Sunday, October 12, 2008

Caps 4 - Blackhawks 2; Home Opener Recap & Summary

Last night was a 2 point night for the Capitals, they beat Chicago 4-2, so for the season opening weekend they are 1-1-0. Before getting into the recap and game summary three other items are worth mentioning over and above the Caps own excellent play. Number one, the atmosphere and attitude of the sellout crowd of Caps fans at the Verizon Center. Simply put, it was awesome!!!! The "Phone Booth" was alive with energy and, from what I could see from my vantage point in section 103, the sellout crowd of 18,277 was truly Rockin' The Red. The Caps Fans and Faithful clearly are determined to continue to make Washington DC a Number One Hockey Town. Number two, NHL hockey fans and players everywhere should not expect officiating this year to be any different, i.e. better, than it has been the past several seasons. Last night the officiating was just as bad as on any other night; however, the Caps didn't let it get them down and played hard through the bad calls, most of which, though not all, last night favored the Blackhawks. The Capitals will need to continue to react the way they did last night to bad calls, that is ignore them and play hard "Caps Hockey" throughout the game, regardless of the officiating, if they are to go as far as they are capable of, into this year's playoffs. Number three, thirty-five year old Nickolai Khabibuhlen is a very good goaltender, without whom the game could have been very ugly for the Blackhawks.

That's right last night the Caps faced the Nickolai Khabibuhlen NOT the Christobel Huet led Chicago Blackhawks at Verizon Center in front of an energized, sellout crowd, some of whom were just waiting for the opportunity to get down on Huet. Apparently after losing their season opener Friday night at Madison Square Garden, Christobel Huet now has his tail between his legs; or the Blackhawks management has seen an error in their ways and decided to give the veteran Khabibuhlen, consistently one of the worlds best goaltenders, and a 2004 Stanley Cup winner, back the job of leading Chicago to the promised land. Chicago currently is slated to spend over $12,000,000 of Salary Cap room on goaltenders. Prior to the season start they had tried unsuccessfully to get someone else to pick up Khabibuhlen's salary. The 35 year old Russian born veteran of 12 NHL seasons, 637 NHL regular season games, and 57 NHL playoff games sports a career GAA of under 2.68 and a save percentage of over .908 when you add in his excellent playoff stats; the only strike against him is his 6.75M salary. Khabibuhlen's only NHL seasons with a save percentage under 90% were his rookie year (.895) in Winnipeg (1994-1995) and his first year in Chicago, (.886) with a new, shakey team in front of him (2005-2006). He has been as consistent as the 33 year old Christobel Huet (salary $5.625M) has been during his 5 NHL seasons, and Nickolai has 44 more games of playoff experience under his belt, as well a Stanley Cup that Huet lacks. Why all the buzz and pixels on an opposing goaltender (Khabibuhlen) on a blog devoted primarily to the Washington Capitals? Simply because he played an excellent game last night. He stopped 30 of 34 shots from the Capitals including several awesome scoring chances from some of the best sharpshooters in the world - "the Alexes" or in Russian "the Sashas" (Ovechkin and Semin), as well as a group of very strong secondary scoring threats including Nylander, Federov, Clark, Steckel, Backstrom, Fleischmann, and Kozlov. Kahbibuhlen basically robbed Oveckin (3 times), Semin (2 times), Clark (1 time), as well as Fleischmann (2 shots, 1 a great one), and Federov (2 shots, both good to great saves). One was only left to wonder what the score would have been if a shakey Huet was in the net for the Blackhawks instead of a well playing, unflappable Khabibuhlen.
[ed note: Please forgive the Christobel Huet bashing, the author is still trying to get over the lack of opportunity to boo and otherwise cackle at the former darling of Capital fans everywhere. This was an especially painful realization, since with the departure of Jaromir Jagr from the North American hockey scene, Mr. Huet, has become in the author's eyes the poster child for what is wrong with free agency in sports in general and hockey in particular. After this posting, the next time Caps fans will read anything about Christobel Huet is when there is something truly newsworthy to comment on and it will likely be of a far less partisan and more objective tone.]

