Sunday, March 28, 2010

Jose We Can See

Even as the Washington Capitals have been the dominant team in the East this season and are in control of the race for the President's Trophy, one concern has always lingered: Do they have the goaltending to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup?

Well, there's something to be said for having the ability to simply outscore your opponents on an almost nightly basis. The Caps consistently have shown the ability to do just that, easily leading the league with 289 goals and a plus-80 differential. The next closest in those categories are Vancouver at 244 and Chicago at plus-52. But, at the end of the day, history shows that defense and goaltending can overcome scoring come springtime.

Those who have watched Jose Theodore on a nightly basis during his - and the team's - fantastic run that has seen Washington record at least a point in 26 of the last 29 games don't seem as concerned as the rest of the world, however. There's no question that Theo's tenure in D.C. got off to a rocky start 18 months ago with some bad goals allowed and generally inconsistent play, but on Wednesday night during another epic tilt against the Penguins, something was heard for the first time during his stint in Washington: the chant of "Theo! Theo!"

Unfortunately a goal from Jordan Staal soon followed to tie the game at 3, but after surrendering a pair of goals in the shootout, Theodore stonewalled Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz to allow the Alex's - Ovechkin and Semin - and surprise shooter Mike Knuble to rally and steal the win. For the night Theodore finished with 39 saves, many of the spectacular, game-saving variety. His performance was enough to earn the superstar-filled contest's second star, yet the most telling indication of where Theodore stands with his teammates came after the shootout game-winner. Instead of mobbing Knuble, the Caps sprinted off the bench to congratulate their netminder.

"He's playing with so much confidence right now," Caps defenseman Shaone Morrisonn said of Theodore after the Pittsburgh win, "and that allows us to play with confidence at both ends of the ice."

Added Bruce Boudreau, a man of few words when it comes to his goaltenders: "He's playing great."

Still not convinced? Then take a look at this. Theodore is 17-0-2 with a 2.42 GAA and a .927 save percentage since Jan. 13. He has won his last seven starts, recording a 1.95 GAA and .937 save percentage during that span, and his 19 consecutive appearances without a regulation loss is a club record.

In recent years the knock on Theo has been his lack of consistency. Remember, though, that this is a former Hart and Vezina winner, so he has shown an ability to perform at a high level over an extended period of time. More recently he has shown that in short spurts he can still be one of the best in the game. Suffice to say that 19 games without a regulation loss is more than a short spurt.

And supposing that Theodore does have a lapse in concentration on occasion, he has by far the league's best offense to help overcome that. Sounds very similar to the formula that made the Edmonton Oilers pretty successful in the late '80s, doesn't it?

Grant Fuhr fashioned a Hall of Fame career, one that prompted Wayne Gretzky to at one point call him the greatest goaltender of all time, by making the key save - not EVERY save. A look at Fuhr's numbers during the Oilers' cup years reveals the following: In Cup year number one, 1984, Fuhr was 30-10-4 with one shutout, a 3.91 GAA and a .883 save percentage. 1985 saw him go 26-8-7, 3.87, .884. In 1987 he was 22-13-3, no shutouts, 3.44 and .881. And finally, in 1988 - his best year - Fuhr was 40-24-9, 3.43 and .881 en route to capturing the Vezina Trophy.

Sure, that was a different era with more offense, smaller pads, etc. But a closer glance shows that the league's top GAAs during those years were 2.66, 2.66, 2.81 and 2.36, respectively. Fuhr didn't make EVERY save, but he did make the big saves - and that's exactly what Theodore has been doing now for several months. Of course, we are talking about one of hockey's all-time great dynasties when referring to the Gretzky- and Messier-led Oilers, but the Caps are in the midst of the type of dominant offensive season that characterized those clubs.

On top of that, the Caps' defense as a whole has tightened up in recent weeks, allowing three or fewer goals in seven of their last eight and eight of their last 10 outings. A big part of that has been the superb play of rookie call-up John Carlson, the hero of the U.S. Juniors’ gold medal victory, and the improved play of Mike Green in his own end. Morrisonn has really stepped up his physical play, which is something that has sometimes lacked among the team’s d-men in the past. He led the Caps with nine hits vs. Pittsburgh. Jeff Schultz is second in the league in plus-minus, and quietly has become one of the NHL's most dependable players in his own end, and Tom Poti continues to make positive contributions at both ends of the ice.

So, those who say the Caps are not built for a deep playoff run, might want to look a little closer. They've got the game's best offense, and it's not even close. The defense is coming together, and their goaltender seems to be driven by something greater than wins and losses.

In August Theodore's two-month old son died tragically, leaving the Caps' netminder understandably heartbroken. In a recent Washington Post interview the emotional Theodore spoke out for the first time about the situation and admitted that he struggled to focus early in the season and was unable to round into top form while playing sporadically behind red-hot Russian goaltender Semyon Varlamov. But an unfortunate injury to Varlamov thrust Theodore back into the spotlight, and the team's powerful offense allowed him the margin of error he needed to fine-tune his game. More playing time allowed him to focus more on the game and less on the tragedy.

The end result? Theodore is on top of his game, playing often enough to stay in the groove and motivated by the loss of his son. He has started a foundation called Saves for Kids to help raise money for the neonatal kids’ intensive care unit, where he spent so many difficult hours, at Children's National Medical Center in Washington. Every save, win and shutout means more money is going to help prevent others from experiencing the same heartbreak that he and his wife Stephanie Cloutier lived through.

Something special is happening in D.C. right now, and it's not about the Alex's, the ridiculous amount of goals being scored or Rockin' the Red. No, it's about a once-spectacular goaltender who was weathered personal and professional ups and downs to return to his all-star form.

Jose Theodore is the Capitals' playoff goaltender. Period.

A year ago that left doubts in the minds of fans and experts alike, but what a difference a 12 months can make. There 10-12 playoff-caliber teams – if not more – that would be thrilled to have someone playing at Theo's level in net heading into the postseason. The Caps' perceived weakness in reality is a strength at the moment, which may once and for all allow them to realize the dream that has eluded the franchise for the past 35 years.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Miles to Go Before They Sleep

Years ago, when I was a high school kid avidly following my hometown teams in The Washington Post, I grew to dislike the writing of Michael Wilbon. But, as both of us matured and he became more of a national personality, my opinion changed and I often wondered what about him had irritated me so. Then, about 3-1/2 weeks ago, it all came rushing back.

I've been waiting for the right moment to reply to Wilbon's post Olympic comments that Sidney Crosby is "miles ahead" of Alex Ovechkin. With the next pending epic showdown between the two on the horizon in a few short hours, I figured now is as good a time as any. What bothered me about Wilbon back then was that he wrote as if he was the foremost expert about whatever topic he was dissecting - that only his opinion counted and that he was knowledgeable enough about whatever topic he was covering to be considered an expert. However, when it comes to hockey, he's not smarter than a fifth grader.

I can stomach the opinions of beat writers, columnists and radio hosts - even fans - who follow specific teams on a daily basis. Often I don't agree with them - and I have been known to call one or two an idiot on occasion - but at least they usually present enough evidence or have seen enough games or actually watch the sport they are talking about enough to have a somewhat educated opinion. Back in my high school days Wilbon would show up to cover the Caps in April, usually during some sort of complete postseason collapse, and pretend to be a hockey expert. He'd keep referring to all the Blackhawks games he had watched as a kid growing up in Chicago and make some ridiculously bold - and usually incorrect judgment - based on the four or five Caps games he had watched in the previous 10 days or so. Then, it would be another year before he'd write about anything hockey-related.

This year Wilbon decided to jump on the hockey bandwagon when all the non-fans tuned in to see the scintillating U.S. - Canada Olympic matchups, and after the stacked Canadian team - clearly one of the most talented rosters ever assembled - struggled mightily to overcome the youthful, inexperienced Americans for the Gold medal. It was after that game that Wilbon decided that he was once again a hockey expert.

There are two ways to look at the Ovechkin - Crosby rivalry. From a team perspective, clearly Crosby has the advantage with two Finals appearances and a Cup to his credit, although the argument could be made that until this season he had a better supporting cast. On the other hand, from and individual perspective, there's no argument that Ovechkin has accomplished more - scoring titles, Hart trophies, Calder Trophy, etc.

If you want to say that Crosby is the better player because of the Cup, I can deal with that. I happen to think that Ovechkin plays harder night in and night out and has a bigger overall impact on the game than Crosby, but that's my biased opinion. No matter what, you are going to have those who favor Joe Montana over Dan Marino because of the rings. That's understandable and defendable. The bottom line is, however, that every athlete mentioned in this paragraph is a first-ballot Hall of Fame talent and one of the greatest players their respective sports have ever seen.

The absurdity of Wilbon's opinion is that he made it based on Crosby's having also achieved an Olympic gold medal, while Ovechkin's undermanned, questionably coached Russian team was sent packing in the quarterfinals. What? You are going to say that a player is "miles ahead" of another player because his supremely talented team won a championship in two week, a one-and-done format in a sport that usually takes 2-1/2 months of pressure-packed playoff series to figure out which team is the best?

Seriously Mr. PTI, how do you think Canada would have done if you plugged Ovechkin into that lineup instead of him having to play on a team that has been known to give less that its best effort consistently over the past 20 or so years and that had nine players on its roster who aren't even in the the NHL?

Ovechkin vs. Crosby or Crosby vs. Ovechkin. As hockey fans we are fortunate and should be thankful that we will be treated to many more years of their amazing individual performances and head-to-head battles. It's Bird vs. Magic. LeBron vs. Kobe. Ali vs. Frazier. Whether you love Ovie or cheer for Sid, you tune in just to watch them. Those who say that Ovechkin is the best in the world have plenty of evidence in their favor, as do those who say Crosby is the greatest.

But once again Michael Wilbon, in trying to portray himself as hockey expert at a time when less knowledgeable fans had jumped on the sport's bandwagon, has shown how little he truly knows about the game. Hey Mike, stick to arguing with Kornheiser and leave our sport alone. And by the way, Tony is miles ahead of you as a columnist.

