Capitals Success Dependent on Contribuions of Rookies

Posted by Dave Nichols | Saturday, March 19, 2011 | 0 comments »

Entering play against the New Jersey Devils Friday night, the Washington Capitals led the NHL in minutes played by rookies this season.  It's not an insignificant statistic, as the Caps are now in a three-way tie for second most points in the league and preparing for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

It's fairly remarkable that a team that is relying so heavily on first year players -- and struggled so hard in the middle of the season -- is now enjoying the fruits of their labor.  Take, for instance, the No. 2 team in minutes by rookies this season, the last-in-the-league Edmonton Oilers.

The Capitals -- with the strong play of late from Marcus Johansson, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Michal Neuvirth and Jay Beagle -- are being rewarded for their patience with these young players coming through for them on a nightly basis.

The Caps aren't "hiding" these players either.  Neuvirth has been the No. 1 goalie, playing in 43 of the team's 73 games.  And it's not like they have a veteran backup on the bench, as Semyon Varlamov (24 games) -- barely past rookie status himself, and third goalie Braden Holtby (13 games) have also been stellar when their numbers have been called.

Washington has rookies playing major minutes and contributing heavily on special teams.  Carlson and Alzner are the top defensive pairing, regularly matching up against the opponents top line night after night.  Johansson, who at the start of the season really looked like he could have used a year in the "A" to get used to North American hockey, was a plus-3 last night centering Alex Ovechkin and Mike Knuble.

All of them seem to be playing better as the season progresses, as opposed to hitting some sort of "rookie wall", wearing out under the rigors of an NHL schedule and the pressure of a playoff race.

Coach Bruce Boudreau spoke about how crucial the contribution has been from his rookies after practice today, a 45 minutes session of passing, skating and conditioning drills, little more than 12 hours after their latest win, a 3-0 shut out of the previously red-hot Devils in the swamps of Jersey. 
"It's been everything.  We've had five and six rookies [in the lineup] every night.  If they don't improve, then we wouldn't be in the position we're in.  So they have improved. 

They've gotten better and I think we've done a pretty good job as an organization in monitoring their ice time, especially up front from 10 minutes, you know, some of them start at seven minutes, nine they're playing 15 minutes.  And playing them in important situations, I think, is probably the big key.  John [Carlson] and Karl [Alzner] have played in every big situation, Marcus [Johansson] kills penalties, is on the power play.  Beagle kills penalties.  All these guys are put into positions [where] we really need them to do well, and they've responded very favorably."
The importance of the development of the rookies hasn't gone unnoticed by the veterans on the team either. 

"It's been great," Matt Hendricks said about the progress the younger players are making.  "I think that their ice time, their minutes are going up, they're succeeding, they're battling and any time you get those types of guys that are here to buy into the team and the team only you're going to find a lot of success."

The most veteran on the team, Mike Knuble, discussed how integral the contributions from the rookies have been, and how vital to the team their progression has been. 
"I think we've all gotten stronger as the year's gone along and so have they.  It takes time to play in this league, and to be honest, you think with rookies there's going to be a drop-off instead of a steady climb up. 

The pace of the season, the grind, injuries mount up, the amount of practicing, the traveling and all that starts to get to you in February, even for the veteran players.  But it's hard on first year guys who haven't been through it before.  But they've steadily climbed in their play, and they've big big parts of our team.  And not only on five-on-five play, but killing penalties, Marcus has killed a lot of penalties, Jay Beagle's stepped in.  A lot of guys have helped out.  You know, without them we're not getting very far, either.
With only nine games remaining in the regular season, it's hard to call these young players rookies anymore.  But it speaks volumes to the philosophy the organization of integrating youngsters into a mix of players entering their prime and savvy veterans looking for a chance at the Cup.

Their best players are still young, they are mixing in rookies with increasingly positive results, and there's more talent coming up through the system.

There were times this season when the Capitals legitimately struggled, searching for an identity among the assembled parts.  But as with the rookies, their patience is paying off.  They've committed to being more responsible on defense, have been the beneficiary of some terrific goaltending, and are peaking at the right time of the year.

Now, can we talk about the power play?

GAME 73 RE-CAP: Czech Mate

Posted by Dave Nichols | Saturday, March 19, 2011 | , , , , | 0 comments »

There are five elements of goaltending: 
1. Agility.
2. Glove.
3. Technique.
4. Head.
5. Health.
Michal Neuvirth used all of these elements to his advantage Friday night, shutting out the red-hot New Jersey Devils 3-0, giving them their second consecutive loss and just about killing any remaining hope for the team from the swamps to complete their dramatic comeback attempt for a playoff spot.

Neuvirth, who turned away all 33 shots faced last night, did most of the heavy lifting on defense himself, as the Devils were constantly in scoring position.  But it seemed like for every shot New Jersey got on net, they had an equal number that went wide, were deflected harmlessly away, simply misfired, or flat swung on and missed.

On the other end, the Capitals made good on three of 12 shooting; not great numbers if you're a three-point shooter in the NCAA tournament or a Washington National down at spring training, but tremendous for a hockey team.

