Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Slapshot on "The Price Is Right"

In case you missed it, here's Slapshot's network debut on "The Price Is Right."



(h/t) Litter Box Cats

Capitals Season Preview

After breaking down the 30-team NHL, let's take an in-depth look at what could happen around here, as the Capitals look to take a step further towards the Stanley Cup this season.

Coming in with high expectations, how to the Capitals stack up, and how close is this team to truly bringing a title back to Washington? Here's a position-by-position breakdown of what to expect, and what might unfold over the next six (or seven, or eight) months.

Goaltending: Probably the most intriguing position for the Capitals right now is in between the pipes, as while Michal Neuvirth's injury cleared up the goaltending situation and ended up earning him a trip to Hershey, it was pretty clear the two netminders the Caps were going to go with at the outset.

Jose Theodore, while losing his No. 1 spot in the playoffs last spring, still has one year left on his expensive deal, and could become an interesting bargaining chip as the season progresses. If the team needs to clear cap space at the trade deadline and Theodore gets ice time, they can parlay him into a deadline deal where his contract is much more appealing to a trade partner, and that means barring a meltdown by the veteran, he will see decent time in net.

Semyon Varlamov is clearly the future of the franchise, and he will get his chance to take over the role this season. Varlamov has certainly been impressive in his brief NHL career, and his flexibility has been the reason he takes away a lot of the lower part of the net. However, as the Penguins discovered in their playoff series last spring, he is vulnerable to high shots under the crossbar, and he will need to have to take those away in order to prevent having shooters just pick him apart with a high shot.

Michal Neuvirth will start the season in Hershey, but he could get his chance if one of the top two is hurt, or if the team elects to trade Theodore at the deadline. For the time being, look for the top two to rotate, with a decent possibility that could chance come March.

Defense: While the Capitals like to tout their depth on the blueline, it is a bit deceiving as the team has a Norris Trophy candidate in Mike Green, they also have some bottom-tier defensemen in the mix and perhaps the only thing they didn't do was acquire another top pairing blueliner to improve their chances this spring.

Mike Green certainly showed off his offensive skill last year, scoring 31 goals and 42 assists despite missing 14 games with injury. However, by the time the playoffs ended, Green was the walking wounded, unable to take the body during the Penguins series and hurting Washington's chances. Now, Green will look not only to duplicate his offensive showing, but show voters - and the Canadian Olympic team - that he can be more than a one-dimensional defenseman.

Tom Poti is coming off an injury-filled season where he could dress in 52 of 82 games and the normal power-play quarterback saw his numbers suffer and eventually lost his role on the first-team extra-man unit to Green. Poti is another good puck-moving defenseman with some questions in his own end, but clearly not with the finishing power of Green. Poti, who recorded 27 assists two years ago, only registered 10 last year and the Capitals will need him to step up this campaign.

John Erskine, who looked absolutely lost in the Flyers' playoff series two years ago, looked much better in last year's postseason, but he clearly doesn't quite have the speed to hang with the speedier clubs anymore. He will get more ice time this season as well this year since he takes over the tough-guy role vacated by Donald Brashear's departure, so he certainly will have a more important role in certain games.

Brian Pothier will also be an interesting case this year. Oft-injured since coming over from Ottawa a couple of years back, Pothier hopes to stay healthy for the season and also can provide some puck movement, although he isn't quite the crease-clearing role the Capitals are lacking on the blueline.

The mix of Milan Jurchina, Shaone Morrisonn and Tyler Sloan fill out the back end of the blueline, and the youngsters certainly have a chance to move up on the depth chart, all have been spotty so far on blueline.

Of course, Karl Alzner and John Carlson are waiting in the wings in Hershey, more because of their young status rather than a talent deficiency. Alzner made it down to the final week, but his solid but unspectacular style didn't quite make him stick in Washington, but he should be the first player called up should any of the team's defensemen get hurt.

Carlson, on the other hand, will probably get some time to get seasoned in Hershey before possibly getting called up later in the year barring a rash of injuries.

Forwards: The team's explosive offense got even more dangerous this offseason, as a critical element the team was lacking was filled in the summer with the addition of Mike Knuble from the Flyers.

Of course, the straw that stirs the drink is Alexander Ovechkin, coming off back-to-back MVP seasons and certainly in a good spot to become the first player since Wayne Gretzky to win three consecutive Hart Trophies. He hasn't scored less than 46 goals in his four seasons, and 121 regular-season goals in his past two campaigns. The key for Ovechkin is probably his health, although even an injured Ovechkin was pretty effective in last year's postseason, but clearly that would be the one huge factor if for some reason he sustains a serious injury.

Alexander Semin is in a unique spot, as his contract expires after this season and he may be out of the Capitals' price range next year since he figures to get a healthy raise from the $5,000,000 he's earning this year. He was perhaps the Caps' best player for a time last year, but also has a nasty tendency to vanish at times, which is frustrating for the coaching staff since when he's on, he can be almost as dominant as No. 8.

Knuble was a very underrated acquisition for Washington, but he fits the mold of what the team sorely needs, a player who can crash the net and isn't afraid of dirty goals. One deficiency the offense had was it spent too much time around the perimeter when Ovechkin was the one most willing to crash the crease, but now they have another forward capable of doing so on the power play when Ovechkin plays the point.

Nicklas Backstrom's sophomore season didn't have a slump, as he made a nice 19-point improvement over a good rookie campaign, and clearly his progression should continue as he could flirt with the 100-point barrier this season with assist totals that could reach the 70s and perhaps fight for the league leader in that category. Of course, there will be added time for Backstrom to skate this season, as he will be part of Sweden's Olympic squad.

Another underrated pickup could be Brendan Morrison, who is a four-time 20-goal scorer, but has been hampered by injuries in the past couple of seasons (and also missed time this preseason due to injury). The last full season Morrison was healthy was 2006-07, where he notched 51 points in 82 games, and he has played 120 games in the two seasons since. If he can stay healthy, he is a valuable depth forward and is capable of putting in a key goal where needed.

Brooks Laich also looks to build on back-to-back 20-goal campaigns, scoring a career-best 53 points last season and added seven points during the playoffs. Laich is another forward that the Caps hope can make progression this season and perhaps make a run at being a 30-goal scorer, although with the talented forwards the Caps have, he'd need to make the most of what figures to be somewhat limited ice time.

Thomas Fleischmann and Eric Fehr will begin the season on the injured list, but the Capitals do have some flexibility to fill in for those two capable forwards for a short period of time - although clearly, it will make for an interesting decision once those two are healthy enough to return.

Chris Clark returns as captain with something to prove, as the jury's still out if the veteran has fully recovered from an injury suffered two seasons ago. Clark's brightest moment came paired with Ovechkin a couple of seasons back, but lately, he's been looking slower and less effective, even as a checking forward. Clark only registered six points in 32 games last year, and Washington will need more from him this year to justify using a roster spot on him.

The other checking roles fall to Matt Bradley and David Steckel, who will need to improve on a combined -3, most likely by becoming a bit more of a threat in the other end as well. Too many times last year, the Caps were bottled up in their own end, and it might behoove them to create a bit more of a threat up front to keep the other team's line more honest.

The white elephant is Michael Nylander, who certainly is in an awkward positon as the team had hoped to move his contract, but without skating a single minute of the postseason, his trade value is virtually nil and his cap hit will limit the Capitals' ability to make a deadline move, unless they decide to move a player like Theodore.

The Nylander situation on Wednesday cost the Caps the services of Chris Bourque, who was waived to squeeze the team under the salary cap and claimed by the Penguins. Had George McPhee found a taker - either in the NHL or Europe - it certainly would have given the Caps more flexibility, but now, the team really will be limited in movements, just like last season.

Overall: The Capitals enter 2009-10 with heightened expectations and barring a Biblical rash of injuries, unlike past seasons, there's little doubt this will be a playoff team.

Washington's major obstacle for the Southeast Division title will be the Carolina Hurricanes, who have proven to be a hot-and-cold contender who at times can be a tremendous team, but other times turn in puzzling efforts. But Washington this year perhaps is even better than last year's addition, as the addition of Mike Knuble certainly negates the loss of Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov, with the only real question coming in the capabilities of Varlamov and Theodore in the postseason.

The team's early schedule is pretty difficult as well, with only one of their first seven games coming against a non-playoff team from last year, including games at Boston and Detroit, and could prove a barometer of how the team will stack up against some of the other best in the league.

Of course, the problem that limited the Capitals last season with a lack of flexibility with the salary cap could prove to be an issue, but I'd expect Theodore will be moved towards the deadline if that's the case if there's no successful resolution of the Nylander situation. If they move him then, they'd free up some money to pick up a player themselves, since regardless, Theodore's contract will be gone and Nylander's contract will allow them to trade or release him over the summer.

Washington also is a serious contender for the No. 1 seed overall in the East, likely with Philadelphia and Boston taking their respective divisions. The Flyers could prove to be a tough team to catch, as they are built for a good regular season (although the jury's still out how Ray Emery will fare when the pressure's on in April). Boston likely takes a bit of a step back this season, but they're still the best team in a fairly weak Northeast Division.

So look for the Capitals to enter the playoffs as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the East, and then looking for a couple of favorable matchups to see if the team can at least reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1997-98, as Washington is quite capable of at least going that far in the playoffs. Anything beyond that is possible, but the Caps likely will need to add an impact defenseman and get a more consistent performance from whatever goaltender is playing at that point to advance further in the postseason.

Bourque Claimed by Penguins

Forced up against the salary cap, the Capitals lost Chris Bourque to the Pittsburgh Penguins on waivers, meaning Washington squeeze $577,500 off the cap - although they pick up Boyd Kane's $500,000 to complete the Opening Night lineup in Boston.

