Tuesday, November 25, 2008

I got yer closed hand right here.

Starting the third period last night the contest with the Minnesota Wild seemed all but over. The Caps had been decimated by injury, looked worn down by their West Coast swing, were down by two, and had no offensive rhythm. And yet there was still plenty of time left for the game to turn. And then the referees inserted themselves into the game by calling what might have been the most pathetic and laughable calls of the season.

When Tom Poti and Alex Ovechkin were whistled for closing their hands on the puck within seconds of one another, the duo of Rob Shick and Chris Ciamaga essentially said "this game is about us and not about the teams playing." They put an undermanned team down 2 players, and the Wild promptly scored to go up by 3. The Wild went on to score again and go up 4-0, and the game looked to be over. And if they had been playing most other teams, the offensively bad pair of calls by the officials wouldn't have mattered.

Most teams can't break through the Wild's suffocating trap and get pucks past rock solid goaltender Niklas Backstrom. But the Caps are not most teams. They roared back in the third and scored not once, not twice, but three times to bring the game to within one. That they could not find the net for a fourth time should not have mattered. They shouldn't have had to.

All human beings make mistakes. Referees are human beings. So it follows that referees can and will make mistakes. That's forgivable. What is not is involving yourself in a game simply for the purpose of involving yourself. Calling obscure delay of game penalties that are practically never enforced not once, not twice, but three times in a game AND TWICE ON THE SAME TEAM WITHIN A MINUTE is grandstanding, plain and simple. And it cost the Capitals a point tonight.

I don't pay for my season tickets to watch referees insert themselves into games. I pay to watch the players. Period. Other than the families of Rob Shick and Chris Ciamaga, I bet every hockey fan feels the same way. And last night's display was an absolute embarrassment.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Out of gas

The formula is simple:
The Caps flew cross country two days ago, played one day ago, and then faced a Kings team that was playing at home and had rested since Sunday.

The predictable result - the Kings thoroughly outplayed the Caps for all but a few minutes in the third period, handing the Capitals a 5-2 loss (that was really a 3-2 loss with a couple empty netters). The Caps needed a some lucky bounces and a poor goaltending effort from the Kings, and got neither.

Not having Mike Green clearly affected the team's ability to get the puck out of the zone quickly, as the Caps had a noticeable uptick in the number of failed breakout attempts. If Green doesn't mean go for Saturday's game against San Jose, the Caps will be at a significant disadvantage.

The Caps simply have to put this game behind them, get some rest, and gear up for tomorrow. You can't jump into a shark tank at less than full strength and expect to avoid getting bitten.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Of sticks and measurement

On the surface, tonight's West Coast opener looks like a pretty good matchup for the Caps. Anaheim has one less point in two more games than the Caps, and they're a bit long in the tooth. Both teams play some fairly weak competition in conference (Phoenix, LA, Dallas in the Pacific, and Tampa, Florida, and Atlanta in the Southeast). But here's the big difference:

Anaheim plays in the Western Conference.

Surprising? Not if you look at a map (or have a fourth grade grasp of US Geography). But it is important, because the Western Conference is, without a doubt, superior to the East. Pittsburgh fans will no doubt point to their miracle comeback against Detroit as evidence to the contrary, but that game was an abberation (for a number of reasons). Look at a list of Stanley Cup Winners from 95-96 to the present. The West owns 8 Cups to the East's 4 during that period, and if the league actually called penalties during the playoffs it wouldn't even be that close (we're looking at you, New Jersey).

The simple fact is this: San Jose and Detroit are BY FAR the best teams in hockey (and anyone who has read this blog before knows how much I despise Detroit). After that, the next group of teams (Minnesota, Anaheim, Calgary) would all be likely division leaders in the East.

That's why this road trip is so important to the Caps. If they want to call themselves an elite NHL team, they need results out west. A solid victory against a tough Anaheim team would go a long way towards establishing the Caps as a team to beat (alas, beating LA will not). A win against San Jose would... well, lets see how the Caps fare against Anaheim and LA first.

In short, if this team is for real, this road trip will show it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

This is one of those nights

This is a night that Caps fans have always dreamed of. Your first line stats:
1, 2, 3, +4,
1, 3, 4, +4,
2, 3, 5, +4.

Now lets all hope Brent Johnson isn't for really real injured and that this is just a slick coaching move by Coach B to get J.T. (admit it, it sounds better that Joo-say Theey-oooo-dooore) some minutes without being under the gun.

Oh, yeah, and Carolina... you're old.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Clarification for tonight (with pictures!)

If you don't cheer him when he's introduced, you're a jerk.

