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Eight Caps Thoughts After a GroundHog Day Loss in Pennsylvania

Posted on 03 February 2018 by 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.

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brian-maclellan

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Should the Caps Blow it Up or Stay the Course?

Posted on 29 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

After the Capitals added Kevin Shattenkirk at this season’s NHL trade deadline, I certainly thought I’d be writing a much happier ending to this recent Washington hockey season.

Alas, once again, that is not the case.

You already know the story; the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Washington Capitals in the playoffs for the second straight season, this time in a seven game series. In fact, it is now the ninth time in 10 playoff meetings that the Pens have knocked out the Caps. Jim Schoenfeld remains the only Capitals bench boss to defeat Mario Lemieux’s franchise in the post season (1994).

Let’s start with giving credit to the Penguins, because they certainly deserve that. Despite being outshot, 232-161, and outshot attempted, 484-317, in the series, they managed to hold the Caps to two goals or less in four of the seven tilts and as result, they won each of those games. There’s your series.

You don’t do that without outstanding play from your goaltender. Cleary, Marc Andre-Fleury’s performance against the Capitals was the biggest reason why the Penguins will likely be winning their fifth Stanley Cup this spring.

Next, you have to credit Sidney Crosby. Despite being injured in game three and missing game four, #87 was the difference maker for Pittsburgh. It was his two goals early in the second period of game one that staked the Pens to a two puck lead which gave his club the confidence it could win at the Verizon Center after being smoked there in the regular season. Then in a crucial game seven, Sid made the key pass on the winning goal after a Washington defensive zone turnover.

Finally, tip your hat to the entire Penguins team and coaching staff because they overcame a ton of injuries to defeat the Caps. Washington had injuries, as well, namely Alex Ovechkin’s knee and hamstring and Marcus Johansson’s fractured finger, but that’s a part of the game and the Pens found a way to persevere through all of their health issues.

The biggest reason the Pens won is because of their resolve. They certainly were outplayed by Washington for long stretches in this series, but they stuck to their system and when they received a break via a Caps turnover or mental mistake, they typically buried the biscuit. They were an opportunistic bunch who believed they could win. They also were able to plug guys into the lineup when some of their top guys were out. Without Crosby in game four, they jumped on the Caps early and held on for a win that ultimately gave the Caps no margin of error for a series comeback. So the Penguins deserve kudos for the depth they’ve created via strong drafting and development.

Congratulations Penguins, you clearly know how to win when the chips are down.

Now, were they the better team like they were in 2016 when they knocked off the Capitals in six games? The statistics say no, but the scoreboard says otherwise, and that is all that matters.

As for the Capitals, the roster assembled by General Manager Brian MacLellan, on paper, appeared to have no holes. Washington certainly did a lot of things correctly in the series. You don’t dominate the numbers as heavily as they did without doing many things right. Unfortunately, they did some big things wrong at inopportune times.

Washington carried the play in several periods in this series, didn’t score, and then tried to change their style of play. That is when they got into trouble and ended up losing. It was pretty obvious that the best Capitals game plan was to put pucks deep in the Penguins zone to try and further weaken a defense that was suffering from multiple injuries. Kris Letang was already out for the season and Trevor Daley was playing on bad wheels. But too often, the Capitals forgot that this is a shoot first league and they went into overpass mode. They were caught up far too easily in playing a pretty game and that is not the way you defeat a team as structured and as mentally tough as the Penguins.

Many Capitals players talked about the defeat being a mental thing on Caps Breakdown Day, and they are correct. Pittsburgh, no matter what the score or the situation, pretty much continued to play the same way. The Caps on the other hand, were not patient enough or mentally disciplined to stick with the game plan. As three time Stanley Cup Champion Justin Williams told me after game two, its okay to dominate a period and not score a goal, it happens in hockey. The problem for Washington though, is they wouldn’t maintain what they were doing and that’s when the fancy game and turnovers appeared on the ice. That’s a mental issue all the way.

While the Caps had a lot of shot attempts, they weren’t getting enough with traffic on Fleury and the players were rarely in position for rebounds. It’s a shoot first league and there were too many times, especially in the third period of game seven, when the Caps would cross the blue line and force the puck to the middle when getting it deep and wearing down the Penguins defense was the right play.

Again, that is a mental toughness issue, in my book. You have to be willing to pay the physical price in the playoffs by making the correct play. Taking a hit in the neutral zone and ensuring the puck gets deep in the offensive zone is a critical part of post season hockey. That applies inside both blue lines, as well. A number of the Penguins goals came as a result of lazy or careless turnovers. That’s a letdown on the mental side of the game. You can also attribute all of the terrible penalties the Capitals took in game four as a mental issue. Washington had a tendency to not come out strong in some contests, most notably games one and four. There is no reason why the Penguins should’ve had a 21-13 shot attempt advantage in the first 15 minutes of game four with Crosby out of the lineup in a must win for Washington. That’s inexcusable and both players and coaches need to answer for that.

Breaking things down by team component, let’s start with the coaching staff. All season long the Caps relied heavily on rolling four lines, but once Karl Alzner was deemed able to play with his hand injury and Brett Connolly struggled in his first post season appearance, Coach Barry Trotz went to seven defensemen and 11 forwards despite it being counter to what they’d done all season. Yes, the seven defensemen and 11 forwards strategy worked in game three, but it might have only been successful because Matt Niskanen was kicked out very early in the contest and the other six d-men were able to rotate normally. In game four, that configuration backfired badly as Alzner and Brooks Orpik, the two slowest Washington blue liners, were out on the ice together early in the game. Patrick Hornqvist, who isn’t exactly fast, split them like Moses parting the Red Sea to tally on a breakaway and it was 1-0 just over four minutes in. Pittsburgh gained a ton of confidence that they could win that contest without Crosby from that goal.

