Monday, March 31, 2008

How the Caps will win the Southeast Divison

Okay, here we go.

The Caps have three games remaining.
The Hurricanes have three games remaining.

The Caps have 88 points.
The Hurricanes have 90.

Both teams have played 79 of 82 games.
Both teams will face off tomorrow at the Verizon Center.

Beating the Hurricanes on the scoreboard Tuesday will not wrap up the division title. The Caps need to do more. In the words of Coach Boudreau, they need to "touch somebody." Hard.

After Tuesday, the Capitals have a day off to recouperate. The Hurricanes do not. They hop on a bus home to take on the Tampa Bay Lightning the very next night. If the Caps play a pressing, physical, mean style of hockey and take some of the wind out of Carolina's sails, they may not have the gas left in the tank to ground the Lightning's speedy and talented top forward line.

Best case scenario: The Caps beat the 'Canes up Tuesday night, and the Lightning hold off a furious rally to beat Carolina. At that point, the Caps will have the chance to take the division lead the very next night... against a Tampa team playing the second half of back to back road games against playoff calibur opponents.

In other words, if the Caps can bust up Carolina enough, and the beat up Canes throw everything they have against Tampa and can't secure two points, they may inadvertently seal their own demise by tiring out the Lightning before they play a well rested Caps team on Thursday.

But wait, it gets better. After a single day of rest after their game against the lightning, the Canes take on the Florida Panthers on April 4th. With their backs against the wall, the Canes will most certainly throw everything they've got at Flordia. And guess who gets to play the Panthers the very next day with a day's rest? You guessed it. Your Washington Capitals.

So, ironically, the Canes may do the most of any team to help vault Washington into the playoffs, while forcing themselves out.

Of course, all this depends on the Caps winning Tuesday. So grab your red gear (and red facepaint) and get a good night's sleep tonight. After all, the Caps season hangs in the balance. You want to be good and ready to give your team the home team advantage they deserve, right? Then have a cup of tea tonight, rest your vocal chords, and get ready to scream your brains out tomorrow.

If you don't have tickets, then shame on you. Click here to get em. And bring your "A" game tomorrow night. The Caps have been doing it for the stretch run. It's time to return the favor.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Of faith lost... and faith restored

After the first period of last Wednesday's debacle with Chicago, I have to admit I turned off the television and headed out of the house. The Caps looked like a team whose time had finally run out. The Caps were playing a tired, sloppy game and it looked as if the pressure that had been bearing down on them all season long had finally taken its toll. When I came back later that night and checked the highlights (I couldn't bear to watch the entire game on my DVR), it didn't get any better. A 5-0 loss to a Chicago team not known for its defensive prowess? Surely this was the end for the Caps.

Friday night, I set my DVR to record the game against the Thrashers, more as a postmortem than anything else. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I did know that if I didn't take my girlfriend out for dinner that night instead of watching the game live that the Caps season wouldn't be the only thing in danger.

So I left, hoping against hope Alex Ovechkin would at least tally a goal and bring him closer to the magic number: 60 goals. I thought that the team was too young and too exhausted to produce a win on the road. And when I called the Deuce from my house after returning from dinner, he quickly reinforced my beliefs. I asked him if I could come over to his house and watch the end of the game, since he had recorded it and was at the end of the second period.

"I don't think you want to" was his reply. I asked the score, and he told me. 3-1 Thrashers. Not good. Not good at all. The Caps have had all sorts of trouble with the Thrashers this season, exemplified by a 2-0 loss in which the Caps were essentially trapped to death by a team that at the time lacked its only reliable goal scorer in Ilya Kovalchuk.

I asked who scored, and the Deuce provided what I expected to be the only good news of the night. Ovechkin had tallied number 59 in the first period. "Oh well," I thought to myself. "I might as well head over there just in case he pots sixty." A Capitals win was not even a blip on the radar at this point.

Just a few minutes later, I was in front of the television and watching as the Thrashers looked to snuff the Caps playoff hopes for the year by suffocating them with the oh-so-boring trap. And for the first five minutes or so of the third, that looked like exactly what was going to happen.

And then it happened. It didn't start with a goal, but rather a bone-jarring, damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead monster of a hit by Ovechkin on the forecheck. It exeplified everything about Ovechkin that has made him the talk of hockey fans around the world. It showed passion, speed, power, and above all else the burning fire to win. We will not go quietly into the night, his beautiful and brutal check seemed to ring out in the arena.

It stood as a statement for the players on both teams to see. You could see the look on the Russian Machine's face as he skated back into the play immediately afterwards. It needed no translation, no interpretation.


