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A 4-goal first period fuels Caps' win over Sabres

A 4-goal first period fuels Caps' win over Sabres

Just 11 minutes in and the game was already well in hand. The Capitals took advantage of every mistake the Buffalo Sabres made, jumping out to a 4-0 first period lead en route to a 5-1 win on Friday. In the Caps’ first game in Washington since Oct. 18, the Caps completely dominated a Buffalo team with the second-most points in the entire league, trailing Washington by only one.

Here’s how the Caps won.

The first period

When you can score four goals in the first period, you are going to be tough to beat. Jakub Vrana had two goals and the fourth line chipped in two more before the game was even 11 minutes old. At the other end, Braden Holtby was very good turning aside all 16 shots he faced in the opening 20 minutes. It was about as flawless a period as you can have.

Buffalo’s mistakes

This is the kind of game where the coaches may just want to burn the tape and move on. It was bad.

On the first goal, Buffalo managed to prevent a breakout by the Caps and held the puck in the offensive zone by forcing a turnover on the boards. So far, so good. Jack Eichel picked up the puck and skated it to the blue line. At this point, the defense commits to the offensive opportunity. Colin Miller sees Eichel with the puck at the blue line so he decides to pinch into the offensive zone. Eichel had an easy pass to Miller who could have taken it up for a scoring opportunity. Instead, he turned around and tried to pass the puck through the pressure from the Caps in the other direction.

That led to a turnover at the worst time. Vrana saw what was happening and took off. Miller was in on the attack and headed in the wrong direction while Rasmus Ristolainen is standing at the blue line. Neither defenseman was in any position to defend Vrana which is why he ended up on the breakaway. You’re not going to catch Vrana at full-speed if you are starting at a standstill. Vrana was gone for goal No. 1.

Just 42 seconds later, Buffalo got caught in another mistake. Rasmus Dahlin received a pass at the blue line and decided he had room to take it into the attack. The problem was that all three forwards were already deep in the zone and no was in a position to switch with him and cover the blue line. Dahlin turned the puck over with a missed pass which launched a 4-on-1 rush because there was no one there to account for Dahlin stepping into the attack. If you get a 4-on-1, you better score and Chandler Stephenson did.

Later in the first, Michal Kempny fired a cross-ice pass to Jakub Vrana who was left wide-open with all five Sabres players watching the puck. No one accounted for Vrana on the far post.

There were turnovers, defensive break downs, bad line changes, you name it. This was just a horribly sloppy game for Buffalo.

That’s not to say the Caps did not play well. The Caps were good and the Sabres were bad. Both things can be true. You have to be able to make opponents pay for their mistakes and Washington did just that.

Wilson’s knockout punch

No, not literally.

The Caps held a 4-0 lead after the first period and the game looked well in hand. Midway through the second, Henri Jokiharju fired a shot that hit off the back of Jonas Siegenthaler, bounced up, landed behind Holtby and trickled into the net. That made the next goal critical.

A goal for Washington would restore the daunting four-goal lead. A goal for Buffalo, however, would have pulled them within two with plenty of time left to go in the game. There’s no guarantee the Sabres could have finished, but a two-goal game does not seem nearly as out of reach as a four-goal game. Luckily Tom Wilson put an end to any hopes of a comeback as he deflected in a shot from Michal Kempny to make it 5-1.

Buffalo allowed four goals in the first period and only one in the second, but that was the one that really ended all doubt.

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Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

The bye week and the all-star break are upon us meaning we will have to wait until Jan. 27 for the Capitals to take the ice again for a game. With the season over halfway done and the Feb. 24 trade deadline rapidly approaching, the focus of the season now shifts towards the playoffs.

Washington has certainly done enough at this point to show they are a playoff team, but just how good are they? Are they a true contender or are they destined for an early exit?

Over the next few days, I will examine the team to answer if it is good enough on offense, defense and in net to win a Cup and, if not, what they must do to improve by April.

Today’s question: Do the Caps have the offense to win the Stanley Cup?

Team stats
3.55 goals per game (1st in the NHL)
20.3-percent power play (13th in the NHL)

Goal leaders
1. Alex Ovechkin 34
2. Jakub Vrana 22
3. T.J. Oshie 18

Assist leaders
1. John Carlson 47
2. Nicklas Backstrom 29
3. Evgeny Kuznetsov 26

Point leaders
1. John Carlson 60
2. Alex Ovechkin 50
3. Evgeny Kuznetsov 42

Just in case you forgot about Ovechkin, he just let everyone know that yes, he is still outrunning Father Time with eight goals in the past three games. He remains one of the top scorers in the league, that is beyond dispute and so is this team's the top-six.

Backstrom, Wilson, Vrana, Kuznetsov and Oshie round out one of the best top two lines in the NHL. There are only a few minor concerns with this group.

Vrana and Kuznetsov have proven to be streaky performers. When they are hot, they are among the top offensive players in the NHL. Vrana is actually tied with David Pastrnak for third in the NHL in even-strength goals with 21. He is as dangerous a goal-scorer as just about anyone in the league. And everyone knows how good Kuznetsov can be at his peak. Just look at the 2018 Cup run.

