Los Angeles at Minnesota, 6:00 p.m.
Columbus at Edmonton, 8:00 p.m.
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Alex Ovechkin and Matt Niskanen
Washington is atop the league and in position to chase a second straight Presidents’ Trophy, but what should really excite Capitals fans is the improvement in the possession game.
The Washington Capitals entered Sunday’s game against Philadelphia with the chance to take over top spot in both the league and the Eastern Conference, and when it was all over, Barry Trotz’s club had done so in decisive fashion with a 5-0 thumping of the Flyers.
The victory marks the second time in as many years that the Capitals find themselves atop the league in mid-January, and, coincidentally, it marks the second-consecutive campaign in which an early January run has had the Capitals looking like one of the league’s best teams. As pointed out by the Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg, the Capitals’ have gone 16-2-2 over their past 20 games, which mirrors the team’s effort over the same 20-game stretch from the 2015-16 campaign that saw Washington collect the Presidents’ Trophy.
However, it would be safe to approach the Capitals current run and standing in the league with cautious optimism. Runs like this have been commonplace in Washington, with five 100-plus point seasons in the past decade and not a single Stanley Cup, let alone Eastern Conference title, to show for it. That includes the past campaign where, despite their league-best performance, the Capitals were sent packing in the second round of the post-season, dropping in six games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Anyone thinking this season will be different, though, might be on to something.
First, let’s get this out of the way: the Capitals current nine-game win streak isn’t necessarily indicative of this team’s overall play.
Though they’re tearing through the opposition, the fact of the matter is that this run of play that has seen Washington post four shutouts in their past six games, allow only one 5-on-5 goal in the past two weeks and run roughshod over opponents like the Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks likely won’t last. Eventually, holes are going to appear and a few back-to-back defeats will come, and that’s about as simple as pointing to the fact that the Capitals currently have an exorbitant PDO — combined shooting and save percentage — of 112.8 during their winning streak. Washington is bound to come back down to earth.
However, over the course of the season as a whole, the Capitals are looking like a team that has bought in even further to the idea of shot suppression and puck possession. The results have been evident.
This season, through 43 games, the Capitals boast the league’s fourth-best possession rate at 52.1 percent and a large part of that has been the dip in shot attempts against per 60 minutes. Though it may not seem like all that much, Trotz’s team has seen two fewer attempts against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 compared to last season, and that can be enough to make a difference. And while puck possession wasn’t a glaring fault of the Capitals during the 2015-16 season, it was one area that certainly needed improvement.
At just 51 percent puck possession during their run up to the Presidents’ Trophy, the Capitals were the definition of a middle-of-the-road team. They ranked 14th in the league, behind the likes of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Carolina Hurricanes. And while a strong Corsi For percentage clearly isn’t the be-all, end-all — the Capitals were the league’s best regular season squad while the Maple Leafs were decidedly not — the inability to drive the flow of the game came to roost in the post-season.
In four of the six games of the second round series against the Penguins, the Capitals lost the possession battle, and the only game in which Washington escaped with a landslide in driving the play came in an outing which Pittsburgh had already gotten themselves out to a 3-0 lead. After their six-game defeat of the Capitals, it didn’t come as much of a surprise that a Penguins team that was exceptional at driving play during the regular season, finishing second in the league behind only the Los Angeles Kings, used their ability to possess the puck paired with some incredible scoring ability to power their way to the Stanley Cup.
That’s almost exactly the way the Capitals have been playing this season, too, using their ability to possess the puck paired with sharpshooting and creative offensive talent to blow the opposition away. In fact, at 5-on-5, there’s only one team as good as the Capitals at producing goals at 5-on-5, and it’s the Penguins. Both teams have scored 2.78 goals per 60 minutes at five-a-side, and it seems like all of Washington’s big-name talent is starting to heat up at just the right time.
While there’s no Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel scoring trio in Washington, the trio of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov is about as good an answer as there could be. Backstrom has been lights out over the past month, Ovechkin is again pacing the team and near the top of the league in goal scoring and after a slow start, Kuznetsov has rattled off two goals and 12 points in his past 14 games. When you match that kind of scoring prowess with the ability to generate shot attempts and scoring chances, it can make for a formidable foe. Of course, none of this is to mention the exceptional goaltending of Braden Holtby, who continues to prove that he’s one of the games best netminders.