If you cheer him after the game starts, you're a jerk.

Any other questions?

2 for 2

It's amazing what playing hard the full 60 minutes will do for a team. First, the Caps beat Carolina with their skills, scoring two pretty goals in the last 3 minutes of the game to shock the 'Canes 3-2. Two days later, they beat the Rangers with their will, grinding out a tough 3-1 win by creating havoc in front of Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist and crashing the net at every opportunity.

So what should be taken away from these two wins? First, that the Caps have the talent to compete with anyone in the East. The Hartford...er... Carolina Hurricanes were first in the SouthEast, having won 4 of their last 6 games. The Rangers lead their division and were 5-2 in their last 7 games and had just dropped a five spot on Tampa.

The Capitals played like a team tired of being questioned about their effort, about their talent, and about their commitment to winning. They got contributions from just about everyone on the ice. Their skill players scored (Alex Semin, 3g in 2 games). Their heavyweights scored resounding victories to boost team momentum (Donald Brashear in a one sided whupping of Wade Brookbank). Their grinders went hard to the net (Boyd Gordon setting up Tom Poti's goal with a drive to the front of the net and Brooks Laich slapping a deflected puck out of midair past Lundqvist). And their goaltender performed like a number one is expected (even if it was technically their number 2), making an arrray of difficult saves and even stopping a penalty shot in a one goal game.

A split over the weekend would be a sign of a team still trying to catch its groove. A win against both teams is an announcement to the league: the Caps are here to win, no matter the opponent.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Вы говорите русского?

Can't understand the headline above? Then you can't play on the Caps top line tonight against Carolina. Brent Johnson gets his second start in a row as the Caps look to keep their streak of games with at least a point at home to, well, all 5 of them.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Sometimes you have to hurt the ones you love

It finally happened. As often as we've called for wind sprints and punishing practices after subpar losses (and more than a couple subpar wins) over the years, Coach Boudreau kept a level head and allowed his players to work their way out of funks, sometimes even giving them days off to recouperate when it seemed they needed a good whupping. Well, Bruce finally cracked after Saturday's putrid showing against the Sabres. Instead of a day off, the Caps got 50 minutes of sprints. And it's about time.

Caps fans have seen a lot over the years. We've seen the worst team in NHL history (or at least Original 6 has. I wasn't born yet). But the city actually getting awarded an NHL franchise more than makes up for that. The team played hard, but the talent simply wasn't there to field a competetive team. We'll call that the Yvon Labre era.

We've seen year after year of teams just good enough to win in the regular season only to be bounced in the first or second round of the playoffs. Those were teams built with grit and integrity, symbolized by players like Dale Hunter and Rod Langway. There were some good to very good teams in those years, but they could never quite get over the hump, winning more than a playoff round only once (and then suffering the indignity of being swept by the Bruins).

We've seen our one shining run to the Stanley Cup Finals, marked by six overtimer winners, the single most productive run in Chris Simon's career (before a shoulder injury and what appears to be insanity ruined him), and Joe Juneau's overtime game winner in Buffalo. The only blemish that year was the fact that the best offensive player ever to wear a Capitals uniform (Peter Bondra, for you newbies) just wasn't able to put it together during the playoffs that year.

And we've known the embarassment of watching an All-World talent who simply didn't care enough to try hard. 2001-04 was like a gonzo nightmare for Caps fans, rooting for a player they didn't believe in, who repaid them in kind by not bothering to try hard. Most Caps fans still can't discuss this period without attempting to claw their eyes out.

The point in all this reminiscing is simple: we've seen a lot over the years as Caps fans. And, more than most fans, we know when our team isn't putting forth its' finest effort (for an example see Jagr, Jaromir). As a Caps fan, I can tell you that there has only been one game this year where the Caps have put forth an honest effort for 60 minutes, and even that comes with a qualification. When the Caps throttled Vancouver in the home opener the game was so far gone by the third period that they didn't need to bother showing up. There isn't a single game where the team has played to their potential for the full 60 minutes.

And after the embarrassment at Buffalo, something had to be done. The coach knew it. The players knew it. Hell, even the owner knew it.

So Coach Boudreau put away his "player's coach" hat and got down to the business of breaking down a team long on talent but short on effort. He rode his players until he knew they couldn't be ridden any further. The team's owner, instead of trying to sell fans a bill of goods like so many others might, publicly stated his embarassment with the level of effort being shown by the players and made clear that he would not stand for it.

Now all that's left is for the players to take the ice tomorrow in Ottawa and show the fans that they belong with the rest of the generations of hard working Capitals players who bled not just red, but Capitals red, white and blue.