Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ten Stories from 2008 -- Number 10

As we wind down to the end of the year, we’ll toss out a top-ten of sorts for your consideration – the top-ten Capitals’ stories for 2008. These things being what they are, you might have your own, and that what this is intended to do...start a conversation. So, this being a day the Caps playing the Flyers, we start with...

Number 10. Game 7

We’ll get this one out of the way quickly. In the first round of the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs the Caps found themselves pitted against an old foe – the Philadelphia Flyers. Washington stormed back from a 4-2 second intermission deficit to defeat the Flyers, 5-4, in Game 1 of the series. The game was marked by a game-tying power play goal mid-way through the third period by Mike Green moments after Patrick Thoresen blocked a shot in what might be the ultimate “groin injury.” Alex Ovechkin won it when he stole the puck from Lasse Kukkonen in the Flyer end and sliding it past Martin Biron.

It was a great start marred by an all-too typical Capital swoon in these situations. Philadelphia won Game 2 to gain a split at Verizon Center, then won Games 3 and 4, the latter in a second overtime on a goal by Mike Knuble that could have been the next to last nail in the coffin of a short series for the young Caps.

But then the Caps tore a page out of the Flyer operating manual and employed a more physical brand of hockey in Game 5, including a highlight reel check by Alex Ovechkin on Jim Down that sent the Flyer into the laps of his teammates on the Philadelphia bench. Alexander Semin had the game-winner deep in the third period on a power play, and the Caps held off a late charge by the Flyers to force a Game 6 in Philadelphia, 3-2.

In Game 6, the Capitals had to claw back again, this time from a 2-0 deficit barely a minute into the second period. Given the setting – a loud and ornery Wachovia Arena – it was a difficult task to reach down and come back again. But Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin scored goals to set the stage for a wild third period. Alex Ovechkin then displayed what it was that made him a favorite for the league’s most valuable player award, scoring the game-winning and insurance goals for the win, the first in the series to that point by the team that gave up the first goal.

Game sevens are unique unto themselves, and this was no exception. For the Flyers, coach John Stevens was so wound up, he walked to the rink instead of taking the bus from the team’s hotel. He might have been concerned that goalie Martin Biron was winless in five tries during the course of the season in the second of back-to-back games. The arena was as red as red can be and loud enough to crack panes of glass, especially when Nicklas Backstrom broke the ice, in a manner of speaking, with a goal early in the first. But in a harbinger of things to come, Scottie Upshall tied the game on a power play late in the first period.

The teams traded goals in the second period, the Flyers taking a lead when Sami Kapanen scored after Thoresen exacted a measure of revenge for his cup-knocker blocked shot, shoving defenseman Shaone Morrison into goaltender Cristobal Huet and giving Kapanen an open net at which to shoot.

Ovechkin tied it six minutes later by wristing the puck past Biron before the Flyer goalie could blink. It would be the last goal of regulation.

In the overtime, Tom Poti was whistled for a penalty when, skating down the right wing boards in defending R.J. Umberger’s rush, he was called for tripping Umberger. The Caps killed off all but nine seconds of the penalty, but after turning away a Kimmo Timonen shot, Huet lost trace of the puck and turned to his left. Unfortunately, the puck squirted to his right, where Joffrey Lupul backhanded it into the open net turning the Verizon Center crowd silent.

The loss left the Caps with a 1-5 record in Games 7, their only win having come at the expense of the Flyers when Dale Hunter scored an overtime goal in 1988. But, sad as the occasion was, disappointment on the faces of Caps fans as they filed out of the arena that the club would not continue their storybook season, coach Bruce Boudreau perhaps put it best…”I just told [the team] then gave me the best year of my life, and I thanked them.”

The Caps gave us all a ride, and something sorely lacking in recent years… hope.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Flyers, December 20th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s a winter’s day in Philly, when a child’s visions turn to cheese steaks and booing Santa. That’s right, it’s Caps-Flyers. And speaking of a child’s vision, we had an opportunity to sit down with one of the iconic kids of the Christmas season, who happens to be quite the hockey fan, to talk hockey and Christmas…Ralphie.

Ralphie, nice of you to let us stop by in this festive yuletide season. What are you hoping for this Christmas?

“Same thing I hope for every year…I want an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!”

Now what’s up with that? What is the charm of the ol’ Red Ryder?

“To tell you the truth, I don’t really want it, but my old man tells me to ask for it every year. He’s the one who wants it, just to take shots at the Bumpus’ hounds.”

What do you want?

“Really?...I could go for a case of that Palmolive soap…it has a nice, piquant after-dinner flavor - heavy, but with a touch of mellow smoothness. Or maybe another one of those lamps…there’s nothing like the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window.”

I understand you’re quite a hockey fan. Who is favorite team?

“The Flyers, of course.”

Why is that?

“Because I can go to a game and say ‘crissin’ friggin’ sonuvamivvin’ divvin’ bliggin’’ and no one thinks anything of it.”

And I’ll bet you get a cheese steak or two when you’re at the game.

“Cheese steak, smeese steak, double beese steak, I hate cheese steak.”

Really, I would have thought that would be your brother, Randy. What about today’s game…you have a pick?

“The Flyers…they’re 17-5-3 since that awful 0-3-3 start, 10-2-2 at home since that start…Simon Gagne, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter…it’s a strong team.”

Yeah, but you still have Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki in goal.”

“Ohhh fu-u-u-dge!”

Well, Ralphie didn’t say fudge, as you probably expected. As for the Flyers though, they are a strong team coming into this game, as the numbers suggest…

Some things are clear right away if you’re a Caps fan…

- You want this to be a “let ‘em play” game. If it is one, the Caps look to be the better even-strength team. If it becomes an exchange of power plays, both power play groups are strong, but Philly has the superior penalty kill…maybe. The Caps did kill off 18 in a row in a four game stretch from December 7th through December 13th, but they were only 7-for-10 in their last two games (70 percent). On the other hand, Philly has allowed power play goals in each of their last six games, killing off only 22 of 30 (73.3 percent).

- Neither team wants to fall behind. The Caps lead the league in winning percentage when scoring first, and the Flyers have the fewest losses in regulation in the league when doing so.

- Neither team can be said to be “defense-oriented,” based on the numbers, but one thing does stand out. Of the four goaltenders who have logged significant time this year for the two clubs, only one has a save percentage better than .905 and has a GAA better than 2.80 – Brent Johnson (.920, 2.46).

If you’re going to play the Flyers, bring a whip and a chair. Ornery is what they’ve been over the years, and ornery is what they are. Their 32 fighting majors puts the Flyers third in the NHL. It is entirely consistent with their recent history, having been fourth in fighting majors last year and tied for sixth in 2006-2007 after “slipping” to 19th in the first year back after the lockout. Nine Flyers have dropped the gloves this year, led by Riley Cote (nine) and Arron Asham (eight) in their 32 bouts. By way of comparison, the Caps have had a total of ten bouts this year (29th), half of those authored by Donald Brashear. Look for the Flyers to establish a “fistcheck” as opposed to a “forecheck.”

Individually, the story for the Flyers is the return of Simon Gagne to the ranks of top scorers. After losing two-thirds of last season as a result of a series of concussions, Gagne is tied for eighth in scoring (16-21-37) and is a plus-19 for his efforts. Four of those goals are of the shorthanded variety and another four having come on the power play. He is clearly dangerous in all situations and especially so against the Caps. Gagne is 16-14-30, +6, and four game-winners in 28 career games against Washington.

Mike Richards is tied with Gagne for that eighth spot in the scoring rankings (13-24-37), with three power play and four shorthanded goals of his own. To that, he can add three game-winners. He is 3-6-9, +6 in ten career games against the Caps and is coming in hot. Before being held off the score sheet in a 5-2 loss to Montreal on Thursday, Richards had an eight-game points streak (7-8-15, +4).

The surprise of sorts, though, might be Jeff Carter, who finds himself second to Thomas Vanek in goal-scoring. His 22 goals is closing in on his career best (29) that he had last year. Like teammates Gagne and Richards, he is dangerous in all situations, netting six of those goals on the power play and another three shorthanded.

By now you’re asking, “what’s with all the shorthanded goals?” Well, the Flyers lead the league by a wide margin (12, to seven for runners-up San Jose and the Islanders). In fact, they are closing in on the total that led the league last year (18, by Ottawa) after only 31 games.

The Flyers also have scoring balance by position, having realized 64 points from the defense this season. Kimmo Timonen leads that group (3-17-20) with Braydon “How do you like Alexei Zhitnik now?” Coburn not far behind (3-10-13).

In goal, things are iffy. The pair of Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki narrowly avoid being both “second page” goalies in the statistics. Niittymaki is 29th in GAA (2.84), while Biron is 34th (2.95). Niittymaki is tied for 26th in save percentage (.905), while Biron is tied for 31st (.900…ok, he has good company in Evgeni Nabokov and Miika Kiprusoff). Niittymaki has allowed five goals in two of his last three appearances, and Biron hasn’t allowed fewer than three since shutting out Buffalo on November 21st, a span of eight appearances. Oddly, he has allowed exactly three in seven of those eight appearances. At least he’s consistent. He’s also out with the flu.

The Peerless Players to Ponder

Philadelphia: Mike Knuble

You’ve got to think this will be a high-scoring game. You’ve also got to think that the big three for the Flyers will make their presence felt. But if this is a scoring contest, the Flyers could use some additional support, and that’s where Knuble comes in. He could be especially valuable using his big frame (6’3”, 230) to get collect some garbage. The Caps do not have a particularly physical defense, especially with John Erskine out. Expect Knuble to be parked in front of the Caps net most of the day.

Washington: Tomas Fleischmann

Street fights are things a player like Alex Ovechkin thrives upon. He has 12 goals in 12 career games against the Flyers. But the Flyers might be expected to make a statement – a hard one – on a player like Fleischmann, who is not as gifted in fighting through the noise. Fleischmann netted his career high 11th goal in Thursday’s win over St. Louis, his first goal since netting one against Florida on December 2nd. If he can add to that, now that he’s healthy again, it could signal a good day for the Caps.

Going into Philly is always a test. It is a throwback to the days when divisions had names, not points on a compass (oh, how we long for a return to that). The crowd, the style – they can be intimidating. But the last time the Caps visited Philadelphia, they spotted the Flyers two goals in Game 6 of the first round of the playoffs before roaring back with four of their own in a 4-2 win. They can handle it…

Caps 5 – Flyers 3