Saturday, April 12, 2008

Caps battle back to take 1-0 series lead

Capitals 5, Flyers 4

The Capitals are capable of being an electric team, playing with grit and talent to spare, able to quickly strike in the offensive zone or bottle up the opposition in their own end and of being, quite possibly, the best team in the NHL on any given night. Why they have to be down and out, gasping for air and all but dead to rights for them to play that way is anyone's guess...but I guess there are worse characteristics for a team to have.

For forty minutes the Flyers executed their gameplan almost perfectly: they crashed the net of Cristobal Huet, played a physical game without getting burned by penalties and successfully controlled not only Alex Ovechkin and his linemates, but the secondary line of Alex Semin, Sergei Fedorov and Matt Cooke as well.

But then, NHL games go sixty minutes, not forty, and the Capitals completely controlled the final frame, outshooting the Flyers 12-3 and of course outscoring them 3-0.

It seemed only fitting that Ovechkin netted the game winning goal (and even more so on an individual effort play) but the story of 'The Great Eight''s first playoff game with another talented youngster, Mike Green. Green had, frankly, an awful first two periods. He failed to clear the net on the play that led to the Flyers first goal, giving Huet no chance because of the screen and failed to step up on Vinny Prospal, giving him a wide open path to the slot and the chance to score his second of the night. Then, to top things off, Green took a delay of game (puck over the glass) penalty in the second period's closing minutes forcing his teammates to finish off the frame a man down and try desperately not to allow the Flyers to pick up a three-goal lead.
Green was indeed picked up by his teammates and he returned the favor, notching two goals in 6:26 to tie the game in the third.

Of course, his teammates weren't the only people Green picked up with his stellar third period, as an already raucous crowd went into near bedlam when Green's slapshot hit twine to make the score 4-4. As someone who was at the Capitals last playoff game five years ago, one which was attended by a largely listless crowd of about 13,000 and described as having the "feel of a well-attended preseason game", it was great to see the whole building behind the home team. I don't think there's any doubt it helped the Caps win.

As excited as Washington fans and players are is about how concerned Philly fans and players should be. Sure, the Flyers went into the second intermission ahead 4-2 and it took a great comeback for the Capitals to come out with the win. But if my allegiances were to the orange and black I would still be a little worried because the Flyers executed their gameplan perfectly for most of the game and still wasn't enough to secure a win. That, plus that the Capitals now have momentum and confidence again and have experienced playoff hockey, means the Flyers are in for one hell of challenge Sunday afternoon at Verizon Center.

DMG's 3 Stars
(1) Mike Green
- 2 goals, 1 hit, +1
(2) Alex Ovechkin - 1 goal (game winner), 8 hits, +1
(3) Matt Bradley - 2 assists, +1, 7 hits

Quick Hits

  • Everyone was predicting a physical series and, well, sometimes the majority is right: the two teams were credited for a combined 76 hits, 40 of which were doled out by Washington, led by Ovechkin (8), Matt Bradley (7), Matt Cooke (6) and Milan Jurcina (5).

  • Is it just me, or does it seem like interference is apparently not a penalty in the playoffs?

  • Bruce Boudreau's decision to put out the Fedorov-Semin-Cooke line after Ovechkin's goal was great. Man can those guys cycle the puck.

  • It would have been understandable for Caps' fans to have been concerned about the playoff readiness of their team, but that first game did a lot to calm my nerves. In addition to Green and Ovechkin I thought Tomas Fleischmann, Milan Jurcina, Alex Semin and Matt Bradley looked ready to go.

  • I have to admit I'd been wondering a bit how David Steckel was a 30 goal scorer in the AHL. His goal last night did a lot to help explain it to me.

  • Federov's pass that led to Green's first goal was beautiful both in concept and in execution. I guess that's why he leads all active players in playoff assists.

All photos AP/Getty by way of Yahoo!
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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Capitals playoff music

A hat tip to my friend and fellow blogger, The Tar Heel for discovering a couple of music tributes to the Capitals. One is from a band that I honestly have never heard of called Pummeler (the song is called ''Ovechkin'') and the other is from D.C. hardcore pros (legends?) Darkest Hour and is called simply "Let's Go CAPS!!!".

Click to play in browser or right-click and chose 'Save Link As' or 'Save Target As' to download:

"Ovechkin" by Pummeler (NSFW)
"Let's Go CAPS!!!" by Darkest Hour

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Flyers/Capitals Series Preview

(3) Washington Capitals vs (6) Philadelphia Flyers

About the Opponent

Philadelphia Flyers: 42-29-11, 95 points, 4th in the Atlantic Division, 6th in the Eastern Conference.

Team Leaders
Goals: Vaclav Prospal (33: 29 with Tampa, 4 with Philadelphia)
Assists: Mike Richards (47)
Points: Mike Richards (75)
Plus/Minus: Braydon Coburn (+17)
Penalty Minutes: Riley Cote (202)
Fights: Riley Cote (24)

Keys to the Series

(1) Home ice advantage. Not a traditional strong point for the Capitals, but the Verizon Center has come alive as a sea of red in the last few weeks (how well this remains when the team isn't the NHL's darling and Cinderella story remains to be seen, but that's another issue). The reality is that a loud, noisy, red building is something that the Capitals can feed off of, even if it doesn't necessarily intimidate opponents.
(2) Start strong. The Capitals need to get a fast start, even faster than winning the first game. Like, they need to dominate the first five minutes and score the first goal. The Capitals had a ton of momentum to finish the regular season but that's going to diminished now because of the long layoff and the fact that, well, it's a whole new season now. Starting strong would help the Caps get some momentum back.
(3) Healthy defense corps. Both Shaone Morrisonn and Jeff Schultz were hurt in the season's closing games. It looks like (knock on wood) they're going to both be ready to go for Game 1. With how much scoring depth the Flyers have, plus their physical brand of hockey, having these two 100% in important.
(4) Stay out of the box. The Flyers are going to get physical and may even get a little dirty, but the Capitals need to avoid retaliation penalties against the team with the NHL's second-best powerplay. The key players to watch here are Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, John Erskine and Donald Brashear.

(1) Stay on the attack. The Capitals have played very well defensively lately but the defense is exploitable - only Tom Poti does not have questions about his health, experience or overall skill level. If the Flyers can keep their offensive players attacking and aggressive throughout the series they may just get the Capitals to cough up a puck or two that lead to goals, and that may just be enough to turn the series.
(2) Find a matchup that works. The Flyers have a lot of pretty good defensemen, but who can match up against Ovechkin? Derian Hatcher and Jason Smith are too slow and Lasse Kukkonen, Jaroslav Modry and Kimmo Timonen aren't physical enough. The Flyers best bet is probably their plus-minus leader from this past season, Braydon Coburn. As good as Coburn is, I don't think he can handle Ovechkin, especially not night after night. If they Flyers do figure out a way to shut down Ovechkin offensively, it will go a long way towards them winning the series. It's worth noting the the plan right now is to have Timonen mark Ovechkin.
(3) Controlled physicality. It's been said a thousand times this season but it's worth mentioning again: The Broad Street Bullies are back. While that might help the Flyers, it can also hurt them and ever since the cheap shots by, and subsequent suspensions of, Steve Downie and Jesse Boulrice the league's been watching the Flyers. Bringing physical play to the table could help the Flyers but it's a strategy that could backfire: a number of Capitals, including Ovechkin, Bradley, Morrisonn and Brooks Laich, seem to get more into the game as it becomes more physical. Plus constantly having to have a Semin-Backstrom-Fedorov-Green-Ovechkin powerplay isn't the way to win a series.
(4) A fast start. I mentioned earlier that I think the Capitals' momentum will have waned since the finish to their regular season. A hot start by Philly, say two goals in the series' first ten minutes, would extinguish it completely.

Players to Watch

Matt Cooke - The Flyers are going to bring attitude, physical play and maybe just a hint of dirtyness. Cooke can throw all of that right back at them.
Sergei Fedorov - Fedorov is important to the Capitals success for a number of reasons: he's their best penalty killing forward, he's a key component of the powerplay, he's a great defensive forward and he's playoff tested.
Cristobal Huet - Huet's 11-2 with a 1.63 GAA and .936 save percentage since coming to the Capitals. Play like that from you goaltending means that a team has confidence...and someone to fall back on when things don't go their way.
Alex Ovechkin - Every NHL fan on the planet has to be excited to see Ovechkin in the playoffs...except those with their allegiances to the orange and black.

Martin Biron - Biron had his best NHL season in 2007-08, but he's also never played an NHL playoff game. That, plus asking a 6'3'', 163 pound goalie who has a reputation of having stamina issues to play a physical series comprised of three games a week, means that Flyers fans probably aren't as comfortable as they'd want to be with their man in the net.
Jeff Carter - Carter had a nice season this year with 53 points (29 goals), but he looks like he could be even better. What should concern Caps fans is that he looks like he's going to turn a corner any day now.
Daniel Briere - Briere has been incredibly underwhelming for the Flyers this season, especially for a man pulling in ten million dollars. His 31 goals and 72 points are solid, but also represent declines from last season (32 goals, 95 points) and he posted a team worst -22 plus-minus rating. Of course, Briere still has talent and may use the playoffs to try and redeem himself.

Around the (Inter)net
Mike Vogel explains why the physical matchup might not be what you think it is...Apparently ESPN is getting in on the Caps love...The newest member of the crazy media corps is apparently named Don Brennan (move over Mike Brophy!)...CBC talks with the creator of Caps have at least one celebrity fan.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Wizards Hit the Home Stretch

Boston Celtics at Washington Wizards
Tonight, April 9 - 7pm
Verizon Center

After three much-needed days of rest, the Wizards are back in action tonight when they take on the Boston Celtics at the Phone Booth. Antawn Jamison is expected to return after missing two games with a sprained right shoulder and Gilbert Arenas will be back on the floor after sitting out Saturday's win over Chicago as a precautionary measure.

Washington (40-37) currently sits in 5th place in the Eastern Conference playoff race, has a one-game lead on Philadelphia and trails Cleveland by two games for home-court advantage in the first round. It's crunch time for the Wiz as they take on some of the East's best over their final five contests. Yet, with Boston, Detroit and Orlando locked into the first three spots, they will likely be giving some of their starters a rest over the last week and a half of the season, giving Washington an opportunity to possibly overtake the struggling Cavs.

Most importantly, Eddie Jordan will be toying with his lineups to figure out how Agent Zero best fits into the rotation. Having an All-Star with 20+ ppg potential coming off the bench is a luxury most coaches in the East don't have. So finally, after enduring countless injuries to key contributors all season, the Wizards might actually have an edge in the personal department when it matters most.

The Celts (62-15) come into D.C. having won seven straight, but lately they've been giving the bulk of the playing time to their bench. In their 107-104 overtime win last night against the Bucks, none of the Big Three played more than 22 minutes. Doc Rivers has the right idea, resting his stars and giving his role players a chance to build some confidence heading into the post-season, but don't forget, the Wiz knocked off Boston in back-to-back games with the Big Three on the floor earlier this season and with a healthy Big Three for Eddie Jordan, they should be able to handle the C's tonight.

-- The Tar Heel
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Monday, April 7, 2008

Ten defining moments in the Capitals 2007-08 regular season

10. October 5th, 2007 - Opening night. In the first game of the season the Capitals delivered on their offseason promise: the new uniforms were crisp and sharp, new acquisitions Michael Nylander and Viktor Kozlov each notched a goal and the Capitals ruined Atlanta's "2006-7 Southeast Champions" banner raising ceremony by peppering Kari Lehtonen with 40 shots en route to a 3-1 win. The Capitals would of course falter soon after, but the first game of the season gave a glimpse into how strong Washington could be.

9. October 12th, 2007 - Capitals lose to the Rangers, 3-1. The first loss of the season doesn't have to be a defining moment (after all no one is going to go 82-0). But the Capitals' first loss of this season foreshadowed the problems the team would not be able to solve under Hanlon: having the best offensive players stifled under the defensive system, looking disorganized and listless and being simply unprepared.

8. January 15th, 2008 - Capitals beat Ottawa to sweep season set. By this point everyone in the league knew the Capitals could match up against the Senators, having taken the season's previous three meetings. But the sweep of season series served as proof that the Capitals could play with anyone, and provided a boost that helped the Capitals win the next two games, resulting in a crucial 4-1 homestand.

7. November 21st, 2008 - Bruce Boudreau's first game as head coach. Boudreau had only had control of the Washington bench for a day when the Caps staggered into Philadelphia to take on a Flyers team that looked quite good after a myriad of offseason changes, but it showed. The Capitals were uncharacteristically (at that point) aggressive and jumped on the Flyers 3-0. Even though it took birthday boy (and temporary fourth liner) Nicklas Backstrom's overtime winner to hand the game to the Capitals, the change in coaching philosophy was apparent and those 61 minutes, 55 seconds at Wachovia Center gave Capitals fans a world of hope.

6. January 11th, 2008 - Alexander Ovechkin signs his 13 year contract extension. Given the Capitals amazing and improbable race to the postseason it may seem a little strange but when all is said and done this may end up being the defining moment of 2007-08 for the Capitals, as inking the NHL's most exciting player to such a long contract gives Washington a great focal point to build the team around, signals to fans that the team is serious about winning and has the potential to move the nation's capital up in the eyes of the hockey world, possibly even becoming a "hockey town".

5. March 21, 2008 - Capitals beat Atlanta After losing to the Blackhawks 5-0 in the their previous game and trailing 3-1 at the second intermission it looked like the long uphill battle had taken its toll on the Capitals. However the Capitals rallied back, scoring four third period goals to beat the Thrashers 5-3. The Capitals would carry the momentum of that period with them even after the final buzzer and haven't lost a game since.

4. February 26th, 2008 - Capitals active at trade deadline. The flurry of activity at the deadline (Washington was the most active team) caught Capitals fans and the NHL by surprise, as George McPhee had said several times that the Capitals would likely stand part for the most part. However, the Canadiens and Blue Jackets made Cristobal Huet and Sergei Fedorov available for reasonable prices. When the dust had cleared the Capitals had picked up picked up that duo plus Matt Cooke, all without sacrificing any key pieces of their current roster or blue-chip prospects. All three acquisitions played significant roles down the stretch for the Caps: Huet went 11-2 with a 1.63 GAA and .936 save percentage, Cooke notched 7 points (3+4) and brought an aggressive forechecking presence to the lineup while Fedorov tallied 13 points (2+11), including the playoff-clinching goal. In addition, the trio help to solidify a Washington penalty killing unit that was among the league's worst.

3. April 4th, 2008 - Florida beats Carolina. As a team you always want to be in a position to control your own destiny. Unfortunately when you start 6-14-1, that's not always an option. Along the same lines, you never want one of the defining moments of your season to be someone else picking up a big win but the truth is that if Florida hadn't pulled out this improbable win, the Capitals wouldn't be in the playoffs.

2. April 5th, 2008 - Capitals beat Florida 3-1 at home. The culmination of months of hard work, the once left-for-dead Capitals finished off Southeast Division rival Florida in front of a raucous "red out" crowd to secure the franchise's first postseason berth in five years (and the first of Alexander Ovechkin's career).

1. November 22nd, 2007 - Glen Hanlon fired; Bruce Boudreau promoted. It might not have had the same cathartic effect as the win against Florida to seal the playoff berth, but without the promotion of Boudreau the Capitals would have, in all likelihood, be on the outside looking in yet again when it came to playoff time. As an aside, it must be slightly vindicating for George McPhee and the rest of the Capitals brass to have Boudreau lead the Capitals to postseason on the last day of the season after being criticized in some corners for being classless for firing Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving Day, usually with the added caveat "they should have waited until the end of the weekend, it's not like it would have made a difference."
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Capitals Round One playoff schedule

Per the NHL's website:

Fri., April 11, 2008 7:00 PM Philadelphia at Washington VERSUS, TSN
Sun., April 13, 2008 2:00 PM Philadelphia at Washington NBC, TSN
Tues., April 15, 2008 7:00 PM Washington at Philadelphia VERSUS, TSN
Thurs, April 17, 2008 7:00 PM Washington at Philadelphia VERSUS, TSN
Sat., April 19, 2008 1:00 PM Philadelphia at Washington NBC, TSN
Mon., April 21, 2008 TBD Washington at Philadelphia VERSUS, TSN
Tues., April 22, 2008 TBD Philadelphia at Washington TSN

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