Saturday, October 5, 2013

Stories Around The League - Varlamov and Avalanche Start The Season Strongly

Well this morning I noted that Semyon Varlamov is now 2-0 with a 0.968 SV% and a GAA of 1.00, not a bad way for he and the Colorado Avalanche to start the season.  As a team the Avalanche is on top of the NHL Central Division having won their first two games of the season in regulation. The Avs opened their season by beating the Anaheim Ducks at home by a score of 6-1 in a game that ended with their mercurial coach, Patrick Roy going apoplectic at several Ducks players as well as Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau.  The retooled team from Colorado then beat the Nashville Predators last night at Pepsi Center in Denver by a score of 3-1 in a game that featured some highlight reel footage by a couple of former Capitals (Varlamov and Matt Hendricks) on NHL Network this morning.

The Avalanche now start a three game road trip that ends next Saturday with a game against our Washington Capitals here in DC at Verizon Center after playing Toronto on Tuesday and Boston on Thursday.  The Capitals schedule this upcoming week a game tonight against the Stars in Buffalo and then "home cooking" at the Phone Booth on Thursday against their Metropolitan Division rival Carolina Hurricanes before taking on Varly and the Avs next Saturday.  Who knows by then most of the teams in the NHL will have played four games and we should have some real ideas about how the season might really go.


Friday, October 4, 2013

Its Official HOCKEY IS BACK In The 202....

Well Capitals Fans NHL Hockey and the Cardiac Capitals are back in the District, as last nights tilt with the Calgary Flames at "da Phone Boot" so aptly illustrated. Last night the Washington Capitals opened the "home portion" of the 2013-2014 NHL season against Calgary after loosing their opening game in Chicago versus the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks at United Center on Tuesday 6-4. 
As Caps Fans know, it's been a relatively quiet off season for us fans as the Capitals have only made a few player personnel moves this off season.  I've now been to 1 2/3rds preseason games and the team seems to be shaping up nicely.  To me it looks like the roster on opening night will be:

1st  line:  Johansonn - Backstrom - Ovechkin
2nd line:  Laich - Grabowski - Brouwer
3rd line:  Chimera - Fehr - Ward
4th line:  Wilson - Beagle - Erat

1st  pair:  Erskine - Green
2nd pair:  Alzner - Carlson
3rd pair:  Hillen - Carrick

Goal:  Holtby

Additional players: Volpatti, Olesky

I think this team is looking really solid and from what we saw in the preseason and these first two regular season games, the entire team look like they have absolutely "bought in" to Coach Adam Oates' system.  This team is required to play hard on the puck from the first puck drop until the game is over too and I love that quality in any hockey team.  So while I was/am sad to see Mathieu Perreault traded to Anaheim, and I have my fair share of concerns about the Capitals current third defensive pairing have the required experience level and seasoning, as an eternal optimist, I can have nothing but high hopes for a very solid season - could this be the year?  Well the Capitals have the talent to compete for sure, now we can only watch, wait, and see where they end up when the season really ends next June. 

However, being me I can't help but reflect on both the 6-4 loss to the Hawks and last nights comeback 5-4 shootout win over the Flames, and then look ahead and muse about what it will take for the Caps to be successful this season.  Right after the rebuild was complete we heard a few of the others around the league talk about whether or not they felt the Caps "played the game right" and whether or not the Caps style of play under then newly promoted head coach Bruce Boudreau could ever really take them to the promised land of deep playoff runs and at least one Stanley Cup.  At the time I often really wondered what the heck those guys were talking about.  Well you only have to look at the style of play under Caps current coach Adam Oates to really, really understand what they were talking about.  "Back In The Day" - right after the rebuild was complete the Caps played fun to watch, pretty, "regular season" hockey.  Shots came from the perimeter - often without any traffic in front of the net; a lot of the time, after several years o watching Glenn Hanlon coached "trapping teams" it seemed like the Caps were thinking "defense .... we don't need no stinking defense" as the back check by the wings seldom came down past the top of the circle in the defensive zone ... and the list goes on.  Then we had the opposite style for the short time Dale Hunter was here - defense first and foremost and maybe, maybe score a goal now and then if the other team doesn't beat itself to death in frustration.  I'll be honest - I really didn't enjoy watching the Hunter led Capitals as I felt the team was too talented to play hockey that way.  Now we have the Adam Oates Capitals and make no mistake this is a team playing the game the way their head coach, a hall of famer himself, wants to see the game played.  "A great offense starts with a sound defense" is clearly the way Oates want to see the game played.  Oh and the centers - the centers are essential to this style of play.  They are the cornerstone of the defense. 