And thus the onslaught began. Bruce Boudreau knew his season depended on getting his best players on the ice at all times, so he shortened the bench and rotated two lines: Ovechkin-Backstrom-Kozlov and a hodgepodge of the rest of the team as the second line. The move paid off beautifully. Had the Caps rotated three lines, they would never have been able to keep the constant pressure on Kari Lehtonin and the Thrashers. But with Ovechkin and Backstrom on the ice every other shift, the constant crashing of their offensive forays against the Thrashers overmatched defenders was simply too much to bear.

Yet again it was Ovechkin leading the way, working down in the trenches setting a screen for a Mike Green slapshot and deftly depositing the rebound over the shoulder of a helpless Lehtonin. The joy on Ovechkin's face after 60 was as vibrant as the sun on a clear summer day, but behind it there was the menace, the ruthless, awe-inspiring drive that would not be denied.

Great players feed off each other, and Ovechkin's passion energized the entire team, but most importantly it inspired Nicklas Backstrom to play the best period of his life. Four minutes of intense Capitals pressure after Ovechkin's 60th, Backstrom took a pass in deep from a pinching Mike Green and fired an absolute rocket past Lehtonin, who was beginning to wilt under the Capitals constant barrage. The shot was something you'd expect from Ovechkin or Semin, but from a setup man like Backstrom? Clearly, something special was in the works for the Caps.

Less than a minute later, with score tied and the Thrashers reeling, Ovechkin and Backstrom combined one more time to seal the victory. Ovechkin fired himself from the faceoff dot as if he was shot out of a cannon, beating both Thrashers to a loose puck behind the net in the process. He deftly passed it to Backstrom, who was camped on the short side of the crease. Backstrom made no mistake as he calmly slotted the puck into the net, and the Capitals rejoiced, their season saved for at least another game.

Whether or not the Capitals are able to secure a playoff spot this season, the last 10 minutes of the game against Atlanta showed what this young team and, in particular, its two young stars have brought to Washington. This team may not win out this year, but their time is coming. Any fan that saw Ovechkin and Backstrom on that amazing Friday night knows it.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Something's missing here

So far, I've checked both Washington papers in order to get some perspective on yesterday's game, and they both fail to address a major issue: the horrendous officiating. It's one thing if the refs missed a call or two, but to miss a blatant trip that immediately resulted in a goal and call a non-existant dive in order to even things up late in a tight game? Just terrible.

For visual evidence of the first blown call, see below:

Now, at the top of the frame you'll see the referee responsible for handling calls in the defensive and neutral zone skating away from the play to pick up the pieces of a broken stick, which meant he was out of position and unable to view the play. Fortunately, the NHL has a two referee system in which the far side official (whose primary zone is the offensive zone) has the right to make a call if his partner misses it. The offensive zone official swallowed his whistle for no apparent reason, and because Brooks Laich was taken down on the play he was unable to cover the third man into the zone (Kobesaw), who was wide open for the only goal the Bruins would score in the game.

The Ovechkin diving call was as ridiculous a call as the trip on Laich was a non-call. Ovechkin had charged into the offensive zone at full speed and was attempting to split the defense when not one but BOTH defensemen lodged their sticks between the Russian Machine's legs. Ovechkin went down (not surprising, since you can't really skate on wood or fiberglass or whatever sticks are made of nowadays) and the referee made a call that was more out of the dead puck era than today's NHL. Instead of simply making the right call, the official "evened up" the penalty by calling Ovechkin for the (non-existant) dive. The result? Instead of a 5 on 4 power play, the teams would skate 4 on 4 and the Caps would be without one of their best players for the entirety of the penalties. It was a chickensh-t call by a chickensh-t ref.

It's not neccesarily an indicator officials are having an off night when there are as many "ref you suck" chants as "Lets go Caps" ones. What IS indicative of a terrible showing is veteran defenseman Tom Poti making comments to a locker room reporter about the slanted officiating while the game was still in progress, which will undoubtedly lead to a large fine. Players in the league know that the calls aren't always going to go their way, and are accepting of that. When they're willing to voice their displeasure in a public forum and take the financial hit that come with it (and they're not crybabies like Jagr or Lemeuix), you know they've got a legitimate beef.

