Sunday, February 28, 2010

Wow - Finland Makes Up Two Goal Deficit And Takes Bronze

Until tonight no team that had trailed by two or more goals had come back to win in this Olympics. However the Finns scored four unanswered goals (including an empty net insurance goal at 19:49) to take the Bronze Medal with a 5 - 3 win over Slovakia. So right now, by my reckoning, the only current or former Washington Capital wearing a Vancouver 2010 Medal is - can you believe it - Sami Lepisto. Lepisto has also been having a reasonable year for the Phoenix Coyotes as well.

In any case, it was a very well played, exciting game, I'm not and never have been an Olli Jokinen fan but he had a great game tonight, especially in the third period. In the end, for whatever reason Slovakia got into penalty trouble and couldn't hold onto the lead. So Finland follows up on their 2006 Silver Medal performance with a Bronze in 2010 and a couple of guys on the team move into Olympic History. Congrats to Teemu Selanne and his teammates who captured their fourth Men's Ice Hockey Medal in a row. I was of course rooting for the Slovaks since Milan Jurcina and Richard Zednick were both players I really liked while they were wearing Capitals uniforms. Maybe tomorrow night I should root for Sidney Crosby and Team Canada the way things have been going for the teams I'm pulling for in this event.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Olympic Hockey: Men's - USA vs. Canada Redeux For The Gold; Women's - You Can't Be Serious That A Few Beers and Cigars Are An Issue

Before getting into today's short blog, I just want to say my personal thoughts and prayers today are with those affected by the huge earthquake in Chile earlier this morning and with those around the Pacific regions who now may be affected by Tsunamis.

On a lighter note and as regards 2010 Olympics Hockey ... For the men's side it looks like it's a rerun, or at least we Americans hope it'll be a rerun of USA Vs. Canada prelim in the Gold Medal game for men's ice hockey. In the first semi-final game Team USA came out fast and had a 6-0 lead at the end of the first period, then held on for a 6-1 victory over Finland to advance easily. In the second game Team Canada held on through an attempted comeback by Slovakia for a 3-2 win to set up the rematch for the Gold. To be fair the Canadians held the edge and despite being in a close game, pretty much controlled things through the first two periods. Then the Slovaks scored two goals early in the third period and turned a good game into a great game to watch, though a nail-biter for Team Canada fans. So the Bronze Medal game is between Finland, who some MSM reports say is embarrassed by their loss to the USA and Slovakia who now has to feel if they had only turned things around 10 minutes earlier in the game they might be playing for Gold. In the Gold Medal game, it's a rematch between USA and Canada and it ought to be a really great game. Who knows what will happen in these two games except I'm pretty sure of one thing for all four teams - they will all be motivated to leave it all out on the ice.

Over in the world of Women's Ice Hockey the big story is ... wait for it ... was the celebration by the Canadian Women improper or non - Olympic like. Are you serious? Look at the pictures - there was pretty much no one around. They went out and took a few pictures, smoked a few cigars and had a couple of beers or glasses of champagne. The furor and up-roar is ridiculous in my opinion. If it was the men it wouldn't even get mentioned. There is nothing in these pictures that speaks to any untoward behaviour, and the controversy about an 18 year old having a beer after winning a Gold Medal since she's under the legal drinking age in British Columbia ... that's at least a little bizarre to me. Everyone is of course entitled to their own opinions but that's mine on this non-event, what about yours?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Canadian Woman Stonewall Americans For Women's Ice Hockey Gold: and Caps Fans New & Old - The Good, and The Bad

Last night the Canadian women's ice hockey team bested the United States 2 - 0. In doing so, they earned Canada's 8th Gold Medal of this Olympiad. It was also the first "even" match-up this tournament for either team and showcased just how far ahead of their competition both these squads are. It was a good game and the Canadians won it (versus we Americans loosing it.) To characterize the mood in Vancouver as "there is once again joy in Muddville" would not be understatement. While the Canadians "Own The Podium" expenditures have been subject of discussion, angst and some controversy of late, in getting their 8th Gold, Canada is now tied with the USA and Germany with that number of Gold Medals though USA still leads in overall medal count with 32. The Canadian women's accomplishment last night was this is their third straight Gold Medal. Three straight Gold Medals, especially in light of the already intense rivalry between Canada and USA in the sport is nothing to be minimized. Congratulations to both teams on a well played game. It was also very fun to see both these talented teams play a game where they were challenged and their best players were routinely compelled to raise their games. There were lots of good plays and good overall performances on both sides, but I'd have to say it was Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados' 28 save shutout performance that made the difference for Team Canada last night.

Today it's the Men's Semifinal games. USA vs. Finland starts at 12:00 PST and Canada vs. Slovakia starts at 18:30PST. No predictions but I am on record as rooting for a USA vs. Slovakia Gold Medal Match-up. Three reasons: 1) We've already seen USA vs. Canada, been there/done that. 2) I'm American so I root for the underdogs unless of course they are playing against USA. and ... 3) Mike Green, hey I'm like a dog on a bone about some things. Like I said no predictions but I will give odds though. Odds the Gold Medal Game will be a USA - Canada rematch: 50/50, why so low you ask, two words Kiprusoff and Halak. Odds the Gold Medal Game will be Finland vs. Slovakia 16 - 1 against. Odds it will be USA vs. Slovakia 10 to 1 against. Odds it will be Finland vs. Canada 8 to 1 against. There now of course tomorrow we'll look back and as we prepare for something other than a USA vs. Canada rematch I will once again type those cliche' words "...and that's why they play the games on the ice."

With just 5 days until the Washington Capitals resume their NHL regular season, it's only natural at least some of my musings begin to return to things related to Cap's hockey. In doing so I started to think about how much I enjoy going to games at Verizon Center and what a great experience almost the entire evening usually is when you go to a game. I've shared these thoughts here before - what a great organization the Caps are, how they clearly value we fans, and what an exciting brand and style of hockey the talented Capitals team plays and we get to watch when they play. From time to time I've also mused, all be it, much more seldom about the few minor pet peeves and disappointments I have and have had when attending games here in DC. I don't know why but my musings today strayed into that place, not in too bad a way, just more in a "if only ... then going to games at Verizon would be perfect." So I'm going to share my top three things I'd like to see change when attending games at Verizon Center and if these five things changed, then for me going to Capitals games would probably be basically perfect. Keep in mind I know I'm a tough grader on these sorts of things so i do expect some to possibly comment about what a "nit-picker" I can be. Three reasons/things that if only they changed, attending Caps games at Verizon Center would be perfect.

#1 - If only the folks attending the game would really listen, understand and heed the announcer's words to stand for the National Anthem(s) and join in singing "proudly and respectfully" instead of screaming the words "Oh" and "Red" in the middle of it. If that were to happen when the Caps return to Verizon Center ice on Thursday March 4th, then it would allow me to feel the same pride in our community's support for our Nation's values and what we strive for, to the same degree and with the same joy I feel when we all seem to express our support and applaud for our troops when those attendees are announced during the game.

#2: If only fans would understand when it is and isn't appropriate to do the College Hockey "Its All Your Fault" chant at an opposing goaltender and only do it when it makes sense, then it would let me know folks who talk about how DC hockey is filled with "newcomers" and "bandwagon fans" are just so wrong; instead of substantiating their claims. For example lets just think about how silly and ignorant we fans look doing the "Its all your fault" chant and attempting to taunt a guy like Marty Brodeur during the Caps 4 -1 victory over the Devils at Verizon Center back during the day after Christmas. Folks, first the chant was being done after every goal including after the Caps leading scorer and one of the best guys in the league scored on a breakaway. Then later in the game when Ovechkin scored his second of the game after "It's All Your Fault" folks decided to add a chorus of mocking "Maarrrty, Maarrtty, Maarrtty". Sorry, we're in Verizon Center, unless we're at Madison Square Garden and wearing Rangers' Sweaters that's just a big fail. Especially given that the game came shortly after Marty earned his 104th Career Shutout. Why you ask - let's review: 1) When an opposing team scores on a breakaway, it's absolutely NOT all the goaltenders fault, in fact... well think about it, if you are smart enough to turn on a computer and read a blog you ought to be able to figure it out. 2) Do you really think you are going to "get into" the NHL's all time leader in shutouts head by chanting his name in mocking fashion? ... and if by chance you somehow do so with say oh about 10 minutes left in the second period to play, don't you think the odds are even you might be motivating him to return to his usually higher level of play instead of being just very good? And in so doing, isn't that the complete opposite of what you're hoping for if you're a Capitals Fan. 3)Isn't it just dumb and isn't that what we all look like thanks to you're less than completely well thought out behaviour? 4) By not doing it, you would save me from having to explain to an inquiring new fan, what that's all about and the right way to do it. Speaking of which, to get this all sorted out perhaps Ted Leonsis would consider springing for the fans in Sections 107, 108, and 109 who seem to just not understand these nuances but are so determined to make this cheer part of their game day experience, to go up to Boston and watch a few Hockey East games so they get proper tutoring in the subject at the source.

#3: If only the food choices were better and the lines for it shorter. The food choices inside Verizon Center are limited and the quality is adequate but not exceptional. Of course the food choices outside Verizon Center are many, varied and good so as long as you get to the Arena Area early and eat before entering the game it's not that big a deal. However, the real disappointment comes on games that start at noon on Sunday. There's really nothing that qualifies as breakfast or brunch food available inside Verizon Center except for Dunkin' Donuts and on those days the line for those donuts is outrageous. Also most of the places around Verizon Center don't open till 11:00AM so the choices are limited and if you go that route you are rushed, unless you have a reservation at Clyde's but that's still crowded and you are still somewhat rushed. It would be so perfect if the concessionaire would put together a new plan and approach with in seat service at least in the lower level, if not throughout the entire arena that includes more and better choices. it's clear some folks must be looking at improving in this are as I've seen some new choices popping up, but with every game being a sellout the inadequacies in this area have become even more noticeable this season.

