Sunday, May 31, 2009

Deja Vu for Penguins

Before this year's Stanley Cup Finals began, the Penguins vowed they would avoid the slow start of last year's matchup with the Red Wings in which they dropped the first two games at Joe Louis Arena and were shutout in both games. While Pittsburgh pushed the series to six games, most of the Penguins felt that the series was lost in the first two games in Detroit.

Well, this time around, the Penguins did managed to score a pair of goals, but still will head back to Western Pennsylvania down two games to none in a matchup that could quickly be slipping away from the Pens if things don't change in a hurry.

While the Penguins were trying to evoke the 1984 Edmonton Oilers in their dethroning the defending champion New York Islanders, right now, the Penguins are in more in danger of evoking the 1978 Boston Bruins - the last team to lose back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals.

While Evgeni Malkin was able to put the Penguins on top with 3:10 left in the first period with a goal off a scramble in front of Chris Osgood, the Red Wings roared back to life in the second period, outshooting the Wings 16-9 and grabbing a 2-1 lead.

It was the grinders of the Wings who are getting the job done as well, as Detroit has been successful in rolling four lines against Pittsburgh - while also holding the Pens' two stars mostly in check, as Malkin has just a goal and an assist in two games, and Sidney Crosby has no points in two games.

Jonathan Ericsson tied the score on a long shot through traffic with 4:21 gone in the second, and then Valtteri Filppula was able to put Detroit on top with 9:31 left in the frame.

Justin Abdelkader scored his second goal in two games on a goal that Marc-Andre Fleury should have handled, as while at the top of the circle and facing two Penguins defensemen in Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi, he spun and fired a shot that eluded Fleury and just hit the top corner of the net for a 3-1 lead with 2:47 gone in the period.

While the Penguins turned it on in the third to try to draw closer, the Wings' defense held and allowed the Wings to take command with a 2-0 series lead.

It certainly wasn't the start the Penguins wanted, as there was a lot of confidence by the Pens that things would be different against the Red Wings this time around.

Detroit's depth is being able to put pucks past Fleury, as only one of six Red Wings goals in this series was by a player who finished in the Top 10 of Detroit's goal-scorers (Johan Franzen in Game 1). While Marian Hossa has been held without a goal - and Pavel Datsyuk has missed both games due to injury - players such as Abdelkader are making the difference so far in this series.

The Pens also are seeming to be showing their frustration as well, as after Crosby jabbed Kirk Maltby right after Game 1 ended, Malkin went after Henrik Zetterberg during a scramble in front of the Pittsburgh net in the dying seconds of Game 2. The Wings certainly still appear to be in the Penguins' heads, and they will need to turn the momentum in a hurry or else this, like last year, will slip away.

The Penguins will have just 48 hours to regroup and try to avoid a 3-0 hole when they return home to Mellon Arena Tuesday. They will need a better performance from their goalkeeper and more scoring from their role players in order to finish a rally in this series.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Giroux's Hat Trick Helps Bears Survive

You don't win too many games giving up 10 power-plays - not to mention throwing in a penalty shot - but despite having to spend a ton of time shorthanded against the AHL's best regular-season team, Alexandre Giroux's goal with 13:33 gone in overtime completed his hat trick and helped the Bears steal Game 1 from Manitoba with a 5-4 overtime win in front of a sold-out MTS Centre.

A Hershey parade to the penalty box late in regulation nearly spoiled a nice third-period rally, as the Moose used a late 5-on-3 advantage - their third two-man advantage of the contest - to force overtime.

But in an overtime controlled by the Bears, a high-sticking minor on former Cap Nolan Baumgartner opened the door to the Bears win, as Giroux netted his 12th of the playoffs and third of the night just :49 into the man advantage to allow Hershey to take home ice away from the Moose.

Hershey had fought back from a 3-1 deficit to take a 4-3 lead with just 4:36 left in regulation, but a Tyler Sloan double-minor for high sticking with 3:07 remaining followed by a delay-of-game penalty on Staffan Kronwall with 2:03 left led to a two-man advantage for the Moose, and they cashed in when a Maxime Fortunus goal beat Michal Neuvirth with 76 seconds remaining to force the extra session.

However, the Bears were able to prevail and put a damper on the first Calder Cup game played in Winnipeg, as the city is looking for its first pro hockey title since the Jets claimed the Avco Cup in 1979 - the franchise's last game in the World Hockey Association before joining the National Hockey League.

The Hershey penalties began just :34 into the game when Chris Bourque was whistled for a slash, and then Bourque was called for a trip just 5:10 later. The Moose got a 5-on-3 when Colin Wilson got a slashing penalty, and they converted for the first goal of the game when Mark Cullen potted one with just nine seconds left in Bourque's penalty.

The Bears got the goal back quickly with a short-handed tally as Alexandre Giroux scored his 10th of the playoffs :56 later, but Manitoba retook the lead with 6:42 remaining in the period and then added another tally 6:12 into the second to put the home team in control.

Manitoba even got a chance to take a three-goal lead when Matt Pope was awarded a penalty shot after being hauled down on a breakaway with 5:44 left in the period, but Neuvirth was up to the task and stopped Pope.

But Hershey then took a boarding minor just :40 after the shot, and gave Manitoba their second 5-on-3 of the contest with a too-many-men call with :36 left in the first minor. The Bears were able to kill off this two-man-disadvantage, and Manitoba went into the dressing room after 40 minutes with a 3-1 lead.

However, Hershey came out in the third to score three goals and take the lead.

Oskar Osala scored 2:34 into the frame to draw the Bears within one, and then enjoying just their fourth power-play of the game, Giroux struck again with 8:59 left in regulation and evened the score.

It appeared Hershey might take the opener in regulation despite its penchant for penalties when Osala netted his second of the period with just under five minutes to play in the third, but the six minutes in penalties in the remainder of the period led to the equalizer.

Hershey was able to kill off the remainder of its penalty in overtime, and got some chances with the extra session, outshooting the Moose 7-1 before Giroux's winner.

With his third goal of the night, Giroux ties Houston's Corey Locke for the league lead in goals and points (23).

In all, Hershey was called for 10 minors - and a penalty shot - and the Moose went 2-for-11 with the advantage. But the Bears went 2-for-5 on the night, and added in a shorthanded goal to boot.

The Bears now will look to take a 2-0 lead back home Tuesday night for Game 2 in Winnipeg before the series heads to Giant Center next weekend for three games on Saturday, Sunday and next Tuesday.

Stingrays Can't Clinch Kelly Cup

With a chance to claim the Kelly Cup at the North Charleston Coliseum, the South Carolina Stingrays fell in overtime 3-2 to force the series all the way back to Alaska.

With 7,564 on hand hoping to see the franchise's third Kelly Cup title were disappointed when Colin Hemingway scored with 17:22 gone in the extra session, and forcing Game 6 back in Anchorage at 11:15PM ET. Game 7 would be held the next night.

Spencer Carbery and Maxime Lacroix had goals for the Stingrays, who never led in the game but answered an Aces tally within six minutes both times in the contest.

Red Wings Get Bounces to Take Game 1

After being handed a stinging six-game defeat in last year's Stanley Cup Finals, the Penguins thought they'd have better luck against the Red Wings this time around with another year of experience and an impressive run through the Eastern Conference.

Well, after one game in the this year's Finals, some shaky goaltending by Marc-Andre Fleury and tough Detroit defense limited the Penguins to just one goal and gave the Red Wings Game 1 in a 3-1 decision with Pittsburgh now needing a quick turnaround Sunday to avoid a repeat of the 0-2 hole the Pens fell in last season.

Two Detroit goals came off sloppy play by Fleury misplaying pucks coming from behind the cage, and the third was thanks to a bad rebound and him playing low on a third-period insurance goal. While Pittsburgh played a decent game up front - but met more resistance thanks to Detroit's blueliners - the poor goals were the difference in the game. Penguins superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were held without the time and space they had in the first three rounds of the postseason, and the two leading playoff scorers had just one assist between them on the night.

The Penguins were held to their lowest goal output since getting shut out in Game 5 of the Philadelphia series - a span of 13 games - and also see their five-game win streak come to an end.

Brad Stuart got a gift goal with 6:22 left in the opening frame, as a shot that went off the back boards went off Fleury's leg and behind and into the net for an early Detroit lead. The Red Wings gave a gift goal back a couple of minutes later as a terrible turnover was intercepted by Malkin, who fed Ruslan Fedetenko in front for a goal with 1:23 left in the frame to put the Pens even.

Pittsburgh failed to capitalize on a pair of power-plays early in the second, and despite holding the advantage in play in the early part of the stanza, the Pens couldn't get the go-ahead goal. Detroit did a decent job of penalty-killing and cleaning out the net, and got another break late in the second when a Johan Franzen shot from behind the net went off Fleury's leg and into the net with just under a minute left in the period.

Justin Abdelkader then took advantage of a nice rebound with just 2:46 into the third, scoring his first-ever playoff goal by taking his own rebound that Fleury knocked into the air, then collecting it and putting the puck over his shoulder for a 3-1 Detroit lead.

Now, the Penguins will have less than 24 hours to try and figure out how to get more traffic around Osgood, as the Red Wings did a nice job in limiting the quality chances Pittsburgh enjoyed against the Flyers, Capitals and Hurricanes. While Detroit certainly didn't look their best, they were able to cash in on some breaks and certainly succeeded in slowing down the Penguins' offense and the pair of superstars, limiting Malkin and Crosby to the Russian's lone assist on the night.

While many had thought the Penguins could take advantage of the Wings in a quick turnaround, Pittsburgh certainly wasn't as crisp as they had been in recent weeks, and they certainly will need Fleury to not allow a pair of preventable goals as he did on Saturday.

The Red Wings served notice to those who thought the Penguins were the favorite in this series that they are still the defending Stanley Cup champions, and also to some of the Penguins themselves who carried a ton of confidence into this series.

But Pittsburgh's chance to steal Game 1 was undone with some bad breaks and bad goaltending, and now the team will need to regroup quickly to avoid falling into a 2-0 hole Sunday night before the series shifts to Western Pennsylvania. And with three games in four nights, the Pens have to be careful their chance to dethrone the Wings isn't over before the series starts.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Stanley Cup Preview

After the Red Wings hoisted the Stanley Cup at Mellon Arena last June, the Penguins will get a chance for revenge this spring as for the first time in 24 years, a Stanley Cup rematch is on tap when Detroit and Pittsburgh will play for the title again.

The Penguins come into this year's final after looking like they might miss the playoffs for most of the campaign, but a strong kick to end the season and the Pens winning eight of their last nine playoff games puts them back to where they were before as the Eastern Conference champions.

On the other side, Detroit actually may have done themselves a disservice by finishing off Chicago so quickly, as had it advanced with a win Saturday, the Red Wings would have had six days to recover and start the Finals after getting a chance to get healthier with Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk out for the final two games of the Chicago series with injuries.

Despite all that, the Red Wings will give the Penguins something they haven't seen so far this spring - a solid defensive club that is capable of reducing the ample space that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin enjoyed for the first three rounds of the playoffs.

Detroit is also more potent offensively than any team that the Pens have faced all spring, scoring 23 more goals this season than the Capitals and certainly will put Marc-Andre Fleury and the Pittsburgh blueline to the test. The Pens certainly had problems containing Washington at times, and the Red Wings also have a better backline to reduce the scoring chances they give up.

The two netminders certainly could tilt the series, as both have looked good - and both have looked very poor - this season. Fleury, despite his victories, still has a 2.62 goals-against and a .906 save percentage and has given up some dangerous rebounds during the playoffs. Chris Osgood, who nearly lost his starting role this season, has been good in the playoffs, has been good in the postseason, with a second-best 2.06 goals-against and a .925 save percentage to boot, although part of that is due to the Red Wings limiting good chances against the goaltender.

Besides the revenge angle, there is another juicy subplot this time around, as Marian Hossa, who helped the Penguins reach the Finals last year after being acquired from Atlanta at the trade deadline, but spurned the team to try to win a Cup in Detroit this season, now will have the spotlight on him as he battles his old team for a chance to win a ring.

The series also takes a strange scheduling twist this season, as with the short rest for both teams despite winning their conference finals in rapid fashion, the teams play back-to-back nights over the weekend in Detroit - which could take its toll on the Red Wings who are banged-up at the moment.

Still, the Red Wings will pose a very different challenge for the Penguins, as they have the capability to take away the space that Crosby and Malkin have enjoyed so far this spring, and it will be up to some of the other Pens to pick up the slack if their scoring drops off. It's not unlike two years ago when the Senators reached the Stanley Cup Finals after tremendous first three rounds thanks to stellar outputs by Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, Ottawa had trouble adapting to the Ducks' more defensive style and got bounced out in five games.

The Red Wings faced a good offensive club in Chicago, and despite missing some key players in the series, still only allowed 10 goals in five games against a team that came into the series averaging well over three goals per game in the playoffs. The Penguins certainly have been potent this spring, averaging 3.82 goals per game so far, but now they face a team that has allowed just 2.12 in the playoffs.

The Penguins also will have to be much better defensively, as they have allowed 2.72 goals-per-game in the playoffs, only good enough for eighth among playoff teams, and they will be facing a team nearly as potent as the Penguins have been this postseason and one that is peppering opposing keepers with nearly 40 shots per contest.

Unless the injuries totally derail the Red Wings, as good as the Penguins have been in the last couple of weeks, it's going to be tough to deny Detroit their second straight Stanley Cup title. Pittsburgh will have to prove they can adapt to fewer scoring chances and also capitalize on their opportunities and limit the Red Wings behind a defense that showed some leaks in the Washington series.

After the Red Wings captured last year's title in six games, that's probably an appropriate conclusion to this year's playoffs, with Detroit claiming the Stanley Cup again on Mellon Arena ice.

Prediction: Detroit in six. (11-3 in postseason)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Red Wings Close Out 'Hawks, Finals Set to Start

After a spectacular first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs, a very forgettable third round closed out in overtime as the Red Wings sent ex-Capitals netminder Cristobal Huet and the Blackhawks off to the golf course with a 2-1 overtime win Wednesday night.

The Red Wings' reward for closing out the series in five games is a quick turnaround, as the Stanley Cup Finals now will begin Saturday night at Joe Louis Arena for back-to-back games - which adds an interesting dynamic to the proceedings with the Wings a bit banged up.

Detroit will be shooting to become the first back-to-back Stanley Cup champion since the Wings turned the trick in 1997 and 1998, and it's the first Stanley Cup rematch series since the Islanders and Oilers met in consecutive years in 1984 and 1985. The Penguins hope to follow that script the young Edmonton squad took in exacting revenge for a setback the year before, and not become the first team to lose back-to-back finals since the Bruins of 1977 and 1978.

NBC will televise Games 1 and 2 this weekend, and Versus will pick up the two games in Pittsburgh next week, before the series heads back to the Peacock for the remainder of the series.

Darren Helm was the unlikely hero for the Wings, tapping in a puck just 3:58 into overtime after Patrick Kane had forced overtime with just 7:06 to play and breathing new life into the young Chicago squad.

But, despite being without Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk in the lineup, and Jonathan Ericsson undergoing an appendectomy, the Red Wings were still able to close out Chicago at home.

So, instead of having to wait until June for the Stanley Cup Finals, the Wings do the hockey world a favor - although perhaps not themselves - by advancing to start the series Saturday.

Laich Doubts Steroids Report

In the wake of the surprising connection of the Caps with a steroid bust outside Tampa, Capitals Insider talked to Brooks Laich about the allegations.

Laich said he saw no evidence in the Caps' locker room of using performance-enhancing drugs, and it's perhaps the grandstanding of an accused dealer facing jail time.

Q: Do you have any idea what the suspect in the steroids case is talking about?
A: I have no idea. As far we know it's just speculation. The guy didn't say if it was 10 years ago that he sold to the Capitals. Whether it was five ago that he sold. We have no idea. I've already been in touch with our players, and there's nothing on our side to report.

Q: Do you have any idea what the suspect in the steroids case is talking about?
A: I have no idea. As far we know it's just speculation. The guy didn't say if it was 10 years ago that he sold to the Capitals. Whether it was five ago that he sold. We have no idea. I've already been in touch with our players, and there's nothing on our side to report.

Q: What was your reaction to the sheriff coming out and repeating what a suspect said without offering any additional evidence?
A: I watched the video of it. I was kind of surprised he would say it. But he was also very careful in saying it because of the wake it would cause. As far we're concerned as players, it's just accusations of a desperate man trying to get some publicity, I think. But we'll see how it plays out over the next couple of days.
Laich added that he had never heard of the suspect, nor had he seen any evidence of performance-enhancing usage in his entire playing career, even in juniors.

Donald Brashear also appeared on WJFK and pretty much agreed that he hadn't seen any evidence of usage, and that "there's no kind of [player] I would know that would use steroids. It wouldn't be in their best interest to do it anyway."

It will be interesting to see if any more details seep out, although at the moment, it certainly raises some eyebrows that Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd would name the Capitals and Nationals despite just based on what the suspect said, and as the Caps point out, no players have failed any performance-enhancing tests.

Zezel Passes Away

Sad news out of Toronto in the passing of former Capital Peter Zezel, who died at the age of 44 due to complications of a rare blood disease called hemolytic anemia.

Zezel, who only played 20 games for Washington but scored seven goals and five assists in that short time, was acquired from the Blues in July 1990 in exchange for Geoff Courtnall, and played part of the 1990-91 season before being dealt to Toronto in exchange for Al Iafrate in January.

He played 873 games in the NHL, scoring 219 goals and 389 assists, and also earning a reputation as a solid two-way forward.

Zezel also played with the Flyers, Stars, Devils and Canucks during his career.

Penguins Complete Dismantling of Hurricanes

After pulling out a seven-game series win over the Capitals, the Penguins snuffed out this year's Cinderella squad in the playoffs with a convincing sweep of the Hurricanes that puts the Pens in the Stanley Cup Finals for back-to-back seasons for the first time since the Devils went two years in a row in 2000 and 2001.

The Pens' duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin exposed injuries and weaknesses on the Carolina blueline to generate chances against Cam Ward, and beat the keeper 20 times in just four games.

Now, with a likely rematch with the Red Wings looming, the question is will the Penguins win the trophy this time around, or will if Pittsburgh will win the dubious honor of becoming the NHL's first back-to-back runner-up since the Bruins pulled the feat in 1978 and 1979.

In the aftermath of their 4-1 victory in Raleigh Tuesday, even Crosby was willing to fly against hockey superstition and grab the Prince of Wales Trophy and carry it off the ice. Usually captains treat conference hardware like the plague and either leave it sitting on the table, but he decided to do something different after last year's six-game loss to the Red Wings.

"We didn't touch it last year," said Crosby in a postgame interview on VERSUS. "And things didn't go the way we wanted, so we thought we'd switch it up this year."

Will it make a difference? The one big challenge that the Red Wings will provide that the Flyers, Capitals and Hurricanes did not is a much tougher defense that will limit more of Pittsburgh's shots. Like the latter stages of the Washington series, the Pens were allowed to go free-wheeling in the Carolina zone, and Pittsburgh finished the Eastern half of the bracket averaging nearly 35 shots per game.

Trouble is for the Penguins, if the Red Wings advance, they're getting even more shots per game (39.1), while they both are scoring at a 3.8 clip in goals-per-game, Detroit has only allowed 2.20 goals-per-game to Pittsburgh's 2.76. And, the Red Wings are looking pretty dominant against a younger - but similar - team in style to the Penguins with the Blackhawks, even despite some key injuries in the Detroit lineup.

