Monday, February 22, 2010

Questions, Questions

Two weeks without NHL hockey provides a respite to those players not participating in the Olympics – two weeks to recuperate, two weeks to recharge, two weeks to remove the demons that might have been lurking in their play. For others the two weeks is an unwelcome interruption – two weeks to cool off, two weeks to lose your touch, two weeks to get out of a groove and into a rut.

But what two weeks also does is make us realize that now, it’s a sprint to the finish – six weeks to play 19-22 games. And with so little time left, the focus will sharpen on what is the big issue for clubs fighting for a playoff spot or who have bigger aspirations than just making the playoffs. So, what is the big question that each team has facing it? We’ll start in the Southeast…

Washington: Can the Capitals settle on a goaltender?

If the Caps play .500 hockey the rest of the way (as measured in standings points available) they will finish the year with a franchise-record 110 points. Making the playoffs is not an issue for this club. But if going deep in the playoffs is the benchmark for success this year (if not reaching the Stanley Cup final), then the lingering issue they have is between the pipes.

No Washington goaltender has a majority of the wins for the Caps – Jose Theodore has 20 of the Capitals’ 41 wins so far. This speaks to a certain depth in the Capitals’ organization, but the flip side of that is that it is not yet clear who the number one goaltender will be for Washington when the playoffs start. Each of the three potential candidates has their arguments to make and their issues to answer for.

Theodore has been good, even spectacular in spots, but he carries the baggage of inconsistency and last year’ s disappointing performance in Game 1 of the opening round that earned him a spot on the bench for the duration of the playoffs. In his last ten appearances he is 8-0-2, 3.01, .917. What is alarming there is that he allowed 16 goals in his last four appearances. Varlamov, last year’s darling of the playoffs, has been good but brittle. Groin and knee injuries have limited him to 17 appearances this year, only one since December 7th (and he was lit up for six goals in that one). He had two shutouts in his last four appearances before going on the shelf in December. But he is essentially doing a season restart on March 1st. Neuvirth, the MVP of last year’s Calder Cup playoffs, has been plagued by the sort of inconsistency you would expect from a rookie. He hasn’t been credited with a loss since January 2nd, but in his last 10 appearances he has three starts he didn’t finish in going 6-0-0 (he also relieved Jose Theodore in what would be another no-decision), and he was injured in his last appearance.

By now, in a perfect world, Bruce Boudreau would have seen enough to make a choice between Theodore and Varlamov as the number one getting ready for the playoffs. But now, with 20 games left and the sprint about to start, the problem is that he probably hasn’t seen enough of a healthy Varlamov to make that choice. Will Varlamov be getting the lion’s share of starts coming out of the gate? It bears watching.

Tampa Bay: Is Antero Niittymaki “The Man?”

In four full seasons in the NHL before this one, Niittymaki never appeared in more than 52 games (and he was 9-29-9 for an awful Flyers team in that season). Well, he has appeared in 16 of the last 18 Lightning games and has a much better record than teammate Mike Smith in wins and losses (16-10-5 versus 10-14-6), goals against average (2.55 to 2.97) and save percentage (.917 to .903). Statistically, Niittymaki is putting together his best career season, but is he going to have the opportunity to maintain that pace in the season’s last six weeks? Here is the problem for Tampa Bay – his career record after March 1st is 8-11-1, 3.33, .889. Does he have enough gas in the tank to help get the Lightning into the top-eight?

Atlanta: Can the Thrashers be less consistent about their inconsistency?

The Thrashers have won consecutive games once in 2010. On the other hand, they’ve only gone without a point in consecutive games once in 2010 ( a three game losing streak from January 30th to February 5th). Their 8-7-6 record since January 1st is testimony to their inability to get any traction on their schedule. Trading away the franchise – Ilya Kovalchuk – is the sort of distraction that can’t help a team fighting consistency issues.

The Thrashers are only two points out of eighth place with three teams to climb over to get there. But what they need to wring some consistent winning out of their schedule is a “go-to” guy. Not to replace Kovalchuk, mind you, but a guy who can reliably approach a point a game and pot some clutch goals. Is that guy on the Thrasher roster? Nik Antropov was 3-9-12 in his last ten games heading into the break and is now the Thrashers’ leading scorer. Maxim Afinogenov – the Thrashers’ second leading scorer – was 3-1-4 in his last ten games going into the break. Rookie Evander Kane had goals in three of his last four games heading into the break. Unless the Thrashers have some more wheeling and dealing coming, it’s likely that the go-to guy has to come from this trio. It’s a rather steep hill to climb.

Florida: Will Vokoun swoon?

The last time a goaltender for the Panthers other than Tomas Vokoun earned a decision was December 27th. That’s 21 consecutive games (8-10-3) and counting. Add to that the fact that Vokoun is in Vancouver, where he played in all three of the preliminary round games for the Czech Republic. He will likely get the call when the Czech’s play Latvia on Tuesday, when they play Finland in the quarters on Wednesday (assuming they beat the Latvians), and – if it should come to pass – in the semis and medal game. With Florida lurking six points out of a playoff berth and with four teams to hop over, the question coming out of the break will be whether Vokoun plays in all of the Panthers’ last 21 games starting a week from tonight and whether he will have enough gas in the tank to make a difference. Since the lockout he has had a respectable finishing kick to his seasons, going 25-17-8 in games after March 1st. It’s worth noting that since the lockout, backup Scott Clemmensen has played a total of five games after March 1st, and in only two of those did he play a full 60 or more minutes (1-0-1).

Carolina: Is there enough time left?

When Carolina dropped a 3-2 decision to Tampa Bay on January 18th – their third straight loss at the time – they were 13 games under .500 with a 14-27-7 record. Since then the Hurrricanes are 10-3-0 and went into the Olympic break with a five-game winning streak. With 21 games remaining, nine points out of a playoff spot, and six teams to leap-frog, it is a daunting climb. What the Hurricanes do not have is the luxury of seeing whether their winning streak going into the break can be duplicated coming out of the break as a basis for making trade decisions. The deadline, coming as it does on March 3rd, provides almost no room to make any further evaluations of the current roster. Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, it is almost certainly too little, too late, and assets will be moved in anticipation of next year and beyond.

Uh-oh Canada

Teammates, huh...

Crosby...Orpik.  Brodeur...Langenbrunner...Parise.

Yeah, maybe next week we'll be buds.

(photos: Andre Forget, QMI Agency; Hans Deryk, Reuters)

Your Capital Olympians

After the preliminary round, here is how they stack up...

Week One In The Books

With Team Sweden defeating Team Finland last night/early this morning (depending on your time zone), the preliminary round of men’s ice hockey at the Vancouver Olympics came to a close. And what a way to end it – the “hit heard ‘round Vancouver”… the upset… and the technical marvel that was Team Sweden in the Sweden-Finland contest – made this every bit the “Spectacular Sunday” of ice hockey that hockey fans were hoping for.

As the teams move forward to the playoff qualification round, we can’t help think that today, closing as it did the the first week of competition, had its share of winners and losers…

Winner: USA Hockey.

Let’s face it. Having NHL players in the Olympics hasn’t exactly been a great thing for the ol’ U.S. of A. In 1998 the lasting memory was of “Hockey Players Gone Wild” in Nagano, Japan. There was no medal. In 2002 the Americans could not win gold on home ice in Salt Lake City, settling for the silver medal after getting toasted by Team Canada in the final. In Torino in 2006, Team USA exited in the quarters when they lost to Finland.

Well, this is a new bunch, the youngest team in Vancouver as a matter of fact. One doesn’t want to let yesterday’s 5-3 win over Team Canada in the preliminaries cloud impressions, but there is freshness about them and a work ethic that seems to surround them that wasn’t as evident in previous teams. And, that win over Team Canada was the first by a U.S. team in 50 years. Even if it was the prelims, it was not a trivial achievement.

Loser: Team Canada

There is the faint whiff of underachievement hovering about this team, already. It isn’t necessarily a product of the loss to Team USA (the flip side of not wanting to let yesterday’s Team USA win cloud impressions), but Canada limps into the playoff qualification round with a 1-1-1 record, pounding the undermanned Norwegians 8-0, but getting taken to a shootout against the Swiss, then dropping last night’s game to the Americans.

The pressure on Team Canada has to be a burden. This isn’t Team USA in Salt Lake City in 2002. This isn’t even comparable to Team USA in basketball playing in the States during a Summer Olympics. Hockey defines Canada in ways that no sport does in the U.S. And for this collection of talent – arguably the greatest collection of hockey talent under one flag in any tournament in the history of the sport – to have to qualify before going into the final three rounds has to be at the least unexpected. The silver lining is that they certainly have the talent to win four consecutive games. What might be disappointing is that they now have to win four consecutive games to capture the gold.

Winner: Hockey Fans

There was a considerable amount of grief coursing through the Internet last evening about NBC’s decision to carry the USA-Canada game on MSNBC instead of on NBC. But fans did have that option – to see the game telecast live while other programming was being broadcast on the flagship network. There are those of us who remember that in 1980, when Team USA defeated the Soviet Union in the “Miracle on Ice,” ABC broadcast the game (played in the late afternoon on a Friday) on tape delay in prime time. Today we have cable networks that can offer additional outlets, not to mention the sorts of technologies and means to make the game available on a much broader basis. Was it a perfect solution? No – I’d have liked to have seen this game in high-definition – but it wasn’t a catastrophe for hockey fans.

Loser: NBC

This struck me as a victory, if you want to call it that, of short-term thinking over the long term. Surely, NBC wants to maximize its ratings for the Vancouver games and thought it could do so by programming ice dancing for the NBC network and relegating the Canada-USA game to MSNBC. They made the calculation that in the here and now, more people will watch ice dancing than ice hockey. Go figure. But it says something of the long term that NBC would do this. This sort of thing tells me that NBC doesn’t see much of a future or much benefit to be had as a partner of the NHL. A year from now, a lot of those eye-balls watching ice dancing this week won’t have a care in the world about it. We don’t mean to disparage the athletes or the cadre of fans that is devoted to the sport. However, in the Olympics – summer or winter – there are competitions that capture the attention and the imagination of viewers, especially in the States, but that wane in terms of attention in non-Olympic years. Ice dancing might be among them. If NBC is going to be a real partner to the NHL after these games in the years ahead, then hockey (you would think) would be getting a little more attention from the network. Hockey fans might think that NBC lost an opportunity here, and you could count us among them as yesterday wore on. But as we think about it, we’re just not convinced that NBC sees a lot of promise in the NHL as a partner.

Loser: The NHL

If the idea was to showcase its players, is the league getting enough bang for the buck? As the Commissioner pointed out in an interview after the Canada-USA game, the NHL is the only professional sports league to shut down in the middle of its season to accommodate and participate in the Olympics. You would think that having the best players in the world on the Olympic stage would be something that those who oversee the Olympics would want to nurture. The NHL seems to be getting little for its investment, and it raises the reasonable question of whether the league will be inclined to participate in the Sochi games in 2014.

Winner: Old Time Hockey

I don’t remember this level of hitting in an Olympics in the recent past, even with NHL players. Perhaps it is the smaller ice surface (the games are being played on an NHL-sized rink), but there is a lot of hitting and battling along the walls and in front of the nets. And it is taking place at what at times is a frantic pace. The Russia-Czech and Canada-USA games were played at a high-tempo throughout. Alex Ovechkin had the hit of the tournament on Jaromir Jagr, but he was playing like a rampaging beast (in a good way) throughout that game. The Canada-USA game was relentless for its hitting and finishing checks throughout.

Loser: Nu-Age Hockey

Again, this might be the product of the smaller ice surface (and the prevalence of NHL players), but the pretty plays you might expect from this collection of high-end talent hasn’t manifested itself. Guys who aren’t as willing to pay a price aren’t getting rewarded. If you’re not willing to get greasy, nothing’s coming easy.

Winner: Ryan Miller

Elliotte Friedman tweeted for Hockey Night in Canada last night that “this game might win Miller the Hart Trophy.” Maybe that’s a bit hyperbolic, since the Olympics have nothing to do with the letter of the citation for the Hart, but last night’s game cemented Miller’s status as an elite goaltender. He might even be the elite goaltender on the planet at the moment.

Loser: Martin Brodeur

Team Canada did not lose to Team USA because Brodeur had a bad game. What he didn’t have, which was surprising, was a good game. He allowed on goal on what was described in the Vancouver Sun as being more akin to a “curling shot.” He allowed three others on shots that hockey fans have seen him gobble up as a snack over the years. We looked at him and, as a Caps fan, had our thoughts go to Olaf Kolzig and the way his career ended with the Caps (his last game being a 5-0 loss to Chicago, after which he would not play another regular season game or playoff game for the Caps). Is this how Brodeur’s Olympic career is going to end? Does Coach Mike Babcock put the fortunes of Team Canada in the hands of Roberto Luongo?

Winner: Alex Ovechkin

And the legend grows. The hit on Jagr aside (which might not have been as surprising to Caps fans as was his leveling 6’7, 250 pound Hal Gill in a game against Montreal just before the break), Ovechkin was – and has been – finishing checks, hitting players, and being his whirling dervish self on the ice. He is tied for seventh in tournament scoring (second on a loaded Russian team) and is playing a remarkably (given the dominant narrative of his play) complete, two-way game.

Loser: Sidney Crosby

Well, not loser, but he hasn’t had a very good week. Yes, he is tied for the tournament lead in scoring, and yes, he did have the game-winning Gimmick goal in Canada’s win over Switzerland. But this is his tournament, his Olympics. It is a lot of pressure to bear. But he ended the week deflecting the puck into his own net for the first Team USA goal on Sunday and is a minus-1 for the week.

Winner: Ryan Kesler

If you’re going to yap about hating the other team, you’d better stand up and be accounted for when you have to play them. Kesler did, in spades, against the Canadians on Sunday. He topped off the scoring of the 5-3 Team USA win over Canada with probably the hardest working empty net goal you will ever see, outhustling Corey Perry to a sliding puck in the Canadian end and driving home the last nail into the team he said he hated. But before that he might have been the hardest working player for either side on the ice. He was finishing checks, pressing the Canadians in the own end, blocking shots. This might be his coming out party…well, if more people could see it.

Loser: Henrik Lundqvist

OK, how many people know that he hasn’t given up a goal yet for Team Sweden? 120 minutes,41 shots, no goals, including staving off two 5-on-3’s against Finland. Lundqvist is representative of Team Sweden, which almost seems like a forgotten team in this tournament.  Pay attention!

Winner: Jeremy Roenick

We couldn’t stand Roenick as a player. We love him as an analyst. He speaks his mind in an unvarnished manner, and it is refreshing, as is his willingness to mix it up with Mike Milbury.

Loser: Mike Milbury

Why? Because we still can’t stand him.

The first week was quite a feast for the hockey fan and as good an introduction to the sport as you could hope for, for those folks looking in for the first time. The stakes are higher this week. It is single elimination now, and it becomes more of a goaltender’s tournament. A hot goalie can carry his club to three (or four) wins, and one bad goal could spell doom.

Canada has the hardest row to hoe to get to the goal medal – if they beat Germany, they have to beat the Russians, and then they are likely to face the Swedes before the gold medal game. Team USA might have the easiest path to the final, getting the winner of Switzerland-Belarus, then probably Finland or Czech Republic. But when it’s single elimination, the “bracketologists” might end up with egg on their faces. After all, how many people thought that the Canada-Russia game, if it occurs at all, will come in a quarterfinal?

Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be quite a ride this week.