Saturday, March 26, 2011

Saturday Is A Great Day to Muse 'Bout Spoilers & "Headshots" In the NHL

Wow, it's Saturday March 26th already, and in some ways it doesn't seem like we are already almost one quarter of the way through with 2011. I mean, hey here I am in Bristow, VA ten days into the season of spring and The Weather Channel is telling me it's going to snow tomorrow so in that respect it seems more like January or February. However, if you're an NHL player you know that's not the case since the All-Star break is well in the rear-view mirror and the end of the regular season are now no more than nine (9) games away for any team. So of course that means when you think about the NHL you can look at the remaining few games and really understand the impact or potential impact of a few simple things: a) three point games; b) "hot" teams at the bottom of the standings aka "spoilers"; c)injuries to teams who are fighting for playoff spots aka "bubble teams" key/star players; and d) injuries to "playoff" team's key/star players. So because I don't want this post to ramble on infinitely I'll only be musing "aloud" about two of those items this morning, "don'tch ya know."

So at the bottom of the standings, teams who are either mathematically eliminated or nearly so from the playoffs sit teams who are to my thinking eight or more points behind the eighth place team in their conference. That means that in the Eastern Conference I consider: Atlanta, New Jersey, the Islanders, Florida, and Ottawa, and in the Western Conference: Minnesota, Columbus, Saint Louis, Colorado, and Edmonton all teams that may as well be cleaning their golf equipment in preparation for late April vacations. Of course between now and then there is a little matter of the basic traits of competitiveness and personal pride that all professional athletes share for those ten (10) teams. That's what can, and often does, make them the biggest threats to the "bubble" teams or anyone else fighting for points these next two weeks in order to get better playoff seeding. So when you look at those ten teams who's shaping up to be the biggest, most consistent spoilers? To answer that question, you need to look at the play of each of them during the past four (4) weeks or so - basically their performance in games since March 1. Based on looking at the results of those ten (10) teams for the month of March to date, there are three teams I'd now classify as "spoilers" - teams who will not make the playoffs, but who will have affected already and will likely continue affect who makes the playoffs and how they are seeded, unfortunately for the Eastern Conference "bubble teams" they are all the East:

1) Islanders 6-2-4, or 0.667 hockey, basically if the Isles played this way all season, they'd be on track for 109 points.
2) Ottawa: 9-5-0, or 0.643 hockey, a 105+ point season pace.
3) New Jersey: 7-4-1 or 0.625 hockey, a 102+ point season pace.

The other seven (7) are all playing 0.500 hockey or worse so facing them is no different, IMO, then playing any other team in the League, in that they meet the criteria of "On any given night ..." Of course, if you are a Caps fan and watched last night''s 2-0 loss to the Ottawa Senators, you knew they were playing very well of late; and if you're a hockey fan of any type who isn't completely/totally "dead" (not nearly dead) then you know the Devils have been pretty much "on fire" since mid-January; however, the late-season play of the Islanders may have escaped your attention. By the way, that's part of the reason why I think Michael Grabner is likely, and should be this season's NHL Rookie of the Year.

So who do the "spoilers" play that matter in particular (i.e. "bubble teams") over the remainder of the season:

a) The Islanders have eight (8) games remaining, six of which are against "bubble" or playoff teams. "Bubble Team" opponents include: the Rangers on 3/31 and the Carolina Hurricanes on April 2nd, both are home games for the Islanders.

b) Ottawa has seven (7) games remaining, five of which are against "bubble" or playoff teams. "Bubble Team" or opponents whose play could affect their seeding include: Tampa Bay on 3/29, Toronto on 4/2, and Montreal on 4/7. The Tampa Bay game is on the road but the games against Senator rivals Leafs and Habs are in Ottawa.

c) New Jersey has eight (8) games remaining, seven (7) of which are against "bubble" or playoff teams. "Bubble Team" opponents include: Buffalo tonight in Buffalo, Montreal on 4/2, Toronto on 4/6 (both in New Jersey at "The Rock), and the Rangers at MSG on 4/9.

So as long as I can I plan on watching or at least channel flipping between the Caps game and the following, as they should be really good games and I have the NHL Center Ice Package:

Tonight: Devils - Sabres
March 29th: Ottawa - Tampa Bay
March 31st: Islanders - Rangers
April 2nd: Senators - Maple Leafs
April 7th: Senators - Canadiens
April 9th: Devils - Rangers.

Now about "headshots." First there's no question in my mind they are an issue that needs to be addressed by the NHL, there's also no question that it took the injury to Crosby to get the league to do something about it - and that's a bad thing that also should be a subject to ponder by both the NHLPA and the Board of Governors as the CBA approaches. I say this because Mike Green is a star no doubt, at 25 he's been a Norris Trophy finalist twice already; he's been out for a month already with a concussion and outside of the DC blogsphere and MSM there has been little mention of it. Simply put the only other player getting a concussion that might have gotten the NHL's attention to the degree of the Crosby injury has generated would be Ovechkin. I say might because with Ovie's style of play I'm not even sure it would have done so. The issue to me isn't that the Crosby injury is overblown, it's that with 70+ concussions this season, that number alone without an injury to a star or multiple star players should have been enough to get the level of debate going. It wasn't and anyone who says it was, please explain to me the basis for that statement. As for the Matt Cooke suspension, it's a start but frankly, I don't think it was harsh enough - he should have been suspended for the remainder of the season and the entire playoffs, in my opinion. Do I think Cooke can change the way he plays the game as he has indicated he knows he needs to do - I don't have an answer to that other than I think he has the talent and skills to play in the NHL effectively without playing the way he has been these past few seasons that has gotten hi four (4) suspensions since he's joined Pittsburgh. That said, I think two other places the game needs to change to address this and lower the risk to the players, besides stiffer penalties and suspensions are a) The equipment - specifically the shoulder pads, bottom line they are allowed to be too big and too hard; and b) The pace of play - the changes to the rules that have increased the number of interference calls have also increased the speed of the game. The goal was to make the game more exciting and also likely higher scoring. It's more exciting for sure - the increased risk of injury does that; as for higher scoring, the fact that at some point everyone knows defense wins Stanley Cups means that everything is regressing to a norm here and that's not so much the case anyway. The rules re: interference need to be looked at again so when someone does make a hit they have more options that don't result in an interference penalty than hitting them at full speed since the difference between hitting someone who is and isn't able to defend themselves can often be literally a split second. That's just my view but I think the general point that the rules other than just the hit to the head rule need to be considered here. I'm going to end these musings with a final thought - here's hoping both Mike Green and Sidney Crosby a) are out on the ice again soon and b) after the season is over get involved in these discussions and help the NHL come up with some changes that make their workplace a little safer in this regard.

