Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Year of the Tiger

One of my fondest memories of Christmas, especially as I got older and began seriously following sports (high school years) and returned home during college and later from the "Real World (no, I'm not a reality TV star; I'm talking about my $1,000 a month internship in the Princeton U. athletic department), was reading a Washington Post column written by -- ironically enough -- a bald Jewish guy.

Love him or hate him -- well, I've never loved him, but have enjoyed his work, and definitely at times have hated him -- Tony Kornheiser is a brilliant, witty writer with an uncanny ability to make you think, laugh, cry and throw a chair across the room all in a few sentences. While I wouldn't describe him as one of the media's foremost sports experts, as a columnist he is sorely missed.

Kornheiser used to write a year-in-review column about this time every holiday season. In typical Kornheiser style it usually was witty, touching -- even abstract -- and dripping with sarcasm. He normally chose a theme for the year and started off with a few graphs about the events of the preceding 360 or so days and then closed with a list of names of athletes, celebrities and other newsworthy folks grouped in twos, threes or fours, related to each other by some unamed connection (or simply for comic relief). The opening caused you to pause and reflect, while the list made you think and try to connect the dots. Sometimes they were easy to figure out, like Danny, Vinny and Zorn might be this year. But sometimes you couldn't figure out the connection and it would drive you crazy until at some random moment it hit you, inevetably causing you to blurt it out proudly to no one in particular or to a stunned and confused group of friends or relatives during Christmas dinner.

I searched long and hard for one of these columns and thanks to some advice from @geosteph on Twitter finally tracked one down in the Washington Post online archvies (cost me $3.95; Tony, do you get royalties?). Korneheiser's column dated Dec. 25, 1990, was titled, coincidentally, The Year of the Big Fall. The more things change, the more they stay the same I guess. I'm not sure if anyone else misses this yearly piece, but I'm hoping that maybe some of you might. So, this year, I'm attempting to fill the void -- and maybe start a new holiday vision -- with my blog entitled The Year of the Tiger. Consider it a tribute to Kornheiser's work instead of outright creative thievery, if you would.

In reality, according to the Chinese calendar, 2009 is the Year of the Ox. And, when you think about it, several of the past 10 or so years could have been dubbed The Year of the Tiger in sports -- albeit for different reasons. In fact, the way Tiger Woods played at times this year, at one point a case could have been made that even without the public revelations about his self-proclaimed "transgressions," 2009 might have turned out to be the Year of the Tiger in a positive light. However, first the Chosen One proved to be human during a couple of on-course physical and emotional meltdowns and then, like any good Greek tragic hero (maybe that's where the physique came from, not the "Juice," as some recently have hinted) -- his hubris away from the links led to a, pardon the pun, climax involving a mysterious accident and a smoking golf club. That was followed by a footrace to the "ATM" featuring all of the skeletons in Tiger's closet.

I lost count when Tiger's face and/or named graced the back page of the New York Post an unprecedented 12 consecutive days, I believe outlasting the attacks on 9/11. And why the public outcry? Because Tiger and his marketing team had made us believe that the greatest golfer of all-time also was one of the greatest guys of all-time? Or did they? Or was it just that we wanted so badly to believe that at least one world-class athlete also was a world-class person that we convinced ourselves, to paraphrase Denny Green, that he was who we thought he was?

Maybe it was a combination of the two, but the reality is that until we follow the advice of Sir Charles Barkley (who has become a folk hero in this country because of his absolute fallibility and willingness to point that out and poke fun at it), and stop anointing professional athletes as role models, we are going to continue to get kicked in the same area that Elin wanted to stick Tiger's 8-iron. It's time to come to the realization that professional athletes are great at what they do and provide us hours of enjoyment and entertainment on the field, court, rink or wherever they ply their trade. They also happen to be just like you and me -- prone to making mistakes, stupid decisions, bad judgements and getting into altercations with others. This was okay in the days of the Babe and the Mick, so maybe to avoid another Year of the Tiger we should learn to look at things with more of an old-fashioned perspective going forward. Whatever...what's the over/under for number of women who ultimately will step forward? Let's set it at 28-1/2.

So, as Tiger continues to dominate the headlines like an April Sunday at Augusta, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year (or here's to a better 2010) to:

Steve Hauschka, John Carney and Sean Suisham;
Billy Cundiff and Graham Gano;
Matt Stover and Sean Suisham;
Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald;
Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison and Santonio Holmes;
Danny, Zorn and Vinny; Moe, Larry and Curley;
Jason Campbell, Clinton Portis and Hunter Smith;
Todd Collins, Colt Brennan and Chase Daniel;
Drew Brees, Mark Brunell and Chase Daniel;
Mark Ingram Jr., Mark Ingram Sr. and Tim Tebow;
A-Rod, Andy, Geroge "The Boss" and George Costanza;
Redskins and Orioles fans;
Gary and Greivas;
Fridge and James Franklin;
Stephon Heyer and Edwin Williams;
Brude Boudreau, Dan Bielsma and John Stevens;
Ovie, Syd the Kid and Geno;
Jose Theodore and Olaf Kolzig;
Santana Moss and Chris Cooley;
Andre Carter and Brian Orakpo;
Kobe, Shaq and Lebron - one name says it all;
L.T., Andre Agisi and Ron Artest;
Roger Federer and Andy Roddick;
Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen;
John Gruden and Tony Kornheiser;
Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders - those were the days;
Devin Thomas, Fred Davis and Quinton Ganther;
Mariano, Duane, Peyton and Pavel -- class personified;
Wade and Jerry;
The Hershey Caps - Neuvirth, Laing, Giroux, Aucoin, Wilson, Carlson, Gordon, Kane, Perreault, Alzner;
Varly and Lord Stanley;
Comcast, Direc TV and Vs.;
Michigan and Notre Dame;
Manny, Joe Torre and Phil Jackson;
Manny and Floyd;
Manny, Moe and Jack;
Manny happy returns;
Michael Jordan and Kanye West;
West Coast offense, NFC West and AFC West;
Isaiah Thomas and Steve Phillips;
David Beckham and Landon Donovan - to be reuninted on opposite sides in S. Africa?
The Steelers and Penguins;
Bill Ripken and the New Jersey Nets;
Rex Ryan and Bill Belichick;
Ricky Williams, Carson Palmer and Cedric Benson;
Chad Johnson and Chad Ohchocino - together again;
Mike Vick, Donovan McNabb, Desean Jackson;
Baseball, softball and Chicago;
Weiss, and Mangenious;
Josh McDaniel and Jay Cutler;
T.O., Roy Williams and Miles Austin;
UConn women's hoops, the Colts, Texas and Alabama football;
Brett Favre, Brad Childress and LeRoy Butler;
Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu;
London Fletcher and Miami;
Brian Kelly; Nick Saban and John Calipari;
Abert Haynesworth, Randy Moss and Adalius Thomas;
Haynesworth (it takes a really great year to make the list twice, so congrats to the $100 million man, team-MPV-turned-scapegoat Suisham and preseason Skins MVP Daniel), Jeremiah Trotter, Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Brandon Lloyd and Adam Archuleta;
Abe and George - R.I.P. D.C. Sports Icons; same to you, Steve McNair and Chris Henry.

Enjoy the holiday season and get ready for another roller-coaster year in sports in 2010. We wouldn't have it any other way, would we?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Ovechkin Owes it to Hockey to be Himself

Okay, so I grew up in the D.C. area and have been a Capitals fan since Day 1. I’m stating that bias up front.

But, as someone who also has played and coached hockey since I was five years old, I want to state this fact, which I don’t even consider open for argument: If you had to choose one player in the world to start a professional hockey franchise with, it would be Ovechkin. I say that with all due respect to Crosby, Malkin, Chara, Tavares and the rest. There is no one who plays with the combination of speed, skill, desire and physicality that he brings to the ice. In fact, he may stand alone in NHL annals when it comes to possessing that complete package (That is open for debate!).

In recent days Ovechkin has alternately been painted by many fans and media personnel as a bad guy, a dirty player, reckless and/or careless. I’m going to fall back on the Tiger Woods argument here: Do you know any 24-year-olds who are a bit reckless and careless? Who think that maybe they are invincible? Who drive their cars too fast or don’t wear their seat belts or have a few too many beers before driving? How did you behave at age 24? How do you behave now?

I have the good fortune of seeing Ovechkin on an almost daily basis and observing how hard he practices, how he is appreciated by his teammates, how much he cares about being the best, how he gives his best effort every single night, how excited he gets when other players score and how much he hates to lose. I also get the insider’s point of view at times since one of my former bosses, a former intern of mine and a friend whose son I coach in baseball and hockey all work for the Caps.

While I know that many of you in Philly, Pittsburgh, New York, Buffalo and now Carolina won’t agree with me, Ovechkin is not a dirty player and he’s certainly not a bad guy. He happens to play the game at a speed that, to be frank, is not normal by even NHL standards. He’s all-out, all the time, and at 225-plus lbs., when you are moving that fast, your ability to stop or turn on a dime and to swerve at the last second to avoid a potentially damaging hit is extremely difficult.

All year long we’ve heard about how Tom Brady is being over-protected and receiving the royal treatment. Football fans have openly wondered how a large, athletic person moving at full speed and ready to engage another player can stop his momentum on the spot and not follow through on a hit. Ovechkin, while not 250 or 350 lbs., is still quite a load. And he’s on skates. On top of that – and I’m just guessing here – I think he’s moving a little faster than Albert Haynesworth. Does anyone really think that Ovechkin would want to subject his knee to the type of impact and trauma it was exposed to in his most recent hit on Carolina’s Tim Gleason? C’mon man!

And for those who are claiming that this is his third incident since last season’s playoffs, let’s be real. I happen to be a Sergei Gonchar fan from his days with the Caps, but he has been known to run from contact and turn the puck over when pressured. Penguins fans should remember first-hand how he gave their team the puck and a playoff series win against Washington with an overtime turnover years ago. Gonchar caused that injury by trying to basically run and hide from Ovechkin, who apparently tortured him in Russia during the lockout year. Similarly, Gleason saw the freight train coming and made a quick, athletic move at the last second. Don’t get me wrong, I would have done the same (not as athletically, of course), so it’s not Gleason’s fault. But I’m just not convinced that Ovechkin, at that moment, could have done much to avoid the contact. And as for his recent boarding major, there are three to five hits a game that go uncalled and are worse than that one.

Don’t get me wrong, the officials had no choice but to penalize Ovechkin for the Gleason hit, and by rule, the league really had no choice but to suspend him. I’m not debating that, but he’s simply not a dirty player. He doesn’t use his stick to restrain people or carve guys up. He doesn’t fight. He’s never jumped a defenseless, unsuspecting opponent or sucker-punched a player engaged with another opponent like Sydney Crosby has. And I definitely don’t consider Crosby a dirty player.

Hockey is a contact sport. Fans and sports reporters everywhere complain on a regular basis about professional athletes. They get paid too much and don’t care. They don’t work hard every night. They don’t talk to the media. They have no personality. They don’t promote the game. They don’t love to play.

Wake up everyone! We have found a guy who does all of that on a daily basis. Ovechkin gives 100 percent all the time, loves to play, celebrates for his teammates as much or more than for himself, wants to win badly, strives to the be best in the game, pokes fun at himself in commercials and in the media and promotes the sport.

He drove a Zamboni down Sixth Avenue in Manhattan and cruised D.C. on a Segway with several teammates for the love of God. Maybe he’s a 24-year-old who thinks he’s invincible. If that’s his greatest flaw, then perhaps we are all guilty – or have been – at some level. No matter how you slice it, his style of play and personality are good for the game and good for professional sports. We need more Alex Ovechkins, not fewer.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Caps Ready to Take Over the Nation's Capital?

The Washington Capitals have an unprecedented opportunity this season. They can literally take over the town – and that mission begins tonight when the puck drops to begin the 2009-10 NHL season as the Caps take on the Bruins in Beantown.

Many doubted that D.C. ever could be a true hockey town, but three men have the franchise perched on the verge of making what once seemed impossible a reality - Alex Ovechkin, unarguably the best player in the world; owner Ted Leonsis; and coach Bruce Boudreau.

Ovechkin, the two-time reigning Hart Trophy recipient and back-to-back players' choice as the league's MVP, has captured the imagination of Washington sports fans like no other athlete since ... well, like no other athlete during my 39 years. Previous teams have captured our hearts – and so have some charismatic athletes – for short periods of time, but no one has elevated a franchise or a sport to the forefront in this locale like the Russian Machine.

Ted Leonsis, plain and simple, is the best professional franchise owner in the D.C.-Baltimore area. He's made hockey affordable for the loyal fans that followed the team during the lean years and is not gouging those same diehards now. He's provided the best in-game experience around. He's embraced the cutting edge of technology and maintained open and (mostly) honest communication with the fan base. And, finally, he's let the hockey experts in the organization do their jobs, which took quite a bit of patience during the down times. The end result is the league's most exciting team along with a true home-ice advantage and an atmosphere that ranks among the best in the NHL. It's certainly a far cry from the 12,000 empty seats we used to see on a Tuesday night in February.

Bruce Boudreau simply has been the most successful coach in professional hockey the past 1-1/2 seasons, compiling an eye-popping 87-41-15 record and winning two Southeast Division championships. Remember, he inherited a team that was in last place in the conference around Thanksgiving 2007, instituting a free-wheeling style that capitalized (pun intended) on the team's speed and skill, and led them all the way to the division crown. He managed this after countless years toiling in relative obscurity as a player and coach at the minor league level.

His formula for success is as plain as the image he projects: Get after the players behind closed doors and challenge them to give their best every time on the ice, be straightforward and let the players know where they stand, show compassion and empathy for those like him who are on the fringe as NHL players and never take shots at anyone publicly. That style breeds loyalty, camaraderie from the top down and the type of chemistry needed to win a championship. Guys may come and go between Washington and Hershey, but instead of sulking, they return to the AHL with a purpose and the unyielding desire to do whatever it takes to get back to Washington and be a part of what Boudreau is building. That is a tribute to the coach, especially in this day and age of temperamental coddled professional athletes.

Oh, and one other piece of the puzzle that is important to recognize is general manger George McPhee, better known as GMGM in Twitter- and blog-speak. He has been often maligned, sometimes beloved and frequently second-guessed by the public and the media. But, at the end of the day, he's the rare sports executive who has successfully taken a veteran, reasonably successful team apart, stripped it down and overseen a complete rebuilding to the point that the team is on the brink of exceeding anything it has accomplished during its 35 years of existence. Love him or hate him, there's something to be said for what McPhee has accomplished.

So, where does that leave us as the Capitals prepare to embark on what potentially could be a historic season for them - one in which they quite possibly could rise to greater heights than ever before? Not only are the Caps a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, some have dared to label them a favorite.

The Penguins are still a great team, but we'll see how they handle Lord Stanley's hangover. The Red Wings lost more talent than ever during the off-season. Boston's success is predicated on the performance of a journeyman goaltender who was the best netminder in the league last year. But can Tim Thomas put together two seasons in a row of that caliber? Chicago seems to be the next Western Conference power, but still may be where the Caps were a year ago; a little bit of seasoning will make them really tough. San Jose? They just can't seem to get it done in April. Others have reloaded, but the Caps enter year three of what seems to be a natural progression toward greatness.

At least one national sports publication has picked the Caps to win the Cup, which as we all know can be a blessing or a curse. Nonetheless, it is a sign of respect. There are two things that I know: I've never seen the Caps win the Stanley Cup, and I've never seen the Caps picked to win the Stanley Cup - by ANYONE. They must be doing something right.

It's an exciting time to be a Caps fan. Those who are already aboard the express should consider themselves lucky. With the way the Redskins, Wizards, Orioles and Nationals are performing these days, Washington is one step away from being a hockey town - for a long time. I believe Ovie has another 11 or so years left on that contract, right? If you haven't gotten your tickets yet, it may be a long time before you can head to Chinatown to Rock the Red. To me, as a long-time Caps supporter who has been involved in youth and amateur hockey in this area for nearly 35 years, that's the coolest part.

Enjoy tonight. Enjoy the season. Remember that only one team ends the year on a truly positive note. It's a marathon, not a sprint. Revel in the fact that people areound North America pay a lot of money to go see YOUR team play. D.C., you have arrived as a hockey town. Let's hope the ride is a long and fruitful one.

Monday, April 20, 2009

It's All About Playing Better

Enough of the demons and exorcisms. No more playoff beards or rocking the red. You don't have to eat the same meal you ate before every game this year or wear the same underwear. None of that matters right now for the Washington Capitals.

There's no need to be long-winded, humorous or derisive at this point. I'm going to keep it simple, just like the Caps need to. Tonight - and the success or failure of this season - hinges on one thing: making a 60-minute (or longer) commitment to playoff hockey.

Simplified that means:

1) Play fast - vertically, not horizontally
2) Take the puck to the outside, get it in deep and forecheck like there's no tomorrow
3) If you lose the puck, skate hard, backcheck and then get the heck off the ice so fresh players can jump on
4) Play physical, but within the flow of the game; don't go out of your way to be physical
5) Put people who get near your goalie on their backs
6) No lazy penalties - shorter shifts
7) Go to the net when you don't have the puck
8) Shoot the puck on net when a teammate is moving in that direction
9) Do not let Lundqvist see the puck
10) Treat EVERY player like he's Sean Avery

Bruce Boudreau has said many times this year that the Caps are "too cute." The great news is that they often are talented enough to get away playing that style. The bad news is that it's not working right now. Boudreau also said that last year he thought it took the Caps a few games to learn what it takes to win in the playoffs. He had hoped that learning curve would be shortened or eliminated this year, but apparently it hasn't. Still, it's not too late. I'm pretty confident the Caps will dominate the game tonight. The question that lingers, though, is whether Lundqvist will be too good and steal another win for the Rangers. That's why this 2-0 hole seems so enormous right now.

The Caps need a few breaks, but you make your own breaks by how you play. If they commit to a playoff style, everything will work out fine. I'm just fearful that some guys currently in the lineup may not be capable of making that commitment. We will soon find out. Faceoff in less than two hours.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Caps Playoff Past Exorcism

The only way to defeat your demons is to stare them in the face and laugh at them. So, instead of pushing the panic button, I’m going to bring back all of the painful memories and ghosts of Capitals’ playoff failures past in an effort to exorcise those demons. And, to be honest, I’m not sold on this playoff beard thing either, especially considering that it has NEVER worked for the Caps. And Rocking the Red seems to be a pretty good formula during the regular season, but not so much in the playoffs. I may go with fluorescent green tomorrow.

Anyway, this list of painful memories is going to hurt a bit, but in retrospect laughing is the only response that is appropriate. The tears have already been shed, so read the list, have yourself a chuckle and get ready for four straight Caps victories. Now, in chronological order:

John Tonelli
Bob Bourne
Billy Smith
Butch Goring
Brian Trottier
Anders Kallur
Patrick Flatley
Kelly Hrudey
Brent Sutter
John Vanbiesbrouck
Adam Graves
Bob Brooke
Tomas Sandstrom
Pierre Larouche (rhymes with La D…)
Greg Gilbert
Pat Lafontaine
Bob Mason
Al Arbour
Easter Sunday
Andy van Hellemond
Larry Murphy
Bob Mason
Sean Burke
John MacLean
Ron Hextall
Rick Tocchet
Pelle Eklund
Brian Propp
Ray Borque
Cam Neely
Andy Moog
John Carter
Bobby Carpenter, Bob Gould, Gary Galley, Dave Christian
Glen Wesley
Mario Lemieux
Tom Barrasso
Scotty Bowman
Jaromir Jagr (thief)
Ron Francis
Joe Mullen
Dale Hunter
Pierre Turgeon
Benoit Hogue
Brad Dalgarno
Brian Mullen
Ray Ferraro
Travis Green
Terry Gregson
Jim Carey
Jim Schoenfeld
Ken Wregget
Ed Johnston
Norm Maciver
Troy Murray
Joe Juneau
Chris Tamer
Petr Nedved
Jim Johnson
Chris Osgood
Sergei Fedorov
Esa Tikkanen
Kris Draper
Niklas Lidstrom
Steve Yzerman
Thomas Holmstrom
Vladimir Konstantinov
Gary Bettman
Home ice advantage?
Johan “Moose” Hedberg
Kevin Stevens
Jan Hrdina
Sergei Gonchar
John Tortorella
Vincent Leavalier
Jason Doig
Martin St. Louis
Martin Biron
Scott Hartnell
Braydon Coburn
Tom Poti
Mike Richards
Cristobal Huet
Joffrey Lupul
Sean Avery
Scott Gomez
Brandon Dubinsky
Henrik Lundqvist
Jeff Schultz
Jose Theodore

I know I’ve missed a few, but you get the idea. I look all of these people and situations in the eye and laugh. There, demons exorcised. Funerals end TODAY! Nothing but positive thoughts going forward. Now, does anyone have a black cat I can play with for a few hours?

Saturday prediction: Caps 5, Rangers 2

Thursday, April 16, 2009

If I Were Bruce Boudreau ...

I'm not Bruce. He's a great coach. I have all the faith in the world in him and believe he will turn this thing around. But, if I were Bruce, here is what I would do:

1) Bench Michael Nylander - Right now the Caps need to play fast and physical, not skate around in circles waiting to make the perfect pass. When they are on their game, going 100 miles an hour, getting the puck in deep, hitting and forechecking hard, they are really tough to beat. NONE of that is Nylander. He often halts their momentum and makes the blind passes that turn into the giveaways that lead to odd-man rushes and expose guys like Jeff Schultz and Jose Theodore.

For the past month the Caps have been able to play on cruise control effectively against inferior competition. That's the pace that Nylander likes and allows him to put up numbers. The only time he showed any energy this year was when Keith Aucoin was playing his butt off down the stretch and making a case to send Nylander to the playoff scratch list. A nice segue to my second point...

2) Play Keith Aucoin - This guy brought energy every night the last month of the season. There were games when Boudreau used him on the power play to create traffic and work the corners because the team was listless. Aucoin really made a case for himself to be included on the playoff roster, and right now he's the kind of player they need in the lineup. It's time to roll up the sleeves and go to work, not to put on the figure skates and make pretty moves and passes. The Caps created very litte traffic in front of the net last night and just didn't maintain playoff-level energy f0r the entire game. Again, after a month of cruising, it's hard to just flip that switch and go. I thought they were physical for the first 10 minutes and made a statement, but didn't make the full 60-minute commitment you need in the playoffs. Ovechkin and Laich bring that every night, so adding another guy who does to go on a third line makes sense.

Keep in mind that Chris Clark has been cleared to play as well, so if you don't want to steal Aucoin from Hershey, dressing the captain would have to be a huge emotional lift. You think he might be ready to play? After missing last year's stretch run and playoffs and most of this season, I think the Caps' most popular player in the locker room would take the team to another level of intensity almost by himself. Either Aucoin or Clark is a better option than "Circles."

3) Bench Jeff Schultz - I defintely am not a Jeff Schultz hater. Bruce's assesment that he is sound positionally and generally makes good decisions is fair enough. But, with the Caps playing more wide open down the stretch, committing more neutral zone turnovers and not backchecking as ferociously as normal, Schultz has been exposed as someone who is too immobile to keep up when the game becomes more wide open. So, until the Caps forwards start taking care of the puck and getting back on defense more consistently, Schultz is just not a good fit. Brian Pothier deserves a chance, and if he doesn't work out you have to turn to Karl Alzner. Alzner is probably the Caps' third-best defenseman right now anyway, so why not put your best team on the ice? I'd be happy with both Alzner and Pothier in the lineup.

4) Shorten the leash on Theodore - For better or worse, he has to the guy. There's no choice, and to not show confidence in him after just one loss would send the wrong message to him and the team. What happens if Varlamov gives up two goals on three shots as a replacement? Then you've got two goalies with no confidence. Remember how Jim Schoenfield ruined Jim Carey by yanking him in and out of the lineup vs. the Penguins in the playoffs years ago? Bruce can't afford to mess up a great team by playing mind games with the goalies. However, if Theodore gives up two early tallies Saturday, you have to give him the hook and hope Varlamov comes in with nothing to lose, performs well and builds the confidence to start the next game. We're not asking for Patrick Roy or Ken Dryden. All the Caps need is for their goalie to make one or two big saves per game and they will be in good shape. Theodore made zero key saves last night.

It's definitely not panic time, but this is not mid-season, either. Nylander's play has been the same for as long as he's been a Capital. Last night was not unusual, so removing him is hardly a knee-jerk reaction. Schultz has been exposed for weeks, and you've eased Pothier back into the lineup. Alzner showed he is a NHL-caliber defenseman for a good part of the season. Again, playing him makes sense. And Theodore has been inconsistent all year. If he is hot Saturday then by all mans go with him, but sticking with him too long could put the Caps in a very difficult hole to climb out of.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

NHL Playoff Preview

The puck drops tonight and everything changes. The intensity goes up. The stakes are raised. The mistakes are magnified. The great goals seem even greater. A soft goal appears softer. A two-goal deficit feels like four. A body check sounds like an explosion against the boards. The cheering is louder. The sound of disappointment even more silent and empty. The bad call becomes the worst call ever - until the next one favors your team. Everything is ratcheted up several notches, and the end result is the most exciting sports tournament in the world: the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Because I follow the Washington Capitals so closely, I'm going to go into more depth when discussing their series than the others. But I'm not going too deep, because the reality of the situation is very clear. If the Caps play at their maximum intensity throughout and the Rangers do the same, Washington advances in five games - unless the King stands on his head, in which case it might go six. If Lundqvist is spectacular AND Theodore is a sieve, but the Caps play at the top of their game - in terms of sheer effort - the Rangers can push them to seven.

I really don't think that anyone can question that line of reasoning. However, in my mind the issue is this: The Caps, despite going 6-2-2 in their last 10 games, have been on cruise control for a month. They are that talented. The danger is that if they can't get to that peak level of intensity quickly enough, the Rangers could steal a game or two. If that happens - and Lundqvist gets hot - you have a recipe for an upset.

Still, everyone is talking about Ovechkin and Avery being keys to this series. Avery has put up solid numbers since his return and been the pain in the butt and inspiration the Rangers needed in their lineup to make a run to the playoffs. I think Ovechkin wants to win too much to let a guy like Avery get him off of his game. Believe it or not, I believe there is another level that Ovechkin can get to, and we will see that starting tonight. If I had to bet on Alex Ovechkin or Sean Avery, although I do respect Avery's influence on his team, I'll take Ovie every time. Avery may be able to get inside a guy like Semin's head, but Ovechkin is one of the mentally toughest athletes I've ever seen. He's Jordan on skates. Remember, Michael was part of a rebuilding team before winning all the championships.

The Caps will backcheck like crazy, eliminate the unforced turnovers in their own end and in the neutral zone. They'll play the combination of speed/physical hockey that makes them unique. That will wear down the Rangers, which will allow Washington's talent and depth to take over.

Prediction: Caps in five.

Bruins vs. Canadiens
While I'm still not sold 100 percent on Boston, you can't argue with their scoring depth or the goaltending performance of Tim Thomas this year. Thomas still has to avoid the mental lapses that sometimes have cost him and prove that he is a playoff goalie, but the Bruins have too much scoring too sound in their own end to drop this series. Because of the rivalry factor and the ghosts in Montreal, the Habs will put up a fight and make it as ugly as necessary to compete.

Prediction: Bruins in six.

Devils vs. Hurricanes
The Devils limped across the finish line, while the Canes finished as one of the hottest teams in the league. While the Devils have much more offensive talent and scoring depth than in years past, they are not nearly as good defensively as they have been in years past. And Marty hasn't looked like Marty - at all. Is it possible he could get pulled for the rookie if things go bad? I think maybe. Anyway, I'm one who thought that Jersey was doing it with mirrors all year, anyway.

Prediction: Canes in six

Penguins vs. Flyers
I can't say that I'm unhappy that one of these teams will be eliminated in the first round. Clearly this is the most even and interesting matchup. It's a rematch of last year's conference finals, for crying out loud. Philly plays a true playoff style all year long, so there will be no adaptation period for the Flyers. They are physical and talented. Danny Briere is a key. If he plays at his usual high playoff level, that extra bit of offense will be the difference. I think the Flyers can get Crosby and Malkin off their games and trying to do too much. Neither team's goaltending impresses me, but I like Philly's depth and overall level of talent across the board.

Prediction: Flyers in seven

Western Conference
Running out of time here, so these will be quick:

Sharks vs. Ducks
The Battle of California. All the pressure in the world is on San Jose in this one. And on top of that, Anaheim has been on fire. The monkey on Joe Thornton's back will grow to elephant proportions if he and the team don't find success early. If Anaheim wins Game 1, the series will belong to the Ducks. Taking history into account, that's my bet.

Prediction: Ducks in seven

Red Wings vs. Blue Jackets
No, the Wings have not been playing well, but they aren't playing for any more President's trophies. Columbus, in just-happy-to-get-there mode, will steal a couple of games, but Detroit's experience and all-star talent will prevail.

Prediction: Wings in six

Canucks vs. Blues
What an amazing run by the Blues. They've been playing at playoff intensity for weeks just to get here, while the Canucks also have played well of late to win their division and earn the No. 3 seed. I think the Blues will come out hard and steal one or two early, but the Canucks seem to be more focused than ever before. Luongo, Sundin and the Sedin's will be just too much for the Blues to handle:

Prediction: Canucks in six

Blackhawks vs. Flames
This one may surprise you, but Calgary has stunk for the last four weeks, and Chicago is talented and hungry. Khabibulin has been out to prove himself all year and has one more BIG contract waiting for him if he keeps playing well. Chicago, while young, has great offensive depth and a very solid defense. If they get on a roll and gain confidence the Hawks could make a serious run.

Prediction: Hawks in five

The Best Time of the Year

Let me start out the first blog on my hockey-only site by being perfectly clear about one thing: make no mistake, I am a Washington Capitals fan. Have been for 35 years or so and always will be. Definitely a die-hard who has died hard many, many times. Hopefully there are more good times ahead for this tortured franchise and its fan base; it certainly looks like the future is bright in D.C.

But wait, before all you Rangers, Penguins and Flyerss fan click on the "back" button and move on to another potentially more friendly blog, let me say that I also am a huge fan of the game in general. I coach my son's squirt travel team in Baltimore and have been coaching youth hockey for about six years now. I fell in love with the game as a kid and still get as excited to play, coach and watch it now as I did 30-plus years ago.

For nine years I worked for Cal Ripken, Jr. and Ripken Baseball, helping develop the youth and amateur baseball business for him and his brother Bill, before starting my own sports management and marketing firm about 15 months ago. One of the main reasons that I left the Ripken group was to take what I had learned from Cal and Bill and apply it to other athletes in other sports. My company, API, currently represents an up-and-coming world-class softball pitcher, Angela Tincher, and Kyle Harrison, one of the world's top lacrosse players. They are two incredible athletes who compete in lesser-known sports, so if we can help grow their sports and position their brands and identities properly within those sports, hopefully we can provide them with an opportunity to make a living doing what they love and give more kids an opportunity to have meaningful sports-related experiences.

Another of my dreams is to grow the sport of hockey in this country. I have been skating since I was four and playing since I was six. My son was on skates when he was two. I was at a public skating session with future Hall of Famer Mike Gartner when I was maybe 8-years-old, and he challenged me to a race. Said he'd buy me a Coke if I could beat him around the rink. Well, he let me lead until the very end and then blew past me (remember, he has the NHL record time in the fastest skater competition). Then he slowed down and put his arm around me and told me what a great skater I was (I won't hold that lie against him). Later he signed a photo and personalized it: "To Scott, A Future Cap." He set the hook, reeled me in and a lifelong hockey fan was born. See, it doesn't take much, and that's the lesson I try to convey to my clients.

So, as a hockey fan and a sports professional who is trained as a journalist, I will attempt for the most part to provide both sides to most issues you will read about here. However, I can't promise that there won't be a Caps slant at times. And you can't convince me that the NHL will let Ovechkin win a Cup before Crosby, but I won't bore you with the conspiracy theories.

The truth of the matter is that while I may occasionally slip up and mention my distate for the likes of the aforementioned Mr. Crosby, his pal Geno, Sean Avery, Scott Hartnell, Mike Richards, and so on, at the end of the day it's those guys, the way they approach the game and their personalities that create passion for the sport and help make hockey the great game that it is. Without them, the game just wouldn't be the same, so it's definitely a hate-love relationship.

Even though April has been a less-than-stellar month for the Caps, this is still my favorite time of the year. Nothing beats wearing shorts to a hockey game, because that means that it's Cup time and my team is still around. I've been to Final Fours, World Series, NFL championhip games, all-star games and more sporting events than I could ever count. In fact, Bill Ripken once said that I had attended more sporting events that anyone else on the planet. But, when all is said and done, nothing - and I mean nothing - comes close to the atmosphere and excitement generated by a Stanely Cup playoff game.

Let the fun begin, and here's hoping that your team plays well into the spring - unless you are a Rangers, Flyers or Pens fan. A brief preview of the playoffs to follow shortly. But I have to hurry and leave for Verizon Center soon...enjoy the playoffs!

The Best Time of the Year

This is what we've all been waiting for.