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Caps Return to Form in Win Over Buffalo

Posted on 19 February 2018 by Ed Frankovic

After their worst performance of the season on Saturday night in the Windy City, the Washington Capitals used a very strong first 40 minutes to build a 2-0 lead and then they overcame some poor play from their blue line in the third period to hold on for a 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres in upstate New York.

The victory puts the Caps back in first place in the Metropolitan Division over idle Pittsburgh. Washington is now 34-18-7 (75 points) and they lead the Pens by a point plus they have two games in hand, which will be Tuesday’s home tilt against the NHL leading Tampa Bay Lightning and then in the Sunshine State against the Florida Panthers on Thursday.

Here are seven thoughts and analysis on where the Capitals stand after a 2-1-1 road trip, their longest of the season.

Boy, You’re Going to Carry That Weight – When the Caps bring the effort, they are usually a hard team to beat. On Saturday, they laid a big fat egg in a blowout, 7-1, loss to Chicago. It was the worst skating performance and game of the season and the captain, Alex Ovechkin, called himself out saying it was his worst outing as a Capital. He was right, but the whole team stunk and looked like they went out for a lot of Chitown pizza and beer with the dads on Friday night. Hey, over the course of 82 games, you are going to have clunkers and let’s not take anything away from Chicago, who still has some high powered players on their roster. The Blackhawks were a pissed off team after losing eight straight and they flat out rolled Washington, who offered a futile resistance in that affair. On Presidents Day, the Capitals were back to playing the right way and they deserved to win this game. When the team works and pulls on the rope in the right direction, they are one of the best in the NHL.

Poking the Bear – You had to figure Ovi was going to have a bounce back contest after Saturday’s no show, but Rasmus Ristolainen didn’t do Buffalo any favors by hitting the Gr8 up high early in the affair. That hit clearly angered Ovechkin and he was a force all game in earning the number one star. It was heavy hockey from Alex, who had four hits, as he and Tom Wilson just pounded the Buffalo defense as often as they could. The Gr8 notched his NHL leading 35th tally of the season with a beautiful tip of a Christian Djoos point shot in period two to open the scoring. That goal was the result of a nice forecheck by Brett Connolly after he exited the box, and then some great wall work by T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov, shortly thereafter.

Winning at the Track – Had you played the trifecta of 74-77-92 you would’ve had the trio that was on the ice for all three Washington tallies. Oshie (one assist) especially had a very strong game and is rounding back into proper form as we head into the final seven weeks of the regular season. Kuznetsov, after some early weak shifts, started playing the correct way and had his best performance of the road trip. Kuzy had three shots on net and his play to seal the deal with his empty net tally was a super forecheck, something this team needs to do well to succeed. As for Carlson, well he was really good, too, but he was the only one of the trio to be on for a goal against. John left Evander Kane wide open with three ticks left to put a small dent in Philipp Grubauer’s (32 saves) sweet stat line.

How Long, To Sing This Song – In honor of U2’s great song, 40, the first two periods by the Capitals were a textbook road performance. They played a north-south style and were very hard on pucks. As a result, they won the vast majority of the individual battles. They were only up 2-0 on Ovi’s 35th and Carlson’s 11th of the season, but it could’ve been more if not for Chad Johnson (27 saves) in net for the Sabres. Through 40 minutes, the Caps had 43 shot attempts to just 25 for Buffalo and the quality scoring chances had to be even more lopsided. Washington just couldn’t finish on several opportunities, but if they play like that more often, they will be hard to defeat. Again, it started with the effort and then they made the right decisions with the puck in all zones. It was very impressive hockey and the reason they left Buffalo with two points.

Hold the Line – After the contest, Coach Barry Trotz told the media that he wanted his team to continue to play the same way they did in the first 40 minutes in the third period. After watching the final frame again, his team pretty much listened to him. The first 3:30 of period three was just like the first two periods; the Capitals were forechecking and generating scoring chances. Then Nicklas Backstrom took a bad slashing penalty two thirds away from the Caps own net and the Sabres got some life with a power play. Washington stabilized things after killing off that infraction and while they didn’t get shots on net, they had some very good sustained pressure on Buffalo afterwards. The Lars Eller line, with Connolly and Andre Burakovsky, had a strong offensive zone pressure shift just inside the eight minute remaining mark, but then the Sabres came out of their own zone three on three. Madison Bowey then stepped up and flat out whiffed on defense in the neutral zone and that allowed Buffalo to break into the Washington zone with speed. Eller was forced to cover for the rookie’s mishap and by the time everyone was back on defense, the coverage was out of whack with #22 skating alone in the slot. The Sabres Scott Wilson fired on net from the high slot and Kyle Okposo deflected it home to make it a 2-1 ballgame with 7:32 remaining. Grubauer never saw the shot, mostly because of Bowey, but also due to the Brooks Oprik-Okposo battle in front. Washington was able to hold the line down the stretch, but there were some more mistakes by Bowey and Djoos in pressure filled situations. So what the statistics will show to look like a “Washington sat back” narrative, and I was at first guilty of accusing the Capitals of that, too, was really caused by poor play from the youngsters, and some others, on the Caps blue line.

Upgrading the Backend – Bowey and Djoos both have bright futures for the Capitals, but to quote George Allen, “The Future is Now,” and Washington can’t afford to go into the playoffs with two rookie blue liners. Madison has talent and potential, but the league really locks down from January on and he’s struggled since the game has gotten faster and more intense. On Monday, the Capitals traded a conditional 3rd round draft pick to the Blackhawks for left handed defensemen Michal Kempny. The 27 year old blue liner, who will wear #6, is a decent skating and puck moving player that is best in his own end. Washington’s struggles on the back end have been mostly because of poor passes, so hopefully Kempny can improve that aspect of the Caps game. With this acquisition, it makes the most sense to send Bowey down to Hershey to play a lot of minutes and hone his craft for next season. Madison could also come up if there are multiple injuries on defense. Djoos would probably be best on a third pair with Orpik, if Kempny can play the four hole with Carlson. There is also a strong possibility that GM Brian MacLellan adds another defensemen before the February 26th NHL trade deadline. Bottom line, the Caps inconsistent play since January 1st is likely most traced to the issues on defense. Bowey and Djoos should be good long term players, but Washington needs to try and win this year, so it’s up to the GM to keep upgrading this current deficiency.

