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.