The officiating debacle very nearly overshadowed the game, which the Caps were able to pull out in the shootout with a great delay shot by Alex Semin and a typically nonchalant (read: slooooooooooooooow) move to spread Alex Auld's legs and put the puck between them by Viktor Kozlov. If the NHL expects to have paying customers in the stands, they best be sure that they improve the level of officiating in their games, ESPECIALLY games involving one team in a "traditional" hokey market (like Boston or Toronto) and one that is not. Otherwise the impression will continue to exist among fans that the league has a vested interest in who makes the playoffs (the "traditional markets" and who doesn't (everyone else). And that is as damaging an impression as any other to the league's integrity and a threat to the expansion of the game into non-traditional markets.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A tough draw

Tonight, the Caps look to rage against the dying of their playoff light against the Calgary Flames. And with Calgary coming in (wait for it, wait for it) on fire, taking points in 9 of their last 10 and winning 7 of those games outright, the Caps had better bring their "A" game.

For Calgary, the formula for victory is simple. Trap the hell out of the Caps and fire everything at the net in the offensive zone. Calgary is one of the better teams in the league at clogging the neutral zone, and the post-lockout Capitals have been frustrated by the trap time and time again. And while it seems counterintuitive for the Flames to play a plodding, counterstrike oriented, utterly boring style of play with lightning quick forwards Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay up front and Dion "I kill people for fun, man" Phaneuf patrolling the back line, one certainly can't argue with the results it has produced.

Throw in the fact that Mikka Kiprusoff and Jarome Iginla (fresh off his milestone goal earlier this week) are both stepping up their game as the playoffs draw near, and the Caps hopes for a win tonight seem slim.

Which is exactly what this team needs. Like most young teams, the Caps play their best hockey when they are considered the underdogs. While there is certainly still pressure to produce points and eke into the final playoff spot, most now view the Caps as a team that will be on the outside looking in come the end of the season. Much like a boxer who gets knocked down early in a fight, the Caps are now free to swing for the fences and play with reckless abandon, knowing that they have to score a knockout (or in this case a series of knockouts) to win.

The Caps know that they've been bloodied by the losses this past weekend. They've been knocked down, hurt, and their pride bruised. Now, as the toughest opponent left on their schedule looms in front of them, the question is this: Will they reach deep within themselves and find the strength to rise up and continue the fight?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Two quotes say it all

"Well, there go the playoffs."
- the Deuce after watching the Penguins defeat the Caps at home yet again to effectively end the Caps playoff chances.

"(Expletive) the Penguins and (expletive) you."
- Original 6 to a group of obnoxious Penguins supporters outside the Verizon Center after the game.

Hey, we're not called 3 Grumpy Caps fans for nothing.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Three points and a world of difference

Tonight, when the puck drops in Buffalo and the Sabres take on the Washington Capitals, the teams will be separated by only three points in the standings. Both teams will have played 67 games at that point, and both teams are currently on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Aside from those points, the two franchises couldn't be headed in more opposite directions.

The Capitals are clearly on the upswing. Their rebuild may have cost the team in the short term, but the organization's pre-lockout fire sale set the team up to be successful in the long term. Along with winning the lottery and grabbing all-universe talent Alex Ovechkin, the team has steadily stockpiled draft picks and prospects, including (but not limited to) NHL regulars Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Shoanne Morrison. The Caps also have highly touted defensive prospects "Giant" Joe Finley and Karl "the human quote machine" Alzner in the pipeline, as well as more draft picks than you can shake a stick at. Once the organization sensed the time was right, it was able to use a 2nd round draft pick and a mid-level prospect to bolster the team's playoff hopes. And the Caps have one of the better (and wealthier) ownership groups in the game, which made their superduperultramega deal to keep Ovechkin in DC for 13 years possible.

Meanwhile, the Sabres have been on a downswing ever since their run in the Stanley Cup playoffs was so rudely snuffed out by Ottawa last season. The Sabres have since lost their top two centers (Drury and Briere) to free agency, and were forced to part with their top defenseman at the trade deadline. And before Sabres fans start moaning about the financial issues that prevented them from keeping their players, remember that the Sabres had the opportunity to sign Briere to a long term deal the season before last, and decided to take their chances with a one year deal with the young center. The decision cost them one of their best players and what could have been a cornerstone of a young team. Instead, they got nothing for Briere when he bolted for Flyers and a boatload of cash. Now, certainly financial issues motivated the moves (or lack thereof) that the Sabres have made the past few seasons, but the fact is they've also made some poor personnel decisions to compound their plight.

As these two teams scrap for a playoff spot, one thing is certain. The future looks a whole lot brighter for the Caps than it does for the Sabres.

But tonight is not about the future. Tonight is about the present. Can the Caps come up large against a depleted but passionate Sabres squad and pull within one of Carolina for the division lead (and within 2 points of the Rangers and the #8 seed)?

And by the way, today is one of the few days in the season where it's permissible to root for the Thrashers.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Credit where credit is due

With the offensive explosion last night, most of the credit is (justifiably) being heaped upon Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. That's all well and good, but Ovechkin's magical first period performance was made possible by a much less glamorous player: Donald Brashear. Though his first period efforts only produced PIMs on the scoresheet, Brashear's tussle with Zdeno Chara set the stage for the Caps offensive eruption.

