Saturday, March 21, 2009

Caps Down the Bolts Despite Bad Calls

I have three sons who play youth hockey. One of the things I try to drill into their heads after every game is, "Don't focus on the bad calls." I've explained to them that while the rules for fair play are clearly defined, referees are human like the rest of us and they must rely on their interpretation of events during fast action to ensure fair play for both teams, and it's unavoidable that occasionally they make mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes favor your team, sometimes they don't. Either way, players need to focus their attention on playing their best hockey, not second-guessing the refs.

I had a hard time setting a good example for my kids Thursday night as we watched the ref wash out Alexander Semin's goal and send him off to the penalty box with yet another hooking penalty. The sportscasters made a point during the game of identifying Semin as having the second-highest penalty minute total on the team. At this point, one has to wonder: is this a case of the chicken or the egg? Meaning, does he get called for so many penalties because he commits so many infractions or because he has a reputation for being called for so many penalties? I tend to believe every time he hits the ice he's skating under a spotlight where the refs are concerned; they expect him to commit penalties so they watch him closer and are far less lenient in their interpretation of his actions than other players.

All of that is inconsequential to the play I referred to earlier. It happened in the first period of the game against Tampa Bay. Semin dug the puck out at the boards and passed it to Alex Ovechkin. He then skated back into traffic in front of the net and Ovi passed it back. A TB defender intercepted the pass but didn't have good control of the puck. Semin deftly lifted the guy's stick, and the Bolt reached out and grabbed Semin's stick, holding it long enough to try to gain control of the puck. As soon as he let go, Semin lowered his stick, snared the puck, and swiftly shot it into the net. Surrounded on three sides by TB defenders, Semin stumbled and ended up in a sitting position right in front of TB Goalie Mike McKenna, staring at the puck sitting squarely in the net. Goal! Or -- not, according to the linesman nearby. Semin glanced over at the ref, saw the hand in the air and knew there would have been a penalty coming, had he not just scored. And rightly so, against TB. I watched in amazement as the camera zeroed in on Alexander Semin's face, his eyes grew wide, he pointed to himself and said, "It's on me?" He couldn't believe it, and neither could I. I watched the play in slow motion a dozen times, and I have to say that was by far the most glaring bad call I've seen in the NHL.

The ensuing TB power play led to a goal within seconds. A game that should have been 2-0 instead was 1-1.

It wasn't the only time in the game the Caps were robbed of a goal, unfortunately. In the second period, Eric Fehr deposited a rebound from a Sergei Federov shot that completely crossed the red line into the goal, then was kicked back out by the goalie. The goalie was on the ground, and there were 2 other TB players in front of the net along with Fehr. The ref immediately called no-goal and didn't call for a review. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau called a time out, and the refs took the opportunity to review the play. After several minutes, the no-goal call stood. Again, I watched this play in slo-mo many times, and the puck is clearly in the white. How the NHL reviewers could miss it is beyond me.

Both these events were overshadowed by Ovi's 50th goal and the subsequent and controversial celebration. Ovi is the first Capital ever to score 50 or more goals in three seasons. The man is all of 23 -- the sky is the limit for the number of records he will go on to set. Mike Green also scored two goals in the game; Michael Nylander and Matt Bradley each scored one.

The outcome was as desired: a win for the Caps. It wasn't really a satisfying victory, though, when you see two players working their hearts out for this team and losing two legitimate goals. My hope is they both continue doing exactly what they've been doing, and follow the advice I give my own kids: forget the bad calls, and play the best hockey you can.

Final score: Caps 5, Lightning 2 (W).

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Caps Visit Lightning

If there is a team the Capitals should be excited to see, it's the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Caps are a perfect 3-0 against the Bolts this season. In each of those three outings, the Caps have secured a nice lead for themselves in the first period, scoring three unanswered goals, each time against a different netminder. Tonight's matchup will offer the Caps an opportunity to pummel yet another goalie, as Olie Kolzig is no longer a Bolt and Mike Smith and Mike McKenna are both out with injury.

In addition to goalie injuries, TB has also struggled to keep its blue line manned as well. The Lightning have now suited up 20 different defenseman in 72 games this season.

Although the stage is set for an easy Caps victory (is there such a thing?), especially coming off a gratifying shutout against the Panthers on Tuesday, no game should be taken for granted. TB's two top offensive lines are anchored by all-stars Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, both of whom are among the top 25 scorers in the NHL this season. And, the Caps have certainly lost their fair share of games this season against lesser opponents -- most recently, just three nights ago, when they were pounded by the Thrashers.

The Caps are in a very comfortable position going into the final ten games of the season. They hold a decisive 13-point lead in the Southeast Division over the Carolina Hurricanes, whom they'll visit on Saturday. Winning the division guarantees a playoff berth. Additionally, they are currently in third place in the Eastern Conference. A win tonight would move them into second (since New Jersey lost last night and doesn't play tonight), and would put them well within striking distance of first-place Boston, whom they currently trail by a mere 5 points. The remaining schedule favors the Caps as well, with the majority of their upcoming contests coming against Southeast rivals.

They're not locked in yet, though, and now is not the time to rest on past accomplishments. There is enough time left for other teams, such as Carolina, to display the same grit and determination that vaulted the Caps to a division win last year. This is the time to buckle down, stay healthy, and keep the focus on winning every game. Fans are hoping for another solid effort from the Caps tonight, and everyone is looking forward to Ovechkin's 50th goal, which will very likely be scored tonight at St. Pete Times Forum.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Caps Headed for the Big 1-0-0

The Caps appear well on their way to securing a 100+ point season. With 10 games left to play, they've already tied their 94 point total from last season. Three more wins will put them in triple digits. The last time they went over 100 was the 1999-2000 season, when they racked up 102 points and won the Southeast Division.

Capitals Play Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde

How can the same team play such different games against two teams from their own division only 24 hours apart? It was like watching a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde transformation.

On Monday night in Atlanta, the Thrashers came in looking to extend a five-game winning streak. They started the scoring early, and as Washington's frustrations grew, the Caps starting racking up penalties. The penalty kill unit was sloppy and disorganized, and Atlanta took advantage, scoring three times on the power play. With the Caps trailing 4-0, Coach Bruce Boudreau elected to pull starting goaltender Jose' Theodore and replace him with recent Hershey call-up Simeon Varlamov. Varly allowed the Thrashers to score one more, and the Thrashers held a 5-0 lead until late in the third. Eric Fehr finally ended Kari Lehtonen's shutout with less than two minutes left in the game, and the game ended in a 5-1 loss for the Caps.

The Capitals recorded an astounding 83 shots in the game. Fourteen were blocked, 19 missed the net, and Kari Lehtonen stopped 49 from finding the back of the net. The Caps offense lacked the energy and determination they usually display, and the defense just couldn't get their act together to clear the puck out of their zone. Altogether, it was an extremely disappointing game for the Caps and their fans. Final score: Caps 1, Thrashers 5 (L).

The good news from the game is that Defenseman Brian Pothier made his return after missing 14 months due to a concussion-related injury. Pothier recently completed a conditioning stint of 4 games with the Hershey Bears. He played Monday against Atlanta for Mike Green, who was sidelined with an undisclosed minor injury, and showed no signs of lasting effects. Pothier is a veteran blueliner whose services could be invaluable come playoff time.

In the last of their back-to-back outings this season, the Caps faced off against Florida at BankAtlantic Center Tuesday night. Florida is battling for a playoff spot, so everyone expected another tough game. What they got was, not so much.

Everything the Caps did wrong on Monday they corrected on Tuesday. Theo stopped the 19 shots he faced. The defense was strong and made few mistakes; the Panthers didn't even get a shot on net in the third period. The offense kept constant pressure on the Panthers with solid forechecking and backchecking throughout the game. The PKU successfully killed off eight minutes of short-handed play, and the first goal of the game came from Brooks Laich on a short-handed opportunity in the second period. Viktor Kozlov connected on a pass from Michael Nylander to put the Caps up 2-0 early in the third, and Green finished off Theo's shutout with an empty-netter off a pair of passes from the Amazing Alexes. Final score: 3-0 in favor of the Caps. It was Theo's second shutout of the season, and the 28th of his career.

Some interesting notes about the Caps top line, 8-19-28:

-- Alex Ovechkin's assist against Florida was the 400th point of his career. Only one active player has reached 400 faster than Ovi.
-- Ovi and Alexander Semin lead the NHL in shots on goal for the month of March. Including last night, Ovi has 55 and Semi has 42.
-- Semi and Nicklas Backstrom lead the NHL in takeaways, with 69 each. Semi leads the league for month of March with 19.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

SO Decides Contest with Canes

The Canes scored first. Then the Caps took control and grabbed a 2-goal lead. The Canes came back in the final period to tie it up. No scoring in OT, and it took a shootout to decide this one.

On Saturday night at Verizon Center, the Caps looked like the team we saw the first half of the season -- the team who surrendered only one game out of 20 on home ice. Other teams were growing to dread a visit to DC, knowing how tough the Caps were to beat at home. Then, something went terribly wrong, and the Caps started losing at home -- first occasionally, then consistently. Before the road trip last week, the Caps lost four in a row in the phone booth.

Fans sitting in Verizon Center Saturday night hoped for a better outcome against the Hurricanes. Fortunately, they were rewarded with not only a win but an exciting game as well. The Canes went up 1-0 midway through the first period, then the Caps took over, scoring three in a row on goals from Mike Green, Alex Ovechkin, and Alexander Semin. Eric Staal of Carolina scored in the second to get the Canes back in it, only to see Nicklas Backstrom get the 2-goal lead back a few minutes later. Then, with just 7 seconds left in the second period, the Canes scored again, making it once again a one-goal game, and Caps fans held their breath as the third period got underway. The Hurricanes managed to tie it up in the third and the game headed into OT.

Goalies Cam Ward and Jose' Theodore were kept busy in OT. Ward faced more shots (6), but Jose' had to make the more spectacular saves. Neither goalie gave up a goal in OT, so it was off to the shootout. Viktor Kozlov, Semin and Ovi were the shooters for the Caps; Semin and Ovi each scored. Theo denied both of the Canes' attempts, and Washington came away with the win.

Alexander Semin had a goal and three assists in regulation, and the game-winner in the Shootout, so it was no surprise he was awarded First Star. Mike Green's goal brought his point total for the season to 60, joining the rest of DC's Young Guns in the 60+ point club this season.

Final Score: Caps 5, Hurricanes 4 (W).

Friday, March 13, 2009

Gotta Love Them Caps!!

What a week it has been for the Washington Capitals! They finished up a long home stretch with a disappointing record: 3-5-1 (plus a road win against Boston). Prior to those 10 games, the Caps had enjoyed being known as one of the hardest teams to beat in their own barn. The final game of the home stretch, last Sunday against the Pens, went to overtime, where Sidney Crosby was the deciding factor in the shootout -- ouch!

Okay, on to bigger and better things. The Caps went on the road this week against Nashville and Philadelphia. Both games were very physical, both were low scoring affairs (final score of 2-1 for each in favor of DC), and both were just what the doctor ordered. The Caps ended a 4-game losing streak in Nashville with 41 shots on recently acquired Preds goalie Dan Ellis. The Preds effectively shut down the offensive powerhouse known as Alex Ovechkin, and held Alexander Semin to just an assist. The Caps came through with a big win, though, as Jose' Theodore came up big, holding Nashville scoreless after allowing a goal in the first minute of the game. The road wins continued in Philly, where the Caps sought to redeem themselves from their 7-1 trouncing there in December. This time, Ovi came through with a goal, along with Brooks Laich (the Caps' pseudo-captain in Chris Clark's absence). Theo was brilliant again, and the Caps' D was more impressive in these two games than we've seen in a long while.

We're loving the Caps these days as they show signs of maturing and readying themselves for the grueling play they'll face in the post-season. The real sign of what this team is made of will be apparent as they take on the 'Canes at home tomorrow and then set off on an extended road trip that will see them travelling through Buffalo, Atlanta, and Tampa Bay. Caps4Kids will be there and will try to get some great pix to share with you. GO CAPS!!!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Why Was Poti A "Now You See Me, Now You Don't" Last Night?

Here's an interesting tidbit from Japers' Rink, one of the premier Capitals bloggers. Why did Capitals Defenseman Tom Poti skate the first 7 seconds of the game last night, when he (probably) already knew he wouldn't be able to stay in the game? Why didn't Coach Bruce Boudreau just call up another D from Hershey prior to the start of the game to take Poti's place? Turns out there was a good reason: by playing in the game and then going on injured reserve status, Poti enables the Caps to make an emergency call-up to replace him. The reason that is important is that NHL teams are only allowed to make 4 call-ups after the trade deadline, but emergency call-ups don't count toward the 4.

Sounds like a wise move, but it sure would be nice to see Poti fully recovered from his nagging groin injury and be back in the game to stay. He's an important part of the Caps' defense, a great puck mover and capable of moving defenders away from the net.

Capitals 4 Kids did not know about the post-deadline call-up restriction. It's always fun to learn something new, especially about hockey. Thanks for the info, Japers'!

Gerber Impresses the Leafs as They Defeat the Capitals, 2-1

Toronto Goalie Martin Gerber was anxious to prove to his new team they made a good decision in picking him up off waivers. If he was nervous during his first game in a Leaf jersey, it didn't show. He stopped 37 shots from the Washington Capitals, and had a shutout for 59 of 60 minutes.

The Caps were without MVP Alex Ovechkin, who received a foot injury during practice on Wednesday. Their troubles were further compounded when Defenseman Tom Poti left the ice just seconds after the the puck dropped, courtesy of his ongoing battle with a groin injury. Coach Bruce Boudreau was then forced to make line adjustments throughout 60 minutes of play, as he sent Center Sergei Federov out to play on the blue line most of the game. At one point, Eric Fehr saw some ice time on D as well. It was an interesting night.

For the first time this season, neither the Caps nor their opponent scored during the first two periods. The Caps had several quality scoring chances during the first 40 minutes, but they couldn't get anything past Gerber. In the final period, the Caps failed to clear the puck from their own zone and in the resulting scramble the Leafs finally put one in the net. Just minutes later they scored again, and for the third game in a row the Caps found themselves needing a heroic comeback to get back in the game. It wasn't to be, though, as the Leafs continued to hold the Caps scoreless until the final minute of the game when Alexander Semin scored with an extra skater on for DC. As the final seconds ticked away, the Caps tried desperately to tie the game, with no success. Final score: Caps 1, Leafs 2.

If there are any bright spots for the Caps right now, they are Semin and Federov. Semin is on a five-game scoring streak and is clearly the most determined player on the ice. His efforts are visible on every shift as he fights for the puck and moves it into the defender's zone. He had 7 shots on goal last night, 2 hits, and 3 takeaways in over 24 minutes of ice time. Federov has also stepped up his game, showing the type of leadership you'd expect from a veteran with 3 Stanley Cups on his resume'.

Other good news for the Caps: Nicklas Backstrom appears to be improving his faceoff win %, as he has been over 60% for three of the last five games. Backstrom also picked up an assist on the Semin goal, bringing his point total to 69, which ties his total from last season. Goalie Simeon Varlamov is expected to return this weekend as the Hershey Bears take on the Toronto Marlies, and Defenseman Brian Pothier will also play for Hershey as he begins a conditioning stint to see if he'll be able to return to the Capitals after a 14-month recovery from a concussion injury. Caps fans will keep their fingers crossed that Pothier's health is back to 100% for his well-being as much as for what he would bring to the team.

Next up: Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and the rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins pay another visit to Verizon Center this Sunday at 3 p.m. Expect another hard-hitting, highly physical game as the most heated rivalries in the NHL are once again on exhibition. Let's just hope Ovi is back in action by then.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Leafs Pay the Caps a Visit, Minus One of Their Two New Goalies

The Capitals host the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight at Verizon Center. Toronto picked up two goalies this week: Martin Gerber, formerly an Ottawa Senator, off waivers; and former Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig, courtesy of a trade deal with Tampa Bay. Don't expect to see Olie in net at Verizon Center, though; he's still recovering from arm surgery. In fact, it's possible Olie may never see ice time in a Leaf jersey. He stated a while back that he may end up retiring if his recovery doesn't go as well as planned.

Kolzig, a first round draft pick by the Capitals in 1989, spent 18 seasons in DC before heading off to Tampa Bay as a free agent in 2008. He started in net for the Lightning when they played in DC on November, losing to Brent Johnson and the Caps in a 4-2 decision.

Gerber is expected to start in goal tonight for the Leafs as primary goalie Vesa Toskala prepares for a little surgery of his own. Jose' Theodore is expected to get the start for the Caps tonight, after missing Tuesday's game against the Hurricanes due to illness.

Michael Nylander is expected to return to the Capitals' lineup tonight after being a healthy scratch four games in a row. No word on who will sit this one out instead.


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Congrats to Mike Green -- AGAIN!

Congratulations to Defenseman Mike Green on being selected the NHL's Second Star for the month of February. Mike set a new NHL record for defensemen by scoring goals in 8 consecutive games between Jan. 27 and Feb. 14. He was second in scoring among all players in the NHL for the month of February, racking up 20 points in 13 games. Mike currently leads all defensemen for the 2008-2009 season with 23 goals and 56 points, despite missing 13 games due to injury.

Way to go, Mike! A well-deserved honor!

No Trades for Caps

3:00 p.m. today was the deadline for NHL teams to trade players for the remainder of this season. The Caps elected not to make any last-minute trades. There had been rumors the Caps would try to get a veteran defenseman on the roster, such as Anaheim's Chris Pronger. Turns out the price was too high, so the Capitals' General Manager George McPhee decided not to pursue the trade.