Monday, March 30, 2009

Two Weeks to Go

Two weeks from today, the Capitals will finally know their first-round playoff opponent, and get set to try to win the team's first postseason series since the Stanley Cup run of 1998.

With Boston beating Philadelphia Sunday, the Caps now are seven points behind the Bruins with six games left to play, meaning the only things to wrap up is the Southeast Division title with five points down the stretch, and also trying to hold off New Jersey for the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

While Washington has been secure in its playoff future for a while, landing the second seed could do a lot to help generate a long playoff run due to the teams that likely will finish in the lower seeds in the conference.

A third seed likely means a date with the Flyers, Hurricanes and Penguins, a trio of teams that have given the Capitals trouble in recent years.

Philadelphia, currently in the fourth seed but only two points ahead of sixth-place Pittsburgh, knocked the Caps out in last year's playoffs, and tends to draw the Capitals into a more physical game and crashes the net to try and take advantage of Washington's less-than-physical blueline.

Carolina hasn't been in the playoffs since winning the Cup in 2006, but they do have Cam Ward playing well, which was enough to get the 'Canes a run to the title that spring. The 'Canes have also given the Caps fits at times this season, going 3-2-1 against Washington, including a 2-1-0 mark in Raleigh. No team has been hotter than the 'Canes lately, and while they likely won't be able to catch Washington for the Southeast crown, they certainly will be looking to exact some revenge from last year's Capitals rally.

Although Washington went 3-1-0 against the Pens this year, Pittsburgh has been much better since their trade deadline deals that brought Bill Guerin to the Steel City.

If the Capitals finish second, they likely will draw the Rangers or the Canadiens, two teams that aren't quite as formidable matchups for Washington, and two teams the Caps have had some success against.

So, as the Capitals have a couple of days off before returning to action Wednesday against the Islanders, they will look to finish strong and earn a favorable first-round matchup and how the Devils fare tonight against the Rangers.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Beavers Complete Cinderella Run to Washington

When organizers were imagining the teams that might head to Washington for the Frozen Four, I don't think they had some of the teams that will be skating at Verizon Center in two weeks in mind.

With one four seed in Miami having advanced Saturday, Bemidji State - out of the four-team CHA - routed Cornell 4-1 to win just their second NCAA tournament game - one that sends them to their first-ever Frozen Four. The Beavers become the lowest ranked team ever to advance, being the 16th ranked-team - out of 16 - heading into the tournament.

With all the upsets and the Beavers shocking the Midwest's top seed Notre Dame out of the tournament Saturday with a convincing win, still, most expected ECAC power Cornell to move on to Washington out of the Midwest region against the Cinderella squad. But instead the end result was like eight of the other 11 games this weekend with the lower seed grabbing a victory.

Now, it's Bemidji State heading to Washington for what is the 5PM game on Thursday, April 9 against the other four seed alive in the tournament, Miami of Ohio for the right to play in the title game.

The only team to avoid the upset bug this weekend was the East's top seed of Boston University, but New Hampshire gave them all they could handle in their backyard of Manchester. The Wildcats dominated play at times against the Terriers, but could not get the go-ahead goal despite dominating play for most of the second and third periods, and the Terriers came up with a clutch goal late to seal their trip to D.C.

A late penalty on UNH to negate a late BU scoring chance turned into the Terriers' ticket to Washington, as they scored with just :14.4 left in regulation to move on to a semifinal date with Hockey East rival Vermont in the late game on April 9.

Boston University, the top seeded team overall in the tournament, now will be surrounded by a three seed in Vermont (and a team that needed overtime to dispatch four seed Air Force Saturday), and Miami and Bemidji State, the lowest seeds out of the West and Midwest, respectively. Hockey East slots two teams in the Frozen Four, the CCHA one in the RedHawks, and the Beavers are out of the tiny CHA that has just four clubs.

So, now, fans know the four teams that will be heading to Washington for the Frozen Four, and it could be interesting display to see which Cinderella club will face a Hockey East club for the championship on April 11. And three of four teams that no one expected to still be skating in April.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Vermont, Miami Heading to D.C.

Two schools who aren't exactly regulars in the Frozen Four punched their tickets to Washington on Saturday night, while another top seed was bounced out of the tournament without even managing to record a victory.

In one of the stranger regional finals in recent memory, Vermont reached their first Frozen Four since 1996 with a pair of replay calls determining the outcome of the East regional final.

The Catamounts appeared to knock the puck in for the game-winner at the end of the first overtime against Air Force, but a sensational stop by a Falcons defenseman kept the game going at 2-2 and the teams headed into the dressing room for a second extra session. In that stanza, Vermont scored a goal halfway through the second overtime to notch the game-winner... except that no one realized it was a goal for almost six minutes of play, until a replay confirmed a puck actually went through the net for the game-winner to sent the Catamounts into a celebration in Bridgeport.

Out in the Western regional final in Minneapolis, Miami of Ohio became just the second fourth seeded squad ever to reach the Frozen Four, beating Minnesota-Duluth in a 2-1 decision to give the school its first-ever trip to the event. The RedHawks, who stunned top-ranked Denver on Friday, frustrated the Bulldogs and made up for a tough overtime loss to Boston College in last year's regional final with the biggest victory in school history and sending a partisan crowd in Minnesota home unhappy.

However, the most shocking result of the day had to come in the opening day of the Midwest regional in Grand Rapids, as the third top seed to lose to a four seed occured when Bemidji State just crushed Notre Dame 5-1. Bemidji State, who plays in the tiny CHA conference with just three other teams, ran the CCHA team out of the tournament, handing the Irish a shocking defeat just as Notre Dame had pulled out in the 2008 West region in Colorado Springs in becoming the first four seed to reach the Frozen Four.

The Beavers advanced to play Cornell Sunday for a ticket to Washington, as the Big Red scored with :18 left in regulation to stun Northeastern right out of the tournament. The Huskies, who were vying for the top ranking in the nation as late as early February, stumbled after falling to Boston University in the Beanpot final and never recovered their early form and put a damper of a storybook season on Huntington Avenue.

Speaking of those Terriers, the nation's top-ranked team was the only top seed to manage to advance to the regional final, rolling to a 6-0 second-period lead over Ohio State before the Buckeyes clawed back to cut the deficit in half. However, any thoughts of a comeback were undone by an unusual strategy to pull the goalie with seven minutes left, which led to a pair of empty netters for BU in a 8-3 final in Manchester.

Boston University will face the host New Hampshire in the Northeast Final Sunday, as the Wildcats rallied to hand North Dakota a crushing loss. The Sioux were in control and leading UNH 5-3 in the third period before the hosts rallied, scoring late and then notching the equalizer with just one second left in regulation. The Wildcats then put UND out of its misery quickly in the extra session, setting up an all-Hockey East final.

The Boston University-New Hampshire winner will move on to play Vermont on Thursday, April 9th in one of the national semifinals at Verizon Center - and that will guarantee one Hockey East team reaches the title game - while Miami will battle either Cornell or Bemidji State in the other.

Upsetting Day in the NCAAs

Boston University and Notre Dame, be warned.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown, as three of the top four favorites playing in the opening day of the NCAA tournament found out.

The biggest shocker came in the opener at Bridgeport, Conn., as fourth-seeded Air Force blanked the East's top seed Michigan, as Andrew Volkening stopped all 43 Wolverine shots. The Falcons put just 13 shots on goal, but got two that counted. After killing a 5-on-3, Air Force got on the board with 4:42 left in the first with a nicely placed shot by Derrick Burnett to earn all they would need in a 2-0 win.

Not to be outdone, Miami (Ohio) had little trouble with the West's top seed Denver in Minneapolis, limiting the Pioneers to just 18 shots on goal and putting on 29 of their own in a 4-1 win. The RedHawks built a 3-0 lead by the middle of the second period, and controlled the play against the heavily favored Denver club.

In the nightcap in Connecticut, third-seeded Vermont took out the hosts of Yale University with relative ease in a 4-1 victory. The Hockey East club advances to a date with the Falcons, and giving the Catamounts a chance for their second-ever Frozen Four berth, with the last coming in 1996 - back when Vermont had a junior named Martin St. Louis on its squad.

The best game of the night was the only one that a higher seed won, as Minnesota-Duluth avoided a fourth straight upset in the tournament with an improbable 5-4 overtime victory. The Bulldogs were trailing by a pair of goals to Princeton into the final minute of regulation, but popped in a pair of goals in the final :39 seconds to force overtime. Once in the extra session, Mike Connolly completed the comeback to stun the Tigers, and send the Bulldogs to a meeting with the RedHawks for the West region title tomorrow.

Tomorrow in Manchester, New Hampshire will look to keep the upsets going when they effectively host the North Dakota Fighting Sioux at 2PM ET, while the Northeast's No. 1 seed and top seed overall Boston University will face Ohio State following that.

In Grand Rapids, the Midwest's top seed Notre Dame will try to hold off Bemidji State, which will follow the 4PM ET matchup of Northeastern and Cornell.

Air Force shoots for its first Frozen Four berth in the East final at 6:30PM ET, while Miami does the same out west against UMD at 9PM ET.