To be sure, Pittsburgh has been solid since dropping the first two games of the Capitals series, winning eight of nine games, with the one coming in overtime of Game 6. However, revenge notwithstanding, Detroit probably isn't the best matchup for the Penguins with a tougher defense that isn't likely to give the Penguins the room they've enjoyed over the past couple of weeks.

While Detroit goaltender Chris Osgood certainly can be exposed by the potent Penguins offense, so too can Marc-Andre Fleury, who really has seen only a few good chances on him in this series as the Pens were able to play a puck control game against the 'Canes - something that will be difficult to do against the Red Wings.

Of course, it's up to the Red Wings tonight to bring on an ill-advised long wait before the Stanley Cup Finals begin next Friday, as Chicago will hope to stave off elimination tonight at Joe Louis Arena.

Caps Surface in Steroid Bust

In one of the stranger developments lately, the Capitals were brought up as part of a steroid bust in Florida, as authorities noted that when arresting Richard and Sandra Thomas of Lakeland, that the suspects had talked about selling to professional athletes - specifically specifying sales to Capitals and Nationals players - according to Tampa Bay Online.

What investigators aren't sure of is whether Richard Thomas, 35, is telling the truth when he said he is the biggest steroid provider in Central Florida and that he sold mostly to professional athletes, including those on the Washington Capitals hockey team and Washington Nationals baseball team

While steroids have been tied to baseball for years, there have been only a couple of connections of performance-enhancing drugs with the sport of hockey. The most notable was Sean Hill's suspension for testing positive for steroids in 2007 and earning a 20-game ban from the NHL. Hill, who was with the Islanders at the time of his failed test, was signed by the Wild in 2007-08 before heading to Europe last season.

Most in the sport generally discount the impact of steroids in the game of hockey, since additional muscle mass isn't seen as a huge plus in the fluid motion of the game.

However, while the common perception is that steroids are used primarily to strenghten a professional athlete, although they are commonly used to help recover quickly from an injury, which would certainly appeal to some players. There were no specific players or numbers named by authorities or in the report.

However, the Capitals will be facing some questions in the coming weeks over this story that dropped on them just as they were dealing with some on-ice issues.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Fedorov Skating Back to Russia?

While, if true, it wouldn't be the most surprising news of the off-season, Sergei Fedorov has apparently agreed to a two-year, $3.8 million deal with Metallurg Magnitogorosk of the KHL, according to Russia's Sport Express (via Puck Daddy).

The 39-year-old veteran certainly appeared to be on his way out of the Capitals' lineup next year, although his game-winner in Game 7 of the Rangers series certainly boosted his stock. While the crafty veteran didn't replicate his scoring prowess in Washington - notching 13 goals in 70 regular-season games - he certainly proved to be a valuable mentor to the team's young Russians and also provided some depth at both forward and defense.

Now, if he decided to return to the NHL next season, it certainly wouldn't be for a contract worth $7.6 million, as he'd likely only be able to get another one-year contract at a value south of the one he had for this season worth $4 million with Washington.

Of course, he also might not be the only Caps' free agent who could be skating to the KHL this offseason, as rumors abound that Viktor Kozlov and even Donald Brashear have been in talks with teams in the league and might not be back in Washington.

But, like Fedorov, it's unclear if those other two would be in the team's plan, just like Fedorov.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Moose Advance to Meet Bears

Just hours after finishing off the Providence Bruins, the Bears learned their Calder Cup final opponent would be the Manitoba Moose, Vancouver's top farm team.

The Moose returned home to dominate the Houston Aeros in Game 6 of the Western Finals, outgunning Houston 37-16 and taking a 3-1 win to advance.

The result means the Bears head to Winnipeg for the first two games of the Calder Cup which begins Saturday night, with Games 3 (June 6), 4 (June 7) and possibly 5 (June 9) being at Giant Center, before the potential last two would be played at MTS Centre.

The Moose, who are descended from the IHL's old Minnesota Moose, are now playing in their first-ever Calder Cup final. It also is a Winnipeg team's first visit to the finals since the WHA's old Winnipeg Jets won the final Avco Cup before their merger with the NHL in 1979.

Bears Claim Eastern Conference Crown

Unlike the first two games played at the Dunkin' Donuts Center, the Bears didn't have to play from behind, taking a pair of leads and then scoring three unanswered goals to close out the Eastern Conference Finals with a 5-2 win over Providence for Hershey's third trip to the Calder Cup Finals in four years and an AHL-record 21st appearance in the championship round.

Chris Bourque's shorthanded goal with 6:46 gone in the third period broke a 2-2 tie, and lifted the Bears to the Eastern Conference title. Hershey will play either Houston or Manitoba for the crown, depending on how the Western Conference Final turns out with the Moose holding a 3-2 lead heading into tonight's Game 6 in Winnipeg.

After a scoreless first period, Andrew Gordon put the Bears on top just 2:17 into the second period, giving the Bears their first early lead of the weekend, but Providence had an answer just 2:28 later as Brad Marchand responded for the Bruins with a power-play tally of his own.

Alexandre Giroux put Hershey back in front with 3:40 remaining in the frame, but Mikko Lehtonen squared the score again with just 1:57 gone in the third. However, with the Bruins on a power-play and needing a goal to extend the series back to Pennsylvania, Bourque's fourth goal of the playoffs was the back-breaker for the Bruins.

Darren Reid added some insurance less than four minutes later, and Quintin Laing added a tally in the final minute for a 5-2 final, and a 4-1 series victory.

Should Manitoba close out the series tonight against Houston, the Bears will open on the road in the Calder Cup Finals and return to Giant Center for Games 3 through 5. If Houston rallies to win the final two games of their series, the Bears would host Games 1 and 2, and Games 6 and 7 if possible.

The Bears are looking for their 10th Calder Cup crown, and their second in four seasons. In 2006, the Bears defeated Milwaukee for the crown, but two years ago, they fell to Hamilton in the finals.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

New Season Tickets on Hold

Just over 18 months ago, as the Capitals played their last game under Glen Hanlon in front of an announced crowd of 11,669 at Verizon Center - and the actual numbers of that crowd attending the ugly pre-Thanksgiving Day loss to the Trashers were much lower in reality, it would have been hard to imagine how tough the tickets would get once the team responded to a chance behind the bench.

Well, the Capitals now have reached the point to where they are no longer selling season tickets and - borrowing a page from the Redskins - putting names on a new waiting list, according to owner Ted Leonsis' blog.

I am receiving many emails from folks frustrated that they can’t buy season tickets anymore from the Washington Capitals and that they have been forced onto a waiting list. We have had a higher than expected renewal rate from our season ticket base — we will finish I believe at over 96 percent renewal; and we sold a boat load of new season tickets for next season during the playoffs. We could sell out the building now for next season with just season ticket holders; but we do not think that is fair — we want to have tickets to sell to groups that were always loyal to us over the years and have single game tickets to sell to get new Caps fans into the building on a game by game basis. Thank you for understanding.

Even with the team holding back some tickets on a single-game basis, there still won't be a whole lot of tickets left to sell, meaning the team should be able to sell out all 41 home dates rather easily. Playoff tickets were tough for many fans this spring, and there won't be more than a few thousand tickets available at most for each home game.

It certainly is a nice change for all involved with the Caps that the team has had a renaissance in a short amount of time, both on the ice and at the gate.

Bears One Win Away From Finals

Graham Mink's goal with 15:10 gone in overtime put the Bears one victory away from their third Calder Cup Finals berth in four years, as Hershey beat Providence 3-2 in overtime to take a 3-1 series lead and now can close out the Bruins Monday afternoon at the Dunkin' Donuts Center.

Following a stirring comeback win in Game 3, the Bears again erased an early Bruins lead, as Providence took a 2-0 lead with just 8:12 gone in regulation on goals by Kevin Schaeffer and Jeff Penner, but Hershey one again took over after the slow start to take ontrol of the game.

The Bears outshot the Bruins 21-11 in the final 40 minutes of regulation, and were able to beat Tukka Rask twice to force overtime.

Bryan Helmer put the Bears on the board with 7:31 gone in the second on a power-play goal, and got a late goal as Keith Aucoin scored with just 6:48 left in regulation to even the score at 2-2.

Hershey outshot Providence 12-6 in the extra session, and Mink scored in the latter stages of the frame to put the Bears in command of the series.

So, after dropping Game 1 at Giant Center, the Bears may not even need to return home to close out the series, as they will get a chance to earn a three-game sweep in Providence Monday at 4PM ET (XM Radio channel 204).

Should the Bears win Monday, they will advance to face either the Houston Aeros (Minnesota) or Manitoba Moose (Vancouver) in the 2009 Calder Cup Finals. Manitoba leads Houston 3-2 with Game 6 coming Monday night in Winnipeg, and if the Moose close out the Aeros, they would host the first two games of the Finals by virtue of holding the league's best regular-season record. Should Houston rally, the Bears would host Games 1 and 2 of the Calder Cup before the series would shift to Texas.

If Hershey cannot close out Providence Monday, Game 6 will be played Wednesday night at Giant Center, with a potential Game 7 being the next night in Hershey.

Capitals Apparently a Finalist for Winter Classic

As the temperature gets warmer, of course, it's time to think of a New England winter's day, and the potential of the Capitals being in the 2010 Winter Classic at Fenway Park.

According to the Boston Globe's Kevin Paul Dupont, the Bruins are hosting next season's edition at the Fens, and their opponent will be either the Caps or Flyers.

While the Rangers also would have seemed to be a good fit, they are likely being saved for a potential event at Yankee Stadium, and of those teams, the Flyers are probably a more attractive opponent for the Blueshirts - since the NHL is reluctant to put either the Devils or Islanders against them and limiting the game to regional appeal.

So, it appears there's a good bet the Caps will be spending the day outside come New Year's.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

'I Personally Played Every Game on Painkillers'

After returning home to Russia following the team's elimination from the playoffs, Alexander Ovechkin gave an interesting interview to Sovetsky Sport (as reported by Puck Daddy.)

