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What does the future hold for Eric Fehr?


What does the future hold for Eric Fehr?

In rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Capitals found themselves a second-line center who can play behind Nicklas Backstrom for the next six or seven years. If the price and term are right, the Caps may also have a third-line center for the next three years in Eric Fehr.

“I really enjoy playing here,” Fehr said when asked about his pending unrestricted free agency. “Obviously, I have a lot of friends here and I’ve been here a lot of years. I think this is a special group. Obviously, I’d love to be back here, but looking at the amount of guys we have unsigned right now you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Fehr, 29, is at the end of his two-year, $3 million contract and after putting up the second-best offensive numbers of his NHL career [19 goals, 33 points] with a career-high 14:51 of average ice time, he could be in line for a contract similar to the four-year, $12 million deal Joel Ward signed with the Caps four summer ago.

But as Fehr acknowledged, the Caps also are negotiating with UFAs Mike Green, Jay Beagle and Ward and need to re-sign RFAs Braden Holtby, Marcus Johansson, Kuznetsov and Nate Schmidt.  

With Fehr’s history of shoulder injuries, the Caps might be hesitant to give him a four-year contract, but they may settle on a three-year deal in the $10 million range. Fehr missed 10 of the Caps’ 14 playoff games with a third-degree sprain of the AC joint in his right shoulder, an injury sustained when Islanders forward Kyle Okposo checked him into the boards in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

“It was a very tough finish for me,” Fehr said. “Even in the regular season I wasn’t playing 100 percent down the stretch. I would have liked to have been healthier, obviously, but there are a lot of players that play with injuries throughout the season.
Fehr missed 13 of the Caps’ final 17 games with an elbow injury but said his playoff injury was not a torn labrum and would heal over time.

“Having a lot of shoulder injuries in the past has been an issue and people have shied away from me for this reason,” Fehr said. “But I don’t think there’s any reason now. It’s kind of a fluke injury, more of a hockey injury than some of the other injuries I’ve had in the past.”

Since returning to the Caps after a one-year stint in Winnipeg and a few months in Finland during the 2012 NHL lockout, Fehr has had to prove himself to two coaches – Adam Oates and Barry Trotz – while learning to play center after years as a right wing. Fehr was a healthy scratch three times in late October and early November, but turned into a reliable two-way center midway through the season.

“I definitely had some ups and downs,” Fehr said. “I felt in he middle of the season – December and January – I was playing my best. At the start I didn’t really have a definitive position. It was a pretty slow start for me [2 goals in 10 games], but once I got a position and I knew I was playing center with some consistent linemates [mostly Ward, Beagle and Jason Chimera] I thought I improved quite a bit.

“I want to be a centerman. I think it helps my game. I enjoy playing defensively, being quick on pucks and help the breakout. I can’t really picture myself being a full-time winger anymore, which is a good thing.”

Having spent nine of his 10 NHL seasons in Washington, Fehr said the way this one ended was the most disappointing.

“Because I thought we had the best chance this year,” he said. “Looking back I still believe we were a better team. I think we deserved a little better fate. But I like the way this group is going. I like the way we got better throughout the season and I think this group is going to do some big things.”

He’s hoping he is right in the middle of it as a third-line center behind Backstrom and Kuznetsov.

“Hopefully, they need one more,” Fehr said. “We’ll see what happens. It’s going to be interesting.”

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The Lightning are matching their 4th line against Ovechkin...and it’s working

The Lightning are matching their 4th line against Ovechkin...and it’s working

When the starting lines were announced on Saturday, you may have been surprised to hear Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson were starting against Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan.

Because the game was in Tampa Bay, the Capitals had to give their starters first. That means Lightning coach Jon Cooper saw the Caps’ were starting their top line and decided to put out his fourth.

And it worked.

On Saturday, Paquette scored just 19 seconds into the game and Callahan scored 33 seconds into the second period. Ovechkin’s line did not manage a shot on goal for the first two periods of the game. Ovechkin did finally score, but it came late on a six-on-five with Braden Holtby pulled and it was not against the fourth line.

The fourth vs. Ovechkin matchup is something the Lightning began in Game 2. No three forwards have played more against Ovechkin at five on five in any game since Game 2 than Kunitz, Paquette and Callahan. Prior to Game 5, they matched up against Ovechkin around six to seven minutes per game. On Saturday, however, Cooper went all in.

At five on five play, Kunitz was on the ice against Ovechkin for 13:04, Paquette for 13:42 and Callahan for 13:46. The results speak for themselves as that line outscored Ovechkin's 2-0. In fact, for the series Ovechkin has produced six points and only two of them have come at five-on-five play.

A fourth line vs. a top line matchup is a risky move because it takes time away from your top offensive playmakers. You typically see top lines face each other or a first line against a second line because, when you line match you are letting the opposing coach dictate how much your own players play. With a fourth line matchup getting essentially top line minutes, that takes time away from players like Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

If you look at the five-on-five time on ice for Game 5, Kucherov skated 14:06 and Stamkos 13:37 while Kunitz was on for 14:00, Callahan for 14:45 and Paquette for 14:57.

It is a risky move, but it makes sense for the Lightning. Through four games, the Capitals were the better team five-on-five, but Tampa Bay’s power play was unstoppable. Using the fourth line is a good strategy for Cooper in situations like in Game 3 and Game 4. The Lightning slowed Washington’s five-on-five production and Stamkos and Kucherov still produced enough on the power play even with reduced minutes. It also works for games like the one we saw Saturday.

In a game like Game 5 when your team jumps out to a 3-0 lead, you can afford to roll your lines even if it means giving the fourth line more minutes than the first.

You would think a fourth vs. first matchup would give the Capitals a distinct advantage, but it has not worked out that way. The fourth line has been able to stifle Ovechkin and Co. enough and the Lightning's power play has made up the production lost by the first line's reduced minutes. When the fourth line can score two goals of its own, well, that's just an added bonus.

Ovechkin has to lead his line to a better performance in Game 6. If the Caps’ top line can’t get the better of the Lightning’s fourth, then this series will be over on Monday night.


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Niskanen takes the blame for all three Lightning goals

Niskanen takes the blame for all three Lightning goals

There was no tougher critic on Matt Niskanen’s Game 5 performance on Saturday than Niskanen himself.

Niskanen and his defensive partner, Dmitry Orlov, were on the ice for all three of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s three goals in the Capitals’ 3-2 loss. That was striking given the Orlov-Niskanen duo is typically Washington’s best defensive pair.

That was not the case on Saturday and Niskanen took full responsibility afterward.

“First three goals are all my fault,” Niskanen said. “I had a tough first 20:30 so I've got to be better next game.”

Pretty much no one played the first goal right.

The goal came just 19 seconds into the game. Orlov turned the puck over in the neutral zone and Evgeny Kuznetsov looked like he could have gotten the puck, but instead played the body of Cedric Paquette. Niskanen stepped up at the blue line, but the Lightning got the puck past him creating a short rush that beat Braden Holtby who was way too far back in the crease.

Yes, Niskanen got caught a bit high, but he was just as at fault as Orlov, Kuznetsov and Holtby.

The second goal happened because Steven Stamkos tripped Orlov to create a turnover and it wasn’t called.

Niskanen got in between Ondrej Palat and the puck, but Palat beat both him and Holtby on the shot. Not sure I would put this one on Niskanen.

The third goal…well, that one was a bad play by Niskanen.

When you go one-on-one with a player, a defenseman cannot allow that player to turn the corner. That’s especially true when that player is defenseman Anton Stralman who is not exactly gifted with blazing speed. This was just a complete misplay.

Regardless of how many goals were strictly on Niskanen, that’s not the point. This was a message not so much to the media but to the team. That message was this: This one’s on me, I will be better next game.

Leaders always take responsibility. Niskanen is taking the blame here and saying he will be better in the hopes the team around him will be better as well.

They will need to be to win Game 6.

“A lot of people counted us out when we were down 0-2 in the first round,” Niskanen said. “Things got hard in the last series where we could have melted and we just kept playing. So that's what we've got to do again, bring our best effort for Game 6 at home, win a game and then we'll go from there.

“But we're focused on bringing our best game of the season for Game 6 and we'll be ready to go.”