Sunday, April 27, 2008

The 2007-2008 season, by the "tens" -- Centers: Michael Nylander

Next in our long, slow cool-down from the season…

Michael Nylander:

Theme: “Incomplete”

Michael Nylander was arguably the prize of the off-season free agency acquisitions for the Capitals, coming to the club in – if not a shroud – then at least a light wrap of controversy. It was a story that took just about an entire season to play out. As for Nylander’s production for the Caps, in the end he might have been missed in New York more than he was productive for the Caps.

That was a product of injury – a shoulder injury that Nylander played with for at least six weeks finally put him on the shelf for good in mid-January. It is entirely likely that the injury affected Nylander at the offensive end – he took only 12 shots in the last ten games of his season (although he did score four goals on that small number of shots). And, it seems certain that it affected his ability to compete in the defensive zone. Nylander was a minus player in each of the ten-game splits of his abbreviated season, but he was -12 of his -19 for the year in the last 20 games. His -19 represented a career-worst in that statistic.

The injury came just as it seemed Nylander was starting to mesh with his new teammates. In the first ten games of the year, he managed only one multi-point game. In the second ten he had four. He had two more during his third ten-game stretch, when he appears to have suffered his injury.

If there is something that one can take from the 40 games Nylander played, it is consistency, even in the face of injury. Points, penalty minutes, power play goals. Even in faceoff he held his own as best he could – winning at least 50 percent of the draws he took 21 times (no more than six in any ten-game split, no fewer than four). Even playing in 40 games, he stood fifth in total draws taken for the year.

That Nylander battled as long as he did with such an injury is testimony to his tenacity as a player – he still managed four multi-point games in his last ten-game stretch. But in a way, it might have served to accelerate the development of Nicklas Backstrom, who was the clear number one center when Nylander’s season ended.

Nylander will be coming into next season – well, maybe – as the number two center. He might be coming into the season ahead of where he was last year, with a lot of new teammate’s tendencies to learn, but he still might need a fair part of the early season to get into a groove. The Caps were starting to see that just as he sustained his injury. The Caps were 25-10-3 after Nylander’s season ended, suggesting that adding him next fall could be a little like a free agency addition.

However, the Capitals will, it would seem, have decisions to make with respect to re-signing Sergei Fedorov for next season. That could influence Nylander’s role on the club and whether he would be dangled as trade bait. That is a mind exercise for a different day. As for this season, Nylander’s had to be graded “incomplete.”

photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The 2007-2008 season, by the "tens" -- Centers: Nicklas Backstrom

A lot sooner than we’d like to have done, we’ll be looking at the Caps over the next few days and weeks, both individually and in groups. The focus will be on “the tens” – the progression of ten-game splits for the players and the team from start to finish. First up, the centers...

Nicklas Backstrom:

Theme: “Class is in Session”

That Backstrom improved over the course of the year should be of no shock to Caps fans. However, the progress was rather stunning over the course of time. There are likely a combination of reasons for that – an increasing comfort level with the NHL game, moving from the wing to center, playing with Alex Ovechkin, improvements in skill level, the different approach to the game taken by a new coach, whatever.

There are a couple of items in the numbers that are worth pointing out. First, it wasn’t the goal-scoring that experienced such an improvement, but his assist production. Backstrom had a total of eight assists through 20 games; he never had fewer than seven in any 10-game stretch (including the last dozen, which we include as one element) over the rest of the year.

One could argue that this was a product of playing with Ovechkin. In fact, of those eight assists Backstrom had in his first 20 games, only one (a secondary assist) came on a goal scored by Ovechkin. In his last 61 games, over which he had 47 assists, Backstrom had 20 assists on Ovechkin goals (12 primary, 8 secondary). But Backstrom found a way to get involved with the big scorers in general. He had nine assists on goals by Viktor Kozlov (three primary, five secondary) and eight more on goals by Alexander Semin (four of each type). That’s 37 of 47 assists in his last 61 games to three of the top five goal scorers on the team. There is a certain chicken-and-the-egg aspect to this – were the goals scored because of Backstrom’s contributions, or were Backstrom’s assists a product of good finishers. Well, probably both, but Backstrom’s production improved in that aspect of the game for which he is most heralded. Caps fans should be rather pleased with the result.

One other thing on the matter of assists – we’ve made quite a to-do about the consistency of Alexander Ovechkin. Well, what fits hand in glove with that – for this year – is that since the change in coaches, Backstrom never went more than two games consecutively without recording at least one assist.

Backstrom also became more assertive in his offensive game as the season progressed, reflected in this shots on goal numbers. Thr progression from ten-game to ten-game split was almost entirely in an upward path over the course of the season. This is not to say that he did (or would ever) become “Ovechkinesque” in his propensity to shoot the puck – that is not his game – but from seven shots in his first ten games to 23 in his last dozen is indicative of a willingness to take advantage of opportunities and not think past first, next, and last.

If there was a surprising aspect to Backstrom’s game, it was his responsibility on defense. In three of his first four ten-game splits, he was in the aggregate a minus player. In three of the last four (accounting for 12 games in his last split), he was a plus player, including being a +15 in his last 22 games.

If there could stand to be an improvement in his game, it is in the circle. He was 46.3 percent for the season (if you’re looking for a rookie comparison, Sidney Crosby was 45.5 percent in his rookie year). But even here there is an odd consistency. In each of the last four splits for the season, he achieved at least 50 percent in faceoff wins at least five times (only once in his first four splits).

Improvement and consistency. These are precisely the things one might ask for in a student. Nicklas Backstrom came a long way this year, and while he has a long way to go, he learned his lessons well.

Grade: A-

Friday, April 25, 2008

Your Conference Semifinal Prognostos...Sharks vs. Stars

And last, but certainly not least, the second half of the Western semifinal…

San Jose Sharks (2) vs. Dallas Stars (5)

Season series:

Oct. 29: San Jose 4 – at Dallas 2
Nov. 7: Dallas 3 – at San Jose 1
Nov. 14: San Jose 4 – at Dallas 3 (SO)
Dec. 5: San Jose 3 – at Dallas 2
Dec. 15: Dallas 4 – at San Jose 2
Jan. 17: Dallas 4 – at San Jose 2
Mar. 27: at San Jose 3 – Dallas 2 (OT)
Apr. 6: at Dallas 4 – San Jose 2

Home ice meant little in this series. The road team picked up at least a point in seven of the eight games in this series (winning six of them). These teams do not have a lot of playoff history between them, having faced each other only twice – Dallas won both times, in 1998 and 2000. This third-time matchup is one pitting Team Disappointment I (the Sharks have averaged 46 wins in the last three seasons before this, while advancing only once to as far as the conference final) versus Team Disappointment II (Dallas has averaged 47.5 wins a year over the last four seasons before this, advancing only as far as the conference semi-finals once).

In this year’s eight-game series, here is how the second-seeded Sharks came out:

Goals for/against: 20/24
Power play goals for/against: 7/4
Even-strength goals for/against: 13/20
Power play: 7/45 (15.6%)
Penalty killing: 32/36 (88.9%)
Record: one-goal games: 3-0-0
Record, 3+ goal games: none

There are two big numbers here. First, San Jose enjoyed a whopping 45 power plays. Six times in eight games they had at least five chances. Given that Dallas was middle-of-the-pack in total times shorthanded this year (15th), this is an unusual result. Second, while San Jose enjoyed more man advantages, Dallas had the best of the even-strength play (almost a goal a game more than the Sharks). If Dallas can stay out of the penalty box, that could be an early indicator of their chances.

Looking at the Sharks’ top scorers in the season series:

Joe Thornton: 4-6-10, +2
Brian Campbell: 0-0-0, -1 (one game)
Milan Mihalek: 1-4-5, even (seven games)
Patrick Marleau: 3-2-5, -5
Joe Pavelski: 2-2-4, -1

Thornton had an odd reversal of production to end the season. Primarily a distributor with this club 67 of his 96 points this year were assists), he was 10-3-13 in his last 10 games of the year. We’re not sure what to make of that, but his continuing to put up points, whether through playmaking or goalscoring, is going to be a must in this series.

Campbell is the wild-card here. He played in only one game against Dallas (held scoreless) after coming over from Buffalo, but he was 3-16-19, +9 in 20 games with the Sharks to close the season. And, he average more than 25 minutes a night. A minutes-eating, scoring defenseman without a record against the opponent of the series is an interesting new variable here.

On the other end of the trading spectrum, Patrick Marleau – who might have been a candidate to be moved in late February – was apparently relieved upon staying. After the deadline, he was 9-10-19, +2 in 20 games after the deadline. Compare that to 10-19-29, -21 in 58 games before the deadline.

The one player not mentioned – yet (how could we not?) – is Jeremy Roenick. Roenick had 14 goals this year, ten of them game winners. He finished the season 4-6-10, +2, over the last ten games. He had two goals in the first-round series-clinching win against Calgary (his only two goals of the series). At this point in his career, he is not going to put up large numbers, but he does seem to have a knack for being there at crucial moments. He will bear watching.

In goal, there is Evgeni Nabokov and…some guy in a baseball cap. Nabokov was 4-3-0, 2.56, .890 in eight games against the Stars this year and appeared in 77 of 82 games. And therein lies a problem for the Sharks. That sub-.900 save percentage, couple with the fact that the Stars scored consistently from game to game in this series (never less than two, never more than four goals) suggests that Nabokov, while not a “weak link,” per se, might not be the rock in goal the Sharks will need to survive, either.

Turning to the Stars and their top scorers and their records in this series:

Mike Ribiero: 2-5-7, +5 (seven games)
Brenden Morrow: 3-6-9, +6
Brad Richards: 0-0-0, -1 (one game)
Mike Modano: 5-6-11, +6
Niklas Hagman: 2-3-5, -1

12 of the 24 goals the Stars have in this series come from the quartet of Ribiero, Morrow, Modano, and Hagman. Ribiero, Morrow, and Modano have eaten the Sharks’ lunch at even strength, based on their cumulative +17 figure. The questions are about Richards. He had five assists in his first game with the Stars on arriving from Tampa Bay, then went 2-4-6, -4 in the last 11 games of the regular season. He was 1-4-5, +2 in the six-game series win over Anaheim, and that is more the level of production the Stars are going to need.

If there is going to be a surprise here, it might come from Jere Lehtinen. Thought of more, perhaps, as a shut-down forward, he was 3-3-6, +1 in nine games to end the regular season, then 2-4-6, even in the six games against Anaheim in the first round. He was 2-2-4, +3 in four games against the Sharks this year.

In goal, Marty Turco was the goalie of record in all eight games of the season series, going 4-2-2, 2.48, .915. And, unlike the troubles he had in the early part of his playoff career (8-14, 2.54, .892 in his first 22 career playoff games), he is 7-6, 1.59, .937 in his last 13 playoff games. Nabokov comes into this series as the Vezina finalist, but the smart money might be on Turco as the goalie most likely to steal a game.

Why San Jose will win…

They finished 18-2-2 over the last 22 games of the regular season, and they survived a scare against Calgary in a seven-game first round series. They have the best player in this series – Thornton – and the more dangerous lineup.

Why Dallas will win…

Dallas went 3-0-1 in the last four games of this series in the regular season, then polished off the defending Stanley Cup champions in round one. They are the better even-strength team, and their goalie is playing better, both respect to the series between the teams and his performance thus far in the playoffs.

In the end…

San Jose is too good not to win a game or two, but we have a hard time seeing how they advance. Dallas is stronger where they have to be, principally in goal. This will not be a high-scoring series, but in the end, Dallas will find a way to beat Nabokov just often enough.

Dallas in six.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Your Conference Semifinal Prognostos...Red Wings vs. Avalanche

We still have the West to cover, so let’s get to it…

Detroit Red Wings (1) vs. Colorado Avalanche (6)

Season series:

Dec. 27: Detroit 4 – at Colorado 2
Jan. 8: at Detroit 1 – Colorado 0
Feb. 1: at Detroit 2 – Colorado 0
Feb. 18: Detroit 4 – Colorado 0

Colorado hasn’t scored a goal in this series in 204:04. We’re thinking they have to break that streak to have a chance in this series. But before we get to that, Detroit and Colorado have met five times in the playoffs, starting in 1995-1996 (the two never met in Colorado’s previous incarnation as the Quebec Nordiques). These two teams have engaged – both in the playoffs and regular season – in some of the most memorable battles in this era of hockey. Patrick Roy versus Mike Vernon, Claude Lemieux versus Darren McCarty, Roy versus Chris Osgood…and there was some fine hockey played, too.

While there are a few members of the 2001-2002 Red Wing team – the last to face Colorado in the post-season – with the 2008 club, there aren’t many Avalanche from that year with this year’s version of the club (Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk, Adam Foote, Peter Forsberg), but we still might see some fireworks outside the strict boundaries of the rulebook.

In this year’s season series, though, here is how the Red Wings fared:

Goals for/against: 11/2
Power play goals for/against: 2/0
Even-strength goals for/against: 9/2
Power play: 2/13 (15.4%)
Penalty killing: 11/11 (100.0%)
Record: one-goal games: 1-0-0
Record, 3+ goal games: 1-0

For the Red Wings, their defense – obviously – has been stifling. Colorado averaged only 19 shots a game against the Red Wings and broke 20 only in their first meeting this year. And even though Colorado was not especially adept this year at drawing penalties to get power play chance (22nd in the league in power play opportunities), the Wings limited the Avalanche to fewer than four man advantages a game.

Part of this is due, no doubt, to Detroit’s puck possession skill. Outshooting the Avalanche 130-76 in four games is lopsided, any way you look at it. In the regular season, at least, Detroit has had its way with the Avalanche – methodically, efficiently.

Looking at the Red Wing’s top scorers this year:

Pavel Datsyuk: 1-5-6, +7
Henrik Zetterberg: 3-0-3, +4 (three games)
Nicklas Lidstrom: 0-1-1, +4
Brian Rafalski: 0-2-2, +2 (three games)
Daniel Cleary: 0-0-0, +2 (three games)

Datsyuk and Zetterberg have done the bulk of the scoring, but account for only four of the 11 total goals scored by the Red Wings, and the other top season scorers were held without a goal. Where did the rest come from? Valeri Filppula accounted for three of the remaining seven goals, four different players splitting the last four. Seven players in all split 11 goals. It speaks to the remarkable balance Detroit has – they had eight players with more than 40 points this year (Colorado had five).

If there is one other player, though, who could leave a big red welt on the Avalanche’s playoff hopes, it is Johan Franzen. While he was only 0-1-1, even, in four games against the Avalanche, he was 15-5-20, +5 in his last 16 regular season games and was 2-1-3, +2 in the opening round series against Nashville.

In goal, Dominik Hasek was 3-0-0, 0.67, .966, with two shutouts against the Avalanche this year. And he’s the goalie who won’t be starting. Chris Osgood is likely to get the call; he was 1-0-0, 0.00, 1.000, and one shutout in his only appearance against Colorado. Pick your poison. Osgood gets the call for coming in relief of Hasek in the Nashville series and closing it out, going 2-0, 0.39, .982, and a shutout in three appearances.

For the Avalanche, their top scorers did the following in their regular season contests with the Red Wings:

Paul Stastny: 0-0-0, -2 (two games)
Andrew Brunette: 0-0-0, -1
Milan Hejduk: 0-0-0, -3
Wojtek Wolski: 0-0-0, -4
Joe Sakic: did not play

Except for Hejduk, given that Sakic did not play against the Red Wings this year, these are not your father’s – or maybe your older brother’s – Avalanche. And only half of the players (ok, there are only two) who actually scored a goal against the Red Wings will play in this series. Cody McLeod, stand and be counted.

The Avalanche have to get scoring from somewhere in the series, and Sakic is the obvious player to look at for it. Even on a prorated basis though (he scored 13 goals in 44 games this year), it would have been his slowest 82-game goal scoring pace for his career. He was 2-4-6, even, in the Minnesota series, but the Avalanche might have to count on additional scoring support. Hejduk had a pair of goals in the Minnesota series and scored seven goals in his last seven regular season games. One would have to think he must approach this level of production for the Avs to have a chance.

In goal, Jose Theodore received no support from the offense, and he went 0-2-0 as a result, even though his 2.53 GAA and .923 save percentage against the Red Wings was more than respectable. Does Theodore have a shutout (or three) in him for this series? It might take a game (or three) like that to give Colorado a better chance.

Why Detroit will win…

Detroit not only led Colorado, but led the league (or was near the top) in every meaningful statistical measure. And, they beat the Avalanche like a drum four times…more than 200 minutes without yielding a goal, and counting, is domination.

Why Colorado will win…

The ghosts of playoffs past – the Red Wings have gone past this round only twice in the last eight tries. The Red Wings are a regular season wonder, but they seem to find a way to fall in the playoffs.

In the end…

If the Red Wings do falter again, they will do it to themselves. On paper, Colorado has no chance…but the Red Wings will find a way to make it interesting.

Red Wings in six

Access is not just a data base application

It applies to hockey, as in "hockey is the most fan-accessible sport." Well, in perusing James Mirtle's blog, we came upon this evidentiary morsel to support that assertion...

"Fan relations," in this instance, is defined as "ease of access to players, coaches & management." Nine of the top 16 teams on this measure, including the Caps (at 14) are from the NHL. But you suspected this to be the case, anyway.

Your Conference Semifinal Prognostos...Penguins vs. Rangers

And now, the other half of the Eastern semifinal...

Pittsburgh Penguins (2) vs. New York Rangers (5)

Season series:

Oct. 23: at Pittsburgh 1 – Rangers 0
Nov. 8: At Rangers 4 – Pittsburgh 2
Nov. 17: Rangers 4 – at Pittsburgh 3 (OT)
Dec. 18: at Rangers 4 – Pittsburgh 0
Jan. 14: at Pittsburgh 4 – Rangers 1
Mar. 18: at Rangers 5 – Pittsburgh 2
Mar. 30: at Pittsburgh 3 – Rangers 1
Mar. 31: at Rangers 2 – Pittsburgh 1 (OT)

Caps fans, take solace…the Rangers have never beaten the Pittsburgh Penguins in a playoff series (at least the Caps won once). The Penguins are 3-0 against the Blueshirts in their playoff history, the latest a 4-1 series win in 1996. So, it’s been a while.

This is a difficult series to get a handle on, for a lot of reasons. First, Pittsburgh man-handled the Ottawa Senators in round one, but it isn’t as if anyone really expected the Senators to do much after their second half swoon (16-21-4). Second, the Rangers certainly haven’t been in awe of Pittsburgh’s fire power, going 5-3-0 in this year’s series and going 3-3-2 last year. They’ve played the Penguins a little more than even. Third, while Marc-Andre Fleury might have quieted critics of his playoff performance with his 4-0, 1.26, .955 performance against the Senators, we’re not sure he’s silenced them entirely. Fifth, while the Penguins come in hot on the result of their sweep of Ottawa, the Rangers dispatched what was likely a superior opponent – not to mention a demon of theirs – the New Jersey Devils in five games, their lone loss coming in overtime. Sixth, will Jagr comparing Sidney Crosby to Mario Lemieux – not in terms favorable to Crosby – give the kid an incentive? Seventh (trust me, we’re getting to the end of this), will the controversy about the “Avery Rules” be a distraction to the Rangers? Eighth…with Jagr perhaps not even returning to the NHL next year, and this being a series against his old club, will he be inspired to leave a skate marks on the Penguins on the way through? That’s a lot of stuff going on…

The season’s history between these two teams, from Pittsburgh’s perspective – reflects the edge to the Rangers thus far:

Goals for/against: 16/21
Power play goals for/against: 5/9
Even-strength goals for/against: 10/11
Power play: 5/35 (14.3%)
Penalty killing: 9/42 (21.4%)
Record: one-goal games: 1-0-2
Record, 3+ goal games: 1-2

Both teams get their share of power play chances – they ranked fourth and seventh, respectively, in power play opportunities in the regular season. But in this series, the Rangers have averaged better than one power play chance a game more than the Penguins and have made good on that greater frequency of chances to the tune of almost twice as many power play goals as Pittsburgh. That pretty much describes the difference in scoring between these teams.

Looking at the top scorers for Pittsburgh and their records in the season series:

Evgeni Malkin: 5-2-7, +1
Sidney Crosby: 1-7-8, +4 (seven games)
Marian Hossa: 1-1-2, even (three games, one with Atlanta)
Sergei Gonchar: 2-4-6, +3
Petr Sykora: 1-2-3, -3

Malkin, Crosby, and Gonchar lead the way, as might be expected. But in their numbers is the hint of a certain familiarity on the part of the Rangers with their play. Those numbers – particularly those for Malkin and Crosby, about a point a game -- are not consistent with the numbers they put up against other opponents.

If there is a key to this series for the Penguins on offense, it might be Ryan Malone. This would seem to be, at first blush, a close fought series in the making. Malone has the size, skill, and grit to be a difference maker here. His performance against the Rangers isn’t noteworthy (0-1-1, +1, in seven games), but he was 7-6-13, +6, in his last 17 regular season games and 2-3-5, +3, in the four-game sweep of the Senators in round one.

If you subscribe to this being a tightly-contested series with a lot of one-goal games (I do), then Marc-Andre Fleury will be a key element to the Penguins’ success. He was 2-1-2, 2.19, .929 in five games against the Rangers this year. And, he had that stonewall effort against the Senators in round one. You’d have to think he’s ready to take the next step.

As for the Rangers, their top scorers fared as follows against the Pens:

Jaromir Jagr: 2-5-7, +1
Scott Gomez: 3-4-7, -2
Chris Drury: 2-4-6, -1
Brendan Shanahan: 0-2-2, -1 (seven games)
Martin Straka: 2-2-4, -1 (five games)

Sean Avery could be a key in this series for the Rangers. He played in only five games of the season series with the Penguins (3-2-5, +3), but the Rangers were 4-1-0 in those games in which Avery played. And, if he could get under Martin Brodeur’s skin (as he seemed to do in the opening round), he sure as the dickens has the ability to make Fleury’s life miserable.

In goal, Henrik Lundqvist is a Vezina Trophy finalist – again, for the third consecutive year. This guy can and should be mentioned in the same breath as Brodeur and Luongo when consideration is being given to the best goalies in the NHL. Against Pittsburgh this year, he earned the decision in all eight games, going 5-3-0, 1.87, .916. He shaved about three-quarters of a goal a game off his GAA against the Penguins from last year.

Why Pittsburgh will win…

It was hard to envision a team that could play with more confidence than that which the Penguins displayed in round one. It wasn’t cockiness, but the air of “we’re good, we know it, and we have a job to do.” The biggest question mark – Fleury – was more than up to the task of shutting down what was still, at least on paper, a potent Ottawa offense. The club has just about everyone they’d need to have healthy and ready. This is also a team that can play with an edge – in addition to their top-end skill – with players like Gary Roberts, Jarkko Ruutu, and Malone.

Why the Rangers will win…

No fear. It’s not like the Penguins’ ability to score, score quickly, and score often is going to be a secret to the Rangers. They’ve handled that aspect of the Penguin’s effectively this year. And, unlike the bloated carcasses that were the Ranger teams earlier in the decade, this one is a hard-nosed bunch that can actually play defense. Plus, having the imperturbable Lundqvist backstopping the enterprise doesn’t hurt. The Rangers were – and are – the team in this tournament set up to derail the Penguins.

In the end…

While Pittsburgh is the better team, on talent, it also has more of the “moving parts” that can go wrong in a series like this. The Rangers won’t score much, but they won’t need to, either. Pittsburgh might get a four or five goal explosion in this series, but not enough of them to win in the end.

Rangers in six.

The Silent Honor of the Hockey Player

In some circles (mostly those that rhyme with "concussion gourds"), the Capitals were -- are, for that matter -- a "soft" team. That adjective is especially derogatory to a player in a sport where an ability to play with a physical edge is among the sport's paramount virtues. addition to Chris Clark (groin), Michael Nylander (shoulder), and Brian Pothier (career-threatening concussion) having missed considerable time this year, we learned this in this morning's report on the Capitals in the Washington Post...

"[Bruce] Boudreau said [Shaone] Morrisonn played the final two weeks of the season with a broken jaw and that [Boyd] Gordon played with a torn hamstring in the playoffs. [Alex] Ovechkin also was nursing an injury for the final month of the season..."

And Jeff Schultz -- who seems to have been designated the poster boy for whatever perceived lack of physical play the Caps possess -- also missed the last several games with an "upper body" injury, and Mike Green had a hip pointer.

Ask yourself...if you had a torn hamstring, a broken jaw, or an injury that even the club still won't disclose, and your job involved a desk and a chair, would you still have been showing up every day without missing time? These guys came to work and performed admirably when their very job was directly related to and impacted by the injuries they had. And there was not a peep about it from the players, even after the fact. Hockey players don't indulge in such things.

So, if you do nothing else this summer, dear Caps fans -- well, some of you (you know who you are) -- make a resolution...

"I hereby swear that from this moment forward, I will just shut the *&$# up about players being 'soft.'"


Much has been made in the last 36-hours about Caps goalie Olaf Kolzig removing his nameplate from his locker immediately after the game-seven loss to the Flyers and declining to meet with reporters.
Well, from the "tempest in a teapot" file, we have this explanation from the man, himself, courtesy of Tarik El-Bashir in the Capital Insider...
First, Kolzig said he doesn't want to give any interviews for a few days as he collects his thoughts. He said he obviously has some decisions to make and will talk soon.

Second, he also said he didn't remove his nameplate from his locker stall at Verizon Center out of anger. He acknowledged that the Caps' Game 7 loss to Philly could "possibly" have been his last game in Washington, so he wanted to take the nameplate as a memento. He plans to frame it with a jersey.

"It had nothing to do with not playing or pouting," Kolzig said in the message. "I was real proud of the way the guys played. I thought there was going to be destiny with the way the last two weeks went. So I was probably as disappointed as anybody."

This isn't even a "let's give him the benefit of the doubt" issue. Kolzig has been seemed to us nothing other than a stand-up guy -- in the community, on the ice, and for himself -- ever since he arrived in Washington. Why anyone would think differently is puzzling, even in the context of his de-facto demotion over the last several weeks of the season.

As Kolzig noted, he has some decisions to make, among them possibly including: whether to come back for another season, whether to do it in Washington or another city, whether to accept a diminshed role as his career enters a different phase.

He's earned an opportunity to do just that, and we don't suppose he's going to string the club out in a Brett Favre-ish manner in making those decisions. Whatever he decides, his body of work in Washington -- as a player, as a representative of his sport, and as a member of the community -- stands among the greatest in Washington sports history.

We're happy to have been here to enjoy his work and hope he still has some hockey left in him -- we'd like to think it being here -- to earn that Cup.

Your Conference Semifinal Prognostos...Montreal vs. Philadelphia

Much as we'd rather be doing this for the Capitals versus the Penguins, we'll have to settle for starting with the Eastern Conference semifinal...

Montreal Canadiens (1) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (6)

Season series:

Nov. 1: at Montreal 5 – Philadelphia 2
Dec. 13: Montreal 4 – at Philadelphia 1
Feb. 16: at Montreal 1 – Philadelphia 0
Feb. 17: Montreal 5 – at Philadelphia 3

This is the fifth time these franchises have met in the Stanley Cup tournament Once in the finals), and the Canadiens hold a 3-1 edge in the four series they’ve played. As these things go, this is the wannabe gold standard for hockey royalty versus the real thing. And that is not unlike the general character of this series – a team that aspires to be among the elite versus one that is. And that, if you haven’t figured it out is the Flyers playing the “wannabe” role, and the Canadiens as the club on whose perch the Flyers hope to sit.

Both teams come into this series having survived hard-fought series – one expected, one not. The Canadiens were expected to have an easier time with the Boston Bruins than was the case, and the problem there should be a bit unsettling for the Habs. Montreal scored 19 goals in a seven game series, which is respectable for this time of year. But they gave up 11 goals in their three losses – 10 of them in games five and six. And that brings us to the question, for all of his talent, does goaltender Carey Price have the steel and seasoning – at age 20 – to be the guy to carry this team deeper into the playoffs? How one answers that question answers the question of who will win this series.

As far as the season’s history between these two teams, the record – from Montreal’s perspective – reflects the 4-0 edge in games

Goals for/against: 15/6
Power play goals for/against: 6/3
Even-strength goals for/against: 8/2
Power play: 6/25 (24.0%)
Penalty killing: 20/23 (87.0%)
Record: one-goal games: 1-0-0
Record, 3+ goal games: 2-0-0

For the Flyers, the ominous statistic has to do with the power play, specifically the number of chances. Philadelphia was the most penalized team in the East this year, so the incidence of power plays is not surprising. But, if the Flyers thought that they would have problems with the Caps’ speed (they did), they will have that problem in depth with Montreal. They appeared to have that problem during the season. The Flyers took 27 minor penalties in four games. Of that number, 17 were of the “obstruction” variety (holding, holding the stick, interference, hooking, tripping). And, the Canadiens made the Flyers pay to the tune of six power play goals – as many as the Flyers has of all varieties of goal in the series. After a tough seven-game series against Washington, one wonders if the Flyers, especially among the defensemen (four of whom are 33 or older), have the legs to survive another tough series.

Looking at the top scorers for Montreal and their records in the season series:

Alex Kovalev: 2-4-6, +4
Tomas Plekanec: 0-3-3, +2
Mark Streit: 2-1-3, +2
Andrei Markov: 0-6-6, +3
Saku Koivu: 2-2-4, +1

This is, as the season series would suggest, a solid and balanced result. What the Canadiens might need, though, is some additional punch. Montreal had four players with 25 or more goals, two of whom do not appear on the list above. Guillaume Latendresse and Andrei Kostitsyn could be key to the Canadiens success on the offensive side of the ledger. Latendresse had one goal (his only point) in four games against the Flyers, Kostitsyn was 2-2-4 in his four games of work.

But, it is in goal where the key for the Canadiens lies. Carey Price was given the keys to the car by general manager Bob Gainey when the latter traded Cristobal Huet to the Capitals. He responded by going 12-3-0, 2.12, .936 after the trading deadline. Against the Flyers this year, he also posted a 3-0-0, 1.34, .961 record. But there is that Boston thing and the ten goals he gave up in games five and six with an opportunity to close out the series. If that was his “trial by fire,” one might conclude that he passed it with a 25-save whitewashing of the Bruins in game seven. Although, Montreal took a three goal lead into the third period of that game (winning 5-0), alleviating some of the pressure from his young shoulders. Price cannot suffer meltdowns in this series, as the Flyers showed themselves to be an opportunistic and resourceful team in their series with Washington. They can step through any such opening the Canadiens give them.

Speaking of the Flyers, their top scorers fared as follows against Montreal:

Mike Richards: 2-1-3, -2
Daniel Briere: 0-2-2, -3
Vaclav Prospal: 4-2-6, +2 (all with Tampa Bay)
Mike Knuble: 1-1-2, -2
Jeff Carter: 0-1-1, -2

It is not, as one might expect, a very good record. And, Knuble is injured, his status for this series uncertain. Complicating the situation further is the matter of Daniel Briere. He was 5-4-9, +5 in the first five games of the Washington series, but 1-1-2, -3 in games six and seven. He is also the hometown boy who didn’t sign with the hometown team when he had the chance last summer. He hasn’t had especially sterling numbers against Montreal in his career, either. Since the 2000-2001 season, he is 8-9-17, even in 24 games. He’ll have to be better for the Flyers to advance.

The Flyers will also need to get others to step up, most notably the other two members of the 20-goal brigade – Joffrey Lupul, the hero of game seven in the Washington series, and Scott Hartnell. Lupul was scoreless and -2 in three games against the Canadiens this year, while Hartnell was scoreless and -1 in four games. If they repeat that performance, the Flyers will be going no further. Odd thing about Hartnell’s performance this year and something to keep in mind. True, he is one of the seven 20-goal scorers the Flyers have on their squad, but seven of his 24 goals came against the Islanders. He has more than one goal this year against only two non-Atlantic Division opponents (Carolina, Ottawa).

In goal, can Martin Biron do it again? Fans had better hope that he plays more to the level he showed against Washington than he did in his lone appearance against Montreal this year – five goals on 41 shots on November 1st. He did what he had to do against Washington – give his team a chance. His statistics are not spectacular (2.67, .908) so far, but if plays at that level, he will give his team a chance.

Why Montreal will win…

They play to the Flyers’ vulnerabilities…their power play can make Philadelphia pay for their all-too-often indiscretions, and they can make Philadelphia’s defense uncomfortable with their speed and depth. While undertaking a seven-game ordeal with Boston, they come in as the somewhat more rested team (the Flyers played two overtime games among the last four, including the game seven, covering six days). Plus, they have considerable success this year against the Flyers to draw upon.

Why Philadelphia will win…

Carey Price is not impregnable. The Bruins demonstrated that. And, the Flyers will do to him what they did to Cristobal Huet in the Washington series…crowd him, crowd him again, then crowd him some more. Further, although the “Vengeance Now” has value only as marketing schtick for the Flyers front office, this club does play with a bit of a chip on its shoulder. That can’t hurt in a series where they will be a substantial underdog.

In the end…

Montreal is too deep, too fast, and too good on its power play, even if Price has the occasional rookie moments.

Montreal in six.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Game Seven: Flyers 3 - Caps 2 (OT)

The problem with dreams is, sooner or later, you wake up.

The awakening from the dream of a long Stanley Cup tournament run came at 6:06 of the first overtime period last night as the Capitals lost game seven to the Philadelphia Flyers, 3-2 on a power play goal by Joffrey Lupul. And in the end, those are the only numbers that matter...Flyers 3, Caps 2.

There are probably those who will dwell on officiating, whether opportunities were squandered, or whether the hockey gods just don’t much like the Capitals.

You won’t find that here this morning.

This team owes no one anything. Ask yourself, if you were sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner last November 22nd, and as you were taking turns giving thanks for your blessings, your crazy uncle said, “I’m thankful that we live in a town where the hockey team is going to make the playoffs,” would you have been tempted to file commitment papers?

They gave us one helluva ride…

A 37-17-7 record after Thanksgiving.

A season for the ages from Alexander Ovechkin

The “young guns” stepping up in a big way to make this their team – Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom – after the club lost its captain, its top center, and a top-four defenseman to injury for more than half the season.

An unexpected year from Brooks Laich, who wasn’t even supposed to be here…or at least the thinking went last summer.

A hockey lifer with a twinkle in his eye finally getting a chance to coach behind an NHL bench, and grabbing that chance by the throat to be considered a potential coach-of-the-year candidate.

A roll of the dice by a general manager with the nickname, “The Undertaker,” to bring hockey royalty, a few sheets of sandpaper, and goaltending insurance to the club for a stretch run that will be remembered long after the handshakes of this series are forgotten.

A sea of red replacing a desert of empty seats.

The experience of sound taking form and substance.

Four teams remain in the fight to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup final. The Capitals are not among them. Congratulations to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Montreal, and the New York Rangers. The Stanley Cup tournament being what it is, we’re sure they’ll put on a great show.

Thoughts will turn to next year (and what Caps fan can’t wait for that?) and, inevitably, who will and will not return. There will be a time for thinking about that, but this morning isn’t that time.

Nope, this morning we’re sad at the result, but not disappointed in this team. Unlike past heartbreaks, when the Capitals team that lost did so as underachievers, this one fought tooth and nail for two months without a hint of quit in them. They grew before our eyes and came within an eyelash of giving us another two weeks (or, who knows…more) of memories. Although it’s small consolation to the players, coaches, staff, and fans of the club this morning, they achieved far more than anyone had a right to expect as we were sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner last November, and for that…

Bless you boys.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

You might be a Caps fan...

Letting that yard work and those home improvement projects
slide while you check out the Caps blogs? might be a Caps fan.

Those dishes piling up while you're checking
on Ovechkin's stats?... might be a Caps fan.

Getting behind on paying those bills while you're online getting
your red wardrobe updated?... might be a Caps fan.

Forget to pick up the kids from school while making plans
to get downtown for the Caps game?... might be a Caps fan.

Your stat to watch in Game 7

Martin Biron has tended goal in the second half of five back-to-back sets of games this year. His record...

0-5, 5.95, .822

Get on 'em early, boys.

photo: Reuters

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 7, Caps vs. Flyers

“We’ve won nothing…”

Those were the words of Capitals Head Coach Bruce Boudreau after the Capitals forced a Game 7 against the Flyers last night. And that’s just it…the win only gave the Caps a chance to play again. It’s been a while since we’ve been here. The Capitals have not played a Game 7 in 13 years, a Game 7 at home in 16 years. Here is a brief history of the Capitals and Games 7…

It isn’t an especially pleasant history…unless you realize that the Capitals are on the other side of the fence that doomed them in Games 7 in the past. Three times, the Caps had a 3-1 lead in games and lost. The shoe is on the other foot this time around, as it is the Flyers who are looking at that situation.

As we head into this game, there are a few things that come to mind about the Caps’ performance thus far…

Balance...The Capitals have four players with three goals, ten who have potted at least one (the Flyers have three and nine). The Caps also have three players with two power play goals, apiece (Backstrom, Green, Semin)

Finish strong…The Capitals have been outscored early, but have generally finished strong in games, as the scoring by period indicates:

Big guys in big games…it shouldn’t be a surprise that the leading scorers for the Caps are: Alexander Semin (3-5-8), Alex Ovechkin (3-4-7), Mike Green (3-4-7), and Nicklas Backstrom (3-2-5). The oldest of this quartet is Semin…24.

And…Brooks Laich has been one of those under-the-radar players (1-4-5)…he’s only 24, too.

.862…Martin Biron’s save percentage in the third period of games in this series. He can be had late, if the Caps keep throwing shots at him.

This is about where most folks thought the series would end up – in Washington for a game seven. Unlike previous editions of the Capitals that have walked this path, though, this bunch of precocious youngsters (with the odd Fedoroveteran through in) has been an overachieving bunch. There was a fog of doom that permeated the previous editions of game seven teams. Nothing is assured in a one-game, winner-take-all situation, but the Capitals certainly come into this game with some momentum.

And, as Bruce Boudreau also said of the team last night…“I’m just so proud of the guys…”

We are, too…and we think they will complete this portion of the journey. We’ll go with last night’s winner…

Caps 4 – Flyers 2

And we'll leave it to the General, one more time, to remind the troops of the stakes...

Monday, April 21, 2008

Game Six: Caps 4 - Flyers 2

The most satisfying sound in sports for a team on the road has to be the sound of the home crowd booing the home team in the waning moments of a game lost.

And that was the sound wafting through Wachovia Center in Philadelphia as the Caps scored four unanswered goals in a 4-2 win over the Flyers tonight, forcing a Game 7 at Verizon Center tomorrow night.

When you’ve been playing with what amounts to an “elimination” mind set for the better part of the past two months, you understand that even games are not sprints, but marathons. And falling behind, 2-0, to the Flyers might have been cause for concern, but not panic.

The Flyers got to that 2-0 lead on the strength of two power plays – the first two power plays the Flyers enjoyed in this game. But in that were the seeds of the Flyers’ undoing in this game…the lack of a five-on-five game. And there was a subtle, if distinct trend in this game that does not bode well for the Flyers. The Caps came out tentative – that much was clear. But as the game progressed, and they got their legs under them, they exerted a lot more pressure on the Flyer offense. Note this progression of shots, by period. From the first to the third period, the Flyers were pushed further away from the Caps’ net in their shots.

first period

second period

third period

Working from the inside out allowed the Caps to crawl back into the game, starting with one of the prettiest passing plays executed by a Capitals team in recent memory. Brooks Laich skated over the Flyer line, leaving the puck on his right for Alexander Semin. With the Flyer defense backing in and Laich driving the net, Semin and Nicklas Backstrom passed back and forth, and then back and forth once more, with Backstrom snapping the puck past goalie Martin Biron to get the Caps back in it.

What should not be lost in the play was the breakout pass out of the corner from the defenseman to Laich skating out of the Caps’ zone. That pass came from Steve Eminger.

The Caps tied it with less than two minutes in the period on what amounted to a misplay by goaltender Biron. At the end of an extended period of continuous play (almost five minutes of game time), John Erskine let fly with a shot from the left point. Biron got his catching glove on the puck, but could not squeeze it to stop play. It popped loose, and Semin, steaming across the slot, picked up the puck and rifled it top shelf with 1:57 to go in the second to tie the game.

photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

That set the stage for Alex Ovechkin to make his presence felt on the scoresheet. Ovechkin was oddly dormant in this game, with one good scoring chance on his stick in two periods (among five shots on goal), and no hits. But with just under three minutes gone in the third, Kimmo Timonen shot the puck toward the Capitals’ net. Ovechkin got the shaft of his stick on the shot, deflecting the puck to Viktor Kozlov just inside the Stanley Cup playoffs logo in the Capitals’ zone. Ovechkin broke immediately the other way on deflecting the shot and was behind Timonen, in perfect position to take a tape-to-tape lead pass from Kozlov. Ovechkin skated in, twitched his left leg, slid the puck to his forehand, and ripped the puck over a sprawled Biron and under the crossbar to give the Caps the lead.

photo: Tom Mihalek/AP

It was Ovechkin one more time eight minutes later to provide the insurance goal (or the most dangerous lead in hockey, depending on your perspective). With the Flyers shorthanded on a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty, Sergei Fedorov skated into the offensive zone and down the right wing boards. Braydon Coburn intercepted Fedorov and knocked the puck away, but could not clear it out of the zone. Brooks Laich followed in, picked up the puck, and sent a cross-ice pass to Ovechkin just inside the left wing circle for a one-timer that Biron could only wave at.

From there it was a case of playing smart to protect a lead, not play prevent defense. They managed to limit the Flyers to only five more shots in the 1ast 9:19 of the game following Ovechkin’s second goal, none after the Flyers pulled Biron for an extra attacker in the last minute.

It would be tempting to say that a number of Capitals had their best game of the series, but we don’t think that was the case...

John Erskine (who still frightens us and small children whenever he has the puck on his stick) is an exception. He had five hits, an assist and was plus-three in what looked to be his best game of this series. He also played with a fair amount of discipline when he might have otherwise been goaded into taking penalties.

However, while Ovechkin had the game-winner and the insurance goal, you might say that third period was his best period of the series…it was not his best game (we thought game one was his best, so far). But if that third period is a harbinger of what is to unfold tomorrow night, the Flyers will have their work cut out for them.

Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin might not have had their best games of the series, but they certainly do look comfortable playing with one another. That is an important ingredient to take some pressure off the top line and put more pressure on a Flyer defense that is starting to look leg-weary.

Brooks Laich had two assists, was plus-two, and had six shots on goal. He looks pretty comfortable on the Capitals’ power play at the moment and is starting to show a rather deft passing touch (he has five assists in his last four games)…but he was on the ice for those two Flyer power play goals.

Steve Eminger might not be a Capital come September (we’re wishing he’d still be here), but he’s more than made a case for getting playing time now. More than 17 minutes of ice time, that nice breakout pass to Laich to start the rush on the Backstrom goal, plus-three.

On the other side of the ice, though, it was really a rough night for the Flyers’ big guys…

Daniel Briere had a goal, but he also ended up -3 on the night and did not record a shot on goal in the third period (he had two shots for the game). He did win 13 of 19 draws and was credited with two hits…we’re still scratching our head over just what it was he hit.

Vaclav Prospal was minus-three, had three giveaways, and was called out indirectly by Flyers’ coach John Stevens in the post game for taking “a lazy hooking penalty.”

Scott Hartnell was -3, had no shots on goal

Scottie Upshall got 13 minutes of playing time…just enough to be on the early nominee list for a Razzie in the “worst actor” category for his “back…and to the left” routine at the end of the second period.

And frankly, the game probably turned on an “E-6” play by Martin Biron, who failed to glove the puck on a drive by John Erskine. The ensuing goal by Alexander Semin brought any momentum the Flyers had to a screeching halt.

Games seven are strange things. We are not a fan of an exciting finish, despite what you might have read. We’d just as soon the Caps put up four in the first and end the competitive portion of the evening quickly. We don’t really see that happening, though…

So hang on, Caps fans…and bring ear plugs.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game Six...Caps vs. Flyers

The last road trip to Philadelphia for this year…

And as we contemplate this last, hopefully best trip to the Mistake on the Schyulkill, we’ve invited some famous coaches to offer some inspirational words as the Caps look to force a game seven…

First, we have former player/coach of the Charlestown Chiefs, Reg Dunlop…Reg, the Caps will be in hostile territory tonight. How do you prepare the boys for that kind of game?

Reg Dunlop…"It's their rink, it's their ice, and it's their f*ckin' town. But tonight we got our fans with us! They spent their own dough to get here, and they came here to see us! All right, let's show 'em what we got, guys! Get out there on the ice and let 'em know you're there. Get that f*ckin' stick in their side. Let 'em know you're there! Get that lumber in his teeth. Let 'em know you're there!"

Coach Norman Dale…going into the opponent’s rink can be intimidating for a bunch of kids who haven’t experienced such a thing at this level…what do you tell them?

Next up, we have Coach Bill Yoast, formerly of the T.C. Williams Titans…Coach, it’s going to be a hard-hitting game tonight…what would you want to say to the Caps before they take the ice?

And finally, perhaps the greatest motivator in the history of professional sports…Coach Vince Lombardi. Coach, you have some thoughts on winning…

Coach Lombardi..."Winning is not a sometime thing; it's an all the time thing. You don't win once in a while; you don't do things right once in a while; you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.

"There is no room for second place. There is only one place in my game, and that's first place. I have finished second twice in my time at Green Bay, and I don't ever want to finish second again. There is a second place bowl game, but it is a game for losers played by losers. It is and always has been an American zeal to be first in anything we do, and to win, and to win, and to win.

"Every time a football player goes to play his trade he's got to play from the ground up - from the soles of his feet right up to his head. Every inch of him has to play. Some guys play with their heads. That's O.K. You've got to be smart to be number one in any business. But more importantly, you've got to play with your heart, with every fiber of your body. If you're lucky enough to find a guy with a lot of head and a lot of heart, he's never going to come off the field second.

"Running a football team is no different than running any other kind of organization - an army, a political party or a business. The principles are the same. The object is to win - to beat the other guy. Maybe that sounds hard or cruel. I don't think it is.

"It is a reality of life that men are competitive and the most competitive games draw the most competitive men. That's why they are there - to compete. To know the rules and objectives when they get in the game. The object is to win fairly, squarely, by the rules - but to win.

"And in truth, I've never known a man worth his salt who in the long run, deep down in his heart, didn't appreciate the grind, the discipline. There is something in good men that really yearns for discipline and the harsh reality of head to head combat.

"I don't say these things because I believe in the 'brute' nature of man or that men must be brutalized to be combative. I believe in God, and I believe in human decency. But I firmly believe that any man's finest hour - his greatest fulfillment to all he holds dear - is that moment when he has to work his heart out in a good cause and he's exhausted on the field of battle - victorious."

And that is what it’s about tonight. As for the game, this will be the 17th “game six” in Capitals history. Here is how the previous 16 break down…

What is interesting to note here is that each of the last four games six went to overtime. We don’t care if the game is 60 minutes or 60 hours (which would necessitate a rescheduling of game seven), just so long as the Caps come home with one more game left to play.

They will…

Caps 4 – Flyers 2.

And, for those of you needing a dose of spark to get a current Capital chopping down a Flyer...

Broad Street....uh, what, again?

"I'm pretty sure I was pushed into [Huet]. I was going hard to the net.
I'm sure I stopped at the top of the blue [crease] and got pushed in.
I thought there was some favor in their aspect tonight.
Whether it is me or the black jersey, I'm not sure."

-- Scottie Upshall

"Their whining certainly helped, I guess..."
-- Danny Briere

"The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Their coach has complained
since the start of the series on that stuff. And then
they get two power play goals, and that ends up
being the difference in the hockey game."

-- John Stevens

Hey, find it surprising you're being whistled for penalties? You've been doing it all year:

And do note, there is more of a gap in PIMs between first-place Philadelphia and second-place Carolina (288) than between Carolina and last place New Jersey (209). Philly is more than a little acquainted with the penalty box.

This won't be easy, though. The Flyers are 16-2 in playoff series when holding a 3-2 lead. They lost in 2000 to New Jersey after holding a 3-2 edge in games, and before that in 1988... Washington.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Game 5: Caps 3 - Flyers 2

“It’s work hard, or go home, and working hard is a lot more fun.”

-- Eric Fehr, speaking after the game on Caps radio

That’s pretty much today in a nutshell, as the Caps worked from beginning to end (with a few anxious moments in period three in-between) to stave off elimination – that, by the way, is the only time that verb is used – in a 3-2 win at Verizon Center this afternoon.

Let’s just dive into the game – sort of like a Capital taking aim at a Flyer – ok?

-- Sergei Fedorov, Cristobal Huet, and Vaclav Prospal might have been awarded the game’s three stars, but Bruce Boudreau might have nailed it on the head in the post-game press conference when he opined that Donald Brashear might have been the best player on the ice in this game. It says a lot about the kind of game it was…in 6:52 of playing time, Brashear had seven hits and was pursuing Flyers all over the ice. He even had a couple of scoring chances for good measure.

-- And, speaking of the kind of game it was…82 hits were recorded, the Caps credited with 44 of them. Only Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Poti failed to register at least one among the skaters. Matt Bradley, Matt Cooke, David Steckel, and Brashear had 20 of the Caps’ number.

-- In other sports, when the big part of your game isn’t there, you have to make up for it by doing the other things…in baseball, if you’re not hitting, you have to play good defense; in basketball, shooters gone cold have to pass and play defense. Alex Ovechkin is in a goal scoring drought, but he was not lacking for effort in the other aspects of the game…three hits, a blocked shot, and a lot of time pestering Flyers in their zone as they were trying to break out with the puck. Watching Ovechkin, it would be tempting to say he’s holding the stick a little too tight, but such is not the case. He is this close to breaking out with a multi-goal game. In this one he got the puck in better scoring areas for one-timers and wrist shots, but just couldn’t find the back of the net behind goalie Martin Biron. We did like his flipping Jim Dowd into the Flyer bench.

-- Just an observation…does Alexander Semin look more comfortable out there with Nicklas Backstrom as his center, instead of Sergei Fedorov? When the latter was centering the second line, it seemed Semin was skating almost in reverence to who it was on his right, tying his game in knots. Now that he and the rookie are paired, both look rather comfortable with one another (although we’re starting to think Backstrom could be comfortable centering Jason Alexander as much as Semin or Ovechkin).

-- The Flyers had one shot – one – in 25:37 of game time spanning the first and second periods. It was as complete an exhibition of team-defense as the Caps have displayed this year.

-- You might not know it, but the Caps welcomed an NHL player today – Eric Fehr. The youngster launched seven shots at the Flyer net (ok, only one made it to the net), but in ten minutes and change of ice time, he also had a couple of hits, played diligently in forechecking in the Flyers’ end, and wasn’t backing down from anyone. We don’t think Fehr will be sitting any more in this series.

-- 33-17…that’s not a good number, not the first one, anyway. That is the turnover result for the Caps and Flyers (giveaways yielded plus takeaways by the opponent).

-- The Caps seemed to have better awareness of where Daniel Briere was when he was on the ice. Look, Briere is a small guy playing in the NHL…he hasn’t gotten to this level without figuring out how to avoid the bigger trees in the forest. You’re thinking some Cap should plant him? It’s a nice thought, but put it out of your mind. Being aware of where he is and denying him chances is what the Caps need to do, and did a better job of today.

-- The Caps had 26 shots (only six in the third period, to the Flyers’ 21)…Ovechkin, Semin, Fedorov, and Backstrom had 19 of them.

-- Mike Knuble is out for the remainder of the series, suffering a significant hamstring injury when his skate hit a rut while he was killing off a penalty in the second period.

-- “The squeaky wheel gets the grease, there…their coach has been complaining since the start of the series about that stuff.”

...Flyers’ coach John Stevens, commenting on the goaltender interference call on Scottie Upshall in the third period. There seemed to be a lot of “squeakin’” going on by Flyer players on the ice, though.

-- The shot chart was stunning…the shot pattern for the Caps indicated many more shots in scoring areas than was the case for the Flyers…

-- Steve Eminger had another solid game…three hits, two blocked shots. He was on the ice for the Hatcher goal, but that was more of a coverage problem at the top of the zone. And, Eminger is something of a good luck charm…the Caps are now, what, 16-6-1 when he’s in the lineup?

Another quote from Stevens, speaking about what to expect on Monday…

“We’re gonna dictate from the drop of the puck”

It’ll be loud, it’ll be hostile, it’ll be ferocious…

…but we’ll see you, Tuesday night.

From Which Dreams Are Made

Capitals Rise from the Ashes, Defeat Flyers in Electrifying Seventh Game

Washington (peerlesspress), April 23. The Washington Capitals completed a remarkable comeback from a three games to one deficit in their first round playoff match with the Philadelphia Flyers, beating the Flyers 5-4 in the third overtime period last night in Washington.

The Capitals became the 21st team in NHL history to rebound from a 3-1 deficit to win a playoff series. This is the second time they have accomplished the feat, the other also at the expense of the Flyers in 1988.

The game winning goal was scored on a penalty shot in the third overtime, awarded when defenseman Derian Hatcher was whistled for closing his hand on the puck in the goaltender’s crease. Alex Ovechkin, whose hat trick in Game 6 in Philadelphia set the stage for a thrilling conclusion to this series, was picked by Capitals’ coach Bruce Boudreau to take the potential game-winning shot.

The deafening roar of a capacity crowd on its feet spurring Ovechkin on, the MVP-favorite skated in on Flyer goaltender Martin Biron, and using an old trick of kicking his leg up in the air before shooting, he snapped a forehand over Biron’s glove, knocking the water bottle off of the netting and the Capitals into the second round of the playoffs. The Capitals will face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.

Ovechkin’s heroics capped a furious comeback by the Capitals that eerily resembled the comeback they fashioned when the defeated the Flyers by the same score in Game 7 of their first round series in 1988. The Flyers raced to a 3-0 first period lead on goals by Daniel Briere, R.J. Umberger, and Jeff Carter, turning the Verizon Center crowd quiet. However, the Capitals found life when Steve Eminger found the back of the net early in the second period on a drive from the left point.

Just over a minute later, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom worked a give-and-go play to pull the Caps within a goal, Semin converting the return pass from Backstrom on a backhand deke past Biron.

The Caps tied the game with less than a minute remaining in the second period on a power play. Sergei Fedorov, working from the half wall, worked the puck to Backstrom at the Flyer goal line. Backstrom wasted no time in feeding the puck to Ovechkin at the left wing circle hash marks, from where Ovechkin one-timed the puck past Biron’s blocker.

The Flyers regained the lead at the 10:46 mark of the third period on a goal-mouth scramble. Mike Knuble recreated his game-four winning goal by batting home a loose puck over Capitals’ goaltender Cristobal Huet’s left pad.

The Capitals tied the game for the final time with less than three minutes in regulation as Ovechkin raced down the left wing, drawing two Flyers to him as he entered the offensive zone. His way blocked, Ovechkin pulled up and found Viktor Kozlov coming late into the zone. Kozlov stepped around defenseman Braydon Coburn and fired a wrist shot through Biron that had the Capitals leaping off their bench and the Verizon Center fans in a frenzy.

The overtime periods were not without their moments. Daniel Briere had a breakaway late in the first overtime, but whiffed on a shot attempt. Mike Richards had an open net in the second overtime after a drive was kicked aside by Huet, but he misfired when he shot the puck off the heel of his stick, breaking his stick in the process.

In the third overtime, the Capitals mounted a serious threat when the Flyers were unable to clear the puck from the defensive zone. Mike Green twice intercepted clearing attempts to keep the offensive pressure on. Shaone Morrisonn then knocked down a clearing attempt, feeding the puck along the boards to Sergei Fedorov. Fedorov took a step in the direction of the Flyers’ net, then snapped a pass across to Ovechkin in the left wing circle. Ovechkin’s shot hit Biron in the mask and popped into the air. When the puck fell into the crease, a mad scramble ensued, and Derian Hatcher found himself within arm’s reach of the puck and Fedorov about to pounce. Hatcher reached out and pulled the puck under his body, upon which referee Mike Hasenfratz pointed to center ice, signaling a penalty shot.

After a few moments of suspense, Ovechkin skated slowly to center ice, alone in his thoughts as the crowd noise shook the building. Ovechkin at first could not hear the referee blowing his whistle to give Ovechkin the signal to take the shot, and the referee had to skate over to Ovechkin to send him on his way. With a short hop, Ovechkin got underway, skating slowly in on Biron, who had come almost to the hash marks to defend the rush. Ovechkin had the puck on his forehand and offered a leg kick to try to distract Biron. The goalie did not flinch, but then Ovechkin closed his stick to suggest he was going to his backhand. Biron edged ever so slightly to his right to defend the move, and it was all the opening Ovechkin needed. He snapped the puck over Biron’s glove with a forehand to send the water bottle flying, and the comeback was complete.

The Capitals poured off the bench to greet Ovechkin, and Biron skated dejectedly to his bench, having been the losing goaltender in each of the last three games of this series.

The Capitals, given up for dead after a heartbreaking double overtime loss to the Flyers in game four of this series, put themselves in a position to take this series with a 5-3 win in game five, in Washington, and then a wild 7-5 win in Philadelphia in which Ovechkin registered his first six-point game in the NHL (hat trick, three assists).

Notes…Ovechkin – held to a single goal in the first four games of the series – scored six goals, including the penalty shot game and series winner, in the last three games of the series. Martin Biron, who allowed only 11 goals on 111 shots in the first four games of the series, allowed 16 goals on 105 shots in games five, six, and seven. Steve Eminger scored a goal for the fourth consecutive game. This is the Capitals’ first playoff series victory since defeating the Buffalo Sabres in the Eastern Conference final in 1998.

photo: Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post