Some of the poignant comments come on the Sporting News naming Ovechkin the NHL's best player of the past season.

Let's cheer you up a bit. The Sporting News named you the best player in the NHL after surveying 292 NHLers. More than a half named you the best player in the league. Do you like it?

This is so far [away] for me now... I don't even want to think about it now.

Now I believe you that this was a very tough season.

You have to understand me correctly. It is very nice to hear news like that. But I have switched off from hockey right now. It is in the background for me.

He also confirmed that he was medicated during the playoffs,

Also your coach Bruce Boudreau said that Ovechkin played in the postseason with groin and wrist injuries. If it was in the regular season you would go to see a doctor and not an opposing goalie.

And who didn't have injuries, tell me? Semin played with a injury, Sergei Fedorov(notes), John Erskine(notes), Mike Green(notes). Half the team was injured. But what can you do? You have to play. I personally played every game on painkillers.

Ovechkin also added he couldn't wait to get back home to Russia, instead of hanging out with some of the other Russian superstars like Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Semin down in Miami.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Bears Rally to Take Series Lead

Facing a three-goal deficit in a hostile environment in Providence, the Bears rallied to grab a 6-4 win and a 2-1 in the Eastern Conference finals with an impressive comeback.

Zach Hamill, Jeff Penner, Peter Schaefer combined to give the Bruins a 3-0 lead after just 23:01 of play, and things looked bleak for the Bears.

However, Alexandre Giroux got Hershey on the board just :25 after Providence took a three-goal edge. Chris Bourque scored with 11:55 left in the second to cut the lead to just one, which is how the score remained until the end of 40 minutes of play.

Providence then appeared to put the game out of reach just :38 seconds into the third with a power-play goal, but that's when the Bears got started on a memorable comeback.

Andrew Gordon scored to cut the lead back to one with 14:28 left to play with his fourth goal of the playoffs, and then Giroux tied the game up just 1:20 later.

Graham Mink then put Hershey ahead for the first time with just 6:02 to play, and then Bryan Helmer added an insurance power-play tally with :35 to play for the 6-4 final.

The teams have Saturday off, and will play Game 4 Sunday evening in Providence - a game that will be carried on XM radio channel 204. The two teams will then play Monday afternoon at the Dunkin' Donuts Center, a game the Bears hope will lead to their third Calder Cup Finals appearance in the last four seasons.

Either way, the Bears guarantee themselves at least one more game at Giant Center this season, either Game 6 of this series (Wednesday night), or Calder Cup Game 3 against Manitoba (if they finish off Houston Monday or Wednesday), or Calder Cup Game 1 if the Aeros can rally from 3-2 down following their Game 5 win at home.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Odd Lull Set to End

After an off-day in the Stanley Cup's conference finals - and nearly a week off in the Calder Cup conference finals - the pucks are set to restart in earnest this weekend with the Capitals now one week into their summer vacation.

On the Caps front, not a lot has happened since the team spread across the globe following the end to their season, only George McPhee's quote this week in the Post that he prefers trades to free agents - although that's not much of a surprise, as he usually holds his cards very close to the vest, but there seems to be a definite direction he wants to go with this team.

Not much will be happening until after the NHL Awards June 18th, when Alexander Ovechkin finds out if he's the back-to-back Hart Winner and Mike Green finds out of he wins the Norris (and thankfully for him, the voting was done before the playoffs). Following that, the NHL Draft takes place in Montreal, which figures to be a busy place for McPhee if he truly wants to go the trade route, since teams want to set deals up before free agency opens up on July 1st.

While the Bears have been off since Sunday, they resume their series Friday at the aptly-named Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence tied at one, with Game 4 coming Sunday and Game 5 Monday before the series possibly could head back to Pennsylvania for Wednesday and Thursday next week with at least one victory for Hershey.

Unfortunately for the Capitals, the Hurricanes seem to be suddenly bitten by the injury bug, and had they been able to deliver a much more complete game eight days ago, they'd have an excellent chance at the franchise's second Stanley Cup appearance.

Pittsburgh ground down the 'Canes in Game 1, and once again, was able to limit Marc-Andre Fleury's somewhat adventurous goaltending by keeping down shots on him, although ex-Cap Matt Cooke's slew foot injury of Erik Cole could provide a spark for the 'Canes like Aaron Ward's injury in the Bruins series gave Boston. However, Carolina will need to grab Game 2 if they want to take this series, as it's going to be tough to win four of five against the Penguins.

Out west, the Blackhawks look to recover from a costly giveaway in overtime of Game 2, as Brian Campbell's gift now has Chicago in the predicament Carolina's trying to avoid. Right now, Detroit is the team to beat, because if their only perceived weakness - Chris Osgood in net - is as solid as he's been lately, the Red Wings are the odds-on favorite to become the first team to repeat as champs since Detroit claimed the Cup at then-MCI Center in 1998.

The lull is a stark reminder of the hockey-less summer that's upon us, as the off-days will really begin to mount before teams look to improve themselves for the 2009-2010 season in a couple of weeks.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Hershey Squares Series With Late Surge

After playing 40 minutes of scoreless hockey with the Providence Bruins, the Bears were able to earn a split at Giant Center with a pair of third-period goals to even the Eastern Conference finals at 1-1 with a 2-1 win.

It looked like Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask would really put the Bears' hopes of advancing to their third Calder Cup Finals in four years in danger by stopping Hershey's barrage of 21 second-period shots and keeping the game scoreless with 26 saves until that point. Michal Neuvirth also was solid, stopping 16 Providence shots through two periods.

However, Andrew Joudrey broke the scoreless tie with 3:21 gone in the third, and then Alexandre Giroux scored his sixth goal of the playoffs with a power-player marker just 2:45 later to give Hershey a 2-0 lead.

Providence was able to break Neuvirth's shutout bid with just :36 left with a power-play goal by Andrew Joudrey, but couldn't get the equalizer and now the series shifts north to Rhode Island for three games starting Friday at the Dunkin' Donuts Center.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Bears Drop Eastern Conference Opener

The Hershey Bears opened their Eastern Conference Finals series against the Providence Bruins on the wrong foot, falling behind the B's early and not being able to recover in a 3-2 loss. It was Hershey's first loss at home in this year's playoffs, and the Bruins broke Michal Neuvirth's shutout streak early with a pair of power-play tallies and Tuuka Rask did the rest for Providence.

Jeff Penner scored a goal just 8:03 into the game, and then Jordan Knackstedt added another extra-man goal with 3:41 remaining in the first to give the Bruins a 2-0 lead.

Oskar Osala put the Bears on the board 3:03 into the second, but Matt Marquardt restored Providence's two-goal lead 5:25 later. Osala added another goal late in the period to bring the Bears back within one before the second intermission, but Hershey couldn't dent Rask again and the Bruins take the early lead in the series.

The two teams meet again at 5PM tomorrow before the series shifts to Rhode Island this weekend for three games.

Conference Final Previews

While there was only a pair of upsets in the first round of the playoffs, the second round contained some strange twists, with only one of the higher-seeded teams surviving to play for the conference titles. Not to say that the series weren't close, with only Vancouver-Chicago not needing all seven games, but only the Red Wings were able to survive with home-ice - and they needed a one-goal Game 7 win to advance.

After a 7-1 first round, it wasn't quite as upsetting in the second round, with the Caps and Bruins not living up to their predicted victories. So, let's take a look at the four that are left to try and lift the Stanley Cup.

Eastern Conference:

No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes

The Eastern Conference has been one of the most exciting - and unpredictable - brackets in recent memory, with both teams needing a seven-game series win to play for the right to ignore the Prince of Wales Trophy in two weeks.

Pittsburgh, of course, came out on top in a drama-filled series with the Capitals, with the Penguins finally wresting control in Game 7 to earn their second straight trip to the Eastern finals. Sidney Crosby led the way for the Pens, as he was allowed to hang out in front of the net and scored eight goals and six assists as the Penguins won four of the last five games of the series.

Carolina has taken the nail-biting route to the third round, as the 'Canes were just 80 seconds away from elimination in the first round against New Jersey, and a couple of good chances in Game 7 overtime in Boston before Scott Walker earned the Hurricanes their sixth straight playoff series victory (dating back to the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals win).

So, now after knocking out two division winners in New Jersey and Boston, the Hurricanes now look to unseat the defending Eastern Conference champions.

Cam Ward has been almost as good in net as he was during his Conn Smythe campaign of 2006 with a goals-against of 2.22 and a .927 save percentage, which is second and first among the four goaltenders remaining in the playoffs. And, all this with the road to the Cup has been much tougher for the 'Canes this time around as a sixth-seed than it was three years ago.

However, life won't get any easier facing the Penguins, as the Pens have been averaging almost three-and-a-half goals-per-game in the postseason, and two of the top three scorers in the playoffs in Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The 'Canes do boast the third-best defense in the playoffs, and the second-best penalty-kill in the postseason at a 90.7 percent success rate.

The difference will be in net, as if Marc-Andre Fleury can avoid some of the softer goals he allowed against Washington against a talented - but thinner - forward corps that he saw from the Capitals, and the Penguins are able to break through the 'Canes trap to get enough chances to dent Ward, Pittsburgh should advance.

For the 'Canes to win, they will need to slow down the Pens' forwards and pop in enough goals to earn a series win, and that may be a tall order for Carolina. The Hurricanes have been tough to close out, showing a knack for survival not seen in recent years of the postseason with their dramatic comebacks, but this will be another tough test.

While it should be a good series, look for the Penguins to repeat as conference champions.

Prediction: Pittsburgh in seven.

Western Conference:

No. 2 Detroit Red Wings vs. No. 4 Chicago Blackhawks

A pair of Original Six and Central Division rivals will square off for the right to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, with the Blackhawks making the most of their first playoff appearance since 2002 and advancing to their first Western Finals since 1995.

