Friday, July 31, 2015

Washington Capitals -- Memorable Goals: Number 6

Our look back at ten memorable goals in the history of the Washington Capitals is up to number six and the first one in the Rock the Red era of the franchise.

February 14, 2009 -- Mike Green: Lightning Strike for a Record

In 2007-2008, his second full season in the NHL, Mike Green established himself as one of the top offensive defensemen in the NHL.  Playing in all 82 games that season (still the only time he accomplished that feat in his ten-year career), Green near the top among defensemen in a number of offensive categories:
  • Goals: 18 (2nd)
  • Assists: 38 (T-10th)
  • Points: 56 (7th)
  • Power Play Goals: 8 (T-6th)
  • Power Play Assists: 15 (T-18th)
  • Power Play Points: 23 (T-16th)

There was one area in which he was clearly the best – game-winning goals.  Green notched four game-winning scores that season, tied for the league lead, and three of them came in overtime (tops in the league), earning him the nickname, “Game-Over Green.”

That season was merely prelude to one of the best single offensive seasons by a defenseman in a generation of hockey.  Green started with a flash, going 4-2-6 in his first five contests.  You could say he slowed down a bit after that, recording eight goals in his next 30 games.  Still a nice pace for a defenseman (a 22-goal pace over 82 games), but not extraordinary. 

Then came a game in Boston against the Bruins on January 27th.  Mike Green scored a goal barely two minutes into the contest to give the Caps the early lead.  That goal was lost, however, when the Capitals got a scare seeing Alex Ovechkin take an awkward fall into the end boards that left him prone on the ice for 15 seconds (he returned to the game in the third period), and then when the Caps eventually lost the game on a David Krejci bank shot off the skate of defenseman Shaone Morrisonn in overtime in the 3-2 Bruins win.

The Caps returned to the ice four days later to host the Detroit Red Wings in the last game of January, but the hiatus did not seem to affect Green.  After serving two minutes for a hooking penalty earlier in the second period, he atoned for his penalty with a goal that gave the Caps a 2-1 lead on their way to a 4-2 win (he also assisted on the fourth goal to record his 11th multi-point game of the season).

Scoring goals in consecutive games four days apart was one thing, but the Caps took the ice the day after their win over Detroit to face the Ottawa Senators.  It took less than ten minutes for Green to record a goal in his third consecutive game, a power play goal that tied the contest, 1-1.  Less than a minute later, with the Caps on another power play, Green assisted on a goal by Alex Ovechkin to put the Caps in the lead for good.  When it was over, Green had a goal and three assists for his first career four-point game (he has had two since), and the Caps had a 7-4 win over the Senators.

Green was on a roll.  He followed up his three-game goal streak with goals in each of his next four games, including the game-winning and empty net insurance goals in a 3-1 win over the Florida Panthers, to tie an NHL record for consecutive games with goals scored by a defenseman – seven games.  It was a record set in the 1983-1984 season by Boston Bruin defenseman Mike O’Connell.

Only the Tampa Bay Lightning stood between Green and the record on Valentines Day 2009.  The Lightning were struggling, winning just twice in their previous seven contests and falling to fourth in the Southeast Division standings, 11th in the Eastern Conference.  They played like a struggling team against the Caps, too, falling behind by a 3-0 score at the first intermission.  None of those three goals, however, were scored by Green. 

The suspense ended early in the second period.  Former Capital Jeff Halpern was in the penalty box for the Lightning, serving two minutes for a hooking penalty.  With the Lightning a man short, Alexander Semin stripped Matt Smaby of the puck in the corner to the right of Tampa Bay goaltender Karri Ramo.  Semin spied Green sliding down between the circles and sent the puck that way.  Green collected the puck and wristed it at the Tampa Bay net.  The shot was blocked by another former Capital, Matt Pettinger, but the puck popped up and dropped at Green’s feet.  Green swatted the puck through Smaby, who by this time made his way to the front of the net, and past Ramo to take the record for himself and help propel the Caps to a 5-1 win.

The goal was Green’s 22nd of the season, and he would go on to finish the 2008-2009 campaign with 31 goals, the most by a defenseman since Kevin Hatcher (yet another Capital or ex-Capital in this story) recorded 34 goals in 1992-1993.  With 31 goals in 68 games, Green finished the season with the eighth-highest goals-per-game for a season among defensemen in the modern era of hockey (post-1967 expansion), surpassed by only Paul Coffey (three times), Bobby Orr (three times), and Doug Wilson.

What made Green’s goal on that night even more memorable was that he scored it with his father, Dave, in attendance.  It was part of the “mentors’ trip” that the team shared with many of the Capitals’ fathers.  For that, the record-setting performance, and being part of a superb season for Green, it is a memorable goal for Caps fans, too.

Photo: Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Is NHL Expansion a Done Deal?

Well, the Four-Letter Network seems to think so, or so one might one interpret when perusing their NHL team schedule pages.  We were looking at the Caps' 2015-2016 schedule, and when pulling down a menu to select teams, found this...

Ten Years In

Today is our tenth anniversary in this space.  This is our 3,941st post (we counted…Cheerless ran out of toes along the way). 

We’ve seen and written about some bad hockey and some great hockey, some disappointments and some pleasant surprises, the periodic table of the elements and all-alphabet teams.  We've watched and written about Capitals from "Alzner" to "Zubrus," from Alex Ovechkin (832 regular season and playoff games) to Jonas Johansson (one game, four minutes on ice).

There were some posts that seemed to get more than their share of attention over the years. In no particular order, the top half dozen in page views over the last ten years include…

In the aftermath of the 2011 Winter Classic in Pittsburgh, a fair amount of attention was being paid to the hit by David Steckel on Sidney Crosby that started the concussion problems that would affect Crosby's participation in games over the next two seasons.  The subtext to the whole matter was whether the hit was intentional at worst or avoidable at best.  We set out to debunk those notions.

This was one of those cases of being an example of the saying, “where you stand depends upon where you sit.”  Same media personality expounding on two athletes in similar situations, with very different takes. 

We never would have imagined that so few words would get so many views.  All it was, was a quote from New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur commenting on losing a shot from John Carlson in a sea of red and “not (being) used to playing in a building like that,” meaning Verizon Center.

