor Arvidsson scored on a two on one in overtime to send the Washington Capitals to their fifth loss in their last six games. The Predators received that two on one because Evgeny Kuznetzov changed when Nashville had the puck in the neutral zone, which is a no-no, according to Coach Barry Trotz.

“In the 3 on 3, if the other team possesses the puck, especially if they are standing in the neutral zone, you can’t change. They’re just waiting for you to go out of the box and passing it, so it’s an automatic two on one. We talk about that all of the time, so it’s not about the change, it’s the decision to change, that created the chance. When you have the puck, especially three on three, it’s all about possession and decisions, when you don’t have it, you have to be positionally sound and patient and you can’t make poor decisions.”

Once on the two on one, Arvidsson got off a shot that the Holtbeast wasn’t necessarily set on. Typically in those situations, the defensemen’s job is to take the pass and leave the shooter to the goalie. Holtby told me afterwards that he and John Carlson got their signals crossed, and they’ll work on that going forward.

This was “a quiet game” as Coach Trotz described it and I couldn’t agree more. The building was pretty dead, so Washington didn’t really get energy from the home crowd. The ice wasn’t very good either, but it’s the same for both teams.

The Capitals played a strong first period outshot attempting the Predators, 17-9, and they took the lead 11:41 into the contest when Lars Eller forced a turnover in the offensive zone. Jakub Vrana scooped up the mishap and fed Brett Connolly for his career high 15th goal of the season. Nashville coach Peter Laviolette screamed at the referees, wanting a trip on Eller, but on replay it was pretty clear that the Predators player made a poor decision to turn up the middle of the defensive zone and he flat out blew a tire on the wonky ice.

Alex Ovechkin and company would dominate that first frame, but they struggled to get to the paint and get that all important second marker. In period two, the Predators carried the shot attempt tallies, 22-11, but it seemed like puck possession was pretty even. The problem was that Washington was too fancy and over passing. On one instance, the top line made two nice passes to set up T.J. Oshie on the right wing side in close and #77 tried to make an extra pass instead of firing away on Pekka Rinne (22 saves). That was the theme of period two, the Caps cycling the puck and trying for the perfect play or turning the biscuit over and allowing a very good rush team in Nashville to go the other way.

You can’t drop pass or play fancy against the Predators and a Marcus Johansson turnover allowed the game to end up tied with just 1:04 left in the second frame. Jojo tried to feed Dmitry Orlov at the left point, but the puck was intercepted by Kevin Fiala and he went the other way on a rush. James Neal was the trailer on the play and Fiala dropped the puck to #18, who shot the puck off of #9’s stick and by the Holtbeast. That gave Nashville some momentum that they didn’t have for much of the game.

In the third period, the game was pretty even, but I thought the Caps had the better scoring chances. Again, Nashville protected the front of their net well, and Washington did too, on this night, so this one headed to overtime where the boys from Tennessee prevailed.

There were lots of positives for the Caps in this game. They only took one penalty that put them shorthanded and they killed that one off (second period). Oshie nearly scored shorthanded twice on his PK shift. The low penalty total allowed them to roll four lines for a majority of the night, with the third line getting short changed the most (yet they were the only line to score). On defense they were solid and on offense they possessed the puck quite a bit.

On the negative side of the ledger, the Capitals didn’t shoot the puck enough or make things tough for Rinne, especially in the second period. It was too much perimeter hockey and not enough jam. Coach Trotz gave credit to Laviolette’s crew, but he also faulted his own squad.

“They collapse pretty hard and I didn’t think we had the mindset of shooting the puck and getting to the net as much as we needed to.”

Overall, this was a pretty tight checking game. Nashville is fighting for their playoff position, so they played a classic road game. They stay structured in their own end and hoped for turnovers and counter attacks. They were fortunate to get two such opportunities that they were able to light the lamp on, and as a result they got the extra point and leave town sweeping the Caps in their two game season series.

For Washington, at 45-17-8 (98 points), they still lead the Metropolitan Division by two points over the Blue Jackets, who knocked off the Florida Panthers on Thursday night, and three points over the Penguins, who were idle. Both teams have a game in hand on the Caps, so this race is ultra tight.

