October 7, 2015

Looking at Caps’ possible playoff matchups

As the Washington Capitals inch closer to a playoff berth, it’s time to start looking ahead at possible playoff matchups.

Though the Caps have only five games left on their schedule, there are still a handful of teams they can meet in the first round. Here’s a look at all the teams the Caps could face and how they match up against them.

New York Rangers

Caps record against them this season: 1-2-0 with one game remaining

How they could meet in the playoffs: The Rangers win the Metropolitan division and the Caps finish in a wild card spot. The standings would then dictate which division winner would play which wild card team.

Why they can beat the Caps: The Rangers made it to the Stanley Cup Finals last season and are even better this year ranking in the top three in the NHL in both goals scored and goals allowed per game. They are incredibly fast and incredibly deep. When Keith Yandle is on your third defensive pair, you do not have many holes on your roster. While the Caps boast the league’s leading goal-scorer in Alex Ovechkin, the Rangers boast the second leading scorer in Rick Nash.

Why the Caps can beat them: Henrik Lundqvist has only played once since Feb. 2 and has only a few games to get back into form. Even though Cam Talbot has played well in relief, there is no question who the team’s top netminder is. If he’s not back to form by the start of the playoffs, that’s a major blow.

Chances the Caps win the series: Slim. Not only are the Rangers the best team in the Eastern Conference, but they are also the worst matchup for the Caps. The Caps have no answer for the Rangers’ speed and the defensive pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi have been a nightmare for Ovechkin in the past. With secondary scoring a major weakness for the Caps, it’s hard to figure out just how the Caps will score against Lundqvist and a defensive pair capable of shutting down Ovechkin. If you think Sunday’s win over the Rangers was a hopeful sign, keep in mind that the Caps were dominated by the Rangers in their first two meetings this season and for the first two periods on Sunday. The Rangers could have easily blown that game wide open, but missed several open opportunities in which they had Holtby beat. In a best of seven series, the Caps’ effort on Sunday would not be good enough to win four of those seven games.

New York Islanders

Caps record against them this season: 2-0-2

How they could meet in the playoffs: The Caps finish second or third in the division and the Penguins fall to a wild card spot.

Why they can beat the Caps: John Tavares is quickly becoming one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league helping the Islanders score the fourth most 5-on-5 goals this season. For all their current struggles, at one time the Islanders were far and away the best team in the Metropolitan Division. Jaroslav Halak in net is a wild card. He has been good not great this season, but every Caps fan knows how good he is capable of being in the playoffs. He carried a worse Montreal team all the way to the conference finals in 2010, he could certainly help this Islanders team go just as far.

Why the Caps can beat them: The Islanders have been reeling with seven losses in their last nine games. They are also relatively inexperienced and rank 21st in the NHL in goals against per game.

Chances the Caps win the series: High. It is always good for a team to get hot at the right time, but the Islanders have been fading down the stretch. They have gone from being the division leader to a tie with Pittsburgh for second place and trailing the Rangers by a wide margin. This will not be a confident group going into the postseason.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Caps record against them this season: 3-1-0

How they could meet in the playoffs: The Caps finish second or third in the division and the Islanders fall to a wild card spot.

Why they can beat the Caps: The Caps may have won the first three meetings this season, but the Penguins finally seemed to figure things out in their final matchup with a 4-3 win that was not as close as the score indicates. After failing to get any traffic at all in front of Braden Holtby, the Penguins were all over the Caps netminder and the crease. It certainly looked as if they had found the formula for beating the Caps in that fourth game.

Why the Caps can beat them: The Caps have dominated the season series, winning three of their four games in commanding fashion. In their first three games, the Caps beat the Penguins by a score of 10-1. The Penguins just cannot stay healthy this season. They got back Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist on Saturday just to lose Kris Letang to a concussion.

Chances the Caps win the series: 50/50. Two of the Caps best games this season were their first two wins against Pittsburgh in which they completely dominated. It’s hard to have much faith in Marc-Andre Fleury who is rapidly becoming Jose Theodore — great in the regular season, lousy in the playoffs. Secondary scoring won’t be an issue if Ovechkin scores at the rate he has against Pittsburgh so far this year with four goals and one assist in four games. The Penguins don’t have the defense to shut him down. Having said all of that, it’s the Penguins and they always seem to find a way to beat the Caps in the playoffs. Pittsburgh played poorly in their first three games against the Caps and they know it. When they finally get pressure on the net, they came out on top. Their gameplan would be to drive the crease hard and play physically against Holtby. That should scare Caps fans considering backup goaltending is a weakness. That’s not to say that the Penguins would intentionally try to hurt Holtby, but they certainly would not let him leave this series without a few bumps and bruises.

