Saturday, March 15, 2008


We’re down to the last ten games – four at home, six on the road.

If you’re thinking “best case scenario,” it might be helpful to look at the best ten-game stretch in the Caps’ season to date. That would be the ten games starting with the 8-6 win in Ottawa on December 29th and ending with a 6-5 shootout win in Pittsburgh on January 21st. All told, the Caps were 8-2 in that run, with three extra-time wins included (two shootout wins and an overtime victory).

What did the Caps do right in those ten games?

Well, they sure didn’t lack for putting the puck in the net. 43 goals were scored in those ten games. Even accounting for the eight in Ottawa that started the streak, 35 in nine games is a very productive rate.

The hand in that glove was consistency…only twice in those ten games did the Caps fail to score at least four goals in a game. They scored goals in 21 of the thirty periods in regulation in those ten games.

The Caps were 12-for-46 on the power play (26.1 percent). And again…consistency. They scored power play goals in seven of the ten games.

12 players scored the 43 goals, 19 skaters had points. As one might expect, Alex Ovechkin led the goal scoring (12), but three other Capitals had at least five goals – Alexander Semin, Viktor Kozlov, and Mike Green. Similarly, Nicklas Backstrom leading the assist total with 12 is not a surprise, but five other Caps had at least five – Mike Green, Alex Ovechkin, Tomas Fleischmann, Jeff Schultz, and Boyd Gordon (keep the last three names in mind).

The Caps spread it around, but the big guns stepped up in a big way, too…

Ovechkin: 12-7-19
Green: 6-8-14
Backstrom: 3-12-15

It didn’t seem to matter if the Caps scored first or not, either. Five times they scored first (4-1), five times they didn’t (4-1).

So...what went wrong? Well, on the defensive side of the ledger, the 36 goals was problematic, although Ottawa (three times), Montreal, and Pittsburgh are top-end offensive teams, too (accounting for 20 of the 36 goals in five contests). The penalty killing was, to be charitable, challenged. 30 of 42 on the penalty kill (71.4 percent) was cringe-making.

Oddly enough, while the Caps were enjoying their most successful ten-game stretch on the scoreboard, Olaf Kolzig was enduring a stretch of less-than-Kolzig like play. He appeared in eight games in this ten-game stretch, going 6-1-0, 3.83, .852. Five times in eight appearances he gave up more than three goals, including four in 16 shots in 26 minutes of work in a 6-4 loss to Philadelphia. Brent Johnson had three appearances, going 2-1-0, 2.34, .916.

This stretch of games saw the last games played this year (so far) by Chris Clark and Michael Nylander. Clark, who has played only one game since November 28th, played in the Philadelphia game on January 13th, registering an assist in nine minutes of play. Nylander played the first six games of this ten-game stretch before succumbing to the shoulder injury that had impaired his play for quite some time. His last game also was the Philadelphia game, in which he was 1-1-2 in 20-plus minutes.

So…is there anything one can take from the best ten-game stretch of the season as the Caps head into their last ten regular season games? Probably not, at least not in ways that are obvious.

But there are some underlying things in these numbers to watch out for…

Balance and balance…there are two kinds reflected in the numbers that the Caps would hopefully emulate in the final stretch. The first is the ability to spread things around. Getting 12 players with goals and 19 with points is impressive. So is the fact that the Caps had nine players with at least five points. Balance among the players was – and probably will be – important. There was also the balance between the heavyweights and, for lack of a better term, the support players. The Caps, within the context of team wide support, still managed to get big numbers from their big guns. They – Ovechkin, Green, Backstrom – stepped up (please note, average age: 21). They’ll probably have to step up in the last ten as well. And Viktor Kozlov – who is 3-4-7, +10 in his last seven games – might be added to that mix.

Resiliency…the Caps were 4-1 in games in which the opposition scored first. Three times they gave up the first two goals and came back to win. So, a little adversity might come their way, but they have the capacity to deal with it. That might be especially important on the six-game road trip that starts next week.

Good-enough goaltending…One definition of good goaltending is giving up one fewer goal than your team scores. That was the case in the play of Olaf Kolzig in the ten-game stretch. Now, he is back to the “Godzilla” fans are used to (6-2-2 in his last ten decisions, 2.17, .923). To this add Cristobal Huet – 2-2-0, 1.91, .925 in four games since coming over from Montreal. Brent Johnson, who has had to sit lately, is 7-8-2 this season, but a respectable 2.67, .908 to go along with it. One would have to think that the Caps will have more-than-good-enough goaltending.

That stuff over on the right side of the scoresheet…the goals, assists, points, and plus-minus are things that folks pay attention to. But there is that stuff over on the right side of the NHL score sheet – the hits, takeaways, blocked shots, faceoffs – that will loom large in close games. The Caps have a tradition of being a lunch-pail, grind-it-out kind of team. While they have more skill now than in the days that reputation was forged, they still have to get that kind of effort…guys like Quintin Laing, Boyd Gordon, David Steckel, Matt Bradley, Shaoen Morrison…they’re going to have to populate that “right side” of the score sheet.

The pleasant surprise…Brooks Laich has 10 goals in his last 12 games. If you’d bet that result in Vegas, you’ve probably quit your job by now. It wasn’t the kind of thing one would have expected. In the last ten games, the Caps could certainly use another dose of unexpected pleasure. If you’re looking for some of that late magic, it would be nice to get it from a Tomas Fleischmann, an Eric Fehr, or a Boyd Gordon.

The point of this is that the Caps have it within them for a strong finish. 16 points in ten games has been a part of this season; it can be again. But you can’t get to 16 until you get to “2”…and that starts tomorrow.

A day trip to Kettler

It's been a while since we've been to Kettler Capitals Iceplex, so we thought we'd take in a practice this morning. It was different than those early training camp days...

As we took up a spot behind the glass at the balcony end of the ice, the first thing we noticed was the glass. Filled with streak and swirls and smudges from a season's worth of practice pucks, it was a little like looking out from the other side of a Jackson Pollack painting.

There was the thump-thump-thumping of shoes on metal as kids scampered up the steps or scurried through the stands.

13 water bottles standing sentinel on the top of the boards at the players' bench, waiting for the players to take the ice.

The advertisements around the boards, bright and freshly applied last September, now chipped and smudged from pucks and players spending six months breaking in the rink.

Youngsters asking their parents anxiously, "when are they coming out?"

Tom Poti and Milan Jurcina coming out first and engaging in a friendly contest in what seemed an effort to ring pucks off the crossbar from the blue line (Poti connected on his first chance).

The players coming out in twos and threes, skating around in long lazy circles as if they were trying to shake off the cobwebs of a game last night.

A nice crowd filling the stands and ringing the outside of the rink as the players started their drills.

A clot of fans over near the players' bench, hoping for a glimpse, a word, an autograph.

Sami Lepisto amusing himself over at the faceoff circle, resting on one knee while flipping pucks into the air and trying to catch them on the blade of his stick.

Eric Fehr being a whole lot more talkative than I imagined he would be out there...and giving Matt Bradley some grief, it seemed, when Bradley was having trouble finding the back of the net in a rebound drill.

Olie Kolzig pacing himself, as one might expect a veteran to do, but getting sufficiently peeved over allowing a goal in the rebound drill that he took the puck that eluded him and flung it off the rink into the netting above the glass.

The oohs and aahs of a sweet move or a snappy save.


Kettler isn't the novelty is was in September. It has the look and feel of a rink well used. It's a nice way -- and a nice place -- to spend a Saturday morning.

The Standings That Matter -- March 15th

A TWO-point night!...Caps 4 - Thrashers 1

Punch in…punch out.

It was a workman-like effort last night as the Caps made sure all the jobs were performed in a 4-1 win over the Atlanta Thrashers…

Ovechkin pots a goal…check (goal and an assist)

Hold Kovalchuk off the board…check (no points, one shot on goal)

Get supplemental scoring…check (Brooks Laich, third two-goal effort in his last nine games)

Play solid defense…check (12 shots on goal; Olaf Kolzig stopped all but one of them)

Get solid special teams play…check (1-for-3 on the power play, 3-for-3 on the penalty kill)

Bruce Boudreau called it, “as complete a game as we’ve played.” And it sure was that. Were there disturbing signs?...well, a couple, and we’ll get to that. But if coaches often lament “we didn’t play a full 60 minutes,” the Caps played a full and solid 60 minutes last night.

The Caps registered the first five shots of the game before the Thrashers could muster any (their first came 6:44 into the period). And when the Thrashers did manage to take the early lead on a well-placed Slava Kozlov slap shot over Kolzig’s left shoulder four seconds after a penalty to Shaone Morrisonn expired, the Caps treated it like a speed bump.

Camped behind the Atlanta net, Viktor Kozlov found Ovechkin pinching in from Thrasher goalie Kari Lehtonen’s right. Ovechkin managed to get a stick on the puck, but it squirted away…right to Laich, who lifted the puck over Lehtonen from the deep slot.

Laich wasn’t done yet, either. A Sami Lepisto drive from the top of the offensive zone was deflected downward and to Lehtonen’s left. As the puck inched around the left post, Laich – with only his right hand on the stick – deftly moved the puck back in front and tapped it into the cage an instant before the net was knocked off of its moorings. The goal was allowed after review, and the Caps had the lead they would not surrender. That makes 19 goals on the year for Laich…

Fun Brooks Laich fact…that makes ten goals in Laich’s last 12 games. That is not a misprint. Let’s compare that to the league’s top five goal-getters over the same stretch of games…

Ovechkin: 9
Kovalchuk: 8
Jarome Iginla: 9
Evgeni Malkin: 5
Vincent Lecavalier: 5

One might say Laich has been “Ovechkinesque” in his production. The 19 goals is, obviously, a career high. But it is not as if he is a complete stiff having a “lucky” year, either. He had 41 goals with Seattle in the WHL in 2002-2003 before making the jump to Binghamton in the AHL while in the Senators’ organization.

The rest of the Capitals’ scoring came in what had to be considered “sweet” plays…off an Erik Christensen hard-around in the Caps’ end on a Thrasher power play, Shaone Morrisonn won a fight with Tobias Enstrom for the puck along the side boards, working it to Sergei Fedorov. Fedorov threw the puck out into space at center ice, where Matt Cooke was already hot-footing it toward the Atlanta end. As the puck was sliding into the Thrasher end, goalie Lehtonen couldn’t decide to come out to play it, stay in his net, or go get a hot dog. By the time he decided (at which point the hot dog idea seemed the best available), Cooke had the puck and had only to rifle it through Lehtonen’s pads for the shorthanded goal.

The two-goal lead being the most dangerous in hockey, so they say, getting the next one was the next job on the ticket for the Caps. They did – in stunningly swift fashion. Ken Klee was whistled for a hooking penalty in the Atlanta end 1:03 into the third period. By the time the clock had ticked off four more seconds, Fedorov won a draw (he sure has done a lot of that since arriving in Washington), Mike Green collected the puck and pushed it to Ovechkin, and Ovechkin fired a sidewinder missle into the Thrasher cage.

Game over, man…game over.

The numbers are remarkable, largely for their utter predictability…

Alexander Ovechkin had seven shots (scoring once), attempting 13 (two blocked, four misses)

Mike Green also had seven shots, attempting 12 (one blocked, four misses)

Green led the club in ice time (he seems to be taking over from Poti in this regard, and there is a moderately interesting development here…Poti had no power play ice time last night; Green had 3:29 – every second the Caps had)

Matt Bradley had four shots on goal and two glorious chances that he was not able to convert (more a function of Lehtonen’s superb goaltending last night…it could have been another Boston Massacre but for his play). Bradley, if not reaching the prolific level of Ovechkin’s shots per game, is ramping up his offense…he has 29 shots on goal in his last 15 games. It might not sound like a lot, but averaging about 12:30 in ice time a game over those 15 games, it sounds a lot more impressive.

Who led the team in hits?...Brooks Laich. He also had the best faceoff winning percentage (69 percent off nine wins in 13 tries). He was also a +2 and bought a little girl in section 418 an ice cream cone between shifts. He had a good night.

Sami Lepisto registered his first NHL point (an assist) and was not shy about firing the puck, at least for a rookie call-up…four shots attempted. He had three blocked, but his miss was rather dramatic…Nicklas Backstrom skated alone down the right side in the Thrasher end, when picked up by a Thrasher defender, he curled off and found Lepisto skating down the other side. Lepisto gathered up the puck and fired a wicked shot that rang the post to Lehtonen’s far side. Would have been nice to see one Finn score on another.

In all this, though, there are some other things of which we took note, some things that are of budding concern…

As well as Brooks Laich has played, it would be nice to see Boyd Gordon get into the offensive ledger a bit more often. Gordon is without a point in his last 15 games, dating back to February 13th. He is doing the other things he needs to do (only -1 facing team’s better offensive players, winning a majority of his draws in nine of those 15 games), and that should be interpreted as a good sign – taking care of business.

Of the six defensemen, only two of them (Tom Poti and Mike Green) were credited with shots on goal, and Green had seven of the eight. Against a team as defensively challenged as Atlanta, it didn’t seem to matter much, but raising the threat of a blue line presence might free some space for the forwards in games against sturdier defenses.

We’ve become accustomed to Alex Ovechkin launching a lot of shots and netting a lot of goals. What we haven’t seen is the same thing from Alexander Semin. What we mean by that is that Semin is a more surgical shooter (his career shooting percentage is better, for example, 14.2 percent to 12.8). But Semin has two goals in his last nine games on 21 shots. In part, that 21 shots is a bit of a concern. In his first 44 games this year, Semin averaged 2.98 shots a game and had 19 goals. In his last nine, he’s averaged 2.33 shots a game and has two goals. There is a fine line between being selfish and being assertive. It’s especially hard for a player whose role includes that of “sniper.” We think Semin will regain that balance, but at the moment, he seems to have hit a dry patch brought on by not taking advantage of all the shooting opportunities he’s being presented, perhaps looking a little bit too much to “pass first.”

These, though, are all matters that can work themselves out by playing through them. And in the end, the only thing that matters these days is getting more goals than the other guy, whether a 7-6 or a 2-1 game, whether Ovechkin gets the hat trick or Matt Cooke pots a shorty.

The Caps are now three points behind Philadelphia, who faces a back-to-back on the road today and tomorrow against Boston and Pittsburgh. The Caps will face a Boston team on the back end of their own back-to-back when they visit Verizon Center tomorrow. Meanwhile, Carolina – which got pounded by Buffalo last night, 7-1 – has to play Ottawa on Sunday, which while a reeling club, has the firepower to give the Hurricanes a rough time.

All of a sudden, things aren’t looking so bad…as long as the Caps keep winning.