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About the Capitals - 02-25-15

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

A preview of the Capitals.

When and where: 8 p.m, EST, MCI Center Verizon Center.

TV: NBC Sports, Sportsnet One, TVA.

Record: 33-18-10, 76 points. The Capitals are in fourth place in the Neapolitan Ice Cream Metropolitan Division.

Leading Scorer: Nicklas Backstrom (right), 64 points (18 goals, 46 assists).

Last Game: 3-2 road loss to the Flyers Sunday. Goaltender Braden Holtby made 25 saves for the Capitals.

Last Game against the Penguins: 3-1 road win Feb. 17. Left winger Alex Ovechkin and right winger Joel Ward each had a goal and an assist for the Capitals.

Capitals Player We Would Bet Money On Scoring: Ovechkin. Just because.

Ex-Penguins on the Capitals: Defensemen Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and assistant coach Todd Reirden.

Ex-Capitals on the Penguins: Assistant coach Rick Tocchet.

Useless Capitals Trivia Vaguely Related to the Penguins: Niskanen is one of two former Penguins who have worn No. 2 for the Capitals. The others are defensemen Jim Johnson and Jack Lynch.

The last time the Capitals played the Penguins, this happened:

Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury (26-11-6, 2.19 GAA, .924 SV%) for the Penguins. Braden Holtby (26-12-9, 2.20 GAA, .923 SV%) for the Capitals.

Injuries: For the Penguins, defenseman Christian Ehrhoff (head) is questionable. Right winger Pascal Dupuis (blood clot) and defenseman Olli Maatta (shoulder) are on injured reserve. For the Capitals, defensemen John Erskine ("upper body") and Dmitry Orlov (wrist) are on injured reserve.

Potential lines and defensive pairings: The Penguins had an optional morning skate. Consider this a guess based on their lines and pairs at yesterday's practice:

39 David Perron- 87 Sidney Crosby - 72 Patric Hornqvist
14 Chris Kunitz - 71 Evgeni Malkin - 17 Blake Comeau
13 Nick Spaling - 16 Brandon Sutter - 19 Beau Bennett
27 Craig Adams - 40 Maxim Lapierre - 23 Steve Downie

7 Paul Martin – 58 Kris Letang
4 Rob Scuderi - 47 Simon Despres
41 Robert Bortuzzo – 51 Derrick Pouliot

-The Capitals expected lines and defensive pairings are:

8 Alex Ovechkin - 19 Nicklas Backstrom - 65 Andre Burakovsky
90 Marcus Johansson - 92 Evgeny Kuznetsov - 20 Troy Brouwer
21 Brooks Laich - 16 Eric Fehr - 42 Joel Ward
25 Jason Chimera - 46 Michael Latta - 43 Tom Wilson

 44 Brooks Orpik - 74 John Carlson
27 Karl Alzner – 2 Matt Niskanen
45 Cam Schilling – 52 Mike Green

Notes:

-Defenseman Rob Scuderi has 98 career points.

-"I feel like I'm ready to play." - Ehrhoff.

-With a win tonight, the Capitals could sweep the season series from Penguins and prevent them from earning a standings point for the for the first time in franchise history.

-The referees are Justin St. Pierre (No. 12) and Kelly Sutherland (No. 11). The linesmen are Scott Cherrey (50) and  Steve Barton (No. 59).

-Our live blog begins at approximately 7:45 p.m. Please tune in.

(Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images)

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Empty Netter Assists - Kunitz-Malkin reunion - 02-25-15

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

Penguins

-Can a reunion with Evgeni Malkin spark Chris Kunitz's production?

-Kunitz's numbers have been on the decline since his foot injury in December.

-Even with a little bit of success over the past two games, the Penguins are still trying to improve their power play.

-“I know they’ve been frustrated. You saw the way the last game unfolded. That’s definitely not to their advantage playing that way. They had two big wins this weekend, and I’m sure they’ll be ready to go tomorrow.” - Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik on his former team's struggles against Washington this season.

-Sidney Crosby speaks:

-Mike Johnston speaks:

-Happy 65th birthday to former Penguins goaltender Cam Newton. An eighth-round pick in 1970, Newton spent parts of two seasons with the Penguins. As a rookie in 1970-71, he appeared in five games and had a 1-3-1 record along with a 3.42 GAA. After spending all of 1971-72 with the Penguins' AHL affiliate in Hershey, Newton returned in 1972-73 by playing in 11 games and going 3-4-0 with a 3.94 GAA. During the 1973 offseason, he joined the Chicago Cougars of the WHA as a free agent. In 16 games with the Penguins, Newton had a 4-7-1 record with a 3.76 goals against average.