You Make Me Wanna Cry – When the Capitals were temporarily bumped out of 1st place on Sunday night, Caps Twitter practically melted down. It was maddening to see so many people declare that the season was over and that MacLellan should start tearing the team down. Granted this is the same crew that complains when they are in first place, too, stating that the division title doesn’t mean anything and all that counts is the playoffs. Yes, the playoffs are what matters, but to want to rebuild for the future with a top eight team in a wide open race is ridiculous. Fortunately, it’s just an expected over emotionally based reaction by many on social media, but it’s really ludicrous. The Caps are a team that could go deep in the playoffs and possibly win a Stanley Cup should they continue to tweak the back end and play the right way. So for so many to lose their freaking minds is ridiculous, you make me wanna cry! [Cue the Godley & Cream].

Notes: Buffalo out shot the Caps, 17-6, in period three, including 31-12, in shot attempts. Again, I put that on the mistakes Washington made on defense, especially their young blue liners. When they make a mistake, it tends to lead to multiple chances for the opposition and causes a cumulative fatigue effect…the Capitals won the face-off battle, 35-33. Eller was 11-7…the Caps only had one power play while Buffalo had three. A weak interference call on Connolly shortened Washington’s only man advantage chance…Kuznetsov took a puck in the face, at one point, but came back to have a strong finish.

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Caps over Devils Burkie

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Burakovsky’s Bout Spurs the Caps to a 5-2 Win in New Jersey

Posted on 13 October 2017 by Ed Frankovic

“You mess with the bull, you get the horns.”

That was the message the New Jersey Devils received from the Washington Capitals on Friday night at the Prudential Center.

Nicklas Backstrom had a goal and three helpers, T.J. Oshie had two goals and an assist, Alex Ovechkin had his league leading 9th goal of the season and a gorgeous assist on Backstrom’s tally, and Evgeny Kuznetzov had two assists in a 5-2 Capitals victory that improved their record to 3-1-1 (7 points) and put them in sole possession of first place in the Metropolitan Division.

Braden Holtby made 21 saves in the cage in a solid performance and overall Washington played their most complete game of the season.

Tom Wilson returned from a bogus George Parros imposed four game suspension to bring physicality and energy to the lineup and that jump started the third line allowing the Washington stars to take over the contest. Jakub Vrana tipped in a shot from Devante Smith-Pelly late in period two for a critical tally that made it 3-1, which was big because the Caps needed some strong contributions from their bottom six forwards (Vrana is in the top six, but DSP is on the fourth line).

Perhaps the biggest development of the night, though, was Andre Burakovsky’s first fight that came 2:33 into the final frame with the Capitals clinging to a one goal lead. Blake Coleman dangerously took out Dmitry Orlov’s legs and sent him slamming hard into the boards. A penalty was being called, but #65 wasn’t about to just walk away without letting Coleman know he crossed the line. Burkie dropped his mitts and went after the bigger Devil and lost the fight, although he didn’t take any hard shots to the head. Instantly the Capitals bench stood up and applauded the “good ole fashioned guts” from Andre “Killer” Burakovsky. It was a moment of team toughness and togetherness that this club displayed and you can bet that Andre will get a lot of “ataboys” from his teammates on the way to Philadelphia for Saturday night’s tilt against the despised Flyers.

Shortly after the Burakovsky bout, Lars Eller took a high stick to the face and that’s when Osh Babe, Ovi, Backy, and Kuzy made sure that young Andre’s first NHL fight wouldn’t go for naught. The Caps scored two pretty power play goals on the double minor to salt this one away.

Then it was payback time.

With 7:29 remaining, Coleman manned up and fought Wilson. Blake was whipped so badly that “Rag Doll” by Aerosmith would’ve been a fitting song to pipe through the public address system at that moment. Simply put, Willy let it be known that Coleman wasn’t walking out of the arena nearly injuring Orlov and beating up on the previously undefeated prize pupil, Burakovsky.

This is the kind of stuff that brings an already tight team even closer together. You can see that this Caps club is in it for each other. Everyone around the league and even many in town are already writing these guys off and foolishly trying to tie the local DC baseball teams post season failures to this hockey franchise. It’s pathetic, if you ask me. Baseball has nothing to do with hockey, period.

Anyone who really knows hockey sees the immense talent on this team despite the off season subtractions due to the salary cap. Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and Oshie are all top NHL players. Combined they have 37 points in just five games. To quote a famous movie from the mid-90’s, yes, “37!” These guys are good and they are still a work in progress with Vrana as a new piece in the top six and Burakovsky moving up as well for the departed Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson. Many are convinced that Oshie can’t score 33 goals again this year because of his high 2016-17 shooting percentage, but as I pointed out all summer, that shooting percentage didn’t including shots that missed the net. Oshie gets a lot of in close chances because of the guys he’s playing with and with the Gr8 on absolute fire, he’s getting more room and hitting the corners with his attempts so far. He’s notched five goals in five games, which is amazing, but when Alexander the Great already has nine, yes nine goals, it’s easy to overlook #77’s production. Last year I often wrote, “Pay the Man!” Boy am I glad the man got paid. Thanks Brian MacLellan.

Getting Wilson back reignited the third line and Brett Connolly and Eller had one of their best games of the season. When you have at least three lines going, it makes it very difficult for the opponents to match up. The Caps needed a presence from the bottom six forwards and they delivered on Friday.

On defense, things got tough with Matt Niskanen exiting the game on what appeared to be a missed slashing call by the inconsistent zebras. It was the second critical missed opponent slash in two tilts. On Wednesday night the referees failed to call a Carter Rowney slash on Kuznetsov on a rush late in that contest that would’ve given Washington a power play and a chance to tie the game.

Nisky will be reevaluated tomorrow, according to Coach Barry Trotz. That slash, with the Caps shorthanded, allowed the Devils to score on the power play and get within one goal with 3:32 to go in period two.

