All posts in hockey

15May

Panthers rally (again and again), Caps eliminated (again)

The Washington Capitals have been eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for a fourth consecutive season. 

The Caps, who held a two-games-to-one series lead over the Florida Panthers, had numerous chances throughout the series, but simply failed to rise to the occasion when given ample opportunities. Washington held a lead in Game 4, 5 and 6, but the President’s Trophy-winning Panthers were able to battle back in all three contests and will now advance to the second round while the Capitals are once again faced with difficult decisions after a hasty exit.

“You have to shut down teams,” said Nicklas Backstrom. “I don’t know what else to say. It’s obviously on us. It’s disappointing.”

Priority number one for general manager Brian MacLellan this offseason needs to be upgrading the goaltending situation. Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek are both restricted free agents and either could be a solid backup next season. But neither has shown they can be the unquestioned starter for a veteran team in ‘win-now’ mode.

Beyond the netminders, MacLellan has difficult choices to make with the top half of the roster as well. Backstrom clearly wasn’t himself this season as he battled through a hip injury. T.J. Oshie broke his foot early in the season, tried to play through it and ended up dealing with lingering back issues because of it. Alex Ovechkin entered the postseason with a left shoulder injury that caused him to miss the final three games of the regular season. Tom Wilson suffered a significant knee injury in the opening minutes of the playoffs and would not have been cleared to return to action even if Washington had been able to advance to the second round.

Will each of these core players be able to fully recover and remain productive for an aging Capitals team desperate to make one final run at glory? Or is this franchise in dire need of a more radical overhaul if the goal is to do anything more than simply qualify for the postseason at this point?

08May

Caps crush Cats, cruise to convincing win

Considering how the Washington Capitals limped into the postseason — losing five of their final six regular season games — reasonable hockey fans had doubts about the team ability to magically flip a switch come playoff time.

Watching the team’s defensive struggles down the stretch and erratic goaltending all season long made even the most optimistic of individuals admit that this likely wasn’t Washington’s year.

Naturally, the Caps welcomed the President’s Trophy-winning Florida Panthers to town with an emphatic 6-1 victory to take a two-games-to-one series lead in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

During the regular season, the high-flying Panthers scored an impressive 340 goals while allowing just 246 goals against. Through three playoff game though, Florida is having a tougher time generating consistent scoring chances thanks to Washington’s improved play in the neutral zone. By getting back quickly and limiting odd-man rushes, the Caps are doing to the Panthers what stymied Alex Ovechkin and the Young Guns in their early run-and-gun days.

Capitals goalie Ilya Samsonov, who sat out the first five periods of the series, started Game 3 and, much like he’s done throughout his 39 starts this season, immediately allowed a soft goal in the opening minutes of this matchup. Fortunately for the home team, the young netminder settled down afterwards and finished the night with 29 saves. With Samsonov having one of his strongest showings in recent history, all four lines in front of him played with a confidence and ease that hasn’t been seen all that often this season. Add in two power play goals and a perfect night for the penalty killing unit and this was the rare home playoff game that didn’t induce a panic attack for Caps fans.

23Mar

Physical battle with St. Louis leaves Capitals battered, blue

The streaky Washington Capitals were unable to find a veteran goaltender before the NHL trade deadline, but that doesn’t mean they sat idle. General manager Brian MacLellan acquired a pair of forwards — Seattle’s Marcus Johansson and Arizona’s Johan Larsson — to bolster his team’s lineup in preparation for the postseason.

Johansson was back in D.C., where he spent his first seven seasons, in time to play the St. Louis Blues, while Larsson remains sidelined as he recovers from sports hernia surgery. MacLellan’s hope is that these veterans can provide coach Peter Laviolette with stability and consistency that has been lacking due to injuries and uneven play from rookies and younger players.

Unfortunately, Washington was unable to take advantage of Johansson’s first game back in a Capitals’ sweater since 2016 due to shoddy team defense and an overall lack of discipline.

“We gave up way too much in the first period,” Laviolette said after the 5-2 loss. “Too many mental mistakes, too many soft mistakes. Too easy to play against.”

The Caps were outshot 38 to 21, lost 63 percent of their faceoffs and generally looked a step slow on the night, as they dropped their second-straight home game. With 17 games remaining, nights like this are going to need to become few and far between for this season to end in anything other than disappointment.

06Mar

Vanecek, power play get Caps back on track

When last we checked in on the Washington Capitals, they had boarded the struggle bus and were trying to figure out how a promising start to the 2021-22 campaign went sideways. The situation looked bleak as the Caps went winless at home during the entire month of February, but the return of several of key players from the injured list provided welcome reinforcements as the expansion Seattle Kraken came to town for the first time.

Vitek Vanecek, T.J. Oshie and Anthony Mantha were all in action after missing chunks of the season due to various injuries and ailments, and their presence absolutely made an impact. When Tom Wilson and Dmitry Orlov scored less than a minute apart in the first period, Capital One Arena was rocking. And when Seattle responded with goals late in the first period and in the first minute of the second stanza, the Capitals didn’t panic.