Post-season hockey can be an entirely different animal and a few ill-timed goals against can be the difference between a deep run and an early exit, but controlling the play and giving fewer opportunities for those mistakes to be made can be all it takes to get over the hump. And if nothing else, the improvement in that area may be enough to turn the Capitals’ cautious optimism into something more.
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Bill Foley and George McPhee. Image by: Isaac Brekken/Getty Images
Vegas' new GM, George McPhee, crafts high-flying teams that entertain, and that's not about to change.
When George McPhee was finishing his law degree at Rutgers many moons ago, he hung out with a few guys in medical school. The aspiring doctors had an enduring credo: eat when you can, sleep when you can, work out when you can, and don’t fool around with the spleen. Really, when it comes down to it, what more life advice does a guy need?
By the time he graduated, McPhee was just three years removed from an NHL career that ended largely because he was 5-foot-9 and played like he was 6-foot-3. He took the words to heart and, almost a quarter century later, not a day goes by when McPhee doesn’t work out. Hard. Because that’s the only way he’s ever known how to do things. Whether it’s skipping rope, going to a high school track to do sprints, enduring a boot camp workout or punishing himself on the bike, McPhee pushes himself to the point of exhaustion for 30 minutes, then gets on with the rest of his day. That’s why he’s a 58-year-old who looks like he could still play in the league in which he’s been an executive for more than two decades. And his spleen, for the record, is in terrific shape.
“You owe it to your family, and you owe it to your employer to be sharp and to stay fit,” McPhee said. “So you have to work at it.”
Good listener, George McPhee. The smartest guy in the room, they say, is smart enough to know he’s smarter than most people but not smart enough to recognize when other people are smarter. Those are the kind of guys who spend their lives annoying people at dinner parties and running Enron into the ground. McPhee isn’t one of them. Anyone who can juggle law school and a hockey career, then graduate from Rutgers, is plenty smart, to be sure, but McPhee’s true intelligence came from absorbing the lessons he learned from the people around him. And none was more influential than Pat Quinn, a Hall of Famer, who taught McPhee the importance of integrity and ethics. It was Quinn who hired him to replace Brian Burke as assistant GM of the Vancouver Canucks when McPhee was still studying for the New York-New Jersey bar exam.
McPhee learned a lot about hockey from Quinn. More importantly, though, he absorbed the significance of cultivating relationships. It’s a template McPhee carried with him through 17 years as GM of the Washington Capitals and will continue to guide him as the first GM of the Vegas Golden Knights.
“I got really lucky to be able to work with Pat and to get to know him,” McPhee said. “He did things the right way. There are a lot of us who were really lucky that our lives intersected with his.”
Some intersected with Quinn’s more than others. McPhee’s was almost on a parallel track. Both were marginal NHL players who went on to become respected executives. Both went to law school but never wrote the bar exam. Quinn was fiercely protective of his players and McPhee, well, remember when he was suspended one month (20 games) for going after Chicago Blackhawks coach Lorne Molleken after a pre-season game in which McPhee thought the Hawks were manhandling his team?
Actually, that’s kind of the way McPhee approached the game as a player. At Bowling Green, he won the Hobey Baker Award on the strength of his offensive prowess, but it wasn’t enough to get him drafted. His coach at Bowling Green was Jerry York, who more than 30 years later coaches McPhee’s son Graham at Boston College. York said McPhee could have been a Brian Gionta-type of player if there was a place for them in the early 1980s.
“When he turned pro, he had to find a way by bringing all kinds of grit to his teams,” York said. “He’d take on anybody.”
The record shows McPhee fought 28 times in just 144 regular season and playoff games, and he wasn’t a guy to pick his spots. Consider his fight card: Dave Brown, Craig Berube, Scott Stevens, Marty McSorley, Nevin Markwart, Rick Tocchet (three times), John Kordic and Ed Hospodar.
Yet like Quinn, the philosophy McPhee took to building a team in his post-playing career was everything he wasn’t as a player. Quinn, who wore his defiance for playing an offensive game in a defensive era like a badge of honor, earned a disciple in McPhee, who plans to build a team in Las Vegas that attacks, plays stick-on-puck hockey and tries (likely mightily in its first couple years) to create a masterpiece rather than destroy one. And that, if nothing else, will make it an anomaly among expansion teams.
