July 29, 2014

Washington Capitals Game 77 Recap: Capitals lose hard to Devils, 2-1

A lackluster showing during their homestand and on the road against the Nashville Predators left the Washington Capitals even more desperate for points and the postseason. They knew heading into Friday’s game against the New Jersey Devils that they simply had to win – no other result would be acceptable. The Caps watched their hopes slip away with a hard-fought 2-1 regulation loss to the Devils.

After Adam Oates’ uncharacteristic indictment of Alex Ovechkin “quitting” on a play that led to a Nashville goal, it was clear everyone was feeling the pressure. Ovechkin cut the tension a bit by scoring the game’s first goal, his 27th even strength goal, and 49th of the season.

Oates blew up the Jay Beagle experiment after six games (probably six games too long) and reunited Ovechkin with Nicklas Backstrom, and a now healthy Mikhail Grabovski. It took Ovechkin about 10 minutes of being separated from Beagle to score an ES goal, where the Caps have struggled much of this season.

The Capitals let off the gas in the second period, and allowed the Devils back in the game. They only managed seven shots during the period, while the Devils doubled up on that.

Cory Schneider handily stopped a Capitals chance at one end, and the Devils took it back and scored. The goal was officially credited to Tuomo Ruutu. Schneider was brilliant in net for the Devils, allowing them to remain spotless on the penalty kill all night.

Jaroslav Halak was equally as capable for the Capitals, keeping them clean despite five Devils power plays, and facing 31 shots.

The third period remained knotted at 1-1, until Ryan Carter took advantage of a bad defensive break by the Capitals and beat Halak for the go-ahead goal.

With the Capitals loss, New Jersey has now jumped ahead of Washington in the Metropolitan Division and the playoff race.

They face the New York Islanders on Saturday, and continue the road trip to St. Louis on Tuesday, and Carolina on Thursday. Barring huge failures by Columbus, New Jersey, and Toronto, if the Capitals can’t pull together points, they may miss the postseason for the first time since 2006.

Washington Capitals Game 75 Recap: Playoff hopes dwindling, another shootout loss

If the Washington Capitals are desperate to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs, they aren’t showing it.

They finished the month of March 6-5-4 as they fell to the Nashville Predators, playing out the string, 4-3 in a shootout.

The Caps didn’t have the opportunity to spoil another two-goal lead in this one, though they did hold the lead first as Troy Brouwer converted a nice tic-tac-toe play just 4:17 into the match. Pretty passes were provided by Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom.

But Nashville needed just 1:38 to tie it back up. The Preds won an offensive zone faceoff and Shea Weber fired on Jaroslav Halak. The big rebound came right to Patric Hornqvist. who elude the check of Patrick Wey and scored easily.

Hornqvist made it 2-1 with 1:30 left in the frame. A bad John Carlson pass at his own blue line skipped off Backstrom’s skate and right to Hornqvist, who walked in alone and deked Halak cleanly and efficiently.

Brouwer evened things up at 14:22 of the second with a power play goal, his overall 23rd of the year, setting a new personal high. The backhander from the slot came after collecting a pass meant for Alex Ovechkin on the far side from Marcus Johansson, but bounced off a Predators d-man and right to Brouwer.

Weber scored his 21st of the season off a rush at 8:23 of the third. He took a perfectly placed drop pass from Mike Fisher and, with no Capitals forward back-checking, slammed a rocket past Halak from the top of the right wing circle.

Backstrom forced overtime with a wicked wrist shot with Calle Jarnkrok in the box for slashing Jay Beagle — Beagle’s only offensive contribution of the night.

Dmitry Orlov rang a shot off the post in overtime, but could not convert. That led to penalty shots and Craig Smith scored for Nashville while Evgeny Kuznetsov, Mikhail Grabovski (in his first game back after missing 19 games) and Backstrom were all unsuccessful.

Washington now sits one point out of the playoffs behind Columbus in the Eastern Conference, though the Jackets still have a game in hand. The Caps are back on the ice Tuesday when they host the Dallas Stars.