Michael Nylander's steep contract won't earn him a sweater, as the Capitals seem intent to keep him off the ice until they absolutely need him. Kane is expected to play on the fourth line against the Bruins, while Quintin Laing will jump to the third line.

Pacific Divison Preview

September is a month for predictions, and with the exhibition season in the rear-view mirror, here's a look at what might unfold over the next six months.

San Jose Sharks: The Sharks saw a terrific regular-season go up in smoke last spring, as a shocking ousting at the hands of the Ducks added to a frustrating playoff record for Team Teal.

The biggest addition for San Jose was picking up the talented and enigmatic Dany Heatley from Ottawa, as while he will certainly add some scoring punch, the question over his character will dog him all year long.

Fortunately for the Sharks is that they are by far the top team in the Pacific, so barring a rash of injuries, they should at least grab a top three seed.

Dallas Stars: A disaster of a start in Dallas clouded the Stars' season, with the problems with Sean Avery torpedoing the team's first quarter before a torrid second-half fell just short of a playoff berth.

Now, the Stars will look to build on what was a solid finish to the campaign, but with an aging club and the team locked in a tough division, Dallas certainly will need more consistency to return to the playoffs in a very competitive conference.

Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks made a major offseason shift, shipping Chris Pronger to Philadelphia and looking to revamp their club leaves some questions about Anaheim's ability to return to the postseason.

As it was, the Ducks just got in the playoffs under the wire, but without their lynchpin on defence, Anaheim hopes to be able to parlay its squad into another postseason berth - which could be a tough task.

Los Angeles Kings: After another disappointing campaign in Tinseltown, the Kings hope some tweaking in the offseason helps finally end the Kings' playoff drought.

Ryan Smyth was brought in from Colorado, and with a team that has gotten younger but struggled, it still might be a tough task for the Kings to be able to qualify in what figures to be a tough playoff pack in the Western Conference.

Phoenix Coyotes: While the Coyotes were able to surprise last season in making a playoff push, this year figures to be a very tough one for Phoenix fans. With the team's future in the desert already in doubt and bankruptcy forcing Wayne Gretzky to resign as the team's coach, Dave Tippett takes over a young team that will be forced to deal with an uncertain future and little chance of filling holes until the sale finalizes.

The Coyotes will have a tough haul, alhough Phoenix fans are probably more worried if this will be the last year in Glendale than making a run at the playoffs.

Northwest Divison Preview

September is a month for predictions, and with the exhibition season in the rear-view mirror, here's a look at what might unfold over the next six months.

Vancouver Canucks: Despite an injury to Roberto Luongo, the Canucks were able to stave off Calgary for the Northwest title and advanced to the second round with a convincing win over the Blues.

Now, with a full season of Mats Sundin and the Sedin twins back in the fold, Vancouver hopes to be able to parlay a full year of the Vezina-caliber netminder into pushing the Red Wings and Sharks for the top seed in the West.

Calgary Flames: Calgary made a big step towards improving their Cup prospects in acquiring Jay Bouwmeester from Florida, giving the Flames a tough defensive presence along with Dion Phaneuf and a talented group.

Of course, the tough task for Jarome Iginla's bunch will be overtaking the talented Canucks in a two-team dogfight for superiority in the Northwest, but the Flames should grab a good seed in the Western Conference come April.

Minnesota Wild: Once ruled by the trap, a different-looking Wild team will take the ice this season as Jaques Lemaire has stepped down from the bench to be replaced with Todd Richards.

Also gone from St. Paul is Marian Gaborik, who fueled the Wild's offense - when he was able to be healthy. So without their top gun, Minnesota hopes that a new more offensive system helps the team rebound from a narrow miss to the postseason last spring.

Edmonton Oilers: Ever since the Oilers' magical run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006, the Oilers have struggled to gain traction, and it's going to be a tough stretch to qualify in the tight Western Conference.

The Oilers lost Dwayne Roloson to the Islanders, but picked up Nikolai Khabiboulin, who the club hopes can play more like the goalie that helped the Blackhawks than the 'keeper who has largely been struggling since the lockout in Chicago. It will be a tough task for Edmonton, barring some midseason improvement to the club.

Colorado Avalanche: After a brief flirtation with a playoff spot in February, the crumbling remnants of the Avalanche's playoff hopes vanished with a terrible finish and led to major changes in Denver.

Gone is Ryan Smyth to Los Angeles, and Joe Sakic has finally left the club that he joined in 1987 back in Quebec City. So while the season begins with Sakic's retirement ceremony on Oct. 3, unfortunatley for Colorado fans, that might be all the team has to celebrate this season.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Central Division Preview

September is a month for predictions, and with the exhibition season in the rear-view mirror, here's a look at what might unfold over the next six months.

Detroit Red Wings: Just one win from back-to-back Stanley Cups, the battered Red Wings fell short against the Penguins, and now will try to copy the Penguins' path of winning the title a year after falling short in the final round.

Unlike past years, Detroit failed to make any major offseason splashes, losing Marian Hossa to the Blackhawks and will have to go with what they have to try to win their third consecutive Western crown. The pressure will be on Pavel Datsyuk to repeat his MVP-calibre season in Motown, and unlike past years where Detroit have made the Central a cakewalk, they should repeat atop the division although they will get strong competition from Chicago and perhaps Columbus.

Chicago Blackhawks: The 'Hawks were looking good in the offseason by signing Marian Hossa, but the injury bug has struck Hossa and some of his new teammates before the puck drops for real.

The biggest blow is the loss of Hossa, as well as an injury to Adam Burish, which already leaves Chicago thinner up front. The other question is how ex-Cap Cristobal Huet fares in the No. 1 role, as he couldn't beat out the now-departed Nikolai Khabiboulin for the job last year and now will be expected to guide a Stanley Cup contender.

Chicago certainly has a good shot at ending a Stanley Cup drought that has lasted since 1961, but so far, the stars don't quite seem lined up for the parade down Michigan Avenue just yet.

Columbus Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets took the hockey world by storm last season, as Steve Mason helped Columbus reach the postseason for the first time in its franchise history.

Now, the team will look for a good encore, as the team will be pushed by a very solid division, with the Jackets likely needing to have to keep its progression goign in what figures to be another tough fight for one of the last playoff spots in the wild, wild Western Conference.

St. Louis Blues: St. Louis had a Cinderella run into the playoffs, emerging from the depths to sneak into the playoffs at the gun. Now, the Blues will try and make their work a bit easier with a better start to the campaign.

Andy Murray certainly made the most of a young Blues roster, and it certainly seems a good bet that the Blues might be able to make a run at a better seed this time around.

Nashville Predators: Once the playoff contenders among the rest of the Central, the Predators have fallen behind the pack and now will have a tough road to climb out of the division's basement.

While the franchise's future is a bit clearer in the Music City, unfortunately for the fans there, the playoff prospects for the Preds aren't as bright.

Bourque Put on Waivers

The Washington Times says that one day after Chris Bourque was told he'd be in the starting lineup for Washington Thursday night in Boston, the son of the Hall-of-Famer may not even be Capitals property by noon tomorrow.

With the team in a salary cap crunch, and leaving their options open for any pending waiver moves by other teams, the Caps placed Bourque on waivers in case another team wants to claim him. If no one does - and the Capitals don't pick anyone else up - he will indeed be in the lineup. But he can be claimed by any of the other 29 teams for nothing, and George McPhee told the Times it would be an issue for the team anyways in a couple of weeks anyways once Eric Fehr and Thomas Fleischmann return to health.

In other waiver news, Keith Aucoin and Alexandre Giroux reportedly cleared waivers and will be back to open the Hershey Bears' Calder Cup defense this weekend.

Forsberg Talk

The rumor du jour flying around surrounding the Caps came from Adrian Dater's All Things Avs Blog, where it's suggested that Peter Forsberg, playing for Modo in the Swedish Elite League, would have the Caps near the top of the teams he'd like to join.

Now, while that certainly perked up the ears of Caps fans everywhere, it would take quite a bit in reality to even begin to consider that.

First of all, the Caps have no room under the cap at the moment for a player of that caliber, even one past his prime. Unless the Capitals can work a settlement with Michael Nylander in the next 26 hours (and he was in the team picture taken today at Verizon Center), there's no room to make him even a reduced offer. The only other avenue would likely be Jose Theodore's departure, but that won't happen for a while with Michal Neuvirth's injury settling the goaltending debate - for now.

And, of course, the last few years, Forsberg has been the ultimate rental, waiting until late in the year to join an NHL club - which barring a major Caps move, that would be the scenario if he did join Washington. But not to mention that he reportedly suffered a stress fracture in his foot, which certainly doesn't bode well to offer him a pricey deal if the problem hampers his play long-term.

For now, it's a rumor best left in the mill, as Forsberg has become a Swedish equivalent of Brett Favre, waiting until late to join clubs and then perhaps not quite healthy. Sometimes it does work out, but other times, it really has no impact.

Can Caps Make Their Move?

Observers to this market have always cited the Redskins' dominant role in Washington, about how the popularity of the city's NFL franchise is far-and-away the most successful of any team in town.

But is there a chance the Capitals could challenge the 'Skins to become THE team in town?

The last time the Capitals sustained a long-term period of popularity was during the Hall-of-Fame-studded teams of the 1980s and early 1990s, but the Caps also happened to be very good at the same time when the Redskins were en route to three Super Bowl championships. While the Caps sold out the Capital Centre regularly during the stretch drive to the playoffs (and attendance would spike markedly after the 'Skins season came to a close), there was no doubt with the scarcity of tickets at RFK and which team ruled the city.

Even with blips of heavy popularity during the Caps' playoff run of 1998 and the initial arrival of Jaromir Jagr, the team is peaking in popularity, reaching heights unseen during any other point of their 35-year run in Washington, selling 18,000 tickets each to three PRESEASON games and now looking at 41 sellouts this year at Verizon Center with season-tickets sold out, an unprecedented run for the team that certainly eclipses what transpired in Landover 20 years ago.

The team even sold 5,000 tickets to Saturday's convention in Oxon Hill, when even two years ago they had trouble getting that many people to actually show up for early-season weeknight contests.

And, of course, this couldn't come at a better time in terms of comparisons with the Redskins, a team that has been hit hard with several PR disasters off-the-field with the Washington Post's ticket expose and on-the-field thanks to a winning performance that earned boos two weeks ago followed up by a loss to the lowly Detroit Lions. Many longtime Redskins fans are disenchanted with the team's direction under Dan Snyder, both with the team's seemingly greedy stance with fans and the 'Skins struggles on the field that is a shadow of the Super Bowl contender the team was 20 years ago.

While the Redskins still claim a season-ticket waiting list of 160,000, it seems more of sleight of hand than actual demand for ducats, as tickets can be had relatively easily, either by paying the team directly for the ample premium seats available or simply picking up reasonably-priced tickets on the resale market. On the other hand, the Capitals for the first time have a waiting list of their own, and while the resale market is very soft on 'Skins tickets, it certainly is robust for the Caps.

For example, tickets for the Redskins-Buccaneers game Sunday are going for as little as $25 on StubHub, while a ticket to the Capitals-Maple Leafs on Saturday are going for at least twice that.

There are other precedents for an NHL team's popularity soaring in a historically NFL market, with some mixed results dependent on the sustained run by the local hockey club.

The best example for comparison is probably the Colorado Avalanche, who arrived in Denver in 1995 and instantly became a hot ticket by capturing the Stanley Cup in their first year in the Mile High City. The Avs' timing was good as well as by capturing the state's first major professional championship, as while the Broncos were still the undisputed top team in the city (particularly with their back-to-back Super Bowl wins), the Avalanche certainly enjoyed a strong second status with a following far better than Denver's NBA and MLB franchises. Of course, that is credited to the instant success the team had and sustained for almost a decade. With the team now struggling more on the ice, some of the initial wave of popularity has shrunk, its sellout streak came to an end and is being threatened by the resurgent Rockies who threaten to make a return trip to the World Series this fall.

Another case study would be the Buffalo Sabres, whose run following the lockout was very impressive, although the team's recent personnel moves have stunted some of the team's long-term growth. With the Bills floundering for a decade, the Sabres gave the city hope of a major-league title in 2007 with the best regular-season team in the NHL, but a disappointing loss to the Senators followed by the departure of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere put a damper on it. However, like the Avalanche, while they did not overtake the Bills in popularity, the Sabres are a still a very strong No. 2 to the Bills, although there is no competition from a local MLB or NBA squad.

The Capitals are quickly becoming a strong No. 2 to the Redskins in the market, well ahead of the hapless Nationals and the rebuilding Wizards. The key to the Capitals staying there will likely depend on the team's success in the next few seasons, and their ability to finally capture the elusive Stanley Cup.

In the Caps' previous height of the mid-1980s, while the club was consistently one of the best regular-season teams, their playoff struggles dampened their overall popularity, as if there is one thing this town loves, it's a winner. While the Redskins were able to capture the championship three times, the Caps never advanced to the Finals until well after future Hall-of-Famers Mike Gartner, Scott Stevens and Rod Langway had departed.

The Caps have a unique opportunity to tap into the anger and apathy surrounding the Redskins, boosting their own stock indirectly at the expense of the NFL franchise. The team also has a unique confluence of being competitive, entertaining and also happening to have the most dynamic player in the sport at the same time.

Short-term, the Capitals are becoming a strong No. 2 in this town, lapping the Nats and Wiz, but the next step for Washington will be to capture the Stanley Cup to make it the impact more permanent, since those other two teams had their own chance to make their mark in recent years.

While the Redskins and Wizards (nee Bullets) have won championships, the city is starving for a winner, having last seen a title in 1993 when the Redskins captured Super Bowl XXVI against Buffalo, and a Stanley Cup would do a lot to attact even more fans.

The Nats made a bid at No. 2 upon their arrival to town and surprising 2005 playoff run, but clearly their on-field struggles has hurt their bid and are entrenched in the No. 3 spot. The Wizards had the short-term boost of Michael Jordan followed up by a playoff win over the Bulls, but the lack of success since followed by an injury-plagued season last year has shoved the NBA team to the basement of popularity for now.

Long-term, if the Capitals flounder in the postseason over the next couple of years, there will be some apathy generated, as fans - and the team - don't accept just getting to the postseason as being good enough anymore.

The Redskins, marred as they are, are likely to hold onto the top spot, simply due to the history and ability to hold a casual fans' attention over 16 games against an 82-game grind. The NFL franchise also has extensive reach outside the Washington market, something the Capitals don't have (although Alexander Ovechkin's popularity has certainly increased the team's profile across North America).

But, if the Capitals can take advantage of this unique opportunity and capture a Stanley Cup in short order, they certainly will be mentioned in the same breath as the town's revered NFL franchise, something that seemed unthinkable even a couple of years ago.

Northeast Division Preview

September is a month for predictions, and with the exhibition season in the rear-view mirror, here's a look at what might unfold over the next six months.

Boston Bruins: After a stunning loss to Carolina in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Bruins start over after a terrific regular season that went poof in overtime.

With Phil Kessel gone to Toronto for draft picks, that puts a bit more pressure on the rest of the potent Bruins to pick up the slack, and repeat what had been a magical season in Boston, which could be a tough task.

Fortunatley for the Bruins, the Northeast Division is certainly on a down cycle, with perhaps only the Buffalo Sabres being a real threat to another top three seed, and the B's should skate to another top three seed, although a No. 1 seed might be just out of their reach this time around.

Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres' playoff drought reached two seasons thanks to Ryan Miller's injury down the stretch, as Buffalo just missed out on the postseason after slumping with Patrick Lalime fading down the stretch when Buffalo needed him most.

Still, the Sabres certainly have enough talent to get into the postseason, although the current edition is a far cry from the club that won the President's Trophy just three seasons ago. Miller will be the centerpiece, needing to be strong for Buffalo to return to the playoffs, where they could be able to do some damage.

Montreal Canadiens: After a hugely disappointing 100th Anniversary season, the Canadiens made one of the biggest head-scratchers of the postseason, acquiring free-agent bust Scott Gomez and hoping he could turn around a franchise in turmoil.

The Habs are just a mess right now, and while the team certainly has enough talent to get into the playoffs again, the dark cloud surrounding the team will need to lift in order for a bad situation not to get worse.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Another team with a busy offseason was the Maple Leafs, who picked up Kessel from the Bruins in the hope that he can help add some spark to the offense one he returns to the lineup. It certainly was a gamble, as the first-round pick they sent to their division rival could end up being a top five selection if things go the same as they did last year in Toronto.

Toronto can be dangerous on a game-to-game basis, but it's hard to imagine this club will be able to qualify for the first time since the lockout this season.

Ottawa Senators: Just 20 months ago, the Senators were one of the top teams in the NHL, but they have collapsed into a a heap and now will look to rebuild with disgruntled Dany Heatley now playing in San Jose. Faced with a tough situation, Bryan Murray did as best he could getting Jonathan Cheechoo from the Sharks, but this team has some serious holes beyond Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza.

After a decade of being in contention, the Senators have returned to their dark early years, and it's going to take some major changes before Ottawa gets back into the postseason.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Bourque, Sloan and Laing Part of Roster

Per Capitals Insider, Chris Bourque, Tyler Sloan and Quintin Laing were told after practice today that they'd be part of the team's Opening Night roster.

With one spot left to decide, Washington could opt to do some shuffling before the deadline, including deciding what to do with Michael Nylander before the 3PM deadline Wednesday, or placing Michal Neuvirth on IR to make room - at least until Eric Fehr, who returned to practice today, is healthy enough to play.

Either way, Bourque, Sloan and Laing will be part of an Opening Night roster for the first time, particularly important for Bourque, who only skated under his father's retired No. 77 at Boston's TD Banknorth Center as a member of the Boston University Terriers and as part of a preseason lineup last September.

Sloan had been part of the team's playoff run, but with a crowded blueline, his fate wasn't sure, but per the Post, Boudreau called him the team's "best defenseman" during the exhibition season.

Laing, of course, had a ruptured spleen late in the regular season, but impressed the staff with his ability to block shots.

Atlantic Division Preview

September is a month for predictions, and with the exhibition season in the rear-view mirror, here's a look at what might unfold over the next six months.

Philadelphia Flyers: Philadelphia certainly made a splash in the trade market over the offseason, picking up Chris Pronger from the Ducks to try and add some grit to the blueline. However, while its defense is stronger, the goaltending situation certainly is a huge question mark with Ray Emery returning from the KHL in one of the toughest creases to play in around the league.

Still, the Flyers are likely the best regular-season team in the division, and will contend with Washington for the top seed in the East. The big question for the Flyers if this will just be another edition of a solid club that comes undone by poor netminding in April.

Pittsburgh Penguins: After successfully capturing the Stanley Cup, the Penguins now will have to deal with a hangover, and certainly won't come out of nowhere again this year to rise from 10th in the East with a little over a month to go to claim a title.

The Pens, already somewhat thin on the blueline even with their Cup-winning club, got a bit thinner with some key departures, so they need their replacements to stand in to help keep the team in contention.

However, it's hard to count out a team with two of the best players in the game, as Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby certainly proved they can carry this club to great heights when they are at their best. Pittsburgh probably won't see a turbulent a regular season as last year, but should certainly land a good playoff seed.

New Jersey Devils: The big question in Newark is how the Devils deal with a collapse of epic proportions, as New Jersey squandered a late lead in Game 7 of their series to fall to Carolina and lead to an offseason of question marks.

After missing most of last year with an injury, Martin Brodeur showed his age by allowing goals in the final 90 seconds of a critical contest, and the Devils may need to rely on Yann Denis more than they have backups in the past. New Jersey certainly should be in the postseason, but some changes will need to be made down the road to return them back to a true Cup contender.

New York Rangers: After an impotent offense failed them in the playoffs against Washington, the Rangers made a massive overhaul to the squad, sending pricey free-agent bust Scott Gomez to Montreal and bringing in Marian Gaborik from Minnesota.

Gaborik, while a terrific player when healthy, certainly hasn't been able to skate a full 82 games and the Rangers will be much different if he can't skate. Ex-Hab Chris Higgins and rookie Artem Anisimov should help, but this is Gaborik's team now and he will be looked to produce.

Defensively, the Blueshirts added Hobey Baker winner Matt Gilroy, and he will have to perform quickly in a tough environment, likely meaning having to rely on Henrik Lundquist. New York is likely going to spend another season fighting to get in the playoffs, but should just sneak in.

New York Islanders: Despite adding John Tavares to temporarily brighten the team's long-term future, the Islanders now likely will face an ugly situation where the team's 40-year stay on Long Island is in serious jeopardy.

On the ice, the crease became a crowded place, with the team clearly sending a signal that Rick DiPietro may be done by signing Martin Biron and Dwayne Roloson to deals for the upcoming season. Tavares will certainly add some highlights to an otherwise dismal situation, and Isles fans will wonder if by the time he reaches superstar status if he'll still be based in Uniondale.

Caps Send Down Alzner, Aucoin, Giroux and Sugden

With the deadline for the Opening Night roster just 53 hours away, the Capitals cleared up all but one open spot on their roster, sending down Karl Alzner, Keith Aucoin, Alexandre Giroux and Brandon Sugden to Hershey to get down to 24 players with one more decision left to make.

The biggest surprise of the bunch is Alzner, who was presumed to have locked up a spot on the blueline as the team's top pick two years ago even with a logjam on defense, but he also was more attractive to be sent down since he could go down to the Bears without needing to clear waivers first.

Aucoin played well in his preseason action, and with his one-way contract, he will earn $500,000 this season regardless of where he plays, but clearly the Caps decided he didn't quite fit in the roster and exposed him to waivers. He could be claimed by another club looking for a sparkplug, but clearly it's going to be tough for him to earn a spot with the Capitals.

Giroux had a good start to the preseason, but seemed to get progressively worse in the preseason, and at times looked lost once lineups became more NHL-heavy. Giroux's shot allows him to thrive in the AHL, but his skating ability causes some struggles at the NHL level. Giroux also must clear waivers, but since he was signed as an unrestricted free-agent in the offseason and wasn't overly impressive in exhibition play, he's less likely to be claimed as Aucoin might be.

Sudgen was vying for an enforcer role, and got into a pair of fights with Donald Brashear, but with space already tight for forwards, it would have been a long shot to carry him. Provided he makes Hershey's roster, he could be back when the Caps anticipate needing an enforcer, but the team is happy letting the rough stuff to John Erskine when they need it.

Now, the Capitals have one or two more players to demote (or trade), with the Michael Nylander situation still unresolved as he is taking a spot on the roster. Washington could elect to go with just 22 players to get under the salary cap if they need to, but players such as Quintin Laing, Tyler Sloan and Chris Bourque are clearly on the bubble as time ticks down to the deadline.

Southeast Division Preview

September is a month for predictions, and with the exhibition season in the rear-view mirror, here's a look at what might unfold over the next six months.

Washington Capitals: The Caps picked up some grit in the offseason in Mike Knuble, although they need to unclog a log jam at the blueline and settle the Michael Nylander situation to free up some much-needed cap room to avoid the contraints that could have cost them a longer trip to the playoffs last spring.

Barring injury, the Capitals should be in the running for the No. 1 seed in the East, with their biggest question mark is which goaltender emerges as their starter and how their quantity-over-quality blueline works out (of course, barring any moves before Wednesday's roster deadline).

But this is a potent club, and certainly a favorite to take their third Southeastern title and perhaps put themselves in a position for another extended playoff run.

Carolina Hurricanes: The 'Canes had a magical run through two rounds of the playoffs before they ran out of gas against the Penguins, and now Carolina looks to build on what they accomplished last spring. While the 'Canes had a lackluster first half of the season, they put on an impressive run to finish in the fifth seed and knocking out the Devils and Bruins in the postseason, and will look for Cam Ward to show more of the regular-season steadiness that had been somewhat absent since the team's Stanley Cup run in 2006.

Carolina continues to be a dangerous club, and certainly can push the Capitals for the division crown. They should be in the playoff mix if they stay healthy, and are one of the better teams at tinkering at the deadline to improve their standing.

Florida Panthers: Over the past couple of seasons, the Panthers have frustrated their fans by playing solid hockey until the stretch drive, then the team has faded down the stretch with the team's playoff drought now reaching nine years.

Florida is kind of stuck in the middle of the division, as they clearly are better than Atlanta or Tampa Bay, but not in the class of the Capitals or Hurricanes. While losing Jay Bouwmeester hurts the team's depth, the team made the best of a bad situation by picking up Jordan Leopold to avoid losing him without any replacement. The 'Cats will battle down the stretch for one of the East's last spots, just a question if that effort lasts 82 games.

Tampa Bay Lightning: A year of high expectations imploded in Tampa, as both on-and-off-the-ice turmoil created a season to forget for the Lightning. But now with a pair of talented youngsters in Stephen Stamkos and Viktor Hedman on the roster, Tampa Bay should be able to have improvement this season.

Tampa's goaltending and defense still leaves a lot to be desired, but having Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier still makes the team a tough opponent. While the playoffs aren't likely this season, the Lightning should be closer to the playoffs than the top pick this season.

Atlanta Thrashers: With Ilya Kovalchuk's contract expiring after this season, this is a pivotal year for the floundering franchise. The team has gone all-out to add a Russian flavor to appease their star, adding Nik Antropov and Maxim Afinogenov to the roster to convince him that the Thrashers are going the right direction again.

However, the big problem is sub-par defense and goaltending, and Atlanta will end up battling Tampa Bay for last rather than contending for a playoff spot. The question will be if Kovalchuk is still in Georgia by the time the season ends, or if the team elects to trade him off to a contender and try and continue their rebuilding process.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Capitals Wrap Up Preseason With WIn

For 40 minutes, the Rangers looked ready to put the preseason to rest and let the Caps score four times in the first two periods, then the Capitals almost gave it away with a 20 minute lackluster finish.

But in the end, the team finished healthy and a 4-3 win over New York to close out the preseason with a 4-2-0 record and now has some decisions to make before the roster deadline Wednesday.

Semyon Varlamov, bidding for the No. 1 role, had a relatively easy shutout going until the late New York barrage where he allowed three goals on 20 third-period shots, while Chris Bourque, looking to secure a forward spot, notched a goal and had a few nice plays to make his bid for a chance to stay in Washington.

Brooks Laich started off the scoring early, putting on a nifty move in front of the Rangers net and depositing the puck past Henrik Lundqvist for a 1-0 lead just 4:27 into the contest.

New York then had a golden chance to draw even, enjoying a 5-on-3 for 1:35 after Tyler Sloan was whistled for tripping and then Varlamov flicked the puck over the glass, but the Rangers' power-play was ineffective.

Washington then went up by two as Alexander Semin's shot through traffic eluded Lundqvist with just 2:26 left in the period, giving the Caps a 2-0 lead - and a 9-5 shot advantage - after 20 minutes.

The Caps then took command early in the second, as Bourque tipped a Brian Pothier shot for a goal just 2:59 into the frame with a nice deflection. Mike Knuble then extended Washington's lead to 4-0 when he knocked in a rebound of a Mike Green shot past Lundqvist and the Caps seemed ready to cruise.

Washington outshot New York 24-11 and was dominant through the first two periods, but the Rangers turned the tables in the final period, outgunning the Caps 20-4 and nearly forcing overtime.

Talented Rangers prospect Artem Ansimov put the Blueshirts on the board 6:52 into the third, the Rangers really started to buzz around Varlamov. Another player New York has high hopes for, Evgeny Grachev, then cut the lead to two with a high shot with 7:34 to play.

Then, Donald Brashear, making his first appearance at Verizon Center since leaving free agnecy, scored with 3:58 left to bring New York to just a goal behind.

Fortunately for Washington, the Caps tightened up late and held up for the 4-3 win, and now the coaches have to decide which five players currently on the 28-man group will be sent down to Hershey.

Bourque certainly bolstered his case with a goal and some nice setups (although he did take a critical penalty that led to Ansimov's tally). Quintin Laing played 8:17 of ice time in his final bid for a spot, while Keith Aucoin and Alexandre Giroux didn't play.

The other forward currently on the roster is Michael Nylander, as he sat out the entire preseason without dressing at all, and the Caps likely will try to rid themselves of his salary cap hit before the puck drops for real.

Either way, the Capitals will have some tough choices on which players to send to Boston for Thursday's game, and if they make any trades to clear up a logjam at the blueliner or finally draw a curtain on the Nylander situation.

Caps Wrap Up Preseason

In a unique confluence of sports in Washington today, the Capitals will be one of three Washington teams playing at the same time this afternoon, as once the Nationals-Braves game starts at 1:35PM, the Caps should be in the second intermission of their preseason finale against the Rangers, the Redskins will be in the second quarter of their game at Detroit, and just a couple of miles away from Verizon Center the Nationals will play their last Sunday home game of the year against the Braves.

After a busy Saturday that saw 5,000 fans flock to Oxon Hill to check out the Capitals Convention (and debate what they like and disliked about the experience), the tone turns serious for a couple of players on the bubble for a roster spot.

Most prominent are Chris Bourque and Alexandre Giroux, as the two stars of last year's Calder Cup run are looking to notch one of the last open forward slots for Thursday's game against Boston.

Bourque, after suffering an injury in the team's loss to Buffalo Monday, will be back in the lineup this afternoon looking to make a final impression on the coaching staff. Giroux started out well in the preseason, but has been less and less effective as the regular lineups returned to the ice, so he will need to convince Boudreau that he is more than an AHL-plus player.

Keith Aucoin and Quintin Laing are also in the mix for what should be another available spot, with Aucoin having a good exhibition campaign, although he is a known quantity. Laing has been effective defensively, but might lose out with Aucoin on a one-way contract this season.

In net, with Michal Neuvirth's injury, Semyon Varlamov will start against New York, and he and Jose Theodore will almost assuredly be Washington's tandem heading into the regular season.

After today's game, coaches have until 3PM Wednesday to decide the roster that it takes to Boston for the season opener Thursday night.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Random Dispatches From the Caps Convention

(Yes, we travel to Oxon Hill so you don't have to...)

What does it take to get to hang a Eastern Conference championship banner in your building? A lot of hard work, some luck in the playoffs, not to mention some good breaks over a two-month marathon.

Or a fat wallet.



A unique part of the team's silent auction at the first Capitals Convention was the banners up for bids.

The Capitals' lone Eastern Conference title banner, five division title banners and the four retired numbers that had hung in the Verizon Center rafters were being sold, as the mystery why the Caps' side of the rafters were empty during the preseason has been solved, as the team will raise new banners in conjunction with the team's 2008-09 Southeast Division banner on Saturday (see below).

The banners, which had various degrees of wear and fading depending on when they were raised to the rafters - all have been hung during the team's Verizon Center tenure with the lone Patrick Division banner having been replaced during the early part of the decade to reflect the design of the Capitol Dome logo banners - were being sold because the team will introduce a new design for the fourth Southeast Division banner to commemorate last season's achievement.

Bidding for the the Southeastern Division banners started at $750, while the Eastern Conference one started at $1,000.



Several of the NHL's trophies were also on display at the Gaylord Hotel & Convention Center, as the Art Ross, Maurice Richard, Norris, Jennings and Conn Smythe were on display in fancy glass cases for fans to check out.

Getting a little bit less love than its counterparts was the Kelly Cup.

The ECHL's championship trophy, which was won this spring by the South Carolina Stingrays, was on display on the team's table at the back of the hall, right next to a pile of Stingrays decals and near some of the team's merchandise.



With all 5,000 tickets sold at at least $40 a pop, the one thing that everyone did at the Convention was stand in line. While the early rush of season-ticket holders went mostly towards the team's annual equipment sale, where game-used sticks ($50) and practice jerseys ($35 to $75) were the hot sellers (although you could also pick up team laundry bags for $5 and even some used Capitals Crocs for $10), the team's store in the front of the hall won the award for being consistently the longest line in the building.

Of course, the big attraction for convention-goers was autograhps, with the entire team and several Capitals alumni giving them out at various spots in the hall. Included in the Caps' alumni was Hall-of-Famer Rod Langway, Peter Bondra, Kelly Miller, among several making the trip to Washington, while current players' location were held under wraps until just before the signings were to start to avoid long lines in one spot.

Still, the line for Peter Bondra was extensive, and fans who bought a "Golden Ticket" for $350 got a chance to go around to collect the entire team.

Fans could also pose with Alexander Ovechkin, Peter Bondra, Rod Langway and other past and present stars - for a fee of $20.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman also was on hand (although sadly, no pictures available), addressing the crowd early in the morning along with Caps' owner Ted Leonsis.

After a day off and the festivities, the Capitals wrap up preseason tomorrow against the Rangers for a noon face-off, with the game televised on MSG in the New York area.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Capitals Fall Late in Manhattan

Playing their third game in four nights, plus the back end of playing on two consecutive nights with a train trip to New York in between, it wasn't a surprise the Capitals fell late to the Rangers.

Fortunately for Washington, the result won't cost them in the standings since it's still preseason.

Marian Gaborik, brought in over the summer to add some pop to one of the league's worst offenses, scored his first two goals as a Ranger and added a key assist as the Rangers scored with 70 seconds left remaining for a 3-2 win over the Caps at Madison Square Garden.

Chris Higgins, acquired from Montreal in the Scott Gomez deal, scored the game winner after Milan Jurcina decked Brandon Dubinsky in front of the Capitals net, but the puck popped loose and Higgins deposited the loose change to hand Washington just its second loss of the preseason.

After a scoreless first period, Gaborik put New York on top in the first minute of the second period with a shorthanded tally, picking up a loose puck on a John Erskine turnover and skating in alone on Jose Theodore and beat him for a 1-0 lead.

However, Alexander Semin tied the game near the halfway mark of the frame when Alexander Ovechkin was stopped by rookie Matt Gilroy, but an errant pass from the BU product went to Semin, who skated around the cage and beat Henrik Lundqvist with 11:09 left in the period.

Right after the equalizer, Donald Brashear took on Brandon Sugden in his first fight as a Ranger, with Sudgen getting the decision.

Gaborik scored his second of the night, beating Theodore on a delayed penalty with 7:23 left to restore New York's lead, but Keith Aucoin scored just over four minutes later to equalize the score by putting in an Ovechkin feed with just three minutes left in the period.

The game appeared headed for overtime, but New York's late tally dropped the Caps to 3-2-0 on the preseason with a rematch against the Rangers on Sunday afternoon at Verizon Center.

Bidding for the No. 1 goaltending spot, Theodore stopped 21 of 24 shots, but suffered his second loss of the preseason with an .875 save percentage and a 2.50 goals-against average.

Aucoin was the only Capital with a plus-rating on the night, scoring a goal in his second straight game (he was scratched in Wednesday's win over Chicago), as he looks to win a spot in Washington with him having a one-way contract for this season.

Sugden also made an impression in his bid for an enforcer role by taking on Brashear twice, beating him in a second-period bout before engaging in a long tussle early in the third period.

After a busy four days, the Capitals will be off Friday, and then the players will take part in the first annual Capitals Convention Saturday at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Oxon Hill which is sold out after selling 5,000 tickets. The gates open for season-ticket holders at 9AM, and then the general public at 10PM.

Washington wraps up the preseason Sunday afternoon against the Rangers before having to cut down for the season opener next Thursday in Boston, with the rosters having to be in at 3PM Wednesday.

Back to Broadway

With three more players (Andrew Gordon, Oskar Osala and Kyle Wilson) heading down to Hershey, six days and two preseason games remain in Washington's preseason schedule.

Of course, for the end of preseason, it's an intriguing home-and-home with the Rangers, the team Washington knocked out of last year's preseason.

The last time the Capitals were at the World's Most Famous Arena was back in Game 6 of their first-round series, where Donald Brashear made quite an impression on the Blueshirts' faithful by knocking Blair Betts out of the series. Now, Brashear is a member of the Rangers (although still not quite beloved by those in the blue seats), and New York underwent some major changes to try and jump-start what was a impotent offense last season.

Washington is sending up a fairly good lineup up to Madison Square Garden (particularly since this is their third game in four nights), with Jose Theodore or Michal Neuvirth taking time in the crease with the coaching staff still looking to decide on the two that will start the season in Boston next Thursday.

Semyon Varlamov has been sharp in his two games, allowing five goals in a pair of games against Buffalo and Chicago, and is almost assured of retaining his Capitals sweater. Jose Theodore hasn't been overly impressive, but with his market value going to go up later in the year as his contract winds down, he likely will at least be the team's backup with Neuvirth going to Hershey barring a major change in the next few days.

The team certainly has a couple of other decisions to make, and unfortunately for Chris Bourque, the injury sustained in Monday's loss to Buffalo likely will keep him out of tonight's game as he would be on the edge of earning a spot with the Caps. The team also has a number of defensemen, and likely the team will have some tough choices to try and move one or two of them to make room under the cap and on the roster.

Another big salary cap question is Michael Nylander, who appears like he's going to miss his fifth straight preseason game and is in limbo with less than a week before teams have to set their rosters for the season. Nylander, who saw some of his best seasons in New York as a Ranger, now clearly has little trade value unless the Capitals are willing to take another team's cap problem or get creative in making room by packaging Nylander and a defenseman to clear some cap room.

Tonight's game could be an interesting mix after last year's rough playoff series, with the strange twist with Donald Brashear now on the other side of the ice.

The game is on MSG Network in the New York area, and NHL Network north of the border, with the two teams meeting again Sunday afternoon at Verizon Center.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Caps Bounce Back Against Blackhawks

For the rust that permeated the Capitals in Monday's frustrating loss to Buffalo, there was none to be found Wednesday night as Washington used a pair of goals from Mike Knuble and Alex Ovechkin for a 6-2 rout of the Blackhawks at Verizon Center.

Knuble, who was snakebit against the Sabres with three near-misses in the 2-1 loss, cashed in early to put the Caps up by a pair before the game was five minutes old, and Ovechkin added his first two of the preseason to salt the game away in the first four minutes of the middle frame. Alexander Semin also picked up a natural playmaker on the night, assisting on three straight goals in the second period as Washington took their second win over Chicago in five days.

Knuble got the Caps on the board early on, driving to the net and having the rebound of his initial shot deflect off Blackhawks netminder Corey Crawford and back off his leg just 2:36 in to open up the scoring, and then added a power play goal just 2:16 later to put the Capitals up 2-0 with a 9-1 shot advantage.

