Perfect road trip leads Caps to early division lead

Cross-country road trips are usually very tough on teams, especially early in the season.  Teams are usually just learning themselves and trying to get acclimated to new teammates and building camaraderie while learning themselves in the process.  In the first two weeks of the season, it looks as if the offense is on its way to another super season.

In winning all three games of the Canadian West Coast trip, the Capitals have established themselves as an early-favorite to contend for the Stanley Cup this season.  In the first game of the tip, Alexander Ovechkin recorded his 900th NHL point with his fourth goal of the season and Nicklas Backstrom scored twice in a 6-2 win over Calgary.  Ovechkin continues to add the accolades to an already storied career.  His 479 goals are the most in the NHL since 2001-02, despite not starting his NHL career until 2005.

The next game pitted the Caps vs the perennial Western Conference stalwarts from Vancouver.  As expected, this game was nip and tuck until Evgeny Kuznetsov fed Ovechkin on a 2-1 odd man rush for a slapshot that found the net with under 5 minutes remaining to give the Caps a 3-2 lead that they would not relinquish.  Goalie Braden Holtby made 23 saves for his 5th win in the early season.  The final game of the trip became the coming out party for second year center Evgeny Kuznetsov as he netted three goals for his first NHL hat trick and added two assists to help the Capitals beat the Edmonton Oilers 7-4 on Friday night for their fifth straight victory.

Playing their third game in four nights, the Capitals improved to 6-1-0.

“We knew it was a big road trip for us. It was our first road trip,” Ovechkin said. “We’re obviously happy to take these points.”

Coming home to face the hated Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night, the Caps need to bring the same effort as they have so far into this coming week.

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Capitals start campaign with controversy, victories

Newcomer TJ Oshie talks with Braden Holtby

There has been no shortage of fireworks during the opening week for the Washington Capitals.  A four game home stand to start the season before the team’s first West Coast road trip meant that the Caps would like to start off the season without a hitch if possible.

After a 5-3 win over the New Jersey Devils in the season opener at Verizon Center, Alex Ovechkin didn’t seem particularly happy with the performance.  “Our line didn’t play well in the first two periods,” said Ovechkin, who paired with the newly signed T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov. “In the third, we started moving the puck and we controlled the puck.”  In said third period, Ovechkin forcefully created another highlight worthy goal to give the Caps the commanding lead.

The Capitals needed to be focused and at full strength for the next game, welcoming traditional Western Conference powerhouse San Jose to DC but alas, that wasn’t the case.  With Nickolas Backstrom a couple of games away from making his debut, Alex Ovechkin was a healthy scratch for the first time in his career because he missed the morning skate.  That news seemed to deflate the rest of the guys as they were defeated pretty easily 5-0.  There wouldn’t be any time to wallow in self pity as the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks made their one appearance at Verizon Center for the season.  The team had quite the bounce-back effort as goalie Braden Holtby stopped 26 shots, Ovechkin contributed a goal in his return and the Capitals cruised to a 4-1 victory Thursday night. John Carlson, T.J. Oshie and Matt Niskanen also scored for the Capitals, who welcomed back Ovechkin following the one-game disciplinary absence.

Saturday’s tilt vs the Carolina Panthers became a celebration of the return of Backstrom from off season hip surgery and he did not disappoint the raucous Verizon Center faithful with a 3 point (1 goal, 2 assists) effort in a 4-1 triumph.  Three 3rd period goals, including one by Ovechkin, provided the winning margin as Holtby made 18 saves for the victory.

Winning three of four in this opening home stand is a solid way to get this campaign underway, now if the team can indeed take this roll into the three game Western Canada road trip, things will continue to look bright for the team.

2015-16 Washington Wizards Season Outlook

As last season’s bittersweet ending of the season culminated by Paul Pierce’s game tying 3-pointer in Game 6 being overturned by instant replay, fans were simultaneously saddened and encouraged by the state of the Washington Wizards franchise.  Yes, losing in the second round in Game 6 didn’t feel good, but anyone who watched the playoffs saw a different team.  A team that seemed to finally seemed to use its obvious team strengths to its advantage and shock everyone with the somewhat new system that head coach Randy Wittman seemed to unveil on the fly in the playoffs.  You rarely see such a drastic change of philosophy during a season, let alone at the start of a playoff run but that’s exactly what Wittman did and it worked.

