Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Pre-Season Win: Caps 6 - Blackhawks 2

Well, that was fun…

…but let’s not get carried away, either. There was good, and there was bad in the Caps’ 6-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks earlier this evening.

Good: Mike Knuble notched a pair of goals on his only two shots on goal in the first 4:52 of the game.
Not so good: His last entry in the official play-by-play was a missed tip-in attempt at 16:06 of the second period. What happened?

Good: Alex Ovechkin got his first two goals of the preseason.
Not so good: He didn’t attempt a shot in the last 28:30 of the game (ok, we’re being picky)

Good: Three assists for Alexander Semin
Not so good: Semin had an awkward collision with Ben Eager. After his “tweak” earlier this week, it was a dicey moment.

Good: Boyd Gordon winning 14 of 19 draws.
Not so good: Mathieu Perreault losing seven of ten.

Good: The Caps took two penalties in the last 40:35.
Not so good: The Caps took four penalties in the first 19:25.

Good: The Caps were 3-for-6 on the power play.
Not so good: The Caps were 4-for-6 in penalty killing.

Good: Semyon Varlamov did not allow an even strength goal.
Not so good: It’s going to be hard to pick two goaltenders with three left (that’s not so good if you’re the guy having to do the picking).

Good: Nicklas Backstrom had a three-point night.
Not so good: Mike Green – eight shot attempts and nothing to show for it.

Good: Tom Poti – plus-1 and a couple of blocked shots.
Not so good: Tom Poti – three minor penalties taken.

Good: Using sticks to score six goals (ok, there was the one off a Knuble body part, which made Kanoobie the Ugly Goal Rally Mutt happy).
Not so good: Using sticks to commit five of the six penalties (high-sticking, tripping, slashing, and a couple of hooking calls).

Good: The top line going 5-4-9, plus-3.
Not so good: Guys on the bubble not playing badly, but not grabbing a roster spot by the throat, either (we did like what we saw from Quintin Laing and Kyle Wilson, though).

Good: A 6-2 win.

Thanks, Olie...

Olaf Kolzig retired today.

There will be a lot of words and pixels devoted to Kolzig’s career in Washington – the long road he took to taking on the role as the number one netminder, the incredible run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, the playoff trials against the Penguins, the ups, the downs, the records.

While he has a special place in the hearts of Caps fans who have followed the club for any length of time, he is perhaps remembered more across the league as the goalie with the lyrical nickname – “Olie the Goalie” – than he is for his accomplishments. Let’s leave aside the fact that there are only 20 goalies in the history of the NHL with more wins than Kolzig’s 303 (301 of them with the Caps). Let’s go back to that magnificent 1997-1998 season in which he took over for an injured Bill Ranford in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs and led the Caps to a Stanley Cup finals berth that following spring.

Starting with that year and for an additional five years, it was something of a golden age of goaltending. Martin Brodeur, Dominik Hasek, Ed Belfour, Patrick Roy, and Curtis Joseph were at the peak of their respective games and perhaps earned more accolades than did Kolzig, who played for what many hockey fans regarded as something of a backwater in the NHL. Not that those other goalies didn’t deserve their recognition; they were some of the most successful goaltenders in the history of the NHL. Four of them (Brodeur, Roy, Belfour, and Hasek) won Stanley Cups in this six-year period). But here is how they stacked up against Kolzig in terms of their average seasons during those six campaigns:

Only Martin Brodeur averaged more wins a season. Only Patrick Roy and Dominik Hasek had higher save percentages. Only he and Brodeur averaged over 4,000 minutes per season. While Kolzig finished down the list in goals against average, he also faced the highest number of shots per 60 minutes over that period. What those other goaltenders had that, frankly, Kolzig didn't was a better team in front of them.

Kolzig was and remains a legend in the Washington community as much for his charitable endeavors as for his accomplishments on the ice. A winner of the Vezina Trophy for top goaltender (2000) and the King Clancy Trophy for leadership and humanitarian contributions (2007), one could say that the phrase, “pillar of the community,” seems to have been coined for him.

Kolzig is the first Capital in as long as I’ve been a Caps fan that I saw drafted, watched as his career unfolded, and would see leave the club and eventually the professional game. In those years are so many images – that 1998 run with his impossible long legs flashing a pad to make save after save, coming out of nowhere to a make a miracle glove save against the hated Penguins as time was running out to preserve a win, popping an Atlanta Thrasher in the mouth as he got too frisky in Kolzig’s crease, dropping f-bombs and shattering sticks if his performance even in practice didn’t meet his exacting standards.

But one thing never looked right on Kolzig in our mind – a red jersey...

The black jersey seemed to fit him and his style better – the outsized goaltender lurking darkly like a shark in the blue of his crease. And the red jersey was a reminder that all things change, including number one goaltenders, even one as iconic as Kolzig.

A player of immense talent and a person of considerable humanity, Kolzig leaves a lasting impression in the community as he takes the first steps in the next phase of his life. And it is good that Caps fans take a moment to remember that. But remember this, too. For those years he battled against the likes of Brodeur and Belfour, Joseph, Hasek, and Roy, Kolzig could fairly be mentioned in the same breath as those greats as a great himself.

Congratulations on a great career, Olie, and the best of luck in all you do.

Snip-Snip Here, Snip-Snip There

Well, we're down to a week remaining in the pre-season prelude to the 2009-2010 season. The Caps have trimmed their roster with little in the way of surprises, but now things will really start to get interesting. Here is how the forwards stack up...

23 forwards remain, including Michael Nylander, whose locker has been relocated to limbo, as well as Tomas Fleischmann and Eric Fehr, whose availability on opening night is in question. Of that group, there seem to be 12 spots nailed down, when healthy -- Ovechkin, Morrison, Bradley, Flesichmann, Fehr, Gordon, Clark, Backstrom, Laich, Knuble, Semin, and Steckel.

There remains one, perhaps two permanent spots, depending one whether the Caps choose to carry 13 or 14 forwards, and perhaps two "audition" spots that will be open so long as Flesichmann or Fehr are out. The openings break into two parts. First, on the top two lines, five spots are set -- Ovechkin, Backstrom, Knuble, Semin, and Morrison. That sixth spot -- right wing on the second line -- could be grabbed by any of Brooks Laich, Chris Clark, or Alexandre Giroux among the healthy forwards. It could be Fehr or Flesichmann when they are back to health.

At this point, it would be hard to handicap a favorite. Although Giroux has been given every opportunity to grab that spot, at least on an interim basis, he hasn't yet taken a firm grasp. Fehr would seem to be the best fit, on paper, for that spot, but he's coming off shoulder surgery and himself hasn't yet firmly grasped a scoring line role. Clark has played that role on the top line, but injury and the turnover among forwards suggests he might be better suited to a third line role with this team. Flesichmann once occupied the Giroux seat for a time as a player given an opportunity to grab onto a scoring line role, but he wilted some when the spotlight shown upon him. He did, however, play a good portion of last year at a 30-goal pace. There is something there -- again, if he can grab onto it. Laich might be the most intriguing one of the bunch, given that he is something of a jack-of-all trades. But sometimes the kind of versatility he possesses doesn't translate well into a specific role.

On the other two lines, there appear to be fixtures among Bradley, Gordon, and Steckel. Clark and Laich could end up in this half of the forward draw, leaving one spot open. Quintin Laing might be the front-runner for that one, although Chris Bourque also has been given opportunities.

The defense follows a similar track. Here is the current picture among defensemen...

Of this group, the safe bets would seem to be Pothier, Poti, Erskine, Jurcina, Morrisonn, Green, and Schultz. OK, so that's seven. If the Caps carry 14 forwards, then the rest of those guys in bold are headed to Hershey, unless they don't clear waivers (like Tyler Sloan). If the Caps go 13/8, carring two extra defensemen, then there would seem to be a battle between Karl Alzner and Sloan for that last slot (this isn't news, dear reader -- you've probably concluded this a long time ago, or at least since John Carlson was sent down). While injuries make the forward situation a little more flexible in the early going, permitting "auditions," the same isn't true of the defense, and that makes this part of the roster murkier in terms of what it might look like. Will there be a trade? Will the Caps try to sneak Sloan through waivers? Will they keep him and send Alzner down?

By comparison, the goaltending situation is comparably cut and dried -- a straight up competition between Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth for the backup position. Both have had a cup o' coffee in the NHL regular season (Varlamov for six games, Neuvirth for five). Both have had post season success (Varlamov coming on in relief in the Caps opening round win against the Rangers and taking the Penguins to seven games, Neuvirth leading Hershey to a Calder Cup), both have been solid in camp and pre-season games (even Varlamov getting torched in the Duchesne Cup finals appears to be more of what was happening in front of him). What adds spice to this competition is that they are such different goaltenders in style. If we had to guess, we'd say Varlamov has the slightest of edges as the incumbent on the roster, but it isn't a significant edge.

As the roster gets whittled down over the next week, it occurs to us that for a roster allegedly so "settled" coming into camp, there are all sorts of interesting subplots playing out.