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Caps Bury Flyers for 9th Straight Victory

Posted on 15 January 2017 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals continue to put a beat down on their opponents.

Philipp Grubauer made 24 saves, 13 of which came in a sluggish Washington first period, and the Caps exploded for four tallies in the first seven minutes of period three to bury the despised Philadelphia Flyers, 5-0, at the Verizon Center on Sunday afternoon. Justin Williams and Matt Niskanen each scored twice in the final stanza. The Caps took a lead just before the midpoint of this tilt when Michael Del Zotto turned the puck over while shorthanded in his own zone. Andre Burakovsky pounced on the loose biscuit and snapped it over Steve Mason to give Washington the only goal they’d really need.

The victory was the Caps ninth straight and in their last six games they’ve won by a combined score of 26-3. They still haven’t allowed an even strength goal since January 3rd.

Wow, this team is really rolling and it’s scary that they were able to win convincingly when not looking particularly strong or motivated until the 3rd period. Grubauer earned his shutout and first star with a super opening frame, but after that he only faced 11 shots. That’s some great team defense there.

For long time Capitals fans, there’s nothing like throttling a team you’ve battled fiercely since 1974 with numerous of those tilts involving some ugliness. But let’s face it, Philadelphia is not an elite team anymore like Pittsburgh or Chicago, and with the Penguins on the docket from the Igloo II on Monday night, this looked like a trap game for Washington.

Grubauer prevented any Flyers scoreboard momentum from occurring before Washington eventually kicked their offense into high gear and started making some AMAZING passes. First was Marcus Johansson’s “Kuzy type” behind the net feed to Williams on the second goal, then came Alex Ovechkin’s amazing rocket shot fake and dish to Niskanen for a layup, and after Mason flubbed a Niskanen point shot to make it 4-0, Nicklas “Eyes in the back of his head” Backstrom fed Williams behind his back without looking for the final tally. 

It was an awesome display of firepower and the Caps took advantage of the fact that the Flyers had played on Saturday afternoon. Philly had energy and threw a lot of rubber at Grubauer early, but once it became 2-0, you could see the fatigue and resignation set in for the orange and black.

The only bad news of the day was that John Carlson suffered a lower body injury and logged only 6:38 (he will travel to Pittsburgh, though). That put a big load on Niskanen on Sunday, but #2 excelled with the two goals while being +4 in a team leading 25:26 of ice time. The rest of the Caps blue line stepped up, as well, and Nate Schmidt received 3:10 of penalty killing time. With Alzner jailed late, even Dmitry Orlov received some work shorthanded (53 seconds). That’s good preparation against a very good Flyers power play for the postseason.

Once again the Caps penalty killing was a key to victory stopping all five Flyers man advantages. Washington was 1 for 2 on the power play and they have now gone nine straight contests having fewer power plays than their opponents. The last time they had more man advantage situations in a game than the opposition was on December 17th against Montreal.

Despite the less than fair treatment from the zebras, the Capitals have managed to take over the top spot in the NHL with a 29-9-5 record (63 points), although the Blue Jackets are 29-9-4 (62 points) and have a game in hand. The Caps have opened up a six point cushion on the Penguins and Rangers, but Pittsburgh has a game in hand. Clearly Monday night’s tilt at the Consol Energy Center will be a game that the Pens will be very much motivated to win, but the Capitals still have bitter memories from last May, so they should be focused, as well.

As Holtby mentioned to the media on Friday after the triumph over Chicago, this Caps team is very hard to beat when motivated. They should be against the Penguins on Monday, but even when they seem to have a bit of a case of the blahs, like they did for the first half of Sunday’s game against the Flyers, they are still awfully good, just ask the guys from Philly.

Notes: shots on goal were 24-22 for the Flyers and they also had more shot attempts, 56-48…the Caps continue to get goals from the paint and that’s a big reason why they’ve won nine straight. They have amped their compete level up and stopped playing almost exclusively on the perimeter…Orlov was second in ice time at 22:15, but Brooks Orpik logged 21:43 and Schmidt played 21:37…Williams, after a slow start, now has 14 goals on the season…the Caps took three high sticking minors, they need to correct that…Washington won the faceoff battle, 21-20. Evgeny Kuznetsov was 5-2…Ovechkin had seven hits…Chandler Stephenson was recalled from Hershey, but did not dress. He is expected to accompany the Caps on their three game road trip.