Why, you ask? It's simple. For years now Zdeno Chara has been one of the few players in the NHL capable of shutting down Alex Ovechkin. And when Chara dropped the gloves with the Donald, it guaranteed that he would be off the ice for five full minutes (as would Brashear). That's a tradeoff Coach Boudreau would take every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

When Chara heard the penalty box doors slam shut, the score was 2-0. By the time it opened again, the score was 4-0 and the Caps were off and running. Indeed, Big Zeke was so frustrated that he promptly took a minor penalty trying to goad Matt Bradley into fistacuffs moments later. Way to pick on someone your own size, big man. Bradley did the smart thing (in more ways than one) by keeping his gloves on and his nose clean, and the Caps promptly scored again on the ensuing power play. None of this would have occurred without Brashear's fearlessness and, just as importantly, the intelligence to see that Chara was agitated and would drop the gloves if goaded.

Naturally, Brash's smart play was rewarded with more ice time (the fact that the Caps were up by a handful of goals probably didn't hurt, either) and a goal late in the second. A job well done by a man whose hockey intelligence is often underrated.

Game highlights (sans fistacuffs) can be found below for your viewing pleasure:

Monday, March 3, 2008

Maddening inconsistency

First off, we'd like to take a moment to thank everyone who dropped by Clydes of Gallery Place and supported Wilson High School's hockey team. The event raised over $2000 for the team, which is a testament to the generosity of the hockey loving public here in DC. And thanks to the folks over at OFB for putting on the event. We now return you to your regularly scheduled grousing.

Ok, as of this moment we're no longer using the term must win in accordance with any Capitals game because at this point every game is a must win game. More of this win one, lose one crap just won't cut it. So lets take a moment to examine this weekend's games, then we'll move on to tonight's tilt against the red, er, yellow-hot Bruins.

This weekend had the potential to catapult the Caps back into contention for the Southeast Division title. And after the game against New Jersey on Friday night, it looked like that might just happen. The Caps played a very solid all around game against New Jersey, limiting the Devils to only 18 shots and thoroughly dominating the action. New aqcuisitions Sergei Fedorov and Cristobel Huet both made an impact, with Fedorov notching a pretty second assist on the power play and Huet stoning Zach Parise one on one to keep the Caps lead intact. The Caps also finally showed a killer instinct, piling on a couple late goals to preserve a well earned win.

Unfortunately, all that good was undone by a less than stellar effort against Toronto the next day. Olie Kolzig was solid in goal, but was beaten high to the short side by Leafs captain Mats Sundin, who snuck the shot in from near the upper part of the faceoff circle. It was a good goal, to be sure, but one can't help but wonder if Huet wouldn't have snagged it. The rest of the Capitals also looked lethargic and generally disorganized after dominating the first period. Alex Ovechkin broke out of his scoring slump, rifling a shot low to the left side past the helpless Leafs goaltender. Unfortunately, that was about all the offense the Caps produced, despite several power play opportunites.

In regards to the power play, I think it's time the Caps abandoned the whole Ovechkin at the point idea. It was cute when the Caps didn't have enough puck moving defensemen, but that's no longer the place with Green and Poti (and even new arrival Fedorov) more than capable of handling power play time at the point. And Ovechkin's one timer from the high slot is as unstoppable a shot as there is in the game, so it makes no sense to remove that weapon from the Caps arsenal. The Caps have suffered from overthinking and overpassing lately, and if there's one thing we know about the Russian Machine, it's that he's more than willing to take it upon himself to shoot the puck. Which is exactly what the power play needs right now.

The Caps badly need to win tonight's game (and the next one, and the one after that, and the one after that) if they are going to make the playoffs. In order to do that, they're going to have to do a couple things they aren't very good at. First, they're going to have to get past Zdeno Chara, who has been one of the few defensemen in the NHL capable of shutting down the Russian Machine. Second, they're going to have to get pucks past Tim Thomas, who has been a wall (albeit an unorthodox mess of a wall) against the Caps, posting a 8-0-1 record all time while recording a .940 save percentage. Luckily, the Caps have Chris Huet to throw at the Bs. His stats are equally impressive, with a 8-2-0 record and a .940 save percentage against Boston.

With all that said, I don't see a 1-0 game happening tonight. If the Caps have taught us anything this year, it's to expect the unexpected. I see the Caps pulling tonight's game out 4-2 (with an empty netter) if only to actually kill Original 6 by causing a heart attack at the game.