If the Capitals want to win the Metropolitan Division and get home ice for the playoffs, they need to get back to what makes them successful, putting bodies and pucks to the opposing teams net. They didn’t do enough of that on Thursday night and that is why they lost.

Notes: Ovechkin had six shot attempts (3 on net). He is moving his legs better, but he is taking a beat too long to shoot the puck. If he can get back to his quick release, he’ll start scoring more often…Connolly, who had the only goal, only received 8:25 of ice time. I’d like to see that line get more ice time, especially when Andre Burakovsky returns, which could be very soon (likely next week)…final shot attempts were 44-42, for Washington…Tom Wilson pounded Austin Watson in a fight 7:29 into period three after #43 put a clean hit on Mattias Ekholm. I don’t understand why clean hits result in fights these days, but maybe I’m too old school, I don’t know?…next up for the Caps are the Tampa Bay Lightning in Florida on Saturday night. The Bolts, who got trounced, 5-0, on Thursday night in Toronto, are fighting for their playoff lives, so the Capitals better be prepared to match the intensity of Coach Jon Cooper’s squad or they’ll be run out of the Sunshine State.

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Caps Set Franchise Record for Consecutive Home Wins in 1-0 Triumph Over New Jersey

Posted on 02 March 2017 by Ed Frankovic

In a game reminiscent of 1995 NHL hockey, the Washington Capitals received a power play goal from Jakub Vrana 7:21 into the third period and Braden Holtby made 15 saves as the Caps defeated the New Jersey Devils, 1-0 at the Verizon Center on Thursday night. The victory was a franchise record 14th win in a row at home for Washington.

The Devils are a rebuilding team that doesn’t have a whole lot of talent to work with, so under Coach John Hynes they play a very structured game. They constantly keep players back and clog the neutral zone making zone entries very difficult. What results is some pretty boring hockey.

Boring was the case on Thursday night as New Jersey tried to play a style that gave them pretty much their only chance of winning.  It still really didn’t come close to working. The Devils were outshot by the superior Capitals by 7-4, 7-5, and 10-6 in each period and there weren’t many quality scoring chances for either club, especially New Jersey. When the Devils did get an opportunity, the Holtbeast was there to shut the door for the Caps.

Shot attempts were 59-50 for Washington in this one and the ultimate difference was that the Caps found a way to get to the front of the Devils cage in the third period to first draw a penalty and then bury the biscuit for the game winner. Jay Beagle drew a tripping infraction on Damon Severson directly in front of Devils goalie Cory Schneider (23 saves) with the Caps buzzing the tower in the final frame. After the Caps played predominantly on the perimeter for most of this one, #83 did some dirty work and parked himself in the prime scoring opportunity and when he went to gather in the rebound of a shot, the Devil hauled him down.

Washington’s power play, which went 1 for 5 in this affair, worked the puck around well, but they didn’t light the lamp until Vrana gathered in a loose puck from Evgeny Kuznetsov in front of Schneider after Brett Connolly was battling for it in the slot with a Jersey defender. #13 wasted no time in putting it past Schneider to give the Caps the only goal they would ultimately need with just under 13 minutes remaining.

After the Capitals had another power play, but failed to build on the advantage, Connolly was whistled for slashing with 13:27 remaining after his stick was held in the corner. #10 then gave Kelly Sutherland the business on a call that he didn’t like, he felt the slash was the result of pulling his stick away from another Jersey clutch, grab, and hold specialist. Sutherland didn’t like the lip and tacked on an additional two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct, so with 6:33 remaining the Capitals would have to kill off a four minute power play. The first penalty I could see Connolly being upset about, but arguing long and hard was the wrong move, Brett should’ve held his temper, taken the two minutes there and felt shame, and then told the zebra why he thought it was a bad call at a stoppage in play when cooler heads would’ve prevailed. That’s a good lesson to learn before the post season.

The good news for the home squad was that Daniel Winnik and company killed off the two minors while only allowing one shot on net. For the night, the Caps PK unit went a stellar four for four.

