Friday, March 27, 2009

Will Lightning Strike Tonight?

The Capitals are in the playoffs for the second year in a row, so they don't have to exhaust themselves night after night for the rest of the regular season just to earn that position like last year.

However, the Southeast Division title is still up in the air, and the playoff matchups -- including home ice advantage -- are still to be determined. How Washington plays their few remaining games will likely determine how far they make it through the playoffs this year.

Tuesday night's game against the Maple Leafs showed there has been a bit of a slowdown in the determination that was so prevalent from November 2007 through the beginning of this season. Cutesy, easily intercepted, passing plays have taken the place of grinding and mucking. And the Capitals are paying the price on the scoreboard, even as they aren't getting very beat up in body.

No one wants to go into the playoffs battered and bruised to the point of exhaustion, and that may have been a part of the reason why the Capitals didn't make it past a hard-fought first round series with the Flyers last year. However, playing with less than 100% grit and determination is a bad precedent that may be difficult to break out of come mid-April, and likely will result in a faster ejection from the playoffs than seven games with several overtimes.

The Capitals face Tampa Bay tonight, for the first time since "The Celebration." Tampa has nothing to prove, nothing to fight for tonight, except maybe for pride after Ovechkin's poorly thought-out idea. They are 28th in the league, solidly ahead of the Islanders, but still 14th in the conference. If they fight too hard, they will lose out in the draft lottery, which at this point may be their best hope at dragging themselves out of the rut they are in. However, if they've already dealt away this year's pick, maybe they truly have nothing worth defending, and instead can bank on trying to ruin Washington's chance of winning the division.

The Capitals have done poorly against teams that have nothing to prove this year. Most people refer to it as "playing down to their opponents," but it's more than just the Capitals screwing up; it's a no-lose situation for the opponent, so they just play. If they lose, they are losing to a tougher opponent and it was to be expected. If they win, they beat a tougher opponent, and they did awesome.

The Capitals, on the other hand, more and more aren't playing hockey, they are just playing around. Too many passes. Too many moves that are clearly attempts at highlight reels. No physical presences in the crease.

In the final minute of the game against Toronto on Tuesday night, Brooks Laich crashed the crease, and was relentless against the loose puck. He scored, to tie the game (and to set Gerber off resulting in a three-game suspension, but that's another story).

Crashing the crease and unsettling the goaltender has always been a core part of gritty Capitals hockey, and was the bread and butter for players like Dale Hunter. There's nothing wrong with pretty goals like Semin and Nylander obviously always want to score, but it's going to be guys who play with grit and determination like Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr who will carry this team through the playoffs. Obviously, relying on Ovechkin and Semin alone isn't getting the job done.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Keys to the Game

The Caps need to rake the Leafs like they were hot coals. No cutesy stuff, just solid hockey.

#1 : Crash the net. I'm not sure why the Capitals -- always known for a hard-nosed, gritty style -- have gotten away from this, which seemed to be a ubiquitous move for every Caps team, from the Murray brothers through Hanlon. However, a lack of crease presence explains the drought for all but the top line players. A striking example of this problem occurred last week, against the Lightning, when the line of Brooks Laich, Michael Nylander and Tomas Fleischmann all managed to end up on the goaltender's right side. Laich came up with the puck, and was obviously ready to chuck it towards someone in the crease, only to have a brief look of confusion as he realized that neither of his teammates was anywhere near the crease, nor were they on their way there. Be in the crease. Be that gnat in the goaltender's face. Be that guy who causes their defenseman to accidently kick the puck into his own net.

#2 : Rebound coverage. Despite some ugly losses in the last week, Theodore has looked a bit more solid than he did just before the Predators game. But, his primary issue is still glaring -- he does not cover the rebounds. Looking at the goals against him from last Saturday, it was his inability to control the rebounds that spelled doom in the third period. If he can't get the rebound, then a more solid defenseman has to be nearby to clear the puck, someone who reacts faster than Jeff Schultz, and who can handle the puck better than John Erskine or Milan Jurcina.

The Capitals have enough offensive power that stopping soft goals against alone will likely prove enough to take the Leafs down. Shaking Gerber up in the crease can only help. Come out flying, and don't look back!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Teamwork FTW!

Theodore made some amazing saves!

ShaMo and the rest of the Caps blueline worked hard!

Ovechkin and Semin, while goal-less, definitely made Ellis work hard for many saves!

Fleischmann, Laich and Steckel all made Ellis sweat with some breakaway moves!

The TEAM did an awesome job working in sync with one another, with good overall sense of developing plays -- both offensively and defensively.

And Fedorov, with his eternal patience, nailed the coffin shut on this latest losing streak!

Let's hope this kind of play holds true for a couple of games, at least!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Teamwork Redux

One of the themes that has haunted the Capitals over the last few games is the propensity towards individual efforts instead of teamwork. Don Cherry (improperly) chided Oveckin on his goal scoring celebrations (even though Alex's celebrations are anything but individual), and Boudreau has mentioned the lack of teamwork in the team's 0-3 skid.

