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End of season review: Joel Ward


End of season review: Joel Ward

Throughout the past few weeks, Capitals Insider Chuck Gormley has been evaluating the 2014-15 performance of each player on the Caps roster. One breakdown has occurred every day in alphabetical order. Today: Joel Ward

Position: Right Wing

Shoots: Right

Age: 34 [turns 35 Dec. 2]

Ht/Wt: 6-1, 226

Games: 82

Goals: 19

Assists: 15

Points: 34

Penalty minutes: 30

Plus-Minus: Minus-4

Average Ice Time: 16:51

Playoff games: 14

Goals: 3

Assists: 6

Points: 9

Penalty minutes: 2

Plus-Minus: Plus-1

Average Ice Time: 19:02

Contract Status: UFA [2014-15 salary: $3 million; cap hit: $3 million]

Strengths: Among the Capitals forwards, only Nicklas Backstrom [302:21] and Alex Ovechkin [279:20] logged more playoff ice time than Ward [266:40]. Ward responded by matching Ovechkin’s team-high point total of nine in 14 playoff games. Ward was effective along the wall, in the corners and in front of the net, where he became an immovable object in front of goaltenders Jaro Halak of the Islanders and Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers. Whether it was on the top line with Backstrom and Ovechkin or on a third line with Eric Fehr, Brooks Laich or Jason Chimera, Ward was a productive and dependable forward who worked well with Chimera on the penalty kill. Ward finished third among Caps forwards in shorthanded ice time [1:39 per game] and was fifth [1:31]. He also finished fifth among forwards with 38 blocked shots and was a likable steadying force in the locker room.

Room for improvement: Speed has never been one of Ward’s greatest assets and now that he’s halfway to 35 he likely won’t get any faster. Ward makes up for his lack of speed with excellent defensive positioning and rarely find himself on the wrong side of the puck. Ward was good enough to log time on the power play and managed six of his 19 goals on the man-advantage, but he could be better at firing one-timers from the slot while on the power play. 

Memorable Moment: There was some role reversal going on at the end of Game 1 against the Rangers, when Ward gave the Capitals a 2-1 win with a goal with 1.2 seconds remaining in regulation at Madison Square Garden.  Nicklas Backstrom checked the puck off defenseman Dan Boyle with a big hit in the corner, and Alex Ovechkin morphed into Wayne Gretzky with an across-the-body pass from behind the net that had Henrik Lundqvist leaning the wrong way. Ward whacked in the centering pass to give the Caps the early lead in the series. “That,” Ward said, “was probably as loud as I’ve screamed.” 

Quotable: “It’s where you fit in and what’s your role again. There are guys coming up, there’s no secret. Obviously, you’d like to keep everybody, it was a really good group. But it doesn’t work out like that. Where you fit in and where they see you is a big component because as an athlete and a competitor you want to play and you want to make the most of your opportunity. I want to be part of the program here. It’s on the right track, for sure.” - Ward on breakup day

2015-16 Expectations: Ward’s agent, Peter Cooney, said the Capitals are Ward’s first option when it comes to signing a free-agent contract on or after July 1. But if the Caps decide to trade for a top-line right wing it will be difficult for them to bring back Ward, especially if the club keeps Troy Brouwer and sees Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson moving up in the lineup. Ward is believed to be seeking at least three years and without a lot of NHL mileage, he’s likely to get that term on the open market. Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan is likely seeking a two-year deal for Ward and would be hesitant to give him more than $3 million a season. For those reasons, Ward is likely to spend the remainder of his NHL career in another NHL city.  

[MORE CAPS: Would Sharp be a good fit on Caps' top line?] 

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Even with everything going right for the Capitals, the penalty kill continues to struggle

Even with everything going right for the Capitals, the penalty kill continues to struggle

It’s hard to punch holes in a team that has won five straight and 12 of its last 14, but if there is one cause for concern in recent days for the Capitals it is the penalty kill.

Washington gave up three power play goals to the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday and another two to the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday. In fact, Buffalo’s power play actually scored three times, but the first penalty to Michal Kempny on Saturday expired just as the goal was scored, literally exactly two minutes after the penalty was called. Officially, it was not considered a power play goal, but with the door just opening for Kempny to return, the Caps were still obviously shorthanded when the goal was scored.

Washington struggled on the penalty kill at the start of the season, but things improved dramatically when Tom Wilson returned from suspension. From Nov. 13 – when Wilson made his season debut – to Dec. 14, the penalty kill managed to kill off 85.-4 percent of the power plays it faced. The last two nights, however, the PK managed only 44.4-percent and that’s not counting the Sabres’ third goal that came as the penalty expired.

“We’ve got to continue to get better there,” Reirden said. “We had a stretch where we were doing a better job and then now it's finding its way, multiple ways, different ways into our net. That's not a winning recipe for success.”

