Okay so I figured I'd just muse in my own head while all the Winter Classic "hubbub" swirled and then settled. Don't get me wrong the game was an awesome experience and once again despite the high cost of the tickets and the fact my sightlines were often obscured during the play during the first and second periods by people who didn't or don't know the basic courtesy of when to get in and out of your seats at a hockey game or ushers who don't know them as well (I was in Section 109 about 30 rows up (HH)) so if you're reading this and sat lower than me or above me you know what I'm talking about...) just like the Pittsburgh Winter Classic it was an experience I highly recommend for NHL fans anywhere. But with so much focus and blogging about the Classic and every aspect of it, I don't feel I have much to add to the specific points or discussions other than in the context of where it leaves the Caps as far as looking forward towards the rest of the regular season.
As you likely know the Caps had a pretty awesome month of December going 8-2-3 (0.731), capturing at least a point in 11 of 13 games, only four (4) of which were at home. It's even more impressive to me that during the month the Caps played ten of those thirteen games against teams with better than 0.500 records who are also having solid seasons so far and/or competing directly with the Caps for an Eastern Conference playoff spot. While there really are no easy games in the NHL the results the Caps had against solid, "top 10 power rankings teams" last month were also encouraging:
- they faced and beat Tampa Bay in regulation twice;
- they fought hard but lost the record longest shoot out getting a point off a hot Florida Panther team on their Sunrise Florida Ice;
- they split two hard fought OT games against Columbus and a hot Sergei Bobrovski;
- they beat the Ottawa Senators in a 2-1 goalie dual here at Verizon Center in regulation;
- they shutout the Penguins in Pittsburgh (when was the last time that happened?) .
They also won three games they were supposed to win in regulation (the Devils twice, and Carolina). The only two teams they really couldn't solve during December were their first game of the month against Vancouver at Verizon Center and their first meeting of the season against the Rangers at MSG on the even of the Christmas break, December 23rd in NY, where they lost 4-2 in regulation. They finished the year with a comeback against the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum on December 29th to force overtime, and basically steal a point before a double minor high sticking call on Evgeny Kuznetsov, the second 2:00 of which were questionable, IMO, gave the Islanders the chance they needed to halt the comeback by the Caps and get the second point they really did deserve anyway for playing a full 60:00 game against the good guys from 7th and F.
In any case the Caps came out of December and into 2015 skating confidently and playing far more consistently than they started the month and that bodes well for them for the rest of the season as the rest of the 2014-15 season looks to be a tightening battle for the eight playoff spots in the Eastern Conference as the Capitals aren't the only teams competing for the playoffs that are looking good through their last ten games but more on that after a quick comment on the last Capitals game - the Winter Classic.
As pretty much anyone who watches any NHL hockey knows yesterday the Caps become only the third "home team" to win the Winter Classic. That's the part of a very well played game against a really, really good opponent that I'd like to point to as the best thing as a Caps fan to takeaway from yesterday's Winter Classic. A lot of commentary has gone in to wondering why the Home Teams very often loose the Winter Classic. To me after hearing all the discussion I drill in to one thing - focus/distraction. For the away team like the Caps were against Pittsburgh, even with all the hype and the likely fact a visiting team's players have a few friends and family at the game, the distractions are far less than for the home team. It's much more similar to a "big" road game for them and little more than it is likely for the home team, especially now with the three day mandatory Christmas break. For the Caps and the Winter Classic, many of them had ten or more friends and family with them through the holidays as well as at the game. Think about how much having a big family gathering at your home for the Holidays creates pressures etc. on you and then add this Winter Classic thing/hype to it, it can't be at all easy to stay focused on just going and doing your job even or maybe especially if your job is being a professional athlete in the middle of your sports season. I think two things really helped the Caps stay focused on what they needed to do yesterday: 1) they had two road games between the Christmas break and the Winter Classic - so it's likely we should all thank the Caps wives, girlfriends and families for dealing with a lot of their own "logistics" between December 26th and yesterday morning; 2) that "culture change thing" we all heard about during the Epix series leading up to the Winter Classic where the Caps now focus more on playing a simpler game geared towards team success, getting two points, and doing so one game at a time, for that I think we should thank the coaching staff for putting it out there, and the team (all of them) for buying into it and taking forward. As a whole the other thing to really be happy about if you're a Caps fan is it was a well played, 200' game against a very, very solid opponent for the full 60:00. The only thing not to like about this game for the Caps, IMO, is/was the fact they are still taking too many penalties but (7 minor penalties for the game vs. 5 for the Blackhawks) however I really grow more and more disappointed with the "activist referees" in the NHL this season and will likely blog more on that another time, when I can distill my thoughts and give a bunch of great examples though it's likely that both the call against Matt Niskanen at 16:46 of and Jonathan Toews at 18:47 of yesterday's third period will be examples of my issues on that list.
In any case I like Mr. Leonsis am very grateful for having had the opportunity to attend yesterday's game and for all who helped make it happen, first let me say thanks to everyone who helped put me in a position to shell out a pretty penny for both my Season Tickets and my extra tickets to the WC that were pricey. This is not a backhanded statement, it's a pricey addiction I've developed but as I've mentioned before going to games like this with my only child like yesterday are truly a joy and I don't ever want to forget that while I am splurging on things like this, others who are less fortunate are struggling, especially as the holiday season winds down. My son and I now have two sets of Winter Classic memories both of which are really special to me. Thanks to all the other hockey fans here in DC - like the NHL commercial used to say, Hockey Fans are generally special people and I really enjoy being part of that community here in the DC metro. Thanks to the players in the NHL - you guys all of whom seem to "keep it real" make it far, far easier for me to stay very supportive of pro hockey in a way that frankly I find much, much harder to do for any other professional sport.
So now what about January? Well our Washington Capitals are already 1-0-0 on January and have another busy month like December ahead of them. Including yesterdays Winter Classic the Caps have thirteen (13) games on the schedule for January. Of the 13 games the Caps had the Winter Classic now in their rear view mirror an a nice two point "home" win. The rest of twelve (12) games in January consist of six (6) home games and six (6) away. Of the thirteen (13) games, only the two games against the division rival Flyers who have only 35 points in 37 games played, as well as the games against the Avalanche (36 points in 37 games played), and Oilers (24 points in 38 games played) are against teams with less than 0.500 records. The Caps have a total of five (5) against Western Conference Teams and eight (8) are against Eastern Conference Teams this month. Their lonest home stretch is three games (January 10th to 14th - Red Wings, Avalanche, Flyers - three (3) games in four (4) days/nights. They also have two sets of "back to back" road games - 1/7 and 1/8 Maple Leafs then Flyers, and 1/16 and 1/17 Nashville and Dallas . So as you can see this month won't be an easy one for the Capitals. Add to that that their Metropolitan Conference rivals are all also playing pretty well: Division Leading Pittsburgh 5-3-2; the second place Islanders 6-3-1; the fourth place Rangers an awesomely hot 9-1-0 and fifth place Columbus 8-1-1 all in their last 10 games and you can see why the Caps need to keep playing with the same focus and intensity - one game at a time - like they did yesterday to keep up and/or beyond the pace of the guys they are both chasing and being chased by this month.
Starting on Sunday they host the Florida Panthers who have not been an easy opponent for the Caps so far this season. They've played the Panthers twice this season first on October 18th at Verizon Center a game the Caps won in a 2-1 shootout victory and then on December 18th at Sunrise Florida where the Panthers won the game in the NHL record 20th round of the shootout. To say I think the Caps might be able to "get up" to play a hard 60:00 200' foot game against the Panthers is probably understatement but the Panthers are also playing well of late 5-3-2 (0.600 hockey) in their last 10 games and have 41 points in 35 games so far this season so are not to be taken lightly in any case.
So with those thoughts in mind I just want to once again say ...