Saturday, February 28, 2009

Semin Caps Season Series in Boston

The Caps and Bruins put on quite a display in Boston, with Washington earning a bit of revenge on the Bruins for its overtime loss a couple of weeks ago as Alexander Semin scored on a long shot from past the blueline just :22 into the extra frame for a 4-3 win.

For the fourth time this season, the top two teams in the Eastern Conference provided another highly entertaining contest. The Caps end up winning the season series 3-0-1, and also shaved a point off Boston's lead in the race for the top seed to eight points. The victory also keeps Washington two points ahead of New Jersey - who throttled the Panthers this afternoon - in the race for the second seed in the East, while the Caps also are close to wrapping up the Southeast Division race with a 15-point edge on the 'Cats with a meeting on tap tomorrow afternoon.

The Caps broke on top 3:36 into the contest, as on an early power play, Nicklas Backstrom deposited a rebound of an Semin shot past Tim Thomas to give Washington a brief lead. However, Boston evened the game up just 1:39 later, as Matt Hunwick was able to sneak in front of Jose Theodore and fired a feed from behind the net past the netminder to square the game.

After that, Thomas and Theodore settled down, both making some nice saves (and getting some decent breaks) to keep the score knotted at one through 20 minutes.

Alex Ovechkin broke the stalemate with his 45th goal of the year, taking a Matt Bradley feed and firing it past Thomas with 8:48 gone in the frame. However, once again, Boston had a quick answer for Washington's lead, as Phil Kessel slipped in past an out-of-position Shaone Morrisonn and squared the game just :18 later.

Once again, the goalies took over, as Brooks Laich couldn't convert a breakaway with 7:21 left in the second, while Theodore was able to stop a tremendous Bruins chance on Scott Thornton in the period's final minute.

Then, early in the third, the Bruins' David Krejci took a hooking penalty on Mike Green, and Tomas Fleischmann made Krejci and the Bruins pay.

Krejci, who won the Jan. 27th meeting between the two teams in overtime with a bad-angle shot that banked off Shaone Morrisonn and past Theodore, could only watch as Fleischmann took the puck at the goal line, and then fired a centering feed that deflected off Dennis Wideman and into the Boston net for a 3-2 Caps lead.

However, for the third time on the afternoon, Boston had an answer.

After the Caps failed to build on the lead with an Eric Fehr breakaway and a power play of their own, the Bruins got some prime chances as Laich and Backstrom took minors down the stretch, forcing Theodore to make some good saves. However, Boston's big defenseman Zdeno Chara finally broke through evened the game with 4:37 to go as he moved down to the point and fired a shot past Theodore.

After a couple of nice chances at both ends to wrap up regulation, the two teams headed for overtime. It certainly wasn't unexpected, as seven of the last 12 meetings have needed to be decided past 60 minutes, and 18 of the last 23 meetings have been one-goal affairs.

Semin ensured that it wouldn't require much additional time, as he notched the game winner just :22 into the frame on an odd goal for an All-Star netminder to give up. Semin would up from an on-ice advertisment near the faceoff dot in the neutral zone, and took a long shot Thomas. Thomas didn't get all of the 70-foot slapshot, and the puck just managed crawled over the goal line for the 4-3 win.

The win gives the Caps seven out of eight possible points in the season series, and keeps Washington's hopes to try and snag the top seed alive.

More importantly, however, it also sets up a chance for the Capitals to deal the knockout blow to the Panthers tomorrow afternoon at Verizon Center, as Washington could hold a 17-point lead with a regulation win over Florida with 19 to play for the 'Cats.

Dick Vitale Tells the 'Truth'

While in town for a Hoyas game this week, Dickie V did a piece on college hoops in the area. However, unexpectedly, he also gives his props to the real show in town right now.

Caps Take Final Shot at Boston

Whatever hopes the Capitals have at getting the top seed in the East are on the line this afternoon at TD Banknorth Garden, as Washington plays a 1PM matinee in Boston.

After a brief swoon in a pair of games in Florida, the Bruins came back to Massachusetts and blasted the Panthers and Ducks at home this week, outgunning their visitors by a combined score of 12-1, while the Capitals are coming off a 3-2 homestand and play their lone road game in a 10-game stretch today before heading home for a four-game homestand tomorrow afternoon.

While the Capitals trail the Bruins by nine points with 20 games to play, the question should be if the team will be able to catch them in the standings - and if the payoff of the extra home game should they play Boston in the Eastern Finals will be worth it.

For the players themselves, they certainly are gunning for Boston, telling the Post that they know the importance of the contest if they harbor any hopes of catching them.

Of course, this is a very unusual position for any Capitals team, since unlike most of the previous editions of the franchise and the first time since the team's previous high watermark of the mid-1980s, Washington's playoff berth is virtually assured with still just under a quarter of the season to play.

Back in the Patrick Division setup during that era when the top four teams qualified for the postseason, those versions of the Caps finished as many as 60(!) points ahead of the fifth-place team in the Division, leaving the Caps to try to earn a better seed instead of fighting for their playoff lives for a long stretch of the second part of the season.

But this feeling is unusual for this team, as even in recent years where the Caps have won the Southeast, most of those banners involved having to outlast an opponent down the stretch. In 1999-2000, the Caps had to chase down Florida down over the final months of the season, erasing a 14-point deficit in January to take the title and not taking the division lead until mid-March. Of course, last season, the Caps had to chase down Carolina for the third seed, with the final outcome not decided until the result of contest No. 82 when the Caps passed Carolina in their final game of the season.

In recent times, only the 2000-01 edition of the Caps were relatively as comfortable in February of their fate. This year, with a 13-point lead over Florida heading into Saturday's action, even if the Capitals just go .500 over their remaining contests, the Panthers would only be able to drop nine points in their last 22 games to be able to catch the Caps.

So with the Southeast secure, the Caps focus now in the final six weeks on trying to run down the Bruins and holding off the Devils for the highest possible seed.

But what is the No. 1 seed really worth in the East? In recent seasons, not much.

Last year, the Canadiens edged the Penguins down the stretch to get home-ice in the Eastern half of the playoffs. Yet they never got a chance to use it against Pittsburgh, as while Montreal lost to Philadelphia in the second round, the second-place Penguins ended up skating to the Finals.

Two years ago, Buffalo rolled to the Eastern top seed, outlasting second-place New Jersey by six points. However, the Sabres didn't parlay that into a Finals appearance, as New Jersey and Buffalo both ended up losing to the fourth-seeded Senators.

And three years ago, the Sens edged Carolina for the top seed in the East, but it was the Hurricanes who enjoyed the real honor, claiming the franchise's first Stanley Cup as the Senators suffered an early exit.

In fact, only twice in the last 10 seasons has the top Eastern seed made the Stanley Cup Finals (the 2000-01 Devils and 2003-04 Lightning), and over that same period, the second seed has advanced three times to the finals, including two of the last three.

With the Stanley Cup playoffs being all about matchups, with the current Eastern race having just two points separating the sixth through tenth seeds, there won't be much of a difference in the squads the teams the third, second and first seeds draw in the first round. The Caps likely are going to face the Rangers, Penguins, Sabres, Hurricanes or Panthers regardless of where they finish as a division winner, so the only real benefit will be an extra home game in the second and third rounds - if the other division winners actually advance.

The top two seeds have both advanced to the Eastern Finals just once in the last 10 years, with the only time it happened, the second-seeded Devils beat the top-seeded Senators in 2003, rendering Ottawa's home ice useless.

So, while the Capitals focus on catching the Bruins to keep a focus through the final quarter of the regular season, while it would be a nice feather in their cap, it certainly shouldn't be taken as a barometer of success or failure of the team's ability in the postseason.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Caps Slip in Ranking

Check out the latest power rankings at FanHouse.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Caps Power Past Atlanta

Washington wrapped up its five-game homestand on a winning note, grabbing a 4-3 win over Atlanta to close it out with a 3-2-0 record. In the process, rookie goalie Michal Neuvirth earned his second NHL win in his first-ever start at Verizon Center.

Mike Green also got off his brief goal-scoring slump as the Caps used a trio of power-play goals to hold off the Thrashers, who erased an early Washington lead but couldn't keep the Capitals' extra-man unit off the board.

The Caps opened up the scoring early with a pair of power-play goals, with Alexander Semin beating Kari Lethonen 4:27 into the contest. Just :53 later, Brooks Laich nudged a Mike Green shot that beat Lethonen through the pads just across the goal line for a 2-0 lead, but like Tuesday night, that two-goal edge would eventually vanish.

Atlanta got a big break late in the first when Rich Peverley got away with a high stick under Alex Ovechkin's visor, and Ovechkin started a fracas along the boards, and was sent to the box for roughing when he went after Marty Reasoner. On the ensuing power play, Ilya Kovalchuk fired home his 32nd goal of the season off a nice feed from Todd White past Michal Neuvirth to cut the deficit to one heading into the dressing room after 20 minutes.

Peverley then contributed in a more direct way on the score sheet less than four minutes into the second period, beating the defense and then Neuvirth on a breakaway to even the game at the 3:56 mark.

However, unlike the loss to the Flyers, the Caps crawled back on top after blowing the lead, as Green fired in his 23rd of the season with 7:35 left in the period for Washington's third power-play marker of the game. Green also tied a team mark with his 16th power-play goal of the season, even with Scott Stevens' club record set back in 1984-85.

In the third, the Caps added some insurance, as Eric Fehr collected a deflected Shaone Morrisonn shot and put it through Lethonen's legs for a 4-2 lead with 4:47 gone in the period.

Washington would need Fehr's marker, as White scored a short-handed tally with 1:57 left in regulation, cutting the lead to just one. But even with Lethonen pulled, but the Thrashers couldn't pull any closer and the Caps skated off with the two points.

