Sunday, January 27, 2013

Caps Hockey -A Two Point Victory Over The Sabres and The Week Ahead 1/27 through 2/2/2013

Okay Caps fans, if you cruised the news and the blogsphere yesterday and today, you know a few things: 1) the Capitals got off the schneid on Friday evening with a 3-2 OT loss against the New Jersey Devils then they Won in Regulation at home 3-2 against the Buffalo Sabres today; 2)Now 10% of the way into this abbreviated season the Capitals are 1-3-1 with 3 points in 5 games. 

Writing this blog after today's win over the Sabres is a LOT different than it would have been had the Capitals lost and given the way the Caps won today's game - the Caps led or the game was tied for all of it except for 5:28 of the first period.  Today's game really wasn't as close as the final score indicates, IMO.  While the Caps allowed Sabre Tyler Ennis to score first at the 9:34 mark of the first period; the only reason they weren't up by a score of 2 or 3 - 0 at that point was a guy named Ryan Miller.  Of course being a Caps fan I'm ignoring the fact that Michal Neuvirth robbed the Sabres once before he let them find the back of the net on one o the few goals lately he'd want back.  In any case, from my vantage point, prior to Buffalo scoring the game was already slightly in the Caps favor.  They worked hard from the opening puck drop and controlled the flow of the game throughout.  I confess, I read the other post game blogs before I started writing this one and I must say upfront, the fact that I write a "fan" blog will come through loud and clear tonight as much as ever when one compares this post to the other post-game summaries today.  Simply put, I can't be as critical of any of the Capitals tonight as the other folks in the Capital's blogsphere are being.  A win is a win and today the Capitals were tied or led the game all but 5&1/2 minutes.  Pull it all up to the 39,000 foot level and at cruising altitude that's being fairly dominant.  Sure, the Sabres were without Tomas Vanek, and sure they too are off to a slow start with a 2-3-0 record right now; but those guys in Blue and White unis on the other side of the ice facing the Capitals were a full blown NHL team led by an All-Star who won the Vezina just a couple of seasons ago.  So there's no reason to at like the Capitals should have won this game by just showing up and playing half-assed pond hockey. They shouldn't have; couldn't have and didn't. 

Was it a flawless game - no.  However, it was the first game this season the Capitals showed us they know how to play with and extend a lead.  It was a game where the Capitals built on the start to righting their "ship" that they started on Friday in Newark.  It was a game where they played their new coaches system.  This game wasn't won by Bruce Boudreau's Capitals; or Dale Hunter's Capitals; it wasn't even won by Alex Ovechkin's Capitals.  This game was won by Adam Oates' Capitals - and that too was an important step.  A step that was sorely needed as they get ready for a two week period where they have seven (7) games to play.  A game basically every other night, including three road games and two games against the Penguins (currently 3-2-0); one game against the Senators (currently 3-1-1); one game against a hungry Flyers team (currently 2-4-0); two games against the enigmatic Maple Leafs (currently 2-3-0) and that ends with a Saturday Night home game against the Panthers on February 9th. 

So in my view it's great the Capital, one and all who played today, had a game you can build on.  "Even" John Carlson who in other blogs it is being pointed out made the mistake that led to the first goal had a good game in my opinion.  Carlson played 23:18 and many of his 26 shifts were tough ones.  He finished the game with a stat line of 1 SOG; 1 missed shot; 1 hit; 2 giveaways, 2 takeaways; and 1 blocked shot - his +/- for the game was 0.  Ribero, Ward and Chimera all had 2 point games and finished the game +2.  The Caps goal scorers were Ovechkin (vintage AO one-timer on the powerplay); and Erskine (with a great setup from Ward and Chimera on play that Ribero started); after Ward opened the scoring (assisted by Chimera and Ribero). 

For my two cents and to my great delight, the best player for the Capitals on the ice today was Mike Ribero. Ribs showed his awesome puck sense all day long. He was in the Sabres passing lanes more than they themselves were today; and once he got the puck he turned the play around so fast he and his linemates were often exactly where Lindy Ruff did not want them to be.  Ribero also went 64% in the faceoff circle today and that didn't hurt his line's ability to reek a little havoc now and then. 

