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brian-maclellan

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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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Ovi Pens

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12 Thoughts on the Caps Following an Inexcusable Game 4 Defeat

Posted on 04 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Once again the Washington Capitals are on the brink of being eliminated in the second round of the postseason with Wednesday night’s 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in game four of the Stanley Cup Quarter Finals. The Pens lead the Caps three to one with game five set for Saturday night at the Verizon Center at 7:15 pm, a post Kentucky Derby start time.

Here are 12 thoughts on the Capitals following game four:

It was a huge game, Sidney Crosby was out of the lineup injured due to a concussion, yet the Caps came out as flat as a pancake in period one. Before 15 minutes were gone, the Pens had a 21-13 edge in shot attempts and a 1-0 lead on the scoreboard courtesy of Patric Hornqvist’s breakaway tally that he notched after he split Karl Alzner and Brooks Orpik. It was an awful defensive breakdown and miscommunication by two veteran defensemen you would normally expect to be tactically sound.

Offensive zone penalties were a big problem for Washington on Wednesday night, they took five of them that led to Penguins power plays. You can argue about the iffy calls on John Carlson and T.J. Oshie and perhaps the slashing on Alex Ovechkin in period three, but the bottom line is that four of the five were the result of laziness and not playing the right way. The first two penalties, by Ovechkin and Lars Eller, were in the first period when Washington seemed to be in sleep walking mode.

The Caps stabilized things in the last five minutes of period one, but the start to period two was another bad one. After failing to score on their carry over power play, shortly thereafter they lost several loose puck battles, which was a major problem in the first frame and a sign that they weren’t mentally or emotionally ready to play this contest. Jake Guentzel won one of those one on one battles and threw a puck to the middle of the ice and with Dmitry Orlov rushing to get back in position defensively, the puck hit his leg and went into the cage behind Braden Holtby.

After that goal, it was all Caps for the next several minutes and they tied the game up with two goals just 72 seconds apart. Marcus Johansson won a board battle, even after losing his stick, to keep a puck alive and Justin Williams grabbed it on the left wing wall and fed Evgeny Kuznetsov in the slot. Kuzy, for a change, was thinking shoot first, and his quick shot beat Marc-Andre Fleury to give the Capitals life. It was a smart play and by shooting right away, it caught Fleury off guard. Nate Schmidt would then tie the game by one-timing a missed Kevin Shattenkirk shot off of the backboards. Again, it was a fast shot like #92’s and it found the twine. Quicker shots are a must for Washington going forward. Waiting to fire away gives Fleury time to set up and it also allows the Penguins defensemen to get in the lanes to block shots.

Washington finally started to carry the play, like they should have been doing from the start, but then a bad penalty call on Carlson combined with a not so smart play by Andre Burakovsky on an extended zone time shift turned the game around. #65 caused the “so-called” penalty by being soft and carrying the puck up high in the offensive zone instead of keeping it low on the wall, where the Caps had just put reinforcements on the ice while the Pens were hemmed in due to the long change. Carlson tried to rotate down to give Burakovsky room and he and Scott Wilson collided and the bad zebras whistled a penalty. Penalty or not (and it really wasn’t a rough, which was listed as the call), Andre had already made the wrong decision and had lost the puck to the neutral zone.

Pittsburgh’s power play had been struggling in the series, but it finally connected to swing momentum big time. You’d like to see your goalie make a save there, though. Justin Schultz’s rocket was slated for the top shelf, but there was no screen and if the Holtbeast is in his usual mode he is out at the top of the crease and makes that stop. Instead he was deep in the cage and was beaten badly over the shoulder when he went down in the butterfly.

That goal came with 28 plus minutes remaining, lots of time left to recover, but the Caps couldn’t connect, including wasting a four minute power play that started in period two and carried over to the final stanza. The power play needs serious adjustments before Saturday. Ovechkin is not getting his looks and the Pens are being very aggressive on Nicklas Backstrom on the half wall making Washington’s usual plays ineffective. The Gr8 is at his best when he’s getting shots early and being physical. He only had four shot attempts in game four. Washington must figure out a way to get the power play going again and get Ovechkin more looks. Your move Caps coaching staff as well as Alex, who must work harder to create space for himself.

On the positive side of things, the Capitals second line was really good with 20 shot attempts out of the 46 the 11 Caps forwards had in this tilt. The third line had 17 shot attempts, including Eller’s great chance on Fleury in the third period where he waited too long to fire away. A quick shot there by #20 in front and perhaps he gets the puck by #29 or a rebound comes back to him and he’s in control of the situation? Waiting on Fleury has proven to be deadly except in one instance, Kuznetsov’s goal in game three where he had all day to get the goalie out of position. Tom Wilson was very much involved on that third line and was probably the only player that matched the Penguins intensity in the first period. He, along with Jojo, have been superb in this post season.

On the bad side of the ledger, you can start with the leaders of this team, Ovechkin and Backstrom. They were pretty much no shows for this affair and played with a lack of urgency in a critical contest. That first line, adding in Oshie, had only eight shot attempts! I’ll say that again, eight shot attempts in an almost must win playoff contest. That’s just unacceptable for the Captain and one of the Alternates to perform that way. They did not do their respective jobs and if the Caps do not come back, they deserve the brunt of the criticism given their play in game four and their inability, yet again, to get out of the second round with their fourth different playoff coach.

The final shot attempts were 72-38, but who cares? The start is what matters in these games and the team that has scored first has won every contest. Fleury is in the Caps heads and Holtby is fighting the puck. Meanwhile anyone Coach Mike Sullivan puts on the ice brings a maximum effort while Coach Barry Trotz’ crew has too many passengers.

Simply put, the Capitals were not ready to play this game. Without Crosby in the lineup they had an opportunity to seize the game and the series and let Pittsburgh know that it was the Caps time to shine. Instead they totally shunned the saying on their “Will Over Skill” t-shirts and acted like all they had to do was show up to win. It was a lack of leadership and a total lack of focus. It is maddening that this core group of players still doesn’t fathom what it takes to win in the postseason and you can’t put a lot of it on the coaches or General Manager, this is their fourth playoff coach while it has been the same core in charge on the ice.

As Justin Williams told me after game two, the playoffs are all about doing the little things and winning the one on one battles to put yourself in position to score or defend and ultimately win the game. Washington has not been committed to doing that and as a result they are a game away from the golf course, once again. There is no excuse for the effort from Ovechkin and the top line in game four. It is disturbing and if the Caps don’t come back, the blame starts with the Gr8 for failing to appear in this contest. Washington had to come out on the offensive and not take their foot off of the gas to tie the series up. Instead, they never found the throttle and played scared, which allowed the Penguins to dictate what type of game this would be. It’s inexcusable from a group that knows this is the last time this crew will be together. We’ll find out what these guys are really made of over the next week.

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Shatty

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Shattenkirk’s OT Tally Gets Caps Back in the Series

Posted on 02 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Kevin Shattenkirk’s wrister past Marc-Andre Fleury just 3:13 into overtime gave the Washington Capitals a hard fought, 3-2, victory in game three in Pittsburgh. The Pens now lead the series two games to one. Game four is Wednesday night in Steeltown, once again.

