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Carlson Scores Twice as Holtby Blanks the Bolts

Posted on 23 December 2016 by Ed Frankovic

John Carlson scored twice in the first period and Braden Holtby stopped all 23 shots he faced as the Washington Capitals snapped a two game losing streak to defeat the depleted Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-0, at the Verizon Center on Friday night.

Let’s be honest, given all of the injuries the Bolts have, including starting goalie Ben Bishop, top goal scorer Steven Stamkos, top point earner Nikita Kucherov as well as Ryan Callahan and Ondrej Palat, it was going to be very difficult for Tampa to knock off the Caps. Add in the fact that Coach Jon Cooper’s crew played in Tampa on Thursday night and then had to fly to Washington in the wee hours of the night for the game and it was a recipe for a Capitals rout.

That pretty much was the case as Washington raced out to the lead just 55 seconds into the contest when Karl Alzner made a nice cross ice pass to Carlson at the offensive blue line. With Jay Beagle screening in front, the Carlson blast went off of Tampa goalie Andre Vasilevskiy’s glove and into the cage. It was a simple goal, but that type of shot and net presence is how you best beat NHL goalies these days.

The Capitals would dominate the first 10 minutes and the Bolts struggled to get a shot on goal, garnering just a total of two for the period. With 4:18 remaining in the opening frame, Nicklas Backstrom (two assists) made a strong play along the boards in the left wing corner and fed the puck to Marcus Johansson behind the Bolts cage. From there Jojo spotted Carlson all alone creeping in from the right point and #74 tattooed the pass past Vasilevskiy into the net to give Washington a two goal cushion.

That first period by the Caps was what they needed, although the Lightning did get two power plays, and Washington did a good job of making the hill very hard for Tampa to climb early in this one on Friday.

In the second period, the Capitals continued to throw pucks at the Bolts backup goalie, who had played well in the past two post seasons when called on, but they struggled to solve him further. Finally at 10:48, they connected when Dmitry Orlov made a strong defensive play in his own zone to steal the puck and then he flipped it over the Bolts D to an all alone Alex Ovechkin, who snuck on behind the Tampa D when Brett Connolly changed. The Gr8 skated in and when Vasiliveskiy went for the poke check, Ovi went to his backhand and beat the net minder like a rented mule to make it 3-0 and pretty much end this affair.

The Bolts lost forward Jonathan Drouin to injury along the way and their best defensemen, Victor Hedman, also missed time due to an ailment. It was a bad scene for Cooper’s crew, who has to be thrilled that they have reached the NHL’s three day Holiday break.

The Capitals ended the scoring in the final frame when Johansson came out of the box and Backstrom sent him in all alone on Vasilevskiy with a sweet cross ice pass. Jojo made no mistake about the shot for his 13th tally of the season to end the scoring. At that point, Cooper cried mercy and put in Kristers Gudlevskis in goal to get him some work.

Overall, this was a workmanlike victory for the Caps and the Holtbeast didn’t need to do a whole lot to earn a shutout. However, the way Braden has been bailing the Capitals out so much lately, including earning them a point in Filthy on Wednesday in a shootout loss to the Flyers and keeping them in the game with the Habs last Saturday in a 2-1 loss, he deserved an easy win.

Up front, Caps Coach Barry Trotz had to be pleased with the play of the Brett Connolly-Beagle-Tom Wilson line since they were on the ice to set up two of the goals (Carlson’s first and the Ovi breakaway) and the play of the Johansson-Backstrom-TJ Oshie unit, who were responsible for the two other goals. The third trio, Jakub Vrana-Lars Eller- Andre Burakovsky, that was so dominant in notching the only two goals in the terrible shootout loss in Philadelphia on Wednesday, was just okay on this night. They were a bit sloppy.

On the backend, all three defensive pairs played well and since the switch up of Orlov and Carlson in early December, both have drastically improved their respective games. It’s not surprising, given that you now have an offensive minded blue liner paired with a defensive minded one. The third pairing of Brooks Orpik and Taylor Chorney was good, as well.

The Capitals penalty kill continues to roll on and Tampa had the equivalent of John Blutarsky’s grade point average in terms of shots on goal with the man advantage, Zero Point Zero!

Now, in honor of Festivus, it’s time to air the grievances.

Let’s start with the Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Justin Williams line. This group is just out of sync. Williams works his rear off, but #92, who pretty much was the reason the Caps lost in Philly on Wednesday due to his horrible defensive zone giveaways, is just making all kinds of wrong plays. That has led to long shifts in their own zone and Ovechkin’s uneven play hasn’t helped either. Like another famed Seinfeld episode, they have “low flow” right now and they are giving up too many good chances against because of poor decision making.

Finally, I’m not sure what game referees Kelly Sutherland and Ghislain Hebert were watching on Friday? Somehow, despite the fact that the Caps dominated possession and the overall play, the Bolts received three power plays to just two for Washington. It was ludicrous how many infractions those two missed on Tampa, including a blatant high stick on Orpik in the third period that led to Coach Trotz unloading with a mighty string of harsh words and likely expletives for Sutherland, who was clearly checking his unfinished shopping list throughout this one. It was a poor performance from the guys in stripes and they’re lucky that they weren’t victims to the feats of strength. The good news is the Caps played well enough that the clowns on ice didn’t matter.

