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Puck Not In

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Holtby Outplays Murray in a Caps 4-1 Triumph in Game Two

Posted on 30 April 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Braden Holtby made 32 saves and Alex Ovechkin, Jakub Vrana, Brett Connolly, and Nicklas Backstrom tallied for Washington in a 4-1 game two victory at Capital One Arena on Sunday afternoon. The Caps triumph ties the series up at one apiece, with games three and four slated for Pittsburgh on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively.

This was one heck of a hockey game and there were many significant events to cover, so without further adieu, here are my thoughts and analysis of the Capitals second victory in five tries on home ice this postseason.

Style Change – In game one, the Capitals, despite an early 2-0 third period lead, found themselves getting involved in a Penguins style of affair. Time after time the puck went up and down the ice with both teams willing to trade chances. With Pittsburgh’s high end skill, it’s a format they love playing because they know if the opposition roles the dice enough times, they will burn them with goals going the other way. In the first and third periods on Sunday afternoon, Washington played the right way and refused to get into a run and gun affair and that is a big reason why they tied this series up. The Caps must continue to play smart if they want to have a chance to win this best of seven second round matchup. If the Caps get a lead, they would be wise to go to their 1-3-1 or 1-2-2 defensive posture where they clog the neutral zone and defensive blue line. Stopping the Penguins speed and playing for counter attacks is a strategy that worked well the last time the Capitals were in Pittsburgh and wrapped up the Metropolitan Division Title.

The Best, Jerry, The Best – There’s no doubt in my mind that the Jake Guentzel-Sidney Crosby-Patric Hornqvist line is the best trio in the NHL. That unit has speed, skill, and grit and they were the biggest reason that the Pens rallied from a 2-0 hole in game one to seize a series opening victory. Most of their damage last Thursday came against the Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Tom Wilson line. In game two, Coach Barry Trotz made a tactical adjustment and deployed Backstrom’s line (includes Chandler Stephenson and T.J. Oshie) against Sid the Kid and company, since he had last change at home. Crosby logged 23:37 in this tilt while Nicky played 22:35. #87 was held pointless and also took a hooking penalty on Backstrom that led to Vrana’s power play tally which made it 2-0 late in period one. Simply put, the Backstrom line did their job by neutralizing the Penguins top unit in game two. The challenge, however, is that in the next two games, Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan has last change and therefore has a better shot at getting his best trio away from Nicky’s line. This means that the Lars Eller and Kuznetsov units need to step up and try and contain the best line in hockey.

Penn and Teller Moment – NBC (PENBC?!) kept showing a replay of the Hornqvist shot that the Penguins believe they scored on to make it 3-2 midway through period three, but referee Chris Rooney, who was in perfect position, immediately signaled no goal and the overhead replay confirmed the call from the Toronto war room. In the tone of one Buford T. Justice of Smokey and the Bandit lore, “there was no evidence to prove a goal was scored.” The emphasis there is on the word “Evidence” as Jackie Gleason would put it. Both Crosby and Hornqvist were seen overlooking the monitor of their broadcasting pal and chief cheer leader, Pierre McGuire, at center ice and screaming goal, but that angle from the front, is a three dimensional picture being transformed into a two dimensional array and then shown on television. Simply put, it is not accurate, it’s an optical illusion, and the math will prove it. The only definitive angle is the direct overhead camera, which showed the puck on the line, just like the photo provided by NHL.COM that accompanies this blog.

Glitchy Glove 2? – Columbus chased Caps starter Philipp Grubauer in the opening round by exposing his not so stellar glove hand. So far in two games in this series, the Capitals have done the same thing to Penguins goalie Matt Murray. All three of Washington’s non empty net tallies on Sunday were over the glove hand. Connolly was asked if the Caps have found a weakness, but #10 was noncommittal, noting that most right handed shooters prefer to fire for that side. Ovi and Connolly are both righties, but Vrana is a lefty and he deftly lifted his tally just over Murray’s glove. #30 is an excellent goalie and he made several big stops to his blocker side, including an amazing stick save on Ovechkin late in period one that would’ve made it 3-0, but the Capitals appear on to something going high glove side on the two time Stanley Cup Champion.

