Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Nothing better than game 7 hockey in Stanley Cup playoffs

I'm watching the series deciding #8 seed Chicago Blackhawks play the #1 seed Vancouver Canucks game, like most hockey fans right now, and it reminds me why hockey is the greatest game on earth.  Yes, I know any non-hockey fan would disagree, but they're wrong :).  It's a 1-0 Vancouver lead with 3:26 left in the third period.  Vancouver is battling back from losing the last three to Chicago after being up 3-0, so the story lines keep getting better as the game goes on like...

Roberto Luongo, the net minder in the first year of a twelve-year contract that blew two games.  He also has a pretty bad playoff record since he's never made it past the second round. Luongo got pulled in game 6 and is trying to overcome his playoff choker reputation.

The Vancouver GM Mike Gillis asking for a "level playing field" for officiating since the Canucks suffered 27 penalty kills while the Hawks had 16.  Inconsistency of officiating in the NHL is a constant rant from fans, but I've never seen a GM publicly complain about the penalty calling.

Corey Crawford, the rookie net minder, who did not play when Chicago won the Cup last year, is playing lights out.  He's making some incredible saves, including a penalty shot to try and help Chicago make history because the Hawks are aiming to come from behind three games in the series.  It's only been done three times in the NHL.

Back to the action...

Jonathan Toews, the Chicago captain with only 3 points in the series so far, scores a short-handed clutch goal with 1:56 seconds left in the third period to tie the game.  The captain hasn't scored a goal in this series.  In one second, the momentum swings and the crowd gasps.  It was an unbelievable goal, too.

In the end, Vancouver shakes off their demons for this round with an overtime win on a goal by Alexandre Burrows at 5:22 in the overtime period and Vancouver goes nuts.

Ahhh, NHL playoff hockey.  So much fun to watch a game 7 when my team isn't playing!

In other news.....the Caps find out their 2nd round opponent starting now (since I didn't post this last night).   It'll be the Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning or the Montreal Canadiens.

Let's go Caps!

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

An electric phone booth and the Caps move on

The Caps played the game they were supposed to yesterday and came away with the win, 3-1, and the series. The ringing in my ears finally subsided several hours after I left the Verizon Center.  The deafening cheers from the sea of red started before the Caps appeared on the ice and they rarely let up yesterday afternoon.   From the "we are louder" chant to the "hey, hey good-bye" chant in the last two minutes, Caps fans enjoyed themselves in the post season, for once.

Props to Michal Neuvirth, the first star of the game.  The 23 year-old rookie net minder played with confidence.  He showed that when he came out to skate for the first star by throwing his hands into the air as if to say, "NHL, do you know who I am now?"  The unheralded net minder won't be unheralded much longer.  Neuvirth has won every single playoff series he's played on North American soil and earned an MVP award in the AHL by leading the Capitals minor league affiliate, Hershey Bears, to the first of two Calder Cup victories. 

I love Neuvirth's cool, calm and unflappable demeanor in net, except when someone is crashing his crease.  Then, he gets ticked.  Ah, that brings back memories of Olie Kolzig for me and that's a good thing.  Neuvy's 1.83 GAA and .946 save percentage has him on the leader board for playoff goalies in the number two position behind Antero Nittimaki of the San Jose Sharks.

Thank you Coach Boudreau for having faith in Neuvirth.  I asked for him to be the goalie in my March 14th column and it was the right decision.  He's a winner and that's all that matters right now.

The Caps also crashed the net yesterday.  Yeah.  So simple, yet something the Caps forget to do time and time again.  Mike Green's first goal came on a net crashing scrum on the power play that ended up with him getting the puck into the net.  Greener also provided the most scary moment of the game when he blocked a shot with his head. Ahhhh.  The phone booth went silent.  Apparently, he's okay.  We'll see.

The game winning goal came courtesy of the Cap's game winning goal Russian machine, Alex Ovechkin and it was a beauty.  Ovie out smarted an overworked and tired Marc Staal and beat Henrik Lundqvist coming from the right wing side.  Maybe Boudreau needs to play Ovie on the right wing more often.  He said he might.

