Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Hendricks No Surprise to Boudreau

By Scott Lowe
Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau gave the world a heads up about Matt Hendricks at training camp on Tuesday, but his comments didn’t get much play in the media, and apparently the Columbus Blue Jackets didn’t get the hint.

When asked if anyone had surprised him at camp without getting much attention, Boudreau replied, “I really love the way Matt Hendricks plays. I’ve been a big fan of his for about the last five years. He played on a team in Colorado that nobody thought would go anywhere and they ended up with 100 points and in the playoffs. He’s come in here to earn a spot on the team, and so far he’s pushing guys. He’s done a great job.”

Those comments came before Wednesday’s effort by the left winger, who describes his game as adding some “sandpaper” to the Caps’ lineup. If Boudreau loved Hendricks’ game before, imagine what he thinks after the 29-year-old with 60 games of NHL experience recorded a hat trick to lead Washington to a 6-2 victory against Columbus in front of nearly 11,000 in its preseason opener.

“The only thing he could have done a little better was maybe be a little more physical,” Boudreau said. “He killed penalties for us and scored three goals. He’s making a bid for sure.”

Hendricks is making his bid seemingly out of nowhere. After he recorded nine goals and seven assists in 56 contests with the Avalanche last season, his signing with the Capitals in June stayed mostly under the radar as Caps fans and media clamored for the team to sign a big-name defenseman or a second-line center. In fact, his name went largely unreported until Boudreau mentioned him after yesterday’s training camp workout.

“I couldn’t ask for more,” Hendricks said after his three-goal opener in a Washington sweater. “It was a good game all around, obviously. We have to tighten up a little bit defensively. It was a great game for both of our goaltenders. It’s been a while since I’ve done that.”

To this point, the training camp focus has been on which three players would lock down the second- third- and fourth-line center slots. The “third line” of Jason Chimera, Matthieu Perreault and Eric Fehr had been perhaps the most impressive offensive group to date, while second-line center Tomas Fleischmann and left wing Alexander Semin had earned some harsh words from Boudreau who said they were “passing the puck around like it was shinny.” It’s funny how things can change when stakes are raised.

Fleischmann (two goals and an assist) and Semin (three assists) combined for six points in Washington’s victory, with linemate Brooks Laich also notching an assist, while the third line was the only Caps’ trio to finish the game on the minus side of the ledger. Fehr was the only third-liner to notch a point, assisting on Fleischmann’s second-period power-play marker.

Meanwhile, 2009 first-round draft pick Marcus Johansson, who has been praised consistently by Boudreau since the start of rookie camp, handed out a pair of assists in his first appearance at the NHL level. His no-look drop pass set up Hendricks’ first goal, and impressed his veteran linemate. “It was a great play by a very young man,” Hendricks said. “He played well. He made a lot of great plays out there and really plays with his head and with his head up.”

Said Johansson: “I heard him from behind and no one else was there, so I just dropped it for him instead of making the harder pass, and he made a great shot.”

Assuming that Fleischmann has at least somewhat solidified his spot as the No. 2 pivot, that leaves Perreault and Johansson battling for the third center slot. Each player figures to appear in four or five preseason games, so the Columbus game will ultimately be a small part of the equation, and Boudreaux really likes both players.

“For a guy like Marcus preseason games will mean a lot,” he said. “We’ll learn a lot more about him at the NHL level when he plays against NHL players with NHL players on his wings. He makes a lot of things happen out there and he’s such a beautiful skater. He’s one of those players you’ll have to watch and watch. His positioning is very good. He’s not a dynamic, I got three goals today kind of guy. He just doesn’t make a lot of mistakes out there.”

Still, the efforts of smallish Perreault, who has gained about 12 pounds of muscle since last season, have not gone unnoticed. “He’s a good little player, and he’s pushing hard to have a place on this team. What does being ready mean? He has bulked up, he’s stronger and he’s a good player. We think that if he didn’t make it he’d be very close to making it.”

So where does that leave the roster? The first line appears set with Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom and Mike Knuble. After the first preseason outing you can at least pencil in Semin, Fleischmann and Laich as the second line. Chimera, Perreault and Fehr have impressed until tonight, with Johansson pushing Perreault at the pivot.

Initially it looked like the fourth line would be a rotation of Boyd Gordon, David Steckel, Matt Bradley and enforcer D.J. King, but now with Hendrickson stepping up and Gordon and Steckel spending time in and out of Boudreau’s doghouse last season, it appears as though Hendrickson has an inside shot at a roster spot.

It makes sense that Gordon, who is the most versatile of the group, would have the edge to center the line consistently based on his showing in the playoffs vs. Montreal last year and Steckel’s disappointing season. King will make the roster to fill the tough-guy role, and Bradley has been one of the team’s heart-and-soul guys for the past several years.

Does that mean Steckel, a longtime Boudreau favorite who helped the coach win a Calder Cup at Hershey, will end up on the outside looking in? You can’t tell for sure after one preseason game, but it should make for an interesting couple of weeks in D.C.

Other Camp Notes
The Caps have been busy the past couple of days, signing defensemen Tom Poti to a two-year extension through 2011-12 and signing 22-year-old goaltender Michal Neuvirth to a two-year deal. They also signed WHL junior goalie Brandon Anderson to a three-year entry-level contract.

The signing of Poti means the Caps have five d-men – Poti, Mike Green, John Carlson, Tyler Sloan and Jeff Schultz -- signed through 2011-12.

Neuvirth, who will probably be considered the No. 2 goalie behind Semyon Varlamov, is the first tender to be the primary netminder for two consecutive Calder Cup champions since Pete Peeters in the late 1970s.

Neuvirth was 9-4 with a 2.75 GAA and a .914 save percentage in 17 games for the Caps last year and is 11-5, 2.80, .910 for his career. He went 7-1 at the Verizon center last season with a 1.75 GAA. Neuvirth was 14-4 for Hershey in the playoffs last spring after earning the MVP the year before with a 16-6 mark and a 1.92 GAA.

“When you look at the NHL there are a lot of goalies without a job,” Neuvirth said. “My goal is to play in the NHL. I could have waited to sign, but I decided not to. This is a great organization with a big chance to win the Stanley Cup, so why not sign with them now?”

By the way, Varlamov was very sharp in his first outing against Columbus, stopping all 20 shots he faced, including a spectacular series of saves early in the second period. “It was a great first statement,” Boudreau said of Varlamov’s play. “He kept us in. You could tell it was a preseason game. We had a tremendous amount of turnovers in the first and second period and gave them opportunities to score. We were a little ragged in our zone at times, but the goaltending was there to back it up when we weren’t very good …”

On Tuesday Ovechkin’s Team A won its second straight Duchesne Cup as the top squad in training camp despite falling to Team B, which had been shut out by Team C, 5-0, in its first game by a score of 4-3 on a late goal by Semin. Team A won the cup on goal differential after refusing to pull its goalie despite trailing by a goal.

Team B rebounded after a little “pep talk” from Boudreau following its shutout loss in the first game of camp. “Obviously it helped,” said Boudreau of his speech, “since they played a much better game against a team with some pretty good players who weren’t just cruising around out there.” …

The Caps’ roster stands at 47 after 12 players were assigned to Hershey and another five were returned to their junior teams …

Washington’s line combinations at Columbus looked like this:

Hendricks-Johansson-A. Gordon

Cody Eakin, a 2009 third-round draft pick, scored in his debut at the NHL level, netting the Caps’ fifth goal. Eakin also scored the game-winner in the rookie game vs. the Flyers rookies last week.

The defensive pairings:


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A New Sheriff in Town?

By Scott Lowe
It looks as though Bruce Boudreau may have learned a valuable lesson from last year’s disappointing playoff experience.

During the Washington Capitals’ 2009-2010 run to the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy, Bourdreau rarely took his foot off the gas pedal. The team literally came to play every single night, using their free-wheeling offensive style to amass a club-record 14-game win streak and run away with the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

There’s something to be said for a team that plays hard and entertains fans on a daily basis in this day and age of millionaire pro athletes who admit taking games off or not giving their all every time out. And, no doubt, fans in Washington and cities around the league come out in droves to see the Caps play. The mistake that Boudreau made was to begin preaching to the media the need for his team to play a more defensive style the final two or three weeks of the season with the playoffs approaching instead of making the team a little more aware of that throughout the year.

While the Caps kept playing hard until the end and did pull out a few one-goal defensive battles down the stretch, they appeared to lose their edge a little bit. Some of the swagger that they had developed as an almost-invincible team during the majority of the season disappeared during the Canadiens’ seven-game upset of Washington.

Mike Green, who suffocated in Glen Hanlon’s conservative system but blossomed into an annual Norris Trophy candidate under Boudreau, looked and played like he was confused. Jeff Schultz, who flourished into the league’s top plus-minus performer playing alongside the offensive-minded Green, didn’t know what to do when Green changed his game. Tomas Fleischmann and Alex Semin, offensive mainstays all season long, just didn’t seem to fit into the scheme during the postseason.

Clearly there were lessons to be learned from last year’s disappointing ending. What we all must keep in mind is that this is still a very young team – actually even younger than last year’s with the departure of several veteran players and the promotion of players such as Karl Alzner, John Carlson and possibly Matthieu Perrault and Marcus Johansson into key roles.

As long as the same mistakes aren’t repeated on a yearly basis, with the kind of talent base that’s in Washington and the franchise’s organizational depth, the Caps should be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender for years to come. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say, and the “wise guys” in Vegas, who usually aren’t far off the mark, have installed Washington – along with Pittsburgh – as a Cup favorite as training camp gets underway.

Caps players seemed to have learned their lesson, many of them speaking of being angry about last year’s failure and coming to camp with a chip on their shoulders. And the preliminary indication from some of Boudreau’s early training-camp comments is that the man who has been called a player’s coach may be shortening the leash a bit and asking the players to focus on the big picture instead of daily appearances on the ESPN top 10 plays list.

Some of Boudreau’s comments after yesterday’s scrimmage, won 6-3 by the Group A or “Red Army” team against the Group C team that had throttled Washington’s other camp squad, 5-0, the day before were interesting and refreshing.

“That’s just us,” he quipped when asked about the offensive output in the game. Then, when questioned about how he expected the humbled Group B team to match up with the Group C offensive juggernaut he said, “I expect that they’ll play better tomorrow. I had a little talk with them after the 5-0 game.”

Wow, a tongue-lashing on the first day of camp for a lackluster performance. Love it. What did you tell them, coach? “We’ll just keep that between us,” he said, grinning.

Later when asked what he thought of the strong play of the current “third line” of Jason Chimera, Matthieu Perreault and Eric Fehr, he added, “I’m not surprised that they are doing well, because I thought they were supposed to be the top line on their team. They have dominated a lot of the play and created a lot of scoring chances. Chimmer and Eric played together last year, and Matty’s motivated to make the team, so it makes sense.”

Then things got less jovial and Boudreau was asked about Fleischmann’s chances to hold onto the job as the second-line center. “He’s been put in a position to win that job. Sometimes teams call their lines the second, third and fourth lines, while other teams call them their secondary scoring, checking and energy lines. It just so happens that we had three lines that could score last year and an energy shut-down line.

“Whether Flash is in the lineup at that position or another position, he’ll make the other line more of a scoring threat than it is now. We’ll see. Certainly I don’t like the way {Fleischmann and Semin} in two days and one game have been passing back and forth like it’s shinny, but we’ll have a talk about that.”

Wow. Another “talk” with players not performing well early in training camp. Looks like there’s a new sheriff in town, one who is going to crack the whip and not let some of the players on the Caps’ roster fall prey to the bad habits they can get away with in November, but not April.

No one will contest that Washington only needs to tweak a few things to make a deep playoff run. Well, it looks like the tweaking already has begun. and that’s good news for Caps fans.

Other Camp Notes
The Ovechkin-led Group A team, featuring five of Washington’s six Russians in camp, scored three third-period goals to break a 3-all tie and earn a 6-3 victory yesterday against the Group C team, which had defeated Group B the day before, 5-0. Group A was playing its first game of camp.

Boudreau commented about how the tempo was much-improved from the previous-day’s contest. That, paired with the A team’s offensive firepower most likely wore down the Group C boys. Caps’ regulars Mike Knuble (two goals) and Ovechkin (one goal), along with newly signed enforcer D.J. King, were among the Group A goal-scorers. Jason Chimera was the lone Washington regular to score for Group C. Hershey hopeful Andrew Gordon also potted a goal …

Ovechkin’s squad can capture the “Duchesne Cup” today with a victory against the Group B team, but if the B side can win it will create a three-way tie and goal-differential will decide the camp champion …

Reigning AHL MVP Keith Aucoin has not been mentioned as a player who is in the running for one of the Caps’ three center slots, but the speedy playmaker should not be overlooked. He has played many roles in short stays in Washington, including a stint on the fourth line and minutes with the top guys and on the power play. Although not big, he’s shifty, sees the ice well and brings energy to every shift. At this stage in their careers he brings more to the table than a guy like Brendan Morrison, who spent time last season centering each of Caps’ top three lines. Don’t be surprised if he gets tossed into the mix very soon …

Finally, I’m still trying to figure out why natural-center Brooks Laich, who always has been solid defensively and good on faceoffs, never is mentioned as the possible second- or third-line pivot. I’d like to hear some others’ thoughts on this …

The Caps open the preseason tomorrow night at Columbus. The game can be heard on with Washington play-by-play man Steve Kolbe and my friend Mike Vogel on the call. I have coached Mike’s son in hockey for the past five or six years. He’s a great guy and a hard-worker who really makes the Caps’ website go. If you are looking to satisfy your early-season hockey fix, check them out. Faceoff is 7 p.m.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Centers of Attention

The math is simple for the Washington Capitals. They have five players competing for three center spots.

Breaking it down even further, you have two players competing for the second-line center position, with Tomas Fleischmann being given a long early look and the inside edge by Coach Bruce Boudreau, two players competing for the third-line pivot slot and two players competing to be the fourth-line centerman.

Two plus two plus two … that’s five right? Wait, maybe the math’s not so simple, especially for this state school journalism major.

One of the main concerns among the Caps’ fanbase and media contingent this offseason was, along with solidifying the defense, adding a second-line center. And Washington’s failure to resign Eric Belanger also leaves the third-line pivot in question. Finally, the fourth-line, which figures to feature of rotation of grinding veterans David Steckel, Boyd Gordon, Matt Bradley, D.J. King and possibly Jason Chimera on occasion, also is in need of a regular center.

As training camp opens it appears as though the second-line spot is Tomas Fleischmann’s to lose. If “Flash” plays they way he did as a pivot during the team’s 14-game win streak last year and looks like he will improve upon his career-best 51 points in 69 games, the job is his, and he will likely start the season between Alexander Semin and Brooks Laich. But if Fleischmann more resembles the player who went scoreless in last season’s playoffs, earning a seat in the pressbox for Game 7, 2009 first-round draftee Marcus Johansson seems poised to give him a run for his money.

Johansson was cited by Boudreau as the best player in Washington’s rookie camp on a daily basis and recorded two assists vs. the Flyers rookies. Much like Nicklas Backstrom a few seasons ago, the young Swede is poised beyond his years and possesses an impressive skill set that includes good hands, vision and speed. While many among the Caps’ media are clamoring for Johansson to spend the year in Hershey, how much risk would it be to keep him at the NHL level surrounded by so many young, talented veterans?

If Fleischmann holds onto the second-line job, expect Johansson to compete with gritty, creative forechecking machine Matthieu Perreault for the third-line spot. Perreault recorded 50 points in 56 games for Hershey last year, appeared in 21 contests for Washington, and helped the Bears capture the Calder cup with seven goals and 19 points in the playoffs. A smallish player with good speed, he has added almost 15 pounds to his frame in the offseason, which should keep him from getting pushed around.

So, when you reexamine the math, Johansson is really in the running at two positions. With Gordon and Steckel competing for fourth-line minutes at center. In reality there are five players fighting for three spots.

Another possibility, maybe the best-case scenario for the Caps, would be for Johansson and Perrault to be so impressive that Fleischmann, who says he prefers center and has come to camp determined to impress, can be returned to second- or third-line wing, with Chimera being dropped from his current third-line wing spot to the fourth line – at least on occasion.

Chimera has come to camp in tip-top condition and has looked good thus far, so he may be difficult to move. A rare combination of speed and size, he currently is playing with Perreault and talented winger Eric Fehr on the third line. Boudreau said that Chimera looks to be “in mid-season form,” and that trio dominated the team’s first scrimmage yesterday, with each netting a goal in the second period to lead Group C to a 5-0 victory over a team that featured a young defense and probable Caps backup netminder Michael Neuvirth (two goals allowed).

“Both Matty and Eric are great players,” said Chimera, who scored on a breakaway and feels like he can score 20-plus goals if placed in the right situation. “It’s nice to play with them, especially Matty. He’s a pretty gifted offensive guy.”

Tremendous organizational depth, along with a slew of former first-round draft picks in the system, has allowed the Capitals the luxury of trying to build from within and created a high level of competition on a regular basis. The players have to compete on an NHL level every day, which helps ease the transition when they are inserted into the Washington lineup. It also has allowed Washington to save salary cap space in case this plan of action doesn’t work out for General Manager George McPhee and the Caps have to make a move during the season.

All of this makes for an interesting training camp, with spirited workouts and friendly – yet intense – competition, all of which points to a team that should be able to fly out the gates when the puck drops for real in October. While it’s certainly entertaining for the fans, it also bodes well for the team’s future both in the short and long term.

Other Camp Notes
It looks like former No. 1 picks Karl Alzner and John Carlson, who were paired together on the blueline for much of last season in Hershey and with the Caps for Game 7 vs. Montreal, will open preseason tomorrow in Columbus paired together. “You could tell in the {AHL} playoffs and even when they were up here that they are two really good defensemen who have confidence in each other,” Boudreau said …

Washington has six Calgary natives, including four defensemen, on its camp roster … Five of Washington’s six Russians attending camp are on the same team for the intra-squad scrimmages. That team, which features Alex Ovechkin, Semyon Varlamov, Nikita Kashirsky, Stanislav Galiev and Dmitri Kugryshev, is in action today, vying for an opportunity to face the Group C team that was victorious yesterday for the “Duchesne Cup.”

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Rookies Johansson, Eakin, Finley Impress

By Scott Lowe
With two days of rookie camp in the book, it’s not hard to tell who is catching the eye of Washington Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau. Boudreau has mentioned first-round draft picks Marcus Johansson, Cody Eakin and Joe Finley following each day’s workout.

Each player has his own interesting story and timeline. Johnasson, a Swede who has played both center and wing, has average size, but is mature with good speed and skill. He is one of the youngsters mentioned by some as a possibility to fill the open No. 2 center spot for the Caps this year. While on the surface it would seem to be a longshot for a soon-to-be 20-year-old (Oct. 6 birthday) to become the second-line center for the defending Presidents’ Trophy winners, upon further review, it might make sense to give him a shot.

Nicklas Backstrom also came to Washington from Sweden and was mentored initially by countryman Michael Nylander. Now, Backstrom could handle that role for his young compatriot. Johansson likely would be surrounded by talented, veteran players such as Alex Semin and Brooks Laich (or Tomas Fleischmann) on the second line, and with all the offensive firepower the Caps have, he wouldn’t feel a tremendous amount of pressure to score goals. The hope would be to have him spend a good portion of the season getting acclimated to the NHL game and developing and understanding of what it takes to succeed in the league as well as his linemate’s tendendices.

Washington can afford to be patient without jeopardizing its standing as an Eastern Conference favorite, and Johannson has played at a very high level internationally as a member of Swedish professional championship teams and the captain of Sweden’s World Junior Championship team in 2010.

“He’s looked pretty good so far,” Boudreau said. “Of course there’s no hitting yet, but he does look really smooth and skilled. I think he’s going to be a good player.”

Eakin is a 2009 third-round draft pick who finished last year with Hershey after his season with Swift Current of the WHL concluded. Still 19, he recently was named captain of the Broncos for the 2010-11 campaign, but certainly would be willing to give that up if he were to land an NHL job with one of the league’s elite teams. A center in an organization looking for depth at that position, Eakin was dominant in the WHL a year ago with 47 goals and 44 assists. Although not big at 5-11 and about 185 lbs., he has tremendous speed and is solid at both ends of the ice. Because he has a year of junior hockey left, either Eakin makes the Caps’ roster full time or must be returned to Swift Current. While it appears to be a longshot for him to stick at the NHL level, Eakin will get a long look from Boudreau: “He’s been impressive so far, and I’d really like to get a look at him in one or two NHL exhibition games before I decide exactly where he belongs.”

Finley is a 2005 first-round draft pick who suffered a rare arm aneurysm last year that limited him to 17 games with South Carolina of the ECHL. A big, strong defenseman at 6-8, 255 lbs., Finley appears headed for a full season at Hershey this year. There is no rush for the Caps, who already will have four former first-round draft picks in their lineup, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Finley get a couple of NHL games under his belt to benefit his and the team’s future if there are some injuries. In this day and age of salary cap constraints, it seems unlikely that Washington will be able to keep their NHL-level first-rounders together forever, so finding that next generation of blueliners is a key to the team’s long-term success.

“Last year we had Joe in camp and we tried him at forward,” Boudreau said. “I just don’t think his heart was into that, and it showed. He seems more comfortable and determined this year. Joe’s a big, strong guy and those are the types of guys you really want to work with.”

Another young player who has been impressive but will be returning to juniors this year is Russian QMJHL prospect Stanislav Galiev. Galiev, who recorded 60 points in 69 games and 19 points in 21 playoff contests for St. John last season, is a winger who general manager George McPhee has asked Boudreau to move to center during rookie camp. That move was made easier when 2008 first-round pick Anton Gustafsson, drafted as a center, asked to be shifted to wing during the summer. The Caps are desperately trying to build depth at the pivot, so this move could expedite Galiev’s path to the NHL, especially if he keeps impressing.

Eakin and Mitchell Named Captains of Junior Teams
Both Eakin and another Washington prospect, Garrett Mitchell, have been named captains of their respective WHL junior teams – Swift Current and Regina, respectively. Mitchell, a 2009 sixth-round pick, recorded 31 points in 57 games for Regina before appearing in one game for AHL Hershey last season.

“It’s great to have those types of leaders in the organization,” Boudreau said. “You can see why they are captains. They are the first ones to do the drills here, they always get the drills right the first time and the always work hard. When they go back to their junior teams there are going to be 16-year-old kids who want to be just like them. Then they come in here and do the same things. You can’t have enough leaders. For our future that is a really good thing.”

Upcoming Schedule
Rookie camp continues tomorrow (Wednesday, Sept. 15) with an 11:45 a.m. scrimmage at the Kettler Iceplex, followed by Thursday’s annual rookie game against the Flyers. That game, which starts at 3 p.m. at Kettler, has become very popular among Caps’ fans in recent years, annually drawing upwards of 1,500 fans. For those who can’t miss work or school, the usually intense battle will be streamed live on Veteran players have been skating every day this week at 8 a.m. That skate will be moved to 10 a.m. on Thursday. Full training camp opens on Saturday, Sept. 18.

Holtby Tuning Up
Braden Holtby, who turned in a fine year as the No. 2 netminder in Hershey last season, has been working out with the rookies to get more reps. He is hoping to be sharp when camp opens and realizes that with four goalies at the NHL camp, including Semyon Varlamov, Michael Neuvirth, Danny Sabourin and himself), he might not get as much work as he would like.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Fleischmann to Stay Put and Other Preseason Notes

Fleischman’s Status and Other Caps Notes
You can put an end to the Tomas Fleischmann trade rumors, at least according to Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau.

The offensively gifted young winger, who may find himself shifted to center and battling for a spot as the second-line pivot, has been rumored to be on the trading block since a sub-par playoff performance against Montreal that ended up with an unceremonious Game 7 benching. Yesterday, in a short story published on, Boudreau put an end to the trade speculation, stating that he expects Fleischmann to have a “breakout year.” Boudreau thinks Fleischmann will improve upon last year’s 23 goals, especially considering that Fleischmann missed all of training camp and the first 11 games last season because of a blood clot.

Fleischmann, who reportedly has looked good in preseason workouts with teammates at the Caps’ Kettler Iceplex practice facility, has a long history with Boudreau. While both were at Hershey Fleischmann was the offensive leader on a team that captured one Calder Cup and advanced to the finals the following year. When Boudreau was hired by Washington he began easing Fleischmann into the lineup, at one point commenting that the young Czech was “my Ovechkin” at Hershey.

In his short NHL career Fleischmann, as his nickname “Flash” suggests, has shown flashes of brilliance, appearing in 260 NHL games and recording 56 goals, 72 assists, 128 points and a minus-7 overall rating. Prior to falling out of favor in the postseason last spring Fleischmann had turned in his best season as a Cap, notching 28 assists to go along with his 23 goals and posting a career-best plus-9.

Fleishman is a fast, yet smooth and possesses tremendous skill and a powerful wrist shot. If he can develop a little bit better touch around the goal and add some physicality to his game there is no reason he can’t be a consistent 30-goal scorer at the NHL level. His seeming lack of willingness to roll up his sleeves and battle in the corners and in front of the net, as well as some defensive zone coverage issues, earned the wrath of Washington’s fan base during last year’s playoffs and apparently led to Boudreau’s Game 7 decision to dress veteran tough guy Scott Walker instead of Fleischmann.

Perhaps that benching was what Fleischmann needed as motivation to help him ascend to the upper echelon of NHL forwards this year. If not, expect the trade rumors to heat up again around deadline time as his one-year, $2.6 million contract nears its end.

Do the Wise Guys Know Something?
After opening 12-1 odds to win the Stanley Cup, the Caps have moved into the favorite spot on the Vegas boards along with their arch-rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Both are currently listed as 6-1, followed by Chicago at 7-1 and Detroit at 10-1. Vancouver, San Jose, Philadelphia and New Jersey are next in line according to the Vegas pundits. Rounding out the list at the bottom is Edmonton at 100-1.

To think that Edmonton has fallen that far since its dominance throughout the mid-to-late 1980s and into the 90s is shocking on the surface. But as I look into my own backyard I see a Baltimore Orioles franchise that was baseball’s winningest over a 35-year period spanning the 60s, 70s and 80s and had a resurgence in the late 90s before becoming the American League’s doormat over the past five years. And the once-proud Washington Redskins’ struggles under the “leadership” of Daniel Snyder have left the three-time Super Bowl champs as a three-time playoff qualifier and perennial .500 or below franchise since their last title in 1992.

Sports success seems to go in cycles, which is good news for the Capitals right now as they have built unmatched organizational depth in professional hockey. That depth has developed as a result of an orchestrated rebuilding period during the middle part of the decade that has produced contributing first-round draft picks such as Alexander Ovechkin, Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, Alexander Semin, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Boyd Gordon, Eric Fehr, Nicklas Backstrom, Semyon Varlamov. Other draftees and prospects have contributed to Hershey’s back-to-back Calder Cup victories and have allowed Washington to avoid the free agent spending frenzy this summer in hopes of constructing a championship-caliber club from within.

Training Camp Update
The Caps’ rookie camp begins Sunday at the Kettler Iceplex in Northern Virginia and culminates on Sept. 16 with the annual rookie game there against the Flyers. That contest will be streamed with audio and video coverage on Selected rookies will be chosen from that camp to participate in full training camp, which begins Sept. 18 at Kettler. All rookie and training camp workouts are open to the public.

Washington’s preseason schedule shapes up this way:

Wednesday, Sept. 22 at Columbus
Saturday, Sept. 25 at Nashville
Tuesday, Sept. 28 home vs. Boston
Wednesday, Sept. 29 at Boston
Friday, Oct. 1 home vs. Columbus
Sunday, Oct. 3 home vs. Nashville

For the first time in recent memory the Caps will not face a single Southeast Division foe leading up to their regular-season opener Oct. 8 at Atlanta. Washington faces New Jersey in its home opener Oct. 9 at Verizon Center. This year the Caps will appear on Versus 11 times (thank God that Direc TV solved that issue!), and NBC will televise as many as four of Washington’s contests.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Caps Free Agent Analysis: Fine Tuning for Playoff Success

Washington Capitals Free Agent Analysis at a Glance

Caps’ UFAs – Eric Belanger, Scott Walker, Joe Corvo, Milan Jurcina, Brendan Morrison, Shaone Morrisonn, Quintin Laing, Jose Theodore

Caps’ RFAs – Eric Fehr, Boyd Gordon, Tomas Fleischmann, Jeff Schultz

Caps’/Hershey RFAs – Jay Beagle, Chris Borque, Andrew Gordon, Alexandre Giroux

All RFAs have been extended qualifying offers.

Looking for a Shot: Giroux, Matthieu Perreault, Keith Aucoin, Boyd Kane, Marcus Johansson, Michael Neuvirth, Beagle, Borque, A. Gordon

On the Block?: Tomas Fleischmann, Alexander Semin

Needs: Second-line center, mobile/stay-at-home defenseman, big/physical forward, enforcer (?)

Position Overload: Fourth-liners, wingers

Cap Position: Approximately $12.4 million under the cap (more like $6 million considering qualifying offers and other potential financial obligations)

Caps Look to Fine Tune for Cup Run
Despite the knee-jerk reaction by the fans and media in regards to the makeup of the Washington Capitals following their first-round playoff upset at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, the reality is that the defending President’s Trophy winners find themselves in an enviable position entering the 2010 season.

Certainly the Caps’ playoff shortcomings the past few seasons have exposed some areas of their lineup that could stand some tweaking, but remember that you are looking at a team coming off its best season ever that has superstars Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom tied up for the next decade and Norris Trophy-finalist Mike Green signed through 2012. Combine that with the late-season emergence of budding defensive superstar John Carlson, the projected full-time blue line arrival of former No. 1 draft pick Karl Alzner and am estimated $12.4 million of cap room and you’ve got a scenario that almost any GM would relish.

But this isn’t your father’s Washington Capitals. Verizon Center is expected to be sold out again through the 2010-2011 season, and nothing short of a trip to the Stanley Cup finals will be acceptable to the team’s growing fanbase and local media. And, if Washington can’t capture a Cup within the next several years it would be considered a major disappointment for a franchise that has yet to win one during its 35 years of existence.

So, while the buzzards were circling following the early playoff exit, even the most skeptical Caps’ fan has to admit that the team doesn’t need a complete overhaul – maybe just a tune-up, or as one local blogger put it, “an oil change and a new set of tires.” General Manager George McPhee spoke recently of not getting “seduced” into any deals that would tie up money for the long term, which seems prudent considering that the Caps have a deep lineup sprinkled with youth and experience, players ready to step in from Hershey and recent highly touted draft picks in the pipeline.

