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Holts Game 2 VGK

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Holtby, Eller, and Orpik lead Caps to a Gritty Game 2 Win

Posted on 31 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Braden Holtby made 37 saves, including what was likely the greatest stop in Caps history on Alex Tuch with 1:59 remaining, to lead the Washington Capitals to a 3-2 victory in game two of the Stanley Cup Final. The triumph evens the series up at one as things move to Capital One Arena for games three and four on Saturday and Monday, respectively.

Things started slowly again for the Capitals as they struggled with the swarming speed and intensity of Vegas. James Neal grabbed a flipped puck out of the air at the Caps defensive blue line away from Dmitry Orlov, who failed to get the disc with his glove, as well as the man. Neal skated in and beat the Holtbeast far side 7:58 into this affair. The shot appeared to change direction slightly when Michal Kempny put his stick into the shooting lane.

At 14:39 of period one, it would get worse for Washington. Brayden McNabb put a hard and slightly high hit on Evgeny Kuzentsov in the neutral zone and with Kuzy putting his arms up to brace himself for the collision he went down on the ice holding his left arm. Per Capitals PR, he suffered an upper body injury and was questionable to return, but never did. Afterwards Caps Coach Barry Trotz had no update on the Russian’s status, but did take issue with the contact stating that the league would look at it for potential supplemental discipline.

At that point, given Vegas’ series and game lead, the Capitals looked to be in big trouble. But this resilient Washington team seemed to be galvanized by the Kuznetsov injury and immediately began playing much better.

Nearly three minutes later, in a four on four situation with T.J. Oshie and Deryk Engelland in the box for roughing, the Caps tied things up. Lars Eller (one goal, two assists) won an offensive zone draw and pushed the puck to Andre Burakovsky in the right wing corner. Burkie hit Kempny in the high slot forcing Marc Andre-Fleury to come out and challenge. Kempny spotted Eller at the far post and the man nicknamed “Tiger” buried the great pass for the equalizer.

In the second frame, the Capitals seemed to find their game. Tuch was jailed for cross checking John Carlson in front of the Caps net at 5:13 and just 25 seconds later the Capitals grabbed the lead. Nicklas Backstrom fed Eller on the goal line to Fleury’s left. Lars then threaded a super pass through Fleury to Alex Ovechkin on the back side. The Gr8 used his great hands to get off a quick shot that hit the back of the Vegas goaltender and into the cage.

Just over four minutes later, Washington took its first two goal lead of the series. Burakovsky fed Eller on the rush and #20 drove to the middle of the ice in the offensive zone. Lars then made a superb dish to his right to Brooks Orpik, who was jumping up in the play. Orpik fired on net and with Brett Connolly battling with Tuch in front of Fleury, the puck hit the Vegas forward and the left post before crossing the goal line. The Washington players went nuts given the goal scorer, who had a 220 game goalless drought end. In addition to the long drought, “Batya” is who Coach Trotz referred to as the most respected player on the team, so everyone was excited when he tallied in a such a big game.

Shortly thereafter Jakub Vrana hit the post, otherwise it would’ve been 4-1. Vegas then had a push for several minutes across the last two periods that was aided by four straight minor penalties on the Caps. On the second infraction, which was on Oshie for interference despite Colin Miller’s embellishment, Shea Theodore ripped a point shot through a maze of bodies to beat Holtby with 2:13 left in period two.

Heading into the last stanza the Caps were up 3-2 and they survived a 68 second Golden Knights five on three power play just under five minutes in. The Capitals penalty killing unit was outstanding creating what Coach Trotz called another galvanizing moment for his squad. Typically these events decide a hockey game one way or the other and it was the Caps who parlayed the key special teams situation into a one goal victory, but not before several close calls and big saves from the Holtbeast.

This was a massive win for the Capitals and they have a chance to take the series lead on home ice. The game two triumph was not pretty, but it was gutsy and gritty. Guys were selling out to block shots and diving to clear the disc from their own end throughout the last 14 minutes at even strength. Even the Captain was contributing in the defensive heroics and Coach Trotz mentioned when an elite goal scorer is doing it, everyone on the bench takes notice and follows suit.