In sweeping a Toronto team that had owned the Wizards for two seasons in the regular season then winning Game 1 vs the heavily favored Hawks, things looked bright until after the game, franchise point guard John Wall would be sidelined with broken hand.  While he would eventually return in the series, it would not be enough to unseat the Hawks.   Coach Wittman has stated that he will institute this new free-flowing offensive style during training camp and during the preseason, scoring has soared.  One thing that the fans will have to get used to is a slippage in defense because of it unfortunately.  In all my years as a Bullets/Wizards fan, one thing that hasn’t been a hallmark of any of the teams has been defense/defensive effort.  That has changed under the direction of Wittman.  The guys actually like Wittman and it shows by the effort they give on the defensive end.  These players must get used to this new “Pace and Space” philosophy and that will take time.

There are plenty of reasons to be encouraged by the direction of the team and that all starts with All Star point guard John Wall.  After his initial three seasons were marred with injuries and inconsistencies, his last two seasons have coincided with the team’s ascension from laughingstock to a perennial playoff contender.  Wall has improved his overall game every season and last year played well enough to earn a starting nod in the All Star game.  Although snubbed for an All-NBA spot, he was finally acknowledged for his great perimeter defense and was voted Second Team All Defense.

Along with Wall, the continued improvement from backcourt mate Bradley Beal will be key for the franchise going forward.  After an up-and-down season, Beal shined brightly in the playoffs scoring over 24 pts per game and being the focal point of the offense showing an aggression that fans have clamored for since his arrival.  If he can continue that aggressiveness, along with Otto Porter’s continued improvement, the perimeter play should be pretty solid this season.  Holdovers Marcin Gortat, Kris Humphries, Nene (albeit in a decreased role), along with newcomers Jared Dudley, former Towson star Gary Neal and rookie Kelly Oubre gives the team some much needed athleticism and perimeter shooting to boost the team’s overall scoring output.

By all means, this 2015-16 edition of the Washington Wizards will only be deemed a success by one thing, and that is that the courting of eventual free agent Kevin Durant leads to him leaving the green pastures of Oklahoma City to sign with his hometown franchise.  In the national view of the team, this is the ongoing saga, just as the last year of LeBron James’ first stint in Cleveland was THE topic of conversation moreso than what the team would accomplish during the season.  As a fan of the team for decades, the team has finally put themselves in a position to become more than just a punchline and truly become a free agent destination, even if the team doesn’t end up with Durant. True Wizards fans can expect the team to compete for a top 3-seed in the East if the team can stay relatively healthy (although Jared Dudley, Alan Anderson and Martell Webster are already nursing injuries) during the long haul that is regular season.

2015-16 Washington Capitals Season Preview

After years of heightened expectations with deflating results, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis  cleaned house  after the 2014 season letting go of coach Adam Oates and not renewing the contract of longtime General Manager George McPhee.  In a somewhat surprising move, new GM Brian MacLellan was promoted within and Leonsis was able to secure the services of veteran coach Barry Trotz to helm the position.  This ushered in a new era for the Caps and as expected, there were numerous bumps on the road the first season but as the season wore on, you could see the vision coming to fruition as the team ended the season playing extremely well to finish 2nd in the Metropolitan Division with 101 points.

After defeating the New York Islanders in the 1st round of the playoffs unfortunately the Caps continued their annual tradition of blowing a commanding series lead, this time a three games to one lead against the Rangers in the second round deprived the Capitals of advancing to the Conference finals for the first time since 1998 and ended an otherwise promising campaign on a frustrating, sour note.

Yet, confidence is sky high in Washington as it should be and it starts with perennial MVP candidate Alexander Ovechkin.  Even with his 3rd new coach in as many seasons,  Ovie shredded the league again finishing first in goals in the NHL for the third consecutive season with 53 as he continued to be the superstar this franchise depends on game after game, year after year.  Criminally underrated Nicklas Backtsrom will pair with Ovechkin again to lead the high powered attack along with off-season trade acquisiton (and Team USA hero) TJ Oshie to give the pair possibly their most talented linemate as long as they have been here in DC.