Down on the Farm: On Sunday evening, I took in the Hershey Bears-Binghamton Senators tilt before 9,996 fans at the Giant Center. The Bears have been struggling recently, but they broke a long losing streak with a 6-4 win over Lehigh Valley (Flyers AHL team) on Saturday night in Chocolatetown. Hershey got off on the wrong foot in the game against the Senators with Christian Djoos taking a careless early high sticking double minor. Binghamton would tally on the second half of that four minute infraction and in period two they would increase their lead to two goals. Hershey, who only had five shots on goal through 30 minutes, finally awoke from their slumber and started playing hockey. Chris Bourque, who was the best Bears forward in this tilt, drew a tripping penalty and Jakub Vrana buried a shot shortly thereafter to make it a 2-1 game. Then in the third period, Bourque scored on another power play to even things up and with Hershey surging to a 24-18 lead in shots on goal, things were looking up for the home squad. But then the Bears committed a terrible offensive zone turnover and Bingo went in on a two on none break and easily beat Vitek Vanecek. Hershey would continue to press the play, but then another Bears defensive zone breakdown led to an easy marker for Binghamton with three minutes left and they won, 4-2. Overall this was a poor effort by Troy Mann’s squad and the line of Paul Carey-Zach Sanford-Stan Galiev was a disappointment. Hershey looked flat and the blue line, which sorely misses Madison Bowey, was rather unimpressive. The Bears are now 19-10-7-2 on the campaign.

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Hear how Caps prospects Madison Bowey, Jakub Vrana, and Riley Barber describe their game.

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Caps Prospects Take the Ice at Development Camp

Posted on 07 July 2015 by Ed Frankovic

With center Evgeny Kuznetsov successfully signed on Monday to a two year contract with a $3M annual average salary, the Washington Capitals brass turned their attention to this week’s Caps Development Camp. Over 35 of the organizations prospects were split into two groups and took part in drills on Tuesday afternoon at Kettler IcePlex.

The key word there is drills. The forwards and defensemen were separated on opposite ends of the ice on the two rinks and each spent time doing various hockey and skating drills. The forward drills were heavily focused on play off of the backboards, the corners, and into the slot where close in shots were practiced, including rebounds. These forward drills, run by Hershey coach Troy Mann, were very structured. On the defensive side of the ice, the blue liners worked on going D to D behind the net and shooting in different situations, including one timer’s off of D to D passes. In addition, keeping the puck in at the blue line and then handling the puck in the neutral zone and passing it to a forward after it exited the offensive zone were practiced.

Only one scrimmage is scheduled this week, for Saturday (Fan Fest), after just two were held the previous summer in the first year of the Coach Barry Trotz regime. In previous years the focus was more on scrimmages, with up to four or five of them occurring during camp.

From what I saw, it looks to me that the Trotz plan is a better one for development, especially since scrimmages can be difficult when players are in varying degrees of condition.

“It’s just the middle of the summer so it’s hard, a lot of guys haven’t been skating that much, so it’s tough…I think that playing games is a good thing, but I also like what they are doing here, teaching more and making sure you know what it’s going to take to get to the NHL. It’s definitely more teaching now, but that’s what you want as a young player,” said Riley Barber.

My focus at development camp was to get a look at some players that will likely play key roles in Hershey this fall and have the potential to be future NHLers. Specifically, the line of Chandler Stephenson (2012 3rd round), Jakub Vrana (2014 1st round), and Barber (2012 6th round) as well as defensemen Madison Bowey (2013 3rd round). In addition, I paid close attention to the play of goalie Vitek Vanecek (2014 2nd round).

Vanecek looked solid in net and he tracked the puck well. He isn’t big, he’s only 6’ 1”, so he relies on his positioning, athleticism, and quickness. The 21 year old Stephenson, who had five points in 10 AHL playoff games in his first season with Hershey, isn’t flashy, but he seems to be a well rounded player.

