April 28, 2015

OPINION: Caps advance past Islanders the Trotz way

It’s tempting to say that the Washington Capitals first round defeat of the New York Islanders exorcizes demons of previous failures. In all honesty, it would be hard to fault any Caps fan if they felt that way. The Caps entered play Monday night 2-7 in Game 7s and 1-4 in the Ovechkin Era. So if you want to believe in putting ghosts back in their place, who am I to judge?

For me, I remember the Easter Epic like it was yesterday. What happened at the Verizon Center on Monday night, no matter how joyous or exciting, can exorcize that indelible memory from the recesses of my cranky brain.

But it matters not. For the joy of this Game 7 win should be taken on its own merit. It doesn’t need to carry the weight of any past failures with it. These Capitals, the 2015 version, have earned the right to let their work stand on its own. Winning is better, of course. But these Caps have come a very long way from the futility that last year’s version displayed.

And funny, it’s with many of the same players who were criticized for allowing the team to miss the playoffs.

Sure, they bolstered the defensive corps. They brought in an experienced goalies coach. Shoot, they brought in an experienced head coach for the first time in franchise history. It worked. For all the years that the national (Canadian) media said the Caps didn’t or couldn’t play “playoff hockey”, well, guess what? Those same types are singing the praises of Barry Trotz and the return of “heavy hockey” to D.C.

You have to hand it to Trotz, a guy with a ton of experience but not much playoff success of his own. The Caps played this series for the long haul from the very beginning. He bet that if the Caps big, strong, tough forwards continued to pound on the smaller and quicker Islanders defensive corps, it would pay off in the long run.

It’s unfortunate that the strategy worked so well as to remove two of those smaller, more frail players from the series, but what are you gonna do? That’s playoff hockey.

And it should sound familiar. It’s what teams have been doing to the Capitals for the bulk of the Ovechkin Era.

But no more.

The Caps may or may not be able to get past the New York Rangers, a very familiar foe in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Rangers are big, fast, talented and strong, built very much like Trotz’ Caps. Obviously, they bring into the series one of the world’s elite goaltenders.

But the Caps will answer with a squad that’s big and tough in its own right, with a quality goalie of their own. And now, they also have the knowledge that they can win playing this way. Trotz’ way.

Washington Capitals Game 6 Recap: Isles force Game 7 with 3-1 win

The Washington Capitals traveled to Long Island with the hopes of avoiding a Game 7 in this series. With an all-time record of 2-7, and 1-4 in the Ovechkin Era in the seventh game of a series, you couldn’t blame them. But the New York Islanders had different plans.

The Islanders fairly owned play much of the contest, and a late third-period flurry by the Caps couldn’t erase the previous 50 minutes of offensive futility as John Tavares and the Islanders force Game 7 with a 3-1 win before an insane crowd at the soon-to-be abandoned Nassau Coliseum. [Read more…]

Washington Capitals Game 5 Review: Washington moves to brink of second round with 5-1 drubbing of Islanders

With an iron will and tenacity that no opponent could counter, the Washington Capitals strode onto the ice Thursday night with a grand opportunity. A good performance with a result to match would put them on the verge of their first Eastern Conference Semifinal appearance in three seasons.

Down a goal early, they weren’t fazed. Rising to the occasion, five unanswered goals, two from Evgeny Kuznetsov, lit a fire under the Verizon Center faithful and made for a 5-1 win over the New York Islanders in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series. [Read more…]

OPINION: Historic day in DC sports should be savored

The Washington Capitals and Washington Wizards (nor any previous combination of city and nickname) had never won a playoff game before on the same date. That is, until April 21, 2015. Add in a perfectly run-of-the-mill, ho-hum, boring, average 10th inning walk-off homer win by the Washington Nationals, and you’ve got yourself an historic day in the nation’s capital’s sports scene.

Obviously, the Caps and the Wizards are the big stories here. Both teams won road playoff games — the Caps evened their series with the New York Islanders at two games apiece, and the Wizards destroyed the Toronto Raptors to go up 2-0 in their series. The Nats walk-off, courtesy of a no-doubt homer by Yunel Escobar — punctuated by a head-first slide into the pigpile at home plate — was simply the cherry on top of the playoff sundae.

