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.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Once Again It's Time to Simplify

In scanning the blogosphere – at least the D.C. version – there are a lot of people saying that the Washington Capitals controlled play and dominated in the shot, hit and faceoff department in last night’s Game 1 NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinal overtime loss to Montreal. No need to panic is the battle cry. Washington was the better team. Once a game gets into overtime anything can happen, and the Habs capitalized on an opportunity. That’s playoff hockey.

A closer look, however, reveals that last night’s 3-2 Montreal victory was truly a tale of two games, and the lesson that the Caps need to learn can be found easily enough by watching the opening 20 minutes on tape and committing that to memory.

For those who chose to watch Buffalo’s Game 1 victory against Boston and tuned in to the Caps-Habs contest late, it would be understandable to think Washington dominated given the Caps’ 47-38 advantage in shots, the 37-24 margin in hits and the 45-27 advantage in the faceoff circle. Breaking it down, however, Montreal outshot Washington 31-28 after the first period and captured 15 of 29 faceoffs during the third period and overtime – obviously the crucial point of the game.

The first period, however, was a different story and really illustrates how the Caps can potentially dominate the rest of this series if they want to commit to that style of play. Washington came out flying, pushing the puck to the outside and using its speed and strength to get the puck in deep and create offensive chances. The Caps finished every check, generated plenty of shots and rebound opportunities and did a pretty good job crashing the net and creating traffic. Less than a minute into the game Jason Chimera blew past Marc-Andre Bergeron along the left wing boards and drew a penalty, allowing the league’s top power-play unit an opportunity to give Washington the upper hand. And Joe Corvo’s game-tying goal was a typical playoff-style marker, a well-placed floater thrown on net through traffic. Playoff hockey at its best.

For much of the period the Caps’ forwards seemed either too fast, too strong or both for the Habs’ defensive corps. It looked to be only a matter of time before Washington’s high-powered attack would heat up and give the Caps the lead. That’s when Jaroslav Halak stole the game. Certainly he was very strong throughout the evening, but he allowed the Canadiens to weather that storm and left Washington frustrated and somewhat drained heading into the second period.

On the bad side for the Caps in that opening 20 minutes was a silly penalty taken by Nick Backstrom that came with Washington holding a decided advantage in play and allowed Mike Cammalleri to net his first goal since January to give the Habs some hope. While Washington finished the season with the NHL’s top power play, connecting on better than 25 percent of its opportunities, the Canadiens are extremely dangerous with the man advantage as well, ranking No. 2 in the league and converting better than 21 percent of the time. The Caps are a decent penalty-killing team at home, but ranked near the bottom of the league overall, so staying out of the box is a key to their success.

And speaking of the power play, that was the other disappointing area for the Caps in the opening stanza. They went 0-for-2 in the first 20 minutes and finished the night 0-for-4, making them 1-for-15 with the extra man over their last five home contests.

It didn’t take long to see that the Caps were out of sync on the power play. Good shots were passed up. Long-range shots and low-percentage, pressured shots from the outside were attempted. Passes to players open for one-timers in scoring areas wound up in their skates or arrived bouncing or fluttering. Something wasn’t clicking. Perhaps they were too cute or trying to be too perfect and ended up trying to force things with the penalty clock winding down. No matter, the power play is something that has carried this team and must continue to do so. If the Caps aren’t scoring on the power play, Montreal’s potent extra-man attack combined with Washington’s less-than-stellar penalty killing suddenly tilt the balance slightly back in the Habs’ direction going forward.

“When you outshoot a team 19-7 in the first period, you know it’s not going to end up 57-21,” said Washington coach Bruce Boudreau. “I was a little worried after the first period. We had a 1-1 tie, but I think we outplayed them them pretty badly in the first, and usually when you do that and you don’t get a 3-0 or 3-1 lead, things can start to change. They are going to go into their dressing room and get hell from the coach or he’s going to say that now it’s our turn and at some point something’s going to happen to turn the game the other way. “

Once the second period started you could sense there was a change in approach from the Caps. Montreal continued to clog the ice in all three zones, and Washington started going for the home run – the long breakout pass and the stretch pass to the far blue line. Instead of the Caps using their speed advantage to the outside, getting the puck in deep, cycling, moving the puck and going to the net, they started playing a lot of east-west hockey with dipsy-dos at the blue line and fancy passes that led to countless offsides and more long-range, blockable shots. And for some reason, the Caps’ defense, which had been rock-solid in the first period, began to play hot potato with the puck, rushing and forcing passes and clears. They simply were not making the simple play.

When the Caps did get the puck in deep it seemed like one player – Mike Knuble, for instance – would go into the corner on his own and dig for the puck while his linemates kind of floated around in the slot area waiting for him to break free and make a pass. That instead of outnumbering the Canadiens in the corner and coming out with control to set up a situation where the Habs’ forwards would have to leave their assignment to help out in front of the net. Once you get the defense rotating and scrambling, the offense can originate from the point through either a clear shot to the goal or a fake shot that draws another defensive player out of position and leaves an offensive player open in even better scoring position.

All of that played right into the Canadiens’ hands. Montreal’s defensemen, Andrei Markov in particular, have no issue with giving up their bodies to protect the net. The Habs played back off of Washington’s forwards and pressured the pointmen, letting the forced shots from the blue line either carom off their bodies or scoot harmlessly past the net. Then, when Washington did get some open looks at the goal in the third period and overtime, the Caps rushed their shots and usually fired high or wide.

Ultimately, in overtime the Caps defensemen seemed extremely tentative moving the puck out of their own end and misread a couple of key loose-puck situations in neutral ice. One misread by Jeff Schultz led to a near-breakaway for Brian Gionta. The other by Shaone Morrisonn gave Tomas Plekanec the space he needed to fire a pinpoint bullet past Jose Theodore, whose outstanding 35-save performance was overshadowed by Halak’s brilliant 45-stop effort.

“We had a lot of shots on goal,” Boudreau said, “but I don’t think that we had a lot of great, quality chances. And when we did get quality chances we shot wide or didn’t get a shot off at all. We had a 2-on-1 late in the third and a 3-on-1 in overtime and didn’t get a shot of. I thought Halak played good, but he didn’t do anything we didn’t think he could do.”

So, let’s go back to the video. Working on the theory that positive reinforcement builds confidence this time of year, the Caps only need to watch the opening 20 minutes and lock in on the following: use speed to push the puck to the outside and then hammer the Canadiens’ physically in their own end, outnumber the Habs’ in the corners and then make the simple pass to move the puck quickly, immediately go to the net once the pass is made to the open man, take the open shot when it’s there and crash the net, limit the hot goaltender’s impact by getting pucks to the net and creating rebounds, make the easy and available pass in the defensive end and neutral zone and stay out of the box.

“I think we can play harder all the way around – from the top to the bottom – and that will reflect in the score, “ said Washington winger Mike Knuble, who led the first-period charge with six shots on goal. “I think maybe we need to bear down a little more around the net. This time of year you’re not pulling up trying to find people. If you get a little break, you get some speed and you get the puck to the net and somebody’s got to go in for the rebound.”

In other words, it’s time to simplify. The question is whether the Caps will get that message a game earlier than they did a year ago or will Red Nation be sent into panic mode yet again?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Caps - Canadiens Playoff Preview

Washington Capitals vs. Montreal Canadiens
NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
First Game – April 15, 2010
Verizon Center (Washington, DC)

Washington Probable Line Combinations


The Fore-word:
Brendan Morrison has practiced as part of the first line this week, taking the ill Nick Backstrom’s spot on Tuesday and alternating with Mike Knuble on Wednesday. Knuble was picked up to provide a physical presence up front during the playoffs and to create space for Backstrom and Ovechkin. Clearly Knuble (29 goals) is a lock to play, so it appears as though Morrison, who tailed off considerably in offensive production during the season’s second half, will be a healthy scratch along with Scott Walker and Quintin Laing. The Caps, who play at a faster pace than possibly every NHL team, do so despite having a group of big, strong forwards. The above lineup features only one player shorter than 6-feet (Eric Belanger) and only two players who weigh less than 200 lbs. (Belanger, 187 and Tomas Fleischmann, 192).

Defensive Pairings

Defense Department:
Washington’s defense features a rare combination of size, skill and mobility. D.C.’s blueliners average 6-3, 210 lbs., but head coach Bruce Boudreau has made sure in recent weeks to pair more mobile players such as Mike Green and Joe Corvo with more physical, stay-at-home types such as NHL plus-minus leader Jeff Schultz and Shaone Morrisonn. The third pairing of John Carlson and Tom Poti is a strong skating and puck-moving duo that also can be physical when needed. On most teams the big, swift-skating Carlson would be counted on to provide offense, but in his first year in Washington the U.S. World Junior Championships hero has assumed a more conservative, defensive role in the shadow of Green and Corvo. This has allowed him to adjust to the speed of the NHL game without feeling the pressure of having to do too much at both ends of the ice. Still, he has carried and moved the puck with more confidence in recent weeks and has created quite a bit of offense as the playoffs have approached.

Expect John Erskine and Tyler Sloan to open the series as healthy scratches, which shows just how far the Caps’ defense has come in a year. Erskine was one of the team’s most dependable d-men during last year’s playoffs and at times in the past has played as one of Washington’s top-four blueliners. If you look at statistics, overall skill, size and mobility, the Caps’ defense stacks up favorably against just about any defensive corps in the East. Where Washington has gotten into trouble in the past has been when the forwards have not committed to giving the effort at both ends of the ice required to go deep into the playoffs. The Caps have focused on this type of approach in recent weeks with encouraging results. They allowed three or fewer goals in their last six contests, going 5-0-1 and allowing just 13 total goals in that span.

Goaltending Depth Chart

Jose Theodore has bounced back from an inconsistent 2009 and first half of 2010 to place a stranglehold on the starting job heading into the postseason. He is unbeaten in regulation in his last 23 starts (20-0-3) dating to Jan. 12, posting a 2.58 GAA and .922 save percentage during that span. Perhaps most impressive and supportive of the theory that he needs to make the key saves and not all the saves has been Theodore’s third-period performance during the streak. In those 23 contests he has allowed just nine goals on 229 shots. “Obviously the third period is always more important,” Theodore said. “Either your down a goal and don’t want to go down two goals or you’re up a goal and want to make a big save to keep it that way. I just try to focus on making the big save at key times, and a lot of times that can be the difference between a win and a loss. I’ve been pretty focused the second half of the season – really all year long – and I just hope I can keep doing the same thing.”

Last year Theodore was unceremoniously yanked in favor of Semyon Varlamov after a Game 1 quarterfinal loss to the Rangers, but Boudreau has said there will be no such quick hook this year. “I told Jose last week, Boudreau said. “He knows and he’s earned it. This is an entirely different situation from last year. He’s been our guy for a while, and his last loss was in early January. Obviously he could lose again, but last year during the last 10 games or so his game wasn’t anywhere near where it has been this year. There will be no short leash. He’s our guy.”

Added Theodore: “A lot of people counted me out when the season started for different reasons. It’s been a challenge for me to have a solid season since training camp and to have a chance to play in the playoffs. With the team we have, that’s where you want to be is in the playoffs, and now finally they are starting.”

As an aside, this season Theodore only appeared in one game against the team he previously won the Hart and Vezina trophies with, allowing four goals on 25 shots in relief of Michael Neuvirth. For his career Theodore is 2-1-1 with a 4.05 GAA and .877 save percentage vs. the Habs.

Montreal Lineup Notes
The Canadiens boast a small and quick batch of forwards led by the likes of Mike Cammalleri (5-9, 182), Brian Gionta (5-7, 173) and Tomas Plekanec (5-11, 198). Even Scott Gomez, who is solidly built, is by no means a giant at 5-11, 202. You might think that against a bigger team this could provide an advantage, but the Caps love the up-tempo game and have one of the league’s more mobile defensive units, so that should prove to be a wash in this series. If anything, Washington’s ability to match the Habs’ speed and wear them down with physical play from the likes of Ovechkin, Knuble, Jason Chimera and Matt Bradley – along with the defensemen – should provide the Caps with a big advantage.

Gomez always seems to play well against the Caps, and he recorded three assists in Montreal’s last two regular-season outings. Gionta scored a goal in each of the last three games, while defenseman Andrei Markov notched a goal and two assists in the Canadiens’ final contest vs. Toronto. Cammalleri has struggled since returning from a knee injury that he suffered in January. He managed just two assists in the team’s final nine games and has not scored a goal since January 23. Still, Cammalleri is another player who has fared well against the Caps in the past.

“They are quick and they are all proven,” Boudreau said of Montreal’s forwards. “When you are a small guy and one of the better players in the league, like Gionta or Cammalleri or Plekanec, you have to be special in terms of your drive and determination. It’s hard for small guys to make it in this league unless they are special. To do what they’ve done at this level they’ve had to be willing to pay the price and do the things that the bigger guys will do. I anticipate them to be at the top of their game.”

In goal, Carey Price played all four games against Washington this year, posting a 2-1-1 record and a 3.38 GAA. Jaroslav Halak, who did not play against the Caps, has allowed four goals in each of his last two starts. For the Canadiens, defenseman Paul Mara, who scored a big goal for the Rangers against Washington in last year’s playoffs, and power-play igniter Glenn Metropolit, a former Cap, are out with injuries.

One of the key matchups of the series will be Habs’ defenseman Markov against Ovechkin. Markov missed the first two contests against the Caps this year, but returned to play the final two games, helping hold Ovechkin to a total of two points in those outings. In the Feb. 10 game, a 6-5 Canadiens’ overtime victory, Markov logged more than 30 minutes of ice time, frequently matching up against Ovechkin, who played more than 29 minutes that night.

The Breakdown
Montreal has the type of team that can give the Caps fits on a given night. They are a quick, pesky team that can really press an opponent on the forecheck and capitalize quickly on mistakes. Montreal also has a solid, veteran defensive unit that is not prone to making a lot of mistakes. The issue here is whether the Canadiens can hold up in a long series against a bigger, more physical Washington team that is just as fast, more potent offensively and more skilled. When you look at it that way, the prospects don’t look encouraging for the Habs. The two real keys to the series are the willingness of the Caps’ forwards to commit to playing hard at both ends and the play of Halak. If Halak is able to play at a world-class level for the length of the series, Montreal has a chance to pull off the upset. But, even if Halak is at the top of his game and Washington is solid at both ends, the Caps just have too much firepower for the Canadiens to compete.

Season Series
Each team went 2-1-1 in this year’s series, with Montreal snapping the Caps’ 14-game winning streak in that 6-5 OT victory Feb. 10 and also winning in regulation Nov. 10. Washington won in a shootout Nov. 28 and earned a win in regulation Jan. 5. Said Boudreau: “Quite frankly they should have beaten us three out of four this year. It looks better because there are two games where we pulled the goalie and scored late to force overtime. It could have easily been 3-1 or 4-0 in their favor, so I’m sure that they have loads of confidence against us.”

Even Steven
Washington is the best 5-on-5 team in the league, having recorded 213 goals, while the Habs were the worst full-strength squad with 132 tallies. Again, if the Caps forwards maintain their defensive integrity, Montreal has no chance. Overall, Washington led the NHL in goals-per-game at 3.82, with the Habs ranking 26th at 2.56.

Special Teams
With the Caps leading the league in power-play percentage at 25.2 percent and the Canadiens ranking second at 21.8 percent, on the surface special teams play looks to be a a wash. Not so fast, though. The Caps draw a lot more penalties, primarily because of their speed, size and skill. They received 52 more man advantages than the Habs did. However, Washington has struggled for stretches on the penalty kill this season, ranking among the top 10 at home for most of the year, but among the bottom 10 away from Verizon Center. So the team that is more disciplined and stays out of the penalty box should be able to benefit substantially.

Washington has been nearly unbeatable on home ice the second half of the season, so potentially getting four games at Verizon Center is a big advantage. The Caps also have learned from slow starts in their last three playoff series and seem to be primed to avoid that this time around. Several of the Caps’ healthy scratches would fit nicely into the Habs’ lineup, so there is a decided overall depth advantage if the series goes beyond five games and injuries become a factor.

On the other hand, Montreal has nothing to lose as an eighth seed and can draw from its 2002 upset of top-seeded Boston as inspiration. The Canadiens also have a much richer postseason history than the Caps, but most of that was forged a long time ago – and the Habs have a richer playoff history than everyone else in the NHL. If they can steal a win early in D.C., the Canadiens will return home to a jacked-up fanbase that may be able to push them far enough beyond their perceived limits to make this a series.

Washington wins in six. Halak will play well enough to help Montreal steal a couple of wins, but the constant offensive barrage from the Caps will ultimately wear him down. Washington will continue its recent commitment to defense and limit the Habs’ scoring opportunities, which paired with the Caps’ firepower will render Halk helpless no matter how well he plays. If Washington gets off to a fast start and Halak’s confidence waivers, this could be a massacre.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Out With the Old, In With the Habs

Maybe this is just what the Washington Capitals need.

Fair or not, whenever April comes around discussions about the Caps seem to revolve around past playoff failures, most of which occurred in the late 1980s or early ‘90s and featured players who are old enough to be the dads of some of the guys on this year’s team. And yes there have been some epic collapses by teams with rosters consisting of Hall of Fame-caliber players such as Rod Langway, Mike Gartner, Scott Stevens, Peter Bondra and Larry Murphy.

But when you look at Washington’s playoff history, one thing jumps out at you: They haven’t faced many different opponents. You see Pittsburgh, the team that has provided Washington fans with the most postseason heartache, over and over. Early on it was the New York Islanders who seemed to rain on the Caps’ postseason parade (and everyone else’s) on a regular basis. The Rangers appear frequently in Caps’ playoff annals along with the Flyers and Devils sprinkled in occasionally.

Just going from memory, other than those teams, the Caps only have faced the Bruins twice (once in the conference finals and once on the way to the Cup finals), Buffalo once (1998 conference finals), Ottawa once (1998 conference semifinals), Tampa Bay once (2003, won the first two on the road and lost four straight) and Detroit once (1998 finals).

So it stands to reason that whenever the Penguins, Rangers or Flyers rear their heads in D.C. come April, all talk turns to the past. The tension builds among the fan base and the pressure mounts on the players, some of whom were either toddlers or not even born when Pat LaFontaine’s Easter morning spin-around slapshot beat Bob Mason to end the Caps’ season in the fourth overtime of Game 7 in 1987. These guys never even knew that the Caps of the past had blown multiple 2-0 and 3-1 series leads until the questions of the franchise’s haunted past started popping up the past two years.

Even though they had absolutely nothing to do with anything that has gone on before them, after answering the same questions about postseason struggles over and over you have to think that players start to wonder as soon as the breaks begin going the other way. And believe me when I say that you can feel the tension inside Verizon Center with every near miss, opponent goal and missed penalty call. There is no description for the explosion that erupted or the feeling of relief that shot through the building when Sergei Fedorov’s late third-period Game 7 slapper eluded Henrik Lundqvist to propel the Caps into the second round last year.

So while certainly not a walk in the park by any means, at least this year’s opponent, the Montreal Canadiens, is a new postseason foe, which shouldn’t elicit any talk about the past. Truth be told, this young Washington team now sprinkled with some gritty, seasoned vets shouldn’t be anything but confident heading into this year’s playoffs. Over the past two years the Caps have made the kind of progression that you often see as young professional teams mature and emerge as annual championship contenders.

Two years ago Washington rallied to win its final eight games and sneak into the playoffs for the first time since 2003. The Caps fell behind3-1 that year to a more battle-tested, playoff-ready club from Philadelphia before rallying to force a Game 7 and then falling in overtime. Last season they again had to reconstruct their game to a style more befitting playoff intensity after dropping the first two contests at home to the Rangers and then rallied to win in seven. Then, after trailing Pittsburgh 3-1 in Round 2, they came all the way back to force another seventh game before falling to the eventual champs.

Washington has followed that up with a remarkable 2010 campaign in which it has only lost 15 times in regulation, has lost by more than a single goal just once in more than 30 games and put together a 14-game win streak en route the Presidents’ Trophy and home ice advantage all the way through the playoffs.

“This whole year we’ve built toward doing something in the playoffs …” head coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I think it’s probably the toughest goal to achieve in all of sports, but we are going to try to win it … The focus is there. The players will arrive at practice (today) knowing what they are here for.”

Last year the immature Caps cruised into the playoffs, dropping games and giving up goals in bunches to non-playoff teams down the stretch. This season, for the past month they’ve been gearing up for the postseason by winning five of their last six and playing a more defensive-oriented, playoff brand of hockey. Oh, and thanks to the depth provided by some shrewd trade-deadline moves on the part of General Manager George McPhee, they’ve had the luxury to be able to rest some players and allow some minor injuries to heal along the way.

