Ovechkin, Unassisted: Capitals/Penguins Game 7

“Ovechkin, unassisted”;  in addition to being the offical scorer’s line on Washington’s first goal tonight, those two words provide a useful guide to most of the series between the Capitals and Penguins.

The NHL zebras aren't the problem, Caps fans

As I write this, the third period is winding down and running out the clock on the Capitals’ season.  Already,  the fans of DC’s hockeyists at Japers’ Rink are lamenting their fate, turning on their team and blaming the referees in earnest.  Caps fans are convinced that the zebras are against them in general, likely because of a suspicion (rooted in paranoia, but also based on the Penguins’ historical dominance over their club) that the league is in the tank for their poster boy, Penguins forward Sidney Crosby.  Going in to this game, the Caps had been shorthanded 11 more times than their Pennsylvanian rivals;  the conspiracy theorists would have you believe that this is evidence of bias in the officiating, but it’s not.  The officiating has been terrible – Laich’s penalty with two minutes to go in a tied game 6 was brutal, and the penalty on Morrisonn at the eleven minute mark of the first period tonight was laughable.  It is true that the Penguins’ goal on the ensuing power play ignited the rout.  But all in all, the Caps were undisciplined and reckless;  that type of play inevitably results in time spent in the penalty box.  Stung by the Penguins power-play in general (and Crosby in particular), the Caps refused to adjust and paid the price for their intransigence.  The league and its officials didn’t do the Caps in;  they didn’t have to.  The Caps did a good enough job of that for themselves.

Ovechkin Action 6998
Ovechkin Needs More of His 'Mates in the Picture

There is plenty of blame to go around for the loss of this series.  After playing a terrific first two games and showing some defensive responsibility and commitment to teamwork, the wheels fell off the Washington bus.  In general, the Capitals seemed to simply wait for Ovechkin to carry them to victory;  the balance of the supporting cast – with the exception of Backstrom, who (in my opinion) was tremendous – played either poorly or ineffectively and the Penguins won 4 of the next 5 games.  Ovechkin unassisted indeed.

The Capitals’ failure began in net. Simeon Varlamov coughed up brutally soft goals in at least two of those games, including the second Penguin goal tonight (a cheap five-hole gift scored 8 seconds after the first Penguin marker).    Bad goals are like gut punches; it takes the wind out of a team and steals energy straight from their legs.  Certainly in tonight’s game 7, the difference between the Capitals’ level of jump pre- and post- second goal was noticeable.  It seemed that the team disappeared almost entirely after Varlamov coughed up a hairball at a critical moment in the game.  The Penguins had clearly identified a weakness in Varlamov’s game high on the glove side, and the soft goals kept coming, derailing any chance of a comeback.  The Capitals couldn’t, and didn’t, recover from subpar goaltending.  I know the fellows in the game thread at Japers’ Rink were busy talking themselves into Varlamov as their goalie of the future, or at least challenging Michal Neuvirth for the number one spot.   The young goalie played very well at times, especially early in the Rangers series – but the fact remains that this stone cold rookie was only in the series at all because veteran netminder Jose Theodore had laid a stinking turd in the first game of the playoffs;  bad enough for coach Bruce Boudreau to give up on him almost immediately as the post season began.  In addition, even while winning the Rangers series, Varlamov seemed panicked and scrambly, fighting the puck at times;  he was fortunate that the Rangers offence was so anemic.  He would not be so lucky when he faltered in round two against Crosby, Malkin and the rest of the Penguins.

He scores and scores and scores_6916
Too Many Pucks Got Behind Capitals Goaltenders This Year

Bottom line:  even with a 2-0 series lead, you can’t afford to have your goaltender give away two games to the defending Conference champions and expect to win.

Varlamov was not alone in coughing up defensive hairballs;  one enduring image of this series for me will be the sight of Sidney Crosby standing unopposed off the right post of the Capitals’ net, whacking at loose pucks repeatedly – and NOT being bowled over for his efforts.  All of the Capitals defenders were guilty of playing the puck and not the man in desperate times, and it cost the Capitals five or six goals over the course of the series.

Speaking of the Capitals defenders, Mike Green seemed simply unable to contribute in his usual fashion.  Aside from one or two plays – I am thinking of a pass he made to Ovie for a bullet one-time goal in game two and the play he made walking in off the point before scoring top cheese on Fleury in game six – Green was not a factor.  This despite this blog’s call to him for action.  I believe that Green had to have been injured throughout the playoffs;  he simply didn’t show the dazzling speed and laser-quick transition to attack that we saw in last year’s postseason and throughout the league schedule this year.

Laich and Semin too seemed lost and easily handled by a steady but unexceptional Pittsburgh defence.   Too often when the Capitals were facing a deficit and needing a spark, these players and others (including Ovechkin himself) chose to attempt to generate chances and offence all by themselves, preferring a relatively easy shot from the perimeter or a lone-ranger rush rather than working together to produce quality high percentage scoring opportunities.

It’s not all gloom and doom for Caps fans.  The team has a core of quality offensive talent, including the game’s most exciting and gifted offensive talent, and a Norris-trophy candidate defenseman.  Backstrom is under-rated as a puck carrier, playmaker and offensive threat, and Laich, Semin, Bradley, Steckel Fleischmann and Erskine have all shown evidence of playing at a high level and performing useful functions for a winning team.  Remember that in the 90’s, the Detroit Red Wings had to endure a series of half a dozen disappointing playoff exits before gaining sufficient postseason experience to enable them to win the Stanley Cup in ’96-’97.   Even the great Oilers team of the mid-80s had to lose to (then) perennial Cup Champion New York Islanders in the Final before learning what it takes to win and starting a dynasty of their own.  Hell, all the Washingtonians had to do is look across the faceoff circle deep into the Penguins’ eyes;  Pittsburgh is a young team that feels the ache of getting to a Cup final and losing – it happened just last year.  Only time will tell if the Penguins have truly mastered the lesson taught.

The point is that the Caps weren’t supposed to win last year, and they weren’t supposed to win the Cup this year either.  The team has, however, been in a playoff crucible over the past two seasons, playing seven win-or-go-home  games while contesting just three seven game series.  No doubt, management has learned much about the team, and the players have learned much about themselves.  The club knows what it has – and what it does not.  Defence remains a priority, as does a physical presence that can generate energy on the third line.  I pointed out to Caps fans back in February that goaltending was a concern, and in my opinion poor goaltending nearly cost the Caps the series against the Rangers;  that deficiency (in the form of too many soft goals) did cost them the series against the Penguins, notwithstanding Varlamov’s occasional brilliance.  As pointed out, the young netminder has shown some true capability, but he has also been shown to have a glaring and obvious weakness on his glove side;  he will need to address that problem with significant work over the summer to have a chance of remaining in the league in the long-term.   If Capitals management is smart, they will pursue an upgrade in net over the summer whether through the draft, or more likely via free agency or the trade market.  The window of opportunity for a young and talented Capitals team will begin to open perhaps as early as next year;  the organization cannot affort to wager the future on Varlamov at this time, because – in addition to moments of undoubted otherworldly brilliance – he has shown himself to be pedestrian at times.

It’ll be a long and bitter summer for Ovechkin, his teammates and Washington management.  If they all learn the proper lessons from it, it will prove to be a good thing for the team in the long run.

(h/t to Fehr and Balanced for the post title)

Mike Green: Game Too?

Prior to Game One of The Crosbys vs. The Ovechkins, I posted a photo I took of Alex Ovechkin in February during our visit to the Sunshine State (otherwise known as the Week We Retired).

Keeping in mind the worldwide influence of this blog, it would seem apparent to me that the appearance of the said photograph directly contributed to the Caps’ victory over their arch-rivals.   No doubt it was my photography that spurred the Gr8 Eight to play up to his potential, begin to justify the hype concerning this series and to chip in a goal to boot.  In addition, I am sure that Simeon Varlamov’s otherworldly performance was his way of attempting to grab the attention of these pages and to earn the posting of an image of his own.

Mike Green Celebrates 6973
It's been THIS LONG since I scored. Seriously.

Because the Caps are my adopted team once again this post-season, and because I believe very strongly that the Penguins will play better in Game Two, I am going to use some ninja psychology on the 21-year old Capital netminder:  I am going to decline once again to post his photograph hereabouts.  Instead, I shall post a picture of Calgary speedster and Norris trophy candidate Mike Green.  I am posting this photo of Green because:

  1. It might help him remember what to do if he happens to be involved in a play during which the Capitals advance the puck into the Penguins’ net – unless he’s been drywalling his ceiling at home, it’s been a while since Green has had occasion to raise his arms over his head; and
  2. If the appearance of this photo doesn’t spur Green on to change his approach to the game, a public posting of this image might get it considered for use on the side of the milk carton that will inevitably begin circulating inside the Beltway as those Rockin’ the Red begin to earnestly wonder about Green’s wherabouts.

Seriously, Mike, one shot on goal in twenty-six minutes of ice time and a partially blown coverage that led to your boy Simeon’s masterpiece save just aren’t getting it done right now;  not for a marquee player that the Capitals are depending on.  Anyway, Ovie, Green and their mates better cowboy up and get ready for a different kind of rodeo tonight.

Update 12:10 p.m. : On Frozen Blog is reporting that Capitals defenceman John Erskine left the morning skate early and that the Caps have recalled prospect defensemen Karl Alzner and Tyler Sloan from their AHL affiliate, Hershey (a club that is itself involved in a playoff series, believe it or not against the Penguins’ AHL farm team).  Erskine was half of the duo I saw Boudreau matching up with Sidney Crosby in Game One (Fedorov was Sid the Kid’s shadow by times as well).   Injuries on the blueline to critical personnel combined  with an undoubted sense of urgency among the Penguins to bring a better game mean that the Caps’ task tonight will be significantly more difficult.  I’m pulling for them, but I foresee a Penguins victory tonight following an improved showing from both Crosby and Malkin.

Elsewhere on the Ice Tonight

spits 14
Keep on checking to make more checks: Go Spits Go!

A certain Major Junior A team from a certain City located in the extremities of Southwestern Ontario takes to the ice tonight against the Brampton Batallion for Game 3 of the Ontario Hockey League Championship Final.  I have had some difficulty getting the live streaming audio from CKLW AM 800 to work properly for me throughout the OHL playoffs;  I am hoping that won’t be the case tonight.  Obviously, I have a choice to make – Crosbys vs. Ovechkins or Spits/Batallion.  I think I’ll probably watch the NHL game on the tube and try to record the Spits broadcast using Freecorder;  then I’ll listen to the .mp3 of the Spits game broadcast on my iPod when I go to bed.  How far indeed – and yet not so far at all – we have come from those days falling asleep listening to Dave Quinn’s call of the game over my crystal radio set.  The technology has changed radically;  35 years later, I’m still looking forward to the excitement of the Spits on the radio.

This Afternoon…

It is, as Spouse has dubbed the Series, “Crosbys vs. Ovechkins” in an intriguing second-round matchup of two of the game’s most marketable and thrilling stars. My allegiance, of course, lies with my adoptive team: the Washington Capitals. A playoff orphan, in view of the continued on ice suck-itude at Bay and Front, I am once again cheering for the Caps and this guy:

Alexander Ovechkin Feb 14 09 vs. Tampa
Ovechkin prepares to drop a bomb from the point on the Tampa Bay goalie

Update: Holy goalie Batman, Simeon Varlamov was awesome.   Ovechkin had a great game (at one point early in the second period, I had him with one goal, two posts and another quality scoring chance that Fleury stoned him on) – but Varlamov made the difference in this one.

I thought the Capitals came out a little flat and let the Penguins control the play in the first period, and the young goaltender stood his ground pretty well.  He couldn’t be faulted for missing Crosby’s rocket from the slot at around the 5 minute mark.   The Washingtonians seemed to come on after Steckel got what was essentially a fluky goal on a weird bounce right on to his stick in front of Fleury.  The Gr8 Eight started to put on a bit of a show following that, including one sequence where he went basically Harlem Globetrotters on Matt Cooke in the neutral zone, irritating the Penguin forward enough to cause him to draw a hooking penalty. The Caps scored on the ensuing power play.

