Monday, March 31, 2008

Don't Turn Around

With the Caps breathing down the necks of not one, not two, not three, but four teams right now it's safe to say that every single player in Philly, Carolina, Boston and yes, New York, are looking in the rearview mirror.

All you have to do is scan the sports pages from these cities to see exactly how much pressure the Caps are putting on everyone.

Boston, a team that has flip-flopped with the Flyers more times than Alexander Semin has fallen down this season, continues to rack up points - but the pace has slowed. They came out of yesterday's snoozefest with a point but still fell to a Buffalo squad clinging to visions of an all-encompassing Eastern Conference crash.

Of course, Caps fans everywhere were wondering why the Sabres needed that extra 39 seconds to score the damn goal...but that's another issue.

In the aftermath of an overtime loss that the Bruins really needed to win and win in regulation, the Boston Globe was particularly pointed when mentioning a certain scrappy bunch from the nation's capital:

The Capitals, let the record show, have gone 12-4-0 (.750) since their tradin'-day acquisitions of No. 1 goalie Cristobal Huet and aged Russian magician Sergei Fedorov. They have traction, and they're just waiting for the Rangers, Flyers, or Bruins to look in the mirror, the one with the fine print warning, "Objects Are Closer Than They Appear." Got that right.

Oh, hey, and let's not forget the Hurricanes, who wrap up their regular season Friday vs. the Panthers in Raleigh. The Canes, in third place overall with 90 points, actually have 1 point fewer than the Rangers, Flyers, and Bruins in sixth. Why? Because they lead the Southeast Division, which is home to . . . you got it, the Capitals.

Readjust that slide rule, because the Caps could slip ahead of the Canes for the divisional crown and thus land the third seed overall. The Canes, no doubt all fitted for oxygen masks to survive the sudden drop, then would slide back into that NYR-Flyer-Bruin scrum for seeds 6-7-8. Misery just loves company.
Then there's the Hurricanes, a team that is certainly starting to feel the pressure (if they weren't before) after falling to the Lightning on Saturday - the same night the Caps were rolling over the Panthers. So sayeth the Raleigh News-Observer:
The Canes went into the evening with a chance to clinch the Southeast Division title. Instead, they now face what may be a winner-take-all showdown with the Capitals in Washington on Tuesday.

"We wanted this one but it didn't happen, and we've got to leave this one here and look forward to Tuesday in Washington," Hurricanes center Eric Staal said. "We have to play a complete game and get a win."

"That's a big game," Laviolette said. "We've got to come up with four points. It doesn't matter how we do it."
In Philly it seems more and more like people are losing faith that the Flyers can pull it off, despite their annoying insistence on scoring late and forcing shootouts. But that's Philly for you:
John Stevens called [Saturday's shootout win over the Islanders] "the gutsiest effort of the year," and said it showed the team's "resilience."

That's only true if the precursor to both characteristics are "listless" and "stupid" - the two words that recur when talking about how this team starts, and too often how it finishes.

Ouch. Rarely a mention of the Caps, but there is a hint of concern there. A sense that the Flyers are pretending they are better than they are - and forcing a shootout against an Islanders team that has been out of the race for weeks and is without their superstar goalie would seem like an area of concern for sure.

And finally, how 'bout them Rangers? For a long time now Jagr's squad has seemed well out of reach and well on their way to a postseason berth. Too far ahead for the Caps to catch...or are they? They join the clusterfu-, er, the cluster of teams around 8th place with 91 points and a game in hand - against a surging Penguins team that beat them yesterday:

The Rangers have found themselves perched so precariously in the Eastern Conference playoff race that they entered Sunday afternoon’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins eyeing the top of the standings and left it — after a 3-1 loss at Mellon Arena — warily eyeing the bottom.
I know for many of us watching tonight's Rangers-Penguins game would be something akin to shoving red-hot pokers under our fingernails and diving face first into a pit of boiling lava. If you can get past that feeling, it's one to keep an eye on for sure. This race is no longer just a three-team race...but adding another team to the mix just improves the Caps' chances.

Of course, none of this compares to the truly sick part of this entire mess. If the Caps remain in the fight for 8th place, they will likely have to root for the Penguins to win out. Pittsburgh has three games remaining, one against the Rangers tonight and two against the Flyers.

If the Penguins win out they clinch the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference crown.

If the Penguins win out and the Caps do the same the Caps are in.

...and who could they face in the first round? Yup. Sick sick sick.


Sunday, March 30, 2008

No Road Weariness Here

Now that the Caps have returned to the "safety" of DC, let's look at what they accomplished:

- A potentially monstrous, heartbreaking end of the season road trip ends up going the Caps' way, with only one loss in six games away from Verizon Center. That's 10 - count 'em, 10 - points out of a possible 12.

- Last night's win gives the Caps 40 on the year. The last time that happened was the 2000-2001 season.

- The Caps finish with 20 road wins. The last time that happened was the 1992-93 season, when they had 21.

- Alex Ovechkin gets 60th goal of the season...and 61st...and 62nd. And oh yeah, with every goal and assist he scores from here on out he's setting new career and franchise records. Not bad for a 22 year old kid with a missing front tooth.

- Brooks Laich hits the 20-goal mark for the first time, up from a previous career high of 7.

- Nicklas Backstrom earns his first two-goal game of his career; his point total now stands at 66, first among all NHL rookies.

- Huet runs his winning streak to six games and now has two shutouts since coming to the Caps - half of his total for the season.

- All five wins resulted in the opposition scoring three or fewer goals, including one shutout.

- 7 different players had at least one multi-point game; Backstrom and Ovechkin each had more than one.

- The Caps outshot their opponents 179-135 in their five wins and twice cracked the 40-shot mark.

Other meaningless stats:
Ovechkin - 5G, 5A, +9, 33 SOG
Backstrom - 3G, 3A, +6, 53% FO
Kozlov - 1G, 4A, +8, shootout winner
Semin - 3G
Fedorov - 3A, 41% FO
Poti - 4A, +6, 5 hits, 7 blocked shots
Green - 1G, 4A, +5, 5 hits, 8 blocked shots
Laich - 1G, 4A, 8 hits, 46% FO
Bradley - 2G, +2, 10 hits
Gordon - 1G, +3, 6 blocked shots, 62% FO
Morrisonn - +5, 7 hits
Jurcina - 12 hits, even +/-

Plus there's this little nugget of trivia - in the last ten games only one team has been hotter than the Caps, who are 8-2-0 in that stretch. That team? The San Jose Sharks, who are 8-0-2. That's right, folks, the Caps are officially THE hottest team in the Eastern Conference.

But more important than bragging rights is the fact that the Caps are still sitting just two points out of eighth, three points out of seventh, and two points out of the Southeast division lead heading into their final three games - with only Boston holding a game in hand.

Welcome home, boys!


Saturday, March 29, 2008

Panthers Fade Away

Photo courtesy of AP
Just two nights after their second straight nailbiting win, the Caps managed to put together a much more solid, convincing (if not a little bit boring) win - and put the Panthers out of their misery.

It's hard to analyze this one too deeply for a number of reasons. For one thing, this was a very dejected Panthers team that had just dropped two straight and although not mathematically eliminated had been essentially out for the count long before the Caps touched down in Sunrise. For's the Panthers. No matter what the scenario thrilling showdowns between the Caps and Cats are always a little dull.

Huet was once again the strong presence he has become between the pipes, and that save he made in the second period was the impetus for the Caps to wake up a bit and take control of the game once and for all. He faced thirty-two shots but thanks to an inspiring defensive performance by the six blueliners in front of him he saw almost every one. This was truly a team shutout, earned from the net on out.

And then there was the offense. Look no further than big #25 - Viktor Kozlov loves playing the Panthers, doesn't he? His three point performance actually outshines the two points picked up by his Russian linemate for once and he had a great game all around.

Filling in the rest, Mike Green's consistently good play over the last few games finally pays off as he is rewarded with an absolute layup of a goal to bring his total for the season up to 18. Ovechkin adds his 62nd of the season (and his 108th and 109th points of the year...let that sink in a bit) and that would be more than enough for the Caps to finish off a sluggish Panthers team.

Looking around the league...surprise, surprise, we get very little help. Boston took care of the Sens earlier today and the Islanders proved once again why they're on the outside looking in as they blew not one but two leads and eventually fell in the shootout to the Flyers.

From the good news department, however, the Lightning took care of business with the Canes, the game-winner coming off the stick of none other than Jeff Halpern. Looks like he'll stay a fan favorite here in DC for just a little bit longer.

So here's how the Eastern Conference shapes up right now:

3 Carolina 90
4 New Jersey 93
5 Ottawa 92
6 NY Rangers 91
7 Philadelphia 91
8 Boston 90
9 Washington 88
10 Buffalo 84

Amazing. Simply amazing


Friday, March 28, 2008

The Cardiac Caps, Team of Destiny

With less than four minutes to go in regulation last night, the Caps trailed the bottom-feeding Lightning 3-2. It was a game that included stretches of the Caps outplaying their opponent intertwined with stretches where they looked either disinterested or hemmed in. And for Caps fans, it didn't look like two points were going to happen.

With less than four minutes to go in regulation last night, Alexander Semin tied up the game.

With less than three minutes left in overtime last night...Tomas Fleischmann won it.

And so this game goes down as a microcosm of the Caps season. It's a metaphor whose bounds are as yet unknown - with everyone counting them out the Caps pulled even and then came out ahead thanks to the unlikeliest of heroes. But will that describe the season only up to the final games? Or will they be the first team in NHL history to go from being dead last in the league to earning a postseason berth?

The road to finding out is long and hard...or should we say short and hard. Four games left and the Caps sit two points out of third, two points out of seventh, and two points out of eighth. Each of the teams in those spots right now has a treasured game in hand on the Caps.

So to a certain extent they hold only part of their destiny in their own hands - win and you put pressure on the other teams to win. Win and you give yourself the best possible chance to make it. But should the others win, over.

And for now that might have to be okay.

If the Caps give themselves every chance to make it, if they win as many games as they can and play the way we know they can play, the rest matters very little. A playoff berth would be fantastic - to see this team in the postseason led by their young superstar, it's beyond compare as fantasies go - but it's up to fate. It's up to other teams helping us out. It's up to some sort of cosmic force deciding that five years without a postseason is too long.

But it is the stuff of fairy tales that this team is even in this position right now...and you can bet everyone in that locker room is feeling the magic.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Over in a Flash

(...had to be done. Sorry.)

Photo courtesy of AP

My sentiments exactly, Brooks. Shall we go for another heart-stopping win on Saturday or can we just win decisively for once?


Bruised Bruins

Reports out of Beantown have winger Chuck Kobasew out of the lineup for 4-8 weeks with a broken leg, an injury which continues to ratchet up the number of bruised and battered for the Bruins. He'll join Marc Savard, out with a cracked bone in his back, and probably defenseman Andrew Ference, out with a leg injury, on the sidelines for tonight's game against the Leafs.

Remember two things.

One, the Hurricanes have no less than 378 guys out of their lineup with injuries and have still all but clinched the Southeast Division, so injuries can mean nothing.

And two...karmic retribution can be harsh, so watch the giggling.


Striking Lightning

In the days and weeks leading up to the trade deadline, one of the biggest names floating around had been Brad Richards of the Tampa Bay Lightning. His sizable contract on a team that was likely going to be in a rebuilding phase made him a prime target for movement, and on February 26 the Lightning finally pulled the trigger.

The deal sent Richards and Johan Holmqvist, Tampa's de facto starting goaltender, to Dallas in exchange for backup goalie Mike Smith, Jussi Jokinen and former Cap Jeff Halpern. It also made headlines around the league.

A month later a deal that looked to be weighted in Dallas's favor now seems to be paying much higher dividends for bottom-feeding Tampa Bay.

Look at Richards - former member of "the Big Three", he put up huge numbers in his first game and put visions of Lord Stanley's glory in the minds of all Stars fans. Five assists in one game...quite the debut indeed. In the eight games since, however, he has just two goals and two assists and is a -2. It's hard to tell whether his slump is as a result of Dallas's recent woes - or one of the causes.

Then there's Holmqvist - or as Caps fans remember him, ol' Swiss Cheese himself. His numbers were never very sparkly in Tampa, combining with Marc Denis to have one of the worst goalie tandem save percentages in the league over the last few years. Upon arriving in Dallas he was obviously slated to backup Marty Turco, not an easy task, but he finally got his shot against the Canucks on March 15.

He lasted one period. Three goals on twelve shots later (including one by Matt Pettinger) and he was back on the bench; he hasn't played since.

Now onto our opponents for this evening, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Even if the guys they had gotten in return had struggled the way Richards and Holmqvist have, this deal still would have been great for them. They unloaded a huge contract that was hampering their ability to make any improvements to the team and got rid of Holmqvist, who just never lived up to the expectations they had for him. But as a bonus, the players they got really have made their mark.

We'll start in net, an area in which the Bolts have struggled mightily since Khabibulin hightailed it out of town. Mike Smith came in as one of the better backup goaltenders in the league and while his win-loss record isn't so hot (just three wins in his first ten starts) he does have a shutout and a two near shutouts, including a game against the Pens that was 0-0 until the last two minutes of regulation.

Jussi Jokinen, the 24 year old Finn and shootout specialist, came to Tampa as more of a playmaker than a goal-scorer, and that's the role he has filled with the Lightning. He has just one goal but has picked up nine assists in his first fourteen games and recently had a season high five game point scoring streak snapped - only to pick it right up again in the last game versus the Panthers.

Finally there's Jeff Halpern. Former Cap, fan favorite (and CapsChick's favorite), local boy done good. Here in DC and during his time in Dallas he was known more as a good faceoff man, a feisty checking line center and someone who could lead the team in the locker room.

In Tampa? He's Ovie.

...okay, not exactly, but his numbers are very pretty since making the move from the southwest to the Southeast. Halpern scored a goal in his first game as a member of the Lightning and has added six more - plus eight assists - during his run. He has four multi-point games already after registering two all season with the Stars. One game after straining an abdominal muscle he put up the game-winning goal against the Panthers and added two assists, factoring into every goal for Tampa en route to a 3-1 win.

That win proved to be a huge help to his former's hoping he helps us out tonight by not repeating the performance.


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Chocolate Update

Per the Caps' website, the Caps have signed Jay Beagle to a two-year entry level contract.

Financial terms were, as usual, not disclosed but it's probably safe to say he'll earn around the league minimum. Beagle has emerged as one of the top scorers for the Bears, picking up 32 points (18G, 14A) in 54 games played this year - for more scouting info you can check out Talk Hockey to Me, a Bears-centric blog with plenty of dirt on (and plenty of gameday pics of) Beagle.

And the Caps reassigned Sami Lepisto to Hershey today - again - in preparation for John Erskine's impending return after missing six games with an upper body injury. It's a good news/bad news type of thing, really. The good news, Sami gets to go back to the Bears and get more playing time, something that is obviously much better for young players than press box time...but Erskine is back.

Question: does Erskine have compromising pictures of Boudreau? Sure, he's played slightly better of late but slightly better than painfully bad is still painfully bad. I just don't see his positives as compared to someone like Steve Eminger, who is likely on his way back to the press box.



If Petty Says

Add former Cap Matt Pettinger to the growing list of people who thinks Ovechkin should earn the Hart Trophy this year:

"I haven't seen Iginla play this year -- I know what his numbers are --but (Ovechkin) scoring 60 goals and carrying his team, I don't know without him where Washington would be. The way he ignites the teams and ignites the fans, it's tough to go against him."
Now that we've heard from Petty I know what you're all thinking...CapsChick, you're a brilliant analyst and observer of hockey - who do you think should be the league's MVP?

You're all far too kind, really. As for my opinion, we'll revisit that subject another time. Nothing like adding something to an already oversatiated discussion, weeks after most of the hockey world has already weighed in, right?


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

One Down...

Photo courtesy of AP
There was speculation after Friday's come from behind win about which team would emerge in Raleigh last night. Would it be the team that looked sluggish over the last three or four games or the one that rallied from a two goal deficit en route to a decisive 5-3 win?

After the first dizzying shift of swift skating, sharp passing, hard checking beauty the answer was clear. The Caps team that has made the climb from worst to being right in the thick of a playoff race was back, and not a moment too soon.

Throughout the game the Caps continued to display their defensive prowess for which they have (surprisingly) become known, corralling the big guns down in Raleigh and keeping this one tight. But they also showed a good deal of offensive flash, firing 44 shots on Cam Ward while allowing 27. In fact if not for Ward's heroics, this game could have gotten ugly very quickly as the Caps came out firing in the first and took control right away.

Carolina picked up the pace in the remaining forty minutes, but all that did was make the game more interesting. Interesting is good, right? Still, the Caps seemed to be outplaying them all over the place, foiling passes and blocking shots and when all else failed relying on the strong play of their goaltender to make the final stop. Even the special teams looked good, despite the fact that both Carolina goals came while on the power play - neither was really a power play goal in the sense that the penalty killers failed, it was really of those things. Or two.

So we can forgive the fluky goals - not much you can do about a puck deflecting off a defender a mile away from the net, or a puck propelled over the line when three bodies collide in the crease. In fact, take away those two black marks and the Caps played what was a pretty stellar road game, a great team win.

But as in every great team win there were a few individual standouts - and where there are individual standouts, there is #8.

Ovechkin was a man possessed, barreling around the ice hitting and shooting wherever he could - and he would only be contained for so long, taking a beautiful pass from Backstrom (which stemmed from an equally pretty play by Kozlov) to net his history-making 61st goal of the season. Congratulations to Ovechkin as he continues to set himself apart in a league full of amazing talent.

Huet was sharp when called upon and will probably be in net for the bulk of the remaining games as a result. We can feel nostalgic and sorry for Olie, or we can bask in the glow of a goalie who is now 6-2 in his first 8 games with the club. Frankly the latter is sounding pretty good right now.

And Viktor Kozlov, whose accomplishments and contributions this year have been incredibly underrated, proved to be the biggest hero of them all with an absolute rifle of a shot to beat Cam Ward in the shootout. It was the only one that went in, the only one that counted...and Eric Staal can curse that lovely post all he wants.

This game was, for all intents and purposes, a playoff game. It felt like it for sure, as many of the players acknowledged and those of us watching at home saw for ourselves. There was an intensity that has maybe been missing from previous division games, a sense that this one meant more than the rest. No, a three point game wasn't exactly what the Caps wanted but the two points they came out with in the end were incredibly important for sure.

If you were scoreboard watching last night, as many of us were, you saw one of the more unusual evenings in the NHL. First everything was going the Caps' way, all the right teams losing; then things started to turn and it felt like once again a solid game by Washington would yield little in the end.

But by the close of the night, although the teams ahead of the Caps each picked up two points, it was the teams right on their heels that were the big story. Toronto, Buffalo, Florida - all fell in regulation, clearing out the logjam a bit and giving the Caps some much needed breathing room. It now looks more and more like it will be a three-team race for the final two spots, much better odds for a team sitting only two points out.

So the Caps are now three points ahead of the Sabres and Panthers, four points ahead of the Maple Leafs, two points behind Boston for eighth and four points behind Carolina for the Southeast Division title.

...are we having fun yet?


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Bruins Working Overtime...and Shootouts

Since the advent of the three point game, it seems like the end of the year sends analysts and fans scurrying to the calculator to determine what, if any, impact that extra point has on the ultimate playoff standings. And year after year the conclusion remains the same - the impact is minimal at best.

This year, however, it could be something to take a look at. If the Capitals don't make the playoffs they can first and foremost blame themselves - many games should have been won, points were lost here and there on stupid mistakes, etc. But you almost always need a little help from the teams around you when you're in the thick of a logjam, and the Caps haven't really gotten that to this point.

One of the biggest culprits in the "thanks for not helping" category? The Boston Bruins.

Photo courtesy of AP
It's not the sheer volume of overtime and shootout visits that is killing us, although with 19 appearances in the extra frame they do rank among the top five in the league - Edmonton, not surprisingly, leads the way with 24. And it's not the fact that they're gaining a point for each overtime or shootout loss, although with 11 loser points (tied with the Sabres) compared with the Caps' 8 you've got your margin of error for eighth place right there.

No, it's the way they go about racking up loser points and overtime winners and shootout victories. 19 times the Bruins have needed overtime or a shootout - 13 of those have come against teams the Caps are currently chasing or being chased by.

And 8 of them have been Boston wins.

So not only are they creating three point games, always annoying, but they're winning them in the end. That's a point gifted to one of our opponents that, had the Bruins developed a killer instinct, would not have been earned. Observe:

10/20 - Boston 1 NYR 0 (SO)
11/1 - Boston 4 Buffalo 3 (OT)
11/7 - Buffalo 2 Boston 1 (OT)
1/12 - Boston 4 Philadelphia 3 (OT)
1/17 - Toronto 3 Boston 2 (SO)
1/19 - Boston 4 NYR 3 (SO)
2/8 - Boston 3 Buffalo 2 (SO)
2/16 - Toronto 4 Boston 3 (OT)
2/19 - Boston 3 Carolina 2 (SO)
2/21 - Boston 5 Florida 4 (SO)
3/4 - Florida 1 Boston 0 (OT)
3/9 - NYR 1 Boston 0 (SO)
3/15 - Boston 3 Philadelphia 2 (OT)

In comparison, the Flyers have only been on the winning end of these three point games twice. Buffalo has done it three times. Toronto has five wins. Annoying, sure. Back-breaking? Not even close.

So thank you, Boston. Thanks for nothing.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

What a Thrill

This team is so fun.

No, really. It would be boring if they insisted on playing one way the entire season, consistently well or consistently badly, let alone within one game. Playoff race shmayoff race, it's much more fun this way - keeps us on our toes, we never really know what we're going to get.

Except when it comes to the great #8. With him, what you see is what you get night in and night out. Passion. Exuberance. Skill. Magic. The ability to put an entire team on his back and carry them out of the doldrums to a sparkling comeback win...all while notching his 60th goal of the year.

This game was three games in one, a three act play consisting of drama and tragedy and comdey and ultimate redemption. If you watched it all the way through and didn't feel winded by the end, clearly weren't watching it right.

Act One:
Our heroes take the ice, purported favorites in a battle against those hapless underdogs, the Atlanta Thrashers. The two teams circle one another, the heroes tentative, unsure, gunshy...they are after all still reeling from two nights before and in an effort to avoid a repeat they move slowly. Carefully. Don't make a mistake, don't get too flashy. A few good chances either way but a slow period, a boring one.

#8 takes center stage. He loops with his young upstart centerman, criss-crosses the ice as calmly as if he is walking across a street, and fires a shot between the gaping pads of a stunned Kari Lehtonen. 1-0 for the heroes. There is much rejoicing, high fives and songs of praise.

Act Two:
A plot twist - the heroes' alter egos take their places, true doppelgangers in every aspect except talent and drive. The scrappy underdogs aren't about to let the heroes slip away with a one goal lead. They pounce on a power play chance, the young Swede from the cagey veterans making it a tie game.

Then it happens. A bad bounce, a bad pass, a bad look and a power play for the heroes turns into a nightmare. A man who has never scored on our heroes is suddenly on the board with the go-ahead goal, one that seems to deflate the team and the fans.

Nine minutes later...the nightmare continues. The lights darken, fog filters out onto the ice, the men in white are on the ropes and looking as though they're about to fall. The underdogs will have their day and it will be against our heroes, another defeat with just twenty minutes of bad work and twenty minutes left to right the wrong. It doesn't seem possible.

Act Three:
Enter the great #8.

He takes the ice along with his linemates and sets the new game in motion, whirling and twirling around a stunned group of underdogs with a renewed passion and vigor. The rest follow. It is a brand new day, the heroes have reemerged, vanquished their doppelgangers to reclaim their rightful place atop the throne.

Shot after shot is fired, turned away with increasing difficulty by the mighty Lehtonen. It's only a matter of time now, only a matter of time until...

3-2. 60. In the moment it is a goal that cuts the deficit in half; in the eyes of history it is a marker that continues to cement the Gr8 One as truly among the greats.

And then the burden of getting the win at all costs falls to our young Swede, baby-faced and unassuming, the setup man, rarely the hero. He does something he never does - he shoots the puck. It goes in. The team explodes. The tide is turning, you can feel it, and the score is even at 3. Suddenly the energy is flowing through everyone, the team, the fans...something is happening here.

32 seconds later it's the young Swede again, a blistering top corner shot that gives our heroes the lead. The young Swede is chased by the great #8 and all five players on the ice congregate in the corner, bouncing and screaming with unbridled exuberance. It is a moment of pure joy amid the stunned Atlanta faithful, shared by the fans at home and the lucky few who made the journey to see it live.

An undefended net yields a fifth tally...and the curtain falls on a thrilling end.

Okay, maybe it wasn't as dramatic as that - but watching it at home you could almost hear the sweeping strains of the orchestra in the background, see the stage lighting and the suspense-creating cuts and flashes. It was a night when the dramatic was what was needed and the Caps delivered, a spectacular win to end a stretch of playing not-so-spectacular.

And in the end what it comes down to is two points sorely needed by the Caps. With the Flyers pulling ahead of Boston and Buffalo falling to the Leafs the Caps amazingly close the gap for eighth to just one point. The 8th place Bruins hold two games in hand on the Caps, one of which will disappear tonight - against the Habs, a team that has beaten them ten consecutive times.

For tonight, at least, we're all Canadiens fans.

The Caps get a little breather now before facing the mighty Hurricanes of Carolina - and we get a little breather to recover from a night that was truly a showcase of the worst and the best this team has to offer. And when the best wins out...that's a great night.

All photos courtesy of AP


Friday, March 21, 2008

Sweet Sixty

How sweet it is indeed...on to Raleigh.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Panthers on the Prowl

If there is one team worthy of drawing ire from the Caps and from the rest of the Eastern Conference, it's the Florida Panthers. It's just so annoying - they don't seem to realize the season has started until March, when they suddenly find another level to their game and not only play spoiler but put the fear of god into whatever teams may lie ahead of them.

The last time the Panthers went to the playoffs was the 1999-2000 season. In the last three years, though, they've gone on a tear to change that yet always seem to come up short.

In 2006 Florida, after playing well under .500 for most of the year, went on a hot streak to close out the season. They won 11 of 13 after the Olympic break and then went 3-0-2 in their last five games. The next year the obnoxious Cats were back, going 11-5-3 in their last 19 games, missing the playoffs by just five points.

And now this season. The Panthers have been on an inexplicable streak, winning seven straight before finally succumbing to the Hurricanes tonight in the shootout (yet another three point game, thanks Carolina). Caps fans everywhere have to hope that this trend of falling just short continues for the Panthers, as we have two games remaining against Florida and sit just one point ahead.

Florida - the pesky gnat of a team that just won't die.


Know Thy Enemy

Seven games left and a bit of ground to cover. So what's ahead for our competition? Have the scheduling gods smiled upon us or is Bettman's ultimate plot still in motion?


Here's how it breaks down:
Carolina Hurricanes - 1st in division with 85 points
- Seven games remaining, four at home and three on the road
- Two sets of back-to-back games
- Panthers twice (Carolina leads season series 4-2)
- Capitals twice (Carolina leads season series 4-2)
- Thrashers once (Carolina leads season series 5-1-1)
- Lightning twice (Season series tied 3-3)

Florida Panthers - 3rd in division, 11th in conference with 78 points
- Eight games remaining, four at home and three on the road
- One set of back-to-back games
- Hurricanes twice (Carolina leads season series 4-2)
- Lightning twice (Season series tied 3-3)
- Thrashers twice (Florida leads season series 4-1-1)
- Capitals twice (Florida leads season series 4-2)

Buffalo Sabres - 9th in conference with 81 points
- Eight games remaining, four at home and four on the road
- One set of back-to-back games
- Maple Leafs twice (Buffalo leads season series 4-2)
- Senators twice (Ottawa leads season series 4-2)
- Canadiens twice (Season series tied 3-3)
- Bruins twice (Boston leads season series 4-1-1)

Philadelphia Flyers - 8th in conference with 82 points
- Eight games remaining, four at home and four on the road
- One set of back-to-back games
- Rangers twice (New York leads season series 5-1)
- Islanders twice (Philadelphia leads season series 5-1)
- Devils twice (New Jersey leads season series 5-1)
- Penguins twice (Philadelphia leads season series 4-2)

Boston Bruins - 7th in conference with 83 points
- Nine games remaining
- Two sets of back-to-back games
- Canadiens twice (Montreal leads season series 6-0)
- Maple Leafs twice (Season series tied 3-3)
- Senators twice (Ottawa leads season series 4-2)
- Sabres twice (Boston leads season series 4-1-1)
- Devils once (New Jersey leads season series 2-1)

And finally...

Washington Capitals - 10th in conference, 2nd in division with 80 points
- Seven games remaining
- No back-to-back games
- Thrashers once (Atlanta leads season series 4-3)
- Hurricanes twice (Carolina leads season series 4-2)
- Panthers twice (Florida leads season series 4-2)
- Lightning twice (Washington leads season series 4-2)

At this point it may be time to throw in the towel on that pesky Southeast Division race - the Hurricanes just refuse to die despite injury after injury. They are the hockey equivalent of the black knight, bouncing around on one foot claiming it's "just a flesh wound".

And if we're willing to concede the title to the Canes, we might as well hope that they continue their dominance as they take on the Panthers two more times. The least they can do if they won't go away is take care of Florida for us, right? It's not like we can rely on Atlanta to do our dirty work for us, clearly.

As for 8th place, that race is still very much up for grabs. Neither Buffalo nor Philadelphia has been exactly dominant against their division rivals lately, and neither team has looked consistently tough in general over the past few weeks. One thing is for sure - this race could go down to the wire.


What Game?

"We've just got to put this game ... throw it in the trash and not let it linger."
- Olie Kolzig

"That might have been the result of the past couple of games where we were fortunate enough to win, but got out-played for the most part."
- Matt Cooke

"I just think we had a real stinker."
- Bruce Boudreau

Consensus? This game stunk. From beginning to end it had us wishing it wasn't televised, had us toying with the idea of actually turning a game off before it's completion, had us writing recaps before the game was even complete. There was no sign of a comeback, no spark, no urgency whatsoever. There was no Montreal-esque comeback in sight, let alone a Buffalo one (6 goals in the third period, what a bunch of moronic show offs).

The other consensus seems to be that we need to put this one behind us - all of us, fans, players and coaching staff alike. This isn't a game you are going to record and rewatch, nor is it one the boys are going to break down all that much. They know what they did wrong, and it was everything, and they don't need a videotape to tell them that.

So I'm suggesting a kind of forced selective amnesia, aided by watching some real hockey that will chase away the demons. Check out highlights from the 10-2 win a few weeks ago or the 4-0 shutout versus the Devils. If you're really in need of a jolt go back and watch the entire film of last year's 7-1 drubbing of the Lightning or the 5-2 win over the Canes.

If nothing else those will remind you that the Caps can win and can do it against their own division, something important to remember as we head into the final 7 games of Southeast-palooza.

Game? What game? I remember nothing.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Blown Out of the Windy City

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

You never want a game to be over in the first two minutes of play but this one was, as before RCN's cable geniuses had even flipped on the feed Williams had scored and that was it, game, set, match.

It almost seemed inevitable. The Caps have been going at full speed for so long now, playing great hockey and for the most part getting results; a letdown was bound to happen at some point. You could see the signs beginning in the second and third period against Nashville. The Caps were lagging, tired, getting away from their system, and they survived with two points thanks to a combination of goaltending, defensive desperation and sheer dumb luck.

But there was no luck tonight. There was no desperation. And right from the start it was lights out for the Caps, who gave up two quick goals to the potent Chicago offense and never fully recovered.

In a way it was the perfectly timed blowout for this team. No, a loss is not good, especially with both Buffalo and Carolina picking up wins tonight. But if they're going to drop one on this road trip - and let's be honest, one is all they can afford - it's better that it comes against a team in the West. And the fact that it was so lopsided means they'll be angry, fired up, and ready to go when they take on the Southeast Division in the final seven games.

We hope.

So what went wrong? The better question is what went right, as there seemed to be breakdowns on every inch of ice - poor defensive positioning, sloppy passes, undisciplined penalties. When they did connect with a pass their shots were blocked, the Chicago defense proving too much for the Caps. Olie didn't look half bad but he got no help from his team, no rebound assistance or run support of any kind.

Frankly this was not the team we've been watching the last few weeks, the team that has every NHL analyst and pundit and commentator raising their eyebrows and claiming the Caps may just have a shot.

And they still do have a shot, despite that loss. It was a messy, unfortunate loss but whether it was a 5-0 final or 2-1 final they only fail to collect two points and they live to fight another day.

Time to put this one behind us, kids.


Sergei Rockin' Out

We've gotten a pretty good taste of Sergei Fedorov's moves on the ice, but what about off the ice? Check it out:

And a little behind-the-scenes action with Feds and his brother:

He's quite the renaissance man, isn't he?


Farewell, Game in Hand

It was a nailbiter for sure towards the end but when all is said and done what matters is that the Caps got two points - and they did it in that coveted game in hand, drawing them even with Carolina and Florida in games remaining.

Frankly after last weekend's losses it's nice to see that the Caps still have two viable options left for a crack at the postseason. The win propelled them over Buffalo and kept them on pace with the Flyers for 8th, while also moving them within three points of Carolina.

Other thoughts on the game:

- Matt Bradley has been playing some stellar hockey lately, and his finish on the lovely Brooks Laich pass was just another reminder of that fact. When he, Gordon and Brashear are on the ice the shifts have been packed with energy and, amazingly enough, a few scoring chances as well - but it all seems to start with #10.

- All three of the Caps goals last night had something in common - they all involved the Caps driving the net in some fashion or another, something that seems to be missing when the offense sputters. Amazing.

- Scary moment #1: Alex Ovechkin taking a shot off his boot and getting up slowly, then walking with a pronounced limp back to the locker room after the first period.

- Scary moment #2: Cristobal Huet taking a slapper to the chin, sending his facemask flying.

- Scary moment #3: The last five minutes of the third period.

And around the league:

- It's a wonder that Kari Lehtonen and Johan Hedberg haven't been sized for straitjackets just yet. The (useless) Thrashers were outshot by the Flyers 47-19 last night, making that the 10th game this year in which they've allowed 40+ shots. In only 19 games have they allowed fewer than 30 shots on net, and Atlanta has outshot their opponents a mere nine times (tying another five). And of course, they're 30th in the league when it comes to shots against per game.

- You have to have seen that goal the Islanders scored - shorthanded, no less - in last night's loss to the Maple Leafs, but if you haven't do so immediately. 190 feet of slow, bouncing rubber that just kept bouncing slowly...right over Vesa Toskala's glove and into the net. The scary part for the Leafs? Up until the third period that goal was holding strong as the potential game-winner. That would have been a story.

- The Penguins lost to the Rangers last night - and their dads were there to see it. (Of course maybe someone can explain why their father-son trip was newsworthy and the Caps' trip a few weeks ago wasn't...)

So the Caps look to extend their winning streak to five, the first time they would have accomplished that feat in seven years. Ouch. And of course they'll attempt to do it while playing their third game in four nights and the second of back to back games...but at least their opponent is in the middle of a slump of sorts, with the Hawks going 1-4-1 in their last 6 and having likely fallen out of the playoff pictures.

Watch out for the twin teens, though. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews haven't slowed down much despite their team's recent woes and they're always dangerous, as are a host of others on the Hawks roster. This'll be our first look at them against the Caps and it'll be interesting to see how well the Caps defense, so strong lately, can shut them down - and how well our own rookie phenom, Nicklas Backstrom, matches up.

Oh, and if you're keeping track, Ovechkin is sitting two goals shy of 60. Ho hum.

Your standings as of this morning:

Tonight Tampa takes on Buffalo and Atlanta hosts the Hurricanes - looks like we're picking the underdog in both of those. Hey, the Thrashers have to win one eventually, right?


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Two Points and a Million Heart Attacks

Photo courtesy of AP
Congratulations to #8 for #100 and #300...and thank you, Cristobal.


Gameday Preview: Caps vs Predators

Who: Washington Capitals vs. Nashville Predators
Where: Sommet Center, Nashville, TN
When: Tuesday, March 18, 8:00 PM

Broadcast Info: CSN, FSN

Media Notes:
Caps' Site
Washington Times
Washington Post

So here we go, On the Road Again. The Caps will be looking for some Sweet Southern Comfort as they pay a visit to Nashville, home of country music and the Predators, for the first game of a season-high six game road trip. Their motto will have to be Live Like You Were Dying; in other words, leave it all on the ice and put in the hard work we've grown accustomed to seeing. Otherwise When the Sun Goes Down we'll all be singing about our Achy Breaky Heart.

We've got nine games left on the year but we're taking it one day at a time, so strap yourself in and raise a glass as the Caps take on the Preds - after all, It's Five O'Clock Somewhere. And remember, Save a Horse, Ride A Cowboy!

But seriously, folks...this game kicks off a stretch of three games in four nights (not to mention two time zones) that will go a long way toward determining whether the Caps will be playing past April 5th. It won't be an easy task, especially since they're playing a Predators team that is in basically the exact same position - two points out of 8th - followed by a few teams that may be out of it but would love to play spoiler in Chicago and Atlanta.

And then there are those pesky games against Carolina coming up...

That's something to worry about another day, though. Tonight's game is the final game in hand held by the Caps over the Canes and Panthers and a win is pretty much needed to keep them in the race for the division title. Atlanta takes on Philly at the same time, so if the Caps can pull it out and if the Thrashers can manage a win we've got ourselves a whole new ball game. Hey, it could happen!

As the Caps pay their first and only visit to the land of the Grand Ole Opry, it seems fitting to continue embracing the country music flavor that will surround our boys for about 24 hours. Here's a little sampling of what some of the boys might be listening to (although sadly we were unable to find just the right player for "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk"...shame):

Alex Ovechkin It Just Comes Natural - George Strait
Quintin Laing Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof - Travis Tritt
Steve Eminger I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry - Hank Williams, Jr
Tom Poti How Do You Like Me Now? - Toby Keith
Alexander Semin If I Fall You're Going Down with Me - Dixie Chicks
Shaone Morrisonn You're My Better Half - Keith Urban
Brooks Laich When You're Hot You're Hot - Jerry Reed
Olie Kolzig You're Still the One - Shania Twain
John Erskine Big Bad John - Jimmy Dean
Nicklas Backstrom A Real Fine Place to Start - Sara Evans
Brent Johnson Three's a Crowd - Justin Trevino
Sergei Fedorov As Good As I Once Was - Toby Keith
Viktor Kozlov Slow Hand - Conway Twitty

And of course, what tribute to Nashville would be complete without possibly the greatest country song ever written - with a Cheap Seats twist.

We Need Friends in Low Places
(to the tune of I Got Friends in Low Places - apologies to Garth Brooks)
Such a promising start
Then it all fell apart,
And our hopefulness turned to fear,
The last ones to score,
We all thought for sure
It was destined to be a long year

But the tide slowly turned,
With each standings point earned
And we find ourselves so very close
Now we'll just make amends
Our enemies become friends
Which team will help us the most?

'Cause we need friends in low places,
When the Thrashers win
And the Penguins chase all the teams away
We'll be okay.
Desperate times like playoff races
Bring the evil teams into loving embraces.
Yes, we need friends
In low places.

It's a horrible time,
There's no reason or rhyme,
And you have to just blindly pray
That the bad guys prevail
All the teams ahead fail
And the Caps will emerge from the fray...

Hey, it may sound absurd
To say a kind word
About teams we usually hate
But if we can cash in
When someone we despise wins
It's hard to get all that irate!

'Cause we need friends in low places,
When the Thrashers win
And the Penguins chase all the teams away
We'll be okay
Desperate times like playoff races
Bring the evil teams into loving embraces
Yes, we need friends
In low places.

Oh, we need friends in low places,
When the Lightning strike
And the Devils put all the teams to sleep
The rewards we'll reap.
The Isles can win all the games they want to
If it helps us out they get a big ol' thank you!
Yes, we need friends
In low places.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Philly Hearing Footsteps

It's been a long while since we could legitimately say that our goalie stole a game for us...but today our goalie stole a game for us.

Huet turned aside 39 shots on goal and another two in the shootout to give the Caps a much needed 2-1 victory over the Bruins. It's a nice bit of payback for last Saturday's heartbreaker, snatching away a win after being outplayed for most of the game and even scoring a 5-on-3 goal.

This one was not pretty, though. It was hideous. Boring. Downright soul-killing.

The Chara-less Bruins, already far from the most thrilling team in the league, set about playing a slow methodical trap to keep the Caps from repeating their 10 goal outburst from two weeks ago. Everything was precise, plodding, designed to take away space and capitalize on turnovers. And it seemed to do the trick, lulling the Caps into an early afternoon nap while allowing the Bruins to simply run all over the place unchecked.

This game could have been much uglier had Huet not been his sparkling self against the team he has owned in his career, and that number one star moniker is only fitting for his performance today. There were other good performances - Laich, Bradley, Semin - but Huet was the reason for the two points today, without question.

Congrats to Sergei Fedorov on his very smiley first goal as a Cap - chalk that one up as another great game for Sergei, who has not disappointed since coming to DC despite being less than visible on the scoresheet. And I like his toque.

Matt Cooke rounded out the trio of newbies who continues to have solid game after solid game, and he came close to adding another goal or two to his resume including another stunning shorthanded chance.

As for those players having a less than stellar outing...sadly there were many. Lepisto had a roller coaster of an afternoon, following up a good play with a bad one time after time; ditto for Mike Green, whose ability to move the puck with jaw-dropping skill was only matched by his ability to turn the puck over unharassed. Fleischmann continues to make his case to be the odd man out when Clark returns.

So good news bad news time. The good news? Pittsburgh demolished the Flyers earlier today (although 7-1 was a bit of one wants to see Pens fans that happy), bringing the Caps to within 2 points of 8th place. Bad news? Both Florida and Carolina won.

Thanks, Thrashers. Thanks, Sens. Big help.

And now we take to the road for the big circus-induced extravaganza: six games, five states, two time zones, two divisions and two weeks of fun fun fun! Nashville's up next as the Caps look to extend their winning streak to four in the land of country music.

But for now - two points, kids! I'll take it.


Saturday, March 15, 2008

Shooting Gallery

Courtesy of ESPN, check out the shot breakdown from last night...those are some beautiful little x's to the left, aren't they?


Keeping Hope Alive

Photo courtesy of AP


That's one word you could use to describe the Caps' 4-1 victory over the Thrashers last night. Simply dominant.

Despite falling behind 1-0 in the first and appearing a little sluggish to start the game, the Caps still managed to outshoot, outdraw, outhit and outscore a weary Atlanta team en route to a crucial two points. It was a truly great team win and continues a long stretch of games in which the Caps have simply outplayed their opponent, including the two heartbreakers last weekend. Wins like this are what make you believe in the unbelievable, expect the unexpected and keep hope alive.

But back to the game itself.

First of all...Brooks Laich. Is there anything you can say about this guy that hasn't been said in recent weeks? He's clutch, becoming a player who can play in any situation at any position and still rack up points. He now has three multiple goal games in his last nine, racking up 10 goals and 12 points in his last 12 games - those are Ovechkin-esque numbers for sure, and he now sits just one goal shy of his first 20 goal season. Brooks was truly the star of the game last night and you could feel the whole crowd pulling for him to get the hat trick by the end. It'll happen eventually.

But he was but one star among many last night. The entire team absolutely shut down any hope of a Thrashers attack, stifling them to allow only 11 shots - a low mark even for a team like Atlanta that is routinely outshot.

It was textbook defensive positioning all night long, with Olie making the necessary saves but not really facing any sort of sustained attack from anywhere in close. The one goal against was a perfectly placed, wobbling shot from the point that came just as a penalty to the Caps was expiring - the only offense provided by an Atlanta team that barely sniffed the offensive zone.

Watching the second period alone was like watching poetry in motion. It was shift after shift of puck possession, from the top line down to the gritty fourth-liners and everyone in between. They ran the Atlanta defense around until they were dizzy and peppered Lehtonen constantly, who basically prevented this game from getting any uglier than it already was with some sparkling saves to keep it close.

And it wasn't that close.

Ovechkin was dominant, scoring his 57th of the year and putting him one point shy of his second 100-point season (and 3 shy of 300 for his career) - but he didn't have to be. The beauty of the team win is that the rest of the team was right there to back him up and his goal was nothing more than icing on the cake.

Mike Green was flying all over the place and seems poised to break out of his recent goal-scoring slump in the coming days. The line of Bradley, Gordon and Brashear was entertaining and dominant all night, arguably the best line through 60 minutes with some great chances that just didn't cash in. Matt Cooke gave the Caps a breather with a perfectly timed, perfectly placed and joyously celebrated shorthanded goal.

And congratulations to Sami Lepisto, whose assist on Laich's second goal gives him his first NHL point!

Now for the usual scoreboard watching, looking around the league to see who helped us and who goes on the "useless" list. The one most concerning Caps fans was last night's Buffalo-Carolina game, a tricky one as the Caps could have leapt over the Sabres with a Carolina win but would have fallen further behind in the Southeast division.

With the fresh eyes of morning it appears that the result, a 7-1 drubbing by Buffalo, worked out just fine for the Caps. They now sit 3 points behind Philly for the 8th seed and remain one point behind Buffalo; they've pulled to within 5 of the Southeast lead once more and still have two games against the Canes plus a game in hand.

Meanwhile the Rangers pick an inopportune time (shocking) to end their point streak, falling to Florida 3-2 and allowing the Panthers to stay neck in neck with the Caps. You know, it just wouldn't be a regular NHL season if Florida didn't make one last run at the playoffs in the dying days of the season, would it? All we can hope is that this year turns out like all the others...and they fall just short once again.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Olie Douses Flames and Other Non-Punny Thoughts

One down, 11 to go...

- First off, congratulations again to Olie Kolzig on his 300th win, an amazing feat. It's been a chaotic couple of months, a chaotic season, a chaotic career - but the way he's been playing lately and the way he played last night, it's not hard to see how he achieved 300 wins.

Photo courtesy of

Whatever happens after this season, the incredible things he's accomplished and the impact he's had on the team, the organization and the community should never be overlooked. Truly a class act.

Be sure to swing by to vote in their Olie-centric poll of the day!

- Another tremendous game by Alex Ovechkin kicks his season totals (and his career high totals) up to 56 goals and 97 points on the season. He's four away from his first 60 goal season, three points from his second 100+ point season, and five points from 300 on his career. I just don't think he has an off switch...

- Checking around the interwebs, the general sense is that the Caps were victimized by the refs in the first half of the game - and the Flames were victimized in the second half. There's probably a little truth to both arguments and more than a little bit of homerism in each as well, but it does beg the question: has the officiating been incredibly unbalanced this season or does it just seem that way?

- To the fair citizens in section 427 last night...I missed the memo, were the Penguins in town for another game? Maybe the Rangers? Seriously, never have I seen a fistfight erupt in the stands when a former Patrick Division rival wasn't in town, but this one was completely started by the Caps fans who insisted on pelting a few Flames fans with peanuts. Remember, kids - beer and stupidity don't mix.

- John Erskine apparently was hurt and played sparingly in the second half of the game. The Caps proceeded to come back from a 2-1 deficit to win it. Coincidence? I think not.

- Also not a coincidence - the fact that the Caps have allowed four goals in the last three games while down two men and both Dave Steckel and Quintin Laing were out of the lineup. It's great that the two of them have become such a solid fixture on the PK but the Caps have got to learn how to kill off a two-man advantage without them.

Or, you know, stop taking penalties when someone else is in the box...

- Here's a headline that is sure to take the buzz off any Leafs fan's happy dance this morning: Sundin Hurt. Reports are varied on whether he'll even miss any time, but you have to think losing him puts a serious dent in Toronto's playoff hopes. Of course, as the team currently tied with them in the race for 8th (and while we would never wish injury on anyone) it's hard not to see that as a positive at this point.

- I know the Canes are a good team, but why is no one able to beat them? There is no reason for that team, with the injuries they have and the senior citizen status most of their players hold, to be running roughshod over the entire league right now. We get two cracks at them in the coming weeks, better make them count.

- And finally, Quintin Laing has been nominated by the Washington chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association for the Bill Masterton trophy. Hard to argue with that choice - read about it here.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

300 and Counting

Photo courtesy of AP
Congratulations, Olie!


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Here We Go...

As the decongestants wear off and the sadness from this weekend's back to back heartbreakers fades away it's time to look at the rest of the season with a cool, calm and realistic eye.

No, the Caps aren't out of the playoff race just yet. From here on out, though, it's even more of an uphill climb that will take a combination of Caps wins, help from other teams, and general good luck to get this team into the postseason.

...not exactly a trio that has graced our presence in the past, is it?

Still, it's important to remember two things. One, the Caps don't seem to be calling it quits just yet and until they're further out of it we may not want to either; you just never know what can happen down the stretch. And two, we've said since the beginning of the year that as long as this team stays in the hunt right up until the final day we can consider this season a success, and I think that still holds true.

Playoffs would be great. We love the postseason here in the Cheap Seats. Big fans. However, after three years of sub-70 point seasons and fire sales and embarrassing blowout losses, there is something so sweet about what has transpired these past few months, and I don't think anyone will go into the spring and summer with anything less than heads held high. If we make it, we make it; if not, this team will be ready to set the East on fire next year, I have no doubt.

So the Caps play host to the red hot Calgary Flames tonight, a team fighting for their own playoff lives and boasting a young core of talent in their own right. But despite losing two straight, the Caps are also a team that could be called hot. How, you ask? Well, Saturday and Sunday's games should be considered wins until the final minutes; the points may not show up but the effort, the skill and the solid play overall in each of them are exactly what the Caps will need to carry into this final run of games.

So here's what we have left:

- Two more games against each of the division rivals, culminating in the home and season closer against the Florida Panthers
- A final payback game against the Bruins
- The last two Central Division teams, Nashville and Chicago

...and that's it. That's all she wrote. Not an easy chunk of games by any stretch of the imagination but nothing this team can't handle. The way they've played these last two weeks, it's not out of the realm of possibility that the Caps pick up 8, 9, or even 10 wins. They'll have to if they have any hope of moving on.

Lots of hockey going on tonight, lots happening last night, lots to discuss in the coming weeks. For now:

- Montreal shut out the Devils to reclaim the Eastern Conference lead. Habs fan or not, admit it - it's always fun to see New Jersey get shut out, isn't it? By the way, that Carey Price kid might have a future in the NHL...

- Toronto became both our worst enemy and our best friend as they beat the Flyers last night - in overtime. Thanks, Leafs. They're now tied with us and Florida, although the Caps have a game in hand on both, and they prevent Philly from getting too far ahead (79 points). This time of year is so tricky for standings-watchers.

- Amazingly enough the Lightning blew away the Islanders big time, lighting up DiPietro for an 8-4 final. Former Cap Jeff Halpern picked up a goal and two assists for his new team, giving him four goals and five assists since joining the Bolts in a trade that has worked out surprisingly well for both sides.

- Out west the Oilers forced overtime...and didn't go to a shootout. They were five seconds away from yet another gimmicky game when Cogliano scored to win it for Edmonton. Simply amazing.

Here's what is on the menu tonight - first up, Toronto and Philly clash again. Go...Leafs? The Blackhawks need to prove they love us with a win over the Canes. Florida and the Isles go head to head in a battle of who cares (drink your coffee for that one).

And here's the worst one - Pens-Sabres. Folks, this is going to hurt, but we want Pittsburgh to win. I know, I know, walk it off, take a deep breath, close your eyes and think of England.

It'll all be over soon.

On a personal note, I'm sending out a special thanks to all of you for all the kind get-well wishes and notes I got in the past few days - I'm feeling much better, kids!


Saturday, March 08, 2008

Weekend Gameday Previews: The Slacker Version

It's hard to claim injury or illness at a time of year when the big guys are likely playing with broken bones and torn muscles - and yet here we are. The flu has struck the Cheap Seats and alas, I am just not as tough as the boys who get paid millions to play a game. Go figure.

At any rate, gameday previews for this weekend's back to back matinee games will therefore be reduced to reliving some classic moments in Caps-Bruins and Caps-Penguins history (both of the ancient and more recent variety). Enjoy these captured moments in time, comment on the games at will, and sublimate your withdrawal pains with witty commentary from any of the fine bloggers featured on the right sidebar.

If all goes well and the supply of fluids and aspirin hold out we'll be back to full strength in no time - hopefully with two more wins under our belt. Go Caps!


Thursday, March 06, 2008

Steckel Out

With sunshine there always seems to be a little rain here in DC...

Mike Vogel is reporting that Dave Steckel broke his finger and is out for 2-3 weeks. It's a huge loss for the Caps - not only is Stecks one of the better faceoff men and penalty killers on the team, but he also makes up one-third of the Steckel-Cooke-Bradley line that has been flying these past two games.

It's that time of year, I guess. Someone else gets the chance to step it up and we move on.


Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Olie Says Suck It

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

It is a week of exorcising demons.

It feels good. Great. Fantastic. Like an enormous weight has been lifted.

It wasn't a pretty game to say the least, but that tells you that the Caps played a perfect road game. They jumped on mistakes, got odd-man rushes, clogged up the neutral zone and shut it down in net. It may not have been necessarily enjoyable to watch and you certainly never felt completely comfortable, but in the end it served it's purpose.

At one end of the ice, we had Olie Kolzig - the elder statesman of the team, the much-maligned goalie who was unfairly pinned as the scapegoat for the loss last weekend, the man fighting for his job with fresh blood being brought in just a week ago. Fans around here seem to have written him off, dismissing him as nothing more than a has-been (and conveniently forgetting his 22 wins).

Has he lost a step or two? Yes. Is he the goalie he once was? No. Can he still come in and play a dominant game?

25 of 26 shots turned away say yes, he can.

He was everything they needed him to be and sometimes more, making the routine saves and occasionally the saves of the more sparkling variety. He corraled the rebounds that his defense did not and even made a great save on Milan Jurcina - probably the best save of the night.

And at the other end of the ice...Ovechkin Ovechkin Ovechkin. It seems this whole practice of booing him just pumps him up more, because he scored two goals and was a huge factor in the third one, the eventual game-winner. They gave him chances and space and he took advantage of both, and then he used his body (in a perfectly legal check, by the way, watch the clip) to give Backstrom and Kozlov room to maneuver.

The shiny, pretty, puck possession game of two nights ago was gone, replaced with the grittier visage of a road team desperate for points. There were few glaring mistakes, few costly blunders, and just the one power play goal through a crowd that beat Zilla.

Speaking of power plays - one call. One. With eighteen seconds remaining. Thanks, refs, that was...not helpful at all.

In the end it doesn't matter, though. A win is a win is a win, and the Caps creep closer to 8th place now to sit two points back of Philadelphia and three points back of Carolina for the division lead (Atlanta is useless...for a change). Two days off and we're back in action once more, facing the almost certainly bitter Bruins for a Saturday matinee in Beantown.

And in case you've been under a rock lately and missed the hype machine starting up again, Sunday brings a pack of mullets to the Phone Booth. Can't wait to greet them.


Assorted Pregame Goodies

- With Huet still not 100%, Olie gets the nod start your engines, everyone who wants to whine and moan and throw in the towel before the puck even drops.

But first, remember a few things. One, Olie was not the only reason or even the biggest reason the Caps lost on Saturday, but he was a big reason they won last Monday against the Wild. And two, Huet resting tonight means he'll be fresh this weekend for a rematch against a very pissed off Bruins team - and maybe even Sunday's visit from the Crosby-fied Penguins.

- Next week's matchup with the Flames will not only be the first post-lockout visit to DC by Calgary but also the premiere of the OvechKam. From the Comcast press release:

Bethesda, MD (March 5, 2008) – Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic, the leader in local sports television, will unveil its latest innovation, the “OvechKam,” when the Capitals host the Calgary Flames on Wednesday, March 12.

This unique broadcast, which will be available on CSN+ and replayed on Comcast On Demand, will feature a dedicated view that follows Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin throughout the entire game, providing viewers with an unprecedented look at the most prolific player in the NHL today.

The CSN+ broadcast will use a split screen so viewers are able to watch the "OvechKam” and regular game broadcast simultaneously. Comcast SportsNet’s primary channel will air the Capitals-Flames live in high definition with the traditional full-game view.

- Lindy Ruff on how the Sabres will stop Ovechkin:
"We're going to put three guys on [Ovechkin]. Then we're going to watch [Alexander] Semin and then we're going to watch [Mike] Green on defense. So obviously we're going to have too many men on the ice again."
Joke all you want, Lindy...but someone sounds nervous.


Secondary Scoring, Primary Wins

The Capitals are 3-1 in their last four games, and one of the main reasons for the mini-hot streak has been other guys stepping up. Since up until Saturday Ovechkin was mired in a career-long goalless drought, it was up to the rest of the team to find their offensive touch - so it's no wonder that when that happened, the wins started to come.

Here's where the points have come from in the last week:

Brooks Laich - 4G, 2A
Matt Bradley - 2G, 2A
Matt Cooke - 1G, 2A
Donald Brashear - 2G
Eric Fehr - 1G, 3A
Tomas Fleischmann - 2A

10 goals, 11 assists in the last four games from guys not named Ovechkin, Semin, Kozlov or Backstrom, and during that stretch the Caps have outscored their opponents 20-6. On top of the boost from the third and fourth line the Caps have also gotten some assistance from their blueliners, with defensemen chipping in an additional two goals and thirteen assists - six of them from Tom Poti alone.


Gameday Preview: Caps vs Sabres

Who: Washington Capitals vs. Buffalo Sabres
Where: HSBC Arena, Buffalo, NY
When: Wednesday, March 5, 7:30 pm

Broadcast Info: CSN+, MSG, NHL Network (US), TSN

Media Notes:
Caps' Site
Washington Times
Washington Post

Less than 48 hours after finishing up their most dominant performance of the year, the Caps travel to hostile land to take on the Buffalo Sabres. And by hostile...well, you've seen them. Not only will the fans likely serenade Ovechkin with their usual chorus of boos, but the HSBC Arena has not been kind to the Caps lately and their last win their came back in 2003.

But this is a season of shaking off the past and starting fresh. After all, they'd lost five straight to the Bruins before Monday night's massacre; up until January's shootout win they'd dropped seven straight in Mellon Arena (and fifteen of their last seventeen). Now is not the time to focus on history - the Caps need to make Monday's game count and pick up some momentum going into these final fifteen games, so whatever happened in seasons past or even earlier this year needs to be nothing but a memory.

Of course, they need to make every game count, but we'll start with this one.

Luckily or not, they happen to be facing a Buffalo team that has not only been inconsistent this season but is suffering through a recent rash of difficulties at home, winning only once in their last five game home stretch. And as an added bonus, the Sabres are coming in off a decisive win on the road last night, making them the tired team - if the Caps can jump on them early (maybe not 32 seconds in, but around that) and stay on them, this'll be two more points in the win column.

The wild cards are of course in between the pipes. On the Washington side, Huet's status is still up in the air as he continues to deal with back spasms, and all three goalies made the trip up to Buffalo last night just in case. As for the guy wearing the Buffaslug, Ryan Miller has suddenly seemed human lately and was in net for his 20th consecutive start last night against the Flyers. He's 4-5-1 in his last ten starts and his save percentage during that stretch is unMiller-esque at .887...something the Caps need to exploit by firing from everywhere at all times.

Hell, it's such a good strategy maybe they could try it every game. Worked pretty well against the Bruins...

Elsewhere in the Southeast, the Canes will be in action against the Thrashers, a team that is looking for their first regulation win since early February and is understandably a little testy about it. With the Caps chasing Carolina by only three points, I think it would be nice if they snapped out of this little slump with a lovely regulation win, wouldn't it?

It's a relatively quiet night if you're standings-watching, as the only other Eastern team in play tonight is Ottawa. So sit back, enjoy the show, and GO CAPS!

Do it.


Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Ten is Enough

Quote of the Night:
"We heard them. [Matt Bradley] was like, 'The fans wanted it, and I am a fan favorite, so I had to give them what they wanted." - Brooks Laich, on the fans chanting "we want 10" with the Caps up 9-2

There are a number of ways to look at this game - feel free to pick your favorite.

One way would be to write it off as yet another chapter of the Caps' ongoing inconsistencies, off one night and on the next. Just one more reason why a postseason berth is not only out of reach but also not advisable. They can't keep it together for any length of time, they don't know how to get a lead/hold a lead/put together a string of wins.

Another would be to look at this recent stretch and point to it as the third dominant performance in the last four games, the third time in four games the Caps scored four or more goals against a hot goaltender, and the second time in three games the Caps ended another team's winning streak.

Or you could just look at it as a simply thrilling, amazing, incredible performance, built on a foundation of Ovechkin's talent, by a team that is starting to find its way. Whether that way is on the road to the playoffs is not yet known, but the way the Caps came out last night - came out and didn't let up - was enough to give even the most jaded fan hope for the future.

First things first, though: in case you haven't heard, Alex Ovechkin is a beast. Three goals (numbers 50, 51 and 52 which ties a career high), two assists, and step aside Mr. Malkin - there's a new sheriff in town. It was the kind of performance that not only had you believing once more that he could reach the 60-goal mark, you started to think he could do it by the final horn.

Everything he touched seemed to turn to gold; it was the Ovechkin of January, not the one recently mired in a 7-game slump. He was everywhere, doing everything, and we were all treated to that familiar gap-toothed smile once more.

But he wasn't the only one grinning tonight. When all was said and done fifteen different players had registered a point in the definition of a team win. Only Semin, Laich and Fedorov were in the minus column (all -1), and only Morrisonn and Green were even. Seven different players registered multi-point games; three different players had multi-goal games. Donald Brashear even had a multi-fight game...sort of.

Everyone, from wide-eyed rookie to seasoned vet to longtime Cap to brand new face had a role. Matt Cooke made his presence known early with his first goal as a Cap just over thirty seconds in, then followed it up with a bruising four hit performance and two assists.

Fedorov may have been held off the scoresheet pointswise but he won eleven of his sixteen draws, made some nice passes and certainly wasn't invisible. And before leaving the game after the second period (a purely precautionary move after experiencing some back spasms), Huet had turned away 20 of the 22 shots he faced.

Even better is the fact that the Caps, old and new, did it all in front of a huge audience - the fans continue to fill the seats and let their cheers ring from the rafters as the Caps continue their winning ways. Official attendance figures put tonight's game at 17,189...for a Monday night game. Unheard of in recent years when a different gold and black clad team isn't in town, that's for sure. Add in those of us watching on Versus and on TSN up in Canada, and you've got hundreds of thousands of people checking out the Caps and being treated to a phenomenal game. Nothing sells the rest of the hockey world on this team better than showing them firsthand.

We always like to say that a game like this is the elusive 60-minute game this team always looks for yet rarely finds. After all, there were little moments of confusion and the Bruins did get on the board twice, but there was never a sense that the game was in jeopardy, never a sense the Caps would let up. As the horn sounds we ready ourselves for the inevitable feeling of landing back on earth, always waiting for the other shoe to drop and the team to revert back to their bad habits the next time out.

But is such a game so elusive anymore? Does that blasted shoe really have to drop?

Go back and look at the last four games again. In the last four games only once did this team look outclassed and outworked for any stretch of time, and then it wasn't a case of taking off a period or two so much as it was not showing up at all. They took on three elite teams to get their three wins in this most recent stretch, outscoring their defensive-minded opponents 18-3. Two of their last four were of the coveted "game in hand" variety, and they won both - decisively. They're still very much alive in both the race for Southeast Division champ and the race for 8th in the conference, sitting three and four points out respectively. Inconsistencies? Or growing pains? You decide.

Regardless, it can't be denied that this team has been given a jolt. Maybe it's the new players adding a bit of life to the lineup. Maybe it's the young guys finally recognizing what the playoff push looks and feels like, what it takes to win against the league's best. Maybe it's just time for this team.

What matters now is that, like the team, we don't get too high with the highs. A win is a win is a win, two points no matter how many goals you score.

Translation? This game means more only if the next game is a win...fifteen games left, buckle up.

All photos courtesy of