Highlights, there are many, though the first minute of play was not one of them for Caps fans. Twenty six (00:26) seconds into the game Kris Versteeg , the lowest paid forward on the talented, young Blackhawks' roster, came down the right side and let loose a fair, but clearly stoppable shot from 20 feet out, from a very playable angle in the middle of the face off circle and found "pay dirt" through Jose Theodore's "five-hole" (assists to Toews and Havlat). After the goal, Nicklas Backstrom skated over tapped Theodore on the pads and said something that must have been encouraging because that was the last "softie" that the 32 year old French Canadian net minder let by. At 1:44 Caps D-Man Milan Jurcina was whistled off for a two minute "Boarding" call, that was a tribute to the Gary Bettman led NHL. The hit was clean, Jurcina coasted into the hit for a good ten plus feet, and the only reason boarding was called was because, despite Jurcina playing solid, clean hockey, he delivered a crushing, great check. The Caps killed of that penalty and Theodore really settled down and made a couple of very nice saves. Even though later in the first period, at 11:41, Jack Skille put the Blackhawks up 2-0 with a nice wrist shot from 18 feet out in the right center of the slot, by that time, the Caps and Theodore were settled down and beginning to play like the team from last spring. Just under two minutes after Skille's tally, the Caps "checking line" of Bradley-Steckel-Brashear narrowed the Blackhawks lead to 2-1 on a nice, gritty goal by Matt Bradley (assists to both Steckel & Brashear). My section-mates and I, in section 103 were treated to a great vantage point for this one as we got to watch the whole play develop and it was a beauty by a group of gritty, solid hockey players. At 19:08, the Caps got what might have been the make-up call for Jurcina's earlier boarding penalty or for several earlier missed calls on Brent Seabrook, when Seabrook was sent to the sin bin for hooking. The first period ended with the score 2-1 in favor of the Blackhawks, the Blackhawks had out shot the Caps 10-6 as well, but it did seem the momentum had turned and was in the Caps favor. The crowd was clearly and happily behind the Caps and there were no concerns with the capabilities of new number one net minder Jose Theodore.

The second period started with the Caps on the Power Play for the first 1:08; though the Blackhawks held them and killed off the penalty pretty well. At 5:08 into the period the Great Eight took an outlet pass from Tom Poti, sped down the left side, and let loose [ed note: in Boston terminology & accent please] a "wicked fast" wrist shot from 46 feet out that found the back of the net to tie the game at 2-2. At 6:15, the Blackhawks got a bench minor for too many men on the ice and despite the Capitals powerplay swarming and peppering Khabibuhlen with shots, the 35 year old Blackhawks goaltender turned them back and the boys from Chicago killed off the penalty. Starting around the 8:00 minute mark of the period, the "physicality" of the game begin to escalate even more. Lots of checking and "old time hockey" began to bubble up and since both Chicago and Washington boast rosters full of big, young, strong players there was a lot of exciting hockey played for the last 12:00 minutes of the second period. As often seen last year, when the tempo of a game picks up and the checking starts to rattle the boards more often, 2008 MVP Alex Ovechkin and Washington's "other Alex", Alexander Semin, along with 2008 21 goal scorer Brooks Laich, all raised their games a few notches. Chicago responded by trying to up the physical nature of the game even more at the other end when at 16:41 Adam Burish went to the net and pushed in on Jose Theodore for the third or fourth time of the night and Shoane Morrisonn and David Steckel decided that was just one time too many for the night. The end result was Burish and Morrisonn went off with coincidental minors for roughing and Steckel also found himself in the box for two minutes for tripping. The Caps stayed perfect on penalty killing for the night and staved off this Chicago man advantage. The physical play continued throughout the period and the second stanza ended with the game in a 2-2 tie with Mike Green in the penalty box for tripping.

