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Caps Breakdown Day News, Nuggets, and Analysis

Posted on 13 June 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals held breakdown day on Wednesday afternoon and it was obviously the best one ever, given that this year’s session followed the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup victory. The players were clearly tired from two grueling months of hockey and then the post triumph celebrations, but were extremely happy.

Here are some of the major takeaways from the day at Kettler IcePlex:

Alexander Ovechkin, now clean cut thanks to his Gillette sponsorship, is a very happy man, and rightly so. The victory has clearly brought back the old Ovi that we saw when he was younger before some of the angry and hating national and even local media constantly crushed him forcing him to withdraw some of the best sides of his personality from public view. On Wednesday, the Gr8 answered questions for 30 minutes going above and beyond the call of duty. Ovi started by stating “I still can’t believe we won, I still can’t believe we did it. Right now we are realizing how special this win was.” He also added that “We lost some key guys last year, but all of the new guys played unbelievable.” Ovi noted that this was the best team he ever played on and whenever someone got hurt, felt bad, or were suspended, people stepped up. “It was a special group.” He also praised former General Manager George McPhee for “drafting half of the group” and ended with a very classy “Thanks George for what you did here.”

Nicklas Backstrom suffered two fractures in his right index finger in game five against Pittsburgh. He said he will not need surgery. Clearly Nicky was still hurting when he came back in the lineup after missing four games and to perform the way he did with that injury – shutting down the other team’s top center in each of the Tampa and Vegas series – is the stuff of legends. Backy will have his Cup celebration in his hometown in Sweden.

Brooks Orpik injured his hand in game two of the Columbus series and also had the tip of his right pinky finger detached when Erik Haula violently slashed him at the end of game two in the Stanley Cup final. Despite the injuries, Orpik played some of his best hockey in this postseason. When asked about the improvement in his skating this past season, Brooks noted that he is always tweaking his off season training regimen to seek improvement, but he also pointed out this was the first season in a few years where he did not have any ailments that impacted his wheels. Orpik told me he’d find out on Friday if he needed surgery on his hand.

Coach Barry Trotz had initial new contract discussions with General Manager Brian MacLellan on Wednesday morning. The Stanley Cup winning coach says he wants to be back because he likes this group while also stating that the area and setup has been good for his family situation. When asked if the rest of the entire coaching staff would be back next year, he said that is unknown, at this time.

John “Big Game” Carlson has not had any contract talks with the Caps yet, but said he loves this team and would love to be back, but there are a lot of factors involved. He will be having his Stanley Cup celebration in the DC area (his wife is from the DMV). The Capitals have an advantage in negotiations since they can sign number 74 for eight years, while others can only offer seven campaigns. There is no doubt that “Big Game” is the number one offseason unrestricted free agent priority for MacLellan and the Caps. The salary cap number for 2018-19 will be out from the league on Monday, June 18th and the higher it goes, the better it is for Washington ($82M would be really nice). Backstrom, when asked about Carlson stated, “John Carlson just keeps getting better and better. It’s impressive. Hopefully he stays here.” I’ll say this now, just like I did about T.J. Oshie last year, Pay the Man! He’s a legitimate number one defenseman and easily in the top ten in the NHL, in my opinion. You don’t let stud blue liners like “Big Game” Carlson leave. Losing him would be close to the magnitude of the Scott Stevens departure back in 1990.

Defensemen Michal Kempny and Dmitry Orlov gave a lot of credit to assistant coach Todd Rierden for helping them improve their respective games. Kempny noted that he had little confidence when he came over in February in a trade from Chicago and that Rierden immediately helped him regain it. The Czech defensemen stated that he had some bad games in the postseason, but that Rierden was always there to give him some keys to turning things around in the next contest. Kempny, who was very vocal about coming back because the Caps have “a great group of players, coaches, and trainers,” is an unrestricted free agent and given that he played as the number four defensemen in the postseason, he’s high up on the contract pecking order for MacLellan and the Caps. He only has 103 games of NHL experience, so that could help keep his price lower (he made $900, 000 in 2017-18 and will get a decent raise). Orlov, who had his hand badly injured in the World Championships in the spring of 2014 and missed the entire first season of the Trotz era (2014-15), said he was unsure he’d ever be able to play again at a high level. Rierden has certainly helped Dima out, but I also give Orlov a ton of credit for constantly working and striving to be better. It’s amazing how far he’s come since the 2016 playoffs where he struggled against the Flyers and Penguins. He’s a quality blue liner that breaks the puck out of his own zone incredibly well.

Oshie said he hasn’t won much since he was younger, so this Stanley Cup victory has been very exciting. Courtesy of the great Tarik El-Bashir, T.J. said he was healthiest at the start of the Stanley Cup Final. He won’t require any procedures this offseason. The Osh Babe, who is one of the most positive people you’ll ever meet, told Tarik that “I didn’t even need Advil” as the SCF started.

Tom “Future Captain” Wilson noted that he played up and down the lineup this season, but said when he played 10 games straight with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, instead of just one or two, his game really took off. Willy talked at length about how close this team was (is), but credited former Cap Justin Williams for encouraging the team to have fun and said it helped loosen the team up and bond them. Top line Tommy says he’s loved his five years here, stated he’s always done whatever he can to help the team, but also said there will be an element of business this summer for him (he’s a restricted free agent). Like Orlov and Evgeny Kuznetsov and some others on this squad, it’s amazing how much they have improved in the four years this coaching staff has been in place. The players clearly get the majority of the credit, but you can’t discount the way the coaches have enabled these players to blossom.

On the netminding front, courtesy of Isabelle Khurshudyan of The Washington Post, MacLellan said Philipp Grubauer wants to be a number one goaltender, but he’d like to keep both Grubi and Braden Holtby, be he’s going to explore a trade for Grubauer so he can do his thing. There is no doubt that the Capitals don’t win the Metropolitan Division without the stellar play of number 31 this past season. You need two good goalies in this day and age in the NHL to make it to the postseason. If Grubauer, who is a restricted free agent departs via trade, there could be a big dropoff to third string, Phoenix Copley. 2015 1st round pick Ilya Samsonov will be coming over to North America to play this fall, but he’ll need time in Hershey to become acclimated to the smaller rink. Bottom line, the best scenario for the Caps is to keep Grubauer, but potential salary cap room and a good trade return will likely be too hard to pass up. Goaltending coach Scott Murray and his staff, to include Olie Kolzig, will need to really get the other goalies in the system ready quickly should the German keeper move on.

Jay Beagle, when asked why the Caps won this year, pointed out that the Capitals “built their game all year and peaked at the right time. In past years we peaked in December and Janaury and then tried to hold onto it.” When questioned about Ovechkin not letting go of the Cup very much since they won, he stated that Ovi is invited to his Cup celebration, but he doubted the Gr8 would come to the Beagle farm. On Trotz, number 83 said “He’s always been a great coach since he’s been here, has brought in great people around him, and I feel like we have been the most prepared team in the league.” The unrestricted free agent, who has now won championships at the ECHL, AHL, and NHL level, hasn’t had any contract discussions yet and stated “obviously, I have to wait until the big guys get settled first” before receiving an offer. The hard working total team guy stated he could wait until after July 1st and that he’d leave things up to MacLellan. When I asked him if he’d leave if some team came along and threw money at him, said he’d have to see what was best for his family. The fourth line center who is great on faceoffs and the PK made $1.75M in each of the last three seasons.

As I wrote in my Cup winning blog, players such as Brett Connolly, Jakub Vrana, and Andre Burakovsky really upped their compete level, especially on the physical side of the house, and were important factors in the Caps playoff run. Burakovsky told El-Bashir that after three hand injuries over the past couple of years that he plans to have a conversation with CCM this summer about getting more substantial gloves. He told Tarik that two of the injuries could’ve been avoided with more protection. Washington will need each of these three guys to continue to progress, as they’ve done so far under Lane Lambert’s tutelage, if they are going to have a chance to repeat. Connolly, who for two years has confidently told me that the Caps have a very good team, summed up why this Championship ultimately happened for this squad.

“It was amazing, such a good group, such a committed group, such a highly skilled group. We really just came together at the right time, especially after that Pittsburgh series where we first really said we could win this. It’s such a big moment for all of us, we’re all just so happy that we could ultimately get this done for all of our fans, for our families, it was such a special moment.”

That quote from Connolly really summed up this team, who will forever be legends around this area, in a nutshell.

Notes: Matt Niskanen, when asked about all of the celebrations, said “It was great to see Brooks Orpik let his hair down.” So many players mentioned how business like number 44 is and that they don’t often get to see that side of one of the biggest leaders on the Caps…Alex Chiasson, who scored a huge goal to open the scoring in the game six triumph that closed out the Penguins, was hoping to come back to the Caps next season, especially given his close friendship that he has developed with Ovechkin, which apparently started from playing cards on the plane together…Beagle is leaving town on Thursday and noted it would be good to get back to reality…I’ll post a full transcript of my exclusive one on one session with Connolly out at WNST.NET on Thursday night…Backstrom, when asked about the team possibly breaking up, “It sucks, but when you look back on this 10, 15 years from now, we’ll always have this special group.”

Photo credit to Jacquelyn Martin of the Associated Press.