Well, they’ll be talking about this contest for a long time.

Sidney Crosby was injured in a collision with Matt Niskanen just 5:24 in and did not return. #87 was skating across the top of the crease on a rush and he was hit by Alex Ovechkin’s stick up high, Ovi and Sid then clip skates, and Sid seemed to lose his balance as he glided above the crease. At that moment, Niskanen was coming to the middle to cover the front of the net and had his stick in a defensive position. Crosby went flying right into #2’s stick as Matt was bracing for the contact and fell to the ice. His knee bent back awkwardly, but after staying down, he got back up and gingerly skated to the dressing room. He would not return and Washington also lost arguably their best defensemen for the night with a five minute major for cross checking and a game misconduct. I didn’t like the call on Niskanen, it was truly a hockey play gone bad. In fact, I thought the only infraction on the play could’ve been on Ovi for a slash, I tweeted that at the time. If Sid doesn’t lose his balance there, he’s fine, but he is low going into Niskanen and that’s where the problem came in.

“Crosby’s trying to score, and as he’s doing that, he’s getting lower and lower. I wasn’t extending my arms trying to hit him in the head, it happened quickly. I wasn’t even trying to cross check him…a collision was going to happen there in the crease. When the play first starts, I think my stick is at about his arm level, probably, right about where the numbers are on the side of his jersey. Because he’s trying to make a play, he’s getting lower and lower and the collision happened. I hope he’s okay, I certainly didn’t mean to injure him, it’s an unfortunate play that happened really quick,” said Niskanen to the media after the game.

Anyways, it’s all done now and the Capitals had a critical game to try to win. Fortunately for them, Coach Barry Trotz put Karl Alzner back in the lineup with seven D and 11 forwards so the Caps had six defensemen left after Nisky was thrown out. The Caps would kill off the major, with some help from Evgeni Malkin, who took a two minute minor for closing his hand on the puck during the early portion of the power play.

After surviving the major, the Caps started to take over the play and they ended up with a power play when Carl Hagelin was boxed for high sticking. Only 43 seconds later, Bryan Rust batted the puck over the glass and the Caps were in business with a 1:17 five on three. It took some time, but 54 ticks later, Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist) fired the puck in off of Ian Cole in front, who was tied up with Justin Williams at the top of the crease, to give the Capitals their first lead of the series. Washington led in shots on goal, 9-8, after twenty minutes. Braden Holtby made some big stops too, including a breakaway by Rust after a terrible Caps line change.

In the middle frame, the Capitals had long stretches of trouble due to too many turnovers and too many penalties. Malkin and the Penguins really picked their game up, going for the three to nothing series lead. With Brooks Orpik incurring a holding the stick call and then Evgeny Kuznetsov taking two careless minors, the Pens had three straight power plays, but the Holtbeast (28 saves) was at his best in this series as well as this year’s playoffs and was the biggest reason Pittsburgh didn’t get the equalizer.

That set up a big third period. A strong 20 minutes and the Capitals would get back in the series, a bad one and they were pretty much done and headed to the golf course. Coach Trotz’ crew came out with authority and really took it to the Pens, but couldn’t extend the lead on two power plays. After those, Pittsburgh was pushing hard and the Caps were doing a good job of keeping a third forward back to prevent their potent rush game. That pressure, much like what the Capitals did in games one and two when trailing, causes you to take chances, and the Pens got burnt on one of them which led to a three on two break for Washington’s second line. Justin Williams carried the puck up the left wing and when a Pens defenseman dove at him to try and knock the disc away, Stick hit Marcus Johansson coming behind him down the slot. Jojo then drew the other Pens defenseman and Fleury to him and slid the puck neatly to Kuznetsov at the right side of the cage. Fleury flopped over like a fish out of water trying to make another acrobatic save, and he made many in this game, but #92 waited him out and snapped the puck over #29 to make it 2-0 with 10:14 to go.

From then until the three minute mark, the Capitals played extremely well and gave the Penguins pretty much nothing. With Fleury pulled, the Caps had a chance to hit the empty net, but after a great play by T.J. Oshie to get the puck out, Backstrom made a poor decision to shoot at the open cage from behind the red line. He missed wide and it was icing. Had he taken another second to look, he could’ve hit Ovechkin all alone on the left wing boards for a game icing tally.

Instead, the Penguins received an offensive zone faceoff and Malkin scored with 1:53 remaining short side on Holtby, who was screened by Alzner. No problem, right, the Caps weren’t going to give up another goalie pulled tally, correct? WRONG!

After a defensive zone faceoff win, Malkin totally took Backstrom out in the right wing corner, but the blatant interference was not called. That allowed the Penguins to keep the puck in and Justin Schultz fired a shot from the point that hit Oshie and then something else on the way into the net with #71 parked in front. It was two goals in just 48 seconds and this one was tied with 1:05 left in regulation.

Surely the Penguins were going to once again win this game in overtime and make the Capitals and their fan base suffer more mental anguish, correct? I mean, a goal by the Penguins in OT and this would’ve been labeled the biggest Washington collapse, ever!

The Caps, however, came out strong in overtime and carried the play, although Phil Kessel had a great look in the high slot early on that he just whistled wide. Just over 150 seconds in to the extra session, Johansson took an outlet feed and split the Penguins defense at the offensive blue line. It was a great play and move by Jojo and Trevor Daley hauled him down on the way to the cage. That gave the Capitals an overtime power play. 33 seconds into it Shatty got the puck in the slot and with Oshie providing some traffic, he put it far post past Fleury and the Capitals players celebrated.

Wow, what a game and what resolve by the Capitals to win that one after an epic late collapse! They played so well in that third frame and it’s tough to give up that two goal lead up in that fashion, but they made a mistake that led to an icing and then the officials missed a clear penalty on Malkin right before the game tying tally. They persevered once again after facing some serious adversity, so they have that to build on as well as some things they did extremely well in this game.

Let’s start with the Holtbeast, who apparently met with his sports psychologist before this game, per the great Carol Maloney of NBC4 (@carolmaloney4) in Washington. #70 was really solid in this game making several big stops and if not for him, the Penguins don’t go 0 for 5 on the power play in nine minutes of advantage time. The Pens fired 10 of their 30 shots on goal for the game when up a man, but Holtby was dynamite.

Alzner and the rest of the penalty killers, especially Daniel Winnik and Tom Wilson, were superb, as well. Winnik also saved a goal with his stick early in the game on one of the rare pucks to get by the Holtbeast until the last two minutes of regulation.

Up front, Jojo was dynamite all night. Williams (two assists) was strong, too, on that second line. Kuznetsov was very up and down in this one. He took some bad penalties, especially the second one, when he held the Penguins forward when a hit was the right decision. You can’t have soft plays in the post season, because that will burn you. Fortunately the Caps PK bailed him out and then he rewarded the team with great patience on his tally.

For the evening, the Capitals did win the shot attempt battle, 63-55. They weren’t as dominant as games one and two, but they got the job done. They were better in front of the Holtbeast for over 57 minutes with a tighter defensive posture, but a costly icing and a missed penalty call allowed a go for broke Pens team to take this one to overtime.