After Smith-Pelly’s key goal made it 3-1, things got close again in the first minute of period three when Kyle Palmieri took a great pass from Damon Severson and split Christian Djoos and Orlov for a breakaway marker.

When Orlov got dumped into the boards and stayed down on the next shift, things were looking bad for Washington, but then “Killer” Burkakovsky stepped in and took one for the team and the Capitals star players made sure to make the Devils pay the price on the scoreboard the rest of the way.

This was a feel good victory against a division opponent that was 3-0 and had just defeated the talented Toronto Maple Leafs earlier in the week.

Impressive messages were sent this night by the Capitals on the scoreboard, with their fists, and with their hearts.

On to the “City of Brotherly Love.”

Notes: Given the Capitals salary cap situation, if Niskanen can’t play on Saturday night in Filthy, it’s likely that Taylor Chorney will get a sweater because calling up Madison Bowey, a deserving right handed shooting blue liner, would require someone else to be sent to Hershey, unless #2 has to go on long term injury (which would be a bad scene)…the Caps were for 3 for 5 on the power play while New Jersey went 1 for 4…John Carlson led the Capitals in ice time with 27:26.  Niskanen only played 12:18 before exiting the contest so the other four guys played extra minutes than in a normal situation. Brooks Orpik logged 22:04, Orlov 21:12, Djoos 16:47 and Aaron Ness played 13:38…shot attempts were 52-46 in favor of the Caps…New Jersey won the faceoff battle, 39-27.  Jay Beagle went 8-5…Backstrom got hit with a puck in warmups and then notched four points…expect Philipp Grubauer to get the start in net against the Flyers on Saturday night.

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Shatty

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Shattenkirk’s OT Tally Gets Caps Back in the Series

Posted on 02 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Kevin Shattenkirk’s wrister past Marc-Andre Fleury just 3:13 into overtime gave the Washington Capitals a hard fought, 3-2, victory in game three in Pittsburgh. The Pens now lead the series two games to one. Game four is Wednesday night in Steeltown, once again.

Well, they’ll be talking about this contest for a long time.

Sidney Crosby was injured in a collision with Matt Niskanen just 5:24 in and did not return. #87 was skating across the top of the crease on a rush and he was hit by Alex Ovechkin’s stick up high, Ovi and Sid then clip skates, and Sid seemed to lose his balance as he glided above the crease. At that moment, Niskanen was coming to the middle to cover the front of the net and had his stick in a defensive position. Crosby went flying right into #2’s stick as Matt was bracing for the contact and fell to the ice. His knee bent back awkwardly, but after staying down, he got back up and gingerly skated to the dressing room. He would not return and Washington also lost arguably their best defensemen for the night with a five minute major for cross checking and a game misconduct. I didn’t like the call on Niskanen, it was truly a hockey play gone bad. In fact, I thought the only infraction on the play could’ve been on Ovi for a slash, I tweeted that at the time. If Sid doesn’t lose his balance there, he’s fine, but he is low going into Niskanen and that’s where the problem came in.

“Crosby’s trying to score, and as he’s doing that, he’s getting lower and lower. I wasn’t extending my arms trying to hit him in the head, it happened quickly. I wasn’t even trying to cross check him…a collision was going to happen there in the crease. When the play first starts, I think my stick is at about his arm level, probably, right about where the numbers are on the side of his jersey. Because he’s trying to make a play, he’s getting lower and lower and the collision happened. I hope he’s okay, I certainly didn’t mean to injure him, it’s an unfortunate play that happened really quick,” said Niskanen to the media after the game.

Anyways, it’s all done now and the Capitals had a critical game to try to win. Fortunately for them, Coach Barry Trotz put Karl Alzner back in the lineup with seven D and 11 forwards so the Caps had six defensemen left after Nisky was thrown out. The Caps would kill off the major, with some help from Evgeni Malkin, who took a two minute minor for closing his hand on the puck during the early portion of the power play.

After surviving the major, the Caps started to take over the play and they ended up with a power play when Carl Hagelin was boxed for high sticking. Only 43 seconds later, Bryan Rust batted the puck over the glass and the Caps were in business with a 1:17 five on three. It took some time, but 54 ticks later, Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist) fired the puck in off of Ian Cole in front, who was tied up with Justin Williams at the top of the crease, to give the Capitals their first lead of the series. Washington led in shots on goal, 9-8, after twenty minutes. Braden Holtby made some big stops too, including a breakaway by Rust after a terrible Caps line change.

In the middle frame, the Capitals had long stretches of trouble due to too many turnovers and too many penalties. Malkin and the Penguins really picked their game up, going for the three to nothing series lead. With Brooks Orpik incurring a holding the stick call and then Evgeny Kuznetsov taking two careless minors, the Pens had three straight power plays, but the Holtbeast (28 saves) was at his best in this series as well as this year’s playoffs and was the biggest reason Pittsburgh didn’t get the equalizer.

That set up a big third period. A strong 20 minutes and the Capitals would get back in the series, a bad one and they were pretty much done and headed to the golf course. Coach Trotz’ crew came out with authority and really took it to the Pens, but couldn’t extend the lead on two power plays. After those, Pittsburgh was pushing hard and the Caps were doing a good job of keeping a third forward back to prevent their potent rush game. That pressure, much like what the Capitals did in games one and two when trailing, causes you to take chances, and the Pens got burnt on one of them which led to a three on two break for Washington’s second line. Justin Williams carried the puck up the left wing and when a Pens defenseman dove at him to try and knock the disc away, Stick hit Marcus Johansson coming behind him down the slot. Jojo then drew the other Pens defenseman and Fleury to him and slid the puck neatly to Kuznetsov at the right side of the cage. Fleury flopped over like a fish out of water trying to make another acrobatic save, and he made many in this game, but #92 waited him out and snapped the puck over #29 to make it 2-0 with 10:14 to go.

From then until the three minute mark, the Capitals played extremely well and gave the Penguins pretty much nothing. With Fleury pulled, the Caps had a chance to hit the empty net, but after a great play by T.J. Oshie to get the puck out, Backstrom made a poor decision to shoot at the open cage from behind the red line. He missed wide and it was icing. Had he taken another second to look, he could’ve hit Ovechkin all alone on the left wing boards for a game icing tally.