A Look at the Caps’ UFAs
Of all the Caps NHL-level UFAs, only Shaone Morrisonn and Eric Belanger may return. Morrisonn reportedly is in contract negotiations, and Belanger has indicated a desire to come back to D.C., however his recent request for a three- or four-year deal seems to have cooled Washington’s interest. Low-salaried Quintin Laing, a penalty-killing and shot-blocking specialist, also may be back simply because of his $500,000 salary and the fact that you can never have enough selfless players like him in your organization.

McPhee has made it clear that last year’s UFA-signing Brendan Morrison, who tailed off considerably after a solid first half and never really fit as a second-line center, as well as deadline pickups Scott Walker and Joe Corvo will not return. Mercurial Masterton Trophy-winner Jose Theodore also has been informed he will not be back, and it appears as though depth-defenseman Milan Jurcina also will move on – although with a relatively low cap number and an improving, physical game, he is not a lock to go.

Belanger would be an ideal third-line center and performed well in that role after coming over at the trade deadline last season. But when he was forced into duty on the second line he clearly looked out of place, exposing the second-line pivot spot as an area of concern for Washington heading into 2010-11. While Belanger wouldn’t be a huge cap hit, would the Caps be better off to take some of the money it would take to sign him to help fill a need (second line center or defense) while allowing a player like Matthieu Perreault, who performed well in limited NHL duty last year, or Keith Aucoin, the AHL MVP at Hershey, making the fulltime leap to D.C.? With puck possession a key to playoff success, having a guy like Belanger, one of the league’s top faceoff guys, in the lineup can make a big difference when it counts. McPhee recently was quoted by The Washington Post as saying that Perreault is either ready or about ready to make the leap. That comment, combined with Belanger’s desire to sign for three or four years, points toward the Caps looking at someone from Hershey to pivot the third line.

Morrisonn has developed into a steady d-man for the Caps and has been one of their more physical players, something that a team known more for its finesse probably doesn’t want to lose. Casting a shadow on his future, however, is a recent comment by McPhee in which he effectively said that he had seven defensemen ready to go. If you look at that comment and do the math it appears as though even Morrisonn may be on the way out.

Laing is the type of player who could help Washington with its penalty-killing deficiencies, but is it worth using up a lineup slot on an 8-minute-a-game specialist – especially considering that over the past three years David Steckel, Matt Bradley and Boyd Gordon have formed one of the NHL’s top fourth lines and with the understanding that there are players like Boyd Kane and Andrew Gordon and Jay Beagle down on the farm itching for an opportunity. Boyd Gordon has received a qualifying offer from the team, so odds are that he is coming back, and after his solid playoff showing following an injury-plagued season, that makes sense. Because of his low cap number and team-first mentality, expect Laing to return, but he may never see the light of day at the NHL level in 2010-11.

The RFAs
All of the players listed above have received qualifying offers from the Caps. Budding power forward Eric Fehr, who scored 21 goals last year in just 69 games despite averaging fewer than 10 minutes per game, would probably generate the most interest on the market, but he already is in negotiations for an extension with Washington. If Fehr continues to develop, he possesses the ability to become a 30-goal scorer, and if he plays with the edge he teased us with at times during the playoffs on a regular basis, could become the big, physical skill guy the Caps need to compliment Mike Knuble.

Tomas Fleischman enjoyed a fine offensive season, but his commitment to playing both ends of the ice came into question when he was benched for Game 7 vs. Montreal. Reports indicate the Caps are in contract talks with him as well, but apparently his agent is seeking ridiculous “Plekanec-type” money. There have been rumblings of a possible trade involving “Flash.” A talented offensive player, he would seem to have pretty good market value at this point, so if Washington does look to pull off a trade for a Marc Savard or a veteran defenseman, either he or 40-goal scorer Alexander Semin, who also was a playoff disappointment, would be likely candidates to be shipped.

Jeff Schultz is coming off a breakthrough year on the blue line in which he led the league in plus-minus. McPhee and head coach Bruce Boudreau have been lauding his play for the last three years despite fan and media criticism, and their confidence in the big d-man was rewarded last year. He appears to be in the team’s long-term plans. The Caps look to be set on the blue line for the foreseeable future with a young, talented core including Schultz, Green, Alzner and Carlson.

Boyd Gordon’s situation has been addressed above. A versatile player who is a solid faceoff guy and penalty killer with some offensive skill, he struggled through an injury-plagued year before sparking the team in the playoffs with his two-way play. Steckel, a long-time Boudreau favorite, seemed to fall out of favor a bit in the postseason, but has the body and attitude to be a key component. It appeared as though when Boudreau started messing with the chemistry of the fourth line that something just wasn’t ever quite right with the team as a whole. If it were up to me, I’d send Steckel, Boyd Gordon and Bradley out on a nightly basis and take my chances.

If Boudreau does want to tinker with the fourth line, Hershey prospects such as Andrew Gordon, Boyd Kane and Jay Beagle offer interesting options. The biggest question of the off-season, especially considering Hershey’s postseason success the past two years, is whether McPhee will go out and buy all the parts he thinks the team needs or if he will mix in some battle-tested prospects from Hershey. These three guys seem to have the ability and makeup to play on a skill line or the fourth line, so they are intriguing. Kane is an interesting option. Mostly because of cap restrictions he opened 2009-10 on the NHL roster and has played 31 NHL games in his career. Kane is the type of big body the Caps need up front at 6-2, 220, and played the get-under-your-skin role to perfection for the Bears in the postseason. He could be a sleeper to earn a roster spot in September.

Others in the System
Keith Aucoin, the AHL MVP, already has been mentioned. Although slightly undersized at 5-9, 187, Aucoin has shown versatility at the NHL level in 74 career games. An amazing playmaker in the AHL, he was bounced among all four lines for the Caps in his brief call-ups, showing an ability to be a playmaker and provide a spark on the power play and the energy to be a solid third- or fourth-line player. Late in the 2008-09 season when the Caps appeared to be going through the motions prior to the postseason, Aucoin arguably was their best player in the last week to 10 days before being returned to Hershey. It’s hard to overlook a guy with his attitude who also has the ability to score 106 points at the pro level.

Chris Borque, the Calder Cup MVP, is another undersized player who brings skill and energy. The son of Hall of Famer Ray Borque, he was claimed on waivers by the Penguins early last year and actually saw some minutes on their top lines and power play before ultimately being reclaimed by the Caps. Like Aucoin and Giroux, Borque has not produced much offensively in limited NHL time despite solid AHL numbers. He sees the logjam in front of him at forward in the Washington organization and apparently is looking at an offer from the KHL. Still, you have to wonder if a guy who had 27 points in 21 AHL playoff games isn’t worth giving a long look.

Giroux is one of those enigmas who dominates offensively at the AHL level, but really only possesses the skill set and mindset to play on a first or second line in the NHL. He just hasn’t produced for the big club in his short-lived opportunities and doesn’t seem to be in the McPhee’s plans at the NHL level. It remains to be seen whether the UFA will return to the Caps’ organization.

Michal Neuvirth has backstopped Hershey to the past two AHL championships, and with Theodore on the way out, will battle Semyon Varlamov for the Caps’ starting job in net. Neuvirth has been given a chance to prove himself at the NHL level thanks to injuries to Theodore and Varlamov the past two years and has fared well, posting an 11-5 record, a 2.80 GAA and a .910 save percentage in 22 career appearances. Like any young netminder Neuvirth has experienced his ups and downs with the big club, but he has shown flashes of brilliance and has at times been dominant at the AHL level. Washington’s goaltending situation appears to be set for a long time.

Marcus Johansson was the Caps’ first-round pick in 2009 and played for the Swedish League champions in Farjestad and Sweden’s World Junior Team the past two years. While many Caps’ fans want to rush him to the NHL, with the talent at Boudreau’s disposal and Washington’s history of bringing along prospects slowly that seems unlikely this year. However, McPhee has said that both Johansson and 2010 first-round pick Evgeny Kuznetsov may be ready for the big time a year from now.

Who Might Fit?
Although McPhee has denied it, the Caps have been mentioned as a player in the sweepstakes for shot-blocking Senators’ UFA defenseman Anton Volchenkov. A Washington Nemesis, Volchenkov appears to be in line for a $5 million annual salary, but the Caps may not be willing to shell out those kind of dollars in a long-term deal. Washington fans and media have been waiting for McPhee to dive into the UFA defenseman market for the past two seasons, but the organization seems united in its belief that the defensive corps is solid and deep. On the surface it would appear that signing a player such as Volchenkov could put the Caps over the top, but nothing is ever that easy, and $5 million per year is a lot to invest in a salary-cap era in which a poor free-agent signing can handcuff a team for years.

Other possible defensemen who may fill a need and not demand a long-term contract include Henrik Tallinder, Willie Mitchell, Pavel Kubina and Derek Morris. Willie Mitchell is an intriguing possibility if the fact that he only played 48 games last year keeps his asking price down a bit. Other than him, though, it’s just not a certainty that any of the other available guys is going to improve a defensive group that should be better this year thanks to the continued development and arrival of younger prospects. If Volchenkov or Mitchell can be added without crippling the team financially, or somehow a deal could be swung for someone like Tomas Kaberle, those moves might make sense. It doesn’t seem like adding any of the others really does. A couple of intriguing possibilities would be Andy Sutton and Paul Martin. Sutton, who is 34, could be an option for a year or two if he would be willing to keep his salary at our near the $3.5 million he earned last season. Martin, at 28, seems less likely to waiver from his just-completed $4.5 million deal.

While McPhee has not spoken highly of this year’s UFAs as a group, he still indicates that he’d be interested in finding a true second-line center who won’t demand a long-term contract. Saku Koivu, who made slightly more than $3 million last year, and Matt Cullen, who made just under $3 million, seem to fit that bill. An interesting possibility would be Mike Modano, who will not be returning to Dallas, and may just be interested in one more shot at a Stanley Cup. Although his playing time and role has diminished in the past several years, he certainly possesses the skill to be a No. 2 pivot, and his leadership, composure and playoff experience would be welcomed in the room.

Matthew Lombardi, who made about $2.25 million last year, would appear to be the best available player to fill the void, but it may just depend on the asking price and the desired contract length. Of course Savard would be a great fit, but as it stands his contract doesn’t seem to fit into the team’s financial blueprint, and the Bruins have not indicated that there has been any serious interest in trading for him to this point.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Often in difficult, stressful times in which things don’t go exactly the way we had hoped or planned, many of us let our emotions get the best of us. For hockey players this may manifest itself in the form of a stupid penalty, a player breaking his stick intentionally in frustration (sorry Sid), a fight or a poorly thought-out, off-the-cuff remark during a postgame press conference that makes the player or coach look like a whiner or poor sport (or both).

For hockey fans, the emotional or knee-jerk response usually results in whining about the officials (consider me guilty), belief in wild conspiracy theories (no longer guilty thanks to weeks of listening to others do this and seeing seeds 1-6 fall in the East) and “let’s trade some of our top players” and/or “let’s fire the coach” phone calls to sportstalk shows.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received – and I have to credit my former boss, Cal Ripken, for this – was to always take a step back from an emotionally charged situation. Take some time to analyze everything that has happened, and before you formulate your response or your plan, take the emotion out of the decision-making process. Although this is sound advice from one of the most respected athletes of our time, for someone who is really competitive or die-hard, so to speak, it can be difficult (guilty again).

However, as an athlete, no one was more competitive or hated to lose more than Ripken, and he managed to do that. Sure, there were a few moments on the field in which he lost his cool with an umpire and was ejected from a game (very few), but always after cooling off, reflecting and analyzing, he presented himself in such a way that he looked like the good guy. So, I have to think if a competitive athlete of that magnitude who performed at the level he did could do it, so could I – and so could all the others who follow the Washington Capitals on a regular basis.

Well, I was wrong about a lot of the Caps’ followers, but as far as I’m concerned instead of joining in on the “fire Boudreau” and “trade Green and Semin” fervor, I decided it was best for me to take a step back and see how the upstart Canadiens fared against the defending Stanley Cup champs. If Montreal were to go down in four or five games, I would have had to agree that the Caps were in need of a playoff overhaul and a long summer of mirror-staring. I started feeling differently a few days ago, asking former NHL goaltender and NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes if the Canadiens had simply underachieved all year or if they had finally figured it out. His short answer, “They figured it out.” Then they eliminated the Pens. Closure.

That does beg the question, “If Montreal figured it out in two weeks, how come the Caps haven’t figured it out in three years?” But in taking the emotion out of the situation, there no doubt is more to it than that.

First and foremost, if Jaroslav Halak hadn’t turned into the third coming of Ken Dryden – or if freaking Carey Price had made about two more saves – I’d probably be writing about a just-concluded Caps-Flyers series right now. History shows that a hot goalie can overcome a shortage of talent in April and May. We witnessed it firsthand in 1998 when the Caps were badly outshot almost every night, but rode the broad shoulders of Olaf Kolzig all the way to the finals (for the record, I would recommend that Mr. Boudreau and the team watch some of those games, because the Caps’ style that year was eerily similar to Montreal’s current method of play).

If you look at the ridiculous shot advantage the Caps posted vs. the Habs; the speed and intensity with which they played; the players such as Boyd Gordon, Tom Poti, John Carlson, Mike Knuble who raised their games and gave a true playoff effort; and others such as Eric Belanger, Nicklas Backstrom and who knows who else who played through injuries, you can’t fault the effort. Maligned players such as Mike Green and Alexander Semin were visibly distraught after the Game 7 loss, which with one less third-period whistle could have turned out differently. A lot of this first-round upset, which right this minute doesn’t look like such a big upset after the Pens’ loss and the Bruins’ implosion, comes down to one thing: It’s the playoffs, and these things happen when two teams of elite professional hockey players battle tooth and nail through seven bruising playoff tilts.

So, in order of insanity, I’d like to take a few minutes to address the common themes that came out in the form of tweets, blogs and columns in the D.C. area in the immediate aftermath of Habs-gate, keeping in mind that this team did roll to more than 120 points this season to capture it’s first Presidents’ Trophy, has players who are finalists for league MVP and top defenseman honors and has a GM that has constructed a powerhouse and is nominated for the NHL’s first-ever General Manager of the Year Award.

But first, one thing has been on my mind since the Caps’ elimination that points to one of the main reasons why I got out of sports journalism and went into sports public relations while a college senior at the University of Maryland. It is getting really tiresome when “respected” Washington Post columnists such as Mike Wilbon and Tom Boswell, after ignoring NHL hockey for the previous 364 days, decide to come out to a deciding playoff game in hopes of a Caps collapse and then profess to be experts on the sport. What these guys know about hockey literally can be written, double-spaced, on a 3x5 card. One day for kicks maybe I’ll red pen some of their “award-winning” columns and send them back to the desk editor at the Post.

I’ve been waiting for Mr. Wilbon’s column ripping Sidney Crosby’s lack of leadership and for Mr. Boswell’s thoughts on why the Penguins need to be blown up. Won’t happen, even though they had no problem a few weeks ago writing that Crosby was miles ahead of Alex Ovechkin in terms of leadership (addressed below) and achievements and that the Caps literally need a complete overhaul. Nobody cares more than guys like Ovechkin, Crosby and LeBron James, yet all these fat, non-athletic sports columnists and commentators want to point the finger at them every time their teams fail.

Only one team with its one or two superstars wins in each sport every year, so I guess that makes every other great player in every other sport some sort of a dismal failure? These guys carry their teams for 90-100 games a year. Some days they just aren’t going to have it. Ease up and start pointing the finger at the supporting players, making a lot more money than any of us by the way, who don’t show up when it counts.

Okay, venting aside, again here are my thoughts about what has been written about the future of the Washington Capitals in order of insanity:

Bruce Boudreau should be fired or at least be on the hot seat
This is preposterous. Do I think Boudreau was outcoached slightly in the Habs’ series? Yes. Perhaps his biggest mistake was spending the last few weeks of the season openly discussing with the media how his team was settling into a more conservative, defensive style in preparation for the playoffs. I think those comments quite possibly may have hampered Green, his star on the blueline and a top offensive contributor, who seemed to take the new game plan personally and struggled to involve himself in the offensive end. Joe Corvo, a solid two-way threat throughout his career, also seemed to be confused as to his role until Washington trailed in games five six and seven and he knew unquestionably that he had to join the rush.

Boudreau’s other misstep came in his dealings with the media. Professional athletes, even the superstars, have been trained since they were 5 years old to look to their coach for comfort and encouragement in times of adversity. Boudreau, who had been happy go lucky throughout the Caps’ stellar regular season, suddenly became abrupt and rude with the media after playoff losses. From the outside looking in he seemed really uptight, which I’m sure did not go unnoticed in the locker room. Players feed off of their coach, and when the leader is uptight, teams often play that way.

The playoff loss aside, Boudreau has taken a team and built an extremely successful system around that team. Remember that fewer than three seasons ago Washington was mired in last place playing Glen Hanlon’s conservative, uninspiring system. Since Boudreau took over that Thanksgiving, the Caps are 141-56-28 for a .689 winning percentage, easily the best number produced by any Washington coach. Green probably summed up the situation best a few days after elimination: “In the playoffs we played better defensively, limiting them to 15 or 16 shots a game but not scoring … It’s a great system, and it works. Unfortunately we couldn’t score goals this time. “ (see Halak)

As Caps’ blogger Mike Vogel points out, Al Arbour posted the same playoff record out of the gate, 13-15, as Boudreau before going on to win four Stanley Cups. Scotty Bowman went 28-30 in five playoffs before capturing nine titles. The first three times the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s, often compared to the Caps because of their offensive firepower and style of play, advanced to the playoffs they didn’t escape the second round. The fourth year they advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals, and the rest is history.

Just like the youthful Caps, Boudreau, a hockey lifer, is young in terms of NHL mileage. You don’t give up on a guy who has the respect of the room and has won at a 69 percent rate in his first three seasons because of a hiccup. “He’s a really good coach. He’s here for a long time,” General Manger George McPhee said. “There’s no reason to raise those issues, because he’s not going anywhere.”

Added Brooks Laich, who has been with Boudreau for a championship in the AHL and throughout his tenure in D.C.: “There is no coach who is more prepared then Bruce. He is at the rink earlier than any coach. He watches more hockey later at night than any coach. Any criticism of him should be directed toward us players. We didn’t execute.”

Trade Green and Semin
For a couple of days I was teetering on the verge of jumping on the anti-Semin bandwagon. There are definite issues with his game, but there were issues with the games of some of the Great One’s supporting cast early on as well. There are two ways of looking at this. One, after his 40-goal season his value is highest, so why not move him for the physical, mobile defenseman the media and fans have been screaming for? Or, two, he’s a young guy who just potted 40 often-spectacular goals and who is still developing and maturing as a player. Because of the chemistry he has with Ovechkin and Backstrom and the fact that he is a true sniper, something that is very hard to come by, I think you keep him.

Semin did not play poorly the last two games of the series. He gave the necessary effort and created numerous scoring chances (see Halak). That said, Semin did not show up early in the series. If he had simply given the same effort as he did in the final two contests, somehow a puck would have found the back of the net for him and he wouldn’t have been squeezing the stick so tightly when it counted. Don’t forget that he’s a young, developing, maturing player with amazing skill. Lesson learned. You don’t give up on that type of ability.

As for the Green talk, you simply don’t trade a 25-year-old defenseman who has been a two-time Norris Trophy finalist and is good for 70-plus points a year. Certainly there are some flaws in his defensive game (see young Paul Coffey), but you have to turn him loose and let him be who he is. In my opinion Green heard the media and listened to Boudreau’s comments about playing a more defensive style as a team and took that to heart. What you got from him was a decent defensive effort and absolutely no offense as opposed to a decent defensive effort and a point or two per night. The Caps have Green, John Carlson, NHL plus-minus leader Jeff Schultz and Karl Alzner locked up as their top four d-men for as long as they can afford them. You don’t break up that nucleus. What you do is find that veteran, playoff-grizzled stay-at-home leader with a winning track record to anchor the defense, let Green be Green and keep the unit together and focused in the room during tough times.

Alex Ovechkin is Not a Leader
Ease up. The guy has been a captain for exactly three months. He received a standing ovation in the dressing room the day it was announced that he’d wear the “C.” The team went something like 30-4 out of the gate after he was named captain. No one plays harder. No one cares more. Five goals and five assists vs. the Habs (please compare to Crosby’s production). Yes, there were a couple of games that he didn’t produce, but in all except one of those he was Washington’s best player on the ice. Ovie may need to tweak his game a bit, in the opposite manner that Crosby did this year, and work on playing more down low, being more of a presence in front of the net and accepting 15-20 garbage goals, but there is no question he is the man in the room. The Caps would be smart to give him some veteran leadership support on the blueline, however, and to possibly bring in a veteran forward with a Stanley Cup on his resume to take some of the weight off of Ovechkin’s shoulders.

Overhaul the Roster
The Caps were exposed a bit as not having the type of irritating, get-under-your-skin players who drive to the net, wreak havoc with goaltenders and generally seem to have more postseason than regular-season success (see Dustin Byfuglien). No disagreement there. They have three talented lines and all kinds of speed and skill. They added Mike Knuble last offseason, and he proved to be a big difference-maker – apparently too much of one in the final period of the final game vs. Montreal.

Washington’s fourth line brings the energy and is one of the most respected in the game – whether it’s Matt Bradley, David Steckel and Boyd Gordon or if Jason Chimera is thrown into the mix. The top line of Ovechkin-Backstrom-Knuble returns, with Boudreau having the ability to exchange second-liner Semin for Knuble when an offensive jolt is needed. The Caps don’t have a lock-down defensive line and they don’t have a true second-line center. Brendan Morrison and Eric Belanger really are third-line pivots who are UFAs, and Tomas Fleischmann, a huge playoff disappointment, spent some time centering the second line, but is definitely not a pivot. Brooks Laich has played a decent amount of center over the years, but he seems to have settled into a role as a winger who can float between the second and third line and sees time on both special teams units.

Supposing that Gordon, a RFA, returns and the fourth line stays basically intact (perhaps with shot-blocking fiend Quintin Laing suiting up more often to help a less-than-spectacular penalty-killing unit), with the first line unchanged, right now the forward combinations look like this:


Of the Caps’ UFA forwards (Belanger, Morrison, Scott Walker), the most likely to be re-signed is Belanger, who would give Washington a strong two-way third line with some speed and skill. Or Washington could give the opportunity to one of the players who helped its AHL affiliate notch a record-breaking season, several of whom contributed to the Caps’ own record-breaking campaign. Players like Keith Aucoin, the AHL MVP, and Mathieu Perreault have shown they can contribute at the NHL level and are deserving of a look.

Other potential scenarios include returning Laich to center and using him on the third line to create a very dangerous two-way trio while moving Fleischmann back to wing and making a play for a UFA center such as Tomas Plekanec, Patrick Marleau or Matthew Lombardi. And, based on Fleischmann’s postseason after a very solid regular season, there always is the possibility of moving him for the veteran defenseman that seems to be missing from the equation. It seems as though it might be a good idea for Washington also to take a serious look at bringing in a veteran forward with a Stanley Cup on his resume to help in the locker room and on the ice come crunch time. Ray Whitney, Thomas Holmstrom and Mike Modano, who supposedly hasn’t made a final decision about his future, all fit that description.

On the defensive end, it seems unlikely that UFA’s Joe Corvo and Milan Jurcina will return. Veteran defenseman Shaone Morrisonn had his best season statistically, but with Alzner and Carlson expected to arrive for full-time duty, Jeff Schultz coming off a breakthrough year, Mike Green being named a Norris finalist again and Tom Poti expected to recover fully from an eye injury after an outstanding playoff, if the Caps are going to make a splash and bring in a name vet on the blueline, it looks like Morrisonn would be the odd man out. Expect rumors to swirl about players such as Anton Volchenkov, Dennis Seidenberg and Paul Martin coming to D.C. to sure up the young defensive corps. John Erskine and Tyler Sloane return to provide depth. As of today the pairings look like this:


In goal, despite an outstanding regular season, Jose Theodore will move on and Semyon Varlamov most likely will be named the starter heading into training camp. Varlamov figures to be backed up by AHL-standout and NHL-contributor Michael Neuvirth, who has shown flashes of brilliance with the big club. There is an outside possibility that a veteran backup could be brought in with Neuvirth staying in Hershey, but the more likely scenario is a split in playing time between Neuvirth and Varlamov that is slightly in favor of the young Russian until late in the season when one will take over on a more regular basis.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Caps Fans It's Time to Step Up!

This pep talk is for all supporters of the Washington Capitals – myself included. It is a must-read for call Caps’ fans, so please send the URL all over Red Nation ASAP.

While my father is the eternal optimist and always thinks positive thoughts (so he says, anyway), I am the opposite. After 27 or so years of Caps-induced postseason heartache – sprinkled with a few memorable, exhilarating moments, it’s hard not to be a pessimist.

Those of you who have followed the team faithfully through the 80s, 90s and into the 21st Century know where I’m coming from. Unfortunately there are countless thousands of you out there, and many – if not most of you – will be in the arena for tonight’s Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the scrappy Montreal Canadiens.

In my professional life – which has spanned 20 years in the sports industry - I’ve been a P.R. guy, a media relations guy, a marketing and promotions guy, a publications guy, a writer and an editor; but in my “other” life, outside of the business world, I’ve been a coach of various sports at various levels for more than 20 years.

My career has afforded me the opportunity to work with some incredible coaches, and I’ve used that opportunity to observe, learn, dissect and pick the brains of these amazing people. Some, such as Princeton University basketball coaching legend Pete Carril and former U.S. Olympic hockey coach Tim Taylor, you may know. Others, such as UMass hockey coach Don “Toot” Cahoon, former WNBA coach Pat Coyle and Bill Herrion, who led the Drexel University basketball team to three NCAA tournaments and scored one of those amazing first-round upsets, you may never have heard of.

And one more, former Loyola College (now university) women’s lacrosse coach Diane Aikens, inspired me and an entire nation of female athletes by leading her team to multiple final four appearances despite a battle with brain cancer that lasted more than 15 years.

You think watching a 3-1 series lead slip away is adversity? Diane, whose niece works for me now, went out on the field every day during her last season as coach knowing she had a few short months to live, and no matter what challenge her team faced she managed to convince those young athletes that if they worked hard, trusted in each other and stuck to the plan that everything would turn out fine.

Hockey fans, again myself included, talk about bad calls, bad bounces, hot goalies, superstitions, playoff beards, conspiracies and all sorts of crazy stuff this time of year. Staring at the end of her life, Diane still was able to simplify and help her teenage and 20-something players find comfort in believing in themselves.

My long-winded point is that I have watched coaches at different levels very closely over the years. I’ve studied them from up-close and from afar, stealing bits and pieces from their approaches and using them in my own life. I’ve witnessed good and bad, successful and unsuccessful. I’ve read books written by the great ones and seen all the sappy sports movies and memorized all the motivational speeches (can you name the movie?) – “This is your time;” “I love you guys;” “On this team we tear ourselves and everyone else around us apart for that inch;” “No one comes into our house and pushes us around;” “When you take that field today, you’ve got to lay that heart on the line. From the souls of your feet with every ounce of blood you’ve got in your body, lay it on the line until the final whistle blows. And if you do that we cannot lose.”

I’ve become a student of motivation, leadership and sports psychology – a walking reference book, ready with a plan, a quote or strategy for almost any time and any situation. Still, today, as I await a Game 7 that some say could define the Washington Capitals franchise for years to come, I can assure you that no one is more nervous than me. I also can assure you that all of the coaches mentioned above, as well as any of the coaches quoted in those movies, were as competitive as anyone who ever lived. And, I can tell you with ultimate confidence that they were the most nervous people in the room when giving their big-game speeches.

That’s when the coach becomes a psychologist, understanding the personalities in the room and the emotional state of the team. Knowing who can be pushed and challenged and who needs to be coddled. Understanding that in that particular time of adversity the players are looking to the coach to provide them with the reassurance that they are good enough and that everything will be okay. I guarantee you that no one at Verizon Center tonight will be more nervous than me. But, today, I think Caps fans need a little pep talk. A coach. A psychologist. Some reassurance. So, for better or worse, here goes my speech to all of you:

Relax and enjoy the experience. Game sevens, although they seem to becoming a regular part of our Aprils around here, do not happen very often. Nothing in sports is more exciting.

We are privileged to be able to watch the greatest team in Caps history and one of the best players in the world on a daily basis. Celebrate that. Don’t stress over what this team’s legacy will be or if there will ever be a better chance for the Caps to win the Cup. This team and organization is only getting stronger. It has been built the right way. There are young players who will be key contributors for years to come who haven’t even really seen the light of day in the NHL yet. It is not do or die. The Caps are going to be a Cup favorite for a long time. Simplify your thought process and focus on tonight and only tonight.

Realize that the eyes of the hockey world are on YOU, tonight. In the past – even in Game 5 of this series with the Caps holding a two-game advantage – the tension in the building was palpable. Yes, there are some fragile personalities on this team who are struggling at the moment, and they are some of the team’s most talented players. There’s no need to rehash who they are at this point. Believe me when I tell you that every player in that locker room wants to win as badly as anyone else – as badly as you do.

Groaning with every pass that bounces over a stick or misfired shot will not make the situation better or help those players relax and perform better. Urging players to shoot with no understanding of what they are trying to accomplish or how the defense is playing them on the power play does not help their decision-making. And booing, no matter the circumstances, will not endear the players to you and certainly will not improve their effort.

The effort has been there throughout. This team, these players, have given you everything they have. Are they pressing? All of them, no. Some of them, yes. But with every groan, sigh, boo or otherwise negative or frustrated reaction from the fans, the tension grows. Tense athletes are unsuccessful athletes. Your muscles tighten up and you can’t react as quickly, which in the world’s fastest sport can be the difference between winning and losing, between living and dying…sorry, couldn’t resist.

I’ve been to World Series games, NCAA Final Four and championship games, NBA playoff games, Stanley Cup finals games and numerous other championship events at the collegiate and professional levels. I’ve never been in a building as tense as Verizon Center. That cannot be the case tonight.

Tonight, the Caps need to feel the love. They need to feel supported through thick and thin. They need to be able to see that the future is bright and the sun will come up tomorrow. They need it to be made clear to them how much we love them and that we will be there tomorrow, next week, next year, in five years and in 10 years no matter what happens tonight. And the only way for them to be made to understand all of that is for us, the fans, to be as loud and supportive and excited as possible from the moment they take the ice for pregame warm-ups until the final whistle. We need to create the home-ice advantage that at times seems to be missing. We need to be a positive factor in the game’s outcome.

