What Went Wrong: Washington Capitals

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After such a promising win in the first round over the New York Rangers, the Capitals decided to make like it was old timer’s day and play their second round matchup against Tampa Bay as if they were facing Montreal last year. That didn’t work then and it didn’t work against the Lightning this year. What went wrong for the Caps in this hasty exit from the playoffs? We’ve got a list.

1. Alex and the Ovechtricks
A lot of criticism today is being heaped upon Alex Ovechkin. It makes sense because he’s the captain but when people want to say the Caps couldn’t overcome the Lightning because Ovechkin “wasn’t clutch” or “didn’t try hard enough” they’re trolling for a reaction. Fact of the matter is, against the Lightning, Ovechkin was still the team’s leading scorer (two goals, two assists) and he was clearly the only guy on the ice giving a damn about how the team did.

The Caps struggled to score enough goals as it was, but Ovechkin’s effort level was consistently high and he was the one constant for Washington in a series that had none. Other “top” scorers for Washington? Brooks Laich (one goal, two assists)and Jason Arnott (three assists) each with three points. John Carlson did his part to help from the blue line with two goals but that was it. Mike Knuble played hurt and had a goal to try and show the example, but others who they count on to produce failed.

Nicklas Backstrom (one assist) and Alex Semin (one goal, one assist) alike were terrible in this series and after Marcus Johansson’s great series against New York he withered and disappeared against Tampa Bay winding up with two assists and a -5 plus/minus. Ovechkin is but one guy and when going against a team focused and hell-bent on preventing your best player from scoring others need to step up. None of Ovechkin’s teammates did that.

2. Power play abomination
It wasn’t as if the Lightning didn’t give the Capitals opportunity to stay in the games and seize the day to get a win. They did so to the tune of 19 power play chances over the four games. Only twice did the Capitals cash in on the man advantage and one of those two goals came on a 5-on-3 power play.

Tampa Bay wasn’t the most disciplined team by any stretch in this series and they gave the Capitals plenty of chances to burn them for their brutal mistakes. Guys like Brett Clark and Adam Hall were more than happy to take bad penalties but the Caps lack of power play cohesion all season came home to roost in this series.

3. Getting outcoached
The Lightning came in with a game plan, stuck to it, and stifled the Capitals attack four straight games. When a coach employs a game plan against you, one that’s making it so your team is struggling to do anything against them, it’s up to the opposing coach to find a hole or a strategy that will make them pay for it.

Bruce Boudreau seemed to have no answers for Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 defense. Boudreau also had no means of fixing up a power play that’s struggled all year long. At some point you knew it was going to come back and bite them and with a series that had essentially three one-goal games (Game 1 had an empty net goal) having your power play fail so spectacularly hurt them.

Whether or not Boudreau had the answers or if he just fiddled about hoping that the team’s talent would take over is up to GM George McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis to decide. Getting outcoached two years in a row by guys implementing a defensive-minded system though doesn’t look good. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…”

4. Hockey intelligence
Something a team can’t afford to do when they’re fighting for goals and caught in close games is to give their opponent chances on the power play to either get back in a game or to take one over. The Capitals failed miserably at controlling their own fate as they perpetually left the door open for the Lightning via the power play. The Lightning connected on 22.2% of their chances in this series (4-18) and those goals always came at the wrong time.

Steven Stamkos’ power play goal in Game 1 was the one that broke a 2-2 tie late in the second period. Vincent Lecavalier’s in Game 2 was the first goal of the game putting Washington in a hole immediately. In Game 4, Ryan Malone kicked off the game with a power play goal again putting the Caps down right away. Later on it would be Marc-Andre Bergeron putting the Caps down for good in the third period with a goal that made it 4-2 early in the period.

It’s one thing to take penalties, it’s another thing to have your penalty killers give up those deflating or back-breaking goals that turn the tide of a game right away. The Caps being done in by their own mistakes with bad penalties makes all the more sense.

***

The Capitals are obviously highly talented but there’s something seriously wrong going on with this team that they can’t get past teams that maniacally work hard. Montreal did it last year, Tampa Bay did this time. Whether that’s indicative of something being wrong with the personnel on or off the ice is up for debate. Likely, it’s a good mix of both.

There are some players that aren’t working out the right way and there’s now some brand of disconnect with Boudreau because the team continues to come up short in the postseason. Change is coming in D.C. it’s just a matter of how much and who suffers for it. At least the Caps off-season will be more entertaining than their playoff games turned out to be.

Expansion Golden Knights are officially in first place

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Just like we all predicted in September, the Vegas Golden Knights are sitting in first place in the NHL.

The Golden Knights’ 5-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes allowed them to collect their 65th and 66th points of the season, which moved them one point ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning for top spot in the league (both teams have played 46 games).

PHT’s Adam Gretz wrote a terrific piece about Golden Knights’ amazing first season to date.

It’s only fitting that Vegas got a good amount of production from some of their most pleasant surprises tonight. Jonathan Marchessault, Colin Miller and James Neal also found the back of the net.

As you’d expect, the Golden Knights’ Twitter account is having fun marking this occasion.

We’ve had over three months to come to grips with everything the Golden Knights have done, but it’s still amazing to see how some of the players on their roster have produced during Vegas’ inaugural season.

 

43 points in 43 games for Marchessault? 25 goals at the midway point of the season for William Karlsson? Nobody saw those things coming. What makes this even more impressive is that they’ve had to roll four goalies (Marc-Andre Fleury, Oscar Dansk, Malcolm Subban and Maxime Lagace).

Now the question is, how far can this pesky expansion team go?