Instead, the Penguins received an offensive zone faceoff and Malkin scored with 1:53 remaining short side on Holtby, who was screened by Alzner. No problem, right, the Caps weren’t going to give up another goalie pulled tally, correct? WRONG!

After a defensive zone faceoff win, Malkin totally took Backstrom out in the right wing corner, but the blatant interference was not called. That allowed the Penguins to keep the puck in and Justin Schultz fired a shot from the point that hit Oshie and then something else on the way into the net with #71 parked in front. It was two goals in just 48 seconds and this one was tied with 1:05 left in regulation.

Surely the Penguins were going to once again win this game in overtime and make the Capitals and their fan base suffer more mental anguish, correct? I mean, a goal by the Penguins in OT and this would’ve been labeled the biggest Washington collapse, ever!

The Caps, however, came out strong in overtime and carried the play, although Phil Kessel had a great look in the high slot early on that he just whistled wide. Just over 150 seconds in to the extra session, Johansson took an outlet feed and split the Penguins defense at the offensive blue line. It was a great play and move by Jojo and Trevor Daley hauled him down on the way to the cage. That gave the Capitals an overtime power play. 33 seconds into it Shatty got the puck in the slot and with Oshie providing some traffic, he put it far post past Fleury and the Capitals players celebrated.

Wow, what a game and what resolve by the Capitals to win that one after an epic late collapse! They played so well in that third frame and it’s tough to give up that two goal lead up in that fashion, but they made a mistake that led to an icing and then the officials missed a clear penalty on Malkin right before the game tying tally. They persevered once again after facing some serious adversity, so they have that to build on as well as some things they did extremely well in this game.

Let’s start with the Holtbeast, who apparently met with his sports psychologist before this game, per the great Carol Maloney of NBC4 (@carolmaloney4) in Washington. #70 was really solid in this game making several big stops and if not for him, the Penguins don’t go 0 for 5 on the power play in nine minutes of advantage time. The Pens fired 10 of their 30 shots on goal for the game when up a man, but Holtby was dynamite.

Alzner and the rest of the penalty killers, especially Daniel Winnik and Tom Wilson, were superb, as well. Winnik also saved a goal with his stick early in the game on one of the rare pucks to get by the Holtbeast until the last two minutes of regulation.

Up front, Jojo was dynamite all night. Williams (two assists) was strong, too, on that second line. Kuznetsov was very up and down in this one. He took some bad penalties, especially the second one, when he held the Penguins forward when a hit was the right decision. You can’t have soft plays in the post season, because that will burn you. Fortunately the Caps PK bailed him out and then he rewarded the team with great patience on his tally.

For the evening, the Capitals did win the shot attempt battle, 63-55. They weren’t as dominant as games one and two, but they got the job done. They were better in front of the Holtbeast for over 57 minutes with a tighter defensive posture, but a costly icing and a missed penalty call allowed a go for broke Pens team to take this one to overtime.

Shattenkirk then made his presence known with authority, and #22 needed that. He had been struggling before this tilt and his power play decisions were a bit hesitant, at times, up until the overtime. Shatty was anything but hesitant on the game winning goal and he looked like the guy who was great down the regular season stretch run after GM Brian MacLellan acquired him at the trade deadline.

Simply put, Holtby and Shattenkirk were two guys Washington needed to step up for a victory, and those two did just that.

So now it’s on to a critical game four on Wednesday night. In addition to losing Crosby, Connor Sheary left the game when Patric Hornqvist, who returned from the dead to play this game but looked slower than normal, went for a big hit on Lars Eller. Instead he hit #43 with friendly fire right in the head when Eller sidestepped a hard charging #72.

This game also got ugly, at times, and Malkin and Chris Kunitz were in the middle of it quite a bit for the men in black.

It will be crucial for the Capitals to stay out of that stuff and just play hockey on Wednesday night if they want to even up this series.

Notes: It’s been announced that game five will be at 7:15 on NBC on Saturday night after the Kentucky Derby…shots on goal were 33-30 for the Caps, they were 2 for 5 on the power play getting nine shots on net in 7:16 of power play time…Ovechkin had six shot attempts (two on net) in 19:27 of ice time…John Carlson led the Caps in time on ice with 25:35…Alzner played more than Coach Trotz envisioned, with 21:34. He performed fairly well coming off of his upper body injury…the Caps lost the face off battle, 36-31, including some key ones late in the game. Jay Beagle was 6-3…Sheary only played 4:01. Kessel led the Penguins in ice time with 23:17…special thanks to WNST station owner, Nestor Aparcio, for being in Pittsburgh and getting me all of the locker room quotes.

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Shatty

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Caps Go All In and Acquire Kevin Shattenkirk

Posted on 27 February 2017 by Ed Frankovic

After last season’s devastating playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, I wrote that the Capitals needed to upgrade their defensive depth. Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan spoke afterwards about upgrading the bottom six forwards.

Guess what? By acquiring defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk from the St. Louis Blues along with former Caps goalie Phoenix Copley for Zach Sanford, Brad Malone, the Caps first round pick in 2017, and a conditional draft pick(s), he’s now done both!

Over this past summer, MacLellan acquired third line center Lars Eller for two second round picks from Montreal and he signed third line winger, Brett Connolly, as a free agent for just $850,000.

That is some incredible work to fix your remaining roster holes without giving up any current key players.

“We are excited to welcome Kevin to our organization,” said MacLellan on Monday night after the deal. “We felt it was important to acquire another defenseman to strengthen and add depth to our blue line. Kevin is a skilled, puck moving defenseman who we think will help our team at even strength and on the power play. In addition, we are also pleased to welcome Pheonix back to the organization. We feel his addition solidifies our goaltending tandem in Hershey.”

This team is now very deep across the board and could survive a significant injury to their blue line that they just couldn’t overcome last season when Karl Alzner was playing through a bad groin and Brooks Orpik was initially injured in Philadelphia and then suspended for three games against Pittsburgh.

