Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Stars are Producing, But Heart is the Issue

The Caps won a must win game versus the New York Islanders tonight. They played with more desperation, but it is not encouraging that this team cannot rise to the level of intensity that characterizes teams that win playoff series and Stanley Cups. The knock on the Caps have been that their top stars, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, have not performed and they must make lots of noise if the Caps are to be successful in the playoffs.

Ovie’s playoff stats of 33G-31A-64P puts him at just over a point per game although his last couple of playoffs have not been as productive as the years 2008-2011 when he had 41 points in 30 games. He’s also plus-9 over his 62 playoff games. Ovie, however, shows up for the playoffs and this season is no exception. He’s hitting and he’s a force on the ice.

Nicklas Backstrom, on the other hand, is 18G-31A-49P in 61 games, with anemic production during his last three playoffs of 13P in 29 games. Those stats for the #1 center are not good enough for the Caps to hold a shiny silver cup, but his first star 3P performance in game two and his overtime game winner tonight is what the Caps need.  Both Ovechkin and Backstorm scored and assisted on each other’s goals.

The stars are producing, but heart is the issue. Do the Caps want to win enough to throw it all out on the line? That’s not evident, at this point. Other teams slugging it out in the playoffs, right now, seem to have more heart than the Caps. The Caps seem to do enough to get by and that’s not good enough to win a Cup. They will play a strong game in game 2 to lose game 3 in horrendous fashion 15 seconds into overtime, when New York Islands John Tavares threw the puck at Washington Capitals goalie, Braden Holtby, multiple times, and the last one squeaked past the goal line. That shot sent the Caps to a 1-2 deficit in their first playoff series in two years. It felt like a huge letdown after Nicklas Backstrom finally tied up the game 1-1 at 13:54 in the third period.

In game one, the Caps were outmatched mentally and lost the game 4-1. They showed jitters early, but never stopped making stupid passes in the neutral zone or everywhere else on the ice during their 11 giveaway night. On a night Holtby felt ill, the Caps should have been able to help him out, but they could not stop helping the Islanders out instead. It was not a good start to the playoffs.
In game two, it took the Caps until 11:26 in the second period to score after the Islanders already scored two goals. This game started with Cal Clutterbuck when the 4th line grinder, who scored his first NHL goal against the Caps (he’s one of many, many players with that dubious honor), scored on an odd man rush at 5:14 in the first period. The Caps first goal came courtesy of Karl Alzner and Nicklas Backstrom netted his first point on his way to a much needed three point night.

In some respects, the Caps are winning some battles, for faceoff wins and hits, but in other respects, they are losing, grit and perseverance, for instance. The intensity of the hockey being played in the NHL and the heart of the teams playing, right now, is crazy versus Caps-Isles. The difference is palpable.

Let’s go Caps!

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Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Is Trotz Ovie's Bowman?

Alex Ovechkin scores! 50 times this season Caps fan heard that. It is the 6th time in Ovie’s career he’s reached that goal, one of only six players ever. That list – Wayne Gretzky (9 seasons), Mike Bossy (9), Mario Lemieux (6) Marcel Dionne and Guy LaFleur (6) - includes kings of the game. Ovechkin belongs with them and surely punched his ticket to Toronto last night to join them in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He has a 10 goal lead on everyone else this season and he’s doing this in an era where goalies are much better, players are bigger and quicker, and everything about the game, including coaching, has advanced. Ovechkin is special and Caps fans revel in watching his highlight reel goals, game winning goals, power play goals from the same spot he’s tortured goalies for 10-years, ferocious hits and taking the Caps on his back to another win.

The knock on Ovie has always been his leadership and unwillingness to play defense. But, this season there’s a new defensive mind set to his game. Last season, Ovie heard widespread criticism for his lack of defensive play after he ended the season a minus-35, good for 3rd worst in the league. To be fair to Ovie, plus-minus is also an indication of the team surrounding the player and the Caps have had some bad defenses during his tenure, but everyone has also seen Ovie ease up when he shouldn’t.
This season, Ovechkin is a plus-11, good for 87th in the league out of 826 players. Quite an improvement and that doesn’t include the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet, like not seeing Ovie loaf around while the play transitions to the defensive zone. He’s joining in the defensive side of the game and playing hard from end-to-end. He’s 1st in goals, 1st in shots, 1st in game winning goals, 1st in power play goals and 2nd in overall points.

The best change from last season, however, is that Alex Ovechkin became a true captain by leading the way on the ice, sacrificing his body for blocked shots – yes, it’s scary to watch and not something he should do unless absolutely necessary – and tying the score or getting a game winning goal, when needed. That’s the real treat.
So, what’s the difference? Two things changed. One, General Manager George McPhee’s understudy Brian MacLellan became General Manager after telling owner Ted Leonsis, among other things, that the Caps defense needed an upgrade, a request that seemed quite obvious since Ovechkin arrived here. MacLellan plugged that hole with two Pittsburgh Penguins, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen. Orpik’s veteran leadership on the bench focuses the players. It sounds like his “glare” is something to avoid.

The second thing that changed is Barry Trotz became the coach of the Washington Capitals. Is Trotz Ovie’s Bowman? Can Trotz do what Scotty Bowman did for Steve Yzerman, the hall of fame Canadian center that captained the Detroit Red Wings from the age of 21 during the 1986-1987 season. It took Yzerman 10-years to win his Cup in 1997 and then he won two more, all three under Coach Scotty Bowman who started with Detroit in 1993.
After leading the Wings to their first division title in 23-years, Yzerman did not lead them to the Stanley Cup finals until 1995. The New Jersey Devils swept the Wings. Yzerman was 4-8-12 in 15 games with a minus-2. In 1996, they lost the Conference final series to the Colorado Avalanche, 4-2.

Before the 1996-1997 hockey seasons started, noise started in the media questioning Yzerman’s leadership capability. He struggled under Bowman’s coaching and his back-checking expectations for his forwards. Yzerman didn’t want to play defense and the pair’s relationship deteriorated to the point there was talk of trading Steve Yzerman, the longest tenured captain of the same hockey team ever, to the Ottawa Senators.
It clicked for Bowman and Yzerman in 1997, when they ended their season by sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers for their first Stanley Cup. In 1998, they did it again making the Washington Capitals – sigh – their victim. In 2002, the Wings beat out the Carolina Hurricane’s 4-1 to cement Yzerman’s place in hockey’s history books. Yzerman holds many individual accolades, too, including the Conn Smythe in 1998, the Lester B Pearson for outstanding player in 1989, and a Selke for best defensive forward in 2000.

Caps fans can only hope that the dream of seeing Ovie raise the Cup comes true. If they make the playoffs, they don’t have all of the pieces they need to make a deep run. It would be great if they defied expectations, as strange things happen in the NHL playoffs, like the 8th seed winning the Cup, but Trotz has created a good foundation for the team sand, so far, Ovie can still score 50 goals.

Let’s go Caps!

  

 

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Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Trotz Rewards Beagle's Dogged Play

The three most consistent Caps in terms of effort this season are league leading goal scorer and captain, Alex Ovechkin, net minder Braden Holtby, who has saved the Caps on nights when they’re not playing their best, and the undrafted 2008 free agent acquisition Jay Beagle, who works hard every single shift. Coach Barry Trotz rewards Beagle’s dogged play with more ice time and more roles, like first line right winger, when needed. Beagle skates while other higher ranked players, like Jason Chimera, sit in the press box watching the action instead. He skates because every single night he acts like it might be the last chance he gets to lace them up and he does not want to waste the opportunity.

Coach Adam Oates also played Beagle on the top line with Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. He seemed a head scratching choice for that assignment at that time, but his effort and defensively responsible play makes him more of an asset than a liability on the top line, particularly, for certain match ups. Trotz puts him on the top line when he needs a better defensive player opposite Ovie and Backstrom.
Trotz’s faith in Beagle is showing up on the score sheet, this season, as his 9G-8A-17P is almost twice his 9 total points last season, with 25 games left in the season. He’s playing with confidence as his first star career high 3-point night, 2G-1A, versus the San Jose Sharks showed. Caps fans saluted Beagle during his penalty kill performance against the Edmonton Oilers as he tied up three players while burning time and ensuring they had no shots on that penalty kill. He deserves the recognition he’s getting from his coaches, his teammates and the fans.

It will be great if Beagle keeps it up all season and continues to soak up more and more from this coaching staff. Given his track record and eagerness to learn, it should not surprise any Caps fan if that ends up being the case.
Let’s go Caps!                

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Niskanen's Uneven Play

Washington Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen’s uneven play contributed to the Caps recent losing streak. He’s one of the expensive free agent defenseman General Manager Brian MacLellan picked up over the summer, Brooks Orpik being the other. At $40.25 million for 7-years, a lot was expected of the then 27-year old.