We expect the best from the players, so it is our job to give them our best – for 60 minutes or 240 minutes, whatever it takes. This team has refused to quit, even when bad performances have left them trailing and at times unfairly booed off the ice after two periods. The hockey world will be expecting the Caps to play poorly and their fans to become frustrated and angry tonight. It’s time to show the haters and naysayers that we are once and for all a hockey town and not a bunch of bandwagon, frontrunner fans. It’s time to lift our team to victory and not resign ourselves to defeat. It’s time to forget about Billy Smith, Pat LaFontaine, Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Hextall, Tom Barrasso and all the other ghosts of the past.

This is OUR time. Believe in YOUR team. They are the best in the sport, and they’ve proven that over the course of 82 games. Tonight doesn’t change that. Nobody, and I mean nobody, cruises through to the Stanley Cup. We can talk about winning a series in five and resting and whatever else. The bottom line is that the only way to win a Stanley Cup is by finding a way to dig deep, put your head down and grind it out. No one is going to give the Caps anything, but it is our job to be as intimidating to their opponent and supportive of our players as possible tonight.

So Rock the Red. Give us more cowbell. Wear your lucky shirt. Unleash the fury. Stop by church. Listen to Metallica. Rub your Bruce Boudreau bobblehead’s bald skull. Do whatever it takes to get yourself in the proper frame of mind to make the difference for YOUR team tonight. And then give them your best, and I’ll guarantee they give us theirs. And, if that happens, we cannot lose.

Funerals end … tonight!

Go Caps!

Friday, April 23, 2010

No Time for Messing Around

Tonight should be interesting.

Everything can change in the blink of an eye. Everywhere you look the media has said that the Washington Capitals have a stranglehold on their NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against Montreal, but if the Canadiens can pull out Game 5 tonight at Verizon Center the mantra will change to, “The pressure’s on the Caps.”

So, for that and other reasons, from the Washington perspective at least, it makes sense for the Caps to do everything in their power to close out the series immediately. If the Caps were to win the series they’d face Philadelphia, which finished off its five-game upset of the Devils last night, in the second round. This time of year an extra day or two of rest can be very important.

And don’t think that, at least from a distance, Washington didn’t notice that defending-champ Pittsburgh first had its game extended an extra 2-1/2 periods and then its season by at least another contest thanks to a gritty effort from an Ottawa club that faced a predicament similar to Montreal’s.

“I watched a hockey game last night and Ottawa played that way – with fire and passion and desire to win, and I think they out outplayed their opponent,” Caps forward Brooks Laich said earlier today. “Montreal is going to come in here and do the same thing. They are going to work as hard as they can and play as well as they can, so for us, we will need to be at our best to win.”

Added defenseman Jeff Schultz: “We’d like to finish it out tonight so that we can give ourselves a couple of days of rest while the other series play out.”

Most everyone expects the Habs to come out flying, much as they have the past two games, but based on the fact that Montreal has been unable to solve Caps’ replacement netminder Semyon Varlamov early and then and has worn down in the second half of those contests, it might be a better idea for them to play a less-aggressive, counter-attacking style that utilizes their speed and quickness to clog passing lanes and create transition opportunities off of turnovers. While that type of strategy might give Montreal the best chance of competing for a full 60 minutes, the danger is, especially with the inconsistent goaltending the Habs have gotten, that the high-powered Caps’ offensive attack might be too much for them to withstand. And certainly the Canadiens can’t afford to fall behind by a couple of goals.

“I think the first 10 minutes will be very important,” Alex Ovechkin said. “I think they will push us very hard and try to go down and score goals. If they can score it will be good for them. We just have to play our game.”

As the series has progressed, Washington has been able to play its style of hockey more comfortably. One school of thought heading into this series was that the Caps’ combination of speed, size and strength would ultimately wear the Habs down over the course of many games. That certainly has appeared to be the case thus far. Washington scored four goals in the third period and overtime of their Game 2 comeback, four goals in the second period of Game 3 and four goals in the third period of Game 4. Washington scored three markers in the first 111 minutes of the series and 16 in the 142 minutes since.

“We want to wear them down early in the game and tire them oust,” said Schultz. “It’s not like we are going to go out of our way to lay a big check on a guy, we’ll just do it as if we were playing any game.”

It may be easier for both teams to approach tonight as if it were just any game and to play a little more free and relaxed. After all, Washington has some margin of error now with a two-game lead, and the Habs have nothing to lose facing a 3-1 deficit. The problem is that if the Caps do falter they will have to return to a crazy environment and face a team that would definitely be re-energized and dangerous.

In past years you might almost expect a less-mature Washington team to come out tonight thinking that the series was wrapped up, but after having its first three playoff series under Bruce Boudreau extended to seven games, this Capitals squad seems to have the big picture in mind and to have developed the killer instinct found inside all championship contenders.

“Everybody talks about killer instinct,” Boudreau said, “but I think that every team wants to go and finish a series off and not let the other team hang around and make it go six or seven games. So the phrase killer instinct, I don’t know. If you don’t win does that mean you don’t have it? That you don’t want to win? I think we want to win as much as they do.”

Washington has not been able to close out a series in Game 5 since they handed another Canadian foe, Ottawa, a five-game setback in 1998 en route to an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals. Ironically the Caps chased Senators’ goaltender Damian Rhodes, who was replaced at one point by Ron Tugnutt, in that series. Washington dropped a potential fifth-game clincher to Buffalo that same year in the conference finals before clinching on the road in Game 6. All-time the Caps are 8-18 overall in fifth games and 5-11 at home. The Caps are 2-6 in fifth games when leading a series 3-1 and are 3-3 in series in which they have led by that same margin.

To force a Game 6, Montreal will have to figure out Varlamov, who is now 3-0 in the series with a 2.49 GAA and .920 save percentage. On the other side it appears as though Halak will replace Price, whose emotions got the best of him late in Game 4, for Montreal. Both goaltenders have similar numbers for the series, with Price posting a 3.98 GAA and .898 save percentage compared to Halak’s 4.06 and .887. Halak did steal Game 1 for the Habs in DC with a spectacular 45-save performance, which along with Price’s meltdown at Bell Centre, made him the obvious choice for Canadiens’ coach Jacques Martin.

“That’s the first I’ve heard (that Halak will start,)” Boudreau said. “Until I see whoever’s coming out there first tonight I won’t know who is in or out.”

Regardless of who’s in net, the Caps are hoping that a more relaxed approach tonight might help them iron out their power-play issues and allow offensive stars Alex Semin and Mike Green to break out of their mini-slumps. Washington, which led the league in power-play percentage this season, has converted on just one of 19 extra-man opportunities thus far. The Caps did break through for an Ovechkin extra-man goal in the first period Wednesday, but that was in an unsettled situation. Their patience, decision-making and puck movement improved as the night wore on, however.

As for Semin and Green, both showed signs of life in Game 4, with Semin feathering a great pass to Ovechkin for the go-ahead goal in the third period and Green playing with much more confidence at both ends of the ice. Green, today announced as a finalist for the Norris Trophy, has an assist in each of the past two contests. Maybe the Norris announcement, paired with the two-game lead, will allow him to settle down and contribute more tonight.

“There’s a lot of pressure,” Boudreaux said, “and the players want to do so good and anticipate this for so long that it doesn’t always work out so well. Then they relax a little bit and get into their comfort zone and things start to come a little easier.”

So far Washington hasn’t needed much in the way of offense from Semin, Green or the power play. Boyd Gordon has helped the Caps score more shorthanded than extra-man goals thus far, and the Caps third and fourth lines have combined for 13 points and are a plus-7. That, along with the stellar defensive play of Tom Poti (playoff-leading plus-8) and rookie John Carlson (plus-7) has made Washington a tough team to beat.

Now, if Green and Semin can get rolling the Caps will truly be the Cup contender Many of us always thought they were.

Caps’ Lineup Notes:

It appears as though Washington will use the same forward combinations for the third straight game. On defense it is not clear whether Shaone Morrisonn will return. If he doesn’t, Tyler Sloan will play in his place for the second straight game.





Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Boudreau Pulls the Right Strings ... More to Come?

After a convincing 5-1 road victory against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, the Washington Capitals are beginning to look like the dominant team that ran up 121 points during the regular season. Perhaps the most encouraging thing for the Caps at this point, however, is that they still haven’t hit on all cylinders.

Washington coach Bruce Boudreau certainly pulled the right strings to get help get the Caps on the right track at the Bell Centre Monday, inserting Boyd Gordon back into the lineup as the fourth-line center and starting Semyon Varlamov over Jose Theodore in goal. All Gordon did was win 11 of his first 12 faceoffs en route to a 13-2 night and notch a shorthanded goal, the first playoff tally of his career, which ignited a four-goal second-period outburst that took the crowd and the Habs out of the game.

As for Varlamov, he helped Washington weather a furious Montreal first-period onslaught, turning aside all 10 shots he faced, including at least five bona fide scoring chances, on the way to a 36-save effort that improved his career record to 3-0 at the Bell Centre with better than a .940 save percentage and a GAA substantially below 2.00.

“When Varly makes those great saves early, we start to feel good,” Alex Ovechkin said. “And our defense did an unbelievable job for us against their top line. They stayed close and didn’t give them space.”

Added Boudreau after today’s skate: “I didn’t realize until this morning that they had so many great chances. Sometimes the score of the game masks how you play. I thought at the end of the first period we had done a pretty good job, but they came really close with five really good chances to score. Varly was up to the task.”

Varlamov’s performance seemed to have a deflating effect on the Habs that was very similar to what the Caps experienced in Game 1. For the first time in the series Montreal seemed to wear down during the second period, allowing Washington’s forwards to get to the net with and without the puck.

Gordon’s goal came on a 2-on-1 after a misplay at the point by Roman Hamrlik. He took the puck down the right wing, looking for Mike Knuble, but ended up taking a shot from in-close and banging in the rebound before anyone put a hand on him. The second goal came on a shot by Brooks Laich that went through the legs of Eric Fehr, who was able to stand untouched behind two Habs’ d-men and screen Jaroslav Halak. Washington’s third score came when Fehr again paraded untouched through the slot to smack home a rebound, and Ovechkin netted the fourth after being left untouched inside the faceoff circle for at least two seconds.

“It doesn’t matter whether you score shorthanded, 5-on-5 or on the power play,” Ovechkin said, “when you get that first goal it makes you feel good.”

Each one of those goals came either from in-close or as a direct result of players being left alone by a seemingly tired Montreal defensive corps. Later in the game, after a Tomas Plekanec power-play goal had briefly rejuvenated the Habs and the crowd, two lazy clear attempts by a slow-to-react Montreal defense allowed Matt Bradley to take the puck and fire at least four shots from point-blank range before burying the Caps’ fifth maker of the night.

“We have to play like that,” Ovechkin said. “(Jason) Chimera did an unbelievable job (on the fourth line). He was all over the place doing his job. He had chances and did not score, but a lot of different guys did their jobs tonight.”

Those different guys came in the form of secondary scorers, who had largely had been absent from the scoresheet the first two games. Fehr (1G, 1A), Laich (1G, 1A), Gordon (1G), Bradley (1G) and Brendan Morrison (1A) accounted for more points in one night than forwards not named Ovechkin, Knuble or Backstrom had contributed in the first two contests combined.

It appeared as though the play of Varlamov, paired with the speed, strength and size of the Caps, simply sapped the will and energy from the Canadiens. At one point in the third period, Washington winger Alexander Semin, who has been a non-contributor offensively in three games, blew past Hamrlik on the right-wing boards and cruised in for another in-tight opportunity. He almost looked surprised by the fact that no one was around to put a body on him and actually rushed the shot.

So, while Boudreau had the magic touch in some areas, he still has an opportunity to figure out how to get his power play, 40-goal man Semin and the NHL’s leading defenseman scorer Mike Green untracked. Green played his best game of the series – especially in his own end – and finally contributed an assist, both of which were positive signs, but Semin, although playing with more passion, remained scoreless, and the league’s top-rated power play continued to misfire, going 0-for-7.

For the series Washington is 0-for-14 with the extra man, and the Caps are 0 for their last 20 dating back to the regular season. Washington has more shorthanded goals than power-play tallies at this point, and 12 of their 13 markers in the series have come during 5-on-5 action. In Game 3 Boudreau tried two separate power-play units, separating Ovechkin and Backstrom at one point, moving Ovechkin from the point to the half boards or in front of the net at times and giving Joe Corvo an opportunity to man one of the points with Mike Green. His goal was to be able to see how Montreal would adapt on video and try to come up with a way to get some extra-man production in Game 3. The Caps worked on the power play today during their skate.

“We haven’t had any success at all,” Boudreau said. “It wasn’t a question of practicing it, frankly, it was more just getting guys’ positioning back to where it was. We are playing every second day, so we haven’t really practiced it since the playoffs started. We were just moving the puck around. We didn’t really go against any opposition. We’ll have to do it more by video than anything else to get better.”

If Boudreau can figure out a way to help the power play get better, the already formidable Caps will be very tough to beat going forward.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Caps' Leaders Emerge in the "Nick" of Time

The Washington Capitals enjoyed the finest regular season by far in franchise history, and they did it with a high-flying, high-powered offense that easily was the highest-scoring in the NHL en route to capturing the Southeast Division, the Eastern Conference top seed and the Presidents’ Trophy. Because of that unprecedented regular-season success it’s possible to see how the Caps might enter the postseason with a “my way or the highway” mentality and the confidence that if they just maintained the status quo everything would be fine.

It’s possible to see how that mentality could creep into the locker room, but in this case it’s not entirely understandable. Not with the core of a team returning for a third try at Lord Stanley’s prize – a group that learned first hand the past two seasons the style of play necessary to have success in April and May.

Fortunately for Washington, this year it only took 5-1/2 periods for the Caps to realize they needed to adapt their approach in the NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinals vs. Montreal. They came to the realization in the “Nick” of time, using Nick Backstrom’s first career hat trick to rally from a 4-1 late second-period deficit and escape with a thrilling, yet improbable 6-5 overtime win in Game 2 to even the series at two.

Last season it took the Capitals six periods and a two-games-to-none deficit, which included a goaltender change, to the New York Rangers before the light bulb turned on. Under eerily similar circumstances the Caps fell behind the Habs 2-0 in Game 2 Saturday on Montreal’s first two shots – despite having seven shots on goal of their own – resulting in goaltender Jose Theodore being yanked by coach Bruce Boudreau in favor of Semyon Varlamov for the second consecutive season. While Boudreau didn’t blame Theodore for the goals, the fact that he had given up goals on three straight shots going back to Tomas Plekanec’s overtime game-winner in Game 1 simply could not be overlooked.

So now we can add a D.C. goaltender controversy to the drama that has already enveloped this series. “We’ll have a video session and a long plane ride to Montreal, and during the course of that one of (the goalies) will know (who’s playing),” Boudreau said. “Before this series we said that if we are going to go anywhere this year we probably will have to use both goalies. I still think that we’ll have to use both goalies. Whether Varly or Theo plays Monday, I think they both are going to play again. That’s why we’ve got to keep them sharp.”

That’s just one of the many storylines that has emerged in this series, which has been more closely contested than most had expected and has produced two exhilarating games. The main theme has been the vaunted Washington offense against the Montreal trap and kamikaze shot-blocking defense. For more than 100 minutes that battle had clearly been won by the Habs, allowing them to capture Game 1, 3-2, and build a seemingly insurmountable 4-1 lead that had let the air out of Verizon Center in Game 2.

But then the Caps’ vaunted first line, led by hard-charging Alex Ovechkin, bull-in-a-china-shop Mike Knuble and Backstrom, hockey’s version of a jedeye, decided it was time to lead by example and show the others what needed to be done.

Ovechkin seemed determined to make a statement right from the opening faceoff, steamrolling Marc-Andre Bergeron and Andrei Markov on the first shift to ignite the crowd. The excitement soon turned to gloom, however, as Montreal connected for its first score at the end of that shift and then another just minutes later – the first of three straight by Andrei Kostitsyn

“I felt pretty good today, especially in the first period, and wanted to get into the game,” Ovechkin said. “I wanted to go out and make some hits and take some shots.” Asked about his strategy, he replied, “To destroy people? No. My job is to score goals, and if I get a chance to hit somebody, I’m going to hit him. It was good for me mentally.”

A breakaway goal by Eric Fehr after a turnover and fine feed by Tomas Fleishmann pulled the Caps to within 2-1 before the game was 10 minutes old, but from that point on the contest settled into a familiar pattern, with Washington pressing and forcing passes and shots and Montreal sitting back, clogging the passing and shooting lanes and converging on the net en masse every time the Caps had a real opportunity to score on goaltender Jaroslav Halak. That continued until Kostitsyn scored once on a botched defensive coverage in front and again when a puck that bounced off of him for the natural hat trick and a 4-1 lead late in the second.

That’s when Ovechkin, Backstrom and Knuble decided it was time to take charge. Just moments after Kostitsyn’s third tally, Knuble, the unsung hero of the night, jammed the net, the first time all series a Washington player had gotten into Halak’s face, and distracted the Montreal goaltender enough to allow Backstrom’s bad-angle slapper to sneak through.

4-2. Crowd ignited. Message sent. The third period would be different.

No one ever expected the Caps to give up, but many at Verizon Center had begun to question whether Washington was willing to do what it would take to defeat this pesky and stubborn Canadiens’ club. That question would be answered in the final 20 minutes.

Ovechkin, who had taken the blame for a sub-par Game 1 effort stepped up and took center stage, crashing the net to score on a rebound that barely came loose after Canada-killer John Carlson had deftly faked a Montreal player to the ice and fired a shot at Halak. Then, a few minutes later, with 16:30 left in the contest, Ovechkin took exception with Brian Gionta after a rush on Varlamov, giving the Habs’ forward a couple extra shoves after the whistle. Scott Gomez came to Gionta’s aid, which drew Tom Poti into the mix. In the drop of a hat – or a pair of gloves – two of the sport’s mildest-mannered Americans, Poti and Gomez, were throwing punches.

The fight was action-packed if not awkward, but it really got the crowd in an uproar, and when a camera panned the Caps’ bench, there were smiles all around. It was the first time all series the team had looked relaxed. “I thought it was great,” Boudreau said. “It was the first time I’d seen Tom fight, and the players really rallied around it. They patted Tom on the back. We don’t have a lot of fights, anyway, but it told us something about how much he wanted to win. I thought that after that – even though our power play was struggling – it gave us more life.”

Knuble reared his menacing body again shortly, coming too close to comfort for Halak as yet another Ovechkin shot was nearly blocked. This time, though, the Caps’ captain didn’t give up on the play, pouncing on the rebound and threading a perfect pass to Backstrom for the dunk and a 4-4 tie with slightly more than 10 minutes left in regulation.

It looked as though Washington had all the momentum, but a bad decision by Jeff Schultz and some nifty Montreal passing – aided by poor defensive coverage by Mike Green – resulted in what appeared to be a deciding fifth goal for the Habs with 5:06 left. It wasn’t over, though, as Carlson continued his clutch play against teams representing the Great White North, burying a wrister off of a Backstrom feed with 1:21 remaining for his first career playoff goal.

Then, in overtime, three momentum changers teamed up, with Poti and Knuble feeding Backstrom for the game-winner, a snapshot that was very similar to the one that chased Theodore in the first period. Backstrom’s strike sent the Verizon Center into pandemonium as hats rained down from even the “cheap” seats. It was the second consecutive playoff Game 2 in D.C. that resulted in two players recording hat tricks – just to add another twist to the night’s festivities.

Backstrom and Carlson were the heroes for sure, but Ovechkin, whose health and level of play had been questioned by so many, proved to be the leader his teammates had grown to lean on: “You could see his energy, his desire and his leadership were there tonight,” Boudreau said. “If we all watched the last game and today’s game, the difference was night and day. We need him to be like that all the time if we are going to succeed.”

Added Backstrom: “He’s such a big key to our team. He plays with a lot of emotion and a physical game that gives the team a lot of energy. When we see him go to the net and score goals and hit guys like that it gives the other guys on the team good energy and the other guys want to do it, too.”

Ovechkin and Knuble went to the net often during the Caps’ comeback, showing their teammates first hand what needed to be done to get under Halak’s skin and help Washington claw its way back into the series. The results were undeniable and helped the Caps dampen what should have been a very successful trip to D.C. for the Habs.

“We watched the video and Bruce told us that Halak leaves rebounds,” Ovechkin said. “We just had to go to the net and find some rebounds. We had to do something. I like to shoot the puck and they were playing so tight on me that I couldn’t find the time and space to shoot, so I decided to go to the net and find some rebounds. Today it worked for me. Tomorrow is a new game and a new day.”

No one knows what tomorrow will hold in this roller-coaster series, but one thing is certain. Washington’s leaders stepped to the forefront just in the “Nick” of time.