Thursday, April 29, 2010

Caps Season Over; Habs Move On To Take On Pittsburgh In Round 2

I'd be lying if I said I too wasn't disappointed in the way the Capitals season ended. I am. I, like most Caps fans had higher expectations this year. However, I am also a "glass is half full" guy by nature and I cannot understand when fans get truly depressed after a loss. After all watching hockey or any sport is entertainment to me. Following a team and being a fan of them is an avocation. When I switched from being a life-long Flyers fan to being a Caps fan after the so called "lockout" and became a Capitals season ticket holder in 2006 the Capitals were not the local sensation they are today. They were in the early stages of re-building the franchise, something they did and did well as evidenced by the last three seasons results and the fact that now and going forward, any season that doesn't end with the Caps at least getting to the Stanley Cup finals will be considered disappointing to us all - players, management, and fan base.

That's really how it ought to be, isn't it? Life as a DC Hockey fan now, is not like it was in 2008 when we were just glad to make the playoffs. After all the team we get to watch all season long is an excellent and strong team. In 2009 we were all happy the team made it to the second round of the playoffs before being knocked off by the eventual Cup winner. This year, 2010, was supposed to be "our" year in every one's mind. The team played with purpose throughout the season. They made a set of trade deadline moves that showed they would have the depth needed to make a deep run in the playoffs. They finished the regular season with the best record in the NHL. The list of "goods" and "rights" goes on and on.

So what happened? Well they ran into the Montreal Canadiens that's what. The Canadiens finished the season sliding but with a talented team and a 2-1-1 regular season record and they matched up well against the Capitals. I felt many folks on both teams raised their game as you need your team to do in the playoffs. However a couple of things happened that are obvious in the many accounts, recaps, etc. you'll read that derailed the chances of Capitals this post season:

#1 has to be where did the league's best power play go? The Canadiens' penalty kill unit was very effective. Effective enough that the lack of productivity from the Capitals power play probably cost the Caps a goal a game on average. Given that 4 of the 7 games were one goal games and 3 of the 4 Canadien wins were by one goal, this is something that has to be considered as or more significant to the Caps fortunes as the absolutely super-human play of Canadien goaltender Jaroslav Halak in the 4 Canadien Wins.

#2 has to be the stellar play of Canadien goaltender Jaroslav Halak. The Canadiens won games 1, 5, 6, and 7 with Halak in the net. In game 1, Halak stopped 45 of 47 shots and had a SV% of 0.9574. In game 5, Halak stopped 37 of 38 shots on goal and had a SV% of 0.9737. For game 6, Halak turned in an other-worldly performance stopping 53 of 54 shots on goal for a SV% of 0.9815. Last night in game 7, he continued to come up big and power his team to victory stopping 41 of 42 shots on goal for a SV% of 0.9762. Overall in the four victories Halak had a SV% of 0.9779. Through the full series Halak appeared in 6 games, has allowed 14 Goals Against on 231 shots on goal, a 2.46 GAA and had a SV% of 0.939. My point - Halak was good, but during the Canadien victories, he was better than great.

#3 has to be the way the Canadiens' team defense was able to limit the scoring chances, though not necessarily the shots on goal by the Capitals. In combination with the great play they got from Jaroslav Halak, the Canadiens defense was generally able to keep the Caps from having more than one forward in or around the net at any point in time during the 4 games they won. This made it hard for the Caps to break through the wall that Halak was putting up to them during those games.

#4 the match-ups and how the Caps did or didn't respond. This morning there are numerous calls through the blogsphere for various players, coaches and management's heads. All of which in my opinion are totally reactionary and unjustified. There are all sorts of statements about how the Caps fell to a vastly inferior Montreal team and I'm not convinced that's at all right. Montreal underachieved throughout the regular season and they've matched up well against the Capitals all season. As we all saw there are many talented players on the Canadiens and whatever they did or didn't do in the regular season, they ALL raised the level of their play throughout the playoffs. There are calls that Coach Boudreau's system is wrong, R.J. Umberger was right, etc. To me that wasn't and is not the problem. The Caps have "grit" players on their roster and like the finesse players some did and some did not raise their games sufficiently to win. That's a sad but true statement. I have my opinions on the match-ups. While I think I'm pretty much on record clearly that I think the Capitals should have played a more physical game across the board in all seven games, especially in the first two periods. I just feel the Caps did not use their size advantage enough throughout the series and part of that was because of the lineup and line match ups. Sure part of it is "the Caps system", part of it is "the new NHL", though the officiating in this regard continues to be inconsistently applied, etc. All that said, I'm not sure any of that would have mattered, particularly in games 5, 6, and 7 because of items #1 and #2 above.

I had the interesting experience of sitting in front of Carolina Hurricanes Right Wing Erik Cole last night who was at the game with his wife sitting next to Joe Corvo's wife. (BTW Erik, sorry again about spilling the water on you during the "wave" your bride was attempting to start.) Cole made several interesting comments but the most telling and noteworthy was a head shaking thought about how "Now every icing will be an adventure ... put your goaltender back in the net ... (head shaking) ... this is the best power play in the league." Cole was basically talking to himself but I was thinking similar thoughts during the game's final minutes when the Caps had the power play and couldn't/didn't tie it up to force overtime.

What this all means I haven't figured out. Where do the Caps go from here? Thankfully others get paid to figure that out, I'm pretty sure we all want me to focus on my day job and leave that to George McPhee and Bruce Boudreau. I have faith in them, they will figure it out. As others have pointed out, Bruce Boudreau has a 0.701 winning percentage in the regular season, he's a true student of the game. I contend, it's a game that is evolving and changing, it's no longer a game about "piss and vinegar" even in the playoffs. Bottom line is like others, sure I'm very disappointed, sure some changes need to be made, I'm an optimist and believe this team is close, very close. Minor adjustments and changes need to be made. Sure I'm a blogger and I'll think about and put those musings up here but look around the Eastern Conference. all top three seeds are now cleaning out their lockers. The Sabres and the Devils both are supposedly "defensive" minded/focused teams with big name goalies, etc. Their season, like the Capitals is over. Are their fans calling for everyone's heads? I'm really asking I didn't bother to go look through the blogshpere about that.

Right now though I know I'm rooting for Montreal in their next series. I'm also thankful to the Capitals players, the coaching staff, and the management for another season of great hockey. It didn't end like we all wanted. We have next year to make adjustments and make sure it ends better. In the meantime, we do have some good things to look back on and build upon. I just wanted to end by saying thank you for 89 games of excitement and entertainment.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What A Difference A Week Makes.... Tonight - Caps/Canadiens Game 7 @ Verizon Center

Well last week this time I was getting off a plane in Fort Lauderdale and preparing for a week of sun, fishing and camaraderie with 4 of my college buds in the Bahamas. At that point in time the Caps led the Canadiens 3-1 and the series looked well in hand. Wow what a difference a week makes. I'm now home, at work, tanned, happy with the large amount of fish we've caught, and the Capitals, or should I say - the Cardiac Caps, are warming up for a do opr die, winner take all Game 7 with those same Canadiens. I'm not entirely surprised, the Canandiens match up very well with the Capitals and Candien goaltender Jaroslav Halak has apparently been on fire since I left for warmer climates. I'm not sure myself, as I only watched a little of game 5 via satellite TV in the Bahamas and because of the weather while travelling back to DC from Fort Lauderdale on Monday, I only caught the third period of game 6. To be sure from what I saw of game 6 Halak is playing, very, very, very well. Tonight's game should be totally exciting, and great ice hockey. I believe the Capitals will win. Why - well because I'm a Caps fan and you gotta believe.

Will Jaroslav Halak Steal The Series From The Capitals Tonight?

Will Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav Halak be able to turn in a super-human effort again tonight and steal this series for Montreal? Isn't that really the question on every DC hockey fan's mind today? After all when you look at the game 5 summary and detailed statistics it's really only because of Halak's efforts there that Montreal was able to take the series past Game 5. In game five the Caps as a whole did everything they should have needed to do to end the series. Seymeon Varlamov delivered a SV% of 0.9286 and the Caps peppered Halak with 38 shots on goal. The Czech goaltender in Montreal's net rose to that test though stopping 37 of those 38 shots and finishing the evening with a 0.9737 SV%. Or in simpler terms - stealing the game and keeping his team alive. Then on Monday evening in Montreal, Halak was even better stopping 53 of 54 shots on goal for an other-worldly SV% of 0.9815. What can you say, especially when several of the saves in both games were point blank shots.

What Can/Should the Caps Do to Turn The Tide Tonight?

Well that is tough since the Caps have, as has been noted elsewhere, been playing pretty well and we're talking minor adjustments. Keeping in mind I only really saw about thirty minutes of Monday night's game so my recommendations could be off mark but here they are.

1) Recognize that Halak didn't win Monday's game on his own. He had some help from Veteran Canadien players including: Mike Cammalleri, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, as well as Jaroslav Spacek, Hal Gill, Marc-Andre Bergeron and Andrei Markov. I continue to believe the Caps need to use their relative size advantage on the Canadiens, particularly during the first two periods to wean the Canadiens down and keep them off balance whenever they look to exit their zone. Cammalleri, Gionta and Gomez are all under 6' and under 205# - whenever they are exiting the zone with the puck the Caps need to put a body on them and finish their check solidly. I'm not talking about playing dirty or even foolishly, I'm saying there are two things you can do to a guy now when he is exiting the zone and at least 51% of the time during the first two periods the Caps out to hit the puck carrier. Of the two choices I know that in today's NHL that's actually the higher risk option, but tonight they need to do that and when it doesn't work out the Caps goalie needs to stop the first shots when the defender/fore/back-checker misses. There will be a lot of adrenaline flying around the ice at Verizon Center tonight, and the Caps need to play with an edge but not over the edge. Further even though that goes both ways, if the Caps hit and slow down those three forwards as well and defensemen Andrei Markov and Marc-Andrei Bergereon, by the middle of the second period, the Caps first and second lines should start to see a little breathing space as they drive the net.

