As some of you may know, I’ve recently been writing on Japers’ Rink.  Among other things, this joining of Capitals-blogging forces gives my Caps content greater visibility, as well as makes it easier for the reader who wants a one-stop blog shop for current Caps news and the best in timely analysis and opinion.

That said, it’s not currently my intention to let The Red Skate drift away.  I’m contemplating several directions for hockey content on this site, and hope to have both the time and inspiration to implement one of them soon.

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For now, I want to thank of all you who have read TRS since day one, on a summer day last June.  It’s been incredibly satisfying and rewarding thus far, and I look forward to new projects ahead.

Go Caps.

I’m also of the view that yesterday’s game was played with the intensity sufficient to springboard the Capitals into a winning streak.   A real turning point game. 

But the match provided, I think, one of the greatest indictments to date of the shootout format.  After 65 minutes of 3-3 hockey, featuring a breathtaking coast-to-coast play by the home team to tie the score, and Joe B. on the broadcast exclaiming, in reference to the passion and volume of the fans assembled, “Welcome to the Stanley Cup playoffs!”, an extra point was awarded to one team on the basis of that odious skills competition.

From Capitals Insider:

“I think we play better in third period but the results in shootout it’s like lottery,” Ovechkin said.

Exactly. 

Yesterday was a scintillating display, great fun to watch, and a hard-fought tie.  Ended with a “lottery.”

drycut

Your post-game analysis that barely scrapes the surface:

During the second intermission, Smokin’ Al interviewed Boyd Gordon on Comcast SportsNet, who said, to paraphrase, that whoever makes the first mistake (in a scoreless game to that point) would win the game.  Uh-huh.

While the team may have performed well enough to keep it scoreless through that point, they fell apart after Lee Stempniak’s fortitious negative angle shot deflected off of José Théodore’s heel and bounced over the goal line.  Pavel Kubina was left alone to rip it behind a helpless, screened (and arguably interfered-with) JT not 4 minutes later, and there was your ball game.

More on goaltender interference later.

Ready excuses present themselves for losing a third consecutive game, all on home ice:

Against Florida, it was the excuse of the second of back-to-backs, after a playoff-style matinée in Boston, facing a team desperate for a win to put them back into playoff positioning.

Against Carolina, it was “pre-trade deadline” jitters, and a suddenly flu-bitten Théodore, forcing an unprepared rookie in Michal Neuvirth between the pipes.

Against T.O., it was the sudden scratch of Alex Ovechkin and injury loss of Tom Poti, and having to play with 11 forwards.

What will be the excuse against Pittsburgh on Sunday?

Read the rest of this entry »

According to Tim Leone this afternoon, Simeon Varlamov should return to active duty and be in net for the Bears on Saturday @ T.O.  Yet another reason to listen to the broadcast of that afternoon match (4pm).

And, to Leone, Bears head coach Bob Woods had this to say about Brian Pothier following practice at Hersheypark Arena today:

“He’s a very composed and heady guy.  He has experience. He’s been around a long time. He’ll settle things down back there. He’s been out for a while, but he’s been practicing. He looked good in practice. I think he’ll be fine.”

The D-pairs at practice:

Sloan-Helmer
Alzner-Lepisto
Kronwall-Pothier
P. McNeill-Collins
Amadio-Arsene

Very interesting.

The thrills and angst of awaking early yesterday morning, wondering which outlets of media were best suited for following the trade deadline flurry, clearing our schedules to affix our hands to TV remote and/or mouse, names like Pronger, Bouwmeester, and Morris dancing in our heads, all faded out slowly as dusk descended on Kettler Capitals Iceplex last evening.

To paraphrase McPhee, “we just didn’t feel it” this time around.  And the price of making a truly meaningful acquisition was way too high.

Fred Chartrand, AP

Fred Chartrand, AP

Getty Images

Getty Images

But following on the heels of yesterday’s non-news — a tumbleweed blown across an empty, quiet frontier town main street — this weekend promises to be a tremendously compelling one for Capitals faithful.