The Crosbys drew even in the second period on a long shot from the point that Varlamov appeared to misjudge;  the puck glanced off his glove and ended up behind him.  Momentum in the game could easily have swung back to the Pittsburgh bench at that point – after all, despite carrying the play for the majority of the game, the Penguins were even up on the road.  Crosby and his mates sensed the opportunity and put on a push late in the second, and it was here that Varlamov truly shone.  In what may turn out to be the save of the entire playoffs, just minutes after the blunder that tied the game, Varlamov turned away a certain goal off the stick of Sidney Crosby on a bang-bang play in deep.  A turnover up ice had given the Penguins an opportunity on the rush.  The Penguins played their attack perfectly, criss-crossing on the way into the Washington zone. Mike Green and Tom Poti bungled the defensive coverage, with Poti switching off fluidly but Green seeming to hesitate. The end result was that Sidney Crosby was briefly totally uncovered to Varlamov’s right. The Penguins’ puck carrier Chris Kunitz saw the opening and fed the puck quickly cross ice to Crosby, leaving the Capitals’ cage essentially undefended from the Penguin captain’s vantage point. A Penguin goal seemed inevitable, but Varlamov would not quit. As Crosby redirected the pass perfunctorily towards the open net, Varlamov turned, dove across the crease and extended his stick in an emergency maneuver. He blocked Crosby’s tap-in at the very moment that it arrived sliding along the ice at the goal line.  With that save, instead of facing a one-goal deficit at the end of the second, the Caps headed to the dressing in the intermission with a chance to regroup and get back to the responsible defence and deadly counter-attack tactics that had served them well since approximately half way through the first period.

The third period was almost an anticlimax;  you could sense at that moment that the Caps had regained whatever confidence had momentarily been lost in their 21-year old rookie goalie.  They continued to press the attack and – although Pittsburgh, to their credit, did not fold – the final result was never seriously in doubt.

Following game 7 of the Rangers/Caps series, Spouse and I were both of the view that the Caps could not beat the Penguins.   I am equally certain now that I was wrong about that;  I had not given the Caps enough credit for their defensive ability.  They won’t fool anybody into believing they’re the vintage trap-era New Jersey Devils, but – aside from the opening eight or ten minutes of the game – they played a discipline and committed system.  Sergei Fedorov and John Erskine in particular were both generally terrific on Sidney Crosby.  Malkin and Jordan Staal were more or less invisible.

On the whole, the game was exciting and filled with fast moving, creative and exciting hockey.  I won’t be missing a minute of it.

Keeping in mind that in days gone by I have been one of the all-time hugest defenders of CBC play-by-play man Bob Cole, it has to be mentioned that Bob is definitely showing signs that he is now well past his prime and ready for retirement. That Simeon Varlamov play? Coley missed it entirely – he had Crosby’s shot going off the post. The most amazing save of the playoffs, and Bob didn’t see it.

Gr8 Game Seven Coming

Watching Game 6 of the Caps/Flyers series tonight, I was struck by how great a game Mike Green was having. From the hit he laid on Sami Kapanen (the one where they had to get the Philly Fire Department to pick l’il Sami out of the rigging up in the rafters) to his rapid and purposeful sprints up ice, to his masterful puck handling along the Flyers blueline while on the attack, Green made me a believer. I wish this guy was on our team.

Of course, Green’s play was overshadowed by that of certain a hairy Russian force of nature. What a play Ovechkin made on the go-ahead goal; he blocked the point shot of his constant tormentor Timmonen, then immediately broke for open ice between the two Flyers defencemen, instinctively knowing that the partially blocked shot would surely be recovered by Kozlov and that he had an opportunity for a breakaway – but only if he didn’t hesitate. Ovechkin took two lightning quick steps towards centre and was eight feet past a now very alarmed Timmonen and the much maligned Kozlov hit Ovechkin on the tape with a beautiful pass as Ovie blazed up the middle of the ice. Everybody in the rink, including Martin Biron, knew that Alex the Gr8 would not be denied, and moments later the Caps had taken a very improbable lead.

The Philadelphia fans had barely resumed breathing through their open mouths when, for a change, it was the Flyers who took a “too many men” penalty (really, Gabby – three of those in the last couple of games is waaaaay too many). On the ensuing powerplay, Ovechkin was served up another beautiful pass, this one from Brooks Laich and Ovechkin hammered that thing so hard, everybody seated in the stands behind the goal ought to immediately drive to the nearest church, synagogue, mosque or temple and thank the resident deity or deities that Ovie’s shot bulged the twine, because if that puck had hit the glass it would have killed everybody in the first six rows. Do you think that game will shut the TV monkeys up about Ovechkin needing to “step up”? Probably not; five’ll get you ten that’s still the main theme harped upon by the flapping gums – “monster” or not.

Alex’s interview on TSN after the game was awesome; it was so obvious to me that he wanted to strap the blades on and play Rasputin-PDGame Seven RIGHT NOW. This guy is Rasputin on skates – aside from the near spooky physical resemblance, there is the matter of Mr. Ovechkin’s superhuman constitution to be addressed. He played a shift in the second period that lasted well over two minutes of concerted attack. The Flyers may well need a group of Russian assassins and some cyanide-laced confections to take down their hirsute nemesis, because neither the substantial hits applied within the rules by Richards, Umberger and others, nor the straight up punches to the back of the head administered by the ever-classy Derian Hatcher have done the trick, and the hitherto-successful Philadelphia scheme for Ovechkin prophylaxis by the constant application of major doses of Timmonen has run its course. Ovie has figured out how to get away from that coverage, as evidenced by the six shots he had on goal in Game Five and the further seven (not to mention two goals) he added tonight.

This is going to be a great Game Seven.

Can I ask what the hell Pierre McGuire was babbling on about when he kept referring to Martin Biron’s “active glove”? Umm, Pierre, that’s just stupid. No goalie has a “passive” glove. They catch stuff with them. They’re called “trappers” and “blockers” for a reason; these items of equipment represent an active concept. Anyone who stands there just waiting to get hit, is… well, Andrew Raycroft does that. Perhaps that’s a bad example, but you get my meaning.

As for the other game this evening, I didn’t see much of the Habs/Bruins Game Seven. I did see Game Six of that series and much of Game Five too. One thing I don’t understand is the media babble about Carey Price supposedly having come apart at the seams. The so-called experts point to the ten goals surrendered by the Habs ‘tender in those two games and lazily conclude that Price played poorly. Now I’m no Habs fan, but I do know a classy and talented kid when I see one – Spouse and I were lucky enough to see almost all of Price’s games with the Hamilton Bulldogs during last year’s Calder Cup winning run – and Price is most certainly getting a bum rap from the wags on that one. Yes, he coughed up the puck late in Game Five to put the B’s ahead, and yes, he looked rattled after he made that rookie mistake, but none of the five that got past him on Saturday night in Game Six could be called soft goals. The pundits ought to have been asking where the defensive coverage and veteran leadership was on the Habs bench; how, it might fairly be asked, were the Bruins allowed to continually come back and score throughout the third period? With the series on the line, the Habs got a questionable effort from the Kovalev unit, for example, which was a -3 on the evening. I do not recall hearing much mention being made of that fact; it’s too easy, I guess, to point the finger at the goalie. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for whatever kind of Habs-related misery there can be, but it’s the job of those in the media to correctly identify the reasons why the Habs suck, not to pin the whole shootin’ match on  a twenty year old rookie who was playing in the WHL last year at this time.

Manifesto Dept.

By now – not now, as in “when you’re reading this” but now, as in “while I’m mashing the keys with my sausage fingers”, the nervous anticipation is starting to settle in among Caps fans. I remember it well from 1993 in particular, this anxious thrill that comes over a fan when “his” (or “her” – my Canada includes loser domi too) team is competing in the playoffs and there is an undeniable feeling that something very memorable is about to happen.

I have read what Sean has to say about the fan-tourism of the Adopt-a-team project over at Pension Plan Puppets, and I respect the singularity of his dedication to his chosen team – my chosen team. I can’t help but think, though, that he’s missing the boat on this one and is feeling his principles unnecessarily under attack with the invitation to join us in cheering on the Capitals. After offering a anecdote involving Kerry Fraser-related catharsis in D.C. (well, okay, it would have been Landover, Md at the time) Sean confesses to a soft spot for the Caps but says:

…I can’t do it, PPP. I can’t jump on another team’s bandwagon, even temporarily. I’ll watch. Maybe even cheer. But I won’t call the Caps my team. I’m a Leafs fan and a Leafs fan only until the day I die (which will be this summer, by the way, of self-inflicted head wounds when we don’t get Brian Burke.

