Saturday, March 1, 2008

Huet and Caps shut out Devils, 4-0

Capitals 4, Devils 0

Cristobal Huet stopped every shot he faced, Sergei Fedorov notched two assists and Matt Cooke...was in the building as the Capitals shut out the Eastern Conference leading New Jersey Devils, 4-0.

But it wasn't just the new players that made the difference for the Capitals - Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin each had two points, Donald Brashear chipped in with a goal and the team allowed only 18 shots on goal.

Also notable was Washington's play with the man advantage, as the Caps scored each of the two times they had a powerplay. Fedorov is going to be important here; after Michael Nylander's injury Bruce Boudreau moved Tomas Fleischmann to the first powerplay unit as the system called for two left-handed players down low. No offense to Flash, but the powerplay's going to be a lot stronger with Fedorov filling that role.

DMG's 3 Stars
(1) Cristobal Huet - 18 saves on 18 shots
(2) Alexander Semin - 1 goal, 1 assist, +1
(3) Nicklas Backstrom - 2 assists, +1


Quotable

"It was an ideal start, I would say. But we can't stop here."

- Cristobal Huet


Quick Hits

  • In addition to picking up an assist, Fedorov won 10 of 13 faceoffs (77%)

  • Alex Ovechkin has now gone seven games without scoring - a career high (low?).

  • Again the Capitals played well in front of their own net (and Huet did a good job controlling rebounds), and again John Erskine was scratched.

  • While we're on the topic of personnel decisions, I thought it was odd that Jeff Schultz saw time on the powerplay and Steve Eminger didn't.

  • Nice to see Viktor Kozlov taking a page out of Quintin Laing's book, shot blocking-wise.

  • Only three Capitals players were credited with giveaways - Ovechkin (3), Mike Green (2) and Shaone Morrisonn (1). To contrast, the Devils had nine players with at least on.


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Friday, February 29, 2008

Butler Still Out as Wiz Visit Chi-town

Wednesday the Wizards got the unfortunate news that Caron Butler's hip injury is more serious than they thought. Instead of the initially diagnosed strained hip flexor, CB3 - who will miss his 12th straight game tonight - is now said to have a small labral tear of the left joint in his hip. There's still no timetable for his return, but you can bet it won't be in the next few games.

So Washington (27-30) must continue to press onward without their All-Star co-captain, without their franchise player (Gilbert Arenas) and sans their most poetic big man (Etan Thomas). Tonight they close out a three-game road trip in Chicago, looking to bounce back from a 94-69 thrashing at the hands of a Yao-less Houston Rockets team Tuesday night.


Playing their fifth game in seven days, that one got ugly fast for the Wizards who trailed 51-23 at the half - a franchise low for points in a half. Nick Young scored 16 and Oleksiy Pecherov had a career-high 11 as both rookies got plenty of playing time because the game was over by halftime. DeShawn Stevenson, coming off his monumental 33-point effort the night before, Antonio
Daniels and Brendan Haywood combined for only 16 points and Washington barely cracked 30 percent (31.3) from the field. The Wiz committed a season-low five turnovers but were outrebounded 55-37 and had just 11 assists to Houston's 25.

Key Match-Up

Brendan Haywood/Andray Blatche v. Joakim Noah/Drew Gooden -
The Wizards won't have to deal with defensive stalwart Ben Wallace in the paint tonight. The disgruntled former All-Star was shipped to Cleveland for Gooden and former Wizard Larry Hughes just before last week's trade deadline. That means Washington gets to take another crack at two of the guys responsible for their struggles against the Cavs, and it means Haywood gets to bang with his not-so-good bearded buddy on the block. Noah and Gooden are two very different types of players, the former a scrappy, rebounding, energy pest and the latter more of your lumbering big man with back-to-the basket post moves. Haywood will need to play solid defense on both and control the defensive boards to prevent the Bulls from getting any second-chance scoring chances. He also needs to get his little half-hook going, as it has been a great move for him in recent games. As for Blatche, the Wizards need aggression on both ends from him, especially when he's matched up with Noah. It should definitely be a good battle in the paint.

Prediction


The Wizards are under-manned and the Bulls (23-34) just got a couple reinforcements, which already gives them a decided advantage. That said, if the Wizards can get
a big offensive night out of their backcourt and find a spark off the bench with some combination of Dominic McGuire, Darius Songaila, Nick Young and Roger Mason, it could go either way. Chicago has two guys who can pour in points in a hurry with Luol Deng and Ben Gordon of the bench, so the Wizards will need to play much better defense than they did in Houston and hope the three-balls aren't falling for the Bulls. If it goes down to the wire maybe Stevenson will put on another Gilbert-like performance with a game-winning dagger (2005 Playoffs anyone?).

