Friday, January 4, 2008

Capitals Midseason Report Card

With last night's loss to Boston the Capitals have played their first 41 games on the 2007-08 season, reaching the midpoint and finding themselves six points out of playoff spot and ten points out of first in the Southeast Division. So how has the team stacked up this season? How have individual players fared? I'll look at these questions two ways: by rating each group of players (forwards, defense, goaltenders) on an absolute A-F scale and also at the team as a whole, as well as individual players, based on how they have performed relative to their preseason expectations.

Team as a Whole: B-; meeting expectations
That might seem like a surprisingly high grade given how much distress Capitals fans have been forced to endure this year but I think it's appropriate. If you go back to the season's outset the most reasonable expectation for the Capitals was that they were a team that could contend for a playoff spot but could also easily fall just short. Thus being in playoff contention is, to me, meeting expectations.

But if you were to go back to the beginning of the season and wonder what would happen if, through the first 41 games, Alexander Semin was going to play only 23 (and be less than 100% much of the time when playing), Chris Clark only 17, Tom Poti only 34 and Boyd Gordon only 26, with two or more often overlapping and then assess what could expected of the Capitals performance I think you'd have to say they'd be lucky not to be dead in the water. And that's where the team is
now - at six points out of playoff spot and ten points out of the division lead they've performed quite well given the injuries they've had.

Forwards - B-
The forward corps hasn't been nearly as explosive as people hoped, as a number of players have underachieved in some facet (Fleischmann, Kozlov, Pettinger) and others have struggled w
ith injuries (Semin, Clark). They have played pretty well defensively however, and with scoring down around the NHL the difference between expected output and actual output can be chalked up (somewhat) to a league-wide drop in scoring.

Exceeding Expectations

Nicklas Backstrom - on the year maybe his numbers aren't any higher than expected (29 points in 41 games), but that's changing fast - Backstrom put up 14 points in 13 games in December and was named rookie of the month. Even if his numbers aren't to the point where just looking at them will
indicate he has surpassed what people expected him to do, he has shown far more poise and defensive acumen than could be expected of any player his age.

Brooks Laich - has been a versatile member of the team, competing hard in every game and is on pace for a career-high in points, despite not playing as important a role as in years past.

Quintin Laing
- the fact that he's in the NHL at all means he's exceeded expectations. The fact that he's been a solid contributer in his own end and on the penalty kill means he's exceeded them by far.

Alexander Ovechkin
- a little surprising maybe, given how high expectations were after his first two season. But The Great Eight is on pace for 60 goals and is tied for the team lead in plus/m
inus (after being the worst in that category last season). I don't think anyone expected him to be this good.

Meeting Expectations

Matt Bradley - Bradley is generally playing a tough, physical game and is avoiding making crucial mistakes. Just what you'd want from a fourth line grinder.

Donald Brashear - Brash is still one of the best fighters in the league, plays smart and knows his role. His lack of speed is an obvious and exploitable problem though.

Boyd Gordon - I had hopes Gordon would get his offensive game to click and provide some offensive in addition to his checking prowess but, truthfully, I didn't expect it. Has done a great job on faceoffs and in his own end.

Viktor Kozlov - some people have criticized Kozlov for having only four goals at this point and while he should be finishing more effectively, he is tied for second on the team in assists, tied for first in plus/minus and is second in shots.

Michael Nylander - Nylander in borderline between meeting expectations and falling short of them. He is producing fairly well (33 points in 37 games) and serving as a mentor to Backstrom, but he has also failed to click with Alexander Ovechkin and his -16 rating is not only worst on the team - it's one of the worst in the league.

Dave Steckel - in camp Caps fans heard a lot about how Steckel had been working at the craft of winning draws and was a solid defensive player but I don't think anyone expected him to be as useful as he has been shorthanded on in the faceoff circle. Still, for a guy who put up 30 goals and 61 points in Hershey last year, Steckel has shown little in the offensive end.

Playing Below Expectations

Matt Pettinger - put up 68 points in 135 games over the last two season, while shooting 14.69%. This season has 5 points in 39 games and is shooting 2.74%. His -11 is the second worst rating on the team.

Tomas Fleischmann - has put up big numbers in the AHL (
114 points in 102 games since 2005) but has only 12 points in 37 games this season, far too few for a skilled forward expected to play a top six role.


Chris Clark - has played in only 17 games due to injuries during which he's looked solid but unspectacular.

Alexander Semin - has missed 18 games due to injury and often not played when completely healthy. Has looked dominant at times and invisible at others, probably due to his ankle injury.

Defense - B+
Expected to be the weak point of the team, the Caps defense has been much better than expected, contributing quite a bit offensively (Green, Poti, Pothier) and being much better at limiting the kinds of growing pains in their own end that you'd expect from the league's youngest defense.

Exceeding Expectations

Mike Green (pictured) - Green flashed his talent at times last year but not too many people expected him to be competing for the lead in goals among NHL defensemen - or rushing the puck 175 feet on a regular basis.

Brian Pothier - on pace for the same number of points as last year but is also seeing much less ice time, especially on the powerplay. Tied for the team leader in plus/minus.

Jeff Schultz - already has five goals and eight points, more goals and the same number of points I expected for him on the season. While Schultz is still somewhat inconsistent in his own end his is doing a better job than I expected he would, and a very good job for his age.

Meeting Expectations

John Erskine - not playing every night, but he knew that would be the case. Is tough in front of his own net when he does play. Had a couple big defensive mistakes but his six points in 19 games are more than you'd expect.

Shaone Morrisonn
- started the season poorly in terms of plus/minus but seemed to get back on track once he was no longer paired with Jurcina, and is now back in the positive (+1). Playing good defense but not showing improvement in the offensive end.

Tom Poti - no goals, but playing the point well on the powerplay, leading the team in ice time and has been a solidifying presence on the back line.

Playing Below Expectations

Milan Jurcina - going into the season there was hope he could be a quality physical shut-down defender. Has looked like a borderline NHL'er.


Steve Eminger - he's only seen action in two games. What other category could he be in?

Goaltenders (there's only two, so I won't break them into categories)

Olaf Kolzig - below expectations. The numbers (3.02 GAA, .889 save percentage) have been painful; the abundance of soft goals even more so. Seems to be coming out of his funk right now, but most certainly has not been as good as expected.

Brent Johnson - met expectations. Been able to come in off the bench and give his team a chance to win most of the time.

Best in Class: Alex Ovechkin. C'mon, it's not even close

Most Improved: Mike Green. He's gone from being a talented kid with great skating stride to one of the best and most exciting offensive defenseman in the entire less than a year.

Most Studious: Dave Steckel, for his attention to detail in the faceoff circle and penalty kill and attention to his diet which requires him to take in 8,000 calories daily.

All photos AP/Getty

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Bruins/Capitals Recap

Capitals 0, Bruins 2

In what comes as a shock to almost no one, the Capitals, missing Alexander Semin, Chris Clark and Tom Poti, playing one of the league's better defensive teams and Donald Brashear on the second line, struggled to put the puck in the net. In a surprise to anyone who's ever watched a hockey game, it is no longer an interference penalty to push a player without the puck into his own goaltender, causing the goaltender to be knocked onto the ice out of position.

I have two theories as to why Chuck Kobasew wasn't called for interference for knocking Jeff Schultz into Olaf Kolzig and knocking Kolzig over in the process. One is that the referees were so overwhelmed by the two penalties committed by Kobasew on the play (and the borderline "player-in-the-crease" call) that they stood shell-shocked, unable to raise their arms. The other is that this is now a legal play, another hare-brained attempt by Gary Bettman to raise scoring in the league by letting players shoot at an open net, an idea only slightly worse than the trapezoid and the delay of game call for shooting the puck over the glass in the defensive zone.

As a preemptive measure to criticism I'm sure is to come I'd like to point out that the Capitals did not have a terrible night offensively. They had 31 shots, a number of good chances and moved the puck well. They hit the post at least three times, meaning they were less than six collective inches from winning the game. That said, they still should have done a better job of finishing and not let themselves get shutout by Tim Thomas who, to his credit, did have a very good game in net for the Bruins.

It's hard to remember sometimes under Boudreau, but even the best teams lose games.

Quick Hits

  • I don't think there's any way to make it through this without mentioning Joe Beninati's bright blue suit and tie combination. Been taking style advice from Bruce Boudreau and Don Cherry have we, Joe?
  • Craig Laughlin - Randy Jones was suspended three games for his hit from behind on Bergeron, he didn't get off scot-free. Research, guys!
  • Comcast Sportnet - who the heck is Mike DiPietro?
  • Kolzig's first period was a good a period as any he's had this year.
  • Not only is Milan Lucic an exciting young prospect, he's also a heck of a nice guy. I mean you have to be pretty generous to let John Erskine use your face as a punching bag, right?
  • Apparently Brian Pothier is hurt again. Eminger? Please?

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Thursday, January 3, 2008

Bruins/Capitals Preview

Washington Capitals at Boston Bruins
Thursday January 3rd, 2008, 7:00 PM
TD Banknorth Garden in Boston, Massachusetts

Coming off a home and home sweep of the Ottawa Senators that could be deemed "improbable" the Capitals embark on a two-game road trip in Boston tonight, facing a Bruins team with a decent record due to Marc Savard's playmaking savvy, Tim Thomas playing beyond his ability and Zdeno Chara's ability to (1) stymie top opposition forwards, (2) rip the puck from the point and (3) beat the crap out of some guy named Dave Koci. Beyond that the B's haven't impressed too much this year and the team ranks 20th in goals scored per game and 17th in goal differential - and this is with a guy with a career .913 save percentage playing to the tune of .929 so far. Make no mistake about it, without Thomas playing the way he has the Bruins aren't over .500 at this point. The team doesn't have great offensive depth and isn't a tight checking team in the mold of Minnesota or New Jersey either. Frankly, they're mediocre and Thomas will come back to earth soon enough - why not against the Capitals?

About the Opponent

Boston Bruins (19-16-4 42 points, 3rd in the Northeast Division, 9th in the Eastern Conference)

Team Leaders
Goals: Chuck Kobasew (14)
Assists: Marc Savard (34)
Points: Marc Savard (42)
Penalty Minutes: Zdeno Chara (69)

Betcha Didn't Know...
The Capitals have outdrawn the Bruins in terms of home attendance six of the last ten years.

Random Bruins Statistic
The Bruins are ranked 25th in the NHL in shots taken per game and 26th in shots allowed per game.

Keys to the Game

Stay out of the box. The Bruins are not a strong offensive team - they rank 20th in goals per game, 25th in shots per game and behind Marc Savard their leading point producers are Zdeno Chara and Marco Sturm, who each have 23 points (in 39 and 39 games, respectively) - but they are 7th in the league with a powerplay that clicks at a 20.3% rate.

Move the puck. As has been painfully obvious to Capitals fans, Olaf Kolzig no longer has very good lateral movement; the Bruins have several players who are good at moving the puck and their defensive corps can shoot, giving them lots of options. If the Bruins can move the puck and get it on net, they're odds of scoring go way up, because there isn't a whole lot of sniping talent on this roster.

Players to Watch

Viktor Kozlov - Kozlov has struggled to put the puck in the net this season. Hopefully his goal against Ottawa opens the floodgates. The Caps could use one from him, as Tom Poti is going to miss the game, Alex Semin is questionable and Ovechkin could have his hands full with Zdeno Chara all night.

Milan Lucic - Some Boston fans have proclaimed the 6'4'', 220 pound Lucic the second coming of Cam Neely for his size, scoring touch, hitting strength and willingness to drop the gloves. While Lucic doesn't have Neely's hands (he'll never score 50 goals in 49 games) he is a great power forward prospect with solid offense upside who should wind up being like Chris Neil with more offensive talent. Although Lucic's offensive skill isn't at the point where the Caps have to gameplan for him he could change the game with a big hit or fight...but honestly the real reason he's on here is is that I think he's real fun to watch and want to alert other Caps fans to him.

Zdeno Chara - For all his talents Chara is neither particularly swift nor particularly agile - can he keep up with Ovechkin?

The Bruins aren't as talented as the Caps and with the Capitals playing how they are right now they should roll over the B's. Not even Tim Thomas can save you now, Beantown faithful. Caps win 5-2.
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Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Gameday Preview: Capitals/Senators Round II

As I mentioned before I'd gotten a bit lazy during the holiday season because, well, that's what the holidays are all about. As part of my laziness I'd stopped writing gameday previews. Well, I'm trying to start the New Year off right (so far, so good) and with that in mind I've adopted a new format for gameday previews. As always, suggestions as to what sections aren't really helpful or interesting, what it might be nice to add or layout suggestions are welcome. And awaaaaay we go!

Ottawa Senators at Washington Capitals
Tuesday January 1, 2008, 4:00 pm
Verizon Center in Washington D.C.

For all their struggles this year the Capitals have been able to handle the Senators, the Eastern Conference's best team, notching a 4-1 victory on November 8th and a wild 8-6 win December 29th to close out 2007. It might seem too much to expect to think the Capitals can defeat the best in the East three times in a row but then, how implausible did it seem they would beat them in November? How plausible did it seem they would beat the Sens two games in a row? You can bet Coach Boudreau and the boys are expecting a win tomorrow afternoon and Caps fans should too.

About the Opponent

Ottawa Senators (25-9-4, 54 points, 1st in the Northeast Division, 1st in the Eastern Conference)

Team Leaders
: Daniel Alfredsson (24)
Assists: Jason Spezza (35)
Points: Dany Heatley (52)
Penalty Minutes: Chris Neil (98)

Betcha Didn't Know....
The modern-day Senators were founded by real estate developer Bruce Firestone, who suggested it to other executives at his company (Terrace Investments) after a game of shinny.

Random Senators Statistic:
During the 2004-05 season Brian McGrattan had 551 penalty minutes in 71 games for the Senators AHL affiliate in Binghamton, New York.

Keys to the Game


Stay out of the box. The Senators have so much firepower that it's a challenge just to stop them 5-on-5, so the Capitals can't afford to give them extra opportunities.

Outwork the Capitals. There's no doubt Ottawa is the better team but the Capitals, especially after Boudreau took over, work in all three zones and play a full sixty minutes. The Senators will have to match that if they want to win. As Coach Boudreau said, "Hockey is a simple game. It come down to the will and the want. If you want it more than them, and you're willing to pay the price more than them, you're going to have success."

Players to Watch

Olaf Kolzig - Kolzig has been struggling over the last several weeks and although he has looked better he hasn't has that great game to let everyone know he's back on track. With how much firepower the Senators have Kolzig can't allow any softies and may have to make a big save or two for the Capitals to win.

Mike Fischer - He's not going to put up another hat trick, but Fischer's performance in this game could be the difference between a win and a loss for the Senators. If Fischer can build off last game's outburst and be the catalyst for secondary scoring Senators fans and management hope he can the team becomes a lot harder to handle. A team with two scoring threat lines is always harder to handle than a team with only one - even if that one is Heatley, Spezza and Alfredsson.

Both teams button down and play tight defense after the 8-6 shootout north of border a few days ago, with the Capitals prevailing 3-2 in front of a large (and enthusiastic) New Year's matinée crowd.
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Capitals Players Looking to Turn a Corner Heading into the New Year

Resolutions, promises, a fresh start: What better time than New Year's Eve to take a look at some of the players on the Capitals who look like they're going to (and need to) turn a corner in the very near future?

Without further ado, here are a half-dozen Caps players who will be looking to elevate their game start January 1st against the Senators:

Tomas Fleischmann - Flash has nothing left to prove at the AHL level, where he's scored 114 points in 102 games since 2005, but he hasn't been able to consistently contribute offensively in Washington. I think Flash stands a pretty good chance at getting on the scoresheet on a regular basis now that he's becoming aware that he is not skilled enough to get by on skill alone and has hence started working harder without the puck and driving to the net. I'm still not completely sold on Fleischmann though and time is starting to run out for him, although you'd have to think that if he's ever going to show he can play at the NHL level it would be under another relatively slight winger who showed a ton of skill in the minors but couldn't stick in the NHL.

Viktor Kozlov - Kozlov hasn't been as bad as some Caps fans seem to think (a number of people have recently advocated his benching in the comments on Capitals Insider). He's second on the team in assists and shots and is getting his chances - he just needs to start converting them. And he will.

Olaf Kolzig - After allowing six goals on 22 shots against Ottawa (despite not playing all that poorly) Kolzig's save percentage is down to .888 and his GAA up to 3.02. His numbers haven't been stellar and he's let in a number of soft goals, but he has been playing better recently, even if the numbers don't show it. With Johnson out 2-4 weeks and with the team playing well and gaining ground in the playoff race the Capitals need Kolzig to be a solid presence in net.

Matt Pettinger - In a season that has been disappointing thus far for Capitals fans perhaps no single player has been as disappointing as Pettinger, who has only five points in 37 games and was a healthy scratch against Ottawa. But the numbers look worse than Pettinger's play has been - while Pettinger has only two goals he is getting his chances and his shots per game average (1.86) is about the same as what it's been the last couple years (1.81), and you don't go from being a guy who shoots better than 14% to a guy who shoots under 3% without some bad luck in there. Although Pettinger has only three assists he has played much of the year with Boyd Gordon and David Steckel, neither of whom is finding the net on a regular basis. At this point I think Pettinger's problem is largely mental - he looked like he was on his game early in the year and I think the lack of success he's had playing his game started to get to him, he started to doubt himself, got off his game and has looked a little lost. Hopefully sitting out a game or two helps him get his head back together and boosts his on-ice performance.

Jeff Schultz - Schultz is a defensive defenseman, so unlike Kolzig or Kozlov it might not be as obvious when he turns a corner and is able to elevate his game. Rather than flashy goals or saves, Schultz is at his best when he plays positionally, frustrates opponents and avoids mistakes. Not especially jaw-dropping stuff, but it's an important role nonetheless. Sarge has been looking smarter and more comfortable almost by the game and is close to becoming a very solid backline presence. Schultz has also taken some heat for not being physical enough given his size (6'5'', 215) and the nature of his game. I don't think it's that Schultz won't initiate contact, I think it's that he doesn't want to draw himself out of position trying to deliver a big hit. As he become more aware and more confident in his own end watch for his physical game to improve as well.

David Steckel - I conceived this post a couple weeks ago, but the holidays make me lazy (you know it happens to you too) and I wish that I'd written it up before before Steckel three-point performance against Tampa Bay, but here it goes anyway: Steckel has received praise from Caps management and fans for doing jobs that are all too often underappreciated (playing a defensive role, faceoffs, penalty kills) and so it's become easy to forget that he put up 61 points (30+31) in 71 games for Hershey last year. While Steckel will never be a great scorer at the NHL level he has enough talent to chip in offensively on a consistent basis. Lately he's looked more comfortable in the offensive end, going to the net more often, being more assertive and showing better vision, so I'd expect some points to follow.
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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Wild One in Ottawa: Caps Beat Sens 8-6

Capitals 8, Senators 6

On one hand the Capitals scored eight times against the best team in the Eastern Conference, held the Senators to just two shots (!) in the first period and dominated the play for much of the game. On the other hand they also let the Senators get a number of good scoring chances, gave up two short-handed goals and nearly squandered the three-goal lead they have going into the third. Incidentally, the officiating was terrible.

Offensively the Capitals eight goal output speaks for itself, but the question as to why this offensive outburst is relevant and I think it's because of the way the top two lines are put together; that right now the Ovechkin/Backstrom/Kozlov and Fleischmann/Nylander/Semin combinations are ideal.

Obviously first line discussion begins with Ovechkin. Backstrom looks like a better center for him because he plays the type of game Ovechkin does (fast moving, looking to jump on opponent's mistakes) better than Nylander, who is more inclined to play a puck-control game and wait for something to open up. Viktor Kozlov seems to play a better game and have more energy and confidence when he plays with Ovechkin and since Fleischmann and Semin don't seem to be able to click with the Great Eight the Caps aren't missing much by having those guys on line two. Plus, Semin and Nylander seem to work pretty well together as Nylander is content to hold the puck and wait for Semin to find a seam in the opposition's defense. And once Semin gets the puck with a little time and space in the slot, look out.

Defensively the Capitals were all over the place, oftentimes dominant but also unsettlingly easy to break. That's not to take anything away from the Senators - the plays by Fisher and Alfredsson to get shorthanded breakaways were great plays, as were Fischer's deflections and Spezza's slapshot (though Kolzig should have that one). It might be tempting for Caps fans to do some hand-wringing over it but I, for one, am not too concerned because these goals aren't going to happen all that often. Kolzig has looked pretty solid the last few games and I think he's done allowing really soft goals on a regular basis, Tom Poti's not going to put one in his own net off his hand very often, the opposition isn't generally going to get two goals off great deflections and the Caps have generally been solid enough defensively they won't allow as many odd-man rushes as they did last night. The Caps had an off-night defensively against a very good offensive team. It happens to every team and until it happens at least in consecutive games I won't worry about it.

Speaking of off-nights, the referees didn't have their best night either (to say the least). They missed at least one too-many-men call for each team, missed Brashear getting Gerber behind the Sens net, called Fleischmann for hooking a Senators player but not a Senators player for hooking Fleischmann only a second earlier (which caused the turnover and led to the hook by Flash), got Morrisonn for interference but not the Senators playing for holding onto Morrisonn's jersey on the way down (see picture) and let Kozlov get run into the boards, from behind, without the puck, after the whistle by Chris Phillips. The only consolation is that it didn't seem to affect the outcome of the game - the Capitals were the better team and won.

The Caps picked up one point relative to the last playoff spot in the East and are now only five out.

DMG's 3 Stars
(1) Alex Ovechkin
- 4 goals, 1 assist, +2...who else could it be?
(2) Alex Semin - 1 goal, 2 assists
(3) Nicklas Backstrom - 1 goal, 2 assists, +1

Quick Hits

  • Poti's play to control the puck with his skates and make a quick pass to Ovechkin for Ovechkin's second goal could easily became the overlooked play of the game.
  • I mocked Chris Neil after his fight with Brashear but I have to hand it to the guy - apparently getting the crap kicked out of you is great way to fire up your team.
  • The only Capitals player who wasn't either positive or even in +/- was David Steckel.
  • I've really been wanting to have Ovechkin have a big game so I could say that the fire eye'd boy gave 'em all the slip. So...there's my ultra-smooth way to include indie music in my writeup.
All photos AP
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