But all three victories are momentous in their own right.

Let’s start with the Caps, shall we? Nick Backstrom’s seeing-eye wrist shot from way downtown was a gift from the hockey gods. Even Backstrom will tell you he couldn’t have been trying to sneak that puck in the approximately four inches between Jaroslav Halak’s right shoulder and the crossbar. He was simply trying to get it on net, with the hopes that something good would happen, with Joel Ward camped in the crease and Alex Ovechkin lurking after the offensive zone faceoff win.

Something good, indeed, happened. Halak lost sight of the puck as it whizzed past Ward and Johnny Boychuk and it went right where Halak wasn’t. Goals like that often decide overtime games, and we saw it an hour later in the third overtime between Chicago and Nashville.

Make no mistake, out of the 14 periods the Caps and Islanders have played thus far in the four games of this series, the Caps have been soundly outplayed in 10 of them. Save for the final two periods in Game 2, the third in Game 3 and overtime Tuesday night, the Islanders have skated circles around the Caps. Yet, as a result of Backstrom’s wizardry (see what I did there?) and Braden Holtby’s superb play throughout, the Caps have regained home-ice and momentum heading into Game 5 Thursday. It’s a funny sport.

But how ’bout those Wizards?!? Losers of approximately 43 straight heading into the playoffs, they’ve come out like world-beaters  against a suddenly gagging Toronto squad, which after Tuesday’s loss have dropped their last four home playoff games. In Game 2, John Wall went for 26 and 17 and Bradley Beal dropped 28, and even Otto Porter added 15 as the Raptors had absolutely no answer for the Wizards’ guards.

The Wiz shot 53 percent from the floor and 47.6 from beyond the arc, and with Game 3 on Friday at Verizon Center, they’ve put themselves in a prime position to perhaps sweep the higher seed in the first round.

Then we come to the Nats, who pulled back to .500 with the 2-1 win over their new nemesis, the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals had won seven of the last nine from the Nats entering Tuesday’s game, and that doesn’t count the 2013 NLDS debacle. So how much does an extra inning walk-off win mean in the 12th game of the season? Especially coming after Drew Storen managed to blow another save against those very same Cardinals?

It’s huge. I’m not a huge believer in team psyche, but for some reason the Nats seem snake-bitten against the Cards. They’re just starting to get a little momentum, with the return of Jayson Werth and Denard Span to the lineup and the news that Anthony Rendon has begun playing simulated games in Florida in rehab of his left knee sprain, and could very well start a minor league rehab assignment as soon as Friday.

Had they lost to the Cards, especially in the manner and form it would have taken — with Storen the goat again — it would have cast yet another pall over the early season and reinforce all the bad “juju” that surrounds this team as far as the Cardinals go. If you believe in those things, just maybe Escobar’s homer exorcised some of those demons and will allow the Nats to perform against St. Louis much as they do against the rest of the National League.

Yeah, as far as April baseball games go, it was a big one.

So live it up today, all you DMV sports lovers. April 21, 2015 was about as good as it gets. It’s a reminder that while it may be 23 years since the city last had a champion, at least they’re still trying. Though disappointment may still be in store tomorrow, don’t let that diminish the accomplishments of yesterday.

Washington Capitals Game 4 Recap: Backstrom scores in overtime, Caps tie series with Islanders

In a hair-raising, heart-attack-inducing third period and overtime, the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders stayed nip-and-tuck, with a roaring Nassau Coliseum crowd not even using the seats they paid good money for, and with good reason.

Those rows of fans, however, were quick to exit stage right when Nicklas Backstrom spoke up and delivered what will likely go down as one of the more memorable overtime goals in recent Washington Capitals history, leading the Caps to a 2-1 win to even the series at two games apiece, with Game 5 coming up in Washington on Thursday.

[Read more…]

Washington Capitals Practice Update: Fehr out, Johansson iffy

Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz addressed the media Monday about the Caps’ newest injuries. Trotz announced forward Eric Fehr will be out at lest two games [ed. There are currently just two games scheduled] with an upper-body injury sustained in Sunday’s Game 3 when Islanders forward Kyle Okposo checked Fehr hard into the boards.