Shattenkirk then made his presence known with authority, and #22 needed that. He had been struggling before this tilt and his power play decisions were a bit hesitant, at times, up until the overtime. Shatty was anything but hesitant on the game winning goal and he looked like the guy who was great down the regular season stretch run after GM Brian MacLellan acquired him at the trade deadline.

Simply put, Holtby and Shattenkirk were two guys Washington needed to step up for a victory, and those two did just that.

So now it’s on to a critical game four on Wednesday night. In addition to losing Crosby, Connor Sheary left the game when Patric Hornqvist, who returned from the dead to play this game but looked slower than normal, went for a big hit on Lars Eller. Instead he hit #43 with friendly fire right in the head when Eller sidestepped a hard charging #72.

This game also got ugly, at times, and Malkin and Chris Kunitz were in the middle of it quite a bit for the men in black.

It will be crucial for the Capitals to stay out of that stuff and just play hockey on Wednesday night if they want to even up this series.

Notes: It’s been announced that game five will be at 7:15 on NBC on Saturday night after the Kentucky Derby…shots on goal were 33-30 for the Caps, they were 2 for 5 on the power play getting nine shots on net in 7:16 of power play time…Ovechkin had six shot attempts (two on net) in 19:27 of ice time…John Carlson led the Caps in time on ice with 25:35…Alzner played more than Coach Trotz envisioned, with 21:34. He performed fairly well coming off of his upper body injury…the Caps lost the face off battle, 36-31, including some key ones late in the game. Jay Beagle was 6-3…Sheary only played 4:01. Kessel led the Penguins in ice time with 23:17…special thanks to WNST station owner, Nestor Aparcio, for being in Pittsburgh and getting me all of the locker room quotes.

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Jojo SWG

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Johansson’s OT Tally Wins the Series for the Caps

Posted on 24 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

It took six close games, five of them decided in overtime, for the Washington Capitals to finally extinguish the Toronto Maple Leafs with Marcus Johansson tallying his second goal of the night to give the Caps a 2-1 victory 6:31 into the extra session. The Caps will now move on to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in round two, starting on Thursday night at the Verizon Center, in what is a rematch of last spring’s second round battle.

Like game five, this was another tight defensive battle with strong goaltending. Neither team scored through 40 minutes, with the Leafs owning the lead in the shot attempt totals, at 47-38, but the Caps had the better of the scoring chances, especially their second line.

In the third period, it was anyone’s game, but Washington started to take over with their depth. The Capitals had several good scoring chances, but then a weird bounce and a missed defensive assignment cost them the first goal.

Morgan Reilly dumped the puck in to the Caps end and it took a crazy carom off of the glass into the slot. Auston Matthews, who is already a star in this league at age 19, jumped on the puck and went in alone on Braden Holtby (37 saves). The kid from the desert went top shelf on the Holtbeast to make it 1-0 just 7:45 into the final frame. It was a fortuitous break for Toronto, but the goal was preventable. Had Evgeny Kuznetsov kept skating instead of gliding at the Caps defesnsive blue line, he could have beaten Matthews to the puck. It’s a good lesson for #92 and the whole team to learn in the playoffs – a single missed stride can cost your team a goal.

In the past, the Matthews tally might have devastated the Caps bench, but not this year. No, this team amped their game up and started taking the play to the Maple Leafs and just over five minutes after #34 had all of Yonge Street thinking there was going to be a game seven, the Caps tied it up.

Lars Eller made a strong offensive zone entry on the left wing boards and he fed a streaking Johansson in the slot. Marcus pushed the puck ahead to escape the Leaf defender and then he pinballed one in off of Frederik Andersen (34 saves) into the net with just 7:09 remaining. It was a monstrous tally and it came because the Capitals started to push the play.

Washington would continue to do that and then in the overtime, they took their game to 11.

The Caps had no thoughts of sitting back on Coach Mike Babcock’s squad and they thoroughly outworked and dominated a young Leafs team in the overtime. They had several scoring chances, Comcast’s Alan May had it 7 to 1, with Jojo getting his second of the night and the series winner on a play where he simply did what he had done all season long to score a career high in goals (24), he went to the front of the net.

A Leafs icing forced Babcock to leave a tired crew on the ice, which included game one goat, Martin Marincin, as well as his fourth line (Kasperi Kapanen-Brian Boyle-Matt Martin). Coach Barry Trotz took his third line off and inserted Johansson, Kuznetsov, and Mr. Clutch, Justin Williams. Kuznetsov, who like many other Caps centers struggled on draws all game, won a huge face off against Boyle. When Stick received the puck from John Carlson on the right wing half wall, he smartly fired it on net. Jojo was parked in the slot above the paint and he appeared to tip the initial shot into Andersen’s pads and then fought off Marincin to bury the game and series clincher.

Wow, what a game and what a performance by the Caps once they were down, 1-0! They pushed the play and looked like the team that won the Presidents’ Trophy this season. It’s the way they’ll need to play in the second round if they want to defeat the defending Stanley Cup Champions.

Winning the first round is always the toughest; ask any hockey player, coach or executive and they’ll back me up. It was even harder for Washington because everyone picked them to win quickly and the Leafs had nothing to lose. Simply put, there was a TON OF PRESSURE on the Capitals to win this series and move on to face the Penguins for the rematch from last spring.

As Coach Barry Trotz told me, Nestor Aparacio, and the great crowd at Greenmount Station back on March 20th, every series takes a piece out of you. Toronto took some pieces out of the Caps. Karl Alzner didn’t play after game two due to an upper body injury, Nazem Kadri put a cheap shot on Alex Ovechkin and knocked Ovi out for two plus minutes of game five (but the Russian Machine Never Breaks), and Leo Komarov put a dirty hit on Nate Schmidt late in game six (but the 88 car also returned to play four shifts after the hit, including being on the ice for the game winner).

Luckily the Gr8 and Schmidt, plus T.J. Oshie, who I could see mouth “I’m all right” to Caps trainer Greg “Smitty” Smith after blocking a shot right before the winning goal, should be ready for Thursday night’s game one against the Penguins at the Verizon Center. The Leafs may have taken some pieces out of the Caps, that’s still to be determined how much, but in my book, Washington was able to ramp their game up to a tempo they’ll need to be at against Pittsburgh. I’m not sure they get to that pace level in a series against the Bruins or Ottawa. So I’m still glad the Capitals faced the Leafs. It was a very hard series, but they overcame an inordinate amount of pressure and persevered.

Anyways, the Penguins series should be one heck of a rematch. The Caps have waited a whole year for it, but we’ll talk more about it as the week progresses, but let’s hope there’s a Rocky 2 type of ending this spring.

Notes: Final shot attempts were 70-67, for Washington. It was all Caps after the Leafs marker…Ovechkin had 12 shot attempts, including seven on goal, in 22:45…the Caps lost the face off battle, 39-22, but they won some key ones, including right before the series winning tally. Kuznetsov was 6-8 (best Caps percentage)…Oshie had another strong game with five shots on goal in 19:35…the Caps were shorthanded for just 22 seconds and they had 2:22 of power play time…the Holtbeast was outstanding in this tilt, which included a huge save on Komarov, who was all alone after he took his run at Schmidt and #88 limped to the bench…Dmitry Orlov led the Caps in ice time with 25:38 and his partner, Matt Niskanen, logged 25:15. They played the hard minutes and that allowed Carlson and Schmidt to help the Capitals drive the play when they were on the ice…the Caps won the last three games of this series, which came after Coach Trotz tweaked his forward lines right before game four (bumped Tom Wilson up to the third line).

