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The good and the bad from Game 2 of Caps-Rangers

I’m always glad when an afternoon game ends well so the rest of the night isn’t spent brooding.

Here’s some thoughts in the immediate aftermath:

The GOOD:

1) Braden Holtby. Again, not much else needs to be said. Aside from a couple of lackadaisical passes to his defense, he was on tonight. He also benefited from a bit less work, as I thought the Caps defense as a whole played better. Even when Nash hit the post, I thought Holtby’s decision to poke at the last second caused Nash to change his shot ever so slightly.  Nothing like a big 1-0 win in OT for your first playoff shutout. It’s interesting that he told reporters after the game he didn’t even realize it was his first. Shows you just how focused he is.

2) Steve Oleksy. He continues to show up night in and night out. A great hipcheck, a great pass to Chimera in the slot, etc. Even when he gets beat, he’s somehow able to get back into position. I’ve never really been sold on him over Orlov, but it’s beginning to look more and more likely that it will be Hillen and Orlov battling it out next year.

3) Adam Oates.  He continues to push all the right buttons. His players ooze confidence, and I think a lot of it has to do with their coach. They all LOOK happy too, which they obviously were not last year all the time. His post-game press conference was so refreshing today. “It’s hard for me to tell players to shoot the puck when I never did.” Reminds us fans that we can second guess all we want, but in the heat of the moment, even the coach knows its tough. He also sounds like the Dalai Lama after listening to Tortorella.

4) Green OT Winner .  That is all.

The BAD:

1) John Erskine. Probably the only thing I will criticize Oates/Calle for is continuing to play this guy so much. He’s just too slow, especially against quick Rangers forwards like Stepan, Callahan and Nash. I’m still scratching my head over the amount of money given to him mid-season.

2) Backstrom/Johansson. Too much passing from them today. They aren’t playing terribly (although Backstrom is still not looking like himself yet this series), but they aren’t playing well either. Obviously Oates says you can’t blame the players for not shooting in the heat of the moment, but at some point they need to make better decisions.

3) Henrik Lundqvist.  This is “bad” in the sense of being a Caps fan. He was brilliant today. Aside from that 7 minute stretch in Game 1, he’s been nearly perfect. Fortunately Holtby (and some timely posts) have been slightly better. If he keeps playing this way, the Rangers have to feel good about winning both games at home.

4) Second Line. I’m still not feeling it. They didn’t play horribly and they continue to show flashes where they keep the Rangers buried in their zone for long periods of time. But I still think they need to get on the same page. Erat needs to look for his shot a bit more as right now he and Ribeiro are playing almost the same game.

5) The 3rd period. For as good as the 1st, 2nd, and OT were, the 3rd was kind of a snoozer. Only five shots a piece and lots of chess moves out there.

6) The Delay of Game Rule.  I don’t hate the rule, I just think it needs tweaking. Only obvious shots and passes over the glass should be called. The fact that Alzner conceivably COULD have gotten a penalty for attempting to poke the puck out of the reach of Dorsett is kind of silly.

All in all, it was a great game for the Caps. I had more in the Bad column, only because it was hard to single out players for good games tonight. Alex Ovechkin was stellar as always, and I thought the third and fourth line played better than their counterparts from NY.  That’s all you can ask them to do this time of year.

Up 2-0 in the series, let’s go get one at MSG.

The issue in the Caps’ top six forwards

Ovechkin and Backstrom

Oveckin and Backstrom (Photo: Mike Holden)

There are many ways to win consistently in the NHL. One of those can be by having the right talent, another by having a great system and sticking to it. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether it’s offense or defense-oriented or a little of both, a team with a solid approach that plays it well game-after-game can sometimes make up for talent issues on a roster. And even teams with the best players need a good plan.

In this lockout-shortened season that came without a proper training camp and preseason, it’s apparent that the Washington Capitals could have used that time to learn their new coach’s system. It’s also clear that Adam Oates and the Caps could use a bit more talent in certain areas, one of them being within the six forwards on their first two lines.

With the Caps coming off a 4-0 win in Winnipeg Thursday night, now might seem like an odd time to talk about one of the areas where the team is lacking. But, if the Caps keep winning and make the playoffs or even just miss it, the issue could rear its head again. And, going into next season, it will likely need to be addressed for the team to become a true threat.

In their top six forwards, the Caps have three very talented skill players in Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro. They also have several wingers who are top six material as a compliment to these players.

For example, Brooks Laich, just back from an injury, is a talented and capable left wing that the team can try pairing up with the Ovechkin-Backstrom duo. 22 year-old Marcus Johansson has struggled to develop further as a player while showing promise at times in his still-young NHL career, but he may be another who can be plugged in alongside Backstrom and Ovechkin as he was on Thursday.

