Friday, October 28, 2011

Penalties Stops Caps' Streak Cold

Capitals 1, Oilers 2
Game Summary

The Capitals stormed out in the first period jumping on the young Oilers early with a 1-0 lead and out shooting them 6-1. But then they just could not stay out of the penalty box. The Caps were whistled for 9 penalties and gave up two goals to the Oilers' power play to see their best start in organization histroy halted at seven games. Edmonton jumps on the Caps misfortunes to beat them 2-1.

Karl Alzner scored his first of the season off of a nice slapper from the point to beat Nikolai Khabibulan over the shoulder. Joel Ward set the screen and the Oilers goaltender froze from the distraction. It would be the Caps high water mark in the game despite some heroic effort in the third period to try to tie up the game.

Oilers net minder Khabibulan only needed one good period and he was fantastic in the third. The Caps out shot the Oilers 18-6 in the final period and dominated the play for the most part. But shot after shot was turned away by the Edmonton goaltender. He was spectacular killing off a pair of late penalties for the Oilers. For all the offensive power the Caps poured on in the final period, it was all for not as Khabby got hot late.

The Caps inability to stay out of the box in the second period and having to play catch up for the rest of the game ends their winning streak at seven games. The power play did not see the time it could have, or should have, in this game but it is clear they miss number 52 back on the blue line.

Mike Green sat out for a tweeked ankle and the Caps seemed to miss the quarterback for timely break outs and setting up the power play. They missed his sneaks up the back side on the power play that kept the top penalty killer honest. The power play instead was a mortal 0 for 4.

A lot of this game could be excused away as unfair officiating as the Caps were called for 8 penalties including 5 calls in the second period alone. Four of them were hooking calls, some legit, some borderline. But the Caps just did not make good decisions on the ice and in the end it cost them. Credit the Caps' penalty killers for only allowing two power play goals against as it could have easily been 4-1 or 5-1 at the end of the second period.

Both of the Oilers goals came off of the power play. A tic-tac-toe passing play on the 5 on 3 goal, and a defensive break down and a juicy rebound on the second 5 on 4 goal. Both goals hard to avoid, but good lessons for the Caps to learn. Winning streaks sometimes hides imperfections and the Caps can use this game as a teaching tool, a lesson learned on their way through the season.

Caps catch up with the Western Conference Champs Saturday night and will have to bring a better game with them to Vancouver. The power play will have to reconfigure itself to better create chances with out Green on the back end.

Caps Notes:
  • Alex Ovechkin had six shots in attempt to get the tying goal. But Khabibulan turned aside all six. Alex Semin went through most of the game with out a registered shot on net through most of the game until he snapped two on net in the third.
  • Nine different Capitals were called for penalties, 5 penalties were stick infractions (4 hooking, 1 slash), 2 were delay of game (hand covering puck, puck over glass), a diving call and a holding the stick call.
  • Green is still questionable for Saturday night, Jay Beagle remains a scratch with a concussion.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Dramatic Home Opener

Capitals 4, Hurricanes 3 OT
Game Summary

It was not pretty at times, but the Washington Capitals win their home opener in dramatic fashion with an overtime goal by Mike Green to beat division rivals Carolina Hurricanes 4-3.

Alex Semin scored his first of the season when he got behind the defense and John Carlson zipped a pass to break him open and alone on Brian Boucher. Semin scored a pretty backhander past the down 'Canes net minder to tie the game at one. Jason Chimera scored his first of the season when Joel Ward found him along the boards. Chim's speed caught Boucher off guard and puck trickled over his shoulder into the net. Brooks Laich broke up the 2-2 tie with a power play tally when he slid in a rebound off of an Alex Ovechkin slapper. This was the third straight home opener in which Laich has scored a goal. Green scored the game winner in overtime with a slapper that deflected off of a 'Canes' defender.

In a back and forth game, it looked as if the Capitals let their lead slip away twice. After going down after an Eric Staal power play goal, the Caps jumped out to a 2-1 lead off of goals by Semin and Chimera. But another Staal power play tally that was off another back door pass knotted the game up at 2 apiece. The Caps looked as if they were on their way to a win when Laich scored his goal on the power play with less than four minutes to play in the game. But with the goaltender pulled, the Hurricanes sent the game to overtime with another back door play and a goal scored by Jussi Jokinen.

But just going to overtime was seemingly not hard enough for the Capitals. Semin took a boarding penalty as the horn sounded to end the third period. The Caps started the overtime period having to kill a 4 on 3 Hurricane power play. Unlike power plays before, the Caps were able to kill it with some spectacular play by Nick Backstrom. Not only did he win some key face offs, he also drew a penalty to negate the man advantage and give the Caps the power play in which Green scored the game winner.

There was a bit of goaltender controversy when the game started. Michal Neuvirth got the nod in net, while Tomas Vokoun had to settle for back up. Vokoun's agent called it a slap to the face after head coach Bruce Boudreau vowed Vokoun would be the Caps no. 1. But Caps' goaltender coach David Prior down played the controversy simply saying the Tampa game on Monday night was a more important start for Vokoun.

But the call for Neuvirth in net was the right call. Even though Carolina seemed to find that back door open for a few goals tonight, late in the game Neuvirth wised up to it and cheated a little to make some fantastic saves to keep the game tied in overtime. He played solid and looked better as the game wore on.

Backstrom played his best game in quite some time. He finished the night with two assists and the only Capital with two points on the night. He also registered 4 hits, was 60 percent on faceoffs and was connected some good passes to set up his linemates. One of his linemates, Ovechkin certainly gave the effort but only finished with an assist. He drew the penalty that led to the 5 on 3 goal by Laich and played well on both sides of the puck. The top line was definitely a threat after a shaky first period. 

