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Tough Weekend for Caps, But Not For Hershey

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Tough Weekend for Caps, But Not For Hershey

Posted on 18 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

After going 4-0-1 in the first nine days of a seven games in 11 day stretch, it appears fatigue finally caught up with the Washington Capitals as they dropped two tough one goal losses to the Nashville Predators (4-3) and Dallas Stars (5-4) over the weekend on days 10 and 11. In both contests the Capitals fell behind early, two pucks in Music City and then a 3-0 deficit in Big D, expended tons of energy in rallying, before wilting late to lose two heart breakers.

The loss to the Predators, in Coach Barry Trotz’ return to Smashville, was especially disheartening since the Caps led 3-2 with five minutes to go. But a soft penalty call on John Carlson, a bad PK, and then a Matt Niskanen untimely turnover added up to a horrible defeat.

In Dallas, it was the bad start, too many penalties, and just awful defense that cost Washington the game. They turned the puck over too much and allowed a super fast squad to beat them in transition. In addition, the Capitals strong defensive zone play that we’ve come to expect under Trotz looked very Oatesian in the Lone Star State and, at times, in Nashville.

Washington gave up nine goals in two games and that is unacceptable. Looking at all of those tallies against, it’s hard to fault the goaltender (Braden Holtby on Friday and Justin Peters on Saturday) on any of them.

Back to back situations also seem to plague this Capitals team. They are now 1-6-1 this season on the second half of those and 0-5-1 when game two is on the road. Again, unacceptable and the team they are chasing for the division lead, the New York Islanders, is 6-2 in those same instances. That’s a nine point swing and the reason why New York currently owns a five point lead in the division race over the Caps (61 points to 56).

The good news is the Caps top line continues to sizzle and Alex Ovechkin (25 goals) is playing some of the best hockey of his career. In addition, the Caps have a game against the Edmonton Oilers at home on Tuesday before getting a week off for the NHL all star break. Boy do the Caps need some rest.

Along with the defensive zone issues, Washington’s second line continues to be wildly inconsistent. Evgeny Kuznetsov was downright terrible in Nashville and he, along with Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer just aren’t where this team needs their second line to be.

Barring some major injuries, you can pretty much bet the house that the Caps will return to the playoffs this spring. But just making it is not enough. Ovechkin is not getting any younger nor is Brooks Orpik and some others, so the Capitals need to seriously think about what they need to do over the remaining 37 games to prepare themselves to win in the post season. The Eastern Conference has many good teams, but there is no clear cut front runner. GM Brian MacLellan and Trotz need to figure out what to do about the forward line combinations, including determining if some trades are needed, and solidify them for April and beyond. The East is there for the taking so just being content with getting back in the dance should not cut it.

It’s been an encouraging season and a major turnaround for Washington thanks to off season defensive acquisitions along with bringing in a talented and organized coaching staff. As George Allen used to say, “The Future is Now.” The Caps have to think like that, unlike the words we used to hear from the former GM about just getting in and hoping to win. You have to be aggressive at the trade deadline in an attempt to plug any holes and build depth for the unexpected injury that could occur down the stretch and in the post season. It will be interesting to see what MacLellan does since the Caps have some holes that the kids on the roster (Tom Wilson, Andre Burakovksy, and Kuznetsov) have not been able to fill so far this season.

Speaking of kids, it was a super weekend for the Washington AHL team, the Hershey Bears. Coach Troy Mann’s squad won both weekend tilts to seize first place in the East Division. The Bears are also a strong defensive team but have had trouble putting the biscuit in the basket. Lately though, they’ve gotten hot offensively and have won five of six games.

On Sunday, I took in the Bears tilt against the despised Lehigh Valley Phantoms (Philadelphia Flyers AHL club) at the Giant Center and came away very impressed with the team game that Hershey plays. Phoenix Copley got the start in net and he was solid, allowing only two tallies on 30 shots. Hershey does a decent job of keeping opponents on the perimeter and they transition from defense to offense well. I was impressed with the speed of Dustin Gazley. Gazley did a good job of helping a penalty killing unit that was a perfect eight for eight on Sunday.

Stan Galiev has 13 goals and is really improving. He is showing he belongs in the AHL now after a couple of years of bouncing back and forth between “The A” and the ECHL. Connor Carrick was okay on defense for Hershey, as well. Both played big roles in a Bears five on three situation in period two. Carrick manned the point, like Mike Green does in Washington, while Galiev had the Ovechkin spot on the PP. They moved the puck well in that situation but Phantoms goalie Anthony Stolarz, who was very shaky in the first period, was super in the middle frame and shut the Bears down to keep his club in it. Late in period three the Bears would score and then add an empty net tally to close out the victory.

Overall, I like Hershey’s team and they are poised to do well come AHL playoffs time. However, I didn’t see anyone I thought must be called up to DC this season. That’s also a testament to the strong roster the Capitals have at the NHL level, too. If there is a call up that could play a factor in Washington down the stretch, I’d have to say it would be goalie Philip Grubauer. With Peters struggling to get wins, one has to wonder if the team has much confidence in him? Grubauer does have NHL experience and has shown the ability to steal a game at that level where Peters just hasn’t come close to doing so in 2014-15.

Notes: The Caps out shot attempted Dallas, 68-51, but the only thing that counts is the final score…Hershey is 3-2-1 against Lehigh Valley but they play SIX more times this season…Grubauer returned from injury and won, 5-4, versus Albany on Saturday night.