As for Bowey, Vrana, and Barber, I was able to catch up with them after practice and asked each to describe their game.

“I’d say a two way defensemen, first and foremost I like to take care of my own zone, that’s the key in this day and age. I try to help out offensively…I think my best aspect is probably breaking the puck out of the end, either using my speed or making that first pass…what I need to work on is being a little more physical in the defensive end and making sure I close on guys quicker than normally. I know that you really have to do that more here in the pros,” said Bowey, who averaged a point or more per game in both the regular season (60 points in 58 games) and playoffs (19 points in 19 games) this year for the Western Hockey League champions and Memorial Cup runner-up Kelowna Rockets.

“I think it’s offensive stuff, pretty good skater, I think I can make good goal scoring chances…it’s a smaller rink than Europe so you get more chances…you can shoot from everywhere, more goal chances…you can score from everywhere and at least you can have rebounds…it’s little details, like wall play [I can improve on], I can work on everything, of course, you can improve everything,” said Vrana, who has great hands and a sweet shot with a quick release. Vrana had five assists in three regular season tilts with Hershey and then followed that up with two goals and four assists in 10 games in his AHL playoff debut.

“Responsible in all three zones, but more of an offensive guy. I like to score goals, I like to get my feet moving, create chances and utilize my shot as much as I can. I think I have a good shot and can bury pucks. I think just bringing my speed, playmaking, and scoring goals [in Hershey] is what I would like to do…shot, playmaking, and speed…making plays and just getting pucks to the net,” said Barber, who can play either wing, and had 20 goals and 40 points in 38 games at Miami (Ohio) last season.

As for Stephenson, Vrana, and Barber, well they seemed to be put together on purpose and in drills looked like a potential scoring line in Hershey this fall.

“Those two guys are really good players, they’d be awesome to play with, we had some good chemistry out there, moving the puck pretty well, it was pretty exciting,” added Barber.

Clearly these players have a lot of work to put in and experience to gain before they are able to reach the NHL. However, the opportunity for them to succeed and move up on the depth chart is in their hands. Based on what I saw from the five players I’ve mentioned, the Caps and Hershey have some good young prospects in their system.

Notes: Both Braden Holtby and Marcus Johansson have not agreed to contracts as of this posting and have filed for arbitration. In over 95% of these cases the players and their respective teams agree to a deal before the actual hearing. I expect that to happen with both, although if I had to pick one that might make it to arbitration, it would be Johansson…by splitting into two groups, the players are getting a lot of individual attention from the coaches. During the hockey drill portion of the practice, there was a ratio of one coach to two players…practices are open to the public at Kettler and as mentioned above, the only scrimmage will be held on Saturday morning, July 11th.

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Tough Weekend for Caps, But Not For Hershey

Posted on 18 January 2015 by Ed Frankovic

After going 4-0-1 in the first nine days of a seven games in 11 day stretch, it appears fatigue finally caught up with the Washington Capitals as they dropped two tough one goal losses to the Nashville Predators (4-3) and Dallas Stars (5-4) over the weekend on days 10 and 11. In both contests the Capitals fell behind early, two pucks in Music City and then a 3-0 deficit in Big D, expended tons of energy in rallying, before wilting late to lose two heart breakers.

The loss to the Predators, in Coach Barry Trotz’ return to Smashville, was especially disheartening since the Caps led 3-2 with five minutes to go. But a soft penalty call on John Carlson, a bad PK, and then a Matt Niskanen untimely turnover added up to a horrible defeat.

In Dallas, it was the bad start, too many penalties, and just awful defense that cost Washington the game. They turned the puck over too much and allowed a super fast squad to beat them in transition. In addition, the Capitals strong defensive zone play that we’ve come to expect under Trotz looked very Oatesian in the Lone Star State and, at times, in Nashville.

Washington gave up nine goals in two games and that is unacceptable. Looking at all of those tallies against, it’s hard to fault the goaltender (Braden Holtby on Friday and Justin Peters on Saturday) on any of them.