They instead turned to the power play, which has let Washington down for much of the season, to find a way to regain the lead. Power plays goals by Conor Sheary and Alex Ovechkin allowed the home team to once again push ahead and an empty netter by Sheary sealed the 5-2 victory for the red rockers. Vanecek made 29 saves en route to his 12th win of the season.

At the end of January, the Capitals’ power play ranked 30th in the league, converting on just 13.9 percent. In their last 13 games though, Washington has scored 13 goals on the man advantage, converting 30.2 percent of the time. Getting key players like Nicklas Backstrom, Oshie and Mantha back in the lineup has clearly made a different with the special teams unit.

Can these players provide the spark this team has lacked of late or do drastic measures need to take place between now and the trade deadline for this franchise to make another run at Lord Stanley’s most prized possession? Strap in for the ride, folks, because we’re about to find out.

01Mar

No place like the road for suddenly-vulnerable Capitals

When the Washington Capitals hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs at Capital One Arena on the final day of February, the bout featured two franchises trending in very different directions. Auston Matthews and the league’s top powerplay visited our nation’s capital for the first time this season riding high — lighting up Detroit for 10 goals in their last game.

Conversely, the Caps have struggled in nearly all phases of the game in 2022. Since the calendar flipped, Washington has posted a less-than-impressive 8-11-2 record which includes a five-game losing streak at home — the team’s longest home losing streak since 2007. Considering the Capitals ended 2021 tied with Tampa Bay for the most points in the league, they’ve picked a bad time to take their foot off of the gas.

The maddeningly inconsistent Ilya Samsonov started in net for the Capitals … and gave up a goal on the second shot he faced. The 25-year-old netminder then allowed two goals in the final 71 seconds of the first period prompting coach Peter Laviolette to end his night early.

While Washington was able to keep things relatively competitive for most of the evening, Toronto ultimately cruised to a convincing 5-3 win. Tom Wilson scored twice, once on the powerplay and once shorthanded, and Conor Sheary added his 12th goal of the season for the free-falling Caps — who drop to 3-8-1 at Capital One Arena in 2022, with none of those victories in regulation.

If this season is going to be remembered as anything other than a disappointment, Washington needs to get back on track sooner rather than later.

03Feb

Samsonov picks bad day to forget how to play

When the schedule was released, this was one of the most anticipated games of the season. For the first time in two years, the dynamic Edmonton Oilers visited our nation’s capital.

Connor McDavid. Alex Ovechkin. Leon Draisaitl. Evgeny Kuznetsov.

The best overall player in hockey today against arguably the best pure goal scorer of all time. A young and exciting club hoping to put together all of the pieces squaring off against a grizzled group of veterans trying to make one last run at glory. What more could a hockey fan ask for?

Sigh.

The Caps welcomed the Oilers without the services of Ovechkin, and his team-leading 29 goals and 58 points through 46 games, after the 36-year-old tested positive for Covid-19 earlier in the day. The Russian Machine may never break, but it means he’ll also miss this weekend’s All-Star Game festivities.

Additionally, T.J. Oshie and Vitek Vanecek were unavailable for the marquee matchup, as both recover from upper body injuries.

Edmonton, who has struggled to find consistency all season long, showed no sympathy to their shorthanded hosts, scoring on three of their first four shots of the game — sending Ilya Samsonov to the showers before he even had a chance to break a sweat (after just five minutes and seven seconds of action).

Pheonix Copley, who was added to the Caps’ taxi squad earlier in the day, was thrust into action and had a strong showing — stopping 21 of 22 shots in relief duty. Lars Eller, Conor Sheary and Kuznetsov scored for Washington, who rallied to make a game of it. But ultimately, McDavid and friends prevailed, 5-3, earning their fifth win in six games while preventing the Capitals from recording a third-consecutive victory of their own.

11Jan

Futile Fucale is no match for Bruins’ barrage

While Alex Ovechkin continues to defy conventional wisdom (and Father Time), the fact remains that the current version of your Washington Capitals is clearly built to win now. 

Along with The Great 8, guys like Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and John Carlson are established veterans who are much closer to the end of their playing days than the beginning.

Capitals coach Peter Laviolette and general manager Brian MacLellan obviously know this, and realistically, should be pleased with what they’ve seen from the bulk of the roster during the current campaign.

That said, while Washington’s offense has done the bulk of the heavy lifting and the defense has been steady and solid, the team’s biggest question mark is at goalie.

Neither Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek has done enough during their time with the franchise to stake their claim as a long-term solution. Which is why Laviolette turned to Zach Fucale as the Boston Bruins came to town for a rematch of last year’s disappointing playoff series.

Fucale is a 26-year-old netminder who got the call-up from Hershey and promptly recorded a shutout in his NHL debut back in November. In his next two appearances, Fucale was equally impressive and featured a 0.42 goals against average and .980 save percentage prior to his first-career home start.

Sadly, the good times did not continue against Boston, as the 2013 second round pick was waxed by the resurgent Bruins — allowing four goals on 16 shots before his night was ended midway through the second period. 

Conventional wisdom suggests you should never get too high or too low after a particular outing, but nights like this are a harsh reminder that if the Capitals are going to avoid a hasty elimination in the postseason for a fourth-consecutive season, they’re going to need someone to step up and solidify the goaltending situation. Whether that someone is currently on the roster or not remains to be seen.

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