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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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Game two Pens

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Crosby and Fleury Carry the Pens Past the Caps in Game Two

Posted on 30 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals find themselves in a 2-0 series hole after a 6-2 loss at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night at the Verizon Center. Games three and four will be in Steeltown on Monday and Wednesday, respectively.

The Caps came out and played a superb opening frame, doing everything but score a goal. They dominated possession with a 35-8 edge in shot attempts and they even received two power plays. Unfortunately for the Capitals, Marc-Andre Fleury (34 saves) was at the top of his game again and the Pens also blocked 13 shots to keep things scoreless after twenty minutes.

In game one, the Penguins would score twice in the first 64 seconds of period two, but it was Washington who came out strong to start the stanza. Just 29 ticks in, Jake Guentzel was boxed for hooking and the Capitals power play came on the ice for its third attempt of the evening. The Caps top unit was put on first and just over 30 seconds in they were set up in the offensive zone. Kevin Shattenkirk had the puck at the point and instead of making an open pass to Alex Ovechkin, who only had two of the Capitals 35 first period shot attempts; he hesitated, and then fired the puck on net. The shot was blocked and that allowed the speedy Matt Cullen to go in on a breakaway and beat Braden Holtby via the five hole.

Coach Barry Trotz’ crew, however, would answer that potentially devastating shorthanded tally when Nicklas Backstrom got the puck to Ovechkin at the point. The Gr8 then found Matt Niskanen all alone in the slot and Nisky beat Fleury to the far post to tie the game up at 2:09 of period two. The Caps would continue to carry most of the play, but then a series of turnovers allowed Sidney Crosby to steal the puck, come into the Washington zone with speed, and then feed Phil Kessel on a two on one that #81 placed perfectly top shelf, short side on the Holtbeast at 13:04. If Washington gets the puck deep there, the goal doesn’t happen.

Things then got worse three minutes and ten seconds later. Justin Williams carried into the offensive zone, wound up to fire on net, and Crosby went down to block the shot. The puck then caromed off of #87 and out to the neutral zone to give Jake Guentzel a two on one rush. The Caps defender appeared to give Holtby the shooter and #59 beat #70 short side. It was an odd man rush goal, but one many felt that the Holtbeast should have stopped. That goal deflated the building and to start the final frame, Coach Trotz yanked Holtby for Philipp Grubauer.

That move did not go well as Kessel scored on the power play just 2:19 into the third period after Shattenkirk took a terrible delay of game penalty. Backstrom would score on a rebound of an Ovechkin shot to make it 4-2 with 16:16 to go, but any hope of a comeback was ended when Malkin tallied from the paint less than two minutes later.

Simply put, this was a very tough loss for the Caps and they now have to go into Pittsburgh and try to win at least one game to bring the series back to DC for a game five. I wasn’t a fan of pulling Holtby for Grubauer, but Coach Trotz said afterwards he didn’t regret the move because he felt he had to try and change things up.

It was a bit of a panic move, much like some of the plays Washington made in period two where the “game opened up” as Brooks Orpik described it to me afterwards. #44 felt that the Caps got away from their strong first period by trying to do different things and he thought that was a mistake. He’s right and the Shattenkirk play on the power play was a perfect example of that. That puck has to go to Ovechkin or back to Backstrom, or at worst, #22 has to fire a wrist shot through traffic quickly. On goal two, three Capitals rushed to Crosby and left Kessel wide open. For the third Penguins goal, Williams needs to get that puck deep and not into #87’s shin pads. Those plays and Trotz pulling Holtby were all examples, in my mind, of not sticking to what was working and getting away from the script.

Game two is now over, so there is nothing Washington can do about it. Afterwards, the media had to wait between 10 and 15 minutes to enter the locker room due to a team meeting. There weren’t many details given, but Williams, when asked who spoke up, noted “Backy” [Nicklas Backstrom].

While many in Caps Nation were in full “Here We Go Again” and doomsday mode, the Capitals locker room was anything but that.

“We’re in a little hole. We need to focus on game 3 and winning that and that was it,” said Stick on the team’s predicament.

As for not deviating from what was working in period one, Williams had some very telling words.

“Yes, repetition in playoffs and wearing a team down is crucial. We had a good first period, yes, we didn’t score a goal. That happens. We just got away a little bit and they capitalized on their opportunities,” added #14 on what the Caps were trying to do and how things went awry.

The Capitals had many looks in this game, 88 shot attempts, to be exact, and when their shots did make it past the Penguin defenders it rang iron on at least three occasions.

“You’re not going to get me to say “Whoa is me” and “Oh, I can’t believe it.” You make your own breaks and I truly believe that. We’re going to work our butts off to get one in our column. A lot of guys said some good stuff after the game here. We have an opportunity; I’ve been down 3-0 and 2-0, a couple of times. You just have to win one game, one at a time. It’s an overused cliché, but it’s exactly right come playoff time. We’re right there, we’re just not quite there,” stated Williams.

As for Holtby getting pulled after yielding tallies on three odd man rushes, Stick wasn’t willing to give anyone a pass on the loss.

“Listen, everybody’s in the same boat right here, we’re just not doing quite enough and to beat the Cup Champs you have to do everything right. We’re not going to shy away from it. We’re going to go there and see what we’re made of.”

I asked Williams if the Caps were trying to be too perfect with their play, which was causing mistakes, but he said they weren’t.

“No, we’re just a hair off. Sometimes you go to the puck and you just get it tipped away. There’s little tips here and there. There’s little races, little battles throughout the ice that we’re not quite there,” stated the three time Stanley Cup Champion.

As for all of the shot blocks, the Penguins had 33 of them in game two. I asked Williams about the blocks, especially the one Crosby had on him, and what the Capitals need to do to adjust.