For one, we’ve got the Penguins in town on Sunday, which is always such a joy in and of itself, and a chance to both sweep the Rust City team and quash their post-coaching change momentum and hamper their playoff positioning.  I couldn’t imagine a better set up for continuing the course re-direction of the long prevailing tides of history between the two clubs.

Or provide a platform for new frustration from Pittsburgh, depending upon how you look at it.

Secondly, the Hershey Bears face off in their next game at 4:00 pm on Saturday afternoon in the Ricoh Coliseum, home of the Toronto Marlies.  It may be the first chance to follow Brian Pothier in his first pro action in 13 months.  He’s set to practice with the Bears today, and the situation, well, bears very close watch.

I wonder if, despite the public reports about not yet obtaining full, and multiple, medical clearances until now, Potsy has been ready to go for a while.  Sure is curious that he was assigned immediately following the conclusion of the trade business for the season.  I suppose — why let the cat out of the bag that Pothier is in the team’s future plans, not to mention burn available cap room, until it’s certain that a deal to improve the D corps cannot be reached?

*     *     *

One other thought on the lack of major deals yesterday:  The concern amongst most GMs (including, I’m sure McPhee) that a dreadful economy will constrain the NHL salary cap for the 2010-11 season ultimately chilled any major deal involving players who are still very much valuable, but nevertheless performing at or below the perceived level of their long-term dollars earned.  Making “hockey deals” to improve clubs seemed completely unworkable, despite best intentions from McPhee and likely many other GMs in the Cup hunt this year.

Today, the Dow is below 6,700, the TSX is below 7,700 (both dropping considerably again today), and the current USD to CAD exchange rate is US$1 to C$ 1.29.  Ouch.

Uncle Ted has more on that point, including mention of the 50-contract limit, which the organization has already reached:

There are only 50 contracts that a team can take on. There is a hard cap and as folks have noticed, the cap will be flat to down over the next few years. Hence there was a lot of trading player for player and salary for salary. It reminds me a bit of the NBA trading dollar for dollar and contract for contract.

The economic landscape has changed too. Teams aren’t looking to add to payroll. They want to shed payroll. Many teams that had high-priced veteran players were looking to exchange those contracts for younger players with lower-priced contracts. And banks won’t allow teams to increase their losses by tucking older players in the minors or doing magical contract buyouts. Cash is king in business today and the big spending teams don’t have the money to spend like they used to and can’t cover lots of payroll mistakes.

Paul Chiasson, AP

Paul Chiasson, AP

Speaking of which, and hindsight is 20/20 of course, it seems awfully likely that Michael Nylander, regardless of any no movement clause, is going to have to be bought out if he is to be taken (partially) off the ledger after 2008-09, as my blogging colleagues already astutely surmised.  No one wanted anywhere near that contract in November, nor yesterday, nor will any GM bite over the summer.

But that’s but one blemish on an otherwise impeccable record of McPhee’s recent personnel moves to position the team for the coming salary cap storm.

How many of you were like me during the 3-4 pm hour:

Refresh, refresh, refresh . . .

“Is something wrong with my connection?”

“Surely McPhee will execute at least one move, to document that the organization was alert today.”

“I’m glad I didn’t burn a vacation day for this.”

And then:

Didn’t something need to be done after the last two miserable losses, a sudden inability to win at home (3-4 on the home stand, with one SOW), the goaltending position horrendously exposed, and an apparent lack of leadership?

Guess not.

calm-buddha-gold2

The trade deadline calmly passed with not even a minor leaguer swap for the Washington Capitals.  GM George McPhee apparently enjoys a zen-like contentment with the current club, enough to avoid taking any risks in the 2009 trading climate.

Regarding the recent losses, I’m not terribly concerned yet.  Detroit went 4-8-2 in February 2008, and won the Cup.  Philadelphia likewise stumbled in February to compile the same record, including in there seven straight losses.  And they reached the Conference finals.  Not to mention that the room was likely on pins and needles waiting for the trade deadline to pass.  Definitely not zen-like in there.