Teamwork wasn't the problem today against the Penguins. Steckel's beautiful pass to Laich for an early third period breakaway goal, and Ovechkin's first minute of the third period power play goal were perfect demonstrations of team play at work.

But what can be done when the one player letting the team down is the goaltender?

Unfortunately, that's what today's game against the Penguins came down to -- Fleury vs. Theodore. And Fleury showed why the Penguins are still a force to be reckoned with, whether or not they are flirting with playoff chances.

Alexander Semin continued his turnaround, showing good effort in front of the net, behind the play, forechecking and backchecking. He stayed out of the penalty box again, and put forth a first period goal that tied things at one. His effort was at least 100%. This is a far cry from the Semin who came back from the pinched nerve, and was tentative around checkers. While the current Semin is still prone towards looking for the "pretty" goal over just "a goal," he is grinding more and being less of a puck hog.

No, the problem comes at the opposite end of the ice. Jose Theodore may be a one-time Hart Trophy winner. He may have helped the Canadiens and the Avalanche in the playoffs. However, right now, he's showing weakness that isn't going to help the Capitals get past the first round.

Theodore has said in the past that he needs to feel tested during a game in order to be at his best. But good defensemen don't let their goaltenders get shelled either. Why should they? If the shots on goal are minimized, then the goal scoring chances are minimized, and if the team's offensive unit is producing (as today's was), the game should be won on defensive effort (including goaltending) alone. Theodore has proven time and again that the fewer shots he faces, the worse he does. It goes against all rational thought, but the proof is there in the pudding.

Today's effort? 1-7 in the first (that's a .857 SV%), 2-5 in the second (.600 SV%), and 0-8 in the third and 0-2 in OT, for a game total of 3/22 (.863 SV%). Anything below .900 is abysmal for an NHL caliber goaltender, and Theodore came into this game with a .900 SV%. Fleury, on the other hand, saw 50% more shots (32 total) and finished with a game SV% of .906.

If this was the first time Theodore had fallen down in the face of less than 30 SOG, it wouldn't be of concern. However, it's an ongoing problem. If the defense does their job, and limits the opposition's chances on net, Theodore routinely erases their efforts.

Yet, against the Bruins just over a week ago, Theodore had 34 saves in 37 shots (.919). It makes no sense.

The Capitals deserve a better effort from someone who allegedly wanted to play for them, and who needs to be able to carry this team past the first round of the playoffs. The defense can't be expected to lay down and just let players like Malkin and Crosby walk in and hope they don't deke in a goal. Poti didn't go out there with a touchy groin issue only to let Theodore let his efforts be all for naught.

Either Theodore needs to start being ready to play all the time, whether he's seeing 10 shots or 40 shots per game, or he needs to sit down and let Varlamov and Neuvirth take over now. Period.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Flatline at the Deadline

Can a team trade for some self-respect? How about for a swift kick in the pants?

I'm sure the Capitals might give up a prospect for one or the other after last night's dismal "performance" at Verizon against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Boudreau tells reporters that Michal Neuvirth didn't know until two hours before game time that he'd be the starting goaltender. How that plays into a poor defensive effort, and lackluster passing, it's not clear. But, knowing the mental game that many -- if not most -- goaltenders have, it couldn't have helped with the mere 14/19 saves through the second period.

The most disappointing aspect of the game last night was that apparently only three, maybe four guys showed up ready to play at all, and it can be assumed that everyone else knew they were playing with much more than two hours of lead time (except maybe Kronwall, but he seems to understand that right now). The sole bright spot was that Alexander Semin continued his streak with a goal (his 100th NHL) and an assist on a birthday that I'm sure otherwise was not worth celebrating. He also kept out of the penalty box, despite some wicked stick moves to strip the puck away from various 'Canes.

Lazy stick moves were all the rage with the defense, though, with the worst of the bunch coming with just over thirty seconds left in the first period. Shaone Morrisonn was overall a disappointment last night, despite some redeeming moves in the third, after hooking down Eric Staal from behind, resulting in a penalty shot.

Even though the power play managed to score one late in the second, the effort was so abysmal that the 'Canes scored two short-handed goals that went in so easily, they looked like they were the ones with the man advantage. Point coverage was spotty, at best, so keeping the puck in the offensive zone was a trial. It's surprising the Capitals managed to accrue 41 shots on goal with the constant neutral zone turnovers, and the intercepted passes. Speaking of which, the Hurricanes also seemed to always know where to put a stick to interfere with the cross-ice passes; why the Capitals persisted in continuing to try such passes deep into the third period is a mystery.

As the trade deadline winds down, whispers in the cool DC air speak of Nylander to some other metropolis, or possibly a goaltender acquisition so as not to "ruin" Michal Neuvirth. A defensive defenseman, or a leader for the locker room are other wishes.

However, the double dose of "Reality Check" fed to the team by Southeast Division rivals over the last two games, where the Capitals have been outscored 11-4, at home no less, may be all that is necessary.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

In Like Flynn...

Well, the crush started nearly an hour ago. Yep, the yearly debacle known as the "DC ProSolo Registration" started at approximately 2:55PM Eastern time, and is in full crush right now.

I entered my information into the online registration form, clicking "register" at 2:57PM, by the clock on my work computer. At 3:21, the button was still dimmed with "please wait...". However, I did receive an email confirmation saying I was in.

Considering how few other people have received that confirmation, I'm wondering if my registration went through, or if I was entered into the system manually because I'm a coreworker.

Eh, there's a hockey game tonight. I'm not worried about autocross yet.

Monday, March 2, 2009

In Like A Lion...

Wow. March sure came in with a bang this year.

While I got to sleep in, I also got to make the first moves towards prepping a car for this year, as I made the trek over to IAG Performance in Westminster for a meeting with the owner about this year's sponsorship. I came in with an open mind, knowing that all aspects of the automotive industry have been feeling the effects of the downward economic spiral.

The first thing JJ wanted to know was what all was entailed in a move from D-stock to E-street prepared, so I had in hand a printout of the SCCA ruleset with everything allowed, and we went through it, piece by piece. As we did so, he scribbled down notes to himself with regards to parts and vendors he could talk to. At one point, we went back out to the showroom to look at wheels, and to get some weights on the wheels, so we could compare them to the weights on the rims I have been using.

In the end, it looks like the WRX will be in ESP for 2009, though, like 2008, not right away. I'm also in talks with Vorshlag Motorsports for some AST-coilovers, while waiting to see what the final input from IAG is. Should be an interesting season, as the Camaro drivers will hopefully not realize what hit them.

And then I can spend 2010 prepping the Camaro. ;)

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Semin Shot


After Tuesday's terrible loss to the Flyers, caused in part by a lack of discipline by certain players resulting in a slew of bad penalties, Coach Bruce Boudreau told reporters that some penalty-prone players could be sitting in the press box come Thursday's game against Atlanta.

Evidently, Alexander Semin took Boudreau's promise (if you know anything about Boudreau, benching wasn't a threat) seriously, because not only has he been virtually penalty-free the last two games, he's suddenly rediscovered the purpose of that stick in his hands.

Thursday night's game saw Semin chosen as the top star of the game after a powerplay goal with just over four minutes gone in the first period, followed up with an assist on Laich's powerplay goal less than a minute later. A second assist on Green's third period powerplay goal put Semin at three points on the night, top star of the game, and third star for the night on NHL.com.

Saturday afternoon's game against Boston, Semin had a weak tripping penalty against Zdeno Chara that Alex Ovechkin could be seen calming his teammate down about. But he'd already had an assist on Nicklas Backstrom's powerplay goal, and he followed that up with the unlikely shot from the blueline in overtime, the one that must have caught Bruin goaltender Tim Thomas offguard, as it trickled past him with only :22 gone.

After a superb start to the season, with Semin and Ovechkin going one-two on the NHL leaderboard, then the subsequent injuries that Semin seems all-to-prone to having, it's nice to see Semin regain his scoring touch. At times, he shows why he should be considered among the NHL elite, while other times, he is obviously still an immature player, learning to control his temper. It's times like the latter that the reason the Capitals keep Sergei Fedorov around become evident. If anything Fedorov has really helped with the development of players like Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin, especially in keeping Semin's propensity towards bad stick-related penalties to a minimum.

The other change in Semin's game has been more subtle, as it hasn't really resulted in penalties, nor has it resulted in goals. However, ever since his return from the pinched nerve he suffered after a bad hit by St. Louis's David Backes, Semin hasn't just taken cheap hits by the opposing team lightly, and in fact, has been more physical in his own play. Maybe he realizes that Ovechkin can't be his enforcer, as well as the overexuberant goal-scoring maniac. Whatever the reason, Semin's been throwing his shoulder at players that try to encroach on his puck, and of course, we all remember the "bongos". While it was definitely funny as all get-out, what I remember the most about that "fight" was that Semin finally stood up for himself, and since then, he hasn't been crumbling under so many cheap shots. Whether that's because no one else wants to be humilitated as Marc Staal was, or they just realize that he's not going to fold, who knows, but it's a nice change from the old Semin-who-just-falls-to-the-ice-with-a-back-injury nonetheless.

The Capitals are just about to take to the ice against Southeast Division rival Florida. It's snowing as far south as Atlanta right now, and that's a good sign, right? Because everyone and their mother has always said it would be a cold day in Hell before the Capitals had a real chance at the Stanley Cup... and if Atlanta isn't as close to Hell on Earth as anything else, what is?