If anything, the past two playoff “failures,” seem to have served as the types of learning experiences all teams must endure before rising to the top of their sport. If the past few weeks are any indication, Washington is primed to avoid the type of slow postseason start that has plagued the team the past two years.

Nothing is a slam dunk – or, an empty-netter, for that matter – however, and Boudreau knows that. Playing against a team from a hockey-crazy town in a hockey-crazy country will provide an atmosphere and an environment that is unrivaled in the sport. The good news is that some of the pressure that supposedly will be felt by Washington as the No. 1 seed also will be felt by Montreal because of its rabid fanbase.

“Up there it’s the only game in town,” Boudreau said of Montreal. “They don’t split up the sports pages with news about the Nationals, Wizards and Redskins like they do here. Up there it’s the Montreal Canadiens and that’s it. I wouldn’t be surprised if there isn’t a 10-page spread in the paper up there about the playoffs on Wednesday or Thursday. All the TV stations will lead with the Canadiens as the top story. Everybody in the city knows every single player.”

So, with different pressures being felt by both sides, anything can happen – as Boudreau and his players have already learned. “As far as pressure goes, being the number one seed, it’s really like you are starting the season fresh,” Boudreau said. “All the teams start with zero wins and zero losses. We were the favorites against Philadelphia two years ago – even though I didn’t think we were – and we were the favorites last year against the Rangers when it took us seven games to win. Teams have a way of lifting their games in the playoffs. Sports have their surprises and upsets. Obviously we don’t want to be one of those, but they’ve been known to happen.”

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Case for Mike Green

For those of us with the good fortune of watching Mike Green play defense for the Washington Capitals on a daily basis, it had started to become pretty easy to take him for granted. You could pencil him in for a point or two every night along with about 25 minutes of ice time – very active up and down ice time, no less. Oh, and if the game went into overtime you could be pretty sure that Green would either score the game-winner himself or play an important role in the deciding tally. Ho hum.

Perhaps Green has become a victim of his own consistency. Despite his high level of play, for most of the North American hockey media, there always seems to be questions about his overall game. He never can quite do enough for those who only see him play on occasion.

Certainly for a couple of years Green could have been considered one of those “high risk, high reward” types of players, but over the past two seasons – logging all the key ice time and a good chunk of the short-handed minutes for one of the NHL’s best teams – Green is a plus-59. Sounds more like low risk, high reward to me. That includes a plus-35 mark this season, which is second among the league’s defensemen, and a plus-33 rating outside of his division, the best out-of-division number for any NHL d-man.

On top of that he leads all blueliners in goals (19), assists (55), points (74), power-play goals (10), power-play points (35), home points (40), road points (34) and points outside his division (54). Phew!

Oh, there’s more. Green is the only defenseman averaging more than a point per game and his plus-minus rating is 59% better than the second-best player among the top 10 in defenseman scoring. Historically speaking he is only the third active defenseman (actually the second with Chelios getting shipped back to the AHL) to have recorded a 70-point season (Lidstom is the other), and Green is the seventh defenseman all-time with back-to-back 70-point seasons before turning 25. The other six are enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Bruce Boudreau has contended for more than a year that Green is the best blueliner he has on both ends of the ice. Caps fans and media have witnessed his phenomenal talent on a nightly basis, and despite the criticisms of his defensive game, he still finished second in last year’s Norris Trophy voting. Although it’s way too early to seriously discuss this, Green is in the process of compiling a Hall of Fame resume.

We can sit at our keyboards and pound out endless complicated statistics and comparisons that show how much Green means to his team, but perhaps Boudreau’s simplistic approach is more effective and provides an even better argument. “He can’t do anything about what other people say,” says the defenseman’s most ardent supporter. “As a team we’ve played 80 games and gotten points in 65 of them. That’s pretty incredible, and if we are successful in these last two games we have a chance to be 40 games over .500. A week ago I finally heard the media touting him as Norris candidate, and now he sits out two games and they are doubting him again. I really don’t know why people doubt him when most of these awards are determined by statistics and he by far has the best statistics. He’s got the best statistics and is the best defenseman on the best regular-season team.”

Green established himself as a Norris frontrunner last season only to be edged in the voting by Zdeno Chara. You could make plenty of arguments for both players, and in the end it really could have gone either way. Chara was considered the better player in his own end an also an offensive weapon. Green had earned recognition as the top offensive blueliner, but his vocal defensive doubters probably made the difference.

The unfair part about the evolution of Green as a Norris candidate is what happened after last regular season. A worn down and beat up Green did not produce up to his usual high standards during the playoffs, and his reputation took a beating. Midway through the second-round seven-game loss to Pittsburgh commentators began to whisper that Green was falling out of favor with Steve Yzerman and the others who would be selecting the roster for the 2010 Canadian Olympic Team.

Instead of returning as a supremely confident defenseman who had solidified as one of the game’s best and would be representing his country in Vancouver, Green came to training camp feeling he had something to prove. He pressed a little bit early in the season and experienced some struggles in his own end. Still, his numbers were among the top d-men in the league. Then came the Canadian team announcement, and Green was left off of the roster in favor of players such as declining veteran Chris Pronger (yes, Canada won the gold medal, but Pronger over Green?) and up-and-comer Drew Doughty.
Perhaps motivated by not being selected or possibly relieved to be done with the situation altogether, Green has been lights out on both ends of the ice ever since.

If you really take a hard look at Green’s accomplishments and what he means to his team, no other blueliner really compares in terms of overall contribution. Is he the best defenseman in the league in his own end? No, but he is skilled and mobile enough to lead an offensive rush up the ice and recover in time to break up a counter-attack. He’s big and strong enough to provide a physical presence and help make his team the top 5-on-5 club in the league. He’s creative enough to thread breakout passes that create scoring chances for the league’s most talented group of forwards and to make smart decisions with the puck that thwart aggressive and trapping forechecks. He’s tough enough not to get pushed around, and disciplined enough to always be available when his team needs him the most. He would immediately make any team’s power play better and would see short-handed minutes for every other NHL club.

Certainly there are other great defensemen out there, but clearly there is no defenseman who has had the overall positive impact that Green has on his team. You can go deep into the statistical analysis to prove that point or save yourself a lot of aggravation and just give it the simple Boudreau eye test. While Doughty should give Green a run for his money during the foreseeable future, this is Mike Green’s year.

Green could have sat in the corner and sucked his thumb after being left off the Olympic team, but instead he reached down deep and became the best defenseman in the NHL. That alone deserves the respect of those who have doubted him in the past. And for those who say he doesn’t play well at both ends of the ice, they either don’t follow the sport closely enough or don’t understand it well enough to deserve a say in the matter, anyway.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Caps in Good Shape Despite What "Experts" Say

When you follow a team all your life and since its inception, it's hard at times to be objective. In the case of the Washington Capitals, after years of playoff disappointments, many of their followers - inlcuding me - tend to expect the worst this time of year.

Lately, many in the national media - and now even Columbus Blue Jacket forward R.J. Umberger - have jumped on the anti-Caps bandwagon. Several NHL media types have labeled Washington "this year's Sharks," and Umberger last night said that the Caps wouldn't strike fear in any of the Western Confernece teams because "they don't play the right way."

Let's address that ridiculous comment first. Based on his - and his team's - performance this year, it might stand to reason that Mr. Umberger would know a thing or two about not playing the right way. It just seems like a funny statement coming from an underachieving player on an underachieving, disappointing team after a loss against a club that he will never face more than twice a year. Way to put yourself on the line, R.J.

Enough about that, though. Instead let's get back to the "prevailing wisdom" among a national NHL media contingent that waivers more than a U.S. politician in an election year. They say that the Caps have been struggling of late, that they have holes on defense, that they aren't capable of playing a two-way defensive style, that they are suspect in goal, and on and on.

Well, trying to be as objective as possible, let's take a quick look around the league at the competition - at least those that the pundits consider to be legitmate Cup contenders and the other teams battling for playoff berths. The erstwhile Sharks, second in the race for the President's Tropy and leading the West, have split their last two (prior to tonight's game at Colorado) after winning four straight. Before that they had dropped six in a row. They are 5-5 in their last 10 and 5-6-1 in their last 12.

Chicago, the media darling early in the year and considered by many to be the favorite coming out of the West, has won two straight after dropping three in a row and is 4-4-2 in its last 10. Vancouver is 5-4-1 in its most recent 10 outings. Phoenix, which did have a recent nine-game winning streak, is still just 6-3-1 in its last 10. Nashville has been playing well of late, going 7-2-1 in its last 10 contests, but the Preds are rarely mentioned as a contender. Instead, the Red Wings seem to be a poplular choice to make a run after struggling for most of the year and looking like they might battle it out for the eighth seed until the season's final week. The Wings are healthy now, having won seven of their last nine and going 7-3 in their last 10, including today's lost to the previously struggling Flyers.

Others in the West include Los Angeles (4-5-1), Calgary (6-4) and Colorado, which has lost seven of its last eight (before facing the Sharks tonight).

On the flip side in the East, current second-place New Jersey is 4-3-3 in its last 10, No. 3 Buffalo is 7-3, Pittsburgh is 5-3-2, Ottawa is 6-4, Montreal is 5-3-2, Boston is 6-4, Philadelphia is 4-5-1, the Rangers are 6-3-1 and Atlanta is 5-3-2.

Compare all those teams to the Caps. Washington has won its last two, each by a single goal while playing a more defensive style, and is 6-1-3 in its last 10. The Caps, who are one point away from cliniching the President's Trophy (pending the outcome of tonight's Colorado-San Jose matchup), did lose three straight before their current two-game win streak, but at one point recently they had earned at least one point in 26 of their previous 29 outings. In their last 29 contests Washington has lost by more than a single goal only once, 5-3 to Calgary last week.

The Caps entered today eight points better than the next closest team in the NHL, and after a couple of tough outings last week, their goaltenders have held their last two opponents to a total of three goals, with Jose Thedore stopping 34 shots vs. Columbus Saturday to earn first-star honors. Despite the blips on the radar last week, Theodore still is 18-0-3 in his last 21 decisions, and if he falters, Semyon Varlamov showed during last year's playoffs that he is more than up to the task.

"When you feel good about your game, you know in your mind that you are going to have some bad games," said Theodore after Saturday's win vs. Columbus. "Every player has some bad games, but it's about making sure that stretch doesn't last too long. It was great to be back in net tonight and I just wanted to get back on track and back to feeling tood about my game."

Are the Caps at the top of their game right now? Of course not. They are not playing as well as they were during their ridiculous winning streak leading up to the Olympics, but neither is anyone else, save Detroit. They have made noticeable adjustments in their game in the past week, with the defensive corps tightening up substantially in its own end. Against Atlanta in a 2-1 victory last Thursday Washington's forwards backchecked as well as they have at any point this season. The forwards were not quite as committed vs. Columbus, but you can bet that will be addressed by head coach Bruce Boudreau.

Some folks point to the Caps' playoff history as a reason for picking them to tap out early in this year's postseason. That's the argument of someone who doesn't really have an argument. This group has nothing to do with the talented teams that made a habit of choking back in the '80s and 90s.

There always is a progression and a learning curve for teams that ascend to the top. Pittsburgh went through it with an early-round loss followed by a trip to the finals and then a championship. After a five-year postseason absence, Washington closed the season with eight straight victories to earn an invite to the dance two years ago. That year the Caps trailed Philly three games to one before making the commitment to playoff-style hockey and taking the series to a Game 7 overtime. Playoff lesson No. 1 learned.

Last season they cruised down the stretch against non-playoff teams and came out flat against the Rangers in the opening round, dropping two games at home, before re-committing to a playoff-worthy effort and rallying to win the series in seven. Lesson No. 2 noted.

Then came the epic seven-game series loss to Pittsburgh. Washington again climbed the mountain, coming back from a 3-1 deficit before running out of gas in the seventh game. Playoff lesson No. 3 absorbed.

Experts like to talk about the Caps' recent playoff failures and disappoinments. Huh? Two years ago they came from nowhwere with a young team and first-year coach to earn an unexpected playoff berth and push a tough Flyer squad to a seventh game. Last year they came back to win a first-round Game 7 and then fell in seven to the battle-tested, eventual Cup-champion Penguins.

I guess you can call those early exits if you want, but to me it looks like a natural progression toward bigger and better outcomes. Love them or hate them, respect them or not, this year's Capitals have been the class of the NHL. To say that they are primed for an early exit simply does not make sense. Could it happen? Of course. That's why we play the games and why sports are so special. But if I had to pick one roster from all the others to take with me into the postseason, there's no question which one it would be. And as someone who has followed the Caps since Day 1, I can honestly say that this is the first time I've ever even considered making that statement.