Bidding for the No. 1 goaltending role, Semyon Varlamov was lightly tested for the first 18 minutes of the period, but with a power play late in the frame, Troy Brouwer brought Chicago to within one with 1:49 left to play in the frame on just their fifth shot on net.

However, the Caps took over in the second period thanks to a pair of goals by Ovechkin, the first coming at 1:45 of the frame when he tapped in a Nicklas Backstrom feed while parked along the side of the cage for a 3-1 Washington lead. Then, just 1:35 later, Semin made a nifty back pass to Ovechkin, who blasted a drive past Corey Crawford for a 4-1 Washington lead.

Backstrom notched a goal himself when Washington enjoyed a 5-on-3 at the 7:25 mark when Knuble deftly tipped a Semin centering feed across the crease to the Swede who beat an out-of-position Crawford.

Chicago, already having suffered a major injury hit this week when Adam Burish was injured, got another injury scare halfway through the period when Patrick Sharp lost his helmet before falling along the boards onto the ice in the corner and was down on the ice for a couple of minutes, but he got back up and eventually returned to action, scoring a power-play goal with 5:28 left in the period on a deflection of a Brian Campbell shot past Varlamov.

However, Tyler Sloan restored the four-goal lead before the frame expired, blasting a shot that deflected off Brouwer's shoulder and into the net for a 6-2 Capitals advantage after 40 minutes.

Ovechkin got a good chance to complete the hat trick near the halfway mark of the rather uneventful third period, but was denied in close after a feed from Semin. Ovechkin ended up with a pair of goals and an assist, as did Knuble, while Semin had his three assists.

Varlamov looked fairly sharp in facing a fairly potent Blackhawks lineup with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews up front, stopping 26 of 28 Chicago shots for his second win of the preseason. The Capitals now are 3-1-0 in the exhibition season, having just two losses in preseason play in two campaigns under Bruce Boudreau (8-2-1).

Michal Neuvirth, who backed up Varlamov, could get the start tomorrow night in what figures to be a fairly light lineup making the train ride to Penn Station for a game in New York. Neuvirth, who likely will be sent down to Hershey by Wednesday's 3PM ET roster deadline, will probably get his last chance to make a bid for the backup role, but likely the team will go with Jose Theodore and Varlamov as its tandem to start the campaign.

The Capitals also have some decisions to make, as with the number of defensemen on the roster and Michael Nylander scratched for the fourth consecutive preseason game, there could be some movement before the team must submit the final roster a day before the season opener in Boston.

Washington plays its final road preseason game tomorrow night at Madison Square Garden in a rematch with the Rangers, then wraps up the six-game slate Sunday afternoon when New York reciprocates with a visit to Verizon Center.

To Retire or Not to Retire

An interesting discussion in the Washington Times over the merits of whose jerseys should be lifted to the rafters at Verizon Center and elsewhere from the recent wave of retirements, and now that Olaf Kolzig has officially hung them up, now the clock begins before he likely will get his No. 37 lifted to the rafters.

However, with Mike Gartner's retirement last December, the team seemed to put a bit of a higher criteria on honoring players, with two such players, Rod Langway and Gartner now being enshrined in Toronto. However, that honor seems to be a long shot for Kolzig or the other strong candidate to get his sweater retired, Peter Bondra.

The Caps already have four retired numbers hanging between the U.S. and Canadian flags in Chinatown, and the thought of adding two more players is an intriguing question that will be asked in the coming months and years as two of the team's stars from the 1990s will certainly merit strong consideration.

Gartner was a much different case than Kolzig or Bondra as well, since he was traded in 1989 and while he had a strong decade of hockey in Landover, he always became somewhat of a scapegoat for the team's failures in the postseason, as the team brought in Dino Ciccarelli from Minnesota to try and be a sparkplug for the playoffs. However, he went on to have a Hall of Fame career after his time in D.C. with Minnesota, New York, Toronto and Phoenix, but with the bulk of his numbers being put up in a Washington sweater.

Hunter spent over a decade in Washington after being acquired by Quebec in 1987, before finally finishing briefly with that organization in Denver for the 1999 playoff run with the team giving him one last chance to claim the Stanley Cup. Widely seen as the heart-and-soul of the franchise during the team's only run to the Finals in 1998, he became the most likely player from that era to earn the honor.

Of the four retired numbers, Langway is the biggest no-brainer, as acquiring him from Montreal in 1982 quite simply turned around what had been a struggling franchise that had never qualified for the postseason, and turned them into one that never missed the playoffs until his retirement, winning a pair of Norris Trophies and MVP considerations along the way.

Which, of course, leads to Yvon Labre's No. 7, who was honored in 1981 for being the last original Capital standing, and his ability to withstand some truly awful teams until his retirement. Labre was a great ambassador for hockey in the region and as steady as a defenseman the Caps had through some rough times, but while the team's intent was to give the Capitals some presence in what was a barren corner of the Capital Centre in 1981 across the building from the Bullets' championship banners, his honor really sticks out like a sore thumb almost 30 years later alongside such luminaries as Langway, Gartner and Hunter.

Which brings us to the merits of the two candidates, and of course, the X factor at play here is the players' sometimes frosty relationship with the club. Gartner's honor was delayed for years due to some hard feelings after his 1989 trade to the North Stars, and it took nearly 20 years for him to be embraced by the new ownership and reconcile with the organization. Gartner never spent as much time anywhere else as he did in Washington, but he put up some terrific numbers and finally got a much-deserved honor as a Capital.

Both Bondra and Kolzig also left on sour terms with the Capitals. Bondra and the club had some hard feelings in 2003 after his ill-fated trade to the Senators and then his electing to sign a one-year deal with the Atlanta Thrashers shortly after the lockout.

Kolzig was upset over the arrival of Cristobal Huet in February, as he played sparingly during the team's playoff run in 2007-08, and didn't want to accept a backup role and elected to sign with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the offseason. The club did honor him during his last appearance at Verizon Center last November, but it remains to be seen how long it will take for some of the hard feelings to fade.

Bondra and Kolzig are all-time club leaders in major categories, Bondra in goals and points (for at least a couple of more seasons until Alex Ovechkin likely surpasses him), and Kolzig hangs them up with an all-time record for wins and shutouts that may not be broken for at least a decade. Both were major parts of the team's only Eastern Conference championship club in 1997-98, and also part of some pretty solid teams from the mid-1990s until the organization underwent the rebuilding project in 2003-04.

But neither player is likely going to make the Hall of Fame, which also makes the seemingly tougher standards put the honors with Gartner's retirement a bit more in doubt.

No one has been issued No. 37 in the season-plus since Kolzig's departure, and while Bondra's No. 12 was worn briefly by Jeff Friesen in 2005-06, no one else since has worn the sweater in three seasons since, indicating that likely the club will eventually get around to hanging up their jerseys once the relationships improve with the two players.

Bondra has appeared more with Capitals alumni events and has gotten closer to the team in the last season or two, and after time goes by, Kolzig's legacy in Washington also likely will earn him the honor.

There's no timetable to be sure on these honors, as while Hunter's sweater was retired within 12 months of his trade to Colorado, it took almost 20 years for Gartner to get his sweater in the rafters.

Both eventually should get their numbers hung up, but it may be some time before the two actually end up alongside the other four Caps honored.

Kolzig Hangs Them Up

Not that it was a huge surprise, but still, Olaf Kolzig's retirement brings an end to a career that spanned nearly two decades, not to mention three different uniforms for the Capitals.



Kolzig, who played 711 of his 719 career games with Washington, retired after an injury-plagued 2008-09 season with the Lightning that actually saw him end his career as a Maple Leaf as Tampa Bay looked to bring their payroll down to qualify for a subsidy.

He played his first two games with Washington in 1989-90, but primarily spent his first couple of seasons with the Baltimore Skipjacks of the AHL and the Hampton Roads Admirals of the ECHL before reappearing for one game in 1992-93 with the Capitals while on loan to the Rochester Americans.

But Kolzig's big break in the Caps organization was his performance in consecutive Calder Cup runs, first with the Amerks in the 1993 playoffs, as Rochester advanced all the way to the finals before bowing out to the Cape Breton Oilers in five games, then in 1994, he was MVP of the Calder Cup playoffs with the newly-relocated Portland Pirates who won the title in their first season after moving from Baltimore.

His performance earned him a spot behind Jim Carey in the strike-shortened 1995 season, and when Carey was shipped off to Boston, Kolzig remained the backup.



The hockey world really took notice of him during the 1998 season, as when Bill Ranford was injured, Kolzig played brilliantly, posting a 33-18-10 record and a 2.20 goals-against for the Capitals, leading them to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and an All-Star berth. In the postseason, Kolzig led the Capitals to their only Stanley Cup Finals appearance, with a 1.95 goals-against and a .941 save percentage, besting Boston, Ottawa and league-MVP Dominik Hasek's Sabres en route to the Eastern title.

Kolzig's 6-foot-3 frame took away a lot of the net for shooters, and he frustrated opponents with his ability to kick out saves from close range. The Eastern Finals win over Buffalo was one of the more memorable goaltenders' duels in playoff history, as three of the games were decided in overtime as Washington eliminated Buffalo in six games.



After an injury-marred 1998-99 season for the Caps better known for his battle with good friend and ex-teammate Byron Dafoe in a brawl in Boston, Kolzig's finest regular season occured in 1999-2000, when he was the Vezina Trophy winner with a 41-20-11 mark, a 2.24 goals-against and a .920 save percentage. Washington's performances were more erratic after that campaign, and Kolzig's numbers never quite reached those heights again.

However, despite the darkest days for the franchise since the 1970s, Kolzig stuck around through the rebuilding of 2003 to 2006, often being hung out to dry while several veterans asked for their way out of town. Washington tumbled to among the league's worst clubs, but Kolzig remained to be a key building block for the squad.