In this, I think Sean implicitly confesses to a slight misunderstanding about the nature of our project. I too am a Leafs fan. I’m not rooting for a “second favourite” team as we go along in to the playoffs; what I’m doing is choosing to support a particular team now that my team has been eliminated from competition, simply to enhance my enjoyment of playoffs as a hockey fan.

Let me explain: It happens (almost) every year anyway. As I follow the playoffs and watch the Stanley Cup final, once the Leafs have been eliminated, I find myself preferring one club over the other; in this series, I want the Red Wings to lose (old Norris division rivalries die hard) so I cheer the Predators or Sharks; in the next, the Senators must lose to please my sense of sporting justice, so I hope – at least for the moment – that Malkin’s aim is true and Marc-Andre Fleury can channel the spirit of Tom Barrasso out of the rafters of the Igloo (and yes, I know none of that is going to make me any friends among the Washington faithful). This year, what I have done – in the absence of a Maple Leaf entry in the tournament – is cast my overall rooting sympathies into the corner of a team with which the Leafs have no particular grudge, and for whose fans the average Leaf supporter can feel some empathy.

Project Adopt-a-Team Underway.

Blatantly swiped graphic from Japers’ Rink, posted there as a welcome for those of us clambering aboard the bandwagon and shouting “Just say OVIE!”


Thanks to the folks there, and the folks at On Frozen Blog for throwing out the welcome mat for us in a big way.

I got home right at 7:00 only to find that TSN was showing golf, for God’s sake. I know it’s the Masters, but dude – anyone who’s still chasing their ball around the course at 7 pm isn’t likely to win, am I right? Thus, as a result of some idiot in Programming’s questionable decision-making, I was consigned to watch as some fool in even more questionable pants stood with his hands on his hips in the middle of a wooded area, evidently in the area of a golf ball, instead of Ovie and the boys taking to the ice as the Phone Booth goes batshit for playoff hockey. I also missed Donald Brashear’s opening goal, though I did manage to catch the replay of both the goal and the most unco-ordinated seizure masquerading as a celebration I’ve ever seen.

Instead, I flipped over to CBC and caught a bit of the first period of Game 2 in the Ottawa/Pittsburgh series. The first period is now over and the Senaturds are down 1-0, having been outshot by a margin of 20-8 in the opening frame. What a bunch of lame ass mailer-inners, and I oughta know – I watched a lot of Leaf games this year.

Anyway, apparently enough old guys are now finished spraying their Titleists into various ponds to permit the telecast of the Caps game to continue. Excuse me, I’m going to enjoy having a team in the playoffs for a while.

Update: What a finish! The Caps had a collective brain fart there in the second period and coughed up three quick ones to Philly. Down 4-2 to begin the third, first Mike Green and then the Great 8 willed the Caps on to a rousing victory. First Green pots a backhand on a lovely feed from an apparently rejuvenated Sergei Federov, then he goes all Bobby Orr and pops one in past a stunned Marty Biron and wooshes overhead like some badass F-18 for good measure. Then, with the score tied and little more than a minute remaining, Ovechkin makes like a freaking wizard, casts some crazy voodoo spell on Kukkonen and turns him into stone steals the puck deep in the Flyers’ zone. In a flash, he’s rocketing towards Biron, who tries to go to his left as fast as Ovechkin is cutting for far post. ovtallBiron seems to stumble and is going down; simultaneously, Ovechkin-wan-Kenobi unleashes a fucking laser that hurtles through space so quickly Einstein sits up in his grave and says “holy shit.” 5-4 Caps, and Ovechkin looks like he’s trying to knock down the rink board glass as the entire Phone Booth has a collective brain aneurysm and collapses inward under the weight of its own joy. Game over, comeback complete, and a classic moment for the ages from a truly remarkable player. Just say Ovie!

