Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Islanders/Capitals Preview

New York Islanders at Washington Capitals
Wednesday, February 20th, 2008, 7:00 PM
Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.

Last Meeting: 12/22/2007, Caps lose in overtime 3-2

About the Opponent

New York Islanders: 28-25-7, 63 points, 5th in the Atlantic Division, 10th in the Eastern Conference

Team Leaders
Goals: Bill Guerin (19)
Assists: Mike Comrie (27)
Points: Mike Comrie (45)
Plus/Minus: Sean Bergenheim (+6)
Penalty Minutes: Andy Sutton (86); active: Mike Comrie (64)
Fights: Tim Jackman (8), Andy Sutton (4), Chris Simon (3); active: tie - Mike Comrie, Bill Guerin (2)

Random Islanders Fact
The Islanders leading scorer, Mike Comrie, has a team worst -20 plus/minus rating.

Random Islanders Statistic
With 63 points, the Islanders are last in the Atlantic Division. Were they in the Southeast they would be one two point[s] out of first with two three games in hand.

Keys to the Game

Secondary scoring. Repetitive perhaps, but I feel like everything else is clicking well enough for the Capitals that if they can get some offense from players who aren't on the first line, they'll win this game.

Slow down the pace of the game. The Islanders are tied (with two other teams) for 27th in the NHL in goals, their best goal scorer is 37 years old and their best defenseman will be out of the lineup, so the last thing the Islanders want is a run-and-gun type game. Instead the Islanders will try to limit the Capitals chances and rely on counter-attack to create offense.

Players to Watch

Alexander Ovechkin -
Ovechkin had the flu on the team's recent swing through Florida and was held without a point against the Panthers and Lightning. The Great Eight isn't going to be happy about his lack of production in such crucial game, so tonight's game has 'big time performance' written all over it.

Rick DiPietro - DiPietro has gotten a lot of press for various off-ice reasons: being the first goaltender picked number one overall, being the reason the Islanders traded Roberto Luongo, his 15 year contract. These issues, plus DiPietro's somewhat underwhelming NHL debut, have taken the focus off how good a goaltender he has become.

Around the (Inter)net
A new, promising looking Capitals blog: DC One-Timer...The trade season has finally kicked off!...Trade rumor sources: TSN,, ESPN, Faux Rumors...Eight of the NHL's worst trades...The NHL's most dangerous players on the PK...Alex Ovechkin's love story...speaking of Ovechkin, ESPN has a story about his relationship with his mother...Scott Burnside says he wants Mats Sundin punished if Sundin doesn't waive his no-trade clause; I think Burnside wants controversy and hence readers...George McPhee is chatting with Phoenix GM Don Maloney?

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NHL Trade Deadline Approaches

With the NHL trade deadline (February 26th) less than a week ago and the league's general managers meeting in Florida, trade speculation is ramping up around the league and will probably only grow more rampant now that armchair GMs won't have the fun of guessing what team Peter Forsberg is coming back to (the answer: none). For Capitals fans it's nice to a buyer, rather than a seller, for the first time in five years. So then, Caps fans, let's take a look at what the Capitals might look to do at the deadline.

Acquire a top six forward

This is probably the most obvious need the Capitals have right now, and has been ever since it was announced Michael Nylander would miss the remainder of this season with shoulder surgery. The top six caliber forwards the Capitals do have are solid: Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Viktor Kozlov, Alexander Semin and Tomas Fleischmann (as a number six forward and provided he continues to play as he has of late). However, Backstrom is the lone natural center, both Semin and Fleischmann have been inconsistent this year, and the group as a whole doesn't have as much grit or defensive acumen as a coach or general manager would want. It's not essential for the Capitals to get a center, since Kozlov can play the position, but it would be ideal. It's also not impossible that Eric Fehr or Matt Pettinger could step up their play and solidify the top two lines for the rest of this season.

The Capitals also have to take Chris Clark's condition into consideration. If he's able to come back, the winger has exactly what the Caps are looking for: grit, hustle, defensive play, leadership and the ability to chip in on offense. If Clark can successfully come back from his groin injury this season, the Capitals would get a boost similar to making a deadline deal, only without having to give up anything. Other options include Darcy Tucker, Martin Lapointe and Michael Ryder. Olli Jokinen and Patrick Marleau are the cream of the crop, but the Capitals won't want to pay the price necessary to get either of them.

Prediction: I think the Caps will stand pat with their forwards for several reasons: they have options in Fehr, Pettinger and Chris Bourque, they're still hoping to get Clark back, and almost every team in the league is looking for secondary scoring right now, so price of legitimate top six forwards is probably going to be much higher than what the Capitals want to offer.

Acquire a stay-at-home defenseman

While a top six forward may be the Caps most obvious need, this is their most pressing one. When the Capitals are healthy they have a deceptively strong defense corps, the only problem is that most of their better defenders are offensively oriented: Tom Poti, Mike Green and Brian Pothier are all better on the attack that they are in their own end. On the other end the Caps' defensive defensemen, Milan Jurcina, Jeff Schultz and John Erskine, all have significant holes in their games. Erskine lack skating ability (particularly agility) and puck handling skills, Schultz is not as physical as you'd like a stay-at-home defender to be and Jurcina is maddeningly inconsistent. Shaone Morrisonn is a very good stay-at-home bluelier but he can't carry the load himself. The Capitals would certainly benefit from another defenseman who could anchor the penalty kill and match up against other team's top forwards.

The cream of the crop among potentially available stay-at-home types is Adam Foote, but the Blue Jackets seem like they'll only move their captain for the right offer and since the Capitals probably don't want to give up too much, it's unlikely they'd be able to pry him away. There are, however, several other solid options, including fellow Blue Jacket Ron Hainsey, Minnesota's Nick Schultz, Florida's Branislav Mezei, and Los Angeles' Brad Stuart. Rob Blake is not a realistic option, as he'd both be expensive and unlikely to waive his no-trade clause for a trade to a team as far to the east as Washington.

Prediction: The Caps will make a move here. Between players and picks they can dangle, the need to upgrade their blue line and the relatively low price for defensively minded defensemen, McPhee will be able to pick up a player. My money is on a team that would be interested in what the Capitals can give up, young talent and draft picks, so I think Hainsey, Stuart and Schultz, are the most likely in that order.

Which Caps are on the block?

The two most obvious are Steve Eminger and Matt Pettinger, both of whom have underperformed this season yet are young and talented enough that they could turn things around and be productive NHL players in the coming years. The Capitals depth defensemen (Jurcina and Erskine) could also be had in the right deal, since given that 29 of the 30 teams in the NHL are within eight points or less of a playoff spot there will be a high demand for players who can play in the NHL right now, even if it's in a supporting role. Draft picks are also available, given the depth the Capitals have in their organization right now. I wouldn't bank on McPhee letting go of any first rounders but a second rounder (or two) could be thrown in if it's what it takes for the Capitals to get their man.

Broader Prediction: McPhee makes two trades. In one the Capitals acquire a defenseman for Steve Eminger and either a second round pick or Matt Pettinger. In the other McPhee trades either John Erskine or Milan Jurcina for a mid-round (third-fifth round) draft pick.

I'd Like to See: (1) The Caps refrain from picking up a forward unless it can be done on the cheap because otherwise the cost would far exceed the benefit, (2) make a strong push for Nick Schultz who I think is underrated and will come ever cheaper because he is an unrestricted free agent come July and (3) make a trade for an enforcer who can hold his own in the NHL should Donald Brashear get injured. Candidates for this include Kip Brennan, B.J. Crombeen, Ryan Flinn, Darryl Bootland and Peter Vandermeer.
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The Tao of Alex (Semin)

Alexander Semin has got to be one of the most frustrating players in the NHL to coach: he's got the talent to put pucks in the net and win games for your team and he's got the speed and agility to burn any defender in the league yet seems to display this talent selectively. He has the pace, shiftiness and attitude to draw penalties but is as likely as anyone in the league to negate an upcoming powerplay because he's so apt to retaliate. The puck seems to find its way to him in the offensive zone yet he so often looks lost in his own end. On nights when Semin's creating scoring chances out of nothing or seems to have the puck on a string his two-year, $9.2 million contract seems like a bargain; when he's taking undisciplined penalties or turning the puck over because he tries to do too much, you couldn't blame a Capitals fan for wishing that general manager George McPhee had dealt Semin to a team that had seen him on one of his better nights and was willing to give up a rugged defenseman.

It doesn't help Semin's image that his inconsistencies and frustrations don't end on the ice. Semin is rarely quoted in North American media due in part to his quiet nature but also do in part to his reportedly limited command of English, making it difficult for the winger to make amends with the Capitals fan base after episodes that hurt their collective opinion of him, such as his refusal to play for the Capitals AHL affiliate during the NHL's lockout, saying he could not develop any more in the AHL, missing a team flight late (and the subsequent game) in his rookie season and insisting he needed to stay in Russia to fulfill his military obligations, an excuse that is much less dubious than it sounds (Russia considers the mandatory two years of military service to be completed if a man is playing professional hockey for a Russia professional team near his hometown). However these episodes, coupled with Semin's on-ice behavior have lead to him being branded with a term that's been applied previously (and not in a reverential sense) to many highly skilled Russian players: "enigmatic".

It's hard to determine to what extent to fault the Capitals for allowing Semin to carry on this persona as long as he has. On the one hand it would seem a good idea to try and break a player of habits such as frustration penalties and lazy defensive player early in his career; on the other hand Semin is a naturally recalcitrant person and trying to make the adjustment to a new language, culture and country is a challenge for almost anyone, especially a 20 year old whose job consists of trying to perform at a high level in front of up to twenty thousand fans.

Given that Semin was a 20-year-old rookie in a new country with an unfamiliar language in 2003-04 and the Capitals had no delusions of competing for a playoff spot in 2006-07, it may have been best for Semin's development that the team kept him on a relatively long leash and let him get comfortable in Washington and in the NHL, even if it meant having to endure undisciplined penalties or plays where Semin would hold the puck too long. But that's no longer the case, for Semin or for the Capitals. The team is no longer in a purely rebuilding stage and was expected to contend for a playoff spot from the get-go in 2007-08 and Semin is no longer just a flashy youngster with a lot of offensive upside, but a player who scored 38 goals in a season and is counted on to lead the Capitals secondary scoring. What this means, in short, is that it's no longer acceptable for Semin to put himself ahead of the team by taking selfish penalties or playing lazy defense.

Semin's improved play of late has largely quited the contingent of fans that wanted to see him out the door, which is a good thing since Semin isn't going anywhere until at least 2009. While the size and length of Semin's extension are both reasonable, George McPhee still won't pull the trigger on a deal to offload Semin any time soon for two reasons. One is that any other team would view the trade with suspicion - a team offering a player who had previously scored 38 goals in a season and who had signed an extension that had not yet kicked in would be bound to raise a few eyebrows (and drive down the price in the process). The other reason is that trading a player before their extension kicked in could easily create an air of distrust amongst Capitals players towards the team's management - any player up for an extension would be distrustful of management and wonder if they, like Semin, could be traded before the extension even kicked in.

Bruce Boudreau does have a reputation as being both a very strong motivator and unwilling to accept lazy or selfish play, so there is a good chance he will be able to get Semin to change his ways for the long term. The Capitals would be wise to give Boudreau at least a year (especially since he started as a mis-season replacement), and if Semin hasn't show improvement by the end of the 2008 calender year, it may be time to show him the door before his stock drops too much.
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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Caps top Lightning, 3-2

Capitals 3, Lightning 2

After losing in Florida and falling to Atlanta in a shootout, the Capitals were desperate to pull out a win in Tampa Bay to finish their swing through the Southeast and they were able to do so behind a resilient team effort and a rock-solid Olie Kolzig. Since there are a number of important issues to touch on from this game, so I've given each its own mini-section.

Olaf Kolzig. Clearly the game's best player (and the difference between a win and a loss) with 39 saves on 41 shots (.951 save %), Kolzig played like he did when he was an all-star and a Vezina Trophy winner. Since going to the more-or-less 60/split in playing time with Brent Johnson, Kolzig's play has vastly improved. It's nice as a Caps fan to see that Olie still has some very good minutes left in him....even if there aren't quite as many as we may have hoped.

Sami Lepisto's NHL debut. He didn't exactly set the world on fire in his first NHL game, but the 23-year-old Finn registered a shot, a hit, a blocked shot and some powerplay time. What struck me the most about Lepisto were his poise and calmness with the puck and his skating ability - attributes the Capitals are in dire need of along the blue line right now. Jeff Schultz, John Erskine and Milan Jurcina are all big bodies but they're also all mediocre skaters and both Erskine and Jurcina are butchers with the puck. The Capitals defense is more balanced, and probably better overall, with Lepisto or Eminger in the lineup every night until Brian Pothier and/or Tom Poti return. Which brings me to...

John Erskine. Okay, I don't have any objective analysis to prove anything but it seems to me that there is a very high correlation between the Capitals opponents' getting quality scoring chances and Erskine being on the ice, which seemed to especially be true during last night's game. I like Erskine's attitude and style of play, but he is such a poor skater and is so bad with the puck that he is a liability against most NHL caliber forwards. While I think he's an okay depth guy, I don't think Erskine should be getting playing time ahead of any of the Capitals other current defensemen.

Secondary scoring. The Capitals scored three goals, which isn't an offensive explosion by any means. But the fact that they potted three from players not named Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Viktor Kozlov or Mike Green was nice. It's even better that Alexander Semin and Tomas Fleischmann each seem to be finding a groove offensively.

Horrible television announcers. I think that fans of teams in Southern locales are too often unfairly dismissed as ignorant about the game of hockey, but if there is any truth to this stereotype I'm pretty sure it's a result of the guys doing the games on TV in these markets. In the past I've detailed the follies of the Atlanta Thrashers' announcers and in the Capitals game on the other night against Florida the Panthers commentators were not too impressive either. But I think Bobby "The Chief" Taylor takes the cake with his comment during last night's game. With about two minutes left their was a brief scrum that start in front of the Capitals net. Taylor blamed this on David Steckel, saying "What is that? I never understood that. If you're going to fight, then fight, but if you're not then just turn around and skate away. What is that? That's a bunch of crap!" There are a lot of thing wrong with that assessment including (1) if you don't know why that happens, you really probably don't know much about hockey and (2) Steckel gave a pretty innocent little push on a Tampa player's arm and the Tampa player then cross-checked him. But really that's irrelevant. What really matters is that Taylor demonstrated a complete lack of maturity and professionalism and if the person who is supposed to provide insightful commentary on hockey is pouting like a twelve-year-old fan of the team, it's no wonder that Southern hockey fans are schooled in the game's finer points.

DMG's 3 Stars
(1) Olaf Kolzig - 39 saves on 41 shots (95.1 save %) and clearly the best player on either team
(2) Alexander Semin - 1 goal (game winner), 1 assists, +1, 6 shots,
(3) Tomas Fleischmann - 1 goal


"He didn't seemed fazed at all. He was making great plays and he played within himself."

-Bruce Boudreau on Sami Lepisto

"Kolzig gets credit the whole game. He's the difference."

-Lightning coach John Tortorella

Quick Hits

  • Another rough night on the faceoff dot for Viktor Kozlov - he won just two of nine draws.

  • Someone should just tell Dave Steckel to imagine Lightning uniforms on every opponent. Steckel now has five NHL goals, four of which have come against Tampa Bay.

  • On the official scoresheet the Capitals were outhit 27-19

  • How nice was it to see how excited Semin was after his goal?

Around the (Inter)net
A New York Times intensive version today: the seven best trades the NYT could come up with and why the Southeast's big time scorers aren't on winning that he's been fired, everyone cares what John Ferguson Jr. thinks of the Leafs...Celebrating the Top 10 U.S.-Born Fighters

All photos AP/Getty by way of Yahoo!
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Caron's Great Escape

There's an excellent story on the front page of Sunday's Washington Post by Michael Lee detailing Caron Butler's rise from a drug-dealing lifestyle in Racine, Wisconsin to his current status as an NBA All-Star and community activist. Tuff Juice's story is well-documented, by this is a great account with interviews with the childhood friends and the police officer who essentially saved his career on the hardwood.

Check out the story here.

Caron won't play in tonight's All-Star game due to that hip injury, but it was great to see him courtside last night, enjoying Dwight Howard's showmanship with the rest of the stars.
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