So I'm not doing a recap of the Ottawa game there's several good ones out here in the blogsphere but I will make sure everyone who reads my blog sees that my favorite quote of the evening came from Matt Hendricks when asked about a another particularly bad call by another NHL official - one of the latest of many this season. In this case a blatant 4:00 high sticking call that was waved off was the subject in question. Hendricks response: "My view?” he said. “It was an Easton Synergy in my face.” As for tonight's game in Montreal, as usual I'll be rooting for the Caps from my den here in Bristow and happy that I'll see the game in HD tonight - for some reason my CSN-HD Channel had a poker game on last night, what was that about?


Sunday, March 20, 2011

"It's Called Respect..."

A couple of games ago when the Caps were in Montreal and the Habs fans boo'ed Alexander Ovechkin for no apparent reason other than he was carrying the puck up the ice, Capitals TV Announcer Joe B. stated: "Its called respect." I found that an odd take but not an unreasonable one on the whole situation. However, this past week, an article was published in The Hockey News that really says RESPECT back to the Capitals about their play and prospects this season. It's titled: "Ovechkin, Capitals crushing NHL with new responsible, winning system" - basically it says what most of us in the Capitals blogsphere have been saying for a while but to be said in The Hockey News well that's RESPECT.

Also interesting information and reading this morning for Caps fan is this post over at "Capitals News Network" about the NHL Team who that leads the league in minutes played by rookies so far this season. So if you've been enjoying the play and/or having a man crush on Marcus Johansson, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Michal Neuvirth, Jay Beagle, or Braden Holtby, and wondering why, this blog post might help you understand the roots of those feelings. Or perhaps the way these guys have been playing the second half of the season you forgot they were all at least technically rookies, and lest not forget Semyon Varlamov, who is just past rookie status himself.

In case you missed the Selection Show for the NCAA Division I Hockey Tournament this morning on ESPN 2 the 16 teams in this year's tourney are:
The five (5) automatic bids - Hockey East Champions and defending 2010 Champions Boston College, WCHA Champions North Dakota, ECAC Champion Yale, CCHA Champion Miami of Ohio, and Atlantic Hockey Champ Air Force.
and at large selections: Minnesota - Duluth, Union, University of Denver, Western Michigan University, Michigan, Nebraska-Omaha, Colorado College, Merrimack, Notre Dame, and New Hampshire.

Regions for the Tourney are:
In the East Regional in Bridgeport, the # 1 Seed is Yale who play #4 Air Force, while #3 Minnesota - Duluth plays #2 Union.
In the Midwest Regional its the #1 seed North Dakota Fighting Sioux vs #4 RPI and #2 Denver vs #3 Western Michigan Broncos.
In the West Regional its #1 Boston College vs # 4 Colorado College and #2 Michigan vs. #3 Nebraska - Omaha.
In the Northeast Regional in New Hampshire its #1 Miami of Ohio vs. #4 New Hampshire and #2 Merrimack vs #3 Notre Dame.

If you're wondering why/how an at large selection/#4 seed basically gets to play a home game against a number 1 seed who is being force to travel out of area (i.e. Miami of Ohio vs. New Hampshire) then you are sharing the feeling I have right now as I listened to the selection show. If you know the answer then please enlighten me, I cannot understand why the Selection Committee isn't making New Hampshire travel say to the Midwest region and sending RPI to play Miami of Ohio in New Hampshire, but hey that's just me and just one of numerous possibilities that would likely be "more fair" than what they've done here. Of course if you're Miami of Ohio, you'll probably just tear through the region as a way of demanding RESPECT...

Finally as noted over at Japer's Rink today - Happy 28h Birthday to Dennis Wideman.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

Capitals 3 - Devils 0; Has The Bell Tolled In New Jersey?

Well last night at Prudential Center in Newark, the Capitals "out-deviled" the New Jersey Devils, winning a game that was likely more important for the Devils that the Capitals by a score of 3 - 0. It wasn't a pretty win. It wasn't even all that fun to watch, However it was two important standings points and an important win at an important time of year. The game was the Capitals 73rd and the Devils 71st of the season; at the start of the game, the Caps were in first place in their Division and 2nd place in the Eastern Conference and the Devils were in 4th place in their Division and 12th place in the Conference - at game's end the standings hadn't changed. In fact, the only difference in the standings at the end of the night was the Caps are now six (6) points ahead of Tampa Bay in the Southeast Division and the same distance ahead of Boston who sits in Third Place in the Conference. So what was so important about last night's game? Two things: a) "runway" - as in something New Jersey, which has been on a tear since changing back to their old coach, is likely to run out of now before the season's end before they leap over the four teams they need to pass to make the playoffs in their remaining 11 games; and b) pride - something the Capitals needed to ensure they continued to demonstrate and grow in the game they are playing leading up to this years post season. The Caps needed to demonstrate pride as mush or more than the Devils last night for two reasons. Firstly, they needed to "bounce back" from their prior game loss to Detroit in order to make sure they stay out of the habit of loosing two games in a row between now and when they are forced to hang up their skates at the end of this season's playoffs. Secondly, the last time these two teams met in New Jersey, things looked a lot differently for both of them and the Caps left "The Rock" on the wrong end of a 5-0 beating.