I flip quickly over to CBC to see what’s up with the Sens/Pens. I am dismayed to see that the Senators have finally managed to put a couple biscuits in the basket and the game is tied at 3-3. I curse loudly. No sooner has the profanity left my lips than Marty Lapointe draws a high-sticking minor. His arse has barely grazed the bench in the penalty box when the Pens scramble the draw and Ryan Malone tucks one past a sprawling Martin Gerber on a wraparound. In the final minute of the game, Ottawa can’t even get the puck out of their own zone long enough to get Gerber to the bench; they may not have managed to get the extra attacker on at all except that Gonchar makes like a dimwit and ices the puck with 12 seconds left; not to be outdone in an impromptu imbecility exhibition, Bryan Murray one-ups the Pittsburgh blueliner by calling a time out to permit the tired Penguin defenders time to rest, so that they can manage to diffuse the attack after one final faceoff in their zone and extinguish the final fading hope of the National Capital Region gang. A shot of the Ottawa bench during the said timeout showed the Senators players looking like Wile E. Coyote after yet another ACME-product related, smolder-inducing incident with that damn bird. “Meep meep” say the Penguins and race out the Zamboni doors, leaving a trail of fire behind them.

It’s been a good night for the Leaf fan-tourist.

Further update:

This post from Theory of Ice says it best about Ovechkin:

Ovechkin was irresistibly charismatic as a high-scoring rookie; as a nearly record-setting goal scorer, he’s like crack with an accent. Everyone’s hooked.

Syllabus, pt.1

Required reading for adoptive team-parents wishing to learn all about our new little darlings and their evil rivals in time for Friday night:

On Frozen Blog’s series analysis at faceoff-factor.com.

Most of the “experts” I’ve heard making predictions don’t give the Caps much of a chance in this one, either because they believe the Caps “won’t have anything left in the tank” after a prolonged push just to win their division and make the playoffs, or because they think the Flyers are going to dominate the Caps physically (i.e. beat them up).

OFB begs to differ:

[The] Flyers are the most-penalized team in the East; the Caps are the second-least penalized. A Flyers team that is dangerous on the PP but shaky 5-on-5 is playing a team that doesn’t take many penalties—a recipe for a Capitals victory.

This is why I prefer the blogosphere over MSM journos; facts and arguments rather than “gut feelings.”

Team-Elect Announced

After a very carefully run election (no doubt involving United Nations observers), the Leaf fans at Pension Plan Puppets have at my suggestion adopted the Washington Capitals, champions of the NHL’s NASCAR division as their foster team for this year’s NHL playoffs.

The first (and hopefully last) adoption of one poor underserved hockey team is complete and the poll was a landslide. The Washington Capitals are our team. For now at least because once the hockey gods find out that Leaf fans are cheering for a team their season will end in a cruel and scarring way. Maybe we should cheer for the Habs? I just hacked off the fingers that wrote that sentence.

Anyway, we’ll keep up with the Leafs but we’ll run game previews and recaps for the Capitals as they take on the Flyers.

A few technical questions presented themselves, of course:

  • whether, for the duration of the playoffs, adoptive Capital fans are to spell words like “honour” and “colour” without the “u”;
  • whether Mike Green is a “defenceman” or a “defenseman”;
  • whether we need now be specific that the game we are watching is “ice” hockey.

I am advised that no such alterations are necessary. Essentially, we’ve done the sports rooting equivalent of twinning our “city” with Washington. In other words, we get to enjoy al the benefits of being a Capitals fan right now without fearing that cultural imperialism will destroy our colourful customs and quaint provincial ways, rather like the way we were promised “Free Trade” would work. Of course, Rupert Murdoch and Clear Channel now control my thoughts, so you know – things don’t necessarily always work out according to plan.

Some have accused those of us who are choosing to root for the Caps of blaspheming; I have to say that I don’t feel this is the case. My team is not competing in the tournament I am following, but it is natural to root for one team over another when following along. I have to say, it’s actually kind of liberating. I am looking forward to learning the line combos and back-stories of all the players, and I’m feeling a little excited to cheer on Ovechkin. And hey, maybe if enough of us try on another team for size, it will scare Leaf management into worrying about what might happen if we find that we actually like it.
On an unrelated note, as I write this, I am watching Game One of the Penguins/Senators series. It’s early in the second period and Anton Volchenkov just got struck in the face with a Malkin slapshot from the point. CBC cut to a shot of the injured/scratched Sens players in the Ottawa box, I would guess because they assumed the Senators players would be displaying noticeable concern. The result: essentially a close up of Daniel Alfredsson contentedly snarfing down cheese fries. Methinks Alfie’s going to have some ‘splaining to do when the team watches the tape of this one – awkward!

End of Season

Two thoughts on the end of another NHL season: one, I have officially adopted the Washington Capitals as my team for the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs; and two, why isn’t more being written about possibly the end of Trevor Linden‘s career in the National Hockey League?