At the end of the night, with 50 games to go, the Capitals did what they had to do, get two points. They are now 20-8-4 (44 points) and are six points behind the Metropolitan Division and NHL leading Columbus Blue Jackets, who have won 12 games in a row. On that note cue Bob and Doug Mckenzie’s Twelve Days of Christmas. Somebody get me a beer and a jelly donut…and take off you hosers!

Notes: the Caps scored all four of their goals at even strength…Carlson led the team in ice time with 23:50…Kuznetsov only played 13:40 and he was 3-8 on draws. He needs a “reset” so maybe this Christmas break will do that for him…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 31-28. Eller was 6-1…Orlov played 18:24 and was outstanding…Oshie turned 30 on Friday night. It’s too bad he didn’t get a contract extension for his birthday. He’s a tireless worker and there is no replacement for him in the entire organization. Sign the man!…Daniel Winnik, Zach Sanford, and Nate Schmidt were the scratches…next up for the Caps are the Islanders in Brooklyn on Tuesday night at 7:00 pm.

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Niskanen and Holtby Help Caps Win Their Fifth Straight

Posted on 14 December 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Matt Niskanen picked the right time to finally score his first goal of the season.

The Caps defensemen tallied to give the Caps an early third period 3-2 lead after some great board work by T.J. Oshie and then he closed the deal with 1:58 remaining in regulation on a power play with his second of the night and of the campaign.

Braden Holtby made 26 saves and several of them, which were all world stops, especially the two on Josh Bailey on the door step, occurred in the third period when it was 3-2. The Holtbeast, after Niskanen, was the biggest reason Washington won their fifth straight game and exited Brooklyn with a 4-2 victory over the Islanders.

This contest didn’t start so well for Washington. In net for New York was long time nemesis Jaroslav Halak (34 saves), who recently shut them out on December 1st at the Verizon Center, 3-0, with 38 stops. The Caps, who at times get caught up in a perimeter game, did quite a bit of that in a first period. Although they outshot the Islanders, 14-12, they trailed 1-0 when Anders Lee beat Holtby on a shot in the slot where John Carlson’s stick either caused a redirection or at least threw off the ability of Braden to track the shot. Overall, though, New York had the better of the play and their forecheck gave Washington problems in their own zone.

Period two was a totally different story. The Caps came out more determined to pin the Islanders back in their own end and their forechecking game was relentless. Time and time again Washington generated scoring chances on Halak, who did all he could to keep his team in the game. The Capitals were more physical than they’ve been in recent outings and the wear on the Islanders blue line became apparent as the game progressed.

The Caps got on the board when Lars Eller blocked a shot in his own zone and it sprung he and Brett Connolly on a two on one rush against a tired Nick Leddy. Connolly, who I’ve been wanting back in the lineup for quite awhile because of his forechecking skills and willingness to go to the net, went straight to the cage and tapped his stick on the ice signaling #20 to feed him the biscuit. Eller did just that and Connolly redirected it upstairs over Halak for his third goal of the season in 16 games, which is one more than the first time scratched Andre Burakovsky has put up in 26 games (and he has 0 goals in his last 25 tilts).

Jakub Vrana assisted on that marker and he also earned an assist on the second Caps goal, which came on the power play. Evgeny Kuznetsov (two assists) made a nice rush behind the offensive net and fed #13 in the slot. Vrana, who has a quick and deadly shot, fired the puck at the cage and it apparently hit Justin Williams on the way in. It was Mr. Crazy Hair’s fourth goal in five games and his sixth of the season. Good things happen when you shoot and go to the net.

After a Kuznetsov giveaway and bad coverage by that Caps line, the Islanders tied it up on a Leddy shot that went through a lot of traffic. That was one of the few New York opportunities in that frame.

With the score tied 2-2, the Capitals came out and really took it to New York to get the lead on Niskanen’s early final frame tally and then midway through the period the Islanders fought back and had a great push, but the Holtbeast would not be beaten. Washington then was relentless on the puck after those five or six Holtby gems, and Daniel Winnik drew a late penalty to set up the Niskanen insurance tally.

Winnik was really flying again in this one and he, Jay Beagle, and Tom Wilson have formed a great fourth line. Eller, Vrana, and Connolly gave Coach Barry Trotz a strong outing as well and with Nicklas Backstrom, Oshie, and Marcus Johansson playing so solid at both ends, it was easy to see how the Caps led the game in shots on goal at 38-28 and in shot attempts, 67-52.

The Caps, over the last three games, have really started to play their game. When they forget about being fancy and shying away from the hard areas of the ice and focus on using their speed and size to get to the interior of their opponents, they are very hard to beat. Once guys started going to the net in the second period on, life got really difficult for Halak. To me, the key to the victory was the second frame where Washington was all over the Islanders and wore them down.

At the other end of the ice, New York is pretty good at getting bodies and pucks to the net. There were certainly stretches where they did that and it was up to Holtby to save the Caps in those instances, and he did. But for most of the last 40 minutes, Washington did a very good job at limiting shots and quality chances.

The Capitals, with this victory, improve to 18-7-3 (39 points), and are now in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division, but only two points in back of the 1st place Penguins and Rangers. The Rags were beaten by Chicago, 2-1, at MSG on Tuesday evening. In third place are the Blue Jackets. Columbus won their seventh straight over Connor McDavid and company in Edmonton, 3-1, on Tuesday. It’s pretty clear the Metro is the best division in hockey this season.