Following the game four loss, which was also heavily impacted by a very injured Ovechkin, who probably shouldn’t have played, Coach Trotz shook up his forward lines. He moved Andre Burakovsky with T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom and bumped the Gr8 down with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson. Those moves worked and Washington came storming back to tie up the series. They seemed poised for a big game seven, but Pens Coach Mike Sullivan adjusted and the Capitals didn’t play with the passion and urgency they had in the third period of game five and all of game six. Simply put, they cracked under the pressure. It’s apparent that the weight of being the #1 seed plus all of the past history of Washington recent playoff failures was heavily on the minds of these players.

Coach Barry Trotz has a track record of being tough on players who don’t follow the rules or the system as evidenced by the Ovechkin suspension in October of 2015 and Andre Burakovsky being benched in December of 2016. He even questionably pulled Braden Holtby after the second period in game two for what he thought was subpar goaltending. However, he and his staff let his skaters get away from the system too often in this series. Any deviation from the structure against a disciplined team like the Penguins can lead to a quality scoring chance, and that is what happened at key times in the series. If guys start playing the wrong way, they need to be benched for a shift or two so they get the message.

Johansson, Oshie, and Williams scored a lot of goals in the regular season going to the net. Jojo even won the Toronto series in OT of game six by doing just that. In the Penguins series, we didn’t see enough net presence and it was on the coaches to drill that into the players heads and enforce the strategy of getting pucks deep to set that up.

Again, I wasn’t a fan of the 7/11 configuration because it got the Caps away from the four line forward group that worked so well from late December until mid February. I understand why Brett Connolly was pulled out of the lineup for maybe a game or so to observe, but he also scored 15 goals in the regular season, many of which were tallied via going to the net. With some guys severely banged up and unable to shoot, like Johansson, why wasn’t he put back in for another chance? It was a mistake, in my opinion, to totally give up on a guy who could’ve been a better performer than the guys who were playing hurt. Case in point, Conor Sheary was performing poorly while being nicked up, so Sullivan benched him for games five and six of the Senators series. Yet in a crucial game seven, #43 was back in the lineup and played a major role in the first two Pittsburgh goals.

So did the Caps lose totally because of coaching? No, the coaching wasn’t great, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water here. This coaching staff has done a great job of building this team from the ruins of 2014. The two Presidents’ Trophies are evidence of that. Look at how far Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, and Tom Wilson have come in just a year. Each one of those players was a big part of why the Caps knocked off the Maple Leafs and dominated the possession statistics against the Penguins.

The playoff coaching certainly needed some improvements, but in totality, this is a very good coaching staff. Trotz and company will certainly take their share of the heat for the loss, but the biggest blame for the defeat is on the players themselves. They have to be stronger mentally and physically to do the correct things on the ice.

Let’s start right at the top of the players with Ovechkin. There’s no nice way to put this, it was a subpar season for Ovi and it all began last summer. How you handle off of the ice issues and life changing events is a big part of professional sports and with Alex getting married last summer it clearly impacted his ability to prepare for and play in 2016-17. After scoring 50 goals in 2015-16 and having a super 2016 post season, Alex looked slow and overweight for the large majority of the season. Clearly his conditioning wasn’t where it needed to be and then missing training camp due to the World Cup of Hockey didn’t help either. At age 31 and not in peak shape, the Gr8 lost some speed and that allowed defensemen to play him tighter so that he couldn’t get his shot off quickly at even strength. Ovechkin lived off of the power play in 2016-17 to score goals as he struggled in five on five situations.

In the playoffs, the hit from Nazem Kadri was low and the Russian Machine didn’t break, but it certainly slowed him down further and probably contributed to suffering the hamstring injury, as well. However, had Ovi been in better condition and had his speed from the previous year, it’s quite possible he could have avoided the Kadri hit altogether.

Ovechkin has made great strides under this coaching staff with his back checking ability, something he rarely did prior to the Trotz era. He deserves a lot of credit for that. However, his ability to play in his own zone has regressed. Standing on the left wing boards straight legged with your stick at your hips parallel to the ice is bad defensive posture. He needs to get rid of that and work on being a better player in his own end. If he gets back in peak shape and works at it, there’s no reason he can’t turn proper defensive zone play into several rush goals in 2017-18. Again, it’s a focus on conditioning and hockey.

That gets us to Backstrom. #19 had a very good season, but game seven was nowhere near his best. MacLellan’s goal in adding Eller and Connolly was to improve the bottom six and allow Washington to play a faster game. The thought was that having four lines would allow Coach Trotz to play everyone more evenly so that they could maintain a high pace and be fresher in the postseason. At times, the Capitals were able to do that, but they were not consistent. Ovechkin and Backstrom both played lower average minutes than they had in past regular seasons, by design, and in the end, it was likely the wrong move as both looked tired, at times, in the post season. Nicky, in his twenties, has been able to survive playing with extra weight, but as he moves into his thirties, like Ovechkin, he needs to shed any extra pounds he has to play faster.

When Washington lost to the Penguins in 2015-16, you could not blame either Ovechkin or Backstrom because they dominated Crosby and Malkin in that series. It was the Nick Bonino line that won for the Pens in the spring of 2016. In 2016-17, you can’t say the same thing. Both Crosby and Malkin elevated their games while Ovechkin and Backstrom weren’t as good as they were the previous May. Sure the Caps only received one goal in the series from their bottom six, but they rarely played the fourth line due to the 7/11 strategy.

Crosby is the best player in the game for a reason; he works harder than anyone at his craft. Orpik was quoted recently as saying that #87 is always the first player on the ice and the last player off of it for the Penguins at practice. That needs to be Ovechkin and Backstrom going forward. We’ve heard from other players that both have made strides, especially Nicky, in speaking up in the locker room. Speeches are great, but actions speak louder and doing the proper things on and off of the ice is so much more critical to winning championships. Those two guys are the Capitals leaders and have been the core for 10 years so they must be setting the tempo that everything is hockey first in 2017-18. We should not have to hear from Orpik that the team needs to get focused on hockey, like we did after the disastrous California trip in March. There were several post game players only meetings this season, including one after game two against the Penguins, and while it’s good to clear the air, they aren’t as necessary if everyone is focused on hockey.