Of course in recognition of "equal time" here's my 40 reasons why I gladly support the Capitals - e.g "The Good about Caps Hockey":

1) Caps Ownership & Front Office Staff: Clearly the Caps are the best deal, and best run of the DC pro sports teams these days. One only has to go to a Redskins or Nationals Game or even a Wizards game to realize how much better an experience going to a Caps game is - and that's not just because of the quality of the game on the playing surface. It's also because of the quality of the experience in the stands and in dealing with the organization if you are a "planholder". The Caps front office clearly understands and treats it's fan base as what it is - paying customers who deserved to be well treated. I've said this before and I'll say it again, we've been season ticket holders since 2005 and things have just gotten better and better. True this season, because of the large number of season planholder sales and sellout games we no longer have the luxury of "trade-in games" but that really doesn't matter since we can easily sell unused tickets for fair value and we still get treated well, all the time. After all the reason we no longer have that option is we have something we all wanted even more, a winning, popular, vibrant team.

2) The Caps Players and Coaching Staff: Throughout the entire NHL the athletes and coaches are very visible, accessible, approachable and involved in their communities. The Capitals are no different and are in fact as involved and approachable as ever; even as they have ascended to one of the league's bigger road draws, they are also approachable to fans in other NHL cities as well. The other key fact is they are down to earth, nice people from everything one can tell when you have those brief interactions with them here around DC.

3) The Style of Play When The Caps Practice Their Craft: I've said it before and I'll say it again - the Caps are usually the most fun team in the NHL to watch. They play an up-tempo style that is exciting and creates opportunities for exciting and fun to watch skilled hockey. For example, during that December 26th game against the Devils, there was a play in the second period Green - Ovechkin - Backstrom - Semin - Backstrom - Ovechkin that Martin Brodeur made a great save to keep out of the net. The Caps didn't score that time but it might have been the best play of the night in many ways. Some will read this and say - "Too many fancy passes..." but that time the Caps had no choice, it wasn't until Ovechkin got the puck the second time that anybody had a decent shooting lane. The speed at which a Caps game is played is pretty intense. Most nights when you go to Verizon Center a game starts at 7:00PM and you are heading to your car at or before 9:30. Given that the game and the intermissions between periods account for a "running time" of 1:31:00, and more often then not games are televised and there are TV timeouts at most stoppages of play; the games are moving as fast or faster then one would expect. It's better then going to the best current action films on most nights.

4) The fans who know the game and cheer appropriately. Simply put most hockey fans are indeed fans and know the game, that's no less true at Verizon Center than it is anywhere else in the NHL. They also respect folks around them and you don't get too many stupid folks screaming foul language of the sort you see at an NFL game. You also don't see nearly as many really inebriated folks so those two things might be related, eh?

5 - 39) The Washington Capitals Themselves: Look at that lineup - starting with Ovechkin and ending with Neuvirth, there's really not a guy on that list that I don't think can play the game well and isn't fun to watch them doing it?

40) The Caps 2010 Winter Olympians: The Caps should have at least 5 guys going to the Olympics: Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Semyon Varlamov, Nicklas Backstrom, and Tomas Fleischmann. Every game was a virtual all star game of sorts but an all star game where the stars had to really play and play hard to win, not just a really nice and fun exhibition game. The Olympics are just cool. So is the fact the NHL is smart enough to understand, it needs to be about the game and the overall integrity of sport, not just about what's easiest for the NHL Board of Governors or about $$$. (hint, hint, hint going forward boys).

So as we settle in to today's daily grind...

U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A

Next up for the Washington Capitals the Buffalo Sabres in Buffalo, hopefully the Caps will be looking to give Ryan Miller his first loss in a couple of weeks when that game takes place.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Wild Wednsday Concludes; Caps Fan Can Be Glad "Their Guys" Will Head Home Healthy and Motivated To Excel Through June

Great news Caps fans, our Olympians are all on the way home and save for a pinched nerve in Ovechkin's hand, all five are completely fit, healthy and likely equipped with more than a bit of surliness and motivation to end the NHL season - on their terms vice their opponents.

So I guess I'm rooting for a Gold Medal game of USA vs. Slovakia....

Well in reverse order from my previews and quarterfinal prognostications let's review in short order since I got so many of the "Wild Wednesday" game predictions so wrong.

Russia vs. Canada:
It was a "go big or go home game" - unfortunately for the Russians and for hockey fans outside of Canada, as well as some inside, apparently nobody explained to the Russians that phrase was meant to be taken literally AND to be applied from the second the puck dropped. The Russians seemed to come out thinking the first few minutes of this game would be a cautious, feeling out sort of thing for at least 5 if not 10 minutes. Unfortunately for them, Team Canada had markedly different ideas. Before the first period was half over Canada led 3-0, the home crowd was wildly behind their team and the Russians never mounted a serious come back. Frankly Evgeni Nabakov never saw the freight train that ran over him, but it was clear after the third Canadian goal his aggressive style of play was not only not going to cut it, it was going to be the Russian's undoing. Nabakakov should have been pulled in favor of Ilya Bryzgalov with the score 3-0 however it probably wouldn't have mattered and he wasn't pulled until the Canadians were up by five goals in the second period. There's tons of stuff all over the interwebs about this game, all of it negative about the Russians and in my opinion all but possibly one item well deserved. The one item I take exception to is the characterization of Dan Boyle's slew foot of Alexander Semin as deserved because his hit on Boyle was "dirty" or "dangerous" etc. I say this for two reasons, after considerable self-examination because I know I am a Semin fan: a) Watching the game and hit by Semin, it sure looks to me that Boyle is skating with his head down - something you learn not to do at about age 5 if you are a young Canadian boy destined for NHL fame. b) I'm from the school of "two wrongs don't make a right" thanks to 8 years of schooling by the Sisters of Perpetual Punishment and a mother whose stern German decent roots would come out and pound the phrase in my head at times like this. It is International Hockey so I won't argue Semin didn't deserve a penalty, under International rules there is no argument he did deserve one and he got one. I will argue that Boyle's retaliation i) cost his team a power play opportunity, and ii) was far more intentional and dangerous to Semin than Semin's hit on Boyle, it was clearly retaliatory and for that under the rules Boyle should have been tossed and he risked suspension from the tournament. In any case, I won't even go into how wrong I was on this one about the Canadians' defensive selections and this game. However, being me I'm still rooting that they don't medal and they see the error in their ways and their assessment of Mike Green's talent, suitability, and readiness to wear Team Canada's colors in the Olympics. I know it's a "hater" kind of thing and I should probably seek some counseling or whatever to get over it but hey, it's a free country so please leave me in "my own private Idaho" here for a while longer on this one.

USA vs. Switzerland:
Well folks Jonas Hiller and his mates made a solid run at an upset but fell just short. The USA had just too much for the Swiss and they made sure they didn't look past them. In addition in the goaltending department Ryan Miller did Hiller "one better" and that one was enough to ensure USA is into the medal round. To all those out there that point to the narrow margin of victory as a likely "chink" in Team USA's armour, I'd say four words - Sweden, Czech Republic, and Russia. What? you ask. In reply I point out that in the win or go home part of the tournament there are only winners and losers and the margin of victory is a meaningless thing to look at. The USA is the only team in the Quarter finals that won a game they should have won based on seeding coming out of the Prelims, they look just fine to me and they have no worries about being over confident at this point and abandoning their game plans.

Sweden vs. Slovakia:
Probably the best game of the four yesterday, too bad I fell asleep during the second period with the score tied 2-2. Also Caps fans take note, Milan Jurcina now of Columbus is having an excellent tourney and once again looked solid last night, at least during the first two periods. My shock on this game was the first two quick goals yielded by Henrik Lundqvist, especially Slovakia's second goal. Slovakia has now bested two of the four favorites in this tournament and have to be regarded as the real sleeper in the final four. Team Canada will have their hands full and will need to stay focused on the upcoming game with these guys before even beginning to talk about playing in the Gold Medal game. Caps fans can console themselves with the knowledge, center Nicklas Backstrom played well in the entire tournament, and I'd suspect he and a few other young guys on this team will carry the Tre Kroner torch in Sochi.

Finland vs. Czech Republic:
A classic goaltender's duel won by Mikka Kiprusoff over Tomas Vokoun. The surprise here is the Czech Republic's forwards couldn't solve either Kipper or the Finns defense. Ultimately it was the Czech's penalties that cost them the game in a "straw that broke the Camel's back" but the Finns defense and Kipper never yielded either. Team USA now has to gear up to face another hot goaltender in their first medal round game, the biggest threat to success in a win or go home format.

Today it's the women's medal round and both should be good games. It will be interesting to see the game plans and how the USA vs. Canada Gold Medal game are played and end up. No predictions from here on out, I'm a proud American so I know who I'm pulling for from here on out.

U-S-A ... U-S-A ... U-S-A

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Well Today's Olympics Hockey Games Will Be Good Ones...

Yesterday, despite some close games and scares by "almost Cinderella teams" especially Latvia, there were no upsets in the Qualifying Game of the Medal Round in Men's Ice Hockey. So that sets up some really, really good games today. Frankly the truth is everyone of these is a too close to call game but we'll try and do it anyway. Before that I have to point out my prognostication on the Belarus - Switzerland game was wrong and once again despite a shaky start Swiss Goalie Jonas Hiller led his team to victory. Canada basically just all out over-powered Germany as everyone thought they would, the only score was the Germans didn't start getting blown out until after a full period of hockey was played - good on them. The other three games were all decided by one goal - two went to extra innings but in the end the higher seeded team won.

Today's line-up is of course:

1) USA vs. 8) Switzerland
2) Sweden vs. 7) Slovakia
3) Russia vs. 6) Canada
4) Finland vs. 5) Czech Republic.

Before talking about the surprise quarter-final game between Russia and Canada - surprise only because everyone thought this would either be a semi-final match up or probably the Gold Medal game - let's look at the other games any one of which is a toss-up in lots of ways.