When the Caps blew a 3-1 lead (again!) to lose the 2010 opening round playoff series to the Montreal Canadiens, it was due in no small part to the astonishing performance of Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav Halak.  His performance in Games 5-7 in that series might have altered the very trajectory of how the game was (and is) played in the NHL.

We wrote this as the NHL was emerging from its 2012-2013 lockout, it second lockout in eight years and third in less than 20 years.  It was the most commented-on post in the ten years we have been doing this and is the second most viewed post we have had.

This is the mother of all posts in our ten-year history, the most viewed and by a wide margin.  Even today, almost two years since we wrote it, it shows up among the most viewed posts on a month-to-month basis.  Maybe it’s the dogs.  Everybody likes dogs.

And there you have it.  We thank all of you who have stopped by from time to time to read our scribbles, and we hope that there are a lot of posts ahead.  We would sure like to do one someday that says, “Finally!”  And I think all of you know what that might refer to.  Something about a silver chalice and a parade. 

Until then, though, on behalf of Fearless and Cheerless, and all the other characters who have been a part of these posts, thanks for all of your support.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Washington Capitals -- Not All Playoffs are the Same: Part I

There was a discussion last week on local sports talk radio that centered on the notion of whether “championship or bust” is too high a standard with which to evaluate a team’s performance over the course of a season.  It is the kind of topic that is in the sweet spot of fan discussion topics, sure to invite a lot of opinions and a lot of disagreement.

Thinking about the Washington Capitals in that context in this most recent era of playoff appearances, the “Rock the Red” era (2008-present), we are reminded of one of our favorite bits of dialogue from the rich history of situation comedies.  In the 1970’s show, “Taxi,” Alex Rieger and Reverend Jim Ignatowski had this exchange…

Jim: I got blueberries!
Alex: Jim, I don't think those are blueberries.
Jim: They look pretty darn blue to me.
Alex: I'm saying that those are blue berries, but they may not be blueberries. And while all blueberries are blue, not all blue berries are blueberries.
Jim: I've mistaken blueberries for blueberries?
Alex: Exactly!

What does this have to do with the Capitals and playoffs?  From a fan’s perspective, perhaps not all playoff seasons are “playoffs,” at least with respect to the satisfaction level with outcomes.  Some, though they end early, might be considered a pleasant surprise, while others that might go longer might be considered disappointments (not that the Caps ever go long into a postseason).

With that in mind, we are going to take a look back at the Rock the Red era of playoff performances – all seven of them – by the Caps and rank them, worst to first, most disappointing to the most pleasant surprise, or at least the most encouraging from a going-forward point of view.*  So, let’s go…

7.  2010: “As Good as it Gets” to “Bad Beyond Belief"

The 2009-2010 Washington Capitals were ready for prime time in the postseason.  They reached the playoffs in each of the previous two seasons, playing in three seven-game series.  They had one of the most fearsome offensive squads in the league.  They had, if not the league’s best player, then certainly its second best, not to mention a youngster growing into one of the best centers in the league and a defenseman without parallel as an offensive contributor.

The regular season was one of streaks. Consider the Caps’ first 19 games – two wins, four losses, six wins, three losses, four wins.  That left Washington with a 12-3-4 record, best in the Eastern Conference and second best in the league (San Jose: 13-4-3).  It only got streakier – and better – from there.  A six-game winning streak ending November and beginning December, a three-game streak wrapped around Christmas, another three-game streak just after the first of the new calendar year.

It was prelude for the mother of all streaks, a 14-game winning streak starting on January 13th, capped by the “Snowmageddon” overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on February 7th.  That streak ended with a 6-5 overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens, the game winning goal scored with 7.5 seconds left in overtime in what would be, in retrospect, a bit of foreshadowing.  It would be the first in what would be an irritating trend of losses in the last two months.  While the Caps went 13-3-7 in their last 23 games to finish with the league’s best overall record and first Presidents Trophy, those seven losses in extra time suggested an inability to finish teams off.

Nevertheless, no one thought about that in the last ten days of the season when the Caps went 5-0-1, and few were giving the Canadiens a chance to upset the Caps in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.  After all, the Caps not only had the best record in the league (54-15-13), but their big guns were obliterating the opposition.  Alex Ovechkin had not gone consecutive games without a point over his last 38 games of the season, going 24-35-59, plus-27, over that span (a 127-point, plus-58 pace over 82 games).  Nicklas Backstrom’s performance mirrored that of Ovechkin, not going consecutive games without a point starting with the same game as Ovechkin’s streak (January 7th against Ottawa, in which Backstrom had the game-winning goal in a 5-2 win), going 18-37-55, plus-23, in 40 games played (a 113-point, plus-47 pace).  Defenseman Mike Green went the entire season without more than two consecutive games without a point and did so only three times in the 2010 portion of the season.  In 42 games in the 2010 portion of the season, Alexander Semin went 26-26-52, plus-25, including two four-point games.

Even when the Canadiens took Game 1 of the opening round in a 3-2 overtime decision, folks might have thought it only a speed bump on the Caps’ path through the playoffs.  But in retrospect, there were warning signs.  The Caps had 47 shots on goal in that game and managed only two goals against goaltender Jaroslav Halak.  And, the Caps had a bizarre results profile.  Alex Ovechkin was held without a shot on goal (it would be the only game all season he was held to no shots on goal), while he had five attempts blocked.  Nicklas Backstrom scored a goal, but he also had six shots on goal; only once all season – regular season or playoffs – did he have more (seven against Florida on January 29th).  Mike Green had six shot attempts, four of them blocked.  Alexander Semin had a whopping 14 shot attempts and nothing to show for it.  In all, half of the Caps’ shot attempts (94) were either blocked (27) or missed the mark (20).

The Caps hardly fared any better to start Game 2, falling behind the Canadiens, 2-0, before the game was eight minutes old.  When Eric Fehr tied the game in the 11th minute, it might have signaled a comeback, but Montreal closed the door over the rest of the period.  Then, the Canadiens went right back to work, getting a pair of goals from Andrei Kostitsyn less than six minutes apart to make it 4-1 late in the second period.  Nicklas Backstrom got his second goal of the series less than 90 seconds before the second intermission, but the Caps were still 20 minutes away from going down, 0-2, and having to travel to Montreal for Games 3 and 4.

At that point, the sheer advantage in skill took over for the Caps. Ovechkin and Backstrom scored in the front half of the third period to tie the game.  When Tomas Plekanec scored with barely five minutes left to give the Canadiens a lead once more, that 0-2 hole looked more and more likely.  However, with just 81 seconds left in regulation, John Carlson scored to tie the contest again, sending the teams to overtime.

It took Washington just 31 seconds to break the 5-5 tie and tie the series, courtesy of Nicklas Backstrom’s hat trick goal and fourth goal of the series.  The Caps avoided a disaster, but the warning signs were still there.  Ovechkin had 15 shot attempts, seven of them blocked (he did have a four-point game on a goal and three assists).  Green had seven attempts, five of them blocked.  Semin had 13 more shot attempts, six of them blocked, bringing his two game total to 27 shot attempts, only 11 of them on goal, and no goals to show for it.

After two games, Montreal was apparently going to let the Caps chuck pucks from the cheap seats and take their chances with packing in the defense and blocking shots or forcing misses.  In Games 3 and 4 in Montreal, that did not look like a winning strategy.  Washington won Game 3, 5-1, managing to get 36 shots to the Montreal net among their 68 shot attempts.  But lurking behind those numbers was the matter of who was getting what.  Ovechkin…a goal on his only shot on goal, but otherwise five blocked shots.  Green had seven shot attempts, three of them blocked.  And there was Semin once more with double-digit shot attempts (12) but six of them blocked.

It hardly seemed to make any difference when the Caps won Game 4, 6-3, to take a 3-1 lead in the series.  But there were still those persistent ominous signs beneath the surface.  The game was closer than the final score might indicate; it was tied after 51 minutes of play, the Caps getting three goals in a 6:24 span late in the third period to break the game open and an empty netter to seal the win.  The Caps once more demonstrated that if they could get shots to the net (38 of 73 attempts in this game) they could make Montreal pay, but that was not something they were doing on a game-to-game basis.  And, Green and Semin combined for 17 shot attempts without a goal to show for it in this contest.  Through four games, Semin had 48 shot attempts, only 20 on goal; while Green had 28 shot attempts, only ten on goal.  Neither found the back of the net in those four games.  Even though the Caps had a 3-1 lead in games and were returning home with a chance to close out the series, there were problems getting consistent – and in some cases any – production from their big guns.

Over the course of the team’s history, Game 5 is often viewed as a pivotal game, especially when carrying a 3-1 lead in games.  Three times when taking a 3-1 lead in games to a Game 5, the Caps lost the series – in 1987 to the New York Islanders, in 1992 to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and in 1995 to the Penguins.

However, having won Games 2-4 by a combined score of 17-9, and having chased Halak from the Montreal crease in Game 3 and having him sit out for Game 4 in favor of Carey Price, Game 5 looked like a formality.  As it would turn out, Game 5 was one of the most frustrating games, perhaps, in the history of the franchise.

The Caps pelted Halak, who returned to the crease for this game, with 15 shots in the first period but found themselves down, 2-0 on early goals by Mike Cammalleri and Travis Moen.  It was all that Halak would need.  While he did allow a second period goal to Ovechkin, it would be all he allowed, turning away 37 shots in the odd game in which the Caps got a lot of shots to the net (37 of 68 attempts) but could not convert.  There were the continuing struggles of Semin (17 attempts, nine on goal, no goals) and Green (seven attempts, three on goal, no goals).  One had to think that if either or both found their way out of their respective ruts, the Caps would advance with a win in Game 6.

Over a large population of games, you would expect that the relative skill of two teams would be reflected in the results.  The opposite of this is that in a small population of games – in this instance two games at most remaining in the series – things can happen, and an heroic effort is magnified in its importance.  Depending on where you sit, the Game 6 performance of Halak in goal for Montreal was either heroic or blind luck.

The Caps recorded five shots on Halak in the first 75 seconds of the game.  They had eight shots before the game was six minutes old.  For all the good it did them.  Mike Cammalleri got the Habs on the board first with a goal at the 7:30 mark, then scored again just 99 seconds later to give Montreal a 2-0 lead.  It did not slow the Caps down much; they would finish the period outshooting Montreal, 18-10, but they still found themselves on the short end of that 2-0 score.

If the Caps dominated territorially in the first, they did so to an even greater degree in the second period.  They outshot Montreal, 14-3, in the frame but were stymied by Halak and the Montreal strategy to pack in their defense and let the Caps bomb away.

It was more of the same in the third period.  The Caps had seven shots attempts (four on goal) in a span of 1:46 early in the period without Montreal recording a shot attempt in response.  When the Canadiens finally did attempt a shot, it was Maxim Lapierre finding the back of the net from almost 50 feet out 4:17 into the period to give the Canadiens a 3-0 lead.  Eric Fehr got one back for the Caps with less than five minutes left, but that was as close as Washington could get in a 4-1 loss.  In all, Halak stopped 53 of 54 shots on goal.  It was the best save percentage by a goaltender facing at least 50 shots in a game ending in regulation time in the post-2005 lockout era (.981).

Despite outscoring the Canadiens through six games, 21-18; despite out-shooting them, 250-178; and despite out-attempting them by an astounding 482-343 margin, it was down to a Game 7 on home ice for the Caps.  It was, in the end, more of the same.  The Caps recorded the first four shots on goal of the game.  They had a 10-6 edge over the first 19 minutes.  However, it was in the last minute of the first period in which it would be the Canadiens getting the first goal, a power play strike from Marc-Andre Bergeron.

More, more of the same… The Caps added to what would be an 11-8 shots on goal advantage in the first period by outshooting Montreal, 13-3, in the middle period.  Halak turned all of them away.  In the third period, with the Caps’ season hanging in the balance, the Caps piled up a 7-1 shots on goal advantage in the first 6:39, a margin that might have been 8-1 (and a tie game) but for an apparent goal scored by Ovechkin that was disallowed for Mike Knuble being called in the crease.  Nevertheless, the Caps still had a 12-4 advantage in shots over the first 16 minutes of the period.  It would be the Canadiens getting the next goal, though, that from Dominic Moore with just 3:36 left in regulation to provide insurance.  Brooks Laich would get that one back 80 seconds later, but it was too late and not enough.  Halak stopped 17 of the 18 shots he faced in the third period, 41 of 42 for the game, and 131 of 134 shots over the last three games of the series to send the Caps to their most disappointing playoff exit in this era and arguably in the history of the franchise.

Why was it so frustrating?
  • The Caps finished the season with 54 wins to 39 for the Canadiens, 121 standings points to 88 for the eighth-seed Habs.
  • The Caps matched the Canadiens entire season win total (39) by February 4th, in Game 57 of the season.
  • The Caps finished the season first in scoring offense (3.82 goals/game) and goal differential (+1.05 goals/game, a third of a goal per game over the second place club); Montreal finished 25th (2.56 goals/game) and 18th (-0.10 goals/game), respectively.
  • The Caps led the league in goals for/goals against ratio at 5-on-5 (1.57, a third of a goal per game ahead of the second place finisher); Montreal finished tied for 22nd (0.90).
  • Montreal’s leading goal scorer, Brian Gionta (28), would have ranked fifth in goals for the Caps in the regular season.
  • The Canadiens’ top point-getter, Tomas Plekanec (70) would have ranked fifth for Washington.
  • The Caps had four players with more power play points than the top point-getter for Montreal (Plekanec: 24)
Then there was the series…
  • Alexander Semin: 95 shot attempts, 44 shots on goal… zero goals
  • Mike Green: 58 shot attempts, 23 shots on goal…zero goals
  • Alex Ovechkin: 0-for-21 in shooting over the last 156 minutes of the series after scoring 3:53 into the second period of Game 5
  • The league’s best power play going 1-for-33 in the series (3.0 percent)
  • The Caps’ penalty killers allowing a power play goal in six of the seven games
  • The Caps allowing the first goal in five games, losing four of them
  • The Caps being outscored in the first periods of games, 9-3; and being outscored 5-0 in the first periods of Games 5-7, all losses
  • The Caps got 37 goals from defensemen in the regular season; they got two from defensemen in this series (John Carlson, Joe Corvo)
  • In Games 1-4 the Caps scored eight of their 19 goals from beyond 30 feet, according to the official play-by-play.  In Games 5-7 they did not score one of their three total goals outside of 15 feet.
  • Montreal finished the series with 194 shots on goal.  The Caps had 182 of their shots blocked by the Canadiens.
  • The Caps displayed a relentless obstinacy in trying to pound pucks through a Montreal defense deployed to permit only that, evidence of an inability (or perhaps feeling it unnecessary) to adjust.  Meanwhile there was Montreal deploying Marc-Andre Bergeron as a seventh “defenseman,” but really as a power play specialist.  In Game 7 it mattered.  Of his 4:06 in ice time, 2:53 was spent on the power play, and he scored the game’s first goal on, what else, a power play.

In retrospect, the disappointment in this outcome runs deeper.  Every path to a Stanley Cup is different.  No two years present the same obstacles.  Looking back on the obstacle the Caps did not overcome in the first round, one can wonder at what might have taken place if they had cleared that hurdle. 

Had the Caps beaten the Canadiens, and the rest of the first round played out as it did, they would have faced the Philadelphia Flyers, winners over the New Jersey Devils in the opening round, in round two.  In the season series that year, the Caps went 3-0-1 against the Flyers, winning the last three contests after dropping an overtime decision in their first meeting, and outscoring Philadelphia overall, 22-13 (14-6 at even strength).

Had they dispatched the Flyers in similar fashion in the second round, the winner of Pittsburgh and Boston would have been waiting in the conference final.  The Caps swept the Penguins in the regular season (two of the games settled in extra time), outscoring the Pens by a 20-13 margin.  Had it been Boston as the conference final opponent, the Caps had a 3-0-1 record against the Bruins in the season series, all three wins by three-goal margins and outscoring the B’s by a 14-6 margin.

The regular season is no sure predictor of postseason success, but that certainly looked like a winnable path to the Stanley Cup final, where they would have faced the Chicago Blackhawks, a team the Caps defeated in their only meeting, 4-3 in an overtime decision in Chicago.  Not much to go on there, and Chicago had a 12-4 record on their way to the finals, but what a series that might have been.

In the end…

In 2010, “making the playoffs” was not going to cut it.  That was a floor for this team, not a ceiling.  Their 54 wins for the season is a club record and a total that remains unsurpassed in the post 2004-2005 lockout era; their 121 standings points is unmatched in this era and is a record for a non-Original Six team.  Their scoring offense was, and remains, the most prolific of this era.  And it was not a case of coasting into the postseason; the Caps finished with a 13-2-5 mark after the Olympic break.  They did not lose consecutive games in regulation time in the 2010 portion of the season.

Nevertheless, there were warning signs.  First, that 14-game winning streak.  It was nice while it lasted, but apart from it, the Caps were a 112-point team on an 82-game basis.  Were they merely a “very good” team as opposed to a “great” one?  Second, there were those extra-time losses.  Only four teams had more, and three of them – Columbus, Dallas, and Toronto – did not reach the postseason.  Was that evidence of an inability to finish, despite their gaudy record?  Then there was the regular season series against Montreal.  Both teams won two games, each team scoring 14 goals over the four games.  Three of the games were decided by one goal, the other by two when the Caps scored with just over three minutes left in regulation for a two-goal winning margin.  Did Montreal set up as the Caps’ worst possible first-round opponent?  Finally, there was the series nemesis, goaltender Jaroslav Halak.  He did not play a single minute against the Capitals in the regular season; Carey Price took all the minutes.  Halak did not have an especially impressive career record against the Caps (3-2-0, 2.60, .905 in five appearances), but the Caps did not see him in the 2009-2010 regular season.  Did the Caps take him too lightly?

Even with all of that, there can be no sponging away the disappointment of losing a 3-1 lead in games and the series to a club they finished 33 points ahead of in the regular season.  It ended up being the latest (at the time) episode in a horror show of blowing 3-1 leads against inferior opponents in an early playoff round.  It stands alone as the most disappointing postseason edition of the Capitals in team history and certainly the most disappointing one in the current playoff era.

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

* Don’t worry. We have not given up looking at the Caps’ most memorable goals.  We’ll be coming back series, too.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Washington Capitals -- Memorable Goals: Number 7

In our look back at ten memorable goals in Washington Capitals history, we go far back in history.  Back to the first night, in fact, and the first shift of a player who otherwise would not leave much of a mark in franchise history.

October 9, 1974 – Jim Hrycuik: Someone has to be First

Every season brings new hope for a team and its fans.  That is especially true when the season is the first for a new franchise.  Sure, as an intellectual matter one does not harbor much expectation that the new club will do well, but there is that “finally, we are here” moment when all the anticipation, all the suspense, all the waiting is over, and the team can finally take the ice.

So it was on October 9, 1974 in New York City when the Washington Capitals took the ice for the first time, facing the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.  Reality would be put on hold, if only for a short time, thanks to one Jim Hryciuk.  The native of Rosthern, Saskatchewan, undrafted and playing in his first NHL game, hopped over the boards for his first NHL shift not five minutes into the contest.  By the time his shift was over, he would forever be a part of Capitals history.

Taking advantage of a turnover by the Rangers, Hrycuik led a two-on-one break against New York.  When defenseman Gilles Marotte chose to defend against the pass and cover Dave Kryskow, Hryciuk curled in and lifted a backhand past Ranger goalie Eddie Giacomin to give the Caps a 1-0 lead just over five minutes into the contest.

The lead did not last long; the Rangers tied the game less than a minute later.  The Caps stood fast, though, and struck back to take a 2-1 lead in the second period.  Then the Caps were reminded that hockey games are 60 minutes long, and fairy tale endings are usually reserved to fiction.  The Rangers tied the game, then took a 3-2 lead.  Washington scored on a goal by Kryskow in the second minute of the third period to tie the game, 3-3.  Sadly, that not only would be the Caps’ last goal of the contest, it would be their last shot of the game.  The Rangers out-shot the Caps, 19-1 in the third period and won, going away, by a 6-3 margin.

The goal scored by Hryciuk would be the first of five goals that he would score in 21 games with the Capitals.  They would be his only games and only goals with the club, in fact his only games and goals scored in the NHL.  The following season Hryciuk played in 64 games with the Richmond Robins of the AHL, eight of them in the postseason, in what would be his last season in professional hockey.

As for the Caps, reality was cruel.  The team won only eight games in an 80-game season, setting a record for futility (8-67-5) that stands to this day.  Maybe it was the white pants.  A total of 36 skaters appeared for the Caps in that inaugural season, combining for a total of 181 goals (lowest total in the league).  Only one of those goals could be first, though, and it belongs to Jim Hryciuk.  That is what makes it memorable.

Photo: United Press International via The Washington Post

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Washington Capitals -- Memorable Goals: Number 8

We are up to the eighth most memorable goal in our look at memorable goals in the history of the Washington Capitals.  This one was memorable, not just for the record set, but for the context in which it was scored.

April 5, 1981 -- Dennis Maruk: Hats Off for Number 50

The first six years in which the Washington Capitals played hockey, success was a rare commodity.  Not once in six seasons did the Caps have a winning season, not once had they made the playoffs, and not once did they record as many as 70 standings points.  As they headed into their season finale of the 1980-1981 season against the Detroit Red Wings they did not have a chance to make it a winning season, but they did have a chance to reach the playoffs and hit 70 points for the first time.

For the Caps to reach the playoffs, they would have to win this game.  Losing it meant missing the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season.  Even winning the game would require help, though, that coming in the form of the Quebec Nordiques, who had to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in the season finale for the Caps to leapfrog the Leafs with a win over Detroit.  It was the price to pay having gone 6-15-6 heading into Game 80.

The Caps had another record in sight in that final game, too, an individual record.  Dennis Maruk and Mike Gartner had already become the first Capitals in team history to record 40 goals in a season, breaking the team record of 38 set by Guy Charron in 1977-1978.  Both had an outside chance to do what no Capital had done before, record 50 goals in a season.  Both entered the game with 47 goals on the season.

The late Robert Fachet, then the Washington Post beat writer for the Washington Capitals, had a fine summary of the contest, a game marked by odd theater at the start involving a broken goalie skate, then a flurry of scoring in the first period than ended the competitive portion of the contest.  

It was Maruk who contributed half of the goals in the 4-1 Capitals lead at the first intermission, drawing him to within a goal of the 50-goal mark.  The Red Wings got the only tally of the second period, then Mike Gartner scored his 48th of the season in the third period to inch closer to the 50-goal mark himself and put some pressure on Maruk.

With the Caps comfortably in front by a 5-2 margin, Maruk took a feed from Bob Kelly and converted it into the hat trick to become the first Capital to hit the 50-goal milestone

Tim Tookey would score late for the Caps to complete the scoring in the 7-2 win, and then it was time to wait to see what was unfolding in Quebec.  The Nordiques scored midway through the second period of their contest against the Maple Leafs to draw to within 3-2.  The teams would play scoreless hockey over the rest of the second period and 19 minutes of the third period, only adding to the agony of Caps players and fans in Landover.  Bill Derlago ended the suspense with a last minute empty net goal for Toronto, sending the Maple Leafs into the postseason and the Capitals home for the seventh consecutive season without a playoff appearance.

The Caps did reach the 70-ponit mark for the season, the first time they did so, and they finished one point out of a playoff spot, as close as they ever came to that point of making the postseason.  Two Capitals – Mike Gartner and Dennis Maruk – went into the final game of the season with a chance to hit the 50 goal mark.  It was Maruk who would reach that magic number, but in the aftermath of missing the playoffs he could only say, "It doesn't mean anything."

Perhaps in the moment, he was right.  However, Maruk became the first of five players in Capitals history to record 50 or more goals in a season. A year later he would become the first player in Caps history and only the eighth in the history of the NHL (third in the 1981-1982 season) to record 60 goals in a season. 

In a fraternity of Capitals with 50-goal seasons that includes Mike Gartner, Bobby Carpenter, Peter Bondra, and Alex Ovechkin; Dennis Maruk was the first to “50.”  And that’s not nothing.  His hat trick goal in what was to that point the most important game in the history of the franchise makes Dennis Maruk’s 50th goal very memorable indeed.

Photo: Washington Capitals

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Washington Capitals -- Memorable Goals: Number 9

We are here with the second in a series of ten memorable goals in the history of the Washigton Capitals.  Number 10 was odd, but Number 9 was a record-setter against an opponent you love to see on the other end of the score.

January 8, 1984 – Bengt Gustafsson, “Five-by-Five”

The 1983-1984 Washington Capitals were having trouble shaking off the distractions of the mid-winter holidays.  Starting on the day after Christmas 1983, when they dropped a 5-4 decision to the Philadelphia Flyers, the Caps went 2-3-1 in their next six games, leaving them a game under .500 (19-20-3) when they traveled to Philadelphia on January 8th for a rematch against the Flyers at The Spectrum.

There was no love lost between these two teams, and the bitterness was perhaps more keenly felt by the Caps, who dropped their previous two decisions to the Flyers, allowing 14 goals in the process, including a 9-4 pasting at The Spectrum on December 15th.

It did not look a lot better for the Caps when the Flyers opened the scoring 5:20 into the game on an unassisted goal by Dave Poulin.  The goal might have been the last straw of frustration that the Caps experienced for the better part of a month.  Just 59 seconds after the Poulin goal, Bengt Gustafsson scored for the Caps on his first shot of the game.  Less than five minutes later, Gustafsson put his second shot of the game on goal, and it found the back of the net behind goalie Pelle Lindbergh to give the Caps a 2-1 lead.

When Dave Christian scored less than three minutes after the second Gustafsson goal, the Caps had a 3-1 lead at the first intermission and had pelted Lindbergh with 16 shots on goal.  The Flyers restored some of the tilt in the ice to start the second period, but mid-way through the frame Doug Crossman went off on a holding penalty, and Gustafsson made it three-for-three, shots and goals, on the ensuing Washington power play.

That would be all the scoring in the second period, but the Capitals were hardly through.  Wes Jarvis rubbed some salt in the Flyer would with an unassisted shorthanded goal in the fourth minute of the third period to make it 5-1.  Less than two minutes later, Gustafsson recorded his fourth goal of the game on his fourth shot, tying the club record for goals in a single game originally set by Stan Gilbertson against Pittsburgh on April 6, 1975 in an 8-4 win.

The only question left was, did Gustafsson have another goal left in him.  He had his chance when Poulin was sent to the box for an elbowing penalty 9:37 into the period.  Less than a minute later, Caps fans had their answer.  Taking a pass from Mike Gartner, Gustaffson tried to move the puck to defenseman Rod Langway, but the puck hit a Flyer defender and rebounded back to Gustafsson.  The second time on his stick was the charm as he collected the puck in the right wing faceoff circle and fired it past Lindbergh a fifth and final time, on his fifth shot of the game.  The Caps rolled to a 7-1 victory.

The goal set a club record that would stand for more than ten years, until Peter Bondra tied it in February 1994 in a 6-3 win over Tampa Bay in what was a different kind of stunning efficiency – Bondra accomplished the feat in 24:46 of game clock time.  The five-goal effort by Gustafsson against the Flyers was accompanied by a three-assist night for Gartner and a two-assist night for Langway.

Perhaps even more important, the win set off a three-game winning streak for the Caps – all on the road – that was the start of a stretch run in which they went 29-7-2, going from fourth in the Patrick Division to second in the Division by seasons’ end.  They would set a club record for wins (48) and finish with more than 100 standings points for the first time in club history (101).  Gustafsson finished the season with what would be career-highs in goals (32) and points (75, tied two seasons later).

That the fifth goal would come on the fifth shot against, at the time, arguably the Caps’ most hated rival, and sparking the club to one of the best finishes in its history makes that goal one to chalk up in the “memorable” category.

B. Miller/Getty Images

Monday, July 20, 2015

Washington Capitals -- Memorable Goals: Number 10

It is summer, and for hockey fans a chance to unwind.  Maybe for bloggers, too.  We have not been as frequent with the posts lately, and that is a product of there just being so little news to digest.  But it is a chance to look back and have a little fun in the process.

Last year it was All-Franchise Teams by the Alphabet.  The year before that it was Capitals by the Periodic Table.  This summer, we are going to take a look at memorable goals. Not best goals, not most impactful goals.  Memorable ones.  By definition, that means goals we remember.  You might remember different ones, and feel free to offer them up in the comments, but let’s get started with one that illustrates a unique aspect of hockey.

March 8, 2006 – Pittsburgh at Washington, "The Majesky Bounce"

Ted Williams once remarked about the odd shape of baseball that they give you a round bat, throw a round ball, and you have to hit it square.  In hockey, you have a cylinder of extruded rubber being played on a sheet of frozen water.  Hilarity often ensues from the bounces such a shape can take on such a surface.  It certainly did in a game between two struggling teams late in the 2005-2006 season.

The Caps went into their game on March 8th against the Pittsburgh Penguins with a record of 4-9-1 in their previous 14 games not having won consecutive games in more than six weeks.  They did, however have a chance to win two in a row by virtue of beating the New York Islanders in their previous contest.

The Penguins were having just about as bad a time of it.  They were 4-17-3 in the 2006 portion of the season and lost three in a row as they headed to Washington.  The Penguins did, however, beat the Caps in the last game before the Winter Olympic Games break, 6-3, on the same ice sheet.

Just as they did in their previous meeting, the Penguins scored first, this time on a goal by Colby Armstrong barely two minutes into the game.  Unlike their previous meeting, however, when the Penguins went on to score the next four goals to turn the game into a rout, the Caps tied the game just over two minutes later on a goal by Ben Clymer.  They then took the lead mid-way through the first period on a Chris Clark tally.

Late in the period, Jeff Halpern was sent to the penalty box for an interference penalty.  Pittsburgh was doing little with the power play, the Caps’ Sergie Gonchar recording the only shot in the first 90 seconds of the Penguin man advantage.  Things would get worse for the Penguins in the last seconds of their power play.  A harmless looking clear by Ivan Majesky trying to gain some time for a line change became Penguin goalie Sebastien Caron’s personal un-highlight moment…

The goal gave the Caps a 3-1 lead heading to the first intermission and was perhaps the highlight of the game, overshadowing a three-point night (goal, two assists) by Alex Ovechkin.  It was the first of what would be three shorthanded goals on the evening, Ryan Malone scoring one for the Penguins early in the third period to close the Caps’ lead to 4-3, and Matt Pettinger scoring one with one second left – with an assist by Majesky – to give the Caps their final 6-3 winning margin.  It was Majesky’s goal that was getting the attention after the game, and he had some words about his good fortune:

"It was a lucky bounce.  It went in, so that's all it's about. The goalie, I don't know, he just went out and the puck went in."

Officially a goal of 121 feet, it was Majesky’s first goal as a Capital.  It would be his only goal as a Capital and the only shorthanded goal of his career.  It would also be Majesky’s last goal in the NHL.  At the end of the 2005-2006 season in Washington, he joined Oulun Kärpät in Finland, then Linköpings HC in Sweden for the 2006-2007 season.  Majesky never returned to North America, continuing to play in Europe, shuttling among a number of teams in Sweden and Finland, before wrapping up his hockey career with Rytíři Kladno in the 2012-2013 season.

It was a helluva way to go out, though, and made it one of the oddest goals among those that we remember.

Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Washington Capitals -- That Was The Week That Was: Week 2 of "Hockey Summer"

A week ago, we took time to take a breath after the Washington Capitals made some noise in the first week of the unrestricted free agent signing period.  The signing of Justin Williams and the trade for T.J. Oshie were big moves to start the summer, but the Caps were not quiet in Week 2.

While the Caps were holding their annual development camp for prospects, there were some things going on behind the scenes, too.  On July 4th, the club announced that they signed veteran goaltender Dan Ellis to a one-year/two-way ($575K/$250K) contract.  The signing had the appearance of being entirely a trade to bolster the goaltending situation at Hershey, made a bit thinner when the Caps sent Pheonix Copley to St. Louis as part of the trade for T.J. Oshie.

Washington is Ellis’ seventh NHL team.  He was the fifth goalie taken in the 2000 entry draft, selected by the Dallas Stars with the 60th overall pick in the second round.  That happened to be one of the stranger drafts at the position in recent memory.  First, there were a total of 32 goalies taken (by way of comparison, the two most recent drafts yielded a total of 45 goalies).  Only 12 of those goalies appeared in at least one NHL game, and only six have appeared in more than 100 NHL contests, including Ellis.

Ellis is tied for fourth in his draft class in games played (212, with the retired Roman Cechmanek, who last played in the NHL in 2004).  He is fifth in wins (87), fourth in goals against (2.79; minimum: 100 games), and fourth in save percentage (.906; minimum: 100 games).  It is not an especially deep draft class.  It does include Henrik Lundqvist, Rick DiPietro, and Ilya Bryzgalov, but the accomplishments drop off rather rapidly after that trio.

Ellis has not played in more than 20 games in an NHL season since he appeared in 44 games in 2010-2011 for Tampa Bay and Anaheim.  He appeared in only one game for the team that drafted him – Dallas – before he was signed as a free agent by Nashville in July 2007.  He played in 110 games for the Predators over three seasons, but over the last five seasons he has appeared in only 111 games for five teams, including a return stay in Dallas in 2013-2014.  After appearing in only 28 games over the past two seasons, the chances of his getting any time in Washington appear slim.

The bigger news was the signing of restricted free agent Evgeny Kunzetsov to a two-year/$6 million contract.  The Caps are buying what amounts to an extended test drive; Kuznetsov will be a restricted free agent once more at the end of the new deal.  Caps fans will no doubt be excited at the prospect of having Kuznetsov in the fold for two more seasons.  He was one of six rookie forwards who this past season appeared in at least 60 games, recorded at least ten goals and at least 35 points, and finished at plus-10 or better.  He was third in total postseason scoring among rookie forwards (seven points in 14 games) and led all rookie forwards in playoff goals scored (five).  He also displayed a willingness to shoot that rookies in a pressure cooker situation like the playoffs might avoid.  Even having played in only 14 games, he led all rookie forwards in shots on goal, and by a wide margin (42, compared to 26 for Teuvo Teravainen).

However, nothing is guaranteed.  Kuznetsov is more of a known quantity with his give seasons with Chelyabinsk Traktor in the KHL.  Nevertheless, parts of two seasons and 97 NHL games worth of experience is an uncertain predictor of future success.  Consider that his 14-32-46, plus-8, scoring line in those games looks a lot like the scoring line of a Cody Hodgson over 91 games in his first two NHL seasons (20-23-43) or Erik Christensen in 94 games over his first two NHL seasons (24-22-46), to note two forwards in this situation since the 2004-2005 lockout (and who did not build much on that performance).  Two years from now, three big forward contracts will come off the books (Brooks Laich, Williams, and Oshie), and if Kuznetsov is the number two center the club hopes he will be, he will get paid in a commensurate manner.

The Caps recorded three lesser signings as well (two of which we did not cover last week).  A pair of forwards – Paul Carey and Chris Bourque – were signed to provide depth and a veteran presence in Hershey.  Carey was a fifth-round draft pick of the Colorado Avalanche in 2007 and played all 22 games on the NHL portion of his resume with the Avs.  What he does have is 188 regular season games of experience in the AHL with Lake Erie and Providence (42-54-96, minus-10).  On a team that could feature a number of young forwards (Jakub Vrana, Riley Barber, Stanislav Galiev), his experience will provide balance.

The same might be said of Chris Bourque, who returns for his third tour in the Capitals organization.  Signed to a two-year contract ($575K in NHL salary per year), he brings more than 500 games of regular season and playoff experience in the AHL to the Bears.  Once a 33rd overall draft pick of the Caps, his days as a potential NHL regular are almost certainly behind him (he will turn 30 in January).  He has not appeared in an NHL game since March 2013 with the Boston Bruins and has only two goals and eight points in 51 career NHL games.

What Bourque brings to Hershey is having played in almost 400 regular season games with the organization and more than 70 postseason games.  He was a member of two Calder Cup championship teams (2009, 2010; and he played in one game of the 2006 Calder Cup championship postseason), and with the sort of season one might expect of him in Hershey he could find himself in the top ten all-time career regular season point-getters in franchise history (he has 393 points, Ralph Keller is tenth with 408).

The third signing was defensemen Taylor Chorney, previously of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the AHL.  With Mike Green having signed with the Detroit Red Wings, Chorney became the Caps’ seventh defenseman on paper.  It is a stretch to think that the club prefers this situation, given that Chorney has appeared in just 24 NHL games over the last three seasons and has just 68 games in a five-year career.  He does have 400 games of AHL experience and 142 career points with five teams in the American Hockey League.  Circumstance might require him to serve as a seventh defenseman (we will get to that), but one thinks that there is another deal for a defenseman that will be made over the next two months leading up to Opening Night.

There are a couple of dark clouds that appear on the horizon this week.  Marcus Johansson and Braden Holtby filed for arbitration.  Both are restricted free agents looking for substantial raises (Johansson had a $2.0 million cap hit on his just expired deal; Holtby’s hit was $1.85 million).  It is entirely possible that the combined cap hit on the new deals for the pair will exceed $10 million.  If one assumes that Justin Peters will start the season in Hershey and that Taylor Chorney is that seventh defenseman for the Caps, devoting $10 million in cap room to Johansson and Holtby would leave about $1.8 million in cap room with 21 contracts on the parent roster (12 forwards, seven defensemen, two goaltenders; source:

The contract situation is a distant early warning of things to come.  Two years from now, in the summer of 2017, four contracts come off the books entirely (Brooks Laich, Justin Williams, T.J. Oshie, and Karl Alzner), and another four players will be restricted free agents (Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Nate Schmidt, and Philipp Grubauer).  That, however, is a matter for a different day.  The Caps have done quite a bit in the first two weeks of hockey “summer,” but there is much work to do before the curtain rises on the 2015-2016 season.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Washington Capitals -- 2015 Development Camp: Day 3

Day 3 of Development Camp 2015 for prospects of the Washington Capitals was sort of like the third quarter of the academic year.  On Day 1, the prospects were put through what amounted to a brief master class in skating with very little work with pucks in the morning, followed by some afternoon work with lines and pairs.  Day 2 was a day to test skaters on their current skills status in a variety of skating courses, and then give forward lines and pairs some more time together. 

Day 3 was more of a conventional day of drills that looked more like a “training camp” setting.  Not that the day lacked for instruction – often on a one-on-one basis.  But the pace was crisp in going from one drill to the next, emphasizing skating passing, corner work, and making the goaltenders work for their supper.

This is where one starts to see who has been through this before – who has experience here and elsewhere – and who is still sort of feeling their way, taking it all in.  There is a certain confidence that seemed to surround guys like Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson, and Madison Bowey. That’s not to say that some of the free agent invitees are without a chance of moving up the ladder, but this might be their first experience with a camp at this level, even if it does not feature parent or farm team roster players.

The forward lines in the first morning session (Team White) were:
  • Red Jerseys: Riley Barber/Chandler Stephenson/Jakub Vrana
  • Gray Jerseys: Nick Lappin/Thomas DiPauli/Brian Pinho
  • White Jerseys: Trevor Cox/Jonathan Davidsson/Steven Spinner
The forward lines for the second morning session (Team Red) were:
  • Red Jerseys: Liam O’Brien/Travis Boyd/Caleb Herbert
  • Gray Jerseys: Marcus Basara/Shane Gersich/Kevin Elgestal
  • White Jerseys: Cody Murphy/Miles Koules/Zach Sanford
A few observations from the morning sessions…
  • One of the features of the Team White session was Jakub Vrana wearing the helmet cam.
  • Chandler Stephenson showed some early am skill in banking pucks off iron an in, although such things do have ways of evening out.  Home he saves some for the season.
  • The sessions were largely divided in half – forwards at one end doing skating-passing-shooting drills, and the defensemen at the other end of the ice working on shooting, particularly changing angles and position to get shots off.
  • Keegan Asmundson is a very large goaltender, but it is not a hindrance.  That said, the goalies (Asmundson and Chris Nell) seemed to have a rougher time in the second (Team Red) session than did (Vitek Vanacek and Jan Ruzicka) did in the first (Team White) session.
  • Asmundson took a shot off the mask from Zach Sanford early in the Team Red session and took a couple of minutes to check the mask for dents.
  • Mitch Korn seems to be always teaching.  He didn’t miss a chance to get in the goaltender’s ear to give him 30 seconds or a minute of advice.

And now, some pictures…


OK, where's the Sharpie?

It's "put your RIGHT foot in, and shake it all about!"


close order drill

"Vrana Cam"

Two goalies go into a bar...

There will be a test on this at the end of the hour...



You guys getting this?

Those guys in the back were pretty good...

Puck Stare-Down

They're getting the hang of this.

...and now, your moment of "sad."

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Washington Capitals -- 2015 Development Camp: Day 2

Day 2 of Development Camp 2015 was dominated by testing.  You know the drill by now... those spidery timers set up on the ice and the prospects going through a number of courses to time their skating over a number of courses.  Maybe it was a product of being the first item of business in the morning, but some of the skaters had their troubles keeping their skates under them.  Two of them -- Riley Barber and Liam O'Brien -- were particularly adventurous.  Barber lost his skates on several occasions, while O'Brien seemed to have a beef with the "giant plungers" that served as pilons for some of the skating tests, knocking a number of them over on his routes.  Perhaps it was his own practice for getting under the skin of opponents for the upcoming season.  While the skaters were undergoing skating tests, goalie coach Mitch Korn was working with the prospect netminders on the Capitals Rink.

The testing sessions for Team White and Team Red lasted about an hour, after which they crossed the hall from the Arlington Ice Rink to the Capitals Ice Rink for another hour or so of a more traditional drills session.  The day included a couple of Caps alumni -- Jeff Halpern on the ice again assisting in conducting the drills, and Brian Sutherby, now a pro scout with the club, looking on from the balcony in each session.  With testing followed by drills of two-man rushes, five-man breakouts, shooting off the rush, we got some pictures of today's activity...