Coach Barry Trotz and assistant coach Todd Rierden have a crew that can be downright dominating on the back end now that they boast three very good defensive pairs in Karl Alzner – John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov – Matt Niskanen, and Brooks Orpik – Kevin Shattenkirk. Nate Schmidt becomes the 7th defensemen and Taylor Chorney the 8th.

Up front, they probably won’t have to worry about stopping both the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin lines only to get beat by the Nick Bonino led third line, like last season. Or if they face the Rangers, they have a better chance of containing the super fast and big Chris Kreider, who killed them in the 2015 playoffs and just a week ago Sunday beat Schmidt badly on a third period faceoff to score the game winning goal at Madison Square Garden. The Niskanen knee injury scare in Philadelphia last Wednesday night probably helped convince MacLellan that another right handed defenseman was definitely needed.

The forward lines, once Andre Burakovsky returns, will be:

Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – T.J. Oshie

Marcus Johansson – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Justin Williams

Brett Connolly – Lars Eller – Andre Burakovsky

Daniel Winnik – Jay Beagle – Tom Wilson.

I imagine that Jakub Vrana will be called up to fill #65’s slot until he recovers from his hand injury. Of course, MacLellan could also make a move to add another forward.

In a campaign when so many Capitals are in need of new contracts for next season and there likely won’t be enough money to go around, not to mention the Las Vegas expansion draft is looming in June, there is no time to waste. Bottom line, this current team, which was already very good before this trade was made, is not going to be intact next season so the future is now. This move is an add without really losing any key piece. Given that Oshie played with Shattenkirk in St. Louis and Carlson and Orpik also were his blue line teammates on Team USA in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, there should be some familiarity there. Shattenkirk is immensely talented and should fit in well, once he learns the Capitals systems. He has a good shot and could easily be the guy feeding Ovechkin on the top power play unit, if that’s the route the coaches go.

That’s not to say that the Penguins, Rangers, Blue Jackets, or any other team, for that matter, won’t defeat the Capitals in the playoffs, because anything can happen in the post season. But the Caps have just pushed all of their chips into the center in an attempt to win their first Stanley Cup and this move gives them a lot more defensive depth.

That really increases their odds of achieving their ultimate goal.

Simply put, it’s Cup or Bust!

Notes: Shattenkirk is reportedly already on his way to New York and will suit up for Washington on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers…St. Louis took on 39% of Shattenkirk’s $4.25M salary to complete the trade, per Frank Seravelli of TSN.

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Caps Canucks Red Light

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Ovechkin Leads the Offense as Holtby Shuts Out the Canucks

Posted on 11 December 2016 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Caps Blanked At Home by the Islanders, 3-0

Posted on 02 December 2016 by Ed Frankovic

There are bad losses and then there are really bad losses.

Thursday night’s Capitals 3-0 defeat to the New York Islanders falls into the latter category.

New York was playing their third game in four nights and arrived in the wee hours of Thursday morning, except for goalie Jarolsav Halak (38 saves), who was smartly sent in a day early since GM Garth Snow continues to carry three goalies.

So this should have been a game where the Caps could take advantage of a tired opponent and get two points, right?

Well, for 40 minutes, it looked like Washington was poised to do just that. The Caps carried much of the play through those first two periods and had four power play chances to just two for the Islanders. Coach Barry Trotz’ crew would build a 52-36 advantage in shot attempts, but the problem was that none of them got by Halak and into the cage.

Through 40 minutes, Justin Williams alone had six shots on goal and that didn’t count the one he came 1/10th of a second from scoring right as the first period horn sounded. #14 is playing some good hockey and getting more than his share of chances, but if you look up “snakebit” in the dictionary right now, you’ll see a picture of Mr. Crazy Hair.

During those first two frames New York did have several quality chances themselves, including a shorthanded breakaway by Casey Cizikas in the middle period after he blocked an Alex Ovechkin shot. However, Braden Holtby (25 saves) would stop #53 and that was just one of many the Holtbeast made to keep his club even.

As the final period began, the prevailing thought was that the Caps would use the rest to their advantage while the Islanders would wilt from fatigued wheels.

That was not the case.

Just over three minutes into the final stanza, Dmitry Orlov turned the puck over at the offensive blue line giving Shane Prince a breakaway and he was the first to solve Holtby on this night.

Okay, no biggie, right? Orlov made a mistake and his partner wasn’t able to cover for him either, but it’s only one goal and there’s still nearly 17 minutes left.

Move on from it and get it back.

That’s where the game and this defensive pair once again went off of the rails. Nearly three and half minutes later, John Carlson went behind his net to play a puck and he backhanded it to Orlov to the left of Holtby below the goal line. Both Islanders forwards were coming at Dmitry on an aggressive forecheck. At that point, #9 had two options, eat the puck and take a hit and wait for reinforcements, or even better, he could wheel the puck hard around the boards and give the Capitals an odd man rush situation with two opponents trapped in the offensive zone. Instead Orlov panicked and chose the third option, which even five year old mite players know not to do; he tried a blind, backhanded pass up the middle of the ice, which was quickly gathered up by the Islanders. Following another great initial save by Holtby, New York potted the rebound to go up 2-0.

That mental mistake was the dagger for Washington on this night and Jason Chimera then threw salt in the wound going right around Nate Schmidt after an Ovechkin neutral zone turnover to close out the scoring.

It was a swift and stunning three goals in less than five minutes for the Islanders and they were able to win their third straight tilt, all in four nights.

Wait a minute; aren’t you supposed to run out of gas on that third game in four nights, like the Capitals did in Toronto last Saturday? Well, someone forgot to tell New York that because they never let down and kept skating while Washington mentally wilted over the last 20 minutes.

It was red flag city for the Capitals, who are now 2-3 without T.J. Oshie in the lineup (speaking of which, let’s lock #77 up long term, okay?). The power play was a disaster giving up multiple shorthanded chances and for the night it went 0 for 6 in 12 minutes of time! That’s downright awful. There is not enough movement, shots aren’t coming frequently or quick enough, and the right point shot is not getting through and opening things up for the flanks. Bottom line, had the power play clicked earlier then we likely aren’t all over Orlov for this one.