After the slow start, nearly everyone had a good game starting with Holtby, who was dialed in. Matt Niskanen agreed that the team did a good job of simplifying their play on the mushy Vegas ice by getting multiple players to the loose pucks. Washington won a lot of little battles in this one and did a much better job with defensive zone coverage. It was a total team effort with one of their top players out due to injury.

As I’ve stated since this series started, Vegas is a hard working team and is not a fluke. If the Capitals want to win this series, they’ll need to bring the will they brought to game two each night going forward.

Notes: the Caps were 1 for 2 on the power play while Vegas went 1 for 5…the Golden Knights won the face-off battle, 38-27. Eller was 10-6. Jay Beagle said the Capitals will look at film to help make the necessary adjustments to win more draws…shot attempts were 69-44, for Vegas, but a lot of those came from the perimeter…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time at 27:13, including 5:25 of PK time…Orpik had six hits and two blocked shots in 19:13 of playing time. He was outstanding in this contest…Vrana played well using his speed to open up space. He had eight shot attempts, but only three on net. If he gets them on goal, he’ll take over the red light district…once Kuzy went out, Backstrom centered Ovi and Tom Wilson, Eller centered Oshie and Vrana, while Chandler Stephenson moved into the 3rd line pivot slot.

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VGK Finals

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Caps Will Face A Strong and Confident Vegas Squad in the Stanley Cup Final

Posted on 27 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

For the first time in 20 years the Washington Capitals will be playing in the Stanley Cup Final. The last time they managed to win three rounds, in 1998, they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings, who would win their second straight title with a loaded team. In those days, there wasn’t an NHL salary cap, so many of the bigger market franchises were able to stack their rosters up with talent by spending more money. Go back and take a look at that Red Wings roster, coached by the legendary Scotty Bowman, and you’ll see the names of many Hall of Fame players such as Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Larry Murphy.

In 2018, outspending other teams by wide margins is no longer the case with the salary cap in place along with last season’s NHL expansion draft. Former Capitals General Manager George McPhee, who knew he would be getting a good player from all 30 teams, did a marvelous job of assembling a roster that is big and fast. Not many picked the Vegas Golden Knights to make the playoffs, but they bonded together after the tragedy at the country music festival last October outside Mandalay Bay, rode goalie Marc Andre-Fleury to some early wins when they were outplayed, and then found a lot of confidence along the way en route to the Pacific Division title.

This Golden Knights squad is no fluke and their accomplishments should be celebrated, because they earned it defeating the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, and Winnipeg Jets in just 15 playoff games. Coach Gerard Gallant and his staff have done a masterful job of getting each player to buy in and play a north-south style of hockey with speed and size. Heading into the season, there were no star players on this roster, other than the three time Stanley Cup Champion goaltender, and each player arrived with a hunger to be a regular player and make a mark in this league. Boy did this squad stick to the script, turning a “Land of Misfit Toys” type group into the Western Conference Champions.

They have star players now, and it starts up front with their top line of William Karlsson (43 goals), Jonathan Marchessault (27 goals), and Riley Smith. Both Karlsson and Marchessault have had career years and moved into the star category this season. Those two have 14 of the 43 goals that Vegas has scored this post season and Smith also has added two tallies to go with his 14 assists. They are a formidable top line and the Capitals have to be careful not make mistakes against them because they will burn Washington with odd man rushes using their speed. The Caps need to continue to play a north-south style and avoid offensive zone blue line cross ice passes against the whole Golden Knights squad, but especially this top line. I look for Coach Barry Trotz to try and get Nicklas Backstrom’s line, with T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana and the Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen blue line duo out against the Marchessault trio, which averages right around 20 minutes a game in time on ice, as much as possible in this series.