Down for an Eight Count – The Penguins best defensive defensemen, Brian Dumolin, left this game in the second period and would not return after hitting his head on Wilson’s shoulder trying to avoid a charging Ovechkin. Wilson was closely tracking Dumolin and when #8 saw the Gr8 coming, he leaned back to avoid what seemed to be a major collision and smashed his head on Willy’s shoulder. Dumolin went to the ice and would not return. Afterwards, Crosby was complaining that Wilson’s reputation supports the fact that it was a dirty hit, but that’s just posturing in order to get the referees on your side. This was nothing more than a hockey play with three players close together and one guy making a wrong move that unfortunately led to injury.

Infirmary – With Evgeni Malkin, Carl Hagelin, and Andre Burakovsky out of the lineup in games one and two, both teams were playing short of their optimal roster with the Pens obviously taking the worst of it without the dominant #71. I expect Geno to play game three, but Dumolin is a question mark for the Pens and on the Caps side, Oshie injured his hand late in regulation blocking a shot. T.J. was unable to hold his stick and cleared the defensive zone one handed, then went straight to the bench. If #77 fractured or broke his hand, the Capitals are in big trouble.

Let’s Get Together and Feel Alright – Kuznetsov needs to be better going forward in this series with his puck management. Holtby made an amazing save on the no goal play, but it doesn’t happen if Kuzy is more responsible with the puck in the neutral zone. #92 misplayed the disc and Crosby nearly made Washington pay. In addition, Ovechkin needs to be stronger defensively in his own zone. Too many times, especially late in period two, the Penguins kept the puck in the offensive end because of poor play and positioning by Alex.

Better than Ezra – Connolly’s playoff performance so far is night and day from last season. Brett is using his speed to generate chances and goals, but more importantly, he’s using his body to finish checks and take his opponents out of the play. #10 is also doing a solid job away from the puck, as are his linemates, Eller and Devante Smith-Pelly. That third line is going to be very important to Washington’s chances in the Steel City in the next two games since they’ll likely face the Crosby or Malkin lines. The key for the Caps forwards, across the board, is to play a north-south style. If they don’t have numbers, they have to get pucks deep or on goal to prevent the Pens from using their deadly transition game.

Notes: John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:07 while Justin Schultz led the Pens with 27:24…the Caps were 1 for 3 on the power play while Pittsburgh was 0 for 3…shot attempts were 75-69 for the Penguins…the Capitals lost the face-off battle, 31-24. Crosby was 15-9…Wilson led the Caps with seven hits while Jamie Oleksiak had seven for the Penguins…the Capitals were credited with 17 giveaways to just four for Pittsburgh. Most of the Washington turnovers came in a sloppy second frame where the Caps were out shot, 16-6.

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Oshie Pens

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Caps Defeat the Pens, 3-1, to Clinch the Metro Division Title

Posted on 02 April 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin played in his 1,000th NHL game on Sunday night and his teammates made it a special one for him defeating the two time defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins in Pittsburgh, 3-1, to wrap up their third consecutive Metropolitan Division title. Philipp Grubauer made his first ever start against the Pens and he was outstanding making 36 saves. T.J. Oshie, Dmitry Orlov, and Tom Wilson scored for the Caps before Patrick Hornqvist tallied on a rebound with 3:45 remaining to end #31’s shutout bid.

The Caps final three games, at St. Louis on Monday night and then home against the Predators and Devils on Thursday and Saturday, respectively, are essentially meaningless from a standings perspective. Washington’s first round playoff opponent will be the first wildcard team and right now that situation is as clear as mud.

The triumph improves Coach Barry Trotz’ team to 47-25-7 (101 points), which is right in the 100 to 105 point range that I predicted before the season when many were losing their collective minds over General Manager Brian MacLellan’s offseason decisions. BMac knew what he was doing by focusing up the middle of the ice and the Capitals will now go into the post season for the fourth straight year in his tenure after the final disastrous season of the George McPhee era ended with Adam Oates as head coach back in 2014.

The following bullets are my thoughts and analysis on the win in Pittsburgh as we head into the final week of the NHL season (hey, it’s Masters week, too, so FORE!).

Stone Cold – There’s no doubt that the biggest reason the Penguins defeated the Caps in last season’s playoffs was due to the stellar play of Marc Andre-Fleury in net. On Sunday night, Grubauer took advantage of the start and seemed to really have the Penguins number. Granted the Pens played on Saturday night against Montreal, but Philipp was exceptional and earned the game’s number one star. Grubi stopped all 12 shots on goal the Penguins fired on their five power plays and he also got a nice break when Evgeni Malkin’s laser on a five on three advantage in period two hit iron. Luck is a part of the game and Washington had its share in this one. Crosby fanned on a shot in the third period that the German goaltender was able to glove. However, the Capitals had some great looks, too, that they didn’t get good wood on, including a couple of Ovechkin shots that he just couldn’t put up and over a prone Matt Murray (31 saves). The most important position in the post season is goalie and with Grubauer playing outstanding and Holtby rebounding into form, Washington has to feel strong about that spot for next week and beyond.

