Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ten Stories from 2008 -- Number 6

In the inaugural 1974-1975 season, the Capitals drew an average of 10,004 fans per game. Not great shakes for a team’s brand-spanking new start in a new market in a then state-of-the-art arena. But it was better than the following year, when the Caps drew 9,835 per game. At least they had three sellouts, which bested the inaugural season by one. It was a wheel-spinning start for the new franchise that left it gasping for air by the end of the 1981-1982 season, the last in a string of eight seasons in which the Caps failed to draw an average of 12,000 fans a game. A “Save the Caps” campaign was undertaken to keep the team from leaving Washington.

Fast forward to July of 2001. The Capitals completed a shocking trade for the best pure talent in the sport – Jaromir Jagr, and the future looked rosier than it had at any point in the history of the franchise. Attendance reflected the buzz attending the deal – the Caps saw their average attendance jump by more than 1,800 a game (almost 12 percent) in the 2001-2002 season. The bloom fell from the rose, though, as Jagr failed to match his historical level of production and the team underachieved on the ice. From that high of 17,341 fans per game in 2001-2002, the Caps’ attendance fell dramatically over the next three seasons as the team’s fortunes soured on the ice. By the 2005-2006 season, the Caps had lost almost 20 percent of their average attendance (to 13,905 per game), despite having the top rookie and soon-to-be most dynamic force of personality in the sport – Alex Ovechkin. There were more than a few murmurings from the fan base concerning the Caps’ ability to survive in the Washington sports market.

But several factors converged over the next two seasons that stopped the decline. First, the Capitals moved their training facility to a new complex in Arlington, Virginia in November 2006. The Kettler Capitals Iceplex was a state-of-the-art training facility that put the Capitals footprint closer to the geographic center of its fan base than was the case with the Piney Orchard facility in suburban Maryland. KCI, with seating for 1,200 in the rink used by its primary tenant, could serve to draw fans to practices and provided an opportunity for more fans to interact with players.

Second, there was a cosmetic change that cannot be overstated. All 30 teams of the NHL changed uniforms for the 2006-2007 season, and the Capitals took this as an opportunity to go old school in a new way with a return to a red, white, and blue color scheme, emphasizing (as did the original Capitals road jerseys) a red theme. The lettering and logo schemes might have reflected a new approach, but the uniforms could appeal to older fans who remembered Rod Langway, Mike Gartner, and Dale Hunter in the red, white, and blues.

Third, the Capitals actually found that they could play hockey. There were glimpses of it in the 2006-2007 season, mostly from the indomitable Alex Ovechkin. But there were others who gave more than a hint that they’d be heard from and time marched on. Alexander Semin had a career year with 38 goals and 73 points. Brooks Laich, who was the return for the iconic Peter Bondra in a trade with Ottawa in the 2003-2004 season, chipped in eight goals, three of them of the shorthanded variety. Matt Bradley and Donald Brashear were favorites of the fans for their take-no-prisoners approach to the game.

The Caps looked primed to build on this in the 2007-2008 season, but stubbed their toe (broke their ankle, suffered a lower body injury) to start the 2007-2008 season. A 6-14-1 start suggested that perhaps the club wasn’t ready (not nearly ready, in fact) for prime time, and the attendance reflected it. In 18 home dates to close calendar year 2007, the Caps drew an average of 13,452, which (if sustained over a full season) would be the lowest average attendance since the 1983-1984 season. The only sellout was a game against Pittsburgh for which a substantial portion of the crowd were fans of the black and Vegas gold.

But as the calendar year wound down, the Caps were winning with more regularity under new coach Bruce Boudreau than they had under Glen Hanlon in the difficult start to the season. A wild 8-6 game at Ottawa to close 2007 in which Ovechkin had a four-goal, five-point game announced loudly, if from a distance, that the Caps were going to be a hell-bent-for-leather club that attacked their opponent. Three days later – on New Years Day – the Caps pounded that same Senators team early and often in a 6-3 win in front of 14,547. Not great, perhaps, but the Caps had only six crowds top it to that point in the season (including opening night, the sellout against the Penguins and a game against traditional rival Philadelphia).

