There were only four games in the NHL today.
The late game was the only Western Conference matchup in Los Angeles between the Chicago Blackhawks and the LA Kings. The Kings came into the matchup with the worst record in the league but a solid talent pipeline and hope for the future. The Blackhawks came into the game with 41 points and in the thick of the fight for a playoff spot in the Western Conference as the season approaches the halfway mark. In the Western Conference, similar to the Eastern Conference, the race is tight, only five points seperate the Blackhawks in 11th and the Wild in 5th with 46 points. That game ended with the Kings blowing out the Blackhawks 9-2 in a game that saw Chicago take 14 penalties and starting goalie Nickolai Khabibulin allow 4 goals on 9 shots before being pulled in favor of backup Patrick Lalime at 15:04 of the first period. In all the Kings scored 5 power play and 4 even strength goals in the game. Kings Left Winger Ladislav Nagy netted his third career hat trick with two at even strength and a power play goal. Welcome to the NHL's version of salary cap driven parity.
There were three Eastern Conference Matchups in the NHL today. The Toronto Maple Leafs played the Tampa Bay Lightning in front of 19, 347 at Maple Leaf Gardens. To most folks, except for Lightning, Maple Leaf and Washington Capital fans that game probably had little signfigance. Entering the game, the Lightning had the worst record in the East with 33 points and were 2-8-0 in their last 10 games; the Maple Leafs were 13th in the Conference and 3-5-2 in their last 10 games. Beleagured Maple Leafs coach Paul Maurice "opened the second envelope" this week and annouced he is spreading the wealth around and reshuffling the lines to distribute the scoring and take some heat of the defense and goaltending as the Leafs headed into their matchup with the Lightning. With 112 goals for in 39 games coming in to tonight, the Leafs do have some offense to spread around, they have three players with more than 10 goals and seven others with 5 or more a piece. Maurice appeared determined to shake things up and get the storied Maple Leafs franchise back on track today, also announcing that 30-year old vetren backup goalie Scott Clemmesen would start tonight over Andrew Raycroft. For Tampa Bay whose coach John Totorella is also under the gun, as the Bolts with two of the top scorers in the NHL but currently sole occupants of the Conference cellar, none of what the other team does matters - he to is focused on getting his own team back on track as well. Tampa Bay has had goaltending issues and Finnish Rookie Kari Ramo called up two weeks ago from the AHL Norfolk Admirals will start. The rest of the Lightning story appears to be re-emphasizing the basics of their style of play that is anchored by aggressive forechecking. Over the past three seasons, the Bolts have a "post January record of surging into playoff contention with a combined record of 82-39-13, the game just underway will start to indicate whether once again Tortella's team responds as they did last year. Overall from the final scors and game summary - Leafs 4; Lightning 3 in a shootout it appears the Clemmesen decision was a smart one by Maurice and the 30 year old responded by holding Tampa's sharpshooting trio of Vinnie Lacavalier; Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis to 1 goal in the shootout. Tampa rookie goalie Karri Ramo was tagged for goals by Tomas Kaberle and Mats Sundin in the shootout; Sundin got the game winner.
Perhaps the real story of the day is a tale of two games, the so called Winter Classic played outdoors in Buffallo and the game here at Verizon Center. The Winter Classic was played in front of 71, 217 fans between the hometown Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins with NHL media darling Sidney "Sid the Kid" Crosby. The other game here in the nation's Capital between the hometown Washington Capitals with last week's NHL player of the week and one of the most exciting players to watch in the game today, Alexander Ovechkin and the Eastern Confernce leading Ottawa Senators was played in front of an announced attendance of just 14, 547. Adding insult to injury (the attendance figure on New Years Day at VC) for the Caps is the fact they have just completed playing their best month of hockey since 2003 finishing December 7-3-3, and they beat the Senators in Ottawa on Saturday night scoring 8 goals to the Senators 6. Why the Penguins-Buffallo matchup can draw over 70,000 people to an outdoor game in horrible, cold, snowy weather is probably testement to the novelty of the so called "Winter Classic". However, why after over thirty years of having an active viable franchise in place, and after the past three years of having the ability to regularly attend home games where they can witness one of the games current premier players work magic on the ice, only 14, 547 fans came to see Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals play the division leading Ottawa Senators, defies logic. It also defies logic why in a city with so many tech savey folks Ovechkin is currently fifth in voting for forards for the Eastern Conference All Star Team, also defies logic. Caps fans need to start coming out to more home games AND need to start voting early and often for Ovechkin; Kolzig and logging "write in" votes for Defenseman Mike Green so everyone can tell how much a hockey town DC really is.
