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Welcome to Caps 'Round the Clock, a blog covering the Washington Capitals and the NHL. In season, I update the Blog after every practice and on game day with Caps news and information, and then provide a recap and analysis after each contest. I also write a periodical Prospect Watch and weekly feature pieces on the state of the Men in Red and other things Capitals. And of course, I will post videos and tidbits from around the League and offer my two cents as the season wears on. In the offseason, I write a Report Card for each player, and will keep you updated on all the news about the Caps through the summer. I'm glad you're here, and hope you come back!

Monday, February 28, 2011

That's a Wrap: Trade Deadline Analysis

Dennis Wideman during his tenure with the Bruins.
So, Caps fans, the 2011 NHL trade deadline has come and gone.  And wouldn't you know it, Mike Vogel's prediction came true - the unexpected happened (once). The Capitals made two big trades on the day as they look towards making a run at the Tampa Bay Lightning for the Southeast Division.  First, they came out of nowhere to acquire defenseman Dennis Wideman from the Florida Panthers, and then did something that was more expected, filling an obvious void when they traded for center Jason Arnott from the New Jersey Devils. With those trades, and the acquisition of forward Marco Sturm through the waiver process on Saturday, infuse the Capitals with veteran talent that should help them as the regular season winds down.

First off, I like the trade for Wideman better of the two.  With the news coming from George McPhee this afternoon that Mike Green is expected to miss at least the next two weeks, it became imperative for the Capitals to acquire a puck-moving defenseman to help bring their listless power play to life.  Wideman fits that bill perfectly.  Of his 33 points this year, 19 have come with the man advantage, and eight of his nine goals have come on the power play as well.  He is a right-handed shot and he has some skating ability, too, and though he is not Mike Green, he should be a good replacement for him.  Wideman can, at times, be an adventure in his own end, but he is still a good defenseman who should fill in admirably at even strength and shorthanded situations in addition to his power play duties; he can be expected to see about 25 minutes a game.  Another benefit of his acquisition in general is that it will take a big load off of rookie John Carlson, who will no longer be forced to play the full two minutes while Washington is a man to the good.  This decreased amount of minutes on Carlson will enable him to stay fresh as the Caps move towards the postseason, and not put so much pressure on him to run the power play, which is never good for a rookie.  What's more, his presence could potentially mean that the Capitals are nine deep defensemen when (if) Mike Green and Tom Poti come back at full strength. Lastly, which is, in my opinion, the best part of the trade, the Capitals gave up almost nothing to get him.  Jake Hauswirth was going to be a fourth line player at best, and a third round pick in this year's draft is not that steep a price for a puck-mover of Wideman's caliber, especially given the fact that he is under contract through next season.  Grade: A.
The Capitals' second trade of the day, their acquisition of Jason Arnott, I like less, but it is still a good trade for Washington.  Arnott is a veteran, reliable pivot who has been an NHL captain (in Nashville) and won a Stanley Cup (with New Jersey in 2000), so his addition to the locker room should be nothing but positive.  He is a big body who has good defensive capability as well, and can score a little bit with 13 goals and 11 assists, even though he is well past his offensive prime.  This fills a critical void for the Capitals; they have needed another center to complement their youthful potential all season long and Arnott is a good fit.  He also has the potential to be rejuvenated playing with better players than he did in New Jersey, which he is certainly going to get in DC.  The main issue I have with this trade is what we gave up - I really love Dave Steckel.  He is one of the best faceoff men in the league and is a great guy who is a lifelong Cap.  But his contract ($1.1 million per over the next 2 years) was not ideal, and he is kind of a one-trick pony.  The second round draft pick is a bit high for a rental like Arnott in addition to Steckel, but it's not that big of a deal; the only reason I don't like this trade as much as the first one is because we gave up less to get a better player in Wideman in that trade.  Grade: B.
In his post trade deadline press conference, George McPhee announced several things of interest for the Capitals this week and beyond.  First, he revealed that the team is going to be very cautious with Mike Green as he works his way back from a concussion, and he is not expected back for two weeks at least.  Second, he said that goaltender Semyon Varlamov will skate tomorrow and should be healthy enough to back up Michal Neuvirth.  As a result, Jared DeMichiel has been sent back to Hershey.  Third, he informed us that Tom Poti and Eric Fehr have both been placed on long-term injured reserves retroactively do their dates of injury, and can be activated at any time.  He also announced that DJ King, Tyler Sloan, and Jay Beagle are all with the Caps to stay for the season, and will not be sent down to the American Hockey League, as the Washington is safely under the salary cap.  Finally, he said that all three recent Washington acquisitions - Sturm, Wideman, and Arnott - will take the morning skate and are likely to play tomorrow against the Islanders.  For a preview of that game, click here.
Now that team is set for the stretch run, let's see how the boys do.  It's go time, folks.

Capitals Acquire Jason Arnott

The Washington Capitals have acquired center Jason Arnott from the New Jersey Devils this afternoon, according to TSN's Bob McKenzie and Caps Senior Writer Mike Vogel.  The deal sends Capitals fan favorite and faceoff king David Steckel and a second-round pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft to New Jersey in exchange for Arnott.  My immediate reaction to this deal is rather split.  On one hand, it gets the Capitals out from a not-so-good contract and acquire another steady veteran with an expiring contract, but on the other, it removes one of the best faceoff men in all of hockey and sends another(!) second-round draft pick away from the Capitals.  Arnott has also also struggled tremendously this year on the Devils, even when they have not been awful as of late.  More coming from me later.

Capitals Acquire Dennis Wideman

The Washington Capitals have acquired defenseman Dennis Wideman from the Florida Panthers, according to Caps Senior Writer Mike Vogel.  The deal sends Washington's 3rd round pick in the 2011 draft and prospect Jake Hauswirth to the Panthers in exchange for Wideman.  Long story short, I like this deal.  We have the organizational depth at the moment to  be able to trade away a third round pick, and Hauswirth was a long shot to make the NHL anyway, with limited upside. Wideman is a big, physical defender who can move the puck well and who can lock it up on defense well too.  What's more, he has a year left on his deal, and gives the Capitals an experienced man  to run the power play while Mike Green recovers from his multiple injuries.
However, this trade puts the Capitals over the salary cap.  More is definitely coming, whether that be in the form of men being put on injured reserve, guys being sent down to the minors, or trades.

Practice: Feb. 28

The Washington Capitals were on ice this morning at 10 AM as they prepare to take on the New York Islanders tomorrow night at Verizon Center.  Some personnel updates from Kettler Capitals Iceplex:

Neither Mike Green nor Semyon Varlamov took the practice or worked out before the rest of their teammates.  Green is still in Calgary mourning the loss of his grandmother, while Varlamov is out with what is believed to be a knee injury.  Yikes.  As a result, goaltender Jared DeMichiel was on ice for the Capitals as the second goaltender, although he has not officially been recalled from Hershey of the AHL.
Marco Sturm, the Capitals' new number 18, skated for the first time as a Cap, taking reps on the second line in place of Brooks Laich with Marcus Johansson and Alexander Semin.  Laich moved down to center the third line between the newly recalled Jay Beagle and Jason Chimera, while the the fourth unit was also changed: Matt Hendricks is now on the left wing with Dave Steckel in the middle and Matt Bradley on the right.  Steckel did, however, leave practice after about 40 minutes after "tweaking something."  Lastly, the Caps broke out the rarely used baby blue "fifth line" jerseys today, to account for the extra bodies.  The recently waived DJ King skated on that like with Boyd Gordon and Eric Fehr; however, about 25 minutes into practice, Fehr began taking reps with the third line, and King and Gordon began to take reps with the fourth line.  That is good news for Fehr and the Capitals because that means he is cleared for contact, which means he is one step closer to returning.  The top unit of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Knuble stayed intact.
Tom Poti skated with the team for practice for the first 20 minutes, wearing a standard practice jersey, the first time in over a month that he has participated in practice drills with his teammates.  However, the fact that he left 20 minutes in, when the contact part starts, is not overly encouraging.  The defensive pairings remained the same: Schultz-Hannan, Carlson-Alzner, and Erskine-Sloan, followed by Poti (until he left).

The Capitals have acquired Dennis Wideman on this trade deadline Monday. More to come.

Information from Caps beat writer Sky Kerstein was used in this post.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Get to Know Marco Sturm

Sturm rejoices after scoring to win the 2010 Winter Classic. 
This past Saturday, the Capitals claimed German winger Marco Sturm off waivers from the Los Angeles Kings in order to add critical veteran forward depth for the stretch run.  As a result, the Caps waived forward DJ King, who has proven to be a waste since he was acquired for Stefan Della Rovere (a good prospect for us). Nevertheless, Marco Sturm is a Capital now, and DJ King is not.  However, as Sturm is not a very well known player except by Bruins and Sharks fans, I thought I would take a look at Sturm for you and summarize what he should bring to the Caps as they drive towards the playoffs.

