Capitals

Justin Smith's likely return big factor for 49ers

Justin Smith's likely return big factor for 49ers

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Even at less than full strength, Justin Smith's presence on the San Francisco defensive line is enough to instill plenty of fear in opposing offenses.

Or even his own teammates, for that matter. Running back Frank Gore endured his toughest training camp yet last summer while facing his defensive teammates each day - Smith, in particular.

``I'd take a 75 percent Justin ahead of anybody,'' Gore said Wednesday. ``At 75-80 percent, he's better than anybody at his position. ... I'm not scared, haaa! But he's a beast, man.''

Smith is expected to return to the field for Saturday night's NFC divisional playoff game against Green Bay (12-5) at Candlestick Park, and, oh, how his teammates will welcome back ``The Cowboy'' as they try to chase down Aaron Rodgers and Co.

Smith, the soft-spoken emotional leader of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's unit, missed the final two regular-season games with a partially torn left triceps muscle. His arm is now covered in a protective brace for practice, and everybody involved expects him to be ready to play for the NFC West champions (11-4-1).

Coach Jim Harbaugh put it this way Wednesday: ``God willing and the creek don't rise, he will play.''

Having the extra week of rest was a huge help for Smith's health. San Francisco secured the NFC's No. 2 seed with a win against Arizona and when Minnesota beat Green Bay in Week 17.

It is the versatile Smith who makes this defense go - with his stingy pass-rushing and run-stopping. Sure, there's Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith. And a talented, playmaking secondary.

Smith is a smash-mouth footballer to the core. The definition of the blue-collar player Harbaugh so loves. Smith chips his teeth about once a season thanks to a refusal to wear a mouth guard because it restricts his breathing.

``Justin, his presence just back on the practice field, I can tell you this, that there's a character of our team that's enhanced, is driven by Justin,'' Harbaugh said earlier in the week. ``And that's the way I think of it. That's what I sense and feel when we're out there on the practice field. And we look very much forward to having him back in the lineup.''

Until last month, Smith had started 185 consecutive games dating to his rookie season of 2001.

While the 49ers have praised Ricky Jean Francois for his fine play filling in for Smith, No. 94 is needed on the field now as San Francisco looks to get past last season's disappointing finish and finally return to the Super Bowl. This team lost in overtime of the NFC title game to the eventual champion Giants, failing in its bid to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1994 season.

``It's a big lift, for the simple fact Justin's a Pro Bowler and to try to fill his shoes, they're big shoes to fill,'' linebacker Ahmad Brooks said. ``He creates a lot of havoc for the backfield and draws a lot of double-teams.''

Smith dominates the right side of the line with his sheer physical strength and spot-on instincts. He is probably the biggest reason linebacker Aldon Smith finished with a franchise-record 19 1/2 sacks this season - falling three shy of Michael Strahan's single-season mark set in 2001 for the Giants. Yet Aldon Smith didn't have a single one over the final three games, most of that stretch with Smith sidelined.

While the team doctors will have the final say, Smith will offer his input regarding his health - ``the player knows his body best,'' Harbaugh said. And Smith has already said he will be on the field to face the Packers.

``Well, he's told me he's ready, and he's ready to go, and that's enough for me,'' Fangio said. ``He's a leader both by example and verbally, and more so by example. He plays with a tenacity and an effort level that's second to none. And it's just contagious to everybody.''

Not that opposing coaches need to be told what they have in store seeing Smith. And certainly not Packers coach Mike McCarthy, whose Packers lost 30-22 in the season opener against San Francisco in September at Lambeau Field.

``Justin Smith's a very good football player,'' McCarthy said. ``And we're preparing for him to play. We've gone back far enough, they've got plenty of film on him, and make sure we're ready.''

The Cardinals regularly pounded the ball toward Smith's spot when he was out for the regular-season finale Dec. 30.

``He's a great leader not only for our defense but for our whole team,'' left tackle Joe Staley said. ``It's going to be big having him back out there.''