The contest also marked the 10th straight sellout for the Caps for a new franchise record, as the team will break the mark of 23 sellouts in a season. The team also announced that 2,500 new season ticket packages have been sold for next year, boding well that the new single-season record may be a short-lived one as the building nears capacity already for the 2009-10 campaign.

But next up for the current version of the Caps is a one-game road trip to Boston, facing a Bruins team that apparently is back firing on all cylinders, beating Florida and Anaheim in home games by a combined score of 12-1 this week. The Caps remain nine points behind Boston for the top seed in the East, but also remain two points ahead of third-place New Jersey, who shut out Colorado in Martin Brodeur's return between the pipes.

After the date with the Bruins, the Caps return home Sunday afternoon to open a four-game homestand against Florida.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Caps Wrap Up Homestand With Thrashers

The Caps embark on a whirlwind four days Thursday night with their game at Verizon Center against Atlanta, playing three games in 95 hours, including a quick trip to Boston and back.

Following their tough loss to the Flyers, the Caps look to get back on track and close out the five-game homestand with a win against the Thrashers. After a practice at Kettler on Friday, the team then heads to Massachusetts for their final meeting with the Eastern-leading Bruins Saturday afternoon, then back home for a Sunday afternoon game with the Florida Panthers.

The Capitals have split their two games with Atlanta so far this season, with four of their final 21 games coming against Ilya Kovalchuk's crew. The Caps had a similar third-period meltdown in Atlanta in the first game of the season as they did against the Flyers, allowing three quick Thrasher goals in 2:10 in a 7-4 loss.

However, Alex Ovechkin made quick work of the Thrashers in their pre-Thanskgiving meeting, notching a hat trick to even the season series.

Of course, this could be a markedly different team the Caps see tomorrow than the final three meetings, as with the Thrashers only contending for the league's worst record, there likely will be some big changes when the two meet again in Atlanta on March 16th. The most likely could be goaltender Kari Lehtonen, who should command a good return in the trade market with the lack of quality goaltending available, but the team might also weigh trading Kovalchuk if a team comes up with the right offer.

As for the Capitals, this is another classic trap game for a team that has fallen victim to them a couple too many times, a game sandwiched with dates with the Penguins and Flyers as well as the Bruins and Panthers. While the Caps are safely in the lead for the Southeast, if they have any visions of trying to make a run at Boston, they will need to do so in the next six games, before 10 of their last 15 are away from Verizon Center.

Another thing the Caps will look to fix is their habit of taking preventable penalties, as for the second straight game, Washington was whistled for nine minors, opening the door for Philly to climb out of a 2-0 hole.

Ovechkin also will be looking to have another big night against Atlanta, as he has 23 goals and 21 assist in 26 career games against the Thrashers, including two of his eight career hat tricks.

And, with less than a week to go before the trade deadline, it's going to be important for the Caps to get points before a very tough weekend ahead.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Caps Can't Hold Lead Against Flyers

Tuesday night at Verizon Center, the Flyers showed the Caps why they're probably the toughest match for Washington down the road. Philadelphia used some physical play late and crashed the net for a 4-2 win over Washington, using a style not dissimilar to how it escaped with a seven-game series victory last spring.

The Caps took a 2-0 lead 4:19 into the second period on Alex Ovechkin's 44th goal of the season, but it all began to unravel when Washington took some careless penalties halfway through the frame. Down 5-on-3 9:13 into the second period after Alex Semin took a delay-of-game penalty with Milan Jurcina already in the box, Claude Giroux's goal right inside the far post gave the Flyers new life. After Giroux's goal, Philadelphia controlled more of the tempo, and they pounced on the Caps early in the third with some open space in front of Jose Theodore to take the win.

The night started off well enough, as Nicklas Backstrom put the Caps on top 1:48 into the game on an early power play, converting a nice fake shot from Ovechkin, who dished the puck off and Backstrom got Antero Niittymaki to commit and put the puck over the fallen goalie for the lead. The Caps had some chances to extend their lead, but could not convert, including some prime chances while shorthanded, but Nittymaki kept the Flyers' streak of not allowing a goal with the man advantage this season intact.

However, early into the second period, Ovechkin scored another improbable goal, firing a shot off while being hit, but the puck still eluded Niittymaki for a 2-0 lead just 4:19 into the second period. Ovechkin's two points on the night gives him eight points in the last five games, with six goals and two helpers in that stretch.

But the momentum turned on after Giroux put the Flyers on the board, as a game that was more free-wheeling and to the Caps' liking started to get clogged in the neutral zone and the Flyers started to get their chances on Theodore and got deep in the Caps' zone.

Theodore was able to hold the lead until nine minutes into the third period, but Scott Hartnell evened the game at the 9:11 mark. It wasn't long before Philly got their first lead of the night as Jeff Carter scored his 35th of the season 1:25 later after being alone in front of Theodore, and then Aaron Asham extended the lead to 4-2 with 7:30 left in regulation.

The Caps' comeback was short-circuited by two late penalties, leading to just the second regulation loss to an Eastern Conference opponent at Verizon Center this season. Philadelphia is also currently the only team in playoff contention in the Eastern Conference to have a winning record against Washington (2-0-1). The third period resembled the first part of last year's playoff series, with the Flyers taking the Caps off their game and crashing the net effectively, with 37 shots on goal.

Fortunately for Washington, the loss is relatively minor compared to last spring with the team's playoff future still solid, as the Panthers failed to gain ground on the Caps with a 6-1 thumping by Boston.

But the Caps end the first part of this extended home-tilted part of their schedule Thursday when Atlanta comes to town. After the Thrashers pay a visit, Washington heads to Boston for a game Saturday afternoon, then returns home to start a four-game homestand with the Panthers Sunday to complete a tough stretch.

One Hated Rival to Another

As Bruce Boudreau noted after Sunday's win over the Penguins, the Caps go from playing one team they don't like to another they don't like Tuesday, when the Flyers make their last regular-season visit to Verizon Center.

The Caps, Flyers and Penguins have made a bit of a triangle the last few days, with Philadelphia still smarting after Martin Biron's fumble that led to Pittsburgh's 5-4 win at Wachovia Center Saturday afternoon. The gaffe cost the Flyers at least a point in the standings, and just put more doubt if Biron can be counted on again this year if the team hopes to make the next step to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Biron, who was one of the reasons the Flyers were able to nip the Caps in last year's playoffs, has been squarely under the microscope this season, as Philadelphia faces some serious goaltending issues as they seem to be locking in on the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference as the only non-division leader that isn't seemingly disinterested in making the postseason. While they only lead the Rangers and Canadiens by two points, they also have at least three games in hand on the rest of the pack - including on the Devils, who they trail by eight points in the Atlantic Division race.

Problem is for the Flyers (as it will be for the Capitals looking for a backup for Jose Theodore with Brent Johnson hurt) is that the market's very thin this year for netminders in the trade market. With only five teams really out of the running, the Flyers appear interested in trying to land Atlanta's Kari Lehtonen - who incidentally is 0-12 when matched up with Philadelphia's current backup, Antero Niittymaki, either in the AHL or NHL. With the rumored price being James van Riemsdyk, that's an awful steep price for a goaltender who really isn't much on an upgrade over what they currently have.

With Boston and Chicago apparently content to keep their current goaltending tandems - and Buffalo also in the market for a No. 1 with Ryan Miller out with a high ankle sprain - the price is high for goaltenders this year, leaving Philadelphia's hope of long-term success in doubt without much chance for an ugrade at the deadline without digging deep into their roster.

Of course, that's nothing new in Philadelphia, who have had a long list of good teams that were undone by suspect netiminding.

As for Tuesday's game, Daniel Briere won't be returning to action against Washington, but still should be plenty motivated following their tough defeat at the hands of the Penguins. Despite the setback, the Flyers still have won five of their last seven games, with Biron going 3-1-0 in his last four starts.

Part of that success has been thanks to Mike Richards' stellar play as of late, as he scored three goals and five assists to be the NHL's first star of the week, including notching his seventh shorthanded goal of the season. Philadelphia is exceedingly dangerous a man down as Richards puts pressure on the point - particularly against a team using a forward as a pivot, so the Caps will have to be wary of his prowess.

After getting thumped 7-1 in December up in Philadelphia, the last meeting of the two teams was an entertaining 2-1 Caps win last month at Verizon Center, a tightly-played defensive battle won in a shootout for Washington. The Flyers are probably the last team the Caps want to see in the postseason, just for their ability to slow down the Caps' free-wheeling game and also their willingness to use their grit against Washington's stars.

Tonight's contest should be a good test for the Caps to see how they stack up against a team that dispatched them out of last year's playoffs, and also one that is getting a dose of a team that was handed a stinging setback a couple of days ago.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

T-Minus Seven Weeks

With the regular season ending seven weeks from today, it's time to take a look at how the Eastern playoff chase breaks down, and how the teams stack up - and take a shot at how the teams will finish up.