If it's anything like the first day, Saturday could be crazy as the favorites are getting derailed on the road to Washington.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Pothier's Blast Buries Bolts

While all the pregame talk over the Caps' last meeting with Tampa Bay over Alex Ovechkin's "hot stick" celebration - one that got Bruce Boudreau's ire up - there wasn't much of a reaction from the Lightning on the ice towards the Capitals' superstar despite the tough talk.

However, much like the last get-together between the two teams down at the St. Pete Times Forum, the Lightning's star forwards kept the game close and gave Washington quite a battle as the Caps look to fine-tune their game towards the playoffs. Tampa Bay erased a two-goal Washington lead to pull even early in the third, but like the game eight days ago down in Florida, the Capitals used another third-period strike from one of their blueliners to bury Tampa Bay's spoiler hopes.

Nicklas Backstrom scored a pair of goals for the Caps, reaching the 20-goal milestone for the first time in his career, but but it was Brian Pothier's third-period goal that was the difference in the game. It was Pothier's first goal in 15 months, and gave the Capitals a 5-3 win as the team closes on its second straight Southeast Division title.

The Caps moved to 5-0-0 against the Lightning on the season, and also see their magic number to clinch the Southeast Division to just three points. The two teams will meet for the final time on April 9 down in Tampa, where Washington will look to sweep the season series from the Bolts for the first time since taking all five games in the 1999-2000 season. It also was the Caps' 10th straight win over Tampa Bay, the most in club history since taking 11 straight from the Islanders between 1998 and 2000.

The Capitals got an early chance to take advantage of a full two-minute 5-on-3, when both Matt Smaby and Josef Melichar got whistled on the same play. While the Caps looked like they might not take advantage of the early chance, Alex Ovechkin - minus the "hot stick" celebration he used in Tampa - blasted in his 52nd of the season with 6:49 gone in the game.

The Caps took a 2-0 lead with 8:43 left in the frame when Backstrom and Tomas Fleischmann redirected an Ovechkin feed into the net with his skate. While the tally went under review, it determined that while the puck was kicked in past Lightning keeper Mike McKenna, it was not distinctly a kicking motion and was allowed to stand. While the goal was originally credited to Fleischmann, it was later given to Backstrom during the second intermission for what was retroactively his 20th goal of the season.

Michael Nylander then hit the crossbar with less than five minutes to play, and Tampa took advantage with a fluky tally. Martin St. Louis put Tampa Bay on the board with 4:12 to play in the frame with a turnaround shot from the point that was deflected by Tom Poti past Jose Theodore to cut the deficit to 2-1.

However, before the period ended, the Caps restored their two-goal advantage as they took advantage of a late Tampa Bay penalty. As the advantage wound down, Backstrom knocked down a rebound of a Mike Green shot, corralled the puck and tapped it in with :21.9 left in the frame for a 3-1 edge and what turned out to be his second goal of the night.

The Lightning had a couple of good chances to cut the deficit to one during the second period, when Theodore misplayed the puck behind the net, but also made a nice stop on St. Louis on a breakaway to keep the two-goal lead during the middle part of the frame.

That wouldn't last til the intermission, as last summer's top pick Steve Stamkos made a nice move in front to collect a loose puck and beat Theodore with a backhand with :54 left in the second to cut the lead to 3-2.

Former Capitals captain Jeff Halpern appeared to score the equalizer with 2:30 gone in the third period, but Evgeny Arutkhin gave his team a costly penalty when he got tangled up with John Erskine in front, leading to a washing out of an apparent Tampa power play goal. However, just :29 later, the Lightning scored a goal that stuck when Vaclav Prospal beat Theodore with a floating shot from the top of the circle that eluded the netminder.

However, the deadlock didn't last long, as Pothier scored his first goal since December of 2007 with a shot that put the Caps back in front just 1:31 after the Prospal goal. It was a nice moment for Pothier to score in just his fourth game back after being out since last January with post-concussion symptoms.

The Capitals appeared to get an insurance goal when Brooks Laich beat McKenna on a rebound with 4:22 to play in the dying seconds of a power play, but the goal was washed out as referee Kelly Sutherland ruled that Nylander had incidental contact with the netminder and the score stayed at 4-3.

Washington kept Tampa at bay even with the extra man late, and held on for the victory as Ovechkin earned his 53rd goal of the year with just :06.5 left by depositing the puck into the gaping cage to also hit the 100-point mark on the season. The defending MVP now leads New Jersey's Zach Parise by 11 goals in the race for the Richard Trophy, while he also moves just six back of Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin to hold onto the Ross Trophy.

The Capitals now have a couple of days off before they continue their four-game homestand when the Islanders visit Verizon Center Wednesday. Washington might get a chance to clinch the division title against the Islanders should the Hurricanes lose in regulation or overtime to the Devils Saturday night, which would trim the magic number to two or one, depending on the result.

If the 'Canes do beat New Jersey tomorrow, the celebration will have to wait until at least Thursday, when Carolina hosts the Rangers. Should Carolina post its 10th straight home win against New York then, then the Caps could get a chance to clinch Friday night when Buffalo visits Verizon - provided they can get at least a point against the Isles.

Regardless of the 'Canes result, Washington will get a chance to pass the century mark in points Wednesday for the first time since the 1999-2000 season. Washington is also just eight points shy of the team's all-time points mark of 107 set back in 1985-86 with six games still to play.

The Capitals also close to just three points of idle Boston for top seed in the East (although with Boston holding three games in hand), while New Jersey drops a point behind Washington in the race for second seed after falling in a 3-2 overtime loss to Chicago. The Devils still holds the potential wins tiebreaker, and also has pair of games in hand, with one coming tomorrow against Carolina.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Boudreau Goes Off on the Media

With the Lightning in town for their first meeting since Ovechkin's controversial goal celebration, an bigger-than-usual media crowd was at Kettler to find out about how the players feel on the rematch with Tampa.

But, it's safe to say Bruce Boudreau is a bit tired of answering questions on the subject, as he went off on a TSN crew who brought up the subject.

So with that percolating in the background, the Capitals are set to play their only game in seven days when the Bolts kick off Washington's last homestand of the regular season, a four-game set in which the Caps hope to finally clinch the Southeast Division title and perhaps make a charge at the Bruins and Devils for a better seed.

The Capitals have been perfect against Tampa so far in four meetings this year, but now with the added motivation of trying to play spoiler and the Caps' penchant for playing down for their opponent, this is no gimme.

All four teams that will pay a visit to Chinatown over the next nine days are currently out of the playoff picture, and only the Sabres have any shot at the postseason, so it's a prime chance to pick up some points - if they can take advantage. Following that, it's a three game road trip as the Frozen Four is at Verizon, and then the puck drops on the second season on likely the 15th or 16th of April.

Just don't ask the coach about Ovechkin's celebration.

Premature Jockularity?

Oh boy.

Last year, when the Caps beat Florida in the last game of the regular season to win the team's first Southeast Division title since 2000-01, the team put commemorative t-shirts on sale right after the final horn, leading to a long line at the Verizon Center's large retail store.

This year, one local retailer is giving you a chance to beat the rush, selling the "Official Locker Room" shirt several days before the team can even get a chance to clinch the division.

While the Caps indeed clinched a playoff spot with Florida's implosion in Buffalo Wednesday night, they still have five points to win (or Carolina to lose) before they can safely claim the title.

However, this didn't stop Dick's in Sterling from jumping the gun and stocking these on the rack this morning:

So, before either they get pulled or end up as part of a large charitable donation to go with those New England Patriots 19-0 shirts, you can head down to Dulles Town Center to get a preview - or alternate view - of history.

One question though, are they selling these in Raleigh?

Frozen Four Forecasting

With college hockey's best set to skate at Verizon Center two weeks from now and the 16 tournament teams to be whittled down to the Frozen Four by Sunday night, it's time to take a look at which teams might hit - and miss - on the road to D.C. this weekend.

Unlike its basketball counterpart, two big factors are at play in the NCAA hockey tournament. First off, there's almost always usually one team geting a de facto home game for one of the regionals, and this year is no exception, as New Hampshire will be playing at its-home-away-from-home in Manchester's Verizon Wireless Arena. Two, a goaltender in a single-game elimination format tournament leads to a lot of unpredictable results - and broken brackets.

So with that, we'll take a stab at which teams you'll see in two week's time as college hockey decides its champion. We'll wait to decide the champion, since unlike the hardwood, there will be two weeks between the regionals and the awarding of the trophy on April 11th.

Northeast Regional (Manchester, N.H.):
Boston University vs. Ohio State
North Dakota vs. New Hampshire

While Boston University is the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, they may have the toughest road to get to Washington. The Terriers haven't been blowing away teams in games, but they have gotten better as games have progressed, erasing leads late and even winning Hockey East's regular-season crown on the final day of the regular season. They rallied to beat rival Boston College in the Hockey East semis and then outlasted Lowell to win both Hockey East titles, and now face a tough test against the Buckeyes in their first NCAA trip in three years and with the Sioux or Wildcats on deck if they dispatch Ohio State.

