Eight Caps Thoughts After a GroundHog Day Loss in Pennsylvania

February 03, 2018 | Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals wasted two goals and an assist from NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin on Friday night in a sloppy 7-4 defeat to the two time defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The loss drops the Caps to 30-16-5 (65 points) and they now lead the second place Pens by four points (29-21-3), but the Capitals have two games in hand.

Without further adieu, here are eight detailed thoughts on this game played on Groundhog Day at the Consol Energy Center.

Dana Carvey’d – Coming into this game, the Capitals knew they had a disadvantage in the special teams department and that’s how this one played out. The Pens went 3 for 4 with the man advantage while the Caps were a great big Dunkin Donuts hole, 0 for 3, with their power plays. “Well, isn’t that special!” to quote the great Saturday Night Live Church Lady. Pittsburgh’s penalty kill was very aggressive on Washington, although the Caps had seven shots on goal while up a man. On the flip side, the Penguins are just deadly and confident when they have the puck. Patrick Hornqvist, who left this game with a lower body injury after being crushed on a clean hit by Brooks Orpik, was a force in front of the net on the Pens third goal and all three power play tallies came on shots from in front, mostly on rebounds. With the contest 4-4 in the final frame, Lars Eller had a simple PK clear that he flubbed and the Penguins cashed in right after the turnover to seize momentum and pull away down the stretch. There’s no doubt that the difference in this contest was the special teams, and I’ll have more on the zebras later, don’t you worry!

Smoked at Texas Hold ‘Em – The Capitals are at their best when they go up and down the ice in a five man structured unit. If this was a poker game, the Caps ability to do that on Friday night could be labeled a flop! The Penguins do an excellent job at spreading the Caps out and Washington’s back end was very poor all night, too. There isn’t a single blue liner that I thought brought anywhere close to their A game in this affair. Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov were woefully out of position on Phil Kessel’s game opening goal, the ninth straight time Washington has allowed the first tally. On the second goal, Christian Djoos made a spectacular cross ice pass in his own zone to Carl Hagelin that Braden Holtby had little chance on. Rookie mistake there by #29 and to use the words from the bench boss in Major League, I hope Coach Barry Trotz or Assistant Coach Todd Rierden told the young blue liner, “Good try kid, but don’t ever bleeping do that again!” The right play there was to put the puck up the left wing boards quickly. There has been talk that Hagelin is on the trading block in Pittsburgh. The Caps have to certainly hope he’s moved because he’s killed Washington throughout the years whether he’s been with the Rangers or the Penguins. Finally, on Evgeni Malkin’s marker just a minute into period three, John Carlson stood prone in the slot like an orange road cone as Geno, who was an absolute beast in this game with two goals and two assists, shot on the Holtbeast and then in Moses Malone-like fashion, he buried the biscuit on the rebound. There were three Capitals there and no one boxed #71 out, but #74 deserves the most blame in that instance. Getting into a rush game with the Penguins was not wise given how fast and skilled they are and Washington might just need to switch up tactics if they meet up again in the playoffs. Wait a minute, it’s Groundhog Day, right?! Of course the Caps and Pens will see each other again, likely in early May. Caps stellar TV analyst Alan May pointed out that fire wagon hockey against the Penguins is not a smart decision and that a strategy of employing five men at the Caps defensive blue line to slow the Pens down and then counter attack, might be a configuration worth trying. The Capitals are a good rush team too, see Ovi’s first goal where he abused Kris Letang, but Washington is very poor in defending the rush. They tend to over pursue coming back, puck watch, and leave opposing players wide open for great looks. I’ve seen the stacked blue line deployment work very well in the past, the Flyers defeated a more talented and faster Capitals team in 1989 in the first round by doing just that (Pete Peeters also stunk in net for the Caps in that series, but that’s a story for another day).

No Seconds Guys – In game six of last season’s playoff series the line of Andre Burakovsky, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie dominated the Penguins to force a game seven. That second line unit, in the several times that Coach Trotz has assembled it this season, has been unable to reproduce its magic. The biggest problem, from what I’m seeing, is the terrible play of #65. His defensive zone is a train wreck. He’s too soft on the wall and his ability to take a breakout pass and get the offense going the other way has disappeared. In the two games since the All Star Break, he’s been a turnover machine and a big reason why is because his fundamentals are off. You can’t take a pass and get moving quickly the other way when you have your back to the opposing defensemen. You’re an easy mark there and your only options are lateral or backwards. Burakovsky has to move his feet better, get his rear facing the boards, and put his stick in the proper position with force to take a breakout pass. This line needs to be changed, pronto!