Starting Fast – The Capitals have not had many great starts this calendar year, but on Sunday on NBC Sports Channel, they came out well. Ovi nearly scored early in front, but Murray was able to stop it when Alex couldn’t get full control of the pass for one of his patented Gr8 shots. Washington kept pushing the pace though, and they gave the Pens a dose of their own medicine scoring on the rush. John Carlson got the puck up to Andre Burakovsky to give the Caps a three on two entering the offensive zone. Burkie then put a sweet pass on Oshie’s stick on the right wing side of the ice and the Osh Babe beat Murray five hole, like a rented mule, just 6:25 into the game. Getting the first goal was really important in this one because the Pens had played the night before and would need momentum plus the crowd for adrenaline. They would not receive that, pretty much all night.

Tactic Change – When Washington was in Pittsburgh on February 2nd, they found themselves in a track meet affair and lost, 7-4. Trying to play run and gun hockey with the Penguins is a recipe for disaster and the Caps proved it that night. This time, however, the Capitals made some adjustments to throttle the Pens rush game. Once they got ahead, instead of trying to chase the black and gold in the offensive zone, they backed out and clogged up the neutral zone passing lanes. It was a very 1990’s New Jersey Devils neutral zone trap style of hockey. As a result, the Pens were unable to utilize their stretch or flip passes once Coach Trotz’ team went into that configuration. The few odd man opportunities the Penguins received were the result of offensive zone turnovers. The Caps need to continue to clean those up, but they were certainly better structurally against Pittsburgh than they’ve been in the previous three 2017-18 regular season matchups.

Feeling Too Much Shame – If there was one thing to not like about Sunday’s game, it was the five penalties the Capitals took that put the Pens on man advantage situations. Pittsburgh has the best power play in the league and to gift them four of those opportunities was playing with fire. I didn’t like Chandler Stephenson’s hold, the too many men infraction, Matt Niskanen’s delay of game, and Ovechkin’s slash, they were unnecessary. The only penalty that occurred to negate a scoring chance was Tom Wilson’s on Malkin. #71 is a beast and he’s been on fire, so sometimes you have to break the rules to stop him. Fortunately Grubauer, Brooks Orpik (team high 5:57 of shorthanded time), Carlson, Niskanen, Lars Eller (4:04 of PK time) and the other forwards deployed while shorthanded did a great job. Hornqvist is an absolute force in front of the net and you need size to battle him to allow your goalies to see the shots. Orpik and Carlson had the lion share of that duty on Sunday.

Fly By Night – It’s no secret the highly skilled and talent Penguins love to RUSH the puck with their speed to create chances and as stated earlier, the Capitals throttled that primarily with a tactic change. In addition, however, they used the RUSH to their advantage, too. Washington’s second goal came eight seconds after a great penalty kill as Orlov skated up the middle of the ice and used the Pens defensemen as a screen. Dima shot from the slot and it beat Murray to make it 2-0 with 6:14 left in the middle frame. That goal seemed to really deflate the Penguins and their fans. It was a simple play by the Russian defensemen and the Caps continued to pour shots on Murray as they went up the ice once they had the lead. Too often the Capitals get into trouble by trying to be fancy at the offensive blue line, but on Sunday night they did what their coaches have asked of them, they put the puck on net or behind the opposing defensemen instead of trying to beat guys one on one. It was smart hockey, they generated 34 shots on net doing so, and the Penguins typically use that style as well as any team in the league. Hopefully Washington continues to play smart as they did on Sunday in the post season. The cross ice plays in April and beyond often end up getting you earlier tee times.

Bad Blood – Nobody likes to lose, but the Penguins got downright dirty at the end of this one. Hornqvist slashed Carlson and Orpik in frustration and the latter infraction earned him a late penalty that all but ended this contest. Malkin then went totally mental and interfered with Oshie in the neutral zone and sent his stick flying into the Caps bench. The Osh Babe took exception and got into it with Geno. With the linesman trying to send Malkin to the showers, #71 then went crazy trying to go after Evgeny Kuznetsov (1 assist). I’m sure #92 was giving him the business in their native Russian tongue, too. It was pretty clear the Pens were trying to set the tone for the next time these two teams could meet, which would likely be in round two. Even Mark “Hot Plate” Recchi found himself heading to the locker room early when the zebras kicked him out of the game for verbal abuse. It was a bad look for Mike Sullivan’s team and he’s no choir boy either.

