Sunday, December 5, 2010

Hockey Musings After A Brief Hiatus...

Well it's been a while since I last made a blogpost a week and a half ago and since then the Capitals played six games and made a relatively major trade - and one many Caps watchers have been looking for. I haven't been away though I have been fairly busy, but I've also watched or attended all 6 of the Caps games that have occurred during the past 10 days. They've been pretty good games, IMO, and the Capitals have gone 4-2 in that stretch. In fact there's really not much I haven't liked about how things have been going on the ice or off the ice with the Capitals over these last 10 games. In reverse chronological order here are my musings about the games and events from my perspective since November 23rd.

Last night's game, a 3-1 loss at Verizon Center to the Atlanta Thrashers. So there's not a lot to like about going 3-2 against the Thrashers so far this season. However, the one thing I can and do enjoy is this basic musing: "SouthLeast No More." Look this past summer Atlanta made a bunch of good moves and they are paying off. I think the best move they made was picking up Andrew Ladd, sure many will argue going with Ondrej Pavlec as their number one goaltender was an even better move but I believe I can defend my belief that the pickup of Ladd was an even better move that that. Last night I was at the game with an old friend and colleague, and I must admit the atmosphere in Verizon Center just wasn't that energetic. The game was a good one and the crowd should have, IMHO, been into the game better. Of course as Coach Boudreau noted, the forwards needed to make Pavlec's night a bit tougher and should have created more traffic and drove the net more. The Caps failure to do so can be seen in many areas of the stat sheet and though it pains me to say it, right now and especially last night, Atlanta has our number. Bottom line we face these guys one last time this regular season in Atlanta next month and if we want to win that one, and we should want that as it's not inconceivable that we'll end up seeing them again in the playoffs, the Caps need to simplify their approach, and get in the Atlanta goaltender's face A LOT more. Bottom line we need to be ready and willing to work for the greasy goals and to play harder then the Thrashers in every aspect of the game if we are going to finish out the last game we'll play against them this regular season with a solid victory.

The Caps faced off against the Dallas Stars in Dallas on Thursday, December 2nd and also came away with no points for their efforts after a 2-1 loss in regulation. I watched that game on Comcast HD and enjoyed it except for the basically royal hosing the Caps got from the wrong call by the on ice officials that resulted in the waiving off of what should have been the Caps tying goal with just 7.6 remaining in regulation. Alas that apparently was also a non-reviewable call - the goal was waived off as the on-ice official felt that Alex Ovechkin interfered with Stars goaltender Andrew Raycroft. Oh well, win some, loose some; yadi, yadi yada ... Okay so if you read my blog regularly, you know that's BS - I hate loosing and I'm sure the Capitals do too. Michal Neuvirth played well enough to deserve the victory, heck, I thought the entire Caps team did too. I thought this game was great in that it was a nice tight game; that said i thought it was horribly officiated and that didn't start with the call at the end of the third period. It started with a set of poorly thought out calls in the second period that resulted in a disparity between the Caps and the Stars extra man advantages, that no Caps fan, and many other disinterested folks are likely to agree with. That said, the official(s) could have made all that mater not, if they had just made the right call with less than 10 seconds left in the game. Well you have to shake those sorts of nights off and move on. I mean it's just a game, it's not like it resulted in a life or death situation going "the wrong way." But you know it does, you know, kinda, ya know - suck when things like this go against the team you root for. Makes me wonder what it's like when you have Gregory Campbell on your team and something like this happens. I mean I guess if that's the case you just have him call his dad and get Colin to pop off an expletive laced email concerning the botched calls to the Director of Officiating. Even though we all know that would only be Colin joking with his other buddies in the NHL Hockey operations office, so if you don't get it or see it that way, it's probably because you just really aren't an educated "hockey kinda guy." [editor's note - several expletive laced thoughts here were removed because, well I'm not a classless idiot, like some folks, especially when I'm so drunk that I forget to tip the cab driver and instead get into a fight with him.