Matt Hendricks has also been tried on the top line, though he may deliver better value skating on a lower one. And it appears that Wojtek Wolski and Jason Chimera are done, at least presently, getting time with the top unit.

On the second line with Ribeiro, Troy Brouwer is a solid choice at right wing. With 11 goals and 21 points in 29 games this season, Brouwer is putting up numbers that justify his $3.6 million cap hit and the move the team made to acquire him two summers ago.

On the left side of the second line, Oates can plug-in any number of players, such as he did with Laich last night while skating Johnasson in that spot on the top line. Eric Fehr is also an option as are some others. However, with their current roster of players, it is here on that left side of Ribeiro that the Caps run into the hole in their top six.

Washington has good players that can be used in this second line role, but they are guys that, when put in a top six spot, should mostly be used to complement a skilled duo. The top line currently has Backstrom and Ovechkin. The second has Ribeiro and needs someone else in the highly skilled department, even with Brouwer putting up some nice numbers this season.

In past years, the Caps had a legitimate goal-scoring threat on the left side of their second line in Alexander Semin, but he rarely had the opportunity to play with a second line-caliber center. The Caps now have that center in Ribeiro, but let Semin go and have yet to properly replace him.

Should Washington play well the next week or so and decide to become buyers at this season’s April 3 trade deadline, a deal for a sniping or highly skilled left wing should be high on their list. And going into October and the 2013-14 season, it’s an issue they should eliminate if they are to become a top team again.

The Caps could get by without this player, if they execute Oates’ system consistently. But even then, to take the team’s play to the next level and make them tougher to shut down, the Caps could use someone to fill this gap in their top six.

Hockey writer and analytics specialist Neil Greenberg on The Tony Kornheiser Show

Hockey writer Neil Greenberg was a guest today on The Tony Kornheiser Show. Kornheiser has referenced Greenberg’s writing recently on-air, appearing to become somewhat of a fan of the advanced hockey stats expert and Washington Post, ESPN contributor. Here are some highlights from today’s appearance, Greenberg’s first ever on the show:

Greenberg on drinking from the Stanley Cup after the Rangers won it in 1994:

“I was frequenting some of the bars in Nassau County…there were people taking pictures with the Cup outside of one of the bars, so we stood in line. As soon as I turned the corner to enter the bar, someone said, ‘Do you want to drink from the Stanley Cup’ and I said ‘Absolutely.'”

On Alex Ovechkin’s decline:

“He’s getting older. There’s two things that are happening. One is just your general age progression. People have a misconception as to when hockey players, especially goalscorers, peak. It’s typically between the ages of 22 and 24 and then you start to see a down-slope at age 27. Ovechkin has pretty much been in that exact pattern.”

“If you look at how Ovechkin scored his goal early on in his career when he entered the league it was by a volume of shots. It was more quantity than it was quality. He led the league with 425 shots when he came in. He was just a completely dynamic player that tossed rubber at the [net] from ever angle. And as those shots per game decreased, it took the goal scoring along with it. And what we’re seeing now is a player who’s putting up 300 shots on goals as opposed to 500 and 400 shots on goal. So, the goal scoring numbers are going to come down. Now, to his credit those shots on goal have up-ticked a little this year but a lot of goal scoring is also luck. You have a clank of the pipe here, it goes through the wickets there. He hasn’t been seeing a whole lot of puck luck as maybe he’s had in the past. He’s just going to be the 50 goal scorer that he was probably ever again.”

On if Ovechkin is an assist guy, a set-up guy like Gretzky or Lemiuex, with room to elevate his game:

“Ovechkin is a good passer. I think that’s actually one of the most underrated parts of his game. However, he’s not Gretzky, he’s not Lemieux. He’s not going to tally a whole bunch of points from… [Kornheiser jumps in and says, "He's not Crosby."] He’s certainly not Crosby. So, he’s not going to be getting points that way. The switch to right wing was an effort to get him away from that overpowering move he had down the left side where he would go down the left wall and try to cut in and score the goal that way, because that just wasn’t working anymore. The defenses have caught up to that. So, you’re right. His points are going to come from goals and, unless he starts to adapt his game a little bit more on the right wing, we’re going to see some 25 to 30 goal seasons.”

On Ovechkin making “a lot of money”

“That’s where people’s expectations, I think, are coming unglued because they see on paper this 65, 50 goal scorer that’s making $10 million and they think that’s going to happen in perpetuity. But, look, the Ovechkin contract was a bad contract. When they signed Ovechkin to that contract, for that period of time, it was a bad deal. And you can never expect a goal scorer to score 60, 50, 60 goals a year for ten years. It’s just not reality.”

On if the Caps know what Greenberg knows about Ovechkin

“I think so. Hockey analytics has definitely become bigger in the past couple years, however you still have, and I’m not speaking specifically about the Caps, but in the NHL in general, there are some teams that are embracing it. I know that Tampa Bay has a hockey analytics guy on staff, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Calgary, some other teams are embracing it. But, as far as the Capitals are concerned, they seem to trust the coaches more than the numbers. An I’m not saying that that’s a bad thing. However, I think that there’s room for both, especially when you’re looking at player evaluation.

[I'm going to interrupt this transcription, as I've just read on Twitter that Russian Machine has sent out a transcription of the entire interview. So, rather than duplicate work, check the Russian Machine Never Breaks transcript of Neil Greenberg on the Tony Kornheiser Show by Peter Hassett and I'll go write something else.]

 

QUESTION FOR YOU: How many Top 6 forwards do the Caps have?

It’s no secret that the 2012-13 Washington Capitals have holes to fill at wing on their top two lines. After going without a legitimate second line center for several years, the Caps’ June 2012 acquisition of Mike Ribeiro from the Dallas Stars appears to have solved that problem at least through the end of this season, when Ribeiro’s contract is set to expire. But after Ribeiro, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, the “Top 6″ talent on the Caps’ 2012-13 roster drops off substantially.

Here’s the question for you, the readers: How many Top 6 forwards do you feel the Caps have on the team right now? Tell us in the comments below or via Twitter (we’ll paste some of your tweets into this post) how many you think the Caps have and who those players are. Your answer does not have to be a whole number. For example, I might score the team at a 3.5 right now:

As NHL’s latest lockout lingers on, a basement hockey league goes overseas

Habits and even loyalties can change during an NHL lockout, and that’s especially possible during the 2012 edition, as fans sour on a league that has played the work stoppage card four times since 1992. As the NHL owners and players squabble, the hockey-starved can find games elsewhere, from college to the minors or even overseas, where many NHL players have gone in search of playing time and a paycheck.

Monday afternoon, I showed my four-year old, hockey-crazy son an online stream of Washington Capitals stars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom playing together in the KHL for Dynamo Moscow against former Caps goaltender Semyon Varlamov and his team, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.

My son doesn’t fully understand the NHL lockout, but he knows it’s hockey season here in North America and that his favorite team isn’t playing until the owners and the players come to a new agreement. He had a few questions as I showed him Ovechkin and Backstrom on the ice together, and he was excited to see some hockey.

As I watched more of the game, my son went into the other room, grabbed his gloves and stick, and started playing a game of basement hockey as he does almost every day—except this time the two teams involved were from the KHL. He ran into the room every couple of minutes with game updates and questions, such as how to say “Varlamov’s team’s name again,” and eventually Ovechkin scored in a shootout to give Moscow a big victory in our downstairs arena.

Should the lockout go much longer, my family and I will likely seek out some live, non-NHL hockey to fill the void left by the absence of Caps games at Verizon Center. Maybe it will be an AHL or ECHL game or some college hockey. Whatever it is, I can’t help but wonder what will happen with younger fans like my son if the NHL cancels most or all of the 2012-13 season.

I already know that I, like some other fans I’ve spoken with, are frustrated enough by the NHL and NHLPA’s inability to get a deal done that we won’t be rushing to the games as soon as they start-up again. Sooner or later though, I’ll get the urge to venture back into an NHL arena. I imagine it could be requests from my kids to go to Caps games again that first lead me back to Commissioner Gary Bettman’s league. But what if by the time the NHL resumes games, their favorite team is the Hershey Bears or someone else?

If the owners and players keep their ridiculousness going much longer and younger fans latch onto teams from other leagues, perhaps some customers will be gone for a while; I doubt many will be gone for good. Having waited out a few of these NHL dramas before, I wouldn’t mind seeing the league struggle to draw spectators before things return to normal. Considering the two sides had years to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement that could have prevented the cancellation of games and satisfied all parties—including the seemingly forgotten customers—Bettman, the owners and the players deserve it, especially when they’ve behaved as if they learned little, if anything at all, about fan frustration from the 2004-05 lockout.

For now though, there’s a kid in my house who’s just thrilled to have some hockey to watch and mimic. It doesn’t seem to matter much to him that it’s not the NHL brand.

A few tweets and thoughts on Alex Ovechkin’s ice time

This is going to be a quick post, with a few tweets and thoughts on what seems to be the sports story of the day in DC and beyond: Alex Ovechkin’s ice time in Game 2 versus the New York Rangers last night.

A few of mine from this morning…

One from Mike Vogel after the game last night…

And a couple of mine from after the game…

One way to look at this: it often feels good when you don’t need to go to your closer to win a baseball game, knowing he’ll then be better rested the next time you need him. If the Caps get involved in another long series or make a deep playoff run, keeping your players from getting too banged up is usually a good thing.

See the chart at the bottom of this article from The Globe and Mail for a look at Ovechkin’s minutes for every playoff game he’s played:http://www.theglobeandmail.com/sports/hockey/globe-on-hockey/alex-ovechkin-the-role-player/article2418893/

Ovechkin’s ice time last night is an interesting story, but I don’t see it as an issue right now.

Is Alex Semin being held to a higher standard than other Caps players?

My brother Pat wasn’t happy with Alex Ovechkin’s effort defensively on the Rangers first goal in Game 1 of their second round playoff series. He tweeted, “The listless, one hand on the stick effort in support of his D man who was clearly beaten is not really my thing.”

I hadn’t noticed this during the game. I was mostly focused on watching Artem Anisimov out-muscle Mike Green. But I tend to agree with my brother on this one. Where was the Ovechkin that seems to relish crushing opposing players with an explosive hit? This would have been a great time for one of those. At the very least, just a solid shoulder or a strong poke check might have done the job. I can’t help but wonder if Ovechkin would have had more spring in his step had this instead been an opportunity for a big play in the offensive zone.

Artem Anisimov scores in Game 1

Somewhat related to this, Alexander Semin has been demoted to the fourth line for Game 2.

Semin took two penalties in Game 1, one for unwisely retaliating after being slashed by a Ranger player and another for tripping a player while forechecking. The second penalty didn’t bother me much, as it appeared he was going for the puck and got too aggressive.

Caps’ Coach Dale Hunter told reporters regarding Semin, “We need him to score goals for us, we need him to play good on the power play.” (Note: Semin leads the team in both goals and power play goals so far in the playoffs.)

As I said via Twitter earlier today, I don’t care a great deal either way about Semin’s move to the fourth line. Maybe it will pay off through a more balanced set of lines or perhaps it will motivate Semin and we’ll see a big game from him. However, I do find it odd that Semin gets banished to the fourth line, while other highly-skilled offensive players on the team often don’t when they’re guilty of less-than-stellar play. Nor do I think they should necessarily.

For example, Nicklas Backstrom’s lack of hustle cost the Caps a goal in Game 6 against the Bruins (I’m not talking about the game-winning goal that was a result of his turnover and was easier to forgive). Marcus Johannson has been giving the puck away far too often these playoffs with careless passes. Ovechkin took a bad penalty Saturday against the Rangers for tripping, put in a questionable defensive effort on the Ranger goal highlighted above and was kept off the score sheet like Semin, but there’s no way Ovi or Backstrom is going to get demoted to the fourth line—and for good reason. Yet Semin does?

Maybe there’s more to the Semin story than I’m aware of as a spectator who isn’t in the locker room, but the higher standard Semin seems to be held to confuses me. Even the league seemed to have something against the guy when he was the first 40 goal scorer I know of to be left off the All-Star ballot the next season (I don’t mean Semin just didn’t make the game…I mean he scored 40 goals and then you couldn’t even vote for him unless you wrote him in).

NBC’s Pierre McGuire doesn’t give Semin a break, even when he’s scored a goal on more than one occasion right after McGuire calls him out. As NHL.com writer Dave Lozo recently noted, “Alex Semin is the only guy who can score on national TV and have people spend the next 5 minutes questioning why he doesn’t try. Amazing.”

ESPN and Washington Post contributor Neil Greenberg said on Twitter today, “Surprised ppl continue to underappreciate Caps Semin’s contributions beyond points (and off zone penalties). If he walks, tough to replace.” Greenberg also did a statistical analysis last fall about how the criticism of Semin is unfair.

I don’t deny that there are occasions when Semin is—like many players—deserving of some criticism. However, I find it odd that other key Caps make mistakes and it doesn’t become half the story it does when Semin isn’t playing the way people would like him to.

But putting all that aside, if the demotion of Semin to the fourth line for tonight’s game results in a two-goal night, Hunter’s a genius.

Verizon image library might need updating

The image below was captured on March 30, 2012 from the Verizon website. I believe the last time the Caps wore that jersey was almost five years ago. Perhaps it’s time for Verizon to update the old image library. Washington rocks the red now and has since 2007. Related: the Washington Capitals play at Verizon Center.

verizon fios caps nhl ad

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