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Ovechkin 74th GWG Leads Caps Over Avs

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Ovechkin 74th GWG Leads Caps Over Avs

Posted on 12 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals were the better team on Monday night at the Verizon Center earning a 2-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche, plain and simple.

This game really should not have been this close, but former Caps goalie Semyon Varlamov was outstanding, along with the posts around him, for two periods to keep a game that should’ve been 5-1 in favor of Washington to just 2-1 after 40 minutes. Colorado would finally show up for the 3rd period throwing 18 pucks at Braden Holtby (31 saves), but most were from the perimeter and #70 continued his hot run to preserve the victory for the Capitals.

Washington improves to 23-11-8 (54 points) and have closed to within three points of the Metropolitan Division leading Islanders, who face the red hot New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. If the Rangers win again in regulation and the Penguins don’t win against Minnesota, then the entire Metro, from 1st to 4th, will be separated by just three points (Pittsburgh has 56 points). Bottom line, this race is ultra close and all four teams could win the banner come April.

Back to Monday’s win over Patrick Roy’s Avs, Washington was flat out dominant for 40 minutes out shooting Colorado, 32-14. Somehow, primarily due to Varly and his goal posts, this game was tied after the Avs scored on a power play midway through period two. But Varlamov ended up causing his team’s demise by taking a stupid shot at Tom Wilson and the Gr8, Alex Ovechkin, buried the game winning goal on the power play with just over two minutes left in the middle frame. That goal was set up by hard work on the boards from Marcus Johansson and then two pretty backhanded passes from Nicklas Backstrom and Troy Brouwer.

Ovechkin now has 22 goals on the season and he’ll head to another NHL All Star game next week.

Sunday afternoon out at Kettler was an optional skate for the Capitals but the fourth line of Jason Chimera, Jay Beagle, and Tom Wilson (along with Michael Latta) all worked with assistant coach Lane Lambert on wall play and scoring from in front of the net. It turns out that session would really pay off as Washington’s first goal came off of a face off. Mike Green fed Wilson in the high slot for a shot that #43 put on the net. Chimera then deflected it and Beagle out worked the Avs defender at the far post and backhanded the biscuit by Varlamov. Beagle has 12 points this season, all in Capitals wins (h/t @JapersRink for that super stat). Officially, the Caps are 11-0-0 when Beagle gets a point (h/t to Caps PR team). Hard work pays off, and Beagle is certainly a guy who brings the effort every night.

The Caps won their sixth straight at home and are now 22-1-3 when tallying first. It was a solid victory against a fast Colorado team that likes to score off of the rush. With the Avs only goal coming on the power play, you can correctly say that Coach Barry Trotz’ club stuck to their game plan to get a big two points.

Now Washington gets a chance for some revenge on the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday at 8 pm at the Verizon Center. Flyers goalie Steve Mason is out injured so they’ll face either Ray Emery or Rob Zepp, who made 21 saves in his second NHL win in as many starts on Monday night when Philly throttled Tampa, 7-3.

Notes: Ovechkin’s game winning goal was his franchise leading 74th. Peter Bondra is now in 2nd place with 73…the Caps won the shot attempt battle, 79-56. The Avs closed a huge gap with their third period push…Evgeny Kuznetsov continues to improve and he had four shots on goal and four other attempts in one of his best games of the season…the Caps won the face off battle, 37-29…Brooks Orpik led the Caps in ice time with 24:47. John Carlson logged 24:42…defensemen Nate Schmidt suffered a fractured bone in a stint down in Hershey on Sunday night and will miss 6-8 weeks…goalie Justin Peters was recalled after playing two games for the Bears this past weekend. He had a shutout in Albany on Friday, then made 31 saves in a tough loss (allowed 3 goals) on Sunday…expect Peters to play Saturday in Dallas after Washington faces the Predators in Nashville on Friday night.

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Caps Heading in Right Direction at Season’s Midpoint

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Caps Heading in Right Direction at Season’s Midpoint

Posted on 11 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

What a difference a year makes.

At the 2013-14 midpoint, the Washington Capitals were sitting at 20-15-6, good for 46 points. But boy were things coming apart at the seams in a downward trend that started in early December. During that stretch, one in which Coach Adam Oates used three starting goalies to pretty much wreck Braden Holtby’s game, the Caps grew further apart as a team with three players asking for trades (Martin Erat, Dmitry Orlov, and Michal Neuvirth). They were a squad that relied almost exclusively on their power play to win games and were very poor at even strength. In addition, in game 41, a loss at home to Carolina in overtime, they iced a defense of Mike Green, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Dmitry Orlov, John Erskine, and Steve Oleksy. The Caps would go 18-15-8 the rest of the way looking like a totally lost team that would miss the post season and ultimately cost Oates and GM George McPhee their jobs. Over the course of the season, the Capitals used 14 different defensemen and four goalies (traded for Jaroslav Halak at the trade deadline). That version of the Capitals was a team in total chaos.