4) Finland vs. 5) Czech Republic
First did the Finns catch a break? Will Jaromir Jagr play today or not? He left the qualifying game against Latvia in the second period with an upper body injury and didn't return. Does it matter? Not if the Czechs play the same way against the Finns as they did against the 12th seeded Latvians. However, consider yesterday the Czechs scare/wake-up call. Pretty much every one of the teams in the tournament has now had one - a wake up call that is. Also the OT winning goal by David Kreji and the solid 60 minute+ play by Tomas Fleischmann could well be signs of things to come. Finland is a great team with great goal tending so it's entirely possible we'll see a total goaltenders duel between Tomas Vokoun and Mikka Kiprusoff but I'm thinking Jagr returns, plays sparingly but inspires the Czechs and what we see is more like the Finns 3-0 loss to the Henrik Lundqvist and the Swedes then the Finns would like. As Washington Capitals fans know Tomas Fleischmann tends to be somewhat streaky and he certainly looked like he was on the uptick against Latvia. Further, I think the Czechs were caught looking a little past Latvia to Finland and this game; they won't be looking past the Finns today. One more qualifier/caveat - both these teams are great and evenly matched. It should be a close, great game - I'm just thinking yesterday';s injury in the second period to Jagr means the Czechs all now know for sure this is his last game. I feel they will use that for inspiration and that's the intangible I think pushes this game to the Czech Republic.

2) Sweden vs. 7) Slovakia
The Slovaks only beat Norway by one goal 4-3 in the qualifier - it wasn't their best game. Slovakia's goalie Jaroslav Halak only stopped 16 of the 19 shots he faced (SV% 0.842) while Norwegian goaltender Pal Grotnes stopped 36 of 40 (SV % 0.900) for his side. For the Slovaks to have a chance against the well rested, high -octane Swedes Halak must do much better. To be sure, Slovakia has a fair amount of firepower of their own as they proved with their 2-1 preliminary round victory over Russia. However, their victory over Russia means the Slovaks won't be sneaking up on anyone this time. Sweden has been and continues to be playing great hockey. Throughout the tournament they've played good, solid team hockey and I expect them to continue to do so. They are anchored by an experienced core of Gold Medal winners and world champions, and they have young stars as well. So while I expect Slovakia to raise their game from where they were yesterday against Norway, I think in the end, the Swedes will prevail, in fact I wouldn't/won't be surprised if the Gold Medal game is Sweden against any of the other possible opponents at this point. The Swedes have been relatively overlooked compared to Canada, Russia, and USA and I think they a) don't mind that and b) are using it for their motivation to repeat their Gold from 2006.

1) USA vs. 8) Switzerland
This is a game ALL about intangibles in my mind. On paper the USA is the much stronger team but today on the ice it's about drive, emotion and where the key players on each team's heads are. Switzerland has been a giant killer in prior Olympics and they will strive to be so today. Further this is the second meeting this Olympics between these two teams, they were in the same Group in the prelims and the Swiss played the USA hard though USA won that game 3 - 1. This is the game Jona Hiller could steal for the Swiss to get them into the Medal games; to be sure he and the others on his team will be using that for motivation and they will all likely play even higher than their solid talent level usually takes them. For Team USA it's all about forgetting - forgetting they have already beaten Canada once this tournament, forgetting they beat the Swiss once already to and realizing now it's "win or die" - "come big or go home." Forget the hype USA, realize you need to play one shift at a time - all out, every game you have to leave it all out on the ice or else you could well have regrets that last a lifetime. Team USA has indeed proven, they deserve to be thought of as one of the elite teams in this Olympiad, but to reach their goal they have to only think about THIS next 60 minutes of Hockey in Vancouver. It's not about the first miracle on ice in 1960; it's certainly not about "THE Miracle On Ice" in 1980 it's all about kicking Swiss butt or having "your" Olympics shortened by them. The Swiss have proven they can play with Team USA in their 3-1 loss. Hopefully, I am American after all, that means Team USA uses that as motivation to come out focused on the task at hand and playing hard. If they don't and fall behind, the crowd is very likely to get behind Switzerland and provide Hiller and his mates motivation in the hopes they extract some "revenge" for Team USA's earlier defeat of Team Canada. I don't see that happening though, I think Team USA is on as much a mission as Sweden and they too are playing pretty solid team hockey - no? For that reason I'm thinking, this game ends with Team USA advancing.

3) Russia vs. 6) Canada
Okay first off I'm totally biased and am rooting for Russia - four solid reasons: Alexander Ovechkin; Alexander Semin; Semyon Varlamov, and Mike Green. That's right, Mike Green. This is the game I'm hoping that shows Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman he got it wrong on the Mike Green snub. The quote I've seen from Yzerman on the selection of defensemen for Team Canada a couple of weeks ago was:

"I just think the defence we put together can generate offense almost to the same level as Mike [Green], yet be stronger in other areas. We just thought the seven we chose are a better fit for us."

So here's what I think. [begin rant] I think Steve Yzerman's selections on defense lack the speed to keep up with the Russians for a full sixty minutes; I think Team USA exploited that weakness and I think Russia will too. Additionally, I think the Russians have the same ability as Team Canada to play a punishing, physical game for a full sixty minutes with the Canadians and this will be an awesome game to watch. In the end I'm hoping we see a couple of times during the game, particularly the second half of the game, where the Russians get odd man breakaways on the Canadians. Situations where Team Canada wishes they had the skating ability of the top ranked/top scoring defenseman in the NHL on their team. Finally, I think Yzerman's view is clouded by the way the game used to be and the way lots of hockey folks will think about it until the Capitals win a Stanley Cup playing the game using Bruce Boudreau's system - a system where the defensemen have to be as much or more a part of the offense as they are of the defense, the forwards have to be as much a part of the defense as the offense. [end rant]

Now further on this game, I think the Canadians are totally motivated after their loss to the Americans, but I think that game showed some weaknesses in Team Canada. Sure they were weaknesses that appeared remedied by the line changes Mike Babcock put in place against Germany, however Russia is a lot different team then Germany. The Russians are on a mission, they've mentally prepared for this game for months, the Canadians did too. My thinking, the Russians don't really care this is a Quarterfinal rather than Gold Medal game; the Canadians probably do. The Russians had a day of rest; the Canadians had to come out face their nation, win a game against the Germans, and then apologize to their nation for even having to play the game in the first place. Finally how "fixed" are things with Team Canada in any case; the 11th seed German Team they played in the qualifier scored 3 goals in their three preliminary games that's and average of 1 goal a game. Yesterday, they doubled that production and scored twice against a "fixed" Team Canada - think about that.

Look, I admit I really have no idea which of these two powerhouse, all-star teams will win. Each team is filled with guys, any one of which could swing the game entirely to their team at any given moment of the game. Has Team Canada been shaken out of their over confidence? Who knows, the pressure on them to win this is phenomenal. Have the Russians simplified things and fixed their under-performing power play? Who knows, there is certainly no logical reason for it's paltry production to this point. Is this a story about Luongo vs. Nabakov? If so will "BobbyLou" win it as so many others think? I doubt it's even the real tipping point of the game but again who knows. Here's what I do know, I'm a Washington Capitals fan and after watching so many games that Alexander Ovechkin has played in since he came into the NHL, I would never bet against him, especially in a BIG game. The same goes for a guy named Federov and finally I'm a real Alexander "Sasha" Semin fan and this could be the game he chooses to show the world why he regards Sidney Crosby as a good hockey player who is mortal. It could also be the game where a guy named Malkin chooses to ensure he's the Pittsburgh Penguin star with BOTH a Stanley Cup AND an Olympic Gold Medal. So me I'm predicting the Russians advance to the Semifinals, do I have any logical reason for it, no not really, it's what I'm hoping of though and I believe in karma so I have to be sending what I think are positive thoughts out to Vancouver.

Here's the final thought as we get ready to watch today's great set of games unfold. The combined NHL/KHL payrolls of Team Canada and Russia total over $300 million USD, to get to that number with a $56M salary cap you need 5+ NHL teams. So if you watch tonight's game and shake your head a few times at either some awesome move or play or the reverse why an NHL star on "your" team isn't seeming to be able to do some things you often see him do in a regular season NHL game, you might think back to that fact. For every one of the guys on each team, this is all about "go big or go home." It's also why it's a shame this is a quarterfinal instead of a semi or Gold Medal match-up...

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

2010 Olympics Hockey - It's "Showtime"....

So for both the men's and women's hockey teams and brackets it's really showtime now.

On the Woman's side we are down to the two medal games - Canad vs USA for the Gold and Finland vs. Sweden for the Bronze. These will be two really good games between two evenly matched sets of opponents so they should be a blast to watch. I'm calling them as follows: Gold) USA; Silver) Canada; Bronze) Finland. My reasoning well between USA and Canada - I'm being a "homer" no logic or reasoning applied. Between Finland and Sweden - I thought Finland looked better against Canada then Sweden did against the USA... just simple application of who I think is the hotter team right now also in the prelims the Swedes gave up 15 GA while the Finns only surrendered 8; the Swedes had a goal differential of -5 and the Finns had a goal differential of -1.

The men's tourney moves to the single elimination phase with the top four teams: USA, Sweden, Russia and Finland getting first round byes. At this point the possibility that a hot goaltender could propel virtually any of the 12 teams past one of the others and even perhaps into the medal round cannot be ignored. The first round games are: 5) Czech Republic vs. 12) Latvia; 6) Canada vs. 11) Germany; 7) Slovakia vs. 11) Norway; and 8) Switzerland vs. 9) Belarus. Taking these match-ups one at a time:

5) Czech Republic vs. 12) Latvia - This should go to the Czechs and it's unlikely they will look past the Latvians given the large number of guys on the Czech team who play in the KHL. They know the Latvians will play team hockey as a cohesive unit, but the Czech's just have too much talent. They also have a pretty hot goaltender in Tomas Vokoun who only yield 5 GA in the prelims while they played a pretty tough group of opponents; in the prelims the Czech's beat the Latvians 5-2, I don't think the game will be that close this time, but that's why they settle things on the ice and not using computer models or video games.

