Sunday, September 30, 2007

Ottawa 2 - Washington 1

OK, we'll leave the "what went wrongs" by the side of the road. Fact is, not much did, except the final score. True, the Caps fell tonight to a Alfredsson-Heatly-Spezza-Volchenkov-Fisher-Emery-less Senators club, but the Caps did everything but win the game. If there was a time-of-possession clock, the Caps probably held a 40-20 minute edge. And, given that Alex Ovechkin hit two posts (one in the waning moments) and Tomas Fleischmann another, the offense did enough win most games. They outshot the visitors 35-15 and won 38 of 53 draws (that's not a misprint, although one hesitates to trust the NHL stat sheet at the moment). Boyd Gordon, David Steckel, and Michael Nylander were a combined 29 wins and seven losses on draws.

The defense was not bad, although it wasn't much tested. Olaf Kolzig had a gruesome half dozen minutes in the first period, giving up two very iffy goals, but otherwise had a solid effort.

The Caps took only one penalty (perhaps as much a product of hanging on to the puck for such long stretches....they never had much chance to take the usual NHL-brand of obstruction penalties).

Even the crowd wasn't bad (by Caps preseason standards). But this was the first chance for The Peerless to see the new mother ship...

...oops, scoreboard...

These aren't artist's renditions...I took these pics (hence, the blurry images in the latter couple). Shoot, in that first one I can see the nose hairs in the Senator logo.

It's nice...really. And, for that matter, so was the Caps' play, except for that pesky final result.

The Peerless' Preview, Part III

We’re back with the third installment of the preview, and The Peerless is very happy that Shakespeare was so wordy…

"Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't"

-- Hamlet (II, ii)

The Peerless believes that Donald Brashear is one of the practitioners of the hardest job in hockey, that of “enforcer.” That term – “enforcer” – carries with it certain connotations that non-fans of the sport relish in regurgitating about hockey…”thug,” “hooligan,” “neanderthal,” “unskilled.”

Uh, no.

While fighting is a part of the job description, “enforcement” can take the form of mere presence. It takes a while for any of this breed of hockey player to develop a reputation sufficient to discourage opponents from taking liberties, and unfortunately, that reputation is purchased at the price of fighting – perhaps often. But Brashear is far enough along in years and experience that he does not have to resort to fighting to enforce order. Whether he picks his spots more these days, his mere presence can have the effect of keeping things quiet. And it’s not as if he was a shrinking violet last year, either. His 14 fighting majors tied for eighth in the NHL.

But, this being the new NHL, guys have to be able to do more than just fight. Brashear’s 13 points might not be indicative of a Ross Trophy any time soon, but it was 13th on the club last year. He was one of only three players on the club playing at least half the schedule on the “plus” side of the ledger (+1). His 101 hits was fourth on the club, although considering he was last on the club (again, among those playing half the schedule) in time-on-ice (7:58/game), that is a remarkable statistic.

Turning 36 this season, Brashear cannot be expected to be at the top of the enforcer heap, as he might have been a half-dozen years ago. But he will be effective in his role, and he will contribute to the Caps’ fourth line as the kind of energy forward who can cause quite a ruckus in his role. Whatever madness there be in fighting, there is a method in what Brashear practices.

"Can one desire too much of a good thing?"

-- As You Like It (IV, i)

Is there any better situation to find oneself that that in which Viktor Kozlov finds himself? This is Kozlov’s fifth stop in the NHL (San Jose, Florida, New Jersey, and the Islanders being his previous stops), and if one label has followed him around, it is that of “underachiever.” He has never had more than 25 goals in a season (last year, with the Islanders), only once has had more than 35 assists in a season (53, with Florida in 1999-2000), and has only once had more than 55 points (70, in that same Florida season). One watches him skate so smoothly and effortlessly for a big man, and one wonders, “what’s the problem?”

Part of it is that he’s played on some clubs that have struggled, part of it is inconsistency. But now, it appears that he will skate on opening night centering Alexander Ovechkin and Tomas Fleischmann. Ovechkin is precisely the kind of scorer who can benefit from Kozlov’s vision and creativity (which he certainly possesses when his game is in focus), and Fleischmann has both the puck-handling skill and passing talent to find Kozlov in spots where Kozlov can score, himself.

Even though Kozlov has been less effective at center than he has on the wing (and wing might be where he ends up in the long term), he is in what might be the perfect situation for his mix of skills. If there is one concern, it is being on the ice consistently. Only four times in 12 seasons has he played more than 70 games. But when he is out there, he can be effective. In addition to his 51 points (5th on the Islanders last year), he was +12 (5th), and had four game-winning goals (2nd). One thing that can’t be overlooked, given the Caps’ struggles in this department, is that Kozlov is 13-for-25 in shootouts over the past two years. The Caps, as a team, are 23-for-94 over the last two years, including 5-for-40 last year.

For Kozlov, coming to Washington could be a good thing, and there is not too much of that in the minds of the Caps and their fans.

"To mourn a mischief that is past and gone is the next way to draw new mischief on"

-- Othello (I, iii).

Look at any team, any sport, and chance are you’ll find a player who is the vessel into which all the ills and ill feelings of fans are poured. For the Caps, that vessel appears to carry the name, “Steve Eminger.” Drafted 12th overall in 2002, much was expected of him. And he is another of those (like Brian Sutherby) who seem to have been here forever. The thing is, Eminger won’t be 24 until Hallowe’en, and he has only 192 games of experience. Lest one think we’re one of those folks who would give Eminger the eternal pass of “well, he’s only,” the apprenticeship is over. On this team, with expectations of challenging for a playoff spot, he has to show that he is a capable NHL defenseman.

The thing is, though, he is already. Eminger had his 2005-2006 season hijacked by an injury, and last year he got off to a poor start. But from New Years on last season, Eminger played some decent hockey (1-11-12, -3 in 33 games, while logging almost 20 minutes a game over that stretch). It is of little use to lament what some might think an unfulfilled potential for Eminger in his brief career. Better, perhaps, to compare him with another young defenseman who struggled early in his career, one who in his first 167 games over his first five seasons was 9-32-41, -20. Eminger, in his 192 games, is 6-35-41, -40. The defenseman who whom I’ve compared Eminger is Buffalo’s Brian Campbell, who would have to endure another season with a relatively poor plus-minus number (-14), before emerging last year as a critical element of the Sabres club.

Lingering over the past and picking over his performance, as some fans seem intent to do, is just a way of continuing to find fault with Eminger’s game. He is now at a point in his career where he can be (and should be) judged on his performance this year, not on his having to learn in what was a difficult situation. He has the skating talent, the size, and the well-roundedness to his game to rise to the next level. It will be important to the Caps’ success that he does so.

"Better three hours too soon than a minute too late"

-- Merry Wives of Windsor (II, ii)

Tom Poti has suffered a lot of “nots” over his career – “not physical enough”…”not good enough in his own end”…”not consistent enough”…and so on. It hasn’t been entirely unfair. But he has the size, the tools, and the experience to be a genuine first-pair defenseman for the Caps. And, he brings two things of paramount importance to the Caps – productivity on the power play and the ability to log a ton of minutes – that could ripple through the defense squad.

With regard to the first, Poti was 6-26-32 on the power play last year. By way of comparison, the returning defensemen for the Caps were a combined 2-21-23. And the Caps have more firepower on the power play (one would think) in Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Michael Nylander than he had on Long Island.

His ability to consume minutes should allow Brian Pothier, in particular, to settle into a better comfort level of 18-20 minutes a game, instead of the 24 minutes a game he logged last year. Poti has averaged 20-24 minutes a game in each of the last four seasons.

Although the Caps are likely to be a better team late than early, in The Peerless’ view, Poti is one of those players whose contributions can’t wait. He needs to hit the ice skating, as it were. This is a reasonable expectation – he and Pothier will be the only defensemen on this roster who are 30 years old (Poti being older by a little over a month). Better Poti start eating minutes and dishing on the power play early – too late, and it will be, well…too late.

“Boldness be my friend!”

-- Cymbeline (I, vi)

Since the lockout, Matt Pettinger has sort of been lost in the fog of the Alexes and the struggles surrounding the rest of the team. But he’s come out boldly in many phases of the game over the last two years. In 135 games since the lockout, Pettinger has 36 goals (that’s a 22-goals-per-82-games pace), he is 8-12-20 on the power play, he is 4-for-11 in shootouts, he has 140 hits, and he’s 8-3-11 in short-handed scoring. And, he has a rock-‘em, sock-‘em quality to his game that provides a lot of energy. He appears to have settled in as the left wing on the third line, and he can provide some offensive pop from that position that could make that line one that keeps opponents honest with their ability to score.

Pettinger has suffered some injury problems the past couple of years, missing a total of 29 games. It is a product of is style, one that also has made him something of a jack-of-all-trades these past two years. Finding a balance between boldness and discretion – when to go for it and when not to – might be a product of maturity (he won’t be 27 for another three weeks).

We’re not done, here. We’ll be back for a few more additions to the preview…only five days to the regular season.