New Jersey then pulled their keeper, but Miles Wood took a foolish cross checking penalty on Brooks Oprik and the Caps ran out the clock to give the Holtbeast his 8th shutout of the season.

This victory was not an aesthetically pleasing one, but it was another two points to push the Capitals record to 43-13-7 (93 points) with 19 games remaining. They lead the Metro Division by seven points over Columbus, who has a game in hand. Third place still belongs to the Penguins with 84 points, but the Rangers are also at 84 points after a 2-1 victory over Boston on Thursday. Pittsburgh still has 20 games remaining while the Rags just have 18. In the Presidents’ Trophy race, the Caps are five points up on Minnesota, who lost 1-0 to Columbus on Thursday, but the Wild have a game in hand.

Heading into last season’s playoffs, the Penguins had the best record in the NHL after January 1st. That title belongs to the Caps right now and since December 5th, they are a staggering 30-6-4!

Guess what? This team can only get better as Kevin Shattenkirk feels more comfortable in the Caps system and T.J. Oshie returns to the lineup (as well as Andre Burakovsky in a couple of weeks). Washington won Thursday’s tilt, but they didn’t exactly go totally through the Devils, like their bench boss, Coach Barry Trotz, wanted until the final frame. However, the Caps play in their own zone was fairly stellar and New Jersey never came close to going through the Capitals.

A win is a win and the Caps thankfully are done playing the Devils this season as those type of games are hard to stay awake for, at times.

They will take the “W” and move on to face the despised Flyers at the phone booth on Saturday night.

Notes: Shattenkirk and John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 21:24, but Matt Niskanen logged 21:07. That is some serious balance right there…the Capitals lost the face off battle, 28-26, but Beagle was 9-5…Alex Ovechkin logged 20:33 and had eight shot attempts and four hits…Oprik returned to the lineup and played 17:15 and had a team leading five hits.

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Caps Get Coach Trotz Career Win #700 at Madison Square Garden

Posted on 28 February 2017 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals came into Tuesday night’s contest at Madison Square Garden 0-2 against the Rangers on the season. 20 minutes into this affair, which was also the Caps debut of Monday’s big defensive acquisition, Kevin Shattenkirk, it looked like it was going to be 0-3.

Washington had a defensive coverage breakdown at 5:09 of period one that allowed Brady Skjei to tally on a layup on Braden Holtby (29 saves) and take a 1-0 lead. The Rangers would have 11 of the first 16 shots on goal early on and that doesn’t include the three posts they hit that could’ve really put the Capitals behind the eight ball had any of them gone in. New York also benefitted from their home cooking zebra, Dan O’Halloran, who gave them two power plays in the opening frame to zero for the Caps, but more on him later.

The Holtbeast (29 saves) was strong, once again in net, and in period two the game changed rather quickly. Marc Staal decided to stupidly cross check Alex Ovechkin giving the Capitals an early power play. Washington didn’t score, but Shattenkirk manned the point on the first unit and fed Ovi perfectly for a one timer that King Henrik (34 saves) stopped. The Caps would gain momentum and intensity off of that man advantage. They finally started moving their feet and taking the game to the Blueshirts, but Lundqvist was holding steady in net.

A heavy, but borderline hit by Adam Clendening on Daniel Winnik then changed the outcome of the game. #26 didn’t like it, he thought it wasn’t clean, and a few seconds later they both dropped the mitts behind the New York net and Winnik jack hammered Clendening for a TKO victory. The rough stuff further amped up the Capitals intensity and just 21 seconds later, Marcus Johansson tied the game up.

Evgeny Kuznetsov, who is so important to this club and struggled in period one, made a nice pass to Dmitry Orlov that allowed #9 to exit the defensive zone with speed and fly through the neutral zone. Orlov then carried the puck into the offensive zone and had a nice give and go with Jojo just inside the offensive blue line. Orlov then smartly carried the puck deep and banked it off of Lundqvist’s pads. Johansson alertly went to the net and buried the rebound to tie this one up.