6) Canada vs. 12) Germany - Perhaps even an easier choice on paper, but the big question is can the Canadians get over the fact they even have to play this game AND avoid looking past the Germans to the Russians in the Second/Quarterfinal Round? I think the answer to that is an unquestionable yes because throughout the tournament thus far the Germans have been unable to generate much offense at all. They were outscored in the prelims 12 - 3 or by an average of 3 goals per game. With just 5 current or former NHL'ers on their roster and anchored by an young AHL goaltender the Germans will be taking on a roster that has an NHL salary cap hit of $160+M in Team Canada. I'll be rooting for the underdog because ... well you just have to ... but that just isn't going to happen, especially not at Team Canada Place. The USA beating the Canadians in their last game may lead to both Germany AND Russia's worst nightmare....

7) Slovakia vs. 11) Norway - To me the Slovaks could end up being a sort of Cinderella team and get through the quarter-finals as long as they don't look past the Norwegians and I don't think they will. Despite being outscored 19-5 in the preliminaries, Slovakia will look to the 4-5 overtime loss that Norge achieved in their final game of the preliminary round to ensure they stay focused. The Swiss took Canada to overtime in their game 2 and the Norwegians took the Swiss to overtime in their final game of the qualifying round. The Slovakians can look at all that and know Norwegian goalie Pal Grotnes is better than the 14 goals he gave up against the USA and Canada might otherwise lead them to believe. In the end the Slovaks with guys like Zdeno Chara, Marian Gaborik, Marian Hossa, Milan Jurcina, Jaroslav Halak, a team that took the Russians to overtime and won, will make it through to the quarter-finals, if not beyond...

8) Switzerland vs. 9) Belarus. Here's where I wouldn't be surprised to see the one minor upset. With a core team built from the best players from the KHL's Dynamo Minsk complimented by the likes of Sergei Kostitsyn from the Montreal Canadiens unless Jonas Hiller has another excellent game in net for Switzerland, the Swiss "mojo" might well run out before they reach the quarter finals. In fact given the way the Swiss played against Norway and comparing that to how the Belorussians played in their bracket against Sweden, Finland and Germany, I'm predicting the boys from Minsk advance while the Swiss end their run.

If I'm right that means the second/quarter-finals will be:
1) USA vs. 9) Belarus
2) Sweden vs. 7) Slovakia
3) Russia vs. 6) Canada
4) Finland vs. 5) Czech Republic

... and wow those will be 4 really, really good games to watch, if they happen. Of course if a "Cinderella" team gets through the first round that will only make the story better and more interesting. I can't imagine why the NHL would ever, even think about not playing in Soochi, nor would I ever even think why NBC wouldn't make sure that all these games are covered both in their entirety live and in prime time replays on at least one of their cable networks as a choice for we hockey fans here in North America...

Monday, February 22, 2010

Well How About That?

Yesterday was our anniversary so I still haven't watched either the USA - Canada or the Sweden - Finland game. The Russia - Czech game was awesome and I can't wait to see the recorded USA- Canada game. That said I never thought these two guys looked that much alike until now....

What do you think?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

NHL Olympic Break Post 1: GMGM's Moves and Salary Cap Planning

It's the Olympic break as the picture on the right illustrates, but what about the NHL season and that avocation we call the Washington Capitals? As this season has continued, many of us Caps fans have watched with keen interest and wondered what Caps General manager George McPhee will do to retain and improve this high flying team's talent pool. The moves so far appear to have been a mix of well thought and deliberate as well as opportunistic re-signings.

For example, clearly the team wanted to get high flying, top talented LW/RW Alexander Semin signed to a contract extension for as long as possible before his status as a restricted free agent "expired." However, when the player and his agent wouldn't sign such a deal, McPhee and the Caps opted instead to sign him to a $6M, 1 year extension through the end of next season. While the move doesn't help end speculation about next season, it makes clear that the 25 year old's status and the teams desires and plans for him through the end of this season's playoffs and the start of next season. Ostensibly, one would assume it is Semin's intention to test the UFA market in July 2011 and get a litmus test on his value as a UFA before signing any long term deals anywhere. However, one never knows how these things play out. The point here being the $6M/1 year extension is what i would classify as an opportunistic re-signing. taking the team's statements at face value, it's not what they had intended but opportunistically, it was a deal they could do that helped keep things moving forward in a way both parties were willing to agree to and that at least in the short term works for them, so they did the deal.

With more forethought and deliberation, it appears the Caps took a look at their likely needs in several, less "flashy" areas over the next couple of years and concluded the smart thing to do was to sign 27 year old Center David Steckel to a fairly priced, reasonable length extension vice letting him out onto the UFA market this summer. In the end the Caps and Steckel agreed to a three year extension at an average salary of $1.1M/season. Examining the list of centers expected to be available as UFA this summer, I'd have to say this signing was a very smart move by both the team and the player. Steckel is the Caps "crunch time, go-to face off guy" these days, as he has quietly become one of the league's top face off men. He is also a key "special teams" guy on the PK unit. So if anyone thinks, in today's NHL "an enforcer" is who generally plays less than 8:30 a game no matter what is worth $1M; then what is the guy you want taking every critical defensive zone face off worth? Add to that that Steckel is also one of the Caps' best penalty killers, one of a handful of guys on the team to qualify as "ironmen" through the past two injury plagued NHL seasons, averages 12:47 TOI, and manages to stay +/- positive despite often being asked to shut down opposing team's high scorers, and it's possible you might consider $1.1M a bargain. The way I look at the list of likely soon to be available free agents, virtually any I consider potential "comps" either already make more than $1.1M or will clearly be likely to do so after this July, so I consider the Steckel extension/contract a really smart move by the Capitals.

I think looking at what needs to get done between now and the end of the season, you'd have to expect that the next thing GMGM is trying to get done is an extension for first line center Nicklas Backstrom. Rumors are that is indeed true but like the Semin deal, apparently Backstrom doesn't want to sign a deal with so long a contract term, he might obviate his options should his value increase between now and when he'd become an unrestricted free agent following the end of the 2014 regular season. Looking at comparable players in the league, one would have to assume that in the RFA market Backstrom will easily draw offer sheets with multi-year deals and salaries of $6-7+M/year. Especially if Nicklas continues to play the way he has so far this season. Backstrom is now fourth in the NHL in scoring with 76 points (26 goals and 50 assists) and has the 3rd best +/- rating right now so I estimate the 5 closest comparables to him are Eric Staal, Paul Stasny, Anze Kopitar, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, their average salary is $7.15M. That is a "doable" deal and along with Semin's 1 year extension means all the "young guns" remain Capitals through at least the end of the 2011 playoffs. Assuming the Caps and Backstrom agree to some sort of extension with an average salary in the $7M/range, as the next deal GMGM closes, then next season the Capitals Salary Cap payroll for 2010 - 2011 is at $45.5M, Once a deal with Backstrom is done or you know at least what it's going to cost you, if you were GMGM, what next?

I know the two things I don't think the Caps need right now, in spite of some cries around "bloggerdom" and comments to threads on many Caps blogs and that's 1) an enforcer or 2) a big "stopper" defenseman. Unless that big stopper has great hands and wheels which none of the rentals available or even most of the guys who aren't rentals have.

Consider that next season by the time you pay for the current top six forwards (Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, Knuble, Laich, and Jason Chimera) next season you are looking at a likely Cap Hit that totals ~29M or roughly 50% of the available Cap Space. Of the remaining $30M, $8.5M goes to Mike Green and Tom Poti leaving $21.5M of space for 15 players and things start to get tight pretty quickly. Tight enough that using any of it for an enforcer is both unwise and virtually impossible. Tight enough that unless you move Poti and don't make any attempt to re-sign Pothier or someone like him, re-engineering the defense around someone like Pronger, even if he were available is also basically impossible. Simply put this team is currently set-up in a way different from what has been done in the past. The closest thing to the way the Caps' roster is designed is the Detroit Red Wings. However, the Caps are basically the Red Wings with a twist - in other words as you might expect each team is constructed the way the are based on their core these days, preserving the core and then using the rest of the available salary cap space to fashion a complimentary team around the core is what it's all about. The Caps core is Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, and Green. The next layer is Laich, Poti, Knuble and you'd be surprised to know but from a cap space/managment perspective - Chimera. This is not to say others like Steckel, Varlamov, Theodore, Bradley, Fleischmann, Fehr, and Neuvirth don't matter it's just to say that from a salary cap management perspective, they are easier to handle and more straight-forward to think about.

So considering all of the above, the next guy I go and sign to an extension is ... and I never thought I'd be the guy saying this as short a time ago as last season ... Jeff Schultz. That's right, Jeff Schultz. Schultz, a 23 year old Calgary native, is having in quiet fashion, what amounts to a breakout season. In 55 games this season, he's averaging 15: 52 TOI and his defensive numbers are generally much better than many, many defensemen paid considerably more than his 2009 - 2010 salary of $715K. Schultz is clearly a guy that if you are GMGM you want to get nailed down before tackling the other defensemen on the the roster who will be Free Agents at the end of this season: 26 year old Shoane Morrisonn (UFA) and 32 year old Brian Pothier (UFA). Additionally since he's just 23 years old, the Caps should be able to offer him a 4 year contract that doesn't involve a premium since that's when he'd otherwise be UFA elgible. I believe the Caps should be able to get Schultz signed for 3 or 4 seasons at an average salary of ~$2M/season, which if he continues to develop on the trajectory he's on will be a bargain.