Chicago has the highest-scoring team in the playoffs this year, averaging 3.67 goals-per-game despite playing two tough netminders in Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff and Vancouver's Roberto Luongo in a pair of six-game series victories.

Even with their potency, the 'Hawks have been spreading the scoring around, with no scorers in the top 10 of playoff scoring, being led by Martin Havlat's 13 points (five goals, eight assists), then Patrick Kane's eight goals and four assists and Jonathan Toews' 10 points.

Now, the young Chicago team plays a tough Red Wings team that has both the second-best defense in the playoffs, as well as the second-best offense of the 16 playoff teams. The Red Wings are shooting to become the first back-to-back Stanley Cup champions since Detroit's 1997 and 1998 titles, and certainly look even better than last year's addition with Marian Hossa wearing the winged wheel this time around.

Detroit breezed past the Blue Jackets in a four-game sweep, but then got a scare from the Anaheim Ducks who pushed them to a seven-game series before a late goal pushed the Wings into the Western Finals.

The much-maligned Chris Osgood has been solid this postseason, posting a 2.06 goals-against and a .921 save percentage, being able to gobble up most of what the Wings' tough blueline allows through.

Chicago's hopes for its first Finals berth since 1992 are resting with Nikolai Khabibulin, who has played decently in his first playoff action since leading the Lightning to a title in 2004. Despite posting an average 2.76 goals-against and a .896 save percentage, the Russian has played well when needed, but also is being propped up by a good offense.

If Khabibulin can make some timely saves against Detroit, the Blackhawks will have a chance for an upset. However, the Wings are stacked, and it's going to be tough for Chicago to continue their fairy tale run through the West.

Prediction: Detroit in six.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Capitals Break Camp for Summer

Just 36 hours after being eliminated by the Penguins, the Capitals gathered one last time at Kettler to clean out their lockers, say their goodbyes and part ways for the summer.

The team detailed to Capitals Insider some of the injuries the team had at the end of the series, with some already known (Mike Green's shoulder, Tom Poti's foot, John Erskine's foot), and some others that came to light in Shaone Morrisonn having a groin and ankle injury, and a thumb injury to Alexander Semin.

Alex Ovechkin also detailed that he needed shots before every game for both a wrist and groin injury, but he - in his words, "thank God" - wouldn't need surgery.

George McPhee also said he wouldn't be buying out Michael Nylander's contract this offseason, with him adding that the move wouldn't make fiscal sense and he also thought didn't think that Nylander's injury had healed fully.

One of the most interesting position battles will be in goal, and McPhee said he expects Theodore - with his $4.5 million contract having one year left to run - would be in camp when the team reconvenes in September.

Asked about his status, Theodore told the Post:

"I still see myself as a No. 1 goalie. I see myself coming here next camp and being ready right off the bat. I know what I can do. From there, they are going to decide what they want to do."

With McPhee telling reporters "we can't bring [all the goalies] back," it seems an ominous sign for Brent Johnson's future with the club, as it seems clear the battle for the starting role will be between Theodore and Simeon Varlamov, who was tremendous in the postseason.

Theodore and Varlamov have deals for next year, Johnson is an unrestricted free agent, and likely will get some decent offers with a lot of teams looking for help in net. Michal Neuvirth is playing well in the AHL, and although it's unlikely the team would go with a pair of young keepers, as long as Theodore is comfortable with his role - and he mentioned to the Post how he was benched in Colorado a couple of seasons ago and then reassumed the starting role the next year - they'll probably stay with that pairing next year and let Johnson find his money elsewhere.

Another veteran with his future in the air is Sergei Fedorov, who told the Post "I still have got some legs left and I'm still enjoying the game and I'm certainly enjoying this group of young and very talented players. I didn't think about retiring. By saying that, I would like to continue to play. With the young legs around me, it's really helpful."

Fedorov reportedly wasn't in the Capitals' long-term plans late in the regular season, but certainly got the club's attention with his Game 7 game winner against the Rangers. While that was his only goal of the postseason, he also had seven assists, and helped provide some leadership for the team's young Russians. But he will turn 40 in December, and certainly the club might opt to spend the $4 million he made this year upgrading other parts of the team.

With the relatively large window between the team's defeat and the cleanout, both McPhee and Bruce Boudreau weren't overly specific about the team's long-term plans, but it today could be a farewell to veterans such as Johnson, Fedorov, Viktor Kozlov and Donald Brashear, all of whom can sign with anyone come July 1st.

Ovechkin and Green will be back in the spotlight in just over a month, as the pair are going to be in Las Vegas for the NHL's awards show, with Ovechkin up for his second straight Hart and Pearson Trophies, while Green looks for a Norris Trophy in his fourth NHL campaign.

With the Bruins losing to the Hurricanes in overtime of Game 7 last night, the Capitals now know they will pick 24th in the NHL Entry Draft in Montreal, and then will have a week after that to see if they can make a splash with some money being freed up with the large expiring contracts of the four veterans.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Varlamov Wants to Go to Hershey

While Simeon Varlamov helped the Capitals advance to the second round, he still wants to keep playing after a tough outing against the Penguins Wednesday night. When asked by Puck Daddy if he'd want to play for the Hershey Bears as they play the Providence Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals that start Saturday at Giant Center, Varlamov was pretty clear he wants to keep playing.

After your phenomenal debut in the NHL playoffs, are you ready now to go back to Hershey to play for the Calder Cup?

If I am told on Friday that I should go to Hershey, I will go to Hershey to fight for the Calder Cup. How do you imagine me not wanting to win the Calder Cup? This is a prestigious trophy. Maybe it is not as prestigious as the Stanley Cup, but it is as difficult to win. The series can be just as long. And now the Bears will be in the Conference finals. It will be rough.

Even though Michael Neuvirth has been good in recording back-to-back shutouts against the Baby Pens to earn the series win, Caps management will most likely send him back down if he wants to see if he can wash away the tough ending to what was a very good first trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

What Next for Washington?

As the dust settles on the Capitals' season, now the team has to take stock of what it has and look forward to trying to push the team closer to true Stanley Cup contention.

While it wasn't entirely unexpected the Caps would have a tough time against the defending Eastern Conference champions, last night's effort certainly raised a lot of eyebrows as the team was outclassed in the decisive game against the Penguins.

So now, with an offseason to think about the sour note to end a good season, now the Capitals will get a chance to address some of the problems that kept them from advancing deeper in the playoffs.

The clearest problem that emerged in the series was the team's defense, as while several of the key members - Mike Green, Tom Poti, John Erskine - were playing hurt, they simply turned the puck over way too often and allowed the Penguins free reign in tight on Simeon Varlamov.

Green, while his effort to play hurt was very admirable, simply became too much of a liability defensively, and he probably should have taken a seat in the press box and let another defenseman take his place for at least a couple games. He was a shadow of his normal self with a shoulder injury, unable to get much of a windup and even had trouble getting the puck out of the zone by the end of the series. He also wasn't able to clear people out from the net, and that's a terrible combination against a team like Pittsburgh.

Erskine, who had a terrific series against the Rangers, was a bit less effective against the speedier Penguins, but clearly he redeemed himself overall from a fairly dismal 2008 playoff performance against Philadelphia.

Milan Jurcina and Shaone Morrisonn also had their shaky moments, but overall, giving up ton of shots - with a lot of quality ones - certainly showed a need to upgrade on the blueline.

Karl Alzner, who was called up briefly but didn't play in the postseason, figures to be part of the Caps' six next season, but the team may also look to add another veteran blueliner to try and add a bit of stability to a fairly green corps.

Varlamov, despite a pair of tough games late in the series, figures to get his shot as the team's No. 1 goaltender next season, and the intrigue will be who backs him up. Jose Theodore has one more year left on his $4,500,000 contract, and George McPhee may be looking to see if a team looking for a netminder would be willing to take on his contract to clear some cap room, perhaps re-signing Brent Johnson or another veteran as insurance. Theodore also could be bought out, but since the veteran has been quiet about his backup role until now, he could also try to force his way out.

A number of forwards figure not to return, as Viktor Kozlov, Sergei Fedorov and Donald Brashear are rumored to be getting offers from KHL teams, and Michael Nylander also figures to be a prime buyout candidate after having played sparingly in the playoffs despite some injuries up front.

It will be interesting to see if the team keeps Alexander Semin, or looks to cash in on his season. While he had a broken foot during the playoffs, his presence in the playoffs was limited to flashes of brilliance, surrounded by a lot of floating around. He certainly made his impact felt in Game 3 of the Rangers series and Game 6 of the Penguins series, but Washington needed more out of their second scorer to advance. Even his goal in Game 6 was officially taken away as it was determined to have been deflected, so he finished the series with no goals and that isn't good enough for a guy who scored 34 during the regular season.

So, with being able to get something of value - and a big contract due to the star coming next summer - the Caps might ponder packaging Semin for another player, as there will be concern over the enigmatic star's effort level as the games get bigger. And, there also will be consideration how the team's star would deal with losing Semin, as the Russian core figures to shrink considerably in the off-season.

As a whole too, the Capitals forwards were too content to let Ovechkin take the brunt of the chances, with only Brooks Laich and David Steckel crashing the net and making life difficult for Marc-Andre Fleury, not challenging the netminder enough despite him giving up a ton of rebounds and questionable tallies. In Game 7, Ovechkin's breakaway was his biggest challenge, but to only put a dozen shots in 40 minutes in a decisive game - especially playing from behind - is inexcusable.

The Capitals also have to adjust their effort level as well, as too many times this year they've gotten away with not playing 60 minutes, looking to a strong finish to win games. While they could do this against teams like Tampa Bay or the Islanders, it's quite another to do it against a team like the Penguins.

They can't afford to just skate around for good chunks of games during the playoffs, as while that might be passable during the 82-game regular season, it seeped into their playoff performance, which certainly cost them.