The Caps have started winning and it's time for local fans and media to respond. While it's nice the Redskins have made the playoffs as a wild card and the Division they are in the NFC East, is once again one of the premier divisions in the league, what the Caps have done over the past month also deserves coverage AND support. The Caps with 40 games complete and 42 left to play in the season are now 5 points out of a playoff spot they have 37 points and the eighth place New York Islanders who have completed 38 games, have 42 points. More importantly the seventh place Flyers also are only 5 points up on the Caps with 42 points, after starting the season as on fire as the Caps started it ice cold. Right now there is only and eight point spread between the second place New Jersey Devils with 45 points and the 14th place Washington Capitals with 37 points. Additionally, over the past four days the Caps have proven to themselves and everyone else, they can play with any team in the league, having beaten the division leading Senators by a combined score of 14 - 9 (8-6 and 6-3). Projecting the Caps record since the coaching change over an 82 game season and they look like a 114 point team. That's an elite level of play, and should explain to the Caps Fans who've been coming to the games, why they've been so much fun to watch lately.
This afternoon's 6-3 victory over the Senators started out shakey. At 1:54 of the first period Ottawa Senator's number two tough guy, Chris Niel, who used his face to blodgen Donald Brashear's fist with eighteen unanswered hits when he "won" his fight against Brashear in the last meeting of thes two teams, scored on a wrist shot with a goal that was assisted by Christoph Schubert and Dean McAmmond. Subsequently, at 4:46 McAmmond was sprung on a slight breakaway and cut across the front of a net scoring on a backhander that put Ottawa up 2-0. In less than 5 minutes into the game it looked like Ottawa was destined to take revenge for their past two defeats at the hands of the Caps. However, since the coaching change in late November, the Caps have developed a level of self-confidence that has enabled them to make opponents fight for every point from them and they didn't hang their heads and give up. Instead, they responded with five unanswered tallies over the next 16:06 of play through the start of the second period to find themselves in firm control of the game with a 5-2 lead. The Caps first goal came on a beuatiful play set up by an Alex Ovechkin break pass to Nicklas Backstrom, who then stickhandled around two Senators and put a sweet pass onto the waiting stick of Victor Kozlov in the mid - high slot. Kozlov put the puck in the net, at 5:15 of the first, breaking his drought and the fans in the Verizon Center began to get into the game (the first few chants of Gerber being called and a lot more enthusiasm entering into the LETS GO CAPS cheers.) At 6:59, Michael Nylander netted his 10th goal of the season assisted by Jeff Schultz and Brooks Laich. Then, at 7:34 Caps Defenseman Mike Green went end to end and got his 9th goal of the season when he capped his rush off with a crisp wrist shot; apparently Senators coach John Paddock felt the shot by Green was one that starting goalie Martin Gerber should have saved as at this point he pulled him in favor of a cold Ray Emery. So before the midway point of the first period the Caps found themselves up 4-2 against the division leeading, visiting, Senators and proceeded to control the pace of play until at 15:45 of the first, in the midst of a melee in front of the Senators goal, Brooks Laich pulled the puck back away from Emery and scored on a wrist shot - while Laich was on his knees just to the right side of the low slot - in the move of the game. As the period wound down, Senators RW Shean Donovan was called for elbowing at 19:16 and the Caps power play found themselves with a one man advantage for the third time in the game; then at 19:36 Senators Defenseman Christoph Schubert was whistled off for slashing Alexander Ovechkin and the Caps ended the period with a two man advantage and having outshot the Senators 15-10 for the period. The only negative of the first period was Caps DMan Tom Poti an "Upper Body Injury" and was sidelined for the rest of the game.