The End – Officially, the game ended after the Penguins late hissy fit, but when Wilson deflected Niskanen’s shot past Murray just 23 seconds into period three to increase the score to 3-0, this game was pretty much over. Again, putting pucks at or towards the net with bodies going there is the way you win big hockey games. If Washington employs that style more often, the end of this season could be something special.

Notes: Jay Beagle suffered an upper body injury in period one and didn’t return. He only played 3:22 and Coach Trotz stated afterwards he’s probably not playing against the Blues…I’d like to see Oshie and Orpik get the night off, too. Those guys play a hard style so they need to be physically ready for next week. Both have missed games recently due to minor injuries, so it would be best to get both healthy…shot attempts were 59-57 for the Pens, but their edge primarily came from the power play. Washington was very good at five on five…both teams went 0 for 5 on the power play…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:58. Kris Letang played the most for Pittsburgh with 25:08…the Capitals lost the faceoff battle, 35-34, which wasn’t bad since Beagle was done in period one. Eller was 9-6 while Sidney Crosby went 16-9 for the home team…Devante Smith-Pelly led the Caps in hits with seven. He also logged 2:41 of shorthanded time with Beags out of the game…Ovechkin had eight shot attempts, including four on net, and four hits in 22:47 of ice time…Hits were 33-30 for the Caps.

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brian-maclellan

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Should the Caps Blow it Up or Stay the Course?

Posted on 29 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

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

Alas, once again, that is not the case.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ovi Pens

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12 Thoughts on the Caps Following an Inexcusable Game 4 Defeat

Posted on 04 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Once again the Washington Capitals are on the brink of being eliminated in the second round of the postseason with Wednesday night’s 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in game four of the Stanley Cup Quarter Finals. The Pens lead the Caps three to one with game five set for Saturday night at the Verizon Center at 7:15 pm, a post Kentucky Derby start time.

Here are 12 thoughts on the Capitals following game four:

It was a huge game, Sidney Crosby was out of the lineup injured due to a concussion, yet the Caps came out as flat as a pancake in period one. Before 15 minutes were gone, the Pens had a 21-13 edge in shot attempts and a 1-0 lead on the scoreboard courtesy of Patric Hornqvist’s breakaway tally that he notched after he split Karl Alzner and Brooks Orpik. It was an awful defensive breakdown and miscommunication by two veteran defensemen you would normally expect to be tactically sound.

Offensive zone penalties were a big problem for Washington on Wednesday night, they took five of them that led to Penguins power plays. You can argue about the iffy calls on John Carlson and T.J. Oshie and perhaps the slashing on Alex Ovechkin in period three, but the bottom line is that four of the five were the result of laziness and not playing the right way. The first two penalties, by Ovechkin and Lars Eller, were in the first period when Washington seemed to be in sleep walking mode.

The Caps stabilized things in the last five minutes of period one, but the start to period two was another bad one. After failing to score on their carry over power play, shortly thereafter they lost several loose puck battles, which was a major problem in the first frame and a sign that they weren’t mentally or emotionally ready to play this contest. Jake Guentzel won one of those one on one battles and threw a puck to the middle of the ice and with Dmitry Orlov rushing to get back in position defensively, the puck hit his leg and went into the cage behind Braden Holtby.

After that goal, it was all Caps for the next several minutes and they tied the game up with two goals just 72 seconds apart. Marcus Johansson won a board battle, even after losing his stick, to keep a puck alive and Justin Williams grabbed it on the left wing wall and fed Evgeny Kuznetsov in the slot. Kuzy, for a change, was thinking shoot first, and his quick shot beat Marc-Andre Fleury to give the Capitals life. It was a smart play and by shooting right away, it caught Fleury off guard. Nate Schmidt would then tie the game by one-timing a missed Kevin Shattenkirk shot off of the backboards. Again, it was a fast shot like #92’s and it found the twine. Quicker shots are a must for Washington going forward. Waiting to fire away gives Fleury time to set up and it also allows the Penguins defensemen to get in the lanes to block shots.