On Wednesday, December 1st the Caps played their first of back to back road games against Western Conference foes when they traveled to Saint Louis to take on the Blues. I watched this game on ComcastHD and like the others around the "blogsphere" and the MSM I was almost giddy about the performance the Capitals turned in against the Blues. Things to have loved about that night's game:
1) Varlamov's stopping 37 of 38 shots on goal.
2) Backstrom's two goals/1 assist night and Ovechkin's assist of Backy's second goal - an empty netter.
3) DJ King getting his first point as a Capital on his assist of a Boyd Gordon goal against his former team.
Bottom line it was an excellent two point night for the Capitals and one of their best games played either at home or on the road so far this season.

On Tuesday, November 30, the Capitals acquired defenseman Scott Hannan from the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for forward Tomas Fleischmann. Hannan, 31, is an 11-year NHL veteran who has played for Colorado and the San Jose Sharks. The 6’1”, 225-pound defensive defenseman has played 775 career games, recording 30 goals, 150 assists, 456 penalty minutes and a +22 rating. As regular readers of this blog would expect I'm very bullish about this move. Flash, though a solid citizen and basically worth his current salary to the right team, is someone I felt, no longer really fit into the Capitals roster in a way that let them get fair value for his salary. To me for Flash to be worth his current $2.6M cap hit; to be worth that I think you have to be using Fleischmann as a top six forward consistently and that wasn't happening nor was it likely to happen the rest of this season. As we've seen so far this season, especially with the amount of games being missed by Tom Poti so far this season, the Caps can definitely use another clearly experienced, Top four (4) blue-liner. From my perspective Scott Hannan gives them that, and with a cap hit of $4.5M he is affordable and still leaves them some salary cap room for either another move or to close a deal to extend Alexander Semin's and/or Brooks Laich's current contracts. Further Hannan's 73 playoff appearances should come in handy in April, and his arrival to Washington now, as opposed to at the trade deadline, should give him more than enough time to build some chemistry with the rest of the blue line corps here in DC - something that was spotty when it came to the Capitals late season pickup - Joe Corvo - last year. So the only real open question about the Caps and their upcoming quest for the 2011 Stanley Cup is the 2nd line center and whether 20 year old Marcus Johansson is ready for that role and/or ready to play through the res of the season and the 16 - 28 games required to get through the post season and win a Championship. For my part, I'll say I just don't know and as such wish we had an option that wouldn't force us to find out. However, the ability to make a worthwhile pickup for that position to make finding out unnecessary is a subject that is worthy of a full blown post all to itself. We'll see if I can get to do that sometime soon. For now I'm just glad the Caps picked up a solid, stay at home blue-liner with a lot of experience to add to the current group.

On Sunday, November 28th, the Capitals hosted the Carolina Hurricanes at Verizon Center and beat them 3-2 in a shootout to gain two points. I was at the game, along with my wingman, who also had with him three of his friends from college - one from Southern California, one from Singapore, and one from South Korea. We were fortunate to get three additional seats in our usual row in Section 103 so they all got to experience our "usual, excellent Capitals game experience." I was a little disappointed that the Capitals didn't win in regulation, but to be fair the goaltending, at both ends, was excellent and I agreed with the selection of Cam Ward as the number 1 star of the game. Ward came up with several excellent saves to keep his team in the game. Bottom line though is this was another solid game and another game which made me keenly aware that the Southeast Division is no longer the weak sister of the NHL.

On Friday, November 26th the Capitals hosted the Tampa Bay Lightning, in a pretty highly anticipated game of two teams on a roll with a lot of offensive firepower. I wasn't at the game though I did watch it in it's entirety. For us Caps fans, it was a good game - the Capitals dominated the game and came away with a 6-0 shutout victory and two points. The game was basically all about a 4 goal second period by the Capitals and these two post game quotes basically sum things up.

"I don’t know if it was perfect,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, “but it’s as good as we’ve played all year. When you score a couple on the power play and you kill a 5-on-3, I thought it was a good game by us.”

"We just got outworked today, plain and simple.” says Tampa’s Steven Stamkos, the NHL’s leading scorer. “There’s nothing more to say.

