Saturday, January 19, 2013

NHL Opening Day, Caps Travel To Tampa to Open Season

Well it's finally here - opening day for the "2013" NHL regular season. The season starts today with 13 games - since the Capitals open on the road this season, it's definitely a day and evening when having the NHL Center Ice package "might" be worth it.  The only teams NOT playing in games today are: Buffalo, San Jose, Calgary, and Edmonton; all of whom open their seasons tomorrow; Calgary and Buffalo fans get rewarded for their patience with a home opener. The National TV opening games today are Pittsburgh at Philadelphia  on NBC at 3PM EST in the US on NBC, and Ottawa at Winnipeg on CBC at 3PM EST in Canada.

There's already a fair amount of trash talk between the Pens and Flyyers' fan bases on #Twitter for what should be a pretty good game.  A game where frankly in the long run, those teams overall fortunes are likely to rest right with where they were at the end of last season - the answer to the questions: a) how, in both team's cases, their starting/#1 goaltender will play throughout the entire season and playoffs and; b) how their #4 through #6 blueliners will compliment their top 3 and help keep the puck out of their net. 

While it likely won't be of more interest to Capitals fans than the Pens-Flyers game is, the Senators - Jets match up should be.  Given that 1) the shortened season, 2) the Jets are still in the Southeast Division, and 3) the Jets will be Capitals opponent in their Home Opener Tuesday night, we Caps fans should be very interested in today's game in Winnipeg; but in the nature of the Southeast Division we likely won't care about it as much as we should.  To me the big question marks for the Jets this season are: a) will their off season moves "up front" yield the results they need; b) will Ondrej Pavelec handle the compressed schedule and extra travel the Jets have compared to their SE Division peers well enough to play well in at least  35 games and if not can Al Montoya find enough of a "groove" to make up for that? and c) can their blueline corps outside of Dustin Byfuglien and Zach Bogosian rise to the occasion and play well enough assuming questions a and b are answered positively to keep them in the playoff hunt in what looks like it could be a very improved Southeast Division?  For Ottawa, the questions this year for me center on a) will Erik Karlsson's fourth NHL season be as awesome as the 21 year olds' third season was? b) how will the team with what seems to be the biggest "gender gap" handle the shortened season and the fact this may well be both Daniel Alfredsson and Sergei Gonchar's NHL "Swan Song" and c) will #1 goalie Craig Anderson return to the form he had at his best seasons (SV% ~0.93x) or will he merely be a good to very tender as he was last season (SV% ~0.915)?  The 31 year old Anderson's career statistics and statistics from seasons where he's had to "shoulder" 65% or more of the load suggest the latter rather than the former.  Given last season the only Northeast Division team that Anderson had a better than career average SV% (0.913) against for the regular season was Buffalo, and the Senators just managed to be the eight seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, this seems an important thing to watch.  Anderson's backups 21 year old Robin Lehrner and 26 year old Ben Bishop have a total of 36 games NHL experience between them so it's fair to say, they are untested and unproven as the season opens. 

 Other interesting match ups today to me are: Chicago at Los Angeles, my gut tells me the Western Conference regular season points leader will either be: the Black Hawks, Kings or Blues so any games between these three teams are of interest to me; Rangers at Bruins, I' a sucker for a "classic original six match up and the Rangers are tremendously deep, their fast paced game is fun to watch, and who doesn't want to see just how good Rick Nash can be on a team where he's not the only superstar? Detroit at Saint Louis is of interest to me because: a) I want to see how the ed Wings start their first season in 20 without Nick Lindstrom and b) I want to see if the Blues are going to be as good as I think they probably will be this season.  The Avalanche at the Wild because you know I want to see just how much the Wild's investment in Parise and Suter will result in changes to their game.  Finally, Carolina at Florida because it's a Southeast Division match up, I'm a Capitals fan, and I just want to confirm my gut view, its unlikely the Panthers will repeat as Southeast Champs. But hey who doesn't like the Panthers current entry splash screen to their website "Season Tickets for as low as $7 per game." I could go for that even more than the Senators free beers at their Home Opener... 

#BeatTheBolts ....