As for the rest of you, enjoy tonight's game!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Better Today Than Yesterday

Well, after sitting on the sidelines in 2009, apparently the Washington Capitals and General manager George McPhee decided that they needed to add a few more pieces to the puzzle in order to go deeper in the playoffs and possibly compete for a Stanley Cup. While many other teams stood pat, the Caps were the big "buyers" on Deadline Day. And, without question, the NHL points leaders are a better team today than they were yesterday. Best of all, they didn't do anything to really disrupt the team chemistry.

In: Tough, gritty and battle-tested winger Scott Walker from Carolina; hard-working and skilled two-way center Eric Belanger; former Cap d-man Milan Jurcina; and Joe Corvo, a potential top-four defenseman.

Out: Two second-round draft picks, a sixth- and seventh-round pick; defenseman Brian Pothier and Hershey forward Oskar Osala, a former fourth-round pick.

The big question is: Where do these guys fit, and who might be packing his bags? The good thing is that bringing in solid two-way players will send a message to some of the forwards who haven't been playing both ends of the ice. With such a large advantage in the division and conference races, bringing in some quality forwards will create competition and a sense of urgency among the players who have been here and might have become complacent.

Here are some additional thoughts:

Eric Belanger is too good to not be in the lineup. Many see him as a hair away from being a legitimate second-line center. This season he has 35 points in 60 games and ranks seventh in the NHL in faceoff percentage. Belanger is a solid two-way player. While the Caps' defense has been widely criticized of late, you have to understand that all five players need to play defense in hockey, and the Caps' forwards often have been as guilty on the defensive end as the d-men have. One player not pulling his weight creates a huge disadvantage in your own end. Puck possession and winning faceoffs are huge in the playoffs and when short-handed, so expect Belanger to see critical ice time when the team is protecting a lead and possibly to help bolster an average penalty-killing unit. Could Belanger see some second-line minutes to help that unit defensively? Maybe. Taking a look at the line combinations, we might see something like this:


This leaves Quentin Laing and Boyd Gordon as the odd-men out. The Gordon, Steckel Bradley line has been a great fourth line, but Gordon has kind of been in and out of the doghouse at times this year and struggled with some injuries. Chimera was hurt during the break, so Walker provides insurance. Not having to play Fleischmann out of place at center makes the Caps stronger up the middle and gives them four legit faceoff guys who are committed to playing both ends of the ice. Center is the most critical forward position when it comes to two-way play. While neither Belanger nor Morrison is a true second-line center, they both are high-end third centers and are interchangeable, bringing different attributes to the table.

This lineup has tremendous flexibility and can match up with any team on a nightly basis. Want to go up-tempo and stretch the ice against a slow, plodding defensive team? Plug in Chimera and Fehr. Want to batten down the hatches and go toe-to-toe with a grinding team? Plug in Walker and Chimera and sit Fehr. And, one thing the caps have been missing is another tough guy to do some of the dirty work. Walker fits that bill and will take some of the load off of the often-overmatched Matt Bradley while easing the burden on John Erskine.

Looking at the defense, you also have an abundance of styles to choose from. At the beginning you are probably going to see something like this:


The X-factors: John Carlson and Karl Alzner

Clearly, after the solid Olympic performance of Jurcina, McPhee felt that Pothier was expendable. A good locker-room guy who moves the puck fairly well, Pothier just isn't the physical presence the Caps need in the corners or in front of the net. He's much more finesse than flash, and really the team doesn't need another Tom Poti. So, to take a chance that a guy like Corvo, who has been a legit top-four d-man throughout his career and has a plus-41 rating during that span, in return for a player like Pothier makes all the sense in the world. When the Caps struggle, they often get bogged down in their own end and have trouble moving the puck, which is something at which Corvo excels. He also provides mobility and can be paired with a larger, more physical player like Jurcina or John Erskine or a more traditional stay-at-home player like Shaone Morrisonn.

That leaves Poti, also not a real physical presence, to pair with one of the other bigger, tougher defensemen. I just don't see the Caps benefiting by having Morrisonn and Poti on the ice together, and if Corvo steps up and performs, quite frankly one of those guys could at times be on the outside looking in. More likely, however, with the addition of tougher guys like Walker and Chimera in recent months, the Caps will give Erskine and Jurcina 20 games or so to prove themselves and earn a consistent spot in the lineup. And if Corvo, Erskine or Jurcina can't step up to do the job, Alzner and Carlson are not bad options. In 1998 an injury forced a young Brendan Witt into the lineup, and he was part of a memorable run to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The expectation is to see a bunch of combinations during the next 10 games or so and then a settled lineup to develop chemistry over the final 10 contests heading into the playoffs.

At the end of the day, the Caps didn't give up a ton (the extra second-round pick for Corvo is a bit bothersome if he doesn't work out, but if he returns to form the deal is a steal) and have added toughness, character, defensive-mindedness and a bit of skill. Several "experts" have called them the big winners today, but in reality we won't know that for hopefully 2-1/2 months or so. If they are, we'll all be celebrating...