You just have to cross your fingers and hope Vrana and Kuznetsov don’t get cold in the postseason because when their production tapers off, it craters.

Moving on to the bottom-six, let’s start with the fourth line because it is easier. Brendan Leipsic, Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway is one of, if not the outright best fourth line in hockey. They are able to hem opponents into the offensive zone and allow very little in the way of scoring opportunities. If you put any credence into things like Corsi, Nic Dowd is the best on the team with a Corsi-For percentage of 57.22 while Leipsic is 54.04 and Hathaway is 54.43. In a nutshell, what that means is this line is generating a heck of a lot more offensive opportunities than it is allowing which is a huge asset to have for a fourth line.

What’s more, these guys are the kind of players you hate to play against. Hathaway and Leipsic both play with an edge and Leipsic has a fair amount of speed as well. They have to make sure they limit the penalties they take, but otherwise this line is a huge asset.

That brings us to the third line.

While the offense is starting to pick up slightly, overall the numbers have just not been there. Lars Eller is doing fine with 11 goals and 16 assists, but Richard Panik is having a tough first year with five goals and five assists while Carl Hagelin has only three goals and eight assists and that’s including the two goals he scored in the past week.

Even as the line continues to improve, I do not think at its peak it is going to prove to be as good offensively as once hoped.

The third line has definitely found a role as a shutdown line, however, which is how Reirden has been utilizing them of late, using them to shut-down one of the opposition’s top lines both to limit their offense and also to free up Ovechkin’s line by getting it away from that matchup.

That’s easier to do at home, now Reirden has to figure out just how to best utilize the third line one the road where it is tougher to get the matchups you want.

Overall, however, this line is trending in the right direction. The power play, however, is not.

Though it ranks 13th in the NHL, that percentage is being propped up by a good start. Since Dec. 1, the power play ranks 30th in the NHL at 14.1-percent. The offense has just been non-existent. The struggles have clearly gone to the head of the players because it becomes a comedy of errors on the ice every time the team gets the man advantage. Reirden has tried Vrana on the top unit in Kuznetsov’s spot, but that spot is not well suited for Vrana as he is a sniper and Kuznetsov plays primarily around the goal line where shots are hard to come by. Kuznetsov on the second unit is largely wasted as there is not enough scoring talent on that unit for him to set up.

The result is two power play units playing without confidence and not producing while also allowing far too many shorthanded goals.

The verdict: Yes, the Caps have the offense to win the Cup.

In terms of the personnel, it is hard to get better than what the Caps have. The top two lines are loaded with talent and the fourth line is the best at what it does. The offense is lacking on the third line, but Reirden has found a role for it in which it can still have a positive impact on the game and its offensive production seems to be improving.

The only real concern is the power play, not only because it is completely ineffective but because the team is pressing so hard it has allowed five shorthanded goals, tied for the most in the league. As bad as it is, however, I think this is a case of frustration making things worse. With the personnel this team has, there is no reason for it to be producing at only 14.1-percent. Once they string a few goals together, things will turn around. I don’t think it will be among the most potent in the NHL, but I do think this is a low point and a natural progression will occur.

After the power play, however, it is hard to find a more potent offense than the one assembled in Washington.

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Capitals hosting Rock The Rink skate and watch parties around DMV

Capitals hosting Rock The Rink skate and watch parties around DMV

The Capitals may not be participating in Stadium Series this year, but the team is embracing outdoor hockey around Washington for spirited game day fun.

The Caps are hosting Rock The Rink skates at The Wharf, Penatgon Row, Rockville Town Square and The Avenue at White Marsh on select game days from January to March 2020. Fans attending these events can wear Capitals jerseys or gear to get either $5 off admission or free skate rentals.

The Wharf

Jan. 18 at 1 p.m., Jan. 31 at 6 p.m., and Feb 17. at 1 p.m.

Transit Pier will boast a Capitals-paneled ice rink with an ice resurfacer, trivia contests, giveaways, along with a DJ. The Capitals Campire will also boast Adirondack chairs around a fire to roast marshmallows for smores in front of a 14-foot jumbotron screen to watch the Capitals games. 

Pentagon Row

Feb. 27 at 7 p.m. and March 9 at 6 p.m.

These skates will feature Slapshot, giveaways, a DJ and Capitals-centic specials at local restaurants. The Caps games will also be on at surrounding bars. 

The Avenue at White March

Feb. 7 at 6 p.m.

This event will feature Slapshot, giveaways, a DJ and Capitals-centic specials at local restaurants.

Rockville Town Square

Jan. 31 at 5:30 p.m. and March 5 at 6 p.m.

In addition to the above fun, Rockville native and Capitals hockey ambassador Haley Skarupa will be there on Jan. 31. You can watch the Capitals game at local bars as well. 

Fans attending these events or using local outdoor rinks this season are encouraged to post about it on social media by tagging @capitals and using the hashtag #RockTheRink to enter themselves for a chance to win prizes.

Caps slept through the first 40 minutes, they did not give Holtby much help though he was bad in his own right and Vrana sure did show something with the game-winning goal.

As for no penalties...not so much.

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