No matter that Smith doesn't own the flashy numbers or statistics of the NFL's more well-known defensive stars, some on his team. Smith, who spent his first seven NFL seasons with Cincinnati before joining the 49ers as a free agent in 2008, was picked as a starter for this year's Pro Bowl.

And he is the league's top tackler among defensive linemen since 2001 with 792.

``We need Justin,'' Brooks said. ``It changes the whole attitude of the defense.''

Notes: Harbaugh has yet to announce his starting kicker - newly signed Billy Cundiff or struggling veteran David Akers. ``No, not one that we're ready to announce yet,'' Harbaugh said. When asked if it might come down to 90 minutes before kickoff when inactives are named, the coach said, ``that's possible.''... Harbaugh said Candlestick Park received new turf several weeks ago. ``I thought it was OK,'' he said. ``It's not like it is in September. Most grass fields tend not to be as lush in the winter months.''

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Caps’ dominant power play comes through yet again in win over Rangers

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Caps’ dominant power play comes through yet again in win over Rangers

It seems so simple. The Capitals have one of the best goal-scorers of all-time in Alex Ovechkin and on the power play, he’s almost always in the same spot. He sets up in the “office,” the faceoff circle on the left side of the ice, and waits for one-timers. Everyone knows the Caps are trying to get him the puck, everyone knows the shot is coming.

But nobody can stop it.

“It’s still pretty unique,” Matt Niskanen said after the game. “Basic logic tells you it’d be easy to stop, but it’s not.”

Even Ovechkin has no explanation. “It’s all about luck,” he said.

New York Rangers head coach David Quinn had another word for it.

“Sickening.”

Quinn’s Rangers were the latest victims of a power play that has been among the league’s best units for several years. Since 2005, no team in the NHL has a better power play percentage than the Capitals’ 20.8-percent. They once again look lethal this season with the unit currently clicking at an incredible 39.1-percent.

Ovechkin tallied two power play goals Wednesday, both from the office, to help power the Caps to a 4-3 win over New York. Both of Ovechkin’s goals looked pretty similar with John Carlson on the point feeding Ovechkin in the office for the one-timer.

Ovechkin obviously is what powers the team’s power play. With him on the ice, other teams need to account for him at all times.

But the real key to the Caps’ success with the extra man is not Ovechkin, but the other weapons around him.

“In order to completely take [Ovechkin] away other guys are just too open and they’re good enough to score,” Niskanen said. “Are you gonna leave [T.J. Oshie] open in the slot from the hash marks to cover [Ovechkin]? Our power play is set up well with what hands guys are and their skill sets so we have a lot of different options. Guys are good at reading what’s open. It’s pretty lethal.”

“Nobody knows who's going to take a shot when we play like that,” Ovechkin said. “And it's fun to play like that, to be honest with you. When [Nicklas Backstrom] and when [Evgeny Kuznetsov] feeling the puck well, they can find you in the right time and the right place -- same as [Carlson]."

With so many weapons on the power play, teams are forced to choose between playing Ovechkin tight and leaving other players like Kuznetsov and Oshie wide open, or trying to play a traditional penalty kill and risk giving Ovechkin too much room for the one-timer.

The Rangers chose the latter on Wednesday and they suffered the consequences.

“I don't think many teams have played him like they did tonight,” Carlson said. “They gave him a lot more space.”

And Carlson certainly took advantage as well.

Washington’s power play seems to have found a new gear now with the emergence of Carlson. He took his game to a new level last season and he seems to have picked up right where he left off. On Wednesday, as part of a three-point night for him, Carlson provided two brilliant setups for Ovechkin on the power play.

“He dominates the game, I think,” Niskanen said of Carlson. “Moves the puck well, skates well for a big man, can defend. He’s got that offensive feel for the game and offensive touch. Big shot. He’s a good player.”

