Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Don't believe everything being said

The biggest question that was asked after Bruce Boudreau was fired on Monday was whether or not he had a rift with Capitals Captian Alex Ovechkin.

Both Boudreau and Ovechkin have said there was no rift and they both respected one another. Boudreau revealed in an interview with the Washington Posts Tarik El-Bashir on Wednesday morning that he and Ovechkin spoke for 15-minutes on Tuesday, and Ovechkin told Boudreau he enjoyed playing for him is thankful for everything Boudreau taught him.

Despite all the warm and fuzzy talk, Alex Ovechkin quit on Bruce Boudreau, and the debate should not take very long.

Ovechkin's time under Boudreau began with thunderous results. He scored 65, 56 and 50 goals in Boudreau's first three seasons as coach. The Capitals won division titles in each of those seasons and came within a game of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009.

So, where did Ovechkin loss confidence in Boudreau?

Some might point to the 2009-10 season which ironically sits as the best season in franchise history. The Capitals finished that season with a franchise record 54 wins and 121 points which was good enough for the franchise's first Presidents Trophy.

But, the team suffered a historic loss in the first round of the playoffs that year as they became the first #1 seed to blow a three games to one series lead over a #8 seed.

The following season, an 8-game losing streak in December caused Boudreau to switch to a more defensive system which took away from the teams normal offensive output. Ovechkin played the majority of that season overweight and with a suspected knee injury which caused the superstar winger to score a career low 32 goals and finish with a career low 85 points.

Still, the Capitals were the Eastern Conference's #1 seed at the start of the playoffs and this time a three games to one series lead was not lost as the Capitals closed out the New York Rangers in five games.

But, it was obvious during that series that the Capitals biggest advantage was possessing more talent and still were not necessarily a great team. Plus, the infamous blown three-goal lead by the Rangers in Game 4 all but won Game 5 for Washington before it even started.

The Capitals and Boudreau's deficencies were exploited in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the next round and again questions about Boudreau's job security surfaced.

Ovechkin came into training camp in much better shape, and Boudreau attempted to become the task-master many felt he should've been all along.

That did not sit well with Ovechkin.

After scoring five goals in the first ten games of the season, Ovie has scored just three in the passed 13 and disappeared for three, four games at a time in November.

It was obvious at that point that Ovechkin was no longer listening to Boudreau's words and a change needed to be made before this season spirals hopelessly out of control.

When and why Ovechkin lost confidence in Boudreau will never be truly known. But, the bottom line is it happened and it cost Boudreau his job.

Will Ovechkin find the 50-goal scorer that we all screamed for five years was better then Sidney Crosby under the tutelage of Dale Hunter? Or, will the immature attitude that Ovechkin has shown the last month ultimately prevail and cost this franchise a shot at winning the Stanley Cup it so desperately wants to win.

Time will tell, but if Ovechkin wants to achieve the on-ice success he's always claimed he wants, he is going to have to stop whinning and return to the form of his first five Nhl season's.

If he doesn't, another coach will be fired and a team that was thought to have so much promise will fall flat on their faces.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Caps come up short in Game 1 under Hunter

The first game of the Dale Hunter era ended the same way the final game of the Bruce Boudreau era did; with a loss.

The Capitals fell to the St. Louis Blues, 2-1, on Tuesday night for their ninth loss in 12 games and 10th in their last 16.

As they did on Saturday against the Buffalo Sabres, the Capitals managed just one goal and no consistent offensive pressure as they struggled to get regular traffic in front of Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak.

There was noticeable difference in the effort the Capitals gave tonight, though. Early in the first period Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Matt Hendricks all made strong hits along the boards to get Blues' players off the puck, and the defense did a better job keeping the front of their net clean and allowed zero odd-man rushes.

Washington also didn't fold after allowing consecutive goals as they did near the end of Boudreau's tenure. I say that is an encouraging sign.

The biggest hustle play of the night had to go to Backstrom during a crucial point in the second period. With the Capitals on an extended five on three with Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer in the penalty box, Backstrom worked along the near boards while drapped by two Blues players to gain possession of the puck which drew a penalty on St. Louis defensemen, Kevin Shattenkirk.

The penalty on Shattenkirk nullified the remainder of the five on three and the Capitals eventually killed the last part of Brouwers penalty.