-After the Jump: Nick Leddy gets paid.

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North Hills and Fox Chapel surprise semifinalists .... other WPIAL semifinal notes

Written by Mike White on .

North Hills and Fox Chapel played in a non-section basketball game in mid-January. Could there have been a person anywhere that could have predicted a month-and-a-half later the same two teams would be involved in the WPIAL Class AAAA final four?

The AAAA semifinals are tomorrow night, and lo and behold, North Hills and Fox Chapel are involved. North Hills will play Chartiers Valley at Moon, while Fox Chapel plays North Allegheny at Chartiers Valley.

North Hills is the No. 11 seed and Fox Chapel No. 12. North Hills has knocked off the No. 6 and 3 seeds, while Fox Chapel has defeated the No. 5 and 4 seeds.

Both North Hills and Fox Chapel were third-place teams in their section. It is unusual for third-place teams to make it this far. Since Class AAAA was started in 1984, this is only the fourth time that two third-place teams or lower qualified for the semifinals. In 2012, Central Catholic and Butler tied for third place in their section and made the semifinals. The 2005 semifinals had two third-place teams - Mt. Lebanon and North Hills. The 2001 semifinals also had two third-place teams - Chartiers Valley and Shaler.

But really, should the success of North Hills and Fox Chapel be all that surprising? After all, Buzz Gabos' North Hills team beat No. 1 seed North Allegheny and No. 5 Pine-Richland in the regular season. North Hills almost beat Hampton, one of the top AAA teams, and gave a strong Allderdice team a good game.

Also, I said it and wrote about it before the playoffs started that there was no prohibitive favorite in Class AAAA, no team like New Castle or Hampton the past few years. Was it a sign of parity, or simply Class AAAA being down? Those are questions for another blog. But coaches and even WPIAL basketball committee chairman Dan O'Neil talked about the balance in AAAA this year. Many thought maybe a third-place team make some noise. Well, two have made plenty of noise.

That being said, look at the other two teams that are in the semifinals. It's No. 1 seed North Allegheny and No. 2 Chartiers Valley.

North Hills and Fox Chapel have won two playoff games by controlling the pace of the game and keeping it low scoring. That being said, how will North Hills and Fox Chapel fare now that they are now facing teams that like to play a faster tempo and shoot theMatty McConnell ball exceptionally well. North Hills faces Chartiers Valley while Fox Chapel plays North Allegheny. Chartiers Valley shoots 53 percent from the field and 44 percent from 3-point range. Char Valley attempts 24 3-pointers and game and makes 10.7. Five players have at least 28 3-pointers and Matty McConnell, Ross Wilkerson and Jake Ritson all have at least 55. McConnell leads the WPIAL in scoring at 30 ppg.

Chartiers Valley and North Allegheny are definite favorites in the semifinals. It would be surprising if they didn't both win. A question for both North Hills and Fox Chapel is how will they handle defensive pressure? Both teams like to press, especially North Allegheny. How well North Allegheny and Chartiers Valley shoot the 3-pointer also will be key, but so will how North Hills and Fox Chapel shoot from the outside.

And lastly, just a little history. This is Chartiers Valley's 16th semifinal appearance under McConnell in the past 21 years, whether in AAA or AAAA. This is North Allegheny's third consecutive appearance and fourth in the past six seasons.

For Fox Chapel, this is only the sixth semifinal appearance in school history. The others were in 2007, 1998, 1988, 1977 and 1967.

This is only the third semifinal appearance in school history for North Hills. The others were in 2009 and 2005. The 2005 team lost to a future NFL player when  Upper St. Clair and Sean Lee beat the Indians.

The bus breaks

Even though Fox Chapel was victorious against Hempfield last night, it was a long bus ride home for Fox Chapel. Literally.

Fox Chapel's team bus broke down. The team had to wait in a shopping plaza until another bus came. Fox Chapel coach Zach Skrinjar said his team got back to school about midnight.

But for some reason, the Foxes didn't seem to mind. You can feel that way after a big win. A lot of selfies and "tweets" came from that bus.

Mastroianni magic

If you didn't know it before, it was proven again Monday night. Quaker Valley's Mike Mastroianni is one of the best coaches around. Quaker Valley knocked off Class AA No. 2 seed Lincoln Park in the quarterfinals.