For many years, it looked like the only thing missing from the Caps’ power play was Mike Green. Carlson has always been good, but no one was able to setup Ovechkin quite as well as Green was in the height of the “young guns” era of the Caps. Now that Carlson seems to be coming into his own as a superstar blueliner who can both score and feed Ovechkin with the best of them, that makes an already dominant Caps’ power play even more lethal.

That was certainly on display Wednesday as the Caps fired eight shots on goal with the extra man. Ovechkin’s two goals tie him for ninth on the NHL’s all-time power play goals list with Dino Ciccarelli at 232.

Even with Ovechkin now 33 years old and after several years of dominance with the extra man, the Caps’ power play may be better than ever.

“They don’t get rattled,” Quinn said. “There’s a confidence to them and a swagger to them, which they should have.  They’ve been playing together a long time and they’re the defending Stanley Cup champions, so they should play with a swagger.”

 

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5 reasons the Capitals beat the Rangers in overtime

5 reasons the Capitals beat the Rangers in overtime

The Caps gave up a 2-1 and 3-2 lead, but ultimately came away victorious on Wednesday in a 4-3 win over the New York Rangers thanks to an overtime goal from Matt Niskanen.

Here are five reasons why the Caps won.

1. Djoos saves a goal

With the Caps already trailing 1-0 in the first period, they were about an inch away from going down by two. Luckily, Christian Djoos was there to make the save.

Yes, Djoos, not Braden Holtby.

A diving Jesper Fast got to a loose puck before any of the Caps defenders and beat Holtby with the shot. Djoos, however, was there to sweep the puck off the goal line and out, saving a goal.

That play turned out to be a two-goal swing as less than two minutes later, the Caps scored to tie the game at 1.

2. Carlson off the faceoff

The Caps emphasized the importance of the faceoff this week and worked on it specifically in practice on Tuesday. That practice turned out to be very prescient as Washington’s first goal of the night came right off the faceoff.

Nicklas Backstrom beat Ryan Spooner on the draw cleanly in the offensive zone, feeding the puck back to John Carlson. With the players all bunched up off the draw, Carlson benefitted from Brady Skjei standing right in front of Henrik Lundqvist. Carlson teed up the slap shot and beat Lundqvist who never saw the puck.

Of the five combined goals scored in the game, three were directly set up off a faceoff.

3. Hand-eye coordination

With the Caps on the power play, Fast tipped a pass meant for Carlson that looked like it was headed out of the offensive zone. Carlson reacted to the puck then stretched the stick and somehow managed to control the bouncing puck and keep it in the zone.

Fast charged Carlson at the blue line so he chipped the puck to Ovechkin in the office. Ovechkin managed to hit the puck just as it hit the ice and somehow beat Lundqvist with the shot.

Ovechkin was by the boards at the very edge of the circle. It was an amazing shot and it was set up by the great hustle play from Carlson. Both showed tremendous hand-eye coordination to control that puck.

4. Braden Holtby

Lundqvist entered this game with a 1.99 GAA and .939 save percentage, but he was outplayed by his counterpart from Washington.

Holtby had himself a night. He was particularly strong down low with the pads as he made a number of key pad saves throughout the game, particularly in the second period when he recorded 17 saves including a shorthanded breakaway save on Kevin Hayes as time expired.

Of the three goals Holtby allowed, the first he made a great save on Chris Kreider who looked like he had an empty net to shoot at. Mike Zibanejad would score on the rebound. The second goal came as a shot deflected off Devante Smith-Pelly and went right to Jimmy Vesey for an easy tap-in. The third was a deflection goal from Kreider to redirect a shot that was going wide.

Can’t blame Holtby for those.

5. Working from the office

The Caps had three power play opportunities on the night. They scored on two of them and those two goals looked pretty darn similar.

There was the one described above in which a hustle play by Carlson at the point kept the puck alive and he fed to Ovechkin in the office. The second goal came with Carlson on the point feeding Ovechkin in the office.

Those two goals give Ovechkin 232 power play goals for his career, tying him with Dino Ciccarelli for ninth on the NHL’s all-time list.

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