If any lower seed is going to reach D.C., it's going to be Dick Umile's Wildcats. UNH has made a habit in recent years of pulling off upsets in the regionals to reach the Final Four. Playing in front of what figures to be a rabid home crowd for the weekend, the Wildcats were tied for Hockey East's third-best club and certainly no pushover for a three seed. BU and UNH figure to advance to Sunday's final, and while it might be the Terriers' first NCAA title since 1995 if they can break through this very tough region, the money's got to be on the home squad.

The Pick: New Hampshire

East Regional (Bridgeport, Conn.):
Michigan vs. Air Force
Vermont vs. Yale

Unlike some previous tournaments where the Wolverines got some regionals at Ann Arbor or Grand Rapids, Michigan heads east to battle a trio of other clubs who aren't big names, but could prove to be very pesky opponents. Blue opens up against the Atlantic Hockey Champs Friday, and while they should be able to beat the Falcons, they certainly can't afford to look past them.

On the other side, Vermont takes on the host Yale Bulldogs, who won the ECAC. The Catamounts have shown flashes of good play this year, and after making some noise in last year's Hockey East tournament, they will see if they can make a jump into the Frozen Four in the school's first tournament berth since 1997. Figure on Michigan and Vermont to advance to the regional final Saturday, and the Wolverines to be Washington-bound.

The Pick: Michigan

Midwest Regional (Grand Rapids, Mich.):
Notre Dame vs. Bemidji State
Cornell vs. Northeastern

Grand Rapids features an interesting foursome of clubs, of which any of the top three seeds can be seen heading on to Washington. Notre Dame claims the No. 1 seed by virtue of their CCHA title, and the Irish have been one of the best in the land this year with a 31-5-3 overall record. Cornell is back in the tournament for the first time in three years, finishing second to Yale in the ECAC and posting a 21-9-2 overall mark. And while Northeastern was one of the best teams in the nation for the first four months of the season, a late swoon dropped the Huskies down to a three seed, but still a dangerous one.

Notre Dame, which surprised everyone on its run to the title game in Denver last April, won't take anyone by surprise this year, but should manage to knock out Bemidji State and then likely will face Northeastern for the right to head to D.C. The Huskies could give the Irish all they can handle in what could be an exciting regional final, but odds are that Notre Dame will be on hand for its second straight Frozen Four appearance.

The Pick: Notre Dame

West Regional (Minneapolis, Minn.):
Denver vs. Miami (Ohio)
Princeton vs. Minnesota-Duluth

The unusual absence of the Gophers from the NCAA tournament leaves this bracket more wide-open than it might have been had the hosts qualified, but the favorite has to be the WCHA champion Pioneers, who were 23-11-5. The closest this bracket has to a home team is UMD, but even that is a long ride from the Iron Range to Mariucci Arena.

Take Denver to oust Miami, while UMD should bounce out lower-ranked - but higher-seeded - Princeton. Then look for the Pioneers, who won two titles back-to-back in 2004 and 2005, to look and add another title in Washington in two weeks.

The Pick: Denver

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Capitals Clinch Playoff Berth

Thanks to a rather unreal collapse by the Florida Panthers in Buffalo, the Capitals guarantee their second straight trip to the postseason.

Holding a 3-1 lead entering the third period against the Sabres, the Panthers came unglued and perhaps saw an end to their playoff hopes, as they allowed three Buffalo goals in just 2:07 to drop a 5-3 decision. It's just the fifth time in 28 tries that Buffalo rallied from a third-period deficit, and costs Florida a chance to move into an eighth-place tie with Montreal.

The loss means while the Panthers could tie the Capitals' current mark of 97 points if they run the table down the stretch, they have 10 fewer wins with only eight to play, meaning the Capitals would win the potential tiebreaker.

The team still is five points away from clinching the Southeast, as Carolina tied a franchise record with a 2-1 win over Ottawa, meaning the Hurricanes move eight back of Washington in the standings.

Still, with seven games to play for Washington, they now can focus on clinching the Southeast and perhaps passing the Devils for second seed in the East. The Caps will get a chance to cut the number to three points Friday against Tampa Bay, as the 'Canes are idle until Saturday night.

The Caps will be in the playoffs in back-to-back years since 1999-2000 and 2000-01, and now can look to see who their first-round opponent could be.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cujo's Late Heroics Stops Caps

In a game that featured a lot of pregame buzz over Alex Ovechkin's recent on-ice celebration and facing an hot opponent desperate to earn another win to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive, it certainly was anything but business usual at the Air Canada Centre.

Twice the Toronto Maple Leafs took the lead, but twice the Capitals answered in the final minute of a period - including one that got Martin Gerber ejected in the final minute of regulation. But Gerber's replacement, Leafs icon Curtis Joseph, was stellar in relief, keeping the Caps off the board to earn Toronto a 3-2 shootout win.

Ovechkin, who in pregame wore a "Coach's Corner" t-shirt with "RESPECT" written on the back as a needle for Don Cherry's recent comments concerning his 50th goal celebration, scored his 51st goal of the year with a nifty move, but was unable to extend the shootout to end the night.

After the two teams played a scoreless first period, Phil Oreskovic earned his first NHL goal on a shot that John Erskine inadvertently redirected past Jose Theodore. Gerber, who shut down the Caps in his first appearance with the Leafs after getting claimed off waivers, made some nice saves to keep Washington off the board.

However, when Jamal Mayers gave the Caps their first power play of the game with one minute left in the second period, Ovechkin took advantage. He took a feed from Nicklas Backstrom and moved in past the defense, and beat Gerber with a nifty backhand with :20.3 left in the frame to even the score at one. And, after a lot of controversy over his "hot stick" celebration in Tampa, he didn't do anything special after scoring his 51st goal of the year.

The Caps nearly scored a big goal with three minutes left in the third, but a heads-up play by Matt Stajan to corral Alexander Semin's stick and kick a puck sitting in the goal crease out of danger. As play continued, Erskine got whistled for a hooking call, and the Maple Leafs made the Caps pay.

Pavel Kubina blasted a puck through with 2:03 left in regulation, leaving the Caps staring a tough loss in the face. However, with the goalie pulled, the Caps drew even on a strange goal, and one that got Gerber ejected.

With just under a minute to play, Backstrom moved behind the net and pushed the puck up front. Gerber had the puck between his legs, when Brooks Laich pushed the puck - and Gerber - in the net for the equalizer with :56.1 to play. Protesting the call, Gerber pushed the referee and linesman, and earned himself a misconduct as review upheld the score.

The Leafs were forced to bring in Curtis Joseph cold, but he made a nice stop on Ovechkin in the dying seconds of regulation and Mike Green the opening minute of overtime. He continued to be solid as Ovechkin drew a penalty in overtime, stopping nine shots in the last six minutes of the contest after coming off the bench to force the shootout.

Jeff Hamilton opened the shootout with a goal, and Joseph easily stopped Backstrom on Washington's first shot. Jason Blake and Semin were unsuccessful, and then after Theodore made one more save, it was up to Ovechkin to extend it. However, he couldn't beat Joseph, and Toronto earned the extra point.

Still, thanks to Laich's late tally, the Caps drew even with the Devils for second spot in the East, and also moved to within five points of clinching the Southeast crown - and two to earning a playoff spot by eliminating the Panthers from division title contention.

After a stretch where they played seven of eight away from Verizon Center, the Caps now play their last four home regular-season games starting Friday night when the Lightning visit Chinatown, when they get a chance to clinch their second consecutive spot with a win over Tampa.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Caps Head North After Southeast Swing

After a busy swing through the Southeast for the Caps (and yours truly), Washington heads north for a game against Toronto Tuesday after going 2-2-0 on the road against its Southeast foes. While not a resounding trip, it also was good enough for the Caps to close in on their second straight Southeast title by getting enough points to keep Carolina and Florida out at arm's reach.

While the Hurricanes cut the Capitals' lead in the Southeast to nine points with their 3-2 win in Sunrise Monday night, the Capitals now only need six points in their final eight games to clinch the division title, since the 'Canes only have seven games left to play and can only reach 101 points - just five more than Washington currently holds.

The other element is the Capitals will get a chance to retake second in the East with a win over the Maple Leafs, as the Devils lost to Boston Sunday that leaves New Jersey just a point better than Washington, while the Bruins could just be four points better with a win tomorrow in Toronto.

So while the Caps jockey for a better seeding, they also will look ahead to locking up a playoff spot sometime this week, and then eventually close in on the division title. With the Eastern playoff chase down to pretty much just nine teams, three more points will guarantee their postseason berth.

After their long stretch away from home comes to an end tomorrow, the Caps also get four of their last seven at Verizon Center, meaning by the time they leave town for the Frozen Four, they could be secure in their spot in the playoffs.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Green Strikes Twice to Sink Lightning

Alex Ovechkin got his 50th goal of the season and Mike Green scored a pair of goals as the Caps completed a two-game sweep in Florida with a 5-2 win over the Lightning at the St. Pete Times Forum.

With the win, the Caps surpassed last season's point total, and now need just seven points in their last nine games to clinch their second straight Southeast title. Washington also passes New Jersey for second spot in the Eastern Conference playoff chase, and pull just four points behind Boston for the top spot.