What happened thereafter was nothing short of amazing. Average attendance by month climbed from that 13,452 figure at the end of December to an average of 15,386 for the month of January, an average of 17,756 for February, 17,965 in March, and every one of the 18,277 seats filled for the three home games in April to close the regular season. The Caps sold out seven of their last 12 home games and their last four in a row. It enabled Washington to end the season with more total sellouts – eight – than in any season since that 2001-2002 season following the signing of Jaromir Jagr.

The final days of the season also saw the roll out of a marketing angle that took advantage of the colors – “Rock the Red” became a phrase synonymous with Capitals hockey. The sea of red that welcomed the Caps to the ice in the closing games of the 2007-2008 season rivaled the “’C’ of Red” that was common in Calgary for the Flames. It was a spectacular sight as the Caps found themselves in a playoff series for the first time since the lockout.

It has carried over to the 2008-2009 season. “Red is Caps Hockey” has joined “Rock the Red” as a familiar sign of Capitals hockey. Fans have returned to the rink in large numbers. In 15 home dates so far this season, the Capitals have averaged 17,832 in attendance, which would shatter the single season average for the franchise if the season ended today. Given that the Caps generally draw better after the new year begins, setting a new record appears to be a certainty.

In calendar year 2008 to date, the Caps have averaged 17,361 in home 38 dates – better than 95 percent of capacity, which would itself be a season record for Capitals’ attendance. It has been accompanied by a shower of red across the region – from posters in Metro stations proclaiming “Red is Caps Hockey,” to fans who are pulling every red thread they can find out of the closet to show their support for a home-grown, hometown team.

It has made “Rock the Red” one of the top Capitals stories of 2008.

A TWO-point night: Caps 5 - Rangers 4 (OT)

“I need a Tom Collins.”

Those words issued from analyst Craig Laughlin’s lips on the Capitals’ television broadcast as the Caps were figure skating to a 3-0 deficit before tonight's game was a dozen minutes old at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers. If the Caps played their best first period of hockey in the Saturday game against the Flyers – what ended up being a 7-1 loss -- this might have been their worst first period of the season. But hockey games aren’t a dozen minutes in length.

The Rangers would add a goal early in the second, but after that, the Capitals skated around, through, and over the home team in roaring back with five goals in the last 30 minutes of the game, including 59 seconds of overtime, to beat the Rangers, 5-4.

It might have been the best single-game coaching performance by Bruce Boudreau, who pushed all the right buttons, and from the looks of things on television, used all the appropriate profanities in bringing the Caps back to life in the last half of the game. Calling a time out as the game was getting out of hand, Boudreau replaced a shell-shocked Jose Theodore in goal with Brent Johnson, then read the skaters the riot act. It was deserved. Say what you will about Theodore’s goaltending this year, but giving up three goals on five shots was not entirely, or even mostly his doing. The team was ghastly in front of him, allowing the Rangers to skate unhindered into and through the Caps’ defensive zone, and then when shots were turned aside stood and watched as Rangers gathered up rebounds. What Boudreau said (well, screamed) at his team during the time out might have melted the plastic on their helmets.

Boudreau got 8:45 in quality goaltending time from a clearly injured Brent Johnson, who should get the hard hat – and then some – for as gutsy effort as you’re going to see from a goaltender. It gave Theodore a chance to regain his wits and for the Caps to get their feet moving. Theodore returned for the second period and gave up a goal to Ryan Callahan – his second of the game – on the Rangers’ second shot of the frame. After that, Theodore shut the door, stopping the last 18 shots he faced, including a game-saver against Nikolai Zherdev from the doorstep.

On the other side, it all started mid-way through the second with a harmless throw-it-at-the-net shot from the side boards by Alex Ovechkin. The puck handcuffed goalie Henrik Lundqvist and looked to roll off his glove and past him into the net to shave the Ranger lead to 4-1. It wasn’t much, but it was something to build on for the third.

Bruce Boudreau mentioned in the post-game interview that he talked to the coaches about getting a goal in the first five minutes of the final period, and then the team might have a chance. The Caps got just that as Tomas Fleischmann redirected a Nicklas Backstrom shot less than two minutes into the third to cut the margin to two. Viktor Kozlov, who had a strong final two periods, banged one off the post and behind Lundqvist to cut the margin to one at the 7:04 mark.

Then, it was Ovechkin one more time as he blocked the puck down at the Rangers’ line, carried the puck the other way on Lundqvist, deked him to the ice, and snapped the puck in to tie the game with 7:22 left in regulation.

One had the feeling the Rangers would do just as we suggested in the prognosto – play for 65 minutes and leave it to Lundqvist. It might have worked but for an odd bounce in the overtime. The puck hit a player in the left wing faceoff circle and squirted to the middle of the ice, when Shaone Morrisonn – he of the no goals in 44 games – stepped into one and rocketed the puck past Lundqvist’s glove to make the comeback complete on his 26th birthday.

Some other stuff…

- Ovechkin had one of those games of the sort that puts to rest any reasonable conversation of who the best player is in the NHL. Two goals, an assist, four hits, two takeaways, 13 shots on goal (23 attempts) in 22 minutes of work.

- Sean Collins recorded his first NHL point, getting an assist on the game-winner by Morrisonn. Not bad for a guy who was skating in South Carolina last season.

- Wade Redden was on the ice for three of the last four Capitals goals. Don’t expect this to escape Larry Brooks’ attention in his report tomorrow in the New York Post.

- Oddly enough, Dmitri Kalinin (who seems to have been on the ice for every goal scored on the Rangers this year) was not on the ice for any Caps goal.

- OK…Nicklas Backstrom had three assists. This is not unheard of in his brief career. He had three hits, too. That’s a little more unusual.

- Speaking of hits…David Steckel led the team. Six in less than 12 minutes of work. He also won four of five draws and was not on the ice for any of the Ranger goals.

- Speaking of being on the ice for Ranger goals, before we swoon too much for the performances of Ovechkin and Backstrom this evening, let’s not forget that both were out there for each of the last three goals scored by the Blueshirts.

- And Milan Jurcina and Karl Alzner were out there for the first three, too, although what Tomas Fleischmann was doing on the Markus Naslund goal resembled backchecking the way Rosie O’Donnell resembles Scarlett Johansson.

- Here is an odd stat…the Rangers did not register a power play shot from a forward in three man-advantages. Michal Roszival had three shots, Paul Mara the other. On the other hand, all nine power play shots by the Caps came from forwards (four for Ovechkin, two for Fleischmann and Brooks Laich, one for Kozlov).

- Scoring is a rink-to-rink thing, it seems. The teams were credited with a combined 71 hits. They were also credited with three giveaways.

- OK, Nikolai Zherdev has more moves than United Van Lines…but does anyone else on that Ranger team scare anyone offensively (the Caps’ brutal play in the first period notwithstanding)? And no, we don’t see how Mats Sundin would have made all that much of a difference.

- Only Boston has a better record in their last ten games (9-1-0) than the Caps’ 8-2-0 in the Eastern Conference. That loss, by the way, was to the Caps.

This might have been a defining game for Jose Theodore. He was not great in the first period, but he was not nearly as awful as the results would have suggested (three goals on five shots). He was, however, a rock in the last 40 minutes of regulation (he did not face a shot in overtime). It was precisely the kind of game a struggling goalie needs – when things seem out of hand, just keep making saves and give your team a chance to crawl back into the game. He did, and the Caps did. It wasn’t one of those 60-minutes of fury unleashed upon an opponent the Caps are capable of mustering, but they unleashed quite a bit of fury in those last 30 minutes of regulation and overtime to give everybody a happy holiday…

Craig?...you can have that Tom Collins now.

Ten Stories from 2008 -- Number 7

Number 7. Young Guns

The 2003-2004 season was the bitter aftertaste of the disappointment that was the end of the 2003 Stanley Cup playoffs, when Martin St. Louis drove home the final nail in the Caps’ coffin of dead playoff dreams in a third overtime in Game 6 of the opening round. On opening night of the 2003-2004 season, the Caps defeated the Islanders, 6-1, on a night where the Caps inaugurated their 30th season by honoring the best Capitals by decade: Yvon Labre (1970’s), Rod Langway (1980’s), Dale Hunter (1990’s), and Calle Johansson (2000’s).

There was precious little honor in what followed. The Caps were winless in their next eight games (0-7-1). Their go-to guys (allegedly) – Jaromir Jagr and Peter Bondra – managed a grand total of four goals and six points, combined, in the eight game winless streak. It didn’t get better.

The Caps would not cobble together as many as two consecutive victories until December, by which time the team was 8-15-1-1, and the writing was, if not on the wall, being hastily scribbled – something had to be done. It didn’t take long. After another two pastings on the road – a 7-3 loss in Los Angeles and a 4-1 loss in Colorado – the end of The Great Experiment in Coaching was at hand, that being the dismissal of Bruce Cassidy. But this was a team that was highly paid, less talented, and unmotivated. Firing a coach wasn’t the end.

And thus, “The Rebuild” began in earnest. We will not go into the detail, because you can find them by clicking on one of the “rebuild” links over there on the right. But there was one deal that is relevant to our purposes, as much for the risk it represented as for the return. In the middle of the god-awful season that was unfolding, Robert Lang managed to lead the NHL in scoring for the Caps. As trading day arrived, he was 29-45-74 in 63 games. If would be an iffy thing to trade the league’s leading scorer, even if the team doing it was on an express train to Suckville. It had never been done before in league history.

Well, that is precisely what the Caps did, trading Lang to the Detroit Red Wings on February 27, 2004 for prospect Tomas Fleischmann, a first-round draft pick in 2004, and a second-round draft pick in 2006.

There is a lot of instant analysis on trades, especially when big producers are involved. Getting a former late first-round draft pick and a couple of futures might not have seemed like much of a return to many folks. Even when that first round pick was used by the Caps, there might have been some head-scratching. They picked a defenseman who labored for a Canadian junior team that went 7-52-11-2 in the regular season. He was the leading scorer among defensemen on that Saskatoon Blades team, but he was also a minus-29. On this fellow, a first round pick was burned? OK, the Capitals already had won Powerball in the right to select Alexander Ovechkin at the top of that draft, but still…

That pick was, as you no doubt have figured out, defenseman Mike Green. He played for one more year in Saskatoon (a playoff team, it should be noted), then split the 2005-2006 season with the Hershey Bears and the Caps. While Green was getting his feet wet in those 22 games with the Caps in 2005-2006, his first-round draft mate in the 2004 draft was smashing (literally, in many instances) the league to smithereens. Alex Ovechkin had a season good enough for 50-plus goals and a Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. But that Capitals team was too weak or too green in too many other areas to do any better than manage 29 wins and 70 standings points. The ingredients were being assembled, but there just weren’t enough on hand to finish the recipe.

After that 2006 season, the Caps were once more in the draft lottery and won the right to pick fourth in that draft. The Caps didn’t lack for needs – a big physical defenseman, a scorer to complement Ovechkin, a strong two-way center. Making the selection difficult was the fact that there were players fitting the need profile – Erik Johnson on defense, Phil Kessel as a scoring forward, Jordan Staal and Jonathan Toews filling the promise of a sturdy two-way center. However, with the fourth pick the Capitals picked a playmaking center from Gavle, Sweden – Nicklas Backstrom – who looked to be the perfect playmaking fit for a goal scorer of Alex Ovechkin’s talent.

The hitch in the plan, though, was the decision by Backstrom to play another season in Sweden. It left the Caps with the dim prospect of Alex Ovechkin being the only bullet in the Capitals’ pistol. But there was another Russian – another Alex – that rejoined the club after a roundabout journey that took him from a 52-game stint with the Caps in the abysmal 2003-2004 season to the Portalnd Pirates, then back to Russia. It was a journey not without its controversy, but Alexander Semin was back with the Caps for the 2006-2007 season. Ovechkin and Semin finished one-two on the Caps in goals and total scoring, and established themselves as one of the most dangerous scoring pairs in the league. Mike Green was also a member of that team, logging 70 games, but finishing with unspectacular results (2-10-12, -10). The rest of the roster was too thin on experience or talent to do any better than another 70-point finish.

Even as the 2007-2008 season dawned, the Caps looked to have talent (Backstrom would join the team), but lacked enough experience to impress anyone as anything other than a playoff maybe, at best. The early season looked to confirm the opinions of those pundits as the Caps started 6-14-1 and replaced another coach. Glen Hanlon was relieved of his duties in favor of Bruce Boudreau. It wasn’t as if the Caps suddenly caught fire, as they went 7-5-3 over the next 15 games leading up to Christmas.

But oh, what 2008 brought…

The Capitals finished the 2008 portion of the season with a 28-12-3 record that allowed them to clinch a playoff spot in the final game of the season. The guys who led the way were the quartet of Ovechkin, Green, Backstrom and Semin…

Ovechkin would lead the league in goal scoring, total scoring, and would tie Viktor Kozlov for the team lead in plus-minus at +28.

Green would lead all NHL defensemen in goal scoring (18).

Backstrom would be a Calder Trophy finalist and would average almost a point a game (7-34-41) in the 43 games played in the 2008 portion of the season (including two four-point games).

Semin, who fought injury problems early in the season, had 20 goals in the 41 games he played in the 2008 portion of the season.

This foursome has hardly let up. As of today, the Caps are 48-23-6 in this calendar year. In putting together that 2008 record, here is what these four players’ contributions have been:

Alex Ovechkin: 75 games, 55-52-107, +33
Nicklas Backstrom: 77 games, 17-58-75, +21
Alexander Semin: 62 games, 34-38-62, +9
Mike Green: 66 games, 18-40-58, +19

These four players, three of them offspring of the wreckage that was the Capitals’ 2003-2004 season, represent the core of the team. Backstrom and Semin are under contract through next season, Green through the 2011-2012 season, and Ovechkin until the sun goes dark. None of them are older than 24. Coming out of the lockout, Ovechkin might have been the only bullet in the Capitals’ gun, but now, that gun is loaded. More to the point, they are all guns in their own right…The Young Guns are one of the top stories of 2008.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Rangers, December 23rd

Boy, the way Ovechkin played
Goals that made the hit parade.
Fans like us we had it made,
Those were the days.

And you knew who you were then,
Girls were girls and men were men,
Mister we could use a man like Dale Hunter again.

Didn't need no Bettman state,
Everybody pulled his weight.
Gee our old Zambon' ran great.
Those were the days.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s Hockey in New York tonight, and we had an opportunity to take a trip to seven-oh-four Houser Street in the Queens to talk to a real New York hockey fan, Archie Bunker. Arch, thanks for sharing some time with us. You’ve been a hockey fan for quite a long time, haven’t you?

“Ever since Richard E. Nixon was in the White House.”

And you’ve been a Rangers’ fan all this time?

“That’s right…through thick and thin…mostly thin.”

And in all that time, who was your favorite Ranger?

“Uh, well, I’d have to say ‘Lone’”

That was a TV character, Arch…

“What’re you, a meathead?”

No, I’m just sayin’…how about hockey these days, Arch. You find this style of hockey after the lockout entertaining?

“I hate entertainment. Entertainment is a thing of the past, now we got television.”

So, you’re not a fan of this kind of hockey…I take it you’re not fond of the Commissioner, then?

“Let me tell you something, sonny boy…he’s just the man hockey needs. God himself made Gary E. Bettman commissioner.”

Wait a second, Arch. Are you saying that Bettman rules because of divine right?

“It's a damn sight better than your divine left.”

Back to the Rangers…they’re in first place right now in the Atlantic Division. What do you think their chances are to make it all the way and win a Stanley Cup.

“I have two words to say to that…blpblp! blpblp!”

Well, that won’t describe the Rangers, as they come into this game on top of the Atlantic Division and on a 4-2-0 run in their last half dozen games. Their numbers, though, don’t suggest the sort of dominance you might expect of a club with 22 wins in 36 games…

The odd part of the Rangers 4-2-0 run in those last half dozen games is that three of the wins came in extra time (two in overtime, one in a Gimmick). It is one more odd stretch in an odd season – of the 22 wins the Rangers have, 10 have come in extra time (two in overtime and eight in The Gimmick, which leads the league).

What that suggests is rock-solid goaltending, and that’s just what the Rangers have had this season. Henrik Lundqvist. A finalist for the Vezina Trophy in each of his three years in the league, Lundqvist has been good, if not spectacular, in regulation and over time. Overall, he is 11-9-2 in those situations, 2.50 GAA (tied for 15th in the league), .914 save percentage (tied for 18th). But in The Gimmick, he really shines. He is 7-1 and has stopped 21 of 24 attempts. No goalie has more wins, and no goalie facing more than 10 attempts has a better save percentage (.857). His season numbers overall are consistent with those he’s had against the Caps for his career – 7-3-1, 2.47, .914. He took the loss in a 3-1 decision at Verizon Center on November 8th in the only meeting of the clubs so far this year.

The last time we looked at the Rangers, Nikolai Zherdev was leading the Rangers in scoring. Well, he still is at 12-20-32. Since he faced the Caps on November 8th, Zherdev is 7-11-18, -4, in 19 games. He can be an explosive scorer, his nine multi-point games this year serving as evidence of that, including a four-point game against the Devils (1-3-4) on December 12th. He does not have a point in three career games against the Caps.

If Zherdev is continuing his almost point-a-game pace, Markus Naslund has struggled some. While still the second leading scorer on the team (12-13-25), he is only 3-2-5 in nine games in December and is without a point in his last three games. Naslund has had some success against Washington in the past, going 5-12-17, +3, in 21 career games against the Caps.

If the Rangers have an issue, it is that $13.6 million worth of defensemen pretty much suck. Wade Redden ($6.5 million of that total) has been a lot less than advertised. He’s had a particular problem lately – since facing the Caps on November 8th, he is 0-9-9, -7 in 18 games. The trouble is, though, Redden is the least of the problem among this group of defensemen. Michal Rozsival ($5.0 million) is 2-0-2, -7 in his last nine games, while Dmitri Kalinin ($2.1 million) is scoreless and minus-6 in his last eight games, and his -16 overall is better than only three players in the entire league in plus-minus.

The Rangers have exactly one win in regulation in the last month (six other wins in extra time), that against Anaheim a week ago. You’d have to think the object of the exercise for the visitors is to have the game go 65 minutes and “Leave it to Lundqvist.”

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New York: Marc Staal

Staal might be the best of the clan this year. He is the only Ranger defenseman on the plus-side of the ledger for the season and has been as steady as there is on the Ranger blue line lately. His ice time has started to reflect his performance and responsibility – he leads the Rangers’ defense in both even strength and penalty killing ice time per game. Given the struggles of the big money blue liners, he could draw the straw in trying to nullify the Caps’ top line and Alex Ovechkin. Lundqvist is certainly goaltender enough to compete against that group, but having Staal on top of his game wouldn’t hurt the Ranger cause.

Washington: Brooks Laich

If Lundqvist sees the puck, he will stop it. That’s about as given as there is in this game. That means it will be important to crowd him and look for rebounds. And that’s where Laich comes in. He has three goals in his last five games and is almost on a pace to match last year’s career high of 21 goals. If he can manage to swat in a rebound (or two), this is likely to be a good night for the visitors.

The Caps have not won at Madison Square Garden since the lockout. On the other hand, all of that record was compiled under former coach Glen Hanlon. Bruce Boudreau has not lost to the Rangers (all three games at Verizon Center, two of them in overtime). Something will give tonight…we have a suspicion you know which team we think will give…

Caps 3 – Rangers 2