So how'd the Caps do? Thanks to smart, disciplined play by the entire team, and some EXCELLENT goaltending by Michal Neuvirth, the Caps did very well last night, thank you very much. In a game that was well played by both teams, the Capitals showed they could be as disciplined and patient as any team coached by a guy named Jacques. In a game that was important to win, and was just two night's after loosing to the perennial NHL benchmark that is known as Detroit, "Neuvy" out played "Maarty" - as in future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur - stopping 33 shots and turning in a perfect SV% of 1.000 on the evening to Brodeur's 9 of 12/0.750 performance. The three stars of the game chosen by the local New Jersey media were: 1) Neuvirth (no arguments there); Mike Knuble (2 goals - no arguments there); and 3) Alex Ovechkin (2 assists and all over the ice - deserving for sure but hey NJ MSM didn't you get the memo?). The memo I'm talking about is the John Carlson memo of course. "Captain America" went all out for last night's game apparently. First he had Mama Carlson cook a really good New Jersey Italian meal at his boyhood home in Colonna for a bunch of the guys on Thursday night, then he bought 45 tickets for friends and family to the game, and then he played a superb game both defensively never being out of position, and offensively notching two assists of his own last night. I guess in order to edge out Ovechkin in that voting he should have given them some home cookin' too. Well even though according to the twtter "tweets" of the teammates who attended the dinner at the Carlson's no one left hungry, I'm okay with John Carlson still being hungry or at least a little so, the next time the Caps go to the "Rock" or the "Garden" to play either the Devils or the Rangers.

To be fair I'd guess the media picked Ovechkin over Carlson because Ovie was +3 on the night while Carlson was "merely" +2; and the Cap's first line was the best set of players when they were on the ice all evening long. Ovie was Ovie, MoJo90 was very good, and I don't know who was wearing the 22 sweater last evening, but if it was Mike Knuble he certainly didn't play like a 38 year old man. In fact, Knuble has been playing very well, even better than usual, and with a lot of energy the last couple of games. Is he making the case/trying to determine if he wants another year before he hangs up his skates? or is he playing harder to make sure he goes out with the best year possible sometime after the end of April this year? Stay tuned, hopefully it won't be until sometime in June we bring this discussion up again; and hopefully we all get a lot more chances to see just how awesome he can be between now and then. In any case Knuble scored his 18th and 19th goals of the season last night and is looking like he will probably put up the eighth (8th) 20+ goal season of his 15 year/14 season NHL career. The old man of the Capital's team certainly isn't looking like he is slowing down anytime soon and that's a great thing for we Caps fans to get to see/watch, especially this time of the year. It's yet another one of those things that is making me relish this spring even more than last. Michal Neuvirth, last night's game, one word - AWESOME. That performance, as I think back to the game, I have those silly, long drawn out movie lines going through my head like: "heeee'ssss baaaaaccccckkkkk". etc. Pretty cool. The Capitals do indeed have three young goaltenders, who are all playing very well when they are healthy. But based on Neuvy's last two outings - Detroit and New Jersey - I'm more than happy to say right now and for the rest of the season, the 22 year old Czech with the 23-11-4 record, 4 shutouts, and funny look on his face on his team headshot is the #1 goaltender. Neuvy's season long SV% is 0.916 and his GAA is 2.42 and he looked great last evening against New Jersey - especially when they were "swarming."

Did the Capitals really "out devil" the Devils last night? Hard to say when you look at every aspect of the scoresheet, except one - "the bottom line" - Caps 3 - Devils 0. Oh and the fact that Ovechkin, the third star of the game had ZERO shots on goal, yet had two assists and was +3. Against the Devils that's something. Usually when the Devils shutdown an opposing team's star they do it more effectively than that. If there is just one game we can all point to that demonstrates just how much more important team results are to Ovie this season then ever before, and just how much more mature a player he is now than say two seasons ago, last night's game should likely be "that game." When it comes to the question of out-deviling the Devils - sure the Capitals were out shoot by the Devils 33 -12 and still won the game 3-0. However it's the other aspects of the score sheet that show the Caps out mastered the Devils "at their own game" or perhaps more accurately "at Jacques Lemaire's game": a) faceoff wins: Caps 31 - Devils 28 (even with Jason Arnott out, nice to have you back Nicklas Backstrom!, oh and Knuble was a perfect 1-0 here too); b) Capitals PK unit - perfect - killed 8:00 of Devils power play; c) Capitals: 4 takeaways and 2 giveaways, New Jersey 7 takeaways and 15 giveaways; d) Caps 21 shots attempted 57% on goal. Every other place on the scoresheet the Caps are very close to the Devils as well, so yeah to me it looks like the Caps "out-deviled" the Devils last night. It wasn't all that fun to watch but hey, I liked the results and I love the looks on the faces of the hockey pundits on TV when they talk about this team. I don't really care that the Caps may be scaring other teams when they think about having to play against the Capitals in the playoffs. Nope, what I care about is I truly believe this team is constructed to and ready to make a run deep into those same playoffs.

Speaking of which next up for the Caps 72nd game of the season are the Flyers in Philadelphia on Tuesday evening. That should be a good game and it's nice to see the Caps now have three days to sort some things and/or get healthier.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Two Days and Two Capitals Games Since My Last Post ...

Well since my last post on Monday the Capitals have played two games of their current six game road trip. On Tuesday they played in Montreal and delivered a solid game and win against the Canadiens: 4-2 in regulation. Then last night they took on the Red Wings at "The Joe" in Detroit, a place they haven't been able to win a game at for a long time. Unfortunately, once again, despite playing a decent hockey game, and getting pretty good goaltending from Michal Neuvirth (in the net for the first time since leaving the game against Tampa Bay on 3/7 with some metal in his eye after the first period), the Capitals were unable to leave Detroit with two points, or even a single point, loosing to the Wings 3-2 in regulation.

To some degree the two games were polar opposites as far as the play, tenor and tone of the two opposing teams the Caps faced in them. In Tuesday night's game the Canadiens seemed to have a way of making the Cps look even better than the lopsided scoresheet - lopsided in favor of the Capitals in almost every measure - makes the game appear in retrospect. In Montreal, every one on the Capitals team looked very good, and in fact, IMO played a very good game. Notables: Boyd Gordon - 12 of 16 (75%) in the faceoff circle; Marcus Johansson - 2 goals and buzzing around the ice like "nobody's business the entire game; John Carlson and Karl Alzner - each of them +2 and each of them with an assist; Alexander Ovechkin - basically playing like Alexander Ovechkin always seems to play in Montreal: 1 point (an assist) +1 and led the team with 4 hits; Brooks Laich with a goal off a move that demonstrated to all just "What A Boss" he can be - just ask Hal Gill; Braden Holtby - a slightly off night at least at the start but gets an Assist and his fifth straight W; and the list could go on. On the other side of the ice, as I mentioned Laich undressed Gill and for all his "chirping" Tuesday evening P.K. Suban, who will be a star in the NHL someday, was definitely not looking like one in that game. In fact were it not for Cary Price's excellent goaltending, the game could have been even more lopsided.