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Williams Game 5

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Williams’ OT Tally Gives the Caps the Series Lead

Posted on 22 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

In a very evenly played hockey game, Mr. Game Seven, Justin Williams, scored a massively huge goal for the Washington Capitals just 64 seconds into overtime to propel the Caps to a 2-1 game five victory, and more importantly, a three games to two series lead over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Game six is Sunday at 7 pm in the Big Smoke.

After several wide open and high scoring affairs in this series, the Capitals got back to playing better defensively in this one, although they had a very shaky start. On the game’s first shift Washington gave up a two on one break and Braden Holtby (24 saves) made a marvelous glove save on Leo Komarov. The Caps were extremely sloppy over the first five minutes, but then they settled down and dominated period one.

Washington’s game amped up as the period progressed and they received their first power play of the game when Lars Eller drew a hook at 14:18 on Brian Boyle, who seemingly takes a penalty on every shift (whether it is called or not is another story). The Caps struggled to get set up until the last 30 seconds or so of the man advantage, but that is when they had three or four really good looks. Unfortunately either Frederik Andersen (26 saves) made the stop or they missed the net.

A minute or so after the power play ended, a potential season ending play and a scary moment for the Capitals ensued. As Alex Ovechkin was exiting the defensive zone, Nazem Kadri came in and hit the Gr8 with his hip into Ovi’s knees a good second or two after the puck was gone. It was dirty and with Jake Gardiner landing on Ovechkin as he was falling, Alex stayed down on the ice. He was then helped to the locker room at 17:32 of the first frame.

Smartly the Capitals didn’t retaliate immediately, instead they dented the Leafs on the scoreboard. 43 seconds into the man advantage on Kadri for tripping, T.J. Oshie buried the biscuit on the backhand following a rebound of a super shot from Nick Backstrom that hit the cross bar. That snap shot laser was set up by a sweet pass from Kevin Shattenkirk to #19. It was a great way to pay back Toronto for their illegal play.

“There’s only one Ovi. When you see him down like that you get a little nervous and you get a little upset. I thought we responded the right way with the goal right away,” said Oshie after the contest on how the team felt when the Gr8 was initially injured.

Pay the Man!

Fortunately for the Capitals, who outshot attempted the Leafs in period one, 19-11, the Gr8 returned to play in the second period and looked no worse for the wear. Kadri would definitely be a marked man, though, for the rest of the contest.

Toronto, who all series long have tried to put as many bodies and pucks as they can on the Washington net, tied the contest up on that type of play. Zach Hyman was once again integral to traffic in front of Holtby and after William Nylander threw the biscuit on #70, it bounced around in the paint. With Hyman taking two defenders with him, Auston Matthews was wide open for the back door layup at the six minute mark of the middle frame.

The Leafs then carried the play for much of the rest of the period primarily due to three minor penalties on Washington. Matt Niskanen lost his head a bit late in the period and put a nice Paul Bunyan slash on Kadri after #43 was hitting and interfering with the Gr8 as he was entering the offensive zone. With the zebras not calling it, #2 took matters into his own hands, but in the playoffs, you can’t do that, you need to wait for the right opportunity to get retribution with a clean and monstrous check.

Washington survived that man advantage and as the final stanza progressed, the Caps had the better of the chances with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Williams having opportunities to win it. But there was no sale in regulation and off to the extra period we went.

On a defensive zone draw in the first minute of OT, Coach Barry Trotz put Jay Beagle out to take it and he won it cleanly to Niskanen. Nisky saw open ice ahead of him with the Leafs backing up and he wisely skated quickly to the red line and dumped the puck beautifully into the left wing corner where Marcus Johansson was able to use his superior speed and retrieve it below the goal line. Jojo then fed Kuzy in the right wing circle. With Beagle going off on a change for Williams as the dump in occurred, #14 came into the slot uncovered and once #92 passed it right on his tape, Stick put it five hole past Andersen for the victory.

Here’s my thoughts and analysis after the big victory, including some quotes from the players.

The Leafs still tried to get bodies and puck to the net as much as possible, but the Capitals adjusted their structure well, for the most part, and walled Toronto and lots of pucks from the crease out before they could hit something crazily and go in. When pucks did get through, the Holtbeast was really on his game.

“Holts was outstanding. They did a really good job of getting tips and traffic on him, but he was able to find the shots,” added Oshie after the Holtbeast’s best performance of the post season.

John Carlson and Nate Schmidt were really good for the third straight contest. The duo, alone, had 12 of the 58 Washington shot attempts in this game. The 88 car, who played 17:22, really brings energy and speed to the Capitals backend and he’s been a perfect fit in this matchup against Toronto.

Ovechkin played 19:29 despite the cheap shot he took from Kadri. He had only five shot attempts, but his line was the second best one for Washington on this evening and made things tough for Coach Mike Babcock’s squad.

The Caps best line was the Johansson-Kuznetsov-Williams trio. They were all over the Leafs all night and it was fitting that they notched the game winning tally. The three of them had 15 shot attempts and Kuzy had six shots on goal, himself. But it was Stick who really stabilizes that line with his tenacious play and ability to win board battles and keep pucks alive. Justin now has three goals in this series and he thrives in the post season.

“He’s one of those guys that when everyone gets tense and grab their sticks a little tight, he gets more focused and finds a way to pull off the big play,” finished Oshie.

Pay that Man (Williams), too!

It was a big play alright, and now the Caps can close the series out in Toronto on Sunday with a win. That will not be an easy task as the Leafs are playing well and with intensity. They’ve forced Washington to raise their level of play and if the Capitals can survive this series, they should be very prepared for you know who.

But first things first, there is still another game to win and what Coach Trotz’ crew needs to do is play in their own zone solidly like they did most of game five. They also need to press the play and attack the Leafs defense. Pucks must go on net or deep and the forwards need to fight for the rebounds and loose discs. It’s simple hockey, but it takes commitment and determination in order to be successful.

Notes: Power plays were four to three for Toronto. I thought the zebras missed several calls on the Leafs. The game was even and yet the visitors ended up with 8:00 of man advantage time to just 4:43 for Ovi and company. That’s awfully fishy!…final shot attempts were 63-58 for Toronto…the Caps were 36-30 on draws and Beagle was 9-4, including the big d zone one in OT that led to the winning goal…Carlson led the Capitals in ice time with 23:17. He was outstanding once again and appears to finally be recovered from his late season injury…Wilson took four minor penalties and only played 10:16. He needs to stay out of the box…Brett Connolly only played 6:12, but he was much better in game five. He was more physical; he just needs to look for his shot more often. A quick release in the slot could net him a tally…Ovi had six of the Caps 34 hits. The Leafs had 23 hits…there was another four on four instance and Washington carried the play. Schmidt was a definite factor in that domination.

