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Caps' win streak clipped by Canadiens in narrow loss

Caps' win streak clipped by Canadiens in narrow loss

The Washington Capitals fell to the Montreal Canadiens in a narrow 2-1 loss on Saturday.

How it happened: Artturi Lehkonen got inside positioning on Matt Niskanen in the corner to take possession of the puck. Seeing a clear lane behind the net, Lehkkonen called his own number and caught Braden Holtby by surprise with the quick wraparound that went five-hole to put Montreal up 1-0. The Caps took advantage of a two-man advantage in the second period as Justin Williams found Nicklas Backstrom for the sharp angle shot on the wide open net, but Montreal responded just 2:23 later.

With Max Pacioretty driving into the Caps' zone, Karl Alzner called for Marcus Johansson to cover the trailing Jeff Petry, but Johansson lost his man and Petry was all alone in front of the net for the easy tip in.

What it means:  The loss snaps what was a six-game win streak and a seven-game point streak. The Caps are now 5-3-0 against Canadian teams this season and 7-2-1 against teams from the Atlantic Division. The loss is also the first regulation loss of Braden Holtby's career against Montreal. His career record coming into Saturday's game was 8-0-2.

RELATED: Sanford shows flashes in loss to Montreal

Turning point: The game was close for much of the game, but trailing 2-1 heading into the third period, Washington did not register a shot on goal until there was less than seven minutes remaining in the game. Washington put on a good push at the end of the period, but goalie Carey Price was up to the task. Had the Caps been able to generate that kind of pressure throughout the period, perhaps it would have had a different outcome.

Slow start: Saturday’s game was the third straight in which the Caps gave up the first goal. Starting strong was a focus of the Caps coming into the season and, for the most part, they have done well, scoring first in 20 of their 30 games so far. The difference in win percentage is significant. When scoring first, the Caps are 15-3-2. After Saturday's loss, Washington is 4-5-1 when yielding the first goal.

Weber scare: Montreal's workhorse defenseman, Shea Weber, left the game in the second period after taking a puck to the knee on a blocked shot. Weber played nearly half of the first period with 9:38 of ice time. Luckily for Montreal, he returned for the start of the third period.

Staying special: When you get a two-man advantage against Carey Price, considering how tough an opponent he is, you have to score. The Caps did just that in the second period. With the goal, Washington has now scored a power play goal in seven of its last eight games and has 14 power play goals in its last 15 games.

We're going streaking: Backstrom's second-period goal gives him six points in his last six games (2 goals, four assists) and 18 in his last 16 games (8 goals, 10 assists). Williams and Alex Ovechkin picked up assists on the play. The assist extends Williams' point streak to four games. He now has seven points (5 goals, 2 assists) in his last seven. Ovechkin, meanwhile, has four points in his last four games. He now sits just 11 points shy of 1,000.

Look ahead: The Capitals get a few days off before they return to action on Wednesday against the Philadelphia Flyers who just saw their 10-game win streak snapped on Saturday. Washington then returns home to host the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday in the last game before the NHL’s winter break.

MORE CAPS: Capitals Twitter trolls their own fans

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Capitals one win away from facing the Penguins ... again

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USA Today Sports Images

Capitals one win away from facing the Penguins ... again

The Washington Capitals are one win away from advancing to the second round of the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs

If they do beat the Blue Jackets in Game 6 or Game 7, a familiar foe awaits them.

The Pittsburgh Penguins ended their series against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday with a 8-5 win in Game 6. They will play the winner of the Capitals-Columbus Blue Jackets series.

Because of course they will.

The Penguins have beaten the Capitals in the second round in each of the past two seasons. The series went six games in 2016 and seven in 2017.

Washington’s biggest rival has been a thorn in the side of the Caps throughout the team’s history. Washington and Pittsburgh have met in the postseason 10 times. Only once have the Caps come out victorious, in 1994.

Pittsburgh has won five Stanley Cups in their history and each time, they had to beat the Caps in the playoffs to do it.

The emergence of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin helped to reignite the Washington-Pittsburgh rivalry, but that too has been one sided. Crosby has won three Stanley Cups while Ovechkin has never advanced past the second round.

Before you despair, however, consider this. Coming into the season, no one knew what to expect from the Capitals. Expectations were low. Somehow, Washington managed to overcome the loss of several players in the offseason and managed to win the Metropolitan Division.

In a season in which the Caps have already defied expectations, perhaps this will be the year they finally get past Pittsburgh and advance to the conference final. Maybe? Please?

First things first, they still need one more win against Columbus. Game 6 will be Monday at 7:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington.

