Sunday, April 06, 2008

How's this for a "first time since..."

According to the Elias Sports Bureau...
Washington is the second team in NHL history to finish a season in first place in its division immediately after three (or more) consecutive last-place finishes: the Hamilton Tigers finished in last place in a four-team NHL each season from 1920-21 through 1923-24, then finished in first place in 1924-25 in a six-team NHL.

Capitals versus Flyers

It's Philly in the first round. And, for those of you wondering about the history of these teams in the playoffs, these teams have met only three times in the playoffs in the past, the Caps holding a two-to-one edge in series, and haven't met since 1989:

1989: Patrick Division Semifinal

Philadelphia 4 - Washington 2

Game 1: Capitals 3 - Flyers 2 (box score)

GWG: Franceschetti
Winning Goalie: Peeters
Losing Goalie: Hextall

Game 2: Flyers 3 - Capitals 2 (box score)

GWG: Propp
Winning goalie: Hextall
Losing goalie: Peeters

Game 3: Capitals 4 - Flyers 3 (OT) (box score)

GWG: Miller
Winning goalie: Peeters
Losing goalie: Hextall

Game 4: Flyers 5 - Capitals 2 (box score)

GWG: Murphy
Winning goalie: Hextall
Losing goalie: Peeters

Game 5: Flyers 8 - Capitals 5 (box score)

GWG: Eklund
Winning goalie: Hextall
Losing goalie: Peeters

Game 6: Flyers 4 - Capitals 3 (box score)

GWG: Tocchet
Winning goalie: Hextall
Losing goalie: Peeters


1988: Patrick Division Semifinal

Washington 4 - Philadelphia 3

Game 1: Flyers 4 - Capitals 2 (box score)

GWG: Poulin
Winning Goalie: Hextall
Losing Goalie: Peeters

Game 2: Capitals 5 - Flyers 4 (box score)

GWG: Miller
Winning goalie: Peeters
Losing goalie: Hextall

Game 3: Flyers 4 - Capitals 3 (box score)

GWG: Samuelsson
Winning goalie: Hextall
Losing goalie: Peeters

Game 4: Flyers 5 - Capitals 4 (OT) (box score)

GWG: Craven
Winning goalie: Hextall
Losing goalie: Peeters

Game 5: Capitals 5 - Flyers 2 (box score)

GWG: Hatcher
Winning goalie: Peeters
Losing goalie: Hextall

Game 6: Capitals 7 - Flyers 2 (box score)

GWG: Gustafsson
Winning goalie: Peeters
Losing goalie: Hextall

Game 7: Capitals 5 - Flyers 4 (OT) (box score)

GWG: Hunter
Winning goalie: Peeters
Losing goalie: Hextall


1984: Patrick Division Semifinal

Capitals 3 - Flyers 0

Game 1: Capitals 4 - Flyers 2 (box score)

GWG: Duchesne
Winning Goalie: Riggin
Losing Goalie: Froese

Game 2: Capitals 6 - Flyers 2 (box score)

GWG: Laughlin
Winning goalie: Jensen
Losing goalie: Froese

Game 3: Capitals 5 - Flyers 1 (box score)

GWG: Laughlin
Winning goalie: Jensen
Losing goalie: Froese


Fans cheer for the players. That’s sports.

But thanks are in order to guys who don’t wear jerseys (ok, one who does – occasionally) for this wild ride.

First, thanks to Bruce Boudreau. The guy oozes hockey through his fashion-challenged attire. His old school, “have fun but don’t screw around” tough-love style with the boys, his press-press-and-then-press-some-more approach to the game, his quirky regular guy commentary – often delivered with a twinkle in his eye – was just the thing this group of kids needed at the helm. We didn’t know, when he was named, that he was the best choice to take over for Glen Hanlon (although we thought he’d long deserved a chance behind an NHL bench). We’ve never been so happy to be so utterly wrong.

And while we’re at it, thanks to Glen Hanlon. This year, he was not the best fit for this group at this stage of their development, perhaps. But for the first two years coming out of the lockout, his steady, unflappable style was the right note to sound for a group just getting its feet wet in the NHL.

Thanks to George McPhee, who – in retrospect – won the trading deadline. Kids, this isn’t even close. It is not unreasonable to say that absent the acquisition of Sergei Fedorov, Cristobal Huet, and Matt Cooke, we’re looking forward to the draft this morning, even with the herculean efforts of Boudreau and the boys skating under him. Did Fedorov light up the score sheet? Nope. But he brings so much more than numbers at this point in his career. Alexander Semin seemed to skate in awe of Fedorov in the early games when they were paired, but one can see an improvement in Semin in the weeks since Fedorov was brought in. And it isn’t just Fedorov mentoring the Russians – Ovechkin and Semin. He has the pedigree of a hall of fame-in-waiting career and Stanley Cups (plural) to make sure that when he speaks…well, you listen.

Huet has been nothing short of amazing. His style is not the frantic, happy feet, acrobatic style some goalies have. Watching him is like watching Perlman on the violin. He is equal parts artist and technician. There is so little wasted movement, so little urgency. Wherever he needs to be to make the save, to steer the rebound, to move the puck…he is there. He won’t make SportsCenter with the save of the night. He also hasn’t given up more than three goals in a game (and has given up that many only three times) on his way to an 11-2-0 record in Washington.

Cooke has been every bit the pesky (ok, non-Caps fans, you can say “chippy”), high-energy cruise missle he was advertised as being. Matt Pettinger could not break out of his inexplicable season-long funk, and Cooke coming in as a replacement has been an injection of rocket fuel.

McPhee also had the patience early on to keep Tomas Flesichmann around (by signing him to a contract during camp) and to resist moving Brooks Laich (whose performance made Pettinger expendable). He also had the long-range view in mind in bringing Boudreau into the fold as head-coach in Hershey. We said at the start of the season that this was a “no excuses” season. And we had our eyes focused on McPhee when we said it. Thanks for shoving those two words back in our mouth, George.

And thanks to the guy in the owner’s box wearing the Capitals red last night. Ted Leonsis is one shrewd business man – heaven knows one doesn’t get to his station in life without being one. But as much as that, he expressed an immovable and irrepressible optimism in this team as far back as last summer. He did what he does very well – accentuate the positive and take the long view. He let the hockey people do their jobs, but he was there upon the re-signing of Alex Ovechkin, which acted as a force multiplier to the Capitals’ resurgence…more fans, more wins, more goals, more excitement, and as of this morning…more games to play. Ted is, in many respects, the face of this franchise. His visibility and accessibility – unique among owners in professional sports – puts him in the position of having to take a lot of heat for the performance of his team (on and off the ice), some of which we supplied from time to time. But in the end, Ted can celebrate a division championship team (with more, we hope, to come this season). Given the circumstances and the path the club took to get there, we daresay it might be the most gratifying moment in his tenure. He deserves a big helping of thanks this morning.

Thanks, Bruce…thanks, Glen…thanks, George…thanks, Ted. And thanks to the entire Capitals organization. It only gets better from here.


You wanna debate that Hart thing, now??

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

A PLAYOFF-CLINCHING night: Caps 3 - Panthers 1

Southeast Division Champion

Looks good, doesn’t it?

With a 3-1 decision last night over a game Florida Panther squad, the Caps made their 136-day climb from the low-point of their season complete. The win gave the Caps the division championship and eliminated the Carolina Hurricanes. The Caps now await the results of this afternoon’s action to determine their opponent. It will be either Ottawa or Philadelphia.

Who cares?...They’re in!

It was a perfect storm of events that started the evening – Fan Appreciation Night, Alex Ovechkin Bobblehead Night, and the final, playoff-determining game of the season. It made for a larger-than normal crowd for pre-game warm-up, something we suspect the players noticed when coming out for the pre-game skate.

It was a roller coaster of emotion...and noise. The two games earlier this week were mere prelude to the jet-engine roar of the crowd when the Caps took the ice to start the game. Four years of pent-up frustration and disappointment were unleashed.

The Caps started – perhaps understandably – looking as if they were a bit nervous. Cristobal Huet, who has been a vacuum cleaner of technical skill when it comes to avoiding rebounds, was giving up an uncomfortable number of them in the first period, but the Panthers could not convert. One of the biggest problems the Caps had early in the year – an inability to sweep out the trash – did just that when a puck fluttered out of Huet’s reach.

Hoping for a fast start, the Caps were largely held in check by Florida early, and when they weren’t, the impregnable Craig Anderson (he of the 6-0-0, 1.23, .967 record in his last six appearances) was there to keep the Panther net clean. Then, the bad ice in the right wing corner appeared to come to the Caps’ rescue just past the seven-minute mark. Tomas Fleischmann and Brooks Laich applied a persistent two-man forecheck, and Fleischmann liberated the puck from a Panther along the boards. Laich picked it up and chipped it right back to Fleischmann, who then turned, took a step toward the Panther goal, snapped a wrister, and…whiffed in the mush down in the corner. But the puck lay open for Fleischmann to recover. He walked in, pulled Anderson down to the ice, then stepped around him to flick the puck into the vacant cage to give the Caps the lead.

The Caps might have added to that lead, but Anderson denied Brooks Laich from in close off a nice feed from Alex Ovechkin, and then Ovechkin rang the pipe minutes later.

Then, the roars turned into the muffled rumble of concern almost seven minutes into the second period as the Panthers, on a power play, scored on a chip shot from Kamil Kreps at the goal line near the post to goalie Cristobal Huet’s right. The puck somehow snuck behind Huet hugging the post and inside the far pipe, where it barely crossed the line before coming back out, where play continued. At the next stoppage, the play was reviewed and the goal – correctly – awarded.

Eight minutes later, Mike Green sent the puck ahead to Alexander Semin near the red line in front of the Caps’ penalty box. Semin, with his back to the Panther end, snapped a cross-ice backhand pass to Sergei Fedorov streaking up ice. Fedorov took the puck in stride. With Magnus Johansson desperately trying to close the gap, Fedorov skated in on Anderson and launched a slap shot that beat Anderson over his blocker to give the Caps the lead. It is worth noting that Fedorov started the play by working the puck off of Josef Stumpel’s stick at the Capitals’ blue line and over to Mike Green. He then circled back around the weak side of the play as Green was hooking up with Semin. By the time Florida – specifically Johansson – found him, it was too late.

Early in the third, with Karlis Skrastins off on a hooking penalty for Florida, Fedorov found Nicklas Backstrom in the right wing corner to Anderson’s left. Backstrom, who had the look of a guy at a free-skate passing to his buddy, threaded the puck through three Panthers to Semin just inside the top of the right wing circle. Semin, who had no Panthers around him, loaded the chamber and paused on a slap shot, then fired it over Anderson’s glove and off the pipe to give the Caps insurance.

After that, the Caps played an intelligent “make them skate 200 feet” strategy, making sure that if they didn’t have a clear path into the Panther zone, they got the puck in deep where Florida – who, remember, played the night before – would have to lug it back out. The Panthers couldn’t cope with their own weary legs, the Caps’ forecheck, and the heroics of Huet when they could get the puck into the Caps’ zone, and all that was left was the celebrating at the final horn.

It came at a price, though. Jeff Schultz left the game in the first period with only 6:30 in ice time with an as yet undisclosed injury. He was on the bench in street clothes for the “shirts off our backs” giveaway, but from our perch, looking at the screen as he was removing his jersey, he looked to be in some discomfort.

Looking at the numbers, Semin was all over the scoresheet (no, please tell me I didn’t just type that). Eight shots, which was his high for the year, a goal, a doozy of an assist, three takeaways, and curiously not credited with a hit, even though he was launching his body all over the place.

Fedorov had a goal and an assist as well, and he chipped in a couple of takeaways and was even in 20 draws.

Matt Cooke did a lot of things that didn’t show up on the scoresheet, most notably dogging the Panthers all over the ice, especially on the forecheck. All-in-all, it was a big night for the second line. And that was important on a night when Ovechkin was, comparatively speaking, held more or less in check.

With Schultz out, someone had to pick up the spare minutes, and that fell largely to Tom Poti (27:05, only the second time since January he’s logged more than 26 minutes) and John Erskine (18:00, the most ice time he’s received since getting a lot of clean-up duty in the 10-2 win over Boston on March 3rd).

Steve Eminger had ten minutes of solid hockey with two blocked shots and an “even” rating. That’s seven straight games, dating back to early February (owing to his infrequent appearances), that he’s been even or better. In only four of his last 17 games this year was he on the minus side of the ledger. One of the underappreciated things that happened at the trading deadline is that Eminger was not moved. Although his future here is uncertain, he’s certainly stepped up to do a hard job well – come in after lengthy layoffs and keep the opponent off the scoreboard.

Boyd “Rocky Raccoon” Gordon (who still looks as if someone took a metal pipe to his face) did everything but score…two hits, three takeaways, two blocked shots, and he won 12 of 20 draws.

Give the Panthers credit. They did not merely show up to be a bit player in the Capitals’ starring night. They competed from the drop of the puck. Jay Bouwmeester, who did have a difficult start to the night in taking two first period penalties, had an otherwise solid game overall with an assist, four shots, two hits, and four blocked shots. And it is a pleasure to watch him skate.

Craig Anderson didn’t give any indication that his recent run of superb play was a fluke. The Caps could have put this game away early, but Anderson made several top-notch saves in the first period on his way to a 16 saves-on-17 shots effort to keep things close.

In the end it was a case of the Caps not necessarily being at their sharpest, but playing the sort of game one should play against an opponent in the second half of a back-to-back on the road. Keep pressing until you find a crack, and then exploit it. The last two goals – the Fedorov drive and the Semin slap shot – were scored with Panthers unable to get back into the play. On defense, the insistent forecheck established early paid dividends late as the Panthers looked sluggish trying to lug the puck 200 feet with a two-goal deficit to make up.

On our way into the arena, we saw a young man who had an interesting take on dressing in red. It looked as if he was wearing a crimson graduation gown. If it was, it was prescient. This was the Caps’ graduation to the big time. No longer a doormat, not even a “work in progress” awaiting that day when they could dream of 16 more wins. They are there.

The rebuild is complete.