Mike MastroianniThere aren't many coaches who have won WPIAL titles at two different schools, like Mastroianni (pictured). He won one at Quaker Valley in 1997 before going to Bethel Park and winning another in 2007. He then returned to Quaker Valley and has the Quakers in the semifinals for the second time in three seasons. Mastroianni, by the way, won his 400th game earlier this season.

The Quakers might give defending champion Seton-LaSalle all it can handle in tomorrow's semifinals. But I still say no one is beating Aliquippa in Class AA.

But one more thing about the 400-win milestone, North Allegheny's Dave DeGregorio should get it next season or the season after. He has coached at South Allegheny and Pine-Richland also.

Jula's good times

Last week was pretty darn good for Ambridge coach Mark Jula.

Last Friday, Ambridge upset Class AAA No. 1 seed in the WPIAL quarterfinals. Ambridge is the fourth team that Jula has taken to the semifinals. I doubt that has ever happened before with any other coach. The others were Moon, Butler and North Allegheny.

On top of that, last Monday, Jula and his wife, Sue, became grandparents for the first time.

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Kunitz: 'I have to be more productive offensively' - 02-24-15

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

In a season which began with a quite a few changes for the Penguins, two things which carried over from last season was Chris Kunitz's role as Sidney Crosby's left wing and his production.

Entrenched on Crosby's line for most of his career, Kunitz started 2014-15 on a pretty productive clip as he scored 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists) through his first 23 games of the season.

Then something changed.

The normally durable Kunitz missed the first eight games of December due to a foot injury. Since returning to the lineup Dec. 20, he has been limited to 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 29 games.

Here's a look at his numbers before and after the injury.

Before
Injury
  After
Injury
20 Games Played 29
9 Goals 6
11 Assists 9
20 Points 15
0.87 Points Per Game 0.52
53 Shots 63
2.65 Shots Per Game
2.17

Another thing changed last week.

The top two lines were shuffled and Kunitz found himself on the left wing of Evgeni Malkin. While Kunitz has been limited without a point in those two games, the Penguins have seen an offensive surge as a team with a combined nine goals.

Earlier today, Kunitz talked about the line change and his production.

---

Two games in, how have things gone on the line with Malkin and Blake Comeau on right wing?

"We did some things right in the St. Louis game [Saturday]. We played against their physical [nature]. It comes down to a couple of goals on turnovers. Another one, a shot from the point. It think we've converged well. It's nice when you're out there and productive things are happening. It's something that I've been in that position before, playing with [Malkin]. It's obviously an opportunity to go out and prove myself again."

What are the differences between playing with Crosby and Malkin?

"People ask, they always end up in the same spots. It might happen at different times but I'm sure if you've watched them, they always end up with the puck in the offensive zone. [They're] able to deflect, shield guys away to find guys sitting in the soft area. And they're both guys that will take the puck to the net. It might happen a little slower in the neutral zone between the two of them but they end up in the same spot pretty much in the offensive zone."

One of your better seasons came on his wing in 2011-12 when he won the Hart Trophy. What worked for you that season?

"I think we had the line [along with James Neal on right wing] that had chemistry. We had a line that scored a ton of goals between the three of us. Anytime you have success playing offensively, everyone plays with a little more confidence. That helps anybody that plays hockey. Every time you gain that confidence, you gain a little bit different swagger. You don't think your pushing the puck around enough. But once you have that chemistry, I think it's something you can always pick up and play with but make sure you stay within your game. That's the reason the coaches put you there."

Does your role or game change at all when you play with Malkin as opposed to Crosby?

"I would not want to change. For myself, I need to play those straight lines, forecheck, [force turnovers by the opposition], get to the net. I have to be more productive offensively in that sense. But make sure I win my core battles, get the puck in [Malkin's or Crosby's] hands as soon as I can then follow up the play and push the pace."

Your production hasn't been the same since returning from the foot injury. What has changed?

"Probably just the confidence. When it's not going for you, you feel like you're not getting a lot shots though to the net. You're getting to areas but maybe not the right area at the right time. It's one of those things, you've got to put your head down and try to get to those areas. Keep shooting pucks. Keep putting them there. Don't shoot when you're not supposed to but still play the right way. I try to pride myself in being productive in other areas when the offensive stuff is not coming and that's trying to get in on the forecheck, trying to turn pucks over, get back on the backcheck. But still I have the responsibility of being productive and it's something I want to get better at."

There's nothing lingering physically with your foot?

"No, no. It's something that you have to make sure if its in your mind, you've got to make sure you play though it. I've still had a few chances that maybe if you get a bounce, it goes the other way and you still pick up a point. It's not at the pace of maybe of the year and half or whatever when I was on a good run there. But it's something definitely something I want to get back to and push to that level."