The Caps started the third period like the Blackhawks started the second, successfully killing of a penalty for just under 1:30. The game continued to be played at a fast and furious pace, though in the third period Theodore, like Kahbibuhlen at the other end, began to freeze the puck more and enable the Caps to stay slightly more disciplined. The Caps were clearly playing with the confidence they exuded during the end of last season, something that was not present on Friday night in Atlanta. They were flying, swarming and routinely muscling their way to the net. After having outshot the Blackhawks 12-6 in the second period, they continued to dominate with "the best defense is a relentlessly checking and shotting offense" in the third period. The result was that at 15:33 with Laich and Semin swarming around the Chicago net like the two men with a purpose they were, Brooks Laich scored his first goal of the season after Semin bulled his way to the goal and around the net and fed the puck to Laich who was "waiting" on a very crowded doorstep. Then at 18:34 Alexander Ovechkin scored his second of the night in classic Ovechkin fashion. Goaltender Jose Theodore cleared the puck out to defensemen Jeff Schultz who found the Ovechkin streaking out through the neutral zone between two Blackhawks. Ovie did a toe drag and a head fake, then unleashed a [ed note: once again Boston accent please] "wicked, sick, fast, awesome" snapshot that found "nothin' but net" from 39 feet out. The crowd respond with a standing ovation and about a minute long chant of "M.V.P.; M.V.P.; M.V.P." With the Caps up by two, the Blackhawks pulled Khabibuhlen with just under two minutes remaining and the Blackhawks started doing some swarming of their own. Jose Theodore responded with a couple of good saves and then the Caps got a little out of synch. When they did Alexander Ovechkin tried to make a play that even he, the greatest player on the planet today couldn't quite make without a little "help", and was sent to the penalty box at 19:34 for tripping. While this was a "good penalty" it gave the Blackhawks a two man advantage and meant that Ovechkin wasn't going to have a chance at getting his first hat trick of the season on an empty-netter. For the last 26 seconds of the game the Capitals kept things solidly under control and Theodore made two more good saves to ice the home opener victory.

The three stars announced for the game were: 3: David Steckel; 2: Brooks Laich and 1: Alexander Ovechkin. As readers can tell from this posting the author felt that despite having only a .882 save percentage Blackhawks goaltender Nickolai Khabibulen played a game and was the best player on the ice last night for Chicago. That is not to say that others on the Blackhawks had a bad game, the Blackhawks definitely did not loose this game, they played well, though despite that the Capitals managed to get off 34 shots on goal and kill off 5 penalties where Chicago had a man advantage. Other Capitals playing good games, in addition to the three stars of the game, to note: Jose Theodore; John Erskine; Alexander Semin; Matt Bradley, Donald Brashear, Tom Poti, Mike Green, Chris Clark, Nicklas Backstrom, Sergei Federov, and Shoanne Morrisonn. [ed note: This is probably a longer list than is prudent, but there really wasn't anybody on the Caps roster who had a bad game last night.]
Jose Theodore, despite letting in an "oh nooo softie" in the first minute of the game came back and had a save percentage of .905, coming up big a couple of times and helping the Caps dictate the pace of the crucial third period. If Theodore plays the way he did last night for 55-60 of the remaining regular season games; and Caps solid backup Brent Johnson delivers 15-20 games, playing like he did for the first 25 minutes he played last night, the Caps will easily finish with over 100 points and there will be no reason to rush any of the three good prospects the Caps have in the system to the NHL level.
John Erskine has looked more mobile in the first two games of the season than at any time in his career to dat, and has played solidly. Right now he probably should be considered number 4 or 5 on the Caps depth chart. Last night he had 16:00 of ice time, including 0:53 of penalty kill, 2 hits, a blocked shot and 2 attempts blocked. He even raced back and caught speedy Patrick Kane on one shift that had he not done so would have resulted in an excellent scoring chance for Kane. Not bad for a guy, who along with David Steckel is one of the two lowest paid guys on the team.
Alexander Semin had another good game, Friday night he was one of the few Caps to deliver a good game. Last night despite not scoring he was a force to be reckoned with all night long. The Caps second line of Semin-Federov-Laich was really fun to watch play hockey last night. They have skill along with size and when necessary deliver either really awesome flair/playmaking or really rougish, bullish grit. They can skate with anybody or they can play "old time hockey" with anybody. All three, 38 year old Sergei Federov, 24 year old Alexander Semin, and 25 year old Brooks Laich will have great years this year, if they continue to play the remaining games this season, the way they started out of the gates in the first two of this year. The "second line" finished last night with the game winning goal and with all three members doing a great job on "special teams" especially the Penalty Kill.
The checking line of Matt Bradley-David Steckel-Donald Brashear all had banner nights as well. Bradley had a goal, a takeaway and was +2 in 12:05 TOI. Steckel, the number three star of the night, had an assist, 2 shots, a blocked shot and was +1 in 13:41 of TOI. "Brash" had an assist, one shot, one hit and three takeaways and was +1 in 8:56 of TOI.
Mr. "Steady Eddy" - Tom Poti - had another solid game, bringing discipline and leadership through example, on the ice. Poti, in 22:05 of TOI, got an assist, was +1, and had 1 takeaway and 1 blocked shot. He was on the ice for 6:22 of the penalty kill time.
Despite not scoring a goal last night while scoring two power play goals Friday night, Mike Green had a much better night. Green was solid, and the clear number 1 on the defense depth chart with 25:50 TOI and +2 on the night.
Shoanne Morrisonn had a very solid night and was clearly, after Green and Poti, the best defenseman on the ice for the Caps. Morrisonn logged 16:20 TOI, two blocked shots, two hits and was +1 on the night.
While statisticly last night wasn't either Nicklas Backstrom or Chris Clark's best game, they both made their presence known in other more subtle ways. While "Captain Chris" only had one shot, it was a beauty of a one timer on the Caps powerplay, that had Khabibulen not been having a sensational night, would have been a goal. [ed note: in a Brooklyn accent please] In other words "Dat captain guy, he was robbed, robbed dats what I says." Backstrom's night, though unexceptional, was a solid one with 14:44 TOI and ended with him collecting a takeaway and +1; but perhaps more importantly it was clear that opponents will find a bigger stronger Nicklas Backstrom as the pivot between Ovechkin and Kozlov. This dynamic gives the Caps first line an even more imposing presence for opponents to consider.
As far as Alexander Ovechkin's perfromance last night, one could write a book on it's awesomeness but it speaks for itself, so if there is a replay of the game watch it. Suffice it to say both his goals last night were/are on the highlight NHL Network today.

