I didn't post a recap of the Caps 6-3 Win On Thursday at "The Igloo" in Pittsburgh over the rival flightless birds, however unless for some bizarre reason this is the only place you get your NHL news you know it was a close, good game through 40 minutes, and though the Caps clearly won the last 20 minutes 3-0 the game was closer then the final score indicates. All that said I just want to say this to any Penguins fans who might be reading this while I can: "Our young guns were better than your young guns ..... our young guns were better than your young guns .... nah, nah, na, nah nahhhh."
That out of the way, as the Pens fans on their blogs indicate it was just a regular season, non-division game. One in which the Caps earned the same two points as any other game, the same two points the NHL doles out to add to their previously earned 68 points - meaning that at the end of the game the Caps had 70 regular season points, a record of 32-12-6. At the end of the game and going into tonight's game this Washington Capitals team is the first in history to have 70 points in 50 games. What's that mean? Well a look at the Eastern Conference Standings makes clear a couple of things: first: the Caps are indeed "taking it one game at a time" while still making sure they are driving toward the ultimate goal; second: right now the Caps are playing for what they should be playing for - to finish the regular season first in the conference; and third: the Caps have now clearly become one of the elite teams in the NHL. Why do I say these things, well in reverse order let me explain my musing.
The Caps are clearly "one of the teams to beat" in the NHL because their record over the last three seasons says they are. a) Last season they finished the season second in the Conference and it took the eventual Stanley Cup Winning Penguins 7 games to knock them out of the playoffs. (The pain we in Caps nation feel every time we have to say and/or write these types of things are precisely why for Caps fan Pittsburgh is our biggest rival. For Penguins fans right now it's because we have Ovechkin and they still think "he took Gonchar out." That's the current biggest grist for the rivalry, but the history is long and storied.) b) The Caps have an explosive offense and a style that is intense to watch and play; and very difficult to play against. However as they showed Thursday night during the third period, this season when they feel the need to they can play very disciplined hockey and the neutral zone trap with the best of them. c) The Caps have at least six players who have the talent to win a game all on their own: Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Jose Theodore, and Mike Knuble. There are another five or six who are also tough to "keep down" when they are "on" as well: Tomas Fleischmann, Tom Poti, Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, Matt Bradley, Brendan Morrison and Semyon Varlamov. In short the Caps have so many weapons and ways to beat you, when the majority of them show up ready to play, the opposite team cannot just key on one or two things, shut them down and win. That's why I believe this team is built for the playoffs and long haul in the game that is the post-lockout NHL. It's also why everyone who plays the Caps right now, shows up with their A game. That has been the case during the first three games this week and that will be the case tonight when the Phoenix Coyotes come to DC. The Caps have managed to stay focused and take each of the prior five games one at a time and if they do that tonight and play their game they should be able to get their eighteenth home win of the season. However, the upstart surprising Coyotes won't make it easy for them.
Right now the Caps are focused and playing for what they should be playing for - to finish the regular season in first place in the Eastern Conference. Why is that what they should be playing for? Well, it's how you get the best seeding, and supposedly the best schedule, you can get for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Stanley Cup Playoffs, remember them, the hardest post season in professional sports. To win "Le Cup" a team must win 16 games, that usually means they must play at least 22 games after the regular season is over to win the NHL Championship. That's basically another quarter season. They have to beat each team they face four times and they usually play those best of seven series in a span of 14 or less days. Sixteen (16) to twenty-eight (28) games against the toughest opponents in your sport in a compressed time - that's just grueling. Any edge, however small you can get for that test is worth working for and getting. To make it even more of a reason, right now the Caps lead their division by 19 points and no one in the division has a game in hand on them so that's at least a 9 1/2 game lead. Because of that since the real goal is the Stanley Cup, the Caps need to keep the bar high so they play every game they'll have between now and June with the right drive and intensity. That means even though they are not division games, the game the Caps play against the other top teams in the league are the ones they measure themselves against. That's not to say they shouldn't don't and won't "get up" for division games - their record thus far against their own division is after all 10-2-0 so it's not like they are "slacking off" when they face other Southeast Division teams.
