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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Thursday, May 29, 2008
Completing our look at the forwards...