Vegas’ second line at the end of the Winnipeg series was centered by the speedy Erik Haula and flanked by former Nashville Predator James Neal, and the big and superfast Alex Tuch. That trio has combined for 13 goals this post season. This line is downright scary in terms of speed and Tuch and Neal bring a lot of grit, too. They are great on the fore check and Neal is a supremely talented offensive player that knows how to go to the net. There are times, depending on the matchups, where Tuch gets moved to the third line and David Perron, who missed four playoff games due to injury, plays on the second unit. Either way, this is a line that you better not go to sleep on when they are on the ice.

Former Capital Cody Eakin and Ryan Carpenter are mainstays on the third line and complete the top nine for Vegas. Eakin is a very fast player, but is not big, while Carpenter, at six feet one, plays with size and is strong on the boards. It will be interesting to see if Gallant puts this line against the Caps top line of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Alex Ovechkin, and Tom Wilson or he tries to match the Neal-Haula-Tuch unit against Ovi and company.

Rounding out Vegas’ forwards are Pierre Edouard-Bellemare, Tomas Nosek, Ryan Reaves, and former Red Wing, Tomas Tatar. Tatar has had pass success against Washington, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him promoted back into the lineup versus the Caps. Bellemare, a former Flyer, is a prototypical fourth line player that is strong on the puck and does a great job of killing penalties. Reaves is a big force and a protector, so the key for the Caps is to not have Wilson get engaged with the big man who scored the game winner that put Vegas into the Stanley Cup Final. Will Carrier, who has been out injured and practiced on Sunday in a non-contact jersey, could be back in later in the series to provide physical play on the fourth line, as well. The Capitals need Willy on the ice in this series and not in the penalty box.

On the back end, the Golden Knights are led by former Caps defensemen, Nate Schmidt. Schmidty is a popular guy who skates extremely well and moves the puck out of his zone quickly. He also has a strong shot and leads Vegas in average ice time in the playoffs (24:53 per contest). Number 88 is often on the ice with former Los Angeles King Brayden McNabb (average of 22:02 per game in the playoffs). Their second defensive pair is the physical former Penguin and Flame, Deryk Engelland, and Shea Theodore. Engelland fits the Brooks Orpik mold for Vegas in that he’s physical and is a penalty killing specialist. The blue line is strong for the Western Conference Champions as evidenced by a third duo of Colin Miller and Luca Sbisa. Sbisa is a very good puck mover, while the six foot one Miller brings size and a big shot on the power play.

In net, the Capitals will try to defeat Fleury for the first time in the post season. Number 29 has given up lots of tallies to the Caps in the past, but when the chips are on the line, he’s 2-0 in game sevens allowing only two goals. He’s the single biggest reason that the 2016-17 Presidents’ Trophy Winning Washington Capitals squad lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pens in round two. Fleury has been on fire in goal as Vegas has rolled through these playoffs and he clearly has taken his performance to a new level under former Capitals goalie coach, Dave Prior.

On special teams, the Golden Knights are a super penalty killing team (82.5% in the post season) and can burn you with shorthanded goals, if you aren’t careful. Karlsson is especially dangerous there. On the power play (17.6%) they rely a lot on shots from the top of the point with net presence. Both Schmidt and Miller have cannons and guys like Neal and Smith are strong at tipping pucks or potting rebounds. You also have to really watch Marchessault and Karlsson because they can pass the puck and have been successful finding that cross box seam play that has hurt the Capitals this postseason. Washington’s penalty killing crew is only at 75.4% in this playoff run, so the Caps must be better there to have a chance to win this series.

Vegas comes into this series as the favorites given their success that has led to supreme confidence, home ice advantage (only lost once at T-Mobile Arena this spring), and the fact that they are healthier and more rested than the Caps, who have played four more games. As has been the case in the past two Capitals series, having the lead by the game’s midway point will be crucial to the winner of each contest as both teams have very good goalies and a strong defensive posture that makes coming back from a deficit very difficult.

The outcome could go either way and one thing is for sure, one of these franchises is going to win their first Stanley Cup!

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