The overwhelming, front-and-center storyline of last night’s game was, of course, Alex Ovechkin’s pinball wizard, superhuman-display-of-skating-ability goal in the first period.  But an under-the-radar moment of interest to me, in terms of the evolution of the game, occurred in the second frame.

Midway through, Brooks Laich chugged into the O-zone over the line, going one-on-one with Roman Hamrlik (who had quite an infamous presence already in the game, being spun around by both Ovechkin and Nicky Backstrom in the first period).

Paul Chiasson, AP (12/13/08)

Paul Chiasson, AP (12/13/08)

Laich, unable to deke the veteran defender, played dump and chase, flipping the puck down towards the goal line.  As Brooks then dug in to skate an arc around Hamrlik, the D-man shifted to his right and put his big body in Laich’s new skating lane.  Not getting his stick high, or putting the big hook around Brooksy, nor wrapping his mitts around the forward — just moving into the same lane of traffic.

The arm went up, arms criss-crossed in front of the chest.  “Interference.”  And it was two minutes of time for Hamrlik to contemplate how much the game has changed since he first broke into league.

The broadcast team remarked at the time, to paraphrase:  “A defenseman from the 70’s or 80’s watching this would say ‘That’s a penalty?  They used to teach us to do that.'”  Or the 90’s for that matter.

And watching the replay of the penalty, I was surprised too that the call was made.  And pleased.  Not just because it was a call against the Habs, but because it represented a fundamental change in the way the game is officiated.  Before the lockout, I daresay that such a lane shift by Hamrlik, without blatant use of the stick or gloves to hold Laich back, would have transpired without a whistle, if not gone unnoticed.

Not so any more.

The name Hamrlik brings me back to my early days of hockey fandom.  I remember when he broke in with the expansion TB Lightning in 1992-93, thrown into the fire just after being drafted, still an 18-year old, a native of Czechoslovakia suddenly playing in the foreign land of Florida.  And as I recall, well before the internet and smart phones, he was hyped in much the same way as is Steven Stamkos, by that same franchise, today.

But I digress.  I wonder if Hamrlik was as surprised to hear the interference call against him last night as much as some observers were.  In any event, its a great example of how the once clutch-and-grab game has finally changed in a measurable way for good, and for the better.

Thought I’d pass this along for folks who are similarly situated.  (And while I should be, I’m not getting any $$ benefit for posting this one.)

Taking the Acela between New York and Washington (a quick, comfortable 2 hour and 45 minute ride) is now $99 each way, through June 26, so long as you book at least 14 days in advance of your trip.  Book here.

And want to go to Boston on February 28 to watch the Caps?  The roughly 6 and 1/2 hour train ride from D.C. to Beantown is $124 each way.  Sure beats driving, or even flying.  From New York to Boston, it’s only $79 each way.

Rock the red on the road!

Sorry guys, bad math on the Boston trip.  But for you NYC fans, let’s get ‘er going!

There’s also the March 12 game @ Philly. (Still time to book an Acela round tripper 14 days in advance there:  $73 each way.)

In case you hadn’t seen it, feast your eyes upon these beauties worn by the Hershey Bears on Love Day.

Anthony Fiore

Anthony Fiore, insidehockey.com

Of course, a charity auction for these sweaters followed the game.  I would have preferred to make a strict cash donation.  Good Lord.

Stick tap to Stack the Pads for the photo.

All is seemingly coming up roses for the Washington Capitals.  Heroic efforts, storybook endings, record-setting performances, have become almost predictable for our favorite team.  So like any seasoned Capitals fan, it can be an unsettling state of contentment to occupy.

If there be a focus for the angst that still cannot be contained in Capdom, it often has settled upon our goaltending.  And fair enough, as Brent Johnson is out for likely the duration of even a deep playoff run.  (Or so says Olie Kolzig, who underwent the same type of surgery as Johnny.)  And as fans eye José Théodore nervously, waiting for another stretch of poor play to unfold.

capitals.nhl.com

capitals.nhl.com

Even Théodore’s numbers since that “turn-around” game @ NYR on December 23 — 12-4-2, 2.53 GAA, and .919 SV%, the latter of which would be good for 10th best in the league (including back-ups) so far this season — has done little to quell that angst deeply rooted in some fans among us.  Neither has a reminder that JT has won four playoff rounds in his career, and that Vezina Trophy.

So let’s then compare the Caps’ netmending situation to those other clubs that have established themselves as “elite” teams this season.  Some teams through which the Caps must progress in order to win the ultimate prize.  Are their goaltenders more established, solid, free of championship doubt?