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Struggling Lightning lose Ondrej Palat for indefinite period of time

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The Tampa Bay Lightning have been going through a difficult stretch lately and things got a lot more difficult on Sunday. The team announced that Ondrej Palat is out indefinitely after taking a spear from Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon on Saturday night.

The Bolts, who are on an eight-game road trip, have confirmed that Palat will head back to Tampa on Monday for further testing. He’s accumulated eight goals and 30 points in 46 games this season.

Although the video isn’t the clearest, this is the play that led to the injury:

The injury couldn’t have come at a worse time, as the Lightning have been slumping badly of late. They’ve dropped three games in a row to Calgary, Vegas and Minnesota.

Their once giant lead atop the Atlantic Division has dwindled to three points over the Boston Bruins, who have a game in hand.

“We’re just out of synch, it’s unreal,” head coach Jon Cooper said, per The Tampa Times. “The guys didn’t forget how to play hockey in the last week and a half. We’re just out of synch. One guy zigs, the other guy zags. It’s crazy that in the last week and a half, we kind of lost our swag.”

The Bolts will continue their road trip in Chicago, Nashville and Philadelphia before the All-Star break. On top of their difficult schedule, they’ll also be without number one defenseman Victor Hedman for the next few weeks.

Their spot in the playoffs isn’t in any danger, but the number one seed in the league (Vegas is coming in a hurry) and top spot in the division is in doubt.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Konecny’s OT goal lifts Flyers to another win, puts them back in playoff spot

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The Philadelphia Flyers are on some kind of a roll, and now they are back in a playoff position.

They were 2-1 winners in Washington on Sunday afternoon thanks to an overtime goal from Travis Konecny, giving the Flyers their seventh win in their past eight games.

Sunday’s win helped the Flyers jump over the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers for a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, while also bringing them to within a single point of the Columbus Blue Jackets for third place in the Metropolitan Division and just two points of the New Jersey Devils for second place.

Considering that this is a team that lost 10 games in a row between Nov. 11 and Dec. 2 it is a pretty remarkable turnaround.

Since that losing streak came to an end the Flyers are 15-5-1.

The driving force behind the turnaround has been the trio of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier. Those three were relatively quiet from an offensive perspective on Sunday (Couturier did get an assist on Konecny’s winner) but the Flyers were still able to come away with the win.

The big difference maker on Sunday was goaltender Brian Elliott thanks to his 27 stops. He was at his best in the first period when he made a handful of stellar stops on Alex Ovechkin, including this point-blank stop when the game was still scoreless.

Elliott was in need of a game like this because he had not played well over the past few weeks, giving up at least three goals in each of his past seven appearances. Only once during that stretch did he record a save percentage higher than .900 in a single game, and even that game was only .903.

Ovechkin did end up scoring his league-leading 29th goal in the second period, scoring on a power the play, but it was the only shot the Capitals would get behind Elliott.

Michael Raffl also scored for the Flyers in the win.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Golden Knights keep getting better, more powerful

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Here is a sentence that would have been laughable to even suggest back in October: If the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday night they will move into sole possession for first place in the entire NHL.

At this point the Golden Knights, the NHL’s latest expansion team, are no longer just a fun story: They are a contender, a legitimate one, and they only keep getting stronger as the season progresses. There is a pretty convincing argument to be made that they actually are the best team in hockey at the moment.

Entering play on Sunday Vegas is on a 15-3-3 run since Dec. 1.

What is even more impressive than the record itself is the way they are starting to dominate games.

When Vegas found its initial success it was easy to kind of downplay it as a team that was simply riding a wave of hot goaltending that would, inevitably, regress. Whenever that regression happened the expectation was that they would start to play like a regular expansion team and start losing.

For a while, there was a lot of evidence to suggest that was going to be the case.

In that first month Vegas was losing the shot bottle, it was losing the possession battle, and with Marc-Andre Fleury sidelined it was relying on a patchwork group of goaltenders to somehow steal games.

But take a look at what has happened in each month since looking at their Corsi percentage (shot attempts at even-strength) and PDO (even-strength shooting percentage plus even-strength save percentage).

The slow start is understandable. It was a new team with what was thought to be an undermanned roster that had never played together.  Since then they have steadily gone from being one of the worst possession teams in the league in the first month that got by on what was mostly percentage driven good fortune, to a team that has been, at least in January, the absolute best possession team in the league.

If you look at December and January together (the aforementioned 15-3-3 stretch) the Golden Knights are the the seventh-best possession team. They have only been outshot five times in those 21 games, and only three of those teams outshot them by more than five.

[Related: Revisiting the trades that built one of the NHL’s best lines in Vegas]

By comparison, Vegas has outshot nine teams by at least five, including seven by at least 10 shots during that same stretch.

There is still an element of some percentage driven luck here, especially when it comes to the goaltending. Fleury is not going to maintain a .945 save percentage for the rest of the season, and William Karlsson still can not miss when the puck is on his stick. He may have deserved more of a look in his previous stops in Anaheim and Columbus, but he is also not a 26 percent shooter every season.

But the fact the Golden Knights are starting to drive possession and control the overwhelming majority of the shot attempts is not only incredibly impressive, it is extremely encouraging for their outlook for the remainder of the season.

They are not just getting the results at the moment, the process driving the results is sound as well.

From the very beginning absolutely everything has clicked for them. The goaltending has been sensational, their top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith has found immediate chemistry, and they are playing a fast, aggressive style of hockey that is starting to overwhelm teams.

Even if Vegas played the remainder of the season at the level of a normal expansion team (let’s say a .400 points percentage) they would still finish with 94 points on the season. There is nothing to suggest they will play at that level. Instead, if they keep playing the way they have been for the better part of the past two months they are going to be giving Tampa Bay, Boston, and Nashville a run for the Presidents’ Trophy. In their very first season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz