Wednesday, October 22, 2008

9 Minutes

The Washington Capitals lost a game they should have won last night to the Calgary Flames, 2-1. The Caps were up 1-0 on Sergei Fedorov's beautiful redirection of an Alex Ovechkin pass. They were in control of the game in terms of both puck possession and physicality. Their freshly called up rookie defenseman Tyler Sloan had just laid out Daymond Langkow with a vicious but clean open ice hit. Calgary's Rene Bourque completely lost his cool and charged Sloan in an attempt at retribution. The result: 19 minutes in penalties and a 9 minute power play for the Capitals.

Calgary was about to implode. Again. Surely, the Caps would pot at least one goal during that stretch, and the Flames were not a team that played well from behind.

9 minutes later, the game was over and the Flames had won. The scoreboard just didn't show it yet. The Caps failed to score a single goal over the course of those nine minutes. Their momentum was totally stopped, and would not be regained. Teams simply do not rebound from that kind of atrocious effort.

Sure enough, after the penalty had expired and the Flames got a power play chance of their own Jerome Iginla potted a power play goal. The Caps and Flames were in a low scoring, plodding defensive game with absolutely no flow. It was the type of game Mike Keenan loves, and his teams win. And win they did.

Certainly, the officials deserve criticism for turning the game into a such a plodding, penalty filled affair as they piled make up call after make up call onto the scoresheet. But they cannot be faulted for what happened in that nine minute nightmare. Only the Caps players and their coach can bear that blame.

What went wrong? The Caps played too fancy, looking for a slam dunk at the far post instead of getting shots on net and applying pressure. They avoided high traffic areas like they were quarantined off. They managed ONLY 3 SHOTS. That's not anemic. It's full on flatlined. And that's exactly what the power play ineffectiveness did to the Caps last night. It killed them.

Part of the blame must also be laid at the feet of Coach Boudreau. He saw the same thing everyone else in the arena saw, namely that the Caps power play stunk. He could have made a drastic change to the power play linep. He could have simply rolled his top 3 lines as is without adjustments for the power play in order to keep the team playing its normal style. Instead, he let the putridity continue for all 9 minutes.

And the Caps paid the price.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

And then there were two

Two top tier defensemen, that is. Tom Poti's groin injury had better not be serious, because the Caps don't have the depth on the backline to have him miss more than a couple games.

If there's any good news regarding the injury, it's that the Caps did not choose to call up a defenseman from Hershey, which they would have done if they believed Poti was going to be out more than a few days. The decision to put Poti on the shelf is much more likely a preventative measure, as it doesn't take much to turn a groin pull into a serious injury (just ask Chris Clark).

In other defensive news, it looks like one of the Caps has finally decided to step up and become a physical force in the defensive end. Mike Green has clearly decided that it's not enough to be one of the league's top offensive threats. He has his sights set on being the league's top defenseman, period.

If you need any proof, ask Evgeni Malkin how his gut is feeling following Greener's classic hip check in the third period. Although he didn't land the shot flush (Malkin wouldn't have finished the game if he had), it's clear that Green has made the decision to be a physically intimidating force in his own end. As Green's timing improves, expect to see more than a few devastating hits this season from the lightning quick defenseman.

Also, Kudos to Matt Bradley for taking one for the team. Sometimes it's not about winning or losing the fight, but sticking up for your teammates, taking your lumps and then going right back to playing hockey. Way to gut it out through that gashed up mouth, Matt.

The Caps look to carry over the momentum from their third period surge against the Penguins to the start of tonight's game against the Devils, who once again bored a crowd (and the opposition) to sleep with a 1-0 victory. Expect Sergei Fedorov to once again distribute from the backline as the Caps look to break the god-awful neutral zone trap. Game time is 7 PM. Unless you're one of the folks who bought the all you can eat and booze Dewars club tickets, in which case you'll probably want to get there earlier.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What we know so far

We're three games into the season, and four things already stand out.

- Bruce Boudreau is a smart hockey coach. Knowing that he was playing a team that was not strong offensively and played the trap, Boudreau removed John Erskine from the lineup and moved Sergei Fedorov to the back line. Breaking the neutral zone trap depends on quick and accurate outlet passes, and Fedorov provided them in droves last night. Because of this, the Canucks were unable to slow the pace of the game and were completely outmatched by the speed and talent of the Caps forwards.

