Saturday, January 26, 2008

The All-Star Game is Fine

There's not really any way around the fact that for a number of years it has been frustrating to be a hockey fan. The NHL saw its on-ice product become significantly less appealing as the trap and clutch-and-grab styles of play becoming increasingly effective and popular, suffered through the first work stoppage to ever cancel an entire season in North America and lost its contract with (and hence its coverage from) ESPN. And to top it off, Gary Bettman is still the commissioner.

These problems have built a culture of negativity around the NHL, where it has become en vouge to criticize the league on everything from the on-ice product to the off-ice management to the rules of the game to the uniforms. To an extent these criticisms are warranted and anyone who thinks the NHL doesn't have significant obstacles in front of it needs to either take of their rose-colored glasses or have their opinion taken again once they're off Bettman's payroll. But at the same time anyone who doesn't believe that the NHL is an exciting, world-class league that is in better shape for the long term financially and in terms of the on-ice product than before the lockout is...well, wrong. But I digress.

This aura of negativity has unsurprisingly extended to the center of the NHL world for this weekend, the All-Star game in Atlanta. Even before All-Star weekend started the chorus of critics ratcheted up with claims the NHL All-Star game is irrelevant, meaningless to casual fans and boring, all because the game itself won't resemble a real NHL game. While I don't disagree with those assertions my overwhelming response is "so, what?"

These "problems" aren't singular to the NHL by any stretch. When is the last time you ever saw an NFL game played without blitzes, a Major League Baseball game where both managers made an effort to get all the players in and were required to change pitchers every three innings or that ended in a tie, or an NBA game that ended in regulation with both teams scoring over 130 points? It doesn't happen anywhere but the Pro Bowl, the Midsummer Classic or the NBA All-Star game and yet you don't hear people within the professional football, baseball or basketball fanbases or journalistic circles fret about the integrity and nature of the all-star game nearly as much as hockey fans and journalists do. The other major sports realize what an all-star game is: a chance to honor the best players in the game, take a break from the grueling regular schedule and a chance to watch the best the game has to offer play in a non-competitive exhibition environment that is, yes, meaningless.*

The NHL and its fans shouldn't expect or hope for anything more for their all-star game, yet they do, a direct result of the other problem with the negative attitude that permeates the NHL these days. Besides making it fashionable to levy criticism at events like the All-Star game before they even occur the culture of negativity has in and of itself created a severe images problems for the NHL. Imagine you're a relatively casual sports fan surfing websites during down times at work and every time you read something about the NHL the league is unconvincingly insisting attendance and television ratings are up and while pundits mock the leagues rule changes, uniforms and leadership while painting a doom-and-gloom picture of the future while wistfully writing about how much better the league was twenty years ago. Does that sound like the kind of league you'd want to check out? If the guys who are paid to write about hockey having nothing but complaints about the NHL, what do people expect the casual sports fan's response to be?

Not that the NHL can silence the pundits, nor should they try to. But the league can control what it discusses and why. To insist at every turn that the league is drawing people to arenas in records numbers or that television ratings are steadily on the rise makes the league seem desperate for approval; desperate to impress and is completely at odds with the image the league had cultivated for years. If this were high school the NHL would have gone from being the kid that not a whole lot of people knew but who everyone thought was a badass to the kid who, yeah I mean he's pretty cool, like, if you get to know him but yeah it's totally weird how, like, he's like always asking about whether or not people like him or not and junk (and why does he always change the way he dresses and stuff, does he think people are going to like, like him more for it or something....?)

Let me say this: I am a hockey fan, no doubt. I played travel hockey as a kid, I still play, I purchased NHL Center ice and a DVR just so I could watch more hockey and I spend hours every week writing about hockey without compensation. But I'm not going to watch the All-Star game.** I don't think people like me a problem for the league any more than people who watch the NFL every week but skip the Pro Bowl are for the NFL.

Simply put, the NHL All-Star game is what it is: a nice little break in the middle of the season where the players can have fun and as fans we might see some dazzling offense and as such, it is fine. But it isn't enough to be a savior for the league or even a legitimate chance to showcase the NHL or its players, so of course the event is going to fail to live up to any expectations people might have that it should be. The league needs to realize this and concentrate their efforts on making the on-ice product as good as possible rather than continually hoping that if they can just nail the presentation in All-Star game/Winter Classic/Opening Night/Crosby vs. Ovechkin/Playoffs or whatever else all their problems will be solved.

*I know the MLB All-Star game decides home field advantage in the World Series. To me that's not really enough to make it important to most people, even those in the Major Leagues. Rather, it's just an embarrassing example of what happens when a league decides it tries to all-star game mean something.
**Okay, the full version is less dramatic. I'll be playing hockey during the All-Star game, but I'm not too upset that I'll miss it and if I weren't playing I'd probably have the game on in the background, but not really watch it.
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Friday, January 25, 2008

Wiz Look to Remedy Blues Against Memphis

The Wizards took a shot in the mouth Wednesday night in Cleveland, plain and simple. They got outplayed from the opening tip and were never able to make it much of a game at all. The 121-85 blowout was Washington's worst loss of the season by far in a game in which the Wizards had hoped to make a statement to their Eastern Conference rivals.
The Cavs played a game for the ages, and while Washington struggled, the Wizards likely didn't have a shot in this one anyway with the way the shots were falling for the home team. Seriously, when
Zydrunas Ilgauskas goes 10-for-10 from the floor for 24 points (and he didn't even play for the entire fourth quarter!!!), what can you do? Add to that the fact that the Cavs had 39 assists to just five turnovers, and you've got a recipe for a drubbing.
LeBron James
had 23 and Drew "My Beard Is Much Longer than DeShawn's" Gooden added 18 for Cleveland which shot 56 percent from the floor and outrebounded Washington by a whopping margin of 24 (53-29).
Meanwhile, the Wiz shot just 39 percent from the field and
Brendan Haywood was their leading scorer with 11 points...which is not a good thing. Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison and Roger Mason each had 10, but after trailing 52-46 at the half, the Wiz were run out of the arena in the third quarter. The Cavs stormed out of the half and put up 43 in the period to put the game well out of reach.
All in all it was a terrible loss for a Wizards team that came into the night as one of the hottest in the NBA, having won 7-of-9 with biggies over Boston (twice) and Dallas.They left the Q with their tails between their legs and now have to figure out how to regain their composure for tonight's match up with Memphis.


  • "It was a major league butt whipping. We ought to be completely embarrassed." -- Antonio Daniels on the loss.
Next Up
The Wizards welcome the Memphis Grizzlies to the Phone Booth tonight, looking to erase the memory of Wednesday's loss and get back to their winning ways. The Grizz (12-30) have lost 3-of-5, including 112-85 blowout to Orlando on Wednesday. Second-year sensation Rudy Gay leads the team in scoring with 19.6 points per game and the big Spaniard Pau Gasol isn't far behind at 19.1 and 8.9 rebounds. Washington will need to clamp back down on the defensive end and do a much better job on the board to beat a Memphis team that has more talent than its record indicates. With rookie Mike Conley running the point and Mike Miller and 2002 Wizard draft pick Juan Carlos Navarro both averaging double figures from the perimeter, the Grizzlies can hang with Washington if they shoot the ball well from the outside.

Key Match Up
  • DeShawn Stevenson v. Mike Conley, Jr. - The Wizards allowed Cleveland's backcourt to carve up their defense all night on Wednesday, leading to an insane 39 assists. The Locksmith needs to live up to his billing in this one by shutting down Memphis at their point of attack. Conley averages five assists to 1.6 turnovers per contest, but look for DeShawn to hound him on the perimeter and try to prevent penetration to free up their shooters on the outside. The Wizards also need a better night from Stevenson on the offensive end. When he scores in double figures, they have fared quite well this season. Before his seven-point stinker against the Cavs, Stevenson had reached double-figures in six-of-eight, including 18 against the Mavs on Monday.
Washington needs to bounce back with a strong showing at home to get their confidence up before a tough stretch that features dates at Toronto, and home against Utah and the surging Lakers. Now is the time for the veterans on this team to get the young guys focused and put the Cleveland game behind them. I'm expecting big nights from Tough Juice and Antawn and a tenacious defensive effort from everyone who takes the floor. Here's hoping Navarro doesn't go off for one of those, "this is why you should be sorry for dealing me away" kind of games. The Wizards get it done, 97-85.

All photos AP/Getty

-- The Tar Heel

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Caps Enter All-Star Break One Point Out of First

Capitals 2, Maple Leafs 1

Now that's more like it.