Montreal Canadiens

Caps record against them this season: 0-0-2

How they could meet in the playoffs: Montreal wins the Atlantic Division, Caps earn a wild card spot. The standings would then dictate which division winner plays which wild card team.

Why they can beat the Caps: Two words, Carey Price. The likely league MVP has been unreal this year and leads the NHL in GAA (1.88) and save percentage (.937) among goalies with at least 20 starts this season. Those are some crazy numbers.

Why the Caps can beat them: Take away Price and Montreal is actually a pretty mediocre team. Led by Max Pacioretty, the Canadiens are 23rd in the NHL in goals per game. With all due respect to Pacioretty, Montreal lacks an offensive superstar on their roster who is capable of taking over a series.

Chances the Caps win the series: Slim. Can Price actually carry Montreal past the Caps in a best of seven series? Absolutely give how he has been playing. A mediocre Montreal team with a hot goalie? The Capitals know how lethal that combination can be and this time the Canadiens will have home ice advantage. With P.K. Subban on defense, Montreal will sell out on stopping Ovechkin and the Caps do not have enough other weapons to beat Price.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Caps record against them this season: 2-1-0

How they could meet in the playoffs: Tampa Bay wins the Atlantic Division, Caps earn a wild card spot. The standings would then dictate which division winner plays which wild card team

Why they can beat the Caps: Good luck stopping the Lightning’s offense, the best in the NHL this season. Not only do they have Steven Stamkos, but they have three other players who also have passed the 20-goal mark (the Caps only have one as Troy Brouwer has exactly 20 goals) and have five players with over 50 points (the Caps have two). Most importantly, it’s not an offense that is dependent on the power play as they have scored the most 5-on-5 goals in the NHL this season.

Why the Caps can beat them: Ben Bishop may be a towering presence in net, but with a paltry .914 save percentage this season he has failed to establish himself as the dominating goalie a team needs for a deep playoff run. After getting swept in the playoffs last season by Montreal, you have to wonder how high confidence will be in Tampa this year.

Chances the Caps win the series: Slight edge to Tampa Bay. There will be plenty of scoring to go around in this one. The Caps defense won’t be able to bottle up Stamkos and Co. while Ovechkin will get his points against the unproven Bishop. The problem for the Caps is that they are absolutely awful when they do not score first. The only team with fewer wins than the Caps this season after conceding the first goal is Buffalo. They are a completely different team when they are down early, a position they could easily find themselves in often against an offense as lethal as Tampa’s. How confident are you that the Caps can score first in four out of seven games against the best offense in the NHL?

Three Stars: Washington Capitals 3, Pittsburgh Penguins 4

FIRST STAR: Alex Ovechkin. Fully engaged Ovi in this one. A goal, which gave the Caps late life, five shots on goal, three blocked, five more missed and eight hits.

SECOND STAR: Jason Chimera. Two assists, though took a bad penalty during a string of bad penalties in the second period.

THIRD STAR: Troy Brouwer. Goal and an assist. 7 of 11 in the dot.

Goat of the game: Tom Wilson. Hate to kick a guy when he’s down, but there’s no place in the game for instigating contact during warmups. Total bush league move by a guy whose luster is starting to come off.

Washington Capitals Game 62 Recap: Penguins edge Capitals 4-3 in final meeting of season


Poised to sweep the season series against the rival Pittsburgh Penguins,  all the Washington Capitals had to do was not let anything get in their heads. Two penalty-ridden periods and undisciplined play by Washington led to a 4-3 loss to Pittsburgh.

Alex Ovechkin’s 39th goal of the season was Washington’s lone highlight of the game, and low points included Tom Wilson ending up in the Penguins’ bench and skating around the rest of the game like a heat-seeking missile hell bent on any target he could find.