He got one final ride in the playoff push of 2007-08, although upset with the team's decision to land Cristobal Huet at the trade deadline, as he appeared in his final game with Washington in a 5-0 loss at Chicago in March of 2008, which turned out to be his final game as a Cap. While he proved to be a good teammate and not vent his anger until the season ended, he didn't appear in the postseason for the last time since Washington was eliminated in the 2003 postseason by the Lightning.

Kolzig joined the Lightning as a backup, but injuries limited him to just eight games in Tampa, including one final appearance at Verizon Center last November.

He retires as the Capitals' leader in games played (711), minutes (41,259), wins (301), save percentage (.906) and shutouts (35).

His excellent 2000 season saw him set a mark for 41 wins in a campaign, along with appearing in 73 of 82 contests.

Off the ice, Kolzig made his mark with his battle against autism, which afflicted his son and which he sought to help raise awareness of the ailment. He was honored as a Washingtonian of the year in 2000 for his efforts in founding Athletes Against Autism, and won the King Clancy Award in 2006 for his efforts.

"While I appreciate everything the game has given me and certainly will miss it, I am looking foward to spending more time with my family and remaining involved in hockey in some capacity," Kolzig said in an NHLPA release.

Kolzig, who is part-owner of his old junior club, the Tri-City Americans, has been coaching some of the team's young netminders and will be making his home in Washington state, but he certainly left his mark on the NHL franchise he spent all but one season with.

Caps Look to Fine-Tune Tonight

After a rusty display against the Sabres, the Caps will put on another good lineup tonight for the home folks against the Blackhawks.

Per Capitals Insider, here's tonight's skaters (minus one of the listed forwards).

Forwards
Ovechkin, Knuble, Backstrom, Semin, Laich, B. Gordon, Clark, Laing, Osala, A. Gordon, Perreault, Wilson and Sugden

Defense
Green, Morrisonn, Pothier, Poti, Jurcina, Sloan

Goalies
Varlamov, Neuvirth

Semyon Varlamov gets his second start of the preseason, as he took an overtime win in Buffalo last Thursday, and it'll be interesting to see if Michal Neuvirth splits time with him or perhaps plays tomorrow in New York.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Caps Strike Iron in Loss to Sabres

The Capitals returned to Chinatown Monday night to host the Sabres, and while some of the team's preseason rust was showing, a very good crowd came out for a preseason game that welcomed the NHL back to Washington for the winter.

Several of Washington's stars returned to the ice for their first preseason action, and the rust was evident as they worked the kinks of an offseason away from competitive hockey. The Caps also had some tough luck on the night, as they rang several pucks off the crossbar as they couldn't quite connect on some good chances.

Buffalo broke open a scoreless game in the second period, scoring two goals just :11 apart past Jose Theodore to grab a victory, handing Washington its first setback of the exhibition season with a 2-1 decision with Keith Aucoin connecting for the Capitals' only goal of the contest late in the second period.

The Capitals opened up with a flurry as Alexander Semin and Alexandre Giroux missed some good chances in the opening minutes, but despite having two power-plays in the first 10 minutes, Washington could only muster one shot on goal.

The most dramatic play of the first period came in the aftermath of a clean John Erskine hit near the Buffalo bench, and Paul Gaustad took exception to the hit and started a small meele, with Gaustad earning an instigation penalty and a misconduct in the process.

After the first period ended scoreless, the second opened with a Washington power-play, and Mike Knuble almost put the Capitals up with a deflection in the first minute, but it rang off the crossbar behind Patrick Lalime and bounced out of harm's way.

Buffalo finally opened the scoring 5:55 into the second period when Drew Stafford deflected a Chris Butler shot past Theodore, then the Sabres struck again just :11 later when Patrick Kaleta picked up a puck that deflected off Theodore's skate and it trickled in the net for a 2-0 Sabres lead.

Just over two minutes later, Knuble missed another golden chance to put the Caps on the board, as he got a pass alone in front of Lalime and shot the puck over the crossbar. Three minutes after that, he collected an Alexander Ovechin pass and Lalime stooped it to add to the ex-Flyer's frustrating night.

Chris Bourque had his chance close in with just over seven minutes left, as he was atopped by lalime in close, but the Caps finally broke on the board with 13:11 gone in the period as Keith Aucoin blasted one through a crowd and past Lalime to cut Buffalo's lead to 2-1.

Semin came close to tying the score with 9:10 left in regulation as he hit fired one past Lalime, but it hit iron and bounced out of harm's way to keep Buffalo up by a goal.

Bourque got a brief injury scare with 9:45 left in regulation, as he was hit by Patrick Kaleta and required some attention before heading off the ice. Kaleta was called for interference, and Washington had a good chance to draw the contest even with the extra man, but failed to even register a shot on goal with the man advantage, but the good news for the Caps is Bourque didn't miss his next shift.

Matt Bradley got a glorious chance with 4:13 left, breaking in on Lalime, but hit the crossbar with his effort, adding to was quite a collection of iron on the night for Washington. Despite a pulled netminder, the Caps couldn't register a shot on Lalime late and Buffalo headed back to Western New York with the win.

Theodore, jockeying to keep his tenous hold on the No. 1 spot, was decent, although the two quick goals were the difference in the contest for Washington. Of course, Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth also had their moments in their preseason outings, meaning that barring a major shift, Theodore and Varlamov should start the season with the big club with Neuvirth getting a ticket to Hershey.

Giroux, also bidding for a chance to stay in Washington, had a rough night, missing the scoring chance early on and looking a bit out of place at times.

Washington's penalty-killing continued to be strong, going 3-for-3 and remaining a perfect 13-for-13 in the exhibition season, although the power play struggled to get going despite six chances with the extra man.

The Capitals host Chicago Wednesday night before closing out the preseason with a home-and-home with the team Washington knocked out of the playoffs last spring, the New York Rangers.

Tonight's Lineup

From the Times.

Ovechkin-Backstrom-Knuble

Giroux-Aucoin-Semin

Bourque-Beagle-Bradley

Joudrey-Steckel-A. Gordon

Schultz-Green

Alzner-Carlson

Erskine-Collins

Theodore

Bacashihua
As mentioned, Washington's big guns get their first skates of the preseason, while Theodore is expected to play a full 60 minutes, as Varlamov and Neuvirth did.

However, Michael Nylander is off the list, and has yet to play in a game this preseason and continues to be in limbo.

Meanwhile, the Sabres are bringing down this lineup to Washington, with Thomas Vanek making the flight down, as well as ex-Capital Mike Grier in his return to Buffalo.

FORWARDS: Jeff Cowan, Tim Connolly, Tyler Ennis, Paul Gaustad, Nathan Gerbe, Mike Grier, Jochen Hecht, Patrick Kaleta, Tim Kennedy, Dan Paille, Felix Schutz, Drew Stafford, Thomas Vanek

DEFENSEMAN: Chris Butler, Toni Lydman, Steve Montador, Tyler Myers, Andrej Sekera, Henrik Tallinder, Mike Weber

GOALIES: Jhonas Enroth, Patrick Lalime

Pucks Return to Verizon Center

After a 51-game home slate unlike any other in the team's recent history, Washington's season came to a disappointing end in the deciding game of the Penguins series just over four months ago.

Now, for the first time this season, the Capitals return to Chinatown to open the first of three preseason games tonight against the Sabres, with Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin set to hit the ice for the first time in exhibition play this season.

After sending out a less-than-star-studded roster to Buffalo and Chicago, most of the Capitals' big guns will be on display tonight, with some big questions left to be answered before the roster is decided in a week's time.

The biggest question mark will take his place between the pipes tonight for the Capitals, as Jose Theodore has a tenous hold on the No. 1 goaltending role for Washington.

After Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth had some good moments - and bad moments - in their two overtime victories where they played the entire contests, Theodore gets his audition to be the top netminder. Logistics likely dictate that Theodore will keep his role at least for the time being, as the now-untradeable veteran's contract will begin to become more attractive to suitors as the paychecks run out the final year of his contract.

For the Capitals, they will see if Theodore and likely Varlamov can keep the team going through the regular season, and then make a decision to see if they can peddle Theodore near the trade deadline if they can to clear cap room, but it is unlikely Theodore will completely play himself out of a roster spot barring a major meltdown.

The other big question for Washington is the role of their two prized blueliners, as Karl Alzner and John Carlson try to unseat one of the eight players who are slotted ahead of them on the depth chart. It seems likely Alzner will crack the big club and that will likely prod Washington to deal away at least one of the other blueliners to open up some cap room.

Carlson, although very poised for his young age, likely will get more seasoning in Hershey and play the role Alzner did in 2008-09, as an emergency call-up that is a bit too much of a cap luxury for this campaign.

Forward-wise, the news out of Boston is a report that Chris Bourque was promised a trade instead of a demotion to Hershey - a story that Bourque flatly denied. Hershey's sparkplug certainly could garner some interest on the trade market, particularly on a team that needs some depth at forward and could use an undersized but skilled player.

Give Bourque high marks for taking the high road in what must be a frustrating process for him in not being able to permanently crack the Capitals' lineup despite some decent performances when he had his chance, but even with the denial by the player, Bourque could certainly help some other teams in the league and might be an avenue the Capitals take as they need to get under the salary cap with Michael Nylander still taking up ample space on the roster.

But, despite all the drama set to unfold in the next week, fans get a chance to return to Verizon Center tonight, as the team begins what it hopes is a home schedule that is at least a couple of games longer come May and June.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Perreault Caps Washington's Comeback

The deck certainly was stacked against the Capitals to move to 2-0-0 on the preseason, but it didn't matter as Mathieu Perreault scored a sharp-angle tally in the dying seconds of overtime for a 3-2 Washington win to keep the team perfect in preseason after two road contests.