“You have to give credit where it’s due and they’re blocking a lot of shots. Just like any chess match, they make a move, you need to try and do something to alter that, shoot for tips, shoot wide, change shooting angles, all of those things. They’re blocking a lot of shots. I’m not sure what the stats are, but we’re not getting them through,” finished Williams.

Getting them through and behind Fleury is imperative if Washington wants to make this a series. We’ll find out what adjustments are made on Monday in game three.

Notes: Final shot attempts were 88-45 for the Caps. They also won the faceoff battle, 41-33. Lars Eller went 10-3…Ovechkin led the Caps in ice time with 23:19. Crosby played 20:12, but Brian Dumolin led Pittsburgh in ice time at 24:07…Patric Hornqvist blocked a shot in period one after playing 5:02 and didn’t return. A source tells me he’s out for the rest of the series and likely the season..Ron Hainsey took an Ovechkin shot to the head in period three and did not return…Ovechkin ended up with 12 shots attempts, but only three were on net…the Caps had 37 hits to just 19 for the Penguins.

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Sid Ovi

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Ten Thoughts on the Penguins Before Round Two Begins

Posted on 25 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Following their first round victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs in six games, the task for the Washington Capitals gets significantly harder as they take on the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in a second round series that starts at 7:30 pm on Thursday night at the Verizon Center.

Here are ten thoughts on the Pens as we head into game one.

1. Pittsburgh had a ton of injuries this season, but they still managed to stay close to the Capitals in the standings until very late in the campaign. They are an extremely well coached team led by the best player in the league, Sidney Crosby. Coach Mike Sullivan’s club is playing well right now despite the fact that they are missing defenseman Kris Letang, forward Carl “Cap Killer” Hagelin, and goaltender Matt Murray due to injury. Letang is done for the season while Murray is not even skating, yet. Hagelin is a possibility to return, at some point, during this series.

2. The Pens scored 21 goals in five games against the Columbus Blue Jackets in round one. They notched them in so many different ways, too. Here’s the break down on those tallies: Eight from offensive zone pressure shifts, six power play markers (officially only five, but Evgeni Malkin’s goal in game two came just one second after a CBus penalty expired), four rush goals, one off of a face off, one as a result of a strong forecheck, and one empty net tally. Six power play goals jumps out there, the Capitals cannot afford to take careless penalties.

3. A big key to those goals is how decisive they are with the puck, they pass it quickly to open space and it leads to a lot of one timers. They were able to exploit a very young Blue Jackets defense and get Vezina Trophy candidate, Sergei Bobrovsky, moving around quite a bit, which made it easier to find open looks. Columbus never knew what hit them.

4. Another thing they like to do is use the long stretch pass out of their zone from a defenseman to the forwards. If the opponent makes a mistake in the neutral zone or has a bad line change, they typically exploit it. The Caps must be crisp in the neutral zone and make sure they get pucks deep into the Penguins zone, especially when they are changing players.

5. When it comes to getting pucks to the net, I’ve already mentioned how quickly they do that. What makes them even more dangerous is all of their forwards are skilled at crashing the cage. Patric Hornqvist, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Nick Bonino, and Scott Wilson all had in close tallies in round one. Guentzel and Rust each had five goals in the five game series and most of them were from just outside the paint. Chris Kunitz is another player who specializes in dirty goals, but he was out due to injury in round one. He is expected to suit up for the series opener. Crosby is a wizard when he has the puck behind the opponents cage so it is imperative that Washington does a very good job in picking up Penguins forwards in front and around the net when #87 has the puck. The Blue Jackets failed in that area miserably.

6. Pittsburgh is missing Letang on the back end, and he was a work horse for the Pens against the Capitals last spring logging over 25 minutes a game. However, this season the team has learned to play without him since he’s been on the sidelines since February. As a result, they have three pairs of defenders that get pretty even ice time based on the Columbus series: Justin Schultz and Ian Cole, Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley, and Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey.

7. The Penguins are very difficult to beat on their home ice. In fact, you have to go back to December 14, 2015 to find the last time the Capitals won in Pittsburgh. That’s six straight losses at the Igloo II, counting last spring’s playoffs.

8. With Murray injured in the game one warm-ups against Columbus, Marc-Andre Fleury was thrown into the battle in goal. It was literally baptism by fire in these 2017 Playoffs for the 2009 Stanley Cup Champion and his perfect 16 save performance in period one stabilized things for the Pens until they found their game. They then quickly demolished Columbus. If Coach John Tortorella’s squad gets a goal or two in that opening frame, is the series different? We’ll never know because Fleury was so good in net to start the series.

9. Washington did well containing the Crosby and Malkin lines last spring, but it was the Hagelin-Bonino-Phil Kessel third line that did them in. This go round, that line is not together due to the knee injury to #62. However, Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel are playing as well as ever. Malkin, who was battling an upper body injury in the playoffs last year, is at the peak of his game now and is very difficult to take off of the puck. Kessel is on his line, along with Rust and they’ve been on fire. The best way to stop Malkin is to prevent him from getting the biscuit. He’s in beast mode heading into round two and leads the NHL in playoff scoring.

10. The Caps have spent all kinds of time and effort since last May’s playoff loss to put themselves in position for a rematch. They’ve added Lars Eller, Brett Connolly, and Kevin Shattenkirk to their lineup to try and match the Penguins fast paced play. They are a year more experienced, which has proven to bode well for Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, and Evgeny Kuznetsov so far in this postseason. So now they’ve finally gotten to this point and have their chance to slay the dragon, once and for all. It will not be easy. The Penguins are the Defending Champs, and therefore, King of the Hill, until they are defeated. Last season’s series, which was razor close just like the movie Rocky, was essentially the Stanley Cup Finals in round two. Will this season’s series have a Rocky II type ending?

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