The only player that saw less ice time than Wilson’s 7:09 was Michael Latta, who played 4:21. Wilson was absent for most of the third period, and that is not-so-coincidentally when the Capitals decided to buckle down and chip away at Pittsburgh’s lead.

It was far too little and far too late. Emotions ran high, but in the wrong direction. Before the first intermission buzzer rang, Pittsburgh had already won.

Any team plays better when they can keep their feelings in check in the face of a heated rivalry. Simple gamesmanship would dictate that by allowing the other guy to get the best of you early on, he automatically has the upper hand. You make mistakes, he takes advantage.

Barry Trotz summed this up: “I thought we took all bad penalties, unnecessary penalties. I mean, you can get momentum off the penalty kill, but we’d get momentum off a penalty kill and then we’d take another penalty. Those are just unacceptable for me. You’re not going to win hockey games.”

Wilson, who is by no means a fourth-line scrub, does not conduct himself in a manner befitting a first-round draft pick. He has slightly fewer PIMs than last season, but he can’t seem to clean up his act for very long.

Some of this is not his fault, since you really can’t blame him for trying to make every second of ice time count when he’s on such a short leash. You do have to wonder if things would be different if he was given a little more ice and increased responsibility beyond being the resident tough guy (a label he rejects, but his record speaks for itself).

Tonight, the downward spiral began with an altercation with Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin during warmups, and bled out into every second Wilson was on the ice. Sure, Wilson’s antics may get the bench fired up, but he is continually putting his team at a disadvantage and engaging in potentially reckless on-ice behavior.

He’s already beginning to earn a reputation as a potentially problematic player, a label that will become increasingly difficult to shed as his career progresses.

Washington Captials Game 58 Recap: No shutout, but two points again against Pens

Braden Holtby had not allowed a goal to the Pittsburgh Penguins in two previous games this season. The Pens finally got into the scorebook against him — though it took a collision pushing him into the net to do so — but the Washington Capitals had more than enough answer, emerging victorious at Consol Energy Center 3-1.

After winning 3 of 4 on the long road trip, the Caps are now one point behind the Rangers and Penguins for second place in the Metropolitan Division.

Joel Ward scored on a 5-on-3 with 4:13 left in the third period to break a 1-1 tie and lift the Caps to a win which caps a most successful four-game road trip.

Alex Ovechkin had a goal and an assist for the Caps (31-17-10), to go along with seven shots on goal and John Carlson added an empty-net short-handed goal very late in the third. [Read more…]

Washington Capitals Game 48 Recap: Holtby’s 27 saves help Capitals blank Penguins 4-0

Like many teams after the All-Star break, Washington Capitals couldn’t seem to find their footing. Before the break, they lost three straight games, and that spilled over to their first game back in Columbus.

After four straight losses, three in regulation, it almost looked like time to worry. A 4-0 drubbing of the Pittsburgh Penguins appears to have righted the ship, for the time being. [Read more…]

Washington Capitals Game 35 Recap: Caps blank Pens in Pittsburgh

Eric Fehr scored twice, Braden Holtby was once again stellar and the Washington Capitals blanked the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-0 at Consol Energy Center.

Holtby made 31 saves, including nine on the penalty kill, to lead the Caps (18-11-6-42) to break an eight-game losing streak to Pittsburgh. [Read more…]

Washington Capitals Game 67 Recap: Caps stymied in 2-0 loss in Pittsburgh

The task of making the playoffs just keeps getting harder and harder for the Washington Capitals.

Tuesday night, after being shut out in Pittsburgh 2-0, the Caps fell three points out of a wildcard spot while all the teams they are trailing (Columbus, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Detroit) still have games in hand.

It was the Capitals fifth loss in six games overall and seventh straight loss to the Penguins. Marc-Andre Fleury, not tested through the first two periods, was terrific in the third stopping all 20 Caps shots for 32 saves total in the game.

Pittsburgh got its first goal during a non-stop first period that didn’t see a whistle for over 13 minutes. At 16:41, Evgeni Malkin picked Dmitry Orlov’s pocket and dropped a pass to D Matt Niskanen at the right wing point. Niskanen’s blast was tipped by Olli Jokinen, who had eluded Mike Green, and the puck skittered past Jaroslav Halak (32 saves) to put the Pens up 1-0. The Caps were outshot 13-6 in the period, with the Penguins enjoying a 21-12 advantage in total shot attempts.

