Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Moving Day

The Cheap Seats are moving to swankier digs!

A View from the Cheap Seats

This site will remain up for the foreseeable future but will no longer be updated after today, so please adjust your bookmarks and site readers as necessary.

Special thanks to friend of the Cheap Seats, Geneen for all her help and support in making the jump.


Thursday, June 05, 2008

Fleury's Caboose

If you watched last night's Cup-clinching win by the Red Wings or saw any of the highlights you probably noticed that Detroit's third goal was a little...odd - going from the stick of Zetterberg, through a maze of players in front of Fleury, and landing between his pads.

Then he sat on it, propelling the frozen rubber disk over the goal line.

It would be a painful goal at any time but you almost have to feel for Fleury, especially considering that such a fluke eventually cost his team the Stanley Cup. He had put together some pretty great performances throughout the playoffs and even a few in the Finals - his teammates spoke the truth when they said they wouldn't be there without him and so he had nothing to hang his head about.

In fact, the entire Penguins team and their fans should be very proud that their young team made this series as interesting as it was. It was a hell of a performance and a hell of an ending. Nothing should take away from that.

And yet...being the bitter, cruel, schadenfreuder that I am I just couldn't resist it when the creative urge (and a great deal of boredom) struck. After all, it was just two months ago that a certain captain was cackling about one of our players putting the puck into his own net. Karma can be a bitch, can't it?

At any rate, I blame my roommate and fellow Caps fans I talked with throughout the game for what finally took shape around 1:00 this morning. I'll probably regret posting it, but enjoy:


Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A New Champ is Crowned

Congratulations to the 2008 Stanley Cup Champions,
the Detroit Red Wings!
Certainly a thrilling end to a thrilling 2007-08 NHL season.

...is it September yet?


Osala Signs

More good news on the prospect front - the Caps have signed 2006 draft pick Oskar Osala to an entry-level two-way deal, beating the deadline to sign picks from that year by a little more than a week. Osala is a physical left-winger who played two years in the OHL before returning to his native Finland last year to play for Espoo of SM-liga, where he was named the rookie of the year.

If you read Finnish, you can find out more here...

h/t to Sonja for the heads-up


This Day in Caps History

Ten years ago today, Joe Juneau sent the Caps somewhere they'd never been before - the Stanley Cup Finals. Do you remember where you were?


Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Refs in the Penalty Box

It's time for the NHL to take a serious look at the officiating.

Forget about tweaking the rules or playing with the goalie pads to make them 1/184th of an inch smaller or deciding what undeserving location gets an outdoor game. After the Cup is handed out this week there should be only one topic of discussion for the rest of the summer, and that is the state of the penalty call in today's NHL.

League officials, referees, and linesmen should be locked in a room and forced to watch every second of this year's playoffs until they've seen all of the blown calls, the nonexistent calls, the bizarre calls - and figured out a way to fix it.

Because there's no reason for it. It's not an easy job, officiating an NHL game - even on a normal day it's probably one of the least desirable and most difficult jobs to do, and no one is saying that 100% of the calls are expected to be right 100% of the time. In a high pressure situation like the playoffs the microscope is even bigger, with instant replays and 20,000 paying referees disputing every call, and there is a subjective nature to the system that can't be overlooked.

But there should be the expectation that the referees and linesmen will make the right call most of the time. It's not that much to expect, really.

Sure, there are always controversial calls in every playoff series; there are always those plays that should have been whistled down that weren't, the moments that become legend for one fanbase or another. Somehow, though, it seems like this year the bad calls or blatantly missed calls are not only more prevalent but more pivotal in the final outcome of a game or even a series. That shouldn't happen. In order for hockey to maintain its integrity, it can't happen.

Three seasons ago the league underwent a massive facelift, implementing a salary cap and new rules that would change the way the game was played. And for the most part, after a few growing pains in the early months, things seemed to settle in. Referees knew what to call. Players knew what would be called.

That lasted for two seasons.

So what happened this year? Did every referee have a lobotomy over the offseason? Was there an epidemic of selective amnesia among the officials? There was some tweaking of the rules last summer but nothing so drastic as to make the officiating parties completely forget how to do their job. It's just been bad - through the regular season and the playoffs, bad. Horrible. And unacceptable.

Ask any hockey fan whose team was among the top 16 this year, if you talk to them about the penalties that were called or not called, you'll hear a familiar refrain: we got screwed. Nothing could unite fans of every team quite like that one sentence, and nothing could be more true - because we did all get screwed.

Talk to Caps fans about that second Flyers goal in Game 7. Talk to Devils fans about the mysterious icing call while killing off a penalty. Talk to Red Wings fans about Holmstrom's rear end. We all got screwed.

It's easy to sit back and say that if every team is getting equally screwed then there is no advantage for any other team and thus, no problem. Both teams have equally legitimate complaints and therefore no one gets hurt.

But the game is getting hurt. This series between the Red Wings and Penguins should be epic - two of the best teams in the league going at it for hockey's ultimate prize? Epic. And at times, it has been. Other times, though, it's been sullied and overshadowed by the inexcusable officiating.

There are the rare good calls (Hudler's high-sticking double minor in triple overtime last night was unfortunate but had to be called); but then there are the bad calls (did Datsyuk really trip Staal or can the kid just not skate?), the latter far outnumbering the former and making a mockery of what could be a great series.

Not only does that take away from the quality of the game, particularly at this, the highest level, but it also creates an atmosphere of distrust, of disillusionment, and of unsportsmanlike conduct. Diving, embellishment, cheap shots, head shots, etc. It's all part of the "New" NHL, folks - come on in and watch.

So for whatever is left of this season, be it one game or two, we will watch - and see what happens. What calls are made, what aren't, and what bearing they have on the ultimate outcome of the series.

Because regardless of who wins, in the end no one wants to see a Stanley Cup winner with an asterisk next to their name.


Sunday, June 01, 2008

Season in Review: Entertainment

It's impossible to go to a hockey game at any level these days and not find yourself bombarded with music, strange sounds, flashing lights, stupid audience participation games and feeble attempts at getting the crowd to cheer. It is, as some have mentioned in the past, the death of the pure hockey experience. The mantra of NHL arenas these days seems to be "keep them stimulated at all times", and the Verizon Center is no exception.

So as long as we're going to be subjected to a constant attack on the senses, it's only fair that it gets critiqued along with the rest of the team. After all, the video screen has become just as much a part of the hockey experience as the stuff on the ice.

In other words...what were the best and worst in-game features this season?

Original opening video - The Caps have a long history of producing great opening videos that get the crowd pumped up, that showcase great creativity and spotlight the talent. So it was surprising to see this unveiled at the start of the season, a video with good intentions but miscues all over the place. Watching the boys get dressed and then "play" on what is clearly the practice rink? Not thrilling. Not exciting. And not good enough.

Announcer Challenge - A clip of a past game is shown and two competitors are then asked to provide their own calls. The winner is decided by the crowd. Sounds like fun, right? Wrong. It only took one round to remind us that what Joe B. does every night is not as easy as it looks, something I'm sure most of us already knew. Please let this one die.

Tattoo Commercial - This one surfaced at the beginning of the season and thankfully died soon after, but you have to wonder what the thought process was behind it. Sure, sex sells, but come on. Nothing about this was sexy - the woman, the idea, the tattoo that looked like one of those temporary tattoos you see on little kids, nothing. Just horrible.

Ovechkin's Garage - I'm all for videos that show us the players away from the rink. I love seeing where they live and what they do in their spare time, its fun. It makes them seem like real (albeit much wealthier) people. But this was just a big ol' commercial for a garage makeover company, a five minute plug that showed us nothing but the least exciting part of Ovechkin's house. Frankly after the first viewing I never needed to see it again - sorry, Ovie.

Cribs with Brooks Laich and Mike Green - Ladies and gentlemen, the Abbott & Costello of the Washington Capitals. These two guys are hilarious together and so what better way to showcase that then to have each one commenting on the other's house? There's just great stuff in both episodes, from Laich's giggling over "Gary the Bear" to Green planting Hockey for Dummies and chick flicks around Laich's apartment to the duo's ill-advised musical exploits. Instant classics.

Opening video (midseason) - About halfway through the season the original opening video was mercifully scrapped and replaced with this adrenalin-pumping, heart-pounding rocker set to the fantastic Foo Fighters song "The Pretender". It took the best parts of the first attempt - Ovechkin and Semin's fist pound, Olie's mystical breath, etc. - and mixed them together with new footage and highlights. The montage now included great goals, hits and fights from everyone on the team, showcasing emerging stars like Backstrom and Green along with the usual suspects while giving just about everyone on the team face time.

Caps on Segways - It's always fun to see the guys out and about in DC; Caps Up-Close videos are among my favorites for just that reason. Ovechkin being goofy behind Matt Bradley is hilarious. Backstrom talking about how fun segways are is adorable. Seeing Mike Green wipe out in the slowest segway-meets-cement planter collision ever, and then seeing his teammates mocking him after? Priceless.

Year in Review - This video only appeared once, obviously, airing at the end of the final game of the season against the Panthers. Had the Caps not been headed to the playoffs, it would still have been great; but on the heels of a division-clinching win the video took on a poignancy and a magical quality that made it that much better. And no one was left out, from Schultz's and Laing's 1st NHL goals to Ovechkin's 60th of the season to Olie's 300th career win. Great music ("Believe" by the Bravery), great editing, great footage - perfect for capping off a great season.


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-