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Caps win Cup

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Caps End 44-Year Drought With Stanley Cup Win

Posted on 08 June 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals have won the Stanley Cup!!!

Pardon my French, but 44 years of futility is freaking over!

There will be no more doubting Conn Smythe Trophy Award winner Alexander Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom or Braden Holtby or General Manager Brian MacLellan or Coach Barry Trotz or Brooks Orpik and on and on down the list of Washington Capitals players, coaches, and managers. This is truly an incredible group of people who bonded together and showed that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They have made a long suffering fan base very proud and the Baltimore-Washington area will NEVER EVER forget this cast of champions!

As for the Stanley Cup clinching game itself, WOW!

The Caps jumped out to 1-0 and 2-1 leads, saw Vegas tie the game on a tally that sure looked like goalie interference and then surge ahead very late in period two with a power play goal. The Golden Knights had a 3-2 advantage after 40 minutes in a very hotly contested physical affair and had their eyes on sending things back to Capital One Arena down just three games to two.

Previous Washington teams might’ve folded, at that point, and started contemplating that game six in DC on Sunday night, but not the 2018 Washington Capitals. This club came out with a passion in period three and fought tooth and nail to get the equalizer, which came from an incredible individual effort by Devante Smith-Pelly to notch his 7th goal of the postseason after Orpik made an outstanding keep in at the offensive blue line to set the tally up. That marker came with 10:08 remaining and the Caps kept the hammer down.

With 7:37 to go, Luca Sbisa turned the puck over to Andre Burakovsky behind his own net and Burkie fed Brett Connolly alone in the slot. Conno fired on net and the puck squeezed through Marc-Andre Fleury’s pads and Lars Eller, who applied the fore check pressure to set up the turnover after a smart dump in by Michal Kempny, grabbed the disc and deposited it into the cage for what would be the first ever Stanley Cup clinching goal for the Capitals and his seventh of the post season, as well.

Imagine that, sevens were wild in the third period, in Vegas??!!

Washington had 13 of the first 18 shots on goal in period three to storm the castle and take a 4-3 lead.

From there, the Capitals went into their 1-1-3 defensive posture and really didn’t give Vegas any quality chances, despite six Golden Knights shots on goal. Any attempts that made it through were gobbled up by Holtby (28 saves), who kept this a one goal game early in period three by gloving a top shelf wrister from David Perron in the slot. It was a big stop and nearly as important as “The Save” in game two, because if the Caps go down two pucks there, then a game six would very likely have occurred.

Backstrom (1 assist) had a chance to end the series with an empty net tally with under a minute to go, but somehow missed the cage invoking memories of Esa Tikkanen not scoring in game two of the 1998 Stanley Cup Final. But Nicky’s teammates wouldn’t allow the miss to bite the team in the rear and the Caps killed off the remainder of the clock and celebrated wildly when it was over, led by their very emotional captain.

This team won the Cup because it learned to play defense better than any other Capitals squad in the Ovechkin era. Washington listened to the coaching staff and walled off the front of their net regularly in the post season. They received outstanding goaltending from the Holtbeast, who along with Evgeny Kuznetsov (32 playoff points), could’ve won the Conn Smythe Trophy, based on their on ice production.

But the Gr8 (power play goal, his NHL leading 15th tally of the 2018 playoffs) definitely deserved the MVP trophy for his incredible leadership. Who can forget the Ovechkin line, “We’re going to Columbus to win two games and bring this series tied back to DC” in the first round? Time after time he scored the big goal (first goal in game 7 in Tampa) or made a great back check and pass to win a series (Pittsburgh, game 6) or blocked a shot and dove to clear a puck at an important juncture (SCF game two). Ovi led by example on and off of the ice. He made it clear before game five that the team shouldn’t be talking about celebrations or any of the stuff that comes with winning because they hadn’t won anything yet. Simply put, all playoffs long, Alex talked the talk and then backed it up by walking the walk.

Seeing his emotions as he was given the Cup from Commissioner Gary Bettman was incredible, then watching him skate around with Lord Stanley and pass it to Backstrom is a memory that Capitals fans will remember forever. Two players who former General Manager George McPhee drafted and built the franchise around finally made it to the promised land after 11 years of failures.

As Ovi and Nicky will tell you, this wasn’t about them, though, this was about a team that picked each other up through injuries, suspensions, mistakes, adversity, and questionable officiating along the way. You can go up and down the lineup and point to contributions each player made.

  • Kuznetsov dominated with his skating and became a superstar this spring. He took his game to a whole new level and backed up the big contract he received last summer.
  • T. J. Oshie did just about everything you could ask for from scoring big goals (see game six vs. Tampa), winning the vast majority of board battles, and playing great defense to close out games. The Caps don’t win the Cup without the Osh Babe. There’s a reason I blogged and tweeted “Pay the Man” throughout 2016-17.
  • Tom Wilson evolved into a complete player this campaign and “Top Line Willy” was just a wrecking ball and force all post season. He’s built for the playoffs.
  • John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmity Orlov, and trade deadline bargain Kempny played a lot of minutes on the blue line in four grueling series. “Big Game” Carlson showed how a number one defensemen should perform in the playoffs and I’ll say this again about him, “Pay the Man!” Niskanen was so solid and took the heat for he and Orlov’s rough game five in Tampa. That’s leadership, right there, and it took the pressure off of Dmitry, allowing Dima to get back on track quickly in game six.
  • Orpik was a team leading +17 in the post season and “Batya” had the key game winning goal in game two that turned the Stanley Cup Final around. For all of the grief the Corsi crew gives him, he thrived in the post season on defense, the PK, and he even chipped in offensively with five points.
  • Eller stepped up, especially when Backstrom broke his hand. He played second and third line center doing whatever was asked of him. The Capitals also don’t win the Cup without “Tiger.”
  • Jay Beagle was a beast on faceoffs all post season and a dominant force in all three zones. Nobody works harder than “Beags.”
  • Connolly (6 goals, 3 assists in the playoffs) was a totally different player from the guy who was scratched in the 2017 postseason by using his speed, great shot, and more importantly, his body to win puck and board battles.
  • Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky used their skill and speed to score or set up huge goals. Vrana had the critical game winner in game five against the Pens and Andre notched two huge breakaway tallies in game seven to defeat the Bolts. Those two guys learned to win board battles by adding a physical element to their game and that was critical to the team’s success. They became excellent playoff style hockey players, something this squad badly needed after the off season losses of forwards Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson to the top six.
  • Chandler Stephenson (7 playoff points) played up and down the lineup and used his superior speed to set up goals and make opposing defensemen lose confidence. He was also a key cog on the penalty kill.
  • Smith-Pelly notched big goal after big goal, with his game going to an incredible level in the Cup Final after a rough game one.
  • Christian Djoos took advantage of the downtime down the regular season stretch he endured due to Jakub Jerabek’s strong play to jump back in against Columbus in game three and become part of a quality third pair duo with Orpik.
  • Even forwards such as Alex Chiasson (goal in game six against Pittsburgh), Nathan Walker (assist in game six against Pittsburgh), and Travis Boyd contributed when the injury bug and suspension to Wilson hit against the Pens.

Yes, this was a special crew of players because of how they united and after two very shaky games against Columbus, bought in to what the outstanding coaching staff was selling to go on a remarkable run. Washington was 16-6 beginning with game three of the first round. The switch to Holtbeast was a game or two late for me, but perhaps it was meant to be so that the rest of the club could finally understand the way they needed to play to have the ultimate success?

Yes, it’s true, Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals are really Stanley Cup Champions!!

When is the parade??!!

Addendum

The ride was absolutely amazing and for me, this championship is extra special. As a nine year old boy in 1974, my father was in the sports journalism business at WLMD in Laurel and dragged me time and time again to Capital Centre to watch a terrible expansion team play a sport that quickly got my attention. It wasn’t until I was a senior in high school in 1983 that the Capitals finally made the playoffs thanks to David Poile, Rod Langway, Scott Stevens, and Bryan Murray. That’s when hockey became my favorite sport. From there I covered the team for the PG Post-Sentinel for a few years, meeting current WNST owner Nestor Aparacio in the process. That press box stint led to a Capitals team statistician position with Dr. Mike Herr and several other great people for 11 years. From 1986 to 1997 I traveled to games in Philly and everywhere in the playoffs with the team enjoying really great times while learning so much about hockey from great players such as Langway and Dale Hunter, and hockey personnel Jack Button, although I learned even more from his son, Tod. But there were so many heartbreaks along the way and several times it was to the Penguins, who won five Stanley Cups, defeating the Caps each time. In 2007, Nestor reached out to me and told me he was starting a WNST website and he wanted me to blog on it, doing whatever I wanted since I was someone he trusted and had inside access given my time with the Caps. Naturally I’ve turned that into this Caps blog and regular radio show sessions with Nestor. We’ve chronicled the highs and even more heartbreak since 2008 during the Ovechkin era. I was able to be on the ice in Hershey when Carlson, Beagle, and Holtby won the Calder Cup in 2010 (thanks John Walton!). But in 2014, I had seen enough of a bad culture and the lack of a cohesive team that led to me calling for the firing of Coach Adam Oates and GM McPhee, and the hiring of Trotz. Three years of crushing playoff defeats followed in the Trotz and GM Brian MacLellan era, but on July 3, 2017, I penned a “Caps are still a contender blog” despite the fact that many had written the GM, coach, and players off. Thankfully the GM, the coaches, and the guys on the ice delivered in a way that many hockey fans around this area will appreciate for the rest of their lives. I know I will, but most of all, I really appreciate my father, Ed, who will turn 80 on July 7th, for introducing me to the Capitals and the sport of hockey. Exchanging texts with him after the Capitals won the Cup was a very special moment for me and many of the people who reached out to me afterwards are great people that I’ve met along the way watching, working, covering, and just being around this great sport. I’ve made so many lifelong and life changing friends and people through hockey. I’d need numerous blogs to list all of them, you know who you are! I owe all of it to my father, so thanks Dad! I know you predicted back in 1974 that the Caps would sell out every game some day and they’d win a Stanley Cup. You are now correct on both counts!