Sturm, 32, is currently playing in his 13th NHL season, during which he has played for three other teams: Boston, San Jose, and Los Angeles.  He was drafted in the first round, 21st overall, in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft by the Sharks, and played the first seven and half years of his career before being traded to the Bruins in December of 2005.  He then played the next four and a half campaigns with the Bruins before being traded to the Kings earlier this season.  His best year came in 2007-2008 in Boston, where he scored 27 goals and had 56 points in 80 games played.  This year, he has accumulated 4 goals and 9 points for the Kings in 17 games; he missed the first three plus months of the season with a knee injury.  This is the final year of his contract.
About those knees - they fragile.  Sturm has not, unfortunately, been a poster child for health throughout his NHL career.  The German has only played a full 82 game season once, and has missed significant time with various injuries during his time on the senior circuit.  The most notable of these injuries are two separate ACL/MCL tears, one in each knee, during the 2008-2009 regular season and one a year later in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs with the Bruins.
Despite this, Sturm has proven to be a reliable offensive force when he has been able to stay on the ice, which is likely why George McPhee pounced when LA put him on waivers.  He profiles as an intense, hard-working power forward, and his best asset is his skating - he has great acceleration off his stride and his strong legs allow him to drive to the net well.  He can also take up residence in front of the net on the power play, and though not overly skilled, he can make things happen in open ice when he really needs to.
I really, really like this move by the Capitals.  With a salary cap hit of just under $873,000 for the rest of the season, and the fact that Washington got him for nothing, this does not affect George McPhee's flexibility as the trade deadline approaches.  In addition to his on-ice ability, though, Sturm is a veteran presence in the locker room who has seen a lot in his NHL career.  He is a very hard worker who is willing to go to the dirty areas on the ice to get things done, and although he will not set the world on fire for the Capitals, he could be a player who provides a spark for them offensively.  And George McPhee likely isn't done, with the trade deadline looming at 3 PM tomorrow.  As Mike Vogel put it Sunday: "Expect the unexpected.  And don't think you know what the 'expected' is."

I will be on Twitter (@HarryHawkings) providing up-to-the-minute news on potential Caps moves today.  Also be sure to check back after the trading deadline passes for reactions to the moves that do (or don't) go down.

For information on yesterday in the world of Capitals hockey, click here.
For information on today's (Feb. 28) practice, click here.

Sunday Funday

The Capitals have today off, following their two games of Friday and Saturday within 24 hours of each other; last night, the Caps eked out a 3-2 victory on Long Island for a very important two points on their ledger.

Because there is no practice, there is very little to report today.  Mike Green has returned to Calgary to be with his family, as his grandmother passed away on Friday night.  As such, there is no word about Green's availability for Tuesday's game, although I would consider him a long shot to suit up based on his previous condition.  Goaltender Todd Ford, who backed up Michal Neuvirth last night, has been returned to Hershey of the American Hockey League for the Bears' game today.  Ford had to be recalled to the Capitals on an emergency basis yesterday after Semyon Varlamov left the morning skate after about five minutes with an undisclosed (read: groin) injury. Again, since there is no practice today, we have no way of knowing how bad Varly's injury is, but I do not think that he will be rushed back.  It should also be noted that the reason Braden Holtby was not recalled is because he is suffering from an injury of his own and is week-to-week.

Tomorrow is sure to be a very busy (and nerve-racking) day for Caps fans, as the NHL trade deadline passes at 3 P.M. EST.  Will the Capitals make a big deal? Will Alexander Semin or a goalie be on their way out?  Follow me on Twitter (@HarryHawkings) and check the blog often to find out.

That's all for today.  Check back tomorrow, and enjoy your Sunday.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Rapid Rewind: No Guts, No Glory

Do you like my artistic capability?  I like Sasha's.
The Washington Capitals pulled out a gutsy win tonight, recovering from a 2-0 deficit to defeat the New York Islanders 3-2 at Nassau Coliseum.  After falling behind 2-0 on the road and playing thoroughly awful hockey over the first 27 minutes, the Capitals clawed within one in the second and then tied and won the game within three minutes of each other early in the third.  Despite it being the Islanders, this was still a huge two points for the men in red after last night's performance, and will help set the tone for a huge month of march.  With the win, the Capitals climbed within three points of Division leader Tampa Bay, although the Bolts have two games in hand.  More importantly, however, they kept the Canadiens three points back of fifth place as Montreal beat Carolina tonight.

The Islanders got off to a good start, buzzing the Caps zone early and getting some good shots off on Michal Neuvirth, who had to start after Semyon Varlamov was injured at the morning skate.  The Islanders were rewarded for their pressure when Jeff Schultz took a penalty at the 4:13 mark.  The New York power play was strong, pressuring the Caps end and getting rubber at Neuvirth, but the Caps were able to hold them off, particularly the goaltender, who was sharp several times.  Soon after, the Capitals got a power play of their own a minute after the penalty kill expired when Al Montoya tripped Marcus Johansson at the 7:35 mark.  But the Capitals miserable power play continued to be just that, as Washington failed to record their first shot of the game during the man advantage and got very little rhythm going.   The Caps finally got their first shot 12 minutes in off the stick of Jason Chimera, but the Islanders continued to carry play to Washington with good zone presence and transition play.  The Islanders finally broke through at the 13:48 mark when Kyle Okposo converted a 2-on-1 break for a 1-0 New York lead.  The Islanders continued to press the Capitals end, and got another break when Jason Chimera was sent off for slashing at 17:30.  But the Capitals were able to kill off the penalty with some good work down low, and the teams headed to the dressing rooms with the Islanders up 1-0, and with a 14-5 edge in shots on goal.
The Islanders again set the tone for the second period, coming out hard and getting rewarded 33 seconds into the frame when Travis Hamonic (WHO?!) took a slapshot from the point that eluded Neuvirth and put the home side up 2.  Matt Hendricks then tried the oldest trick in the book to try and fire up his team when he fought Zenon Konopka, but it didn’t work, and the Caps kept letting the Islanders come at them and carry play.  Michal Neuvirth had to continually bail his team out, and Bruce Boudreau finally called his timeout about six minutes into the frame to try and quiet things down.  But it only got worse, as Brooks Laich took a very bad offensive zone penalty at the 6:07 mark to send Wshington down a man.  During the kill, Nicklas Backstrom got a shorthanded break up ice, but it was turned aside by Islanders goalie Al Montoya.  But the great penalty kill gave the Capitals life, and Brooks Laich buried a transition goal at the 9:44 mark to break the Capitals’ shutout streak and give them a breath of air.  The Caps used that energy to try and buzz the Islanders end more, but could not get their equalizer through Montoya.  The game then settled into a back and forth rhythm for a bit, with neither team getting much going.  But over the last five minutes, the Caps really began to get back to their game plan, establishing a good forecheck and getting some solid chances; however, the middle frame closed with Washington still down, 2-1.
In the third period, it was the Capitals who set the tone as Washington came out very hard, building on their excellent play in the latter half of the second period. The Capitals established a good, early forecheck, used their speed to open up the Islanders defense.  Their persistence paid off at the 2:24 mark when Marcus Johansson used some of his own wheels to beat his man and dish to Brooks Laich in front; Laich then calmly fed Mike Knuble at the goalmouth, and 22 banged it home for a tie game (HEY! What a suprise! If you go to the net, you score!). The Caps then really began to hum, entering the offensive zone wide and with speed and attacking with a purpose. They were rewarded again when Alex Ovechkin found Alexander Semin on an rush up ice; Sasha ripped the puck over Montoya's shoulder bar-down for a 3-2 Caps lead at the 5:44 mark.  Washington kept pressing, and earned themselves a power play a little over two minutes later when Matt Moulson was boxed for cross checking.  But Semin killed the man advantage with (another) offensive zone penalty, sending the two teams to four on four.  The next minute and 56 seconds were certainly entertaining, but neither the Caps or Isles could convert another goal.  As the period wore on, the Islanders began to crank up the pressure on the Capitals, and came close inside five minutes several times.  But the Capitals were able to counter enough to keep them from equalizing.  With Montoya out of the net, Jack Capuano called his timeout with only 18.3 seconds remaining.  Despite a scare right off the faceoff, however, the Isles ran out of time and the Caps escaped Long Island with two huge points.

Observations:
Michal Neuvirth won his team this game.  He had no chance on either goal, and was simply spectacular in the late stages of the first and middle stages of the second to keep his team within striking distance.  This, even after last night's 6-0 bludgeoning by the Rangers.  It's unfortunate that he had to start, because it means that Semyon Varlamov is injured again, but 30 certainly earned it this evening.  He'll get the second leg of the home-and-home Tuesday.