The Rangers then thought they had regained the lead at 11:53 of period two after a puck bounced about 15 feet in the air in the slot and then fell down in the crease where a New York player banged it home before Holtby knew where it was. Once again, the Caps video coaches, led by Brett Leonhardt, caught an offside infraction on the zone entry and Coach Barry Trotz successfully challenged the goal.

That took some more wind from the Rangers sails and the Capitals took over from there dominating the play and pouring tons of shots on the Swedish net minder. Washington’s relentless pressure, the Caps were not only skating, but they were hitting New York and playing with snarl, paid off when Niskanen carried the puck into the offensive zone on a nice rush to set up the game winning goal. The puck actually rolled off of #2’s stick, but Brett Connolly was parked in the slot and he gathered in the biscuit and quickly whipped it in the basket, beating a stunned Lundqvist for his career high 13th goal of the season. Connolly, Lars Eller, and Jakub Vrana had some really strong shifts as the third line.

The Caps took that 2-1 lead to the locker room and then put the hammer down early in period three. Kuznetsov (2 assists) used his speed to back the Rangers defense up, then he fed Jojo in the slot, and #90 deflected it top shelf past Lundqvist to make it 3-1 just 1:15 into period three. That really caught the home town boys by surprise and the Capitals did a good job of keeping the Rangers on the perimeter the rest of the way.

O’Halloran, who at times should just don a Rangers sweater because he has a history of poor officiating against Washington dating back to at least game two of the 2015 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals at the Garden, then gave New York two gift power plays to try and get back in this affair. However, the Caps penalty killing unit wanted none of that and the Holtbeast slammed the door shut. After O’Halloran and his zebra partner, Brad Meier, let a Matt Zuccarello blatant goalie interference on Holtby go uncalled, they finally had to give Washington a second power play when Ryan McDonagh mugged Tom Wilson.

Nicklas Backstrom then tallied on the man advantage on a shot that deflected off of a Rangers defensemen and past King Henrik to make it 4-1 with 2:03 remaining. MSG was mostly empty, at that point, except for some Caps fans who made it up to support their first place squad.

This was a huge victory for the Caps in many ways. First, they had struggled with the super fast Rangers in their first two meetings and the opening period certainly looked like more of the same, but Washington got aggressive and played with an edge. Second, the Rangers poked the bear and the Caps woke up and really handed it to them in the second and third period. In that middle frame, the Capitals out shot attempted New York, 31-16 and for the game it was 65-54. Washington played fast and heavy and the Rangers really had little push back.

Several Capitals played well, despite the absence of T.J. Oshie and Brooks Oprik, who are both day to day. Winnik’s fight, overall tenacity, and super smart hockey in 14:04 was very noticeable. Niskanen, who just returned from missing two games over the weekend, had two assists and was +3 in 18:19 of ice time. #2’s partner, Orlov, was +2 and had an assist while logging 17:14.

Wilson was also outstanding in a high ice time total of 19:34. #43 wrecked Derek Stepan hard early with a clean hit and he was sensational on the Caps PK, which went 4 for 4. Willy did a nice job of jumping up to the first line right wing spot in Oshie’s absence. He was physical and fast for the large majority of the contest and he got under New York’s skin without taking any infractions himself. Well played, Tom.

As for Shattenkirk, well he was pretty darn impressive for a guy who missed the morning skate the night after being traded. #22 had four shots on net and he can really skate and play physical, too. This looks to be just a sensational addition to an already very good hockey team.

I could go on and on about several other players, but I also thought both John Carlson (24:35) and Karl Alzner (23:41) were very strong against the Rangers top guys, which allowed the rest of the Washington lineup, particularly the second line, to win the game. Johansson (2 goals and one assist) was clearly the player of the night for the Caps and he now has a career high 21 tallies this season. He’s been super since Sweden mistakenly left him off of their World Cup of Hockey roster last September. Big mistake guys, big mistake (although the Capitals are benefiting from his fresher legs).

The win, which was Coach Trotz’ 700th NHL victory, puts the Capitals at 42-13-7 (91 points) with 20 games remaining (10 at home and 10 on the road). This has been a grueling stretch coming out of the bye week with five of the six tilts on the road and two back to back occurrences. The Caps went 2-2-1 in the away games in Detroit, Filthy, Smashville and Madison Square Garden (twice) while winning their only home tilt, 2-1, against Edmonton last Friday night.