There was no scoring in the second period. Though the Penguins had plenty of chances — outshooting the Caps 13-6 in the frame — the best chance of the period came from Evgeny Kuznetsov, who corralled a rebound just to Marc-Andre’ Fleury’s right and flipped it toward the right post. Kuznetsov’s shot eluded Fleury’s right foot but hit the post straight on and deflected harmlessly away from the net.

The Penguins added an insurance goal in the third period. Dmitry Orlov tried to keep a puck in the offensive zone, but recently-acquired Lee Stempniak kicked it ahead to a streaking Sidney Crosby, who came in on a two-on-one against Connor Carrick. Crosby poised to pass, but at the last sent a screaming wrist shot past Halak blocker-side.

The Caps were awarded two third period power plays, but could do nothing with them, nor could they succeed with an extra skater for much of the last two minutes of the game.

Washington was a woeful 31.9 percent in the faceoff circle.

The Caps are off until Friday when they host the Vancouver Canucks.

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.”

Washington Capitals Game 47 Recap: Caps play better but still lose in Pittsburgh 4-3

Early in the season, the Washington Capitals had a habit of not playing particularly well possession-wise and pulling out a win regardless, a lot of the time in a shootout. Recently, that trend has reversed as the Caps have played much better in the past couple of weeks, only to find themselves losing ground in the standings.

That pattern played out again Wednesday night, as the Caps played even with the Pittsburgh Penguins most of the night, but gave up two late goals in the third period and fell to the Pens 4-3 at CONSOL Energy Center.

For Pittsburgh, the win marks their franchise-record 13th straight win at home.

The Capitals (22-17-8) find themselves tied with Philadelphia at 52 points for second in the mediocre Metropolitan Division, just five points ahead of seventh place Carolina.

The Caps got goals from Brooks Laich (5), Jason Chimera (9) and Alex Ovechkin, his league-leading 34th of the season. But Jussi Jokinen tied the game at 3 at 11:35 of the third period, then Olli Maatta won it with his fourth goal of the season, shot through a maze of bodies just off the left post past Michal Neuvirth, playing in his second game since early December.

Though neither Penguins goal was a power play marker, late in the game the Caps had to be feeling the affects of three third period penalties — and playing their fifth game in seven days.

“You have to know how much juice you have left in the tank,” Capitals coach Adam Oates said. “We blew two leads. On both goals, I thought we should change, but we didn’t. We got caught a little tired and we made mistakes and they have great players.”

The Caps scored first — short-handed– as Karl Alzner took advantage of a rare Penguins miscue along the left wing wall and pushed the puck up to Laich, who walked into the offensive zone with Troy Brouwer on a 2-on-1. Laich tried to play the puck across to Brouwer but ended up toe-dragging around a fallen Pens defenseman and beat Marc-Andre Fleury with a wrist shot from close range.

The Penguins tied the game at 9:53 in the second, as a deft Penguins breakout against the Caps top line resulted in a 4-on-2, with Kris Letang victimizing Neuvirth (33 saves) for his ninth of the campaign.

Chimera’s tap-in, on a beautiful slap pass from Marcus Johansson, gave the Caps the lead back at 14:31. But that lead was short-lived, as Tyler Pyatt got inside position on John Erskine at the top of the crease and banged home a pass from Maatta to make it 2-2.

Washington grabbed a 3-2 lead at 8:35 in the third, playing 4-on-4. Mike Green fed Johansson along the goal line and he waited for Ovechkin to shake loose in the left wing faceoff circle. Ovechkin’s lethal one-timer escaped Fleury and gave Caps fans reason to hope that the cycle of well-played games would result in points in the standings on this occasion.

That was not to be the case, however.

Once again at 4-on-4, Dmitry Orlov lost track of Jokinen, who took a pass from Brandon Sutter on the right post for a slam dunk at 11;35, then Maatta took a handoff from Evgeni Malkin — who was allowed to skate unencumbered through and around the Caps defense — stepped up to create a double-screen, when whipped a wrist shot past the unaware Neuvirth for the final dagger.

The Caps continue their road trip Friday at 7:00 pm ET against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Washington Capitals Game 22 Recap: Caps fail to match Pens’ intensity after falling down two goals early

“We could have played much harder, and for whatever reason it didn’t come out.” Karl Alzner, on the Caps intensity after falling behind early.