Now what about "our" Washington Capitals' season opener down in the Tampa Bay Times Forum against the Tampa Bay Lightning? Well lets start with the Lightning's home opener is a sellout despite them not making the playoffs last season and that other ... you know ... uh ... lockout thing, so I expect the crowd will be into it and the Capitals, who know every game counts even more in this shortened regular season, will look to take the crowd out of the game early on, if possible.  Second, I will be surprised if Capitals defenseman Tom Poti is NOT in the lineup tonight for the thirst time in over two seasons, as he continues to work on what could be "comeback of the decade."  Poti's long, and unlikely road back to a roster spot, can't be anything but insanely inspirational and motivating for his teammates.  Also in a game where the opposing team has guys named Lecavalier, Stamkos, and St Louis, having a "position" player D-Man with better than average skills and 808 NHL games experience in the lineup seems prudent. Having Roman Hamrlik, who was Tampa Bay's first draft pick EVER as well as the first pick overall in the 1992 NHL entry draft and who has 1,490 NHL games on his resume - assuming he is in as good or better shape then the alternatives who in my mind are: Erskine, Schultz or Hillen, also seems to make sense to me for a lot of reasons.

Relevant "quick hits" about tonight's game in West Central Florida:  Alex Ovechkin has 28 goals and 62 points in 47 career games against Tampa Bay.  Steven Stamkos had five goals and eight points in six games last season against Washington. The Lightning won all three home games last season against the Capitals.

The Capitals' lines at Friday’s morning skate remained the same as they have been all week.

The defense pairings:

So from my post above, you can see my view is to go with the third defense pairing of Poti - Hillen if you want to keep those pairings though I'd probably go with Poti - Schultz as they used to play well together or Poti - Erskine if I thought the game was going to get scrappy.  Of course the issue with a any current option for "Third Pair" is they are all left shooting defenseman.  Another relevant thought and consideration related to trying to take the crowd out of the game early is the fact that as Peerless notes, Tampa Bay gave up a lot of goals last season, though they did beat Washington all three times the Caps played them in Tampa.  So the Tampa Bay players I'm looking at most closely during the first period are 28 year old newcomer Matt Carle and 22 year old  Victor Hedman, for Tampa Bay to turn things around and made the playoffs this season, its essential these two blueliners and 35 year old netminder Mathieu Garon anchor the Lightening defense and keep the puck out of the net better than the Lightning did last season.  Oh and yes I know many others thinks that the Tampa Bay goaltending solution has to be newcomer Anders Lindback but the talented 22 year old Swede from the same hometown (Gavle) as Caps #1 center Nicklas Backstrom, has just 39 games of NHL experience, and is still growing into his 6' 6" frame and NHL game in my view.  I do expect that Lindback will start in net for Tampa Bay tonight though.

The keys in my view are:

For the Capitals: 1) Solid, smart play - don't let Tampa Bays second, third and fourth liners beat them. 2) Pressure down low on either Garon or Lindbeck but especially Lindback.  and 3) Play the new system - out of their end fast; aggressive,  but smart forecheck, and shot the puck from smart, not dumb angles and spots in the Bolts end of the ice.

For the Lightning: 1) Score first and keep the energy level going.  2) Smart defense - force the Capitals to shot he puck from places they'd rather not do so. 3) Either excellent play and production from their big three (Stamkos, Lecavalier, and St Louis) and at least one goal from secondary scoring.

Players to ponder:

Capitals: Mike Green.  At various times in his career Mike Green has been a "Bolt Killer/Cutter" - remember Tampa Bay was he place where Green got his NHL record 8th goal in his 8th game in a row.  He's also been known to score clutch goals to win one goal games - something that Tampa Bay led the league in last season.  Can Green return to his earlier form in what should be a more open system than the Caps payed under Dale Hunter last season?  To me this question is as relevant when asked of Green as it is when asked of Ovechkin.

Tampa Bay:  Marty Saint Louis.  Basically, this is usually my answer when the Caps meet the Bolts.  St Louis is one of my favorite players to watch in the NHL.  I believe he's often underrated and overlooked so I always focus on and ponder him.  The truth is though tonight the Bolts player to ponder is really either Benoit Pouliot or Ryan Malone as the difference of whether the Capitals or Lightning come away from this game with two points is probably dependant on whether one of those two score or not.

Wow, it's just so nice to have NHL hockey back, I don't know what else to say except for this:


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