Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Ugly Night in La Belle Province

Ouch.

Ouch....ouch.
That was painful.

All photos courtesy of AP/Canadian Press

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Predictions Revealed

Here we go, my predictions, put together with absolutely no help from my devoted readers...thanks guys.

Total # of goals scored by the Habs over the 2 games: 5
(if I say 4 of them will be on the power play, do I get extra points?)
Total # of goals scored by the Caps over the 2 games: 8

Total # of goals scored by Ovie over the 2 games: 2
Total # of goals scored by Kovy over the 2 games: 1

Winner of Tuesday night game: Habs
Winner of Thursday night game: Caps

Pick one person from the Habs who will get into a fight: Steve Begin
Pick one person from the Caps who will get into a fight: John Erskine

Check out the picks of my worthy competitors and my partner in crime - mocking is not only allowed but highly encouraged. And of course if anyone is up for a little trash-talking session tonight, the comments are open and at your disposal.

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Gameday Preview: Blogger Showdown

As I'm sure everyone knows by now, Caps-Habs games are particularly painful for us here in the Cheap Seats. The wind feels a little colder. Food doesn't taste as good. The Penguins logo looks twice as ugly.

So naturally the league has stepped in to make a little bit of pain even worse by scheduling a home and home series between these two teams over the course of a three day stretch. Because you know they make up the schedule thinking how to make CapsChick cry the hardest, right?

It's scientific fact, ask anyone.

Anyways, as usual I implore you to not worry - when it comes right down to it, the Caps will always hold the number one spot in my heart and that won't change just because Gary Bettman has it out for me. To prove it, I've belatedly agreed to (read: invited myself into) a friendly little wager, along with fellow Caps Goddess Shmee of Capital Addiction fame, against the lovable scamps over at Four Habs Fans.

That's right, we will be taking part in a threeway...prediction contest. Nothing illegal or dirty to see here, folks, move along.

Here is what we will be attempting to predict:
total # of goals scored by the Habs over the 2 games
total # of goals scored by the Caps over the 2 games
total # of goals scored by Ovie over the 2 games
total # of goals scored by Kovy over the 2 games
Winner of Tuesday night game
Winner of Thursday night game
pick one person from the Habs who will get into a fight
pick one person from the Caps who will get into a fight


One point for each winner, blogger with the most point wins. We all will be posting our predictions simultaneously at 2:30 pm EST and the winner gets...something. I'm not entirely sure, but the losers will probably have to write something nice about the other team.

Or, you know, paint themselves red white and blue and streak down either St. Catherine's Street or Pennsylvania Avenue during rush hour. (To which I say, careful boys...it's cold in Montreal this time of year.)

Helpful suggestions are welcome in the comments right up until the deadline - and yes, I will be taking credit for all of your ideas and sharing none of the glory. It's how I roll.

Time to take down the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge. Les Habitants. The Habs. The Canadiens.

Patrick Roy's castoffs.

...too soon?

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

All-Star Game Liveblog

Yup, we're going to give this a try, see how it goes - after all we have to make this "meaningless charade of a game" a little more interesting, right? Special thanks to roomie for her input ;)

------------------

- And there you have it! Amazingly that wasn't so bad - there were a few (mild) hits, a little bit of defense, some good goaltending, and some beautiful goals. All in all, what more could you ask for from an All Star Game?

...okay, don't answer that. It was still fun.

- Mike Ribeiro just looked like a total groupie. "Um, Mr. Pronger? Could you sign my cleavage?"

- And the MVP is...Eric Staal. Huh. Okay. Nash with the hat trick or Savard with the game-winner sounds a little better to me, but whatever floats the NHL's boat. Roomie: It's a conspiracy...she doesn't know how, exactly, and neither do I. I wholeheartedly agree, though.

- Some things never change, even in the deep south - Bettman is announced and everyone boos.

- 0:00 Indeed it is, even with Ovechkin on the ice. Handshakes and smiles all around - and DiPietro tries to pounce on Ovie, which makes us laugh...

- 0:20 Marc Savard makes his presence known and puts the East up in the final seconds...could it be? Is that the game winner?

- 1:00 We have a hit! Kovalchuk on Jovanovski, you have to love that.

- 2:37 Is it me or is this game actually kind of exciting now? Not that I didn't enjoy the East being up by a huge margin but you have to admit this is more action than we've seen in awhile.

- 6:55ish Phaneuf just pens in St. Louis against the boards. Without breaking a sweat. I'd guess defense is a little easier when you have four feet and a hundred pounds on the forward, right?

- 7:25 Staal again, 7-7. I choose not to respond when Staal scores.

- 9:03 The West takes the lead off, what else, a gorgeous play on which the goaltender has no chance. Give that one to Gaborik, 7-6.

- We get a bench interview with Anze Kopitar, which is great...except the little picture they put up next to his name is definitely Scott Niedermayer. Yes, we're all excited that Nieds hasn't retired, but Kopitar is right there. One of these things is not like the other, Versus!

- MAN does Ovie want the hat trick. You can feel it, can't you? Maybe if we use our collective powers of kinetic energy to move the puck from his stick into the net...

- 14:53 Whew! And Phaneuf ties it up at 6. Anyone surprised that Gonchar was standing right there? Anyone?

- 15:52 End to end action, kids, if you can believe it - on one end we have Thomas making a stunning save, on the other Hossa bringing a rise to the lovable Atlanta crowd with a goal to break the tie.

- 18:04 Rick Nash is trying to steal Ovie's truck! 5-5, this is getting interesting now.

- Manny Legace is a funny, funny dude. Add him to the goalies I would like to keep mic'd up all the time.

- 19:19 Getzlaf pops one over Tim Thomas...looks like the Eastern dominance was a single period fluke, no? I think it might be time for a certain #8 to get a certain #3.

- Ooh, add Gary Bettman to that list.

- Ne-Yo, a marching band, and unnecessary dancing girls. What are...three things I would love to see slip and fall on the ice?

- Good idea #234984: A marching band on ice.

- An interview with Pronger? Really? Correct me if I'm wrong but I didn't see him do anything in that period...or at all. Give me Nash or Niedermayer or Nabokov! (Or someone who knows how to shave. Ew, Chris. Ew.)

- Smiles all around in the dying seconds as Nabokov once more outduels Kovalchuk - and this is why I love the All Star Game. The smiles, the fun, the appreciation of the talent...okay. I'm done being cheesy.

- 1:03 Kovalchuk shows a little personality and falls to the ice in disbelief after Nabokov absolutely robs him. Nabby gets a little head rub from Kovalchuk in appreciation. (Roomie: Ovie would have scored that.)

- It's awfully hard to take this station seriously sometimes - no matter how well they do at times with the hockey, there is always a bullriding commercial to remind me that Versus is still very much a channel for which I am not the target demographic.

- 4:...something Clearly Niedermayer heard me snarking that he shouldn't be an All Star after playing about three games this season. 5-3 and we have got ourselves a game.

- 7:28 I'm sorry, was there just backchecking and defense by Mike Ribeiro? I must be hallucinating. I'm not sure which is more bizarre, that it happened in the ASG...or that it was Ribeiro doing it. Huh.

- 9:30 The West is buzzing this period, as they move in to try and make it closer. Vokoun says...NO.

- 10:26 Damn you, Rick Nash, stop being so awesome. We like our lopsided Eastern lead, even if two of the five goals were scored by pure evil. 5-2.

- 11:40 We spend about two minutes making fun of Olli Jokinen's name, just because we can. Try saying it without adding a fake accent, I dare you. Roomie says he sounds like a yodeller. "Ya, I am Ollie Jokinen...I do the yodel." See? A laugh a minute here in the Cheap Seats.

- 14:30 I'm a little confused how Kovalchuk scores so many goals when every single one of his shots has gone right into the goalie's pads and/or crest. Maybe he's just lulling them into a false sense of security...

- 18:00 Ovechkin goes for the hat trick. The only problem? He shoots it on his own net. Ovie, my dear, they switched sides during intermission. Remember?

- Oops, hold that thought. I guess we're having another Willie O'Ree ceremony, which is a nice inclusion (although it really takes away the flow to the...oh, who am I kidding, there is no flow).

- Everyone ready for period two? Any bets on how many goals Ovie will get this period? I'm going to be conservative and say two.

- Oh, HockeyCentral, how I...tolerate you. By the way, whoever is feeding Engblom's hair needs to stop, because it looks like it could reach out and eat Jonesy. They gush about Ovechkin again and then we tune them out - what could they say after an Ovie-gush that would possibly hold our attention as well? Nothing. Exactly.

- 2:11 As if on cue, that's 2. Ovechkin finishes off a slick pass by mighty mite (aka St. Louis) to put the East up five to one. Little smile by Ovie on the bench - he's having too much fun out there, seriously.

- Aw, a player profile on Ovie! And since the Caps have yet to be in the playoffs, Versus gets to roll out all the old classics - mother was a basketball player, etc, etc.

- 4:50 When you're taking feeds from Alfredsson you're going to get chances, and Campbell cashes in. 4-1 East and Phaneuf is threatening to throw a hit. Oh, Dion...if wishing made it so.

- 6:25 And Ovechkin is on the board!! A pretty pass from Spezza and the puck is behind Osgood. Then of course we get Ovie's "Woooo!" face on the bench, always welcome, followed by Doc and Olczyk simply gushing about Ovechkin, also always welcome. And countdown to insertion of Sidney Crosby's name in 3, 2, 1...there we go. Like clockwork.

- 8:10 DiPietro does his best impression of Hasek and turns the puck over behind the net...then gets taken down. He wants a call, there will be none, game continues.

- Gomez has a hard time keeping a straight face during Mike Richards' bench interview. We have a hard time keeping a straight face looking at Scott Gomez.

- 10:12 Andrei Markov makes it 2-1 for the East. Did Kolzig make it to the Western Conference All-Stars and not tell us? That was a dribbler through the five-hole...oh, I kid, I kid.

- 11:21 Ah, the ever-classy Atlanta fans, chanting "Os-good...Os-good...Os-good...YOU SUCK!". Nice, right?

- Just in case you've forgotten we're in the South, here's Garth Brooks.

- 12:13 After a quick scoring start we've now settled into some pretty sloppy play on both sides, punctuated by DiPietro's constant commentary to make it at least a little more entertaining.

- 17:06 Shocking. DiPietro puts a little leash on the puck and takes it for a little walk around the defensive zone.

- 18:40 1-1 thanks to Eric Staal, ringing it around the pipes after a couple of nice passes from...whoever his linemates are.

- 19:48 and we've already got our first goal! Rick Nash kicks off the scoring while the Versus announcers distract Rick DiPietro. Yeah, that's why it went in. Regardless, I don't think this is going to be a low-scoring game.

- Let's get ready to...............play some non-confrontational hockey!

- Kathleen Edwards presents her version of the Canadian National Anthem. Good folksy Canadian singer, yes. Anthem singer? Not so much. And now onto the Atlanta Boys Choir. Says roomie, "these boys so get beat up in school". (By the way, a question if anyone is out there - why do they shout "Nights!" during the anthem?)

- Starters...or should I say "starters"?

- On to the Eastern Conference...Ovie tries to look all tough but he can't fool us, there's a smile hiding in there - especially when the crowd gives him a loud ovation. Think he's won over the crowd?

- Starting with the West - Duncan Keith always kind of looks like he's going to vomit. That would make this more entertaining for sure. Huh, so does Corey Perry. And there's Jason "Twitchy" Arnott...

- Player intros...

- This is a nice touch - the Hives kicking things off on a stage that Doc informs us will be lifted to the rafters following their performance. Whew, good, because I was worried it would stay there...do you think they'll let the band get off before lifting it up?

- Mark it down at 6:03 - the first of what I'm sure will be many commercials for male, er...enhancement drugs? Can I say that in a family-friendly blog?

- It feels like every year the opening montage is exactly the same, inserting requisite shot of city skyline along with locker room footage of the boys getting ready. My word, I think there may be a hockey game happening tonight!

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All-Star Photos

Special Cheap Seats correspondent Geneen is at the All-Star Festivities this weekend and sent back some great shots from last night's red carpet event:

Tobias Enstrom, Atlanta Thrashers

Kimmo Timonen, Philadelphia Flyers

Rick DiPietro, New York Islanders

Tomas Vokoun, Florida Panthers

Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay Lightning

Ilya Kovalchuk, Atlanta Thrashers

Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay Lightning

Alex Ovechkin

More to come!

All photos courtesy of Geneen Boyd

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Skills Out the Wazoo

Frozen Moment courtesy of NHL.com

I know I'm supposed to be all serious and say that I hate the All-Star Game and I snooze through the Superskills...but that would be a lie. A big one.

I adore it. Every single overhyped, overdone moment of it. Can't get enough.

I love seeing if anyone can hit four targets in four shots. I love watching the YoungStars. I love the hardest shot. I love seeing which player will step up to get the MVP, expected or unexpected, of the game itself. I love hearing players mic'd up, a la Marty Turco last year.

It seems like we've gotten too cynical as hockey fans - we snark at anything bordering on frivolous entertainment, saying that it's "ruining the game" or that it's "not real hockey". But I'm not sure exactly what is wrong with taking a weekend away from the game before the real serious business of playoffs starts. I'm not sure why we decided that a showcase of skill and talent and personality is anti-hockey, something to be avoided at all costs. It is central to what hockey is and to me, there's nothing wrong with that.

Anyways.

Tonight we kicked off the festivities with the new, improved Superskills competition, and yes, there were some misses. The camera work for one was enough to give a fan vertigo and made it hard to follow sometimes. The obstacle course had entertainment potential but fizzled a bit. And technical difficulties abounded to kick it all off, which always puts a damper on things.

But if people were willing to just sit back and enjoy, they saw a lot to like. The three on three YoungStars game was more exciting than I thought it would be, with Backstrom getting two goals (yay Nicky!). The accuracy competition was actually a good one, with Kaberle joining the four for four club and winning the head to head with Arnott on one single shot. Lecavalier stunned everyone by shooting 101.9 in the hardest shot competition...and then Chara demolished that mark by breaking 103.

And Ovechkin? He was having more fun than anyone out there, just loving the crowd and the atmosphere and breaking out the most creative shot of any of the participants in the breakaway challenge. Twice.

It's all just...fun. The players are clearly having fun, the fans there are having fun, and the game tomorrow, while it won't be anywhere near an actual hockey game, has the potential to be fun as well. Forget the rest, leave the attitude at home, and give in to the fact that every once in a while a little frivolity is fun.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

The Caps Play Dirty

A little love for the Caps today as we head into the All-Star break...and a little something less than love from Canada.

First up, AP has news for everyone that Caps fans already know - the playoff race is now on in DC.

Playoff race? Capitals?

Well, take a long, hard look at those standings as the NHL heads into the All-Star break. Washington (23-22-5) is one point behind first-place Carolina in the Southeast Division. Granted, it's a weak division, but even this is more than anyone could have expected considering where the Capitals were two months ago.
So true. Brooks Laich had this to say:
"It's been a lot of hard work. It's come from the change. It's come directly from Bruce. He's a confident guy, and he preaches that to his players, and his players are playing with confidence. He makes the game real easy to play. It's a lot different around here now than it was before."
Then the spotlight comes to rest on little Nicklas Backstrom as he heads off to his first - and probably not last - All-Star Game. He was rookie of the month in December, 12 points in 9 games in January, and poised to do even more down the stretch:
“Everything is different,” said Backstrom. “Now I know where I should go and where I should be on the ice. If you know that, that’s pretty good. I think it’s going better and better. But I think it can get even better.”
And finally if you hadn't heard, the Caps are the second coming of this year's Philadelphia Flyers. Well, according to the Star, that is:

Cliff Fletcher was brought into Toronto as interim general manager to prepare the Maple Leafs for the future and a new head hockey honcho.

Really, all the team needs is a few more games against the hard-hitting, some might say dirty, Washington Capitals. [Subtle...]

The way bodies have been dropping over the last two games, a little bit more of this Capital punishment and the entire Marlies squad would soon be wearing Maple Leaf jerseys. The future would be now.

Hockey should be a no-contact sport. Got it. Don Cherry will be so pleased.

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Soaring Into the Break

It's been awhile since the Caps have had to play a real grind-it-out type of game - in recent weeks it's been more like the last person to touch the puck wins, with several high-scoring affairs under their belts.

The Leafs inspired a different type of game, though, the type of game the Caps used to play in a pre-Boudreau era of trapping and defense-first mentality. It wasn't always pretty and it certainly wasn't always successful. The difference? Now you get the feeling that this team can snatch two points out of any situation, including but not limited to these types of games - when it used to feel like the opposite.

If Wednesday's game was a chess match between the coaches, last night's was a good old-fashioned goaltender's duel. The winner of this round was Brent Johnson, who came up huge for the Caps and gave them every opportunity to steal a game against a team that played much better in Verizon than back at home. Stopping thirty of thirty-one shots, Johnson was the deciding factor and the hero for the Caps, making sure that mistakes were nipped in the bud and frustrating the Leafs' attackers at every turn.

It was certainly Johnson's night, but don't underestimate the role of the other nineteen guys on the ice. There was some sloppy play and some defensive miscues to be sure, and we'll address that in a minute. But they also backed each other up remarkably well and came through with a gritty, hard-hitting win for their efforts.

The shot-blocking efforts of Quintin Laing continued to impress. Erskine kept up his run of solid defensive (and very physical) play. Kozlov's perfectly timed goal quashed any momentum the Leafs might have had after tying up the game and continued his recent hot streak. Ovechkin was everywhere as always, picking up two assists. And a tip-in goal by Brooks Laich not only broke the stalemate but matched his career high for goals with 30+ games remaining.

So bad stuff - well, discipline was a bit of an issue in this one and the power play, despite the last second marker by Laich, looked mostly unimpressive. They looked tired. Turnovers were rampant. Oh, and they might have broken a few of the Leafs.

They get two points, though, and now they get a serendipitous four day break to rest the weary bones and come back blazing in their last Canadian home and home against the ever feisty Habs.

As we bid Ovechkin and Backstrom good luck in Atlanta and wave goodbye to the rest of the team for a well-deserved break, it's as good a time as any to look at where we stand right now:

- With Atlanta, Florida and Tampa all dropping their games last night, the Caps slide into sole ownership of second place in the division. To put that into perspective, the gap between the Caps and first-place Carolina was fourteen points before Thanksgiving; it's now one.

(Yeah, no one else can believe it either...)

- By picking up the second half of the home and home after dropping round one in Toronto, the Caps extend their streak of not losing back to back games in regulation to an astounding 29 games. We're talking almost a decade since that happened the last time, folks.

- Last night's win also gave the Caps their fifth win in six games, their eighth in the last eleven, and a record of 15-6-3 since December 1. That's 33 of a possible 45 points during that span, a remarkable pace for a team that everyone was counting out not too long ago.

- After scoring just three goals in his first 40 games and only one since November 8, Viktor Kozlov suddenly has five goals in his last four games and has eight points in the last seven games.

- Brent Johnson has won three straight games and five of his last six, with the one loss coming in relief of Kolzig in the 6-4 loss to the Flyers. His six wins already match his total for all of last season and he's looking poised to surpass his previous high as a Capital of nine wins.

- We got Kris Beech back. Again. Yay.

- Both Backstrom and Ovechkin have been plus or even in every game since December 20th - a span of fifteen games.

- Quintin Laing has been a minus player only twice in the 23 games he's played since being called up (and also has 31 blocked shots...only two fewer than the number of shots he's taken). What a guy - he's got my vote, too...

- Backstrom has two goals and fifteen assists in his last fifteen games and has moved into second place in rookie scoring. His 32 assists are 18th in the league and he is in the top 60 scorers overall.

- After missing a good chunk of the season, Alexander Semin has suddenly found his groove again and has ten goals in his last fourteen games. He's also been a plus or even player in each of his last six games.

- Alex Ovechkin has a seven game point scoring streak going, which ties the longest streak of his career. During that stretch he's amassed thirteen points (7 G, 6 A), has vaulted into the league lead in goals with 39 and is tied for third in the league in points. He's also a team-leading +11.

Some small, tiny, miniscule areas of concern:

- Olie Kolzig. Period. There's no way around this one, he's been inconsistent from game to game and even within games, and he needs to find another level to his play - and fast.

- Matt Pettinger has struggled all year long and has just one point, an assist, since December 15th. He's also a -12 on the year - second highest on the team behind only Michael Nylander. While it's not for lack of trying, the frustration is starting to show in his game and when Clark comes back Pettinger may find himself on the outside looking in.

- The injuries to Chris Clark and Brian Pothier continue to test the depth of this Caps team. The club has soldiered on and continued to pick up points, but down the stretch their absence is going to be felt. They need to get healthy ASAP.

- It's just a little dip, but Mike Green is pointless in his last three games and recently he's had some bad turnovers that have led to goals or scoring chances for the other team. It could just be fatigue; his ice time has been up around the 26-27 minute mark over the last fourteen games and the team just completed a pretty rugged stretch. Hopefully after a nice long weekend Greenie will be back to his old self.

Overall? Things look good in CapsLand. Bring on the All-Star festivities!

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Johnny on the Spot


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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Them's the Breaks


After such a steep and consistent uphill climb it's to be expected that the Caps will occasionally slip up and revert back to their old ways. Tonight was one of those times - they outplayed the Leafs and outworked the Leafs, but every mistake ended up in the back of the net. The Leafs were patient, bided their time and waited for the Caps to mess up...and they did.

Not much to say after a game like this.

Toronto did an excellent job of making it as boring as possible which, while maybe taking the hometown crowd out of it also prevented the Caps from having any flow to their game. It was the kind of game the Leafs needed to play to win and the kind of game that was not conducive to the Caps being the Caps.

Ovechkin's goal does continue his streak and extends his lead over Kovalchuk, but he just wasn't as visible as usual and that whole line was shut down fairly well. At times it seemed like they were backing off a bit too much and not being as physical as they could have been despite the high hit count.

Whether this is a hangover effect from the intensity of Monday's game or not, the whole team looked a little flat albeit with occasional bursts of energy from the usual suspects. Semin in particular was very active, as was Eminger. And Olie actually came up big for the Caps on more than a few occasions - hard to fault him on any of the goals, particularly the one where Morrisonn basically took him out.

That's now the second time one of his defensemen has fallen over him leading to a goal by the way. I'd like it to be the last.

Just kind of a blah game all around - here's hoping they come out with more energy tomorrow night as both teams travel back to the District for the rematch. The Caps won't go into the break with first place in the division, but with a win tomorrow night they can at least pull closer to the idle Canes and more importantly carry some momentum into the break.

So the preview for tomorrow - keep the good stuff, take away the mistakes, the lackluster play and the defensive miscommunication.

...oh, and win! Winning would be good. Yes.

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Scrapping for Points

As we head into the stretch run obviously thoughts turn to the playoffs - what could happen, what will definitely happen, and what no one knows will happen. Today's poll on NHL.com poses an interesting question: Which East team currently out of a playoff spot has the best chance to earn a postseason berth?

It's a good question but it's one that is hard to answer because of just how quickly things can chance. Around here we're well aware of the turnaround that has taken place since Thanksgiving, a Caps team that was dead last in the East now right back in the mix and challenging for not only a playoff spot but a division title. But what about the rest of the league? There have been some stunning turnarounds in that period, some bigger than others, some for better, some for worse. And it all feeds into the fact that no one really knows anything until the final horn sounds.

In the East, this is where the standings were November 23:

Division leaders Ottawa, Carolina and the Rangers were all holding court atop the standings, and for once their point totals justified them being there. At the bottom sat the Caps, down and out, while the rest of the Southeast Division sat either in the top 8 or within spitting distance (which for our purposes will be a point).

Now less than a month later things are looking very different. Carolina and Ottawa maintain their grips on their respective division titles but the Canes' hold is a bit more tenuous - and if the Senators continue to slide they could find themselves unseated by a Habs team that continues to put up points. The Atlantic Division race has gotten much tighter but now it's not the Rangers holding the crown; a threeway race between the Devils, Flyers and Penguins has developed and the lead seems to change daily. Given the Devils dominance of the Flyers in recent days and the Penguins' inability to beat their own division, things are looking to be in New Jersey's favor. For the moment.

As for the Southeast...well, there's a reason we're referred to jokingly as the SouthLeast. It's a close battle for the division lead, with the Caps, Thrashers, Panthers and Canes all within a handful of points of each other (and Tampa deciding to play hockey again). But since the division leader would currently be in 8th were it not for the way standings are configured, it's hard not to agree with the pundits who say only one team from the SE will be in the postseason this year.

Turnarounds? Quite a few. The Devils and Penguins both suffered through mediocre to horrible starts to their respective seasons but have rebounded quite nicely, helped by a couple of lengthy, well-timed winning streaks and an equally well-timed nosedive by the Rangers. Florida and Tampa have both taken major drops, while the Capitals have been reinvigorated and are now in 10th, four points out of 8th and only three points out of the division lead.

Onto the West - here's how things looked through a post-Thanksgiving turkey haze:

Detroit once again got off to a blazing start, establishing themselves as The team to beat early on, as they always seem to do. Edmonton, LA, Phoenix, Calgary, Anaheim - all struggling teams to kick off the season, with the biggest surprise (or maybe not) being the Ducks in their Cup hangover phase. Then there was the surprise story of the Blackhawks. Revitalized by a couple of teenage phenoms and key free agent pickups, the Hawks sat on the verge of greatness. St. Louis also appeared to have rebounded quite nicely from a disappointing few years.

The picture hasn't changed all that much, but a few notable shifts have shaken up the West just enough to make life interesting. The Wings continue to be the unbeatable force of the league with only ten regulation losses to their credit. Dallas hangs on to the Pacific title for now, but Anaheim has woken up from their stupor (aided no doubt by the return of Scott Niedermayer) and the two teams are battling it out nightly. And Calgary has reemerged at the top of the incrediby competitive Northwest Division, a division that has four of its five teams sitting in playoff contention.

And then there are the teams in freefall. The Hawks fell all the way to 13th after starting off so strong, with crippling injuries playing a big role but also the burnout of a team that was maybe overachieving to start the year. St. Louis and Nashville have also fallen out of the top eight, while Edmonton and LA have yet to crack 13th place and continue to struggle.

With all of the freefalls and meteoric rises in such a short time, it's interesting to note how close everything still is. There are one, maybe two teams out of the playoff picture - everyone else is very much alive, in both conferences. In the West a mere 6 points separates 14th from the coveted 8th spot; in the East 8 points are between 15th and 8th. Three division leaders are separated from the second place team by one point.

In fact the only team whose division title is not in doubt is Detroit, with a twenty point lead on the next Central Division team (Nashville, in 9th place). Everyone else is up for grabs. And because of that this year, more than ever, every single point is huge and will continue to be huge until the very last game. We're in for an interesting ride...

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Gameday Preview: Caps vs Leafs (Round 1)

Who: Washington Capitals vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
Where: Air Canada Centre
When: Wednesday, January 23, 7:00 pm

Broadcast Info: CSN+, NHL Network, TSN

Media Notes:
Caps' Site
NHL.com
Washington Post
Globe and Mail
Toronto Sun
Toronto Star
CBC.ca

Here we go again, another home and home starting in Canada - the second for the Caps this month with another one on the way against Montreal next week.

Canada has been kind to the Caps so far this year. They've played four games over the border and have won all four, outscoring their opponents 24-12. Seven of those goals came in one game against the Leafs, the first and only time these two teams have met this season. And let's not forget, this was in the pre-Boudreau era when goals were at a premium for this Caps team.

Oh how times have changed.

Since pasting a seven-spot on the Leafs back in October, the Caps have undergone a coaching change, gone from 11th place to 15th place and back up to 10th, and remembered what it's like to win again. The Leafs have dropped from 5th place to 14th place...and stayed there. It's gotten so bad in TO that yesterday the axe finally fell on GM John Ferguson, Jr., a move that was a long time in coming but may be too late to salvage the Leafs' season.

Remember how many times in recent years we've read quotes from opposing players saying things like "we can't look past them" and "no team is easy to beat"? The tables have turned, because that's exactly the attitude the Caps need to take with the Leafs.

The Caps are flying high, extending their winning streak to four for the first time all season and looking for their fifth (and sixth) against the Leafs. They've dominated Canadian teams. The Leafs are struggling.

...and that makes them dangerous. Firing a GM is almost as earth-shattering as a coaching change, so expect Toronto to come out flying tonight. They've won 19 games in their own right, so it's not as though they're pushovers, and the Caps need to just stick with the game plan that has gotten them to this point.

Two areas of concern for the Caps coming out of that shootout victory and a lot of the games before that are goaltending and penalty killing.

Olie is expected to get the start tonight while Johnny should get the home game, and a lot depends on whether the Olie who allowed only one goal in his last game at ACC shows up...or his alter ego, SieveMan. Toronto doesn't score a ton of goals but they do okay, and Olie needs to step it up. As usual.

As for specialty teams, save for the dramatic 5 on 3 overtime kill in Monday's game the Caps have let this area slide a bit too much and sit 25th in the league. Good news? The Leafs are 26th, so the Caps can make up a little ground if the power play continues to strike at the rate it has been.

Now think of this - if the Caps win both games they go into the All-Star break with first place in the division securely under their belts.

And wouldn't that be something?

2 Minutes with...Mats Sundin

CC: So, Mats. Rumors abound that you're thinking of waiving your no trade clause. Any truth to that?

MS: No. I'm staying with Toronto.

CC: Never thought about lea-

MS: [interrupting] I'm staying with Toronto.

CC: Okay, fair enough. The Leafs fired their GM yesterday - what does that do to your team now? Do you go out and try and prove everyone wrong?

MS: For sure. We let John down and now we make up for it.

CC: So about these trade rumors...

MS: I'm staying...with Toronto.

CC: Got it. Moving on. What do you think about the fans who seem to be turning on the Leafs?

MS: We'll get them back. We haven't played well enough for them and we know it, but we'll play better and get them back. We love our fans.

CC: Have you given any thought to letting them trade you?

MS: [through gritted teeth] I'm staying with TORONTO.

CC: Okay, okay, you don't have to bark. So no chance you'd leave then? Any desire to play somewhere else?

MS: I'm #$%@*(@ STAYING with Toronto!!

CC: You sure you wouldn't want to play for -

MS: Lady, this interview is over unless you - [his cell phone rings] - hang on. Hello? Yes? Wait, Ottawa wants me? Absolutely! Tell them I'll do it. Now. Waive it now! [hangs up]

CC:...so Mats, any chance you'd let Toronto trade you?

MS: [casually] I'd...consider it.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Tuesday Thoughts

Last night's game was incredibly intense and exciting - it's hard to get all your thoughts together at once. Here's a few more:

- With Crosby out, Versus was really hyping up this battle of Ovechkin vs. Malkin because...I don't know why. Maybe they feel like every hockey game needs an angle to be interesting. Not only were they right on the money with that one (for once) but every minute that passed and every goal that was scored made you wonder why this wasn't the rivalry the NHL targeted in the first place.

Crosby and Ovechkin? Completely different creatures. They score goals differently, they approach the game differently, they collect points and lead their teams and interact with their teammates differently. Both incredibly, stunningly talented players but different and really beyond comparison

Ovechkin and Malkin on the other hand are incredibly similar. Watching them battle it out on both ends of the ice last night was a show for the ages, a treat for any true hockey fan. In the coming years that is going to be be a rivalry to watch - and to me it's much more interesting than any battle Ovechkin and Crosby have had since coming into the league.

- Had Ovechkin connected with that hit on Malkin it would have been one for the highlight reels. With the miss it was one that made the collective hearts of all Caps fans leap into our throats. Alex, we love you, but please do not kill yourself trying to behead a Penguin. It's just not worth it.

- Give the Versus guys a lot of credit. They did do a fair amount of Sid-spotting (and if I never hear the words "high ankle sprain" again it'll be too soon) but they also did a good job of trying to include all the players on both teams. One word of advice though - when the Penguins score a goal, maybe focus on the guys who actually did the work instead of cutting to a shot of Crosby in the press box. He had nothing to do with it...he's good, but even he's not that good.

- Speaking of the Versus guys, why did they sound so surprised everytime Ovechkin or Malkin did something amazing? This just in, they're both very talented players. Is this seriously a newsflash?

- Brian Engblom's hair gets poofier and thinner with every broadcast.

- Mario Lemieux's hair gets greasier with every game...and now he's passed on his hair gel issues to Sid.

- How many people laughed when Semin scored the shootout winner and accidentally opened Johnny's door in his celebration, releasing the backup goalie onto the ice?

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Russian Revolution

Photo courtesy of AP


With all the injuries suffered by both clubs in recent weeks, we knew going into this one that a win would require a total team effort. And that's exactly what we got, from both teams - when they were on the whole team was on; when one person was horrible everyone was. It wasn't pretty or clean, but it was fast-paced, exciting, entertaining, and decided by an oddly fitting shootout.

As Caps fans, this one could not have been more bizarre or more filled with those moments when you just knew it would go the way the last seven have gone in the Igloo. Multiple penalties including an extended 5 on 3 in overtime, blown leads, end to end action, missing key players...it was a recipe for disaster.

And yet somehow they pulled it out.

Credit a team that never seems to get down when falling behind. Credit a fantastic performance by the top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Viktor Kozlov. Credit Dave Steckel, Jeff Schultz and especially Quintin Laing for some of the best penalty killing we've seen in a long while.

And major major bonus points to Malkin and the rest of the Penguins for really making this one entertaining. A little too entertaining at times, sure, but that was some scrappy hockey played out there and it was definitely a game worthy of "national" TV. That Malkin kid's got a future in the NHL, you know?

Speaking of kids having a future...Nicklas Backstrom, welcome to the NHL. As if he hasn't been impressive enough lately, tonight is the first (but probably not last) time he makes NHL history, notching back to back four assist games as a rookie.

There were some not so pretty things tonight, of course. Penalty killing, save for the crazy 5 on 3 in the overtime, was rocky against a Penguins power play that has struggled a bit lately. Alexander Semin and Mike Green both had incredibly rough games, with Semin taking two bad penalties and only redeeming himself in the shootout and Green being credited for 3 turnovers.

If there's anything this game shows us, it's the value of someone like Shaone Morrisonn in the lineup...both for the team and for Mike Green. No goals, no assists, 3 turnovers and many many glaring defensive mistakes. He's just not the same player when he doesn't have Mo watching his back - I think we all can agree that Morrisonn can't get back soon enough.

But in the end what matters is the win - a HUGE win for the Caps, another shootout win, two points to stay on pace with the Hurricanes, and a fourth straight victory for the first time this year. I have but one word to sum up this evening.

YAY!

...anyone up for another trip up to Canada?

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Gameday Preview: Caps VS Pens

Who: Washington Capitals vs Pittsburgh Penguins
Where: Mellon Arena
When: Monday, January 21, 7:30 pm

Broadcast Info: Versus, TSN

Media Notes
:
Caps' Site
Pens' Site
NHL.com
Washington Post
Washington Times
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Going into tonight's game the Caps face a tough challenge - they are attempting to win four straight for the first time this season. Not a small task against a Penguins team that, despite being rattled by injuries, scrapped out a shutout win in Montreal two days ago. The Caps are playing their best hockey of the season, though, and will provide a tough challenge in their own right to the Crosby-less Pens.

Speaking of which...

Crosby is out with an ankle sprain. You may not have heard - it's not like it has gotten any press or coverage or anything lately, but yes, Captain Crosby is out for an unknown length of time with a high ankle sprain. It's a horrible blow for any team to have a player out with such an injury; it's even worse when that player is not only your leader and your best player but one of the best players in the league.

Fortunately there is a silver lining, albeit a small one. With Crosby out, the media focus now shifts to the rest of the team - the band of warriors who pull on the mighty Penguin crest night after night and toil in the shadow of Sidney Crosby.

The Merry Men to Crosby's Robin Hood, if you will.

And of course we here in the Cheap Seats would like nothing more than to introduce you to some of these hidden talents, diamonds in the rough - the unknown Penguins.

Tom Cruise - Every team needs a cheerleader. Every team needs a nut. When the Penguins acquired the rights to Tom earlier this year, though, little did they know they would be getting both. Known as much for his riveting locker room speeches as he is for sliding down the ice in his tighty whities, Cruise has brought a little spark to the franchise. And when he gets really excited, you can even see him jump up and down on the bench with unadulterated glee - truly a team player, that Tom.

Pam Anderson - After starting goaltender Fleury was taken out with an ankle sprain, the Pens needed someone to fill the void. They got their man, er, woman, in Pammy. Her strength lies in her buxom features, providing ample targets that players shoot at instead of the net behind her. Rumors that management fears an impending explosion one day have been consistently denied.

Fabio - Fabio was brought in to shore up the lackluster Pens' defense last year, giving them the size needed to keep the puck out of the net while helping them to fulfill their mullet quota. It's rumored that rushing forwards occasionally lose themselves in his eyes and simply fall down at his feet. The one problem? His tendency to become so mesmerized by his own visage on the Jumbotron, allowing opponents to merely skate around him and continue unharmed.

Verne Troyer - Someone with Troyer's size would seem an odd fit for a hockey team. Still, when the Flyers signed Briere, Pittsburgh faced the conundrum that any of their fully grown players attempting to check the tiny center would likely be whistled for elbowing. The solution? Sign someone tiny yet still bigger than Briere to keep him in check. So far Troyer has delivered - the occasional drunken bathroom incidents were just an extra unforeseen bonus.

Bubbles the Chimp - Signed as an unrestricted free agent this past July, Bubbles has proven to be an effective defenseman for the Penguins so far. With 20 goals on the year already there have been murmurs that he could unseat the former offensively minded defenseman, Gonchar, from his top defensive slot. The only thing holding Bubbles back now is a tendency to climb the netting around the rink and an inability to climb back down on his own. Still, the Pens have high hopes for their simian star...as long as no one mentions his previous employer, that is.

Mario Lemieux - Oh, you thought he was retired? No, no, Mario is still kicking right along, albeit in a slightly more subdued role. His primary responsibilities these days include tying Sid's skates and making sure Sid's teeth are brushed properly, among other things. Still, with Crosby out of the spotlight the sky is the limit for Mario and some have said he's next in line for the role of Max Talbot's dogwalker. Good luck to Mario!


Special thanks to Elly, Steph and Teka for their assistance in this completely nonsensical post.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Gameday Preview: Caps vs Panthers

Who: Washington Capitals vs Florida Panthers
Where: Verizon Center
When: Saturday, January 19, 7:00 pm

Broadcast Info: CSN, 3WT Radio; FSN Florida, 790 the Ticket; HDNet

Media Notes:
Caps' Site
NHL.com
Washington Post
Washington Times

We know the story...the Panthers own the Caps, have for years, blah blah blah. We also know that the Panthers are mired in an injury bug that makes the Caps' recent troubles look like mosquito bites and paper cuts. And we know the game Florida plays - think the Devils in their heyday or the Wild or Lightning now. Then add some sedatives, a shot of Nyquil and a fluffy pillow for the full effect.

Fourteen of the twenty games between Washington and Florida since the lockout have been one-goal games, including all four games this year. Three of them this year have been 2-1 finals. And last night the Panthers snapped a three game losing streak with, yup, you guessed it, a 2-1 win over the Devils.

Aw...it's like they've passed the torch.

None of that, however, should surpass the fact that this is bizarrely enough one of the most important games of the season for the Caps - and don't think the Caps themselves don't know it. With a win they'll take away 8 of 10 points on this crucial homestand and head into a demoralized Pittsburgh with their heads held high. They'll also take away an equally important two points from their division rivals and jump back up into eleventh place in the conference, third in the division. Yeah, it's important.

Of course, it's that time of year...they're all big games, right? Here's to a Caps win as they start to get the monkey off their backs known as the Florida Panthers.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Happy Friday Indeed

While a Saturday evening date with the Panthers looms on the horizon, there's still a little time to bask in the glow of a rare shootout win and to take in the loveliest sight we've seen since back in October:

Feels good, doesn't it?

Be sure to cast your vote in our new Cheap Seats poll and let us know what you think of the Capitals' postseason aspirations. Remember, this isn't like voting Democrat in Alabama or Republican in DC (or Kucinich anywhere) - your vote does count here, so let your voice be heard!

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Matt Bradley: The "It" Man

Quotes of the night, courtesy of the eternally quotable Matt Bradley:

"I told him, 'I'll score, let me go. I don't think either of us actually believed what I was saying."

"I was hoping I got to go before (backup goalie) Brent Johnson went. I figured if I can go before him, I'll be doing OK."

And one from the Coach for good measure:
"He just said, 'I'm going to score, put me out there,' and he jumped over the board and he went in. He told me, he didn't ask."

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Picture Says It All

...but which one?

This one?


Or this one?
You decide. Good game, great win, fantastic smiles all around.

Photos courtesy of AP

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Say It Ain't So Indeed

Photo courtesy of WashingtonCaps.com
A lot of the talk about the Caps this season has revolved around the goaltending. Kolzig has had an up and down season and Brent Johnson has played well but had battled injuries and the life of a backup to get into the game.

And it's goaltending that tempers our giddiness over a sweep of the first place Sens this morning, with a piece by Post columnist Mike Wise about Kolzig - and the possibility that he may hang up the pads for good.

There's a lot of frustration woven throughout the story, with Kolzig sounding...tired. Uncertain. Annoyed. Vocal about the coach's decision to yank him on Sunday and to bench him last night, although as a veteran Olie should know that the former was more likely to jolt the team and the latter was because he's 37 and had played eleven straight games. Nevertheless there's a hint of resentment in Olie's candor, a little concern that maybe he's not being treated as well as he should be by this organization that he has at times held together all by himself.

You know, as someone who has watched Olie go from gawky draft pick to minor league callup to backup to Vezina trophy winner and beyond, the thought of Olie not being in net even in a reduced role is painful. We were supposed to have two more years. He said he would play until he was forty; we were supposed to have two more years.

We all can admit that Olie has not been himself this year, although we still see flashes of it from time to time. His lateral movement isn't as fast as it used to be; his fivehole is left open a split second too long. He doesn't have the rebound control that he once had. Even the most notorious Olie-apologist can see that he's not where he once was.

Still, while his numbers haven't been that pretty this season it's hard to say that he's not someone we still trust night in and night out to make the big saves. Give him more nights off. Split the load between him and Johnson. Do what it takes to show we still have faith in him. Maybe it's pure nostalgia that doesn't want to let him go, but it's just not time for Zilla to not be there for us - not now, when the team is finally starting to gel in front of him.

In Wise's piece Olie laments about the loss of Hanlon, who as he says "finally had a team he deserved". The same can be said for Kolzig - what Caps fan wouldn't want to see this team get to the show, just one more time, for Olie? This is a guy who, in his prime, dismissed talk that he would leave the Caps for a "contender", vowing to stay in the nation's capital through the tough times. Nothing is a sure bet, he said, and if he was going to win a Cup he wanted it to be with the Caps; if not, c'est la vie.

That's a guy you want to keep. That's a player you need on your team, even in a reduced role. That's someone you don't let go. Someone who has been the face, the heart, the soul, the voice and the backbone of this organization. That's a guy you hang on to as long as possible.

Say it ain't so, Olie...say it ain't so.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Sweep Complete

Photo courtesy of WashingtonCaps.com
That'll do, boys...that'll do.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Gameday Preview: Caps vs Senators

Who: Washington Capitals vs. Ottawa Senators
Where: Verizon Center
When: Tuesday, January 15, 7:00 pm

Broadcast Info: CSN, 3WT Radio; Sportsnet, Team 1200

Media Notes:
Caps' Website
Sens' Website
NHL.com
Washington Post
Washington Times

First, a mini-rant against whoever writes the AP previews for these games:

"The Ottawa Senators are the best team in the Eastern Conference, but they've hardly looked like it against the lowly Washington Capitals."

The Caps are not "lowly". They're near the bottom of the league, yes, but they are only a handful of points out of eighth place and within reach of almost every team in the conference. Plus...lowly has been done. Find a new word. Rant complete.

So this is one of those games that is really a crapshoot, a game of "what ifs" and "if onlys" and "who knows".

To start, the Caps have played three games against the Senators so far this season. In none of them were they expected to win. In all of them they came away with two points. So you have the fact that the Caps know they can beat this Sens team combined with the fact that Ottawa is not about to let the "lowly" Caps sweep them without a fight. Interesting dynamic right off the bat.

Then you have the injuries on both sides and potential returning injured players on both sides. For the Sens, they recently suffered a major blow with the loss of Dany Heatley to a separated shoulder. However they'll get Patrick Eaves back after the right winger missed 24 games with, oddly enough, a separated shoulder. On the Washington side, the Caps are still missing Brian Pothier, out with a concussion, and it looks like they will continue to be without Clark after he reinjured his groin in Sunday's loss to the Flyers.

After that there are any number of factors. Ray Emery in net for the Sens is always a bit of a wild card, and Brent Johnson, who will probably give Olie the night off, keeps things interesting in his own right. The Sens are playing their third game in four nights, the Caps have more rest under their belts with just one game in the last five days. Ottawa hasn't lost four straight in DC nor have they been swept in a season series since the mid-90s. Both teams are coming off of disappointing losses on Sunday.

The one thing that seems to be certain is that games between these two teams never seem to be boring. All three have had at least 5 goals in them, with the two teams combining for 23 goals in the last two games alone. Each game one team has had a strong period and then the other team responds with a strong period of their own.

Whatever it is about the Sens that brings out the best in the Caps, let's see more of it.

Hell, let's bottle it and douse them with it before every game.

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Word is Spreading

In one of his daily dialogues recently Coach Bruce Boudreau joked that he almost wished Mike Green wasn't getting so much attention - it's easier to burn teams with his talent when they're not keeping a close eye on him.

Well, if other teams are noticing either they don't care or they're simply not able to shut him down. Safe money is on the latter, as Green has rocketed to the top of the goal-scoring defensemen despite continuing to be the subject of national discussion.

...someone explain to me how he wasn't picked as an All-Star again?

The spotlight continues today for Green as he's featured in the New York Times (swanky), where he put into words what it seems a lot of fans and players alike are starting to feel:

“I see a bright future for this organization,” Green said. “We have the right foundation as far as players and direction. It feels like we’re really starting to put things together.”
Then there's the massively long piece on NHL.com, Green's "In the Spotlight" moment. Of course we've read a lot about him in recent weeks, but there's some good stuff in there from the coaching staff and Green himself that's new to any fan. In the piece he talks about everything from good eating habits to modelling his game after some of the greats to working on his game in his own end:

"Offense comes a lot more naturally than the defensive game for me," Green said. When there is offense to be created as the fourth guy jumping up into the play, that's what I want to do, and continue working the power play. It has taken some time for me to come into my own and I finally feel ready to fill that role. But I really try to work on my defensive game. I don't want to be known as just an offensive guy, though I think over the course of my junior career and AHL experience I have developed that (reputation), but I want to be a guy that can play solid minutes and play against top lines."
Sounds good to me.

So now that the Ovechkin deal is done there's talk that negotiations will begin with Green shortly if they haven't already. The way Green has been talking about the team, the coaching staff and the organization lately, it's likely that the Caps can lock up Green long-term and keep this team in very good hands for a very long time.

Just nobody give that kid keys to a segway ever again, okay?

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Flyers Fly Away with Win

Early in the game it looked like things were well under control. The crowd was raucous, the Caps seemed to have some jump and Semin had scored with just over three minutes in to give the team an early 1-0 lead. They even drew a penalty - things were going right.


And then Backstrom took an ill-timed penalty 8 seconds into the man-advantage, negating the power play and shifting the momentum in a very strange way. From then on it seemed like the Caps were back on their heels, letting Philly dictate the play for most of the afternoon. Even a second Flyers penalty soon after Backstrom's minor did little to get the Caps.

There were good moments. There were periods of sustained attack and pressure, nice plays, and the usual 110% from Ovechkin, who had a goal and an assist to cap off a strong game. The Caps came back from a 4-1 deficit to make it close and kept pulling within one before ultimately being beaten by an empty-netter. Green and Morrisonn were strong on the blue line, both finishing +2 and Green picking up a goal and an assist in 25+ minutes of ice time.

Plus Briere didn't score - always a plus.

But the Caps were never able to fully recover and found themselves playing catch-up most of the game despite taking an early lead. It didn't help that first Kolzig and then Johnson coming in relief were both incapable of corraling rebounds, but there were other issues for sure. Semin had some dazzling moves but kept trying to pass when he should shoot and vice versa, a continuing problem in his game (especially when getting back after injuries). The power play was powerless and even gave up a shorthanded goal. The defense let the Flyers get in close and at least twice they whacked in a rebound from behind the Caps' goaltender.

Both Clark and Poti made their return to the lineup and it was, as expected, a shaky game for each of them - good things mixed with bad things. For Poti, it was the little things like clearing out the rebounds and getting shots on net that seemed off, and he finished a disappointing -3. Clark's timing appeared to be off and he played under nine minutes, although he did pick up an assist and throw a hit that drew a cheer from the crowd - we missed him, that's for sure.

It just looked like a rusty game all around for the Caps. They got away from their systems, their way of playing, and let the Flyers play however they wanted. They would sustain pressure only to turn over the puck; they would block shots and angle the Flyers to the outside only to allow a scramble in front of the net.

In terms of points, it was a big day for a lot of people; eleven different Flyers and nine Caps registered at least a point.

...and did I mention that Briere was not among them? It's the little things. Literally.

A little rust is not a complete surprise, although a surprise would have been nice. One game in seven days isn't a great schedule but now things will pick up again, and the Caps need to shake it off to get ready for the final game with the Senators on Tuesday. The important thing is to not let one loss become two become three, etc.
It ends here - on to the next game.

Photo courtesy of AP

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Gameday Preview: Caps vs Flyers

Please do not attempt to adjust your computer screens. The following is an honest to goodness gameday preview.

Who: Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Where: Verizon Center, Washington, DC
When: Sunday, January 13, 1:00 pm

Broadcast Info: CSN-DC, 3WT Radio; CSN-PH; NHL Network (Canada)

Media Notes:
Caps' Website
NHL.com
Washington Post
Washington Times

(And for two of the only somewhat sensical takes on Ovie's new contract north of the border, check out the Winnipeg Sun and CBC.ca. They look at the pros and cons through a non-biased microscope, which is more than we can say for any of the other trash out there. Bitter is not a nice color on some people.)

It seems odd to say that almost a week after the official halfway mark of the season, tomorrow's game really kicks off the second half. Long breaks and injuries have muddied the last two weeks and we really haven't seen the team we want to see coming down the stretch.

But starting with the matinee against the Flyers, the Caps will play seven games in twelve nights; five of them will be at home, broken up with a visit to Pittsburgh (...yay) and a return to the big TO. The walking wounded are starting to get healthy again and there's exciting news that captain Chris Clark could return as soon as tomorrow. The meaning? It's go time, baby.

This stretch also brings the Caps right into the All-Star break, the point of the season where teams start to evaluate their position and their assets, deciding whether they will be buyers or sellers at the February 26th trade deadline. This stretch for the Caps will almost certainly play a big part in that decision-making process.

So on to the looming matchup (an ominous NHL game #666) with our friendly foes from Philly. Visits from Daniel "the magical spearing midget" Briere are always entertaining and Martin Biron can make things interesting as well - but just days after locking up their All-Star superstar to a long-term deal, the Caps really need to watch out for the All-Star superstar the Flyers just locked up long-term, Mike Richards.

Richards has quietly risen to the top of almost every offensive category for the Flyers, and while he's cooled off a bit of late with only 1 goal and 5 points in his last 8 games he's always one to watch.

The Caps come into this game hot, winning four of their last five including two straight and picking up points in thirteen of their last seventeen games. The trick so far in their turnaround, though, has been stringing a bunch of wins together; they have yet to go on a tear longer than three games all year, and that's happened only twice. It won't be easy - the schedule isn't very forgiving in the next few weeks and they'll have to do it against some tough opponents.

But they can rest in July.

From now until the end of the season every game has to take on a level of urgency that they'll see in every team they face. The Flyers seem like a good place to start.

Derian the Barbarian
Team afraid to walk alone while Hatcher remains unleashed

Photo courtesy of AP/The Canadian Press
Philadelphia, PA - Derian Hatcher has never been the quiet, unassuming type. With a skating style some refer to as "lumbering" and others call "embarrassing", Hatcher has long been a slow, slightly dim throwback to the heyday of Broad Street Bullies. His willingness to drop the shoulder or the gloves has earned him a reputation as a tough guy, a list of enemies longer than Nixon's, and the ability to strike fear into even the most stalwart of opponents.

Sadly, the list of people who fear him may now include his own team.

Just last week Hatcher decided to bowl over an oncoming Leaf - only to take out fellow Flyer Joffrey Lupul. Lupul left the game and is out with assorted injuries, his date of return indefinite.

"Yeah, it's scary," Flyers' captain Jason Smith said. "I turned a corner too fast in the locker room the other day and he tried to club my kneecaps. I just barely got out of the way in time. The guy needs a choke-chain."

"My kids run and hide behind me when they see him coming," added Daniel Briere. "Of course, they're taller than I am so it doesn't help, but still..."

Small children hiding behind smaller adults is the least of his concerns. Hatcher is hardly able to get medical treatment for the boo-boos that need kissing, so afraid is the medical staff that he will attempt to pummel them. Coaches stand more than an arms-length away in case his temper should flare up or his abnormally large frame should flail out of control by accident.

Many of his teammates have enlisted the help of private bodyguards to protect them against their wayward defenseman, while others use only prayer and the fact that they can outrun Hatcher to avoid bodily harm.

"I had to hide in my equipment bag last week just to avoid him. Worst two hours of my life," said Briere.

"He threw a shoe at my head once. Luckily I'm well-padded up there but still...I had to change my underwear afterwards," admits Phlex, mascot for the AHL affiliate Phantoms and next door neighbor to Hatcher.

When asked if any disciplinary action would be taken against Hatcher for further attacks on his teammates and foam-headed friends, Senior VP Bobby Clarke simply smiled and shook his head. "When he went after Phlex, I loved it," Clarke replied.

Slapshot, the Capitals mascot, was unavailable for comment but is rumored to be hidden in a safe house pending the Flyers' departure from DC.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Party Pictures

Pictures from the Meet the Team party - all 187 of them:

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The 124 Million Dollar Man

Photo courtesy of WashingtonCaps.com
There is something wonderful happening in Washington right now. People are excited to be Caps fans again, people are talking about the Caps again...and it all comes down to a goofy Russian kid with a beaming smile.

Last night at a Meet the Team party for season ticketholders Ted Leonsis made public what many of us already assumed - that Alex had signed a contract extension. What we didn't know was that the length of time was something beyond even our wildest dreams. Thirteen years. Thirteen years of Ovechkin's grins, his goal celebrations, his joyous tackling of teammates. Thirteen more years of his ever-evolving talent, his leadership, and his presence on and off the ice.

There are some - in fact there already have been some - who will sneer at the length or the amount, claim he's not worth the bucks or he's handcuffed himself to a team that can never really fully appreciate the great talent that he is. Ovechkin is insane. The Caps are insane. This is a horrible idea.

...is it? $124 million is a lot of money, yes. 13 years is a long time, absolutely. But the way the contract is designed, it will pay him $9 million a year for the first half (that's only $300,000 more than Crosby gets with his new "hometown discount" contract, by the way) and $10 million in the second half. Anyone thinking that Ovechkin wouldn't be making that kind of money anywhere he goes has underestimated his value severely - it just sounds like a more insane amount because it's over 13 years.

As for that number...the Caps have said time and time again that Ovechkin is the cornerstone, the building block of this team. He is the face of the franchise and we want him to continue to be the face for as long as possible. All this does is remove the burden of having to renegotiate with Alex every few years - it removes the pressure from the team and removes the distraction from Ovechkin.

It's also a statement. A statement by ownership and management that all their rhetoric about wanting to keep Ovechkin and build around him was not just a bunch of words but a true belief in his ability to lead this team to a championship. A statement by Ovechkin that he may like playing in Montreal or Toronto for the hockey atmosphere - but he loves being a Cap. He could have signed a shorter deal and still said he loved being here...maybe somewhere in the, oh, I don't know, five year range? But he didn't. He jumped in with both feet and proclaimed to fans, ownership, and the rest of the league that DC is where he wants to play.

There are two arguments likely to crop up in the coming days from those bitter journalists and analysts who hate seeing successful players in anything short of a hockey mecca. It's not hard to predict - we've heard them all before.

The first is that Washington is a horrible hockey town, a place where good players go to fade away from the spotlight and waste their talents on a team going nowhere. I'm not even sure where this stigma came from, but after years of following Washington hockey I can tell you it's not true.

Yes, the excitement has dwindled slightly - but anyone who attended games back in the late 80s, the heyday of the Caps and their consistent playoff appearances, knows that there was once a passion for this team that rivaled the best hockey cities in the league. And anyone who was at the Meet the Team event last night knows that the passion has never really faded away. There's still a buzz of excitement around this team and someone like Ovechkin is helping to fuel it - it may be moving slower than we'd like but it's happening and it's only a matter of time before this team is back in the spotlight where it deserves to be.

Furthermore, in recent years we have seen four or five players give up the chance to play for a so-called "contender" or to earn more money by staying in DC. Alexander Semin, coming off a 38-goal year, signed a two year contract extension to stay here. Kolzig has continually turned down the option of trades or free agency to stay here. Chris Clark, also coming off a career year, chose to ink four more years with the team. Michael Nylander turned down more money to come here. And now Ovechkin has made the biggest statement of all - he never wants to leave.

So on to the second argument. It's too many years, too much money, and the Caps will find themselves burned like they were with Jagr.

I almost don't know how to respond to that except to say that, luckily, Ovechkin is no Jagr. Good ol' JJ showed signs of being a temperamental diva and an underachiever long before he signed that big money longterm deal with the Caps. Ovechkin, on the other hand, never seems to take a shift off. He never phones it in. He hates not scoring but hates losing more; his celebrations when his teammates score is just as big if not bigger than if he had scored the goal himself. The guys so obviously love him just as we all love him - and that makes him worth every penny.

If you haven't seen it yet, take a look at the video from last night of Ted announcing the deal, courtesy of the wonderful people at OnFrozenBlog. Watch the looks on the team's faces; listen to the sound of the crowd. It was an amazing moment and one I'll probably never forget. Check it out:



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Thursday, January 10, 2008

You Like Us! You Really Like Us!

Yeah, I guess he really did want to play in Montreal or New York, right?

Ovechkin Signs 13-Year Contract with Caps


More later, plus (hopefully) pictures from tonight's Meet the Team party. Until then, raise your glasses and drink a toast to Alex Ovechkin - a Capital until at least 2021!

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Big News?

We're hearing rumors, murmurings and whispers that a deal has been struck between the Washington Capitals and Alex Ovechkin...no official confirmation yet and an earlier report from TSN has been pulled down, but stay tuned!

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Quote of the Night

From this guy right here:

"With my track record, I never think shutout."
-- Olie Kolzig


That's the self-deprecating goalie we all know and love.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A Win and More Waiting

One would expect that a game against a team like the Avs, with whom the Caps have little history, would be boring and lifeless.

Well...yeah, okay, it kind of was.

But aside from that, tonight's game was all about goaltending. Theodore vs. Kolzig, two former Vezina trophy winners going head to head - and as much as we've picked on Olie in the past few weeks, he's really been playing well these last few games and matched Jose save for save tonight. He made some fantastic saves despite the low shot count and was a big reason the Caps held on to win, particularly when the Avs were buzzing late in the game.

Not much to talk about in this one. The Caps were unable to connect with the extra man but killed off the Colorado power plays. They got 23 shots on goal and allowed 19. Laich's goal was nice and Steckel's was...odd. It was a lesson in good goaltending and a demonstration of perfect trapping mentality on both sides, which in combination can be like the hockey equivalent of Nyquil.

On to...nothing. The Caps are off until Sunday, when the lovely Flyers make their final visit of the year to Verizon Center. When your team is all banged up, usually you pray to the scheduling gods for mercy like the sort we're seeing right now. One game in seven days is a perfect way to rest your walking wounded - but when the team is winning in spite of it, you have to think a long break isn't so great. Hopefully we'll get some of the injured boys back and we can start making a real push.

And if anyone is keeping an eye on the standings, should the Leafs fall to Anaheim tonight (as they're well on their way to doing) the Caps leap over them and into 13th place. Little baby steps...

Photo courtesy of AP

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

All-Stars: The Future

Any surprises in the starting lineups for the All-Star Game? Probably not.

We'll get the full rosters the 10th and 11th, which will include the Young Stars as well, we assume. Traditionally the Young Stars' roster is limited, with one goalie, four defensemen and six or seven forwards per team. As usual there are more players who could make the cut - here's who should at least be considered:

East
Carey Price, G Montreal Canadiens
Tobias Enstrom, D Atlanta Thrashers
Marc Staal, D New York Rangers
Kris Letang, D Pittsburgh Penguins
Jeff Schultz, D Washington Capitals (only because there's a lack of young defensemen in the East)
Milan Lucic, L Boston Bruins
Andrei Kostitsyn, L Montreal Canadiens
Travis Zajac, C New Jersey Devils
Nicklas Backstrom, C Washington Capitals
Ryan Callahan, R New York Rangers

West
Jonathan Bernier, G Los Angeles Kings
Matt Niskanen, D Dallas Stars
Jack Johnson, D Los Angeles Kings
Marc-Edouard Vlasic, D San Jose Sharks
Erik Johnson, D St. Louis Blues
Gilbert Brule, C Columbus Blue Jackets
Jiri Hudler, C Detroit Red Wings
Sam Gagner, C Edmonton Oilers
Peter Mueller, C Phoenix Coyotes
Andrew Cogliano, C Edmonton Oilers
Devin Setoguchi, R San Jose Sharks

Feel free to discuss, call me an idiot, etc.

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Monday, January 07, 2008

All-Stars: Beasts of the East

On to the East, where goaltenders rule the day - hey, at least there's something good about the teams in the Eastern Conference...

Atlanta Thrashers - Ilya Kovalchuk has this one locked up. In an up and down season for Atlanta, Kovalchuk has found consistency since Bob Hartley was shown the door and leads the league in goals. He may not be our favorite guy in the world here in DC but it's hard to deny that he's an electric player...as much as we may want to.

Boston Bruins - The B's have found a weirdly balanced attack among their scorers, with five in double-digits and a handful close behind, but the pick will probably be Marc Savard, who is averaging about a point a game and leads the team in scoring. Goaltender Tim Thomas is arguably the team's MVP to this point with a .931 save percentage on his resume and could get a look as well.

Buffalo Sabres - If there's any god Brian Campbell won't make it into the starting lineup, because despite decent numbers he hasn't played anywhere near his ability. Maxim Afinogenov's 7 goals also have to be kind of a disappointment. In fact it seems like Ryan Miller continues to be the glue that holds the team together (such as it is) and should get some recognition, although it would be nice to see someone like Derek Roy or Ales Kotalik get in there.

Carolina Hurricanes - Just give it to Cam Ward and be done with it. The kid has bounced back from a disappointing post-Cup slump and is looking more like the Conn Smythe winner he was in the 2006 postseason. Honorable mention goes to the ageless Cory Stillman, who is very quietly teetering on the edge of 20 goals - to put that into perspective, his career high for an entire season is 27.

Florida Panthers
- Hard to argue with the fact that, despite a shaky start and some ups and downs along the way, Tomas Vokoun has been the best player in Sunrise, Florida. He's kept them in a lot of games they shouldn't be in (much like Luongo did in days past) and stolen at least one from the Caps this year. Want to throw in a shocker for a second choice? How about Richard Zednik? He's having a pretty good year - it could happen...

Montreal Canadiens - Andrei Markov's rise to the top of the Eastern vote-getters may surprise some, but anyone who has watched him this year and really over the past few years knows it's recognition that is long overdue. Joining him for the East, though, should be either Alexei Kovalev (who picked up 60,000+ write-in votes), Saku Koivu, or both. If Cristobal Huet hadn't missed a good chunk of the first half with injuries I'd say he deserves it as well - he's better than most people realize.

New Jersey Devils - Some guys like Martin Brodeur will always, always be on the ballot and will always, always get in to the All-Star Game. This year Brodeur has been very un-Brodeur-like for long stretches, though, so one could question his almost assured return as a starter. Nevertheless, Brodeur on his worst day is still usually better than a lot of the jokers in net nowadays, so Marty goes and may the Schwartz be with him. As for who will sit with him on the plane, it's hard to pick one standout on a team of "interchangeable parts" - let's go with Zach Parise, just because I like him.

New York Islanders - On a team that started out hot and quickly fell to the middle of the pack, picking one "All-Star" caliber player isn't easy. Taking the coward's way out I guess you could pick Rick DiPietro, although it could be said that Mike Comrie hasn't been that bad for the Isles. He's got 12 goals on a team that has about 20 total (okay, that's an exaggeration), so that's something.
New York Rangers - As insanely clueless as voters were picking Cheechoo 100,00+ times, they made up for it by keeping Jagr, Drury and Gomez out of the top ten vote-getters - not one of them deserves it after the first half they've had collectively. Henrik Lundqvist has been the savior for this team to this point and even he's been in a bit of a slump lately. If someone has to go it should be Michal Rozsival getting the nod for the blueshirts. The 29 year old is having a career year and is among the league-leaders for scoring by defensemen.

Ottawa Senators - Like the Red Wings, the Sens have a good deal of talent to choose from and they'll probably have quite a few reps at the All-Star Game. Alfredsson is almost definitely in as a starter and he should be joined by linemates Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley. Wade Redden and Chris Phillips have both been strong on the blueline and Martin Gerber has been steady for the Sens (recent meetings with the Caps aside, of course).

Philadelphia Flyers - We're probably stuck with the magical spearing midget, but don't overlook the contributions of Mike Richards. He's leading the team in scoring and has already shattered his career numbers in goals, assists and power play points. One of their young prospects, he's taken on a leadership role for this Flyers team and deserves to get some recognition.

Pittsburgh Penguins - You can leave your Ovechkin vs. Crosby crap at home, because no one will argue with Crosby getting in as a starter - not even this perpetual Crosby-basher. The kid is an amazing talent and I can say that without gagging. Evgeni Malkin should also get some consideration, though, for overcoming a slow start to get right back in the mix where he belongs. And how about Ty Conklin rounding out the trio? (I kid, I kid...)

Tampa Bay Lightning - Vincent Lecavalier...and no one else. Period.

Toronto Maple Leafs
- Give Mats Sundin a lot of credit - he's taken this Leafs team on his shoulders year after year with little reward, little playoff glory, and the collective Toronto media breathing down his neck. Criticized by some for being an aging star on his way out, he's picked up 20 goals and 28 assists to lead his team in scoring and keep them in the mix for the playoffs. Not an easy thing to do, and certainly deserving of a trip to Atlanta.

Washington Capitals - Unless there was a spike in the last few days Alex Ovechkin will probably not be going as a starter...but I don't think there's a question that he's going. He should definitely be joined by Mike Green, though, who is starting to make noise and get some national attention. Greenie is perfectly suited to the All-Star Game; he's flashy, powerful, and exciting to watch. He's still got some work to do in his own zone, but let's face it - no one watches these things for defensive positioning and blocked shots. (And if they do they need to be in therapy...)

Next up...the Young Stars


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