As the second round of the playoffs gets underway and we are left watching it from our couches, we suddenly find ourselves with a wealth of time to talk about this season - what went right, what went wrong, and what we can expect next year.
But we'll get to that later.
Right now, though, I wanted to discuss something that is among my top five pet peeves, right behind the moron who gets up to use the bathroom a second after a faceoff and just ahead of people shouting "O" during the national anthem. And that, dear readers, is this persistent misconception other fans have that Caps fans - without exception - are bandwagon fans.
It seems that whenever supporters of a certain team can't think of real, legitimate things to mock about the Capitals they go for their favorite attack - the fans. It's the old standby that never fails to get a cheap laugh no matter how true it may or may not be. Washington isn't a hockey town, they chuckle. DC is a joke. Caps fans couldn't name a player other than Ovechkin if they tried; they're not real fans. Not like us, the proud Flyers/Penguins/Rangers/[insert evil team name here] fans who know what it takes to truly love a team.
I remember a time when the Caps were the hottest ticket in town. Night after night the Capital Centre would be rocking, and it wasn't because the team was racking up the Cup wins. Far from it, in fact. They were good, exciting, but never all that successful when it really counted - perpetual choking dogs, a moniker we all wore proudly if not a little sheepishly. It didn't matter, though. People turned up every night, year after year, packing the seats and showing their support for the greatest little team that couldn't. It was because the team was fun to watch and there was always that nagging feeling that this year - this year would be different.
So are we to believe that all those people who paid good money back in the 80s and early 90s to see this team were holograms? Actors paid by Abe Pollin and friends to play a part? Did they all merely die out? Seems highly unlikely.
The more reasonable explanation is that a lot of them simply got tired - tired of being ignored by the media, tired of the team's inability to hold onto it's star players or attract new ones, tired of being subjected to a product that was less than scintillating. We had our good years between the heyday of the late 80s and today, but they were few and far between...and as a hockey fan, there was nothing during that period that even comes close to the level of excitement this young team can generate.
The fact is hockey is exciting in DC again and that's why people were back in the seats en masse during the second half of the season. It wasn't so much bandwagoning as it was a rebirth, a reunion of sorts for fans who are rediscovering the team and the sport - and you can tell that's what it is because it started before the team really got hot.
It started, in fact, when Alex Ovechkin signed his long-term deal, January 10, 2007. The Caps' record at that point? 16-21-8. You would have needed a crystal ball to predict the ending the season would have, and yet people showed up, people filled the seats and started to believe again. It was so much more than knowing Ovechkin was ours for the long haul. It was fans buying into what ownership had been trying to tell us all along.
Be patient, we're rebuilding and it will be painful at times...but this team is going to be great, and soon, and for a long time. That's all people needed. A little faith, hope that even if this season didn't turn around the way it eventually did, next year would be better. The year after, even better than that.
You know, it's very easy to sit up in cities like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh and look down on Washington, to smirk and point and make fun of what they don't understand. And I choose these two cities for a reason - partly because they are the most notorious fans when it comes to dragging out the "bandwagon" taunt but partly because they each serve as an example of a skewed perspective, of people having no right to point fingers.
In Philly, fans are always so proud that even in the dark times they supported their team - and they should be proud. To maintain a fan base when a team is lousy is very hard to do, and the Flyers did it well...for one year. One year of darkness sandwiched between years and years of success, if devoid of Cups, in the form of perpetual playoff appearances. Their first year in the league the Flyers went to the playoffs; seven years in they had the first of back-to-back Cups. It took the Caps that long just to get into the postseason, and twice as long to get to their first Conference Final.
In fact, the Flyers have missed the postseason only eight times in their forty year history, and only once have they gone consecutive years without putting in at least an appearance. That's consistency. That's success. That's why fans continue to pack the Wachovia Center, and good for them - Flyers fans, you should celebrate what your team has accomplished. But don't come to DC with your one bad season and flaunt the fact that you "supported them even when they sucked". It just doesn't fly, so to speak.
As for the Penguins, well...it's always fun to remind them that in the days before their own personal Jesus came along, things weren't so happy up at the Igloo. In 2001, when their rebuilding was just getting under way, the Penguins ranked 16th in league attendance - perfectly respectable but nothing to write home about. By the next year it was down to 22nd; in 2003 that number dropped to 25th. And by 2004 they were dead last, drawing just over 11,000 fans per game. Mellon Arena is smaller than a lot of arenas, sure, but still. That's not exactly bursting at the seams.
Now I don't point out those numbers just to rub it in the face of every Penguins fan who laughs at DC.
...okay, maybe I do, a little. I'm nothing if not willing to use my bitterness to my advantage. But it's also to make a point, and that is this - when a team is unsuccessful for any stretch of time, when the playoffs are out of the picture by Christmas for years at a time, it is only natural that the fans start to disappear. It happened in Pittsburgh, it happened here, and it's happened in just about every NHL city in the league. It's nothing to be ashamed of, and fans who have been through it would do well to remember those times and learn from them rather than mock other teams going through it now.
Did attendance in the 'Burgh spike when Captain Crosby came to town, even as the team continued to rebuild? Sure it did...doesn't make them bandwagon fans (or we'll say they aren't for now, just to take the high road). Did Pens fans catch on to Crosby's talent faster than the Caps fans did to Ovechkin? Absolutely - and it's because we've been burned before. The fact that Crosby's arrival triggered a rash of sellouts in Pittsburgh is no more a coincidence than the fact that Ovechkin's new contract triggered a rash of sellouts in DC.
We are, to put it mildly, a fanbase in need of healing. We've been through the wringer, not just the past few seasons but for years, decades. But there is a sense, a buzz on the streets, that this team is going to make those of us who stuck around in the lean years proud that we did so - and those fans just finding their way back now glad to be back.
No one knows what will happen for sure in the coming years...but I have a feeling we'll be Rockin' the Red for a long time.
Friday, April 25, 2008
As the second round of the playoffs gets underway and we are left watching it from our couches, we suddenly find ourselves with a wealth of time to talk about this season - what went right, what went wrong, and what we can expect next year.
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
As I watched Alex Ovechkin embrace each of the Flyers with the class and dignity of someone ten years older, one thought kept running through my head: They deserved better. This hurts because they deserved better, each and every one of them.
It does hurt. In the aftermath of this game there will be things Caps fans can complain about, things they can point to that could and should have gone the other way. The Flyers second goal, a prime example of "incidental contact" if I ever saw one that went uncalled. The tripping penalty in overtime, a call that might have been technically right but was nowhere near blatant enough to warrant affecting the outcome of an entire series. Any number of missed or bizarre calls throughout the series.
And yet...it is what it is. Things like that happen in every series and it's the team that overcomes obstacles like those that truly deserves to move on.
We've been calling this team a "team of destiny" - and maybe this was their destiny, to fight hard and play right up to the end like we knew they could but just not be ready to go to the next step. Maybe it wasn't time for them to meet the Penguins in the playoffs again. Maybe it wasn't time for this team to get anything but a taste of the postseason.
They've played a full seven game series. They've been up, they've been down, they've come from behind to win and held onto leads and learned what NHL playoff games really should be. It's priceless experiences like that which will only help them in the long run. The time will come when this team will be ready; when they will come into a series with the same energy with which they leave it, when they will no longer find themselves in awe of playoff intensity but rather own it, play it, live it. They've proven themselves capable of that much already.
Until then there is a lot to be happy about - in this game, in this series, and in this season as a whole. Think back to where we were exactly five months ago tonight and look at where we are now and tell me we have anything to regret, anything to be ashamed of. No, this team should hold their heads high and be proud of accomplishing so much after so many people counted them out so many times.
Tonight was the culmination of many things, the fruition of a season-long and really a three year-long process of growth and rebuilding. There will be other playoff series, other chances to right a wrong, and in the meantime the sense of accomplishment should linger with every single player and fan.
We've seen the evolution of one of the league's great talents from rookie standout to true leader, on and off the ice; in Ovechkin we have the future of the team and it's a bright one.
We've seen the maturation of his supporting cast, no less talented in their own roles - Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, Mike Green, Dave Steckel, Boyd Gordon - all of whom stepped up to the plate and answered the call when needed.
We've seen franchise records fall and NHL history made; we've seen 300 wins from the great Olie Kolzig and Brooks Laich's first 20 goal season. We've watched a team of nobodys, of youngsters and once-forgotten veterans, come together with a chemistry and comraderie that I've never seen before. We've seen the rebirth of this city as a true hockey town, swathed in red and excited about the Caps again.
The curtain closes on this season but it's hardly the end. We'll be back next year stronger and better than ever, a team perched on the verge of greatness with a summer to think about the bitter taste of losing - and about how they never want to taste it again. This team is hungry. Strong. Resilient. There is no doubt in my mind that they will be back in the show again next season and when they are, look out.
There are questions to be answered in the coming months, issues to be resolved, contracts to be signed. What does the team do with Mike Green? How about other RFA's who are equally important to the team and it's chemistry, such as Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, Steve Eminger and Shaone Morrisonn? Does Sergei Fedorov retire? Does Olie Kolzig? Will Cristobal Huet stay in DC? Can the team bring back both Matt Cooke and Matt Bradley or does one of them become expendable?
It's going to be an offseason filled with answers to these questions and we'll have plenty of time to begin answering them after the sting has worn off a little.
For now, though, we only have the knowledge that the sun must come up tomorrow - and while it may not seem as bright as usual, the reality is that it's actually brighter than ever.
Note: It's time for a much needed vacation from the Cheap Seats, a few days to clear the cobwebs away and start fresh...stay tuned. We'll be back.
When you get knocked out of the playoffs in a year like this has been, it's understandable that the local papers will pay homage to the magical journey that it was, and rightly so.
But when both the NHL's official website and ESPN come out with articles about how much the Caps achieved, how bright the future is, and how amazing they've been...you know you've got something good on your hands.
Yes sir, what Bruce Boudreau, Alex Ovechkin and the rest of the Capitals gave the hockey world this season was indeed memorable. And this could just be the very beginning. Ovechkin – who scored 65 goals during the regular season – will turn 23 during Washington’s next training camp. Mike Green showed signs that he will be a premier defenseman in this League for years to come. Alexander Semin proved he can pick up the slack when Ovechkin is struggling during those 12 seconds per year.From Scott Burnside at ESPN.com:
This isn't a team that is rebuilding, but rather building. To what? Who knows? But there is something mindful of the Pittsburgh Penguins and how they have quickly learned what it takes to win in the playoffs. Perhaps, more importantly, the fans in this oft-maligned NHL market seem to have understood what was happening here, too.Just one difference, Scott...when the Pens returned to the postseason after years of rebuilding? They only won once.
Just something to chew on.
Chin up, Caps fans. The 2008-09 season is just around the corner!
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Game 7 is a time for heroes, both expected and unexpected.
So who is it going to be?
You've got your usual suspects on both sides - your Ovechkins, your Semins...if you're pessimistic, your Brieres. But as is so often the case, it's not the big-name guys who become the story the day after a Game 7.
This series has had many unsung heroes who are due for a little spotlight, and the odds are just as good that any of them will step up to win it all for their team. Here are a few Caps who could be difference-makers in this all or nothing game:
- Matt Bradley: He's got speed, he's got grit, he's got the willingness to take the body - and he's able to fuel all of that into the occasional scoring chance. Bradley is one of those guys who has taken his play from the regular season, which was already at a pretty high level toward the end, and raised it up another notch. He is key in every game...how key will he be in Game 7?
- Brooks Laich: 21 goals in the regular season, a number of assists in the playoffs, and the usual 110% every night that we've come to expect. No goals, yet, though. Playing with Backstrom and Semin 5 on 5 and with Ovechkin, Fedorov and Green on the power play would indicate that your first inclination is to pass, not shoot, but he's had his chances - one could come tonight.
- Steve Eminger: In and out of the press box, in and out of trade rumors, in and out of favor with the team...and after all that he's here and playing some good, solid defense. He also got his first career playoff goal on a seemingly innocuous throw of the puck to the net, then two games later sprung Brooks Laich to kick off one of the prettiest passing plays of the series. If Emmy can get his offensive game going to match his defensive game, this could be an interesting night for #44.
- Eric Fehr: After missing most of the year with a mysterious back injury, Fehr has slowly gotten himself back into the swing of things. And every game of this series he has made strides, looking more and more like the threat he was projected to be when the Caps first drafted him. His willingness to go to the net combined with his skill and size could pay off tonight.
Who is your pick for potential hero?
Who: Caps-Flyers...the final showdown
Where: DC, home of the free and the brave, the nation's capital, and birthplace of the best fans in the NHL
When: Tonight, 7:00 pm; Rock the Red!
And so the long and winding road leads us here, to Game 7 - what seemed like the unlikeliest of places just three games ago. Where there was once a two-game deficit and an almost impossible uphill climb, there is now only one.
One game. One night. One chance to watch history repeat itself.
Lose and it's all over, as it would have been last night. And Saturday night before that. Lose and we'll celebrate a valiant effort and a hopeful outlook for next year. Lose and we regret nothing - because a team that scrapped it's way out of the league cellar, that clawed it's way into the playoffs, that fought it's way out of a 3-1 series to force Game 7, has certainly earned the right to have no regrets.
Win and we earn our first trip to the second round since 1998, come back from a 3-1 deficit against the Flyers for the second time in franchise history...and get the Penguins for the 48587th time. Woo.
But that's a concern for another day, if there is another day. For now we only focus on the game in front of us.
Because in any sport, in any round, the greatest moments are always made in Game 7. It's Dale Hunter streaking up ice and burying the puck behind Ron Hextall to win the series in dramatic overtime fashion. It's the Red Sox coming back from 3-0 against the Yankees to win it en route to their first World Series title in 86 years. It's young Carey Price earning a shutout to salvage the hope of la Belle Province and send the Bruins packing.
It's where legends are made and new heroes are created.
There's nothing to analyze here, nothing to predict. The advantage has fallen to the Caps - and with it the pressure to and expectations for a win. They're younger, playing on home ice and holding all the momentum; everything they need to win is there. They just have to execute like they did yesterday, like they did on Saturday, even the way they did in Thursday's double OT loss, minus the whole...losing thing. When they're executing the Flyers have looked lost, outclassed, dizzy. Exactly how we want them.
So here are some things to note:
- Alexander Semin is playing some of the best hockey of his career in this series; putting him with Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich has only improved his play and as a result the play of his two linemates, who both are making an impact in their own right.
- Cristobal Huet continues to hold down the fort when the little mistakes are made and has been a source of confidence for the whole team. And never underestimate his ability to make those "oh my god, did you see that???" type of saves, either.
- The defense as a group has played some great hockey in the last three games, and beyond that the entire team is getting back to their system of solid defensive play. The fact that this has extended even to John Erskine and mysterious enigma Steve Eminger is only good news for the team.
- Alex Ovechkin is alive and well.
And most importantly? There will be a very potent 7th man out there in the form of what should be the most raucous Verizon Center to date, Rockin' the Red and screaming their lungs out.
Last inspirational speech for Round 1, folks, and it comes to us courtesy of the boys themselves - because in the end, they're the ones who will have to do the work:
"My goals are coming. I don't care if I don't score and we win. If I play one minute in a game and we win the game it will be a good result."Not yet, at least.
- Alex Ovechkin
“Right now we don’t want to stop."
- Cristobal Huet
"If you play a game like that and you can’t come out with energy, you’re not going to win anything in your life.”
- Donald Brashear
"I think a lot of people have written us off, but I think we can surprise people with how far we can go. We didn't look forward to Game 7; we just focused on today. Now we can enjoy it for five minutes and then get on the plane and go home."
- Brooks Laich
"The first three games were not too good from our side but we keep going. [...] It’s hardworking every time, it’s perfect.”
- Nicklas Backstrom
"We're going to keep coming at teams. Some teams might have crumbled under that kind of pressure..."
- Tom Poti
“It’s not over yet. (Tuesday is) the biggest game in our career, I think, and we don’t want to stop. We just want to continue what we’re doing."
- Alex Ovechkin
"As long as we still have a pulse, you just can't count us out. There's too many guys that play so hard and are so resilient. It comes from our coach. He is the Number 1 believer, and he instills that in his players. As long as we have a pulse, we live to fight another day."
- Brooks Laich
“We’ve won nothing."
- Bruce Boudreau
Game 7 awaits, Caps fans - here we go.
Monday, April 21, 2008
Who: Caps-Flyers, you know the drill... Great moments are born from great opportunity. And that's what you have here tonight, boys. That's what you've earned here, tonight. One game.
Where: Wachovia Center, home of the worst orange shirts in the world
When: Today, 7:00 pm. Bring your protective cups.
We all know that there's no time to pat ourselves on the backs and celebrate that one win because it's just that - one win. Two more are needed to move on, or so it says in the NHL rulebook. So two more it is.
And to get those two more they need to take what they did in the first two periods of Game 5 and replicate it for 60 minutes this time. Then do it again on Tuesday. What the Caps did in Game 5 was come out guns blazing, throwing their bodies and the puck around until the Flyers were dizzy.
22-9: the hit ratio in the first. 12-4: the shot ratio in the first. 1-0: the score in the first.
All good things, and yet all good things that can be improved upon, or at the very least repeated. This team has the skill, the drive, the youth, the experience, to do all those things and do it in front of a hostile crowd. They know how to get it done; whether they do it or not remains to be seen.
It's not hard to see what works for this team. They have size. They have speed. They have the ability to shoot the puck. So it's no surprise that when they dump the puck in, when they make the simple plays to gain the zone...9 times out of 10 they keep the zone. Keep it and put pressure on and generate a scoring chance, if not a goal. It's the reason why when they do just that they look like a team that could make some noise - and not just a whimper.
And it's what we should expect to see tomorrow night, or else start thinking about next year.
The inspirational thing seemed to work last time out so we'll do this again, this time with help from our pal Kurt (channeling Herb Brooks):
If we played 'em ten times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight.
Tonight, we skate with 'em.
Tonight, we stay with 'em, and we shut them down because we can!
Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world.
You were born to be hockey players -- every one of ya. And you were meant to be here tonight. This is your time. Their time -- is done. It's over.
I'm sick and tired of hearin' about what a great hockey team the [Flyers] have. Screw 'em!
This is your time!! Now go out there and take it!
And finally, if that doesn't get the blood boiling how about a little inspirational help from yours truly...with assistance from (and apologies to) the legendary Van Halen:
There may not be a tomorrow
So put it all out there today
One more walk into Philly
With only "vengeance" in our way
From two games down we're clawing back
But we've gotta push to get even
Just let them whine, we know the truth, we're moving on
Hey - come on turn, turn this thing around
Hey, let's take it to 'em
Catch that magic midget, do it
Right here and now
It takes everything
They can shut down Ovechkin
Others come to take his place
With our own Russian army
Standing right in Biron's face
The more checks you throw, the more you crave
And even Semin's getting in it
With black and orange flying through the air
Come on bring game 7 to DC
Right now, hey
We want tomorrow
We want a miracle
Put the fight to Philly do it
Right here and now
It means everything
It's gutcheck time...right now
What are you waitin' for?
Oh, yeah, right now!
Catch that magic midget, dropkick him right
Right now, oh, right now
We're coming for you...right here and now
Right now...it's right now
Let's Go Caps!!
Great moments are born from great opportunity.
And that's what you have here tonight, boys. That's what you've earned here, tonight. One game.
Sunday, April 20, 2008
In more ways than one.
The Caps did what they had to do - they played hard, won Game 5 and avoided elimination. They were physical. They were well-positioned. They were opportunistic. They were, for forty minutes at least, a dominant playoff team.
That's step one.
Step two comes tomorrow night in Philly where an orange-clad crowd would like nothing more than to watch their boys land the knockout punch. Step two is no less of a "must-win" situation, it's no less pressure packed, and it's no less difficult.
We'll consider this an open thread on this lazy non-hockey Sunday. Feel free to leave your thoughts on last night's game, your predictions for Game 6, your best Passover recipes, etc.
We get back down to business tomorrow.
Saturday, April 19, 2008
Who: If you don't know this by now...get out.
Where: Verizon Center - ROCK THE RED!
When: Today. 1:00. Be there or be square.
So it all comes down to... So this is for the whole ball of... So we're hanging on by a...
So here we are. Backs against the wall, down for the count, TKO, washed up, done for, kaput - any other metaphor you can think of for being just about finished.
But if there's one thing we've seen from this team, it's that they play their best when they're cornered. They play their best when no one thinks it can be done. They play their best when it counts the most, when everyone has counted them out, when all their fans are counting on them.
They know what they need to do. We know what they need to do. The Flyers have been the better team in this series but the Caps are the better team period. And it's not because I say it's true or the dozens of NHL analysts said it was true prior to the playoffs - but because we've seen it.
Minimize the mental lapses. Minimize the turnovers. Maximize the talent this team has, not just in #8 but all through the lineup, up and down the bench...every single person in a Caps sweater.
As for the fans? The Phone Booth needs to rock from start to finish, not just to boost the team's energy but to give them the ovation and celebration they deserve. If this afternoon's game is the end of the line so be it. But let's give our heroes an atmosphere they'll never forget. Let's make them feel the support of 18,277 in the stands and many, many more in living rooms everywhere.
It's been a hell of a ride, but if this is the end...let's go out singing.
Because there is the chance that it's not the end after all.
Bring it home, Al:
It all comes down to today. Either we heal, as a team, or we're gonna crumble. Inch by inch, play by play, till we're finished.Say it with me, kids: UNLEASH THE FURY!
We're in hell right now, gentlemen, believe me. And we can stay here, get the sh*t kicked out of us or we can fight our way back into the light. We can climb outta hell...one inch at a time.
The inches we need are everywhere around us. They're in every break of the game, every minute, every second.
On this team, we fight for that inch.
On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know when we add up all those inches, that's gonna make the f**king difference between winning and losing! Between living and dying!
I'll tell you this: in any fight, its the guy who's willing to die who's gonna win that inch.
Now I can't make you do it. You gotta look at the guy next to you, look into his eyes. Now, I think you're gonna see a guy who will go that inch with you. You're gonna see a guy, who will sacrifice himself, for this team. Because he knows, when it comes down to it, you're gonna do the same for him.
That's a team, gentlemen. And, either we heal now, as a team, or we will die as individuals.
Now, what are ya gonna do?
Nickname time - see if you can spot the theme...
19-Scott "Demon Spawn" Hartnell 48-Daniel "Magical Spearing Troll" Briere 40-Vinny "666" Prospal
9-Scottie "The Horror...THE HORROR" Upshall 17-Jeff "Fiend" Carter 22-Mike "Gollum" Knuble
20-RJ "Hades" Umberger 18-Mike "Satan's Handmaiden" Richards 15-Joffrey "The Possessed" Lupul
25-Patrick "River Styx" Thoresen 34-Jim "Nosferatu" Dowd 24-Sami "Bane" Kapanen
5-Braydon "Poltergeist" Coburn 44-Kimmo "Wicked Witch of the West" Timonen
2-Derian "Orc" Hatcher 6-Randy "Misery" Jones
21-Jason "The Blob" Smith 26-Jaroslav "Darth" Modry
30-Antero "Dr. No" Niittymaki 43-Martin "Rosemary's Baby" Biron
8-Alex "Superman" Ovechkin 91-Sergei "The Legend" Fedorov 25-Viktor "Batman" Kozlov
21-Brooks "Han Solo" Laich 19-Nicklas "Underdog" Backstrom 28-Alexander "The Flash" Semin
24-Matt "Daredevil" Cooke 39-Dave "Greatest American Hero" Steckel 10-Matt "Captain Planet" Bradley
87-Donald "The Incredible Hulk" Brashear 15-Boyd "Flash" Gordon 14-Eric "Captain Canuck" Fehr
26-Shaone "Spider-Man" Morrisonn 52-Mike Green "Lantern"
3-Tom "Iron Man" Poti 23-Milan "He-Man" Jurcina
4-John "Captain Klutz" Erskine 44-Steve "Invisible Kid" Eminger
37-Olie "Our Hero" Kolzig 38-Cristobal "Faster than a Speeding Bullet" Huet
LET'S GO CAPS!
Thursday, April 17, 2008
We're not talking about this game. It was a much better effort by the Caps and there were a couple of places where the game could have gone in either direction - but it's over. Done. All eyes have to face forward, because what lies ahead is bigger than what we leave behind in Philly tonight.
Caps fans, take heart.
18 times in NHL history a team has rallied after being down 3-1 in a series to win that series. It's not a huge number considering the NHL has had countless series in it's 100+ year history, but it's happened five times since 2000, four of which came in the quarterfinals. The most recent was the Montreal Canadiens, who rallied to beat the Bruins back in 2004. The Caps actually hold the dubious distinction of blowing 3-1 series leads three times, more than any other team.
They've only come back from a 3-1 deficit once.
Twenty years ago.
Against the Philadelphia Flyers.
...will history repeat itself? Who will be the Dale Hunter? Who will be the hero? It starts Saturday - wear your red, bring your voices, keep your spirits high.
If you've had enough of the ridiculous stories that sometimes emerge here in the Cheap Seats, check out a great piece on Olie on NHL.com. There's no real purpose to it other than to spotlight the big guy and some of the behind-the-scenes action we love so much, but it's a fun read - something I'm sure we all need in these final nervous hours before puck drop.
So everyone knows about Daniel Briere's rapid rise to fame, sure. But do you know the real story? Read on...
Once upon a time, in a far away land, a lonely little boy named Daniel lived on the edge of a vast and powerful kingdom. He dreamed of riches and grandeur, power and wealth beyond compare, and a silver cup with his name on it.
Hours each day would be spent staring out the window just waiting for something good to happen. He only had his dreams, as Daniel was lonely and had no friends. He was smaller than the other boys at school and often became the butt of their jokes - or else was used in place of the ball in their many games. At five years old he only came up to the seat of his chair; by the age of ten he could barely reach the doorknob.
"I'll be great someday and then you'll be sorry," he would say to the boys as they tossed him around the field. They simply laughed and continued on their merry way.
At home it wasn't much better. Too small to help out around the house like normal kids, Daniel would be used as a dust rag or a sponge to get into those hard to reach places under the furniture.
"I'll be great someday and then you'll be sorry," he would say to his mother in between sneezes. She simply laughed and shoved him under the couch.
"They'll see," he would mutter to himself as he sat alone in his room. "They'll all see. Someday I'll do great things and be beloved by everyone. Then they'll be sorry." Even the dog laughed.
One day, as he was brushing the dust from his hair, Daniel decided he'd had enough. Packing up a few precious possessions he set off during the night to start a new life elsewhere, away from the taunting. He swore that he would teach himself great things and when he finally returned he would be both feared and beloved by all.
He crossed hills and valleys, through forests and across meadows until he reached a vast desert. There he worked tirelessly on what he believed could be his magic, his craft, the key to his success. Taking a piece of curved wood he practiced his technique day after day, perfecting and mastering a form of battle which no one had seen or used before.
Finally he decided he was ready - all he needed was a quest. His opportunity presented itself when he encountered a wandering merchant who told him of a great treasure that lay hidden in the hills. It was rumored to be quite the fortune, but it was guarded by a fearsome dragon.
"I am not afraid of a dragon," he told himself, and off he went.
Days and nights he walked until he reached the fabled hills. Spotting the puffs of smoke from miles away, little Daniel began to shake with fear. He was not a brave boy, he realized. All the bluster about defeating the dragon and capturing the treasure had sounded great at the time; but now suddenly his magical weapon felt heavy and leaden in his hand, his palms sweating at the prospect of facing an evil foe a thousand times his size.
He pushed on, though, determined to get the treasure or die trying...although he really didn't want to die trying. When at last Daniel reached the dragon's lair he took a deep breath, smoothed back his greasy hair, and advanced on the great beast waving the stick around in the air. It was not the technique he had practiced, though, and the dragon merely snorted with laughter - the gust from its great nostrils was enough to propel Daniel back into the forest and the dragon curled up and went back to sleep.
The next day Daniel tried again, this time flinging the stick high above his head in an attempt to hit the dragon in the head and blind it. Poor Daniel was too tiny, though, and it only struck the elbow of the great beast. Once more the dragon's laughter sent Daniel flying through the air and he landed in an embarrassed heap amid the trees, ego and rear end bruised.
When the third day rolled around Daniel decided this would be it. He would either take the treasure or slink back home a loser once more. Steeling himself for battle, he finally remembered the techniques he had taught himself over those long hot months in the desert. With his jaw set and the stick held straight in front of him, Daniel charged wildly at the dragon - right into its groin. The beast let out a great roar and flew into the air, flapping its wings wildly and flying off to rest its sore bits.
At last the treasure was his, and with a girlish squeal Daniel gathered up the gold and precious gems, eager to start his new life. Returning home he quickly raised an army with his newfound wealth, took over the kingdom whose borders he had once longingly gazed at, and pronounced himself king. He wore only orange and black to both blind his enemies and cause fear among his followers; in honor of the great beast whose special area had been stabbed to gain his wealth, Daniel painted a wing on his chest. The new kingdom was named Philadelphia, and Daniel ruled over it happily...
...until the dragon returned, set on revenge, and ate Daniel as a midday snack. He never did get his silver cup.
The moral of the story is this: Spearing someone in the cup...won't bring you a Cup.
Who: Caps-Flyers, Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 4
Where: Wachovia Center, Philadelphia, PA
When: Thursday, April 17, 7:00 pm
Broadcast Info: CSN, Versus
Remember all those games at the end of the regular season? Remember saying that each game was "the biggest game of the year"?
Scratch that. Tonight's game has officially taken over that title.
In any series game 4 is a pivotal one, and this one is no exception. You're either trying to avoid the sweep or earn it, push the other team to the brink of elimination or hope that you won't be brought there. It is the point in the series where morale and momentum are drawn, the midway point of the series.
It's what separates the boys from the men; the playoff contenders from the playoff pretenders.
If the Caps want to emerge from the City of Brotherly Love with any sort of dignity and hope intact they need to put together a performance that we have yet to see from them for any extended period of time. And they need to do it now, in Game 4, before they fall into a hole that even this scrappy team can't emerge from. No more cutesy plays. No more long stretch passes ripe for pickoffs. No more letting the Flyers have their way, along the boards, in the neutral zone or in the crease.
They need to, in essence, play the exact type of road game that earned them a 5-1 record in their final six away from DC. They need to play desperate hockey - and maybe that's what it will take for them to wake up, a return to that back-against-the-wall type of play where every night was a must-win. Heading down the stretch the Caps didn't know they would need to basically win every game to get into the playoffs; but they knew they couldn't afford to lose more than one and they played like it. If no one else stepped in, the first line became the hero. If Ovechkin was shut down, others picked up the slack. They need to get back to that.
Because there's an urgency missing so far - and that's not the way to win a series.
Boudreau has done some tinkering with the lines and the special teams. Whether it's enough to push this team back to where they were just a few weeks ago, time will tell. Fedorov moves up to the top line to replace Backstrom (who has become virtually invisible); Semin is off the top power play unit, Eminger is in for an injured Schultz, and Laich moves up to the third line. All potentially good changes for sure, although I know I wasn't alone in hoping, to no avail apparently, that Olie might get the call to provide a little spark.
They all know what they have to do now. In post-practice interviews today every player to a man outlined exactly what problems we all saw and seemed adamant that they would fix them. Brooks Laich seemed downright angry, which is good. We want them angry. We want them hungry. We...want them singing Backstreet Boys songs in the locker room.
(Okay, maybe not. But check out the Sergei Fedorov interview for a good laugh, around the 2:25 mark.)
The Flyers' motto is 'Vengeance Now'...and that's great. Let them have their vengeance. We want 'Victory Now'. Go get 'em, Caps.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
I'm risking ruining my reputation as a (somewhat) level-headed, (kinda) even-keeled, unbiased (...ish) fan to make the following statement - but it needs to be said.
I hate the Flyers.
It's official. My unmitigated hatred for the orange and black is quickly returning to the level of contempt which at one time was only reserved for their Pennsylvania neighbors. I hate everything about them. I hate their retina-burning uniforms and their goonish history and their need to see blood spilled, from either team, every minute of every day.
Briere, Richards, Hartnell? No one here thinks you're cute, talented or tough. Biron? No one here thinks you're quirky. 'Vengeance Now'? More like 'Goons Forever'.
Yes, I'm mad. All Caps fans should be mad. This is not the series we were promised, not after the run this Caps team put together to get into the playoffs in the first place. You can make the claim that the Flyers got into the playoffs the same way, scrapping for points...but it wasn't the same way. The Flyers did not claw their way up from the league basement. In fact, at one point Philly was on top of the Atlantic Division and only fell after prolonged stretches of ineptitude throughout the season.
After the season we've had, after all the ups and downs, the coaching changes and goaltender changes and new faces and trades and signings and adjustments and standings climbing...we deserve something amazing, whether it's as a parting gift to cap off the season or just the beginning of a long postseason run.
If the Caps lose, they lose - this series was never supposed to be a home run. Give Philly credit, they've played a heck of a series so far, and no one expected a sweep by the Caps, an easy four games and a long rest. We're not playing Ottawa, after all (and a big ol' thanks to Pittsburgh again for that one). This series should be epic and tough.
If the Caps lose, though, they'd better go down swinging.
Tonight was better than Sunday. Of course it was better. But saying that tonight's performance was better than Sunday's is like saying Briere is taller on skates. True, but relative. Tonight the Caps should have come out flying; everything they've said in the last two days made us think they would. They were angry, they said. They were frustrated, they told us. They made mistakes and paid for it and that had to change, they swore. No one worked hard enough; everyone would have to work harder. That's what they said, and what we believed.
But it was the Flyers who took control early and even as the Caps mustered little flurries of energy and closed the gap the Flyers pulled further ahead. The Flyers ran over Huet time and time again without retribution, and then were pushed into him time and time again by hapless defenders who didn't know what else to do. The Caps continued to make ill-advised long passes resulting in turnovers, continued to sputter on the power play (despite finally getting one with the extra man), continued to look star-struck and stunned - as if they'd completely forgotten how to play hockey just because they were doing it after April 5.
It wasn't pretty. In fact, backdropped by the sea of happy orange it was downright ugly. And because of that they have to go back to the drawing board.
You want an easy scapegoat, take Erskine (please). Take Jurcina with his boneheaded turnover. Take Ovechkin, who has yet to show up with the presence we've become used to. But barring any of those, chalk this up to a good old-fashioned, all hands on deck team loss from start to finish.
If I'm the coach it may be time to think about putting in Olie for at least a game - not because Huet was bad, because once again he was one of the better performers out there (although I haven't seen a goal by goal breakdown so I could be wrong). It should be done because the guys need a wakeup call and Huet needs a rest. Poor Cristobal has had to take care of himself for three games now and has played 11 straight and the frustration is showing; rest him and put Zilla in to throw some punches, whack some ankles and yell at the boys. They need it. It's time.
And if I'm the coach it's DEFINITELY time to sit Erskine and put Eminger back in. Of course if Schultz reinjured himself that may be tricky but hell, no one said the playoffs were easy. Call up Lepisto or Boumedienne if that's what it takes. It's just mind-boggling that big #4 is still in there after taking dumb penalties and continuing to be on the ice staring blankly at Huet as the puck goes into the net. If he's in there to add toughness, great, but I haven't seen him do all that much to prove that he deserves a spot in the lineup just for that. Yank him. Free Steve Eminger. It's time.
And if I'm the coach...it's time to find a way to ignite this team, light a spark under their collective rear ends. This isn't playtime anymore and the team that once believed they couldn't lose has not only lost twice in a row but been outplayed for 8 of their first 9 playoff periods.
Being down 2-1 is doable; the series is far from over and the Caps can still salvage home ice advantage. Being down 3-1? You might as well call it a night, even with memories of 1988 fresh in our minds.
It's time for the average joes to become heroes...and the superstars to become superheroes. It's time for this team to show up.
Who: Caps-Flyers; Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Game 3
Where: Wachovia Center, Philadelphia
When: Tuesday, April 15
Okay; so Sunday didn't go exactly as planned. Time to take a deep breath, regroup, and prepare ourselves for Game 3: Revenge.
You know, the City of Brotherly Love is never quite so lovely as when the Caps are making Flyers fans cry...and that's already happened twice this season. Combine that with the fact that the Caps know they can win in Philly and know they can bounce back from bad losses, and there's plenty of reason to feel optimistic. They just need to take what they did last game and reverse it. Simple, right?
There's not much to analyze about game 2 - the Caps simply looked outworked on every inch of the ice, generating minimal pressure and finding themselves pushed off the puck far too easily. The battles along the boards, the rushes up ice, the power play, none of it looked sharp. That's not the Caps team that scrapped their way into the postseason, and it probably won't be the one that shows up today.
The fact that the Flyers managed to shut down both Ovechkin and Green is troubling. However, there are 29 teams in this league who have been unsuccessful in shutting down that duo. It certainly will not be the Flyers of all teams who figure out the magical secret to keep each of them off the board forever. Expect both big guns to adjust and come out flying...and a little secondary support wouldn't hurt, either.
As for goaltending, Huet was one of the best players on the ice after the Caps fell behind 2-0 in the last game and kept it from becoming really embarrassing, which it definitely had the potential to be. He needs to be able to see the puck, though, and get rebounds cleared away quickly. Cutting down on the odd-man rushes in the first place will probably also help, something the Caps had a lot of trouble with last time out. This is not the slow, pylon-esque Flyers team of the past (at least not up front) and their speed will get you every time.
And of course, congrats to new papa Martin Biron - he and his wife welcomed a little bundle of joy yesterday, a day after posting what will probably be the easiest shutout he ever scores. Even so, is it wrong to hope Biron's new baby kept him up nice and late these last two nights? I think not.
Time to bring it, Caps. Bring the pain, bring the energy, bring the passion...just bring it.
Sunday, April 13, 2008
Saturday, April 12, 2008
Friday, April 11, 2008
We've talked about the things you can measure, the stats and numbers and things that come in neat, pretty packages. But what about those qualities that every playoff team needs that you can't necessarily quantify with digits? It's often these little things that set the contenders apart from the teams that get swept...although they're often harder to pin down. Time to break down Intangibles:
Follow the Leader: It's in the postseason that the true leaders in a locker room often emerge, but going into the playoffs with a solid leadership core will also be important. As young as the Caps are, they have this area pretty well covered.
You have captain Chris Clark who could be returning from injury any day and whose steady hand and calming influence has been huge for this team these last few years. You have Olie Kolzig, wise veteran and backstopper in a Stanley Cup Final, a leader on and off the ice. You have Sergei Fedorov, living legend and future hall-of-famer; he speaks, you listen, end of story. Then there are guys like Matt Bradley, Brooks Laich, Alex Ovechkin, Tom Poti...guys in various stages of their career who lead by example and are willing to provide a face and a voice for the team when needed.
As for the Flyers, they've got one of the best leaders in the league in Jason Smith and Mike Richards seems to be stepping up...but beyond that there have been questions among both fans and the media about how much leadership there is in that room. There are some veterans, sure, guys who have been to the show and guys who have won at all different levels - it just seems like people are questioning how active those veterans have been down the stretch. To be fair, of course, I know very little about how the Flyers operate and I've never personally been behind the locker room doors so...if any Flyers fans are kicking around here, feel free to enlighten me. Advantage: Capitals
Learning the Ropes: It's been said many times - playoff experience cannot be underestimated once you get into the show. And for all the talk about the Caps having an inexperienced postseason lineup, the Flyers' roster isn't exactly teeming with playoff vets either. Neither goaltender has much playoff experience (in fact Biron has none; Huet has a whole 6 games). Neither coach has been in the NHL playoffs, although both have led their teams to Calder Cup championships in recent years. Each team has Stanley Cup champs on their roster - although I'll take Fedorov over Hatcher any day.
But when it comes down to it, the Caps have 15 players playing their first playoff game tonight, the Flyers have 9. Rookie coaches, semi-rookie superstars, AHL championships... Advantage: Even (or maybe I'll give a slight edge to the Caps...because I can).
Let's Get Physical: Much has been made about how tough the Flyers are to play, how they are the reincarnation of the Broad Street Bullies, blah blah blah. Yes, they're physical. Yes, they ran into some disciplinary "issues" early in the season. Yes...it's Philly. But just as the Flyers are not a team of goons, the Caps are not exactly a team to be taken lightly - and it's something that hasn't been brought up enough.
Everyone talks about Ovechkin and Backstrom being targeted by the Flyers, and they probably will be - the Flyers would be smart to target them (cleanly, by the way...cleanly). In Ovechkin's case, though, he isn't shy about hitting or being hit. In fact, he seems to derive energy from physical play and actually ends up targeting those sent out to target him. As for Backstrom, he may not be the biggest or strongest guy out there but nothing in the way he plays suggests to me that he ever shies away from the rough stuff. We've seen him go into the corners with guys much bigger than him and come out with the puck; we've also seen him do that and fall down, so it obviously depends on the day.
And then the rest. Bradley, Brashear, Laich, Gordon, Laing, Steckel, Erskine, Morrisonn, Jurcina, Poti...any of them seem like softies? The Flyers have more fighting majors...the Caps have more controlled physicality. Advantage: Capitals, just for the controlled part alone
Momentum: Flyers fans would have me remind you that while the Caps were winning their last 7, Philly went 7-1-1 in their last nine against "tougher" opponents. That's...great. However, it isn't just the final seven games for the Caps - it was the final seven in a row that was part of winning eleven of their last twelve that was part of winning fourteen of their last eighteen that was part of going 37-17-1 since Thanksgiving. It took them until the final day of their season to get into the playoffs because of the hole they'd dug, but the Caps have consistently and calmly been one of the best teams in the league since late November. Advantage: Capitals
Consistency: Fail to show up one night in the playoffs and it can be devastating. Fail to bounce back from a bad night...and it can be season-ending. The Flyers have suffered from inconsistency all year long, putting together small winning streaks only to have things derailed by a losing streak - it's why they had to struggle to make the postseason in the first place, after spending part of the early months holding down the top spot in the Atlantic. They even went on a lengthy 10-game losing streak just two months ago, and even dropped games to teams in the "weak" Southeast division - Florida, Tampa and yes, the Caps.
Meanwhile after Boudreau took over the helm the Caps practically eliminated losing streaks altogether and didn't lose back to back games in regulation until "the lost weekend" against Boston and the Pens. It was supposed to derail their season - they responded by winning eleven of their last twelve games. Advantage: Capitals
So many of these things are hard to predict based on regular season alone, and that's exactly what these are - predictions. Who knows what leaders will emerge, how physical this series will be, which veterans will prove the most beneficial. It's the beauty of the playoffs, the unknowns. On any given night there can be an unsung hero or a surprise outcome. In the end I like the Caps in this one only because there is something truly special going on here that I just don't see in a Philly team that is very talented in their own right.
If the little things win the day, the Caps have those little things and more in spades.
Overall Advantage: Caps all the way, baby!
It still feels like some sort of surreal dream that we're even here right now...but here we are. Almost a week to the day the Caps clinched the Southeast Division, the curtain rises on a new postseason and we sit on the cusp of the first playoff game in DC in many years - and the first playoff game period for many of our players (and our coach).
If you're like me, this past week has been a true exercise in patience, meditation and many, many types of sedatives. So let's get this puppy going, shall we?
Who: Southeast Division Champion Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Where: Verizon Center
When: Friday, April 11, 7:00 pm
Broadcast Info: CSN, Versus
Washington Capitals Website
Philadelphia Flyers Website
Washington Times - Hershey boys all grown up
Washington Times - Veteran Experience
Washington Post - The Bullies are back
Washington Post - The world's team
Culpeper Star-Exponent (...swear to god)
Philadelphia Inquirer - Marty Biron likes to talk
Philadelphia Inquirer - Last 9 games key for Flyers
Philadelphia Daily News - Briere needed rest
Courier-Post - Briere has unfinished business
Courier-Post - Goalies inexperienced
The Bulletin - How to stop the Caps
National Post - Ovechkin ready
...and those are just the ones that popped up first.
The first game of any playoff series is always a little strange. Both teams are tentative, nervous, unwilling to make a mistake - it's rare that the first game becomes a thrilling moment in sports history.
You have to think the way both of these teams finished out their seasons combined with the long break since they last played will create a bit more energy than usual. The Caps have one more day of rest - technically (although the way the Pens played Sunday it's not like the Flyers are worn out) - but each team has had about a week off after ending the season on a high note.
For this first game, then, expect the unexpected. The hometown crowd is going to be pumped and you can bet the Caps will feed off of that, but no one more than the great #8 himself. It's moments like this that the Russian Machine was made for; local spotlight, national spotlight, international spotlight...all eyes trained on the little Phone Booth in the middle of Chinatown.
We've been hearing all week how this will be a physical series, a bloodbath, a body-thumping, bruising war to end all wars. Whether that's true remains to be seen, and it's very possible that all the hype will in the end lead to nothing particularly special. But it should be a good hard-fought series regardless and the Caps will need to set the physical tone early - not because they can't keep up with the Flyers otherwise but because they should remind people that this is also a physical team.
Just look at how the hits break down after the regular season for proof of that.
One storyline to keep an eye on in this series will be the potential return of the walking wounded for both teams. In the final few games for the Caps they lost Morrisonn and Schultz to injury; both are expected back soon and hope to be in for game 1. On the final night of the season we also heard a rumor straight from the horse's mouth that captain Chris Clark will hopefully return soon (although we've heard that before and will believe it when we see it).
For the Flyers, they'll probably have Daniel Briere back after sitting out the last game of the year with a knee injury. They'll also possibly see the return of their captain, Jason Smith, who missed the last few games with an upper body injury, and in the first couple of games they'll likely get human pylon Derian Hatcher back as well.
We've talked about how these two teams match up in the past few days - offense, defense, and special teams - and we'll talk about intangibles later today. All that's left is to play the game. Remember to wear red, cheer loud and help our boys on to victory!
And finally, in honor of the playoffs, the Cheap Seats is proud to present...the return of the nicknames.
19-Scott "Rodgers and" Hartnell, 48-Daniel "the Magical Spearing Midget" Briere, 40-Vinny "Live Long and" Prospal
20-RJ "Heads Up" Umberger, 18-Mike "Ovechkin Lite" Richards, 15-Joffrey "Hatcher? RUUUN!" Lupul
9-Scottie "Doesn't Know" Upshall, 17-Jeff "Jimmy" Carter, 22-Mike "Kiss and" Knuble
32-Riley "*expletive deleted*" Cote, 34-Jim "Graybeard" Dowd, 25-Patrick "God of Thunder" Thoresen
5-Braydon "James" Coburn, 44-Kimmo "Pumbaa and" Timonen
6-Randy "YMCA" Jones, 21-Jason "Gator" Smith
26-Jaroslav "à la" Modry, 28-Lasse "Short Order" Kukkonen
30-Antero Niittymaki, 43-Martin "I don't lie and I don't whine" Biron
8-Alex "M-V-P" Ovechkin, 19-Nicklas "Peach Fuzz" Backstrom, 25-Viktor "the Professor" Kozlov
28-Alexander "No-Look" Semin, 91-Sergei "Clutch" Fedorov, 24-Matt "C is for" Cooke
43-Tomas "Flash" Fleischmann, 21-Brooks "Unsung Hero" Laich, 15-Boyd "the Big Goalscorer" Gordon
87-Donald "Puttin' on the Foil" Brashear, 39-Dave Steckel, 10-Matt "Captain Planet" Bradley
26-Shaone "Safety Net" Morrisonn, 52-Mike "Rockin' the 'Hawk" Green
3-Tom "The Man" Poti, 55-Jeff "Body Injury" Schultz
4-John "Damn It" Erskine, 23-Milan "Juice" Jurcina
37-Olie "300" Kolzig, 38-Cristobal "Hip Hip" Huet
As the series progresses, feel free to chime in with your own nickname suggestions via email or comment - creativity is always welcome here in the Cheap Seats.
And on that note...DROP THE PUCK!
Thursday, April 10, 2008
One day left; anyone hyperventilating yet? Time to cool down a little, take a breath...and meet Martin Biron.
Name: Martin Gaston Biron (yes, really.)
Born: August 15, 1977
From: Lac St. Charles, PQ
Weight: 165 lbs
Career with Philadelphia: Traded to the Flyers February 27, 2007; signed a 2-year, $7 million extension a month later
2007-08 Season: 30-20-9, 2.59 GAA, .918 S%
Caps Connection: Younger brother Mathieu formed half of the "gruesome twosome" on defense for the Caps in the 2005-06 season.
Hobbies: talking; chatting; gabbing; chewing the fat; dishing
Favorite Movies: Something to Talk About; He Said, She Said; Look Who's Talking
Wednesday, April 09, 2008
It's always fun to see ESPN's "experts" weigh in on different hockey-related subjects - it's more fun when they're nice, even glowing, in their discussions of the Caps. Observe:
1. Which player do you think will be one of the out-of-nowhere role players who surprises everyone in the playoffs?They also go on to say that Sid will go further than Ovie in the playoffs, but that's neither surprising...nor necessarily wrong. As much as I love our boys, the Penguins are a Cup favorite, the Caps a Cinderella story - and if both win the first round they'll probably have to face each other.
Scott Burnside: I would keep an eye on Tom Poti. The veteran in Washington has put some injuries behind him and moves the puck well. He plays in the shadow of Mike Green now, but that's not a bad thing.
E.J. Hradek: I think Capitals forward Brooks Laich and Red Wings forward Johan Franzen could be two under-the-radar type players who can be surprisingly big contributors in the coming weeks.
Barry Melrose: That's a good question. I think you'll see players like Mike Grier of San Jose as well as a fan and team favorite like Ian Laperriere of Colorado step up, players who play a hard style that's perfect for the playoffs. Steve Ott of Dallas is another one; he gets under people's skin. In the East, look for Scott Hartnell (Flyers), Matt Cooke (Capitals) and Nigel Dawes (Rangers) to score big, timely goals.
5. Which arena will have the most electricity in the first round?
Burnside: It's hard to believe I'm writing this, but the Verizon Center in Washington.
Hradek: The Bell Centre just ain't the Forum, but the place will be nuts when the Habs take the ice to face the Bruins. The atmosphere will be nuclear! The Verizon Center in D.C. should be jumping, too.
Melrose: The Shark Tank. It's the loudest building in the NHL. All of the first-round arenas will be great; Washington will be unbelievable. But with all of the optimism and the team's strong finish to the regular season, San Jose will be rockin'.
Since the lockout power plays and penalty killing have become more and more important - but it's always been a key ingredient of a successful playoff team. Time to break down Special Teams...
Power Play Power: Philadelphia is a scary, scary team when they have the extra man and have been among the league leaders throughout the regular season in power play effectiveness. In fact as the regular season came to a close they were being held off only by a pesky bunch of Canadiens for first in the NHL (although the gap between first and second was a significant 3%). As for the Caps, they trended up as the season went on and after toying with the top five in the league they finished out the year a respectable 10th, 18.8% compared to Philly's 21.8%. Advantage: Flyers
Down a Man: Maybe it's something in the water in Philly. Maybe they're just so good that being down a man doesn't affect them that much...or maybe they're just used to having someone in the penalty box. Philly's penalty killing far outranks the skill of the Caps (although again, that's an area that has trended up this season and should improve when Dave Steckel returns), finishing the year 10th best in the league at 83.2% effective compared to the 25th ranked Caps at just over 80%. Advantage: Flyers
Discipline, Discipline, Discipline: It should surprise no one to learn that the Flyers were among the most penalized teams in the league this season - and that's just minor penalties. Their 388 times in the box was tied for second highest in the league. The Caps, on the other hand, have been a much more disciplined team and ranked 18th in the league in that area. 27 times this season the Flyers took at least 6 penalties in a single game...ten more than the Caps. Advantage: Capitals
Individual Efforts: The Caps may have the league's most prolific scorer of power play goals in Alexander Ovechkin (a franchise record-tying 22 on the season) but the Flyers have had some individual standouts in their own right. In fact, they have three of the top thirty power play scorers in their lineup - and Daniel Briere's 37 power play points equals the total output of Ovechkin. Nicklas Backstrom's 25 points and Mike Green's 23 were good enough to crack the top 70... Advantage: Flyers
Power Outage: Nothing kills the momentum of a power play more than a shorthanded goal, and both teams have been just about in the middle of the road when it comes to giving up these heartbreakers. The Caps were bitten 8 times this season, the Flyers 6...of course two of the goals against Washington came in one game courtesy of Daniel Alfredsson and the Senators. Advantage: Even
Striking While Injured: The Flyers may not give up a lot of shorthanded goals - but they do know how to score them. They finished in a tie for third in the league with a whopping 13 shorthanded goals on the season, besting the Caps in that area by 8. Mike Richards has five shorthanded goals all by himself, equalling the total output of the entire Caps' lineup. That Washington penalty kill will need to be on the lookout for the quick breakout pass, that's for sure. Advantage: Flyers
Road Weariness vs. Home Cooking: Playing at home seems to juice up the Caps' power play, which jumped up to around 20% this season when hosting teams at the Phone Booth. Away from DC, however, it dipped below 17%, something that won't make going into a hostile (or THE hostile) environment of Wachovia Center any easier. Philly, for what it's worth, was 23% effective at home and just about 20% away...but both markers were ranked third in the league. Advantage: Flyers
Getting Testy: It wouldn't be the Broad Street Bullies without a few fisticuffs, right? The Flyers drew 65 fighting majors this season, 12 misconducts, 6 game misconducts and 2 match penalties...and had PIM totals over twenty minutes 25 times. Not surprisingly the bulk of this special sin bin time comes against the Penguins. The Caps weren't exactly shy, just...less feisty, racking up 35 fighting majors, one misconduct and two game misconducts. Advantage: ...does anyone really win this one?
The Broad Street Bullies may have disappeared for a year or two but even with the addition of well-known softie Daniel Briere, they're back and more obnoxious than ever. Their tenacity at drawing penalties, misconducts, and suspensions is balanced out only by their skilled attack when someone is in the penalty box - regardless of whether that someone is wearing orange and black or not.
As for the Caps, it'll be interesting to see how they match up against a Flyers team that has been, on paper, a more dominant special teams club. The Caps have improved over the beginning of the season but have hit rough patches in both the power play and penalty killing departments - neither is helped by their inability to score 5 on 3, or their inability to kill off a 2 man advantage.
Overall Advantage: Sorry, Caps fans...this one goes to Philly.
Tuesday, April 08, 2008
Playoff series are a great way to get to know another team - but it's always fun to do a little scouting ahead of time, isn't it? We'll start with none other than the magical spearing midget himself, Daniel Briere.
Name: Daniel Briere
Born: October 6, 1977
From: Gatineau, PQ
Height: 5'10" (...uh-huh. Sure.)
Weight: 181 lbs
Career with Philadelphia: Signed as a ridiculously overpaid free agent on July 1; currently serving out an 8-year, $52 million
sentence contract with a no-trade clause
2007-08 Season: 79 games played; 31-41-72, 68 PIM, -22
Caps Connection: The "Incident"...
Greatest accomplishments: Winning the 2007 NHL All-Star Game MVP; convincing Gepetto that he was a real live boy
Hobbies: big game hunting, jabbing a stick into the midsections of unsuspecting passersby, knitting little woolen booties for himself
Favorite Movies: The Wizard of Oz; Rudy; The Station Agent
Other Fun Facts: Once spray-painted himself orange, dyed his hair green and danced around the locker room as an Oompa Loompa to cheer up his team after a loss
Today I want to talk about our defense. The best defense is an offense, and the best offense is a defense. The reason why offense is the best defense is because in hockey, the team that scores the most wins. And if our offense outscores their offense, they'll be defenseless. Their defense might be able to stop our offense, but it can't stop our defense. Because when we're on defense they have to be on offense, and if we have an offensive-minded defense, there's no way they can defend us.
Now I don't mean to be defensive, but some of you might find this offensive. We're going to call our defense our offense, and our offense our defense. That way we'll remember to use our defense as an offense, and our offense as a defense against their offense. And that'll totally confuse 'em.
Okay, let's go out and play some hockey!
--NHL Network ad
...what he said. Moving on to Defensive Stability:
Puck Movers - Mike Green, Tom Poti, Steve Eminger
Body Pounders - John Erskine, Milan Jurcina
Steady as a Rock - Shaone Morrisonn, Jeff Schultz
Puck Movers - Kimmo Timonen, Randy Jones
Body Pounders - Derian Hatcher, Jason Smith
Steady as a Rock - Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn
Pluses and Minuses: Numbers only tell so much of the story, but for a defenseman you can tell a lot by their +/- rating. Here is where the Caps have an edge, helped immensely by the fact that the team as a whole has been playing extremely tight defense over the last 20-30 games. Only two defensemen, Lepisto and Eminger, are a minus - and neither played more than 20 games all year. On their entire defensive roster, the Flyers have four minus players...including Rory Fitzpatrick, who is a -12 in just 19 games this year. Advantage: Capitals
Defense from the Offense: The Caps finished out the season on a defensive high note, allowing only 65 goals in the last 30 games with 4+ goals allowed only 4 times during that period. Only five players on the regular roster are minus players, with no one (besides Semin, shocking) in double digits. In Philly's last 30 games they've allowed 84 goals despite posting back to back shutouts to close the season, and were lit up for 4+ goals 11 times during that stretch. Nine regular roster players are in the minus column, including Daniel Briere bringing up the rear with a -22 rating. Advantage: Capitals
Offense from the Defense: Philadelphia's defense has chipped in 143 points this year, including 30+ point seasons from Timonen, Jones and Coburn - but beyond those three it's single digits in points for all of the blueliners but Smith, who has 10. The Caps' D has contributed just a little more with 148 points and every player, even Sami Lepisto, has at least a point. Green obviously leads the way with 56 points (18G, 38A) but five of the top seven defensemen have double digit point totals. Advantage: Capitals
Between the Pipes: The last line of defense is, of course, the goaltender - and in Philly, it's seemed like they've been on an eternal quest for stability in net since Ron Hextall retired. The latest leg of the journey has brought Martin Biron to town from Buffalo and he's been a big part of their resurgence after last year's disappointing season. He picked up his 30th win with a shutout against the Pens in the season closer and posted season numbers of a 2.59 GAA with .918 save percentage, but he has trouble controlling rebounds and often looks out of position even when he's "hot".
For the Caps, the goaltending situation has been a bit of a rollercoaster all year long, but with the addition of Cristobal Huet it has become much more stable. Both Huet and Kolzig have played extremely well down the stretch, with Huet in particular finding a hot streak at exactly the right time to take over the number 1 slot. Huet's 32 wins are 11th in the league, his 2.32 GAA ranked 10th, and his .920 save percentage tied for 6th. Advantage: Capitals
Laying Down the Body: 1028 blocked shots for the Capitals...compared to 1265 blocked shots for the Flyers. There's no contest here. Four different players in Philadelphia have triple digit shot block totals, including Jason Smith's 204 which trails only walking bruises Mike Komisarek (227) and Anton Volchenkov (209). Three of those four rank in the top 30 in the league. For the Caps, Tom Poti has been a shot-blocking machine in his own right with 119 (good for a tie for 40th in the league), followed closely by Milan Jurcina's 107 blocked shots. And of course, don't forget Quintin Laing with 52...in just 39 games. Advantage: Flyers
Despite the skill and defensive ability of someone like Kimmo Timonen, the Flyers are still struggling in their own end - both in net and along the blue line. While they've revamped their forwards and have found a balanced attack up front, the defensive corps of the Broad Street Bullies has changed very little from the days when Bobby Clarke ran things. The fact that Derian Hatcher even still has a job there is proof that there is still work to do.
In Washington, on the other hand, inexperience and uncertainty are slowly fading away to reveal a very promising young group, shored up by the veteran presence of Tom Poti and the breakout seasons of Mike Green and Shaone Morrisonn. They're big but mobile, strong but quick...with the possible exception being someone like John Erskine, although even he can hoof it when he needs to and can make the occasional smart plays in his own zone and on the penalty kill (when he's not the one in the box, of course).
Overall advantage: No surprise here - Caps all the way.
Monday, April 07, 2008
It's been great to see the growing friendship over the past few years between the Caps and other local sports teams like the Washington Nationals, and tonight Mike Green and Cristobal Huet became the fourth and fifth members of the Caps to make their way out to the mound to throw out the opening pitch. Here are a few captured moments from the evening: Green and Huet make their way out to the mound. Yes, even at baseball games I'm bringing you a view from the cheap seats... Green after his pitch - looked pretty good to me! A little love from the Nats for the postseason run. Okay, so when do we get to see Felipe Lopez and Ryan Zimmerman out on the ice?
Huet getting ready for his turn
Getting critiqued by Jason Bergmann
Huet's second job of the evening was the delivery of the line-up cards...
...and apparently chatting up the umpires. "Hey, guys, help out the Nats and I'll get you Caps playoff tickets!" (It didn't work, sorry, Cris.)
Green's second task was to get the game underway with the traditional "Let's Play Ball!"
Poor Mike's mic didn't work, though, so they got him another...which also didn't work. He took it in stride, though!
Green and Huet make their way out to the mound. Yes, even at baseball games I'm bringing you a view from the cheap seats... Green after his pitch - looked pretty good to me!
A little love from the Nats for the postseason run.
Okay, so when do we get to see Felipe Lopez and Ryan Zimmerman out on the ice?
We've got a bit of time on our hands thanks to the fact that we'll have to wait until Friday for our series to start. I guess it's been four long years...we can wait another day or two, right?
So to kill a bit of time and sort out this matchup we'll be breaking down the various pieces that go into building a championship team and comparing the Caps to the Flyers, a different piece every day. It all leads up to the big event on Friday when the Flyers travel to DC for Game 1 - which will oddly coincide with the first ever Cheap Seats Playoff Gameday Preview Extravaganza!
Up first...Offensive Firepower.
Caps' Leading Scorers:
The Big Guns - Ovechkin, Semin, Green
The Hidden Treasures - Laich, Kozlov
The Dishers - Backstrom, Poti, Fedorov
Flyers' Leading Scorers:
The Big Guns - Briere, Prospal, Knuble
The Hidden Treasures - Upshall, Umberger
The Dishers - Richards, Timonen, Jones
Biscuits in the Basket: When it comes to a balanced attack, the Flyers seem to have found a magic formula. They have seven players with 20+ goals and no one player with more than 33; assists are equally close and even more widespread. For the Caps, the addition of secondary scoring beyond just the top line has been a slow one but in recent weeks it's picked up and it's been a big reason for their winning ways of late. Still, the bulk of the goal-scoring is carried out by Ovechkin, the bulk of the assists coming from Backstrom. Advantage: Flyers
Facing Off: The Caps continue to assert their dominance in the faceoff circle under the capable hands of centers Boyd Gordon and Dave Steckel, and have gotten even better with the shrewd addition of veteran center Sergei Fedorov. During the regular season they cracked the top 10, sitting 8th overall with a 51.2% success rate; of the teams bound for the playoffs they're 4th, trailing only Detroit, the Rangers and Ottawa. Meanwhile the Flyers were just under 50% effective in the regular season, good enough for 20th in the league and 11th of the 16 playoff teams. Advantage: Capitals
Shooting Gallery: Washington's tendency to pelt opposition goaltenders with a high volume of shots was aided immensely by Ovechkin's league-leading 446 shots on goal, but the team in general still ranked 6th in the league. Their average of 31 shots per game edges out the Flyers' average shot output of 28.8 shots per game, ranked 16th in the league during the regular season. Advantage: Capitals
Score First, Score Often: Both teams are clicking right along, scoring just under 3 goals per game with the Flyers holding the slightest of margins at 2.99 G/G versus the Caps at 2.90. However, the Caps have a better record when scoring first, managing to hold the lead in 70% of those games as compared to the Flyers, who blow it a little more to win only 67%. Advantage: Even
Winning a Period at a Time: It's always easier to play with a lead, and the Caps have become notorious for jumping out early - they were the fifth best first period team this season with 75 early markers, ten more than 15th place Philadelphia. It's in the second period, however, where the Flyers were not only prolific but dominant. Their 93 goals in the middle frame tied the Avalanche as best in the league, while the Caps sat at 15th with 78. And in the tiebreaker period, the third? Philly picked up 84 goals (good enough for 7th), the Caps, 78. Advantage: Flyers (slightly)
O from the D: The big offensive weapon on the Flyers blueline is All-Star Kimmo Timonen; for the Caps, it's Should-Have-Been-All-Star Mike Green. Greenie is certainly the bigger offensive threat than any one of the Flyers defensemen, though, with his mobility and slickness that lets him literally skate circles around the other team's D. His 18 goals are twice as many as any of the Flyers; after him, though, there's a significant dropoff and the stats get a little closer.
Both the Caps and Flyers have gotten at least a goal from every blueliner logging significant ice time this season (read: more than 30 games); both get significant assist totals out of their defensive corps, as well, with the Flyers edging the Caps at 115 assists from the blue line compared to 114 for DC. Advantage: Capitals by a Green hair
When it comes down to it, these are two tremendously explosive offensive teams - which should make for quite a workout for the boys in net and along the blueline on both sides of the ice. Over the course of the regular season the Flyers scored 245 goals, besting the Caps by just 7. While Philly scored by committee, the Caps depended on a steady diet of Ovechkin with a side order of secondary scoring to help him out.
For the Flyers, this even scoring touch is both good and bad. On the one hand, they can roll a number of offensive threats out at any given time, and you always have to be watching for the late guy in. Their forwards are fast and opportunistic, pouncing on turnovers to create a quick odd-man rush before the defense can recover. On the other hand, however, they have no one legitimate superstar scoring threat. They have a lot of 20-30 goal scorers but no one consistent offensive threat to explode when it's most needed.
The way the Caps score, it's the complete opposite. Ovechkin's 65 goals and 47 assists accounted for almost half of the total offense this year - which again, has good and bad aspects. Bad news first. Shut down Ovechkin, Kozlov and Backstrom and you seriously cripple the Caps' offense. Good news? Many have tried to shut down that line...and many have failed, hence the 65 goals and 47 assists from Ovechkin alone. Plus you do have guys like Green, Laich, Semin and Fedorov to pick up the slack.
Overall advantage: None. These teams can both shoot the puck, and this one will come down to defense and goaltending.
More on that tomorrow.