Perhaps best of all, I'm pretty sure that the 8-83-15 line was broken up for good at the end of first period and while I really, really like both Beagle and Crabb, I just don't like them on the first or second line or whatever they are when AO is on their left wing on this team.  That said, the "experiment" did accomplish something because today is the first game I can remember Ovi genuinely looking like he was having fun playing hockey at Verizon Center since October 2011 (yep that would be while Gabby was coaching the Capitals.)  Ovechkin, also clearly played like a guy who at least so far has "bought in" to Adam Oates' system and the energy level and willingness to get into the spots on the ice where it can sometimes be painful though productive - well he did that the entire game.  The only mistake I felt AO made was hitting the post, instead of getting his second goal of the game into an empty net.  The 8-19-20 line looked very, very good and happy to be together in the final two periods today and played like one expects the first line on a potential playoff team should play.

Turning to Nicklas Backstrom, the Swedish Flash's game was one that you can build on too, IMO.  While his stat line was respectable and he too played with solid energy; better yet late in the third period he again appeared to have glue on his stick whenever he needed it carrying the puck.  Speaking of Jay Beagle, I don't think the the Caps have had a guy with the success he had today in defensive zone faceoffs since they traded Dave Steckel.  Today "Beags" went 12-3 (3%) in the faceoff circle and took the majority, if not all of the defensive zone draws in the third period - SWEET.

The Blue Line Corps was generally solid as well.  Mike Green looked a good or better today then he did on Friday night - "Game Over" led the Caps in TOI today with 27:58; got a primary assist on Ovechkin's goal with a laser setup pass and two blocked shots.  He and Karl Alzner made a solid first defensive pairing.  John Erskine played 22 shifts for 20:56 TOI and had 3 blocked shots to go with his goal and was paired most often with John Carlson, and they seemed to compliment one and other well.  Even third pairing Kundratek and Schultz played fairly well.  Schultz still needs to get more physicality into his game IMO but in his 11 shifts and 9:46 TOI he had 3 blocked shots.  Oh and that Michal Neuvirth guy - well he had a 0.917 SV% stopping 22 of 24 SOG and came up big on at least three occasions where you could see the saves on highlight reels.  No longer do I have any doubts; the 6'1" 24 year old Czech has what it takes to be a number one goaltender in the NHL, he played great today.

Now looking to this upcoming week.  This week, the Caps travel to that land in the great white north - Canada - home of Labatts Blue Beer, eh and the cutting, cold winds off the Arctic tundra.  They play Ottawa on Tuesday and Toronto on Thursday, before coming home to face the Flyers at Verizon Center on Friday Night and then the Sunday NBC game against the Penguins also here in the District. It's not an easy stretch but then no NHL team has many easy stretches this season.  If they continue to play with the energy level they had today and they continue to work out the little things in adapting to this new system, they should have a good record by next week this time; am I saying it will be a 5-3-1 record - probably not but I'm now willing to think it's possible.  The truth is the Cap's regular season is 10% over today.  That can be looked at as "only" 10% or "already" 10% but at the end of the next two weeks, the Capitals regular season will be 20% complete and in a normal season that would be 17 games in, usually around mid-November.  The discussion about whether or not the "sample" size is large enough to make some reasonable extrapolations and draw some conclusions will be moot.  It will also mean there will "only" be 38 games and 10 weeks left for the Caps to make the playoffs; at that point, there really won't be a lot more time for anyone to still learn the Adam Oates system.  I'm a fan and an eternal optimist, so I'm betting the Capitals won't need any more time to learn the system by then.


Caps Host Sabres - If I Were Adam Oates Today

Good Morning Caps Fans!  Today I'm playing "If I Were Adam Oates" and I think you'll likely conclude after reading this blog just how crazy and clueless I probably am but hey, why not you too?

