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Luck Not the Sole Reason for the Caps’ 2nd Round Exit

Posted on 13 May 2016 by Ed Frankovic

There have been 41 Washington Capitals seasons and zero Stanley Cup Championships.

Those are the facts, there is no denying them.

2015-16 was supposed to be different. It sure felt that way, from the general manager to the coaches to the players to the fans and even some in the media. Heck, I was front and center putting myself out there saying this team and this season would be different.

In many ways, it was, and we’ll touch on that later.

But in the end, as Justin Williams, John Carlson, and many other Capitals players proclaimed on breakdown day on May 12, 2016, the season was a “failure” following a devastating overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in game six that allowed the Pens to win a very closely contested series, four games to two.

Pittsburgh scored 16 goals and Washington tallied 15 times in the series. Each Penguins victory, two of which came in overtime, was achieved by a single goal. Both teams had stretches where they dominated the play, but ultimately it was the Penguins who prevailed.

Did the Capitals deserve a better fate from the Hockey Gods?

Maybe, I mean how often do you see a goal scored off of the back of a player? That happened in game three for Pittsburgh, a game in which the Caps carried the large majority of the play, but managed to lose. Numerous times in this series the Capitals had themselves in position to bury a puck at a key moment, and somehow it bounced over their players stick. Surely luck was not on their side, and as Matt Niskanen noted on breakdown day, you talk to guys around the league who have won championships and they’ll tell you need luck along the way to win.

There is truth to that, around these parts there is no denying that the two Super Bowls the Baltimore Ravens won included some luck. Al Del Greco hit the upright on a field goal right before halftime and then a blocked Del Greco field goal, in the fourth quarter, landed right in the hands of Anthony Mitchell and he then returned it for the game winning touchdown in 2000 against the Titans. Joe Flacco’s Hail Mary pass to Jacoby Jones in 2012 went over the head of a Broncos safety that mistimed his play on the ball for the tying touchdown to set up overtime and an eventual huge Ravens upset. All of those plays included luck, but the Ravens were also good enough to put themselves in position to get the breaks.

You certainly need some luck to win and the Capitals received some of that in series one when Jason Chimera’s innocent dump in deflection traveled 100 feet and through the wickets of Steve Mason into the cage in game two. The Caps took advantage and raced to a three to nothing series lead and eventually prevailed, four games to two over the Flyers.

In series two, Washington didn’t get the bounces and lost by a goal, but it wasn’t bad luck that did them in.

We’ll get that to what ultimately doomed them in a minute, but first, let’s put some perspective on where this team has come from over the last two years.

After a disastrous 2013-14 season, the Capitals were an absolute train wreck and a Stanley Cup seemed to be mostly an unobtainable goal in the near term. Following the conclusion of that season, I was full of piss and vinegar and rightfully called for the ultra-conservative and often panic stricken general manager to be let go, along with the divisive bench boss who seemed to insist on being the smartest guy in the room. I was furious that the blue line continually was not properly addressed by George McPhee for over 10 plus seasons. Fortunately, owner Ted Leonsis and team President Dick Patrick saw the same thing, when many in the national media were once again calling for the core of the team, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, to be shipped out instead.

Enter Coach Barry Trotz and promoted General Manager Brian MacLellan to commence a massive turnaround. They immediately went to work on two things the club desperately needed, a blue line fix and an identity as a team.

“Last year when I came here, that was the first thing we did, was fix the defense. We got two outstanding players in Brooks [Orpik] and Matt [Niskanen] and we started the process of building a culture and it started by fixing holes, by going out and getting the best people that we felt could do that and getting people who have won, then the next phase of that was to develop our own people,” said Caps coach Barry Trotz to Nestor Aparacio and I on February 29th, 2016 at a WNST radio event at Buffalo Wild Wings in Belair to continue the fight against leukemia and support the bone marrow registry.

Those moves laid the foundation for a very successful 2014-15 campaign that saw Washington return to the playoffs, defeat the New York Islanders in round one, and then lose in painful fashion, in overtime, in game seven against the New York Rangers. The Capitals only allowed 13 goals in seven games, but could only muster 12 goals themselves and lost twice in overtime in the final three contests.

It was an awful defeat, they lost a three games to one series lead, but everyone knew that the main problem was the Capitals didn’t have enough talent up front to score consistently. The loss was rough, but things were rapidly moving in the right direction after utter chaos just a year earlier. My end of the season blog focused on the need to improve the top six forwards and sure enough, MacLellan pulled it off dealing Troy Brouwer for T.J. Oshie and signing Justin Williams to a two year free agent deal. Unfortunately, adding those guys and the need to pay goalie Braden Holtby what he was rightfully worth, put the team up against the salary cap. With it not possible to move Brooks Laich’s boat anchor of a contract in the summer, the team was forced to part ways with grinding forward Joel Ward and defensemen Mike Green, both key players on the squad that fell just short against the Rags. They were tough personnel losses to a team that had become super close.