Related to that, several players reportedly quietly said they were trying to stay healthy down the stretch, and as any observer can tell you, it's very difficult to turn that switch back on after the playoffs begin. Washington certainly almost cost itself any chance of advancing with a poor start to the Rangers series, but was able to move on with a strong finish. However, after taking a 2-0 lead against the Penguins, the Caps really took their foot off the gas and allowed the Penguins to climb back in it, something that clearly cost them a chance to go deeper.

Ironically, one of the veteran players the Caps were rumored to be targeting at the trade deadline was one that scored the series-winning goal against them - as well as two others - as Bill Guerin provided some veteran leadership and crashed the net for the Pens - something the Caps were in need of during the series.

So, it'll be interesting to see what McPhee will do to tinker to move a very good club to becoming a true contender. While many experts figured the Capitals were good to the second or third round this year, they need to take the next step next season to make a serious challenge to get to the Finals.

Injuries Aplenty as Caps Lift Veil

While Bruce Boudreau didn't want to use injuries as an excuse for the team's loss to the Penguins in the second round, it was pretty apparent the team's brightest stars weren't at full strength.

The most obvious one was Mike Green, who was absolutely ineffective by the end of the series, having hurt his shoulder - the same one which caused him to miss a stretch of games in November and December - and which limited his shooting and his physical presence around the net. The Penguins made themselves comfortable in front of the Washington net, and Green wasn't able to clear them out, finishing with a -5 for the series and three games with a negative rating.

Green's second period was one to forget, finishing with a -3 and allowing Sidney Crosby the room to dish to Bill Guerin to pretty much put the game out of reach for Washington. He finally was benched in the third period by Boudreau because of his ineffectiveness, and also with a win out of reach, there was no reason to expose him to further injury.

Alex Ovechkin, despite scoring eight goals and six assists against the Penguins was playing with a groin injury. Ovechkin was the Capitals' best player in the series, but he became a bit less effective as the series wore on, as while he scored four goals in the final five games of the series, two were of the gift variety. The Hart Trophy candidate tried his best to put the team on his back, but couldn't quite muster the last hurdle of the series.

Tom Poti also broke his foot in Game 1 of the series, and of course had some of the bad breaks after that, with the Game 5 overtime winner for the Penguins coming off his stick and the Game 7 opening goal coming off of his foot.

Alexander Semin also had a broken foot during the series, according to NHL.com, although Boudreau will detail more of the ailments as the team cleans out its lockers for the summer on Friday at Kettler.

Strange End to Washington's Season

Few expected the classic Capitals-Penguins series to end as it did Wednesday night, as while some thought the Caps would have a tough time closing out the defending Eastern Conference champs, not many expected the game to be over just 22 minutes into the contest.

It certainly was one of the most lopsided Game 7s in recent memory, with the one that likely is the most similar was Colorado's 7-0 loss to Detroit in the 2002 Western Conference Final - although that was played on the road. The Penguins had a 5-0 lead just over halfway through the contest, and things could have been a lot uglier had the Penguins not gone into a defensive posture.

For sure, the Capitals had played on the edge a lot this season, not delivering a full effort, and two quick goals just :08 apart in the first seemed to really deflate the team. Add to that goals just 1:44 apart in the second period and leading to Simeon Varlamov's evening being over after allowing four goals on 18 shots.

For a team that had lived life on the edge for most of the second half of the year - and also turned in an unimpressive start to Game 7 last month against the Rangers - playing with fire finally burned up the Capitals' season.

It certainly would have been a different off-season having lost in Game 6, on say, a late penalty call, but there was little doubt which was the better team in the deciding game. Things just went downhill for the Capitals in a hurry, and a team that has shown a lot of resilience in the course of the season ran out with their season on the line.

The ugly finish to the series also will probably lead to some question about the Caps and how they move forward.

Boudreau said afterwards that Mike Green - who had become a detriment defensively over the course of the playoffs and was a -3 in the second period - was hurt, and that Alex Ovechkin - who finishes with 21 points in the playoffs - wouldn't have played had it not been for the playoffs.

Defensively, the Capitals weren't too solid during this series, allowing the Penguins a ton of good chances and allowing players to stand next to Varlamov nearly untouched. Sidney Crosby scored six of his eight goals while camped out next to the net, and on Guerin's back-breaking goal early in the second he was allowed to just stand by Mike Green without so much of a challenge before his drop pass to the veteran forward.

Offensively, Ovechkin carried the team for the most part, and that was part of the problem - while Nicklas Backstrom came on for a couple of games and David Steckel had a nice series, guys like Alexander Semin and Sergei Fedorov were largely absent for most of the series.

And in net, while Varlamov was good during the series, he certainly looked a bit fatigued by tonight's game, just his 13th playoff game and 24th NHL game overall. Perhaps Boudreau was a bit too stubborn to take out his young goalie, as, say, Game 4 might have been a good chance to give him some rest and see if a switch could have sparked the Capitals.

But this certainly will raise questions for Jose Theodore's future with the Caps, and if he'll want to return with the team now pretty much locked in to using the Russian extensively, as Theodore only played mop-up duty when the game was pretty much out of hand.

What was the most surprising thing was the lack of urgency and drive in an elimination game, as the team had just a dozen shots through 40 minutes of play, and while the Penguins do deserve some credit for a good game by their blueliners, the Capitals also didn't really make life very difficult for them after the first couple of minutes of the contest.

Too many Caps weren't playing with a lot of urgency, and their counterparts in white were, and that's one of the big reasons Washington will have a bitter taste in their mouths as they begin a four-month offseason Thursday.

While the team certainly has a bright future with some young stars, they will need to develop a better killer instinct to put opponents away when they get a chance - like in Game 3 - and also the importance of putting together a complete hockey game, not just trying to put together 20 to 40 minutes of hockey and looking to pull it out at the end.

So, hopefully they take this as a harsh lesson about the difference between regular-season and playoff hockey, and use this down the road the next time they get a chance at home to eliminate a difficult opponent in a playoff series.

Capitals' Season Comes Unglued in Game 7

If you could put together a checklist of everything that could have gone wrong in Game 7 for the Capitals, Washington pretty much ticked off everything on that list.

The team's young netminder, Simeon Varlamov, let in a couple of bad goals, the team's struggling defenseman, Mike Green, was benched in the third period because he "wasn't very good," according to Bruce Boudreau, and the team came unhinged in an ugly 6-2 loss to the Penguins that puts an end to the Caps' season.

Despite an uplifting Game 6 victory in Pittsburgh, the Caps came home to a raucous crowd, but the team turned in a performance that was the second-most lopsided Game 7 loss by a home team in NHL history.

The night didn't start out too badly, as Alex Ovechkin broke in on Marc-Andre Fleury on a breakaway just three minutes in, but he was stuffed as he was a bit too close to the keeper when he shot the puck.

But after a fairly even first 10 minutes of the game, the door opened for the Penguins when Shaone Morrisonn was whistled for slashing with 8:31 left in the first period. Pittsburgh then got a good bounce when a Sergei Gonchar shot was deflected off of Tom Poti to Sidney Crosby, who put the Penguins up with 7:24 left in the frame.

However, after the ensuing face-off, the Penguins broke in again, and Craig Adams put a puck past Varlamov for a 2-0 lead just :08 later and the Capitals were really putting themselves in a hole.

Pittsburgh finished the first period outshooting Washington 16-5, and any hope Washington had of making a run at the Penguins ended early in the second period.

Bill Guerin scored on a feed from Sidney Crowby after the Pens' star wasn't challenged on a break by Mike Green, putting a wrister past Varlamov for a 3-0 Penguins lead just :28 into the second, and then Kris Letang beat Varlamov less than two minutes later for a 4-0 Penguins' lead.

After that, Bruce Boudreau pulled the 21-year-old rookie, putting in Jose Theodore, who hadn't seen any action since losing Game 1 in the Rangers series, explaining afterwards he thought his goaltender was struggling and wanted to take him out.

Unfortunately, the change didn't do much for the Caps, as Jordan Staal pretty much ended the competitive portion of the evening with a goal with 8:23 left in the period.

Alex Ovechkin got a gift goal for his final point of the postseason late in the period, as Fleury made an errant pass right to the Caps' star, who put it in an empty net to put the Caps on the board with 1:51 left in the second period. Washington put a bit of a flurry on in the final 111 seconds, but the damage was done to the team's hopes of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Penguins made it 6-1 after Brooks Laich was called for a high-stick on Sidney Crosby just :26 into the period, and Crosby was able to take a loose puck for a breakaway as the Capitals were pressing on the disadvantage and beat Theodore with 2:02 gone in the period.

Laich did give the Caps' fans one last chance to cheer this season with a goal with 13:24 left in regulation, but the clubs played as the result was a foregone conclusion with the Penguins moving on to the next round.

The fans who remained in the stands gave the Capitals a nice salute in the final 90 seconds of their season with a standing ovation, however, and the team responded in kind after the traditional handshake by lifting their sticks to the fans.

Some interesting developments came out of the last period and postgame, as Green was held out for most of the third period, with Boudreau saying "he wasn't very good."

When asked if Green was hurt, Boudreau said he was, but declined to specify what the injury was, saying he didn't want to use injuries as an excuse - although Capitals Insider reported it was his shoulder, the one that was injured earlier this year in Anaheim.

Boudreau was asked about Ovechkin's health, and Boudreau said he was hurt as well, and he wouldn't have been playing had this been a regular-season game with an apparent groin injury.

But, with a thud, the Capitals' season comes to an end, as despite recording the most points in team history, the team ends up falling with a 7-7 playoff record, winning against the Rangers in seven games and losing to the Penguins in seven games.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Caps-Pens Produce Record Ratings

The Capitals-Penguins series is producing good ratings for the NHL, particularly for Comcast SportsNet and FSN Pittsburgh.

Washington's 5-4 overtime win earned a 5.3 rating in the D.C. market, and also garnered a 3.4 rating in the Baltimore market, meaining an average of 162,000 households watched the game.