Will the real Alexander Semin please stand up?  His game winner tonight only he could have pulled off; a wicked wrist shot through traffic that no one had a chance to even blink at before it was in the net.  And yet, he can't cash wide open looks in front of the net sometimes.  It is games like this that make you wonder what could be if young Alexander applied himself.  Sasha is so incredibly gifted, it's a shame when he does not give two hoots.  But this was not one of those nights.

This was a huge win.  Again, it's the Islanders (and Al Montoya), but two points are two points, especially this time of the year.  This was a game that Capitals needed to have, and despite an awful first half, they found a way to get it done and win their third out of the last four.  To have lost this game going into a home game with the same Islanders team, the pressure on the Capitals Tuesday would have been huge.  Now, they can hold their sticks a little less tightly (and I can stop worrying about a heart attack even though I'm 18).  Huzzah!

The Capitals will likely be off tomorrow after games on consecutive nights before taking the ice again Monday for a practice.  Their next game, which (as I may or may not have said) is against the Islanders, will be on Tuesday at 7 P.M.

Gameday: at NY Islanders, Feb. 26

This looks like something I would like to get back to...no?
The Washington Capitals are on Long Island tonight to take on the Islanders as they attempt to rebound from last night's embarassing 6-0 shellacking at the hands of the New York Rangers at Verizon Center. The Capitals come into tonight's game with 72 standings points in 62 games, which puts them in second place in the Southeast Division, five points behind the Lightning, and fifth in the Eastern Conference, three points clear of the Canadiens.  The Islanders, on the other hand, have 54 points in 62 games, which puts them in last place in the Atlantic Division and 14th in the Eastern Conference.  The Capitals have won both games they have played against the Islanders this year in hard-fought affairs, both by 2-1 scores; their most recent meeting was in late January on the Island.  This is the third of four meetings between the two teams this year, the fourth will be played on Tuesday at Verizon Center.

Isles interim coach Jack Capuano is expected to start Al Montoya in nets for his team.  Montoya, who has been ridiculed by pundits and fans for his poor play since being drafted sixth overall by the Rangers in 2004, has been a revelation for the Islanders, who are on their (a moment while I calculate...) fifth starting goaltender this season. Montoya has posted three wins, including a shutout, a 1.89 GAA, and .935 Save% in four starts and five appearances since being traded to New York from Phoenix earlier this month.  He's about as big a wild card as the Caps have faced this season.

Semyon Varlamov will have a chance to right the Capitals' ship as he will make his first appearance of the season against the Islanders this evening following Michal Neuvirth allowing six goals last night.  This will be Varly's first game since last Sunday in Buffalo, where he was excellent in making 28 saves for a 2-1 Capitals win.  Outside of the crease, the Capitals will be without defenseman Mike Green, who has remained in Washington to rest following his departure from Friday night's game after five minutes.  Green, who had just come back from a concussion, is "day-to-day" for now.  That means that the always exciting (in a bad way) Tyler Sloan will be re-inserted to the lineup for Bruce Boudreau's men. No other lineup changes are expected for Washington this evening.

Puck drops for this very big game 7:08-ish.  Check back after the game for either gushing optimism or raging pessimism.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Rapid Rewind: Still B.A.D.

No it wasn't, Semyon.  Now you stop the bleeding.
The Washington Capitals were utterly humiliated Friday at Verizon Center, falling by a final score of 6-0 to the visiting New York Rangers, the ninth time they have been shut out this season.  The game also marked the Caps' worst home loss since 2006, and was their third consecutive defeat at Verizon Center. The Caps failed to build on the momentum they generated over the weekend, coming out flat, and payed a dear price for their disinterestedness.  To make matters worse, defenseman Mike Green left the game after making his return from a concussion just five minutes in after an dirty hit from Rangers rookie Derek Stepan, and did not return, although he was able to skate off under his own power.  With the loss, the Capitals fell five points behind division leading Tampa Bay, who beat the Devils, and who also hold a game in hand on the Capitals.  If there is any good news, it is that the Canadiens, one spot behind the Capitals, lost last night, which means that the Capitals remain three points clear of the Habs for fifth place in the Eastern Conference.

The Capitals got off to a good start, getting some rushes up ice early, and a glorious Alex Ovechkin chance, but were stopped by Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.  After a short period of Rangers forecheck pressure, Alex Ovechkin got another great break up ice, but once again was denied by a quick Lundqvist save.  Soon after, Derek Stepan and former Caps Steve Eminger led a good rush up ice for the Rangers after a bad turnover by Mathieu Perrault at the attacking blue line, but Michal Neuvirth was there to stop both shots.  But after Stepan took Green out of the play with an elbow to the head, the Rangers converted against the effectively shorthanded Caps when Eminger's shot from the point deflected in off Brooks Laich at the 5:56 mark.  To make matters worse, Green went right down the tunnel to the locker room.  However, Washington tried to get back in the game after the goal, but again had to be bailed out by their goaltender on a good chance by Brian Boyle.  They were gifted a power play when the Rangers took a too many men on the ice penalty at the 10:47 mark, but could not do anything with is despite some chances early.  Predictably, no sooner than the power play ended, the Rangers began to pick up their forecheck again.  Soon after, they took advantage of a bad turnover down low when Michael Sauer dished in front to Erik Christensen, who had a backdoor tap in for a 2-0 Ranger lead at the 14:47 mark. The teams then got into a back and forth, with the Rangers willing to protect the lead and the Capitals just being lazy, but Alex Ovechkin took control with two and a half minutes to play by driving to the net, drawing a penalty in the process when he was hauled down at the 17:42 mark. But alas, the power play was again miserable, and produced no zone time, and the first period ended with boos cascading down from the seats.
The second period got off to a fast start, with the Capitals pushing up ice early, but could not get a good shot off on Lundqvist.  Their aggression then cost them, as the Rangers got a three on one break up ice that took a great play by Scott Hannan to break up.  Nevertheless, the play gave the Rangers the momentum again.  At the 3:06 mark, Alexander Semin took another stick penalty (stop me if you've heard this before) and sent the Capitals to the penalty kill.  After a good start to the kill, though, Erik Christensen converted at the top of the crease on another tap-in goal at the 4:19 mark to completely kill the Verizon Center crowd. After the goal, the Rangers took complete control of the game, breaking up every Capitals attack in the neutral zone and preventing any good shots on their goaltender, save one good rush by John Carlson and Nicklas Backstrom.  The Capitals had another chance to get some life at the 13:29 mark when Ryan Callahan took a tripping penalty, but once again, nothing came of it, despite a few good chances.  A minute after the power play expired, Matt Bradley took a bad penalty, sending the Rangers to the power play again.  And once more, the Rangers cashed in, this time off the stick of Derek Stepan at the 17:52 mark after a dominant man advantage.  Over the last two minutes, the Capitals appeared dead and defeated, and the teams headed to their locker rooms with the Blueshirts up 4-0.
The third period got off to an okay start for Washington as Vinny Prospal took a holding call just a minute into the frame off a short burst of pressure from the Caps.  But 42 seconds later, Brooks Laich took a four minute high-sticking penalty that ended the power play and started a period of four on four.  The Caps then got a rush right off the draw, but Lundqvist was there once more to deny Washington anything.  After the expiration of the Prospal penalty, the Rangers got an extended power play, but could not extend their lead despite continuing to dominate.  But just 30 seconds after their power play ended, the Rangers did extent their lead when the recently released Prospal buried a rebound in front for a 5-0 lead at 6:16.  The Capitals then gave up, coasting around and playing right into the hands of the Rangers' effective shot blocking and trap system.  They were given another power play at the 11:16 mark, and made a little noise on the man advantage, but again could not score.  As the game wore down, the Rangers kept coming at the Capitals full tilt, and Michal Neuvirth made a couple of nice saves to keep New York from extending their lead even more.  Inside of five minutes, the Capitals clearly were in complete "get me out of this" mode, and it came back to bite them, predictably, inside one minute as Brian Boyle got in on the party with a goal of his own off a nice pass from Erik Christensen at 19:26. The remaining 34 seconds ticked off without incident, and the Capitals retreated to their locker room beaten, bruised, and defeated.

Observations:

This team is harder to figure out than a certain girl I know.  I do not understand how a team that looked so sound defensively over the last two games can totally poop the bed on home ice like this against an inferior team missing both of their best players.  They were beaten to every puck, lost every battle, and committed bad turnovers in a game they really needed to have.  Even more disheartening is that they didn't really seem to care after the first period, not going after Stepan for what he did to Green and looking like they didn't care in general.  It was so bad, the Verizon Center staff "unleashed the fury" at 11:40 - of the second period. Yuck.