2) Solid team defense. For the full sixty minutes, no matter the score, the forwards, particularly the wings, need to backcheck, backcheck, nd backcheck - first and foremost. All too often over the past few games the Caps outlet pass and typical breakout play has become too, too predictable. They need to mix some things up in this regard, particularly against any sort of 1-2-2 or 2-2-1 trap.

3) Traffic, Traffic, Traffic - greasy goals and all. However also keep the ever growing confident Halak back further in his crease. You both have a right to the space in front of the net just beyond the crease. Play like a group of possessed men fighting for that small but extremely valuable piece of real estate.

4) Want it MORE. The Caps need to want it a lot more than Montreal and they need to play like that from the first puck drop till the last buzzer. Right now Montreal believes they can win this series, the Caps need to say loudly and proudly - not in out house and play like men possessed.

5) The line-up The coaching staff needs to look at things and put the absolute best available lineup out there and to me that's:


52 - 77

In the last minute of the first and second periods here's the unit I think should be on the ice at even strength: 8-19-28; 52-22 or 21 - that's right I want the Caps to score by driving hard for the net in each of the last minutes of the the first two periods.

Special teams power play - go back to the unit that got them here with a twist as much as possible: 28-19- 22 or 21; 8-52.

Special teams Penalty Kill (where we'll miss Tom Poti most of all tonight): first unit: 15-21, 77-55; second unit: 39-28, 26-74.

I doubt I've even come close to the line-up Coach Boudreau will go with but my point is we need to mix some things up more than folks are talking over at KCI yesterday. The team configuration shelling Jaroslav Halak has to look somewhat different than it did on Monday in order to create the different situations that might expose some "chinks" in his armour.

Before we go any further I want to put a shout out out there to make sure Tom Poti has a swift and complete recovery from his surgery - ouch!

I'm looking for big games by all the Caps but especially by all the Young Guns all of whom except Nicklas Backstrom who I felt were "diss'ed" today by Thomas Boswell in his column in the WaPo..Typicl DC Mainstream media coverage --- poor, ill-informed, subjective....

I'll be Rockin' the Red in Section 103 tonight. Hope to see you at the game.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

General Hockey Musings On Day 7 of the 2010 NHL Playoffs

Well as we get ready to start day 7 of the NHL Playoffs the eight (8) Conference Quarter Final Series, the match-ups currently look like this:

In the Western Conference:
#1) San Jose vs. #8) Colorado; Colorado leads 2-1 - game 4 tonight in Denver;
#2) Chicago vs. #7) Nashville; Series tied 1-1 - game 3 tonight in Nashville;
#3) Vancouver vs. #6) Los Angeles; LA leads 2-1 - game 4 Wednesday in LA;
#4) Phoenix vs. #5) Detroit; Phoenix leads 2-1 - game 4 tonight in Phoenix.

In the Eastern Conference:
#1) Washington vs. #8) Montreal; Washington leads 2-1 - game 4 Wednesday in Montreal;
#2) New Jersey vs. #7) Philadelphia; Philadelphia leads 2-1 - game 4 tonight in Philly;
#3) Buffalo vs. #6 Boston; Boston leads 2-1 - game 4 Wednesday in Boston;
#4) Pittsburgh vs. #5) Ottawa; Pittsburgh leads 2-1 - game 4 tonight in Ottawa.

There is still a lot to be played but some pretty interesting developments.

After LA & Vancouver played the first two games of the series into overtime, but last night the Kings chased Roberto "The Captain" Luongo from the net in game three. Vancouver pulled Luongo at the 13:21 mark of the second period after Brad Richardson potted the Kings 4th goal of the night on the 16th shot on goal. Of all the teams to be having a goal tending "controversy" in the playoffs, Vancouver was clearly one of the three least likely to be in such a position. However, on Thursday morning the Canucks could find themselves down 3-1 unless they make the necessary adjustments.

In the San Jose - Colorado series things have been a bit different, in game 3, the top seeded Sharks seemed to out play the Avalanche through regulation, but were unable to get one by Craig Anderson. At the end of regulation in game three, the score was tied 0-0, then the Avs got the win on a pretty bizarre play. Just 51 seconds into overtime, San Jose defenseman Dan Boyle basically tried to backhand the puck behind the Shark's own net and instead the puck ended up in the goal behind San Jose goalie Evgeni Nabakov. This series has been close and during the two games the Avs have won, the number one star has been their goaltender. Now the pressure is again on San Jose to even the series.

The #4 Penguins lead the #5 Senators 2 games to 1 but of more note is how they went into Ottawa for game three and controlled the tempo and tenor of game 3 pretty much from start to finish. Clearly the Senators need to make some adjustments and try to get back "in front" of things in game 4 tonight. The Sens also need their stars to play more like they did in game 1 and then need to more effectively stop the Penguins big guns. If the Senators can do so, they have a chance to even the series up before it returns to Steeltown. If they fail on either count, the teams are just as likely to go back to Pittsburgh with the Penguins leading by two games.

The story in tonight's Detroit - Phoenix game is "how will the Coyotes react to and handle the absence of their Captain Shane Doan, who continues to be idled with the upper body he sustained in game 3. Given the way they've handled pretty much everything else so far this season, and how they handled the last half of game 3 with Doan in the dressing room. I'm thinking the media will talk about this and make more of it, then we'll see the Coyotes change things on the ice. That aside, it may well not matter, to some degree, things in Detroit tonight are just as, if not more likely to be "all about the Red Wings" and "Ilya" as in Coyotes goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. The experienced, and driven Red Wings will likely come out flying and working hard, as usual, but even more so in an effort to ensure the series leaves Detroit knotted 2 games a piece. However so far the Coyotes have stuck to their guns and played the first three games in the same manner and using the same approach as what got them through the regular season in fine fashion. It's hard not to be rooting for the Desert Dogs given the year they and their fans have been through, but this series just seems like one that could easily go all seven games.

In the Boston-Buffalo series, these two defensive minded teams have met and battled three times so far. Each game was pretty tightly played, as expected, though in the one game where the teams scored 3 or more goals, game 2, surprisingly Boston was the team to notch 5 goals in their 5-3 game 2 victory in Buffalo. The other two games have been 2-1 goaltender duels with Ryan Miller and Tukka Rask each winning one of those two battles. In any case, the #2 seed Sabres now find the spotlight and pressure on them to even up the series on the road in Boston tomorrow evening.

So far in the Devils - Flyers series, the Flyers have been able to "solve" Marty Brodeur slightly more often then the Devils have gotten pucks by Brian Boucher, and it's a good thing because as you can see from this roster, the Flyers have pretty much run out of goaltenders. The 33 year old Boucher is in the 9th NHL season of an otherwise unremarkable career after being drafted by the Flyers in 1995 and bouncing around the league as part of 5 different organizations. However, if he continues to hold down the fort for Philadelphia and they continue to deliver results through this round and another couple, he'll at least become the answer to numerous sports trivia questions in future years.

Game 3 of the Chicago-Nashville series will be played tonight down in "Smashville." After Nashville opened the series in the Windy City with a 4-1 win, Chicago goalie Antti Niemi rebounded and delivered a 2-0 shutout of the Predators in game 2. The goaltending in this series has been the highlight, but a bigger story will be will the Predators continue to be able to keep Chicago's high powered offense in a bottle. Even though the series is tied 1 game a piece, the Barry Trotz' Predators have held the Blackhawks to just three (3) goals in the two games. The results in that arena will likely to be the focus and discussion tomorrow after seeing how "the rubber" match goes tonight. After his game 2 victory, Niemi is now the goaltender with the best numbers in the playoffs; the Predators will need to put more pressure on him and solve him a couple of times tonight if they are to win the first 2010 playoff game to be held in Nashville tonight.

In the Montreal - Washington series, for us Caps fans while all is basically "right" with the world after the Caps took a 2 game to 1 lead with their 5-1 victory in Montreal last evening, there is still a lot of hockey to be played. Semyon Varlamov was very good last night and now has a 0.918 SV% overall this post-season. The leading goal and point scorer in the series is Nicklas Backstrom with 4 goals and 7 points. Linemate and pal Alexander Ovechkin has 2 goals and 3 assists. After last night's game where virtually everyone got involved, the Caps just need a few bounces to go Alexander Semin's way and get him off the "schneid" to have everything "clicking" again. Of course the Canadiens will be working hard to try and throw the Caps off their game and back to the way things were during game 1 and the first period of game 2. I don't think that will be too easy for the Habs to do, but it is the playoffs and as we've seen so far, anything can happen. Not surprisingly, according to the Washington Post's Taril El-Bashir reported from Montreal on his blog this morning that the focus of the Caps practice was the powerplay. The Caps are 0-14 this post season with the man advantage. Hopefully, that will do the trick and get the unit back to it's regular season leading ways.