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Leafs win

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“Stubborn” Caps Need to Look in the Mirror

Posted on 16 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

“I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways..” – Michael Jackson

Through two games of their opening round Stanley Cup Playoff series, which is now tied 1-1 after Saturday’s 4-3 double overtime loss, the Washington Capitals have not resembled the team that had the best record in the NHL this season.

They’ve turned way too many pucks over in all areas of the ice, especially in the neutral zone and their own end. They’ve also overpassed on too many occasions taking themselves out of quality shooting and scoring opportunities in the offensive zone. Proof of this is the giveaway stats from game two: 28 for Washington and just 17 for Toronto.

They were crushed on faceoffs, 61-39, in game two, which was a reason why they “chased the game” as Coach Barry Trotz described how his team was playing.

On the other side, Coach Mike Babcock was incredibly confident in his post game presser following Kasperi Kapanen’s winning tally after 91 minutes and 53 seconds of hockey. Babcock, who had to go with five defensemen when Roman Polak was injured late in period two, was masterful in working tentative zebras Tim Peel and Eric Furlatt for extra time on a couple of OT icings with a shortened bench. He also said his team will get better and better as the series goes on. He noted that he gets the matchup choices now with games three and four in the Big Smoke.

Babcock sure isn’t intimidated or impressed with the Capitals.

Why should he be?

Sure, the Caps have a nice collection of talented players that look daunting on paper. You can go up and down the lineup and rattle off their high draft positions and individual accomplishments. But hockey isn’t about throwing your resume on the ice to decide who wins, especially in the playoffs. It’s all about playing hard and smart, winning the one on one battles.

That’s what forward Zach Hyman of the Leafs, a fifth round draft choice by the Florida Panthers, did in game two. To me, #11 is the perfect example of why Toronto is having no problems hanging with the Presidents’ Trophy winners, he’s constantly winning board battles and wearing out a Capitals defense that is supposed to be the difference maker in this series. So far the Caps have been atrocious in their own end and the primary reasons have been a lack of focus and effort. On the Leafs second goal on Saturday, two Washington forwards were in the slot with all of their weight on their front skate ready to rush up the ice instead of being focused on covering the Toronto players. That left Kapanen all alone to notch his first tally of the playoffs.

At even strength, Washington has only three goals in this series. One came as a result of a great forecheck (Tom Wilson’s game 1 OT winner), one was after back to back shifts where they wore out the Leafs and prevented them from changing (Nicklas Backstrom’s game tying tally that all started with Lars Eller winning a couple of board battles), and the other was a rebound marker by Justin Williams on the rush.

So that’s one rush goal in two games, yet that’s the style the Capitals have found themselves in too often in this series. That’s a reason why they went eight minutes without a shot on goal in period two in game one. Bad hockey!

When they’ve played smart and gotten the puck deep in Toronto’s end, they’ve had more success. They just haven’t done enough of that as Brooks Orpik told me after game two.

“I think sometimes we get a little narrow playing a rush game and I think our strength is when we get to their zone and start wearing teams down. That’s usually when we have our most success. They do a good job in the neutral zone and we know they are well coached. Sometimes it’s not a pretty game. It’s just simple and you have to take what they give you. You can’t be stubborn in that aspect,” said the 2009 Stanley Cup Champion.

Hammer meet nail head!

Orpik doesn’t talk to the media a lot and he’s a man of few words. So when he talks, everybody better listen up.

Stubborn. Unfocused. Fancy. Lazy. Soft.

All of those words could be used to describe the Capitals in the first two games.

Williams talked about “getting kicked in the teeth” when they lost to the Penguins last May. Right now that shoe is pretty close to the Capitals mouth.

So on Sunday and Monday when the coaches get them together to watch video, they will see a lot of what they’re doing wrong. Turnovers, over passing, losing board battles, and a lack of focus.  They’ll also see things they are doing correctly, like the shifts that led to the game tying goal. What they’ll see on that Backstrom goal was no fancy plays or passes, just hard work, focus, and a willingness to do the right things to generate quality scoring chances. The tally was simple hockey, a shot towards the cage that found its way to a player going to the net. It’s not rocket science.

So the Caps coaches and leaders need to stress the “play simple” message. They must play a smart game in all zones, go up and down the ice in a structured unit of five, and most importantly become Zach Hyman-like and take over the individual battles.

So it’s probably a good idea for each Cap to don their “Will over Skill” shirt on the flight to Toronto and ingrain it in their respective brains, because that’s the only way they’ll win this series.

Don’t be stubborn.

Play simple, hard, and smart!

“…take a look at yourself and make that change.”

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Willy GWG

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Wilson and Williams Lead Caps to 3-2 OT Victory in Game One

Posted on 14 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Tom Wilson picked a perfect time to score his first career NHL playoff goal. Willy batted down a poor clear up the boards by Leafs defenseman Martin Marincin with his glove and before Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen could get fully set, he fired the biscuit top shelf over the left shoulder of #31 as he went down into the butterfly position. The perfect shot gave the Washington Capitals a come from behind, 3-2, victory just 5:15 into overtime in the first game of their best of seven series.

The Caps are now up 1-0 and to quote the great Tom Hanks from Castaway.

Wilson! Wilson!!!! Wiiiilllllllllsssssooonnnnnn!!!

All season long the Capitals have had some issues when playing on more than a day’s rest and this game was no exception. Coach Barry Trotz did not like his teams first 30 minutes, at all, since Washington did not move their feet and they were extremely sloppy with their passes. It was bad hockey and as a result Toronto raced out to a 2-0 lead just 9:44 into the post season. Mitch Marner opened the scoring for the Leafs at 1:35 with a shot from the slot. Then with Nazem Kadri parked in the crease after cross checking Alex Ovechkin, Jake Gardiner’s shot from the slot went by Braden Holtby (35 saves). The zebras initially waved it off, but upon Coach Mike Babcock’s challenge they reversed the on ice call. Afterwards, the Holtbeast gave his take on how the Capitals should have handled that situation.

“I don’t know. I think that’s the right call. It’s more, in the future, us kind of pushing him out more, myself too, creating that goalie interference to create more space throughout the rest of the game. It’s kind of what you need to do when they are going to put a guy in the crease like that and wait for you to hit him. It was a common theme throughout the night so you look for patterns like that and we’re going to adjust next game.”

Speaking of patterns, for most of the first 30 minutes the Capitals were “playing slow,” as Nicklas Backstrom called it afterwards. Their passing was not crisp and they were not getting enough shots on net. Defensively, they were out of sync and the Leafs had 27 shots on goal just past the game’s halfway mark. It was not the type of hockey we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from Washington, but Trotz pointed out “there was no panic.”

Kevin Shattenkirk, who had an assist and nine shots on net in this tilt, told me on Sunday that the team would have stretches in the post season where they would not play well, but the key was just to stay on an even keel. Coach Trotz’ crew did just that and fortunately Mr. Game Seven, Justin Williams, scored the first two goals for the Capitals to even things up. “Stick’s” first goal came just after a five on three power play ended. Shattenkirk was winding up to shoot, but as he did so his stick broke and the puck slid over to T.J. Oshie to the left of the net. Most players would shoot from that position, but Osh Babe saw #14 wide open in front of the net and he put the puck right on Stick’s tape for an easy marker. That goal, which came less than three minutes after the Leafs went up two pucks, settled the Caps down a bit, but they still couldn’t take control of the game.

