Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Raising the Stanley Cup banner

As the 2017-2018 Washington Capitals season started, I couldn’t begin to imagine that this season might be the season. In fact, I felt like the Caps were going backwards after their usual game 7 loss in round 2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was hard to get excited for another 82-game season and Alex Ovechkin’s famous quote “We’re not going to be suck” did not inspire early season confidence. The Caps looked like they were playing with hangovers although Ovi set out to prove that he wasn’t going to suck by scoring 7 goals in his first 3 games.

The team took until the end of November to start getting into a rhythm of more wins than losses and were making progress towards not sucking. Then, Braden Holtby completely lost his game in February and Philipp Grubauer stepped in to help the Caps make it to the playoffs while Holtby rested and got his game back. Grubauer started in the first two playoff games, both losses against the Columbus Blue Jackets, but, after that, Holtby reclaimed the net for good.

It was inevitable that once the Caps beat the Blue Jackets, they would have to face the Pittsburgh Penguins. There was no other path to the Stanley Cup for this team or its long suffering fans. It would have to go through Pittsburgh. Evgeni Kuznetsov‘s game winning overtime goal off of Alex Ovechkin’s pass in game 6, NOT game 7, couldn’t have been any sweeter for Caps fans.

The 3rd round against the Tampa Bay Lightning is where game 7 came into play, but I wasn’t worried. I knew the Caps were going to beat the Lightning because it felt inevitable. The Las Vegas Golden Knights were engaged in their storybook inaugural season and former Caps General Manager George McPhee was now the GM of the Golden Knights. Hockey loves a good storyline and GMGM playing his former protégé, Brian MacLellan for the Stanley Cup was too good to be true for the hockey gods.

The Caps dominated Vegas and fans began to believe that there might be a Stanley Cup coming to Washington. Finally, this team shed their bad culture of coaches past and learned how to play for each other, focus on defense in their zone, and play loose, something the Caps of the past had never done before during the playoffs in the Ovechkin era. Coach Barry Trotz earns the credit for establishing that culture and making the players accountable to the team. Brooks Orpik’s leadership didn’t hurt either as the most respected guy in the locker room and only Stanley Cup winner kept the team focused.

When game 5 started, I knew this had to be the game because there was no other choice. The Caps had momentum and they had to close it out. Vegas wasn’t going to make it easy for them though and the game went back/forth with me throwing things when it looked like the Knights scored on Holtby, but it was called back. There were 5 goals scored in the second period and the game had my emotions on a roller coaster. But, the Caps prevailed when the unlikely hero, Devante Smith-Pelly, scored his 7th goal of the playoffs, after scoring only 7 in the regular season. He tied up the game in the 3rd period and Lars Eller sealed the victory 12-minutes into the 3rd period. The final 8-minutes felt like watching the final 10-minutes of the “Miracle on Ice” all over again. The Caps prevailed and finally, finally, finally lifted the Stanley Cup.

What helped the Caps get over the hump? There was the Conn Smythe winner, generational hockey goal scorer, and team captain Alex Ovechkin, who commanded games and set the tone in many of them. Evgeni Kuznetsov’s, prolific point scorer in the playoffs, contributed his wizardry to the cause. There were also no expectations for this Caps team. They weren’t the favorite or the President’s trophy winner, but there was a good mix of young players with zero experience of expectations, like rookies Nathan Walker, Christian Djoos, Madison Bowey, Travis Boyd and Shane Gersich, mixed with the veteran leadership of Brooks Orpik and the team first attitude of everyone. It was awesome to watch.

The final thing that got the Caps over the hump. Luck. The Caps had it. I’ve never seen anything like Yanni Gourde missing a wide-open net in Tampa Bay during game 7 in a Caps playoff game. That was the beginning of the end for that series with the Caps benefitting from multiple lucky breaks.  

The only thing that beat watching that final series was attending the parade. It was the highlight of my hockey fandom, and Washington sports team fandom. I’ve never been in a crowd in Washington D.C that was this happy. It was awesome.

Tonight, the goose bumps started with 2:00 minutes left in the countdown to the banner raising. The tears started rolling down my face as the banner went up. I still can’t believe it, but, boy, do I love this team and am so happy most of them are back.

Let’s go Caps!

Monday, November 07, 2016

Early season trends

After watching the Washington Nationals bow out of the first round of MLB playoffs again, hockey moved up a notch in grabbing my attention, but just barely. It’s hard to get excited about hockey this early in the season, but time to notice some early season trends.

Coach Barry Trotz is focused on getting his team to play a faster game and he is making sure his star players, a la Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie do not play the same amount of minutes as they have in years past as written in the Washington Post. Ovie is 31 and has played an intense and hard hitting hockey game since he entered the league in 2005. The Caps finally surrounded him with better teammates, particularly, in the General Manager Brian MacLellan era, but the generational goal scorer of our time still does not have his name on a Cup and the window to do that is getting smaller so reducing ice time is a good move.

The early season surprise award goes to Marcus Johansson. 11 games into this season with his 6G and 5A, he has a bit over 25% of his point production from last year when he played 74 games and generated 46 points. Maybe Trotz’s focus on playing a quicker game fits MoJo’s speed. Let’s hope this trend continues.

T. J. Oshie continues to impress with his devotion to playing tough hockey. He gives 150% effort every night. His 6G, 1A, and +6 season is not bad and the determination he puts into scoring those points is what makes him a joy to watch. It is good to see the top line back together as Ovie, Oshie, and Backstrom make things happen on the ice. Ovie continues to rack up points, at 7G and 4A, undress defensemen, and score power play goals by using the same shot he has used to torch goalies for 11-years. That never gets old to watch.

There are plenty of other positive trends for future posts, but there are also concerning signs with this team even if it is just November. Vezina winning goalie, Braden Holtby, is not in his groove. A puck flies past him and he barely moves when it seems like he should have seen the shot. Holtby seems like the Vezina winner in some periods of some games, but, at other times, he is making stupid plays and seems out of it. Getting Holtby into his groove is critical for this team’s success.

The Caps losing focus during the game is another concerning trend. They play a good first period, then slack off in the second period and get burned. They go up 2-0 or 3-0 and let the Jets tie the game before stealing it away from them with a Jay Beagle goal with 34 seconds left or an Ovie overtime game winner. The Caps do not need to make it difficult on themselves.

But, lots more hockey to be played.

Let’s go Caps!

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Thursday, October 13, 2016

So it begins as Caps season starts

I’m not even watching hockey tonight because there is a more exciting event going on for D.C. sports fans. The Nationals are trying to advance past the first round of the MLB playoffs. Given the playoff disasters that I’ve witnessed for the Nationals and the Capitals, I don’t expect a good ending, yet, I continue to watch. But, back to hockey.

I’m not sure what to think of the Washington Capitals this year. The addition of Lars Eller seems like a decent pickup for the third line. He’s a 25+ point player per year. Depth down the middle has not been the Caps strength in the Alex Ovechkin era so the pickup can’t hurt. I thank GM Brian MacLellan for attempting to fix the Caps weaknesses because GM George McPhee never had the courage, but it still has not resulted in post-season success.

What really is different this season? Coach Barry Trotz said he learned a lot from his experience as an assistant coach for Team Canada during the World Cup of Hockey. Yeah, will it make him a Stanley Cup contending coach? How about a get out of the second round coach? Don’t get me wrong, Trotz has been instrumental in changing the culture in Washington and teaching this team how to play a grittier game. But, he has to get this team past the first round. Of course, all of this assumes they make the playoffs and I never assume any Washington team will make the playoffs.

The younger Capitals like Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky are older and supposedly heavier, so that’s a good thing, but will it make a difference? That won’t be apparent until the Caps actually make it past the second round.

The window is closing for this team in the Alex Ovechkin era. My favorite Capital ever turned 31 and is still the standard by which goal scorers are judged as he walked away with his sixth Rocket Richard trophy last season. His name deserves to be on the Cup and that’s the elusive piece of hardware the Caps lack.

One thing I know for sure is that I would really appreciate it if the Caps make sure they are not in contention for, much less win, the President’s trophy this year.  

Let’s go Caps!

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Monday, April 18, 2016

Ovechkin’s signature shot and Carlson’s presence

Alex Ovechkin’s signature shot made an appearance in game 2 of the series versus the Philadelphia Flyers. It is his blast from the left half wall on the power play shot. The one he has blasted past every team and every goalie in the NHL. It does not matter that he is still showing that same shot in his 10th year of playing in the NHL. It still works and is a piece of what makes Ovie so special to Caps fans.

Ovie scored an even strength goal the 2nd period of game 3. T.J. Oshie made that one happen by abusing Claude Giroux, grabbing the puck, sending it up ice where Ovie picked it up on his entry from the bench and blasted a wrister past goalie Steve Mason. He netted a second power play goal on multiple penalties when the Flyers tried to kill Dmitry Orlov by throwing him into the boards in the middle of the 2nd period.

John Carlson’s presence on the ice has been noticeable during the first three games of the series. That will be critical after Brooks Orpik got slammed into the glass in the 2nd period and shows no sign of returning. Carlson’s offensive presence includes 3 power play goals, one in each game, and three assists. His strong defense, including giving Brayden Schenn the shove off in game 2 before scoring, and outlet passes keep the Caps moving the puck and will continue to be critical in the playoffs.

Carlson and Ovechkin are now tied for goals. Oh, and the Caps power play that lacked at the end of the regular season is fixed with a 5 of 9 performance in game 3.

The Flyers will be out to kill more Caps on Wednesday so play safe Caps.  

Let’s go Caps!

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Saturday, April 16, 2016

Marcus Johansson is showing playoff promise and Holtby is a beast

It is nice to see that Marcus Johansson is showing playoff promise. is HisHis 0G-2A-2P and plus-1 game performance in game 1 against the Philadelphia Flyers included some good board battles and continued gritty play. That is encouraging.

The number one star of the game was Braden Holtby. The holtbeast kept the Caps in the game when the Flyers owned the first period and had 3 power plays. The Caps rallied in the 2nd and 3rd period and took care of business. John Carlson and Jay Beagle provided the goals.

Holtby is again in beast mode as the Caps lead 1-0 in game 2 at the end of the first period, but the Caps had to survive a 5 on 3 penalty kill. John Carlson put the puck in the net on the power play with Marcus Johansson and T.J. Oshie screening Steve Mason. Caps survived the Flyers pressure, but need more offense in the second.

My favorite move of the night, so far, is Alex Ovechkin putting Brayden Schenn into his bench after he hit Karl Alzner on a hit into the boards as time ran out.

Let’s go Caps!

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Monday, April 11, 2016

Caps playoff stories to watch

There are many Caps playoff stories to watch, but long-time fans, myself included, view the playoffs with anxiety, not excitement. There is too much in the history books I’d rather forget related to this team in the playoffs. But, I’m glad the players are excited and I hope they play like they did Saturday versus the St. Louis Blues, a team fighting for a division title that the Caps dominated with an Alex Ovechkin hat trick.

It is a new second season and time for the Caps to step up their game.

The Caps stories to watch in the playoffs:

Can the Captain Alex Ovechkin, lead his team past the second round of the playoffs? Ovie shows up in the playoffs and is an almost point per game scorer with 36G 34A 70P in 72 games. The bigger the game and the venue, the more he turns on the after burners.

Will Nicklas Backstrom make his presence felt this playoffs? He is 20G 50A 70P in 75 games and is +17.  He was hampered by injury during the last playoffs, but Caps need the guy with the “A” on his jersey to not only win faceoffs and make great plays, but also win battles and be willing to throw it all on the ice for the Cup.

Can the other leaders on the team and on the bench, Justin Williams and Brooks Orpik, in particular, keep the Caps focused on battling instead of getting rattled when they face adversity in the playoffs? Their experience in coming from behind should help, too.

Williams has been a joy to watch this year. His game is more subtle than other players, but watching him win battles along the board, make plays, and score goals has been fun. But, it is his playoff experience that is even more important to the Caps. He is constantly coaching on the bench, chatting away with his line mates, pointing out things to improve. They will need that even more from Williams starting now. He is a huge key to the Caps ability to be successful in the playoffs.