I'll be out of town and out of contact fishing in the Bahamas until next Tuesday, it will be interesting to see where things stand with all 8 of these series when I return.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

General Playoff Hockey Musings on Day 5 of the 2010 Playoffs

Wow, as we start day 5 of the 2010 NHL Playoffs, ALL seven series that have completed two games are tied 1 - 1 AND in the eighth match up the #7 seeded Nashville Predators lead the #2 seed Chicago Blackhawks. If that doesn't tell you just how different playoff hockey games are from regular season games then the only thing that will probably do it will be going to one yourself and seeing it live. I had the pleasure of attending the Caps vs. Canadiens games on Thursday and last night. Both were awesome games, of course being a Caps fan last night's was a lot more fun then Thursday night's. But before going through my musings about the two Caps games here's a few other musings I've been having about the 4 days of playoff games I've been watching on NHL Center Ice.

If two years ago you were looking at the Defensemen in the Caps System and assessing them would you have picked Sami Lepisto to have already played 34:44 TOI and an overall +/- of just -1 while playing against the Detroit Red Wings? Me neither, but if you've caught any of the Coyotes - Red Wings games, you will have seen why the 25 year old Finn was at one point a highly rated prospect in the Capitals system. That said, during his several call ups to the Caps before being traded to Phoenix in June, 2009, Lepisto never showed the full breadth of his capabilities. This season he played 66 games for Phoenix, finished the season at +14, with 11 points and 64 hits and is a solid member of their line-up. He was also a member of the 2010 Finnish Olympic Team that earned a Bronze Medal. All in all I'd say this former Capital (he did after all play a total of 14 games over the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 seasons as a Cap_ is having a pretty good year. Here's hoping Sami continues to shine during today's game that will be on NBC at 3PM.

Speaking of the Phoenix - Detroit series, it's tied 1 game a piece, though I was surprised by the 7-4 score Detroit won by on Friday night. However, if you take away the final empty net goal and the two power play tallies that Detroit scored vs. Phoenix's failure to score on any of their four man advantages and it's a 4-4 tie. Of course that's not really the story. The story lines were two-fold: 1) Ilya Bryzgalov let in 6 goals and had a SV% of 0.841 while the Coyotes gave the Red Wings 39 shots on net; and 2) for the first 43:50 of the game the two teams played to an even 4-4 tie with the Coyotes staying with the Red Wings but failed to ever get ahead by more than one goal or "put the Red Wings away" despite Jimmy Howard only delivering a SV% of 0.8709. For the Coyotes to win the series they'll need to stay more disciplined and limit the Red Wings to fewer shots on goal and of course they'll need Ilya Bryzgalov to look more like Ilya Bryzgalov - basically they just need to make some minor adjustments and play a game a lot like they did in their 3-2 win over the Red Wings on Wednesday. Of course, the Red Wings have a few guys with a lot of Playoff experience looking to continue with the momentum they finished out Friday night's game with (3 straight unanswered goals.)

The last playoff series to get underway was the Chicago - Nashville on Friday evening in Chicago. Nashville won that contest 4 - 1, the Predators' final two goals were empty netters so in some way the game was a 2-1 loss by Chicago. The biggest difference between the two teams on Friday was goaltending. Both goalies played well, for Chicago Anti Niemi was 22 of 24 for a SV% of 0.9167; for Nashville, Rinne was 25 of 26 for a SV% of 0.9612. Both Nashville goals were scored by J.P. Dumont. Nashville's defense corps did a great job of making it very hard for Chicago to get any sort of flow going and made them work very hard to get scoring chances. As we've seen in the other 7 series, stating the very obvious, the next game is very important.

In the Boston/Buffalo series, the surprise to me was yesterday's 5-3 win by the Bruins, more specifically it was Boston's three (3) unanswered third period goals. The final stanza of Friday's game started with Buffalo up by a score of 3-2 and the Sabres failed to close things out and be the only team to be up 2-0 in a series. Ryan Miller delivered an only human 0.8667 SV% while at the other end Tuukka Rask delivered a 0.8966 SV% for Boston. The Bruins also out shot the Sabres 31-29 for the game. The second game was a far different story from the first on Thursday Evening when Miller turned back 38 of 39 (a 0.9744 SV%) to Rask's 0.9375 SV% and both teams had over 30 shots on goal. The bigger issue going forward might be the fact that Buffalo speedster Tomas Vanek left game two in the second period and did not return, if Vanek is unable to play in game 3, the Sabres will need to make some adjustments to mount a more aggressive offense. In game two, the Bruins seemed to generate more offense by having a more active blue line corps who joined the offense and mounted a four man attack quite regularly. What happens in game 3 should be interesting and telling when it comes to the next set of adjustments out of the minds of Lindy Ruff and Claude Julien.

Out in San Jose, the legion of Fin Fans are breathing a sigh of relief as the Avalanche - Sharks series moves to Denver tied 1-1 after the Avs opened it with a 2-1 win in the Shark Tank on Wednesday evening. The Western conference #1 seeded Sharks rebounded with a 6-5 win in overtime on Friday evening. In game 1 the story was the stellar play by Colorado netminder Craig Anderson. In game two the story was San Jose's ability to score a tying 5th goal while Evgeni Nabokov was on the bench for the extra skater with just 00:32 remaining in regulation to push the game into OT. In OT San Jose's Devin Stetoguchi scored the game winner at the 5:22 mark of the extra stanza to even the series at one game a piece as the teams headed to Denver for tonight's third game of the series. Another great series between two determined teams each challenging the other with the outcome long from being concluded.

In the New Jersey Turnpike series the Flyers and the Devils travelled South to Exit 3 from Exit 13 with their series tied 1 game a piece after the Devils evened it up with a 5-3 win on Friday evening at "The Rock." The number one star of game two of this series was none other than former Capital Dainius Zubrus, who scored the game winner with a goal he wasn't sure, nor did he care if it was his or Zach Parise's. In the end the 2nd seeded Devils were just more than happy to get the victory and head to Philly for this evening's game on an even par with the seventh seeded Flyers, as during game two they took an unusual nine (9) minor penalties and spent 11:03 skating short-handed which provided the Flyers two power play scores. Despite the elven minutes of short-handed play, the Devils still managed to out shoot the Flyers 33-29 for the game. Game 2 was a very different game than game 1 where the Flyers basically outplay the Devils in every facet of the game to open the series with a 2-1 victory on the road. What adjustments each team makes both in terms of game plan and execution will be interesting to see this evening.

In the Pittsburgh - Ottawa series, the Senators also opened up with a 5-4 victory on the road at the Igloo on Wednesday evening. During the opening game, the Senators blue line corps managed to contain both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin pretty well while a lot of key Senators players including Spezza, Alfredsson, Neil and Fisher had good outing up front. In game two on Friday evening, the Penguins made several adjustments and they seemed to result in the Pens, especially Crosby, Malkin, Bill Guerin and Kris Letang having more time and space when the Penguins managed to come away with a 2-1 victory, despite a very solid 0.935 SV% by Senators net minder Brian Elliott. The series now moves to Ottawa this evening where the Sens Army will be enthusiastically cheering for their team to once again best the flightless birds from Steeltown.

Out West the closest series so far has been the #3 Vancouver Canucks vs. the #6 seed Los Angeles Kings. Both games so far have gone to Overtime and the series now moves to LA tied 1-1 with each game ending an identical 3-2 (OT) score sheet but a different team on top. Game 3 is tomorrow evening out in LA but it's been an interesting series so far and based on the start it promises to continue to be so.

The other series that's knotted at 1 game a piece and where both games have gone into overtime is of course the Eastern Conference #1 seeded Capital vs. the #8 seeded Canadiens.

Game 1 on Thursday was a 3-2 OT win by the Canadiens on the road in Washington. Game 1 was a goaltenders duel won by Canadiens netminder Jaroslav Halak with a 0.957 SV% as compared to Capitals goalie Jose Theodore who finished with a SV% of 0.921. game one was a hard fought affair, the Capitals outplayed and dominated the Canadiens for the first thirty minutes but Halak kept his team in it. Also during game one the Canadiens defense managed to keep Capitals stars in check, limiting Alexander Ovechkin to an unusual zero shots on goal. It was a hard game for Caps fans to feel good about, since it's unusual for the Caps to have a game with 47 shots on goal and get a better than 0.915SV% performance from their goalie and lose. In the end that's what happened though when at the 13:19 mark of OT, Canadiens Center Tomas Plekanec managed to get a fluttering puck past Theodore for the game winner to put Montreal up in the series 1-0.

Last night at Verizon Center, the Caps and the Habs again faced off for game two. The Caps were clearly outplaying the Canadiens however Caps goalie Jose Theodore was unable to stop the first two shots he faced and the Capitals were down by a score of 2-0 by the 7:58 mark of the first period. I was willing to give Theodore the benefit of the doubt on the Canadiens first goal - a wrister by Brian Gionta off a nice setup pass from Scott Gomez at the 1:00 mark that I felt Tom Poti gave too much space to the speedy tyke and former Jersey Devil. However, even though on the second goal, I once again would have likes to see either Jeff Schultz or Mike Green close the gap and challenge Andrei Kostitisyn on, Theodore had a clear bead on it all the way and he just misplayed it enabling Kostitsyn to put his wrister straight through his five hole. As regular readers know I am a huge fan of Theo: i) as a great person, ii) as the guy who wanted to come here when we got played and "dissed" by currently under-achieving Chicago netminder Christobel Huet, and iii) as a guy who when he's on is as good as any netminder in the NHL. However, last night, it clearly wasn't going to be his night and I sadly agreed with the change to Varlamov after Montreal scored their second goal.

