Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Top Ten Stories of 2010 -- Number 5: The Dark Side

It was hard what to make of Alex Ovechkin when he entered the National Hockey League in 2005. His being the top prospect in the 2004 amateur draft provided more or less a name only to attach to him. Unless you spent a lot of time following hockey in Europe, and in Russia particularly, you probably did not know a lot about him other than some vague commentary that he was one of those once-in-a-generation kinds of talent that could lift a struggling franchise out of the muck of losing.

The biggest clue as to his talent – and his value to a franchise – actually came in the year before his draft by the Capitals, when the Florida Panthers tried an interesting argument in order to draft him. General Manager Rick Dudley argued that even though Ovechkin’s birthday was September 17, 1985; and thus two days after the cutoff date for eligibility in the 2003 NHL entry draft, the fact that leap yeas intervened (adding days to the calendar) should make Ovechkin eligible for purposes of the draft.

Dudley’s argument did not carry the day, and the Panthers (who held the first overall pick of the 2003 draft) went on to trade their first round selection to the Pittsburgh Penguins (which became Marc-Andre Fleury) along with a third round pick (which became Daniel Carcillo). The Panthers received the Penguins’ first round pick (third overall, with which they took Nathan Horton), a second round pick (Stefan Meyer) and Mikael Samuelsson.

The Panthers have never recovered.

But that is another story (as is the Penguins perhaps thanking their lucky stars that Florida didn’t win the argument). We tell it only to make the point that Ovechkin was so highly thought of that a team would concoct a long-shot argument just for the opportunity to draft him what amounted to be a year early.

Upon his arrival, Ovechkin evoked comparisons to Mark Messier, to Gordie Howe, and in some respects to the player Ovechkin proclaimed to be his favorite – Mario Lemieux. What he was, in fact, was an entirely different breed of player from that usually associated with European players. He was not a player who would play on the edges, eschewing contact, and preferring to set up teammates – the caricature of the European player to date. Rather, he was a force on skates who put a player through the glass with a check on his first NHL shift before scoring two goals later in the game. It was a rare combination of speed, power, and a knack for the dramatic that he brought to Washington, a city that never had such a player, the Capitals being a team more commonly thought of as having a lunch-pail, hard-working, rather drab personality.

Ovechkin’s exuberance extended beyond the confines of the rink, where he dove into learning his new language (taking on a North American teammate rather than one who spoke Russian) and made himself as available to the media as his halting (but improving) English would allow. It seemed there was nothing he would not do to promote the game (filming a commercial ordering up a suite full of room service for Sidney Crosby and a turn at giving his boss instructions on how to free a bag of potato chips from a stubborn vending machine being two of the more famous examples) as he piled up goals and points.

Ovechkin’s combination of production on the ice that earned him a trophy case full of individual awards and enthusiasm off it made him the NHL’s closest parallel to a rock star, unusual in a sport that was more “old school” and buttoned down than its major sport counterparts. Perhaps except for Penguin fans and fans of players he left littered on the ice or from goals scored at odd angles, he was loved by fans and media.

That was then. The year 2010 was less kind to Ovechkin, on and off the ice, to the point that he was being seen in some quarters as a darker, moodier personality off the ice and a more brutal, even “dirty” player on it. What the media build up, they tear down, eventually, but Ovechkin wasn’t an innocent bystander in the unmaking of his image.

The seeds of 2010 might have been sown late in 2009 when Ovechkin was suspended for two games following a knee-on-knee hit on Carolina’s Tim Gleason. It was not his first questionable hit (as if any player who incorporates hits as a featured element in his game could avoid entirely the odd questionable hit), but it was his first suspension. It would not be his last.

2010 actually started well. Ovechkin was named team captain for the Capitals when Chris Clark was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Caps promptly ran off and hid from the rest of the league at the top of the standings, going 17-1-0 in their next 18 games. But after that, the season frayed badly for Ovechkin. The team lost three in a row heading into the Olympic break, which was prelude to a professional disaster for Ovechkin. In Vancouver, Ovechkin’s Team Russia – a pre-Olympic favorite to medal, if not win the tournament outright – was bounced by Team Canada in embarrassing fashion, a 7-3 loss. Never mind that in that game Ovechkin’s nemesis Sidney Crosby failed to record a point. It was Ovechkin failing one more time to win when it mattered, failing one more time to best Crosby in a game that mattered. That it came in a quarterfinal game – not even a medal round game – might have made the result even worse.

It got worse still. Already having been criticized for being inaccessible to media in Vancouver, he had the boom lowered upon himself after taking out his frustrations on an individual filming him outside of Russia House in Vancouver, an episode caught on video.

Returning to the NHL schedule did not provide a respite. Two weeks after the Vancouver Games, the Capitals visited the Chicago Blackhawks in a nationally televised game. In the first period Ovechkin was chasing Blackhawk defenseman Brian Campbell after the puck and pushed Campbell into the end boards. Campbell broke his collarbone, Ovechkin received a major penalty and a game misconduct. Then he was suspended again, this time for another two games.

Upon his return from suspension Ovechkin would finish the regular season 6-7-13 in 11 games, a scoring pace somewhat off of that which he posted before the Vancouver Games and suspension for the Campbell hit. And while he performed well in the first four games of the first round playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens (4-4-8, plus-7), over which the Caps went out to a 3-2 lead in games, Ovechkin had a poor Game 5 (although he did score another goal) and went without a goal despite taking 18 shots on goal in Games 6 and 7, both of which the Caps lost to lose the series in one of the biggest Stanley Cup playoff upsets in recent memory.

The new season started with Ovechkin fast out of the gate – four goals and four assists in his first five games, over which the Caps went 4-1-0. But since then goals – his unparalled signature since he came into the league – became harder to come by. In the next 34 games that would close the calendar year Ovechkin went 10-26-36, a 24-63-85 pace for an 82-game season that would be far below a season’s worth of goals and points recorded by Ovechkin to date. By no means a bad season, but given the standard he set for his production, certainly out of the ordinary.

Taken as a body of work, Ovechkin’s production and performance in 2010 were not as good as the 17-1-0 start to his captaincy suggested, nor was it as bad as the Olympics or Stanley Cup tournaments might have suggested. It wasn’t even as bad as the finish to the calendar year. If anything, it was uneven – spectacular in spots, almost invisible in others. And invisible is one adjective that could not be applied to Alex Ovechkin before 2010.

More ominously, his brand seemed to take a hit. He was not the best player on the planet at year’s end (at least for the moment); Sidney Crosby having rocketed by him in that race with the big start he had to the 2010-2011 season. He was not as much the devil-may-care, all-toothless smiles character off the ice, either. He gave the appearance of being a more surly character, increasingly wary of the media (or at least that how it appeared from our chair). His suspensions only added to the diminished view of him.

Fair? Not really a relevant question. It is the price one pays for living in the spotlight, even for one with the outsized “rock star” personality of Alex Ovechkin. And if he had four seasons in which he could do little wrong, then it might have been inevitable that there would be a fall to earth moment. Like any 25 year old, Ovechkin impresses us from afar as a work in progress. He is one of the faces of the league, a certain draw in other cities on the road, the face of the Capitals’ franchise, and still one of the most dynamic personalities in the league, on or off the ice. Perhaps 2010 was just a “bad year,” or as bad as it gets for a 25-year old who has a $120 million-plus contract, a fist-full of commercial deals, and is in the conversation as to who is the best player of his generation.

Still, 2010 was a year in which Ovechkin took a stroll on (or was portrayed as being on) the dark side, and it merits attention as a top story in 2010.

Home Cookin'...For the Other Guys

The Caps' Mike Vogel points out via Twitter that, "[The Tampa Bay Lightning] have an absurd 12-game homestand that starts in less than two weeks."  Well, here is how absurd, compared with the Caps' schedule over the same slice of the calendar (home games in yellow):

Not only do the Lightning get that 12-game home stand, but in that 12-game home stand the Lightning do not have to play in any back-to-back games.  Compare that with the two sets of such games the Caps will play, all four of the contests on the road, one of them coming at the end of a three-game western road swing that will mean three games in four nights on the road.  The second of the two back-to-backs will be the second meeting of the year against the Penguins in Pittsburgh, the Caps' first trip to Consol Energy Arena.

The Lightning also appear to be getting a break in that only six of the 12 teams they will play on that home stand are currently in the top eight of their respective conferences.  Nine of the Caps' 13 opponents over that stretch are in the top-eight, and San Jose and Los Angeles are each only two points out of eighth place in the West.

You would hope that the next 12 days, in which the Caps will play one of those three-in-four nights groups of games (starting tonight), will provide the Caps with an opportunity to create some breathing room between themselves and the Lightning.  That is, if you put stock in the idea of the Caps winning the Southeast Division as a good thing heading into the playoffs.  Because after that, the Lightning will have a month in which the schedule smiles upon them compared to that of their closest division pursuer.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps at Panthers, January 11th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Ahhhhhhh… Florida. Beats waking up to snow and cancelled airline flights, eh?

“Well, there is a dense fog advisory for south Florida this morning.”

Well, look who it is. Tim Fantore, weather personality extraordinaire. Giving anyone any hockey game weather forecasts lately?

“Hey, it’s not an exact science, you know.”

Yeah, and neither is astrology.

“We have a better record.”

Barely. So, are we going to be able to get home after we play these two games in Florida?

“As a modified continental polar high pressure system moves from the central plains into the southeast states late Wednesday into Thursday...a more pronounced push of cold air advection…”


“Yeah, it refers to the transport of some property of the atmosphere or ocean, such as heat, humidity or salinity..”

You’re sure about that?

“That’s what Wikipedia says.”

You’re sure it’s not some new cholesterol drug or ED treatment?

“Well, maybe.”

Guess that fog is rolling in right on time.

The Caps finish up a home-and-home series with the Florida Panthers tonight, fresh off a 3-2 win against the Panthers on Saturday night. We covered a lot of this then, but the new wrinkle is that in getting that win on Saturday, the Caps clawed their way all the way back from their 0-6-2 losing skid. They are now 6-0-2 in their last eight games. Here is how the overall numbers look for the Caps and the Panthers:

In those last eight games the Caps outscored their opponents 22-11, and only four times did they allow more than one goal in a game, none with more than two allowed. It is the longest streak of allowing two or fewer goals per game since the Caps allowed two or fewer over a nine-game stretch from January 9-31, 1998. Caps fans might remember that as a Stanley Cup finals season.

Over this eight game stretch the Caps have had very balanced scoring. Ten players have shared in the 22 goals, only Eric Fehr with as many as four (although five players have at least three). The Caps have 19 different players sharing in the points parade, led by Fehr (seven) and Alex Ovechkin (seven). The leading scorers in this run are:

Eric Fehr: 4-3-7
Alex Ovechkin: 3-4-7
Mike Green: 3-3-6
Mike Knuble: 3-2-5
Mathieu Perreault: 3-1-4
Nicklas Backstrom: 0-4-4

Special teams remain a matter of good news and bad news. The good news is that over the eight-game points streak the Caps have killed off 33 of 34 shorthanded situations (97.1 percent) and have not allowed a power play goal in their last six games. The bad news is that the power play continues to operate at low wattage. In the eight games Washington is 4-for-35 (11.4 percent) and has had only eight opportunities over the last three games, converting two, at least giving fans hope that the Caps are emerging from the power play darkness in terms of its efficiency.

If someone was to tell you that John Erskine had more points than 161 other defensemen who have dressed for games so far this year, would you believe it? Well, as they say, "look it up."  Erskine is third among Caps defensemen in scoring, has already set a career best in goals (three) and is tied for his best season in points (nine) in just 38 games.

If Semyon Varlamov gets the call in goal – what would be his sixth consecutive start – he would be going into it 4-0-1 in five straight appearances with a 1.19 goals against average, a .962 save percentage, and one shutout. Varlamov has had, thus far, a rather amazing season. He allowed seven goals on 20 shots in a 7-0 loss to the New York Rangers on December 12th. Absent that melt down, he is 8-3-2, 1.73, .941, with two shutouts.

Michal Neuvirth has not been quite as outstanding, but after going winless in six straight appearances from November 19th through December 18th is 2-0-1 in his last three appearances with a 1.65 goals against average and a .944 save percentage. He has had his own “meltdown” of sorts, that run of six games without a win. Absent that stretch, he is 14-3-1, 2.40, .918, with one shutout.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Florida: Tomas Vokoun

Vokoun did not get the call in the first of this home-and-home series, but he’s just about a lock to get the nod in this contest. Vokoun has been very, very good or not so very, very good lately. In his last seven appearances, when he wasn’t shutting teams out (twice) he was allowing three or more goals and getting pulled twice. What he has faced is more rubber than a Goodyear Tire and Auto store – more than 38 shots per 60 minutes played over those seven games.

Washington: Brooks Laich

Last season Laich had 12 power play goals. So far this season he has four. All of them have come on the road, however. He just doesn’t happen to have one in any of his last 16 games. Laich came into the season with more points against the Panthers than he had against any other NHL opponent (7-11-18 in 34 games).


1. Focus. When the final horn blows on this game the Caps will head to Tampa Bay, then return home to face the Vancouver Canucks. There is the temptation to look past this game, and a slow start stemming from that kind of lack of focus – as appeared to be the case in Saturday’s game – could cause this game to end differently, as the Panthers are a much more effective team offensively at home.

2. Opportunity. The Caps rank dead last in the NHL in power play opportunities on the road. Part of that is the fact that no team has played fewer road games than the Caps, but getting barely three power play chances a game on the road is not much opportunity to unleash the power play fury.

3. Good Start. Washington is minus-8 in the first period this season (27 goals scored, 35 goals allowed); Florida is plus-9 (38 and 29). The Caps would like to get out of the first period with that kind of thing turned around.

In the end, this is a game the Caps should win on paper, but it is one of those land mine games that can be troublesome. Add in the fact that the Panthers will try to muck things up as much as possible, and the seeds are planted for a frustrating evening. Fighting through it and paying attention for 60 minutes will be the things to watch for. Of course, we see just that happening.

Caps 3 – Panthers 1