To avoid controversy as to which are considered “elite,” we’ll look at the other top three, besides Washington, in the East standings, and at the top four in the West.

What we find, I humbly suggest, is that the Caps are no “worse” off right now than most of the other Cup contenders in 2008-09.  While a capable backup may be nice to acquire by the trade deadline, it may come at the expense of filling perhaps a greater need for this team going into April.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Your post-game analysis that barely scrapes the surface:

Not only does Alex Ovechkin predict his goal-scoring feat, complete a hat trick, but he scores the game-winner through the legs of Florida’s best defenseman in Jay Bouwmeester.

Great move by Coach Boudreau to effectively use his abundance of active roster riches in back-to-back games in the Sunshine State, less than 24 hours apart.  The fresh legs of Karl Alzner and Milan Jurcina on the back line, and sparkplug Jay Beagle up front, provided much needed energy on the team’s short rest.  I thought Juice started off a little ragged, but his play around his net improved dramatically as the game wore on.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Your post-game analysis that barely scrapes the surface:

What a wonderful, historic night, on a romantic, passion-filled holiday. Amongst Mike Green’s historic marker, his eighth-straight game in which he has scored, Michal Neuvirth’s victory in his debut, a convincing 5-1 victory on the road, players’ dads in attendance, and shaving cream everywhere post-game, the game was storybook quality.

The only thing I might have changed was the scheduling: I’d rather that the Capitals faced the scratching and clawing ‘Cats from Sunrise last night, and the Lightning on the second of the back-to-backs. From the goaltending on out, last night’s hosts seemed completely overmatched for much of the game and didn’t come out with a lot of jump. So tonight in the Fort Lauderdale suburbs, less than 24 hours later, the Caps could be in for a rude awakening.

I wanted to say that the Caps, in each of the now three games that a rookie netminder has manned the pipes, particularly collapse defensively to take care of their green goalie. Though the SA stats don’t quite bear that out — they average 29.3 A/G, and Simeon Varlamov faced 31 and 33 shots in his two starts, while Neuvy faced 32 last night — but it seemed as if the defense did shield Neuvirth from a worse onslaught last night than might be typical.  Or maybe it was more the result of a mediocre opponent.

That all said, Neuvirth made some brilliant snags with the mitt and side-to-side stops, including that breakaway grab from Vinny Lecavalier. As Tarik reported last night:

“I made the save, it was like, ‘I can play at this level,'” said Neuvirth, the eighth player to make his big league debut this season for the Capitals, and the second goalie to win his first career start, joining Simeon Varlamov. “It was a big save.”

Noted.  And then robbing the other ‘Ning sniper, Martin St. Louis, on the PP.

Can you believe all of this success with rookie ‘tenders?

Last night saw another penalty assessed to Alex Ovechkin, for interference, which now makes three consecutive games in which he’s been given a minor penalty.  Is it becoming reputational, or just a bit of poor judgment on the big guy’s part?

Strange how seemingly all of the typically relevant stats:  hits, SOG, scoring chances, penalties, face-offs, all trended in favor of the home team last night after one period.  Except for the 3-0 score.

The triple F line shone bright again, with a goal from Eric Fehr.  Fehr’s minutes are creeping up there:  13:00 last night, and 12:51 @ NYR on Wednesday.  Vogs has a nice recent piece comparing the careers of Tomas Fleischmann and Brooks Laich to Fehr’s.  My gut reaction is that Fehr’s enjoying a bit higher skill level in his linemates than was Flash and Brooksy at comparable stages of their development.  But in any event, it’s these numbers that matter most:  5 goals and 3 assists in Fehr’s last 7 GP.  Brilliant.

For all of the great play of that second line last night, Viktor Kozlov is still sorely missed, and will be missed much more so tonight, where I suspect a much harder-fought affair.

And as Michael Nylander continues to snuff the momentum of almost any two wing mates, that third line of Bradley, Laich, and Nyls was underwhelming at best.

In reviewing his historic goal for the folks on the Sun Sports broadcast last night, Green remarked on how “that Tampa guy” blocked his first shot, before he banged in the rebound from the slot area.  “That Tampa guy” was former, recent teammate Matt Pettinger.

The PP looked pretty lazy, despite Green’s tally, full of outside shots without traffic.  Not that it was necessary after building a 4-0 lead without much push-back from the home team.  But what’s that about developing bad habits?