In the middle frame, Washington went over eight minutes without a shot on net, mainly because they were trying too much for the perfect play and as a result they over passed themselves out of position. But on a rush up the ice late in period two, Evgeny Kuznetsov found Matt Niskanen alone in the slot and #2 fired the puck on net. As Nisky told me afterwards, it wasn’t a great shot, but Andersen didn’t know where it was and with the puck under him he got up. That allowed Williams, who alertly hit the brakes at the top of the crease, to poke it in past the Leafs net minder to even the game up with four minutes to go.

“It was kind of a weird one, I was playing the wing at first on the breakout and then I was the fourth guy on the rush, probably not much of a chance of that shot going in, but Stick was able to pounce on a loose rebound, so I was just the fourth guy in the middle there. I was able to find just enough ice, it was a nice play by Kuzy,” said Niskanen on how he got the puck to set up the rebound goal for Wiliams.

Washington then received a late power play when Matt Martin was jailed for cross checking, but the Leafs were aggressive on the PK and only gave up one good look, to Shattenkirk. After two periods the Leafs had a 46-44 edge in shot attempts, including 28-25 in shots on goal.

In the third period, the Caps depth started to take over and the ice tilted Washington’s way, but Toronto still had some good chances. Coach Trotz’ crew had a 24-12 advantage in shot attempts and a 13-7 margin in shots on goal. It was much better hockey, but the Leafs still did a good job at jamming the walls on the Caps breakout forcing Washington to make a difficult zone exit or simply dump the puck in the air over the Leafs D.

In the overtime, the Capitals dominated with their depth and eventually it was Washington’s fourth line that got the game winner. With the Caps top trio not having a real quality game, it was imperative that a goal come from the bottom six, and Wilson delivered.

Overall, the Caps have to be really happy that their second line kept them in the game early on. Williams is known for his leadership and his ability to score big goals. He did just that in this one by paying the price and going to the net.

“He knows what time of year it is. You can see he goes to where you score goals. He’s so good at board battles and making little plays that move the game along, but he knows where the money’s at and that’s in the crease, so he goes there and really got us going tonight, for sure,” stated Niskanen on #14.

“Big time plays out of Justin Williams, he’s no stranger to them and he was someone who we really rallied around tonight,” added Shattenkirk.

Goaltending, on both sides, was very good in this game. Holtby had some rebound issues early, but as the game went on, he shut the door and made several big stops. Andersen was under siege a great deal as time progressed and the Caps ended up with 44 shots on goal. He made many saves, and Shattenkirk praised him when asked afterwards.

“He was [very good], and I think my biggest mistake was I was taking too long to shoot. I was allowing him to set on me and really just take away all of the angles. I have to be a little bit quicker with how I’m shooting the puck. I’m happy that I was putting myself in the right positioning to get those chances,” started #22.

As for the lack of shots in that eight plus minute stretch in the middle frame, Shattenkirk had an answer for it, as well.

“They did a good job of boxing out and sometimes we were just waiting for guys to get to the net and when we do that, it’s hard, because he’s a big goalie and when he sets himself he’s hard to score on from outside the tight areas.”

So the message going forward is for the Caps to shoot the puck quicker. Wilson proved that method will work with his game winning tally.

The Capitals took a while to find their rhythm on Thursday night after three days off against a talented and speedy Leafs squad, but now they get back to a game every other day schedule, one that has worked well for them this season. Coach Trotz stated afterwards that this contest was a wake up call and finished with the following:

“I’m sure you’ll see a much different team next game.”

Notes: Dmitry Orlov led the Caps in ice time with 25:22. Niskanen logged 24:36…The Leafs rode their top four D hard. Gardiner played 26:27, Matt Hunwick logged 26:04, Morgan Reilly was in at 24:24, and Roman Polak had 23:52. Connor Carrick and Marincin, the third pair, were right around 14 minutes…Washington’s third line had 17 shifts together for a total of 10:39 of ice time. Like most of the team, they were at their best in the third period…the Caps lost the face off battle, 38-33. Kuznetsov was 8-2, but Lars Eller was 3-11…game two is at the Verizon Center on Saturday at 7 pm.

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Caps Keep Rolling in Beantown

Posted on 08 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

On Saturday afternoon in Beantown, the Washington Capitals just kept on rolling, defeating the Boston Bruins, 3-1, with goals from Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Justin Williams. Philipp Grubauer received the start in the cage and he stopped 21 shots. #31 was excellent between the pipes, once again, to run his 2016-17 record to a very impressive 13-6-2.

For the Caps (55-18-8, 118 points), this was a meaningless game in terms of standings points. They’ve already won the Federal League, er, Presidents’ Trophy, and are just trying to figure out who they’ll play in round one, which will likely start at the Verizon Center on Thursday night. The Bruins are one of the teams they could face and if there was any hesitation from Washington on wanting to play them, the Caps could’ve tanked this affair to ensure that they wouldn’t face Brad Marchand and company.

Instead the Capitals dominated the Bruins like they’d gladly take on a team that they’ve now gone 9-0 against since Barry Trotz took over as Washington’s bench boss (h/t to Ben Raby). The Caps were physical early on and very structured defensively. Boston, who was missing their top scorer Marchand due to suspension (he speared a Bolt earlier in the week and was feeling shame in the press box for two games), had a hard time getting through Washington’s neutral zone and defense and most of their 48 shot attempts came from the perimeter, which made it difficult to put a biscuit by Grubauer.

On offense, the Capitals were sloppy at times, but when they fired the puck, they got it to the net to the tune of 32 shots on goal. Washington’s first tally, just 4:21 into the contest, came on a speedy three on two rush led by Jojo. Marcus carried the puck up the center of the ice and as he crossed the offensive blue line he worked a great give and go around Zdeno Chara with Justin Williams that culminated with Jojo beating Anton Khudobin on the backhand for his career high 24th marker.

Boston was already missing their best offensive blue liner, Torrey Krug, and things got worse for the Bruins defense when Brandon Carlo was injured on a play in the left wing corner. Carlo went back to gather in a loose puck with Alex Ovechkin in hot pursuit. Carlo was skating into the corner and with the Gr8 expecting him to turn to play the puck, he went to finish his check. However, #25 lost an edge and went down awkwardly right as Ovi was going to deliver the boom. Fortunately Ovechkin let up, but Carlo still crashed hard into the boards and had to leave the game. You could see Alex felt bad about it, he gave him the stick tap as Carlo was working his way up, but it was just a hockey play gone wrong. Washington led, 1-0, after 20 minutes and in shot attempts, it was 20-15 for the good guys.

In the middle frame, things were tight checking and calm for the first 12 minutes or so, but Evgeny Kuznetsov took a lazy hooking penalty (Move Your Feet!) and that gave Boston some life. They would not score on the man advantage, but after Kuzy came out of the box he made a terrible own zone turnover that Colin Miller would deposit behind Grubauer on a rebound. Simply put, it was back to back bad shifts by #92 that allowed the game to be tied up, and he knows better than to make those two mistakes – they must cease starting on Thursday because he is critical to the Caps post season success.