The Capitals come into this game after an improved 1 point result in New Jersey on Friday Night, but in my view the man who got them that point was primarily a young guy named Michal Neuvirth.  Nothing wrong with your goaltender being "the man" and doing it for your team on the road, especially in the second game of "back to backs." And nothing wrong with a comeback point on the road that ends with your coach saying: "Everybody worked for sixty minutes, we played a much much better hockey game." Especially after the quotes and reactions of the team and coaching staff to how they played the first three games.  I agree with Veteran Center Mike Ribero who said after Friday's game: "Even though we lost, it was a good game for us to see how we are supposed to play to win, by doing that, I think I will play better and other guys will step up and play better."  So we have reason to at least hope we might see the Caps we've come to expect out on the ice when they drop the puck at Verizon Center at 3PM today.  You remember that team whose roots ca currently be traced to a team torn apart at the start of the rebuild after the last lockout but who made sure they played disciplined hockey and were never outworked, than transformed to the offensive machine that was fun to watch no matter what the score, and never got out worked under Bruce Boudreau, to that group that took on the playing personality of their interim coach Dale Hunter - gritty, never give up, never say day and keep the puck out of our net at any costs; oh yeah and make sure you occasionally score a few goals so you can win the game ... you remember basically the team we all thought we'd see so far this season.  The one that apparently was sighted and seen for sixty - plus minutes in Newark, NJ on Friday Night.

But for a victory to be obtained today, and for victories to again become routine for the Capitals we need to see this team do more than just work hard.  We and they need to get comfortable with this "new Adam Oates System"; Coach and Players need to trust each other and work hard to make each other successful - in mind, body and nay even "soul" per say.  At the end of today's game at Verizon, the Capital's regular season will be 10% complete, that's just a simple fact.  They'll have just 43 games remaining in a tightly packed schedule to drive for the playoffs.  That's just 2580 minutes of regulation playing time - they need to all commit this morning to making sure that of the now 2640 minutes of playing time they bring it 110% of every second of every minute.  Whether gritty Matt Hendricks, who I predict will see more and more Red "26" Jerseys in the crowd every game at Verizon Center this season; or Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, or Mike Green who can already look into the crowd and see so many fans wearing their numbers or guys in between like Troy Brouwer, Mike Ribero, Jason Chimera, and Joel Ward; every member of this team just needs to look at themselves and each other and decide two things: a) how do I play every minute of every game the best I can and b) how do I work with these other guys in this locker room best to ensure we all succeed where success is a winning score at the end of the game.  It's really that simple, but then it's really not all that simple at all because every game there's a group of very talented athletes in the other locker room ho should, and usually are, doing the exact same thing.  So too that end they and the coaching staff need to continue to step it up a notch.  I'm an eternal optimist but I feel, like Mike Ribero said, Friday's game should go a long way in making sure everyone on the Caps roster understand they aren't the only team in the NHL without a W because of the "new system" AND they each have the power to change that condition today, but only if they play as a team and work together.

To that end I look at the first four games and who's doing what and offer the following as my suggested line up and thoughts for today, knowing that 1) I'm out to lunch and really have no idea what's going on in the locker room; 2) the real coach of the Caps is a HHOF member who understands intimately things about the game I don't even realize are involved; and 3) I like being a contrarian and that often leads to trouble when I do things like this.

 My first two lines (call them 1A and 1B, please) would be:  25 - 9 - 8 and 17 - 19 - 42.  That's right I would NOT end the "Alex Ovechkin to Right Wing" experiment; instead I'd put him on the right side across from another huge, speedy left wing Jason Chimera, who was the #3 goal scorer on the Caps team with crafty vet center Mike Ribero in the center.  I know that one of the Caps few advantages coming into this shortened season was supposed to be the ongoing chemistry between Backstrom and Ovechkin and the success they had in the KHL, but so far that hasn't seemed to be the case. .  So far they both seem to be looking to pass to the other guy for the "betterer" shot and taking too long to setup so I'd break them up.   Of course the problem with the 25 - 9 - 8 line is that so far this season 9 hasn't been winning enough faceoffs and I'd talk to him about that if I were Adam Oates I'd probably have a few suggestions that could help there; but I think 25 - 9 - 8 is worth a try since other then that I see it as a very fast skilled line wit guys who can, if they want to, make sure they get both the artistry AND the gritty goals.  In 17 - 19 - 42, I'd have a line with very good guys playing their natural positions and really no question who's supposed to be the "finisher" after all theirs only one guy on that line with a 100 point season under his belt, and we need him to start putting points on the board as much as we need anyone else to do so.  If I were Adam Oates I'd tell both these lines, I expect them to play solid and gritty hockey the entire game; my intent is to use the last change to get them out against the Sabres third and fourth lines and as long as they play hard and right I'll keep to my word and they will get 1/2 line ice time.  Of course the best way for them to do that is for them to show me that by getting "dirty" goals or taking the pretty ones if for some strange reason Ryan Miller gives them one.  If they don't do that they can expect their ice time in the subsequent periods to get more evenly distributed to the other lines.