Ovechkin and Backstrom are clearly the core of the Capitals and the goaltender is the third critical piece to the triumvirate. Braden Holtby, who has been stellar in past post seasons, had his worst playoffs from a statistics standpoint. Now how much of that is on #70 and how much of it is on the team giving up too many golden chances? I’d lean more on the side of the team breakdowns, but this was not Braden’s spring. This series was likely over in five games if he doesn’t make some big stops early in period three before the Washington three goal explosion that led to a victory and a two game winning streak. In game seven, he had no chance on the winning goal. However, I still didn’t like the Justin Schultz winning tally in game four. If there was a goal he’d want back in the series, I’d bet it would be that one.

On defense, John Carlson played his best hockey of the season against the Penguins, but he did not have a consistent year. He needs to amp his conditioning up so that he can play faster, as well. The standouts of this postseason on the blue line were Orlov and Schmidt and that’s encouraging given where we were just a year ago with both of them. Bringing in Shattenkirk for Zach Sanford and a first round pick seemed like the right move at the time, but in the end, with no Stanley Cup, it’s a lost trade. #22 has enormous potential and talent, but he was slow in the playoffs. Again, I think that might be a conditioning issue, but he didn’t come over until March with Washington. Hindsight is 20/20 and the deal now is another one that weakens the Capitals reach back for young players. Sanford has a lot of promise and first round picks are valuable. I can’t fault Mac for making that move, but coming up Cup empty now makes it an overall organizational defeat.

So where do the Caps go from here? There are calls for firing the coach, trading Ovechkin, or “blowing it up” from many in the fan base and some around the club. Even a couple of players said “major changes” were needed just two days after losing to the Penguins. It’s a natural reaction when a team loses again after being the favorite.

Let’s be honest, this is a team that is largely based on European talent and it hasn’t produced a trip to the Eastern Conference finals yet. This club improved greatly with the additions of North American players Oshie and Williams in the summer of 2015. They are guys who have a high “dog the puck” type of work effort. Both are unrestricted free agents and the team needs more of that style. Word over the Memorial Day weekend is that the Capitals and the Osh Babe have verbally agreed to an extension so that is great news, this team is not a Cup contender without #77 going forward. It would be nice if they could find a way to get Williams back, as well, but that will be tougher given the salary cap situation. Per the Caps great team reporter, Mike Vogel (@VogsCaps), we’ve heard that the salary cap is going to be in the $76 to $77 Million range. That is a big help to Washington, who also have to deal with Burakovsky as a restricted free agent. There are some who think #65 deserves a big pay raise, but given his inconsistent output, I’m not sure Washington can commit to longer term and/or high dollars on him, just yet.

I just don’t see moving Ovechkin or Backstrom as feasible given the likely low return and to be honest, #19’s contract is a great one for the Caps. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who also improved significantly in the post season outside of a poor game seven, is up for a new contract. He’s a restricted free agent, but somewhere around $6M per season seems likely for him. As for Orlov and Schmidt, it’s apparent they’ve moved up big time on the depth chart of this defensive roster and deserve decent longer term contracts. I’m speculating that Orlov will be come in at around $4M and Schmidt in the $2 to $2.5M range. Both play with speed and drive possession, which is so important in today’s NHL. Unfortunately, there will have to be other changes on the blue line. Shattenkirk will get paid big bucks elsewhere and I’d expect the same for Alzner, who really had a rough campaign. King Karl admittedly had a hard time regaining his speed after offseason groin surgery and then he broke his hand in the first playoff tilt against Toronto.  As for Orpik, as much as he’s a strong leader and a fitness freak, which was a big help in starting to turn the culture of this team around in 2014-15, his on ice value compared to his salary cap hit is not equitable anymore. He’s a third pair defenseman and you can’t afford $5.5M annually for that type of player when you want to win a Cup. MacLellan will have to look at either working a deal to move him, getting Vegas to pick him in the expansion draft, or buying him out to clear some needed salary cap space.

If the Caps had players ready to make the leap from Hershey or the college ranks to the NHL, like the Penguins have been blessed with the last two seasons, the overall situation could be better. Perhaps the bottom six will see a player such as Travis Boyd or Riley Barber come up and help out? Jakub Vrana has shown glimpses of being able to handle the NHL, but after his demotion this year he dropped so far off of the map that he was scratched for some games by Bears Coach Troy Mann in the AHL playoffs. Vrana is streaky and inconsistent, much like Burakovsky has been, so do you want to rely on another guy who doesn’t go to the net or high traffic areas consistently to finally help get you past the Pittsburgh problem? Seems awfully risky to me.

Clearly MacLellan has a lot to address in this offseason given the number of contracts that are expiring, NHL expansion to Vegas, and salary cap constraints. He also has a head coach reportedly heading into the last year of his contract. Add in that the two core players on the roster will both be in their thirties in 2017-18 and it’s clear that the GM has a lot to consider when charting the course for next season.

It’s not an easy job and there are very hard decisions to make, but in this case, I think it’s worth staying the course for at least one more year with the head coach and core players. In regards to a coaching change, is there somebody out there better than this head coach and staff worth pursuing? After all, there are several young players who have really improved during the Trotz regime and they’ve won two straight Presidents’ Trophies. They will likely have lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions in the second round yet again (yes, I see the Penguins defeating the Predators in the Stanley Cup Final) and that’s simply a function of the current division and playoff setup. In reality, they are the second best team in hockey, so does making drastic changes make sense? I don’t think so.

Brian, however, has to put pressure on the coaches and players to improve and be in better condition so they can make the playoffs and then deliver next spring. In hindsight, the World Cup of Hockey, which included participation from Coach Trotz and several top players, put the Capitals behind the eight ball from a readiness standpoint heading into 2016-17. The lack of preparation, based on what I’ve seen and heard, is a big reason they weren’t able to knock off the Penguins in the second round, once again.