Though I'm sure coach Bruce Boudreau would have preferred his team made things more difficult on Martin Brodeur (nine saves on 12 shots) overall,  it's hard to argue with the result.

Neuvirth, who looked a little rusty in Wednesday night's loss to Detroit, was anything but tonight.  From the very first shift of the game the Devils peppered him with shots, and he rose to each occasion. 

He made several remarkable catches with his glove hand, including Russian sniper Ilya Kovachuk on a breakaway with just under three minutes remaining, prompting the Devils most prolific scorer to slam his stick into the boards after the whistle in frustration.

As he's generally been all season long for the Caps, Neuvirth was their best player on the ice.

The young Czech netminder is solidifying his case to be the workhorse for Boudreau once the playoffs start in a matter of weeks.  I'm sure Semyon Varlamov is going to have a chance to play down the stretch, but Neuvirth has done everything asked of him and more.  His four shutouts are most for an individual for the Caps since the days of Godzilla and set a team rookie record.

As for the four elements above, Varly may have Neuvy beat on the first element when healthy, but Neuvirth tops all three of the Caps goalies on the depth chart on points two, three and four.  Someday Braden Holtby might enter the argument, but until he's channeled his quirkiness and led an AHL team to a championship, he'll have to be satisfied with being the third man in this trio of young, talented goaltenders.

It's time for Boudreau to hitch his wagon to his horse.

CAPS NOTES:  Mike Knuble had two goals and an assist, finishing a great fake-shot-slap-pass from John Carlson and making a beautiful wrist shot through an impressive clear and screen by Marcus Johansson. 

After the play, lip-readers were treated to Knuble patting the 20-year old rookie in the chest and saying "Good work kid."  The cross-ice pass from Ovechkin to Knuble was lovely, as was the defensive play Carlson (plus-2) made in his own end to shut the Devils' winger down, gather the puck, and spring Ovechkin up the boards.

Johansson was pointless, but finished the night plus-3, and really appears to be stepping up his game each night out.  Though he was only 3-of-11 in the dot.  I think we know what his point of emphasis is going to be over the off-season.

Jeff Schultz (plus-2) opened the scoring with a shot from the point through a screen that avoided Brodeur's glove.  It was his first goal of the season and first overall since Feb 11, 2010, a span of 81 games.

The penalty kill was again outstanding, going 3-for-3.  Particularly noteworthy was the four minute kill of a Matt Hendricks high stick that ended the second period and started the third in a 2-0 game.

Nicklas Backstrom returned from the hand injury that's sidelined him since March 7.  He centered Alexander Semin and Marco Sturm on the second line and went 13-for17 in the faceoff circle.

The Caps drew even with the Philadelphia Flyers, their next opponent next Tuesday, in points for the top seed in the Eastern Conference with 94, though the Flyers have three games in hand, including Saturday's game in Dallas against the Stars.

GAME 72 RE-CAP: One Streak Ends...

Posted by Dave Nichols | Thursday, March 17, 2011 | , , , | 0 comments »

The Washington Capitals saw their nine-game winning streak (and six-game road streak) snapped last night at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings, 3-2, in a lively, entertaining game before 20,066 at Joe Louis Arena.

The Caps and Wings played even for most of the night, but with Mike Knuble in the box for tripping midway through the third period, Henrik Zetterberg got his second goal of the night, beating Michal Neuvirth short-side with a backhander to lead Detroit to the victory.

Neuvirth had a solid game, making 29 saves, but in a tied game, on the road, he has to come up with that one.  Zetterberg put the puck the only place he could -- between Neuvirth's glove and his head, since the young Czech was hugging the post -- so credit should be shown for the execution. 

But if Neuvirth wants to be the goalie Bruce Boudreau calls on to start Game One in the playoffs, he needs to come up a way to keep that shot out of the net.

But Neuvirth doesn't have to shoulder the blame completely for this one.

The Capitals simply have to figure out what to do on the power play.  They drew four fouls last night, and got calls in the last minute of the first and second periods, but could do nothing with them.  Washington could muster just five shots on goal with the extra man last night in four power play opportunities.  That's just not getting it done.

But let's take some perspective in what has been a truly remarkable and riveting season for these Washington Capitals.

The Caps came into the game missing Nicklas Backstrom, Jason Arnott, Eric Fehr, Mike Green and Tom Poti to injury.  There are teams in this league that would kill to put those five guys out on the ice to start the game.  They also lost last season's plus/minus leader for six weeks, one of their most effective energy guys for the same time frame, and an enigmatic but talented scorer for three weeks.

And they've missed their playoff goalie of the last two seasons for all but 24 games.

Twelve players on last night's active roster fell into at least one of the following categories: 1) Is a true rookie; 2) Was not with the team at the start of the season; 3) Was not with the team last season; 4) Was waived THIS season at some point; 5) Is Tyler Sloan (sorry, cheap shot).

According to a tweet by Mike Vogel at this morning, Washington leads the league in minutes played by rookies this season, despite coming off a season where they won the President's Trophy with 121 points.

