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.

Here are your officials for the 2017 Stanley Cup Final

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The NHL has announced its officials for the 2017 Stanley Cup Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators.

They are as follows…

Referees: Wes McCauley, Brad Meier, Dan O’Halloran, Kevin Pollock

Linesmen: Scott Cherrey, Shane Heyer, Brad Kovalchik, Brian Murphy

Overall it’s a pretty experienced group of officials as O’Halloran, Pollock and Meier are among the eight most experienced officials the NHL has in terms of games called in their careers.

McCauley is near the top of the NHL in terms of penalties called per game, while Pollock is near the bottom of the league and seems to fit more into the “let them play” style of officiating. O’Halloran and Meier are not much higher, so you probably should not expect this to turn into a special teams series.

Of course, no matter who the referees are, by the end of Game 2 most of the coaches, players and fans from each side will probably not be happy with any of them.

All referee data via Scouting The Refs

 

Blackhawks sign Michal Kempny to one-year contract

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The Chicago Blackhawks announced on Saturday morning that they have signed defenseman Michael Kempny to a one-year contract that will cover the 2017-18 season.

The 26-year-old Kempny was a restricted free agent this summer. Financial terms of the deal are not yet known.

During the 2016-17 season, Kempny’s first in the NHL, he appeared in 62 games for the Blackhawks and scored two goals to go with eight assists.

With Kempny added back into the mix for next season the Blackhawks now have seven defensemen under contract as Kempny joins Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Gustav Forsling, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Michal Rozsival.

Veterans Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya are set to become unrestricted free agents on July 1.

 

Canucks GM wants Miller back, bringing rebuild into question again

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For one fine trade deadline, it seemed like the Vancouver Canucks and GM Jim Benning saw the light.

They actually moved veterans for assets, and interesting ones in that. They were, gasp, considered one of the winners of the trade deadline. There was the indication that a rebuild might finally be in action. Better late than never, right?

Well … maybe that was just a brief reprieve.

The Vancouver Province’s Ben Kuzma reports that Benning threw the word “competitive” around when describing why he wants to re-sign 37-year-old Ryan Miller and why he isn’t looking to trade valued defenseman Chris Tanev and declining blueliner Alex Edler.

Sensible if debatable

His reluctance regarding moving the two defensemen is easier to understand. Tanev, 27, is in his prime at a nice cap hit ($4.45 million through 2019-20). A competitive team would want him, and if Benning is convinced the Canucks are close to being just that, then it makes sense.

Edler staying is a little simpler. He has a no-trade clause and doesn’t want to go.

Now, one can argue that Tanev would be best served being moved for high-quality pieces. And perhaps Benning should at least try to convince Edler to accept a trade.

A strange direction in net

But Miller?

“As we’re transitioning these young players into our lineup, I feel that if we have solid goaltending on a night-to-night basis, we can be competitive,” Benning said Thursday, according to Kuzma.

Now, that story discusses why Miller may or may not accept a return, but one would guess that he won’t have a ton of offers. At least not offers that would involve a chance for more “platoon” or even starter-type work rather than explicitly labeling him a backup.

Really, that’s beside the point, because it’s confounding that Vancouver wouldn’t want to go in a younger direction.

You can read that sort of discussion as the Canucks once again wanting to have their cake and eat it too. They seemingly want to “reload” instead of “rebuild.”

Perhaps there’s some smoke-screening going on here. Maybe Benning’s more interested in moving parts than he lets on; it could be that he wants to drive up Tanev’s price by playing coy about moving him.

Still, on their face, the comments don’t exactly inspire confidence for a fan base that must be getting a little irritated by management that, to many, seems delusional about this team’s potential.

Penguins’ Sullivan believes resiliency is ‘strength of this team’

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz stood shoulder to shoulder at center ice as midnight approached, crowd on its feet, Prince of Wales Trophy in hand. Another shot at the Stanley Cup in the offing.