After an early flurry by the Capitals, Ovechkin opened the scoring 7:43 into the game, firing a shot past Mike McKenna for his 50th strike in a 4-on-4 situation, becoming the first three-time 50-goal scorer in Washington history. He capped it off with one of a unique celebration, putting his stick on the ice and pretending it was on fire.

Young Steve Stamkos brought Tampa Bay even with 2:41 to play, beating Sergei Varlamov while Alex Semin was sitting in the box for his second hooking penalty of the first period.

But Mike Green put the Caps ahead before the period ended, beating McKenna with a high shot with 9.1 seconds left in the first for a 2-1 lead heading into the dressing room.

Despite being in the Southeast basement, Tampa Bay didn't go away, and Martin St. Louis evened the game on a scramble in front of Varlamov with 4:04 to play in the frame to send the game to the second intermission deadlocked at 2-2.

The Caps took the game over in the third period, as Green scored his second of the night 1:48 into the third in a goal similar to his marker in the first period for his 27th of the year. Michael Nylander then chipped in a power play goal just under six minutes later, and the Caps were in control. Matt Bradley added an insurance marker with 7:34 to play, and Washington had their seventh road win in its last eight tries.

The Caps now head to Raleigh to complete their four-game portion of the road trip against their divisional opponents, going 2-1-0 so far.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Theodore Bounces Back to Blank 'Cats

One night after getting pulled in a lackluster 5-1 loss to Atlanta, Jose Theodore bounced back to turn in a solid two periods to keep the Panthers off the board and got some time off thanks to his defense. Theodore ended up turning away 19 shots in his second shutout of the season, although he didn't face a single shot in the last 20 minutes of the game.

The Caps beat the Panthers 3-0, as Brooks Laich's second period short-handed goal proved to be the game winner as Washington completely shut down Florida in the third period.

With the victory, the Capitals take a big step towards winning their second consecutive Southeast Division title. They now just need 10 points in their last 10 games to assure themselves of at least the third seed in the playoffs. The Caps also matched last season's point total of 94 with the victory, and they still have those 10 games left to play.

The first period featured a couple of good chances for both teams, as the Caps hit the post in the first minute, while the Panthers also had some good chances to get on the board, but Theodore snuffed out their chances. The period went without a goal or a penalty, but it was the first penalty of the game in the second period that turned the contest Washington's way.

Shaone Morrisonn was whistled for holding 4:26 into the second period, but a strong opening penalty kill was capped when Laich picked up the puck at the Panther blueline, fumbled it and came it on a sharp angle, but beat Tomas Vokoun for a 1-0 lead 5:46 into the period. It was a nicely placed shot from a bad angle, and gave a Caps team playing on back-to-back nights a nice lift.

Aided by three total power plays in the second period, the Panthers outshot Washington 11-8, but Laich's goal was the only goal of the stanza and proved to be a deflating result for Florida.

The Capitals finally went on the power play for the only time of the evening just :22 into the period, and while they didn't convert, the momentum built off the advantage helped create Viktor Kozlov's goal just :14 after Keith Ballard came out of the box.

After that, it was all Washington, as Florida failed to get a shot on goal despite one more power play and pulling Vokoun with over two minutes to play, and Mike Green deposited his 25th of the year on an empty netter to seal the win.

Washington now has won four of its last five, and hands the Panthers their fourth straight loss. Florida also remains in ninth place in the East, while the Caps are assured of a division title with even a .500 finish to the season.

The Caps head up to Tampa for Thursday's game against the Lightning, as the team now really can begin to tune up for the playoffs with a spot virtually in hand.

Monday, March 16, 2009

T-Minus Four Weeks

With the regular season ending four weeks from yesterday, 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 (45-17-9, 99 points, 11 games remaining): Despite cooling off considerably in March, the Bruins still enjoy a six-point edge over second-place New Jersey as time is running short for anyone to take home ice in the East away from Boston. Prediction: First

2) New Jersey (45-20-3, 93 points, 14 games remaining): Martin Brodeur ties Patrick Roy's mark in Montreal, and now gets a chance to pass him on home ice Tuesday against Chicago. The Devils have also put a bit of pressure on Boston, but they're going to need to win those games in hand to make a serious challenge. Prediction: Second

3) Washington: (43-22-6, 92 points, 11 games remaining): Washington will be spending a lot of time away from home, as only four of those last 11 are at Verizon. Dropping games to the Thrashers won't help them take second place back from New Jersey, but they're safely in as at least the third with the Southeast lead. Prediction: Third

4) Philadelphia (37-21-10, 84 points, 14 games remaining): Don't look now, Philly, but their seemingly comfortable edge in the battle for home ice has shriveled to just two points over the surging Penguins. The Flyers' 5-4-1 stretch could drop them into a lower seed if they're not careful. Prediction: Fifth

5) Pittsburgh (37-26-8, 82 points, 11 games remaining): Pittsburgh keeps rolling, now without a regulation loss in 10 games and now pushing for not only a playoff spot, but home ice in the first round as well. Prediction: Fourth

6) Montreal (36-25-8, 80 points, 12 games remaining): The Habs cool off from their hot streak, losing two in a row and still aren't quite assured of making the postseason in the very tight Eastern Conference race. Prediction: Sixth

7) Rangers (36-26-8, 80 points, 12 games remaining): Despite their changes at the deadline, the Rangers still have just a two-point cushion on being out of the playoffs completely. It's a hard fall after the team led the East early on to be fighting for a playoff spot now. Prediction: Seventh

8) Carolina (36-28-7, 79 points, 11 games remaining): The Canes rally to grab a point in Washington, and they will need Cam Ward to play well down the stretch to take the final playoff berth. Prediction: Ninth

9) Florida (34-25-10, 78 points, 13 games remaining): The Panthers pick a bad time to go into a slump, and they will need better than playing .500 hockey to end their playoff drought. Prediction: Eighth

10) Buffalo (34-27-8, 76 points, 13 games remaining): Buffalo still is hanging in there, but they will need to make one big push to catch up to the rest of the pack. Prediction: Tenth

Caps Get Burned in Atlanta

Despite the great storyline of Brian Pothier returning to the lineup for the first time in 14 months, the rest of his teammates pretty much went missing as the Caps' five-game road winning streak ended with a thud in Atlanta with a 5-1 loss to the Thrashers.

Starting off a six-game road trip with a flat effort, as while the team peppered Kari Lethonen with 50 shots, only Eric Fehr's goal with 1:15 left in regulation broke his shutout bid. At the other end, Jose Theodore was pulled after allowing four goals in 40 minutes on just 21 shots, and certainly had a night to forget.

Colby Armstrong put the Thrashers on top 10:13 into the contest, and then Pothier sitting out for a hooking call, Vyacheslav Kozlov then made it 2-0 with a goal just 5:30 later.

Despite being outshot 16-9 in the second, it was the Thrashers who made the Capitals pay for some bad penalties with a pair of power-play goals to put the game out of reach. Anssi Salmela scored his first NHL goal with John Erskine in the box, then Tobias Enstrom scored while Alexander Semin in the box.

A pair of Erics got their names on the scoresheet late in the third, as Atlanta's Perrin made it 5-0 with 4:22 left, while Fehr got the Caps' only goal with 75 ticks left in the game.

There won't be much time to dwell on the defeat, as the Capitals head down to Sunrise tomorrow to face the Panthers at BankAtlantic Center, with Florida having slipped into ninth in the Eastern Conference. The last time the Caps were in south Florida, Alex Ovechkin scored a hat trick, and now he will be looking for his 50th goal of the season.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Capitals Finally Solve Home Woes

The last time the Caps skated off their home ice Sunday, the team finished off a disappointing four-game homestand where they gained just one point. But after a 2-for-2 road trip, the Capitals came home and moved a big step towards sealing their second consecutive Southeast Division title with a 5-4 shootout victory over the Carolina Hurricanes.

Although Washington nearly let the win get away after blowing a two-goal lead and getting outshot badly in overtime, Alexander Semin and Alexander Ovechkin came through to deliver the 92nd point of the season.

Just 11 days after allowing Carolina to run away in a blowout on their home ice, there were some concerns when Erik Cole put the 'Canes on the board first 9:53 into the game, but Mike Green had a quick response, evening the game at 1-1 just 1:06 later with a nifty goal past Cam Ward.

Ovechkin got on the board for his 49th goal of the year with 1:59 left in the frame, using his quick release to score a power-play goal in tight to give the Capitals a 2-1 lead after 20 minutes.

Semin got on the board early in the second with a power-play goal of his own, beating Ward 1:30 into the frame, and making it look like the Caps might run away with the contest. However, Carolina took advantage of a bit of loose play by the Caps, as with four skaters pressing for a goal on a rush, the 'Canes counterattacked and cut the lead to 3-2 as Eric Staal converted on a 2-on-1 past Jose Theodore.

Nicklas Backstrom restored the two-goal lead with another extra-man goal with 7:33 left in the frame, but the 'Canes took advantage of a tired Caps defense and a broken stick in the final seconds of the period. With Shaone Morrisonn playing without a stick and Semin coming out of the box, Ray Whitney breathed new life into Carolina's game with a goal with just seven ticks left in the period.

The 'Canes then drew even with 9:13 left in regulation as Niclas Wallin scored on a drive from the point, giving both teams a point.