However, that number surged to 238,000 households just before the Capitals won the game in overtime between 9:45 and 10:00 PM.

The telecast was the highest for any Caps game this year broadcast on Comcast - although that distinction only will last 48 hours until Game 7.

FSN Pittsbugh also is reporting strong ratings, earning a 24.2 share of the smaller Pittsburgh market for its highest rating in history, translating into roughly 277,800 households and beating out programming even on the broadcast networks.

The Caps' Game 3 loss to Pittsburgh earned a 6.7 rating on Versus - which broadcast that game exclusively - and the Game 1 win Saturday afternoon earned a 5.3 rating on NBC.

Wednesday's game will be broadcast locally on Comcast SportsNet - the network's last telecast of the season before Versus and NBC handle the Eastern Conference Finals should the Capitals advance to face the Bruins or Hurricanes. Outside the area, Versus will carry the game.

Bears Eliminate Baby Pens

Good news for the Caps organization - and a bit of good karma - as the Hershey Bears eliminated the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in a 3-0 win at Giant Center Tuesday, as Keith Aucoin, Chris Bourque and Steve Pinizzotto scored all the goals the Bears would need to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

In a strange twist, while the Capitals and Penguins have been battling in the Stanley Cup playoffs, their two farm teams were playing as well - with the same results as the big club's games, with Hershey winning the first two, the Pens taking three straight before the Bears won Game 6.

But the Bears put on a dominating performance in the deciding game, scoring early and moving on to the Eastern Finals for the third time in four seasons.

Aucoin scored just :50 in to put the Bears up top, and Michael Neuvirth did his best to let that hold up, making 24 saves in the shutout. Chris Bourque added a second-period tally to add some insurance, and Pinizzotto iced the game with a third-period tally with 9:11 left in regulation.

Ironically, the Bears could end up playing the Capitals' next Stanley Cup playoff opponent's farm team again, as should the Bruins and Capitals win their respective Game 7s - and the Providence Bruins take advantage of their 3-2 series lead over the Worcester Sharks - the Baby Bruins are on deck next, perhaps as soon as this weekend.

Curtain Set to Close on Classic Series

Despite a ton of hype coming into the Capitals-Penguins series, this may be one series that actually lives up to its billing, providing tight games and high drama for both sides as each team has had - and lost - control over this series.

Just one goal separates the Capitals and Penguins in this series, as there was just one contest in this series that wasn't decided by a single tally - and that was just a two-goal margin in Game 4 for Pittsburgh.

To put that in perspective, that has never happened in Capitals' history before where the first six games had that thin of a margin of victory, as usually there was at least one blowout in that span. Even Game 4 the outcome wasn't in doubt until late in regulation when the Penguins added a late insurance tally.

And after a first round with no overtimes against the Rangers, the Caps have more than made up for it. Washington has played three in extra time for just the third time in its playoff history, both coming in the 1998 run to the Stanley Cup Finals against Boston and Buffalo.

The team's two icons - Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby - have also excelled in this series with the Caps' sniper scoring seven goals and six assists, while the Pens' star has six goals and four helpers of his own.

And the team's "lesser" lights have also had their impacts despite some struggles, as Evgeni Malkin was able to help the Penguins grab Games 3 and 5, while Alexander Semin emerged last night to help send the series back to Washington with a goal and some key plays.

Just when it appeared one team would take control of the series, the other were able to take momentum back - in a big way. The Capitals certainly looked like they would be able to hold off the Penguins after a pair of wins at Verizon Center, but the Penguins wrested control from the Caps with three wins of their own. However, they couldn't close the deal and the Capitals forced Game 7 in a wild back-and-forth night featuring four lead changes before David Steckel finally lit the red light for the last time Monday.

Even the coaches and players, in the middle of a tight battle to move one win closer to the Stanley Cup and either the Boston Bruins or the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Finals, they know this has been one of the best Stanley Cup playoff series of all-time with one act left to go.

"If I wasn't behind the bench, I would sure enjoy watching," Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said at the postgame press conference last night. "It's fun now, it might not have been fun if they had scored. This is so good for our game. When our best players can shine on a bright stage like this. I just wish it was for the Cup."

"There was a lot of talk before the series started, and it's everything it was made up to be." Crosby said afterwards. "Let's just say it's not surprising it's going seven."

While Washington's faithful is involved to see they can earn a measure of revenge against the Penguins, outside the Beltway, this is being seen as a series that might go in history among such memorable series as the 1993 Kings-Maple Leafs tilt, or 1994 Rangers-Devils or even the 2001 Avalanche-Devils final.

It's so rare that two of the game's best performers meet in a playoff series, let along performing at such a high level.

"They're incredible, both of them, and Malkin is just as incredible," Boudreau said. "They play at a level other people can't attain."

Add to that the subplots of the rivalry between the two clubs, not to mention the other players who are contributing to their clubs. For Washington, Simeon Varlamov's stellar work for much of the series, Brooks Laich making up for a miss in overtime of Game 5 for an extra-time winner in Game 6. On the other bench, Ruslan Fedetenko has three goals for the Pens in a year where he had just 16, and Kris Letang has an overtime winner one game after appearing to be seriously hurt during the third period of Game 2.

So, it's appropriate the two teams will play one game for bragging rights for one year, and as Ovechkin pointed out, it probably was meant to be.

"I think it's going to be great game," he said. "I think the league wants us to play Game 7."

Monday, May 11, 2009

Clearly, Not the Same Old Capitals

The game set up as a classic Caps nightmare in Pittsburgh, as after losing a 4-3 lead late with an overly passive style that virtually asked the Penguins to even the game, but a fluttering puck changed the Caps' luck and extended their season to a Game 7 Wednesday down in Washington.



Just a week ago, the Capitals were celebrating the wild Game 2 victory, but after that, everything seemed to go awry for Washington.

Game 3 was a case of getting outclassed by a Pittsburgh team needing a win badly, but still, the Caps could have pulled it out before a Chris Letang shot deflected off Shaone Morrisonn and gave the Pens new life.

Washington was better in Game 4, but Simeon Varlamov turned in his first clunker of the playoffs and it produced the difference in the game as Pittsburgh drew even.

The Caps played their best game of the series the next night, but the Pens were able to take advantage in a small lapse in the third period and then won on a deflection off Tom Poti in overtime.

So, when the Capitals couldn't hold a 2-1 lead late in the second period and a 4-3 lead late in the third, it seemed like Washington's luck wouldn't change. Even as they killed a questionable call against them with just 122 seconds left in regulation, it certainly didn't look any brighter as they hadn't won an overtime game since Jeff Halpern scored in Game 5 back in the 2001 series against the Penguins - including two of the last three games in this series.

But unlike overtimes of years past, the Capitals seemed to get the break when the Penguins' Rob Scuderi struck iron on a shot that beat Varlamov, and Washington was able to cash in.

David Steckel wrote himself a place in Caps history by taking a face-off, then fed it back to Brooks Laich at the top of the circle. Steckel worked himself down low, and Laich put on a floater, which Laich was able to tip past Marc-Andre Fleury to end both the Capitals' losing streaks in the series and in overtime.



So now, the series changes dramatically. Just like the Penguins looked close to virtual elimination last Wednesday before a dramatic overtime tally, now the Capitals have a new lease on life after avoiding elimination for the sixth time in the playoffs over the past two seasons.

The crossbar kept the Caps from sifting through a tough series, and now get a chance to go home one more time and try and earn themselves a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals with a win Wednesday night.

The critics had come out of the woodwork (including a column in the Post from Mike Wise that should have included a cyanide), bandying around the word collapse and comparing this Caps team from the ones that had suffered tough losses to the Penguins in 1991, 1992 and 1996. However, anyone who's watched this team knows that this is a different type of team, one that has enough firepower and talent to be able to make up for those tight games.

Alexander Semin picked a nice time to play his best game of the series, scoring the game-tying goal in the second period - on a power play he helped create - just :58 after the Penguins had turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead.

Then, Semin helped create the go-ahead goal late in the period for Washington, getting hauled down on a breakaway chance but being able to recover enough to feed John Erskine, who fed it to Tomas Fleischmann, who beat Fleury for the lead.

The other Alex, Ovechkin had a quietly good game, picking up three assists to move to 13 points in 13 playoff games, and despite being Public Enemy No. 1 in the Steel City, played well and now will get a chance to earn bragging rights over Sidney Crosby with a chance to oust the defending Eastern Conference champions.

Conversely, the Penguins saw this Game 6 as an elimination game, and certainly they played well in the opening period as well as being able to rally back after falling behind. But clearly, Fleury didn't provide the goaltending the Penguins needed to win the game, as he made only 19 saves on 24 shots while Varlamov was strong again for Washington.

Despite the Penguins' playoff success last year, this will be Crosby's first Game 7 in the NHL, while Ovechkin already has played in two in his brief postseason career. It also proved to be just the second time in nine tries that the Capitals had successfully fought off elimination from the Penguins (the first was Game 4 of the infamous scheduling series of 2000 where the Caps were trailing 3-0 in the series), and the Pens have never won a seven-game series where they lost Game 6.

So, in a series that has seen a grand total of one goal different is heading for an appropriate conclusion, as the series already being labeled as a classic by many pundits sets up to what should be a memorable night in Washington.

And, it also gives the Caps a chance to bury some of the demons that that team from western Pennsylvania has held over the the franchise since Washington's lone win in 1994, as this team served notice this isn't the same team that lost all those playoff series to the Pens.

Steckel's Goal Ends Skid, Forces Game 7

Facing elimination and having lost seven straight overtime games, the Capitals fought back to force Game 7 with a David Steckel tip-in off a Brooks Laich fluttering shot to score 6:22 into overtime.

In a series already labeled as a classic, the Capitals and Penguins had a roller-coaster evening, with the Pens outshooting Washington nearly 2-to-1, but with several lead changes, it's fitting the two teams will play in a winner-take all Game 7 Wednesday.