But anyway, let’s recap what some of the Washington Capitals’ “peers” in the East accomplished today:

Boston:  Acquired F Mark Recchi and D Steve Montador, for little present roster loss.

A (quite) veteran, Cup-winning presence, and a solid depth defenseman.  Probably the biggest winner in the East.

New Jersey:  Acquired D Niclas Havelid, giving up a D prospect that may prove valuable well down the road.  Another depth defenseman necessary for the long “second season.”

Philadelphia:  Acquired D Kyle McLaren for a low (6th) round pick.  See above.

Sensing a pattern here?

NY Rangers:  Shuffled the deck quite a bit to win the Derek Morris “sweepstakes,” and also to acquire the mercurial F Nik Antropov.  Of course, also claiming Sean Avery from waivers yesterday, who shocks us with the admission that he’s “not perfect.”

Bottom line: To me, it looks like the three teams most threatening to the Caps’ chances of hoisting the Prince of Wales Trophy (BOS, NJD, PHI) added vital depth to their defensive corps, and thereby fortified the lineup for the inevitable swoons, fatigue, and injuries that will beset the backliners throughout April and May.

Exactly what the Caps needed to do as well.  C’est la vie.

Now, all that’s left is to play the games on the ice.  No waiting for help — it’s all up to them.

In other news: Carolina just brought back Erik Cole in a three-team deal with LAK and Edmonton involving Justin Williams and Patrick O’Sullivan.  That’s a very interesting one, if only in terms of the logistics in pulling it off.

Pittsburgh took on Bill Guerin, and now seems better positioned to break into the top 8, if only to lose in a first round (or so we might hope).

And Olie Kolzig goes to Toronto, along with former Caps’ D Jamie Heward.  Not a bad place for Olie to finish his career, assuming he’s ready to go in 2009-10.

With an overtime winner on Saturday, Alex Semin is back on top, and Ovechkin is fourth, in the weekly installment of THN’s Ken Campbell’s Campbellnomics.

The infamous Jeff Carter is second in the rankings.  Fittingly, all but one player in the top ten (Ryan Getzlaf of Anaheim) play on a contender.

On whichever side of the bench you sit regarding the presence of fighting in hockey, if you have an interest in the ongoing debate, re-ignited by the Don Sanderson tragedy, watch this must-see episode of CBC’s the fifth estate:  “The Code.”  The full episode, as well as individual segments, is available here.

Also features an interview with Donald Brashear.

On Monday evening, on the Fan590’s Prime Time Sports (free download on iTunes), host Bob McCown and the Globe and Mail’s Stephen Brunt further the discussion.  Really worth a listen.

They also tie in Don Cherry’s outrageous verbal assault against Alex Ovechkin’s joie de vivre, essentially advocating that someone give Ovi a comeuppance and severely injure him.    To wit, as quoted from the T.O. Star:

There’s somebody out there, some big defenceman is going to be sitting in the weeds as [Ovechkin] cuts across centre and he’s going to cut him in half.

Ugly.

Brunt’s comments on PTS suggested a question that I’ll throw out here:

If you support fighting in the game, is it just because you find fights entertaining in and of themselves (as many find boxing, MMA, other fight games entertaining), without regard to its perceived “necessity” in the game?  Does it simply provide bonus value to a game, especially one featuring less-compelling teams?

Or, conversely, do you believe that fighting is uniquely necessary to hockey, wholly aside from any intrinsic entertainment value of the bout itself?

(Admittedly difficult to separate the two in one’s mind.)

There goes one pending-UFA veteran depth defenseman.  To a direct competitor in the conference. 

Niclas Havelid was just dealt to NJD for rookie D Anssi Salmela (cue jokes about food contaminants).  No Cup winning experience has Havelid, but a Stanley Cup finals appearance against those Devils in 2003.

This is the kind of move that I’d like to see McPhee make in the next two days.  Though definitely not for one of our rookie defensemen wearing #27.

I know, it’s been far too long.