During the 2013-2014 NHL season, Niskanen posted a plus-33, first among NHL defensemen. He generated enough offense at 10G-36A-46P to end the season 13th among blue liners. This, along with an average ice time of 21:07, were career bests for Niskanen. He thrived with the added opportunity he got in Pittsburgh because of injuries to that team. When the Caps played Detroit on October 24th of this season and Coach Mike Babcock complemented both pickups and talked about how it was harder to play against teams with back ends that can move the puck up the ice, it felt like maybe MacLellan hit the lottery with his defensive pickups.
Read more here.
Let's go Caps!

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Holtby's Hot Hand

After a start that included a stretch of 3 losses in 4 games and getting pulled versus the San Jose Sharks, Braden Holtby settled down in net. There were early games where he looked lost and could not see the puck on easy saves. His confidence was shaken. Since early December, that has all changed. Holtby's hot hand is a critical element of the Caps resurgence since then.

Holtby, a 4th round, 93rd overall draft pick in 2008, was known then for his athleticism, which he showed during his 7-7 playoff record after starting only 7 games under Coach Bruce Boudreau in 2011-2012. He was called up due to goalie injuries. Holtby's play has been up and down for the Caps as the carousal of coaches from Bruce Boudreau to Dale Hunter to Adam Oates to Barry Trotz came in and out of the  organization. Oates, in particular, made the mistake of thinking he could coach goalies and told Holtby how to play, which didn't do much for his development or his confidence as he was told to alter his play. Goalies aren't too fond of changing their play or their quirky routines like Holtby following the water squirts out of his bottle during pregame warm ups.

What's changed this season is Mitch Korn 
Read more here

Let's go Caps.

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No Winter Classic Hangover for Caps

After winning the Winter Classic in spectacular fashion when Alex Ovechkin broke his stick and the puck squirted behind him to Troy Brouwer, who did a spin-o-rama  and knocked the puck past Blackhawks net minder Corey Crawford with 12 seconds left, there was no Winter Classic hangover for Caps today versus Florida. It got scary in the end when Florida made it 4-3 in regulation, but the Caps got two points they desperately needed and at home, a place where the Caps need to win more this season. This game was set up to be the ultimate let down after that great Winter Classic game, but the Caps showed focus which is different from how they've operated in the pre-Coach Barry Trotz era. The Trotz difference becomes more apparent every day.

The Caps enter 2015 with a 2-0 record, after a 8-2-3 record in December, and sit in 6th place in the Eastern Conference. Even with some glaring holes in player personnel down the middle, the Caps are winning.

Read more here.

Let's go Caps!

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Caps Are Hitting Their Stride

The Caps are hitting their stride as Coach Barry Trotz's system comes into focus in Washington. The players increasingly embrace the system and it's showing up on the score sheet as their 6-1-2 December record demonstrates. His system rewards work ethic, emphasizes shooting first, paying attention to defense at all times and in every zone, and getting offense from the blue line.  The evidence that his system works is starting to accumulate.

Alex Ovechkin is embracing Trotz's system and improving as a two-way player that isn't scoring as much as he used to, but he's making an impact in all three zones of the ice. For those who blasted Ovie for his minus-35 last year, watching him grow under an experienced head coach shows what's possible for him. It's exactly what he's needed for years, please see the Scott Bowman and Steve Yzerman story.

Read more here.

Let's go Caps!

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Laich Effect for the Caps

Over the past two seasons, Brooks Laich, the oft injured, but versatile player generates points and energy for his teammates. The Laich effect for the Caps includes a 12-8 record this season when he's on the ice and a 1-6 record when he's off the ice. They play a better game when he's on the ice.

Laich has always been a hard working, lunch pail type of Capital, reminiscent of players from the overachieving Caps era, like the ones on their run to the Cup - Olie Kolzig, Peter Bondra, Dale Hunter. He struggled early on in his career, but blossomed even with the coaching merry-go-round in Washington. Laich overachieves because he works hard every night. He's a leader in that respect. If Laich stays healthy, that's a huge bonus for the he Caps.

But, Laich wasn't the only Capital flying around against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday. The Caps best game of the season showed how they're capable of playing. Alex Ovechkin started the 3rd game of what ended up being a 3-0 road trip, with 3 hits and a goal in the first 40 seconds. When Ovie starts a game that way, the Caps frequently win.

Read more here.

Let's go Caps!

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