There are other Caps that played key roles in getting them through round one.  I'll talk about them in the coming days before round two starts.  In the meantime, I get to watch playoff hockey without really caring about the outcome.  That keeps my blood pressure down.

Let's go Caps!

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Friday, April 22, 2011

Go for the throat please

After that epic, heart attack inducing, come from behind double overtime victory, I only have a short plea today.  Win, just win tomorrow Caps.   The Rangers are tired.  Send them home. And, please, please do it before overtime.

That is all.

I'm looking forward to rocking the red.

Let's go Caps!

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Which team wants it more?

On Sunday, the New York Rangers wanted it a lot more than the Caps.  The Caps played a disorganized, sloppy, penalty filled game that ended in a 2-3 loss and handed the momentum back to the number eight seed.  This history is disturbingly familiar.  Obviously, even Jason Arnott didn't have magic words for this team, but, at least, he still appeared on the score sheet.

The Rangers spent their game harrassing Michal Neuvrirth.  I want to see the Caps pushing the Rangers out of Neuvy's crease.  I also want to see them crashing into Henrik Lundqvist's crease a lot more, even at the risk of penalties.  They've got to do that to get those garbage goals that win playoff games. Plus, they need to shove that pressure right back at the Rangers.  The Caps can't afford to get more penalties than the last game, but if they eliminate the stupid ones like delay of game, interference, hooking and holding it shouldn't be a problem crashing the crease.

I'm still amazed that Lundqvist got the number one star in that game because I'm not sure what he did to deserve it.  The Caps played 16 minutes of penalty killing so Lundqvist wasn't all that busy stopping 23 of the Caps 25 shots.  Neurvirth faced 35 shots. Since the New York media picked the stars for that game, I'm surprised Sean Avery, the drama queen, didn't get it for deciding to give his team and overworked defensive stars a little rest by breaking his stick prior to that one faceoff.

So Caps, it's up to you.  Either shine your golf clubs for your typical early exit or play like you want it by addressing the shortcomings Tarik so eloquently highlighted.

Let's go Caps!

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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Believe it Arnott

I loved the sign that said that in the phone booth last night.  I also love Jason's remarks in today's Washington Post talking about how the Caps eased up a bit in the third period of their 2-0 victory over the New York Rangers Friday night.  He mentions that even with all the positives they have to address the negatives, like being lackadaisical in the third period.  Awesome, just what the Caps need to hear.  Jason's angry goal look is worthy of love, too.  Let's face it, I love this guy.

Arnott is the leader the Caps have needed in the locker room and on the bench for a long time.  He's constantly talking to Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and all the boys on the bench and they listen to him!  Arnott is the one that will make damn sure the Caps don't slack off, which has been their downfall more times than I can count in the Ovie era. His attention to detail and making sure they do all the little things right is so important if this team is going to progress in the playoffs.  And, it's the little things that have killed them in the past (lousy defense didn't help either, but that's a subject for another post since it's not a problem right now).

Arnott is on a mission and he's arrived at the right place at the right time.  Players don't waive their no trade clauses to play for a losing team.  They waive them to compete for a Stanley Cup. Arnott saw a situation in Washington where he could be a contributor and a leader and compete for a Stanley Cup again, so he became a Cap.  He didn't want to waive his no trade clause to go anywhere else.  He wanted to come here.  I'm thrilled he's here.

That doesn't mean I'm etching the Caps players names on the Stanley Cup because I'm far from that.  There's too much history, too many playoff failures and too many blown 3-1 series lead for me to remotely be optimistic about this team making it to the finals, much less competing for the Cup.  I have to take it one game at a time.

And tomorrow's one game at a time game is in Madison Square Garden.  If they win, I'm already dreading the deadly three game lead even though I have tickets to game 5.  My hope, since this series began, is that I don't get to use them.

Let's go Caps!

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Friday, April 15, 2011

The heart attack Caps

There is nothing more exciting than overtime hockey in the Stanley Cup playoffs.  The game moves so fast compared to other sports that in a blink of an eye a puck can fly into the net and the game's over.  But, if it's your team playing overtime in the playoffs, the stress can have you reaching for your phone to call 911 because your heart hurts.  So, of course, that's how the Caps started their Eastern conference quarter-final series against the New York Rangers because they never do anything the easy way.

I'm glad they won because the Caps needed this win psychologically (I know I needed it!).  They haven't won game 1 in a playoff series at home in the last two playoff seasons.  But, more importantly, I didn't want the Caps to lose this game and then start holding their sticks too tight wondering how they were going to score on the great Henrik Lundqvist in net.

What I liked:

  • The Caps blocked more shots than the Rangers 32-28.  That shows commitment to team defense.
  • Scott Hannan played a great game on the blue line and showed why the veteran defenseman was a key pickup for the Caps.
  • The rookie goal tender Michal Neuvirth stayed cool, calm and collected during his NHL playoff debut and made key saves, particularly in overtime, that helped the Caps win the game.
  • Alex Ovechkin not giving up on the play that resulted in that dirty goal that tied the game.
  • Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps ice team leader in game 1, played a smart hockey game.  He's struggled this season, but has recently gotten back to his game.
  • Brooks Laich crushed in the faceoff circle, winning 72% of his 18 faceoffs.
  • Marc Staal's mistake in overtime that led to Jason Arnott feeding Alexander Semin for that beautiful blast of a shot to win the game.
  • They won!

What I didn't:

  • Sloppy play in the offensive zone.  The Caps didn't take the time to set up offensive zone plays.  Ovie tried to do it all by himself a couple of times and that doesn't work in the playoffs.
  • Not enough traffic in front of the net.  You need traffic in front of the net to get those garbage goal rebound opportunities.  Garbage goals win playoff games, particularly, when the goal tender stands on his head to make outrageous saves.  Ovie's goal, where he kept jabbing at the puck until it squeezed through Lundqvist's pads, is a classic example of a garbage goal. The Caps need to park themselves in front of the net.
  • Ovie's stupid roughing penalty shortly after his goal.  That could have cost the Caps the game.
  • Giveaways - the Caps had 20 to the Rangers 13.  Not good.
  • The goal post.  That ringing sound reverberating through the phone booth on shots by both Arnott and Semin that hit the post made me want to tear my hair out.  It's hard enough scoring on Lundqvist and he was beat on both those shots if they were a tiny bit lower.
The puck drops for game two in about eight hours.  I've got 911 on speed dial.

Let's go Caps!

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Monday, April 11, 2011

It's about time, but I'm uneasy because I'm a Caps fan

Finally, the second season in hockey starts next week.  The one where the team left standing in June after four grueling playoff series gets to lift the Stanley Cup.  Hockey teams are defined by what they accomplish in the second season, not by winning the regular season Presidents' Trophy for most points.  Because really, who cares?  I've never figured out why hockey awards a trophy to the team that leads in points at the end of the regular season. It's meaningless.  Teams in the NFL, NBA or MLB don't give out trophies for being 1st in the league at the end of their regular seasons because winning the championship is the only thing that matters.

So, I'm glad the Caps didn't win the Presidents' Trophy this year.  I'm also proud of them for coming in 2nd place in the league after surviving a grueling 8 game losing streak earlier this season.  That's when Coach Boudreau finally decided to make this team play defense.  Hopefully, it'll make a difference this post season.

Even though I'm proud of the Caps for coming in first in the East, it means they get to play the number eight seed again and that turned into a disaster last year. The Caps lost to a harder working number eight seed, the Montreal Canadiens.  This playoffs, they get to play a hard working New York Rangers team.  The Rangers shellacked the Caps this season with 7 and 6 goal shutouts.  Gee, is it any wonder that I'm uneasy?

The games with the Rangers and Caps seem to come down to two things - Henrik Lundqvist in net and blocked shots.  Blocked shots are a good indicator of a hard working team that sacrifices their bodies.  In terms of goaltending, Lundqvist is a far more accomplished goal tender than either Michal Neuvirth or Semyon Valamov and he's capable of stealing games and a playoff series.  To solve Lundqvist, the Caps have to crash the net and get dirty goals early.  It's no coincidence that the goals scored on him tend to be garbage goals from close-in.  In the Caps early season 5-3 win over the Rangers, Brooks Laich, Mike Knuble and Matt Hendricks all scored on him from 13 ft in or closer.  Those three forwards generate a lot of garbage goals.  John Erskine scored a 44 ft slap shot and Brooksie got an empty netter in that game.

As for blocked shots, the Caps need to work as hard as the Rangers.  The blocked shot differential in their four meetings this season is telling.  The Rangers blocked 73 shots while the Caps blocked 32.  Ouch. In the November game where the Caps won 5-3, ten Ranger players blocked shots led by Ryan Callahan with 5 (he's out for the season) while six Caps players blocked shots with Jeff Schultz leading with 2.  In the December 0-7 debacle, eight Rangers blocked shots led by Brian Boyle with 7 while five Caps blocked shots with Karl Alzner leading with 2. In the January 1-2 SO loss, nine Ranger players blocked shots, led by blue liners Marc Staal and Michael Sauer with 4 each, compared to the Caps five players led by blue liner John Carlson with 4. In the final game between these two teams, eight Rangers blocked shots with Brian Boyle again leading the way with 5 while six Caps player blocked shots and Nicklas Backstrom led with 3.  The Ranger commitment to team defense shows here and the Caps have to match that intensity.

All of the games against the Rangers happened before the trade deadline additions of Jason ArnottDennis Wideman (unfortunately, out for this series) and Marco Sturm.  Arnott is the most important addition of those three because he's provided much needed veteran leadership in the Caps locker room.  The Caps listen to him because he's been there, done that and won a Cup.  A Cup victory where Arnott scored the game winning goal in overtime.  He knows how to win the Cup and he will not let the Caps get away with slacking off.  The Caps have only lost 4 games in regulation of the 19 games they played since the trade deadline.

So, the only prediction about this series I'll make is this, if the Caps want to win this series, they will.

The fun starts Wednesday.

Let's go Caps!

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Sunday, April 03, 2011

What does game winning Russian machine mean to the Caps?

A lot when it comes to game winning goals.  At 3:19 in the overtime period against the Buffalo Sabres last night, Alex Ovechkin netted another game winner, a shot that deflected off the skate of a Sabre before going into the net past goalie Jhonas Enroth, playing for injured Ryan Miller.  Ovie's celebratory dance after scoring his league leading 11th game winning goal amused fans everywhere.  It's nice to see Ovie excited about scoring again, too, just in time for the playoffs.

The impact of Ovie's ability to pot game winning goals for the Capitals is significant.  This year, seven of Ovie's game winners were the difference between winning and losing for the Caps (two of those games were OT wins). That's fourteen standings points!  If the Caps had fourteen less points today as of 7:30 p.m., they'd have 89 points and be in eighth place behind the New York Rangers instead of tied for the Eastern conference lead with the Philadelphia Flyers with 103 points. The Russian machine's impact is pretty significant, huh?

Ovie has been in the top four in the league in game winning goals for the past four seasons.  In '07-08, he had another league leading season with 11 game winners, he had 10 in '08-09 where he was tied for 3rd and he had 7 in '09-10 which put him tied for 4th.

Ovie may not have goal totals near those of his past five seasons (50, 56, 65 in his last three seasons versus 30 this season), but he's still making the clutch goals. That's the hallmark of an elite sniper.

Ovie also joined heady company last night as his 1 goal, 2 assist night put him at 30-51-81 for the season.  That's his sixth season in a row with 80 plus points, a consecutive points total only players like Wayne Gretsky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr,  Peter Statsny and Steve Yzerman managed to get.  This year may not have been Ovie's best personal stats year, but here he is in with this group and leading the league in game winners.

In an unrelated note:

  • Congratulations to Jason Arnott for scoring his 400th goal on a clutch goal that kept the Caps in the game and able to get to overtime.

Three more games left Caps.  Please hang in there and get healthy.

Let's go Caps!

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