So let’s band together and toast to the Caps’ success so far this season during an Original Six matchup:  Thursday @ 7pm vs. the Leafs.  Gabby’s old team.

region-capture

We’ve previously congregated at Third & Long, but other suggestions were previously on the table. 

Feel free to leave other suggestions of venue in the comments.


Hope nobody had a flight scheduled today.

This Washington Capitals team has become awfully predictable, hasn’t it?

With the recent history of swoons and slips against teams well behind them in points totals, a fierce battle and dramatic victory or the road yesterday against the top team in the East, and their 3-4-1 record in the second of back-to-backs when they win that first, one could reasonably predict a loss today.

But who thought it would be such four-goal deficit ugliness?  The last time the Caps lost by four at home was . . . the last game featuring Glen Hanlon pacing behind the Washington bench.

This morning, the team faced an opportunity to extend a division lead to a comical 17 points.  And that lead is still fairly insurmountable.

However, though the calendar has turned to March and warmer climes teased us a bit in these parts, winter weather returned impressively to the Northeast Corridor this morning.  Watching large snowflakes carried by a stiff breeze as I sipped my first mug of coffee, I took it as a sign that the regular season is, well, not quite over. 

capture

And there’s now a lengthy storm of eleven more games out of the last 18 against Southeast foes.  Against whom the team seems lately to have little interest in playing against.  In fact, the only teams that they will face in the remaining slate which currently hold a playoff berth are the two from Pennsylvania.

At least we know that they’ll be ready for those games. 

As it was more than a month ago, the remainder of the season will in all likelihood decide only whether Les Capitals will finish second or third in the conference.  And that really begins and ends the significance of all of these Southeast games.

At least in the standings.

The weightiest concern now is how not getting fired up to play all of these games against opponents far in their rear view mirror is going to affect momentum entering the playoffs.

Tim Thomas sure has been beaten by Alex Semin for GWGs before this season.  But this time, according to the All-Star netminder, he was just lucky:

“That doesn’t happen very often — that kind of shot. That was one of the luckiest shots that I’ve ever seen,” Thomas said. “It was about 3 inches off the ice until about halfway to me, and I missed it. Or, I got a good piece of it. It originally started out as a pad save turned into a glove save and I missed it.”

Thomas said he was ready for the shot, but not for it to take off sailing. He also felt bad that the game ended in such a disappointing fashion.

The Bruins netminder said that if that situation were to occur again, he would instead try to get his chest in front of the shot to be sure that it doesn’t cross the goal line.

“He who laughs last, laughs hardest and we’ll see what happens,” Thomas said.

Got it.  See you in the playoffs.

drycut2

“Playing down to the opponent,” in losing twice to CBJ and LAK?  Flopping against Colorado?  Not today.

In a matinée in Boston, this Washington Capitals team showed character, skill, and a few enormously important keys to making a deep playoff run.

Alex Semin taking those cheating, reaching penalties?  Fughedaboutit.  Three penalties drawn, and only one taken.  And a questionable trip on Chara at that — nowhere touching the legs of the hurculean Z-Man as far as these HDTV-viewing eyes could tell. An outstanding game from #28!

Aside from this affair, Gabby calls his work ethic “much improved.”  So there, Semin skeptics.  He laid off the stick reach when tempted to do so, and spun his wheels to draw the calls against.

Otherwise, the team displayed a necessary discipline which I have no doubt will continue into the playoffs:  only four penalties against, including both that questionable call on Semin and an interference whistle on Laich.

Re:  the latter — who had the lane first?  Laich turned his head for a brief moment, but otherwise, fair call?

Backstrom slashing in the 3rd is a rare occurrence not to be oft-repeated.

Hey, at least no over the glass calls, eh?

And not to mention Semin’s game-winner — a rising, unblemished shot from beyond the blue line that recalled the memory of Yzerman’s long-range blast past Jon Casey in game seven of the 1996 playoffs long, long ago.

Harbinger.

