Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Moving Day

The Cheap Seats are moving to swankier digs!

A View from the Cheap Seats

This site will remain up for the foreseeable future but will no longer be updated after today, so please adjust your bookmarks and site readers as necessary.

Special thanks to friend of the Cheap Seats, Geneen for all her help and support in making the jump.

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

Fleury's Caboose

If you watched last night's Cup-clinching win by the Red Wings or saw any of the highlights you probably noticed that Detroit's third goal was a little...odd - going from the stick of Zetterberg, through a maze of players in front of Fleury, and landing between his pads.

Then he sat on it, propelling the frozen rubber disk over the goal line.

It would be a painful goal at any time but you almost have to feel for Fleury, especially considering that such a fluke eventually cost his team the Stanley Cup. He had put together some pretty great performances throughout the playoffs and even a few in the Finals - his teammates spoke the truth when they said they wouldn't be there without him and so he had nothing to hang his head about.

In fact, the entire Penguins team and their fans should be very proud that their young team made this series as interesting as it was. It was a hell of a performance and a hell of an ending. Nothing should take away from that.

And yet...being the bitter, cruel, schadenfreuder that I am I just couldn't resist it when the creative urge (and a great deal of boredom) struck. After all, it was just two months ago that a certain captain was cackling about one of our players putting the puck into his own net. Karma can be a bitch, can't it?

At any rate, I blame my roommate and fellow Caps fans I talked with throughout the game for what finally took shape around 1:00 this morning. I'll probably regret posting it, but enjoy:

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A New Champ is Crowned

Congratulations to the 2008 Stanley Cup Champions,
the Detroit Red Wings!
Certainly a thrilling end to a thrilling 2007-08 NHL season.

...is it September yet?

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Osala Signs

More good news on the prospect front - the Caps have signed 2006 draft pick Oskar Osala to an entry-level two-way deal, beating the deadline to sign picks from that year by a little more than a week. Osala is a physical left-winger who played two years in the OHL before returning to his native Finland last year to play for Espoo of SM-liga, where he was named the rookie of the year.

If you read Finnish, you can find out more here...

h/t to Sonja for the heads-up

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This Day in Caps History

Ten years ago today, Joe Juneau sent the Caps somewhere they'd never been before - the Stanley Cup Finals. Do you remember where you were?

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Refs in the Penalty Box

It's time for the NHL to take a serious look at the officiating.

Forget about tweaking the rules or playing with the goalie pads to make them 1/184th of an inch smaller or deciding what undeserving location gets an outdoor game. After the Cup is handed out this week there should be only one topic of discussion for the rest of the summer, and that is the state of the penalty call in today's NHL.

League officials, referees, and linesmen should be locked in a room and forced to watch every second of this year's playoffs until they've seen all of the blown calls, the nonexistent calls, the bizarre calls - and figured out a way to fix it.

Because there's no reason for it. It's not an easy job, officiating an NHL game - even on a normal day it's probably one of the least desirable and most difficult jobs to do, and no one is saying that 100% of the calls are expected to be right 100% of the time. In a high pressure situation like the playoffs the microscope is even bigger, with instant replays and 20,000 paying referees disputing every call, and there is a subjective nature to the system that can't be overlooked.

But there should be the expectation that the referees and linesmen will make the right call most of the time. It's not that much to expect, really.

Sure, there are always controversial calls in every playoff series; there are always those plays that should have been whistled down that weren't, the moments that become legend for one fanbase or another. Somehow, though, it seems like this year the bad calls or blatantly missed calls are not only more prevalent but more pivotal in the final outcome of a game or even a series. That shouldn't happen. In order for hockey to maintain its integrity, it can't happen.

Three seasons ago the league underwent a massive facelift, implementing a salary cap and new rules that would change the way the game was played. And for the most part, after a few growing pains in the early months, things seemed to settle in. Referees knew what to call. Players knew what would be called.

That lasted for two seasons.

So what happened this year? Did every referee have a lobotomy over the offseason? Was there an epidemic of selective amnesia among the officials? There was some tweaking of the rules last summer but nothing so drastic as to make the officiating parties completely forget how to do their job. It's just been bad - through the regular season and the playoffs, bad. Horrible. And unacceptable.

Ask any hockey fan whose team was among the top 16 this year, if you talk to them about the penalties that were called or not called, you'll hear a familiar refrain: we got screwed. Nothing could unite fans of every team quite like that one sentence, and nothing could be more true - because we did all get screwed.

Talk to Caps fans about that second Flyers goal in Game 7. Talk to Devils fans about the mysterious icing call while killing off a penalty. Talk to Red Wings fans about Holmstrom's rear end. We all got screwed.

It's easy to sit back and say that if every team is getting equally screwed then there is no advantage for any other team and thus, no problem. Both teams have equally legitimate complaints and therefore no one gets hurt.

But the game is getting hurt. This series between the Red Wings and Penguins should be epic - two of the best teams in the league going at it for hockey's ultimate prize? Epic. And at times, it has been. Other times, though, it's been sullied and overshadowed by the inexcusable officiating.

There are the rare good calls (Hudler's high-sticking double minor in triple overtime last night was unfortunate but had to be called); but then there are the bad calls (did Datsyuk really trip Staal or can the kid just not skate?), the latter far outnumbering the former and making a mockery of what could be a great series.

Not only does that take away from the quality of the game, particularly at this, the highest level, but it also creates an atmosphere of distrust, of disillusionment, and of unsportsmanlike conduct. Diving, embellishment, cheap shots, head shots, etc. It's all part of the "New" NHL, folks - come on in and watch.

So for whatever is left of this season, be it one game or two, we will watch - and see what happens. What calls are made, what aren't, and what bearing they have on the ultimate outcome of the series.

Because regardless of who wins, in the end no one wants to see a Stanley Cup winner with an asterisk next to their name.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Season in Review: Entertainment

It's impossible to go to a hockey game at any level these days and not find yourself bombarded with music, strange sounds, flashing lights, stupid audience participation games and feeble attempts at getting the crowd to cheer. It is, as some have mentioned in the past, the death of the pure hockey experience. The mantra of NHL arenas these days seems to be "keep them stimulated at all times", and the Verizon Center is no exception.

So as long as we're going to be subjected to a constant attack on the senses, it's only fair that it gets critiqued along with the rest of the team. After all, the video screen has become just as much a part of the hockey experience as the stuff on the ice.

In other words...what were the best and worst in-game features this season?

Worst:
Original opening video - The Caps have a long history of producing great opening videos that get the crowd pumped up, that showcase great creativity and spotlight the talent. So it was surprising to see this unveiled at the start of the season, a video with good intentions but miscues all over the place. Watching the boys get dressed and then "play" on what is clearly the practice rink? Not thrilling. Not exciting. And not good enough.

Announcer Challenge - A clip of a past game is shown and two competitors are then asked to provide their own calls. The winner is decided by the crowd. Sounds like fun, right? Wrong. It only took one round to remind us that what Joe B. does every night is not as easy as it looks, something I'm sure most of us already knew. Please let this one die.

Tattoo Commercial - This one surfaced at the beginning of the season and thankfully died soon after, but you have to wonder what the thought process was behind it. Sure, sex sells, but come on. Nothing about this was sexy - the woman, the idea, the tattoo that looked like one of those temporary tattoos you see on little kids, nothing. Just horrible.

Ovechkin's Garage - I'm all for videos that show us the players away from the rink. I love seeing where they live and what they do in their spare time, its fun. It makes them seem like real (albeit much wealthier) people. But this was just a big ol' commercial for a garage makeover company, a five minute plug that showed us nothing but the least exciting part of Ovechkin's house. Frankly after the first viewing I never needed to see it again - sorry, Ovie.

Best:
Cribs with Brooks Laich and Mike Green - Ladies and gentlemen, the Abbott & Costello of the Washington Capitals. These two guys are hilarious together and so what better way to showcase that then to have each one commenting on the other's house? There's just great stuff in both episodes, from Laich's giggling over "Gary the Bear" to Green planting Hockey for Dummies and chick flicks around Laich's apartment to the duo's ill-advised musical exploits. Instant classics.

Opening video (midseason) - About halfway through the season the original opening video was mercifully scrapped and replaced with this adrenalin-pumping, heart-pounding rocker set to the fantastic Foo Fighters song "The Pretender". It took the best parts of the first attempt - Ovechkin and Semin's fist pound, Olie's mystical breath, etc. - and mixed them together with new footage and highlights. The montage now included great goals, hits and fights from everyone on the team, showcasing emerging stars like Backstrom and Green along with the usual suspects while giving just about everyone on the team face time.

Caps on Segways - It's always fun to see the guys out and about in DC; Caps Up-Close videos are among my favorites for just that reason. Ovechkin being goofy behind Matt Bradley is hilarious. Backstrom talking about how fun segways are is adorable. Seeing Mike Green wipe out in the slowest segway-meets-cement planter collision ever, and then seeing his teammates mocking him after? Priceless.

Year in Review - This video only appeared once, obviously, airing at the end of the final game of the season against the Panthers. Had the Caps not been headed to the playoffs, it would still have been great; but on the heels of a division-clinching win the video took on a poignancy and a magical quality that made it that much better. And no one was left out, from Schultz's and Laing's 1st NHL goals to Ovechkin's 60th of the season to Olie's 300th career win. Great music ("Believe" by the Bravery), great editing, great footage - perfect for capping off a great season.

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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Season in Review: Defensemen

Ah, the Caps defense - a ragtag bunch of guys who ranged from the magnificent to the mediocre (said with love, of course). How did they fare this year?

Steve Eminger - Poor Emmy. He was so frustrated this year as he found himself inexplicably exiled to the press box night after night, even after a coaching and systems change that seemed perfectly suited to his style of play. When he did manage to squeak out a few games because of injury he looked rusty - and understandably so. He'd be in for a handful of games and then get bounced right back out again, stalling any forward momentum he might have gained and dressing for only a quarter of the season. "Free Eminger!" was a regular battle cry in our household.

Injuries to Shaone Morrisonn and Jeff Schultz towards the end of the regular season allowed Steve to get into the lineup for a more extended period of time and he definitely stepped it up. You could almost see how hungry he was to be a part of what was happening, to taste his first playoff action, to play. He ended up scoring his first goal of the year in the playoffs, albeit a fluky one, and finished a respectable +2 in the five postseason games for which he was dressed - including a +3 in pivotal game 6 alone.

For his performance through 20 games and 5 playoff appearances, he would probably earn a solid B. But considering his limited action...
Grade: Incomplete

John Erskine - In a year full of twists and turns and ups and downs and mysteries and enigmas, the biggest mystery of all was the one surrounding John Erskine. Did he have naughty pictures of Hanlon, Boudreau, GMGM, or all three? It seems to be the only rational explanation for why he routinely made it into the regular lineup while Eminger rode the press box express every night, because the way he played certainly didn't always merit a roster spot.

That's not to say that Erskine doesn't have his place or isn't a talented player. Sometimes. He was the hockey equivalent of the little girl in the nursery rhyme: when he was good, he was very, very good...and when he was bad, he was horrid. A solid penalty killer and a big body patrolling the blue line, he knew how to play with a physical edge while also getting the puck to the net; in fact at one point, he had more points than Sidney Crosby.

...okay, so it was three games into the season. So?

But the upside of Erskine always seemed to be balanced out and then erased from memory completely by the tremendous mistakes he was capable of making, and always at the worst possible time. He took ill-advised penalties. He turned over the puck in front of the net or worse, blocked the goalie's view of the puck completely. Plus if you really want to nitpick, it was the fact that he wasn't called for tripping a Flyer just moments before that led to Poti's overtime penalty in Game 7. And I do love to nitpick.
Grade: C-

Mike Green - There were a lot of breakout performances this season, but perhaps none more notable (with the exception of Ovechkin) than that of Mike Green. The Calgary kid dug out at the tail end of the 2004 draft's first round, he was a young prospect who had great success in Hershey but had yet to really develop into a full-fledged NHL defenseman.

Four years and an 18 goal, 56 point season later and he's considered among the league's elite - and all at the tender age of 22. He came into camp bigger and stronger than before and proceeded to blow everyone away. But it was under Boudreau's guiding hand that he really came into the spotlight, showing us his explosive skating ability and booming shot that likened comparisons to Bobby Orr and Paul Coffey...and earned him a rabid fan base all his own, from Gang Green to those rockin' the 'hawk through the playoffs.

He has some work to do; for all his offensive talent and calm demeanor there were still many nights where he looked downright confused in his own end. Green's tendency to join the rush too soon or handle the puck too calmly led to some bad turnovers that often ended up in the back of the net. But he still remained one of the many bright spots on the team and should only improve with time.
Grade: B+

Milan Jurcina - Although slightly past his sophomore season in the NHL, this year could probably be best described as a sophomore slump of sorts for Jurcina. He burst into the Caps lineup mid-season last year and instantly was pronounced a hidden gem, a player cast off far too quickly and cheaply by the silly Bruins who clearly didn't know what they had. This year, though, he just looked off.

It's hard to say what exactly it was about Milan that prevented him from repeating his solid performance from last year. He never quite found his flow for some reason, whether it was being separated from Morrisonn once Boudreau took over or just simply the result of an off year. Some nights he looked almost Erskine-esque in his ability to follow up a brilliant defensive play with a stupid one - a fact that more often than not landed him in the penalty box or the press box.
Grade: C+

Shaone Morrisonn - When Morrisonn finally finishes his development, it's not that much of a stretch to think he could be one of the elite defensemen in the league. As it is he's made tremendous strides and quickly established himself as one of the steadiest of the Caps' blueliners this year - a trait which was emphasized when he found himself paired with high-flying Mike Green.

His reliable nature and excellent positioning allowed Green to be what he became, a tremendous offensive defenseman. He was so key to Green's success that you could actually see the decline in Green's game when Morrisonn was out with an injury; the confidence wasn't there, the comfort level was off. Nothing seemed quite right without big #26 patrolling the ice behind him.

But aside from his role in Green's success, the simple fact is that Morrisonn did so many of the little things right so much of the time. Like every young defenseman - every player, really - he had his off nights, his mistakes and gaffes that cost the team. But his sound play and good recovery more than made up for that and he was a huge reason for the team's strong defensive play down the stretch.
Grade: A-

Brian Pothier - Of all the long-term injuries on the team this year, Pothier's was probably the most tragic. For one thing, when it happened he seemed to finally be coming into his own as a Cap, much more comfortable with second defensive pair responsibilities and minutes and it showed. His play during the first half of the year was steady if not flashy, consistent and confident, and he only improved as the team improved around him.

But more tragic is the fact that his career could be in jeopardy at this point, as the concussion he sustained was one of many he's suffered in recent years and progress has been slow. We wish him all the best in his recovery.
Grade: Incomplete

Tom Poti - Like Viktor Kozlov, at the beginning of the year Poti often took too much abuse for not performing at whatever level people thought he should. And like Kozlov, the bad rap was unfair and largely inaccurate. The fact is, Poti was one of the stalwarts on a team of young, wide-eyed talent - something that became even more obvious once Boudreau took over, as he really thrived in that offensive system and yet still managed to remain highly responsible in his own end. His goal-scoring didn't kick in until very late in the season but he did pick up 27 assists; 23 of those came after the coaching switch.

Poti was billed as a puck-moving defenseman when the Caps signed him in July, a power play quarterback with a good (if not entirely hard) slapshot - and he was all those things, particularly in the second half of the season. But he had other skills that you don't usually associate with the so-called offensive defenseman he was labeled as. He used his long reach well and turned out to be a deceptively fast skater for someone his size, two things he often used in combination when making his signature diving poke check.

If there is a knock on him it's that he didn't use that size enough, often stopping just short of finishing a big check. And unfortunately it will probably be awhile before he's no longer linked with the overtime tripping penalty and eventual loss in Game 7. But looking at his season on a larger scale and forgiving that one indiscretion, it was a great first year in DC for Poti.
Grade: A-

Jeff Schultz - Chalk up another enigma on the blue line, although not in an entirely negative way.

When the season started, Schultz was admittedly an odd choice for a top six defensemen. The best way to tell that Schultz was having a strong game was that you didn't even know he was playing in the first place, and all too often you not only knew but were cursing that fact (or maybe that was just me). He just didn't seem entirely comfortable as an NHL player to start the year.

Luckily as the season progressed, Schultz went from being a shaky, mistake-prone youngster to a steady if at times uncertain looking defenseman. Of course even at his best he had an air of confusion about him, like he wasn't always aware of where he was or what he was doing; but with experience and more experience that wide-eyed look should fade. Hopefully.

And who knows, someday the kid might learn how to throw a body check.
Grade: B-


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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Season in Review: Forwards (Pt 2)

Completing our look at the forwards...

Viktor Kozlov - Kozlov took a lot of heat from Caps fans throughout the season for what was seen by some as a lack of production. But as easy as it is to dismiss someone who only had three goals by January 1, it's important to look at the whole picture. What he lacked in goal-scoring he gained in his ability to provide a solid linemate for Ovechkin - like Zubrus before him, Kozlov is a big body who can gain the zone and create room for #8.

Unlike Zubrus, he's consistently good at it. While he maybe didn't use his size as much as he could of when it came to physical play, when it came to corralling the puck there was no one better than Kozlov. If he had the puck you probably weren't getting it away from him. He was more likely to turn it over on a bad pass than to lose the battle along the boards. He scored 13 of his 16 goals after January 1, an impressive turnaround, and his team-leading +28 speaks volumes to his ability to be defensively responsible

During the playoffs he was a different story. For the first four games he was invisible, along with Backstrom. There were times he seemed disinterested, slow, unable to create any room on an already crowded rink for Ovechkin to move around. But when Fedorov slid into the top center spot things seemed to click for Kozlov; he played some of his best hockey in those last three games, picking up assists in all three and playing a big role in Ovechkin's offensive reawakening.
Grade: B+

Brooks Laich - After this season it feels like the phrase "pleasant surprise" was coined for Brooks Laich.

For the past few years he's been a good, solid role player, filling in where needed and doing his job quietly. This year, however, Laich established himself as so much more than just a role player. His 21 goals demolished his past career high and set him up as a secondary scoring threat that this team so badly needed.

It wasn't just the number of goals he scored, though, that made him a key player on the team; it was how he scored them and what he brought to the team in general. He was the guy who was willing to go to the net for the ugly goals, the tip-ins, the deflections. He was the guy sprawling out to block a shot on the penalty kill or initiating a pretty passing play on an odd-man rush. In short he did everything, providing a work ethic that Caps fans always value in our players.

What he's lacked in the past, an ability to finish offensively or establish consistency in his game, he's starting to gain now. And he carried that confidence and ability into the playoffs, picking up a goal and five assists in the first round series against Philly and finding great chemistry with Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom.
Grade: A-

Quintin Laing - Laing was probably the last name many people would have thought of when injuries required the Caps to make a callup from Hershey; that is, if you knew the name at all. It didn't take long, though, for everyone to know who Quintin Laing was - the career AHLer with the gap-toothed smile whose hard work and willingness to sacrifice the body soon made him, if not a household name, then at least a recognizable one.

He may have only played 39 games with the Caps and will probably return to Hershey next year, but his presence was felt, his impact made. Although he chipped in on offense occasionally, it was his shot-blocking prowess and penalty killing savvy that earned him the respect of fans and teammates alike. Laing's 52 blocked shots in only 39 games was second on the team behind Brooks Laich (56) and was good enough for 23rd in the league - despite the fact that he appeared in half as many games as any one else ahead of him.

Towards the end of the season and heading into the playoffs, Laing found himself relegated to the press box more and more as injured players returned and depth was added at the trade deadline. It's probably a sign that his time as a regular roster player in DC is coming to an end - but he deserves high marks for doing not only what he was asked to do but excelling at it and conducting himself professionally every day.
Grade: A

Michael Nylander - Another top forward, another season-ending injury.

Despite picking up 37 points in the first 40 games of the year, there were many times where Nylander seemed to be struggling. His +/- was last on the team and among the worst in the league, dropping to -19. Eventually rumors started to swirl around that he was battling a significant shoulder injury that was hampering his ability to play at his top level, and in January it was confirmed - he would need shoulder surgery, effectively ending his season.

His offensive talents should make Caps fans very optimistic for next year when he's back at full strength. To average almost a point per game while battling a rotator cuff injury that prevented him from sleeping at night is proof of how talented Nylander truly is. The fact that he became a defensive liability can most likely be chalked up to the injury and is inability to fend off opposition players with only one good arm. We'll see what he does next year with two.
Grade: Incomplete

Alex Ovechkin - What can you say about Ovechkin that hasn't already been said a million times this year? He did everything asked and more; he reinvigorated the city and took the team on his shoulders, gap-toothed smile and all. He became not only offensively explosive but defensively responsible and seemed to rise to the occasion as a true leader on and off the ice.

As for those pesky stats...a franchise record 65 goals, the most by any left winger in NHL history and 13 more than anyone else in the league this year. 22 power play goals, 112 points, 11 game-winning goals, 446 shots on goal - all best in the league. All-Star Game. All-Star Team. Sporting News Player of the Year. Gold medalist at the World Championships. The "Rocket" Richard Trophy, the Art Ross Trophy, and come June 12 presumably the Hart and Pearson Trophies as well.

It was truly a season to remember, and hopefully for Caps fans just the tip of the iceberg. Nothing more to say.
Grade: A+

Alexander Semin - If the team has a truly schizophrenic player, it's Alexander Semin. No one has the ability to do the most boneheaded, lazy things one minute and follow it up with some of the most gorgeous displays of skill quite like him, and this season was no exception.

Month to month, week to week, sometimes even period to period, Semin seemed to reinvent himself. He started the season with an ankle injury that would torment him and restrict his ability to play more than two or three games at a time for the first half of the year. But somewhere around the new year he finally appeared to be 100%, and he went on to score 26 goals and earn 42 points in just 63 games - including four goals in the final six games en route to the Caps' first playoff berth since 2003.

But it was in the postseason that he finally began to play at another level; it wasn't just the offensive side for Semin anymore. Now he was taking the body, laying out Flyers left and right to the surprise of everyone - including the Philly players who ended up on their rear ends.

His three goals and five assists were second only to Ovechkin in the playoffs, and two of his three multi-point games came when the Caps needed it most, dangling on the brink of elimination. Combine that with the dominant performance he put in at the World Championships and it's tempting to wonder if maybe he's turned a corner in his career. Only time will tell.
Grade: B

David Steckel - Seeing Steckel play in Hershey last year you got the feeling that his days in the AHL were numbered; so it wasn't a huge surprise to see him make the Opening Night roster out of camp. And once he got here he seemed to find his comfort level, his strong, consistent play most likely contributing to the eventual end of Brian Sutherby's long tenure in DC.

Like many of the role players on the team, Steckel's strength this year was in the little things - penalty killing, blocking shots, winning faceoffs, all of which he did very well. His long reach and physical style of play made him a perfect fit alongside other third and fourth-line grinders like Bradley, Brashear, Laing and Gordon. And if you wanted him to score goals, all you had to do was put him in against any Tampa goalie and let him loose - four of his five goals this season came against the Lightning.

Steckel always seemed to know his role on the team and filled it admirably, although he may be asked to provide a little more offense next season (like everyone else on the team).
Grade: B+

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Brads is Sticking Around

First and foremost, that "Yippee!" sound you just heard was the collective cry of joy of Matt Bradley fans everywhere - including yours truly. The gritty RW inked a three year, $3 million contract that will keep him in DC and avoid the whole messy becoming a UFA thing July 1.

It's just another one of those great signings - keeping a key piece of the team in place, making sure the team chemistry is stable (Brads is unquestionably one of the leaders and favored goofballs in the locker room), and not breaking the bank to do it. Bradley definitely earned the raise, about $300K more per year, with his play this past season and during the playoffs. He's a fast skater, a hard hitter, a great shutdown guy and someone you love to have on your side.

It's hard to say what this means for a guy like Matt Cooke, the one person who could be impacted the most by this signing. There's money left right now and it's obvious he enjoyed playing here, just as we enjoyed having him on our team. It's possible we hang on to him as well - but whether we need another gritty winger is the question, especially with some young guys in Hershey who could be ready to make the leap. Plus there's the little matter of re-signing Mike Green, Shaone Morrisonn, Brooks Laich, Boyd Gordon...and oh yeah, we still need a goalie.

Now about those pesky playoffs...

Gee, I'm almost fainting with surprise at the fact that the NHL/media hype machine missed the target yet again. I'm sure no one who has followed hockey this year could have called the fact that, for all their talent, the Penguins are still not quite in the same league as the mighty Red Wings.

The series isn't over yet - you have to win four games, last time I checked. But Sid the Kid and his little friends haven't scored a goal in 120 minutes of play. Fleury the Wonder Goalie has been average at best. And the Detroit defense is absolutely smothering the high-flying Penguins O, including rent-a-jackass Hossa and Mr. Invisible, Evgeni Malkin. Do we expect all that much to change just because they go back to the Igloo?

(And don't even get me started on the irony of Crosby complaining about someone else diving. Just don't.)

You know, as Caps fans this was the matchup we were all dreading. The team that just has our number, a team we all love to hate, against the team that broke our hearts ten years ago by lifting the Cup on our home turf.

But you have to admit, it's not that bad rooting for Detroit. Sure, they've won a lot and rooting for a team like that is a little painful - but give them credit. Their scouts are among the best in the league at digging out hidden gems, the system they play works for everyone, and half the team is homegrown. It's self-perpetuating success, a cycle that invokes envy among the 29 other fan bases and that 29 other teams try to emulate. You think Ted and GMGM didn't have this model in mind when they stripped the team down and stockpiled prospects and picks?

If we're lucky, we'll see the Caps hoisting the Cup in the next few years - just once would be incredible. If we're really lucky, if the team knows what it's doing and sticks to the plan, that "just once" could become "just the first".

In other words...Go Wings.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Season in Review: Forwards (Pt 1)

Time to do what we do best as fans - judge, analyze, and at times mock our favorite players. How did they perform this year? Did they disappear in the playoffs or step up? Underachieve or exceed expectations?

Up first, the forwards - Backstrom to Gordon.

Nicklas Backstrom - Backstrom's journey this year may not have started with the instant spark of his teammate Alex Ovechkin; his skills were evident but adjustments to a new country, a new system and for awhile a new position were tough. By the end of the season, though, it was clear that this kid had the type of skill and hockey sense that foretold a great future in the league.

And it was his return to his natural position at center along with a new coaching staff and system that really let him show what he could do. He earned 13 of his 14 goals and 47 of his 55 assists (a new franchise record for a rookie) following Boudreau's insertion as head coach, including the overtime game winner in the first game of the new coaching regime. Backstrom proved himself a legitimate playmaker and demonstrated great chemistry with his wingers - first with Ovechkin and Kozlov, then with Semin and Laich in the postseason.

He'll need to work on his faceoff prowess (a skill he was already starting to improve on throughout the season) and maybe add some muscle down the line, but as rookie seasons go Backstrom's was certainly Calder Trophy worthy.
Grade: A-

Matt Bradley - Every team has their goofball, the guy who everyone loves, who keeps things light in the locker room and on the bench and with the media. Bradley has so often been that guy for the Caps - but he's also a player who has proven his ability to come through in the clutch and provide an extra boost when the team needs it most.

He's never going to score 50 goals in a season; he'll be lucky to crack double digits, and that's not a knock on Brads. It's just not his role, it's not the type of game he plays. This season Bradley picked up 7 goals and 11 assists, but he was loaded with intangibles. So many times he would come out for a shift and at best he would create a scoring chance; at worst he would keep the other team penned up in their own zone for almost a minute.

Bradley knows how to hit and do it in a timely fashion. He's not afraid to drop the gloves if necessary. And none of us will soon forget his late round shootout heroics against the Oilers (or the quotes that came after).
Grade: B

Donald Brashear - Brashear always seems to be as advertised - a gritty, hard-hitting, hard-working player who will use his limited ice time as best he can. And if that means going ten rounds with the other team's heavyweight, so be it. Once again this season he did his job, got a couple of timely goals, more than a couple of timely fights, and kicked off the postseason offense with the first goal of the Caps-Flyers series.

If there's one area he always needs to work on it's his discipline. Referees in this league know Donald well and many times it seems like he's given "reputation" penalties - but he has to learn how to control himself. We all remember that horrific unraveling in the Bruins game that led to extended 5-on-3 chances for Boston and eventually cost the Caps the game in the final minutes. While instances like that have been less prevalent for Brash in recent years, he needs to stay out of the box in order to help his team.
Grade: B-

Chris Clark - It's hard to judge Chris Clark on this past season since so much of it was spent on the sidelines with injury. In fact, Clark only dressed in 18 of the 82 games this year, missing almost a month after taking an Ovechkin slapshot to the ear and then a month later saw his season basically end because of a strained groin tendon. When healthy, he picked up 9 points in his 18 games...so based only on the games he played we could give him an A; after all, a point every two games is a great pace. As it is though...
Grade: Incomplete

Matt Cooke - Cooke is probably the member of the trade deadline trio who got the least amount of acclaim and attention for his contributions this year, but what he brought to the team shouldn't be overlooked. He filled a role that had been left vacant for a long time, the role of the pest - the guy who isn't afraid to get under the other team's skin and into their heads.

He's another one who will never be an offensive threat. But Cooke's goals, like Bradley's, were often timely. He was a surprise threat shorthanded and had the speed to keep up with whatever linemates he was given, whether it was Steckel or Fedorov or Semin. And his willingness to play physical hockey often opened up the ice for others - which is exactly what we got him for.

There was no question that he had a blast playing here, and you can't really blame him. More than one player flourished after leaving a defensive-minded system for a more free-flowing, offensive one and leaving the Canucks for the new look Caps was no exception. Whether that translates into him re-signing here in the offseason remains to be seen, but in his short time here he certainly won over the fans and his teammates.
Grade: A-

Sergei Fedorov - At 38 years old, Fedorov appeared to be something of a bizarre trade deadline acquisition, one that GMGM seemed to pick up in the hopes that he still had a little left in the tank.

But not even McPhee could have predicted the rejuvenation that the future Hall of Famer would undergo upon arriving in DC. Playing alongside Semin and later Ovechkin, there were times that Fedorov looked ten years younger. He blocked shots, cashed in on breakaways, and seemed to be loving the game more than he had in years. Fedorov was a huge part of the push the Caps made to make the playoffs and was a huge part of the postseason success, as well. And we all saw what he did for Russia in the World Championships.

Another UFA come July 1, it'll be interesting to see whether his newfound youth will lead him to re-sign with the Caps. If he does, it will certainly bode well for the Caps chances at taking another run at the Cup.
Grade: A

Eric Fehr - It seems like Caps fans have been waiting a long time for Fehr to make his presence in the NHL known, to see if the highly touted prospect will make good on everything we'd heard about him. And this season, after finally shaking off the injury that has plagued him for the better part of a year, Fehr made his way back to DC and quickly began showing the great potential he has.

As predicted, he demonstrated a willingness to go to the net but also a set of skilled hands that could make something out of nothing, creating scoring chance after scoring chance and getting a few pretty goals.

Fehr's only hindrance is his inexperience, something that should be taken care of with a full season and playoff run under his belt next year. While he showed potential this year it was clear at times that he'd been out for a long period of time and was also still adjusting to the speed and strength of the NHL. When he gets more comfortable, though...look out. He's going to be dangerous.
Grade: B

Tomas Fleischmann - "Flash" was really nothing more than that this season - a flash, a moment of greatness surrounded by game after game of ineptitude. There are times when he shows us exactly why he was such a touted prospect and a key part of Hershey's Calder Cup run; there are others, more frequent moments, where we just see that he's not quite there yet. He still gets pushed off the puck a little too easily. He still isn't able to cash in on the great scoring chances he's given every night. He still hasn't found his consistency as an NHLer.

There's hope yet, of course. Flash is still a youngster and what he learned this past year (and hopefully in the World Championships) is that raw talent alone isn't enough. He'll need to pack on some more muscle and build on some promising signs he was starting to show toward the end of the season.

Initially when he was signed to a two year deal it seemed like a good move - keep the depth, hang on to him a little longer, and if he's not up to the challenge it's an easy contract to dump. Now it's time for him to pay up, though. The Caps have more forward depth than they used to and no shortage of young kids in Hershey chomping at the bit to take his spot. What he does this offseason and in training camp will determine just how quickly his rear end is out the door.
Grade: C-

Boyd Gordon - With the talent pool deepening on the first and second lines, Boyd Gordon still managed to prove himself an invaluable part of the team with his style of play, a faceoff specialist and penalty killer who works the boards extremely well. The guy plays better on his butt than some guys do on their skates, that's for sure.

Hampered by injuries all season, Gordo still managed to make his presence known and was an extremely capable penalty killer and third/fourth line center. He was never able to get the offensive side of his game going as much as we would have hoped, though - 16 points in 67 games is decent but not great, even for someone in his position.

Still, it's hard to question the heart; playing through a torn hamstring in the playoffs (an injury that kept Mike Knuble out of the final few games of the series) is pretty impressive.
Grade: B-

Next...Kozlov to Steckel

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Party On, Alex

Want a preview of what the Caps' locker room could look like in the next few years? Check out this footage from right after the Russians captured the gold, complete with bad Russian music and worse Russian singing from our very own #8.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Russians Are Golden

There's been hockey aplenty this weekend, with international play colliding with NHL conference finals in an all-out battle for hockey supremacy and the attention of hockey fans everywhere.

Without a doubt, though, the most exciting (and least painful, unless you're Canadian) of these games was today's World Championship gold medal game. It was the ultimate game, a clash of the titans, two undefeated teams meeting to continue a historic rivalry, Russia vs. Canada. After falling behind by two goals twice, Russia stormed back to win in dramatic fashion thanks to Ilya Kovalchuk's overtime goal - his second of the game and the tournament.

And for Caps fans, it was certainly a proud moment to see some of our very own receiving their gold medals. In fact, it's hard to see pictures of Ovechkin, Semin and Fedorov, clutching the trophy and bringing it to their lips...and not picture a different trophy in its place.

The three of them made up the formidable "Capital Punishment" line, and every shift they lived up to their name. Today was no exception - at many times they appeared to be the best line on the ice, matching Canada's top line shift after shift, and Semin's two goals kept Russia in the game early on when it looked like the Canadians would run away with the gold.

Ovechkin was dominant as expected but he wasn't alone. In fact in just nine games, the trio of Russian Caps combined for 17 goals and 20 assists, and were an astounding +32. All three finished in the top 10 in tournament scoring, joining their teammate Mike Green - whose 12 points made him the top scoring defenseman in the tournament, by the way.

Should Fedorov decide to sign on with the Caps for another year it seems the possibilities are endless. We saw how well Ovechkin and Backstrom played. We saw how well Backstrom and Semin played. And Fedorov is able to center them both, on separate lines or together. It's called depth, folks, and it would be nothing short of a coup to have Fedorov join Backstrom and Nylander down the middle.

Just another thing for GMGM to mull over in the coming months...because he won't have enough on his plate.

The World Championships showed us just how promising this Caps team is; eight different Capitals represented their countries in the tournament, and six made it to the medal rounds with their respective countries. Four of them finished in the top ten scorers. Five of them received medals.

And so today as the Worlds wrap up we join in the celebration.

Congratulations to Backstrom and Sweden, congratulations to Sami Lepisto and Finland, congratulations to Green and Canada for their superb play throughout the tournament. And of course, congratulations to Team Russia - gold medal winners, World Champions, and proud Caps!

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Defining Moments

Okay, that does it. No more moping.

It's been an emotional few weeks around here - the Caps are out, the Habs are out, Olie is out, and sadly Sid's playoff beard continues to be missing in action. Tough times all around.

Rather than wallowing in misery and trying to pretend hockey doesn't exist right now, it's better to admit that the daily Redskins report on Washington Post Live just isn't doing it for us anymore. Hockey continues on, with or without the Caps.

There are still playoff games to be played and this big silver cup thingy to be handed out in the coming weeks. But even more importantly for our purposes there is much to discuss about the past season of the Washington Capitals. It's time to delve into an all-encompassing look back, a stroll down memory lane, a brush with nostalgia to see where we've been...and keep our minds occupied in case of the impending doom that is a potential Red Wings-Penguins Stanley Cup Final.

We'll look at the performance of every player on the team, evaluate the different areas of depth, talk about prospects, special teams and free agents (those on the team now and those that could be added this summer). After all, the summer is long and hot and filled with minimal activity - what the hell else are we going to do?

But first let's just see where this team has been this year with a look at ten games that defined the season:

October 12, 2007 - Rangers 3, Capitals 1: After a three-game winning streak to kick off the new season, the Caps and their fans were flying pretty high. They went into Madison Square Garden, a place that has never treated them well, hoping to do something they hadn't done in a long time - win four in a row to start the season.

The Rangers only needed one period to make sure that didn't happen as they rattled off three power play goals in the first period to the Caps' single marker, outshooting the visitors 20-7 in the opening frame alone. The loss would be the first of four straight for the Caps, who would win only three times in the next eighteen.

November 8, 2007 - Capitals 4, Senators 1: It was the ultimate David vs. Goliath matchup. The Senators were an amazing 12-1 to start the year and sat atop the Eastern Conference, the Caps on yet another 4-game losing skid and toying with the bottom of the league. No one thought the Caps would emerge from Scotiabank Place alive, let alone with a win - yet the Caps did the impossible. They felled the giant.

At the time it seemed like a fluke, that Ottawa simply took the Caps too lightly and paid the price. But after the Caps swept the season series it seemed this was just an early harbinger of the very different paths these two teams would take. Washington would gradually gain momentum over the course of the season and rocket themselves into the playoffs, while Ottawa would back into the postseason with one of the worst records in the league since January and find themselves quickly swept out by the Penguins.

November 21, 2007 - Atlanta 5, Washington 1: The final game of the Glen Hanlon era was the ultimate of defining moments for this team, and yet very little needs to be said. Anyone who followed the team this year remembers the game and the aftermath well. The loss gave the Caps their first five-game losing streak of the year; chants of "Fire Hanlon" filled the nearly empty arena and the team looked sluggish, defeated.

And the next morning, Thanksgiving Day, Bruce Boudreau took over the reins of the club and began his quest to turn the team around. The rest, as they say...is history.

November 23, 2007 - Washington 4, Philadelphia 3: The first game of the Boudreau era was in many ways an amalgam of the old and the new, a sign that this team was on the right track and yet still had so far to go. The Caps came out hard and jumped to a three goal lead but gradually let the Flyers back in the game with three goals of their own, including the tying marker with just over four minutes left in regulation.

It was Nicklas Backstrom who would cap off a spectacular individual performance with the overtime winner - his third point of the game, the perfect way to celebrate his 20th birthday and the new coaching regime as the losing streak came to an end. It would take the team awhile longer to adapt to the system changes and a few missing pieces were still waiting in the wings, but this win marked the ultimate turning point of the Caps' season.

January 31, 2008 - Washington 5, Montreal 4: After being shut out just two nights earlier by the Habs, the Caps were looking for vindication and got it in the form of an overtime win. There were moments of stunning greatness and moments of forehead slapping at both ends of the ice in what was ultimately a thrilling, physical battle.

But if you were there or saw it on TV, you will remember one thing about this game - it was Alex Ovechkin's night from beginning to end. After a broken nose, stitches, four goals, five points and the overtime winner, the game cemented Ovechkin as the ultimate all-around player and earned him praise from teammates and fans alike. It was a truly amazing moment in an MVP-worthy season for the great #8.

February 26, 2008 - Washington 4, Minnesota 1: As the furious movement of the trade deadline wore down, there was still a game to be played by the new-look Capitals - even without any of their new additions in uniform that night. Brooks Laich made a statement with the first four-point game of his career, scoring two goals and assisting on the other two.

And Olie Kolzig made a statement of his own on the same day that a new goaltender was brought in, turning aside all but one fluky goal in one of his most dominant performances of the season.

March 19, 2008 - Chicago 5, Washington 0: Down the stretch the Caps knew that they would have to be near-perfect in their season high six game road trip, with the margin of error being one or two losses at the most. Unfortunately for Olie Kolzig that one loss they did give up came on a night when he was in net, when everything the 'Hawks touched went in...and nothing the Caps touched did. It wasn't Olie's best game to be sure, but the loss was more a result of the team in front of him not showing up than his inability to keep the puck out.

Regardless, the next game Huet was in net and he would go on to win all his remaining games en route to the postseason. The loss against Chicago would be Olie's final game in a Caps uniform.

April 1, 2008 - Washington 4, Carolina 1: After a six-game road trip, the Caps returned home for the final three games of the year - and a meeting with division-leading Carolina. The outcome would determine who, for the time being at least, would hold the Southeast crown. Feeding off the momentum of a successful road swing and a raucous red-clad crowd, the Caps took control of the game late in the first and never looked back.

Ten different players registered points in the win, the first of three straight that would eventually propel the team over the Hurricanes in the standings and into the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

April 19, 2008 - Washington 3, Philadelphia 2: Over the course of the season it seemed that the Caps played better when their backs were against the wall. Never were they against the wall more, though, then Game 5 of the Conference Quarterfinals. Down 3-1 in the series, they returned home to DC looking to stave off elimination for another day and from the initial drop of the puck played the desperate style of hockey they would need, staying alive and forcing a Game 6.

April 22, 2008 - Philadelphia 3, Washington 2: The final game of the season was in many ways a controversial one, with confusing calls and a disputable OT penalty leading to the game-winning power play strike.

But it should be looked at as so much more. For a team that was resilient all season long, coming from behind in the standings, in games, and in the series, forcing a Game 7 after being down 3-1 was in itself an achievement. The team that showed up for this game played well enough to give Caps fans everywhere hope that next year it won't be a first round exit that ends the season, it won't be a playoff berth earned by the slimmest of margins. It marked the end of the 2007-08 campaign - but it was hopefully the beginning of a lot more.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Farewell, Olie

It's a sad day for Caps fans.

No, it may not be unexpected or surprising. But hearing the news that Olie Kolzig is cutting ties with the organization that drafted him, whether it's for another team or retirement, makes official something that always seemed an abstract thought, a "what if", a someday...and it's sad. Heartbreaking.

Sure, he's lost a step or two over the years and he's no longer a goalie at his peak. But to forget or diminish the impact he's had on this team for the last nineteen years because of one season is to do him a tremendous disservice. So many years, so many seasons, so many games in which he was the difference maker, he's earned the respect of every player he's played with and every fan who watched him play.

Wherever he may end up next year and in the years to come, I echo owner Ted Leonsis's sentiments in saying that I will always see Olie as a Cap. It didn't matter if he was wearing red, white and blue or blue, black and bronze, who was captain and what team was in front of him and what coach was behind the bench - Olie has always been a constant, a stalwart between the pipes.

Over the past few years there has been an internal conflict for many of us who have been around long enough to remember the Zilla in his prime. We've struggled between the tendency to view him through nostalgia-tinted glasses and the need to see him realistically, from the perspective of a hockey fan and only a hockey fan. We've struggled with fierce loyalty to the man who has shown us nothing but the same and the harsh reality that he's not 25 years old anymore.

Right now, though, we should see him only as he is - the face, the backbone, the voice, the cornerstone, the leader, and the heart and soul of the team. He bows out the way he has played his whole career, full of class and emotion and honor. When he finally hangs up the pads, whenever that may be, it won't be long before #37 is raised to the rafters - and you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks it doesn't belong there.

We should remember him extending that long leg or flashing the glove to make a game-saving stop. Remember him tackling opponents in the crease or throwing a punch, coming down the ice to "talk" to Ed Belfour or "fighting" with Byron Dafoe. Remember him earning win #1, #100, #200. Win #300, still so fresh in our memory. Remember his work in the community and his role in the locker room and his place in our hearts.

So from a grateful Caps fan, a grateful CapsNation, best of luck, Olie. Thanks for everything you've done on and off the ice...and thanks for the memories.

You'll surely be missed.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

So Much to Say

Whew. And we're back. I'll tell you, there's nothing like a heartbreaking first round loss to the Flyers followed by a soon-to-be heartbreaking second round loss to the same damn team to almost make a girl lose her mojo, scrap it all and take up the NBA.

So...how 'bout those Wizards, huh? Huh?

Okay, no. I have no idea what's going on with the Wiz these days and honestly I couldn't care less, despite my desire to just turn the lights off on this hockey season and hide away until September. It hasn't gotten bad enough for me to turn to basketball, not yet at least; and I'm guessing since Dan Steinberg is still blogging furiously, the Wizards are still alive.

Bully for them.

Don't get me wrong - there is a lot to celebrate right now. Take the fact that the Caps weren't even supposed to make the postseason in the first place and yet ended up winning their division. Take the fact that they clawed their way back from a 3-1 series deficit and made it all the way to overtime in game 7 before succumbing to the Flyers. Take the fact that Ovechkin, Backstrom and Boudreau all find themselves up for major NHL awards - all of which are deserved.

Take the fact that waiting in the wings of an already young, talented club are young, talented prospects with names like Karl Alzner, Sami Lepisto, Andrew Gordon, Mathieu Perreault, and Semen Varlamov.

Yes, there is a lot of good in the world for Caps fans, and I, like all of you, would do well to remember that. Because as we sit on the verge of a potential Flyers-Penguins Conference Final...it's sometimes hard to believe there is any good in the world at all.

Despite the pain, there is still hockey going on - and some pretty exciting hockey for that matter. Sure, all four series are flying by and we could be seeing one of the shortest second rounds in recent memory. But don't let that fool you, none of these series (save for the Wings-Avs series, which admittedly I haven't watched much of) have been easy. There have been a lot of one-goal games, a lot of overtimes, a lot of clanking posts and reviewed goals and nail-biting final seconds. It's been a hard fought second round, as it should be.

Hey, if the Avs and Rangers remember how to play hockey for one night we've got ourselves a foursome of 3-1 series heading down the stretch. And doesn't the time seem ripe for a team to pull off the oh so rare feat of being down by that margin...and coming back to win it all? The way this postseason is going, it's not out of the realm of possibility.

Some thoughts so far:
- Montreal's problem isn't their goaltending or their lack of discipline at inopportune times or their inability to create traffic in front of Biron...it's all three. If that sounds eerily familiar to you, you're not alone.

- Every time Daniel Briere sneaks in from behind the net to score a goal a baby cries. Would someone just put a big bell around his neck already?

- The Rangers with Sean Avery have proved to be a tough if not quite tough enough foe for the Penguins. Without him? Tee time's at 8:30 tomorrow morning, boys.

- Marty Turco has worn the "choker" moniker, rather unfairly, for years now. Guess what - he's mad as hell and he's not going to take it anymore. He's the Cheap Seats favorite among all goalies named Marty, that's for sure.

- Is Colorado still playing?

- Steve Begin blocked a shot with his midsection last night and when he got to his feet and hobbled to the dressing room., he was booed. You stay classy, Philadelphia.

- Two games in a row now Patrick Marleau has picked off a cross-ice pass from Sergei Zubov, taken it down ice and scored a shorthanded goal. The Stars may be an infinitely better team with Zubov in the lineup, but I think everyone would agree he needs to stop trying that pass.

- Say what you want, but no coach does the wry "are you kidding me??" smile better than Guy Carbonneau.

- Where have you gone, Joe...Thornton?

- The Pens have the potential to do something no team has done in almost twenty years, and that is sweep the first two rounds. My question for you is this - since they came against a weak Senators team and an elderly Rangers team, does that make them more or less ready to face whoever survives the Habs-Flyers series?

- Speaking of which - irony comes in many shapes and colors, but right now it's wearing a hideous black and orange jersey. You have to think that after essentially throwing the last game of the year to draw the Sens in the first round over Philly, the last thing the Pens want to do is face the juggernaut Flyers in the Conference Finals. Should that happen...I will laugh.

Through my tears, of course.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Hitch Up the Bandwagon

As the second round of the playoffs gets underway and we are left watching it from our couches, we suddenly find ourselves with a wealth of time to talk about this season - what went right, what went wrong, and what we can expect next year.

But we'll get to that later.

Right now, though, I wanted to discuss something that is among my top five pet peeves, right behind the moron who gets up to use the bathroom a second after a faceoff and just ahead of people shouting "O" during the national anthem. And that, dear readers, is this persistent misconception other fans have that Caps fans - without exception - are bandwagon fans.

It seems that whenever supporters of a certain team can't think of real, legitimate things to mock about the Capitals they go for their favorite attack - the fans. It's the old standby that never fails to get a cheap laugh no matter how true it may or may not be. Washington isn't a hockey town, they chuckle. DC is a joke. Caps fans couldn't name a player other than Ovechkin if they tried; they're not real fans. Not like us, the proud Flyers/Penguins/Rangers/[insert evil team name here] fans who know what it takes to truly love a team.

Bull.

I remember a time when the Caps were the hottest ticket in town. Night after night the Capital Centre would be rocking, and it wasn't because the team was racking up the Cup wins. Far from it, in fact. They were good, exciting, but never all that successful when it really counted - perpetual choking dogs, a moniker we all wore proudly if not a little sheepishly. It didn't matter, though. People turned up every night, year after year, packing the seats and showing their support for the greatest little team that couldn't. It was because the team was fun to watch and there was always that nagging feeling that this year - this year would be different.

So are we to believe that all those people who paid good money back in the 80s and early 90s to see this team were holograms? Actors paid by Abe Pollin and friends to play a part? Did they all merely die out? Seems highly unlikely.

The more reasonable explanation is that a lot of them simply got tired - tired of being ignored by the media, tired of the team's inability to hold onto it's star players or attract new ones, tired of being subjected to a product that was less than scintillating. We had our good years between the heyday of the late 80s and today, but they were few and far between...and as a hockey fan, there was nothing during that period that even comes close to the level of excitement this young team can generate.

The fact is hockey is exciting in DC again and that's why people were back in the seats en masse during the second half of the season. It wasn't so much bandwagoning as it was a rebirth, a reunion of sorts for fans who are rediscovering the team and the sport - and you can tell that's what it is because it started before the team really got hot.

It started, in fact, when Alex Ovechkin signed his long-term deal, January 10, 2007. The Caps' record at that point? 16-21-8. You would have needed a crystal ball to predict the ending the season would have, and yet people showed up, people filled the seats and started to believe again. It was so much more than knowing Ovechkin was ours for the long haul. It was fans buying into what ownership had been trying to tell us all along.

Be patient, we're rebuilding and it will be painful at times...but this team is going to be great, and soon, and for a long time. That's all people needed. A little faith, hope that even if this season didn't turn around the way it eventually did, next year would be better. The year after, even better than that.

You know, it's very easy to sit up in cities like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh and look down on Washington, to smirk and point and make fun of what they don't understand. And I choose these two cities for a reason - partly because they are the most notorious fans when it comes to dragging out the "bandwagon" taunt but partly because they each serve as an example of a skewed perspective, of people having no right to point fingers.

In Philly, fans are always so proud that even in the dark times they supported their team - and they should be proud. To maintain a fan base when a team is lousy is very hard to do, and the Flyers did it well...for one year. One year of darkness sandwiched between years and years of success, if devoid of Cups, in the form of perpetual playoff appearances. Their first year in the league the Flyers went to the playoffs; seven years in they had the first of back-to-back Cups. It took the Caps that long just to get into the postseason, and twice as long to get to their first Conference Final.

In fact, the Flyers have missed the postseason only eight times in their forty year history, and only once have they gone consecutive years without putting in at least an appearance. That's consistency. That's success. That's why fans continue to pack the Wachovia Center, and good for them - Flyers fans, you should celebrate what your team has accomplished. But don't come to DC with your one bad season and flaunt the fact that you "supported them even when they sucked". It just doesn't fly, so to speak.

As for the Penguins, well...it's always fun to remind them that in the days before their own personal Jesus came along, things weren't so happy up at the Igloo. In 2001, when their rebuilding was just getting under way, the Penguins ranked 16th in league attendance - perfectly respectable but nothing to write home about. By the next year it was down to 22nd; in 2003 that number dropped to 25th. And by 2004 they were dead last, drawing just over 11,000 fans per game. Mellon Arena is smaller than a lot of arenas, sure, but still. That's not exactly bursting at the seams.

Now I don't point out those numbers just to rub it in the face of every Penguins fan who laughs at DC.

...okay, maybe I do, a little. I'm nothing if not willing to use my bitterness to my advantage. But it's also to make a point, and that is this - when a team is unsuccessful for any stretch of time, when the playoffs are out of the picture by Christmas for years at a time, it is only natural that the fans start to disappear. It happened in Pittsburgh, it happened here, and it's happened in just about every NHL city in the league. It's nothing to be ashamed of, and fans who have been through it would do well to remember those times and learn from them rather than mock other teams going through it now.

Did attendance in the 'Burgh spike when Captain Crosby came to town, even as the team continued to rebuild? Sure it did...doesn't make them bandwagon fans (or we'll say they aren't for now, just to take the high road). Did Pens fans catch on to Crosby's talent faster than the Caps fans did to Ovechkin? Absolutely - and it's because we've been burned before. The fact that Crosby's arrival triggered a rash of sellouts in Pittsburgh is no more a coincidence than the fact that Ovechkin's new contract triggered a rash of sellouts in DC.

We are, to put it mildly, a fanbase in need of healing. We've been through the wringer, not just the past few seasons but for years, decades. But there is a sense, a buzz on the streets, that this team is going to make those of us who stuck around in the lean years proud that we did so - and those fans just finding their way back now glad to be back.

No one knows what will happen for sure in the coming years...but I have a feeling we'll be Rockin' the Red for a long time.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A Door Closes, A Window Opens

As I watched Alex Ovechkin embrace each of the Flyers with the class and dignity of someone ten years older, one thought kept running through my head: They deserved better. This hurts because they deserved better, each and every one of them.

It does hurt. In the aftermath of this game there will be things Caps fans can complain about, things they can point to that could and should have gone the other way. The Flyers second goal, a prime example of "incidental contact" if I ever saw one that went uncalled. The tripping penalty in overtime, a call that might have been technically right but was nowhere near blatant enough to warrant affecting the outcome of an entire series. Any number of missed or bizarre calls throughout the series.

And yet...it is what it is. Things like that happen in every series and it's the team that overcomes obstacles like those that truly deserves to move on.

We've been calling this team a "team of destiny" - and maybe this was their destiny, to fight hard and play right up to the end like we knew they could but just not be ready to go to the next step. Maybe it wasn't time for them to meet the Penguins in the playoffs again. Maybe it wasn't time for this team to get anything but a taste of the postseason.

They've played a full seven game series. They've been up, they've been down, they've come from behind to win and held onto leads and learned what NHL playoff games really should be. It's priceless experiences like that which will only help them in the long run. The time will come when this team will be ready; when they will come into a series with the same energy with which they leave it, when they will no longer find themselves in awe of playoff intensity but rather own it, play it, live it. They've proven themselves capable of that much already.

Until then there is a lot to be happy about - in this game, in this series, and in this season as a whole. Think back to where we were exactly five months ago tonight and look at where we are now and tell me we have anything to regret, anything to be ashamed of. No, this team should hold their heads high and be proud of accomplishing so much after so many people counted them out so many times.

Tonight was the culmination of many things, the fruition of a season-long and really a three year-long process of growth and rebuilding. There will be other playoff series, other chances to right a wrong, and in the meantime the sense of accomplishment should linger with every single player and fan.

We've seen the evolution of one of the league's great talents from rookie standout to true leader, on and off the ice; in Ovechkin we have the future of the team and it's a bright one.

We've seen the maturation of his supporting cast, no less talented in their own roles - Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, Mike Green, Dave Steckel, Boyd Gordon - all of whom stepped up to the plate and answered the call when needed.

We've seen franchise records fall and NHL history made; we've seen 300 wins from the great Olie Kolzig and Brooks Laich's first 20 goal season. We've watched a team of nobodys, of youngsters and once-forgotten veterans, come together with a chemistry and comraderie that I've never seen before. We've seen the rebirth of this city as a true hockey town, swathed in red and excited about the Caps again.

The curtain closes on this season but it's hardly the end. We'll be back next year stronger and better than ever, a team perched on the verge of greatness with a summer to think about the bitter taste of losing - and about how they never want to taste it again. This team is hungry. Strong. Resilient. There is no doubt in my mind that they will be back in the show again next season and when they are, look out.

There are questions to be answered in the coming months, issues to be resolved, contracts to be signed. What does the team do with Mike Green? How about other RFA's who are equally important to the team and it's chemistry, such as Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, Steve Eminger and Shaone Morrisonn? Does Sergei Fedorov retire? Does Olie Kolzig? Will Cristobal Huet stay in DC? Can the team bring back both Matt Cooke and Matt Bradley or does one of them become expendable?

It's going to be an offseason filled with answers to these questions and we'll have plenty of time to begin answering them after the sting has worn off a little.

For now, though, we only have the knowledge that the sun must come up tomorrow - and while it may not seem as bright as usual, the reality is that it's actually brighter than ever.

And sometimes it's a sad song...
But I cannot forget
Refuse to regret
So glad I met you
Take my breath away
Make everyday
Worth all of the pain that I've gone through
And mama, I've been cryin'
'Cause things ain't how they used to be
She said the battles almost won
And we're only several miles from the sun...
--"The Sun" by Maroon 5


Note: It's time for a much needed vacation from the Cheap Seats, a few days to clear the cobwebs away and start fresh...stay tuned. We'll be back.

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Winners Even In Defeat

When you get knocked out of the playoffs in a year like this has been, it's understandable that the local papers will pay homage to the magical journey that it was, and rightly so.

But when both the NHL's official website and ESPN come out with articles about how much the Caps achieved, how bright the future is, and how amazing they've been...you know you've got something good on your hands.

From NHL.com:

Yes sir, what Bruce Boudreau, Alex Ovechkin and the rest of the Capitals gave the hockey world this season was indeed memorable. And this could just be the very beginning. Ovechkin – who scored 65 goals during the regular season – will turn 23 during Washington’s next training camp. Mike Green showed signs that he will be a premier defenseman in this League for years to come. Alexander Semin proved he can pick up the slack when Ovechkin is struggling during those 12 seconds per year.
From Scott Burnside at ESPN.com:
This isn't a team that is rebuilding, but rather building. To what? Who knows? But there is something mindful of the Pittsburgh Penguins and how they have quickly learned what it takes to win in the playoffs. Perhaps, more importantly, the fans in this oft-maligned NHL market seem to have understood what was happening here, too.
Just one difference, Scott...when the Pens returned to the postseason after years of rebuilding? They only won once.

Just something to chew on.

Chin up, Caps fans. The 2008-09 season is just around the corner!

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Hero Time

Game 7 is a time for heroes, both expected and unexpected.

So who is it going to be?

You've got your usual suspects on both sides - your Ovechkins, your Semins...if you're pessimistic, your Brieres. But as is so often the case, it's not the big-name guys who become the story the day after a Game 7.

This series has had many unsung heroes who are due for a little spotlight, and the odds are just as good that any of them will step up to win it all for their team. Here are a few Caps who could be difference-makers in this all or nothing game:

- Matt Bradley: He's got speed, he's got grit, he's got the willingness to take the body - and he's able to fuel all of that into the occasional scoring chance. Bradley is one of those guys who has taken his play from the regular season, which was already at a pretty high level toward the end, and raised it up another notch. He is key in every game...how key will he be in Game 7?

- Brooks Laich: 21 goals in the regular season, a number of assists in the playoffs, and the usual 110% every night that we've come to expect. No goals, yet, though. Playing with Backstrom and Semin 5 on 5 and with Ovechkin, Fedorov and Green on the power play would indicate that your first inclination is to pass, not shoot, but he's had his chances - one could come tonight.

- Steve Eminger: In and out of the press box, in and out of trade rumors, in and out of favor with the team...and after all that he's here and playing some good, solid defense. He also got his first career playoff goal on a seemingly innocuous throw of the puck to the net, then two games later sprung Brooks Laich to kick off one of the prettiest passing plays of the series. If Emmy can get his offensive game going to match his defensive game, this could be an interesting night for #44.

- Eric Fehr: After missing most of the year with a mysterious back injury, Fehr has slowly gotten himself back into the swing of things. And every game of this series he has made strides, looking more and more like the threat he was projected to be when the Caps first drafted him. His willingness to go to the net combined with his skill and size could pay off tonight.

Who is your pick for potential hero?

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Journey to the Cup

How did we get here? The NHL Network has our Journey to the Cup all ready to go (although I think our journey involved playing teams outside of Canada...and poor Cris!):

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Gameday Preview: Playoff Edition, Round 1 GAME 7

Who: Caps-Flyers...the final showdown
Where: DC, home of the free and the brave, the nation's capital, and birthplace of the best fans in the NHL
When: Tonight, 7:00 pm; Rock the Red!

And so the long and winding road leads us here, to Game 7 - what seemed like the unlikeliest of places just three games ago. Where there was once a two-game deficit and an almost impossible uphill climb, there is now only one.

One game. One night. One chance to watch history repeat itself.

Lose and it's all over, as it would have been last night. And Saturday night before that. Lose and we'll celebrate a valiant effort and a hopeful outlook for next year. Lose and we regret nothing - because a team that scrapped it's way out of the league cellar, that clawed it's way into the playoffs, that fought it's way out of a 3-1 series to force Game 7, has certainly earned the right to have no regrets.

Win and we earn our first trip to the second round since 1998, come back from a 3-1 deficit against the Flyers for the second time in franchise history...and get the Penguins for the 48587th time. Woo.

But that's a concern for another day, if there is another day. For now we only focus on the game in front of us.

Because in any sport, in any round, the greatest moments are always made in Game 7. It's Dale Hunter streaking up ice and burying the puck behind Ron Hextall to win the series in dramatic overtime fashion. It's the Red Sox coming back from 3-0 against the Yankees to win it en route to their first World Series title in 86 years. It's young Carey Price earning a shutout to salvage the hope of la Belle Province and send the Bruins packing.

It's where legends are made and new heroes are created.

There's nothing to analyze here, nothing to predict. The advantage has fallen to the Caps - and with it the pressure to and expectations for a win. They're younger, playing on home ice and holding all the momentum; everything they need to win is there. They just have to execute like they did yesterday, like they did on Saturday, even the way they did in Thursday's double OT loss, minus the whole...losing thing. When they're executing the Flyers have looked lost, outclassed, dizzy. Exactly how we want them.

So here are some things to note:
- Alexander Semin is playing some of the best hockey of his career in this series; putting him with Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich has only improved his play and as a result the play of his two linemates, who both are making an impact in their own right.
- Cristobal Huet continues to hold down the fort when the little mistakes are made and has been a source of confidence for the whole team. And never underestimate his ability to make those "oh my god, did you see that???" type of saves, either.
- The defense as a group has played some great hockey in the last three games, and beyond that the entire team is getting back to their system of solid defensive play. The fact that this has extended even to John Erskine and mysterious enigma Steve Eminger is only good news for the team.
- Alex Ovechkin is alive and well.

And most importantly? There will be a very potent 7th man out there in the form of what should be the most raucous Verizon Center to date, Rockin' the Red and screaming their lungs out.

Last inspirational speech for Round 1, folks, and it comes to us courtesy of the boys themselves - because in the end, they're the ones who will have to do the work:

"My goals are coming. I don't care if I don't score and we win. If I play one minute in a game and we win the game it will be a good result."
- Alex Ovechkin

“Right now we don’t want to stop."
- Cristobal Huet

"If you play a game like that and you can’t come out with energy, you’re not going to win anything in your life.”
- Donald Brashear

"I think a lot of people have written us off, but I think we can surprise people with how far we can go. We didn't look forward to Game 7; we just focused on today. Now we can enjoy it for five minutes and then get on the plane and go home."
- Brooks Laich

"The first three games were not too good from our side but we keep going. [...] It’s hardworking every time, it’s perfect.”
- Nicklas Backstrom

"We're going to keep coming at teams. Some teams might have crumbled under that kind of pressure..."
- Tom Poti

“It’s not over yet. (Tuesday is) the biggest game in our career, I think, and we don’t want to stop. We just want to continue what we’re doing."
- Alex Ovechkin

"As long as we still have a pulse, you just can't count us out. There's too many guys that play so hard and are so resilient. It comes from our coach. He is the Number 1 believer, and he instills that in his players. As long as we have a pulse, we live to fight another day."
- Brooks Laich

“We’ve won nothing."
- Bruce Boudreau
Not yet, at least.

Game 7 awaits, Caps fans - here we go.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Waking the Beast...Game 7 Awaits

No words necessary.

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Gameday Preview: Playoff Edition, Round 1 Game 6

Who: Caps-Flyers, you know the drill...
Where: Wachovia Center, home of the worst orange shirts in the world
When: Today, 7:00 pm. Bring your protective cups.

We all know that there's no time to pat ourselves on the backs and celebrate that one win because it's just that - one win. Two more are needed to move on, or so it says in the NHL rulebook. So two more it is.

And to get those two more they need to take what they did in the first two periods of Game 5 and replicate it for 60 minutes this time. Then do it again on Tuesday. What the Caps did in Game 5 was come out guns blazing, throwing their bodies and the puck around until the Flyers were dizzy.

22-9: the hit ratio in the first. 12-4: the shot ratio in the first. 1-0: the score in the first.

All good things, and yet all good things that can be improved upon, or at the very least repeated. This team has the skill, the drive, the youth, the experience, to do all those things and do it in front of a hostile crowd. They know how to get it done; whether they do it or not remains to be seen.

It's not hard to see what works for this team. They have size. They have speed. They have the ability to shoot the puck. So it's no surprise that when they dump the puck in, when they make the simple plays to gain the zone...9 times out of 10 they keep the zone. Keep it and put pressure on and generate a scoring chance, if not a goal. It's the reason why when they do just that they look like a team that could make some noise - and not just a whimper.

And it's what we should expect to see tomorrow night, or else start thinking about next year.

The inspirational thing seemed to work last time out so we'll do this again, this time with help from our pal Kurt (channeling Herb Brooks):

Great moments are born from great opportunity.

And that's what you have here tonight, boys. That's what you've earned here, tonight. One game.

If we played 'em ten times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight.

Tonight, we skate with 'em.
Tonight, we stay with 'em, and we shut them down because we can!
Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world.

You were born to be hockey players -- every one of ya. And you were meant to be here tonight. This is your time. Their time -- is done. It's over.

I'm sick and tired of hearin' about what a great hockey team the [Flyers] have. Screw 'em!

This is your time!! Now go out there and take it!


And finally, if that doesn't get the blood boiling how about a little inspirational help from yours truly...with assistance from (and apologies to) the legendary Van Halen:

Right Now
There may not be a tomorrow
So put it all out there today
One more walk into Philly
With only "vengeance" in our way

From two games down we're clawing back
But we've gotta push to get even
Just let them whine, we know the truth, we're moving on
Hey - come on turn, turn this thing around

Right now
Hey, let's take it to 'em
Right now
Think 1988!
Right now
Catch that magic midget, do it
Right here and now
It takes everything

They can shut down Ovechkin
Others come to take his place
With our own Russian army
Standing right in Biron's face

The more checks you throw, the more you crave
And even Semin's getting in it
With black and orange flying through the air
Come on bring game 7 to DC

Right now, hey
We want tomorrow
Right now
We want a miracle
Right now
Put the fight to Philly do it
Right here and now
It means everything

It's gutcheck time...right now
What are you waitin' for?
Oh, yeah, right now!

Right now
Nothing's over
Right now
Think 1988!
Right now
Catch that magic midget, dropkick him right
Right now
Right now, oh, right now

We're coming for you...right here and now
Right now...it's right now

Let's Go Caps!!

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