So it’s incumbent upon Coach Trotz, Ovechkin, Backstrom, and everyone else in line after them to start getting ready for 2017-18 as soon as possible. Ovi, Nicky, and all of the players need to put in the hard work this July, August, and September so that they are in the best condition to play at a maximum pace in April, May, and hopefully June. If they can’t do that over the next 12 months, then certainly it will be time to “blow it up.”

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Jojo Rebound

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10 Thoughts on the Caps As They Head into Game Two

Posted on 28 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals lost game one to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night by a 3-2 count. The Pens lead the second round best of seven series with game two slated for Saturday night at 8 pm at the Verizon Center.

Here are 10 thoughts on this series after 60 minutes of hockey.

1. Before anyone goes jumping off of the ledge, the Caps, who are 1-8 in all time playoff series’ against Pittsburgh, were 8-1 in game one action in those nine previous encounters. So the Penguins have certainly proven that it’s not how you start the series, it’s how you finish it.

2. Speaking of starts, the Capitals did not have a strong start, especially the beginning of the second period where Sidney Crosby scored twice in 64 seconds after terrible turnovers by Washington. As I blogged before this series began, the Pens love to generate chances off of the rush and get odd man breaks. They did that well enough in the first game to overcome an 83-41 Caps advantage in shot attempts. The Capitals were very good for stretches of this contest, but their start was weak and they made too many “big mistakes.”

3. Washington did a great job of containing Crosby in last spring’s playoffs, but along with Marc-Andre Fleury (33 saves), he was the biggest reason it’s 1-0 Penguins. The Capitals cannot afford to turn pucks over carelessly when he’s on the ice and on the second goal, nobody on the Caps finds #87 and covers him. As a result he scored on an easy rebound goal. You simply cannot not know where Crosby is on the ice, so the Capitals must be more attentive to where the best player in the NHL is, at all times!

4. That was one great hit by John Carlson on Evgeni Malkin that led to the Caps first goal by Alex Ovechkin. Carlson is playing the best hockey of his season. He was dynamite last spring and Washington needs him to be dominant on the back end if they are going to win this series. #74 seems to really raise his game against Pittsburgh.

5. Turnovers are certainly something that has plagued the Capitals when they don’t win and game one was no exception. Without Kris Letang on defense, the Pens are not as fast, so Coach Mike Sullivan really has his two defensemen focused on cutting off the middle of the ice at the their own blue line and on back to Fleury. In the series opener, the Caps had their highest success on zone entries carrying the puck wide on the Penguins defense across the blue line. When they tried to cut to the middle too soon, it resulted in turnovers and that opens up Pittsburgh’s massive rush offense. So zone entries wide and carrying the puck deep needs to be the modus operandi going forward.

6. There is a lot of talk in hockey about luck deciding outcomes in a contest, or bad luck, as Washington suffered in game one. Jake Guentzel saved a sure goal by T.J. Oshie in the crease in period one and there were pucks around Fleury all night that the Capitals just couldn’t get to and bury. Fleury was good, but he was also fortunate. Washington just needs to keep doing what they are doing with pucks and bodies to the cage and it will pay off. They don’t need to get frustrated and change the game plan. Getting pucks deep on the Pittsburgh defense is so important.

7. After the Capitals called timeout with 26 seconds remaining with the Holtbeast pulled, Ovechkin found himself at the point and Kevin Shattenkirk was in the “Ovi spot” in the left wing circle. The Gr8 passed the puck to #22, but he missed the net on a great look. The Penguins had to be very happy to have Shattenkirk shooting from there instead of Ovechkin. I’m not sure if that configuration was planned coming out of the timeout or not, but it would seem that going forward that the Capitals coaching staff needs to find a way to get the Gr8 more of the critical looks? Alex only had eight shot attempts in game one and just three of them made it on net.

8. Given the intensity of game one and Washington’s domination in terms of puck possession, it was pretty upsetting to see the only two power plays go to Pittsburgh. Surely zebras Dan O’Halloran and Kevin Pollock could’ve called at least one infraction on the Pens, who were masters of the clutch, grab, and hold in this modern day style of game? It sure looked like there was delay of game on Bryan Rust in the slot on that loose puck late in the third period. I also didn’t like either call on the Caps, especially the late third period slashing penalty on Matt Niskanen when he was just going for the rebound of a loose puck off of Fleury’s pads. There were a lot of rebounds allowed by Fleury in this tilt and that play happens hundreds of times during games in the regular season and playoffs with a penalty very rarely called. The fact that it came at that point in the game and it was on Washington sure is fishy. Coach Barry Trotz labeled it “a pretty light call” afterwards, especially given everything else that was let go during the contest. Be better and more consistent zebras (although I’ve long given up on the arrogant O’Halloran)!

9. The Caps are at their best when they press the play on the Penguins and force their defense to have to make plays and work. Unfortunately, that strategy sometimes opens the Capitals up to the possibility of the Pens getting some quick offense on a stretch pass, if Washington does not stay structured. Somehow Pittsburgh was able to connect on one in the last 10 minutes to win the game. That cannot happen going forward. There were several mistakes made on that play by Washington. Shattenkirk needs to keep Scott Wilson wide at the defensive blue line and prevent a cross ice pass while Brooks Orpik was too far to his left and up the ice, and Nick Bonino exploited the gap with his superior speed. The Caps forwards also need to make sure someone is in position to stop that long pass or at least ensure that they are with any opposing forwards charging up the ice. As Coach Trotz said afterwards, all three Penguins goals were very preventable.

10. With the Capitals having lost the last six games they’ve played in Pittsburgh, it is imperative that Washington plays their best game on Saturday night to even this series up. It won’t be easy, but if they minimize their mistakes and bring the effort they brought the last 25 plus minutes of game one (they had the puck way more and also out hit the Penguins, 41-17), then they should be in good shape.