The 17 save shutout was Semyon Varlamov's first "perfect game" this season and the third in his NHL career. The game also featured a rare "natural" hat trick by Alexander Semin who scored all three of his goals in the second period - at the 6:52, 8:56, and 11:21 marks of the stanza. Any night the Caps get two points and the fans in attendance get free wings the following week from "Glory Days" is a good night of hockey at 7th and F Streets. That's pretty much all I have to say about that.

On Wednesday, November 24th, the Caps traveled to Raleigh, NC to take on the Hurricanes at RBC Center and came away with a 3-2 two point, win in regulation time. The game was Semyon Varlamov's first win of the season and he had to work for it turning in a 30 save effort. I also liked seeing Alex Ovechkin on the right wing and think the Caps should ply him there more often. Putting Ovechkin on the right wing seems to require defenders to make a much bigger set of adjustments then it seems to require of The Great Eight.

So with those recaps and highlights in mind here's some other musings or expansion of musings I've made above, all hockey related:

A) The Southeast Division is definitely not currently anywhere near the weakest division in the NHL, for my two cents that distinction currently goes the Northwest Division whose teams are: Vancouver (3rd in the Western Conference with 31 points), Colorado (9th in the Western Conference with 29 points), Minnesota (13th in the Western Conference with 26 points), Edmonton (14th in the Western Conference with 24 points), and Edmonton (15th in the Western Conference with 24 points). In a bizarre twist the weakest division in the Eastern Conference is the Atlantic Division whose teams are: Philadelphia (one of the best in the league this season and currently 2nd in the Conference with 38 points), Pittsburgh (also battling for the league and conference lead with 38 points, though currently 4th in the conference despite being 9-0-1 in their last 10 games), the NY Rangers (currently 6th in the Conference with 33 points), the New Jersey Devils (currently 14th in the conference with 18 points), and the New York Islanders (currently 15th in the conference with a mere 15 points). Of course the thing dragging down the quality of the Atlantic Division this season is the current state of affairs in both New Jersey and on Long Island, so even though it is conceivable that the Atlantic Division will send three teams to the playoffs and either the Southeast of Northeast Division will send two to the post seasons, the truth is by any summary statistical analysis the Atlantic Division is likely to be determined to be the weakest division in the East. Further right now, on an overall basis you'd have to rank the Southeast Division as stronger than the Northeast Division as well. If the season ended tomorrow, the Northeast Division would have only two teams in the playoffs - Montreal & Boston. Maybe the bigger issue is the growing parity in either conference.

B) The salary cap is working - parity is maturity and it is making games over the course of the regular season both more important, and IMO more interesting/exciting. The situation is a bit different in the two conferences but it's still making the regular season meaningful enough in both Conferences that fans aren't likely to get sanguine about the games too soon.