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Ovi Game 3 SCF

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Caps Take Series Lead With First Home Stanley Cup Final Triumph

Posted on 03 June 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Devante Smith-Pelly scored for Washington and Braden Holtby stopped 21 of 22 shots to lead the Capitals to a 3-1 victory in front of 18,506 raucous fans at Capital One Arena on Saturday night. The triumph was the Caps first ever win on home ice in the Stanley Cup Final and they now lead the best of seven series, two games to one. Game four is Monday night in DC.

This was the event of the year in town and the pregame featured a concert from Sting and Shaggy outside the arena and then Wheel of Fortune’s Pat Sajak, a long time Capitals season ticket holder, announced the pregame lineups where every Vegas player, except for former Capital Nate Schmidt, was booed.

The Capitals did a lot of things correct and still have things to clean up, so here are eight thoughts and analysis on this win that moves the team closer to their ultimate goal.

Do The Bird – Kuznetsov was injured on a hit by Brayden McNabb in period one of the second game and since that time, the Capitals have been a different team. Washington amped up their play without Kuzy in a 3-2 victory and on Saturday night, the tougher than you think Russian with high end skill returned to the lineup. Number 92 was flying in this affair in an attempt to prove that he will not be intimidated by physical play and his shot from the slot eventually set up Ovechkin’s net crashing tally that put Washington on the board just 1:10 into period two. At 12:50 of the middle frame, he put a serious dagger into Vegas’ hopes in this contest. T.J. Oshie did a great job of blocking a shot by Shea Theodore and he gathered in the disc and fed it to Jay Beagle in the neutral zone. Beags took off up ice with Kuzy on a two on one and Jay alertly gave the puck to the wizard to his right very quickly. Evgeny skated in and with the Golden Knights Colin Miller shading Beagle in an attempt to cut off the pass, Kuznetsov sailed in closer on Marc-Andre Fleury and put a superstar shot past the goalie over the right pad, under the blocker and off of the inside of the far post for a huge tally. The $7.8 million dollar man showed up big time on the game’s largest stage to lead the Capitals to a monumental win. He logged 18:52 of ice time, had six shot attempts, including four on net, and won five of seven draws. Kuznetsov was named the game’s number one star and deservedly so.

Come on now

Whawk! Hallelujah! Whoa

Whawk! Hallelujah! Whoa

Follow the Leader – Ovechkin had another beastly game and he nearly scored in the first two minutes when Kuznetsov fed him on a two on one, but Fleury somehow got his glove on his attempt. Ovi would not be denied on this night and his goal, on a rebound of John Carlson’s shot, was reminiscent of his 600th career goal against Winnipeg this year. This one came on a backhander with bodies strewn all over the ice in a goal mouth scramble. It was pure grit and determination by the Gr8 and his linemates, with Tom Wilson having a wrecking ball of a shift. The goal put the somewhat anxious crowd at ease and allowed Washington to play the style they wanted while Vegas had to start chasing the game. Alex had 10 shot attempts in this outing and five were on net in 17:28 of action. He also had two hits and two blocked shots. The blocked shots are something the Capitals have done a very good job of in this series and when the other players see Ovi “all in” and doing the little things like that, it energizes the team and motivates them to put themselves on the line, as well.

Defense Wins Championships – Washington, after their own zone struggles in the first game of this series, have become much better at team defense and walling off the front of their net. In game three they blocked 26 shots and the Holtbeast noted afterwards that the communication between the shot blocker and himself have been good to make sure the right lanes are taken away and he can see the shots. Vegas’ only goal was on a giveaway by Holtby in period three, but the Golden Knights did have some quality chances to score. In period two, Cody Eakin, Jonathan Marchessault, and Alex Tuch all had grade “A” opportunities, but either missed the net or Holtby made the save. Afterwards, Vegas Coach Gerard Gallant agreed that his team had the potential to score more goals, but noted that they were not able to get the second or third attempts to penetrate the Washington net. This is a credit to the Capitals team defense. Coach Barry Trotz noted that the Caps turned the page quickly on game one and seem to be finding their better levels again, but he didn’t like the chances the Golden Knights received in period two. The Capitals were certainly stingier in period three, especially after the Tomas Nosek goal just 3:29 into the final stanza. Coach Trotz also said that they can certainly get even better in limiting Vegas’ offense going forward.

“We probably gave them a little bit more zone time than we would have liked, but certainly the high danger areas we did pretty good with,” stated big game player, Carlson, afterwards.

Breaking the Fore Check – Vegas is a fast skating, straight line team that comes at you in your own end with speed and size. Washington has adapted to that style as this series as gone on, but it’s imperative that the first pass is a good one, because when it’s not, the Golden Knights swarm and use that fore check to generate goals. That’s where Holtby’s ability to play the puck makes a big difference. Despite that one miscue, the Holtbeast has been very good at stopping the dump ins and getting the puck to one of his defensemen where they can make a solid read and get the disc going the other way quickly. As for the Capitals blue liners, they have continued to improve from game one with their decision making. We saw fewer giveaways in game three and more quality passes that are leading to opportunities at the other end. The Caps must continue that trend if they are going to take game four.

Let’s Get Physical – This series has continued to be very physical as it’s progressed and the Caps outhit Vegas, 38-31, and this was not because the Golden Knights dominated possession. Washington is doing a good job of hitting the Vegas blue line in their own end and there have been lots of Capitals hits on Vegas forwards along the walls and on the backboards in Washington’s end. Wilson, Smith-Pelly, Beagle, and Ovechkin combined for 12 hits while the trio of Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, and Michal Kempny had 11. The hitting is important for the Capitals because it helps wear down the Vegas defensemen and slow down their transition game.

Full Speed Ahead – All post season, it has been so important for the Capitals to get the lead. When you are ahead at the game’s midpoint, you start forcing your opponent to change their strategy and gamble more often. The opponents will activate their defense and this opens up the opportunity for counter attacks, if you play well in your end and get the puck out to the right places. Washington has improved with that and in games two and three they’ve locked the lead down well. If not for Fleury (23 saves), game three would have been a bigger spread on the scoreboard, something Vegas Coach Gallant noted afterwards. The Caps third goal with just over six minutes remaining was the cumulative result of being physical and taking the counter attack when presented. Beagle made a super play in the offensive zone to force a Theodore turnover and then Smith-Pelly read the play perfectly and broke to the net all alone. His top shelf cheese that beat Fleury was a high skill event and a big make up for his giveaway in game one on the Nosek winning tally. It was a huge goal from the fourth line and Washington continues to get production from all of its players.

“It’s good to get contributions from everyone, we expect that, whether it’s goals or blocks or just getting the puck out on the wall. Everything matters so much, at this point. It’s good to see those guys get rewarded for their hard work,” added Carlson after the game on the Smith-Pelly goal that was set up by Beagle.

Where Do We Go From Here? – This was the first time all post season the Capitals have won the first home game of a series so now they have a chance to take a strangle hold 3-1 lead on Monday night. Vegas has endured their first two game losing streak of the playoffs and now have to deal with some adversity. Washington has been accused of lacking killer instinct in the past and now they have a chance to rewrite more narratives in game four. They must do, as Coach Trotz said, get even better with their game because the Golden Knights will be desperate to tie things up. You don’t get opportunities like this very often, so the Caps must seize the moment.

Notes: Orpik was hit hard up high in period two and didn’t play the last 12:25, but Coach Trotz said he was fine after the game…the blue line trio of Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, and Carlson logged 27:16, 26:04, and 22:23 of ice time, respectively. Orpik only played 11:57 and Christian Djoos had just 8:40 of ice time…Schmidt led Vegas in TOI with a low total of 21:12…the Caps were 0 for 4 on the power play while Vegas went 0 for 2…shot attempts were 62-58 for the Golden Knight thanks to a 19-13 period three advantage for Vegas, who started that frame down two goals…the Capitals were much better on draws in game three, going 39-23. Nicklas Backstrom was 11-7, Lars Eller 10-7, and Oshie went 5-0. Getting the puck first against a fast Vegas team is very important…the crowd at Capital One Arena was extremely loud, especially once the Capitals seized the lead. They also didn’t panic after the Holtby giveaway that made it 2-1. They stuck behind their squad.