And yet, the Caps sit one point out of the Eastern Conference top seed, lead the Southeast Division by five points, and are currently tied for third for most points in the entire league this season.

Has it been a disappointing season?  I guess that depends on your perspective.

The Caps still have work to do.  They still have bodies to get healthy.  They still have to settle on a goalie (or not).

They still have four tough games to go on this brutal late-season road trip before another chance to make hay in one of the toughest building to play in in the league.

But they've shown remarkable resiliency coming back from the troubles they had in December and January to climb back to the top of the standings.

How rare is it for one team to have an eight-game losing streak the same season they had a nine-game winning streak?  Someone get the Elias Sports Bureau on the phone.

GAME 71 RE-CAP: MoJo Risin', Caps Win Ninth Straight

Posted by Dave Nichols | Tuesday, March 15, 2011 | , , , | 0 comments »

Every game the rest of the regular season is going to present the Washington Capitals with a chance to move up or down in the Eastern Conference standings.  But no team in hockey is on more of a roll, as the Caps won their ninth straight game overall -- and a team record sixth on a row on the road -- in a 4-2 win over last year's playoff nemesis Montreal Canadiens before a raucous crowd at the Bell Centre.

Rookie center Marcus Johansson, bouncing between the first and second lines due to injuries to Nicklas Backstrom and Jason Arnott, scored twice, notching his second two-goal game of the season.  Johansson's development this season has been impressive and he seems to be getting better as the season goes on.

And that's good.  Because with Arnott's "week-to-week" injury, Johansson is going to have to shoulder the load for a couple weeks that he looked ill-equipped to handle the first half of the season: that of a play-making second line center.

Johansson certainly looked the part last night, and has on occasion this season looked brilliant.  He's a terrific skater and decent defender, but at time on offense he's looked timid and deferential to the veterans on the team. 

But the young Swede banged home an awkward bounce off the back boards into an empty net for the first goal of the game, and got the game winner in the third, putting a backhander in against Carey Price (37 saves) off a nice pass from Alex Ovechkin.  Ovechkin had beaten P.K. Subban to the loose puck behind the net and got the puck to an open Johansson cutting to the goal.

Mike Knuble added a one-timer blast with 3:07 left to seal the victory, aided by a pretty saucer pass from Marco Sturm, who had just left the penalty box after taking a bad hooking call.  Brooks Laich got his 16th of the season -- and 100th NHL goal -- earlier in the game by beating Hal Gill to the outside, cutting across the crease and slipping the puck past a sprawled Price.

Price was tremendous in this game, and he defied logic and gravity at time keeping his Canadiens teammates in this one.  But time and again his defense let him down, committing costly turnovers and bad passes through the neutral zone.  And when the Montreal offense did manage to set up, Braden Holtby was there, making 24 saves in his fifth consecutive win.

Holtby looked shaky early, and made a huge error, playing a puck behind the net and not getting back to his crease quickly enough.  Travis Moen collected the puck along the boards below the circle and fired a short-angle shot, beating the goalie to the net.  Montreal's other goal was a nice wrist shot that beat Holtby glove side.

But the rookie netminder was again solid in the third period, turning away all eight Montreal shots in the final frame to help carry the Caps to victory.

The win came with a price, though, as Eric Fehr left the game in the second period and did not return.  After the game, coach Bruce Boudreau said Fehr suffered an "upper body injury" and would be re-evaluated in the morning.

It was a big game and a big win for the Capitals in Montreal last night. The Bell Center can be a house of horrors, and no Caps fan will soon forget how last year's series turned out with "Le Blue, Blanc et Rouge."

But this year's version of the Capitals are coming into their own as the second season approaches.  They still haven't lost since the trade deadline, and are playing the tight-checking, close to the vest style of hockey that many around the league refer to as "playoff hockey". 

They proved again last night they can go into a tough building and come out with two points.  Nine wins in a row in has vaulted the Caps back into the conversation about the top seed in the East, and as play begins Wednesday Washington finds themselves just one point behind Philadelphia for that top spot, though the Flyers have two games in hand over the Caps.

As the road trip continues through Detroit and New Jersey, next Tuesday's matchup with the Flyers looms.

Can you blame a guy for looking ahead a little bit?

CAPS NOTES:  Jason Arnott did not make the road trip with what the Capitals are calling a "week-to-week" undisclosed injury.  He will miss at least the first three games of the road trip.

Nickals Backstrom (hand) did make the trip and skated before the Montreal game, but was held out again.  He could very well make his return Wednesday in Detroit.

Jay Beagle got a sweater for the first time since Feb. 26.  He took 15 shifts and recorded one shot on goal.

John Carlson played his best game in a while, recording six shots and blocking two.  He had an assist and was plus-2 for the night.

Matt Hendricks had a goal waived off after a scramble in the crease.  The video replay judges ruled the on-ice officials either had or were in the process of blowing the play dead and upheld the ruling on the ice of "no goal."

The power play went 2-for-5, but failed to score on a 1:25 five-on-three to end the first period.