Thursday, December 27, 2007

A coach's night to remember

Bruce Boudreau certainly won't forget last night, will he? First he gets the interim label removed from his title by the organization then his team goes out and puts together a gritty performance in securing two points in regulation and a 4 point swing in the Southeast Division by beating the Tampa Bay Lecavaliers 3 to 2.

Coach B saw his team survive a shaky start by Olie Kolzig and yet another amazing performance by Vinnie Lecavalier, who right now is delivering on the promise that lead most scouts to label him the heir apparent to Gretzky and Lemiux while Sid the Kid was still in grade school. And when Tampa's new goaltender Karri Ramo did his best Nikolai Khabibulin impersonation, robbing the Russian Machine and Tomas Fleischmann (twice) from point blank range, the Caps finally got the offense they were hoping to see out of their checking line.

Quinten Laing, David Steckel, and Matt Bradley were by far the Capitals best line on the night. Aside from scoring two of the Caps three goals, they logged major ice time against Tampa's top line, playing strong in the defensive end while holding the puck well and making a wonderful mess in front of Ramo's crease. It seems unfair that Laing will sit tonight against the Pens after such a strong performance (thanks to the return of Boyd Gordon), but if he can string together a couple more performances like last night's he'll get more of his fair share of games in before season's end.

One oddity from the organization... even though the "interim" label has been removed from Coach Boudreau's title, he's still up for review (and possible replacement) at season's end. I suppose the Caps just wanted to let him know he wouldn't be replaced this season. Whatever.

Tonight, the Caps look for another pair of points in Pennsylvania against the Flightless Devilbirds and Sid the Submarine (diving puns are harder to come by than you think after a couple seasons). Game time is 7:30.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Happy Holidays, and welcome back!

Greetings everyone, and happy holidays from us here at the site. Things have been pretty busy around here, what with all of the eating, gift giving and such. We even missed the site's first birthday (Dec. 13) we were all so tied up. We promise we'll improve our upkeep on the site headed into the New Year. And speaking of new, it appears that Coach Boudreau and the Caps are treating tonight's game as the beginning of the second half of the season. Let's hope that they can start the second half the same way they started the first (with a win).

Per Tarik, the Caps will once again be without Captain Clark, whose groin injury has kept him out over a month. Not good. Not good at all. The captain's physical play and his scoring ability are sorely missed on the right side of the ice.

The Tampa Bay Lightning come to town playing the same brand of maddeningly inconsistent play that has marked their entire season. Unlike so many teams, the cause of Tampa's woes is easy to point out: their horrendous goaltending. With both Johan Holmqvist and Marc Denis posting sub .900 save percentages (and looking awful while doing it) it's clear that Tampa will always be in a position where their offense will have to carry them to victory, because they're going to give up goals.

With Alexander Semin returning to form and the Russian Machine being, well, the Russian Machine, look for the Caps to post at least 4 goals tonight. Hopefully that will be enough to down the evil triplets from Tampa and move us within one point of the Lightning in the Southeast.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Offense from Defense

After getting a good look at Coach Boudreau's system over the past couple weeks, I can't say for sure what he's done with the offense, except giving them a longer leash to forcheck on. However, one can plainly see that his philosophy concerning defensemen is as different from the previously installed setup as night and day.

Under Glen Hanlon, the defense was set far back, not involved with the offensive rush except in the most obvious of circumstances. The main tenant on defense was to hold good defensive positioning, not extend yourself, and keep the opposition from getting behind you. While players were not routinely beaten by long passes up the middle, this had the effect of always having the defense on its heels, constantly absorbing attacks without countering. And with a set of rookies whose potential was just beginning to show itself, that seemed like the right approach at the time. You can almost hear Hanlon saying it: Sit back, let the game come to you, don't make any big mistakes.

At the time, you wouldn't have wanted the Caps crew of 20 year old defensemen running around like a bunch of mites on ice (not any more than they already were, at any rate). However, with a couple years for the young defensive corps to mature and with the acquisition of solid two way defenseman Tom Poti, newly installed Coach Bruce Boudreau clearly thought that it was time for a change.

The change was first evident in the Caps power play, where offensive wunderkid Mike Green scored twice from within 10 feet of net in the first couple games. How can a defenseman score goals from that close in while still protecting the blue line? He can't, but the risk involved was lessened by the extra attacker for the Caps.

That's all well and good, and pinching the defense on the power play certainly seemed like a good idea. But then it started happening with Green and Tom Poti at even strength. A few games later Shoanne Morrison made several offensive forays that started at his own goal line. And this Saturday, Brian Pothier scored the game winner from about five feet away from the net, taking a Matt Pettinger behind the goal line pass and depositing it in the upper shelf.

So it seems that Coach Boudreau's new attacking system is at least as much about aggressive play from the defensemen as it is about the forwards. With a couple years of development, the Caps blueliners are confident enough to pick their spots to attack, and their coach has presented them the opportunity to do so. In addition to adding to the offense, it keeps the other team focused on defending an extra man, which fundamentally changes their ability to strike back. And while they have been burned by giving up the big play on occasion, the team as a whole seems to function better when their blueliners are pushing forward. It seems like the right fit for this team right now. And it's certainly entertaining to watch.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Mullet night mayhem

Ladies and gentlemen, the Deuce:

Great game. Very entertaining. But the Caps should have won it in regulation. And if they are going to have ANY chance of making the playoffs, they can't give up a point to other Eastern Conference teams. They may end up battling for that eighth spot with the Rangers, and a point here and a point there add up.

Mike Green is playing unbelievable hockey right now. He was absolutely flying last night -- skating, making GREAT moves, scoring goal scorers goals. He played OVER THIRTY minutes in the game! Looks like he's found his confidence.

Donald Brashear was also a force last night. He beat the living tar out of Colton Orr. Again. Doesn't that guy ever get tired of being pounded by The Donald? Has he ever even come close to winning a fight between the two of them? Of course, the picture in the NY Post was of the beginning of the fight, before Brashear pounded Orr to the ice. And the caption, laughably, states "The Rangers' Colton Orr gets the upper hand on the Capitals' Donald Brashear during Washington's 5-4 overtime victory last night." Even my wife said, "Oh, my God. He really beat that poor guy up." Gotta love the New York media.

After getting out of the box, he made a nice hit followed instantly by a pretty centering feed which resulted in Motzko's first goal, and later made a beautiful pass to Motzko which resulted in the second goal. And of course, he hit everything that moved (and he could catch).

Probably most importantly, he took ZERO stupid penalties (I wish the same could be said for your favorite, Matt Bradley -- Hey Matt, when your team is up by a goal in the third period, and your job is to eat up the clock by cycling the puck in the offensive zone, don't take one hand off the stick (a sure signal to any referee that you're about to hold), wrap it around an opposing player's neck (another sure sign of a hold), and then pull on him, THEN raise your hand up like you didn't just hold (the final sign of an infraction just in case the ref was snoozing for the first three). ESPECIALLY NOT IN THE OFFENSIVE ZONE.

Of course, the Rangers scored to tie the game, even if it was one second after the penalty expired. You're killing me Matt.

Anyway, the best thing about last night is that the Caps fought back from a two-goal deficit, which I wouldn't have believed possible had I not seen it with my own eyes. So that was nice. That's about it. I won't be grumpy and mention that the Caps are now ice cold on the power play, even with an alleged PP Genius behind the bench. At least now they get the puck in the zone, set it up, control it, and actually get shots on net. So I think the PP goals will come.

By the way, I was THRILLED to see that Cap Killer Exraordiare Mark Recchi now gets to play the Caps like five more times this year, having been signed by Atlanta. Great. Put him down for a 20 goal year. We should have signed him just to bench him for the rest of the year.

Monday, December 10, 2007

One to build on

Well, what a difference a day makes. After looking thoroughly average against the Devils in New Jersey, the Capitals came out and steamrolled Atlanta, scoring early and often en route to a convincing 6-3 victory. The Caps played well in all three zones despite missing their captain (Clark) their best setup man (Nylander) and their best penalty killer (Gordon). Indeed, the holes created by their absences forced Coach Boudreau to make some alterations in the lineup that paid dividends almost immediately.

Playing on a line with Alex Ovechkin and Matt Pettinger, Nicklas Backstrom looked every bit of the player the Caps were hoping for when they drafted him. He played with the poise and presence of a veteran, which lead directly to his goal. Backstrom positioned himself high in the zone just below the blueline in the center of the ice, where he was able to step up and intercept a weak pass attempt by the Thrasher defenseman. While most rookies would not have been in position to make the play, almost none would have been able to react instantly and fire the puck top corner without hesitation as Backstrom did. It was a play that showed all that Backstrom has to offer: great positional play, great read and reaction time, and a finisher's scoring touch. It's going to be a pleasure watching him in Washington in the years to come.

The Ovechkin-Backstrom-Pettinger line dominated play throughout the game, with each forward scoring once. Pettinger's rebound goal was just his second of the season, and hopefully will inspire the winger to continue to play with the reckless abandon he exhibited in getting to the loose puck for the rest of the season. Ovechkin's goal wasn't the prettiest he'll ever score, but tipping the puck out of midair to redirect it past Thrashers goaltender Kari Lehtonin was no small feat.

While the second line of Semin, Brashear, and Kozlov did not directly produce a goal, it was the cause of Jeff Shultz's tally. Semin held the puck down low and drew multiple defenders before being buried from behind with a cross check from one of Atlanta's defenders. But the stage was set, as all the traffic in front screened Lehtonin and he never saw Shultz' shot as it drifted past him.

And what more can be said of Mike Green? He continues to be the Capitals best offensive defenseman, and his two tallies on the night bring his season total to 7, tied for second on the team and tied for first in the league among defensemen. His outstanding puck control and skating ability constantly keeps the opposing team on its heels, and his finishing on both goals was nothing short of superb.

Tonight, the Capitals look to produce a modest two game winning streak at home against New Jersey. Both teams will play their third game in four nights, but looks for the Caps to be the fresher team due to their five day layoff before that stretch. Look for the Caps to take control of the game early and put buckets of shots on the Devils goaltender. Whether or not the Devils can weather the storm in the first period and a half will dictate whether or not they have a chance in the game.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Thoughts while in between games

While the Caps players are spending this week getting accustomed to Coach Boudreau's system, it's a good time to examine the state of the team and identify which areas have performed well and which, to put it politely, need improvement. While their record certainly indicated there will be more of the latter than the former, there are certainly bright spots to touch upon. After all, with the snow on the ground in the area and the holiday season approaching, we don't want to be called Grinches

On the positive side, the Caps have improved the overall skill level of their team, specifically with the additions of Nylander and Backstrom. While their impact has yet to show in the standings, you'd be hard pressed to find a more improved position for the Caps than at the center dot. Keep in mind, Kris Beech was playing top minutes for the team last year at the position. While Backstrom still has to improve his skating and physical play, he's shown that he can mentally keep up with the responsibilies of playing the pivot. And Nylander is miles ahead of any Caps center since Adam Oates wore the sweater.

Additionally, the Caps defense has developed more offensive swagger with the addition of Tom Poti and the emergence of Mike Green as a geniune offensive dynamo. While Poti has had to contend with injuries and increased responsibility in all zones, he has been effective as the Caps top defenseman. Mike Green, meanwhile, has been one of the team's top offensive threats for most of this season, redeeming himself after a lackluster second season (and making this post from last year relevant again).

Alex Ovechkin has 20 goals and is averaging over a point a game while playing the best two way hockey of his career. Nothing to scoff at.

Unfortunately, the list of problems is much more robust.

First, aside from Poti and Green, the defense for the Caps has looked positively amateurish so far. Jurcina is no longer hitting everything that moves, and Jeff Shultz must have pictures of Ted Leonsis naked in order to keep his spot on the roster. He's been overmatched in almost every game he's played. Why they haven't shuffled him out of the lineup and given Steve Eminger more looks confounds me. And while John Erskine has been effective at playing the body, he has had lapses of discipline that make his spot in the lineup tenuous at best. Another major issue for the Caps blueliners is their lack of footspeed. They simply cannot skate with the faster teams in the league, and they lack the toughness to pound away at quick players when they have opportunities. Looking for proof? Watch the replay of their performance against Buffalo.

In order for the defense to reach a respectable level, they need a banger, plain and simple. I hate to say it, but the Caps sure could use Brendan Witt right now. I think I just lost a year of my life typing that.

Injuries have also played a major part in the Caps horrendous start, but that does not excuse how they've been managed (and how they might have been prevented). First, let's go with prevention. Under Glen Hanlon, the power play lacked movement, which led to players having to flood the front of the net to create scoring chances (since the shot angles didn't change, they attempted to screen the goaltender and fight for rebounds). Unfortunately, their best shooter is at his best shooting for high corners. Close range shots aimed high tend to be VERY, VERY dangerous to anyone setting a screen. Just ask Chris Clark about it. The Caps could just as easily have created the same screen with Clark skating across the shooting lane, instead of standing in it, and Clarkie would still have both ears in one piece.

As far as Alex Semin's injury is concerned, we covered that weeks ago. Ankle injuries should be given ample time to recover, even if the player thinks they're ready to play. Instead of sitting him for a couple weeks, the Caps rushed Semin back into the lineup, after which he promptly reinjured himself and has yet to fully recover. Ugh.

In terms of forward contributions outside of the Russian Machine, there haven't been any. When your primary setup man is second on the team in goals and one of your defensemen is tied for third, you know there's a problem. Simply put, the Capitals second through fourth lines have not been getting it done. And while their old (trap) system is partially to blame, someone on the team has to step up and get the job done.

And speaking of stepping up, will someone let Viktor Kozlov know that the season has started? Kozlov has been by far the least impactful free agent signing, even though he's played on the top line almost exclusively. At this point, it's fair to say that Kozlov is stealing money every shift he's on the ice. At this point, I think every defenseman in the league knows that Kozlov needs time to make a play and presses him before he gets the opportunity.

It's true that despite his size, Kozlov will never be a banger. But would it be too much to ask for his to actually forecheck instead of weakly swiping his stick at opposing players as they skate past? And if he ever takes another shift at center it will be too soon. I'd rather see Backstrom losing draws but refining his technique than Kozlov losing draw after draw after draw after draw. He belongs on the wing (or more accurately right now, on the bench).

So what do the Caps need to do to address these issues? It's clear that not all of them can be taken care of with the team in its current makeup, so a trade is a possibility. It's much more likely that they'll wait until the offseason to make any moves (especially with the Russian Machine's contract coming due).

However, there are certain things that Coach Boudreau can do right now to improve the team (and some things he's already done).

1. Unleash Mike Green and allow him to play an attacking game (check).
2. Move Kozlov to the wing and off the first line (almost there).
3. LET SEMIN'S ANKLE HEAL. At this point, the Caps have played almost a third of the season without Semin. Sitting him a few extra games isn't going to make or break team chemistry.
4. Improve team discipline. The Caps have taken far too many penalties this year, from their Captain on down. It needs to stop if the Caps want to have any hope of a midseason run. You can win a game or two in a row without discipline, but not 5 or 6 in a row.
5. Wake up (or trade) Kozlov.

So, there you have it. Hopefully Coach B will bring the Caps out on Friday full of fire and wrath, and we'll look back at this as the point in the season where things turned around. Even if they don't recover and make the playoffs, at least we might get to watch some entertaining offensive hockey.