Coach was wearing quite a sharp tie last night.

All together, though, a magical night.  To those skeptics still out there: is this still not a special team, capable of the highest prize come June?

A few screen shots taken from Sun Sports’ broadcast of the game tonight, focusing on Mike Green’s old man celebrating Greenie’s historic goal amongst the other Capitals’ dads on the road trip.  What a wonderful sight and memory to cherish.

He sat next to Michal Neuvirth’s father and, with young Michal working through his NHL debut, there was, of course, “plenty of adrenaline” in the seats @ TB between those two gents.

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Don’t forget, Caps fans, that this weekend is USA Hockey’s “Hockey Weekend Across America.”

And today, in particular, is “Bring a Friend to the Rink Day.”  Locally, you have two featured options:

Hi guys and gals:  hope your day is filled with scoring.  Or at least “good scoring opportunities.”  Or red lights.

Ah, too easy.

Did you know that the Washington Capitals have played on this February 14th, Valentine’s Day, only ten games in their illustrious, 34-season history, and that they’ve gone 6-4 in those games?  And no games played on V-Day at all in the post-lockout, Ovechkin era. 

This day leads me to reflect on the fact that, this Caps team and I, we’ve been “together” for nearly two decades.  And there have been many frustrating, sad, angering, and tragic moments, as well as times of pure joy.

But forget about that honeymoon period, long, long ago — this season is proving to be our most exhilarating season ever. 

So today, Caps fans, enjoy tonight’s game from your seat on the road or from your sofa, and “let your [Capitals] red heart show”:

Chris Nelson / NPR

Chris Nelson / NPR

If you haven’t yet drilled down into Leonard Shapiro’s great article in WaPo this morning, on NPR’s coverage of the Caps this season from Gemma Hooley and Chris Nelson, listen here to the moving clip from Karl Alzner’s audio diary he had compiled for Hooley and Nelson, especially the segment recorded just hours before leaving for September’s training camp at Kettler.

It’s a poignant reminder of just how young some of these guys are, and how much we expect from them already.

It’s fairly uncontroversial to state, as J.P. and others already observed, that the two tussles early in the first period of Wednesday’s match between the Caps and Rangers at the Garden served to benefit only the home squad, desperate to enliven that sad, wet blanket of a team that had lost 5 straight, including one to the Dallas Stars by a 10-2 count.

Nevertheless, these two bouts, one a heavyweight tête-à-tête between Donald Brashear and Colton Orr, and the second a “middleweight” bout between Matt Bradley and Aaron Voros, together serve as a nice illustrative example for the raging debate in hockey circles about the difference between “staged fights” and those that “arise out of the spontaneity of the game,” as NHLPA boss Paul Kelly has described.

An immediate, poignant contrast in how and why fights begin, what Bill Daly and Commissioner Bettman call the “rules of engagement.”

Here’s video of the Brashear throwing his big lefts against Orr, shot by Russ Waxman on Wednesday:

Clearly an event unprovoked, not arising our of the spontaneity of the game, or a response to a questionable hit or otherwise.  Did the fans enjoy it?  Maybe.  But this “marquee” bout was clearly pre-determined, if not before the game, then at some point when the two first skated together onto the same ice surface.

Now, the Brads and Voros fight:

A more impassioned affair, perhaps?  This one really got my heart rate up.  Arguably, that fight was a response to something that happened within the game just seconds before, arising out of its emotion.  A response to the calculated effort to embolden the home team and set the Caps on their heels.

Consequently, it proved (to these eyes anyway) the more “entertaining” fight, if, as proponents of fighting have long stated, that be an important reason for keeping fisticuffs in the game, penalized only as they are today.

Japers’ Rink recently featured the top-ten rated Caps’ fights, according to hockeyfights.com, and the list is replete with references to Donald, and only one to Bradley.

Was the first fight above, in your view, more entertaining, necessary, inevitable?

If that type of fight was greatly curtailed if not eliminated, having the on-ice officials step in immediately to end it — would it detract from the game or your enjoyment of it?

After quite a lot of good discussion recently about ice at Verizon Center, Ted today appropriately inquired as to the quality of the ice sheet at the “World’s Most Famous Arena” during last night’s Rangers / Caps match.

Here are our answers to his burning questions:

So what was the ice quality at MSG last night?

Not so great, from our vantage point in the seats.  The sheet was new, and the puck predictably bounced around quite a bit.  Though we can’t bother with measuring ourselves against such a currently average franchise.

What did the players think about it?