Notes: The Caps will have a team build in New York on Wednesday and will then head to Raleigh for a Thursday practice and a rematch against the Hurricanes on Friday night (The Canes crushed the Caps, 5-1, back on November 12th in the Tar Heel State). Carolina put up eight goals in an 8-6 victory over the Canucks on Tuesday night…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 23:00. On his second goal, Coach Trotz smartly put two defensemen on the points (Carlson) on that late power play to protect the one goal cushion and Nisky’s blast to make it 4-2 made it look even smarter…faceoffs were tied at 32 apiece, but Beagle went 13-6…the Caps had 21 hits after only having eight against the Canucks on Sunday afternoon…Oshie had 0 points but was in front of the net on both Niskanen goals. Williams had great net presence on his goal and Niskanen’s last tally, too…Alex Ovechkin only had two shots on goal, but he did have four hits…the Caps were 2 for 3 on the power play while New York was 0 for 2…Connolly only played 7:05, but he had two hits and the goal…I expect Burakovsky to sit again on Friday since #10 earned a jersey in Raleigh, once again, with his strong play.

 

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Ovechkin Leads the Offense as Holtby Shuts Out the Canucks

Posted on 11 December 2016 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Johansson Rallies the Caps Past Buffalo in OT

Posted on 05 December 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Marcus Johansson blasted a slapper past Robin Lehner 2:38 into overtime to give the Washington Capitals a 3-2 victory to end their three game losing streak. It was fitting that Johansson, who also scored the game tying goal with 6:18 remaining, tallied the game winner because he’s been outstanding all season and now has 11 goals on the campaign.

The Caps other goal on this night came from their most determined player, Jay Beagle, who tallied his fifth of the season on a redirection of a great pass from Brooks Orpik in the middle frame. That tied the game at one.

Beagle, Johansson, and the injured T.J. Oshie have been the hardest working and best Capitals forwards this season.

Unfortunately for Washington, lately the word “hard working” has not been a part of the game plan for many of the players. Since Oshie went down with a shoulder injury against the Red Wings on Friday, November 18th, the Capitals have missed his energy and aggressiveness that typically rubs off on the other players. Oshie is the best on the team at winning one on one puck battles. His absence has showed as the team was 2-3-1 without #77 heading into Monday’s tilt with the Sabres.

Buffalo was missing three key defensemen in Zach Bogosian, Dmitry Kulikov, and Josh Gorges, however, they came to play at the Verizon Center while the Capitals appeared to continue to take the “It doesn’t matter until the playoffs” mantra a little too seriously.

For several weeks, the Caps effort has been suspect and multiple forwards such as Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Lars Eller, and Tom Wilson have been underperforming in terms of production. After losing to the Penguins last spring, Washington seemed to get caught up a little too much in being a speed team at the expense of an aspect of their game that makes them elite, heavy hockey.

The Capitals forecheck has been MIA for weeks and the lack of hitting from a big hockey club has been evident. Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that heading into this contest I had enough of the soft and uninspired play. Unfortunately, for 40 minutes on Monday, that trend continued.

After the second period, in which the Capitals trailed, 2-1, former Capital and stellar Comcast analyst Alan May summed up the Caps last 20 minutes of play, one in which they were outshot, 16-7, in a perfect seven words: “out hustled, out muscled, and out shot.”

You could take that statement and apply it to many of the periods the Caps have played since Oshie went down (and there were duds, at times, before #77 was hurt, too). They were downright awful and so far away from what had made them successful that they were getting manhandled by a cellar dweller team that was missing three NHL caliber defensemen.

Luckily for Washington, they have an all world goalie in Braden Holtby (31 saves), who once again, much like last Saturday in Tampa, kept the Caps in it until they could get their “you know what” together.

Apparently Coach Trotz finally reached a boiling point, as well, and according to Comcast Caps reporter Jill Sorenson he lit into the team after that second frame. It was well deserved because this club was playing as soft as butter.

The coach also tinkered with his lines and also shuffled up his defensive pairings, something I have been calling on for several weeks. John Carlson was reunited with Karl Alzner and Dmitry Orlov was paired with Matt Niskanen. Suddenly there was some stability on the back end now that you had an offensive minded defensemen paired with a solid defender in his own end on each of the top two pairs.

The fixes on the back end certainly helped support the forwards, who began playing with passion and were finally taking the body. Washington was relentless from the 13:00 mark of the third period on and it was because they were skating, hitting, and forcing turnovers. Even Kuznetsov, who has been shying away from physical play quite a bit, put a strong hit on Justin Falk to help force a neutral zone turnover and keep the pressure on Buffalo near the midpoint of the period.

Naturally, the results started coming once they played the way that fits them best. Fortunately, though, the opponents were a depleted Sabres lineup and they were able to get away with a 40 minute absence. That type of effort, though, won’t cut it against the better teams in the league.

Look, you absolutely cannot play “balls to the wall” hard every night in an 82 game season that’s followed by up to two months of playoffs, but you can’t keep taking nights off in a very balanced league. Washington had gotten too lackluster with their performances and heading into Monday found themselves in fifth place in points in the Metropolitan Division. Sure, they have games in hand on many of the teams above them, but given the trend of not showing up and being committed, things were getting dicey. For 40 minutes on Monday, there was little sign that Washington was going to break out of their funk.