Fast forward to today, after 41 games the Capitals are 22-11-8 (52 points) and following a sluggish start, have gone 12-1-4 in their last 17 games. Coach Barry Trotz has brought in a new system and a new attitude and GM Brian MacLellan added two quality players, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, to a blue line that had been the team’s Achilles heel for several seasons. Trotz, who had coached the Predators since their first season, brought in an experienced coaching staff in Todd Reirden (defensemen), Lane Lambert (forwards), and Mitch Korn (goalies). All three have done a super job and Korn has allowed Holtby to get back to basics and return to the dominant level he was at in the spring of 2012 when the Caps narrowly missed making the Eastern Conference Finals. To date, they’ve used two goalies, with Holtby clearly the #1 net minder and carrying almost the entire load. On defense, they have quality and stability, they’ve only used seven different players on the back end. Red Wings coach Mike Babcock made a point, following Saturday’s game, to comment on the vast difference in the Washington defense, stating “anytime you have [Mike] Green playing at number five you have a real good back end.” (h/t to CSN’s Chuck Gormley for the quote).

Things are looking very good for this Capitals team. The key word in that sentence being “team.” Center Nicklas Backstrom, who is having yet another superb season, talked on Sunday afternoon about how things are different than past years under Trotz.

“We’ve been talking a lot about before the season and during the season to stick together and work together and doing the right things. It’s real important that everyone is paying attention to small details like face off plays, what we’re doing before every draw, stuff like that, so I think a lot of guys are buying into that and we’re following the game plan. Maybe before we’ve been doing our own things, so that has helped us a lot, I think,” said #19 when asked about the culture change that Trotz is implementing with the Caps.

“They make each other accountable, they don’t accept just going through the motions. When you fight to just go through the motions, that’s not a good culture to have. We’re not doing that, we’re staying on task…I told the guys I didn’t like the way we were playing the last two games [before Detroit] and I told the guys [Saturday] morning that if we want to be the team we think we can be we’re going to get tested tonight. I didn’t like some of the red flags I saw those last two games, we still got points and we won games, but you have to be honest with yourself. There will be times where you lose games and I’ll be happy with the way we played, we just didn’t win the game. Even when you win, you have to be honest with yourself, did you deserve to win the game or did you luck out? I think we are pretty honest, we have good evaluations…so we recognize we have some work to do,” said Trotz when asked about the culture change and where the team is at.

After winning against the Red Wings, Trotz felt better about things but admitted they are still a work in progress.

“I was real happy in the third period with the way we managed the game. We didn’t generate a lot of offense, but we didn’t give up anything, even on six on five they had a little bit, but it wasn’t chaos out there, it was controlled and we forced them to try to execute at an extremely high level and they didn’t get any free looks or anything like that. So we’re better, just in our structure, we recognize possession and we recognized when they weren’t attacking the interior. We stayed patient and when they tried to, we’ll just make one adjustment that we need to do better and if it happens next game we’ll be even more prepared. We try to learn from things that happen, experiences that can make ourselves better, instead of hey we just got lucky. We look for things every day,” said Trotz.

All of the changes have certainly helped the Capitals put themselves back in the playoff picture and right now, it looks like they will make the post season. But there are 41 games to go and the race is tight. While just making the playoffs is key, this club has a bigger goal, to compete for a Stanley Cup. To get to that phase, they have a lot of work to do.

So in the second half the key will be to sustain their focus so that they can improve. Even doing that, there are question marks. One thing to be concerned about is Holtby’s work load. The key will be for Justin Peters to assert himself as a viable back up option, especially with nine back to back tilts scheduled. If Peters can’t perform, then MacLellan will have to find someone who will fill that role, otherwise the Caps not only risk missing the playoffs, but having a very fatigued goalie in April and beyond.

The defense needs to stay healthy and certainly with the depth they have in the top five, Trotz has been able to increase the probability of that by spreading out the minutes. Another key to staying healthy, and winning, is cutting down on the number of penalties the team takes. There have been recent stretches where the parade to the box has cost them points. Finally, they have to stabilize their forward line combinations. We’ve seen a rotating door with Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin on the top unit and the latest project is having rookie Andre Burakovsky fill the right wing role after Tom Wilson and some others struggled. The second scoring line has also been woefully inconsistent. Recently it has shown signs of life with Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Troy Brouwer lighting the lamp more frequently. How that trio plays will be a factor in any possible deep playoff run. Simply put, the forward situation is concerning and it remains to be seen if the young players, Burakovsky, Kuznetsov, and Wilson, can improve enough by April to make this club a contender. If it looks like that isn’t going to happen then MacLellan will have to make a move for a top six forward.

Most of all though, this club needs to continue the process and commitment they’ve built up over the first 41 games and Backstrom certainly brought that home with his thoughts on Sunday afternoon.

“I think that it’s about time that we realize how to play as a team and right now it looks good but we have a long way to go. We’re not done yet, it’s just halfway through the season. We’ve got lots of work to do and we’re not where we want to be yet, so we really need to be humble and make sure we work hard every day and every night,” finished Backstrom.

 

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Caps, Holtby Shut Down Devils in Road Win

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Caps, Holtby Shut Down Devils in Road Win

Posted on 06 December 2014 by Ed Frankovic

After Tuesday night’s Caps loss to Vancouver, the Capitals players talked about getting off to better starts in games. Two contests later, they are two for two when scoring first, and now are 11-1-1 this season when doing so (h/t @ThePeerless).

Braden Holtby was fabulous in net stopping 33 shots and Jay Beagle scored the game winner on a “Jari Kurri” type rush and finish to lead Washington to a 4-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils in East Rutherford on Saturday night. The Caps are now 6-1-1 in the Metropolitan Division and are 12-10-4 overall (28 points), good for 3rd place in the division.

