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:


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