My third and fourth lines would be: 85-26-15 and 90-83-16.  I'd be putting these guys out against the Sabres first and second lines and at the start of the game I'd be targeting them getting ~40% of the ice time so ideally at the end of the first period each of them would have 4:00 TOI and they'd have each skated 5 shifts.  I'd also have told 90 and 16 they need to look at the other four guys and play as hard as they've been playing for them to continue to get that much ice time in the second and third periods let alone move up the depth chart.  I'm pretty sure 16 will understand and respond; I have questions about 90 right now.

My defensive pairings would be:  52 - 27; 74 - 44; and 3 - 4.  I'd have Jeff Schultz as a healthy scratch though right now I consider he and Tom Poti pretty interchangeable; Poti sat on Friday.  Like his comments after the New Jersey game seem to indicate I'd be telling John Carlson, don't press it; just play your game and play the system within yourself.  I'd be telling Mike Green - "play just like you did Friday evening."  Karl Alzner I'd be saying basically the same thing I'm saying to Green.  At 38, in his 20th NHL season, if I have to say anything to former first round draft pick Roman Hamrlik then I'm kind of shocked an speechless.  Tom Poti, I'm saying you've come this far, I'm sure the Verizon crowd would love to see you have a great game, which you know you are still capable of.  John Erskine, if I think I need to say anything to, it too is just play like you always do which is, smart hockey, really hard - like Hendy this guy play his guts out every time he's given a sweater.

To the entire team my "Knute Rockne" I'm not "speech" is: "Let's just play the way we know how and make sure Michal gets the W we all know he earned as much as Brodeur on Friday Night."


Friday, January 25, 2013

Hey Caps Fans - I'm Excited How About You!

Okay so I was being sarcastic there with my headlines Caps fans - I mean right now unless the Capitals pick it up about three or four notches the only thing we'll have to be excited about is the draft lottery.  The list of things wrong with the Washington Capitals right now is just too long to cover it all.  As James Mirtle tweeted during the middle of last night's 4-1 no point, third straight loss: "The Capitals are a mess."  While there is the total economy of words in Mirtle's tweet that only a 140 character limit can compel, not much else needs can really be said.  Of course I will try, why because I'm sitting here "musing" like I do in the early morning as I start to shake the cobwebs from my mind and get rolling in a productive manner, so there's just not much else I usually do at 04:48 in the AM... So how about our Washington Capital's?

As of this AM it's official and undeniable, the Capitals are and will be the last team in the NHL to earn a standings point, they still haven't done that.  Nobody likes to get off to a slow start to a pro sports season, but when each game is twice as important as they usually are because the season is shortened, it's even more painful.  As one tweet I saw last night after the Capitals game said this year a three game losing streak is like loosing six games in a row, that's basically an accurate statement.  That's why we can't take any solace or comfort in the fact that the Capitals are in pretty good company as far as getting off to a slow start, other teams picked to do well this year that are also off to slow starts are the: LA Kings 0-2-1, Calgary Flames 0-2-1, New York Rangers 1-3-0, Florida Panthers 1-3-0, Philadelphia Flyers 1-3-0, Detroit Red Wings 1-2-0, and the Carolina Hurricanes 1-2-0, yep these seven teams and the Capitals are all off to a less than 0.500 start to a shortened season.  Feel any better? Nope?  I know I don't and I sure hope the Capitals team doesn't either, there's absolutely no time or place for any sort of failure to make changes and take action to improve their game in this 48 game season.  I think my "favorite" post game quote last night came from Coach Oates: "I would say some of our mistakes are pure effort. It’s very upsetting. Not pushing the panic button but obviously it’s upsetting."  Last night on twitter I indicated I wished that Troy Brouwer would have just been quit and think about what he was saying, and just play harder.  I stand by those tweets in these morning hours.  Brouwer is one of the Caps NHLPA representatives.  As such over the past couple of months he's been involved in the "Lockout" and had a few things to say about what other players said, etc. during the said Lockout.  That was all fair and in keeping with that role.  Now the lockout's over and we have a season again, and Brouwer is the only guy in the Caps locker room with a Stanley Cup ring.  To me that means leading - leading by example - not by calling out everyone, including himself - but Hendricks, Perrault, and Crabb, it's just my opinion and I acknowledge that Brouwer is the only player in the room with a ring right now. I just think tat it's time for everyone on the team to take responsibility for the horrible start, pointing fingers, even if you have at least one pointed to yourself doesn't really help or do anything. Sure its pro sports so there's always media looking for post-game quotes, and yes we all hate the Sidney Crosby-esque "white toast quotes" like the ones that Backstrom voiced last evening:

Backstrom: "I think it’s embarrassing the way we played, we’ve really got to regroup."

Last night and this AM my reaction to all the numerous quotes I keep seeing in blog posts and MSM articles from Brouwer is pretty basic.  I know he's a great player - really I do and I root for him every minute he's out on the ice, but this morning reading those quotes all I hear is the sound effect they make when the teacher is talking on a "Charlie Brown TV Special" on the Hallmark channel and the only visual I see is of him making a mental mistake and getting that delay of game penalty to put the Caps two men down at 2:16 into the second period with the game still tied 0-0.  All those juicy quotes and not one, not one taking personal responsibility for an action that seems to me was the catalyst for what changed the game.  Sure it was something that should not have changed the game, sure the Caps killed off the first full minute of the 5-3 and seemed like they might just use that adversity as something that could be chewed on as fuel to drive them to maintain an acceptable or better energy level the rest of the game.  But alas it wasn't to be.  Look a minute and half plus is a LONG 5 on 3, no question about that; and the defensive paring that was out there for the first Canadians goal - Carlson and Alzner - appear to honestly be more than willing to take full responsibility for their failings in these first three games.  However, I just felt it strange to be the guy giving so many "juicy" quotes about how "pathetic" and "emabarrassing" everyone but three players were last night to the press without making a point that Brouwer himself was the guy who put a team that seems like it doesn't yet have a single defenseman in "game shape" two men down for over a minute.  Enough about that...

I just touched on what I think is the biggest problem the Capitals have right now.  It hasn't looked like any of the Capitals efensemen are even close to game shape yet; and at least one has openly admitted he doesn't yet feel comfortable with the changes to the system - while there hasn't been a game where every one of the Caps defensemen have been caught out of position at least once.  Last night's game, for all the embarrassment of the four goal second period, was, from a goals against perspective, the Capitals best defensive effort yet.  You read that correctly - game 1: 6 goals against, Caps never led despite having the first three power play man advantages and they fell behind in the first 10:00 of the game; game 2: 4 goals against, Caps scored first at 10:02 of the first period and held the lead for just 2:32 before the Jets evened the score and then went ahead never looking back; game 3: scoreless first period, followed by giving up two power play goals early in the second period to the Canadians who then never looked back.  Well if I was being a total optimist, like I prefer to be I'd say from a defensive perspective, the "trend is our friend."  Unfortunately, in a lockout shortened season the slope of the curve isn't nearly steep enough and as Nick Backstrom said, the Caps need to regroup - and regroup fast. 

Tonight they are in New Jersey to face the Devils who are 2-0-0 so far this season.  Seems that Brodeur guy might b as ageless as that Selanne guy is out in SoCal.  Fourty year old  "Marty" is now 2-0 in his first two starts and snatched the 120th shutout of his 20 year career in the Devils home opener on Tuesday night.  His SV% so far this season 0.977 and his GAA is 0.50 - that puts him number one in those NHL statistics this AM.  So the key to tonight's game for the Capitals will be two things, IMO, and those are two things they haven't done for a full sixty minutes yet this season:  1) a relentless forecheck to keep pressure on Brodeur - not easily done with the latest apparent crackdown on goalie interference as we saw last evening against Carey Price ... weakest goalie interference call yet against Matt Hendricks, IMO .... and 2) high energy backcheck and quick transitions out of their defensive zone with crisper passing. 