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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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Ovi 1000

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Alex Ovechkin Hits 1,000 Points in Caps 5-2 Win Over Pittsburgh

Posted on 11 January 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Alex Ovechkin came into Wednesday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins needing just one point to reach 1,000 in his career.

It didn’t take him long to get it.

Just 35 seconds into this tilt on NBC Rivalry Night, the Gr8 received a breakout pass from Nicklas Backstrom, after T.J. Oshie made a great defensive zone hit and steal, and he carried the biscuit into the slot and zipped it by Marc Andre-Fleury to give the Capitals a lead they would never relinquish.

An already energized Verizon Center went nuts and when the Gr8 scored on a power play ROCKET at 8:06 of the second period, it was becoming clearer that Washington was going to win its seventh straight contest.

Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has really turned it on since we’ve started 2017, then fed Justin Williams for his 12th goal of the campaign on one of his patented behind the net passes just 4:31 into the final frame to make it 3-0.

At that point, the only thing that could thwart Washington was a parade to the penalty box and that began with a questionable call on Dmitry Orlov at 6:28 after it sure looked like Patrick Hornqvist should’ve been going off with him. This scrum resulted following a cheap swipe by Carl Hagelin on Braden Holtby (30 saves) after he had covered a puck.

The Penguins have a great power play and Evgeni Malkin scored to make it 3-1. Pittsburgh would push hard for another, but a Steven Oleksy knee on knee hit put him in the box for the second time in this one. Simply put, Oleksy is an AHLer and looked overmatched out there. Those hits weren’t intentional, he just isn’t fast enough to play at the top level.

On the ensuing power play, somehow the Caps messed up at their offensive blue line and Matt Cullen received a shorthanded breakaway, but the Holtbeast got a piece of the shot to calm things down. About 10 seconds later, Backstrom scored after another brilliant pass by Oshie to make it 4-1 with 6:49 remaining. Game pretty much over, well except for those guys in stripes, who just had to continue to make their mark in this one.

Oshie was jailed for his third minor penalty of the night and Sidney Crosby, who was held in check well by the Caps on Wednesday, fed Hornqvist perfectly on the door step for a tap in with 2:36 to go.

The Caps would keep the Penguins without any real chances from then on, though, and Lars Eller launched one off of the dome of Kris Letang and into the empty net to seal the deal.

Oshie, who missed Monday’s big win in Montreal, would notch three assists and Backstrom had a goal and three helpers. Holtby was outstanding again, but it was El Capitain, Ovechkin, who set the tone early in this one and staked his club to a two goal lead to make no doubt about whose night this was going to be.

Ovi only played 16:52, he’s being paced for the post season, but he had two goals, 11 shot attempts, seven shots on goal, and two hits. He even set up Backstrom when it was 2-0 for an open net shot, but the puck fluttered a bit on Nicky and he shot it high.

This was a vintage Ovechkin game and he rose to the occasion after Pierre McGuire threw all of Crosby and the Pens championships in the Gr8’s face in a pregame interview. Yes, Caps fans, it was another tough night of watching NBC and having to listen to some weird analysis, but when you come out on top over the defending Stanley Cup Champions, it seems worth it.

Once again, the Capitals were on the short end of the stick in power plays for the seventh straight game, but they’ve won all seven. They have not had more power plays than their opponents since December 17th against Montreal. By the rulebook, those were penalties on the Caps, no argument there, but what is ridiculous is the continual lack of calls against their opponents. It’s not being called fairly and I still don’t know how the heck both referees missed Ian Cole’s butt end to the face of Marcus Johansson? I could point out at least a half dozen or more infractions committed by the Penguins that weren’t called, but the league will continue to do nothing about improving their officiating to make it more consistent. It’s like they are trained to officiate the score.

Anyways, despite what Mike Milbury said after the game, the Capitals weren’t the only team trying their hardest out there. Washington was very sloppy tonight, but their back checking was outstanding and covered for several of their mistakes. When they didn’t have that support, the Holtbeast was there to shut the door. Braden is on fire and he continues to make the timely clutch save. If Cullen makes it 3-2, who knows what happens? That’s why you need a great goaltender, and Holtby is certainly that.

The win improves the Caps to 27-9-5 (59 points) and they take over 2nd place in the Metropolitan Division, just a point behind the Columbus Blue Jackets. At the halfway point of the season, Washington is looking like a Cup contender and the recent uptick in the play of Kuznetsov has made them a much more dangerous team because the opponents can’t put all of their focus on Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Oshie. Add in the strong recent play of the Brett Connolly-Eller-Andre Burakovsky line and Washington looks much more daunting than last spring.

But there’s still 41 games left and we are three months from the playoffs, so it’s not worth getting too high over. January has certainly been encouraging for the Capitals, but to quote the great Phil Collins, “still it would seem we’ve still got a long, long way to go.”

Notes: The Pens won the shot attempt battle, 64-51, but I thought the Capitals had more of the quality scoring chances. Washington did a great job of keeping Pittsburgh on the perimeter at even strength…Matt Niskanen was +3 and led the Caps in ice time at 23:11…John Carlson had two assists and five shots on net in 22:19…Orlov had an assist and was +2 in 20:18. Outside of getting beat one on one by Crosby in period one, he was really good…the Capitals cleaned up on draws, 43-26. Backstrom and Beagle were both 14-7…the Caps will face the Chicago Blackhawks at 7 pm on Friday night at the Verizon Center.

 

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nicky-oshie

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Caps Destroy the Penguins, 7-1

Posted on 16 November 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Motivation and effort were not an issue on Wednesday night at the Verizon Center as the Washington Capitals totally destroyed the Pittsburgh Penguins, 7-1. Nicklas Backstrom had two goals and three assists while T.J. Oshie also scored twice and added two helpers to lead the Caps offense out of its recent slumber. Braden Holtby made 25 saves in net against the defending Stanley Cup Champions as Washington improved to 10-4-2.