Washington Capitals Game 73 Recap: Capitals fall 5-4 to Kings in shootout; Kuznetsov scores first career goal

After a surprisingly successful west coast swing, the Washington Capitals faced the Los Angeles Kings for the second time in a week, this time on home turf. After running off with a lead to start the game, the Capitals couldn’t hold the Kings comeback, and lost 5-4 in the shootout.

The Capitals got off to a great start (on the power play, as it were). Alex Ovechkin scored his 47th goal of the season, assisted by John Carlson and Troy Brouwer.

Less than five minutes later, Ovechkin scored on a power play again, his 48th goal of the season assisted by Brouwer and Nicklas Backstrom.

While the first period was all Capitals, the second period belonged to the Kings, who spent much quality time in the Caps zone, and had something to show for it. Mike Richards scored on the power play, and the Kings continued to chip at the Caps lead.

In the meantime, Chris Brown, Troy Brouwer, and Nicklas Backstrom each had their turn going down the tunnel for various ailments. Brown and Brouwer returned to the game, but Backstrom did not. Capitals coach Adam Oates told reporters post game that Backstrom is not undergoing concussion protocol, and called it an “upper body injury”.

Dustin Penner scored his first goal as a Capital late in the second, assisted by Brown, who’d just returned to the bench. The assist marked Brown’s first NHL point. The momentum didn’t carry to the third period the way the Capitals would have liked.

The Kings scored three unanswered goals to take a 4-3 lead halfway through the third period.

John Carlson took a hooking penalty with a minute left in regulation, but the Capitals iced a penalty kill that Karl Alzner called “desperate”. So desperate, in fact, that it led to Russian youth Evgeny Kuznetsov’s first career goal, a shorthanded tally that sent the game to overtime.

Alex Ovechkin scrambled to the goal line to retrieve the puck for Kuznetsov, and the crowd began throwing hats, because they thought he was the one who scored.

“It was a big goal that actually got us a point,” coach Adam Oates said. “Shorthanded. It was a good play. We won a draw, Orly [Dmitry Orlov] makes a nice run up the ice, which gives us a chance to get the goalie out. We dumped it in, and then I’m sure they relaxed just enough; it’s a weird situation. Sometimes those goals go in. It was a big goal for him and us; it gets us a point.”

The Capitals fell in the shootout, but got a little help from the Toronto Maple Leafs, who fell 5-3 in regulation to the St. Louis Blues.

Ovechkin collided with Jack Hillen in the neutral zone during overtime, which appeared to render Hillen unconscious. Hillen was able to stand and leave the ice, and Ovechkin returned to play despite looking a little shaken up after the hit.

Two points were what they needed, but they had to settle for one. There’s still work to be done if they want to make the playoffs, and their next obstacle is the Boston Bruins on Saturday. Maybe the Leafs will help the Capitals out a little more in the meantime.

Washington Capitals Game 69 Recap: Capitals edge Leafs, 4-2

After a dominating first period, the WashCapitals led on the scoreboard and in shots on goal, but allowed the Toronto Maple Leafs to creep back into the game in the second period, but held them off in the third period for a 4-2 win.

Troy Brouwer scored his 19th goal of the season on the Capitals’ first power play of the game for the early lead. It was assisted by Swedes Marcus Johansson and Nicklas Backstrom. Johansson played the puck from behind the net to a wide-open Brouwer in the slot.

The lone even strength goal scored by the Capitals in the first period was Jason Chimera’s 13th of the season, which deflected off his skate and in. Joel Ward took the initial shot, and thought the goal was his, which would have been his 20th of the season.

Ward got his 20th goal, a career-high, for real this time, on the Capitals’ second power play. Dustin Penner parked himself in front of James Reimer in the crease, and dexterously slid a no-look pass in Ward’s direction. Ward put a wrister behind Reimer, and the Caps were comfortably in the lead at 3-0 with most of the first period behind them.

Late in the first, despite the Leafs only managing two shots on goal the entire period, Troy Bodie nicked Jaroslav Halak for a goal, ending the period down 3-1.

Shades of the second-period collapse against the Canucks on Friday evening began to appear again in the second period against the Leafs. The Capitals were outshot 20-6 in the period, and the Leafs scored their second unanswered goal, edging the Caps’ two-goal cushion to 3-2.