Luckily they did, so it is okay to be pleased with the way the Capitals played in the third period and overtime. It’s good to know, like we saw when they blew the doors off of the Penguins, 7-1, a few weeks ago, that they can amp their game up. However, there are still guys on this roster who are struggling, and to get out of it they’ll have to be more committed to the physical aspects of the game and win more of the one on one puck battles. If they do that more consistently, the wins and points will come in bunches.

Notes: Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 26:27…Johansson logged 20:00 and scored on his only two shots, the first of which was a power play deflection of a Carlson blast that was on net (#74 been struggling to do that for several games)…Alex Ovechkin played 21:57 and only had one shot on net. He hasn’t played well since the hat trick game against the Blues. Right before the Sabres made it 2-1, he was at fault on what would’ve been Buffalo’s 2nd goal when he failed to take a proper pass from Brooks Orpik on the boards. Luckily the Caps correctly challenged and won it since the Sabres were offside on their zone entry…Beagle led the Caps with six shots on goal in 17:24 of ice time, including 36 seconds on the 2nd power play unit…Wilson didn’t have a shot on net, but he made a great play on the PK late in the game when it was tied. #43 has been really good at killing penalties, but the Caps need him to be more physically involved at even strength…Brett Connolly was scratched, which was surprising to me given that he played great against Buffalo in the Caps last win before Monday and he had been getting lots of chances, plus he is a good physical fore checker…next up for the Caps are the Bruins at the Verizon Center on Wednesday night at 8 pm (NBC Rivalry Night).

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Grubauer and Connolly Lead the Caps over Buffalo, 3-1

Posted on 25 November 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan’s plan to upgrade the Caps bottom two lines following last spring’s bitter playoff defeat to the Pittsburgh Penguins is starting to pay dividends.

On Friday night at the Verizon Center off season acquisitions Brett Connolly (goal and an assist) and Lars Eller (assist) formed a strong trio with 2016 trade deadine addition, Daniel Winnik (goal), to help lead the Capitals to a hard fought, 3-1 victory over the pesky Buffalo Sabres. Those three forwards all logged around 12 minutes of even strength ice time and at night’s end each had roughly 15 minutes overall. They were hard on the puck all evening and that line set a nice tone for the Caps, who started fast again, by outworking the Sabres and putting bodies and shots to the cage.

At just 5:08 into the contest they broke the ice for Washington when Eller came down the left wing and fired a hard shot on Anders Nilsson (29 saves), who put a juicy rebound into the slot. Connolly was cruising into the “point’s zone” and he got enough of the biscuit to push it towards the right post where a hard skating Winnik came around the net and buried it from a sharp angle.

The Caps would play a strong first period, outshooting the Sabres, 13-6, but only led 1-0, thanks to some stellar play by Nilsson in net.

At the other end of the ice, Philipp Grubauer (32 saves) was very sharp in his first home start in forever on the front end of a back to back contest situation (the Caps are in the Big Smoke on Saturday night at 7 pm to take on the Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada). Buffalo had a power play just two plus minutes after Winnik’s lamp lighter to open the scoring and they have a very good one. However, Grubauer was the primary reason the Sabres weren’t able to tie the game up. For the night, the Caps backup goalie was their best penalty killer stopping seven shots in eight minutes of Buffalo man advantage time.

“I think that’s the privilege we have of having two great goalies. Either one that’s in gives us a really good chance of winning. Grubi’s played phenomenal this year so far and it’s really unfortunate that we couldn’t get him the shutout,” stated Winnik, who in honor of Movember, has grown one of the best moustaches you’ll ever see and it’s eerily reminiscent of the one Johnny had in Slap Shot. Kudos Mr. Winnik.

Marcus Johansson scored what would turn out to be the game winning goal from the slot. Jojo earned his 8th tally of the year when the Caps had a three on two rush up the ice. Justin Williams, who had several more good chances but didn’t score, came down the right wing and tried to pass cross ice to Nicklas Backstrom on the left wing side. The puck fortuitously hit the Sabres defensemen in the skate and bounced right to a streaking #90, who fired it quickly past Nilsson for a 2-0 Washington lead just three minutes and 25 seconds past the game’s midpoint.

The Caps had a 25-18 shots on goal advantage after two periods and a 49-44 edge in shot attempts, but the Sabres would have 5:32 of extra man time in the final frame. As mentioned above, Grubauer was the primary reason Buffalo would get blanked with the man advantage. They did, however, cut the deficit to a single goal with 10:02 to go when Sam Reinhart fired a shot through a Ryan O’Reilly screen and into the cage at even strength.

The Sabres then had a power play when just down a puck, but Gruabauer and the Caps penalty killers, most notably Winnik and Tom Wilson up front, prevented Buffalo from any great chances.