But let’s be real on the Orlov-Carlson defensive pair and I’ve said this multiple times this season: it is not working. 22 games in and #74 has 0 goals. Both of these guys like to rush the puck up the ice and create offense. To do that properly, they need a defensive partner that will hang back a bit and cover for them. Carlson has had that for the last several years, first with Karl Alzner and then with Brooks Orpik. Orlov benefitted from playing with Orpik in the latter half of last season when #44 returned from injury.

Simply put, Coach Trotz needs to make some changes on the back end. The first thing he should do is sit #9 for a game to let him watch and get his head clear. Taylor Chorney, who played extremely well last Friday against Buffalo, deserves a sweater on Saturday in Tampa.

With the loss the Capitals fall to 13-7-2 and are now in fourth place in a very competitive Metropolitan Division. Things are not good in Caps land right now, they are getting strong goaltending, but they aren’t burying enough of their chances and they are also not working hard enough or smart enough to generate some gritty goals. In addition, defensive breakdowns and bad chemistry, primarily with the Orlov-Carlson pairing, are allowing too many easy opportunities for the opponents.

This was a really bad loss on Thursday. No two ways about it.

Notes: The Caps out shot attempted the Islanders 87-47…Washington won the faceoff battle, 29-28. Jay Beagle was 8-5…Orlov was benched after the second goal…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 26:41 and he had six shots on net, second only to Williams, who had seven…Ovechkin had 13 shot attempts in 24:47, but only four made it on net. The Gr8 took the Caps only two penalties…Jakub Vrana made his NHL debut for the Caps and logged 10:10. He had four shots on net and looked more comfortable as the game went on…Andre Burakovsky had 0 shots on net in 15:57 of ice time.

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Ovechkin and Holtby Hit Big Milestones in Caps Victory Over the Blues

Posted on 10 April 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Alex Ovechkin scored three times to reach the 50 goal plateau for the third straight season and the seventh time in his career, Nicklas Backstrom added three assists to hit 50 helpers on the campaign, and Justin Chimera scored his 20th goal of the season in a Capitals 5-1 rout over the St. Louis Blues.

Most importantly, Braden Holtby notched his 48th victory of the season with 19 saves and this triumph ties him with Martin Brodeur for the most wins ever in an NHL season. The Holtbeast gave up an early goal to Vladimir Tarasenko just 75 seconds into this tilt, but the Blues were shut down the rest of the way.

“We are happy for him. He deserved it and he’s the beat goalie in the league right now,” said Captain Oveckhin afterwards, who is heating up nicely for the first round of the NHL playoffs, which will start against the Philadelphia Flyers this week (likely Thursday).

Wow, this was one dominating performance by the Caps!

After two periods they led 4-1 and had a 26 to 10 shots on goal advantage. For the game, shots on goal were 36-20 and shot attempts were 60-41 for the Caps.

Following the contest Coach Barry Trotz was pleased and noted that his club played a 200 foot game. The bench boss was spot on as Washington was more engaged physically and emotionally than they’ve been in recent weeks. They were taking the body, getting pucks deep in the offensive zone, and they weren’t cheating positionally. You’d be hard pressed to find any odd man rushes for the Blues in this one.

What’s also interesting about this win is that the Caps had pretty much nothing to play for except individual milestones while the Blues still had the Central Division title at stake. As a result of the defeat, Ken Hitchcock’s squad will face the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks in the first round while the first place Dallas Stars will take on the sinking Minnesota Wild. That’s quite a difference!

TJ Oshie played his first game back in St. Louis after last summer’s trade. He received a standing ovation from the fans and he was fabulous as the top line right wing playing with the Gr8 and Backstrom. That first unit, which was victimized by the Blues to open the scoring, came back with a vengeance. Oshie had just one assist, but he played a big factor in all three of Ovechkin’s goals with strong board work, defensive back checking that led to a big steal, and great net drive. #77 had 11 shot attempts and five shots on goal. He narrowly missed scoring on several occasions.

John Carlson and Brooks Orpik were paired on defense together and they were dynamite. Both were +3 and Carlson had a goal and an assist. Carlson’s goal was a thing of beauty as Tom Wilson fed a sweet pass to #74 that he backhanded home from the slot. That defensive pair was outstanding and physical. Carlson looks great and his skating and play is back to where it was before he was injured on December 26th.

For Chimera, this is his second 20 goal season (2011-12). It’s amazing how far he has come since December of 2014 when he was a healthy scratch. Right before last spring’s playoffs he finally bought into what Caoch Trotz was selling and at age 36 (he’ll be 37 on May 2nd) he looks as good as ever. Big credit to “Chimmer” for rethinking things and taking his play to another level under this coaching staff.

Mike Weber received a sweater for the first time in weeks and he played well paired with Dmitry Orlov. Weber’s physical style looks to be a good fit for playoff hockey and with the big and chippy Flyers up in round one, you could see him in the lineup.

Perhaps the only bad news of the evening was that Jay Beagle took a shot to his left ankle from Tarasenko and had to leave the game. He will be evaluated on Sunday and is considered day-to-day according to the Capitals PR staff.

With the victory the Caps move to the 120 point mark at 56-17-8 with just one game remaining. Perhaps most impressive of all is the Caps will go the ENTIRE NHL season without losing back to back games in regulation. The last team to do that was the Montreal Canadiens in 1976-77 (h/t to Ben Raby). Oh by the way, that club won the Stanley Cup. Just saying!

The regular season finale will be at the Verizon Center on Sunday night against the Anaheim Ducks. It would be a meaningless game for both teams since the Ducks cannot win the Pacific Division if the Kings are victorious on Saturday night over Winnipeg.

Given that the game likely will not be a factor in the standings, will Coach Trotz start Holtby to try and set the victory record? After all, the Holtbeast did have a fairly light workload on Saturday. Following Thursday’s loss, Coach Trotz stated that Holtby and Philipp Grubauer would both play this weekend. It remains to be seen if that decision is re-addressed given how well Saturday night played out for Washington.

In summary, the Caps were outstanding and look ready for the playoffs. They just need to get through Sunday’s tilt without suffering any more injuries.

Then it is bring on the Flyers!