Last night, while Neuvy kept the Capitals close, and no one on the Capitals team had an exceptionally bad game, as has often been said, the Detroit Red Wings have a system and way about them that just can "suck the life" out of an opposing team and smother them. That's what they did last night. When you look at tthis stat sheet you can and do see it in every aspect of the game. The first thing you notice about it when you look is just how much of a "puck control" game the Red Wings play and just how well they execute it: a) Faceoffs 35-21 in favor of the Red Wings; b) SOG 35-28 in favor of the Red Wings; c) shots attempted 64 - 42 in favor of the Red Wings. Don't get me wrong elsewhere in the stats the Capitals didn't do badly and as I say other than one goal that Neuvy let in that is in the "you just have to stop those" category, the Capitals stayed in the game all night long. They even had two chances to tie the game late in the third, but alas "the hockey gods" deigned not to smile on the Capitals last evening. All that said, throughout the game, they generally looked worse than the scoresheet might lead you to believe. Also, unlike Monday in Montreal, the Capitals special teams were not their brightest light; the PK unit let Detroit score on one of their two (2) power plays; and the power play units failed to score in any of their four (4) power play chances against the Wings. Best Caps on the ice last night (IMO): Dennis Wideman, Alexander Ovechkin, and Michal Neuvirth. Alexander Semin was about 1 1/2 inches and 40 seconds away from being a hero with a game tying goal in the last minute, but alas he hit the post and ends up with a very unremarkable line on the score sheet instead. Best Red Wing on the ice last night: Henrik Zetterberg - "Z" had quite a night 2 goals, 7 SOG, 2 takeaways and was 7 for 11 (64%) in the faceoff circle. Notably, the Capitals were able to keep Pavel Datsyuk somewhat in check last evening - it seemed to me to be the one thing that Alexander Semin absolutely was determined to do when they were out on the ice together and when that matchup was there Semin won it last night. However, the following other Red Wings all also played very well and made sure their team won the game: the ageless Nicklas Lidstrom (24:10 TOI, +1); Brian Rafelski (3 assists, +2, 1 BS); Kris Draper (6 for 6 in faceoffs); Justin Abdelkader (often in Ovechkin's grill) and the list is probably missing someone. BTW speaking of Abdelkader often being in Ovechkin's grill in the first period when it looked like those two might actually do more than just push and shove each other I had two notable thoughts: a) wow that's a trade I'd love if I was Babcock Abdelkader in the box for 5:00 to put Ovechkin in the box for 5:00 but Ovechkin showed he understands the score and isn't an inexperienced kid if he ever was one; and b) that's called smart line matching when you have the last change, wonder if the Capitals coaching staff should be taking notes. Well like I said, the Caps didn't play horribly, they just succumbed to the smothering play of the Red Wings in Detroit once again. With any luck, we'll all get a chance to see them try and figure out how to overcome that situation twice more this Hockey season (think about it if you don't understand what I'm saying). Now it's on to Newark, NJ for a game against the resurgent and well playing New Jersey Devils tomorrow night at "The Rock."


Monday, March 14, 2011

After a 4-3 OT Home Win It's Off to Montreal for the Capitals ...

Well the Capitals rose to the occasion yesterday and notched a two point overtime win over the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks. In doing so they stayed on track as the hottest team in the NHL and they remained a perfect 7-0-0 for the month of March. Now they will be heading on to the road for the next six (6) games. First stop Montreal to take on the Canadiens at Le Centre Bell. But before we figuratively shuffle off to ... Montreal, Sunday's win against the Blackhawks deserves one last look and discussion.

Well since the Caps won and we can finish up with the good, let's start with the, well, not so good. The biggest "not so good" item I have and really the only one of note is that the Caps started the game a little too slowly and also a little too "discombobulated". They once again allowed an opposing team to come "into their building" and start a game with a lead. The Blackhawks got on the scoreboard first with a nice counter-punch to a Capitals rush down the ice that missed coverage/slow back-checking by what I've come to call a "frankenstein line" of forwards 21-26-16 gave too much time time and space to, resulted in the Blackhawks scoring on a shot that a) they should have never been given and b0 Braden Holtby probably wants back. In any case, the result was that after 4:46 of the first period, the Capitals trailed the Blackhawks 1-0. The first period was the Capitals worse but as the period progressed they seemed to come alive and get things going, even though as I watched the game I noticed that during the first period Dennis Wideman wasn't totally in synch with his partners or game and didn't really get so until the second period. He was not alone in this even though a couple of guys stepped up and made sure that by the end of the first period the Caps had "righted the ship" and had a 2-1 lead. Also throughout the game, the Capitals just took too many penalties compared to the Blackhawks. The Caps gave the Blackhawks 4 power-plays while they only had two of their own. The good news there was the Caps penalty kill unit was once again excellent allowing the Blackhawks only one power play goal while also scoring one shorthanded goal themselves.

The good news for the Caps and Capitals fans: well first off there was a lot to like about this game and I won't cover it all here. My favorite items to mention were/are:
a) the Capitals power play was 1 for 2 yesterday and their puck movement in the offensive zone was excellent.
b) Boyd Gordon, Eric Fehr, Matt Bradley and Matt Hendricks' play was excellent and that meant that Chicago couldn't just focus on the top two lines, by the end of regulation this meant Chicago was more worn-out than they would otherwise have been.
c) 21-44-28 is an awesome second line and that looks like something that will continue to be huge the rest of the way until the Capitals are forced to hang up their skates at the end of the post-season.
d) Marcus Johansson continues to mature rapidly and generally play excellently. What do I mean, take this game. It was MoJo90 who took a penalty at the 18:10 mark putting Chicago on the power play and enabling them to overload the Caps 6 on 4 and score the tying goal to send the game into overtime. Then it was MoJo90, who shook that off and came back at ~3:30 into overtime and did excellent work with John Carlson and then Dennis Wideman and Scott Hannan to put the puck on Mike Knuble's stick on the doorstep for the game winner. That's maturity and that's "redemption."
e) Finally, what's to like - ninety (90) points in 70 games played - on pace for a 105 point season. The Capitals now sit in second place in the Eastern Conference with 90 points while the Flyers are in first with 91 points - of course the Flyers have two games in hand and appear to be back to playing 0.500+ hockey, so while the Caps are in the race for the Conference, we still have a way to go to attaining that mantle, but it is nice that we have a viable chance to do so.

