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Caps Roll Buffalo to Retake 1st Place in the Metro

Posted on 24 February 2018 by Ed Frankovic

After giving away Thursday night’s game in Florida to the Panthers, the Washington Capitals needed a victory very badly. On Saturday night at Capital One Arena the Washington stars came out to play as the Caps rolled the Buffalo Sabres, 5-1, getting two goals from Alexander Ovechkin and four points from Evgeny Kuznetsov (one goal, three assists). Andre Burakovsky had the game winning tally with a gorgeous end to end rush goal and Philipp Grubauer made 28 saves.

The triumph, combined with the Penguins loss to the Panthers on Saturday, puts Washington back in first place in the Metropolitan Division with a 35-20-7 (77 points) record with 20 games remaining. The Pens have 19 games to play while second place Philadelphia is also at 76 points with 20 games left. This race is close now, but as we’ll discuss later in this blog, Pittsburgh made a huge trade that changes the landscape in the Eastern Conference.

Here are eight thoughts and analysis following a game the Capitals pretty much had to have against a struggling squad.

Second Fiddle – There’s an Alabama song that goes, “If you’re going to play in Texas, you have to have a fiddle in the band.” For the Washington Capitals, when Kuznetsov plays the second fiddle role well in support of top line center Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps are a hard team to beat. Kuzy’s opening salvo was a superb individual effort that was only surpassed by Burkie’s second period beautiful lamp lighter. The talent that #92 has is insane and the question often becomes, which Kuzy is going to show up each night? When Kuznetsov is skating and playing the right way, like he did on Saturday with four shots on goal, the opposing defense is in big trouble.

Catch Me If You Can – The Penguins have been on a tear lately and Geno Malkin hit goal #36 on Saturday night while both teams were simultaneously playing. For #71, that’s something like 14 goals in his last 13 games as the Pens have been on fire despite their loss in the Sunshine State. Ovechkin must have been hearing the Malkin footsteps in the goal scoring race because Ovi was in beast mode against Buffalo. The Gr8 had 11 shots on net and his two third period markers pushed him up to 38 total tallies for the season. His 37th was a sweet top shelf cheese shot on the power play and then he closed out the scoring with a great deflection of a John Carlson blast in the final two minutes. Alex is arguably playing the best hockey of his career. His skating is outstanding – he could’ve scored on several other chances in which he used his speed to generate opportunities – and he’s playing well in all three zones.

He’s Going to 11– Burakovsky, after being benched again a few weeks ago, is finally playing like the guy who dominated game six against the Penguins last spring. He’s skating the best he has all year and he’s attacking the net. Over his last seven games he’s scored four goals and has two assists. Andre’s number, 65, adds to 11, and he’s reaching that level right now. Hopefully he can keep it up because he’s a difference maker when he plays this way, along with Lars Eller, because he gives Washington a third scoring line.

Solid as a Rock – Grubauer defeated the Sabres for the second straight time this week and he’s now won three games in a row. Over his last four appearances, that include a mop up third period in the Chicago debacle last Saturday night, he’s stopped 102 of 108 shots for a .944 save percentage. #31 is now 7-7-3 with a .919 save percentage this season. The Capitals are not in first place and are likely fighting for their playoff lives if they don’t have Philipp as their backup goaltender.

How Do You Like Them Apples? – Carlson, who was burnt badly on the game tying tally in Florida on Thursday night, continues to put up the points on the back end. He made a super pass to Ovi for his power play marker that broke this one open and then he made a smart play to fire the puck on net late allowing Ovechkin to notch a sweet deflection goal. John is an unrestricted free agent this summer and he’s having a monster year offensively. If the Caps are confident they can sign him long term, then the back end is set for many years to come. If not, General Manager Brian MacLellan needs to work the phones hard to get a top return for #74 before Monday’s 3 pm trading deadline. Carlson’s offense certainly dictates a huge payday, but his defensive zone, like many blue liners on Washington, has been very lax and inconsistent since the All Star Break. That needs to improve if the Caps want to make a serious playoff run this spring.

Southbound Again – On Saturday night, the Capitals played the right way, for the most part. They were shooting the puck and playing the north-south style they will need to employ to be successful from here on out. Washington had 36 shots on goal, including 16 in a third period that saw them start the frame up two pucks. Getting pucks and bodies to the cage is how you score in the playoffs and Coach Barry Trotz’ crew did that fairly well against a weak Buffalo squad that was without both Jack Eichel (injured) and Evander Kane (scratched in advance of a trade). There was no sitting back with the lead and as a result, they won going away after a really bad shift to start period three. The Sabres needed only 14 seconds to slice the Caps 2-0 lead in half. Backstrom and the top d-pair of Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen each had defensive zone breakdowns that led to a sweet backhanded goal for Sam Reinhart. Other than that sequence and a really terrible offensive zone cross ice pass by T.J. Oshie in period three with a one goal lead, there was not a lot to be upset about for the Caps.  Washington, as a team, needs to ditch that cross ice crap at the offensive blue line. #77 was better on the puck in this affair, but he needs to start shooting more often. He has a great shot, but has been falling into a Harlem Globetrotters “pretty play” mentality too often, of late.

Landscape Change – On Friday, the Pittsburgh Penguins completed a very shady deal with the Ottawa Senators and Vegas Golden Knights to get center Derrick Brassard. Caps fans remember him from his days with the Rangers and the Blue Jackets. The Pens were hurt by the offseason losses of Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen as third and fourth line centers, respectively, so this really improves their roster. PIT gave up defensemen Ian Cole (to Ottawa) and fourth line goon, Ryan Reaves (to Vegas) in a deal that sees former Capital GM George McPhee retain 40% of Brassard’s salary to prevent Derrick from going to Winnipeg and also to stick it to the franchise who fired him (and that firing should’ve been done a lot sooner). Pittsburgh also gave up their 2018 first round pick and top goalie prospect, Filip Gustavsson from Sweden. The add of Brassard clearly puts the Penguins as the front runner for their third straight Stanley Cup. For Washington to have a chance against the Pens, they’ll need to upgrade their defense by Monday’s deadline with a legit second pair blue liner to play with Carlson. A depth forward that can skate would help, as well.

Notes: Eller had an empty net goal to make it 4-1 with 2:12 remaining. That was Lars’ 14th goal of the season…shot attempts were 77-63 for Washington…the Caps were one for one on the power play and two for two on the penalty kill…the Capitals tied the faceoff battle at 31 apiece. Backstrom was 11-8 and Jay Beagle was 8-6. Ryan O’Reilly went 19-9 for the Sabres…Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov led the Caps in ice time with 23:58 and 23:50, respectively. They are the Capitals best defensive pair, but that isn’t saying a whole lately as the blueline has been struggling since the All Star Break…Michal Kempny, who was on the ice for two goals against on Thursday, played 16:59. Christian Djoos had sixth defensemen minutes, with 15:03 of ice time, but he was +2…Madison Bowey and recently acquired from Montreal, Jakub Jerabek, were the scratches on defense…Jakub Vrana rode the pine on offense as Alex Chiasson went back into the lineup on the third line…the Caps are in Columbus on Monday and then come home to take on Ottawa on Tuesday. After that, the next tilt is the Stadium Series game against Toronto on Saturday night (8 pm) at the Naval Academy stadium in Annapolis. Auston Matthews will not play for the Leafs due to a shoulder injury.

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Grubauer and Connolly Lead the Caps over Buffalo, 3-1

Posted on 25 November 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan’s plan to upgrade the Caps bottom two lines following last spring’s bitter playoff defeat to the Pittsburgh Penguins is starting to pay dividends.

On Friday night at the Verizon Center off season acquisitions Brett Connolly (goal and an assist) and Lars Eller (assist) formed a strong trio with 2016 trade deadine addition, Daniel Winnik (goal), to help lead the Capitals to a hard fought, 3-1 victory over the pesky Buffalo Sabres. Those three forwards all logged around 12 minutes of even strength ice time and at night’s end each had roughly 15 minutes overall. They were hard on the puck all evening and that line set a nice tone for the Caps, who started fast again, by outworking the Sabres and putting bodies and shots to the cage.

At just 5:08 into the contest they broke the ice for Washington when Eller came down the left wing and fired a hard shot on Anders Nilsson (29 saves), who put a juicy rebound into the slot. Connolly was cruising into the “point’s zone” and he got enough of the biscuit to push it towards the right post where a hard skating Winnik came around the net and buried it from a sharp angle.

The Caps would play a strong first period, outshooting the Sabres, 13-6, but only led 1-0, thanks to some stellar play by Nilsson in net.

At the other end of the ice, Philipp Grubauer (32 saves) was very sharp in his first home start in forever on the front end of a back to back contest situation (the Caps are in the Big Smoke on Saturday night at 7 pm to take on the Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada). Buffalo had a power play just two plus minutes after Winnik’s lamp lighter to open the scoring and they have a very good one. However, Grubauer was the primary reason the Sabres weren’t able to tie the game up. For the night, the Caps backup goalie was their best penalty killer stopping seven shots in eight minutes of Buffalo man advantage time.

“I think that’s the privilege we have of having two great goalies. Either one that’s in gives us a really good chance of winning. Grubi’s played phenomenal this year so far and it’s really unfortunate that we couldn’t get him the shutout,” stated Winnik, who in honor of Movember, has grown one of the best moustaches you’ll ever see and it’s eerily reminiscent of the one Johnny had in Slap Shot. Kudos Mr. Winnik.

Marcus Johansson scored what would turn out to be the game winning goal from the slot. Jojo earned his 8th tally of the year when the Caps had a three on two rush up the ice. Justin Williams, who had several more good chances but didn’t score, came down the right wing and tried to pass cross ice to Nicklas Backstrom on the left wing side. The puck fortuitously hit the Sabres defensemen in the skate and bounced right to a streaking #90, who fired it quickly past Nilsson for a 2-0 Washington lead just three minutes and 25 seconds past the game’s midpoint.

The Caps had a 25-18 shots on goal advantage after two periods and a 49-44 edge in shot attempts, but the Sabres would have 5:32 of extra man time in the final frame. As mentioned above, Grubauer was the primary reason Buffalo would get blanked with the man advantage. They did, however, cut the deficit to a single goal with 10:02 to go when Sam Reinhart fired a shot through a Ryan O’Reilly screen and into the cage at even strength.

The Sabres then had a power play when just down a puck, but Gruabauer and the Caps penalty killers, most notably Winnik and Tom Wilson up front, prevented Buffalo from any great chances.

Then with 4:20 left and the crowd finally buzzing after “Unleash the Fury” was played on the video board, the Sabres took a too many men penalty when Washington fired the puck into the skates of a Buffalo player trying to change. At first it didn’t seem like the referees were going to call the infraction, but the crowd wisely groaned very loudly and off to the box Buffalo went. That penalty would provide the dagger for the Caps as Connolly, who earned 1st power play time at a crucial moment in the contest, buried the rebound of an Alex Ovechkin rocket to close out the scoring. #10 celebrated heavily and deservedly so. It was a big goal and he put himself in the right position to score an important tally that allowed the Caps to go 4-1 on this five game home stand that concluded on Friday. The only blemish was a zebra aided 3-2 victory for Columbus on Sunday.

Overall, the Caps put out a strong effort as a team, especially the Eller line as well as Wilson and Jay Beagle. Zach Sanford only saw 6:37 of ice time, but he nearly scored his first goal of the season on a beautiful rush move around a Sabres defensemen in the first period. Unfortunately for Zach, Nilsson made an awesome glove save on his backhand attempt.