So concerned about the penalty kill was Reirden after Friday’s game that he broke up the team’s red-hot fourth line in an attempt to add in another penalty killer. Reirden said before the game that the team’s metrics indicate Chandler Stephenson – who was a healthy scratch on Friday – is one of their better penalty killers. In order to get him back into the lineup, Reirden scratched Dmitrij Jaskin despite the incredible stretch he, Nic Dowd and Travis Boyd have enjoyed in recent days.

Washington may have gotten the win on Saturday, but in terms of improving the penalty kill, the move did not work.

The numbers from Saturday may be bad, but if you are looking for a silver lining, it is the fact that none of Buffalo’s three goals seem to have come as a result of a defensive breakdown. Jack Eichel netted the kinda-sorta power play goal when goalie Pheonix Copley gave up a rebound right to him on the far-side. Eichel then made a great individual effort to score the second goal, victimizing Dmitry Orlov with some fancy stick work and tucking the puck into the net just over the shoulder of Copley. Rasmus Dahlin scored the third goal when a Jeff Skinner shot from the slot was blocked and came straight to the rookie defenseman.

“They weren't exactly tic-tac-toes,” Devante Smith-Pelly said. “It happens. We’ve just got to stay the course and continue to get better.”

Of those three goals, the only one that looked like a bad play was the third as two Caps collapsed on Skinner leaving Dahlin open, but the point remains that the penalty kill did not appear to be egregiously bad.

Regardless of whether the goals are the result of breakdowns or bad luck, however, the fact is that the penalty kill is charged with keeping the puck out of the net it is has not been able to do so of late.

The Caps are off on Sunday, but will have two days of practice before Wednesday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, plenty of time to shore things up on a suddenly leaky PK.

Said Reirden, “It's an area that we've got to work on here while we've got some practice time this week before we play Pittsburgh.”


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Ovechkin scores again, Capitals win fifth straight 4-3 over Buffalo

Ovechkin scores again, Capitals win fifth straight 4-3 over Buffalo

CAPITAL ONE ARENA — To hear Alex Ovechkin tell it, Saturday night was a rough one for him.

“I have pretty good chances, but today, it was not my day,” Ovechkin said. “You can't score every night."

You wonder if Ovechkin watched the contest he just played in. He scored a goal for the sixth game in a row in a 4-3 shootout win against the Buffalo Sabres. He had a game-high eight shots on goal. He set a new career-high point scoring streak (14 games). He had the goal that proved to be the winner in the shootout. He leads the NHL with 29 goals and no one else is even close. Things are going pretty well. 

“Such a threat, especially when he’s confident and he’s shooting the puck where he wants,” teammate Brett Connolly said. “[Ovechkin is] a bull out there, it seems like he keeps getting better and better every year. Such a hungriness to score goals. He’s having a hell of a season and it doesn’t look like he’s going to slow down. We’ve got to as a team really rally around that. When he’s playing that well you want to have guys really look at that and take it another level and fall in behind that.” 

Only five players age 33 or older have had a longer point streak than Ovechkin’s 14 games. His next goal will secure his 14th 30-goal season. He has 23 points during this stretch (17 goals, six assists). You run out of superlatives. 

The same goes for his team. On the heels of a hat trick in Carolina on Friday, Ovechkin helped Washington to its fifth win in a row. The Capitals are 13-3 in their past 16 games and swept a back-to-back set with the Hurricanes and Sabres. Washington is 20-9-3 and with 43 points is six up on second place Columbus in the Metropolitan Division and seven ahead of third-place Pittsburgh. 

Things weren’t perfect on Saturday. The Sabres scored twice on the power play to make it 3-2 before Ovechkin tied it with a booming slap shot after a turnover at 13:46 of the second period. Pheonix Copley stopped 25 of 28 shots subbing for No. 1 goalie Braden Holtby, but the penalty kill continues to tank. 

Buffalo scored twice on the power play to take the lead and the first goal of the game by rising star Jack Eichel came exactly two minutes after a Michal Kempny penalty. You can count that as another if you’d like. Close as it gets. Considering Washington coach Todd Reirden put Chandler Stephenson back into the lineup Saturday because of his prowess on the PK, that’s a bad sign. 

So there are things to work on. But the Capitals are in a good position in the standings. Their stars are scoring. Their injury situation has improved somewhat with defenseman Brooks Orpik on the way by the end of the month. It’s only mid December and there are 50 games to go and things can change in a heartbeat and the playoffs seem forever away. But, for now anyway, life is good.      

“It wasn’t an easy night, but definitely we worked for those last two win,” Connolly said. “It’s a lot of fun right now. Everyone is having fun, everyone is positive and happy. It’s always so much better when you’re winning.”