Alex Ovechkin came to play tonight.  The Capitals captain had is motor running throuhout the first two periods, and gave it all for every shift until Bruce reigned him in during the third to save him for tomorrow night.  He had eight shots and six hits, and was not afraid to get in the middle of anything when it appeared the Capitals had half a prayer at winning this game.  Ovie drove to the net well, too, something that he has been reluctant to do recently.  Not a step back for him on a night where there were a lot taken.

Nicklas Backstrom was largely ineffective and seemed to be hampered (understandably) by his broken thumb.  He didn't take any faceoffs, which is usually important for a center, and struggled to gain his rhythm all night.  He'll probably play the rest of the season with that busted digit, and even though half a Nicklas Backstrom is better than any alternative the Caps have, it's still not ideal, and it could really hurt them down the stretch run.

The Capitals are flying to Long Island tonight as for tomorrow night's away leg of a home-and-home with the suddenly not-awful Islanders.  The Caps will have to be without Mike Green for that game, as he has already been pronounced out with a possible concussion.  Tomorrow night's game is scheduled for 7 P.M.

Updates From the Morning Skate

The Washington Capitals were on the ice this morning at 10 AM for their pre-game skate at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.  Some updates from Arlington as the Caps prepare to take on the Rangers:

Nicklas Backstrom took the full skate without any issues with his thumb and will give it a go tonight.  He is expected to play in his traditional role, skating alongside Mike Knuble and Alex Ovechkin on the top line.  Marcus Johansson has shifted back to the second line with Alexander Semin and Brooks Laich, which means that Mathieu Perreault will play with Matt Hendricks and Jason Chimera.  Boyd Gordon will return to the fourth line with Dave Steckel and Matt Bradley, which means that DJ King will, as expected, be a healthy scratch.
Mike Green returned to the ice after he missed yesterday's practice due to a nasty illness.  After the skate, he said that he feels better that he did yesterday, but "lacks energy." Nevertheless, he will do his best to play tonight if the trainers think he can, albeit in limited minutes.  Tyler Sloan will be the healthy scratch on the back end if Green cannot go.

For a preview of tonight's 7 PM tilt, click here.

Thanks to Katie Carrera for quotes used in this post.

Gameday: vs. NY Rangers, Feb. 25

Can Michal Neuvirth build on his performance in Pittsburgh?
The Washington Capitals will welcome the New York Rangers to Verizon Center tonight for their fourth and final regular season meeting this season.  After winning their first meeting with the Rangers in November 5-3, the Capitals have lost two in a row against the Blueshirts by 7-0 and 2-1 scores. Washington reports for duty tonight with 74 standings points in 61 games, and riding a modest two-game winning streak.  They stand in second place in the Southeast Division and in fifth place in the Eastern Conference.  The Rangers come into tonight's action with 68 points in 62 games, which places them third in the Atlantic Division and seventh in the Eastern Conference.  In their last game, the Rangers beat the Hurricanes 4-3, giving up a lead after two periods before coming back to tie late and then win in a shootout.

Rangers bench boss John Tortorella is expected to roll with the his iron horse, Henrik Lundqvist, in nets.  Lundqvist is coming off a 30-save shootout (where he was perfect) win against the Hurricanes on Tuesday.  One of the best goalies in the league, Lundqvist is the backbone of the Rangers and has the ability to shut any team down.  He will be a tough task for the Capitals.  Out of the crease, however, the Caps may catch a break as the Rangers are expected to be without two of their best players.  Star forward Marian Gaborik has a concusssion and is still in New York, he will not play.  Star defenseman Marc Staal is still feeling the effects of being run over by his big brother Eric, and is "doubtful" for the contest. Regardless, the Rangers are a tough defensive bunch, evidenced by the six total goals the Capitals have scored on them in three games (including an empty-netter).

Michal Neuvirth has been named the Capitals starter for the game, bucking the normal Bruce Boudreau trend of waiting until the morning skate to announce the goaltender.  Not that it needed an official announcement.  Neuvy won the game for the Capitals on Monday night, and deserves this game.  Outside of the Washington crease, Nicklas Backstrom is expected to play despite a reportedly broken left thumb.  When asked about the thumb during yesterday's practice, Backstrom said that it does not bother him when he is stickhandling, so he will try and give it a go.  Matt Hendricks will return after a one-game absence due to the flu, likely bumping DJ King to the press box.  Mike Green is considered questionable for the game, but is expected to play; he did not skate yesterday due to an illness, not his "inner-ear trauma," which has been steadily improving. His return will likely send Tyler Sloan to the healthy scratch list with King.

Puck drops for this big Eastern Conference tilt 7:08-ish.  Check back later today for updates from the morning skate.

Information from Larry Brooks and Katie Carrera was used in this post.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Prospect Watch: Dmitri Orlov

Orlov skates at Caps summer development camp in 2009.
Prospect Watch returns this week for it's second installment.  This time, I check in on Russian defenseman Dmitri Orlov, arguably the Capitals' best prospect on the blue line with Patrick McNeill.  Orlov is in the news around Capitals circles at the moment because he recently signed a professional tryout contract with the Hershey Bears, the Capitals' American Hockey League affiliate. Orlov has completed his season in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, as his team, Metallurg Novokuznetsk, failed to make the postseason with the worst record in the league.  As a result, he has made the decision to come to North America now in anticipation of signing a contract with the Capitals next season rather than play the rest of the year in the Russian minor leagues, like he did last year.
The young Russian had a solid season for Novokuznetsk, tallying two goals ands ten assists in 45 games, with both of his goals coming on the power play.  He averaged 18:30 of ice time and 21.3 shifts per game, impressive for a 19 year old in the second best league in the world.  However, the poor quality of the team around him had a profound negative impact on his plus-minus rating, which was a disappointing -18 by the end of the year.  He was the Capitals' second round choice, 55th overall, in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, and was another player that dropped in the draft despite his obvious talent because teams had doubts about signing him.  As a result, the Capitals, who clearly have no issues with drafting and signing Russians, snapped up the talented defenseman later than it was expected he would go.  He is ranked as the number one defenseman and number five overall player in the Capitals' system by NHL Central Scouting.
Profile: Orlov is a skilled, smooth-skating offensive defenseman who compares best to current Capital Mike Green.  He has a quick, accurate shot, good passing ability, and decent size (6'0", 200).  Like Green, he uses his exceptional speed off the back end to press the issue constantly and create plays, making him a constant offensive threat.  His vision, hockey IQ, and creativity are his best attributes and contribute to his offensive abilities significantly.  Like Green, however, all of these skills have a tradeoff: his offensive creativity can lead to opportunities for the opposition.  Nevertheless, he is a sound defender in his own end who uses his size well, but does not play overly physical and go for big hits, which can also lead to odd-man rushes against.
Career Notes: Orlov made his pro debut in 2007-2008 for Metallurg Novokuznetsk of the Russian Superleague (now the KHL), his hometown team. After playing the majority of the year with their junior team, he played the final six games of the year for the big club, posting no points for them.  In 08-09, Orlov split time between the junior and senior Metallurg teams, but played the majority of the year in the KHL, posting four goals and seven points in 41 games.  This year, as you read before, has been his best season as a pro, as he played the full KHL schedule with Novokuznetsk and posted 12 points.  Orlov has represented his country in international play four times: at the World U18 Championships in 2008 and 2009, where he won back-to-back silver medals, and the World Junior Championships (U20) in 2010 and 2011.  The 2011 tournament was his best by far, as he posted one goal and nine points in seven games for the gold medal winning Red Army.  He was also named to the All-Tournament team with fellow Capitals prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov, one of only two defensemen and six players to earn that honor.
ETA: 2011-2012.  Orlov had stated on multiple occasions that he fully intended to come to the United States as soon as his Russian contract allowed him to. That time has come, and here he is with the Bears.  He is good enough to contribute on the blue line next year, and his ability, coupled with the uncertain futures of Tom Poti and Scott Hannan with the Capitals, make it likely that we see him next year for a cup of coffee with Washington, if not long term duty.  He is unlikely to make the opening night roster, as he still needs some time to gain experience in the AHL and adapt to the North American game.  The future is bright for this kid, but now the Capitals have to mold him.  It looks like that process is going to be worth it.

Data from Hockey's Future, the KHL, and the NHL were used in this post.