The Caps did make some mistakes in this contest; most notably they were guilty of some bad decisions where they tried low percentage cross ice passes. Some of them were picked off and normally that would lead to odd man rushes. However, as Coach Barry Trotz pointed out afterwards, the Caps commitment level was there and that attention to detail prevented Buffalo from getting scoring chances off of those mistakes since another Capital seemed to be always in position to cover for the mishap. Connolly talked following the victory about trying to find the right balance of trying for the cross ice passes versus getting the pucks deep.

“We have so many guys here that can make really good plays. Coaches always talk about blue line turnovers and we got guys that can make plays on those blue lines. Eight times out of 10 they’re making those plays, but if we can just find the right mix of when to make those plays and when maybe to cut your losses and get it deep, then we’ll be better moving forward,” said Connolly, who was certainly one of the best Washington players on this night and is making an impact.

Connolly is absolutely correct, if there’s one criticism of this team, it’s that extra pass just inside the offensive blue line where the puck should’ve been put on or behind the net. Good things happen when you shoot is my motto, and as Coach Trotz likes to say, “The NHL is a shoot first league.”

“If we can just focus on trying to keep the puck out of our net we’ve got enough guys on the team that can score. I think that’s kind of been an area that obviously the coaches have been working with and just trying to cut our losses and not make those high risk plays, but if we’re coming back hard and we’re focused on helping the goalie out and the D out then we’re going to get chances at the other end, it’s just a matter of time and I think that once we figure that out we’ll be even better moving forward, so we’re moving in the right direction,” added Connolly.

Connolly, who MacLellan was able to bring in at a bargain price of $850,000, is right about the focus of the coaches and since Coach Trotz arrived this team has gotten monumentally better at playing away from the puck, something that has killed them in the post season in the past. The Caps have only given up 44 goals in 20 games and only the Minnesota Wild have given up fewer (38). There is the saying that “Defense Wins Championships.”

“We’re playing pretty well. We’re getting better every day. Guys are working hard in practice and we watch a lot of video and are getting better. It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. We’ve got a good group of guys here, a good team. We’re going in the right direction,” finished Connolly.

20 games in and sitting at 13-5-2 (28 points) and on pace for a 115 point season, it’s hard to argue with what one of the newest Capitals had to say following a very nice win the day after Thanksgiving.

On to Toronto.

Notes: Buffalo’s O’Reilly was the best Sabre on the ice and he had five shots on net in 23:53 of ice time (led all players on both teams). Coach Trotz raved about #90 and said he is one of the most underrated players in the NHL. Winnik said of O’Reilly, “Phenomenal player, I played with him in Colorado. Really underrated guy who finally got the credit he deserved with the World Cup nod for Canada.”…Washington lost the face off battle, 37-30. Beagle did go 11-6…Oveckhin had zero shot attempts in a rough first period for his line, but he finished with six for the game, including an assist on Connolly’s game clincher…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 23:09, but John Carlson played 23:00…Taylor Chorney, who was only in the line up for the third time this season, played extremely well with Brooks Orpik. I could make a case that this was his best game since he’s been a Capital. He was very good in his own end and at breaking the puck up the ice…speaking of underrated, that’s Johansson, who played 17:16 and is such a good two way player…the Holtbeast will get the start in net on Saturday against Auston Matthews and company from the Air Canada Centre. The Caps are fired up to play the Leafs and Karl Alzner remarked afterwards, “We’ve been seeing all of their highlights on tv, so it will be fun to finally play them.”

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Jay Beagle's line shines once again in a Capitals 3-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens

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Caps Third Line Propels Team to its 7th Straight Victory

Posted on 26 December 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river. – Creedence Clearwater Revival

Proud Mary is probably a good song to be playing these days if you are a Washington Capitals fan, especially after the Caps won again on Saturday night, defeating the Montreal Canadiens, 3-1, for their seventh straight victory.