Coming off arguably their most complete win of the season, a 4-1 victory over a good St. Louis Blues team, the Washington Capitals had every expectation of playing well against Metropolitan Division arch-rival Pittsburgh Wednesday night.

Unfortunately, nothing was further from the truth.

The Capitals were out-shot 40-18, four different Penguins scored, including Sidney Crosby, and Marc-Andre Fleury was barely tested en route to a 4-0 Penguins shutout that was as deflating and demoralizing as one would expect.

“We obviously came out pretty good, had a power play [early] – they get one and it kind of deflated us,” head coach Adam Oates said, “and we seemed to fight uphill battles after that the whole night.”

The Caps (12-9-1) did indeed have the early advantage, benefitting from a tripping call against Pens forward Craig Adams, just 3:24 into the affair. But following the failed power play, where the best opportunities came while the Caps skated 6-on-5 during the delayed call, the Pens (14-8-0) got an offensive zone draw. Sidney Crosby, who drew a ton of boos during introductions — and literally every time he touched the puck — won the draw cleanly back to Paul Martin at the point, and the defenseman flung the puck toward the net and past a surprised Braden Holtby, who reacted as if he never saw the shot.

It was the start of a tough night for Holtby, who despite making 36 saves in the game, admittedly wasn’t at his best.

On the sheer number of shots, Holtby remarked, “I don’t feel like it’s too much. I feel like I can handle that.” He later acknowledged though, that the soft first goal sort of set a tone for the night. “You get  goals like the first goal that just have eyes when you throw them at the net — sooner or later you’re going to get luck on your side. But in saying that, even though there is a high shot total, I thought I could have done better in the game today.”

Describing the shot, Holtby said, “Kind of saw the release, knew it was kind of going glove side somewhere. Didn’t really know where. That’s one of those that just sometimes go in. I’d like to see again if I could have found a better lane to see the puck. But that’s shoulda, woulda, coulda, you know?”

The goal against seemed to deflate the entire Caps team, as the Penguins then dominated play for the next couple of minutes, keeping the play in the Caps end. Then, attempting a breakout, Michael Latta had his pocket picked at center ice by Beau Bennett, and Bennett beat three Capitals skaters into the offensive zone and snapped a shot clean past Holtby to give the Pens a quick 2-0 lead. By that point, the Penguins had outshot the Caps 13-2 and by the end of the first period, the difference had grown to 17-6, and the Caps had gone 0-for-3 on the power play.

Alex Ovechkin, who had two shots on goal but another eight that either missed or were blocked, assessed the early turning point in the game. “I think we gave up two goals — I think we play well first five minutes [of first period], get a power play, hit the post and you know, they score goal right away after that play. And you know, in the second period we make a little push but it was not good enough.”

Nick Backstrom was even less diplomatic. “They got two early goals and they controlled the game, I think, after that.”

“They were better than us today.”

When asked if this was a case of the Caps getting down quickly and not be able to match the Penguins’ intensity, Karl Alzner replied, “I don’t know if it’s ‘We couldn’t’. We didn’t. And that was the problem. We could have played much harder, and for whatever reason it didn’t come out. Maybe we were hoping for things to just kinda happen for us and get bounces and stuff and just have our momentum come from that. They made us work for whatever little stuff we did get but it wasn’t enough.”

A frenetic second period saw Pittsburgh continue to own most of the play, but the Caps showed some signs of life. That is, until 18:26 of the frame, when the Caps took a too-many-men penalty. The back-breaker came with a mere 29 seconds left in the period, as Crosby finally solved Holtby off a pass from James Neal, who moments earlier frustrated Troy Brouwer to the point of Brouwer taking a full two-handed swing at Neal’s legs. Fortunately for both, the axe-swing failed to connect.

Oates took responsibility for the botched line change that lead to the goal, but the damage to the scoreboard was done, regardless.

Neal put the icing on the cake for the Pens in third. He walked in alone on the right wing, skated to the left, and whipped a wrist shot past a flat-footed Holtby to make it 4-0.

The Capitals are off until Friday, when they host the Montreal Canadiens at 7:00 pm at Verizon Center.

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