“It’s an entertaining way to play for your fans, it’s a fun way to play for the players, and it can be successful,” McPhee said. “Pittsburgh has done it and Chicago has done it. Hockey should never be boring.”
That philosophy led to McPhee giving a career minor league coach named Bruce Boudreau his first job in the NHL. The two of them never came close to winning a Stanley Cup despite having one of the league’s most offensively explosive teams, and both were ultimately let go, so the theory has a few holes in it. Boudreau, now coaching the Minnesota Wild, speaks of McPhee like he’s a brother. And this is the guy who canned Boudreau. That, of course, goes back to the integrity factor and McPhee’s insistence on treating people with respect. Boudreau said the friendship runs so deep that he even sought McPhee’s counsel when things got really rocky in Anaheim last year and after he was ultimately fired by the Ducks.
“He’s such a standup guy,” Boudreau said. “You want him in your corner every time because he will fight for you. I know before I was let go (in Washington) he fought for me really hard. When he let me go, I forgave him 20 minutes later. I knew it was tough, and he gave me a big hug. And I think he went to bat pretty good for me on this job, too.”
Boudreau and McPhee are well into their new starts in the game this season. For his experience alone, McPhee was an excellent choice to be the Golden Knights’ first GM. Expansion teams that hire GMs with experience do much better early and make the playoffs quicker than those who fight through their first couple years with men who have no experience running a hockey department.
McPhee has already instituted 30-, 60-, 90- and 120-day plans for the franchise, checking off the boxes as they move along. He knows he can’t prepare for every challenge that will come his way, but that won’t stop him from trying. Every GM in the league will have him on speed dial leading up to the expansion draft.
McPhee knows that, at this moment, it’s probably the best it will be for a long time. The beauty of taking over an expansion team is the blank canvas. There are no bad contracts to get out from under, there is no losing culture and nobody needs to be fired. The people working for you are eager and enthusiastic because they’re getting their first chance in the NHL or are grateful to get another. The best thing of all is there are no wins and losses to consume your thoughts. And McPhee is eminently prepared for the challenge. He took over the Capitals in 1997 from David Poile and watched as his team made the final in his first year. But it wasn’t long before the Capitals bottomed out, then drafted Alex Ovechkin first overall in 2004.
“To be as honest as I can be, it hasn’t been daunting at all,” McPhee said. “After building the clubs we built in Washington, I have a lot of confidence that I can do it again. Everything I’m about to see, I’ve already seen. I’ve seen this movie before. In Washington, we tore it right down to the point where we were just filling boots the first year out of the lockout.”
McPhee had a rich, aggressive, larger-than-life owner in Ted Leonsis then (the man who ordered him to trade for Jaromir Jagr against McPhee’s advice), much the way he has in Bill Foley now. Foley originally boldly predicted his team would win a Stanley Cup within eight years, then amended that to six. Wealthy, eccentric guys are like that. But before the Golden Knights can even think of being competitive, let alone win a Cup, they have to establish themselves in a market where the NHL’s only presence has been its awards show. Everything looks promising at the moment, but nobody goes into these things thinking they’re going to fail. The best the Golden Knights can hope for is to become a modern-day version of the Nashville Predators, a well-run team that plays in a fickle market and always faces enormous challenges.
“I understand that this is important, that Bill Foley has put a lot of money into this and put his reputation on the line,” McPhee said. “And we have to make this work. We certainly understand the challenge and what’s at stake.”
There's little doubt Shane Doan has the character to be a great addition to a team looking to win, but we're not sure he has what it takes on the ice anymore.
It would certainly make for a great headline, and even a better story, to watch Shane Doan skate off in a sultry night in June with the Stanley Cup lifted over his head. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to see one of the great guys in the game get rewarded with the ultimate prize before calling it a career?
So when Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night in Canada, one of the best news breakers in the business, said on the weekend that Doan might be willing to waive his no-trade clause to go to a contender, it undoubtedly conjured up a lot of sentiments among those looking for a feel-good story. No question it would be that.
But would it make sense? Well, it certainly would have last year at this time when Doan already had 15 of his 28 goals and looked like he still had a lot left in his tank. This season? Not so much. Doan has only four goals in 42 games and is playing less and certainly contributing less than he has in years. One big reason for his dip in production is his shooting percentage, which has plummeted to just 4.4 percent this season. Doan is shooting the puck almost as much as he used to despite getting about two fewer minutes of ice time per game, but is not finding the back of the net.