By specifically targeting the opposing gameplan and adjusting his lineup accordingly, Boudreau was able to completely nullify the strongest weapon in the Canucks arsenal (their boring as all get out system). The Caps have had fits dealing with trapping teams in the past, but it looks like they've found a viable solution for the future.

- Alexander Semin is good. Really good. Not that this is news to anyone who was watching the last 20 or so games last year, but Semin has arrived as an elite level talent. He's much stronger on the puck than in previous years, quicker, andis an absolutely lethal finisher around the net. If he stays healthy, fifty goals should be a cinch. On every team in the East except Pittsburgh or Atlanta he'd be the team's number one scoring option. And yes, I'm including the Canadiens in that list. Who would you rather have on your team, Alex Semin or Alex Kovalev? Thought so.

- Goaltending is going to be an adventure. Goals on the first shot in back to back games? Not good. Inconsistent stickhandling and poor decision making? Also not good. The Caps need to calm their goaltenders down in a hurry. Great puck possesion performances (such as the one the team put together against the Canucks) should go a long way towards settling Theodore and Johnson down and getting them focused.

- Defense is going to be even MORE of an adventure. The Caps right now have three viable NHL calibur defensemen, and one of them is a forward. Everyone not named Poti, Green, or Fedorov has so far looked like they're in a competition to see who can play themselves out of a job first.

So, to sum things up, our coach is showing that last year was no fluke, our defense is showing that the team needs Alzner sooner than later, our goalies haven't shown us much yet, and Alexander Semin is proving that he's got what it takes to be a superstar in the league.

Oh, and as the Deuce said, Viktor Kozlov has a boo-boo.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Breaking down the roster

And a hearty welcome back! To get fired up for the start of the season, we're breaking down the Caps skaters from potential call ups to 20 year veterans. Instead of by position, they're broken down by expectation.

The Outside looking in- You’re on the short list for call ups.

Quintin Laing:
Unfortunately, Quintin is in the worst possible position, having to clear waivers both down from the big club and up from Hershey. While Laing’s heart, determination, and willingness to put his health on the line to keep the puck out of the net are never in question he doesn’t have the physical aggressiveness to make him a 4th liner or offensive upside to push him into a third line slot. Unless one of the more defensive minded forwards sustains a multi-game injury, it’s likely Laing will spend most of his time in Hershey unless a trade is worked out.

Chris Bourque:
While his size will always be a detriment, Chris showed himself to be a more than capable offensive talent during the preseason. His two way contract made sending him to Hershey the right decision, but his offensive prowess, determination, and exceptional skating ability kept it from being an easy one.

Bourque has a nose for the net and is willing to pay the price to make a play, which is a must for a player of his stature. His natural fit on most teams would be on a second line, and the thought of him lined up with Nylander and Semin is quite appealing… until one thinks that they’ll actually have to play some of the game in the defensive end.

Expect Bourque to be the first offensive call up (especially if Tomas Fleischmann sputters early on) unless one of the Caps fourth liners goes down with an injury (in which case they’d need a more physical presence than young Chris can provide). My money is on Bourque supplanting Flash by midseason, as Chris has already shown more scoring ability at the NHL level and more willingness to get physical with opposing players.

Sami Lepisto:
There hasn’t been enough time to fully evaluate Lepisto, but from his play last year he looks like a guy that won’t crack the Capitals lineup unless he either finds a 6th gear and works on his passing and playmaking skills or develops a much more physical edge to his game. While the former is much more likely than the latter, it’s unlikely we’ll see more than a couple injury call ups for the young Finn unless Erskine’s lack of speed becomes a major issue for the up-tempo style the Caps are trying to establish as their hallmark.

The Make or Breakers – We need to see something from you. This year.

Boyd Gordon:
The Good- Boyd Gordon is an exceptional player in terms of defensive positioning, commitment to defense and willingness to sacrifice the body to make a play. He has adequate speed to play the NHL game.

The Bad- Gordon lacks the temperament or strength to wear down opposing players. He’s ten times more likely to get put on his can while protecting the puck than to put the other player down. He lacks the offensive tools to move him any further up than the third line, and even that’s a stretch at this point.