(Photo: Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)

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Jim Ferry and Jeremiah Jones discuss home success, road woes

Written by Craig Meyer on .

In a blog post yesterday, I detailed the chasm between Duquesne's performance at home and how it does on the road. It's been a prevalent topic of conversation over the past few weeks and tomorrow, I'll have a story on it in the paper.

For now, though, I'll leave you with some insight and perspective from separate talks I had with Dukes coach Jim Ferry and junior guard Jeremiah Jones.

 

JIM FERRY

In these kind of situations, people usually look for concrete answers, but is this just more of an inexplicable thing?

“It’s almost been the true definition of frustration. You see it and you know what the problem is, but you’re having a hard time of fixing it. If you look at other teams in the league like Saint Louis, they have one road win all year. They’re 0-7 in the league. Richmond only has one win on the road, I think. Fordham, I think, only has one. There are a bunch of teams that aren’t winning on the road, either. The thing that’s concerning me is how drastically different we play on the road. This is coming from a guy who, four years ago, my team led the country in road wins. In my second-to-last year at LIU, we led the country in road wins. My programs have won on the road in the past. I’m trying to keep the formula, but you have to adjust with your team. Some of it is the youth of our frontcourt on the road. Some of it is us not playing as efficiently offensively, which really affects us defensively. Our stats extremely, extremely different.”

“We’re playing the same guys and it’s drastic. We do the same preparation. Maybe I just need to not let it be a mental game. We try to approach every game ‘Hey, this is a game, this is what we have to do to win the game.’ No matter where the game is played, the gameplan is usually the same. But it’s been really frustrating. We’re trying to use analytics, we’re using individual meetings, we’re using approaches, we’re using gameplanning. It’s been a challenge and we’re trying to figure it out. Sometimes, you can’t control it. We have to play better on the road. We still have two more opportunities to do that, fix that and try to get a win on the road.”

You were bringing up the mental angle there. For pretty much any college basketball player, if you’ve consistently fallen short in doing something, does a mental block form?

“I think kids nowadays are really fragile in all aspects of their life. It could be part of it. What has been concerning is in a lot of these games, with like two minutes to go in the first half, we’ve been tied or down two or down three. Then, all of a sudden in that two-minute stretch, it gets to 16. That’s been really concerning. Prior to the La Salle game, we played very well on the road at UMass. We were tied with under two minutes to go. I’m obviously not making excuses, but we had a lot of adversity during that La Salle trip with coach Rhodes and stuff. But that was still kind of the way we’ve been playing. So hopefully next time we go on the road, we play better. But more importantly right now, I hope we play as well as we’ve been playing at home. Let’s not let the home aspect dip off and then get better on the road. Let’s keep getting better at home and then obviously try to fix things on the road.”

With only one senior on the team and with a lot of guys who have just a year or two of DI experience, do you think that might play some kind of role, that lack of experience?

“Absolutely. For some of these guys in our program, it’s the first time ever walking into those gyms. In the Atlantic 10, with an unbalanced schedule, you don’t always go on the road every year to those different teams. Sometimes it’s just the travel. Our travel is significantly different than high school travel. These guys are learning that. Hydrating your body the right way when you’re flying, eating properly, eating multiple times in a day, not just laying around the hotel room but getting the proper rest you need. It’s all a part of it and it’s all a part of the mental approach, too. That’s something we can control. If you look at it, Jeremiah and DC are the only guys that have been here for three years. Micah and Domo have been here for two and everybody else is basically brand new. A lot of this is a new experience for these guys. If you look at the teams that are winning on the road, I think they’re some of the teams that do have more experience. But it’s something we have to deal with and something we have to get better at. It’s been frustrating, but it’s not something I want to make into a mental game. It’s still a basketball court, the rims are 10 feet high, it’s still the same size. We have to focus on playing better.”

What do you feel like you guys picked up from the first meeting with Saint Louis that might help you all in this one?

“In that game, I thought we played really well to start both halfs. We missed 21 free throws; that was a major factor in that game. I also thought we allowed them to feel a little too comfortable on the perimeter against our zone. And they were at home and we were on the road. I thought that was part of it, too. They’re very similar to us. They’re a very good team. Jim Crews is one of the best coaches in the country. They’re so well prepared and they really defend you well. They’ve gotten better since we played them and we’ve gotten better since we played them. We’re really going to see on Wednesday night.”

Of your seven road losses in A-10 play, six of them have come to teams I believe are in the top half of the league. Does that play some kind of factor?