So at that point last night, with 52 minutes left to play, the Capitals had "spotted" the Canadiens two goals and it was time for them to start to scratch and claw their way back into the game or risk finishing the evening heading to Montreal two games down. Given the way the Caps generally match-up with the Canadiens, like most of the other 18,000+ fans at Verizon Center, I was rooting for my team, but not overly optimistic. But it didn't take long for the Cardiac Caps to get me enthusiastically screaming my lungs out for the Caps. At the 10:21 mark Canadien Killer - Eric Fehr - scored a solid "hockey/playoff" goal setup by Tomas Fleischman. That enabled the Caps to go into the dressing room for the intermission trailing by just one goal.

The second period was not a kind one to the Capitals. They took two penalties, gave up two more goals to Andrei Kostitsyn who finished the game with 4 points, a hat trick and an assist, and looked like they were going to head into the dressing room for intermission trailing by three goals until at the 18:23 mark when Nicklas Backstrom fired a slap shot from the top of the left circle past Halak up high while both Ovechkin and Mike Knuble were in front of the net screening the Canadien goaltender, that meant through two periods it was Capitals 2 - Montreal 4. The only things Caps fans could say to each other at that point was a) the Caps had tightened up their defense and Semyon Varlamov had looked solid making the Canadiens have to work hard to score, and b) the Caps needed to make some adjustments, though it was unclear what would work and if there was still enough time to come back against a Canadiens team that was playing very well.

Throughout this season, the Capitals have become known as a "Third Period" team. Thankfully for the Caps and we Caps fan, last night, that reputation proved deserved. the Caps came out for the third period on the man advantage thanks to Mike Cammellari slashing and breaking John Carlson's stick basically in front of the referee at the 19:39 mark of the second stanza. The Caps didn't score on that power play but shortly there after, Aleander Ovechkin got what was probably his ugliest, grittiest goal of the season, and one of the more important, when at the 2:56 mark he was able to jam the puck through Halak's pads while holding off defenseman Roman Hamrlick and blue liner Jaroslav Spacek was occupied elsewhere with Nick Bacstrom to pull the Capitals within 1 goal. Then a little over seven (7) minutes later (the 9:47 mark), Ovechkin made what I felt was actually an even better play when he drove down the ice in deep and put the puck right on Backstrom's stick who was able to put his second goal of the evening cleanly past Halak to knot the game at 4-4. At this point, it was clear the 18,000+ sellout crowd of Capitals fans, all of us, we believed, the Capitals believed and we were just waiting for the next tally to confirm what "we knew." Alas, the next tally came from Canadien "trash-talking" center Tomas Plekanec on an excellent play set-up by Mike Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn and finished off by Plekanec to put Montreal up 5-4. Unlike earlier in the game though, for whatever reason, we Caps faithful in the stands still believed, and from the way they were playing, the Caps team on the ice did too. Then at the 18:39 mark, at even strength, while the first line was on the ice with Mike Green and rookie John Carlson on the blueline, the Caps took control and setup in the Canadiens zone. Carlson, the Team USA hero of the World Juniors, rose to the occassion, putting a nice slapshot on net through a screen once again set by a first line scrambling in close and ready for any rebound Halak might give up. However, no rebound was forthcoming as the shot resulted in Carlson's first playoff goal and knotting the game at 5-5, sending it to overtime.

Okay, I want to be up front, in the playoffs I have a love/hate relationship with Overtime. I love the excitment and suspense. I hate that anything can happen and when it odes it's usually not in the favor of the team I'm rooting for. However, if there has to be overtime for the Capitals to win, none could be scripted that much better than having Nicklas Backstrom end the game quickly with the third goal of his first playoff hat trick just 0:31 seconds into the extra stanza. Congrats Nick Backstrom! Congrats Capitals!

Hopefully now with the season even up, the Capitals will figure out how to tighten things up and come away with a less frenetic, more disciplined win in game three. It's clear in this series, like all the others, there's still a lot more hockey to be played in this first round of the 2010 playoffs.


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Hey DC Are You READY? Ready to ROCK THE RED?

Tonight. Verizon Center. 7PM. Be There or Be Square! Oh yeah.

Well now that I got that out of my system, how about those games last evening. If you ever wondered about the difference between the regular season and the playoffs in the NHL, last evening's four games are certainly an excellent primer. Three of four games won by the lower seed - on the road. Oh, and the one won by the higher seed was #4 Phoenix over #5 Detroit, so some folks think the lower seed won that one too. All four games decided by just a single goal. So bottom line - there is a very fine line between confidence and stupidity this time of year. Those 121 points the Caps amassed over the prior 82 games - forget about them. Talk about life after the Caps - Canadiens series - forget about it, its basically irrelevant right now. Right now, it's all about FOCUS and focus means for the Capitals tonight is all about tonight, not Saturday night and certainly not anything beyond this series.

What do last night's results say? Are they really that surprising? I don't think so. If you look at last night's results and then look at the head to head games between last night's opposing team's you see that the intensity and closeness of the match-ups were clearly able to be forecasted.

Was it surprising that Colorado beat San Jose? Not really in the regular season the two met four times; San Jose went 2-1-1 and Colorado 2-2, in other words, they split the series. Last night, Colorado wins 2-1, why, well the game's first star was Colorado Goalie Craig Anderson who had 25 saves and a Save % of 0.962. Clearly a case of winning with what got ya there.

Was it surprising that the Flyers bested the Devils last night? Not really, in the regular season the Division Rivals met 6 times with Philadelphia going 5-1-0 against the foes in this "Turnpike" Rivalry. How did the Flyers do it? Well goalie Brian Boucher had an excellent night with a SV% 0.958 but the rest of the Flyers played great team defense, and Chris Pronger was a beast. The Flyers had 14 Blocked Shots to the Devils 4; and 21 hits to the Devils 16. Another factor wads New Jersey's ineffective power play, in the third period the Devils had a man advantage for 6:00 and failed to mount much pressure on Boucher and didn't come close to scoring while a man up. The Flyers goals were hard fought, but if New Jersey is to win this series, they need Martin Brodeur to have better than a 0.8571 SV%.

Was it surprising that the Ottawa Senators were able to go into Pittsburgh for Game 1 of their series and come away with a one goal victory? Not all that much, after all during the 4 times these two met in the regular season, the series was split 2-2 and this is the third time in four years, these two teams meet in the playoffs. The Sens outscored the Pens 2-1 in each of the first two periods last night and then held on for a 1 goal victory with solid play in the last minutes of the game after Pittsburgh drew within one goal. The Senators were able to contain Sidney Crosby and limit him to just three assists, two of which were secondary helpers, and even though Evgeni Malkin notched two goals on the night. In the end Ottawa's balanced offense was able to put 19.24% of their shots past Penguin goalie Marc-Andre Fluery so while Senator's goalie Brian Elliott didn't have a stellar night in his playoff debut the Penguins weren't able to win.

Was it surprising that Phoenix beat Detroit last night in Phoenix? Not all that much. After all, the two teams met four times this year; Detroit was 2-0-2 and Phoenix was 2-2; three of those four games were one goal games. Last night, the Coyotes stuck with what got them there, Ilya Bryzgalov had a solid evening between the pipes after surviving an early whiff on a shot by Thomas Holmstrom and making 38 saves and allowing two goals in the first period. The Coyotes played a measured game sticking to Coach Dave Tippett's system and notching a goal in each period for the 3-2 victory.

All of this should serve to put the Capitals on notice, they need to stay grounded and focused. Right now for the second season both teams come into tonight's game with the same record: 0-0. The match-ups and everything else have been discussed ad infinitum elsewhere around the blogsphere so I won't do that here today. I will say again i like the match-ups, speaking as a Caps fan. I think the Caps need to use their size advantage while still making sure they keep up with the small. speedy Canadiens team. I'd love to see a very solid night from Jose Theodore - just to shut people up on that item. I won't make any predictions on the outcome. It's the playoffs, I'm superstitious. I'll be there in 103, Rockin' the Red - after all this is what it's all about. This is the time of year when it's all about "Go Big or Go Home." I'm psych'ed. I likely won't have much of a voice tomorrow morning - not a big concern for me right now.

It's T-5:30:00, it's lunch hour and I need to go mail in my taxes before trying to stay focused on work for another 4 hours and then heading over to the game. I'll be attending with my USMMA Class of 82 classmate Rob. We'll certainly have a good time, even better of course if the Capitals win.

Remember - In The End There Can Be Only One...

LETS GO CAPS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

And So It Begins ... The Quickening ... In The End There Can Be Only One

Ah yes tonight the playoffs begin around the North American Continent. In nearby Pittsburgh, the last season's worth of ice hockey to be played at Mellon Arena - the venerable "Igloo" built in 1961, Captain Fantastick and his band of merry men in "flightless bird" tights face off against the Brown Dirt Legislators from the Capital City of the Great White North, at 7:00 PM EDT. In Newark, NJ, just down the road from Tony Soprano's carting company, the "Devils" meet the present day version of the "Broad Street Bullies" at a relatively new arena known simply as "The Rock", with a 7:30PM EDT puck drop. Then at 10:00 PM EDT/8PM MDT the upstart "Desert Dogs" aka Gary's Team (at least for a while longer) take on the perennial playoff contending Flying White Wall Tires from Hockeytown or was that the violent crime capital of Michigan, not sure which. The evening's last, first game of an NHL playoff series then starts a half hour later at 10:30PM EDT/7:30PM PDT out in Silicone (yes I know it's usually Silicon but read and think about the whole sentence..." Valley where the San Jose Cougar's Husbands meet the take on the Winter Storm Related Natural Disasters from "Where the Columbines Grow" at Carly Fiorina Memorial Arena.

Amazingly who do you think looks lighter in their loafers - Elton John on the cover of this album or "Sidney" with a playoff "beard", and IMO you are welcome to take that any way you want....

All in all it should be a fun night to watch ice hockey and get in the mood for the first game of the Caps - Canadiens series here at Verizon Center tomorrow evening.


Monday, April 12, 2010

Caps vs. Canadiens Playoff Round 1 Match-Up And Storylines


So it's set, first faceoff Thursday evening, 7PM at Verizon Center. Caps versus Habs, first round of the 2010 playoffs. The story lines abound and this should be a good series. Each team's 2009 - 2010 regular season record against the other being an identical 2-1-1. So let's see if we can identify the top story lines that will be discussed and debated over the next week or so in conjunction with this series.
1) The league's #2 power play (Montreal) vs. the league's #25 penalty kill (Capitals).
I've gotta believe the Capitals will be watching film and working on ensuring their penalty kill unit tightens things up - a lot - starting this morning at KCI. I also believe that will happen - in other words we'll see them do so successfully. This is the playoffs after all and this is what the Caps goal has been all season. Also if that wasn't motivation enough, throughout the 4 game series between these two teams this past season, all four games have been close ones. On the plus side of this discussion for Capitals fans is this year's Capitals team set a franchise record for fewest penalty minutes (940).
2) The league's biggest team (Washington) vs. one of the smallest lineups in the league (Montreal). The Washington Capitals are a deceptive team when it comes to size, since they are such a great skating team with so many fast players, many people often overlook their size. The Capitals smallest player is Scott Walker at 5'10", 196# he is one of only 4 players on the team under 6'. Many folks don't talk about the size of the "young guns" for example and because all the Caps are big guys none really stands out from a size perspective on the ice when they are all there together, but consider that Mike Green is 6'1", 204#; Alexander Semin 6'2", 208#; Nicklas Backstrom 6'1", 210#, and Alexander Ovechkin 6'2", 233#. Elsewhere on the roster guys like Matt Bradley are deceptively tall at 6'3", 201#. The biggest guy on the Caps roster is Jeff Schultz who does indeed look his full 6'6" and more and more this season is has also been making his 220# of muscle felt when he's been on the ice accumulating the best +/- rating in the NHL this regular season, a +50.
On the other side of Center Ice, the Caps will face off against a Canadiens team that is one of "extremes" when it comes to size. The biggest player on the Canadiens roster is defenseman Hal Gill at 6'7", 235#. Gill, a 35 year old American from Concord, MA joined the Montreal roster as a free agent this past summer after two years including a Stanley Cup with the Penguins. He is a big, bruising, stay at home blue liner in his 12th NHL season. At the other end of the spectrum, the Canadiens have seven (7) skaters and goaltender Jaroslav Halak at under 6'0". The smallest guy on the Canadiens roster is Right Wing Brian Gionta, at 5'7", 175#. Gionta, formerly of the New Jersey Devils rejoined former Devils' teammate 5'11", 202# Center Scott Gomez when Gionta joined the Habs as a UFA this summer after Gomez was traded to Montreal by the Rangers for Christopher Higgins on June 30th this summer. Both Gionta and Gomez are hot coming into the playoffs, know the Capitals well from having spent their careers with Eastern Conference rivals, and are having respectable years. However while the entire Canadiens team has had respectable seasons, they've only been average or below as a team coming down the home stretch going 3-4-3 in the last 10 games of the season and they likely won't be trying to out-muscle the Capitals in the corners during this series. Whether that all makes a difference remains to be seen though it will likely be discussed several times during the next two weeks.
3) The goaltending situation and match up for both teams. I suspect we'll have Montreal's past in net for the Capitals, Jose Theodore, vs. either the future Montreal thought they were going to have (Carey Price) or the future they are very likely to have (Jaroslav Halak). Of course, then again it could be Washington's future or at least one of the three possibilities for Washington's future (Semyon Varlamov) against either Halak or Price. All that said I'm betting on a great post season from Jose Theodore and the first opposing net-minder he contrasts with being Jaroslav Halak. In the end I think for the Caps to win this series and go deep in the playoffs they need their goaltender to have a SV% greater than 0.915% and a GAA less than 2.25 through out the post season. The way Theodore has been playing since January, he's clearly capable of delivering that sort of post season and I just think he's on a mission to prove he's as good as he thinks he is instead of the goaltender alot of folks disparage. The fact that he'll open the playoffs against the team that drafted him in 1994 only adds to his focus and motivation. For Montreal to win this first series they'll need their goal tending and team defense to be even better than that. Right now of the two Montreal goaltenders, it still seems to me, the one more likely to have a chance at delivering those sorts of numbers is Halak. However the 24 year old Czech rookie hasn't played to his potential over the past two games going 0-1-1 with a 0.867 SV% and 3.95GAA and while Price has been 0-1-1 in his last two games, he's delivered a SV% of .942 and GAA of 1.94, so who knows which of his two goalies Jacques Martin will start in net on Thursday evening. For Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, when he looks at the career numbers on the match up side, even though, it appears that Jose Theodore has won the #1 job clearly since January 1st, in the back of Boudreau's mind will be the fact that Theodore's numbers against his former team are 2-1-0, .877 SV% and 4.05GAA while Varlamov's are 2-0-0, .930SV% and 1.94GAA. In the end I'm thinking that Boudreau will consult with Caps goaltending coach at least a couple of times during the series but go with Theodore and be pleased with the results.
4) Will the Capitals high powered forwards "feast" on the Canadiens as they have from time to time in recent years. For example, in 20 career games Alex Ovechkin has 11 goals and 13 assists against the Canadiens. If they manage to find a strategy and execute tactics which effectively limit Ovechkin's production, then there are a multitude of other weapons the Capitals might use to put the puck in the Montreal net, such as Alexander Semin, who's been reasonably effective against the Canadiens in the past as well and had 6 goals and 8 assists during the last 11 games of this season. In the end though, I expect that Jacques Martin will be looking to use a team defense that stacks the neutral zone and tries very hard to bottle the Caps up in their own end of the ice. The issue that will likely prevent that will be the size differential between the two teams (see item 2 above). Montreal can skate with the Capitals but unless their goaltending clearly out duels the Capitals defense and goal tending they haven't shown nearly the same ability to put the "biscuit in the basket" as the Caps have this season. In fact the Capitals finished the regular season with 101 more goals for than the Canadiens and the Canadiens finished the regular season with only 10 less goals against than the Capitals. So it's highly unlikely that of these two teams the one looking to open things up will be Montreal.
#5) You tell me, there's lots of them out there ...
Summary: It's been pointed out often as various pundits assess the Capitals chances of winning Lord Stanley's Cup that playing the same team in a best of seven series is a lot different than meeting them 4 or 6 times over the course of a season. I couldn't agree more, and in this case, when you look at the key story lines and match-ups, even if you're not a Caps fan you'll probably going to have to admit these things look good for the Caps in this series. Of course that is as they say, why they play the games on the ice. So here's rooting out Capitals start out this series focused,finish it the same way, and find themselves moving on to Round 2 in two weeks time.
I don't do predictions about playoff series any more, first off I'm trying to practice what I preach and take things ... ONE GAME AT A TIME. Secondly, I'm just that sort of superstitious guy.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sunday Regular Season Finale Finally Brings Resolution To A Number Of Questions

When we awoke this morning the mark for the Art Ross Trophy had been set by Vancouver's Henrik Sedin at 120 points after the H version of the Sedin Twins had a four (4) point night last evening, gathering 4 assists including 3 while setting up the D version (brother Daniel) for a hat trick, during the Canucks' final game of the regular season, a 7-3 pasting of the Calgary Flames.

Despite the fact, 14 of the NHL's 30 teams finished their regular season before this morning, the Capitals first round playoff opponent was still unknown as well - would it be the Montreal Canadiens or would there be another rematch against the New York Rangers. That would be determined during today's game in Philadelphia, both the Rangers and the Flyers started the day with 86 points, the winner would have 88, the same total as the Canadiens finished their season with last evening, and continue on to the playoffs. The loser would fall just short and their season would be over. The "play-in" has so many undercurrents, sub-plots and story lines around it, being between division rivals whose overall season results were generally below pre-season expectations, that it was actually hard to know what to expect. In the end ... the match ups in both conferences are now set.

In the East:

1) Caps vs. 8) Canadiens

2) Devils vs. 7) Flyers

3) Sabres vs. 6) Bruins

4) Penguins vs. 5) Senators

In the West:

1) Sharks vs. 8) Avalanche

2) Blackhawks vs. 7) Predators

3) Canucks vs. 6) Kings

4) Coyotes vs. 5) Red Wings.

We started the day with the Caps still having one game to play, against the Bruins, at Verizon Center, on National TV - NBC's Sunday Game of the Week. Both the Caps and the Bruins were in the playoffs, and their seeding was set. The Caps started the day with a league leading 120 points and their first President's Trophy already on their mantle this season. Boston started the day entrenched in 6th place in the Eastern Conference with 89 points. Regardless of the score at the end of this afternoon's game against the Capitals, the Bruins would finish the day in 6th place and face either Buffalo or New Jersey depending on how those teams finished the day during which who of those two would be in 2nd and who would finish 3rd in the East. In the end ... the Bruins took the Caps all the way to a shootout ending regulation and overtime in a 3-3 tie before the Bruins won the "gimmick" leaving the Caps with a season long record of : 54-15-13 and 121 points and poised for the start of the playoffs against the Canadiens.

... and the NBC coverage was very even handed. It's been a long time since I've watched a game covered by NBC as a Caps fan and didn't have at least two or three issues with commentary made by the NBC broadcast team, so I feel obligated to give some kudos on this one. First there was actually some love shown by both Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury for Mike Green's game and skills BOTH Defensive and Offensive skill. Milbury's assessment of the Caps strengths and weaknesses during the first intermission was low key and I felt even handed. He mentioned real legitimate stats, the PK#, the GAA, and the OT record, that show where the Caps need to tighten up the team defense and why people focus on that and the goaltending as to why the Caps might be beatable in the playoffs. He didn't make any sort of stupid, sensational, emotional statements, like say a certain winger who currently plays for a non-playoff team domiciled in the State of Ohio.

Last night's results meant that at least 9, possibly 11, teams in the league would finish the regular season today with 100 or more points. That total is, by far, the most teams over 100 points ever and, IMO, is clear evidence of the combined effects of the introduction of the three point game in conjunction with the increasing parity throughout the league as a result of the salary cap and free agency as regulated under the current NHL CBA. At the end of the day ...eleven (11) teams did finish with 100 or more points, four (4) in the Eastern Conference and seven (7) in the Western Conference.

All that said, the day started with several Alex Ovechkin still clearly fighting for the Rocket Richard Trophy as well as having a third Art Ross Trophy within reach, and several other Capitals still working towards some milestones. Alexander Semin started the day with 39 goals, Semin had never reached the 40 goal plateau. Mike Green started the day with 19 goals, back to back 20+ goal seasons for a defenseman was a notable accomplishment to be shooting at. Mike Knuble started the day with 28 goals, the 37 year old veteran has reached the 30 goal plateau only two other times in 13 NHL seasons. So the game between the Bruins and the Capitals was not without items of interest. In the end... Semin tallied the game's first goal while the team's were even strength at the 2:23 mark. That score was number 40 on the season for the talented winger from Krasnojarsk, Siberia; his first 40 goal season, though likely not his last.

Knuble tallied one of the two goals he needed but finished the season with 29 goals. Green played a great game notching an assist and going +2 for the day, but finished the season with 19 vice 20 goals. Ovechkin ended the day with no additional points, last year's Vezina Winner Tim Thomas robbed him several times today to keep the Capitals Captain off the board today. So the following three guys should all be sending their thanks for the help cards to the Bruins 'tender: Ross Trophy Winner Henrik Sedin, Rocket Richard Trophy Co-Winners Sidney Crosby, and Steven Stamkos.

So what's next? The first round of the playoffs, you know that "second season" - the one that really counts. For the Washington Capitals it starts at Verizon Center, when they take on the Canadiens. If your like me, you've been anticipating this year's playoffs for about 9 months. Seriously, I've been expecting the Capitals to return to the playoffs since last August. Now we'll see how much better, mature, and focused this Capitals team is then any prior one. Personally, I know this is exactly what all of us who lived through "the rebuild" as Caps fans and Season Ticket Holders (STHs) were hoping and rooting for. Hopefully, this is just the beginning.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

It's Been A Busy Week - For Me and the Washington Capitals

Hard to believe the last time I wrote my blog was basically a week ago and the Capitals had just dispatched the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-2 in regulation. Since then the Caps have won three more games beating Boston 3-2 in OT here in DC on Monday, the Penguins 6-3 in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, and Atlanta 5-2 here in DC last night; I also travelled to Edmonton for Business on Tuesday, had an allergic reaction to something I ate at a business dinner on Tuesday evening, had a miserable trip home on Wednesday, went to the DR on Thursday morning, then spent the rest of Thursday and Friday getting caught up with things. Today has actually been the first time since last Sunday, I've had time to collect my thoughts. Also, I have to admit I didn't really see any of the Caps - Penguins game but the Calgary game on Tuesday was well covered in Edmonton, if you'd like to discuss that.

I did see all of both the Boston game on Tuesday and the Atlanta game last night - both on television. So how about those Caps - all they do is just win, not bad for a team that...what was the quote, oh yeah, "plays the wrong way." Seriously, let's start with the great numbers after last night's two point night against Atlanta:

1) 120/54 - as in 120 points and 54 wins; only one other team has amassed 120 points since the lockout - the 2005 - 2006 Detroit Red Wings who ended the regular season with 58 wins and 124 points, before that - the advent of the "three point game" the last team to amass 120 or more points was the 1995-1996 Detroit Red Wings who finished the season with an amazing record 62 wins, 13 losses and 7 ties for a whopping 131 points. That let's you know just how good a season we've all been watching this Caps team have. Is this the best Caps team ever - well it's the best regular season record by at least 12 points if that's any measure.

2) 311/3.83 - as in goals for and goals/game. The Caps are the first team to have over 300 goals for in a season since the 2005 - 2006 Ottawa Senators had 312 (3.80 goals/game) and the 2005 - 2006 Detroit Red Wings had 301 goals for (3.67 goals/game).

3) 109/101 - as in Ovechkin and Backstrom's point totals so far with one game to play. The Caps are the only team in the league with two 100 point scorers since Lecavalier and St. Louis had 108/102 respectively in Tampa Bay in the 2006-2007 season.

4) 50/4 - as in 50 or more goals in four (4) of his first five (5) seasons in the NHL for Alexander Ovechkin. A feat matched only by: Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy - that's some pretty impressive company to be in.

5) 30/19-0-2/.0.923/2.54 - as in Jose Theodore's numbers that matter: 30 wins, 19-0-2; .923 SV% and 2.54 GAA since January 1, 2010. On the season, Theo's SV% is .911 and his GAA is 2.81; those are the best numbers Theodore has had since the 2001-2002 season. If that season sounds familiar it's because it's the one when Jose won both the Hart and the Vezina Trophies.

6) 7 maybe 8 and 12 - as in Capitals players with 20 and 10 or more goals this season.

7) 6 of 10 -as in 6 of the top 10 players in the NHL on the +/- leader list.

8) +86/23 - as in the Capitals current GF/GA differential (+86) and delta they lead the next closest team in the league, the Chicago Blackhawks who have a +63.

9) 19.2/19.0 - as in Mike Knuble and Tomas Fleischmann's shooting percentages - now that's making them count. Flash has 23 goals, of which 4 are game winners; Knuble has 28 goals, of which 5 are game winners.

Yeah, I think those are 9 reasons why this is probably the best Capitals Team ever. That's something I'm pretty sure a lot of folks will agree with me on. Now if I could get more folks to agree with me and Alan May that the easy pick for starting netminder for the Capitals in this year's playoffs is Jose Theodore. Why Jose isn't getting more love is truly beyond me.

Next up, the playoff bound Boston Bruins tomorrow in the regular season finale at Verizon Center.

Here's rooting for 122/55, Ross & Richard, 40 for #22 and 30 for #22.


Sunday, April 4, 2010

Caps best Blue Jackets in Columbus 3-2 in Regulation for Historic 51st Win

Well it wasn't always pretty last night but the Capitals jumped out to a 3-0 lead early and then held on firmly to win against a determined Steve Mason and Blue Jackets squad earning two more points as well as their best in franchise history 51st win last night in Columbus.

Alexander Semin opened the scoring with his career best tying 38th goal of the season at the 5:54 mark of the first period, with a blistering slapshot that virtually wet through Matieu Garon, an even strength 5 on 5 goal, assisted by Brooks Laich and Tyler Sloan - Caps 1, Blue Jackets 0. Then at the 10:42 mark Tomas Fleischmann made it 2-0, on another even strength tally, when he received a picture perfect feed from Mike Knuble, while both players aggressively attacked the net; Caps 2 - Blue Jackets 0. Shortly after that, Blue Jackets starting goaltender Mathieu Garon left the game (with 11:51 left to go in the stanza) after he was knocked to the ice when former teammate Jason Chimera crashed the net, bringing 2009-2010 Calder Cup winner Steve Mason into the net or Columbus. Mason's welcome to the game by the Caps me just slightly over 1:30 later when Mike Green put his 19th goal of the season into the net while the Caps were on the power play. The goal by the highest scoring defenseman in the league was unassisted as it came when the Blue Jackets, normally an excellent penalty killing team, made a mental lapse while they were two men down on a 5 on 3 penalty kill, tried and failed to clear the puck out of their own end right up the middle of the slot. Green smartly stepped up, intercepted the puck and rifled it past Mason through a very wide, clear lane from about the middle of "the slot." Caps 3 - Blue Jackets 0. At this point you had to be thinking this was going to be a blow out filled with really nice hockey plays as both Semin's and Green's goals were highlight reel stuff. However, not to be out done and to keep his team in it, Columbus Captain Rick Nash, while still killing the second of the two overlapping penalties, got a breakout going and rushed the puck down the ice, then frankly because no one on the Caps team other tan Mike Green made a solid enough attempt to get back and back check, Nash found a streaking Antoine Vermette who scored what seems to have become the obligatory, when these two teams meet, short-handed goal by the Blue Jackets. Score Caps 3 -Blue Jackets 1.

At this point a couple things seemed pretty obvious to me, 1) if/when the Caps stayed focused and played with intensity they were clearly able to dominate as Columbus really only could field one line that could keep up with and score against the Caps and one other line that could contain the Caps first and or second line. The only other way they were able to slow things down and keep the game from getting away from them was to play the boring, damnable trap that they are so darn good at; 2) if Jose Theodore stayed on his game like he had been during the first period when he stopped 8 of 9 shots including a couple really good scoring chances, that wasn't going to be near enough for the Blue Jackets to come back and win against this Caps team. Of course there was the fear, the fear that the Caps would get bored with the game and not play a full 60 minutes. In fact at times that fear was realized and that's how over the remaining 40 minutes of the game the defensive minded Blue Jackets out shot the offensive minded Capitals 27 - 16. However, in what I hope to presage his caliber of play in the upcoming post-season, Theo was absolutely superb stopping 26 oft hose 27. The one exception was a sweet second goal by Vermette, an even strength tally where Vermette was given too much time and space on Theo's doorstep and masterfully set-up by Nash and defenseman Marc Methot to draw the Blue Jackets within a goal at the 12:17 mark oft he third period. After that it seemed like the Capitals once again clamped down and tightened up their play. The only thing the Caps didn't do in the final ~8:00 of the game to ensure their 51st win was score an insurance goal.

After the game a couple of Capitals, including Tomas Fleischmann, noted that they weren't happy with their or the team's play peciuficlly the Capitals filure to score the knockout punch and put the game away late in the first or early in the second period. Seemingly everyone in the Caps organizatin, rightfully credited Jose Theodore's play (stopping 34 of 36 for a SV% of 0.944) with driving the win. Theo's performance was also recognized with the game's first star. The second star went to Vermette who had two goals and the third to Rick Nash who had two assists.

The fact that the Caps won and I still totally agree with the MSM selections of the Stars of the Game says something. That said I am still pretty surprised at post game comments by Blue Jackets center/former Flyers' Left Wing R.J, Umberger; per WaPo's Tarik El-Bashir, Umberger was quoted after the game saying "I don't think any team in the West would be overmatched by them. Umberger told the Columbus Dispatch. They play the wrong way. They want to be moving all the time. They float around in their zone, looking for breakaways and odd man rushes. A good defensive team is going to beat them [in the playoffs] he added. If you eliminate your turnovers and keep them off the power play, they're going to get frustrated because they're in their zone a lot." Wow, interesting quotes and worth some thought and response. First let me say my surprise comes from the fact I had never really thought of Umberger as either foolish or classless and to make these statements after your team is bested 3-2 in a game where you never really had much of a chance is probably one or the other. To make the statement about a team that looked up their conference several games before they played your team and leads the league overall, who sits in 14th in your Conference, is currently 24th out of 30 in the league and is already mathematically out of the playoffs is, IMO, definitely one or the other.

I'll get off this thought and on to others with three final comments. A) Enjoy your golf vacation after next week R.J. B) Also based on the faceoff report R.J., it doesn't look like you spent too much time out on the ice against the Capitals top two lines, since you had no faceoffs against Backstrom and only one against Fleischmann, you might remember it - it was one of the 6 (out of 11) you lost last night. C) Grow up dude, put on the big boy pants and take some responsibility for the absolutely awful season your team is having. You get paid at a salary cap hit rate of $3.75M (tied for third highest on your team). Your team has, just 77 points, and over the 59 games of the season has played horribly after having a fairly decent start the first 20 games of the season. Don't you think it might be more constructive to point to what and where the Blue Jackets need to build and improve for next season after a solid performance, but still a 3-2 loss to the leading team in the league. I mean you know rather than trying to deflect attention from the fact that once you guys were down 3-0, it was going to be pretty hard for you, a team that averages only 2.68 GF/game to come back against a team that averages 3.8 GF and an average GF vs GA differential of +0.9+, even if they do, you know how did you put it again...oh yeah, "play the wrong way." I understand frustration, all of us Capitals fans understand frustration - it's pretty obvious to see. So I'll ask you, a 27 year old pro in his 6th NHL season, what is more demonstrative of frustration: i) a team who plays a tight game, gives a lesser team who has and plays an effective trap a few too many chances in a game where they take a total of 3 minor penalties and come away with a 3-2 victory, or a 6th year pro spouting off, what probably were ill-considered comments, after his team looses a game where they gave the team with the best power play in the league 6 extra man opportunities and they spotted them 3 goals, all while that same player himself had a game that was basically unspectacular enough that his stat line is devoid of much in the way of entries despite having 22:56 TOI.

That said Umberger's comments do substantiate my feeling this wasn't the Capitals best 60 minutes so there are/were some good and bad things to note. Here they are. The good:

1) Already mentioned, but deserving of another shout out: Jose Theodore's play, especially the couple he stopped on close in solid Blue Jacket chances. Coming on the heels of a solid outing by backup Semyon Varlamov, the Caps goaltenders are returning to form at exactly the right time of the season.

2) Mike Green's play, again especially defensively, despite not being on the ice for either of the Cap's even strength goals,Green also wasn't on the ice for either of the Blue Jackets goals. His stat line other than notching his 19th goal of the season on the power play included 4 SOG, 1 hit and 3 blocked shots in a team leading 24:25 TOI.

3) Ice time was well and evenly distributed once again, the only Caps with 20:00 TOI or more were: Green - 24:25; Ovechkin - 23:50; and Backstrom - 20:02.

4) Faceoffs - the Capitals won 59% of the faceoffs (30 of 51) on the evening. In fact oddly the only Caps center NOT to win more than 50% of his faceoffs was David Steckel: Fleischmann 75% (6 of 8); Belanger 73% (11 of 15); Backstrom 57% (8 of 14); Steckel 30% (3 of 10). Of course most of Steckel's faceoff losses came against Umberger and Derick Brassard and neither of them are known to be "slouches" in that department.

5) The Caps second and fourth lines were very solid all night long. The second line of Semin - Fleischmann-Laich was very solid and when Belanger was rotated in as pivot the line also looked good as well.

The Bad:

1) The first line was held off the board by an effective forechecking and backchecking 5 man Blue Jackets team all night. When the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Knuble or Ovechkin-Backstrom-Mr. X line did get a shot through Steve Mason had a solid bead oin it and didn't generally yield a rebound at all. It still seems like this line is holding back a little bit and perhaps even more so, it seems like Ovechkin is gripping his stick a little hard while he works his way through his current slump. In the end this is, currently, bothersome as fan but I'm not overly worried. If this sort of stuff goes on for, I don't know, say six more games, then I'll worry. However, given Ovie's career history, that probably won't be the case.

2) The powerplay unit was just too loose and that's how Columbus got their obligatory shortie. I'd sure like to see Joe Corvo get a lot more in synch with the Caps system and his Caps teammates on both special teamsand 5 on 5 BEFORE the playoffs start. Since Corvo only had 16:49 TOI on 18 shifts, I suspect the Caps Coaching staff feels the same way.

3) The Caps third line Chimera-Belanger-Chimera displayed lots of energy but wasn't very effective. When he's on Fehr is always on the doorstep and in the thick of things, last night wasn';t one of those nights. When he's on Chimera is much more "in your face" perhaps it was the familiarity of the opposing team with his MO, but again that just didn't happen. Given their pivot won 73% of his faceoffs the 3rd line just didn't have enough time in the Blue Jackets zone, that's something they need to work on, but in the long run, this is a line that ought to work and be more effective. I have a feeling these three will be spending some time together with the video coach before the faceoff tomorrow evening if they are going to be kept together.

4) Over at "Alexader Ovejtjkin" the comment made today is: "Bruce needs to sit down with Ovi and challenge him. He did it before and Ovi responded." I don't know if that's the answer or not but somehow Ovi needs to let thefun and energy back into his game and start having some fun on the ice. If challenging him does that so be it, whatever Ovi needs to once again let himself be Ovi. Maybe it is the Russian Olympic experience, maybe it's all this misplaced festoosh about the Campbell hit. Maybe it's just the pressure of a slump while in a race for his third NHL goal title, again whatever. My 2 cents - as far as individual awards and honors, Ovechkin has nothing to prove. Go out have fun playing the game like you always played it - if you're not the best player in the world when you do that, your easily one of the top five, in this day and age for sure, if not of all time. That's how you led this team, from long before you were actually given that C to wear, till now. [ed note - imagine a Bela Karolyi accent if you will] "You KAN Do EEt, Go Ovie, Go, weee rrr wit you!" Like I said, whatever it is, just forget about and play the game like you enjoy playing it, everything else will fall into place. Oh and now we know you are indeed a great playmaker too, it's okay to be selfish every now and then too.

Well, next up, the Boston Bruins at Verizon Center tomorrow night. The Bruins are in a five way battle with the Rangers, the Flyers, the Canadiens and the Thrashers for the last three playoff spots in the East so they will be coming into the phone booth very motivated.


Friday, April 2, 2010

Colby Armstrong Suspended For Two Games

Per a post on "...the Thrashers will be without Colby Armstrong for the next two games as he was just suspended for using his elbow to hit Mathieu Perreault's head in Thursday's game. Armstrong will miss Saturday's game in Pittsburgh and Tuesday's game back home against New Jersey."

I'd really like to see the Thrashers make the playoffs, but from my perspective, this is the totally right call, and the suspension duration is also correct.

I chose not to make a big deal about this earlier as I suspected that this would be one instance where I would agree with Colin Campbell's actions. I don't think it was a heinous crime, Armstrong was relatively square to Perreault when he delivered the hit, I just think the rule needs to be interpreted and applied as consistently applied as possible. As BB said after the game - an elbow to the head is an elbow to the head. Every player needs to now understand just as it's their responsibility to always keep their stick in control and below their shoulder, it's also their responsibility to keep their arms into their body and to avoid targeted contact, or any chance of perception thereof, to the head of someone they are hitting. Whatever you may feel when you watch the numerous videos of this incident available on the web, in this instance Colby Armstrong did not do that.

Since my statement is in no way what the current or even the proposed rule reads, let the debates and name calling begin. I say that for two reasons - one to make clear this is just one man's opinion and two to illicit your thoughts on the whole situation/event.

Who "Really Wants It" in the Easten Conference, Anyway?

Last night three of the five Eastern Conference "bubble teams" (Philadelphia, Montreal, Boston, Atlanta and the Rangers) were in action - all three (Philadelphia, Boston, and Atlanta) lost. On Wednesday evening the Canadiens lost to Carolina. On Tuesday evening all three Eastern Conference"bubble teams" in action (the Rangers, Boston and Atlanta) won, but over the last two weeks that's (bubble teams winning) been the exception not the rule.

Of the five teams in the East fighting for the final three playoff spots, only three - the Atlanta Thrashers and the Montreal Canadiens have played better than 0.500 hockey over their last 10 games; those teams aren't "lighting the world on fire". Here's what things look like:

#6 Philadelphia, 82 points; Last 10 games: 2-6-2;
#7 Montreal, 82 points; Last 10 games: 5-3-2;
#8 Boston, 82 points; Last 10 games: 5-5-0;
#9 Atlanta, 80 points; Last 10 games: 6-3-1;
#10 New York Rangers, 78 points, 1 or 2 games in hand; Last 10 games: 5-4-1.

So doesn't that drive you to a couple of things like: a) Who of these teams really wants to make the playoffs? b) Does it matter - I mean are any of them in their current state even close enough to win a seven game series that it's possible any of them could see the second round? and c) Given the way the five of them are playing should we start to watch the 11th place Hurricanes and 12th place Islanders and track them as "bubble teams" too? It at least sort of does me to ask/do so.

One thing seems certain the way those teams are playing, we won't really know who the Caps will face in the first round of the playoffs for a while.

In the Western Conference the big question this morning is - Is tonight's game between the Avalanche and the Flames in Colorado really a must win for both teams? If it's not it's almost as close as a regular season game can get to a game 7 can get. It should be a good one to watch.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Capital Night Ends With 50th Win and 112th Point On The Season

Well it was a Two Point Night at Verizon Center tonight and maybe I am a jinx. Tonight's outing by the Capitals was a far better night of team defense against a desperate team. It was also a good hockey game to watch. Because of my back I ended up giving my tickets away and spending a good portion of the day as well as the game trying various standing, sitting and prone positions to see what ones my lower back might find pleasing. A condition that just didn't seem conducive to being part of tonight's sellout crowd at 7th and F. I'm optimistic tomorrow will be more betterer in the back department. In the meantime I do have to be concerned that I was the reason for the three game loosing streak. Oh well I'll live with it, what choice do I have?

In any case tonight's game - the good:

1) Solid Team Defense And Good Transitions Out Of the Caps Zone;

2) The Bradley - Steckel-Chimera Line; some numbers for a third line: Steckel 11 of 14/79% in faceoffs, only guys better were ... Chimera and Brads - each 1 for 1 and 100%. All three +1, All three with 1 point, Bradley with the GWG - his fourth this season - pretty "money" for a guy with 9 goals. BTW it's now official - this is Professor Bradley's best year ever for sure, I mean he and his wife have their first child, and his offensive production numbers now match or exceed his best year ever. It's always cool when nice guys do well, IMHO.

3) Brooks Laich's return and line combinations and offense in general all seemed more balanced - a coincidence - I think not.

4) The Ovechkin - Backstrom - Knuble line played solid hockey all night and the first goal of the night showed me all four of "The Young Guns" are now getting fully refocused, locked and loaded. In fact if not for some good work by Thrashers' goalie Ondrej Pavelec, Alexander Ovechkin could easily have had not one but two goals tonight.

5) Semeyon Varlamov play though not perfect and though at times he didn't look as confident as one might like was very good. His 23 stops on 24 shots for a 0.958 SV% was clearly enough to earn the win. A solid outing that should go a long way in getting the youngster engaged and confident for whatever he is called to do in the post-season.

6) Speaking of Mike Green - another great night by the one "young gun" on the blue line. A solid night all around for the Capitals ice time leader. He led the team in hits with 4, blocked 2 shots, was +1 and had an assist on the night in 24:20 TOI.

Let's be clear, this game was nothing like the first four games against the Thrashers this season. It was an entirely different style game then in the past. The way the Thashers are playing right now is much more like a team then they had been before the "big" trade with NJ. Both guys they picked up from NJ are solid pickups and make them a better team. Since it was pretty clear that Ilya Kovalchuk didn't want to re-sign, at virtually any price, if you had to say one way or the other, based on tonight's game, they did the right thing.

In the end what made tonight even better than the two points, if you are a Capitals fan, is the Caps won it. They didn't back into these two points, they played well and hard and won the game against another team that also played hard and well. It was the type of game the Caps needed to start to get ready for the post season. It was exactly the type of game we as fans needed to keep our perspective and remember just how good this team is.

Next up the Blue Jackets in Columbus on Saturday.


Still In Search Of Win #50.....

Well as we all know Tuesday evening's outing between the Capitals and the Senators resulted in.... gasp ... the Capitals third loss in a row and a "one point night." To be sure Tuesday evening was a far better outing by the Capitals then Sunday's game against Calgary. The Capitals effort versus the Senators, a team who as Gabby pointed out, was a better effort and more inspired effort than the prior two games. However, it wasn't a 60 minute effort. Look I get it, in fact, I think nearly everyone gets it - as Coach Boudreau has pointed out this is pretty much exactly like trying to tell your kid he needs to get cracking the books a couple weeks before finals, in fact it's like that and the kid "aced" the mid-terms and knows he's really, really smart/good.

These last three games have been tough on those of us fans who are by nature "worriers" and if things go as I think they will for the remaining six games of the season, we're all still likely to be worrying through the end of the season. I say that because four of the final six games of the season are against the two teams most likely to be fighting for the last playoff spot in the East - Boston and tonight's opponents the Atlanta Thrashers. The cause of Tuesday evenings loss was in my opinion primarily one thing: "Time and Space" - as in the Caps clearly allowed Jason Spezza and Daniel Afredsson too much of it. I was at the game and watched it closely, by the end of the first period it was obvious who the Caps needed to shut down - they basically did that for the 20 minutes from the middle of the second through the middle of the third period, Tuesday evening. However, despite protestations to the contrary, it's sure seems to me that many players on the Caps are "throttled" back at least just a little, at least being a little more careful to avoid injury, etc. then they likely will later this month.

After Ovie's last suspension, vetran Mike Knuble noted that one of the keys for a player to have a long career, the long career you want great players like Ovechkin, Green, Semin, and Backstrom to have is to know when you can and should ease your foot up on the accelerator. The Capitals have clearly are doing that, either consciously or unconsciously and it shows. Yes I know the Capitals are denying it (coasting) that's why I phrased it as consciously or unconsciously. But, it shows when you come out slow and don't finish off opponents in the third period. Sure there were some moments of inspiried hockey in particular I liked the DEFENSIVE play of Mike Green - the two breakaways he got back for and broke up including one with a penalty free diving poke check ought to be put on CD and sent to every one of the people who get to vote for the Norris trophy this year. Alexander Semin's second goal, masterfully set up by a feed from Ovechkin, as well as Semin's hustle and play in general for those 20- 30 minutes I'm pointing to was great as well. I thought Jose Theodore played well, though he clearly was at least left out if not hung out to dry for most of the goals. The officiating was once again maddening but it went both ways, the penalty on Karlsson for tripping Ovechkin that resulted in the Caps first goal of Tuesday night was a gift and a bad call. Of course since I'm a Caps fan I regard the "makeup tripping call" against Nicklas Backstrom, also a bad call, as the worst call of the night. In the end that gave the Senators the chance to win the game - which they did. In truth neither team played a complete game Tuesday night and that gave both teams a chance to win. In particular if someone told you the Caps and Senators would play a game where Senators goaltender Brian Elliott had a SV% of 0.810 and the Senators were the winning team, before Tuesday night would you have believed them?

In the end it doesn't matter, we are on to tonight's match-up with the Thrashers, a team that is truly perplexing. They trade Ilya Kovalchuk at the deadline, generally a smart move because he wasn't going to re-sign in Atlanta, yet they are still truly in the playoff race with Philadelphia, Boston, and Montreal. To be sure Atlanta is the team with the longest odds against them making this year's post season, but they are by no means out of it. They really have to be driven at this point knowing but for an unfortunate, perplexing loss on Monday night to Carolina they too would have 82 points and though they'd still find themselves in 9th by virtue of the tie breakers they'd be poised far better to pounce on a misstep by any of the other three. Of course the fact the Hurricanes also beat Montreal last evening had to be welcome news to the Thrashers. Atlanta has just 5 games left but they are all against teams that already have their ticket to the post-season: 2 against the Caps, 2 against the Penguins, and 1 against the Devils. Whether that works for or against the Bluebirds remains to be seen. One thing is for sure though - the Thrashers have far more at stake tonight than the Capitals, Atlanta really does probably need to "win out" to have a chance at the playoffs and they have been playing well. In fact at 6-2-2 in their last 10 games, they have the best record of the four "bubble teams" in the East over the prior 10 game stretch.

Well I'm hoping Brooks Laich returns tonight and John Carlson is also in the lineup, it would be even better if Brendan Morrison was back too and the line-up could and does start to stabilize to what it will be for the start of the playoffs. I expect we'll see Semyon Varlamov in goal tonight though to me it looks like the goaltender for the start of the playoffs will and should be Jose Theodore. I'm planning to be catch the game from my seat in section 103 though it's unclear at this moment whether my lower back will be cooperative, it's been aching for two days now. The cause is as perplexing to me as the recent play of the Caps and the officiating in the NHL has been since October. Hope to see y'all there Rockin' the Red ....