Orpik is the leader of the defense. Even though he spent the better part of this season injured, his presence in Washington has made the team better. John Carlson learned a lot from him and so did Karl Alzner. His health and leadership are critical for the playoffs.

T.J. Oshie, the energizer bunny, as Ovie calls him, is another critical cog in this playoff adventure. He leads by example on the ice because Oshie plays hard on every shift. He has his own playoff demons with the Blues, so now is his opportunity to exorcise them.

Can Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen continue playing great defense? Alzner had a career year during the regular season. This pairing logged the heavy minutes all season and successfully kept the Caps in many games.

Will the young wizard Evgeny Kuznetsov regain his form and repeat his playoff performance from last season? He only has 4 points in 12 games. But, he showed up big time in his first playoffs with 5G 2A 7P in 14 games.  

Can John Carlson stay healthy? He has had a rough year health-wise and the Caps need his ability to make an efficient outlet pass.

Will Braden Holtby be the stand on his head, keep the Caps in so many games goalie, that fans saw earlier in the season? He is a competitor, so the brighter lights should lead to him regaining his better form from earlier in the season. Holtby’s performance has improved the last several weeks.

Can Marcus Johansson play in the playoffs like he played this season? He finally found some grit to this game and even spent 16-minutes in the penalty box, his most as a Cap.

Will Tom Wilson play smart in the playoffs? His play and skating improved so much this season, but he still makes bone-headed plays at bad moments. On the other hand, Wilson is the agitator, get under the skin of other players, type of player that the Caps can use in the playoffs. Can his frequent line mates Jason Chimera and Jay Beagle keep the chemistry going and keep producing? It is nice to have the faceoff specialist, Beagle, back in the lineup.

Can Andre Burakovsky and Dmitri Orlov perform in the playoffs? They both had good seasons. It will be interesting to see how they respond to the slug fest of the second season.

Many story lines to explore as things unfold starting with the arrival of the Philadelphia Flyers to the Verizon Center on Thursday night.

I hope the Caps get out of the first round because I do not need a second dog. The last one arrived in May 2010, when I could not watch the Caps implode during game 7 of the first round versus the Montreal Canadians. They won the President’s trophy that year, too. Ugh.

Let’s go Caps!

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Monday, March 28, 2016

Can the Caps regain their form for the playoffs?

The Caps huge lead in the playoff race has been deadly to their performance in the last two months. Their record is better than their performance. Can the Caps regain their form for the playoffs? As Coach Barry Trotz and others have stated, it is not that easy to turn it on for the playoffs after playing lackluster hockey for the two months before the playoffs.

The Caps play against good teams does not inspire confidence that they will last long in hockey’s second season. The Pittsburgh Penguins beat them by 4 goals in a 2-6 loss on March 20th. The St. Louis Blues pasted them for a 0-4 loss at home. They rarely beat the San Jose Sharks and continued that tradition on March 12th in a 2-5 loss.

Alex Ovechkin, with 2 goals and 3 assists in his last 11 games, is not producing at his usual scoring pace although he may still be nursing that nagging injury. Evgeny Kuznetsov is on a 4 game goal scoring drought and had a minus-4 performance in Pittsburgh, which followed his 3 assist night versus the Nashville Predators.

Dmitry Orlov needs to mature in a hurry. His outlet pass that turned into a giveaway against the Blue Jackets is an example of the little stuff he needs to clean up. Those types of plays will get the Caps scored on in the playoffs.   

T.J. Oshie is a critical component of this Caps team. He is the Energizer Bunny as Ovie says. He plays the game with an intensity that gets the rest of the Caps going. When he was out with flu like symptoms the prior two games against the New Jersey Devils and the St. Louis Blues, it was easy to see how much he is missed. The Caps need him at 100% throughout the playoffs.

Thankfully, John Carlson is back. He netted the game winner his first game back. It is obvious when Carlson is on the ice because the outlet passes out of the defensive zone are much stronger and get the Caps to the other side of the ice. The Caps need him to stay healthy.

The Caps have performed better in the first period in the last few games and won tonight against the 15th place Eastern Conference team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, which means they won it the Presidents' trophy. They also won it in 2010 and then bowed out in the first round. They need to remember that and keep getting in shape for the playoffs.

Let’s go Caps!

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