Things to work on for the Capitals. Despite the 4-2 victory, the Caps are now only 0.500 and there are obviously things for them to work on. One would suspect that two of the areas/things Caps coach Bruce Boudreau is pondering are 1) how to get the Caps to improve their Faceoff won percentage and 2) how he might get Milan Jurcina to learn and play position like and have the wrist shot and passing touch of Jeff Schultz; as well as how he might get Jeff Schultz to learn how he might play more physically and use his 6-6, 215# body like Jurcina uses his 6-4 223# body to check, clear the crease and launch his strong, solid slapshot from the point. The Caps faceoff perfromance last night was less than "all star" - overall it was 50% but when you scratch the surface you note the only two guys who could and did consistantly win faceoffs were Michael Nylander (3 of 4 - 75%) and Sergei Federov (13 of 17 - 76%). For some reason, David Steckel, whose faceoff won percentage last year was respectable, is routinely getting beat these first two games in the face off circle. That said as long as the team that played the Blackhawks last night is the one the Caps bring to their games the rest of this season, instead of the one that played Atlanta on Friday night, all the issues are things the Caps can and will improve on throughout the season.

Next up the Vancouver Canaucks at Verizon tomarrow night. As I'm splitting my tickets this year, if anyone has a load of grain they need to charter a ship for stop by Section 103 tommarrow night and look for my classmate Tom and his friends from Phoenix Chartering and they'll hook you up. Even though things continue at a hectic pace for me over at ICx Technologies and we are busy with program startup for the JNBCRS2 program as well as several other major program pursuits, I expect I'll somehow find the time to watch both the Canaucks Devils and Preditors games either on TV or over the net. Tom has those games since I'll be busy and not readily able to see them in person. My next live Caps game will be the one against the Carolina Hurricanes after we've all voted for our next President on November 6th. Hopefully by then, I'll have the stuff I need to do for work well under control or, like our JNBCRS Start of Work meeting the end of October, totally finished.

Can't wait to watch tomarrow's game against the Roberto Luongo led Vancouver Canaucks -


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