There were so many positives to take out of this game, starting with the effort and passion. The Caps, who played in Columbus and lost in OT on Tuesday, then flew home afterwards while the Penguins rested in DC, were all over the ice for the full 60 minutes. They were skating, hitting, and putting pucks in the correct places on the rink. They played a north-south game that gave the Penguins fits and this one was over quickly.

Washington tallied three times in the first frame with Oshie opening the scoring shorthanded on a rebound goal after a Jay Beagle breakaway was stopped by Matt Murray. Backstrom then made it 2-0 with 2:30 left in period one on a goal similar to his marker in Columbus on Tuesday, a shot from the slot while using the defender as a screen. Then with eight seconds remaining and the Caps on a four on three advantage, Oshie buried the rebound of a John Carlson blast.

The Caps then gave Pittsburgh little hope of getting back in the game with a dominant second period. They outshot the Pens, 13-6, in those middle 20 minutes, but somehow only potted one puck (Dmitry Orlov’s first goal of the season on a three on two rush set up by Backstrom and Marcus Johansson) past Marc Andre-Fleury. Fleury entered this affair late in period one when starter Murray was hit in the head twice by Evgeni Malkin and was forced to leave the contest.

What was most pleasing was the way the Capitals didn’t take their foot off of the gas in the third period. Washington came out flying and they kept the pressure on Pittsburgh. There was no sitting back like they did recently against Columbus and Chicago, or when they blew a 3-0 lead against Winnipeg a couple of weeks ago. No, on this night, the Caps displayed a killer instinct that they’ve been talking about developing for years.

They stomped on the Penguins throats in this one with Justin Williams finally scoring just over five minutes into the last frame, albeit on a 5 on 3, and then Alex Ovechkin made it 6-0 on a sweet breakaway goal just after the 10 minute mark. Phil Kessel would break the Holtbeast shutout with 3:32 left when Orlov didn’t tie him up at the side of the net, but Backstrom erased that marker with a goal just 30 seconds later to close out the scoring.

It was a win the Capitals badly needed after scoring just five goals in their previous four games. They played with a purpose and got back to the things that make them successful; coming into the offensive zone with speed, getting pucks on net or below the goal line so they can use their size, and crashing the cage for rebounds. There was maximum effort and attention to detail. Gone from their game were the sloppy east-west passes they had been employing at the opponents blue line and it made a huge difference in the outcome. The Penguins defense repeatedly had to go back and get pucks deep in their own zone and the Caps took over that part of the ice, which is one of their strengths.

Bottom line on NBC Rivalry night, there was an ass-kicking that took place and the Capitals delivered it to their arch rivals on Wednesday evening.

So see ya Penguins and take your arrogant banner tweet home with you.

Notes: The Caps won the face-off battle, 45-35 and out shot attempted the Penguins, 68-46. That’s all about the effort as Washington totally manhandled Mike Sullivan’s club…in addition to his five points, Backstrom was 18-9 on face-offs.  Most of those draws came against Sidney Crosby, who went 8-18 and was a -3 on the evening. His biggest contribution in this affair was yelling at the referees…the Caps were rewarded for their effort with seven power plays and scored on two of them, a 4 on 3 and a 5 on 3. The only area you could complain about for the Capitals was the 5 on 4 man advantage which went 0 for 5 in this tilt and needs work…Ovechkin left the game briefly in period two after Kris Letang tripped him, but the Russian Machine that Never Breaks returned to get a breakaway tally and end his four game goalless streak in the third period…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 24:14. Ovechkin played 18:38…Letang led the Pens with 23:50, but he was -5 (on the ice for every Washington even strength goal)…final shots on goal were 39-26 in favor of the good guys.

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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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Murray Game 3

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Hockey Gods and Mistakes Fail the Caps in Game Three Loss

Posted on 03 May 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Very much like in game five against the Flyers in round one, the Hockey Gods were not on the Capitals side on Monday night in game three in Pittsburgh.

Washington threw 85 shot attempts at the Penguins and Matt Murray stopped 47 of the 49 shots on goal while Pittsburgh was opportunistic on their chances (they only had 36 shot attempts), and lucky, to hold on for a 3-2 victory. The Pens now lead the best of seven series, two games to one.

This was one heck of a hockey game and an outstanding effort from the Capitals.

Unfortunately, they made some critical mistakes that caused the first three pucks to go into their net, none of which you can put on Braden Holtby (20 saves on 23 shots). On the first goal, a puck deflected high in the sky in the Washington zone and the Caps had a hard time finding it. That allowed Trevor Daley to get the puck and fire it on net. Patrick Hornqvist was alone in the high slot screening while Sidney Crosby was battling both Mike Richards and Matt Niskanen in front of the Holtbeast. Hornqvist makes a great tip and Holtby never sees it. Sure, it was a bit of a lucky bounce that got the Pens the puck, but the Caps coverage was terrible, particularly the left wing on the play, who should‘ve immediately moved to take Daley. If he does that, Daley likely doesn’t get the puck nor does he have such a great lane to move to the center of the ice and fire away.

On the second goal, yes, that’s a lucky bounce off of the back of Tom Kuhnhackl, but the Washington forward fails to cut off the Kris Letang stretch pass in the neutral zone and that gives Matt Cullen a lane to the net and creates a two on one.

That’s two good bounces for Pittsburgh, but let’s be honest, the Caps put themselves in position for the lucky bounces to burn them. They must clean that up the rest of this series.

On the third Penguins goal, in period two, the Washington defensemen makes a soft play in the corner and crazily fires the puck into the slot. Nick Bonino easily picks it off and Holtby does his best to delay him from scoring, but the Caps defender who turned the puck over then gets outmuscled by Carl Hagelin in front for what proved to be the winning goal.

The Caps were really carrying the play from the start of the game, but they were down three pucks because of BIG MISTAKES. Two goal holes are usually manageable, but the third one really was the dagger on this night. Not a good play at all by the Washington defensemen.