Final comment on the Chicago game - yesterday, the two hottest teams in the NHL met on national TV. The Capitals were 9-1-0 in their last 10 games before yesterday and the Blackhawks were 8-1-1in their last 10 games coming into the match-up. At the end of the game, the Capitals were still the hottest team in the NHL with a 9-1-0 record in their last ten games while the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks were 7-1-2. I'm happy and if you're a Capitals fan, I think you should be too.

Now about tomorrow night's game in Montreal. Montreal is a hot team playing well right now, they are 7-3-0 in their last ten games. They've played their last two game son the road, loosing to Saint Louis on Thursday 3/10 4-1 in regulation and beating Pittsburgh 3-0 on Saturday. They will be coming into the game well rested and it will be very important for the Capitals to come out ready to play and skating hard and fast. Another thing EVERYONE on the Capitals team - both coaches and players - need to to is forget about the so-called winning streak. In fact forget about any sort of streaks including "hot goaltenders" etc. too. Just set up a game plan that all can believe will win and go execute. Oh and don't get too cute.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Today's Numbers: 0.639 and 1.29; A Half Hour Till The Puck Drops In DC

Good Morning! And a lovely morning it is today here on the East Coast of the United States. That said, I'd be remiss if I failed to mention how solemn the images I cannot help but watch and that we all are likely seeing coming out of Japan, as well as the news that as of this minute six nuclear reactors are in a state of emergency in that country. The amount of tragedy in the world of late is truly, truly saddening and are the focus of my larger thoughts and prayers this morning. Of course, now ironically, I will turn my thoughts to the lighter side of life and that which often serves as a diversion from the worries of "normal life" - NHL Hockey in general and Washington Capitals NHL Hockey in particular.

So class, today's numbers are 0.639 and 1.29; when you looked at them did they ring a bell to you? Well they may or may not have but it doesn't matter because I, of course, will now tell you what the are. 0.639 is the number of goals per game, one Alexander Ovechkin has scored so far during his 465 game, 5 3/4+ regular season NHL career; while 1.29 is the number of points per game Ovechkin has amassed over that same period. I generally believe that over time most things like that seek to return to their statistical norm and recent game performances would also seem to indicate that "The Great 8" is also a believer and a "makerer" of that happening. As of this season, Ovechkin has played in 69 games, during which he's averaged 0.406 goals and 1.06 points per game, solid statistics and accomplishments, but somewhat below his overall career numbers. However over the past ten (10) games, the Captain of the Washington Capitals has scored 5 goals, 8 assists, and a shootout goal that won a game for the Capitals. Numbers that are starting to drive this seasons G/G and P/G numbers back up towards the prolific left wing's career statistical norms, even though everyone looking at his play this season is also seeing a more mature, defensively responsible team leader who is clearly more focused on his team's performance and achievements than his personal statistics.

Everyone who reads this blog likely already knows that over the last 10 games the Capitals have amassed a record of 9-1-0 and are basically "the hottest team" in the NHL coming in to today's game against last season's Stanley Cup Champions - the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks are 8-1-1 and the second hottest team in the NHL in their last ten (10) games. The Blackhawks are one of eight (8) teams separated by a spread of five (5) points fighting for one of five (5) playoff spots, for them this game is probably even more important than it is for the Capitals. Speaking of importance, how important is this game for the Capitals. Well it's their last home game before a six game road swing; a six game swing where they will be facing teams who are either in the thick of the battle for the post season, or in the case of Ottawa a team that seems to be relishing it's current role of spoiler. So this is an important game to get that stretch off to a good start. Well it's time for the puck drop, so...


Saturday, March 12, 2011

Capitals 2 - Hurricanes 1; A Great Game and a Good Win

Last night the Washington Capitals hosted one of their division rivals the Carolina Hurricanes at Verizon Center; it was the fifth game of the 2010-2011 NHL season between the two and it ended with Washington beating Carolina for the fifth time this year. It was also the Capitals seventh win in a row and the sixth in their now so far perfect month of March. All of those were things that made the win a good one for the Capitals, as were the facts that Braden Holtby had "a helluva night" and the win came as the result of a comeback by the Capitals who trailed 1-0 after two periods to a team that prior to last night was a perfect 21-0-0 when leading after two this season before last evening. No what made it a great game is the fact that despite loosing last night, the Carolina Hurricanes played an excellent game. Yes I said the Hurricanes played an excellent game. They had a total of 81 shot attempts, of which the Capitals blocked 26 (more on that later), 41 that ended up on goal, of which Braden Holtby stopped 40. As you might expect with numbers like that on both sides of the ice, the 96th straight sell-out crowd at Verizon Center was "into it", all night long. So while giving your opponents that much offensive zone time and time and space to make 81 shot attempts isn't all that much "playoff-like" hockey; beating them 2-1 in a game that was closely played for it's entire sixty minutes, and the atmosphere in the arena definitely were. That's what made it a great game, or at least that's one fan's opinion.

A little more "about last night":

A) It's been noted by others that last night's game while a good seventh win and one the Capitals should have won, that there were a few chinks in the armour that were displayed last night. For those excellent discussions the recaps of the game by both Japer and Peerless are linked to here. As usual, they are, again, in this fan's opinion, their usual very well written and good articles.

B) Braden Holtby. I could probably just link you to the event summary and point you to the Carolina shot attempts and "leave it at those two words" - the young goaltender's name. However, to do so would be to fail to call attention to the at least three quality scoring chances by the Hurricanes that he stopped stone cold in this tight game.