While he’s a great team player and an asset on the penalty kill, at this point his role with the team rests with his commitment to defense and the lack of a stronger, more physical player with his skillset. Despite how the fans admire his courage and effort and statistical “above averageness” (yes, we’re looking at you, J.P.) Gordon’s days as anything but a grind liner with the team are all but over.

Tomas Fleischmann:
One of the two most interesting players in this grouping. Flash has nothing left to prove at the minor league level and absolutely everything to prove in the NHL. While he is gifted with a strong and accurate wrist shot and above average playmaking ability, Fleischmann has so far been unable to break through on the big stage.

Some attribute it to youth and a small, slow to fill out frame, it may well be that Flash’s quickness and offensive talents are enough to overwhelm minor league goaltenders and defensemen but not quite enough to beat the stronger, more positionally sound and fleet of foot players in the NHL. If Fleischmann can step up and deliver at least 10 goals in the first half of the season, it will be a sign that he simply needed time to adapt to the big leagues both physically and mentally. If he can’t, it’s likely that this will be his last year with the organization, and possibly his last in the NHL.

Eric Fehr:
Eric Fehr represents another conundrum. Having lost almost his entire professional career to injury, Eric Fehr enters a season healthy for the first time. The experience of playing with the big club for the latter half of last year is certainly a plus, but just hanging around as a standard third or fourth line talent would have to be considered a disappointment.

To blatantly rip off The Deuce, Fehr will have to put up some serious offensive numbers this year if he doesn’t want to be forever known as The Guy We Picked Instead of Ryan Getzlaf. It says here he gets the job done.

David Steckel:
David Steckel has the same defensive skills and forechecking tenacity as Boyd Gordon, but adds a stronger offensive skillset, longer reach, and a much more imposing frame. A reliable defensive asset, Steckel should be expected to post double digit goals without sacrificing in the defensive end this season.

John Erskine:
As long as the team lacks a top tier sledgehammer on defense, John Erskine should have the role of defensive enforcer tied up. By far the most physical Caps defenseman, Erskine can be intimidating in close to the crease but his lack of footspeed often leaves him at the mercy of the league’s elite forwards when defending against the rush. His offensive skills are negligible.

All offensive liabilities aside, Erskine can be depended on to do what is necessary to keep the opposition honest. He also has no issues playing rough down low, slashing opponents near the crease, and doing whatever it takes to defend his area. He understands that tripping or cross checking an opponent with a scoring chance with 5 or 10 seconds left in the game is better than holding up and allowing them to shoot. Until the Caps either trade for or develop a marquee hard edged defenseman, Erskine will be called upon to play solid minutes against the more physical teams in the league.

Milan Jurcina:
Will the real Milan Jurcina please stand up? In his best moments (like his first few games after being traded from Boston) Jurcina is an intimidating presence, a giant hard hitting ogre of a defenseman. Unfortunately, just as often (if not more so) he’s completely passive, allowing opposing skaters to skate by him with only a wave of the stick as they pass by. If Jurcina wants to stay on the Caps active roster, he has to commit to taking the body every minute of every game.

The Known Commodities: We know what we’re getting from you, more or less.

Brooks Laich:
Laich appears to have made the leap from a grinder who can chip in a few goals to a legitimate two way forward. His speed is often underestimated and he plays a tough physical game. His scoring touch has improved immensely over the past couple of years, and he should score around 25 goals while providing solid play in all three zones.

Matt Bradley:
Matt Bradley is good for solid all around effort, a few big hits (or at least big attempts) and more one liners than you can shake a stick at every game. Expect the “fan favorite” to chip in with a single digit goal total and 25 or so points along with a few fights smattered in.

Donald Brashear:
Nearing the end of his career, The Donald is still one of the most feared enforcers in the game. The only question with Brashear is whether his already less than stellar footspeed will hold up for another season, and how comfortable he is with what should be a significant reduction in ice time.

Michael Nylander:
If he is truly recovered from shoulder surgery, Nylander should be a big time contributor to the Capitals offense. His puck control skills and ability to find the open man are still in the top 20 in the league. Forget that he will is penciled in as a third liner. He will see significant time on the power play where the extra time and space make him a lethal setup man, and while a return to 80 point form seems unlikely sixty five or so points seems about right.