It seemed like Carolina would hand the Caps their fifth straight home loss in overtime, as a penalty on Tom Poti just 1:17 led to some golden scoring chances, but Theodore was up to the task in the extra session in which the Caps were outshot 6-2.

In the shootout, after Viktor Kozlov couldn't convert, Semin beat Ward for a 1-0 edge after two shooters, allowing Ovechkin to go for the win on the Caps' final shot, which he buried for the extra point.

It is a big one, as the two teams behind Washington in the Southeast Division race both got just a single point, meaning the Caps lead Carolina by 13 points with a 11 games to play for the 'Canes, and the Panthers by 14 with 13 games left for Florida. The Caps now need just 13 points in their final dozen games to seal the Southeast title, and are just two points shy of last year's point total.

It's a big win too, because Washington goes on a tough five-game swing through the Southeast, starting Monday in Atlanta. While the Caps can really salt the division away with a good trip, their lead is still big enough to survive a sub-par one, which is good for Washington. The Caps play all four division foes on the road in their next four games, then visit Toronto before finally returning to home ice again on March 27th,

Friday, March 13, 2009

Washington's Strange Paradox

Right now, the Capitals are a markedly different squad depending on which color they're wearing, as they're red-hot in the road whites (still sounds bizarre to say that), but ice-cold in the home reds.

Washington's 2-1 win Thursday at Wachovia marks the team's fifth straight win on the road, and the Caps haven't come away from a road game empty-handed since falling to the Senators on Inauguration day 50 days ago.

But the Caps return home tomorrow night, which hasn't been the best of places for Washington, as the team is just 2-5-1 in their last nine games at Verizon Center, including a four-game losing skid that left the fans booing during the last homestand.

Of course, this is a 180 degree turn from the Capitals' first half of the season, where the team was nearly unbeatable at home, yet sub-par away from home. But over the past month, the Capitals more than doubled their home loss total, while pushing their away record over .500 for the first time all season.

So what's the cause of the turnaround?

On the surface, the Capitals have played tighter hockey on the road, as the team tends to make an extra pass to try and get on SportsCenter's Top 10 highlights while on home ice, but on the road they usually simplify their game. However, in this road trip, the Caps allowed 64 shots in two games, so the defense didn't exactly clamp down on the Predators and Flyers in the win.

It also perhaps is the fact that the hostile crowds fire up Alex Ovechkin, since of the sniper's 48 goals, only 19 have come outside of the District - although five of those are game-winning goals, the same as he has scored at Verizon. In the current five-game streak, three of the game winners were off Ovechkin's stick, including Thursday's deciding goal against Philadelphia.

Perhaps part of the reason is the heightened expectations for this club from a year ago, as with sellouts nearly every night and increased attention, the team knows a repeat of last year's first-round exit will be a big disappointment for this team. And, after pressing and looking disorganized during their four-game homestand, they found their stride away from home, scoring when they needed it to grab two wins against a pair of quality opponents.

Of course, as worrisome as the recent home woes are, the sign the team is much better away from home also is equally encouraging. The Caps are currently fighting to move up from their current spot of third in the East, and if they cannot catch the Bruins or Devils, they could only hold home-ice advantage for the first round if those two teams advance as well, so a one-sided home-road mark wouldn't bode well for an extended playoff run. And, in the last seven road games, the Caps have won in Boston, Florida, New Jersey and Philadelphia, all potential playoff opponents.

Whatever the reason, the two-game road sweep is a big boost for the club, who appeared they might let the Southeast title become a dogfight after the ugly homestand. However, Washington now stands a dozen points ahead of Carolina and 13 ahead of Florida - meaning the Capitals only need to collect 16 points over their last 13 games to secure the division.

A win Saturday over Carolina also would go a long way to knocking the 'Canes out of the race, since it would put Washington 14 points ahead with Carolina having just 11 to play, a very tough hill for any team to climb. And, with a tough five-game road swing through Atlanta, Florida, Tampa, Raleigh and Toronto following Saturday's game, the four points this week give the Caps insurance in case it doesn't go well - as well as a chance to put away both the teams chasing them in the division before the team returns back to home ice on March 27th.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Capitals Get Small Measure of Revenge

Last time the Caps met the Flyers, Washington held a 2-1 lead after 40 minutes, but couldn't hold off Philadelphia's attack and ended up dropping two points in the process.

This time around up I-95 at the Wachovia Center, the Capitals made that slim one-goal lead hold up in the last 20 mintues, evening the season series with the Flyers at 2-2-0 and giving the team a fifth straight road win for its longest streak since late in the 2000-01 season.

Alex Ovechkin also moved just two goals shy of his third career 50-goal season with the eventual game-winner with 2:41 left in the second period, and after each team had an apparent goal washed out by the officials in the third, the Capitals managed to kill a very late Philadelphia power play to seal the victory and earn their 90th point of the season - something they didn't do until their 80th game last season.

After a tentative start to the game, Washington opened up the scoring late in the first period. With Aaron Asham in the box for hooking, Brooks Laich fired one past Marty Biron with 4:03 left in the frame on the Capitals' first power-play chance of the game for a 1-0 lead.

Philadelphia evened the score just over halfway through the second on a nifty play, as Mike Knuble converted a Mike Richards pass past Jose Theodore for the equalizer with 8:28 left in the period. However, it didn't take long for the Caps to reclaim the lead, as Ovechkin fired a shot past Biron less than six minutes later to give Washington a 2-1 lead heading into the second intermission with his 48th of the season.

In a strange third period, the Capitals had an apparent goal washed out halfway through the stanza when it was ruled Michael Nylander landed on top of Biron before Tomas Fleischmann beat the Flyers' goalie to quash a potential insurance goal. However, just couple of minutes later, the Flyers returned the favor of having an apparent goal of their own washed out on a Knuble interference call with 7:32 to play, keeping the score at 2-1.

The Caps couldn't build on the lead despite some good chances - but also giving up a prime scoring chance with the extra man and Knuble in the box. The Flyers got a chance of their own to net the equalizer when Nicklas Backstrom got whistled for interference with 4:02 to play. But Theodore, who recorded 35 saves, was strong and the Capitals held off the pressure, and Washington got some good scoring chances after the successful kill and limited Philadelphia's shots once they could get Biron out of the goal for the extra attacker.

The victory is the Capitals' fifth away from home, and the Caps will head home to face the Carolina Hurricanes Saturday night at home looking to break a four-game skid at Verizon Center.

With the win, the Capitals also move to 12 points ahead of the Hurricanes and 13 points ahead of the Panthers after those teams both lost Thursday night, meaning if the team gets 16 points in their last 13 games, they clinch their second straight Southeast Division title regardless of how Carolina and Florida fare down the strech.

Caps Wrap Up Season Series With Philly

Last season, the Flyers ended Washington's memorable campaign in heartbreaking fashion, and after being handed two bitter losses in three games, the Caps will try to square their season series with Philadelphia tonight.

The last time these teams met was earlier this month, when the Flyers rallied from a 2-1 deficit after 40 minutes to stun the Caps in their own building. The last time the Caps were in Philly, they were blitzed in a 7-1 loss where they couldn't capitalize on a strong start and turned in a poor final two periods. So it's safe to say the Flyers are one of the teams that's inside the Capitals' heads - as Alex Semin admitted earlier this season.

So, it's important for Washington to put on a good show against the Flyers for their own confidence, as although the two teams don't appear headed for a first-round rematch, teams will be sure to copy Philadelphia's aggressive style. Philly's forwards have done wonders against the Caps in the last two seasons crashing the crease, and Washington's defensemen have to do more to keep them from getting comfortable in the attacking zone.

The Caps also will likely have to play without Donald Brashear, who was injured during a fight in the 2-1 victory at Nashville Tuesday, meaning Michael Nylander may get a sweater - although he's not quite the forward the Caps need against Philly's squad. Philadelphia likes to rile up Washington with its physical play, and the Caps need to have some sort of response to the tactic - or the Caps will be seeing a lot of it in the next few months.

With less than a month left before the regular season draws to a close, Washington is in good shape for its second consecutive Southeast Division title, so it will be important for the Caps to shake their recent funk and put together a good effort against a club that has given them fits over the past 12 months. It'll be a good test to see how they can handle the Flyers for (perhaps) the last time this season, unless they end up meeting again in the playoffs.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Fedorov Ends Caps' Losing Streak in OT

Playing against a desperate Nashville team using backup goaltender Dan Ellis, the Predators gave all the Caps they could handle in Nashville, but Sergei Fedorov was able to end the team's losing skid 2:40 into overtime with a 2-1 overtime win.

With the win, the Capitals stay one point behind the Devils in the race for the second seed, and trim their deficit over first-place Boston to just seven, as the Bruins lost to Columbus 2-0 to keep them struggling.

It also proved to be an important confidence boost for a team that had been outplayed for the bulk of their previous four games to beat Ellis, who likely deserved a better fate with his 41-save effort. Nashville only managed a goal in the first minute and were blanked for the next 62 minutes by Jose Theodore.

The Predators opened the game with a flurry, and Ryan Suter beat Theodore just :50 in for a 1-0 lead to put Nashville up early. They were content to try and frustrate the Caps early on and rely on Ellis to make save after save to keep the Preds on the top.

