So it's November and we are told by many that when it comes to the NHL Regular Season and the month of November, it really should be about "distance". As in starting to put some distance between your team and those who if you don't you will find yourselves fighting for those final playoff spot(s) come March and April. I basically agree with that philosophy and have been very pleased with the way the Capitals have started out this regular season.
I was concerned with all the talk about "the 2011 playoffs" before the 2010-2011 regular season even started the team might be taking things for granted, clearly with an Eastern Conference leading total of 25 points in 17 games played, and a 5-0-1 record so far in the month of November, the Capitals are not taking things for granted. Further, I actually like the mood I sense from their team right now, to me it does seem to be a more mature, lower-key, "just "get 'er done" approach; I think the Capitals are still playing the games with a good energy level, and they are generally having fun, but they clearly are not trying to latch on to some big emotional highs or lows right now. I sense that's a top to bottom mentality, one that says this year we really do want to be in a position to take our regular season approach and game and make a serious run into the playoffs to see if we really can "run the table." I think that's why even though I agree that team captain Alex Ovechkin is rightfully one of Peerless' "Players to Ponder" for today's game against the Thrashers, I'm more than fine with the way he's been playing an the (for him) getting his points in a "a subdued fashion." I think it's great that the team captain has a more balanced scoring (both goals and assists) record so far this season. I also think it's fine that there seem to be fewer and fewer times that the Capitals need him to try and take control of a game and energize them to victory this season, in fact I'm not sure I've seen even one time this season where that was necessary, yet I know he still has the ability to do it and we've certainly seen the 26 year old Russian Machine make some electrifying moves and rushes up ice several time, pretty much each game, so far in this young season. So while I too often ponder what it must be like to be Alexander Ovechkin, especially during the hockey season, I don't.
Last night the Capitals played an inconsistent game but still managed to leave Buffalo's HSBC Arena with a single standings point. Last night's game was inconsistent with the Capitals prior 16 regular season games in a number of ways. Two things stick out to me - a) the Capitals scored the first goal of the game, something that has not been the norm this season; and b) the Capitals played their worst period of the game, and the season thus far, during the game's second period. The Caps managed to muster just 4 shots on goal during the second period and were outscored during 2-0 so they started the third period behind 2 - 1. There were a couple of things to like about this game if you're a Capitals fan, of course. For me those things include:
a) Braden Holtby. Holtby's performance was solid, he stopped 24 of 27 shots on goal by the Sabres and played a very solid, steady game in net, including, and at times especially during the 10:24 last evening that the Capitals were playing short-handed. If you read the post-game commentary, Holtby was disappointed in his inability to stop Tomas Vanek on the game winner in OT, but we are talking about a rookie in his third NHL game played and an NHL vetran sharpshooter (188 goals in 436 games played - including his 10 playoff appearances). You gotta love Holtby's attitude - I'm thinking this guy wants every one of the goals ever scored against him back for another try at stopping them - no wonder his model growing up was Patrick Roy. I'm only wondering why Holtby wears number 70 instead of number 33.
b) Caps scoring first. The Capitals knew that Buffalo was going to be hungry last evening but they came up ready for the first period. Unfortunately that did not translate/transition into a high energy, well played second period for them. However, I don't think anyone was unhappy with the first period last evening and falling behind has been an issue at times for the Capitals so far this season.
c) Marcus Johansson's return to the Capitals. Okay, I'm a biased fan and I admit it, but I liked the performance Johansson had last evening and the fact he continues to do some things every game that show he is getting better - in my opinion. Let's be clear, I think the only Capitals Center that had a good game last evening was Nicklas Backstrom, in fact I'd say Backstrom's play in the third period was energetic and inspired, and not just because he scored a goal. For example, Backstrom was 92% in the faceoff circle. Look at MoJo's play last evening, yes he ended up -1 because he was on the ice for Vanek's game winner but he had 3 SOG, played well with both the first and second lines, had a blocked shot and should have had at least one takeaway as I saw him make at least two. He played responsible hockey, the truth is on the game winner Vanek was a man possessed and if he wasn't either John Carlson or Braden Holtby would have stopped him on that play. It's painful to do but compare MoJo's night to Tomas Fleischmann's night last evening and consider the following. If MoJo can get himself to have better results in the faceoff circle, who do you want on the ice more as the second line pivot - MoJo or Flash. I know I've made my case on this a lot of times before but last night showed very clearly why I think that in the long run if they both stay here on the Capitals MoJo is the second line center and Flash is back to playing on the left wing. Oh and let me say I didn't think Flash should have gotten 4 minutes for that high-stick, he was hooked and spun around, but I will admit the call was well within the way the rules are written.
d) Distance. At a time of year when it is all about putting some distance between your team and the others in your division and conference, last evening hte Capitals put another point between themselves and all their Southeast division rivals. The Caps are now 7 points and 3 games ahead of second place Tampa Bay in the Southeast Division and they lead the Eastern Conference, 1 point ahead of Philadelphia and 2 points ahead of Montreal. So while the season is indeed still young and there are some bizarre things going on, like from a season record so far, the Atlantic Division is currently the weakest division in the NHL, the Capitals are putting some distance between themselves and their competition. That's a good thing to do no matter how you look at it.
A couple of other side notes about recent happenings around the NHL over the past couple of days. First, let me just say that Paul Holmgren locking up Jeff Carter for 11 more years at a salary cap hit of $5.75M per and Claude Giroux for three more seasons with a cap hit of $3.75M per is/was truly the smartest move I think the Flyers have made in a while. Giroux far less so than Carter since the extension only ensures the Flyers and he will have good relations going into his next and final RFA contract negotiations, but smart moves both. Probably not what we Capitals fans need to hear but it was smart and I've gotta say it. I agree with the commentary on Red Light District about the signing:
For Giroux, I believe this is a stepping-stone contract before he receives one similar to Carter’s. Carter will be 37 when his 11-year pact ends.
Between Carter, Mike Richards, Danny Briere, Kimmo Timonen and Chris Pronger (who are all signed through at least 2014), the total cap hit is just shy of $29 million –nearly half of the allotted salary cap amount.
Second, Brent Burns reaction to his two game suspension last week, may be the most mature reaction to such a situation ever by a professional athlete. In response to the news when asked for a comment Burns reportedly said something on the order of "I have to be responsible for my stick." That short, sweet and accurate statement is something any fan hast to like to see and support.
Now about this afternoon; both teams played last night and lost. The Capitals lost 3-2 in overtime in Buffalo and the Thrashers lost Pittsburgh 4-2 in Atlanta. Peerless' preview, which is always better than anything I might come up with, is here. I'm also forecasting a win by the Caps but I'd be surprised if after a late finish and flight home last evening we Caps fans get wings so I'm thinking the Capitals will win in regulation by a score of either 4-2 or 4-3 rather than 5-2.
I'm looking forward to the game and just getting ready to head out to Verizon Center now - see y'all there and of course:
LETS GO CAPS!!!