Amongthe more important matchups Sunday will be the Redskins pass rush vs. Falconsquarterback Matt Ryan.Ryanleads the NFL in passer rating (112.1), has tossed the second most touchdowns (11) and has three top-notch targets in Roddy White, Julio Jones and TonyGonzalez. The Redskins, meanwhile, have yielded the second most passing yards (1,305) and the most passing touchdowns (11).Those unsightly statistics are mostly result of big plays caused by blown coverage in the secondary and missed tackles downfield.The Redskins' pass rush, however, must shoulder some of the blame.TheRedskins linemen and linebackers a unit beset by season-ending injuries to starters BrianOrakpo and Adam Carriker has been solid against the run (10th) but has mustered a meager seven sacks (tied for 22nd).Lastweek in Tampa, Ryan Kerrigan recorded the Redskins' only sack in a 24-22 victory that saw Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman appear, at times, far too comfortable in the pocket, particularly in the second half. Freeman, in fact, was only hit one time while attempting a pass. And while the Buccaneers did employ max-protection and Freeman focused on getting the ball out of his hand quickly, defensive end Stephen Bowen said that's no an excuse.Peopleare starting to get the ball out quicker against us, Bowen said. Thats showing respect for us up front, but its frustrating. Allwe can do is affect what we canstopping the run and, when we get a one-on-onepass rush opportunity, we have to take advantage of it.Againstthe Falcons, there could be opportunities to get to Ryan. He's been sacked 11 times,which is tied for the ninth most in the league.Thisweek, Bowen said the Redskins linemen and linebackers worked on sharpening uptheir pass rush skills in practice.Sunday,obviously, would be a good time for some of that work to pay off.Thesecondary guys need to get tighter coverage to give us a little more time toget the quarterback, and we have to get there, beat the guy in front of us andmake a play, linebacker Rob Jackson said. If were not beating the guy infront of us, the quarterback can go anywhere with the ball. He has first,second and third read if were not getting any pressure on him.
Zach Sanford's first 20 NHL games were fairly unremarkable. The rookie forward did well to earn a spot in the lineup, but as time went on and the points were not coming, it was clear Sanford needed time in the AHL. Now he's back and he's making the most of his opportunity.
With Andre Burakovsky out of the lineup with a hand injury, that left an opportunity for a young prospect to earn some NHL playing time. Jakub Vrana, the Caps' 2014 first-round draft pick, seemed the obvious choice as his scoring acumen and similar playing style seemed well suited for the third line. Sanford, however, was already with the Caps when Burakovsky suffered the injury. The recall was more of a reward for good play in Hershey and Sanford was not expected to get into the lineup, but with only one game left before the bye week, he got the first crack at the third line.
Three games later, Sanford still has not relinquished that position.
"I think this past weekend was couple [sic] of my better games of the year I've played with the Caps," Sanford said.
Sanford scored his first NHL goal, the game-winner against the Anaheim Ducks, in Washington's last game before the bye. He was then sent back down to the AHL for the week. When the team returned to action, both Sanford and Vrana were recalled and it looked as if both players would compete for Burakovsky's spot on the third line. Sanford, however, won the competition before it could ever really start.
Sanford played in the Caps' fist game back on Saturday in Detroit and scored again. In his first 20 games in the NHL, Sanford had only one point to show for it, an assist. In his last three games, he has two goals. As a reslut, Vrana was reassigned to Hershey without getting into the lineup and Sanford now appears entrenched as Burakovsky's replacement.
The most encouraging sign for the Caps is not just that Sanford is playing well, it's that his addition to the third line has been relatively seamless. The combination of Burakovsky with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly had established itself as a dynamic line for Washington before the injury. The fact that it has not taken a step back with Burakovsky's absence speaks to just how well Sanford has played.
"It's a good opportunity for me with Burky coming out to step in and take advantage of it," Sanford said. "It's been easy to jump in on that line in his spot. They've been playing great, they just haven't slowed down. They've kind of helped me take advantage of that and put a couple in with some nice plays. That's been great for me."
Sanford's play of late reflects a remarkable level of development from the timid player we saw at the start of the season. Sanford looked overly cautious at times in his first tour with the Caps, leading to almost no production. With nothing to show for his efforts, Sanford's confidence began to drop which led to even more timid play. Sanford credits his time in the AHL for giving him the confidence he needed to succeed at the NHL level.
"A lot of that is from Hershey," he said. "Just being down there and getting the ice time and the touches and getting some points and making plays is huge for my confidence. It definitely shows when I got back up here, I feel a lot more comfortable, a lot more confident with the puck."
