Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Stepping up

During the Caps recent road swing through most of the Southeast Division, it became painfully clear that teams are throwing everything up to and including the kitchen sink at Alex Ovechkin in an attempt to slow the Russian Machine's insane scoring pace. Common sense dictates that to beat the Caps, other teams need to drape Ovechkin in third line players, hoping that enough will stick on him to keep him contained and off the scoresheet.

Certainly, if the Caps are to make the playoffs, Ovechkin will have to continue with his awe-inspiring play. But what of the rest of the team? Who is capable of stepping up and delivering star-level performances on a nightly basis from now until the end of the season? We may have seen the answer in the Caps performance on Sunday in Tampa.

If the Caps are going to win the Southeast, they'll need consistently excellent performances from Olie Kolzig and Alexander Semin. This should surprise no one, as secondary scoring and goaltending are keys to every team's success. The pressure on Semin and Kolzig will be far beyond that of most goaltenders and scoring wingers down the stretch, for many reasons.

Alexander Semin has always been an enigma. A supremely talented dangler with a deadly wrist shot, he racked up 38 goals and 35 assists in his first full season of NHL play. He could easily have doubled his assist numbers had he not been playing with AHL level talent for most of the year.

Expectations for the uber-talented wing were sky high coming into his second season, even with his position switch from left to right wing. And then, before the season even began, it happened. Semin went behind the net on a routine play against the Flyers, made contact with an opposing defenseman, and went down in a heap. He stayed down for several minutes before being helped to the bench. Although he did test the ankle on a shift later in that same game, it was clear that something was wrong. How wrong, none of us knew at the time.

We kept waiting for Semin's ankle to get better. And waiting. And waiting. Almost 20 games we waited. Meanwhile, the team was in a downward spiral that would result in the release of Coach Glen Hanlon. Semin returned to the lineup, but was clearly not comfortable or fully fit. Paired with Michael Nylander and the left wing of the day, Semin produced lackluster (minus) game after lackluster (minus) game. Which is not to say that there weren't valid reasons for his lack of production. After all, Semin was still recovering from an injury which severely hampered his mobility, perhaps his second most important hockey attribute (after that amazing wrister). And most outside the organization didn't know it at the time, but Nylander was playing on half a shoulder, and eventually opted for season ending surgery. The second line on the Caps was outplayed and outclassed most nights and both Semin and the team were clearly frustrated.

However, as of late we've seen Semin's star beginning to rise again. As his mobility and touch improved with each passing day after the all-star break, we began to see some of the jaw-dropping, game-breaking moves that made him such fun to watch in the first place. His cuts and quick stop-and-starts improved to the point that he became a legitimate scoring threat from anywhere in the offensive zone, whether he was facing the net or not.

And Sunday, he put together his best overall performance, starting by feeding Tomas Fleishmann with a fantastic curl and pass that Flash deposited into the back of the net. He also scored off a rebound late in the third period to rebuke a Tampa comeback attempt and seal a two point night for the Caps. More important than the goal itself was the way Semin scored it. He showed the speed he lacked most of the season beating both defenders and to the puck and sliding it past Holmqvist for the win. Semin was also aggressive, attacking the net the way pure goal scorers must.

If the Caps are going to make the playoffs, they're going to need to see a lot more of that from him. Likewise, they're going to need a lot more performances like they saw that night from Olie Kolzig.

Kolzig was solid for most of the night, but more importantly, he was SPECTACULAR when he needed to be, stopping 24 shots in the second period when his team clung to a one nothing lead. In the third, Kolzig was again amazing, beaten only by two deflections in tight.

To friends, I've often described Caps games post-Hanlon era as a race to 4. Whoever scored four goals first was going to win the game. This exciting (and often hair raising) style of play led to more than a few top quality scoring chances by the opposition, and for most of the year Olie was not up to the challenge. He looked, for lack of a better description, his age. His lateral movement and positioning seemed off, and because of it he was kicking out too many hard rebounds and giving up too many scoring chances. He looks to have righted the ship for the playoff push after some much needed (though grudgingly taken) rest.

If Kolzig can keep opposing teams to 3 or less for the majority of their remaining games and Alex Semin can once again become a dominant scorer, the Caps should lock up at least an 8 seed, if not the Southeast Division title. If not, they'll be golfing early again this year.

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