But Oshie and Williams fit in perfectly and the Ward and Green losses faded to the back of everyone’s mind as the Capitals stormed out of the gate and blew the league away in the regular season pretty much clinching the Presidents’ Trophy by Valentine’s Day. Holtby was legendary in the cage and he tied the NHL single season victory total for a goalie with 48 (tied with hall of famer, Martin Brodeur). It was so much fun and the team seemed to get tighter as a unit as the season moved on. This was surely setting up to be the year for a Cup parade, but quietly the Pittsburgh Penguins were addressing some serious issues they had themselves.

They fired their coach, Mike Johnston, and replaced him with former Rangers assistant Mike Sullivan. But more importantly, general manager Jimmy Rutherford made some great moves to transform his roster. In the summer, he traded high draft picks to Toronto to acquire scoring winger Phil Kessel and he dumped the slow and plodding Brandon Sutter for speedy Nick Bonino. After the season began, he also swapped David Perron for super-fast Cap killer Carl Hagelin. Suddenly he had a line that could skate like the wind, but he still had issues on the back end. Rob Scuderi was old and slower than molasses, but Rutherford somehow convinced Stan Bowman, who is considered an excellent GM, to deal mobile defensemen Trevor Daley for the past his prime Scuderi. It was a fleecing or highway robbery of a deal, whatever you want to call it. From there the Penguins were the best team in the league from January on and Washington knew they’d have their hands full with them, at some point. The Caps had become somewhat complacent given their huge standings lead while Pittsburgh pressed madly to move up the standings after wallowing out of playoff position for much of the first 40 games.

While the Penguins were making all of these moves, MacLellan not only added Oshie and Williams, but he brought in Mike Richards as a depth center. That move was excellent and if not for some of Richards outstanding penalty killing skills, the Flyers might have won game six, as well as game two. Richards ability to read back door passes and get his stick in lanes on defense and while shorthanded was very much needed. The Caps suddenly were not only super on the power play, but also on the penalty kill.

With the Richards move, the Caps only real question marks appeared to be on defense. The loss of Green was a blow, no doubt, you don’t replace a player of that caliber easily, and the Caps plan, partly due to limited salary cap room, was to go with rookies Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt on the back end as a third pairing. When Orpik was injured in early November with a cracked femur, suddenly those guys were forced to play more minutes than originally planned. They played well, too, perhaps clouding the judgement of the Capitals brass as the trade deadline approached. MacLellan did add Mike Weber as a depth defensemen and he somehow masterfully moved Laich out for an upgrade in forward Daniel Winnik. The move also freed up money on the current salary cap, but more importantly for 2016-17 when dollars would be needed to retain Marcus Johansson, who was having a career year, and others like Tom Wilson. Some wanted the Capitals to use that extra dough to acquire another defensemen given Oprik’s health issues and the lack of experience on the back end. Dan Hamhuis, among other experienced defensemen, were still out there reportedly to be had, but Washington passed.

After the trade deadline, at the WNST event with Coach Trotz on February 29th, I specifically asked him about the decision to go with the two players who had zero playoff experience on the back end.

“We talk about that, the blessing this year with Brooks being out for a long period of time, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt were in the lineup for 50 some games. We already know what they can do and it’s been really beneficial for us. I think by adding Mike Weber we’re eight deep at the NHL level,” explained Trotz on the rationale of where the organization stood on their blue line.

It seemed like a viable plan at the time and Weber certainly seemed like the type of guy who could fill in for an Orpik or even a Karl Alzner if there was an injury. But Oprik came back healthy down the stretch and despite the fact that Carlson missed 12 games with a cracked ankle/foot in March, the Caps only played Weber in 10 of the 21 contests that occurred before the post season began. Basically, the Capitals decided to ride Orlov, Schmidt and Taylor Chorney instead of Weber. #6 was a seven year veteran with more playoff experience (seven games) than the other three combined, but he spent most of the time in the press box becoming rusty. As anyone in hockey will tell you, performing in the regular season is one thing, but doing that in the playoffs is another story, so the Capitals were really taking a risk on the Orlov-Schmidt-Chorney trio.

When Orpik was concussed and injured his neck in game three against the Flyers, I remarked to MacLellan after that tilt that “this was the reason you went out and got Weber.” The GM seemed to nod his head in agreement, yet somehow it wasn’t until a series clinching victory in game six that Weber finally got a sweater for the Caps? The coaching staff went with Chorney over a more physical Weber against a chippy and dirty team like the Flyers. Weber, to that point, had never received the repetitions he really needed to play at a top four level that would be required when Orpik went down.

That leads me to where this season broke down. Yes, the Penguins were the faster team, but you can deter speed by keeping it to the outside and wearing it out with proper execution. The Bonino line, with seven goals, was the difference in the series and while they were fast, several of those goals came from right in front of the net following turnovers. Oprik’s terrible hit on Olli Maatta that took #3 out of three games and #44 too, as a result of a suspension, turned the entire series around, as well.  The Caps were flat the rest of game two and lost home ice. In game three, Schmidt made a costly turnover and then was manhandled in front by the small Hagelin for the eventual game winning goal. He would not play in two of the final three games. Orlov was benched for a game and the Caps only won once with Chorney in the lineup (game five of the Pens series). Weber did get a jersey for game four and played decently, but the game winning goal went off of his stick to Patrick Hornqvist and he was banished to the press box once again.