Notes: Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 23:51…Ovechkin locked up the “Rocket” Richard trophy with his 50th goal of the season…Holtby should win the Vezina Trophy…Wilson was +2 in 13:42 and played his best game in weeks. He had 0 PIMs…the Caps won the face off battle, 30-25. Mike Richards was 13-6…Richards, who had another strong game, played 3rd line center with Marcus Johansson and Chimera. That unit looked great…Richards and Orpik led the Capitals in hits with four each…the game against the Ducks on Sunday night at the Verizon Center is the makeup from the originally scheduled tilt on January 22nd that was wiped out due to Jonas. Puck drop is at 7:30. It will be Justin Williams’ 1,000 NHL game.

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The Capitals go all out for 60 minutes in Braden Holtby's 47th victory of the season.

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Caps Dominate Avs in 4-2 Victory

Posted on 02 April 2016 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals turned in a dominant performance en route to a 4-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche at the Pepsi Center on Friday night.

Jay Beagle, Alex Ovechkin, Jason Chimera, and T.J. Oshie scored as the Capitals carried the play for very long stretches.

Braden Holtby made 17 saves to earn his 47th victory of the season and move within one of Martin Brodeur’s single season record.

Wow, this was some effort by the boys in white. They routinely won puck battle after puck battle to stifle an Avs team that had to have this contest for their faint playoff hopes. If not for the efforts of Semyon Varlamov (43 saves) and the goalposts (the Caps hit at least five pipes), then this one would have been as lopsided as the shots on goal, which were 47-19. Shot attempts were even scarier, 83-37 for Washington, that’s amazing!

Up and down the lineup the Capitals played well. Washington was skating and playing physical. Tom Wilson had a monster hit on Nikita Zadorov in the middle period and for the game he had six of the Capitals 22 hits (Brooks Orpik also had six hits). #43 was a beast all evening and Colorado wanted nothing to do with him in this one.

Speaking of beast mode, Beagle was terrific all night. He scored the opening tally on a stuff attempt. That was a key goal for Washington, who were piling the shots on Varly, but he and the posts were not beatable until that point.

But once Beagle scored the dam broke and Washington notched Ovechkin’s 45th of the season on a power play when Marcus Johansson fed him nicely in front. The Gr8 used his strength and reach to bury that biscuit.

Mike Richards, who was dynamite once again, had a great shot pass from the point that Jason Chimera deflected nicely in the high slot to make it 3-0. Stan Galiev did a good job of creating traffic there, too.

The Caps came close to making it 4-0, but they overpassed on a power play, and when Matt Niskanen took an offensive zone penalty, Jarome Iginla scored late in period two to give the Avs some hope.

In the final frame, Washington continued to put shots on the Avalanche, but could not get the fourth tally. Then Gabriel Landeskog scored on one of the rare Caps defensive breakdowns on this night to make it 3-2 with just under six minutes remaining.

Beagle, however, would be the hero when the Avs had the goalie pulled as he won a series of puck battles behind the Washington cage and that allowed Daniel Winnik to send the puck down the rink. Oshie then outraced the Colorado players to the biscuit to drop it into the vacant cage to close this one out. That empty netter was T.J.’s 25th goal of the season.

Again, this was an excellent performance by Washington and it really is baffling that the score was this close. Still, the victory pushes the Caps record to 55-16-6 (116 points) as they head to face the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday night.

Colorado badly needed two points and the Capitals pretty much gave them no chance. You have to be very pleased with this performance, other than the lack of goals.

Notes: Nicklas Backstrom missed the game due to an upper body injury, but he did take an extended morning skate, so the injury is likely not serious…Ovechkin had 8 shots on goal and 14 shot attempts…the Caps lost the faceoff battle, 32-22, Beagle was 8-6…both teams were 1 for 3 on the power play…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 24:34…the game was well officiated by Brad Watson and Ian Walsh

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Caps Bring Big Effort, Knock off Rangers, 5-2

Posted on 29 March 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Now that looked more like the Washington Capitals team we saw dominate opponents back in December and January.

After several games with an inconsistent effort and little to no sustained pressure in the offensive zone, the Caps overcame some early miscues and displayed a vicious forecheck that they rode to an impressive 5-2 victory in Madison Square Garden against arguably the best team in the NHL, the New York Rangers.

It was a huge victory in a tough building, but more importantly, the Capitals played hard and within their system, something they’ve struggled with for the past two months.

The Rangers are a fast team, maybe the swiftest in the NHL, so in order to defeat them, you have to get them back on their heels and not let them use their own zone and the neutral zone to generate speed. If you sit back on New York, you’ll find yourself in trouble quickly.

Washington took this contest over from about the middle of period two after Alexander Ovechkin’s two tallies kept the Capitals even. During the latter stages of the second frame the Caps forechecked with a vengeance and it rattled the New York defense. The Rangers would survive period two but in the third the Caps were all over them with excellent forward pressure. Eric Fehr picked off an errant New York pass at the blue line and Brooks Laich took the puck deep to feed Jason Chimera for a plumbers type of goal from the crease to give the Caps a 3-2 lead just 4:41 into the final period.

In recent times, the Caps have chosen to sit back once they grabbed a one goal final frame advantage, but not on Sunday. Coach Barry Trotz’ crew did not change their tactics and they were relentless on the Rangers defense and forced more turnovers, which ultimately led to Chimera tallying again from alone in the slot on a sweet move and backhand past Cam Talbot.

With a two goal lead and 12 plus minutes remaining, Washington did not take their foot of the gas as they kept up the offensive and neutral zone pressure and never allowed the Rangers to generate any offensive steam. It was a thing of beauty and something the Capitals hopefully learn from. They used their size and effort to frustrate an elite hockey club. It was an effort that this Caps team needs to bring every night if they want to do damage in the post season.

There was a lot to like in this contest. Washington’s penalty kill was outstanding thwarting all five Rangers power play opportunities, including one just 28 seconds into the game. Also, the Caps did not take any penalties in the third period, which allowed Coach Trotz to roll the lines and keep the pressure on New York. A big reason why they didn’t take any infractions in the third was because they were moving their feet and working hard. It sounds simple, but this Washington club gets into penalty trouble when they stop skating and take ridiculous stick penalties (see Joel Ward’s slash in period two).

