Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Capital Way

For those of you who have a memory for the Baltimore Orioles of major league baseball, you might remember almost 30 years back to a time when the O's had pitching out the wazoo. In fact, Earl Weaver once referred to his starting rotation of pitchers as ''Cy Young'' (Mike Flanagan), "Cy Future'' (Scott McGregor), ''Cy Old'' (Jim Palmer), and ''Cy Present'' (Steve Stone).

Well, here we are at the end of December, and it's about time for the selection of the NHL player of the month. Among the leading contenders for the award are Capitals Alex Ovechkin (12-7-19, 2 GWG in December) and Nicklas Backstrom (6-15-21, 1 GWG).

Ovechkin (November) and Alexander Semin (October) already have won this year. They are POM "Old" (Semin being 24) and POM "Young" (Ovechkin, who is 23). If Backstrom wins, he's POM "Present."

Would that make Mike Green POM "Future?"

Just "The Capital Way," we guess.

Ten Stories from 2008 -- Number 1

Number 1. The Big Finish

Sunday, March 9, 2008… The unkindest cut of all.

The Capitals had worked so hard and for so long to put themselves in a position to contend for the last playoff spot. After starting the season 6-14-1, they changed coaches, changed philosophies, and went on a tear, going 26-15-7 to climb within seven points of the Carolina Hurricanes with 13 games to play.

But the Caps had just come off a dispiriting, self-inflicted 2-1 loss in Boston at the hands of the Bruins. And now, the Penguins – those Penguins – were coming to town on a Sunday afternoon to administer the coup de grace and end what flicker of hope remained for a playoff berth.

It looked plenty good for the Penguins, too, when Sidney Crosby scored his 21st goal of the year to give the visitors a 2-1 lead with less than two minutes remaining in the second period.

But there was Alexander Semin getting one back on a 5-on-3 power play with 14 seconds left in the period to tie the game and keep that flicker of hope going. Surely, this would propel the Caps to a win in the final period.

Surely, you jest.

It was a hard-fought third period in which neither team could manage a score in the first 19-and-a-half minutes. But in that last half minute, Nicklas Backstrom found the puck on his stick on a rebound. He fired and scored…

…into his own net.

Only the Capitals, and only against the Penguins, could such a scenario play out so inevitably and so believably. An empty netter seconds later by Jordan Staal provided a final 4-2 margin of victory, and the Penguins had – once, again, and for all – smashed the Caps’ dreams like a sledge-hammer on china.

But then, something happened. Three days later, the Caps came from behind on a pair of power play goals by Alex Ovechkin – the last with less than two minutes to play – to defeat the Calgary Flames, 3-2.

Then they beat Atlanta, 4-1, on a goal by Brooks Laich and Ovechkin working his way to 99 points for the year with a goal and an assist.

Then they took a measure of revenge on the Bruins when Cristobal Huet – the goalie the Caps obtained at the trading deadline for a pack of gum – stopped 39 shots to get the Caps to a shootout. Viktor Kozlov scored the game-winner there, and the Caps had a 2-1 win. The margin between the Caps and Carolina was now five points with nine games to play. The odds weren’t good, but the patient had a heartbeat again.

But just like at the end of the movie, “The Perfect Storm,” here came the big wave that threatened to sink the boat. It took the form of a six-game road trip that would start in a pair of Western Conference cities – Nashville and Chicago.

The first game was promising. Ovechkin hit the 100-point mark on his way to a 1-2-3 night, and Huet stopped 24 of 26 shots in a 4-2 win that enabled the Caps to close to within two points of the eight-seed in the Eastern Conference (Philadelphia) and three points of the top spot in the Southeast Division. After the heartbreaking losses to Boston and Pittsburgh, the Caps were now on a four-game winning streak heading to Chicago, where…

…they had their lunch eaten in front of them, and dinner for good measure. The Blackhawks used the occasion of honoring hall of fame goaltender Tony Esposito to pound the Caps early and often. The home team scored four goals in the first period, three before the game was ten minutes old. It happened so fast, coach Bruce Boudreau probably never had a chance to pull starting goalie Olaf Kolzig to jump start his own team. Kolzig finished the game and took the loss in the 5-0 final. It would be the last game Kolzig would play for the team that drafted him in 1989.

It wasn’t looking a whole lot better for Huet when he returned to the nets against Atlanta two days later. After Ovechkin opened the scoring with a goal – his 59th of the year – in the first period, the Thrashers lit Huet up for three goals in a 12-minute span in the second period. Hockey being a game of three periods, though, there was still the matter of the last 20 minutes. That became the Nick and Alex Show. Ovechkin potted one (his 60th to tie a franchise record and become the first to that mark in 12 years) to start the Caps’ scoring in the period, then Backstrom netted two – the last one coming on a sick from-behind-the-net feed from Ovechkin – to give the Caps the lead. Boyd Gordon added an empty-netter to complete the four-goal comeback and a 5-3 win.

Which brings us to a showdown of sorts. The Caps traveled to Carolina to take on the Hurricanes two points behind Boston for the eighth spot in the East and five points behind Carolina in the Southeast. Carolina scored the first and last goals of regulation, sandwiching goals by the Alexes – Ovechkin and Semin. Overtime came and went without a tally, and it was Gimmick Time. Goalies Cristobal Huet for the Caps and Cam Ward for the Hurricanes traded saves in each of the first two rounds, leaving it up to Eric Staal for the Hurricanes, Viktor Kozlov for the Caps. Staal rang his try off the post past Huet, but Kozlov beat Ward on a wrist shot to earn the extra point for the Caps.

The danger looming now for the Caps was the potential for a let-down a couple of days later in Tampa. A big game against the team they were trying to catch, a shootout win behind them, and now a team struggling to be respectable, let alone win games. It had the earmarks of an ambush. The Caps did have the benefit of scoring first – a shorthanded goal by Brooks Laich late in the first period. But they gave it right back less than a minute later on the same power play as former Cap Jeff Halpern scored with 80 seconds left in the period and just six seconds left to kill on a John Erskine minor penalty. The teams traded goals in the second – the Caps just couldn’t shake the Lightning loose. Then Tampa Bay took the lead in the third on a goal by Michel Ouellet (former Penguin…figures). But Alexander Semin saved at least one standings point by potting the tying goal less than five minutes from the end of regulation. With the clock approaching the mid-way point in overtime, Mike Green split two defenders on his way to the net, but was hooked to the ice. The puck squirted loose behind the net, where Brooks Laich out-worked Shane O’Brien for control. Laich circled out from behind the net to goalie Karri Ramo’s left. He found Tomas Flesichmann standing alone in the slot and slid the puck to him. While his feet slipped out from under him, Fleischmann sent the puck past Ramo and the goalie smashing his stick against the post in frustration as the Caps skated off with a 4-3 overtime win.

All that was left for the road portion of the season and the last of this six-game swing was a visit to Florida. The Caps had trouble with the Panthers to that point with a record of 2-3-1 for the season. What made this game even more dangerous was that Florida was a desperate team facing elimination from the playoff race. However, the Caps methodically dismantled the home team in, if not a dominating performance, than an effective one. Cristobal Huet made a goal by Viktor Kozlov less than three minutes into the second period all he would need, and Mike Green and Alex Ovechkin added tallies in a 3-0 shutout of the Panthers. It left the Caps two points behind Carolina for first in the Southeast and three behind Philadelphia for the last spot in the Eastern Conference. It was time to go home and end this.

The last home stand of the season started against Carolina. With Verizon Center packed to the rafters, the Caps came out to roars from the crowd and Ovechkin to chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!!” The home team did not disappoint. It was the support troops that got the Capitals off and running – Matt Cooke (obtained from Vancouver earlier in the season) scoring first from Mike Green and Sergei Fedorov (picked up from Columbus at the trading deadline), and then Brooks Laich from Tomas Fleischmann and Viktor Kozlov to give the Caps a 2-0 lead after one period. Scott Walker scored early for the Hurricanes in the second period, but goaltender Cristobal Huet otherwise held the visitors at bay. His efforts were rewarded at the other end of the ice when Alexander Semin netted a power play goal to restore the two-goal lead after two periods. A late goal by Alex Ovechkin cemented the 4-1 win and left the Capitals on the brink of the playoffs in tying Carolina with 90 points…but Carolina still held the tie-breaking advantage with two games left to play.

The Caps entered their penultimate game of the season against Tampa Bay knowing Carolina had won the night before to take a two-point lead in the standings, defeating that same Tampa Bay team, 6-2. The Caps weren’t going to have any nonsense from a team playing in the back half of a back-to-back set of games…well, maybe not. Filip Kuba scored for the Lightning 39 seconds into the game to stymie the momentum of the Caps and their crowd. Less than half a minute later the Caps thought they got it back on a score by Brooks Laich, but the goal was disallowed when a referee ruled that Tomas Fleischmann, who had pushed defenseman Matt Smaby into goalie Karri Ramo, who had wandered out of his crease, was guilty of goaltender interference (a similar play would prove critical – and also go against the Caps – in the playoff series to come against the Flyers, when a goal scored under those circumstances was allowed). Nevertheless, the Caps did get it back on a score by Alex Ovechkin later in the first, then wore the Lightning down and struck for three goals in the final period in the 4-1 win and tie the Hurricanes once more for the top spot in the Southeast with 92 points.

On Friday, the Caps caught the break they finally needed – Carolina lost to Florida, 4-3, despite Panther goalie Tomas Vokoun having to leave the game with back spasms. Craig Anderson relieved him and stopped 26 of 28 shots to open the door for the Caps, who would face Florida – and presumably Anderson – the next night.

If you were there, you will probably remember it as the loudest crowd the Caps played for since moving to Chinatown from Landover. Noise had force – a percussive quality that pounded in your ears and in your chest. It started in warm-ups when the Caps took the ice and the chant “M-V-P! M-V-P!!” started anew for Alex Ovechkin. It exploded with just over seven minutes gone in the first period when Tomas Fleischmann picked up a loose puck in the right wing corner and worked it down the goal line, deking goalie Craig Anderson to the ice. Fleischmann slipped the puck around Anderson and past his right pad to bring the wall of red in the stands out of their seats.

Kamil Kreps would tie the game for the Panthers at the 6:47 mark of the second period – a goal reviewed by video judges to confirm that it crossed the goal line at the far post behind Cristobal Huet – and there the score would remain 1-1, until Mike Green picked up the puck at the Capitals’ blue line with the clock approaching five minutes to play in the period. He moved the puck up to Alexander Semin along the boards just outside the Florida penalty box. Semin then spun and sent a rink-wide backhand pass onto the stick of Sergei Fedorov approaching the Panther line. Federov took three strides and blistered a drive past Anderson to give the Caps the lead once more. Semin would get one of his own on a power play early in the third period to give the home team a two-goal advantage.

At that point, it was a matter of ensuring that the Panthers, not the most explosive offensive team in the league, would be prevented any opportunities to shave that lead. And clamp down is what the Caps did. From the time of the Semin goal at 2:21 of the third period, the Caps allowed the Panthers only five shots on goal, none of them from inside of 20 feet and the last one a desperation drive that traveled 170 feet of ice.

As Cristobal Huet steered that last drive into the corner as time ran out, the Caps poured off the bench, Ovechkin leaping into his goaltender’s arms. Coach Bruce Boudreau and his assistants Dean Evason and Jay Leach hugged one another at the Capitals’ bench, and the fans – an undulating, leaping, screaming sea of red – could finally believe… the Caps were headed to the playoffs as the Southeast Division Champion.

It would mark the first time that a team that had occupied 30th place in the league standings recovered to earn a playoff spot in that same year. It would be the product of the team finishing the season 37-17-7 after a 6-14-1 start. It was made possible by a thought expressed by coach Bruce Boudreau afterwards: "There was never a word of 'We couldn't' or 'We won't' or 'We can't.' It was always pushing through and believing in ourselves. I just hope I wake up tomorrow and look and 'We are in.' This whole season's been a dream."

A dream it was, made real by the persistence and savvy of Ted Leonsis, George McPhee, and the Capitals’ front office, who devised and stuck to a plan to rebuild… by the singular talents of Bruce Boudreau and his staff in coaxing the best out of a band of youngsters with skill to burn, but in need of experience and a steady hand… by Alex Ovechkin in his year for the ages, but also by guys like Alexander Semin and his otherworldly skills with the puck, Brooks Laich and his penchant for scoring timely goals, Mike Green and his end-to-end rushes, Nicklas Backstrom and his year-ahead-of-his-time playmaking skill, Cristobal Huet who was discarded by Montreal to slam the door on opponents in Washington, and by a host of others who contributed in ways big and small to The Big Finish -- the top story for the Capitals in 2008.

What a ride it was.

Another illustration: Why hockey is better

Yesterday, Wes Goldstein authored a piece at titled, "Top 50 stories of '08, from money players to money problems."

We think the title is a bit unfortunate, for it misses a point. When you compare hockey to other professional sports, what don't you get?

You don't get a lot of people behaving badly, at least not outside the accepted confines of the sport. Look at those stories. If you look for stories about people in hockey behaving badly, you will find by my count eight stories. And we had to stretch the definition to get that many. Most of them are of the "legal" sort -- the Del Biaggio mess or the threat (empty as it was) by the league via lawsuit (over web site control?...please!) to kick the Rangers out of the league. There were the tragic -- the death of Alexei Cherepanov and allegations that he was taking performance enhancing drugs (one of the stories we had to stretch to fit this category; you might differ) -- and the self-indulgent (two for Sean Avery).

But what one finds more of in that list are the inspirational (the big finish of the Caps to win a playoff spot in their final game), the feel good (the Blackhawks welcoming back a couple of legends) and the charming (the Winter Classic). There is also what might be the single most heartwarming story in sports of the year -- that of the Chicago Blackhawks team members chartering buses to attend the funeral of general manager Dale Tallon's father and later bring some joy to a hockey-crazed town in Ontario with a McDonalds, foregoing some needed time off in the midst of a long road trip.

It never ceases to amaze that in these days of the "you're damn right there is an "I" in team" athlete (wide receivers in the NFL are a class unto themselves), hockey players and professionals display the most and the most consistent decency in behavior. They just impress us as being good folks (if ornery from time to time in the service of their jobs), and it's another reason why hockey is better.

...thanks to James Mirtle "From the Rink" for pointing the way.

A TWO-point night: Caps 4 - Sabres 2

Nice symmetry.

The Caps rang in the year doubling up the Ottawa Senators, 6-3, and they closed the year by doubling up another Northeast Division opponent – the Buffalo Sabres – by a 4-2 score last night.

And what a difference a year makes…

Three Stars:

Then (vs. Ottawa): Mike Green, Brooks Laich, Michael Nylander
Now (vs. Buffalo): Nicklas Backstrom, Viktor Kozlov, Paul Gaustad (BUF)

Scoring Leaders:

Then: Green (2-1-3), Laich (1-1-2), Nylander (1-1-2), Boyd Gordon (1-1-2)
Now: Backstrom (1-1-2), Kozlov (0-2-2), six players with one point


Then: Olaf Kolzig (31 saves, 34 shots)
Now: Jose Theodore (31 saves, 33 shots)


Then: Nylander (11 of 16/68.8%)
Now: Nylander (8 of 12/66.7%)

The big difference is that the first game/first win of 2008 gave the Caps a 16-19-3 record. The last game/last win of 2008 gives the Caps a 24-11-3 record. The club closed the year with a 52-23-6 record (110 points).

As for this one, there was a little bit of everything for the Caps. That first goal scored by Brooks Laich…it’s a pity one couldn’t award four assists for it. Ovechkin to Green at the left point… back to Ovechkin… to Kozlov in the high slot… to Backstrom at the right wing faceoff dot… to Laich at the top of the crease… goal. The entire sequence took all of seven seconds to execute. The Sabres on the ice should have been charged the price of a ticket for the view they had of what occurred.

If that goal was big on style points, the next one was just as sweet. David Steckel took a pass from Eric Fehr at the center red line and steamed into the Sabres zone, unleashing a slap shot that goalie Ryan Miller couldn’t steer into a corner the way he might have liked. The rebound came out all fat and happy on to Chris Bourque’s stick, and as the youngster would put it later, "I wasn't going to miss that one." He didn’t. He fired it past a still on the ice Miller, and Bourque had his first NHL goal.

Goal three started with Alex Ovechkin carrying the puck into the Sabre end, then Nylanderizing the play by peeling off at the right wing boards. He sent the puck to Green, who ripped a drive on goal. The puck squirted off into the left wing circle and onto Viktor Kozlov’s stick. Kozlov calmly eased the puck to Nicklas Backstrom, who from the top of the crease deposited it past Miller (ticket prices went up for the Sabres standing around watching events unfold).

Boyd Gordon completed the scoring for the Caps with a full-court…uh, length of the ice shorthanded empty-netter, and the Caps had another win, their 11th in 13 games, to finish December 11-3-0.


- Jose Theodore has established some order to the goaltending situation with his fourth straight win. He has stopped 95 of his last 101 shots faced (.941).

- Brooks Laich now has six goals in his last nine games. The Caps are 8-1-0. Coincidence? We don’t think so.

- Only three Capitals played more than 20 minutes last night (one of them was Tyler Sloan). Only Chris Bourque played less than ten, and that was by one tick of the clock. That’s getting everyone into the game.

- It would be nice though, to get Nylander more involved. In 14:43 last night, he had no shot attempts, no takeaways, no blocked shots, and a giveaway. But for his 8-of-12 faceoff performance, it would have been a mighty empty score sheet on his line of it.

- Matt Bradley had four hits to lead the team last night. Guess he’s feeling pretty good after his making the acquaintance of the side boards with his head on Sunday.

- Nine Caps had multiple shots on goal. For a team that usually has Ovechkin flirting with double digits in shots these days (he had four last night), that’s pretty remarkable.

- Buffalo had, and there is no other way to put this, a really bad game. A lot of standing around, a lot of coughing up the puck (18 giveaways). Even when they scored with less than eight minutes gone in the third to make it a 3-1 game, one didn’t have the feeling they were in it.

- This was the first time in five games a Buffalo game did not end with a one-goal result. The Sabres are 1-2-2 in those five games and are poised to slide out of the top eight. We’ll ask it…are these the first indications of Lindy Ruff losing this team? He’s been there almost as long as hot wings.

- We keep saying this, and we’ll keep saying it…if Eric Fehr ever cashes in on the opportunities he’s getting and making (he had six attempted shots last night, none of which found the back of the net), it could set off a string of scores.

And so ends 2008. It didn’t have a playoff series win to commend it, but 52 wins ain’t bad. It’s worth noting that mighty Detroit didn’t have as many (they can console themselves by spending time polishing that Cup they won). And to finish the year by winning in a city that has given the Caps fits over recent years makes it especially satisfying. Great job, boys.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Ten Stories from 2008 -- Number 2

Number 2. A Year for the Ages

"Dream as if you'll live forever,
Live as if you'll die today."

-- James Dean

If one looks back at the individual accomplishments of Alex Ovechkin in 2008, you would probably respond to any single one of them with, “wow!”

Put them together, and it was a year for the ages.

Ovechkin started 2008 on the ice having just torched the Ottawa Senators – in Ottawa, no less – for four goals and an assist in an 8-6 win. He accomplished this after having had in his previous game two days earlier his leg sliced open enough to need stiches to close the wound. This would be a difficult act to follow…

…for anyone else. Ovechkin kicked off the new year with a couple of assists against those same Senators, and by the time he finished the 2008 portion of the regular season, he was 35-29-64, +23, with seven game winning goals and ten power play tallies on his way to a 65-47-112, +28 season in which he not only led the league in goal and total scoring but also…

- led the league in power play goals

- led the league in game-winning goals

- led the league in shots on goal

- finished sixth among NHL forwards in total hits

- finished ninth among all NHL forwards in takeaways

- finished tied for fifth among NHL forwards in plus-minus

- finished fourth among NHL forwards in total power play scoring (and was the only one to have done so out of the top ten with more goals than assists)

- put the Caps on his back in the last dozen games, over which the Caps went 11-1-0, by going 11-6-17, +13.

After encountering a speed bump in the first round of the playoffs in which he – for him – had a slow start, Ovechkin finished the first round as the Caps leading scorer (4-5-9 in seven games) and had the game-winning goal in two of the Caps’ three wins in the opening round loss to the Flyers in seven games.

It was the sort of season as awesome in its parts as in its whole. For instance…

-- January 10th…Ovechkin signed the largest contract in NHL history -- $124 million over 13 years. He celebrated by being named to the Eastern Conference all star team the following day and promptly going on a six-game goal-scoring streak.

-- January 21st…After Pittsburgh overcame a 3-2 Capitals lead with a pair of goals less than three minutes apart in the second period, Ovechkin answered right back with one of his own less than two minutes after a score by Evgeni Malkin gave the Penguins the lead. He would finish that game with two goals, an assist, 11 shots on goal, four hits, and would lead the team in ice time (almost 29 minutes) in a 6-5 shootout win in Pittsburgh.

-- January 26th…at the All-Star Game in Atlanta, Ovechkin stole the skills competition with his bounce-the-puck-off-the-stick, spin-o-rama, baseball swing attempt at goalie Chris Osgood. He added the spin-o-rama after trying (and failing) on a more pedestrian baseball swing-only attempt. He didn’t score a goal on either attempt, but he won more style points than on the attempt on which he scored.

-- January 31st…Ovechkin, already sporting a cut on his forehead from a high stick in the previous game, broke his nose and split a lip that required stitches in a game against the Montreal Canadiens. He used the abuse as inspiration to create what might be uniquely the “Ovechkin Hat Trick.” As he put it, “Today was a special day. I broke my nose, have stitches (and) score four goals.” The last of them was the game-winner in overtime to give the Caps a 5-4 win.

-- March 3rd…Ovechkin was “first to 50” in the NHL for the 2007-2008 season in a 10-2 rout of the Boston Bruins. He did it in style, too, getting his 50th as the first goal of a hat trick. It was part of a five-point night, his second in less than five weeks.

-- March 12th… with the Caps entering a phase of the season that looked like a single elimination tournament with respect to their playoff chances, Ovechkin made a statement that he was putting the club on his back. With the Caps down 2-1 to the Calgary Flames in the second period, Ovechkin pounced on a rebound on a power play to tie the game, then he won it with under two minutes to play in the third period blasted a one-timer home to give Olaf Kolzig his 300th win as a Capital.

March 21st…Ovechkin tied a franchise record and became the first player in 12 years to record 60 goals in a season in a 5-3 win in Atlanta over the Thrashers. He scored the game’s first goal, and after the Thrashers put up three in the second period to put a choke hold on the Caps’ playoff chances, Ovechkin started the third period comeback with a goal mid-way through the last frame. Then, he gathered up the puck behind the Atlanta net after a faceoff and spied Nicklas Backstrom sliding into the low slot. Ovechkin put the puck on Backstrom’s tape and its next stop was the back of the Atlanta net for the game-winner.

April 3rd…Against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Ovechkin set a league record for goals scored by a left wing, netting his 64th and 65th of the season in a 4-1 win over the Lightning. Ovechkin’s power play goal in the third period – his second of the game and last of the regular season – proved to be the game winner. The win put the Caps into the top eight in the Eastern Conference, allowing the team to control its own fate in the season finale against Florida.

April 11th…With the Caps making their first appearance in the playoffs since losing a triple-overtime game to Tampa Bay in 2003, the Caps trailed Philadelphia on home ice, 4-3 in the third period. On a power play, Mike Green sent a slap shot the felled Flyer Patrick Thoresen, sliding to try and block the shot. Ovechkin retrieved the puck and sent it back to Green, who fired it past Martin Biron to tie the game. Ovechkin then took matters into his own hands as the clock dipped below five minutes, breaking up a break-out pass deep in the Flyer end, fleecing Lasse Kukkonen for the puck, and flipping it past Martin Biron for his first career playoff goal – a game winner.

April 21st…with the Caps facing elimination on Flyer ice, down three games to two, the Caps entered the third period tied with the Flyers 2-2. Viktor Kozlov intercepted a pass deep in the Caps end early in the last period and fed Ovechkin up ice for a breakaway. Though he might have had troubles with the shootout portion of the game during the season, he didn’t miss on the chance to skate in alone on Biron, deking the goalie to the ice before lifting the puck over his left pad on the forehand to give the Caps a come-from-behind lead. He added the insurance marker by one-timing a feed from Brooks Laich on a power play for the 4-2 win.

It was a disappointing finish for the Caps, losing game seven to the Flyers, but for Ovechkin, the recognition for his achievements would be soon in coming. The Ross and Richard Trophies were already his by virtue of his having led the league in total points and goals. To that he added the Hart Trophy for league MVP and the Pearson Award for league’s outstanding player.

Before that, however, on May 18th he assisted on the game-winning goal scored by Ilya Kovalchuk in overtime, giving Team Russia the gold medal in the world championships. Ovechkin was 6-6-12, +11 in nine games in the tournament.

Then, on June 13th, he accepted the key to the city in a ceremony honoring him in the District of Columbia. Humbled by the gesture, he announced that he was “president this day in the city. For one day. So everybody have fun -- no speed limit."

Somewhere in the midst of all of this, Ovechkin also launched a line of clothing – “Streetwear.”

Ovechkin has picked up where he left off, as he is tied for second in the NHL in total scoring with one game remaining on the 2008 calendar. He is ahead of where he was last season in goal scoring after 35 games played (25 to 24) and is on a pace to equal his total scoring output of last year – 112 points. Although his season was interrupted for two games as he returned to Moscow to be with his ailing grandfather, Ovechkin has hardly missed a beat on the ice. If he continues on his pace of 55 goals, he will finish the season with 218 career goals and tied with Mike Ridley for third in franchise history, behind only Mike Gartner and Peter Bondra.

Ovechkin is arguably the league’s best player. What isn’t arguable is that he is its most dynamic personality on and off the ice. He is a force of nature unto himself, and his 2008 season (which if it ended tonight would leave him with a record of 60-53-113, +36) is not only one of the top stories for the Capitals in 2008, his is among the top stories in the league as well.

The things we do for "family"

The Peerless was not at the Sabres game at Verizon Center last Friday night. We were out of town for the Christmas holiday. Why? Well, because this time of year brings families together to celebrate the spiritual and the secular, to rejoice in one another...

...and to endure some things one would never think of doing at any other time of the year.

Case in point -- on Friday, we joined some members of our family to trek to see a hockey game. Sounds okay so far, doesn't it? Oh, did we mention it was the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and the Philadelphia Phantoms?

We suppose that the consolation in this was being secure in the knowledge that we would get to see a hockey game in one of the most famous venues in the sport -- The Spectrum -- one that would be razed to be replaced by a hotel for an entertainment complex called, "Philly Live!" We're guessing that the exclamation point is needed as proof that Philadelphia is indeed alive.

The Spectrum cannot, given its advanced years (41 -- ancient for a sports arena these days), be said to be a great venue to attend an event. The seats are cramped, the rest rooms require descending a flight of stairs (do search parties have to look for bodies of visiting fans after games?), and it is generally dark and uninviting -- Philly fans adore it.

The teams that took the ice that evening did not have the look of prospect-laden rosters. In fact, both made one appreciative for the sort of relationship the Capitals have with the Hershey Bears -- two teams with talent singing from the same hockey philosophy songbook.

The AHL version of the Penguins looked nothing like their NHL parent, content to spend the evening dumping, chasing, and looking for spare change in front of the Phantom net. They happened to be rather successful at it, scratching out a 4-0 win. You had the feeling watching the Penguins that they were a quick team and even a hard-working one. But you also had the feeling that the franchise's "prospects" were all on the other side of the state.

On the other hand, the Phantoms just couldn't match the skill level of their visitors. We watched the home team go through nine (really) power plays and wondered all along, "who do they have who can actually put a puck in the net?" Given the final score, the answer was, "no one on this roster." It was a team that struggled mightily on offense and just wasn't up to the Penguins' quickness on defense.

But to be honest, there really isn't ever a bad night at a hockey rink. Besides, it was nice to see the Phantoms lose, after all. If the two teams could have gone to a shootout and 30 or so rounds before spontaneously combusting at center ice, it would have been better, fireworks always being a crowd-pleaser. It was especially nice since the two monsters I helped create -- my father (a Penguin fan) and my nephew (an comparatively unenthusiastic Philadelphia fan) becoming hockey fans at my prodding -- were in attendance.

We don't suppose there will be a movie made of our experience. You won't see "Christmas at The Spectrum" or "A Peerless Hockey Christmas" movie marathon on TBS next Christmas. But it was hockey over the holidays, and that can't be all bad...



The Washington Post has undertaken to post a series of columns offering tips and suggestions on resolutions for the new year. There is one with which we heartily agree...

More to the point...find a hockey game!

If you've watched hockey on television, you -- even if you are a long time fan -- might have trouble finding and following the puck. If you have high-definition television, you can see the pores in the players' skin, see the sweat fly when punches are thrown in fights, and see more of the ice, but you don't get that feeling of coming out of your chair (or recliner) when a player like Alex Ovechkin picks up the puck in the neutral zone and heads up ice like a locomotive with malice in its heart.

Nope, there is nothing -- nothing -- like live hockey. What makes things especially nice these days is that greater Washington (and this includes an area reaching into southern Pennsylvania) is enjoying winning teams and enthusiatic crowds. The Caps are among the most entertaining, not to mention successful, teams in the NHL these days. That Verizon Center is rocked with thousands of red-clad fans only adds to the intensity that one gets from seeing hockey in person.

And just a couple of hours up the road, there is one of the most storied franchises in all of minor league hockey, the Hershey Bears. They play in a great facility (Giant Center) that is easy to get to and a great place to watch a game. A trip to Hershey affords the fan a chance to see some of the youngsters who will be playing under the Verizon Center roof one day in a setting that is equal parts exciting and entertaining for families.

If your resolutions turn toward "finding the cheap seats," you'll probably find those at Verizon Center and Giant Center sometimes in scarce supply -- success does that for a team. But it will be worth the effort; you won't find a more entertaining or a more exciting live sporting event anywhere than live hockey.

Being the "coolest sport on earth" isn't just a reference to the surface on which it's played.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Sabres, December 30th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Well, we’ve come to the end of 2008, and the Caps will ring out the year in the hip-hoppin’ burg of Buffalo, New York…The Queen City… Land of the Odd Chicken Parts as Bar Food… the town only snow could love. Speaking of snow and remote locales, we got really…really tired of all this “Malkin for the Hart” talk and decided to take things into our own hands and go to the people. No, not ESPN-addled, Crosby-sotted, Penguin wannabe hockey fans…folks who have never been biased by the All Penguins, All the Time marketing of the NHL. We went to places where people had never seen hockey (no, not Tampa) – Hockey Virgins, if you will – and asked them to choose between the Russians, Malkin and Ovechkin. Herewith, we present the results…

Well, the creepy obsession these folks seemed to have with hamburgers aside, we now have proof of which hockey player is number one in the hearts of unbiased hockey fans. And with that question settled, we can turn our attention to this, the last game of 2008. The numbers for the Caps and the Sabres…

When last these teams met the past Friday, the Caps saw Patrick Lalime in goal. This time, the Caps are likely to see Ryan Miller. And this is a goalie who can be said to be in an odd slump. In his last five games he has allowed three or more goals in four of them. In the fifth – against Los Angeles on December 19th – he had a 40-save shutout. So, which is it? The goalie who was 3.86, .880 in the four games he allowed goals in his last five appearances, or is it the goalie who shut out the Kings in the other appearance and who is 8-2-0, 2.48, .911 in 11 career appearances against the Caps? Well, Miller does have a shutout against the Caps this year (5-0 on November 1st in Buffalo).

The skaters for the Sabres are, once again, characterized by their balance. 13 skaters are in double digits in points (to ten for Washington). Where they are not balanced, though, is in goal scoring. Thomas Vanek has 25 goals, exactly 25 percent of the Sabres’ total for the year. He has more goals than the next two goal-scorers, combined (Derek Roy, Jason Pominville). However, Vanek is in his most extended drought of the season. He has a single goal (in last Friday’s game against Washington) in his last six games. Vanek had a pair of tallies when the teams met in November and is 6-5-11 in 14 career games against the Caps.

Vanek’s goal-scoring aside, the Sabres are a team that can come at you from anywhere. Seven different players have game-winning goals against the Caps, none more with two. And oddly enough, that group does not include Jason Pominville, who always seems to play well against Washington (4-4-8 in 13 career games). But Adam Mair, not generally thought of as a goal-scorer, has a pair of game-winners among the four goals he’s scored against the Caps in his career.

And even though Vanek is the big goal-scorer in terms of volume, Derek Roy is a player who has picked his spots for big ones lately. Roy has five goals this month, three of them game-winners. He had a nine-game points streak snapped against the Penguins on December 22nd and was scoreless last Friday against the Caps, but did manage an assist in his last game, against the Islanders on Saturday.

If there is one place Buffalo has enjoyed a distinct advantage over the Caps, it is in stability on the blue line. Five Sabre defensemen have played at least 33 of the 36 games played by the Sabres this year. Only Milan Jurcina has played as many as 33 games this year (37) among the Caps defensemen this year. Those Sabre defensemen are led in total scoring by Jaroslav Spacek (1-17-18), who actually has a second job, playing as part of the ensemble cast of the NBC sit-com, ”The Office.”

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Buffalo: Jaroslav Spacek

In last Friday’s game, Spacek was on the ice for both of the Caps’ first two goals, once not getting over quickly enough to get into Viktor Kozlov’s shooting lane when the Caps’ winger fired a slap shot in full stride down the right wing, and once out of the play when Boyd Gordon deflected a Milan Jurcina drive past goalie Patrick Lalime. You wouldn’t call it a great night. The Caps have scored three or more goals in seven of their last nine games in going 8-1-0. The Buffalo defense will have to give Miller help, and Spacek is going to have to have a better game than he had on Friday.

Washington: Brooks Laich

In the 8-1-0 streak, Laich is 5-1-6 and is doing the dirty work in front that earns him scoring opportunities. Buffalo is not an especially physical team by NHL standards, especially among the defensemen. Laich is only 1-2-3 in ten career games against the Sabres, but he’s doing the things he does best to get into scoring position and could get some opportunities in this one.

Buffalo has not been hospitable to the Caps. Over the last five-plus seasons, the Caps are 3-8-0 and often have looked ghastly in losing. In all eight of those losses in Buffalo the Caps have allowed four or more goals. In seven of them they allowed five or more. More than even Pittsburgh, perhaps, this might be the most difficult city in which the Capitals have played in this decade. But while the Caps have struggled historically, the Sabres have struggled recently – 3-3-2 in their last eight games overall, 2-2-1 at home in that span. On the other hand, the Caps’ lone loss in their last nine games involved giving up seven goals to an opponent on the road.

Makes for an interesting game, doesn’t it? But you already know how we think this will end…

Caps 4 – Sabres 2

Ten Stories from 2008 -- Number 3

Number 3. Capitals Depot

The Capitals had a reputation for a long while as one of those clubs that would out-work you to death. Defense, checking, grit. That was the philosophy of the team. It even showed up in the nicknames applied to the team. If you go back through time in NHL history you will find a lot of top lines with nicknames – The French Connection, The GAG (Goal-a-Game) Line, The Production Line – and not because they kept goals out of their own nets. Meanwhile, in Washington, you had The Plumbers Line, a trio of checkers (Craig Laughlin, Gaetan Duschesne, and Greg Adams) that could chip in a goal here and there. The only individual who had a lasting label attached to him for his play in Capitals history was Rod Langway – The Secretary of Defense.

And in case you haven't noticed, most of the NHL hardware that gets handed out to individuals is done so on the basis of offense. The Ross Trophy is for top scorer. The Richard is for top goal scorer. The Hart is biased toward players with prolific scoring numbers. Even the Norris and Selke, while awarded to defensive players in name, often go to players who put up good to great offensive numbers.

Hence, you won’t find a lot of Capitals having won NHL hardware over the years. In 30-plus seasons, the list (quantity-wise) is not impressive:

Hart Trophy (MVP): none
Pearson (top player): none
Ross Trophy (top scorer): none
Richard Trophy (top goal scorer): none
Selke Trophy (top defensive forward): Doug Jarvis (1984)
Norris Trophy (top defenseman): Rod Langway (1983, 1984)
Lady Byng (gentlemanly play): none
Vezina (top goalie): Jim Carey (1996), Olaf Kolzig (2000)
Calder (top rookie): Alex Ovechkin (2006)
Masterton (perseverance to hockey): none
Adams Award (top coach): Bryan Murray (1984)

Teams without a reputation for success that don’t put up big numbers among their individuals don’t generally win a lot of league awards, and such has been the case for the Caps, although they are represented among those awards for defensive players (Selke, Vezina, Norris).

In 2008, with the abrupt change in philosophy that came with the coaching change in November 2007, the Caps had players who could put up points and a coach willing to put them in positions to do precisely that. A 28-12-3 finish in 2008 put the team in a position to have people recognized for their efforts. Bruce Boudreau was the man behind the bench for that run, made more memorable by his ability to coax the club to an 11-1-0 finish in the last dozen games in what resembled a single elimination tournament for the Caps. Alex Ovechkin finished the 2008 portion of the season 35-29-64, +23. Nicklas Backstrom emerged as a top rookie and contender for post season recognition by finishing the 2008 portion of the season 7-34-41, +19, in 43 games. Mike Green got some mention as a potential Norris Trophy winner on the heels of a fast finish – 10-28-38, +10 in 43 games.

When all was said and done, Capitals would take home five trophies, four of them by Ovechkin and one by Boudreau, but the team was represented well in the voting with a number of top ten finishes in the NHL awards…

Hart Trophy:

1. Alex Ovechkin (WAS): 1,313 votes
2. Evgeni Malkin (PIT): 659 votes

Norris Trophy:

1. Nicklas Lidstrom (DET): 1,313 votes
7. Mike Green (WAS): 84 votes

Vezina Trophy:

1. Martin Brodeur (NJD): 113 votes
8. Cristobal Huet (WAS): 4 votes

Calder Trophy:

1. Patrick Kane (CHI): 1,078 votes
2. Nicklas Backstrom (WAS): 872 votes

Lady Byng Trophy:

1. Pavel Datsyuk (DET): 984 votes
9. Alex Ovechkin (WAS): 115 votes

Jack Adams Award:

1. Bruce Boudreau (WAS): 208 votes
2. Guy Carbonneau (MTL): 196 votes

Add the Ross (scoring) and Richard (goal-scoring) among the NHL awards, and the Pearson an award of the NHL Players Association, and Capitals nailed down five major awards for the 2007-2008 season. It would not have been possible without the performances in the 2008 portion of the season, making the haul of hardware that would befit a display at Home Depot one of the top stories of 2008.

Ten Stories from 2008 -- Number 4

Number 4. A Story for a Frank Capra Film

Until Hollywood discovered the wonder of computer generated imagery, it had a long history of telling stories of people. Mysteries, dramas, comedies, tragedies – film was a reflection of the mundane and the extraordinary in the lives of people. No one, though, is perhaps more closely identified with stories of individuals overcoming great odds in the face of misfortune or just plain bad luck than Frank Capra. The term, “Capraesque” is often defined as “focusing on courage and its positive effects and the triumph of the underdog.”

Well, 2008 allowed Caps fans to see a story such as that brought to life. It was the story of a hockey lifer – Bruce Boudreau – who as a young man was drafted in 1975 by his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs as a prolific scorer, having amassed 152 goals and 213 assists in 183 games with the Toronto Marlboros. But from there, his career took a disappointing turn of sorts. He would make his NHL debut with the Maple Leafs two seasons later, appearing in 15 games for Toronto. But as it would turn out, he would never appear in more than 40 games with the Maple Leafs in parts of six seasons with the team. He would play a total of 134 games with the Leafs in the NHL and another seven in one season with the Chicago Black Hawks, totaling 28 goals and 42 assists in his 141 game NHL career.

He would, however, become something of the minor leagues’ equivalent of the fictional “Crash Davis” in the movie “Bull Durham” – a player of considerable accomplishment at the next tier level. In ten AHL seasons he would put together a career that would leave him today the 14th leading goal scorer in AHL history, 11th in assists, and 11th in total points. He was a 100-point scorer for five different teams in three different leagues, and is the eighth all-time leading scorer in minor league hockey history.

After finishing his playing career, Boudreau turned to coaching, and his success mirrored that of his playing days. And that wasn’t entirely a good thing. Starting in the 1993-1994 season with the Fort Wayne Komets of the International Hockey League, Boudreau would have an almost uninterrupted string of accomplishments. In 12 full seasons of coaching in the International Hockey League, the East Coast Hockey League, and the American Hockey League:

- He would have 11 seasons of finishing .500 or better.

- He would lead 11 teams to his league’s playoffs.

- He would win 40 or more games seven times.

- He would lead four teams to his league’s championship finals.

- He would win two championships – with the Mississippi Sea Wolves of the ECHL and with the Hershey Bears of the AHL.

- He would lead the Hershey Bears to consecutive trips to the league championship series in 2005-2006 and 2006-2007.

However, that added up to close to 1,000 regular season games behind the benches of teams in three different minor leagues (and almost 500 wins) with no indication that there was an NHL bench to patrol in his future. The opportunity would come when the Capitals, who had endured two difficult years after the lockout, were thought be some to be a potential dark horse playoff contender in 2007-2008. The Caps, however, didn’t just stumble out of the gate, they did a full face plant right in the middle of the track. They were 6-13-1 in their first 20 games going into a Thanksgiving-eve game against the Atlanta Thrashers. The Thrashers beat and beat up their hosts in as ugly a 5-1 loss as ugly as one would want to see.

A change had to be made to save some dignity for a season that in all likelihood had already been lost. So, the club relieved Glen Hanlon of his coaching responsibilities and gave Bruce Boudreau his long-coming first opportunity behind an NHL bench... a 6-14-1 team made up of youngsters and guys who were underachieving, mixed in with a recent experience of persistent losing. Oh, and your title has the word “interim” attached to it – good luck, Bruce.

It looked like a great move right off the bat as the Caps stormed out to a 3-0 lead against the Flyers in Philadelphia on the day after Thanksgiving. Not so fast… the Flyers did some storming of their own to tie the game late in the third period, but an overtime goal by rookie Nicklas Backstrom won the game for Boudreau. The new “interim” coach would improve on the Caps record in his first month on the job, but a 7-5-3 record from Thanksgiving to Christmas wasn’t dominating.

2008 would be another matter.

From January 1st through the end of the season, Boudreau managed the enterprise to a 28-12-3 finish, including an 11-1-0 record in the last half dozen games to clinch the first playoff spot for the Caps since the 2002-2003 season. Establishing a style that took advantage of the energy, skill, and talent in his young team, rather than stifling it under a defense-first system more reminiscent of the pre-lockout favored style, Boudreau’s team was as entertaining to watch as it was successful.

Boudreau was a favorite in other respects as well among fans for his plain-spoken, tell-it-like-it-is personal style. That he had the look of a somewhat rumpled, sartorially challenged coach who spent more than his share of time at the rink (we can identify with the rumpled part – we shop in that section of the men’s store) only added to his charm. His nickname – “Gabby” – was a product of his gift of gab. This was a hockey guy through and through.

His success in leading the Caps to the fantastic finish earned him a somewhat surprising, although entirely deserved selection as the Jack Adams Award winner for the 2007-2008 season as the league’s top coach. That success would hardly seem to have changed him. He still had the look of a hands-on, teaching sort of coach in running the Caps’ prospects through the summer development camp, and he even took a turn volunteering at the Hockey Resume Free Agent Camp in Canada in July (he would crack that he did it so his son wouldn’t have to pay…we’re not buying it, not entirely, anyway).

Boudreau then picked up more or less where he left off – leading a talented, if precocious team to a successful start to the season. With one game to go in calendar 2008, Boudreau has a 51-23-6 record. From being a high-scoring amateur to a somewhat unfulfilled professional career as a player, to years of toil and travel through the minor leagues of North America as a coach, he found himself – finally – behind an NHL bench when a lot of other coaches in his situation would simply have given up that dream. He made the most of his opportunity with a stern word here, a twinkle in his eye there, a well-place quip and a talent for coaching youngsters that was sorely needed in these parts. His year was truly “Capraesque” in the triumph of the underdog and was one of the top stories for the Caps in 2008.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A TWO-point night: Caps 4 - Maple Leafs 1


That seems the best word to describe the performance of the Capitals tonight as they defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs, 4-1, at Verizon Center on Mike Gartner Night.

It could have been worse, the word to describe it might have been “snake-bit.” That’s what it looked like might be in store for the Caps as they shot, shot again, and shot some more at Vesa Toskala over the first half of the game. At the 11:11 mark, the Caps had “out-attempted” the Leafs 21-5 (shots, shots blocked, and misses). After one period, it was 33-14 in attempts, and the Caps had nothing to show for it. This wasn't the way to be commemorating the retirement of Gartner's #11.

Making things worse, it was the Leafs who drew first blood in the first period. Mikhail Grabovski made the play by using his speed down the left wing to get a positional advantage before cutting to his right across the offensive zone and past David Steckel to get in deep. He sent the puck in front, where it pinballed off of two players before landing on the tape of Niklas Hagman’s stick. All that was left for Hagman to do was wrist it past a screened Jose Theodore for the first goal. It was only the 13th time in 36 games that the Leafs scored first.

The first half of the second period looked a lot like the first – the Caps clearly looked like the better team, generated more chances, generated better chances, but couldn’t find the back of the Toronto net. By the time the game reached its 33rd minute, the Caps had out-attempted Toronto 48-31. But in that 33rd minute, Brooks Laich – skating on a power play – took a pass from Nicklas Backstrom and stepped out from the right wing corner with the puck. With a clear path he skated unimpeded to the front of the Toronto net where he slipped the puck through Toskala on a shot that Toskala probably should have stopped. It was all the Caps could get in the second period, though, until…

Alex Ovechkin took the ice with 35 seconds left in the period. He then proceeded to kabong a pair of Maple Leafs, rang one shot off the post, and then seven seconds after ringing the chimes fired a wrist shot past Ian White’s stick and through goalie Vesa Toskala at the 19:50 mark to give the Caps the lead. It was all done in the space of 25 seconds. Nice shift.

It might have been the kind of momentum changer that could have led to a fast start in the third period that would have ended the competitive portion of the game, especially against a team that is defense-challenged, such as the Maple Leafs. You’ll note several “conditional” terms in that last sentence – might, could, would. That’s because the Caps didn’t attempt their first shot until the 6:47 mark. They had only two shots on goal in the first ten minutes. It was a case of “prevent defense,” and the Leafs were taking advantage by putting more offensive pressure on the Caps. The trouble for the Maple Leafs was, they were the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, or at least on net. Over a six minute stretch mid-way through the period, their shot attempts looked like this:

Miss (Alexei Ponikarovsky)
Blocked (Hagman)
Miss (Hagman)
Shot (Hagman)
Miss (Grabovski)
Shot (Jason Blake)
Miss (Jeremy Williams)
Miss (Dominic Moore)

The “miss” by Hagman was actually a shot at an open net from just a few feet away that he bunted off the post. His problem was that being a left-handed shot at the right post, he had a somewhat tougher angle from which to shoot, but that’s a goal that should have been scored. It seemed fitting that it would be a whiff at the other end – an attempt by Toskala to move the puck out of his crease – that would lead to the insurance goal. Eric Fehr picked up a loose puck along the boards in front of the Capitals’ bench. He skated through the neutral zone and crossed to the left side before the puck was poked off his stick at the Leafs’ line. Laich picked it up and sent it in behind the Leafs’ net. Fehr pressured Tomas Kaberle into sending the puck in front blindly, where it was intercepted by Laich going to the net. Laich knifed across the crease and after taking a couple of whacks at it – Toskala missing on a chance to move the puck away from harm or to cover it up – sent it past Toskala.

All that was left was an empty netter from Ovechkin – his 25th of the season – to bring him within one of league goal-scoring leader Jeff Carter of the Flyers. You get the feeling it is only a matter of time (say, New Years Day?) before order in the universe is restored. Some other stuff...

- Milan Jurcina attempted four shots in the first 6:12 of the game. All of them were blocked. We're also betting that all of them hurt like hell.

- It is amazing that Ovechkin is ranked fourth in the league in hits. Where he plays his home games is killing him on this stat. He was credited with no hits in this game – none.

- Backstrom had two more assists tonight. He is now fifth in the league in that statistic. But what is more significant is that he now has 13 helpers in his last nine games.

- Who led the Caps in ice time?... Karl Alzner (22:39). That’s 12 of 16 games with more than 20 minutes of ice time. Three shots, four blocks, plus-1 (he’s only had four games on the minus side of the ledger). He’s staying.

- The Caps are fourth in the league in goals scored in the first period, but this was the fourth straight in which they failed to score in the opening frame. The Caps have allowed five goals in those four games, one of them to Toronto tonight.

- Is Matt Bradley the latest Cap to go down to injury? He was sent awkwardly and heavily into the boards late in the third period and did not look to be completely aware of his surroundings as he was being helped off.

- The only player in the league born in the Bahamas played in this one. That would be Andre Deveaux of the Leafs.

- Nikolai Kulemin led the Leafs in shots on goal. If you responded by asking, “who?”, you are probably not alone.

- Hey… don’t look now, but Theodore has stopped 64 of the last 68 shots he’s faced in eight-plus periods of hockey (including 23 of 24 tonight). Consistency has to start somewhere… maybe this is “somewhere.”

- The Leafs obtained Lee Stempniak from the St. Louis Blues for Alexander Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo on November 24th. Uh… why? He came into this game 2-5-7 in 15 games with the Leafs. Tonight he was scoreless, played less than 15 minutes (very quietly…no hits, no giveaways, no takeaways, no blocked shots…), and took a penalty.

- The Caps are now 15-1-1 at home (only San Jose has more wins at home) after winning their sixth straight game on the Verizon Center gravel pit.

It was a game that was closer than the final score indicated and closer than it really should have been. Toronto suffers from a weak defense and poor goaltending, and they don’t make up for it with an especially dynamic offense. Plus, their leading scorer – Matt Stajan – was out. But like we said at the top, this was a “workmanlike” performance that earned two points in the end, giving the Caps a ten-point lead in the Southeast Division and the fourth-best point total in the league. Good job, boys.

Ten Stories from 2008 -- Number 5

Number 5. Goalie Soap Opera

According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, a “soap opera” is described as a serialized drama “told through a series of individual, narratively linked installments.” The description goes on to say that “the viewer's understanding of and pleasure in any given serial installment is predicated, to some degree, upon his or her knowledge of what has happened in previous episodes.”

Well, if ever there was a narrative that fit the description of “soap opera,” it was the drama surrounding the goaltending position for the Capitals.

The story began in those difficult early days of the 2007-2008 season, when the Caps were looking less like a contender and more like a collection of rubes not ready for the big time. They gave up goals by the bushel – seven to Buffalo, five to the Islanders, five more to Carolina, another five to Tampa Bay…another five to Tampa Bay. And we weren’t out of November yet. But the Caps were so bad, it was hard to tell if it was a product of some general suckitude, or if it was a signal that the skills of long-time number one goaltender Olaf Kolzig had eroded to the point where he was no longer as reliable as Caps fans had been accustomed to seeing in the past.

The change in coaches in November brought a change in philosophy that put more pressure on goaltenders. The Caps would score more (or at least attack more), and goaltenders might find themselves with more odd-man rushes to defend. The effect on Kolzig’s play was suggestive. In 13 games in December, he was 5-3-3, but he allowed 40 goals (a GAA of 4.03). His record was better to open the new year – 6-2-0 in January – but he was still allowing goals at a disturbing rate (3.59 GAA).

Kolzig was still able to muster games in which he could steal a win – a 2-1 win against Colorado, a 39-save effort in a 3-2 win against Tampa Bay. But those games were occurring with less frequency than he was capable of summoning in the past.

Meanwhile, Brent Johnson was performing well in a backup capacity, but both his performance in a limited role, and the reputation of Kolzig and his preferences for a heavy workload argued against Johnson assuming a larger burden of responsibility.

At the trading deadline, the Caps were not necessarily looking for a goaltender, but one became available when the Montreal Canadiens decided that their goalie of the future – Carey Price – would become the goalie of the present. Cristobal Huet was made available, and Washington acted upon the opportunity. They moved Huet to Washington for a second round draft pick in 2009. As if almost to celebrate by saying, “oh yeah?”, Kolzig turned aside 34 of 35 shots in a 4-1 win over the Minnesota Wild on the evening of the trade.

Not that it mattered. Huet arrived and promptly authored a 4-0 shutout of the New Jersey Devils on the road. It was the first shutout by a Capitals goaltender since Kolzig turned the trick on opening night.

Kolzig was relegated to the bench and Johnson to the press box as Huet kept playing and kept winning. In 13 games, Huet would allow as many as three goals only twice (both of them wins, oddly enough). He would pitch one more shutout and would finish up the regular season 11-2-0 with a 1.63 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage.

Meanwhile, as the Caps and Huet were closing strong, Kolzig was afforded a chance to spell Huet in a game against the Chicago Blackhawks. Kolzig himself had won his previous four decisions and had a streak of seven straight games (dating back to the 4-1 win over Minnesota) in which he allowed two goals or fewer. Unfortunately, he got the Blackhawks on a night when they were honoring former Hawks goalie Tony Esposito. The Caps being in a position of playing as if they were in a single elimination tournament when it came to trying to qualify for the playoffs, Kolzig stepped in and allowed three goals in less than ten minutes, losing the game 5-0.

After that, it was Huet all the time. He got the call in the last seven games of the regular season, winning them all in the Caps’ miracle finish to win the Southeast Division and the only playoff spot a division team would secure.

Huet would be the go-to goalie for the opening round against the Flyers. However, he laid an egg of sorts in the opening game, allowing four goals for the first time as a Cap in a 5-4 win, a victory made possible by some third period heroics by Mike Green and Alex Ovechkin. He would lose the next three games in the series, giving up 11 goals in the process. The question was whether the Caps would call upon Kolzig to jump start the team and perhaps get another big game performance from the veteran. They didn’t.

When Huet started Game 5 in Washington it was clear that he was the horse the Caps would ride, for good or ill, and that Kolzig had perhaps played his last game of the season, if not his career in Washington.

That is what happened. Huet and the Caps forced a Game 7, but they could not get over that last hump, losing to the Flyers in overtime of the deciding game. After that series-ending game, Kolzig removed his nameplate from his locker stall and was an absentee for a team meeting the following morning. He would remark later that “there wasn't anything hateful,” that he wanted to avoid the media in the aftermath of the loss. But it seemed a clear signal that his days as a Cap were over.

However, the matter complicating things was that Huet was an unrestricted free agent. While there was every expectation (well, among Caps fans) that Huet would re-sign with the Caps, thus softening the blow of a Kolzig departure, there was the possibility that Huet would accept employment elsewhere. What no one (well, what no Caps fan) expected was that the Chicago Blackhawks – a team already on the hook for a large goaltender contract for Nikolai Khabibulin – would swoop in and sign Huet away from Washington, a four-year, $22.4 million deal. That left the Caps with Brent Johnson, who hadn’t played in more than half of his team’s games since the 2001-2002 season, and a couple of prospects thought to be years away from the NHL.

OK, so now what?

Well, it didn’t take long for a “Plan B” to emerge… the question was, could it be a successful plan? That plan ended up being to sign Colorado netminder Jose Theodore to a two-year, $9.0 million contract. It was a deal fraught with risk, since Theodore had been, to be charitable, inconsistent since his Vezina/Hart winning season in 2001-2002. A record of 112-113-11-10 since that season was testament to a certain level of mediocrity. But he finished with a rush at the end of the regular season last year and won a playoff series, so signing him to a deal was an educated risk on the part of the Caps.

When Theodore gave up four goals in less than 30 minutes on opening night, that risk looked to have little potential for return, and although his won-loss record was respectable early (4-2-0 in his first half dozen decisions), it was not as if he was a rock in goal. As a product of his inconsistency, Brent Johnson was given a bigger share of the load, and he took advantage of the opportunity. Although Johnson ended up taking the loss on that opening night of the 2008-2009 season, he proceeded to go undefeated in his next seven decisions (5-0-2) and only gave up more than two goals once, when he allowed three in a 4-3 shootout loss to New Jersey. After losing three consecutive decisions on a road trip in December, Johnson then won another five games in succession.

But then, in the late stages of that run by Johnson, things took a turn…

Johnson had been nursing a hip injury that he aggravated in a 3-1 win over Boston on December 10th. He might have sat out the following game two days later against the Ottawa Senators, but then Theodore cam up lame with a hip injury of his own on the morning of the game. The Hershey Bears were on a Texas road swing, which made the logistics of getting a goalie from the farm a difficult proposition. It is at times like this when every club should have a former college goaltender working in their offices. Fortunately for the Caps, they had such a remedy. Brett Leonhardt, who works by day in media production, was tapped on the shoulder and told to get to the rink. He was going to take warm-ups as the backup to the injured Johnson, who would go that night. Meanwhile (and isn’t there always a “meanwhile” at about this point of the soap opera?), Simeon Varlamov was getting a phone call as the Bears were on their way between cities on their Texas trip to get on a plane and high-tail it back to DC.

Leonhardt took warm-ups and took the bench as backup in the event Johnson couldn’t go, but Johnson gutted out a superb performance in beating Ottawa, 5-1 (Varlamov getting to the rink in time to replace Leonhardt on the bench mid-way through the first period). No sooner had Varlamov dressed for his first appearance on an NHL bench than he was tapped to start the following night in, of all places, Montreal against the Canadiens. Varlamov stopped 32 of 33 shots, including all 14 in a tight third period, in a 2-1 win over the Canadiens at Bell Centre. He was almost as good in his home debut five days later as he stopped 29 of 31 shots in a 4-2 win over St. Louis.

As 2008 ends, the Caps are left with unfinished plots, subplots, interwoven stories, and general “are they making this stuff up” kinds of stories between the pipes. Can Theodore, who was lit up for four goals and pulled before returning and slamming the door in a 5-4 comeback win over the Rangers in the last game before Christmas find any semblance of consistency, let alone superior play? Can Johnson shake off the lingering injury bug and grab the number one position he seemed poised to earn with his early play? Are both looking over their shoulders at the young phenom in Hershey who won both of his decisions in his NHL debut, stopping 61 of 64 shots in doing so? Will the Caps and coach Bruce Boudreau at some point take what might be the ultimate risk for a team with the skating talent to go far in the playoffs and give the keys to the phenom and say, “it’s all yours, kid?”

2008 has been a never-ending soap opera that has taken the team and its fans on quite a ride. And it’s not over yet. But it has been one of the top stories of the year.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Maple Leafs, December 28th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Well, we’re back, and it seems the Caps have hardly missed a beat in our absence, even if they are still missing quite a few players. They won another game at home, Ovechkin scored another highlight reel goal. Film at 11.

The Caps are doing it with spit and bailing wire these days with a “can-do” spirit that boggles the mind. To get a unique perspective on that, we found a special source on the subject, The Little Engine that Could. Little Engine, what is the secret of having a “can-do” attitude? Is it “thinking” that you can?

“’Thinking’ you can? must have been reading that stupid book. ‘I think I can, I think I can…what crap. Don’t ‘think’ you can… do it!”

But isn’t that supposed to be a story of perseverance?

“Hey, Sherlock…they don’t give you a trophy for ‘persevering’…”

What about positive thinking…surely that’s one of the lessons of the story…

“Yeah, yeah, yeah…I’m special, I’m unique, I can be anything I want to be…do I look like Stuart Smalley?”

OK, so what about all those cars you had to pull…surely having determination and perseverance helped you get the train over the mountain.

“You ever heard of CGI, Sparky?...they can do wonders with computers.”

You’re a mighty cynical sort, aren’t you?

“Hey, if you had kids coming up to you and asking you to pull this and pull that, you’d be pretty cynical, too.”

But wouldn’t you say that for a team like the Caps, with all the injuries they’ve had, that your story is a valuable lesson – that they can overcome any odds with hard work and determination?

“Oh, sure…but it doesn’t hurt to have Ovechkin, either.”

And the Caps – with Ovechkin – will be facing the Toronto Maple leafs on this, “Mike Gartner Day.” The Caps star right winger of the 1980’s will have his number “11” retired this evening. In a way, Gartner is a reflection of a “can-do” attitude. He played in all of his team’s games in eight seasons over a career that spanned 19 seasons. He led his team in goals in nine seasons, including five times in nine full seasons with Washington. His 708 career goals ranks sixth all time in the NHL, and his 397 goals as a Capital ranks second all time in franchise history. He had a remarkable ability to step into a situation and succeed, as evidenced by his amassing a 24-18-42, +16 record in games played in a season after being traded (35 games, covering three in-season trades). Gartner will be the fourth Capital to have his number retired, joining Yvon Labre, Rod Langway, and Dale Hunter.

As for the visitors, they dropped a 2-1 decision to the Caps in Toronto on December 6th. Since then, though, the Leafs have gone 5-3-0, scoring 29 goals in the eight games and giving up 30. The Leafs have had good scoring balance in those eight games with six players registering at least seven points: Nik Antropov (3-6-9), Alexei Ponikarovsky (3-5-8), Matt Stajan (2-6-8), Jason Blake (3-4-7), Jeremy Williams (5-2-7), and Pavel Kubina (2-5-7).

Overall, the Leafs are a team that can score (8th in the league in goals-per-game average) but struggle with other aspects…

That has been on display in spades in this eight-game stretch, as the Leafs have scored four or more goals four times, while they have allowed that many or more three times, including twice allowing eight in a contest – an 8-5 loss to Boston and an 8-2 loss to Dallas.

As you might expect with that dismal a defensive record, the goaltending has been lacking. Vesa Toskala, who will get the call tonight, has 13 of the 14 wins posted by the Leafs, but that is a product of showing up – he also has appeared in 31 of the 35 games played by the Leafs. Otherwise, he is a “second page” goaltender in the statistics. No player with more than 20 appearances has a worse goals-against average than his 3.32, and only Marty Turco in Dallas has a worse save percentage among goalies with at least 20 appearances than Toskala’s .881.

Backup Curtis Joseph has been providing little relief. He has played in three full games this year and has allowed four, five, and six goals in doing so. He has four other appearances, for which he has a combined 2.65 GAA and .884 GAA (much better than his 4.12/.841 overall numbers)… apparently the trick is to let Joseph play ten minutes at a time.

It’s gotten bad enough that the Leafs turned to prospect Justin Pogge for a shot against the Atlanta Thrashers on December 22nd. Pogge shocked Leaf fans by looking like an actual NHL goalie, stopping 19 of 21 shots in a 6-2 win. Of course, these being the Leafs, Pogge was returned to the minor league Marlies upon the expiration of the roster freeze yesterday. We’re guessing he won’t be there long.

Toronto did win in their last visit to Verizon Center – a 3-2 victory on March 1st. The trouble with that history is that the Leafs had goals by Alexander Steen and Mats Sundin (the latter having a three-point game), and that pair is playing elsewhere these days. In fact, of the five players who registered at least one point for Toronto in that game, only Nik Antropov remains. Sundin, Steen, and Bryan McCabe play for other NHL teams, and Jiri Tlusty is playing for the Marlies in the AHL.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Toronto: Mikhail Grabovski

The speedster was putting together a decent season when these teams last met; he was 10-8-18 in 26 games heading into the December 6th game against the Caps. He was quiet in 18 minutes of playing time in that one (no points, even) and has been rather quiet ever since (2-1-3, even, in eight games). He also doesn’t have a power play point in that stretch, even though he remains among the team leaders in power play scoring (sixth overall, fifth in goals). If this gets to be a track meet, Grabovski is going to have to be heard from, especially since leading scorer Matt Stajan is day-to-day following a freak injury when he was hit in the eye with a soccer ball before practice yesterday as he and his teammates were engaging in some limbering-up exercises.

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

The second-year center is 3-11-14 in his last nine games. He also has only one assist in five career games against the Leafs. Backstrom has started strong (2-3-5 in first period scoring) and finished strong (1-6-7 in third period/overtime scoring) in his last nine games. If he gets off strong, given the weak Maple Leaf defense and goaltending, this should be a successful night.

The Caps of the Gartner era were characterized more by a grinding, gritty team than perhaps the current high-octane group personifies. A right wing with Gartner’s nose for the net would certainly fit in here (and given the injuries and comparative lack of production on the right side, would be welcome). But the Caps have more than enough elsewhere on their roster to take advantage of the Leafs’ deficiencies in their end of the ice.

Caps 6 – Leafs 3

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

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? can have that Tom Collins now.