On the surface, it could have been a scene ripped from 2008 when the longtime Pittsburgh Penguin teammates earned their first crack at a championship together, the one that was supposed to be the launching pad for a dynasty.

A closer look at the weary, grateful smiles told a different story.

This team has learned over the last decade that nothing can be taken for granted. Not their individual greatness or postseason success, even for one of the NHL’s marquee franchises. Not the cohesion it takes to survive the crucible of the most draining championship chase in professional team sports or the mental toughness (along with a dash of luck) needed to stay on top once you get there.

So Crosby paused in the giddy aftermath of Pittsburgh’s 3-2 victory over Ottawa in Game 7 of the helter-skelter Eastern Conference finals to do something the two-time Hart Trophy winner almost never does. He took stock of the moment, aware of how fleeting they can be.

“Every series you look at, the margin for error is so slim,” Crosby said. “We’ve just continued to find ways and different guys have stepped up. We trust in that and we believe in that and whoever has come in the lineup has done a great job. That builds confidence. We’ve done it different ways, which is probably our biggest strength.”

And they’ll have to do it one more time in the final against swaggering Nashville if they want to become the first team in nearly 20 years and the first in salary-cap era to win back-to-back championships.

It’s a daunting task. When the puck drops in Game 1 on Monday night in Pittsburgh, the Penguins will be playing in their 108th game in the last calendar year, and that doesn’t count another half dozen for those who played in the World Cup of Hockey and a handful of exhibition games.

Pittsburgh, however, has survived to do something even Chicago and Los Angeles – who have combined for five of the seven Cups awarded since 2010 – could not in putting itself in positon for a repeat.

Credit coach Mike Sullivan’s ever-prescient tinkering with the lineups, including his decision to throw Kunitz back into the fray with Crosby as Game 7 wore on, an experiment that ended with Crosby feeding Kunitz for the winner 5:09 into the second overtime .

Credit goaltender Matt Murray, thrust back into the lineup when Marc-Andre Fleury‘s hot play that helped carry the Penguins through the opening two rounds finally cooled.

Credit a maturity – or maybe it’s wisdom – from the team leaders who watched the first half of the decade come and go with plenty of gaudy regular-season numbers but no Cup banners to join the one they captured in 2009.

Pinning down what changed is difficult. General manager Jim Rutherford’s ability to remake the team on the fly to build one of the fastest lineups in the league helped. So did Sullivan’s ability to cut through the noise when he replaced the professorial Mike Johnston in December 2015.

Yet the Penguins understand there’s something else at work too, a resiliency and accountability they lacked while falling to lower-seeded teams every year from 2010-14.

“I believe that the resolve and the resilience of this team is the strength of this team,” Sullivan said.

Both were on full display in Game 7.

Kunitz, who missed the first-round series against Columbus with a lower-body injury, returned to see himself bumped from the first line to the fourth, scored his first two goals of the playoffs. Conor Sheary, a blurring revelation last spring who suddenly found himself a healthy scratch in Games 5 and 6 against the Senators, returned to set up Kunitz’s first goal .

Justin Schultz, who has assumed the as the minute-hogging, puck-moving defenseman role held by the injured Kris Letang, returned from his own health scare and scored a go-ahead goal in the third period.

If the Penguins were a force of nature last spring while earning the franchise’s fourth Cup, this one is more of a throwback. More blue collar. More anonymous.

Some of the key cogs that helped Pittsburgh get to this point – rookie forward Jake Guentzel, 37-year-old playoff newcomer Ron Hainsey and career grinder Scott Wilson – weren’t even around last spring. Yet they and so many others not named Crosby or Malkin have become equal partners in pursuit of a title.

“This year it’s been back and forth, it’s been tough,” Kunitz said. “We’ve had great individual performances. We had great goaltending. It’s something every night.”

It hasn’t been pretty. So what? Perhaps the biggest sign of the team’s growth is it has abandoned the pursuit of style points for something far more tangible. Like a 34-pound piece of hardware, one Pittsburgh has no intention of handing off anytime soon.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey