Wednesday, January 02, 2008

"I expect him to be a Washington Capital for a long, long, long time."

Hey, don't look at me; I didn't say it. Ted Leonsis did, to Tarik El-Bashir in the Capital Insider today.

Reaction was swift...

Eklund: "e-yuck"

Larry Brooks: "Ovechkin doesn't belong to the Caps, dammit! He doesn't!!...He belongs to the Rangers!! He has to...every player does!!"

Bruce Garrioch: "Sources say this is a prelude to a trade with Nashville for Radek Bonk."

Jack Todd: "It's a crime, I tell ya...a crime!...well, it oughtta be, anyway."

Ted Kulfan: "Hey, then he can afford to buy a ticket to follow Glen Hanlon out of Washington..."

The Hockey News
: "pfft...philistines."

"As a defenseman, you can learn a lot from Karl Alzner..."

So said Thomas Hickey -- defenseman for the Seattle Thunderbirds and #4 overall pick in the 2007 NHL entry draft (Alzner was selected 5th overall).

With respect to Alzner's presence on the Canadian junior team participating in the world junior championships, Hickey added of his teammate..."we’re fortunate to have returning guys like him.”

For more, check the rest of Brad Holland's story at the East

Odd, ain't it.

And then there are those bottom four teams, too.

A TWO point night!...Caps 6 - Senators 3


That is what the combined score is between the Caps and the Ottawa Senators this season following the Caps third win in three tries against the Senators – a 6-3 come-from-two-goals-behind win yesterday at Verizon Center.

That the Caps should be 3-0 against the top team in the Eastern Conference and 1-2-1 against a club such as the Florida Panthers is one of the things that makes sports an often head-scratching affair. But the Caps are now 10-5-4 since Bruce Boudreau took over behind the bench, and it isn't as if they've done it against tamata cans, either.

It sure didn’t look like a Caps kind of day early in the game. Chris Neil took a long pass from Christoph Schubert and skated past a flat-footed Jeff Schultz before the game was two minutes old, then deked goalie Olaf Kolzig to the ice before sliding a forehand into the net to give the visitors and early 1-0 lead. Dean McAmmond followed that up by taking a pass from Neil and splitting Milan Jurcina and Tom Poti before lifiting a backhand over Kolzig, and before the game was five minutes old, it seemed as if the Senators would inflict some stiff payback for having lost the first two games of this series.

Then, Viktor Kozlov made an appearance.

Nicklas Backstrom, who is showing a veteran’s ability to create space and time for himself, did just that in spinning away from Andrej Meszaros in the left wing corner and rifling a pass to Kozlov pinching in on the weak side. Kozlov buried the puck – his first goal in 23 games -- and the Caps were back in it.

At that point, Senators goalie Martin Gerber’s game went into the dumper. With the teams playing four-on-four, a drive by Jeff Schultz was bobbled by Gerber, and the puck was left lying next to his right pad. Michael Nylander swooped in before Gerber could locate the puck and batted it into the net to tie the game. Before the announcement of the Nylander goal could be finished, Mike Green circled in his own zone, then broke out with the puck. Alexander Ovechkin occupied two Senators at the Ottawa line, creating a skating lane for Green. He jumped into the hole, skated in alone on Gerber, and lifted the puck over Gerber’s glove to give the Caps the lead they would not relinquish.

Three goals in the space of 2:19…that ended Gerber’s day.

Ray Emery took over and was victimized shortly thereafter on a simple case of simple hockey…Brooks Laich circled out of the right wing corner in the Ottawa zone and sent the puck to Mike Green at the point. Green fired the puck wide to Emery’s left and off the end boards. When the puck squeaked out the other side, Boyd Gordon trying to stuff the puck in, but Emery stopped the first drive. Gordon, Donald Brashear and Laich took turns whacking at the puck in the Senator crease, Laich having an attempt stopped by defenseman Wade Redden’s leg. The puck came back to Laich, and from his knees he lifted the puck into the net to give the Caps a two goal lead (the goal that would make Emery the losing goaltender of record for this game).

The Caps would score (finally!) on a 5-on-3 power play less than a minute into the third period, and although one can’t say that the competitive portion of the game was over – these being the Senators – it looked really good from there on out. The teams exchanged goals to complete the scoring, the Caps scoring theirs on a Boyd Gordon empty netter with 1:51 left.

Some observations:

That was the first time in 11 games that the Daniel Alfredsson-Jason Spezza-Dany Heatley line did not register a goal. Heatley and Alfredsson had single secondary assists.

Alex Oveckin had five hits…it seemed like each of them was going to require the facilities staff to replace glass. He seemed to save his best for Chris Phillips.

Kolzig gave up three goals, which is probably going to reap the wrath of a fair number of Caps fans. But the first two were the product of awful defensive breakdowns that left first Chris Neil, then Dean McAmmond alone on goal. The last of the three was a perfectly placed shot over Kolzig’s blocker by Andrej Mezsaros. Granted, neither Neil nor McAmmond will make anyone forget Sidney Crosby or even Kris Letang on a one-on-the-goalie situation, but those kinds of defensive breakdowns need to be addressed. As for Kolzig, the Caps essentially put the game in his hands after the fifth goal (the Caps were outshot 24-11 in the final two periods). He was more than up to the challenge, making some fine stops (he stopped 27 of the last 28 shots he faced), especially when the Senators were pressing in the third.

Alex Semin injured his tailbone. No, really. That’s the report. He took only five shifts for 1:45. The bench was made even shorter when Tom Poti went off for the day mid-way through the second period with an “upper body” injury. That the Caps could dominate short a forward and their minutes-leader on defense is rather amazing. But the club will find it difficult to sustain their recent success if these two are out for any appreciable amount of time.

Wade Redden was -5 for the back-to-back set…tough week.

David Steckel had a tough game and one odd judgment that could have had some dire consequences. With a chance to nullify an icing call about to be made by merely touching the puck, he decided to brace for a closing Senator and tie up the puck. The Senator touched the puck first, the icing call was made, and the faceoff was brought back to the Caps end of the ice. We kept thinking, “you’d better win this faceoff, now.”

Speaking of faceoffs, one has to applaud a player who recognizes as certain weakness in his game and tries to turn it to his advantage. When a Cap was tossed from the dot, and Alex Ovechkin skated in to take the draw, he didn’t even pretend as if he was going to try to win the draw. He set up on his forehand to just rifle the puck out of the zone. He did…trouble is, Ottawa caught onto the ruse and intercepted the puck at the line before it could squirt free.

Shaone Morrisonn stepped up in this two-game set. Plus-four over all (+3 yesterday) and six blocked shots. He chewed up some of those minutes Poti yielded when the latter was injured (25:47 for the game). He was on the ice for only one Senator goal (of nine) – a power play goal on Saturday – in this two-game set.

Mike Green is turning into his own highlight reel with these 175-foot rushes. He’s on a pace for 21 goals, which would be the most since Sergei Gonchar had 26 in 2001-2002.

In the “the-event-didn’t-live-up-to-the-hype” department…what the #@$% was that between Brian McGrattan and Donald Brashear? The whole arena knew it was coming, and what happened?...McGrattan looked like he was, in the words of Herb Brooks, “humping a football.” Or maybe it was some obscure wrestling move that allowed McGrattan to end up on Brashear’s back, trying to land punches from behind. The yapping continued to the penalty box, where Brashear was standing with his arms out in a pleading pose toward McGrattan. We suppose he was asking, “what, you couldn’t buy me dinner, first?”

Speaking of McGrattan…three shifts? For the game?? Why did coach John Paddock bother to dress him? At least Brashear had an assist and was +1 in his 11:37 of play.

The odd statistic…McGrattan, Cody Bass, and Nick Foligno – combined – didn’t have as much ice time as Brashear (11:12 to 11:37).

Joe Corvo did a passable impression of Alex Ovechkin in one respect…he had nine shots on goal. In another respect, he didn't…none of them found the back of the net. He was also -3.

Matt Pettinger might have spent another day off the score sheet, but he had some oomph in his game. It took a fine save by Gerber on a backhand and later a big stop by Emery to keep him off the score sheet, and Pettinger had four shots on goal total.

Nice teamwork on the second Green goal (the 5-on-3)…Green on the left wing to Nylander on the right side, and when Mike Fisher turned to take a peek out to the point it created a passing channel that Nylander jumped on. The pass back to Green needed only to be one-timed into the net.

In the midst of all this good feeling, there is a note of caution. Olaf Kolzig alluded to it in the post game…

“We're starting to believe. We're a different team than we were six weeks, a month ago. But we got ourselves in such a big hole at the beginning of the season that we're slowly but surely creeping our way back into things.”

Here is the meaning of the “big hole” reference…the Caps are 10-5-4 under Bruce Boudreau. If they keep up that pace over the last 42 games, they will finish the year with 90 points. That might win them the Southeast Division, given current trends. But it requires that the Caps maintain this pace. Such was the "big hole" they dug. Can they do it? Well, 19 games is a fairly representative portion of the season. And, in the process of going 10-5-4, they’ve earned points against the likes of the Senators, Red Wings, Devils, Rangers, Hurricanes, and Penguins.

However, they are entering a dangerous portion of the schedule with their next five games coming against Boston, Montreal, Colorado, Philadelphia, and the last game in the Ottawa series for the season. Only Boston is not among the top-eight of their respective conferences, and the Bruins are sitting ninth in the East this morning.

It’s nice to beat the Ottawa’s of the world. Those are points you don’t necessarily expect to get, let alone sweep. But the Caps have to have points against the Bostons and Montreals of the world, too. This will be a big two weeks in determining if the Caps are going to be contenders or pretenders.

But for now, Caps fans should be pretty pleased with what the club has done the last month. Look, even a noteworthy opponent seems pleased...