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Holtby, Eller, and Orpik lead Caps to a Gritty Game 2 Win

Posted on 31 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Braden Holtby made 37 saves, including what was likely the greatest stop in Caps history on Alex Tuch with 1:59 remaining, to lead the Washington Capitals to a 3-2 victory in game two of the Stanley Cup Final. The triumph evens the series up at one as things move to Capital One Arena for games three and four on Saturday and Monday, respectively.

Things started slowly again for the Capitals as they struggled with the swarming speed and intensity of Vegas. James Neal grabbed a flipped puck out of the air at the Caps defensive blue line away from Dmitry Orlov, who failed to get the disc with his glove, as well as the man. Neal skated in and beat the Holtbeast far side 7:58 into this affair. The shot appeared to change direction slightly when Michal Kempny put his stick into the shooting lane.

At 14:39 of period one, it would get worse for Washington. Brayden McNabb put a hard and slightly high hit on Evgeny Kuzentsov in the neutral zone and with Kuzy putting his arms up to brace himself for the collision he went down on the ice holding his left arm. Per Capitals PR, he suffered an upper body injury and was questionable to return, but never did. Afterwards Caps Coach Barry Trotz had no update on the Russian’s status, but did take issue with the contact stating that the league would look at it for potential supplemental discipline.

At that point, given Vegas’ series and game lead, the Capitals looked to be in big trouble. But this resilient Washington team seemed to be galvanized by the Kuznetsov injury and immediately began playing much better.

Nearly three minutes later, in a four on four situation with T.J. Oshie and Deryk Engelland in the box for roughing, the Caps tied things up. Lars Eller (one goal, two assists) won an offensive zone draw and pushed the puck to Andre Burakovsky in the right wing corner. Burkie hit Kempny in the high slot forcing Marc Andre-Fleury to come out and challenge. Kempny spotted Eller at the far post and the man nicknamed “Tiger” buried the great pass for the equalizer.

In the second frame, the Capitals seemed to find their game. Tuch was jailed for cross checking John Carlson in front of the Caps net at 5:13 and just 25 seconds later the Capitals grabbed the lead. Nicklas Backstrom fed Eller on the goal line to Fleury’s left. Lars then threaded a super pass through Fleury to Alex Ovechkin on the back side. The Gr8 used his great hands to get off a quick shot that hit the back of the Vegas goaltender and into the cage.

Just over four minutes later, Washington took its first two goal lead of the series. Burakovsky fed Eller on the rush and #20 drove to the middle of the ice in the offensive zone. Lars then made a superb dish to his right to Brooks Orpik, who was jumping up in the play. Orpik fired on net and with Brett Connolly battling with Tuch in front of Fleury, the puck hit the Vegas forward and the left post before crossing the goal line. The Washington players went nuts given the goal scorer, who had a 220 game goalless drought end. In addition to the long drought, “Batya” is who Coach Trotz referred to as the most respected player on the team, so everyone was excited when he tallied in a such a big game.

Shortly thereafter Jakub Vrana hit the post, otherwise it would’ve been 4-1. Vegas then had a push for several minutes across the last two periods that was aided by four straight minor penalties on the Caps. On the second infraction, which was on Oshie for interference despite Colin Miller’s embellishment, Shea Theodore ripped a point shot through a maze of bodies to beat Holtby with 2:13 left in period two.

Heading into the last stanza the Caps were up 3-2 and they survived a 68 second Golden Knights five on three power play just under five minutes in. The Capitals penalty killing unit was outstanding creating what Coach Trotz called another galvanizing moment for his squad. Typically these events decide a hockey game one way or the other and it was the Caps who parlayed the key special teams situation into a one goal victory, but not before several close calls and big saves from the Holtbeast.

This was a massive win for the Capitals and they have a chance to take the series lead on home ice. The game two triumph was not pretty, but it was gutsy and gritty. Guys were selling out to block shots and diving to clear the disc from their own end throughout the last 14 minutes at even strength. Even the Captain was contributing in the defensive heroics and Coach Trotz mentioned when an elite goal scorer is doing it, everyone on the bench takes notice and follows suit.

After the slow start, nearly everyone had a good game starting with Holtby, who was dialed in. Matt Niskanen agreed that the team did a good job of simplifying their play on the mushy Vegas ice by getting multiple players to the loose pucks. Washington won a lot of little battles in this one and did a much better job with defensive zone coverage. It was a total team effort with one of their top players out due to injury.

As I’ve stated since this series started, Vegas is a hard working team and is not a fluke. If the Capitals want to win this series, they’ll need to bring the will they brought to game two each night going forward.

Notes: the Caps were 1 for 2 on the power play while Vegas went 1 for 5…the Golden Knights won the face-off battle, 38-27. Eller was 10-6. Jay Beagle said the Capitals will look at film to help make the necessary adjustments to win more draws…shot attempts were 69-44, for Vegas, but a lot of those came from the perimeter…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time at 27:13, including 5:25 of PK time…Orpik had six hits and two blocked shots in 19:13 of playing time. He was outstanding in this contest…Vrana played well using his speed to open up space. He had eight shot attempts, but only three on net. If he gets them on goal, he’ll take over the red light district…once Kuzy went out, Backstrom centered Ovi and Tom Wilson, Eller centered Oshie and Vrana, while Chandler Stephenson moved into the 3rd line pivot slot.

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Game 6 win TB

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Caps Bring the Will and Skill in a Game Six Triumph Over Tampa

Posted on 22 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Lover, I’m off the streets
I’m gonna go where the bright lights
And the big city meet
With a red guitar, on fire
Desire

There has never been a more appropriate time where those great song lyrics from U2 have rung more true for how a Washington Capitals team played in a critical game during the Alexander Ovechkin era.

T.J. Oshie scored a second period power play goal and an empty net tally sandwiched around a huge third period marker from Devante Smith-Pelly while Braden Holtby shutout the Tampa Bay Lightning making 24 saves in the process. The 3-0 must win for the Caps in game six now forces a game seven at Amalie Arena on Wednesday night at 8 pm.

In a 3-2 game five loss on Saturday night, the Capitals did not come out of the gate well, at all, and found themselves down 3-0 in the first 21 minutes. As I wrote in my post game blog, the Caps did not display enough will to conquer the little battles necessary to win the game. Washington had the skill, but they did not exhibit the will and Tampa certainly did in their triumph.

On Monday night, there was no doubt about the will as the Capitals were relentless on the puck and won numerous board battles doling out 39 often vicious body checks in the process. Simply put, every player on the Caps roster from the Holtbeast on out brought a maximum effort. Oshie stated afterwards that Washington didn’t play with desperation; rather it was more of “a direct urgency.” The Osh Babe was spot on as this Capitals team checked as well as they have in any playoff game and it was their physicality and desire that won them a chance to play for a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday.

Tampa had won three straight tilts coming into this affair and had a lot of momentum. They also had won seven straight playoff games on the Caps home ice. Washington was determined to change that and after a scoreless first frame where both teams kind of felt each other out, the Capitals kicked up their intensity. The middle stanza didn’t start well for Washington as Jay Beagle was called for hooking just 40 seconds into the period putting the Bolts deadly power play on the ice. The Caps, however, were up to the task and allowed on only a single Lightning shot on net during the man advantage.

The strong penalty kill gave Washington an emotional boost and they started taking the play to the Bolts. The Capitals would out shot attempt Tampa, 27-22, in the second period, but it wasn’t until Braydon Coburn took a hooking penalty on Smith-Pelly as #25 was charging to the net after a Washington face off win that a red light would finally go on. The Caps power play, which went 0 for 4 in a tough game four loss and had no attempts in game five, clicked putting four shots on Andrei Vasilevskiy before the fifth one from #77 beat the big goalie at 15:12. Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov provided the assists on Oshie’s sixth tally of the post season, which came from the slot in between the four Bolts penalty killers.

The first goal, at that point in the game, loomed large because both teams had shown that once they were ahead in contests in this series that they were very good at walling off the front of their own net and very effective at counter attacking their opponents. Tampa, once behind, began having their defensemen pinch down on the wall in the offensive zone in an attempt to get the equalizer. They were nearly effective at it and the Caps were fortunate that the Bolts hit the left post in the dying seconds of period two.

For the first seven minutes or so of the final stanza, the Bolts really put the pressure on and the Capitals appeared to be hanging on as evidenced by the numerous icings they were guilty of committing. At the eight minute mark, Lars Eller fired a shot on #88 and the Caps earned an offensive zone face off. That seemed to steady the ship and just two minutes later it was 2-0 when Beagle and Chandler Stephenson out hustled and out worked the Bolts defense. Stephenson would get the puck below the goal line and feed Smith-Pelly all alone in the slot for a goal that would put Capital One Arena in bedlam. That newly formed line, which had the task of facing the Tampa very productive trio of Chris Kunitz, Cedric Pauquette, and Ryan Callahan, was a big reason that Washington was triumphant.

Backstrom then took a tripping penalty at 11:03 and suddenly the Bolts appeared to have life with the chance to get within one with their outstanding power play. Holtby would make three saves and Tom Wilson and Beagle had a monster shift to prevent Tampa from getting into the zone over the last 30 plus seconds of man advantage time. The home crowd gave the Capitals penalty killing unit a standing ovation and the massive amount of noise and energy propelled the Caps down the stretch as they continued to be physical and win the important battles. Oshie then hit the empty net with 50 seconds remaining to seal the deal.