In the East there's basically looking like three tiers in the division this season: 1) The Breasts of the East - really the top four teams: the Capitals, the Flyers, the Penguins and the Canadeans - all four teams currently have pretty much the same winning percentages so far this season. 2) The Middle Seven Teams - starting currently with Tampa Bay in 5th with 33 points and going through arguably Ottawa in 11th with 24 points and the five in between: the Rangers, Bruins, Thrashers, Hurricanes and Sabres. I expect that over the next four months and 40 or so games of the regular season, each of these these seven teams will be of a mind that they have a realistic possibility of being one of the other four teams besides "the Beasts" that makes the playoffs. 3) Looking for their Game - the bottom four of the Eastern Conference right now are seriously approaching or have reached a point when it's about rebuilding and positioning for the long haul starting next season. Earlier this season I wrote about how I view the need and importance of the concept of "balance" over the long haul of the regular season and throughout the playoffs. The four teams currently at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, for differing reasons, are inherently unbalanced in some manner or form. Perhaps the most unbalanced and he one that could be fixed the most easily is the 12th place Florida Panthers, despite have 64 GA and 66 GA in 26 games played I believe the Panthers are unbalanced. The issue is up front, the Panthers just don't score enough, really from anywhere but in particular from their secondary scoring - through 25 games, the guys up front who are not among the Panthers top six goal scorers have scored just 18 goals between all of themselves. Of course as I said the Panthers have scored only 64 goals in those 24 games and they've scored 3 or more goals in only 9 games this season, notably they've won 8 of those 9 games. So that's why I say they just aren't scoring enough period they've only won a total of 11 games and in the 9 of the 25 games they've played to date when they could score 3 or more goals they've won 8 of 9. So looking at Florida, they are only a couple of players away from being a consistent winner, but I can't tell if what they need are two more top six forwards or 3 or 4 different #7-#13 forwards who can score as well as "grind", hopefully for South Florida fans, Dale Tallon can figure that out. Looking at the 13th place Maple Leafs is probably not all that useful an exercise at this minute. Despite public protestations to the contrary, I believe this year is clearly a re-tooling and rebuilding year in Toronto. I also think it's clear that this year's Maple Leafs are significantly better than last years though long suffering Toronto fans may really be wondering if the only way they'll see a consistently winning NHL team in their area is if by some miracle Jim Balsillie is allowed to start a team in Hamilton - I think real fear of such an underlying sentiment in the fan base is really why the Toronto ownership will NEVER let that happen. In the case of 14th place New Jersey, balance was made impossible at the beginning of this season by the arbitration rulings related to the Ilya Kovalchuck signing. New Jersey essentially been playing with a short bench since the start of the season, and the injury situation there have made putting a consistent group of skaters capable of playing balanced hockey consistently less than fully possible. The Devils foray into this unfamiliar area of the standings is understandable. As for the last place New York Islanders, well it was going to be a tough year on the Island no matter what but the injury situation with this squad has only exacerbated things. Balance? well after Matt Moulson and Jonathan Tavares anybody who scores looks a little surprised, in addition to being very happy; and 25 GP, 53 GF and 83 GA doesn't make for much chance of seeing any balance.

Out in Western Conference as far as the parity discussion goes, the season is slightly more that 1/4 complete and as of today no team is more than 3 full games out of a playoff spot - that's where you see the real effect of parity.

C) Whether we like it or not; and regardless of the fact he may well be a bit of a "cry baby" - there's no denying Sidney Crosby is one of the best ice hockey players in the world today. Crosby's play so far this season in general, and over the past two weeks in particular has been nothing but notable and awesome. I still wouldn't trade Ovechkin for him, I enjoy watching Ovie's style of play better and always will; but right now Sidney is really just pretty much making the rest of the league his "B". I am truly wondering what the Capitals and Flyers will have to do to stop him. I say this because over the past 10 games the Penguins are 9-0-1 and Crosby is the driving reason. In those last 10 game, Crosby has scored 11 goals, had 7 assists (18 points) and been +6 - those are pretty awesome numbers and they are merely the statistics that are resultant of his dominance over his opposition. Best of all for his supporters and sponsors, he didn't even once feel the need to protect himself by "sack tapping" any of the opposition, I guess when you are making everyone your "B" on the scoreboard, you're too busy to do it any other way.

D) Last Friday I watched the last ~10 minutes of the Sabres - Blue Jackets game on NHL Center Ice and for those of you who continue to follow and/or root for old Capitals fan favorites as I occasionally do - let me just say I really don't know how ShaMo's (Shoane Morrisonn) season is going up in Buffalo overall, however his performance during the last 5-10 minutes of that game (Buffalo shut out Columbus 5-0) was something that even a taskmaster like Lindy Ruff had to be happy with.

E) Speaking of the above let's check in on our comparison between favorite former Cap goaltenders - Christobel Huet and Jose Theodore. The 34 year Theodore is playing in the NHL this year - he's the backup for the Minnesota Wild. Theo has now played in 9 games, his record is 3-4-1 and his GAA is 2.89 and his SV% is 0.914 against what most would say is the best competition in the world. Huet is assigned to the Fribourg-Gotte'ron SCL Tigers of the Swiss Elite League, so far this season he's played in 21 games and he has a GAA of 2.34, a SV% of 0.935 and has logged 3 shutouts against the best professional players who ply their trade in Switzerland, a group that also includes former Capital Brian Pothier who plays for a different team than Huet.

Well that's about all I have to say today on hockey. Next up the Maple Leafs come to Verizon Center tomarrow evening.


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