As predicted, this was a grind it out type of contest, with the team winning the individual puck battles and minimizing mistakes the likely victor. The Caps did that most of this game, outside of Karl Alzner getting walked by Danius Zubrus on the only Devils goal.

In the second frame, all four lines were contributing, which hasn’t happened much this season and that is when the Capitals broke a 1-1 tie to forge a 3-1 lead that they would nurse through the 3rd period until Brooks Laich’s empty netter sealed the deal.

After Beagle’s goal, both the first line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Tom Wilson and the new second line, based on even strengh utilization, of Laich, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward pinned the Devils in their own zone and that then allowed Marcus Johansson to draw a Devils penalty on the next shift. On the ensuing power play, Adam Henrique received a clean breakaway but Holtby stopped him cold. Washington then went down and received a sweet power play goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov with Laich providing some nice traffic in front. That sequence turned out to be the difference in the game.

New Jersey had the puck most of the 3rd frame, but the Capitals did a super job of not allowing any odd man rushes and they kept the Devils mostly to the outside. There were some flurries of activity for the Devils, but Holtby was strong, once again.

This was a classic road victory as Washington kept their game very simple. The Caps limited neutral zone turnovers and they routinely got pucks in deep on the Devils to try to wear out an inexperienced defense and keep the puck away from a talented and experienced forward group.

Coach Barry Trotz rolled his forward lines most of the night, but on defense, he went heavily with the trio of John Carlson (25:22), Brooks Oprik (25:18) and Matt Niskanen (24:36). Karl Alzner, who scored Washington’s 1st goal after Wilson forced a turnover, logged 20:44 but the other two D, Nate Schmidt and Jack Hillen, played only 11:15 and 9:35, respectively. This was an important game to win so Barry shortened his bench to give his club the best probability of doing that. It worked, as it did in Carolina on Thursday.

So the Caps have a little bit of momentum right now and their goalie, Holtby, is playing well. The team is making a better effort to get net presence and it is starting to pay off. They still don’t have a bonafide second line that can score when the Ovechkin line isn’t producing, but by relying less on the old second line (MJ90, Brouwer and either Kuznetsov or Andre Burakovsky) the Caps aren’t giving up untimely goals due to bad turnovers or missed defensive assignments.

Having Laich back has been a big plus since he helps Trotz better balance his lines, plus 21′s great work ethic rubs off on the rest of the squad. The team is a still a work in progress and as reported by TSN’s Bob McKenzie earlier this week, GM Brian MacLellan is trying to improve the forward position via the trade market.

But for now, this is what Trotz has to work with and lately he’s been using an old tactic of shortening the bench to try and close out games. Holtby has also helped him do that successfully.

Now it is on to Tampa to try to avenge a tough 4-3 defeat they endured there back in November. The Bolts lead the Eastern Conference with 39 points so this will be another good barometer on where the Capitals stand.

Notes:  Face offs were even at 34-34….shot attempts were 66-42 in favor of NJ but they were close to +20 in the 3rd period alone, so that can be explained mostly by score effects…the Caps were 1 for 2 on the power play and they successfully killed off both Devils power plays…That bitter loss to Tampa last month came as a result of a critical Burakovsky missed defensive coverage in the slot in the last 10 minutes. Burakovsky was scratched in NJ and I don’t expect him to play in Tampa either. He really would be best served getting some games down in Hershey to learn the center position, and more importantly, how to play defense. He’s only 19 and after all, if guys like Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf played close to 20 games in the AHL at the age of 20, why wouldn’t it be a bad thing for #65 to get some work down there and rebuild his confidence?

 

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Bottom Two Lines & Holtby Lead Caps over Canes

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Bottom Two Lines & Holtby Lead Caps over Canes

Posted on 04 December 2014 by Ed Frankovic

There are no style points in the NHL, you can look it up.

So despite all of the complaints from your fan base on twitter for not being perfect, a win is a win is a win.

On Thursday night in Carolina, the Capitals did what they needed to do to get a victory they desperately needed against a division opponent.

They didn’t put a dangerous Canes team that features Eric Staal, Alex Semin, and Jeff Skinner on the power play, they received excellent goaltending from Braden Holtby (29 saves), and they got super performances from their defense as well as their bottom six forwards.

The win moves the Caps to 11-10-4 (26 points) and ties them with the New York Rangers for 3rd place in the Metropolitan Division.

With the Caps struggling with slow starts and nine of the next 12 games on the road, Coach Barry Trotz’ club desperately needed an early goal to start things out right.

Jay Beagle delivered that after Jason Chimera, who might have had his best game of the season, outraced the Carolina d-man and fired a hard shot on Anton Khudobin. The Canes goalie couldn’t handle the puck and #83 scooped it into the net just over two minutes into the contest.

It was exactly the start this team needed and they had some other chances in the next two periods but couldn’t convert. Carolina then tied the game early in the third frame after an Andre Burakovsky offensive zone turnover led to a Canes counter attack. #65 then lost Semin in the slot and #28 fired a nasty backhander up under the cross bar to beat his old teammate. It was another nightmare defensive zone coverage shift for Burakovsky, who seems to be having more and more of those lately.

