Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Caps/Leafs Recap

Capitals 7, Maple Leafs 1

It appears reports of the Washington Capitals demise have been greatly exaggerated. On the strength of two Alexander Ovechkin goals, as well as tallies from Matt Bradley, Brian Sutherby, Jeff Schultz and Matt Pettinger (the first of the year for each) the Capitals were able to rout the Maple Leafs 7-1, despite playing without two of their top six forwards (Clark, Semin) and their top defenseman (Poti). Olaf Kolzig rebounded from allowing a goal on the first Toronto shot to stop 32 of 33, holding one of the NHL's most potent offenses to just one score.

There's really not a lot of in-depth analysis you can do after a 7-1 game most of the time. The Caps exploited the Leafs weaknesses (bad turnovers, slow defensemen, sieve-like goalies) and didn't miss their chances to put the puck in the net.

I would guess the players-only meeting in St. Louis helped a lot. There's only so much a coach can do on his one. In terms of what he sees about what to change or what needs improvement, he's only one guy. Yes, he's paid to be the go-to guy for that sort of thing but there are a lot more players than there are members of the coaching staff. Aside of that players can call one another out. Coaches can too of course, but it's classes for a coach to single a guy out in front of the whole team. On the other hand veteran players can say much worse without creating an us-versus-them mentality. Great decision by the veterans to hold the meeting at that time.

The important thing to get from a win like this is momentum. The Caps came into one of the loudest, most packed buildings in the NHL and dominated the opposition, despite being without three of the most important players - that's the type of game that can lead to big-time winning streak or a great run. Hopefully the Caps can take some momentum from the Leafs game and building on it when they face the Rangers on Thursday.

A few quick hits:

  • Sutherby was wearing a 'A', an interesting decision given that he's only played this year because of injuries.
  • Maybe it's unfair to criticize a guy who stopped 32 of 33 shots by the goal Kolzig let in was a softie. If you took away the goals that have made if by him by either going through the five-hole or slipping under the leg pads you could cut his GAA in half.
  • Jeff Schultz's goal was his first in the NHL
Wayward Sports Sons Three Stars:
(1) Alex Ovechkin (2 goals, 7 shots, +1)
(2) Matt Bradley (1 goal, 2 assists, +3)
(3) Michael Nylander (3 assists, +1)


"It's really important for our [checking line forwards] to shut the other team down. We didn't want them thinking they had to score, but it gets to a certain point where they have to contribute something down the line offensively."

-Glen Hanlon

"I think we deserved tonight's win."

-Alex Ovechkin

Sunday, October 28, 2007

October 29: Caps Visit Leafs

The Capitals are facing a tough task in an important game as they travel to Toronto tonight to take on the Maple Leafs (5-4-3). According to Tarik Alexander Semin, Tom Poti and Chris Clark are all "doubtful/questionable" for the game. Given that Semin's injury has seemingly disappeared only to pop up twice already, Poti's nursing a groin strain (which are tricky for hockey players) and Clark hasn't been spotted with the team in Toronto I'd say there's not much chance of seeing any of them tonight, meaning the Caps will again be with out several key players.

Toronto is a talented team: Mats Sundin, Nik Antropov and Jason Blake provide the team with solid scoring and the defense is lead by two of the best in the game in Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe. The secondary/role players are solid too; most team would be happy to have either Hal Gill (who Jagr once said was the toughest defenseman to play against) or Pavel Kubina on their second pairing, let alone both. At the other end Antropov and Alexander Steen provide enough scoring depth that the Leafs won't have to rely on their first line.

But the Leafs have obvious holes too, the most obvious of which is goaltending. Neither Vesa Toskala nor Andrew Raycroft is good enough to be the type of goalie an NHL team would want to be their number one, something the Leafs 28th ranked 3.59 GAA suggests). The Capitals have been outshooting their opponents for the most part this season and they need to continue to do so against Toronto, especially against goalies like Raycroft and Toskala each of whom are both inconsistent and too small to be able to cover the whole net at once. If the Caps can get traffic in front they could easily see a shot or two get through from the outside or the point.

Kubina and Gill are both solid defensemen, especially in their own zone, but both are big, physical players who can be beaten by speedy forwards. Even without Semin and Clark the Caps have a lot of those guys: Ovechkin, Backstrom, Fleischmann and Nylander all posses some combination of speed, agility and puck control that will make them difficult for the Leafs bigger defensemen to control. Add that to the tendency McCabe, Ian White and Andy Wozniewski each have to make mistakes in their own end that to lead to chances for the opposition and the Capitals should have plenty of chance to put the biscuit in the basket (to borrow a phrase from Craig Laughlin).

Finally the Leafs simply take too many penalties (their 201 PIMs are third in the league thus far). McCabe, Gill, Kubina, Antropov and even Jason Blake are guys who will take frustration penalties and the Caps should be able to make a fairly slow defense take penalties to prevent good scoring chances.

There really is not such a thing as a must-win game and this point in the season, but the difference between a win and a loss is huge for the Capitals right now. A loss would take them to 4-7 and 1-7 since a 3-0 start; a win puts them one more win away from .500, gets out some of the frustration the team must be feeling after a pair of one-goal losses in which the Caps outplayed their opponents and would provide a boost for a team likely to be playing without its number one defenseman, number two scoring threat and captain. The team knows this and a players-only meeting was held after the last game. The team seems to know their situation: they're not in real hot water yet but there's no reason this ship can't be righted right now.

When it comes down to it, there is no doubt Toronto is a talent team but the Capitals, with their multiple scoring threats and solid checking line, match up well against them. Air Canada Centre is tough place to visit as an opposing player and if the injury-riddled Caps are able to pull one out it could provide some significant positive momentum.


"We just cleared the air about a few things. We're taking too many penalties right now. Whether they are in the offensive zone, or defensive zone. And just confidence. We had a swagger at the start of the year. We have to get that back. [The meeting] was good."

-Matt Pettinger on the players-only meeting the team held after their 4-3 loss in St. Louis.

"We definitely need those people, but it's an opportunity for other people to step forward. We have people who are fighting for their NHL lives here. If you give up that many minutes, someone's going to have an opportunity to step up and play."

-Glen Hanlon

This from the Post Preview: "The Maple Leafs find themselves in similarly sad shape [in terms of injuries]. They won't have forwards Darcy Tucker (right knee) and Kyle Wellwood (groin) or defensemen Carlo Colaiacovo (knee) and Bryan McCabe (groin)...The Leafs are third in the NHL in penalty minutes but tied for 14th (with seven other teams) in fighting majors... Toronto is 5-2-0 with one tie in its last eight home games against Washington.

Other Previews: WashingtonCaps.com (AP), Maple Leafs Official Site (AP), Washington Post

Caps Fall to Blues 4-3

Blues 4, Caps 3

It was same song, different verse for the Capitals last night in St. Louis: the Caps (playing without Captain Chris Clark and Tom Poti) fell behind early, battled to get back into the game, scored a late goal to cut the deficit to one and ultimately came up short, falling to 4-6 in the process.

I'm hoping that to some degree this can be chalked up to the guys the Caps were missing - Clark and Poti were out, Alexander Semin left early in the game after re-injuring his ankle and Olaf Kolzig was getting a night off. Maybe it sounds like an excuse; maybe it is, and the Capitals should still beat a team like St. Louis but the reality is that missing your top defenseman in terms of ice time, your captain, your number two scoring threat who potted 38 a year ago and your starting goalie is going to make any team significantly worse, and in the type of close game it was against the Blues those players could be the difference.

There's no doubt this has been a frustrating and disappointing start to the season for the Caps, but it's not the gloom-and-doom scenario some people out there are trying to make it. The team is currently only three points out of a playoff spot. The reality is that the Caps weren't a shoe-in going into the season. They were a borderline playoff team that was going to have to fight until April and hope to make it in by finishing in 6th-8th place in the conference. The team is one win away from being .500 (i.e. if they'd won one more to this point they'd be .500), has only had its intended lineup in for one game and has outplayed its opposition on a whole other than the horrid three game stretch in the very early going (Islanders, Rangers, Buffalo). It's okay to be a bit concerned but it's far from time to press the panic button at this point. If you don't feel better just remember that of the Caps remaining 72 games, 22 are against Atlanta, Tampa and Florida, who are a combined 12-18-1 (even though Tampa is over .500 and trust me, they're not that good). Ahh...that helps doesn't it?

Mike Green looked great, scoring the Caps first two goals, and has been the Caps best overall defenseman this season. I wanted to say this the other day but after his poor performance against Vancouver it seemed like an inappropriate time.

Okay, again, busy weekend so just some observations:

  • With Clark out the Caps had Donald Brashear wearing an 'A'.
  • Brashear also saw time in front of the net on the powerplay. Hanlon's been stressing getting big bodies in front and I guess Brash became an option for that after Clark was out. It seemed to work - Brash was screening Legace on Green's second goal.
  • The checking line looked really good in the offensive zone in the first period. Pettinger, Gordon and Laich seem to have meshed well and it provides further evidence that the checking line should still be effective even with Clark playing with Kozlov and Ovechkin.
  • Kozlov looked horrible for the most part, missing passes and great shooting opportunities. That's been his story his whole career - great talent but can't put it all together.
  • Johnson look lazy at times. He'd go down into the butterfly and just shuffle around the crease. C'mon Brent, you have to know NHL shooters are good enough to get the puck up high on you.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Bergeron Update

CBC reported on Hockey Night in Canada that Bergeron suffered a concussion and a broken nose, but has full feeling in his arms and legs.

Capitals/Blues Preview

The Caps venture into St. Louis tonight to face the Blues (5-3-0) and will be without the captain Chris Clark (who sustained an ear injury after being hit by an Alexander Ovechkin slapshot last night) and defenseman Tom Poti (groin) when the puck drops at 7:30.

It's nice to see that apparently the Caps have been listening to my suggestions - Backstrom should be centering a line with Ovechkin and Kozlov tonight which should work well with Backstrom being a pass-first guy, Ovechkin loving to shoot and Kozlov available to be a big body in front of the net. My only worry is that Backstrom will become so focused on feeding Ovechkin that he will pass up scoring chances for himself, but it really isn't too much a concern as Clark should only miss this game from what I'm reading. With the Ovechkin/Kozlov/Clark trio looking so good, and Brooks Laich playing well on the checking line, I'd expect them to be back together as soon as possible.

The bottom line for this game is really pretty simple: The Caps should win. The Blues most talented players are either past their prime (Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight, Paul Kariya) or are young players who still have a lot of developing to do (Erik Johnson [out tonight], David Perron, Brad Boyes), with the exception of Barret Jackman. The lineup has holes and netminder Manny Legace is a borderline NHL starter at best.

Simply put, the Blues are the type of team the Caps need to beat if they want to play postseason hockey.


Fleischmann is expected to play on the left with Nylander and Semin...the two teams have not met in 21 months...Brent Johnson will probably start for the Caps...The Blues averaged 12,520 in attendance last year, last in the NHL but are averaging over 18,000 so far this season.

Other Previews: WashingtonCaps.com, AP/StLouisBlues.com

Say a Prayer for Patrice Bergeron

The criminal element that is the Philadelphia Flyers has struck again; this time it was Randy Jones hitting Boston's Patrice Bergeron from behind, into the boards. Bergeron appeared to be knocked out and was taken off the ice on a stretcher after being immobilized. Jones was given a 5 minutes major for boarding and a game misconduct.

There's not much commentary for something like this, just that this is third time a Flyer has seriously injured another player by taking a run at them and delivering a deliberate cheap shot and at this point this league out to start consider fining the organization or coach.

Previous Flyers cheapshots from this season for anyone who hasn't seen them or doesn't remember:

Semin Re-ups with Caps

According to Tarik the Caps have re-signed Alexander Semin to a two year extension:

Just landed in St. Louis and received word that Alexander Semin has signed a two-year contract extension worth $9.2 million.

He'll earn $4.2 million next season and $5 million the folllowing year, for a cap hit of $4.6 million.

Good move for the Caps - Semin potted 38 goals last year, could see his output increase with the talent the team has added and has the added bonus of being a great 1-on-1 player and breakaway goalscorer and thus should help the Caps pick up some points in shootouts. It is a decent amount of money but the Caps are well under the cap and look like a top tier defenseman would be the only move they might need to make in free agency in the immediate future.

Plus this should make negotiations with Ovechkin, who is eligible to be a restricted free agent after this season, come along easier.

Caps Downed by Canucks; Refs

Canucks 3, Capitals 2

The Caps slipped below .500 last night with their 3-2 loss to Vancouver, getting goals from Nylander and Ovechkin. The Caps lost Chris Clark to a head injury late in the third after being struck by an Ovechkin slapshot up high.

I've got a busy weekend so I just have a few notes on the game:

  • The refereeing was terrible. The first 4-on-4 in the second shouldn't have happened; Semin's penalty wasn't even visible on the replay; they called Brash for a ticky-tack hook and they blew a call where Semin was interfered with several times while trying to play a loose puck. The worst part was Clark's injury - it shouldn't have happened because the refs should have seen the blatant high stick Clark took behind the Vancouver net seconds before and called it. If the refs catch that play stops and Clark doesn't take the shot off the head.
  • The penalty Clark took to open the game, which lead to Vancouver's first goal on the PP, was bad. There's no way refs aren't going to catch a moving pick in the NHL these days. Clark needs to be smarter than that.
  • The first two goals the Capitals allowed were on bad plays where they couldn't get the puck out of their zone. Kolzig isn't what he was in his heyday, but he's still pretty good and there's not much he can do when his defense hangs him out to dry.
  • The Capitals first goal was a thing of beauty - getting the shot to the front, getting traffic and burying the chance when it came on the player's (Nylander) stick.
  • It was nice to see Mike Green step up to Matt Cooke when Cooke crashed the net a little too hard.
  • Ovechkin had several great hits.
  • The Caps were dominant in the faceoff circle, winning 65% of the draws, including 71% taken by Dave Steckel and 72% from Boyd Gordon. No wonder Hanlon's been putting them out at times in order to just take the draw and get off.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Leafs Chasing John Tavares

According to TSN the Maple Leafs are trying to acquire junior star John Tavares. The plan apparently is to have Tavares sign a contract with the Leafs' AHL affiliate (also based in Toronto), and not sign with whichever NHL team drafted him. Then after two years, when the team that has drafted him saw their exclusive rights to Tavares expire, Tavares would sign with the Leafs. TSN's Bob McKenzie sums it up:

It's said the Leafs' plan was to sign Tavares to a three-year AHL contract, suggesting he could play a year in the AHL, get drafted into the NHL, play two more years in the AHL and then become an unrestricted free agent in the NHL and sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the summer of 2011.
A sneaky move no doubt but it's not really feasible. People are talking about Tavares like he could come into the NHL and have the same kind of impact as Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin. Given this it's unlikely Tavares would want to put off playing in the NHL for two years (and signing his first NHL contract) in order to play for the Leafs. I suppose it's worth a shot but with how poorly his team has been performing the last few season and his job unquestionably in danger John Ferguson Jr really ought to be worrying about more practical things.

Caps/Canucks Preview

The Capitals will be looking to build off the momentum of Wednesday's 5-3 win over Tampa Bay and get back to .500 tonight as they take on the Canucks (who bring with them a formidable entry in the NHL's worst uniform contest) at Verizon Center.

The Canucks are sitting at 4-6 thus far on the year, which has to considered a slow start given that they won the Northwest Division last season. The early season struggles can be attributed in large part to the fact the Canucks have given up 32 goals in their 10 games, not something Vancouver could have been expecting given their top goaltender is Roberto Luongo. Make no mistake about it - although Luongo's numbers have been unspectacular so far this season (3.01 GAA; .900 save %) he is arguably the best netminder in the NHL, with Marty Brodeur and Miika Kiprusoff his only real competition for the title. Couple that with the fact the Capitals have not beaten Luongo since the lockout and clearly the forwards are going to have their work cut out for them. Luongo is beatable but it's rare to see him give one up on an initial shot. The Caps will have to crash the net and move the puck around down low to get him out of position, both of which they were able to do well in their win against Tampa Bay.

The Canucks have a solid defensive unit, lead by Mattias Ohlund. Not only are guys like Kevin Bieksa, Willie Mitchell and Aaron Miller good defensively, they're big and strong and like the play the body. The Caps first line possesses both size (Ovechkin is 6'2'', 216; Kozlov is 6'4'', 232) and grit (what other NHL team's captain will break his face and finish his shift), but the second line is small and not particularly physical, particularly Backstrom and Semin, who both weigh in under 185 (Note: the Caps are the biggest team in the NHL). The second unit may have to rely on passing and puckhandling to create chances and while it's not the most effective means against Luongo, Backstrom and Nylander are good enough playmakers that they should be able to get the Canucks goalie moving and out of position.

Between the Sedin twins and Markus Naslund the Canucks have decent enough scoring depth. But while these players are legitimate first-liners they're not the kind of players that can take over games. I expect the Caps checking line and defensive pairing of Morrisson and Jurcina to be able to take care of the Sedin's line and generally keep the Canucks in check.

The Caps have the edge in this game both offensively and defensively and should be able to pull out a win. It's no sure thing though - Luongo is as capable as any goalie in the league at stealing one for his team.

Update: Tarik El-Bashir is reporting on Caps Insider that Tom Poti skipped today's morning skate with an injury, making it unlikely he'll be able to go tonight. It might be best for the Caps to dress seven defensemen tonight. That way if Poti is questionable they can have him start the game but not have to go to five d-men if he can't finish the game; if Poti can't play they could dress both Erskine and Shultz and limit the ice time of ice as the situations warrant (presumably Erskine would pretty much only play the penalty kill).


Don't be surprised to see a lots of Sweedish fans as the game tonight with Backstrom, Nylander, Ohlund, the Sedins and Naslund all expected to play...The Canucks are apparently practicing with a chair these days...Canucks rookie center Rick Rypien is a cousin of former Redskins Super Bowl winning QB Mark Rypien.

Other Previews: WashingtonCaps.com, VancouverCanucks.com, Japers' Rink, Washington Post, Washington Times

Caps Take Down Tampa Bay

Capitals 5, Lightning 3

The Capitals achieved their dual goals of breaking their four game losing streak and finding some more offense Wednesday night, beating the Lightning 5-3 on goals from Chris Clark (2), Brooks Laich, Dave Steckel and Alexander Ovechkin, who added an empty netter with four seconds left.

The talk around the Capitals has largely centered on line composition. After enjoying two career years playing on Ovechkin's right wing, Clark had been moved the checking line to the start this season. Following the overall offensive troubles, and especially Tomas Fleischmann's inability to get anything going offensively this year, Glen Hanlon decided to pair Clark with Ovechkin again in the Tampa Bay game. The decision paid near immediate dividends, as Clark netted a goal just 6:33 into the game, picking up the puck after a nice rush by Ovechkin (Ovechkin was credited with an assist on the play).

Ovechkin expressed his support for the move during the first intermission and continued his relentless play during the game. The numbers alone aren't indicative ofl how well Ovechkin's been playing this year, and that's saying something given he has five goals and four assists through the teams first eight games. There's no doubt Ovechkin has immense offensive talent but what makes him a dominant player more so than his puck handling or his shot is his athleticism. When he's on his game Ovechkin can use his strength to power his way through the opposition's checks, win battles for pucks, and dish out killer hits and use his speed to keep the other team working, get to loose pucks and create space for his teammates. Ovechkin's been doing this more so this year than last year, probably a combination of being in better shape early in the season and being amped up about the team's legitimate playoff prospects.

My biggest concern with moving Clark up to Ovechkin's line was who would take his place, but Brooks Laich stepped up and did a great job tonight against one of the best top lines in the league, playing smart in his own end and chipping in a goal off a nice feed from Pettinger. I've always liked Laich – he's a versatile, hard-working player who knows his own limitations but is capable of filling in either an offensive or defensive role. Laich doesn't have the speed or offensive talent of Clark, so having him on the right wing of the checking will diminish their offensive effectiveness somewhat, but having Pettinger (16 goals in 64 games last year; 20 in 71 the year before) gives the line a bit of offense and if Laich gets enough minutes he should knock in a few ugly ones in front of the net. Of course a checking line's first priority is defense and these three look like they have the potential to get the job done against most any top line in the NHL.

Speaking of defense, Shaone Morrison has done a great job of getting under opponent's skin this year. In the game against the Rangers Morrison stepped into, and dropped, Jaromir Jagr even though Jagr didn't have the puck, and managed to avoid a penalty; on other occasions he has riled up the opposition players both on the ice and on the bench. In tonight's game Morrisson stepped up on Vincent Lecavalier with a clean hit, upsetting Lecavalier so much he speared Morrisson (though it was called a slash) and then instigated a fight, in the process picking up 19 minutes in penalties (2 for slashing, 2 for instigating, 5 for fighting and a 10 minute misconduct) – with less than 15 minutes left in regulation. Kudos to Morrisson for not only helping to keep the Lightning's top line in check but taking their best player off his game, and out of the game, in the third period. Bolts coach John Tortorella claims Lecavalier's fight sparked his team but if I were a coach I would want a guy who had 108 points last year on the ice with my team playing from behind. At one point the Lightning tried to do the same the Capitals, specifically trying to get under Boyd Gordon's skin on a play after the puck had been covered by Marc Denis. They were barking up the wrong tree - Gordon has 26 PIMs in 141 NHL games and won the Brad Hornung Trophy in the 2002-03 season as the WHL's Most Sportsmanlike Player.

Aside of Morrison the Caps defense was pretty good for the most part tonight, holding a team that had averaged 40 shots a game on the road to only 29 and keeping the St. Louis/Lecavalier/Prospal line to only one goal (although St. Louis had six shots). The defense had a couple notable breakdowns, one resulting in the Lightning's first goal, scored when Jason Ward was left streaking to the net alone, and the other giving Caps fans everywhere a near heart attack when Brian Pothier tried to be cute with the puck in the game's final minute rather than clearing it out of the zone. In net Kolzig looked solid for the most part but two of Tampa's three goals went in through the five-hole, which is frustrating as a fan to say the least.

Wayward Sports Sons Three Stars:

(1) Alex Ovechkin (1 G, 2 A)

(2) Chris Clark (2 G)

(3) Dave Steckel (1 G)


"We understand each other. We played like we played the last two years: He scored and I scored"

-Alex Ovechkin on being put back on a line with Chris Clark


Dave Steckel's goal was his first in the NHL...Alexander Semin returned to the lineup 14:44 and had 5 shots...The Caps are clearly developing a lot of faith in Ovechkin's skill in his own end; he was on the ice during the game's final minute with a one-goal lead...There were audible boos on the telecast when the score of World Series Game 1 was shown and Boston was winning – I guess I'm not the only on in D.C. sick of the Red Sox...The Caps powerplay was 0-4 but generated good chances and 8 shots....At the end of his fight with Lecavalier, Morrisson fell the ice face first and required a leave of at least ten minutes to go the locker room and get stitched up...The Caps scratched Matt Bradley, Brian Sutherby and John Erskine...Tampa's goals were scored by Jason Ward, Paul Ranger and Martin St. Louis.

Inaugural Post/ Raison D'Etre

This blog exists as a complementary to Wayward Sports Sons, an excellent blog covering D.C. Sports for which I also write. As I started writing for Wayward Sports Sons I found that I was constantly coming across Capitals or NHL news that I wanted to post and comment on but thought I wouldn't be able to do so without cluttering up the W.S.S. blog to the point where it became unreadable to someone interested in D.C. sports as a whole and not just the Capitals. Thus Caps Blue Line serves as a place for all Caps and NHL news although much of it will be posted at W.S.S. as well.

I strongly encourage anyone who happens across this site to visit W.S.S. as well.