MORE CAPITALS:
How the Caps stymied Artemi Panarin
Nick Backstrom's Game 5 heroics, explained
Capitals' PK unit the series difference-maker
John Tortorella makes Game 7 proclamation

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How the Capitals have limited Columbus' top offensive threat

How the Capitals have limited Columbus' top offensive threat

The Capitals boast a roster full of superstar forwards including players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

The Columbus Blue Jackets do not.

As a team, Columbus’ offensive output is more spread out among the team, except for one offensive focal point: Artemi Panarin.

Traded in the offseason to Columbus from the Chicago Blackhawks, Panarin has proven this season to be a star in his own right rather than just someone hanging on to the coattails of his former linemate in Chicago, Patrick Kane.

Defensively, shutting down Panarin was priority No. 1 for Barry Trotz and company heading into their best-of-seven first-round playoff series

“We went into the series knowing fully well how good of a player Panarin is,” the Capitals head coach told the media via a conference call on Sunday. “He's a leader for them. It's no different than what they would do with Kuznetsov, Backstrom or [Ovechkin]. It's got to be a team game.”

Initially, things did not go well for the Capitals, as Panarin tallied two goals and five assists in the first three games. In Game 4 and Game 5, however, he was held off the scoresheet and finished with a plus/minus rating of -3.

For the series as a whole, Washington has actually done a good job of shutting Panarin down. Four of his seven points came on power play opportunities, meaning the Caps limited Columbus’ top forward to only three even-strength points in five games.

Washington’s strategy coming into the series was to give Panarin a healthy dose of Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen. At 5-on-5 play, no two defensemen have been on the ice against Panarin anywhere near as much as the Orlov-Niskanen pairing. That’s been true all series. The offensive line Panarin has been matched against, however, has changed.

In Game 1, the Caps’ second line of Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky and T.J. Oshie matched primarily against Panarin’s line. That changed in Game 2. Since then, Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson have been on Panarin duty.

There are several ways to approach matching lines against an opponent. Backstrom is one of the best shutdown forwards in the NHL. It makes sense for Trotz to want him out against Columbus’ most dangerous line. The problem there, however, is that Trotz was taking his team’s second line and putting it in a primarily defensive role.

In Game 1, Backstrom was on the ice for seven defensive zone faceoffs, 12 in the neutral zone and only two in the offensive zone.

The Capitals have an edge over Columbus in offensive depth, but you mitigate that edge if you force Burakovsky, Backstrom and Oshie, three of your best offensive players, to focus on shutting down Panarin.

Let’s not forget, Washington scored only one 5-on-5 goal in Game 1 and it came from Devante Smith-Pelly. They needed the second line to produce offensively so Trotz switched tactics and go best on best, top line vs. top line in a possession driven match up.

The strategy here is basically to make the opposing team's best players exhaust themselves on defense.

You can tell this strategy was effective, and not just because Panarin's offensive dried up. In Game 4, when the Blue Jackets could more easily dictate the matchups, Columbus placed Panarin away from the Caps’ top line, whether intentional or not.

Kuznetsov logged 7:27 of 5-on-5 icetime against Panarin in Game 4. Wilson (6:52), Oshie (6:46), Ovechkin (6:42) and Backstrom (6:01) all got a few cracks at Panarin, but nothing major. Those minutes are far more even than in Game 5 in Washington in which Ovechkin matched against Panarin for 12:45. Kuznetsov (12:42) and Wilson (12:30) also got plenty of opportunities against Panarin as opposed to Chandler Stephenson (2:10), Oshie (2:10) and Backstrom (2:01).

This is a match up the Caps want and the Blue Jackets are trying to get away from.

Trotz was asked about defending Panarin on Sunday.

“There's no one shadowing anybody,” Trotz said. “You know you want to take time and space from top players in this league, and if you do and you take away as many options as possible, you have a chance to limit their damage that they can do to you."

At a glance, this statement seems to contradict itself. You are going to take time and space away from Panarin, but you’re not going to shadow him? But in truth, this is exactly what the Caps are doing.

When the Caps’ top line matches against Panarin, if they continue attack and maintain possession in the offensive zone, that limits the time Panarin gets on the attack.

This will become more difficult on Monday, however, as the series shifts back to Columbus for Game 6. As the Blue Jackets get the second line change, just as in Game 4, you should expect to see Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella try to get his top line away from the Caps’ to avoid that matchup.

Shutting down Columbus’ power play and matching Panarin against both Ovechkin’s line and the Orlov-Niskanen pairing have been the keys to shutting him down. The Caps will need more of the same on Monday to finish off the series.

MORE CAPITALS vs. BLUE JACKETS:
How Nick Backstrom saved the Capitals in Game 5
Burakovsky done for first-round, but how much longer?
Capitals' penalty kill the biggest difference maker