The kid is only 19 so asking him to play 2C in the NHL, at this point, is treacherous. Burakovsky has enormous potential but he doesn’t know how to play defense and trying to learn it against the world’s best players is not an easy chore. Perhaps the team should look at moving him down to Hershey so he can properly learn the defensive side of the house while building up his offensive confidence? You don’t want to wreck a player that has such a huge upside. Detroit routinely over cooks guys in the minors and Nashville put Filip Forsberg, who was 19 last season, down on the farm and he’s averaging a point a game now and carrying his club offensively. The NHL is a man’s league and if you aren’t ready it will destroy you over an 82 game season. So GM Brian MacLellan and Trotz should seriously consider what’s best for this player from a long term development standpoint.

Now back to the hard earned victory in Carolina where Washington’s bottom two lines carried the day. The third unit of Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward would net the game winner with just under four minutes left as excellent fore checking pressure led to a Canes turnover and Fehr buried it top shelf. Had he not put the biscuit in the basket the Caps would’ve had a power play anyways, but Fehr rendered that point moot.

So as stated earlier, this was not a pretty victory, but it was a big step in the right direction from a work ethic standpoint. The Caps didn’t come out sluggish and they really carried a lot of the wall play and individual puck battles, something they have not done well since their torrid six game start. There is still sloppy play and the top two lines are woefully inconsistent, especially the second unit. The top line was mediocore, at best, on Thursday as Alex Oveckin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Tom Wilson looked very sleepy for most of the contest.

In addition, the Caps power play failed to connect on two tries. The Canes shadowed the Gr8 and the other four forwards didn’t read and react to that properly, so assistant coach Blaine Forsythe has some work to do with that crew.

But defensively, the Capitals didn’t give Carolina a whole lot of space due to a hard work ethic. When the Canes did get some room, Washington did a nice job of blocking shots with none bigger than Brooks Orpik’s block of Semin’s grade A chance in the slot with the Carolina goalie pulled.

A win is a win is a win and when you work hard, like most of the Caps did on Thursday, you get the two points you deserved.

Notes: Washington lost the face off battle 32-28. Michael Latta was 3-10 on draws…Orpik had seven hits, seven blocked shots and led the team in ice time with 25:13…Burakovsky only played 10:02, lowest on the team…Evgeny Kuznetsov was a healthy scratch….courtesy of Adam Vingan, this was the Caps first victory scoring two or fewer goals in a regulation game since March 11, 2012 (Dale Hunter was head coach)…next up for the Caps are the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night. Last time these two teams played the Devils won, 1-0, at the Verizon Center. So expect another hard working, low scoring game.

 

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Ovechkin’s 12th of Season Propels Caps Over Islanders

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Ovechkin’s 12th of Season Propels Caps Over Islanders

Posted on 28 November 2014 by Ed Frankovic

Plain and simple, that was the Washington Capitals best game they’ve played all season.

The Caps outshot attempted New York, 70-60, dominated the face off battle, 34-21, received great goaltending from Braden Holtby (26 saves), finally scored at even strength, and their coach, Barry Trotz, made some outstanding pre and in game moves.

It was a very important in division win against a club that had won five in a row, in the Islanders.

So in two games, which I proclaimed were a measuring stick for Washington, they stood up very well taking three of four possible points to stay in 3rd place in the Metropolitan Division. The Islanders did get two points in the first game thanks to referee Kyle Rehman’s Thanksgiving Eve gift, but if I’m New York, I feel like the Islanders are improved but the Caps are a different and still improving club, as well, and should be even better as the season progresses.

Alex Ovechkin once again had the game winning goal, notching his 12th of the season after Tom Wilson made a great rush up the ice with the puck to get the Islanders moving backwards. The Gr8 used the New York D as a screen and rifled it by Chad Johnson, who more resembled OchoStinko tonight (22 saves on 26 shots).

Sure this victory would have been better had the Capitals beaten Jaroslav Halak, but you can only beat who the other team lines up against you. Johnson did have some quality saves, he had to because Washington had tons of excellent scoring chances, especially in periods two and three.

Holtby was outstanding and he had to be sharp from the get go as the Islanders really dominated the first five minutes. Washington only had one shot at the midway point of period one but then they took over. Before the game, Trotz switched up his lines moving Evgeny Kuznetsov up to the 2nd line with Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer while Andre Burakovsky moved down to the fourth line. Boy did that move pay off as Kuzy had a super game with a goal and an assist while MJ90 dominated the ice with a goal and an assist. Both played just under 16 minutes while Brouwer had an assist in just over 17 minutes. Washington needed that performance from their second line since it had gone six straight games without a goal. No doubt Kuznetsov deserves more playing time going forward. He still has some defensive issues, but Burakovsky is struggling more in the d-zone right now so 92 needs to remain there for at least the near future.

Defensemen Matt Niskanen had another stellar game pitching in three assists in 22:35 of ice time (team lead) and his hockey IQ is extremely high. Joel Ward’s empty net goal came because #2 was willing to take a hit as he threw the puck up the right wing boards to Ward. If Niskanen goes in soft at all on that play the Islanders likely come away with the biscuit. Just a smart and tough play by a very good defensemen there.

In addition to Trotz’ pre game line changes, he did a great job with the matchups late in period two once the Caps got the lead and especially in period three when the Capitals pulled away, for once. Barry likely learned from the two goals the Islanders scored late in period one when he got burned with Burakovsky on the ice against John Tavares on the first goal. #65 screened his own goalie and left one of the best pure goal scorers in the league all alone at the side of the net on that tally. The Islanders then tied it after Wilson mistakenly fought Matt Martin. Anders Lee scored shortly after the bout on a deflection in front when Karl Alzner failed to either block the point shot or tie up a New York forward in front.

