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.

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!”

Go_Caps_Go___medium

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.

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.