That's exactly the attitude head coach Barry Trotz wanted to see from Sanford.
"As I said to him, just go for it," Trotz said after practice on Tuesday. "You've got an opportunity, just go for it and you know what a good decision is and a bad decision. He's got really good hockey sense. He's a very grounded young man. He understands the big picture, he understands the smaller stuff. I think he just was playing a little safe and now he's just playing."
While there's never a good time for a team to suffer an injury, Burakovsky's injury did allow the Caps to get a better idea of just how much Sanford could contribute to the lineup down the stretch. With the trade deadline just a week away, general manager Brian MacLellan has to decide whether or not to bolster the team's lineup for what the Caps hope will be a lengthy playoff run. The longer the playoffs go, the more likely it is that the team may need to call upon its depth.
MacLellan has stated the plan for the team was to carry Sanford and Vrana as the 13th and 14th forwards. While three games is a relatively small sample size, that's a plan MacLellan may feel more comfortable with now given how Sanford has thrived on the third line.
Said Trotz, "[Sanford] looks like he is going to take this opportunity and not be passive about it, not be safe." And that's exactly what the team was hoping for.
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Although Daniel Winnik's job description is that of a checking line winger and penalty kill specialist, the veteran has the ability to get hot offensively, too.
Case in point: the Capitals’ last three games.
Winnik has two goals, including a clutch tally in Detroit, and a primary assist during that span. Only Nicklas Backstrom has been more productive.
The reason for the sudden uptick? He’s gotten back to what was working for him earlier this season.
“I looked back at my goals and they had all been around the net,” Winnik said after Tuesday’s practice. “So I just put more of a focus lately on getting to the net.”
“Sometimes,” he continued, “I have the habit of being the corner guy, digging out pucks and passing to the point. Sometimes I’m not getting to the net. So when I don’t have the puck and someone else does, I’m just focusing on getting to that blue paint, and hopefully pucks get there.”
Which is exactly how he helped the Caps rally to salvage a standings point against the Red Wings on Saturday afternoon. With five minutes remaining at The Joe and the visitors trailing by a goal, T.J. Oshie carried the puck into the offensive zone as Winnik made a beeline to the net. Petr Mrazek stopped Oshie’s shot, but Winnik outmuscled defenseman Brendan Smith and used his stick to bat the rebound out of midair and into the net to knot the game 2-2.
The goal was Winnik’s eighth of the season but his first away from Verizon Center. It was also his second strike in two games. Against the Ducks, Winnik scored his second shorthanded goal of the season thanks to a great individual effort that began in the Caps’ end. That also goal ended a 17-game drought for Winnik.
Earlier in Anaheim game, Winnik also had a highlight reel setup pass that left Tom Wilson with a layup.
Coach Barry Trotz said he’s not surprised by Winnik’s recent offensive outburst. Trotz said he implored him to think more about producing more points.
“Winnie has a pretty good skill set,” Trotz said. “We’re using him in a defensive role. But the one thing that I told him…I trust you defensively and I think you can be a real reliable player in this year. But there’s more, you can bring some offense. He can keep people off the board and then get those important goals at important times because a lot of time he’s out against offensive lines that don’t think [defense first].”
Although Winnik’s game is on the rise as the season enters the stretch run, this hasn’t been any smoothest campaign for the 10th-year veteran. From opening night until late December, he found himself scratched 10 times as Trotz searched for the right line combinations.
Winnik said he got through that difficult phase with the help of a sports psychologist that he began seeing over the summer and has continued to consult in-season.
“It was hard,” Winnik said of being scratched. “To be honest, if it weren’t for me seeing a sports psychiatrist this summer in San Francisco, I wouldn’t have been able to handle it so well. I give Dr. [Michael] Tompkins a lot of credit for how I handled the situation.”
With 24 games remaining and his role now well-defined, it’s possible Winnik will top his previous career-high of 11 goals in addition to being the Caps' second most important forward on the penalty kill. But as a veteran on a team with championship aspirations, he says he's focused on making sure the group is playing the right way down the stretch.
“I hope we’re not just looking at it as, ‘Hey let’s just get through these last 24 games,’” said Winnik, who turns 32 next month. “That’s what it was like last year when I got here [via trade]. There was such a big cushion that there weren’t many meaningful games. This year, it’s a lot tighter and more teams are in the playoff race, so we’re going have harder games to play in. Hopefully that—and learning from last year—will helps us.”