Then with 4:20 left and the crowd finally buzzing after “Unleash the Fury” was played on the video board, the Sabres took a too many men penalty when Washington fired the puck into the skates of a Buffalo player trying to change. At first it didn’t seem like the referees were going to call the infraction, but the crowd wisely groaned very loudly and off to the box Buffalo went. That penalty would provide the dagger for the Caps as Connolly, who earned 1st power play time at a crucial moment in the contest, buried the rebound of an Alex Ovechkin rocket to close out the scoring. #10 celebrated heavily and deservedly so. It was a big goal and he put himself in the right position to score an important tally that allowed the Caps to go 4-1 on this five game home stand that concluded on Friday. The only blemish was a zebra aided 3-2 victory for Columbus on Sunday.

Overall, the Caps put out a strong effort as a team, especially the Eller line as well as Wilson and Jay Beagle. Zach Sanford only saw 6:37 of ice time, but he nearly scored his first goal of the season on a beautiful rush move around a Sabres defensemen in the first period. Unfortunately for Zach, Nilsson made an awesome glove save on his backhand attempt.

The Caps did make some mistakes in this contest; most notably they were guilty of some bad decisions where they tried low percentage cross ice passes. Some of them were picked off and normally that would lead to odd man rushes. However, as Coach Barry Trotz pointed out afterwards, the Caps commitment level was there and that attention to detail prevented Buffalo from getting scoring chances off of those mistakes since another Capital seemed to be always in position to cover for the mishap. Connolly talked following the victory about trying to find the right balance of trying for the cross ice passes versus getting the pucks deep.

“We have so many guys here that can make really good plays. Coaches always talk about blue line turnovers and we got guys that can make plays on those blue lines. Eight times out of 10 they’re making those plays, but if we can just find the right mix of when to make those plays and when maybe to cut your losses and get it deep, then we’ll be better moving forward,” said Connolly, who was certainly one of the best Washington players on this night and is making an impact.

Connolly is absolutely correct, if there’s one criticism of this team, it’s that extra pass just inside the offensive blue line where the puck should’ve been put on or behind the net. Good things happen when you shoot is my motto, and as Coach Trotz likes to say, “The NHL is a shoot first league.”

“If we can just focus on trying to keep the puck out of our net we’ve got enough guys on the team that can score. I think that’s kind of been an area that obviously the coaches have been working with and just trying to cut our losses and not make those high risk plays, but if we’re coming back hard and we’re focused on helping the goalie out and the D out then we’re going to get chances at the other end, it’s just a matter of time and I think that once we figure that out we’ll be even better moving forward, so we’re moving in the right direction,” added Connolly.

Connolly, who MacLellan was able to bring in at a bargain price of $850,000, is right about the focus of the coaches and since Coach Trotz arrived this team has gotten monumentally better at playing away from the puck, something that has killed them in the post season in the past. The Caps have only given up 44 goals in 20 games and only the Minnesota Wild have given up fewer (38). There is the saying that “Defense Wins Championships.”

“We’re playing pretty well. We’re getting better every day. Guys are working hard in practice and we watch a lot of video and are getting better. It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. We’ve got a good group of guys here, a good team. We’re going in the right direction,” finished Connolly.

20 games in and sitting at 13-5-2 (28 points) and on pace for a 115 point season, it’s hard to argue with what one of the newest Capitals had to say following a very nice win the day after Thanksgiving.

On to Toronto.

Notes: Buffalo’s O’Reilly was the best Sabre on the ice and he had five shots on net in 23:53 of ice time (led all players on both teams). Coach Trotz raved about #90 and said he is one of the most underrated players in the NHL. Winnik said of O’Reilly, “Phenomenal player, I played with him in Colorado. Really underrated guy who finally got the credit he deserved with the World Cup nod for Canada.”…Washington lost the face off battle, 37-30. Beagle did go 11-6…Oveckhin had zero shot attempts in a rough first period for his line, but he finished with six for the game, including an assist on Connolly’s game clincher…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 23:09, but John Carlson played 23:00…Taylor Chorney, who was only in the line up for the third time this season, played extremely well with Brooks Orpik. I could make a case that this was his best game since he’s been a Capital. He was very good in his own end and at breaking the puck up the ice…speaking of underrated, that’s Johansson, who played 17:16 and is such a good two way player…the Holtbeast will get the start in net on Saturday against Auston Matthews and company from the Air Canada Centre. The Caps are fired up to play the Leafs and Karl Alzner remarked afterwards, “We’ve been seeing all of their highlights on tv, so it will be fun to finally play them.”

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Holtby Helps the Depleted Caps Blank Detroit, 1-0

Posted on 18 November 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Braden Holtby made 25 saves and Jay Beagle scored on a rebound with 5:11 left to break a scoreless tie as a depleted Washington Capitals squad knocked off the Detroit Red Wings, 1-0, at the Verizon Center on Friday night.

Lars Eller, T.J. Oshie, and Andre Burakovsky all suffered upper body injuries in the first period and did not return. Eller played one shift, Oshie three, and Burakovsky just seven, meaning that Coach Barry Trotz’ crew had to go with just three lines for over 40 minutes of action. Oshie was clearly the biggest loss since he is the team’s number one right wing and is not replaceable in the organization. T.J. appeared to hurt his left shoulder on a neutral zone hit he was putting on Detroit’s Riley Sheahan. Oshie stuck his tongue out after the hit and then skated to the bench. He then went down the tunnel favoring his left arm. He, Eller, and Burakovsky will be re-evaluated on Saturday, but it sure looks like a call up or perhaps two from an injury riddled Hershey Bears team will be needed. Daniel Winnik, the lone forward scratch on Friday, will be back in the lineup on Sunday against Columbus, and there’s a chance we could see the NHL debut of Jakub Vrana? RW Christian Thomas, who had a strong preseason, LW Paul Carey (previous NHL experience), or center Chandler Stephenson (three assists on Friday for the Bears) are also possibilities to be in the show against John Tortorella’s squad at the Verizon Center (12:30 pm start), depending on the extent of the injuries.