Trotz also said this injury is not related to the injury that forced Fehr out of three games at the end of the regular season.

Forward Marcus Johansson was limited in practice due to a lower-body injury, reportedly a cut o n his lower leg sustained after colliding with Cal Clutterbuck in Game 3. Johansson played through the injury Sunday but is iffy for Game 4.

The Caps have forwards Michael Latta and Andre Burakovsky in reserve. Latta seems to be the more logical fill-in for Fehr and the rookie Burakovsky could get the call should Johansson’s leg be deemed not fit for Game 4.

The Caps trail the Islanders 2-1 in the best-of-seven series.

Washington Capitals Game 3 Recap: Isles shock with quick OT winner

Outplayed most of the game, the Washington Capitals forced overtime in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup with the New York Islanders on a goal by Nick Backstrom in the latter stages of the third period. But Islanders captain John Tavares banged home a rebound just 15 seconds into overtime, lifting New York to a 2-1 win and 2-1 series lead before a raucous crowd at Nassau Coliseum.

The Isles won the draw in overtime and dumped the puck in on Braden Holtby. Holtby decided not to hold the puck, instead pushing it out to his right for John Carlson. Carlson flung the puck up along the wall, where Nick Leddy corralled it and sent it back into the slot. Nikolai Kulemin’s initial shot was stopped by Holtby, who flicked it toward the corner with his paddle.

But he didn’t get enough of it, and the puck went straight to Tavares. The Islanders’ captain calmly flipped it past Holtby’s short side on a sharp angle to give the Isles a one-game advantage in the series.

It ended a game that the home team dominated for the most part. As has been the case in every game of the series thus far, the Islanders got on the board first, the Capitals responded with some good play, but as with Game 1 ended up on the short end of the scoreboard.

New York broke through at 12:37 of the second period, when Kyle Okposo tipped in a shot from the point by Lubomir Visnosky. It stayed that way until about six minutes had run off the clock in the third.

Mike Green carried the puck along the left wing boards and behind the Islanders’ net. He eventually came back out the other side and left the puck for Backstrom at the half wall. Backstrom drifted to the high slot and whipped a shot through a maze of bodies, including Alex Ovechkin standing right in front of Jaroslav Halak (25 saves) to even the game and seemingly grab the momentum.

But the Caps responded by falling into a defensive lull, apparently happy to take the game to the extra session, where a decidedly unhappy result awaited.

Holtby, coming off an illness that kept him out of Game 2, was stellar in goal and had to be, as the Caps were widely outshot once again, with the Islanders generating 66 shot attempts (42 on goal) to the Caps’ 57 (just 25 on goal), including 11 shots on goal in the third period when the Caps played their best hockey.

So far in this series, the Capitals have shown their game only when facing a deficit. It’s a pattern that has achieved mixed results so far. Knowing the building would be rocking against them on Sunday, they came out flat once again and had the action taken to them, not responding until the third period when the odds seemed against them.

It’s a pattern that coach Barry Trotz should do whatever is possible in his coaching repertoire to avoid in Game 4, Tuesday at 7:30 again at the Nassau Coliseum. If the Caps come out of the gates playing like they did in the third period of Game 3 or the second and third of Game 2, the Islanders will have a hard time keeping up with them.

Thus far in this series, we’ve seen not nearly enough of it and the Caps find themselves behind the 8-ball.

CAPS NOTES:

  • Eric Fehr left the game in the second period after taking a hard, legal check from Cal Clutterbuck. With Fehr’s history of shoulder problems and his recent undisclosed upper body injury, it’s hard not to watch the replay and diagnose another shoulder injury. If the cant’ go in Game 4, it’ll be interested to see if Trotz goes with Michael Latta or tried to infuse some offense with Andre Burakovsky.
  • The Caps got just three shots on goal in the first period, indicative of their struggles to get going early in games in this series.
  • Washington was awarded three power plays and generated just three shots on goal.
  • Speaking to the closeness of the final score, both teams blocked 24 shots, the faceoffs were 30-29 in favor of the Caps, and the hits were 44-43 Isles.
  • Ovechkin, shadowed by Johnny Boychuk relentlessly in this series, had three shots on goal, another nine blocked and two misses. He was awarded three hits.

Washington Capitals Game 2 Recap: Caps score twice in third, shock Islanders

Down 3-1, and having given up a critical goal shortly after tallying their much-needed first, the Washington Capitals were in very dire straits and at risk of falling behind the New York Islanders two games to none in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Spurred on by their fans as well as improved puck control, they ensured that talk of a potential sweep would be just that – talk.

A spirited final 30 minutes of hockey, in which Washington scored three unanswered goals in a space of 11 minutes and 28 seconds (spanning two periods), lifted Washington to a 4-3 win in Game 2 of their best-of-seven series against the Islanders in front of a raucous crowd Friday night at Verizon Center.

[Read more…]

Washington Capitals Morning Skate Update & Audio for April 17, 2015: Philipp Grubauer, Justin Peters and Barry Trotz

Arlington, Va. – No shortage of news at Kettler Capitals Iceplex this morning, with the Washington Capitals set to take on the New York Islanders in the second game of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Caps goalie Braden Holtby did not take the ice, with precautionary measures in place for someone who’s been a key cog for Washington so far this season.

[Read more…]

Washington Capitals Game 1 Recap: Islanders completely overwhelm Caps

The Washington Capitals had not faced the New York Islanders in a Stanley Cup playoff game since the end of the 1992-93 season, a 4-2 Islanders series win, which included Dale Hunter running the Islanders Pierre Turgeon into the boards, resulting in a 21-game suspension the next season.

And no recollection of playoff series with the Isles could be complete without the still-stinging memory of Pat Lafontaine’s Game 7, four-overtime game winner, the “Easter Epic” of April 18-19, 1987 in the longest Game 7 in NHL history.

With those thoughts in mind, then, this version of the Capitals took to the ice in Game 1 against the current Islanders, and it’s as if nothing changed. The Caps were thoroughly outskated, outplayed and outclassed, falling to the Isles 4-1, losing whatever home-ice advantage they might have had.

The Islanders struck first, just 6:06 into the contest, when Brock Nelson stunned Braden Holtby with a wrist shot from the top of the right wing circle after a neutral zone turnover by Troy Brouwer. Nelson made a nice shot, but Holtby never moved his feet and was beaten badly.

 The Caps were overwhelmingly outplayed the entirety of the first period, but sometimes it only takes one shot. As P.A. announcer Wes Johnson announced “one minute remaining in the period,” the Islanders turned it over in their own zone and Brooks Laich tapped it to Marcus Johansson alone in the slot, who whipped it past Jaroslav Halak to tie it up after one.

All things considered, the Caps were fortunate to get out of the frame tied.

It didn’t last long. At the start of the second period, after a lengthy delay for a broken pane of glass behind Holtby, Michael Latta lost a defensive zone draw and Ryan Strome collected the puck and, using the faceoff men as a screen, beat Holtby high shortside for a 2-1 Isles lead.

It became 3-1 at 9:24 of the period. A horrendous defensive shift ended up with Kyle Okposo drawing a pair of defenders, and the puck and landed at the feet of Josh Bailey on the far post, undefended. Holtby made the first save, but Bailey got two more whacks at it and it eventually trickled under Holtby and just over the goal line. After review, the goal stood.

 The Caps started to generate some good scoring chances in the latter part of the second period, but Jason Chimera was assessed a roughing penalty as time ran out of the frame, putting the Caps behind the eight-ball to start the third.

They killed that penalty after a nervous two minutes, and played with a  bit more energy in the final 18 minutes, but to the same effect. The play on the ice also affected the Verizon Center faithful, and in the last four minutes of the game, loud “Let’s Go Islanders” chants could be heard raining down to the playing surface from the upper deck.

Brock Nelson added an empty net goal with just over a minute to play as the Caps couldn’t get back to touch up an icing.

The Caps have little time to stew on this one, as they face the Islanders again Friday night at 7:00 in Game 2. A different Caps team than the one that played Wednesday night will have to show for that one, or this could turn out to be a very short series.

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