1) Boston (40-12-8, 88 points, 22 games remaining): Things are getting a bit more interesting in race for the top spot in the East, as the Bruins go down to Florida and come up empty. Now, the Capitals trail the B's by seven points with the the final head-to-head meeting coming Saturday in Boston. Prediction: First

2) Washington: (38-17-5, 81 points, 22 games remaining): Despite a setback against the Avalanche, the Caps win three out of four games over the week and start to gain ground on the Bruins and move past the Devils into second spot. The Caps need to keep pushing now, as the just five of the last 15 games will be at home where the Caps are 19-1-1 against Eastern foes. Prediction: Third

3) New Jersey (38-19-3, 79 points, 22 games remaining): New Jersey is expected to get Martin Brodeur back in the lineup Thursday, and now the big question is how the Devils will do down the stretch with their future Hall of Famer back in net. They definitely will be another team that will put pressure on Boston for the top overall seed. Prediction: Second

4) Philadelphia (31-17-9, 71 points, 25 games remaining): With three games in hand over New Jersey, the Flyers aren't quite out of the Atlantic Division yet, although Philadelphia looks like they're tracking towards at least the fourth seed in the East with the other teams below them struggling. Prediction: Fourth

5) Montreal (31-22-7, 69 points, 22 games remaining): The Habs get more bad news with the benching of Alexei Kovalev and the Kostitsyn brothers' ties to an accused cocaine dealer. However, despite the team's struggles, the good news is the other teams around them also have some major issues as well. Prediction: Seventh

6) Florida (30-21-8, 68 points, 23 games remaining): The Panthers are in a prime position now to end a seven-year playoff drought with the teams around them not seemingly interested in landing a playoff spot. Now, a key five-game road trip looms with stops in Boston, Manhattan, New Jersey, Washington and Atlanta will go a long way towards deciding their fate. Prediction: Fifth

7) Buffalo (31-23-6, 68 points, 22 games remaining): Ryan Miller's injury puts the Sabres squarely on the playoff bubble, as without their No. 1 netminder and Thomas Vanek still out for most of March, Buffalo will have a tough time getting back into the postseason. Prediction: Ninth

8) Rangers (31-23-6, 68 points, 22 games remaining): The Rangers continue to struggle, so it's just a matter of when New York decides to kick Tom Renney to the curb. But the longer the team waits, the team puts its playoff hopes more in jeopardy. Prediction: Tenth

9) Carolina (31-25-5, 67 points, 21 games remaining): The 'Canes get hot and are putting the pressure on the teams above them, sitting just one point out of a playoff spot with less than two months to play in the season. Prediction: Sixth

10) Pittsburgh (29-26-6, 64 points, 21 games remaining): After a coaching change, rumors of a shakeup in personnel abound in Pittsburgh. Now, while the Penguins have enough talent to make up the four-point gap, will the team actually get its act together before it's too late? Prediction: Eighth

Ovie Gets Best of Crosby

For more reaction from Sunday's game, check out the FanHouse post.

Ovechkin Powers Caps Past Pittsburgh

Less than 48 hours after one of their ugliest performances of the season, the Caps rebounded in a big way, taking control of their Sunday afternoon contest with the Penguins, winning their third straight of the season against their old Patrick Division rivals and restoring their 13-point edge in the Southeast with a 5-2 win at another sold-out Verizon Center crowd.

Alex Ovechkin, who put on a show in his last nationally televised game Wednesday, added his 43rd goal of the season and added an big assist and even got a chance to get into it with Sidney Crosby during an altercation in front of the Washington bench.

After the Penguins opened got the first big chance to get on the board with an early penalty on Boyd Gordon, it was cut short by a Ryan Whitney holding call, and the Caps made Pittsburgh pay.

Alex Ovechkin drilled in a feed from Nicklas Backstrom to put the Caps on the board with 6:53 gone in the game.

After Alex Semin took a tripping call with 9:48 left in the first, Jordan Staal once again cut the Pens' power play short, taking a tripping call, but on the ensuing 4-on-4, the Pens got a gift rebound. Mark Eaton took a drive from the point, but Jose Theodore kicked the rebound to a waiting Maxime Talbot, who evened the game with 7:52 left.

However, once the Semin penalty expired, he made amends for his infraction, sitting by the net and given open space by the Pittsburgh penalty-killers, he deked and beat Marc-Andre Fleury from a sharp angle just :54 later to give Washington a 2-1 lead.

The Caps had two more golden chances to increase their lead when Talbot took a penalty with 5:01 left in the frame, as Sergei Fedorov had Fleury beat but opted to pass rather than shoot, and Alex Ovechkin had a drive off the side of the net with the extra man, but couldn't increase their lead before the period ended.

However, it didn't take long in the second period, as after finishing a Donald Brashear minor, Semin took the puck off Staal's stick near the boards and then fed Fedorov for a one-timer that rocketed past Fleury just :54 into the period for a 3-1 edge.

Pittsburgh got a golden chance to get back into it when John Erskine took a minor, followed by a too-many men call on Washington, giving the Penguins a :55 5-on-3. Although the Caps killed off that portion of the penalty, Sergei Gonchar pulled the Pens within one with a rifle shot just at the corner of the net with 4:46 elapsed in the period before the extra-man penalty expired.

But the Caps regained their two-goal lead with 7:04 to play in the second period, as after Ovechkin pulled the Pens defense over one side with a drive that Fleury stopped, Shaone Morrisonn collected the rebound and put a shot over his shoulder as the Penguins goalie went back down.

Washington then took a 5-2 lead on a fluky goal just :25 later as after Fleury got caught scrambling behind the net, and on the ensuing chance Brooks Laich banked the puck off the goaltender's back from behind the goal line which trickled in before Hal Gill could keep it from crossing. That was the end of the afternoon for Fleury, who stopped only 15 of 20 Washington shots at that point.

At the end of the period, Ovechkin and Crosby got into a bit of an altercation by the Washington bench when the Pens' captain tried to drive Ovechkin into the bench, leading to some choice words and Ovechkin waving sarcastically at Crosby at the tail end of the second.

After Brooks Orpik got into a tussle with Donald Brashear behind the net, Tom Poti came in later in the shift and gave Orpik a shot with the elbow, drawing the penalty. However, no damage was done to the Caps' three-goal lead and they were able to hold them off, but Fedorov took another penalty with 13:02 left in regulation to give Pittsburgh the extra man. Still, the Caps didn't bend, and were able to keep the Pens from drawing closer.

Washington's impressive penalty-killing unit got one more chance to shine, killing off minor to Morrisonn to kill eight of nine Pittsburgh penalties on the afternoon, only allowing Gonchar's goal after the 5-on-3 expired.

The Caps held the Pens off the board and earned their fourth win in five games, and improved to 19-1-1 at home against Eastern opponents this season.

With the win, the Caps also earn their first season series win over the Penguins since 2002-03, when they won three of four against Pittsburgh. The Caps will get a chance to deliver the first sweep in the season series by either squad in two weeks when the Penguins come back to Verizon Center a the end of a road trip on March 8th.

As for the Caps' next opponent, it won't get any easier when the Flyers head to Washington, with the two teams having split their season series so far. The Caps are 2-1-0 on the homestand so far, with Philadelphia in Tuesday and Atlanta in on Thursday before the team's last showdown with the Eastern-leading Bruins on Saturday afternoon in Boston.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Caps Look to Bounce Back Against Pens

After falling squarely into the trap game that the Avs set for Washington on Friday night - and paying the price at practice today - the Caps certainly figure to show a lot more jump when the Penguins make their first visit to Verizon Center this year on Sunday afternoon.

It's not often the Caps have a chance to take a season series from the Penguins, but with a win or at least an overtime/shootout loss Sunday, it would be the first time Washington has topped Pittsburgh in a series since going 3-1-0 against the Pens in the 2002-03 season (and only the second time since 1993-94, when they won both the regular season series as well as a first-round playoff series).

However, after suffering through a 1-7-1 stretch against the Penguins before Bruce Boudreau took over as the Capitals' coach in November of 2007, the tide has turned. Washington is now 3-1-1 against Pittsburgh since the change, including a pair of wins earlier this year. The Caps won both games played at Mellon Arena, using a rally from three goals down in a 4-3 win back on October 16, and then fought back from down a goal twice in a 6-3 win last month.

But after changing coaches themselves on Sunday and installing Dan Bylsma behind the bench, the Penguins have been playing a bit better hockey (2-0-1 following a win in Philly this afternoon), and could potentially pull themselves into a tie for the final playoff spot in the East with a victory over the Caps after seemingly being dead in the water after an embarrassing 6-2 loss to Toronto last Saturday.

While the Penguins were able to grab a commanding 3-1 lead over the Flyers after 40 minutes Saturday, they allowed Philadelphia to come back and even the game twice before Sidney Crosby scored on a fluky goal with 2:45 left to play in regulation to give Pittsburgh a 5-4 win. The Pens also have Sergei Gonchar back in the lineup for the first time this season, as he adds another dimension with his scoring power from the blue line.

Despite the Caps' recent penchant for not always showing up against struggling teams, this figures not to be the case with the recent rivalry between the two teams, and with the game on national television, that likely won't happen.

The last time the two teams met in Washington was last March 9th, when Nicklas Backstrom's own goal in the last minute seemed to cripple the Capitals' chances of making the postseason. But following that devastating loss, the Caps just went 11-1-0 down the stretch to win the Southeast Division, including a 6-0-0 mark at home.

A lot besides that has changed since that last meeting eleven months ago, with the teams' roles reversed around this season. Last year, the Pens were in the running for a divisional title and a shot at the Eastern Conference's top seed, while the Caps were fighting from the outside looking to snag a playoff berth. Now, the roles are reversed, with Washington almost assured of their second straight playoff berth, while the Penguins will need a strong finish to try and just qualify for the postseason to defend its Eastern Conference crown.

But after their poor performance Friday, the Caps were put through a grueling practice Saturday at Kettler, and certainly don't figure to put on another weak performance with the Pens in town.

While Bruce Boudreau bristled at the notion that the Caps play down to their opponents before Friday's contest, it sure was what some of the Caps were saying after practice today.

"It's not that we underestimate our opponent," Green added. "But it seems like when we face an opponent we're not familiar with, they kind of take it to us. I don't know what it is. Maybe because they don't see us either so they're not intimidated."

Safe to say, Sunday isn't an opponent that they aren't familiar with, and neither team will be intimidated. And, with all the subplots that go with the two biggest names in the NHL right now, along with their excellent supporting casts, it should be a game worth watching.

And, thanks to a quirk in scheduling, it won't take long before the Pens return to Chinatown, as the two teams will conclude their season series on March 8th. If all goes well for Washington this Sunday, it'll get a chance to earn their first series sweep of the Pens.