Back to Friday’s game, it was a physical affair from the get go. Burakovsky hit the post early and then the Capitals received a five minute power play when Danny DeKeyser received five minutes for boarding Tom Wilson at the 8:29 mark. Willy went awkwardly into the boards, but luckily avoided a head, neck or shoulder injury.

Without Oshie, the Caps power play at five on four continued to sputter and they really didn’t get many good looks over the first four plus minutes. Justin Williams took a hooking minor with just 30 seconds left in the major and that put the Wings on the man advantage. Washington would kill off that penalty, with the Holtbeast being the primary reason. Detroit would have three morer power plays on this night for a total of 7:02 of man advantage time, but Braden was a wall in net for the Caps.

The Caps, down three forwards, played a smart game the rest of the way by doing what assistant coach Lane Lambert asked of them, which was to get pucks deep and make the Red Wings do the work in their own zone. Washington did a nice job of forechecking and brought a strong effort, but Jimmy Howard was solid in the cage for Detroit and this game took on the “first goal wins” mantra.

Fortunately for the Capitals, they found a way to manufacture a goal. Zach Sanford and Wilson did some great work down low and forced a Detroit turnover. As a result of the strong forward work, Dmitry Orlov was able to slide up to the top of the left wing circle and he one timed a shot on Howard. Jay Beagle and Sanford were in front and the rebound fell prone in the slot where #83 pounced on it and put the biscuit in the basket. From there the Caps kept the Wings to the outside and any rubber that made its way through was snatched or thwarted by Holtby.

Marcus Johansson drew a late penalty and the Caps skated away with a gritty victory after their thrashing of the Pens on Wednesday night.

This was going to be a tough one for the Caps after an intense affair with the despised Penguins on Wednesday. A let down was a possibility, but give credit to the coaching staff and team leadership since there was none of that. The bad news was the injuries up front, but the rest of the crew stepped up and played a solid game. Detroit didn’t have a ton of chances, but there were a few grade “A” ones and the Holtbeast was a major reason the Capitals were able to scrape out a victory.

The victory improves the Caps to 11-4-2 and they are now just two points behind the first place Rangers, who lost to Columbus on Friday night, with a game in hand. Pittsburgh is also tied with Washington. The Blue Jackets, who defeated the Capitals on Tuesday, are just four points behind Alex Ovechkin and company and they have two games in hand. Somehow Coach Trotz’ club needs to find a way to get themselves up for that game and they’ll likely need to do it with a player or so from Chocolatetown in the lineup.

Notes: Shots on goal were 28-25 for the Caps, who also led in shot attempts, 56-48…Ovechkin had four shots on goal and nine shot attempts. He also had four hits…the Caps had 31 hits in this contest while Detroit had just 18. Sneaky Nicklas Backstrom led the way with five. Brett Connolly, who has been strong on the fore check when in the lineup, had four hits…Washington plays better when they are physical since they are a big team and can wear their opponents out more effectively…the Caps lost the face-off battle, 31-23, but Beagle was 11-7…Beagle logged a season high 20:01…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 25:29…former Capital Mike Green led all skaters with 26:10 of ice time.

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Holtby Delivers for the Caps in Winnipeg

Posted on 02 November 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Playing their third game in four nights in Western Canada, the weary Washington Capitals relied heavily on some timely scoring plays and their goaltender, Braden Holtby, to defeat the Winnipeg Jets, 3-2. It was the Caps third straight victory to finish their four game road trip after an opening loss in Edmonton last Wednesday. The win improves their overall record to 6-2-1 (13 points).

The Caps likely lose this game if not for the Holtbeast, who stopped 43 shots. Washington scored the game’s first two goals. Karl Alzner notched his 2nd marker of the season with a sweet shot from the top of the slot after Brett Connolly made a great hit in the corner to force a Winnipeg turnover. After #10’s super forecheck, Evgeny Kuznetsov (two assists) alertly grabbed the biscuit and swung it to Marcus “Red Hot” Johansson (1 goal, 1 assist), who then found Alzner all alone. King Karl put it precisely in the right top corner to give the Caps a 1-0 lead with 19:16 gone in period one.

Washington would double their lead in the middle frame, again as a result of a forced turnover. Johansson stripped the Jets of the puck in the neutral zone and fed Kuznetsov, who streaked down the left wing boards. Tom Wilson smartly made a bee line for the left side of the net and all of the Jets defenders went towards him thinking that Kuzy was going to try one of his patented no look, behind the back passes. To quote the great Ron White, “They were wrong!” and Kuzy carried around the cage and fed an all alone Jojo in the slot. #90 buried it at 8:15 of the middle stanza for his 6th goal of the season and his team leading 11th point.