Now it’s time for some home cooking and the Caps will take on New Jersey on Thursday before they get the despised Flyers in town on Saturday night. They’ll then face the Dallas Stars on Monday at the Verizon Center before heading out to California for three games late next week.

Home ice has been good to the Capitals this season and they’ll have a chance over the final quarter of the season to lock up home ice advantage for the post season.

Notes: Forwards Vrana (9:27) and Riley Barber (7:55) were called up from Hershey with Oshie and Andre Burakovsky out and Zach Sanford moved to St. Louis in the Shattenkirk blockbuster…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 37-33. Backstrom went 16-9…McDonagah led the Rangers in ice time with 23:54…Shattenkirk was paired with Nate Schmidt on Tuesday night.

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Caps Bury Flyers for 9th Straight Victory

Posted on 15 January 2017 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals continue to put a beat down on their opponents.

Philipp Grubauer made 24 saves, 13 of which came in a sluggish Washington first period, and the Caps exploded for four tallies in the first seven minutes of period three to bury the despised Philadelphia Flyers, 5-0, at the Verizon Center on Sunday afternoon. Justin Williams and Matt Niskanen each scored twice in the final stanza. The Caps took a lead just before the midpoint of this tilt when Michael Del Zotto turned the puck over while shorthanded in his own zone. Andre Burakovsky pounced on the loose biscuit and snapped it over Steve Mason to give Washington the only goal they’d really need.

The victory was the Caps ninth straight and in their last six games they’ve won by a combined score of 26-3. They still haven’t allowed an even strength goal since January 3rd.

Wow, this team is really rolling and it’s scary that they were able to win convincingly when not looking particularly strong or motivated until the 3rd period. Grubauer earned his shutout and first star with a super opening frame, but after that he only faced 11 shots. That’s some great team defense there.

For long time Capitals fans, there’s nothing like throttling a team you’ve battled fiercely since 1974 with numerous of those tilts involving some ugliness. But let’s face it, Philadelphia is not an elite team anymore like Pittsburgh or Chicago, and with the Penguins on the docket from the Igloo II on Monday night, this looked like a trap game for Washington.

Grubauer prevented any Flyers scoreboard momentum from occurring before Washington eventually kicked their offense into high gear and started making some AMAZING passes. First was Marcus Johansson’s “Kuzy type” behind the net feed to Williams on the second goal, then came Alex Ovechkin’s amazing rocket shot fake and dish to Niskanen for a layup, and after Mason flubbed a Niskanen point shot to make it 4-0, Nicklas “Eyes in the back of his head” Backstrom fed Williams behind his back without looking for the final tally. 

It was an awesome display of firepower and the Caps took advantage of the fact that the Flyers had played on Saturday afternoon. Philly had energy and threw a lot of rubber at Grubauer early, but once it became 2-0, you could see the fatigue and resignation set in for the orange and black.

The only bad news of the day was that John Carlson suffered a lower body injury and logged only 6:38 (he will travel to Pittsburgh, though). That put a big load on Niskanen on Sunday, but #2 excelled with the two goals while being +4 in a team leading 25:26 of ice time. The rest of the Caps blue line stepped up, as well, and Nate Schmidt received 3:10 of penalty killing time. With Alzner jailed late, even Dmitry Orlov received some work shorthanded (53 seconds). That’s good preparation against a very good Flyers power play for the postseason.

Once again the Caps penalty killing was a key to victory stopping all five Flyers man advantages. Washington was 1 for 2 on the power play and they have now gone nine straight contests having fewer power plays than their opponents. The last time they had more man advantage situations in a game than the opposition was on December 17th against Montreal.

Despite the less than fair treatment from the zebras, the Capitals have managed to take over the top spot in the NHL with a 29-9-5 record (63 points), although the Blue Jackets are 29-9-4 (62 points) and have a game in hand. The Caps have opened up a six point cushion on the Penguins and Rangers, but Pittsburgh has a game in hand. Clearly Monday night’s tilt at the Consol Energy Center will be a game that the Pens will be very much motivated to win, but the Capitals still have bitter memories from last May, so they should be focused, as well.