Back to back situations also seem to plague this Capitals team. They are now 1-6-1 this season on the second half of those and 0-5-1 when game two is on the road. Again, unacceptable and the team they are chasing for the division lead, the New York Islanders, is 6-2 in those same instances. That’s a nine point swing and the reason why New York currently owns a five point lead in the division race over the Caps (61 points to 56).

The good news is the Caps top line continues to sizzle and Alex Ovechkin (25 goals) is playing some of the best hockey of his career. In addition, the Caps have a game against the Edmonton Oilers at home on Tuesday before getting a week off for the NHL all star break. Boy do the Caps need some rest.

Along with the defensive zone issues, Washington’s second line continues to be wildly inconsistent. Evgeny Kuznetsov was downright terrible in Nashville and he, along with Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer just aren’t where this team needs their second line to be.

Barring some major injuries, you can pretty much bet the house that the Caps will return to the playoffs this spring. But just making it is not enough. Ovechkin is not getting any younger nor is Brooks Orpik and some others, so the Capitals need to seriously think about what they need to do over the remaining 37 games to prepare themselves to win in the post season. The Eastern Conference has many good teams, but there is no clear cut front runner. GM Brian MacLellan and Trotz need to figure out what to do about the forward line combinations, including determining if some trades are needed, and solidify them for April and beyond. The East is there for the taking so just being content with getting back in the dance should not cut it.

It’s been an encouraging season and a major turnaround for Washington thanks to off season defensive acquisitions along with bringing in a talented and organized coaching staff. As George Allen used to say, “The Future is Now.” The Caps have to think like that, unlike the words we used to hear from the former GM about just getting in and hoping to win. You have to be aggressive at the trade deadline in an attempt to plug any holes and build depth for the unexpected injury that could occur down the stretch and in the post season. It will be interesting to see what MacLellan does since the Caps have some holes that the kids on the roster (Tom Wilson, Andre Burakovksy, and Kuznetsov) have not been able to fill so far this season.

Speaking of kids, it was a super weekend for the Washington AHL team, the Hershey Bears. Coach Troy Mann’s squad won both weekend tilts to seize first place in the East Division. The Bears are also a strong defensive team but have had trouble putting the biscuit in the basket. Lately though, they’ve gotten hot offensively and have won five of six games.

On Sunday, I took in the Bears tilt against the despised Lehigh Valley Phantoms (Philadelphia Flyers AHL club) at the Giant Center and came away very impressed with the team game that Hershey plays. Phoenix Copley got the start in net and he was solid, allowing only two tallies on 30 shots. Hershey does a decent job of keeping opponents on the perimeter and they transition from defense to offense well. I was impressed with the speed of Dustin Gazley. Gazley did a good job of helping a penalty killing unit that was a perfect eight for eight on Sunday.

Stan Galiev has 13 goals and is really improving. He is showing he belongs in the AHL now after a couple of years of bouncing back and forth between “The A” and the ECHL. Connor Carrick was okay on defense for Hershey, as well. Both played big roles in a Bears five on three situation in period two. Carrick manned the point, like Mike Green does in Washington, while Galiev had the Ovechkin spot on the PP. They moved the puck well in that situation but Phantoms goalie Anthony Stolarz, who was very shaky in the first period, was super in the middle frame and shut the Bears down to keep his club in it. Late in period three the Bears would score and then add an empty net tally to close out the victory.

Overall, I like Hershey’s team and they are poised to do well come AHL playoffs time. However, I didn’t see anyone I thought must be called up to DC this season. That’s also a testament to the strong roster the Capitals have at the NHL level, too. If there is a call up that could play a factor in Washington down the stretch, I’d have to say it would be goalie Philip Grubauer. With Peters struggling to get wins, one has to wonder if the team has much confidence in him? Grubauer does have NHL experience and has shown the ability to steal a game at that level where Peters just hasn’t come close to doing so in 2014-15.

Notes: The Caps out shot attempted Dallas, 68-51, but the only thing that counts is the final score…Hershey is 3-2-1 against Lehigh Valley but they play SIX more times this season…Grubauer returned from injury and won, 5-4, versus Albany on Saturday night.

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