After signing Backstrom and Schultz, the question you have to ask yourself is are you comfortable with either John Carlson, Karl Alzner and John Erskine as the rest of your blue line corps next season. In other words a regular blue line consisting of: Green, Poti, Schultz, Alzner, Carlson, and Erskine. If you have concerns then you need to decide whether the right solution is to reach a deal with 26 year old Shoane Morrisonn or 32 year old Brian Pothier. Any deal with Morrisonn is probably a multi-year deal; Pothier may agree to a shorter deal and his numbers so far this season have been better. However, Morrisonn is a bigger, more physical presence in the line-up. In the end, which of these two you close the deal with becomes a function of which will take a salary of ~2M/year for the shortest term. However, if it's my call, as much as I really like and root for Brian Pothier, based on the numbers and his injuries these past two seasons, I try and resign Shoane Morrisonn for a $4M deal over the next two seasons, and I let Pothier go to the free agent pool and see what he can get. If I sign Sha-Mo and things work out with both Carlson and Alzner next season, I see what I can get for John Erskine on the trade market.

After I have my blue line settled I then go and see how I reach extension deals with RFAs Eric Fehr, Tomas Fleaischmann, and Boyd Gordon (in that order.) It's likely those three deals won't all get done before season's end nor would I look to rush them. I'd also wait and see how the rest of the season and the playoffs go beofre figuring out what I want to and can do about re-signing vetran center Brendan Morrisson. My goal between now and the end of the season is to ensure the team's core is settled as well as locked and loaded for the playoffs. All without rushing in where smart people tread caustously. That's why right now I just don't see any "rentals" that I think markedly improve the team in a way that doesn't involve paying more than it's worth, though if one did pop up I sure wouldn't refuse to talk about it and I don't think George McPhee will either.

How about the Olympic games today though? Russia vs. Czech Republic and USA vs. Canada. I'll watch the replays as we'll be at the Inn at Little Washington celebrating our 22nd Anniversary.

So, those are my musings, how about you? If you were GMGM what would you be looking to do...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The NHL's Olympic Break Will Be 100% In Effect Later Tonight...

The Caps finished their pre-Olympic Break game last night at ~11:15 EST in Saint Louis, however there are five more games today before the NHL is officially "on break." The Tampa Bay Lightning play the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden this afternoon in a game which could solidify the Lightning's resurgence into playoff contention before the break. Nashville plays Pittsburgh at the Igloo in a game between two solid teams though right now Nashville is on the Western Conference playoff bubble and needs the two points a lot more than the Penguins. Vancouver completes their 14 game pre-Olympic road trip odyssey in the Twin Cities where they take on the struggling Minnesota Wild. The hot Ottawa Senators take on the New York Islanders at Veteran's Memorial Coliseum on Long Island, and in what should be the final game before the break the Anaheim Ducks will be in Edmonton to take on the cellar dwelling Oilers.

So while five members of the Washington Capitals: Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Semyon Varlomov, Nicklas Backstrom, and Tomas Fleischmann are making their way today from Saint Louis to Vancouver, ten NHL teams including a few of their upcoming weeks' opponents and teammates will be competing in the last NHL games before the Olympics hiatus. The Men's' Olympics Hockey Tournament gets underway on Tuesday. The Women's Tournament is already underway. The Men's competition is loaded with numerous teams that could win a medal. Everyone knows about the Russians, the Canadians and the Swedes, as well as the longer shot USA. But teams from the Czech Republic, Finland, Switzerland, Belarus and Slovakia are all also solid squads who will give the other teams a run for their money.

In fact the tournament starts with 12 teams in three groups of four for the Preliminary Round. Group A consists of: Switzerland, Norway, Canada, and USA. Group B consists of: Russia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Latvia. Group C consists of: Finland, Sweden, Belarus, and Germany. Following the completion of the 18 game preliminary round the 12 teams will be ranked and the qualification round will be held; the top four teams will get a bye and teams 5 through 12 will face each other in a set of elimination games leading up to the medal games. To be sure the four teams that are most talked about Russia, Sweden, Canada, and USA are all loaded with talent.

After all Canada is so loaded with talent they felt chemistry and style of play were important enough and they had enough talented blue-liners to choose from to leave the top ranked defenseman in the TSN.CA NHL Player Rankings off the squad. After all why should one put Mike Green for inclusion on the team, he was only a Norris Trophy finalist last season. He's only second in the NHL in +/-, behind not someone on the Canadian Team but his teammate and fellow Calgary native Jeff Schultz. In scoring Green leads the league in both all categories: goals, assists and points. Of course in old school hockey, we tend to value stay at home defensemen more than guys like Mike Green, after all we all know they score their goals by cheating on defense and that means they let the other guys skate freer and score more goals against their team. But wait, if that's so then why is it that Green has ratings that place him clearly into the top 15 defensemen in the league in all statistical measures of defense such as Corsi ratings, etc. as well. Also keep in mind that list of top 15 include numerous (at least 5) players who are ineligible for inclusion on Team Canada as they are already playing for other teams like Sweden (Nicklas Lidstrom); and some others that no one would suggest be included because they don't have the mobility required to play in this years Olympics. In the end, I know this is probably me being a fan, but to me, the biggest and most ill considered snub, all be it, an expected one is the exclusion of Green from the Canadian Olympics squad. Whether Green's exclusion has any negative impact on where Canada finishes the tournament or not remains to be seen and it may not matter given how many excellent players Canada has on their roster, but the pressure is on the home team to capture gold in this signature event.

The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming; wait the Russians are here. The Russian Olympic team is also loaded with NHL talent. In fact the squad is anchored by a mix of veteran NHL stars like Evgeni Nabakov and Sergei Gonchar, as well as several "young guns" including Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Alexander Semin. Like the Canadians, the Russians are basically, an NHL All Star Team. Those players who are not currently in the NHL are all well known international stars like Sergei Federov and there is no one on the team that can be taken lightly.

Often overlooked by we North Americans in this whole discussion is the defending champions aren't from North America or Russia, they are from Sweden. Isn't that weird? The Swedes are also loaded with NHL talent and have their own controversy over the snub of Johan Franzen buzzing around.

Team USA is fielding a team that probably has the best chance to medal in some time, but if the US has a legitimate chance to medal which they do, so do the Czechs, and the Slovaks, and that as we say is why the games will be played on the ice. this time in Vancouver, a beautiful city, I sure wish I could go and see some of these games live. If for no other reason than to see former Caps like Milan Jurcina and Sergei Federov in action....

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Caps 3 - Blues 4 (SO); A One Point Night For The Caps In Saint Louis

Well it was another less than two point night for the Washington Capitals in Saint Louis tonight, and as much as the fan in me wants to scream, it's hard to do tonight. Tonight's game was a well played game and many of the issues and mistakes that had been creeping into the Caps game these past five outings were rectified. However, Saint Louis is also playing well and their goaltender, Chris Mason came up big when he needed to; for that matter so did Jose Theodore, in fact Theo made a couple of saves in the third period and one in overtime that took the game into the shootout. If not for an unfortunate bounce in the fourth round of the shootout, who really knows how many rounds the shootout would have gone the way both Theo and Mason were playing. Alas it was not to be and in the fourth round after seeming to stop David Perron's backhand the puck came off the post and the Theo's back and went into the net. So the game ended with the Caps getting just one point.

The Caps seemed to come out with more determination than they have in the last two games. The Blues also came out with "spring to their step." Unfortunately, one of the ugly moments that occasionally occur in hockey games. At 5:52 into the game, Cam Janssen made a savage, cheap hit on Matt Bradley and took Brads out of the game. Quintin Laing came to Brads' defense while he was down. For their efforts, Laing was given 2 minutes for instigating, 2 minutes unsportsmanlike conduct (because he didn't raise his visor before Janssen swung at him); a 5 minute fighting major and a 10 minute misconduct; while Jannsen received a 5 minute major for fighting, a 5 minute major for interference, and a 1 minute Game Misconduct. As a result the Caps and Blues played 4 on 4 for four minutes. Personally, I think this set of calls along with the numerous cheap interference calls that were totally disruptive to the flow of the game were just yet another example of the horrible officiating I'm coming to expect in the NHL. In this case, there is no way the Blues shouldn't have skated a man down for at least - at least a full 2:00. Given the fact Jannsen threw the first punch before Laing could lift his visor, it's entirely possible the official could have used his leeway and not penalized Laing for either the unsportsmanlike conduct or the instigator penalty. Further in addition to the interference major, the official could have hit Jannsen with an additional minor for a number of things not the least of which would be elbowing. Bradley left the game and did not return. In the end, the Blues took advantage of this set of calls that went their way as it was them, not the Caps who scored the first goal of the game during the ensuing 4 on 4 play.

The Blues struck first at 9:13 when Patrik Berglund got a great feed from Roman Polak. It was a play made possible by horrible back checking by Tomas Fleischmann. "Flash" basically let Polak skate freely around him and then rather then picking up the guy he should have moved over to - Berglund - he was standing by himself 12 feet away from his man, when Berglund got the setup from Polak and scored his 9th goal of the season. The Caps responded just 1:27 later at the 10:40 mark when Mike Knuble scored his 22nd goal of the season on the power play. The period ended with the socre tied 1 - 1.

The second period was a good one with both goaltenders and the teams in front of them "amping it up." Blues sharpshooter T.J. Oshie broke the 1-1 tie at 10:52 of the second period when he scored his 13th goal of the season at even strength. Once again the Caps responded quickly, at 13:26, Alexander Semin scored his 30th of the year when Brendan Morrison got the puck to him after Brooks Laich battled to bring the puck into the zone and start the play. Score tied at 2-2. Then at 13:41 Tomas Fleischmann was sent off for hooking and Blues Defenseman Erik Johnson scored his 6th of the season on the resultant powerplay at the 15:23 mark to once again put the Blues up by 1. Then Blues Veteran Paul Kariya was sent off at 16:59 for Tripping and Mike Knuble got his second power play goal of the night at the 17:43 mark. The period ended Caps 3 - Blues 3.