Washington, however, would not be deterred by that tally. They amped up the pressure and scored the next three goals, but only two of them counted due to bad zebras. First, Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom made two sensational passes to set Shattenkirk up in the slot for a sweet tally. That goal was just 56 ticks after the Bruins had tied the contest and it clearly deflated Boston. Shattenkirk would score again just 1:22 later, but the NHL reviewers in Toronto and the on ice zebras combined to call goalie interference on Williams, who was shoved partly into the Qdoba guy in net by his own player. That play was similar to the goal Dallas scored against the Caps to open the game back on March 6th where the reviewer ruled Brooks Orpik pushed the Stars player into Braden Holtby so the goal stood. In this case, a nowhere near as egregious infraction occurred, but they waved the tally off. Spin the wheel NHL, you continue to make no sense or have any consistency on these calls! Simply put, it’s a big joke the way these reviews and rulings go down.

Anyways, the next Capitals goal would have no chance of being reviewed and overturned. Washington won an offensive zone faceoff back to Nate Schmidt (+3) and he spotted Kuznetsov wide open on the right side of the slot. Kuzy took Schmidty’s great pass and slid the puck perpendicularly through a seam in the Bruins defense to Williams, who quickly buried it into a wide open cage for his career high 24th goal of the season. That was a thing of beauty with 50 seconds left in period two. The Caps still had the edge in shot attempts, 40-33, and 24-15 in shots on goal.

With Khudobin out of the game due to “not feeling well,” Tuukka Rask came in to play the final 20 minutes. After some heated earlier moments in this tilt, this last stanza was glorified preseason hockey with neither club wanting to risk any injuries. When the final horn sounded, the shot attempts ended up, 52-48, for the Caps and 32-21 in terms of shots on goal.

The Bruins were clearly missing their leading scorer in this one, but they still have some punch up front with Patrice Bergeron, David Backes, David Pastrnak, and David Krejci. Washington did a great job at keeping Boston from the paint and at the other end, the Caps took advantage of a slow blue line to score some pretty goals. If the Capitals do get Boston, it is a good matchup from a pace of play perspective. Washington is faster than Butch Cassidy’s crew and the only downside would be the chippy after the whistle type of stuff Boston likes to get into. They are nowhere near as dirty as the Flyers, but I’d still prefer to not have to go to battle against those guys. The Caps would have a great chance at prevailing, but like last year’s first round matchup against those smelly guys from Filthy, it would likely come at a physical price.

The best news of all, however, was that Washington appeared to come out of the game unscathed in terms of injuries and will have one more regular season contest on Sunday at the Verizon Center, against Florida, before the post season begins. John Carlson, who has missed three straight games with a lower body injury, is supposed to suit up to shake off the rust.

The Caps will want to stay healthy and not get anyone suspended, so I expect a “friendly” game against Jaromir Jagr and company.

With Toronto defeating the Penguins, 5-3, on Saturday night, Washington will now face either Boston or Toronto in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If the Leafs earn at least a point on Sunday evening against Columbus, it’s the Caps vs. Boston.

Notes: The 3 pm scheduled puck drop did not occur until 3:28, thanks NBC (NOT!)…Brett Connolly missed the matinee due to illness, he did not even make the trip. Paul Carey took his place in the lineup and played well in 13:21 of ice time. His great skating ability was a big advantage against some cement laden skaters on the Bruins…the Caps were 0 for 4 on the power play, but two for two on the penalty kill…Shattenkirk was brilliant again in this one and led the Caps in time on ice with 22:54. That guy is good and getting better and better in Trotz’ system…the Caps are 19-0-0 against the Bruins when #19 gets a point (h/t to Rob Carlin of Comcast)…Jay Beagle was clipped by a careless Krejci high stick late in the game. A double minor was called…the Capitals are 10-1 in their last 11 games.

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Caps Hold On For a Big Win in Colorado

Posted on 30 March 2017 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals raced out to a 4-1 lead just past the midpoint of Wednesday’s late game with Colorado and then hung on for the last 26 plus minutes to eke out a 5-3 victory at the Pepsi Center.

The Caps, who played in Minnesota the night before while the last place Avs rested, were sloppy in the opening frame, but managed to forge a 2-1 advantage. Washington’s third line of Lars Eller, Andre Burakovsky, and Brett Connolly, who struggled against the Wild on Tuesday, were dominant on their first shift and #10 drew a penalty just 2:27 into the contest.

Alex Ovechkin and company were red hot on the man advantage, having gone three for four on Tuesday, so to get an early power play, was big for Coach Trotz’ crew. The first unit was unable to score, but the second unit fended off an Avalanche shorthanded rush and caught the cellar dwellers with a four on one rush of their own. Burakovsky made a sweet feed to Kuznetsov, and with Justin Williams driving to the net, #92 dropped one to John Carlson coming hard in the slot, and #74 buried it top shelf at the 4:00 mark of this game.

Washington was not sharp in the opening twenty, and as a result Colorado was generating speed coming through the neutral zone and getting scoring chances. One of those would go in at the 11:11 mark, but Jay Beagle restored the Capitals lead when he deflected home a sweet point shot from Kevin Shattenkirk just 37 seconds later. That was a good omen, because coming into the game the Caps were 10-0-0 this season when #83 scores a goal (h/t Adam Miller) and 33-1-5, all time.

Colorado had a 21-18 advantage in shot attempts after one period.

In the middle stanza, it was mostly all Capitals. Washington chucked the kitchen sink at Calvin Pickard (30 saves) and it took a deflection goal off of a Shattenkirk shot that first hit T.J. Oshie’s stick and then Marcus Johansson’s chest to get a biscuit by #31 on the power play. The Caps really had their legs going and when Jojo made a great rush down the left wing and fed Kuznetsov for an easy goal at 11:03 it looked like the rout was on.

Just a minute and 35 seconds later, Shattenkirk made another great pass, this time to Beagle in the slot, and #83 fired it quickly, but it hit the cross bar. While he was shooting he was cross checked badly in the rib section from behind by Matt Duchene, but no penalty was called as the zebras were once again officiating the score. That non call would prove costly and started to change the game.

The Avs would pull to within two goals 62 seconds later on a two on one rush. Matt Niskanen was hung out to dry and he tried to block the pass by leaving his feet, but he failed badly and Matt Nieto had a lay up tally. Coach Trotz’ squad kept the pressure on and nearly scored again, especially late in the period on a power play, but the Avs were saved by the bell. For those middle 20 minutes the Capitals outshot attempted the Avalanche, 27-9. It was pure domination, but Pickard made some big stops and had some luck to keep Colorado with a chance at getting even by game’s end.

In the third period, after an early flurry that saw Pickard flat out rob Williams, it was clear that the Capitals legs were growing weary. Just 4:29 into the frame, Nathan MacKinnon made a great rush up the ice and he went inside out on Dmitry Orlov and beat Philipp Grubauer (32 saves). An iffy cross checking call on Brooks Oprik, after #44 was felled much worse in the crease by a cross check just beforehand, gave the Avalanche a power play and they nearly tied it, but Gruabuer was strong. For the remainder of the game, #31 was super solid as the Caps literally hung on to their one goal lead. Finally, with Pickard on the bench for the extra attacker, Shattenkirk and then Tom Wilson made good defensive plays, and that allowed Eller to fire the puck from his own blueline into the vacant cage with 1:22 remaining.