The current Caps have clearly joined the NHL elite. How can I say that - well look at the team, the organization and the fan base. Lot's is made of how DC isn't really a "hockey town", I respectfully submit that DC is as much a "hockey town" as any place else in the United States. First understand we need to admit that no place in the US will ever be a "hockey town" as much as any of the major cities in Canada. Sorry, Detroit. And just to make a point look at the Detroit Free Press on-line sports section today. No front page coverage at all of the Red Wings despite the fact they have a home game against the Los Angeles Kings tonight. My point is not to bash anybody rather that the NHL isn't the #1 followed sport in any US City. Here's the sports page for the on-line edition of the Pittsburgh paper, the Post-Gazzette which of the two large papers in town tends to cover the current Stanley Cup Champions the most - Penguins are front and center and for the Tribune, they have some "above the fold" type coverage of the Penguins as well. Of course both basically have the same story - that wouldn't happen if we were talking about the Steelers, I bet. And here in Washington, the art work is local woman's high school basketball, but the first story is "Reasons To Believe" which was all about the Caps this past week in general and the win over Pittsburgh in particular. The local fan base - say what you will, recall those dark days of "the rebuild" and empty seats at Verizon Center all you want, but as a season ticket holder. I'll attest Caps tickets are the hottest in town and every game is really a sellout. It's been that way for two and half years now and it shows no sign of letting up. Why, well they Caps are playing exciting hockey but the organization is also all class. Tickets are a little higher then they were in price and I expect we'll see a "normal increase" next season as well, but the Caps Organization works hard to make sure you get value for your sport entertainment dollar. From the first day I bought my plan in 2005 and then my full season tickets in 2006 through to today, I've always dealt with hospitable, professional folks who sure seem to sincerely care that we enjoy our experience and feel it's worth every penny we spend. Some of that is the location of Verizon Center in "the middle of it all" but a lot of it is the experience inside the arena when the Caps are playing as well. Ted Leonsis and the other members of Lincoln Holdings have clearly committed themselves to the long haul and having the best team as well as providing the best fan experience in not just the NHL but professional sports. Sorry to be so effusive but when the comparisons around town are so stark, I feel it's justified.
So what or more exactly who's next. It's the Phoenix Coyotes at Verizon Center at 7 PM. As noted above the Caps are currently in first place in the Eastern Conference with 70 points and a 32 - 12 - 6 overall record (17-3-3 at home). The Coyotes are in fourth place in the Western Conference with 63 points and a 29 - 17 - 5 overall record (10-9-3 on the road). Phoenix has been a surprise team this year and they've won their games with solid team defense. The Coyote's have several players who can indeed find the back of the net but their leading goals scorer right now is Scottie Upshall with 17 goals; their points leader is their Captain Shane Doan with 34 points - 14 goals & 20 assists. The Coyotes will work hard to keep the Caps off balance, bottled up, and off the scoreboard. Key to those effort will be veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski and goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. Both Jovanovski and Bryzgalov are having excellent seasons, getting through them as well as Doan, Upshall and the rest of the top two lines and defense pairings will be the key for the Capitals tonight.
For the Caps, patience and disciplined play are required to win, they need to stay out of the box, play with intensity but not out of control, and force the Coyotes to try and match up with all the Caps weapons. Since the Caps are the deeper team and now have 10 players with 10 or more goals to the Coyotes 4, as well as 3 with 20 or more to the Coyotes, well zero, as long as the Caps play a full sixty minutes of disciplined hockey and don't beat themselves, they should take two points away from this game. On paper, the only way other than beating themselves the Caps might loose is if Bryzgalov "steals one" for his team. That said, Bryzgalov is 2nd in the NHL this season in shutouts with 5 shutouts, an overall SV% of 0.919, and a GAA of 2.12 in 44 games played so that's not an unfathomable thought. Sorry guys, didn't mean to jinx anyone, just trying to honestly assess the competition. That said it's a classic match-up we Caps fans should be getting used too high-powered offense vs. sound team defense. So far when the Caps have played sound, disciplined hockey, vice getting impatient and playing "pond hockey", they've won those sorts of match-ups this season.
In any case it feels a lot better talking about the Coyotes in this sort of discussion than when they were the subject of discussions this summer. That is a tribute, IMHO, to the players and the Coyotes' coaching staff, especially head coach Dave Tippitt. The Coyotes are doing well this season and they are doing it with team play and a roster that has a salary cap hit of $41.6M (~73% of the maximum salary cap roster). That's all nice to see. However even though I usually like to root for the underdog, not tonight guys, I'll save that for the early rounds of the Western Conference Playoffs.
Prediction: Caps 3 - Coyotes 1.
LETS GO CAPS!!!!