However, some of the goaltending issues that have plagued this team the last month were a problem Tuesday as Vokoun allowed two fluke goals.

Vokoun was unable to locate an Alex Steen shot that rang off the crossbar and fell to his right in the crease. T.J. Oshie tapped the loose puck into the open net to tie the game.

In the second period, shortly after killing the Blues extended power play, Vokoun was unable to coral another rebound and a fluky bounce allowed Matt D'Agostini to easily score on the wrap around.

The Capitals did push hard in the third period and nearly tied the game on several occasions, but several nice saves from Halak prevented Washington from sending the game into overtime.

So, what do we know?

You can already see the Capitals playing harder. That is natural when a new coach comes along as a breath of fresh air has been provided. But, the Capitals were also noticeably nervous through the first ten minutes of the game, and a few admitted after the game they were happy to get this game out of the way as they can now concentrate on playing hockey.

Hunter even said after the game that it was good to see the team live as it allowed him to clearly see the areas the Capitals need to work on.

Another loss is disappointing, but fans need to understand that this is going to be a process. Hunter has only coached two guys on the current roster, whereas Boudreau had coached half the roster he took over to a Calder Cup in Hershey.

Time will tell whether or not Hunter will be able to restore the Capitals to the level that Boudreau took them too. But, if the effort continues to improve as Hunter learns his players, the turnaround may not take as long as it currently appears it will.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Fanfare about Crosby's return needs to subside

On Monday night, the much anticipated return of Pittsburgh Penguins Captain Sidney Crosby from a 10th month absence due to a concussion took place at Consol Energy Center, and wound up being of the story book variety.

Crosby scored a little over five minutes into the game and finished with a game high four points (2g, 2a) as the Penguins rolled the New York Islanders, 5-0.

It was a return reminiscent of the returns of the guy that brought Crosby into the organization; Mario Lemiuex. Lemiuex returned from long absences several times in his career and each time left hockey fans saying "how does this guy do it?"

Crosby did the same on Monday which caused hockey analyst, namely Barry Melrose, to proclaim the Penguins as the favorite to win the Eastern Conference.

I say everyone, fans and analyst, need to relax. Crosby's return was fantastic and showed why he is arguably the best player in the world let alone the NHL. But, Crosby and the Penguins were playing with a bit more emotion then usual on Monday and the Islander are still among the weakest teams in the league.

Reality set in a bit on Wednesday for Crosby and the Penguins against the St. Louis Blues. Crosby was held scoreless while being whistled for three minor penalties. The Blues also showed no mercy to Crosby as he and Blues center David Backes mixed it up along the boards in the second period.

There is no doubt Crosby's return is a big deal. But, if anyone thinks he is going to pick up where he left off last season I would suggest taking some time to reflect on that sentiment.

Missing 10 months of live game action isn't something that a player overcomes in a few games; even a player as great as Crosby. I understand he has been practicing with the team for several months and has played with his linemates for several season's now.

But, live game action and conditioning can not be replicated and gained in practice. It is going to take some time for Crosby to get back in the flow of playing. Will it take long? I don't think so, but it's not going to happen in a couple of games.

It appears Crosby isn't playing tentative as he flew around the ice on Monday and absored a few big hits from the Islanders. He also didn't shy away from Backes.

The Penguins are without question one of the leagues top teams and Crosby one of it's top players. But, before anyone annoints the Penguins the conferences best team and Crosby back to old form, lets let a sufficient amount of time pass.

More then one game anyway.

Capitals next five games

The Capitals have rebounded from their four game losing streak with wins in their last two games. Here is a look at the Capitals next five opponents:

Nov. 25 vs. New York Rangers- The Capitals welcome the Rangers to the Verizon Center for the first time since Game 5 of last season's Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. This is the first meeting between the two clubs since the Capitals ousted the Rangers four games to one last spring and should be an intense matchup. The Rangers come into the game on a two-game losing streak that follows a seven-game winning streak. The off-season addition of Brad Richards has paid some dividends for the Rangers as Marion Gabrik is on pace for a 40-goal season. But, Richards has just 13 points in 18 games and needs to be more productive then that if the Rangers hope to move passed the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

Nov. 26 @ Buffalo Sabres- The Sabres currently sit third in the Northeast Division and have gone just 2-2-1 in Ryan Miller's absence. Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville are off to great starts combining for 49 points in the teams' first 21 games. But, the team is still averaging just 2.8 goals a game and Enroth hasn't exactly been a wall, evidenced by allowing the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins come back from a two-goal deficit on Wednesday night on home ice. The Sabres have also dropped three in a row at home, so expect a strong effort.

