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Ovi: Holtby 'best goalie in the league right now'

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Ovi: Holtby 'best goalie in the league right now'

Every year there has always been something that has gotten in the way of the Capitals going deep in the playoffs.

In 2008 against the Flyers, it was a Tom Poti penalty that led to Joffrey Lupul’s overtime goal in Game 7 of the first round.

In 2009 against the Penguins, it was shaky goaltending by Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov that led to an eventual Game 7 blowout loss to the Penguins in Round 2.

In 2010 against the Canadiens, it was Jaroslav Halak that stunned the Presidents’ Trophy winners in the first round.

In 2011 against the Lightning, it was injuries to defensemen Mike Green and John Carlson that led to a quick exit in Round 2.

In 2012 against the Rangers, it was a late double minor to Joel Ward in Game 5 that led to a pair of goals, turning a 3-2 series lead into a 3-2 series deficit and an eventual Game 7 defeat.

In 2013 against the Rangers, it was the shot-blocking prowess of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi that halted Alex Ovechkin in Round 2.

And in 2015 against the Rangers it was the Caps’ inability to put the dagger in the Rangers after going up 3-1 in the series that allowed the Rangers to prevail in seven games.

“Every year we have a chance to be in the playoffs and a chance to win the Cup,” Alex Ovechkin told reporters on Monday in Buffalo.

“What’s good about this team is we have one of the best goalies in the league and a hot goalie in Holts. We know if we’re going to make a mistake he’s there and he’s going to save it. On a good team, a goalie is 75 percent of the success. I think years before we don’t have that guy.”

RELATED Trotz says Caps recipients of post-fight karma

Braden Holtby then went out and made those words sound prophetic by stopping 31 shots in a 2-0 shutout, running his personal regulation unbeaten streak to 16 games (15-0-1) . It is the longest stretch of not losing in regulation since 2013-14 when Anaheim’s Jonas Hiller (14-0-2) and Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov (11-0-5) each went 16 games without a regulation loss.

In 29 starts for the Caps, Holtby ranks first in the NHL in wins (23) and goals-against average (1.86) and second in save percentage (.935).

“He’s our best player and the best goalie in the league right now,” Ovechkin said.

“He’s definitely the main reason we’re at the top (of the Eastern Conference) right now,” Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said. “You need a good goaltender to win and go deep in this league and he’s our guy right now and we’ve got to protect him.”

The Capitals’ Stanley Cup aspirations flashed in front of their eyes with 4:10 remaining in Monday night’s game when Tyler Ennis saw a loose puck at Holtby’s feet and darted toward the crease, crashing helmets with Holtby as the puck crossed the goal line.

The goal was immediately waved off, but after the game Sabres coach Dan Bylsma wasn’t quite sure why.

“The puck was available,” Bylsma said. “It was open and in his feet, so everybody should have been driving in there. It’s not a situation where the puck was covered. The puck was sitting there between his legs and the goalie didn’t know where it was at.”

Holtby admitted as much, hinting he thought a goalie interference penalty might be called on the play.

“I didn’t really know where the puck was,” he said. “It was kind of a strange play where he flubbed it and it spun off my stick. I was expecting that if it wasn’t a goal we’d be on the power play, but that’s the way it goes.”

Bylsma challenged the call on the ice but was overruled.

“I’m not sure I really have the ability to challenge a no-goal call,” he said. “I did anyway. He made that call on the ice, that there was contact. I’m not really sure they can overturn that with a review but with 4 minutes left in the game I was going to take every opportunity to try to do it.”

Later in the third period, with just under a minute remaining, Holtby preserved the shutout by stretching out his left arm to stop what appeared to be a sure goal by Evander Kane at the side of the net.

“Usually when I get it up over his pad it goes in, but he made a great save,” Kane said. “I haven't been robbed like that in a while."

“It was kind of a broken play,” Holtby said. “It ended up in his body so I knew I had a bit of time to push and get over there and try to take away where shooters usually shoot the puck and it went in the glove, luckily.”

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The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

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The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

Tuesday’s practice was a lot like every other for the Caps until the end. After working on the power play, the team gathered at one end of the ice and began working on faceoffs. It was not just the centers, but wingers and defensemen alike got into the action with every win celebrated by loud cheers from teammates.

It should could as no surprise to see faceoffs as a point of emphasis for Washington considering just how much the team has struggled with them in the early season. The Caps rank 30th in the league in faceoff win percentage at only 43.8-percent.

“Yeah, there's little details that can help our game,” Lars Eller told reporters after practice. “The more you have the puck, easier the game is gonna be for you. We have a little more time in between games than usual during the season here, so we have the time to work on something like that, which can be little things that makes the difference.”