Grubauer, who was really good in this one, made a few more big saves down the stretch and the Capitals gladly were ready to leave the Mile High City with two important standings points.

Shattenkirk was clearly the best player for Washington in this one. He logged a team high 21:22, had two assists, and was +2. He is really fitting in well, especially on the power play, where the Caps went two for three. That is five for seven over the course of these two back to back games and a huge reason why Washington won both tilts.

The Caps third line, after a rough outing in Minnesota and reduced ice time, stepped up in this game and played a big role in the win. I still would’ve liked to have seen them get a few more shifts, they only had 14 together, but if they keep playing like that and shooting the puck (they had 12 shot attempts) they will see their time on ice go up.

Overall, this was not a pretty victory, but the Caps did what they had to do to move to 110 points (51-17-8) and they take a five point lead over the Columbus Blue Jackets and seven points on the Penguins in the Metropolitan Division. The Blue Jackets have a game in hand, which they’ll play on Thursday, at Carolina. Washington will be in Arizona on Friday night before taking on Columbus at Nationwide Arena at 6 pm on Sunday.

Notes: The Avs dominated the third period and ended up winning the shot attempt battle, 63-57…the Caps were a perfect three for three on the penalty kill…Johansson and Kuznetsov each had a goal and an assist…Washington’s top line, which carried the team on Tuesday in Minnesota, looked exhausted on Wednesday. Luckily lines two through four really stepped up to get the win…the faceoff battle was tied at 28. Nicklas Backstrom was 9-5.

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Depleted Caps Out Skate the Super Fast Oilers in a 2-1 Victory

Posted on 24 February 2017 by Ed Frankovic

In a fun game to watch, the Washington Capitals increased their franchise record tying home winning streak to 13 games with a 2-1 victory over the super fast and talented Edmonton Oilers on Friday night.

The Caps were missing some big names due to the fact that the sore loser Neanderthal Flyers banged up Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, and T.J. “Pay the Man” Oshie in Filthy on Wednesday night. Washington was already without Andre Burakovsky, who fractured his hand before the bye week.

Riley Barber and Aaron Ness were called up from Hershey and suited up. Both Taylor Chorney and Nate Schmidt were in the lineup and boy did Caps Coach Barry Trotz get a SUPER outing from his six defensemen. The speedy Oilers, led by all world center Connor McDavid, are scoring machines, but Washington kept them predominantly to the perimeter in this game and the only goal they allowed was a turnover by Evgeny Kuznetsov and Justin Williams in the first minute of period two. Leon “Sniper” Draisaitl pounced on that miscue and beat Braden Holtby (30 saves) from the prime scoring area. There was nothing really the Holtbeast could do there, that one was on his forwards.

Speaking of Kuzy and Stick, those guys had that blunder and one other that led to an Oilers partial breakaway, but they were pretty much flying all night. Kuznetsov was matched up most of the evening against the 1st pick in the 2015 NHL draft and to be honest, #92 had bragging rights on this night. When it comes to skating, McDavid is almost unbeatable, but watching Kuznetsov stride in this one was an absolute joy. He had his wheels going so well he looked like he could have starred for the USSR Red Army teams of the 1970’s.

As for Williams, well he scored the game winner on a great no look pass from Jay Beagle just 5:48 into period three. Beagle’s line, the 4th unit of “Flip Phone” Beags, Tom Wilson, and Daniel Winnik was outstanding, once again, and sure seem to be making a strong case to be the best fourth line in the NHL right now. Wilson scored the opening salvo in this affair after a great pass from Dmitry Orlov at 12:22 of the 1st frame. #9’s ability to carry the puck in onside with his feet, Pele style, after a pass from Chorney, set the play up. Wilson, who is steadily improving in the offensive end, took the disc and fired it towards the net. Cam Talbot (23 saves) had no chance to stop the shot, which was just inside the far post, because Winnik was running traffic in front of the cage at the perfect time.

That 4th line not only played a big role in the two goals, but they continually seized momentum for Washington with strong shifts, especially with their forechecking and strong wall play. Simply put, they wore the Oilers big guns out and made them go 200 feet. By game’s end, big lug Milan Lucic was exhausted and resorted to barking at Wilson from the bench. Clearly #43 had gotten into #27’s grill big time.

On the back end, John Carlson was just outstanding logging 27:19 of ice time. Orlov played just five seconds short of his season high (24:24) and he was downright dominant. His overall game has just improved so much this season and that is a big reason why the Capitals are leading the league. Chorney was great in 18:37 of ice time and Karl Alzner was his usual steady self with an assist in 21:24.

The other thing the Capitals coaching staff will really like, besides the strong effort, was the fact that the Caps didn’t take a single penalty in this contest. That was a direct result of keeping their feet moving the whole game (effort) and keeping their sticks down. Washington was outshot attempted in this one (61-54), but in terms of having the puck, my eyes tell me the Capitals had the biscuit more often than their counterparts, but they did struggle to get shots from in close, and naturally they had several sequences where they over passed when a shot was the right play. Kuznetsov and Lars Eller were both guilty of not firing from the prime scoring zone in this one.

But overall, this was a gutsy effort by a depleted team against an up and coming hot Edmonton squad. The Caps played a high tempo game against one of the fastest teams in the league and their depth was the difference. That’s very encouraging.

The victory improves Washington to 41-12-7 (89 points) and they are +73 in terms of goal differential. More impressive, though, is the way this team is rebuilding their game after the bye week. This was the fourth game since beach time (well, skiing for Orlov) and you could see the positive result of the rest in the way the Capitals players were really moving their legs and skating. When they do that and get pucks and bodies to the cage, they are hard to beat.

Yes, they missed the “Osh Babe” and Burakovsky up front, but the depth of the team showed and that has to make both Coach Trotz and General Manager Brian MacLellan feel really good heading into Wednesday’s NHL trade deadline. I don’t expect anything major to happen from the Caps or around the league given how close the standings are and how many teams still think they can make the postseason (but let’s just hope the Flyers are golfing thanks to the Caps win on Wednesday. No one outside of that city wants to see those goons in the playoffs).

Notes: McDavid had an assist, but he was -1 in 21:42 of ice time…Brett Connolly moved up to the top line in #77’s absence and played well. He had one sequence where he made a great defensive play, then broke the puck out up the ice with speed to get a one on one with Talbot. Unfortunately he missed the net…Washington won the face off battle, 28-16. Flip Phone was 10-2…Barber played a team low 9:56 and Ness only received 10:37 of ice time, but both did not look out of place…Alex Ovechkin had nine shot attempts (3 SOG) in 18:31. He looked good in this one and something tells me a goal scoring streak is coming for him soon…Wilson had three shots on goal and five hits. He was a force all night…the injuries to Niskanen, Oprik, and Oshie are all believed to be minor, but they will not play on Saturday in Smashville. The Caps take on the Predators at 5:00, but I’m not sure why they are playing so early in the Music City?

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