C) Alexander Ovechkin. There's lots and lots of times after a hockey game that you could sum up it's most amazing aspects with just those two words. This game wasn't one of them - that's not to say that Ovechkin didn't play great last night - he definitely did. It's just two things that keep me from talking about how great he played last night: 1) several other players on both teams also played great, and the most important thing to talk about Ovechkin's performance last night, IMO, is 2) how great he LED his team last night as well as how great he's been LEADING his team this season. Last night from my perspective Ovie's leadership was most apparent that it seemed almost every time things got "gritty" he got into the face of his foil on Carolina, Eric Staal, their best player and team Captain. That and the 28 hits he's had during the last 10 games while the Capitals have amassed a 9-1-0 record tell me that Alexander Ovechkin is absolutely ready to lead this team into the playoffs this season.

D) Matt Hendricks. Last night "Hendy" scored his 8th goal of the season and his third game winner. That in and of itself is worth noting and talking about, however how that happened is even more worth reviewing. The play that led to Hendrickss goal started when he was on the penalty kill and blocked a shot that bounced to Jason Arnott as Arnott had just gotten back on the ice after serving 2:00 for hooking in the third period. That sprung Arnott on a breakaway that Cam Ward stopped, however Hendricks' hustle and work ethic meant he was where he needed to be to get the rebound and put it into the net for the Capitals to take a 2-1 lead. The effect that goal had in a game that had until less than 1:00 left in the second period been a scoreless tie was huge, and it rightfully earned Hendricks the first star of the game last night. He's another guy that well if you're a hockey fan, "ya just gotta love" - isn't he?

E) Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference of the NHL last night, the Tampa Bay Lightning lost to Ottawa in regulation; the Boston Bruins lost to the New York Islanders in regulation; and the New Jersey Devils beat the Atlanta Thrashers in overtime. That means that as of this morning the Caps are in second place in the East with 88 points and 69 games played 1 game ahead of Boston (who have a game in hand) and in first place in the Southeast Division 1 1/2 games ahead of Tampa Bay who also have a game in hand on the Capitals. The Caps are also just two points back of the Philadelphia Flyers who have two games in hand but appear to have "righted their ship" as they have now won their last two games. In any case, all this means that Matt Hendricks' post game interview comments to "Smokin' Al Koken" are definitely where the Capitals heads need to be right now: "We're more concerned with just gettin' two points." With the top six teams in the East so close and the 7th through the 13th teams all conceivably "still in it" and battling for the last two playoff spots in the Conference, basically over these last 12 - 15 games of the season - anything could happen.

Looking ahead:

Next up are the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks at Verizon Center for a Sunday Matinee game on the NHL Game of the Week on national TV. What are the chances that a certain resident of the district, who hosted the Blackhawks and Mike Green at his place on Friday of showing up at the game? Since he seems to agree with Mike Green's hair style preferences maybe he's like to check the game out himself. After all since he's been to basketball games there, we know that he knows it's only a couple of blocks away from his pad. In any case Sunday's game marks the last home game for the Capitals for two plus weeks until they face Carolina again for their sixth and final meeting of the regular season on March 29th. In the interim, the Caps have two weeks on the road when the travel to play six games and face: 1) Montreal on 3/15, the Habs are one of the six teams they are battling for position with in the East; 2) Detroit on 3/16, the Red Wings are, as usual one of the toughest teams to beat in the NHL; 3) New Jersey on Friday 3/18, the Devils have just been on fire since the New Year and are amazingly making a run to get fully engaged in the battle for the last two playoff spots in the East; 4) Philadelphia on Tuesday 3/22, the Flyers are "back on track" having won their last two games and currently lead the Eastern Conference and "control their own destiny". 5) Ottawa on Friday 3/25, the Senators are 7-3-0 in their last ten games and seem to be relishing their current role of "spoilers." and 6) Montreal on Saturday 3/26 for their fourth and final regular season meeting this year in a game likely to be on HNIC. All of these next seven games are games that the Capitals will be challenged in and they are also games they could win. That said, it's unlikely the Caps will be able to stay on their current pace/trajectory of 9-1-0 over the last ten games, however the way they are playing, chinks in their armor and all, they are very likely to win more than their share of those next seven games.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lucky Number of the Night Last Night?

So if you were at the Caps Game last night or watched it "on the telly" and you are a Capitals fan, you're probably pretty smug and content this morning. I know I am. However I do one question on my mind - what was the lucky number last night? Was it 900, 600, 200, 6, 5, or 1? I've contemplated the preponderance of evidence on hand and concluded it was definitely 5. Sure some people are picking 6 because last night was the Capitals 6th straight win and the Caps clearly now have the longest in process winning streak in the NHL, and while last night Alexander Ovechkin notched the Sixth (6th) hundredth point of his short NHL career, there's nowhere near the preponderance of sixes occurring last night as there were fives. As for the other choices one (1) also had two occurrences - Braden Holtby's first NHL shutout and Marco Sturm's first point as a Washington Capital. There was only one occurrence of the number 900 BUT 900 points in an NHL career, the plateau that "new guy" Jason Arnott attained last evening - that's a big deal for sure. Same with 200 points, for a defenseman, as "new guy" Denis Wideman attained last evening as well. Make no bones about it all those other numbers denote notable accomplishments and are worthy of mention and even discussion to some degree. BUT last night the number 5 reigned supreme here's where it popped up:

A) Caps scored more than goals scored 5 or more goals for the first time in 10 games and have now scored five (5) or more goals a luck 13th time last night - okay I'm stretching - they scored 5 goals.

B) Five (5) Washington Capitals had notable nights and achieved career milestones last night: Alex Ovechkin (600+ points); Jason Arnott (900 points), Dennis Wideman (200 points), Marco Sturm (fist point as a Capital), and Braden Holtby (first career NHL shutout).

C) At the end of the game Braden Holtby completed his fifth straight perfect (scoreless) period since coming into the Tampa Bay game in relief of Michal Neuvirth.

D) Last night's win meant that for the month of March, the Capitals are now 5-0, it was the fifth win of the month.

E) During ongoing six (6) game winning this was the fifth (5th) game that both Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin each had at least one point. It was actually the sixth (6th) straight game that Ovechkin had a least one point - he's gotten 11 points (4 goals and 7 assists) during the past six games while Semin has 6 points (4 G, 2A) in those six (6) games - so on this particular point of fact, I'd say both the number 5 and the number 6 resonate equally, IMO. However if your counting, the number 5 has 5 instances of note while the number six only has three ...