Washington finally started to carry the play, like they should have been doing from the start, but then a bad penalty call on Carlson combined with a not so smart play by Andre Burakovsky on an extended zone time shift turned the game around. #65 caused the “so-called” penalty by being soft and carrying the puck up high in the offensive zone instead of keeping it low on the wall, where the Caps had just put reinforcements on the ice while the Pens were hemmed in due to the long change. Carlson tried to rotate down to give Burakovsky room and he and Scott Wilson collided and the bad zebras whistled a penalty. Penalty or not (and it really wasn’t a rough, which was listed as the call), Andre had already made the wrong decision and had lost the puck to the neutral zone.

Pittsburgh’s power play had been struggling in the series, but it finally connected to swing momentum big time. You’d like to see your goalie make a save there, though. Justin Schultz’s rocket was slated for the top shelf, but there was no screen and if the Holtbeast is in his usual mode he is out at the top of the crease and makes that stop. Instead he was deep in the cage and was beaten badly over the shoulder when he went down in the butterfly.

That goal came with 28 plus minutes remaining, lots of time left to recover, but the Caps couldn’t connect, including wasting a four minute power play that started in period two and carried over to the final stanza. The power play needs serious adjustments before Saturday. Ovechkin is not getting his looks and the Pens are being very aggressive on Nicklas Backstrom on the half wall making Washington’s usual plays ineffective. The Gr8 is at his best when he’s getting shots early and being physical. He only had four shot attempts in game four. Washington must figure out a way to get the power play going again and get Ovechkin more looks. Your move Caps coaching staff as well as Alex, who must work harder to create space for himself.

On the positive side of things, the Capitals second line was really good with 20 shot attempts out of the 46 the 11 Caps forwards had in this tilt. The third line had 17 shot attempts, including Eller’s great chance on Fleury in the third period where he waited too long to fire away. A quick shot there by #20 in front and perhaps he gets the puck by #29 or a rebound comes back to him and he’s in control of the situation? Waiting on Fleury has proven to be deadly except in one instance, Kuznetsov’s goal in game three where he had all day to get the goalie out of position. Tom Wilson was very much involved on that third line and was probably the only player that matched the Penguins intensity in the first period. He, along with Jojo, have been superb in this post season.

On the bad side of the ledger, you can start with the leaders of this team, Ovechkin and Backstrom. They were pretty much no shows for this affair and played with a lack of urgency in a critical contest. That first line, adding in Oshie, had only eight shot attempts! I’ll say that again, eight shot attempts in an almost must win playoff contest. That’s just unacceptable for the Captain and one of the Alternates to perform that way. They did not do their respective jobs and if the Caps do not come back, they deserve the brunt of the criticism given their play in game four and their inability, yet again, to get out of the second round with their fourth different playoff coach.

The final shot attempts were 72-38, but who cares? The start is what matters in these games and the team that has scored first has won every contest. Fleury is in the Caps heads and Holtby is fighting the puck. Meanwhile anyone Coach Mike Sullivan puts on the ice brings a maximum effort while Coach Barry Trotz’ crew has too many passengers.

Simply put, the Capitals were not ready to play this game. Without Crosby in the lineup they had an opportunity to seize the game and the series and let Pittsburgh know that it was the Caps time to shine. Instead they totally shunned the saying on their “Will Over Skill” t-shirts and acted like all they had to do was show up to win. It was a lack of leadership and a total lack of focus. It is maddening that this core group of players still doesn’t fathom what it takes to win in the postseason and you can’t put a lot of it on the coaches or General Manager, this is their fourth playoff coach while it has been the same core in charge on the ice.

As Justin Williams told me after game two, the playoffs are all about doing the little things and winning the one on one battles to put yourself in position to score or defend and ultimately win the game. Washington has not been committed to doing that and as a result they are a game away from the golf course, once again. There is no excuse for the effort from Ovechkin and the top line in game four. It is disturbing and if the Caps don’t come back, the blame starts with the Gr8 for failing to appear in this contest. Washington had to come out on the offensive and not take their foot off of the gas to tie the series up. Instead, they never found the throttle and played scared, which allowed the Penguins to dictate what type of game this would be. It’s inexcusable from a group that knows this is the last time this crew will be together. We’ll find out what these guys are really made of over the next week.

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Sid Ovi

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Ten Thoughts on the Penguins Before Round Two Begins

Posted on 25 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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nicky-oshie

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Caps Destroy the Penguins, 7-1

Posted on 16 November 2016 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Caps keep on rolling, knocking off the Pens in an exciting contest at the Consol Energy Center.