José Théodore, by strong contrast, gave me another indication of how a closely-fought playoff series, as these games vs. the Bruins have exemplified, might play out.  Sure, he way over-committed on one two-on-one play in tight, but shone brilliantly in several fantastic game-savers.  And got the win.

On to Florida, where a seventeen point lead over the division might soon be achieved.

Anthony Fiore, insidehockey.com

Anthony Fiore, insidehockey.com

Big news today that G Simeon Varlamov is actually back skating again, after his latest of injuries.  From Tim Leone:

Goalie Simeon Varlamov, sidelined by a knee injury since Jan. 14, practiced with the Hershey Bears Tuesday at Hersheypark Arena and could possibly play this week.

“We’re hoping, if things keep progressing, maybe by the weekend,” Bears head coach Bob Woods said. “He’s got to get his conditioning back.”

With barely a week to go before the March 4 trading deadline, having Varly exhibit some semblance of rehab progress should influence quite a bit whether or not GM George McPhee sees fit bring another ‘tender into the organization.  Beyond Michal Neuvirth, they’ve got Daren Machesney, and recent pickup Kris Mayotte, who earned his first AHL win on Saturday.  

In other words, dangerously thin at the position without “The Iron Curtain.”   

And nobody asked me (yet), but I have to think that Thursday night @ home vs. Atlanta is a great time to start Neuvirth again.

Ok, brothers and sisters, I never thought that I’d see these days.

When a Washington Capital is deemed, on a national broadcast, unequivocally, the game’s greatest player “by far.” 

When the Caps are near the top of the heap in the Eastern Conference, and amazingly within striking distance of first place, just seven points out.  Even within range, though barely, of the Presidents’ Trophy.  Just one of the awards yet to be earned by this franchise.  (Keeping our eyes and heart on the real prize, of course.)

When the team with a young corps of mesmerizing talent steamrolls to the best record in franchise history after 60 games.

And when one of the great hockey scribes south of the border, Kevin Paul Dupont, declares that “Ovechkin’s gap over Crosby will only grow.”

nhl.com

nhl.com

This excerpt from the TSN lead story today summarizes the stunning reversal of fortune, that you’ve all seen but love to read in print over and over:

The Capitals are 3-0 against the Penguins this season and 4-1-1 since Bruce Boudreau became coach 15 months ago. Before Boudreau, Washington was 1-7-1 in its previous nine games in the series, and Crosby had all the bragging rights.

Now the Capitals are thinking Stanley Cup, while the Penguins – last year’s losing Cup finalist – would not make the playoffs if the post-season started now. They fell to 2-1-1 under interim coach Dan Bylsma, who was promoted after Michel Therrien was fired a week earlier.

Coach Gabby on Crosby’s reactions on the ice to his, and the Penguins’, sudden inability to dominate the play on the ice (if not also the passion in the seats) in the Nation’s Capital:

“I think he got frustrated because he wasn’t getting the freedom he’s had in this building before.”

Color me stunned.  Absolutely stunned. 

What’s more, Coach knows to keep the foot on the gas pedal, and his comments post-game suggest a healthy appreciation of the franchise’s, and the fan base’s, need for vindication:

“We’ve won three [in a row against them],” Boudreau said. “I don’t think it’s changing unless we won seven or eight in a row against them. With those two guys [Crosby and Evgeni Malkin], it’s going to be tough to do.”

Agreed.  It will take many more convincing victories, and their humiliating defeats, to “even the score.”  Continuing on March 8. 

Still, is a playoff victory necessary?  The disparity which is most glaring, and which demands vengeance, is the one regarding playoff series wins:  six of them for the Penguins, in seven playoff meetings between the two clubs.

Or can Caps Nation be content with a regular-season sweep that will help to bury the Rust City team and eliminate them from the playoffs? 

In addition to stunned, I’m still scarred as well from those years of playoff torment.  I can’t deny it.  I crave to witness further suffering for the Penguins fan base, enough to cause them to distance themselves from the team and the game.  Let the seeds of apathy and resignation begin to take root.

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