A couple other final comment about last night's game: It seemed to me while I was watching the game from my usual seat in Section 103 and was confirmed today looking at the stats that pretty much every one of the Capitals had a good game. That said I was particularly impressed by the performances last evening of both Marcus Johansson and Brooks Laich. MoJo had a great game in 21 shifts he logged 18:44 TOI, 1 SOG, 1 Hit, 2 Takeaway, was +1, was 4 for 7 (57%) in the faceoff circle and had 1 point - an absolutely beautiful assist on one of Ovechkin's two goals during a 2 on 0 breakaway. Laich played Center last evening, and logged 16:44 TOI on 25 shifts, usually between Chimera and Fehr. During those 16:44, "Brooksie" put up a gaudy 15 for 21 (71%) win rate in the face-off circle, led the Capitals in hits with 5, had one blocked shot, 1 SOG, an assist and was +1 on the evening. Among defensemen, they all had good games. Jeff Schultz was the only defensemen that played less than 15:00 (he logged 13:33 on 19 shifts and finished the evening +2. Dennis Wideman, what can you say - led the team with 23:34 TOI on 24 shifts, finished the evening with an assist - his 200th point, was +1 and had three (3) hits and seven (7) blocked shots, the Caps had a total of 14 blocked shots, so if you are counting Wideman had 50% of them.

I'm actually not into numerology, though I do tend to track a team to that "100 point season, threshold this time of year, especially if they are "my team." As far as that particular number goes, the Caps are now on pace for a 103+ point season. That would be the Capitals third 100+ point season in a row. That's a good thing since it looks like unlike last season when for the first time since the "lock-out" it took 88 points to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, it will take at least 92, and even as many as 94 points to make the playoffs in the NHL's Eastern Conference and it wouldn't surprise me to see it take 96 points to make the playoffs in the Western Conference.

Okay so next up are the Carolina Hurricanes, tomorrow night here at home at Verizon Center. LETS GO CAPS!!!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Spring Appears To Be In The Air And ...

It sure seems like spring is in the air - yesterday's weather was such that I felt compelled to straighten up the flower beds and hedges in the border gardens around the house here in bucolic Bristow. I also noted this past week that it sure seems like the "better" teams in the NHL are now buckling down for a drive to and through the playoffs. You see even though life's been a bit hectic lately - my real life not this fantasy life where I can do nothing but follow, talk about and blog about the NHL and the Washington Capitals, such it is. I'm not complaining, it (life that is) has been very good, it's just kept me focused on what I really do that matters, you know making a living to put food on the table so to speak. In fact, if you follow this blog you shouldn't be offended it isn't personal - the other night at the Blues game Bill and Marie the folks with the seats next to mine at Verizon Center asked me where I'd been since it's been a while since I actually sat in "my" seats. Well anyway - you probably don't care about those specifics or generalities since most of what I've ever blogged about is hockey and/or the Washington Capitals. On that front there is a lot to talk about that's happend since my last blog post on 2/13.

I'll try and be brief for the major items since I'm in many case "late to the game" ...

First the trade deadline pickups by Caps General Manager George McPhee (aka GMGM). I LOVE THEM ALL! Seriously, this season has and continues to be another interesting one in the evolution of the hockey team known as the Washington Capitals. I am indeed very happy with all three of the deadline weekend pickups: Marco Sturm, Jason Arnott, and Dennis Wideman. I'd also point out two things about them compared to last season's trade deadline pickups: a) I think that player for player they are more talented and/or at better places in their career than the guys GMGM picked up at the deadline last season; and b) the slight changes to their system of play by the Capitals this season has enabled guys like Sturm, Arnott, Wideman and Hannan to all fit in and contribute more quickly and meaningfully than the system that the Caps were playing last season at this point. Both of those things are good news given that right now on defense both Tom Poti and Mike Green, last season's "minute munchers" are out with injuries. As far as Sturm goes, I think his pickup was totally a smart move by GMGM and might at some point be looked at as even better than the others since claiming him off waivers meant by and large the phrase "it don't cost nothing" pretty much applies. Arnott - well I've coveted him since about January when I looked at how things were shaping up heading to the trade deadline. He's the total package; sure he's 36 and might be 1/4 to a 1/2 step slower than he was when he was 25 or 27 years old; but like another 37 year old on the team, he's just so experienced and savvy with such exceptional puck sense he often is mentally at least a 1/2 step ahead of most of the other guys on the ice. To be sure, watching the Blues game it certainly didn't look like Sasha Semin or Brooks Laich had to "slow anything" down to keep in synch with their new pivot; and Arnott looked giddy when those two, especially Semin set him up for what was, even in his long career, one of his prettiest and sweetest goals ever. The fact it was the game winner and it put the Caps ahead for the final time didn't in any way modulate his beaming smile either. So yeah, I think all four of the guys I consider "new guys" this season are looking very good as the Capitals begin their push to and hopefully through at least a couple of rounds of the Playoffs.

Oh yeah, David Steckel and the trade to New Jersey. I'm sorry to see him go, he's a good guy and a very good hockey player, in my opinion. I think he's the kind of guy you want on your team, and there may indeed be times when we'll all be sorry GMGM had to trade him. However, I believe as I assume GMGM did (have to trade him, that is) from his comments on this matter, that if he wanted Jason Arnott, he HAD to trade Steckel. I have said repeatedly that for the Capitals to make a Cup run this season they needed to pick up a bonafide second line center - while I think that in the long run that could well be MOJO90, he's not ready for that role just yet. So Arnott for Steckel was required since in general you don't get something for nothing in the world of professional sports management. I have no doubt Steckel will do and LOOK even better as a New Jersey Devil than he has over the past two years as a Washington Capital, their system of play is even more mutually supportive of his talents and personal strengths and weaknesses as a player than the revised system the Capitals have been playing this year. The scary thought is that right now, actually since the second week of January, the New Jersey Devils have been the hottest team in the NHL BY FAR. If they are to make the playoffs, they have to continue to be, and I still think that's a long shot, but unlike where my head was 2 weeks ago, I wouldn't rule them out. If they do make the playoffs I'll wish them and David Steckel well right up to the time the Devils have to face the Capitals on each team's way to a Stanley Cup finals appearance.