Chris Clark:
This season a fully fit Chris Clark should return to his post as a upper tier power forward and, just as important, the emotional leader of the team. While another 30 goal season would be icing on the cake, it’s more likely that Clark will chip in somewhere in the range of 25. Clark’s leadership and intangibles will more than make up for the mild production drop.

Sergei Fedorov:
The most versatile player on the roster, Fedorov will be asked to play in just about every situation and position except in goal. As always, he’ll perform admirably, and while his best days are certainly behind him expect Sergei to perform a higher level than he has in years. Great players always seem to have great farewell tours, and even if he’s lost a couple steps Fedorov still has the skill and veteran guile to make his memorable.

Viktor Kozlov:
Viktor Kozlov is by far the most maddening player on the team. Gifted with tremendous hands and size, Kozlov should be a force on the ice each and every night. Unfortunately, his refusal play anything resembling a physical game and his overall lack of interest in the game keep him from being an elite forward.

If Kozlov is given time and space, he is an extremely adept passer and has a shot that is hard and accurate enough to beat most NHL goaltenders. If pressured, Kozlov tends to give up on a play far too easily. Unfortunately, opposing defensemen know this and rarely allow the big fellow to skate free. Just the same as every year in his career, expect above average regular season numbers and yet another disappearing act in the playoffs when it requires heart as well as skill to get the job done. The good news? He’s off the books after this season, so the 2.5 million he earns can be paid to players who actually care.

Tom Poti:
Poti figures to be the team’s number one all around defenseman again this year. While a shoulder injury limited him at both ends of the ice last year, a fully healthy Tom Poti should produce above average offensive numbers and his trademark solid defensive play. While his power play minutes will be reduced because of Fedorov’s ability to play the point and the emergence of Mike Green as one of the league’s premier offensive defensemen, Poti still figures to log a lot of minutes, especially late in tight contests.

Shaone Morrison:
If playing defense was based on slick skating, smooth transition, and positioning, Morrison would be a top tier player. Unfortunately, defense in the NHL also requires a physical element and a willingness to play to the very limits of the rules, which Big Mo has never developed. He’s a solid second or third pairing defenseman, but unless he develops much more upper body strength and a real nasty attitude to match that’s about as far as he’s going to go.

The Potential Breakouts – This is your year kid. Let’s see you go out there and grab it!

Alexander Semin:
Injuries kept the “other” Alex from reaching his potential last season, but he came on strong late. His first playoff experience started slow, but once he adjusted to the physical, tight checking atmosphere he truly came alive. He exhibited desire many though he lacked, and added a physical edge that he’d never before even shown glimpses of.

A healthy Alexander Semin should thrive with the skilled players he’s been surrounded with. A career year is, if not expected, certainly hoped for.

Nicklas Backstrom:
In his rookie year, Nicklas Backstrom adapted quickly to the North American ice surface, showing constant growth. By the end of the season he was a lock not only for the first line and the coveted slot lining up next to Alex Ovechkin, but for the first power play unit as well. If Backstrom continues to develop and improves his skating (probably his weakest area) the sky is the limit. With the depth the Capitals have at center this season, awarding the number one slot to a second year pro speak volumes about how highly the organization regards him.

Jeff Schultz:
In his first season with the Capitals, there were nights when Schultz looked completely outmatched and, quite honestly, not ready for the NHL. In by the end of his second season, he appeared to have shored up his positional issues and had adapted sufficiently to the speed of the game. Will Schultz’ third season be the one in which he finally is willing and able to use his tremendous size to impose his will on opposing forwards? Probably not, but remember how awkward Zdeno Chara looked his first couple of seasons?

Karl Alzner:
Alzner is this far down the list for one simple reason: he may start the season in Hershey, but there’s no way he finishes it there. Alzner has the tools to be a top pairing defenseman, and although that probably won’t happen this year it’s not too much to expect him to break into the second pair. The kid is, quite simply, the real deal.

Mike Green:
I know, I know, Greener’s breakout season was technically last season. The simple (and scary) fact remains that the kid hasn’t neared his potential. If he is able to shore up his positioning issues in his own zone and continues to be willing to play the body as often as he rushes he’s all but assured to be the league’s best offensive defenseman for the second year in a row. And if the Caps can win a playoff round, his mohawk should be something to behold.

The Chosen One
Alex Ovechkin
‘nuff said.