The Capitals were facing elimination, but it was the Penguins who came out firing to open the game.

Matt Cooke nearly converted a bad giveaway in the Caps' zone just 1:15 into the game, and after Brooks Laich couldn't quite put the puck home on a feed from Alexander Semin, the Penguins took control of the period, at one point outshooting Washington 17-3.

Bill Guerin was able to put the hosts up 5:55 into the contest, as he caught Simeon Varlamov guessing on his shot and beat him stick side to complete a 2-on-1 with Sidney Crosby.

The Penguins then got a golden chance to go up by more, as Nicklas Backstrom was whistled for hooking Maxime Talbot with 9:44 left in the period. The Pens put some pressure on, and then Laich was sent off for taking an extra shot on Crosby one minute later, giving Pittsburgh a golden chance to bury the Caps early.

However, the Caps held thanks to some nice saves by Varlamov, and the threat subsided when Crosby was whistled for interfering on a defender in the dying seconds of the first call.

Washington got their first power-play at the tail end of the sequence, but the Caps controlled the puck but failed to take many shots, and were outshot at the end of that advantage by 17-4.

Chris Kunitz sent the Caps back to the power play for taking a penalty on Alexander Semin with just :31.2 left of the period, but the Caps got just one more shot before the horn and a pair of shots in the last 5:32 of the frame. Thankfully for Washington, Varlamov was solid outside the Guerin goal, stopping 17 of 18 and some prime threats by the Pens.

While the Capitals didn't get a whole lot more shots on during the second period, they were able to put a pair past Marc-Andre Fleury to briefly take the lead.

Washington didn't do too much with the power play to begin the period, but slowly began to create a bit more pressure, and with Crosby banged-up on a play, the Caps took advantage on a bad change.

Alex Ovechkin was able to corral the puck and fed Viktor Kozlov in front, who took his time and fired it over Fleury's shoulder to even the game at 1-1 with 13:33 left in the period.

The Capitals had a golden chance to take the lead when Pittsburgh took a too-many-men penalty a little over a minute later, but the extra-man advantage was ineffective.

However, the Caps were able to take advantage when Semin was hauled down on a near-breakaway chance, but he was able to recover to feed John Erskine from behind the net and then he fed Tomas Fleischmann in front who beat a diving Fleury for a 2-1 lead with 5:14 left in the frame.

Brian Pothier took a penalty with 2:04 left in the period, and the Penguins cashed in on a miscue from Milan Jurcina.

While the Caps had 90 seconds of a good penalty kill, Jurcina blocked a Malkin centering feed, but gloved the puck towards the middle than towards the corner. Unfortunately for the Caps, it went towards Mark Eaton, who fired past Varlamov to even the score with :33.4 left in the period.

The period closed with another Semin breakaway attempt on Fleury, but he was hauled down by Hal Gill - but no penalty was called - although replays showed Gill played the man, not the puck, and the officials misjudged the play and let it go.

So with that close, Washington still only had 11 shots to that point, and was down to 20 minutes to keep its season alive on the road.

However, the third period began with a wild sequence of three goals in just 1:27, and certainly provided the teams and fans in a wild roller-coaster ride over the next period.

The Penguins came out flying in the third, and when David Steckel was called for a minor 4:31 into the period, they cashed in just nine seconds later when Chris Letang scored on a shot from the boards, leaving the fans at Mellon Arena in full roar.

It didn't last very long, however, as just :43 after the go-ahead goal, Brooks Orpik was called for hooking Semin in the corner, and he was able to cash in just :15 into the man advantage, shooting through a screen of Laich to even the score with 14:22 left in regulation.

With the Penguins reeling, the Capitals then went back ahead just :29 later, as Kozlov scored on a sharp-angle goal, as Washington caught Fleury not setting up and he shot it in the far corner for a 4-3 lead with 13:53 left in regulation, and just 87 seconds after the series seemingly began to slip away with Letang's goal.

The Penguins began to press for the equalizer, but Varlamov was able to stop the Pens - at least for a couple of minutes - with some nice saves. Pittsburgh got very aggressive and carried the play, and even paired up Crosby and Malkin to try to get the equalizer as the Caps became a bit too content in hanging back and looking to protect the slim lead.

The move paid off, as a bad clear by Green was held in, and Crosby was able to score with 4:19 left to bring the Penguins even as he was left alone and was able to just chip a rebound past Varlamov.

The Penguins then got a power play with just 2:02 left in regulation as Steckel was called for a slash, leaving the Caps irate and needing a kill to force overtime and keep their season alive. However, they were able to hold the fort, and Backstrom even created a good chance of their own short-handed, but the two teams headed to overtime for the third time in the series.

The Penguins finished regulation outshooting the Caps nearly 2-to-1, including a 14-9 edge in the third for a 39-20 advantage.

Scuderi nearly ended the game with just under four minutes gone in the extra session, hitting the crossbar on a long shot after a scramble in front, then Ovechkin had a chance on the ensuing rush but Fleury made a nice save.

However, the Capitals finally ended their overtime woes after losing seven straight dating back to Jeff Halpern's game-winner back in the 2001 playoffs in this building, as off a face-off, Laich put a puck on net, and Steckel got a stick on it to light the lamp and square the series at three games apiece.

So, for the third straight series, the Capitals will play a Game 7 at Verizon Center, and the classic series appears headed for another dramatic finish.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Bears Force Game 7

Well, if the Bears' night is any indication, perhaps the Capitals will force a Game 7 of their own tomorrow night.

In the East Division Final, the Capitals and Bears have had similar series, winning and losing the same games of the series. But Sunday afternoon at Giant Center, Michal Neuvirth stopped all 30 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton shots he faced as Hershey topped the Penguins 3-0 to force a deciding game Tuesday night.

Andrew Gordon put Hershey up with 11:35 gone in the game, and then the Bears took command in the second period as a goal :22 into the second by Darren Reid and then less than three minutes later on a wraparound goal by Alexandre Giroux. That's all the Bears would need, as Neuvirth turned aside 21 shots in the final 40 minutes for the shutout.

Now, with a perfect 5-0 mark at home, the Bears will face the Penguins for the right to battle the Worcester Sharks or Providence Bruins for the Eastern Conference title.

Capitals Need to Corral Consistency

If there's one thing we've learned from this year's Capitals, we know that they don't always deliver the same effort level from one game to the next. Of course, this is coming into play as for the second time in three weeks, the Caps are just one loss away from elimination.

During last year's mad dash into the playoffs, the Caps were a team that outhustled their opponents and beat them to loose pucks, but once the playoffs began, they lost a bit of that spark - until they fell behind 3-1 in the series to Philadelphia.

This year, the Capitals performed well for most of the season, although towards the end of the season, the team was playing like they were conserving energy for the playoffs and more concerned about staying healthy than looking to catch Boston for the top seed in the East.

Even in individual games over the last quarter of the season, the team occasionally would look lacksidasical for the first two periods, then decide to make a run late and see if they could earn two points despite not turning in a full 60 minutes of effort.

That strategy nearly backfired in the first round of the playoffs, as the team's effort level was adequate, but not good enough to avoid falling into a 3-1 hole against the Rangers - even after an impressive effort in Game 3 was followed up by another poor effort.

Now, once again, after a good start to this series, the Capitals are paying for not quite delivering their best effort in Pittsburgh, and the Pens took full advantage in grabbing three straight wins to push Washington to the brink of elimination - again.

The Capitals promise their best effort will come tomorrow night, and there's no reason to doubt that as Alex Ovechkin said last night in the postgame presser, "If we're going to play same way how we play first two periods we're going win this series."

The problem is that had the Capitals shown some of that same effort in Games 3 and 4, there may not have even been a Game 5. Washington was thoroughly flat after a good start Wednesday, but still had a chance to put the Penguins in a 3-0 hole in overtime. There was a better effort Friday, but some soft goals by Simeon Varlamov led to the series equalizer.

Then, of course, the best effort in the series to date resulted in a couple of bad breaks putting the Capitals in a 3-2 hole - which is why you want to avoid taking your foot off the gas in the first place, since you don't want to let a lackluster effort lead to a bad penalty or bad bounce being able to end eight months' worth of work.

Too many players have turned in inconsistent efforts during this series, and the Caps will need some of their key players such as Alex Semin and Mike Green to make their presence known.

Semin, who scored five goals against the Rangers (although with an inconsistent effort), has zero tallies in five games against a Penguins team he scored four goals against in the regular season.

Green, who did create a chance that led to Chris Clark's goal in Game 4, still has been opting to pass the puck more than he did in the regular season, and despite the Caps' claims he was afflicted by the flu in the Rangers series, he has just one goal in a dozen playoff games and is a -2 rating in this series.

Nicklas Backstrom has successfully resurfaced from a slow start to the postseason with three goals in the last three games, but unfortunately, all three came in losing efforts.

There's no doubt the Capitals are capable of coming back and taking the last two games against the Penguins, as this club has quietly made a trademark of an inconsistent effort level that certainly makes them at times look like one of the best teams in the league and at other instances looking very disjointed and disinterested.

Regardless of what happens in this series, however, this team needs to change its mindset that it can just turn it on and off and be successful in the playoffs. As the opponents get better, any period of time that you aren't outworking your opponent - such as the first 10 minutes of the third period - it can come back to wreck a strong overall effort.

The Rangers outworked the Capitals for the early part of their first round series, but Washington was a better team and was able to turn it on when it needed to and won the series thanks to a third-period tally.

Now, the Penguins were able to outwork the Caps badly in a pair of games at the Igloo, and now a tough break has led to them facing elimination once again, and this time, the two teams are much more evenly matched with just one game decided by more than a single tally.

Washington certainly can force this series back to Washington for Game 7, although it should know that it is just making life harder on itself in the long run and wearing itself out with its inconsistent efforts in a playoff series - something they should take with them regardless if they are able to move on to the Eastern Conference Finals or to the golf course later this week.