Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 2: Zoolander

We’re almost there, but first…

Number 2: Zoolander

“You gotta tame the beast before you let it out of its cage.”

-- Derek Zoolander

Well, we don’t know about being a beast, or letting it out of its cage, but the Caps unlocked the cage, held open the door, and all but begged Michael Nylander to take his leave and accept employment somewhere else, even if the Caps had to pay his salary to do it. Never did seem that so much silence and inaction could have such effects on the fortunes of a season for a team in professional sports, effects that spilled over from one season into another.

Michael Nylander was signed by the Capitals to a contract as an unrestricted free agent on July 2, 2007. It would be his second tour with the Caps, and this one didn’t come without controversy, either at the beginning or at the interminable end (not that we've reached it yet). Back in that July of 2007, the original reports concerning a Nylander signing had him going to Edmonton to skate with the Oilers. Edmonton could not or would not confirm the signing, and shortly thereafter the Caps announced having signed Nylander. The next week saw considerable back-and-forth with Canadian media reporting that the Oilers were contesting the signing. After much gnashing of teeth and trading of insults across the continent, Nylander would remain with the Caps, a move seen at the time as a good fit for a team that needed a number one center and who played a style suited to the Caps deliberate ways under Coach Glen Hanlon.

Well, things took a turn when the Caps stumbled badly out of the gate in the 2007-2008 season, so badly that it cost Hanlon his job on Thanksgiving. Enter Bruce Boudreau, whose brand of hockey was fire to Hanlon’s…well, if not ice, then slush. There is a place for slush (the Devils have been practicing it for almost two decades with considerable success), but that wasn’t what the Caps bought in bringing on Boudreau. And it wasn’t a style compatible with the sort of game Nylander played. Nylander didn’t get much of a chance to show why this fit was so bad, injuring his shoulder, apparently in a game against the Florida Panthers on December 1st. He played in 13 more games before going down for the year and undergoing surgery. It wasn’t even as if he played badly; he was 4-9-13 in the 14 games he played injured.

But when the curtain rose on the 2008-2009 season it was apparent that Nylander’s role with the team was very much in flux. One could see in the monthly splits… October: 2-6-8, plus-3 in nine games (of nine total played by the Caps)… November: 0-6-6, -3 in 14 games (of 15 total)… December: 1-2-3, plus-3 in 14 games (of 14 total). Nylander was dressing every night, but his production was declining.

2009 began for Nylander with the first hints of a diminished role. He played in only ten of the 12 games in January, going 2-5-7, plus-2. As February dawned, one couldn’t help but think the team would try to move him at the trading deadline, but there was the problem of that contract. It contained a no-movement clause that severely hampered the Capitals in any deals that might become available. Nylander had to agree to the terms.

If there was a player playing as if he was going to be headed elsewhere, or perhaps having the possibility of such weigh on him, it appeared to be Nylander. The month he had was nothing short of awful for a player occupying $4.875 million in salary cap room. Nylander finished the month 2-1-3, minus-2 in ten games. Almost incomprehensibly for a player who was nominally the second line center, he took a total of five shots on goal for the month, one over the last six games in which he played.

Absent granting the Caps relief under the no-movement clause of his contract and accepting a move, Nylander was going to remain a Cap through the March 4th trading deadline. In fact, as a practical matter he had to grant such relief if the Caps were to make any deals, since the Caps were unable to add salary absent that relief. It didn’t keep from rumors being circulated though. Perhaps the one that had the most meaning for the Caps, both at the deadline and (as it would turn out) for the playoffs was one that had Bill Guerin coming to the Caps (as if to put a period on that, it was Guerin who was credited with the game-winning goal in the series clinching win over the Caps in the Eastern semis last May).

After the trading deadline, Nylander became less of a player and more of a symbol – of cap woes, of an inability to make deals, of being a road-block to the advancement of players from Hershey – all stemming from his no-movement contract clause and his apparent willingness to invoke it. The playoffs came, and Nylander dressed for only three games, playing in less than ten minutes in two of them (no points, minus-1, no shots on goal). The summer came – and went – with the occasional blip of a rumor that Nylander was going somewhere (more, it seemed, wishful thinking on the part of Caps fans). Then came an interview published on a Swedish web site in which Nylander was quoted as saying that Coach Bruce Boudreau told him he wasn’t good enough. You would think that such a sentiment, if true, would have led to a deal before the start of training camp.

But like a divorce that can’t find a settlement, Nylander and the Caps remained joined until, if not death, then Nylander’s contract expiring would they part. It made for a strange situation – a team that had moved on (signing Brendan Morrison to take up the second line center position) and a player who was willing to move on… on his terms.

September came… no movement. Opening night… still on the roster (if not, and never to be, in the lineup). There was the tease of a possible deal with a team in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia that gave Caps fans the mirage of hope that something would be resolved. This had been the football that Lucy kept on offering up Charlie Brown since the summer, only to pull it away. It had the special whiff of credibility in that the team perhaps most often cited as a partner in a deal – Avongard Omsk – provided Nylander to reunite with Jaromir Jagr, with whom Nylander enjoyed his best offensive seasons with the New York Rangers.

There came a moment of sunlight peeking through the clouds in late October when the Caps sent Nylander (with his approval) to Grand Rapids in the AHL for a “conditioning stint.” Conditioning for what? It had to signal an imminent deal, didn’t it?

Uh, no.

Nylander’s stay in Grand Rapids came and after two weeks went, and there he was, still on the Capitals roster, still not playing, still with that $4.875 million cap hit. You would have to forgive Caps fans if they were frustrated, even angry at Nylander for not taking a deal (we had our own Nylander hockey-held-hostage watch for a while), but the fact is, Nylander was merely abiding by terms of a contract freely entered into by both he and the Caps. If there was no no-movement clause in the contract, the Caps would not have bat an eye in moving him to wherever they might to maximize the benefit to the club. Nylander merely held those cards on the other side of the table. He didn’t bat an eye in invoking what were his rights under a mutually agreed upon deal. Fans might get upset, but Nylander was comfortably within his rights.

Finally, though, choirs of celestial angels sang, the clouds parted, cherubim and seraphim did whatever they do, and a resolution was at hand… sort of. On December 13th, the club announced in a terse, four-sentence statement, that they had assigned Nylander to the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL. The cap hit comes off the Caps’ books for the remainder of the season, but there is still the matter of the last year of Nylander’s contract. While the no-movement clause will not be in effect next season as the last under that contract, the Caps still have a contractual relationship with the player that must still be resolved. But that is a discussion for 2010. There was enough to deal with in the saga of Michael Nylander to inspire a 1,500 word entry as one of the top stories for the Capitals in 2009. And with that, we’ll leave the last word to Derek Zoolander…

"Do you understand that the world does not revolve around you and your do whatever it takes, ruin as many people's lives, so long as you can make a name for yourself… no matter how many friends you lose or people you leave dead and bloodied along the way, just so long so you can make a name for yourself… no matter how many friends you lose or people you leave dead and bloodied and dying along the way?"

It wasn’t bloody, just a zoo… a “Zoo-lander,” so to speak.

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 3: The Farm

And now, in this series of top ten stories for the Caps in 2009...

Number 3: The Farm

“It is thus with farming: if you do one thing late, you will be late in all your work.”

-- Cato the Elder

For those of you who aren’t up on your ancient Romans, Cato the Elder wasn’t a hockey player, but he knew of battles, and he knew of farming, and he could probably appreciate the mixture of the two with respect to the 2009 year that was had “down on the farm” for the Washington Capitals franchise. More to the point, he could appreciate – and Caps fans should – the importance of the “patient urgency” attached to growing things, in this case young hockey players for the long run.

It was quite a year down on the farm. But it didn’t start in 2009. The seeds were sown in draft picks and free agent signings dating as far back as 2002, before the Capitals had a relationship with either the AHL Hershey Bears or the ECHL South Carolina Stingrays. They were sown on August 11, 2004, when the Capitals and the Stingrays began their affiliation, on April 26, 2005, when the Caps and Bears forged their working agreement.

But it was in 2009 when the patient urgency yielded a bumper crop of successes down on the farm. For South Carolina, 2009 did not start in very promising fashion. The Stingrays broke out of the gate in the new year rather slowly, posting a 4-8-2 record in January. February didn’t start much better with two losses to start the month. But then came what might have been a turning point on February 6th, when the Stingrays hosted the Florida Everblades. South Carolina took a 2-1 lead into the first intermission, but gave the lead away on a couple of Everblade tallies in the second period. Whatever took place in the locker room in the second intermission, it had an effect on left wing Trent Campbell, who scored 41 seconds into the third period to tie the game, then again at 3:28 to provide the winning margin in a 4-3 Stingray win.

The come-from-behind win propelled the Stingrays into quite a run down the stretch. Starting with that win South Carolina finished February on an 8-3-0 run, to which they added a 12-2-1 stretch in March and April to close the regular season. That 20-5-1 overall record from February 6th forward catapulted the Stingrays to a second-place finish in the South Division of the American Conference and a first round matchup against the Charlotte Checkers, against whom they finished 10-5-1. But it was a record obtained in an odd fashion with South Carolina going 5-0-0 in the first five games, 0-4-1 in the next five, then 5-1-0 to close out the season against the Checkers.

It looked as if the scale would tip once more toward Charlotte, as the Checkers took Games 1 and 2 by identical 5-3 scores. But when the series moved to Charleston, the Stingrays took control, winning Game 3 by a 4-2 score and Game 3 by a 4-1 margin. The pivotal Game 5 – the getaway game for the Stingrays before heading back to Charlotte to close the series – featured haymakers being thrown from the get-go. But after the teams notched six goals in the opening period, South Carolina getting four of them, the Stingrays poured it on in periods three and four to win going away, 8-3. It was enough momentum for South Carolina, who scored the first two goals in Game 6, then hung on for a 4-3 series clinching win.

The second round series against the Everblades, who finished with the league’s best record, featured a more back-and-forth set of games with the teams exchanging wins in each of the first five games of the series, the Stingrays having the advantage of having won Game 1, 3 and 5. Game 6 would feature more of the same, with the teams first exchanging single goals in the first period, then exchanging two goals – South Carolina getting the first two, then Florida the next two. The Everblade side of the exchange was part of a furious finish in the last two minutes of regulation with a goal at 18:31 to draw Florida within a goal, then the tying marker at 19:41 to send the game into overtime. But barely nine minutes in, Zach Tarkir ended the series with assists from Travis Morin and Maxime Lacroix (a pair of Capitals draft picks) to send the Stingrays to the Conference final against the Cincinnati Cyclones.

South Carolina pounded the Cyclones in Game 1, 7-4 and made short work of their opponent thereafter. The Stingrays swept Cincinnati in four games, outscoring the Cyclones 17-10 in the process, setting up a Kelly Cup final against the Alaska Aces. South Carolina drew first blood in Alaska by using a three-goal third period to erase a 2-1 Aces lead and take Game 1 by a 4-2 score. The Stingrays broke on top in Game 2 with the Tarkir, Morin, Lacroix trio teaming up to get the goal and put the Aces back on their heels – Lacroix getting the goal, the others the assists. But the Aces didn’t allow another and scored three of their own, the last an empty netter, to even the series on home ice before heading to South Carolina.

The Stingrays put the Aces in a headlock in the first two games in Charleston, winning Game 3 by a 4-2 score, then getting a shutout from James Reimer in a 5-0 blowout to put the Aces on the brink of elimination. But the Aces weren’t quite out of effort. Alaska exchanged a pair of goals apiece with the Stingrays in the second period of Game 5, then battled South Carolina to a scoreless third before going to overtime. Colin Hemingway made sure there would be hockey in Anchorage at least one more time, ending the game 17:22 into overtime, giving the Aces a 3-2 win.

Alaska made sure that returning home would yield benefits, coming from two goals down to take a 3-2 decision on a goal by former Stingray and Capitals farm hand Matt Stefanishion with less than four minutes left in regulation. Game 7 unfolded in much the same way as did Game 6. Goals late in the first and early in the second period gave the Stingrays another 2-0 lead. Alaska got one back midway through the second, but South Carolina restored their two goal lead barely a minute later and took a 3-1 lead into the third period. But there was Stefanishion again to make things interesting late, getting a goal with 1:45 left to draw the Aces to within one. The Stingrays drove the last nail in the Aces’ coffin, though, getting a shorthanded empty net goal from Pierre-Luc O’Brien to seal the win and the Kelly Cup for the Stingrays.

The Stingrays would finish the year on a 36-15-1 run, starting with that win over the Florida Everblades on February 6th. But it wouldn’t top what was going on up in Hershey, where the Bears were adding to a long and storied history.

In a way, Hershey rang in the year much the same way South Carolina did – they got pasted by the Providence Bruins, 7-2, in the first game of the new year. Michal Neuvirth was tending goal in only his third game with the Bears and frankly wasn’t giving much indication that he would have much success in Hershey after going 6-7-0 in South Carolina. With this game he had allowed 14 goals on 73 shots in three games, going 1-2 in the process. But the Bears – and Neuvirth – would get their skates under them. Hershey would win nine of their next 15 games to post a 9-4-3 record for January, and Neuvirth would not lose another game in regulation in the month (3-0-2, 2.10, .935).

February was another story. The Bears could barely tread water for the month, going 5-5-2, a month that feature three losses to the Binghamton Senators (two in extra time) and a four-game losing streak, three of the losses coming on home ice at Giant Center. In March and April, as the Bears were heading toward the finish of the regular season, they compiled an 11-6-2 record, but even with the winning record there were ominous signs. Hershey could manage only a split of four games with arch-rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the month and would finish the regular season on a 2-4-1 run. It wasn’t the way to head into the playoffs.

But what they did have going in was a hot goaltender…sort of. Michal Neuvirth, who took that pasting back in the first game of the new year, would lose only three more games in regulation in 15 appearances over the rest of the regular season. The 2009 portion of his season looked like this – 8-4-3, 2.59, .917, and he won five of his last six decisions.

In Round 1 of the Calder Cup tournament the Bears drew the Philadelphia Phantoms, a team the Bears finished 7-3-2 against during the regular season. They made quick work of Philadelphia, beating the Phantoms in Game 1 and 2 in Philadelphia to end the Phantoms’ history in Philadelphia on a sour note (they are now the Adirondack Phantoms), and beating them in Games 3 and 4 in Hershey to set up a Conference semi-final battle with the Penguins.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was not a team against which the Bears had much success in the regular season, going 2-5-3 overall. If there was an advantage for the Bears, it was in having home-ice advantage, and they used it well in games 1 and 2. But it wasn’t without suspense. Hershey took an early 2-0 first period lead in Game 1, but the Penguins came back with a pair in the second to tie the game. The Bears restored some momentum on a late second period goal to take a 3-2 lead into the third, then built on it with an early tally in the last frame. The Penguins got one back to give some concern to the Giant Center faithful, but Alexandre Giroux ended the suspense with a goal to give The Bears a 5-3 win.

Game 2 was utterly lacking in suspense on the scoreboard. The Bears put up three goals in seven minutes late in the first period, and Neuvirth made it hold up, allowing only a late third period goal to spoil the shutout in a 3-1 lead, sending the Penguins home down 0-2 in games. With Game 3-5 on Penguin ice, the task for the Bears was to get at least one so that they would have no worse than two chances to clinch on home ice. They had their chance in Game 3, getting a power play goal early in the third period to take a 2-1 lead on the scoreboard and get within shouting distance of a 3-0 stranglehold on the series. The Penguins came back, though, getting a power play tally of their own in the 17th minute of the third period to send the game to overtime. Mark Letestu sent the Penguin fans home happy with a goal at 4:48 of overtime to get the Penguins back to 1-2 in the series.

Games 3 and 4 were object lessons for the Bears in terms of letting teams off the hook. The Penguins scored the first four goals in Game 3 and won going away, 6-3 to tie the series. Then, in Game 5, the Bears couldn’t find a way to solve backup goalie Adam Berkhoel, who held the fort long enough to allow the Penguins to get a lead in the first, then some insurance in the second and an empty-netter in the third on their way to a 4-1 win and a 3-2 lead in the series as the teams headed back to Hershey.

Game 5, facing elimination, Michal Neuvirth put his stamp on the series with authority. After allowing 11 goals on 80 shots in taking the three losses in Wilkes-Barre, he was a wall in Game 6. The Bears got a goal in the first to stake Neuvirth to a lead, but the young goalie faced 14 shots in the second period, turning away all of them to give the Bears momentum heading into the third. His teammates took over from there, getting a goal in the first minute of the third period and another on a power play three minutes later for a bigger cushion to work with. Neuvirth didn’t seem to need it, though, finishing the game with 30 saves on as many shots in a 3-0 shutout, setting up a Game 7 against perhaps the Bears’ most hated rival.

If you’re going to make a statement in a Game 7, it is perhaps no better than to do it getting a goal in the first minute of play. The Bears did just that on a goal by Keith Aucoin. It was part of a 13-6 shot advantage that the Bears enjoyed in the first period, Neuvirth once more turning away all that he faced. The Bears added a goal in the second, and another in the third. But the story would be Michal Neuvirth. The rookie netminder would turn away all 24 shots he faced, completing his seventh consecutive period of shutout hockey and notching for the first time in the history of the Calder Cup tournament shutouts in Games 6 and 7 of a playoff series. It set up a Calder Cup final against the Manitoba Moose.

We cover a lot of the ground in this series in a number of posts made during the finals in June. We won’t cover it again here. But there did seem to be a ‘there’s no stopping us now” quality to this series after the Bears dispatched the Penguins. More to the point, there was a “no way we don’t stop you” quality, as Michal Neuvirth dominated the series in goal. In the six-game final, Neuvirth finished 4-2, 1.61, .941, and one shutout. That, and his 16-6, 1.92, 932, four shutout performance for the tournament earned him the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as Calder Cup MVP.

It was quite a 2009 for the two franchises. As of this morning, South Carolina is 47-23-7 for 2009 with a Kelly Cup Trophy in it hands. The Hershey Bears finished 2009 with a record of 49-23-9 and added the tenth Calder Cup to their collection. These franchises are not only reflections of excellence in their own right, but serve as breeding grounds for the next generation of Capitals. Although most of the prospects Caps fans might recognize are playing at Hershey, there are those among them who have spent time in South Carolina.

Andrew Gordon split time with the Stingrays in the 2007-2008 season, going 8-6-14 in 11 games there. He played 80 games for a Calder Cup champion in Hershey last year and has had a couple of short stints in DC with the Caps. He is currently tied for fifth in scoring in the AHL. Sean Collins played in 31 games in South Carolina in 2007-2008. The next year he played in 39 games in Hershey and even chipped in 15 games with the Caps. He is a plus-11 in 27 games with the Bears this year.

Last season, no fewer than 16 players played in both Hershey and in Washington (this does not include Brian Pothier, who logged 31 games in Hershey in his comeback from a concussion). In fact, of the team that took the ice in the Calder Cup-clinching game against Manitoba last June, 13 saw time with the Caps in the 2008-2009 season. Eight players who have skated with the Caps this season dressed for that Calder Cup-clinching game last June. If you don’t think this relationship has meaning and is beneficial to all the parties, then we don’t think you’re paying attention.

And it is in that relationship that the excellence displayed in Charleston and Hershey has special meaning in 2009. The experience and the success gained there by the kids in the system are as important as the skills they possess. Winning breeds winning, up and down the chain. It creates expectations, it instills confidence. It becomes a habit learned and carried forward. That it would come within five years of the establishment of the relationship between the Caps and these two franchises (Hershey also having won a Calder Cup in 2006) speaks to the “patient urgency” of growing your own prospects and bringing them forward in due time, giving them not just a taste, but a sense of responsibility with the big club as they make their way toward what we hope as Caps fans will be long and successful careers in Washington. For that reason, the hard work down on the farm rewarded with championships is a top story for the Caps in 2009.

A NO-point night -- Sharks 5 - Caps 2

What are you gonna say about that one?

Well, San Jose was better, from start to finish, that’s what. As dominating as the Caps were in a 4-1 win over the Sharks in October, so San Jose was last night in a 5-2 win. It wasn’t so much what San Jose did as what the Caps didn’t…

Get shots, for example. For the second straight game, the Caps were held to fewer than five shots in the first period. Washington had three shots in the first period, none in the last eight minutes. And, the three shots were hardly what one might call “quality chances:”

- 3:19 – Poti, 47 feet
- 5:07 – Fleischmann, 42 feet
- 11:57 – Erskine, 50 feet

In fact, the Caps had only two more attempts on goal in that last 8:03 of the first period, one by Alex Ovechkin (blocked) in the 15th minute of the period and the other coming from the stick of Alexander Semin (blocked) in the last minute of the frame.

And if you’re wondering, no, that is not the first time the Caps have surrendered two penalty shots in a game. But you have to go all the way back to the inaugural season for the team, in fact in the inaugural month, when the Chicago Blackhawks were awarded two penalty shots in the same game against the Caps. Stan Mikita and Jim Pappin came up empty against Michel Belhumeur on October 23, 1974 in the Caps’ eighth game as a franchise. The Caps lost that game, too, 3-2.

Other than the two penalty shots he surrendered, Michal Neuvirth didn’t play badly (28 saves on 31 shots), but after making a sterling save on Scott Nichol early in the period, he gave up goals 75 seconds apart later in the first period to put the club behind the eight ball early, and the Caps weren’t playing well enough otherwise to really make a game of it.

Other stuff…

-- One can only suppose that the official scorer for the Sharks was making a point in naming Dan Boyle the third star. Two penalties, minus-1. Yeah, he was on the ice for 23 minutes (tops for the Sharks), but a third-star worthy game? Maybe it was for the faux-tough guy thing when he got mixed up with Alex Ovechkin, then got all tough when the officials came in to save his life. Or maybe Mike Green was supposed to notice who was the Olympian and who wasn’t.

-- Thank heavens for masks. If not for such implements, chances are Michal Neuvirth’s head would have exploded from the impact of a Dany Heatley shot late in the third period that appeared to get Neuvirth square on the chin right in the “U” on his mask where it says, “Neuvy.”

-- Jason Chimera gets the all-you-can-eat score sheet buffet coupon in his first game as a Cap. In 11 minutes he had an assist (on the Mike Knuble goal), one shot on goal, a shot blocked, two misses, three hits, a giveaway, a takeaway, a blocked shot, and a faceoff loss.

-- Alex Ovechkin had five of his shots blocked in the game’s first 27 minutes (six overall). At least he spread it around; four different Sharks defensemen took one for the team.

-- Green might get some heat on that first Sharks goal by Pavelski, but rewind the tape a couple of seconds and see who was a couple of ticks late at the Caps line getting to the guy who set up Pavelski. Shaone Morrisonn took aim at Dany Heatley, but never got there in time to keep Heatley from making the cross-ice pass. Green was forced to try to sprint to the other side of the ice to keep Pavelski from shooting, but didn’t get there in time.

-- The game-within-a-game was a remake of ‘When Worlds Collide”… a reference to a couple of 230-pound guys going at it all over the ice in Doug Murray and Alex Ovechkin. Nothing dirty about it (although we could almost hear Caps fans howling for penalties). Just two guys at ramming speed getting on after each other.

-- The Caps dressed 18 skaters. You might have noticed three of them…maybe. 15 or so guys seemed to skate as if they were extras in “Night of the Living Dead.” Brooks Laich…18 minutes, one shot attempt (but he took an amazing 21 draws). David Steckel…no attempted shots. Brendan Morrison… one shot attempt. Eric Fehr… one shot attempt. And on and on and on…

-- It wasn’t as if the defense played any better. There was Morrisonn’s WTF moment. There was John Erskine doing… well, we don’t quite know what he was doing when Joe Thornton broke in alone to draw a penalty shot.

-- When we say “not noticed,” that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for Jeff Schultz. Almost 19 minutes, not on the ice for any goals scored against, a shot, a couple of hits (probably an indication that the scorer had a finger spasm working the hit meter tonight… 78 hits were recorded for both teams; it really wasn’t all that physical, or maybe it’s a California sort of hit thing), and a blocked shot.

2009 came in with a bang – a 7-4 demolition of Tampa Bay. It goes out with a whimper – a 5-2 loss to San Jose. The 2010 early schedule favors the Caps – a struggling LA Kings team (losers of three straight and four of five), then a six-pack of thoroughly beatable opponents. But the Caps have to play better – individually and as a group – than they did tonight. First periods, which had been a strength of this team, have killed them in the last two games. They’ve been outshot 23-7 and outscored 5-0. Not the sort of thing from which victories are made.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 4: The Streak

We’re getting down to the nub of it, starting with number 4 on the top stories of 2009…

Number 4: The Streak

January 20, 2009 was Inauguration Day in the United States, a celebration of a new President taking the oath of office, a day of great hope and expectations. North of the border, it marked the last game day for the Washington Capitals heading into the All-Star Game break. The Caps visited the Ottawa Senators with the hope and expectation that they would add to a modest three-game winning streak and carry the good feelings from such an accomplishment into the break.

The Caps failed to properly execute the script, falling to the Senators on a late power play goal, 3-2. Lost in the box score was the fact that defenseman Mike Green led all players on both teams that night in shots on goal (seven). He had nothing to show for it, though, and he and the Caps trudged off to spend a few days without the happy feeling of a four-game winning streak to comfort them.

The thing is, that would be the last time Mike Green would skate off the ice after an NHL game having not scored a goal for the next 26 days. In between, he would take the ice eight times, and in all eight games he registered at least one goal, setting a record for defensemen scoring goals in consecutive games. How did the streak play out?...

Game 1, at Boston, January 27th. Green hardly started his streak quietly, getting the first goal of the game a mere 2:08 into the contest, an even-strength marker on a feed from Alex Ovechkin. It would be one of eight shots on goal Green recorded for the game, but the Caps lost the contest on an overtime goal by David Krejci, 3-2. Of the three Bruin goals, Green was not on the ice for any.

Game 2, vs. Detroit, January 31st. After the teams split two goals in the first period, both coming in the last two minutes of the frame, the Caps and Wings fought through a scoreless second period until the 17:19 mark. Nicklas Backstrom worked his way up the left wing wall before trying to break out toward the middle of the ice. As he was being hauled down by Valtteri Filppula, Backstrom pushed the puck out to Green high between the circles. Green let fly and beat Ty Conklin for the Caps’ second goal. The Caps would go on to win that contest, 4-2, and again Green was not on the ice for either Red Wing goal.

Game 3, vs. Ottawa, February 1st. The Caps got a rematch against the Senators in the back-half of a back-to-back, and it turned out to be a wild one. Daniel Alfredsson got things started early with a goal at 3:31 of the first period. But it was Green who got it back, tying the game six minutes later whenon a power play, Nicklas Backstrom won a faceoff cleanly in the Senator end. Green collected the puck, walked a couple of steps to his left and banged home a slap shot to tie the game. The Caps would add another in the first period, then outscore the Senators 4-1 in the second period on their way to a 7-4 win. Of the four goals scored by Ottawa, Green was on the ice for one, a 4-on-4 tally by Alfredsson for the only Ottawa goal of the second period.

Game 4, at New Jersey, February 3rd. Green had his second “first goal” of the streak at the 5:58 mark when Alexander Semin threaded a pass from the left wing wall through traffic and onto Green’s stick on the back side of the play. Green wristed the puck over Scott Clemmensen’s glove to give the Caps the early lead on their way to a 5-2 win over the Devils. Green finished with two points in the contest, but took a minus-1 when Jamie Langenbrunner scored a shorthanded goal early in the third period.

Game 5, vs. Los Angeles, February 5th. It was a night to remember, and it wasn’t. The story for the Caps was Alex Ovechkin scoring his 200th NHL goal and first against the Los Angeles Kings. On the other hand, Mike Green did get a power play goal of his own 41 seconds after the Kings scored a shorthanded goal on the same Capitals power play. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant night, for despite the goal (and an assist), Green was on the ice for the last three goals the Kings scored in a 5-4 win over the Caps.

Game 6, vs. Florida, February 7th. Green and the Caps bounced back in the following game, both in terms of discipline and the result. It was also the first two-goal game in the streak for Green. He got the first on a power play 43 seconds into the third period of a 1-1 game. Alex Ovechkin faked a slap shot from the top of the left wing circle, choosing instead to move the puck over to Green at the right point. Green took a couple of steps toward the center of the ice, and with bodies realigning position in front of goalie Tomas Vokoun, Green sent a well-placed wrister through a screen and into the back of the net to give the Caps the lead.

Green would put the period on the end of the sentence late. With the Panthers on a power play with less than two minutes remaining and the goalie pulled for an extra attacker, Nathan Horton fired a shot off a rebound that goalie Jose Theodore got a piece of and directed toward the Zamboni Corner. Green chased it down and in one motion flung the biscuit the length of the ice and into the empty Panther cage to seal the 3-1 win. Green had a hand in all three Caps goals, adding an assist to an Eric Fehr goal. His mark of goals-on-ice against was clean in this one. He also was now knocking on the door of a 25-year old NHL record – seven consecutive games with a goal scored by a defenseman.

Game 7, at New York Rangers, February 11th. Green had one of his best games of the streak in what would ultimately be a losing effort. Lauri Korpikoski lifted the Rangers into a 2-2 tie mid-way through the second period, but less than two minutes later, Green struck back to give the Caps the lead once more. A loose puck along the left wing wall found its way onto the stick of Alex Ovechkin, who wasted no time in sending the puck across to Green easing in from the right point. Green wasted just as little time wristing the puck past Henrik Lundqvist’s glove, and Green tied Mike O’Connell’s record, set for the Boston Bruins in the 1983-1984 season.

Green was hardly done, though. With the Caps trailing 4-3 as the game headed into the final minute of regulation, Michael Nylander controlled the puck inside the Ranger line. As the Rangers settled back into a defensive posture, Nylander circled with the puck at the top of the zone. He then dropped the puck for Green who sent what Caps play-by-play broadcaster Joe Beninati described as “a bomb” past Lundqvist before the Ranger goalie could even flinch, knocking the water bottle from its perch atop the Ranger net. The Rangers won in the end, though, 5-4 in a Gimmick, but Green finished his record-tying night with two goals, a plus-3, four shots on goal, four hits, two blocked shots, and he was not on the ice for any of the Ranger goals.

Game 8, at Tampa Bay, Valentine’s Day. You could not script it any better. The Caps were on a Florida trip, and it was the annual chance for the Dads to travel with their boys. Mike Green’s father was in attendance for the possible record-setting night. The Caps took the suspense out of the game early, putting up three goals on the Lightning in the first 20 minutes. It made things a lot easier on Michal Neuvirth, who was making his first NHL start in goal for the Caps. All that left was the matter of whether Green could set the new standard for defensemen scoring goals in consecutive games. As the clock ticked past the five minute mark of the second period, fans got their answer…

The Caps poured off the bench to congratulate Green, who would say afterward that "I wasn't expecting that, but I was excited. It almost brought a little tear to my eye, so I was pretty jacked up." And as for his father being able to share that moment, Green said, “"To do it in front of Big Dave, that was great. I can't wait to give him a hug. I think he would have been here no matter what, whether it was the fathers' trip or not. But that one was for him."

In the eight-game streak, Green finished with ten goals on 29 shots, was 10-7-17 overall, a plus-10. Almost as noteworthy is that in the midst of the offensive nature of the streak, his defense did not suffer. To be sure, he had a struggle against the Kings, having been on the ice for three of the five goals scored by Los Angeles on that night. But in seven other games he was on the ice for two of the 17 goals scored against the Caps (five of 22 overall). The Caps also happened to finish 5-1-2 over the eight games. It was not just a record-setting performance by an “offensive” defenseman, it was a superior two-way effort over a two week period that would compare favorably with any such performance from any defenseman last season.

But it is the streak that makes this story so noteworthy, an NHL record setting streak. And that certainly qualifies as a top-ten story for the Caps in 2009.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

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

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Well, here we are. Another year in the books. 2009… the International Year of Natural Fibres (we are not kidding). Frankly, 2009 could have used more fibre, it’s had quite the constipated feel to it. But we’ll leave that discussion to the folks on cable talk shows. We’re looking ahead to 2010, and with that in mind we have an exclusive. Joining us this evening is 2010 himself, the New Year’s baby. Welcome to the show, uh… what the… You’re the 2010 New Year’s baby?

“Yeah, what about it?”

You look, well… awful.

“#@$% you, pal. I took one look at what 2009 left me, and I’ve been on a bender ever since getting ready for this gig.”

What do you mean?

“Tiger Woods, the Yankees winning a World Series, the NHL naming the Flyers to play the Bruins in the Winter Classic…”

The Penguins winning a Stanley Cup.

“AGH!...The Penguins!! Don’t get me started.”

Hit a nerve have we?

“Look, it’s bad enough that Bettman’s Pets won the $#%*in’ thing, but you tell me, is this right?”

Well, it does look bad…

"Oh, and does THIS look like a place for a hockey party? "

"It ain't @#$*in' right... not a peanut shell or a bottle cap in sight. And what’s wrong with this picture?"

I don’t follow…

"Wine at a hockey party? What’s next, finger sandwiches? Oh, and will you tell me what’s up with this?"

Gotta admit, it seems to violate laws of nature.

“@#$%in’ ay, it does.”

You seem rather bitter for a year that hasn’t even started yet. Is there anything that can make it better?

“Well, there is one thing that can make 2010 right.”

And that would be…

“If this guy is hoisting the Cup…”

Well, until that day arrives there are many games to be played, and the Caps end 2009 playing one out on the left coast against the San Jose Sharks, a club that the Caps have already beaten once this year, but have not beaten in San Jose since Caps goalie coach Arturs Irbe was tending goal for the Sharks in 1993. Since then, the Caps are 0-8-1 in nine visits to San Jose, having been outscored in the process by 33-17. They were pasted in last year’s visit by a score of 7-2, a game in which the Sharks led by 3-1 at the first intermission, 5-1 at the second, and generally made life in the Shark Tank miserable.

The Caps beat San Jose earlier this season at Verizon Center, a convincing 4-1 win that put the Caps back over .500 for the season, where they have remained ever since. In fact, starting with that game the Caps are on a 22-7-4 run that includes an 8-4-0 December. San Jose’s December has been interesting – a tale of two fortnights, so to speak. From December 1st through the 12th, the Sharks went 1-2-3, beating only Ottawa on the first day of the month before losing five in a row. Since then, though, the Sharks are 5-0-0 and haven’t allowed more than two goals in any of the wins. The overall numbers for the two teams look like this…

The Sharks boast the top scoring line in hockey when Coach Todd McLellan chooses to put them together. The line of Joe Thornton (10-44-54), Dany Heatley (23-21-44), and Patrick Marleau (25-16-41) represent three of the top 14 scorers in the league. Combined, the trio have accounted for:

-- 46 percent of San Jose’s 126 goals scored
-- 19 of the team’s 32 power play goals
-- four of the team’s six shorthanded goals
-- 11 of the Sharks’ 20 game-winning goals

Perhaps oddly enough, the trio has only two of the eight Gimmick goals the Sharks have (Joe Thornton being the one without such a goal). But this group has been hard on the Caps over their respective careers. Thornton is 11-19-30 in 27 career games, Heatley is 11-21-32 in 28 career games, and Marleau is 4-7-11 in 13 career games against Washington. However, none of them had a point in the 4-1 Caps win in October.

These guys aren’t the only ones who have made life difficult for the Caps over the years. Defenseman Dan Boyle, formerly of the Tampa Bay Lightning, has registered more assists and posted more points against the Caps than he has against any other NHL team (7-25-32 in 46 career games). Oh, he didn’t have a point in the first meeting of these teams in October, either.

But if you’re thinking that earlier meeting of the Caps and Sharks has any bearing on this game, especially when it concerns this quartet, consider this. In the current five game winning streak these four players are a combined 10-17-27, +18, scoring ten of the 18 goals the Sharks tallied in this run and figuring in at least one assist on two other goals.

Scoring isn’t all that the Sharks do well, though. Evgeni Nabokov is a top-ten goaltender overall in wins (21/T-4th), GAA (2.30/10th), save percentage (.925/5th), and shutouts (2/T-10th). He is also one of four goalies in the league who has played more than 2,000 minutes, putting him on a pace to have his second 4,000 minute season. He came into the season having never lost to the Caps, going 8-0-0, 1.98, .935 in eight career appearances. That unblemished record was ended with the 4-1 loss to Washington in October.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder:

San Jose: Rob Blake

The veteran defenseman has a higher points-per-game average against the Caps (0.96 PPG on 8-16-24 in 25 career games) than he has against any other NHL team. In last year’s 7-2 blowout on this ice sheet he had four assists. Make the guy play some defense.

Washington: Michal Neuvirth

Indications are that Neuvirth will get the call in goal against the Sharks. This is the rookie being thrown into the deep end of the shark tank, as it were. But really, saying “Michal Neuvirth” is code for the Caps rallying around him in terms of playing sound team defense. If Neuvirth can: a) avoid giving up the early goal, and b) stop all the shots he is supposed to stop, then the skaters have to do the rest and keep the Sharks from swimming too close.


1. One-two, one-two. Nabokov has been pulled from two games this year, and the common item in both is getting a 1-2 punch in. Against Los Angeles in a 6-4 loss on October 6th, Nabokov gave up two goals 56 seconds apart in the second period (his third and fourth of the game), after which he was pulled. In a 7-2 loss to Chicago on November 25th, he gave up goals 28 seconds apart in the second period (his second and third of the game). If the Caps get one, let’s see if they can get another right away.

2. One-two, one-two…two. Alex Ovechkin came into the 2009-2010 season never having scored a goal against the Sharks, the last team on the NHL list against which he had not scored a goal. Well, he got two in the 4-1 win in October. What’s more, he had 13 shots on goal in that contest. It will be harder to get the favorable sorts of matchups that lead to getting that many shots on goal, but it might take a similar effort for Ovechkin to add to his streak of four games with at least two points (and eight of his last 12).

3. 20 minutes of clean hockey. San Jose has lost only two games in regulation on home ice this season. In both, they were held off the scoreboard in the first 20 minutes. The Caps are tied for second in fewest first period goals allowed this year. Do the math.

The Caps have rid themselves of the burden of not having beaten Edmonton in seven straight games played in Alberta. And the Caps ended a 12-game losing streak (0-11-1) to the Sharks overall since beating them on 7th Street, 3-1, on February 20, 1999. Things change. The Caps have not lost consecutive games in regulation since dropping a pair back on October 8th and 10th. The tides are right for some sharkin’…

Caps 4 – Sharks 3

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 5: The Goalie

Number five is next on the look back at top stories in 2009…

Number 5: The Goalie

On March 9, 2006, the Capitals traded defenseman Brendan Witt to the Nashville Predators for former Capital Kris Beech and a first round draft pick. The pick was nice, and Beech was more or less an afterthought. The object of the exercise was to move a player who expressed a distinct lack of interest in the rebuild in which the Capitals found themselves. Witt was soon a memory, Beech would soon be one, even as he played in 64 games for the Caps the following season, and the thought of the draft pick was stashed away in the attic of Caps Nation’s memory.

Fast forward to June 2006. For fans of the Washington Capitals the attention was focused at the top of the first round, where the Caps had the fourth overall pick. It was a pick with some uncertainty attached, as there was a case to be made for the Caps to take any of Erik Johnson, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom, or Phil Kessel, if any of this quintet was available. The Caps selected Backstrom (and we know how that turned out), leaving the 23rd overall selection as a bit of an afterthought at draft day parties held by Caps fans.

With that 23rd overall pick the Caps selected a virtual unknown (to Caps fans, at least) – a young goaltender from Russia, Semyon Varlamov. The talent analysis at the time would not have given comfort to Caps fans…

"A good sized netminder who plays smaller than he really is... plays more of a butterfly style...doesn't cover a big space of the net, but makes up for this drawback with quality reflexes and okay skater with a decent lateral movement in the crease...moves fast side-to-side...does precise splits to stop the puck which makes up a bit for his mediocre length of the legs...challenges the shooter and relies on his skating ability...adequate on the blocker side...a solid fast glove hand...handles most of the rebounds well thanks to a strong dexterity and flexibility...adequate anticipation of the developing plays...should particularly upgrade on his dealing with hard initial shots...tends to allow the odd soft goal through his five-hole...tends to play too deep in the net occasionally, thus being vulnerable to the initial shots...displays only average puckhandling ability and should work on his stickhandling ability…A butterfly style goalie...moves well both in the butterfly and on his skates...weak in handling the puck outside the crease...improving with the control of the rebounds...takes up a lot of space the net (source:"

Except for a glimpse of Varlamov at Capitals development camp, there really wasn’t a lot to know about Varlamov, other than he was another Russian. But he was giving indications that the pick would yield benefits down the road. At Yaroslavl Lokomotiv in 2006-2007 he posted a 2.17 goals against average with three shutouts. The following year his numbers might have appeared to slip a bit in the regular season, but he had a remarkable playoff campaign, posting a 1.62 GAA and five shutouts in 16 post season games. He was ready to hop the pond.

At Hershey to start the 2008-2009 season, he appeared to suffer no particular problems with the smaller rink or the distance from home, at least on the ice, going 19-7-1, 2.40, .920, and two shutouts with the Bears. His play in Hershey earned him a call from the Caps, one that was not without adventure. The Caps were without a backup goaltender on hand and with Brent Johnson the only semi-healthy goalie, himself suffering from a bad hip (which would eventually require surgery). While Brett Leonhardt was being plucked from the video production studio to serve as emergency backup, Varlamov was getting a phone call in the middle of a ride to the next town in Texas where the Bears would be skating. Varlamov made it to DC during a 5-1 win over the Ottawa Senators and would get the call the next night, in Montreal, ground zero for professional hockey.

That Varlamov was impressive in his debut on that December night in Montreal is to damn with faint praise. He stopped 32 of 33 shots in a packed Bell Centre, including 14 in a third period that was tied until Michael Nylander scored with 2:32 left to give the rookie his NHL debut win. It would hardly be the last time Varlamov would impress. Although he was sent back down after a win over St. Louis on December 18th, he was recalled in March. He would appear in three games over the rest of the regular season and would finish up the year 4-0-1, 2.37, .918. It seemed a fine introduction to NHL hockey. But then, as they say, things took a turn…

In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the New York Rangers, starting goalie Jose Theodore allowed three goals in the first 38 minutes and then, after the Caps clawed back to tie things up early in the third period, allowed the game winner with 8:17 left in the third period. The 4-3 loss convinced Coach Bruce Boudreau to roll the dice and send Varlamov between the pipes for Game 2. Varlamov allowed a first period goal by Ryan Callahan, but it was the only goal he would allow. Unfortunately, the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist was one better in a 1-0 Rangers win. Boudreau needed no convincing, though to send Varlamov out again against the Rangers from then on. His gamble was rewarded in Game 3 and over the rest of the series as Varlamov went 4-2, 1.17, .957, and two shutouts.

Varlamov was the toast of the town whose performance was drawing comparisons to another youngster who was brought up late and given the playoff reins 28 years earlier – Ken Dryden. There were differences, though, between Dryden’s parlaying six regular season games of experience into a Stanley Cup in 1971 and Varlamov’s run. The vast cultural differences aside between a goalie who grew up in the North American sport and one who was still finding his way in a new country, Dryden was 23 years old when he won the Cup, Varlamov had just turned 21 the day before Game 7 of the Rangers series. Dryden had three seasons of NCAA hockey at Cornell University, a stint with the IIHF World & European Championship Pool A, and 33 games with the Montreal Voyageurs of the AHL before getting his shot with the Canadiens. Varlamov did have comparable stops along the way, but not to the extent that Dryden did. Varlamov was in the deep water without a lot of experience, and his performance had been truly amazing.

But reality – and a hail of shots over seven games – came crashing down on Varlamov and the Capitals in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Varlamov would win the first two games of the series (and have what was probably the save of the Stanley Cup tournament on Sidney Crosby in Game 1), but there were ominous signs as the Penguins pounded 36 shots at him in each game. The barrage finally caused the wall that was Varlamov to give way in the last five games of the series, of which the young goalie and the Caps lost four, Varlamov being pulled after 22 minutes of a Game 7 loss.

Even with the difficulties in the second round, Varlamov finished the playoffs 7-6, 2.53, .918, with two shutouts, a more than respectable performance for any goalie, let alone one with as little professional experience as Varlamov had. He carried his fine play over into the 2009 portion of the 2009-2010 season, posting to date a 12-1-2 record, a 2.21 GAA, a .924 save percentage, and two shutouts. His 16-1-3 record to start his NHL career (not to mention four shuouts in his last 28 games played, including playoffs) has been remarkable. For that reason “The Goalie” is one of the top stories for the Capitals in 2009.

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 6: The Repeat

And now, the number 6 story of 2009…

Number 6: The Repeat

In the history of the National Hockey League 51 different players have been named winner of the Hart Memorial Trophy as league most valuable player. Of that number, 17 have won the award on more than one occasion. Of that number, 11 have been a repeat winner at least once in their careers. And of that number, one player is still active.

Alex Ovechkin.

In NHL history 22 players have won the Lester Pearson Award as outstanding player. Of that number, nine have won the award more than once. Of that number, six have been repeat winners at least once in their career. And of that number, one player is still active.

Alex Ovechkin.

In the history of the NHL, nine different players have won the Maurice Richard Trophy that is awarded to the top goal scorer in the league. Of that number, three have won it more than once. Of that number, two have been repeat winners. And of that number, one is still active.

Alex Ovechkin.

In NHL history, 16 forwards have been named a first team NHL all star at least four times. Only one of these players is active and is the only player in the history of the league to have been named to the first team in each of his first four seasons.

Alex Ovechkin.

Ovechkin stands alone at the top of his sport. You could make an argument for a Sidney Crosby, an Evgeni Malkin, a Nicklas Lidstrom, a Pavel Datsyuk, a Jarome Iginla, or a Joe Thornton eclipsing Ovechkin as a player. You could, but it would not be convincing. Let’s look at these players in 2009 (you’re free to think there should be others on this list, but it is a representative group of elite players from 2009):

Ovechkin, despite having played fewer games than anyone on this list, has more goals, points, game-winning goals (having played in fewer games than Evgeni Malkin), and more power play goals than anyone on this list. Yes, you are free to think that other measures should be in here (even you stat geeks), but these are a simple enough sampling to tell a story.

Ovechkin had some other noteworthy accomplishments in 2009:

-- 14 multi-goal games
-- 34 multi-point games
-- two hat tricks
-- two ten-game points streaks (coming as part of a 29 games in 31 points run)
-- two three-game goal scoring streaks during the 2009 playoffs
-- 11 goals in his last 11 games in the playoffs, including seven in the seven game series against Pittsburgh
-- 11-10-21 in 14 playoff games, which still left him fifth in playoff scoring, despite not playing in the final two rounds (he was plus-10, to boot, sixth in the league for the playoffs)

Even a suspension didn’t slow him down (and it inspired almost as talk about an NHL player in the regular season as there was talk about a certain golfer’s infidelity….ok, it didn’t). Since taking a couple of games off for a knee-on-knee hit on Carolina’s Tim Gleason, Ovechkin is 8-11-19, plus-6, with four power play goals (he had four all season before the suspension), and a game-winner. It just adds to the story Ovechkin authored this year.

And that story is that at this point in his career, having consistently produced at an elite level, repeating multiple times in individual awards, Ovechkin is the most prolific player of his era. He is the NHL’s only equivalent of a rock star, creating a buzz in every city he visits. That he would repeat in three major awards this year – Hart, Pearson, Richard – and be named for the fourth consecutive time to the NHL first all star team, Alex Ovechkin is – again – a top story in 2009.

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 7: Home Cookin'

Continuing with the top ten Caps stories of 2009, we’re up to number seven…

Number 7 – Home Cookin’

The old saying in team sports is, “split on the road, win at home.” Well, the Caps did the latter in 2009 with a vengeance (last night’s result notwithstanding). The Caps were 14-8-2 in the 2009 portion of the 2008-2009 season, which included an 0-3-1 hiccup at the beginning of March. In the 2009 portion of the current season no team had fewer home losses in regulation than did the Caps heading into last night’s action. The 12-3-3 home record thus far this season brings the Caps’ 2009 home mark to 26-11-5. In those 42 home games the Caps…

-- Scored at least five goals ten times.

-- Outscored the opposition 148-127 (3.52 – 3.02 per game)

-- Outshot the opposition by an average of 34.7 to 28.2 shots per game

-- Converted power plays at a 26.7 percent rate

-- Killed penalties at an 84.2 percent rate

-- Had six streaks of at least three wins in a row (high: five, which was snapped last night)

-- Finished with at least a .500 mark against five of the six divisions:

• Southeast: 9-3-0
• Atlantic: 7-2-3
• Northeast: 6-2-1
• Central: 2-1-1
• Northwest: 1-2-0
• Pacific: 1-1-0

But one of the most important parts of “home cookin’” can be found in this number…


No, it’s not a reference to the Northern Virginia area code. It is the total number of unsold seats the Caps had in 50 regular season and playoff games in 2009. The Caps sold out 48 of those games. Only a January 13th game against Edmonton (a 5-2 loss watched by 17,948) and a March 3rd game against Carolina (another 5-2 loss watched by 17,903) marred a perfect 2009. In terms of attendance, these are the glory days of the Capitals.

The combination of success and the red-clad crowds make Washington an increasingly difficult place of opponents to visit. Whether this will matter in terms of a championship is something that will be decided in a few months. The Caps could, if current standing hold, enjoy home ice advantage for at least two playoff rounds. But for now, the Caps winning ways and the packed-to-the-rafters rink in which they play makes “home cookin’” one of the top ten stories of the year.

The TSN Top Plays of the Decade (guess who has the top two "goals")

...and guess who doesn't make an appearance (yeah, yeah, we know... he has a Cup)

A NO-point night -- Hurricanes 6 - Caps 3

Well, it was over at the first intermission, anyway, just not quite the way we envisioned.

The Carolina Hurricanes scored early (three goals in the first period), scored late (two goals in the last ten minutes to pull away) and withstood a mini-rally by the Washington Capitals on their way to only their second road win of the season, a 6-3 decision at Verizon Center last night.

It wasn’t pretty. How so? Well, until last night…

- Carolina scored as many as four goals on the road this season once… in Colorado… in a loss.

- They had not scored as many goals in any game since beating Florida, 7-2, on October 9th.

- They did not have a better shooting percentage than their six goals on 26 shots (23.1 percent).

- They had not won a game by as many as three goals since that 7-2 win over Florida.

- They did not have a 5-on-3 goal this season… at all.

Meanwhile, about that first period for the Caps. Washington was credited with four shots. That is being more than generous. Here is the official tally:

2:32 – Knuble, slap shot, 83 feet
8:31 – Fleischmann, wrist shot, 32 feet
13:27 – Backstrom, wrist shot, 76 feet
18:25 – Gordon, backhand, 36 feet

See a pattern? Cam Ward could have knitted a quilt for all the pressure the Caps put on him in the first frame. He could have stopped those shots with a badminton racquet. Oh, Carolina’s three goals were scored from a combined distance of 27 feet.

That, kids, was more or less the game. The Caps are an adept come-from-behind team (best in the league, in fact, winning percentage-wise going into last night;’s game), but a three-goal deficit in the first period is a bit much. A team has to expend so much energy just to get back into the game it doesn’t often leave anything at the end to get over the hump, take a lead, and hold it to the end.

And such was the case for the Caps. They did sort of make a game of it. They got an early second period power play goal from Mike Green, thanks to a nice feed from Tomas Fleischmann and a screen by Mike Knuble in front of goalie Cam Ward. But they gave it right back. OK, Jose Theodore is going to get a fair amount of blame for that fourth Hurricane goal, for giving up a rebound, then not stopping Brandon Sutter on the put-back. But watch the faceoff. Nicklas Backstrom lost it to Sutter, then did his best imitation of an orange traffic cone as Sutter made a bee-line for the net.

The killer, though, was the fifth Carolina goal. As a power play was expiring, Eric Staal sent a shot to the cage that Theodore paddled away from one knee. Staal retrieved the puck and sent it across to Sergei Samsonov in the left wing circle. Samsonov got off a wrister, but it was blocked by Tyler Sloan. Samsonov got the loose puck, though, stepped around Sloan, and wristed it past Theodore. The thing is, though, in that entire sequence, Theodore played from his knees. He never seemed to get himself into a sturdy position to defend against a shot, and when Samsonov changed the angle in stepping around Sloan, he had a much better target of open net to shoot at. It was the frustration of the night in a nutshell.

Other stuff…

-- For what it’s worth, that’s four straight multi-point games for Alex Ovechkin (5-6-11, +3). It is the first time he has had a streak of that sort this long within a season since a five-game multi-point streak from November 10-19, 2008 (6-8-14, +12). He had a four game streak that crossed seasons – the last game of the 2008-2009 season and the first three games of this season.

-- With a goal and an assist, Mike Green registered a point in his fourth straight game (3-3-6, +4). He has a way to go to match his best this year, though – an eight-game points streak from November 11th through November 25th.

-- The Caps out-attempted Carolina 71-45 (shots, misses, shots blocked). But last night was one of those instances in which Carolina’s chances were of the much better opportunity sort than were the Caps’ opportunities.

-- No, it was not a personal best for Eric Staal. His five point night was eclipsed by a six-point night against Tampa Bay last March 9th (tying the club record).

-- Carolina certainly didn’t spread things around. Only seven players recorded points on a six-goal night. Four players – Staal, Matt Cullen, Tuomo Ruutu, and Jussi Jokinen did the multi-point damage.

-- Rod Brind’Amour, who is last in the NHL in plus-minus, found a way to finish minus-1 on a night when his club scores six and wins by three. He also had only 4:19 in ice time, only one shift in the last 27 minutes of the game.

-- The Caps came into the game as the best 5-on-5 team in the league. They got pounded, 4-1, in that part of the game (not counting the empty-netter) by the team that was worst in the league in that measure.

-- The Young Guns night… 2-3-5, 15 shots on goal, 32 attempted shots… and a minus-8.

-- The Young Guns Night II… about that expending of energy, after the Hurricanes scored those three goals in the first period, here is how the ice time played out for the Young Guns in the last two periods: Ovechkin – 18:15, Backstrom – 14:28, Semin – 14:07, Green – 22:56.

-- Pretty grim night in the circle if you are a Cap, and your name isn’t “Steckel.” 14 wins and 27 losses for just such players.

The Caps now head west to herald in the new year. What they seem unable to herald in is a clear number one goaltender. Jose Theodore did himself no favors tonight by allowing five goals on 25 shots. The trouble is, Semyon Varlamov is hurt, and Michal Neuvirth has too little experience (though no less than Varlamov had at this time last year). Certainly this will sort itself out by April, but at the moment the Caps are winning in spite of a revolving door between the pipes.

Last night is what happens when a perfect storm of events occurs – last game before jumping on a plane to the left coast, maybe taking an opponent (even a division opponent) too lightly, a lack of focus as a product of the day’s earlier events, and uncertainty in goal. Again, the trick here is not to let one become two, and that will be a chore as the Caps visit the San Jose Sharks next. But last night, the Caps looked, well…

Monday, December 28, 2009

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 8: Oh Captain! My Captain!

O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;

So begins the poem by Walt Whitman. The prize the Caps seek has not yet been won, yet as in the poem their Captain will not be with the team to reap that reward, should it come this spring. Chris Clark was dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets with defenseman Milan Jurcina for forward Jason Chimera just before the end of the year.

In the cold light of truth, the move cannot be criticized on its face as a bad business move. Clark clearly lost a step, either through age (he is 33), the accumulation of injuries, or both over the past couple of years. And, the deal saves the Caps about $2.2 million in salary cap (annualized), thus giving the team additional flexibility to pursue a trade down the road. The trade comes with enough lead time so that the team can take a long look at the remaining pieces and see how they fit both on and off the ice.

And that brings us to the elusive concept of “chemistry.” George McPhee is no stranger to flipping the switch on a big deal in the midst of good times. This deal, coming as it does in the midst of a three game winning streak, has the faint echo of a deal he made on March 13, 2001, when the Caps were on a 16-2-2-1 run (and five-game winning streak) and were coming off perhaps their most electrifying comeback in team history – a 6-5 win over the Ottawa Senators when the Caps came back from a 5-2 third period deficit. McPhee traded Richard Zednik, Jan Bulis, and Washington's 1st round choice in 2001 Entry Draft to Montreal for Trevor Linden, Dainius Zubrus and New Jersey's 2nd round choice in 2001.

The trade in 2001 did not work for the Caps as intended, the club finishing the post-trade portion of the regular season 4-7-0-2, then going quickly and quietly in six game in the opening round of the playoffs against Pittsburgh. This deal isn’t that big, perhaps, but it has a similar feel in that it the effects on team chemistry cannot be overlooked. And the biggest part of the chemical equation has to do with the dealing of the team captain. The Caps are no strangers to this, either…

1995: Kevin Hatcher — replaced by Dale Hunter as captain in 1994, traded to Dallas
1999: Dale Hunter — traded to Colorado
2002: Adam Oates — stripped of captaincy in 2001, traded to Philadelphia
2003: Steve Konowalchuk — traded to Colorado
2009: Chris Clark — traded to Columbus

It is a stark reminder that this is, first and foremost, a business where jobs and reputations are measured in wins and losses. It is the responsibility of team management – any team’s management – to make every effort to ice the most competitive team possible with an eye toward winning the Stanley Cup. If it means dealing a player – a captain – widely respected in the locker room and among fans as a player’s player, one who will do whatever it takes to win, then that is the price one pays from time to time to take the next, and perhaps the last step needed to winning the Cup.

For fans, it is another rite of passage for those who perhaps have not followed the Caps or any individual team for very long. Players come, and players go, sometimes suddenly and without warning. The attachments that fans develop with those players – and Clark was a player anyone who appreciated the sport could root for – makes for some trying times and bitter responses (The Boss will probably be getting some e-mails now). But this is how it is in professional sports. Nevertheless, another part of what makes this a top-ten story is the nature of Clark as player, teammate, and representative of the club. In all of those respects, his time here has been memorable. As a player, he introduced himself to Caps fans by setting, then breaking personal highs in goal scoring in his first two years here on clubs that were otherwise difficult to watch at times. He was a stand-up sort of player who did not suffer liberties taken with teammates lightly. And he gave every indication of being honest and forthright in his dealings with the media, often serving as the voice of the team after a win or a loss.

Clark also served as the sort of role model of the tireless, they’ll have to drag me off the ice sort of player that inspires. Taking an Alex Ovechkin slap shot off the ear or a puck in his mouth, requiring a repair with the aid of a cadaver’s palate and screws, or playing through a wrist injury that would ultimately require surgery, Clark was the epitome of the tough as nails teammate.

This has to be especially hard for a player like Clark, who can see the end of his career in the distance. He came to the Caps having played (and lost) in a Stanley Cup final, skating for a new club that was in a self-inflicted burn-it-to-the-ground rebuild. He played just about every role a forward could have – scorer, checker, keeper of the peace, grinder – serving as an example for a team that played hard every night, even when it was only a 70-point team. Then the injuries started coming, and the Caps had skilled kids who passed him on the depth chart. He did not seem to be able to get over the hump, even as his health returned, and his ice time and responsibilities were cut back. But he was still the “Captain,” who carried himself in such a fashion that did honor to himself and the club on and off the ice, despite being reduced to fourth-line status much of the time. At 33, he can see the end of his career on the horizon, and now he goes off to a team that is itself at least a couple of years from contending in a tough division. In the back of our mind, we think a guy like “Clarkie” deserves better.

This trade would perhaps be a bigger story in 2009 if the effects were better known. We can’t know that at this stage, neither team having yet welcomed their new players. For all we know, this could be the equivalent of a Dainius Zubrus-for-Jiri Novotny trade. But for the seismic shocks that will ripple through the team that sees its captain, and arguably its most heart-and-soul player, traded away, it has to be a top-ten story for 2009.

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 9: The Goodbye...And The Hello

At number 9 in this look at the top ten stories of 2009, we look at a goodbye… and a hello.

Starting with the drafting of Alexander Semin in 2002, the Caps drafted six Russians in six drafts through June 2007. Although only Semin and Alex Ovechkin from that cohort would be with the team to start the 2007-2008 season, those two would be important cogs in the Capitals’ machine heading into that season.

In that summer of 2007 the Caps would add Viktor Kozlov as a free agent from the New York islanders, a player of considerable skill, but something of a disappointment in his career, too. What he brought to the team was a measure of maturity, having toured the NHL as a member of four other teams over 12 seasons. He could be as much of a help to the young Russians in the locker room as he could on the ice.

Later that season, the Caps would execute a heist on the Columbus Blue Jackets, giving up prospect defenseman Ted Ruth for veteran and hall-of-famer in waiting Sergei Fedorov. Fedorov – a hockey legend on two continents – was just what the Alexes needed at their respective points in their development. It might be hard to quantify the effect the marriage of Fedorov to the young Russians (figuratively speaking) might have had on the youngsters, but there is no doubting the amazing record the Caps compiled (11-1-0) in their head-long rush to a playoff spot in 2008.

Kozlov and Fedorov were back for the 2008-2009 season, but it could be reasonably said that neither were critical contributors on the ice – numbers-wise – to the Caps record-setting 108 point season. Kozlov played in only 67 games and contributed only 41 points (he dropped from a plus-28 to a minus-9, worst on the team). Fedorov fought lower body and ankle injuries in playing only 52 games and finishing eighth on the team in scoring (11-22-33). When the playoffs came, there was only one real highlight for either player, although it was a doozy – Fedorov’s series-winning goal in Game 7 of the Easter Conference quarterfinals against the New York Rangers.

When the season ended it was clear that the $6.5 million in cap hit accounted for by the two Russians was not yielding as much of return as hoped for, and it was iffy that either would be resigned. Both players made the decision easier on the Caps by accepting offers in the Kontinental Hockey League – Kozlov with HC Salavat Yulaev and Fedorov with Metallurg Magnitogorsk, the latter fulfilling an ambition to play alongside his brother Fedor.

It left the Caps with two top-six forward positions to fill. Neither Eric Fehr nor Tomas Fleischmann had been able at that point in their careers to grab that role by the throat, and no one from Hershey was ready to be given that responsibility. It left the Caps to be a player in the free agent market last July.

On July 1st, the first day of open season on unrestricted free agents, 49 free agents were signed. Washington eschewed the high-end signings such as Marian Hossa ($62.8M/12 years by Chicago) or Marian Gaborik ($37.5M/five years by the Rangers), targeting need in signing Mike Knuble for two years and $5.6 million. Knuble might not have had the reputation of being a flashy 40-goal scoring type, but the Caps had enough of those already, either in fact or in potential. What Knuble brought was precisely something the Caps didn’t have enough of – a knack for scoring in close, cleaning up garbage, and being a solid power play presence in front of the opposing goalie. Although he has missed time (12 games to a broken finger), the Caps are 17-9 in games in which he played so far, 7-5 in games he missed.

Nine days later, on July 10th, the Caps took a chance on a guy who had been remarkably durable (six consecutive seasons playing all 82 games) and solid in his numbers (averaging 21-39-60, plus-7 in those six years), before missing 43 games to wrist and knee injuries in 2007-2008 and recording only 31 points in 81 games (split between Dallas and Anaheim) upon his return last season. Brendan Morrison was the guy the Caps took that chance on as the replacement for Sergei Fedorov as the center for the second line. Morrison has proven to be durable (played in all 38 games heading into tonight’s action), productive (10-15-25 in 38 games, a 22-32-54 pace that is consistent with his 20-36-56 career per-82 game pace), and flashy, in keeping with the team concept…

Morrison and Knuble – teammates once more after once having been teammates at the University of Michigan – are on a pace to out produce the players they replaced:

It could be fairly said that the Kozlov signing and the trade for Fedorov were the right moves at the right time given the state of the Caps’ development. They lent a certain veteran gravitas to the roster that could help in the progression of Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin. By the same token, both players had become something of a weight on the team, primarily because of their respective contracts and production issues. Replacing them with Morrison and Knuble was the right move (with a $2.2 million reduction in cap hit, to boot) at this stage of the Caps’ development. Ovechkin is a leader in production and in fact on this club, and Semin (while he still has a bit of a way to go in this regard) is a more mature player at this point in his career than he was before Fedorov was brought in. The need for mentors such as Fedorov or Kozlov isn’t as keen a need as production.

To Fedorov and Kozlov, Caps fans might offer a thought of appreciation for their time here. For Morrison and Knuble, Caps fans might be excused for thinking that they are the cogs the club needs to set up an appointment for an engraving order. For that reason, saying goodbye to Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov, and saying hello to Brendan Morrison and Mike Knuble is the ninth of the top-ten Capitals stories of 2009.

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 10: The Beasts of the Southeast

Well, we’re almost at another year end, the 35th year that will end without the Capitals having hoisted the Stanley Cup (including one year – 2005 – in which no one did). But in some ways the Caps got closer, or at least took steps to get closer, than they have in any of those 35 years, including the one in which they played in a Stanley Cup final.

It is in that context that we look back at 2009 and what, from our keyboard at least, are the top ten stories of the year (we’re not aware that decades end in the number “9,” so we’re not doing an end-of-the-decade look). So, let’s get started. This year’s ending fast…

Number 10 – The Beast of the Southeast.

Since Bruce Boudreau took over behind the Capitals bench, he has compiled a 39-13-2 record against the Southeast Division. If Washington beats Carolina tonight they will complete a perfect 2009 portion of the 2009-2010 season against the Southeast (9-0-0), and they will finish the calendar year with a 21-5-0 record against their division rivals.

The dominance is stunning in other measures as well. In the 25 games played against the Southeast so far in 2009, the Caps…

-- Outscored their opponents by 100-74.

-- Had a power play success rate of 23.4 percent.

-- Killed off 84.9 percent of the shorthanded situations they faced.

-- Scored at least five goals in a game as many times as they were held to fewer than four (eight times).

-- Had two of the three shutouts the team recorded for the year.

-- Only once lost consecutive games to division opponents (March 1-3 against Florida and Carolina).

-- Have won 12 of the last 13 games played against the Southeast.

Individually, the Caps also dominated the competition. For example…

-- Alex Ovechkin was 15-21-36 in 22 games against Southeast Division competition. In those 22 games he was held without a point only three times (twice by Atlanta).

-- Alexander Semin was 13-17-30 in 21 games. He had nine multi-point games against the Southeast for the year.

-- Nicklas Backstrom was 6-25-31 in 25 games, with ten multi-point games. He is also a plus-13 in those games.

-- Mike Green was 12-11-23 in 22 games, including 11 goals in 15 games in the 2009 portion of the 2008-2009 season.

-- Brooks Laich was 7-14-21 in 25 games and had three three-point games.

One could argue that being the “Beast of the Southeast” isn’t much of an accomplishment, but this is a division that has had over significant stretches this season three teams in the top eight of the Eastern Conference (Washington, Atlanta, Florida). At the moment, the Southeast has three teams with better than .500 records (in standings points) against teams in the Eastern Conference outside the Southeast Division. Are Atlanta and Florida teetering on the playoff edge because they’re not very good, or are they there because neither have found a way to beat the Caps (The Thrashers are 0-2-0, the Panthers are 0-3-0)?

But with the NHL schedule as division-centric as it is (still), a team has to make hay while the sun shines in its own field. And the Caps haven’t lost a game in regulation to an SE team at home since last March 3rd (a 5-2 loss to Carolina, curiously enough). The Caps have built that strong foundation of winning against the Division as a basis for keeping among the top teams, points-wise, in the Eastern Conference and using it as a springboard for playoff seeding. Such things don’t guarantee playoff success (since the Caps are 1-2 in playoff series over the past two years), but all things considered, we would still want that home-ice advantage come springtime.

For that, being the “Beast of the Southeast” is the 10th top story of 2009.

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

The Peerless Prognosticator Is ON THE AIR!!!

Well, we’re back. After having our fill of plum pudding, Christmas goose, and a bowl (or twelve) of holiday cheer, we’re back to provide you with the very best in prognostications. While we were away, the Caps gobbled up another two points with a victory at Verizon Center over the New Jersey Devils on the heels of a win over the Buffalo Sabres, which no doubt means that the Caps will slip a few notches in the weekly power rankings among the expert media outlets. No matter – the Caps are winning to the tune of 10-3-0 since Thanksgiving and giving their fans hope that success will bloom in the spring…


I beg your pardon?


Scrooge, isn’t it? Well, you've never seen the like of me before, have you?

“Never, and I wish the pleasure had been indefinitely postponed.”

Shouldn’t you be as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world, and all that Victorian crap?


But you had those Christmas spirits visit and show you the error of your ways…

“Bah…that last Christmas spirit? He took me to the graveyard and pointed at a headstone that was supposed to have my name on it, and I fell whimpering that I’d honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year, that I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future, that I’d sponge away the writing on this stone...blah, blah, blah"


“Well, hey genius…it was winter. Snow? It turns out it wasn’t my name on the stone after all. The snow covered up what was really on the marker…”

You mean?

“Yeah, I wasted all this time being nice and jolly, when I could have been…”

Coach of the Rangers?


Well, the Caps have certainly been spreading Christmas cheer among their fans with having torched two of the best goalies in the NHL – Ryan Miller and Martin Brodeur – for nine goals in the two games on this holiday home stand. Tonight the Caps host the Carolina Hurricanes, fresh off stealing a standings point from the Philadelphia Flyers, coming back in the last 11 minutes of regulation, down 3-0, to tie the game and ultimately send it to a Gimmick, where they lost, 4-3. It was the third loss in a row for the Hurricanes after what was a reasonably decent start to the month for them (4-3-1).

At 4-5-2 for the month, the Hurricanes are still losing ground to, well, everyone as they stand in 30th place in the league standings. They're 30th in a lot of things...

But buried under the wreckage of the season there are elements that suggest that Carolina might be becoming competitive, if not yet a threat to make the playoffs. First, there is the matter of where they are getting their offense. They have been getting it from the guys who have to provide it…

Eric Staal

Career vs. Washington: 38 games, 15-22-37
2009-2010 vs. Washington: two games, 1-2-3
Last five games: 1-2-3

Staal came into the month in the midst of what was becoming his most disappointing season – scoring-wise – since his rookie year when he was 11-20-31 in 81 games. He started the month 3-6-9 in 17 games. In 11 contests this month, though, Staal is 3-9-12 with four multi-point games. However, it wouldn’t be the 2009-2010 season for the Hurricanes without even some cloudiness in these December numbers. Staal started the month on a rush (3-7-10 in his first seven games in December), but he has been held without a point in three of his last four games (0-2-2).

Joni Pitkanen

Career vs. Washington: 15 games, 1-5-6
2009-2010 vs. Washington: two games, 0-0-0
Last five games: 0-2-2

Pitkanen has ten points for the month, all on assists and five of those on power plays (of nine power plays scored by Carolina). He’s been the minutes-eater for the Carolina blue line, four times logging more than 30 minutes in 11 games this month (averaging 29:15). The problem Pitkanen has mirrors that of his team. He is fourth among all defensemen in average ice time, but he is also 263rd (among 265 defensemen) in plus-minus for the year (minus-15). He is one of three Hurricane defensemen for the year with at least a minus-10 (Joe Corvo (minus-10) and Aaron Ward (minus-17) being the others).

Ray Whitney

Career vs. Washington: 54 games, 18-30-48
2009-2010 vs. Washington: two games, 0-0-0
Last five games: 0-1-1

Whitney is the club’s leading scorer for the season (10-14-24 in 36 games) and is the team’s third leading scorer for the month of December (4-5-9). But he, too, has cooled off after a hot start to the month (4-4-8 in the first six games of December). Whitney is the closest thing the Hurricanes have to a power play specialist (2-7-9 in power play scoring this season – the Caps have six players with at least ten points). Last year he was something of a Cap killer – 3-5-8 in six games, the most points he had against any opponent in the 2008-2009 season. He has yet to register a point against the Caps so far this year in two games.

That brings us to goaltender Cam Ward. In his first four games back in goal after missing a month with a lacerated leg, Ward showed signs of rust. He was 1-2-1, 4.00, .878. In four games since, even with getting pulled 9:32 into a 5-1 loss to Montreal after allowing three goals on seven shots, Ward is 1-2-1, 3.10, .903. He might not be “Ward-sharp,” but he is moving forward. He is 12-5-3, 2.61, with three shutouts in his career against the Caps, but he dropped his only decision against Washington this year, a 4-3 overtime loss on December 11th.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Carolina: Jussi Jokinen

Jokinen is tied for the team lead in goals for December (four), getting half of them in a furious comeback from a 3-0 deficit against the Flyers on Saturday (a game the Hurricanes would lose in a Gimmick, 4-3). He is the only Hurricane with more than one game-winning goal this year. If this game should go to a Gimmick, he will be the player to watch. Jokinen is tied for second in the league in Gimmick goals (four) and is 26-for-48 in the Gimmick for his career.

Washington: Jose Theodore

Theodore was not feeling too jolly when Michal Neuvirth was named the starter for the Saturday contest against New Jersey, snapping the blade of his stick as he came off the ice during a practice and announcing that “I just work here” when asked about the situation. Well, he is the likely starter this evening, and he has a pretty good record against the Hurricanes over his career (15-11-3, 2.65, .909, four shutouts). He has two victories over Carolina this year. With the Caps on a bit of a roll, winning three in a row with Neuvirth in goal after Theodore lost a 3-2 decision in Vancouver, eyes will be on him to see if he can get a firm hold on the number one netminder job. He’s had a tough job doing that, showing the unnerving lack of consistency that has been the major complaint about his play. So far this year he has not won more than two decision in a row (although he’s won two in a row four times); he has not lost consecutive games in regulation since losses to the Rangers and Red Wings on October 8th and 10th. Seeing as how he lost his last decision in regulation, this should be a win.


1. They’re 30th, they’re not dead. For almost 50 minutes on Saturday night, Carolina looked old, small, and slow. They were either unable or disinclined to create any traffic in front of former teammate-turned-Flyer Michael Leighton in goal. They looked like the worst team in the league. But down 3-0 with 11 minutes left, the Hurricanes finally solved the traffic problem and pumped three goals through Leighton (as part of 15 total shots on goal in those last 11 minutes). Of note, all three goals came from within ten feet.

2. More power. The Caps are 12-for-44 on the power play for December (27.3 percent). But 7-for-18 of that came in the first two games of December. Since then, Washington is 5-for-26 (19.2 percent). That’s not bad, but they have failed to register a power play goal in five of their last eight games. Carolina is served up as a remedy (26th in the league in penalty killing) for whatever might ail the Caps’ power play.

3. Find something to Laich. Brooks Laich doesn’t have a goal since December 5th, against Philadelphia. He is 1-4-5 in 11 games for the month. He doesn’t have a point in either game against Carolina this year. And, he’s struggled a bit at home – 5-6-11, minus-5 at Verizon Center, compared to 5-11-16, plus-6 on the road. He’s one of those guys – a net crasher with some touch – that will be very important down the road. It would be nice to get him started down that road with a point or two.

The moral of this story is that there is no team – not even the 30th-ranked team in the league – against which a team, even as skilled as the Caps, can just throw their sticks on the ice and expect to win. Taking any team for granted is a recipe for failure, and having bested two fine goaltenders in Ryan Miller and Martin Brodeur in their last two games, the Caps might be in the dismal position of tempting fate against a lesser opponent by putting forth a “B” effort.

If the Caps avoid the post-Christmas let-down, this game should be over at the first intermission. Oh, wait…there is that last 11 minutes to worry about. Strike that. Put forth 60 minutes, and the Caps will add two points to their season standings total and post their top month for wins this season (nine).

Caps 5 – Hurricanes 2