But other than that, there wasn’t much to be unhappy about. Washington continued to do a better job of getting bodies to the front of the net so that bodes well for more goals going forward. It is very important to get points right now so that the Caps can make the playoffs and also move up in the division, but it’s even better when they play the right way and win.

On Friday, they played the right way and received a much earned 5-2 victory to improve to 10-8-4.

Notes: Burakovsky had the lowest ice time for the Caps (9:10), but he did score the first goal on the PP by going to the net and deflecting Niskanen’s shot home…the Caps got Brooks Laich back on Friday and they are now 5-0-2 with #21 in the lineup. His hard work rubs off on the rest of the team and he allows Trotz the ability to better balance the lines…the Caps play the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday at 7 pm on Hockey Night in Canada. I’d expect Justin Peters in net for Washington since Trotz and Mitch Korn won’t want to wear Holtby out.

 

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Ovechkin’s 2 Power Play Goals Not Enough in OT Loss

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Ovechkin’s 2 Power Play Goals Not Enough in OT Loss

Posted on 27 November 2014 by Ed Frankovic

After 20 games of basically “working on their new system”, the Washington Capitals have a chance to get an idea on where they stand as a team in a home and home series with the red hot New York Islanders on Thanksgiving Eve and then on Friday.

Round 1, played in the Nassau Coliseum, went to the Isles, 3-2, in overtime when John Tavares scored on the power play. The OT loss drops the Caps to 9-8-4 after 21 games.

So, what did I really like about Wednesday’s game?

Let’s start with the Washington power play which went 2 for 2. Nicklas Backstrom (two assists) was an absolute magician with both of his assists that led to Alexander Ovechkin tallies (the Gr8 now has 11 goals in 21 games). Matt Niskanen’s feed to Ovi on the first goal was also a perfect tape to tape pass that allowed the Gr8 to laser one by Jaroslav Halak (25 saves).

The Caps, despite looking like they were going to get run out of the dump, er rink, in the first 10 minutes, steadied themselves and played their way back into this contest.

Braden Holtby (32 saves) was solid in net and kept Washington in it with some key saves.

Jay Beagle was 10-5 on face offs.

Washington earned a point and with Philadelphia, the Rangers, and the Hurricanes all losing in regulation, the Capitals moved back into third place in the Metropolitan division.

Now to the parts of the game that I didn’t like, at all.

First, this team needs to find a way to score a 5 on 5 goal. It’s been over two games without one now. The blame goes to the forwards who just aren’t playing well at all. The lines aren’t working, especially the second line of Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky, and Troy Brouwer. They’ve gone six games without a goal and late in period three Coach Barry Trotz benched Burakovsky. To paraphrase the great golfer Greg Norman, “They should blow that line up!” In fact, none of the line combinations are really working. The first unit is winning the shot attempt battle, most of the time, but Tom Wilson is still too junior to be a first line right winger. #43 probably belongs on the third line at this stage of his career. Basically, the Caps are in a tough spot currently because Wilson, Burakovsky, and Evgeny Kuznetsov are all young and talented players but none of them are really ready for top six forward minutes at this point in their careers. In the future they all could be in that category, but these kids are still very young and the NHL is a man’s league. Coach Trotz and GM Brian MacLellan need to figure something out and that might have to involve some forward trades to shake things up. This team needs to win now because Ovechkin is not getting any younger so BMac hopefully is working the phones.

I really have to just laugh at this point when it comes to the NHL referees because their ability to be so inept at the wrong moment is impeccable. The third period and OT calls on Backstrom were ludicrous given the way the game had been called to that point, especially the holding the stick call in OT after the Islanders player flat out tripped #19. Holtby thought for sure the Caps were going on a power play so he headed to the bench. The call, which essentially gift wrapped New York a victory, was as bad as Starship’s song “We Built This City.” Coach Trotz, his staff, and many of the players were disgusted with the two Backstrom calls afterwards. Please get it together NHL referees because I am wearing out the hashtag #badzebras on twitter!

The shot attempts, if they are accurate, and I have my doubts about the NHL off ice officials on Long Island, were 71-44 in favor of the Isles. That’s not good. The Islanders did dominate much of the first period and because of the Capitals problems up front they did not generate enough shots. The Caps did try to get more net presence but they still look totally out of sync up front too often.

Backstrom was totally smoked on the face off on the Islanders second goal. This was the fourth time this season that he’s lost a defensive zone draw and the opponent has scored. It was the sixth time in 21 games that it has happened to Washington (credit to Adam Vingan for those two very significant statistics). That must stop! What is happening to the Caps is they are losing the draws cleanly and that is allowing the puck to go back to the point while the opponents forwards crash the net. The result has been the six goals on tips and screens. When taking a d-zone draw you have to focus on not losing the draw cleanly, you must at least tie your opponent up to give your forwards more time to get to the point men. The defensemen also have to do a better job of boxing out the opposing forwards on those plays. But it all starts with the center not getting beaten so easily on the draw.

The Caps penalty kill went only one for three. Granted one of the goals was off of a face off and the other was on the dope smoking call that led to the Islanders OT four on three. Still, you can’t give up two power play goals and expect to win. I especially didn’t like that Tavares deked Karl Alzner to the ground on the game winner. #27 has a tendency to go to the ice in those situations and that is the wrong play. He needs to stay upright there and if he does, it makes Holtby’s job a lot easier.

Finally, the Islanders 3rd jersey’s are awful. New York has a great home jersey that they should NEVER abandon. You would think that franchise would have learned from that Gordon’s Fisherman garb they wore back in the 1990′s that was so disgraceful and despised?!

So there you have it, the good and the bad after the first of two key games between the Caps and the Islanders.

Washington is home on Friday at 5 pm. This is another measuring stick game, in my opinion.

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Ovechkin Highlight Reel Goal Wins Game for Caps

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Ovechkin Highlight Reel Goal Wins Game for Caps

Posted on 21 November 2014 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin scored one of his patented highlight reel goals and added an assist on Nicklas Backstrom’s first period marker to lead the Caps to a 3-2 victory in Colorado.

Braden Holtby was magnificent in net, stopping 27 shots, and Jason Chimera notched a top shelf marker to give Washington a 2-1 record on their three game road trip.

The Caps improve to 9-7-3 and they take back third place in the Metropolitan Division with 21 points.

More importantly, their captain scored for the first time in four games and it was a goal scorers goal all the way. The Gr8 took the puck in a 4 on 4 situation coming across the offensive blue line and lowered his shoulder on Avs defensemen Jan Hejda moving from forehand to backhand. Ovi went by Hejda, then fired a wicked backhander on Reto Berra (20 saves) that missed the net and came off of the backboards before Ovechkin potted it on the forehand. It was a classic power forward, charge the cage type of tally and one this Capitals team desperately needed after getting outplayed a bit in the final frame. Wow!

Tom Wilson deserves a bit of credit for the goal, as well. #43 stood up for his teammates after a whistle and he goaded Erik Johnson, arguably the Avalanche’s best defensemen, into coincidental minors to set up the open ice situation.

Overall, this was a pretty even contest, as evidenced by the shot attempts, which were 51-50 in favor of the Caps. The face off totals were 24-24 and since both referees let each team play, there was only one power play the entire game (the Caps received that one). Kudos to Jean Hebert and Dan O’Halloran for letting the players decide this one in a game that had a lot of back and forth action.

For Washington, they have to be very pleased with the play of Holtby right now. #70 is making the big save at the right time and looks sharper now than he did all of last season. I’ve maintained all fall that I am not worried about the Caps #1 goaltender and Holtby’s recent results are backing that up.

On defense, the pair of John Carlson and Brooks Orpik led the Caps in ice time with over 24 minutes played and they were a +2. Orpik had an assist, six hits, and six blocked shots. He makes it very difficult for opponents to get pucks and bodies to the net.

The top pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, Nathan MacKinnon (2 assists), was fabulous for the Avalanche but it is clear that Colorado badly misses Paul Stastny, who departed to St. Louis in free agency over the summer.

Overall, the Capitals still need to find ways to get more shots on net. They only had 23 on Thursday and they had too many blocked (17). I maintain that the major issue is players are not looking for their shot first and sometimes they are not willing to pay the price to get to the tough scoring areas in the offensive zone.

Fortunately for the Caps their captain stepped up and found the blue paint late in a game when Washington really needed a win.

The Caps continue to be a work in progress, but hopefully for them winning brings more confidence and an even stronger work ethic.

Notes: Mike Green and Neil Schmidt were -2 in this one and received reduced ice time (15:22 and 14:35, respectively). #88 had one of his rougher outings in what has been a very good season for him so far…Ovechkin had 12 shots attempts but only a third of them were on net…Troy Brouwer had 6 shots on goal, many from the doorstep, but Berra denied him on each occasion…next up for the Caps are the Buffalo Sabres at the Verizon Center on Saturday night.

 

 

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Return of Laich Helps Caps End Losing Streak

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Return of Laich Helps Caps End Losing Streak

Posted on 07 November 2014 by Ed Frankovic

For the first 30 minutes of Friday night’s hockey game in Chicago, it looked like the men against the boys.

The Blackhawks were dominating the Capitals up and down the ice and they held a 2-0 lead, which could’ve been worse, if not for Braden Holtby (38 saves).

But somehow the Caps managed to fight through it and an Andre Burakovsky’s sweet top shelf goal on a Capitals 2 on 1 rush gave Washington life with just under five minutes left in period two. Washington would then tally two more times late in the second frame by getting bodies and pucks to the net to take a 3-2 lead into the third period.

From there, Coach Barry Trotz elected to clamp things down and go into a defensive posture for the final 20 minutes against one of the best teams in the NHL. Trotz put Jay Beagle on the top line with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin and relied heavily on the line of Jason Chimera, Brooks Laich, and Joel Ward. Despite the fact that Washington rarely possessed the biscuit in that third period, it worked. Chicago had very few quality chances over the last 20 minutes as Washington won a huge road game and improved to 5-5-3 overall (13 points). It was Laich’s first game back in the lineup since injuring his shoulder on October 18th versus Florida. The Caps are 4-0-2 with #21 in the lineup.

This was not a pretty win, but the Caps have been pretty lately and losing a lot. No, this is just what this team needed, a grinding, gritty victory against a super hockey team. They received a huge performance from their goaltender and they played excellent team defense once they got the lead.

As Mike Vogel, the Caps team beat writer, tweeted once it became 3-2, this was the 12th time in 13 games that the Capitals had led in a game this season. Recently they’ve fallen apart and lost after taking the lead in the middle frame. So to play the way they did defensively and close it out is huge. They didn’t make the big turnovers, instead opting to chip the puck out, and they kept the Hawks to the perimeter. Players were fighting for each other, blocking shots, and eliminating their man in the defensive zone from getting prime scoring chances.

They played the right way in their own zone once they had a lead against a stacked offensive club.

Sure it would have been nice to have some more offense in that final frame, but the way things have been going and the way Chicago is so stingy on defense, Trotz elected to go the smarter route in terms of winning the hockey game.

That decision paid off and Washington comes away with a very big victory and ends their five game losing streak.

More importantly, they won this game as a total team, and that should be something they can build upon going forward.

Notes: Shot attempts were 66-32 in favor of Chicago and the Blackhawks won 35 of 60 faceoffs…Brooks Orpik led the Caps in ice time with 25:57. He and John Carlson were outstanding as a shut down defensive pair in this one against an elite club…the Caps are home against the suddenly surging Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night at 8 pm. The Canes have won four straight games after an 0-6-2 start.

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Fluke Goal Costs Caps in Overtime Loss

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Fluke Goal Costs Caps in Overtime Loss

Posted on 05 November 2014 by Ed Frankovic

The hockey gods are clearly testing the Washington Capitals.

Despite dominating a very hard working Calgary Flames team for nearly 55 minutes, the Caps found themselves in a tie game on a bizarre play I’m not sure I’ve seen since the Caps inception in 1974.

An errant Washington pass put the puck in the slot in front of Braden Holtby. Marcus Johansson, who was in perfect defensive position, did the smart thing and tried to quickly knock it out of harms way. In the process, the puck went off of Troy Brouwer’s skate and bounced back five feet or so into the net behind Holtby for the tying tally with 5:10 to go in regulation.

Are you kidding me?

After all of the hard work and effort the Capitals put into this contest surely they deserved better at that point, right?

They had played a text book 3rd period and all evening their puck support was excellent. Colossal defensive turnovers, like we’ve seen too much of recently, were not present in this game and the Caps generated lots of offensive zone time and chances.

Unfortunately the Caps struggled to bury many of those chances, totally missing the net on some that were of the grade A variety. That’s been a trend during their losing skid, which is now at five straight games (and they’ve lost six of their last seven). They did, however, manage to get a point in this loss when they were defeated, in overtime, 4-3.

Afterwards Coach Barry Trotz was not upset at all, except for the outcome. His team had come to play hard and stick to the system and for the most part, they did.

The players were clearly frustrated afterwards with Matt Niskanen telling me that “losing sucks.” But he also knew that the team had played the game the right way on Tuesday night.

Alex Ovechkin picked up two assists to seize the franchise all time points lead from Peter Bondra and he nearly set up the game winner late in regulation when he blocked a Dennis Wideman point shot, skated down the ice and found Nicklas Backstrom streaking towards the net. Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist) would take a nice cross ice pass from Ovechkin and feed Tom Wilson on the door step, but “Willy” was unable to lift the puck and Jonas Hiller (31 saves) made the stop of the game to send the tilt to OT.

Looking at the stats, Washington was dominant. They out shot attempted the Flames 68-48 and they won the face off battle 42-30 with Michael Latta going 13-6. It was a very strong effort.

The glass half empty folks will point to Mike Green’s -4 and Holtby allowing 4 goals on only 23 shots. I didn’t think either one of them played a bad game. Green was tripped on the first Calgary goal and interfered with in the neutral zone on the second, but the zebras chose not to call a Flames penalty. I’m not sure how Holtby could possibly have saved the 3rd goal? Finally, on the Flames game winner, Niskanen lost an edge in the neutral zone and that allowed Calgary to set the winning play up.

But the naysayers will likely be out in full force and as Taylor Swift says, “the haters gonna hate, hate, hate..” and there will be many that pile on Green and Holtby.

Hopefully the players tune it out. In fact the whole team needs to do what they did after the third goal, show resolve and play harder. There was no moping or hanging of heads after that flukey third Flames goal, which is encouraging. Losing stinks and this team is probably wondering what they need to do to get a win.

To me, it’s pretty simple, just keep focusing on playing the right way and not try things out of your comfort zone, which they did too much of against Arizona on Sunday.

Trotz noted after the game that “usually the harder you work, the luckier you get.” Calgary has been working hard and Barry noted they are one of the hardest working teams in the league. Trotz felt that the Caps worked harder than Calgary on Tuesday night, but his club wasn’t rewarded.

That’s hockey. You hope during the course of 82 games that things will even out, especially if you are working hard and playing the right way.

So at this point all the Caps can do is keeping working harder within the framework of their system and as the main part of that songs says, just “Shake it Off.”

N0tes: Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 23:48. He and Karl Alzner had a very strong game. Wilson had an assist in 13:28 of ice time and was a physical presence. He did get juked badly by Mark Giordano, who is a top pair defensemen, on the Flames second goal…Joel Ward scored his sixth goal of the season on a 5 on 3 Caps power play in the middle frame. ..next up for the Caps are the Chicago Blackhawks in the windy city on Friday night. The Capitals then come home on Saturday against a Carolina squad that’s won three games in a row after a horrible start. The return of Eric Staal has helped get the Canes going.

 

 

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