Ovechkin the Great – It’s been an MVP season for the Gr8 and as stated above, he had two goals and an assist in this one. His 32 goals lead Malkin, who’s playing some incredible hockey, by four in the Rocket Richard Trophy race. Alex how has 56 points (24 assists) and he has the highest percentage of his team’s goals in the NHL, which is why he’s the most valuable to his club. Ovi is playing with speed and power. He totally turned Letang around on the goal that got Washington back in this one at 2-1. He assisted on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s goal that knotted the game at three in period two as he and Tom Wilson just muscled their way through the Penguin defense. After more Malkin heroics, Ovechkin tied this game back up at four just under two minutes into period three when he buried a sweet feed from #92. No matter who Alex is paired with this season, he’s been delivering on the ice. He’s had a great campaign to date and the only thing that’s really gone against him off of it was that partisan hit piece that The Washington Post did on him and his long time, well established, and very understandable relationship with Vladimir Putin, but we know the Democracy Dies in Darkness crowd, whatever that saying is supposed to mean, has a bit too much Russia on their collective minds. But again, that’s another story. [Aside: Speaking of great Russia stories, have you ever seen Sean Connery as James Bond in From Russia With Love? Now that’s a good story involving Russia.] Bottom line, the cuddly Ovi came to play, once again, but a lot of other players didn’t bring a quality game in the Steel City on Friday night; too many passengers.

Reg Dunlop Time – With so many guys floating against the Pens, it’s time for Coach Trotz to go all Reg Dunlop and shuffle his lines around for Sunday’s matinee against the speedy Vegas Golden Knights. The Rock Vegas hockey club skated all over the Capitals back on December 23rd when Washington was on their 3rd game in four nights. Well, turnabout is fair play and the Vegas Strong crew will be having their 3rd match in less than four days on Sunday in DC. Vegas Coach Gerard Gallant stated that “For the first time all season, we looked like a tired hockey team” (h/t to the great Vegas Golden Knights Twitter account) after his club lost 5-2 in Minnesota on Groundhog Day. Vegas has been traveling across the country all week. They rallied with three goals to beat Calgary on Tuesday, beat the Winnipeg Jets in OT on Thursday, and were run out of the Excel Energy Center on Friday. The Caps must jump on these guys with speed up front at Capital One Arena on Sunday at 12:30 pm. My proposed lines to try and get things going early are:

Ovechkin – Backstrom – Wilson

Jakub Vrana – Kuznetsov – Oshie

Brett Connolly – Eller – Burakovsky

Chandler Stephenson – Jay Beagle – Devante Smith-Pelly

Hung Out to Dry – Holtby has been stellar for the Caps this season and he made some huge saves early in this tilt just to keep the Caps in it. Braden gave up six lamp lighters and was pulled in period three, but the only one I thought he probably should have had was the sixth goal by Phil Kessel (two goals, one assist). The snipe beat the Holtbeast short side, but that was on a three on two and #81, next to Ovi, might have the second best shot in the league. So let’s cut Holtby some slack, although Caps Nation is very well known for overreacting on Twitter after losses, because the skaters in front of him had no real regard for defense in this affair outside of a few players (Ovi and Willy were good in all zones on Friday).

Burrito Salesmen – With a special teams game something the Capitals did not want to get into, those who follow me on Twitter (@EdFrankovic) knew that this was going to be a poorly officiated affair. By no means do I put this loss on the referees, the Caps were too loose and employed the wrong style to come out on top on Friday, but the performances by Chris Rooney and Tim Peel were terrible. Two of the Penguins power plays were the wrong calls, the clean hit by Wilson on a falling Ian Cole and Madison Bowey’s tripping penalty that was initally interference on the Penguins. The clowns on ice also missed several other infractions against the Penguins (for example, Burakovsky taking a stick from Cole to the face). Power plays were 4 to 3 for the Pens. Yes, the lazy offensive zone penalties by both Backstrom and Stephenson were spot on, but I don’t know what color the moon is on Rooney Tunes and Peel’s planet most nights they officiate games? Simply put, those two zebras remind me of a line from Damone in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, “I came this close to working at the 7-11.” In this case, both of those fools should be putting chili on hot dogs, microwaving burritos, and slinging slurpees at the local quick stop or 7-11. They are just awful at refereeing.

The Fabulous Thunderbirds Finish – Overall, despite all of the bad things the Caps did in this affair, it was not such a bad loss. Yes, they were sloppy and unstructured, but they battled back from 2-0, 3-1, and 4-3 deficits to put themselves in position to win the game when they didn’t have many guys clicking. There is a lot of talent on this Caps club, much like we see the Penguins display; and they are a great hockey team, but the three goal margin was not indicative of how close this contest really was, it could’ve gone either way. Nobody likes losing to one of their arch rivals, but its only game 51 out of 82. The playoffs are two and a half months away and things will change before these teams meet again in late April/early May. Washington will no doubt add a blue liner, I just can’t see this organization relying very heavily on two rookies and being successful in the post season. Plus, I’m sure Mario Lemieux and company will go all Don Corleone and offer a sucker team a deal that they can’t refuse that will bolster their squad while keeping them under the salary cap. But it’s all good and both teams badly want to win. Losing isn’t fun, especially when the Caps have become Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, losing to Pittsburgh so often. But that movie has a happy ending, so just maybe?! This was a fun game to watch, but a coach’s nightmare with the lack of structure. You have to take the bad with the good, so with that, wrap this one up, I’ll take it! I’ve got no choice.