Washington's top three forwards had the night off, the team had to make a up-and-back trip to the Central time zone, and was facing a Chicago team dressing a lineup close to the squad that advanced to the Western Conference Finals last spring.

Even without Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom Saturday night, the Caps battled back to erase a 2-0 Chicago lead thanks to goals by Chris Clark and Kyle Wilson, then used a late momentum shift in the extra session to take the game on Perreault's goal with just :12 left before the shootout.

Bidding to win the backup goaltending role, Michal Neuvirth looked a bit shaky at times, allowing two goals on 26 shots and also having a couple of nervous moments but did get better as the game progressed, highlighted by his spectacular glove save on Brian Campbell in overtime to give the Caps a chance to take the win.

The team's penalty-killing also remained strong, going 6-for-6 and remaining perfect in the preseason, and the defensive corps limited a potent Blackhawks team to just 16 shots in the game's final 44 minutes.

Ex-Capital netminder Cristobal Huet played in his first game against his former club as he assumes the undisputed No. 1 starter role in Chicago after Nikolai Khabibulin's departure, and he stopped 27 of 30 shots but allowed a pair of late goals to absorb the defeat.

Chicago got on the board first, as Patrick Sharp poked in a rebound of a Dustin Byfuglien shot that Neuvirth initially stopped, but Sharp moved in and put the puck in the cage just 4:52 into the contest to give the Blackhawks a 1-0 lead.

The Capitals then put their penalty killing to work with three straight minors in the frame, but didn't allow an extra-man tally.

However, the 'Hawks extended their lead to two 5:54 into the second period when the appropriately named Jack Skille picked a puck up at center ice, circled in the Capitals' zone and rifled a shot past Brian Pothier and Neuvirth.

However, under four minutes later, after the Capitals couldn't convert on a golden chance to pull within one when Wilson hit the post on a feed from Chris Clark on a 2-on-1 break, Clark picked up the rebound along the side boards and tried to feed Wilson again and his attempt deflected off Blackhawks defenseman Keith Seabrook and past Cristobal Huet to bring the score to 2-1 with 9:39 gone in the period.

Washington took another minor penalty to put the pressure on the penalty killers, but burned off the hooking call on Matt Bradley and marking the second straight game where the Caps took the first four minors in the contest - and killed them off.

The Caps had a good chance to pull even before the end of the second period when Chicago was whistled for interference with just over two minutes to play, but a sloppy power play narrowly led to a pair of Blackhawks goals when Neuvirth misplayed a puck near the cage and nearly led to a 3-1 deficit, and then the 'Hawks got another good chance shortly after that didn't connect and the score stayed 2-1 into the intermission.

Brooks Laich had the best chance to even the contest less than four minutes into the thrid period, hitting the post on a drive from inside the 'Hawks zone and Washington couldn't convert on a pair of power plays. Giroux ended the second advantage early when he took a double-minor for high sticking to force the Caps to kill of a pair of penalties down the stretch, but the Caps held, going to a perfect 10-for-10 in the exhibition season with the kills, and holding Chicago to just one shot on goal.

Wilson finally got on the board when the Caps needed it most after a couple of near-misses, however, as he scored to even the count on a slap shot past Huet with 2:47 left in regulation. Washington got its chance to grab the win with a power-play late in regulation, but couldn't convert.

After the 'Hawks returned to even strength, the two netminders traded spectacular saves in the extra session, with Huet diving to stop John Erskine from tipping in a game-winner with just under two minuts gone in the five-minute period, then Neuvirth snaring Campbell's shot with just over a minute to play in the extra session.

However, Washington made a late push in the final 30 seconds of overtime, and Perreault broke the puck in the zone, and after not coverting on his first chance, he was parked next to the cage when Shaone Morrisonn grabbed a rebound of his own shot and fed him the puck and he beat Huet on a sharp angle for the team's second straight overtime preseason win.

The Capitals have just one exhibition season away from Verizon Center left, and after a pair of plane rides to Buffalo and Chicago, the team will have just a train trip to New York City left on the docket with three home games against the Sabres, Blackhawks and Rangers left before the team heads up to Boston for the opener in just 12 days.

Washington figures to put a more representative lineup Monday night when they open the home schedule with an exhibition game against Buffalo, and then the Blackhawks pay a visit to Verizon Center Wednesday before the preseason concludes with a home-and-home against the Rangers.

Thin Lineup Heading to Windy City

With a long flight to Chicago ahead for those playing for Washington in tonight's second preseason tilt, the Capitals' lineup is pretty thin up front for the contest against the Blackhawks, per the Washington Times. Mike Green is the only one of the big-name Caps jetting west, with the game televised on at 8:30PM ET and on Comcast SportsNet Chicago (DirecTV).

With Alexandre Giroux and Keith Aucoin playing on the top line, the forward corps is chock full of last year's Calder Cup champions and perhaps more appropriate for a game against the AHL's Wolves than the NHL's 'Hawks.

The defensive pairings are pretty standard, with two young players looking to crack the lineup, Karl Alzner and John Carlson, not playing tonight and only one blueliner who didn't spend extended time with Washington last season.

Michal Neuvirth will get the extended look tonight in net, as the goaltender who helped Hershey win the Calder Cup last spring likely will get his best audition to win the backup role tonight after Semyon Varlamov's good performance against Buffalo on Thursday.

FORWARDS

Giroux-Aucoin-A.Gordon

Laich-Wilson-Clark

Laing-Steckel-Bradley

Osala-Perreault-B. Gordon

DEFENSEMEN

Morrisonn-Green

Poti-Jurcina

Erskine-P. McNeil

GOALTENDERS

Neuvirth

Holtby


The Caps should have a more regular lineup Monday against Buffalo when they host the Sabres, as Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom have yet to suit up in preseason.

The Blackhawks, who open their preseason tonight, likely will showcase more of their talent for the home folks, will also play the Capitals Wednesday in Washington.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Capitals Open Preseason With Overtime Win

After a very quiet first 40 minutes of their preseason opener at HSBC Arena, the Capitals and Sabres traded goals in a hurry during the third period as Washington emerged from the frenzy with a 4-3 overtime victory to start the campaign thanks to a solid showing from their special teams.

Alexandre Giroux, Mike Knuble, Jay Beagle and Brian Pothier scored goals for Washington, as Semyon Varlamov pitched a shutout for 40 minutes before allowing three goals on just six shots in the third period as Buffalo forced overtime with a strong third period effort.

However, Washington was able to stay in the game thanks to a perfect 4-for-4 performance on the penalty kill, and then cashed in on its first power-play chance of the night - which came in the final minute of regulation and led to Pothier's goal :49 into overtime as Buffalo took a pair of bad penalties to seal its fate.

Giroux, who scored 75 goals last year for the Bears in Hershey's Calder Cup championship season, notched the first goal of the season for Washington just 8:30 into the game, beating Buffalo's starting netminder Patrick Lalime with a wrist shot. The Caps, who were outshot badly early, also got a good performance early from their Stanley Cup hero Semyon Varlamov who was facing a pretty strong Sabres lineup for this stage of the preseason, stop a Tyler Ennis breakway in the first to preserve a 1-0 lead.

The Caps were outgunned 6-0 to start the second period before registering a shot of their own more than thirteen minutes into the frame, and Varlamov had to come up big twice to keep Washington in front as Buffalo had some good chances. Despite its very slow start to the second, Washington managed to outshoot Buffalo 12-9 in the second period, but couldn't beat Lalime or his replacement netminder Jhonas Enroth to pad its lead, and Buffalo then opened the third with a flurry.

Jason Pominville got the hosts on the board with a goal on a wrist shot 2:16 into the third period, and then less than four minutes later, Clarke MacArthur tipped in a Chris Butler shot for a 2-1 Buffalo lead. However, Knuble briefly evened the score thanks to his first goal in a Capitals sweater, as the ex-Flyer tipped in a Nicklas Backstrom pass past Enroth with just 6:28 left in regulation.

The Sabres retook the lead on a goal by Tim Kennedy with just 2:32 to play, but Beagle answered quickly for Washington just :23 later to knot the score at 3.

The Capitals got their chance to take the game late in regulation, as Buffalo took two sloppy minors in the final minute, with Enroth getting whistled for playing the puck inside the trapeziod behind the net with :36 left in regulation, and just :22 later, Mike Weber was whistled for boarding Brendan Morrison for an extended two-man advantage for Washington.

Pothier and the Caps made Buffalo pay, as the defenseman blasted home his first of the season in the first minute of the extra session and sending the Caps back to Washington with two points.

Giroux, looking to try and parlay his MVP performance in the AHL into a full-time role with Washington, put two shots on net with one beating Lalime, although he also was whistled for the team's first penalty of the campaign as well just over three minutes after his go-ahead goal.

Backstrom also ended the night with a pair of assists, including one on the game-winner, and put five shots on the Sabres' netminders to lead both teams.

Defensively, two of the young prospects looking to earn a spot on the Caps' blueline also got a look, with Karl Alzner and John Carlson getting time on the penalty kill. Alzner also finished plus-1, one of just four Caps to do so on the evening.

Pothier also was solid in his first preseason game in two years, earning the game-winner and an assist.

Varlamov made his bid for the No. 1 role with a good showing early, earning a win, and keeping the Caps in it despite some stretches where they were badly outshot. However, the Sabres were buzzing in the third, and beat the Russian three times to stop 20 of 23 Buffalo chances before the Caps took the win.

The Capitals will play their second game of the preseason Saturday night in Chicago, a game that can be seen on Comcast SportsNet Chicago and audiocast on WashingtonCaps.com.

Alexander Ovechkin, who stayed in Washington Thursday, apparently won't suit up at United Center either, likely making his preseason debut against Buffalo at home on Monday night.