Despite being a non-conference game, the game then took a fairly nasty turn with a pair of fights just one second apart, with Donald Brashear getting taken down by Wade Belak at then Matt Bradley and Jordin Tootoo getting in a scrap right off the ensuing face-off that required a scrape of the ice to clear up the blood.

After nearly 39 minutes of frustration in trying to get one past Ellis, Washington finally got on the board with 1:21 left in the second period, as Nick Backstrom took an Alex Ovechkin feed and beat Dan Ellis with a nifty move to bring the game even.

The Caps nearly took the lead twice on a power play early in the third, as Backstrom's bid for his second game was foiled by defenseman Greg Zanon, who slid through the crease to knock aside his shot. Washington then appeared to go ahead 4:50 into the third when Tomas Fleischmann knocked in a rebound with his leg, and after a video review, the replay officials decided it was a distinct kicking motion and washed out the tally.

However, Ellis held through the end of regulation, and once both teams earned the point, the game opened up more in overtime, with the teams trading chances. However, Viktor Kozlov made a nifty move on the side of the Nashville goal, and fed Fedorov who scored his eighth goal of the year for the win, and his 15th goal against the Pres in his career.

Despite the team's struggle at home lately, the Caps have been much more effective away from home with its fourth straight road win, and the Caps also have points in eight straight away games (5-0-3), with their last loss away from Verizon coming on Inauguration Day against Ottawa.

That streak will get a tough test Thursday night when Washington closes out its regular-season series with the Flyers, who are 2-1 against the Caps this season, including a 7-1 pasting back in December the last time the teams met at Wachovia.

But most importantly, the Caps came in and won a game to avoid what could have become an ugly skid and gets a bit of momentum with some more tough teams ahead on the shedule.

Caps Try to Stop Skid in the Music City

After an unusual stretch where the Capitals played nine of 10 at home, Washington now heads on the road to play seven of its next away from Verizon Center, starting with Tuesday night's tilt in Nashville.

Unfortunately for the Caps, the Predators are the type of team that has been giving them fits the last few weeks, a team trailing them in the standings and fighting for their playoff lives. Now, trying to stop a four-game slide - the longest under Bruce Boudreau - they will have to answer the bell against a team that has won six of its last seven games and is currently in a three-way tie for one of the last playoff spots in the Western Conference.

The game is Washington's first outside the Eastern time zone since three days before Thanksgiving, and also the final one against a Western Conference opponent. The Caps played the Preds yet this season and got a 4-3 shootout win, but are just 7-10-0 against Western foes, and just 2-6-0 on the road.

Washington's lead in the Southeast also shrank to nine points when Carolina leapfrogged Florida into second place with a 3-0 win over the Rangers, but the Hurricanes have played two more than the 'Cats. However, with the 'Canes coming to Verizon this weekend, they're riding a four-game win streak and also thumped the Caps last week in their last trip to D.C.

Washington really needs to get a win out of Nashville to stem the tide, as after the Preds game, a tough road game in Philly and a game against a Carolina team playing well are on deck before a six-game swing through the Southeast begins six days from now.

Monday, March 9, 2009

T-Minus Five Weeks

With the regular season ending five 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 (43-15-9, 95 points, 15 games remaining): The Bruins are in a full-fledged slump, as their lead for the East's top seed has shrunk to a manageable eight points. However, their solid play for the first four months has given them room to breathe in the race, and they still are closing in on the Northeast Division title. Prediction: First

2) New Jersey (42-20-3, 87 points, 17 games remaining): After three wins, Martin Brodeur's comeback hits a big pothole on Long Island. The Devils seem to be the team that will challenge the Bruins for the top spot in the East, but they can't afford to drop games like that to do so with little margin for error. Prediction: Second

3) Washington: (40-21-6, 86 points, 15 games remaining): The Caps' chances for the top spot in the East takes a huge hit with the 0-3-1 homestand, as Washington could have been sitting just two points out had things gone the other way this week. Now, with 10 of 15 on the road to finish the regular season, they'll likely battle the Devils for second. Prediction: Third

4) Philadelphia (35-19-10, 80 points, 18 games remaining): Philadelphia has the inside track on home ice in the first round, but it's going to be tough for them to make up the seven points on Atlantic Division-leading New Jersey. Prediction: Fourth

5) Montreal (35-24-7, 77 points, 16 games remaining): A sub-par week puts the Habs back squarely in the group of teams fighting for their playoff lives, with the Habs being just two points ahead of ninth-place Carolina. A lack of activity at the deadline won't make the Montreal faithful happy either. Prediction: Sixth

6) Florida (34-24-8, 76 points, 16 games remaining): Jay Bouwmeester's staying in town (for now) and so the Panthers are going to look to qualify for their first playoff spot in seven years. The question is if they can survive. Prediction: Eighth

7) Rangers (34-24-8, 76 points, 16 games remaining): After making some changes at the deadline, New York now has three wins in a row. However, it's still only good enough to put them just one point ahead of Carolina and three points ahead of Buffalo. Prediction: Seventh

8) Pittsburgh (35-26-6, 76 points, 15 games remaining): The Penguins now have won six in a row, and Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz gives Pittsburgh a more viable second line. However, it's telling when the Pens win six straight and they are just one point into a playoff spot. Prediction: Fifth

9) Carolina (35-27-5, 75 points, 15 games remaining): Eric Staal has a six-point night in a thrashing of the Bolts, and the 'Canes have a huge game against the Rangers tonight. With a win, Carolina can move into sixth spot in the East and jump the Panthers, Rangers and Penguins. Prediction: Ninth

10) Buffalo (33-26-7, 73 points, 16 games remaining): Michael Tellqvist isn't quite the goalie the Sabres needed at the deadline, and although Patrick Lalime played a bit better after getting some competition, Buffalo still drops a gamein Ottawa when they needed points badly. Prediction: Tenth

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Caps End Homestand With Shootout Loss

The Capitals wrapped up a disappointing four-game homestand with a 4-3 shootout loss to the Penguins, leaving Washington 0-3-1 over the week, although they were able to salvage a point despite trailing heading into the third period.

Pittsburgh avoids getting swept by Washington as Sidney Crosby was the only player to score in the shootout, allowing the Pens to move into a three-way tie for eighth place in the Eastern Conference with their sixth win in a row.

Still, Washington finishes with seven out of eight points this year against the Penguins, although new acquisition Bill Guerin did his best to help his new team with a goal and two assists against the Caps.

The Pens opened the scoring just 4:29, as on a 2-on-1, Jeff Schultz got caught in the middle of Guerin and Crosby, failing to commit to Guerin the shooter or Crosby, and Guerin fed Crosby for an easy goal and a 1-0 lead.

Washington tied it with 7:14 on good work by Nicklas Backstrom, as he waited out Chris Letang who was camped out behind the net. Letang, after holding the puck for over 10 seconds, finally tried to move the puck through the middle, but Backstrom knocked down the clear and fed Alexander Semin for the equalizer.

But the Pens took control in the second period, scoring on a 4-on-3 as ex-Cap Sergei Gonchar took advantage of a screen by Guerin on Jose Theodore to put Pittsburgh back on top 7:25 into the frame. Just 3:29 later, Guerin boosted the lead to two, catching Shaone Morrisonn going the wrong way and beating Theodore for a 3-1 lead.

The Caps narrowly pulled within one before the end of the period, but Tom Poti's drive hit the corner of the net and just missed.

But Washington tied the game with two quick goals in the third.

Alex Ovechkin scored his 47th goal of the year on a power play past Marc-Andre Fleury just :29 in to give the crowd a boost. Brooks Laich brought the Caps even just :49 later, converting on a breakaway on a long feed from Brooks Laich to electrify Verizon Center.

However, the Caps couldn't get the equalizer, and after having to kill off two penalties late, Washington earned its first point in a week when it headed to overtime.

Still, Washington couldn't complete the sweep, and settled for the point after failing to score in overtime or the shootout, as Crosby was the only player to light the lamp as Semin, Viktor Kozlov and Ovechkin were stopped by Fleury.

Now, the Caps play 10 of their last 15 away from home, starting Tuesday in Nashville for the team's final bout with a Western Conference opponent of the season barring a trip to the finals. Washington has had its trouble with the West this season, going just 7-10-0 against non-conference opponents, and like the Penguins, the Predators are another team looking to grab valuable points to qualify for the playoffs.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Capitals Look to End Skid, Sweep Penguins

Two weeks ago, when the Caps dispatched of the Penguins 5-2 and ignited a whole new spat between Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, things were looking up for Washington and not so bright for Pittsburgh.

Well, just two weeks later, the Penguins arrive for another Sunday matinee game, having won five in a row since the last meeting, while the Capitals has gone just 2-4-0 since the win.

The Capitals also have seen their Southeast Division lead shrink by six points, as with Florida's win, they move nine points behind Washington.

So, while the Capitals have a chance to record their first-ever sweep of the Penguins in a regular-season series, Washington will look to end their three-game losing streak against their old foes.

Perhaps an opponent that isn't off Washington's radar will help, as the Caps were outscored 13-5 by Florida, Carolina and Toronto, and the team wasn't exactly looking focused in those losses. The Capitals seem to save their best efforts for the name opponents, and they figure to be eager to play well against the Pens.