Starting the second period up 4-2 on the scoreboard and with a two man advantage 5 on 3 power play on the ice, enabled the Caps to once again come out of the locker room flying. However it seemed to take them about the first 30 seconds of the period to get organized. After a couple of broken up rushes on the third setup of the period the Caps power play led by Ovechkin came into the Senators zone, passed the puck to Michael Nylander who then found Mike Green pinching in just to the left of the low slot. Green put a smooth snap shot into a pretty wide open left side of the net for his second goal of the game at 00:52 for what turned out to be the only score of the period. If Olie Kolzig had anything to atone for from the two goals he let in during the first period, he certainly did that during the second period when the Senators had 11 shots to the Caps 4 and Olie made several very good saves. The Senators tried to turn it on during the second period outshooting the Caps while Emery made a key save robbing "snakebitten" Matt Pettinger of what was his second good scoring chance of the game. However, each time the Sens tried to "kick it up a notch" the Caps responded, absorbed the Senators onslaught and responded back with an attack of their own. Though with a 5-2 lead the Caps seemed to be saving the puck for better scoring chances rather than throwing in soft shots at Emery. As the second period ended the Caps picked up a penalty for too many men on the ice at 19:06 and the Senators had a power play for the last minute of the period. Again during the second period the Caps lost the services of one of their leading players when Alexander Semin went down early with a "tail bone" injury and did not return.
The third period started with the Senators on the power play for the first 1:04 of the period. The Senators came out flying but didn't convert on the powerplay. However at 1:10, Senators Defenseman Andrej Meszaros scored on a snapshot on a play that virtually mirrored Mike Green's second goal, assists on the Senators third red light of the night were awarded to Mike Fisher and Daniel Alfredssonn. For the rest of the period the play was fast and exciting but the Caps generally held off the Senators and made some very good rushes and setup plays of their own in the Senators end of the ice. At about 17:30 Paddock pulled Emery in favor of an extra skater; subsequently about a half minute later the Caps gained control of the puck and Boyd Gordon netted his third goal of the season on an empty netter from Matt Bradley and Mike Green. This closed out the games scoring at 6-3 leaving the Caps fans in attendance jubulantly thinking about the free wings they'll be eating tomarrow at Austin's Grill.
Overall the quality of play for the game by the Caps was very good and after the Senators settled in following the end of the first period they delivered a solid 40 minutes of good hockey. The only folks on the ice that consistantly under performed were the officials. Several offisides calls were missed, several were late and several just blown. However, the linesman's performance was nothing compared to the referees poor officiating throughout the game. The play that resulted in Semin's injury came from a crush check, push down, old and general mugging by frustrated Senator Captain Daniel Alfredsonn early in the second. While slightly behind the play the whole purpose of having a second ref is to catch calls like this penalty should have been. Also, unless there has been some sort of rule change that pplies only to teams who are based in the capital city of the country where the sport of ice hockey was concieved (i.e. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) there were numeorus missed calls for elbowing, a totally blown lack of a call for delay of game, and a blatent slash in addition to Alfredsonn's mugging of Semin. Finally, I know it's not specifically pointed out in the rules but when a guy uses the hometown press to basically call out an opposing player - don't you think that should qualify him for the two minute instigating penalty? I think the instigator rule is a farce and the lack of application of it on Brian McGratten for the fight with Donald Brashear proves it. Come on, ref...
For 2008 the Caps are playing 1.000 hockey - LETS GO CAPS!!!!! Perhaps the Caps should play the Senators every night for the rest of the season. Despite totally dominating the Senators in their last three meetings, Ottawa's hockey press still seems to regard the Capitals as really not worthy to be on the same rink with their revered Senators. Don Brennan slammed Jeff Schultz in one post game story and couldn't tell the difference between Boyd Gordon and Mike Green in his second post game story. Of course the overly partisan Brennan failed to mention that in the Caps 6-3 win over the Senators, while Schultz was indeed victimized by Chris Niel for the Senators first goal of the game, he played 23:34 due to Poti's injury in the first and finished the game +/- +1 with an assist. Nor did Brennan mention that in Saturday's 8-6 win over the Senators Schultz logged 14:17 of ice time, finished +2 and had an assist. Of course I'm sure if league officials are as confused about who scored one goal and who scored two for the Caps Boyd Gordon would gladly take the extra score and Mike Green wouldn't object as long as they didn't decrement his total so far this season from 10 back down to 9. Of course had Brennan gotten that fact correct he might have felt compelled to include the fact that Green also scored two assists on Saturday evening in Ottawa as well. That fact along with Michael Nylanders two goals on Saturday and one goal today along with the goals by the five other Caps who contributed to the 14 goals they scored in the last four days against his revered, division leading, home team Senators might have clouded his perspective that the Caps won ONLY because 1) Ovie played very well (which he did - both nights) and 2) the Senators were I dunno tired after so much rest or ruty/lulled into blase' by their prior 4-1 loss to the Caps in November??? When you figure out what Brennan is thinking or even what planet he's on please comment and let me know.
Well enough rambling for now time to go get ready for work - LETS GO CAPS!!!!!!!!!