Murray continued to be stellar in net and a Caps furious rally, which started with Alex Ovechkin’s laser over the goalie’s shoulder at 8:02 of the final frame, nearly was completed. Justin Williams tallied with Holtby pulled with 55 ticks left and then Marcus Johansson nearly tied it in the dying seconds, but he shot wide after a brilliant set up from Ovechkin.

The Gr8 was an absolute beast in this one. He was the best skater on the ice. He had a goal, an assist, seven shots on goal, 18 shot attempts, and nine hits in 24:21 of ice time! Unbelievable!

Sadly, as Coach Barry Trotz will tell you, there is only one stat that matters though, the scoreboard, and it read 3-2, bad guys.

It was a disappointing loss for Washington in that they played well for large portions of this game. They had 58 hits to just 25 for the Penguins and they had the puck the entire game. They played with desperation and passion. In addition to cleaning up the mistakes, they need to maintain their discipline a bit more and their power play needs to convert. I’d like to see more shots coming from the middle of the ice with traffic with that unit.

Discipline is going to be paramount moving forward. With Brooks Orpik getting three games for his hit to the head on Olli Maatta after game two, there was a standard set by the league that those type of hits, late and to the head, would not be tolerated. A three game suspension is huge for the playoffs, but Orpik took it like a man and a team leader, while Coach Trotz agreed with a suspension, too. However, he did take issue with the length of it. Good cop, bad cop, that’s the way that has to play out, right?

Well, now the league has another issue to deal with on Tuesday. With the Pens up 2-0 late in the opening frame, Letang stupidly launches himself into Johansson’s head after the puck was long gone as #90 crosses the blue line. Jojo went down and a two minute penalty was called on #58. Marcus would leave the game and go through the concussion protocol, but somehow he wasn’t concussed and just had neck issues from the whiplash of the hit, which started at the chin area. It is a hit, like Oprik’s, that needs to be out of the game. I’d expect Letang to be suspended and the league will look like hypocrites if it is not the same or very close (two games) to the Orpik penalty of three tilts.

Overall, the Caps did a lot of super things in this game. They played with the energy they need to bring to win for all 60 minutes, they just need to be smarter in their own zone and stay out of the box. The best way to retaliate to stupid or dirty plays by Pittsburgh, like the slash by Chris Kunitz to the chest of Justin Williams that had #14 in pain, is to stay composed, stick to the game plan and their structure, and put the biscuit in the basket.

Chasing for revenge is just wasted energy.

The Caps showed on Monday night that when they put their collective minds to it and bring the passion, they can dominate the game. They’ll absolutely have to bring that effort, with a stronger commitment to avoiding the big mistakes in their own end in game four, if they want to avoid a three to one games hole.

Notes: Game four is Wednesday at 8 pm from Pittsburgh; game five will be at 7:15 on Saturday night at the Verizon Center…Bryan Rust took a shot to the leg and played just 19 seconds…Letang logged 27:57 of ice time. He blocked five shots. Overall, the Pens blocked 19 Capitals shots…John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 27:59. He had an assist and eight shots on net…Marc Andre-Fleury was the back up for Pittsburgh, so his concussion issues appear to be over.

 

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Pens Win game 2

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Caps Gift Wrap Game Two for Pittsburgh

Posted on 01 May 2016 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals failed in their bid to preserve home ice advantage as Eric Fehr’s tip in with 4:28 remaining in regulation won game two for the Pittsburgh Penguins, 2-1, to tie up this best of seven series.

There is no sugar coating this one, the Caps totally stunk for the first 40 minutes. They weren’t dominated because of the Penguins speed, as you might have thought, no, it was a function of a lousy work ethic and sloppy execution. Passes weren’t on the mark, especially at the Pittsburgh blue line, and that allowed the Pens to get to the loose pucks quicker and resulted in superior possession for the visitors through 40 minutes. Shot attempts were an astounding 63-25 after two periods and in the second frame, it was 38-13 for the black and gold.

That’s just pitiful.

Amazingly, the Capitals were only down a goal, thanks to Braden Holtby (33 saves), who was stellar in the cage once again. Additionally, the Caps penalty killing unit was excellent holding Pittsburgh to zero for five on the power play after 40 minutes. The problem there is that Washington took too many penalties, some of which were warranted, like Brooks Orpik’s interference on Olli Maatta just 4:13 into the game and the Caps bench minor for too many dudes. Orpik, who knocked Maatta from the contest with the head shot, will likely get a call from the league and may be suspended for game three, so Mike Weber needs to be ready. The other problem was that Maatta was looking like he was in over his head in game one so Washington took a Pens defensemen out of the lineup that they picked on miserably, and with success, in the series opener.

I was not a fan of the holding call on Taylor Chorney in the corner (looked like that should have fallen under the Brian Burke bear hug rule to me) and the goalie interference on Evgeny Kunzetsov that wiped out Nate Schmidt’s apparent goal was a complete joke. Afterwards, Coach Barry Trotz was not happy with that call either, saying it was clearly incidental contact (Pens goalie Matt Murray (23 saves) uses his stick paddle to take Kuzy down) and that he would’ve been okay with no goal, but to put #92 in the box was not right, in his eyes. The coach is correct, but referee Dan O’Halloran is known to be one to put the Caps on lots of penalty killing situations in the playoffs (see game two against the Rangers last spring). How is he still reffing games while Dave Jackson is done for the playoffs?

Officiating aside, the Capitals were “getting embarrassed out there” as Justin Williams called it, for the first 40 minutes. There is no excuse to have such a terrible effort in a playoff game on home ice. Sure the Penguins were going to be more desperate down a game, but if you are a team that wants to win it all, you can’t have those types of lapses and gift away a game with a poor work ethic that leads to horrendous execution.