Special teams again helped and hampered the Capitals as it has in previous years. The Caps allowed a pair of Hurricane power play goals. But the Caps scored a pair of their own with the extra man, including the game winner by Green and that was the difference.

The Capitals' penalty kill needed some help at times. The 'Canes power play was able to pass right through the penalty killers and Eric Staal benefited from the break down with two wide open net goals. Neither goal Neuvirth could do much about. The 'Canes exposed the Caps with some good passing and some tic-tac-toe puck movement. The Caps just need better communication between the defensemen which should improve with more games played.

In all, it looked exactly like the first game of the season for the Capitals. The problems that faced them most are for the most part simple fixes. Most of the problems the Caps faced were mostly because of breakdowns between defensive partners. Those communication problems tend to fix themselves with more games played.

The Caps will have to be more in sync when they face Tampa Bay on Monday night. The Lightning are a structured team with their one-three-one trap that gave the Caps fits all last season. The Caps will have to be much more focused when the puck drops at Verizon Center.

Caps Notes
  • Joel Ward's assist was his 100th career point.
  • Jeff Halpern's first night back as a Capital he finished the only Cap with a -1 and he was 5 of 12 on face offs (42%). 
  • Mathieu Perreault stared the night instead of Marcus Johansson. He was dismal on face offs winning 1 of 5 draws. Perreault nearly had a goal in the third period but a great save by Boucher stole that opportunity away.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Is This The Season?

5 Things The Caps Must Improve

The Hockey News may have put the expectation of a Stanley Cup Championship on the shoulders of the Washington Capitals, but the Caps will have fix some demons that plagued them (and seem to continue to plague them) last year.

1. Power Play Production

The power play is an effective tool for a team that wants to find success in the regular season and in the post season. What an consistently dangerous power play does is put the other team and an immediate disadvantage. When opposing teams are more concerned about not taking penalties against sure goals on the power play, that opens up ice and opportunity at even strength. But if a team is confident that they can kill off the power play, they can take liberties to shut down any open opportunities.

The Capitals power play is an exercise in conformity that is easily recognizable. They like to overload the stick side of the goaltender and "hide" Alex Ovechkin's one timer on the far boards. Nick Backstrom is the quaterback, often near the goal line on the other side with a player out front and a forward and defenseman high for options.

If opposing teams can isolate Backstrom along the boards and negate the pass to Ovechkin or any other back door play, the goaltender will square to Ovechkin's shot from the mid boards if Backstrom pass up the the defenseman, or look for the give and go if Alex Semin cuts into the box. If the penalty kill can clear any rebounds, the Caps have put all there hopes on one-timers and give and gos through the slot.

What needs to change is position with more movement. Interchange the QB Backstrom with Ovi or Semin and work in quick succinct passes. If the power play can not put the other team behind the eight ball, the Caps are looking at another disappointing off season.

2. Goaltender Consistency

George McPhee knew that veteran goaltending could settle a team down. The Caps might have been more concerned about helping out rookie goaltenders Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth last season instead of relying on them to make the save. Tomas Vokoun comes in to bring in some relief in that department.

Vokoun is known for giving up a 6 goal game from time to time (with a team like Florida in front of you, that will tend to happen). But he does bring some veteran presence in the net and a want to play for a championship rather than a contract. Taking a one year, $1.5 million (a pay cut by his standard), Vokoun is playing for much more than just money. Having not played in the playoffs since he was a Nashville Predator, the Caps' new number one is looking to prove he is an elite goaltender.

To do that, Vokoun has to be a consistent back stop for the Capitals. He doesn't have to be a brick wall, but he does have to have a few big grabs so the pressure is off the Caps defense. A healthy Denis Wideman and off season acquisition Roman Hamrlik should help with that too.

3. Time To Mature

It was said best by Mike Green, "We have wasted enough time." The Capitals "Young Guns" are now middle aged players with the window closing on them. Semin and Green are on their final year of their contracts. Ovechkin is now 26 years old and entering his 7th year in the NHL. It's time for the Guns to grow up.

After Nick Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin numbers crumpled last season, the Capitals need for them to get over their slump. Injuries might have played a role in the post season disappointments, but the core players have to produce.

4. Role Players Have To Add Something

I get it, it is the fourth line. The checking line is not expected to score, but they sure are not supposed to allow goals against either. Whether it's a fight to up the moral, a big hit, winning a face off, or a solid shift against an opposing top line the third and fourth line have to do their part.

If the top players continue to play in a fog, the last two lines have to add some kind of spark to propel the team to action. Additions of Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern will help in this area. The pair bring in a good energy and some consistency at their positions.

Halpern will fill in for the loss of Boyd Gordon in the face off dot.

5. Coaching Must Do Better

Bruce Boudreau may not have all the answers. Not every NHL coach does. But simply just changing linemates is not going to cut it anymore. Boudreau must step up his end and find solutions game to game. Find the issue and make the correction to change the course of any game.

Last year, Boudreau raised some eyebrows when his response to a struggling power play was simply to replace a player here or a player there. The structure wasn't even attempted to be changed until late in the season when it was clear that the PP was going no where fast.

Boudreau, Bob Woods and Dean Evason have to up their game too. They have to find answers to areas of weakness on their team. Especially now that the Division has improved in the off season to take on the Caps.

None of these problems have a single silver bullet. Instead it will take several experiments to get the concoction just right. The advantage the Capitals have is some world class talent through out the ranks. Whether it's the big names in Ovechkin and Backstrom or solid young talent in John Carlson and Marcus Johansson, the Caps will steal quite a few games on the backs of just good solid talent on the ice.