With the seconds waning in the third period and Reimer pulled, Troy Brouwer banked a shot from the defensive zone off the boards towards the Leafs’ empty net. Nick Backstrom had the presence of mind to follow the puck all the way down without touching it, to ensure that Brouwer would get his second goal of the game and 20th goal of the season. It was his third multi-goal game this season.

Karl Alzner gushed to reporters after the game about Backstrom’s selfless play. “He’s one of the best players in the world.”

The Capitals will now head to California on what is their toughest road trip of the season. No teams have come away from a west coast swing with three wins, and the Capitals know they need to bring home at least four points to have a chance to make the postseason.

“You’ve got to win them all,” said Adam Oates in his postgame presser. ”We haven’t played L.A. yet, but we played Anaheim here. We could’ve won the game, and San Jose same thing. I know they’re better than us in the standings, but you’ve got to have the attitude you’re going to beat them.”

 

Washington Capitals Game 66 Recap: Caps fall behind, then fall to Pens 3-2

“It very tough because the guys played a good game. Probably one of the better games we’ve played against that team. To come out on the short end of the stick is difficult. We did a lot of good things in the game.” Adam Oates

Every game that slips off the schedule is one less opportunity for the Washington Capitals to increase their chances to qualify for the playoffs. There are no moral victories at this point in the season, especially for a team on the outside looking in. On Monday, in front of a divided house at Verizon Center, the Caps lost another one of those opportunities, as they fell behind the Pittsburgh Penguins early and eventually lost 3-2.

The Capitals are 0-6-0 against Pittsburgh under head coach Adam Oates.

It’s the Caps fourth loss in their last five games after four straight wins. With 16 games remaining on the schedule — staring at a game in Pittsburgh then a three-game west coast road trip — they are quickly running out of time.

Chris Kunitz scored twice for the Pens — their first and last goals of the evening — sandwiched around a Sidney Crosby goal. Crosby assisted on both of Kunitz’ goals and pretty much had his way with the Caps every time he stepped on the ice. The Penguins were able to take advantage of multiple defensive breakdowns by the Caps, despite being outshot 33-20.

Perhaps when Caps GM George McPhee made his comments about the Caps defensive systems allowing shots from the perimeter, the Penguins didn’t get the memo.

Eric Fehr and Nick Backstrom scored for the Caps. Backstrom’s goal tied the game at two early in the second period as the Caps unleashed a barrage of shots against backup goalie Jeff Zatkoff (31 saves).

But not three minutes later, Kunitz responded with his second of the game, his 31st of the season.

For the Caps, the loss is doubly frustrating as they probably played their best game in three weeks in terms of puck possession, but in the end, the Penguins were simply the better team.

“It’s a little frustrating to really have dominant time of possession and be playing well then find yourself down 3-2 and not being able to recover,” Fehr said. “We had a lot of good chances at the end, and it’s really unfortunate. I thought we threw everything at them, and we were good in the offensive zone. We created chances; we just couldn’t put that last one in.”

The Capitals are currently one point behind both Columbus and Detroit for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs and face the daunting prospect of playing in Pittsburgh Tuesday night. With games just falling off the calendar at this point, the Caps can’t afford any more moral victories. Only the ones in the standings matter anymore.

CAPS NOTES: Evgeny Kuznetsov made his long-awaited NHL debut Monday night. Kuznetsov started on the fourth line with Jay Beagle and fellow rookie Tom Wilson, but also took shifts on the first line with Alex Ovechkin and Backstrom, and also got some power play time in as well. Kuznetsov, donning sweater No. 92, played 10:22 in total, with 1:10 of power play time. He has two shots on goal and was credited with a blocked shot.

“I was a little bit worried the first time I stepped on the ice, but with each shift I got better and better,” Kuznetsov said of his performance. “I understood what I needed to do and how I needed to play…This is my first game, but a lot of players have told me that it’s just like the Russian rivalries. [They are] just like that ones we have in Russia, so I know what it’s like.”

Ovechkin, Backstrom and…? Who should be on the top line?

Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin are two of the best offensive talents in the NHL, but there’s a problem: forward lines usually have three players. The question of who that third player should be for the Caps’ top line has haunted them all season long and they still don’t have an answer for it.

One of the reasons a top six forward remains a major need for this team is because they don’t even know who their top three is. Whether carrying the passive Marcus Johansson, trying to find a role for Martin Erat or hoping Brooks Laich can start living up to his contract, head coach Adam Oates has done just about everything he can think of to try and find the right mix for his top line.

With the Caps entering the final quarter of the season and still struggling to earn a playoff spot, inconsistency on the top line is not something this team needs. The perfect fit probably isn’t on this roster right now, but it’s time to make a decision and stick with it.

Given Oates’ insistence on playing left-handed players on the left side, that limits the choices to Jason Chimera, Aaron Volpatti, Marcus Johansson, Martin Erat and Brooks Laich.

Finding a top line winger means that player has to have the talent to match those kinds of minutes. With all due respect to Chimera and Volpatti, neither of them are top six forwards.

That leaves Johansson, Erat and Laich.

Finding a cohesive line, however, is about more than just talent. It is also finding the right mix of players and that’s where this gets tricky.

Those who worship the gods of statistics will say that Johansson is the obvious choice. So far this season, he has 38 points while Erat has 24 and Laich has 12.

Those numbers are inflated, however, since Johansson has had more opportunities. He started the season on the top line and is averaging 17:31 per game. That is more than Erat’s 14:44. Laich has a comparable 17:16 per game, but he is getting significant time on the penalty kill. Those kind of minutes won’t do much of your offensive stats.

Johansson has also played in more games (61) than either Erat (53) or Laich (47). The bottom line is that Johansson should have better numbers because he has played more and his ice time isn’t coming on penalty kills.

Johansson appears to be a good fit for the top line, given his style of play. He is a skilled winger whose speed forces defenses to account for him.

When you have Backstrom and Ovechkin on the ice and opposing teams still have to account for the third player on the line, good things will happen, or at least they should.

Johansson’s problem this season has been deferring completely to his superstar linemates. You can’t blame him for playing this way; those are two guys who should have the puck on their sticks as much as possible, but he becomes so passive in his play that it completely negates his role on the line.

He’s not supposed to be a third wheel.

When Oates switches the lineup and Johansson plays with the second or third line, he looks like a different player. He shoots, gets in front of the net and uses his speed to create opportunities. Yes, he is getting a lot of assists, but anyone could rack up points on a line with Backstrom and Ovechkin. Even Chris Clark scored 30 goals with Ovechkin on the top line.

In an ideal lineup, would he be a top line winger? No, he’s better suited for second or third line minutes, but few teams have three offensive superstars. Given the Caps’ roster, he is the guy who makes the most sense; the Caps just don’t have time to wait for him to become assertive.

What about Erat? No, stop laughing, I’m serious. People forget that Erat was a top six forward in Nashville. He’s a good player who never fit in with Oates’ plans for the team and his play and playing time have suffered because of it. That doesn’t mean that he’s not a top six guy.

Erat’s best season came in 2011-12 when he scored 19 goals and 39 assists for 58 points. That’s not bad. To compare, Troy Brouwer, who many Caps fans have mistaken for an offensive dynamo after his great 2013 season, has never recorded more than 40 points in a single year. Erat has seven times.

His style of play, however, does not lend itself well to the top line. Though not as skilled as Backstrom, their style of play is similar. They both use their offensive instincts to create plays and are more adept at feeding the puck to other playmakers than they are to scoring themselves.

These ‘quarterbacks,’ so to speak, are best spread out among the lines rather than placed together. While both players are capable of scoring, they make their living setting up someone else. Much like we saw with Johansson, if Ovechkin is the only guy scoring on a line, he’s the only guy defenses will worry about.

Essentially, having two quarterbacks never seems to work. Just ask the Redskins.

There’s also the possibility, though slim, that Erat may be on a different team come the trade deadline. It’s hard to build your top line along a player who may or may not be here in a few days.

Who does that leave? Surely the answer can’t be Laich who has only 12 points this season? He’s more likely to change a stranger’s tire than he is to record a point!

In an ideal lineup, Laich is a third line center, but again, no NHL team is working with an ideal lineup.

Laich brings something different to that top line. He’s a grinding, two-way winger. No, he’s not a sniper who’s going to light up the scoreboard, but he is someone who can forecheck, crowd the crease, and get those ‘garbage goals.’ He’s also a defensively responsible player which can help make up for Ovechkin’s…er, lack of.

Laich is also not afraid to shoot when he gets the chance. In a two-on-one with Ovechkin against the Panthers on Thursday, Laich rifled a one-timer past Tim Thomas. Laich didn’t immediately look for the pass back to Ovechkin, he fired the shot because Thomas was out of position. Would Johansson or Erat have taken that one-timer? I’m not so sure.

This is not a perfect fit for that the top line. It would be hard to play them as often as Oates may want since Laich is one of the team’s top penalty killers. He also is not as offensively skilled as either Johansson or Erat. Though he looked great Thursday recording a goal and two assists, he has not scored a point in either of the Caps’ two games since.

And let’s not forget the injury concerns. Laich has been dogged both this season and last season with a recurring groin injury. Could top line minutes cause this injury to flare up yet again?

Playing Laich on the top line is not ideal and this is something the Caps will need to address in the offseason. As a quick fix, however, with the team needing some cohesion for the stretch run, he might not be a bad option.

Washington Capitals Game 60 Recap: Capitals scrape by Panthers, 5-4

After a two week hiatus, the Washington Capitals got back in action against the Florida Panthers in Sunrise, Florida. They managed to squeak out a 5-4 win after losing a two goal lead twice throughout the game.

The Capitals got off to a strong start. They scored two quick goals, Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich respectively, and managed to hang on to a one-goal lead at first intermission.

Mikhail Grabovski, sidelined with an ankle injury for several weeks prior to the Olympic break, went down awkwardly in the first period, and appeared to reinjure his ankle. He did not return to the game.

Playing a team with the worst power play percentage in the league certainly worked to the Capitals’ advantage tonight. The Panthers had 6 power plays, and the Capitals were perfect on the penalty kill. Braden Holtby was obviously a big part of this, and made 30 saves on 34 goals against the Panthers.

The Capitals were also perfect on their own two power plays, with both goals scored by Troy Brouwer.

Alex Ovechkin scored the game winning goal, had two assists and was among two other Capitals with three-point nights, Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich both had a goal and two assists apiece.

This game looked as if it was all Capitals for a while, but the Panthers snuck back into the game twice, scoring two quick succession goals to tie the game 4-4 with 10 minutes left in the game.

The Panthers were a lowly opponent the Capitals should have been able to put away easily, but instead blew several leads and allowed them to creep back into the game. If the Capitals do end up in the playoffs, they aren’t going to be able to get away with these types of games against better teams. Their fortitude will certainly be tested during their upcoming schedule.

 

 

Capitals face uphill battle to playoffs

Alex Ovechkin during warmups at Verizon Center, May 2 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

(Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

With the end of the Olympic tournament, the attention of the hockey world will shift back to the NHL and the final quarter of the regular season. One point out of the final playoff spot, the Caps face an uphill climb to reach the postseason for the seventh consecutive season.

In the last full NHL season, it took 92 points to make the playoffs. The playoff format has changed since then, but with the same number of teams qualifying his will be about the number of points teams will need to earn the last spot.

The Caps currently have 63 points with 24 games remaining on their schedule. As they currently own no tiebreakers, the team will likely need at least 30 points in those last 24 games. That would be a record slightly above .500. Doesn’t sound too hard, right?

Well, it does when you look at the schedule. [Read more...]

Still want the NHL players in the Olympics?

Henrik Zetterberg — done for the season with back surgery.

John Tavares — done for the season with knee surgery.

Alex Ovechkin — humiliated by his own national team’s coach while his father was, unknowing to Ovechkin, recovering from open heart surgery.

U.S. Men’s Team — embarrassed themselves with pathetic effort in the bronze medal game.

Now this: Nicklas Backstrom — druggie?

It’s not that extreme, but it is serious. Mild-mannered Nicklas Backstrom was suspended from Team Sweden two hours before Sunday’s gold medal final against Team Canada, which Sweden then lost 3-0. He tested for elevated levels of pseudoephedrine, a controlled substance by the IOC and the World Anti-Doping Federation. There’s a distinction here between “banned”, which you might see in a lot of lazy headlines about the incident, and “controlled”.

Pseudoephedrine is the active ingredient in many cold and allergy medicines. Backstrom takes Zyrtec-D for his allergies, and has for many years. In fact, he was taking the product during the 2010 Vancouver games. According to the IOC, pseudoephedrine is prohibited when its concentration in an athletes’ urine is greater than 150 micrograms per milliliter. According to reports, Backstrom’s level was 190.

This could have been caused by many things. Doping is one of them. Pseudoephedrine is a stimulant and can increase alertness or awareness. Abuse of the drug is similar to using AHDH medications, a common practice among athletes. However, the level of pseudoephedrine in Backstrom’s system doesn’t really indicate that to be the case.

More realistically, Backstrom took two pills instead of one and was then tested quickly thereafter.

A somber Backstrom faced the media in Sochi.

“I have nothing to hide. I’m going to speak from the heart. The last two weeks have been some of the best in my life. I was getting ready to play the biggest game of my career and two-and-a-half hours before I was pulled aside. That’s sad.”

Caps coach Adam Oates addressed Backstrom’s suspension from the Olympics after practice Sunday, which will not affect his status once the NHL resumes next week.

“It’s a blunder. It’s an innocent blunder. It’s still a blunder,” Oates said. “When we have mistakes in our league,  that summer the [general managers] all meet and they try and fix it for the next  time. To me this seems like one that the IOC will have to try to address for the next time because it’s not fair to the  athletes. It’s not. To me it’s not fair to him.”

As if league owners needed one more excuse to prohibit NHLers from playing in further Olympics.

There were several league owners who spoke on the record before the games about not wanting their players in the Olympics — Flyers owner Ed Snider was particularly loquacious about it. For the owners, this is all about the money. They gain very little other than goodwill by allowing the league to shut down for two weeks every four years to allow their players (property) to go gallivanting off around the globe risking their health to represent their country in international play.

For the players, they obviously still see it as an honor. In most countries, Olympic gold is the highest honor in sport, hockey included. But adding insult (Backstrom, the U.S. embarrassment) to injury (Zetterberg, Tavares), is it worth allowing the best the NHL has to offer to risk season-ending and career-threatening injury for a cause not relevant to the league?

The NHL receives no compensation for allowing their players to go on holiday. They certainly receive no compensation or remuneration to make up for the injured players that return. Season ticket holders receive no rebate for their team’s weakened condition. There’s no way to go back and reverse the ill will bred by the pathetic effort the U.S. men’s team exhibited in the bronze medal game. There’s no way to placate Backstrom’s disappointment being ripped from his team’s dressing room mere hours before the game, when the IOC had been sitting on the test results for several days.

There’s no way Ovechkin can go back and be at his father’s side as he receives heart surgery, unaware of the situation until Team Russia was eliminated from the competition.

If the NHL wants to adopt a league-sanctioned international competition outside the regular season, where the players will have access to team and league doctors, and play under league rules, and are covered by league insurance, that’s one thing. And I’m sure if Gary Bettman thinks he can make money off of it and get the owners off his backs, he’s already exploring the idea.

The play would be better too. Under league control, the teams would have time to practice together to become cohesive teams, not just a bunch of supremely talented players thrown together and two days later put on the ice in the worldwide spotlight. No one can say the play on the ice this Olympics — as with any the NHL players have been involved with — wasn’t ragged for most of the time.

At this point, the league would be better off prohibiting their players from playing in the Olympics. It’s just not worth it for anyone involved.

Ovechkin, Carlson both score in easy wins for Russia and U.S.

Alex Ovechkin scored on his first shift of the 2014 Winter Olympics, while John Carlson started Team U.S.A.’s scoring frenzy as both Russian and the U.S. won their first game of the round-robin section of the tournament.

Ovechkin’s blast from the left wing started the scoring for Team Russia as they knocked off Slovenia 5-2. The Great 8 added an assist later on.

Carlson took a drop pass from Phil Kessel on a break and fired a rocket past Jaroslav Halak as Team U.S.A. cruised past Slovakia 7-1.

Nick Backstrom had an assist on Erik Karlsson’s second goal in Team Sweden’s 4-2 victory over Czech Republic, while Marcus Johansson was a healthy scratch. Martin Erat did not record a point in the contest.

 

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