On the positive side, the Holtbeast was able to keep the Caps just a puck down and they finally started playing their game in the final frame. In the third period, Washington out shot attempted the Pens, 25-16, and they tied the game on one of their only two power plays when Marcus Johansson put home the rebound of a John Carlson point shot. That goal came just 4:08 into the period and the Capitals carried play for several minutes afterwards. Mike Richards seemingly had the game on his stick for the win with just over five minutes left after a great feed from behind the net by Jason Chimera, but somehow he missed wide. #10 wanted to smash his stick as he headed to the bench for a change, but he managed to hold it together. It was a big opportunity missed, then the Capitals had a turnover followed by a miscommunication in their own end that allowed Evgeni Malkin to scoop up the loose biscuit and fire it towards the net. Fehr got his stick on the puck before Orpik, and it went up over Holtby and in the corner of the net.

So now the series shifts back to Pittsburgh on Monday and Wednesday for games 3 and 4, respectively. The Caps have had too many bad periods so far in this series, four by my count, out of seven total. That’s not going to cut it, so this club needs to be the more aggressive team and dictate the play going forward. No more sitting back and trying to take punches before reacting. They need to get rid of the blue line turnovers and find ways to get pucks deep on the Pens. That should allow their fore check to start working, instead of vice versa. Pittsburgh won on Saturday because of the mistakes the Caps made, not because of the Penguins speed.

That is what is disappointing, the Capitals did this too themselves, and there is no excuse to be doing that at this juncture of the season.

Notes: the 8 pm start was really an 8:30 one due to the delay for the NHL draft lottery, which was won by the Toronto Maple Leafs. So Auston Matthews, the kid from the desert, will be in the Big Smoke next season…the Caps dominated the Pens from the dot, 44-26. Nicklas Backstrom was 18-2…Kris Letang played 35:22 for Pittsburgh to lead all players, but it was his tripping infraction on Williams that set up the Caps power play goal…John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 26:47, but he was on for both goals against, along with Orpik…the Caps did have several quality chances in this one, Chimera hit a post, and Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin (only 3 shots on goal) were both stopped in front by Murray, to name a few. The best quality chance was the Richards one, though, and that miss proved very costly…Dmitry Orlov, who played less than six minutes in game one, was scratched.

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Disciplined Caps Defeat Pens for 3rd Straight Time

Posted on 17 February 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Wow, that was some hockey game between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night.

In a contest that was poorly officiated, both ways, the Caps were the more disciplined team while the Pens lost their minds and took stupid penalties to basically gift wrap two points to Washington.

Joel Ward, who was cheaply hit with just under five minutes left by long time dirty man Chris Kunitz, scored the game winning tally on a five on three power play with 4:13 remaining. The goal was set up by an out of this world feed from Nicklas Backstrom, who leads the NHL in assists with 44. Then after the Pens received a late power play, John Carlson stole the puck and fired the biscuit from inside his blue line into the empty cage to give the Caps a big, 3-1, victory.

It was the third straight Capitals win over Pittsburgh this year and the Caps have outscored the Pens, 10-1, in those three games. Braden Holtby was excellent in net making 32 saves and he’s knocked off the Pens each time this season. At the other end of the rink, Marc-Andre Fleury was darned good as well (30 saves) while taking the loss.

Pittsburgh’s inability to score on Holtby this season resulted in the Pens displaying a game long mindset of crashing the net at all costs. The Caps were likely upset at the lack of goalie interference being called in this one, and rightly so, but that’s hockey. However, it was that aggression and focus on being physical that led to the Pens crossing the line, which ultimately cost them the game.

Coach Barry Trotz should be extremely proud of the way his club went into a hostile environment and maintained their poise and composure. This is a side of the Capitals we haven’t really seen in recent years and the maturity has been brought by the coaching staff as well as the additions of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen.

Orpik was dynamite in this contest as he and Carlson totally shut down Sidney Crosby, once again.

Alexander Ovechkin continued his MVP calibre season scoring the first goal on the power play on a breakaway and he also had an assist on the game winning goal by Ward.

The play you’ll likely see and hear a lot about, however, was one where Ovechkin came into the zone and was battling with Kris Letang for the puck. The Gr8 whacked at the biscuit but #58 blocked the puck with his right skate. Ovi’s shot attempt took out Letang’s feet and he went awkwardly crashing into the boards. Could a penalty have been called on Ovechkin? Probably, but the zebras didn’t do so (and they had already made many poor calls and non-calls, both ways, in this one up to that point). With Letang off to the locker room, the Penguins fans went nuts, as did their players. On the ensuing face off, Kunitz and David Perron took turns cross checking the Gr8 in the mid section while Ovi just laughed at the two (and no penalties were called on Pittsburgh either).

Letang would return shortly thereafter so it was good he wasn’t injured. But it was Letang who took an undisciplined slashing penalty on Marcus Johansson that gave Washington the five on three that allowed the Capitals to move to 31-17-10 (72 points).

With the victory, Washington completes an impressive 3-1 road trip against some of the top clubs in the league. They are now just a point behind the Pens in the standings. The Caps are still five points in back of the Metropolitan Division leading New York Islanders.

This was a high intensity and physical contest so the Caps have to be extremely pleased with the way they played and conducted themselves. They put the game above cheap shots and settling scores. They played with passion and structure and carried the play for extended periods, particularly in period one. But Pittsburgh brought their game too, so it was quite the even contest. Holtby was particularly sharp in the middle frame when the Penguins were at their best.

Overall, this felt like a playoff game and a Capitals club that flew cross country on Monday and was playing their third game in four nights turned in a stellar performance. It was hard to find a Caps player that didn’t bring it on Tuesday. There was no back down and no instances of someone putting the individual above the team, unlike what Kunitz and Letang did to cost their squad at least a point.

Notes: Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 23:43, but Orpik played 23:23 while Backstrom logged 23:03. Trotz did a nice job of spreading the ice time around and that helps the Caps play fast and reduces the chance of injury…Ovechkin’s goal was his NHL leading 37th tally. He also has 59 points in 58 games (4th in NHL, right behind Backstrom, who has 60 points)…face offs were 26 all and shot attempts were 58-55 for Pittsburgh…Washington was 2 for 5 on the power play while the Pens were 0 for 3…The Caps face the Winnipeg Jets at the Verizon Center at home on Thursday…

 

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