As Holtby mentioned to the media on Friday after the triumph over Chicago, this Caps team is very hard to beat when motivated. They should be against the Penguins on Monday, but even when they seem to have a bit of a case of the blahs, like they did for the first half of Sunday’s game against the Flyers, they are still awfully good, just ask the guys from Philly.

Notes: shots on goal were 24-22 for the Flyers and they also had more shot attempts, 56-48…the Caps continue to get goals from the paint and that’s a big reason why they’ve won nine straight. They have amped their compete level up and stopped playing almost exclusively on the perimeter…Orlov was second in ice time at 22:15, but Brooks Orpik logged 21:43 and Schmidt played 21:37…Williams, after a slow start, now has 14 goals on the season…the Caps took three high sticking minors, they need to correct that…Washington won the faceoff battle, 21-20. Evgeny Kuznetsov was 5-2…Ovechkin had seven hits…Chandler Stephenson was recalled from Hershey, but did not dress. He is expected to accompany the Caps on their three game road trip.

Down on the Farm: On Sunday evening, I took in the Hershey Bears-Binghamton Senators tilt before 9,996 fans at the Giant Center. The Bears have been struggling recently, but they broke a long losing streak with a 6-4 win over Lehigh Valley (Flyers AHL team) on Saturday night in Chocolatetown. Hershey got off on the wrong foot in the game against the Senators with Christian Djoos taking a careless early high sticking double minor. Binghamton would tally on the second half of that four minute infraction and in period two they would increase their lead to two goals. Hershey, who only had five shots on goal through 30 minutes, finally awoke from their slumber and started playing hockey. Chris Bourque, who was the best Bears forward in this tilt, drew a tripping penalty and Jakub Vrana buried a shot shortly thereafter to make it a 2-1 game. Then in the third period, Bourque scored on another power play to even things up and with Hershey surging to a 24-18 lead in shots on goal, things were looking up for the home squad. But then the Bears committed a terrible offensive zone turnover and Bingo went in on a two on none break and easily beat Vitek Vanecek. Hershey would continue to press the play, but then another Bears defensive zone breakdown led to an easy marker for Binghamton with three minutes left and they won, 4-2. Overall this was a poor effort by Troy Mann’s squad and the line of Paul Carey-Zach Sanford-Stan Galiev was a disappointment. Hershey looked flat and the blue line, which sorely misses Madison Bowey, was rather unimpressive. The Bears are now 19-10-7-2 on the campaign.

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Caps Canucks Red Light

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Ovechkin Leads the Offense as Holtby Shuts Out the Canucks

Posted on 11 December 2016 by Ed Frankovic

For the second straight game, there was a lot to like about the Washington Capitals performance in a 3-0 victory over the Vancouver Canucks at the Verizon Center on Sunday night.

Alex Ovechkin, who had picked up his play in recent outings, scored a first period power play goal and then assisted on Justin Williams’ tally that made it 2-0 early in the third period to lead the offense.

Braden Holtby stopped all 20 shots he faced and he was aided by some stellar Caps penalty killing, which went a perfect five for five and only allowed one shot on net in ten minutes of shorthanded time.

For the night, the Capitals team defense was excellent and they took advantage of the fact that Vancouver was playing their 3rd game in four nights. As Coach Barry Trotz mentioned following the win, there is a lot of parity in this league, and sometimes the schedule helps decide the outcome.

Agreed, but you also have to take advantage of that situation and unlike the Islanders game back on December 1st, Washington made no mistake about getting on a club that you figured would be tired.

On the Caps first power play of the game, they scored, and it was set up, once again, by a great zone entry by Marcus Johansson. Jojo, who is one of the best in the league at carrying the puck into the offensive end on a power play, used his superior speed to get across the blue line and then he made a nice pass back to Nicklas Backstrom. Nicky and John Carlson traded passes and then #74 slid the biscuit over to the Gr8 in his office and Ovechkin ripped it through Jacob Markstrom (26 saves).