Losing former team stalwarts in Joel Ward, fan favorite (and sometimes punching bag) Mike Green, Eric Fehr and Troy Browher should hurt but along with the players already on the roster to pick up the slack,  the Capitals picked up former Los Angeles King playoff hero Justin Williams to bring the missing link to this franchise’s playoff troubles.  Williams is a player who’s postseason acumen will be what his value is ultimately looked for and not his regular season.

Fans and players alike should be ecstatic that the team was able to come to terms with young superstar goalie Braden Holtby on a long term deal that should bring immediate and long term dividends for the franchise.  Holtby seemed to take the leap to the next level in his play that honestly, Caps goalies of the recent past just didn’t seem to do by leading all goalies in ice time and tying for second with 41 wins. He followed that with a sterling playoff performance, turning in a .944 save percentage in 14 postseason games.  Along with the solid defense from veterans John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Dmitri Orlov and Matt Niskanen, if the team can get quality contributions from dynamic talents such as Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky could take this team from just a playoff roster, to one that can truly make a run for the Stanley Cup sooner than later.

Heads roll as Nationals end season, new managerial search continues

After today’s firing of Manager Matt Williams and his whole support staff, the 2015 campaign for the Washington Nationals has finally come to an end.  Matt Williams’ future as a manager in the majors isn’t set in stone, he could one day become a great manager, but alas that time will not come in DC.   His numerous mental and philosophical miscues were unequivocally his downfall but this disastrous season was not a One-Man Sabotage effort to say the least.

If there was a “Blame Pie” to pass around for this debacle, a healthy chunk of this pie would be reserved for General Manager Mike Rizzo, who placed a ready-made title contender into the hands of a neophyte manager, but also didn’t make the necessary changes to the roster when there were ample opportunities to improve lackluster performance.  Also, his handling of future free agency for a number of players may have actually became an hindrance in the clubhouse because of their play.  Slow starts for Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Denard Span (mostly injury) and Doug Fister were a huge factor in this.  The last straw, which if he didnt have such a good track record building this team from national laughingstock to winning franchise, was the acquisition of known malcontent Jonathan Paplebon to take over as closer from incumbent Drew Storen.  First off, he demanded to become the closer or he wouldn’t accept the trade, that alone should have raised a red flag Mr. Rizzo.  Washington had a 52-46 record and a one-game lead in the division the day it traded for Papelbon to bolster a bullpen anchored by Storen, who had 29 saves, a 1.73 ERA and just two blown saves at the time. The demotion from closer to setup man was a harsh blow for Storen, who recorded an 8.49 ERA in August.

Also, as has been reported in various publications, the clubhouse was fractured a bit by the Tyler Clippard trade in the off season, which was panned by players and fans alike, but may have been a mandate from ownership to save a little money at a position that normally doesn’t pay the huge bucks.  That penny pinching by ownership deserves a slice of that pie as well.   As a contender, especially in baseball, if your players continue to improve their individual games, hard decisions arise.  But, as a franchise, you can not penny pinch with your bullpen and then go around and give Max Scherzer over 200 million dollars over 7 years then cry wolf.  I’m sure that players in the locker room may love Scherzer, but quietly (or not so quietly) vent their frustrations of this whole process.

And lastly, besides Bryce Harper (the would be National League MVP) and Yunel Escobar, there wasn’t anyone on the 25-man roster that outplayed his preseason expectations.  You can blame your manager, you can blame your GM, but at the end of the day, as a man/leader/player, you must have some sort of intestinal fortitude and take pride in your job.  At the end of the day, players play.  Every player on this roster has to take this stench of a season into their individual off seasons and hopefully with the new manager and GM shoring up holes in the roster going into Spring Training.  Maybe players can actually stay healthy through a full campaign??Who knows, someone may be on the trading block…maybe even Stephen Strasburg.   After this season, anything is possible.

Day 1 for 2016 redemption starts today.