With my beloved Leafs now banished to the virtual corner, dunce hats firmly in place on their pointly little blue and white heads until summer’s end, I have decided to adopt a foster child rooting interest. For just pennies a day, I will be cheering on Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals, who are now this year’s Southeast division champs (which is a little like being declared the tallest jockey in Kentucky). The Caps have a lot to offer to the interested Leaf fan, it seems to me: they are not a divisional rival, so itinerant Leaf fans need not be accused of fickle capriciousness. Speaking historically, the Washington franchise has been mostly a laughable bunch of sad sacks (the ’75 Capitals basically set the Gold Standard for single-season NHL futility, winning a grand total of 8 of their 80 games that year, all of which makes them easy to identify with for frustrated Leafs fans. In addition, of course, they happen to have quite possibly the greatest player in the league right now on their roster – Alex Ovechkin. This guy does it all: he scores more goals than anyone else in the league, and he has been involved in something like more than 40% of all the goals the Capitals have scored this season. He also throws about as many hits as anyone else in the league, and he does it cleanly – racking up only 38 minutes in penalties all year. To top it all off, the guy just seems to love playing the game – he plays with an obvious enthusiasm, and Ovie flashes that jack o’lantern smile and essentially does an on-ice version of the Funky Chicken whenever he scores, whenever the Caps win, or whenever he happens to remember that he just recently signed a $124 million dollar contract.

I was very much hoping that the stars would align so that Washington and Montreal would meet in the first round, but that is not to be; the Habs have a date with the Bruins in round number one as of the end of their workmanlike drubbing of my Leafs. The Caps have been one of the hottest teams in the league since Bruce Boudreau took over as their coach, and they’ve been absolutely on fire during the charge down the stretch to their Southeast Division championship, and I think Cristobal Huet probably has it in the back of his mind to prove a thing or two to Habs management about their decision earlier this year to let him go for a bag of pucks at the trade deadline.

The matchups aren’t completely set yet, and won’t be until after Pittsburgh’s game tomorrow, but as I understand it there is a chance that Washington will instead play Ottawa in the first round. This would be a nice matchup for Leafs fans; Ottawa has charged down the home stretch essentially like Clint Bowyer finished last year’s Daytona 500: upside down, backwards and on fire, whereas the Caps have just refused to lose. Since neither my Leafs nor the Carolina Panthers – who only had to beat the woeful Carolina Panthers fer Chrissake – could put a stake through the heart of the Senators and their fans, I have full confidence that the Caps can and will do it if this series comes to pass.

Tonight marks the end of the season for the Vancouver Canucks, who won’t be participating in the playoffs, which means that it’s possibly the last game of a great career for their captain Trevor Linden. This guy has been a class act throughout a 20-year career, and a truly great player. He and the rest of the Medicine Hat Tigers broke my heart twenty years ago when they beat my beloved Windsor Spitfires in the Memorial Cup championship game – it was a crushing loss, because Windsor had gone undefeated in the OHL playoffs and won 35 of their last 36 games. Trevor and his buddies picked a hell of a time to end that streak for us, and – if I recall correctly – they did it with a third period comeback, too. Six years later, Linden was the captain of a tremendous Canucks team that went seven games in a classic final with the New York Rangers, losing to Mark Messier and Mike Richter in a stirring battle.

Linden seems like he’s kind of a low-key guy. I know he’s been involved a lot in the NHLPA, and I have to wonder if his work on the negotiating committee in the lockout year has made him some enemies in the media – I haven’t really seen anything in print in the way of a career retrospective or tribute to a guy that’s been putting it down old school on the ice for two decades. I am watching the Vancouver/Calgary game as I type this, and as the players lined up to start the third period, the Vancouver fans gave Trevor a standing ovation, so it hasn’t escaped their attention. It was quite a touching moment, actually, as even the Flames players backed away from the centre ice faceoff dot to allow Linden to raise his stick and acknowledge the cheers. Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson are speculating that Linden has already made his mind up to retire based upon the way he’s reacting to the fans’ cheers. If he has decided to hang them up – congratulations, Trevor, on a fine career: it is a shame that it had to end with no Stanley Cup rings on any of those fingers.