Puck possession and protection is a key element of every Capitals game plan now. The degree Oates and his coaching staff have taken this now shown when you look at how lst season, then two time, now three time league MVP has adjusted his game after being a thing or four.  The staff no doubt  helped Ovechkin transition from Left to Right Wing, and go from being an awesome scoring machine to an even "awesomer" more complete, all around hockey player.  After making the transition from LW to RW last season and winning his third Hart Trophy as well as "another" Rocket Richard Trophy as the League's leading goal scorer, its easy to overlook that perhaps the even more important change to Ovechkin's game is how much better he is at protecting the puck.  Now even though he's always "played hard on the puck" throughout his seven season, to date, career, he now seems to do it with more "conservation of energy." Further, in addition to protecting the puck he seems to be better able to protect himself - which is more important then ever for he and the Capitals since the size of the target on his sweater is bigger than ever.  I don't want to take anything away from Ovechkin or his compete level - I have no doubt the majority of these changes are due to he, himself, realizing he could get even better and his work ethic to make it so.  That said there had to be some level of coaching both of the player and illustrating to him how these changes could work better for both he and the entire team; as well as then tweaking the coach's own thoughts and preconceptions about this system to fully "capitalize" on a extraordinary athletes unique talents.  It' one type and level of coaching to take a very talented junior level player and prepare him to make the transition to he NHL, it's an entirely different type and level of coaching to help one of the worlds best at anything get noticeably better than he already was and take his (or her) game to the next level.  Especially when that level is something few have ever seen let alone analyzed and dissected so as to facilitate as a coach.

I've heard it said that it took opponents around the NHL three to four seasons to figure out and adjust to counteract Ovechkin's unique combination of size, speed, skill and perhaps the best "release" in the game that resulted in the way he played LW the first five seasons of his career (when he scored 269 goals in 414 regular season GP).  My feeling is watching his transition through lst years lockout shortened season and the fist two games this season, it ma not take as long for the rest of the NHL to "figure out" his revised approach to playing the game, but it will take them a lot longer and it will be a lot harder, for them o effectively adjust and execute any sort of counteraction to his ability to positively impact the outcome of either an NHL regular season or playoff game, this time around.  I feel strongly Ovechkin's play as the Capitals team leader the first two games of this season portend well for a solid season for both himself as an individual and for the team that has, frankly been built around him these past six years.  Perhaps the most important change, in that respect, is this is no longer, "just" Ovechkin's team it's also Oates', Backstrom's, Green's, Brouwer's, Carlson's, Alzner's, Fehr's, Laich's and the list goes on ...

Now about the Blackhawks game and more significantly last evening's home opener against the Calgary Flames.  My view of the season opener on the road in Chicago is that even though it was a loss and the Capitals gave up five "real gals" and a "empty netter" against the reigning Stanley Cup Champions for the skaters it was a more significant and better executed game than last nights win against the Flames.  The only surprise for me in the Chicago game was how much faster the relatively minor rule changes this past off season have made the game in general.  The pace of the game and the "sick, unbelievable" speed of both the Hawks and the Capitals was tremendously entertaining and "good hockey" to watch and frankly up until the Hawks scored their fifth goal at the of the 13:53 minute mark of the third period this was a fast paced, back and forth game that either team could have won. And lets be clear, there is a reason why the Blackhawks opened the season atop the NHL power rankings that is entirely separate and aside from the fact they put their second Stanley Cup banner up a United Center in three seasons before Tuesday's game and its simple - they are the best team right now in the NHL.  So the fact the Capitals had to "rely" on their power play to keep them in the game really isn't an issue to me.  To be drawing penalties generally you have to be playing well and if you then make the opposing team "pay for their penalties" with extra strength goals, well that's what you are supposed to do as a good hockey team.  The fact that Chicago's Johnny Oduya was able to adjust and blunt Alex Ovechkin's efforts in 5 on 5 situations, with some help from his friends, in the second and third isn't all that surprising given the other weapons Chicago had on the ice to counteract the Capital's first line's strengths  - really not too surprising.  After all, Ovechkin still managed a two point night and also was a factor in another of Mikhail Grabovski's power play goals that he did not "point on." Finally, think about how different the outcome might have been had Braden Holtby "matched" Corey Crawford's less than spectacular 0.875 SV% and nineteen (19) year old Connor Carrick not make one of the two, understandable, "rookie mistakes" that figured in two of Chicago's five even strength goals.  When you do that you realize it wasn't a great night, but it wasn't a horrible night for the good hockey team that is "our Washington Capitals" - our team just came up a little short against a very, very good team. Oh and even though it was in a loosing cause, Capitals nw addition Grabovski had a "hat trick".

Now we switch to last nights game and for sure the first period was indeed a switch.  The Calgary Flames surprised me from the "get go" and how "not bad" they are.  However, the Caps started a little flat as a group, and lets be honest, when Braden Holtby is "on" he's really really good.  Last night though he definitely was NOT "on"  the first goal by the Flames David Jones may or may not be one Holby "wants back" but he should.  It was "stoppable" and it set the tone and tenor for the rest of his shortened appearance last night.  An outing where the 24 year old Lloydminster, SK, native let three goals by on eleven (11) SOG; a 0.727 SV% before being pulled in favor of 25 year old Czech Michal Nuevirth.  That move proved to be the right one, as the Capitals reacted by tightening up their game and "Nuevy" ended the night allowing only one more goal and had a SV% of 0.964 on 28 Shots On Goal by the Flames.  His 27 saves included both "the ones he should have made" and at least two saves "he and his team needed him" to make.