All photos AP/Getty Images by way of Yahoo!


-- The Tar Heel

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Capitals over Wild, 4-1

Capitals 4, Wild 1
One of the worst fears a general manager has when he bring in new players at the trade deadline is that it's going to have an adverse effect of his team's chemistry. Well none of the Capitals new additions have arrived yet, but the team certainly seemed enthused as they came out and played one of their most focused and crisp games in recent memory, picking up a 4-1 behind a four point effort from Brooks Laich.

The addition of the several new players was not entirely without controversy however, as the issue of where the acquisition of Cristobal Huet puts current Capitals goalies Olaf Kolzig and Brent Johnson. Despite what Versus commentators Keith Jones and John Vanbiesbrouck seem to think, I doubt Olie is still the number one in Washington as I just can't see a team trading for a goalie who's tied for 11th in the league in save percentage and going to become a free agent with the intention of having him back up the goalie with the worst save percentage in the entire league (rank: 43rd).

I also doubt Jones' assessment that Kolzig would be a given a chance to show he's the number one and that Kolzig would step up his game under competition and pressure. Kolzig has had the chance to prove he's still a number one all season, and has even seen the bulk of the playing time although his save percentage has languished at or near the bottom of ranked goalie for much of the season. I doubt he will turn things around with the acquisition of Huet - if Kolzig were going to elevate his game at a crucial time, he most likely would have already done it as the team fights for a playoff spot. And again, despite what Jones seemed to think, I don't think Olie is going to get a ton more chances for what he has done for the team over the years. And that's not a problem

If Cal Ripken still wanted to play baseball, would the Orioles put him in the lineup every day based on his past achievements? If Darrell Green wanted to play football would the Redskins still send him out to cover the opposing teams number one receiver? If Peter Bondra still wanted to play in the NHL would the Capitals play him on the first line and ask him to quarterback the powerplay? Of course not. No matter how great a player is in their prime, their comes a point at which they're no longer good enough to be their team's go-to guy, or even to earn a place in the starting lineup. I believe Kolzig has reached that point and while the Capitals should still treat him with class, retire his number and offer him a front office job when he officially hangs them up, it doesn't make sense, nor is it fair to the fans or the other players, to put the team in a position where it's more likely to lose just to pay back one man for what he has done for the team. It makes sense to admire, respect and have sympathy for Olaf Kolzig as a man, but it should affect hockey personnel decision to a small degree. George McPhee knows this, and I'm willing to bet Bruce Boudreau does too.

DMG's 3 Stars
(1) Brooks Laich - 2 goals, 2 assists, +4
(2) Olaf Kolzig - 34 saves on 35 shots (.971 save percentage)
(3) Eric Fehr - 1 goal, +4


Quotable

"I was shocked, because I didn't think it was broken, the goaltending here"

-Brent Johnson on the trade for Cristobal Huet. The Capitals are ranked 29th of 30 NHL teams in the save percentage this season.


Quick Hits

  • In addition to Laich and Fehr, Tomas Fleischmann was a +4.

  • What was with Vanbiesbrouck's weird obsession with trying to convince everyone that Alex Semin and Alex Ovechkin look a whole lot alike?

  • I'll never understand how the NHL keeps track of hits, because the scoresheet says the Caps only had 10 (led by Milan Jurcina's three).

  • The Capitals were very crisp, rebounds didn't seem to pose the same threat, there weren't a lot of good chances for the Wild right in the front of the Caps net...and John Erskine was a healthy scratch. Somehow I don't think this is a coincidence.

  • Each team had as many fighting penalties as all other penalties.


All photos AP/Getty by way of Yahoo!
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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Caps active at trade deadline

Despite warnings that he might not be terribly active at the deadline Capitals general manager George McPhee made three trades this afternoon, while still holding keeping his word that he wouldn't give up too much in the way of players or picks.

As a primer, here's an breakdown of the changes the Capitals made:

Acquired:
Matt Cooke
Sergei Fedorov
Cristobal Huet


Shipped Out:
2008 2nd round draft pick
Matt Pettinger
Rights to Ted Ruth


At face value, the Capitals look much improved. But are these moves really going to help the team as much as it seems like they should on paper? To answer, let's take a look at each trade individually.

A 2nd round draft pick in 2008 to the Montreal Canadiens for Cristobal Huet

Initial Reaction: Wow. Shocking for a few reasons: Huet wasn't supposed to be moved, the Caps are apparently willing to spell Olaf Kolzig as their starting goalie, and it's odd that Huet was had for only a second round pick.

Pros
(1) Cristobal Huet is a good goalie. Really good. Like top ten in the NHL good.
(2) Huet's save percentage is .916
(3) Olaf Kolzig's save percentage is .888
(4) Brent Johnson's save percentage is .908
(5) Acquiring Huet now gives the Caps a chance to show off their young talented core to him and gives them the jump on negotiating a contract with the free-agent-to-be.
(6) He only cost a second round pick.
(7) Coming from le bleu, blanc et rouge of Montreal, Huet's pads already match the Capitals' uniforms.


Cons
(1) Huet is still a free agent come July 1.
(2) How will Kolzig handle his demotion?
(3) Kolzig deserved better. I'm not saying the Capitals shouldn't have made this trade, but it is unfortunate for Olie the way this season has played out.


Grade: A. The Capitals addressed their biggest weakness even if it meant possibly offending a portion of their fan base, picked up a very good player and have a chance to build with this move if they can re-sign Huet. No other goalie nearly this good was available and it only cost the Capitals a second round pick.

The rights to Ted Ruth for Sergei Fedorov

Intial Reaction: Again a surprise. Not that Fedorov was moved, but that the Capitals were able to pick him up. Who's Ted Ruth?

Pros
(1) Fedorov is an offensively skilled center who can hopefully fill Michael Nylander's shoes.
(2) Ted Ruth is far from a blue-chip prospect.
(3) Fedorov seems a good fit for the Capitals second line since he's historically a good defensive center, gives Alexander Semin a Russian countryman to work with and has undeniable offensive talent.
(4) Fedorov has played 1178 NHL games, 162 NHL playoff games and won two Stanley Cups. That's the kind of veteran presence you want when you're making a playoff push.
(5) Fedorov's contract expires after this season.


Cons
(1) Fedorov has become too lazy too often in recent years.


Grade: A-. Fedorov is a great pick up for the Capitals second line because he not only has offensive skill but because he is a two-time Selke winner who speaks Semin's language (literally).

Matt Pettinger for Matt Cooke

Initial Reaction: A fair trade and a solid pickup for a player (Pettinger) who needed a change of scenery.

Pros
(1) Matt Cooke is a solid defensive player.
(2) Pettinger couldn't seem to get things going in D.C. this year, so maybe a new locale will help.
(3) Cooke provides grit and agitation skills, something the Caps could use a little more of.


Cons
(1) Pettinger has more offensive upside than Cooke.
(2) At 27, Pettinger is two years younger than Cooke.


Grade: B. Simply a good, fair trade that will probably benefit both teams in the end.

Aggregate Grade: B+. To me, these trades are even better than they initially look because each player has some advantage beyond their playing skill: that the Caps can start negotiations with Huet for the future earlier than anyone else, Fedorov's experience and potential to mesh well with Semin and Cooke's agitation tendencies. The Capitals filled two of their biggest holes with the acquisition of Fedorov and Huet and didn't give up a whole lot doing it and for the trades that were made I'd give them an A/A-. However there were two notables non moves: the failure to trade for a big, mean stay-at-home defenseman and the decision to hold on to Steve Eminger. Perhaps they were the best decisions because perhaps the Capitals couldn't get a stay-at-home defender for what they were willing to give up and perhaps they didn't get any decent offers for Eminger. But those non-moves keep this deadline from being a complete success...although the team came much closer than anyone could have expected.
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Lock It Up

The Wizards needed someone to step up huge to give them a chance against the second best team in the West last night in New Orleans. They found that someone in the form of a bushy-bearded Locksmith.

DeShawn Stevenson exploded for a career-high 33 points and capped it all off with his best Gilbert Arenas impersonation, dribbling the length of the floor as the final seconds ticked away in a tie game and nailing a game-winning three-point dagger from the left corner just before the buzzer.

The "DAGGER" from the corner was Stevenson's fourth triple of the night - his second straight contest with four treys - and sealed a come-from-behind 95-92 victory over the Hornets for the depleted Wizards. Washington had not won in New Orleans (37-18) in it's previous 10 trips.

The Locksmith had never before hit a game-winning shot in his NBA career, with his most recent late-game attempt coming at the end of Washington's loss at Golden State on February 11. But the hard-nosed two-guard is fully deserving of the limelight following this one. Remember, Stevenson has started 223 consecutive games.

The Wizards (27-29) also got solid scoring contributions from Antawn Jamison (10 points and 10 boards), Brendan Haywood (12 and 8), Antonio Daniels (10) and 12 from Roger Mason off the bench. They were out-rebounded by the Hornets 42-35 but made up for it with another great night taking care of the basketball. Washington committed a season-low seven turnovers for the second consecutive game and had 11 steals to New Orleans' three. The Wizards also out-shot their opponents at the charity stripe, connecting on 21-of-24, while the Hornets made just 12-of-22.

All-Star point guard Chris Paul led the Hornets with 22 and Morris Peterson added 18 as New Orleans lost its third straight game to fall one game behind San Antonio in the Southwest division.

This was a huge confidence builder for the Wiz as they continue a three-game road trip tonight in Houston, against a Rockets team that has won 12 straight.

Quotable

"Down the stretch, it was like DeShawn Stevenson versus the New Orleans Hornets." - Brendan Haywood

"He's a warrior, man, a true warrior. His confidence is growing -- he's making threes -- he's just a true pro. This is a man's league and he is man. In the dictionary next to that word there is a picture of DeShawn Stevenson." - Eddie Jordan

Noteworthy

  • The Yahoo! sports page has started including +/- numbers in its basketball box scores. The concept might seem silly, but it provides tremendous insight into which players are making the most of their minutes on the floor and who is a liability for his team. The +/- stats for the Wizards in last night's game appear to do just that.
    • Stevenson (+19), Daniels (0), Haywood (+3), Jamison (+9), Andray Blatche (-20), Mason (-3), Darius Songaila (+3), Dominic McGuire (+14), Nick Young (-14), Oleksiy Pecherov (+4)
    • I doubt Jordan uses this specific stat to set his lineups, but after a while, it becomes apparent who gives the team the best chance to win on the floor. Blatche's number is pretty telling that he doesn't do enough on the defensive end an is inconsistent on offense at times while McGuire's strengths on the glass and on the defensive end are reflected in his number. Maybe that's why Jordan started the second half with the rookie and Mason in the lineup instead of Daniels and Blatche.
  • Gilbert Arenas did make the trip to New Orleans with the team and was seen playing some one-on-one with Nick Young before the game. He recently backed off his plan to be back for next Sunday's home game against the Hornets. There is no time-table in place for his return to a roster that desperately needs its stars back and healthy to resume their fight for playoff positioning.
All photos from Yahoo! (AP/Getty Images)

-- The Tar Heel
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Monday, February 25, 2008

Depleted Wizards Keep Fighting

It might get worse before it gets better. Things have already been pretty bleak for the Wizards in the here and now since Caron Butler was sidelined with a strained hip flexor three weeks ago. But it looks like neither he nor Gilbert Arenas will be back anytime soon. Both stayed in D.C. as the Wizards embarked on another tough road trip with stops in New Orleans (tonight), Houston (tomorrow) and Chicago (Friday).

After a crushing 90-89 loss in Cleveland on Friday, Washington got an elusive victory at home against Charlotte on Saturday. Antawn Jamison scored 22 to lead all five starters in double-figures as the Wizards won for only the second time in their last 12 games, 110-95. DeShawn Stevenson had 20 points and four 3-pointers and Brendan Haywood added 15 and seven boards.
Washington (26-29) allowed the Bobcats to shoot 50 percent from the field but outrebounded their opponents 46-36 including 22 offensive boards to make up for mediocre defense.

It was a good win, if for no other reason than to stop the bleeding as the Wizards continue to play on without two of the big three. Tonight they face a stern test in the form of the Southwest Division leading Hornets (37-17). All-Star point guard Chris Paul is a front-runner for MVP and Byron Scott's boys just keep disproving their doubters.


Fortunately, or unfortunately, for the Wiz, N'awlins is coming off two straight losses to San Antonio and Houston following five straight victories. They'll be looking for a get-well game before back-to-back home dates with Phoenix and Utah.


Meanwhile, the Wizards - who seem to have the ability to hang in games without Caron but just can't seal the deal - are looking for a win any way possible. With no real time table set for the returns of the big guns, they continue their current free-fall in the East and expect to jump back in the race when/if they finally get healthy. Yes, it's still th
e East, but unlike the Cavs, Bulls and even the Hawks, Washington made no moves to improve its roster for a playoff push. So it's time to suck it up and go to work.

Quotable

"We know that it's going to be a challenge. Chris Paul, he's playing as well as anyone in the league, David West is a guy not a lot of people know about but I saw him down there for the All-Star Game and he can play; and then they have a solid group of veterans who play well together. So, we're going to have to play very well and find a way to execute down the stretch like we did [Saturday night]. It would be great to start this trip on a positive note." - Jamison

Key Matchup

Andray Blatche v. David West -
With lots of jump shooters on the floor, the Wizards again must win the battle of the boards in order to have a chance in this one. Expect Tyson Chandler to abuse Haywood on the inside, boxing him out and grabbing his 12.3 boards per game and then some. Therefore, Blatche will have to step up huge for the Wizards on both ends of the floor. Washington needs his offense, but they also need him banging with the All-Star power forward in the lane. West averages just under 20 points and 10 boards per game and at 6-foot-9, 240, he's a force on the block. Blatche will need to try to push him out and make him settle for the jumper, rather than let Chris Paul feed him for easy dunks and layups around the rim.

Prediction

The Wizards are seriously short-handed and New Orleans has two All-Stars and one possible snub (Chandler) poised to make a run at division title. No one on Washington's roster can contain Paul, who is averaging an obscene 20.7 points, 10.8 assists, 4 boards and 2.7 steals per contest. The only hope is to keep him out of the lane as much as possible and hope for a colossal effort from the starters and Mason, Songaila and the rooks off the bench. The don't have much in the way of depth, but they'll need every last drop to pull out an upset in this one.

All photos from Yahoo! (AP/Getty Images)

-- The Tar Heel

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Caps Fall to 'Canes, 6-3

Capitals 3, Hurricanes 6

In a game players, coaches, fans and media agreed was the most important of the season to this point, the Capitals came out looking sharp and aggressive and controlled play for the first ten minutes of the game...but ultimately succumbed to bad luck and bad individual efforts. And no, the Caps didn't lose because of any bad sports clich├ęs that are sure to be thrown around in the wake of this game, phrases like "they don't know how to win", "they're too inexperienced" or "they didn't have the effort".

The bad luck part is pretty self-explanatory: each of the Hurricanes first two goals came on the powerplay, with a Capitals player (David Steckel and then Milan Jurcina) without a stick. Without those bad breaks (no pun intended) and several very nice saves by Cam Ward, the Capitals could have easily been ahead three or four to nothing halfway through the third, instead of trailing 3-2.

There are two players whose efforts were poor enough to be significant contributions to the loss. One was Olaf "this is the biggest game of the season" Kolzig, who may be the victim of comparisons more than anything else. The two most obvious players Kolzig could be compared with are Alexander Ovechkin and Cam Ward and in neither case does he come out looking very good. Comparing Kolzig (the face of the franchise for more than ten years) with Ovechkin (the face of the franchise for the next thirteen at least) comes somewhat naturally in general. But the comparison was even more obvious this week. Leading into this game both Ovechkin and Kolzig addressed the game's importance and recently each has addressed their own personal underperformance (the difference of course being that Ovechkin's lasted about a week while Kolzig's has gone on for several months), yet the responses of the players could not have been more different. Ovechkin was a dominant force, picking up assists on each of the Capitals' goals and registering eight shots of his own, while also racking up five hits. Kolzig stopped 85.7% of the shots that came his way and had terrible rebound control all game. Kolzig's average performance was also highlighted by the play of Cam Ward in the Hurricanes net. Unlike Kolzig, Ward made a number of difficult, crucial saves to keep his team in the game. If the team's had switched goaltenders last night, not only would the Hurricanes have not won the game - it wouldn't even have been close. All that said, though, Kolzig wasn't very good, but he also wasn't as bad as his numbers.

The more pressing concern in my mind was the continued poor play of John Erskine, who was directly responsible for two of the Capitals' goals against, one when he failed to clear the puck in front of the net and one when he let Andrew Ladd get enough space and time that he was able to knock the puck past a prone Kolzig. That kind of play isn't acceptable out of any defenseman; it's especially not acceptable out of a 6'4'', 218 pound defenseman who's a poor skater and has no offensive upside. What's worse is that this can't be chalked up to a bad game - opponents have consistently been getting time and space in front of the net and creating scoring chances when Erskine is on the ice. Honestly, I don't know how he's still getting a sweater.

The bad news is the Capitals are now six points out of the division lead. The good news is that (1) they still hold three games in hand on Carolina and (2) the team is one solid defensive defenseman and possibly a goaltending upgrade from being one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, so even if the playoffs aren't in the cards in 2008, they should be in 2009.

All photos AP/Getty by way of Yahoo!
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