That goal was huge and the Caps led 1-0 after 20 minutes, although it wasn’t the best of periods. They led in shot attempts, 20-17, but they were one for three with the man advantage and had as many giveaways as they did hits (four).

In the second frame, Washington really took over the contest, but couldn’t add to their lead. They outshot attempted the Canucks 23-9, which was amazing given that the Canucks had three full power plays in the period. The Caps four primary penalty killing forwards, Jay Beagle, Daniel Winnik, Lars Eller, and Tom Wilson were just terrific as were the four primary PK d-men, Brooks Orpik, Karl Alzner, Matt Niskanen, and John Carlson. Add in the impenetrable Holtbeast and you have a recipe for an outstanding shorthanded unit.  The Capitals really carried the play over these 20 minutes, but a few times they were guilty of over passing.

Once the third period hit, you felt like Washington should really take over, given the Canucks fatigue situation, and they did. Five minutes into the final stanza, Ovechkin made a good rub out of the Canucks defensemen along the left wing boards and that allowed Evgeny Kuznetsov to the get the puck to the point to Dmitry Orlov. #9 rifled a shot towards the net that was shoved aside by Markstrom, but the Gr8 was there to corral it. Ovi fed Kuznetsov, who was all alone in the slot with only the goalie to beat. The whole right side of the net looked open too, but Kuzy chose to pass back across the ice to Williams, who luckily rifled it by two diving Canucks defenders and behind a sliding to his left Markstrom to give the Caps a much needed two goal cushion.

It was another case of over passing and afterwards Williams noted that the whole building was surprised that #92 passed there. Coach Trotz joked in his post game presser that he’s never surprised anymore when guys on his club give up great shots for a pass to a teammate.

From there, the Canucks gave their final push and their best chance to get back in the game was when Andre Burakovsky took a careless high sticking penalty less than two minutes after the Williams tally. It was in the offensive zone and it was unnecessary. #65 should be buying the entire PK unit dinner because that lazy infraction could’ve put a tired team back in the game. But Wilson and company did their jobs and that set the stage for #43 to get his second goal of the season on an empty net marker with 52 seconds remaining. Wilson really deserved that goal because he was really going hard all night and was a big reason the Canucks got nada with the man advantage.

As for the five penalties, Coach Trotz didn’t like the number and said he’d much prefer only one or two. He noted that offensive zone penalties are typically a red flag for him, but that he’d go back and look at each of them on video. Of the five, the ones to be most concerned about were Burakovsky’s high stick and Orlov’s two neutral zone penalties. I can live with the Johansson ticky tack hooking call and there is nothing Jakub Vrana could really do on his interference penalty, the Vancouver player sold it well.

As for Vrana, well he had a strong game with four shots on goal and he also had two other great chances, but missed the net on each. The Vrana-Eller-Burakovsky unit showed signs of life on Sunday, but they couldn’t bury the biscuit, especially #65, who along with Winnik were the only forwards to not put the puck on Markstrom. Winnik, though, gets a pass because of his great PK work.

Overall, this was an excellent team effort and Coach Trotz made sure to praise the Backstrom line for shutting down the Sedin Twins, calling that hard work something that shouldn’t go under the radar.  He’s right and Backstrom certainly should be in the running for the Selke Trophy.

When you add it all up, it’s the fourth straight victory for Washington and another two points for the Capitals. They are now at 17-7-3 (37 points) and in crazy fashion, though, they are still in fifth in the division in points. They are just two behind the Penguins, Rangers, and red hot Flyers (39 each), and just one behind the scorching Blue Jackets. Yes, there are five teams within two points of each other in the best division in hockey, the Metropolitan Division!

Notes: the Caps lost the faceoff battle, 34-31, but Backstrom went 13-5…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 23:42 and he was superb…Niskanen (+2) returned from missing one game with an upper body injury. He played well and had an assist on the Wilson ENG, as did Winnik…final shot attempts were 58-41 for Washington, including 29-20 in SOG…Ovi had 12 shot attempts and five on net…Eller was 1-10 on faceoffs, ouch!…next up for the Caps are the Islanders on Long Island on Tuesday at 7:00 pm.

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