My views on the following:

A) Oates' system:  It's the right one for the Capitals and any other team with the number of players on their team with these high skill levels.  That said it's much more unforgiving wen a team doesn't have their timing down, or doesn't execute it well, or as we've seen doesn't work very hard for a full sixty minutes.  Right now the system isn't the problem or issue, conditioning and time playing it together are.

B) Ovi on right wing: Is it the answer?  I don't know.  I do know that both Ovechkin and Oates seem to agree for Ovechkin to get back to a 40+ goal pace AND be the more defensively responsible player a team Captain of an elite level team needs to be, Ovechkin's game needs to continue to evolve, become more creative and be less predictable.  So for now, I think its a great idea, it forces Ovie out of his comfort zone, when he flies down the left side, "muscle memory" seems to kick in and even guys like Joe Corvo can anticipate what he's going to do.  Right now though as part of the transition, I think Ovie's challenge is that in order to "get it (these changes) down" he needs to be able to practice against a big, fast skilled defenseman and as I said neither Hamrlik or Alzner seem to be in game shape.

C) Caps Goalie - Who Should It Be Now?:  Look I don't think the issue in any of the three losses were either Holtby or Neuvirth.  That said, last night I thought Neuvirth played better than Holtby did in either of the first two games.  I'd be giving both guys their starts, but tonight in New Jersey and come back with Holtby on Sunday, I'd go with Neuvy, unless he said he's rather face the Sabres on Sunday..  The schedule is just to fast paced to not have two "goto's" in goal fr a team this season.

Everything else is just noise right now.  The Caps are at the bottom, literally of the NHL standings, they are better than that.  They know it, we know it, they just have to go do it now.


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:


Saturday, January 12, 2013

Hockey Is Back ... Finally ... and Thankfully

It's been Eighty (83) days since my last post/rant on this blog.  I'm glad hockey is back, and I will be restarting more regular posts here, though I do not expect to make posts daily or even necessarily after every game.  I've resolved though to post/blog regularly on this blog at least twice weekly between now and the Stanley Cup finals.  I may end up posting more shorter blogs after a game or event during the season, however, I'm going to try and have something cogent and worthwhile to say at least twice a week here on my usual hockey musings and "fan-boy" stuff with regards to the Capitals here - probably every Tuesday and Thursday or Saturday weekly.  I've decided I've missed blogging, I enjoy it as a creative outlet.  I've also decided that since this blog has a following that is mainly hockey/NHL/Washington Capitals Centric, since that's been the main content in the 600+ blog posts over the past four years to just continue to keep this blog "hockey-centric".

I have another blog "In Peace and War" that was meant to be U.S. Merchant Mariner, and U.S. Merchant Marine Academy centric when I started it that I have benignly neglected for the sixteen months since I started it.  My plan with that blog is to generate and make a post on those subjects at least once a week (nominally on every Wednesday), I'll also be inviting other USMMA grads and Marine Industry friends and acquaintances to use the venue to post their thoughts and content, if they do not have access to better, more widely acknowledged current marine industry trade media (e.g. gCaptain, Maritime Executive, etc.)  Simply put, the title of the blog, which is the motto on the U.S. Merchant Mariner's flag is what has generally brought and generated regular traffic from search engines, etc so far, given I've only made ten (10) blog posts there in the seventy (70) weeks since the blog has been up.

Finally, I'll see how it goes over the next couple of weeks and how "back into" blogging I get over the next couple of weeks.  Since I started constraining my posts her on "Mark's Musings" to mainly NHL & Capitals items, I've begun to miss the ability to "muse" on other subjects relevant to what I think of as "typical middle aged guy" sorts of things and thoughts.  I'm "noodling" on the idea of trying to capture those thoughts and topics and put them on a blog that is centered on those sorts of things a different set of days twice a week.

The above is really just an set of background stuff in case you are a regular follower and have started to wonder what's going on with this blog as it's basically been dark (like the NHL season) since October.... Now as they say - On with the show.