So after "spotting" the Flames a three goal lead by the end of the first period, the Capitals had their work cut out for them in order to get even one point out of last nights game.  Thankfully, the Caps started looking like the team they should and being the team they are during last night's second period.  During the second period the Caps outscored the Flames 3-1, including young "Master" Carrick's first ever regular season NHL goal which opened the Capitals scoring at 7:30 of the second period. It was a nice goal precipitated by solid outlet passes from Alzner and Johansson to Carrick as he exited the penalty box "finished" off by a cool headed Carrick as he pushed the puck into the net through Flames goaltender Ramo's five hole.  The Flames pushed back 1:35 later to again their 3 goal lead with an even strength goal by Lance Bouma before the Caps seemed to decide either "enough is enough" or "not in OUR house" or some combination of the two. The Caps then added a power play goal off an Alex Ovechkin "one timer" at 11:24 to cut the Flames led to two; before "the Great 8" then  brought the game to within one for the Caps with an even strength goal at the 15:25 mark of the period.

Over the next 18:35 of regulation, the Flames impressed me with their ability to "bend but not break" and keep the puck out of the net despite a clear onslaught by the Capitals.  That is until the Caps Nicklas Backstrom was able to leverage, Captain Ovechkin's strong effort on the puck, to "finish" the Capitals second power play goal of the game and tie the game at 4 "all" with 5:50 left to play.  That's the way regulation ended after both Ramo and Nuevirth made saves their team needed them to make.  Overtime was interesting but also ended with the teams deadlocked.  Then we went to the shootout aka "the gimmick".  In the shootout the Capital's new "Russian Connection"  Grabovski, who led off, and Ovechkin both put their "trys" past Ramo with slick moves while Michal Nuevirth was rock solid "stoning" both Flames shooters: Sven Baertschi and Jiri Hudler.  The game gave Nuevy a solid outing and win he deserved and got the Capitals season at home started off in the right manner.

So lets review last evening's "good, bad, and ugly" - I like to end positively so we'll go in "bad, ugly, and good" order.

BAD:  Spotting teams three goal leads isn't the way to ensure you'll get points out of a game, nor is any team SV % under 0.900 and right now through the first two games of the season the Caps have a team SV% of 0.889 SV5. They've also allowed 73 SOG and to me that just seems like at least 14 too many, and really asking for trouble given that so many of the opposing teams shots on goal have been inside the "scoring area" and solid scoring chances.  While Holtby's SV% through his four and half periods played is not where it should be, the eight goals he's allowed are truly not even close to being the majority "his fault". The Caps need to play much, much harder on the puck and generate significantly more defensive zone takeaways to deliver on the potential this team has.  That was definitely clear during last night's game against the Flames.  Another bad is that Martin Erat continues to be a $4M salary cap hit searching for his identity and a role that can make a positive impact every time he is on the ice for the Capitals, in relatively short order something has to give here.  Erat has too much skill and experience not to be making an impact 90+% of the time he is on the ice - regardless of the number of minutes he plays a night.  I know this may sound harsh too - but I think this required change needs to start inside Erat's head and translate to him just working even harder when he's on the ice, not worrying about his ice time or who is out there with him.  I really think he has the skills to do that, he just needs to realize that needs to start with him and then everything else he is concerned with will take care of itself.

UGLY: Jack Hillen left the game with a "lower body injury" after a hit that looked like it likely badly damaged his right ACL. That was ugly and a big stick tap to Tom Wilson for taking Lance Bouma to task for the hit.  BTW Bouma finished his night with the important two thirds of a "Gordie Howe Hat Trick."

GOOD:  This was solid character game as pretty much all comeback victories.  Once the Capitals settled down they returned to their game plan and just patiently chipped away showing the skill and confidence needed to get standings points in the NHL.  The Caps stars led the way and the Caps "role players" at least the vast majority of them played solid games when you look at the full 65:00 played.  Special mention and stick tap to Jay Beagle; "Beag's" was 6 for 8 in the Face Off Circle and 4:36 of his 6:14 TOI was on the penalty kill, those faceoffs were huge as were his efforts while Connor Carrick was in the box at the start of the second period.  While the third line of Chimera - Fehr - Ward were victimized on two eve strength Flames goals, they seemed to get it together and play very strong on the puck after they yielded the goal by Bouma on Nuevirth.  The second line of Laich - Grabovski  - Brouwer had a reasonably solid outing.  The Caps were 61% in the Face Off circle for the game, that seems to be an aspect of the game they've significantly improved on since last season.  Both Tom Wilson with 5:52 (5:40 of even strength) and Connor Carrick with 17:26 including 1:33 on the penalty kill "thanks" to the early departure of Jack Hillen, both looked pretty solid, especially since they are both U20 rookies.