Saturday, May 31, 2008

Awards -- The Jack Adams Award

Since the awards presentations will be made in a couple of weeks, we thought we’d start weighing in on the candidates and our picks for several of them. We’ll start with the Jack Adams Award…

An annual award presented by the National Hockey League Broadcasters' Association to the NHL coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team's success. The winner is selected in a poll among members of the NHL Broadcasters' Association at the end of the regular season.

The finalists for this year include:



Mike Babcock, Detroit Red Wings






Bruce Boudreau, Washington Capitals






Guy Carbonneau, Montreal Canadiens





There are many ways to exhibit coaching excellence in the context of the Adams award, and the three finalists exhibit different forms of it. There is the coach who, with superior talent, keeps his team focused, happy, and productive, so as to make the most of that talent. That is Mike Babcock. There is the coach who led a non-playoff team in his first year behind the bench, but who has a lot of young talent at his disposal. He has to manage his operation in the most storied franchise in the sport in front of perhaps its most rabid fan following, leading them to the top spot in the conference. Guy Carbonneau is that coach. There is the coach of a team that was given up for dead before all the leaves had fallen from the trees last autumn, but led them back on an improbable run to the playoffs. Bruce Boudreau was the author of that accomplishment.

Long ago, when we were taking courses in management, the art of “management” was described as being able to put your people in the best position to succeed and achieve your organization’s goals. And what is coaching, but “management” of a specialized order? The “art” here would be to put your players in the best position possible to succeed and to win. In other words, to maximize the skills each player brings to the contest.

In that respect, it would be hard to overlook one coach, whose ability to evaluate and maximize his player’s skills stands in such stark contrast to his immediate predecessor. There is a “then and now” aspect to his performance that was a stunning as it was unexpected. The team he took over – comprised of considerable talent, if raw and inexperienced – was underperforming, even by the meek standards set by pundits who had the team on the playoff margin at best, being a lottery pick at worst.

They were dead last in the league.

And, they were boring in achieving that dubious distinction. Despite having some of the best young offensive talent in the game, they were averaging 2.2 goals per contest. They seemed to have resigned themselves to playing to their description as a poor defensive team, giving up 3.1 goals a game. After a three-game winning streak to start the season, they were on a 3-14-1 slide, during which they lost six games by at least three goals, while scoring two or fewer goals 12 times and getting shutout twice.

That was then. The front office decided a change was in order and summoned a long-time minor league coach (successful minor league coach, we hasten to add) to try to right the ship. Well, what happened? The club – under new management behind the bench – went 37-17-7 to finish the season and wrap up an unprecedented rags-to-riches finish, becoming the only team in NHL history to go from 14th or 15th in their conference during the season – they were 15th when the new coach took over and 14th at the season’s 41-game midpoint – to a playoff spot, winning their division in the process with the second-highest point total earned in the Eastern Conference since the Thanksgiving holiday break.

What did it? A complete overhaul of philosophy and approach. The club has some precocious offensive talent?...well, use it! The star player was 14-9-23, even, in 21 games before the coach arrived, 51-38-89, +28 in 61 games after. The heralded rookie?...1-8-9, -5, in 21 games before the coach arrived; 13-46-59, +18, in 61 games after. The defenseman with a nose for the net the coach had in the minors?...3-4-7, -8, in 21 games before; 15-33-48, +13, after. The result?...The team went from scoring 2.2 goals a game in the first 21 games to scoring 3.1 a game in the last 61 – a 40 percent improvement.

And the more aggressive offense had its effect at the other end of the ice as well. Keeping the puck on their own sticks left less time for the opposition to have it on theirs…the result was to drop the goals allowed per game average from 3.1 to 2.7 (1.9 since the trading deadline).

There isn’t a member of this trio of finalists who is undeserving of consideration. In fact, one might add a few other deserving coaches that did not make the finalist cut, despite a few of them no longer serving in that capacity – Ron Wilson in San Jose, Claude Julien in Boston, Joel Quenneville in Colorado, Michel Therrien in Pittsburgh, Craig MacTavish in Edmonton, Denis Savard in Chicago. It is a crowded field of fine candidates.

However, there is one coach whose performance is extraordinary, owing to the circumstances of his arrival – taking over a team that was perhaps days from its season being all but over in November and guiding it to the playoffs, who stands slightly above the others. While we would not have an argument with any of the other finalists winning, if we had a vote (and we’ll admit to bias), we’d pick…

Bruce Boudreau, Washington Capitals

The 2007-2008 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Donald Brashear

Next up for the wingers…

Donald Brashear

Theme: My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist. Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose.”


OK, the quote comes from the late actress Bette Davis, but was there any tougher character on the screen? As for Donald Brashear, we think he – and his fellow practitioners around the league – plays the toughest role of all in hockey, that of “enforcer.” Whether one is in favor of or is against fighting in the sport, it holds a unique – and some believe useful – place in the sport. We won’t opine on that.

What is beyond doubt, though, is that Donald Brashear remains one of the true heavyweights in the NHL. And does that give players like Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Nicklas Backstrom a little more freedom to do what they do? We suspect it does, and in that respect, Brashear plays an important role on this team, regardless of how many points he might put up or what his plus-minus might be.

For the record, here are Brashear’s ten-game splits…


Brashear is not expected to generate a lot of offense, but on a team that looked to generate more offensive pressure than perhaps any of its recent predecessors, Brashear did not generate much. Points-wise, it was his lowest total (nine) in more than a decade (eight, in 1995-96, with Montreal). In terms of the less well-quoted statistics, Brashear was the biggest hitter on the team (0.21 hits per minute played). He also led the club in fighting majors (12).

But if physical play is to be a player’s contribution, there is a fine line between supplying that physical edge and taking undue, undisciplined liberties. On a couple of occasions, Brashear crossed that line this year, most notably in the late stages of a game on March 8th in Boston. It was already a chippy game, following as it did the 10-2 whupping the Caps laid on the Bruins five days earlier. Brashear has already been involved in the second fight of the game only 14 seconds into the contest (Matt Bradley kicked things off at the five second mark). But late, the Caps were nursing a 1-0 lead when Brashear took a double minor for high-sticking, then compounded the problem by taking a roughing call. The Caps surrendered two goals on the extended five-on-three, and the Caps lost what might have been their most heartbreaking game of the year (had they not reached the playoffs), 2-1. That was a situation one would not have expected a veteran like Brashear to have a meltdown of that magnitude.

After that sequence, Brashear’s ice time was not reduced appreciably, and to his credit he played a much more disciplined game in the season’s final stretch. While he didn’t drop the gloves in those last dozen games he played after the Boston incident, he took only two inconsequential interference minors in those games (both games won by the Caps).

Brashear provides a measure of freedom for others to do what they do best. Perhaps the price to be paid for that is that from time to time, his style will be more a detriment than a positive. For the most part, Brashear was on that side of the line. And for that, he gets…

B-

From Mickey to the Gong Show, by way of...Melrose Place?











In 1984, after a 13-4 drubbing of the New Jersey Devils, the Edmonton Oilers' Wayne Greztky was famously quoted as follows, regarding the Devils...

"They're putting a Mickey-Mouse operation on the ice. It's ruining hockey."

A decade later, the Devils shed their mouse ears and won a Stanley Cup title.

Well, now a couple of others icons from entertainment history have been called to mind to describe another NHL team. James Mirtle evokes "Melrose Place" in describing unfolding events in Tampa as the Lightning go through a change in ownership, one which appears set to replace Coach John Tortorella with Barry Melrose -- yes, that Barry Melrose -- who last coached in the NHL when Gump Worsley was playing in goal (well, it just seems that way).

Meanwhile, Eric Duhatchek wonders if the situation won't turn into a "gong show" that will leave Vincent Lecavalier pondering the wisdom of signing on to a long-term contract extension with the Lightning.

Damian Cristodero lays out some of the particulars in this morning's St. Petersburg Times. There was one part of his article that caught our eye with respect to team management...

"Much depends on how OK Hockey divides responsibilities. How much will [incoming owner Oren] Koules be involved in hockey operations, not to mention the St. Pete Times Forum? What will [co-owner Len] Barrie's job be? Bet that [GM Jay] Feaster, who is somewhat shielded with three years left on his deal, and team president Ron Campbell will be watching."

"OK hockey?" From the looks of things, that might be the best Lightning fans can hope for, perhaps for quite a while. The Caps were 6-2 against the Lightning this past year, including wins in the last five meetings. It is hard to envision the Lightning improving on that next year, given what their team might look like.

It might take a long time to build a winner...the Devils after Gretzky's Mickey Mouse comment, and even the Lightning, which won the Stanley Cup in 2004 after many years at the bottom of the league. But we might be getting a lesson in just how quickly it can fall apart. The Lightning can't be any worse next year than last, having already finished 30th, giving them the pleasure of drafting Steve Stamkos in a few weeks. But they can be just as bad...

Does John Tavares like the beach?

The 2007-2008 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Matt Bradley


We’re back with another winger to look at…

Matt Bradley


Theme: “…gives a lickin' and it keeps on stickin'"



That’s a take on the old Timex watch jingle, but it seems to suit Bradley, who is as representative of the term “energy forward” as you’re likely to find anywhere. In a strange way, Bradley is a reflection of the change in philosophy on the part of the Caps that came with the coaching change, although part of what Bradley’s effect might have been could also be a product of the absence of Chris Clark for most of the season. The indicator is ice time.

Here are Bradley’s ten-game splits…


But here are Bradley’s ten-game splits for ice time…


Bradley consistently received more and more ice time as the season progressed. Of particular note, Bradley played in 16 of 21 games through Thanksgiving, and only twice did he receive more than ten minutes of ice time (and one of those was in a blowout 7-1 win in Toronto). Bradley played in all 61 games after the Thanksgiving break, and in only 23 of them did he play less than ten minutes (nine of those coming in the first nine games after the break…and the coaching change).

And why the jump in time?...Well, Bradley hits things. A lot. Alex Ovechkin is acknowledged as a big hitter among forwards, especially skill forwards. However, Bradley more than holds his own in that department. Ovechkin registered 220 hits in 82 games while averaging 23:06 in ice time a game. Sparing you the math, that works out to 0.12 hits per minute of ice time. Bradley, with 126 hits in 77 games averaging 9:59 of ice time a game, averaged 0.16 hits per minute of ice time. If he’s out there, he’s going to punish something.

It isn’t as if he was a stiff on offense, either. While not ever likely to assume the role of a top-six forward, he had two game winning goals this year. It might not sound like a lot, but it was as many as Alexander Semin had…Viktor Kozlov, too. It doesn’t include his game-winning goal scored in the 12th round of the Gimmick, against Edmonton on January 17th.

Bradley’s performance this year is also indicative of the benefits of getting supplemental scoring. In 41 Caps wins this year, Bradley was 7-10-17, +14. In 36 losses, he registered only an assist and was -13.

There is another statistic for Bradley that is surprising, and it cleaves into two parts. For someone as rambunctious in his style as Bradley, one might have expected he have more than 74 penalty minutes in 77 games. 50 of those minutes came as a result of ten fighting majors, second to Donald Brashear’s 12 (the Caps were 5-4-1 in games in which Bradley dropped the gloves). Only 24 minutes were earned – 12 minor penalties – otherwise. That was as many minor penalties as Nicklas Backstrom had.

It would be fair to say of Bradley that he is one of those unsung guys that earns a living toiling in the trenches. We can’t know if he likes that role (no kid grows up dreaming of mucking in the corners, we suspect), but it is one he seems to have embraced – gives a lickin’, and keeps on stickin’. And the Caps appear to have embraced him as well, rewarding him with a three-year, $3 million contract extension. Given his role and his ability to play intelligently within the confines of it, Bradley deserves a decent grade for this year…

B+

Thursday, May 29, 2008

81

It's not Sidney Crosby's new number. It is the number of shots the Red Wings attempted in last night's 3-2 loss at the hands of the Penguins. But it's how they break down that tells the tale...

34 shots on goal
26 shots blocked
21 missed shots

The defensemen for Pittsburgh had a combined 22 blocked shots. It was a tremendous effort on their part to give Marc-Andre Fleury help in repelling the Red Wings.

But therein lies the problem, too...81 attempts in 60 minutes. That's an attempt every 45 seconds. By way of comparison, the Red Wings had 68 and 64 attempts in games one and two, respectively. Part of that was late pressure (12 attempts in the last 6:23 after the Samuelsson goal to bring the Wings within one), but it is still almost Gatling gun production.

Looking at the shot charts for the two teams (as compiled by ESPN), Pittsburgh did a better job in Game 3 of getting chances in the middle of the ice, but even the shots Detroit put on net were largely in quality areas.



With that effort on the part of the Penguin defense, they can compete, but can they continue getting in the way of Detroit shots often enough to give their offense a chance?

Post Season Analyses...They're Everywhere!



In this interlude between the end of the Caps' season and the draft, your Caps' bloggers have been hunkered down, going over the year and providing their own season-in-review summaries for Caps fans. Have a look...they're really good (except for that doofus who writes about "the tens")...

Japers' Rink "Rink Wrap"

On Frozen Blog "Top 10 Story Lines"

A View from the Cheap Seats "Season in Review"

Bleatings from a Caps Nut "Season Wrap Up"

In Ahead of the Play "Roster Review"

Caps Blue Line "State of the Team"

...and of course, our own "the tens" (more of which is coming, honest)


If we're missing anyone, let us know, and we'll update this list.

Happy reading, Caps fans.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Bradley -- Cooke -- Fedorov


Humor us for a moment.

Tarik El-Bashir reports that Matt Bradley has been signed to a new, three-year deal with the Caps. We'd have to think this has ramifications for the re-signing of unrestricted free agent Matt Cooke, since Cooke made more than twice as much last year ($1.525 million) as did Matt Bradley ($700,000).

It is not unreasonable to think that for 2008-2009, Cooke's salary on the open market would end up being at least $1.0 million more than what Bradley re-signed for with the Caps.

If one assumes that Mike Green's re-signing is a slam-dunk, will-happen item, you'd have to think there was at least a place-holder in the Caps' budget for him. Ditto for other restricteds like Boyd Gordon or Shaone Morrisonn.

But about whom is there some uncertainty...a player for whom money might need to be freed up to re-sign?

Perhaps the signing of Matt Bradley (and what we now presume will be a lack of overwhelming desire to re-sign Matt Cooke) provides a glimpse into whether Sergei Fedorov will return.

Hey...it's summer, we are entitled to delusions.

photo: The Associated Press

Small wonder


Detroit took a 2-0 lead in games last night with its 3-0 win over the Penguins, in Detroit. The Penguins were shutout for the second consecutive game. Why?

Sidney Crosby had six shots on goal. The rest of the top-six forwards?...

...one (Marian Hossa, 13:25 of the second period).

Evgeni Malkin had only one attempt (a missed shot at 12:38 of the first period).

And if you're wondering about how this series might unfold, think: "Montreal Canadiens." They are the only team (of 31) to have lost the first two games of the finals on the road and come back to win the title. They did it in 1971 against the Chicago Blackhawks.

The kid's good, but good enough to overcome that? Probably not.


Photo: Claus Andersen/Getty Images


Friday, May 23, 2008

Your Finals Progonosto -- Red Wings vs. Penguins







Well, we’re finally here. The Finals. Hockeytown and Hokeytown…

Detroit Red Wings (1) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (2)

OK, OK…we couldn’t help ourselves. It’s the Red Wings and the Penguins, two teams that did not play against each other in the regular season, which lends a bit of mystery to this series. But it really isn’t a mystery that these teams are facing off against one another now. Statistically, they are 1-2 in just about everything. Not only that, they dominate the top of the statistical charts. Look at how far back the third place team is in these assorted measures…


There are also the “onlys,” as in…

In their 12 wins, Pittsburgh has been involved in only two one-goal games, Detroit only four.

Detroit has lost only one game in 12 when leading after one period…Pittsburgh not at all in seven.

Both teams are undefeated when leading after two periods.

Pittsburgh has trailed at the first intermission only twice…Detroit only once.

The two have split only six occurrences in which they’ve trailed after two periods…in a combined 30 games played.


And, there are the “did you know” items…

Did you know that Detroit has six three-goal-or-more winning margins among its 12 wins?

Did you know Pittsburgh is the only team in the entire tournament with a perfect record in one-goal games?...they’ve only had two, though.

Did you know that Pittsburgh has five empty net goals in 14 games?

Did you know that Detroit is +15 in goal differential in the first period of games (23-8)? Only one other team has scored as many as 15 first period goals in the tournament (it’s not Pittsburgh, either).

Did you know that Pittsburgh – in 12 wins so far – has eight different players with game-winning goals?

Did you know that Detroit has four shorthanded goals on the road? No other team has more than two shorthanded goals, total.

Did you know that Pittsburgh leads the tournament in home plus-minus? (+12)…and that Detroit leads in road plus-minus? (+11)

Did you know that Detroit has eight players with at least ten points?

Did you know that Pittsburgh has only two players averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time a game?


Let’s go back to that graphic up at the top…those are the obvious numbers. Pittsburgh is marginally superior to Detroit in most of them, as befits a team that is 12-2 so far in the playoffs. What about some of the less obvious measures…

Hits. Three Penguins – Brooks Orpik, Ryan Malone, and Jarkko Ruutu rank 4th, 5th, and 11th, respectively, in hits. The highest ranking Red Wing is 18th…Pavel Datsyuk.

Blocked Shots. You’ll find five Penguins – Orpik, Sergei Gonchar, Hal Gill, Rob Scuderi, and Kris Letang – on the leader list before you find a Red Wing (Brad Stuart, tied with Letang). Of course, this might be a function on how the Red Wings limit opponents’ chances.

Takeaway/giveaway ratio. So far, only one Penguin forward has been relatively loose with the puck, measure as a takeaway-to-giveaway ratio of less than 1.00 – Evgeni Malkin. Detroit has three – Mikael Samuelsson, Darren McCarty, and Tomas Holmstrom.

The top four faceoff men for the Red Wings (by draws taken) are a combined 58.5 percent in winning percentage. None of them have a losing record. The Penguins’ top four are a combined 47.5 percent, and only Jordan Staal has a winning record…he’d be tied for fourth on the Red Wings.

At this point of the season, we’re supposed to say that this will all come down to goaltending. Well, it won’t – not directly, that is. Statistically, Marc-Andre Fleury for Pittsburgh and Chris Osgood for Detroit are almost mirror images of one another. The tale of the tape (their rank in parentheses)…

There is where the similarities end. How these two got to the top of the heap in the playoffs is a different as a penguin and an octopus. Both teams have averaged a combination of 60 shots per game (those on goal and those allowed on goal) over the course of the playoffs. The Penguins seem more accommodating in terms of trading chances. Their shot differential advantage of 4.4 shots ranks them a respectable fourth among all 16 teams in the tournament, but their superior offensive talent has permitted them to engage in such a war of attrition with teams. It was perhaps no more clearly on display than in the series against the Rangers.

In Game 1, the Rangers stormed out to a 3-0 lead, only to watch as the Penguins scored two goals 14 seconds apart in the second period to launch them on a four goal onslaught spanning 16:47 of the second and third periods. Even when the Rangers managed to tie the game, the Penguins had an answer in the end with Evgeni Malkin scoring the game-winner with 1:41 left in regulation.

In Game 3, the teams traded haymakers over the first half of the contest, the score tied at three after Jaromir Jagr scored with less than seven minutes in the third period. But Pittsburgh put it away with a late second period goal, then a marker early in the third for a 5-3 win.

Pittsburgh is like a three-year old at Churchill Downs who lays back in the pack over the first three-quarters of a mile. But late speed and a strong finish in the stretch provides a comfortable margin of victory…it the Penguins’ case, 1.78 goals/game.

But that style makes Fleury have to play the position more – he will see chances. And in that respect, he has – in this tournament – shaken off the “underachiever” tag he brought with him from previous playoff experiences in the AHL and in his first appearance last year.

On the other hand, the Red Wings have split those 60 shots by roughly 36-for and 24-against. They do not trade chances with other teams. Only once in 16 games had an opponent outshot Detroit – game 3 in the opening series against Nashville. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Red Wings lost that game, 5-3, surrendering their highest number of goals in any game in the playoffs. That has the effect of forcing teams to expend effort defending (and chasing) the Red Wings, and it places considerable pressure on opposing goalies, who have to play that much better knowing that they will face far more chances on average than will Osgood.

Detroit is like that octopus, winding its tentacles around an opponent, gradually getting an advantage, tightening its grip on the puck, and before too long, the opponent is looking up at a 3-1 or 4-1 hole, tired and beaten.

The result is that Osgood hasn't had to “play” his position as much as has Fleury in the playoffs, but he’s had to have the mental strength to maintain his focus. He has done so, having allowed one or no goals in six of the 12 full games in which he’s played.

If there is one player in this series, more than any other, on whom the outcome might depend, it is Johan Franzen for Detroit. Through 11 games, Franzen was 12-3-15, +9, with five game-winning goals. But he was scratched for the last five games of the conference final against Dallas with concussion-symptoms. The Wings were 3-2 in those games and were held to 13 goals (2.60/game) after scoring 42 in their first 11 games (3.82/game).

Franzen’s presence would give the Penguins something they haven’t seen much of, if at all in the playoffs thus far – two solid scoring lines playing at the top of their game. But Franzen has not been cleared medically for game one. That is the window of opportunity for the Penguins here. Stealing one against the Red Wings in Detroit early would be a huge boost of confidence for a young team. It might not make a lot of difference to the Wings, who are experienced enough to know it’s first to four, not first to one, but getting out fast could give the Penguins the edge.

These are teams with very similar results, arrived at in somewhat different ways. Pittsburgh has a more physical dimension to their play and have simply pulverized opponents. Detroit has taken the long view in games and in series, using a methodical puck-possession scheme that it plays to near perfection to deny opportunities to opponents. The big guys – Crosby and Datsyuk, Malkin and Zetterberg, Gonchar and Lidstrom – will probably all be heavily represented at the top of the statistical lists. But it might come down to the little things – those that the next tier players provide (Holmstrom’s ability to raise a fuss in front of the net, the Red Wings’ faceoff skills; Gary Robert’s force-of-nature style, Ryan Malone’s grit) and the ability of the stars to play solid two-way games.

Why Detroit will win...

The Red Wings have been here before, and you have to be here to get there. What do we mean by that? Look at the team to which this Penguin team is most often compared – in style and in age: the Edmonton Oilers of the mid 1980’s. Much has been made that the Oiler team that beat the Islanders in 1984 for their first Stanley Cup was young (as are the Penguins) and supremely talented (as are the Penguins). Well, the Oilers lost in the final in the previous year with their core players – Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson, Kevin Lowe, Charlie Huddy, Grant Fuhr – getting their baptism.

How that will be reflected here is in the Red Wings doing more of the little things – faceoffs, winning the turnover battles, etc. – better than will the Penguins…a product of their immense experience.

Why the Penguins will win...

Strangely, this could be the Penguins’ best chance to win a Cup over the next several years. The reason for that is that they have in place the one thing they sorely lacked – a scoring winger in Marian Hossa. Hossa, who is an unrestricted free agent after this season – one who will command a high seven-figure salary, might not return next year. But in this moment, he is casting off the bitter taste of his performance in last year’s playoffs (one assist and -6 in a four-game sweep in the opening round) with a vengeance. His 9-10-19, +7, in 14 games gives the Penguins the oomph from the wing that they needed to complement their talent and depth down the middle.

In the end…

The old saying goes, “age before beauty.” What “age” has given the Red Wings is comfort in playing a simple, elegant, efficient game. The rambunctious Penguins – as we have pointed out in an earlier round – have a lot more moving parts to their game. At this point, that means they still probably depend more on talent than execution (which is not to say they are undisciplined, just not in Detroit’s class in that respect). This will manifest itself in terms of the Red Wings being able to play their game more and for longer stretches than the Penguins will theirs. That, in the end, will be the difference.

Red Wings in six.


Thursday, May 22, 2008

The 2007-2008 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Matt Cooke

And now, as we move down the list of wingers…


Matt Cooke

Theme: “I think it's liquid aggravation that circulates through his veins, and not regular blood.”


"I'm just looking forward to playing somewhere where they want me.” So said Matt Cooke upon getting the news that he had been traded to the Capitals for forward Matt Pettinger. Pettinger – an energy forward who showed a goal-scoring touch in the previous two years – spent 56 games trying to get out of a goal-scoring rut (two goals) while struggling in other aspects (-11) and – by his own admission – developing a rift with coach Bruce Boudreau.

Enter Matt Cooke. Upon arriving – his arrival delayed because of work visa paperwork – he was installed on the second line with Alexander Semin and fellow newcomer Sergei Fedorov. He would then be moved down to a checking line in later games, but would return to the second line by the end of the year.

In fact, Cooke’s short tenure breaks down roughly into three pieces...

In the first of them, the Caps got a look at the full Cooke. In his second game with the club – the Caps hosting the Bruins – Cooke made the trade look good with a goal and a pair of assists in a 10-2 win.

Five days later, Cooke accumulated 17 minutes in penalties and was ejected after incurring a major penalty for kneeing and a game misconduct in a 2-1 loss to the Bruins that very nearly scuttled the Caps’ season.

Cooke then posted a goal and an assist in a 4-1 win over Atlanta in completing his first phase with the club – 2-3-5, +3, with 19 penalty minutes in seven games.

Over the next seven games, Cooke failed to register a point. It corresponded in large part with his being moved off the second line for a significant portion of that stretch. Getting steady time on the second line with Semin and Fedorov in the final three games, Cooke was 1-1-2, +3.

Cooke could be evaluated in comparison with the player he replaced – Matt Pettinger. A grinder for much of his early career, Pettinger developed a scoring touch in tallying 36 goals over the two seasons preceding this one. But Pettinger got off to a slow start and moved backwards. His scoring dried up, and he lacked jump in his game. By the time he was traded for Cooke, he was a dismal 2-5-7, -11 in 56 games with the Caps.

Cooke supplied the energy that Pettinger couldn’t summon, and was every bit the pest he was advertised as being. Statistically, he was somewhat unremarkable, but with Fedorov and Semin he contributed to a second line that was more consistently productive than it was before his arrival. More to the point, Pettinger was contributing almost nothing from the third and fourth lines at 10-12 minutes a night, while Cooke was supporting an improved second line getting 12-14 minutes a night – certainly a net positive for the club, whatever Cooke’s statistical line might have been.

While it is uncertain that the unrestricted free agent will be re-signed, Cooke contributed this season in a manner consistent with the style advertised for him. It perhaps does not rise to the level of contribution his fellow newcomers – Fedorov and Cristobal Huet – enjoyed, but it was an element in the Caps’ final drive. For that, he gets an above average grade:

B-

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

37, huh...

Alex Ovechkin is reported to have garnered 250 of 287 votes from his peers in the NHL as Sporting News Player of the Year. 37 players voted for someone else. I wonder, maybe these guys had something to do with it...


...and I can even read this guy's lips..."just say 'NO' to Ovechkin!"


...shhh. I know, Shean Donovan isn't a Flame any more.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Sporting News: Ovechkin Player of the Year, Green to All Star Team













Alex Ovechkin earned the first of what promises to be several post-season awards, named Player of the Year by The Sporting News.

Alexander the Great, indeed. All Ovechkin did was score 65 goals, the most by an NHL player since 1996, win the Art Ross Trophy with 112 points and lead a charge by the Capitals from last place to a Southeast Division title.

Mike Green was named to TSN's all-star team as well, joining Nicklas Lidstrom on the defense.

Congratulations to both!

Not "Continental"..."Kontinental"










The "Continental" was a continuing sketch on Saturday Night Live focusing on a creepy self styled ladies man. The "Kontinental" is a hockey league.

James Mirtle covers the matter of the next step in the evolution of the Russian Super League and the driving force behind it -- Alexander Medvedev (the gentleman on the right, above).

One thing struck me right between the eyes when I took a look at the map to which Mirtle links in his column...

Bobrov
Tarasov
Kharlamov
Chernyshev

No, it's not some personal injury law firm with offices in Moscow. These are the divisions of the Kontinental Hockey League. Named for playing and coaching legends in the sport in Russia/Soviet Union. It recalls memories of the divisions of the National Hockey League -- Patrick, Adams, Norris, Smythe.

You remember those, don't you? When there were real rivalries in hockey?

...unless you're pining for a resumption of that rabid Capital-Panther duel next year, that is.

The 2007-2008 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Tomas Fleischmann

And now, we pick up the wingers with…



Tomas Fleischmann

Theme: “the canary in a coal mine”




Coming into this season, Tomas Fleischmann had played a grand total of 43 games as a Capital. On that basis, there were probably a fair number of fans who had already concluded that Fleischmann did not have a future with the club – he was 4-6-10, -13, in two short stints with the club. Frankly, the club seemed on the brink of making a similar assessment last summer. Fleischmann went to training camp as a man without a contract, whereupon he played himself into a new one-year deal and onto the top forward line on opening night with Alex Ovechkin and Viktor Kozlov.

Fleischmann didn’t play like a top line forward. He managed one goal and eight shots in his first ten games...

What’s more, he averaged less than ten minutes playing time a game. For a player with Fleischmann’s skill set, who appeared to have cleared an important hurdle coming into the season – proving he could play at this level – it could have been demoralizing. His second ten games were marginally better (3-1-4, getting 14+ minutes a game).

But Fleischmann, who enjoyed considerable success under Bruce Boudreau at Hershey in the 2005-2006 season (30-33-65, +15 in 57 regular season games and 11-21-32, +14 in 20 playoff games in the Calder Cup run) found something of a niche under the new coach. Over the next 40 games he was 4-16-20 – not the stuff of a top-six forward, but getting ice time in the low teens, it wasn’t that bad, either. It was at the end of this period (February 13th) that Fleischmann was re-signed to a two-year contract extension.

But then, something happened…on February 24th, against Minnesota, Fleischmann had a pair of assists and was +4 in a 4-1 win. Over the next ten games, he would not register a single point, would be credited with only nine shots on goal, and would average less than nine minutes of ice time a game. As the team was entering the desperate phase of their playoff run, Fleischmann spent it largely on the bench. While Matt Cooke – acquired from Vancouver at the trading deadline – was getting considerable minutes providing some grit on the second line with Sergei Fedorov (another deadline acquisition) and Alexander Semin, Fleischmann was getting third and fourth line ice time.

Fleischmann was, in a sense, the canary in a coal mine as far as an indicator of the Caps’ position with respect to the rebuild. If this was a “preparation” season – getting youngsters ready for prime time next year by giving them minutes now, those minutes he got in those 40 games he played from November 23rd through February 26th would likely have continued. But when Fedorov and Cooke were obtained, Fleischmann spent more time sitting than skating. It was a signal that the Caps were ready to compete for that playoff spot now…and Fleischmann was not. He did manage a pair of goals and an assist in his last five games, but the character of his season appeared to have been defined.

These days, when fans are prone to make quick judgments about players and voice them in message board or blog forums, it would be tempting to conclude that Fleischmann played himself off the team, or that the Caps have concluded that others have passed him by. Well, there is the fact that the club re-signed him to a two-year contract. They see something there. This year was Fleischmann’s first full year as an NHLer. A lot of the time, it showed. But he also showed flashes of the puck-handling and playmaking skill that made him a top playoff performer at Hershey when the Bears won a Calder Cup.

Whether Fleischmann makes that next leap is now a question for next year. Competition for top-six forward time on this club will be tight, even if Fedorov and Cooke (both unrestricted free agents) are not re-signed. The club seems set on the left side with the Alexes, Nicklas Backstrom and Michael Nylander will hold down the center positions, and Viktor Kozlov will likely man the right side on the top line. That leaves Fleischmann to compete with Eric Fehr, perhaps Chris Clark, and other youngsters coming through the system for time on the right side on the second line.

This year was a very uneven one for Fleischmann, but not one that should have been unexpected, given his experience and circumstances. He dropped the ball, in a sense, after having been given a chance on the top line to start the season. But he played respectably, given his minutes, over the middle third of the season. However, when crunch time came, others would get the ice time. Considering all of that, Fleischmann earns a…

C

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Practice...practice...practice...




....carrying hardware. It might come in handy next year.

Fedorov's obviously done this before.


Photos: Matthew Manor/IIHF-HHOF Images

The 2007-2008 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Viktor Kozlov

And now, in the parade of wingers…



Viktor Kozlov

Theme: “Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes and the grass grows by itself”



That is an old Zen proverb, and in a peculiar way applies to Viktor Kozlov. A player of considerable natural skill, Kozlov has had the look of an underachiever often in his career. Coming into the season, he averaged 19-34-53, +1, per-82 games over his 12 seasons with four teams. One thinks he could average five more goals and ten more assists than that. The thinking was that pairing him with the likes of Alex Ovechkin could awaken a slumbering giant…or at least get him to approach his thought-of potential. What did he finish with? 16-38-54…pretty close to his 82-game averages.

In fact, Kozlov’s 2007-2008 season was of the consistency that marked Ovechkin’s only writ smaller…

In every ten-game split, from five to nine points…in every one scoring 1-3 goals (except for a five-goal outburst fueled by a pair of two-goal performances that included a power play goal in each instance – his only power play goals and multi-goal games of the year)…a couple of penalty minutes or so. His longest points-scoring streak was a modest four games (achieved three times). His longest streak without a point was four games (in October). There simply wasn’t anything that jumped out of his ten-game splits.

There was that +28, though. He was+30 over his final 59 games, with only ten games in the minus column. Only twice in those last 59 games did he have as many as two minus games in any three. One could argue that such a result was a product of playing alongside Ovechkin (himself a plus-28). Well, perhaps. Or did his style of play – one that did not lend itself to statistical gratification – complement Ovechkin’s style to permit such production?

There is one other matter. Loathe as we are to even discuss the concept, Kozlov was brought here in part to address a glaring shortcoming the Caps had last year – achieving success in the Gimmick. Coming into the season, Kozlov was 13-of-25 in shootout attempts (52 percent). Seven of those goals were game-winners. This year, Kozlov connected on three of seven attempts, one of them being a game-winner. Part of the result is the product of the Caps only participating in eight Gimmicks this year (only four teams participated in fewer). The best that might be said for Kozlov's shootout performance is that it was the same as that achieved by Daniel Briere (ok, Alexander Semin, too...three-for-seven).

From observing him over those 81 games, it appears as if Kozlov simply doesn’t have enough selfishness in his game to ever realize the potential others might have seen for him. But that does not make him a bad fit for this team. He plays a quiet, mindful game that does not appear much in the usual statistical measures to which folks pay attention. He is very adept at lugging the puck and maintaining control of it when closely marked by defenders. He is patient in the offensive zone and acts as a “cool” counterpart to the radiant energy that Ovechkin emits. While not a grinder in the usual sense of the term, he still does a lot of the dirty work in steering the puck into position for others to work their magic.

In an odd sense, he is something of the forward version of former Cap defenseman Joe Reekie. It might have been said of Reekie that he didn’t have particularly noteworthy statistics, but he consistently put up year after year of “plus” seasons (13 straight). Kozlov put up game after game of “plus” results, despite his own statistics not being of elite stature. Was he along for the ride? Or a quiet cog in the machine? Whatever…despite his relatively quiet statistical line and frustratingly lethargic-at-times pace, he was there for many more good things than bad in the Caps’ rush to the playoffs. He has the look of a player who could have much more of an effect on a game, but who seems comfortable (perhaps too much so) with the game he has come to play.

Next year will be an interesting one for Kozlov -- a contract year and one for which there are likely to be greater expectations for the club. But for this year, it is hard to give him a poor grade and hard to give him a high one. We’ll settle for a bit above average…

B-

Gold looks good on red


The Russians pulled it off. Down 4-2 to Canada after Dany Heatley scored a goal mid-way through the second period of the World Hockey Championship final, the Russians stormed back to tie the game late in the third period on a goal by Ilya Kovalchuk. Then, with Rick Nash in the penalty box for the Canadians after taking a delay-of-game penalty, the Russians completed the comeback on a power play goal by Kovalchuk 2:42 in overtime to capture the title, 5-4.

It capped a spectacular tournament for the Russians on the Capitals' roster -- Alexander Semin, Alex Ovechkin, and Sergei Fedorov. Combined, they finished their nine-game journey as follows:

Semin: 6-7-13, +11
Ovechkin: 6-6-12, +11
Fedorov: 5-7-12, +10

That's 17 of the 43 goals Russia scored in the tournament...

...and, of course, the championship. As far as Capitals represented in the tournament are concerned, Ovechkin and Mike Green (CAN) were named to the all-tournament team -- Green finished 4-8-12, +2 in nine games.

In the final, Alexander Semin had two goals and an assist, Ovechkin had a pair of assists, and Fedorov also had a pair of assists (including the primary on the game-winner). Green had an assist for the Canadians.

Any tournament experience these young players can get can only help them in their quest for a Stanley Cup. Ovechkin remarked after the win that "We played hard through the whole tournament. This gold medal is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me."

Next year, we hope he can repeat that sentiment wearing a Capitals jersey.

The big finish...



...and other highlights





Photo: IIHF/HHoF/Jukka Rautio

The 2007-2008 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Brooks Laich

Next up in the look at wingers…



Brooks Laich

Theme: “Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks.”



Samuel Johnson was an 18th century essayist, not a hockey player (he might have been a power forward if he was), but his quote certainly applies to Brooks Laich, hockey player. Laich is perhaps the unexpected feel-good story of the Capitals this year. Laich was awarded a $725,000 contract in arbitration last July and came to training camp as one of many players out of the same mold – grinders for third or fourth line duty – fighting for a spot on the roster. That he might be moved wasn’t exactly an original thought.

When the curtain fell on the 2007-2008 regular season, Laich played in all 82 games (one of only four Caps to do so), was the team’s sixth leading scorer (tied with Michael Nylander), was its third leading power play goal scorer (tied with Mike Green), and was its second leading game-winning goal scorer (tied with Green and Nicklas Backstrom). Tell us you saw that coming when the season started, and you can take the name “Peerless Prognosticator.”

The thing is, though, through 60 games you still might not have seen it coming...

Through those first 60 games he was a respectable 9-8-17, -4 – not bad for a third/fourth line forward on a team on the playoff margin. But those last 22 games…12-8-20, +1, and a pair of game-winning goals. He became the club’s sharpshooter over that last stretch, scoring those 12 goals on a total of 46 shots (26.1%). And, he was something of a power play terror, netting seven power play goals over those last 22 games.

And it wasn’t as if Laich was a one-note wonder. Here is perhaps an interesting number to ponder…Laich was credited with at least one point against every team in the Eastern Conference except Montreal. For an Alex Ovechkin, you would expect that sort of thing (yes, he did score against every team in the East), but for a player with only 37 points all year, that is rather unexpected.

If there was one adjective to describe Laich this year, it would be “versatile." In addition to the power play prowess he exhibited in the last quarter of the season, he could play any of the forward positions. We describe him here as a winger, but he took almost 600 draws this year in seeing substantial time at center (47.2 percent wins). He also led the forwards in blocked shots this year (56…ok, Quintin Laing had only four fewer in 43 fewer games) and was fifth among forwards in hits.

What makes his production especially noteworthy is that Laich was 12th on the team in ice time, among players who played in at least half of the Caps’ games this year. In this respect he benefitted from the coaching change in a rather substantial way. In the first 21 games of the year, he averaged only about 11:50/game – five times he skated for less than ten minutes. Over the last 61 games he averaged about 14:50/game and only skated fewer than 12 minutes only three times. Part of this was out of necessity (the minutes vacated by Nylander went he went on injured reserve had to be made up), part the result of some solid play.

Laich’s season is that of the Capitals in miniature. Not especially highly thought of when the season began, he struggled with ice time and production early, then got a life when the club made a change behind the bench. The spark he got helped give the Caps a boost in the last 60 games of the season, during which his production improved dramatically, especially over those frantic last 20 games. That is would be Laich who might be called the club’s most pleasant surprise this year is most unexpected. It is with that in mind that we’re inclined to grade him rather highly…

A-

The 2007-2008 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Alexander Semin

Moving on with the wingers, we take a look at…



Alexander Semin

Theme: “The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.”




So said Arnold H. Glasgow. He could have been thinking of our subject. Alexander Semin is one of the most gifted skaters, puck handlers, passers, and shooters one is ever going to want to see on ice. He can be Baryshnikov on skates.

He also can drive a fan nuts.

Last year, Semin provided a long look for fans at what he could be…38-35-73 in 77 games. This year, however, was largely one of frustration for Semin, a product of a combination of injury, a lack of punch and consistency on the second line on which he played, and a lack of discipline from night to night on his part. If one looks at his ten-game splits, he was himself somewhat consistent…

* three games

Except for a sluggish start (perhaps a product of an ankle injury) and better-than-average 21-30 game production, Semin was a 5-8 point player over his ten-game stretches. But Semin also expressed a certain consistency that exasperated fans and, no doubt, coaches.

First, there is the matter of penalties. In his first 40 games, Semin had 10-8-10-12 minutes in penalties, all minors. And it is not as if the majority of those penalties were those of aggression. Ten of the 20 minors he took in those games were hooking penalties. Add in a trip and a holding-the-stick, and 12 of the 20 minors were obstruction-type calls. A lingering effect of the injury, preventing him from keeping up with the opposition? Or laziness on his part in defending?

Over his last 23 games of the year, though, he exhibited considerably more discipline, committing only seven minors (three hooks, four roughing calls…that’s right, roughing penalties).

Fortunately for the Caps, it hardly seemed to matter in terms of wins and losses. When Semin was committing those 20 minors in his first 40 games, the Caps were 9-7-1. In the last 23, when he committed only seven minors, the Caps were 3-2-1. One wonders, though…with a little more discipline over longer stretches of time, and Semin spending more time on the ice, would the club do better? Well, we got a glimpse of that over a 15 game stretch in February and March. From February 23rd through March 21st, the Caps played 15 games. Semin was whistled for a total of two minors over that stretch. The Caps went 9-5-1 and lost both games in which Semin had his penalties (to Pittsburgh and Chicago). We will not go so far as to offer a cause-and-effect relationship here, but it’s better for Semin to be on the ice than off it, especially when he’s taking himself off for ticky-tack obstruction-type calls.

The other matter is his plus-minus number. In none of his three seasons with the club has Semin been a “plus” player. He will never be a finalist for the Selke Trophy for best defensive forward. He won’t be a Selke finalist unless the list is expanded to 200 players or there is an act of God. But -18 in 63 games is a bit much, especially on a team that earned 94 points. He was not worst on the team – Michael Nylander was -19 in 40 games – but Nylander had the explanation of: a) being new to his teammates, and b) not being able to compete at full strength for the last stretch of games he played as a result of his shoulder injury. In Semin’s six full ten-game stretches, he was a “minus” player five times. In those 60 games, he was a minus player 24 times, a plus player 12 times. From February 20th through March 29th, he went 19 consecutive games without finishing on the plus side of the ledger. The Caps were 12-5-2 over that stretch (Semin was 8-4-12 in scoring over those games).

If there is something on which one can point to as a good sign moving forward, it is in the progress (of a sort) that Semin made in his last 18 games. Looked at as a whole, he was 7-5-12, -6…not especially impressive. But break up those games into thirds. In the first third (six games), he was 2-3-5, -3. He followed that up with a 1-1-2, -5 over his middle third. He finished up with 4-1-5, +2 in his last six games. Why do we pick this 18-game stretch? It corresponds with the arrival of Sergei Fedorov from Columbus. Centered mostly by Fedorov over this stretch, Semin appeared early on to play in awe of his linemate – too much so. Semin looked rather confused in the offensive end, looking to pass a little too much (he had only ten shots in the first six games of that 18-game run). He started shooting the puck more in the middle third (20 shots) and finally seemed to reach a comfort level with Fedorov in the last six games. No player seemed to be affected – good and bad – by Federov’s arrival than Semin, and with the way the youngster closed the season, it appears Fedorov had a positive effect on him. Whether that carries over to next season as a general maturation of Semin’s play, or whether it requires the presence of a Fedorov (who is an unrestricted free agent) will be one of the big questions for the team heading into the 2008-2009 season.

What consistency Semin exhibited this year was largely of the negative sort – his penalty-taking and struggles on defense. He has given the appearance at times, of being lazy (the hooking penalties is a representative example), or immature or undisciplined (retaliatory roughing penalties). He is, however, a gifted offensive player who is perhaps more of a highlight-reel threat every time he touches the puck than Alex Ovechkin. He has the potential to be a consistent 40-plus goal scorer annually. He can be a thrilling player to watch and an exasperating one, too. He showed signs late in the season of being able to deal with these demons, and the issue becomes one of patience. With the first year of a two-year, $9.2 million deal kicking in next year, much will be expected of Semin. Those expectations will include an ability to play with more maturity and consistency. He has tested the patience of those around the club in his tenure here. Hopefully, next season, this egg is going to hatch.

For this year though, owning to his inconsistency and troubles in his own end, we would give Semin a…

C

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The 2007-2008 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Alex Ovechkin

And now, we move to the wingers, leading off with…


Alex Ovechkin

Theme: “I am constant as the northern star…






…Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament."

In its original context, the quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is meant to convey the hubris of Caesar. Here, it is merely acknowledgment of the fact that Alex Ovechkin is not only arguably the best player in the hockey firmament, but its most consistently elite player.

We’ve made a point of noting his remarkable consistency, and this year was certainly in that mold…

There is more to it than these ten-game splits…only twice did he go more than one game without a point, only once with a three-game pointless streak. In only one ten-game split this season did he go as many as five games without a point (January 29 – February 16, during which he was otherwise 9-4-13, including a five-point game against Montreal). His lowest goal-scoring total in any ten-game split this year was six, in the first ten-game stretch of the year (during which the Caps as a team, scored only 24 goals).

There is a certain superficial aspect to focusing only on Ovechkin’s scoring. Ovechkin was a 96-point player last year and was -19. This year, Ovechkin had 112 points and was +28. The 16-point increase in scoring doesn't explain the 47-point plus-minus turnaround. More to the point, he was a “minus” player in 37 games last year, a “plus” player for only 27 games. This year, he was on the “plus” side of the ledger for 34 games, a minus player for only 19 games. Last year, the longest streak Ovechkin had as an even-or-better player was five games (three times). This year, he had a 15-game streak (December 22 – January 24) and closed the regular season with 11 of 12 games at even or better. Perhaps not coincidentally, that coincided with the Caps’ 11-1-0 finish to reach the playoffs.

And Ovechkin is hardly a scorer of the effete species. Ovechkin ranked sixth among forwards this year in total hits (220). However there are two things to note about Ovechkin compared to the five players ahead of him. First, can hitters score? Looking at the top-ten players in hits, here is how they rank in terms of a ratio of points-to-hits:

Second, can hitters play within the rules in plying their craft? Here is how the top ten players in hits rank in a ratio of hits to penalty minutes (minutes for fighting majors deleted from the PIM totals):

Ovechkin is a scorer who plays a physical game within the rules. The critical reader might ask whether Ovechkin gets a star player’s break on penalties, which would influence the hits-to-penalty minutes results. He might, but even if one makes allowances for star treatment – if you doubled his PIMs, for example -- he still would rank in the top ten in this measure.

There are subtle measures of Ovechkin’s effectiveness this year. Let’s look at the top ten scorers this year and the most basis statistic there is…goals for versus goals against. Here is how they rank in terms of ratio of total goals scored to total goals allowed when they were on the ice:

Even if you take away special teams goals (power play goals for and against when they were on the ice), Ovechkin is a top-five player by this measure and virtually indistinguishable from the three players ahead of him:

One could make the argument that this reflects better players around Ovechkin this year, and this would be true. But if you’re going to make that argument, then do you discount Datsyuk, who plays for a loaded lineup? Please note, you fans of Evgeni Malkin as a Hart Trophy candidate, Ovechkin’s marks – in total and at even-strength – are superior to those of Malkin by rather significant margins.

The answer to the central question surrounding Ovechkin as the season was winding down addressed a wider set of issues surrounding the player. The question was, “is a player on club failing to reach the playoffs worthy of selection as a Hart Trophy (most valuable player) winner?”

Well, Ovechkin – in the last 12 games of the year – was 11-6-17, +13, with four power play goals, two game winners, three game-tying goals (in Capitals wins), two game-winning assists, and a game-tying assist (in a Capitals win). In the 11-1 stretch to end the year, Ovechkin had a hand in four game-winning goals and in four game-tying goals. Even accounting for overlap – having a hand in the game-tying and game winning goals in the same game (accomplished three times in those 12 games) – Ovechkin was in the mix in five of the 11 wins. But the stunning number isn’t on the offensive side of the ledger. Of the 22 goals allowed by the Caps in the last 12 games, Ovechkin was on the ice for four of them, and never more than one in any single game. True, Ovechkin is not often matched against an opponent’s top offensive players, but this is a player thought until this year to be a defensive liability (there is that -19 of last year to remember).

As consistent as Ovechkin has been in his young career, he elevated his game when it mattered, when the Caps were facing what amounted to a single elimination tournament in the last two weeks of the season.

Ovechkin already has the Ross (top scorer) and Richard (to goal scorer) trophies for his mantel. He should win the Hart (league MVP) and Pearson (outstanding player) trophies to complete the set for the 2007-2008 season. One cannot help but give him the highest grade for this season:

A+