Nov. 29 vs. St. Louis Blues- The Capitals welcome the Blues to the Verizon Center for the only meeting between the two this season. The Blues have gone 5-1-2 since the hiring of Ken Hitchcock including a 3-2 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday in Pittsburgh. The Capitals swept the Blues last season including a 3-2 win at Verizon Center Mar. 3 in which current Blue Jason Arnott scored the game winning goal. The Blues are not an offensive juggernaut as their top two scorers T.J. Oshie and Alexander Steen have just 14 points a piece in the teams' first 21 games, but they have been more productive since Hitchock took over so watch out.

Dec. 1 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins- I don't need write much about this one as the name of the visiting team paints the entire picture. The Penguins come to Verizon Center for the first time this season and it will be the first time the Capitals have faced Sidney Crosby since last season's Winter Classic. Emotions are sure to run high not just because of Crosby, but it is also the first tiem the Capitals have faced the Penguins since Pittsburgh forward Arron Asham knocked out Capitals forward Jay Beagle when the two fought on Oct. 13. The Capitals won the game, 3-2, in overtime on a goal from Dennis Wideman, but Beagle suffered a concussion as a result of the fight with Asham and hasn't practiced let alone played since. This game will not be for the weak at heart.

Dec. 3 vs. Ottawa Senators- Washington hosts the Senators for the second time this season in this one. The Senators last visit was on Oct. 15, a 2-1 Capitals win that was the fourth of their franchise record seven straight to start the season. The Senators have won just three times in their last nine games since a six-game winning streak to end October. Washington should prevail in this one, though I wouldn't take it for granted.

Caps fortunes this season lie on Bruce Boudreau

I have recently read several articles and had discussions with several friends that centered around who is most responsible for the Washington Capitals potential success or failure this season.
Those articles and discussions centered on one man; Capitals Captain Alex Ovechkin.
Though the arguments raised were compelling, I’ve come to the conclusion that the wrong person is being held responsible. One person and one person only is responsible for how far the Capitals go this season, and that man is Coach Bruce Boudreau.
Capitals fans and a portion of the media have been on Boudreau the last two seasons as the team has entered the Stanley Cup playoffs as the Eastern Conferences number one seed and failed to reach the Conference Finals on both occasions.
Questions have arose as to whether or not Boudreau is a playoff caliber coach as he seems to not be able to adjust to what the opponent is doing to stymie his offense, and some have even wondered how accountable he holds his star players.
Well, so far this season, Boudreau has attempted to answer the question of accountability as he has already scratched two of the Capitals top six forwards and has held out two of the teams’ five prized off-season acquisitions.
Marcus Johannson was not given a jersey for the season opener against the Carolina Hurricanes and Michael Neuvirth started in place of Tomas Vokoun as Boudreau did not feel either player’s preseason performance warranted an opening night start.
More recently, Alex Ovechkin was held out of the final minute of regulation of the Capitals game versus the Anaheim Ducks on Nov. 1 with Washington trailing by a goal, and just this week Alexander Semin and Joel Ward were healthy scratches.
Semin had been whistled for minor penalties in seven straight games and Ward overslept and was late for a team meeting prior to Wednesday game against the visiting Winnipeg Jets.
Boudreau has also shortened the Capitals bench in the third period of several games so far this season only playing the lines that he felt were having the most success.
So, how well is this new philosophy working?
Johannson responded to his benching with five goals and six points in his first eight games and has 12 points in 19 games played. Vokoun recorded wins in his first six starts and a 1.83 goals against average in those games after not playing on opening night.
Semin scored a goal and finished with a plus/minus of plus-2 on Wednesday against the Jets. Ward gets his first chance to answer this afternoon against the visiting New York Rangers.
It would appear holding the players accountable has worked so far as each player has reacted with strong stretches of play after their benching.
Players such as Jason Chimera and Mike Knuble have been vocal about how important it is that each player be held responsible for their play and that they be rewarded with more ice time because of it.
Chimera currently leads the Capitals in goals with eight and his line with Brooks Laich and Ward has been the team’s best line through the first quarter of the season.
But, I do have one concern.
Though I think Boudreau has done a great job in attempting to chance the teams’ attitude, he has still fallen back on some of his old habits.
After consecutive losses to the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks to end October, Boudreau promptly changed three of the four forward lines and since Michael Neuvirth has healed from a foot injury he and Vokoun have played every other game.
If the Capitals are going to go beyond the second round of the playoffs this season, Boudreau is going to have to be more consistent in every facet of his job.
The best season the team has had in Boudreau’s tenure was the 2009-2010 season when they won the Presidents Trophy. One reason for that was for the majority of the season, Boudreau kept all four forward lines the same.
With the amount of talent and grit on this team now, there is no reason to consistently switch the forward lines. Chimera, Laich and Ward have been the most successful line this season and the main reason is is they have played together every game this season except for Wednesday when Ward was scratched.
One reason for Vokoun’s hot start was the fact that he got a sweater every night. His play has slipped recently and I suspect the main reason is because Boudreau has pulled him from several games and has only started him for consecutive games once this month.
A goalie of Vokoun’s caliber should get at least 10 consecutive starts before receiving a night off because it allows that goalie to get into a rhythm. Any goalie in the league will tell you that.
So, though I commend Boudreau for letting each player know there play and not their name will dictate their playing time, he is still showing some of the same weaknesses that some feel have cost the franchise the last two springs.
Only time will tell, but if Boudreau doesn’t find complete balance as a coach, headlines at the end of the season won’t be the one’s Boudreau wants.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Back to basics is working for Caps