There was no scoring in the third period thanks to some excellent goal tending by Theodore and Mason, and a solid penalty kill by the Caps during a 5 on 3 for 1:18. Both Goalies also kept the scored tied with some very good sanes through the overtime 4 on 4 play.

So the Caps go into the Olympic break with a league leading 90 points and 41-13-8 record in 62 games. That's on pace for a total of 119 points. The Caps need this break, they have a number of guys who are ding'ed up and they have a few bad habits to break themselves of during the next two weeks.

Now it's time to watch the Olympics until March 3rd...

Last One (Caps Game) Before the Olympic Break Tonight In Saint Louis

Caps At Blues Tonight at 7 PM CST

The Eastern Conference leading Washington Capitals (89 Points, 41-13-7) will meet the Western Conference 12th place Saint Louis Blues (63 points, 27-25-9) tonight at ScottTrade Center in Saint Louis tonight at 7:00PM Central Time. For both teams it is their last game before the 2 1/2 week break for the Olympics. It's also likely the only meeting this season between the two teams as it is the only regular season game between them and the only way they will play each other again before next season is if they meet in the Stanley Cup finals.

Before anyone decides to take the Blues lightly consider that if they were in the Eastern Conference they'd be a bubble team in the thick of fighting for one of the final playoff spots, AND they have won their last two outings: a 4-3 shoot out victory over Detroit on Tuesday Evening and a 4-0 shutout of the Toronto Maple Leafs last night. Like tonight, both the Blues' last two games have been on home ice. The Caps well if you read this blog you know the Caps have actually lost their last two games: a 5-6 Overtime loss to Le Canadiens in Montreal on Wednesday evening and a 5-6 loss in Regulation to the Senators in Ottawa on Thursday evening. While the Caps have scored 10 or more goals in back to back games before, earlier this season, this is the first time they've allowed 10 or more, let alone 12 in back to back games. The fact this eventuality comes immediately following their 14 game winning streak is, thankfully, apparently of little consolation to the team. Per Tarik El-Bashir's blog yesterday 14 of the Caps turned out in Ottawa for their optional skate/practice. What's all this mean, well that's anybody's guess but I think it means we'll see a good game tonight. A game by a group of Capitals determined to show they haven't checked out for the break regardless if they are going to Vancouver or if they are going to have the break to recuperate, practicve and get ready for the push for the Cup that starts again on March 3rd in Buffalo. A game by the Blues where they all look to win their third game in a row for only the third time this season and where they look to rejoin a cluster of Western Conference bubble teams battling it out for the last three available playoff spots with a win tonight.

Word out is that Jose Theodore will start in goal tonight for the Capitals, Semyon Varlamov will be on the bench as his back-up. Defensemen Tom Poti and John Erskine will be out with injuries tonight. John Carlson has been called up from Hershey and word is he will get a sweater tonight. Jason Chimera has been placed on IR today and Chris Borque has been sent back down to Hershey after an unremarkable performance on Thursday evening in Ottawa. Shoane Morrisonn is recovering from "flu like symptoms" but is probably going to be in the line-up tonight. I'd expect the backline to consist of: Mike Green, Brian Pothier, Shoane Morrison, Jeff Schultz, John Carlson and Karl Alzner. I'd also expect to see the only one of those guys with anything close to a free ticket to join or lead the rush be Green.

What other moves get made in this last game before the break remain to be seen but to say the Capitals defense has been porous of late is probably kind. The Capitals have allowed a whopping 23 goals against during their last 5 games (that's a GAA of 4.60), during that period they have dropped from 11th in the league in Goals Against to 20th. Based on comments by Coach Bruce Boudreau after the Senators game this unacceptable performance is something that will be the subject and focus of the team and coaching staff tonight and during the break. What changes get made a result remain to be seen, the only thing for sure is things will change. Based on the send down of Bourque and the placement of Chimera on IR, I'd also expect that Quintin Laing will play tonight for the Caps, or perhaps Tomas Fleischmann will move back over to Left Wing, given his abysmal performance in the faceoff circle the last two games. In fact it's possible both things could happen though with the exception of the faceoff circle the second line of Laich - Flash - Semin certainly hasn't looked too bad of late. I also expect to see the Caps forwards look to move the puck up the boards through the neutral zone and not start pushing the puck towards the center of the rink until they've gotten into the Blues' zone.

On the Blues side of the ice it's hard for me to guess what they'll be looking to do other then play sound hockey and proactively try and keep the Caps many offensive weapons from having much time and space at all. So I expect them to play a relatively straight-forward game, I definitely don't see the Blues trying to get into a track meet with the Caps like the Senators did on Thursday evening.

Prediction: Caps 4 - Blues 2; GWG: Mike Green.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Canadiens 6 - Capitals 5 (OT); A One Point Night in Montreal; Streak Ended At 14

Last night at Le Centre Bell in Montreal it was a ONE Point Night for the Washington Capitals. Yes the injury depleted Canadiens stopped the Capitals winning streak at fourteen (14), but the Caps didn't let Montreal do so easily. The good part of the streak being over is "Caps Nations" can go back to thinking and talking about hockey instead of history. The bad part about the streak being over, is well it's over. I have a couple of things I'm pulling together to keep my Caps Juices flowing during the upcoming Olympic Break, one of course, is a review of the Caps season to date. Even with the streak being over, the numbers the Caps have been putting up during the entire first sixty (60) games, but especially since January 1st, are pretty awesome. This is a very well working, well coached, talented and confident team for good reason.

All that said, last night, the team that played better, more of the game, won. That's not to say, the Caps were overpowered, or they didn't dominate during several stretches. Further, even though they were outplayed at times during the game, it never seemed like Montreal dominated the Caps. Another thing, and I'd guess this is the same for every game that ends a streak, in this blogger's opinion, none of the bounces went the Capitals way.

Once again last evening the Caps allowed their opponent to strike first and this was a game in which the Capitals never led. They came back and tied the Canadiens three times during the evening but in the end, in overtime, the Canadiens scored their sixth goal of the night to take the two points. It was a two points that is currently more important to the Habs then to the Capitals, but it's clear the Caps wanted to win and keep the streak alive as well.

How did the injury depleted Canadiens beat the high flying Capitals? After all by the end of the game they were missing six (6) of their regular lineup including over 40% of their offensive punch. Well, throughout the game they adapted, and they also showed everyone watching just how good they can be. During the first period the Canadiens came out strong and fast looking like they intended to work hard and win the game. The Capitals came out looking somewhat tentative, again. It took just 0:36 seconds for the Canadiens to take their first lead of the game. Brian Gionta made a very smooth hockey play and an even better pass to Scott Gomez who notched his 9th goal of the season via a wrist shot past Michal Neuvirth. Score Canadiens 1 - Caps 0. Not to be outdone the Capitals responded, though not immediately. At the 6:23 mark of the period, Brooks Laich scored his first of three goals for the night, knotting the score for the first time of the evening at 1-1. That's how the period ended, the Caps attempted a couple more surges after Laich's first goal but each time the Canadiens responded in kind or better. In fact by the end of the first period the only reason the Caps had out shot the Canadiens was because they had given the Caps three power play chances. However, the Habs penalty kill unit was very good last night and they successfully killed off all three of those Capital power plays in the first period.

In the second period, the Caps played far better than they had in the first. However, Canadiens' goaltender Cary Price proved up to the task and because to a reasonable degree of his efforts he was able to skate off the ice at the end of the period with his team having a 5-2 lead. The Habs scored the first goal of the period when rookie center Tom Pyatt scored his first NHL goal off a tip in of a Ryan O'Bryne shot from the high slot during the first minute of the period. Once again the Caps trailed by a goal. That didn't remain the case for long though, just 30 seconds later Nicklas Backstrom knotted the game for the second time at the 1:11 mark. Backstrom combined with fellow young guns Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green banging the puck home at the end of a "tic-tac-toe" play scoring his 26th goal of the year, score tied 2-2. Shortly after that, Michal Neuvirth went to the bench, apparently injured and Jose Theodore replaced him in net at the 6:11 mark. The Habs tested Theo quickly but he came into the game heads up and repelled their initial thrusts. The about the midway point of the period it appeared things were looking up for the Caps and we Caps fans, when it seemed Alex Ovechkin had scored one of those amazing goals and put the Caps into the lead. However it was not to be, they didn't remain that way, as after a conference among the officials the goal was waived off. Then the Canadiens took over, first at the 12:45 mark veteran center Glen Metropolit scored for Montreal while they were on the power play with Bredan Morrison in the penalty box for hooking. Score Canadiens 3 - Caps 2. Then just 12 seconds later at the 12:57 mark, Maxim Lapierre scored of a well placed puck from Sergei Kostisyn. Score Canadiens 4 - Caps 2. To cap off the scoring for the second period, at the 18:56 mark Kostitsyn feed the puck to another one of the Habs' sharpshooters - Tomas Plekanec. Plakanec scored his first of the game and 16th of the season, putting the Canadiens up by three and ending the periods scoring. Score at the end of two Canadiens 5 - Caps 2.

The Caps kept in character and came out and turned things around in the third period, as they have been able to do much of the season and especially since the New Year. Jose Theodore tightened things up as did the general team defense, with just one great save by Theo, the Caps were able to hold the Canadiens scoreless throughout the third period. They were also able to score three unanswered goals and tie the game up a third time. In keeping pace with the tempo of the game, Mike Green scored his 14th goal of the season with the Caps on the power play just 16 seconds into the period. Score Canadiens 5 - Caps 3. Then at 9:02 mark, Brooks Laich's scored his second goal of the game and 19th of the season unassisted to pull the Capitals within one goal, score Canadiens 5 - Caps 4. At this point, I, like every other Caps fan watching, am just shaking my head, thinking, can it be, are they really going to pull this game out and continue this crazy winning streak after being so outplayed for the first 40 minutes? At the 17:28 mark, Glen Metropolit is whistled off for a 2:00 minor for hooking. Caps coach, Bruce Boudreau, pulls Theodore, the Caps have a 6 on 4 power play for over 1:30 but fail to score while Metro is off the ice. Though they keep momentum and pressure up and they keep the extra skater on the ice. Then at the 19:41 mark, less than 20 seconds remaining, Laich finds the back of the net for the 20th time this season, scores his first career hat trick and knots the game for the third time of the night at 5-5, and taking the game into Overtime. At this point, if you were a Caps fan, you had to be thinking, "my gosh, they are going to do it again, it's pretty unbelievable."

Through the bulk of the overtime period the Caps were outplaying the Canadiens. However, once again, like in the second period Carey Price was good when he had to be. So after repelling Ovechkin and Backstrom, a slightly slow shift change to Semin and Fleischmann allowed Montreal to get a little room, and once again Sergei Kostitsyn found Tomas Plekanec and threaded the needle by a slightly out of position Jeff Schultz giving Plekanec a wide open back side of the net to send home the game winner. Score 6-5, streak over at 14 games; it's a one point night for the Capitals.

It was a great 14 games, but now the Caps can settle in and start everything all over. Further, they no longer have to think about history, they can get back to just playing hockey. That's not a bad thing for example it looks like several guys who were pushing themselves and playing "nicked up" will sit out tonight's game. It also looks like Semyon Varlamov will get his first NHL start tonight since being injured in early December. All those things are good things. Now all we need is for the Caps to forget about the last streak entirely and start a new one tonight in Ottawa. The Senators are the other very hot team in the Eastern Conference, tonight's game promises to be a good one, as long as the Caps forget about their prior 15 games, keep things simple and play with a high energy level. Ottawa will be up for the game, regardless as they are in the middle of a great "push for the playoffs" and are working hard to overtake both Pittsburgh and Buffalo. They just came off an 11 game winning streak of their own, until they ran into a stonewall named J.S. Giguiere on last Saturday night and were shutout by the Maple Leafs 5-0. The Senators bounced back from that loss and beat the Calgary Flames Tuesday evening 3-2 in regulation. That's what the Caps will hopefully do tonight, bounce back from a streak ending loss.

Prediction Caps 4 - Senators 3. GWG: Mike Knuble


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Look Ahead To Tonight's Caps - Canadiens Game In Montreal

Tonight at Le Centre Bell in Montreal the Washington Capitals will face-off against, arguably, the most storied franchise in NHL history, the 24 time Stanley Cup Champion Montreal Canadiens. It will be the first of a three game roads trip before the Olympics Break starts on February 14th. No one really needs to talk about how the Capitals will be trying to continue their current 14 game winning streak. In fact, I've thought about it and frankly no one should talk about it at all. Franchise records ought to be taken in and only moderate self-satisfaction ought to be realized. Yes, I've thought about it and decided that, like when I used to be a competitive swimmer, and I would achieve a personal best, a franchise record is nothing more or less. Even when that franchise record is the 2nd or 3rd best of all time; how excited and cocky does the US Swimming Team get when a newly assembled Freestyle Relay Team goes out and swims their best time ever as a team and it's the third or fourth best time ever? See what I mean, it's not like they set a new World Record, or in the Caps case, a new league all time record. I'm not suggesting we belittle it, I'm not even suggesting that it be entirely ignored. I am saying the fact is the last 14 games like the remaining 22 regular season games and hopefully upcoming four rounds of the playoffs are all nothing more or less then steps in the journey to the real goal. The only reason to mention "The Streak" when looking at any of these games is that in some cases it provides greater motivation for the Capitals opponents on any given night. The only real reason to celebrate any sort of regular season success is for the possible/arguable benefits that home-ice advantage may provide a team during the most grueling post-season quest in professional sports - the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Speaking of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the Stanley Cup, there's also really no reason to talk much about that right now as well. It's only February, a snowy February at that here in the DC Metro Area, which further emphasizes it's a long way to June. In the 34 prior seasons of the Capitals existence they've never won the League Championship, they've only been to the finals once. This year's team is excellent, and they have been playing inspired hockey virtually the entire season. They've been doing that --- (you know what's coming) --- one game at a time. That's what they need to continue to do from now through the end of the Regular Season and then of course through the playoffs. The Canadiens, of any franchise in the NHL know this. There's no way you can be a professional hockey player on the Montreal Roster and not understand that, the history of the franchise and the pressure playing in the media circus that is the NHL in French Canada ensure you never forget it.

The Canadiens, who have been sputtering by with a slightly over 0.500 record and staying on the Eastern Conference Playoff Race bubble for most of the season, would like nothing more than to slay the dragon that the NHL Leading Washington Capitals are tonight. Further this is the fourth and final time the teams meet this regular season, Washington is 2-1-0 and Montreal is 1-1-1 in the prior meetings. Montreal has and is taking pride in the fact that during their prior meetings this season they've were pretty well able to contain Alex Ovechkin with team efforts. However, tonight, those efforts will be complicated by their current injury situation. Montreal has five players trying to battle back from their current injuries: Mike Cammalleri, Marc-Andre Bergerron, Andrei Kostitsyn, Paul Mara. and Benoit Pouliot. For Washington, Defenseman John Erskine is currently out with an injury. Perhaps more significant for motivation is this simple fact, the Canadiens need the points more, will that mean they'll actually want them more, or they will be able to capture them both tonight? That idea seems harder to grasp looking at the numbers, especially the 5 on 5 numbers, though that could be said of many teams in the NHL if you were currently comparing them to Washington. That, of course , is why the play the games on the ice.

The Caps left the DC Metro area yesterday afternoon to avoid any possible travel issues to Montreal today, looking out all our windows here in the DC Metro, that appears to have been a very wise decision. It also gets them banded together and gives them a chance to start the three game road trip off without incident. Given they have back to backs - tonight in Montreal and tomorrow night in Ottawa, avoiding travel complications through some smart planning was even smarter no matter how these games turn out. It should also help the coaching staff keep the team focused. In addition to the press buzz about the streak, several of the Caps key players have this little event looming in Vancouver starting next week and no body coaches, players of fans, want them to loose focus and start thinking about hem too soon.

Keys for the game tonight.

For Montreal: 1) Solid team defense, including having the forwards very involved and back-checking relentlessly when required to do so. 2) Their snipers Tomas Plekanec, Brian Gionta, to have good nights to make up for the lost goal scoring abilities and contributions of the injury depleted forward ranks, they may also need someone like Scott Gomez to up his contributions if they find themselves trying to keep up the the Capitals.3) They need solid defensive performances or better from both Andrei Markov and Hal Gill as these two munch both their own and many of Bergeron's usual minutes on the blue line. 4) Solid goaltending, I'd expect the Canadiens to give the start to Jaroslav Halak who despite loosing his prior start in Boston 3-0, still has a very good SV% (0.927 - 4th best in the NHL right now) through 29 games played in. Finally, 5) even with all four of hte above with the current injuries to their team, if the Caps play their game and do it well, Montreal probably needs a couple of bounces to go their way thanks to the hockey gods, unless Halak decides it's time for his fourth shutout of the season and makes that happen.

For Washington: 1) I've said it several ways above but focus and execute their game plan. 2)Along with maintaining their focus the Caps will likely need to play a patient disciplined game to win tonight. With the injuries Montreal has and their early discussions about team defense, that likely means the Caps will see stacked neutral zone traps as well as 1-2-2 traps often this evening. They'll need to stay with and execute their game plan all 60 minutes tonight as Montreal will be determined NOT to beat themselves. 3) Sound defense from the blue line corps and continued sound goaltending from Jose Theodore. Theodore has lots of reasons to want to have a good, solid game and I expect him to do so again tonight. 4)Second line and secondary scoring. Montreal has the last line change tonight, so they'll be able to get the match-up they want most of the time against Ovechkin-Backstrom-Knuble. However when they do, that means, especially with their injuries the other three lines should find themselves with more time and space. They need to "capitalize" on those opportunities. 5) Actually two final things a) come out fast, this is a road game and it'll be a capacity crowd cheering for their team and b) stay out of the penalty box, Montreal's power play is pretty good and even injury depleted, they have the guns to move the puck around and take advantage of power play opportunities.

Prediction: Caps 5 - Canadiens 2; Semin 2 goals including the GWG fifth goal an empty netter by Ovie with 1:45 left to play.


Sunday, February 7, 2010

Caps 5 - Penguins 4 (OT) The Most Exciting Game Yet This Season

Today the Caps and Penguins faced off in an almost meaningless regular season game on national TV at the Verizon Center. ... Yeah Right... In the end it was a TWO point game for the Capitals, and man am I ever glad I spent all that time shoveling out my driveway yesterday and my Subaru Outback Sedan has almost as much ground clearance as an SUV so I could get to the game. Truthfully, today's game was about as good as a regular season game could get when it comes to watching a really, really good and exciting hockey game. I'd be saying that even if the Caps didn't pull it out in the end.

I'm a little late pulling the trigger and getting this posted so there's already a set of really great posts on the game and Tarik El-Bashir's WaPo gamer is up and I don't know what I can add but this game was so good. I took some pictures the first one really tells the story and it's kind of the bottom line.

However, this game always had a lot of hype. For me, I was still sorry I missed Friday night's game. So, I spent a considerable amount of time shoveling myself out between Friday night and Saturday to make sure that if it was at all possible I'd see this game live. It was the last home game before the Olympic break, it was nationally televised and of course it was the Penguins. All my life I've backed teams that have a huge rivalry with the Penguins. Back when I was a kid in Philly we lived to beat out cross-state rivals. Then 7 years ago when I started transitioning to be a full fledged 100% Caps fan, well the rivalry with the Pens was a very easy thing for me to continue. This game was going to be a good one and I was going to be there. of course that might take a little bit of "dedication" and a strong back. If that meant yesterday I had to spend ~8 hours shoveling the drive and freeing both cars on the drive - so be it. With the drive fully shoveled the next thing was to figure out if I could make it out of the un-plowed subdivision. When it became apparent VDOT wasn't going to get to the side streets in subdivisions, I hacked through the last ~ 4' between the driveway and the street. Then at ~11:30PM last night I walked the "block" to figure out if the trusty Outback had the ground clearance required. I returned to the house and went to bed thinking it was at least a 50/50. At 8:00 this morning I got the snow shovel and all the recommended materials layers, etc. to make a run at it. I knocked down the snow bank between the drive and street some more and made a dash for it. The 5 miles to RT 66 from the house were ... well "interesting" but the roads were passable. In the end I got to Verizon Center and parked in Gallery Place at 10:30. I had to admit, my wife was probably right, "this", you know hockey and the Caps, has become a bit of an obsession and not entirely healthy. After my breakfast - a buffalo burger - medium - with Swiss Cheese and sauteed mushrooms at RFDs I got into Verizon in time to see the last half of warm-ups. The fun began, and if you were a Caps fan by the end of the game you were pretty happy.

The game was a good one in that when somebody made a mistake it usually cost their team or their team's goaltender needed to come up with an awesome save to prevent such an eventuality. When you have two teams loaded with so many talented players you're going to see at least 3 or 4 plays that make you shake your head and say - how did they do that? This game, I lost count at how many of those moments I had. To be clear, I'm a Caps fan so that means I "sports hate" the Penguins. However, their first two goals, Crosby's first two goals were all about him, one of the four or five best players in the world, showing up with his A game and somebody making a mistake he capitalized on. The first one, everyone and I mean everyone in Verizon, had to be saying to themselves - "Tyler, (Sloan) what were you thinking?" The second one was another misplay where 3 out of 4 penalty killers went to Evgeni Malkin, another of the best players on either team, and left Crosby open to receive the pass and with room to maneuver. Maybe if it's a different set of guys or a different team, Jose Theodore stops those, but these guys are just too good that they aren't going to score 85+% of the time when your team let's them move like that. End of first period Penguins 2 Caps 0.

The second period started out better for the Capitals, they didn't make any big mistakes and they got several shifts of sustained pressure in the Penguins zone. Additionally, they seemed to come out from intermission pretty jacked up, surly and playing with an edge but not over it. However for the first ~8:45 Pittsburgh kept the Caps off the board and maintained their 2 goal lead. Then Jeff Schultz found Alex Ovechkin with an excellent stretch pass that sprung Ovie on a breakaway. Ovie flew in on Fluery and rifled it past him, the shot actually was so hard it broke the protective cover on the camera in the net. Score Penguins 2 - Caps 1. At this point life was breathed back into the crowd and we Caps fans present started thinking ... "here we go"... alas that wasn't what was really going on though, because just over 2:00 later Jordan Stall combined with his line-mates Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke to score his first goal of the afternoon and restore the Penguins 2 goal advantage score Penguins 3 - Caps 1. The only consolation is unlike the first two Penguin goals, there really wasn't any "bonehead" moves by the Caps to set this goal up. Stall, Kennedy and Cooke just all played solid hockey and got just enough ahead of the Caps on the ice at the time (Pothier, Sha-Mo, Bradley, Ovechkin and Backstrom) after it looked like Pothier had broken up the play, the puck just seemed to catch back side of Theodore's pad as Stall threw it at the net and went in. So there we Caps fans are thinking it's okay, " it's hockey, things like that happen, at least we aren't still making stupid mistakes." Ah but wait... just 1:24 later Tom Poti, Poti - the guy who has been playing so, so well and so smart lately, botches a breakout pass putting it right on Evgeni Malkin's stick (you remember him, dontchya?) Malkin, ends up with he and Staal going in on Theodore, makes a great pass - Staal bangs home his second goal of the game at the 13:07 mark. Score Caps 1 - Penguins 4, ugh...but hey we're the Caps faithful and we persevere, continue cheering our team on, but I have to admit at this point I had my doubts about the outcome of this game. "Spoting" the current Stanley Cup Champions 3 goals didn't really feel like a winning plan, especially with the penalties the Caps seemed to be taking, etc. Enter one Eric Fehr - at the 17:12 mark of the second period, Brendan Morrison put the puck on Fehr's stick, he drove the net, shot and followed it in to his own rebound, putting "the biscuit in the basket" - a real hockey players goal. That's the way the period ended Score Caps 2 - Penguins 4.

As has been the story over most of the season and particularly these past 14 games, the third period was the Caps best of the game. This time it was because their Captain, a two time NHL MVP, Alexander Ovechkin along with fellow "young gun", Nicklas Backstrom and line-mate Mike Knuble, a longtime "Penguin Hunter/Killer" decided "this is our house". They seemed to feed off the crowd and vice versa as the period went on. Don't get me wrong the rest of both teams also decided that "it's showtime" however, the Caps first line made it happen during this games final 20 minutes of play. First at the 6:51 mark Ovechkin displayed great hand and netted the puck after a shot by Tom Poti had been knocked down by Brooks Orpik, score Caps 3 - Penguins 4. Then at 11:06 he buried an off speed shot from the face off that beat Fluery cleanly. Score Caps 4 - Penguins 4 - new game. How did that happen, well in the third period both teams played a cleaner game AND the referees pretty much let them skate. During the first two periods there were a total of 15 penalties doled out, and there were questionable calls on both sides of the ice, as well as missed calls on both sides too. To say that this wan another really poorly officiated NHL game would be an understatement. For the Caps it's hard to say what was the worst call or non-call was it the lack of a penalty when Jose Theodore got kicked in the head? The 10 minute misconduct to Nick Backstrom for nothing? The lack of a call against the Penguins when Ovechkin got charged into the boards? All bad calls or non-calls to be sure. However, the worst call of the game if you're a Caps fan - that would have to be the one penalty called in the third period, a slashing call against Jeff Schultz for merely being in the vicinity of Matt Cooke when his stick broke. Seriously, I don't know what folks watching on TV saw but at Verizon while Schultz was in the box they showed the replay on the jumbotron and Sarge didn't even touch Cooke or his stick. Thankfully the Caps killed of the penalty and regulation ended with the score tied 4-4.

I know what call against the Penguins both Bill Guerin and Brooks Orpik think was the worst of the game. Uhh, that would be the call against Orpik in Overtime for high sticking Alexander Semin. Orpik's quote per Tarik El-Bashir's WaPo gamer following the game: "He sells it all the time. The kid's a baby. I've got zero respect for the kid. But the kid does that all game long. It's tough to lose on that." Wow, interesting let's dissect this, all of it. First Brooks, it's not hard to "sell" a high sticking call when you put your stick into another players face between their face and face mask, this I saw first hand from my perch in section 103 about 100 feet from the infraction. I'm comfortable making that statement since I was at least 50 - 75 feet closer to it than referee Fredrick L'Ecuyer was to most of the calls he made today. Second, re the "kid" statement Orpik age 29, Semin age 25...uh "kid" huh... yeah, I guess you don't have any respect for him, but you know what I'm pretty sure he doesn't care all that much. "Sells it ll the time" - I don't think so. Semin is one of the best forwards in the NHL, and as such he gets targeted and hacked on, like Ovechkin, Zetterberg, Kopitar, Gaborik, the Sedins, Marleau, Backstrom, Thorton, Crosby and Malkin as well, and his ability to draw penalties and "sell it" are but a few things he isn't known for doing well or often on a hockey rink. Orpik is on of the NHL's most well known "tough guy" defensemen, that means he's known for hacking on guys early and often. Today he did just that, no issue here that's what he gets paid for but come on guy, don't whine when you get a penalty for doing it, especially in a game where you got away with at least 3 slashes and 2 elbows before you put your stick into Semin's face. Personally, if you're a Penguin fan I think the worst call of the afternoon is the non-call against Shaonne Morrisonn when he knocked Crosby into Theodore and then pinned him to the ice. I loved it from an old tyme hockey perspective, making Crosby pay for that real estate in front of Theo so maybe he's thinking about it "next time" but I have to say i was pretty amazed Sha-Mo didn't get 2:00 in the sin-bin for it.

In any case if I had to hazard a guess at Orpik's post-hockey aspirations, I'd say law school as the irony of the whole thing is if anybody is trying to "sell" anything or plead a case here it was Orpik. Personally, I really get a kick out of the bulletin board material "Old Man" Mr. Orpik has now given Semin for both the upcoming Olympics, the two remaining regular season games, and if it happens another Caps - Penguins playoff series. Personally, I hope Sasha uses the material well and lights Orpik and his teams up for a goal or two a game. In the meantime I pretty much feel the whole Orpik post-game diatribe is just a cover up for taking a stupid penalty, and in the end a stupid penalty that cost his team the game and a point. I haven't looked at the Penguins faithful commentary on their blogs and message boards but in anticipation of their usual banter I'd just like to say "Stay Classy..."

As for the Caps since they were given a chance to put away the game, even though it was/is just a meaningless regular season game, they must have just said why not? Or maybe the just wanted to get home and settle in before the big super bowl game. In any case following Brooks Orpik's entering the penalty box, it only took the Capitals 13 seconds to score the game winning goal. So basically right about the time Orpik got his "wrongly" penalized butt settled into his seat in the box he had to get up again and skate off the ice. Of course he couldn't just do that he had to mouth off to the referees so he earned himself a game misconduct, that of course is an all but meaningless penalty but it makes his post game statement all the more comically ironic.

Thank you, Brooks Orpik. You loaded the gun, then Ovechkin passed it to another experienced Penguin Killer, you're just used to seeing him in a different uniform. Perhaps you've been wondering what happened to him on your last few trips to South Philly...

So just a couple more thoughts and pictures from the game since today was the last home game until March 3rd.

The first star of the game ... Team Captain Alexander Ovechkin.

Do you think they'll leave it like this until March 3rd? Why have the Zamboni resurface the ice after a game when the next one isn't for almost a month? I like the lighting though how about you?

Me Too!!

Next up, the Canadiens in Montreal on Wednesday Evening.