Practice: Feb. 24

The Washington Capitals were back on ice this morning at 10:30 AM following their two day break.  Some personnel updates from Kettler Capitals Iceplex as the team prepares to take on the New York Rangers tomorrow night at Verizon Center:

Nicklas Backstrom skated and took full reps with Alex Ovechkin and Mike Knuble on the top unit.  He was not wearing a splint on his reportedly broken thumb, and said following the skate that it is not bothering him very much at all. After practice, Bruce Boudreau confirmed that his top pivot play tomorrow.  The other lines were set as follows: Laich-Perreault-Semin, Chimera-Gordon-Hendricks, and King-Bradley-Steckel.  Marcus Johansson was also wearing a top-line practice jersey, but he is likely to return to his usual second or third line role tomorrow night, which would bump DJ King out of the lineup.  Eric Fehr did not join his teammates on the ice for full practice, but did skate beforehand with the Caps strength and conditioning coach.  Despite this, Boudreau called him "a week or two away."
Mike Green did not skate this morning, as he is sick at home with the same virus that sidelined Matt Hendricks Monday.  However, Boudreau expects him to play tomorrow "unless he gets worse."  Tom Poti did not skate either with his lower-body injury, and is supposed to skate tomorrow, but there is no current timetable for his return to active duty. The other five healthy defensemen were joined on the ice by Capitals D prospect and Hershey Bear Dmitri Orlov, who just signed a contract with the Bears after the conclusion of the KHL season.  He is stuck in the US due to Visa issues while his teammates are in Canada for two games. The Caps invited him to skate so he could stay fresh and to prevent him from "losing his marbles," according to Boudreau.  Nice gesture.

That's all for now.  Check back later.

Info from Katie Carrera and Sky Kerstein was used in this post.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hendricks Signs On















According to Capitals senior writer Mike Vogel, center Matt Hendricks has signed a two-year, $1.6 million extension with the team. Hendricks, 29, has compiled 7 goals, 19 points, and a   -1 rating in 57 games played for the Capitals this season. He leads the team with 84 penalty minutes and is 3rd in hits with 121.  In addition, he has become a fan favorite already in DC due to his colorful comments in 24/7, his great attitude, and willingness to drop the gloves with just about anyone.  I love this deal, I think it's a great price for such a valuable player.
For the official Caps media release, click here.

Another Day Off

The Capitals have been given today off as well by coach Bruce Boudreau and will not practice.  This is likely due to the Capitals' heavy schedule over the last week and the fact that they did not get back from Pittsburgh after Monday's game until yesterday afternoon.  The Capitals are expected to return to practice at 10:30 tomorrow morning.
As a result, there are no updates on the condition of center Nicklas Backstrom who reportedly suffered a broken thumb Monday night.  The Capitals have only said that he is "day-to-day," and they will not disclose the full measure of the injury, because their team policy is only to do so when a long-term injury is feared.  So I guess that's some good news.
For more information on Backstrom's injury, click here.
For notes on the road trip, click here.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mission Accomplished (For Now)

The Caps owe Michal Neuvirth - and the PP - for Monday.
This time a week ago, the Washington Capitals were reeling, coming off of two consecutive regulation losses to beatable opponents, and were heading out on their hardest road trip of the year.  The five game road trip included stops in Phoenix, Anaheim, San Jose, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, and all of those teams were in the middle of hot streaks.  They were in such a bad spot that, last Sunday, I pushed the panic button on them and called for Alex Ovechkin to earn his captaincy by taking control of his team as they headed into the teeth of their season.  I said that if the Capitals needed to pick up three or more wins on the trip in order to create breathing room for themselves.  I said the power play needed to get on track (for the 100th time).  And I also said that if they failed to do these things, they were in big trouble.

More than a week later, I can say with confidence that the Capitals rose to the occasion splendidly.  Would I love to get those two games in Phoenix and San Jose back? Sure.  But six points out of a possible ten on a brutal road trip like this one is about as good as we could have hoped for - and it's pretty darn good, especially the way the Capitals closed it out with two awesome wins in two tough buildings. In addition to the victories, however, there are several other things that can be drawn as positives from the road trip as a whole:
1) The power play.  The Caps' power play percentage was still not good, but they scored three power play goals on the trip and two of them were game-winning goals (go figure).  They would have probably had about three more on Sunday, too, had Ryan Miller not been playing his pants off in the first period.  The man advantage is beginning to open up more as John Carlson gets better acclimated to running a power play, and it will be helped by the (we hope) impending return of Mike Green.
2) Alex Ovechkin's play. These last five games are the first times in almost three months that Bruce Boudreau has lauded his captain specifically for his work during his post-game press conference.  His goal last night was an absolute bomb; you can't even see the puck.  He's letting loose with his shot more, exploding off his stride, and having fun out there, as you can see with his puck juggling, through the legs move that started the game-winning rush on Sunday. He even scored some bulldozer-esque "Ovie-goals."  Bomb diggity.
3) The goaltending (in Buffalo in Pittsburgh).  Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov combined to allow twelve goals on 67 shots over the first three games, but then turned it on and allowed just one (a screened slapper from the slot) on the next 68 they faced.  Late in a road trip, with a weary team who is not living up to expectations, those are the games that you can get blasted in.  But the Capitals' young duo of goalies shut down two tough opponents and won the Capitals their last two games.
4) The Capitals never quit.  In all three games they lost on the trip, they gave up goals late in the game that relinquished a tie, which would have earned them a point.  But they kept battling until they very end, and even won in Anaheim - thanks, Curtis McElhinney.  It would have been easy to roll over in all three games, particularly against the Ducks, and if they had done that, I might have lost hope.  The fact of the matter, though, is that they didn't, and they battled through for some big points.

All of this being said, the Capitals are not even close to being out of the woods. March is going to be absolutely brutal - three sets of back-to-back games, including a road double-dip with the Red Wings and Canadiens in the middle of the month.  March also sees the Caps play the Lightning, the Blackhawks, the Canadiens again, the Flyers, and the red-hot Devils, just to name a few.  But for now, savor a great weekend for Caps hockey.  Good day from the desk of 24/7.

For information on Nicklas Backstrom's thumb injury, click here.
For my recap of the Penguins game, click here.

Nicklas Backstrom Has a Broken Thumb

Nick Backstrom suffered a fractured thumb last night. Gulp.
It was only a matter of time.

The Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, which was covering the game last night, has reported that Nicklas Backstrom fractured his left thumb against the Penguins when Kris Letang slashed him across the hand.  There was no penalty called on the play, and Backstrom finished the game.  However, X-Rays taken after the contest clearly showed a fracture in the finger.  The pivot is day-to-day for now, and said after the game that he did not feel "that bad" and that he would "wait and see for a few days." The Capitals are off for three days until they play again, which should give Capitals trainer Greg Smith and his team all the time they need to make a proper diagnosis and plan a course of action.  This really could not have come at a worse time for the Capitals, with them finally rolling a bit, and their lack of depth down the middle could force George McPhee to make a move for a center and give up something he does not want to in order to make that deal happen. Regardless of whether or not Backstrom toughs this out, which I believe he will do everything humanly possible to try and do, a broken finger will affect everything Nicky does on the ice.  Will he be afraid to block a shot for fear of it hitting his hand?  Afraid to lay a hit?  Will his stickhandling and passing be shot? These are all tough questions that as of now, we have no answers for.  Pray for Backy's finger.  Please.

UPDATE (1:15 PM, 2/22/11) - Caps beat writer Sky Kerstein has been informed by a Capitals representative that Backstrom is officially "day-to-day", as determined by the team.  He is not expected to miss a significant portion of time, if he misses any at all.  The Capitals have today off and he, like the rest of his teammates, is at home resting.  He is expected to be present at Kettler Capitals Iceplex tomorrow morning for further evaluation, but it seems at this point that the Caps may have avoided the long-term loss of their second-best player.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Rapid Rewind: The Show Goes On

Alex Ovechkin follows through on a cannon for his game-winner.  Boom, baby.

The Washington Capitals closed out their five game road swing in style tonight, beating the hometown Pittsburgh Penguins by a final score of 1-0 in a hard-fought, defensive affair.  Michal Neuvirth was simply sensational, making 39 saves for his second consecutive shutout of the Penguins since being called "shaky" by Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma, and the third of his young career.  Alex Ovechkin scored the only goal for the Capitals on a 50-foot slapshot with the man advantage, and the Capitals won their second straight and third in the last four, making it through a very tough five games with six crucial, hard-earned points. With the win, the Capitals pulled within one point of Division leading Tampa Bay with 74 points in 61 games, although the Lightning do hold a game in hand.  The Capitals also secured their hold on fifth place in the Eastern Conference, as they moved five points clear of idle Montreal, though the Habs do have a game in hand.

The Capitals got off to a good start when their early offensive pressure forced a Tyler Kennedy tripping call just a minute and 30 seconds in for the Caps' first power play.  Right off the faceoff, however, a bad pass by Brooks Laich gave the Penguins a clean break up ice, but Michal Neuvirth was there to deny Jordan Staal.  The remaining time on the power play was predictably futile, with more bad zone entries and no organization.  The Penguins then seized the momentum, getting many good chances on the Caps defense, but Neuvirth was again on top of his game to prevent a Pittsburgh lead.  But at the 5:38 mark, Alexander Semin took an awful delay of game penalty for shooting over the glass to send the Caps to their first penalty kill of the night.  This man advantage saw the Capitals control, however, and Washington got three shorthanded breaks and were just a couple bounces away from a shorthanded tally on a good penalty kill.  After the expiration of the penalty, Nicklas Backstrom sprung Alex Ovechkin on a breakaway, but he was stoned by Marc-Andre Fleury with a nice pad save.  Then the Penguins began to dominate again, and peppered Neuvirth from all over the ice, but the young Czech made several more great saves to keep the game tied. The Penguins' aggression earned them another power play at the 12:23 mark when Scott Hannan was sent off for holding, but another good penalty kill kept the Pens off the board.  After the Hannan penalty was over, it was the Capitals' turn to make good rushes up ice, but Fleury was up to the task with good saves on both Marcus Johansson and Ovechkin in close.  But Jason Chimera took a bad interference call soon after at the 17:38 mark, which sent the Penguins to the their third man advantage of the frame.  Again, however, the Caps penalty killers and Michal Neuvirth were outstanding to keep the hometown Penguins off the board. The 32 remaining seconds in the period passed without incident, and the teams ended the first frame tied at zero.
After a lighting problem delayed the start of the second period, both teams got off to a slow start, with little rhythm or flow developing for either side.  The Capitals were awarded their second power play at the 5:18 mark when Matt Cooke (who else) interfered with Mathieu Perreault along the half wall.  The Caps man advantage got some good pressure early, but the second half of their power play sputtered again and the Penguins killed the rest of it off well.  Soon after the Penguins; successful kill, Matt Bradley crushed Cooke and was then mugged by Jordan Staal; both players were given minor penalties on the play and the teams played two minutes of four on four.  Alex Ovechkin got a great rush up ice early in the penalties, but Fleury was there again with an outstanding glove save to beat the Russian sniper.  The Penguins then countered well, but Michal Neuvirth continued his strong play and kept Pittsburgh from scoring again with his left pad. After a fight between Matt Bradley and Ryan Craig, which saw Brads absolutely demolish the rookie, the teams began to close up and play defensive hockey; there was alot of neutral zone play and little offensive flow.  But after a good burst of Capitals pressure just inside five minutes, the Capitals were sent to the power play again when Joe Vitale took a tripping call at the 15:16 mark.  The Caps man advantage got off to a horrid start when Jordan Staal made two quick shorthanded rushes up ice, but Michal Neuvirth made two great saves again to bail his team out.  The Capitals rewarded their goaltender just 20 seconds later when Marcus Johansson found Alex Ovechkin up top with a nice pass, and the Capitals captain leaned into a 51-foot slapshot that eluded Marc-Andre Fleury over his shoulder.  The goal came at the 16:38 mark for a 1-0 Caps lead.  The Caps continued to pressure the Penguins defense, and David Steckel almost put the Caps up two 40 seconds later, but Fleury recovered nicely to keep the deficit at one.  After another two minutes of back and forth play, the middle stanza closed with the Caps up 1-0.
The Penguins got off to a strong start in the third period period, as Pascal Dupuis led a rush up ice inside the first minute that Michal Neuvith had to make a good save on.  The Penguins kept their pressure up early in the frame, and hit two posts on good shots in the first three minutes.  Fed up with his team's lackluster play in their own zone, Bruce Boudreau called his timeout at the 3:54 mark to try and energize his bunch.  But it was not effective, and the Penguins continued to pressure the Capitals constantly in their own zone.  With about 7 and a half left, Max Talbot broke in on a semi-brekaway, but John Carlson broke up the play with great hustle to keep Talbot from getting a shot off.  As the third period progressed, the Penguins continued to get good chances on Michal Neuvirth, but the goaltender continued to stay square to the puck and make good save after good save.  Inside ten minutes, the game began to open back up again, as both teams got good attacking opportunities, but the defenses and goaltenders stood firm once more.  With about seven minutes left, Marc-Andre Fleury had to be spectacular on the Capitals' top trio in close to keep the Pittsburgh deficit at one, and the Penguins began to come hard at Washington again.  Once more, however, Neuvirth made two excellent saves to keep the home side from equalizing.  Inside of five minutes, the Caps began to employ a full trap, stacking the middle of the ice with bodies as they attempted to keep the Pens at bay.  Now desperate, the Penguins threw everyone forward in a last gasp attempt to tie, and pulled Fleury with 1:10 left to play.  But Michal Neuvirth was sensational once more to keep the Pens off the board, and the clock finally expired on the Penguins, sending the Capitals out of the CONSOL Energy Center with a huge two points.

Observations:

Michal Neuvirth was amazing.  The Czech rookie was given the start tonight despite a rough past seven days in net, and he came through in a big way for the Capitals.  Even without Crosby and Malkin, Pittsburgh is the most hostile of environments for any goaltender, and Mikey passed the test with flying colors tonight.  He was cool and calm all night, square to the puck, controlling his rebounds, and moving around his crease with ease.  He won this game for the Capitals.

Alex Ovechkin had another great game, and that's now points in four straight and goals in four of the last six.  He pulled the trigger over 20 times, and eight of those found the net, but none more important than his beautiful power-play strike.  He sure isnt't going to win any trophies this year, but if he gets hot like we all know he can, the impact for the Capitals will be enormous.  Oh, and he layed four hits and blocked two shots.  Earning that "C" on his sweater.

The Capitals D really locked this one up tight late in the game.  Michal Neuvirth was great, and bailed his team out many times, but the play of Scott Hannan and John Carlson cannot go unheralded after a win like this.  All the defensemen were throwing their bodies around, blocking shots and laying hits, and kept the Pittsburgh attack from gaining the middle as the game reached it's close.  This is the kind of defensive performance (and win) that can turn a season around.

The Capitals are stuck in Pittsburgh Monday night, as a large snowstorm has crippled the Steel City and has closed the airports.  The Capitals will fly out of Pittsburgh sometime tomorrow and then will likely take the rest of the day off before returning to practice on Wednesday.  The Caps' next game is against the Rangers on Friday night; that game is scheduled for 7 P.M.

King In, Hendricks Out

Matt Hendricks has been replaced in the lineup tonight by DJ King.  Hendricks fell ill after the morning skate.  Shame.  I wanted him to go after Matt Cooke.

Gameday: at Pittsburgh, Feb. 21

"Hey, Cookie. Pull that crap again, you'll meet my butt end."
The Washington Capitals are in Pittsburgh tonight for their fourth and final regular season matchup this season with the rival Penguins.  The Capitals come into tonight's action with 72 standings points in 60 games, which places them second in the Southeast Division and fifth in the Eastern Conference. The Capitals got more good news yesterday after they beat the Sabres when the Canadiens got smacked in the Heritage Classic, which secured the Capitals' three point advantage on Montreal for fifth place.  The Penguins have earned 77 points in 60 games, which places them second in the Atlantic Division and fourth in the Eastern Conference.  Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is coming off a tough shootout loss in Chicago yesterday that they dropped by a 3-2 score.  As always this Penguins-Capitals matchup is not just another regular season game, and the bad blood between these two franchises has never been stronger.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma will roll with Marc-Andre Fleury in nets for his club for the fifth consecitive game between these two clubs.  Fleury has allowed 7 goals in his 3 meetings with the Capitals this year and is coming off a 29-save performance yesterday in Chicago.  The Penguins are still without no. 87, who is now pushing two months missed with a concussion that he sustained in early January.  There is no timetable for Crosby's return, either, as he is still experiencing symptoms.  Pittsburgh agitator Matt Cooke, who was garnered a four-game ban for leg checking Alex Ovechkin in the last meeting between the two teams, is two games removed from the end of that suspension, and, as always, will be rearing to go against his former club.

Bruce Boudreau, surprisingly, has decided to give Michal Neuvirth the nod in goal tonight, despite Semyon Varlamov's excellent performance yesterday in Buffalo. Boudreau had, until this game, employed the "win and you're in" method of selecting a goaltender, even for back-to-back games, and this begs the question that maybe Varly aggravated something yesterday (gulp).  Nevertheless, Neuvirth has been great against the Penguins this year, allowing 2 goals in 2 games (one of which was a shutout), and stopping 47 of the 49 shots thrown his way.  Mike Green will not play tonight, although he is still improving and went through a rigorous practice this morning without incident.  After the skate, he said that he hopes to play Friday night against the Rangers.  No lineup changes are expected for Washington, which means that DJ King will remain the lone healthy scratch.

Puck drops for this game 7:38-ish, and will be televised nationally on Versus. Check back after the game.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Rapid Rewind: Life by the Sword

"I put the team on my back, do."  Thanks, Alex.  Much love.
The Washington Capitals pulled out a huge win this afternoon in Buffalo, beating the hometown Sabres by a final score of 2-1.  The Capitals overcame a miraculous performance by Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller, as well as the continued absence of Mike Green, to knock off a pesky opponent and build momentum heading into their final regular season tilt with the Penguins tomorrow night.  With the win, the Capitals earn their 71st and 72nd points of the season to pull within three points of Southeast Division leader Tampa Bay, although the Bolts do hold a game in hand on Washington.  The seventh-place Rangers also lost, which means that the Capitals are six points up on the Blueshirts with a game in hand.  The Canadiens, who are in sixth place, play tonight in the Heritage Classic in Calgary against the Flames, at which point the Caps and Habs will both have 60 games played.

The game got off to a rather slow start, as both teams attempted to set the tone early with physical, defensive play.  Both Alex Ovechkin and Buffalo defenseman Tyler Myers through big hits inside the fits four minutes, but neither team was able to get much going offensively.  Despite this lack of offensive pressure, however, the game had an excellent pace, with no whistles in the first five and a half minutes.  The Sabres, however, took the initiative with two quick shots around six minutes in that Washington goalie Semyon Varlamov had to be excellent on to keep the game tied.  Despite some attempted forecheck pressure by the Capitals, it was the Sabres who began to establish a dominant offensive zone presence off a turnover behind the Capitals net inside ten minutes.  The Sabres got several open shots and good looks in front, but Varlamov again was excellent and his defense sound to keep the Sabres off the board.  But Jochen Hecht took an elbowing penalty at the 11:13 mark to give the Caps their first power play.  The Capitals' man advantage was dominant, and generated great chances, but Ryan Miller was equal to the task with great saves on Backstrom, Laich, and Ovechkin. Just after the power play was over, Tyler Myers took a boarding call, and sent the Caps right back on the man advantage.  Paul Gaustad then took another penalty, giving the Capitals a long 5-on-3 opportunity.  But despite, again, numerous amazing chances, the Capitals were thwarted by Miller, who made several incredible stops to keep the Capitals off the board.  The Sabres got a chance after the conclusion of the power play, and Varlamov had to be sharp again to keep the game tied.  But the Capitals were awarded another power play soon after, when former Cap Shaone Morrisonn took a penalty in front of the net at the 18:06 mark.  But this time, the Caps reverted to their old ways on the power play, and did not get good pressure to the net.  The power play time passed without incident, and the period ended with the teams tied at 0.
Early in the second, both teams got good chances as Tyler Ennis for Buffalo and Alex Semin got shots off in close, but the goaltenders again stood tall to keep the game scoreless.  The Capitals made a great rush up ice soon after and Alex Ovechkin got a good shot off, but hit Miller right in the chest.  But after some crazy back and forth rushes that saw more great saves on both ends, Mathieu Perreault converted a crazy dump-in pass that bounced to the front of the net for a 1-0 Capitals advantage at the 6:09 mark.  But after some good chances both ways, the Capitals took their first penalty when Brooks Laich got the gate for interfering with Miller at the 8:20 mark.  Predictably, just 30 seconds later, Jason Pominville got the puck alone in the slot and pounded it past a screened Varlamov to equalize.  Both teams then attempted to gain momentum again with back and forth play, but it was the Sabres who had the better chances and this time Varlamov had to be great several times.  Thomas Vanek broke in alone just inside five minutes, but Varlamov slid across his crease quickly to deny the sniper off his deke.  Right after that save, the Capitals got a good rush, and the top line got great chances, but Miller again stood tall on Ovechkin and Backstrom. After Varlamov made a great save on an up-ice rush by Tyler Ennis, Boyd Gordon got a partial breakaway of his own off a turnover; however Miller again was there with the save.  Little happened over the final minute of the frame, and the period ended tied at one.
The third period got off to a bad start for the Caps as the Sabres got excellent offensive pressure early, and Mathieu Perreault took a bad penalty at the 2:23 mark as his bad defense caused him to take a hooking call.  The Sabres again cranked up their offensive pressure during they power play, getting several open looks and great shots on Samyon Varlamov.  But the Russian netminder stood tall, using his cat-quick reflexes to kick out several shots in close with his pads, and the Capitals successfully killed off the man advantage.  After the expiration of the penalty, the Capitals built momentum off their successful kill and began to press the Sabres again for extended periods.  After a long shift by the third line, Matt Hendricks drew another penalty on Shaone Morrisonn, this time for interference, and the Caps were awarded their first power play since the opening frame at the 9:15 mark.  After stagnant first 50 seconds on the man advantage, Alex Ovechkin collected a loose puck at the defensive blue line and roared up ice, cutting to the middle with explosive speed and releasing a hard wrist shot. Miller made the initial save with his blocker, but Mathieu Perreault threw the rebound at the cage from the half wall, and Marcus Johansson deflected it past the American for a 2-1 lead at the 10:20 mark, a rare power play goal.  The Sabres, however, were not put down by the Caps' goal and game at Varlamov and the Washington defense harder than ever in the ensuing minutes.  Just inside eight minutes remaining, the Sabres really began to crank it up again, and came within two or three lucky bounces of equalizing, but Semyon Varlamov kept the Sabres from scoring again.  As the time slowly ticked off the clock, the Sabres became more desperate and began to throw everything in the direction of the Russian goalie, gut again Varly stood tall. After Lindy Ruff pulled Miller with 1:15 remaining, the Sabres had the Capitals pinned in their zone, but a couple of timely blocks by John Carlson and Brooks Laich kept Buffalo from getting pucks to the net.  Finally, after what seemed like forever, the clock hit zeroes and the Caps pulled out a huge two points.

Observations:

Semyon Varlamov was absolutely unbelievable.  He had no chance on the goal he allowed, as he was screened by his own player on a slapshot from the slot, and his play kept the Caps tied and in the lead down the stretch.  Simply put, he made the big saves when he needed to and gave his team a chance to win. Varly hasn't done much in terms of wins this year because he was injured when the Caps could score (thanks, Ben Ross) but is sixth in the entire NHL in both GAA and Save%.  He will start tomorrow in Pittsburgh.

John Carlson may have some maddening moments as a rookie, but man, he is a good player.  Carlson was all over the place this afternoon and made several brilliant defensive plays as well as great passes on the power play, even though they did not result in goals.  He and Karl Alzner have been the Caps' best and most consistent defensive pairing all year, and that is not about to change.  A great game from Captain America.

Alex Ovechkin put the team on his back for the final goal.  Even though he didn't score it, he took matters into his own hands, cut out any crap at the blue line, and bulldozed his way through the Buffalo defense for a great shot that lead directly to the game-winning tally.  He has been the real Ovechkin of late, and I really sense a huge breakout coming for him.  It would be beyond big for the Capitals, and the boost it would give them cannot be overstated.  Good game, young Alexander.

The Capitals are right back at it tomorrow night when they take on the Pittsburgh Penguins at CONSOL Energy Center.  That game will be final of four played against the Pens this year, who have managed to keep winning without Crosby AND Malkin in their lineup.  That game is scheduled for 7:30 P.M. and will be televised on Versus.

1-1 After Two

The Capitals and Sabres traded goals in the second period and the teams are still tied after the second, although it is now at one.  Mathieu Perreault converted first for the Capitals when a Matt Hendricks dump in pass bounced off the glass sanction and kicked out to the front, where the Quebecois slapped it past a surprised Miller.  But the Sabres answered right back on the power play when Jason Pominville slapped shot over Varlamov's shoulder while the netminder was being screened by Scott Hannan.  The Caps again outshot the Sabres, 18-10, and Ryan Miller is still on fire.

Scoreless After One

Ryan Miller is standing on his head this afternoon in Buffalo, as he made 16 saves in the first period, several of them spectacular.  The Capitals were awarded four power plays in the opening frame, including a minute and a half of 5-on-3, but were unable to penetrate Miller and have likely seen the majority of their power plays for the day already happen.  With almost any other goalie, this game is 3-0 for Washington right now.  Just a testament to how unlucky they are at some times.  Be prepared for alot of Buffalo power play time over the remainder of the game.

Green Out

Mike Green will not play in this afternoon's matinee with the Sabres.  Bruce Boudreau indicated that Green is feeling better, but the team does not want to risk him at this point.  He is still day to day and is questionable for tomorrow night's game in Pittsburgh.

Gameday: at Buffalo, Feb. 20

Matt Bradley celebrates during a 4-2 win over the Sabres.
The Washington Capitals are in Buffalo, New York, this afternoon for a contest with the Sabres that will be aired nationally on NBC. The Capitals report for duty this afternoon with 70 points in 59 games, which is good enough for fifth in the Eastern Conference and second place in the Southeast Division.  The Sabres, on the other hand, come into tonight with 60 points in 57 games, which puts them ninth in the Conference and third in the Northeast Division.  The teams have split their two meetings this year, and this is the third of four between the two sides.  The Sabres won 3-2 at HSBC Arena in early Novemver, and then the Capitals won 4-2 later that month at Verizon Center.

Buffalo bench boss Lindy Ruff is expected to start workhorse Ryan Miller in nets for his squad.  After his Vezina Trophy winning campaign last year, Miller is having a down year by his standards with a 2.74 GAA and a .910 save percentage.  Despite these below average numbers, however, Miller is an outstanding goaltender who is capable of stealing a game on any given day. Beating him will be a tall task for the sputtering Capitals offense.

Bruce Boudreau is expected to roll with Semyon Varlamov in nets for his team after Michal Neuvirth lost in San Jose on Thursday night.  Varlamov only lasted a period in his last start, giving up 3 goals on 9 shots to the Ducks on Wednesday. Nevertheless, Varly is still in the top ten in the league in GAA and save percentage and is having a great season to date.  There is no word yet on whether or not Mike Green will play for the Caps; the star defenseman has missed the last two games with inner ear trauma.  Eric Fehr is not expected to play either, and DJ King will be the healthy scratch up front for the Capitals.

Puck drops for this one 12:37-ish.  Check back after the game.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Practice: Feb. 19

The Capitals were back on the ice for practice today in upstate New York after taking yesterday off for travel.  Some updates from a place so remote that Caps beat writer Katie Carrera is having a hard time getting a cell phone signal:

All of the forwards who are on the trip skated, including Eric Fehr, although he returned to wearing a gold no-contact jersey as he recovers from a shoulder injury.  The lines remained the same as they were on Thursday night: Knuble-Backstrom-Ovechkin, Semin-Johansson-Laich, Chimera-Perreault-Hendricks, and Steckel-Gordon-Bradley.  DJ King also took reps with the fourth line.

Mike Green participated fully in practice, which is a great sign in and of itself but also the fact that he made it through the cross-country flight without incident; flying can sometimes cause a recurrence of concussion symptoms.  There is no word on his expected availability for tomorrow afternoon's contest with the Sabres.

That's all for now.  More if it becomes available.

Click here for a preview of the Sabres game.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Off Day for Caps

The Capitals took Friday off as a travel day, as they flew from California to Buffalo this afternoon.  They will return to practice tomorrow as they prepare for their game against the Sabres Sunday afternoon.
Click Here for a Sharks Recap.
Click Here for Today's Practice Info.

Rapid Rewind: Shark in the Water

Joe Pavelski celebrates his shorthanded goal Thursday night.
The Washington Capitals were unable to break their eighteen year losing streak in San Jose tonight, falling to the hometown Sharks by a final score of 3-2 and failing to build momentum after last night's win in Anaheim.  Despite the fact that the Sharks played with only five defensemen for 58 minutes, the Caps managed just 25 shots and were unable to capitalize on some early opportunities.  With the loss, the Capitals remain in fifth in the Eastern Conference and second in the Southeast Division with 70 points in 59 games; as both the Lightning and the Canadiens got smacked tonight.  However, the Lightning hold a game in hand on the Capitals.  The seventh-place Rangers did win, unfortunately, which means that they drew within four points of the Capitals in the Conference.  In addition, the Capitals are now 8 points clear of the Hurricanes at the bottom of the Conference playoff ladder, although the Canes too hold a game in hand.

The Capitals got off to a good, fast start as the top line of Mike Knuble, Alex Ovechkin, and Nicklas Backstrom applied strong offensive pressure on the Sharks, but Antti Niemi made a great first stop of the game to deny Ovechkin 40 seconds in.  The Caps continued their pressure in the early stages of the game, but the Sharks began to counter back with some good, concentrated rushes up ice, although they did not get any shots on Michal Neuvirth.  The period then began to fly by, with very few whistles and good, back and forth action and offensive chances for both teams.  Alex Ovechkin missed the net on a golden chance about halfway through the period, but Niemi was all over the place again and made several sprawling saves to keep the Capitals off the board.  But after one of these sensational stops, a frustrated Alex Ovechkin committed a bad penalty at the 13:56 mark when he interfered with Douglas Murray during a Sharks rush for the Caps' first PK of the night.  But the penalty killers stood strong, with systematic blocks and good clogging of passing lanes.  Just after the penalty kill, however, the Caps gave up a golden chance in front, and forward Jamal Mayers was all alone in front; thankfully he shot the puck wide to keep the game even.  The Capitals then earned themselves a power play late in the period and had a chance to go up by a goal in the closing stages of the frame at the 18:40 mark.  But right off the draw, John Carlson fumbled the puck at the blue line and Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleu streaked up ice for a shorthanded opportunity; it was Paveski who buried the shorthanded goal at the 18:49 mark. But the Capitals answered right back on their power play, as Alex Ovechkin snapped a puck past Niemi just 22 seconds after the Pavelski goal to equalize and give the Caps a huge boost.  The last 49 seconds passed without incident, and the teams headed to the locker rooms tied at 1.
The Sharks came out very hard in the second, and pinned the Caps in their own zone for an extended period to open the frame.  After the Caps finally managed to break the puck out however, they committed a turnover that sent the Sharks in alone on an odd man rush but Michal Neuvirth challenged well and kept the game tied.  As the period wore down, however, the Capitals' legs began to fade a bit, the Sharks continued their excellent offensive pressure but simply could not convert.  The Capitals did finally manage to break out of their zone for an extended period about halfway through the frame, but Brooks Laich had a golden opportunity stopped by Dan Boyle's stick and the game remained tied.  But after that small glimmer of Caps pressure, the Sharks began to dominate the period again.  The Capitals consistently had trouble getting the puck out of their own zone, and the Sharks had many opportunities to lead, although they did not get many shots off.  The Caps did manage a gasp late in the period, however, and pressured Antti Niemi into making a couple nice saves, but there were no excellent chances for either team over the remainder of the frame; the second period ended with the teams still tied at 1.
In the third, the Capitals came out sluggish again, and the Sharks took full advantage of their tired legs to establish early offensive zone dominance.  The Sharks got five shots off in the first three minutes of the period, but Michal Neuvirth was again solid to keep the Sharks from taking the lead.  However, a little less than five minutes into the frame, the Sharks' forecheck was just too strong, and Ryane Clowe finally cashed a puck in front following a very strong shift by his line at the 4:27 mark.  After their goal, the Sharks continued to press, and Neuvirth had to be great again on star rookie Logan Couture in close to keep the Sharks from putting the game away about three minutes later.  But just as the Capitals began to get a little momentum back with some good rushes up ice, John Erskine took a bad interference penalty and sent the Sharks to the power play at the 10:27 mark.  And just off the faceoff, Dan Boyle leaned into a slapshot from the point, and two San Jose players tipped the puck before Dany Heatley put it past Neuvirth to put the Sharks up 3-1 at the 10:29 mark of the third.  Despite now being down by two, the Caps were not able to get any good chances, and the Sharks continued to be relentless and play most of the time in the Caps' zone; any attempted rushes that the Capitals got up ice were quickly snuffed out by the San Jose backcheck.  However, the Capitals got a burst of life late in the period with 1:55 left when Nicklas Backstrom roared down the right wing and snapped a shot past Niemi to make the game interesting.  Despite another late charge, though, the Caps simply ran out of gas over the last minute and 20 seconds and the Sharks brought home the victory.

Observations:

This was a very tough game for the Capitals and one that they could not have been expected to win, even thought it would have so clutch if they had.  Less than 24 hours after that huge victory in Anaheim, and playing their third game in four nights, the Caps were able to come out hard and generate good chances early, but they were simply too gassed to keep up with the big, strong San Jose forwards late in the game.  This loss does not kill them either, as the losses by both Montreal and Tampa Bay keep the Caps right where they are.  They need at least 3 points out of the weekend, though.  There is no question about that.

Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom had another good game.  I'm not ready to pronounce them "back" by any means, but each passing game, it seems Ovechkin and Backstrom gain another step and inch back towards their dominant form of the past two seasons.  If I've said it before, I've said it 50 times: how these two men play over the next seven weeks will have a huge impact on not only the rest of the regular season, but also how the Caps perform in the playoffs (if they get there).  Despite the loss, this was a step in the right direction for them.

One particularly bad note from tonight: it was the second consecutive game that the Capitals gave up a momentum-killing, energy-sapping shorthanded goal.  If John Carlson doesn't try and get fancy at the blue line right off the draw, the Capitals maybe get an extra point tonight.  Instead, they go home with zero.  It's a minor point, as they have only allowed 4 this year, but it's still very annoying to see something like that happen at this critical stage of the season.

The Capitals will travel to Buffalo either tonight or tomorrow as they prepare to take on the Sabres on Sunday in (another) huge game for them and their season. That game is scheduled for a 12:30 P.M. puck drop.