The Washington Capitals have gotten back in the win column the last two games for one reason; they’ve gone back to the basics.
Now, what does that mean exactly?
It means the Capitals have consistently had one or two forwards in front of the opposing net which has resulted in rebound goals or easy tap-ins; just like they were doing when they raced to a franchise best 7-0-0 start to this season.
Washington has scored eight goals in the last two games after combining for that many in their previous five games. They had a 1-3-1 record in those five games by the way.
A concerted effort has been made the last two games to get more traffic in front of the net and the results have come.
John Carlson, Cody Eakin and Nicklas Backstrom’s goals on Monday against the Phoenix Coyotes were all a direct result of net traffic. Both Carlson and Eakin’s goals were deflected in off of Phoenix sticks, but the effort of the other Capitals on the ice to skate to the net put the Coyotes defensemen in shooting lanes which leaves the possibility of a deflection open.
On Wednesday, Jason Chimera scored twice on tap-in’s of passes to the net and Backstrom scored his second goal in as many games on another rebound. Yes, both of Chimera’s goals, especially the overtime winner came from nice passes, but the fact that Chimera positioned himself in front of Winnipeg Jets’ goalie Ondrej Pavelec allowed Brooks Laich and Dennis Wideman the opportunity to make both passes.
There were still a few areas of concern, though. Defensive breakdowns resulted in the Jets first two goals, and Tomas Vokoun overplayed a late third period rush from the Jets that allowed Bryan Little to tie the game at 3 with 7:24 to go.
Vokoun has been shaky lately allowing three or more goals in five of his last seven starts after allowing more than two in just one of his first seven starts. He has also been pulled in two of those seven starts.
Defensive breakdowns can be blamed for several of those outings, mainly Oct. 29 against the Vancouver Canucks, last Thursday against the Jets and Saturday’s 7-1 thumping at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But, the Capitals defense put Vokoun in some tough spots during the 7-0 start and he rose to those challenges. So, just because Vokoun hasn’t received consistent support is no excuse for the amount of goals he’s let in lately.
Intensity has been more apparent the last two games as well. In the losses to the Jets and Leafs, there was an obvious lack of intensity from the Capitals which caused them to not respond after allowing goals.
The last two games have been different, though. Even when they were down 2-0 to the Coyotes on Monday, the Capitals intensity and confidence never wavered which is why they were able to come back and win the game.
On Wednesday, that same intensity allowed the Capitals to respond to each Jets tally, including Little’s that came less than a minute after Mike Knuble’s apparent game clincher was nullified after goaltender interference.
A commitment to doing the little things right has done wonders for the Capitals the last two games. If they keep that up and receive more consistent play from their defense, a return to the top of the NHL standings won’t be hard.
More importantly, success in the spring may come a bit easier.