This was one tight checking and intense hockey game and the Capitals arguably performed the best they have all postseason, at least from a defensive standpoint. They put 34 shots on net, 33 of which were against Vasilevskiy, but the Bolts goaltender played very well, once again. DSP’s tally, though, was critical to give the Caps some margin of error over the last 10 minutes and the way Holtby was going at his end, something crazy would’ve had to happen for Tampa to tie this one up. Washington was extremely committed to playing the body and winning board battles in all three zones, especially in the last 40 minutes.

So now Ovechkin, Backstrom, Beagle, Holtby, and the rest of the Capitals have a chance to advance where they’ve never been before. Tampa will have home ice advantage, they are the favorites being the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, and many of their players have been to the Stanley Cup Final before. The Bolts had hoped to close out the Caps in DC, but like in 2016 when they couldn’t beat the Penguins in game six and the series evened up, they’ll be going home to face Washington in a do or die game seven. That season Pittsburgh prevailed and went on to win the Stanley Cup over the San Jose Sharks. There will be lots of pressure on the Lightning to not do that again. As for the Capitals, they definitely cleared their minds of any negative thoughts prior to game six forgetting their three game losing streak as they turned in a gem on Monday night. They’ll need another game like that to knock off a very talented squad coached by Jon Cooper.

For once, Washington does not have home ice advantage and will not have the last line change that Coach Barry Trotz used so effectively to keep the Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Wilson line away from the Kunitz-Paquette-Callahan trio in game six. However, the Capitals can just fly in to Florida on Tuesday and focus on a hockey game. They won’t have friends and family bugging them for tickets and they won’t have a tense home crowd on hand. In game six, the Capitals fans were very supportive and helped bring energy, there was no apprehension. It was very much needed and the Caps took advantage of the environment in the victory.

Now they have to do it again on the road by finding a way to knock off a very good and favored Bolts squad. The key is winning the little battles that hopefully result in a lead in the hockey game that they can build upon.

And the fever, gettin’ higher
Desire
Desire

Notes: John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:17. Matt Niskanen logged 24:12. Victor Hedman led the Bolts in ice time with 24:07…the Caps had 39 hits to just 19 for Tampa. Brooks Orpik and Wilson each had six hits and Smith-Pelly had five…the Capitals won the face off battle, 33-28. Beagle was 13-3 and Eller went 12-6…Backstrom had two assists and appears to be getting more power on his passes and shots following his hand injury…Andre Burakovsky replaced Alex Chiasson in the lineup and had a strong 7:31 of work. He nearly scored on a one on one rush in period two, but shot over the net…Kuznetsov was 1-11 on faceoffs and lost a lot of first period board battles. If the Caps are going to win game seven, he has to find a way to not turn the puck over, he had two giveaways, both in period one.

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Callahan goal

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Poor Start and Missed Call Doom the Caps in Game Five

Posted on 19 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

For the second time in three games, the Washington Capitals fell behind 3-0 and once again, a late rally wasn’t enough to tie the contest up. As a result, the Caps lost game five, 3-2, and now trail their best of seven series with Tampa, three games to two. Game six is Monday night at Capital One Arena at 8 pm.

Here are nine thoughts on a very tough loss at Amalie Arena, where the home team finally won for the first time in this series.

Poor Period Starts Costly – The Caps gave up goals 19 seconds into the game and 33 seconds into the second period to Tampa’s fourth line! That is inexcusable and was the biggest difference in the outcome. Washington was not prepared mentally to start either period. On the first goal, Dmitry Orlov and Evgeny Kuzentsov made soft plays to lose the puck in the neutral zone and then Orlov badly misplayed the two on one going for the disc and missed badly, which left Cedric Paquette all alone on Braden Holtby (19 saves). On the second period Bolts tally that made it 3-0, Anton Stralman goes around Matt Niskanen like an orange road cone and forced the Holtbeast to have to make a one on one stop. The Caps defense and team was caught flat footed for large stretches of the first 21 minutes.

Bad Zebras! – Referees Wes McCauley and Mark Joannette plus linesmen Johnny Murray and Matt McPherson had a terrible night. On Tampa’s second goal, an Ondrej Palat shot from the slot that Niskanen screened Holtby on, Steven Stamkos CLEARLY trips Orlov at the Washington defensive blue line before the tally and there is no call. As a result the game was 2-0 where it should’ve been 1-0 with a Capitals power play coming. NBC’s Mike Milbury was adamant that the trip should’ve been called and it was at a crucial point in the game. There is NO EXCUSE for missing such a critical infraction that leads to a scoring chance. In addition, Ryan Callahan’s goal, after Stralman went around Niskanen, went in off of his glove. You can argue either way on that one, but once again, the call didn’t go the Caps way. There were also several missed icing calls on the Bolts when the Capitals were storming the castle in periods two and three. The officials cannot be a factor in the outcome of a game and they absolutely were in game five. The Capitals had no power plays in this affair. Unacceptable officiating, once again, and the league should be ashamed, especially after game four was called so well by Chris Rooney and Gord Dwyer. Tampa has at least two or three goals in this series on bad or missed rulings (the Bolts second goal in game two after the terrible high sticking call on T.J. Oshie, the uncalled Stamkos trip in game five, and arguably the power play goal after the Wilson penalty in game two where Chris Kunitz escaped an obvious hooking call).

Stuck in Quicksand – The first period was a disaster. The Bolts had 13 of their 22 shots for the game in that frame and if not for Holtby, it could’ve been worse than 2-0. Washington showed no sense of urgency in their play and weren’t moving their legs. When guys like Callahan and Stralman are going past you, your effort is not where it needs to be. It was a very disappointing start by the Caps in such a critical game. Yes, the missed penalty call hurt, but as we’ve seen for years, if you put the game in the referees’ hands, you will almost always not like the outcome.

Final Forty Push – After it was 3-0, we saw a different Capitals team. Unfortunately, it was too late. The Caps started skating, moving their feet, and being physical. For some reason in that first frame Washington was afraid to hit anyone or use their body to win a puck battle. Against a team like Tampa, you have to be engaged physically and mentally on all shifts, otherwise they will burn you with their effort and skill. The Caps have a lot of skill, but the will was missing in the first 21 minutes and now they have a hill to climb to come back and win this series. Over the last 40 minutes, the shots on goal were 26-9 for the Capitals. They also hit some posts, too. Christian Djoos struck iron off of a faceoff win when it was 3-1 in period two and Alex Ovechkin hit the cross bar when it was that same score in period three. John Carlson had some great looks in this one and missed the net in the second frame in close and in the dying seconds he couldn’t get off a one timer on a great feed. When he tried to go top shelf, Andrei Vasilevskiy (28 saves) slid over and cut off the short side to save the game for Tampa.

Scoring Drought – After putting up 10 goals in the first two games, the Capitals only have six tallies in the last three tilts and two of those have come with the goalie pulled. Washington is not getting enough net presence on Tampa and the Bolts are doing a good job of clogging the shooting lanes. The Caps have to simplify their attack and make the Bolts scramble in their own end. They did some of that in stretches, but we also saw guys passing up quick shots in the slot and a return of bad drop passes. North-south hockey is how the Capitals have to play if they are going to win game six. Come across the blue line and fire the puck on net. That forces the Bolts D to turn and go get the rebounds and with Washington coming with speed, they can then hit the Tampa defense and force turnovers.

Line Changes – Coach Barry Trotz adjusted his lines for period two putting Nicklas Backstrom back with Ovechkin and Tom Wilson. That line was on the ice for the Callahan tally that made it 3-0, but played better after that. Backy is clearly not close to 100%, but with Kuznetsov having a poor first frame, something had to be done. Kuzy would score the Caps first goal on a deflection of a Niskanen point shot in period two and he, Oshie, and Chandler Stephenson played fairly well together. Ovi heated up in the third frame and his rocket cut the game to 3-2 with 96 seconds left. The Caps nearly tied this one up late, but again, they need to be much better earlier.

On Fumes? – Lars Eller struggled and looked slow for much of this contest after taking five penalties in games three and four and you can’t help but think that playing all of those extra minutes with Backstrom out has taken a toll on him. However, after sitting on the bench for a good stretch in period three, he came out with some jump with the extra attacker on and looked better. The Caps need #20 to return to form if they are going to win game six.

Clearing the Mind – The Capitals have seen a 2-0 series lead turn into a 3-2 deficit yet there have been some lengthy stretches where the Caps have carried the play. Washington can’t focus on any of that and must make sure they are ready to go from puck drop on Monday night. They have to play hard and smart. They have been prone to the big mistake in this series and that’s why they are on the brink of elimination. Tampa has blown a 3-2 lead before, just two years ago to the Penguins when the Bolts also had home ice advantage. Washington must come out and check from the get go. No soft plays and make the simple decision, which is usually going north with the puck up the boards. The start in game four was good right up until Michal Kempny’s poor decision to try a blind back pass up the middle of the ice. Kempny was much better in game five, but Niskanen and Orlov along with many others didn’t come ready to play. This team has been resilient all year. Many have already written them off, but until one team wins four games it’s not over. The Capitals need to give everything they have on Monday night to force a game seven where anything can happen.

Notes: Washington won the faceoff battle, 27-26, and Backstrom won 12 of 17 draws with a bad hand…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:54 and he also led the team in shots on net, with eight…Djoos played 15:06 on the back end since the Capitals were trailing and he was very good at moving the puck. He needs to look to shoot a little more, since he has a good one…Tampa’s fourth line of Kunitz, Paquette, and Callahan logged nearly 15 minutes and was +2. They simply outworked the Capitals when they were on the ice and that’s something the Caps need to address…shot attempts were 29-8 for Tampa in period one and 51-19 for Washington the rest of the way.

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Kempny Game 1

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Caps Dominate First 40 Minutes in a Game One Victory

Posted on 12 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

For the first time since the second round of the 2015 playoffs, the Washington Capitals started a series on the road. The Caps played a textbook first 40 minutes racing out to a 4-0 lead and then closed out a 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on Friday night.

The Caps, who many experts have picked to lose this series, withstood an opening three minutes of pressure from the Bolts before they flipped the script and carried the play for the rest of the first two frames. Washington played fast and structured as they swarmed the puck and prevented the speedy Lightning from getting much time or space. Michal Kempny put the Capitals on the board at 7:28 on a point shot that went through a maze of players, including Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, and past Andrei Vasilevskiy glove side.

After the goal, the team that is now 6-1 on the road in these 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, kept their foot down trying to increase their margin, but couldn’t convert. Then, with under 10 seconds remaining in period one, some wild stuff ensued. Matt Niskanen failed to get off a shot in the offensive zone and the Bolts sprung Nikita Kucherov one on one on Dmitry Orlov. The very talented Kucherov would score by outmuscling #9 and then tapping the puck by Holtby, but the linesmen immediately waved it off noting the very obvious six skaters in blue on the ice. Washington received a power play for the too many men infraction with eight seconds remaining and the Gr8 lasered one by Vasilevskiy with Lars Eller providing some traffic high in the slot just two ticks later. The whole sequence was set up by a big faceoff win by T.J. Oshie, who got the puck to Evgeny Kuznetsov (two assists), and Kuzy quickly fed Ovechkin (one goal, one assist) for his rocket.

Washington outshot the Lightning, nine to two, in period one and in period two, they kept bringing it, outshooting the Bolts, 16-8. Just 2:40 into the frame, Jay Beagle put the rebound of a flubbed Brett Connolly shot past #88 to make it 3-0. Orlov made a nice play at the right point to set the quality chance up. Kucherov took a bad roughing penalty at 6:01 and 41 seconds later Tampa was down four pucks. Kuznetsov received a pass from Eller in the left wing corner and he rotated the puck to John Carlson at the top of the point. Carly slid one over to Ovi in his office for a one timer, but Alex didn’t get all of it and it “muffined” its way toward the net where Oshie (two assists) poked at it before Lars finally put the rebound home.

All four of the Capitals goals, which came in the first 26:42 of this affair, occurred with bodies in front and that’s a smart way to beat Vasileskiy, who was pulled for Louis Domingue for the third period. Washington did a lot of things correctly building the lead and only had a few shifts where they found themselves caught in a rush game with the Bolts. Up and down the ice is definitely the way Tampa wants to play and the Capitals settled down late in the middle frame to prevent Coach Jon Cooper’s squad from getting any momentum.

In the final stanza, the Bolts had some push and after a bad defensive zone shift, Alex Chiasson took a penalty to prevent a scoring chance in front of the net at 3:23. 22 seconds later it was 4-1 as Washington got caught puck chasing on the penalty kill and that allowed Kucherov to thread a pass through the outstretched Capitals PK box right to Steven Stamkos in his office for an easy back door marker. The Lightning seemed to come to life after that goal and when Chiasson lost his head and took an undisciplined roughing penalty on Kucherov by the Tampa bench at 8:59, the Bolts had a big chance to cut the margin to two.

This time, however, the Capitals had a super penalty kill and afterwards were pretty much in full control with nine minutes to go. Tampa kept pushing the pace, but Washington was doing a good job of clogging the neutral zone and preventing their opponents from getting set up in the offensive zone with a blue line wall and great back checking by the forwards. At that point, only an offensive zone mistake or a penalty would allow the home team to cut into the margin, and unfortunately for the Caps, the former occurred. After winning an offensive zone faceoff, Kempny was a little too greedy inside the offensive blue line and then he lost his footing giving Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat a two on one rush on Carlson with speed. Ovechkin tried to hustle back, but Palat beat Holtby short side with a sweet shot while #74 went down to block the pass. Suddenly, with 6:57 to go in regulation, this was a two goal game.

The contest appeared to still be in doubt, much to the delight of NBC’s Doc Emrick, but the Capitals stabilized themselves, got their legs moving, and then clamped things down. Washington had several good shifts that forced the Bolts to defend and it wasn’t until the dying seconds that Tampa was able to get another shot on goal. NBC’s Mike Milbury was effusive in his praise of how the Caps turned their effort up when they really needed to do so down the stretch.

For the Capitals, this was their first opening game triumph in three playoff series this spring and with Tampa feeling good about their chances coming in it was important for them to do so. Washington jumped on the Bolts with their speedy lineup that included the return of both Andre Burakovksy and Wilson. Willy had three shots on net in 15:09 and Burkie looked very strong on the puck in 14:02 of action. Nicklas Backstrom missed his second straight playoff tilt due to an injured right hand, but he did skate and stickhandle some on Thursday before the Caps departed for the Sunshine State. Coach Barry Trotz stated after the morning skate that Nicky is still day to day. Chandler Stephenson and Jakub Vrana logged 14:28 and 13:19, respectively, and used their skating ability to wear out a Tampa defense that has some slower defensemen. Vrana had five shots on net and really gave the Bolts defenders headaches.

Simply put, the way Washington played in periods one and two is how they have to perform to win this series. They have to continually be hard on the puck and committed to protecting their defensive zone against a very fast, up front, Tampa squad. Again, the Bolts, much like the Penguins, want a rush game where chances get traded at each end. The Caps would be wise to make sure they pressure the Lightning in their own zone, but also keep the third forward high in order to prevent odd man rushes against. Traffic and net presence was also a big factor in the victory and that must continue.

In round two, the Bolts were blown out of game one by Boston and then won the next four games to take that series rather quickly. Tampa will be looking to leverage that same recipe in game two on Sunday. Washington has the talent to skate with the Atlantic Division winners, but they have to be smart and play the right way, like they did in grabbing a big early lead in game one.

Notes: Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 25:48. Carlson logged 21:55…Eller played 20:35 to lead all Washington forwards in ice time…Bolts defensemen Victor Hedman led all players with 27:49, but he had no shots on goal…Domingue stopped all seven shots he faced in the final frame and some of them were on odd man rushes as the Caps were effective at generating some great counter attacks with the lead…Washington won the face off battle, 27-23. Beagle was 9-2 and Oshie was 3-0…Brooks Orpik had five of the Capitals 15 hits…game two is Sunday night at 8 pm.

 

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Kuzy Bird Game 6

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Kuznetsov’s OT Goal Puts the Caps in the Eastern Conference Final

Posted on 08 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Ding Dong, the witch is dead!!

Evgeny Kuznetsov scored 5:27 into overtime on a breakaway after a great defensive play and pass from Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals finally defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in a playoff series in the Ovi era, four games to two. This was only the second time in 11 tries that the Caps have won a post season matchup against the Pens (last time was 1994). For the Penguins, their hopes of being the first team to threepeat since the New York Islanders won four Cups in a row from 1980 to 1983 has ended, but what a run they had. I tip my hat to that club, especially Sidney Crosby, the best player in the NHL.

So how did the Capitals win a game six without Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, and Andre Burakovsky?

They received super goaltending from Braden Holtby and they played as a team, sticking to the game plan the coaching staff gave them. There was complete buy in from every player on that roster and they outworked Pittsburgh in a contest the Pens had to have in their own building. The leadership from the coaching staff to the captain to the alternate captains to the veterans on down was just amazing.

To come back and win game five without Backstrom, who has a right hand injury, and then game six in PPG Arena is the stuff of legends and that Kuznetsov goal and “Bird Celly” will go down in Caps lore along with Dale Hunter’s OT goal against the Flyers in 1988 and Joey Juneau’s OT goal in 1998 that put the Capitals in the Stanley Cup Final.

The postseason is so much about goaltending and all year on WNST I’ve been telling station owner and host, Nestor Aparacio, that the Caps needed 2012 Braden Holtby this spring. The Holtbeast didn’t even get the starting nod against Columbus, but after Philipp Grubauer’s early struggles, #70 took over and he’s locked things down for Washington making the key saves at the right times. The Penguins had more high danger chances than the Caps in this series, but it was Holtby who badly outplayed Pens goalie Matt Murray and that’s why the Capitals are moving on. It was a reversal of last spring when Marc Andre-Fleury stole the series from Washington. The Holtbeast went 8-3 in the first two rounds with a 2.04 GAA and a .926 save percentage.

Goaltending alone, however, was not enough to do it. Washington’s defensive unit of John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, Michal Kempny, Brooks Oprik, and Christian Djoos was dynamite. The Penguins averaged five goals in their first round victories over the Flyers and they are a team that loves to score on the rush and on the power play. The Caps, for the most part, did not allow the Pens to get into their rush game, especially in game six when the commitment from a lineup with five rookies (Djoos, Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson, Nathan Walker, and Travis Boyd) was just outstanding. The Pens only goal came off of a faceoff win that clicked off of Stephenson and by Holtby. What I really like about this defense is their ability to move the puck. We all knew Carlson, Niskanen, and Orlov were adept at that, but the sneaky low cost deal to obtain Kempny by GM Brian MacLellan has turned out much better than the Kevin Shattenkirk move last spring. Credit goes to Brian, pro scout Chris Patrick, and the rest of the pro scouting staff that identified Kempny as well as Jakub Jerabek for two low cost, but much needed acquisitions. Bringing in Jerabek worked for quite awhile and it allowed Djoos to reset and become a strong and confident player again after some expected mid season rookie struggles. Niskanen and Orlov had the daunting task of facing the Jake Guentzel-Crosby-Patric Hornqvist line all series and they did excellent work. Nisky logged a team high 29:38 in game six. Carlson was a stud, as well, providing timely offense, especially on the power play. He is a big game player and I’ll say it again, “Pay the Man!”

Up front, Backstrom was a beast in games two and three when the Capitals really took over this series before the league derailed things by incorrectly suspending Wilson for three games. Nicky dominated Crosby in those tilts and was playing his best hockey. Unfortunately a Justin Schultz shot injured his right hand in period one of game five and he finally said “No Mas” in period three. At that point, there was one player who had to take over for the Caps, and that was Kuznetsov since he is the club’s other top center. Boy did Kuzy step up! In period three of game five he was as strong on the puck in all zones as I’ve ever seen him and in game six, he made the big finish to end the second round curse in the Ovechkin era. Kuznetsov only had one point in the first three contests, but he finished with a flourish getting five in the last three tilts. He was especially dominant in game five when his early final frame goal tied the game up and allowed Washington to take over that period and contest after being badly outplayed for 40 minutes.

As for the captain himself, his goal in game three in Pittsburgh was a real back breaker for the Pens and then his defensive steal and alert pass to Kuznetsov in OT finally put Alex into round three. The Gr8 had three goals and four assists in the series.

Let’s also not forget the work of T.J. Oshie who notched some big power play goals and also a huge empty net clincher in game five when he stripped Phil Kessel of the puck clean in a move that would make a Chicago pick pocket artist from the 1920’s proud. The Osh Babe is playing his best hockey of the year in this postseason.

Another big reason the Capitals are finally into the third round is they’ve had secondary scoring, unlike the droughts they’ve had from the third and fourth lines in the last three postseason second round losses. Alex Chiasson delivered a huge goal to give the Caps the lead in period two and it was set up by Nathan Walker, who was making his NHL playoff debut. The insertion of Walker, after Shane Gersich struggled in game five, was a move of brilliance and it paid off. #79 only played 8:29, but he was a positive on each of his shifts with energy and hustle that wore out the Penguins.

Lars Eller was a quiet hero in all of the action and he stepped up in Backstrom’s absence as the second line center in game six. In the previous two playoff losses to the Pens, centers Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen were the big difference makers for Pittsburgh. This spring, Eller outplayed big dollar trade deadline acquisition, Derrick Brassard, and Jay Beagle’s unit each game was better than the Pens fourth line.

After the terrible decision by the league to suspend Wilson, and I firmly believe it was media and Pens pressure induced, the Penguins dominated the next five periods of the series. Game four was pretty much all Pittsburgh and the first 40 minutes of game five certainly indicated that a getting healthier Pens team was starting to click. Fortunately for the Caps, the Holtbeast kept them in it and then two Kris Letang mistakes opened the door for the comeback and victory in game five. Washington dominated the third period of game five and they were the better team in just about all four periods in game six. That was what was so special about this win, on paper there was no way the Capitals, with all of the rookies and patched together forward lines, should’ve defeated the two time Stanley Cup Champions to close out the series on the Penguins home ice.

But they did and major credit goes to the players and the coaching staff for coming up with a game plan that worked. They stayed out of the box (only 1 penalty) and they didn’t get into a rush game. Washington had far more odd man rushes in this affair and ultimately it was one of those that decided the series.

For Coach Barry Trotz, this has to be big time satisfying for him and his staff. He’s taken heat all year for not being able to take a team, on paper that looked better than the Penguins in 2016 and 2017, into the Eastern Conference Final. Sometimes though, it’s not about what’s on paper, it’s how a team responds to each other and the heart they display on the ice.

Trotzy told Nestor and I out at Michael’s Café in Timonium in late March, “Last year I’d try to move guys around and I almost always got push back from some players who claimed they didn’t perform well with certain guys. This season, I’ve moved guys around all of the time to try things out and I’ve had no issues from anyone.”

In Carroll County back in March 2017 Trotz talked about that Presidents’ Trophy winning club and said this, “This may not be our best team, we won’t know until the year is over.”

Those two quotes from the coach certainly make a lot of sense now. That 2017 team was very talented, but maybe it was too talented and perhaps a bit selfish?

It’s safe to say now that this 2018 Washington Capitals group is clearly their best team, at least in the Ovechkin era. This is a club that has seen player after player step up when someone has faltered, injured, or gotten ridiculously suspended. It’s seen a Vezina Trophy goalie get benched, not pout but work harder, and then come back to take over and win two playoff series. It’s seen their best center go out due to injury and their second best pivot step up and become the dominant player we all knew he could be. It’s seen a Captain who was overweight and ultimately injured because of it last spring check his ego at the door and work his butt off to become a faster and better player in 2017-18. You can go on and on down the list at the players who have stepped up after the salary cap and expansion forced some big holes in this roster, especially on defense and on the wings.

This was certainly one huge game and series victory over Pittsburgh. The Capitals will have all Monday night to celebrate it, and they should.

But they are only halfway to their ultimate goal and the test gets much harder in round three. The Tampa Bay Lightning are an extremely good hockey club that is well rested and healthy. Coach Jon Cooper’s squad is heavy favorites to knock off the Caps in round three.

Then again, the Penguins were heavy favorites to win game six on Monday night, and that didn’t happen.

The game is played on the ice, not on paper, the Capitals have proved that.

So keep the faith, get behind the team like Coach Trotz has asked of you, and let’s play round three!

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Ovi Game 3

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Ovechkin’s Late Goal and Backstrom’s Monster Night Propel Caps to a Game 3 Victory

Posted on 01 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Alex Ovechkin tallied with 1:07 remaining by batting home the rebound of his initial shot that hit the right post following a superb play and feed by the great Nicklas Backstrom to lead the Washington Capitals to a come from behind, 4-3, victory in game three in Pittsburgh. Braden Holtby made 19 saves and the Caps now lead this best of seven series, two games to one.

Wow, what a stud of a performance by Mr. Backstrom!

Nicky had three assists on goals by John Carlson, Chandler Stephenson, and of course the game winner by Ovi. Backstrom logged a game high, for all forwards, of 22:29 and he was on the ice for three of the Capitals four goals and none against. Simply put, he’s been outstanding in the last two games and along with the Holtbeast, he’s the biggest reason Washington has won the last two contests.

The Gr8 now has eight goals in the post season and he’s playing extremely well offensively. He still has some issues defensively, but he’s making an effort in his own zone and he’s producing at a great clip on the offensive end in just nine playoff tilts this spring. Tuesday’s goal was as big as they come in his career right now.

T.J. Oshie, after hurting his hand blocking a shot at the end of game two, had a strong outing on Backstrom’s line and it was his sensational pass to Stephenson in the slot that got the Caps a big goal to tie this one up at two after Pittsburgh had seized momentum with two quick strikes. Those goals came shortly after Carlson’s power play tally gave Washington a 1-0 lead early in period two.

Jake Guentzel continued his tear scoring the first Pens marker on a sweet deflection when Brett Connolly made the mistake of leaving Justin Schultz, which allowed #4 to move to the center of the ice and fire away with lots of traffic in front of Holtby. After a really ticky tacky hooking call on Brooks Orpik, the Penguins went ahead when Patric Hornqvist outmuscled Dmitry Orlov in front for a tap in power play lamp lighter.

Orlov would then get burnt again in a four on four situation by Guentzel and as a result, Matt Niskanen slid over to help leaving Sidney Crosby all alone back door. #59 made a great feed to #87 and Sid buried it.

That gave the Pens a 3-2 lead going into the third period, but Washington dominated that frame, outshooting the Penguins, 10-3. Still, Pittsburgh seemed to have the upper hand given they were at home, but speaking of hands, a Niskanen unscreened point blast after a nice D to D pass from Orlov eluded Matt “Glitchy Glove” Murray and went into the net just 5:06 into the period. That goal seemed to really take the starch out of Pittsburgh and the Capitals continued to amp their play up.

The Caps were storming the castle, but on a few occasions they got caught up in a rush game in the third period with the Pens and Holtby bailed them out once by stopping Brian Dumolin on a breakaway with a sweet toe save. Pittsburgh also somehow didn’t connect on a couple of three on two opportunities before Ovechkin’s magical goal. In the remainder of this series, the Capitals have to really make sure they keep a third forward high in the offensive zone so that the Pens can’t feast on their stellar rush game.

Overall, this was a crazy contest. The zebras, Francois St. Laurent and Kevin Pollock, as expected called a lot of penalties early on. In the first two periods each squad received four man advantage situations and both teams connected once. Through 40 minutes the difference was the Crosby goal at four on four. Things got a bit out of control in period two as the Penguins were going after Tom Wilson after Willy knocked Zach Aston-Reese out of the game and the series with a broken jaw on a clean shoulder to shoulder hit. This was all physics as Wilson is six foot four and Aston-Reese is four inches shorter. #46 was also crouching as he ran into Wilson, who was gliding on his skates upon impact.

In the final frame, there were no penalties called and five on five situations seem to favor the Capitals. Washington outworked the Penguins in the last 20 minutes and Murray’s struggles in net yielded the tying goal. #30 had no chance on the game winning goal as the Pens were gambling to take the lead and Olli Maatta got caught at the offensive blue line. Backstrom found another gear and beat Kris Letang badly to set up the Gr8 for the game winner.

The last two springs, the Penguins have surged to a 3-1 series lead and have won in six and seven games, respectively. This year, Pittsburgh will have to win game four to tie the series up on Thursday night. They’ll have to do it with a goaltender that appears to be having some struggles, as well.

Notes: Dumolin, who was injured throwing his head into Wilson’s shoulder pads in game two, looked fine in game three. Evgeni Malkin returned to the Pittsburgh lineup after missing three games and logged 19:07. He was -2 on the night, but did have an assist…Crosby had a goal and an assist in 20:41. He was not on the ice much of the game against Backstrom since Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan had the last change…Carlson played a game high 29:17 and had four shots on goal. He’s a big game player and performs extremely well against the Pens…Connolly was bumped down to the fourth line and played just 6:42. Jakub Vrana was moved up and played fairly well in 10:41 of ice time…the Penguins creamed the Caps in face-offs, 36-23, but Jay Beagle won two big draws in the final minute to help seal the deal for Washington…shots on goal were even at 22 as were shot attempts (48 each)…Wilson had a game high nine hits. Game four is Thursday at 7 pm from Pittsburgh.

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Puck Not In

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Holtby Outplays Murray in a Caps 4-1 Triumph in Game Two

Posted on 30 April 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Braden Holtby made 32 saves and Alex Ovechkin, Jakub Vrana, Brett Connolly, and Nicklas Backstrom tallied for Washington in a 4-1 game two victory at Capital One Arena on Sunday afternoon. The Caps triumph ties the series up at one apiece, with games three and four slated for Pittsburgh on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively.

This was one heck of a hockey game and there were many significant events to cover, so without further adieu, here are my thoughts and analysis of the Capitals second victory in five tries on home ice this postseason.

Style Change – In game one, the Capitals, despite an early 2-0 third period lead, found themselves getting involved in a Penguins style of affair. Time after time the puck went up and down the ice with both teams willing to trade chances. With Pittsburgh’s high end skill, it’s a format they love playing because they know if the opposition roles the dice enough times, they will burn them with goals going the other way. In the first and third periods on Sunday afternoon, Washington played the right way and refused to get into a run and gun affair and that is a big reason why they tied this series up. The Caps must continue to play smart if they want to have a chance to win this best of seven second round matchup. If the Caps get a lead, they would be wise to go to their 1-3-1 or 1-2-2 defensive posture where they clog the neutral zone and defensive blue line. Stopping the Penguins speed and playing for counter attacks is a strategy that worked well the last time the Capitals were in Pittsburgh and wrapped up the Metropolitan Division Title.

The Best, Jerry, The Best – There’s no doubt in my mind that the Jake Guentzel-Sidney Crosby-Patric Hornqvist line is the best trio in the NHL. That unit has speed, skill, and grit and they were the biggest reason that the Pens rallied from a 2-0 hole in game one to seize a series opening victory. Most of their damage last Thursday came against the Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Tom Wilson line. In game two, Coach Barry Trotz made a tactical adjustment and deployed Backstrom’s line (includes Chandler Stephenson and T.J. Oshie) against Sid the Kid and company, since he had last change at home. Crosby logged 23:37 in this tilt while Nicky played 22:35. #87 was held pointless and also took a hooking penalty on Backstrom that led to Vrana’s power play tally which made it 2-0 late in period one. Simply put, the Backstrom line did their job by neutralizing the Penguins top unit in game two. The challenge, however, is that in the next two games, Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan has last change and therefore has a better shot at getting his best trio away from Nicky’s line. This means that the Lars Eller and Kuznetsov units need to step up and try and contain the best line in hockey.

Penn and Teller Moment – NBC (PENBC?!) kept showing a replay of the Hornqvist shot that the Penguins believe they scored on to make it 3-2 midway through period three, but referee Chris Rooney, who was in perfect position, immediately signaled no goal and the overhead replay confirmed the call from the Toronto war room. In the tone of one Buford T. Justice of Smokey and the Bandit lore, “there was no evidence to prove a goal was scored.” The emphasis there is on the word “Evidence” as Jackie Gleason would put it. Both Crosby and Hornqvist were seen overlooking the monitor of their broadcasting pal and chief cheer leader, Pierre McGuire, at center ice and screaming goal, but that angle from the front, is a three dimensional picture being transformed into a two dimensional array and then shown on television. Simply put, it is not accurate, it’s an optical illusion, and the math will prove it. The only definitive angle is the direct overhead camera, which showed the puck on the line, just like the photo provided by NHL.COM that accompanies this blog.

Glitchy Glove 2? – Columbus chased Caps starter Philipp Grubauer in the opening round by exposing his not so stellar glove hand. So far in two games in this series, the Capitals have done the same thing to Penguins goalie Matt Murray. All three of Washington’s non empty net tallies on Sunday were over the glove hand. Connolly was asked if the Caps have found a weakness, but #10 was noncommittal, noting that most right handed shooters prefer to fire for that side. Ovi and Connolly are both righties, but Vrana is a lefty and he deftly lifted his tally just over Murray’s glove. #30 is an excellent goalie and he made several big stops to his blocker side, including an amazing stick save on Ovechkin late in period one that would’ve made it 3-0, but the Capitals appear on to something going high glove side on the two time Stanley Cup Champion.

Down for an Eight Count – The Penguins best defensive defensemen, Brian Dumolin, left this game in the second period and would not return after hitting his head on Wilson’s shoulder trying to avoid a charging Ovechkin. Wilson was closely tracking Dumolin and when #8 saw the Gr8 coming, he leaned back to avoid what seemed to be a major collision and smashed his head on Willy’s shoulder. Dumolin went to the ice and would not return. Afterwards, Crosby was complaining that Wilson’s reputation supports the fact that it was a dirty hit, but that’s just posturing in order to get the referees on your side. This was nothing more than a hockey play with three players close together and one guy making a wrong move that unfortunately led to injury.

Infirmary – With Evgeni Malkin, Carl Hagelin, and Andre Burakovsky out of the lineup in games one and two, both teams were playing short of their optimal roster with the Pens obviously taking the worst of it without the dominant #71. I expect Geno to play game three, but Dumolin is a question mark for the Pens and on the Caps side, Oshie injured his hand late in regulation blocking a shot. T.J. was unable to hold his stick and cleared the defensive zone one handed, then went straight to the bench. If #77 fractured or broke his hand, the Capitals are in big trouble.

Let’s Get Together and Feel Alright – Kuznetsov needs to be better going forward in this series with his puck management. Holtby made an amazing save on the no goal play, but it doesn’t happen if Kuzy is more responsible with the puck in the neutral zone. #92 misplayed the disc and Crosby nearly made Washington pay. In addition, Ovechkin needs to be stronger defensively in his own zone. Too many times, especially late in period two, the Penguins kept the puck in the offensive end because of poor play and positioning by Alex.

Better than Ezra – Connolly’s playoff performance so far is night and day from last season. Brett is using his speed to generate chances and goals, but more importantly, he’s using his body to finish checks and take his opponents out of the play. #10 is also doing a solid job away from the puck, as are his linemates, Eller and Devante Smith-Pelly. That third line is going to be very important to Washington’s chances in the Steel City in the next two games since they’ll likely face the Crosby or Malkin lines. The key for the Caps forwards, across the board, is to play a north-south style. If they don’t have numbers, they have to get pucks deep or on goal to prevent the Pens from using their deadly transition game.

Notes: John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:07 while Justin Schultz led the Pens with 27:24…the Caps were 1 for 3 on the power play while Pittsburgh was 0 for 3…shot attempts were 75-69 for the Penguins…the Capitals lost the face-off battle, 31-24. Crosby was 15-9…Wilson led the Caps with seven hits while Jamie Oleksiak had seven for the Penguins…the Capitals were credited with 17 giveaways to just four for Pittsburgh. Most of the Washington turnovers came in a sloppy second frame where the Caps were out shot, 16-6.

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