Saturday, May 31, 2008

Season in Review: Defensemen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Season in Review: Forwards (Pt 2)

Completing our look at the forwards...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Brads is Sticking Around

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

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

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

Now about those pesky playoffs...

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words...Go Wings.


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Season in Review: Forwards (Pt 1)

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

Up first, the forwards - Backstrom to Gordon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next...Kozlov to Steckel


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Party On, Alex

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


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Russians Are Golden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Defining Moments

Okay, that does it. No more moping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, May 09, 2008

Farewell, Olie

It's a sad day for Caps fans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You'll surely be missed.


Thursday, May 01, 2008

So Much to Say

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

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

Bully for them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Is Colorado still playing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through my tears, of course.