Not sure.  If MSG would allow this blogger access, I, for one, would have surely asked some players.

Did it affect the play?

Yes, though for the Caps’ part, other factors (such as the absence of Alex Semin and Viktor Kozlov, and the lack of discipline in the third period) proved far more impactful.

Why no articles on it? What gives?

For my small part, see answer to Question 2, above.

Best,

TRS

Earlier in the season we mentioned a great article about limitations on the size and shape of goaltender equipment, repeating the unassailable truth that “Equipment is there to protect, not make saves.”

So we found it curious that Rangers ‘tender Henrik Lundqvist, while already an ample 6’1″ height, appeared to have such, well, stacked shoulders.

In an NHL.com video, Kay Whitmore explains (near the end of the video) that shoulder and chest pads should be rounded, not square, and that overall equipment “should be fitted to a guy’s actual size.”  Logical enough.

Compare the photos by Russ of the two netminders below, and draw your own conclusions.

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Well, “in the parlance of our times,” the Washington Capitals finished the six-game regular season slate in the New York metro area undefeated, going 4-0-2, most all of which were closely contested affairs, and some old fashioned barnburners.

As with the game back on November 15 at NJ, a 6-5 SO loss to the Devs, I wondered about the outcome of last night’s game were Alex Semin in the lineup, with an opposing goalie less than sharp.

Below are a few photos from last night, all courtesy of Russell Waxman:

opening draw
opening draw

Yes, “fans” continually walk through the open concourse no matter what is happening on the ice.  Vendors also regularly patrol the area, hefting ridiculously view-obstructing items like hot dog steamers and cotton candy poles.

celebration of Green's 1st goal, the record-tying blast
celebration of Green’s 1st goal, the record-tying blast
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Ovi collects the record-tying puck
celebrating Flash's tally
celebrating Flash’s tally

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 region-capture35
Jay Beagle was a joy to watch last night, and it’s a shame that the relentless penalty calls against in the third limited him to just two short shifts in that period.

Forget the final result of tonight’s game:  a choppy and sloppy affair, one in which we thought, as eyewitnesses, that Tom Poti, Karl Alzner, and Mike Green were the only backliners earning their full pay tonight.

What enlivened my spirit tonight was not Green’s first of two goals that he scored on the night, making this game the seventh in a row in which he has scored, tying the NHL record for the longest goal-scoring streak by a defenseman (set by Boston’s Mike O’Connell during the 1983-84 season).

No, it was really the strength and number of Washington Capitals fans in attendance tonight at the Garden, in mid-week.  A good deal of red could be seen throughout the mid-range ring of the storied arena:  jerseys not just sporting Ovechkin’s name, but of Green, Semin, and Backstrom.  Laich, Captain Clark, and a #47 Karl Alzner.

Nick Laham / Getty Images

Nick Laham / Getty Images

Even old-school sweaters of Dennis Maruk and Dino Ciccarelli were observed.

You know how upsettting it is, or rather has been, to watch a game in D.C., surrounded by Flyers fans, or Penguin fans, or Rangers fans, and also know that they live among you, take your same commute home?  Live among you?

As we left the Garden tonight, a teenage boy and his father exited with us, undoubtedly relishing that most contrived of victories, by one goal in the shootout, scored even by a clink off of the pipe.  And, we should mention, after the visitors put on a heroic penalty killing display, fighting off four straight minor penalties against, one a double-minor.  So, emboldened by this gift of an extra point, the boy chirped at me:

“Enjoy the drive home to Washington.”

Automatically, without thought or hesitation, I replied:

“Heh.  I live here.  I’m taking the E train.”

The boy was flummoxed, and disappointed.  His father put his arm around him and they walked away without further discussion.

Walking through Penn Station’s Amtrak terminal, I observed a long lineup of dudes waiting for the men’s room, surely seeing that ugly rest stop as their only chance before a long ride out on NJ Transit.

Heck, they’re probably still en route, as I type in the comfort of home.

Maybe all of these Caps supporters made the trip up from the D.C. metro area on a Wednesday afternoon.  Or maybe many are very recent transplants.  Or, maybe long-time NYC-area denizens are now reclaiming their hockey roots.  In any event, Caps country is annexing a bit of territory in unlikely places.

If it comes to pass that the Caps play the Devils or Rangers in the playoffs, I can assure you that Amtrak is a most comfortable and, usually, on-time reliable way to travel between D.C. and Gotham.  Please, get on board.

Photos of tonight’s game to come.