All of which makes you wonder whether a trade deadline deal for Doan would make any difference, either for the team getting Doan or the Coyotes. To be sure, the Coyotes would not be getting much in return for Doan. If he were traded on Feb. 28, which is deadline day, he’d still have about $883,000 of cap hit remaining, half of which could be obtained by the Coyotes. So the price to acquire Doan for the stretch run and the playoffs would not be a high one. (If you listened to our podcast, you heard me say there would be $1.8 million remaining after the deadline. Mea culpa on that one.)
But would it be a good move in a practical sense? Well, there are a couple of variables there. First, do you believe that Doan is simply having bad puck luck, something that could very well change with a new team? Or have the hands that have served him for 1,500 games and seen him score 400 goals abandoned him for good? If you’re a true contender, would Shane Doan really be the player to put you over the top?
Perhaps Doan could play on a strong team’s fourth line and add that certain intangible ingredient to a team that needs a veteran presence. But with the game going more in the direction of speed and skill on all four lines, do you really want a 40-year-old guy having to play every other night and keep up with the best players in the world? Let’s put it this way. Jaromir Jagr is one of the greatest players the game has ever seen, but in the past couple of playoffs in which he’s participated, he’s looked older and slower and less capable of accomplishing things than he has in the regular season. If you get Doan, the danger is you might be paying as much as $800,000 in cap space for a very good cheerleader, the way Ed Olczyk was for the New York Rangers in 1994 and Denis Savard was for the Montreal Canadiens two years later. They both held up the Stanley Cup in street clothes.
It seems to these eyes that Doan might just have waited one year too long to play this particular card, if indeed he’s willing to move from the desert to be a rental. (A call to his agent, Terry Bross, was not returned.) There were so many years previously that Doan had this very opportunity and he turned it down, which might give you the impression that winning a Stanley Cup wouldn’t be all that important to him. So has anything really changed this season?
There were years, even most recent ones, when Doan would have and could have been a difference maker for a team looking for that extra piece to put it over the top. Now, though, that ship appears to have passed. As wonderful as it would be to see, it’s difficult to believe there would be a string of suitors at the Coyotes’ door leading up to the trade deadline.
The Penguins and Capitals were involved in a modern classic on Monday night, combining for 15 goals, including nine in the second period, in a game that had just about everything.
Washington rolled into Pittsburgh on Monday night riding a nine-game win streak, but the Capitals’ run of dominant play was snapped in incredible fashion with the Penguins picking up an 8-7 overtime victory in a game that will likely go down as one of the more fun contests of the season.
The game had just about everything a fan could ask for. There were comebacks, a goalie change, a hat trick, a nine-goal (!) second period, tallies coming at 4-on-4, 5-on-5, on the power play and shorthanded, reviewed tallies and, from where Capitals fans are sitting, there were even a few missed calls. The game had it all, save a shootout to decide the winner. No one captured that as succinctly as Washington’s Justin Williams, who had a goal in the game.
"All around, it was like a 1988 Smythe Division game out there, I think,” Williams said post-game.
That’s a fairly accurate assessment of the outing, too, because during the high-scoring 1980s, there were more than 130 games where both teams scored at least seven goals.
If you missed the action, check out all 15 goals and a recap of the game:
The game was highlighted by Evgeni Malkin’s hat trick, which was the 11th of his career and puts him into second all-time among Penguins players. Malkin has no chance when it comes to taking over top spot, though. That record is held by Mario Lemieux, who scored 40 hat tricks — not a typo — with Pittsburgh. All of Malkin’s goals came in the second period across a span of 10:51, and the second frame featured five goals — three for Pittsburgh, two for Washington — in 3:32.
The Penguins rode Matt Murray for the entire outing, but he finished with an ugly 21 saves on 28 shots, good for a .750 save percentage. The Capitals, however, switched it up in goal after Braden Holtby allowed five goals in little more than eight minutes in the second. He finished his night with a .808 SP, which was the best mark of any goaltender to suit up Monday. Philipp Grubauer stopped eight of the 11 shots he faced for a .727 SP.
The eventual game winner came from Conor Sheary, and it was his first career regular season overtime-winning goal. It should be a familiar feeling for Sheary, though, considering he has two post-season OT goals, including one against the Capitals in the second round of the past playoffs.
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