So where does that all leave us? Well let me say that the last three games, all wins, by the Capitals, have been well played and well coached. So I think that leaves us (Capitals Fans) in a pretty exciting place. The Capitals are pretty solid top to bottom right now, or at least as solid as any NHL team can be after playing 65 games. The fact is the probability of the Capitals finishing between 2nd and 6th place in the Eastern Conference is very high. Further, the Capitals are once again on track for a 100+ point season - that's not too shabby. The rest of the season features a schedule and set of opponents that while "not easy pickings" or in general "easy" is indeed "reasonable". This weekend they are on a trip to Florida and today they play the Florida Panthers in a game they should win - as long as they play their system and game, and they do NOT look ahead to tomorrow's "show down" in Tampa for first place in the Southeast Division. A regulation win in both of those games could propel them into second or third in the Conference and 1/2 game ahead of Tampa for the Southeast Division lead. As tight as the Eastern Conference race is right now I really don't know what to tell myself or you as to whom I think you should have rooted for in last night's Pittsburgh - Boston or Tampa Bay - Montreal games. All I can say and know right now is that in the next two days the Capitals have two games and the thing to be rooting for, if you are a Caps fan, is a regulation win by your team in both. In the short and long run, that outcome has the best results no matter what any other team that they are battling for position with does. I will make a couple of comments about last night's games in Boston and Montreal though. Pittsburgh - WOW - think about it, 84 points, playing 0.500 hockey without Crosby, Malkin and then getting an OT win with basically 5 defensemen. These guys may be "my team's" biggest rivals but you have to be impressed when a team figures out a way to "do it" with less than 75% of their salary cap space available to them, let alone against the Bruins with Tim Thomas in the net. Over in Montreal, they are doing their best to keep up with the Northeast Division leading Bruins while the Bruins are trying to close the gap and win the Conference from the Flyers so discounting games with either the Bruins or the Canadiens at this juncture would be a mistake. I don't think that's what Tampa Bay did last evening but from what I saw of the game, the Habs had the Bolts under control from early in the first period when Hal Gill put them in front 1-0 and never really looked back. Last night's win put some distance between Montreal in 6th in the East and the next five teams Rangers, Hurricanes, Sabres, Maple Leafs, and Thrashers; however, the Eastern Conference, like the Western is now a battle royale' and nobody can afford to be complacent over the remaining 15-18 games that teams have left in this season.

For Caps fans who track former Caps and prospects a couple of interesting things to note these past few weeks about "those guys". Milan Jurcina, who has had a pretty good season up on Long Island when he's not out hurt was injured again in a game with Toronto on February 21st, but when's he's been in the Islander's lineup he's often played on the order of 20:00 per game; I always liked "Juice" and hope he recovers in time to play some more this month before the end of the Islander's season. Former Hershey Bear and occasional Capital Sami Lepisto was part of a trade deadline deal between Phoenix and Columbus and is now a Columbus Blue Jacket along with Scottie Upshall. Lepisto has been having a pretty good season and IMO has developed into a steady, solid NHL level blue liner. The Lepisto/Upshall pickup should help the 12th place Blue Jackets make a run in their attempt to capture the final playoff spot in the West however Columbus has managed to capture just one point - a shoot out loss to vancouver - in the three games they've played since the trade deadline. Well the Edmonton Oilers again called up former Hershey Bear, and perineal AHL scoring machine, Alexandre Giroux - hopefully for the 29 year old Left Wing this time he'll stick and get a good shot at proving he should be on the NHL team's roster at the start of next season. Giroux got off to a good start in doing just that last evening where he scored his first goal of this NHL season in a 5-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche.

What else is there to talk about if you are a Washington Capitals fan? Well how about this - the Capitals are now a very multi-dimensional team and that's a really good thing. In their 3-2 win over the Blues, eight (8) different Capitals posted "points" on the stat sheet; in their 2-1 OT win over the Islanders, four (4) different Capitals posted "points" on the scoresheet; in the 3-2 regulation win over the Islanders before that, six (6) different Caps posted "points". So what I'm saying is that the old rap of "stop Ovechkin and/or Semin and you stop the Capitals" just isn't anywhere near true anymore. Or how about this, speaking of Ovechkin, since I'm a big proponent of statisically over time, most things regress to their norm, unless there is something about the environment that has changed, Alexander Ovechkin has 5 points (1 goal and 4 assists) in the last three games. Also the first line has been the first line and it's not just because of Ovechkin, so I'd postulate that Backstrom is coming to terms with his broken thumb for now.

Or how about this - if the Capitals win today they will skate into Tampa Bay tomorrow leading the Southeast Division for the first time in "a while." That event is notable to me since it seems like it had been years since the Capitals weren't leading the Division before Tampa Bay's and Carolina's resurgence and Atlanta's rise this year took the Southeast Division from one where it seemed only one team was allowed to be competitive at a time to a Division which could have 3 or even, at least mathematically 4 teams in this season's playoffs.

Now about today's game. To me the biggest risk the Capitals have is taking it too lightly. It's the annual Father-Son trip and while some might worry that is yet another possible distraction, I'm thinking it's a good thing and a motivating factor. I don't care how old you are, you always want to make your father proud. I've got to believe if you are an ultra-competative guy, as I believe virtually ALL professional athletes are, that goes double. Add to that fact the Panthers played yesterday in Atlanta and lost in overtime - that was Atlanta's third win since the All-Star race. It was Florida's first standings point in four (4) games. The Florida roster was depleted somewhat on trade deadline day but like I always say or at least allude - this is the NHL and on any given night any team has the potential to beat the other and - that's why they play the games on the ice. Florida still has a "few" great players and they have the pride that professional athletes use to drive themselves to achieve sometimes great things, even when their team is over-matched. Florida hasn't been an easy opponent this season so far for the Capitals but the Caps should make a "point" of working hard to get the six possible points they can obtain in the final three meetings they have this season with the Florida Cats.

I'd like to make some comments and put some thoughts down about the upcoming Caps-Lightning game as well. However, I don't want to jinx the Caps so I won't do that, even though given my blogging habits lately that means I probably won't do another post before that game. However i can and will say this about both games in the Sunshine State this week: