Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The game is clicking for the Caps

Since the players of the Washington Capitals unanimously named Alex Ovechkin captain on January 5th, the team has won 12 of its past 13 games.  Coincidence?  Maybe, but I think his new role is part of it. One of the other key factors that seems to be a part of the wins the Caps are amassing in January is that Coach Bruce Boudreau has finally kept the forward lines together instead of tinkering with them every night.  The third factor is that Boudreau appears to have finally found a way to motivate this team to play well, regardless of whether or not they're playing a winning team or one in the basement of the standings.  Considering how often the Caps played down to lesser competitors the last couple of years, that's a huge step forward.

All four forward lines are gelling in a way I have never (and I mean never!) seen in Washington.  It reminds me of watching the Detroit Red Wings the one and only time the Caps reached the Stanley Cup finals.  During game one, I watched mouth agape at the tape to tape perfect passes the Red Wings made and knew that there was no way the Caps were going to win that series, even though they kept the score competitive in all the games until the final one. 

Lately, I've watched the Caps move the puck into the offensive zone with my mouth agape.  In last night's game against Florida, the other hockey fanatic in my house, Jeff & I looked at each other in awe as Eric Fehr and Brendan Morrison passed to each other up the ice.  It was pretty.  And, if a pass doesn't land perfectly on the tape, all the forwards seem to have the ability to move the puck with their feet to get it on the tape.  It's sick, as Ovi would say.

And, there's so much more going right for the Caps, right now.

Mike Knuble playing on the line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom has given the Caps a prolific goal scoring top line because of his ability to crash the net and pot in garbage goals.  My excitement over Knuble's arrival last summer has only intensified because it's so clear the hole he fills for the Caps and he nets the kind of goals teams must get in the playoffs.  He has 18 goals and 13 assists for 33 points this season and he's having a blast playing with this team. 

Ovi is taking his game to a whole new level as he has 6 more assists, at 40, than his 34 goals.  He's playing +34 hockey and it shows in his better defensive play.  He still has too many giveaways, some nights, but he's playing well and inspiring this team.

Backstrom is also taking his game to a whole different level as he's becoming a goal scorer with 22 goals (his season high last year), in addition to, being a playmaker.  He's playing +25 hockey and it's so much fun trying to watch opponents get the puck off his stick.  Backstrom frequently looks like he has velcro on his stick.

I'm not sure what's gotten into Alexander Semin but I've never seen him play better.  He's always been an extremely talented, but injury prone and streaky player who gets lazy during the long grind of the season. He shows up in the playoffs though, so I give Semin a lot of slack.  Since returning from his wrist injury in December, he's been one of the best forwards in the NHL, getting 16 goals and 36 assists and playing +19 hockey.   Semin received the number one star of the game four times in a row this month against Anaheim, the New York Islanders, Phoenix and Pittsburgh.  

The team's blue line is also playing well and Jeff Erskine, Shaone Morrisonn and Jeff Schultz all broke long scoring droughts in the last several games.  Mike Green, unfortunately suspended for three games for an elbow to the head of Michael Frolik against the Panthers last night, is playing much stronger defense, he's +22 and still racking up points.

Goaltending is still a concern for the Caps.  Jose Theodore has won his last six games against Pittsburgh, Anaheim, Detroit, Philly, the Islanders and Florida, but he's a streaky goaltender. His stats aren't in the top half of the league.  Semyon Varlamov can't get or stay healthy.  Michal Neuvirth is going to be a good goalie in the NHL, but, at times, he looks overwhelmed and could use more time in Hershey.  He played a strong game last night and made a spectacular glove save as the force of the shot pushed him back down to the ice after he caught it.

So, what does it all mean?  It means nothing because it's January.  It's just fun to watch.

Tampa Bay Lightning up tomorrow. 

Let's go Caps!

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

The ups and downs of this Caps team

Prior to producing two solid wins against the Toronto Maple Leafs, 6-1 on Friday, and the Philadelphia Flyers 5-3 yesterday, the Caps became the team that frustrates their fans in their little tour of the Southeast Division.  They reverted backed to their lazy ways and took it too easy against the Tampa Bay Lightning, for a 7-4 thumping, they managed to eke out a win in the shootout against the Florida Panthers and they played their one good game with a 8-1 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers.  The Caps performance at the Atlanta game is what championship teams are supposed to do and they're supposed to do it every game night.  Take their two points with conviction when the opponent is struggling.   The Caps tend to forget that lesson, at times.

The Caps are back on top of the Eastern conference again, for the moment, so why am I calling them out for their unforgettable performance against the Southeast?  Because, I want this team to play hungry every night and I want them to remember that they have won exactly nothing.  I do realize that no team plays on the top of its game every night during an 82 game season, but laziness cannot became a habit of a contender so I'm happy to see they played with more energy the last two games.

Positive observations:
  • Brooks Laich ended his scoring drought against the Flyers, collecting two goals - one short-handed - after having a video review session with Coach Boudreau.  Brooks is always a hard worker and I'm thrilled he ended his scoring slump.
  • The Caps defense, as a unit, is playing better this season.  Another year of experience under the belt is helping players like Jeff Schultz and Mike Green.   Green made a spectacular poke check deep in the defensive zone yesterday that had Craig Laughlin saying it was a "Norris worthy" play.  Schultz looks more comfortable in his body and it's showing. His +/- at +27 is second in the NHL only to his team Captain, who leads the league at +28.  Green and Schultz both still have to prove themselves in the playoffs so this season is a big test.
  • Alex Ovechkin seems to be taking his game to a whole new level recently as his 5 point night (1-4-5) against Toronto showed.  His playmaking abilities are beginning to match his goal scoring abilities, as he now has 34 assist and 30 goals for 64 points.  Ovechkin has found strong chemistry with Mike Knuble and Knuble, since recovering from surgery on his finger, has become that net crashing, garbage goal scorer Caps fans were hoping for when he was signed. 
  • Jason Chimera took a little while to settle in with the Caps aggressive offensive system, but he's stepping up now.  He's a big guy at 6'2, 216 lbs, he plays physical and I liked it when Chimera defended his teammates on Friday night against the frustrated and chippy Maples Leafs.
  • John Carlson, he of the recent game winning gold medal goal for Team USA fame, received an ovation Friday night when his name was unexpectedly announced in the starting lineup.  I cheered wildly in my Carlson jersey.  Brian Pothier is hurt so Carlson is playing.  His confidence level from the junior world hockey championship carried over into his play during the last two games.  Carlson played +2 hockey in 14:32 of work against Toronto and had 2 missed shots, 1 hit and 1 giveaway.  He played +2 hockey in 15:51 minutes of work against the Flyers, had 2 takeaways, 2 blocked shots and 1 giveaway.   The jitters that showed when Carlson made his NHL debut against the Montreal Canadiens in November are gone and he is playing like he belongs.  Carlson was sent back to the Hershey Bears today, but I have no doubt we'll see him again soon.
Nagging Concerns:
  • Goal tending - is Semyon Varlamov going to be a healthy, productive net minder? I don't doubt his ability to be a #1 goalie in the NHL, just his resilience.The jury is still out as he gets injured every year and has been out since early December, except for playing one game in Hershey where he managed to injure his right knee.  Michal Neuvirth gets overwhelmed when the Caps defense is playing poorly and the forwards aren't back checking as effectively as they need to be.  He has a 5-4 record with a .892 save percentage, so he's not playing horribly, he just needs more experience.  And, Jose Theodore is 13-7-4 with a .902 save percentage.  At times, the Caps play horribly in front of Theo and, at times, Theo can't get his rebounds under control.  All of this makes me wonder if the Caps currently have what they need in net to contend for a Cup run and the answer is "not right now". Thankfully, it's only January.
  • Penalty killing - the Caps penalty kill has dropped back to 25th in the league at 78.6% effectiveness.  That needs to improve before the playoffs.  The Caps are doing somewhat better at avoiding untimely costly penalties, but they need to kill off penalties better.
The positives outweigh the negatives so let's keep it up Caps.

Detroit Red Wings are next.

Let's go Caps!


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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

John Carlson's sublime finish for Team USA

John Carlson streaked up the ice in overtime against Canada for the gold medal and set up for the pass.  And, without looking at the goalie, he whipped a shot right past him for the game winning goal in Team USA's upset win over the Candians at the World Junior Hockey Tournament.  It was Carlson's second game winning goal in a row in the tournament.  But, it was his defense (he is a defenseman, after all) that was just as impressive as his canny ability to find the back of the net for game winning goals.  He ended the 7 games of the tournament playing +8 hockey, he blocked shots, made smart outlet passes, hit plenty, battled hard and made the safe dump play, when necessary.  Carlson's offensive ability was definitely on display, too, with 4 goals, 3 assists for 7 points in 7 games.  Not too shabby, at all.  

John Carlson's
NHL debut started against the Montreal Canadiens on November 28th.  It went okay, not great as his nerves showed, but he was credited with 5 hits that night (correction from my post last night - Carlson was #1 in hits that night with the #2 guy being the now team captain, Alex Ovechkin).  His second game agaimst the Toronto Maples Leafs, he ended with 1 hit, 1 blocked shot, 1 giveaway and 1 takeaway for a -1 night.  Carlson's final game against the Ottawa Senators, where he only had 11:33 minutes of work, he had 2 blocked shots and ended +1.  Overall, not great, but not horrible.  He needs more experience and he'll get it with the Hershey Bears this year, but, if his development continues as it has, I expect to see him on the Caps next year.

And, tomorrow at the phone booth, I will proudly sport his #74 Caps red home jersey for the first time.  There is no doubt we'll see him in it again this season.

Meanwhile, the Caps bounce back from a three game losing streak to win 4-2 against the Canadiens under the first game of unanimously voted in team captain, Alex Ovechkin.  He game them new energy last night.  Congrats Ovie! Now, take this team to the Cup :)

Tomorrow night, the Ottawa Senators.

Let's go Caps!

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