Fresh off of a four day break, three of which were mandated for the NHL Christmas shutdown, the Caps came out and played a solid game at home against a team that is very quick and adept at causing defensive zone turnovers.

Washington would have its issues, at times, with the Habs speedy forwards, but on the whole, they dominated this game in the scoring chances department, and if not for some overpassing and good goaltending from Mike Condon (30 saves), the Caps win this tilt by a larger margin. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Jay Beagle (GWG), and Jason Chimera tallied for the home squad, who are now 17-0-0 when scoring three or more goals this season.

On the other end of the ice, yes there were turnovers, but not a whole lot of quality shots for the Canadiens. That allowed Braden Holtby (29 saves) to get his league leading 22nd victory and lower his goals against average while raising his save percentage. It was another solid game for the Holtbeast, but on this night, he didn’t have to be the star because the Caps played pretty well.

The Beagle, Chimera, and Tom Wilson line had another superb effort and Willy picked up two helpers, and both were of the primary variety. When your third line scores two goals, there is a darned good chance you are winning the contest and Washington is still undefeated in regulation when #83 tallies. Wilson continues to improve and was super on the penalty kill, Montreal went 0 for 2, and he also earned a decision over Jared Tinordi in the first period. It was a properly timed fight by Wilson given that the Canadiens had three or four consecutive good shifts and Tinordi also cheaply cross checked him. After that bout the Caps seized the momentum right back in the hockey game.

Beagle’s game winner was a thing of beauty as the three forwards all did the proper things on the goal sequence. Chimera charged the net after getting the puck out to Wilson, and big #43 made a sweet pass back to Beagle, who used the Habs player as a screen to laser one over Condon’s shoulder. Plain and simple, it was a sweet goal.

Montreal would tally back 24 seconds later in the middle frame on a bad giveaway and poor coverage sequence by Washington’s second line, which was arguably the Caps worst shift of the game.

But with the Capitals nursing a 2-1 lead in the final frame, Nate Schmidt made a good pass to Willy in the neutral zone and he properly banked it off of the boards to a streaking Chimera. From there #25 turned on the jets to fly in and beat Condon top shelf, glove side. Caps play by play announcer, Joe Beninati, could not have called that one any better with the “Speed Kills” line. That goal came with 8:45 left and the Capitals salted this game away from there. The only scary moment came in the last five minutes when Matt Niskanen fired a point blank shot off of the right wrist of Alex Ovechkin. The Gr8 was in pain, but he did come back to play another shift after that. The captain, who clearly eats rocks for breakfast, also had a big shot block in the dying seconds of period two. That type of lay out and sacrifice your body for your squad sequence received lots of immediate praise from his teammates.

Overall, this was another nice win and the Caps have won eight straight in the friendly confines of the Verizon Center. Beagle noted that the crowd was loud and they helped Washington. There’s no doubt about that and the team is now 26-6-2 (54 points) to remain atop the Eastern Conference standings.

This team is really good and continues to find different ways to win games. The Caps continue to be on a roll, going 16-2-2 over their last 20 games, so I say cue the CCR.

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river.

Notes: Schmidt had two assists in 20:15 of ice time…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 26:17…shots on goal were 33-30 for the Washington, but shot attempts were 61-52 for Montreal. The Caps passed up a lot of shot opportunities and that resulted in offensive zone turnovers…the Habs won the faceoff battle, 33-25, but Nicklas Backstrom went 11-8…the Caps now play a home and home series with the Buffalo Sabres on Monday and Wednesday. On Monday, they are at the First Niagara Center. Sabres rookie forward and second overall pick in the 2015 NHL draft, Jack Eichel, had two goals and two assists in a 6-3 victory over the Boston Bruins on Saturday night. Ryan O’Reilly had three points and notorious Caps killer, Evander Kane, had a goal. This will be a tough two games with a young and improving Buffalo team…the Caps wore their third jerseys for the second time (2-0) and to quote the great Billy Crystal, “They looked Maaaaahvelous!”

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