“That plays more of a factor than the gym. It’s the team that’s in the gym you’re playing against. We’ve played some really good teams, but then we’ve come home and played those teams and beaten those same teams. You shouldn’t lose by 20 on the road and then come home and beat them. Now, let’s credit our kids for that, let’s credit our team for that. We’re a team that does make adjustments and has gotten better. We’ve lost by 20 and we’ve been able to learn what we’re done wrong and make the adjustments and win those games. That’s a very positive sign.”

“We’ve got to limit our mistakes. We have a small margin of error and it’s even smaller when we go on the road. We have to have better defense when our offense hits those segments where we have those empty possessions in a row. A perfect example of that is against Dayton. We still had those possessions where we went five in a row and didn’t score. But we only allowed Dayton to score on one of those possessions. We have to do a better job of that defensively, focusing more on defense on the road and really grinding things out when our offense isn’t clicking and the ball’s not going in the basket.”

Pretty much any coach will tell you how difficult conference road games are and it seems like some of the better programs are defined by their ability to consistently get those kind of wins. Would being able to get over that hump a bit represent a big step for this as a program?

“Sure, but again, when you’re talking about a program, you’re talking about a process. Let’s judge these guys in a couple of years when you’re older. That’s how you build a program. When I got here, what was here? Now, we’re building it and we have some recruiting classes. When DC and Micah are seniors and everybody else are junior and sophomores, then let’s judge because now we have experience of playing on the road and playing in tougher games. When you look at the teams that have success, like you look at St. Joe’s last year – they didn’t struggle to win on the road last year. Yeah, because they were full of seniors. Saint Louis, they didn’t struggle winning on the road last year. They were all seniors. Now, those teams are young and they’re struggling to win on the road very much like us. It’s part of the process and the maturation of kids. It’s different.”

JEREMIAH JONES

Is this home-road thing something you guys as players are cognizant of or talk about at all?

“Coach has brought it up plenty of times. We didn’t really realize it at first because we don’t look at the numbers or percentages as much as him. He brought it to our attention that we’re significantly different on the road than we are at home, both offensively and defensively. We understand that sometimes offensively you’re going to be different because you’re not as comfortable playing away on other people’s floors. But as long as your defense travels with you, you’ve got a chance to win games. That’s something we’ve talked about as far as the difference between home and away for us. We can’t let our defense drop knowing that for some games, our offense might not be there on the road.”

Is there anything you can think of that’s some kind of factor that plays into it? Is it a comfort thing?

“I think it’s kind of a comfort thing. We’re so used to shooting in our own gym all the time and things like that. We’re always in the gym getting up extra shots. I think it is more of a comfort thing for us offensively. Defensively, I couldn’t tell you why we play harder at home or anything. I don’t think there’s an explanation for it.”

You’re one of the older guys on the team, but this isn’t a group with a significant amount of DI experience. Do you think that plays a role, where the guys aren’t used to playing at a Dayton or a VCU and it can be tough at first?

“I think so. It’s hard for young guys to go into situations like that. We didn’t play at VCU this year, but we did play at Dayton, which was unfortunately our first conference game. Some of our younger guys weren’t used to seeing those kind of environments and hearing that kind of noise and stuff. I remember my freshman year like it was yesterday. It’s just the nerves going out there. Not having that is experience is definitely a little nerve-racking. I think they’ve done a pretty good job, honestly, of keeping their composure and doing what they can to help the team. It’s natural for younger guys to be nervous. I still think they’ve done a good job, but I do think that has a little bit to do with it.”

When you all go two or three months without a road win, is there almost a mental block that builds up?

“I don’t think so. Mentally, I think we have the same approach going into every game. I think one thing that it does do for us mentally is it gets us more locked in when we’re playing on the road because we understand that we haven’t won one yet and we want to win one badly. I think that’s one thing it does do for us mentally. It gives us more concentration and more focus. Hopefully that concentration and focus can lead to a win soon.”

On the flip side, since you all have done so well at home and beaten teams like GW and Dayton, is there a sort of confidence that comes with that, knowing that you were able to beat those kind of teams at home?

“There’s a confidence that comes from winning any game, but when you beat teams of that caliber, it shows you we can play with some of the best teams in our league. GW’s a great team, Dayton’s a great team. Both of them went to the NCAA tournament last year and they’re programs that we kind of look and see where we want to be. I think it does build confidence for us. Those wins are great, but I think any win is great and any win builds confidence for us.”

 

Craig Meyer: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG

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