Ovechkin also says he'll return to play after missing Thursday's loss to Toronto, and also hasn't quite softened his stance on Crosby, according to the Post.

"We're emotion[al] guys, and we play hard, and when we have something on our mind and we want to say something, we say it," Ovechkin said today. "I don't want to say he talks too much...but he's talking."

So, should prove to be quite an interesting game Sunday afternoon as the Caps try to take out the brooms tomorrow.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Without Ovechkin, Caps Sputter Again

The Capitals, mired in a two-game slump, didn't get much help when Alex Ovechkin sat out due to injury and the Washington offense sputtered against the Maple Leafs in another ugly loss, this time 2-1 at the hands of Toronto.

The NHL's MVP, who was hit in the right foot by a shot from Capitals assistant coach Dean Evason during Wednesday's practice, missed just his second career game due to injury and the Caps looked very out-out-of-sorts without him in the lineup.

Against a Toronto team that underwent a massive makeover at yesterday's trade deadline, and a goalie playing his first game for Toronto after being claimed on waivers, the Capitals had trouble derailing the Leafs, who now have points in eight straight games (5-0-3) to move to the far exurbs of the Eastern Conference playoff chase, trailing Pittsburgh and the Rangers by seven points for the last spot.

Marty Gerber, in his first start for Toronto after being claimed from the Senators on Wednesday (and freed out of AHL oblivion in Binghamton), stopped the first 36 Capitals shots he faced for his first NHL win since December.

The first period saw Toronto apparently break out with an early goal on a scramble in front of Jose Theodore, who returned after missing Tuesday's loss to Carolina with the flu. However, the apparent tally was washed out when the officials upstairs ruled that Jason Blake interfered with Theodore before the shot was taken and the goal was washed out by video review.

Still, the Caps had trouble breaking through, with their best chance through 40 minutes being when Matt Bradley's stick picked an inopportune time to snap in half with a wide open net.

The second also featured a rather nasty injury to Toronto's Jeff Finger, which left quite an ugly mess in the Maple Leafs' zone, but neither team could dent the twine.

After some sustained pressure in the Caps' end, Lee Stempniak put Toronto on the board with 13:55 left in regulation with a shot that banked off Theodore's for a 1-0 Toronto lead.

Just over three minutes later, the Leafs added to their lead when Pavel Kubina rifled a shot past Theodore for a 2-0 edge with 10:13 to play, and once again, the Caps were having trouble putting away a sub-par opponent.

Alex Semin scored with :38.6 to make things more interesting, but they couldn't get the equalizer and fell.

The Capitals are now 1-2-0 without Alexander Ovechkin this season, having split a pair of games in the first month of the season when he was in Russia visiting his ailing grandfather. Ovechkin's only game missed due to injury came in his rookie season of 2005-06.

The Caps also fall to 4-4-0 in their last eight home games, as they will look to salvage a game in this four-game homestand when Pittsburgh comes to town Sunday afternoon, having been outscored 13-5 in their last three games.

Ovechkin Sits Out vs. Toronto

Remember that post of a few hours ago?

Ignore it.

Ovechkin is scratched for tonight's game, as the team says he is day-to-day with a foot injury. It's the first game he's missed due to injury since his rookie season, although he missed two games this season due to his grandfather's ailment.

Ovechkin to Play, Takes Shot at Cherry

The good news for Caps fans is that despite yesterday's scare, he will suit up against Toronto, along with Jose Theodore and Tom Poti against a Toronto team that has a lot less talent following the trade deadline, and against a team handed two ugly losses, this could be the perfect wake-up for the Caps with another meeting with the Pens looming over the weekend.

But the real interesting news out of Ovechkin is his shot back at Don Cherry, giving Russia's Sport-Express (via Japer's Rink) the following gems.

How did you react to what Don Cherry said?

"Yeah, well, why pay attention to a senile old man? He doesn't like the fact that I celebrate my goals like a soccer player. I'm sure he's just upset that Canada doesn't have a real soccer team. He has to gripe about something, so I guess he found a cause."

He didn't just gripe, but he also threatened you, saying someday somebody is going to "cut you in half".

"Well someday is someday. We'll see it when it happens. Someday something is probably going to happen to him too."

Which should be very interesting should Ovechkin pot one against the Leafs tonight, if he has something up his sleeve for the moment.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Capitals Stay Still at Deadline

George McPhee was content to stand pat at the trade deadline, as the rumors the team would try to acquire a defenseman or backup goaltender via trade turned out to evaporate. Although that doesn't mean there was a shortage of news out of Kettler.

The most intriguing development came with Brian Pothier, who was assigned to Hershey this afternoon, meaning a significant step for the defenseman trying to get back in the NHL. Pothier, who seemed virtually near retirement after suffering from post-concussion symptoms, will get a chance to test his skills at the AHL level and see if he can complete an improbable comeback. The team will be monitoring his progess carefully, because if he has any sort of setback, he's going to call it a career.

McPhee also told the press he tried to see if he could get Chris Pronger out of Anaheim, but the Ducks didn't seem too interested in moving him without a huge price tag. They also inquired about Derek Morris (who headed to the Rangers), but with Alzner and potentially Pothier available for the postseason, he's confident in the current blueline corps.

And, for the second time in two weeks, the team got an injury scare with Alexander Ovechkin. After injuring his left foot in a game against Montreal last month, he took a shot off his right foot, which left him slamming his stick in disgust, although the Caps don't think it's a serious injury.

A lot of depth players were traded before the 3PM deadline, with the biggest name being former Panther Olli Jokinen going to Calgary. Along with Jordan Leopold, the Flames hope to press the Red Wings and Sharks for the Western crown.

Among the Eastern contenders, the Bruins picked up Mark Recchi for some depth, while the Flyers sent Scotty Upshall out to Phoenix for tough guy Daniel Carcillo. The Rangers were the busiest squad in the East, getting Morris from the Coyotes and Nik Antropov from the Maple Leafs. Bill Guerin is headed to the Penguins after a deal apparently fell through with an unnamed squad, while the Sabres added Mikael Tellqvist and Dominic Moore and shipping off Ales Kotalik to Edmonton.

As for the rest of the Southeast, the Panthers added ex-Cap Steve Eminger, while ex-Hurricane Erik Cole is heading back to Raleigh after a complex three-way deal.

Olaf Kolzig was also dealt in a bit of a head-scratcher, with the Lightning getting some salary relief in exchange with Toronto.

Now, with the deadline past, what does it mean for the Caps? Well, they clearly are putting their faith in Jose Theodore to be effective - and healthy - as they don't really seem to have a lot insurance beyond that, electing to go with a rookie as a backup.

The team didn't upgrade their defense at all, although, should Pothier be OK down in Hershey, if he comes up late in the year, his cap hit will be minimal and be able to give them a depth defenseman for the postseason.

The teams above them didn't upgrade much, although the Rangers are certainly more dangerous (and potentially a first-round matchup for Washington).

But, with the same crew that is riding a two-game skid heads into tomorrow's game with a bare-bones Toronto Maple Leafs team in town, with ex-Hurricane Marty Gerber taking over in net from Vesa Toskala, who is out for the year after his impressive performance against New Jersey Tuesday night.

Semin Says Flyers are 'Nasty'

It's been no secret the Flyers have given the Caps fits over the last two seasons, including being the one Eastern team the Caps have a losing record against. If you were concerned they might have gotten inside the players' heads, they've gotten in at least one star's mind.

In an interview with SovSport (and translated on On Frozen Blog) Alexander Semin was asked which team he'd least like to play in the playoffs.

While some would be more diplomatic in their answer, Semin wasn't.

"The Philadelphia Flyers. They are nasty ..."

When asked to elaborate, Semin mentioned how Philadelphia is able to get the Caps off their game - which was evident during last week's 4-2 loss at home.

"They are running, knocking around ... [We don't have] our game with them, but there's some kind of wrestle. Although last season we had a good chance to pass Philadelphia. Remember? We made it to game 7 in the first round. And then let a goal in overtime. A little bit unlucky."

It's probably fortunate that the Flyers are unlikely to face Washington until at least the second round, as barring a collapse by either team, they probably wouldn't face them until the second round at the earliest. But they certainly already have succeeded in getting inside at least one player's head, which isn't a good thing if they do meet up.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Caps Give McPhee Plenty to Ponder

With the hours ticking down to Wednesday's trade deadline, they certainly did their best to show George McPhee what areas they could improve at the deadline.

Following their listless effort against Florida Sunday, Washington didn't exactly improve on Tuesday, allowing their opponent to score four in one period again. Carolina lit the lamp four times in the second period - twice shorthanded - and handed the Capitals a 5-2 loss at home. The Caps lost to a pair of Southeast Division foes by a combined score of 11-4, and instead of getting a chance to cut into Boston's lead in the conference, they instead brought out the boobirds at home.

The Caps played the Hurricanes very evenly early on, but the last minute of the period proved to be the turning point for the game in Carolina's favor. Eric Staal was hauled down on a breakaway with just :35 left in the first, and was awarded a penalty shot. With the free chance, Staal came in on Michal Neuvirth and beat him for a 1-0 Carolina lead after 20 minutes.

With the momentum coming out of the dressing room, the Hurricanes blew the roof off the Capitals. Washington was presented with a power play just 3:37 into the period, but it was Carolina that quickly cashed in 15 ticks into the disadvantage when Matt Cullen broke in down the wing and beat Neuvirth.

Less than four minutes later, the Hurricanes were whistled for another infraction, but once again it wasn't the Caps who lit the lamp on the 5-on-4. Patrick Eaves broke in and shot one under the corner of the net for a 3-0 lead just 7:42 into the period.

Carolina then put the game out of reach late in the frame with a quick pair of goals. Neuvirth got turned around after stopping a Ray Whitney shot, and Chad LaRose broke in towards the net and tapped it in the gaping cage for a 4-0 lead with 3:36 left in the frame. Eaves then got his second of the game just 1:39 later as he scored another one high past Neuvirth for a five-goal lead.

Alexander Semin finally gave the home fans something to cheer for in the dying seconds of the middle period, scoring an impressive goal while on his knees. The Russian winger, celebrating his 25th birthday, ended Cam Ward's shutout bid by stickhandling and shooting it past the netminder with less than three ticks left, the entire time while kneeling on the ice.

At the tail end of a lackluster third period for both times, Sergei Federov made the score cosmetically better in the third, as while playing on the blueline, snuck in and beat Ward for the Caps' second goal of the night with under two minutes left for the fans who remained at Verizon Center.

With the loss, the Caps' lead over the Panthers shrinks to 11 points, as the 'Cats beat the Trashers 4-3 in Atlanta, and also remain in third spot in the East behind the Devils. They remain eight points behind Boston for the top spot in the East, as the Bruins fell to Philadelphia at home, but the two losses at home cost the Caps a chance to really put the pressure on the B's.

For McPhee, who was hunkered down in the team's war room at Kettler during the debacle downtown, there will be some tough choices to make in the next 18 hours, as how much to change on the roster which has played well, although still showing some room for improvement.

While Neuvirth had been good during his first three appearances on the season, he was beat repeatedly by high shots and looked out of synch, certainly boosting the desire to get a veteran backup netminder in case Jose Theodore - who missed Tuesday's scheduled start with an apparent flu bug - performs poorly down the strech. Neuvirth stopped just 15 of 20 shots he faced in the first two periods, and didn't really make the saves he needed to stem the tide.

The Capitals are also reportedly after a defenseman, with rumors linking them to the Coyotes' Derek Morris and possibly Anaheim's Chris Pronger, among others.

But with Washington going just 3-4-0 in their last seven home games - a surface where they only lost four games all year heading into this stretch of playing nine of 10 on games home ice, there could be some moves to spark this club out of a rare funk.

While the Caps certainly figure to make a decent run at the Stanley Cup, Tuesday's game shows that they might want to at least shore up their depth. And while McPhee hasn't indicated the Caps are going to make a major splash, they played coy at last year's deadline in getting Sergei Federov, Cristobal Huet and Matt Cooke, so it'll be interesting to see if they stand pat or make some bold moves again to boost their playoff stock.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

T-Minus Six Weeks

With the regular season ending six 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 (42-12-9, 93 points, 19 games remaining): The Bruins come back home after an ugly trip to Florida, and go 2-0-1 against the Panthers, Ducks and Caps. While the gap is still eight points over the Caps and Devils, Boston should have enough to hang on to the top seed in the East. Prediction: First

2) New Jersey (41-19-3, 85 points, 19 games remaining): Martin Brodeur comes back strong, going 3-0 with a pair of shutouts to help the Devils tie the Capitals for the second seed in the East. With Patrick Roy's record in sight, figure on New Jersey to be a strong team over the next couple of weeks. Prediction: Second

3) Washington: (40-19-5, 85 points, 18 games remaining): While the Caps have proven they can play with the best with a 3-0-1 mark against the Bruins and a 2-1-1 record against the Devils, losses like Sunday's 6-1 thumping by Florida could keep Washington from getting the first or second seed in the playoffs. Prediction: Third

4) Philadelphia (33-18-10, 76 points, 21 games remaining): With games in hand, the Flyers have the inside track on the fourth seed in the East. However, losing to the Devils this afternoon really hurts Philadelphia's chances of catching them for the Atlantic Division crown. Prediction: Fourth

5) Montreal (34-22-7, 75 points, 19 games remaining): Following Alexei Kovalev's forced vacation and the La Presse incident, the Canadiens are 3-0-0 and seemingly one of the few teams in the pack that wants to earn themselves a playoff berth. The Habs also figure to be busy at this week's deadline. Prediction: Fifth

6) Florida (32-23-8, 72 points, 19 games remaining): The Panthers sandwich a pair of impressive wins over the Bruins and Capitals in between two ugly performances in Boston and New Jersey. With Florida making a strong bid to end its playoff drought, the 'Cats might be a buyer than a seller at the deadline. Prediction: Eighth

7) Rangers (32-24-8, 72 points, 18 games remaining): The Rangers continue to struggle, although they finally get John Tortorella his first win with a thumping of Colorado. Now, will New York be tempted to pull a major deal at the deadline to try and earn a playoff spot? Prediction: Seventh

8) Pittsburgh (32-26-6, 70 points, 18 games remaining): Without Sidney Crosby in the lineup, the Penguins have won three games in a row to move into the last playoff spot in the East. Now, with the rumors of some more changes in Pittsburgh before the deadline, it'll be interesting to see what the Pens do this week. Prediction: Sixth

9) Buffalo (31-25-7, 69 points, 19 games remaining): If the Sabres don't acquire another goaltender at the deadline, it looks like they're going to be golfing come mid-April. Patrick Lalime has been sub-par as losses to Anaheim, Carolina and the Islanders has put Buffalo on the outside looking in. Prediction: Tenth

10) Carolina (32-27-5, 69 points, 18 games remaining): Carolina has a night to forget in Atlanta, blowing a 3-1 lead to the Thrashers and blowing a chance to move up in the standings. Now, they get a date with the Capitals Tuesday and figure to be in an ornery mood. Prediction: Ninth

Caps Fall Into Cats' Trap

Less than 24 hours after their overtime win in Boston, the Capitals returned home and despite an Alexander Semin goal just 1:26 into the game, but then gave up six unanswered goals to turn in their worst home performance of the year in a 6-2 loss to Florida.

With Washington coming in off a big win and Florida arriving after a 7-2 loss to New Jersey, the Panthers used some early power plays to erase Semin's early goal and then some. The loss drops the Caps into a second-seed tie with the Devils, who shut out the Flyers at home this afternoon.

Radek Dvorak started off the scoresheet with a tripping call just :28 into the contest, and Washington made Florida pay. Semin rocketed a shot past Craig Anderson for a brief 1-0 lead.

It turned out to be the only one of the afternoon, as Milan Jurcina was whistled for a penalty just :56 after Semin's tally. While Jose Theodore was required to stop a penalty shot during the extra-man advantage for throwing his stick at the puck, the Panthers ended up tying it anyways 3:53 into the game.

Tomas Fleischmann picked up a hooking minor just over two minutes later, and Florida went 2-for-2 with the extra man as Bryan McCabe scored past Theodore 6:59 into the game.

Alex Ovechkin got his best chance of the competitive portion of the afternoon a couple of minutes later when he broke in down the wing and drove at the net, but he was taken down by Jay Bouwmeester without a penalty, and it proved to be one of the Caps' best chances.

Washington's third minor penalty, on Nicklas Backstrom, also resulted in a Florida goal, as Bouwmeester fired one in with 6:41 left in the period. And when Richard Zednik made it 4-1 less than two minutes later, it was pretty clear it wasn't the Caps' afternoon.

Theodore was pulled after allowing four goals on 17 shots (the same amount Florida put on the Devils over 60 minutes Saturday), but the change to Michal Neuvirth did little to spark the Capitals.

Jassen Cullimore increased the lead to 5-1 halfway through the second period, and while the Caps erased a four-goal lead earlier this year in New York, they didn't repeat the feat at home.

Michael Frolik added another Florida goal to make it 6-1 with 12:40 left in regulation, and sent most of the fans to the exits.

Ovechkin gave the fans still in the building in the game's final minute something to cheer about, as his casual shot on Anderson was misplayed and dropped in the net for his 46th goal of the campaign to make the final score a tad closer.

The loss was the first four-goal loss by the Caps at home since Nov. 21, 2008 - which happened to be Glen Hanlon's last game behind the bench for Washington, as Bruce Boudreau was hired the next day as Washington's coach.

With the loss, the Caps' lead over Florida shrinks a bit to 13 points with two meetings left between the two remaining, both coming in Sunrise. The Panthers also become the first team to beat the Caps twice this year at home (2-1-0), and also move into a tie with the Rangers for sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

The Caps will look to bounce back against another Southeastern foe coming off a tough loss, as the Hurricanes blow into town Tuesday night after blowing a late lead against Atlanta to keep from moving into a playoff spot. After their performance Sunday, they certainly will have plenty of time to think about one of their worst efforts under Boudreau Monday and be motivated to play Tuesday.