Friday, February 20, 2009

'Horrible' Caps Buried by Avs

Against an Avalanche team desperate for points to try and make the playoffs in the tightly-packed Western Conference race, the Caps came out flat Friday night, missing some good scoring chances and allowing Colorado to take the two points out of Washington for its third win in a row - and snapping the Caps' three-game streak in the process.

It was an effort that Caps coach Bruce Boudreau termed "horrible" - and it certainly was one of their worst efforts on home ice this season.

Ryan Smyth scored Colorado's first goal of the game and assisted on a pair of goals - including Adam Foote's first goal in over 17 months - as the Avalanche took a 4-1 win over the Caps in front of the Caps' eighth-straight sellout crowd at Verizon Center.

Newly-acquired Steffan Kronwall had an auspicious first home game as a Capital, missing a wide open net halfway through the first period, then later in the shift leaving Smyth all alone at the side of the Washington net and allowing him to take four whacks at a puck lodged between the and Theodore's skate and the post before Smyth knocked it into the net for a 1-0 Colorado lead with 9:33 left in the first.

Washington would even the score just before the first intermission, as Nicklas Backstrom took a Thomas Fleischmann feed and one-timed it past Andrew Raycroft to even the game. The goal was Backstrom's 15th of the season, surpassing last year's total.

But the Avs got a goal from an unlikely source 7:46 into the second period when Adam Foote skated in untouched and beat Theodore with a shot from a Milan Hedjuk pass for his first goal since October 6, 2007 - when he was a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets in a game at Minnesota - a streak of 105 games without a goal spanning two teams.

Washington had some prime chances to pull even, as Sergei Fedorov was stuffed by Raycroft less than three minutes after Foote's goal, and then Alexander Semin missed the net when he broke in alone on Raycroft a couple of minutes later.

Washington only put 16 shots on net through 40 minutes of play, letting Colorado dictate the slow pace and stifling the Caps' offense. They had trouble bringing the puck up the ice, and didn't get into a rhythm all night against the Avs, as even another third-period burst of energy couldn't save the Caps, who moved to a perfect 18-0-0 this season when leading after two periods.

The Avs improved their chances when they took a two-goal edge when Tyler Arnason roofed a shot past Theodore, giving them some insurance with 3:33 gone in the third.

Washington had a golden chance to draw back to within one with a power play halfway through the period but couldn't convert, and then Tomas Fleischmann missed an open net shortly after the penalty expired.

Wojtek Wolski then sealed the game away with 7:24 left in the game with a soft shot that went under Theodore's pads, giving the Avs a 4-1 lead and quelling the Caps' brief momentum.

Alex Ovechkin, who had a 10-game point-scoring streak heading into the contest and five goals in his last three games, was held off the scoresheet with a quiet night for the star.

Theodore, who made some rather inflammatory comments heading into the contest, wasn't very strong in net for Washington, not quite at the top of his game against the team that he left via free agency last summer. He allowed four goals on 25 shots, and the Avs' two third-period goals were of the soft variety.

The Caps have had their trouble this season when the West pays a visit to Verizon Center, going just 5-4-0 - as compared to an 18-1-1 home mark so far against the East. Fortunately for Washington, Colorado is the last Western team to pay D.C. a visit this season - barring a Stanley Cup Finals berth - and the Caps only play one more game against an out-of-conference foe coming March 10th at Nashville.

Colorado also earned its first-ever regulation win at Verizon Center, with the Avs' last victory in D.C. coming when Patrick Roy broke the all-time wins mark for a goaltender in October of 2000 in a 4-3 overtime decision. The Avalanche's last regulation win came in the Capitals' final few months at US Air Arena, back in October of 2007 before the team moved to Chinatown two months later.

Next up for Washington is a nationally-televised date with the Penguins, who make their first of two visits to Verizon Center in a 12:30ET start Sunday to continue the five-game homestand, in which the Caps are 1-1-0 so far.

Caps Atop Power Rankings

Latest power rankings at FanHouse here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Avs Arrive in Town Banged-Up

While it's unusual to see the Avalanche sitting at the bottom of the Western Conference, it's not such a surprising sight when you see the talent level that won't be dressing for Colorado at Verizon Center Friday night.

Joe Sakic's date with a snowblower has the future Hall of Famer out of action until March - and perhaps out of his last visit to Washington. Paul Stastny, while he was able to return to practice with the Avalanche Thursday before the team headed east, he won't be skating against Washington Friday night either. And John-Michael Liles, the team's leading point-getter from the blueline, was injured in Colorado's win Sunday against Detroit and also will be out of the lineup.

Despite their injury woes, however, Colorado is still carrying a two-game win streak into town, beating the Red Wings in a shootout and the Senators in overtime in its last two games. They sit tied with St. Louis and Phoenix with 55 points, seven points off the pace in the West - but looking up at the rest of the conference as well.

With the Avs' April hopes uncertain, management will have only a dozen days to decide to try to make a run at the pack, or look to rebuild and trade a commodity like Jordan Leopold, who is a free-agent at the end of the year and could help a team looking for a puck-moving defenseman.

Andrew Raycroft will get the start for Colorado, while Washington will almost certainly start Jose Theodore, who certainly will be motivated to play well against his ex-teammates in his first game against the Avs since leaving Denver as a free-agent last summer.

"We players have some pride, and when we see they don't make that extra effort to really show you that they want you, then you decide, 'Hey, I'm going to move on.'"

"A couple of days before [July 1] I was really disappointed in [Colorado's offer] so I had some discussions directly with Francois, but even in the discussion, some of the things he would bring up, I was really disappointed."

In the second game of the five-game homestand, Washington will need to avoid looking ahead to Sunday's match against the Penguins (not to mention Tuesday's third meeting of the season against the Flyers) and take care of business against a very streaky club. While the Avs seemed in danger of falling out of contention a week ago, they've earned wins over the Wings on the road and then returned home for a victory over the Senators, and open up a long six-game trip in D.C.

The Hype of the 'Sequel'

A day after Alex Ovechkin's show-stopping goal against Montreal, the goal was brought into the ESPN family of networks, getting plenty of love across the board from the Worldwide Leader that usually relegates NHL highlights to the same length as ESPN Deportes soccer segments.

But with all the talk about his goal, Alex Ovechkin told Pavel Lynsenkov (via FanHouse colleague Eric McErlain) that it wasn't even his favorite goal of the season.

This was:

You know Ovechkin's a once-in-a-generation scorer when a goal like the one against Montreal isn't even considered a career best. Or the best of the last two months.

But unlike the original goal vs. Phoenix and the one from December against Buffalo, Wednesday's game was broadcast on TSN across Canada and the NHL Network in the United States, allowing a much wider audience than Comcast SportsNet, FSN Phoenix or MSG and Center Ice viewers. And with the extra eyeballs on the screen, Ovechkin certainly isn't one to shy away from the spotlight.

The game was broadcast in the entire North America. I very much wanted to show that Washington is a good team, and that we beat Montreal not by accident despite what other people think.

This allowed the ESPN to pick up on the goal faster than the original (which happened in the wee hours of the night in the East in a blowout win over the Coyotes) allowing a rapid use on the steady diet of overnight SportsCenters. Even the Buffalo goal which happened in prime time, it took place the day after Christmas - a Friday as well - and while it got some publicity, not to this degree of a mid-week SportsCenter NBA-style treatment a day after it happened.

Personally, while the spin move was tremendous, I have to agree with Ovechkin, that the Buffalo goal was a bit better, especially since Roman Hamrlik was frozen in his tracks with the initial backhand and spin move, which opened up the space for him to drive into the net.

But still, it just goes to show that one of the reason the Caps are a hot ticket now is the fact that with Ovechkin on your roster, this kind of thing can happen. Anytime.

Clearly, fans might be treated to a show for Sunday's game against Pittsburgh on NBC.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Steckel Helps Caps Rally Past Habs

With nine of the Capitals' next 10 games at Verizon Center starting Wednesday night against Montreal, the Caps wanted to make sure they starter off their homestand on a winning note.

They almost didn't, staring defeat as time wound down in regulation, but some late heroics by David Steckel opened the door to a two-point night as the Caps rallied for a 4-3 shootout win over the Canadiens.

Despite Alex Ovechkin's spectacular first-period tally for his 42nd goal of the season - and fifth goal in three games - an Alex Semin penalty with 12:12 to play in regulation turned into disaster for the Caps.

Tomas Plekanec scored just nine seconds into the power play for a 3-2 lead for the Canadiens, leaving things looking very gloomy for the home team as time wound down in Chinatown, especially since his tally was the slumping Canadiens' third power-play goal on the night.

However, Steckel had a nice tip-in of a Tom Poti shot with just 2:39 left to play, allowing the Caps to grab their 78th point of the season and move into sole possession of second place in the Eastern Conference past the Devils. Then, thanks to shootout goals by Semin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps added No. 79 with the 2-0 victory in the tiebreaker.

The Caps opened the night on the wrong foot, as they fell behind just 2:33 into the game when Christopher Higgins put Montreal up with a power-play tally. The Caps stormed back in the middle of the frame to take the lead thanks to Ovechkin's terrific spin move at center ice and then Ovechkin rolled in for a goal past Carey Price. Just 3:35 later, Backstrom gave the Caps their only lead of regulation with a power-play goal of his own and his 14th goal of the year.

The lead was short-lived, as Montreal scored their second power-play goal of the night just 3:21 later, as Andrei Kostitsyn put the Habs square at two through the first 20 minutes. The score stayed that way through the second period, but then the Habs went ahead on a third extra-man strike.

Semin's infraction opened the door for Montreal's third extra-man tally of the night less than eight minutes into the third, and things looked even gloomier a couple of minutes later when Alex Ovechkin took a shot to the foot and struggled off the ice.

However, Ovechkin would return a couple of minutes later, and just when it looked like the Caps would be stifled by the Canadiens, Steckel redirected a Tom Poti shot from the point with just 2:39 left in regulation to help the Caps force the extra session.

In the final minute of overtime, the Caps escaped a setback when Michael Nylander was taken down at center ice, and on the resulting 2-on-1, Tomas Plekanec beat Jose Theodore, but it rang oof the post, and the game headed to a shootout.

Semin atoned for his late penalty with a shot to open the shootout that was slowed by Price but rolled through his legs for an 1-0 lead. Plekanec was stopped by Theodore, and then Backstrom beat Price cleanly for a 2-0 edge and putting the Habs on the brink. Theodore then stopped Andrei Markov for the decisive save to end the game after just two rounds.

With the win, the Caps extend their lead to 13 points over the Florida Panthers in the Southeast race, and now will battle Colorado Friday night to continue their homestand. Although the Caps narrowly avoided another loss to a slumping team, they were able to rally and keep their strong play at home to move to a 23-4-1 record at Verizon Center.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Interesting Developments

When the Habs arrive for Wednesday night's game, one of their, ahem, All-Stars won't be with them.

Alexei Kovalev was given the road trip off by Canadiens GM Bob Gainey, and Sergei Kostitsyn, who scored a goal and an assist in Montreal's win over Washington in January, is being sent down to Hamilton. In his place is tough guy Gregory Stewart as they visit the Caps and Penguins on back-to-back nights.

As for the Caps, Karl Alzner - and Jay Beagle - were sent down to Hershey, with Bruce Boudreau telling the Post it was because he was a scheduled scratch for tomorrow's game with eight defensemen healthy to skate, but he might be back Friday when the Caps host the Avalanche.

Time for Caps to Make Their Move

While the Caps are safely assured of at least a third seed in the East with the Panthers trailing by 13 points with 25 games left for Washington - Florida at most can rack up 116 points, while Washington currently is on pace for 111 - this next stretch will determine if the Caps can upgrade their position before the playoffs begin in two months' time.

Nine of the Caps' next 10 games are at Verizon Center, giving Washington the opportunity to rack up points where they are 22-4-1 so far this season. And, the first three opponents are teams that have been struggling mightily as of late, with Montreal (3-7-0 in its last 10), Colorado (3-7-0) and Pittsburgh (4-4-2) kicking off the five-game homestand.

Then, with the one opponent in the next five that's playing well being the Flyers coming to town on the 26th, the Thrashers then cap the first part of the home stretch.

Washington trails Boston by nine points with 25 games to play, with one head-to-head meeting left, the only road contest in this stretch, coming on March 1st. They also are tied with New Jersey in points, although the Devils currently hold the tiebreaker over the Caps with one more victory on the season.

The Caps then open up a four-game homestand with the Maple Leafs, Hurricanes, Panthers and Penguins in town, at which point the Caps will need to make their best push towards improving their playoff position.

After this 10-game segment, Washington's attempt to make inroads on the Bruins and Devils will be much tougher, with just five of 15 games at home with the circus and Frozen Four taking up Verizon's ice for the second half of March and early April.

It will be interesting to see if the logjam at the bottom of the Eastern playoff picture shakes loose, as it could there could be a couple of teams just points apart of being the sixth to eighth seed and being the Capitals' first-round opponent.

The Flyers seem to be taking the inside track of the fourth seed in the East - by being the only one who's playing decent hockey of the contenders.

The Sabres seemed to be able to grab one of the next seeds, but with Tomas Vanek out for a month, the team will need to overcome inconsistency to avoid a matchup with a division winner. Montreal, who pays a visit on Wednesday, has been banged-up and certainly isn't the team that was playing well earlier in the year. The Rangers are in free-fall and now will have to fight just to get into the playoffs after a 10-2-1 start to the year. While the Panthers have been good as of late, the question is if they can keep it up, as the Hurricanes and Penguins will have to make up ground to even put themselves in the picture.

Still, the next 10 games should tell us if the Caps will make a run for the top seed, or if they're going to end up with the third seed again for the postseason.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Green's Streak Ends, but Caps Get Win

Playing two games within 22 hours, the Capitals showed some fatigue - and lack of discipline - in their game Sunday afternoon in south Florida, losing an early 2-0 lead to the Panthers, thanks in part to giving the Panthers eight power plays on the afternoon. But Alex Ovechkin was able to come to the team's rescue, scoring his eighth career hat trick, including a sharp angle wrist shot past Tomas Vokoun with 2:31 to play in a 4-2 Washington win to extend the Capitals' lead in the Southeast to 13 points over the 'Cats.

In a three-game road trip that began with Washington giving their opponent every chance to win in New York with 10 minutes in penalties in the final stanza, the Caps did nearly the same in Florida, taking three minors in the third period with one being cashed in for the equalizer. But they were able to kill off 7-of-8 for the game, and set up Ovechkin's dramatic game-winner with 151 seconds left in the contest.

The one drawback for the Caps was one night after breaking the NHL record for consecutive games with a goal by a defenseman Saturday night in Tampa Bay, Mike Green was finally held without a goal, leaving him one game shy of the franchise mark set by Mike Gartner and Alan Haworth over two decades ago.

Alexander Ovechkin scored his first goal of the night with a power-play goal in the first period, blasting it past Tomas Vokoun for a 1-0 lead with 4:22 left in the stanza.

Eric Fehr tallied in his fourth straight game just :30 into the second period as the Caps built a 2-0 lead and were in control of the contest, but then proceeded to let the Panthers come back to tie the game.

After Jose Theodore made some nice saves (and got some fortunate bounces) as the Panthers began to turn on the heat, Florida got on the board with 7:52 left in the second as Michael Frolik scored with a shot past Theodore. Then the Caps proceeded to hand Florida four straight power plays with a chance to draw even, which they did.

After the Caps killed off a late penalty to Shaone Morrisonn in the period, a delay-of-game penalty on Sergei Fedorov in the opening minute of the third turned into a Nathan Horton tally 1:29 into the third on a goal-mouth scramble to even the score at two on Florida's sixth power play of the contest.

Nicklas Backstrom got another delay penalty by lofting the puck over the side glass 6:33 into the period, and Horton's bid to give Florida the lead hit off the post halfway through the extra-man advantage, but the Caps were able to kill off the infraction. Alexander Semin then took a goaltender interference penalty a couple of minutes later, but the penalty killers were able to hold the tie.

Then, with the puck deep in the corner near the goal line, Ovechkin deked past Jay Bouwmeester at the faceoff dot, using him as a screen and rifled it past Vokoun for his 40th goal of the campaign.

Ovechkin then added one more for good measure, notching his 41st with an empty netter from deep in the Caps' zone off the boards, just hitting the post and rolling in for his 41st of the year.

Ovechkin now holds a seven-goal edge in the lead for the Richard Trophy, as Zach Parise and Jeff Carter were both held scoreless in their teams' respective wins this afternoon and are stuck at 34 goals.

With the win, the Caps are even with New Jersey for second place in the East - although the Devils hold the tiebreaker with one more win than Washington.

Washington returns home after an outing with the team's dads Monday, and open a five-game homestand that begins with a date with the slumping Canadiens Wednesday night at Verizon Center at an unusual start time of 7:30PM. The Caps will play nine of their next 10 games on home ice, with a March 1st date in Boston being the only road contest sandwiched between two lengthy homestands.

The Caps then will play 10 of their last 15 away from home ice.

T-Minus Eight Weeks

With the regular season ending eight weeks from today, it's time to take a look at how the Eastern playoff chase breaks down, and how the teams stack up - and take a shot at how the teams will finish up.

1) Boston (39-10-8, 86 points, 25 games remaining): The Bruins have hit their first big rut of the season, having lost four games in a row following their 3-2 shootout loss in Nashville Saturday. Still, the Bruins have a double-digit edge on both the Capitals and Devils for the top seed in the East, although the B's hold on the President's Trophy is slipping a bit. Prediction: First

2) New Jersey (36-17-3, 75 points, 26 games remaining): The Devils have been on a hot streak, and get Martin Brodeur back to practice, meaning it's going to be tougher for the other Atlantic Division clubs to catch New Jersey for the title. The interesting aspect will be to see how the Devils react now that the future Hall of Famer is back in the net. Prediction: Second

3) Washington: (35-16-5, 75 points, 26 games remaining): The Caps get a chance to really end the Southeast Division race today in Sunrise, as a win puts them 13 points up on the 'Cats with just three head-to-head games remaining. However, a loss makes things a bit more interesting for the final two months of the season. Prediction: Third

4) Philadelphia (29-16-9, 67 points, 28 games remaining): The Flyers go 2-1-0 over the week, with a date with the Rangers looming this afternoon. With the other teams in the mix struggling, the Flyers have a chance to get home-ice in the first round with a good finish to the season. Prediction: Fourth

5) Montreal (30-20-6, 66 points, 26 games remaining): The Habs continue to struggle, although they finally break their four-game losing streak Friday night in Denver. While the struggles of the 'Canes and Pens have really helped the Habs hold onto a playoff spot, they can't let this go on much longer. Prediction: Sixth

6) Rangers (30-20-6, 66 points, 26 games remaining): New York finally snaps its losing streak with a shootout win over the Caps, but nine of the Rangers' wins have come via the Bettman special, meaning without it, the Rangers would be in 10th place in the East, not an encouraging sign for New York's playoff future. Prediction: Seventh

7) Florida (28-19-8, 64 points, 27 games remaining): After falling in Washington, the 'Cats win three in a row to climb into a playoff spot. Now, the question is if the Panthers can claw closer to the Caps, or are just doing their usual late-season charge that falls short of a playoff berth. Prediction: Ninth

8) Buffalo (29-21-6, 64 points, 26 games remaining): With Tomas Vanek out for a month with a broken jaw, the Sabres will to rely on other players to chip in to help them secure a playoff berth. Fortunately, the other teams Buffalo's fighting for a spot with aren't exactly lighting the world on fire. Prediction: Fifth

9) Carolina (27-24-5, 59 points, 26 games remaining): Carolina gets thumped twice at home in front of full houses, getting blitzed by the Panthers and the Blue Jackets, putting its playoff hopes very much in doubt now with five points to make up on Buffalo and Florida. Carolina will need to beat the Sabres tonight to avoid really falling further out of the race. Prediction: Tenth

10) Pittsburgh (27-25-5, 59 points, 25 games remaining): An epic collapse for the Penguins happens on Hockey Night in Canada, blowing a two-goal lead to the hapless Maple Leafs to stay five points out of the playoff picture. Pittsburgh has too much talent to miss the postseason, but they're doing their best to make it happen. Prediction: Eighth

Quick Turnaround for Caps

Just hours after having to clean up the shaving cream in the visitor's locker room of the St. Pete Times Forum, the Caps have to refocus for a late afternoon start in Sunrise against the Panthers.

After Mike Green's big night in Tampa, the Caps look to build on their 11-point lead in the Southeast with their first trip to BankAtlantic Center this season, as the Caps enter the day tied with the Devils for the second seed in the East (although the Devils currently hold the tiebreaker with more wins). New Jersey hosts the Sharks at 3PM ET, with both teams entering the day trailing the Bruins by 11 points for the top seed in the East following Boston's shootout loss to Nashville Saturday night.

It will be a test for the Caps, who are just 4-5-1 in the second of back-to-back games, and this one will prove more important in the long run for the Caps to ensure they earn at least a top three seed with the Southeast title.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Young Stars Shine as Caps Dump Bolts

While Mike Green's record-setting goal in the second period was the headline of Saturday night's 5-1 win over Tampa Bay, there were a couple of guys who were solid in the limelight.

Michal Neuvirth was terrific in his NHL debut, stopping all but one of Tampa Bay's 32 shots - including stopping a first-period breakaway by Vincent Lecavalier with the Caps holding just a 1-0 lead, and earing his first victory of his career with his dad watching from the press box as part of Washington's fathers' trip.

Alexander Semin also returned from a one-game absence to notch the Caps' first goal of the game and also added a pair of helpers - including the only assist on Green's record-setting tally.

But, the night was about the Caps' young defenseman, who eclipsed a mark set by Mike O'Connell in 1983-84 thanks to a pair of ex-Capitals. With Jeff Halpern in the box for hooking early in the second period and Washington enjoying a 3-0 lead, the Caps were feeding Green to try to see if he could set the mark. Then, Green carried the puck in off a pass from Semin and took a shot that was blocked by another ex-Cap, Matt Pettinger. The puck went up in the air, and then was back on Green's stick, who fired it past Karri Ramo for his 22nd goal of the year.

Not only is Green the first defenseman ever to score in eight straight games, he also is the first player in the NHL to do it this season. In fact, the last player to score goals in even seven straight was Alexander Ovechkin, who did it in his rookie season of 2005-06.

Now, Green is one game shy of the Capitals' goal-scoring mark by any player, which was set both by Alan Haworth (1985-86) and Mike Gartner (1986-87), and also is halfway to the NHL record set in 1921-22 by the old Ottawa Senators' Punch Broadbent. The last player to take a serious run at Broadbent's mark was Mario Lemieux, who scored in a dozen straight games in the 1992-93 season.

The NHL allowed the Caps to celebrate en masse with Green after the strike, and overall, it was a night to enjoy as they came out firing against the 'Ning to take command early.

Semin beat starting goaltender Mike McKenna 5:02 into the contest with a wrist shot past the young keeper, then after Neuvirth stopped the Tampa captain, the Caps poured it on late in the stanza.

Alex Ovechkin took advantage of an odd-man break, firing home his 38th goal of the season to give Washington a 2-0 lead with 6:39 left in the period, then Shaone Morrisonn really put the Bolts in trouble with a goal with just :40 left in the period and chased McKenna out of the net.

At that point, the Caps seemed to want to get Green the puck to break the record, and he didn't disappoint. With Halpern off, he fired the record tally, and the Caps were in full control.

Neuvirth's only blemish was Ryan Malone's tip-in goal nearly halfway through the second, but he moves the record for this season by Capitals' rookie netminders to 3-0 with his effort.

Eric Fehr capped the scoring in the third to salt it away, and set up tomorrow afternoon's game in Sunrise.

After being flat against New York, the Caps put on a dominant performance against the Lightning, putting their foot down and establishing an early presence against Tampa Bay. Now, they will look to move closer to salting away the Southeast Division title against the Panthers Sunday afternoon, as they can take a 13-point edge with just three head-to-head meetings left after tomorrow's clash.

Congrats to Mike Green

Mike Green sets a new NHL mark with his power play goal in the second period, becoming the first defenseman to score in eight straight games.

Of course, a bit of irony with the goal is the guy in the box was former Cap Jeff Halpern, and the defender who blocked Green's initial shot was another ex-Cap in Matt Pettinger.

Green Takes Shot at History

Mike Green will get a chance to write his name in the NHL record books tonight in Tampa, as with a goal against the Lightning, he'll surpass Mike O'Connell's 25-year-old record of scoring a goal in seven straight games.

For his part, Green is trying to put that out of his mind and just play his game tonight, according to the St. Pete Times.

"I don't want to think about it... If I start trying to press and do too much, it's just going to backfire on me. Just play the game."

Green, who also passed a personal milestone on Wednesday night in New York by scoring his 20th and 21st goals of the season, and certainly will be on the mind of the Lightning defenders tonight.

Ex-Cap Jamie Heward told the Times that Green "has the ability go behind his net and see the play develop before it even happens. You're in awe. You're dumbfounded he puts up the numbers consistently."

Even Tampa coach Rick Tocchet compares Green with elite company.

"Green's almost like a Paul Coffey type... He's a pretty special defenseman right now. Mike Green can shoot some peas out there. I think his shot is among the best in the league."

It'll be worth watching if his teammates to feed him the puck to get the history early, and how that impacts the contest. With Tampa having played much better in a 6-4 win over Toronto Thursday, the Lightning are a desperate team looking for points.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Not Quite a Relaxing Weekend

Not too long ago, a road trip to Florida was considered a break in the NHL schedule for a lot of teams. Despite a few good seasons from the Panthers, it usually was a reliable three or four-point visit if things went well and a chance to visit the links and nice weather during a long winter with the only danger being too much relaxation.

Even though many of their dads are heading down this weekend to see their sons play the Lightning and Panthers, this weekend is no gimme for the current Capitals, not with the Lightning holding onto their playoff hopes and the Panthers still smarting from last weekend's loss to the Caps at Verizon Center and still within striking distance of Washington with four to play against the Caps.

Washington won the first two of this season's games against Tampa rather handily, but those games were at the Verizon Center, and now three of the last four games against the Bolts will take place at the St. Pete Times Forum. The Caps were 2-1-0 in three games down there last season, but the 'Ning gave the Caps a tough time in both of Washington's victories down the stretch run, earning just a pair of one-goal decisions despite Tampa's fall to the bottom of the NHL standings.

Despite trade rumors linking the former MVP to Pittsburgh, Martin St. Louis had four points to help the Lightning keep pace with the final playoff berth in a 6-4 win over the Leafs - although they still need 13 points to catch up to Buffalo or Florida. While Tampa's playoff hopes are very slim at best, the players responded after a poor stretch of going 1-4-1, and now Washington is in their sights, with a memory of December's tough contest in which Alexander Ovechkin's check left Jamie Heward injured.

Saturday's game is also likely the night Michal Neuvirth will make his NHL debut, as with Jose Theodore taking on the workload with Brent Johnson's injury and having played in 11 of the Caps' last 12 games, it seems the logical choice with the second game of the Florida trip being of more consequence in the Southeast Division race. However, the Lightning also have the ability to make a young goalie - who started the season in South Carolina before injuries led through a rapid ascent to Hershey and now as Theodore's backup - pay for his mistakes. Despite the sorry state of the team around them, Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis have both had decent seasons, combining for 45 goals and 105 points, with Tampa's problems being more depth and defense than its ability to light the lamp.

Newly-acquired Staffan Kronwall also should dress for one of the games, and again, it's probably more likely to be Saturday if it's just one game, since the Florida game has more weight in the playoff chase. The former Toronto prospect will get a chance to show his stuff, as he'd like to get a chance to stick around the NHL and will get a chance against a Tampa team that's likely willing to run-and-gun with the Caps.

Then, after a quick turnaround, the Caps get to play an early 5PM start in Sunrise Sunday against the Panthers, a team that always has given the Caps trouble over the years - and were the first team to hand Washington a regulation loss at home back in December.

Like the Tampa series, three of Washington's last four games against the 'Cats are on the road. With the Panthers opening a three-point edge on the Hurricanes for the final playoff spot with a 5-0 shellacking of Carolina at home Thursday, Florida looks to finally end a seven-year playoff drought with a strong finish to the season.

Florida hosts the Rangers tonight, then will wait at home as the Caps have to travel down the Sunshine State late Saturday night. Washington carries an 11-point edge on the Panthers heading into the weekend, but clearly, if things don't go well for the Caps, it could be as low as seven points by the time they head north Sunday evening, making this hardly the time to relax with 27 games left to play.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Tampa Bay Still Believes

After facing a team needing a win badly on Wednesday, things won't get any easier for the Caps Saturday night in Tampa Bay as they pay their first visit of the season to the St. Pete Times Forum.

Believe it or not, despite trailing the Panthers by 13 points for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference - and needing to go 21-6-1 to reach the 90-point mark, roughly to be in the playoff mix - the Bolts aren't quite ready to concede they're just playing out the string just yet.

Ryan Malone told the St. Petersburg Times they're still trying to get in the postseason.

"But if you're down, you have to look at it as a challenge. And if we do come back and make the playoffs, people will be, like, 'Wow, those guys really came together.' It's something we want to do in this room."

Despite Malone's optimism, things are squarely against the Lightning, who came into the season with high hopes thanks to the free-agent signings of Malone from the Penguins, longtime Capital Olaf Kolzig as well as the addition of No. 1 overall selection Steve Stamkos.

Of course, it didn't work out that way, getting Barry Melrose fired after a 5-7-5 start, and Rick Tocchet hasn't fared much better, going 13-18-6 since taking over heading into tonight's game against Toronto, and are just 1-4-1 in their last six games.

Malone has just 28 points in 45 games, good for just fifth on the Tampa roster, Kolzig is out for the year with an injury after dressing in just eight games and Stamkos has struggled with just 21 points so far in his rookie season. Not surprisingly, the Lighting are 18-25-11 and in fourth place in the Southeast, just above Atlanta - who downed Tampa on Tuesday.

The real intrigue for the Lightning right now is if the team will deal away one of their two All-Stars, with the rumor du jour being that Martin St. Louis may end up in Pittsburgh to try and save the sliding Penguins, while Vincent Lecavalier's rumored to end up with Montreal.

But these are the games Washington has had trouble getting up for, and with a bevvy of ex-Caps (even without the injured Kolzig) in Jeff Halpern, Steve Eminger and Jamie Heward, there will be a couple of guys in black looking for a bit of payback after two pretty lopsided losses in Washington earlier this year.

The Capitals certainly should take two points in the first of a busy back-to-back visit to Florida, with the 'Cats waiting for a late afternoon start on Sunday, so it's critical they don't overlook the fading 'Ning.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Caps Survive Bad Penalties, Not Bad Bounce

The one Achilles' heel of the Caps this season been playing down to struggling clubs, and Wednesday at Madison Square Garden was really no different. New York came into the games in a tailspin, and desperately looking to end a five-game skid overall and break the Capitals' string of success against them this year.

Mike Green provided the highlight of the night for Washington in the second period, scoring a pair of goals to tie an NHL record set in the 1983-84 season by former Bruins defenseman Mike O'Connell with goals in seven straight games by a defenseman. With the two goals tonight, Green notches his first career 20-goal season, and now has recorded nine goals in Washington's last seven games.

But a string of penalties - some questionable but very avoidable - in the third period almost undid Green's splendid effort, as the Caps were whistled with three straight minor penalties and then a double-minor to Shaone Morrisonn, forcing them to play shorthanded for nearly half the period, including a short 5-on-3 for the Rangers.

Fortunately, Washington - and Jose Theodore, who had 28 saves on the night - held during the onslaught, but it really was unable to get its momentum late after having their penalty killers out so much of the period. The Caps weren't able to cash in during overtime either, which played into the Rangers' hands. New York came into the game going 8-3 in shootouts, and although Alexander Ovechkin equalled Nigel Dawes' tally in the shootout when facing elimination, the next shooter, Ryan Callahan, shot rung off the crossbar, but rolled in off Jose Theodore's skate for the deciding goal.

Unfortunately, Theodore wasn't aware that a shot off the crossbar is still live and counts if it's knocked in by the netminder, as he didn't make much of an attempt to get out of the way, telling reporters afterwards he thought the play was dead.

"To be honest, I thought when it hits the crossbar and comes back out it's no play," a disappointed Theodore said. "I didn't really try to get out of the way because for me it was no goal.

"Obviously, I was wrong, so it's a lesson that I learned, I guess."

The Rangers came out fighting - literally - as Colton Orr tangled with Donald Brashear just 2:43 into the game, then Matt Bradley danced with Aaron Voros on the ensuing faceoff to really get the crowd into the game.

New York then fed off the crowd, takign the early lead when Ryan Callahan deposited a pass past Theodore 7:33 into the game, but Tomas Fleischmann evened the game a little over three minutes later. Eric Fehr then put the Caps up with 1:24 left in the first for a 2-1 Caps lead at the first intermission.

Lauri Korpikoski evened the game for the Rangers, but then Green struck with his history making tally at the 10:32 mark of the second, blasting an Alex Ovechkin pass past Henrik Lundqvist to restore the Caps lead.

Markus Naslund then evened the score again 1:07 later on a play where he drove into Theodore, but was judged to have redirected the puck in the net before crashing into the goaltender, and it was allowed to stand. Paul Mara then gave the Rangers their first lead of the night with four minutes left in the second.

But Green once again struck for his 21st of the year, taking a Michael Nylander feed and blasting another shot past Lundqvist with :57.6 left in the second period.

The third period was a procession of penalties, with Tom Poti getting whistled for diving 2:46 into the stanza, then Ovechkin for cross-checking Mara (after getting harassed down the ice by the agitator), Green was called for a delay of game, and finally during the Green minor, Morrisonn struck Naslund with a stick, drawing a double-minor and giving the Rangers a 5-on-3 for :36 and followed with another 3:24 with the extra man.

Although the Rangers turned up the heat, Theodore didn't budge, and the Caps can likely be lucky for the point after playing short for such a long stretch of the third. Theodore turned away all nine shots he faced in the third, and the three in the extra session, but when the Caps couldn't put the Rangers away in the 4-on-4 session, it really played into the Rangers' hands with their prowess in the shootout.

While the Caps failed to sweep the Rangers for the first time in a season series, they still earn seven of eight points against the Blueshirts, including a dramatic overtime win here in December where they rallied from a 4-0 deficit. The Caps do extend their Southeast Division lead to 13 points with the shootout setback, and now head down to the Sunshine State for a pair of games, with Green shooting to set a new NHL record against the Bolts Saturday.

NCAA Worried About Ice

After Tom Poti's firestorm earlier this week, the NCAA is now looking into the quality of Verizon Center's ice with the Frozen Four slated to hit town in April.

Fortunately for the frozen surface, there aren't any scheduled events following the Caps' regular-season home finale on Sunday, April 5th, meaning the building will have a chance to get a makeover (since the markings on the ice are changed and all advertising and other banners taken down) for the semifinals on the 9th and the national championship on the 11th without any covering of the ice with a floor.

And, in completely unrelated news, the Nats have apparently traded the racing Presidents to the Islanders.

Leonsis' Generosity

There's no doubt that Ted Leonsis is one of the more accessible owners in sports, and Tarik has a nice tale of his actions this morning en route to New York.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Next Up: Avoiding a Pothole on Broadway

After a weekend spent on bad ice, the Caps take the Acela to Manhattan to play on New York's version of slush against a Rangers team that's pretty much playing like they're skating on it.

New York enters Wednesday's game on a five-game losing streak, one in which they've been outscored by (drum roll please) a grand total 5-21, and rumors run rampant over Tom Renney's future behind the bench. After all, this was a team that used their games in the Czech Republic to the early lead in the Eastern Conference, but now have slipped back into sixth place, just five points out of being out of the picture.

And, when Sean Avery is seen as a possible savior of the Rangers' Stanley Cup hopes, you pretty much get the idea things aren't well at Madison Square Garden.

Of course, the last two games have been a real display of lethargy, getting blasted by Dallas on Saturday 10-2, then following up with a shutout by the Devils Monday night. Lackluster effort has marked this latest slide, and the team is looking to find its stride - fast.

For the Capitals, this is a team to be wary of, since they will be looking to end their frustrations at the Caps' expense, and Washington handed the Blueshirts one of their toughest losses of the season, erasing a 4-0 deficit to take a 5-4 overtime win just before Christmas.

While it's possible the Rangers will stay in their funk, it's key for Washington to get up early quickly and dent their confidence, turning a crowd losing its patience with the club against the home team.

There's a chance for some history as well, as the Caps, who opened their existence with a game at MSG in 1974, get a chance to earn their first season sweep of the Original 6 club. Mike Green also can make some history as well, gunning for a goal in his seventh straight game, which would tie an NHL record set in 1984 by Mike O'Connell.

But the Caps need to focus, and avoid letting the Rangers off the mat at home.

Leonsis Says He's 'Very Concerned'

IceGate continues at Verizon Center, with Ted Leonsis, who has been strong in the defense of conditions in the building, changed his tone a bit after Tom Poti's scathing assessment on Saturday.

We are on it as is the building. We are looking at issues such as the building scheduling basketball games on our afternoons too although Georgetown has a schedule and is a tenant in the building and pays rent. And while the building tries to schedule their games before Wizards games, coordinating NHL, NBA and NCAA is an art not a science.

We are doing our best. We are making progress but we want to have great ice NOT acceptable ice and I hear Tom Poti loud and clear.

When Tarik El-Bashir, who was on the story Saturday, asked several Capitals today about the conditions, they said they were asked by the team not to comment on the situation.

The Caps don't return home until the 18th against Montreal, but the real test may come in the nationally televised home game against Pittsburgh that Sunday. While the building is dark between the Habs game and the Avalanche game on the 20th, there is both a Georgetown and Wizards game on the 21st to make the turnaround for the 12:30PM start going to test the ice - particularly if the temperature is warm as it is this week.

Boston University on Top Again

The Terriers are unreal in Boston's annual Beanpot tournament, defeating Northeastern 5-2 for their 29th title in 57 years. Read the recap here.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Green Honored Again

In what's becoming a regular release from the Caps' PR staff, Mike Green was named as the NHL's third star of the week, for his seven-point effort with four goals and three assists in the week.

Green, who was third star last week in the front part of his six-game goal-scoring streak - the longest in Caps history and the best in the NHL since some fellow named Ray Bourque did it in March, 1984.

He's one of five Caps to be honored by the NHL as player of the week or month, joining Nicklas Backstrom, Brent Johnson, Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin.

All this led to this entertaining quote from Bruce Boudreau, courtesy of the Post

"There's a difference between driving a Volkswagen and a Lamborghini," Boudreau said. "The Lamborghini can go up there, guys that are in the trucks and that they stay back. Everybody knows Milan Jurcina isn't going to be going up the ice all night long but if he thinks he can go and do it, go ahead and do it, but he knows he can't so he's not gonna."

Sunday, February 8, 2009

T-Minus Nine Weeks

With the regular season ending nine weeks from today, it's time to take a look at how the Eastern playoff chase breaks down, and how the teams stack up - and take a shot at how the teams will finish up.

1) Boston (39-8-7, 85 points, 28 games remaining): With a 13-point lead over Washington and just one head-to-head game with the Caps (on the last day of February), it would take a major collapse for the B's not to grab the first seed in the Eastern Conference. The only other team with a shot at Boston is New Jersey, having a game in hand and two head-to-head meetings with the B's, but they still have a 16-point gap. Prediction: First

2) Washington: (34-16-4, 72 points, 28 games remaining): While Washington has played well against their fellow playoff contenders, their games against the also-rans likely will cost them a chance at the top spot. With 13 points to make up with just one four-point game against the Bruins, it's probably too much ground to make up barring a Boston disaster. However, with their win Saturday, the Caps should grab one of the top three seeds without a problem. Prediction: Third

3) New Jersey (33-17-3, 69 points, 29 games remaining): The biggest mystery of the Eastern race is how the Devils will react when Martin Brodeur finally returns, rumored to be the end of the month. Scott Clemmensen has played very well to put the Devils ahead in the Atlantic, and with the Rangers, Flyers and Penguins floundering to put any consistency together, they're a solid bet to take the division and probably pass the Caps for second seed. Prediction: Third

4) Montreal (29-18-6, 64 points, 29 games remaining): Trailing Boston by 21 points, all the Habs have to play for is home-ice in the first round, but Montreal's recent skid is even putting the team's playoff hopes in question. Despite sitting in fourth place, the Canadiens only lead the ninth-place Panthers by six points. Without Robert Lang in the lineup, it'll be tough for the Habs to get fourth. Prediction: Sixth

5) Philadelphia (27-15-9, 63 points, 31 games remaining): Despite the team's goaltending question and Martin Biron's days in Philly numbered, the Flyers now have the inside track on the fourth seed with a couple of games in hand and only one point out of fourth place. This probably isn't terrible news for the Caps if they end up with a fourth seed, since they'd avoid a team that could give them a lot of trouble for at least one round. Prediction: Fourth

6) Rangers (29-19-5, 63 points, 29 games remaining): Despite their hot start to the year, New York is just a mess right now, with rumors that Tom Renney might not be behind the bench when the Caps pay them a visit on Wednesday night. If not for their shootout wins, this team might not even be in the playoffs, but with the talent they have and Henrik Lundqvist's talent they likely will hang onto one of the final playoff spots. Prediction: Eighth

7) Buffalo (28-20-6, 62 points, 28 games remaining): If the Sabres could get some consistency, they'd be in better shape than they are, but Buffalo has crawled to within a two points of Montreal for fourth. If Ryan Miller can play well down the stretch, the Sabres have an outside shot at landing home-ice in the first round. Prediction: Fifth

8) Carolina (27-22-5, 59 points, 28 games remaining): The 'Canes played well on their recent road trip, earning a comeback win in San Jose and then beating the Coyotes to move into the last playoff spot Saturday night. It'll be up to Cam Ward to give the 'Canes a chance to play their first postseason game since beating Edmonton in the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals, but it'll be tough for Carolina. Prediction: Ninth

9) Florida (25-19-8, 58 points, 30 games remaining): The Panthers blew a golden chance to grab at least a point in Washington by failing to score on the five-minute major to Shaone Morrisonn and a pair of two-man advantages, and fell into ninth spot to end the week. Florida has managed to remain on the outskirts of the playoff race for a few years, but unfortunately it looks like another early chance to golf. Prediction: Tenth

10) Pittsburgh (26-23-5, 57 points, 28 games remaining): The Pens have frustrated their fans all year long with their hot-and-cold talent, but this team likely has just enough horses to outlast Florida and Carolina to stake out one of the last spots. They're going to need better play from Marc-Andre Fleury and not give away points as they have been, but the Eastern champs should be able to grab a spot. Prediction: Seventh

Green Day

Get more on Green's night and sweet wheels over at FanHouse.


The ongoing saga of the condition of Verizon Center's ice continues, as after we took the sheet for a test drive last week, one member of the Caps wasn't too kind after another busy weekend and a pair of hoops games played in the building 24 hours before face off - including a Georgetown game that went into overtime.

Poti told the Post:
"The ice was disgusting," Tom Poti said. "It's an embarrassment. it's why so many guys are hurt with groins....The puck is like a bouncy ball out there jumping around, banging around and it's tough to handle the puck when it's like that. I can't even imagine a guy like Alex Ovechkin on a decent sheet of ice how many goals he'd get and a guy like Mike Green as well. You look at the puck and it's just bouncing and rolling and flipping all over the place. The good thing that we have is it's the same for both teams."

Adding to the conditions was a warm day outside, but it's clear the players are thinking about it after Chris Clark called it the "worst in the league" last month. While the good news for the ice itself is the Hoyas only have another month's worth of games and the Wizards' last home game is the Monday before the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Penalty Killing Finally Shines

After 13 straight games of allowing a power-play goal, it appeared that the Caps' luck was going to run out with 5:01 left in the third period against Florida, when Shaone Morrisonn earned himself a checking from behind penalty against Cory Stillman to put the Caps down two men for 1:05 with Sergei Fedorov already in the box.

It was also the second time in a week the Capitals invited trouble late in a home game, as they also allowed an extended 5-on-3 against the Red Wings last Saturday in their win, but this was a bit different.

First of all, the penalty wouldn't expire until one second remained in regulation, meaning Washington would have four skaters for the remainder no matter how many goals Florida got since it was a major. And unlike the Wings game, the Caps only held a one-goal lead against a division rival that was looking to cut into Washington's sizable lead in the Southeast.

But, with the game on the line, the Caps' penalty killing held, killing off the first two-man disadvantage without allowing a shot, and surviving into the game's final two minutes despite a group that was running on fumes. But after a whistle, the Panthers pulled Vokoun with just under two minutes to play, and after a close chance for the Panthers, Mike Green whirled and fired down the ice for his 19th goal of the year and the insurance in a 3-1 win.

The win's big for the Capitals, as they knew that with five games left against the Panthers, a poor performance against the 'Cats could eat into their lead quickly with the head-to-head meetings looming (including a rematch next weekend in Sunrise). With a script that was similar to Thursday's loss to the Kings, with the Caps scoring in the game's first minute, yet not capitalizing on the good fortune, the Panthers hung around and Vokoun frustrated the Caps with some good saves early on - including a point-blank save on Alex Ovechkin early on.

Now, the Caps will have a couple of days off before heading to New York to meet the Rangers, a team that is rumored to be getting a new coach tomorrow, as local media is saying the Blueshirts' embarrassing loss to Dallas Friday night will be the last straw for Tom Renney.

Pressure's Going to Be on Theo

When free agency opened last summer, Caps fans saw a rumored agreement with last season's hero Cristobal Huet vanish, leaving the team having to go back to Plan B, which was signing the wildly inconsistent Jose Theodore to a two-year deal.

At the beginning of the season, it appeared to have been a mistake, as Theodore let in a couple of soft goals early, and posted just a 3.20 GAA with an .866 save percentage as Brent Johnson worked himself into a platoon with Theodore.

But now, with Johnson to undergo surgery that could possibly keep him out until the end of the regular season, Theodore will get a chance to build on his recent solid play as the Caps say they're just going to use Hershey's two young netminders, Simeon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, as insurance.

Varlamov was certainly impressive in his first two NHL starts earlier this year, but playing in a playoff run is a bit different than games in December. Neuvirth, who could get his first NHL start next weekend in Florida or Tampa, doesn't have the best stats in Hershey in eight games, going 4-2-0 with a 3.03 GAA and .890 save percentage in the AHL.

So, with George McPhee telling the Post that the team isn't going to look for another backup at the trade deadline - although take that with a grain of salt - the Caps hope Theodore can play like he has down the stretch to provide what the team needs to go deep in the postseason.

Theodore's career has been marked by his erratic play, as he rarely is just adequate, being either stellar (as marked by his 2002 Hart Trophy and recent play), or simply suspect (such as his first month in Washington and his last months in Montreal). Critics scoffed at Theodore's decent season with the Avalanche this year, saying the Avalanche played a strong defensive system to create a shell. But Theodore is facing an average of just one shot more per game in Washington - and several of the high-percentage variety, as evidenced in Thursday's game against Los Angeles where he was left out to dry on several occasions.

So, although Theodore has been playing the better of the starting tandem lately - also part of Johnson's nagging injury that has already caused him to miss time in back-to-back games - the pressure now is on for him to live up to his billing and prove himself still to be one of the NHL's elite netminders.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Caps Third in Power Rankings

Latest rankings up over at FanHouse. Enjoy!

Moves on the Blue Line

After allowing 35 shots against the Kings - not to mention a lot of prime scoring chances - the Caps did some alterations to their blueline on Friday, bringing up Karl Alzner back from the Bears and also acquiring Staffas Kornwall from the Maple Leafs via waivers.

Caps' GM George McPhee told the Post that the team would take a look at Kornwall, although he apparently won't be available for the Florida game due to immigration issues, but that indicates he should get a chance to wear No. 44 (do we really need to saddle someone with Eminger's number so soon?) against the Rangers Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.

As for Alzner, with Chris Clark and Brent Johnson out for an extended period of time, it frees the cap room back up to bring back the first-round pick who has performed well in his time so far with the Caps this season. While Alzner looked more shaky than normal in his last few outings before being sent to Hershey, a sense that he wants to remain in the bigs and get more experience before the playoffs begin in two months' time might give him a boost.