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Wilson drops the gloves with New York reporter


Wilson drops the gloves with New York reporter

NEW YORK - Before a puck has been dropped, a check has been made or a punch has been thrown, Capitals 21-year-old right wing Tom Wilson already has been described in the New York Post as “a predator who preys on defenseless opponents” and “unnecessarily violent.”

In a column written by long-time Post hockey writer Larry Brooks, a reporter I’ve known for more than 20 years, Wilson is painted as nothing more than a 70s-style goon “who seems to play without regard or respect for the opposition and who rarely confronts a foe straight-up and head-on.”

I’m sorry, Larry, but you’re wrong on this one. Like you, I have seen hockey goons and Wilson is not one of them.

Does he play hard? Yes.

Does he drill opponents with hard, menacing body checks? Absolutely.

But his hit on 39-year-old, concussion-prone Islanders defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky in Game 4 of the Capitals-Islanders series was neither predatory nor dirty. And Wilson is willing to drop the proverbial gloves to defend himself.

“They can write whatever they want, it really has no affect on me at all,” Wilson said as the Caps prepare for tonight’s series opener in Madison Square Garden [6:30 p.m. pregame, CSN, 7:30 p.m. puck drop, NBCSN].

“I don’t know what his goal is to write an article like that. He’s coming at me pretty hard, I guess. But at the end of the day, it’s my game. I’m playing hard and I would never want to hurt anyone. That’s never my goal. My goal is just to win the hockey game, get in on the defense and make their lives difficult.”

Wilson stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 210 pounds. Visnovsky is 5-foot-10, 192 pounds. Wilson already was in full stride when Visnovsky went behind his net to retrieve a loose puck. Wilson did not accelerate or launch himself into Visnovsky. He hit him and he hit him hard.

“I mentioned to a couple of [Islanders] coaches in the handshake, I wish Visnovsky all the best,” Wilson said. “I know he’s an older guy. I have so much respect for him. He’s obviously been injury prone, but at the end of the day, he’s playing. He knows how fast the game is. He knows how hard the hits are. It’s the fastest game in the world and probably the hardest hitting game in the world, so those hits are gong to happen.

“Guys who have played the game who are on [TV] panels, they’re not freaking out about it. They’re not calling me a predator. They understand it was a pretty clean body check, just really hard. That’s the game that we love and that’s the game that we play. I never want to go out and injure guys but I’m going to play as hard as I can within the rules and get in on their D.”

Maybe the Post’s story on Wilson was written to draw the officials’ attention toward the second-year forward. Maybe it was meant to incite Rangers fans in what promises to be a series filled with big hits. Wilson, who was taken by the Caps with the 16th overall pick of the 2012 draft, said the negative attention is not going to change the way he plays.

“When you start playing half-effort hockey, that’s when guys will get hurt,” Wilson said. “You just have to play hard between the whistles. From what I’ve heard, people thought it was clean. Obviously, a lot of people in New York didn’t. That’s just passion. They can’t play the game, so they’re going to write whatever they can to try to get at me. They can’t step on the ice and ask me to fight, all those fans and all those writers.

“I defended myself. Anders Lee did a great job [fighting Wilson in Game 5], he came in and defended his teammate. That’s the way it should be. I’ll always defend myself after a hit if they felt I targeted their player. It’s just playing hard and it’s the reason we love hockey.”

As you might expect, Wilson was not the only player in the Capitals’ dressing room defending the hit on Visnovsky or the player who delivered it.

“You never want to have a dirty player on your team, but I don’t see Tom as dirty at all,” Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said. “I think he plays the game very hard. I think he’s viewed as dirty a little bit because he’s so big and strong that he overpowers a lot of guys.

“The people who know Tom knows he plays hard and he tries to do the right thing on the ice at all times and be an impact player. He’s not a guy we’re worried about taking penalties. We know he’s going to do his job and we’re fortunate to have him.”

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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.

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

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The Caps' penalty kill has been a major factor in the series turnaround


The Caps' penalty kill has been a major factor in the series turnaround

For the Capitals to beat the Columbus Blue Jackets, one of the keys to the series was going to be the penalty kill. 

For the season, Columbus ranked only 25th in the league on the power play at 17.2-percent, but that number did not reflect the massive improvement the Blue Jackets made with their trade deadline acquisitions.

Since the trade deadline on Feb. 26, Columbus ranked seventh on the power play. The Caps were sixth with both teams converting 25.0-percent of the time.

Where Washington did have an edge, seemingly, was on the penalty kill. Unlike the power play, Columbus' penalty kill was consistently poor all season, finishing 27th in the NHL with a kill rate of only 76.2-percent. While not a strength by any means, the Caps were certainly better on the PK with a kill rate of 80.3-percent, good for 15th in the league.

With two power plays converting at the same rate, Washington had to be able to kill off more of the Blue Jackets' opportunities. They struggled to do that in Game 1 and Game 2.

The Caps were called for four penalties and gave up two power play goals in each of the first two games. Washington scored five power play goals in those games, but their advantage on special teams was mitigated by their inability to keep Columbus from converting. 

There are many reasons why the Caps were able to overcome the 0-2 series deficit and now sit just one win away from advancing to the second round. Chief among those reasons is the improved penalty kill. Since Game 2, Washington has not allowed a single power play goal. The PK has successfully killed off 13 straight penalties including five in Game 5.

"I think as a group, they've all stepped up," Barry Trotz said on a conference call with the media on Sunday. "I don't think I can single out anybody. They've all stepped up. The penalty kill is as good as the five guys that you have, your four and your goaltender. They've been very committed there."

In a series that has seen four out of five games go to overtime, it's not hard to recognize the impact even one goal can have on a game and, by extension, the series. Should the Caps go on to win the series, their ability to adjust their penalty kill to stop the Blue Jackets' suddenly potent power play will be one of the main reasons why.

Trotz would not go into specifics as to the adjustments the team made after Game 2, but did acknowledge the penalty kill has been a "major factor" in the Caps' turnaround this series.

But to finish the job, the penalty kill will have to continue adjusting.

"This is the time when we're still trying to tweak things," Trotz said. "They changed some things on their power play a little bit yesterday, so we'll look to maybe tweak a little bit with our PK."