From there the game went back and forth with the Jets firing a lot of pucks from the outside. Holtby did have to make a huge save on one sequence after Dmitry Orlov was beaten (again) on defense and then T.J. Oshie somehow played second goalie to keep the disc from crossing the red line. After that the Caps did a good job of holding the Jets to perimeter shots through 40 minutes.

But in the final stanza, the Capitals legs grew fatigued and they started reaching instead of moving their feet to play defense. The Caps were still up 2-0 with 10 minutes to go and per Mike Vogel (@VogsCaps) the team was 71-1-6 under Coach Barry Trotz when leading at that point in the game.

Things were looking good; especially after Oshie hustled to draw a trip and take the Jets off of a power play. Shortly thereafter though, Nate Schmidt got outmuscled in a four on four situation and Alzner went down to block a pass putting himself out of position for a Jets rebound and the subsequent goal at the 13:04 mark.

No problem still, right? Well, not so fast. Washington was fading and when Brooks Orpik missed a hit on the right wing boards and John Carlson made a bad decision to try and hit Joel Armia, the puck was passed easily to Adam Lowry all alone in front of Holtby. He then deked the pride of Saskatchewan to the ice and deposited the biscuit in the basket to tie the game up with 2:25 left.

At that point, overtime seemed imminent, but Washington forced an offensive zone draw and Coach Trotz had Jay Beagle take the faceoff. Beags won the draw back to Carlson and then fought his way towards the net. Carlson’s point shot found #83 in front and he backhanded it past Connor Hellebucyk for the win with just 30 ticks remaining.

It was a huge goal and the first of the season for the Regal Beagle.

This was not one of the Capitals better performances, but that’s to be expected given the travel and schedule. They needed a top game from their all world goalie and they received it. In addition, there are several guys who are in the groove offensively, such as Oshie, Johansson, Beagle, and Kuznetsov and the Caps rode them to victory.

The line of Johansson, Kuznetsov, and Wilson has been really strong as has been the Andre Burakovsky, Lars Eller, and Oshie unit. Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Justin Williams continue to try and find chemistry, but given how well the other three lines, to include Beagle, Connolly, and Zach Sanford are playing, Coach Trotz likely needs to let those stars work their way through it.

On defense, the Alzner and Matt Niskanen pair has been excellent. Carlson and Orlov have not been a duo you can wager your cash on so far this season and I put most of that on #9. He’s still deficient too often in his own zone. Orpik and Schmidt form a decent third pair since #88 is good at rushing the puck and #44 is sound defensively, but both made mistakes on the Jets goals in this one. Simply put, one has to think that GM Brian MacLellan is looking at potential defensemen to bring in in the event that things don’t improve on the back end.

Let’s be honest, this team has a strong group of 13 forwards with the additions of Eller, Connolly, and Sanford, but the defense, which let them down when suspensions and injuries hit last spring is still a big question mark.

On Tuesday night in Winnipeg, however, the Caps were fortunate to have one of the game’s best goalies deliver them the two points.

Long live the Holtbeast!

Notes: Shot attempts were 61-48 for Winnipeg and shots on goal were 45-27…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 23:50…Ovechkin had 12 shot attempts, but only three made it on net…the Caps did dominate from the dot and that was key in the victory, going 37-28. Beagle and Backstrom were both 10-5…Connolly led the Capitals in hits with four and he was one of the best Washington players in this one…the Caps and Winnipeg will play again in their final meeting of the season on Thursday night at the Verizon Center.

 

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Caps Suffocate Islanders in Home Opener, 2-1

Posted on 16 October 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Daniel Winnik scored twice and Braden Holtby stopped 21 of 22 shots as the Washington Capitals won their home opener over the New York Islanders, 2-1, on Saturday night at a sold out Verizon Center.

The Caps used their superior depth to suffocate New York in the final frame. Coach Jack Capuano’s crew only had five third period shots on net and one of those came from center ice. The line of Jay Beagle, Tom Wilson, and Winnik totally throttled the Islanders top unit, which is led by superstar John Tavares. #91 was held to only two shots on goal in 18:38 and he was minus one for the game. Beagle and company excelled in the head to head matchup and produced far more scoring chances for the Caps.

“We had a lot of good chances and we felt really good and all of our legs were kind of going,” started Wilson, who also nearly scored a goal late in the third period on a two on one with Beagle.

“I was licking my chops, thought I had a wide open net and whoever it was, the back checker made an amazing play just to get his stick in between my stick and the net, so I don’t know what else I can do, maybe dive head first and bury it in the net?” joked Wilson afterwards.

Coach Barry Trotz noted that line, which played sparingly in the opening game in Pittsburgh, came to him on Friday and wanted more ice time. The trio earned it quickly notching the contest’s first tally at 11:58 of period one. Overall, the line logged over 10 minutes of even strength.

“The first game was a little bit of a tough one playing only five to seven minutes. Tonight we just wanted to do whatever we could every shift to earn our ice time. If the coach isn’t comfortable playing us, that’s our fault,” commented Wilson on the increased ice time.

Tavares, who will be seeing Beagle in his upcoming nightmares, will be pleased to know that the Islanders don’t play the Caps again until December 1st.

The Caps carried the play for much of the contest. The shot attempts were 58-51, but like they did in Pittsburgh on Thursday, they passed up some good shooting opportunities. Coach Trotz stated afterwards that he would like more shots from his club.

