Sunday, June 07, 2009

Bears Win! -- Calder Cup Final, Game 4: Bears 2 - Moose 1

And then there was one to go…

The Hershey Bears inched to within one win of their tenth Calder Cup championship in team history with a 2-1, come-from-behind win over the Manitoba Moose this evening at Giant Center. The score suggests a close game, but in this instance we’re reminded that close on the scoreboard is not necessarily close on the ice.

This was a game for which a Bears loss would have been an injustice perpetrated by fate. Hershey did a fine job for most of the 60 minutes in pinning the Moose in their own end, constantly and consistently sending two forecheckers like cruise missiles to the puck-carrier, causing a bushel of turnovers. The only offense the Moose could muster in the first, oh, 55 minutes (and we’ll get back to that) was a wrister that Ray Sawada snapped over the blocker of Bears goalie Michal Neuvirth off a nice feed from Jason Jaffray at 11:37 of the first period.

Manitoba couldn’t crack the Hershey shell even when the Moose had an abbreviated 25 second 5-on-3 late in the second period. They would fail to convert on all five of their power play opportunities, making them oh-for-ten in Hershey this weekend.

Hershey spent the first 25 minutes looking as if that lone goal for the Moose would hold up and spoil the party at Giant Center. Manitoba goalie Cory Schneider was stopping everything, but the Bears were not making it as difficult as they could have. Too many of their shots were bruising Schneider’s sternum, and there were no rebounds upon which to pounce. But just past the five-minute mark of the second period, Kyle Wilson picked up a loose puck, stepped through two defenders at the top of the left wing circle, and swept the puck past Schneider on the short side to tie the game.

Then, in the third period, it was Hershey’s turn to benefit from a 5-on-3 as former Capital Nolan Baumgartner was sent off for hooking, then Greg Rallo was led to the box 55 seconds later after the Moose were whistled for too many men on the ice. Two seconds before the first minor to Baumgartner expired, Keith Aucoin took the puck on a rebound off the end boards and snapped it behind Schneider on the short side before Schneider could recover to give the Bears the lead and send the Giant Center crowd into a frenzy.

The next six or seven minutes saw the teams going back and forth – Manitoba looking for the equalizer and the Bears trying to earn some insurance. Neither could capitalize, but that merely set the stage for a frantic last five minutes. Manitoba managed to turn the tables on the Bears, force-feeding them some of the forechecking pressure that the Bears were so effective at using over the first two periods. When Michal Neuvirth was not having to make saves from all angles, it was all Hershey could do just to clear the puck to get five fresh pairs of legs on the ice. At the 18-minute mark, referee Francois St. Laurent sent Jason Jaffray and Alexandre Giroux off with coincidental minors, opening up the ice for some 4-on-4. Then, with just under 30 seconds left, St. Laurent sent the smallest player on the ice – Chris Bourque – to the box for cross-checking.

It made for a wild last half-minute. The Moose pulled Schneider to set up a two-man, 5-on-3 advantage, but Bears foiled the last chances the Moose tried to mount against Neuvirth and skated off that last half minute. The Moose outshot Hershey 13-1 those furious last minutes of the third period.

Some other stuff…

- Much better game for John Carlson tonight. He was hitting, moving the puck smartly, doing a good job keeping the puck in the offensive zone.

- Quintin Laing is probably not going to have a long NHL career. But geez, does this guy pay the price to make a play. By the time this one was over, he had cotton wadded into both nostrils. A broken nose or just your average bloody nose, he was out there breathing through his mouth and doing his best to make plays in his end.

- Hershey’s fourth line of Andrew Joudrey, Steve Pinizzotto, and Oskar Osala was all over the Manitoba end pressuring puck carriers. Pinizzotto was a particular nuisance, finishing checks with gusto and just generally being a pest.

- We could understand the roughing minor Bryan Helmer took in the first period (he took Alexandre Bolduc off with him), but the high-sticking minor at the end of the first? Not good.

- Neuvirth was good – great in fact – when he was tested late, but he spent long stretches of the first two periods getting little work. Hard to keep sharp that way, especially for a young goalie. Credit to Neuvirth for maintaining his edge.

- From the “and a babe shall lead them” file, Hershey has served as an object lesson to the parent club the past couple of nights. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Bear who wasn’t launching his body at a Moose or a puck. Even Mathieu Perreault – all 166 pounds of him (as it says on the web site) – was sticking his nose in there on the forecheck trying to pin Moose defensemen against the walls.

- This might not surprise you, but these teams don’t much like each other. There weren’t many whistles that weren’t following by shoving, yapping, and general exchanges of unpleasantries. It was very entertaining.

- Aucoin played as if he had a dinner of Red Bull casserole. He was all over the ice and had at least a half dozen good scoring opportunities.

- Make no mistake, the Moose were hanging around in this one because of the play of Cory Schneider in goal. For the second straight night, the Moose looked to be badly out of sync at 5-on-5.

The Bears have a chance to do something they haven’t done in 29 years – win the Calder Cup on home ice. To do it, the Bears will have to endure what Coach Bob Woods called in his post-game press conference “the most difficult game of their career.” But with the way Michal Neuvirth is playing (saving 96.1 percent of the shots he’s faced in the playoffs at Giant Center) and the way the Bears are dominating the play at 5-on-5, you have to like their chances.

Like they’re saying in Hershey… “one to go.”

Tuesday night.

And here are some pictures from the event...

The 2008-2009 season, by the "tens" -- Defensemen: Karl Alzner

Karl Alzner

Theme: “You gotta play this game with fear and arrogance.”

So it was that Crash Davis counseled Ebby Calvin LaLoosh before “Nuke” headed off to the show in “Bull Durham.” And so, Karl Alzner got his taste of the show this year, playing 30 games with the Caps when injuries decimated the blue line corps early in the season.

To say it was “up and down” would be a bit of an understatement. Even though the ten-game segments are few, they do reveal a couple of things...

First, Alzner started well – perhaps the adrenaline of getting called up – then faded late in his call-up. He had only one point (an assist) after his 11th game, and he did not register a “plus” game in his last 13, going minus-8 in the process.

Perhaps coincidentally, Alzner’s better “first half” of his call up seemed to coincide with a more physical edge (he had 20 hits in his third and fourth groups of ten, only five in his fifth and sixth). Alzner is not generally described as a physical defenseman, but he does have some size (and could grow a bit more). It might not be the strength of his game – angles and position are – but using that size from time to time could be to his advantage.

At the start of the season, we had this to say about Alzner and other prospect defensemen of recent vintage…

“Since 2000, 16 defensemen have been selected in the top ten overall picks in the entry draft. Two of them – Rostislav Klesla and Jay Bouwmeester – saw action in their first year with their club after being drafted. Another eight saw NHL action in their second year. But here is the thing; through that second year, only Bouwmeester, Joni Pitkanen, Mike Komisarek, and Erik Johnson saw more than 10 regular games in a season with their respective clubs. It doesn’t seem to argue for a long stint with the Caps this year for Alzner, despite his pedigree.”

That Alzner got 30 games with the big club in his first professional season was a product of necessity – injuries. But it says something about his skill and potential that he was able to give as good an account of himself as he did.

What Alzner had, though, was some rather odd splits…

- Alzner might have wished he played in the Northeast Division, or at least played against those teams all the time. He was 1-1-2, plus-7 against the Northeast in 11 games, 0-3-3, minus-8 against everyone else in 19 games.

- As might be expected of a rookie, he had his troubles on the road. While he was 0-1-1, plus-5 in 16 games at Verizon Center, he was 1-3-4, minus-6 on the road.

- He had a brutal time of it against the Rangers; a pair of minus-3 games on his way to 0-1-1, minus-7 in three games against the Blueshirts. We’ll consider ourselves lucky he didn’t dress for the opening round of the playoffs.

Digging a little deeper in comparing him with his defenseman teammates, we find that Alzner held up pretty well in 5-on-5 play. His Corsi rating was second on the team (defensemen, minimum of 30 games played) to Mike Green. Only Tom Poti played against better quality of competition, while Alzner suffered with the worst quality of teammates in posting his numbers. While he did have the second worst goals scored against onice per 60 minutes, his differential of goals for/goals against (0.00) was comparable to Tom Poti (0.00), Shaone Morrison (0.05), and Milan Jurcina (0.10). He was the only defenseman playing at least 30 games who drew more penalties than he took and had, by far, the best penalties taken per 60 minutes number (he took one minor in 30 games).

Alzner is most certainly a work in progress. Even if he makes the Caps opening night roster out of camp next year, he’s probably a couple of years away from being a 24-26 minute a night defenseman who will play in the big shutdown situations. But considering that this is his first year of professional hockey, his production was a pleasant surprise… as long as one keeps in mind that there is a lot of upside yet to fulfill.

We’ll return to the great philosopher, Crash Davis, who once described baseball to Ebby Calvin LaLoosh in these terms – “This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains." Alzner plays such a simple game, himself, to his credit. It will do him well to remember that as he moves forward.

Grade B+

The 2008-2009 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Alexander Semin

Alexander Semin

Theme: “But now I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.”

We’re guessing Umberto Eco, the Italian novelist and philosopher, is not a hockey fan. But if he was, he’d probably appreciate Alexander Semin. And 2008-2009 started with that whole “enigma” thing. It didn’t really stop until the end of the year. Semin got out of the gate faster than Secretariat, going 13-14-27, +17 in his first 15 games, finishing up that run with a 2-3-5, plus-4 night against Carolina. Then he came up lame for the third period of a game against New Jersey on November 14th. In the post game press conference of what would be a 3-1 Capitals win, Coach Bruce Boudreau noted that “he’ll be fine tomorrow, as far as I know.”

Semin missed 12 games.

Upon his return, Semin had points in five straight games (1-4-5, plus-3), and one could be forgiven if he was just going to pick up where he left off. But in that fifth game, against the St. Louis Blues, he was cross-checked from behind by David Backes and reinjured himself.

Semin missed six games.

Then, Semin scored 46 points in his last 41 games. He finished 34-45-79, +25 in 62 games. Projected over an 82-game season, that would be 45-60-105, +33. Tied for third in goals, tied for eighth in assists, third in points, tied for fourth in plus-minus. No one in the league – not Alex Ovechkin, not Evgeni Malkin, not Sidney Crosby – put up an 82-game rate of production like that. Look at his ten-game segments, and you can see the effects of his absence in the third and fourth segments…

He didn’t miss a beat in the playoffs, either, going 5-9-14 in 14 games, thus keeping him on pace as a point-or-better a game player in his playoff career (8-14-22 in 21 games). The Caps were 6-4 in playoff games in which he registered a point, 1-3 in games in which he did not.

But that is part of the enigma that is Alexander Semin.

And we haven’t even mentioned the whole “what’s so special about Crosby?” matter. Or Semin treating the Verizon Center crowd to his bongo stylings against the Rangers on January 3rd…

If you look a little closer at Semin’s numbers, you can get an appreciation for just how gifted he is…

- It’s not like he saved it up to beat up on also-rans. He averaged at least a point a game against the three divisions in the East. He had 13 points against Carolina (an Eastern Conference finalist in the playoffs) in five games, seven points against Pittsburgh (a Stanley Cup finalist) in five games, and five points against Boston (the best record in the East) in four games.

- Remarkably, he was a “plus” player in losses (13-10-23, plus-3 in 23 losses, including those in extra time). If you’re looking for a comparison here, Alex Ovechkin was minus-22 in losses.

- Semin led all Caps forwards in points scored per 60 minutes at even strength (minimum: 50 games). He was second among forwards in the entire league in this measure.

- He was not only first among Caps forwards in goals scored per 60 minutes at even strength, he led all forwards in the entire league.

- That last sentence?...about goals? Well, he led the Caps forwards in primary assists per 60 minutes at even strength and was fifth in the entire league. The four ahead of him are a who’s who of playmakers – Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Marc Savard, and Craig Conroy.

- Semin was second in the entire league among forwards in goals scored for (team) per 60 minutes at even strength (Pavel Datsyuk).

- He was second among all Caps forwards in power play points per 60 minutes (Nicklas Backstrom) and led the team's forwards in both primary and total assists.

The term “under the radar” comes to mind, since Semin doesn’t get much press, at least unless he’s expressing opinions about other players. And there might be a reason for that. Sure, there in the whole language thing – he still seems uncomfortable (or at least unwilling) to do much communicating with the English-speaking media. But there is another reason lurking here.

In three years, Semin’s games played has dropped from 77 to 63 to 62. Ankle and back injuries have limited his time the last two years. Now, we’d probably be calling for mommy ten minutes into a game with all the physical abuse the average NHL player takes, but it really would be something to see what numbers Semin could put up if he played in 15 more games a year. There is also the matter of his coming up on a contract year after the 2009-2010 season, after which he will be a restricted free agent. If he plays 80 or so games and puts up numbers approximating the pace at which he scored this year, he’s in for a big payday. But if he plays only 60-65 games again, you have to wonder if anyone will really take a chance on bumping up his compensation past the $4.6 million he will earn next year. This year, however, Semin showed that he is certainly in the elite class of players on the offensive side of the ledger and at least competent – production wise – in other phases of the game… when he’s healthy.

Health, comments out of left field, a fighting style that is “early grade school” (as opposed to “old school”), packaged with what might be the most sublime set of offensive gifts on the Capitals roster… as Churchill put it – describing Russia as it turns out – it is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Grade: B+

She's not going down without a fight

The last roof truss was pulled down yesterday on the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, one of the great hockey arenas of yesteryear. Even in the video and pictures below, you get the feeling that "The Aud" is not going down easily. They built 'em tough in those days...

Bears Win! -- Calder Cup Final, Game 3: Bears 3 - Moose 0


The Hershey Bears played 60 solid minutes of hockey to beat the Manitoba Moose at Giant Center and take a 2-1 lead in the Calder Cup final series. Despite the pace of play being up-and-down the ice for much of the evening, there weren’t a lot of scoring opportunities at even strength for either team (although Hershey had the majority of them). The game was decided on special teams, where the Bears were able to convert two of three power play opportunities, while Manitoba was shooting blanks on five man-advantage situations.

It is said that your best penalty killer has to be your goaltender, and Michal Neuvirth certainly was that for the Bears. In pitching the shutout, Neuvirth denied the Moose on nine power play shots, including several chances on a 5-on-3 the Moose enjoyed early in the second period with the Bears clinging to a 1-0 lead. Neuvirth was cat-quick all night in moving from post to post and was especially sharp with his glove hand, frustrating many Moose… uh, Mooses… (and we know this from watching Moose skating back to their bench muttering to themselves). Neuvirth did not come by his first star of the night by accident; he earned his recognition.

It might be said that the Bears were luckier in some respects. Their two power play goals were scored off a goal mouth redirection (Graham Mink) and a one timer that Manitoba goalie Cory Schneider almost got enough of to keep it out of the net (Alexandre Giroux). The last goal was an empty netter by the hardest working man in hockey – Quintin Laing, who is still throwing his body in front of shots. Otherwise, Cory Schneider was just as sharp for the Moose, but the operative word there is, “otherwise.”

The Bears had chances, to be sure. Graham Mink had the puck at the doorstep early in the first period but couldn’t solve Schneider. Jay Beagle had room on the far side of Schneider late in the first, but Schneider got a blocker on his drive to send the puck into the corner. In the second minute of the second period, Schneider denied Giroux twice as the Bear was skating across the top of the crease. Andrew Gordon had a breakaway that could have given the Bears a 3-0 lead late in the third, but the puck wouldn’t behave for him, and his chance went wide of the net.

Among the other Bears, Staffan Kronwall had an especially solid game from the blue line, contributing two assists, but playing a simple game in his own end, too.

Giroux did what guys at this time of year have to do, and that’s more than score. He leveled a Moose at the Hershey line that got a roar from the sellout crowd.

John Carlson clearly has talent. Based on what we saw tonight, he’s also clearly not ready for a jump to the big time. He was just hesitant enough on a few decisions to turn the puck over and give the Moose some momentum.

Chris Bourque is one feisty little cuss. But sometimes, we wonder what he’s thinking, too. There were a few ill-timed passes through the middle of the ice of the sort that can make a goaltender’s night more difficult than it has to be. But there was Bourque at the end of the game, skating after Pierre-Cedric Labrie – seven inches taller and 35 pounds heavier – barking at him for Labrie’s trying to start a ruckus with anyone in a Bear jersey after the final horn.

Karl Alzner looked rusty. Small wonder, given how much time he’s missed. But even with that, Alzner has a knack for making the simple, correct play.

Oskar Osala never seemed to get into the rhythm of the game. He was looking for Moose to hit and pucks to shoot, but always seemed to be just late in arriving where he could do some damage.

Before the game started, there was played on the video board an excerpt from Manitoba coach Scott Arniel’s press conference after Manitoba’s 3-1 win in Game 2. He made mention of the fact that the Moose would be heading for Hershey, where the crowd was not likely to be as loud as that at MTS Centre. Well, we’ve never been to MTS Centre, but it was plenty loud in Giant Center.

We’re tempted to say that there was a healthy contingent from Caps land. There were quite a few folks in the parking lot before the game sporting red Capitals jerseys, and there was quite a line of tail lights headed south on cars with Virginia and Maryland license plates after the game.

We were in the first row along the glass for this one, the first time we’ve had that experience. It certainly makes for a different look and feel (not to mention sound) of the game than seeing it from the balcony, as we do for Caps games.

The Koharski tradition is in safe hands. Don might have retired, but his brother Terry is picking up the mantle of doofusness. There were times in this one when Koharski was less a referee and more a third defenseman for the Moose, blocking several attempts by Bears on the same shift to send the puck deep around the boards. Terry… get the crullers outta yer ass, already.

That’s three shutouts in Neuvirth’s last five games on Giant Center ice, and he might have had a fourth, but Brad Marchand scored a goal with 36 seconds left in a 2-1 Bears win over Providence in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final. Neuvirth is now third in the playoffs in GAA, sixth in save percentage, first in shutouts, and most important, first in wins.

Hershey is still in a position to win the series without having to get on an airplane any more. But that won’t be easy. Manitoba had their chances, but Neuvirth had the answer for all of them tonight. Now, they do it all again tomorrow.