The team as a whole watched video on faceoffs prior to practice and then worked as a five-man unit during the drill. The main point of emphasis head coach Todd Reirden wanted to drill into his players was that faceoffs are not simply the responsibility of the centers alone.

“The days of it just being center vs. center and a clean draw being won back are a rarity now so it's important to have all five guys helping, something we watched video on earlier today,” Reirden said.

“You ask any centerman if they have a good group of wingers that can help them out on draws, that makes a huge difference,” Nic Dowd said. “I've been lucky, I have [Devante Smith-Pelly] on my right and I'm a righty so I win all my draws my backhand side so a lot of pucks go his way and he wins a lot of draws for me. That's huge. You have a guy that's sitting over there that's sleeping, you could go easily from five wins to five losses and then that's your night. It makes a big difference.”

Faceoffs were always going to be more of a struggle for the Caps this season with the departure of Jay Beagle who was, by far, the team’s best faceoff man for several years. Whenever the team needed a big draw, Beagle was the player relied upon to win it. With him gone, it is no surprise to see the team struggle.

But the Caps don’t like the idea of keeping possession off a draw just 43.8-percent of the time.

“It's essentially like the ref is creating a 50-50 puck and you snap it back, you get possession, now you're forechecking and it makes a huge difference,” Dowd said. “You play against those top lines, they want to be in the O-zone. Well, if you lose the draw, now you're playing D-zone, you win the draw now you're playing O-zone. So effectively, you've shut down their shift.”

There is a school of thought suggesting that perhaps the importance of winning faceoffs is overrated and a team’s faceoff win percentage is not overly important. Eller himself admitted as much to reporters.

What no one can argue, however, is that while some faceoffs may not matter all that much, there are some that are hugely important in a game. The Caps recognize that. For them, being a strong faceoff team is not necessarily about improving the team’s win percentage, but more about being able to win those critical draws.

“It's something that for the most part the players understand and a neutral zone faceoff with 14 minutes to go in the first period is not nearly as important as one that's 5-on-6 at the end of the game,” Reirden said. “We all know that. It's important to put the right people on those situations and give them the best chance to have success.”

“A center ice draw, I could see where guys could make the argument, well you lose it you still will play hockey and stuff could still happen,” Dowd said. “But I think the game is such a possession game now that any opportunity you can win a 50-50 puck whether that's a faceoff or a board battle, it makes a huge difference.”

 

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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

Like it or not, the NHL is becoming younger, louder, and more personable. And as its young stars begin to gain leadership positions, the demand from a younger subset of fans grows larger: Make hockey fun again. Let players have personality on the ice and off, be it through social media engagement, game-day fashion, or creative goal celebrations.

Some say that hockey was always fun. True, to an extent. 

Minute per game minute, you arguably can’t find a faster, more action-packed major sport. But among the North American leagues, and internationally, the NBA still dominates on Twitter activity and in its social media. 

One of the biggest factors that helped basketball succeed in the social age wasn’t the NHL’s commonly preached conformity.

The NBA found huge success in marketing its star players as larger-than-life, letting them have public personas that tied into larger, richer narratives spanning careers, teams, and decades.

Superstar Auston Matthews, the up-and-coming 21-year-old face of American hockey, has taken note, citing NBA star Russell Westbrook’s individuality as a source of inspiration in a recent GQ feature

He’s well met by former USA National Team Development Program teammates Jack Eichel, who was recently named captain of the Buffalo Sabres; Dylan Larkin, Detroit’s hometown darling who’s stepping up as an assistant captain for the Red Wings; and Matthew Tkachuk, who’s also wearing an A in Calgary.

It’s not only the born and bred American youngsters who are ready to stand out. The team responsible for the resurgence of the debate about how much fun is too much is none other than the Washington Capitals, whose summer celebrations led to the ban of the legendary Cup Stand.

Though the publicity of their championship celebrations was revolutionary, the Capitals hold more promise in amount of fun per sixty. After a title win, their petty grudges are only transforming into a bold sense of self-confidence.

Alex Ovechkin is already a superstar on a mission to grab the attention of all the boys and girls and babes in the hockey world. Evgeny Kuznetsov’s interviews and celebrations reveal a player growing into the spotlight, ready to embrace a downright devious kind of skill against his opponents. Braden Holtby is already a league-recognized style icon whose meticulously chosen plaid suits and well-groomed beard have woven into the hype of game-day coverage. And Nicklas Backstrom is finally smiling on-camera.

(This isn’t even mentioning highly polarizing figure Tom Wilson, whose aggressive approach on the ice has earned him the marking of a player everyone hates unless he’s on their team.)

If the NHL wants to appeal to new viewers, it can gain ground by marketing its stars outside of a bland, monotone mold for success. 

With high-scoring, chaotically delightful games that happen almost every night all across the continent, an audience needs something to anchor them.

Individuality isn’t a bad place to start.

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