After clearly outplaying the Maple Leafs Wednesday night in Toronto and losing, the Capitals came home to Verizon Center last night and claimed two points in a game in which they were outshot 32-20 and in which they twice had the man advantage and saw themselves shorthanded five time. If we're going to be objective, you'd have to look at this game and say the Capitals didn't necessarily deserve two points. Not that they were outplayed or deserved to lose per se (I don't think Toronto played all that well either), but the Maple Leafs were pretty effective in shutting down the Caps offense and without the stellar performance from Brent Johnson Washington's defense wouldn't have looked that great either. But given that the karmic balance after last night was such that the Capitals were probably deserving of two, I won't feel too bad about it.

The story of last night's game goes beyond the Capitals and the Maple Leafs though. Now, heading into the all-star break, the Capitals are the only team in the Southeast Division above .500 and are one point out of the division lead, with two games in hand. I can't speak for any other Capitals fans but if I were offered that scenario at the beginning of the season, I would have taken it. If I'd been offered it Thanksgiving Day I would have asked if you thought I believed in Santa Claus too.

Yet here we are, mid-January and the Capitals are not only poised to take control of the Southeast Division, they are clearly looking like the class of the division, going 17-8-4 since Bruce Boudreau took over while each of the other teams in the Southeast have played well below .500 since then. With Carolina and Atlanta still looking inconsistent at best it would be surprising if the Capitals don't take first place in the division with their two games in hand on the 'Canes. It'd be even more surprising if, once they took the lead, they ever relinquished it.

DMG's 3 Stars
(1) Brent Johnson
- 31 saves on 32 shots, .969 save percentage
(2) Alexander Ovechkin -
2 assists
(3) Viktor Kozlov - 1 goal (game winner)


Since Coach Bruce Boudreau stepped behind the bench on Nov. 22, Johnson has been one of the team's best players. He is 5-1 with a 2.05 goals against average and .926 save percentage since Boudreau arrived, and his coach believes he has earned the right to play more down the stretch.
-Tarik El-Bashir, from his Washington Post write-up

Quick Hits
  • John Erskine's first period penalty for delay of game was real bad because there's no reason to even come close to putting the puck off the rink when there's no pressure.
  • Each Capitals player who took a faceoff (Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, David Steckel, Boyd Gordon, Matt Bradley) was at 58% effectiveness or higher. For the game the Capitals won 33 of 53 faceoffs (62%).
  • Milan Jurcina led the Capitals with six hits. Nice to see the big man finally using his body.
Photos: AP
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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Caps Lose to Leafs, 3-2

Maple Leafs 3, Capitals 2

I can't remember the last time I saw a team get dominated like the Maple Leafs were last night and still win the game. The Capitals outhit, outshot, outchanced, outskated and outworked the home team in Toronto last night but they just couldn't outscore them.

Two things can bury a team that generally outplays its opponent: bad luck and bad plays; the Capitals fell victim to both. The Leafs first game came when Donald Brashear tried to make a between-the-legs breakout pass in his own zone (bad play). The Leafs second goal came at the end of a sequences where the puck was kept in the Capitals end because Mike Green blew a tire behind his own goal line (bad luck). The Leafs third goal came because whoever should have been covering Mats Sundin (the center on the line, I think Dave Steckel) was no where to be found (bad play), because Olaf Kolzig put a rebound in a bad area (bad play) and because Sundin just happened to be in exactly the right/wrong spot (bad luck). Take away those combined thirty seconds and there's really nothing to complain about as a Caps fan.

The Capitals haven't yet lost consecutive games in regulation under Bruce Boudreau and with the team coming home and looking to get the two points they earned last night, I'd be willing to bet today won't be the first time it happens either.

Quick Hits

  • If he's going to hit like that every game I, for one, can overlook John Erskine's deficiencies in the skating department.
  • Where was Tom Poti going with that hog-tie on Dominic Moore?
  • The Maple Leafs had 11 players take shots; the Capitals had 16.

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Caron and LeBron Tangle at the Q

If Gilbert Arenas was Superman, the Cleveland Cavaliers would be his Kryptonite. In each of the last two seasons, the Wizards' path to the Eastern Conference Finals went through Cleveland. And in each of those two seasons, it ended at the hands of one, LeBron James. Last season's short-handed sweep with Arenas and Caron Butler seated and suited on the sidelines was an especially bitter pill to swallow for Washington's co-captain. Tough Juice swore he would never witness another deflating exit courtesy of the Cavs.

Well, Gilbert Arenas isn't Superman, he's Agent Zero...and he's still out after a second surgery on his knee. In his absence, Butler has captained the Wizards to a 19-12 record and an ever-improving gritty defensive style that has fueled victories over elite teams in both conferences. Tonight at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena, the Wizards (22-17) get another measuring stick test to see just how far they've come.

In their first meeting this season, Washington drilled the Cavs 105-86 at the Phone Booth. In that December 5 win, Butler, Antawn Jamison and Brendan Haywood combined for 61 points, 29 rebounds and eight blocks. But that victory came sans Arenas, but Cleveland was also lacking several of its stars - see James, Anderson Varejao and Donyell Marshall. Since James returned to the lineup, the Cavs (22-18) have gone 12-6 and with 10 wins in their last 12 games, they're the hottest team in the NBA. With both teams currently battling for the fourth spot in the East - the Wiz are 1/2 game ahead going into tonight's game - this game could be a pivotal turning point for both teams.

Questions for the Q

  • Can the Wizards continue their defensive turnaround against the league's most dominant player?
  • Can Haywood and Jamison win the battle of the boards against Cleveland's front-line of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Varejao?
  • Will DeShawn Stevenson and Drew Gooden pull out the tape measures to check the progress of their pre-season beard bet?
  • Speaking of the Locksmith, will he show up to tonight's game in his bathrobe?
  • With a slow pace being their preference, will the Cavaliers fare better than the up-tempo Mavs and Celts against Washington's pressure defense?
  • This should be a close one, so who will step up off the bench and be the difference maker for either team? Roger Mason? Daniel Gibson? Maybe Nick Young?
Key Match Up
  • Brendan Haywood v. Zydrunas Ilgauskas - With all the attention on the All-Star match up of King James v. Tough Juice, the battle of the big men could be the difference in tonight's game. Ilgauskas averages 13.3 points and 9.6 boards per game, giving him a slight advantage in both categories over Haywood (10.3, 7.7). But 'Z', as they call him, likes to step out for mid-range jumpers, which should give Baby Huey (hey, I don't make these up), the inside track to the defensive glass. Haywood has not only been strong on the boards, but he's also improved his shot-blocking (1.7 per game, up from 1.4 for his career) and shot-altering ability. He's no longer afraid to bang with the big guys in the paint, and he'll need to use all his muscle when the much quicker Varejao spells Ilgauskas. Look for Andray Blatche (4.6 boards, 1.6 blocks) to be another key contributor tonight as he should get plenty of minutes.
King James has really taken it to a new level of late. He's averaging 32.1 points on an insane 49.8 percent shooting in 2008 and already leads the NBA in scoring at 29.7 points per game. While Caron Butler can put up points with the best of them - he's averaging 23 in his last three - Washington would be wise to avoid a Gilbert-esque back-and-forth shootout with LeBron. The Wizards are winning because they're sharing the ball, playing team defensive and getting after it night in and night out, no matter their opponent. If they can stick to the plan, control the boards and play another 48 minutes of hard-nosed defense, I really like their chances. This is the best I've seen an Eddie Jordan team play and they really seem to be enjoying the challenge of out-working their opponents on both ends of the floor. Put LeBron down for 35 but I'll take the Wizards in a typical Cleveland-Washington nail-biter: 97-93.

All photos AP/Getty: Except for the Locksmith, that one came courtesy of

-- The Tar Heel

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Monday, January 21, 2008

With a Little D, Wiz Sweep Big D

Defense wins championships. It's the reason the Spurs and Pistons show up in the conference and NBA finals year in and year out. It's also the reason the Suns and the Mavericks, despite their high-flying offenses, can't seem to find their spot in the league's elite fraternity. Monday, against those Dallas Mavericks, Washington showed what a little hard-nosed defense can do for a team trying to prove it at least belongs in the conversation about the NBA's top teams.

In a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day matinee at the Phone Booth, the Wizards lock
ed down on the defensive end to take down the Mavs, 102-84. The win completed Washington's first season sweep of Dallas in 11 years. Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison were their usual stellar stat-sheet-filling selves. Tough Juice finished with a team-high 25 points, nine boards and five assists while Jamison had 23, eight and three.

Most notable, however, was Washington's success on the defensive
end. Butler, who came into Monday third in the league in steals with 2.3 per game, had five pilfers as the Wizards (22-17) converted 16 Dallas turnovers into 25 points. Washington had 11 steals as a team and constantly frustrated the Mavs by getting hands in passing lanes and turning deflections into run-out baskets.

Josh Howard led Dallas (27-13) with a game-high 32 on 11-of-16 shooting and Dirk Nowitzki had 21, but Washington did a great job of limiting the battle of the backcourts. DeShawn Stevenson and Antonio Daniels outscored Devin Harris and Eddie Jones 25-17. The Locksmith had another great day offensively with 18 points and nailing four-of-six from beyond the arc. Since November 17, when Washington's starting backcourt outscores its counterparts, the Wiz are 10-1.

The Wiz have now won five of their last six and with each game they look more and more like a well-balanced team. Much of the credit here goes to assistant coach Randy Ayers who has
instilled the values of locking it down on the defensive end to this group of players. His brand of gritty defense has meshed quite well with Washington's ability to get out in transition. When Daniels, Stevenson and Butler can create turnovers, they often lead directly to points at the other end. Butler is equally responsible from Washington's rise from the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency last season to 10th this season. He and Stevenson have led by example and the rest of the Wizards are responding. Brendan Haywood and Andray Blatche are battling with opposing big men in the paint, getting on the boards and contesting shots to compliment the perimeter defenders. Holding Dallas - the league's eight best offense at 101.48 points per game - to just 84 points is proof that Ayers' coaching and Butler's leadership have really turned things around for the Wizards.

The Numbers Game
- Washington's record since Nov. 17 when they win the battle of the backcourt.
- Tough Juice's steals per game over the last six games. The Wiz are 5-1 during that stretch.
207 - Consecutive games started by DeShawn Stevenson, good for third among all active players behind Tayshaun Prince and Bruce Bowen.
- Scoring differential for the Wiz: 99.26 v. 96.78 for their opponents. That's 11th best in the NBA.
- Washington's record without Agent Zero.


  • "We're being nastier and grittier defensively and our concentration level is up defensively. The theme tonight was, 'Each possession get better': The next possession on defense, get better. The next possession on defense, get tougher. The next possession, get into them tighter." -- Eddie Jordan on Monday's win.
  • Eddie Jordan has been picking his spots with Nick Young. The self-proclaimed Bean Burrito has played as many as 27 minutes this season and as few as zero. After a stretch earlier this season when he reached double-figure scoring in six of 11 contests, Young found himself riding the pine pony more than he would've liked in parts of December and earlier this month. Maybe it had something to do with the lack of focus that forced Jamison and Butler to rearrange the locker room, or maybe Jordan just felt more comfortable with his veterans on the floor in close games. Either way, Young appears to be reemerging as an offensive spark off the bench for the Wiz of late. After putting up 12 points in just under 19 minutes against the Knicks on Friday, the rookie had nine in just under 14 minutes against Dallas. Washington needs scoring off the bench and if Young can step up as a routine contributor, the Wizards will gladly tolerate his ridiculous nicknames.
  • Oleksiy Pecherov has Young to thank for his latest nickname. The rookie previously referred to as "Stewie," due to his striking resemblance of America's favorite animated baby bent on world domination, was most recently dubbed "the white hole" by the afore-mentioned Burrito. Seriously? Whatever his name happens to be at the moment, Pesh has been giving the Wiz quality minutes off the bench since returning from the right ankle injury that kept him out the first two and a half months of the season. He's averaging 4.2 points in five games and continues to look more comfortable playing against NBA forwards.
Next Up
The Wizards get another chance to show just how much they've improved defensively when they travel to the Q to take on King James and the Cavs. At 21-18 heading into tonight's game at Miami, Cleveland sits one game behind Washington at fifth place in the Eastern Conference. The Wiz trounced the Cavs in D.C. on December 5, 105-86. But that win came with LeBron (and Anderson Varejao and Donyell Marshall) in street clothes on the bench and if back-to-back playoff exits to Cleveland have proven anything, it's that James always gets up to play the Wiz. This has developed into quite a rivalry and with both teams rolling - the Cavs have won 8-of-10 - this one should be a dandy. Check back Wednesday for a full preview of the game and a prediction.

-- The Tar Heel

All photos AP/Getty

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