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Oshie & Holtby Help the Caps Slam the Pens, 4-1

Posted on 14 December 2015 by Ed Frankovic

T.J. Oshie had a huge, clean neutral zone hit on Beau Bennett in the first period that knocked #19 from the game and then he added two third period insurance goals as the Capitals won, 4-1, at the Consol Energy Center behind 44 saves from Braden Holtby.

The Pens were fired up for this game, seeing as it was their first under new bench boss, Mike Sullivan, but Coach Barry Trotz’ crew had other plans rushing out to a quick two goal lead behind tallies from Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson. Evgeni Malkin, on a sweet deflection, scored the only goal for Pittsburgh in the first frame, who traded defensemen Rob Scuderi to Chicago for Trevor Daley while this contest was going on (Scuderi actually took warm-ups, but did not play).

The Holtbeast was strong again, especially right at the start of the game when the Pens had some super chances in tight. Those saves allowed the Caps to get their legs and they stunned the Pens and their fans with two goals in the first eight minutes. From there on out the Penguins were forced to play catch-up, something they could not achieve.

This was an exciting and intense hockey game with lots of back and forth action. Pittsburgh was able to get their end to end style going, at times, particularly in the 2nd period. In the final frame, however, Washington did a better job of keeping Pittsburgh on the perimeter and not giving up grade A chances, unlike Saturday night against Tampa where the Capitals literally hung on by their goaltender. Holtby was really good in this tilt, once again, but the Caps did a nice job of having their runs too. That was when they got the puck in deep on a weak Penguins defense and scored some in close tallies.

Oshie’s first goal to make it 3-1 with 11:10 remaining was as sweet of a wraparound tally as you’ll see all season and was the “killer instinct” type of marker that this team talks about getting in the third period. #77 was just superb in this one along with his center, Backstrom, and both had three points. Alex Ovechkin had five shots on goal and eight shot attempts playing with those two, but was held pointless, although that line was on the ice for three Caps goals (one a late PP marker) and just one against.

Carlson was a beast with eight shots on net in a team leading 24:51 of ice time. He and Nate Schmidt (20:10 of ice time and seven blocked shots) were strong on the backend. The dynamic duo of Matt Niskanen (24:13 TOI, +2) and Karl Alzner (23:00 TOI) blocked a combined nine shots, as well. As a team, the Capitals blocked 24 total shots as they forced Pittsburgh to the perimeter on many occasions, especially down the stretch and Holtby had some easy glove saves. There were certainly some instances where the Pens were able to get in close, mostly earlier in the game, but Holtby closed the door.

The Caps received excellent outings from some of their grinders, most notably Jay Beagle (1 assist and 4 hits in 18:16 of ice time) and Tom Wilson (drew a key late penalty and had eight hits in 17:57 of ice time). Both were +1 and did a super job of wearing out the Penguins, who seemed to fade a bit in the third period after the furious pace they set in the middle stanza.

At the other end, the Caps had their share of chances and it took some great shots to beat Marc Andre-Fleury (30 saves).

So the Caps get a big victory against a despised rival. This triumph comes at the end of a stretch of seven games, with six on the road, and they went 5-1-1 to improve their overall record to 21-6-2 (44 points). In the Metropolitan Division, they have a three point lead over the second place Islanders and a four point lead over the third place Rangers and have two games in hand over both squads. The Pens fall to 15-11-3 (33 points) and are 11 points back in fifth place (the Devils are in fourth).

Next up for the Caps are the very fast and skilled Ottawa Senators on Wednesday night at the Verizon Center. The Sens defeated the Los Angeles Kings, 5-3, on Monday to improve to 16-10-5 (37 points), which puts them in third place in the Atlantic Division.

Notes: Shot attempts were 79-52 for Pittsburgh, but the Caps had 24 blocks. The official stats had Washington with only five missed shot attempts, so I question the validity of some of the Capitals totals (home cooking?)…the Caps lost the face off battle, 41-35. Jay Beagle was 11-7 while Evgeny Kuznetsov, who only played 13:41, was 4-12…power plays were 4 to 2 in favor of the Caps, although the last two came in the closing minutes…the Caps had a goal by Justin Williams correctly waved off for incidental contact with the goalie…Dave Jackson and Trevor Hanson called a very good game. Jackson is the best referee in the league because he lets the skaters play and the players seem to always know what type of contest they’ll get with him. I wish the league had more zebras like him.

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