Another piece of evidence showing the Caps domination of play was the special team situation statistics. Washington had five power plays to just two for New York. The problem was the Islanders scored on their first chance while the Caps were blanked. For the season the Caps are now 0 for 8 with the man advantage and they’ve allowed a power play goal in both games.

On offense, they’ve struggled to get set up as both the Penguins and Islanders have been very aggressive on the penalty kill. The pass to Alex Ovechkin is being defended, for the most part, so it’s imperative that the Caps get some point shots with traffic from the middle of the blue line. They did that a few times on Saturday, with Dmitry Orlov being the most notable, and it resulted in some juicy rebound chances that weren’t able to be finished.

On the penalty kill, Holtby noted that the Islanders employed a different tactic. In the past, their strategy was to set up one timers from the flank, but in this contest they focused on just throwing pucks at the cage with traffic in front. It was their best weapon on Saturday.

Overall though, the Caps have played two good hockey games and have three of a possible four points. The gimmick loss in Pittsburgh easily could have been a victory. They’ve also done this with the Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, and Ovechkin line nowhere near their best, so the team’s depth has been very evident.

“The special thing about this group is we can win a game in a variety of ways. We have four lines that can play, a good D, and a great goalie. So if it’s going to be a shootout we can do that, we can pump goals into their net, if it’s going to be a low scoring tight affair, we can suffocate them like we did tonight,” finished Wilson.

Notes: Beagle had an assist, was +2, and went 11-4 in faceoffs…Ovechkin had 10 shot attempts in 19:07 of ice time, but only three made it on goal; six were blocked…the Caps have allowed only one even strength goal in 125 minutes of hockey…the Islanders won the face off battle, 29-27…John Carlson led the Caps in ice time (22:06) and shots on goal (six)…next up for Washington are the Colorado Avalanche at the Verizon Center on Tuesday night.

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

Posted on 13 May 2016 by Ed Frankovic

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

Those are the facts, there is no denying them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The clock is ticking.

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

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Ovie Game 5 Pens

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Ovechkin, Holtby, and Oshie Help Caps Force a Game 6

Posted on 08 May 2016 by Ed Frankovic

With their season on the line, the Washington Capitals received huge performances from their stars in a 3-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night.

Alex Ovechkin was an absolute beast in this contest with a goal and an assist, T.J. Oshie had the same, and Braden Holtby made 30 saves to force a game 6 at the Consol Energy Center on Tuesday at 8 pm.

Wow, what a hockey game!

Both teams left it all on the ice in this one and it was the battle of superb forechecks for the first 40 minutes. After a great start by the Caps, the Penguins put on a clinic with their 1-2-2 pressure forcing Washington into poor puck management and turnovers throughout the later half of the opening stanza. The shots on net were 12-4 for the Pens after 20 minutes, but shot attempts were 25-21 for Pittsburgh since the Capitals missed the net 10 times.

In the middle frame, the Caps did a better job of breaking out by swarming the puck and using the high glass or lob over the Penguins defense. That forced Pittsburgh to do more retreating and allowed the Capitals to carry the play. Washington out shot attempted the black and gold, 26-19, and took a 2-1 lead on Oshie’s rebound of another strong Ovechkin shot. Justin Williams then pounced on a Pens turnover and beat Matt Murray five hole to give the Caps their 1st two goal cushion of this series. The lead could’ve been extended more, but the Caps missed the net 12 additional times, including some great chances for Jason Chimera and Nicklas Backstrom.

In the third period the Capitals played smart using a 1-3-1 type of setup in the neutral zone and, as a result, Pittsburgh had to dump the puck in way more than they wanted. The Caps continued to swarm the loose biscuit and that helped them win a lot of the battles against a speedier team.

Pittsburgh didn’t have many quality chances in that last frame as the Caps played with desperation.

Desperation is what the Caps will continue to feel, because a Penguins victory on Tuesday closes this series out.

Pittsburgh got Kris Letang (30:11 of ice time) back after a one game suspension and his play stepping up in the neutral zone was a big factor early.

The Caps, however, will get Brooks Orpik back on Tuesday after his three game suspension. His veteran leadership and presence should help stabilize a Washington back end that has made too many big mistakes in this series.

On Saturday night though, the Caps defensemen were very solid and the only goal allowed by Washington was while they were shorthanded.

The Capitals received stellar goaltending from the Holtbeast, including back to back huge stops on Patrick Hornqvist (pad save) and Justin Schultz (glove save) late in period two. #70 was dialed in, like his teammates, and they’ll need to be in game six.

Pittsburgh still is in the driver’s seat in this series since the Caps have no margin for error. However, coming into game five, Pittsburgh was 8-0 lifetime against Washington in previous such occasions.

Washington will need to bring their best game if they want to have a chance at extending the series, once again.

Desperation, that’s what every Capitals player has to bring to every battle on every shift on Tuesday night.

Notes: Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 27:28. He was outstanding, along with Karl Alzner (25:02). John Carlson had an assist in 24:50. He was dominant, as well…final shot attempts were 69-58 for the Penguins, but that was due to 3rd period score effects…Tom Wilson only played 7:20, but he drew a key slashing penalty on Ian Cole that led to Oshie’s PPG. Willy also was super on the PK and late in regulation. The Caps were 2 for 5 with the man advantage while the Penguins went 1 for 2.

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