As for the Caps power play, well it clicked when needed. With Washington down 2-1, Ovechkin buried his 49th tally of the season off of a nice feed from Nicklas Backstrom with Ward tying up Dan Boyle in front and screening Talbot. That was a goal the Capitals absolutely needed from their special teams at that juncture. The power play had been a buzz kill in recent games, especially the failed five on three against Nashville on Saturday and it was a shorty that allowed the Devils to get back in the game on Thursday.

The outstanding performance improves the Caps to 41-25-10 (92 points) and pushes them closer to clinching a playoff berth with six games remaining (they are now six points up on 9th place Ottawa, who has a game in hand). It’s a win that they hopefully learn from, because the way they played is how they will have to execute down the stretch and in April if they want to compete for the Stanley Cup.

Washington proved Sunday they can play against the top squads when needed against a New York club that was 2-0 against the Caps this season. The key now for the Capitals is to consistently bring that type of effort and commitment to their system and structure game in and game out.

Notes: Brooks Oprik was +3 to lead the team in that department…John Carlson was +2 despite a bad giveaway that put New York on the board. #74 didn’t let that bug him and turned in a really strong performance after that unfortunate occurrence…Braden Holtby, who was yanked in the first period on Saturday, was strong in net stopping 23 of 25 shots…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 22:17. Tom Wilson, who had some super third period shifts, only played 9:25. All other skaters were between those totals since Trotz rolled the lines in the second half of a back to back situation…the Caps out shot New York 31-25 thanks to a 14-7 third period…shot attempts were 50-50…Fehr and Laich had two assists each as their line was stellar in period three…next up for the Capitals are the Carolina Hurricanes at 7 pm on Tuesday at the Verizon Center.

 

 

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Ovechkin, Holtby Lead Caps in Blanking of Leafs

Posted on 01 March 2015 by Ed Frankovic

After three straight losses and several slow starts, the Washington Capitals needed to jump out to a quick lead on Sunday night.

NHL MVP Alexander Ovechkin made sure his club would get an early cushion as he scored just 33 seconds into the contest. The Gr8 would make it 2-0 on a backhander in period two after a nice point shot from Brooks Orpik and then he added an assist on Marcus Johansson’s power play goal that increased the lead to 3-0. Joel Ward would hit the empty net and send a terrible Toronto Maple Leafs on its way out of the Verizon Center, 4-0 losers.

In goal, Braden Holtby was, to quote Billy Crystal, “Maaahhhvelous!” as he stopped 32 shots, with some quality ones to boot, en route to his seventh shutout of the season (and 30th win).

The Caps were not pretty in this victory, they still looked sloppy, at times, and weren’t totally in sync, but it was a step in the right direction after their play had really tailed off in the last week.

Tim Gleason, acquired on Saturday in a trade for Jack Hillen and a 4th round pick, made his Caps debut and was very solid in 18:34 of ice time. It’s only one game, but #6 looks like a significant upgrade on that 3rd pairing and it allows Mike Green to play more minutes. Coach Barry Trotz was able to spread his ice time around with the quality blue line and the 4-0 score helped too. Matt Niskanen was the Caps ice time leader and he only logged 20:25. Balancing ice time like that keeps players fresh and reduces the risk of injury.

Up front, well, after the first line, the Capitals still are struggling. Andre Burakovsky played up with the Gr8 and Nicklas Backstrom (1 assist) and #65 was the clear weak link. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has struggled recently, was bumped down to the fourth line, centering Brooks Laich and Tom Wilson, and they had an up and down night, but finished with a decent third period. Jason Chimera took Laich’s spot on the third line and #25, who could be being showcased for a potential trade, also received some early power play time. The second line was centered by Jay Beagle and featured Troy Brouwer and Johansson.

In addition to the players that suited up on Sunday night, General Manager Brian MacLellan traded 2nd and 3rd round picks to Calgary and acquired Curtis Glencross. Glencross, who will wear #22, is 32 years old and is a fast skater. He’s not a top six forward but he’s an upgrade over some of the other Caps bottom six forwards. With the log jam on those two lines, one has to wonder if the Caps GM is still working on a bigger deal to acquire a top six forward by the 3 pm deadline?

We’ll find out about that soon enough, but the whole team will have to be happy when that time passes since it’s been clear to me that the deadline has been a distraction to this club. They have not appeared focused and many have lacked energy, which is a clear byproduct of worrying about what the future holds.

So after this victory over the disastrous Leafs, the Caps are now 34-20-10 (78 points). With 18 games left, a .500 finish easily puts them in the playoffs. So therefore, the focus in the last 18 games has to be to get some continuity going with the forward lines. The defense is set and Holtby is playing the best hockey of his career. Trotz will also look to rest players and the team needs to focus on the matchup they desire for the first round, or perhaps more importantly, one they don’t want.

To me, the match up they don’t want is the New York Rangers, who acquired defensemen Keith Yandle on Sunday in exchange for d-man John Moore, a prospect, and some draft picks. It’s clear the Rags are all in and the Capitals play them three times over the next six weeks. New York has great speed and that’s been something the Caps have had trouble handling. Adding Glencross certainly helps and Gleason has good wheels, as well as size, too. But the Rangers have Henrik Lunqvist and two really strong lines, assuming Rick Nash is healthy for the post season, so they could be the toughest out in the East.

Plenty of time to worry about that though, the Caps need to get back to finding their game, and that starts with working hard and moving their feet so they can work up and down the ice in a five man unit. The team has lost that over the last couple of weeks and need to get back to that in order to peak their game in April and May.

Notes: Ovechkin now leads the NHL in scoring with 41 goals and 65 points….the Gr8 was named the NHL’s 3rd star for the month of February and he’s now started March out with a bang…shot attempts were 63-60 for the Leafs, but they were trailing a lot and the blind zebras gave Toronto four power plays to Washington’s two. I didn’t think the officiating was consistent at all on Sunday but Washington was good enough and the Leafs were bad enough that it just didn’t matter…Toronto won the face off battle, 32-31…next up for the Caps are the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night at 7 pm. Will Washington silence the cannon in a building they’ve struggled in for several years?

 

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