I don't know about you but following a lot of the message board chatter and blog post comments during the #Lockout, I certainly got tired of people a) taking sides in general, especially so many obviously uninformed and biased folks taking sides in general, and b) so, so many people somehow equating how, what and why players they liked and/or disliked did or said during the #Lockout to be seeds for rants by them against players they did not like.  In particular, and remember this is a FAN blog, not a Journalist's blog, so many @Ovi8 haters venting bile against my team - the Washington Capitals' Captain.  To those that just ranted, and ranted that they hoped Ovechkin would just go away and stay in Russia, after he said he might do that if the results of the negotiations ended up with his current contract being invalidated or otherwise affected, I say what planet do you really live on?  I say that for very simple rationale reasons, here they are:

1) If you were in the same situation Ovechkin was when he made those, even handed, and likely pretty unemotional, straight talking, genuine comments, wouldn't you have said the exact same thing?  Yes, every player in the NHL, even the "grinders" make lots more than the average upper middle income season ticket holder, let alone the average middle income fan.  However, the average career length of a player in the NHL is substantially less than pretty much any other profession, other than other professional athletes.  Further, any injury, even seemingly minor ones, that might slow them down even a quarter of a stride, etc. could be enough to mean they are no longer able to play the game at the exceptionally high level required to be competitive in the most talented, highest level/quality of play league in their sport. When that happens, for reasons that may, and often very well are, entirely outside of their control, their career earnings' potential is drastically reduced.  In other words, professional athletes, ALL of them, know the simple truth is, they need to make it while they can.  In Ovechkin's case, and the haters will hate and spew as much bile as they normally do for me saying so, I think it's even more justified for him to say what he said.  Here's why: i) his entry into the league was slowed by the last lockout and that, in my opinion, no doubt cost him money and took away from his time here in the NHL - at age just 27 years of age to have had your earnings ; ii) the contract he is playing under was negotiated and signed in the middle of this last CBA, and it's not a contract that seeks to "get around the rules" (e.g. no end of contract "tack on cheap years", no signing and signing bonusright befor the end of the current CBA, etc.)  He had every reason to believe the cntract would be honored for its full term.  Yetat the time he made that statment, things were looking 50/50 for it being otherwise.

2) Ovechkin, Crosby, Malkin, Weber, Kopitar, Richards, etc. - the stars of today's NHL - wether we admit it as fans or not - they are why we go to see games.  Sure there are die hard fans in every city but the stars and the amazing athleticism and moves they make when they play "the world's fastest major sport" are why 2/3rds or 20 of the 30 NHL teams basically sellout every game.  I mean sure I like and root, in a big, big way all "the grinders" etc. but I have season tickets because I want to see what sort of "sick" play that only four or five humans on the planet can even contemplate, let alone make, that I've come to expect @ovi8 make at virtually one out of two Capitals games I attend.  I expect the same can be said by sason ticket holding fans about their own team's star players in virtually very NHL city.  Without Ovechkin or Kovalchuk or Crosby or ...   the game wouldn't be as exciting or fun to watch.  Sure the game is bigger than any one player, even Gretzky says that, but to fail to admit the "water level" of the NHL wasn't lowered when a superstar leaves the NHL, is in my opinion intellectually dishonest.

3) Most people ranting about Ovchkin's commets - where were they coming from?  From what I could tell they just for their own reasons are indeed "Ovi haters".  They're out there.  Just like there are Crosby Haters and Ovi Lovers (like me) and Crosby Lovers and Malkin Lovers and Haters, and ... the list goes on.  There's nothing the guy could have said or done they wouldn't have commented negatively on.  And for those that talked about how Crosby's comments on Hamrlik were classier and more articulate, I say three things: i) get a grip and be real; ii) how many languages do you speak? and iii) most people sound a lot more professional and articulate when they converse in their first langague then a second langague; and iv) I think you probably really think the reason Crosby didn't go play in Europe is loyalty vice the truth which is that he couldn't easily get insured, and you're likely as naive as you are foolish.

Okay enough of that, other than taking a look at what and why there likely was a #Lockout and during a slow hockey week this coming coff season, this blog is jut going to be forward looking and all about hockey as it's being played on the ice for the rest of this NHL season.  I'm quite bullish about the Caps new head coach and the team that is coming back.  I truly can't wait for the home opener, of course it would be nice if we knew when that was.

In the meantime...