When Alzner’s groin, that he initially injured in the Flyers series, finally popped in game six, the Caps had little left on the back end other than Carlson and a tiring Niskanen, who played all 82 games and every playoff game with King Karl, to that point. After #27’s injury, Orpik took another awful penalty, a careless double minor for high sticking on Hornqvist with the puck 50 feet away in period two, and the Caps great penalty killing unit was suddenly forced to play both Chorney and Orlov in succession. Two goals in 29 seconds was the result and that put the Caps in a deep hole, 3-0. It was a terrible penalty that Orpik could not afford to take, once again, and it was especially bad knowing that Alzner was done for the game. In short, as much as I like Orpik and what he can bring to the Capitals, he had a nightmare 2015-16 season with his injuries and bad penalties. Simply put, the Penguins were faster, but they also were able to get to the front of the Capitals net, and most of those occasions came when members of the bottom half of the Washington defense were on the ice.

Now the encouraging part of the story is that this is where this Capitals teamed proved to be different.  Instead of folding tent like the 2009 Caps did in game seven against Pittsburgh when they went down 3-0, they fought back and forced overtime in game six showing tremendous fortitude and resolve. They probably should have won too, but failed to capitalize on a late power play that they received. At that juncture they seemed a little too comfortable at that moment at just being tied up, something that occurred too frequently during this season and in the Flyers series, as well.

On to overtime we went and the Capitals, who rode the top six forwards and Carlson and Niskanen on the back end heavily, were out of gas. Niskanen was forced to play with guys he wasn’t used to being paired with and miscommunication happened on the game winning tally, which was another goal that once again came from the doorstep on a rebound.

In a nutshell, the Capitals lost on their lack of defensive depth, something they thought they had, but really didn’t.  They put too much stock in the abilities of Orlov and Schmidt based on their regular season success and they failed to take advantage and develop or possibly misevaluated what Weber could bring to the lineup. It was a waste of a third round draft pick the way it all played out. The Penguins found their way through the Washington back end too easily and Holtby couldn’t prevent all of those second chance tallies.

In addition, their season long tendency to sit back and not take control of games cost them dearly. They didn’t attack in game two and show that killer instinct to seize a critical contest and the series. That lack of killer instinct also allowed a Kris Letang-less Penguins team to steal game four. The Pens gained confidence to win in those first 30 minutes when the Capitals needed to step on their throats and not allow them to believe they could prevail without their best defensemen. It was a major opportunity lost.

Finally, the Capitals loss of Ward took away a player who routinely went to the front of the net in the postseason to get ugly goals. Washington didn’t have much of that against the Penguins outside of a couple of Williams tallies (but one was with the goalie pulled). The Caps need their bottom six forwards to chip in with more greasy goals.

So where does that lead us heading in to 2016-17?

Obviously the team is extremely disappointed that they let a major chance to win a championship slip by once again. The lack of true defensive depth, killer instinct, and inability to add in some rebound goals was what ultimately cost them the series against what should become in June, the 2015-16 Stanley Cup winning Penguins.

Some will call for panic and to try to blow things up, like the San Jose Sharks nearly did following a loss to the Kings in 2014 after owning a 3-0 series lead. Two springs later, the Sharks are in the hunt for the Cup and credit for that goes to hanging on to their core, the addition of Ward up front, and bringing in Paul Martin on defense.

Washington needs to find a Paul Martin type on the back end because running out the same seven guys again, particularly the four after Carlson, Niskanen, and Alzner, carries significant risk.

Johansson will be the top offseason priority to sign to a long term deal. He’s a key piece to this team and had a remarkable regular and post season. He was one of the guys going to the net against the Flyers and scoring tough goals. He also brings a major element of speed.

Wilson is next on the priority list as a restricted free agent. #43 made significant contributions this year on the penalty kill and defensively. In some games, such as game five against the Penguins, he was a difference maker by drawing penalties and keeping the opponent out of the offensive zone. Still, he needs to develop his offensive skills so that he could possibly fill that Ward type of role in front of the net. His improvement is a must and the coaches need to aid that by playing him more. If they prefer not to do that or think he can’t do that, then a move is needed.

Orlov is a restricted free agent, as well, and he and Schmidt are similar players, along with Chorney. The Caps management team needs to determine if that is indeed the way to go to win a Stanley Cup on the back end. My recommendation would be to move at least one of them and upgrade the blue line, especially since Oprik is adding another year and he has an injury history.

Ovechkin is about to head into his 12th season and the Capitals need to win soon (Steve Yzerman’s first Cup came in his 14th season). The Gr8 was superb in these playoffs and downright dominant in several games, such as game five against the Penguins. Oshie, Williams, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Alzner are all free agents after next season and will require more dollars. Carlson has two more years to go at the deal of the century, a contract just under $4M per season. He was the Capitals best player in the post season and will command $7M plus in 2018-19.

Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky are two young players that had super regular seasons, but as a result of playing all 82 games, didn’t have the legs they had in 2015-16 when they were playoff difference makers. They need to learn from that and be better prepared physically next spring. They need to add strength and learn to get some ugly goals in front.

I typically wait several days before writing this blog to let the emotions of the playoff defeat die down, but I don’t think that will be possible this season. This was one tough loss and a major opportunity gone by the wayside. Everyone will feel the pain all summer and I certainly don’t want to be sitting here next season beginning my 2016-17 final blog with a 0 and 42 statistic.

I know the Capitals don’t want me to be doing so either.

Everything the Caps do between now and next April 15th has to be about the playoffs and winning the Cup. The team is tight and the culture is strong, but they need to develop that killer instinct. In addition, the management needs to address the personnel short comings on defense and the coaching staff needs to be quicker to adjust when things aren’t working.

The last thing management needs to do is panic and make radical changes, this team is ultra close, but more is necessary to get over the hump.

So the time is now for the Capitals to start getting at next year and doing everything in their power to make sure no stone is left unturned and no holes are left exposed when injuries or uncomfortable situations present themselves in the spring of 2017 playoffs.

There were a lot of things to like from this team this year, but the ultimate prize was not captured and the season was a major disappointment, or a failure, as many players called it.

The clock is ticking.

They must end this awful postseason losing cycle once and for all.

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Game 4 Pens

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Caps Season On the Brink After Overtime Loss

Posted on 05 May 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Instead of losing a three games to one series lead this spring, the Washington Capitals will have to find a way to rally to win one.

Patrick Hornqvist’s goal just 2:36 in overtime off of a Mike Weber failed clear allowed the Penguins to seize a 3-2 victory in a thrilling contest and put them on the brink of the Eastern Conference Finals with just one more victory over the Caps.

The Penguins, who were playing without top defensemen Kris Letang, put together a spirited effort and gave Washington big problems with their speed through the neutral zone in the first 30 minutes to take a 2-1 lead after Jay Beagle’s early marker made it 1-0 Capitals.

Pittsburgh was given pretty much no chance to win before the game by Mike Milbury on NBC, but they amped up their physical play and did a much better job of their zone exits in period one and for the first half of period two. Washington had too many struggles coming out of their own zone and they were on their heels for much of the first 30 minutes.

Braden Holtby (30 saves) made some big stops to keep it a 2-1 game and then the Caps started playing to their strengths, which was keeping the puck on the walls and cycling the smaller Pens. Justin Williams made a great play in the corner and he fed John Carlson for a brilliant tally with 3:41 to go in the middle frame to tie the game.

A nerve racking third period, in which the Penguins received the only power play, yielded no goals. The Caps did a great job of killing off a high sticking penalty by Karl Alzner on Sidney Crosby with 3:38 to go, allowing no shots on the Holtbeast.

In overtime, Mike Richards had a great chance to win it, but Matt Murray (34 saves) came up large once again setting the stage for the misplay by Weber and an easy marker for Hornqvist.

This was one tough way to lose again for Washington.

They didn’t play with the passion and sense of urgency we saw on Monday night when they dominated in a 3-2 loss, instead they looked nervous and out of sync too often for the first half of this game. That is certainly a surprise, given what was at stake and the loss of Letang for Pittsburgh.

So now the Caps get two days off to regroup and game five will be at the Verizon Center on Saturday night at 7:15 pm. Letang will be back in the lineup for the Pens while Brooks Oprik is still out another game. Washington needs to examine what they are doing well and doing poorly, then adjust accordingly. The Penguins clearly made the changes they needed after getting dominated, yet winning, in game three and it showed early on. That gave the Penguins the confidence to win without their best defensemen. A big part of that was their effort. They routinely out worked the Capitals in the first 30 minutes.

All four games so far have been one goal tilts, so the margin between victory and defeat has been ever so slight. Murray has been great in net for the Penguins and the Caps have had too many defensive gaffes to maintain momentum and pressure on Pittsburgh.

Simply put, the Capitals must come out on Saturday night and focus on one shift at a time and play each like it’s potentially their last game of the season. Thinking about winning three in a row puts you in the wrong mindset. They just have to play with the passion and energy they had on Monday night, but eliminate those glaring mistakes.

If they don’t, it’s golf time.

Notes: John Carlson logged a game high 30:15…the Caps won the shot attempts battle, 69-61…Alex Ovechkin had seven shots on goal in 21:16 of ice time…Daniel Winnik missed the remainder of period two after taking a high hit at the blue line from Evgeni Malkin. Former NHL referee Kerry Fraser, via Twitter, thought charging should’ve been called on #71. Winnik did come back for some shifts in the 3rd period…Crosby left for some of the third period after an Ovechkin slash to #87’s hands, but returned…the Caps won the face off battle, 40-36. Evgeny Kuznetsov went 12-6…the Penguins went 0 for 4 on the power play while the Caps went 0 for 2…the Caps were out hit, 47-41.

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Evgeny Kuznetsov has three helpers and Daniel Winnik tallies twice in a dominating Caps win over Nashville.

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Kuznetsov, Winnik Lead Caps to a 4-1 Win on Craig Laughlin Night

Posted on 18 March 2016 by Ed Frankovic

On Craig Laughlin night at the Verizon Center on Friday, it was fitting that a plumber notched two tallies for the Capitals in a 4-1 victory over the Nashville Predators.

Daniel Winnik scored twice, the first of which came on another spectacular pass by Evgeny Kuznetsov (three assists) to tie the contest up at one after former Cap Filip Forsberg had given the Preds a second period lead on a power play. It was Winnik’s first two goals as a Capital after coming over on February 29th in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Kuznetsov (three assists) was sensational in this game and it was another one of his vintage passes, this one behind his back, to T.J. Oshie on the goal line that #77 deposited over Carter Hutton at 12:22 of the middle frame to give Washington its’ first lead of the night.

With 18 ticks remaining in the second period, the Capitals really put Nashville behind the eight ball when Winnik scored his second tally of the night after a great rush and feed by Dmitry Orlov. The Caps then inserted the dagger on the Predators just 36 seconds into period three when, you guessed it, Kuznetsov stripped the puck from Ryan Johansen, who was horrible in this one, and fed Andre Burakovsky all alone in front of Hutton. #65 promptly roofed it for his 15th goal of the season to end the scoring.

Coming into this contest David Poile’s team was one of the hottest clubs in the NHL, going 11-1-5 over their last 17 games, including a 4-2 win over the Islanders on Thursday night.

After arriving into the District around 2 am on Friday morning, the Capitals pretty much made sure that the Predators had no chance in this tilt.

Sure they scored the first goal early in period two, but the Predators were held to just four first period shots and zero quality chances. The Capitals turned in a strong first frame, but for the 14th time in the last 17 games they failed to grab the initial lead. Coach Barry Trotz is all about the process so he had to like that opening period even though it was scoreless.

Despite giving up the power play tally that occurred after a Taylor Chorney trip, Washington did not lose momentum in the second period. On Winnik’s first goal, which came right as the Preds penalty expired (Johansen), Braden Holtby (20 saves) made a great long feed to Kuznetsov to catch Nashville in a change. Kuznetsov then worked his magic to totally fake out the entire Nashville team and slide the biscuit through a seam to Winnik, who merely had to deposit it into the yawning cage. It was the Holtbeast’s first assist of the year and it sucked pretty much any life left out of the Predators, who thought they might be able to steal a game in which they were getting heavily outplayed, to that point.

The Caps onslaught would continue from there and it wasn’t until it was 4-1 that Nashville really got any type of consistent pressure. But by then it was just score effects and overall the Capitals held the Predators to just 21 shots on net.

Orlov was outstanding on the back end and in addition to his assist, he was +4 on this night. You could go up and down the Capitals lineup and cite contributions from nearly every player and even Tom Wilson, who had been struggling a bit lately, did a nice job of going to the net and causing traffic on Hutton.

Washington’s impressive victory pushes their record to an astounding 51-14-5 (107 points) and even if the Los Angeles Kings go 13-0 the rest of the way, the Caps would just need nine points in 12 games to clinch the Presidents’ Trophy. Like I’ve said before, that’s a done deal.

This was two straight quality efforts by the Capitals and it was their first win by as many as three goals since January 19th against Columbus (h/t to Mike Vogel). Holtby earned his 43rd victory of the season and is now just five wins shy of Martin Brodeur’s all-time record. Washington also improved to 21-12-5 when allowing the first goal of the game. They are 30-2-0 when scoring first.

So now it is on to Pittsburgh on Sunday night to take on the Penguins at the Consol Energy Center. The Pens are in a dogfight of their own to make the postseason and they’ll face the red hot and despised Flyers on Saturday afternoon at 1 pm. Here’s to hoping there’s a whole new rash of penalty minutes in that one!

For the Caps, though, the beat just keeps marching on. Washington took advantage of a team who played the night before by out skating them all evening.

It was a thorough whipping of Nashville by Coach Trotz’ crew and it came on a night where everyone was in a celebratory mood given that it was “Locker’s” silver anniversary. Ole #18 delivered once again with another excellent performance in the booth with his partner in crime, Joe Beninati.

Thanks for all of the great work, analysis, and laughs over the last 25 years, Craig!

Notes: Kuznetsov earned the game’s number one star. In addition to his three helpers in 17:30 of ice time, he went 13-5 from the dot as the Capitals won the face off battle, 34-24…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 24:21 while Roman Josi and Shea Weber both played over 27 minutes each for Nashville. Those numbers display the difference in depth between these two bluelines as the Caps next highest defenders in time on ice were Karl Alzner at 21:34 and Brooks Orpik at 20:22…Oshie and Alex Ovechkin led the Caps in shots on goal with five. The Gr8 had 13 shot attempts, but zero points…Oshie, who set a career high with his 22nd goal, led the Caps with five hits…the Caps have 28 victories at home this season.

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In a thrilling late night game in Cali, the Capitals emerge victorious in the shootout, 2-1.

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Braden Holtby Ends the Ducks’ 11 Game Winning Streak

Posted on 08 March 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Braden Holtby allowed a goal to Ryan Getzlaf that he probably wanted back just one minute into the game on a delayed penalty call on Alex Ovechkin, but that was all the Ducks would get the rest of the night. Washington’s Andre Burakovsky tied the contest just 41 seconds into the third period and after overtime solved nothing, the Caps won in the shootout to halt Anaheim’s 11 game winning streak, 2-1.

Wow. Wow. Wow!

That was one incredible hockey game that was well worth staying up for!

It was physical; there were great end to end rushes, quality scoring chances, and some outstanding goaltending at both ends of the rink. John Gibson made 31 saves, robbing Justin Williams at least four times in this one, to carry the Ducks to the gimmick. Holtby held up his end of the bargain, as well, stopping 27 shots and he looked like early season Holtbeast. He made several huge stops, at key times, and he didn’t give up many rebounds. It was easily his best game since at least the all star break.

Williams, who was Comcast’s player of the game, did get an assist on the tying goal by Burakovsky. That second unit was all over the Ducks the entire evening and their only flaw was failing to pull the trigger when they had some great looks. Both Evgeny Kuznetsov and Burakovsky were guilty of overpassing on several occasions.

Each team played well and it is easy to see why the Ducks had been on a tear. They are extremely good and play a style that is conducive to lower scoring games. They have speed and size, just like Washington, so this was really an even matchup.

Mike Richards and his linemates, Daniel Winnik and Jay Beagle had another strong contest, especially in the third period when the Caps carried most of the play. #10 picked off a “D to D” pass with a minute to go and nearly won the game on a sweet backhander. Gibson, once again, kept his club in it.

The overtime saw the Caps carry the majority of the possession as they worked their three man cycle and overlap style very well. Matt Niskanen nearly won the game again for Washington with a sweet move to the net, but Gibson stopped his backhander in tight. The Capitals received a power play in OT when the Ducks were called for too many dudes, but just 16 seconds into that T.J. Oshie was called for closing his hand on the puck. Three on three continued without a decision, although the pace was frantic and heart pumping.

In the shootout, Holtby had two snazzy glove saves while Oshie made one of his sick head fake, then backhand roof job moves to give the Caps the edge early. Kuznetsov then had a chance to win the game, but despite beating Gibson, he shot wide. Corey Perry would deliver for Anaheim with a sweet backhand move of his own with the game on the line. Enter Nicklas Backstrom, who skated in calmly and coolly, faked going blocker side to open up the Ducks goaltender like a can of beans, and then #19 slid the puck on the ice between Gibson’s legs to silence the Honda Center. The Swedish assassin was quiet and deadly with his work and Washington earned another big victory against one of the NHL’s elite.

The exhilarating triumph improves the Caps to a 49-13-4 record, good for 102 points. That is just out of this world and even more impressive is that this was the Capitals fifth game in seven nights and they navigated that stretch at 4-1, including flying cross country on Sunday.

This group is clearly special and they once again shook off a rocky start to improve as the game went on. They were emotionally involved in the contest after the opening shift and they were winning many of the loose puck battles against a super hockey club.

There was just a ton to like about this victory, and perhaps, most importantly, was the way their goalie rallied after allowing an early goal to close the door with numerous ten bell saves.

Yes, the Holtbeast was back on the prowl on Monday night in a huge Capitals victory in Anaheim.

Notes: Burakovsky now has 23 points in his last 25 games…both teams went 0 for 4 on the power play in 6:16 of time. Washington’s PK was outstanding holding Anaheim to just 1 power play shot! The Caps man advantage efforts in regulation were superb and generated seven shots on goal, but Gibson was the difference…the Ducks won the faceoff battle, 29-22, although Kuznetsov went 8-6…Ovechkin had 0 shots on goal through 40 minutes but had four in the third period and one great chance in overtime that was denied by Gibson…Williams also had five shots on net…Niskanen played 27:05 to lead all skaters…Mike Weber had eight hits for the Caps. Brooks Orpik and Dmitry Orlov also had five each. The Ducks were credited with 43 hits to 33 for Washington…next up for the Caps are the Los Angeles Kings at the Staples Center at 10:30 on Wednesday night.

 

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The Caps have another strong third period to win their 45th game of the season.

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Ovechkin and Holtby Lead the Caps to Victory Over the Wild

Posted on 27 February 2016 by Ed Frankovic

When it comes to third periods, the Washington Capitals own them.

Facing a Minnesota Wild team that was desperate for points, had played the night before in Philadelphia, and had forged a 2-1 lead after 40 minutes, the Caps put the hammer down in the final frame getting Alexander Ovechkin’s 40th goal of the season on the power play, Dmitry Orlov’s game winner via a Harlem Globetrotters type move, and a huge victory clinching save from Braden Holtby with 33 seconds left en route to their 3-2 triumph at the Verizon Center.

Washington once again found themselves in penalty trouble in the first frame, taking three infractions, although the first one on Brooks Oprik was a total joke. The Wild capitalized on the third of those three man advantage situations to forge a 1-0 lead on Mikko Koivu’s shot that went five hole on Holtby. It was the 14th time in the last 17 games that the Capitals allowed the first tally. Their first frame was not very good once the parade to the box began and they were outshot on goal, 12-3, and 22-8 overall in shot attempts. It was an ugly period and Koivu’s tally, with 52 ticks left in the opening frame angered #70.

“Just over anticipating. I think they use a lot of tip plays and different things like that. Karl [Alzner] was in the lane and somehow the puck snuck through there. I need to be tighter there. Those are the plays I’ve been working on lately to solve, you don’t see the puck, but you still make the save. I didn’t do that,” said the Holtbeast afterwards on that first goal.

Coach Barry Trotz was not happy with his team’s play in the opening 20 minutes and he noted following the contest that he told the team they had to fix the problems themselves. It wasn’t about X’s and O’s, it was about playing the right way. In period one, Washington was very sloppy with their passes, they were losing the loose puck battles, and were making poor decisions.

They started the second period with a vengeance and Oprik scored his second goal in four games, and his sixth point in six tilts since returning from a 40 game absence due to injury, just 54 seconds into the middle frame. But another costly mistake on defense allowed Nino Niederreiter to get a breakaway on Holtby and he beat him top shelf at 5:05 of the second to regain the Wild’s one goal lead. After a few more rough minutes, the Capitals started to get their legs going and at the end of the period the shot attempts were 24-23 for Minnesota for those 20 minutes. Trotz told the media after the game that in the second period “we started fixing our battles.”

In the third period, the Caps really amped it up against a club that looked exhausted playing on back to back nights and their third game in four nights. They were also missing their top forward in Zach Parise, who was out due to injury. Ovechkin scored blocker side on Darcy Kuemper (24 saves) with the man advantage after Matt Niskanen gave him an absolutely perfect pass, which was hard to do on this evening. Carrie Underwood held a concert at the Verizon Center on Thursday and the ice was downright horrible. As one member of the media said to me, “It’s no surprise the ice is bad, because Carrie sure can melt some ice.” Isn’t that the truth and the surface was equally bad for both teams? Pucks were bouncing everywhere and skaters were falling down without even being touched.

But Washington fought through that and to their credit, they started owning the loose pucks as their coach preaches to them to do. The Caps had their fore-check going and were relentless in the last 20 minutes of this one. Orlov’s goal came after Andre Burakovsky made a nice cross ice pass to #9 and then he put the biscuit through his legs like he was Curly O’Neal and fired a backhander on the cage that Kuemper allowed to squeeze though his pads with 5:04 remaining.

The Caps then really buckled down and when they needed a big stop, the Holtbeast delivered. It was Braden’s strongest game (30 saves) in recent memory and he did it with his former bench boss, Adam Oates, the man who wanted him to play deeper in his net, in the house (Oates apparently is a paid consultant to Parise and Ryan Suter of the Wild).

The victory was Holtby’s 39th of the season and he is 31-2-3 in his last 38 games. Holtby did have to make several big stops early in this one and he also was run into by Niederreiter in the first frame. All around the league I’ve continued to see players making contact with goaltenders and the infractions are rarely being called. It’s becoming super dangerous to be a goalie these days. Kings Coach Darryl Sutter, just last week, commented on how Jonathan Quick continues to get run when he plays, as well. Following Friday’s win, I asked Holtby about this phenomenon.

“It’s one of those things where you solve the problem, but you create another one by putting the reviews in. There’s no reason for refs to call goalie interference anymore because they know it’s just going to go to review if it’s a goal. You knew that was going to happen and that’s no fault at all of the referees because if they make a mistake with the ability to have a review, then that’s not a good thing either. So we just have to play through it and hope it doesn’t cause any damage,” stated the Holtbeast on the recent trend of goalies getting run over.

My take, the referees need to enforce the rulebook and do a better job of protecting the net minders before some goalie gets seriously hurt.

After this third period domination, and the Caps lead the NHL with 80 third frame goals to just 48 allowed, they move to 45-11-4, good for 94 points. That is just sick and unbelievable and it ties them with the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for most wins in a team’s first 60 games in NHL history.

Speaking of sick and unbelievable, how about that Gr8 guy, who now has scored 40 or more goals in eight NHL seasons? Ovechkin became the seventh player in NHL history to record 40 or more goals in eight of his first 11 seasons, joining Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mike Bossy, Marcel Dionne, Brett Hull, and “Lucky” Luc Robitaille. He’s the 10th player in NHL history to post at least eight 40 goal campaigns. Those stats are all courtesy of the Capitals excellent public relations staff.

So now it is on to Chicago to face the Blackhawks on Sunday afternoon at 12:30. GM Stan Bowman is intent on trying to win his fourth Stanley Cup in seven years. On Thursday he traded for forward Andrew Ladd from Winnipeg and then on Friday he added forwards Tomas Fleischmann and Mike Wiese from Montreal and defensemen Christian Ehroff from the Kings (who was in the minors after being waived). Those are some good moves, but it remains to be seen how Coach Joel Quenneville will integrate his new troops. After Friday’s win, Coach Trotz joked that the Caps weren’t even going to pre scout the Hawks for Sunday’s game because they have like eight new guys. Too funny!

Speaking of jokes that are also somewhat serious, Coach Trotz was clearly not thrilled with another bad start and he stated afterwards, with a sly smile, that “we’ll go on a walkabout on Saturday to see if we can find our game.” Clearly the coach who holds everyone accountable is a Crocodile Dundee fan.

Here’s to hoping that on Sunday in Chitown the Caps come out as sharp as Dundee’s knife, for once.

Notes: Orpik had another fantastic game logging 24:44 and going +2. He had eight hits and five blocked shots. #44 is really playing well and his lengthy injury absence has to help Washington for the stretch run because the 35 year old is dealing with much less wear and tear…on the bad news front, John Carlson did not play due to a lower body injury and Coach Trotz confirmed that it is the knee that forced #74 to miss 12 games after Christmas. It remains to be seen if he will need the knee “to be fixed,” but the Caps huge standings point lead and the depth they have on defense, which will increase when Mike Weber joins the team (his wife had a baby on Thursday), allows the club to be extra careful and work to get Carlson right for the post season…Ovechkin had an assist on the Orpik tally and Nicklas Backstrom had two helpers in the game, as well…Sunday in the Windy City starts a stretch where the Capitals will play six games in nine days.

WNST EVENT NOTE: Please come out to Buffalo Wild Wings on Monday night (February 29th) in Belair, Maryland as Nestor Aparacio and I will be interviewing Coach Trotz. There will also be trained personnel in attendance who will be swabbing people for the Bone Marrow Registry in an attempt to continue to fight Leukemia. It’s an easy process, so please come on out, eat some wings, listen to the coach talk hockey, and support a great cause!

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Ovechkin, Green Lead Caps Over Sabres

Posted on 28 January 2014 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin continues to do what he can to try to carry the Capitals into the playoffs and on Tuesday night in Buffalo he got some excellent help from defensemen Mike Green.

The Gr8 scored the first two Capitals goals, his 37th and 38th of the season, and then he assisted on the last two, including a great pass to Game Over Green for the winner in overtime.

It was a wild affair against a not so talented but gritty Buffalo squad and Washington prevailed, 5-4.

In my last blog, I made it clear that Ovechkin is still the most valuable player to his team in the NHL and this game once again made that case.

With the Capitals struggling mightily in their own end, it was on the offense to pull this game out. We all know that Alexander the Great is a pure goal scorer, but his passing skills are often overlooked and vastly underrated by those who aren’t paying close attention. How many other NHLers could have made the pass to Martin Erat late in period two on the power play that set up Troy Brouwer for Washington’s 4th goal? Not too many have the combination of power and finesse necessary to get that puck to sit on Erat’s stick through a maze of players so quickly.

Then, on the game winner, the Gr8 slides a perfect pass to Green, much like he did for Casey Wellman on Saturday, giving Sabres goalie Curtis Enroth no chance to stop Green’s shot and the Caps win.

The win moves Washington to 24-21-8 (56 points) and they are just a point out of a playoff spot after two straight victories. The Capitals have six games left before the Olympic break and the next three are against teams in front of them (Detroit twice and Columbus). The other three are the Islanders, Winnipeg, and New Jersey.  A good streak before the league shutdown seems imperative given the tough schedule facing the Capitals in March.

However, if they want to do well in this upcoming stretch, they have to do certain things much better. Defensively, the Capitals were far too loose in their own zone. Bad coverage, turnovers, and penalties led to four goals by an offensively challenged Buffalo club. We are 53 games into the season and these same mistakes continue to occur. If Washington wants to make the playoffs then they need to eliminate or seriously reduce the frequency of these miscues. The hockey department and coaches have to find an answer to these issues quickly if they want to make the post season.

Another disturbing thing was the way Sabres Mike Weber took liberties with Marcus Johansson and Nicklas Backstrom. You simply can’t count on the referees, and especially when it is two clowns like Paul Devorski and Don VanMassenhoven, to protect your players. Once Weber gave that cheap shot to MJ90 someone on the Caps should’ve let him know physically that if that happened again he was going to be seeing stars for weeks. Where was John Erskine, Tom Wilson, Jason Chimera, or Troy Brouwer to make Weber pay for his cheap shot on Johansson? If Backstrom gets hurt by the late game elbow from Weber then their playoff chances go to 0!

Look, I am all for self discipline, but there are places and times to send a message in a hockey game and it was disappointing and alarming that Weber wasn’t made to pay for his hit on MJ90. By letting that go, they risked injury to other players. Unacceptable. Like or not, protecting your players is a part of the NHL game today.

Braden Holtby made some big stops in net in his second straight start. Yes, he gave up four tallies, but his defense left him out to dry too many times.

Overall, this was a sloppy effort but the Ovechkin and Green show carried the day.

Two points were pretty much a must in Buffalo and now Washington has back to back tilts with Columbus and Detroit on Thursday and Friday.

It’s nice that the offense is back, thanks primarily to the Gr8 and the Caps increasing willingness to crash the net, but if they want to be more consistent, they have to do a better job of protecting their own net.

Notes: Shots on goal were 35-27 for the Caps, but Buffalo dominated the 3rd period, 13-5. The Sabres played the night before so it was disappointing that the Caps were able to be outplayed in the 3rd period when they should’ve been the fresher squad…the Caps went 2 for 3 on the power play while Buffalo was 1 for 2…Green’s first goal, which came on a sweet wraparound, was the 100th of his NHL career…Martin Erat had two assists in one of his better games of the season…the Caps lost the face off battle, 36-28…shot attempts were 55-53, in favor of the Caps.

 

 

 

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